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. 😉

nice cream 17

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!

nice cream 20

nice cream 19

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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.

chia seeds
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).

10 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.

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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.

A very vintage Christmas

Like me, you may enjoy coming together with family or friends after Christmas dinner to watch a beloved holiday classic. A Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Charlie Brown’s Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Child’s Christmas in Wales… there are so many good ones. But what if Christmas seems to be coming around oftener and oftener, and you’ve seen all of these too many times?

In recent years, I’ve discovered a few “new” (to me) vintage Christmas gems. Nobody seems to ever talk about these, but they’re just as good as the more popular classics. At the very least, they offer something a bit different and prolong the black & white charm. I now present them to you, personally tested and approved, in order of release date.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

The_Shop_Around_the_Corner_-_1940-_PosterThose of you who love It’s a Wonderful Life won’t want to miss Ernst Lubitsch’s very cute romantic comedy starring a younger Jimmy Stewart.

An aspiring salesman in a Budapest leathergoods shop, Alfred Kralik (Stewart) must contend with the arrival of a maddeningly headstrong new shop assistant, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan). But at the same time, his love life is looking rosy as he begins exchanging anonymous letters with an intriguing woman encountered through a personal ad in the newspaper. As the story progresses, we learn that Miss Novak, who has taken a strong dislike to Mr. Kralik, is also writing to a secret anonymous correspondent of her own… Can you guess where this is going? Also, if this sounds a bit familiar, you may be thinking of Nora Ephron’s 1998 You’ve Got Mail, an adaptation of the same story with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the lead roles writing to each other anonymously via some primitive form of email.

Although I liked You’ve Got Mail well enough when it first came out (unaware at the time of this earlier version), perhaps impressed by their use of that newfangled technology, “electronic mail” (!), I now much prefer The Shop Around the Corner. The tight focus on the shop interactions allows us to closely follow the character development and evolving relationships among the staff. Stewart’s endearingly awkward character and the fiery arguments he has with his nemesis/love interest Klara are endlessly fun. I also love that the screenwriters kept the story’s original Budapest setting, including the characters’ Hungarian names, references to the local currency and Hungarian-language text in the shop’s signage. Why must everything always be transposed to an American setting? The world is full of other countries.

Much like in It’s a Wonderful Life, the Christmas season doesn’t make an appearance until a later part of the story. But any inclusion of Christmas during a film is enough to make it officially a Christmas one, I say. 😉

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Christmasinconnecticut.jpgDecades before smartphones were even imagined, Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) has created an Instagram-perfect fake image of her life in the housekeeping column she wrote for a women’s magazine.

Unmarried, childless, living in a city apartment and unable to cook, she writes about the sprawling Connecticut farm she shares with her husband and their baby and the lavish meals she cooks there. Readers of the magazine eat it up and demand more and more. Things are going pretty well for Elizabeth, who is even making enough money to buy a mink coat (which EVERY woman from the 1940s to the 60s seems unfailingly to want).

Until the day when an imbroglio involving her boss, an unrefusable Christmas request, her longtime suitor and a dashing war veteran forces her to confront the falseness of the story she has woven and she must find a way to make the fiction become real…

Christmas in Connecticut is much more of a madcap, implausible story than The Shop Around the Corner, but still delivers on nostalgia and a certain kind of old-fashioned humor.

The Apartment (1960)

7de6e62fe936603612691a5a77f7d3e3The most modern of the black and white films I’m presenting here, both in its year of production and the content it presents, The Apartment is a cute and rather sweet story that happens to take place around Christmastime.

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) plays a put-upon insurance company employee who has begun lending his apartment to his bosses for their dalliances with mistresses and doesn’t know how to get out of the situation. Dangling the prospect of a promotion in front of his eyes, they occupy his home every evening, leaving him to stand outside in the cold or work extra (unpaid) hours after everyone else has left. Meanwhile, his neighbors grow increasingly impatient with the constant parties and nonstop parade of different young women through the building. Baxter can only sigh and promise them to be more quiet as he frets over how to extricate himself from the mess, which could also spell the end of his job if the big boss ever finds out.

