Going for the Galette des rois

After five Januarys thinking about the galette des rois, I bit the fève and splurged on one. Do you ever once in a while do something to make yourself happy? That’s what it felt like. So satisfying.

When I moved back to the States from France several years ago, the first January I called different French bakeries in Manhattan to compare their galettes: size, price. Learning that they were usually around $30, I blanched after having gotten used to picking up galettes all over Paris, from bakeries and supermarkets, for a few euros. All month I would have one or two in my apartment and liberally eat them as a snack. In the States, they are considered specialty items, like most French goods.

Another year, through one of the e-lists I was on I found out about an event by a French group. If I remember correctly, admission was $10 to attend a reception with galettes from various bakeries in NYC. I invited a francophile friend, and we sat at one of the cafeteria-like tables in a room that resembled an after-school space; perhaps it was. There seemed to be mostly French expats, many with their kids. The atmosphere was casual. Not shy, I tasted the different galettes being circulated.

This year I realized it was time. How could I go five years without buying a galette des rois when there are actually French bakeries all over my region and I love its almond flavor so? I searched online and called and messaged bakeries to find out sizes and prices, as I did several years ago. But this time, I chose one to take home. It was about a half hour drive away, the best price, and located in my hometown of Jersey City. My dad parked on a corner (street parking can be a hassle there) while I ran down and fulfilled my dream. I had even called that morning to make sure one would be waiting for me. The box was warm on my lap. It smelled like pastry goodness.

Upon opening the box, I was amused to see the fève in a little plastic bag. Does the U.S. have a safety rule against placing objects in food? Probably. I thought it was funny that the bakery bothered to include the token, which was a plastic toucan. I wondered how they imagined people would use it because it would make the slice fall apart if you tried to insert it. Perhaps one person slices up the galette first and hides the fève under a slice while making sure no one looks? For us this was a moot point, as this particular galette was not for a party, but purely for consumption.

If you are not familiar with the galette des rois, it is associated with the Epiphany, the Catholic holiday on January 6 that celebrates the Three Kings visiting baby Jesus.

The sweet pastry is round and filled with frangipane, or almond paste, and can be in different sizes, from individual to large (although it seems that in the U.S. only larger ones are sold, at least 6″-10″). By tradition, the youngest person at a gathering– who might be a child, but not always– gets under the dining table while another person slices the galette. Without looking, the youngest person says who the first slice goes to, and so on until everyone has a slice. Then everyone can start eating. One slice has a small object inside– the fève, which is often a plastic figurine. That person is crowned king or queen with the gold crown that accompanies the galette, and he or she chooses his or her king or queen.

I have been to gatherings where we did this tradition, one of the first being during my study abroad program in Paris. But during the more recent time I lived there, most of the galettes I ate were individual sized ones with no fève or crown– just delicious almond paste that I alone ate and felt like the queen every time.

Yesterday I recounted my exciting galette purchase during a spontaneous video chat with my friend and his ten-year-old daughter who live in Marseilles. My friend informed me of a regional rendition I had never heard of– the gâteau des rois. I was flabbergasted. What is it like? I wanted to know. He said it was like the galette des rois, but it was a cake. I asked him which one they had this year. He said both (of course– that is the correct answer). I guess I now have my next pastry to pursue, or should I say cake. I suspect it will be harder to find in the States.

Sugar, Butter, Flour

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I have rarely baked, but since being home practically all the time, I have taken it up. So far I’ve made:

A carrot cake. Before I recount, please, don’t ever try to shred carrots with a cheese grater. I repeat, do not shred carrots with a cheese grater.

I had made this carrot cake once before, several years ago at a friend’s house for her birthday. She had invited another friend and me over for the weekend, and we each made a cake. This time around, I had no recollection of how I had shredded the carrots. When I went to the supermarket several weeks ago, it was when people were stocking up and supermarkets hadn’t put limits on items yet, so the produce (and every) section was quite lacking if you were looking for a specific item. The only carrots I saw were two measly bunches of skinny little organic carrots at a premium price. I got them.

Grating them was a battle. I did over half of each carrot with a cheese grater, then chopped the rest into small pieces. Rubbing my hurting hands, I swore to buy shredded carrots next time.

All that said, the carrot cake was delicious. I made two loaves and forewent icing (yes, the word ‘forewent’ exists, apparently). Later, I spoke with my friend, asking, Did we buy shredded carrots that time I made it?? She had a food processor, she said. Oh.

