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It’s Valentine’s Day! That means lots of red and pink and a little bit of purple to add that extra touch of pain to the eyes.

Let’s face it. St. Valentine’s Day is not the most aesthetic of holidays. Pink, red, AND purple? Unnecessary.

It is interesting to note that there are several Saint Valentine’s, most of whom were martyrs for the Catholic faith. The one who’s considered the original – who supposedly died on February 14th – well we know nothing about him except his name and the day he was torn to bits by lions or whatever.

It wasn’t until the tradition of courtly love appeared on the scene of the late middle ages, originating in southwestern France, that people began to associate St. Valentine with romance; for reasons completely unknown to me. I do however know a little bit about the troubadours of medieval France. They’re music is and was entirely enchanting. At least for medieval buffs like me. Here’s a taste:

I’m doing my medieval music professor proud.

Somehow, these lovely songs and the idea of striving for unattainable perfection in love got lost in perfume, candlelight dinners, and Hallmark. And being groped by greasy men. This could be a past-time for me here in France, if I wasn’t already married. Thank god for the husband.

But, all is forgiven. All is forgiven because of the chocolate.

And the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted is from la Chocolaterie de Puyricard.

Named after the tiny village where it is made, these beauties are hand-crafted, artisan chocolates. Puyricard (pronounced pu-ree-car) is located just northwest of Aix-en-Provence, one of my favorite cities in Provence. The factory, if you can call it that, is a tiny organization, made up 40 people, many of them family where chocolate is tradition and life.

They are recognizable in France by their elegant yellow facades, which despite being bright yellow with brown lettering, really are – as I said – elegant. Inside is an atmosphere dedicated to the beauty of the chocolate. Lavenders, browns, yellows, colors that accents the dark and milk chocolates (Puyricard very rarely works with white) that are placed like works of art around the shop.

And I happen to pass by one everyday on my way to work.

The women inside are smartly dressed and know every flavor in the store. They know the essences, the subtleties, the liquors. They will give you a taste if you can’t make up your mind and need a bit of persuasion. And they wrap everything into a beautiful package that always matches the season.

Even if it is Valentine’s themed – I can’t hate this.

Their most famous, and one of my favorites is their palet d’or and palet d’argent. Two truffles of dark chocolate with a ganache of dark chocolate and Tahitian vanilla bean inside. On the outside, hand placed are small leaves of silver and gold. For show, of course, but there is something beautiful and so inviting about the glint of the metal on the silky chocolate surface.

This year, I have a new love, that I sampled in their store. A dark chocolate square truffle with a simple, unadorned smooth outer shell. Inside is dark chocolate ganache peppered literally with black pepper and a hint of mint. It is a very understated taste, discernible only if you take the time to taste it slowly and let the flavors melt on your tongue. But if you do – every millimeter of this tiny square is worth it.

Puyricard isn’t cheap. A box of 250 grams – about 20-25 chocolates is 21Euros. Keep in mind however that these are hand-made chocolates, I’ve seen it with my own eyes – you can visit the factory. They use only the finest ingredients, the purest cacao, and there are NO PRESERVATIVES. So if you happen to be in the United States and decide to splurge and order some, they will Fed-Ex your chocolates to you in order that they arrive as fresh as possible.

Or you can come to Provence and visit the factory yourself. This is the only photo I have of my visit. I don’t know why I only have half the building. It’s a pretty half.

Another beauty to their truffle collection is their lichee ganache. Dark chocolate outside, milk chocolate interior infused with a strong lichee liquor. Graceful and so smooth, a perfect fruity taste mixed with the most delicate of milk chocolates. I was impressed as I wasn’t sure how lichee would go with the taste of chocolate, but I had to try their new flavor.

A truly amazing chocolaterie, the three others that are on the same street as the Puyricard in Toulon, simply can’t hold a candle to the perfect caress of this soft, flavorful chocolate as it melts on the tongue.

Next time you want to treat yourself, check out their website. Even if you don’t order anything, their chocolates are a feast for the eyes alone.

