19 November 2017

A custard tart called « flan pâtissier »

So this has turned out to be a food weekend. In other words, cooking has taken up much of my time. I figure all the leaves that need to be raked up out in the yard can just wait. No rain is predicted for the coming week, and the temperature on Thanksgiving Day, this coming Thursday, is predicted to be in the mid- to upper 60s in ºF (about 18 ºC). That'll be perfect weather for raking up leaves and carrying them out to the vegetable garden plot as mulch.

So what did I cook yesterday? Dessert. A pastry concoction that's called a flan pâtissier. It's not like a Mexican flan, which is called a crème caramel in France. It's more like a custard tart or a chess pie.

The cream custard is thickened with cornstarch and eggs, and flavored with a touch of vanilla. Cornstarch is an American term, I think, and it French it's called fécule de maïs or amidon de maïs and often goes by the best-known brand name, Maïzena. In the U.K., it might be called corn or maize flour.

Here's the recipe for the flan, which is a standard item in French pâtisseries (pastry shops). You often by it buy it by the slice (une part, deux parts, etc. de flan), and if you've ever spent much time in France you must know it. Okay, here are two recipes, actually, if you want to make your own crust.

Flan pâtissier

1 pre-cooked pie crust
1 liter of crème fraîche liquide (heavy cream)
150 g sugar (⅔ cup)
100 g cornstarch (1 scant cup)
3 eggs
½ tsp. vanilla extract

Mix the cornstarch into ¾ cup of cold cream, stirring well. Bring the rest of the cream to a simmer in a large saucepan. Stir in the vanilla extract.

Separately, beat the eggs with the sugar. Add in the cold cream and cornstarch mixture. Then gradually pour in the hot cream, stirring constantly. Be careful not to add it too fast because you might curdle the eggs.

Pour the egg and cream mixture back into the saucepan and set it on low heat, stirring constantly with a whisk until it's well thickened and close to starting to boil.

Line a pie pan with the crust. Pour in the thickened custard mixture. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes at 325ºF (160ºC). Keep an eye on the flan for the last 10 minutes of cooking to make sure it doesn't get too brown on top. Serve cold.

I thought the flan would be good with a crust called pâte sablée, which might be described as a cookie-dough crust, rather than with a standard pie crust ("shortcrust" or pâte brisée). Here's the recipe I followed.

Pâte sablée
250 g of flour (2 cups)
130 g sugar (4 or 5 fl. oz.)
1 egg
100 g butter (7 Tbsp.)
1 pinch salt

First, melt the butter and let it cool slightly.

Next, stir the sugar and egg together. Add a pinch of salt and stir in the flour (I used a stand mixer).  Finally, pour in the melted butter and mix well to form a smooth dough.

Put the ball of dough into a pie pan and spread it using your fingers to cover the bottom and sides of the dish. Prick the crust with a fork and bake it for 10 minutes at 375ºF (190ºC).

You could let this "sugar-crust" dough rest in the refrigerator for a while and then roll it out, but I think it's quicker and easier to press it into the pie plate using your hands. Patch as needed.

18 November 2017

Food, anyone? Let's have chicken.

Life goes on. We've had a série noire of unexpected and therefore unplanned house repairs and maintenance issues over the past few weeks. Warning lights have come on in cars, drains have started to overflow, computers have gone down, debit cards have been deactivated, lights have suddenly gone dark, leaks have sprung, and the power has failed... For too long, it has seemed never-ending. The good news is that it feels like the situation is coming back to normal now.

So what are hapless homeowners to do? Eat, that's what. Healthy food, if possible, with wine and bread. One wintertime dish (these are dark, chilly, foggy days here in northern France) is the classic poule au pot — a chicken in the pot. In other words, a one-pot boiled dinner of chicken with flavorful vegetables including leeks, carrots, onions, potatoes, and turnips or parsnips. Nowadays, the pot you cook the chicken and vegetables in is likely to be a modern one: a slow-cooker or mijoteuse. And you're more likely to be cooking a tender chicken (un poulet) than a tough old stewing hen (une poule). So it's a poulet à la mijoteuse rather than a poule au pot. Adjust the cooking time accordingly.

Put the chicken or stewing hen into the slow-cooker crock along with some leeks, carrots, and onions. Add black peppercorns, allspice berries (piment de la Jamaïque), two or three whole cloves, and a teaspoon of dried thyme for extra flavor (I put them all in a spice ball). Pour on water and maybe some white wine, and throw in a couple of bay leaves. Cover the chicken with liquid if you can, or not entirely if there isn't enough room in the crock (it will still cook). Turn the slow-cooker on low and let the bird cook for four or five hours, until it and the vegetables are done.

Now you have a big slow-cooker crock full of good chicken broth as well as a tender chicken and some tender vegetables. Toward the end of the cooking time, you can add vegetables like turnips, parsnips, and potatoes to the crock. Or you can cook them separately — in a steamer, for example.

To the left is the chicken as it looked when it came out of the slow-cooker after about five hours of simmering at low temperature.

Here's a finishing touch. Put the cooked chicken in a baking dish, surround it with cooked vegetables, spoon a little of the chicken broth over all, being sure to get some of the fat floating on the surface of the liquid. Set the dish in a hot oven for 30 to 45 minutes, keeping an eye on it so it doesn't burn. Let it brown though.

Optionally, you can also make gravy (in the form of a velouté sauce) with butter, flour, and the broth. Another option is to serve rice and the gravy with the chicken and vegetables instead of potatoes.

17 November 2017

Autumn leaves — les feuilles mortes

Probably not what you were expecting.

As I wrote in a comment yesterday, I got the new power supply for my laptop and I'm back in business. Now all I need is some inspiration! You might wonder why I can't use my desktop computer for composing blog posts. It's a long story that I will spare you... take my word for it.

By the way, I'm supposed to go get my new debit card from the bank in Saint-Aignan (photo above) this morning. I went there on Wednesday only to discover that my card had been wrongly sent to a different Crédit Agricole agency. I was given the option of driving to that branch office or waiting until today.

I'm not optimistic that the Saint-Aignan agency will actually have the card for me this morning. I've now been without a debit/ATM card since about October 25, which is pretty inconvenient. Besides, I pay an annual fee for the privilege of having an ATM card. The bank has so far been unable to explain why my card was de-activated in the first place. Their error, I say. I'm seriously wondering if it's time to change banks.

16 November 2017

Dead in the water

That's what we used to say in Silicon Valley. In other words, there is an obstacle that can't be overcome, and we can't do anything about it.

Out toward the end of the road

In my case, it's my laptop computer. It's the computer I use early in the morning to compose my blog posts. The power supply has given up the ghost. I've ordered a new one, but it might not get here for another couple of days. I'll be back soon, I hope. The computer itself seems to work just fine, but the battery has a limited lifespan. It just doesn't have any incoming juice.

15 November 2017

En rentrant à la maison (Going back home)

The other day Natasha and I walked out to the end of the gravel road through the vineyard, which is about a mile long. Then we turned around and walked back. It probably seems like a boring walk to the dog, because we don't go up and down vineyard rows or through any woods. But she's a good sport and likes her exercise.

I took this series of photos, hoping that dim morning light conditions and a cloudy sky wouldn't make them come out too blurry to use. Above is the view from about half a mile (plus ou moins un kilomètre) from the house.

Just a little farther along, the house starts coming into view. Our landmark is the tall cedar tree in the yard — about the tallest tree in the whole area on this side of Saint-Aignan.

This is the home stretch. From here, maybe 500 meters from the house, you can distinguish it clearly.

And then we're almost there. That's the other side of the Cher river valley rising up in the background.