Madeleine, Raspberry and Dulce de Leche Shortcakes

A couple of months ago, Donsuemor invited me to participate to their celebration of the National Dessert Month. Every day in October, they will be featuring a different Donsuemor-inspired dessert. I am both honored and happy to be inspired by one of the best madeleines I have had in the Bay Area. They are moist and buttery, just the way I like them.

Ironically, madeleines do not trigger any involontary memories for me who grew up in France, but might for Loulou who devours them on a regular basis after school here in the Bay Area. She is actually one of the sources of inspiration for this dessert. As she just turned four, I needed an idea for a kids-friendly, easy to make dessert that would replace the usual cupcakes.

The other source of inspiration is a russian layered cake called “ideal” that is prepared  with walnut meal and a sort of dulce de leche or caramelized condensed milk. The idea in that dessert is to weave in the soft and creamy dulce the leche to a crispy sugar dough base. Here, instead of making my own crust, I use the delicate taste of the madeleine, for individual sized madeleine-raspberry shortcakes.

For 6 shortcakes :

12 madeleines

8 oz Dulce de Leche

4 heaped tablespoons almond butter

1/2 pint (1 small basket) raspberries

juice of 1/2 lemon

Steps :

1.Preheat oven at 300 F

2. Cut the top part of the madeleine as shown above,

3. Set the madeleines in oven for 10 to 15 minutes. They need to dry a little, but be careful not to brown them.

4. In the meantime, prepare the cream in a bowl. Mix the dulce de leche and almond butter.

5. Once the madeleines are dried, spread the cream over each madeleine. A set of two madeleines will be used for one shortcake.

6. Add approximately 7-8 raspberries on one of the cream-covered madeleines, sprinkle a few lemon drops, and cover with the other madeleine.

Et voila!

It is best to let the madeleines absorb some of the cream for a couple of hours before serving.

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Strawberry Jam

It starts with a promise…StrawberryFlower…Then slowly you watch them grow, get ready, blush a little….FreshStrawberries…then you say to yourself : maybe it’s time….StrawberriesEt voila!Strawberry Jam

Now from step three to step four, all you need to know is this :

Ingredients :

1000 grams of Strawberries (a little more than two pounds)

700 g sugar

juice of one lemon

a third of a lemon’s zest

Steps :

Clean and hull the strawberries; cut them in halves.

In a bowl, mix the strawberries, lemon juice, lemon zest and sugar and leave in the fridge for 24 hours.

The next day, separate the fruit from the syrup.

Bring the syrup to a boil and add the strawberries for 5 minutes. Remove the strawberries and let them drain.

Boil the syrup again for about 5 to 10 minutes. Add the strawberries for another 5 minutes and repeat the process one more time.

The fruit should have been in boiling syrup for 15 minutes.

At this point your jam is ready to be transferred to jars. You can use a hand blender (only a couple of pulses) to puree some of the jam. I like to leave some fruits intact.

Bon appétit !

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Tunisian Charmoula – a versatile recipe

After a very long time away from this blog, I felt that I needed to come up with an original recipe, one that doesn’t follow the lines of my previous posts. This particular one, is neither French nor Macedonian, it is not a recipe “a la minute”, but rather a ritual dish that can be stored for a while and used at many different occasions. It is called Charmoula or Chermoula and comes from Northern Africa. How do I know the recipe?One of the perks of living in an international city is that you meet cooks from all over the world. I recently met a girl that grew up in Tunisia, who kindly offered to share the secrets of this traditional dish with me. This particular Charmoula is a sweet marinade that is spread on a semolina bread and topped with dried and salted cod-fish. In the part of the country where her family is from – near Sfax – the tradition is to serve Charmoula on the first day after Ramadan.The two main ingredients are red onions and raisins. As for most recipes, knowing how to choose your ingredients can dramatically improve your final result. One of the first advices from my friend S. were ” buy small and rather dry onions and raisins”. The reason for that is – I should guess – the length of the cooking time. The ingredients are slowly – very slowly – melted in a frying pan, with olive oil, cloves, rose petals, and cayenne pepper. The process takes a few hours altogether, but your presence in front of the pan is much less long and the result is incredibly flavorful, buttery and well worth the effort. It literally melts in your mouth.