At work, Baxter has grown fond of a sarcastic but cute elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who also has a melancholy side. One married executive after another tries to pick her up without success, and Baxter wonders what his chances with her might be. Perhaps when he finally gets that promotion he’ll be in a position to try. Meanwhile, Miss Kubelik has a secret of her own…

I loved this film’s aesthetic, with the worker-bee office setting (and company Christmas party that must have served as inspiration for Mad Men) and the very cozy looking apartment that made me want to move right in – if the executives would stop coming around with their girlfriends, that is. And I was especially fond of Baxter’s frustrated neighbors, one of whom calls him a “beatnik” upon discovering he has no napkins in the house.

A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)

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And finally, one that isn’t black and white but will charm you all the same! This shortish (47 min.) and often overlooked television special manages to bring together characters from ALL of the shows starring the world’s favorite felt puppets: The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Muppet Babies and even Fraggle Rock. It’s a heart-warming celebration of togetherness, family, friends and sharing.

You may already be familiar with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), another favorite of mine but not covered here because this post is about the lesser known things. A Muppet Family Christmas precedes it by five years, but because it was designed for television only, it could not be widely released elsewhere due to copyright on the songs. It can therefore be hard to find, but if you take a look here you may just luck out.

The special begins with Fozzie Bear driving his friends from The Muppet Show to his mother’s house in the country for a surprise Christmas visit. Little does he realize that she’s about to leave for a Malibu vacation and has rented the house to the man from Fraggle Rock and his dog Sprocket, who have already arrived and are relishing the prospect of a quiet Christmas surrounded by nature. But when the gang arrives, they decide to stay with the uninvited guests, whose numbers seem never to stop growing as the program continues. The main Sesame Street cast is soon knocking at her door, followed by random groups of other Muppets, some known (Dr. Bunsen Honeydew) and some that may have been new (the snowman and turkey).

The Muppets meet, sing, negotiate space in the house and worry about Miss Piggy’s perilous journey through a snowstorm to join them. Meanwhile, the Swedish chef, who has arrived with a very large stockpot, sets his sights first on the turkey and then on Big Bird (!!!). The choice he makes next, disarmed by Big Bird’s naive benevolence, is rare both on the screen and in real life.

My favorite moments in this special are when we see a decidedly 1980s Miss Piggy chatting to Kermit over the phone from her photo shoot and shopping session, and when Kermit and Robin discover a spooky portal in the basement.

Be sure to watch to the end for the cameo by a VERY special someone!

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Perhaps some of these will become favorites for you, too! What holiday films do you like to watch again and again? Do you have any other obscure ones to add to this list?

And here’s my recipe for the perfect Christmastime evening:

  1. Make this Scandinavian juleboller dish for dinner
  2. Brew a pot of your favorite tea
  3. Settle yourself cozily on the couch with your favorite person or furry companion
  4. Watch one of the above Christmas movies while sipping your tea and enjoying some scrumptious dark chocolate mendiants (or the white chocolate version)

Merry Christmas to you! See you again in the new year.

Chocolate-dipped orange segments

As the holiday season gears into full swing, you may find yourself invited to multiple parties and potlucks. What dish will you bring? This question is a source of stress for many, and understandably so – it’s no easy task to choose something that stands out from the rest and isn’t a duplicate of someone else’s contribution. If it’s a dessert you’re after, look no further than this very easy and unique idea.

What’s nice about it is that it’s light and provides a burst of freshness, an ideal contrast after typically substantial holiday dishes like mashed potatoes and cornbread. And at the same time, it’s fancy and looks pretty on a tray. But best of all, for you, it’s super simple to make!

You really need just three things: oranges, a bar of dark chocolate and some dried coconut. I make mine using mandarin oranges because of their tangier flavor, but any orange (or even Meyer lemon or grapefruit, if you’re adventurous!) will do. You could also opt to sprinkle the chocolate with chopped nuts (pistachio for a nice green color) or jimmies in holiday or birthday colors, depending on the season.

