Cécilia’s Cake

Praline Cake Close

My friend Cécilia is one of those bakers that knows just when to add a touch of this or that. She had me over for tea last week and made a gorgeous gâteau aux pralines from her own recipe.

The term “praline” means so many different things: chocolate in Belgium, pecans in Georgia, and in this case, candied almonds. The small town of Roanne, France, has a pastry shop that is nationally known for the founder’s version of a brioche with candied almonds: the original “Praluline” ?? a play on the chef’s name, Auguste Pralus, and the word “praline.” The concoction became an instant hit, winning Pralus the national “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” (best artisan in France) award in 1955. Many Roannais pastry shops have imitated it, but the “true” recipe remains a secret to this day.

Praline Cake

Cécilia’s praline cake was also based on a brioche recipe, but was moist (preferable to the Praluline, in my opinion) and not too sweet, which really brought out the flavor of the almonds. In her experience, it is better to let the dough rise at least 12 hours, but even though this one only rose for a few hours, I thought it was perfect.

Cécilia has hinted at creating her own blog to share her recipes and beautiful travel photos. I hope she will!

Praline Cake Slice

Drama on the Seine

Seine at Night
The beautiful ?? but choppy ?? waters of the Seine.

The Seine river is the place to be on a Saturday evening. From candle-lit picnics to tango dancing, there’s something for everyone, drawn to the water by some primordial urge for the lapping of waves or the constant, reassuring flow of water. It’s a romantic walk, from the quays near Notre Dame to the far-reaches of the 13th arrondissement, which I highly recommend when the weather cooperates, and was our main event this past Saturday.

But the Seine is also notoriously dangerous: in 1843, Victor Hugo‘s daughter and her husband drowned in the river when their taxi boat capsized, and the swift currents have carried off many victims over the centuries. In my research of 19th-century newspapers I often come upon articles about drownings in the Seine ?? young boys carried off, workers accidentally falling in only to be swept away, futile rescue attempts… This river is more wild than it appears, with often-changing water levels (many times flooding), a violent undertow, and a steady flow of river boat traffic.

While enjoying the former, romantic side of the Seine on Saturday evening, we came across a reminder of the latter. Just west of Notre Dame we noticed a small crowd gathering to look into the water. I thought maybe someone had dropped something, or perhaps a dog had fallen in (we often see dogs swimming in the Seine, which is worrisome to say the least). We glanced over the quay and sure enough, it was a man.

Seine Guy in WaterOnly the silhouette of his head was visible, which meant he was a strong enough swimmer to be treading water beneath the surface. He was staying close to the edge, which was smart, but there was no ladder in sight. A floating jazz bar, however, was not too far away and there was a tire hanging from it that appeared within arm’s reach. He made his way over to it, but must have been tired because he had trouble grabbing the tire. People began to take notice of the situation, however, and the jazz music soon stopped while several workers from the bar scrambled to find something for the fallen man to grab onto.

Luckily, the man operating the floating bar was very quick to grab a long ladder and put it over the side of the boat. He climbed down to rescue the man, but once it was clear he could climb up himself, he did so, and was finally safely out of the water. We couldn’t tell if he was with a group of concerned friends or if only curious passers-by made up the surrounding crowd. In any case, there was a collective sigh of relief when he was finally out.

Seine Guy Climbing
The man who had fallen in is able to walk up the ladder.

The rescuers arrived shortly thereafter and I directed them to the scene of the incident, telling them to speak with the man at the floating bar, who had rescued the man from the water. Several boats full of sapeurs-pompiers were on the scene, some of them in wetsuits. This is a highly-skilled, hard-core group. We’ve seen them in the Seine before: the following photo is from last April (we’re not sure if this was an Lose Weight Exercise or if they were diving for something or someone in particular).

Sapeurs Pompiers
The sapeurs-pompiers diving for…something? 

In any case, the incident Saturday night and the serious emergency response made the lesson clear: be very careful about falling into the Seine, an accident that should never be taken lightly. The river has become a fixture of daily life in Paris, but we should never underestimate the danger beneath the surface.

Quilt Progress

Quilt Close

Thanks to the wonderfully talented Lazy Gal Tonya, I am well on my way to finishing this baby quilt!

The colors are a little crazy, and the material not ideal (the cotton provençal prints are quite thick), but I think the final product will be a playful design that a little kid can have some fun with.

My initial design was to have a block in the center of the same yellow fabric that makes up the outer bands:

Provencal Quilt Pieces
Laying out the pieces and strips, before the final sewing

But I had just enough leftover material in green, which we thought really played up the contrasts. These prints are so crazy, the yellow sort of got lost in the middle, so here is the final design, with a green center:

Provencal Quilt Progress
The final layout, all pieced together thanks to Tonya’s pinning and sewing machine!

