Our families, our childhoods, our upbringings were as different as night and day. He grew up in an old-fashioned home in the working class suburbs of Paris, an apartment filled with too much dark, heavy, worn furniture in too small of a space. Narrow corridors, sharp corners, a string of small rooms, cumbersome tables, sofas, desks in faded pinks and scuffed browns that left little room to maneuver, nowhere to play for four children, were a reflection of a family weighed down by dark traditions and a heavy past. Papa and Maman worked downstairs in their tiny corner grocery, a blue-collar working family with rigid hours and conventions. Lunch was a hot meal, a long-simmered ragout, roasted chicken, one-pot dishes that filled and warmed, setting one up for the rest of the day. Dinner was a ritual as was that noontime hot, hearty meal; leftover meat eaten cold out of the refrigerator, watery poor man’s soup of carrots and leeks, a platter of cheeses, chunks cut off and placed on wedges of country loaf. Food was adamantly home cooked, every dish, every meal. Prepackaged and frozen had not made it to France, was unknown to the average French home cook. Canned was limited to vegetables yet why make canned when fresh was cheaper and within your reach and time no limitation? Convenience food was for the inconvenienced, not a good French housewife with two able hands and four able children. And traditions and a culture that looked down on anything less than good, homey, hearty old-fashioned food. Food was sustenance, maintenance and ritual.
No yard, few toys, my future husband spent his time at home – when not at boarding school – reading, writing and helping in the shop, making up games with his sisters and cooking, once out of familial duty, then out of pleasure, an oddity for a teen son. Family vacations were few and far between, children bundled into the back of the delivery truck and trundled off to the seaside to romp in chilly ocean water and play in damp sand. School was rigid, religious and oppressive, yet it gave him the chance to test his creativity and artistic entrepreneurial spirit by organizing a theater group and creating an underground newspaper. Summers, when he was old enough, had him chasing his freedom, confident, smart young man that he had grown to be; off he flew to working summers at community construction sites (this was France, so think châteaux) or biking across France or thumbing his way across Europe.
Snacks were scheduled as sharply as mealtimes, goûters at 10 a.m. and quatre-heures at 4 were glasses of milk or juice, a demi-tasse of sweet, black coffee and cookies, madeleines or pound cake, simple, plain, vanilla snacks served up to the gathered family around the table, a scheduled break, the time in the middle of the morning or afternoon, solidly marked halfway point between two meals, for a pause, down time. Then back to work.
My family was stoutly and firmly modern, smack dab, front and center in the 20th Century. Dad worked for NASA, working towards putting man on the moon, mom was a working mother before working mother was a common notion. Our Florida home was bright and airy, windows thrown open to the fresh air, lots of room between sparse furniture for four children to play. Our vast yard was always filled with children, running, playing tag and hopscotch and ball, noisy and rambunctious. Breakfast and lunches were catch-as-catch-can, bowls of cereal, sandwiches thrown together by tiny hands, chips and freetos piled high on paper plates, eaten in the kitchen or outside or in front of the television.
Dinnertime was indeed a ritual, on the table at 6:00 sharp every evening as dad walked in through the door and silence was demanded as the sound of Walter Cronkite droned on in the distance, background noise, dinner music. Meals would come from a box or a can as often as homemade; my own mother was never enthralled with the art and act of cooking and unashamedly reveled in the convenience of convenience foods, made for women such as she. Mom just needed to feed one husband and her brood. On weekends, dad often took over, firing up the grill and tossing on steaks or burgers or heating up the griddle for pancakes. He baked cakes whenever he had the time, filling our home with snacks at the ready, cakes and pies and pudding among the bags of candy, boxes of cookies and whatever else young kids – or adult sweet tooth’s – could crave.
School was freedom, even though the rules having to do with grades and behavior strict. We biked there and biked back until high school when we were allowed to drive the folks’ car. Studies were creative, imaginative, fun. Summers meant the whole family piling into the station wagon and driving all day, all night up to stay with relatives for two weeks, let loose among the cousins, freedom in the streets, parks and The City when we were teens. We ate to our hearts’ content, barbecues and cookouts, delis and picnics, summer informality.
