Here’s Space Boy Dream, by Belle and Sebastian, which is a nice expression of a flight of fancy.
In 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?
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.
These little cakes are very simple, but quite delicious. They’re more like cookies, honestly, and I think they’d make nice Christmas cookies. They have a lot of butter, and precious little else! The recipe calls for orange zest or any flavoring you’d like, but I opted for clementine zest, because it’s a lovely mysterious flavor, and because that’s what I had! The recipe called for a large, round fluted punch, to cut the cookies. I happened to have ja tiny tart pan (about 8 inches) that I thought would work, but if you don’t have such a thing, you could use any cookie cutter you like, or even a juice glass of any size you like.
Here’s Clementine, by the Decemberists. I love this song!
All of the recipes in my French cookbook are cryptic and brief, but this was the most perplexing of all. It calls for hazelnuts, and tells you to peel them, but that’s it. The cake has very little flour, so I assumed the hazelnuts should be ground, which is what I did. Otherwise you’d have a sort of hazelnut omelete! As it is, the cake is very nice. It doesn’t have any butter in it, so it’s quite light and simple, but it has a pleasant sponge-cake texture, and the subtle, unmistakable flavor of hazelnuts.
Here’s Sans Toi, from Cleo from 5 to 7.
Somehow the idea of a wild wanderer takes on more strange significance for me when the rambler in question is a woman. One of my favorite films on the subject, by one of my favorite filmmakers, is Agnes Varda’s Sans toit ni loi. It’s a bleak but beautiful film that tells the story of Mona, a vagabond who travels through French wine country in the icy, lonely off-season. She’s a complicated, thorny character, and we learn about her through her encounters with others – some who are cruel and some who are kind. Some feed her and give her a warm place to stay, some reject her and the way she’s chosen to live, some abuse her. It unfolds slowly and beautifully at a quiet, deliberate pace, punctuated by moments of human interaction – brief pockets of time in which Mona finds food, and warmth, and conversation.One of the ways in which people show Mona kindness is by feeding her, or preparing meals with her, but I doubt they make anything like this gateau aux amandes! In complete contrast to last week’s French cake, which was very mild and plain, this one is quite rich and sweet. It’s a no-bake cake, consisting of a layer of ladyfinger cookies surrounding a center of ground almonds, sugar and creme fraiche. It’s very delicious, but not for the faint of heart. I decided to try to make my own ladyfinger cookies, based on the knowledge that the batter is very similar to the gateau de savoie recipe, and based on some notes scribbled in my cookbook that I assumed were a secret recipe for biscuits cuiller. It’s quite amusing, really, how much of a fail this was! I can laugh about it now! The cookies are supposed to be piped onto a tray. I don’t have a pastry bag, so I used a spoon to make the finger shape. After two minutes, I looked in the oven and saw that everything had grown together into one big lake of batter. Ha ha ha!! How we laughed! So I decided to run with that idea, and I baked some on a small jelly roll pan. Then I cut out pieces the size of a lady finger cookie. Not the prettiest thing ever, but very very tasty! The recipe says to serve the cake with vanilla cream, but I think it’s sweet enough as it is. It’s nice cut into thin slices, served with fresh fruit, or a tart-fruit compote.
Of course, there’s no such thing as real silence in our life, and the more I listened the more I heard. Our house it attached, and I could hear small sounds from our only neighbors, two stories up. We live on one of the few big streets in town, and it was as close to rush hour as we get around here. (Which is more likely to mean lots of dogs walking by, than lots of traffic.) Our house is old, it creaks; the birds sing outside; appliances hum; people call to one another out on the street. If you’ve ever made a film, you’re familiar with the noisiness of rooms, because you’ve recorded “room tone.” You’ve recorded the noises that each room makes. And these noises fill in the wordless moments of the film, because pure silence would be shocking. It would seem unnatural, and you’d know you were watching a movie. A fact Godard demonstrates delightfully in Bande a Part. You can’t really tell from this clip, but it’s a beautiful scene. And maybe, sitting in the cafe with Anna Karina, at the next table, perhaps, somebody was eating these Galettes du vexin. These little cakes are like a moment of silence in the teeming dessert section of my french cookbook. In a chapter filled with sugar and butter and icing and creams and cookies and jams and rum, these are barely sweet enough to be called dessert. They’re more like buttermilk biscuits! Or even scones. They contain creme fraiche, which is lovely, and was very fun and easy to make. I was smitten with its beautifully creamy appearance. The little cakes are tender and mild. They seem very simple, but they have a distinctive flavor, if you take the time to discern it. It’s like listening to the silence! The more you pay attention, the more you notice.