The next step will be attaching this top to the batting and back material. Tonya has some bright red material that we think will be just perfect! I will then need to decide whether I will actually quilt the three layers together or use yarn ties. I am leaning towards the ties, which should be quicker, but think that we can possibly play with some geometric designs with the sewing machine, too. Of course, to a baby and then toddler, the ties may be more fun!

Jardin Geometry

Luxembourg Urn

Last weekend I went with a talented friend to the Jardin du Luxembourg and Montparnasse, to embark on what she calls a “photo safari.” The goal was to practice using my new camera: a digital Canon EOS Rebel XTI. Before the safari, I knew how to use the “automatic” and “close-up” settings, as well as how to switch from automatic focusing to manual. Impressive as I know those talents sound, I really do have a long way to go in learning about aperture, shutter speed, and so much more.

Luxembourg Tree LinesOne aspect of photography, which doesn’t have much to do with the camera, is composition. We found all sorts of interesting perspectives and geometrical shots. Angles here and there, triangles, intersecting lines…
My goal in taking a shot is to find an “anchor” in the foreground, contrasting shades and shapes, and interesting lines, like the shot to the right.

Most importantly, I have to get comfortable taking lots and lots of pictures, and more often! I have a tendency to keep the camera in its protective bag, inside another bag, so when I want to shoot, I have to unzip twice, pull it out, take off the lens cap…in the mean time, the sun has gone behind a cloud, or the perfect people-shot moment has passed. That’s why the photo safari is all about camera-in-hand at all times. It was a blast and I think I’m making progress – and I hope the pictures show it.

Montparnasse Church

Luxembourg Triangle

Montparnasse Church 2

Luxembourg Trees

Monterey, California

Monterey Boats

My sister lives in Monterey, a small coastal town known for its Spanish colonial history & architecture, world-renowned aquarium on the bay, and its famous native son, John Steinbeck.

Monterey Bay Sunset
Sunset view from Fisherman’s Wharf

Fisherman??s Grotto GreeterWe used some frequent flyer miles to go visit, flying into San Francisco and renting a car (for cheap – using Hotwire). Our first stop after arriving in the late afternoon was Fisherman’s Wharf. Though filled with some cheesy touristy shops, it’s still retained some authentic charm (unlike the Wharf in San Francisco, for example). Dinner at Old Fisherman’s Grotto was the highlight: it’s been run by the same family for almost 60 years and is also where my parents dined on their honeymoon in 1976. The owner (and a statue of his father) greet you at the door, creating a welcoming and familial atmosphere from the start. Beautiful picture windows line the bay side of the restaurant and the food was divine: sipping a local white wine made classic chowder in a bread bowl into a fancy meal (trust the owner’s wine suggestions: we were very pleased). The seafood appetizers were delicious as well, and I ordered a local specialty, sand dabs, for my main course. Best of all, Old Fisherman’s Grotto participates in the Seafood Watch program to ensure the seafood they serve is both healthy to eat and sustainable to the marine environment.

Monterey Warf
Fisherman’s Wharf to the right and the marina, at left

The old city of Monterey itself is pedestrian-friendly and filled with book stores and little artsy boutiques. Even the Wells Fargo bank building is architecturally interesting with a large vaulted ceiling and painted wooden beams. Stop in to check it out. You can follow little circular bronze plaques for a walking tour of historic Monterey, which will take you to all of the old adobe buildings and homes.

Aquarium Glass
The two-story kelp forest, site of educational scuba shows.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is what most people see when they visit, and I will warn you: entrance fees are surprisingly high at around $25/person. But when you consider all that they do for the local environment to keep Monterey Bay the way it is, it really is worth a few bucks more than a ticket to MoMA. I would even suggest joining if you plan to visit twice in a year. It’s a good cause.

Aquarium Jellies
The Jellyfish wing, my favorite exhibit

Aquarium Rock Fish

Rockfish populations have decreased dramatically in the last 30 years. Because they live for about 100 years and reproduce relatively late in their lives, they are easily over-fished. Now that I know this, I will no longer order them in restaurants. Rock fish are more commonly known as red snapper.

Aquarium White Invertibrate

Aquarium White Jelly
A Jellyfish bids farewell for now…

Mesh Stitch

Mesh Stitch

When inspiration escapes me, or I just feel like working on a mindless knitting project while watching a movie, I knit little squares out of leftover cotton yarn. Eventually these will become hand towels for the kitchen, or maybe a blanket if I produce enough. They’re simple and not destined for a particular project so the pressure is off and I can experiment with new stitches.

