Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Fast Food My Way

Why do people buy fast food? For the price? The ease? The familiar taste?

For this month’s 24, 24, 24, I decided to set out to see if I could recreate better versions of fast food classics… and it was harder than I thought.

The inspiration: McDonald’s Royal Deluxe Cheeseburger.

Price: 3.70

The competition: my cheeseburger

Price: 3 burgers (5.18) + buns (3.60)= 2.93 per burger
650 g. 20/80 ground beef- 4.40
salt and pepper (pantry item)
Worcestershire sauce (pantry item)
Tabasco sauce (pantry item)
Butter (25 g.)- .12
Cheese (6 slices)- .66

1 cup milk (pantry item)
1 cup water (faucet item)
2 tablespoon sugar (pantry item)
2 tablespoons butter- .24
1 1/2 teaspoon salt (pantry item)
5 1/4 cups all-purpose flour- 3.36
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast (pantry item)
1 large egg yolk (pantry item)
1 tablespoon water (faucet item)

The verdict: Even though the homemade burger was much larger than a McDonald’s burger, the homemade one was cheaper. Score one for homemade. The burger itself was quite tasty: cooked rare and seasoned with Worcestershire sauce and with a pat of butter in the middle of each one to seal in moisture. Unfortunately, something went terribly wrong with the buns, which came out very pretty but hard as stone. It detracted a lot from the burger, and in the end, it was not a terribly pleasurable eating experience.

The inspiration: McDonald’s Deluxe Potatoes Price

Price: 2.40 for a large

The competition: My deluxe potatoes

Price: I had all of the ingredients for these on hand.

The verdict: There was all-around praise for my potatoes. Even though the MacDo potatoes are quite tasty and deep fried, well-seasoned roasted potatoes rank pretty high, especially when a lot of olive oil is used. I quartered skin-on potatoes and seasoned them with salt, pepper, cayenne and a lot of paprika and roasted them. Mine especially held up well the next day, whereas the MacDo potatoes were soft and unappetizing.

The inspiration: Quick Xtreme Cheesy

The competition: Emmental cheese sticks
emmental cheese- 2.00

The verdict: You may have noticed I didn’t list a price: that’s because due to a translation problem, we accidentally bought chicken fingers instead of these deep fried sticks of cheese. However, we had all tried them at an earlier date, and we all agreed that I did them better. The ones from Quick have an odd texture: spongy rather than cheesy. While frying mine, I understood why: they are quite messy, but the at-home effort is really worth it here.

The inspiration: Quick fondant au chocolat

The competition: My fondant au chocolat

The verdict: Here, the winner was hands-down the Quick fondant. I added cayenne and cinnamon to mine, as I usually do, but Quick won with their extremely chocolatey and nearly undercooked melty chocolate delights. Mine were eaten later, but only after all of the Quick ones were devoured.

When I set up this challenge for myself, I thought it would be a breeze. Little did I realize that fast food joints know what they’re doing: I may whine about picking up lunch at a fast food place like Quick or MacDo, but there are definitely good options at either one, and the tastes that we’ve gotten used to are not necessarily always easy to recreate at home.

Daring Bakers: Strudel

The May Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.

I like to work myself up about things. I get really excited, counting down the days until a trip, the start of a new job, the arrival of a friend. And somehow, the things I look forward to are never as exciting as the things that just happen, the things that enter into my life without a plan, without announcing themselves. I like to have a plan, but the best things aren’t planned.

This Daring Bakers challenge was on my list of cooking tasks to accomplish for nearly a month before I rolled out the dough and did it. I planned for two: a pear, caramelized onion and blue cheese strudel and a pear and raspberry strudel for dessert.

The rolling of the dough went off without a hitch; the filling was easy. I baked them with no problem: no burning, no falling apart. Everything went according to plan.

