April 28, 2012

Sweet Eats in Paris and my Top 10 List

When I think about my recent trip to Paris with my husband and our six-year old son, I use words like "amazing, wonderful, beautiful..." to describe it.  But I need to add another word as well and and that would be, delicious.
I knew heading into this trip that I was going to spend a good amount of time delightfully sampling the renowned pastries (and other food) Paris has to offer.  And we did eat a lot, taste-testing our way in between the sightseeing and walks around the city.
I have to admit I had this fear I'd come back from our five-day trip 5-6 pounds heavier but miraculously, all that walking must've paid off.  I never felt weighed down during the trip as I nibbled on croissants, macarons, eclairs, and crepes.  I insist food must have no calories in Paris - at least not for the first 4-5 days as a busy tourist.  If I stayed a bit longer and started lingering at those lovely outdoor cafes, it might be a different story. 
It also helped that the three of us would share the treats, buying just a single item of different things so we could have a couple bites of each and try as many things as possible.

Before going on our trip, I bought a little journal to take with me and in it, I wrote down a list of "must-go" places and "must-eat" things.  I did my homework, partly from having bought David Lebovitz' pastry app, and I think we managed to check off most of the items on my list.  But since we were in Paris not only to eat but to also take in the sights, there were many, many places I'd read about but didn't get a chance to visit.  And as I'd look at the pastry cases in the shops or at the Galeries Lafayette's food hall (very close to where we stayed in the 9th arrondissment), I wish I could have tried everything knowing it would very likely taste extremely good.
And speaking of looking and shopping, the pastries and chocolates were really a feast for the eyes, miniature pieces of art.  It was almost enough just to look at them.  Pictures were not allowed in many places so my photographer (that would be my husband) couldn't take nearly as many photos as we would've liked but what I saw and tasted will stay with me for a long time.
And when it comes down to taste, we were not disappointed.  Quite simply, most of the things (in particular, all the pastries) we tasted were utterly divine.  The word "pure" comes to mind.  The pastries tasted like what they're supposed to be as opposed to being just sweet or tasting of sugar like what, I dare say, we often find here.  A lemon tart tastes like lemon - not so tart that it makes you grimace but strong enough to assert itself and be the star of the show.  The croissants were like none I've ever tasted.  I fell in love with them and I'm speaking as a person who does not particularly like croissants.  The Parisian pastries somehow manage to taste light as opposed to heavy, clean as opposed to cloying.  I'm afraid I'll never be able to replicate what I tasted there.  Not only do I lack the skills (and some pastries were really intricate pieces of art), I also wouldn't be able to get my hands on the quality of diary products they use.
They say that the French hardly bake at home.  The only things they make are relatively simple items like yogurt cakechocolate mousse, and rice pudding.  If I lived in Paris, I wouldn't bother either.  It'd be silly considering the abundance of deliciousness just waiting for you at your local pâtisserie.  The treats are not cheap but definitely worth saving your euros for.

Macarons everywhere!

There's so much to talk about, I've compiled a list of the Top 10 favorite eats I had the chance to try in Paris in the link below.  But first, a few words on macarons.  They were everywhere.  I love macarons but honestly, I was getting a little macaron'ed out after a while, particularly with all the other tempting offerings around. 

We sampled macarons from Ladurée, Pierre Hermé, Jean-Paul Hévin, Angelina, La Maison du Chocolat, and Sadaharu Aoki.  For the most part, we bought no more than 1-4 macarons at each place to sample and mainly stuck with classic flavors of chocolate and coffee (my and the little one's favorite flavors, respectively), with the exception of Pierre Herme where we also tried the chocolate-caramel, salted caramel, and rose-vanilla combinations.
I was really hoping to try a chestnut or mint-chocolate flavor at Ladurée but sadly, they were not to be found.  I wanted to be more adventurous at Pierre Hermé (France and maybe the world's most famous pastry chef), whose known for his very inventive macaron flavor combinations, but even if I'd been willing to try a foie gras or ketup macaron, it wasn't among the offerings at his shops I visited.
The macarons we sampled in Paris didn't particularly knock our socks off.  Maybe because there were so many delicious pastries competing with it.  We thought the macarons were fairly comparable to what we can get here in the States, particularly in instances like Ladurée where the New York offering is very comparable.  The standouts we tasted were the chocolate-caramel and salted caramel macarons from Pierre Hermé.  They not only had great flavor but a good texture/body and bite to them. 

