White squirrel

Baileys AlmandeToday we have yet another recipe I concocted while visiting my parents back in the US this summer. I’d purchased a bottle of Baileys Almande, which isn’t easy to find in France but is so very delicious, and wondered if I could create a cocktail of some kind with it.

Its creaminess seemed to make it ideal for an ice cream drink. That made me remember the pink squirrel, a fun retro cocktail involving crème de cacao and crème de noyaux (made from apricot, peach or cherry pits, which give it an almond flavor – perfect for squirrels!) and prepared with either heavy cream or ice cream. Crème de noyaux usually also contains red food coloring, which is what gives the pink squirrel its pretty pastel hue.

Incidentally, in researching the pink squirrel, I learned it was actually invented at a cocktail lounge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of the cities where I spent my formative years.

wh squirrel 2I thought it would be fun to make a similar drink with a vegan twist, using Baileys Almande and nice cream (blended frozen bananas) instead of ice cream made from animal milk, and this is the result, which I have named “white squirrel.”

Of course, the drink is a bit more beige (or banana-colored) than white, but “beige squirrel” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, and even actual white squirrels are kinda beige, so it works, right? I think so.

The white squirrel would be a nice after-dinner indulgence for Valentine’s Day, which is nearly upon us. All you need are a few key ingredients and some advance planning, since the bananas have to be frozen for a few hours before you can start. Of course, if you have some vanilla dairy-free ice cream on hand, you could use that in place of the nice cream. If you can’t get your hands on Baileys Almande, you can substitute amaretto or another similar liqueur (scroll to the bottom of this post to see a Baileys-like product that’s available in France).

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I found this fun vintage pink squirrel recipe, which appears to come from one of those great 1970s recipe card libraries like my mom has. As always with these old recipe photos, the creation is given a confusing mise en scène with unattractive colors and problematic lighting. What’s a cocktail doing on the kitchen table from Little House on the Prairie? And why is it being served with fruitcake? It’s an elegant drink that functions as a dessert in its own right, and as such should be served by itself.

So let’s make some white squirrels, shall we?

white squirrel spoon

White squirrel

Makes 2 one-cup (236 ml) servings

  • 3 frozen bananas (roughly 16 oz/450 g in total)
  • 2 ounces (59 ml) white (clear) crème de cacao liqueur
  • 2 ounces (59 ml) Baileys Almande (or similar – see end of post)
  • non-dairy whipped topping
  • cocoa powder or ground cinnamon/nutmeg, for garnish

Equipment needed: freezer, food processor or high-powered blender

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Take your frozen bananas out of the freezer (after freezing for at least 4 hours) and weigh the amount you need, depending how many servings you want to make. In the photos in this post, you’ll see larger quantities because I was making more than two servings. Place the bananas in your food processor, but allow them to thaw for 10 or 15 minutes so they’re soft enough to blend without damaging your food processor.

Add the liqueurs to the food processor and begin blending the bananas. It’ll take a little while, but after a few minutes the bananas will take on a smooth soft-serve ice cream consistency. You may need to pause the blending to scrape down the inside from time to time, to help all the chunks to get blended.

When the nice cream looks like this and all of the banana has gotten blended, it’s ready!

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Fill up your glasses with the nice cream mixture and top with the nondairy whipped topping. Sprinkle a bit of cocoa powder or grated cinnamon or nutmeg on top if you like. Serve with spoons!

If you’re looking for additional Valentine’s recipes, check out the ones in my archives: mini fruit pavlovas, rosewater raspberry hearts and white chocolate mendiants.

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Variations:

  • Make a virgin white squirrel by substituting your favorite plant-based milk + 1/2 teaspoon almond extract per serving for the alcohol.
  • Turn this drink into a brown squirrel by adding some cocoa powder during the blending stage.

Where to find ingredients…

In North America: Baileys Almande can be found at most liquor stores these days, and most grocery stores carry a range of non-dairy whipped toppings, sometimes with a range of options (almond, rice, coconut). The products shown in the photos above were all purchased at mainstream grocery stores in the US.

In Europe: Baileys Almande is available in some countries (Germany and England, to my knowledge) but for some reason has still not become widely available in France.  You can substitute amaretto or a similar liqueur – for example, Aujourd’hui Demain in Paris currently has this maca and almond milk liqueur (photo below), which I haven’t tried but which seems similar to Baileys Almande. Non-dairy whipped toppings (in a pressurized can or small carton) can be purchased at vegan grocery stores and also sometimes at kosher stores or in the kosher section of a general grocery store. See also my whipped coconut cream recipe.

Plantain pizza

As you may have noticed, I really love fusion cuisine and the improbable but delicious flavor pairings that come into being when traditions from different parts of the world are combined. Today’s recipe is one such dish: part Italian, part American and part… Nigerian? Allow me to explain.

This summer, I had plantains on the brain because I’d recently gotten my hands on a really cool plantain cookbook – by Tomi Makanjuola, who runs the blog The Vegan Nigerian – which has over 40 recipes showcasing the underappreciated fruit in almost every kind of dish you can imagine. As I always try to make at least five recipes from every cookbook I acquire, in line with the philosophy behind my cookbook challenge, I set about making some of the dishes right away (my favorites are the beans & plantain pottage and the smoky plantain, mushroom & avocado on toast).

As I began to appreciate the humble plantain more and more, I thought it would be fun to create a plantain recipe of my own for this blog. As I set about reflecting upon savory and sweet combinations not already covered in that cookbook, Hawaiian pizza popped into my mind. Many are the opponents of pineapple on pizza, especially one Italian friend of mine, but I happen to love it. So I thought plantain might work on a pizza too as long as there was also something spicy to balance out the sweetness. After brainstorming a list of likely ingredients, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.

To be honest, even I was not totally sure if plantain on pizza would work out. But I looooooved it! My mom and dad did, too (I was at their house when I made it). It has smoky, savory notes from the smoked vegan deli meat, crunchy oniony-ness from the red onion, freshness from the cilantro and of course the crispy sweet plantain goodness of the star ingredient. I also love how colorful it is (red, white, yellow, purple, black, green).

So as I was saying, this pizza is a fusion dish – pizza has its origins in Naples but was developed into the dish we know today in early 20th century New York City (listen to this interesting How to Be American podcast episode for more on that) and this particular one has a key ingredient that’s grown in Nigeria, but also other parts of Africa as well as Asia and Latin America. Plantain is therefore not a specifically Nigerian thing, but since a Nigerian cookbook author inspired me to create this dish, I’ve associated it that way in my mind.

If all this has intrigued you and you want to try making it too, read on!

A note about the crust: when I made this pizza, I used an overly complicated homemade pizza dough recipe that I wouldn’t recommend, so I’ll leave it to you to find one you like. It just needs to be thick or firm enough to support the rather hefty plantain slices.

Plantain pizza

Makes an approximately 12-inch (30-cm) pizza

  • one thickish (but not deep-dish) pizza crust, purchased or homemade
  • 5 to 6 tablespoons pizza sauce (or tomato sauce plus Italian herbs)
  • 3/4 cup (75 g) mozzarella-style vegan cheese (optional)
  • 2 to 3 vegan deli-style smoked “meat” slices
  • 1 to 2 medium-ripe plantains
  • 1/2 cup (60 g) red onion
  • 1/4 cup (30 g) sliced black olives
  • 1/3 cup sliced canned banana, peperoncino or other hot pepper
  • small bunch fresh cilantro (coriander)
  • 2 tablespoons cornmeal, for pan (or use baking paper)

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Preheat your oven to 475°F (250°C) and begin by preparing the plantains. Slice each one lengthwise and remove the peel. Slice into rounds of equal thickness, about 1/4th of an inch (5 mm) thick, and sauté on both sides over medium heat until golden brown. It’s important for the plantain to be fully precooked as undercooked plantain can lead to tummyache, and the time it spends in the oven might not be enough.