Knit Blanket SquaresLast night I figured out a mesh stitch. This stitch is worked over a multiple of 4 stitches, which posed a bit of a problem, since the plain stockinette squares I’ve already made (see example at right) are 31 stitches wide. 31 stitches minus 4 stitches of border (2 on each side) is 27, so there had to be an extra three stitches divided over the ends (one on the right, two on the left). It’s not symmetrical, but hey, we’re just experimenting here! (Besides, these squares will look so much better once they’re blocked. Eek – look at that uneven blue square!)

The mesh stitch would actually be a great pattern to use for making dish clothes or wash clothes, since it is thicker, sturdier, and has more of a scrubbing surface than the plain moss stitch I’ve usually used. I think a few of these squares sewn together and with a crochet border would be a cute vintage-looking addition to a kitchen or bath.

This is what I did:

Cast on 31 stitches.
Rows 1 & 2: *k1,p1* repeat from * 15 times, k last st
Row 3: k1, p1, k1, *yo, s1, k2, pass slipped st over these 2 st* repeat from * 8 times, k2, p1, k1
Row 4: k1, p29, k1
Row 5: k1, p1, *sl, k2, pass slipped st over these 2 st, yo* repeat from * 9 times, k1, p1
Row 6: k1, p29, k1
Repeat rows 3-6 seven more times
Rows 35&36: *k1,p1* repeat from * 15 times, k last st
Bind off.

Pissarro at the Milwaukee Art Museum

 Milwaukee Art Museum

I couldn’t leave Milwaukee last month without a trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). It’s one of my favorite museums because it houses a broad range of art for its size, with examples of virtually every major artistic period in its collection. The museum also exhibits some important examples of folk art, American design, Haitian art, and photography. The most obvious work of art here is the building itself: the new addition, designed by Santiago Calatrava and opened in 2001, resembles a bird with wings that open and close.

Until September 9th, MAM is holding an exhibition entitled “Pissarro: Creating the Impressionist Landscape,” which focuses on the artist’s landscape painting from the 1860s and 1870s. This period was a formative one for Pissarro, who evolved from the realist tradition of the Barbizon school to a new impressionistic aesthetic, the theory of which he helped found.Pissarro Strollers

The exhibition shows fifty of Pissarro’s paintings, arranged in chronological order. This arrangement highlights the contrast between his earlier, more academic paintings, and the artist’s experiments with color and brush-strokes into the 1870s. A wall-sized map of Paris and its environs indicates the locations Pissarro worked on landscapes and countryside scenes such as his 1864 Strollers on a Country Road, La Varenne-Saint-Hilaire (at right).

My favorite Pissarro painting, Hoarfrost at Ennery (below), is one of the last on display. After showing it at the Impressionist exhibition of 1874, Pissarro was fiercely criticized for painting shadows of trees that lie outside the boundaries of the canvas, a technique which gives the painting depth and interest. What is most striking is the geometric composition of the scene, with criss-crossing diagonal lines dividing the plane into large fields of contrasting warm and cool colors. It should come as no surprise, then, that Paul Cézanne ?? whose paintings are so geometrically composed many consider him a proto-cubist ?? was a pupil of Pissarro’s.

Pisarro Painting
Pissarro, Hoarfrost at Ennery, 1873

We took advantage of the afternoon and stayed at the museum until closing.  As soon as we walked out of the building, MAM’s “wings” began to close, so I snapped some quick shots of the action.

Museum Wing 1

Museum Wing 2

Museum Wing 3

Moving Across the Seine

When we left Paris in late June we also left our former apartment in the Marais neighborhood. We returned to Paris and to a whole new daily life in our new place, in the Latin Quarter.

Pantheon at Sunset
The Pantheon at sunset, just a few blocks away.

I’m still exploring the neighborhood: I took a “wrong” turn just last night and discovered a little cobblestone street I hadn’t noticed, down the block from the new apartment.Jardin des Plantes Statue Small

When we first scoped out the new place in the fifth arrondissement, we were thrilled with its proximity to the Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden which has on its grounds the Museum of Natural History. Although many parts of it are geometrically arranged and well-manicured, the Jardin des Plantes tends to feel more wild and relaxed than the Jardin du Luxembourg on the other side of the arrodissement.

Across the street from one of the entrances to the garden is the Parisian Mosque (La Grande Mosquée de Paris), a beautiful structure built in the 1920s that has since been a cultural center for Parisian Muslim life. Muslim or not, anyone may sit in the peaceful courtyard restaurant and enjoy a glass of the best mint tea this side of the Mediterranean.

Mosquee de Paris
La Grande Mosquée de Paris

Wandering around has unveiled other treasures: hidden gardens, an antique arena, and the city wall from the reign of of Philippe Auguste (1180-1223), which happens to make up one of the walls in our building.

