Friday, June 24, 2005

Dulce de Leche and Confiture de Lait

Dulce de Leche and (empty, sigh) Confiture de Lait Posted by Hello

Caramel-icious in Any Language!

The city of Honfleur, in France's Normandy region, is known for its picturesque charm. A fishing town, port and former shipbuilding center, its wooden buildings cluster around a sparkling basin in its center. Even the fascinating historic church is constructed of wood and resembles the upside-down hull of a ship.

As we followed our tour guide, Marina (in retrospect, I realized what an appropriate name she had for that location), through narrow streets, we peered into shop windows, anxious to catch glimpses of treasures soon to be unearthed. “As you stroll around on your own later, you may want to come back to this shop,” she said, eyes twinkling. “They sell milk jam here!”

The anticipated twitter of tourist voices greeted that remark. “Milk jam?” we chorused. Some of us, especially the lactose-inclined, purred, “mmmm, that sounds lovely.” Others, simply more skeptical, or perhaps less lactic by nature, wrinkled their sunburned noses and said “ewwwww” in response.

Marina assured us that this mysterious product, a specialty of the Normandy region, was a highly-cherished condiment in the area. Those same Norman cows that produced rich, flavorful milk for delectable cheeses also produced rich, flavorful milk for this jam. We were already deeply in love with the cheeses, so she knew that she had scored a hit with that description.

This Ingredient Sleuth, of course, was fascinated and looked forward anxiously to the designated shopping time later in the day’s “jam-packed” (I can hear you groaning!) agenda. The small shop, just as Marina had said, was filled with compelling items. A quick scan, upon entry, confirmed that a floor-to-ceiling shelf, at the back of the shop, contained the special item. CONFITURE DE LAIT – milk jam!

CONFITURE is the French word for “jam” and LAIT is the French word for “milk.” Yes, this was it. But then, another puzzle developed. Not only was there milk jam, there was milk jam of many descriptions – all in French, of course. The Ingredient Sleuth does speak a fair amount of French, so interpreting the contents of each variety was not a problem. The problem resided, rather, in that tastebud-wrenching decision of the single variety upon which to confer the honor of consuming valuable suitcase space!

Eyes scanned pretty glass jars, each with a large, descriptive label. And from each description, a different flavor beckoned: hazelnut (noisette), vanilla (vanille), apple (pomme), rum (rhum), orange (orange – sometimes language is kind!), cinnamon (cannelle) and many more. My forehead produced those furrows that so characteristically accompany culinary decision-making. Clearly, I was troubled.

“Bonjour, Madame. Do you speak English?” I turned to meet the friendly smile of a young man in his early twenties. He quickly explained that he was a customer, not a clerk, but that he noticed my interest in the milk jams and wanted to be sure that I found what I wanted. He reiterated Marina’s statements about local pride in this Norman specialty. He lived in Normandy and was eager to explain that milk jam is simply a cooking-reduced combination of milk and sugar, sometimes with additional flavoring ingredients, sometimes plain. The light bulb went off in my brain. Of course everyone loved this. Essentially, we were talking about milk-based caramel!

My selection, after much musing and several reconsiderations, was the hazelnut variety. The considerate young man seemed to favor that one and it was a pleasure to see his face light up when I made that choice. I could easily have caved in and bought others, undoubtedly, but just at that stage, the wide-ranging local-honeys display caught my eye and suitcase considerations prevailed!

The single jar of hazelnut milk jam accomplished its mission, though. I now adore milk jam and consider Normandy a region of exquisite culinary delights. The words that I had heard about Norman cows feeding on particularly-sweet, organic grasses, thus producing particularly-flavorful milk products, rang true.

Like many dessert and sweet items in France, confiture de lait is less highly-sweetened than similar North American treats. The full-bodied flavor of the milk itself seems to demand less sweetening. The milk jam’s consistency is firm enough to allow a teaspoon to stand upright in the jar but creamy enough to allow for creative dipping.

The list of contents is short and wonderful: whole milk, sugar and other natural flavors. Absent from the list are thickening agents, preservatives and coloring agents. The milk’s protein and calcium, as well as natural mineral salts, constitute the nutritional profile. Nutritious and delicious -- with a rich, golden color straight from nature's color palette!

