Bretagne Is for (Caramel) Lovers

Duck Fat Caramels


I was in Brittany once, but I can’t tell you too much about it. My French host family took me to Vannes, a commune in the Morbihan department, after a very early sweat-and-alcohol-soaked morning with my “sister” Aurélie and her friends at the discothèque. I was 16 years old.

The family must have told me where we were going, but even though the Visine made me look awake, I most certainly was not. And so, I didn’t know where we were until I saw the region’s reed-roofed houses out the car window. I failed to take in the scenery; my main focus was trying not to vom all over the back seat. That would have been just too horrifically American. The drive wasn’t long—I’d say about an hour and a half from the family’s home in the Haye-Fouassière commune of the Loire-Atlantique. (In fact, the Loire-Atlantique was a Breton territory pre-Vichy France.) But it was very uncomfortable, as I undoubtably smelled like a combination of some Jacques-ass’s armpits and the inside of the thong that I found stuck to my shoe as I walked out of the club hours earlier.

Brittany was so wonderfully Brittany that it was almost a parody of itself. We walked down Vannes center’s cobblestone streets, which were lined with medieval, wood-paneled buildings and dotted with vendors skillfully flipping lacy buckwheat crêpes. When we’d arrived, like clockwork, the bagadoù, a traditional Breton band of bagpipers, marched through the square, and children, playing tag or swinging wooden yo-yos, squealed and ran to the side to allow for their procession. It felt a lot like that scene from my favorite of the 1970s Rankin-Bass stop-motion TV Christmas movies, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, in which the children playing in the streets scurry away to allow for the Burgermeister’s passing, except the scene in Brittany was much happier and less German.

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Keeping On

Sable Breton Galette with Rosemary Poached Pears and Honey Caramel Diplomat Cream

Rosemary Caramel

I hold Christmas tightly. Too tightly perhaps. It’s not a holiday. It’s not religious. It’s not a time for vacation. I hold whatever it is tightly because after the lights come down, it’s grey until April. There’s nothing to look forward to. There’s no celebration to plan. There’s nothing for the mind to stir over. I get anxious when I’m lacking something to stir over.

I’m not sure I can spend too many more years in this city, though there’s a chance I’ll never leave. I started writing this in mid-December in my laundromat, where I learned, as snow fell steadily and the thermometer read 18 degrees, that there’s no heat (or perhaps it wasn’t working for just that day). I take breaks to quickly hide my hands between my thighs until they’re warmed by my body’s heat and can hold onto that electricity for a moment so that they’re strong enough to tap keys. I blast music through headphones to keep my toes tapping and my head nodding; otherwise, my toes would pop off, and my head would explode. It would be messy.

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Currently…

Currant Caramel Cream Cake

Currant Cream Cake
Please note that I refrained from titling this post “currantly.” Hold your applause, though. Since I mentioned it, I obviously thought about it.

Currently, my patience is lacking. I’ve started shaking in my chair, due to lack of inspiration, I guess. I’ve suffered; others have probably suffered. I’ve been a little too honest, a bit less nice, and a lot sarcastic.

But pluckin’ currants, or what I like to call, spiny little devils—now that’s a lesson in patience. That will slap the sarcasm right out of you. When faced with small 1/2-pint boxes of rubies and pearls and branches, I usually feel helpless before I start, like my fingers will be too weak for the task. Pulling out each thin stem feels a bit like plucking an eyebrow; the stem resists, releasing from the thick skin of the tiny, seed-filled berries with an inaudible pop. It usually comes out clean and whole but sometimes, it will leave behind a tiny fragment of itself. The process can be pleasant, though. Each of my plucks feels prodding and deliberate. It calms my nerves. I plucked the currants for this cake alone at 10pm in my 85-degree mid–heat wave kitchen, which I had lit dimly. I resisted the urge to play music or to check emails while plucking. I focused on just plucking. With each branch, I got faster and better; my plucks became cleaner and more graceful.

