Milwaukee to New York by train

Would you believe that I, a travel enthusiast who has lived in various cities around the world and been to places like Morocco and Iceland, had until very recently never been to New York City? Me neither, and I can only ascribe this oversight to my younger self’s burning desire to always head for more remote and exotic places. Every time I would travel, back when I lived in my native USA, it was over the state of New York to farther destinations, very often France.

It wasn’t that I didn’t ever want to see it. I just figured NYC wasn’t going anywhere and I would get there eventually. But this glaring omission became more and more embarrassing after I moved to France and casually admitted to several French people that I hadn’t been to NYC yet. This city is – understandably enough – any French traveler’s first and main destination in the US, and for an American to not go there is incomprehensible. It would be like someone from Avignon in southern France never bothering to visit Paris.

And they have a point – never visiting a world capital like this one is something to lament. But the difference between these contexts lies in the distance separating one’s place of residence from the destination city. In Wisconsin, where I grew up, our country’s cultural capital is far enough away (880 miles/1,416 km) that planning a trip there entails a certain amount of planning and hassle. And you also have to fly there, emitting unmentionable quantities of greenhouse gas into the air.

Or do you?

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Well, most people opt to fly such a distance (roughly equivalent to Paris-Warsaw), because the alternatives are 14 miserable hours in a car or 23 even more miserable hours in a bus. But wait, isn’t there another option? What did people do before cars and buses? Okay, yes they took stagecoaches, but they also took the TRAIN.

Amtrak Viewliner

So this summer, wishing to rectify my offense and shrug off the growing shame of it all, I wondered if I could fit in a visit on my way back to France from Wisconsin, but without flying. First, I already felt bad about the carbon cost of my trip to the States and wanted to avoid another flight’s worth (trains have a carbon footprint too, but a much smaller one). Second, I hate flying anyway (too much space between me and the ground!). And third, as a fan of train travel and old movies, I wanted to try the sleeper-car experience. This was my chance!

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North by Northwest (1959). My compartment was slightly smaller.

Making this trip by train takes just as long as by bus, but the experience is so much nicer, even if you opt just for a seat and not a sleeper car. You can get up and walk around, move to the observation car and admire the landscapes, eat in the dining car or snack bar car and engage in conversation with different fellow travelers (and not just your one seatmate on the bus). And if you get motion-sick in buses like I do, the choice is especially clear.

Amtrak observation car
The Amtrak observation car is a nice place to soak up some sunlight and admire the views.

But I was determined to have my own sleeping compartment, just like Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest but probably without the stowaway. With some luck, admittedly too close to my travel date for comfort, I found both a decent price and an itinerary (the Lake Shore Limited) that wouldn’t have me changing trains early in the morning. After an hour-and-a-half ride from Milwaukee to Chicago in a normal coach car, I transferred at Union Station to the train that would take me all the rest of the way, leaving at 9:30 pm and arriving at 6:30 pm the next day.

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Amtrak’s smallest private room, the Viewliner roomette, is a compact space – measuring just 3’6″ x 6’6″ (110 x 201 cm), it’s no wider than what you see in the photo above. It makes up for this in height, however, with a very high ceiling to accommodate the adjustable upper bunk, so it didn’t feel too confining. It’s designed to sleep two, but I think with two people this tiny space would quickly feel MUCH smaller.

The compartment contains a small sink that folds down from the wall, and… wait for it… a toilet! Yes, and it’s out in the open with no wall separating it from the rest of the room. This is where things could get weird if you’re traveling with someone. It’s just as well that I never bumped into Cary Grant and had to hide him from the police! Rest assured, though, that if you book the roomette alone, the entire compartment is yours and nobody else will be traveling in it.

When I boarded, my room was in its default configuration with two facing seats, but in the hour after our departure the car attendant came through to convert everyone’s roomette for sleeping. You have the option of sleeping in the upper bunk or having the seats below converted to a bottom bunk (my choice).

Don’t miss this comprehensive video tour of the same roomette I had.

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My fears of being unable to sleep in a rocking, creaking, groaning metal box proved groundless – the bed was very cozy and I actually got a great night’s rest. When I awoke, the morning sunlight was gently filtering in through the curtains and we were chugging along the eastern coast of Lake Erie somewhere in Pennsylvania or New York state.

Starting at an early hour (I think 6 am), complimentary coffee and orange juice are made available in the hallway of each sleeping car. For reasons I’ll get into later, I’d brought some food along and had these coconut-cashew bites for breakfast in my room.

Another very cool thing about traveling in a sleeping car is you can take a shower! And even though I could have just waited until I got to my destination to take one, I wasn’t about to pass up this rare (not available to coach travelers) and kind of amusing opportunity. Plus it’s always nicer to be clean. Each sleeper car has one shower room at the end of the hall with a little cubicle and a tiny space outside it to stand in and get dressed. Towels, soap and these strange put-them-together-yourself shower slippers are provided. The water flow was minimal (or maybe not much was left?), so it took me a long time, punching the button every few minutes to get more water to come out, like with a campground or locker-room shower. And it’s a rather precarious business, what with the train rocking and jolting and you being all soapy and slippery. There’s a large metal bar you can grab onto, but I could also see how with the wrong timing you could end up lurching into it headfirst and getting knocked out cold. That must not happen too often I suppose, or there would be no more showers on trains. I, at least, escaped injury.

Next it was time for lunch, and this is where my story takes a kind of Twilight Zone turn. Before my trip I’d checked the avid Amtrak travelers’ forums to see if any vegan options were to be had, and everything seemed to indicate I needed to call and reserve a vegan meal at least three days ahead of time. So I did that, only to have the Amtrak lady on the other end of the line tell me that actually my train was not going to have a dining car and that no vegan options were possible. Other people would have a standard meal delivered to their rooms, but no special meals like vegan or kosher could be had. Disappointed but not surprised, I thanked the lady anyway and grumbled about this for a while to my family members. And I duly brought a bunch of food with me on the train, although it wasn’t quite enough and I wasn’t able to find anything decent at Union Station in Chicago.

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So I was not only shocked but also relieved to learn that actually there was a dining car on my train and that a completely vegan meal was part of their permanent menu (!?), no need to reserve anything. Who knows how such contrary information was provided… my phone call may have gotten routed through a wormhole to the 1990s. But now you know: if you’re traveling on the Lake Shore Limited, you can have this very nice Asian noodle bowl. It seems there’s also at least fruit as a vegan option for breakfast. Still, it’s always a good idea to have some extra food on you, since life is unpredictable.

I spent the rest of my time relaxing in my little room, reading Orlando and watching the various stations of upstate New York file by. Finally, as the sun dropped lower over the horizon, New York City loomed into view.

All in all, I was quite satisfied with this train adventure. Of course, it was a somewhat expensive option ($375 for the roomette, all included vs. about $175 for just a coach seat) and definitely more than air travel (maybe $120 one way). You also need the luxury of time to be able to travel this way. But with our environment in the state it’s in, I’m in favor of a shift back to slower transport and a more relaxed attitude to work schedules, for example, to make such travel more realistic. Efforts should also be made to lower train fares and make trains more efficient. If this had been a high-speed train such as the TGV in Europe or the Shinkansen in Japan, the trip would have taken much less time. In the meantime, if I were to make this trip often, for cost reasons I would probably sacrifice my comfort some of the time and go for the coach seat.