People in Normandy typically eat milk jam as a topping for ice cream, pancakes, toasted bread, yogurt or even young cheese. I tried those, and they were all excellent. Throwing caution to the wind, I quickly progressed to the use of walnut halves, apple slices and pretzel sticks as dipping items. And then, of course, there WAS the day that the dark chocolate squares found their way to the milk jam jar …….. That was the day that the jar was emptied!

Milk jam cam be purchased throughout Normandy and, of course, in Paris (which wisely offers and employs the very best of ingredients from all of France's regions). After a fair number of perusals of U.S. markets and specialty stores, I have not yet found French-style, all-natural, milk jam available. Reluctant to turn to Internet sources on this ingredient (those jam-filled jars ARE quite heavy, as a shipping item), and not yet completely confident that I have found a good, equivalent recipe for milk jam, I have discovered one item that is similar.

Dulce de Leche (Spanish for candy of milk!) is a thick, caramel paste that can be found in the foreign-foods or baking-ingredients aisles of some supermarkets (particularly in areas which have significant Hispanic populations). The Spanish, like the French, knew a good thing when they created it and caramel, in any geography, is a winner.

This canned version of dulce de leche (the one pictured above is made in Chile) seems to be available only in the basic, caramel flavor. It is made with milk, sugar and agar (a seaweed-derived thickening agent) and contains preservative agents. Slightly thicker, and significantly sweeter than confiture de lait, this dulce de leche nevertheless satisfies those cravings for a convenient topping that will be similarly caramel-icious in any language!

Bon appetit – and buen apetito!

Friday, June 10, 2005

Zucchini Blossoms Posted by Hello

Squash Blossom Bonanza!

“I’m so disappointed with my zucchini crop! I told all my friends that I would be supplying lots of squash to them this summer but so many of the blossoms never form any squash. The big, yellow flowers are beautiful and healthy but then they just close up, wilt and that’s it. I wonder if there aren’t enough bees to pollinate them or something ………”

The Ingredient Sleuth made this statement not so very long ago. Little did I know what I was missing. Little did I know about summer squash! I shouldn’t have been disappointed with my squash but they would certainly have been justified in being disappointed with me! How wrong I was about them!

In fact, the blossoms of summer squash (zucchini, crook necked, Mexican, etc.) are edible. Being of the thrifty persuasion, though, I was still skeptical in light of that revelation. It seemed so wasteful to indulge in the blossoms, no matter how delicious and delicate they may have been, thereby forestalling the production of the squash themselves.

Wrong again! That was then – this is NOW! Bring on those blossoms and let’s cook them up!

In fact, blossoms are either male or female. Male blossoms will not – EVER – form squash. They have a thin stem and spiky calyx at the base of the flower, making them easy to distinguish. Female blossoms, in contrast, have a small baby squash at the base of the flower. In both cases, the bright yellow flowers form a trumpet shape, then open wide in a five-pointed star, then close again. The blossoms are at their peak for only one day. So, one has to be vigilant in order to harvest them at the height of their goodness.

Farmers' markets and farm stands are prime territory for squash blossoms. Generally, they are sold in bunches of a dozen or so. And, they are a true sign of summer, continuously available during the summer months. (Home growers need to be aware that the production of blossoms will be limited if the mature squash themselves are not harvested regularly from their vines – if the plant begins to “think” that its production cycle is ending, the flowers will not continue to form. So, giant-squash producers will produce a limited number of blossoms. Life inevitably comes with its choices!)

The delicate, sweet-and-fresh flavor of the blossoms is a delight! Whether raw or cooked, the blossoms are a tasty and visually-appealing ingredient. Plus, they are very low in calories and are a good source of beta carotene, vitamin C and potassium. It makes me shake my head to think of how many (male) blossoms I allowed to die on the vine, unused and unappreciated! Mea culpa!

The blossoms may be used raw, simply torn into attractive pieces and added to salads. Or, the little, yellow beauties may be torn into pieces and added to soups or risotto. They may be prepared in a variety of cooked formats, as well. Steaming or sautéing them lightly, then seasoning them with a quick dash of herbs and/or olive oil is a particularly-healthful option. The blossoms may also be battered and fried (either deeply or shallowly).

My favorite way to serve them is to create a mixture of one mild cheese (goat cheese, ricotta, mozzarella, etc.) with one herb (marjoram, oregano, basil, mint, parsley, etc.) as a filling. Then, after washing the blossoms (inside and out) and lightly drying them, I make a small slit (with the tip of sharp knife) in the side of each and use a tiny spoon (those from my espresso set work extremely well!) to place a small amount of the mixture inside. It is truly amazing that a very tiny amount of filling makes for a great explosion of flavor.