Chocolate-dipped orange segments

For about 50 segments (serves about 6 people)

  • 4-5 mandarin oranges
  • 3.5 oz (100 g) dark chocolate
  • 1/2 cup dried grated coconut

Equipment needed: a double boiler or saucepan plus round-bottomed metal bowl to put on top for a bain marie set-up, heat-resistant spatula, trays for placing the chocolate-dipped segments on (small enough to put in the refrigerator), waxed or parchment paper.

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Begin by gathering your ingredients. As you can probably guess, I had more oranges on hand than I really needed. That’s one of the nice things about this recipe, though – if you decide halfway through to make a larger quantity, it’s easy to just peel some more oranges and melt more chocolate.

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Peel your oranges and separate the segments before anything else. Try to pick as much of the stringy white stuff off as you can. Make sure the segments are dry as the chocolate won’t stick to them otherwise (pat dry with a paper towel if any of them are covered in juice).

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Roughly chop the chocolate.

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Place it in the top part of your double-boiler or in the metal bowl. Heat the water on high until it boils, then reduce to low, ensuring that the water continues to simmer. During this time, you can prepare the trays that will be placed in the refrigerator. Line them with pieces of waxed or parchment paper.

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Melt the chocolate, stirring with your heat-resistant spatula to ensure even melting.

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Once the chocolate is completely melted, you’re ready to dip the orange segments!

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I prefer to dip the segments and sprinkle the coconut on just the top so the segments remain flat on one side and sit on the presentation plate better. But if you’re so inclined you can dip the segment into the bowl of coconut so it’s coated on both sides.

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I usually sprinkle all the segments with coconut at the same time as soon as the tray is full. Next, put the tray in the fridge so the chocolate can set. It will be ready in about an hour. Keep refrigerated until the time you serve them so the orange segments don’t go bad.

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I brought this most recent batch to a party and they went over quite well! To transport it, I laid the segments in layers separated by waxed paper in a flat-bottomed bowl with a Tupperware-type cover. They stayed in good shape despite a fair amount of bumping and jostling from strangers during a 45-minute trip on the metro.

Bonus recipe: if a bit of chocolate remains in the bowl after you’ve finished dipping your orange segments, just add some milk, heat the bottom pan again and whisk to make yourself a mug of artisanal hot chocolate!

If you make these chocolate-dipped orange segments, please let us know in the comments how they turned out and if you tried any variations. Enjoy!

 

29 hours in Clermont-Ferrand

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Vercingetorix (82-46 BC)

Three and a half hours south of Paris by train, almost in the center of the country, is one of France’s oldest cities. Before the Romans arrived around 50 BC, it was Nemossos, the home of the Gaulish Arverni tribe led by the famous chieftain Vercingetorix. The invaders renamed it Augusta Nemetum, and then in the 9th century it became known as Clairmont after the castle Clarus Mons. Over the centuries, it was attacked by Vikings, Normans and Visigoths and also served as the starting point for the First Crusade (1095-1099). In the 18th century, it merged with the neighboring city of Montferrand and took on the name we know it by today.

How about now? What draws visitors not interested in invading or waging a religious war? Clermont-Ferrand is famous today for being the home of multinational tire manufacturer Michelin and hosting the world’s biggest international film festival dedicated to short films. It’s also surrounded by a chain of dormant volcanoes whose highest point is the lava cone Puy de Dôme, which can be seen from many parts of the city. And of course, street art—the main reason for my quick trip to Clermont-Ferrand the other weekend.

I arrived just after noon on a beautiful sunny day and left the next day around 5, so was there for only about 29 hours. But that was long enough to form an idea of the city, supplemented by vague memories of an even briefer trip there back in 2006. I can therefore share only a few things about Clermont-Ferrand, and this article will be more of an introduction to the city than anything else.

Day 1: vegan lunch, space invaders and dinner from a grocery store next to the freeway

As always when arriving somewhere, anywhere, directly from Paris, I immediately noticed how much cleaner the air and streets were. I then became enamored with the city’s splendid colorful houses and the deliciously ancient feeling that reigns in the area around the spooky Gothic cathedral made entirely of black lava stone. After navigating a few narrow medieval streets, I arrived at Myrtille, a beautiful little eatery where almost everything is vegan.

