Cream soda, anyone?

Saturday evening, we went to a little Christmas party with friends, which featured a “White Elephant” gift exchange. Just like last year, we each had to bring a gift that cost less than 5€. Michel and I ended up with a set of six “tapas glasses” — which we’re going to use as lowball glasses — and a box of …

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Bottle Caps

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Continue reading Cream soda, anyone?

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That was one FAT Tuesday!

Last year, I wrote a fairly popular article about Mardi Gras. In it, I talked about the HBO series Treme, my attraction to the city of New Orleans, the history of Mardi Gras celebrations there, and the story of my first attempt at making a New Orleans King Cake. It was really quite informative and pretty entertaining. (In case you missed it, that was a plug for you to go read it. Go ahead … you can get to it from here.) The article got a lot of hits this Mardi Gras season, too, apparently from people searching for the correct way to pronounce “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” — that infamous Cajun expression that absolutely no one says in France … except for Americans!

To be honest, last year’s attempt at making a New Orleans King Cake here in France bore almost no resemblance to the real thing. Since we didn’t have an oven, we had to depend on the local bakery for our brioche, and they just don’t make brioche here in Paris in the form of a ring or crown. On top of that, we couldn’t find colored sugar or the right food colorings at the local supermarket, so we improvised with candied fruit. And in place of the little plastic Baby Jesus, we used a ceramic Virgin Mary, the fève from one of our several galettes des rois from the Epiphany season. The result — as delicious as it most certainly was — looked more like a shrine to Our Lady of Candy Land than a King Cake.

King Cake à la je parle américaine—You have to work with what you've got! © 2012 Michel Denis Pouradier
King Cake à la je parle américaine — You have to work with what you’ve got! © 2012 Michel Denis Pouradier

This year, I tried my hand at it once again, and the result was a much better approximation of the real thing. Continue reading That was one FAT Tuesday!

Sugar Daze

Two big things happened in my life this week:

I reached the weight loss
goal I’d set for myself earlier this year …

… and I celebrated that fact with the best cupcakes
an American can find in Paris!

Back in July, you see, a blogger friend embarked on an epic a quest to find the best cupcakes in Paris and document the results for the world. Incidentally — perhaps fortunately for me — this all came about when I was also embarking on an epic quest … to lose the 25 pounds I’d packed on since coming to live in France. (Blasted croissants!) I say “fortunately” because I was forced to indulge vicariously in my friend’s cupcake caper … instead of following in her wake and packing on yet another 5 pounds!

Nevertheless, as soon as I reached my weight loss goal on Thursday, I knew exactly how I was going to celebrate. I dug out Nikki email’s announcing the champion of the cupcake competition, and I went in search of my victory prize at Sugar Daze! Continue reading Sugar Daze

Pumpkin Spice!

A few weeks ago, I noticed certain posts popping up on Facebook that made me wax nostalgic for fall in America. They were all about the arrival of:

The Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte

© 2011 Starbucks Corporation

Ah, the memories of that delectable autumnal con-coction that has eluded me now for years! Living here in France and rarely traveling back to my homeland between September and December, I had resigned myself to the likelihood that I might never again savor this cinnamon- and nutmeg-laced libation to the gods of falling leaves. After all, I knew from firsthand experience that the French don’t quite understand the pumpkin … at least not a sweet, spiced one …

You see, on my very first Thanksgiving in France, I was psychologically scarred by my French family. Back in 2010, I decided to treat them to a real American Thanksgiving dinner. I even went to an American specialty store in the Marais (called Thanksgiving, by the way) to get all the necessary ingredients to make a real Thanksgiving feast. Now, my French family simply adored the stuffing and the homemade cranberry sauce. The pumpkin pie, on the other hand, well … it just confused them:

“Hmm. Interesting. It would make a good appetizer. You know, with a side salad,” was my sister-in-law’s reaction.

Alrighty then … no more pumpkin pies for the Frenchies. Continue reading Pumpkin Spice!

Bottle Shock

The French and wine. What can you say? They go together like a horse and carriage, right? In fact, after the Vatican City (communion wine?) and Luxembourg (which everyone overlooks), France is the country with the highest level of per capita wine consumption at almost 46 liters (12 gallons) a year. (By comparison, the United States’s per capita consumption is less than 10 liters, or 2.5 gallons, a year.) The French also produce more wine than any other country: over 4.6 billion liters (1.2 billion gallons) in 2010!

The wine section of a Paris convenience store. Notice how it's 3 times bigger than the beer section.
The wine section of a Paris convenience store. Notice how it’s 3 times bigger than the beer section.

We all know, too, that the quality of French wine is superb. No country becomes known for its wines without a long history of top-notch products. But we Americans also know how to make some exceptional wines (even if we don’t drink them up at the rate the French do). I sometimes point out that the best pinot noir in the world comes from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. (Don’t get me wrong — I’m no wine connoisseur or anything. It’s just that I’ve read that tidbit somewhere, so I try to sound as authoritative as possible when I repeat it to French people.) And, of course, you’ve all seen the movie Bottle Shock, right? Bottle Shock — “Le Choc  … de Bouteille“? The movie about how a Napa Valley chardonnay beat the pants off the best French wines in a blind tasting by a panel of Parisian judges? Oh, was that censored in France?

