A walkabout in Aix-en-Provence

Yesterday, we took a car ride north to spend the day in Aix-en-Provence. Having never travelled at all in the south of France, I was excited to get to see some of the other cities in this region besides Marseille. Charlotte’s mom used to live in Aix when she was a student, so she knew exactly where to go in the town and even showed us where her old school was.

The flea market: Picking out some records: 

Frame anyone? We walked through a wonderful little flea market where we couldn’t help but pick up a few trinkets and then spent some lovely hours wandering up and down the streets and alleys of Aix. Similar to the old parts of Marseille, it was quintessentially French. Cobblestone streets, little cafes and brasseries on every corner and beautiful fountains that dot the entire town, as Aix is often called the city of fountains.

Street wandering: 

Fountain 1: Fountain 2: Fountain 3: 

Aix is definitely a lot more commercial than Marseille, with a lot more stores and general sense that tourism is a big to do. Most stores have signs in French and English and I heard more English on the street than my entire week in Marseille. I can only imagine what it’s like in the summer when it’s warm and all the galleries are open.

Never too far away from some bread:

More street wandering: 
One of the main drags: 

Entrance to an old cathedral: As usual, the food never ceases to amaze me here. At the market in Aix, there were mounds and mounds of delicious fruits – especially oranges – and one vendor giving out samples of homemade olive oil and breads. I can’t wait to do more shopping at local markets when I get back to Paris!

Yummy fruit: 

Olives and spreads: 

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Adventures in Marseille

Over the past few days, I have been exploring different parts of Marseille with Charlotte and her family. It’s the second biggest city in France and the largest in-terms of physical size.

On Tuesday, along with her brothers, we ventured to Notre Dame de la Garde, the Patron Saint of Marseille that looks out for all the sailors who come into the port. She sits atop a basilica on a hilltop that gives you a view of all of Marseille. A beautiful view. You see the ocean, the city, and the mountains. Not many places where you can get all three.

Notre Dame de la Gare: 

What’s up there? 

The view: 

A look up:We then took a walk along the beach which was full of families on vacation for the holidays. In true French fashion, we waited at a cafe for 15 minutes without any service and decided to leave without ordering anything.

The beach: 

Today, Charlotte and I walked around the old part of Marseille called Le Panier. There is an old baroque structure in the center of this neighborhood, La Vielle Charité, that was constructed in the 17th century to house the homeless and poor. Unlike other castles and cathedrals that I have been to in France, this place is quite simple but clearly built with the intentions of housing lots and lots of people. Its simplicity is actually quite nice and we spent a long time wandering the stark hallways and stairwells.

Old streets of Marseille: 

La Vieille Charité:

A very small door. Hmmmm? 

We took a walk along Le Vieux Port, which is beautiful now, but I can only imagine is even more magnificent in the summer when people are coming and going in boats much more frequently. During lunch time, everyone eats out on the boardwalk, getting some sun while they eat. At the end of the pier, there is a small fish market where you know you are getting some super fresh fish!

Le Vieux Port: 

And last night we celebrated the last night of Chanukah!

Christmas in Marseilles

On Christmas Eve, the entire Arnoux-Decamps family gathers around a huge tree with more presents than I have ever seen for a huge family celebration. I was so excited to be able to join the party, having heard Charlotte talk about her Christmas traditions for so many years.

After popping a bottle of champagne, the madness ensues with some opening gifts slowly one at a time, and other tearing off the paper to get a peak at their haul. Even I got some presents!

Not even all the loot yet:

Charlotte got a hat!

My Chanukah inspired gift: 

The meal, of course, was amazing. It was actually quite similar to a Thanksgiving meal, with turkey, string beans, roasted chestnuts, cranberry sauce and lots and lots of wine…

The foie gras: 

The food: 

Enjoying the meal: 

In Provence, there is a tradition to have 13 desserts at the Christmas table. There was a huge plate full of different types of nuts and fruits in addition to two ice cream cakes and a brown butter pumpkin cake made by yours truly. Everyone thought that my cake was store bought as they weren’t used to cakes like that 🙂

The nuts and fruits:Champagne!It was a lovely evening had by all and I am so thankful that I was get to join in on the celebration!