And it just wasn’t that great.

caramelized onion filling
caramelized onion filling

Don’t get me wrong: it was fine. But at the same time, I would have much rather had the ingredients by themselves with maybe a loaf of good French bread for dinner as opposed to stuffed in a strudel dough. I don’t think I’ve ever had apple strudel… if I have, it wasn’t memorable. I’m sure this recipe is great for people who love strudel, but it just wasn’t for me.

The past few months have been made up of waiting, of writing, of thinking. No real plans: a first for me, a first in a long time. But now, out of nowhere, plans are falling at my feet, and I’m scrambling to pick them all up: a month in the Congo, a month back in Paziols, a month in New York. After that, who knows? I have more plans in the back of my head, but for now, I’ll content myself with these three.

I’m trying not to plan too much, trying not to have expectations. I have a handful of blog posts waiting to be posted, just in case, but they may all get scrapped in favor of bigger and better things I find on my adventures over the next few months, in the Congo, where I’ll be living in a hotel and have no idea if my meals will be vegetables out of a can or room service or typical African cuisine. I’ve just found out that I’ll be completely in charge of the Paziols menu this year, and I hope that after full days, I’ll have enough time to tell you all about it.

For now, I’m just taking advantage of my last few days in Paris, a few more bites of cheese, one last bottle of Bordeaux, before we say goodbye for a few months–maybe longer. I hope you all stay along for the ride.

Apple Strudel
Total: 2 hours 15 minutes – 3 hours 30 minutes

15-20 min to make dough
30-90 min to let dough rest/to prepare the filling
20-30 min to roll out and stretch dough
10 min to fill and roll dough
30 min to bake
30 min to cool

Apple strudel
from “Kaffeehaus – Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague” by Rick Rodgers

This is the original recipe for the original apple filling. You can also just make the dough portion and add whatever filling you like.

2 tablespoons (30 ml) golden rum
3 tablespoons (45 ml) raisins
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (80 g) sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick / 115 g) unsalted butter, melted, divided
1 1/2 cups (350 ml) fresh bread crumbs
strudel dough (recipe below)
1/2 cup (120 ml, about 60 g) coarsely chopped walnuts
2 pounds (900 g) tart cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into ¼ inch-thick slices (use apples that hold their shape during baking)

1. Mix the rum and raisins in a bowl. Mix the cinnamon and sugar in another bowl.

2. Heat 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium-high. Add the breadcrumbs and cook whilst stirring until golden and toasted. This will take about 3 minutes. Let it cool completely.

3. Put the rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Line a large baking sheet with baking paper (parchment paper). Make the strudel dough as described below. Spread about 3 tablespoons of the remaining melted butter over the dough using your hands (a bristle brush could tear the dough, you could use a special feather pastry brush instead of your hands). Sprinkle the buttered dough with the bread crumbs. Spread the walnuts about 3 inches (8 cm) from the short edge of the dough in a 6-inch-(15cm)-wide strip. Mix the apples with the raisins (including the rum), and the cinnamon sugar. Spread the mixture over the walnuts.

4. Fold the short end of the dough onto the filling. Lift the tablecloth at the short end of the dough so that the strudel rolls onto itself. Transfer the strudel to the prepared baking sheet by lifting it. Curve it into a horseshoe to fit. Tuck the ends under the strudel. Brush the top with the remaining melted butter.

5. Bake the strudel for about 30 minutes or until it is deep golden brown. Cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing. Use a serrated knife and serve either warm or at room temperature. It is best on the day it is baked.

Strudel dough
from “Kaffeehaus – Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague” by Rick Rodgers

1 1/3 cups (200 g) unbleached flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons (105 ml) water, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons (30 ml) vegetable oil, plus additional for coating the dough
1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar

1. Combine the flour and salt in a stand-mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix the water, oil and vinegar in a measuring cup. Add the water/oil mixture to the flour with the mixer on low speed. You will get a soft dough. Make sure it is not too dry, add a little more water if necessary.
Take the dough out of the mixer. Change to the dough hook. Put the dough ball back in the mixer. Let the dough knead on medium until you get a soft dough ball with a somewhat rough surface.

