Monday, June 16, 2014

Dining Out in the South of France

The best part of being in France is the food. Whether you go grocery shopping for food or you dine out, pretty much everything is expensive compared to North America. A few things are cheaper, like wine, cheese, and yogurt. So at least the important things are cheaper! :) But the food is delicious. Expensive and small in size, but delicious.

Dining out is not just about getting fed. Dining out is an event. Visitors who really want to taste French food need to dine out for the full French culinary experience. Personally, I like to dress up a bit for the occasion and I like to spend the extra time to enjoy my food. I not only drink wine with my meal but I also usually order an aperitif to drink while I wait for my first course. Drinking at a restaurant in France is actually more affordable than in North America. And an alcoholic drink like a Kir is even cheaper than a soda like Coke. That's just another reason to drink up, right? :) I pretty much never order drinks at restaurants back home.

Expect to pay extra for your food in France. You may even leave a bit hungry too because they serve in French sizes, not North American sizes. What you pay for is not only great food, but also beautiful presentations, and exceptional service. Heck, even the chef comes out to mingle with you while you eat. At one of the small restaurants we visited, I noticed there were maybe five servers on duty. That's impressive for a restaurant with only six or seven tables. If it were in North America, there would have been one or two servers. Seriously.

A few years ago, I started to somewhat obsess about reviews and ratings. Before I would go anywhere or buy anything important, I would do research first. Now, we went to France a lot but I refused to believe that there were no good restaurants in the areas that we frequently visited. There were plenty of course but no one bothered to find them. This past trip, I did some quick research and we actually got to enjoy some really good food. One, my Parents-in-law took us to, which totally surprised me. It was Tables et Comptoir in Toulon. It was very expensive but it was good. We usually do go to expensive places but at least this time it was good.

Tables et Comptoir.

We went to Café du Midi in Verdon on one of our day trips and that was a pleasant surprise too. It was my Parents-in-law's choice again. What the heck was going on?! It wasn't as upscale as Tables et Comptoir but for casual dining, it was great. We had a view of the lake and the Chef was out mingling with everyone. That, I absolutely loved. He spoke English to me and my 5 year old and when we left, he gave my 5 year old extra nougat and cookies. Spoiled.

5 year old's meal.

I particularly liked our restaurant in Nice. This one I found online. We went to Café de Sejour and it was everything I expected it to be. The owner spoke to us a lot and the staff was great. The restaurant appeared very modern and clean but then the owner pointed out a framed picture of her little boy on the shelf, next to where we were sitting. Cute. Everything we ordered was delicious. When we declined on dessert for my 5 year old, the owner insisted on bringing him a small ice cream free of charge. When we left, we were given fresh macarons. My mother-in-law even asked for their business card. The Parents-in-law are happy. Yes!

Artichoke salad.

Pistachio crème brûlée. Top with raspberry sorbet. So good!

5 year old's free ice cream.

For causal dining in Toulon, we went to L’aparte with some friends. It was inexpensive and quite good for lunch. It was in a good location inside the town by a lot of other restaurants and shops. They served healthy meals, but their bread wasn't great. It's easy to get good bread so that was a bit disappointing.

Quiche on a biscuit.

I would recommend all the restaurants above. The food was great but what really stood out to me was the service. Good service is something we definitely lack in North America. The French take pride is serving great food. Asian restaurants in particularly are known for bad service. It's just something we tolerate here. With the right restaurant, dining out in France can be extremely satisfying and quite the memorable event. Bon appétit!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Easy Painted Eiffel Tower Cookies

A couple of weeks ago, we came back from France. We spent most of our time in the south but we were able to enjoy three days in Paris before coming home. A couple of months ago, I bought an Eiffel Tower cookie cutter from Sur La Table. At the time, I figured it was the perfect cookie to make for when I would blog about our return from France. So here I am to do just that.

My 5 year old ran up to the tower's 2nd floor in 10 minutes! Wow.

There are so many versions of Eiffel Tower cookies out there but I wanted something painted with a vintage appearance. Cookies like this totally scream retro and old Europe to me. Plus, I was feeling extremely lazy and I just couldn't be bothered with piping any kind of delicate detailed design. Right?! In the end, I think they turned out alright. Painting is so much faster than piping. And you always end up using less food coloring, which is nice.

To make the cookies more interesting, I decided to create different backgrounds for them. Instead of a single color, I created an ombre effect out of colors like blue for some and green for others. Then I painted Eiffel Towers over top in sketch fashion so they didn't look so clean. I think you get the idea :) If you're looking for a quick and easy way to decorate your Eiffel Tower cookies, this would be it. Now remember, a little paint goes a long way. Have some fun and good luck!

