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.

Movin’ on out

One of the biggest things that happened to me this year is something you might have noticed in my Instagram photos, if you’ve been paying close attention to the backgrounds. After 10 years in my little Paris apartment, I have moved!

I’d been wanting to move for a while already, because while I loved my neighborhood, and my building, and my neighbors, and my apartment was very cute and charming, it was really small. It supposedly measured 27 sq. meters (290 sq. feet) in total, but as a former deux-pièces (one-bedroom apartment with a living room) converted in some decade past into a studio, it was composed of a main room (the former bedroom) of about 13 sq. meters (140 sq. feet), plus a kitchen, bathroom, toilet room and hallway. The original living room had become part of the apartment across the hall and a wall was put up in an inconvenient spot at the end of my hall. Due to the way things were laid out and the actual usable space, it was really more like a 13 sq. meter apartment with some extra little rooms and spaces, all of them too small to spend time in, tacked onto it.

I liked being there in general as it was quiet and my one window looked out over a calm inner courtyard (so, no street noise), but with all my worldly possessions crammed into it, it’d become so cramped that I’d given up years earlier on inviting people over for dinner, and setting up food photos was a big challenge. It was also badly insulated, and only half of the place had any heating, so winters there were very cold. I wasn’t actively looking for a new place, however, since housing is so very expensive in Paris, and the longer I stayed in that apartment, the better deal I was getting since my landlord was allowed to raise my rent by only a small percentage every year. So before I knew it, I’d been there nearly 10 years, which is longer than I’d ever lived at a single address before, even during childhood since my family moved four times while I was growing up.

After the pandemic set in, I’d actually begun to think about moving back to the US to be closer to my family, although the trouble and expense of moving my stuff back was a discouraging factor. Then one fine day a friend called to say he knew of a place that might be perfect for me… to buy! I hadn’t even been thinking about buying anything, for the financial reasons alluded to above, but as it turned out this new place was in a suburb of Paris, far enough away from the city that it was actually affordable for me with my meager freelance translator’s income. It was 47 sq. meters (506 sq. feet), had a bedroom and separate living room and got lots of natural light (compared to the rather dungeony darkness of my old place), which is great for taking food photos and also not being depressed! Furthermore, as someone who worked from home, I would often go several days in a row without setting foot outside, especially in the winter, so why pay so much to live in Paris? From the new place, Paris would be just a 10-minute train ride away.

Long story short, I ended up buying it and, after an extraordinary amount of paperwork, administrative hassle and interminable waiting that I won’t even try to go into, I moved in at the beginning of this month.

One of the things I like most about the new place is the view from the kitchen window. From it I can actually see green things, like trees and bushes, and also the sky! While in my old place I could see only the brick and windows of the building across the courtyard from mine, and never knew who might be looking at me (of course, that’s what curtains are for, but still…). There’s even some ivy growing past the window, and I love it. The new kitchen is super spacious, with lots of cupboards, counter space and even room for a table! Being able to work or read at a table with a window that looks out onto some type of nature has already changed my life for the better these past several weeks.

Moving day was still tough for me emotionally. I had so many memories in that old place, and I’d been there so long it was hard to believe it didn’t actually belong to me. Above left, you can see my main room with the boxes and things halfway moved out, and then all of my stuff grouped together on the ground floor of my old building, waiting to be loaded into the moving truck.

My new living room upon arrival… sooo much space waiting to be lived in and decorated!

Above: the main room and kitchen of my old apartment. I’ll really miss that marble fireplace! Although I never used it (it was in working condition but I would’ve had to pay to have it professionally swept before and after), I loved having it there, and the mirror above it was another beautiful feature. The kitchen in this place was small and cramped by the standards of most other cities, but for Paris it was actually really big. I was very lucky with this when I moved in, back in 2011, as this was the same time that I was starting to really get into cooking and food photography. Before leaving I had to remove and dispose of the (very old and rickety) cupboards, as they did not belong to the apartment but were considered part of the furniture. I had purchased them from the previous tenant. I negotiated with the owner to leave the custom-built countertop and shelves above the sink that the previous tenant’s dad had made for her, as it would have been a shame for the next tenant not to have them.