You can either spread it on bread and add a couple of slivers of salt-cod, or use it as a base for a sauce that would complement a fish or a meat dish (lamb for instance).

Charmoula sauce recipe :

Ingredients :

2 lbs red onions

3/4 cup olive oil (1st cold pressed, extra virgin)

1/2 pound red raisins

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tbsp rose petals

4 cloves

Steps :

1. Slice the red onions

2. Add halve of the olive oil in a large sautee pan and and stir fry the onions until the volume in the pan is divided by two. At this point stirring from time to time is enough. Add the rest of the olive oil and keep stirring until the onions caramelize (until they turn dark brown, but before they get burned).

3. While the onions are caramelizing toss the raisins in a blender and add one cup of water. Blend well.

4. Sieve the raisin juice.

5. Once the onions are caramelized (the process rakes about 1 1/2 hours but doesn’t require you to be present all the time), add the raisin juice and the spices to the onions.

6. Stir and let the mixture simmer for at least one hour (1 1/2 to 2 hours is better), stirring it from time to time.


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Vegetable Casserole

On a hot Saturday at the beginning of this month, our friends L. and D. invited us to the “Hoes Down Harvest Festival”, an annual celebration organized by Full Belly Farm in Capay Valley, Northern California. The day started with a very promising drive, less and less constructions, more and more ocher and green landscapes… Then we encountered an unfortunate Casino in the middle of where-it-should-not-be, and then more gorgeous views of the valley’s fertile, colorful and welcoming land.

Two hours later, we turned into a small dirt road that lead to an afternoon of tasty discoveries, hopeful learning about the success of a sustainable organic farm, and joyful play with Loulou. We got to taste delicious, wholesome foods, quench our thirst with locally brewed beer and kombucha – one of the best I have ever had- and to dance. We took a tour with one of the four owners of the farm. He explained how, with care, imagination and collective efforts, the land and our health can be preserved. Phew, finally a positive approach on the subject ! And of course all that in the midst of fun activities, crafts and games.

No wonder National Geographic described the farm’s children area as “the best in the state” : it not only offered a wide variety of choices for our little one - painting, zip-lining, hay riding, apple bobbing and many more – but it was also thoughtfully organized to keep the little and big kids engaged and curious. In a few hours, Loulou got to pet small and bigger animals, play with clay, climb a mountain of hay, waive a flower crown, milk a pretend cow, launch gigantic bubbles, hang her paintings among dozens of other young artists’ creations. She could even refresh in a creek and start over again.

A day like that inspires you to cook earthy, wholesome meals. Meals that preserve and reveal the natural flavors and colors of the ingredients. I learned the following recipe from my friend S., a very generous person, a great cook. There isn’t really a recipe per se. It is just about vegetables and condiments. And that’s it.

Pick a few colorful vegetables and cut them in big chunks. Pour one or two tablespoons of olive oil, add some “fleur de sel” or any other type of coarse salt, some pepper, finely chopped garlic, and toss the ingredients until the condiments are well mixed in.

Let them soften and golden in the oven for about 30 minutes at 375 F (you can either use little casseroles like I did, or just toss the vegetables on a rectangular baking pan). I like to add some fresh cilantro or chervil on top when cooked. Et voilà.

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Hawaiian style marinated raw fish

Let’s take a little break and think of quiet beaches, lush nature, sun-filled moments and rest. Hawaii. More precisely the Island of Kauai, its magnificent North shore, its delicious, fresh and crunchy fish. We were very fortunate this Summer to be able to spend some time on this generous and gorgeous Island. There, I learned this recipe of a local dish from a sweet lady at a family shop called “Pono Market”.

Hawaii offers a cuisine as International as its sister states, however local flavors are also a fusion of multiple cuisines. A little bit of history. It was first settled by Polynesians, then visited by Spanish Explorers, then officially “discovered” in 1778 by the English explorer Captain James Cook. He brought to the island new animals and plants that changed the traditional polynesian cooking. Once the sugar plantations began to flourish, a substantial number of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, Portuguese and Filipinos arrived in the islands. Each of these groups of new settlers played their role in shaping the local cuisine by influencing the choices of crops on the plantations and by demanding their own foods at plantation stores.

