I said I wanted to be back in France within a year….and the day I said it was about six months ago. And I am leaving in exactly 6 months. I have a date circled in my planner. I’ve saved…just over half of the money I’ve budgeted on. Last night I told my boss at the bakery I’m working at now that I’m moving in the fall. (Better I give him a lot of warning, than he stumbles over it in my social media, you know?) I’ve gotten rid of half my books, and clothes, and a fair bit of assorted other junk.
This is feeling awfully REAL, suddenly, and all is a jumble of excitement and anticipation and–abject terror.
I have so many things to do, but it’s still a bit too early to start some of them.
My french is improving but really, it’s still crap. J‘ai peur. How do I speed this up?
I have talked to some lovely and very kind people in Lyon and Paris (And also a couple of random Provençal villages, because pourquoi pas?), but I haven’t found a job. (Yet. I haven’t found one yet!) I knew this might happen. You don’t hire bakers without a stage first, a trial run to know they can do the things they claim for themselves. Which means I am truly flying into the unknown. Once I am there, even if someone wants to hire me, will they be willing to wait for all the legal stuff to be processed for this little pâtissière canadienne, or just–move on to someone easier?
BUT. What if, like a miracle, absolutely everything works out?
Today I give you the easiest recipe that I make on the regular, that never fails to make other people go “OooOOOoooh”. Something that is delicious all on it’s own,
but can also be the base for much fancier things. It’s a meringue–quite literally, whipped egg whites with sugar. But in this case, so much more…it’s made with brown sugar. That thing which I occasionally eat a spoonful of right out of the package (because it’s delicious and that’s just how I roll), which has that warm rich flavour that plain white sugar just doesn’t. Brown sugar (Cassonade in French!) is not just sweet, it tastes warmer and richer, and it adds that little something-something that makes this recipe really special.
A little technical note: Egg whites always whip up better at room temperature–it lets the proteins stretch further and hold more air!
Cassonade (Brown Sugar) Meringues
2 egg whites
100 g (1/2 cup firmly packed) brown sugar
Preheat over to 200 F/ 95 C.
Using either a stand mixer with the whisk attachment, or a hand mixer, beat egg whites until foamy. add salt, and then sugar, gradually. Once all is added, it’s a good idea to stop the mixer and scrape the sides, just to be sure all your sugar gets in there! Continue beating on high until thick and glossy, with stiff peaks. I put this into a piping bag and pipe kisses, or little “nests” to make a base for pavlova or other desserts, onto a parchment lined tray. If you feel really lazy, you could also just flop big spoonfuls on to your tray, and call them “rustic”! Bake for 1 hour 15 minutes, then turn off the oven and leave the meringues inside for at least one hour to totally dry out and cool–I like to make them in the evening and just leave them overnight, which makes them nice and crispy.
Brown sugar likes to draw moisture–don’t store these in the fridge! If they do start to get squishy, you can re-crisp-ify them in a low oven.
This quest of mine is really taking it out of me. Because I have been working extra hard to move up the timeline. I’m not really happy where I am, and the amount of time I am spending at work so that i can be off sooner is making me even more unhappy. What I really could use is a couple days off, lying in the grass, watching clouds, reading, people watching, and maybe snacking and having a drink while I’m at it.
Since that’s not looking too likely, I am taking a lot of deep breaths and looking at some pictures of my favourite Parisian park, Buttes Chaumont, in the 19th arrondissement. It was built over a former quarry turned dump–in the same year Canada became a country. Both celebrated 150 years in 2017, which I
found highly amusing. It’s a maze of hills and valleys and staircases, and twisting paths, full of greenery, complete with a small lake, a clifftop lookout, gurgling streams and two man-made waterfalls! There is also a very nice looking cafe, but I never went, opting instead to do as the locals did, and bring my own wine, bread and cheese and picnic on the grass as the sun set in the evening. This park is totally worth a visit, and a great place for a run, if you’re so inclined. During the hot part of the summer, it is also open to the public late, as a cool green space. Also, even though it is a bit of an effort, walk to the very highest point over the lake. The view is absolutely worth it, with a different way to see Sacre-Coeur on top of the other hill in Montmartre.
For now, I am still here, but taking deep breaths and looking forward.