Sprinkle your baking sheet with the cornmeal to prevent sticking or, alternatively, line with baking paper. Place the dough upon it, rolling it flat if needed – mine was rectangular and measured 10.5 x 12.5 inches (27 x 32 cm) before baking. Spread the pizza sauce on it evenly, using more than the recommended amount if necessary or desired. Cover that with the vegan mozzarella, if using (I recommend Daiya in North America or Violife in Europe). But you can also opt not to use any cheese at all. If you don’t use cheese, a sprinkling of nutritional yeast before or after baking will add a somewhat cheesy flavor.

Cut the smoky vegan deli “meat” slices into squares. Use however much you like.

Slice your red onion (and black olives, if not presliced) and place on top of the pizza.

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Finally, slice up the hot peppers and place on top of the pizza in the amount that you like, depending how partial you are. I started with two peppers but ended up adding some more after the pizza came out of the oven as I really loved the combination.

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Place in the oven (preheated to 475°F/250°C) and bake for about 10 minutes. Keep an eye on things because baking times can vary quite a bit depending on the thickness of your particular crust. If after 10 minutes it doesn’t seem done, give it some more time.

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Remove from the oven and garnish with fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves. Your one-of-a-kind plantain pizza is ready! Slice it up and serve it to your hungry guests (…or yourself!).

By the way, what do you think of the tablecloth? An uncle of mine brought it from Liberia as a gift for my parents some years ago, and I thought it would fit well with this recipe’s West African theme.

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Soooo yummy, if I do say so myself! I want to make it again. 🙂


Where to find ingredients…

Plantains can be found at most supermarkets, but if you don’t find any, look for a Latin-American, African or Asian grocery.

Mozzarella-style vegan cheese is increasingly available at mainstream grocery stores in North America, but organic shops are even more likely to have it. In France, you’ll find it at some organic shops, but for best results check at a vegan food shop first (in Paris: Naturalia Vegan, Mon Epicerie Paris and Aujourd’hui Demain).

Vegan deli “meat” slices will also most likely be found at organic and vegan food shops. In Europe, I recommend the brand Wheaty.

My best reads of 2019

In 2019, I was lucky enough to happen upon several really, really good books. And this month I decided to revisit an idea from January 2017 and tell you all about my favorite books from the past year.

I also started a new challenge in 2019. You know those “100 books to read before you die” lists that pop up from time to time, full of classics from world literature? This summer I stumbled upon yet another one and, as always, felt frustrated that I’d read relatively few of them. So I decided to correct this and made my own “bucket” list of 250 titles using the recommendations from this site, which offers a list generated from 128 best books lists. I went with 250 books rather than just 100 because I’d already read some in the 100-250 range and figured expanding the list couldn’t hurt. So far, counting the ones I’d already read, I have 55 of the 250 under my belt. Finishing the entire list will be the work of many years, but chipping away at this challenge makes me feel accomplished. And of course, I may just discover favorite new books and authors this way.

I also copied down The Guardian’s list of the 100 best novels written in English to be sure not to neglect any of those (I’ve read 25 so far), although there’s a lot of overlap between the two lists. And finally, I’m still working on my Read the World challenge with the goal of eventually reading at least one novel (any novel) from every country. So far, I’ve covered only 32 of the 196, but it’s a start.

So which of the books that I read in 2019 did I like the most? Read on to find out.

Heaven and Hell (2007) by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

Heaven and HellOf all the novels I’ve ever stumbled upon randomly, I think this one is my most valuable find. I was on my way home from a grocery store when I noticed a pile of abandoned books on a ledge and couldn’t resist stopping to check them out in spite of the surplus I already had at home. Seeing one by an Icelandic author (and being a big fan of Iceland), I decided to take it. It wasn’t long before I realized how lucky I was it had crossed my path. Heaven and Hell is about a young fisherman in a remote part of Iceland 100 years ago. As his real passion is not fish but words, he is sadly ill-suited to his job. Soon enough, tragedy strikes, prompting him to leave the crew to fulfill a special mission.

This story immerses you not just in another world and another time, but in a special realm of magic where you hear the thoughts of fish sighing in the depths of the fjords, peer into the labyrinth of the human soul and learn that you can hear the stars sing if you only climb high enough into the mountains. Narrative – and opinions – from a chorus of unidentified dead fisherman sometimes finds its way between the chapters. Although the novel is actually the first in a trilogy, it can also stand fairly well on its own. And if you become captivated by these characters, as I did, you’ll be glad there’s more to come. As I type these words, I’m halfway through the third volume, The Heart of Man, and am loving it.

The copy of Heaven and Hell that I happened upon is the French translation (Entre ciel et terre) by Éric Boury, whom I greatly respect as his version seems to have touched the hearts of this readership just as effectively as the original has with the author’s compatriots. And as the English version by Philip Roughton also has stellar reviews, I will not hesitate to recommend both here.

Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert

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If it hadn’t been for that “best books” challenge, I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up for a while. But it was more enjoyable than I expected, and I now regret waiting so long to read anything by Flaubert. Essentially a parable about the perils of ambition, Madame Bovary makes its points through the sad tale of the anti-heroine and also some minor characters.

Perpetually dissatisfied, Emma Bovary has made the mistake of marrying a boring country doctor and they live decidedly too far away from the excitements of cities and society life for her liking. Although this story was written in the 19th century, its moral is still highly relevant today and, human nature being what it is, will probably remain so.

I read this novel in the original French on Kindle (hooray for the public domain!) and as a side benefit, learned the French names of obsolete objects such as the buvard (ink blotting paper) Emma uses when penning her many letters to a certain rascally someone – you’ll have to read it yourself to find out who!

After finishing the book, I was excited to find a recent English-language film adaptation by Sophie Barthes, starring Mia Wasikowska, on Netflix. Sadly, it proved highly forgettable, and I couldn’t get past the fact that some actors spoke with British accents while others had American ones, and all the characters were of course all supposed to be from the same country (just pick one accent!).

Song of Solomon (1977) by Toni Morrison

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This novel was in the “best book” list too, but I would have read it anyway as I love Toni Morrison (who sadly left us this past year). During a visit home this summer, I found a copy of it in my mom’s bookshelf and dove in.

Song of Solomon follows the story of the oddly named Milkman Dead and his even odder family. As he comes of age and tries to make his way in the world, he discovers secrets about his mother and father that drive him on a quest to learn more.

The story, which draws in part upon African-American mythology,  seems at first to meander, introducing various eccentric characters that don’t seem to have much to connect them. But as you read on, you piece together the rich tapestry of their shared history and destinies that intertwine no matter how hard the people try to keep their distance. As always, Morrison’s beautiful prose shone and I had trouble putting the book down. The copy I read was from the 80s and its cover informed me it had been named the best book of 1977. It’s easy to see why!

Blond(e) Boy, Red Lipstick (2018) by Geoff Bunn

Blond(e) Boy, Red Lipstick

This one came to my attention through the recommendation of a translator friend with good taste in literature.

Set in London and Birmingham in the 1980s, Blond(e) Boy, Red Lipstick is a transgender romance, the first I’ve ever read. I was intrigued to find out how the main character, a young heterosexual man, ends up falling in love with a girl who turns out to be a boy. But the main thing that comes through in this story is the universality of human emotions. No matter who you are, and who you love, you’ll recognize the feelings the unnamed protagonist experiences.

And perhaps also those small points in time where, Sliding Doors style, a choice can change your whole future. The times, too, when life seems inexplicably to pave a way for you along a certain path. As the protagonist observes, “There are moments in life that are given to us.” On a side note, I can easily imagine this as a film, with an early 80s aesthetic and a great soundtrack!

Life after Life (2013) by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life

What if you could live again and again, until you got it right? Such is the premise of Life after Life, an exceptional story, which follows Ursula Todd through a myriad of attempts at life. Tragedies occur, mistakes are made, and she dies at various points in her existence. Each time, she is born again as the same person, to the same family, under (roughly) the same circumstances, and repeats the same life. When she reaches the moment that saw her die the last time, she instinctively avoids the situation or takes a different action that leads to her going on living.

