Christmas in Provence for Cooking for Picasso, by Camille Aubrey

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Our book club enjoys a good meal, a fine wine, and a well-crafted tale. For the December book each year, we strive to find a novel that will supply us with the foundation for all three. Our choice this year, Camille Aubrey’s Cooking for Picasso, certainly provided ample inspiration for Provencal food and wine.

The novel itself was a strange mix of compelling and semi-ridiculous. Cooking for Picasso revolves between a “inspired by a (real) little known interval in the life of the painter” and a modern day romantic-ish mystery where a woman is searching for the Picasso painting of her grandmother.

Camille Aubrey states in the book jacket that Margaret Atwood is her mentor. During the interludes in the past, that seems possible. But in the sections set during the current day search: the stereotypically villainous lawyer-father, the Gordon Ramsay-like chef who becomes a romantic interest in the blink of an eye, evil twins, the save-the-day-tied-up-with-a-bow plot — I can’t imagine the author of The Handmaid’s Tale championing this mash-up.

The plot of Cooking for Picasso: Picasso travels to the remote village of Juan-les-Pins on the 90c3df0ae6e7474a9f2c35087fbba664.jpgCote d’Azur. It is the years immediately before World War Two and Picasso is trying to escape an enraged wife and find his painting mojo. That part is apparently true. A young girl named Ondine is sent by her restaurant-owner parents each day to prepare Picasso’s luncheon and she becomes his friend, muse and model for a real painting: Femme a la Montre.

Sixty years later, Ondine’s granddaughter goes in search of this rumored family legacy, a painting.

So I told her about how Grandma Ondine cooked for Picasso, which of course immediately intrigued Aunt Matilda. And then I explained that maybe, just maybe, Grandma had hidden a painting for safekeeping somewhere.

As a whole, we enjoyed the information about Picasso and his process, but got bogged down in the modern parts of the story.

The best part of the night was the menu. There are numerous options for food, but since this was the December meeting, I focused on Les Trieze Desserts de Noel.

For the holidays, [Mom’s] rooms were decorated with pine branches and maroon-and-gold ribbon; the parlor had a big tree winking with lights and baubels and wrapped gifts sining beneath it; and, in her large, beautiful kitchen, almost every table and countertop was laden with home-baked desserts.

“You made Les Treize Desserts de Noel!” I exclaimed, thrilled at the charming sight of this ancient, traditional series of Provencal home-baked sweets. Delighted by my enthusiasm, Mom proudly gave me a tour of the Thirteen Desserts of Christmas. Here was the dish of dried fruits and nuts called the Four Beggars to represent the four orders of monks; then a sweet, brioche-like cake made with orange flower water and olive oil; various meringue and candied citrus and melon confections; two kinds of nougats with pistachio and almond; also the think, waffle-like oreillettes, cookies dusted with powdered sugar like the snow sifting outside; and of course, the spectacular buche de Noel — a Yule Log of rolled chocolate cake with a caramel cream filling, and dark chocolate frosting which had been scraped by a fork’s tines to make it resemble a hunter’s newly chopped log from the forest.

The story is interesting, the life of Picasso and his inspirations fascinating, and the food marvelous. You could do worse than Cooking for Picasso.

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Multiple choices. Among them:

Bouillabaisse

Tartine – open face sandwich of cold pate, cheese, olive tapenade

Cassoulet

Langostine appetizers

Easter cheesecake

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My choice was to do my best imitation of the Provencal Christmas Eve dinner called “Le
Gros Souper,”
which calls for seven “plain” dishes that do not include meat. I served white bean dip, green salad dressed in olive oil, haricort vertes, lentils, salmon, croissants, chestnut soup, and marinated olives . This I followed with the thirteen desserts. Four Beggars: figs, raisins, almonds, hazelnuts. Nougat: white and dark. Dates and walnuts. Fresh fruit. Elephant ear cookies. Marzipan. And the one item I attempted to make (and it turned out quite well) the olive oil cake. Here are recipes I used:

White bean puree

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried parsley
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 15-oz can white beans, drained
  • ¼ cup roasted red peppers, finely diced
  • Using a food processor or blender, puree all the ingredients except the red peppers. Add water if necessary, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the bean puree is completely smooth. Stir in the red peppers and serve.

Chestnut soup

  • 4 cups strong vegetable stock
  • 8 ounces cooked chestnuts
  • 1 cup chopped white onions
  • 1/2 cup chopped carrots
  • 1 thin celery stalk with leaves, chopped (1/2 cup chopped celery)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

3/4 cup plus 1/4 cup crème fraiche, divided

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the vegetable stock, chestnuts, onions, carrots, celery, salt, and pepper to a simmer. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low-medium, and simmer the soup for 30 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Stir in 3/4 cup of the crème fraiche.

Process the soup, in batches, in a blender until smooth. Alternately, use a hand-held immersion blender to process the mixture.

Olive Oil Bread (serve with grape jam)

Butter, for greasing the pan

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1/3 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Juice and zest of 1 orange (about 3 tablespoons juice, 1 tablespoon zest)

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.

Mix together the sugar and eggs in a medium bowl with a hand mixer on medium speed until blended and light. Drizzle in the olive oil and vanilla and mix until light and smooth. Add the orange juice and zest and mix well. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in another medium bowl. Add the flour mixture half at a time to the wet ingredients and mix on low just to incorporate. Pour into the prepared cake pan and bake, 25 to 30 minutes. Let the cake cool 15 minutes, dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve.

MUSIC

I have a c.d. entitled A Christmas Eve in Paris that includes Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, and Django Reinhart. It’s available on iTunes. What could be better?

Whatever you’re reading this holiday season, I hope it is hopeful and fulfilling and I wish you the best! Thanks for reading and blessings to you and yours.

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