Now, if you are in Kauai looking for fresh fish, you can find treasures at the Hanalei Dolphin Fish Market on the North Shore. As its name indicates, the market is close the the Hanalei Bay, one of my favorite beaches surrounded by mountains, waterfalls, palm trees and traditional residences. The town of Hanalei is a colorful, busy, welcoming place with plenty of local and international shops, restaurants, cafes (our favorite : Java Kai) and other smothie and fresh fruit juice trucks. We did stop there often for a break before our next adventure on the island.

Back to this dish : we make it whenever we don’t have much time to spend in the kitchen and our favorite local market has inspiring new arrivals. You can use different types of fishes. I have tried Ahi Tuna, Sea Bass, Yellow Tail. I always ask for sashimi type of fish at the market. It takes approximately ten minutes to prepares it and it tastes like vacation.

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Sweet times and a chocolate dessert

Simple and intriguing. Sweet, bitter, solid, liquid, dark, light, brown and white. Earliest usage discovered so far : since 1100 BC in Honduras, only since the 16th century in Europe. It has been utilized as a medicine, a drink, solid food, and as a currency.

Surely you have guessed by now that I am writing about chocolate. Oh do I love chocolate in every form! Chocolate bars, chocolate cakes, chocolate mousse, chocolate fondant, chocolate souffle, hot chocolate drinks…what did I forget? If anything, my favorite restaurants are the ones where the chocolate dessert is at its best. By the way, if there is a chocolate dessert on the menu, I will order that first and make sure everything else is light enough not to spoil my appetite.

As most chocolate aficionados, I have tried dozens of recipes. If you are looking for sources of inspiration, you might like these two books : “The Essence of Chocolate” and “Chocolate desserts by Pierre Herme”. My favorite chocolate dessert recipes are those which mix crunchy and gooey textures and which are best eaten lukewarm.

Here is a “chocolate fondant” or “chocolate lava cake” recipe that I love to share because it is so easy to make and so rewarding. The most important thing here is timing. Once you know how much time it needs to be baked, at what temperature, and in what mold, your fondant will always be perfect.

I have tried two versions of it : just chocolate, or chocolate and a seasonal fruit. It worked really well with figs. What would be your choice of fruit?You can always change your mind and decide that half of the ramequins will have figs on them and half will be traditional chocolate lava cakes.If I was to ask myself how inspiration comes for a meal or a dish, nine times out of ten the response would be “memories”. For this chocolate dessert what first came to mind was an other type of lava formation and this Summer’s sweet moments spent with family.

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Fresh ratatouille-inspired “verrines”

Once again, our trip to the produce market was a very inspiring one. Colorful displays, friendly staff sampling fruit, the sight and scent of fresh flowers, what a wonderful place to feel energized and inspired. As we stopped by one of the vegetable stands, we could not help but notice the large variety of eggplants available to us. They are very different from on another in size, color and shape.

Almost every single variety ended in our cart so that Loulou and I would be able to decide which would be most suitable for our dish. Chinese and Japanese eggplants have thinner skins and more delicate flavors. The Globe and Italian eggplants vary in sizes but are fairly similar in taste – firmer skin and flesh. Finally the Rosa Bianca, also know as the heirloom italian eggplant, has a creamy flesh and softer skin than the Italian and Globe.

My friend C. recently asked me about a recipes with eggplants. “I like eggplant in meals a lot, but don’t know how to prepare it myself”. Here is a second recipe for her, inspired from the French “ratatouille”.

Classic ratatouille is a warm dish, with eggplants, zucchini, red bell pepper, onion and tomatoes. In most of the classic ratatouille recipes that I know, vegetables are stir fried separately, then combined, and cooked together for about 30 minutes.

In these “verrines”, I decided not to use pepper and to layer the other vegetables in glasses. Another difference with the classic ratatouille is that the tomato and zucchini remain raw so that a spoonful of the “verrine” will mix crunchy and creamy textures.

