Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Oriental Spinach

To accompany my mother's Christmas goose I made what has become a much requested recipe of sauteed spinach (and Swiss chard when available) with spices, ricotta (brousse) cheese, nuts and raisins. Often I will wrap it in puff pastry, or bake it in a pie tin and sprinkle breadcrumbs with parmesan on top. Or, when these are not available, I'll serve it simply. I've not as yet had any complaints.


a couple bags of fresh spinach, washed, de-stemmed, chopped coarsely
olive oil
1/3 cup chopped and toasted nuts (pine nuts, pecans, walnuts...)
2 good-sized garlic cloves peeled and minced
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon fresh-grated nutmeg
1 cup ricotta/brousse cheese
1/3 cup yellow raisins or currants
salt and pepper to taste

In a large frying pan, add a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Toss in spinach to fill the pan, put on the lid. Wait a moment or two, then lift the lid to check the quickly wilting spinach. Toss with a wooden spoon or tongs till all is wilted and reduced. Remove and place in a colander to drain. Continue till all the spinach is cooked. Toss in the nuts and stir quickly till lightly toasted. Put aside.

Sizzle the minced garlic in two tablespoons of olive oil. Toss back in the spinach. Transfer all the ingredients to a large bowl and blend coarsely together.

At this point you can either serve, or put aside in an oven-proof dish to reheat before serving. Or, you can lay it in pastry and bake, or sprinkle with breadcrumbs and parmesan and bake.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Bûche begins

Une Bûche de Noël au Chocolat et Fruits Rouges
(a photo of the finished cake will need to wait till tomorrow's post... but the process is well detailed below).

I have been making a variation on this Yule Log cake since I lived in Seattle. The last year I was there, and my last Christmas on the West Coast, I found in Gourmet Magazine -- either that fall (1995) or one of the prior years -- a recipe for a Bûche with chocolate ganâche, raspberry jam and raspberry eau de vie as made by the pâtissier of La Maison de Chocolat in Paris.

Already at that time I was creative in my interpretation of the original recipe -- I didn't have any potato starch on hand (féculant de pomme de terre - far easier to find in a French grocery store than in Seattle in 1995) and so replaced it with normal wheat flour. Nor did I have raspberry eau de vie -- which at the tender age of 27 I didn't even recognize as referring to alcohol, a lapse which has since been corrected. So, at the time, I simply soaked my raspberries in the simple syrup I prepared to drench the cake. Not that the lack was felt by the many who indulged in the cake as I drove from friend to friend sharing what had turned out to be quite a generous cake -- a little dark chocolate goes a long way.

In the years since I've taken further liberties with the original recipe, and along the way I lost the page I'd taken from the magazine, well smudged with chocolate.

My current version of the recipe is enhanced/affected/adapted to include the pastry lore I've soaked up during my visits both professional and friendlyl at my local pastry shop -- my pâtissier's basic recipe for biscuit, the base of most of his cakes which he then elaborates with ganâche, fruit jellies, mousses, pralines and more. He uses only egg whites, almond meal and powdered sugar. Hmmmm, and advised me to bake it in a very hot oven for a very short time -- just seize the outside and leave the cake as flexible and soft as possible to allow for rolling/bending/ etc.,

And of course, my chocolatier shared with me his basic ganâche recipe. And I started making oodles of jams alongside Erick, adopting the technique of 2x fruit to 1x sugar and leaving the fruit to release its juices for at least a few hours before putting it over a flame.

It's come to the point where the original recipe is no longer necessary. I simply make my bûche. And, when I come across someone who is gluten intolerant, I've many a solution. However, in the spirit of the season, I kept careful track of my steps yesterday and today. And below are the precise measurements (where possible in both American volumes and metric, but without a scale at Ma's house...) that I used this time around... Enjoy!

Ingredients :

For the biscuit :

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup almond meal
1/4 cup powdered sugar
6 egg whites whipped stiff
4 egg yolks whipped till lemon yellow
scant 1/4 cup brown sugar

For the jam:

1 pound fresh or frozen raspberries or mixed berries
1/2 pound sugar

To drench: if you have it on hand:

1/2 cup of raspberry eau de vie
1 cup sugar
1 cup boiling water

Or, you can do as I did yesterday: remove a cup of the sugared berry juices from the jam pot, add a 1/2 cup of white rum.

For the ganâche filling :

For the Ganache:

300 grams (12 oz) superior quality dark chocolate (like Lindt 70%, Valrohna 64%)
225 grams (9 oz) tablespoons heavy cream

for the coating:

200 grams (8oz) superior quality dark chocolate (like Lindt 70%, Valrohna 64%)
150 grams (5 oz) tablespoons heavy cream

To make the biscuit : Preheat oven to 400F/200C

Sift your cocoa and lightly blend with the ground almonds and powdered sugar.

Whip the egg whites stiff.

In a separate mixing bowl, whip till lemon yellow the egg yolks and brown sugar.

Sprinkle in some of the dry ingredients, then fold together with the egg whites and the rest of the dry ingredients.

Spread thinly on a lined (with parchment paper) or non-stick baking sheet, or on a silpat atop a cookie sheet.

It is important to either bake the cake on a silpat and let cool, then remove onto parchment paper before drenching in syrup/alcohol, or to bake it directly onto parchment paper, remove onto another sheet of parchment paper when cool, and drench. I once made the rather total error of leaving it on the silpat and drenching it with the syrup/eau de vie mixture. It then stuck terribly and made a total visual catastrophe of a dessert. Lessons must be learned, right?

