Sloppy lentils

We take things so literally when we’re little. Sloppy joes were a frequent meal at our house when I was growing up, and I always wondered about the name. Who was this Joe, and why was he so sloppy? I reasoned it might be my own uncle Joe, whose shirts were often untucked and face unshaven.

Whoever Joe may have been, the sloppy part is clear enough – this isn’t a dish for a first date. But it is delicious, so feel free to make it once the relationship’s sealed and the person’s no longer a flight risk. Also, thanks to advanced lentil technology, your sloppy joe can now be vegan!

Scroll to the bottom for my take on this iconic recipe.

Sloppy lentils

Serves about 4.

  • 1 cup dry green or brown lentils (don’t use red lentils)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ¾ cup (80 g) onion (any color), diced
  • ½ cup (60 g) green pepper, diced
  • ½ cup (55 g) celery, diced
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon brown or red miso paste
  • 1 teaspoon prepared mustard
  • 1 teaspoon dried Italian herbs (oregano, thyme etc.) or herbes de Provence
  • A few squeezes fresh lemon juice (about 1 teaspoon)
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • A couple grinds fresh black pepper
  • Soy sauce, to taste (optional)
  • Maple syrup, to taste (optional)
  • 4 hamburger buns
  1. Start by cooking the lentils in 3 cups water, with the bay leaf, for 20 minutes. Remove bay leaf, drain any excess water, and set aside.
  2. While the lentils are cooking, chop and dice the onion, green pepper and celery.
  3. In a large skillet, sauté these vegetables in a bit of olive oil over medium heat until tender.
  4. Add the cooked lentils and stir to combine.
  5. Incorporate the ketchup, miso paste, mustard, dried herbs, lemon juice, garlic powder and black pepper.
  6. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. If it isn’t salty enough, I recommend a splash of soy sauce rather than actual salt because soy sauce will boost the umami profile of the dish. If you would like the sauce to be sweeter, add a bit of maple syrup (but I find that the ketchup usually makes the sauce sweet enough).
  7. Toast your hamburger buns, if you like, and then load them with the sloppy lentil mixture. Eat leaning well over your plate, which many globs of lentils and sauce will land on, in the company of someone who already knows and accepts you even with sauce all over your face. 😉

Variation: try this same recipe using about 2 cups vegan ground “beef” from a brand like Beyond Meat, Impossible Meat or (in France), HappyVore or Herta.

Enjoy! If you’re a lentil aficionado, you might also like my Lockdown Lentils recipe. And if you too are curious about the name sloppy joe, you’ll find some theories here.

Ojja shakshouka

The first time I visited France, at age 21, I stayed with a Moroccan-French family in the suburbs of Paris. Growing up in small-town America, learning French but surrounded by people without passports, I viewed going to France even once in my life as something almost too much to hope for. So imagine my excitement when my French penpal, a girl my age who was learning English, invited me to visit her! I’d been taking French classes for almost 10 years by that point – albeit at a snail’s pace and taught exclusively by Americans – and had never yet used it for true communication in a real-life situation. As the trip approached, I worried about whether I’d really be able to speak to and understand my hosts.

To my surprise and relief, all the French I’d learned over the years fell into place and was usable as needed. The penpal turned out not to want to speak any English, which was just as well for me as it meant speaking lots and lots of French over the two weeks of my stay. My untested French was shaky at first and I probably said many hilariously incorrect things, but I managed to get through it and returned home full of confidence and enthusiasm for continuing in the language.

These are the memories that are always summoned by shakshouka, a delicious tomato and poached egg dish that my hosts made for dinner my first evening in France. I’d never heard of it before – North African cuisine, or anything North African, being unknown where I was from – and it helped make the beginning of my stay especially exotic and magical.

I’ve been told that this recipe was originally Tunisian but became associated with North Africa as a whole. It seems that a simple version with tomato, egg and optional merguez (spicy sausage) is called ojja and that the name is shakshouka when more vegetables and potato are added. In France, the dish is most often called shakshouka no matter what the exact ingredients are, so I’ve used both names here. Whatever you opt to call it, it’s an easy meal to make and promotes a feeling of community as everyone eats it from the same plate, or just the pan it was cooked in, scooping it up with pieces of bread.