The one thing I wish I'd been able to eat in Paris is pastry from Pierre Hermé.  We stopped by two locations (in addition to two other shops within department stores) but they didn't carry pastries and we just didn't have the time to make a specific trip just for it.  So while I wanted to try the Ispahan (Hermé's famed creation combining rose, raspberries, and lychees based upon a structure of macaron shells and buttercream), I settled for a rose macaron and some of his chocolates instead.  Maybe it's alright that I missed the Ispahan because I learned that, as I suspected, I do not like the flavor of rose.  I'll be sticking mainly to the classics for some time to come.
But back to macarons, our favorite macaron tasting in Paris actually goes to the coffee macaron we bought from Angelina.  I really fell in love with this place for several reasons, including the very friendly staff.  When it came to the macaron, theirs was just a little crisp at first, with a gentle chewiness within that I favor and miss from many other macaron offerings.  Maybe most people prefer a softer macaron but I love a more chewy texture.  I think a lot of the texture depends on how long the macaron has been "aging" or "ripening", if you will, in the refrigerator and it's not surprising to find textural differences between flavors from the same shop.  As I learned from the macaron class I took at Le Cordon Bleu (more on that in another post!), storing the macarons in the refrigerator adds humidity and that affects their texture.

Now can you guess where this display case in the picture below comes from?
It's McCafe!  Yes, as in McDonald's (this one pictured above taken from one along the Champ Elysees).  And no, we did not eat at McDonald's while we were in Paris but I was interested in a peek at the McCafe offerings after reading about it here.  And on our last day in France, right before we hopped back on the train from Versailles back into Paris, I noticed another McCafe.  We decided to stop in and get a chocolate macaron just to see - why not, right?  They only cost about $1.25 each.  Now, I love myself some McDonald's french fries (here in the States) so I'm not out to knock McDonald's.  But when it comes to that macaron, it was not my favorite, to put it mildly.  The texture was good at first bite.  It had the chewiness I like but the flavor was non-existent.  No chocolate flavor at all; I'm not really sure what it tasted like.


No discussion of Paris would be complete without mention of its superb chocolates.  Boy oh boy, there are some serious chocolates in Paris.  In particular, I was really wowed by what I tried at Jean-Paul Hévin and Patrick Roger.  As a huge hazelnut lover, Paris is the place to be.  Not only is Nutella everywhere like peanut butter is here but the chocolates with praline/hazelnut in some form were always knockouts.  

With so much to eat and so little time, I packed a small stash of chocolates to take back home (the benefit of visiting while the temperatures are still cool).  We're steadily nibbling our way through the stash and I'm wishing I'd bought more.  For one, I could use more of these bars of Chocolat Bonnat.  Once again, we're talking pure excellent chocolate, not sugar.  The "Venezuela" 75% cacao bar is amazing.  It's dark without being bitter.  The texture is so creamy and luscious. 

Please click below to read my "Paris Top 10"!