The hardest part of this whole process is the parts where it feels like nothing is happening. Where I go to work and come home at crazy hours, making the money to do the thing, but that’s it–it feels like not really accomplishing anything. So I keep
injecting the other tasks that I know have to be done at some point in around my work schedule, to remind myself that no matter where you’re going, you get there…one step at a time.
This week, I filled out paperwork, took the required photos, and renewed my passport, which otherwise would have expired early next year, and would be a real pain in the rump to renew from afar. The new one is supposed to be here in two weeks (What? I don’t even believe that!), and I even paid extra for one that’s valid for 10 years, so I won’t need to do this all again for quite a while. So that’s one more thing done, and one step closer to my goals!
Part of my quest for a bit of balance after the insanity of the last few weeks involved getting back into my own kitchen, to do a little bit of of playing around. I’m a pretty creative sort, so making the same things all day, every day, gets painfully dull fast if I don’t find ways to shake it up a bit.
I love baking as seasonally as possible, and I’m longing for rhubarb season, but right now it’s still the tail end of winter in Canada, so, I’m leaning into my favourite dried fruit: dates. They’re delicious, relatively cheap, and…so underused. Locally, they mostly pop up in date squares, but not in anything fancier. So I set out to make a more elevated take on the date sweet for teatime, and made this date and custard tart. It’s delicious, tasting lightly of spices, and reminiscent of a mince tart, I think it may become part of my holiday baking next year. I posted a picture of it, and half my Facebook is asking for the recipe, so I’m going to share! It’s a pretty simple tart, in spite of having multiple components–none of them take very long to come together, and although the custard will make you feel like a real chef with all the whisking, none are difficult. The pastry is an almond pate sucre which we used at the patisserie I worked in last summer…I quartered eighth-ed the recipe and still have enough left over to probably make another half dozen tarts! The rest is a traditional date filling, a vanilla creme patissière, and a crumble topping. The topping is the only part i may make changes to in the future, as the current version starts to lose its texture very quickly in the face of such moist fillings. I have a notion of using some almond and oat to make it a bit more substantial. (One little note about this recipe: Half of my notes are in the European and professional units, which is to say, grams, and half of them are in the North American cup measurements. I will probably revisit this and convert everything to the gram weights because it’s more precise and likely to give consistent results when I get a bit of free time, but for today, I’m afraid I must post and run.
Date & Custard Tart
(yields 1 9″ tart–plus a boatload of extra pastry, which can be frozen and used for more tarts later!)
250g sweet (aka unsalted) butter, softened
500g pastry flour
200g icing sugar
50g almond flour
Mix all except eggs (i get right in there with my hands and make a nice mess!) until there are no pieces of butter remaining. Add eggs, and mix until the dough comes together. This is a very soft pastry…ball it up, wrap in plastic, and stick in the the fridge for half an hour to firm up. This is a good time to start preheating the oven to 350F! Once chilled and a bit firmer, cut of a pice big enough to make one tart (eyeball it, you’ve got this!). Flour your work surface well, and roll out to fit your tart pan.
The hardest part of pate sucre is getting it into the pan in one piece–It’s soft, and needs gentle hands! I roll mine onto my rolling pin, then lift it to the pan and roll it back off again. Carefully fit it to the pan, pressing to the sides, and trim the over hang. Prick the bottom all over with a fork, then stick it back in the fridge for a half hour, or my preference, the freezer for ten minutes, so it’s nice and firm. Place a piece of parchment inside the shell, fill it with dried beans (or pie weights if you’re one of those people), and pop it in the oven. After 20 minutes, remove the parchment and beans, and return to the oven for about 10 more minutes, until the bottom is lightly golden, and not raw. NO SOGGY BOTTOMS EVER! This is what people mean when they talk about “blind baking”: it’s baking a shell partly or completely, before you fill it, so the bottom cooks properly. Your shell is done, and ready to fill.
1 1/4 C dried, chopped, pitted dates
1/2 C water
1 Tbsp lemon juice (or vinegar, in a pinch)
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1/4 tsp baking soda
Put all except soda into a saucepan, and bring to a boil(It won’t take very long at all, so keep an eye out!). Add the baking soda, and simmer, stirring, for a few minutes, until the dates are falling apart. Set aside to cool a bit.
