The Cutest Wombat Bento Box by Pudding Pie Lane

I don’t watch TV much these days but I’m hooked on Top Chef. It showcases France’s up and coming professional chefs, as they battle it out in front of the daunting cameras – all sweat and tears to seduce the eyes and tastebuds of the discerning jury with their innovative dishes based on each set task. The jury? We’re talking Thierry Marx, Jean-François Piege, Ghislaine Arabian, and Christian Constant, s’il vous plaît. One of the surprising tasks last week was to come up with an artistic and healthily balanced bento box. The additional jury was even tougher this time: a group of sophisticated 8-year-old French children.

Bento boxes are something I only discovered recently by visiting Xinmei Wang’s blog, Pudding Pie Lane. If you don’t already know it, then I urge you to check it out. Xinmei’s creatively cute bento boxes are what first caught my eye, then I returned for more doses of her sense of humour. You get a glimpse into her life as a student while at Cambridge University. Yes, Xinmei is a clever cookie and in her spare time in between essay writing, she skillfully bakes and cooks up dishes not only on a limited budget but with the minimum of equipment, perfecting the art of getting by on a microwave. Let me hand you over to Xinmei.

Ever wondered how to be a food blogger as a student, meaning a very stretched budget? I like baking and everything I do is in my spare time (often procrastinating from writing my 10th essay of the term!) I study Economics at Cambridge so have never taken any courses related to baking or cooking, I’ve taught myself from various cookbooks, but occasionally like to make up my own recipes to ‘see what happens’. I especially love baking for my friends at Uni and more recently making bento boxes after I saw them on another site. Not only are they a (quite literally) healthy break from the cakes and cookies, but also look incredibly cute!

You may wonder how I manage to make this bento box in my tiny puny midget University kitchen (aka ‘gyp room’), with just a microwave, kettle and toaster. How did I cook the eggs? How did I boil the rice? And just how did I manage to make the wombat/bear/generic-furry-animal bento so astoundingly amazingly awesomely cute?

For the first two, that’s the Art Of Getting By On A Microwave. For the third one, well, that’s a secret 😉

At my University we’re all catered, so we have limited cooking means, and I’ve often had to make do. I don’t go to the hall to eat very often, however Harry Potteresque Cambridge University dining halls looks like (or should I say ‘however Cambridge-esque Harry Potter looks like!’). Maybe because we have to eat by candlelight at dinner every night. This may sound cool, but the novelty wears off when you’ve accidentally eaten sponge cake instead of chicken.

Not that I have ever done this. But anyway, I’m going to show you how you can make this bento in your very own box of a ‘gyp room’ so you can make one yourself!

You will need:

1. Rice! How to cook them in the microwave? Well:

  • Buy/borrow/find a pyrex bowl with a lid.
  • Put 1 cup of rice in it and rinse the rice. Soak with just over 1 cup of warm water for 15 minutes minimum (this is important!).
  • Microwave, with the lid on, on HIGH for 5 minutes.
  • Stir the rice around to get all the uncooked bits evenly distributed.
  • Do this two more times, or until the rice seems cooked when you stir it. It will depend on your microwave.

2. Eggs!

  • boil them in the kettle (see the bottom of this post). After it is boiled and cooked, separate the yolk from the white and mix it with the rice to colour it yellow. This makes said rice taste creamy and yummy.
  • You can even make scrambled eggs in the microwave by cracking them into a bowl, adding milk and seasonings, then microwaving in about 2 or 3 thirty second bursts (stirring between each one).
  • (I have, however, yet to figure out how to make eggs in the toaster.)

It’s a funny thing about eggs, because, well….

…please don’t judge me, but this one time, I went out to eat at a very posh restaurant where the menus have words like ‘mouli’ and ‘pousse café’. You see, one of the things was some chicken and ‘hen’s egg’ dish. And, seeing that, my thought process went something like this:

1)    Oooh! Hen’s egg! I’ve never had that before.

2)    I’m going to order it.

3)    That was very yummy.

4)    Wait a second.

