Off The Shelf: A Year in Provence

When I read the first sentence of A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, I knew I would love the rest of the book: “The year began with lunch.” What better way for a book about food, Provence, and life in general to begin!

If you love food and travel and have never read Peter Mayle, I suggest you begin! His first book, A Year in Provence, is my favorite. It chronicles a year in his life as he and his wife settle as foreigners into a house in the depths of the Provencal region of France.

Mayle gives funny little anecdotes of what he finds life to really be like living in a place where most people only go for a week’s holiday. He gives special attention to describing the food he discovers and eats throughout the year. Let me give you an excerpt from his record of that first day of the year:

“…when we heard that over in the village of Lacoste, a few miles away, the proprietor of Le Simiane was offering a six-course lunch with pink champagne to his amiable clientele, it seemed like a much more cheerful way to start the next twelve months.

By 12:30 the little stone-walled restaurant was full. There were some serious stomachs to be seen — entire families with the embonpoint that comes from spending two or three diligent hours every day at the table, eyes down and conversation postponed in the observance of France’s favorite ritual. The proprietor of the restaurant, a man who had somehow perfected the art of hovering despite his size…quivered with enthusiasm as he rhapsodized over the menu: foie gras, lobster mousse, beef en croute, salads dressed in virgin oil, hand-picked cheeses, desserts of a miraculous lightness, digestifs. It was a gastronomic aria which he performed at each table, kissing the tips of his fingers so often that he must have blistered his lips.”

A Year in Provence is not a recipe book, it’s a food memoir. Needing a recipe for this post, I began looking for something quintessential Provence. And then I realized what the 6th of January is: La Fete des Rois or “The Celebration of the Kings” (i.e. Epiphany). In Provence, and all of France, a special dessert called a “King’s Cake” will be made (or bought) and served throughout the land in honor of the kings who visited Christ after his birth. It seemed most appropriate.

I had my doubts about how this would taste, having never seen, nor heard, about this cake before. I was pleasantly surprised, along with the others at my table. The feathery light pastry combined with the just-sweet-enough, soft almond filling makes for an amazing dessert. We all loved it and I already have plans to make it again before the month is out.

KINGS’ CAKE
(adapted from a recipe found on recipezaar.com)

1 package puff pastry sheets, thawed (my package had 2 sheets)
1/2 c. butter
2/3 c. sugar
1 c. almond meal or flour (I had to grind raw almonds in my heavy-duty blender)
1/2 tsp. almond extract
2 eggs
1/4 c. flour

1 egg, beaten with 1 Tbsp. water for glaze

Make the frangipane: cream the butter and sugar. Mix in the almond flour and almond extract. Add the eggs one at a time, to gradually incorporate them. Fold in the flour.

Cut a circle the size of your baking pan from one sheet of puff pastry. Place in a 9-inch tart pan (I used my 10-inch springform pan). Spread the frangipane mixture over the top, not quite reaching to the edges. Brush egg lightly around the perimeter so top layer of pastry will adhere to bottom layer. If you want to be authentic, you will at this point hide a bean somewhere in the frangipane to bring “good luck” to the finder. (I was too afraid of dental bills to do that.)

Cut a second circle of pastry. Using a knife, cut a design in the top, or at least make vent holes. Place the pastry over the frangipane and press edges to seal. Brush the cake with egg.

Bake at 350 for 30 minutes (mine took about 42 minutes) until the pastry is golden. Allow to cool.

Serves 12.

Holiday Feast: Christmas Dinner

Christmas dinner is for many the major food attraction of the entire holiday season. Every family has their own tradition — some may prefer a day of finger foods and snacks, while others go all out and prepare a second Thanksgiving feast. The important thing is choosing a menu that is best for your family and your circumstances. We thought we’d each share some of what is traditional in our families.

In my family (Heather), Christmas dinner is a big event. Its menu is planned for weeks ahead and thought is given to setting the table with  festive tablecloth, napkins and a centerpiece. It is not set in stone what our menu will be. Creative reign is given to the host to decide if she would like to cook a turkey, ham, or some other form of meat. Why all the fuss? Our family loves sitting around the table sharing good food, enjoying lovely surroundings and one another’s company.

Last year I decided to make a stuffed pork loin for Christmas dinner. It was not difficult and provided a stunning centerpiece to the Christmas dinner. This year I’m thinking ham, accompanied by a potato/parsnip gratin (recipe yet to be created), spinach salad with grapefruit and maybe spiced pepitas, rolls, savory roasted sweet potatoes (if I have oven room), and chiffonade of Brussel sprouts. Dessert will be cookies, eggnog and Christmas pudding (a simple recipe will appear on Dec. 24).