My last glimpse of my beloved old place, right after the final inspection with a representative of the owner to see if I would get my security deposit back (I did!). I still do miss it, and have fantasies of winning the lottery so I can go back and buy it to have a pied à terre in Paris.

Although I’m still mostly living out of boxes, and have a lot of furniture to buy, having the extra space has been really nice, and mentally liberating. After so many years in a tiny space with those physical constrictions, I’d begun to feel a bit constricted in my mind too, viewing life from a perspective of limitations and lack, sometimes making poor choices in consequence. So now I’m experiencing an unfurling of new possibilities and freedom that I’d almost forgotten could exist.

Once things are furnished and decorated, I’ll be sharing more photos of the new place.

Turmeric chai latte

Today I’d like to share a recipe for one of my favorite warming comfort beverages that’s perfect for a rainy day or just whenever you need a little boost physically or to your mood. And not only is turmeric in warm milk with chai spices delicious and calming (try it in the evening at bedtime), but it’s also kind of a superfood with health benefits.

Turmeric has very potent anti-inflammatory properties, helping prevent or alleviate inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and stroke. It contains curcumin, a powerful compound that’s been shown to inhibit the growth of certain types of cancer, from cell mutation to metastasis, killing cancer cells without harming your healthy cells. Many sources recommend taking one teaspoon of turmeric per day, which is why I put a full teaspoon in my turmeric chai latte, but you can definitely use less if the taste is too strong for you, especially at first. I found that the flavor grew on me and I was able to have more of it at once over time. The other spices and the sweetener in this drink also help make the turmeric more palatable.

The exact spices (and quantities thereof) you use in this latte are up to you, but don’t skip the black pepper because it greatly enhances your absorption of the turmeric.

Just one thing to be careful of… turmeric’s bright yellow color is almost impossible to get out of fabric and other porous materials! So be sure not to let this chai latte splash on your clothes or get onto your kitchen towels. Similarly, don’t put anything containing turmeric into a plastic container.

The recipe below is for one serving.

Turmeric chai latte

  • 1 cup (240 ml) plant-based milk such as oat or soy
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric, or less to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon agave syrup, other liquid sweetener or sugar, or more/less to taste
  • vegan marshmallows (optional but nice!)

Begin by heating up your milk, either on the stovetop or in a microwave, to just below a simmer. Then either turn off the heat or reduce it to very low.

Add the turmeric and other spices.

Whisk everything together to make sure none of the spices form clumps, and to make it a bit frothy.

Now add your agave syrup or other sweetener. Taste and adjust the spices and sweetener to suit your taste.

Serve in a glass or ceramic container that’s non-porous enough not to become stained yellow by the turmeric. Top with a sprinkle of cinnamon or any of the other spices in the drink.

And to make this latte into even more of a treat, why not top it with some marshmallows? I used my very favorite vegan vanilla marshmallows (from Ökovital, available at Un Monde Vegan in France) and sprinkled more cinnamon on top.

Deauville and Trouville

A couple weeks ago, I took my first trip out of Paris since September 2019, and it definitely wasn’t too soon! It was so nice to be on a train going somewhere new again. This was just a short, quick trip two hours northwest of Paris to two adjacent seaside towns, Deauville and Trouville, in the Normandy region. The goal was to see the ocean, swim in it hopefully and just relax.

In the end, it was too cold to swim and rained quite a bit, but just wading along the beach and collecting shells turned out to be very therapeutic. And an unexpected bonus was all the beautiful houses in the two towns.

Here are a few photos to give you an idea (click on them to expand).

There were many beautiful homes (some of them mansions) near the beach on the Deauville side.

One of the highlights was Les Franciscaines, a brand-new cultural center that had just opened its doors in May 2021. Set up on the premises of a former convent, the site integrates ultra-modern details such as this ceiling installation made up of countless clear glass tubes into, on and around the original 19th-century structure. The former central courtyard now houses a reading room – visitors can browse the center’s reading materials for free on site, and members can check them out.