Close up of the night time Eiffel Tower with it's glittering lights.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Rich Green Tea Ice Cream

Green tea ice cream. (Taken with the iPad since my camera was out of battery.)

I finally did it. I got myself an ice cream maker. Now, let the weight gain begin. Seriously.

Ever since we got ourselves a bigger kitchen, we have slowly been filling it up with new toys. It's been great but now we are definitely running out of room. Our kitchen toys are now creeping into our pantry :( Luckily, I don't just hoard kitchen toys and leave them to collect dust. I actually make use of everything so I don't feel THAT bad.

Making ice cream is actually super easy. The machine itself is pretty simple. It's basically a frozen bowl that turns and stirs your prepared cream until it expands into a fluffy soft state. You can do this yourself without a machine by constantly stirring and freezing your prepared cream and repeating until it resembles ice cream. You add air to it every time you stir. But that would be so much work! For just $50 or so, you can just buy yourself an ice cream machine to do all that hard labor :) It's like magic in just 20 minutes.

I have already made several different kinds of ice cream. The first recipe I tried was a blood orange flavor. It was really really good. However, my favorite so far was the pistachio ice cream I made for when my family came over a month ago. It reminded me of the Bertillon ice cream I used to have in Paris. I also made a couple vegan flavors with much success such as peanut butter soy with jelly and coconut chai tea using cashews. So far I have only encountered one recipe that flopped. It was a butter pecan coconut vegan ice cream. The recipe was a nice soft serve but when I froze it, it froze like a popsicle. Lol. It's all good though because I got to learn a few things along the way, especially when it comes to making ice cream vegan.

Two of my favorite ice cream flavors happen to be greenish in color. Well, sort of. Pistachio and green tea. Neither of them are vegan. Ahem. Sorry. My husband and I used to drive up to Deep Cove in North Vancouver just to walk along the water and have green tea ice cream. This was before we knew there was a nice hike just steps away and other great food nearby. Oops. Deep Cove is such a beautiful place. Sigh. I miss going there. When I made my first batch of green tea ice cream at home, the taste of green tea ice cream in Deep Cove was the goal I had in mind. I like my green tea ice cream to have a strong green tea presence and only slightly sweetened. If you like that too, maybe the following recipe is for you.

Rich Green Tea Ice Cream
(Adapted from Japanese Cooking 101)

1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup + 1 tbsp sugar
pinch of salt
2 tbsp green tea powder
2 cup heavy cream
4-5 large egg yolks

In a bowl, mix the green tea powder, heavy cream and egg yolks until most of the green tea powder is dissolved. Heat the milk, sugar, and salt over low heat in a pot until everything is dissolved. Slowly pour the hot milk over the green tea mixture and stir. Pour this back into the pot and heat on low. Stir and try to dissolve and break up the remaining clumps of green tea while the cream is heating. Stop when the cream thickens to the point that it would coat the back of your spoon.  If you go too far, the yolks in the cream may scramble. If this happens, you can save your cream by blending the heck out of it with a Vitamix or something similar until it becomes a smooth cream again ;)

Let the mixture cool and then refrigerate for a few hours. Pour mixture into your ice cream machine and follow the instructions on your machine. Scoop ice cream into a container and freeze it for a couple of hours before serving it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Explosive Chocolate Chip Cookies

Have you ever bought chocolate you didn't like? First of all, why on Earth would you buy chocolate for yourself that you didn't like? I'm sure you had your reasons but then changed your mind :) I can't be the only one that does this. Am I?

Recently, I bought a bag of individually wrapped chocolate squares for cupcake decorations. After hanging onto the bag for a month or so, I concluded I had no reason to make cupcakes any time soon so I decided to open the bag and start eating the chocolates. But I really didn't like them much. Sadly for me, I bought it at Costco so it was a really big bag of disappointment :( I'm sure other people like them but after being spoiled by quality Amedei chocolate and constantly snacking on Lindt chocolates, I just couldn't make myself eat the cheap Hershey's chocolates. The more I thought about them, the more I didn't want them. I even told my husband to take them all to his work and just give them out. Then, I had an idea.

What the heck can I do with chocolates I don't like to eat? Throw them in chocolate chip cookies, of course! Duh. I did this before when we had too much Halloween candy. Once, I even broke up pieces of Halloween candy to decorate the outside of a cake. Chocolates of any sort would work great inside a chocolate chip cookie. But seriously, pretty much anything will taste great inside of a chocolate chip cookie, right? :)

With regular chocolate squares.

Instead of breaking the cute chocolate squares and throwing the pieces into the cookie dough, I decided to just sandwich the thing. As lazy as it sounds, I actually thought it would turn out pretty cool. In fact, the cookie looked awesome! I used to think chocolate chip cookies were very boring looking but they really don't have to be.

