Chocolate mendiants

It’s easy to get overly ambitious around Christmastime and to plan a number of grand meals and complicated desserts, only to wake up one day and realize it’s already the 23rd or 24th and you don’t have the right ingredients or enough time to make everything you wanted. This is especially likely to happen, for some reason, with dishes that you hope to bring to holiday parties, escalating your anxiety levels further. But never fear, your favorite blogger is here to the rescue! Today I bring you a very easy-to-make traditional French confectionery creation that will nevertheless impress just about everyone. And since the toppings can vary greatly, you might already have everything you need in your kitchen cupboards.

These little Yuletide delicacies hail from the south of France and the fruits and nuts traditionally used represent the colors of the robes worn by the friars in four mendicant orders during the Middle Ages. These are gray (raisins) for the Dominicans, brown (hazelnuts) for the Augustinians, white (almonds cut in half) for the Caramelites and purple (fig or cranberry) for the Franciscans. As these friars subsisted on charitable offerings, they were referred to as mendiants (beggars), and the confections took on the same name. These items are also among the 13 desserts served at the end of the traditional Christmas meal in Provence.

Today, many types and combinations of nuts and fruits are used, so feel free to use whatever you have on hand! I used walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, cranberries, physalis and pineapple.

Chocolate mendiants

Makes 12 to 15 mendiants

Ingredients

  • about 6 oz (180 g) dark chocolate in bar form (or chocolate chips)
  • toasted nuts (walnuts, peanuts, almonds, pistachios, macadamia, etc.)
  • dried fruit (cranberries, cherries, raisins, apricot, citrus segments, etc.)
  • other items such as pumpkin seeds, candied ginger, white chocolate chips, toasted coconut chips, colorful Christmas sprinkles, fleur de sel, gold leaf

Equipment needed: double-boiler or metal mixing bowl plus saucepan, parchment or waxed paper

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Begin by assembling all the fruits and nuts you will use, so that you’re ready once the chocolate has melted.

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Break or chop your chocolate bar into more or less evenly sized pieces.

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Next, heat some water in a medium-sized saucepan and place a metal bowl on top of it (or a second, smaller saucepan for a double-boiler). Be sure that the water in the saucepan does not touch the bottom of the bowl or second saucepan. Place the chopped chocolate in it and heat, stirring occasionally with a heat-proof spatula.

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Once all of the chocolate has melted, turn off the heat but keep the bowl on top of the saucepan full of hot water.

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Line a tray with parchment paper and, using a teaspoon (the kind you use to stir your coffee, not the measuring kind), form small, round disks. After creating them, go back and add a bit more on the top of each one to ensure that they are thick enough. Make only six at a time so that you have time to add all the toppings before the chocolate firms.

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Add your toppings. I like to start with the larger items and then add the other ones around them.

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Once you’ve finished the first batch, put the tray in the fridge and continue making mendiants until you have used up the rest of your chocolate. The mendiants will be set after an hour or two of chilling (allow two to three hours to be on the safe side).

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Serve your mendiants on a platter at a party, or box them up as a gift!

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These mendiants were my Christmas gift to the concierge of my building, who brings our mail to our doors and takes time out of her morning to give Sésame (who is in love with her) a thorough scratching and petting on the days when my mail includes a package. This year, I included some photos of the furry little guy, which she was delighted to receive (they now adorn her refrigerator door, I was told). 🙂

Variations: change things up with this white chocolate version!

DIY gift wrapping

Store-bought gift wrapping has often struck me as a senseless waste, given that it’s usually thrown away after just one use. Of course, it sometimes can be reused without too much social disapproval, for example in a family or among sympathetic friends. But another option is to make your own wrapping paper out of things that were going to be recycled anyway. Not only is it more sustainable and cost-effective, but it’s also a lot more fun. You can select specific images for each gift, either to match one of the recipient’s areas of interest or to hint at the package’s contents. Choosing and matching colors and patterns is also something I find quite satisfying.