April 25, 2012

My trip to Paris

Apparently, the third time really is the charm.  I finally made it to Paris, a city I've wanted to visit for a long time.  I've never been much of an adventurous traveler, usually preferring familiar surroundings and home, though I find that changing as I get older.  Before this, there were two previous attempts to go to Paris that just didn't pan out.  The first time, I was going as part of a work trip to Europe.  I was just out of college, back in the day when corporate jets were still commonplace, and I was looking forward to traveling (at least a part of the way) in style.  Long story short, my boss was needed in New York at the last minute and we canceled.  The second time - a couple of years later - my husband and I had our tickets booked and hotel reserved for a romantic getaway to the City of Light...when I found out I was pregnant!  My doctor strongly suggested I cancel my trip so I did.  It was a good decision because I ended up with the worse of my morning sickness during that time.
Well...fast forward a handful of years and we finally made it - to Paris!!  And with our six-year old son in tow.  Call us daring (or delirious) for taking him but it never crossed our minds not to until several people started to ask why we were taking him with us.  I have to admit that for the first couple of days, my husband and I would whisper wistfully about how romantic it would be if we were on a couple's getaway but, all in all, it was an amazing experience to share with the little guy.  We made a lot of memories and I hope some remnant of them will stay with him.
I waited too long to go to Paris.  The city was everything I expected and more.  It was a lot to take in and I told my husband my eyes were hurting because of how beautiful it was.  I could just stand or sit somewhere for hours soaking in the surroundings.  But since this was our first time in Paris, we didn't have the luxury of staying in one place too long.  We packed as much sightseeing and taste-testing (more on that next time) as we could into five days.  We checked a lot of things on my must-see and must-eat list but we really could've used a few more days (at the very least) to explore some more, at a more leisurely pace, and to revisit a couple of favorite discoveries.
When it comes to places, there were too many highlights to name individually.  In general, the city was just a sight for sore eyes.  The Louvre was an utterly amazing place, whether it be the grounds, the bold pyramid out front, or the museum itself. 
My son was enchanted by Leonardo da Vinci and the story behind the Mona Lisa.  One night he actually said "Mona Lisa!" in his sleep.  He asked if there were more of da Vinci's paintings at the Louvre and we ended up going back the next day and discovering a special exhibit on da Vinci's work and painting of Saint Anne.  We all learned a lot about da Vinci on this trip and I was happy to see so much genuine interest on something other than videogames from my little one. 

And the statue of Winged Victory has got to be the most beautiful piece of sculpture I've ever seen.  Venus di milo was special too but I think my son just liked saying her name.
Without a lot of time to stay indoors at any one place, we walked miles and miles everyday despite the rain we had for about a day and a half of our 5 day trip.  We also hopped on the metro and took boat rides along the River Seine - the little one was more than happy to take a load off with those modes of transportation. 
Besides the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and a couple of other museums, we visited Notre-Dame, the Opéra Garnier, and the Luxembourg gardens on a rainy afternoon (still gorgeous).  I loved "the islands" or the Ile St. Louis part of Paris; we went there twice and left our own love lock  on a bridge.  On one sunny afternoon, we spent time taking a walk along the Champs Elysee to the Arc de Triomphe.
And on one early morning, we journeyed to the Sacré-Coeur basilica on the Montmartre hilltop.  It offers an amazing view of Paris, even when the weather was not ideal.
Beyond the city, we hopped on the RER to visit Versailles on the last day of our trip.
Versailles was a must-see for me (and for everyone else, judging by the crowd).  I've always wanted to see the palace, the grounds and gardens, and the Hall of Mirrors for myself since those history classes back in high school.  I think my old high school teachers would be proud.
I didn't want to leave but five days later, we had an early morning flight back home.  Thanks to my husband who took about a thousand photos, I have plenty of memories to look back on though I suspect they'll stay vibrant in my mind for some time without any help.

April 23, 2012

A colorful (kids) treat

I'm welcoming a very special guest in the kitchen with me today.  It's my six-year old son, Jalen, and he's joined me to make a very colorful treat.
My little guy (or "big guy" as I like to call him) is actually in the kitchen all the time - but he's there eating, not usually helping me cook or bake.  I wish I could say he loves being in the kitchen with me and we bond by baking cookies and brownies together but the truth is, he isn't particularly interested.  I remember one time a couple of years ago, I got him in the kitchen helping me roll meatballs; I thought he would find it so much fun but he couldn't wait to wash and get that squishy stuff off his hands after the first meatball.  It was really funny actually.  And sure, he'll decorate cookies during the holidays and I can talk him into helping me stir a thing or two but usually, if I ask whether he'd like to help me make something, he'll say "of course, no!" as though he has so many better things to do.  I think he prefers his role as chief taste-tester for the time being.