250g whole milk
1/4 tsp vanilla
65g sugar (separate into 15g and 50g)
2 egg yolks
Combine milk, vanilla, and 15g of the sugar in a saucepan, and bring to a simmer.
While the milk is heating, whisk together the rest of the sugar, the starch, and the egg yolks in a large bowl. While continuing to whisk, slowly pour in the hot milk. This is a bit of a tricky two handed operation, but it’s important. If you just dump the milk in all at once and don’t keep mixing, you’ll end up with scrambled egg bits instead of a smooth custard! Once everything is whisked together, return to the saucepan, and place back on the heat. Keep whisking, constantly, and return the mixture just to a bubble, until it’s thickened. Pour it out of the pot right away, or the bottom will burn. Stir in the butter while still hot, so that it melts and incorporates smoothly. Congratulations, you just made custard… and it’s probably a bit more than you’ll need to fill the tart, so chill the extra and enjoy with a spoon later!
1/3 C sugar
1/3 C flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp mixed spice
1/4 cup sweet butter, softened
optional– I’m going to try adding rolled oats or maybe some ground almonds to this next time I make it, you could always try if you feel adventurous!
Combine all ingredients with a fork or your fingers until they make a nice crumbly mix.
Spread the date filling evenly into the bottom of the tart. Then top with a layer of crème pâtissière, and smooth with a small spatula or the back of a spoon. Cover all with crumble topping, place in oven and bake 45-50 minutes, until the topping is golden-brown. Let cool, and serve. This tart goes especially well with a good cup of tea or coffee!
So it seems I’ve broken my commitment to weekly blogging for the past two weeks. Because, well, reasons. Sometimes life is just like that. So here’s a real short round up of the successes and failures of the past two weeks.
-actually made contact with some people in France about opportunities, which I now need to follow up on.
-random curve ball from friends in Germany, with a possible opportunity there, which also needs follow up but is veeeeerrrrry innnnterrrresting. Perhaps I should mention that I only know six words in German, of which one is a curse, and the rest are cribbed from WW2 era Looney Toons shorts?
-I started a second job part time, to increase my ability to save $$$ for moving and gallivanting around europe once I am there.
-put on my big girl pants and filed my tax return.
– cooked a fancy pants meal for friends and had them over. The service was much less fancy than the food, as i have five friends but only three chairs! But a good time was had, and we stuffed ourselves with herb-roasted duck, and i even found time to make lovely mini-pavlovas for dessert.
-there have been heavy levels of work stress, for a host of reasons, all best left to lie at this point. And with the two jobs now, I haven’t got any free time to deal with anything. Like, laundry would be good.
-apparently sleep is not a thing. I’m currently working nights four days a week, and early mornings the other two and my circadian rhythm is completely fuuuuuuuuu– you get me.
-no French lessons at all.
-I am living on take out and coffee.
-basically sitting around feeling like a garbage human because of not getting anything done besides going to work. I hate feeling like nothing’s getting accomplished.
The good news: just writing out these two lists, I feel better. Obviously I’m still working like crazy, I’m just at that awkward point where there isn’t much to show for it yet, and those are always the points that make me crazy, where I’m tempted to leap out of the boat midstream. And as of Monday, there’s been a couple of shifts that are improving things so I can find a bit of a better balance. I’m back on track for regular language study and blog posting, and my work schedule is hopefully going to be made a bit less mad within the month, if my boss comes through as promised. And my big lets-do-this task for the next week? It’s time to renew my passport!
Welcome to the second of my monthly series on tools I’ve been using on my quest to learn French! This month is a bit different, because instead of this being about one of the tools I first started out with, this is a review of a new-to-me course I’ve been trying out recently.
I stumbled over French Together via Pintrest, of all things. I’ve been pinning tons of little languge learning tips there, and one of them offered me a list of—I actually forget exactly what it was! It may have been something like the 80 most commonly used words in the French language, or something like that? And by asking for this, I got added to the French Together mailing list, which started shooting me emails with little tips and also advertising their course, which eventually led to my getting an email saying: Hey! You have a blog that is sort of related to what we do, perhaps you would like to try out our course for free and review it? You should note that this is the only learning tool I have used which is not free, but a trial copy to review seemed like a huge win win to me, so I agreed! This is my honest review of the course so far—I’ve completed Level One, and am just about to start Level Two.
