Thursday, February 21, 2019

Signs of Spring 2019

Winter will be officially over when the spring equinox occurs this coming 20th of March, but there is evidence that the season is changing. Here in southwest France, trumpet daffodils bloom around this time and they are a lovely sight swaying in the breeze. But my favourite harbinger is . . .

. . . seeing sedge after sedge after sedge of glorious, honking cranes, flying in from North Africa.

About a hundred and fifty tulips were planted last fall, and I can't wait to see them strut their stuff. A bunch of late-blooming, fragrant, peach-toned Dordogne tulips were nestled in an angular crook of the front garden lavender hedge. Here's hoping they will flower together sometime in late May, early June.

A mostly self-seeded bedI planted just a few plants about eight years agomeasuring roughly five feet deep and twenty feet long flanking the western side of the house, is a simple expanse of fragrant sweet violets.

I saw a large bee on this peacock-blue towel hanging on the clothesline. From its energetic 'kneading' and size I am guessing it is a Megachilid species.

It soon figured out that there was neither nectar nor pollen to be had and flew off to the heather in full bloom which at present resembles a bonsai cherry tree exuberantly spreading its branches, laden with puffy deep-pink flowers, way over its cozy, patio cut-out.

Late winter is a good time to do any tasks that can be done now so as to avert a traffic crush of garden activity come spring. Therefore six evergreen, small-leaved globe Japanese hollies along one in conical form were transplanted from their nursery bed to their permanent bed flanking the central garden path, and then were mulched with our own wood chips. Eventually two other beds which are still planted with overgrown bearded irises will get the same kind of planting, giving some much needed 'green bones' to the garden.

The bearded irises became so packed that they spilled onto the garden path. Making sure that days of rain soaked the soil, I sliced through the rhizomes with a lawn edger, and then removed the sections with a spade.

The peas sowed several weeks ago are just beginning to sprout. Yay! Since they were planted so early the harvest should be able to be completed for the first time in the history of this garden before it gets too hot for these lovers of cool weather.

As I was transplanting our very productive blueberry bush into a bigger pot, I whispered, blueberry muffins are your destiny. If your garden soil isn't acidic and you love blueberries as much as we do, the solution is filling a pot with packaged soil mix made just for plants needing a growing medium with low pH.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Hot Caramel Apple Juice

Winter will be over officially this coming March 20, so there is still plenty of time to bake bread and make delightful hot beverages. Coming in after doing gardening on a day with brisk winds and a chill in the air, I warm up with some Hot Caramel Apple Juice. Topped with whipped cream/salted caramel sauce and flavoured with vanilla, it's a fragrant joy to sip.

Ingredients are in bold: using the mug from which you are going to drink as a measuring cup, fill it up an inch (2.5 cm) from the top. For each serving, put a tablespoon of cream and a teaspoon of sugar, brown or white in a saucepan. Over a medium-low flame, dissolve the sugar in the cream while stirring.

Add 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla and the apple juice. Bring to the desired temperature. Meanwhile whip up some cream.

Pour into a mug, top with whipped cream, and drizzle the salted caramel sauce (store bought or homemade). If the day is particularly cold and windy and you are a bit frazzled, feel free to add more whipped cream and caramel sauce when they eventually melt into the drink. I did.

À la prochaine!

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Maple Raisin Challah

When living in the East Village neighbourhood of Manhattan all those years ago, I loved popping into the wonderful Eastern European bakeries nearby for a bagel, bialy, babka, dark rye, and challah. Though it is not impossible to find challah in our small city, its distant relative, brioche, though much lighter in texture because of loads of butter, often substitutes. Since my baking bialys a la Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook turned out well, I used their recipe for challah. Well that is not true, even if those bialys didn't come out as fantastic as they did, I would still have opted for that book as I appreciate any opportunity to hold that beauty in my hands, flipping through all the wondrous recipes, photos, and stories. Challah is made from yeasted dough that has been enriched with honey, eggs, and oil (making it parve, that is, neutral, neither meat or dairy). My returning to baking bread after a long hiatus meant the yeast languishing in our cupboard was not too fresh. The texture, therefore, was closer to a denser babka, then challah. Subbing maple syrup for honey gave an uplift in taste and adding raisins increased the contrast between salty and sweet. It was delicious, especially served with hot cinnamon apple cider.