Watching her do this, you come to realize the enormous impact one small choice, one resolute decision, one failure to act can have. It made me reflect upon many times in my past when I should have done something different. How would things be now if I had? It also reminds you that a chain of events lies behind anyone’s situation in life, bad or good.

Another thought that may strike the reader… what if this were how life actually works? Could it be the explanation for déjà vu? We can’t prove it either way, but what would you change if you were going to live your life over again?

Homegoing (2017) by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing.jpgThis novel was another somewhat random find. I was at one of my favorite libraries, browsing through its fairly extensive foreign-books section (this is why it’s a favorite library), and it was propped up on a display stand. I’d never heard of the author, but the endorsement by Zadie Smith was enough for me. Homegoing was a fortuitous find, for this is a gem of a book.

The story begins in 18th century Ghana, with two half-sisters who are each unaware of the other’s existence. The choices they make – or that are made for them – take them down very different paths. Effia becomes an English slave trader’s bride and lives with him in a castle while Esi is enslaved and sent to work at a plantation in the American south.

The story follows the descendants of each sister, their fates inescapably linked to that original diverging point, up to the present day. Each chapter is one person’s story. We see what life was like over the centuries in Ghana and also how Esi’s children and grandchildren fared under slavery and then in a country marked by slavery’s heavy legacy.

Informative and beautifully written, this novel is all the more impressive for being the author’s debut novel. My only complaint was that I wanted it to be longer!

All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr

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I found this novel at the same library, but it had been recommended to me by a few people. All the Light We Cannot See is the touching story of a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy whose fates intersect during World War II. The girl flees with her father from Paris to the walled city of Saint-Malo, where they try to survive alongside an eccentric uncle and scheming neighbors. The boy, meanwhile, becomes a Nazi soldier through no particular decision of his own and takes some time to make up his own mind about what it is that he’s participating in.

With sight and the invisible as a theme, the novel focuses among other things on the various ways people react to crisis, making choices that protect their own interests but hurt others or, inversely, help others but cause their own downfall or even demise. The consequences, of course, are often invisible at the time of choosing.

Swing Time (2016) by Zadie Smith

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As the title suggests, dance and performance is a major theme of this story, which revolves around the complicated friendship of two girls growing up in a low-income neighborhood of northwest London. One has talent but faces obstacles, while the other has dreams without the corresponding skills and eventually finds herself taking another path.

The part of the novel set in Africa is what interested me most. A mega-rich, mega-popular American pop star decides to open a school for girls in an underprivileged rural area of an unnamed African country. But when the best of intentions, cultural ignorance and too much money coincide, things don’t always go as planned.

The various storylines in this novel can sometimes feel disconnected and disjointed, but isn’t that kind of how real life works too? I found this novel very entertaining in spite of it all.

Honorable mentions

Here are a few more that I read in 2019, but that I don’t recommend unreservedly.

Orlando (1928) by Virginia Woolf. Although I enjoy Woolf’s writing overall, her stream-of-consciousness style can make getting through her books somewhat of an arduous task. But Orlando is an important work in the history of literature, both for feminism and transgender topics (it is the first English-language trans novel). In this novel, which spans three centuries and relies on a good dose of magical realism, the titular protagonist has adventures in several countries and undergoes a spontaneous sex change midway through. Woolf’s friend and lover Vita Sackville-West was the direct inspiration for the character, so reading this novel is a good way to gain a better understanding of both authors and their writing. But reading Orlando is not a thankless task – it does demand work on the reader’s end but there are many rewards along the way, moments of pure comedy and biting insights into patriarchy’s various unfairnesses. Watching Sally Potter’s beautiful 1993 film adaptation (starring Tilda Swinton and a cross-dressing Quentin Crisp) could be a good way to get started on this book, which does however have a lot more content than what could be covered in the film.

At the Strangers’ Gate (2017) by Adam Gopnik. This memoir of the author’s early days in New York City was one of my Paris sidewalk finds, and since I knew his name already from his Paris book (which I haven’t read yet), I took a chance on it. Alas, there’s a certain tediousness in his style. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s wrong, since he’s clearly a skilled writer, but it may have something to do with his love of aphorism. Or maybe you have to be more interested in his life and the celebrity friends he talks about. Still, I enjoyed two chapters of At the Strangers’ Gate and recommend them to anyone who writes for a living (copywriters, editors, translators). The first one is chapter 6, “The Simple Logic of Summer Shirts,” in which Gopnik recounts his time working as a fashion copyeditor for the magazine GQ in the 80s: “The rhetoric of fashion – even men’s fashion – in those days, as probably in these days, too, depended on a simple, puzzlingly repeated tale of previous confusion from which we had now blessedly – just this month! – recovered.” I recognized this rhetoric, which is definitely still a thing, from my fairly limited experience translating for fashion brands. And in chapter 9, “Writing,” he talks about his work for a publisher, offering up more tidbits on publishing that could be useful or interesting to the categories of people I mentioned above. And who knows, maybe you’ll like the rest of the book more than I did.

Can’t and Won’t (2017) by Lydia Davis. The first work in the genre of flash fiction that I’ve ever read, Can’t and Won’t was full of fun little gems, pithy observations on everyday life that anyone can probably relate to. Some were very very short, consisting of just one sentence, like “Sitting with My Little Friend” (“Sitting with my little friend on the front/step:/I am reading a book by Blanchot/and she is licking her leg.”). Other longer ones offered a dry humor that I appreciated – like when the author and her neighbor both become paralyzed with indecision over a throw rug, or when the author receives a box of chocolates and cannot decide who should eat them and when. My favorite piece was a letter the author purportedly sent to a green pea manufacturer to complain about the package images and suggest improvements (it’s the kind of letter I often contemplate writing when I encounter bad translations on packaging or restaurant menus, but never do). Davis happens to also be a French to English translator, like myself, and has produced new translations of some of Flaubert’s work (after reading the original Madame Bovary this year, I now want to check out her version). And this collection of stories includes some rather experimental pieces drawn in part from Flaubert’s correspondence. But they aren’t straightforward translations – rather, she starts with one of his letters but sometimes embellishes upon it or combines it with something from another of his letters. The result is generally an amusing anecdote, although it is a bit frustrating to not know how much of it is Flaubert and how much Davis. In any case, although I enjoyed this book I didn’t include it in my main list of recommendations because flash fiction is a genre with many detractors (especially judging from the Goodreads comments), so this type of writing may not be for everyone.

How about you? What good books did you read this past year? What are your favorites of all time? Let us know in the comments.

In any case, I hope some of my favorite reads will inspire you too. And for more ideas, be sure to also check out my best reads list from 2016. Happy reading, fellow bookworms!

How to be French

Quite a few books out there offer to teach you how to do X, Y or Z like the French, since imitating them, according to a certain line of thought, is the surest way to secure success for yourself in this life. But today’s post isn’t about how this nation can inspire us to dress more fashionably, eat gourmet food without getting fat or raise better behaved children. It’s about how to actually become French, in the most literal way possible. Like Josephine Baker did, in 1937, when she became a citizen.

One of the most successful entertainers of the Jazz Age, Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri but fell in love with France when she first visited in 1925 at the age of 19. It wasn’t long before she made it her permanent home.

This past year, it was my turn! After 10 years of living and working in France, becoming (reasonably) integrated into French society and my identity fusing into a combination of American and French/European, I became a naturalized French citizen.

dual citizen.jpgIt happened in May but became more and more official in various stages and still feels rather surreal to me. Especially when I think about how I’d always been a descendant of immigrants – on one side of the family, my ancestors came to the US from Germany four generations ago and on the other side a bit earlier – but am now the immigrant myself, a first-generation one. In hyphenated speak, I was a European-American but now am (also) an American-European.

Because both the US and France allow multiple nationalities, I’ve kept my original one too (in fact, ditching it is complex and difficult), so I’m a dual citizen and can vote in both countries. For people from places like Japan, Djibouti, India and China that officially allow only one nationality, applying for a new one is a much bigger decision. I probably wouldn’t have done it if it meant giving up my US citizenship.

