Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Herbes de Provence Croutons

How many of you have a sachet of Herbes de Provence that someone brought you from France?  And you wonder, what to do with it?  It’s a mix of some combination of rosemary, lavender, thyme, savory and oregano, and possibly other ingredients, depending on who made the blend.  Try this recipe, and add it to a salad or soup.  Crunchy, croquante, croutons with Herbes de Provence.  I promise you will love and use them, and they are a great addition to your repertoire, also great for Christmas gifts.


You will need:

Cubed bread; I prefer an organic, whole wheat bread; my favorites are anything from Louis of Prager Brothers, or in a pinch, Poilane from Bristol Farms.  Get the best bread you can; I love the five grain or country loaf that Louis makes.  You can also use stale baguettes.  This is a great way to make use of your day old bread.  Trim off the crust and cube the bread.


You will need some kind of fat; this can be butter, but I prefer bacon drippings.  When you make breakfast bacon, save the fat in a cup or jar like this.  Cook bacon on low heat to render the fat; if cooked on low it will be clear like this.   Then turn up the heat and brown the bacon. 


Add a few tablespoons of bacon fat to a skillet to melt; add the bread cubes and then generous pinches of herbes; toss to mix~


Put the herbed cubes on a baking tray and cook at 300 degrees for 20-30 minutes, until desired crispiness is attained.


Drain the croutons on paper.  Store in an airtight container, or preferably, use immediately.


We had butternut squash soup with croutons tonight, and it was seriously good.  Save the left-over herbes de Provence that don’t stick to the bread and sprinkle them over the soup or throw them on top of your container of croutons.  The herbes give a fantastic flavor to soups, salads, or snacks. The taste of fresh or dried versus toasted with croutons is vastly different.  You will love these herbs once they are toasted with the  bacon.


You can also add these to chicken soups or other meals.  Or grate more Gruyere or Parmesan cheese on top.  Hope you enjoy~

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Coconut Cream Pies & Puffs

Dad’s final words out the door yesterday morning: could I watch the World Series with him that evening, as well as Jeopardy?  And oh, could I also make him a coconut cream pie that we could eat while watching the game?  What could I say.  This is just the reason why I try to always have some pie shells in the freezer, usually store-bought Marie Callender’s, which is a pie store in Southern California that also sells pie shells at many grocery stores.  But as I started to bake the shell for the pie, I thought about what I’d like, which is less pie, but the same taste.


Inspiration struck, and I got out my mixer and a sauce pan.  I baked the pie shell, then made a half recipe of dessert creme puffs; you can see an older post I did on how to make these HERE


The filling is the same for a coconut cream pie or coconut creme puffs:



3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup corn starch
3 cups milk
4 egg yolks
1 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract or one vanilla bean (seeded)
1 1/2 cups shredded or flaked coconut

For the pie topping:
Two cups fresh cream, whipped with a teaspoon of vanilla and sugar to taste

One saucepan
One small bowl


It’s very easy to make: mix the sugar and corn starch together in a bowl with a small amount of the milk.  Add to the rest of the milk, in a saucepan, and heat slightly.  Break the egg yolks into the small bowl you were just using, then blend a small amount of the heated milk with the egg yolks and blend, then return all to the saucepan.  You are making a custard.  Cook over moderate heat until slightly bubbling and thick.  Add the butter at the end of cooking, off heat, and stir to melt and blend. Add the vanilla.


My family loves coconut so much, I always look for it and buy it.  At left is commercial shredded coconut, at center the fine coconut powder I buy in France, and right, the fresh coconut flakes I bought at the Persian market last weekend~


If I were more ambitious, I’d shred fresh coconut, but it sounds like a lot of work, so it’s easier to just buy it.  I like the French coconut because it doesn’t have added sugar, though it is a little dry, but it gives a coconut taste without too much texture, which is fine for many recipes.  The coconut I got at the Persian market is really good though, and tender and fresh.  I’m going to use a combination of these two for my pie and puffs.


When your custard is cooked on the stove, let it cool for a minute, then add the coconut off heat.  Spoon into your pie shell.  Set the pie in the refrigerator to cool.