And after my recent discovery of a really nice egg replacer, Orgran Vegan Easy Egg, I realized I could make this dish in a vegan version (in North America, you can use Just Egg). In France you can now even get a vegan version of merguez, from HappyVore, which helps make this creation extra authentic. You’ll also need some kala namak salt. In Paris, the egg, merguez and salt can all be found at Vegami (or order from their online shop for delivery across France).

Ojja shakshouka

Serves two.

  • 14 oz. (400 g) can stewed tomato
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic or more to taste, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup (40 g) Orgran Vegan Easy Egg + 2/3 cup (160 ml) water or other scrambled-egg replacer
  • 1/4 teaspoon kala namak salt
  • 2 vegan merguez sausages or other spicy sausages, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • Fresh cilantro or parsley to garnish
  • 1 baguette or other bread

Equipment needed: large frying pan with cover.

Scroll down for the directions!

Directions:

  1. Heat up a small amount of olive oil in a frying pan over medium-low heat.
  2. Sautée the diced onion until soft and a bit translucent.
  3. Add the finely chopped garlic and chopped sausage and let cook for a minute or two, stirring often to prevent burning.
  4. Add the can of stewed tomatoes and the coriander, rosemary, thyme and pepper, stir and cover until it reaches a simmer. If the tomatoes are unsalted, you may wish to add a pinch of kala namak salt or a splash of soy sauce to the mixture.
  5. While heating the tomato mixture, prepare your egg mixture. If using Orgran Vegan Easy Egg, combine 1/3 cup (40 g) powder with 2/3 cup (160 ml) water and 1/4 teaspoon kala namak salt.
  6. Once the tomato sauce is simmering, pour regularly spaced egg-sized circles of the egg mixture into the sauce. Cover the saucepan to allow the “eggs” to “poach” all the way through. This will take just a couple of minutes.
  7. Once the “eggs” are firm, transfer the frying pan to your table, garnish with chopped fresh cilantro or parsley, and serve with slices of baguette. You may like to add freshly ground black pepper and more kala namak salt on top of the “eggs” (I like having kala namak crystals in a grinder for this purpose) for extra egg flavor.

You may wish to listen to some Rachid Taha or Cheb Mami while enjoying this meal, and to finish it off with some sugary mint tea. For a North African literary immersion, try The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun.

After my first visit to France and inadvertant discovery of North African culture, which is as much a part of the cultural landscape as Latin American culture is in the United States, I developed an interest in Arabic as well. It’s a difficult but beautiful language. I enrolled in an introductory course in standard written Arabic at my university that next year, went on to complete all four semesters that were offered, and visited Morocco with my brother. Later, through friends and other connections, I learned a bit of Tunisian Arabic too.

Incidentally, how astonished would 21-year-old me have been if a time traveler or clairvoyant had told her she would eventually move to France and become French herself?

Anyway, if you try this recipe, let us know in the comments how it was!

To explore more North African cuisine, take a look at my Tunisian sorghum pudding recipe. And if you like vegan egg dishes, give my Moonstruck egg toast a try.

Earl Grey lemon cake

Today’s recipe pays tribute to one of my favorite fruits, the bergamot lemon. Different in shape and a darker yellow than common lemons, bergamot lemons also have that distinctive flavor that makes Earl Grey tea what it is. Hence the title of this cake!

To make this cake plus the icing, you’ll need two lemons.

You can of course always make this cake with regular lemons, or another type (Meyer lemon for example) if bergamot lemons are hard to find. And note that there isn’t actually any tea in this cake, although you could infuse the milk with it to see what happens. I haven’t tried that yet because the tea is likely to make the cake dark, but I might experiment with it another time!

Earl Grey lemon cake

Cake

  • 1 cup (236 ml) soy or oat milk
  • zest from 1 bergamot lemon
  • juice from 1 bergamot lemon (about 1/4 cup or 60 ml juice)
  • 1/3 cup (78 ml) neutral-flavored vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 and 3/4 cups (300 g) all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup (150 g) white granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • pinch salt

Icing

  • 1 cup (100 g) powdered sugar
  • zest from 1 bergamot lemon
  • 2 tablespoons bergamot lemon juice, or more as desired