Next, I just space the filled blossoms on a lightly-oiled dish, leaving room in between them for the heat to circulate, drizzle them with a good extra-virgin olive oil, sprinkle on some salt and pepper, then cover them lightly with aluminum foil. They bake beautifully, becoming tender and turning slightly golden-brown, in a hot oven (400 to 425 degrees) in 15 to 20 minutes. Served immediately, the contrast of fresh-and-sweet blossom with pungent-rich, herbed cheese is incredible! Guaranteed to produce oohs and aahs from those around the table!

One additional note: if you decide to use the female blossoms, it is extremely elegant to harvest the blossom WITH the tiny squash attached, as a unit, and then to prepare them intact. If one has plenty of squash plants, this can be a delightful alternative! Someday, this miserly ingredient sleuth may even attempt it!

Virtually everyone agrees that summer squash blossoms are a delicious delicacy and, of course, that is absolutely correct. Looked at from my point-of-view, I am no longer WASTING those male blossoms – nor am I feeling frustrated that they don’t turn into squash. In fact, I have come to look at the squash plants as a squash blossom bonanza! A little knowledge, as usual, goes a long, long way!

Bon appetit!

Friday, June 03, 2005

Dried Lavender Flowers Posted by Hello

Lavender: A Magic Carpet of Scent & Flavor

The tiny, red ladybug's wings were a blur! There she (or he!) was, in the middle of an immense field of heavenly bliss. As far as a ladybug's eyes -- even as far as a giant's eyes -- could see, the sun reflected lushly from the deep, thick, purple carpet. The fragrance filled the air as each movement of the ladybug's delicate wings created invisible air currents to heighten the aroma. Purple visions of olfactory delight! Lavender fields of summer.

Purple, dark or light, is a color that is associated with power, with riches, with life’s good things. Little wonder then that lavender, as an aromatic herb plant, is so popular. With that gorgeous color going for it, lavender was bound to attract human attention, right from the start! One would just naturally be drawn to its beautiful color – like a ladybug to color or a hummingbird to nectar. Once focused on the plant, one would just as naturally stay right there with it, in aromatic heaven.

A member of the mint family, lavender is a perennial that returns to our gardens, year after year, to delight us. English lavender (Lavandula augustifolia) is probably the variety that we see most often. The two most-common cultivars – should you be inclined to head straight out to your local nursery, now that planting season is here – are Hidcote (a deep violet color) and Munstead (a pale “lavender” color!). Additional English lavender cultivar varieties include Twickle Purple (taller), Gary Lady (silver foliage) and Jean Davis (pink blossoms).

A different lavender variety, more-typically grown for commercial oil production purposes, is called lavandin. French lavender and Spanish lavender are not as sweet, having instead a somewhat medicinal fragrance, which is not as appropriate for cooking.

English lavenders are the best bet for culinary uses. That’s right, I said “culinary uses and cooking!” Most of us have probably been eating lavender for a long time without knowing it. It is routinely used as one of the herbs in the popular Herbs of Provence seasoning blend. Today, more and more recipes feature lavender as an ingredient in its own right!

Flowers and buds, leaves and stems, all have the characteristic aroma and flavor of lavender. For culinary use, the flowers and buds, fresh and dried, are best. Surprisingly, and unlike many other herbs, the fresh flowers are stronger than the dried. Fresh lavender’s taste is fruitier and sweeter; dried lavender has a more-pronounced herbal character, somewhat reminiscent of thyme or marjoram. So, if you are a gardener who is now casting a covetous eye on those plants in your back yard – or on those in the side yard of your neighbor – remember that you won’t need much fresh lavender to provide LOTS of flavor! Especially when it is fresh!

Specialty markets and some regular supermarkets have begun to carry dried lavender in their herbs-and-spices sections. Some, like my local Henry’s Marketplace (, offer dried lavender blossoms in bulk, which is a particularly-economical way to buy it. Lavender is astonishingly lightweight. Buy an ounce of lavender blossoms and you will be well on your way to filling up a spice bottle! (If you can find a lavender-in-bulk source, it is also not a bad place to load up on lavender blossoms for non-edible uses, by the way.)

