Cooking with My Paris Kitchen

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Some of my favorite recipes have come from David Lebovitz’s blog, but truthfully I have never cracked open one of his many books.  I love the writing on his blog, and the food is always excellent.  His Tomato Tart is my favorite way to use the best-of-summer tomatoes.  David also has great Instagram stories.  I love seeing the messy honesty of his recipe testing, antiquing, and exploring.  

I read his cookbook cover to cover, because My Paris Kitchen is much more than lists of ingredients and instructions.  His stories about traditions, dinner parties, lessons learned, and his life in France make the book worth reading, even without the recipes.  After studying French during high school and college and doing a study abroad, France has had a special place in my heart.  Lebovitz’s anecdotes about French culture brought back a lot of my special memories.  My Paris Kitchen is worth reading, even if you don’t plan on cooking any of the recipes.  

The cooking is a little advanced with a lot of specialty ingredients, but Lebovitz encourages readers to used their judgement and focus on intuition and senses rather than precisely following exact details.  Which I did, liberally.  It took me a while to pick the recipes I wanted to cook, but ultimately I ended up going for recipes that included ingredients I already had on hand to cut down on the shopping I’d have to do.  

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The Israeil Couscous has become a fast favorite for us, but I did have to make two major substitutions.  While I always have plenty of lemons on hand, I have never preserved one.  Rather than letting a lemon brine in salt for a week, I just used zest and extra salt.  I’m sure it’s not as complex of a flavor, but it was still delicious.  Next, I substituted walnuts for pistachios.  Honestly, I just wasn’t going to shell any amount of pistachios, and I already had walnuts on hand.  I am curious to try the recipe as Lebovitz intended, but I hope he would be proud of my ingenuity.  And it turned out great.  I have already made the salad again.  I like to make it on a day off and bring it to work for lunch.  

The chocolate mousse recipe has often been hailed as one of Lebovitz’s best.  He recently demonstrated the recipe on Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street.  During my time in France, I remember buying cups of Mousse au Chocolat from the grocery store.  It was stocked near the yogurt in little plastic cups.  It’s one of my favorite desserts and only takes a few ingredients.  Honestly I don’t know why I never made it before.  The hardest part is waiting for the mousse to set (it needs to sit for eight hours).  Lebovitz’s version is way better than anything found in a plastic cup. 

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I have never made dry caramel before, and it was a little nerve wrecking.  It took two tires to get it right, but the payoff was worth it.  The caramel and salted butter made the chocolate mousse so much more interesting than it would have been as just a chocolate one.  The mousse is so light in texture but extremely rich — an intense and delicious dessert.  Eating the mousse was so indulgent, it was like eating chocolate frosting.  Because it is so rich, a little goes a long way.  We divided it into six portions but should have done eight.

 

I found that the recipes in My Paris Kitchen are better suited to special occasions and weekend projects than everyday cooking.  Many of the recipes required specialty ingredients that would take some effort to hunt down.  The food is also very indulgent -lots of fat, butter, cream, meat, cheese, etc – not foods I want to eat every day.  Lebovitz tells a story with each recipe that compels the reader to try it out, no matter how complicated or expensive or caloric it might be.  

Cooking from Magnolia Table

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On a recent trip to the library, I spotted Magnolia Table: a collection of recipes for gathering on the best-seller shelf.  The cookbook is a recent project from Joanna Gaines of HGTV’s Fixer Upper.  I love to unwind by watching a few episodes, and I am always amazed by how Joanna and her husband, Chip, spin old shacks into gold in Waco, Texas.  The couple has expanded their brand, Magnolia, beyond flipping houses.  Besides all their business ventures, they have published a few books, including Magnolia Table.

After flipping through the pages, I found that most of the food in this book is opposite to what I cook day to day.  Jo’s recipes are her takes on classic southern food. I tend to cook meals that are lighter and more vegetable-forward.  She advocates for shortcuts, like opting for store-bought pie crust and chicken stock.  The raspberry-chipotle pork tenderloin recipe simply calls for marinating the pork in Fischer & Weiser’s Raspberry Chipotle Sauce.  I was a little disappointed, hoping to find a recipe for an original sauce.

The handful of recipes that connect to Jo’s heritage surprised me the most.  She shares just a few recipes passed down from her family, and those are the ones I wanted to cook.  In her recipe for Syrian donuts, she included a photo of the original version, typed up by her grandfather before he passed away, which I thought was so sweet. 

  There were two recipes that I wanted to cook. The first recipe in the book is for buttermilk biscuits, something I happen to make regularly.  She wrote that she tweaked her biscuit recipe every Sunday until they were just right.  Her pride in this recipe made me eager to make the biscuits myself.  I also decided I’d try out her mother’s bulgogi, a type of Korean barbecue. She said that while growing up, her mom mostly cooked American food but learned traditional Korean dishes later in life. Bulgogi is something I wouldn’t have made if I saw the recipe on a website, but the story of her mom learning to cook from her Korean friends compelled me to try it.  

The bulgogi was easier to prepare than I thought.  The recipe calls for slicing, marinating, and grilling beef.  It is served on a bed of rice with a cucumber-kimchi salad on the side.  I decided to make a few adjustments to be practical.  Because I’m just cooking for two, I made about a third of what the recipe called for (it calls for 4-5 pounds of beef tenderloin). I also used a cheaper cut of meat.  The kimchi salad calls for gochugaru, a Korean chili flake (I had to google that).  While I probably could have picked some up from a Korean market (there are a few in Pittsburgh), I decided just to use regular chili flakes I had on hand.

The marinade was simple to put together, and I already had all the ingredients in the house (soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, green onions… all pretty basic).  The recipe called for three cups of sugar, and I felt a little guilty putting so much in.  When it came time to cook up the beef slices, I used a cast-iron skillet because we don’t have a grill. This worked out really well except for my first few slices, which burned because the heat was too high and all the sugar caramelized too quickly.  The flavor was excellent – sweet and salty and earthy.  The spicy and crunchy cucumber-kimchi salad paired well with the rich beef slices.  It also reheats very well and would be great for batch-cooking or meal prep.

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The biscuits, on the other hand, were not as successful as the bulgogi.  I followed the recipe to the letter, but my first batch fell flat.  They lacked the fluffy texture I expect in a biscuit.  She calls for a lot of butter and buttermilk, which I think added too much liquid to the dough. She brushes them with both egg and buttermilk, which made the biscuits taste too eggy and left a sickly yellow film on top. 

I made a second batch, omitting the egg wash and using the cubed butter method instead of the grated butter method.  I also used about 20 percent less buttermilk than the original recipe calls for.  Joanna’s dough contains an egg, giving the final product a more cake-like crumb than I want from a biscuit.  The second batch did come out better, but even after a few adjustments, I’ve made way better biscuits (specifically using the recipe from Dining In, Alison Roman’s cookbook).  I prefer a lighter, saltier biscuit with a better rise, something that looks more like a snowball than a hockey puck in shape.

 

I’m not the right audience for this cookbook.   Magnolia Table delivers crowd-pleasing dishes that make more sense for a big family than someone like me, who only ever prepares weeknight dinners for two.  While I like to have leftovers, I had to cut both the recipes I tried in half or more (most of them serve 6-8 people, and some serve more like 12-14).  It is, after all, a collection of recipes for gathering and not a collection of recipes for an urban couple. While the food didn’t click with me, I did enjoy reading about her history and how cooking has connected the generations of her family.  

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