5)    Hm.

6)    A hen’s egg is just an egg.

7)    Oops.

My friends have never let me forget that.
So moving swiftly on, here is a nice photo of the steps needed to make the wombat bento. You can put anything you like in the bento as extras, I have used random bits of veg, crabsticks, dumplings and pork fritters. You will also need:

  • Seaweed sushi nori for the eyes and mouth
  • Black sesame seeds for the eyelashes
  • Ham for the ears
  • A mushroom (I used a date instead, but you might find that a bit strange) for the nose
  • Ketchup for the cheeks

Et voila! You are done. I hope you like it!

Thanks so much, Xinmei. I think the Top Chef contestants could have done with checking out your bento box for their task last week, especially since one of the young jury members said she hoped to see a bento box with a cute bear’s head and none of them had this wombat beauty. The chefs could have also impressed the jury by telling them it was made with hens’ eggs! You know, I ate out in Paris last night (yes, hubby took me out after 7 months, bless him, so it was posh to shut me up) and the first item on the menu was…”oeuf de poule...” It cracked me up!

I say this is the cutest bento box but believe me, Xinmei has many more wonderful creations over at Pudding Pie Lane: check out her bento panda (‘Pandi’.) Please say hello from me and try not to make any hen jokes.

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Cookies

It’s already the second week of the mid-term school winter holidays. The children have had a ball with sleep-overs, ‘hanging out’ chez les amis (‘playing’ is now banned from our vocabulary.) On return from their friends’ homes, they described what they had for dinner and, top of the list, what was for goûter at 4pm official French snack time. They raved about their friends’ homemade cookies. You know, Mum, they made the most incredible cookies; they made them all by themselves; these cookies were the most incredible biscuits we’ve ever had: they put chocolate chips in them, M&Ms, marshmallows…

I’ve never been interested in cookies but this echoed, and echoed:
“Mum, can we ever get to make cookies one day?”

What?! I could feel myself standing to my full height. After all the choux buns, éclairs, financiers, chocolate fondants, pancakes, crêpes – oh, and years of macarons – they’ve never actually made homemade cookies? What kind of a mum is that? Wait a minute, we have melting moments together, don’t we? Yes, but they don’t include chocolate chips.

When I mentioned the friends’ cookies, my Mum burst into hysterics. Apparently, I’m Granny’s double: Mum used to come home from a friend’s house, also raving about what she’d eaten there and my Granny would throw a wobbly. Nobody could be better than my proud, Scottish Granny. What? She served you tinned mandarines and you think that’s better than what you get here? I didn’t even realise that I demonstrated the same. Exactly the same. Thanks, Mum.

You want cookies like your friends? I’ll give you cookies.

Peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies recipe

To make it up to them, I needed inspiration from my blogging friends for cookies that used peanut butter. You see, Julie has just discovered peanut butter and her world is going nutty. Can you imagine, only now? Let’s get something straight: peanut butter is not something the French keep in their store cupboards. I hear you: I’m a Scot – but I’m more French these days for better or for worse.

I found many super peanut butter recipes from Tina of Flourtrader (including salted pretzels), from Liz of That Skinny Chick Can Bake (she revealed she’s giving up eating raw cookie dough for Lent), a secret recipe club cookie from Danielle at A Day in the Life via Manu’s Menu, and another recipe at Sweets by Sillianah (which includes jam hearts.) My problem (one of them, ahem..) is that so many recipes deal in cups; I prefer grams and, as we didn’t have time with the heart part, had no pretzels and not enough chocolate chips, we wildly adapted a mix of the recipes and came up with this.

The girls did a great job. The texture wasn’t too soft or crispy either, even though I thought the portion of flour looked too little and although we could have upped the peanut butter, I prefer how it’s subtle and gives enough crunch and saltiness. We didn’t use the electric mixer: the children wanted a hands-on approach, using good old elbow grease as holiday sport! We’re making these again: they’re melt-in-the-mouth, not too sweet, have an appealing saltiness to them, and they’re addictive. Where have I heard that before?