If your local grocery sources come up short in your lavender search, it is always possible to let your fingers do the walking and head on over to some excellent Internet-based sources such as Penzeys or The Spice House ( or for herbs and spices of many varieties. When ordering, it is good to remind oneself about lavender’s light weight – a little goes a long way!

The same reminder is appropriate when you tie on your apron and get down to cooking. Lavender requires a light touch, just as vanilla does. Starting with a small amount is always a good idea, especially if one is new to the use of lavender in a culinary setting. Think “like vanilla” in regard to amounts and you will be off to an auspicious start!

In savory dishes, the underlying camphor-y, resin-y character of lavender seems to come from the same flavor palette as rosemary, thyme and savory, pairing well with them. As a result, lavender also works well with robust foods: chicken, lamb, game birds, pork, salmon, potatoes. I love to sprinkle a whisper-light dusting of lavender buds on roasted or steamed potatoes-in-jackets – or to just toss a pinch of lavender buds into the cooking water when boiling potatoes. In both cases, a little flavor “hello” results with virtually no muss or fuss.

In sweet dishes, lavender is a natural. It pairs especially well with berries, cherries, plums, walnuts, almonds, pistachios and ginger. (Imagine, if you will, lavender-scented gingerbread --something I have been meaning to attempt!). In baked goods, earthy, dried lavender combines beautifully with sugar’s sweetness. Pound cake and buttery shortbread, in particular, are subtle enough to allow the lavender flavor to really shine through.

The following recipe comes from THE FOOD LOVER’S GUIDE TO PARIS, 4th Edition, by Patricia Wells, Workman Publishing, New York:

(Sables a la Lavande Tea Follies)

1-3/4 cups (250 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup (100 g) sugar
8 tablespoons (4 ounces; 120 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 egg
1 tablespoon dried lavender flowers or fresh rosemary leaves
Pinch of salt

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Line two baking sheets with cooking parchment.

2. In a large bowl, combine the flour and sugar. Then, using a fork, slowly incorporate the butter, egg, lavender, and salt, working the mixture into a soft dough. Transfer it to a floured work surface and knead into a ball. Roll the cookie dough to a ¼-inch (7-mm) thickness; then cut it into about thirty-six ½-inch (6-cm) cookies.

3. Transfer the rounds to the prepared baking sheets, place the baking sheets in the oven, and bake until evenly brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer the cookies to a baking rack to cool.

Yield: About 36 cookies

*Copyright Note*: Patricia Wells specifically authorized this recipe reprint, by the Ingredient Sleuth, in this posting.

These cookies are smoothly-delicious, with the refreshingly-bright note of dried lavender flowers. They are served at the Tea Follies tea salon in Paris’ 9th arrondissement and, like many French baked items, avoid being over-sugared. As a result, the true flavors of the non-sugar ingredients shine through. Delectable!

Patricia Wells is a notable author in today’s culinary universe and recently received the 2005 James Beard Award, Best International Cookbook, for THE PROVENCE COOKBOOK, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 2004. That award goes very well, I am sure, with the numerous other awards that she has amassed to date, for her other delightful books!

Ms. Wells is the only foreigner to have served as food critic for the French weekly news magazine L’EXPRESS and is currently restaurant critic for THE INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE. Originally from Wisconsin, she divides her time between two home locations, Paris and Provence, France, both of which also serve as teaching locations for her popular multi-day cooking courses. Her website is filled with up-to-date information about her books and cooking courses and also includes a comprehensive archive of her IHT reviews of restaurants worldwide(

Ms. Wells’ outstanding guide to the culinary scene in Paris (from which the lavender cookies recipe comes), is a treasure trove of ideas and information for the food-oriented visitor. Not only for those of the cooking persuasion, though, the guidebook features restaurants, cafes, bistros, pastry shops, bakeries, tea salons, wine bars, cheese shops, prepared-foods shops, chocolate shops, kitchenware shops, recipes and enough photographs to satisfy even armchair travelers.

Descriptions in all categories focus on real content, not just the typical, basic data of general travel guidebooks. Narrative descriptions fill in the details that provide the context and background that go into making each location uniquely itself – and uniquely interesting to the visitor, as a result.

Perhaps, like me, you will read a bit as you eat some of the freshly-baked lavender cookies. Silently store away plans for that next visit to Paris -- or reminisce about the last one. Daydream briefly about tasty dishes at street-side café tables and brilliant purple lavender in Provencal gardens. Idyllic? Certainly! And snug as a bug in a lavender rug!

Bon appetit!