So this is a special occasion and for that, I was willing to pop open a curiously colorful box of cereal we'd never tasted before to make this colorful treat.
Jalen likes to eat Rice Krispies cereal (separate from his milk though) and he fairly enjoyed those chocolate treats I made recently for the first time.  One day, he saw an igloo shaped rice krispy treat (a holiday edition) on the cereal box and asked if we could make that.  I wasn't exactly up for the challenge of making an igloo (and the holidays were long past) but I wanted to seize upon any interest in making something with me.  I remember seeing pictures of these fruity pebbles treats and thinking I might make a batch one day since I'd heard that my nephews are fans of the cereal.  My son was interested in helping me make them and that was all the excuse I needed to get in the kitchen.  So we found ourselves in the kitchen mixing and stirring up a batch of these Fruity Pebbles marshmallow treats one early Sunday morning. 
It was a blast to do this simple project with him!  I think there's a hidden cook/baker in there somewhere and I look forward to persuading him to play some more in the kitchen with me in the future.  Obviously, these are very simple treats to make with kids, allowing them a chance to scoop, stir, mix and press before it's all done.  We made a pan of the treats within 15 minutes or so and had some cut-out treats packed and ready to deliver to the little guy's cousins in no time.
Now all that being said, I have to confess that I don't think it's very likely I'll be making these treats again.  I've never tried this cereal before and the little one liked it (of course) but it is very sweet and as appealing as all the colors are visually, I can't help but think about what it must've taken to achieve those vibrant colors.  But everything in moderation, right? 

Thank you, Jalen, for joining me in the kitchen today.  I had a blast mixing things up with you; you did a superb job!  Thanks also to my husband for helping us and being our photographer too.

April 19, 2012

Moist and fragrant almond cake

I tend to hoard my favorite almond paste and only reluctantly pop open a can when I think I have a really worthwhile recipe to use it in.  Two of my favorite ways to use almond paste is in those delectable Italian tri-color cookies and to make almond macaroons.  I love the stuff but it's not cheap and I want to use it for a good cause where it's worth every ounce.  This almond cake I recently made qualifies.  It is so moist and fragrant, rich with almond flavor thanks to that paste. 
I was drawn to this recipe because I love almonds and, well, cake.  This is a somewhat rustic, "everyday", kind of cake, which I can never get enough of.  It's simple, one-layered, with no need for frosting.  You can call it a "finger-cake," one you simply eat with your hands or consider it a tea cake and enjoy it a bit more delicately in the afternoon along with a cup of tea (that's how I prefer it).  I made a little whipped cream to go with this almond cake but I don't think it needs it since it's plenty moist on its own.  Suggested accompaniments also include some fresh fruit or ice cream.  Ice cream goes with everything. 
This cake is one of David Lebovitz's favorite; I love his recipes and if this is a favorite of his, I knew it would be good.  And I thought it was excellent.  I made a slight modification to the recipe by reducing the amount of butter in the recipe because I really wanted the almond flavor to shine and I was trying to cut down on the fat a little bit.  With all the baking I've been doing regularly, I also decided to make a mini, 6-inch, test version.  This way, I also have more almond paste left.  I told you I hoard that stuff!
Luckily, the cake turned out terrifically moist.  I was a little worried that reducing the amount of butter (I used 6 tablespoons as opposed to 8 for half the recipe) might be risky.  David mentioned that the recipe had been re-worked and already contained less butter than the original, but 2 sticks of butter (for a full size cake) is still quite a bit for an everyday cake.  I saw a couple of comments on his website from people who had dialed the butter done further and since there was so much talk about the cake being so moist, I had a feeling it would work.

The fun part about making this rich almond butter cake is I got to make up the batter in a food processor, a first for me.  As much as I dislike having to wash that piece of equipment, it's neat to do things a little differently.  The cake rises pretty significantly while baking but luckily did not overflow.  It has a tight crumb and the best way to describe it is moist, and full of almond flavor.  And with the almond paste, it's far heartier and denser than say, a light chiffon cake.  It's buttery, even with the little bit less I used, and rich.  I would say it's almost like an almond pound cake.  I would love to bake it in a loaf pan next time but a round cake always seems a bit more special.
All in all, this is one great everyday cake.  I'm glad I cracked open that almond paste.