2. Take the dough out of the mixer and continue kneading by hand on an unfloured work surface. Knead for about 2 minutes. Pick up the dough and throw it down hard onto your working surface occasionally.
Shape the dough into a ball and transfer it to a plate. Oil the top of the dough ball lightly. Cover the ball tightly with plastic wrap. Allow to stand for 30-90 minutes (longer is better).

3. It would be best if you have a work area that you can walk around on all sides like a 36 inch (90 cm) round table or a work surface of 23 x 38 inches (60 x 100 cm). Cover your working area with table cloth, dust it with flour and rub it into the fabric. Put your dough ball in the middle and roll it out as much as you can.
Pick the dough up by holding it by an edge. This way the weight of the dough and gravity can help stretching it as it hangs. Using the back of your hands to gently stretch and pull the dough. You can use your forearms to support it.

4. The dough will become too large to hold. Put it on your work surface. Leave the thicker edge of the dough to hang over the edge of the table. Place your hands underneath the dough and stretch and pull the dough thinner using the backs of your hands. Stretch and pull the dough until it’s about 2 feet (60 cm) wide and 3 feet (90 cm) long, it will be tissue-thin by this time. Cut away the thick dough around the edges with scissors. The dough is now ready to be filled.

Becoming a Wine-O: 2007 Côtes du Rhône Domaine de la Berthète

I’ve always been obsessed with wine: the way it looks, the way it tastes, the way it smells. I love the fact that it’s alive, that the process has been perfected over generations, and yet no two bottles are exactly the same.

I recently decided to start keeping a wine journal. I’ve taken a few hour-long wine-tasting classes, but I’m far from a pro at this. I write what I think, but I don’t know if I’m “right.” Feel free to taste along with me and give me your thoughts on what I’ve tasted!

Wine: 2008 Côtes du Rhône Domaine de la Berthète

Price range: less than 10 euros

First impression: Striking deep pink color, aroma of strawberries, mellow and smooth at the front of the palate with a bright, acidic finish. Very pleasant.

Other comments: Surprisingly tasty with food, although it shines as an apéro wine. This is also the wine I used in my fruit salad dish.

Buy again? Yes.

Rosé and Fruit Salad

I used to hate picnics.

I also used to hate lunch in general, but that’s neither here nor there.

My opposition to picnics didn’t have anything to do with the outdoor setting, the paper plates or the gooey marshmallow roasting, all of which would have usually been problematic for me. I was one of those super-neat kids (my mother–bless her heart–managed to have a family of four kids who actually liked being clean and were uncomfortable when other kids misbehaved in our general vicinity). However, when it came to picnics, I made an exception, and I was perfectly happy to eat in the grass with the rest of the kids. What bothered me was what was served: hot dogs (still won’t go near them), mayonnaisey potato salad, and the worst: that ubiquitous bowl of fruit salad.

I didn’t have a problem with fruit salad as a concept, not really. My mother made fruit plates all the time, and I devoured them without a problem. What bothered me, now that I think about it, was the mix of unseasonal foods in one big bowl: berries, grapes, citrus, apples, bananas… all those things had no business being put together, especially not with some sort of sauce that came from a canned intruder, and I wouldn’t eat it.

As I got older, I got less picky, and often fruit salad was the only healthy option available at this or that picnic or barbecue, and so I started to eat it. Not happily, but I’d eat it. Soon enough, I started to realize that there were certain combinations I liked: blueberries, raspberries and strawberries or grapefruit, oranges and tangerines. Things that went together made sense on my palate: it was the mix of unfriendly bedfellows that made my nose wrinkle.