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This year, as I set out to wrap some Christmas gifts, I looked through my magazine piles and selected some free publications that I wasn’t going to look at again. These included an old Air France magazine, a Palais des Thés tea catalogue, a free cinema magazine from a local theater, and the summer edition of my district’s magazine (yes, in Paris each of the 20 arrondissements has its own free magazine to keep residents in the know—nice, huh?). Other things that can be upcycled into gift wrapping are brochures from art exhibitions, newspaper pages, comics and even old maps. Anything with interesting colors and visuals can work as long as the paper is thick enough.

I put some Christmas music on to create a festive mood, made myself some tea and began selecting pages.

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Magazine pages are especially good for small items. This particular gift was wrapped with a page from the tea catalogue. I then wrapped a smaller accompanying box with a strategically selected section of a page showing a map of Air France destinations.

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Sésame took a break from his busy day to help out by supervising my work from beneath our “tree” (pine branches in a vase). He approved overall, despite the disappointing lack of cat images.

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Pages from a cinema magazine are especially nice when you’re wrapping a gift for a film-loving friend. For bigger items, you will need to tape two or more pages together (taping them on one side is usually enough). Here you can see that I’ve chosen to leave the ripped edge as is, rather than trimming it, partly because cutting it would mean losing part of the image, and partly for an artisanal deckle effect. For this kind of homemade item, precision and perfection are actually not what you want.

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The item I was wrapping was too big for just the two magazine pages to cover it, so I added more to the top, choosing contrasting colors. Keep in mind that the edges will not be visible once the paper is folded around the gift, but with some maneuvering you can probably get the right part to show.

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Finally, add some colorful ribbons and possibly some washi tape, and you’re done!

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Chocolate & peanut butter pies

10159After living in France for almost eight years now, and having traveled a lot before that, my sense of nationality and culture is somewhat fluid. I’m not French, but I also don’t really feel American anymore. Yet I still have a taste for certain American foods that are not always met with enthusiasm by people from other places. One of these is peanut butter. Often relegated to obscure shelves of mainstream French supermarkets, including the “world cuisines” section, peanut butter is not a guaranteed find at the average grocery store. And when you do encounter it, it’s sometimes quite expensive or not very good. But about a year ago I discovered a nice one from the Ethiquable brand in the fairtrade section of my local Franprix. It comes from a woman-inclusive cooperative in Nicaragua and isn’t any more expensive than most of its non-fairtrade (unfairtrade?) counterparts. And so, safe in the knowledge that I have this steady supply available, I have been freely experimenting with peanut-based recipes like Thai satay sauce, peanut-butter cheesecake (yep!) and of course, desserts with the magical peanut butter and chocolate combination, of which we will see an example below!

First, some history, and the answer to a pressing question. Is peanut butter actually from the United States? A widespread legend has it that it was invented by George Washington Carver (1864-1943), an American botanist and inventor who was born into slavery. But in 1884, before Carver had even begun studying botany, pharmacist Marcellus Gilmore Edson of Canada patented a process to make peanut paste. And much, much before that, as far back as the first century of the Common Era, the Aztecs also mashed roasted peanuts into a paste. So, it’s actually a Mexican-Canadian creation.

But Americans are still very fond of it. We are the world’s leading exporter and, according to this source, we eat around 700 million pounds (317 million kg) of peanut butter per year (about 3 pounds/1.4 kg per person). That’s not too hard to believe. When I was growing up, children brought their lunch to school, and very often it was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I carried mine proudly in my metal Pigs in Space lunchbox alongside carrot sticks and a Hostess cupcake. Now, peanut butter has apparently been banned from most schools due to the high number of kids with peanut allergies. I don’t understand how this allergy can have become so common, but that’s a matter for the experts to solve.

So the other week, I began experimenting with chocolate-avocado mousse, and the idea came to me to pair it with peanut butter in some way. I looked around my kitchen and spotted my set of mini-pie plates, and was on my way. The crust proved a bit tricky. My first version was made of ground almonds with peanut butter as a binder, but it wasn’t peanut-buttery enough for me. A second attempt with the addition of toasted millet (for crunch) wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Finally, a third try with a combination of ground roasted peanuts and ground almonds was just right. The rich-but-light texture and slight fruitiness of the mousse is nicely complimented by the earthy, salted peanut crunch of the crust.