Bake for 5 minutes – till the surface is lightly browned, but the center still soft.

Remove from the oven promptly. And let cool. Reverse onto a large sheet of parchment paper and put aside.

Mix together the eau de vie and the simple syrup (or do as I did yesterday) and brush evenly and generously with a pastry brush over the biscuit and let soak in.

For the jam:

Put your fruit and sugar into a bowl (this can be done the night before) with a 1/2 cup of water (if not the night before) and set it to simmer. Once it is nicely blended and bubbling, ladel your berries into a vegetable mill and grind away. The grinding will release the pectin present in the raspberry/blackberry seeds and help thicken your jam. Not feeling the need to truly remove all those seeds, (in a mixed berry jam) which is far more necessary if you're only using raspberries/blackberries, I put the solids back into my jam pot and continued simmering till the mixture thickened sufficiently -- when it cooled a thick skin formed on the surface.

For the Ganache:

Chop the chocolate into very small pieces. You can use a large knife, a meza luna rocking chopper, or a food processor. Put your chocolate into a large mixing bowl.

In a saucepan, heat the heavy cream till just the boiling point. Remove the cream from the heat and pour it slowly over the chocolate – you can pour it on the whisk to limit splatter. Stir gently till the chocolate melts into the cream.

Pour your chocolate over your biscuit, and gently spread it out in an even layer. Let cool and set, this will take at least 2 hours.

Finishing touches :

Once the chocolate is cooled and set (you may want to speed up the process by putting it in the fridge a bit), spread your jam (somewhat cooled too) over the ganâche and let set for a couple of hours.

Having your cake on the parchment paper gives you a tool for rolling the cake. You can roll it either the short direction -- for more rolls, or the long direction -- for more slices. I tend to do the latter.

Once your cake is rolled up, put in the fridge covered to set. It is best to leave it over night.

The next day, slice off the ends of your bûche on an angle and position them as branch stumps. Then melt more chocolate with a bit of heavy cream to extend it, drizzle over your bûche (being cold, it will quickly set the chocolate). Then pull a fork over it to design your bark.

When you are ready to serve: Sprinkle of powdered sugar on top.

A fun touch is meringue mushrooms... boughs of holly or branches of pine, or perhaps even some snow drifts of whipped cream (not unwelcome with such a rich cake).

Slice carefully, and enjoy!

left-over jam never goes to waste.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in Séguret

The year of Jonas’s birth, we stayed in Provence for Christmas. He’d been due for Christmas week, so it had been out of the question to travel. In fact, he decided to come early, and greeted Christmas as a two-week-old in my arms. Two of my former au pairs, one living in Aix and another living in Paris, joined us. My mother came over from the States, and after feasting and a little bit of music on the piano, we all set out to the little hill-side village of Séguret to watch the all-Provençal re-enactment of the nativity by the villagers (amongst them one of my favorite potters).

I'd learned of this event on one of the many visits to the potter's shop, or perhaps a day we went to hike the hills behind the village. And, I just so wanted to experience this unique event that has been held in the village from medieval times.

The potter’s father got us tickets and saved us well-chosen seats. The potter’s mother guided us up to the church from her house where I'd been happily ensconced with Jonas at the breast, enjoying the delicious smells of their Christmas Eve repast. I just love their home with the view over the family from the front window, the tiny fireplace, the cupboards full of home-made jams.

As we made our way to our seats, my hostess fussed over my tiny baby, suggesting he might be called upon as a last-minute replacement for baby Jesus.

It turned out to be an over two-hour affair with every character in a santon display spouting in Provençal -- not too difficult to understand, but still.... Leo, just 4 ½, was under the chair after the first 45 minutes, and no amount of whispered scolding could bring him out. Jonas went from breast to breast, nursing, sleeping, nursing, sleeping. A local village baby – weighing in at a huge 8 months-old – weepily managed the role of Jesus. And all went relatively smoothly as each villager reprised his traditional role of the blind man, or Joseph, or a shepherd, or the inn-keeper.

When the last strains of a capella singing from the young teenage angels (who, contrary to the other roles, were permitted to sing in French) had drifted into the darkness, we made their way out into the crisp night air. Above our heads, in a marvelously clichéd moment, the stars twinkled brightly and all felt magical and possible.

It was over an hour’s drive back from the village to Arles. Erick got us home way after mid-night, no doubt a bit uncertain as to whether his crazy American wife had improved Christmas with this extraordinary production, or simply added more work to his already full schedule.

But still to this day, I can see and hear my potter in his role as a shepherd berating the inn-keeper, ‘testo duro’ or hard headed nut.

Watching the pounds, aka kilos reappear...

What is it about coming home for Christmas? -- or rather coming to your Mom's house -- that just calls to the pounds to coming fleeing back to my tummy/butt? After all that virtuous shedding (yes, it was heart-sick/chagrin related, but still) this fall, and my pretty successful efforts (salsa and tango helped!) at keeping them off till my arrival just a week ago....

Can I fast for the next two days? Not likely. Tomorrow I'm the appointed cook for the goose, my oriental spinach dish (recipe shortly with photos, if I remember), and -- of course -- my dark chocolate raspberry yule log (bûche de Noël). Back on US soil I don't seem to be able to get away from the kitchen. Strange, n'est-ce pas? I seem to have this reputation as the cook of the family.

Meantime, I'm having fits and starts as I recognize the way too many things I have in common with my mother. Don't get me wrong, she's a great lady. I'm reassured that she too forgets things (granted, not a small child, but still, when over-extended there are details/errands/etc., that fall by the wayside). If she could run a university with this level of over the hill multi-tasking (thinking of my daily life with 6 kids) then I'm okay, right?

