French cake a week – Gateau Alsacien or le schwowcbredel

jumping-lionIn which Claire, who speaks no French, bakes her way through the cake section of a French cookbook from 1962.The other day we talked about Jean Renoir’s use of windows, and the way he creates scenes with an intimate yet public space, theatrical yet moving (in two senses of the word). I mentioned the film Boudu Saved from Drowning, which stars the remarkable Michel Simon. Well, as it happens, I’d never seen the whole movie all the way through – just a few scenes in film class. But it’s available on DVD, now, so we watched it last week!! It was so good! Thought-provoking, and beautifully acted and filmed. Full of wildness and grace and beautiful space. And the special features! O! The special features!! In recent American movies they’ll have a “making of” featurette, or a few interviews with the actors, and it’s always the same thing. “It was such an honor to work with [fill in name of major star}. She’s so…in the moment…she never does the same thing twice…it’s thrilling just to watch her work.” And then there will be a segment on the costumes, “It was just an honor to dress [fill in name of major star]. I mean she’s not even human! She’s like a mannequin. Just like a mannequin come to life. It’s just thrilling to watch her work in her clothes.” And then there’s a little segment about how much fun they had on the set. “The hi-jinks!! The practical jokes we played. What a good time we had making millions of dollars! Don’t you just wish you could be me! Don’t you want to get my face tatooed on your face?” But on Boudu Saved from Drowning, the special features are wonderful! There’s an interview with Michel Simon and Jean Renoir. It’s black and white, from 1967. They’re sitting in a cafe. Renoir is drinking a glass of wine, and Simon seems to be eating berries from a small, stemmed glass bowl. It’s so beautiful. Okay, maybe they are talking about how nice it was to work together, but I believe them! Their memories are so gentle and affectionate. (Maybe I do want to get Michel Simon’s face tatooed on my face!) And then there’s an interview with a filmmaker who has lots of fascinating things to say about the film, which makes you want to watch it all over again but pay attention this time!! And my favorite part is an interview with Eric Rohmer, the filmmaker, and Jean Douchet, the critic. This one is in black and white, too. The men are sitting side-by-side in a theater, facing the camera. They both seem nervous, they don’t know where to look. They fidget and cast sidelong glances at one another. Douchet has wild hair and a world-weary air, and he seems to have a cigarette glued to his fingers that he rarely smokes. Rohmer is delicate, with a slight beard and a shy, earnest air. And they hold forth on the film. They have so many ideas about the film, so many observations on the way it sounded and looked. They discuss sweeping themes and they remember each small, intimate gesture of the actors. They find significance in a bag of groceries hung in a window, in the summer heat, in salt spilled on a tablecloth. It’s beautiful to watch the way that they form grand, mythical theories about the film, and then shape their experience of the film to fit this mythology. They’re trying to seem cool and blasé, of course, this being the 60s, but they’re jumping and beaming with love for the film, so pleased with themselves for having discovered it as it unfolded before them, full of gifts that Renoir has hidden for them to discover. Wasn’t he clever to have made a simple film that’s about so much? Weren’t they clever to figure it out as they watched? This is the way to watch a film! This is a way to go through life! Noticing everything, maybe even things that aren’t there! Joyfully forming grand theories, talking about them with a friend, and building on them as the days go along. At one point they’re discussing sound in the film, and Rohmer says, with a shy glance at Douchet “…and we hear all the sounds of nature – the singing of the birds and such, which is wonderfully rich and well-worth analyzing.” This kills me!! Is he talking broadly about Renoir’s use of sound? Or is he talking about the singing of the birds – each bird with its own song, full of meaning that we can discover and share?