As desserts go, this easy, no-bake recipe is definitely on the healthy side. It does contain fat (from the peanuts, avocado and coconut), but has no cholesterol or refined sweetener. And it packs a punch as far as protein goes, so the next time someone asks you where you get your protein, you know what to answer!

Chocolate & peanut butter pies

Makes two mini-pies (5 in./12 cm in diameter at widest point) 

Note: several hours before making this recipe, place the coconut cream/milk and your metal mixing bowl plus the beaters of your mixer in the refrigerator to chill. The lower temperature helps ensure a nice firm whip.

Ingredients

For the peanut crust

  • 1/2 cup (75 g) salted peanuts, whole (snack/party kind)
  • 2 tablespoons (12 g) ground almonds
  • 2 tablespoons peanut butter, either creamy or chunky
  • 1 teaspoon maple syrup

For the chocolate mousse filling

  • 1 large avocado (9 oz./250 g weighed when whole)
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2-3 tablespoons maple syrup, or more to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • small pinch salt

For the whipped coconut cream

  • 3/4 cup (200 ml) coconut milk (full-fat) or coconut cream, chilled
  • 1-2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the garnish: roughly chopped bar chocolate, cocoa powder, finely chopped peanuts or gomasio

Equipment needed: food processor for the nuts, electric mixer with beaters to whip the cream, plastic wrap, mini-pie plates (or small bowls/ramekins)

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First, grind the peanuts by pulsing them just a few times. Be careful not to grind them too much, or (depending on the power of your processor) you could end up with something closer to peanut butter and the structure of the crust will not hold up as well. I stopped when my peanut chunks looked about like this (see next photo):

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Now add the ground almonds, peanut butter and maple syrup. Don’t be tempted to add more maple syrup, as it could make the crust too soggy. It’s okay if the crust is not especially sweet, since the filling and whipped cream will be.

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Combine the ingredients, mixing and pressing the mixture against the sides of the bowl with a large spoon or spatula (alternatively, knead with your hands) until you have a sort of sticky dough. Taste it at this point and if it seems to be lacking salt, for example if you have used a natural peanut butter that contains no salt, consider adding a small pinch.

Rip off a piece of plastic wrap that is the length of two mini-pie plates. Cover the inside of the pie plate with one end of it and press half of the crust dough into the plate as shown above. Be sure to fill the tops of the ridges well to get a nice result when the crust is unmolded. Then double the plastic wrap back over the top to cover the crust. Repeat with the second pie plate.  If you’re making the crusts well ahead of time, you can place them in the refrigerator to chill at this point, stacked together if space is a problem, but if you will be finishing and serving the dessert right away this step is not necessary.

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Cut the avocado in half, scoop out its flesh and transfer to your food processor. Add the cocoa powder, maple syrup, vanilla extract and salt. Process until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides once or twice.

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Now you have your mousse! Taste it and add more maple syrup if you want it to be sweeter, and more vanilla or cocoa powder if it seems to need it (the results of different cocoa brands can vary). Process further if you have added something, and be sure that no chunks of avocado remain.

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Fill the crust with the mousse. The crust should still be in the pie plate at this point, as the filling process could make it crack if it were unsupported. Next, holding onto both sides of the plastic wrap, carefully lift the crust out of the pie plate and transfer it to a small dessert plate, removing the plastic.

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Take the pre-chilled coconut milk or cream, metal bowl and beaters out of the refrigerator. Transfer the milk or cream to the bowl. If using a can of coconut milk, stir the cream and liquid part together before measuring. Add the maple syrup and vanilla extract and beat on high speed until soft peaks appear (this will take a few minutes). Continue until you have reached the desired thickness, but be careful not to overbeat as it can become too thick. If this happens, do not despair as it can be salvaged—just continue beating and it will eventually revert to a more liquid state (unlike overwhipped dairy cream, which turns into butter!).

When ready to serve the dessert, top each pie with a dollop of the cream and decorate the top with a garnish of roughly chopped bar chocolate, a sprinkle of cocoa powder, some finely chopped peanuts or a pinch of gomasio.

