We were living in that tiny studio apartment – one room with a long wooden table pushed up against one wall under the window, the double bed mattress cleverly perched above on a mezzanine. The shower stood formidably in the center of the living room, odd man out, daring someone to question his presence. A tiny corner nook consisted of tiny refrigerator and sink, a poor excuse for a kitchen but perfect for our first summer in Paris. Light flooded into that long-ago space all day, warming us, soothing us even as we worried where we would move to once the real occupant of the apartment returned from summer vacation.
She may not have been counting her pennies but I certainly was and a restaurant meal was a rare treat. But half the fun of being in Paris – ah, yes, we were living in Paris! – was marketing in the morning, basket hooked reassuringly on my arm, marketing just like une vraie parisienne. The bustling market of the Rue Mouffetard was just around the corner and what fun to test out our high school French while filling our basket with summer peaches and nectarines, a bundle of deep red cherries and whatever else we thought, in all of our wide-eyed American innocence we believed to be a real French meal. Pop into the corner boulangerie – doesn’t that sound so romantic? – for that all-important, mythical baguette, add the American girl’s romantic vision of a raspberry tart or two and skip home for a cold repast. We could have practically been living in an artist’s garret for the storybook dream we were living. But for now, if only for a short while, we were in heaven in the Fifth Arrondissement.
Or breakfast! In Paris! Slip out into the street and follow the scent of freshly baked bread, that wonderful yeasty fragrance touched by just a hint of chocolate, to the source of magic where we would purchase two pains au chocolat and a slender Viennoise, a tender brioche shaped like a baguette but fooling no one, and hurry home so they could be eaten while still warm. We would throw open the windows to a gorgeous July morning and place a heavy pot on the one lone burner of the hot plate and heat up milk, stirring in a tablespoon or three of instant coffee, Nescafé, the Parisian’s morning elixir, and wait patiently for it to gently begin to steam. Our pains au chocolat would leave a trail of delicate crumbs across the table, spilling over onto laps, that we would then pick up with the tip of our index finger, not wanting to lose one single smidgen of the buttery flakes, as thin and fragile as glass. A morning ritual, as sacred as one’s first stroll through the Louvre or picnicking on a jambon beurre along the Seine.
And finally, that first restaurant meal. One’s first steak frites (for, of course, that’s what it has to be) sitting in a café, huddled around a table much too small for three what with the white ceramic plates, all of the cutlery and heavy, mismatched water glasses pressed together, jostling for space, on nubbly white paper placemats with une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plaît and the ubiquitous trio of sel-poivre-moutarde, three tiny jars clutched together in their metallic frame, balanced in the center of it all. Out on the sidewalk (for where else would you dine in Paris in July?), I chatter with my lunch companions, two Americans visiting for the summer that I met as only Americans do while in a foreign land: randomly, happily, outside standing in a line for some museum or other. Three steak frites and something to drink and we wait for our first meal while a table of chic young men at the next table stare at us, feeling absolutely no embarrassment or even mildly apologetic for the intrusion. Finally, our food comes and we dig in: fork in left hand, knife in right, cut off a slice of steak and, as if on cue, in perfection synchronization, we all three switchover fork to right hand, knife to left and scoop up that bit of meat on the fork and roaring laughter ensues and high fives and Voilà je t’avais dit! Américains! ring out from the young Frenchman at the next table! That dreaded cultural cutlery switchover gave us away!
Off we trot to Paris, confident in our few years of high school and college French, feeling armed to take on any market vender or restaurant waiter, any salesgirl or museum ticket seller. Off we fly to Paris convinced that we are not one of those Americans, the ones who can be spotted and labelled by the shoes we wear or that tell tale accent. We will not commit one faux pas from that long dictionary list of unmistakable mistakes young Americans make on their first trip to Paris. No, indeed! We are as chic as the chicest parisienne, our accent is right out of Gigi, more Leslie Caron than Stan Laurel! We are worldly yes indeed we are, comfortable anywhere but heavens! especially in Paris! Why, we may never have visited the City of Lights before but we feel as if we already belong.
And then we make that first trip to the market, all agog at the splendour stretching out before us: stalls spread out in front of us as far as the eye can see! And the boulangerie at the corner! And we stumble rather hesitantly up to the burly man on the other side of the ramshackle wooden stall spilling over with gorgeous summer fruit and….our mind goes blank. How does one ask for two peaches? A pound of cherries? The first true test after years of reciting “Je vais à la piscine. Avec qui? Avec Sylvie.” and «Je suis dans le salon. Je regarde la télévision.” And we stand, mouth open, sweating just a little under the hot sun and, holding up two fingers with one hand we point to the pile of peaches with the other and mumble “Deux.” We slink away from the stall and head to the bakery and, pointing at the gorgeous, golden croissants behind the glass, hold up two fingers and mumble “Deux!”
And don’t even talk about the café!