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Banana and Apricot Sorbets

Bananas – everyone in this household relishes them. In fact, we hardly ever come back from our weekly grocery shopping without having a cluster in our bags.  So we decided to educate ourselves and “googled” the word banana. Here are some interesting facts we gathered :

  • The word “banana is derived from the Arab word “banan” which means finger.
  • Bananas were first found in the region of Malaysia. It was Alexander the Great who brought bananas back with him to the western world.
  • They contain Vitamin C, potassium, vitamin B6 and fiber.
  • Bananas also contain three natural sugars, sucrose, fructose and glucose along with fiber. A banana thus gives an instant and substantial boost of energy.
  • They are harvested green because they keep ripening even after they are picked.

With all this in mind, we were even more motivated to start our afternoon ritual of cooking together with one of our favorite desserts this summer : banana sorbets. It is unctuous, fresh, keeps the fresh fruit’s taste almost unchanged. Perfect ending for a substantial meal. Of course, if you are up for a more sweets, you can always add some chocolate, honey, berry treats. Banana sorbet is the perfect occasion to let your imagination flow.

Making these sorbets was so fast and easy that we had plenty of time left to whip up another similar dessert. Our next favorite flavor is apricot. Since we are at the peak of apricot season – and it lasts about a month each year! – those orange little jewels are so ripe and sweet these days that we barely need half the amount of sugar to prepare our frozen treats. It is also a good occasion to freeze some for our winter cravings… The principle for making sorbets is fairly simple : we make a fruit puree  (with fresh bananas, and roasted apricots) and add some sugar and fruit juice. Then the ice cream machine does the rest.

As for eating : while the adults in this family like them well frozen, some smaller more sensitive teeth prefer them to melt a little.

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Those meals that feel like home – eggplant, red bell pepper and parmesan shavings “tartine”

“A yearning for the past, often in an idealized form” is the definition that wikipedia provides for the word “nostalgia”. For me, it is very much associated with tasting, smelling or preparing food.

Nostalgia tastes like an eggplant and red bell pepper spread on a slice of bred accompanied with a salty cheese and a salad.  A bite of that sunny melange and I think countryside, foggy mornings, jogging in our village, and sunflower fields.

For the eternal expatriate that I am, those kind of meals are more than just comfort foods, they represent constants in a childhood spent traveling from a place to an other, from a culture to an other. They made me feel at home no matter where we were and how far from our roots we had gone.

This dish can be served as an appetizer as well as the main course for lunch – you would just need to adjust the size of the slice of bread to your appetite. It is very easy to make, does not require any other tools than a frying pan, a knife and a cutting board. I served it with a salad – greens, steamed small potatoes, Kalamata olives – seasoned with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, fleur de sel and pepper.

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Red and Yellow Bell Pepper Tartare, a French and Macedonian fusion dish

– pronounced “peeh-per”- means pepper in Macedonian. Piper is to Macedonian cuisine what corn is to a 4th of July meal, a must. It is central to every aspect of cooking, used as the main piece on the plate, as a side dish as well as a spice. Dozens of varieties flavor the local life, each particular piper having its own use. Round peppers with four lobes are used for stuffing, long green peppers for frying in a pan, firm short green or yellow ones are pickled, the long flat and sweet or diabolically hot ones are roasted and prepared with garlic, oil, salt, pepper and vinegar. Finally, and historically  the most important, are the peppers grown for spice.

In our family, the smell of pepper immediately triggers memories of our trips to the farmers’ markets, of our grand-father biking home with a huge bag of green yellow and read shapes dangling over his shoulder, of our grand-mother cooking lovingly and caning delicious spreads for the winter.

It also reminds me teenage years, when every summer was spent traveling through this wonderful country, swimming in the mountain lakes, strolling through colorful and lively streets, visiting small churches, relishing delicious honey bought from small producers…

Summer-Ohrid Lake-piper, a delightful recurring trilogy.

About this dish : it is a combination between the macedonian memories and the French flavors that I grew up with. Macedonian piper meets goat cheese and balsamic vinegar.

The preparation goes very easily once the peppers are roasted and pealed. The easiest is to prepare them twenty four hours in advance. The rest takes about 10 minutes.

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