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Sugar & Whimsy

lemon meringue…cake

Lemon Meringue Pie

I’ll never forget my first (and last) trip to Disney World. Does anyone? Walt Disney World — a child’s dream, the most whimsical place on earth, the meringue topping on the above cake. The place where kids can be kids and adults can soak up the magic of satisfying the wittle apple(s) of their eye.

And I have no desire to go again.

I spent the months preceding the trip — and this was when I was in elementary school, mind you — hitting the books, charting a path, mapping the hours, and planning, down to the minute, which soul-sucking line we’d need to wait in to get to every stop on my list. There were very small time slots allotted to bathroom breaks and sustenance catchers (let’s face it, there is no real “dining” in Orlando).

Was it worth it? Did I have fun? Was the alarming authoritarian schedule barked by the 10-year-old general worth it? Well I got to every single scheduled ride (without throwing up), parade (the festival of lights was decent), and attraction except for one: Pirates of the Caribbean, a Disney classic. I’d call it a success.

But did I cherish any of the moments and look back on them as a time that brought me closer to my family?

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Pies & Tarts

new-school banana cream tart


I cook for fun, I cook to eat, I cook to discover, but baking makes me feel something. A loaf’s slow rise helps me value simplicity and time, a multi-layered torte grounds me in the discipline it requires. In my heart, though, I am a baker of pies and tarts, as simple as they are in comparison. If I owned a bakery, I would be tempted to limit its offerings to these two things. The pie makes everyone smile. The tart is a canvass for combining classic flavor combinations or experimenting with new ones.

When I read the words of other pie enthusiasts, I usually find adorable stories about “Grandma’s Strawberry-Rhubarb” or “Mom’s Custard Pie.” I cannot reference any such history. In fact, while I have plenty of food memories, they don’t come from a long line of anything in my family, really. My grandmother doesn’t deal with crusts. My grandfather shares my love of pie – eating it, not making it. My mother stopped baking when I started and at that it was always just quickbreads and cookies. And my father can barely tell torte from tart from taco. Oh, and half my family lives 6,000 miles away, across ocean and continent.

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A Night of Simple Indulgence

craigie on main


For many, Craigie on Main is a “once in a while” kind of restaurant. For me, it’s more like a “once in a year” kind of restaurant. Every time I pass the always-busy corner bistro on my way to snag a scoop at Toscanini’s (which is more often than I wish to admit), it takes a few moments of realist banter between me and myself to stop me from stepping inside sans reservation and taking part in the full sensory experience that Tony Maws provides his mesmerized patrons. Luckily for my wallet, I never cross the threshold and, instead, soak in that moment of passing, feel the warmth radiating from smiling diners and drown my sorrows in a cup of ice cream.

Well, last Thursday, my kettle had blown, my time was up and I was ready to suffer the monetary consequences of what is always a delightful meal at Craigie. In a different context, I’ve talked about my penchant for simplicity. Craigie on Main, with its fine-dining reputation, may not scream simplicity; however, I think that the restaurant actually embodies the term in many ways. Maws cares deeply about his product, whether produce or protein, and wants to do anything to enhance it in ways that are inventive and interesting but that protect the integrity of its natural, unfussed flavor. His dishes can be simultaneously epiphany-inducing and familiar, because they gently remind the diner how a food-item tastes when at the peak of freshness.

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Caramel Cravings

burnt sugar ice cream


You may have noticed that I have a “thing” for caramel. Ok, it’s an all-out sticky-icky obsession. Since this little blog’s inception, I’ve talked up a cake that was filled with salted caramel; I’ve eaten caramels filled with goat cheese, fig and rosemary; I’ve hunted down caramel-covered apples; I’ve whipped up batches of caramel buttercream and I’ve coated popcorn and peanuts in the sweet stuff. Things might be getting a little boring around here. Well for you, not for me.

Caramel is, really, a very simple concept. I mean, it’s liquefied sugar. But amber sugar tastes a heck of a lot more interesting than regular sugar and when combined with my good friends butter and/or heavy cream, it becomes a silken delight. It’s so magical that depending on the temperature or “stage” it reaches, caramel can be made into a multitude of distinct confections.