But why go to the trouble, some may wonder. What difference does it make? Well, in addition to the ability to vote in French and EU elections, having the French nationality means I no longer have to renew a residence permit every few years, and wonder each time if I’ll be successful. In fact, as you’ll read in more detail below, if I hadn’t applied for citizenship when I did, I would have found myself with no way to stay in France by the end of 2018. And it also allows me to work in whatever sector I feel like (even in the government), whereas my residence permits were tied to my work as a translator and obliged me to stick with something related to translation. And finally, as an EU citizen, I can live wherever I choose within the EU and also the European Free Trade Association countries (Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein).

If you too want to apply for French citizenship, or are just curious about the process, read on! A word of caution: definitely do not rely solely on the information below because rules and requirements can and do change constantly – some of what applied in my case is already obsolete. And if you’re not in Paris, things happen a lot faster.

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First, here’s a timeline of my process:

April 2009: moved to France with the three-year Carte compétences et talents residence permit (renewed in 2012 and 2015), continued working as a freelance translator through my US-based sole proprietorship
Early 2012: switched to a French small business (for the same work) and therefore began paying taxes in France instead of the US
Early 2017: after paying taxes in France for five years, was eligible to apply for citizenship and began putting an application dossier together
May 2017: submitted my application for the first time
September 2017: application was returned to me as incomplete, with a request to provide additional documents that had not originally been requested
November 2017: submitted my application for the second time (getting the missing documents and having them translated took a while)
August 2018: received appointment for my naturalization interview, two months ahead of time (this is unusually long)
October 2018: had my naturalization interview, answered 99% of the questions correctly
Four weeks later: did not receive a rejection letter (this meant I’d been approved)
May 2019: received the letter from the Ministry of the Interior informing me I was henceforth a French citizen
June 2019: applied for and received my new passport and national ID card
October 2019: attended my citizenship ceremony (invitation received two weeks ahead)
December 2019: attended a special event at the Hôtel de Ville given by Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, for people naturalized in 2019
January 2020: will attend a similar event at the town hall of my arrondissement

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Things to know for a successful outcome

Knowledge is power

In spite of my best efforts, some necessary documents (not on the list the naturalization office gave me) were missing from my dossier the first time I submitted it. It took them four months to tell me this and two more months for me to obtain the requested items, so that made the whole process take six months longer. This could have been avoided if I’d only been communicating with others who were also applying for naturalization or simply been aware of the dedicated Facebook groups – Naturalisation (retour d’expérience) is a very good source of information. Even if you think you’re on top of everything, spend some time reading the archives – you might just learn something that saves you a year of waiting, or even makes or breaks your case.

Application

photo_2020-01-03_02-50-38.jpgIn Paris, you can get an application by stopping by the naturalization office on Ile de la Cité. I recommend doing this rather than simply downloading it because you can also ask the counter person which documents you – with your particular circumstances – need to provide. Asking in person is really the only way to get an answer, as phone calls tend to not get through.

However, since the answers you get aren’t always fully accurate, be sure to also read about other people’s experiences and ask for info as needed (see previous section). The application needs to be filled out in duplicate.

 

ID photos

With your application, you need to include a few copies of an ID photo. Note that this isn’t the same photo that will be used for your French national ID card and passport, if you’re successful. For that, at the end of the whole 18+ month process, you’re supposed to provide a current one (taken within the past six months, but no proof of the date is required). So if you really like the photo you submit with your application, be sure to hold on to one copy of it to use again later.

Active involvement in French society

france coat of arm and flagAnyone considering applying for the nationality would do well to become a member of a local association, nonprofit or club of some kind years ahead of time. Note that for the naturalization office, simply donating money to a cause does not count as involvement; you need to be an official member of something and have proof of your active involvement in it. You want to show that you’re not just hanging out exclusively with people from your own country, speaking your native language, but are part of the larger society.

In my case, years before naturalization was even really on my radar, I got involved in some local animal-protection nonprofits as a volunteer translator and in other capacities. In particular, I wrote several articles in French for the magazine published by the Association végétarienne de France (a local vegan society). I did this out of genuine interest and dedication to the cause, but later discovered that it was also an asset for my naturalization application since it was evidence of my integration and ability to use the French language.

French language exam

simone de beauvoirThis is a part of the process I was actually looking forward to, as I’d never had my French-language skills formally evaluated (outside of classes that is), not having ever needed to take the DELF or DALF exam. I mean, I knew I could more or less hold my own in French but wasn’t sure if official test-giving people would agree.

The Test de connaissance du français pour l’accès à la nationalité française (TCF ANF) is specifically designed for people who are applying to become French citizens and as such, focuses on listening and speaking abilities [NOTE: going on their site just now, I learned that people taking the test in April 2020 or later will also have to do some writing components]. It’s offered at various language schools and you take it at some point prior to submitting your naturalization application, since the official test results transcript is one of the documents you must include. There’s no real way to prepare for it – you either have the skills already or you don’t. Since I knew my level was decent, I wasn’t nervous about taking this test.

The first part was a multiple-choice listening test, which did make me panic a bit once it started as it was harder than I’d expected. There were 25 short recordings, each played only once without much time between questions and the room was echoey. One was of a person calling in to a radio show, so you can imagine the sound quality of that.

For the second part, each person in our small group of test-takers went into another room with a facilitator, one by one, to prove their speaking skills. This involved a role-play conversation about a hypothetical daily-life situation (advising a friend who has noisy neighbors) and then choosing and arguing for a position on some assigned topic (“should we or shouldn’t we teach children about the dangers of the Internet?”). Each person was given different prompts. This part of the test was no problem for me, and I even got a bit carried away in my response to the last prompt, wanting to continue making my points even when the woman told me I could stop.

I’m happy to report that my results were good. I got 100% on the speaking part and one question wrong on the listening part (I’ll never know which one). The scores range from A1 at the lowest and C2 at the highest, and to be eligible to apply for citizenship you need at least a B1 level.

Since the results of this test actually have an expiration date, I recommend taking it only at the end of your application-preparation process, just before applying.

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Parents’ documents, apostilles and translations

marie antoinetteThe application asks for information not just about you but about your parents, siblings, children and even past spouse(s) if you’re divorced or widowed. You’re also supposed to list every single address you’ve ever lived at in your entire life (!) along with dates, and I was amazingly able to do this accurately with the help of my dad, who for some reason had kept a record of all the places our family has lived. The same goes for all the jobs you’ve ever had, though I suppose they don’t place too much importance on the fast-food places you worked at when you were in high school, so there’s no reason to get too stressed. Just use your best judgment as far as what to include, and focus on post university positions.

You must furthermore provide your parents’ birth certificates in addition to your own, or just their marriage certificate if (and only if) said certificate states their places and dates of birth. I learned the hard way that this last detail was what mattered! It’s because when you become naturalized, you’re actually issued a French birth certificate (!) listing the places and dates of birth of your parents in addition to your own. As I didn’t realize this at first, I submitted only their marriage certificate and then had to later urgently procure their birth certificates and have them translated since those details were missing and nobody was about to take my word for them. And yes, don’t forget about the translations. Everything you submit with your dossier has to be translated into French by a traducteur assermenté (translator with “sworn” status in France). You will probably also have to get what’s called an apostille for each of these documents, and then have the apostilles translated (it just keeps getting better). Learn from my mistakes, save yourself time and trouble and request the apostille at the same time as the certificate.

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Police record

If you’ve lived in France less than 10 years at the time of your application, you will also need to provide a casier judiciaire (police record) from all the countries you lived in within that same period of time. If you’re from the US, this takes the form of an FBI report, which involves having your fingerprints taken, mailing them in and then waiting forever for the result. The result, and an apostille of same, then needs to be translated.

New French name?

prénomsWhen you gain the French nationality, you have the option of changing your name (first and/or last) to something French. Most people opt not to, but you could for example just change a spelling (Mary to Marie) or insert an accent mark (Josephine to Joséphine). Or give yourself the gift of an extra middle name. In France, it’s common to have two or more middle names, so if you have only one, this is your chance to add some extra flair to your life (sadly, I didn’t think of doing this until it was too late). Reflect upon this well ahead of time because you’re supposed to put the new name on your application form. Once the naturalization is complete it becomes much harder to change.

