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  • Aine Dougherty

Week Thirty in France: Cadbury chocolate and chicken parm


Experimenting with raspberry macarons.

11/04/2020: One of my favorite guilty pleasure foods has to be pre-made gnocchi straight off the grocery store shelves. We all know fresh pasta is soooo much better, but for some reason I'm drawn to the chewy bite of these little dumplings. So, for lunch, I cooked up a batch of them in a garlicky pesto rosso sauce with chicken, cherry tomatoes and melty mozzarella. Sadly, these dishes would remain in my sink for several days. I'm almost as ashamed about that as I am about my penchant for instant gnocchi.


The dishes that C. and I used to make Bon Appétit's burnt Basque cheesecake then joined the party. After mixing together the two pounds of cream cheese, several hundred grams of sugar and two cups of heavy cream, C. and I looked at each other warily. The batter was liquid – super liquid – and no amount of rewatching Molly Baz making the cake could help us now. So, we carefully put it in the oven and prayed. In the meantime, J. took the reins from his mother and cooked for the whole family: skirt steak in a soy sauce and sesame oil marinade, plus veggies cooked in the wok over delicate strands of rice noodles. Although the meat was a touch tough, we commended his efforts and slurped down the delicious sauce. Then, the time came to cut into the cheesecake, which was sufficiently amber brown on top and had appropriately risen and fallen – I thought. I held my breath as I sliced, but sadly the middle caved in on itself, undercooked and soupy. The family braved the edges of my creation and reassured me that it tasted good, but I couldn't shake my disappointment. All that work (and all that cream cheese) just to fail. But as the proverb goes, if at first you don't succeed... The next dessert I make better be absolutely flawless.


12/04/2020: Happy Easter, everyone! Today's cheerful family lunch on wedding china brightened my spirits as I celebrated the anniversary of a very difficult time in my life. I dug into the tender seven-hour lamb and T.'s signature roast potatoes – a dish I'm sure that will stick with me for life – while giving thanks that I could be here today with a second family that makes me feel so welcome, even though I'm far away from my first. A glass of red wine and some creamy Saint Nectaire on baguette later, I broke open my Cadbury Easter chocolate from E. and T. (I still haven't given up on the Easter bunny, and this year he didn't disappoint.) The sweet Flakes were twisted and tangled, crumbling into chocolate snow with each bite. How could I have gone on for so long without knowing this existed? Thanks for nothing, Hershey's.



13/04/2020: It had been a while since I'd made my go-to, fried rice, so I threw together some with ground beef, red pepper, frozen peas and an egg this afternoon. The brown rice I used (to be healthy!) made for a very chewy, stiff rendition, but luckily sesame oil and soy sauce cover all manners of sins. Weight lifting has been failing to inspire me this week, so I invite C. to go for a walk with me instead, which turns out to be much more fun. When I think about how timid and intimidated I was by my environment just a few months ago, I'm shocked and pleased by my 180. Having people around like C., who are fearless, outspoken, confident... It makes me want to speak my mind too.


But tonight, it was President Macron speaking his mind instead, and he announced that confinement has been extended for another month, until May 11. I couldn't help but let out a pained gasp when he added that restaurants likely wouldn't be reopening until mid-July. Everything he said was to be expected, but it hurts nonetheless knowing that I'll have to keep dirtying dishes and depriving myself of my favorite Mulhouse restaurants for the foreseeable future. I cheered myself up with my first-ever attempt at carbonara for dinner, which turned out glossy and perfect, smoky flavor from the lardons in every bite. Our side salad with avocado, feta, cherry tomatoes, olive oil and S&P brought some much-needed freshness to the meal, and I must have asked J. one hundred times – "Isn't this amazing?" Who needs restaurants, I guess?


Just as I was about to fall asleep, I sprung in a panic, realizing that I'd mixed up the date for my mom's birthday Zoom (ah, the times we live in...). I couldn't help but grin as I saw my sister, mom and aunt there on the screen in front of me, sharing our respective news and playing a beautiful birthday video for my equally beautiful mother – it was almost like there weren't thousands of miles in between us. Joyeux anniversaire, Mom! You're the bomb.



The only presentable vanilla macaron.