I would also like to see Amtrak make a bigger effort to reduce single-use plastic. Two plastic water bottles were provided in my roomette, but there also seemed to be a drinking water tap in the sink. And although the lunch came in a balsa-wood box (along with a card explaining that it was to help save the environment), everything inside the box was wrapped in or composed of single-use plastic. Perhaps some of it was biodegradable, but it still seemed like a lot of unnecessary packaging. BUT, three cheers for Amtrak for (after all) having a vegan choice on their normal menu.

Have you ever traveled long-distance with Amtrak? How was your experience?

If this post has intrigued you and you want to prolong the train-riding mood, make yourself some popcorn and check out one of the many films set on or around trains. In addition to North by Northwest (1959), I especially recommend The Ghost Train (1941), Mystery Train (1989) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017 or earlier versions). An honorable mention goes to The Darjeeling Limited (2007; not my favorite Anderson film, but you can’t beat his aesthetic). If you have others to recommend, leave them in the comments!

Be sure to also take a look at the English royal family’s own private train.

And stay tuned for another post soon about my adventures in the Big Apple (I was a tourist, so can say that) to find out if I thought it was worth all the fuss. 😉

French tomato-mustard tart

Summer is almost over, which means tomato season is drawing to a close. But it’s not over yet! And I have just the recipe you need to enjoy this year’s last fragrant, juicy tomatoes – a French one that will take you straight to the beautiful city of Dijon. Enter the tarte à la tomate, or tomato tart. This warm, pizza-like savory tart offers a crunchy, flaky crust with a spicy kick from everyone’s favorite Dijon mustard and the earthy, green notes of herbes de Provence. It’s super easy to make too, especially if you use a ready-made crust.

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The city of Dijon takes its mustard very seriously. In 2019, French street artist Invader paid homage to both city and condiment with a series of mustard-themed space invader mosaics (photo credit: @chesterlight75).

But you can also make your own crust, or use a pizza crust. Feel free to make your tart larger than the one I describe in this recipe – just add more mustard, tomato and herbs accordingly.

If you don’t happen to have herbes de Provence, you can make your own blend using equal amounts of the herbs often used in it: savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme and oregano. Herbes de Provence blends vary though, so you’ll sometimes see other herbs such as basil and lavender included – just use the ones you like. Another option would be an Italian herb blend.

French tomato-mustard tart

  • 1 premade vegan flaky pastry crust, 11 in. (28 cm.) in diameter
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 or 3 medium vine-ripened tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon herbes de Provence or equivalent herb blend
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • pinch or two salt
  • freshly ground black pepper

Preheat your oven to 425°F (218°C). Unroll the pastry dough and place it on a baking sheet. Poke it with a fork. When your oven has reached the target heat, bake the pastry for 4 minutes.

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Spread the Dijon mustard on the pre-baked pastry. What you see in the photo above is a fairly light layer of mustard, about 2½ tablespoons on a pastry measuring 11 in. (28 cm) in diameter. If you love mustard, feel free to use more.

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Slice your tomatoes – aim for ¼ inch (3 mm) thick slices. Start by slicing up just two tomatoes as you might not need more than that, depending on the thickness of your slices. Cut out and discard the tough white core.

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Arrange the tomato slices on top of your pastry, overlapping slightly.

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Sprinkle the top evenly with your herbes de Provence or equivalent herb blend.

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Then sprinkle a small pinch or two of salt over the top.

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Finally, drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil evenly over the tart.

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Place the tart in the oven and bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Check on it midway – if the edges seem to get too brown too quickly, you can cover them with foil partway through the baking.

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Slice up your tart pizza-style and grind some black pepper over the top if you like.

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And enjoy! This tart is excellent paired with a nice green salad.

Ghost town

One of the things I admire about France is that every employee, regardless of the company they work for and their own seniority, gets a mandatory five weeks of paid vacation time per year. Even though this doesn’t include me as a freelancer, I’m happy to see others getting the time they deserve to relax and enjoy their families. I already knew that my native US was far behind other countries in this respect, but this color-coded map on Wikipedia makes the contrast even more embarrassingly clear.

Anyway, as you might expect, the most popular time to take one’s time off is the summer, and the month of August has long been a time of exodus for Parisians. Everyone seems to leave all at the same time for various destinations, be they in France or farther afield. One side effect of this is that lots of small businesses all close simultaneously. A stroll around a non-touristy neighborhood will take you past a series of shuttered storefronts and notice signs such as the ones below (click any photo to switch to slide show mode) informing customers of their re-opening dates.

I always get a bit of an eerie feeling, walking around the empty streets of my mainly residential neighborhood in August. I also often forget that things are closed and make a detour to get a coffee from Dose, for example, only to find the place deserted and to curse my poor memory.

So while it’s a good thing for people working in France, this annual departure can be a bummer for tourists who come to Paris in part to try our vegan restaurants (usually small businesses that close all of August).

If your chosen destination restaurant (or clothes shop, etc.) has a sign in their window, you can try looking for the following key phrases to decipher it and see how long it will be closed:

  • fermé – closed
  • ouvert – open
  • fermeture estivale – summer closing
  • congés d’été – summer vacation
  • vacances annuelles – annual vacation
  • horaires d’été – (shorter) summer hours
  • réouverture – reopening (date)
  • en vacances – on vacation
  • bel été – have a good summer (= without us) 😉

But to help make planning easier, I’ve prepared a short list of some places where you can still find vegan food the rest of this August. Note that this list is not exhaustive and that it’s a good idea to double-check their current hours on their social media pages or call ahead. Don’t rely on what Google or even their own websites say, because those won’t necessarily be updated to reflect any special summer conditions.

Vegan places that are open

Every year, a handful of vegan restaurants in Paris do stay open all summer. Here are some that I personally recommend (plus one brand-new one I’ve heard good things about). Note however that Thursday, August 15th is a national holiday and some of these places might be closed that day.

Aujourd’hui Demain
42 rue du Chemin Vert, 75011 Paris (metro Richard Lenoir)
Restaurant/café and grocery store. A good place to hang out with a coffee and catch up on your email or work. If you’re in the mood for a sweet indulgence, don’t miss their Freak Shake.

Cantine Le Myrha
70 rue Myrha, 75018 Paris (metro Château Rouge)
Spacious and well-lit, excellent place for a buffet brunch with friends on a Sunday. You may make the acquaintance of Rainette, the restaurant’s sweet tabby cat, who sometimes wanders among the customers to be petted.

Cloud Cakes
6 rue Mandar, 75002 Paris (metro Sentier)
As their name suggests, they have some heavenly cakes! Savory lunch items available too until the mid-afternoon. Limited seating at busy times, but well worth a visit.

Le Faitout
23 avenue Simon Bolivar, 75019 Paris (metro Pyrénées)
All the ambiance of a traditional French brasserie, none of the usual animal products. Live music on Thursday nights. Don’t miss their platter of housemade vegan cheeses!

Hank Burger
55 rue des Archives, 75003 Paris (metro Rambuteau)
8 rue de Rochechouart, 75009 Paris (metro Cadet)
Really nice burgers, with a choice between their standard patty and a Beyond Beef one. I also love their potato wedges with a cheese topping and their chocolate chip cookies!

Hank Pizza
18 rue des Gravilliers, 75003 Paris (metro Arts et Métiers)
Vegan pizza with a range of preset toppings, including a couple of gluten-free ones each day. They have a particularly spacious upstairs dining room. If you come here, be sure to stop by the vegan grocery store Mon Epicerie Paris on the same street (see below for a description).

Les Petites Pâtisseries Raw & Vegan
44 rue du Chemin Vert, 75011 Paris (metro Richard Lenoir)
So many creative and delightful raw desserts! I especially like their little fruit tarts and matcha opéra cakes. Rumor has it you can now also find blue mermaid nice cream bowls there! On the same block as Aujourd’hui Demain (see above).