Snacktime was no ritual in our humble home. Rather it was an act of instinct, of constant lust, of sustenance as much psychological and bodily. Grab a book, grab a handful of cookies; jump on the bike, pop open a chocolate drink; flip on the television, settle in with a slice of pie or bowl of ice cream. No traditions to follow, no prescribed schedule nor imposed conventions. Anything and everything was allowed, wherever, whenever, our good judgment and self-control trusted. Home baked, bagged, packaged and industrial, new-fangled, trendy, advertised on tv, it was all at our fingertips.
Bring these two childhoods, these two traditions and these two diverse cultures together and raise two sons and snacktime becomes caught somewhere between the two continents. Their eating habits – along with their inclinations, attitudes, expectations and way of living - have been formed by French traditions and American freedom, by French structure and formality and American self-discipline and informality. My own easygoingness and gluttony towards sweets and snacks really has little effect on the boys except as it concerns the occasional chips-or-cake for a meal. They snack only when they are hungry and rarely out of the established time for goûter. Individually, each has his own taste, the desserts that turn him on, but as they grow older, their differences and the field narrow and, oddly enough, they are losing any remnant, any sign of a sweet tooth. They occasionally ask me to bake but almost uniformly request baked goods that are not so sweet, not so creamy, not so fancy. Back to basics.
So when I find that when I get it just right, hit the nail on the head… or rather la tête… all three of my Frenchmen, mes français, gobble it up, clean the plate and make this American very well pleased indeed. A pat on the back and a cultural job well done.
Every few days Clem shows up at the apartment unannounced and asks, “Did you make donuts? Where are the donuts?” He knows that I brought home pans for baked donuts from my recent trip to the States and he wants donuts. These little bite-sized chocolate cinnamon donuts are simple treats indeed yet with the taste and texture more of little bitty cupcakes than donuts, moist, tender and chocolaty without being overly sweet… and much easier and more fun to eat, just popped one by one into the mouth. These mini bite chocolate cinnamon donuts are the perfect snack, dusted liberally with powdered sugar, served with a glass of milk or a cup of coffee or tea.
BAKED CHOCOLATE (or vanilla) MINI DONUT BITES
I bought two pans for baked donuts while in the States, one for regular-sized and one for mini-donuts; I much prefer baking than frying donuts both for more control (I tend to burn things I deep fry) and simply to have a cakier and less fatty snack. I started roughly, very roughly, with the recipe from Wilton that came with the pan (the recipe itself did not work very well). The resulting mini-donuts – each one just a bite – is barely sweet, quite chewy and incredibly addictive.
Makes approximately 24 mini donut bites
1 cup cake flour, spooned into the cup and leveled (see *note below for vanilla donuts)
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder (see *note below for vanilla donuts)
½ cup granulated sugar
1 ¼ tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp salt
½ cup buttermilk + more buttermilk or milk as needed, 2 – 3 Tbs
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 ½ Tbs unsalted butter, melted
Powdered/icing/confectioner's sugar for dusting
* For Vanilla Donuts, replace the ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder with ¼ cup more cake flour. Add ¼ tsp vanilla extract to the batter keeping or omitting the cinnamon as desired. These can be brushed in melted butter and tossed in cinnamon-sugar.
Preheat the oven to 425°F (215° - 220° C) and lightly grease – or spray with nonstick cooking spray - the indentations of the mini donut pans.
Sift together the flour, cocoa power, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and sugar into a medium to large mixing bowl; whisk or stir to blend.
Add the ½ cup buttermilk, the beaten egg and the melted butter and stir or whisk until blended, adding more buttermilk or milk one tablespoon at a time until all of the dry ingredients are moistened and smooth and the batter is thick but pourable.
Fill each donut cup ½ full with the batter. Bake in the preheated oven for 6 – 8 minutes or just until set, puffed and the donuts spring back when lightly pressed. They should begin to pull away from the sides of the cups.
Remove the donut pan from the oven and let cool on a rack before popping the mini donuts out of the pan. When completely cool, roll or dust generously with powdered sugar or drizzle with glaze.