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In order to re-educate my brain’s attitude toward food, there was something else I needed to do besides eat mostly soup for the weekend. That was clean my kitchen. Any good cook from amateur to three star knows the importance of keeping the workspace clean. I’m pretty good at these things, my kitchen is usually pretty clean, the surfaces wiped and to the eye that isn’t looking hard enough, things seem to be in order. Until you open a drawer:

Or rather a box.

We live out of boxes. They’re nice boxes. Meant to be lived out of. But they are boxes nonetheless and they can get messy. It’s not just my spice box that was a wreck, but my pasta box, my baking box, my canned goods box. Now don’t get confused. I can tell you what’s in all these boxes. I know everything we have in the apartment food-wise. I can name the six different types of flour I have. Nothing is forgotten, it’s just strewn about.


I had to reorganize. Call it kitchen feng shui if you like. It had to get done. So I reorganized and now everything is lovely.


I’ve been continuing to work with mindful eating. It’s only been what – 36 hours? – but I find it to be a very pleasant experience. It reminds me of the way a sommelier would taste that perfect wine she’s been dreaming of all her life. In my case, a nice 1999 Chateauneuf. I’ve been sticking to my soup theme with a few rice cakes or a bit of bread. I do find that I appreciate the color of soup, the aroma of soup more.

Another important factor, I’m finding is taking more pleasure and giving more mindfulness in preparing the food.  Usually reheated from a big batch I made earlier. Even that can be pleasurable experience.

But tonight I’m going to try it with a real meal that I have planned. Nothing too spectacular. Just a pasta with lots of green veggies and a bit of tuna.

And then I will have a brownie. But these brownies aren’t just any brownies. There’s no flour, very little sugar, no milk, butter or cream. Each one has 120 calories (or less if you cut them smaller like I did – rather by accident)

They are made with beans.

You heard me. Beans. The recipe comes from Baker on the Rise and who doesn’t love healthy sweets? I couldn’t wait to try them.

Only one problem. I cannot find black beans ANYWHERE in Provence.

So I used red beans.

And olive oil because I didn’t have canola.

I like to hand chop my chocolate. Once you get the hang of it, there is something incredibly satisfying about chopping chocolate. I don’t know what it is, but it’s the crunch underneath the knife and the weight of your hands. Maybe it’s the tiniest miniscule pieces of chocolate that are wafting up my nose and into my mouth without me ever knowing…

Who can say if these would be good or not? I put them in the oven with apprehension and waited. I Skyped with my mom. It’s her birthday. Happy birthday Mom!

I even waited for the brownies to cool before slicing one and eating it. Mindfully of course.

It was fabulous. So moist and soft. Chocolatey and even the texture was perfect. There is no way to know that there is no flour in this recipe. If people don’t know they’ll just think you’re a master at soft brownies. The only drawback is that the brownies don’t really puff up when baking but had I used a smaller pan and had a thicker layer of brownie it wouldn’t have been a problem. To the eye, if you concentrated on the thickness, they were a bit lacking. In taste they were dark, bitter chocolate with sweet nibs of the chocolate that melted in your mouth. They were amazing.

Wish me luck for tomorrow. I’m preparing my soups and breads for the day and planning my pauses throughout the day to sit down and enjoy a meal.

And I really do have six different types of flour: buckwheat, whole wheat, all purpose, multi-grain/cereal, fluide flour, and corn flour.

Today is World Nutella Day.  A day of chocolate hazelnut spread. A day of goodness. A day that should be celebrated by all.

I kind of stressed about what to make for World Nutella Day. There are soooooo many options but all of them seemed to be tried and true. I’m fearful of creating my own pastry recipes as I’m not a pastry chef and don’t believe – sometimes resulting in incredible fails – that pastry is a precise art.

So, let me tell you a bit about Nutella instead. It’s orginally Italian, though many people I know believe it to be French or Swiss. It’s manufactured by the Ferrero company. They also make chocolates called Ferrero Rocher and Kinder. If you’ve ever been to Germany, Switzerland or France, you’ve had a Kinder. They’re the chocolate eggs with toys in them. They have other types too, but Americans love the idea of the toy inside their chocolate.

I first had Nutella when I was an exchange student in Switzerland. My host mother set it out for me alongside a loaf of bread before she went to work. I got up, my first day in a new country and had a taste of hip-spreading goodness. And it was hip-spreading – I gained 15lbs in Switzerland.