Le Potager du Marais
24 rue Rambuteau, 75003 Paris (metro Rambuteau)
Traditional French dishes in vegan versions. I often recommend this place to visitors since it’s a way to try classic dishes without the animal products. I love their seitan bourgignon, onion soup and crème brûlée.

Sunday’s Coffee Paris
171 boulevard Voltaire, 75011 Paris (metro Charonne)
This place is so new, I haven’t had a chance to go there yet. People on Instagram seem to like it though, so take a look if you’re nearby!

Wild & the Moon
Various locations throughout Paris
Another chain place with generous hours. Try one of their superfood elixir drinks or one of their dishes of the day (often a rice and curry bowl). I love their raw desserts, especially the lemon tart. Their location near Opéra is especially nice as it gets less traffic.

Other options

Certain other places are fairly reliably sources of vegan eats.

Restaurants

L’As du Fallafel
32-34 rue des Rosiers, 75004 Paris (metro Saint Paul)
Home of the best falafel sandwich in Paris! Prepare yourself for a line at the door. Closed Friday evenings and Saturdays all year round.

Ethiopian restaurants
Various locations throughout Paris
Due to a cultural tradition of abstaining from all animal products on certain days of the week and at certain times of year, Ethiopian restaurants generally always have a vegan option (sometimes labeled “vegetarian” on the menu). Be sure to specify that you don’t want fish. Google “restaurant Ethiopien Paris” plus the number of your arrondissement to find one. My personal favorite is Le Ménélik in the 17th.

Lebanese restaurants
Various locations throughout Paris
The chances of finding falafel (an accidentally vegan food) are high at just about every Lebanese restaurant. Look for places with the country’s very cute cedar tree flag.

Maison Landemaine
Various locations throughout Paris
Try their croissant ordinaire (regular croissant), which is always vegan, but be sure to specify ordinaire so they don’t give you a non-vegan butter croissant. They also have a vegan chausson aux pommes (apple turnover) and usually at least one vegan fancy dessert/pastry. Check the labels in the display case for the “VEGAN” in very small green text, or ask if unsure. They also sometimes have a vegan tofu, avocado and sun-dried tomato sandwich. Their baguettes, like all baguettes in France, are vegan by default.

Prêt à Manger
Various locations throughout Paris
This chain store is from the UK, which means it’s quite vegan-friendly. In France, they offer one vegan sandwich (avocado, sun-dried tomato and black olive spread on baguette type bread) as well as some vegan soups, chia pudding and sometimes a muesli bowl. They make coffee and matcha drinks with plant milk at no extra charge!

Vegan grocery stores

Vegan items can increasingly be found at mainstream grocery stores (check the bio (organic) aisle in particular), but with the stores below there’s no need to scrutinize labels since everything at them is fully vegan. This can be a good source for groceries for your AirBnB, or for things to pick up and put in a baguette for a DIY sandwich-on-the-go.

Aujourd’hui Demain
42 rue du Chemin Vert, 75011 Paris (metro Richard Lenoir)
Combination grocery store and restaurant/café. Also sells clothing, shoes, purses and personal care products. They offer an extensive range of vegan cheeses and certain hard-to-find items such as vegan honey and liquid smoke. Beyond Meat products are available here.

Naturalia Vegan
4 locations in Paris and the near suburbs
Part of the Naturalia organic grocery chain, these stores have a much wider selection of vegan cheeses, yogurts and plant-based imitation meats than other Naturalias. Unlike the other vegan grocery stores listed here, Naturalia Vegan locations also offer fresh produce.

Mon Epicerie Paris
31 rue des Gravilliers, 75003 Paris (metro Arts et Métiers)
This little grocery has a surprisingly wide selection of products, including Beyond Meat and some others that are found nowhere else in Paris as far as I know (for example Linda McCartney frozen items). Carries more Asian products than the other ones.

Un Monde Vegan
64 rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth, 75003 Paris (metro Strasbourg-Saint Denis)
The first all-vegan food shop to open in Paris, Un Monde Vegan is still a popular source of interesting grocery products and books.

With that, I wish you a pleasant stay (or staycation) in Paris. Bon appétit!

Lemon cheesecake nice cream

Today I’m sharing one of my very favorite summertime recipes. With just two ingredients, it’s also one of the simplest I know. Meet nice cream, the banana-based alternative to ice cream.

Not only is it yummy, but since it’s nothing but fruit you can eat it anytime, any day, all day everyday if you want to. Well, within reason! My point is that it’s a lot better for you than most ice creams out there (even vegan ones), since it has no added sugar, oil or saturated fat and of course is dairy-free and gluten-free. It’s actually everything-free except banana and lemon. Because the banana is so sweet, you don’t need to add sweetener of any kind.

Why “nice” cream? I’m not the inventor of the term, but I would imagine it’s because compared to cows’ milk ice cream, it’s nicer to animals and also the planet. No cows get involved and the carbon footprint of bananas is lower than that of milk even when transportation is factored in. For each kg of cow’s milk produced, 2.4 kg of CO2 equivalent are generated, while for 1 kg of bananas it’s just 480 g (one-fifth the amount for milk). But nice cream also just tastes nice, so maybe that’s why?

I find it makes a great breakfast on a really hot day. In fact, it’s better as a breakfast or an afternoon treat than as a dessert because it’s much more filling than traditional ice cream or sorbet.

The possibilities for variations are vast – you can add just about anything to the banana base to flavor it. Try mixing in frozen berries, cocoa powder or even a touch of your favorite liqueur (Bailey’s Almande would be great!). See other suggestions at the end of this post.

The flavor I’m presenting today is one that I call “lemon cheesecake” because although it contains nothing but banana and lemon, something about these two things together reminds me of cheesecake. Try it for yourself and see if you agree.

Lemon cheesecake nice cream

Makes 2 servings (the equivalent of around 3 scoops each)

  • 3 medium to large ripe bananas (not overly ripe)
  • 1 medium to large lemon

Equipment needed: freezer, food processor with an “S” blade (a regular blender will probably not be enough), lemon juicer, freezer-safe tupperware container.

Slice 3 bananas into rounds and put them in a plastic tupperware container with a lid. Place in your freezer for several hours or, ideally, overnight.

When ready to make your nice cream (the same day it will be served), remove the bananas from the freezer, take off the tupperware lid and let the bananas thaw for at least 10 minutes (less time on a really hot day, more time on a cooler day). Do not skip this step – rock-solid frozen banana pieces can damage your food processor.

Once the bananas have thawed a bit, transfer them to your food processor. Juice your lemon until you have about 1/3 cup (79 ml) juice. You can also use a bit less or a bit more, depending how much you like lemon.

Pour the juice into the food processor and begin processing. At first it may seem like nothing is happening but the bananas will eventually all blend into a wonderfully smooth texture. If you’re using a small food processor like mine, you may need to stop once or twice and scrape down the sides to move the remaining whole pieces toward the blade.

You’ll end up with a perfect “soft serve” nice cream and can enjoy it as is. Simply transfer to a bowl and, if desired, garnish with (non-frozen) fruit. This is how I eat it most of the time, when not taking photos for a blog post that is. 😉

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But if you want to impress a guest and present the nice cream in scoop form like in the photos below, transfer the blended nice cream back into your same tupperware container and freeze it again for an hour or so. It’s best to still serve the prepared nice cream the same day, without leaving it in the freezer for too long since it can become too solid and impossible to scoop.