And then there was none…

Brown Butter Pumpkin Cake

French baking is delicious. The croissants, the chocolate, the bread, etc…. That being said, it’s a different kind of baking than in what I’m used to in America. After making a list of all the things I was going to need for this cake and some other things goodies I plan on baking over my stay here, we realized that there were going to have to be a few changes to the recipes.

The idea of using baking soda in food was completely foreign to everyone I said it to. All of Charlotte’s family members said they might have some for cleaning or brushing their teeth with, but never for baking. After that, I realized that buttermilk was going to pretty hard to come by as well. But perhaps the most impossible of all was molasses. Even trying to describe it was difficult – brown, gooey, syrupy substance that is used in gingerbread (not the appetizing when you think about it in those words). Needless to say, I didn’t even bother looking for it and decided to substitute honey instead.

Being the “professional chef” that I am, I brought my own cake pans and measuring cups all the way from America! Some might make fun of me, but it was a good choice as they might have been hard to come by here, as everyone measures in grams and have my favorite cake pans in the world that I would bring with me anywhere if I knew I needed to make cake. I also brought some canned pumpkin with me to make the cake as Charlotte had all but guaranteed me that we would not find that here. Baking in a kitchen that is not familiar is always a challenge, but I was able to find everything I needed and I think the cake came out just as it would have had it been made on the other side of the Atlantic. I’ve made this cake three times before and I have finally decided that brown butter makes everything better and I shall now make it with every dessert I make in the future.

BROWN BUTTER PUMPKIN LAYER CAKE

(Adapted from Fine Cooking)

INGREDIENTS:

For the cake 

  • 6 oz. (3/4 cup) unsalted butter; more for the pans
  • 9 oz. (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour; more for the pans
  • 1-1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1-1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 3/4 tsp. table salt
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1-1/2 cups pumpkin puree
  • 1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/3 cup buttermilk

For the topping

  • 1-1/2 Tbs. unsalted butter
  • 2/3 cup pecans
  • 1/2 cup unsalted, raw, hulled pepitas (I used walnuts instead)
  • 2 Tbs. firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. table salt
  • 1-1/2 Tbs. chopped crystallized ginger

For the frosting 

  • 4 oz. (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
  • 8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 5 oz. (1-1/4 cups) confectioners’ sugar

DIRECTIONS: 

For the cake

  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Butter and flour two 9-inch round cake pans with removable bottoms (or butter two 9-inch round cake pans, line the bottoms with parchment, butter the parchment, and flour the pans).
  3. Melt the butter in a heavy-duty 1-quart saucepan over medium heat. Cook, swirling the pan occasionally until the butter turns a nutty golden-brown. Pour into a small bowl and let stand until cool but not set, about 15 minutes.
  4. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, salt, and cloves.
  5. In a large bowl, whisk 1-1/2 cups of the pumpkin purée with the granulated sugar, brown sugar, eggs, and buttermilk until very well blended.
  6. With a rubber spatula, stir in the flour mixture until just combined. Gently whisk in the brown butter until completely incorporated. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.
  7. Bake the cakes until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 28 minutes. Let the cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes. Turn the cakes out onto racks, remove the pan bottoms or parchment, and cool completely.

For the topping

  1. Melt the butter in a heavy-duty 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat.
  2. Add the pecans and pepitas and cook until the pecans brown slightly and the pepitas begin to pop, about 2 minutes.
  3. Sprinkle in the brown sugar and salt and stir until the sugar melts and the nuts are glazed, about 2 minutes. Stir in the ginger.
  4. Remove from the heat and let the mixture cool in the skillet.

For the frosting

  1. Melt the butter in a heavy-duty 1-quart saucepan over medium heat. Cook, swirling the pan occasionally until the butter turns a nutty golden-brown.
  2. Pour into a small bowl and let stand until the solids settle at the bottom of the bowl, about 5 minutes. Carefully transfer the bowl to the freezer and chill until just firm, about 18 minutes.
  3. Using a spoon, carefully scrape the butter from bowl, leaving the browned solids at the bottom; discard the solids.
  4. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter, cream cheese, and brown sugar on medium-high speed until light in color and the brown sugar has dissolved, 2 minutes.
  5. Gradually beat in the confectioners’ sugar and continue beating until fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes.