April 17, 2012

Honey corn muffins

I often find myself (1) having extra buttermilk in the refrigerator, and (2) flipping through cookbooks (particularly, baking books) for fun.  So one night, I was sitting on the couch with my husband and looking through Baked Explorations when I saw a very simple recipe for honey corn muffins.  It's a very simple quick mix; I saw that I had all the ingredients on hand (including the buttermilk) and decided on the spot that I'd make some the next morning.  And that's how these came about.
I did some of the prep work the night before (gathering the dry ingredients, setting out some of the cold ingredients) and got the muffin batter into the oven within ten minutes the next morning.  Since they only need 12 minutes or so in the oven and are meant to be eaten warm, they're a great quick mix for breakfast or brunch, or even as an accompaniment for dinner.  I liked the sweet and slightly salty note to these corn muffins.  And lately, I find there's something addicting about the subtle flavor of buttermilk in muffins and pancakes.  I used stone ground cornmeal, which gives the muffins a gritty texture that I like.  The honey flavor is subtle, which is good, since I find too much honey can be overpowering in baked goods.
For the most part, we munched on these plain - without accompaniment - but if you like, you could spread a bit of butter and/or honey on them while they're still warm to accentuate the flavors even more.

And if you're like me and find yourself with extra buttermilk, may I suggest making some amazing buttermilk pancakes or one of the best chocolate cakes ever?  Admittedly, these recipes are often the reason for the buttermilk in the fridge to begin with.  Plus, there's also the option of making a batch of basic chocolate cupcakes or even a pan of basic cornbread.

April 13, 2012

Banana bread with toasted walnuts

I have to tell you, this is not the best looking banana bread that I ever made.  I didn't have very high hopes for it when it came out of the oven, looking super dark and sagging in the middle.  But as we all know, it's what's "inside" that matters and luckily, the taste far surpassed its appearance.  This banana bread is seriously moist and the flavor of the toasted walnuts really pops.
I never really thought I'd be so interested in banana-related recipes.  But my husband has always enjoyed them and my eyes were opened by some wonderful recipes I found including these fabulous banana muffins and that seriously-addicting banana bread with chocolate, just to name two.  So this recipe I'm trying today is "Flour's Famous Banana Bread", from the cookbook of Flour Bakery in Boston.  Aside from the bananas, this bread relies on canola oil and crème fraîche for moisture while the toasted walnuts contribute a key flavor.  And I place an emphasis on toasted since that makes a huge difference in the final result.
The process of putting this banana bread batter together is a little different from what I'm used to.  It's not simply a matter of mixing dry and wet ingredients together like you'd generally expect when it comes to muffin and quick-bread recipes.  In this case, you use the stand mixer and start by whipping the sugar and eggs together for a good five minutes to aerate the batter and go from there.  So in a way, it's more like mixing a cake batter, which helps explains the moist, cake-like texture of this banana bread.  The batter is quite liquid and as you can see, it came out quite golden (alright, just plain dark!) but I think that browning gave it a good caramelized flavor.
Now the down side, of course, is it takes a little more time/work to put this batter together versus some other banana bread recipes.  I thought the bread's flavor was very similar to my favorite banana muffin recipe, which is more of a quick mix and doesn't require the stand mixer.  If I were to pick, I'd more likely go with that banana muffin recipe versus this one given the similar taste, better appearance, and ease (I'm just being honest here), but if I find myself with some extra crème fraîche, I'd certainly think of this recipe because that caramelized flavor and moistness is quite nice.

April 8, 2012

One year here...

I started this little blog one year ago today!  Until then, I had only half-jokingly thrown the idea around - mainly because I'm obsessed with food and was looking for an excuse to do more baking - but then I actually went ahead and did it!  I'm glad I did and and here we are a year later. 
Happy One-Year Anniversary, Playing with Flour!
What it's meant... For me, having this blog has literally meant lots of trips to the grocery store to refill my stash of chocolates, butter, flour, sugar, and extracts.  But more importantly, it's been a creative outlet and a chance to indulge in a fun hobby.  I find working with chocolate and stirring a batter together very peaceful and relaxing.  The sweet (often, chocolaty) smells wafting out of the oven is my kind of aromatherapy.  And the best part is making something from scratch, possibly discovering something delicious, and getting to share it my family and friends.  They become memories.

The way I look at it... This is my open journal.  I love to cook/bake, and I love to write about food!  And of course, I love to eat.  Aside from family and maybe a handful of others, I generally figure it's an audience of one here!  I love looking back at the things I've made and reliving the occasion some of them conjure up.  I'm often in the kitchen using the recipes again and looking back at the steps.  But I have to say it's neat when I see that someone from another continent stumbled onto this space.  I also get a kick out of seeing what kind of searches people (just like me) do when they're looking for a recipe and then maybe end up here.  Maybe my experience will encourage someone else to give a recipe that appeals to them a try. 