Gateau alcasien

Gateau alcasien

I like the way my French cookbook talks about cookies as if they’re cakes. I’m so confused by the recipes that I never know how they’ll turn out even as I’m making them, and it’s a joy to see them shape into this kind of cookie, or that kind of molded fruit and cream, or that kind of actual cake that I’d call a cake. My cookbook is very dry, each recipe is about 5 lines long, and they don’t take a lot of time to describe each step, let alone to editorialize about the recipe at all. And yet this particular recipe is full of charming asides. The cookies are to be cut in “bizarre and childish shapes.” It doesn’t go into further detail, so it’s really up to you!! And it finishes thus, “Et voila le gateau Alsacien, which one munches while watching the colorful candles on the Christmas tree.” Lovely! And I love the word schwowcbredel – talk about bizarre and childish!! We have some animal cookie cutters, so I decided to use an elephant, in honor of Babar, a lion, in honor of Duvoisin’s Happy Lion, and a balloon, in honor of The Red Balloon. The cookies contain marmalade, cinnamon, and orange flower water, which I’ve never cooked with before. It’s nice – floral but light and unexpected. I wasn’t sure the boys would like it, but they gobbled these down.

Here’s Edith Pilaf singing La Lulie Jolie
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Chocolate-saltine-almond balls and french cake cookies

French cake cookies

Here at The Ordinary, we feel that we are, perhaps, in a rut. As we’ve frequently stated, the task of cooking dinner is one of our favorite pursuits, and we think about it a ridiculous amount, and have a lot of fun doing it, and take great pleasure in eating it when it’s done. Well, we made a bad meal. Not an awful meal, but a strange, complicated and disappointing meal that yielded far more dirty dishes than it merited. We really cannot account for the level of crankiness that ensued. Our team of highly-trained rut-breakers have been doing extensive research to discover a way to take pleasure in the cooking process once again. This research, which seemed tangential at the time, exclusively consisted of a casual reading of Malcolm’s science almanac. Our attention was first drawn to a picture of a hibernating dormouse, cuddled up next to some hazelnuts that were almost as big as it was. That looks nice! But the true inspiration came a few pages earlier in a section called “Disgusting Diners!” I’m not going to tell you about the dracula ants, because they’re really too gross. But there were two animals that I don’t find disgusting at all. They’re really kind of beautiful. One was the star-nosed mole. An odd-looking creature, to be sure. But did you know that the mole can decide if something is edible in 227 milliseconds. Why is this? You ask. Well, it’s because the 22 tentacles on it’s face tell it whether or not something is food. Can you imagine having that sensitive of a tasting system? What would it be like? And, more importantly, would you eat worms and insects, if you did, because that’s what the mole eats, and it seems like a shame. Unless, of course, the flavor of earthworms improves with a more refined ability to taste. The other animal I’d like to tell you about is a certain moth. This moth drinks the tears of elephants. Other moths drink the tears of horses, deer, and even birds. They drink tears!! This kills me – it feels so mythological and lovely and a little disgusting all at the same time. I want to write a story about it! Here’s a bonus fact for you…all of the cattle in the world stand in a north-south direction whilst eating grass in an open field! It’s possible that they’re responding to the earth’s magnetic field. I wonder if the cattle are aware of this fact? I wonder if we, humans, have a similar unexpected force influencing the way that we eat, and what we taste, and we don’t even know about it! So maybe this is all we need – a completely new perspective on the way we actually taste the food, and our metaphorical alignment when we eat it. We need to move west-east.

Saltine chocolate almond cookies

Another good way to break out of food doldrums is to bake cookies with my boys. They’ll say, “Mom, we want something sweet!” And I’ll say, “okay, let’s bake cookies.” And then we’ll plot, fiendishly, to come up with a new way to bake cookies. Yesterday we made these ridiculously tasty saltine, almond and chocolate balls. I love saltines. They’re so simple, but they have malted barley flour in them, which is a subtle but lovely flavor. You don’t bake them, you just melt chocolate and butter and stir it into crushed saltines and almonds. The cookies were fun to make, and they turned out so good – salty, sweet, soft, crispy. I added a touch of drambuie, but you could easily add rum or kirsch or nothing at all. And the other cookies came about because Malcolm and Isaac found some old tubes of colored frosting and sprinkles from christmas-cookies and birthday cakes past. They wanted a simple cookie to decorate. I thought it would be fun to try to apply the french-cake-baking methods I’d learned lately to the cookie-making process. So we didn’t use leavening – we whipped whole eggs till they were pale and mousse-like. Then we added a touch of flour and some browned butter. They turned out very tasty indeed! Simple, but with a mysterious flavor that I’m sure any star-nosed mole would appreciate.

Here’s Lee Perry with Cow Thief Skank, complete with a chorus of mooing cows.
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