When in doubt, go overboard

Not totally sure if you need to add that document? Add it anyway! It’s best to err on the side of too much rather than too little, since missing documents will mean more delays and hassle (I had a six-month delay because of this). I included a cover letter and apostilles for everything, even though apostilles had been explicitly requested for only certain documents, because someone else further down along the line could have randomly decided that they were needed after all. And if you’ve lived in France for any time, you’ll know what I mean about those random spontaneous rule changes.

Actually applying

When you finally have everything together, put it in a very secure envelope and mail it en recommandée avec accusé de réception (via registered mail with proof of receipt). You’ll get this proof of receipt back in a few days.

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While you wait

You now have eight or nine months of waiting until the next step in the process – the naturalization interview, in which you’re quizzed on your knowledge of French history and facts and asked why you want to be a French citizen.

I recommend using this time to read and start memorizing the Livret du citoyen (French citizens’ handbook), which can be found online in PDF form. It covers all the key dates, people and facts of French history, as well as some things about the legislative system. You’ll need to know the information in it (and more) like the back of your hand for your interview. Don’t forget to also study up on the European Union, because you’re trying to become not just a citizen of France but of the EU too, and there will be questions on both.

The Facebook group I linked to above is a great place to learn the questions that are often asked. Also search online for other message forums or blog posts with the keywords entretien de naturalisation. I personally relied heavily on the list in this very useful blog post, and some English-language blogs (like this one) were helpful too. If you speak another language, check for information in that one too.

I began by making paper flash cards based on the information in the Livret plus the questions other people have had. But I soon switched to the flash-card app Anki and that turned out to be a really good way to study – you can create your own set of cards and have the app take you through them randomly, showing you one side and then letting you flip to the other side to check the answer. I created mine in French, the language of the interview, and spent a LOT of time going through them, rehearsing my answer before flipping to the back of each card, and then repeating, repeating, repeating until I could have answered them in my sleep or given a 30-minute lecture on the history of France at a moment’s notice. Since they were on my phone, I could study them in the metro, in line at the supermarket – basically, anywhere and anytime, including in the waiting room just before my interview.

Also check out the very cute video series Les Clés de la République for a fun way to learn all about France’s government, laws, values, symbols etc. (just about all the things you need to know for the interview).

But your answer to “Why do you want to be French?” is probably most important of all, so make sure you think this through and have something to say. In my preparations, I happened upon a horror story from someone who wasn’t ready for this question – don’t let that happen to you!

In any case, start preparing for the interview early because when the letter summoning you to it comes, you may not have much advance notice (it could be just a week or two ahead of time). Furthermore, the letter will contain a list of additional documents to bring, and tracking them down will take a while too, leaving you with precious little time to study. This is why it’s key to do what you can while you still have time. For example, begin creating your flashcards even if you won’t be studying them right away.

Among other things, you should also be able to identify and explain the significance of all the people, place and things in the images of this post, so maybe start with that! 😉

Keep your residence permit current

If, during this waiting period, your residence permit will expire, make sure to apply for a new one well ahead of time (I believe six to four months ahead is the recommendation). If you haven’t applied, this can become an obstacle to getting the citizenship even if all your other ducks are in a row. As luck would have it, mine was expiring one month after my naturalization interview, and with everything that had been going on I hadn’t yet begun applying for a new permit. This is mainly because the type of permit I’d had (the Carte compétences et talents) had been done away with and “replaced” by the Passeport talent, a permit with new specific criteria I didn’t quite meet, and I was at a loss as to what else I could apply for. The residence permit office refused to advise me on my options.

But given the urgency of the situation (my application could not be forwarded to the next step until I supplied proof of having an appointment with the residence permit people), I applied for the Passeport talent anyway. And I was rejected! So if I hadn’t already applied for the nationality I might have had to leave France. In a dramatic turn of events worthy of a Hollywood film, I received the Passeport talent rejection letter just one day before learning I had been naturalized.

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The interview

rooster symbol of france.jpgFor many, the naturalization interview is the most dreaded part of the whole process, but if you’re properly prepared it’s not bad at all.

The lady who interviewed me was friendly and kind, and this is the case with most interviewers, from what I’ve heard. We spent the first half of the hour going through my paperwork and figuring out if I had all the documents I was supposed to. As it turned out, I didn’t, thanks in part to the vagueness of the list of things to bring in the summons letter and the impossibility of contacting anyone for clarification (the email I sent to the address provided bounced – it turned out they gave me the wrong address). Fortunately, she was very forgiving about this and allowed me to send the missing documents later that day.

Then it was time for the questions. One thing that put me at ease was that she wasn’t staring at me while I answered, like they do in job interviews to see how quickly you become unnerved, but settled herself in front of her computer, though still facing me, and types my responses as we went along.

She started with some questions about me, such as how often I go back to my home country, whether my friends are mostly French or from my country (note: there’s only one correct way to answer this) and who in my family still lives in the US. She asked if I belonged to an association, at which point I pulled out some Association végétarienne de France magazines with my articles in them and explained about that. I’d been kind of worried the vegetarian thing would work against me, France still being mostly hostile to such things, but the lady just made a joke about dieting (“Tous au régime, hein ?”) and that seemed to be the extent of her reaction. She took a magazine to look at later.

Next, she checked my knowledge of France, prompting me to explain what I knew about the national holiday (what day of the year, what for, and everything else related to the French Revolution) and France’s symbols and values (liberté, égalité, fraternité and laïcité for good measure). Bastille DayShe then asked me to explain what I knew about the last one, including the related laws and regulations and their dates. As I answered, I noticed her nodding each time I correctly explained one of the key facts. I could almost hear a pinball machine dinging as we went along, pushing my score higher and higher.

From that we moved on to the European Union, and there were only two questions: how many member states there are and what year the treaty on the euro was signed. I knew the first one but began to sweat over the second one, since I’d studied only the Treaty of Rome and the history of the EU’s formation. I answered something about how France got the physical currency in 2002 but had begun using it in virtual transactions a bit earlier, in 2000 (wrong – it was 1999), but what she really wanted was for me to name the Maastricht Treaty and give its date (1992). This was the only question I couldn’t fully answer though, so I guess it didn’t count against me too much.

And finally… why did I want to become French?

I started by saying that France, French culture and the French language had been part of my life since middle school and that I’d never stopped learning about them. And that I’d been here for nearly 10 years and really felt that I’d integrated France into my identity – for example, when France has a victory of some kind (like the World Cup win), I feel proud. She nodded enthusiastically as I said all of this.

I then went on to say that I believed in France’s values. I named them all again and said I particularly appreciated the fraternity/solidarity that exists here in France, the fact that people generally want to help each other (in particular by contributing to social security for the benefit of all), and that I felt better having my tax money go to France and help fund French social security than to the US where there is no such spirit (again, all very true). “As you may know,” I continued, the passion rising in my voice, “there are lots of people in my country who are against universal healthcare, and I simply cannot understand that.” By this point in my rant the lady was nodding her head even more vigorously in agreement and deploring the situation in the US, so I went ahead and added that as I saw it, many things happening in the US were a shame and a disaster, etc. (which they are) and she completely agreed. I drove the point home by saying I was proud to contribute to French social security and to be part of this system of solidarity (which I am).

At this point I felt I had been approved. The lady politely cut my speech short, quizzed me briefly on the rights and duties of a French citizen (pay taxes, help defend the country at times of war, vote) and then hurriedly ended our chat as she was running behind and had more foreigners to interview. I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get a chance to amaze her with my knowledge of presidents, kings, world wars, rivers and mountain ranges, overseas territories, authors, artists, novels, films and the short-lived but fascinating revolutionary calendar (1793-1805), but when walking out of a naturalization interview that seems to have gone well, one can hardly complain about such things.