Perhaps caramel, like sky-diving or James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, is so crave-worthy and attractive because it’s dangerous. It tops many home cooks’ lists of kitchen phobias. Strangely, I take pleasure in watching the colors change from clear to golden and in turning the flame up and watching the smoke rise. When I make caramel, I take it all the way because all of that delicious added fat can hide some of the sugar’s true flavor. I think many fear caramel, because they know that there is a fine line between dark amber and black. Push it. Flirt with it. But don’t reach it. It will give your desserts depth and that roasty, toasty complexity.

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Seasonal Confusion

caramel popcorn with chocolate and peanuts

It’s still fall, right? Good, because the onslaught of cooler weather, the nor’easter that prematurely ripped the colored leaves off the trees, and the Christmas-themed jewelry and department store advertisements that started running on Halloween (yes, October 31st), were starting to confuse me. Like Spring, Fall in New England is woefully short, but this year, forces of both the meteorological and commercial kind seem to be speeding it along even more than is normal. Although Fall is my favorite season, this rush hasn’t bothered me too much in the past. Snapshots of snow and the holidays to come signaled that winter break was not so far away and that I’d be back in my kitchen at home shortly.

This year, though, my mind is in a better place. The pressure of academia hasn’t eclipsed my days, and I have been trying to rekindle old traditions and forge some new ones. I went on an apple orchard crawl, during which I visited eight orchards to make up for my absence in the past few years. I made a treat so cutesy for Halloween, you would think it was the work of someone else. And then I made this caramel corn. Although caramel popcorn can be eaten and gifted any time of the year, I see it as intrinsically autumnal. It reminds me of county fairs and Halloween. It’s indulgent and comforting, so it’s well suited for cooler weather, but it lacks the requisite spice and flavors that would give it winter holiday flair.

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An Impromptu Halloween Treat


I have absolutely no willpower. We’re not talking about food here. In between my baking sprees and food crawls come many a salad, servings of beans, and glugs of olive oil. A true test of my ability to just say “no,” though, comes when I walk into the mecca of home cooking that is Williams-Sonoma, the outlet. It’s a place where signs advertising “50% off all All-Clad cookware” read more like love notes from a secret admirer; where walls of gadgets cry out, “I need you more than you need me;” and where porcelain wares sit empty on shelves, calling to be filled with ladles of soup, slices of cheesy potatoes, and scoops of ice cream. I mean, I almost bought a $50 tagine a couple of months ago that I really can’t afford. But it was so pretty. And hand-made and painted in Tunisia…

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A Liddabit for the Sweet Tooth


Now that I’ve been writing for this blog for over a month, it’s probably time that I get this out in the open. I guess I’m kind of an ingredient snob. Ok, I don’t like the word “snob.” I’m just very conscious of the ingredients present in the foods I buy and make. I grew up eating very fresh food. We skimped on other “less important” things in order to make meals that were, well, real.

When home cooked meals were swapped for dining hall duds (thank God that’s over), I really started paying attention to the quality of all things edible. I’m really not radical or preachy (although, my friends might beg to differ). Sure, I pass on preservative-packed supermarket slices of bread and cheese, but I also haven’t started substituting agave for corn syrup in the few dessert recipes that call for it. By subscribing to this philosophy, I feel like every bite I take is worthwhile and, frankly, more tasty.

For years, my candy consumption was limited to a few delicious goodies: Fran’s sea salt caramels, Green and Black bars, and anything homemade, of course. And when Halloween came around, I rarely indulged in those fun-sized artificial nuggets that I passed out. Then, I heard about Liddabit Sweets, a company, or should I say, a two-woman operation, working out of Brooklyn and selling creative confections and offering new takes on classic candies. Everything is scratch-made by pastry chefs Jen and Liz (along with a VERY small staff), and ingredients are organic when possible. I checked out their website and fell into a sugar comma before even having purchased and tasted anything.

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