The greatest dishes are very simple. – Auguste Escoffier
Suddenly the anemic rose bush just outside the French windows that lead out to the wrought-iron terrace hanging on the side of the hotel is thick with jade-colored leaves and dotted crazily with buds, the first already bursting in blood red splendor. The wisteria is luxurious with frothy clusters of fragrant petals in lavender and mauve just on the opposite side of the courtyard from the main building where I have an unhampered view from my window whenever I please. Those birdhouses Jean-Pierre spent last summer piecing together and tacking up to every available space between vines and windows are filling up, flurries of chirping and cheeping carry forth and fill the garden in a joyous jamboree. Although it is still cool in Chinon, the sun is a blaze of summery light.
I am finally settling down to working on the book I am writing about the hotel but since Orange Appeal has been sent off to the printer’s I have been somewhat lackadaisical, finding concentration wanting. When I do sit down and begin to write, it flows smoothly, but more often than not I get sidetracked by other, less urgent, less necessary things. And general fatigue. But now that high season has officially kicked off and rapidly intensifying, wavering in this month of April between 18 and 45 clients a day, soon to be constantly filled to capacity, accompanied, of course, by high fruit and jam season, I must force myself to focus and slot in a daily writing ritual. But, of course, things never go as planned, as they should, for suddenly I had the idea for another cookbook, a topic that no one has written a cookbook about. A topic with a rich and interesting history, yet one we pretty much take for granted. And it has gotten me excited and I now, once again, have my cookbooks pulled off of the shelves and stacked up on my spare worktable and edging my desk. I already have lists of traditional recipes to research and lists of recipes to begin to develop and test. Before even thinking about writing a proposal.
But there is also my Orange Appeal book tour to organize.
The renovation of the annex is coming to its stunning end and I cannot wait to reveal the outcome to the public. We’ve put our hearts and souls into these renovations and our artisans, the craftsmen who have measured and destroyed, painted and carpeted, wallpapered and tiled with painstaking perfection certainly did us proud. The work is beautiful, clean and precise. The colors we chose are soft and elegant yet astonishing, especially to anyone who had ever seen the way the rooms and the entry hallway have been these past twenty years or so. It’s a magnificent transformation and we cannot wait for the unveiling on May 1.
We were only a bit nervous this week as the furniture began arriving. Jean-Pierre and I already had had to deal with bathroom fixtures that the plumber’s assistants refused to put up so we spent 4 hours one evening drilling into the pristine tile and hanging towel racks, drinking cup holders, mirrors, shelves, and hooks. At the end of last week the furniture was delivered, headboards, chairs, armoires, side tables for three rooms and we suddenly found ourselves with 3 armoires that did not fit in the stairwell, that could not be maneuvered no matter how we twisted, tilted, and turned. The 2 strapping young deliverymen abandoned us, the armoires pushed into the entry hall allowing us barely enough space to shimmy along the wainscoting to pass through.
So we called F and N who often help us with luggage and odd jobs that require lifting and moving and they came, along with N’s wife, and the 5 of us spent the better part of an afternoon – the only time of the day in Chinon when cars pass one after the next in quick succession as they head home from work – strapping up those armoires and trying to hoist them up the side of the building – dodging the passing cars – and into the second-floor windows. To no avail. They were too heavy, dangerously awkward, and they could not be lifted over the window ledge. Until we finally gave up and shoved the damn armoires back into the entry hallway.
After a quick analysis, discussion, and brainstorming, F and N returned the following afternoon with N’s small van. Wide wood planks were lay flat on the roof of the van and each armoire with hoisted on top of the van then lifted to the second floor window and – easy peasy – pushed/pulled through. In 5 minutes flat. The new beds will be delivered the end of the week and then the rooms will be ready for their final cleaning, beds made, towels hung, and, once the stairwell carpeting is delivered and tacked down, the renovations will be complete.
And while we were working, the garden has burst into bloom, a riot of color, yellow roses; peonies in variegated shades of pink, magenta, and blush; striped Burning Heart tulips. Our lettuces above on the hillside continue to grow, the fava bean and pea plants are full, tall, thick with green leaves, and our raspberry bushes are promising a vibrant season. And a crazy carpet of strawberry plants, evidently planted by the owner of the terrain unknown to us, are sprouting everywhere! This region truly is the Garden of France.
Who isn’t ready for a snack?
Financiers are tiny, delicate French teacakes, very much like a sponge, a cross between a cookie and a cake. Financiers, unlike their chère cousine la Madeleine, are lightened and moistened with plenty of whipped egg whites and are flavored with plenty of ground nuts, whether almonds, hazelnuts or pistachios. Delicate and tender on the inside with a crisp yet chewy crust, financiers are rather rich and very satisfying – although quite addictive – so try not to eat too many at once. I prepared a simple almond batter adding just a touch of cinnamon and vanilla. I then placed either frozen wild blueberries or mini chocolate chips in each filled mold, allowing everyone a choice.
- 5⅓ tablespoons (75 grams) unsalted butter + butter for molds
- 4 large egg whites
- 1 cup (90 grams) finely ground (powder) almonds or hazelnuts
- 5 tablespoons (50 grams) flour
- ¼ cup + 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon (75 grams) granulated white sugar
- ¼ cup + 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon (75 grams) granulated brown sugar (turbinado
- or cassonade)
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Pinch salt
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- 1 tablespoon or more each mini chocolate chips and blueberries (I used frozen wild blueberries when fresh are unavailable)
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).
- Generously butter 16 traditional (approximately 3¾ x 1¾ -inch rectangular/ 9½ x 4½-cm) Financier molds or any rectangle, square, or round shallow molds. This is most easily done with melted and cooled unsalted butter and a pastry brush.
- Slowly melt the unsalted butter over low heat and remove from the heat just as the last bit of butter is melting. Swirl a few seconds until the butter is completely melted and set aside to cool briefly. Alternately, this can be done in a heatproof bowl in the microwave.
- Beat the egg whites with a few grains of salt until stiff peaks hold.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine and whisk together the ground almonds, the flour, both sugars, the cinnamon and a pinch of salt.
- Fold in the stiff egg whites until just blended (begin by folding some of the dry ingredients into the egg whites, adding a few tablespoons of the dry at a time, then turn it into the remaining dry ingredients and folding in just until smooth; do not overfold).
- Fold in the butter a little at a time – in about 5 additions, slowly pouring the melted butter down the side of the bowl rather than right into the middle of the batter.
- Add the vanilla extract with the last addition of the butter.
- Spoon the batter into the molds, filling each mold no more than ¾ full. Gently spread evenly in each mold if needed, or tip the mold back and forth so the batter fills the molds.
- Drop half a dozen mini chips or berries on top of each batter-filled mold.
- Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until the Financiers are puffed and evenly golden brown.
- Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a few minutes and then gently pop the Financiers out of the molds and cool completely on cooling racks.