The course takes the form of a downloadable e-book, where you click to listen to a diologue, and then listen again, repeating and practicing with the speakers. There is a transcript of the dialogue as well, but you’re encouraged to listen first, and read second. It very much places the emphasis on listening, comprehending, and getting you speaking, which is a shortcoming in a lot of the language tools I’ve been using before this—I can promise it has already improved my pronunciation. It also contains grammar and vocabulary sidebars, explaining things you come across within the dialogues. My download also came with a couple of cool extras, which I’ll discuss below.
The emphasis on listening and repeating to learn—one of my biggest stumbling blocks at a FSL student is that sometimes even though I know the words, I don’t always understand them when people are talking to me. Familiarizing your ear is really incredibly helpful, and the repeating of the phrases is good for getting used to having the language in your mouth—sometimes I stumble over words I know, just because I’m not used to speaking them, or the rhythms of the language, and this method helps to ingrain them in your body.
Conversational and practical— Unlike the last tool I discussed, where you often get a lot of phrases designed to teach vocabulary that you’d never use in reality, the situations in this course pop up all the time. You’re likely to need to ask for help in a store, or buy a train ticket, to give or ask for directions, or be able to say “Tout va bien? Vous n’avez pas l’air en forme” (Is everything okay? You don’t look so good). I also came across a number of helpful little words and phrases in this program that haven’t popped up in my other studies because they’re a bit “slangy”, but that are used really frequently in France, which I think is really great.
Explanations—Bless this program for telling me the grammar rules behind the things it’s asking me to say. I feel so much more confident using a phrase when I know why it works and haven’t just been told it’s right, so don’t worry about why.
What’s EXTRA GOOD
This program comes with a free bonus ebook, called “How To Learn French In a Year”, by course creator Benjamin Houy, and it was full of great tips about how language learning works. Some of the things in it are things I’ve already been doing to help reinforce my learning, which I was happy see being recommended, and some of the tips were new to me. I think the things I got from this book are going to continue to help me in my learning journey long after I am done with the course itself. There was also a second bonus download of common French idioms, which I think is going to be fun, although I haven’t had the time to explore it yet.
I think this is possibly more of a me thing, than an everyone thing: as helpful as repetition is in learning, I get bored really fast, so after a few times through a dialogue, I was often tempted to skip on to the next lesson even though I knew I hadn’t really aced the one I was working on yet. But then, I can return to review later, so…I really don’t think this is a program flaw, more of a—me flaw!
Every now at then I would have to click the button a bazillion times to make the audio work and it was irritating. This may, once again, be an issue on MY end, and nothing to do with the ebook itself, unfortunately I’m not technically savvy enough to be able to tell you which.
This is less a straight up “I don’t like this feature”, and more a word of warning. French Together is a really helpful tool, but I think that if you are a TRUE BEGINNER with no prior knowledge of French at all, this might not be the place to start. Leaping straight into conversations—and these are a lot more complex than “Hello. How are you? I am fine. Merci.”–when you don’t know any of the vocabulary at all, would likely be very, very frustrating. So again, not actually bad, just something that anyone looking at this program should know. It feels more like a second step—when you’ve started with something else and feel like you’re learning a lot of words, but your ability to speak and understand isn’t really at the level you’d like, this course would be a huge help.
ALL IN ALL
I’m really, really enjoying French Together, and finding it very helpful to me, especially at the point I’m at in my learning curve. It feel like it is designed to be part of a bigger toolbox for language learners, and it’s fit very well into mine, making a nice compliment to some of the other resources I’ve been using. If you have a little bit of money to spend on a learning tool, and are at an advanced beginner/early intermediate level with your French (particularly if you’re working on listening comprehension), this would probably appeal to you as well.
Next month in this little series, I’m going to talk about some of the other ways I managed to finally move from reading french to speaking french. For now: has anyone out there had any particular luck with other online courses like French Together that you enjoyed…or tried anything that you felt was not worth what you put into it? I’d love to hear your experiences, and I’m still looking for more tools for my kit!