I never have been to France and have no knowledge of French-ness whatsoever, but a recent visit to the French Market Créperie in downtown Knoxville, Tenn., seemed like a European-Parisian-non-American sort of experience — albeit slightly tarnished by discovering the guy behind the counter was from our non-French town of Tupelo, Miss. But, still. The menu features crepes, salads and baguette and croissant sandwiches, but the star attractions are the crepes. So yummy! So fun! My buckwheat crepes with goat cheese and walnuts were unbelievably delicious. (I’d never had a buckwheat crepe, but you get a substantial and slightly sweet and nutty flavor which holds up well to most fillings.) My cappuccino was prepared perfectly, and we all practically licked our plates to get every last crepe crumb. The decor was rockin’ a French vibe, too, with all sorts of fleur-de-lis, Eiffel Tower and bicycle references. Again, I have no idea what a real French cafe in the real France is like, but the French Market’s adorable bistro chairs and sidewalk tables combined with French honey, petit fours and macaroons for sale will make you start throwing “s’il vous plait”s around and talking about Victor Hugo just for the heck of it. Actually, all I know about Victor Hugo comes from seeing “Les Misérables” on stage about a dozen times — which is to say that I know nothing about Victor Hugo and France equally. But I do know good food and good times — and you can find both at Knoxville’s French Market. Dites-leur que Catherine de “Café avec Cathy” que vous avez envoyé. (Thank you, Google Translate!)
In my four-woman book club, we rotate host duties for the
monthly whenever-we-can-get-together meetings. The hostess chooses the book and decides where to meet — usually her house — and what kind of food to have. Because reading and eating are some of my all-time top favorite things, I’m not ashamed to admit that when it’s my turn to host, I usually choose books I know I can get a great menu from. And I hit the jackpot with my most recent pick, “Suite Francaise,” by Irene Nemirovsky. This is a powerful unfinished work about the German occupation of France during World War II. Nemirovsky, a well-known writer at the time, was from a wealthy Ukrainian family that fled the Russian Revolution when she was a teenager. The family settled in Paris, where she married and had two daughters while building her career as a major novelist. Because of her Jewish heritage, the French government refused to grant her citizenship in 1938, although she converted to Catholicism the next year. As the Germans approached Paris in 1940, she and her husband, also a Jew, fled with their children to a French village. Nazi control made life for Jews increasingly dangerous, and she sent her children to live with their nanny. She was arrested in July, 1942, at age 39 and gassed at Auschwitz, where her husband was sent and killed a few months later. The amazing thing about this story is that while watching her life and her family and her country — all the things most precious to her — destroyed all around her, she was writing a novel about it. “Suite Francaise,” made up of three novels of a projected five, follows fictional French characters as they are faced with the same unbelievable and unbearable circumstances Nemirovsky herself was facing at the exact same time — and, of course, without knowing the ending. You MUST read this book. It’s that good. And, since it’s about France — even France at war — there naturally are some excellent food references. I had great fun shopping for and putting together a menu: Shortbread, cream puffs, chocolate truffles, bread, cheese, olive oil and herbs for dipping, peach jam, sliced apples, cold sliced ham, mustard, pistachios, oranges, grapes, French-press coffee, French wine, Perrier and some little wine biscuits I found in the TJ Maxx food section — the best place for affordable gourmet. Impressed? Don’t be — the most I had to do to get this food on the table was open boxes and packages, although I did actually slice up the apple. I think. But for dessert, I actually made a cherry tart by my very own self. It smelled delicious while it was baking. How did it taste? Well, let’s just say that plenty of homemade vanilla-flavored whipped cream covers all mistakes.
I don’t know which I liked better — this gorgeously rich and smooth chocolate pots de creme or the adorable little china “pots” it came in. This was dessert at a recent cooking class I took in Decatur, Alabama. Cookbook author and former restaurant owner Betty Sims teaches classes in her home each fall. This year she led off with “Celebrating Julia,” a menu based on Julia Child recipes. Betty has stayed at Cooking With Friends in France, http://www.cookingwithfriends.com/, a culinary program in Child’s former Provence chateau, and she has some great stories and photos. And great recipes, like this one for Chocolate Pots de Creme.
Chocolate Pots de Creme
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Warm 2 cups heavy cream, two cups half-and-half and 4 ounces bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate chips in a 2-quart Pyrex cup in microwave for 2 minutes on high. Whisk and microwave 2 minutes more until steam rises and chocolate is melted.
Whisk 6 egg yolks, 2 eggs, 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder and pinch of salt together in a bowl. Add warm chocolate mixture in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Stir in 2 teaspoons vanilla extract and strain into a measuring cup with a pouring spout (to get rid of lumps). Spoon off any foam. Divide mixture among six 3-ounce pot de creme molds or oven-safe ramekins. Cover each mold tightly with a lid or foil (although Betty didn’t do this and said it wasn’t necessary). Arrange molds in a baking dish, being careful not to let molds touch each or sides of dish (again, Betty didn’t do this and said it wasn’t necessary). Transfer dish to oven and add hot water to reach about halfway up outsides of molds.
Bake 35 minutes, then check for doneness. Custard should be just set but still quiver like gelatin. If necessary, bake another 3-5 minutes. When custards are set, remove from water bath and cool for 30 minutes at room temperature. Chill until completely cold, preferably overnight. Garnish with whipped cream.