“L’intérieur du gateau doit rester moelleux.” Says my cook book. Oh yes, say I, the interior of the cake should stay soft! Moelleux is a nice word, isn’t it? A soft word. A melty word. I love melty things! I love when the snow melts in the springtime, ice dripping from branch tips and releasing the buds from their frosty casing. I love ice cream mostly because it melts. It’s such a pleasant anxiety to eat it before it’s a puddle – to savor each spoonful or lick of the cone when it’s just the right creamy softness, before it’s just cream. It’s about time passing! Add hot fudge and you have the frisson of warm and cold, you have the changing of seasons. I like butter melting on toast, cheese melting into warm bread, secret melted cheese or chocolate hidden inside of things, a chocolate-covered cookie melting in tea. I love the melty feeling you get inside when you’re happy, when you feel love for something. I like the scene in Amelie when she melts – she turns into water and melts away into a puddle. Amelie, of course, is french and very sweet, and so is this cake! It is delicious! It’s crispy on the outside, soft in the middle (as it should be), chocolatey, a little crunchy because of the almonds. It’s somewhat similar to the cake I made last week, in that it’s flourless and chocolate, but it’s denser, and last week’s cake had quite a lot of cornstarch in it, and this has much less. The recipe didn’t specify an amount of butter – I think it must be a misprint. This being a french cake, I decided to add a whole stick (1/2 cup)! And I decided to add salted butter, because the recipe doesn’t call for salt, and I like a pinch of salt in my baked goods.
Here’s Nouvelle Vague with I’ll Melt with You.
This music has always felt like red wine and dark chocolate, to me. Which brings us to our French-cake-a-week. I’ve been trying to do all the simple ones, so this week I did the simple Gateau au chocolat. It’s a lovely flourless chocolate cake. But it does have quite a bit of corn starch, which I found surprising. The cake is extremely simple – and like the last few cakes, it has no leavening, but it got tall and puffy anyway. David said it’s crispy on top, then moist, then cakey. It’s like every good kind of brownie mixed in one cake. I don’t have a bundt pan, so I invented one with a quart-sized souffle dish with a little souffle cup, open-side up, buttered into the bottom. I made a strange looking cake! But lovely and tasty. We ate it with vanilla-flavored whipped cream, but it’s a cake that would be perfect for any of your simple cake needs. With berries, with creme anglaise, in a trifle…
We’re keeping it simple again this week, in our french-cake-a-week division, with a lovely gateau de savoie. This cake is, in truth, remarkably similar to last week’s genoise. The ingredients are nearly identical. The difference is that the eggs are separated, in this cake, this cake has less butter, and the cake is baked in a deep dish. Last week, I went on and on (and on) about how a genoise is like my favorite movie, L’atalante. This week we’ll continue the tradition, because I’d like to tell you about Aki Kaurismaki’s Le Havre. (I promise not to ramble on about how the film is like a cake, but I have to tell you that one of the youTube comments on the trailer is “such a beautiful film, simple and deep,” which could be said exactly of a gateau de savoie, with one word switched.) L’atalante begins in the port town of Le Havre, and the town is (suprise!) the setting of Kaurismaki’s film. Le Havre tells the story of a former bohemian poet-turned-shoeshiner. He’s a man with a simple but pleasant life. But when his wife falls ill and he makes a new friend, his world is gently, subtly turned upside down. The characters are ordinary people; the lovers are older, they’re not glamorous; the story is slow and simple, but it tells of huge changes in the life of an old man and a young boy. The film is beautifully made, all sea-green and rusted red, with a style and grace reminiscent of much older films. Despite the perfectly professional technical quality of the film and the admirable attention to detail, it looks like they had fun making it – in some places it’s as though an old group of friends got together to shoot a movie. Similarly, though the film teeters on the edge of tragedy, and peers into some deep, dark places, it retains a lightness and a wry humor. I’d heard, once, that tragedy ends in death and comedy ends in marriage, and Le Havre ends with the salvation of a marriage. It’s a funny thing, but my reaction at the end of the film was that Kaurismaki was brave to end the movie the way that he did. I remember discussions, back in the days of endless talking, about the fact that comedies could never be weighty or substantial – they could never be great works of art. Only a tragedy could be considered high art; comedies are low, they’re light. I’ve always found that idea troubling. I think it’s