Les Franciscaines also hosts temporary art exhibitions. During our visit, the main one was “Sur les chemins du paradis” with a collection of paintings, sculptures and other works from a range of countries, cultures and traditions related to the theme of heaven and the afterlife. A particularly memorable piece was Bill Viola‘s video installation “Incarnation”.

The center also has a little café with lunch items, desserts, wines and hot drinks. Surprisingly for Deauville, their menu even included a vegan item (the salad shown above, with a nice portion of hummus hiding under the lettuce). Sadly, there were no vegan desserts or plant-based milks for coffee, although it seemed they normally did have oat milk but were just out of it that day.

A very welcome oasis in this not-super-vegan-friendly part of the world was Molybagert, a small fully vegan grocery in Trouville (a few minutes’ walk from Deauville) that also offers lunch items and desserts! The owner/chef was very friendly, helping us choose some local products to bring back as gifts for my friend who took care of Mochi during my absence.

The store has a nice range of food items as well as T-shirts, canvas bags and things for the home.

I fell in LOVE with this amazing vegan cashew-based blue cheese by Tyk Affinage. We got to sample it, and another by the same brand, in the store before buying. Made in the neighboring Brittany region, it was a fairly local product. After getting back to Paris, I discovered you could also (of course!) buy it here, for example at Un Monde Vegan (64 rue Notre Dame de Nazareth 75003).

One of the things we got for lunch was this super yummy croque monsieur with vegan deli slices and cheese. It was a sunny day, so we sat on a bench near the water to eat.

In this part of France you often see these beautiful ceramic hot chocolate bowls (“bol à oreilles” or “bowl with ears”) with names on them. In my search for more information on their origins I found claims by both the Normandy and the Brittany regions. I had been seeing them for years here and there in people’s houses, and when I found my own name I couldn’t resist getting it. If you too would like one, but you have an uncommon name or aren’t going to be in France anytime soon, you can order one online, for example here.

I hope this little bit of armchair travel has inspired you to visit Deauville and Trouville yourself one day!

The Paris Dog Cemetery

I recently had the pleasure of visiting a very unique spot in Paris – a place I hadn’t even known existed. A friend had announced he was going to take me to an interesting surprise location, and since at that time museums, cinemas, restaurants and cafés were still closed, I knew it would be someplace outdoors. So I made sure to wear some walking shoes and embarked upon this mysterious adventure with enthusiasm.

Our destination turned out to be just outside the city limits, in the suburb Asnières-sur-Seine to the north of Paris. We took metro line 13, exited at the Gabriel Péri station, and walked for a bit until my friend stopped and pointed to a large gate topped by an elegant Art Nouveau stone arch with the words “Cimetière des chiens” carved into it. A dog cemetery!

I was delighted by my friend’s choice, as he knew I would be. The current full name of this cemetery is “Cimetière des chiens et autres animaux domestiques” – a cemetery for dogs and other pets. In reality there are (reportedly) now more cats than dogs buried here, as well as a few other species including a horse, a lion, a turtle, a monkey, a rabbit or two, some birds and even a bee.

It was founded in 1899 by feminist journalist and stage actress Marguerite Durand together with author Georges Harmois. It’s claimed to be the world’s first pet cemetery of the modern age. If you understand French, I recommend this little documentary on YouTube about the site from the 1990s. It’s a bit dated and the quality isn’t always super great, but it provides an interesting look into the site’s history and also shows a funeral home for animals as well as details of other options including cremation and even taxidermy.

For me, this cemetery was a touching testament to the love that can exist between humans and other animals. I was very moved by the efforts people have made to honor the memory of their beloved companion animals in a world where, on the whole, animals are seen merely as expendable commodities. Of course, here as in the rest of society, a clear distinction can be seen between “pet” animals (the cute and cuddly ones) and “food” animals (mainly absent from this cemetery), but with the importance it places on animals of any kind, the site still contains the germ of something that could spark deeper thought in humans, leading us to question why a place of this kind is an exception rather than the rule.