I had the beet and orange soup garnished with soy cream, chives and toasted hazelnuts for a starter and then a quinoa and azuki bean salad with arugula, potato and sweet potato, green beans, carrot and squash seeds. Both very nice, especially as I was famished after the longish train ride.

Clermont-Ferrand has a total of three vegetarian restaurants (no fully vegan places), which is not bad for a French city of 142,000 souls, and only Myrtille and another one called La BerGamoThée were open this particular day. As I wanted to try both, I headed to the second one for coffee. Although the owner of La BerGamoThée was washing dishes after the lunch service when I arrived and was starting to think about closing, she gave me a very warm welcome. I ordered coffee and a scoop of sorbet, and as the caffeine revived me from my sleep-deprived state (it had been a very early morning), I began to feel more like my usual self. The owner was curious to hear my story (what was a foreigner doing in those parts?) and we chatted a bit about our lives. She wasn’t a native of Clermont-Ferrand but had been there for some years after trying various other cities including Paris. One of the nice things about Clermont-Ferrand, she said, is that it’s almost always sunny, even in the winter. As someone who starts having an existential crisis every November, when the gray season in Paris begins, I made a mental note of this key detail.

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Invader’s CLR_09 from the 2016 wave greeted me at the station as I exited my train from Paris.

Back to our history lesson. Some 2,050 years after the Romans, Clermont-Ferrand was invaded yet again… but this time the intruders were a whole lot cuter. French street artist Invader placed his first mosaic on a city wall in 2001, then returned a few times to add more, culminating in 2016 with an impressive wave of 31 more creative and ambitious pieces paying homage to the things the city is famous for. As you stroll around town you may notice 8-bit aliens wearing 3D glasses, holding popcorn, featuring in film frames or fleeing volcanoes. A few pixelated bats, most likely escaped from the belfries of the ominous Gothic cathedral, can also be seen lurking about.

Those of you who follow my Instagram already know about Flashinvaders, the GPS game the artist created so his fans could “collect” his works around the world and score points for their finds. For every new city, you get 100 bonus points. Clermont-Ferrand is a particularly good city for this game as a lot of the works have high values and most of them are pretty close to each other.

After a long afternoon of exploring the city and finding mosaics, I headed to my hotel, which turned out to be a farther hike from the downtown than I’d thought when planning my trip. Moreover, it was right next to a busy freeway interchange surrounded by desolation. Once there, I scrapped the idea I’d had of returning to the city center for dinner and began looking for something nearby.

It turned out there was nothing much, and definitely nothing likely to have vegan options other than fries and iceberg lettuce, so it was time for Plan B: the large Intermarché grocery store on the other side of the freeway. Rain clouds were beginning to gather in a suitably dramatic sky, but I just thanked my lucky stars there was a store in that area at all and set out, umbrella in hand.

IMG_3374At the store, I had some trouble finding the hummus (every vegan’s lifesaver) and began to worry there wouldn’t be any, but in the end emerged with enough provisions for an evening meal and breakfast the next morning.

I spent a cozy evening at the remote but otherwise nice hotel eating hummus, resting my feet (12.5 km covered that day), editing photos and watching vintage episodes of The Simpsons in French. The French version is pretty good, although some jokes are untranslatable and the voices always seem a little wrong. Fun fact: they blur the Duff Beer brand name when it appears on screen because it has become a real beer in Europe and France has strict laws on alcohol product placement on television.

Day 2: a museum of tires, a ghost town and more street art

The next morning, after breakfasting on the remaining hummus plus some hotel coffee, it was time to learn about tires at L’Aventure Michelin! Back in 1889, brothers Édouard and André Michelin were running a rubber factory in Clermont-Ferrand when they developed a removable pneumatic bicycle tire. Two years later, these tires, which they patented that same year, were used by the man who won the world’s first long-distance cycle race, the Paris-Brest-Paris (an ancestor of today’s Tour de France). The Michelins then shifted their focus to rubber tires for those newfangled horseless carriages, and the rest is history.

This museum is quite interesting, especially if you’re like me and have never thought much about tires and what went into developing them. For example, at a certain point different types of coverings to protect the tires from puncture were tested—the materials included leather, fabric, cork and steel rivets, each of them presenting some kind of major disadvantage. Michelin eventually developed innovations making these additions unnecessary. Later, in a bid to promote their brand, they added an “M” tread to the tires to leave distinctive tracks everywhere the cars went, and accidentally discovered that it improved safety too.