But that’s not the point. What is important is that I learned about a wonderful and versatile dessert. Nutella can be used for all sorts of amazing recipes. Or simply enjoyed with a spoon out of the jar.

You can find all sorts of Nutella recipes on the World Nutella Day website. But let’s keep it simple. Here are some ways you can use Nutella to add that special, sweet indulgence to your dessert:


Nutella and crêpes are a classic French and Swiss tradition.

Try Nutella on top of vanilla ice cream

Go one better and put a waffle under that vanilla and Nutella sundae.

Or just go all out and make Nutella ice cream. Featured here with vanilla ice cream and fresh strawberries.

Get back to simplicity with Nutella on a warm, fresh brioche.

But wait: who could forget my fabulous 50k Oatmean Nutella Cookies? Not me. They were filled with chocolate, Nutella, cocoa powder, rolled oats and a multi-grain flour that gave these cookies a fabulous crunch. Make them right away.

Enjoy it in coffee or hot chocolate if you’re somewhere snowy and cold.

You can even make your own as I might be doing later – try this recipe for a bit of variation: Hazelnut and olive oil chocolate spread. If there’s anyone who knows how to make homemade Nutella it would be Juls, a Tuscan girl.

So there you have it. There’s not much more to say about Nutella except that it’s fabulous and today of all days is the day to indulge.

Happy Nutella Day!

Do you ever have moments when you’re so enthralled in your work that you do stupid things like stick your finger in your ear or pick your nose (hey, when you have to pick, you have to pick – just not in public) or make weird beeping noises to yourself and yell at your computer-

Only to look up and see your super cute student looking at you through the classroom window?

Yeah. I had a fabulous day.

He really is that attractive. That smile with the dimples…

Anyway.

I should be writing. No really. I should be writing. I’m behind about 2000 words from where I want to be tonight. But I never celebrated my 50K. I never made apple pie, or pumpkin ice cream (though I don’t know how I would as I don’t have an ice cream maker) or anything savory. I didn’t have the time.

But tonight, I’m wiped, I’m out of steam, my head is a muddled mess of characters and settings and prose, etc. Sometimes I write sarcastic things into the narrative that my characters would never say. Clearly I need a break. I need to celebrate. I need to clear my head and dope myself up on sugar.

I need cookies.

And these are my most deadly cookies yet.

Dark chocolate Nutella, cocoa powder, oatmeal, cereal flour, dark chocolate chips.

They’re amazing.

  • 1 cup oats
  • 1 cup cereal flour
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup butter
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tablespoons Nutella
  • 1 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • dark chocolate chips
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt.

Cream butter and sugar as normal. Add egg and cocoa powder, mix well. Add 2 tablespoons of Nutella. Mix well.

Add all your dry ingredients, flours, oats, powders, salts. Mix together until its well blended. Add your last tablespoon of Nutella and your chocolate chips. Mix one last time, quickly on low speed. Just enough to combine everything but not blend the Nutella in, you want a little bit of a swirl.

Spoon onto a greased cookie sheet and bake at 180°C (350°F) for 11 minutes.

 

When it comes to the flour, I know cereal flour is a strange choice – I mean really, who wants seeds in their cookies? But it’s good. Not only does it add a great crunch, but the cereal flour is slightly salty, added to the bitterness of the cocoa, the amazing sweetness of the Nutella and chocolate. There are so many rich, complex flavors here. I had to step away from the kitchen and lock myself in the bedroom just so I’d stop eating them and write this entry.

 

Melty chocolate goodness with salt and bitter cocoa, warm just out of the oven.

And in case you’re wondering I’m at 55,000 words.

Tomorrow I have a 1 hour wait at the train station in the morning and the afternoon. Not to mention the 20 minute train ride. I was going to buy a pastry, but now I have cookies – and plenty of time to write.

Also, yes that is my computer right next to the mixing bowl. I told you it was covered in flour.

Two things tend to rule my life. Food and Art. Any type of art, and I often define art as simply the creation of something that stands on its own. I’ve always been involved in an art in someway. It’s what keeps me busy as I’m not a TV person, a cinema person, a club person and to be honest, I have no idea how other people spend their time. For most of my life I’ve spent my evenings, mornings and any time I don’t know what to do writing.