However, the tendency to not listen to the end of a sentance, to not read to the end of a sentance, to jump to conclusions (not always the right ones) and to be adamantly right... Well, let's just say I've new reasons to work on my own personal tendencies towards an excess of impatience, doing things too quickly, skimming texts, etc., I don't know if perfection shall ever be in my future, but a higher level of thoroughness would be a good thing.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Cookies

Thanks to the recipes that I gleaned off the web from numerous sources, chief amongst them the blogs of Dorie Greenspan, and Simply Recipes, I was able to make a wide selection of cookies with a crew of 7 boys and one determined teeny girl -- determined to put chocolate dough in her mouth that is...

Here are the results, a few comments, and the recipes:

World Peace Cookies (the super chocolaty ones)
Baking: From My Home to Yours, Dorie Greenspan

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 stick plus 3 tablespoons (11 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chips, or a generous 3/4 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips

Makes about 36 cookies.

Sift the flour, cocoa and baking soda together.

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add both sugars, the salt and vanilla extract and beat for 2 minutes more.

Turn off the mixer. Pour in the flour, drape a kitchen towel over the stand mixer to protect yourself and your kitchen from flying flour and pulse the mixer at low speed about 5 times, a second or two each time. Take a peek — if there is still a lot of flour on the surface of the dough, pulse a couple of times more; if not, remove the towel. Continuing at low speed, mix for about 30 seconds more, just until the flour disappears into the dough — for the best texture, work the dough as little as possible once the flour is added, and don’t be concerned if the dough looks a little crumbly. Toss in the chocolate pieces and mix only to incorporate.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface, gather it together and divide it in half. Working with one half at a time, shape the dough into logs that are 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and refrigerate them for at least 3 hours. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months. If you’ve frozen the dough, you needn’t defrost it before baking — just slice the logs into cookies and bake the cookies 1 minute longer.)

Linzer Hearts (Dorie Greenspan)

Adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours

- makes about 50 cookies -

1 1/2 cups finely ground almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
Scant 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 large egg
2 teaspoons water
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup chocolate chips

1. Whisk together the ground nuts, flour, cinnamon, salt and cloves. Using a fork, stir the egg and water together in a small bowl.

2. Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together at medium speed until smooth, about 3 minutes, scraping down the bowl as needed. Add the egg mixture and beat for 1 minute more. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing only until they disappear into the dough. Don't work the dough much once the flour is incorporated. If the dough comes together but some dry crumbs remain in the bottom of the bowl, stop the mixer and finish blending the ingredients with a rubber spatula or your hands.

3. Divide the dough in half. Working with one half at a time, put the dough between two large sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap. Using your hands, flatten the dough into a disk, then grab a rolling pin and roll the dough, turning it over frequently and lifting the paper so it doesn't cut into it, until it is about 1/4 inch thick. Leave the dough in the paper, and repeat with the second piece of dough. Transfer the wrapped dough to a baking sheet or cutting board (to keep it flat) and refrigerate or freeze it until it is very firm, about 2 hours in the refrigerator and about 45 minutes in the freezer.

5. Getting ready to bake: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone baking mats.

6. Peel off the top sheet of wax paper from one piece of dough and, using a small heart-shaped cookie cutter, cut out as many cookies as you can. If you want to have a peek-a-boo cutout, use the end of a piping tip to cut a very small circle from the centers of half the cookies. Transfer the hearts to the baking sheets, leaving a little space between the cookies. Set the scraps aside—you'll combine them with the scraps from the second disk and roll, cut and bake more cookies.

7. Bake the cookies one sheet at a time for 11 to 13 minutes, or until the cookies are lightly golden, dry and just firm to the touch. Transfer the cookies to a rack to cool to room temperature.

8. Repeat with the second disk of dough. Gather the scraps together, press them into a disk, roll them between sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, then cut and bake.

9. To dip the cookies, have a baking sheet lined with wax paper at the ready. When the cookies are cool, melt the chocolate chips in a coffee cup or small bowl. Dip one edge of each cookie into the chocolate, letting the excess chocolate drip back into the cup and running the edge of the cookie against the edge of the cup to clean the dipped side, then place the cookie on the lined baking sheet. When all the cookies are dipped, slide the baking sheet into the refrigerator or freezer to set the chocolate.

Basic sugar cookies that we iced with Nigella Lawson's chocolate icing from her new Christmas book: 1/4 cup cocoa, 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, 1/4 cup boiling water and sprinkles.

yield: Makes about 40 small or 15 large cookies
For a lemony twist, reduce the vanilla extract to 3/4 teaspoon and add 1 1/4 teaspoons finely grated lemon peel.


* 10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
* 1/2 cup sugar
* 1/4 teaspoon salt
* 1 large egg
* 1 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
* 2 cups all purpose flour
* Sprinkles or other sugar decorations (optional)
* Royal Icing (optional)

print a shopping list for this recipe

Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl at medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar and salt and beat until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add egg; beat until well blended, about 1 minute. Reduce speed to low and beat in vanilla. Add flour and beat on low speed just to blend. Gather dough into ball; divide in half. Form each half into ball and flatten into disk. Wrap disks separately in plastic and chill until firm, at least 4 hours. DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 days ahead. Keep chilled.