On a personal level, as I myself have lost two very dear companion cats (Kitty and Camilla, in 1994 and 2012), strolling among the diminutive graves of this cemetery stirred up some emotions. My departed loves are buried in unmarked spots behind the houses where my parents were living at the time and I couldn’t help thinking how nice it would be to have them someplace I could still visit, with small headstones in their memory. I was also just very touched by how loved the animals in this cemetery clearly were and may have shed a tear or two as I read their headstones.

Below is a selection of the graves that caught my eye, with translations of some of the inscriptions. Click on any photo to enlarge it for a closer look.

This gravestone, installed near the front gate by the cemetery’s management, reads “On May 15th, 1958, a stray dog died at the entrance of this cemetery. It was the 40,000th animal to find its final resting place in the Asnières Dog Cemetery.”

Center: “Time heals wounds but doesn’t erase memories.” Right: a large number of the gravestones have a photo of the animal on them. When they didn’t, I could sometimes guess at the animal’s species based on its name.

“In memoriam. Thank you for your love.”

Center: this cat’s guardian described her habit of dunking her paw into her water bowl and licking it to drink, and also transferring her dry food from the bag into her dish before eating it. Right: an old grave belonging to a Pekinese.

“In doggie heaven”

This very elaborate monument testifies to the great love someone had for this cat who lived to the grand old age of 20. The rather poetic inscription reads “Xixi dear, I am thinking of you! The world exists only for a cat. I try in vain to learn how you fare. You see me. I don’t see you. An image of me is reflected in your eyes. Life. Death. For me… no more mystery. My eyes follow a beam of light through the darkness. I guide you towards eternity. How my heart longs for you! Alone but ready to protect you, to give you happiness, peace and wisdom. Your mother who loves you.”

“You had beauty without vanity. Strength without insolence. Courage without ferocity. Intelligence without arrogance. And all the virtues of humans without their depravities.”

The cemetery is also the final resting place of some “foreign” animals (or, like my own Sésame and Mochi, French animals with a foreign human?).

Many of the graves had an adorable little statue of the animal or something representing its species (cat or dog).

This mini-mausoleum, modeled after the human ones you see at Paris cemeteries such as Père Lachaise or the Montmartre cemetery, is one of the cutest things at this site. Left: person for scale. Center: just as dusty and cobwebby as their counterparts in human cemeteries, the inside of this mausoleum features a photo of the deceased tabby. Right: the cat’s name – Plume (Feather) – and birth and death dates.

Some of the graves included not only photos of the departed animal but also of the animal’s human guardian.

Left: a collection of what must have been the dog’s favorite toys. Right: many cats’ graves had these heart-melting feline headstones.

Top, left and right: more sculptures identifying the graves’ inhabitants.

I love this doghouse-shaped headstone.

Left: one of the oldest headstones I saw, hard to read but dated October 1925. Right: old headstones converted into steps, presumably after the guardian’s family stopped paying for gravesite upkeep.

Left: the grave of a monkey (“Sleep, my darling. You were the joy of my life”). Right: the very smallest grave, belonging to a bee that is apparently the mascot for a movement to save the bees. Its headstone reads “Perished from pesticides while trying to save its species.”

The cemetery is in a very peaceful location overlooking the Seine. If I were a kitty or a dog, I would be happy to rest in peace in this spot.

Admission to the cemetery was €3.50 per person on the day that we visited. For more information about opening hours, visit this site (link to English version at the bottom right of the homepage).

And to learn even more, if you read French, you may be interested in this book devoted to the cemetery.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little bit of armchair travel, especially if pandemic restrictions continue to keep you from visiting France. You may also wish to add it to your list of things to see when you do come to Paris!

Black sesame turnovers

Today, in honor of little Sésame’s sixth birthday, I’ve prepared another black sesame recipe for you! (Last year it was a striped sesame cake). But it’s actually two recipes in one – first, we’ll be making a Japanese sweet white bean paste (shiro an) that can be used in many ways, and then adding some black sesame paste to it (making kuro goma an) and using it as a turnover filling.

Both parts of this recipe are fairly straightforward and easy, but as making the sweet white bean paste takes quite a while, I’m not putting it in the “easy recipes” category. You need to start soaking the beans the day before making the paste, and then the beans need to cook for two hours. But once you have the paste ready, the rest goes pretty fast.