When plating up the nice cream, either in soft serve or scooped form, keep in mind that it melts pretty fast! You may want to refrigerate the serving bowls ahead of time to slow down the melting process.

With any number of sweltering days ahead of us still this summer, this nice cream just might become your new best friend. Enjoy!

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Variations:

  1. Freeze some berries along with the bananas for a “fruit cocktail” nice cream (you’ll still need bananas for a base).
  2. Process the bananas with lime juice, mint leaves and a touch of rum for a “tropical island drink” nice cream.
  3. Add peanut butter to the bananas while blending, and incorporate some chocolate chunks at the end. Serve with salted pecans.Lots of other flavors are possible! Let me know in the comments what you try and how it goes.

Learning Japanese in France

In the fall of 2017, this introvert did something bold and adventurous.

I’d been living in France for eight years and things were somewhat stagnant. Everything felt like the same old same old… I’d been in the same city longer than any other since childhood, living in the same apartment for years, and my work was fairly routine and predictable too. I’d been speaking French for decades and had apparently already reached my personal ceiling in it. A new challenge seemed called for, so I took a long-held albeit vague ambition down from the shelf and registered for a year-long Japanese class in the continuing education program offered by the City of Paris.

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Our textbook, whose title means something like “You can learn Japanese!” or, more realistically, “Japanese is possible.”

Vague, because I wasn’t at all certain I would actually be able to learn the language. It seemed so very complex and bewildering, and I’d already heard that it’s considered the most difficult language for English native speakers to learn, meriting a category of its own (one level up from the “super-hard languages”) in the Foreign Service Institute’s ranking of commonly taught languages. So rather than setting out confidently to conquer this new language, I planned to just dip a toe into Japanese for a closer look at how it worked. I figured I’d learn at least a few words and maybe some basic grammar if I made it through the year. I didn’t expect much more than that, but also didn’t dismiss the possibility (wild hope?) that I would turn out to have some natural knack for the language.

So while I wasn’t stressed about Japanese itself, I was a bit nervous about jumping into a class full of French people. I felt I would somehow be at a disadvantage and worried that I might not make friends. I would be a double gaijin (foreigner) of sorts. But I plunged ahead nonetheless – this is where the “bold and adventurous” part came in!

Fast-forward to the present. Last week, I finished my second year of Japanese in the program and got decent grades. I’ll probably register for the third year this fall. So how did it go? Just how tough was it, and how did I manage to get this far? How did the other students react to the strange American in their midst?

I’ll get to that in a bit. But first…

Why Japanese?

kana chartsMaybe it’s the look of the language that attracted me – the beautiful loopy hiragana, the slanty futuristic katakana and the forbidding kanji, which look like little houses and dense thornbushes. It seemed like an enigma waiting to be unraveled. But my interest in the country and culture was probably piqued in childhood.

My earliest brush with Japan was at age six when my dad’s company sent him on a business trip to Tokyo. The situation was explained to me, but I could barely wrap my head around the idea of him flying such a long distance away. When I looked at Japan on a globe, it seemed just as remote as the moon.

I believe I was somewhat in awe of him when he returned, bearing all manner of strange and wonderful gifts for my mom, my little brother and me. Among them, I clearly remember a large spiral-bound booklet of flexible chalkboard pages made of rough green material and printed with mysterious roundish characters that you were supposed to trace and copy in chalk. It came with a thick yellow foam eraser of a kind I’d never seen before. My dad explained that the booklet was designed for Japanese children to practice writing their letters in. I can still recall the character あ (hiragana for the sound “a”) being one of them.

photo_2019-07-04_08-54-05He also brought my mom some women’s fashion magazines that I would page through time and again, captivated by the inscrutable writing and above all the fact that they were read from “back” to “front”. And there was a Japanese baby doll for me – she had very white skin, was dressed in a red kimono and there was a pink satin cushion for her to sit on.

My dad had his photos developed into slides and we sat in the living room watching them on the projector screen, listening to his stories as we saw him standing in various squares in front of temples or near Mt. Fuji, surrounded by Japanese business partners and pigeons (see some of his photos below). He told us about eating octopus tentacles and being served a luxurious dish of strawberries with cream. He’d brought home some miniature tubes of toothpaste from his hotel room and these delighted me because the caps were really tiny too, unlike the mini toothpaste tubes in the US. They soon became accessories for my dolls.

These early experiences must have planted a seed of some kind. Later, at university, I had a series of Korean and Japanese roommates and friends. I absorbed a few expressions in those languages without really trying to and began reading some Japanese literature in translation (Banana Yoshimoto was a favorite). In those days, I was interested in foreign languages of all kinds and took a few semesters of Arabic (that’s a story for another day) while continuing on with French, eventually earning my Bachelor’s in linguistics.

In the years after that, I continued to meet Japanese people and be exposed to more and more Japanese literature and culture. I followed the misadventures of An Englishman in Osaka. I acquired Elizabeth Andoh’s excellent cookbook Kansha and tried my hand at many of her shōjin ryōri (Buddhist “temple cooking” or vegan) recipes. Every dorayaki I made, every Haruki Murakami novel I read and every Ozu film I saw was like another knock at the door, another invitation to try learning the language.

Rachel and Jun
Rachel and Jun

A surprising shift in my attitude to learning the language happened in 2016 when I discovered Rachel and Jun on YouTube. Somehow, seeing Rachel – also American, also female – speaking Japanese made me feel that if she could do it, I surely could too. Or that I at least had a reasonable hope. It may seem strange, but prior to that, most of the people I’d known who had learned Japanese were men, and I realized that on some subconscious although illogical level I’d felt that it wasn’t open to me. I would have to look at statistics on this, if they exist, but I have a sense that in the US it is indeed a language more men try to learn than women. In my classes in France, there have been equal numbers of women and men.

So although Japanese was daunting on many levels, and I had a hard time imagining myself understanding and speaking it, I just had to try!

Learning Japanese in French

Since these courses take place in Paris, they are of course taught in French. Trying to learn Japanese in another foreign language may seem like asking for trouble – I myself wondered if that would complicate things – but now after two years I can say that it hasn’t really made much difference.

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Some notes I took early in my first year.

My French is solid enough that the instructors’ explanations have always been clear to me. The main effect of my being a foreigner is probably that I’m more reluctant to ask a question in class… but then I’m an introvert already.

Something kind of interesting does happen when I take notes in class. As the instructor speaks (in French), my page becomes a mishmash of French and English. In some cases, I write exactly what’s being said in French while at other moments, sometimes in the same sentence, my brain sends the signal down to my hand directly in English without any special intention on my part. This reflex may also be due to my being a professional translator, but I wasn’t the only one doing it – another foreign student who sat near me (and was not a translator) confessed that she also wrote her notes partly in French and partly in her language. The jumble of languages doesn’t pose any particular problem except when I realize I’m doing it and hesitate for a moment.

Occasionally, when I speak Japanese in class and then revert “back” to add something I can’t yet say in that language, I accidentally jump into English and have to start over again in French. This never happens when I’m speaking just French, so I assume the switch out of Japanese triggers a “reset” function of some kind and my system automatically reboots in English.

Apart from these small details, when it came to my potential compared to that of the French students, the playing field was leveled by the fact that this was a new and difficult language for all of us. I may even have had an advantage in a few respects: 1. the most common rōmaji (Romanized Japanese) transliteration system is based on English sound/spelling correspondences and is incorrect if pronounced according to French rules, 2. a good number of “Japanese” words are English borrowings which, while sometimes hard to recognize, can be traced back to their origin more easily by English native speakers than others (sutoraiki/strike, aisu/ice cream) and 3. I could already pronounce the “h” sound, which is usually troublesome for French native speakers. But this hasn’t put me at the head of the class or anything. Some of my classmates have worked at it harder than me and/or have lived in Japan or have a Japanese partner and get to practice all the time.