Another stacking game. Mum, can you stop playing so we can eat them now?

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Cookies

Makes approx 30 cookies

125g unsalted butter, softened
70g light brown sugar
50g white sugar
1 egg
100g crunchy peanut butter
good pinch salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
115g all purpose flour
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
75g dark chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C and line a couple of baking sheets with baking parchment.

2. In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugars with a good spatula until the sugar has disappeared and the mix is pale and creamy. Gradually add in the rest of the ingredients, mixing well. (The dough can be frozen at this point if you don’t use all of it.)

3. Spoon out small portions of the mixture on the baking sheets, leaving a good gap in between each as they spread out. Flatten them slightly with a fork and bake for 10 minutes until golden.

4. When cooled, transfer the cookies to a wire rack then devour.

We didn’t drink the milk but had Champomy instead 😉

Are you like my Granny? Please don’t tell me I’m alone. Besides, if it wasn’t for that attitude, I would never have tried my hands at making macarons. Just saying.

Making Chouquettes with Cravings of a Lunatic

Chouquettes are mini versions of choux buns. For anyone who hasn’t made choux buns before, then this is a great way to start – my children adore playing with the piping bag! They are so small that they’re not even filled: instead they’re simply coated with pearl sugar. Only one warning: like macarons they can be addictive…

Just to give you an idea: in France, we buy them at the Boulangerie by the kilo. There’s no such thing as having two or three. The children pounce on them at goûter time (afternoon snack to tide them over until dinner later) straight after school. Recently they have been making their own. They realised quick enough it was far better than spending their pocket money and it tastes far better when they have made them all by themselves.  If only they could grasp the cleaning up bit afterwards.

Chouquettes are so incredibly airy-fairy light, that you can have a few. What I love about choux dough is that it’s so quick and easy to make. Made with water/milk, butter, flour and eggs, the humidity of the dough makes it rise in the oven without using any yeast or rising agents. It can also keep up to 5 days in the fridge. If you only use some of it, keep the piping bag in the fridge, remove about an hour before you need to bake (to bring up to room temperature) and hey presto: baked in 15 minutes.

Here, the children topped them with pink sugar sprinkles for a Valentine’s pinky look (I found tutti frutti red pearl sugar recently at Galeries Lafayette in Paris). For something different, give them a coloured knitted sweater look using craquelin or streusel crumble topping.

Recipe French Chouquettes (Choux Dough)

Preparation Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
140g water
100g milk
2 tbsp rosewater (optional)
pinch salt
2 tbsp sugar
90g unsalted butter
150g flour
4 eggs
1 egg yolk (for glazing)

1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.  Boil the water, milk, orange flower water, salt, sugar and butter in a large saucepan.
2. Once boiling, remove from the heat and quickly add the flour.  Whisk until the dough is smooth and comes away from the sides of the pan.
3. Transfer the dough to a mixing bowl – don’t cut corners here: use a different bowl, otherwise you’ll end up with a runny batter due to the hot pan – and gradually add the eggs. Mix with a spatula until you have a lovely smooth, sticky paste.  Transfer the pastry to a piping bag. At this point, you can keep the dough refrigerated for up to 5 days.

Either whisk in the eggs by hand or use an electrical beater

4.  Using a piping bag with a plain tip, pipe out small heaps on baking trays covered in greaseproof/baking paper (or Silpat). Leave a good space between each mound, as they will spread out during baking. They do have a funny shape when you pipe them, but in the oven you’ll see the chouquettes even out and puff up into little sugary balls.
5.  Brush with a glaze of one egg yolk mixed with a tablespoon of water and sprinkle with pearl sugar.  Bake in the oven for 15 minutes.
This post has been shared as a Guest Post over at the bubbly Kim’s blog, Cravings of a Lunatic.

Before you go, just a quickie announcement…(I meant to post this on Tuesday – my apologies! Blame my kids for being on the computer too long: Aye, it’s the holidays.)

Announcing the Winners for the Macaron Event at Aye Write!