No news is good news

Once your interview has happened, they actually make their decision really quickly, in the next three to four weeks. If your application is turned down, you receive a letter by registered mail within four weeks. If after four weeks you’ve received nothing, you know you’ve probably been accepted and citizenship is on its way! But for some reason (in Paris at least) it takes another six months for it to become official.

Journal officiel and letter

When you do finally become a citizen, your name is published in the Journal officiel (JO), a sort of online governmental bulletin where new laws and rulings are announced and that nobody reads. Accessing it is a bit complex, but this link will take you to the naturalization decrees. The JO listing is how I first learned I’d become French, and then I received the official letter from the Ministry of the Interior a week or so later – an exciting moment even when you know it’s coming. In some cases people don’t get the letter for a long while, so it can be handy to keep an eye on the JO.

National ID card and new passport

After you’ve received this golden-ticket letter, you can make an appointment at a police station to request the French national ID card and passport. I used my new passport for the first time upon returning this past September after a visit home (or should I now say “original home”?). And let me tell you, getting to stand in the much shorter “EU passports only” line at the airport border control was a triumphant moment indeed!

Naturalization ceremony

I was naturalized at the end of May, but the ceremony didn’t happen until mid-October (I assume none are held in the summer, when the whole country shuts down for vacation). It was fairly anti-climactic. Prior to applying for the citizenship, I’d heard a rumor that the ceremony was held at the Panthéon, which would have made it a very grand affair, but mine (like those of my friends) was held at the same nondescript office on Ile de la Cité where I’d picked up the application and had my interview. It’s possible that a few select ceremonies are actually held at the Panthéon but I can’t imagine under what circumstances – if someone famous is getting naturalized? If the foreign media is around?

The letter doesn’t say this, but you can bring a guest with you. I didn’t (most people didn’t), but if you have some family around I imagine it’s nice to have them there.

The ceremony is however rather… “automated”? You wait in line outside, show your papers, shuffle up the stairs with the rest of the herd and then get corralled into a long, narrow room called the Salle Marianne. An apt name, I suppose, as you come out of it more French than ever. The event lasts just 30 minutes. First, they hand you a personalized folder containing a welcome letter, the lyrics to the French national anthem La Marseillaise, your new French birth certificate and all birth certificates (yours, your parents’) that you supplied with your application. I didn’t get that magazine back, but that’s just as well as my bookshelves were already bursting.

Next, they show a short film reminding you of your rights and responsibilities as a citizen. A civil servant of some kind then gives a short speech along the same lines, and finally everyone sings a few verses of La Marseillaise together. And that’s it! We were given a few minutes to have our picture taken next to the Marianne statue, if we wanted, and to write something in a sort of guest book.

There were about 70 of us, and we weren’t allowed to linger very long in the Mariannizing room because there was another throng of people waiting outside for the next ceremony. I don’t know if there were still other groups that day, but the ceremony is held every Thursday so it seems a whole lot of people are becoming French citizens.

Reception at the Hôtel de Ville with the mayor

I’d thought the ceremony in October was the end of it, but in early December, to my surprise, Mayor Anne Hidalgo herself invited me (well, her name was on the envelope) to a special event at the Hôtel de Ville, the main city hall of Paris. It seemed to be for all the people who’d been naturalized in 2019, but not for those who’d gained the citizenship through marriage (acquisition de la nationalité par déclaration, technically not naturalization) because a friend who became French through marriage this year was not invited.

It was cool to finally see the inside of the Hôtel de Ville. The reception was held in a Versailles-like mirrored hall with an ornate cherub-encrusted ceiling and crystal chandeliers. I was touched by the mayor’s speech, as she herself is a naturalized citizen. Born in Spain, she and her family immigrated to France when she was a child and she was naturalized in 1973 at the age of 14. After her short talk, servers came out bearing platters of hors d’oeuvres and glasses of juice while people mingled, took selfies from various angles and tried to get close to the mayor for a photo with her.

Again, the invitation did not say we could bring people, and I didn’t want to run the risk of any friends being turned away since the reception took place during the (still ongoing) citywide transport strike and walking all the way there is a big commitment. So I went on my own (boo!). But now that you’ve read this far you’ll know you can (probably) safely bring someone when your time comes.

One more party!

After that splendiferous reception, I really thought that was the end but I have just been invited to an event in my neighborhood for later this month. It seems each arrondissement honors its own new citizens separately, though at different times of the year. It’s a daytime event, and I already know there are no golden carvings on the ceilings of my arrondissement’s town hall, but it’s still fun to have something else to look forward to! If there’s anything interesting to photograph, I’ll post some shots on my Instagram.

In the meantime, that, my friends, is how to really be French!

Norwegian Christmas rice porridge

A few years ago, I happened to spend Christmas in the company of a Norwegian friend and got to experience a traditional dish commonly served the morning of December 24th in homes across his northerly homeland. The memory of its subtle sweetness and warming heartiness has stayed with me and this year, I decided to make it here in Paris. And to share it with you! Get ready to experience risengrynsgrøt (rice porridge).

Norway sunrise
The rising sun announces a cold new day in Stavanger.

This vegan version of the grøt (porridge) is very easy to make, composed of a just a few ingredients. And if you use rice milk, which is naturally sweet, there’s no need to add any sugar.

In preparing my own recipe, I drew inspiration from basic rice pudding recipes and also this Norwegian vegan risengrynsgrøt recipe. Some versions call for other milks, including full-fat canned coconut milk, but I found that rice milk thickened up nicely enough.

Risengrynsgrøt is traditionally served with husholdningssaft, a juice made from apples, grapes and cherries. Personally though, I dislike pairing sweet dishes with sweet beverages. And since I’m not Norwegian myself, I decided to flout tradition and have it with coffee.

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Some Julenisser (Nordic Christmas elves), disappointed in me for not drinking husholdningssaft.

husholdningssaftMy Norwegian friend later assured me that it was okay to have coffee too (emphasis his). I promised to have some berry juice later in the day to make up for it, but he only sighed and shook his head in dismay.

A word of caution about cinnamon:

There are two types, Cassia and Ceylon. Cassia, the most common kind due to its lower cost, can cause stomach pains and more serious problems if consumed in higher doses (1 teaspoon or more per person, per day) due to the coumarin it contains. So although cinnamon is yummy, be careful not to overdo it if you suspect yours is the Cassia variety.

Norwegian Christmas rice porridge

Makes about 3 cups (2 to 3 hearty servings)

  • 1 cup (200 g) short-grain rice
  • 3½ cups (830 ml) rice milk or rice milk blend
  • pinch salt
  • 1 cinnamon stick (optional, preferably the Ceylon variety)
  • 1 teaspoon margarine or vegan butter
  • ground cinnamon (preferably the Ceylon variety)

The rice you want for this recipe is the short-grain type, the kind used to make risotto. For the liquid, I recommend rice milk because it is naturally sweet (I used a rice and coconut milk blend). But you can substitute another plant-based milk and add a bit of sugar if needed.

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Combine the rice, milk, pinch of salt and cinnamon stick in a saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Once it is boiling, turn the heat down to low and simmer (still covered) for 15-20 minutes until the rice is soft. During this time, stay close, stirring occasionally and ensuring that the mixture doesn’t boil over.

When the rice is done, taste it to see if you want to add some sugar. Remove the cinnamon stick (tip: save it to make pot-pourri with later).

Serve the rice porridge in cereal bowls. Place a pat of margarine or vegan butter in the center of each bowl and sprinkle the top with a small amount of ground cinnamon (see my word of caution about cinnamon above). When the margarine has melted, stir it into the porridge to combine.

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Enjoy!

If reheating leftover rice porridge, mix in some extra milk while stirring to achieve a creamy texture again.

Variations: add diced raw apple, raisins or dried cranberries to the rice near the end of the cooking process. Dust some sugar and/or gomasio over the top if you like.

Sunrise and Julenisser photos courtesy of Jon Helge Hesby

Where to find ingredients…

Short-grain rice: most general grocery stores offer this type of rice, labeled variously as risotto rice, arborio rice or sushi rice. In France, riz rond is what you want.

Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum or true cinnamon): check at high-end or specialty shops, or look online. Note that Saigon or Vietnamese cinnamon (Cinnamomum loureiroi) is closely related to the Cassia variety (Cinnamomum cassia) and therefore should probably also be consumed only in small quantities.

Vegan butter: make it yourself with this recipe, or, in North America, look for Miyoko’s amazing European-style cultured vegan butter.


Don’t miss my other Christmas posts!

Easy upcycled paper garland

The other day I was feeling a bit creative and decided to make some homemade decorations. I documented the process to share it with you!

I realize you already know how to make a paper chain from your kindergarten days, but have you made one lately? And have you thought of making one from old calendar pages? It’s a great way to recycle nice images printed on somewhat sturdy paper. Magazine covers would also work well, although the inside pages would probably be too fragile. You can alternatively buy construction paper in your preferred colors – red and green for Christmas, orange and black for Halloween, or just whatever colors would coordinate nicely in the room you have in mind.

This project is easy to adapt for different purposes. If you want a garland to wrap around a small tabletop Christmas tree, just make your paper strips fairly narrow and short so the links are smaller. If you want it to be more prominent, make larger links (as I have done). You can also tailor the length of your chain as you like, but if you’re using different colors, plan the placement of each link ahead of time so you don’t run out of any particular color.

Materials and supplies required:

  • Used calendar pages, magazine covers or other sturdy paper (make sure all the paper you will use is of the same thickness/weight)
  • Scissors
  • Pencil if strips need to be measured
  • Ruler (for drawing straight lines)
  • Glue, tape (washi tape works well) or stapler

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I used the pages of my calendar from this year (except December, which is still on my wall).

paper chain garland 05Look for pages with large expanses or gradations of a single color.

paper chain garland 03Cut the paper into strips of the same width and length. Another benefit of calendar pages is that straight lines are already drawn on them.

paper chain garland 06Here, I’ve opted to use four main colors: beige, pink, green and blue.

paper-chain-garland-09.jpgCreate links out of these by gluing, taping or stapling the ends together. Make sure that the overlap is the same in each one so they’re all the same size.

paper chain garland 07Also cut some narrower and shorter strips to use as the connecting links. These links should be long enough to allow for flexibility in the paper chain – so it can bend around a corner, for example (see my kitchen window photo below).

Alternatively, you can omit the smaller connecting links and just connect links of the same size. The disadvantage of this is that only half of the links will be visible at a time from each side. But if you’re hanging your garland from the ceiling or under a doorway, this won’t matter as much since people will see it from different sides and angles.

paper chain garland 14To see how long your finished garland will be, so you know whether you should add another color to the rotation to make it long enough for the spot you have in mind, place them end to end on a long table or the floor.

Best IMG_6114Now connect the links in the chain by gluing or taping the shorter, narrower strips into loops between them. Your garland is done!

paper-chain-garland-10-1.jpgI hung mine up in the kitchen to liven up an otherwise fairly plain window frame.

If you’ve written on your calendar, your garland will also contain little vestiges of past events. Mine has the final day of my year-two Japanese class this past June and reminders of my relatives’ birthdays.

Another good use for old calendar pages, magazine pages, newspaper or any old paper is to wrap gifts in them (see my tutorial here). I also like to use them to make custom envelopes and gift tags.

Amish shoo-fly cake

During my visit back home in the Midwest this summer, I decided to try baking a molasses cake with a crumb topping that my mom used to make when I was little. It was one of my very favorites back in the day, but I hadn’t had it for ages and wondered if my result would be true to my memories. Turned out, it was every bit as yummy as I remembered and the traditional recipe was even accidentally vegan (although some versions use butter instead of oil). I thought it would be a fun recipe to share with you all, especially since it’s somewhat uncommon.

Its name comes from the large amount of thick, gooey molasses that goes into it… so sweet that it attracts sugar-loving insects which must then be “shooed” away.

Amish people

In researching it, I discovered that it’s actually an Amish recipe.  I’ve always been fascinated by this unique culture, which you’ve probably heard of even if you’re not from North America. This group, most famous for rejecting modern technology, is made up of several distinct but related traditionalist Christian church fellowships with German and Swiss Anabaptist origins. Several hundred thousand of them live in rural parts of the US and Canada, and their best known settlements are in Pennsylvania. There are some in my home state of Wisconsin, but I’ve never encountered them anywhere but on the Amtrak – since they don’t drive or fly, trains are their main form of transportation when going long distances. I find it quite remarkable that they’ve managed to preserve their way of life and language (Pennsylvania German) all this time.

This British reality TV show provides an interesting glimpse into an Amish community that hosted a group of decidedly non-Amish teenagers from the UK. Other more traditional documentaries can also be found on YouTube.

Molasses is the star of this scrumptious moist dessert, which in my view can compete with the most decadent chocolate cake any day in terms of richness of flavor. It’s made by refining sugarcane and tastes something like a stronger and darker maple syrup with notes of gingerbread and honey. Molasses isn’t used so often today, but it was a very common sweetener in the Americas before the 1900s.

beatrix potter butterfly
Butterflies love sweet things too. Beatrix Potter made the above illustration for her book The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse (1910).

Unlike white sugar, molasses contains nutrients. It’s an excellent source of vitamin B6 and key minerals including calcium, magnesium, iron and manganese (one tablespoon provides 20% the recommended daily amount of each).

Traditional versions of this cake call for a lot of sugar – one recipe I found actually calls for 3 cups of it (!) for 4 cups of flour. I read that the Amish view high-calorie food as a plus, since they do a lot of manual labor and need the energy. Fair enough, but being a sedentary city-dweller myself, I dialed the sugar back to just 1¼ cup, which was quite enough in combination with regular molasses. If you’re using the more bitter blackstrap molasses, you may want to add more sugar.

Finally, this recipe yields quite a lot of cake (enough for a large Amish family!) so feel free to cut the amounts in half and use a smaller baking dish. Alternatively, make the recipe as is but put half in the freezer for later.

Let’s make a cake!

Amish shoo-fly cake

Makes one 9 x 13 in. (22 x 33 cm) rectangular sheet cake

  • 4 cups (150 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1¼ cups, packed (300 g) brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (236 ml) neutral-flavored oil such as canola (in France, try huile de colza désodorisée)
  • 1 cup (236 ml) molasses
  • 2 cups (473 ml) boiling water
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda

Preheat your oven to 350°F (180°C). Start with the flour in a large mixing bowl. Add the brown sugar and salt and stir to combine.

Add the oil and stir to incorporate. You may need to knead it with your hands at some point to achieve a fully homogeneous result. The texture will be similar to moist sand.

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Reserve 1 cup of the crumb mixture to top the cake with just before baking. Set the large mixing bowl of dry mixture aside.

Take another large bowl for the wet mixture. Add the molasses, scraping the measuring cup thoroughly to get all of it out. Add the boiling water and stir to combine, then add the baking soda (the mixture will foam up, which is why it’s good to use a larger bowl).

Now incorporate the wet mixture into the bowl with the dry mixture. Stir to combine, being careful not to stir too much as this can make the cake texture tough (it’s okay if a few lumps remain). Pour into a greased baking dish.

Sprinkle the reserved crumb topping over the the batter, taking care to ensure the coverage is even. Place in your pre-heated oven and bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

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Remove from oven and let cool completely before attempting to cut into it, otherwise the squares may not keep their shape.

Cover the baking dish with plastic wrap or transfer leftover slices to a Tupperware container so the cake doesn’t dry out.

I hope you enjoy this one-of-a-kind cake! Who knows, it may just become one of your favorites, too.


Where to find ingredients…

In North America: Molasses and brown sugar can be found at most grocery stores with a wide range of products.