A honey and apple cake. It contained three and a half apples. It was pretty, but I would turn down the oven down five degrees next time. I discovered my mom’s old springform pan, as well as what a springform pan is.

A half-pound cake (meaning a half portion of a pound cake recipe because the original called for SIX eggs and FOUR sticks of butter. In my area households are limited to one carton of eggs right now!!). My friend in Florida had told me that she and her friend would be making it at the same time while over the phone and invited me to join them. It was called the million dollar pound cake. I ended up making mine later and told her it was a 500 thou.

White chocolate chip cookies. I think it was my first time making cookies from scratch. They are white chocolate chip because that’s what I found in the pantry. I have no idea why we have white chocolate chips. I did learn that flour lasts forever and brown sugar kept in the freezer will thaw and soften, whereas brown sugar kept at room temperature will become a rock.

I hand mixed for the first two cakes and switched to an electric beater for the third one and for the cookies. I am wide open for recipe suggestions.

P.S. You may have noticed that sometimes my post titles refer to songs. This one is from the musical Waitress, written by one of my favorite singers, Sara Bareilles.

“What’s Inside”

Sugar, sugar, sugar, butter
Sugar, butter, flour
Sugar, butter, flour
Sugar, butter, flour

My hands pluck the things I know that I’ll need
I’ll take the sugar and butter from the pantry
I add the flour to begin what I am hoping to start
And then it’s down with the recipe and bake from the heart

What’s inside, everyone wants to know what’s inside
And I’ve always told them, but I feel something needs to change

You wanna know what’s inside?
I could tell you if I wasn’t hiding
My whole life is in here
In this kitchen, baking
What a mess I’m making

Over the Moon

Last week I took myself to a French restaurant for dessert during my lunch break to celebrate my lunar birthday. I had only been there twice.

The first was for lunch with my boss over a year ago, and while I don’t remember what I ate, the warm madeleines she and I shared were divine.

The second was around this time last year. I went for dessert with the person I was dating at the time to celebrate my birthday. We ordered some kind of chocolate decadence to share, and it was so good that when we were done, he asked me, “Should we get a second one?” in a way that said, “We should get a second one.” So we did and got to experience it all over again.

It crossed my mind that going there this year might make me sad since we’re no longer together, but the dessert was tempting enough, and I’m one to want to make new experiences in old places. I went in, glanced at the little table where we had sat, and was glad to be seated in another spot, a cozy booth with a view of the room. People around me sat in pairs or groups, eating and chatting.

The server came around and asked “Sparkling or still?” Of course, it was the same server we had had almost one year ago. I responded, “Still,” hoping that it would be tap water (it was).

One thing had changed since last year—the menu. It’s just as well that the chocolate dessert was not there. I ordered the lemon tart, which had preserved lemon chunks and a shock of black and white sesame seeds. It was delectable.

I found I was able to sit there and look around the restaurant and remember being there before and wholly savor being there at that moment. Alternating between a bite of the tart lemon tart and the warm decaf coffee in a tasse whose handle was too tiny to fit a finger through, I wondered if they purposely chose those cups so you had to use both hands, thereby preventing you from eating with one hand and drinking with the other and effectively slowing down the process. In any case, it surely extended mine, as I had a taste of lemony goodness and then had to put down my fork to pick up the cup. I did this many, many times, and I was glad I had come.

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Italian with Français

This winter I had lunch with a new French friend (my dad met her during a plane ride last fall) and her husband at Il Cantinori during Restaurant Week, a period that, contrary to its name, takes place over two weeks. Oodles of pricey restaurants offer prix fixe menus, making it more affordable for those who wouldn’t usually dine there. Restaurants of all cuisines offer several choices of appetizer, entrée, and dessert. (After several years of eating in France, I still sometimes confuse what an ‘entrée’ is.)

She and her husband had been to New York many times on vacation, but this was their first time living in this region, and they were about a month into their three-month stay.

Highlights of our lunch:

– Telling them that Carrie Bradshaw had her 30th birthday dinner there. You feel for her in that scene. She sits at a large table, and one by one her friends call the restaurant (there were no cell phones) and say they’re running late or ran into some problem preventing them from getting there, but they cheerily wish her a happy birthday.

