April in Paris and New Family Reunion—Vacation Part 3

after leaving normandy, i had only the afternoon and next morning in paris before departing for frankfurt. after a few bouts of phone tag clotilde dusoulier (of the wonderful chocolate & zucchini blog) and i made a date to meet at an ice cream parlor near where i was staying in the 7th arrondisement. i felt as though i knew clotilde but i’m sure millions of others who view her blog feel the same way. as fellow blog hosts and cookbook authors, however, we found we had much in common and endless things to exchange. she complimented me on my french (nothing pleases me more) and i complimented her on the unique charm of her voice on the blog and congratulated her on her upcoming first book. she is even more delightful in person than on her blog! we walked over to a nearby chocolate shop that she is writing about in her next book. the background in the photo is not wall paper—it’s antique chocolate molds. then we visited a cheese shop which also sold goat’s milk butter which i read about in her blog a few weeks later! it’s wonderful to have found another special friend in paris!






the next morning i woke up early enough to walk over to what had been my favorite bakery for croissants in paris: poujerain on rue jean nicot. much to my disappointment the bakery was renamed and under new ownership though the breads and croissants appeared to be the same. they were not—at least not the croissants. though still buttery, crisp, and delicious, the bottoms were close to burnt. none-the-less i bought enough to bring to my nephew and family in germany where i arrived only a few hours later. (sadly i don’t have a photo of the charming rose bedecked bakery as foolishly the sales girl didn’t have permission to allow it. i supposed it’s not a great loss, however since beautiful décor does not great pastry make.) at the airport i bought a bottle of billecart saumon rosé to go with the foie gras de canard mi cuit purchased at the farmer’s market in normandy and wrapped with an ice pack in my luggage. it turned out that neither alex nor the rest of his family had ever tasted foie gras and to their surprise they enjoyed it immensely. a visiting friend did not so i finished it for him—not about to allow a precious smudge of it to go to waste.

i hadn’t seen my beloved nephew alex since he was 17 so i thought it would be an adjustment to find a grown married man with two kids but he looked like a larger version of his old self and the comfort level was even greater than when he was younger. we always understood each other so naturally, now that our concerns were more similar, it was better than ever. alex is a jet mechanic in the air force, stationed at ramstein air force base.

i had never been to a base before and was astonished how like a small american city it was. we were able to purchase everything needed to make an american butter cake—even baker’s joy! the challenge, however, was that about the only kitchen equipment related to cake baking they had was the kitchen aid artisan i had sent as a wedding present and the lékué silicone spatulas i brought along with me. it was reassuring and empowering to discover that, despite the absence of my usual arsenal of specialized tools, i was able to turn out a perfect layer cake and 6 perfect cupcakes! thank goodness for the good german-engineered home oven. i used a slightly domed colander as a cooling rack for the cakes and covered a piece of cardboard with foil for the base. we took a day trip to the belgium city of liege which disappointingly has turned into a mall town—one charmless store after another. this photo of the steep stairs in the old town was about the only charming sight we saw. i wanted to try belgian food, but aside from an apple stuffed waffle at a stand, there was not one belgian restaurant to be found. greek, italian, spanish, french—we settled for tapas which turned out to be amazingly delicious. after much hunting i finally found a chocolate store to purchase enough leonides 60% cacao chocolate to make the ganache for the cakes.

the best part of the trip to belgian was the scenery there and back—the mountains lush with green leaves and pine trees. no! the best part of the trip to belgian was getting to speak endlessly with my nephew and his wife haley—when she wasn’t sleeping (two kids in diapers…i had no idea….). i totally fell in love with their soon to be 3 year old son hadyn, who talked a blue streak and had me watch ant bully with him 5 times. (it was so good i plan to rent it as he talked his way through most of the dvd as well.) i miss his first of the morning hugs and good night kiss. the highlight of my stay was when alex put some ganache on his finger for hadyn to taste. hadyn likes chocolate but he’s still at the terrible two stage and he said no—emphatically. alex tried again. this time hadyn slapped away his hand and in the process managed to get ganache on his own hand and shirt. alex instructed him to lick it from his finger and he gave a tentative lick. i saw first the dull and dutiful lack of expectation, then the shock of surprise and finally extreme delight, gradually but quickly light up his bright blue eyes--and he proceeded to lick his whole hand enthusiastically. another generation of food lovers is born! here is the story i wrote about alex when he was a little boy, for a column in the l.a. times syndicate.

Alex Let’s Eat

Perhaps the greatest statement ever made regarding food is Brillat Savarin’s often quoted:  “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.”  Our choice of food defines us yet for many, the choice is made for them by habit and lack of exposure.  A child can also develop aversions and prejudices which limit his experience and willingness to discover and experiment.

Because food is also my window on the world, one of my greatest pleasures is sharing this delight and interest with my young nephew Alexander.  My primary goal was to show Alex how much fun and what an adventure new tastes can be.  But I discovered that through food one can impart many other valuable lessons:  the joy of sharing, the pride of creating, economy of motion, respect for the ingredients, freshness and quality, to name just a few.  I also wanted Alex to be realistic about where the food came from without turning him into a vegetarian due to his fondness for nature and animals.  I knew I had an exceptionally worthy student when, at the age of 5, when I praised him for his dexterity and care pouring ketchup from a bottle by saying  “You really are an extraordinary child.”   His response was:  “that’s because I came into an extraordinary world!”

We started with smell, partly because aroma is the most tantalizing part of eating but also because it tells you about freshness and inspires the combination of flavors and creation of the recipe.  As I prepared each ingredient I encouraged Alex to smell it.  “Um” was the polite response until we came to the coffee, most seductive of all aromas.  He used this powerful memory as part of a game later extending his empty cupped hands to me and chanting “smell my coffee.”  I knew it would leave a lasting impression.

One summer visit, looking at the cover of my Christmas Cookie book, Alex said:  "You really have an easy life.  You get to bake all day!"  And at his request, I taught him how to make cookies too.  I’ll always remember the gleam in his eyes when he shared one with his cousin, giving her the larger half and saying with pride:  “I made this myself.”
Another year, I learned a lesson about priorities over cherry pie.  I gave Alex a small piece of dough to play with saying I needed to work on the pie myself so it would be perfect for Grandpa.  He shaped a ravioli-like pastry, assessed it and stated matter-of-factly “I guess you’re right--I’m no baker.”  I quickly promised him that next time I would show him how to do the main pie and meantime helped him to make a little tart with his dough and some jam, demonstrating how the fluted design was created simply by pressing the dough into the fluted mold.  It must have seemed like magic and the hug showed me his ego was restored.

Two summers ago we shared Alex’s first lobster.  When he started out by kissing the claw, I was a little worried that he would be too sentimental to consider eating it but he explained that he had kissed it “because it’s the saddest part.”  It reminded me of the scene in Last of the Mohigans when the hunter asked forgiveness of the deer he was about to kill. (Alex is part American Indian by the way.)

Last summer was the greatest test to date:  Soft shell crab at Alex’s request.  “I’ve eaten it before” he claimed.  “I doubt it; where you’re from it was probably Dungeness.”  “That may be, but I want to try it anyway.”  Who could resist.  The crab was so fresh it moved in the pan.  But when he cut into it and the green liver spurted out I was certain it wouldn’t get past his lips.  I watched in fascination as he tasted the first mouthful.  

“Umm..this is delicious.”  But what really melted my heart was that he offered me one of the claws.  Never have I been so pleased to have been proven so wrong.  I could take this kid anywhere.