Position rack in center of oven; preheat to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Working with 1 disk at a time, roll out dough between 2 sheets of waxed paper to 1/8-inch thickness for smaller (2-inch) cookies and 1/4-inch thickness for larger (3- to 4-inch) cookies. Using decorative cookie cutters, cut out cookies and transfer to prepared sheets, spacing 1 inch apart. If cookies become too soft to transfer to baking sheets, place in freezer on waxed paper for 5 minutes before continuing. Gather scraps, roll out dough, and cut more cookies, repeating until all dough is used. If not icing cookies, decorate with sprinkles or other sugar toppings, if desired.

Bake 1 sheet at a time until cookies are firm on top and golden around edges, about 10 minutes for smaller cookies and up to 14 minutes for larger cookies. Cool completely on rack. Decorate with Icing, then sprinkles or other sugar toppings, if desired. Let stand until icing sets.

Thumbprint Cookies -- I searched the net quite a bit for this one as I know I love these cookies, but finding the perfect recipe took awhile. I prefer using a nut flours -- in this case hazelnut -- rather than ground nuts. This makes an incredibly crumbly and great texture.

Makes 25 cookies


* 1 cup flour
* 1/2 cup ground hazelnuts (1 cup as whole)
* 4 oz butter, at room temperature
* 1/4 cup sugar
* 1/3 cup raspberry jam
* 1/3 cup apricot jam


1. Preheat your oven to 350 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
2. Cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy (5 minutes).
3. Whisk together flour and ground hazelnuts and add to the creamed butter. Mix until well combined.
4. Refrigerate the dough for 30 minutes (it will be easier to shape).
5. Take a teaspoonful of dough in your hand, form a small ball, press in the center with your finger to make a hole (not all the way) and arrange on baking trays 2 inches apart. (Don’t be tempted to make them bigger than a teaspoonful).
6. Bake for 15 minutes, until the edges are slightly colored.
7. Let the cookies cool and fill the holes with your favorite jams.

Mary’s Butterballs -- these were fun, but in fact too buttery. They melted down quite a bit in the oven and are very greasy. Ah well. The ganache filling (a simply blend of bitter sweet chocolate and heavy cream) is always good.

(Adapted from Chocolate and Vanilla by Gale Gand)

You need:

* 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
* 1/2 cup organic blond cane sugar
* 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
* 1/2 cup bittersweet ganache
* Vanilla-scented blond cane sugar, for rolling


* In a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat the butter until it becomes light (3 to 5 minutes). Mix in the sugar, and when the dough is homogeneous, add the flour. Mix until it forms a ball. Wrap it in plastic and chill for at least 3 hours. This will help to prevent the cookies from flattening out too much when they are baked.
* Preheat your oven at 375 F.
* Take off pieces of dough with your hands, and roll small (3/4 inch) balls of dough between the palms of your hands. Chill them for 30 minutes in the freezer, then place them 2 inches apart on a cookie sheet, to allow for them to spread.
* Bake the balls for 13 to 15 min, or until the cookies are firm but not browned. Remove them from the oven, and let them cool on the cookie sheet.
* Spread the flat face of half of the cooled cookies with the ganache, and top with a second cookie to form a little sandwiched ball.
* Once the chocolate filling is firmer, roll them in the vanilla-flavored sugar, to coat them entirely.

Borrowing dogs

When at a cousin's holiday party, there are always enough dogs to go around. While the range of adults (i.e. age 15 to 80) chit chat, catch up, share tidbits, learn about college/job/baby choices, the young ones find their four-footed friends. Drinks, food a crackling fire and a huge and wonderfully decorated Christmas tree round out the gathering.

Birthdays for little boys

The last week of school before we left for the US, Jonas and a dear friend shared a birthday in our home. Treasure hunts for chocolate, cakes, legos, pizza, dashing about outdoors, kicking balls and constructing castles and more were the order of the day. A few spent the night, to be greeted by my pancakes the next day. As they swirled around us, my friend and I chatted and explored and discussed and contemplated. There was much for us to chew on.

Snow in New York

Well, Filou, I'm not in Provence any more. I'm here amidst a US East Coast snow storm. Obama came home early from Oslo, and we came home early from our cousin's get-together up in Connecticut. The world is white, moving slowly. I had to push Ma's car out of the gas station with the help of a friendly passer-by. As I walked home from her church where she was singing in the choir, I witnessed the ritual post-snow storm act in front of nearly every home: there is the father with or without sons of varying ages shoveling away. It is rather sociable actually. I smile and say "Morning" to them as I stroll on by. In one case I'm invited to join in, but I demure.

Back at Ma's house I'll help with the walkway, and likely dig out her parking spot so we are able to manoeuver tomorrow when no doubt the snow will be denser and icier. According to Leo and Jonas, it is not a good texture for making a snow man. Hmmm, I may have to test that. But perhaps it's true. It felt rather powdery coming down, not lumps of dense moisture only barely frozen.

The birds flock to Ma's feeder for her generous supply of sunflower seeds. Jonas helps me finish decorating our Christmas cookies. A short session of yoga calls. I'm in that surreal space of being in my childhood home. Here, under my mother's roof, France seems far away, except when my children bicker and fight, cursing each other with a flow of vulgarities learned in the school yard back in Avignon.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas Traditions

Wherever you turn the lights are blinking and the shoppers are strolling. In many a village square, school, and country barn there is a Christmas fair to tempt the generous. You can find all the classic Provençal items: pottery, honey, tapenade, olive oil, wine(s), salt mixtures, table linens, santons, ... Some are for the foodie-centric: foie gras, truffled foie gras, smoked duck breast, magret fumé, smoked salmon - both home-smoked (something Erick does brilliantly) and imported from organic producers in Ireland - eaux de vie flavored with pears, raspberries and more, vins de noix et d'orange - a classic apéritif in this world of social gatherings made by many a housewife with some sugar, fresh walnuts or bitter oranges, wine and alcohol.