STUFFED PORK LOIN
(Heather)

1 boneless half roast pork loin (mine weighed about 5 pounds)

Stuffing:
4 Tbsp. butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 apple, peeled and finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh sage, chopped (or 1 tsp. dried)
1 Tbsp. fresh rosemary, chopped (or 1 tsp. dried)
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme, chopped (or 1 tsp. dried)
salt & pepper
3 c. fresh white bread cubes (1/4-inch cubes)
1/8 c. dried cranberries
1/2 c. water or broth

Glaze:
apricot jam
fresh rosemary, sage, thyme (about 1 Tbsp. each or 1 tsp. dried)

Gravy:
pan drippings
1/4 c. port or red wine (use water or apple juice as a substitute)
1/2 c. chicken broth
2 Tbsp. apricot jam (or apple jelly)
2 tsp. cornstarch

Melt butter in a saute pan and tip in onions and celery. Cook until onions are translucent. Add apple and cook until apple is beginning to go soft.

Meanwhile, cube bread and place in a large bowl. Add dried cranberries and chopped herbs. Mix in cooked apple and onion mixture and pour on enough broth to make the mixture come together.

Lay the pork loin on a cutting board and carefully begin cutting the loin in a spiral so that it unfolds to be flat.

Place kitchen twine at intervals underneath the pork loin and carefully pat on the stuffing.

Roll the pork loin up slowly, stuffing bits of bread back in as it falls out. Enlist the help of someone close by to help tie the twine as tightly as possible.

Place the pork loin in a roasting pan with the knots of the twine underneath. You can either cover and refrigerate up to one day, or bake the roast immediately.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350F. Spread apricot jam on top of the pork loin and sprinkle with chopped herbs.

Roast uncovered in the 350F oven until instant read thermometer reads 160F (mine took about 2 hours). Remove the roast from the oven, transfer to a cutting board and cover with foil to keep warm while it rests.

Meanwhile, mix the pan drippings with the port, chicken broth and apricot jam. Bring to a boil. Mix the cornstarch with 1/4 cup water and add to the gravy. Season with salt and pepper. Cook until thickened and keep warm until ready to serve.

Slice the pork roast and lay on a platter, pouring the gravy over top or serving alongside.

Christmas dinner for my family (Alaina) can be anything from lasagna or soup to ham or beef. Traditionally, my grandparents have made ham and I’ll admit that is probably my favorite. I like to buy the spiral cut, semi-boneless, half ham. It’s usually fully cooked and I just heat it in the oven for a couple of hours depending on the size.

HONEY MUSTARD HAM GLAZE
(Alaina) 

1/4 c. honey
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. dijon mustard
2 Tb. prepared yellow mustard

Combine all ingredients in a small sauce pan and heat. Brush glaze over the entire ham about 30 minutes before it is finished in the oven. Carve & enjoy!

Finding the perfect side dishes can be a challenge. Here are two side dishes that we really enjoy with ham! The first is a twice baked potato recipe that is a beautiful presentation and tastes so wonderful!

TWO-TONE TWICE BAKED POTATOES
(this is a recipe my Mom first made – Alaina)

4 lg baking potatoes (8 servings)
vegetable oil
2 Tb.butter
½ c. sour cream
¼ c. milk
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
1 Tb. Chives (opt.)

Rub potatoes with oil and place in baking pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 1 hour or until tender. Cool completely. Cut in half lengthwise. Scoop out pulp leaving ¼ in. shell; set shells aside.

In mixing bowl combine pulp, butter, sour cream, & milk; beat until creamy. Stir in salt, pepper, and 1 Tb. Chives. Spoon or pipe filling into half of each prepared shell.

SWEET POTATO FILLING
4 medium sweet potatoes
¼ c. sour cream or plain yogurt
2 Tb. Butter
2 Tb. Brown sugar
½ tsp. nutmeg
¼ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. salt

Bake or peel and boil sweet potatoes until tender. Put pulp in large bowl and add sour cream, butter, brown sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt. Whip until creamy and smooth. Pipe sweet potato in the other half of the prepared potato shells.

Return potatoes to baking pan – bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes or until lightly browned.

*These can be made ahead and refrigerated overnight or frozen for up to a couple of months.*

THREE CHEESE SPINACH BAKE
(adapted from Taste of Home – Alaina)

1 c. flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 c. milk
1/4 c. butter, melted
1/2 med. onion, finely diced
2 Tb. Parmesan cheese
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 package (10 oz.) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1 c. monterey jack cheese, shredded
1 c. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

In a lg. bowl, whisk the flour, eggs, milk, butter, onion, Parmesan, garlic, salt and cayenne until combined. Fold in spinach and other cheese. Transfer to a greased 1 1/2 qt. dish.

Bake, uncovered at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes of until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings.

The final recipe is for an appetizer. I came up with this because it combined flavors that I love.

CHERRY ALMOND BRIE EN CROUTE
(Alaina)

1 sheet puff pastry, thawed
1 20 oz. wheel of brie
1/2 c. cherry jam
1/4 c. slivered almonds, toasted
1 egg, beaten

Roll out the puff pastry into a square (about 12×12 or a little smaller). Cut the wheel of brie horizontally. Place half of the brie rind side down on the puff pastry. Top with cherry jam, sprinkle with the almonds.

Place the other half of the brie on top (cut side down). Pull the puff pastry up around the brie. Brush the top with the beaten egg.

Bake at 400 degrees for about 20-30 minutes or until puff pastry is golden and cheese is soft. Serve with crackers.