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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Fashionista: Mademoiselle Chanel by C.W. Gortner

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Photo: Getty Images

In C.W. Gortner’s sweeping historical fictionalization of the life of Gabrielle Chanel, Coco barely has time to design dresses for all of the unintentional German spying, chain-smoking cigarettes, and mistressing for scads of wealthy, titled men. Nevertheless, she did design beginning with hats and becoming perhaps the most iconic woman of the 20th Century.

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Who hasn’t heard of the “little black dress”? (Coco’s idea.) Sunbathed? (Popularized by Chanel.) Purchased something off the rack? (Her innovation) Smiled at Marilyn Monroe’s answer to the question asking what she wore to bed? (“Chanel Number 5 — of course.”)

The impoverished orphan Gabrielle’s influence as Coco Chanel reigned over the entire century and into today.

Gortner, a former fashion executive, imagines the creative process of many of Coco’s designs, from her first polo-shirt inspired top, to jersey clothing, little black dress and diamond jewelry. The biggest disappointment for me in all this is that without the with whom she spent time, it seems Coco wouldn’t have had any ideas at all. Or money.

From her first lover, Etienne Balsan, Coco got her moniker, “money to buy more hats and trimming supplies,” the first crowd of buyers for her hats and the financial backing for a hat shop. He also introduced her to her next benefactor.chanel logo

Arthur “Boy” Capel gave Coco true love, a broken heart, the inspiration for her C&C logo, his polo style, jersey fabric, and money to found her empire. And according to Gortner, the only glimmer of self-doubt she ever experienced.

boy capel“You told me once that what we don’t ear for ourselves is never ours, that it can always be taken away. Is that what your help means? Will you close my shop whenever you please?”

His own fury, rare to kindle but implacable once lit, darkened his eyes. “You insult me. What’s worse you insult us. You cannot run a business properly? Fine, you don’t have to. Hire an accountant. Do what you do best and leave the numbers to whose who know how. But don’t ever tell me again that I will snatch anything from you. I will not stand for it. . . . What I give you now, you will repay. I know you will. What I want is for you to know it. To believe it. It doesn’t matter how much I must invest if you’ll only trust in your talent and tell me the truth.”

I bit down on my quivering lip. “I will repay it. Every last centime.”

“So I hope.” He gave me a pensive look. “You’re the proudest person I know, but remember, you are still only a woman. And though I love you for it, pride will make you suffer.”

Only a woman . . .

The retrospectives, novels, biopics, Pinterest boards, tv movies about Coco Chanel abound. Gortner’s version offers a behind-the-scenes, first-person look at why the legendary fashionista made some of the decisions she made and how she was inspired to do so. I found it quite enjoyable; a quick read and one that made me want to know more about the clothing she designed.

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Coco lives on cigarettes, chocolate and champagne. There is mention of British puddings, inedible gravies and fresh fruit and vegetables farmed at La Pausa, Coco’s rural retreat.

My menu would be easy, a tribute to a woman who spent her life working, not eating.

Croissants or Baguettes

French cheeses

Fresh fruit

Champagne

Chocolates

MUSIC

Coco earned her nickname as a chanteuse at a small, unsavory nightclub. I would play Edith Piaf all night.

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Chanel ad from 1937! It looks so modern. Illustration by Christian Berard

Happy reading!

Summer Reads 2015

dog_driving_carHeaded Out for A Little Fun in the Sun?  Want to take the perfect book(s) with you?

I thought I might be able to help.  All of these are in paperback, because I find it much more difficult to haul 5-8 hardbound books.  Any of the below books would be divine at the beach or the pool, on the campground or in the air.  I often try to match my reading to my destination, hoping to add a little insider info to my trip.  Just a tip.

Happy Vacating!

In Euphoria, Lily King’s intoxicating trek into the exotic locale of Papua, New Guinea, three anthropologists (Australian, euphoriaAmerican and British) find themselves far from home.  King’s anthropologists are simulacrums of Margaret Mead, her husband Reo Fortune and her future husband, Gregory Bateson.

Originally reviewed:  https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2015/01/17/love-in-the-time-of-malaria-euphoria-by-lily-king/

f_doerr_allthelight_fAnthony Doerr’s gorgeous novel won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.  All The Light We Cannot See encompasses WW2 within an examination of the lives and worlds of two teenagers:  Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl, and Werner Pfenning, a German whiz-kid desperate to live the coal mine fate of his home town of Essen.   Written mostly in the present tense, with recurring flashbacks throughout both children’s lives, All The Light progresses inevitably to their meeting during the siege of St.-Malo, France, in August of 1944.

Originally reviewed:  https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/all-the-light-we-cannot-see-by-anthony-doerr/

the secret place

Tana French has become one of my obsessions.  She publishes a new book, I must have it in hard back and begin reading immediately.  In the Woods, her first novel, remains my favorite of her five books; however, all are excellent.  Her most recent, The Secret Place, is my second favorite.  These are page-turning, mystery novels set in Ireland with a cast of realistic, driven and haunted characters.

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Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.  On the rugged, Mediterranean coast of Italy, a land of five towns clings stunningly to the edge of the cliffs;  accessible only by boat, offering fresh seafood pulled daily from the Ligurian sea by men whose families have done the same for centuries and a hiding place from the modern world, the Cinque Terre seems just the place for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to have sought refuge during the filming of Cleopatra in Rome.  In Jess Walter’s sumptuous novel Beautiful Ruins, they do just this.  And the tale of the IT couple’s visit to Porto Vergogna, a lonely innkeeper, a starlet, star-crossed lovers, a wannabe screenwriter (whose big concept is “Donner!,” a movie about the Donner party,) a nauseating Hollywood producer and fifty years of frustrated confusion make the novel one of my top five reads.

Originally reviewed:  https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/simply-beautiful-beautiful-ruins-by-jess-walter/

VacationersA New York family brings a large set of first world problems to Mallorca, where even more challenges await:  a Spanish tutor both mom and daughter have the hots for, a retired Spanish tennis stud and lots of gorgeous food and descriptions and you have The Vacationers by Emma Straub.  https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/the-vacationers-by-emma-straub/

Other books that would make great traveling companions:  The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff (Utah); Boy, Snow, Bird (Maine); Where’d You Go Bernadette, by Maria Semple (Seattle); The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion; The Perfume Collector, by Kathleen Tessaro (Paris), Dominance, by Will Lavender.

I’d love to hear what you’re reading!

Seaside Resort in the South of France 1927 by Paul Klee 1879-1940