The main squares of Avignon and Arles have been transformed to accommodate wooden shelters for the seasonal vendors and artisans. Chocolatiers are creating magnificent center pieces for a Christmas table, bûches de Noël in many flavors (though hazelnut cream is a local favorite), and tiny squares filled with many a flavored ganâche, caramel or almond praliné. Feast and be merry. Taste the winter cheeses imported from the Haute Savoie, the Massif Central and Normandie, made with the richer milk of the late season, aged for a month or more, these will stick to your ribs and help you get through the cold winter months!

Christmas and New Year's season is a time to prepare meals, to contemplate menus, to pre-order special items, to browse the market stands, to go through family favorites and special edition food magazines for ideas. Will this be an elegant, all-white themed party? Shall we go scrounging in the woods for greenery and make a natural garland to drape about the house? Will the weather cooperate and permit us to forage for mushrooms or truffles ourselves and add these to our festin?

At the Steiner/Waldorf school the Advent Wreath, la couronne d'Avent, is a yearly tradition. We mothers gather together at one house or another and façon then decorate these small rounds to be topped with four candles that our children know already how and when to light from class. (as an aside, the Manhattan Waldorf school [amongst others I believe] also has menoras and encourages its Jewish student body to share their songs and prayers through this winter month). But, the wreath is a Northern import (Waldorf schools being much linked to the German and Swiss worlds) and is not typically found in Provence, nor did the Christmas tree, le sapin de Noël, used to be so ubiquitous. Mistle-toe however, le gui, is a common vine in the trees that is sold in large branches on the market to hang in your foyer. Holly, le houx, is brought down from the Cévennes where it grows to large heights in that moist and somewhat higher altitude.

What you find in nearly every Provence home at Christmas is the Crêche. The Crêche focuses on the Nativity scene of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the ox and ass, the stable and the arrival of the three kings. There's generally an angel hovering above as well. For many, this is all you might see, but in Provence the tradition of the Santons, or little saints, is widespread. I've put a link to a fun blog that has many many photos to give you an idea. There are artist santon-makers, a guild of santon-makers, families who've made them over multiple generations, each with their own variation of what is still a very unified style and code. In all cases you will find a wide cast of common local characters: the shepherd, the blind man, the baker, the wood gatherer, the fishwoman, the local crazy man (he who has his hands in the air), the hunter, the mayor, the curate, the elegant Arlesienne, the gypsy woman, and on and on. The full cast of a local village is recreated in miniature to people a table, a shelf, and thus host and share in the birth of baby Jesus. To fill out the scene we have bridges, fountains, stables, trees, schrubs, gazebos, hills, paths... whatever's necessary to animate a village.

If you come to Provence via the Marseille Airport you can see a wonderful display of santons in the Air France departures' lounge (upstairs). Grandmothers store their collections -- gathered over their lives -- preciously, pulling them out each year and bringing in the kids to help set up the magical little world. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Jesus is not there till Christmas day (makes sense) and the three kings are placed at a distance, to slowly make their way to the stable for Kings' Day, January 6th.

Though the pastry shops have their selection of yule logs, bûches de Noël, in fact these too are imports from the North. Our local tradition is the thirteen desserts:

• the four mendiants, referring to the religious orders who took oaths of poverty:
- the Augustinians symbolized by walnuts or hazelnuts,
- the Franciscans symbolized by dried figs,
- the Dominicans symbolized by raisins, and
- the Carmes symbolized by almonds
• the locally produced honey almond nougat (both dark and light),
• fresh oranges or clementines (remember, Provence has always traded with other countries on the Mediterranean, so getting these from Corsica or Morrocco is an ancient custom)
• and depending upon your village and custom: quince paste, pâte de coing, candied fruit and almond paste calissons d'Aix, a melon carefully stored from September, apples or pears, and a variety of late ripening green grapes.

Voila for a touch of Provençal Christmas...

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christmas in Provence

The Christmas lights have been up for ten days now, even longer in many villages. Barely does the Toussaint (All Saints' Day, i.e. November 1st) pass, when the cherry picker trucks are out with the technicians draping lights through the trees, across the streets, and throughout the town. Each village has its own set of decorative lights (I promise photos if possible before I depart for the US on Wednesday!). Village limits are thus precisely delineated. My dance club where I enjoy Salsa on Monday nights is just at the beginnings of Le Pontet, 50 yards beyond the end of the Avignon street lights.

It is now officially chilly and cold. There is snow on Mont Ventoux -- our local mountain -- so sledders and skiiers can enjoy a weekend's outing in the freezing, windy, moist, chill of a snowy spot -- if they so desire. My wood stove is an awfully cozy place... leaving it isn't really very tempting to me.

The shopping centers are filled to bursting -- Economic crisis anyone?? I do my necessary shopping first thing after dropping the kids off at school, otherwise, the chocolate/toy/underwear/foie gras purchasing crowds are more than likely to trample me underfoot.

Slowly, I trust I'll get into the spirit. Perhaps some cookie baking would help? Not a present is yet purchased... better get to it, hm?