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat your oven to 350°F (180°C).
  2. Line a loaf pan with baking paper, or grease and flour the inside.
  3. Grate one lemon to remove the zest, then cut it in half and juice it.
  4. Pour the milk into a small or medium mixing bowl and add the zest and juice of one lemon. Set aside for several minutes to thicken.
  5. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, granulated sugar, baking powder and salt. Stir with a whisk until well combined.
  6. Add the oil and vanilla extract to the milk and lemon mixture and stir.
  7. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and fold gently until just combined, taking care not to over mix.
  8. Pour the cake batter into your loaf pan and place in the pre-heated oven. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, checking with a fork or toothpick toward the end of the baking time (if it comes out clean, the cake is done).
  9. Place the pan on a baking rack to cool.
  10. While waiting for the cake to cool, make your icing. Take your second lemon, zest it (set the zest aside) and then juice it. Now combine the powdered sugar and lemon juice, stirring until you have the right consistency. If you want it to be thicker, add more sugar, and add more juice if you want it to be thinner (personally, I love to douse the cake in as much juice as possible for maximum lemon flavor!) Finally, sprinkle the lemon zest on top of the icing before it dries.

Enjoy your cake with – what else? – a cup of Earl Grey tea! Who was this Earl Grey anyway? The Internet tells me it’s this fine fellow, whose date of birth hints at his being an unknown son of Lord John Grey of Outlander fame. I mean, yes in the one case it’s a title and the other it’s a last name, but let’s just pretend that’s what happened! 🙂

Speaking of which, click here for a special Outlander recipe! Or two actually…

Italian egg toast

My mom’s birthday is in March, and her favorite film is Moonstruck (1987), starring Cher and Nicolas Cage as Loretta and Ronnie, Italian-Americans in Brooklyn who meet and, against all odds, rather abruptly fall in love. The charming story, set in and around neighborhood shops and Loretta’s beautiful family home, features a close-knit clan whose members nevertheless have their secrets. One of the most endearing characters, who doesn’t come into the plot nearly enough for my taste, is the old Italian grandpa who seems to always be walking his five or six dogs, or preparing to walk them, or coming back from walking them.

Memorable moments in this film include Ronnie meeting Loretta, his future sister-in-law, at his bakery, immediately launching into a long melodramatic rant about how his brother ruined his life, asking for a knife so he can kill himself, and then – about an hour after meeting her – knocking over his kitchen table, scooping her up and taking her to his bed.

The next night, they go to see La Bohème at the beautiful Metropolitan Opera, which I visited two years ago to take some photos for my mom.

Moonstruck is a favorite of mine too, so we tend to rewatch it every time I’m back home. The last occasion was this January, during my extended Christmas visit in Wisconsin. For some reason I noticed the breakfast that Loretta’s mother makes for her one morning while questioning her about her life: slices of bread with an egg cooked in the center of each one and topped with sautéed red pepper. It’s apparently a traditional breakfast dish in Italy (but also in other places), and is sometimes called egg-in-a-hole.

It looked fun. Could it be made vegan, I wondered? Challenge accepted!

I experimented once I got back to Paris, and as the results were quite successful, decided to share the recipe here this month in honor of both my mom’s birthday and nice mother-daughter moments.

The key ingredient in my version is a vegan scrambled-egg/omelet mix (I used Orgran Vegan Easy Egg, which you can find at Vegami in Paris, but in North America you could try Just Egg). And I added shallot and garlic to the red peppers for an extra dimension. Note that the kala namak salt is a must in this recipe, to get that sulfury egg flavor, if your egg mix doesn’t already contain it. It’s called “black” salt but once ground, it’s actually pink in color. I have this salt in ground form, which is good for incorporating it into a recipe, and also as crystals in a grinder, which is a nice way to season a dish that’s already made but just needs a bit more salt – both are available at Vegami, but you can also find the ground form at most Indian grocery stores.

Italian egg toast with red pepper

Serves two (four pieces of egg toast).

4 pieces of bread
1/4 cup (30 g) Orgran Vegan Easy Egg mix or similar
1/4 teaspoon kala namak (sulfury Indian “black” salt)
Several whole or sliced roasted (canned) red bell peppers
2 shallots
2 cloves garlic
Olive oil
Margarine
Freshly cracked black pepper
Fresh parsley or other herbs, to garnish

Combine the 1/4 cup (30 g) egg mix with 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons (150 ml) water, and whisk until smooth. Add the kala namak salt and stir to combine. Set aside.