Well, the newest addition to the stream of American wines trouncing their French competition is Southern Sunrise BlushContinue reading Bottle Shock

Carrot Cake, Part Deux

Photo: Michel‘s first carrot cake © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

We have an expression to describe something that’s quintessentially American: “as American as apple pie.” The truth be told, though, apple pie isn’t all that American; they have apple pies in every culture where folks grow apples, and the French themselves make some pretty amazing variations of this “American” dessert. On the other hand, it’s pretty difficult to find a dessert more American than carrot cake. Even though it’s known here in France, it still has an air of mystery about it. It’s not at all easy to find, except in some American bakeries (like my favorite, Sugarplum) and at Starbucks (although I don’t recommend a mass-produced carrot cake that’s been deep-frozen, shipped from who knows what cake factory, and then thawed out in a display case).

If you’ve been following my story here on je parle américain, you probably remember that last summer, when Michel and I were babysitting our niece and nephew in Metz, we introduced the kids to this dessert that had recently become a favorite of their Tonton Miko (that’s Michel). The kids had a great afternoon helping us mix the cake but, when it was finally out of the oven and iced with homemade cream cheese icing, they refused to even taste it. A cake with CARROTS in it? Yeah. Not so popular with the four- to seven-year-old crowd. It wasn’t half bad for a recipe from the internet, but it wasn’t a great success either — even with the adults. Continue reading Carrot Cake, Part Deux

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

About a week ago, I stumbled upon Tremé, an HBO series set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It’s the story of several New Orleanians struggling to rebuild their lives after the catastrophe. On a grander scale, it paints a poignant picture of a unique culture determined to preserve itself against the odds. In a few days’ time, I had already watched the entire first season; I hadn’t felt such an immediate attraction to a television series in a very long time, and I simply couldn’t stop watching it. The music and the scenery brought back memories of my first and only visit to New Orleans a few years after the hurricane, and I decided that I needed to see it again one day and show its magic to Michel.

© Home Box Office, Inc.
© Home Box Office, Inc.

And, of course, all this happened in the days leading right up to Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras, meaning “Fat Tuesday,” is a Christian holiday marking the end of the season of Epiphany and the beginning of the season of self-sacrifice called Lent (or Carême, in French). It’s the culmination of Carnival season, when you’re expected to indulge (notably in fatty foods—hence the name) in advance of the solemn season that follows. If you’ve ever been to New Orleans—whether at Carnival season or even in November—you know that no one does decadence quite like the Crescent City : think shrimp po’ boys and spicy gumbo, warm beignets dusted with powdered sugar at Café du Monde, and Hurricanes in go-cups.

But why does New Orleans indulge so well? Perhaps it’s because the city can trace its very origins—however tenuously—back to Mardi Gras :

Continue reading Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Why Coke Tastes Better in France

Photo: “Celebrate 125 years of the legend.” A Coca-Cola anniversary giveaway at Place de la République, Paris, January 2012. © 2012 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

So, while we’re on the subject of American cultural exports, let’s consider Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola is certainly the most widely-recognized American export to the world: certainly more so than Ford, or Levis, or even McDonalds. Here in France, ordering “un Coca” is as commonplace as ordering “a Coke” back in the U.S., but there is a difference here—and I’m not just talking about slightly smaller cans and much higher prices—I’m talking about the taste.

To be upfront about this, I haven’t been a “regular” Coke drinker for quite some time. With my metabolism, I just can’t afford all those extra calories, so I almost always drink Coke Zero. Every now and then, though, when I want to splurge, I do have regular Coke (or “Coca normal” here). The first time I drank a Coca normal here in France, I was struck by how good it tasted! Was it that I hadn’t had one in a while? Or was it some special recipe for the French market? (I knew that in certain markets, the recipe is tweaked to appeal to local tastebuds.) Continue reading Why Coke Tastes Better in France

What is it with the French and Peanut Butter?

Living in France, you quickly take note of the big cultural differences: the French speak French, they complain about everything almost as much as I do, they have a knack for nonchalance par excellence (which I’m still working on acquiring), they are still champion smokers. After a while, you also pick up on the little things … like obsession with peanut butter.

It’s a really funny observation when it first strikes you. Peanut butter is not at all a common food item in France. When you go to the supermarket, you see lots and lots of jellies and jams of every conceivable flavor (including at least a dozen varieties of plums), an entire section of Nutella, more varieties of honey than you knew existed, and chocolate … shelves and shelves of really good chocolate. But you don’t see a lot of peanut butter. It’s still “exotic” here. Little French boys and girls never grew up on PB&J sandwiches the way we did. That’s why, I think, the French are absolutely enamored of this most American of foods. The proof: my luggage every time I travel back from the United States. Continue reading What is it with the French and Peanut Butter?

In Search of a Pancake

I’ve yet to find a restaurant in Paris where I can get really good American-style pancakes. (Not that I ‘ve stopped looking, mind you.) Of course, France is home to the crêpe—arguably the most amazing pancake ever invented—and I do love a good crêpe (or two) every now and then. But sometimes, you’re just jonesin’ for a stack like they have back home.

Continue reading In Search of a Pancake