So when I set about creating my own fruit salad, I knew that I would be mixing seasonal fruits together, fruits that naturally complemented each other, instead of grabbing a little bit of everything and putting it in a bowl. I mixed strawberries and peaches together: not too many varieties, but just enough. Since it’s a little bit early in the season, I added a bit of sugar, but you could just as easily leave that out. I also through in some rosé from the bottle we didn’t quite finish last night: Alex and I open a bottle of wine on most nights, but we usually have a few inches left at the bottom. Sometimes we finish it the following night, but more often than not, I cooked with it. This rosé, with its strawberry undertones, made the perfect acidic complement to the salad. If you don’t have any, feel free to use a bit of lemon or lime juice and an extra teaspoon of sugar.

This salad, with maybe a few blackberries or raspberries, will be my fallback fruit salad this summer… and next to one of those typical “everybody in the pool” salads, I think it will come out as the winner.

Rosé and Fruit Salad

400 g. (14 oz.) strawberries, hulled and quartered
3 small peaches, sliced in eighths
1 Tbsp. sugar
3 Tbsp. rosé wine
2-5 basil leaves, chiffonade, or 1 tsp. dried basil

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl, except for the basil, if using fresh. (If using dried, feel free to add it at the beginning.)

Allow the salad to sit for five minutes to let the flavors blend. Add the fresh basil just before serving.

Cake Day: Buttery Apple Loaf Cake

I have trust issues.

*Phew* There. I said it. That feels better.

I’ve always had trust issues… I’m not too sure where it comes from. Maybe from growing up in a house where nothing–from the bathroom to your bedroom to even your diary–was private. Maybe it’s from moving around so often, always having to make new friends and never being sure what they truly thought of you. It could even be from being an awkward middle schooler, like so many of us are, even if we all feel like we’re the only ones.

At any rate, I have a hard time trusting people, and I tend to keep a lot of things, like most of my writing, a secret from the people closest to me, even if I have no problem posting it all on the Internet for strangers to see.

I have trust issues with my food too. Though I’ve come a long way from my soap fear, I still get nervous the first time I feed someone new, especially when that someone is a picky eater. Alex likes everything–he’s easy to please, but others aren’t so forgiving of little mistakes and cooking “au feeling.

A few weeks back, we spent the whole weekend at Alex’s parents’ house in the suburbs, and when Saturday rolled around, Alex expected Cake Day, as usual. I wasn’t so sure: it wasn’t my kitchen, I didn’t know the oven, I didn’t know what ingredients were available… but he insisted, and I caved.

I wanted to pick something simple, something I would feel comfortable making, like a quickbread, which is hard for me to mess up. There were apples in the fruit basket waiting to be used up, and so I grabbed a couple and found this recipe at Culinary in the Country.

I moved my way through the hotel’s kitchen, unwrapping individually-packaged 12.5 gram pats of butter to get the right amount, rummaging through the unfamiliar collection of spices, tasting different mysterious white powders until I found the (unlabeled) box containing baking powder, subbing white sugar and honey for the brown sugar that is nearly never used in France.

I accidentally mistook plastic serving trays for baking sheets and almost burned the hotel down, standing next to the oven having a stress-fit while Alex expertly removed the bubbling trays from the oven.

But it came out in the end, a little burned on the top, but perfectly serviceable. And yet, something wasn’t quite right. The apple topping was tasty, the ribbon of sugar in the middle had come out right… but the cake itself was surprisingly bland. I had taken some liberties and added nutmeg to the cinnamon, which had been the only spice, and had thrown a bit of both spices into the cake itself, but something was still missing… I’m assuming vanilla, which I didn’t notice was absent from the recipe, but afterwards, I wondered if it was a typo.

No problem, says Alex, heading to the industrial-sized fridge for a package of pre-made crème anglaise. He generously pours it over the top and declares it delicious. When his picky sister agreed–a self-declared hater of cinnamon in any form–I decided I could trust his pronouncement–and the recipe.

This recipe is my submission to this month’s FBI Gloves blog event, hosted by Marija at Palachinka. You can stop by Joe’s awesome blog any time before May 31st to pick a recipe to make and blog about.

Remember: if you’d like your baked goods featured in the weekly Cake Day post on Saturdays, just send me a hyperlink to the post, and I’ll include you in my round-up!

