Monet for Dessert, or ‘Ile Flottante’ Tuesday, Mar 23 2010 

In keeping with last week’s posting about dessert, it seemed fitting to continue with a variation on the sweet theme…though this time with a decidedly artistic tangent!

Recently, I was dining with friends at one of Paris’ oldest bistrots, La Fontaine de Mars, in the Rue St. Dominique and ended a classically French meal—steak frites—with an equally classic dessert…île flottante, or floating island. If you have never had it, île flottante is a fluffy mound of toasted meringue in a pool of crème anglaise (custard sauce). I like it after a heavier French dinner as it is wonderfully flavorful yet light.

When the evening’s dessert arrived, I was struck by its distinctive shape—it reminded me at once of French haystacks…the ones from Normandy that Monet painted time after time in various lights of day.

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I thought about how Monet lovingly depicted the cone top with straight sides in the morning, afternoon and early evening. Having seen an exhibition years ago in France on Monet’s “series paintings” (haystacks, Rouen cathedral, poplars, water lilies), I was transported to peaceful fields adorned with that soft and tender light that bespeaks northern France… 

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In preparing for a recent lecture on Normandy for the Dallas Museum of Art, I came across a photo of a French haystack under construction. The photo is part of the publicity for a fascinating collaboration this summer celebrating Impressionism. It’s called Normandie Impressionionniste 2010 and will take place all over Normandy, the home of this artistic movement. More than 160 towns, villages and organizations will host events and exhibitions including painting, contemporary art, music, cinema, theatre, dance, photography, video, literature, lectures, light and sound, and more. If you already have Normandy  in your summer travel plans, you are in for a rich treat…If not, it’s a reason to rush out and buy a ticket to France.

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Abbaye de Jumièges – Friday, 16th July – Tuesday, 30th November 2010

 “Cinéma en plein air” (Outdoor cinema)

But back to the real subject at hand–île flottante. The version at La Fontaine de Mars includes a sprinkling of almond praline bits on top of the ‘haystack’ which slightly turns caramel after coming in contact with the moist meringue. It is the perfect finishing touch.

I happened to be reading Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking the other day and came across her recipe for the ambrosial dessert (page 622). Sure enough, her variation adds the almond pralin for “texture and flavor” as she says. I am now curious to see if I can produce this confection in my kitchen–and if it will come close to the authentic French version I just had in Paris. Not sure if I will try the haystack shape, though. Hmmmm…What is your version of Floating Island??

Normandy on a Plate Tuesday, Mar 9 2010 

Years ago, I did the Normandy ‘grand tour.’ My mother and I had rented a car and we took in the major sights in this rich corner of northern France: le Mont St. Michel, la Tâpisserie de Bayeux (the Bayeux Tapestry), les plages de débarquement (World War II landing beaches), the beachside towns of Deauville and Trouville, the gothic spires and half-timbered houses of old Rouen, Monet’s artistic haven at Giverny, and the miles of verdant countryside in between.

It was all spectacular but my most magical memory was the short afternoon we spent near the Abbaye du Bec-Hellouin, an ancient Benedictine monastery in a small Norman valley near the Bec river. As the gates were open, we drove into the monastery grounds to visit the beautiful 17th and 18th century buildings. What we did not know was that this enchanting place where time seemed to have stopped was closed to visitors.

A very proper monk came out to greet us and kindly sent us on our way. We regretfully left the premises and headed toward the adjacent village. We ended up at a true French auberge (inn) where we consoled ourselves with nice lunch of regional cuisine. To finish up, I tasted for the first time the Normandy chef d’oeuvre (masterpiece), la tarte tatin (the upside down, caramelized apple tart).

Just recently, I attended cooking school in Normandy where cookbook author and chef Susan Herrmann Loomis taught us how to make this quintessential Norman dessert. Susan runs “On Rue Tatin”, the appropriately named cooking school in Louviers about 30 minutes from Rouen.

We first went shopping for our apple tart ingredients at the local Saturday market. Il était une fois (once upon a time), Normandy was home to more than 2000 varieties of apples. Today, there are about 400. You can see many of these varieties on any given market day. Their beautiful shapes and colors made me wish that Monet had done some “series paintings” of Normandy pommes

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Our choice for the tarte tatin was the Cox Orange Pippin variety. You need apples that are somewhat tart and hold their shape–a French tarte tatin is definitely not an ‘applesauce tart.’

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The first step in the recipe is to place the granulated sugar in the bottom of  the pan. Susan used a wonderful copper moule à tarte tatin (a pan made especially for cooking a tarte tatin). Then large slices of butter are laid over the sugar. The time-consuming part is peeling and coring all the apples…But you can leave them in halves–no slicing needed.

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Then you arrange the apples artfully around the pan like so…

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Next, the pan is placed on the stove (gas flame preferred) and the butter melts, the sugar caramelizes and then the apples begin to caramelize as well…

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Once the apples are done (it takes about an hour), the prepared pastry is placed on top of the apples and the tart goes into the oven until the pastry is golden. Finally, the moment of truth…Susan flipped the piping-hot tart onto a serving plate and voilà! You can even see the steam rising…

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After a nice lunch that we also prepared in this hands-on cooking class, we enjoyed a slice of the warm tart with a spoonful of crème fraîche. You could say that this dish is ‘Normandy on a plate.’

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In the spirit of putting ‘theory into practice,’ I made a tarte tatin at home last weekend. It turned out perfectly and tasted of France at every bite. I can’t wait to make it again…even if it means peeling all those apples!

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter™

French Affaires Fall 2010 Trip: “Gourmet Paris” – We’ll have the chance to cook with Susan Herrmann Loomis again on our culinary trip to the French capital. Susan will take us on a special market tour where we’ll buy seasonal ingredients for our multi-course lunch. Then she’ll lead us through a hands-on cooking class of quintessential French dishes that are perfect to make at home. Finally we’ll sit down and enjoy our culinary creations paired with wine. Trip dates: November 2 to 8, 2010. Trip details coming soon on the French Affaires web site!

“The Lens of Impressionism” exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art – This spring , the Dallas Museum of Art ‘goes to Normandy’ in this fascinating exhibit on the interplay of photography and impressionist painting along the Normandy coast from 1850 to 1874. Light, sky, clouds, sea, water, mood, and atmosphere were major themes for the French artists in this time and place. The show is accompanied by a Saturday lecture series, Late Night events and even culinary experiences in partnership with Rise No 1 restaurant. For the culinary sessions, the DMA is offering the member discount to French Affaires patrons–just be sure to mention “French Affaires” when registering. More information on the exhibition and other events can be found here.