Here's a memory from last year:

Christmas in Provence 2008

Alone, still skittish about finances, I was able nonetheless to buy (or just had nonetheless bought) a Christmas tree. Jonas and his friend took to decorating it as their task of the day. Leo, older by nearly five years, decided he was too old for such things. Or, to put a more gracious spin on it, he simply preferred playing with his friend upstairs.

I pulled out the old tree stand I’d brought from the US years’ ago (here, trees are sold nailed to boards, keeping them in water and thus making a semblance of keeping them fresh longer just isn't much done), and with the kids’ help, tried to get the tree straight (unsuccessfully, but at least it wasn’t falling down). My heart did a classic mommy pitter-pat when I overheard Jonas sharing his memories of each ornament from past years. He also most competently directed his friend to put the most fragile out of reach of the cats.

Meantime, I took out the crêche figures and set them up against a green starry backdrop on the middle shelf of my hutch cabinet. As per French tradition, I gathered some moss from outdoors, included pine cones and other natural objects to embellish the back ground, and set up a village of small santons (little saints -- my collection is from the hillside village of Séguret where a santon maker hand designs, bakes and paints each one to resemble his neighbors) alongside the nativity figures.

Tradition imposes that we hide Baby Jesus away till Christmas day, and put the kings on the far side from the shelf (or even across the room) as they are not to arrive till the 6th of January, Kings’ day, celebrated in France with special cakes and traditions of fava beans, crowns and more.

I’d lost my Joseph a few years’ back – yes, a rather Freudian moment that any psychologist would have a field day with. It was a special crèche, white and finely detailed, not from Provence, that my mother had offered me. So I couldn’t just go to a little santon store down the street and pick up another identical Joseph. I’d misplaced him sometime back in the Arles' days, unhappy in my marriage. I truly searched for him everywhere, but no luck. So, in my crêche, at least for the moment, Mary was a single mother awaiting her child on her own.

I hadn't spent many Christmases in Provence. It was hard to not want to be home in New York and Connecticut for the family reunions, music, feasting and cousins. Part of being an ex-patriot is figuring out traditions, and, one’s own relationship to them. Homesickness is notoriously worst around holidays, and in my case, the frequent return trips are both joyous, and confusing. I love being surrounded by family, going to a church full of music and prettily dressed children, sharing magical snowstorms with my kids … How could France top that? But these seasonal returns had also been known to leave me terribly homesick, and what with the winter blues and lack of light induced depression… I had had many difficult starts to the New Year.

This year in Avignon would be the first Christmas for the kids not spent in the company of both parents. Leo and I talked at length about how to work out the vacation. It was important for him to see what Erick could muster alone, and to spend some quality time with him. I negotiated nonetheless that the kids be with me for Christmas Eve, agreeing to bring them to their father the next morning. I asked JP to join us for the evening feast and festivities, and set to work on the menu, baking cookies and decorating the dining area.

I had both children alone with me for the couple days’ leading up to Christmas, and did my best to do some Christmas spirit-inducing activities such as baking and decorating sugar cookies, ginger bread men, stringing garlands of popcorn and raisins for the birds. All this was done to the accompaniment of lots of Christmas music on the cd player – Burl Ives’ rendition of Rudolf, and the Twelve Days of Christmas, Julie Andrews’ Joy to the World, gentle choral versions of the Holly and the Ivy. I sang along to most every song, excepting where my voice just couldn’t go. After high school, I lost the soprano range. Ah well, singing alto or tenor is fine, no?, but difficult if you don’t know the notes!

The crowning glory for the kids is my bûche (recipes and photos will follow in future posts). They eagerly helped whip the egg whites for the genoise cake base, pass the raspberry jam through the vegetable mill to get out the seeds, and whisk gently together the dark chocolate ganâche for the center and topping. It's a cake that requires patience – Each step needs to be done at just the right time. The cake, soaked in raspberry flavored alcohol (rum in my case) with syrup is then topped with the ganâche (once it's cooled) and lastly with the raspberry jam, left over night to absorb all the flavors, and rolled up the next day. Again a day later, when the flavors have melded, the topping goes on, and once it has set, we draw bark with the prongs of a fork. Last, but not least, we whip cream, sprinkle powdered sugar on top to give the look of snow on the bark.

And Christmas Eve was upon us. Quiet, no snow. JP arrived when most of the cooking was nearly done. He pulled out a small package, opened it for me, and set a new Joseph figure in my crêche. Setting it to rights I suppose. Mary could now await the arrival of her baby with a companion at her side.

Jonas set the table with care and as beautifully as he could, laying the tinsel, lighting the candles, choosing the prettiest glasses and plates. It was just the four of us, simple music on the radio, and a fire in the wood stove. While the roast finished cooking, (I did not follow Provence tradition and serve a repas maigre this night, but opted for a less religiously authentic roast beef, which my neighbors would be more apt to serve the next day) we settled around a table by the fire to play cards. JP and I each sipped our glasses of the organic Clos de Joncuas AOC Vacqueyras (great winery -- run by a woman!) I'd picked up that fall. Gin Rummy was a bit complicated for Joseph, so we kept to games that Leo had mastered and could easily teach him (and us). It was a time for Leo to lead.

Presents were for the next morning...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Windy Walk one Afternoon

For this afternoon's walk I left my home and went west past the fields of my neighborhoods, now handsomely planted in winter wheat. From there I took a turn by my local garage to pay my outstanding bill for the spark plug repairs, and then across the road to the Western side of the island. It is far less appealing to walk along this side, but the views are beautiful nonetheless. Le Fort Saint André is perched high on a rock looking back at Avignon across the low lands of my island. There are a few house boats hooked up, including what looks to be a fun place for a dinner out. Before I got to the gypsies' camp, I turned back East towards Avignon, and my preferred little dirt paths between the trees, as always, faithful Filou at my side.