And twenty-five years later here I am still, none the worse for wear. My French is fairly fluent and although my trace of an accent belies my foreignness I finally feel rather at home. The market no longer scares me, the only Nescafé that finds itself in our home is strictly used for baking and I can deal with any table of ogling Frenchman with swiftness, ease and confidence. Years have passed and many of the memories of those first years have slipped from my mind, some willingly forgotten, others disappearing much to my chagrin. But one never really forgets that first meal, that first croissant or pain au chocolat, that first attempt at speaking French and realizing that we aren’t as clever as all of those years of French class made us believe. And I now have my own houseful of Frenchmen who tease me and mock my accent and my American ways but I can deal with them, too. And I do.
For all the drama, my family still prefers a good old-fashioned American dessert and a chocolate layer cake is at the top of the list. My son, Clem, of The World’s Best Tiramisu fame, offered me Jane Hornby’s What to Cook & How to Cook It two years ago – this book because it was the only cookbook in the bookstore that was in English that Christmas Eve. I bookmarked several recipes and I love looking through the book, but have yet to actually cook or bake anything from it, much to my son’s disappointment. A new round of nagging: “Mom, I offer you all these cookbooks and you never make anything from them!” had me finally selecting a few recipes, purchasing the ingredients and diving in.
First, a chocolate cake recipe…. which I decided to make in three smaller 7-inch layers instead of two larger 8-inch layers. I prepared the chocolate frosting and added layers of whipped cream and cherries between two of the layers, reserving the chocolate frosting for the top. I added a dash of Nielsen-Massey Coffee Extract and used Halen Môn Smoked Sea Salt in place of the regular flake sea salt in the recipe. Thank you to two fabulous Plate to Page sponsors! The cake did indeed come out with a truffle-like quality: dark and very dense, not light and fluffy. The barely-sweetened whipped cream was the perfect balance, adding a light creamy touch to the sweet chocolate of the cake. The frosting is light and frothy; overnight in the fridge it becomes fudgier.
Disclosure: for all intents and purposes, there are sweet, plump, tender sour cherries between the layers, nestled into the whipped cream. But my persnickety men, purists all, would not even consider eating a chocolate cake with cherries so I must wait until the next recipe to use the cherries. But just think how good this cake would be with cherries!
CHOCOLATE TRUFFLE LAYER CAKE
With Whipped Cream and Cherries and Chocolate Frosting
From What to Cook & How to Cook It by Jane Hornby
8 oz (225 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature, divided
11 oz (300 g) dark semi-sweet chocolate, 70% cocoa, divided
11 oz (300 g) golden caster/granulated sugar
4 large eggs
¼ pint (150 ml) buttermilk or mild natural yoghurt (I used part buttermilk, part 0% fat fromage frais)
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp coffee extract, optional
5 oz (150 g) self-rising flour
½ tsp flaky sea salt, smoked if possible
½ tsp baking powder
1 oz (25 g) cocoa powder
2 oz (50 g) icing sugar (powdered or confectioner’s sugar)
¼ pint (150 ml) double or heavy cream
Optional: ¼ pint (150 ml) chilled heavy whipping cream for between the layers, lightly sweetened with about 1 Tbs icing sugar. Layered with lots of jarred sour cherries or cherries simmered and softened in syrup.
Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C). Lightly butter the bottom and sides of either 3 x 7-inch (18 cm) or 2 x 8-inch (20 cm) baking tins then line the bottoms with a round of parchment paper.
Break 7 oz (200 g) of the chocolate into squares and place in a heatproof bowl; gently melt the chocolate either over a pan of just simmering water or in the microwave on high for 1 ½ minutes. The chocolate should be removed from the bain marie or from the microwave just before it is completely melted; stir vigorously with a spoon until the rest of the chocolate melts and it is smooth and creamy. Set aside.
Put 7 oz (200 g) of the softened butter in a large mixing bowl. Add the caster/granulated sugar, the eggs, buttermilk or yoghurt, vanilla, coffee extract if using, flour, salt and baking powder. Sift in the cocoa powder.
Using a handheld mixer, beat everything together until smooth and creamy, scraping down the sides as necessary. Don’t worry about having tiny lumps of butter, they will melt when the warm chocolate is folded in. Pour the melted chocolate in the bowl and beat again briefly just until everything is well blended and smooth.
Divide the batter between the pans and bake in the preheated oven for 25 – 30 minutes for the smaller pans, 30 – 35 minutes for the larger pans or until the center of the cake is set and just starts to pull away from the sides.
Remove the tins from the oven onto cooling racks and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. Run a thin-bladed sharp knife around the edges to loosen and turn out onto racks, invert upright and allow to cool completely before frosting.
This makes enough to frost both the top and middle layers if making a two-layer cake.
Place the remaining chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl and melt either over a pan of gently simmering water or in the microwave on high for 45 seconds to 1 minute. Stir until completely melted and smooth. Sift the icing sugar into the bowl and add the cream. Using the handheld mixer, beat briefly until well blended, smooth and creamy. Allow to cool and thicken before spreading on the cake or between the layers.