I've really learned a lot - from, say, how to make a soufflé to recreating a cake at home that I had at a wonderful restaurant so we can relive a wonderful memory.  It's also been about seeing if that recipe really is as good as they say, and trying to discover something tasty to share with my family - then writing down my impressions.  And speaking of family, I thank my husband for his boundless enthusiasm and encouragement.  When I tell him that I want to make something (which is very often), instead of saying "again?" like maybe I would if I were him, he says "I can't wait!"  I know we're talking mainly about eating cookies and cake - which isn't exactly a great distress - but everything gets old!  And of course, I've always been able to depend on the little guy as the ultimate chocolate dessert taste-tester and fan. 
As satisfying as dessert is, I try to limit my baking to small batches and to sharing when possible.  I've really enjoyed the baking, taste-testing, and sharing that's gone on in the last year but I can't help but think that I'll have to slow down at some point!  (My family and friends are probably afraid of how many calories I'm bringing their way when they see me.)  There is so much deliciousness to explore but I want to make sure I have time to enjoy old favorites on top of discovering new ones.  I once read a blogger say that she never repeats a recipe.  I was momentarily stunned because I could never give up making our family favorites but when I think about it, I get it.  With so many recipes to test and spin off of, you have to make time and space for the discovery.  It's probably not the route I'll take but right now, I still can't help looking through a baking cookbook and seeing at least 2-3 recipes I want to jump up and make right away.

Discoveries...I tried many recipes in the last year.  There were very few duds (thankfully) and some not-so-goods, but many delicious discoveries that have become favorites.  I couldn't possibly pick one favorite - there are too many that I loved and sometimes you're in the mood for different things.  But I'd have to say that discovering how to make tri-color cookies has been a highlight of the year; they are too delicious and I'm still amazed I can make them myself!  I also think about successfully (relatively speaking) tackling macarons - and how much money I save making them at home!  I love to make that mango sago soup and seeing the look of rapture on my husband's face.  And I also can't stop craving that simple but oh-so-good chiffon cake.  Plus, when it comes to chocolate, I'm rarely disappointed whether it comes in the form of a cakecookie, or loaf.  The list goes on and on; it's really amazing how a handful of ingredients can be spun into so many delicious forms.

A celebration cake!  And finally...it wouldn't be a proper "birthday" or anniversary celebration without a cake.  This is one of those celebration cakes - a decadent cake that's meant for sharing with a crowd.  It's a chocolate-hazelnut meringue cake that I've had my eye on for some time.  The recipe comes from the ever reliable Martha Stewart and there's a beautiful version of it on Tartlette that I also consulted.  I was a little nervous about making the cake because I'm not quite sure I fully understand or have mastered the art of meringues (and to top it all off, I made it on a misty, wet day).  I had to try since it's been on my list for so long and this cake embodies so much of what I love.  And here was the perfect special occasion for it.

We have first a base layer of flourless chocolate cake.  It's quite intense and deep in bittersweet chocolate flavor.  Secondly, a meringue layer provides a crisp yet soft and slightly chewy texture that I love (think macarons) as a contrast to the cake beneath.  Lastly, it also incorporates my love of nuts in desserts, with chopped toasted hazelnuts, plus bits of  bittersweet chocolate, folded within the meringue.  The meringue layer turned out to be my favorite part of the cake!

There's a lot of "love" in this cake - it's a hefty piece of work with a total pound of bittersweet chocolate, a cup of toasted hazelnuts, and a good dose of butter involved.  I believe in treats in moderation and I say this is a cake meant for sharing and I happily shared this at a gathering with my family.  I cut small slices and got a good twelve servings out of it.  This cake holds quite well for several days so leftovers are a good thing.  I divvied up what remained so we could all stow a bit away to enjoy another day.  The cake seemed to get darker and fudgier - almost more chocolaty - after refrigerating while the meringue stayed crisp yet a bit soft in the center...in other words, very good.  Just remove it from the fridge a bit in advance to allow it to come to room temperature before eating.
Ready for a sweet gathering!  (I did not make the macarons pictured though...)


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