Begin warming some olive oil in a small frying pan over medium heat, and chop up your shallots and garlic.

Now take out the roasted red pepper (estimate how much you want based on visual quantity – you can’t go too far wrong) and slice into strips.

Sauté the shallot, garlic and red pepper in the olive oil, stirring occasionally, until the shallot and garlic is soft. Don’t add any salt at this point because the egg mixture will probably be salty enough for the whole dish.

Now get out your bread. This is the kind I like to use, a type of bread that’s solid enough not to get mushy and fall apart. I recommend bread that’s sliced with a machine (rather than you slicing it) so that the sides of each slice are nice and even and will heat uniformly in the frying pan.

Find a glass, teacup or cookie cutter to cut out a circle from the middle of each slice of bread. Be sure that enough bread is remains between the hole and the crust so that it won’t fall apart. Tip: save the cut-out parts to mop up the last delectable bits of sauce from the frying pan at the end!

Spread both sides of each slice of bread with margarine.

Grill the bread on each side until lightly golden brown, then fill the holes with the egg mixture.

Cook for a minute or two on the first side (you may wish to cover the frying pan to speed this along), and once this first side seems done (test by jiggling it with the spatula), flip it over and repeat on the other side.

Transfer to a plate and top with the pepper, shallot and garlic mixture.

Garnish with freshly ground black pepper (I couldn’t find my pepper mill so used a mortar and pestle), fresh parsley or other herb, and have some extra kala namak handy in case you want to add more salt.

Serve and enjoy! It might taste best in the company of your mother or another trusted person you can share your troubles with.

So delicious!

Rumor has it that eating this egg toast for breakfast will help you untangle any complicated messes you may have gotten yourself into the night before. But never underestimate the potential for lasting love with your fiancé’s unstable estranged brother! Basically, if you can suspend your disbelief and forget the laws of cold hard reality long enough, you too many enjoy Moonstruck.

Matcha and white chocolate cookies

Here’s an easy recipe for delectable matcha cookies that you can make for Valentine’s Day or just any old time. You can make them plain, but I find they’re especially nice and eye-catching adorned with some vegan white chocolate, such as Vegó (in Paris, you can find this at Vegami near République).

“Valentine’s Day?!” you might be thinking. “But these cookies are green!” Yes, they are, but why should Valentine’s desserts always be pink, red or white? Green is a lovely color too, and just as appropriate for love, if not more, as it’s the one corresponding to the heart chakra!

White chocolate—which as a loyal reader once pointed out, is not actually chocolate at all—sometimes melts faster than “regular” chocolate, so for this recipe I added it at the very end of the baking time. More details below…

Matcha cookies

Makes about 20 cookies

  • 2 cups (300 g) all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ⅔ cup (131 g) white granulated sugar
  • 1½ tablespoon unsweetened matcha powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • ⅓ cup (79 ml) plant-based milk
  • ½ cup (118 ml) neutral-tasting oil such as grapeseed or canola
  • 2½ oz (100 g) vegan white chocolate (two Vegó bars)

First, preheat your oven to 350°F (180°C). Then sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and matcha powder into a medium-sized bowl. In another bowl, combine the sugar, vanilla extract, milk and oil. Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients and stir gently until just combined (if it seems too dry, add more milk), taking care not to overmix.

Form balls of equal size and place on a cookie sheet lined with baking paper, pressing down to flatten them. Place in your preheated oven and set a timer for 8 minutes. Break the white chocolate squares into pieces that will fit easily in the center of each cookie and keep an eye on the timer because timing will be of the essence for the next step.

When the timer goes off, remove the cookie sheet from the oven and quickly press a piece of white chocolate down into the center of each cookie. Doing this will cause the cookie surface to crack nicely. Place the cookie sheet back into the oven and bake for another 60 seconds, long enough for the chocolate to melt just slightly and fuse with the cookie. The melting speed can vary depending on the brand. If you have one that seems to melt less slowly you can add it earlier on.

Remove the cookie sheet from the oven and transfer the cookies to a cooling rack, brown paper bag or paper towel. The cookies will be soft until they cool, so be careful to keep them flat. Store any cookies you aren’t serving right away in an airtight container, as exposure to the air can make the matcha turn brown.