I baked the pie shell, made the puffs soon after and made the filling in rapid order.  I made just a little extra filling this time, enough to pipe the 42 little puffs I made.  One-half puff recipe was one cookie sheet of tightly spaced, bite-size puffs.  It was plenty, and they looked really good with the coconut filling~


And then they got a dusting of powdered sugar and went to chill out until after dinner.


While I finished the puffs, the pie was chilling.  And then I whipped the cream, using a mixer.  I use a big fat piping tip for the whipped cream on top.  Presentation is important for a good pie, and I like a pie like this that is piled high with piped cream. I usually keep going until I use all the cream.  Pile it up in the center after you have completed one single layer.  This is also the tip I use for cupcakes and meringue or cream on mini tarts; I use it a lot; it’s a great one to have and it costs about $2.


Lastly, toast a little more coconut in the oven under the broiler, tossing it around slightly with your fingers to toast evenly.  But watch it carefully so it doesn’t burn.  This is borderline over-toasted since I was making two recipes at once and a little distracted, but it’s still ok.  Be sure to let the toasted coconut cool before you sprinkle it on top of the cold whipped cream or you’ll melt the cream.  I served the puffs in a pretty footed pedestal plate. 


These two recipes took me an hour to make, start to finish.  Not bad, though I’ve made them both so many times, I can manage the two recipes at once.  My parents easily ate their way through the creme puffs, and showed great restraint by saving the whole pie for tonight.  It’s much better having chilled for a day anyway.  Either one is easy to make, and as far as “American” desserts are concerned, very near the top of my list.  And if you like creme puffs but never had them with coconut filling, give it a try.  Very good party food too, with the holidays coming up. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

DIY Paperwhites

I’m continuing paperwhite bulb planting, and it’s been a bit of high and low price-wise as I choose containers.  I’m looking for containers for various purposes: for the house, for friends, for gifts.  I am debating a piece or two of Astier Villatte pottery with paperwhites for my table, though I would rather buy Astier in Paris and prefer the vintage French white porcelain pieces I collect.   I have planted some of my vintage copper kitchen pieces with bulbs, which will make a great display for the Sunday market, as well as wine and produce crates. I am looking for pieces that are interesting, that will be amusing, surprising and unique.  Yes, we will have all of that.  But it seems that as soon as I finish one series, my Mom decides that particular presentation would  be just perfect for gifting to a certain person.  She fell in love with this crenellated tin container yesterday.  These are the only containers I have bought this year, and I used a red cyclamen in this sample, with two paperwhites, and added a cordon rouge.  I love the saturated color of the red, and so does Mom, evidently.


The red of the ribbon and cyclamen will be set off perfectly by the white of the flowers.  I can’t wait to smell them again. 


But as Mom picks out her favorites, I have been forced to make more trips to the basement to find more containers, as I can see that Mom is going to be gifting a lot of paperwhites this year.  We went to a local garden shop we love, and they offer five paperwhite bulbs in a terra cotta pot for $40, but Mom says she prefers my arrangements.  Oh yes, and mine are free, but that’s ok.  So you have a bunch of gifts to give and don’t have containers on hand, like the glass vases I showed you?  Here’s another idea I came up with today, as I came across our supply of cookie and fruit cake tins.  You guessed in, we save them all; how could I throw this away?  They’re cute, and I use them when I package up Christmas Sandies and Biscotti for my gifts, but I have more than I need.  I considered using tin cans for paperwhite containers, but while I save a lot of things, I don’t save empty tin cans, and most of them are so small they hold one or three bulbs.  We do have a few coffee cans that are larger, but still not large enough.  The cookie tins are better since they hold more bulbs.

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You will need to find a sheet of birch bark for this project, and a cookie tin.  I have a few trees that I like to borrow a little bark from.  If you look, you’ll find one that is shedding a nice sheet of bark.  It’s soft and a little sponge-y and easy to work with.  You could use green leaves or other bark or any other organic material.  Burlap or fabric would also be great.  But I like the look of the bark.  Separate the sheets of the bark, so that you have one that you can bend easily.  Not too thick.  I like to look for a piece that is visually interesting, with some veining or interesting texture


Use a piece that is generous enough to cover the circumference of the tin.  Test the bark around the tin; does it bend easily?  If it’s too short, you can always add a little patch.  It’s a very forgiving material to work with.