Flour, white, bread or all-purpose, plus more for shaping, 315 g (2.5 American cups, that is, 8 fluid oz cups)
Sugar, white, 2 T plus 2 teaspoons
Salt, kosher, 3 1/4 teaspoons
Yeast, active, dry, 1 1/4 teaspoons
Pâte fermentée (see below), cut into walnut-size pieces
Egg yolks, large, 3
Maple syrup, 2 T
Water, warm, 3 T or more if needed (I used 8 T)
Oil (I used sunflower) plus more for coating the bowl
Eggs, large, beaten, 2
Raisins, Thompson, 150 g/1 cup (American cup, that is, 8 fluid oz)

Pâte fermentée

Water, lukewarm, 8 T plus 1 teaspoon
Yeast, active, dry, 2/3 teaspoon
Flour, white (bread or all-purpose)
Kosher salt, 1 teaspoon

Put water and yeast in a medium-sized mixing bowl and add flour and salt. Stir for a minute or two with a wooden spoon until a shaggy dough forms. Cover bowl with a plate, a damp, wrung-out tea cloth, or plastic wrap. Let stand for thirty minutes then refrigerate for a minimum of 8 hours and a maximum of 24. Therefore make this either the day or the night before you plan to bake the bread.

I prefer to mix and knead yeasted dough by hand so if your preference differs, then use an electric mixer with a dough hook. If you want to learn or refresh manual kneading skills, this video has the basics. My preferred method is the same I used when kneading clay back in the distant past when I was a potter. So if you know that nifty spiral manual technique, it can be transferred to dough. Measure/weigh flour into a large mixing bowl. Make two wells, one for yeast, warm water, and sugar, the other for salt and oil. Mix with a wooden spoon for a minute or two.

Whisk the egg yolks.

Put the maple syrup, yolks, and pâte fermentée into the mixing bowl.

Stir with a wooden spoon until the dough pulls together.  Empty contents onto a floured work surface (I used a silicon mat). Knead until mostly smooth.

Flatten out the dough and spread the raisins onto it. Fold dough over and finish kneading.

Let rise in a warm spot, covered with a damp, wrung-out dish cloth, plate, or plastic wrap. Because of my using stale yeast, it took two hours, but it should be closer to one hour.

Flatten out the dough into a rough oblong and start rolling the farther side towards you, pressing down on the juncture between the roll being made and the remaining flat surface of the dough. The aim is to create surface tension which aid in the bread rising well in the oven. Pinch/seal both ends and seam.

Choose a work surface that will accommodate rolling the dough into a rope approximately 90 cm (3 feet) long. Try to get away without flouring the surface as particles of flour drags on the coil flattening it out. If flour is needed to prevent sticking, sprinkle it as sparsely as possible. Place the part of both hands just under the base of fingers, that is, the top of your palm on the centre of the rope, and with a back and forth rolling motion thin and lengthen the dough to the ends as you move each hand farther and farther away from each other. Repeat until you get the desired length.

Using parchment paper, form a turban by curling one end and wrapping the other around that centre curl. Wash with beaten egg, cover with plastic or a damp dish towel, and set in a warm place till doubled. Preheat oven to 180 degrees C/350 degrees F.

Uncover and coat with beaten egg again. Bake in an oven for around 30 to 40 minutes until the bottom sounds hollow when tapped and a thin knife inserted between the strands come out dry.

I will bake challah again soon with newly bought yeast so as to try to get a lighter crumb. But as it stands, the taste is the best I have ever experienced because the pâte fermentée having a prolonged rising allowed for a minimum of yeast. Less yeast, more flavour.

À la prochaine!


Making bialys a la Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook
My book review of Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook

Thursday, January 31, 2019

French Cheese: Saint Agur Bleu

Saint Agur enjoys a cherished reputation despite the fact that it was created rather recently unlike the other notable cheeses from the same region.  There is not a shred of terroir regarding it: The saintly reference is fictive; Agur is a Basque word for hello; it's made from pasturized cow milk with added cream. Coming into being in 1988, means there's nary a mention in my second-hand Le Livre Du Fromage (Editions Des Deux Coqs D'or) which was published twenty years before the French company Bongrain (presently known as Savencia Fromage & Dairy) put this luscious double-cream cheese boasting 60% butterfat on the market.  The French Wikipedia article recommends Vouvray demi-sec as accompaniment. It's so rich, it can be whipped. And whipped it was.  Moist dried apricots were topped with swirls of whipped Saint Agur, coarsely chopped walnuts, and drizzles of maple syrup.

There are several packaging options available here, from tubs to foil-wrapped hexagonal forms . . .

. . . but my favourite is a reasonably sized slab encased in a resealable tray.