– Watching the Italian waiter’s face when my friend asked what a cannoli was (and she is of Italian descent). Are they less common in France? Do I only know them because there were so many Italian Americans where I grew up?

– She and her husband lamenting that they couldn’t watch Jimmy Kimmel live like the rest of Americans because they don’t have a TV. I explained that it’s taped in the afternoon, so no one but the studio audience is watching it live, and also that many Americans, at least in the city, don’t have TVs and so watch it online anyway. They were surprised. Also, did you know Kimmel is popular in France? Several French people have mentioned him to me; I would have thought Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon would be the most well-known American talk show hosts abroad.

– She said a lot of people react when they hear they have foreign accents, or don’t understand what she and husband are saying, which I found weird since everyone has an accent here. Plus, her English is really good. I thought all of us in New York were used to hearing accents all the time. However, she also said the people were friendly and interested in where they came from.

– In her experience, people are very nice—a stranger took initiative to help them when they were confused on the bus in New Jersey, for example.

– She and their daughter visited Santa Claus in December (he lives in Finland, apparently). She asked if I had received gifts, and when I said yes, she leaned over and said she knew that because she had reminded him to deliver them to me.

When I spend time with newcomers in my region, it feels like I’m still traveling.

Cock-a-doodle-doo

It’s been over a month since the start of the Lunar New Year. The year of the rooster began on January 28. For us Chinese (and several other Asian ethnicities), it’s the chance for a sense of rebirth on the heels of the Gregorian New Year, just shortly after the French stop saying “Bonne Année.” Not only that, but the celebration goes on for two weeks.

I follow the superstitions surrounding the Lunar New Year, just in case. Clean the house the day before but not the day of. Eat three good meals. Eat long noodles. Don’t get your hair cut. Wear red.

Did I mention eat well?

On New Year’s Day this year, a group of friends and I had lunch in New York Chinatown. Our ringleader was my friend who is Chinese-born. Then there was me, who is Chinese American, and seven non-Chinese Frenchies, several of whom had spent a few years in Beijing.

Perhaps you know how it goes in Chinese restaurants. Rather than ordering our own entrées, we ordered dishes to share (though this place lacked a lazy susan, which would have made second helpings easier). After a meal of fish (presented in complete form), lobster, meat, eggplant, noodles, rice, and more, we wandered out into the streets to watch the dragon dance, in which several dragons accompanied by loud drums went from door to door. Businesses put money in their mouths for good fortune. Sidewalk vendors sold long cylinders that when snapped in half, popped and shot confetti into the air. Kids threw fake firecrackers on the ground that made a loud noise upon impact.DSC00187DSC00188DSC00189DSC00190

About a week later, I came across these fierce dragons near Times Square. Though they’ve apparently been there since last fall, I hadn’t noticed them up close, and they seemed particularly appropriate to take a walk around and greet for the New Year.

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They made me smile. How could they look so ferocious and joyful at the same time? It must have been the heart and happy faces on their noses.

I am still finding confetti. Today I was sitting outside and saw a piece of shiny pink confetti on my pants. It must have fallen out of my purse. That’s how you know you celebrated New Year’s well.

Bordeaux

Around this time last year I took a weekend trip to the city of Bordeaux with five friends. I had just come back to Paris from attending my sister’s graduation in the States, and it was the perfect way to mitigate the sadness of leaving my American home. One friend had found cheap train tickets weeks earlier and in her knack for organizing groups, gotten four of us to commit to a specific weekend and a rental apartment she had found online.

After four and a half hours on the train, we arrived in Bordeaux midday. During our relatively quiet walk from the train station to the apartment, a French man on a scooter zoomed up from the opposite direction and stopped next to us. He said my friend’s name in the form of a question. She answered in the affirmative, and we quickly realized that he was not a stalker who had followed her from Paris, but the owner of the apartment. He was afraid we would get lost on the way to his place and so had come to look for us (clearly this was not Paris, where looking for five girls with suitcases would have yielded too many results).

He needn’t have feared because we were just fine. Realizing this, he said, “Ok, à tout de suite !” and turned around to drive back to his apartment and wait for us.