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Using a glue gun, put a small line of glue on the tin and press the end of the bark piece on it.  The bark should overlap the tin on the top and the bottom, with a generous margin.


Wrap the bark around the tin, pulling it tightly.  Secure the other end with another line of glue and press while it cools.  Use any other drops of glue to secure the ends.


Use scissors to trim the excess bark off the bottom of the tin.  If in doubt, trim a little generously and refine when you see the tin sitting on the table.  If you are ambitious, you can fold the sheet of bark in pieces under the foot and secure with glue.  Either way, it should now sit like this~


Trim the top of the tin.  You can cut just above the silver rim.  Or you can fold the bark down over the rim once you know how to work with it.  This is the really basic version.  But it’s ok if a little silver rim is showing since we’ll hide that with moss in a minute.


Add your soil or leaves, and bulbs.  Water carefully, with pure water.  Push the bulbs down just a little into the soil.


When you are ready to gift this, add a little moss to fill in the area around the bulbs and pay attention to cover any edges of the silver tin that show.  Ideally, you don’t want any part of the container to show; you should see moss and bark, though as soon as the flowers appear, all eyes will be on the blooms.  Be carful to not overwater as the blooms develop.  There is a fine line between keeping the soil a little moist and having a soggy mess.


I added a ribbon around the middle of the tin, which I thought was cheery and made my Mom happy; she is giving this one to someone tomorrow morning.  And while you can spend up to $40 for five bulbs in a pot at a garden store, you can have six bulbs here with a free tin and a little moss and bark for about $6.  It makes a beautiful year-end thank you in my mind, and we made it ourselves.


See what you can find and reclaim for paperwhite containers; I love the idea that we reused this tin instead of tossing it into the recycle.  And the man who gets this on his desk tomorrow morning will be enjoying it for many weeks to come.  Tomorrow morning I am off to downtown Los Angeles for floral and fabrics.  You can keep up with me on Instagram for this jaunt.  I’m officially addicted to Instagram now!!  Have you tried it yet??!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Christmas Paper Whites

There are plenty of last-minute Christmas decorations you can buy, but you have to plan ahead if you want to force paperwhites, also known as white narcissus.  And if you are like me and some of my family and friends, you are ready for the first round of flowers in early November, and continue on through January or so.  I can’t get enough of this beautiful and fragrant little flower, and I love to watch them grow and bloom.  Each year I buy more bulbs, and each year my repeat clients want more of them in their homes.  This year I am forcing several hundred bulbs, for the first round.  And today was the first day I set them up.  So here are a few ideas, I hope you will find a little inspiration.


I bought my bulbs locally this year.  There is another variety I will try in a week or two, but Ziva is the white flower standard and that’s what these bulbs are.  Look for the biggest bulbs, free of rot.  I like to buy the ones that just can’t wait to sprout.  Sometimes there will be a dud, but these are really no-fail bulbs.


The question for me each year is what kinds of containers to use.  I usually have a theme, and last year I used footed glass bowls, hotel silver, giant clam shells and white porcelain and ironstone (see some pics HERE).  This year, my first thought was for French aluminium Champagne buckets.  I have a photo somewhere of Jean-Luc’s shop with hundreds of these buckets, stacked to the ceiling, though I can’t find it right now…but I’ll keep looking so I can show you.  This is the perfect thing to pick up at the Emmaus shop in Beaune for a Euro, so I am always looking for them at the right price.  I chose two from my collection in Laguna for this year.  I’ll use these to style the info booth at the Sunday market, and at home on a large silver drinks tray.  They aren’t particularly elegant, no foot or beautiful detail, but they are graphic with the lettering, and they are French.  They’ll work just fine…

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I’m setting aside a number of glass pieces to use, and a lot of these low cylindrical vases~


later this week I’ll do all the white porcelain and ironstone again, including the soupiere I bought in Paris in the spring.  This will stay home with me, and I’m sure it will be my favorite~


Silver tone containers work well, and I pulled some pieces from the basement including this large pewter-tone oval;


And baskets; lots of baskets; they work so well with paperwhites; I can see this one with tons of blooming bulbs in it set next to a front door~


Throughout the year, my neighbors periodically set out small terra cotta pots with their trash.  I always take them home, because they will hold 1-3 bulbs each and with the addition of a ribbon, they make a great little item to sell.  A group of ten will make a nice display at the market~


A few weeks ago I also found this large pot while out walking the dogs.  Why would anyone throw this out? No idea, but it’s vintage slipped pottery and will be beautiful with the bulbs and tied with a red ribbon.