Sweet white bean paste (shiro an)

Makes about 2 cups of sweet white bean paste.

  • 1 cup (175 g) dry white beans
  • 3/4 cup + 2 Tbsp white sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Equipment needed: large heavy stockpot, food processor or high-power blender.

Place the dry beans in a bowl and cover with water. Let soak for 12 hours, refilling the water if needed. The photo above shows the beans at the end of the soaking period.

Transfer the beans to your stockpot, add enough water to cover them, and bring to a boil over medium-low heat. Once the water comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low. Cover the stockpot and simmer the beans for 1.5 to 2 hours (set a timer so you don’t forget about them!), checking occasionally to make sure the water level is still high enough that the beans cannot burn, and adding more water if necessary. Once the beans are tender enough to squash between your thumb and pinky finger, they’re ready.

Drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid.

Transfer to a food processor and purée, adding a bit of the cooking liquid if it’s too dry. At the end it’ll look kind of like this.

Transfer back to the stockpot over low heat and add the sugar and salt, stirring constantly. The sugar will begin dissolving immediately.

After the sugar has dissolved, the mixture will be a bit more liquidy and look glossy. Continue to heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture has become dry enough that you can draw a line down the center of the stockpot bottom with a spatula and it doesn’t fill in.

Black sesame sweet bean paste (kuro goma an)

Makes 1 cup of black sesame sweet bean paste.

Now you can take your white bean paste and flavor it with black sesame. I chose to keep half of the paste unflavored, and make half of it into a black sesame version. The amounts below are therefore for half of the above mixture (1 cup).

  • 1 cup sweet white bean paste
  • 3 heaping tablespoons black sesame paste
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional, but nice)

In a food processor, combine the prepared sweet white bean paste, the black sesame paste and (if desired) the vanilla extract. Vanilla is not included in the traditional Japanese preparation, but I find it goes so well with sesame!

If you’re opening your jar of black sesame paste for the first time and there’s a layer of oil on top as you can see in this photo, stir it with a butter knife to incorporate the oil and achieve a more homogenous texture before you add any to the white bean paste.

Mix everything up and it will look something like this. If it seems too liquidy, you can put it back in the stockpot and heat it over medium-low, stirring constantly, until it’s a bit drier.

At this point, you can just transfer the paste to a covered container (a jar or tupperware container) and store in the fridge to use later as a spread, or to add to yogurt (see photo at the end of this post). It can also make a nice filling/frosting for a layer cake. If you’d like to use it as a turnover filling, follow the instructions below.

Black sesame turnovers

Makes 4 turnovers.

  • 1 prepared flaky pastry crust
  • 1 cup black sesame sweet bean paste (some may be left over)

First, preheat your oven to 350°F (180°C).

Cut out circle shapes from the flaky pastry crust (in these photos I’m making just two turnovers, but the ingredient quantities listed above will make four). Place about two heaping tablespoons of the black sesame sweet bean paste on half of each circle, spreading it out to near the edges but leaving a margin.

Fold each circle over once to create a crescent shape.

Press down firmly on the edges to seal the dough.

Score the tops of the turnovers with a sharp knife to allow air to escape during the baking process. Place in the oven for about 15 minutes. As the filling is already rather dry, the baking tends to go faster than with fruit-filled turnovers.

If you like, you can dust the tops of the turnovers with a bit of powdered sugar.

Mine got quite puffy and lost their seal, but once they cooled a bit they de-puffed.

So yummy! They’re great with green tea.

Enjoy!

Another way to enjoy the sweet bean paste is in a dish with some plain or vanilla yogurt, fruit and a sprinkling of gomasio.

It’s really nice on bread, too!

Variations: try flavoring the sweet white bean paste with other things: matcha, lemon (zest and a bit of juice) or pumpkin purée.

The plate used in the turnover photos is the “Chysanthemum” in unglazed white/gray by 1616 Arita in Aritayaki, Japan, via Brutal Ceramics.

