‘Pain perdu’ is ‘lost bread’ is French toast

16 January 2019

A sign of the times, my grand old age, or a big sister’s indefatigable propaganda, I’ve become much better at not throwing food away. No doubt the most common victim of under-consumption (or, rather, over-acquisition) in our house is bread. Pain perdu is my favorite recycling method.

‘Pain perdu‘ is French toast, though it isn’t specifically French. Its French name means ‘lost bread,’ though it may not always have been about saving stale bread.

Historical references date back to a Roman cookbook, Apicius de re Coquinariawhose exact date and origins are imprecise though probably from the third century: white bread soaked in milk and beaten egg, fried, and drizzled with honey. One of many aliter dulcia (‘other sweet dish’).

Later references to bread soaked, spiced, and cooked span countries and centuries, and has assumed many names. ‘Eggy toast’ and ‘German bread,’ ‘poor knights of Windsor’ in English, Arme Ritter in German. English references from the 17th century describe a bread soaked in wine rather than milk — the origin for its now most common epithet?

Pointing to the use of brioche and spices, both the Oxford Food Dictionary and Larousse Gastronomique suggest a dish too precious, historically, to be a recipe about stale bread. But is there necessarily a contradiction — even a royal kitchen will have had ways to reuse old bread.

My method is to cut the pieces of bread into small chunks, creating a Kaiserschmarrnstyle French toast.

‘Pain perdu’ recipe
Quantities for about 3 cups of cubed bread

About 3 cups of cubed stale bread
Whole milk (at least 2 cups)
3 eggs
2 Tbsps sugar
1/4 tsp cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg
Small handful of raisins
Apple or pear
Unsalted butter or clarified butter, which is less prone to burning
Maple syrup to serve. Also, optionally berries or a fruit compote.

Place the cubed bread in a large bowl and pour just enough milk over the bread for it to be absorbed. Let this sit, tossing occasionally, until the bread is moistened. This can take anywhere from about 5 to 20 minutes, depending on the type of bread and how hard it is (beware not to let the bread soak for too long, the pieces of bread should be wet through but not become crumbly and disintegrate).

In a smaller bowl, beat the eggs with a fork and add another 250 ml (1 cup) of milk, the sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and raisins. Beat well to combine and pour the egg/milk mixture over the bread. The bread should absorb the liquid with a bit left over. If it is too dry, add some milk. If it’s too ‘liquidy,’ don’t pour all of the liquid into the cooking pan (otherwise it won’t brown, it will become a soggy omelet).

Peel, core, and cut the fruit into quarters and then eights.

Heat a heavy cast-iron or non-stick skillet over medium to high heat. Melt a generous pat of butter in the skillet, and when hot, pour in the wet bread/egg mixture. Let it brown for a good few minutes before stirring. If using apple, add it now. Cook and stir until all the pieces of bread are golden (occasionally, if necessary, I add more butter).

Serve with maple syrup or accompanied with berries or a fruit compote.

Winter technicolor salad

10 January 2019

Winter bares its teeth, there’s suddenly more of a bite, the chill creeps to the bone and settles. Sometimes this calls for soup. Sometimes, citrus.

I go on — we all go on — about locality and seasonality, and it’s true that you’ll never find fresh a strawberry in our house in October (the children have had to learn the hard way). But, as anyone who studies French will learn (the hard way) no rule exists without exceptions. And so for these foods we do eat: lemons, avocados, oranges, and grapefruits, especially at this time of year.

Yesterday was such a day. A day of craving bits of sun imported from elsewhere. So I bought things and made lunch, which looked something like this.

Winter technicolor salad

The salad
Endive
Radicchio
Fennel
Avocado
Grapefruit
Blood orange
Walnuts (freshly shelled if possible)

The dressing

Walnut oil
Olive oil
Dark, aged balsamic vinegar
Lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Optional additions to make it into lunch

Smoked trout or mackerel / grilled chicken / feta

Wash the salads and cut into shards or strips, however strikes your fancy. Slice the fennel as thinly as possible, preferably.

Peel and cut the avocado into cubes or spears. Peel the grapefruit and blood orange and cut into chunks.

To make the salad more of a meal, add some cheese or bits of meat. I used smoked mackerel, which happened to be in the fridge, but I suspect smoked trout would be even better. Grilled strips of chicken would definitely be good, or a crumble of feta.

I make the dressing directly over the salad: a thin drizzle of walnut oil, slightly heavier  ribbon of olive oil, a few drops of thick, aged balsamic vinegar, and a few generous squeezes of lemon juice. Salt and pepper.

