How to Identify a Perfect Croissant

Now I’ve moved to the UK, I’ve been hunting for croissants and I’ve noticed how hard it is to find a prefect example. I’m talking of the plain, butter croissant for breakfast, none of the fancy varieties stuffed with ham.  Here is what I look out for:

  • You can see here the differences in size and colour.

    Look in the window of the shop, usually one that specialises in pastry rather than bread. The smaller the size of the croissants, the better.  Less is definitely more!

  • Price: I usually pay is £2/$ 4.60 for a croissant, i.e. the middle market where croissants range from 95p to £3.
  • Appearance: first impressions are very important, as follows:
  • Colour: Is it tempting and golden? If pallid it will be soggy, if too dark and over baked it will be dry.
  • Layering: can you see how the croissant has been constructed, a glimpse of the tale-tale layers which make up the structure of croissant is always reassuring.
  • Shape: it is lop-sided in the structure/in the bake. Note that in France a straight rather than a crescent shape indicates the use of margarine (and a lower price).
  • A good rise: if a croissant looks deflated, it has not been proved (i.e. left to rise) enough, or it has been over proved – the latter problem is common in hot weather.
  • Is the point well sealed and tucked under the rolled croissant before it is shaped as a crescent on the baking sheet? If not, the dough will unravel as it rises in the oven and the croissant will collapse.
  • A sketch to show how the point is sealed.

    Texture: this is that moment when you tear your croissant apart:

    • Lightness: if sticky, the croissant is under baked.
    • Aroma: when you break open the croissant can you smell the butter and heady, yeasty dough?
    • Holes: big holes indicate dough that has risen too long before baking.
    • Chewiness: a good baked croissant is chewy without being tough.
    • Fluffiness: not a good sign, the dough was poorly kneaded.
    • Flavor: should be buttery with only a whiff of yeast. Having the right, generous amount of butter is key. A true French croissant has a delicious taste which is hard to match outside France. The flour is different and so, above all, is the butter.

I hope this description has aids you all in this challenging search. All that is missing is a steaming café crème.

Bon Appétit

Oxford Symposium

This July I returned to the annual Oxford Symposium on Food & Wine at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.  The conference is academic in nature and the theme for 2018 was on “Seeds” I am neither gardener nor farmer and the topic was not my forte.  So naturally, my interest turned to the food!  The Symposium is well-known for its intellectual meals served banquet-style in the dining hall of St. Catz, as it’s called.  The whole college complex is a modernist historic landmark designed by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen.

Menus were dedicated to the Seeds theme, quite a challenge but met with great skill and imagination.  One lunch was flat breads, beautifully cooked by St Catz’s Head Chef Tim Kelsey, the menu Caravanserai Flatbread Lunch. The second dinner was devised by The Eucalyptus Tree Chef Moshe Bassoon who had travelled from Jersualem to present the meal, the menu Biblical Banquet Seeds of Peace,

Cavanserai Flatbread Lunch devised by Naomi Duguid, cooked by Tim Kelsey & St. Catz Staf

At the last lunch, there was a fantastic array of specialty breads: rye, spelt, corn, barley, einkorn, all sustainably sourced from the local bakeries, the menu Borough Market, The Sustainable Food Story Soup-er seeded. The desserts were inventive: spiced poached rhubarb, sheep’s milk custard, sorrel meringues, toasted buckwheat crumbs, and coconut milk rice pudding with berries.  Salads presented the diversity of the chicory family, demonstrated by its many fantastically named varieties: blue dairy, blue dandelion, blue sailors, blue weed, bunk, coffee weed, cornflower, hendibeh, horseweed, ragged sailors, succory, wild bachelor’s buttons, and wild endive.  Pick your favorite.

The Symposium was full to the brim, showing its continued popularity more than three decades on.  Lectures I attended focused on grains, primarily the origins and manipulations of historic versions of modern wheat, whether it be how Mexico and Pakistan use the same wheat seed or tracing the origins of wild emmer wheat in Israel/Palestine in a captivating lecture by Dr Assaf Distelfeld of Tel Aviv University.

Elizabeth Hoover & Sean Sherman’s lecture on the movement to re-establish Native American indigenous food culture. She’s a Brown University professor and he’s the Sioux Chef.

Other fascinating lectures included Myriam Melchoir’s talk on the history of maize in Brazil and David Sutton’s talk on Amaranth, the bushy purple plant that popped up all over my mother’s garden, in the wilds of Yorkshire, thanks to her love of exotic plants.   Anny Gaul gave a fascinating lecture on the seed fenugreek, most commonly used as a spice in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking.  I’d only known it in curry mixes but her talk was how prosperity led Moroccan middle-class home cooks to shun fenugreek’s pungent aroma to the extent that it disappeared from all but rural home cooking and is now being re-discovered as an authentic flavor of North Africa.

I’ve already marked next year on my calendar where the subject sounds a challenge: “Food and Power”, we all learn that in the nursery.  Many, many thanks to all who were involved with the organization of this event, and I thoroughly look forward to next year.  For more information about the Symposium click here.

Cooking with My Grandchildren

After school on Friday’s my 11 year old grandson Leo and I have time together.  This past week we prepared for his father’s birthday celebration, which naturally meant making an abundance of Leo’s favorite cheese balls!

Cheese balls come from my Aunt Louie, who with piled white hair and a brave bosom, who would drive down the village street bowing right and left to her friends in the manner of the Queen Mother. Aunt Louie was lucky. Her tombola tickets invariably won a prize, and once earned her a valuable diamond brooch in the shape of a bow as pioneered by Cartier. I have it to this day.