Is Japanese really that hard?

It sure is – the Foreign Service Institute was right. Or rather, let’s say it has many complex features. The grammar is quite different than what we’re used to, so that takes time become familiar with, and then there are unusual things such as special “counter” words that come after numbers when expressing a number of people or objects depending on their shape, size and other details. One counter word is used for pieces of paper (“flat thing” category), another for umbrellas (“long and thin thing” category) and still another for housecats (“small animal” category).

The writing system of course presents a host of additional challenges. You need to learn two syllabaries, the aforementioned hiragana and katakana, each of which has 46 base characters and 20+ variations. Those aren’t so bad once you’ve had enough practice with them, but they still act as a barrier, significantly slowing down the reading process for beginners compared to a language with a familiar writing system. Then there are the 2,000 kanji or Chinese characters you must eventually learn to be decently literate in Japanese (more than that exist for the ambitious). At this stage, having done two years, I’ve become familiar with a handful of the kanji just by being passively exposed to them in the textbook although I focus more on the small kana that are written above them as training wheels for foreign learners.

On the plus side, the pronunciation is a breeze and you have no gender or articles to worry about. It’s a very concise language, so a lot can often be conveyed with a just a single short expression. Sōdesuka!

But the complexities mean you do need to invest a significant amount of time between classes to studying. This, more than anything else, has been my particular challenge. I was accustomed to language-learning being easier (because I was learning easier languages, apart from Arabic that is), and sometimes didn’t put in the time I needed to, especially at times when work occupied most of my waking time. My solution was to keep going to all the classes, bumble through them (not ideal) and then catch up later. It worked, but please avoid going down this path!

Did I turn out to have a natural knack for Japanese? Definitely not! Luckily hard work is a good replacement.

Learning how to learn

It had been a while since I’d attempted a foreign language and I’d forgotten some of the tips and tricks for learning, practicing and memorizing things. And because Japanese is different in many ways from the other languages I had experience with, I had to figure out how to go about learning it.

Our textbook, Dekiru Nihongo, is full of what we need to know but at the same time maddeningly user unfriendly. It’s written only in Japanese so it can be used anywhere in the world, but this means it can’t provide any grammatical explanations for beginners. We therefore depend on what the instructor tells us to make sense of the example sentences and exercises in the book. As a result, you cannot afford to ever miss a class and supplementary materials can be very useful. I bought Everett F. Bleiler’s Basic Japanese Grammar as well as some French-language vocabulary books to help me figure things out a bit faster.

Japanese keyboard iphoneI’m also thankful that this is now the Internet age. When I began learning French back in middle school, there was no such thing, and no way to even hear French spoken by a native speaker except by going to see good ol’ Gérard Depardieu at the movies (he was in ALL the French movies in those days). Now, learning Japanese, I have a multitude of resources available to me at all times on both my computer and my phone. I quickly found the very useful online dictionary jisho.org as well as conjugation sites and YouTubers specialized in helping Japanese learners. An unexpected resource is Instagram… I activated the Japanese keyboard to be able to add hashtags like #ヴィーガン (vegan) and #猫 (cat) to my photos and discovered that when you type words in romaji or kana, the autocorrect feature suggests kanji. But then you have to make sure you’re picking the right kanji as so many words have the same sound. And to check your pronunciation, you can open up “notes” on your phone and activate the dictation feature (the little microphone next to the space bar). Say a few words and see if the right characters appear. This is also a major confidence-booster!

Double gaijin

I’m happy to report that in spite of my foreignness (which didn’t bother anyone, it turned out), I did make friends in my classes. What’s more, I wasn’t the only non-French student. There were three or four of us in each of my classes (from South Korea, Madagascar, Venezuela and Spain, plus another American), so I didn’t even stand out as much as I expected. Occasionally when something related to the US or the English language would come up in the class conversation, everyone would turn to me for my pronouncement on the topic (“What’s the English for sac à dos?” when we were trying to determine the origin of the loanword meaning “backpack”). But the people in my classes were generally friendly and kind. We still sometimes meet up to attend Japanese-related events.

And I’d say this community of fellow learners has been one of the biggest things keeping me going at times when the classes got tough. There have been many points when I was afraid I would have to give up due to falling behind, but the desire to go on to the next year along with everyone else motivated me to keep attending the classes and make time to catch up.

This is a language that would probably be hard to make consistent progress in without an exterior motivation such as a formal class. It gets painful at times, so I know if I were just trying to do it on my own I would have given up long ago.

Meeting the challenge

So the answer to my question of the beginning (Can I really learn this language?) is at this point a somewhat confident maybe! I’m only two years in and don’t know what the future may hold. But for the time being, I’m very happy to have made it as far as I have. We’ll see this fall how the next chapter in my story goes.

Cover image from Yasujirō Ozu’s Ohayō (1959).

Chia pudding, three ways

The curious superfood that is the chia seed has become quite a big deal in recent years among people interested in health and nutrition or just intriguing ingredients with unusual properties. These seeds can be used in a few different ways, but one of the most popular is chia pudding. There are already lots of recipes online, but I thought it would be fun to experiment with some of my own favorite flavors. So today I bring you three interpretations of this yummy, filling and nutrient-rich dish that makes the perfect breakfast, especially when served with some fresh fruit.

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Close up, chia seeds look like rather beautiful miniature mottled gray stones.

So what are these health benefits? Well, chia seeds are high in protein and fiber as well as calcium, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and vitamins B1, B2 and B3. They’re also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids (more, gram for gram, than salmon). They furthermore have been shown to reduce certain risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure.

Each of the three single-serving recipes below contains about 30 g of chia seeds, which gives you roughly 4 g protein, 11 g fiber, 208 mg calcium (20% of the recommended daily requirement) and 110 mg magnesium (45% of the recommended daily requirement).

As you’ll see when you make this recipe, chia seeds (like flax seeds) become mucilaginous (sticky) and plump up in contact with liquid, which is why it’s so easy to make a thick pudding with them, with zero other thickener or binder. The texture of the finished pudding is somewhat like tapioca.

For best results, make these puddings the night before (or at least four hours ahead) and enjoy them for breakfast. They can be a dessert too, but as they’re rather filling it would be best to serve them after a lighter meal. Each recipe below is for one individual serving because I find it’s easiest to mix everything up right in the cup.

After you’ve made one of these puddings, you’ll see how easy it is to improvise different combinations of ingredients. You can easily use mashed banana to the ginger pudding, for example, or add coconut to the matcha one. Experiment with your favorite fruits (add blended berries to the milk for example) and toppings.

Ginger chia pudding

Makes a little under 1 cup (236 ml) pudding

  • 3 tablespoons (30 g) chia seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, or more to taste (or substitute ginger syrup)
  • 3/4 cup (177 ml) soy milk or other plant-based milk (almond, oat, rice etc.)
  • 1/2 teaspoon liquid vanilla extract
  • 1 or 2 tablespoons maple syrup, ginger syrup or other liquid sweetener
  • tiny pinch salt
  • fruit garnish, such as nectarine

For this recipe, if you can find it, ginger syrup is an amazing thing. Use it in place of the sweetener and skip the ground ginger. Alternatively, especially if you’re a big fan of ginger, you can experiment with fresh grated ginger or homemade ginger juice to taste.