Today, it’s November 2nd. Since October I’ve been waiting to start National Novel Writing Month, or NaNo, which I’m unusually excited about. Yesterday was a national holiday in France and I had the day off from work. I could have slept in. Instead I was awake and writing at 7am.

3,000 words, one 10 km run, and a shower later, the husband and I went to buy a new TV.

But that isn’t exciting.

These cupcakes are exciting.

I’ve always wanted to make Red Velvet cupcakes and decided that yesterday, in honor of NaNo, I’d try my hand at it. I used a recipe by Joy the Baker, who has never steered me wrong.

Ok, these aren’t red. They are a chocolatey brown. I’m not sure where I went wrong here. Perhaps I didn’t add enough food coloring. But that doesn’t matter because they are still velvety.

The key to success for a light, velvet, airy cupcake is the batter. Follow Joy’s directions and mix until everything is smooth and fluffy. Some people might prefer a rich, dense cupcake, but these are so light and smooth that they melt in your mouth. The buttermilk, cocoa powder combined with the fact that there’s less sugar in these cupcakes than a cookie gives the dough a nice tang to it. It’s sweet, but not overwhelming.

The frosting is melted white chocolate combined with light cream that was simple to do. Put the cream in a bain marie to heat it up and then add the chocolate. Wait until it melts and stir until the mixture is smooth and shiny. Immediately drizzle over the cupcakes and let cool.

I could have made the cream cheese frosting but decided against it.

Why?

Because on Sunday, the husband and I had these:

They may not look like much but they were deadly, butter cream, chocolate, mousse pastries. We had three each. I couldn’t bring myself to make something else so rich.

Since my cupcakes don’t have a red color, I can’t call them Red Velvet. Instead, I’m calling them NaNo Velvet Cupcakes. In honor of NaNoWriMo.

I considered making them blue, since the NaNo website is blue, but I don’t think it would have worked out any better.

As of today, I have just over 5500 words, and I’m taking a break to tell my writing friends, my foodie friends, and anyone else who stumbles upon this page about these fabulous cupcakes. Because there are two things that you need to get you through NaNo: a desire to write and snacks.

And rewards. I’m still considering what I’ll cook or bake when I hit 25,000 or 50,000 words.

Maybe duck?

It’s fall. That means pumpkin and apple recipes abound. Last night I tried my own pumpkin recipe – pumpkin gnocchi. It totally failed.

Ok so, it didn’t TOTALLY fail, but I didn’t measure right, had to use two different flours and there’s just something wrong with them that I can’t quite figure out. They’re edible, but they aren’t serve-able. If you know what I mean. And I don’t like to fail.

Nobody likes to fail. Failure is such a personal thing. There’s no one else to blame. It’s my fault. Rejection I can handle. There are two people involved. It’s an opinion. Someone else’s technique is better, someone else’s sound or story preferable. It happens. But I don’t tolerate failure in art.

Cooking is an art.

So today, I had to prove my dominance in the kitchen to make up for last night’s mistakes.

I decided on two types of breads. One savory, one sweet.

The first, the savory, the ficelle.

A ficelle is basically a small baguette stuffed with something savory: cheeses, sausages, and olives are the most common. I love buying them for lunch at my local boulangerie because they are a perfect compliment to a soup or a salad. So the husband recommended that if I was going to make bread, why not try a few ficelles for the week. Good idea, husband.

These are pretty easy and I found a recipe here: Ficelles aux lard

Sadly, for those of you who don’t speak French, it’s in French. Don’t be turned off by the lard – it’s just ham chunks, not chunks of fat.

Anyway this is what you need:

  • 500 grams of flour

  • 320 ml of warm water

  • Salt

  • Yeast 1 package

  • 1 pat of melted butter (optional)

  • FIXIN’S – whatever you like, we’ll get to my choices in a bit.

First prepare your yeast in a small bowl with about 4 tablespoons of warm water and let it sit for 5 minutes. Meanwhile put your flour and salt in a mixer with the dough hook attachment. If you’re using butter, add now. Add your yeast and water and mix on a low speed until it stops sticking to the sides. Add a handful of flour and mix some more. The dough should be sticky but also satiny. I spent about 10 minutes mixing it on low speed.

