The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.
This journey is changing. It’s still leading me back to, and through Paris, and France. But it now seems that isn’t to be the endgame after all. You spend a whole life going as far from home as you can get chasing the things you most want, and then one day it turns out that now, the best way to get what you want…might be to go home?
A little vague, this, but I am currently a little short on details, beyond the fact that I wanted a change. I made change, and now I am getting change. Plus ça change…
I did it! After my last post, i managed to make a carrot cake that I think might actually fly with les français. I say this knowing that when I was last there, I tried to explain the concept of carrot cake to Chef’s wife, and she looked at me like I had three heads, tutted, and said “Ooh lalalalala, non! C’est trop américain, ça.” In my mind, the number of “la’s” behind the “Ooh” indicate just how mad what was just said is, making this the kinder gentler version of “Oh, honey. Sweetie. Hell no.” And I remember thinking to myself that she wasn’t wrong, because it was so far removed from the french desserts I was learning about, and wondering how I might convince her it wasn’t actually insane, this vegetable masquerading as cake.
This is how I made it happen: My Carrot Cake Entremet. Which needs some sort of pretentious pâtisserie name, i suppose. I’ll have to figure that out later. But this I am keeping and if I set up shop in the future, it’s on the menu.
Components from the top down:
Cream Cheese Mousse
Pineapple Gelée Insert*
Carrot Spice Sponge
Pecan and white chocolate praliné
This little experiment ended up as a birthday cake for one of my best friends, and it was a hit! Would you be into this kind of a carrot cake? And–what would you give it for a french name?
* The enzymes in pineapple prevent gelatine from setting, so this was made using agar, a popular gelling agent in asia which is made from, of all things, seaweed!
Or: some of the little things that help me make up my desserts.
This is an entremet we made when I was in school:
Full disclosure, I hated this shit didn’t particularly like this one. It looks ok, but I hated the texture, the combination of flavours(caramel and coffee and chocolate and apple, the latter presented in three different ways), the sheer amount of random crap it had going on. And yet, elements of this desert keep turning up in other things I make, tweaked to my own purposes. That limp, sad apple chip became a crispy honey caramelised pear on my final project that year, and the apple jelly compote cubes that are jammed in the middle became a pear and juniper insert in the same project. They got combined with a honey mousse and the sable breton from a totally different dessert I was making in France last summer (Which had the saddest filling, also, strangely, apple. Apples are great, stop working so hard to make them bad and just let them be apples!), and those things all came together to be beautiful and subtle and lovely, in spite of both original cakes having issues I couldn’t get past.
The secret to creativity is the same for the art of baking as in most other arts: Steal what you love, tweak what you like, discard whatever doesn’t work for you.
The same week as we made this monster, we also made a verrine (layered desert in a glass, the frencher, fancier parfait i guess?) with a glorious cream cheese mousse. I’m in the middle of turning that mousse into an entremet version of a classic carrot cake. Kitchen experiments are the best. I’ll let you know how that turns out next time!
There’s been a bit of a gap in my writings, but with reason: I spent last week wrangling into place all the paperwork needed to present at my visa interview, and went in to have said interview on Tuesday. As a self proclaimed “anxious squirrel”, I made a point of booking the earliest appointment of the day, on a day when I had absolutely no other commitments. In all honestly, I had everything well in hand, after some truly nerve wracking shenanigans involving some documents I needed from my bank, and I figured that it was quite likely that I’d be out before lunch, and maybe go talk to someone about a tattoo I’ve been thinking about getting to mark the end of my time in this city.
In spite of all I have ever heard about it, I had not counted on the tragic-comedic stylings of French bureaucracy.
9am: They call my number, and I present myself to the woman who is to look over and stamp all my papers before sending them along to the head consulate. The first thing she asks me: May I see the list of required documents you have been working from?
I hand it over.
She frowns, then looks up at me. And informs me in no uncertain terms that I have been provided with the wrong list. And I have until 3pm to round up three additional things, all of them original plus a copy, or else I will have to rebook, and will also be charged the application fee twice. The first of these documents is a police check. The police headquarters is ten blocks away. I hit the lobby out of the elevator at a brisk walk.
This is also the point in the day where the torrential rain begins, which will not end until exactly 3:45 pm, but fortunately I have stolen borrowed my roommate’s umbrella.
10:10am: I arrive at police HQ, go through a security checkpoint, am scanned with a beeping electric wand by a handsome young man (one of the high points of the day), wait in a line up, and speak to the woman at the desk who informs me there is no same day service and it will take 3 WEEKS to get a police report. I lean on the desk, smile in way that i hope is sweet and not just mad with desperation and tell her that the woman in the visa office said that she has sent people here and gotten this paper in one day before. Can’t she do anything to help? She looks around as if she is involved in a drug deal, slips one hand into a desk drawer, and then slides a slip of paper to me across the counter, looking at me with a disturbing intensity. In a low voice: Go here, and they can do it for you on the spot. Although it will cost you three times as much money. I nod, and thank her.