Hidden Park
A little park we stumbled upon. The grass here is not off-limits…for once! 

Best of all, we’re only a short walk from our old hang-outs in the Marais, so we can still have the best of both the left and the right bank.

Berry Tart

Berry Tart Close

My first trip to the outdoor market at Place Monge (open Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday) was a success: I took a friend’s advice and went about an hour before it was closing town (things start to wind down around 1:30pm), and got some great deals on fresh fruits and vegetables. Ratatouille (zuchini, eggplant, red peppers, and tomatoes), leek soup, and green salads (two heads of lettuce for a euro!) are all on the menu for the next couple of days.

Berries Fresh One fruit vendor was desperate to get his berries moving: he was selling each small basket (barquette) for a euro instead of 2.80. I bought 5: 3 strawberries and 2 blackberries. Granted, these fruits have seen better days, but they are perfect for a fruit tart, the recipe for which I’ve been developing in my head, with no hands-on experience yet.

So here’s my first version of my berry tart recipe:

What you need:
Lots and lots of assorted berries (about 2-3 pints)
Pâte brisée (I am cheating and buying this pre-made; it’s still amateur hour)
3 tablespoons polenta (to absorb extra liquid)
3 tablespoons sugar
2 eggwhites, beaten
2 tablespoons milk (I wanted to use cream, but had used the last drop in my coffee)

What to do:
~Pre-heat oven to about 180 C or 350 F
~Rinse the berries and remove the stems from strawberries. Chop any larger strawberries in half.

Strawberries Fresh

~Spread out the dough in a tart pan and sprinkle with the polenta. This is supposed to soak up extra liquid. I’ve also read about using crumbled cookies.
~Arrange the berries face-down on top of the dough.
~Sprinkle the berries with the sugar and drizzle the eggwhites on top.

Sugar-Sprinkled Berries

~Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes.
~Refrigerate for an hour.
~Serve cold, sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Berry Tart

Better next time:
I’d like to try adding a taste of vanilla extract or vanilla-flavored sugar. I think the crumbled cookies would probably work better at soaking up the excess liquid, because this version was still a little runnier than I’d prefer. Not a bad first try, though, and this method is less complicated than most berry tart recipes I’ve found elsewhere.

To find an outdoor vegetable market in Paris, click here for a complete list by arrondissement.

Happy Minnesota Memories


I am relieved that our family and friends in the Twin Cities are safe after the horrific bridge collapse in Minneapolis Wednesday evening. My thoughts are with the families of the victims and the entire community.

As my homage to Minnesota, I thought it was appropriate to post about my recent trip there. Two weeks ago, my mom and I spent a weekend in St. Paul to see my sister, Monica and her husband Jeff. We managed to cram in a lot of summer fun before having to leave Monday morning.

StPaul Truck

Upon arrival, our first stop was to the outdoor music and art festival going on in a park not too far from my sister’s place. We heard an alt country band while sitting on the grass and feasting on the Minnesota festival specialty: Fried Anything ?? almost as popular as the Anything On A Stick. Monica enlightened me about the vast array of foods served on sticks, including pork chops and spaghetti (how do they do it, you ask? ball up spaghetti, dip it in batter, and deep fry it, of course!) The deep fried cheese curds were divine. It sounds crazy, but my sister’s French Canadian sister-in-law recommended I order them with ketchup. Je suis d’accord.

StPaul Cheese Curds Sign

StPaul Cheese Curds

After Sunday brunch and the Grandview Grill, an old-school diner and home of the original cajun breakfast, we spent the afternoon at the same festival. During the day, however, all the art stalls were open. One artist was making the coolest wind chimes out of antique silverware. He bent a single fork in such a way that it looked like a man and woman dancing. Amazing eye for finding the possibilities in such an ordinary object.

StPaul Buying Nuts

A major highlight was the kettle corn my sister had me try. I have the impression I’ve heard of this before, but wow, I have never tasted popcorn so airy and subtly sweet. Because of the giant kettle used to prepare it, the corn gets a crisp outer shell. Seasoned with salt and just a touch of sugar, it’s the best popcorn I’ve had. Seriously. It even beats that crazy Chicago mix of cheese, butter, and caramel I used to crave.

StPaul Kettle Corn

StPaul Buying Popcorn

Say what you will about Minnesota, but St. Paul has a kind of free and accepting attitude that I find refreshing. Don’t want to weed your garden? No problem! Let it grow! Walking around and seeing all the century-old houses with beautiful, wild secret gardens made me want to sign right up. I suppose I should go back in January before jumping in…

StPaul FLowers

StPaul Wall

Oh yes, and my favorite singer, Mason Jennings, is from Minnesota.