These robustly flavoured, dark olive-green craters are floating in a creamy ocean thereby creating a balance between mild and sharp that is alluring.

Each walnut was cut into four pieces. The pitted apricots were pulled apart gently to make thinner halves. 

Halving also reveals a deeper coloured succulence. Put chunks of Saint Agur in a mixing container/bowl, add a little cream, and whip away. Using a teaspoon, place a small mound on each apricot, and repeat with another but smaller mound. If desired, the whipped cheese can be piped on via a pastry bag or a sturdy plastic bag with one corner snipped.

Top with a walnut piece and sprinkle a few drops of maple (or honey). If getting your fingers sticky is not a concern than let those apricot boats carry as much sweet cargo as is your wont. The combination of salty and sweet is a perfect way to wake up lethargic tastebuds, while the gold and white colour theme psychologically perks you up in the bleak of winter.

À la prochaine!

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Bleu d'Auvergne
Bresse Bleu

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Midwinter Garden 2019 Part 2

Just after I sowed a pea bed, frosty winds came bearing down, so before twilight deepened any further, the bed got a cozy horticultural fleece tucked snugly around it. This morning, the cover was stiff with ice. Here's hoping the shallowly planted pea seeds are still viable.

One of the first perennial food crops that gets attention is asparagus. A violet-tinged spear tip here and there means their patch needs some work.

Since the six-year old asparagus planting lustily overgrown its original border of terracotta roofing tiles, the tiles have been removed hence I am in process of digging a trench around the bed, heaping the displaced soil onto the bed itself. Heaped soil is great for asparagus by keeping the bottom of their stalks in the dark, thus blanching them a bit.

Moss fills the space between lichen-covered pavers.

You would be forgiven if you mistook these glorious skeletons of hydrangeas as a flurry of glasswing butterflies.

Lamium galeobdolonone of its several common names is yellow weasel snout (!)has turned its veins burgundy.

A cyclamen unfurls a burst of crimson, laughing at the wind and the cold.

Shade-loving, fragrant sweet violets have spread along the west side of the house forming a carpet because of their powerful way of seed dispersal: their pods snap open, injecting seeds far and wide.

A pop of yellow is always welcome. Thanks, stonecrop!

Each year, I keep adding what is regarded in horticultural jargon as green bones. We talkin' evergreen. One of the older and venerable 'bones' is this yucca which spent the first half of its twenty years in a pot on a Grenoble balcony and the second half in Angoulême soil. It now has several trunks and is close to my height.

À la prochaine!

  • Diana Studer's profile photo
    Will you change from G+ comments on your blog? That is going to sunset too.

    I nurture one pot of violets.
  • Michelle Beissel's profile photo
    +Diana Studer , if Google allows the maintaining of past comments, then since I hardly get comments outside of G+, I'll opt for the status quo as I really love re-reading old G+ comments when I check past posts (my blog is my recipe book). If not, then all those comments will disappear and that would be sad. Yay for that pot of violets!
  • Diana Studer's profile photo
    I think the G+ comments will disappear. But there has been NO feedback from Google.
    Maybe edit the comments you value into the text of the blog post? (Which is what I did when I edited posts from my former blog to the current one)
  • Michelle Beissel's profile photo
    +Diana Studer , excellent idea. Thanks!
  • Diana Studer's profile photo
    and do it soonish ... they keep jumping the date forward!
  • Kim Quinn's profile photo
    The hydrangea leaves are so beautiful! I enjoy your posts so much and keep 2 small garden beds, 3x6 and 3x8. They were allowed to rest this past year with a cover crop of hairy vetch, clover, tillage radishes (pods on stems, yummy!) and supposedly field peas. Never saw any of those. It was mixed in April and broadcast over and just whacked 3 or 4 times through the summer when it hit knee height. Now, I am dreaming of herbs, Kale, chard, tomatoes herbsherbsherbs. Wish I had a bona-fide rosemary hedge!💜
  • Michelle Beissel's profile photo
    +Kim Quinn , thank you so much!

    Your garden interface sounds wonderful (I enjoy whacking cover crops, too). Keep dreaming (and doing). Rosemary is easy to propagate so all you need is a starter plant. If you run out of soil, and you have some cemented area, you can make a potted hedge.

Diana Studer
1 day ago


We have a potted hedge on two sides of our kitchen patio. Third side is an in the ground planter (and the fourth is garden) Ours is spekboom Portulacaria afra (which is also edible in salad, a different taste and texture)