Because each chocolate square added more chocolate to each cookie, I just reduced the amount of chocolate chips I used in the original recipe. You can use any chocolate chip recipe you want for this. The recipe I used was for my New York Times chocolate chip cookie. It's pretty simple really. Take some cookie dough and cover part of the chocolate square on top and on the bottom. Push down slightly. Place them on a cookie sheet with enough room to spread. Bake, then let them cool completely before removing them or they will fall apart.

Don't they look cool? I actually made them a couple of times now. The first time, I just used regular chocolate squares. The second time, I used flavored chocolate squares and they tasted great too. Since I didn't break them up, the flavors didn't mix so we had different flavored individual cookies.

With flavored chocolate squares.

Awesome, right? You know what else is awesome? Frozen chocolate chip cookies. I read that they can even taste better than room temperature ones. I used to freeze them anyway but instead of defrosting them now, I just eat them like that. Delicious!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Latte Art with Nespresso and Aeroccino Frother

We finally got our own Nespresso coffee machine! And with that, we now have a "latte factor." Yikes!

We discovered Nespresso maybe 4 or 5 years ago when we visited my parents-in-law in France. My father-in-law drinks a lot of espresso. An incredible amount actually. The Nespresso machine he had only produced espresso, supplied by Nespresso, and the coffee capsules were expensive. Even though the espresso looked, smelled, and tasted great, it just wasn't the machine for us at the time. In fact, we're not used to drinking espresso. We like to drink standard American coffees, lattes, and specialty coffees. Espressos are too small and too strong. Lol. But after a few Nespressos in France, my husband and I became big fans! But the Nespresso machines were still too expensive and too limited for us.

Shortly after we came back to Canada after trying Nespresso for the first time, we got a Tassimo machine. They were starting to get popular back then in Canada and with that machine, we got the price and versatility we were after. We were quite happy with our Tassimo machine until we moved to the USA. Here, you could find plenty of Keurig and Nespresso machines, but not Tassimo. At least not in Redmond, WA. That also meant that Tassimo brand coffee capsules were hard to find. Surprisingly, the capsules were more expensive than in Canada as well. I ended up giving our Tassimo machine to my sister to bring back to Canada and I took the plunge and got us a Nespresso machine. They're more affordable now and with the Aeroccino frother, we can have more than just espresso. As an added bonus, we can bring our used capsules to nearby recycling points so they don't end up in the local landfill.

With our Nespresso machine, we can now make one of the best tasting espressos in seconds with just a push of a button. The Aeroccino frother works amazingly fast to produce hot milk and froth. It can make cold froth too. That will come in handy for ice coffee drinks in the summer :) For months now, we have been enjoying espressos and lattes made with milk, soy milk, coconut milk, and rice milk. We even bought a few flavored syrups like pumpkin pie spice and gingerbread to give our lattes a holiday flavor. When we run out of capsules, we just go online at Nespresso and order more. You get delivery to your door within two days. Let's just say we no longer go out for coffee much anymore :)

Chocolatey sauce: 1 package of hot cocoa mix added to 1 decaf lungo espresso.

It's so easy, my 5 year old can even make me a great latte. But I wanted more. I wanted my latte to look pretty too. Is latte art possible with Nespresso? Well, it turns out it was actually hard to create latte art with Nespresso coffee and Aeroccino frothed milk. The milk gets way too frothy and bubbly, rather than creamy and thick. You really need the steam wand from a standard espresso machine to produce that hot velvety creamy smooth milk used for latte art. I tried it so many ways with so many different milks and it just wouldn't work. But I was determined to create something so I kept going.

The best design that would hold was the flower design. I needed to create more contrast so I used a chocolatey sauce, which I made by mixing a Lungo shot of decaffeinated espresso with a package of organic hot cocoa mix from Trader Joe's. It wasn't very thick like chocolate syrup but it worked alright :) I was really only after the design and I didn't want a sweet latte. I use 2% milk for my lattes now. Soy milk works well too but you get more froth with soy.

I got my 5 year old to help out in the video below. I started the recording and then handed it over to him to capture the rest while I prepared the latte. He was standing on a chair and he moved around a bit but the video turned out alright. Not a bad production for a 5 year old :) And he didn't even say a word the whole time!

Below are a few other fun attempts I tried at latte art using our Nespresso coffee. It's hard and some of them don't look great but they sure beat plain old boring looking lattes!

Do you own a Nespresso machine and Aeroccino frother? I'm still looking for more ways of decorating my lattes with art. If you have tried latte art using your machine, I would love to hear about it :)
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