I realise that the address she has given me is in the farthest reaches of Toronto’s suburbia. A check through my phone confirms: I will need to go to the end of the subway line, then switch to regional transit, and ride a bus to my destination, estimated time 1.5 hours in each direction. This is turning into Run Lola Run. I run, not walk, to the nearest subway station. While I am riding the subway north for 4o minutes, I pull out my phone and use google docs to awkwardly punch out a Letter of Intent, sort of a cover letter for my application, the second document I did not know I had needed, with my thumbs.
11:02am: I have to pay an extra fare for the regional bus, but the driver tells me that if i can make it back onto a return bus within an hour, i can return on the same ticket. However, it is 40 minutes to my destination, so good luck.
11:57am: Am on the return bus with the exact same driver, and my police record in hand. It took them less than 5 minutes to print, once i arrived. My record is clear, perhaps I need to start living more dangerously? However, I realise I have stolen the officer’s very nice pen, somehow. Oops. Cue my descent into petty crime.
12:39pm: Back downtown, I burst into the reference library, put a dollar with of copier money onto my library card, make two copies of my police document, find a computer, download the letter I wrote in the subway, tweak it slightly, and print two copies of it. Tuck all into my no-longer-organized folder, take a breath realising i have finished with and hour to spare, and walk the four blocks back to the visa office.
1:25pm: Realize in the elevator on my way up to the office that I have forgotten, with all the running around, that I needed to print up a copy of my insurance coverage details, as the policy info i had wasn’t what they actually needed. Curse creatively and with great heat, take the elevator back down again and walk very fast back to the library. Put another dollar on the library card, get another computer, print out two copies of insurance. Sit down, feign great calmness, and carefully put all documents in order, as they appear on the bloody checklist. Look at clock, and realise it is now almost 2:30, tuck all under my arm and run back to the office.
3pm: Present all to the same woman who started me on this race against the clock 7 hours ago. She is impressed. All gets the stamp of approval, and she asks me to wait for fingerprinting. While I wait, i overhear her tell the next applicant: Oh no, Madame, You have not been working from the correct list of documents…
I dissolve into inappropriate laughter.
3:40pm: I have been “biometrically scanned”, which makes me think that perhaps the French are planning to clone me? I do not care, because this is the last step. The woman behind this desk wishes me luck, and sends me away with a receipt to track the progress of my application online. In 30 days I should have a definitive yes or no on my visa.
As I walk out of the building, the rain, which has not let up all day, suddenly stops.
I’m trying to find pleasure in the tasks I have to accomplish before I leave this city in two months, even as the time to do them in gets shorter. So today ended up being a bit of a treat, in a way. Because today I had an entire afternoon free, and I spent it going through my magazines, to clip the recipes I can’t bear to part with before I donate them where they’ll continue to be loved.
The Simple Things is one of the very few magazines I have ever subscribed to, after stumbling on it in an airport, and I kept the subscription up for three years, until I decided last fall that I was going to embark on my current journey. It’s a UK-based lifestyle magazine and I can’t even explain why I love it so much, except that it is a joy to turn the pages. The back page of every issue is a short “bedtime” story, and there’s always some sort of recipe for a yummy looking bake. I have never gotten rid of a single issue, and the features on things like wild swimming, and how to play archaic card games, and hidden places to picnic never fail to make me smile. So while I am digging through for my precious recipe for Salty Honey Cake, I’m taking the time to flip through and enjoy them one last time.
And it’s going to be fun starting the collection anew. I made a little discovery in the village librarie* last summer: They publish a french language edition. A little something to look forward to curling up with on a rainy Parisian afternoon, with a cup of tea at my elbow.
*Librarie is french for bookstore–and a library is a bibliotheque.
I have been listening to a lot of French pop music lately. French any music: One of my learning props is Radio France, which i downloaded the free app for into my phone, and I listen to every morning before work.
A couple weeks back, I made some choux paste, which mostly became some delicious strawberry shortcake cream puffs. But I also piped out some donut-type rounds, baked them, and popped them into my freezer, to use another day for
making a french pastry classic: Paris-Brest. This is a round baked cruller, that is usually stuffed full of a hazelnut praline flavoured pastry buttercream, and dusted with powdered sugar, and it’s a lovely sweet indulgence. It gets it’s name from, of all things, an annual round-trip bicycle race, the Paris-Brest-Paris (pretty obvious what the round trip is, no?).
Thing is, when I put the bag of pastry in the freezer, I simply labelled it “PB”. For Paris-Brest. But when I looked at it again, all i could think of was my other favourite PB: Peanut Butter*. Peanut butter is a common enough flavour for sweets here in North America, but in Europe, it’s sweet praline that tends to appear more frequently–caramelized hazelnuts ground to a paste. Praline paste is not an easy thing to lay hands on for home cooks here, and making it from scratch is…a pain in the rump (I would know, we made ours in house at the pâtisserie I worked in last summer. It involved an actual hammer. I’m not making that up, I had to use carpentry supplies.). So i decided to go in for another pastry mash up!
This is my new love: Paris-Brest-Peanutbutter. The pastry is piped and baked (And yes, you can freeze choux pastries after baking! Pop anything made with pate à choux back in a hot oven for 5 minutes, and it’s back to being crispy and airy as if it was just made.), and the filling is whipped peanut buttercream, with a hint of vanilla salt, It’s topped with sticky peanut butter glaze and finished with chopped salted peanuts. Sweet and salty is my jam.