Crème Caramel

Caramel custard was a mainstay of my mother’s dessert repertoire when I was growing up. We referred to it by its common French name crème renversée — flipped custard — because of the way you serve it, upside down: this way the layer of caramel that was spread across the bottom of the pan finds itself on top, and the delicious sauce can run down the sides and pool onto the serving plate.

The layer of caramel that was spread across the bottom of the pan finds itself on top, and the delicious sauce can run down the sides and pool onto the serving plate.

I am so partial to my mother’s recipe that I never ever order crème caramel when dining out, because I know it will fall short. Her version isn’t overly sweet, and it has the simple flavors of childhood — milk, eggs, vanilla. The silken, slippery consistency feels fresh and clean, though my favorite part is actually the lightly nubby “skin” that develops at the surface of the custard, where it was exposed to the oven’s heat.

Since the ingredients list is so straightforward, use the best ones you can: now would be a fine time to use your neighbor’s backyard eggs, that farm-fresh milk you get from the greenmarket, and the fat, waxy vanilla bean you’ve been saving for a special occasion.

My mother makes crème caramel in a single pan — a repurposed charlotte mold if you must know — for the whole family to share, but I usually cook it in ramekins instead: individual containers look fancier when we have guests, and if it’s just us, they make it easier to handle servings and leftovers.

Crème Caramel

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September 2014 Desktop Calendar

At the beginning of every month in 2014, I am offering a new wallpaper to apply on the desktop of your computer, with a food-related picture and a calendar of the current month.

As a new feature this year, the desktop calendar is available in two versions: a US-friendly version that features Sunday as the first day of the week, and a French version (shown above) that complies with international standards, featuring Monday as the first day of the week.

Our calendar for September is a picture of zucchini, and I probably don’t need to tell you how I feel about those. You can check out some of my favorite zucchini recipes, but this summer I’ve also been roasting them a lot when it wasn’t too hot out: cut the zucchini into big cubes, spread out on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle generously with good olive oil and sprinkle with salt, and roast at 200°C (400°F) for half an hour. With some chopped chipotle almonds and fresh herbs on top, it is simple yet very tasty.

Instructions to get your calendar are below.

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August Favorites

The heirloom tomatoes I've been feasting on all month.

The heirloom tomatoes I've been feasting on all month.

Some of my favorite finds and reads for this month:

~ What’s new on the Paris restaurant scene this fall, as told by Le Figaroscope, Le Fooding via Les Echos, and A Tabula (in French).

~ Ever wondered what a poaching egg might look like from underwater?

~ I discussed food blogging with Food & Wine editor Kristin Donnelly.

~ I am very tempted to make this peanut sauce for my late-summer noodle needs.

~ My friend Adam says you should never serve these ten foods at a dinner party. Which ones to you agree or disagree with?

~ Yes, it matters what kind of onion you use!

~ Party-leaving etiquette: do you say goodbye or leave quietly? (In French, leaving quietly is called filer à l’anglaise, making an English exit.)

~ Inspired by this great-sounding pairing: cucumbers with verbena and matcha green tea. Another one to add to my 58 Ways to Use Cucumbers.

~ Are these nut-hugging bear cookies too adorable to eat?

~ Fifteen chefs share what they’ve learned by cooking at the French Laundry.

~ The most common cooking mistakes (and how to avoid them).

~ A clever metro map to locate the best bars in Paris, and another for tea lovers.

Green Bean and Nectarine Salad with Spicy Gomasio

I grew up eating haricots verts steamed to army green softness and served warm, with a bit of butter and freshly chopped parsley, usually as a side to roast chicken for Sunday lunch. After coming home from the greenmarket — with or without me tagging along — my mother would call across the apartment, “Il y a des haricots verts à éplucher !” (There are green beans to trim!)

My father, my sister and I would then pop out of our respective bedrooms and office to gather on the floor around the coffee table where a tray awaited, with a big pile of untrimmed beans and a colander to collect them once trimmed. It was understood that us kids could be excused from this if we had a big test to study for, but we seldom used that Get Out of Jail Free card, welcoming instead the opportunity to take a break and chat as our fingers busied themselves.

Green beans pair beautifully with summer fruit (“What grows together goes together”) and I love them topped with finely diced cantaloupe, or thinly sliced peaches and nectarines.

Looking back, I realize we could have cut down the workload in half by trimming the only end that actually needs trimming — that would be the stem end, the wispy tail is in fact harmless — but trimming both ends allowed us to thoroughly de-string the beans along each side, which counts for something.

In my own kitchen I mostly find myself eating green beans cold, in zesty salads such as this one. Green beans pair beautifully with summer fruit (“What grows together goes together”), and I love them topped with finely diced cantaloupe (it’s been such a fabulous year for French melons!) or thinly sliced peaches and nectarines, which I’ve come to like best white.

My salad had a “green” element and a “sweet” element, and to create a more complete balance of flavor with “nutty” and “savory” notes, I decided to throw together a batch of homemade gomasio — a Japanese condiment of toasted sesame ground with sea salt — to which I added ground chipotle pepper for an extra kick. It is very easy to make at home and incomparably more flavorful than anything you can buy at the store.

Spicy Gomasio

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How To Open a Walnut Without a Nutcraker

This summer, Maxence and I took a little more time off than we usually do, and the three and a half weeks (three! and a half! weeks!) we afforded ourselves allowed us to embark on a mini-Tour de France to visit with friends and family: from Franche-Comté to the Vosges in the East of the country, then all sails South toward the Périgord, the Pyrenees, Toulouse, and finally Provence.

We ate like kings, as can be expected, and our luggage got heavier and heavier at every stop as we loaded up with various local treats.

The Périgord walnut wasn’t the least of them: about halfway through our trip, we happened upon La Maison de la noix, a shop entirely devoted to the brainy nut. In addition to all the walnut spreads and jams and terrines and cakes one could dream of, I loved that they sold four varieties of walnuts that you could sample — using their cool low-tech nutcracker — and compare.

“Oh, but you can just use any old knife,” she said, and proceeded to show me how, with a deft twist of the blade and very little force, she could tame the toughest walnut.

Most people think of the walnut as being a single thing — a walnut is a walnut is a walnut — but examining and tasting just these four side by side showed how wrong that is, as each displayed a different size and shape, and a different flavor profile, too. The one we liked best was the Lara, a jumbo walnut with a sweet, delicate flavor and very little bitterness. We filled up a big bag and went on our merry way, excited to share them with our friends at the mountain house we were renting together on the Ariège side of the Pyrenees.

But, as you might remember from my minimalist cooking kit, a nutcracker wasn’t part of my traveling arsenal, and the house kitchen — which was otherwise much better endowed than I’d feared — didn’t have one either.

When I shared my dismay with my friend Marie-Laure, she replied, “Oh, but you can just use any old knife!” and proceeded to show me how, with a deft twist of the blade and very little force, she could tame the toughest walnut.

Slip the tip of a knife at the seam

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