Waverley Books have four tickets to give away to readers for the macaron event on Saturday 10 March at the Glasgow Book Festival, Aye Write!

It was a tough one but not that tough. You were all so sweet with comments but much that it was tempting to pick ticket winners, you were mainly based in the USA! So, the following winners are more likely to manage to make it along, since you’re based in Scotland!  Bravo to Janice of Farmersgirl Kitchen and Marie Lauchlan.
Looking forward to seeing you both there!

It’s not too late to book your ticket – head on over to the Aye Write! website to book online now.

Head on over to Cravings of a Lunatic to see the rest of my guest post on Kim’s site.

It’s Mardi from Eat. Live. Travel. Write and a Raspberry Curd Recipe

Surprise! It’s mardi. It’s Tuesday. It’s Mardi Gras, and I’m so pleased to welcome Mardi Michels. You know: The Mardi from Eat.Live.Travel.Write. I’m sure you know how famous she is in the blogosphere as well as her macaron talents from Toronto’s foodie world, making her way to Paris this summer to share in more sweet treats. No more introductions needed. Take it away, Mardi…

I am thrilled to be posting over here at Mad about Macarons, especially on this, my “fête” 😉 Well, I mean, EVERY Tuesday is my “fête” but today is extra special. So I thought I would whip up a little something to celebrate. Something that, you know, uses up the many many egg yolks that making macarons tends to leave me with. I mean, there’s only so much custard and ice cream you can make, right?

I recently made Meyer lemon macarons filled with a blackberry jam and Meyer lemon curd which, in itself, is a great way to use up the yolks – fill the macs with them! But as I was making that lemon curd, I wondered how well another type of curd would do. Like, raspberry curd. We have a lot of raspberries in our freezer that I froze in the summer begging to be used so I figured I would give it a shot. Once I had the curd figured out, I needed a vessel for it – and not macarons! Not everyone is as “Mad about Macarons” as Jill and I! For me, raspberry is a match made in heaven for dark chocolate so I came up with the idea of a chocolate tart shell filled with raspberry curd and topped with fresh raspberries and a drizzle of melted dark chocolate. I can’t totally take all the credit for this idea – we used to have a bakery called “The Queen of Tarts” at the end of our street (dangerous!) which sold the dearest little individual-sized tarts and they used to feature all manner of fillings. I was a huge fan of their chocolate tart shells so was pleased to figure out one that closely resembled the ones which sadly only exist in my memory now….

The chocolate tart dough is taken from Dorie Greenspan’s Around My French Table (pp 500-501). As I am cooking and baking my way through this book, I knew it would be a sure bet. If you don’t own this book (why not?) it’s a basic sweet tart dough recipe where you substitute half the powdered sugar for cocoa powder. Her recipe makes one large 9″ tart shell, I halved the recipe to make four individual 4″ tarts.

The curd was a little bit of experimentation but I like the way this one came out in the end.

Raspberry Curd

(enough for four 4″ individual tarts) inspired by the McCormick Meyer lemon curd that I used in my macarons

Ingredients
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup raspberry purée *
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, very cold

Method

  1. Mix egg yolks, sugar and raspberry purée in heavy saucepan with a wire whisk until well blended and smooth.
  2. Continue to whisk as you cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until the curd is thick and will coat the back of a wooden spoon.
  3. Remove saucepan from the heat and whisk the butter in, one piece at a time. Once all the butter is combined in the curd, transfer the mixture to another bowl.
  4. Cover the mix with plastic wrap, making sure the wrap touches the surface of the curd and cool to room temperature.

* for the raspberry purée, I blend fresh or defrosted frozen raspberries with an immersion (stick) blender then pass the mix through a metal sieve to remove the seeds.

Once the curd is at room temperature, you’ll fill the tart shells and place them in the fridge, covering them loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerating overnight. The following day, you can decorate the tarts with fresh raspberries and drizzles of melted dark chocolate.