I once asked Aunt Louie where her recipe came from and she looked nostalgic. “We went on our honeymoon to Monte Carlo, and I made rather a lot of money in the Casino. Your uncle would get very tired of waiting for me and always said that the only compensation were the cheese balls in the bar. So I tried them at home and they became a family tradition.”

We have Aunt Louie’s cheese ball at nearly every family occasion and now I’m passing along the tradition to the next generation.

AUNT LOUIE’S CHEESE BALLS

Makes about 20 1-inch balls

1 1/4 cups flour, more if needed

1 1/4 cups grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 teaspoon each of salt, pepper and dry mustard

1/2 cup melted butter, more if needed

  1. Put the flour, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and mustard in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse briefly to mix. With the blades running, pour in the melted butter, and continue working to form crumbs, about 20 seconds. Press a few crumbs together with your fingers: if dry, add a little more butter, or if sticky add 2-3 tablespoons more flour. (see Leo on the right)
  1. Butter a baking sheet. Turn the crumbs into a bowl, press them into balls the size of small walnuts and set them on the baking sheet. Chill for 30 minutes and heat the oven to 375˚F/190˚C. Bake the cheese balls until lightly browned, 20 to 25 minutes. They keep well in an airtight container, or they can be frozen.

A delicious bite for dinner parties and a great way to entertain my Leo.

Bon Appétit

 

 

UK Guild of Food Writers Recognition

This June I was very honored to be awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the UK Guild of Food Writers. I’m grateful to be invited to join such a rarefied group of food writers who have already received this award.  If you’d like to watch my acceptance speech at the Guild of Food Writers Awards at Opera Holland Park, London, click here.

Now that I’m settled in London I’ve joined the London Les Dames d’Escoffier chapter and I’m deep into working on a new culinary history book, which traces the evolution of the American cookbook through key works all written by women authors, and I’m enjoying being closer to my family, teaching my grandchildren in the kitchen weekly.

Purple Plum Tart

  So much depends on the plums for a tart, they should be almost bursting at the seams with juice. Their season is short, but when the moment strikes, a rare treat awaits with this simple tart — the dough is like a sugar cookie, with only the butter holding it together. I suggest a

Recipe »

Apricot and Custard Tart (Tarte aux Fruits Alsacienne)

The local fruits in Alsace—apricots, bilberries (blueberries are a close relation), and half a dozen varieties of plum—are so juicy that cooks go to great lengths to avoid a soggy crust. They use a puffy yeast dough (popular, too, with German cooks across the Rhine) that soaks up juices from the fruit with help from a

Recipe »

Baking Day

jam-tarts-e1480628506411Old Emily was a champion baker. She lived with my mother and me in a big, cold house half a mile from our nearest neighbor on the farm. The most welcoming place was the kitchen where I parked myself immediately after breakfast in a dining room where there were just Mummy and me. Despite our tiny household, hierarchy must be maintained and Emily ate in the kitchen.

Thursday was baking day. Emily rose an hour early to stoke the fire with logs cut from the spinney behind the house, boosted with a few precious lumps of coal which was strictly rationed — this was World War II.  Just about everything else was rationed too, certainly food. We had 2 ounces of butter each per week (that’s 4 tablespoons) and at one stage half an egg (i.e. one every two weeks). More than a cup of sugar per person per week sounds a lot, but it soon disappears when that is all there is. It was the farm that saved us, the 30 cows were milked twice a day, and Mrs. Wilkinson kept hens that supplied a more or less steady supply of eggs. (more…)

Last Class with Anne and Chef Alain Giraud

imgresHello all! This will be the last La Varenne class in Los Angeles for some time as Anne is preparing to return to Europe. Chef Alain Giraud is a wonderful friend and familiar face to La Varenne.

On October 1st at 2:30pm we will be featuring Chef Alain Giraud in our seasonal class. Since moving to Los Angeles in 1988 Giraud has opened a number of esteemed restaurants including Lavande, Bastide, and Anisette. He was named “Chef of the Year” by Bon Appétit Magazine in 2003. Today he is waiting upon the reopening of his Pacific Palisades restaurant, Maison Giraud, while working for private parties and catering. Learn more about Chef Alain at http://www.maison-giraud.com/bio-alain-giraud/.

We will also be featuring a Lavender Blue pop-up shop hosted by Catherine Giraud where you will have the opportunity to glance at a plethora of gorgeous French Provençal goodies which can be previously viewed at http://lavenderblue-la.com/.

Class will be available for no more than 15 students who will savor five delicious seasonal foods and a glass of wine along with an intimate group setting beside Chef Giraud at a fee of $250. Recipes will be provided to take home as well as a personal gift from Anne. Reserve your seat now as space is limited! To sign up call 310.396.7464 or email daylin@lavarenne.com

Read More »

Harvest Time

For me as a child in rural Yorkshire in the north of England, harvest time was the high point of our agricultural year, only comparable in excitement to lhermitte-de-oogstChristmas. Over the previous weeks, we would eye the ripening fields of wheat spreading down from our house on the hill, debating when the gold of the grain was dark enough, and dry enough, to start gathering the harvest.

An early morning start on cutting the grain was not possible because of damp from the overnight dew. So near to midday I would walk the half mile to the farm to help Mrs. Wilkinson, the farmer’s wife, to carry the lunch baskets out into the fields — the churns of tepid, milky sweet tea would be my job. We would choose a sheltered corner, if possible under a tree for shade, and lay out a massive coarse white cloth to flatten the harsh, prickly stubble of cut stalks. I would carefully set my churns of tea upright, chipped enamel mugs beside them. (more…)

Next Page »