actually more difficult to create something happy. It’s easy to be shocking, depressing, degrading. It’s the refuge of juvenile directors to make sad and disturbing films, and express scorn for anything joyful or pretty. And yet real life is a combination of joy and sorrow, of beauty and ugliness, and I admire anyone who can tell a story that shows this, with humor and taste, and just the right amount of sweetness. So, this cake is deep, and light, and subtly sweet. Because of its simplicity it makes a nice base for other flavors – for fruit and cream, or compotes, or liqueurs or syrups. The directions require you to bake it in “un moule profond.” That’s right, a baking dish deep and full of meaning. I don’t have a wide selection of cake pans, so I used a quart-sized souffle dish – about 6 inches wide and 3 inches deep. It worked perfectly! The recipe suggested that you make a ring of paper to help contain the batter, and I did, but it wasn’t really necessary. The recipe also stated that you could use the “parfum” of your choice, and suggested vanilla, fleur d’orange, lemon zest. I chose a bit of vanilla and a bit of rum, because that’s what I had. When I made the genoise I couldn’t resist adding a bit of salt, but I didn’t do that this time, instead I cheated by using salted butter! The cake has very little butter, though, which contributes to its lovely lightness. The recipe also says that you can substitute starch for half the flour. I assume they mean corn starch, but I didn’t have any, so I went for the all-flour option.
We went back to basics, for this french-cake-a-week-cake, with a Genoise. And now I’m going to tell you all the ways that a genoise is like my favorite movie. To begin with, there’s the frenchness. My favorite movie is L’atalante, by Jean Vigo, which was shot in France in 1934. To go on with, a genoise is a very very simple cake. In its simplicity, the full subtle sweetness of the flavor shines through. I say, “sweetness,” but in truth I don’t mean sugary sweetness. The genoise is not the least bit cloying, it has a scant half cup of sugar (by my calculations). The method of making a genoise is (to me) unusual and completely delightful. It doesn’t involve leavening, rather you whisk whole eggs until they’re frothy and “ribbony,” and this is what gives the cake its lift and texture. I was childlike in my amazement! I’m sure I’ve seen video of people making this cake, but I’d never done it myself. I kept saying “this is fun! this is my idea of fun!” (David, passing through the kitchen at that moment, muttered, “poor kid,” and patted me on the head.) L’atalante, similarly, is sweet without being cloying. Aesthetically, it’s unusual, but the method makes so much sense as you watch it, that it feels nearly perfect. Visually and emotionally it’s the exact right combination of light and darkness. It has a real elegance, not from sophistication or stylishness, but from the deft, loving way that the shots are framed and the plot is revealed. It has a fine crumb. The characters are simple as well – they’re not a bit glamorous – but they’re beautiful in the way that kind people become beautiful when you know them well. Many stories end with a wedding, and tell you the dramatic story of the relationship leading up to it. L’atalante starts with a wedding, and tells you the story of the life of the newly-married couple in the weeks after. It’s as mundane, dreamy, messy, glowing, erotic, and bewildering as real human love. And it has Michel Simon, the slightly tart apricot jam on the top of the cake.
I’m not sure I made the cake exactly as it was meant to be made. As I’ve said, the instructions in my cookbook are slight, vague, and in a foreign language. But I think it came out precisely as it was supposed to. (I wouldn’t change anything about it!) I’ve read that the eggs are supposed to be whisked over a bain marie, but I didn’t see any indication of that in my recipe. I was conflicted about how to proceed. I decided to hold my very thick pottery bowl over the warm burner on which I’d melted the butter. This seemed like a good compromise! My eggs became perfectly frothy and mousse-like (…le mélange soit devenu mousseux.) Perhaps it’s because the day was so warm. If I tried this again in colder weather, I might arrange a bain marie. We shall see! I added a pinch of salt. Also, the instructions said to mix icing sugar with an eggwhite for the final glaze. I’m a coward about using raw eggs, so I combined icing sugar with a bit of milk, and drizzled this on the edges and down the sides. It adds a nice sort of crunchy crust to the otherwise soft, light yet dense cake. I believe the genoise is the base for many other fancier cakes, and I’ll certainly be making it again and trying out different fancifications.
Here’s Le chalande qui passe sung by Lys Gauty. This song was an influence on the film, and at one point the title of the film was changed to Le chalande qui passe.