Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Au Rendez-vous des Pêcheurs – A restaurant in Blois

When driving up from the middle of France back to Paris, we stopped for the night in the cute city of Blois. Blois is on the side of the Loire river and it has a well renovated castle in its center. After visiting the castle we had dinner at the "Rendez-vous des Pêcheurs" (the meeting place of the fishermen) a restaurant we found through the Guide Michelin. For those of you who did not know, the guide Michelin was made by the Michelin tire company to encourage driving in French families.

Well, the Rendez-vous Pêcheurs certainly deserves its ranking of "a very good table." The meal started out with a pre-appetizer of carrot mousse over mushroom flan. It was served hot in a little white coffee cup and it was delicious. Maybe I will try to re-create it one day.
For my appetizer, I ordered the Lobster broth. It was flavorful, but not too strong, and it came with large chunks of tasty lobster in it. It also had pieces of chicken in it, which I found to be a bit out of place. But overall it was quite good.

My parents both had the special appetizer: zucchini flowers stuffed with crayfish. This dish was very flavorful and delicious.
For my main entrée, I had the pigeonneau. Yes, yes, I know, the restaurant is named after fishermen, but pigeonneau is too good to pass up. The pigeonneau was cooked at 55 degrees celsius for 2 hours in a vaccum, and it came with a pice of seared foie gras and a little molded mound of soft browned cabbage. The fowl was perfectly cooked, brown on the outside but pink on the inside, and the foie gras was of course delicious.

My mother got the bass with sweetbreads and my father got the St. Pierre (a type of fish) with parsley sauce. 
Then came the pre-dessert: passion fruit purée with meringue. It was bit too sour for my tastes.

And then dessert! My brother and I both got the raspberry millefeuille (millefeuille means "a thousand leaves" in french because of the many layers). It was good but very sweet.
My mother got Fraise melba (strawberries with vanilla ice cream and sorbet with slivered almonds,
My father got a strange dessert based on potatoes. The bottom layer is an olive cake, and the top layer is a potato cake that had a texture similar to cheesecake. On the side are sweet fried potato slices and blackberry sorbet. It was strange but strangely good.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Le Marché de Suresnes

Last Saturday, my parents and I decided to go out to a boulangerie for breakfast and visit Suresnes's farmer's market.

The delicious croissants from the local boulangerie.

From the bakery we walked to the nearby market. We did not have any plans to buy anything, but we wanted to look around. The market had two sections, a giant indoor food market, and some clothes vendors outside. Being me, I only really paid attention to the indoor section.

Of course, there were several cheese vendors and many different types of cheese made locally or imported from other parts of France, Spain, Portugal, etc... The bottom cheese picture was of a vendor specialized in goat cheeses.



A great thing about France is that you can easily buy whole fish. The market had several fishmongers and seafood stands, and all of them had splendid collections of fresh looking whole and not whole fish, including sardines! (Freshly grilled sardines are way above canned sardines on the tastiness scale)

In addition to the usual beef, pork, and chicken, french markets have meats that are not very common in the US. The top picture is of a skinned rabbit, and the bottom one is a sign for a horse meat butcher.


Freshly made pasta.


And, yes, the market does also have fruits and vegetables (a plurality of the stands had fruit and/or vegetables)

There were also a couple bakeries with tasty looking cakes and breads.

We had not planned on buying anything, but everything looked so good that we ended up getting some chorizo, wine, and a lebanese crêpe-like appetizer to bring to my grandfather's house.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Chocolate cake: A scientific method

I am in France right now! But before I blog about that, I will tell you about my attempts to make a near perfect chocolate cake.

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to bake a cake for another friend's surprise birthday/goodbye party. A commission of sorts! How honoring and surprising! I was told that the recipient like chocolate cake, and the theme of the party was Pink Lemonade (pink and yellow), so I was a bit stumped on how to combine them. I personally am not a fan of lemon and chocolate (I am actually not a fan of any lemon desserts), so I figured I could just add pink and yellow food coloring in a couple places. Unfortunately, chocolate cake is not very easy to color... I considered red velvet, but the one time I tried to make red velvet cupcakes, they did not turn out well at all. And by at all, I mean at all. As I only had 1.5 weeks to prepare, I wanted to stay on the safe side.

But how to add color to a chocolate cake? White chocolate frosting.

I began with the base of the cake. I wanted the base to be good, not just sweet and fluffy, so I gathered a couple recipes. I decided to try two of them: a relatively simple recipe from Scharffen-Berger (that I had made before here) and a more complicated recipe from Cook's Illustrated (which was surprisingly available on their website while I was making the cake, but is now only available to subscribers here). I made half of each recipe to get one layer of each.

For the frosting I turned to one of my favorite cookbooks: I Want Chocolate! by Trish Deseine. I made half of her recipe for Easy Chocolate Ganache, substituting white chocolate for dark. If I remember correctly, it used about 3/4 cup for 8oz of chocolate. This turned out to be a bit to liquid for my purposes, so I had to almost freeze my ganache for it to be thick enough. I often find frosting to be too rich, so I wanted to test two different ganaches, a heavier one (just cream and chocolate) and a lighter one (cream, chocolate and whipped cream). So I made both and colored the heavier one yellow and the lighter one pink.

Then I assembled my test cake. On the bottom I put my layer of simple cake,

 then I spread some heavier frosting,
 put the complicated cake,
and spread the lighter frosting. I did not have enough lighter frosting to cover the entire cake, so it ended up looking pretty ugly. That's why I had a test cake!

Then I had my parents test the cake. I did not tell them which layer corresponded to which cake (because that would have biased the data. I should have made two half cakes, one with the layers in the opposite order, for less bias, but I was worried that would not be stable).

Results: First, the top layer is lighter colored. However, it was also found to be more strongly chocolatey, as well as more tender and lighter than the bottom layer. The bottom layer was not found to have any redeeming qualities in comparison with the top layer. Fortunately for me, the choice was easy. Unfortunately, the chosen cake was the more complicated recipe.

As for the frosting, I decided that I liked having the two types, but that I should switch their positions.

Making the final cake:
I had originally planed to have a second practice cake, but I was out of time, so I went directly to the final cake. I made the full Cook's Illustrated recipe for the base and made ganache with 12oz of white chocolate and 3/4 cup of cream. I put the lighter frosting in between the cake layers and tried to spread the thicker frosting on top. However, the thicker ganache was now too thick to spread easily, and cake crumbs got mixed into the frosting, ruining the smooth finish:
To solve this, I made another batch of ganache using 8oz of white chocolate and spread it on top of the previous layer of frosting. For decoration, I had made letters and shapes with colored melted white chocolate:

The cake was a success, my friends really liked it!

A note: for all of this, I used white chocolate bars. I strongly recommend NOT using so called "White Chips" as these contain absolutely no cocoa butter and have a very different texture when melted.