These cylindrical pots are interesting, and textured.  Look for any kind of interesting containers you have around the house.


Shells make awesome paperwhite containers; I use these giant clam shells each year.  A French friend has already asked if he can have them again in his house this year, so I’ll loan them out to him again.  Even a small shell that holds one bulb can be an interesting display, so again, see what you have sitting around that you can use. 


The bulbs are loaded with energy and ready to bloom, so you don’t need to worry too much about what you plant them in.  Many people like to use stones or gravel, but I use a mix of potting soil, compost and leaves.  I figure this gives the roots something to hold onto.


A little sprinkle of better soil goes on top; let the crown of the bulb sit up above the soil so the bulb sticks out on top.


For the buckets, I used a plastic bag so that I keep the interior dry. Not sure if the water would bother these, but just to be safe, I’m lining them.


Each bucket held three bulbs, and I then tucked the plastic back down.  These will all be covered with moss on top, so you won’t see the plastic of the bag when they are displayed.


The other great item I’m using this year are a few old French tart pans.  This one is particularly good as it’s about three inches tall and has a nice patina.  Call it what you like, French Thrift or Depression Mentality, I hate to throw anything away; I’ve had this tin for decades and it is no longer suitable for baking, but I’ve kept it in the basement and it will make a great display at the market.  If you are looking for something similar, check out the zinc trays at Greige HERE.  Flat containers like this work really well because they keep the overall height of the flowers from being too tall.  I can see the zinc trays full of bulbs and topped with a little moss sitting as a table centerpiece or on a sideboard. 


The baskets I’m using will all get lined with plastic.  Roll the top of the bag over the edge of the basket and fill with your soil and leaves.


When you are finished, tuck the plastic in a little.  Remember there will be moss on top, so don’t worry that a little plastic shows now.


For the shells, I use just a little soil so that the roots have something to hold on to; the roots will raise the bulbs up just a little, but the flowers will always grow straight up towards the light.  This will be topped with moss when it’s delivered.


You’ll have to pay close attention to how you water each of these;  not too much if you’re using a plastic-lined container.  But one thing I swear by is to water these new bulbs with rainwater from the barrel or else water from the pond.  We have so much chlorine and other additives to our water, I find the bulbs do really well with pure water.  I’d use filtered water if I didn’t have a little rain or the pond.


All of the outside containers then got some water.


The tart tins all got a good water; the bulbs have wet feet today, but by tomorrow these will be dry.


Next I went inside to look for more containers.  For my French friend again, I chose white Limoges soup bowls.  These will be pretty set around his house in pairs.  Tea cups also work wonderfully; I am using a few Real Old willow pieces and the gold tea cup given to me by my Grandmother who recently passed.  She gave me all her teacups a few years ago when she downsized her house, and so this will be my special sentimental piece for the holidays~


I will be thinking of her as I watch this teacup bloom~


One by one as the pieces were set up, they were put out in the hot sun.  A little rainwater and hot sun will get these bulbs going right away.  A few curious noses were there to check it out~


And lastly, I completed all of the cylindrical glass vases.  You see soil and gravel most often in these vases with paperwhites, but I put my Paris hat on when I look at these.  No Parisian wants to see dirt and stones with their flowers on the table.  Go elegant, go French, and line the vases with sheets of moss.  It’s much easier than it sounds, trust me.  Then add soil in the center.


Set the bulbs on top and water carefully.  Here is the smallest of these, holding three bulbs~


And one of the larger ones here; these will go to my French friend, and when you see the vases from the side, you will only see moss; the roots will usually stay in the center.  It’s green and alive, but pretty.  It will be perfect sitting on a lacquered black piece of furniture with the green moss and white flowers.  I’ll put a very large shallow one of these on his coffee table.  Be sure to save some moss to cover the dirt on top.  For now, these also went out into the sunshine.


I’ll have another round of planting later this week that I’ll show you.  Paperwhite bulbs are a great deal at about $1 per bulb; I hope you will plant a few in some great container you have.  But do it soon, so that you have time to enjoy them through the holiday season!