The result? A dessert that’s not too sweet which means you can drizzle as much chocolate on top of the tarts as you like. The curd is a different flavour from jam – more tart, less sweet which works in a rich dessert like this! I love that not only the filling but also the tart shell used up my always-lurking-in-my-fridge-yolks – it’s a macaron maker’s dream dessert!

Mardi is a full-time French teacher at the elementary-school level in Toronto. She blogs at eat. live. travel. write. where she documents her culinary adventures (more than macarons, though sometimes you wouldn’t know it) near and far. She’s a serious Francophile who spends as much time in Paris as she can. This summer, she’ll be there again, organising a foodie trip in partnership with Le Dolci Studio (Toronto) – where she teaches macaron classes – and La Cuisine Paris. Check out all the delicious details here.

Thank you so much, Mardi, for guest posting today and for sharing your yolky raspberry curd with us. These chocolatey tarts look absolutely delicious. Good luck with your foodie trip to Paris this summer – it’s a great way for anyone to learn more about the City of Light and its sweet life. It will be a huge success! Don’t forget to check out many more recipes like this on Mardi’s blog and follow her at Eat.Live.Travel.Write.

Pancakes or Crêpes for Mardi Gras?

Mardi Gras started early for us this year. As it falls during the school holidays next week, my daughter had her Carnaval at school yesterday with the History of France theme. Students’ creativity was put to the test as The Prize was to receive first place in the canteen queue all next term. I didn’t think that sounded motivating but the kids were all desperate to win – even the teachers dressed up, wanting that prized place in the queue at lunch times. The posts of Joan of Arc, Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette were snatched up but Julie took her role of peasant just as seriously. Should I feel grim or flattered that she asked to borrow my sweater and shawl to complete the look?

We love pancakes in our house. We also love crêpes.  As Mardi Gras approaches, what will it be chez nous?

Pancakes? Get on your bike! C’est les crêpes.

When I make the thick, fluffy American/British style pancakes on occasion for a weekend breakfast, Antoine is surprisingly never that hungry. The kids adore the full monty (well trained, if I say so) with the smoked bacon and lashings of maple syrup squirted with an orange wedge, and as they devour their extra helpings from the lion’s share, Antoine takes his time spreading the thinnest scraping of maple syrup on his solitary cake-de-pan. Camouflaging it Corsican style with my Chestnut Flour Pancakes (even with the Corsican Chestnut liqueur) worked for a while, but he still wanted his classic, sweet, thin crêpes.

As Antoine is in the Far East with work, we’re spending Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday just as the girls’ club. But what are we having: pancakes or crêpes?  My girls were scared to even say it out loud and a unanimous CRÊPES were whispered, as if not to offend me. What do you expect? They’re just as French as British, I suppose. So crêpes it is – sorry you’re missing it, Antoine.

Now that we’ve got past the pancake vs crêpe issue, we have another crucial decision: what shall we put on them?

Antoine normally loves plain and simple sugar with a squeeze of lemon. The simple is often the best? Other classics are confiture (jam/jelly), sweet chestnut and vanilla spread (crème de marron), and of course the kids’ preference is dolloping on Nutella.

Julie is back to eating it again since a concerned French friend showed her an alarming video which proved just how much oil it contained and so she went into a nutella depression. Nutella is everywhere – try and avoid it. I woke up to its name ringing in my ears this morning, as my radio alarm belted out an advert for the stuff. It worked as motivation to switch the thing off and spring out of bed, though. I could go for the latest trend, speculoos spread (speculoos are the Belgian cinnamon melt-in-your-mouth biscuits/cookies). It’s a slightly more expensive choice at the market crêpe stalls, so I could say I’m going ‘upmarket’. My pick? Just real chocolate sauce or smothered in caramel au beurre salé (salted caramel.)

Now that the crêpe is covered, there’s yet another decision to make: do you fold it or roll it?

I had no idea it was an issue but I’m being careful on this one. Antoine claims his mother always rolled it for him and he never had the pleasure of doing that part himself. Besides, sometimes he felt like folding it. Scarred for life, eh? Boy, I didn’t realise we had a French crêpe ceremony to top it all. Vive l’indépendance! So, let’s just serve it open and leave the rest to the others.