In France: Molasses (mélasse) and brown sugar (sucre semoule) can be found at organic food shops but not always at mainstream grocery stores. Note that sucre semoule is a very specific moist sugar that’s different from sucre roux and sucre complet (also known as rapadura), which are dry sugars. Then moistness comes from the presence of molasses, so if you’re in a bind, you can actually make brown sugar yourself. Still, it’s better/safer to get prepared brown sugar if you can. Baking soda (bicarbonate de soude alimentaire) is not as common a baking ingredient in France as in the US, but you should be able to find it at most grocery stores if you look around enough. This is something I stock up on whenever I make a trip back home. Be sure the label says alimentaire or that it’s otherwise safe to use in baking, as you might find it in a cleaning-product form with non-edible chemicals added.

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I heart New York

When you last heard from me, I was explaining why it took me so long to make my first visit to New York City and showing you my nostalgia-fueled journey there on the Amtrak. But did I like it there? As the title of this post suggests, yes, yes and yes! Let’s take a look at the highlights.

invader-ny_157.jpgFirst, I had the good fortune to be hosted on the Lower East Side of Manhattan by an old friend and former roommate from my undergrad days. Being roommates again was a high point of my stay, reminiscing about the good old days and learning about this new-to-me city from someone who’d already explored it a fair amount.

Right from the start, on my first day walking around, I discovered that one of the ideas I’d had about the city was wrong. In the US, New York City has a reputation for being unfriendly. People there, I’d always heard, were constantly in a hurry, invariably gruff and surly and probably planning to rob you. Even Sesame Street made sure we knew what a tough city it was.

So although I knew stereotypes don’t always reflect reality, thank heavens, on some level I’d mentally braced myself. “Do your worst,” I told the city. “I live in Paris!” Nothing could faze me after 10 years in the French capital.

Doughnut PlantBut it turned out that while the reputation Paris has is (generally) well deserved, New York City’s isn’t. Throughout my entire stay, I consistently heard Excuse me, Sorry and Thank you, and on several occasions people spontaneously offered me help when I looked like I needed it. On my way into the city, loaded down with a heavy suitcase, I was looking at a flight of subway stairs in dismay when a passing woman volunteered that there was an escalator a bit further down the hall. Another time, I was sitting on a bench applying band-aids to my blistered heels when another passerby offered to supply me with more band-aids should I need them. And on the train to the airport on my last day, my fellow travelers (who could see from my luggage where I was going) helped me figure out what to do when the train service was temporarily halted, without my even having to ask.

So perhaps most New Yorkers are only “rude” in comparison with, for example, invasively friendly Midwesterners. In small-town Wisconsin, strangers actually get a bit too much into your business sometimes, so I can imagine rural folk who haven’t traveled much being disappointed by city-dwellers who don’t always have time to chat with you.

IMG_1133But on several occasions, locals actually did strike up a conversation. One afternoon, taking a break from a street art expedition in Brooklyn, I sat down in a café with a matcha latte and pulled Orlando out of my bag. The middle-aged gentleman working on a laptop at the table next to mine took his headphones off to remark on a coincidence: he was in the middle of writing an opera based on another of Virginia Woolf’s books! We spoke for a few minutes about the smallness of the world and the difficulties of adapting stream-of-consciousness literature to a musical form. When I asked when he expected to finish the piece, he chuckled and said sometime in the next decade. We each went back to our respective occupation and, making a mental note to pay more attention to operas, I wondered if he were somebody famous.

Little encounters such as these add a nice human touch to one’s existence, I find. This dimension of city life is something I’ve talked about on this blog before, and my stay in New York City only reinforced the fact that I truly miss it.

As for the city itself, one of the things I was most interested in was its background. I’d already learned about its Dutch roots at museums in Amsterdam and was curious to know more about other ethnic groups, like Jews and Italians, that don’t have so much of a presence in the region I’m from.

The Lower East Side, as it happens, is an ideal starting point to learn about the city’s history of immigration. Just a few blocks from my friend’s apartment, I discovered and fell in love with the Tenement Museum, a learning center that explores the uniquely American story of immigration and the rich, diverse landscape it continues to create. For me, an immigrant myself, this topic has special resonance. Founded in 1988, the museum is made up of two former Orchard Street tenement buildings, each featuring several apartments restored to the way they would have looked at different points in history. The museum offers different guided tours designed to focus on particular themes telling the stories of actual families who lived in the buildings. I opted for the Sweatshop Workers tour, which takes you through the cramped living spaces of two Jewish families, the Levines (c. 1892), who operated a small garment factory in their sitting room and kitchen, and the Rogarshevskys (c. 1908), who worked at apparel factories outside the home and therefore had different living circumstances.

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Orchard Street in 1898. This area was once the most densely populated place on Earth.

On this tour, and also a separate Tenement Museum walking tour that I joined, I learned that Orchard Street and surrounding areas were once the beating heart of the nation’s garment industry, with most families doing piecework in their homes for long hours six or seven days of the week. Walking down the street, you could have looked up and seen someone bent over their sewing at just about each window and heard the whirring of sewing machines from all sides. It was also a street clogged with pushcarts since itinerant vendors were a convenient source of groceries in the day.

IMG_1717The district has been home to various ethnic groups that arrived and dominated, population-wise, in waves. In the 1840s, so many settlers from the German states had come that the area became known as Klein Deutschland. Next were Italians and Eastern European Jews, and by around 1920 the Lower East Side had the largest community of Jews in the entire world. After World War II, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans began to appear in greater numbers. Today there’s a prominent Chinese presence, but a mix of other ethnic groups live there too.

To learn more about New York City’s immigrant history, check out the Tenement Museum’s podcast, How To Be American.

To take a peek inside 97 Orchard Street, watch the video below. If you look around YouTube a bit, you may also find a funny Saturday Night Live tribute to the museum.

And for a deeper dive into the immigrant experience, I highly recommend Betty Smith’s semi-autobiographical novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn focusing on an Irish-Austrian family living in the Williamsburg slums in the early 20th century. Titles of other fiction and non-fiction works about immigrants in NYC are listed in the museum’s shop.

A vestige of the Lower East Side’s Jewish days can be seen in the beautiful and painstakingly restored 1887 synagogue now known as The Museum at Eldridge Street. Below are a few glimpses into its interior.

The two other museums I saw on this trip were the Guggenheim – the building was the main attraction for me since Frank Lloyd Wright (a Wisconsin native!) is my favorite architect – and a museum devoted to Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

Other art can be seen on the city’s walls for free. There are quite a few impressive murals by Brazilian street artist Kobra, and Invader has quite a few pieces there too. I also saw some pieces by Stik and Frank Ape.

And what about the vegan food scene? It was, of course, amazing! Much like in London, you can find decent vegan items on the menu of just about any mainstream restaurant, and there are many fantastic all-vegan places. Within a three-block radius of my friend’s apartment, I counted three places to get vegan ice cream. Just down the street from the Tenement Museum is Orchard Grocer, a little food shop and delicatessen with a range of delicious made-to-order vegan sandwiches. I was very impressed by their Bowery breakfast sandwich and their Edith bagel with cashew cream cheese and carrot lox that could easily be mistaken for smoked salmon. Adjoining this shop is Moo Shoes, which has a nice selection of vegan footwear, bags and T-shirts.

Other places I loved included Riverdel inside Essex Market, which offers a wide range of gourmet vegan cheeses plus hot and cold sandwiches (their hot breakfast sandwich was divine!), Beyond SushiDun-Well Doughnuts and Van Leeuwen ice cream. There were some spots I didn’t manage to get to, like Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Modern Love in Brooklyn, so those will just have to wait for my next visit!

So there, in a rather long-winded nutshell, you have my first visit to New York City, a place I strangely felt at home in right away. Maybe because it combines the things I like about Paris (a major international city filled with people from all over the world and lots of art and culture) with the things I like about the US (friendliness, the ability to chat with strangers, greater acceptance of veganism and a wide availability of vegan food) and of course the fact that I blend in and don’t have to be an ambassador for my country.

10/10 would visit again! I have to, anyway, since I still have so many more things to see there.

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Have you been to New York City, and how did you like it?

 

Milwaukee to New York by train

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

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

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

Or do you?

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

Amtrak Viewliner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to see what happened next!

French tomato-mustard tart

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

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

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

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

French tomato-mustard tart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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