French Chocolate Mendiants

I have always loved the idea of giving out food gifts. As with any handmade present, it seems a very personal way to show you care, and that you love the person enough to spend a few hours making something nice for them.

Last year, I didn’t plan for it early enough to make it happen: Christmas is always a busy period, and we had just moved into our apartment a month before. But this year, I thought about it well in advance, took care of the necessary planning and shopping and set out to make French chocolate mendiants to give out to my family on Christmas day.

Chocolate mendiants are part of the French Christmas tradition

Chocolate mendiants are small disks of chocolate garnished with assorted toppings. This is in reference to the Christmas tradition in Provence, where people end the celebratory dinner with Les 13 Desserts de Noël. However decadent this sounds, it is actually a pretty ascetic assortment of thirteen (as in Jesus plus his twelve apostles) simple desserts: black and white nougat, olive oil bread, various nuts, and dried or fresh fruit.

Among these are the four mendiants, or beggars, symbolizing four mendicant monastic orders and the color of their robes : raisins for the Dominicans, hazelnuts for the Augustins, dried figs for the Franciscans, and almonds for the Carmelites.

Mini Cookbook of French Tarts

This is the origin of the food term “mendiant”, more generally given to food preparations that involve dried fruits and nuts: cakes, ice cream or here, chocolate mendiants.

Each of them, pretty and delicious, offers a new combination of sweetness and crunch. They’re also easy and fun to make, if you enjoy working with small intricate colorful things like I do.

And don’t miss the other kind of chocolate bite I made also: French chocolate truffles!

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Chocolate Vanilla Petit Pot, Caramel Petit Beurre Ribbon

Petit Pot Chocolat Vanille, Ruban de Caramel au Petit Beurre

[Chocolate Vanilla Petit Pot, Caramel Petit Beurre Ribbon]

This is the dessert I served to end Saturday night’s dinner. The idea came to me during the same bus ride through Paris that brought us the goat cheese mousse. I don’t know what was in the air that day, but ideas just kept bubbling up, a swarm of dishes taking shape and morphing in my mind, which I kept writing down furiously. Stepping out of the bus, I even had to sit down on a bench to finish writing what I had in mind. Euphoria is the closest word I can find to describe the feeling.

And this is the brainchild of such a bout. A small, transparent glass. On the bottom, a layer of chocolate cookie crumbs. Then a thick layer of crème à la vanille. On top, a layer of ganache, studded with toasted pecan fragments. On the side, a strip of shiny caramel, encrusted with bits of crispy butter cookies.

I used our Duralex glasses which I like so much, bought at the Madeleine Résonances store. Duralex is the name of a heavy duty unbreakable glass material, but their particular charm stems from the fact that they are the typical glass you get at school cafeterias in France. They also happen to be a very important vector of social structure among kids : each glass has a number engraved at the bottom, and the one you get leads to endless interpretations and conclusions. Whoever has the smallest/largest number has to give away his dessert, or has to go fill the water jug (and during this absence anything can happen to your food and/or your popularity), or maybe this number is the age at which you’ll get married, or the number of millions you’ll make, the number of kids you’ll have, or even the age at which you’ll die. Wasn’t school just sheer fun?

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Roast Beef, Shallot Compote, Rosemary Fingerling Potatoes

Filet de Boeuf, Compotée d'Echalottes, Rattes au Romarin

[Roast Beef, Shallot Compote, Rosemary Fingerling Potatoes]

While planning for our Saturday night dinner, I conducted a little research to find out what was best to eat with Baptiste’s bottle of St Julien. My sources were comfortingly unanimous. Red meat, roasted, was the card to play. I chose to roast a filet de boeuf, a very tender beef cut, and serve it with a shallot compote and roasted rosemary potatoes. The meat was promptly ordered at our favorite butcher’s, La Boucherie des Gourmets in the rue Lepic.

As you will infer from the many comments in the roast recipe, I am really not a meat specialist. Steaks, ribs, chops and other single-serving cuts I can handle, but I tend to be a little intimidated by big slabs of meat (both in the literal and figurative sense), and I don’t have a lot of experience cooking them. It always seems to involve a lot of complex techniques I shy away from – brining, basting, probing, stuffing – and I don’t even own a meat thermometer. But I’m more than willing to play with the big guys and learn. Especially when it turns out as well as this…

And without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, here are the recipes.

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Fresh Goat Cheese Mousse with Cherry Tomato Jam and Bacon Chips

Mousse de Chèvre Frais à la Confiture de Tomate Cerise, Chips de Lard

[Fresh Goat Cheese Mousse with Cherry Tomato Jam and Bacon Chips]

Yesterday, we had two of Maxence’s oldest friends, Baptiste and Jérémie, over for dinner. The occasion was to finally open the bottle of St Julien that Baptiste had given us a while ago, a 1996 Sarget du Château Gruaud-Larose. As I have done in the past, I will tell you about the dinner menu over the next few entries.

While I wanted the main dish to be classical to compliment the wine nicely, I do have a lot of fun coming up with fancier and more personal stuff, and decided to give myself carte blanche for the starter and the dessert. As is usually the case when we throw dinner parties, the previous week was spent idly toying with recipe ideas, the back of my mind always more or less occupied with ingredients and techniques, writing them down and sketching plating ideas in my little red notebook.

On a particularly fruitful bus ride, I decided to use my Confiture de Tomates Cerises in the first course, and came up with this idea.

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Walnut Butter from the Monastery

Crème de Noix du Monastère

[Walnut Butter from the Monastery]

I take bus 67 to get home from work every day. This bus line isn’t very crowded, and takes me from the South of the 13th to the 18th arrondissement along a very pleasant route. You can usually find me sitting by a window, reading, writing, or just gazing outside and observing. At one point, in the 4th, the bus drives up the rue du Pont Louis Philippe, a typical Marais street, lined with small and arty store windows. They all intrigued me very much, but it never seemed to be a good time to get off the bus and explore, so I never had.

But when I was out shopping in that area last Saturday, I finally walked up that street and spent some happy time going in and out of these beautiful – if pricey – stores : home decoration, jewellery, clothes, paper and calligraphy supplies, japanese earthenware and kimonos…

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