Enjoy with some tea (green tea? why not!) and a Japanese novel. I recommend Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood.

Variation: colorful m&m type candies can give these cookies a whole new look (perfect for Easter). I use the ones by Clarana, also available at Vegami. As the tops of the candies can crinkle with too much heat, I add them about halfway through baking. They can withstand heat longer than the white chocolate.

And if you love matcha as much as I do, you might also like my matcha galette des reines, a modern spin on a traditional French pastry.

Yukiwa plate by Yoshida Pottery via Brutal Ceramics. Trinidad photo backdrop by Fondos para Fotógrafos.

The power of the past

December 20th found me on a plane heading back to the United States for the first time in over two years. Like countless people around the world, I hadn’t been able to see family in all that time because of the pandemic. It was such a joy to finally see them again and to spend a Christmas with loved ones for the first time in maybe five or six years. And with opportunities like this becoming rarer, I decided to stay for a good long visit. We watched Christmas movies together, listened to Handel’s Messiah, baked lentil shepherd’s pie, homemade sourdough bread and cookies. I laughed with my sister over funny old anecdotes from our youth. When January rolled around, I made a couple of galettes des rois (below, a chocolate version that turned out really well), something my parents had never had. I took their cat Alfie Kitty for walks on a leash through the snow.

Once the holiday festivities were over, it was also time for me to start sorting through my stuff. 30 years of stuff – everything I’d left at my parents’ house before moving to France – had to be sorted and condensed in preparation for their move to a new house. In addition to a huge bookcase full of volumes I’d accumulated over my entire life, there were no fewer than 50 cardboard boxes containing old school notebooks I’d decorated with collages, binders full of teaching materials, aprons and wine keys from my waitressing days, a colored-pencil sketch I’d made of my calico kitty sleeping on a sofa-top, letters from foreign pen pals, little folded-up notes passed to me in class by high school friends, and countless photo prints from the days of film cameras.

There were countless snapshots of a happier, more confident me, a me who’d been full of hope and excitement for the future. A me that had boldly headed off to live in California, striking out on my own, unworried about what would happen next. A me I could barely recognize from the vantage point of the me I’ve become these past few years.

I found the cavegirl Halloween costume I was wearing the night I had my very first kiss, age 15 at a school dance, with a German exchange student whose last name I’d forgotten. A list of the students in that same box jogged my memory. Two boys on it had that same first name I remembered, and after Googling them both I found the right one. Seeing his face again after all these years, more recognizable than I expected, I was pulled farther through the portal into the past, revisiting another one of the people I used to be.

Digging deeper through the boxes, excavating more strata from my past, I became an archeologist uncovering the history of who I’d been. How was it I’d done so many things? Written so many essays, put together so many term papers and projects, earned these degrees and learned things I’m not really using now? How did I do all that and hold down several jobs all at the same time? How did I also attend so many parties and maintain all those friendships that these stacks of old Christmas cards now bear witness to?

I unearthed nearly forgotten memories as I pulled out objects – a little china teacup and saucer, a prop for so many hours spent as a hostess to my childhood cat and dolls. Ceramic Christmas ornaments made in elementary school art class. Elaborate illustrated letters from my two grandmas. My age-seven diary filled with scrawlings about my little classmates and favorite TV shows. The framed embroideries my mother’s friends had given her for me when I was born.

Going through these relics of my earlier incarnations was like the part of a near-death experience where your whole life flashes before your eyes, but in slow motion. These precious anchors have reminded me who I was and who I perhaps still really am, underneath the careworn outer layers: a joyful, adventurous and creative person who is loved.

Eckhart Tolle famously promotes the power of now to free you from your problems. I humbly submit that power can also be found in the past.

Christmas sandwich

What do you do if you like Christmas well enough, but just can’t be bothered to make a whole elaborate Christmas dinner? Or what if you have to travel or go to work on Christmas day and can only bring a sandwich lunch? Today’s post is the answer – you make a Christmas sandwich!

This recipe was inspired by a product, Vantastic Foods soy protein, that I got from Vegami (formerly Un Monde Vegan) in Paris as part of my partnership with them. When I saw the package on the shelf, I wondered how soy protein could be made into a Christmas dish. The photo on the package seemed to suggest a sandwich was the way to go. Could there be such a thing as a Christmas sandwich? I asked myself. Challenge accepted!