Upon our arrival at the apartment, we were greeted by him and his partner (wife?), who each made their rounds with the five of us to faire la bise. That out of the way, they gave us a tour and chatted with us a bit. Of course, we didn’t know them personally, but without knowing their real life problems, we could have easily believed they were living the dream life. They were both tall, good-looking, had a child, owned a beautiful, beautiful apartment with a backyard deck, and were off to Paris for the weekend to celebrate his brother’s birthday. They were like those magazine feature articles of celebrities. Like those stars who are interviewed at home, they were not wearing fancy clothes, but casual clothes that still made them look effortlessly chic. Good grief.

After cool couple relinquished the keys, we were free to let the excitement bubble over at our place for the weekend. As the weather was warm, we shed our Parisian scarves and sweaters before heading out into the sunshine.

On our way to the center, I was charmed by this small lending library. I have seen one of these in New Jersey too, in exactly the same type of enclosed shelf.
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The main streets were animated, with a multitude of restaurants, bars, and shops (including a shoe store with the amusing English name of “Size?”). After an unfortunately mediocre lunch, we continued our exploration of the city. 100_8254100_8256100_8259100_8263100_8264100_8266100_8268100_8270100_8272100_8273100_8275

Our day closed with a dinner that made up for our midday meal. Triple threat: the service, food, and ambiance were all good. My positive opinion was clinched by a dish featuring duck served three ways. I never said I believe in restraint when it comes to food. Moderation, yes, but decadence too.

We took a nighttime walk and had a quick drink at a high table outside a bar before calling it a day. Day one of a luxuriously lovely yet inexpensive weekend with four fun girls, pas mal.

People sometimes ask me where I would like to live in France if not Paris. I love getting acquainted with different regions but never had a desire to live in another French city. However, since visiting southwestern France I usually have to add, “But… I could maybe see myself in Bordeaux.” The main streets were lively and the weather was amazing. Sure part of the reason why we were so relaxed was that we were on a brief getaway from daily life, but it was also that Bordeaux had a laidback vibe that was conducive to loosened muscles and sandals flapping against the sidewalk.

The Sunday Roast Mystery

On the last day of my long weekend in Yorkshire, my friend took me on an amble through the Shambles, a charming historic street of shops in the city of York. 100_6738100_6736

We saw the York Minster cathedral exterior, the Ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, which are now part of a public park, and other sights in the area.

It’s good to know that kids are still interested in magic. 100_6735

I could have stayed and wandered in and out of little shops for hours, but we had to get on to experience my first Sunday roast. I remember when a British friend from Birmingham first described the concept of Sunday roast to me. “It’s a big meal with meat, potato, and some kind of veg…” You mean like a normal meal!? I did not really get it. Meat, veg… this is what I’d usually eat for lunch or dinner, except that I’d call them “vegetables.”

At the restaurant, the server went around our table of eight or ten people to take our orders of appetizers and entrees. I was the last one.

“I’d like the summer tart,” I said.
“The what?”
“The summer tart,” I said a little louder.
The waitress paused uncomprehendingly. I was equally confused, as others had ordered the same appetizer before me.
“The summah taht,” the native Yorkshireman sitting to my left repeated.
“Oh, the summah taht,” the server noted.

I couldn’t believe it. I felt like English wasn’t my native language. The disbelief on both of our faces leading up to the clarification still gives me a laugh today.

I also saw for myself what makes a Sunday roast different from any other meal with meat and veg. My roast beef and gravy was topped by a huge Yorkshire pudding made from eggs, flour, and milk or water. Quite a sight to behold. 100_6744

Yorkshire was a lovely peek into a different lifestyle and landscape (and accent). I now understood why during my hostess’s visit to Paris, she remarked that we walked a lot, more than she was used to, that Parisian parks were small, and that she’d be more comfortable taking a taxi from Montmartre to her lodging even after I assured her that it would be simple to take the metro, just one switch involved. In Yorkshire she has to drive to get anywhere from her village home. She walks her dog in a vast, wild field rather than on a busy city sidewalk. Her furthest immediate family member lives only an hour away. Her wonderful swinging bench on her back patio negates the need to seek out restaurant terrasses. I certainly fell in love with her backyard features that she designed herself. Ain’t nothing like jumping into someone else’s pond for a few days, especially a saucy British lady’s.

Do Americans Eat Burgers Every Day?

When I am outside of the United States, people often ask me what Americans eat. Burgers? Bacon and eggs?