Take it out, put it in a bowl and let it rise for 1 hour until it doubles in size. I went for an 8 mile run and let the husband clean up.

Next separate the dough into 8 small balls, flatten out into small rectangles and let it sit for 45 minutes to rise again.


Now it’s time to prepare your fixings. I used an organic smoked sausage – at the husband’s request, vegetarian mushroom paté for me, and Camembert cheese for both of us.

Fold one end of your dough, then add your filling. Roll the dough up into a – well a roll – and then starting with your hands in the center of the dough, roll it out into a long strip. Place on a baking sheet and do it with the rest of the seven rectangles.

Let rise for another 30 minutes. Then bake at 230°C for 20 minutes.

They are lovely and puffed up quite bigger than I expected. The husband has already eaten half of one, even after the huge cabbage stew we had for lunch. I used white wheat flour because it’s traditional for the ficelle but you could easily use any flour you wanted. Also, if you want a nice gold color, brush the dough with oil or melted butter before baking.

And now the sweet, the chocolaty, the sugar, the sacristain. These are SUPER easy if you buy pre-made dough. Why did I use pre-made dough?

For this treat you need pâte feuilletée which when baked is a leafy, flakey dough. It’s kind of difficult to make and takes a while because it requires a lot of folding, rolling out, folding, rolling out and quite frankly, I didn’t feel like doing that. So I bought some organic dough instead.

Taken from this recipe Sacristain, also in French. So you need:

  • pâte feuilletée
  • 1 egg
  • powdered sugar
  • fixings – I used cinnamon, sugar and this:

organic dark chocolate nutella. Yeah. It’s fabulous.

Anyway, crack open and mix your egg. Roll out your dough. Here I deviate from the recipe above. First, I didn’t want the massive sacristain you see in the bakeries. I wanted little treats to have after dinner or with coffee. So I cut my dough into four quarters.

Brush your dough with the egg.

Add your topping. Use a thin layer of chocolate or nutella, because if you don’t it will explode – as mine did.

Fold your dough and brush the top with egg again. If you’re using cinnamon or sugar, add some more on top here.

Then cut into 2 cm wide strips. Twist to make little curls, like my hair, if you’ve ever seen it.

Brush with egg again.

Add some more sugar or cinnamon.

Bake in the oven at 180°C. The cooking time depends on how brown you want your sacristain to be. The minimum is 15 minutes, but I think mine were in there for about 18.

Take out of the oven and add a little powdered sugar to the cinnamon and sugar ones. Voila! They are light and flaky and very fun and you can potentially add any type of sweet treat that can be baked in the oven.

Other finds at the organic market – AKA Botanic – was this:

Purple cauliflower.

Isn’t it gorgeous? When I do something with it I’ll let you know.

Tonight, I’m making baked falafel with pan-seared veggies for dinner. And thus, with this frantic day of cooking and baking, I will be able to reclaim my success in the kitchen.

The French word pâte is very familiar to me. I buy it in the supermarkets to cook tarts, quiches, pizzas, pies, and it’s used for a variety of pre-baked pastries. There are a bunch of variations: pâte brisée, pâte sablé, pâte pizza, pâte feuilletée etc. But for some bizarre reason I could never think of what the translation for this word was. It seemed obvious, right on the tip of my tongue, something I should know, being as obsessed with food as I am – I mean, it’s the only thing I can talk about fluently in the French language.

I figured out what it is today. Very simple, though I’m ashamed to admit it – dough. Pâte = dough.

It’s 30°C today. For those of you not on the Celsius system 30°C is 86°F, is 303.15 Kelvin. A good day to go to the beach, which I did yesterday when it was a mere 28°C. Today, being hotter, I decided to spend some time with my favorite type of pâte and bake. Real smart.

I should rephrase that. I didn’t decide to bake, I volunteered. The English school I’m working for is throwing a party on Tuesday. A party that will feature me in a short nightgown, heels and a boa. But that’s beside the point. Seeing as how we may have around 50 people, the party-organizers were worried about food. So I volunteered to make 100 cookies.