Next, I had to figure out what kinds of “Christmasy” ingredients could go together with this soy protein in a sandwich. Cranberry sauce came to mind, and cheese… in the end, this became a fusion dish, with the cranberry sauce we North Americans are so fond of, plus French camembert-style cashew cheese, the kind with a rind (I used L’Affiné de Margot by Les Nouveaux Affineurs) and of course the quintessentially French baguette. I added bitter greens to offset the sweetness of the cranberry sauce. Incidentally, this sandwich idea is what inspired my most recent recipe: homemade cranberry sauce made from dried cranberries, for people living in places without fresh/frozen whole cranberries.

If you don’t have time to make cranberry sauce, you can substitute IKEA’s lingonberry jam.

Christmas sandwich

Makes two sandwiches.

  • 1 baguette or submarine sandwich bread
  • 1½ cup dry soy protein or 9 oz (250 g) seitan (I recommend Lima Gourmet Grill)
  • 1 recipe hatcho miso gravy (see below)
  • 4.5 oz (120 g) vegan camembert-style cheese with rind
  • 1/2 cup (118 ml) cranberry sauce or lingonberry jam
  • Handful arugula or other bitter greens

Hatcho miso gravy

Makes about 2 cups (473 ml) of gravy.

  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 cups (473 ml) vegetable broth
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon hatcho miso paste (strong/dark miso)

Start by soaking the soy protein chunks in hot water in a small bowl. Cover the bowl and let sit for at least 10 minutes.

Make the gravy. Toast the flour, nutritional yeast, garlic powder and pepper in a dry saucepan for a few minutes on medium heat. Then add the broth slowly, whisking constantly, until incorporated. Now whisk in the soy sauce and mustard. Reduce heat to low and simmer until thick.

Dilute the hatcho miso in a small amount (maybe 1/3 to 1/2 cup) of hot water, stirring and breaking the miso up with a spoon. Some of the miso will settle at the bottom of your bowl so stir thoroughly to get it all.

By now the soy protein should be fully hydrated. Drain and squeeze out the excess water with your hands once the soy protein has cooled enough. Add the miso mixture to the gravy and combine the soy protein and gravy in a skillet. Simmer for another 10 minutes or so until the soy protein has absorbed the gravy.

Cut two lengths of baguette, one for each sandwich. Slice the bread lengthwise and cover with a layer of the soy protein in gravy.

Slice the cheese lengthwise. You’ll need about three slices for each sandwich.

Cover with the slices of cheese, which will melt a little.

Add some cranberry sauce on top of the cheese.

Finally, top the cranberry sauce with the bitter greens.

And here’s your yummy Christmas sandwich!

Cranberry sauce for expats

When the holiday season comes around, Americans and Canadians living abroad often find themselves with a dilemma: cranberry sauce, or even just the (whole, uncooked) cranberries you would need to make your own sauce from scratch, cannot be found in every country. And cranberry sauce is a cornerstone of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. So this is a truly serious (first-world) problem. 😉

Of course, there are sometimes ways to get imported cranberry sauce from local stores specializing in North American foods. But this option is always expensive, and you might not be able to get to the store if it’s remote or has limited opening hours, or if you don’t live in a major city.

Having lived in France for over 12 years now, I’ve missed having cranberry sauce over the holidays many a time. But this year, I decided to try an idea that popped into my head: why not make a sauce from dried cranberries, which are abundantly available here in Paris at organic and now even mainstream grocery stores? To extend the tart, fruity flavor, I added some lingonberry jam (from IKEA), which has a similar flavor as cranberry, but any red jam will do. Finally, I mixed in some red wine, spices, orange juice and zest and fresh grated ginger.

I gave it a shot yesterday and was very pleased by the results. Read on for the recipe!

Cranberry sauce

Makes a little over 1 cup (236 ml) of sauce.

  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup (118 ml) water
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) orange juice
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) inexpensive red wine
  • 2 tablespoons red jam (raspberry, strawberry etc.)
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated ginger root, or more to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • small pinch salt

Grate your orange(s), squeeze to obtain the juice, and grate your ginger root (remove the skin with a spoon). Roughly chop the dried cranberries – or alternatively, process the sauce at the end to make it smoother – and add these to a medium-sized saucepan along with all the other ingredients.