Buttery Apple Loaf Cake (adapted from Culinary in the Country)

Note: We served this with crème anglaise and it was fine, but in the future, I’ll definitely be adding vanilla to the batter, and so I’ve written the recipe to reflect this change.

For the topping:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp. honey
8 tablespoons butter, melted
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg

For the cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
8 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup yogurt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 3/4 cups peeled and diced tart apples

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium bowl, mix together topping ingredients until crumbly.

In a large bowl, whisk together flours, sugar, baking powder, spices and salt.

In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, melted butter,  yogurt and vanilla. Add to the dry ingredients and mix just until moistened.

Place half of the batter into a 9 x 5″ loaf pan coated with nonstick spray. Cover the top with half of the apples and half of the topping mixture. Place the remaining batter on top and spread to cover. Scatter with another half of the topping mixture, the remaining apples and finish with the leftover topping.

Bake until golden and a toothpick placed in the center comes out mostly clean – about 70-80 minutes. Remove and place on a wire rack. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes and then carefully remove. Let cool completely. Serve with crème anglaise.

Pasta with Four Tomatoes

Sometimes, I feel like I just can’t do it anymore.

I wake up one morning, and I lie in bed without checking my e-mail immediately, like I usually do, because I know that I can’t open one more rejection letter, a long-winded and well-worded “thanks, but no thanks.” I can’t send out one more copy of my screenplay to someone I know is going to throw it directly into the waste bin. I can’t lose one more blog post due to my moody Internet connection.

I start to realize why some writers turn to the drink.

I tell this to the English One, who tells me, jokingly, that I turned to drink years ago.

But in the morning? In my coffee? You tell me. Not yet, but who knows? One more day like this, and it might happen.

You’re young yet. You haven’t been at it that long. I honestly don’t know how anyone carries on that long without some kind of validation. Without one person reading what they write and telling them that it’s not all in vain, that it’s just a matter of time. Because sometimes, I read what I write, and the words blur together, and I just don’t know anymore.

I know, at least, that I’m good at one thing, for sure. And so when the days seem too hard, and I can’t look at one more sentence without wanting to scream, I close my laptop and head to the kitchen, where everything makes sense.

Tomatoes are my comfort food: I love them in any form. And so, when I can’t make a decision, when decisions just seem way too overwhelming, I have them in all forms. Sun-dried, roasted, canned and fresh, tossed together with things that make them right: salt, olive oil, basil, garlic, onions. At least something works, and that makes it seem worth it to finally open my laptop again, to double click yet another word document, to try again.

Because in the end, I know there’s nothing else for me. Like most writers, I don’t do this because I want to. Like a good love, a really good love, I hate writing most of the time, but I can’t stay away: the pull is too strong, the good moments too good to let go for something easy, as tempting as that may be. We’re intrinsically linked, writing and I, and if I were to ever give up on it, I’d be giving up on myself.

Pasta with Four Tomatoes (serves two)
4 fresh on-the-vine tomatoes, vine reserved
3 tsp. olive oil, separated
1 tsp. sugar
5 sun-dried tomatoes, soaked in a half-cup of warm water for about an hour
1 clove garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 425 g. (15-oz.) can whole, peeled tomatoes
175 g. (6 oz.) dried pasta
fresh basil for garnish (optional)

Start by soaking the sun-dried tomatoes in a half-cup of warm water if you have not already done so.

Cut three of the four fresh tomatoes in half. Place, cut side up, in a roasting pan. Sprinkle with 1 tsp. salt, sugar and one tsp. of the olive oil. Roast in a 400 degree oven until the bottoms are browned and caramelized, about 20 minutes. Turn over and roast on the other side until browned, about five minutes.

Meanwhile, in a skillet, heat a second teaspoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt. Sauté until the onion is translucent and sweet, 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about a minute. Add the can of tomatoes and the vine from the fresh tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and then cook over low heat until the tomatoes have broken down, about a half-hour.