Apple pie toast

Every year when spring comes around, I find myself suddenly coming back to life after months of a dark, dreary existence that’s gone on so long, I’ve forgotten it’s possible to feel different. All at once I’m able to float outdoors, light and unencumbered by the heavy, hateful coat that’s been my constant companion as long as I can remember. The world is fresh and new, I am fresh and new and an unsuspected life force appears, motivating me to get out of bed, do things and make plans.

It’s all the more cruel when nature realizes it launched spring too early and takes it back for a couple more weeks. That happened recently – after a glorious, wonderful last week of March, during which I felt like a different person, cold weather and colorless skies returned for days and days and days, dousing my inner light.

Clearly, the sun and warmish weather play an enormous role in my well-being. I’m kind of like a solar-powered calculator, malfunctioning or just shutting down when there isn’t enough sunlight. Does this mean I should move to Ecuador? Probably.

Anyway, it was during the bitterness of this time-between-springs here in Paris, as my heart stopped throbbing to the pulse of flowers and honeybees and began muttering existential complaints, that I felt the need for a comfort food of some kind. Especially for breakfast, waking up to another cold day and definitely needing some crunchy, apple-y courage to face it. Toast naturally came to mind, as did apple pie. But you can’t have both. Or can you?

Introducing apple pie toast: a very easy apple pie, or a very fancy kind of toast, depending on your point of view. You can whip it up fairly quickly, cooking the apples while your coffee is brewing, and the results are well worth it. There’s also lots of room for variation and different flavor combinations depending on the spreads you use.

Happily, the weather has turned nice again (for good this time, let’s hope), but I’m glad to have come up with this chilly-season comfort breakfast while awaiting spring’s return.

Apple pie toast

Makes enough for 2 to 3 pieces of toast

  • 1 apple (I prefer a green, tart kind like Granny Smith)
  • Juice from half a lemon
  • 3 teaspoons sugar, white or unrefined cane, or more to taste
  • Small pinch salt
  • Ground cinnamon
  • Ground nutmeg
  • Ground ginger
  • 2 or 3 pieces of sliced bread
  • Nut butter (white almond, cashew or other)
  • Optional garnish: raisins, sliced strawberries etc.

Chop your apple up into smallish cubes. If it’s organic, you can leave the skin on.

Place in a small frying pan over medium-high heat. Squeeze the juice of about half a lemon over the diced apple and stir to incorporate. If the apple seems like it’s going to stick to the pan, add a small amount (a few tablespoons) of water.

As the apple cooks, add the sugar and stir it in (I used rapadura). The sugar will caramelize a bit, so be sure to keep stirring occasionally so nothing burns.

Add a few shakes each of ground cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. If you like, add other seasonings such as ground cloves (be careful: a little goes a long way) or tonka bean.

Take the apple off the heat once it reaches the level of done-ness that you like. For me, that’s somewhere between crisp (raw) and the texture of apples inside a traditional apple pie baked in an oven with a crust on top.

Now toast your bread. I’m still using the trusty camping toaster you first saw in my curry “chicken” salad post.

Spread some nut butter on your toast. Here, I’ve used white almond butter (which is a bit runny), but you could opt for cashew butter or something with a more noticeable flavor like hazelnut butter, speculoos spread, chocolate-hazelnut spread or even peanut butter (?). Alternatively, plain or vanilla yogurt or cream cheese would work too. If your spread has a lot of sugar in it, consider adding less sugar when cooking your apple.

Now place the cooked apple evenly over the toast, and serve. Optional garnish: I used dried strawberry, but man, are they expensive! I recommend fresh strawberry instead, or maybe raisins or dried cranberries. Consider a sprinkling of gomasio too.

Apple pie toast makes for a lovely breakfast, together with coffee or tea. Keep it in mind if you want something to amaze and delight your next overnight guest!

(Also yummy in bed if your place has circa-1912 single-paned windows and is just too drafty.)

If you try this, let me know in the comments what your favorite spread to use is!