Stir all the ingredients together while heating over medium heat. When the mixture is just starting to boil, reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened (maybe 5 to 10 minutes). Taste and adjust the ingredients as necessary – you may wish to add sugar or mix in more jam if it’s too tart.

As the sauce cools it will thicken further (above, the sauce just after taking it off the heat). Allow to cool fully, then transfer to a serving dish or storage container for the fridge if you won’t be using it right away.

Serve chilled or room-temperature as a condiment for your favorite holiday dishes (lentil Wellington, Tofurkey roast, stuffing and green beans or mashed potatoes with gravy).

You might also like to try it in a dessert, in a mixed-fruit turnover or an apple crumble, topped with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Variations: Add additional spices (nutmeg, allspice, cloves) and other dried fruit such as apricot or fig. To make it into a savory chutney to serve with cheese and baguettes, add some sautéed shallot and a dash of tamari.

DIY Advent calendar

We’re just past the middle of November, and Christmas decorations are already popping up everywhere. You’ll have seen Advent calendars in stores too – the ones that consist of opening up a new piece of candy or some other small surprise every day of December until Christmas. They’re fun, yet predictable since you know more or less what you’re getting before you open them.

So what can you do if you’re tired of them, don’t want to ingest so much sugar, or are a minimalist? You can make your own customized Advent calendar that will bring a smile to someone’s face and warm their heart – an Avent calendar that’s more about giving than receiving.

This is something I did once in the past with a partner, and it was a really fun experience. This project is ideal for two people living together, but at the end I’ll talk about ways it can be customized for families, groups of three or more, or even a single person.

Advent calendar for two people living together: Each person separately writes 24 or 25 uplifting little messages to the other consisting of a compliment, a love note, a drawing, an inside joke or reference that’s special just for the two of you, a “gift certificate” for something like a massage, a dinner or a free pass on a household chore, making sure that the recipient cannot see what they are writing or drawing. Each person should use a separate, easily identifiable type of paper – different colors or one with lines, one without – so it’s clear who wrote which ones (in this post, the notes shown are example ones that I created to give you an idea, so they’re on just one type of paper). Each should then fold up their notes into a small size.

Then you’ll need something to contain the notes. Above is an Advent calendar I originally got from Ara Chocolat in Paris a few Christmases ago (the one they have this year is different). It came with a piece of chocolate inside each of the striped boxes, which could be removed from the cardboard tree. I was glad I saved the calendar after the chocolate was gone, because the little boxes were also the perfect size to hold two little notes.

Another idea is to get a large poster board and attach little paper pockets to it, with a number on each one (remember doing this kind of thing in elementary school?). Small envelopes would also serve this purpose well. Alternatively, tape the envelopes directly to the wall if you have the right kind of (non-damageable) wall surface. And the most minimalist solution of all would be to have each person write numbers from 1 to 24 right onto their folded messages.

Mix up each separate collection of notes so they aren’t in any particular order. Put one note from each person into each box or pocket/envelope.

Below are some example messages.

Then, every day of December, either in the morning after breakfast or some other time when you’re usually together, each of you opens the message written by the other and you get to watch each other’s reaction. It’s a lot of fun!

Other ideas:

  • Treasure hunt: On one or more of the days, send your partner hunting through your house for a small gift using easy or cryptic clues that take them from one spot to another until they finally find it. This requires some advance planning and preparation, but you could for example get up early in the morning and plant all the clues before your partner gets out of bed.
  • Appreciation messages collected over the year. This one takes a lot more advance planning and requires keeping the project in mind over time, but it’s well worthwhile. Over the course of the year, whenever you feel especially appreciative of your partner (if they’ve showed special kindness or support to you or someone else, or just for no special reason), take a few minutes to write down what you feel or describe what happened and how much you appreciated them. Then put that note into a jar or box and take them out at the end of November to use as December Advent calendar messages (if you don’t have 24, or if both partners don’t have the same number, it’s okay). Alternatively, you could bundle together your notes from the year and present them to your partner all at once, for Christmas or any other time of year. Little notes like these can create a great deal of closeness and are an opportunity to share and strengthen your love. Opening one after a fight could be helpful in coming back together and forgiving each other.
  • Advent calendar for a family or group of roommates/flatmates: Here you could opt to focus more on giving the gift of services (offering to do a chore in someone’s place) or covering small household expenses (you pay for the next container of laundry detergent). You could also write about a memorable experience that the whole group had together or just express your appreciation for the family or group.
  • Advent calendar for your child: If they’re old enough to understand, write notes about favorite shared memories or times when the child did something they could be proud of (showing kindness to a classmate, sharing their toys). Or tell them things that are great about them, being careful to stress personal qualities, or just that they are themselves, rather than mentioning achievements, looks or other external things. Older children could be encouraged to join in making heart-warming notes for their siblings and/or you or their grandparents.
  • Advent calendar for yourself: Spend some time in November remembering times when you accomplished something impressive or when you were just proud of yourself, and write notes to yourself about them. Alternatively, note down small goals you want to accomplish in the month of December or small treats you would like to indulge in. By mixing up the notes, you’ll be drawing one at random each day and can feel like destiny has selected that day for you to indulge in the treat! (and who are you to question destiny?)
  • Advent calendar for two people not living together: Same as for the first calendar described above, except that each person takes all of the other person’s messages at once and has to promise not to peek at any of them early. They can be kept together in an envelope or jar and pulled out at random. You can call each other every morning at a certain time and share your reactions in real time, or take a photo of the message you open each day and send it to the giver along with your thoughts.

Have you ever tried something like this, or do you have suggestions for other ways to vary the Advent calendar experience? Share in the comments!

Red kuri squash cookies

Here’s an easy fall recipe that celebrates my very favorite vegetable, red kuri squash! Its French name is potimarron, which describes its unique flavor – a cross between pumpkin (potiron) and chestnut (marron). But if you can’t find it, you can also use pumpkin, butternut or another non-stringy squash for this recipe, working either with a prepared purée or one that you make yourself.

These yummy, cozytime-comfort cookies with warming spices are relatively low in sugar, but in my opinion the chocolate chunks make up for that. Feel free to add a bit more sugar than the amounts given below if you have a sweet tooth.

Red kuri squash cookies

Makes 15-18 cookies, depending on size

Wet ingredient mixture
1¼ cup squash purée (red kuri squash, pumpkin, butternut squash etc.)
½ cup coconut oil, other vegetable oil or margarine
⅓ cup brown sugar
⅓ cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Dry ingredient mixture
2½ cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
½ to ¾ cup chocolate, roughly chopped

Since prepared squash purées are few and far between in France (you can get pumpkin purée imported from the US, but it’s super expensive), I just make my own. I love red kuri squash for this because its skin is so fine that there’s no need to remove it, especially if it’s organic.

To make a red kuri squash purée, I usually bake it in a shallow glass baking dish with water, as shown above, after removing the seeds. Around an hour at 400°F (200°C) should do it. You can of course do this step a day or two before making the cookies. Otherwise, lower the temperature to 350°F (180°C) to prepare the oven for the cookies.

After the squash is baked, you ideally blend it in a food processor, skin and all, along with the rest of the wet mixture ingredients (oil, sugars, vanilla extract). In my case, having moved so recently, I couldn’t find the blade for my processor and had to mash it by hand using a fork. I left out some of the skin, since it’s harder to mash this way. But I like the way the dark orange flecks of skin look in the finished cookies.

After the squash and wet mixture ingredients are blended together, transfer them to a large mixing bowl and add the dry ingredients. At this point you may find it easier to mix and knead it together with your hands, taking care not to work it too much so the dough won’t be tough.

Finally, roughly chop your chocolate – either a chocolate bar, large chips such as these hazelnut ones from the Vegó brand (available at Vegami in Paris or online), or regular small chips – and mix them into the dough.

Form evenly sized balls with the dough and flatten slightly. For me, the balls didn’t really spread while baking, so you can probably place them fairly close together. Put in your oven, preheated to 350°F (180°C), and bake for around 15 minutes. Ovens vary though, so check earlier than this to see if yours bake faster.

Remove from oven and allow to cool. Enjoy them with some tea!

Recipe adapted from this one by Nora Cooks.

Artisanal blue ceramic plate by French ceramicist Anaïs Trivier.