It so happened that this year marks the 120th anniversary (birthday?) of the Michelin Man, who over the years has become a familiar character around the world and was even named “best logo of all time” by an international panel of experts in 2000. To mark this anniversary, L’Aventure Michelin had put together a special exhibition about the man made of tires. Like many cartoon characters, his appearance has changed over time, going from a Teddy Roosevelt lookalike to his current incarnation. Presumably, his designers wanted to make him seem more friendly and approachable, and perhaps less likely to encourage smoking, but I’ll always prefer his original look.

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Of course, there’s also a Michelin Man invader! (CLR_37 from 2016)

After the museum, I set about hunting down the last few invaders on my list. Incidentally, it was lucky I’d bought so much bread the night before, as it turned out that Clermont-Ferrand is almost a complete ghost town on Sundays. Even if I were a meat-eater, it would have been difficult or impossible to find anything to eat. To get a much-needed coffee in the afternoon, I had to duck into a hotel and bother the front-desk guy. The streets around the cathedral, bustling and packed with people on Saturday, were eerily empty on Sunday. The cathedral itself even seemed to be closed (!?), so I sadly can’t report on the inside of it this time.

The most challenging invader to add to my score on this trip was CLR_35, located on the wall of a freeway of sorts right where it forms a bridge (making the mosaic invisible from the street level below). With coaching from an expert invader-hunter friend, I discovered there were nevertheless two ways to “flash” it with the app: 1. entering the freeway on foot from the nearest entrance ramp or 2. scaling a small but steep slope next to the bridge. Preferring to avoid activities that could lead to arrest and deportation, I chose the more discreet option 2.

Clinging precariously to the fence, the thorns in the poisonberry bush next to it digging into my skin as rain clouds menaced overhead, I still couldn’t see more than the tips of the invader’s ears. But I held my phone up above my head and hoped for the best. This, by the way, was one of the “What am I doing?” moments that everyone with an obsessive hobby reaches at some point. Happily, it worked after just a few tries—the left-hand flash capture above shows how little of a piece needs to be visible sometimes. And best of all, I didn’t get arrested. On the right is the official photo of the invader in all his glory as he races down the road.

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Another fun one was this large 100-point piece of a certain French singer on Rue Serge Gainsbourg…

But Clermont-Ferrand also features creative works by other street artists, such as Lyon-based Lasco, who—true to his name—paints animals inspired by the prehistoric paintings in Lascaux Cave in southwestern France. Made around 17,000 years ago, the paintings were discovered by chance in 1940 by a group of teenage boys and are now among the first things mentioned in timelines of the country’s history. I, in turn, discovered the street art paying homage to them completely by chance and was delighted!

Several trees and posts in Clermont-Ferrand had been yarn-bombed when I visited. In French, this is known as tricot urbain or “urban knitting”—love that term! These pieces are by a group calling themselves Les Peloteuses du Kfé Tricot.

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A collaboration in Rue Savaron by Apogé (left) and Repy One (right).

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If you love art too and are planning a trip to Clermont-Ferrand, you’ll want to pick up the free Such’art map of art galleries and street art from the tourist center in Place de la Victoire for a self-guided tour of works by Invader, Lasco and others. On Instagram, you can follow the latest street art developments in Clermont-Ferrand at @such_art_63.

At 5 pm it was time to board my train, and a good thing too because after 22.2 km of walking that day (!) and 34.7 km for the weekend as a whole, I was ready for a bit of a rest! The skies continued to offer dramatic clouds as the train sped northwards and the sun began to set.

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The places mentioned in this post:

  • Myrtille restaurant: 4 Petite Rue Saint-Pierre, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand
  • La BerGamoThée restaurant: 1 Place du Mazet, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand
  • L’Aventure Michelin: 32 Rue du Clos Four, 63100 Clermont-Ferrand
  • Maison du Tourisme (tourist office with street art map): Place de la Victoire, 63000 Clermont-Ferrand