Remove the tomato vine and purée the sauce with an immersion blender. Slice the sundried tomatoes into strips, and add them and the soaking water to the sauce. Continue to cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has reached the desired consistency, about ten minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a pot of salted water and cook the pasta to just under al dente, about six minutes. Reserve some of the starchy water. Add the pasta and the remaining teaspoon of oil to the sauce, adding the starchy water if necessary to make the sauce adhere to the pasta. Cook for one more minute.

To assemble the dish, plate the pasta with sauce and top each plate with three halves of roasted tomatoes and two quarters of the reserved fresh tomato. Garnish with basil if desired.

Becoming a Wine-O: 2008 Espigueiro Vinho Verde

I’ve always been obsessed with wine: the way it looks, the way it tastes, the way it smells. I love the fact that it’s alive, that the process has been perfected over generations, and yet no two bottles are exactly the same.

I recently decided to start keeping a wine journal. I’ve taken a few hour-long wine-tasting classes, but I’m far from a pro at this. I write what I think, but I don’t know if I’m “right.” Feel free to taste along with me and give me your thoughts on what I’ve tasted!

Wine: 2008 Espiguiero Vinho Verde

Price range: less than 10 euros

First impression: Light aroma of green apple and citrus. Very fresh, almost bubbly. Acidic and bright in the front of the mouth with a smooth and mellow finish. The taste does not linger on the palate.

Other comments: This is a straightforward wine. It’s a Portuguese wine that is made to be consumed young, thus the name verdhe or green, as in young. It is not very complex, but it is very pleasant. I can see drinking it as an aperitif in lieu of champagne, or else with rich, complex, heavy foods that do not play well with others: cheese, caramelized onions, heavy and rich mushroom or cheese sauces. The bright acidity of the wine really cuts through the richness of these foods without distracting from their complex tastes.

Buy again? Yes.

Pork Chops with Spicy Pineapple Salsa

When I was in elementary school, my biggest fear was the day that our gym teacher would inevitably annouce that we were running “the mile.”

Running “the mile” was something that every elementary school kid was required to do, I assume, but for me, it was terrifying. I had never been into sports: every once in awhile I would sign up for soccer or swimming or tennis as an after school activity, but I always preferred writing or art or acting, and so my brushes with all things athletic were few and far between. Worst of all for me, who was “a little bit pudgy” (aka, the fat kid), was to run the mile in Central Park, from the park entrance on 91st street to the Jackie Kennedy plaque and back. Most kids could do it in about seven minutes, but I always lagged behind with the asthma kids, clocking in at around fourteen or fifteen.

When I finally reached high school and was rid of the dreaded mile, I was sure I would never run again. Sure, until a few months in, when crew season was over, and I realized that I actually wanted to exert some energy and take a run. The day I picked was a typical midwinter Massachusetts day: cloudy with a chance of sleet and snow, the sidewalks a mess of slush and black ice. I donned several layers, including a New York Yankees beanie and a pair of mirrored sunglasses, and off I went into the afternoon, dressed as the unabomber.

My first few years of running were forced: I hated rolling out of bed early, hated the feeling of lactic acid burning my legs and the cold air burning my lungs. I hated days when I convinced myself not to run and hated days when I actually went out and did it. I ran sporadically throughout high school and the summer before my first year of college, but by the time the Toronto winters had invaded, even more overwhelming than those I had braved in Massachusetts, I locked myself firmly indoors, glad to be rid of a habit that I had forced myself to keep for the past few years.

It’s funny how things change. Funny how, after weeks of rain and hail and clouds, we were finally greeted with a warm and pleasant day here in Paris, pleasant enough to allow me and my friend Matt to walk all the way from the Vietnamese restaurant where we had dinner in the 19th back to my home in the 5th. Pleasant enough so that when the last few blocks were interrupted by yet another downpour, I was able to keep smiling. Pleasant enough so that tonight, just as the sun was setting–that magical time of evening that we call dusk and the French call crepuscule, a much better word in my opinion–I tied on my running shoes and set out for a journey around my neighborhood.

