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

Spring to Spring

It’s been five weeks of living under semi-quarantine. In my state we can make essential trips to places like the supermarket and go out for exercise. Contact between people from different households is to be limited to necessary activities like caregiving.

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and thought about how I danced in the street in Portugal last summer. A friend and I happened upon some people dancing to music in an outdoor plaza in Lisbon, and I was drawn in by the beckon of a lovely woman to join her for a few moments in the evening sun. It wasn’t a wistful thought, more of a “how lucky was I to have that experience.” Which led me to revisiting other travel moments in the past year:

Briskly walking at night in Montreal with a friend while she huddled over our takeout poutine to keep it warm until we reached our hotel.

Sharing a gyro sandwich from a food truck in chilly Washington, D.C. with my beau before we went back to our hotel to order dinner.

Taking photos of murals with family in hot Charlotte, North Carolina.

Lounging on an airbed in my sister’s new apartment in Massachusetts.

Camping for the first time with friends in Washington state.

Taking the tram in Portland, Oregon.

Walking a quiet woodsy path with a friend and her baby and dogs in Connecticut.

Standing under a waterfall with a friend in New York state.

Running through Epcot with a friend to catch a ride ten minutes before it closed.

And to think all those trips were done with different family and friends whom are near and dear to me, so to speak! Not to mention all the local outings with other friends (you know who you are). Now that most of us are apart, these experiences are all the richer as I dig into them.

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Anna Sui, Scarves, Dumplings

In the fall I suggested to a date that we visit the Museum of Arts and Design on a Thursday evening, the weekly time that it is suggested contribution (I got all those free museum days down). I was interested in the exhibit on fashion designer Anna Sui’s work. I didn’t know much about her but had an inkling that the exhibit would be enjoyable based on my past visits to MAD and a few images of her creations. The World of Anna Sui was indeed a colorful walk through her different styles.

My date was drawn to her grunge looks because they reminded him of his high school days, whereas I unsurprisingly loved the room with feminine and whimsical pieces.

And how about this horse?

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There was a wall of color themed inspiration boards that I took a photo of for possible inspiration in my own work.

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We hopped to another floor for the exhibit Vera Paints a Scarf, which as you may have guessed, displayed… scarves. By Vera Neumann, to be precise. It was surprisingly entertaining to look at and comment on the displays, which in addition to scarves included her illustrations of patterns that gave insight into her design process; newspaper advertisements from the mid to late twentieth century for the scarves; and a video of a woman semi-seductively standing on a staircase demonstrating different ways to tie a scarf. We also spent an inordinate amount of time standing in front of a crossword puzzle silk handkerchief in a glass case to mentally do a few clues.

After, we had a bite from one of the dumpling counter underground in the subway station nearby. It’s nicer than it sounds, I swear. That hallway of eateries is pretty new, well-lit, and clean, and I had walked through it before but never sat at one of the public tables lining the center of the tunnel. And it’s, well, convenient, since it’s literally a few steps away from the turnstiles to enter the subway. Too bad I then put us on a slightly incorrect train, one that got us fairly close to our respective stations but was not the most direct route. But as I remind myself sometimes, though it is difficult to remember in New York City, life is not always about efficiency.

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My road trip with family in May this year had a destination: Charlotte, North Carolina.

In Charlotte it was hot, unlike back home 650 miles further north.

We spent a few hours in the arts district, NoDa. Our walk down the street was a visual feast, with murals, trompe l’oeil, and a lady selling hand knit bikini tops and purses. We saw a bachelorette party on a “Trolley Pub” (a new concept to us). Later, the same women showed up at the place where we had fish tacos, a popular restaurant with surfboards on the walls and a bit of a wait. During the meal, there were several bearded waiters that kept us guessing. What is that term—facial hair bias? After lunch, my mom chatted up the restaurant hostess, who gave us stickers with the establishment’s name and logo on it.

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Mosaic bench. Is this a southern thing?

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Fishballs, Warehouses, and Sunsets in Sunset Park

On a recent weekend, I explored Sunset Park, Brooklyn with a local. You may not know from the name, but Sunset Park is a neighborhood, though it also contains the park after which it was named.

Among several other immigrant groups, there is a large community of Chinese people. We had Fuzhou food at a small, casual place whose sign was only in Chinese (so don’t ask me what the name of it was) and whose menu was half translated into English (I guess they did what they could and didn’t bother with the rest). I am actually not familiar with different Chinese regions’ cuisine. To me, Chinese food is my mom’s home cooking and New York Chinatown food.

We shared fishballs stuffed with meat in a clear broth (I grew up with fishballs but had never heard of a meat-filled version); fried dumplings; short, fat noodles with squid; and sweet peanut balls in a bowl of hot water. The food was cheap and plentiful. The place was casual.

We walked to Sunset Park in the heat and took in the views of New Jersey and Manhattan and sat on the grass. After what must have been a few hours lounging, we headed out of the park, but not before taking a quick look around for elderly Chinese women dancing, which my companion had seen on other evenings. We only saw one woman slowly dancing by herself. Was she practicing before her fellow dancers arrived? I kept looking back to check, but she remained alone, inconsciente of people walking by.