My local water bird (tern? -- where's my ornithologist brother when you need him...) is on his usual perch. The winter light is so brief, so sharp, so white. Just ten days now till the Solstice... Each morning I note that the lowering sun on the horizon over Avignon as we cross the bridge on our way to school. Today, no round, bright ball to blind me. Nothing but a few streaks of golden clouds.


In the past couple of days I've been between sick friends, and happy children. Visiting a psychiatric hospital, and making birthday cakes for an eight year old. Sharing coffee with an ailing friend whose speach is slower and slower, her thoughts more and more fleeting, then lunching at a restaurant with a pair of eager and delighted little boys, drawing pictures on their place mats and eagerly dipping their fries in ketchup (well, the American one did, the French one stayed with the more continental choice of a sprinkle of salt).

I see the effects of anti-depressants on an otherwise ambitious powerhouse, felled by the loss of a most dearly-loved father figure and unable to maintain the ferocious pace he'd set himself. Suddenly, where before there was wit, speed, intensity, forward movement, now there is hesitation, and an otherness to his voice. How to reorient himself? His business? His life?

And I see the joy and eagerness in a little boy's eyes as he discovers his new animal cards and commences memorizing the weight, speed, age, locale and more of this new set of visuals.

I listen most carefully and fill in the blanks as my tumor-fighting friend shares memories, discusses her marriage, bread, cheese, living the agricultural life.

I am charmed by a helpful teen who problem-solves his way to helping me build a bicycle shed.

My bookshelf is held together by hope, youth, joy, expectations at one end and weariness, illness, fear, collapse, slow decay at the other.

Life is layered in so many ways. Joy comes in so many packages. The eyes of a sad man lighten when he sees a friend who has traveled far to see him. He is gracious and attentive to his fellow residents, none of whom have his mastery of language, nor his style in a cashmere coat. Two little boys playing hide and seek in the goat barn, setting up their cars' highway on the big table of the oil mill. They zoom, the turn, they live in their own bubble. And upstairs, a woman is proudly making a tart, something she used to do so easily, but which now marks an accomplishment of note. Her husband is there to care for her, but she still contributes to their meal. There is still much to give and share.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Girlfriends and Auto-suffisance

I find it interesting the movement and energy of the women I enjoy, care about, and spend time with. There was a time during the years before my divorce when I seemed to seek out single-divorced mothers who were coping, at times with great difficulty, seeking balance, not quite there, struggling... In French we'd say, elles galéraient. Truly, finances were rough, fathers were absent, kids were struggling with the shifting sands beneath their feet, the moms were struggling to keep it all together. And, not surprisingly a love life was a source of complication, fear, impossibility -- at times desired as a possible haven from the chaos, but rarely successfully negotiated.

I found and find these women generous, true, and strong-willed. And yet, their state of instability was and is frightening. There were times when I would observe and say, no, I don't want that in my life. How will I manage when at last I separate, move out, leap into the void of divorce and single parenthood? Their example impressed me, and terrified me.

And then I joined their ranks. I have now spent a goodly chunk of these past two years galérant, struggling, running in place, desperately trying not to sink into the morass, swimming against the current, keeping my head afloat. Choose your metaphor. Simply put, the unsettledness of it all is terrifying. There are moments of stagnation, fear, confusion and wonderment. Where am I going? Where will I land? Have I landed?

Part of me -- perhaps? -- chose this instability, this far harder route, as a means of climbing off my pedestal. I think there is a spoiled little girl in me who's still trying to prove that she has it in her to tough it out, cope on her own, manage even in difficult circumstances. Be it as it will.

Since my separation from JP this fall, I have stumbled into a different energy. Or rather, I've been received and welcomed into a different sphere. I've found women who are single, divorced, raising kids alone, and they're fine. They are in love or not, as they choose. They are coping quite ably financially. They are not struggling with the basics. They have an ease to them, a presence, une jolie auto-suffisance. This is my new key phrase.

I am entranced. This is what I seek. A lovely relationship with a man would be nice, but more and more I see it as not essential. However, self-esteem, self-sufficiency, the assurance of stability, my own ability to cope, that what I offer my kids is good and enough. That I can choose to be with a man, or not. That my life is full and generous and joyful through my own efforts. I am surprised by this moment of re-discovering values and possibilities. I've been nudged and advised to move in this direction for quite some time, and often by those same friends who have struggled so. We know that this is the goal. And yet, when freshly out of a relationship/divorce, it takes more than a little time to realize what we truly seek. How often is the idea of forming a new couple truly a mirage on the horizon of a quest for stability, calm, peace, and a sense of coming home?

I want to go from that stage of struggling and resisting to the state of grace that being okay with my situation would be. I may be able to help myself along with a bit of meditating, more active job searching, more writing, and/or the sale of the b&b in Arles... (counting my chickens before the eggs hatch -- much?). I used to believe in my own power to make things happen in my life -- back when I was young and single and childless. That belief has been shaken, but not completely crushed. Focus, knowing what I want... these intangibles have been lacking. How can the Universe give you what you want/need when you don't even know what to ask for?

And so, direct and off the cuff that I am, I have mildly interrogated my new friends. I have observed with pleasure their natural smiles, their happiness, their peace at this stage of life. Both are more than five years out of their divorces -- is timing necessary? Both have found their balance. And, thank you Universe, both accept me with smiles and amusement as I reach out and babble and query and listen, and no doubt, babble some more.