Assemble the cake

  1. Put one cake layer on a cake plate.
  2. Spread 1/2 cup of the frosting on the layer. Sprinkle 1/2 cup of the nut mixture over the frosting and top with the second layer.
  3. Frost the top and sides of the cake with the remaining frosting.
  4. Arrange the remaining topping in a ring 1-1/2 inches in from the edge of the cake and serve.

Off to Marseille(s)

At the crack of dawn this morning, David and I headed off to the train station to make our way to Marseille to Charlotte’s family’s house for the holidays! After only 4 hours of sleep and quick coffee before getting on the train, I was WIDE awake 😉 On the super fast TGV trains, it only takes 3.5 hours to cover 500 miles! How crazy is that? If only the trains in the US went so fast, I’d take them everywhere!

Charlotte and her other brother Aurelien picked us up at the train station and we were off to the famous Arnoux compound about which I heard so much. It is so lovely here, even though I get lost every time I walk down the stairs! Charlotte and I are sharing a room in her grandma’s side of the house while the rest of the family is scattered about through different sections of the mansion (as Charlotte likes to call it).

Upon arrival at the house, I quickly proceeded to make a shopping list for all the ingredients I’m going to need to make cake and cookies over the next few days. We then went out to the supermarket to purchase said items (full details on the shopping experience to come) and then returned home to decorate the Christmas tree, which was quite the fun task!

Starting…

Midway…

With a bow on top! 

We are about to have Pot au Feu (brisket-type meal) for dinner! I’m also excited to show everyone how to light the menorah tonight as this is a new experience for many of the Arnoux family members.

After being sick for the first 24 hours that I was here in France, I’m ready to start eating like a normal human being again! All I have eaten over the past few days has been some vegetables and few croissants. I’m looking forward to the Christmas meal on Saturday!


Hello Paris!

Hi all! I have been awful about not updating my little old baking blog this fall. It’s not that I didn’t bake, it’s just that I never go around to writing new posts. But don’t you worry, the blog is back and I promise will be better than ever! Only now, in addition to baking, it shall have some Paris adventures too, which I’m hoping will include lots of food, as I’ve heard the food here in France isn’t too bad 😉

As you may or may not know, I’m a Global Liberal Studies student at NYU. What makes this different than any other liberal studies program you might ask? Well, there is a requirement to spend your junior year abroad. Because of my cancer and subsequent chemo treatments, I was unable to study abroad in the fall. As my doctor so eloquently put it “You can’t just up and leave!” But now, 3 months out of treatment, I have made my way to lovely Paris for spring semester and hopefully will stay next summer as well to make up for the time I wasn’t here in the fall. Having studied French since I was 5 years old, it seems that my whole life has basically been building up to this moment of being fully immersed in French language and culture for an extended period of time.

I arrived this morning after a very uneventful trip from NYC. In a way I was hoping some big to-do would happen at the airport so I would have a good story to tell. I guess the most exciting part might have been at Newark, where the check-in woman at Continental was so nice and didn’t mind at all that my bag was overweight. This whole week I have been freaking out about how I was going to get my bags at or under 50 pounds and luckily, it was not a problem.  My flight arrived on time at Charles de Gualle, my bags came right out,  I made my way to the train, which took me into Paris, where I got a cab, and now here I am the apartment of the brother of my best friend. Easy as pie!

I’ve been doing my best to stay awake so I can get onto a France sleeping schedule ASAP. After taking a brief nap, I took a stroll around the neighborhood, up to Sacre Coeur and Mont Martre where I walked around a lovely little holiday market and  had the pleasure of hearing someone sing Backstreet Boys acoustically to a crowd of eager onlookers. Definitely I highlight so far 😉 Shockingly, I didn’t get anything to eat today, as my stomach is still needing to settle after all the airport food and flying, but I certainly saw a lot of things that I’d like to eat!!!!

Another day of acclimating myself to Paris tomorrow and then off to Marseilles on Thursday! After not eating much today, I’m already planning my mode of attack for tomorrow to fill my stomach as much as I possibly can! We will see how well that works out 😉