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Note that the avocado will begin to oxidize and darken upon contact with the air, so it is best to fill the crusts not long before they will be served. Alternatively, if the top has already darkened, you could opt to cover the entire top with the whipped cream. The lighter color of the mousse inside would then not be noticeablely different from the color of the top, and you would also have an interesting tiramisu effect.

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Variations:

  • Make the crust with ground almonds and almond butter (no peanuts) for a chocolate & almond version.
  • Add banana to the mousse for a tropical flavor.
  • Serve parfait-style in clear glasses so that the various layers show, alternating with additional layers of whipped cream and chocolate mousse.

Decking the halls

I’m not usually one for holidays. Halloween? Eh. Fourth of July? Don’t really feel it. New Year’s Eve? I guess. I just don’t really get worked up over many of them. But Christmas is another story. Not for the consumerism aspect—in fact, a few years ago, my family and I agreed not to exchange Christmas gifts anymore unless we see each other in person—but for the decorations, the carols, the old movies and the joyousness of it all. Maybe it’s also because everything instantly takes a vintagey turn once this holiday comes around.

Anyway, when I’m in Paris in the holiday season, one of my favorite things to do is to check out the window displays of the beautiful old department stores on boulevard Haussmann. Every year, Printemps and Galeries Lafayette unveil elaborate holiday-themed dioramas, complete with animatronic dolls, highlighting the apparel, shoes, confectionery and other high-end wares on offer. At Printemps, they spend three months creating the props for the displays, which are designed a year in advance. An estimated 10 million people come to see them annually, and they’re naturally a hit with children, who love climbing up on the wooden platforms to get a closer look.

The best display I’ve seen so far, a few years back, showed a swarm of little Karl Lagerfelds preparing to direct a fashion shoot on the streets of a monochromatic Paris as catwalk music played.

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So, the other day, I happened to be in the area and decided to check out this year’s windows. This year, the showcases tell the story of Jules and Violette, two children with old-timey names who wake up in the store in the middle of the night and amuse themselves in the various departments, meeting strange characters along the way. Some 70 dolls and marionettes were created over a three-month period for these dreamscapes, and the installation took two weeks. Below is a selection of my photos, but don’t miss this interesting five-minute documentary showing everything in motion.

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Inside Galeries Lafayette there’s always a Christmas tree set up under the stained-glass cupola. The beautiful 1912 Art Nouveau structure alone is worth the detour, with its graceful undulating balconies decorated with floral motifs and gold paint. As you ascend the levels, you get an increasingly interesting view of the tree, animatronic decorations (polar bears in aerial cable cars, this year) and the bustling perfume and cosmetics department on the ground floor below. Altogether, it looks like some kind of futuristic, self-sufficient Edwardian city enclosed under a weatherproof dome, which strikes me as a pretty cool place to live.

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While there, I stopped in at Lafayette Gourmet across the street from the main building with the cupola. Offering high-end deli foods and grocery items of every description, it reminds me a bit of Harrods in London. But this is something that really deserves a post of its own, so more on that another time.

To my delight, another new arrival on boulevard Haussmann is a Prêt à Manger! People reading these lines from England may despair of me, as this chain (which, despite the name, is English) is tuppence-a-dozen over there, and you can hardly go two blocks without passing one. But I actually really like Prêt, or at least the concept of it—we have a similar (Belgian-owned) chain in Paris called Exki—fast food that isn’t so unhealthy. Anyway, I wandered into this Prêt mainly out of curiosity, to see if they had any veggie things. Although there’s usually a vegan option at the ones in London, in Paris I wasn’t expecting all that much. But what did I find? A vegan Mediterranean sandwich with avocado, Kalamata olives, pinenuts, arugula, basil and sundried tomatoes—and only one of them, sitting there as if waiting just for me. I could not resist. What’s more, they also have soy milk for hot beverages (another rarity in France). A yummy sandwich AND a cappuccino? That was the cherry on top of an already nice afternoon.

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So if you ever find yourself in Paris in December, these are a few things you can do to soak up the holiday ambiance. Free of charge, unless of course if you opt for a sandwich and hot beverage!