12 years in France

So 12 years ago today, I stepped off a plane and into my new life here in France. And 12 years later, I’m still here! The past decade plus two years have been eventful enough, marked by both highs and lows – relationships, career milestones, adopting Sésame, terrorist attacks, a pandemic and gaining the French nationality, to name a few. I’ve also talked a bit here about some cultural differences that can be unsettling. But let’s not get into any serious topics right now. Today, for a lighthearted tribute to this 12th Franciversary, I thought it would be fun to tell you about a few things I’m STILL not used to about France, even after all these years. They’re all pretty minor things, but whenever I encounter them I still shake my head in confusion.

A spoon for any and every dessert

In France, when people have dessert, no matter what the dessert is, they always eat it with a spoon. Much like when Mr. Pitt on Seinfeld carved up his Milky Way bar with a fork and knife, it never fails to look and feel wrong to me. I mean sure, a spoon is the way to go if you’re eating ice cream or chia pudding, but why would you attempt to eat cake with one? Why try to seize hold of a dense, spongy substance with a shallow shovel-like implement that could easily lead to something landing on the floor when humanity has already mastered the concept of the dessert fork?

Non-absorbant kitchen towels

I also don’t understand why kitchen towels in France seem designed to be more decorative than anything else. They do come in lots of nice colors and prints, but they tend to be made of a stiff, furniture upholstery type material that’s good for little else than pushing the rinse water around on a plate rather than absorbing it. Why, France, why?

Graph paper notebooks

I’m one of those people who still enjoys writing by hand, especially when making to-do lists. For some reason, notebooks in France are always lined both horizontally and vertically, which makes writing in one very distracting for people who grew up with only horizontal lines. Often, the lines are darker and more intricate than the example shown above, looking more useful to an engineer than anyone else. Many times, I’ve gone to office-supply stores hoping to somehow find the kind of paper I was used to, but ended up buying completely unlined sketchbooks to write in instead. Recently, however, I was fortunate enough to find some horizontally lined notebooks at Paris locations of the Dutch variety-store chain Hema. Before that, I used to stock up on a notebook or two every time I went back to the US for a family visit.

La bise

This is one thing I won’t have to worry about again for a while, at least for as long as this pandemic lasts. If you’re not aware, in France whenever you meet up with friends or are introduced to new people (in a friends context), you traditionally have had to touch your face to their face – one time on each side in Paris, but three or four times elsewhere – while making a kissing sound. This is la bise. Normally, your lips don’t actually touch their skin and theirs don’t touch yours, although the ambiguity of the situation means that creepy guys sometimes use it as a chance to actually kiss you.

I never minded participating in la bise with my actual friends, but it always felt like a violation of my personal space when I had to do it at a party with people I didn’t know and wasn’t necessarily ever going to see again. Especially when large numbers of people were involved. If you’re a man, you get kind of a break because you’re expected only to shake hands with other men (but still have to do la bise with women).

Paris-based English comedian Paul Taylor captures my feelings about la bise pretty accurately in this video. He’s not even exaggerating – it really does happen the way he describes. See also his coronavirus bise update.

Of course, these days, people are being cautioned specifically not to touch each other during greetings. There are even billboards on the street reminding you of this. Instead, people bump elbows, a practice I can definitely get behind. Personally, I’ve seen so few other humans since this whole business began, a year ago, that I don’t think I’ve even done any elbow-bumps. I did recently do some “shoe bises” though, which was amusing and should be adopted far and wide, in my opinion.

Completely illegible signatures

In the US, people tend to sign their actual names, with the result that if you squint long enough at a signature, you can generally figure out what the first couple of letters are. But in France (and this is probably the custom in many other parts of the world too), I’ve never seen a signature that resembles an actual name or contains identifiable letters of the alphabet. The person often makes a few energetic up-and-down lines, finishing them off with a horizontal flourish somewhere, with the resulting marks looking like the print-out of a bad liar’s polygraph test. Or it may resemble a huge elliptical oval, as in the above example.

This one doesn’t affect me much, except that it means my way of signing my name makes me stand out. I became aware of this difference too late to change my own signature accordingly (I’d already signed important documents at my French bank etc.), and now always strangely feel a bit sheepish when signing my name in my own traditional way, with the first and last names mostly legible, as it takes longer to write and maybe looks (to French people, in my imagination at least) less authentic…?