Well, the following is what my friends and I ate during my recent trip to Boston from a Friday afternoon to Sunday midday. Keep in mind that this is not our regular daily diet, as many of us usually eat cooked food at home, but this is an example of a weekend eating out with friends.

– Butternut squash risotto with mushrooms and a fried egg (I like fried eggs but have never understood putting one on top of anything, whether in French, Korean, or American cuisine)
– Duck salad with bleu cheese, dried cranberries, and apples
– Almond brioche
– Gruyere cheese croissant
– Coffee with milk and sugar (I am no longer in the land of espresso)
– Japanese buffet with lots of fish, sushi, delicate salads, and green tea soft serve (soft serve is a kind of ice cream and may be called something different in your country)
– Raw oysters
– Lobster roll (lobster pieces on soft, warm buttered bread)
– Cannoli
– Prosecco apple cider cocktails
– Pretzel bunny (a soft pretzel shaped like a bunny, in case you had a doubt)
– Smoked salmon and arugula sandwich
– Lamb and tomato chutney sandwich

Thank goodness my friends are gourmands, meaning we all love to eat.

I will admit that half the reason for making this list was so that I could relive my food pleasures. I am guessing that reading it is not half as interesting or enjoyable as eating it.

To note, I like a good burger once in a while. I probably have a burger less than once a month (except when I had two French friends visiting and they wanted to have burgers almost every day. At least we sampled different restaurants). I usually eat oatmeal or cold cereal for breakfast and only eat eggs on the weekends, usually fried or scrambled. I like bacon but only eat it about once or twice a year.

Buses and Bubble Tea in Boston

Back in the day, Greyhound buses between New York and Boston used to be $15 each way. So were the famous/notorious Fung Wah buses, which I never took.

Nowadays, prices vary more widely, so when I go to Boston I compare about five bus companies. The famed $1 ticket does exist, though they are spare and kind of random. Tickets can be up to $30 or more.

This past trip, I took one of the Chinatown buses, which was $44 round-trip and driven by a Chinese bus driver who spoke little English. People informally call them Chinatown buses because they pick-up and drop-off in New York and Boston’s Chinatowns. They are Chinese-run, and when you call their customer service, it is in English and Chinese.

Our bus happened to stop at a rest-stop at the same time as two other buses. I laughed. There was BoltBus, which its bright-red orange paint and big logo; Megabus, with an even larger logo on its double-decker vehicle; and us, an unmarked white bus.

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Boston was cloudy, cool, and rainy, but it felt good to be there.

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I stopped in a Chinese store full of knickknacks, paper lanterns, DVDs, and accessories. At its entrance was a not very welcoming “Hall of Shame,” which featured dozens of screenshots of shoplifters caught over the past few years. Okay then…

I walked around the corner to check out a coffee shop that attracted me on the bus ride in. The cashier asked me how my morning had been and whether I lived in Boston. I ordered a taro bubble tea and sat down with my rolling backpack.

An employee yelled my name, and I trotted up to the counter. “We have the bubbles, and we have the mix… but we don’t have the big straws,” he said. He asked if I wanted to change my order or get a refund. I didn’t bother asking him exactly just how far their straw distributor was and why they didn’t have a nearby emergency source. We were in Chinatown, after all, there must be a store that sold them…

I ordered a mocha instead and was a bit taken aback by the huge cup that arrived. It definitely required two hands.

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Five minutes later, the cashier who took my order came by with this.

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I was a bit confused. “Your colleague told me you were out of big straws,” I said. She held up a shallow wooden spoon to accompany the regular skinny straw.

It remained impractical to drink but delicious all the same.

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I hopped on the T (Boston’s subway system) to join a friend a few stations down. The city calls its metro card a Charlie card. As little as ten years ago, it was still using thick round tokens. Since then it has surpassed New York. Tap the Charlie card against a sensor and walk right through the open doors, thereby avoiding the “swipe again” prompts New York provides if you don’t swipe your card at the perfect speed.

Out of the station, I walked past a coffee shop and made eye contact with a girl sitting inside. Our eyes widened as our brains caught up to our initial instant recognition. Five years earlier, we had worked together in New York. We hadn’t seen each other since then. I knew she had moved to the Boston area, but I certainly didn’t expect to see her staring at me through a window on a Friday afternoon. We had a brief catch-up before I moved on. Later, I also found out that one of my friends lives above the café I had visited earlier. No wonder Boston always feels like going home.