Back to the Kids - dealing with anger

I am, as many of you know, housing, feeding and selectively educating a small group of pre-teens who attend my children's Waldorf school just north of Avignon. As this is one of the rare Waldorf schools that goes through high school in the country, and the only one in the South, kids come from all over to attend it. So it has become de facto a boarding school for a small percentage of the student body. However, there is no official structure linked to the school to house the kids, it is up to various parents to offer their extra rooms, generosity, welcome, food, etc., to permit these kids to be here.

A fellow single mother at the school -- a dear friend who is an amazingly resourceful woman coping with the private school tuition of her two sons, feeding her household mostly organic, raising chickens, making gorgeous shawls and working full time as a nurse -- paved the way for me to open my house to kids from the school. I observed how she structured the house rhythms, what she expected from the kids, how much she charged the parents, and have since checked in with her when things go awry in my own household.

Ostensibly I do it for the money -- it definitely helps to have a bit more cash flow coming into the house, and it also offsets my kids' tuition at the school. I am also doing the school a favor.

What is fascinating is the myriad of ways having these children in my house teaches, stretches, challenges, and at times frustrates we three who normally live here. Right now I am taken with the magic age of thirteen.

Now, I must stress that we are in France, the food supply is not riddled with growth hormones, and kids are still hitting pre-adolescence/adolescence at the relatively normal age of thirteen. Leo's teacher once accused his American side of bringing on early pre-adolescence, now two years ago??? And I simply looked at her like, what? Are you insane woman? Are you accusing my half of his genes for his early mustache? His grace with the female half of of his class? his moodiness? In any case, raised on French food, and a majority of that organic, he shouldn't have any excess estrogen flowing through his system...

In the past few weeks we've had some interesting moments of upset in the household. In particular, our young man (thirteen this February) slammed a door in anger (he was being gently teased) and caused another to fall and thus broke both the door handle (lovely, antique brass) and a corner of a table. My reaction? Get ahold of your anger kid. By all means, feel it, do not deny it, but please, do not break my house! If you're feeling physical, go for a run, go kick a (big) tree, but leave my house alone!

And yes, if you're wondering, his parents will replace both the door handle and the table. All will get sorted out.

Later, it was our young girl's moment in the sun. She is fully thirteen and aiming quickly towards fourteen. And goodness, she has her moments of being rightfully pissy and bitchy and snide and harumphs off, stomping her feet and (before I gave them all hell for this) slamming doors. I let her blow off steam and come back of her own accord. However, this would be normal, yes? I can handle most of the basic details of pre-teen moodiness.

What worries me is the way she seems proud of making the majority of her teachers angry with her. To her mind, she is fully justified in slamming chairs, stomping off, slamming doors, etc., to go outside and cool down when she feels that otherwise she would piquer une crise, i.e. have a fit. And for this, she was expelled from school for two days. Somehow, I think a bit more went into the school's decision... but I haven't had the full story.

Her mother has had her time with her, and things seem a bit better now... However, she is living with me, under my roof, for many more nights this year than at her mother's. My role is thus -- forcibly -- to educate and cajol and advise over and beyond providing her with a bed, food and hot water. And so, I've said my two bits. Basically, that being angry, feeling that intense hit of emotions overwhelm her is normal, and scary, but an important part of growing up is mastering these, not letting them master you. Far more easily said than done. But I've suggested strongly to my young girl that even when she's feeling about to burst, that she request permission to leave her class room to get herself under control. If she did that, it would not lessen her in the eyes of either her classmates or her teachers, and more importantly, I believe her teachers would respect her choice to quietly cope with the waves of emotion hitting her, and grant her this permission.

Leo, my son, is not yet thirteen. He will be so in June. As yet, we've really not had any great great upsets -- well there was that half hour of extreme depression and groaning this summer but since then... And so I asked him if he was curious about these two who are not so brilliantly handling their anger; does he sense that soon he too may be in the same boat? Not really. What followed was a question on his part as to whether a boy's handling his sex is normal.

I said yes, but in private.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

When Flipping Cheese...

From a one-day in the mold (or half for some cheesemakers) to the 10 day aged in the aging room. The visual and tactile evolution of goat cheese rounds.

Flipping soft cheese is an art, a skill to be acquired, mastered, practiced, repeated ad infinitum. It is zen-meditation inspiring. You are manipulating lovely textures, ever so gently, back into the mold or out onto the drying racks. In the spring time, the action can go on for hours. Now, two weeks before the end of season, it is relatively brief. Two days' worth of cheese is flipped in simply a little under an hour. That soft and breakable one day cheese is now in my fingers, now in its mold, ready to continue releasing its whey and turning into a firm little round. And the two day olds are ready to be flipped out and put in the drying room. Those in the drying room are switched to the aging room, and those in the aging room... age.


I did get to be with Isabelle a bit this past Thursday. Yet again on the chemo. Her liver is suffering, but has built back up to a certain level of tolerance after her three week chemo-hiatus. English class was cancelled, and I was looking forward to a more graciously slow-moving meal of sea bream, dorade, and sauteed veggies together in her and Paul Pierre's company, when school called to tell me Leo was sick. Ah well, I passed over the vegetable making to Isabelle, gave her the ritual three kisses, and headed out the door.

The afternoon finished quite peacefully with my boy and I watching Ivanhoe on the computer. A gift really. With children who are almost never sick, quiet time together just has to be accepted out of the blue when the universe so chooses.