Thursday, 19 January 2012

Community Culture Kitchen: French Cultural Cuisine

The last couple of weeks have seen the relatively quick development of a new program on campus: the Community Culture Kitchen. As I noted in yesterday's post, this program is sponsored by the office for which I work and the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life. Hosted each time at the Open House (the site of the aforementioned Center and hosting site for the fall farm to table cooking class I led this past October), at each event "participants learn about the culinary and cultural significance of food in relation to its preparation and roles in celebrating and expressing a group's identities. Academic departments and student groups are invited to partner with the CCK in planning an event which speaks to specific traditions that are connected in some way to food." Tonight, we celebrated French [Catholic] cultural cuisine. Christine, the professor of the French class I'm auditing (which in itself is focusing on connections between gastronomy and religion), focused on the galette des Rois (also mentioned in yesterday's post), while I focused on the beloved crêpe.

I arrived at the Open House around 4:15pm, with Christine arriving shortly thereafter, and organised the ingredients which had earlier been purchased by the Open House's student kitchen coordinator Lindsay. First up was the preparation of the crêpe batter, developed from my own recipe which has in itself been altered nearly every time I make them. With everything having worked out quite well with this batch, I must admit I'm particularly happy with the way it turned out. Reconfiguring the ratios of this recipe to make at least 30 crêpes (two per registered participant), I made adjustments for 2.5 batches which in the end yielded at least 2.5 dozen crêpes. To start things off, I first melted 1.5 sticks (i.e., 3/4 c) unsalted butter; to do this first is important so you have maximum time for it to cool down. In a large quantity mixing vessel (at least 9 c), I mixed very well 4 c all-purpose flour and 3/4 c light brown sugar. As I noted earlier tonight, I prefer using brown sugar for my crêpes for a different level of flavour and the fact I can typically use less brown sugar (than if I used granulated white sugar) because of the brown sugar already being rather sweet because of the molasses.

In a separate bowl, beat very well 5 whole eggs, 2 c milk and 1 tbsp vanilla extract. In small batches, work this into the dry ingredients. Continuing to whisk everything together (and making sure to scrape down the sides of your mixing vessel), add enough milk to smooth out the batter (i.e., an additional 3.25 c). When the unsalted butter has cooled, whisk this into the batter.

The crêpe batter for this event would serve two purposes. The first would be as a vehicle to celebrate Candlemas, otherwise traditionally known as the Purification of Mary. Served here and in the linked site above, a batch of crêpes were filled with freshly whipped cream (which I had started as I put together the crêpe batter and was later finished by one of the students, Ellen) and frozen berries which I had heated up in a pot to draw out some of the juices. As also noted in the Catholic Cuisine blog linked above, these crêpes "visually remind us of Mary's First Sorrow, when she and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the Temple and Simeon prophesied that Mary's heart would be pierced by her love for her Son." 

As I began to cook the crêpe batter for this first preparation, Christine was at work prepping two galettes des Rois (Kings' cakes). In celebration of the Ephipany (celebrated January 6), these cakes made of puff pastry and an almond filling traditionally (and as was the case tonight) included two little trinkets in the shape of a king and queen, serving as a reminder of three Magi and the Christ child as future spiritual king. Continuing with tradition, those who received slices of galette with one of these figures became the king or queen of the night. [Depending on the family and the circumstance, there are additional traditions associated with the galette des Rois, including but not limited to the youngest person going under a table to randomise who gets each slice, and the receiving of a crown to wear upon getting one of the trinkets. For variations, click here.] To begin Christine's recipe for one galette des Rois, start off by preheating your oven to 325 °F and defrosting two sheets of puff pastry (two sheets typically come in a single box in the freezer section of your grocery aisle). When defrosted, roll it out flat and large enough to your desired size.

If you have a gram scale, now would be the best time to bring it out to make the galette filling: mix very well 100 g (a little over 3.5 oz) granulated sugar and 100 g almond powder. (You'll note on the linked website some sticker shock; take note that's the price for 4.5 lbs. In the grocery store, they're sold in 1 lb bags. Non-Red Mill brands of almond powder do exist, but they tend to be slightly grittier and less expensive because of this, though this isn't necessarily a bad thing.) Using a fork, smash in 100 g of unsalted room temperature butter. To aid in this process, pre-cut your butter into 1/2" slices. To this, add 1 tbsp cognac (or in our non-alcoholic version, vanilla extract) and a whole egg, and combine very well until you get a smooth paste consistency.

If you prefer a fancier version, cut your puff pastry sheet into a circle. Otherwise, for the quick(er) version, leave the puff pastry in its square form. To this, add the almond filling to what will now be the bottom sheet and leave at least a 1/2" border all around. [In the photo above, we worked with one sheet to make a half batch version.] Add on top of this filling your trinket(s) of choice. And lay on top of all this your second sheet of puff pastry (in our case, fold over). Separate a second egg and use the egg white as a sealer between the two layers. (You really want to make sure the almond filling doesn't seep out while being baked.) Fold and crimp the edges to strengthen this seal. Next, beat the egg yolk very well with about 1 tbsp water and, using a pastry brush (or paper towel), brush on this (now) egg wash all over the exterior of your galette; this will help add a beautiful brown outer coating. Just as you would for a pie or tart, make a small piercing (i.e., an air vent) on the top crust. To add any desired fanciness, use the tines of a fork to make decorative markings (e.g., lattice-type striations) to this crust. All prepped, get this into your preheated oven and bake for 30-45 minutes. (You're looking for something to have puffed up and be nice and golden brown. Err on the longer baking time.) Once out of the oven, leave it to cool for as long as possible (ideally an hour) before cutting into it.

After demoing to the 14 participants how to make the galette des Rois, I explained what was in the crêpe batter and prepared a Candlemas crêpe for each person. As we ate these--as well as puff pastry cookies made with left over puff pastry, ground cinnamon and granulated sugar--and waited for the pre-made galettes des Rois to cool, each person took a turn making his/her own crêpe (i.e., this would be the second purpose) with some even trying a tradition of flipping (without much help from a spatula) the crêpe over upon seeing a crisping perimeter, air bubbles and the disappearing of a wet surface). [Apparently, the extension of this tradition is that if flipped correctly while holding onto a large coin denomination, you'll have good fortune for the entire year. For a slight variation on this, click here.] However the crêpe was flipped, finished crêpes were then taken to our mini crêpe bar with filling options of grape jelly, strawberry jam, fresh lemon, violet sugar (from France) and of course Nutella. Very basic and neutral-flavoured from the start, the great thing about this crêpe recipe is that it truly allows you to taste the fillings without being too gummy and dense.

By the time we had finished both crêpes, it was finally time to slice into the galettes des Rois. Flaky and buttery, there is a definite taste of French-style homecooking present in this dessert. And my goodness, I could just eat the almond filling all on its own!

Though we broke into smaller groups throughout the event (which lasted just a tad over an hour), I felt a very positive energy in the kitchen as we shared, learned and cooked. Without being too cliché, quite frankly, there was a rather clear sense of community being cultivated around these cultural nuances and within the kitchen setting. Not bad for a first go-around, eh? For the entire photo album from tonight's event, click here.

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