Before continuing our walk to the water, we looked for a bathroom for me (story of my life). We passed a Catholic church that does activist work. I like visiting churches when Mass is not going on, so I asked if we could stop inside. I lit a candle. We both agreed that St. Michael’s Church was beautiful. And there was a bathroom! The toilet paper dispenser was so high that you had to reach up to the heavens.

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All set, we went off the beaten path, down a street almost completely quiet besides a group of family and friends barbecuing on the corner of the sidewalk. We meandered deep into a stretch of silent warehouses. My companion said he wasn’t completely sure we were supposed to be there, but nothing was blocked off, and no signs prohibited pedestrians from wandering in between the blocks of buildings. We came to a nice view of the sunset and stood on a large plank of wood to see it over the fence.

We got on a slightly, though not much more, beaten path in a nearby new park called Bush Terminal Park. Here, families walked down the long path and stopped to view the beautiful sunset by the water.

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A walk to the end of the park led us back onto the sidewalk and past a mural in Spanish that we pondered a bit before peeking at the de Chirico-esque view by the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which I recognized from a prior visit with friends and which took on a magical quality in the evening. Then it was onto the subway for me to pack for an international trip.

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Year of the Pig

The Lunar New Year began earlier this month, on February 5. I sometimes mention it in conversation leading up to the day, which leads people to ask how I celebrate. In recent years, I don’t have a particular “big” tradition. Instead it’s the “little” practices that I observe—wear red, eat three meals, have long noodles, don’t cut your hair, don’t clean (that should be done the day before), and other dos and don’ts. This is all to attract good luck and avoid bad luck in the coming year.

My paternal relatives in China get together for a large, multigenerational gathering at their regular restaurant to celebrate the Spring Festival, as they call it. It’s quite a different experience here; my immediate family doesn’t have relatives nearby, and my parents separated some years ago. So every year is different.

A couple of years ago, a friend who is from the same region my family is from (the Fujian province in southeastern China) organized a weekend meal in Chinatown with some of her French friends and me. It was nice being with her because she knew what to order.

Last year, my colleague and I had dinner in Chinatown and then dessert at a new place with piled-high Instagram-able desserts. Bright streamers littered the streets.

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The weekend after, two friends and I attempted to see the parade in Chinatown, which was extremely crowded (I wouldn’t seek it out again unless I knew of a good spot where there was breathing room), then had lunch before they went off to watch “Black Panther” and I took the subway to the Flatiron District to meet two French friends who were visiting New York City.

This year, I had dinner with my dad the day of and lunch with my mom the Sunday after. In between, I suggested to a date that we visit the Museum of Chinese in America in Chinatown and have dim sum afterward.

Every year, at least one person in my family (nowadays half the time it is me) seeks out tikoy, a sticky dessert that is called many different names depending on what Chinese dialect you speak. And tikoy isn’t a Chinese word, actually, though it comes from one—it’s what people in the Philippines call it. We only know of one bakery in Chinatown New York that makes it the way we like it. To prepare it, we take it out of the round aluminum pan, slice it, dip each piece in egg, and fry them. When heated, they become gooey with a slightly crispy outside.

I guess I—no, we—celebrate Chinese New Year more than I thought.

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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Nature’s Sparkles

A few months ago a friend and I went to the Museum of the City of New York, which is on the northeast edge of the vast Central Park. Since I was early, I took my time walking through the park to the museum. It was cold—cold enough that there was still ice on the lake. Part of it had melted to create these shapes of water with sparkling edges from the bright sun. I realized that whomever invented glitter must have taken his or her inspiration from nature.

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I came across a garden that I don’t remember having visited before—the Conservatory Garden. It was bare, but I could see how regal and beautiful it must be in the springtime. Time to go back. And the gate to enter it was surprising, almost random next to the New York city street, yet I can see how it matched the garden.

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Right next to the museum was this tree. Do you have yarnbombing where you live?

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The foyer of the museum was cool.

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We visited the exhibit on Martin Luther King, Jr., which was a small gallery but jam-packed with interesting photos and captions. It brought up conversation about what’s going on today.

The exhibit “Mod New York” featured over seventy outfits from the 1960s. It was groovy.

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Lastly, we looked at a room of items about the history of ice skating, fitting since the last time we were in this neighborhood together was when we went ice skating in Central Park last year, on what must have been the last weekend one could skate outside—the rink was covered with a layer of water. Obviously it was much warmer than today.

I like museums and have spent a lot of time in New York, and still sometimes a museum that is new to me will come up on my radar, like the Museum of the City of New York. Many times, I discover a place and love it and think, So this has always been here.

After, we took the subway down to the East Village where she got a bite to eat and I bought a hot chocolate from next door to bring over and sip while she ate and we talked.

Our next stop was a café where she bought two macarons and I got a doughnut. There was no seating, and it was too cold outside to linger, so we went to another café, where she got a drink and we sat and chatted some more over our sweets.

When the weather is beautiful outside, sometimes I forget what I ever did during the cold months. Here’s one example—hopping from place to place on a Saturday afternoon into the evening.

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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.