Begin by placing the chia seeds and ground ginger in your cup, then add 1/2 cup of the milk (reserving the remaining 1/4 cup until the end) and immediately begin stirring with a fork or small whisk to ensure that no clumps of seeds form. Once you have a uniform consistency, add the vanilla extract, liquid sweetener and salt. Stir well to incorporate everything. If you’re using a transparent glass container like mine, take a look at it from the side to check for any pockets of unmixed seeds or ground ginger. Now add the remaining 1/4 cup milk and stir again.

Let sit for 10 to 15 minutes, then return and stir again to break up any new clumps that may have formed. Although it will be tempting to skip this step, do not because it’s essential for a good result. You may want to give it an extra stir another 15 minutes later for good measure. At this stage, the pudding will seem thin and you might worry that you haven’t used enough seeds, but fear not – it’ll thicken up.

Cover the cup with plastic wrap or something else that will protect the pudding from absorbing odors, and place it in your fridge for a few hours or overnight.

When ready to serve, garnish with some fresh fruit (I used nectarine slices). You may also wish to drizzle a little bit more of your liquid sweetener on top.

Matcha chia pudding

Makes a little under 1 cup (236 ml) pudding

  • 3 tablespoons (30 g) chia seeds
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened matcha powder
  • 3/4 cup (177 ml) soy milk or other plant milk (almond, oat, rice etc.), added in stages
  • 1/2 teaspoon liquid vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 or 2 tablespoons white sugar or neutral-flavored liquid sweetener (rice syrup etc.)
  • tiny pinch salt
  • fruit garnish, such as raspberries

Matcha powder can sometimes be found at organic grocery stores or at tea shops (in France, try Naturalia and other organic stores and Palais des Thés). Otherwise, try looking for it online.

Begin by placing the chia seeds and matcha powder in your cup, then add 1/2 cup of the milk (reserving the remaining 1/4 cup until the end) and immediately begin stirring with a fork or small whisk to ensure that no clumps of seeds form. Once you have a uniform consistency, add the vanilla and almond extracts, sugar or liquid sweetener and salt. Stir well to incorporate everything. If you’re using a transparent glass container like mine, take a look at it from the side to check for any pockets of unmixed seeds or ground ginger.

Let sit for 10 to 15 minutes, then return and stir again to break up any new clumps that may have formed. Although it will be tempting to skip this step, do not because it’s essential for a good result. You may want to give it an extra stir another 15 minutes later for good measure. At this stage, the pudding will seem thin and you might worry that you haven’t used enough seeds, but fear not – it’ll thicken up.

Cover the cup with plastic wrap or something else that will protect the pudding from absorbing odors, and place it in your fridge for a few hours or overnight.

When ready to serve, garnish with some fresh fruit (I used thawed frozen raspberries). You may also wish to drizzle a little bit more of your liquid sweetener on top.

Chocolate-banana-coconut chia pudding

Makes a little under 1 cup (236 ml) pudding

  • 1/4 cup (50 g) mashed ripe banana
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon dried grated coconut
  • 3 tablespoons (30 g) chia seeds
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) soy milk or other plant milk (almond, oat, rice etc.)
  • 1/2 teaspoon liquid vanilla extract
  • 1 or 2 tablespoons maple syrup or other liquid sweetener
  • tiny pinch salt
  • fruit garnish, such as banana

Start by mashing the banana (about 1/4 cup worth) in the bottom of your cup with a small fork. Some chunks may remain but that’s fine. Now add the cocoa powder and stir thoroughly to incorporate. Add the coconut and chia seeds and stir. Now add 1/4 cup of the milk and stir until you have a uniform consistency, then the remaining 1/4 cup milk and stir again. At this point, you can add your vanilla extract, liquid sweetener (you might not need as much as for the other recipes, since the banana will add sweetness) and salt. Note that the last photo above shows the mixture before the milk was added. I forgot to take a photo of it once the milk was in, but you can get an idea from the photo of the three ungarnished puddings near the beginning of this post.

As you’ve probably guessed, this recipe uses less milk than the others because the banana takes up some space.

This chocolate chia pudding recipe is probably the most foolproof of the three, since the banana and coconut prevent the chia seeds from clumping. For this reason, once you’ve stirred everything in, you can proceed to cover the cup and place it in your refrigerator without having to come back and stir it first. Chill for a few hours or overnight.

When ready to serve, garnish with some fresh fruit (like banana slices) and some extra dried grated coconut if you like. You may also wish to drizzle a little bit more of your liquid sweetener on top.

Whichever pudding you make, I hope you enjoy it and it inspires you to eat more chia seeds more often. 🙂

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Variations: Mix and match ingredients according to your preferences. Substitute dates blended with hot water for the sweetener. In a larger bowl, combine the chia seeds with dry rolled oats and extra milk to make overnight oats (place in fridge overnight just as for the recipes above).

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Where to buy: chia seeds, matcha powder and ginger syrup can often be found at organic grocery stores or other specialty shops, or online.

Nutrition information from Healthline and Wikipedia (click to go straight to the chia seed articles).

Ten years in France

One fine day in April of 2009, I packed a large green suitcase full of stuff and headed to the airport, a shiny French visa in my passport. It authorized me to enter the country not as a tourist, but someone who was allowed to stay past the usual 90 consecutive days. I was finally doing it! After years – actually decades – of wanting to live in France, the dream was at last coming true.

Ten years on, I’m still here.

It kind of shocks me that this many years have sped past since the day I first arrived, which in many ways, as people say, does feel like yesterday. I don’t feel so different myself. I still wear some of the same clothes from those days. My hairstyle (long, straight, boring but classic) hasn’t changed. I really feel like the same person overall, much more so than compared to 1999 to 2009.

In 2009, I’d recently learned about a renewable three-year French residence permit designed for people from outside the European Union called the Carte Compétences et Talents and the time seemed right to take the plunge. I’d finished my university studies and was freelancing but otherwise was kind of at a loose end. My work allowed me to live anywhere, so why not France?

(to be continued)

 

 

Chickpeas in spicy tomato sauce

Several people have recently told me they’re interested in eating more plant-based dishes as a way to lower their carbon footprint, but that they don’t know where to start, don’t have much cooking experience, or can’t easily find some of the less common ingredients such as seitan. It can seem daunting at first. And because some of the fancier vegan foods are often found at organic stores, there’s an unfortunate misconception that a plant-based diet is more expensive than a conventional animal-based one.

So today, I decided to show you a super simple, super yummy dish I’ve been making lately and really love. It’s based on a few very common ingredients – onion, canned cooked chickpeas, prepared tomato sauce plus optional soy yogurt and scallions – that can be found at even the most basic grocery store. I found all of these things at my local Monoprix, the French equivalent of Safeway in the US or Tesco in the UK. If you stock up on canned chickpeas and tomato sauce ahead of time, whipping up a dish like this is a breeze.

Legumes in particular are very easy on the planet, requiring far less fossil fuel and water to produce than meat and other animal-derived foods. This makes them an ideal food for a future marked by increasingly common droughts due to climate change.

Chickpeas (and other legumes) are also extremely good for you, packed with protein and offering long-lasting energy.

Furthermore, this is a super low-cost dish. To make the two servings in this recipe, I spent just €4.49, or €2.25 per serving ($2.55 or £1.91). That’s about half the price of a cappuccino.