14/04/2020: It turns out that for some things, you do need restaurants. Or patisseries, to be exact. This afternoon, C. and I embarked on an adventure: to make homemade macarons, which just look so easy when professional pastry chefs do it. Although C.'s chocolate batter was a perfect consistency, my bowl was a gloopy vanilla mess, despite the powerful vanilla beans that their dad had brought back from the Île de la Réunion doing their best to salvage things. It degenerated from there, as the spreading circles glommed onto one another on the baking sheet and came out of the oven in one giant macaron pancake rather than beautiful, defined little rounds. I gritted my teeth and assured everyone that it was fine, I was fine. But two bungled desserts in less than a week? I couldn't have been further from OK. Luckily, we put the macarons in the fridge to rest and I got a break from looking at my disaster on a plate. Dinner helped, too: flavorful roast beef with not-too-creamy mashed potatoes, gravy, sautéed, butter-melted leeks and fluffy-yet-crispy Yorkshire puddings. And sometime late in the night, I got to witness a little slice of Alsatian life, which took my mind off things. Around midnight, J. and I heard clucking and rustling outside the window. Running to investigate, we saw Carmelito, the loud rooster next door, sprinting across the backyard, meaning that the neighbors had forgotten to close the gate. Suddenly, J. gasped and pointed, beginning to yell. You guessed it, folks – there was a fox in the hen house. Sadly, it escaped with one of the poules in its mouth, and J. and I spent the rest of the night recounting the drama and secretly hoping the victim wasn't our favorite chicken, Jeanette.


J.'s outstanding homemade cannelloni.

15/04/2020: We continued to tell the sordid tale next morning, and I got to join in on the daily morning conversation (or debate), which only solidified my pride – a month ago, I wouldn't have been brave enough to get a word in amid the rapid-fire discussion, but here I was, contributing and commiserating. In another show of growth, I ate something for lunch with the family that I've always been too scared to try. Hollandaise. And I couldn't get enough of the creamy, lemony sauce, spooned onto the first tender, fresh white asparagus of the season, plus fingerling potatoes and ham and crusty baguette. The macarons followed, finally ready to taste, and thankfully, the sleepover in the refrigerator helped my vanilla cookies become edible. (The chocolate were outstanding, which only poured salt in the wound.) As is tradition, J. cooked dinner for me (and cleaned my entire kitchen) as I enjoyed the sunset on the terrace with E. and T., not having to lift a finger. How did I get so lucky? Keeping with this week's Italian theme, he served up delicious homemade cannelloni, stuffed with piment d'Espelette-packed ground beef and plenty of mozzarella. Bravo, chef!


16/04/2020: In a last-minute decision, which is always the best kind, I decided to cook lunch for whole the family this afternoon, choosing a mommy blogger favorite, P.F. Chang-style lettuce cups, to use up the rest of J.'s ground beef. My soy sauce, sesame oil, sweet chili sauce, honey, garlic powder and coconut cream marinade was addictive, and a bit of lime, fresh mint and crunchy peanuts on top took things to the next level. With all that this family does for me each day, it's the least I can do. Then, stuffed, I went on to host my first online English club for my high school students. I sat there waiting for them to log on, happy and excited and more than a little nervous. Despite the unavoidable awkwardness, seeing as it was me and four students, things went really well. I felt proud of my ability to help them feel comfortable in such an unfamiliar situation, and the small session meant things never got rowdy. The four seniors and I did a name game, discussion questions about confinement and a fun round of American Jeopardy. Nothing beats feeling useful. I can't wait for next week. The afternoon consisted of another attempt at pastry, and after some trial and error, our chocolate, vanilla and raspberry macarons turned out admirably, and so did the vaguely artistic crêpe cake I slapped together with the ganache leftovers.



17/04/2020: After a quick brunch of scrambled eggs and baguette French toast, I logged on for my tutoring session, where we finished an assignment about Rodney King and Black Lives Matter before pivoting to a dictée on the Miracle speech (my student loves ice hockey). Our session had me feeling motivated and inspired for the next week and beyond, when I can keep being creative and finding interesting tidbits from American history and culture to introduce to him. Spring cleaning, while satisfying, had me feeling dead tired two hours later, but I had to rally because I was cooking dinner for the family tonight. One luscious speculoos tiramisu setting in the fridge later, I called my sous chef (J.) and gathered my dishes of flour, egg and Parmesan bread crumbs to make chicken parm, a classic Italian-American dish, just like I used to do with my grandma. The sinfully crispy chicken filets were smothered with tomato sauce, slices of fresh mozzarella and more parm, then sprinkled with dried basil before heading into the hot, hot oven for a quick bake (served over angel hair, of course). In the meantime, J. made garlic bread with parsley garlic butter, olive oil and herbs, which turned out to be the star of the meal. It felt amazing to feed the family – too much, even – while honoring Grandmom and bringing me back to my childhood.



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