Elisenlebkuchen

20 December 2018

For years, we had Lebkuchen shipped from Nuremberg to New York in a big, beautifully decorated silver box. Thomas chose that particular company because they had the best Elisenlebkuchen (the flourless kind), and because he and the owner’s children had been childhood friends. They were neighbors, went to the same school, and — I learn just as I  write this, as I ask Thomas and he reminisces — did some pretty foolish things together in their youth. Fraunholz is a family business in the fourth generation, now run by the younger brother.

Ordering them was, every year, in more ways than one, a time-warp experience. In a bite, the cookies propelled the dark, gnarly, sparkly streets of the medieval German city onto our Christmas plate. And, in an age of codes and passwords and multiple proofs of identity, here was a company that took an online order, shipped their wares halfway around the world, and sent a bill to be paid upon receipt. This in itself seemed reason enough to continue the tradition. That, and the added bonus of the ‘Dominosteine’!

I’d like to say that we still receive those big silver boxes every year — but no. After years of hemming and hawing and meaning to and not doing, I have finally started making my own. I thought it would take decades to find and refine the ideal recipe, with much trial and error, but, magically, all the trying and testing has already been done and an impeccable recipe exists! Luisa Weiss’s fantastic Classic German Baking is worth its weight in Lebkuchen, for that recipe alone (though there are many, many more). They are, as Thomas somewhat reluctantly admits, pretty perfect.

The one thing I have changed is the shape. There are, in my opinion, a few reasons to bake Lebkuchen as sheets rather than individual cookies: It is how I discovered them to be sold on the Christmas market in Nuremberg; it makes them so much easier and less fiddly to prepare for baking, and then to glaze; and the absence of individual edges during baking leaves more softness and moistness throughout.

Happy baking and a very merry Christmas!

Elisenlebkuchen from Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss
Find the original recipe here

5 eggs
300g (1 1/2 cups) granulated sugar (I reduced the sugar from the original which called for 350g — or 1 3/4 cup)
200g (7 oz) almond paste¹ (see recipe footnote below)
3 Tbsps Lebkuchen spice² (see recipe footnote below)
1/4 tsp salt
Grated peel of 1 untreated lemon
100g (2/3 cup) candied citron peel, finely chopped
100g (2/3 cup) candied orange peel, finely chopped
200g (2 cups) hazelnuts, toasted, skinned, and ground
200g (2 cups) ground almonds
100g (2/3 cup) blanched almonds, finely chopped
Wafer sheets

For decoration (optional)
Blanched almonds, split lengthwise
100g (13 Tbsps) confectioner’s sugar
60ml (1/4 cup) water

Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F) and line one 30cm x 36cm (12″ x 14″) roasting tray with parchment paper.

Place the eggs and sugar in a large bowl. Using the large holes of a box grater, grate the almond paste into the eggs and sugar. Whisk briskly for several minutes until the mixture becomes light and frothy. Add the Lebkuchen spice, salt, grated lemon peel, candied citron and orange peels, and all the ground and chopped nuts. Mix well until combined.

Place the wafer sheets onto the baking tray covered with parchment paper, making sure to cover all the way to the edges (if necessary cut the wafers into a patchwork to reach the sides). Scrape out the Lebkuchen dough onto the wafer sheets and spread out with a spatula until smooth and even. If using, place the blanched split almonds, smooth side up, in a pattern at regular intervals onto the dough — they should be spaced withe the view of cutting a lozenge-shaped Lebkuchen around each almond later.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until the Lebkuchen tray is puffed and golden.

Meanwhile, to make the glaze, place the confectioner’s sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat and boil down for a few minutes, until the glaze has thickened (stir or swirl the pan occasionally as it will bubble furiously).

As soon as the lebkuchen are out of the oven, glaze generously with a brush, making sure to reach every nook and cranny. Let cool completely before cutting the tray into individual Lebkuchen lozenges. Store in a tin box lined with parchment paper between each layer for up to 4 months.

¹ Almond paste [Marzipanrohmasse]

220g (1 1/2 cups) raw (or blanched) almonds
225g (1 cup and 2 Tbsps) granulated sugar
2 tsps almond extract
1 tsp rum
2 to 4 tsps water
Equipment: food processor

To blanch the almonds (unless using ones that are already blanched), soak them for a few minutes in bowl of boiling water until the peels can easily be squeezed off. Push the skin off each almond and lay them on a clean kitchen towel to dry.