The cost breaks down as follows: 2 cans chickpeas (€1.30), 1 jar arrabbiata sauce (€1.69), 1 small red onion (€0.32), 2 small 100 g containers of soy yogurt (together, €0.56), 2 scallions (together, €0.28) and 1 lime (€0.34). I also used tiny amounts of olive oil and ground coriander which would come to a few cents’ worth each.

This dish is fairly foolproof and can easily be adapted to incorporate other ingredients. You can use any other legume (navy beans, kidney beans, lentils) in place of the chickpeas, for example. I recommend not using red lentils, however, as they tend to turn into mush when cooked and you would end up with a kind of tomato-lentil mash (although it would probably still be delicious). But you can easily add other vegetables to this dish, perhaps adding extra tomato sauce to cover everything. You can also opt to serve it over rice or couscous if you happen to have some on hand, but it’s already very filling on its own.

Did I mention how yummy it is? The idea of chickpeas may not spontaneously inspire you, but when they’re prepared ahead of time (ie, coming out of a can), they’re wonderfully moist. I love their texture combined with the heat of the rich, spicy tomato-y sauce and the cooling yogurt and tangy lime juice. The flavors are somewhat reminiscent of Mexican cuisine.

A dish such as this is perfect as a make-ahead packed lunch too. Why not give it a try?

Chickpeas in spicy tomato sauce

Makes 2 servings

  • 4 cups (530 g) drained chickpeas or navy (white) beans (two 14 oz/400 g cans, before draining)
  • One 14 oz (400 g) jar arrabbiata or other tomato sauce
  • Drizzle olive oil
  • 1/2 cup (80 g) onion, any color, or shallots, chopped
  • ground spices/herbs such as coriander, curry, cumin, herbes de provence (optional)
  • 1/2 cup (200 g) plain unsweetened soy yogurt (optional)
  • 1 or 2 scallions (green spring onions) or bunch of chives, chopped, for garnish (optional)

Note: I was using a small frying pan, so the amounts shown in the photos below are for one serving. To make two servings at once, use a larger pan and the total quantities listed above.

The first thing you’ll want to do is roughly chop your onion (or shallot). You can either slice it, as shown, or dice it  do it however you want, cause this is an easy recipe, remember!

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Drizzle some olive oil into a frying pan, heat on medium-high, and sautée the onion for a few minutes. If you like, add a dash of herbs or spices (I often add ground coriander and thyme), but since the arrabbiata sauce is already seasoned, this isn’t strictly necessary.

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When the onions have become a bit translucent, add the chickpeas. Save the liquid from the can if you’d like to make meringues or something with (do a search for “aquafaba” on this blog to find recipes). Sautée, stirring often, for a few minutes to heat the chickpeas and allow the flavors to begin mingling.

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Now add your arrabbiata or other tomato sauce.

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Continue to heat until the sauce begins to simmer. Take off the heat soon after so the sauce doesn’t become dry.

Transfer to a serving bowl and top with a dollop of plain soy yogurt plus chopped scallions or chives. The yogurt has a nice cooling effect, counteracting the heat of the spicy sauce, and reminded me a lot of sour cream in this dish. I used the most basic grocery store soy yogurt, but you might want to try the thicker Greek-style soy yogurt that’s now becoming available (in France, look for the Sojade one at organic shops).

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Another nice touch to this flavor combination is some fresh lime or lemon. The vitamin C in the citrus juice also helps your body absorb the iron in the legumes.

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Enjoy!

Variations: serve on top of rice or couscous, add vegetables (spinach, bell peppers, potatoes, mushrooms etc.), experiment with spices.

Mini pavlovas

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner once again… This year, how about serving your sweetheart (or yourself) some light, crunchy vanilla clouds topped with rich coconut cream and colorful, juicy fruit? Meet the pavlova, a meringue-based cake named for Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (rumored to have been created in 1926 in New Zealand), but in a mini version. It’s vegan too!

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Anna Pavlova in 1909

The actual origins of this fancy dessert are debated, but the Russian and potential New Zealand connections are reason enough to consider this an “Around the world” recipe.

It’s based on an airy meringue shell made from the brine from a can of chickpeas (or other legume – brine from navy, kidney or other beans works too). In yet another international connection, this culinary innovation, which opened up a world of new possibilities for vegan and egg-free cuisine, was discovered by French tenor and occasional food blogger Joël Roessel back in 2014. Aquafaba, as the brine came to be known, also makes it possible to create other items such as French macarons, chocolate mousse, the topping for lemon meringue pie, royal icing and even cheese and butter.

This is a fairly simple recipe, but it does require some time because the meringue-baking process is long and each batch of meringues must cool fully inside the oven once the baking time is up. For this reason, I recommend making the meringue shells the day before you plan to serve this dessert. Be sure to transfer them immediately to an airtight container once they’re finished cooling in the oven to ensure that they don’t absorb humidity and become sticky, losing their crunch. And when you’re ready to serve them, remove them from the airtight container and add the toppings only at the very last minute.

A side benefit to making this recipe is that you’ll have a freshly opened can of chickpeas on hand. And that means you can make hummus, chickpeas in spicy tomato sauce or my famous chickpea of the sea salad! But for now, roll up your sleeves so we can make these pavlovas!

Mini pavlovas

Makes around 10 pavlovas

For the meringue shells

  • 1/2 cup (118 ml) aquafaba (chickpea brine from the can or jar)
  • 1/2 cup (100 g) granulated white sugar (table sugar)
  • 1/4 teaspoon liquid vanilla extract (do not use any flavoring containing oil)
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar (optional)

For the whipped coconut cream

  • 3/4 cup (200 ml) coconut cream, chilled
  • 1 or 2 tablespoons powdered sugar or maple syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon liquid vanilla extract

For the topping

  • Seasonal or canned fruit. I used canned peaches and fresh pomegranate seeds, but consider kiwi, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, passionfruit or a combination of these.

Equipment needed: hand or stand mixer with “egg” beater attachments, metal or glass bowl (not plastic), baking sheet with baking paper, airtight container for storing the finished meringues (can be plastic).

If this is the first time you’ve whipped aquafaba, get ready to see a fun transformation. Turn your mixer to the highest setting and in a matter of about three minutes, the clear brine will magically turn into something fluffy and white that looks just like whipped egg whites.

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The aquafaba is ready for the next step once stiff peaks have formed and it stays in the bowl when you turn it upside down, as shown. Add the vanilla extract and cream of tartar, if using, and beat until incorporated.

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Now you’ll add the sugar. Continue beating, pouring the sugar in bit by bit. The mixture is done once it looks glossy. At this point, it will look and taste just like marshmallow fluff. In fact, you can even use some of it as marshmallow fluff if you like (but it will deflate after a while, so would need to be used right away).

At this point, you can begin preheating your oven to 210°F (100°C). Be careful not to get these two numbers mixed up, as I did the first time around…

On a clean sheet of baking paper, deposit some blobs of meringue mixture of a similar size. With the back of a spoon, spread each blob out into a flatter round shape and make a depression in the center. This is where you’ll place the coconut whipped cream and fruit once the shells have baked.

Place the sheet in your preheated oven and bake for 70 to 75 minutes. Any shorter, and you risk having a crunchy outside but a gooey, gummy inside. When the time is up, leave the meringues where they are for a further 45 minutes to fully cool without opening the oven door.

When they’re done baking, as shown in the third photo above, the meringues are no longer shiny and may also have spread out a bit.

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Up to an hour before serving the pavlovas, whip your coconut cream together with the powdered sugar or maple syrup and the vanilla extract until it holds a shape. Store the whipped cream, covered, in your refrigerator.