Writing “Lu et approuvé”

In a similar vein, when signing important documents in France, your completely illegible (or legible, in my case) signature is not enough. You also have to handwrite “lu et approuvé” (“read and approved”) above it. That might not seem like such a big deal, but when you’re doing something like opening a bank account or signing the documents to rent an apartment, you’ll have to write this like 10 or 20 times because the paperwork in France is endless. And it also just strikes me as odd. If your signature on the document doesn’t mean you’ve read and approved it, what on earth does it signify?

Okay, by now, especially if you’re French yourself, you might be thinking, “If you don’t like it here, lady, you can always leave. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out!” But there are of course also many, many things that I prefer about France and Europe compared to my home country. Otherwise I wouldn’t still be here! Beyond the obvious ones like a decent healthcare system, affordable higher education and ample paid vacation for all employees regardless of seniority, there are the day-to-day blessings such as the world’s best bread, beautiful architecture just about everywhere you look and the availability of white almond butter and crème de marrons.

If you’ve ever spent time in France or another country that’s foreign to you, what things seemed incomprehensible to you, or better than the way things are back home? Tell us in the comments!

Curry “chicken” and pinenut salad

Here’s a fun and easy salad that you can use as a sandwich filling or serve atop a green salad or in lettuce cups. It’s a vegan dish inspired by a chicken and pinenut salad sandwich I used to have at Beans & Barley in Milwaukee back in my student days. The curry adds a delicious warming dimension, the chopped celery gives a nice crunch and the toasted pine nuts lend a gourmet air.

Curry “chicken” and pinenut salad

Makes enough for 2 to 3 sandwiches

  • 6 oz. (160 g) vegan “chicken” (or substitute firm tofu, tempeh, chickpeas, etc.)
  • 1/4 cup (25 g) pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup (25 g) chopped celery
  • 1/3 cup (5 tablespoons) vegan mayonnaise
  • 3 teaspoons fresh curry powder
  • red or white onion (optional)
  • parsley or cilantro, for a garnish
  • bread, if you want to make sandwiches

Begin by toasting your pinenuts. Place them in a dry frying pan and heat over low/medium for several minutes, shaking the pan to stir occasionally. Stay right there in the kitchen during this process, so you can keep an eye on them… once they begin toasting, things can go fast and they can end up burnt in no time. Pinenuts are expensive, so it would be sad to have to throw them out. You can also chop your celery during this time (not shown).

This is the vegan “chicken” I used. You can also try this same recipe with firm tofu, tempeh, chickpeas or seitan.

It comes in the form of large chunks, which I recommend chopping into smaller pieces. The package says to cook it, but it’s actually already cooked and since this is a cold sandwich, there’s no need.

I used this German vegan mayonnaise I found at Un Monde Vegan in Paris. These days, more and more vegan and non-vegan brands are coming out with vegan mayo.

Mix the curry powder into the mayonnaise. I used 3 teaspoons for 1/3 cup mayo, but you could add less or more curry powder as you like. Make sure your curry powder is fresh, because after it sits around for a while it loses its flavor, and you don’t want to miss the punch that full-flavor curry packs in this dish.

The curry gives the mayonnaise a beautiful vibrant yellow color.

Mix the curry mayonnaise into the “chicken”, then incorporate the chopped celery and pinenuts. If you won’t be serving the salad right away, wait until the last moment to incorporate the pinenuts so they stay more crunchy. You may want to reserve some pinenuts to add as a final garnish if you’re serving this salad in lettuce cups for example.

To make a sandwich, toast some bread (this is the foldable stovetop “camping” toaster I use because there isn’t room in my kitchen for a normal toaster). 😉

Top the toast with some of the “chicken” salad, then add onion and an herb garnish, if desired. You could also serve this with lettuce and tomato. This can be either an open-faced sandwich, as shown above, or a traditional sandwich with two pieces of bread, as shown below.

Enjoy!

Variation: I recently learned of a British dish, coronation chicken, that’s quite similar to this and was invented for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation banquet. It differs in that it has no pinenuts but does have chopped dried apricots and flaked almonds.