I started running again a few weeks ago, slowly, considering the fact that I just dislocated my knee for the second time in so many months. I found a program on the Cool Running website many moons ago called Couch-to-5K, a program made for “runners” like me who want to turn their 15-minute stroll into a real run. Sometimes it’s hard, but mostly I love it. I’ve come a long way from staying up at night, wondering if tomorrow would be the dreaded mile day to actually looking forward to my runs, my time alone with my neighborhood, my feet pounding the pavement and blood pounding in my ears. Today, I moved up a level, moved to an even harder run, and I loved the feeling of finishing it, of catching my breath, of feeling what my body could accomplish after just a few short weeks.

Things change. The weather, our feelings, our dreams. Even our tastes. There was a time I never would have mixed sweet and salty, and there was a time I never would have eaten warm fruit. But I tasted that feta and watermelon salad, fresh and cool one summer, and I put a forkful of blueberry cobbler into my mouth and fell head over heels. You never know unless you try, sometimes again and again, how easy it is to fall in love.

Pork Chops with Spicy Pineapple Salsa (adapted from Bon Appétit)

1 can pineapple in chunks
1 tsp. powdered ginger
1 jalapeño pepper, halved
1-2 dried cayenne peppers
1 tsp. cumin
3/4 cup (or more) water
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
2 boneless pork loin chops, trimmed
1 large egg
1/2 cup breadcrumbs (I used the extra-crunchy ones from the grocery store, but you can also use panko)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup flour
1 tablespoon canola oil
cilantro (optional)

Heat the pineapple, jalapeño, cayenne, cumin, water and vinegar over medium heat until bubbles form. Reduce to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, while you prepare the pork chops.

Pound the pork chops between two sheets of plastic wrap until thin and even. Heat the canola oil over medium-high heat in a skillet.

Lay out three bowls: in one, place the flour, in another, the egg, beaten with a bit of water and the salt, and in another, the breadcrumbs. Dredge the pork chops first in the flour, then in the egg mixture, shaking off the excess, and lastly in the breadcrumbs. Fry the pork chops in the oil on both sides until crispy, about 1-2 minutes per side. Serve with the salsa, and garnish with the cilantro.

Note: The salsa, prepared this way, is quite spicy. I like it, but it may be too much for some. If you don’t like a lot of heat, remove the seeds from the jalapeño or only use half.

Cake Day: Cream Cheese Sandwich Cookies

I used to think I didn’t care what people thought of me.

I’m brutally honest and wildly sarcastic. I’m high-stress and low-energy. I’m acutely aware of being mildly to moderately crazy, depending on the day and my caffeine intake, and I don’t hide it from anyone. It took me a long time to really get to know myself–I spent most of my years in high school being known as “lobotomy girl” because of my penchant for drastically changing my personality every few months–but now that I do, I don’t apologize for it.

Apparently, my self-confidence doesn’t translate to French.

I moved to France for many reasons, but my main and original motivation was to learn French. I have taken every opportunity offered to me to completely immerse myself in the language. It is surprising, then, that one of the biggest things I miss from living in the States is my native language. There is an ease with English–and an ease that comes with being an American–that makes social situations with other Americans and other English-speakers easy.

I am bold in English, engaging strangers in conversation, telling people exactly what I think of them and making friends with random people in random places. In English, I’m well-read, well-traveled and well-educated. I can hold a reasonable conversation with most people concerning most topics. I am not afraid of being ignorant, as long as it doesn’t make me seem stupid, but I’ve found that admitting ignorance usually makes you look anything but stupid.

I spend a lot of time feeling stupid in France.

Ease of conversation and turn of phrase that come so easily to English are distant verbal memories as I try to remember the proper way to greet each individual: Do I use their first name? Can I use the informal tu? Are they expecting a bise, or just a handshake? If I don’t understand what has just been said, should I laugh along and hope no one notices, or is it an inside joke? If I try very hard to blend into the wallpaper, will they maybe just not notice I’ve entered the room?