So what will it be chez vous, and if it’s crêpes, are you a roller or a folder?

Macarons for Valentine’s. The Romantic French? Aye Write!

It’s that rosy time of year again. You’re expecting me to go all gushy on you, aren’t you?  Living in one of the most romantic places in the world and being married to a Frenchman must make anyone go weak at the knees at this time of year, right?

I love France and the French. I love Paris and where we live, surrounded by such a gourmet foodie culture. I love macarons. I love my husband. Not in that order, of course. I used to be a soppy romantic; now I just go weak at the knees when I find myself driving around the Arc de Triomphe.

There’s something about living in France that brings out the more serious in you, though. Hard to believe? I dreamed that my Frenchman would whisk me off my feet, feed me with French romantic phrases; and pop the question on bended knee at our ‘local’, up in the Eiffel Tower’s Jules’ Verne restaurant, producing a surprise box over the most dreamy Parisian pâtisserie dessert.

Who am I kidding? We were just starting out with new jobs, living in a matchbox studio in the 7th arrondissement. That was already pretty chic but you couldn’t swing a cat in the place. I won’t embarrass Antoine in front of you about how he proposed in real life. How could I expose him – much that it’s tempting – as he never has time to read le blog? My adorable Frenchman has gradually become more romantic over the years, however. Could it be that macarons make the heart grow fonder? Like a blockbuster bottle of Burgundy, each year together just gets better and better. (If I said, ‘improves with age’ that makes us sound like old fogies, no?)

What’s sweeter than saying, “Darling, we don’t need one day in the year to give presents and say how much we love each other”? Too true. In any case, he’s on biz galavanting around India this week so he has a valid excuse. I’ll enjoy a cosy evening with my girls at home which is just as special: we can secretly enjoy lentil and bacon soup with oh-so-British cheese scones without him going into cultural convulsions. But I know that after a few days, it will ware off. When he returns in a couple of weeks, we’ll have our usual candlelit French dinner together like any other day in the year. La vie en rose? Aye right. If I’m in luck, his suitcase will be filled with curry leaves and exotic, original spices – but my guess is it will be full of mini hotel shampoos and conditioners.

Before he left, he tasted these macarons to accompany that White Chocolate Valentine Mousse recipe. No guesses as to what kind they are, if you already saw my previous post. I’m addicted to them already and keep wanting to make more. Quite simply, it’s a cross between a rose macaron and a orange blossom macaron: it’s a rose-orange blossom macaron and it’s bliss!

Simply follow the recipe for either Rose macarons (on p. 45) or Orange Blossom Macarons (on p. 77 of Mad About Macarons!) Replace the fragrant water with both 2 tbsp rose water and 2 tbsp orange flower water. It’s that simple, and you’ll taste them both in there. Can you imagine that with a glass of bubbly?  It’s what dreams are made of. Who needs posh restaurants?

Aye Write! Free Tickets to Give Away

Want to learn how to make macarons like the French? Come to Glasgow for the annual Book Festival in Scotland, Aye Write! I’ll be demonstrating how to make macarons as well as answer your questions. It’s a great excuse to meet each other and even taste some macarons.

When and Where?

Saturday 10 March at the Mitchell Library, 11:00-12:00.
Reserve your place now at the Aye Write website!

Waverley Books have FOUR entry tickets to give away. To enter, just leave a comment below saying “My favourite macaron is…..” Tell us what kind of macaron says it for you. The Giveaway ends Sunday 19 February. I’ll announce the winners on Tuesday 21 February, when I have a special guest coming to join us on le blog.

Valentine macarons on a date in Paris

If you didn’t see last year’s Valentine’s post, then take a look at this recipe for rose panna cotta with a cherry and cardamom coulis. After something more red velvet? Then check out this recipe for chocolate and beetroot fondants.

Happy Valentine’s, my friends and extra hugs to your loved ones.