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Immediately before serving the pavlovas, top each meringue shell with a dollop of the coconut whipped cream, then add the fruit. Note that the meringue will begin to gradually break down as soon it comes into contact with the whipped cream, so prepare only the number of pavlovas that will be eaten right away.

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Crunch, crunch. Yum!

If you have enough pavlovas and there’s still some meringue mixture left, you can make meringue “kisses” such as the ones above by making blob shapes with a teaspoon or, if you want to get fancy, with a pastry bag. If you want to add jimmies, sprinkle them on top before putting the meringues in the oven. Bake as directed above.

vintage v card teapot

Brew yourself a pot of tea and enjoy your mini pavlovas this Valentine’s Day!

In search of other Valentine’s Day recipes? Check out my recipes for heart-shaped sugar cookies with rosewater-raspberry icing and French-inspired white chocolate mendiants.

Matcha galette des reines

If you’ve been following my blog for a while or know me in real life, you may have noticed that I love borrowing bits of different cultures and bringing them together in unexpected ways. And the culinary world is a great vehicle for this type of expression (click here to see some of my past fusion cuisine creations).

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Adoration of the Magi (c. 1660) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Today I bring you my interpretation of a classic French dessert. The galette des rois (kings’ cake) is an institution of French culture, traditionally prepared for the feast day Epiphany, celebrated each January 6th to commemorate the visit of the Magi (also known as the Three Wise Men or Three Kings) to the Christ Child. In practice however, this dessert pops up in bakery windows all over France right at the beginning of January and stay until the end of the month.

The galette des rois is a flat flaky pastry traditionally filled with an almond paste. And like the crêpes eaten in February for Candlemas, it has its own customs. Somewhere inside the galette is a fève – in the olden days this was actually a literal fève (dry bean), but these days, little ceramic figurines are used. Whoever finds the fève in their piece becomes a king or queen, gets to wear the paper crown that comes with the galette, and is supposed to pick someone else in the party to be their queen or king. According to a 2014 survey, 68% of French families find sneaky ways to make sure the fève ends up in their child’s slice. Sparkling wine, hard cider or apple juice traditionally accompany a galette des rois.

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A galette des rois such as you might find at a bakery in France, supplied with paper crown.

In my version of this dessert, I’ve incorporated matcha powder for a Japanese twist. And I’m calling it galette des reines (queens’ cake) because sure, maybe the magi were kings, but queens should get their chance too. The fève I used also happens to be a little lady… in keeping with the theme, I’m imagining her as a Japanese empress from the northernmost island, bundled up in sakura-colored wraps against the cold.

If you live in France, you can usually find fèves at any vide-grenier (garage sale) for cheap, or from baking supplies stores. Otherwise, have a look on eBay or Etsy. There are some really cool ones out there that could double as doll-house accessories the rest of the year.

Note that matcha powder (and green tea in general) doesn’t stay fresh for long, rapidly losing its color and flavor, so it’s best to buy it just before you plan to use it and then to use up the rest fairly quickly. You can use matcha powder in a cake or cupcake recipe, add it to a smoothie, make a matcha latte from it or just prepare it with water in its most traditional form. Store any unused matcha powder, tightly sealed, in your refrigerator.

See my tips for flavor variations (basic almond, pistachio, chocolate etc.) at the end of this post.

Matcha galette des reines

Makes one 12-inch (30-cm) diameter galette

2 pre-made round flaky pastry crusts (not filo dough) – keep in fridge until last minute
3 cups + 1/4 cup (325 g) ground almonds
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (125 g) granulated sugar
1/3 cup (50 g) cornstarch
4 teaspoons fresh unsweetened matcha powder
3/4 cup + 1 tablespoon (200 ml) almond or soy cream
2 tablespoons soymilk or other milk
2 tablespoons neutral-flavored oil
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 to 2 tablespoons apricot jam, apple jelly or other light-colored jam/jelly (for the glaze)
1 fève (ceramic object or large dry bean)

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Begin by combining the dry ingredients (ground almonds, granulated sugar, cornstarch and matcha powder) in a mixing bowl. Stir thoroughly with a mixing spoon until the matcha is evenly distributed.

IMG_7190In a separate small bowl, combine the cream, milk, oil and almond extract, whisking with a fork. Add this liquid mixture to the dry mixture and stir thoroughly until you have a thick uniform paste. Taste it to check the sweetness – as matcha is fairly bitter, you may find you need a bit more sugar.

IMG_7193Preheat your oven to 350°F (180°C) and take your first pastry crust out of the fridge. Unroll it on a large surface.

IMG_7196Transfer your matcha almond paste to the center of the pastry and gently spread it out with a spatula to a uniform thickness.

IMG_7198Leave a margin around the edge, as you’ll be folding it upwards to seal the galette.

IMG_7204.JPGGently press your fève into the matcha almond paste. Choose a spot closer to the edge than the center.

IMG_7213.JPGTake your second pastry crust out of the fridge. Carefully place it atop the bottom one so that they align as closely as possible. Push the top pastry down gently around the edge of the almond paste underneath. If you want to make sure that a certain person ends up with the fève, find a way to remember where you’ve put it. 😉

IMG_7216.jpgFold the edges of the bottom and top pastries upward together and seal with the tines of a fork.

IMG_7221With a sharp knife, trace a design into the top pastry. Try to occasionally cut through the top pastry to allow steam to escape while the galette bakes, but take care not to cut through it too continuously or pieces of the top crust could break off when you slice the baked galette. You can get creative at this point and make a fancy design of your choosing (swirls, flowers, geometrical lines). Do a Google image search to see the different galette des rois designs that are out there.

IMG_7224IMG_7231IMG_7235IMG_7249Place your galette into the preheated oven (on a baking sheet, if you like, but I put mine directly on the rack as my baking sheet is too small). Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the top is golden brown but not too dark. Begin checking it at around 20 minutes to make sure it doesn’t get too dark.

IMG_E7255While the galette bakes, you can prepare the (optional) apricot glaze.

IMG_E7258Place 1 to 2 tablespoons of the jam in a small saucepan over medium heat with a couple tablespoons of water. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down low and simmer for a minute or two, stirring constantly to break up the lumps. Try to remove any unbreakable lumps or bits of apricot skin.

IMG_7265When the galette is done baking, remove it from the oven and place it on a cooling rack. Brush a thin layer of the apricot glaze across the top, including the top of the edges. At first it may seem that the jam is too sticky and shiny, but once it’s dry it will be fairly dry to the touch and more matte. Remove any jam clumps that collect in the crevices of the pastry design.

IMG_7267Allow the glaze to dry (5-10 minutes) before serving. If not serving immediately, you can pop the galette in the oven again to warm it just prior to serving.

IMG_7273A design like this one, with the first line traced right down the center, makes it easy to slice up.

IMG_7405IMG_7467Hey, you found the fève! Congratulations, you’re the queen! Or king!

feature2.jpgSince you’re making your own galette, you may want to make a crown to go with it (or look for one at a costume shop). I decided to make things simple and design a kitty-sized one (toilet paper tube + aluminum foil).

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I hope this post inspires you to try making a galette des reines of your own! Let us know in the comments how it turned out, and tag @rd.violet if you post a photo on Instagram. 🙂

Variations: Omit the matcha powder and add an optional tablespoon or two of rum for a traditional basic almond galette. Use ground hazelnuts, walnuts or pistachios for a different flavor profile and/or include a layer of chocolate-hazelnut spread or chestnut cream underneath the nut paste. To cut costs, use ground cashews instead of almonds, or a combination of the two.