I’ve become what I haven’t been in years in English: I’m shy.

Luckily, Alex’s family reminds me of the cousins and aunts and uncles who used to trickle into our open-plan kitchen/den every Sunday when I was growing up. In my family, we yell to be heard, we tell stories over one another without listening to what the other is saying. We laugh at each other, with each other, at ourselves. We make ourselves look stupid, but we don’t dwell on it, because someone else is always making themselves look even more stupid.

I first met Alex’s family as they trickled in, one by one, into my life in Paziols. In Paziols, where I had the safety net of being in the majority as an English speaker but also had the advantage of being one of the few bilinguals. I got to know his family slowly, edging my way into conversations with them, conversations that faded into the end of the summer and picked themselves up in September, in Breuillet.

Alex and I make the trek to Breuillet, his childhood home, nearly every other weekend, usually on the last train out on Saturday, sometimes on one of the trains that lazily take the hour-long journey on Sunday mornings. I usually have something left over from cake day: a few cookies, two cupcakes. Last weekend, I brought these cookies, a product of Alex’s imagination: cream cheese cookies filled with a cream cheese frosting (he was first introduced to cream cheese frosting at a recent birthday, and the combination of this and his newfound love of New York-style cheesecake means that cream cheese is a valid addition to any cake day concoction.

These cookies mark more than one milestone for me: they’re the first cookies I have ever made in my new oven without staring unblinking through the glass window in the front of the oven, waiting and hoping that I’ll catch them before they burn. They also mark the day where I finally got to the point where I could sit at the table and not be a mess of nerves trying to follow the conversation in vain. I laughed along at jokes I understood and smiled vaguely when I didn’t understand the punch line, welcoming explanations. I contributed to the conversation when it came to things I knew about, and sat back and listened when others knew more than I did. It sounds so simple, but to me it was a breakthrough: instead of worrying the entire time over whether I was reacting the proper way, I allowed myself to be myself. I became, once again, myself: honest, sarcastic, high-stress, low-energy, crazy and American.

Cream Cheese Sandwich Cookies

For the cookies:

2 cups plus 3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
170 g. (6 oz.) unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
225 g. (8 oz.) softened cream cheese softened
1 cup Sugar-in-the-Raw
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a baking pan. Sift the dry ingredients into a medium bowl and set aside.

Combine the butter and cream cheese with a rubber spatula until completely combined. Add the sugars and the vanilla, and combine. Add dry ingredients and stir until combined.

Use a teaspoon to form balls of dough and drop them on the baking sheets. Bake 3-5 minutes, until just browned on the bottom and the tops are set but not firm. Remove and cool completely.

For the frosting:

125 g. (4.5 oz.) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
250 g. (8.5 oz.) softened cream cheese softened
1 tsp. vanilla
several cups of confectioners sugar, to taste

Beat the butter and cream cheese together until completely combined. Add the vanilla and mix well. Add the confectioners sugar by the half cup, whipping it into the cream cheese mixture and tasting as you go. When the frosting is sweet enough, refrigerate it until you are ready to make the sandwiches.

To assemble the sandwiches, take a small spoonful of frosting and place it on one cookie. Place a similarly shaped cookie on top. (I dipped some in a simple chocolate ganache made with melted dark chocolate and cream, but this is optional.)

Daring Cooks

I have been a bad blogger.

Lots of things have happened recently: I got a new job, found out that I’m moving (temporarily), and this weekend I ended up making a surprise visit to the suburbs. All in all, not a lot of time for cooking, much less blogging.

I joined Daring Cooks, the new baby sister of the famous Daring Bakers group, and I have been really excited about the first challenge for weeks. Sadly, for reasons beyond my control, I haven’t gotten to make it… but I am completely devoted to completing the challenge… tomorrow.

Please don’t hate me for being late to the party! I promise to be back on track starting with that post, which you can all look forward to tomorrow evening (French time.)