So I haven’t been around on here lately. Maybe you’ve noticed! I would have an excuse but honestly every time someone asks me why I haven’t posted in awhile the answer always seems blaringly obvious: I haven’t felt like it.
I have something of a love-hate relationship with blogs, blogging, photography, and if we wanna keep going here, the internet in general. You might disagree with me (and by might I mean probably), but I think blogs do a pretty fine job of inherently being a caricature of real life. I know I’m far from being the first person to be disillusioned by the blog world and I realize that I really don’t have any original content to add to the general body of anti-internet complaints.
But in acknowledging that, along with the fact that I’m treading really close to making this post be seriously pseudo-intellectual (whatever, probably already crossed that line), I do want to share this one quote by Max Frisch that I’ve always really, really been drawn to. He says that “technology is the knack of so arranging the world so that we don’t have to experience it.” Sometimes I hate the fact that I’m making my own false arrangement of the world by having a blog where I post up pretty pictures of plated meals and Parisien streets. (I’ve kinda already complained about this two years ago in a post about Christmas cookies and the Nutcracker.)
But sometimes it comes in handy. For example, I’ve been thinking about food lately, a lot. Must be something about the holidays. As a result I’ve been spending a lot of time doing things like catching up on food blogs or wandering through Nigel Slater archives from the Guardian (the best). This time of year makes me want to spend about 90% of my time in a warm kitchen, and unfortunately the reality is I spend probably less than half an hour each day there. When I daydream about baking gingerbread or walk past a store with pretty plates and napkins and cool teas I mutter something about how “I just wish I had my own place…” to which whatever friend I’m with tells me, “but Amy, you do have your own place.” They’re obviously referring to my independent studio and the fact that I don’t live-in with my host family like some of my friends here. But really, can you count a place that doesn’t have a kitchen a home? No, no, no way! I mean, the kitchen is like the center of everything! The table comes first!! (Really really good book about food and france and eating and family and history and basically everything I like in this world. By the way.) One of my friends laughed when I said I can’t get in the Christmas mood because I don’t have my own place to bake cookies and cook, but to me Christmas is just as much about the smell of spices and butter and sugar as it is of pine needles, if not more so.
So anyway, yeah I’ve been a little restless lately regarding cooking and baking; food blogs and the thought of posting on my own food blog have once again become a welcome pastime. With that being said (and this is mainly a word to my poor dad who finally started reading my blog because he was interested in my Paris life), I do hope to minimize the amount of show-off-y Paris I photograph and write about. For some reason I have this huge fear of this blog becoming a run-of-the-mill travel expat blog with stereotypically pretty photos of Paris and pastries, but I have no qualms about this being a run-of-the-mill food blog. I realize there need not be black-and-white boundaries between the categories of what this blog is and isn’t—really, I think the best blogs out there blur the lines. But it seems like an important distinction for me to make, for some reason.
Anyway, I hope you all had a nice Thanksgiving, if you celebrate that sort of thing. This is a little glimpse into how mine went:
Naw, but in the end everything was alright. When my French family heard it was Thanksgiving, they went to a traiteur and got some traditional French fête (celebration) food: really, really good cured smoked salmon, served on blinis with crème fraîche and lemon, a shrimp and lobster haricots verts salad, and a vinegary potato salad. For dessert we had apple pie and this butternut squash pie. It didn’t feel like a traditional Thanksgiving by any means, but at least it’s comforting to know that some things just don’t translate.
^^ Sorry to break up the “pretty” photos with these two shots, but le gaufre, or the waffle, deserves it. The right shot is my friend Molly and me when we went for round two of getting waffles almost immediately afer finishing our first ones at around 11 pm. (As in, that’s not a peace sign Molly’s making but it’s a yes-we-love-waffles-this-much-we-got-em-twice sign.)
Last week I met a couple of friends at an outdoor market that’s held on boulevard raspail in the 6th district of Paris, on a really nice sunny morning. I kind of wanted to get everything I saw—figs, nuts, cheeses, waxy beans, every kind of nut—but I settled with quarter kilo each of ground almonds and some plump golden raisins. I knew I had to go for the ground almonds, just because they were so well priced, especially so when you compare them to the tiny (and of course pricey) packets or jars found in the stores. I had been keeping an eye out for ground almonds for awhile, now—every since I started to see pears at the fruit vendors, I had it in the back of my mind to try making a tarte amandes aux poires, or a French pear tart, at least once this season.
This tart is, (probably) without a doubt, my favorite French pastry. It’s always what I’m most tempted by when I walk into the boulangers here, and it was also the first sweet I ordered upon arriving in Paris. It basically made up of three different components: a sweet tart crust, an almond frangipane filling, and poached pears. Something about the nutty almonds and sweet pears just does something for me. The textures are all perfect too: the pears are soft, the frangipane is a bit more substantial, and the crust is a whole lot of crumbly, shortbread-like butteriness. My favorite part is towards the end of the border of the tart, where the frangipane meets the crust and it almost gets chewy.