In a food processor, blitz the sugar until powdery. Add the blanched almonds and process until a paste starts to form. This will take a while. Stop the motor occasionally and stir, and take care not to let your food processor overheat (mine did and shut off completely, which thankfully was just a failsafe, and I was able to resume grinding nuts the next morning after the machine had cooled completely).

Add the almond extract and the rum and continue to process, stopping and stirring every so often. Add a teaspoon of water at a time (probably somewhere between 2 and 4 tsps) and continue to process until the paste becomes completely smooth. Scrape the finished paste out of the machine and shape it into a brick, then store it in the refrigetator. The paste will keep for several weeks.

² Lebkuchen spice mix

For a most fragrant mix, the spices (except the ginger) can be freshly ground
30g (5 Tbsps) ground cinnamon
1 1/2 Tbsps ground cloves
1 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground mace
3/4 tsp ground aniseed

Stir all the spices together and store in an airtight glass container away from the light. The spice mix will keep for a few months.

The Nettle & Quince Christmas baking page

2 December 2018

It’s the first Sunday of Advent, the time to pause, light a candle, and start baking!

I have created a Nettle & Quince Christmas baking page, where all the Stollen, cookies, and confections can be found.

You can access it by clicking HERE.

A direct link is also always available on the homepage on the right just below ‘Pages.’

Edible gifts | Christine Ferber’s Christmas jam

29 November 2018

In her book Mes Confitures, Christine Ferber writes that her Christmas jam pays tribute to the tradition of berawecka, a fruit bread traditional in Alsace and neighboring German speaking countries during the holidays. It gives pride of place to the dried pears of the region and includes a plethora of other dried and candied fruits, nuts, and spices.

Indeed, this jam has no fewer than 21 ingredients! A fact that would ordinarily have me fleeing it like the plague. But in some instances, particularly around Christmas, my disposition mellows and I might find myself uncharacteristically drawn to somewhat tedious, day-long cooking challenges.

The reward, of course, is an unusual gift that unfurls in every bite, layer after layer, one fragrance after another, and which will hopefully, in an explosion of taste, convey all the affection (and time!) folded lovingly into each little jar.

Christine Ferber’s Christmas jam
Warning: this jam not only has 21 ingredients, it also takes 2 days to make!

1.7 kg quinces
1.7 kg (170 cl) water
1 kg caster sugar
200 g dried pears, very finely sliced
200 g dried figs
100 g dates
100 g prunes
200 g dried apricots
100 g raisins
50 g candied lemon peel
50 g candied orange peel
50 g candied angelica, optional (I wasn’t able to find angelica and I like to think it did not affect the end result too much)
Juice from 1 untreated orange
3-4 pinches finely grated zest from an untreated orange
Juice from 2 untreated lemons
3-4 pinches finely grated zest from an untreated lemon
Pinch ground cinnamon
Pinch ground cardamon
5 g aniseed
150 g shelled walnuts
150 g blanched almonds

Wipe the quinces to remove all fuzz. Rince the fruit with water, remove the stalk and flower, and cut into quarters (do not peel or core the quince).

Place the quince quarters into a large (jam) pan and cover with 1.7 kg (170 cl) water.

Bring to a boil and simmer gently for an hour, stirring the quince around occasionally. Strain through a fine mesh sieve to gather 1.3 kg of juice.

Slice the dried pears very thinly and let them soak in the quince juice overnight.

The next day, pit and cut all the dried fruit as thinly as possible: figs, dates, prunes, and apricots. Finely dice the candied lemon and orange peel. Finely cut the angelica if using. Chop the walnuts and almonds.

Pour the quince juice and marinated pears back into the jam pan (or large heavy-bottomed saucepan). Add the sugar, and all the dried fruits (figs, dates, prunes, apricots, raisins), candied fruits (lemon and orange and angelica), citrus juices and zests, and spices.

Bring the jam to a boil, stirring continuously. Skim any foam that comes to the surface. Leave at a lively boil for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring continuously and skimming if necessary. **Do not overcook! 5 to 10 minutes is sufficient. My batch was a bit too thick, I will be wary next time.** Add the walnuts and almonds and cook for another 5 minutes. Check that the jam is setting (place a spoonful of juice in the fridge and, once cold, check that the juice has ‘gelled’).

Sterilize the jars for 5 minutes in a pan of boiling water. Fill the jars immediately and seal tightly.


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