There's something about Paris. It seems like a right of passage for cooks to visit France, study pâtisserie at Le Cordon Bleu, fall in love with the French markets, stroll along the Seine, and then return home to open a bakery, write a cookbook, or blog about their experiences.
We've heard again and again from Julia Child, Ina Garten, and countless others that French food does not have to complicated or scary. We know with varying degrees of difficulty American ingredients can come together to create such wonderful things as baguettes and croissants, to béchamel and crème anglaise, and other favorites like beef bourguignon and croque madames.
But somehow fitting French cuisine into my everyday routine hasn't been so seamless. I love The Barefoot Contessa's chicken with 40 cloves of garlic and if I follow her recipe it comes out perfectly, but peeling all that garlic really does take some time. And yes, I would love to master brioche buns, but no, I don't have the patience to wait overnight while the dough rises, then 2 more hours the next day while it rises again.
British chef and BBC television personality Rachel Khoo, who also made the Paris pilgrimage, manages to both simplify and shake things up in her cookbook, "The Little Paris Kitchen." First released in Britain to wide acclaim, "The Little Paris Kitchen" is filled with French classics with a twist, like a barbeque version of coq au vin on skewers and ideas for variations on crème brûlée with additions such as lavender, orange zest, and even black pepper.
While there are some dishes that require precision and patience, many of Ms. Khoo's recipes are so simple I found myself thinking, "That's French? I could cook that tonight!" Her poisson meunière (fish with lemon and brown butter sauce) was only slightly different from my usual fish routine, with the delicious additions of flour for dredging the fish, and capers to finish. Her poulet aux champignons avec une sauce au vin blanc (chicken and mushrooms in a white wine sauce) was a breeze, and came together even faster than her estimated 30 minute cooking time.
Best of all, she has plenty of dessert ideas that don't require yeast, crème pâtissière, or ramekins. I tried, and fell in love with her tartlets aux framboises et amandes (raspberry and almond tartlets), which call for either a tart pan, or tartlet pans (which I do happen to have) but could also work in a shallow pie pan. I used raspberries on half of my tartlets, and strawberries on the others. They were delightful; warm and gooey, sweet and tart, with a flakey, buttery crust. I topped them with homemade whipped cream (one task I'm almost always willing to sacrifice time for) but whipped cream from a can or vanilla ice cream would have been just as good.
(See next page for recipe)
Tartlets aux framboises et amandes (Raspberry and almond tartlets)
From Rachel Khoo, "The Little Paris Kitchen"
6 tablespoons soft butter
1 teaspoon sugar
A pinch of salt
1-1/3 cups all-purpose flour
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons ice-cold water
For the almond cream:
2 cups ground almonds
1 cup sugar
Scant 1 cup of soft butter
10 ounces of raspberries or other fruit
1. Using a wooden spoon, beat together the butter, sugar, and salt until soft and creamy (you could also use a hand mixer on low for this step). Mix in the flour, followed by the egg yolks, and ice-cold water. Bring together to make a smooth ball, adding a little more water if the pastry is too crumbly (I had to add about 2 extra tablespoons). Only knead as much as necessary to bring the dough together. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of an hour, or overnight. (I did about 50 minutes and my dough was just a little too soft.)
2. Make the cream: Beat the almonds, sugar, and butter just until smooth, then beat in the eggs.
3. Remove the pastry from the fridge 30 minutes before using and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease your pan(s). Roll out the pastry between two sheets of parchment paper until 1/8-1/4-inch thick (don't go too thin, or it will stick to the parchment paper). Cut your dough to fit your pans. Place carefully in the pans and prick each base several times with a fork (I must confess, I forgot this step and my tarts turned out fine).
4. Spread the almond cream in the pastry shells, leaving a small gap at the top, and arrange the raspberries (or other fruit) on top, keeping them close together so that they almost cover the cream. Trip off any pastry overhang.
5. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the pastry edges are golden brown. (If using tartlet pans with removable bottoms don't forget to place a foil-lined cookie sheet or another pan below them in the oven so the don't drip all over the place. I must confess, I forgot to do this step.) Best eaten warm, cold is fine, too, but definitely not refrigerated.