Of course, most smart people would make 100 cookies of the same kind – like chocolate chip. Right? Well, I can’t do that. Call it stupidity, call it over thinking, call it over achieving, I decided to make 5 different types of cookies, all variations on chocolate chip:

  • chocolate chip
  • peanut-butter chocolate chip
  • white and dark chocolate
  • Nutella pinwheels
  • white chocolate and coconut

Hey, how often do the French get good, chewy cookies? The answer is never. Obviously I love French cuisine, but they haven’t mastered the cookie. They make hard, flat things with pépites de choco – disgusting tiny chips that are a sorry excuse for chocolate.

I started at 10 and finished at 3. My kitchen started out like this:

By the second batch of cookies – the peanut butter ones – it looked like this:

If you’re wondering about the hammer, it’s what I use to smash up the chocolate bars.

And who doesn’t love raw cookie dough?

There was a break for lunch. By the time I was done with the last batch of cookies, the dough was starting to look strange to me (like a word does if you stare at it for too long) and I was doped up on sugar and sugar fumes.

The hardest were the Nutella Pinwheels, which are honestly a pain because cookie dough was not meant to be rolled and sliced. But I got them done, and they look lovely.

All my cookies look lovely, even when you’re staring at them cross-eyed in pre-cooked dough form.

Now the question remains: how does one transport 100 cookies? Seriously. Do I put them all in a bowl? Do I keep them separate so that the flavors don’t taint each other? Do I wrap them on plates and carrying them through the streets of Toulon, my skirt swinging along around my legs like some lost waitress? Where should I store them? Is there room in my fridge? I should have thought of these things BEFORE I volunteered to make the cookies.

For the rest of the afternoon, I will sit in the shade, wisely like my cat. A fresh salad awaits me for dinner, because if I have one more piece of refined sugar, I might take off and soar back to the U.S.

Another thing I’ll be doing – never looking at another bit of pâte n’importe de quoi for at least a week.

Did you expect me to cook again today? I didn’t. But here I am.

There was a bike race going on underneath my balcony today. It started around one and went until five.

Kind of odd, considering I live on a quiet street in a very quiet urban town. It’s just not the type of thing you’d expect to see after lunch.

Last month the first strawberries appeared and I celebrated. This month the first cherries appeared, and as soon as I saw them at the market, my mouth started to water.

My first thought was: I really need to buy some.

My second thought was: Chocolate Covered Cherries

I finally bought a handful today. Most were eaten as dessert, but then I remembered I had chocolate in the house. And I also had rum.

Ok, so a cherry liquor would have worked better, but I worked with what I had.

Honestly, I didn’t know if this would take. I mean, how exactly does one make chocolate-covered liquored fruit?

First wash your cherries. (Did you hear about the contaminated Spanish cucumber scare? Wash your cucumbers!) Put them in a small bowl and cover them with liquor. Let sit.

Bowl water in a large saucepan, with a bain-marie on top. Once the water is boiling add chocolate and a little bit of milk.

This is the most delicate part, I think. I’ve worked with chocolate a lot and it’s a finicky sweet thing when melted. I found that adding milk to the melted chocolate keeps the chocolate or the sugar in the chocolate from cooking and caramelizing – if that’s true or not I don’t know, but it seems to work for me.

It also seems to require patience. I wait until the chocolate looks completely melted before I mix the milk in to form a paste and then I usually add more milk – just to make sure. I mix lightly, slowly. The spoon doesn’t whip around the bain-marie, but mostly spreads the chocolate around and I let the milk do its thing on its own.

Then take the cherries that have been soaking in the liquor and dip them into the bain-marie, coating them with the chocolate.

Make sure you steer clear of the steam from the water! I burned my wrists a few times.

Put the cherries on a baking sheet and let cool.

I wasn’t sure if the rum would actually stick to the cherries. Honestly, they’d only been soaking for maybe 15 minutes, but the end result was a very light rum taste that off-set the sweetness of the chocolate and acid-berry of the cherry.

Ideally, if I’d had any forethought I would have let the cherries sit in the rum for an hour or two. But I’ll try that next time – maybe after I return from the market tomorrow.

Ice Cream is Amazing

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