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Christmas came early for my daughter and me, in the form of a trip to France this month. The visit was work related; I went to teach a food writing workshop with my dear friend Jamie ~ fellow author and blogger at Life’s a Feast ~ at her hotel in Chinon. A good deal on airfare allowed me to bring along my 19-year-old, Adriana. She’ll be studying in France next year, and I figured it would be useful for her to get the lay of the land.
The fog was so dense the morning we descended into Charles de Gaulle Airport that we could see nothing out of the window of the plane ~ we had no idea how close we were to landing until we felt the wheels bump and skid onto the tarmac. The fog thinned out as we headed away from Paris in our rented Renault, but a soft, milky mist remained as we drove southwest into the Loire Valley, lending a dreamlike quality to the countryside. We passed stands of trees that were bare of leaves but festooned with lacy spheres of mistletoe.
Chinon, too, was wrapped in mist, chilly and nearly silent as we pulled into the courtyard at Hotel Diderot. The air smelled enticingly of smoke, and I felt for a moment like we were not only in another country, but in another realm. The hotel, which Jamie and her husband, Jean-Pierre, bought three years ago, is built from cream-colored limestone quarried from the hills against which the town is nestled. The rooms are inviting, with big windows that beg to be thrown open, even in December (that’s Adriana, peering out from our room).
Hotel Diderot has long been famous for its selection of homemade jams, and Jamie has maintained the tradition. When you walk into the breakfast room, you’ll find her jams ~ at least a dozen kinds with flavors like apricot vanilla, wild plum and cinnamon, and pear-pumpkin-persimmon ~ lined up in the center of a long table, a spoon sticking out of each jar.
During the week we were there, Chinon revealed its charm to us in small ways. On our first day, Jamie walked us through town in the waning afternoon light, past the half-timbered houses and luminous limestone structures that make up the historic center. She told us that the city dates back to the 5th Century. Henry II and, later, his son Richard the Lionheart, resided part-time in the sprawling fortress that overlooks the town; and a 17-year-old Joan of Arc stopped here in 1429 to pledge her loyalty to Charles VII. (There’s an enormous, dynamic bronze statue of the saint on horseback in one of the town’s squares.)
The next morning, Adriana went for a jog in the cold mist while Jamie and I prepared for the workshop. Taking a random left turn (as she told me later), she found herself on a tree-lined boulevard along the banks of the Vienne River. Later, I walked over to the river to take this shot.
The pedestrian streets of Chinon’s center are lined with small restaurants, food shops, and retailers. There’s a bespoke knife shop in which two former chefs make hunting and kitchen knives with handles carved from local reclaimed wood. On weekdays, school breaks for lunch, and the cobble streets fill with clusters of chattering kids heading home for the noon meal. Shops close, too, while the restaurants open their doors to hungry patrons. I had what might be the best slice of quiche in my life ~ tall, with a delicate cheese-infused custard ~ at Cafe de l’Hotel de Ville, a cozy spot in the town’s main square.
Towards the end of the week the sun finally broke through. In a lucky stroke, it happened to be on the day we took our workshop attendees to Chateau du Petit-Thouars, a Chinon castle and winery that has been in the same family since the 17th Century. A tour of the grounds, a flight of the chateau’s wines (with a selection of pates), a hearty lunch of coq au vin and mashed potatoes cooked by Count Sebastien himself, and the company of the seven food writers who comprised our workshop made it an unforgettable afternoon.
The entire week was memorable, and Jamie and I plan to offer it again next year. You can find out more about the workshop in this post, and on Jamie’s workshop page. (Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you’d like me to keep you posted on dates and workshop details.)
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About Orange Appeal: The book, with beautiful photos by Ilva Beretta, is a diverse collection of savory and sweet recipes, from soups, salads, stews, and curries, to cookies, cakes, and other desserts. Jamie has lived in France for more than 25 years, and many of the recipes reflect the flavors and traditions of her adopted home. But she was born and raised in Florida among the citrus groves of Indian River, and she pays homage to her heritage with recipes such as “Orange and Brown Sugar-Glazed Sweet Potatoes,” and “My Dad’s Orange Frosty “~ a homemade version of the famous blended drink Orange Julius.
The recipe for madeleines ~ a chocolate-orange twist on traditional French tea cakes ~ caught my eye immediately. The batter is lightened with whipped egg whites and infused with orange zest and juice. Cocoa powder is stirred into half of it to create the two colors of batter, which you ‘marble’ together in the madeleine molds. A platter of these tender two-bite cakes would be a lovely addition to a holiday brunch buffet, and are just the thing to accompany a cup of espresso on a cold afternoon.
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DOMENICA COOKS IN ITALY IN 2018
- May 21-28: 3 SPOTS LEFT: Join me for my inaugural Italian Riviera Culinary Tour, in collaboration with Beautiful Liguria. We still have a few spots left for what promises to be a unique week. We will explore the undiscovered culinary and cultural treasures of this region.
- September 12-17: 4 SPOTS LEFT: Come learn how to preserve the Italian way! I’m excited to be teaching my first Preserving Italy Workshop, in collaboration with Annette Joseph Style, at La Fortezza, Annette’s beautiful, restored fortress in the hills of northern Tuscany. This workshop is limited to 6 people.
- September 23-30: We have finalized the dates for our fourth annual Abruzzo Presto-Domenica Cooks Culinary Tour! Spend a magical week with Nancy, Michael, and me as we explore food, wine and cooking and cultural tradtions from the Apennine Mountains to the Adriatic coast.
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These shell-shaped, buttery tea cakes are a traditional French treat. In her book Orange Appeal, author Jamie Schler offers a fresh twist, adding orange juice and zest to the batter. The mixture is then divided, and cocoa is folded into half of it. The two batters, one light, one dark, are dolloped into the madeleine molds and swirled together to create the marbled effect. Enjoy these little cakes with coffee for breakfast or with tea in the afternoon.
- 2 large eggs
- 10 tablespoons (150 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the madeleine molds
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (140 g) sugar
- 1/2 medium orange, finely zested and juiced
- 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
- Pinch of salt
- 3/4 cup (100 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 packed tablespoon (9 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Heat the oven to 400F (200C). Lightly butter a madeleine pan ~ mine has 12 scalloped molds.
Separate the eggs and place the whites in a clean metal bowl with a few grains of salt. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks, orange zest and juice, Grand Marnier, and salt until smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the flour, and beat until just combined.
Using clean beaters, whip the egg whites to firm but not stiff peaks. Gently fold the whites into the batter until completely blended in and no white is visible. The batter should be thick and smooth.
Divide the batter between two bowls. With a spatula, fold the cocoa powder and vanilla extract into one of bowls. Spoon equal parts of each batter into the madeleine molds, filling them about 3/4 capacity. Drag the tip of a sharp knife through the batters to create a swirl pattern in each madeleine. If you have leftover batter, make more madeleines once you have baked the first batch.
Bake for about 15 minutes, until the madeleines are set and tops spring back when pressed lightly. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool 2 minutes. Pop the madeleines out one by one, using the point of a small, sharp knife and a gentle touch to coax them out, or turning the mold over and gently tapping. Set the madeleines on a wire rack to cool completely.