In case you can’t tell though, my tart is full of flaws—especially when you compare it to that instagram picture of my first pear-frangipane tart I had here in Paris. I think I par-baked the crust a little too long, I poached the pears a little too long, I probably cooked the whole tart a little too long. I probably didn’t coat the pears with enough lemon juice because the parts exposed to air while they poached turned an unsightly brown (still tasted good, though), and the pears themselves were still a little too wet when I topped them on the frangipane filling. My crust was too crumbly, my pears too small and/or my tart pan too big… blah blah blah so it basically sounds like I failed to execute every single part of the recipe correctly, right? My whines could go on forever. But in the end, the tart was pretty delicious. Not something to be seen in a pâtisserie here, for sure, but something I was still happy and not embarrassed in the slightest to share with a friend here who invited me over for a really nice dinner of a ham-wrapped endive gratin with a butternut squash mash last week—hi, Nicole, if you’re reading this! Besides, I like when homemade desserts look homemade. This one didn’t come from a professional pâtisserie, yes, but the fact that it looks homemade makes it all the more delicious and special.
But also have the feeling it’s something that will get better and better the more times I make it. The whole thing takes awhile to get together just because there are quite a few parts to it, but it’s all pretty straightforward and the crust and frangipane cream can be made ahead of time. Dorie Greenspan, who this recipe comes from, notes that you can use canned pears too, if you’d like. To me, that’s a very French thing to do—similar to the act of using pre-made puff pastry in their quiche lorraines, French women aren’t embarrassed to shortcut things with products that yield good results even when not homemade. I’d be willing to try it, but I wanted to poach pears if for no other reason than to get practice doing it. I’d like to be one of those people that knows how to make some nice poached pears with little effort and on short notice. Yeah, that seems like a good skill to have.
In other news, by the time you’re reading this I am probably on a bus ride to Amsterdam. I’m taking advantage of this second week of vacation that I have by going with a few friends to Amsterdam for two nights, and Brussels for another night. I have no idea if any of you have travelled to these places and have any memorable sites or eats, but if you have, feel free to spread any recommendations my way. I’ll be back here soon. x
French Pear Tart (Tarte amandes aux poires)
From Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours
Serves 8, or so
As I wrote about above, this tart is not too difficult but it is time-consuming. But all of its parts can pretty much be done separately, and then added together when you have the time. If you are however planning to spend an afternoon making the tart, I would go about like this: make the tart shell first, and while it’s baking poach the pears. While both the shell and pears cool to room temperature, prepare the frangipane for immediate use. Also, Dorie notes that canned pear halves can be substituted for freshly poached pears. If you try that let me know how it goes for you.
1 partially-baked 9-inch tart shell of Sweet Tart Dough, at room temperature
3 medium pears, firm but ripe
4 cups water
250 grams (1 1/4 cups) sugar
almond frangipane cream
85 grams (6 tablespoons) butter, softened to room temperature
135 grams (2/3 cup) sugar
120 grams (3/4 cup) ground almonds
10 grams (2 teaspoons) all-purpose flour
5 grams (1 teaspoon) cornstarch
5 grams (1 teaspoon) vanilla
powdered sugar for dusting and apricot jam for glazing, optional
For the poached pears, peel the pears but leave them whole. In a saucepan just large enough to hold the pears, bring the water, sugar, and the juice of the lemon to a boil. Add the pears to the boiling syrup and lower the heat to bring the syrup to a gentle simmer. Poach the pears until they are tender when pierced with a knife, about 15 minutes (but start checking at around 10 minutes, especially if you’re pears are very ripe). Turn off the heat and let the pears cool in the syrup until they reach room temperature. This can be done up to one day ahead of time.
For the almond frangipane cream, put the butter and sugar in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachemnt or in the bowl of a food processor. Mix until the mixture is smooth and “satiny.” Add the ground almonds and continue to mix until well blended. Continue by adding the flour and cornstarch, mixing until well blended; then add the egg and continue to mix for about 15 seconds until it is all smooth. Finish by adding the vanilla and mixing to blend. Use immediately or scrape in a container to store in the fridge until firm, about 2 hours, and up to 2 days.
To assemble, preheat the oven to 170 degrees F. Fill the parbaked tart crust with the frangipane cream, spreading it in an even layer. Prepare the pears by slicing them in half, coring and blossoming them, and then drying them, very very well—otherwise their excess liquid will prevent the frangipane from cooking properly. Thinly slice the pears, but keeping the slices in order, next to each other. Carefully lift the sliced pear halves onto the spread frangipane, with the wide bottom of the pear facing the edge of the crust. Gently fan the pear half out, so the slices spread slightly. Repeat with the remaining pear halves, so that the tart gets filled in a circular motion with the fanned pear halves.
Bake in the preheated oven until the frangipane puffs up and turns a deep golden, about 50 to 60 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool to room temperature, or at least until it is just warm. Dust with powdered sugar, and, if you’d like, glaze the tops of the pears with the jam to make the tart sheeny.