Monday, July 30, 2012

Makin' Macarons!

Have you discovered macarons yet? Not macaroons, those "eh" coconut cookies. Macarons.

Yes? Welcome! You're among friends here.

No? If you're in Pittsburgh, get yourself to Paris 66 on Center Ave. near the new Target pronto!

Go visit!
They are essentially a half-dollar sized sandwich of almond flour (ground up blanched white almonds) based meringues filled with some kind of filling, depending on the flavor and texture you're going for. Some are a little on the crazy side -- check out some of the creations at Pierre Hermé (lychee, vanilla basil, rose).  And some are just plain delicious, like coconut, salted caramel, and my personal favorite, lemon. You'll find the more "standard" flavors at La Durée, which has been around since 1862.

But what was really neat was the opportunity to take a mother-financed (thanks, mom!) amateur cooking class at the school run by Le Nôtre, one of France's premier pastry and prepared food shops. They have two amateur school campuses: one in a beautiful building at the beginning of the Champs d'Elysses, and the other waaaay the heck on the east side of Paris in a bit of a sketchier neighborhood.

When I got the bright idea to sign up for one of these classes, I was, as it turns out, not the first to do so. All the English classes at other cooking schools were filled, as were those at both Le Nôtre campuses. So then, I thought, "Okay. I want to do this, so how about looking for classes in French?" I switched over to the French language class lists, and wouldn't you know, a three hour macaron class at a time I could do it! Sadly, it was at the east Paris campus so I had a super long metro journey, but it w worth it.

Our pastry chef and instructor of the evening, Alain, and his sous-chef led my class of four (which included a pastry chef from Dijibouti) through the recipes for coffee and chocolate macarons. He demonstrated through most of the coffee recipe, giving us smaller tasks like sifting the almond flour and powdered sugar together (which are the solid in the cookie part of the macaron) but we were pretty much in charge of the chocolate.

They are tough little guys to make! I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that they are a genuine mixture of science and art.

The results! Coffee and chocolate macarons made by my class
Science: our recipe includes precise temperatures (the filling for the coffee macarons is heated to 82 degrees C on the stove, before cooled down to 30 degrees through whipping it in the stand mixer) and Alain busted out a laser thermometer (MIND BLOWN!) to check the temperature of the filling while it was mixing away inside the stand mixer bowl. Also, you need a really precise oven to do these things, which means I am going to be co-opting my mom's kitchen because my oven is usually about 25° off...

Art: at each stage of the process, the macaron batter needs to be at a certain texture that you have to know "by feel." Alain taught us some tricks to check the consistency, but it's still one of those things that is probably only going to come with lots and lots of practice and guinea pigs to test them on.

They look pretty good, right? They are, but there's a definite difference between how well the coffee ones turned out (made mostly by Alain) and how the chocolate ones fared (made mostly by the class), with the coffee being better.

Up close and personal with the results

In Paris, I have been on a little bit of what I like to call the Tour de Macarons. As you know, the Tour de France finished up last Sunday (and made for difficult traveling around the city for my visitors and me). While those lads were biking around this fine country, I have been walking around this fine city and sampling these little darlings where and when I find them. I'll be revealing the results of the Tour at a later date!

Au revoir et bon appétit!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Don't Drown Your Fish

More French wisdom rolled into charming idioms starring animals: 

I drafted a short and sweet response to a client about a question. My colleague told me that she wanted a little more meat to the response, but without "drowning the fish." What is "drowning the fish" I asked? 

Apparently, the expression originates from the twentieth century and means to hoodwink, confuse, bamboozle, distract someone from the real issue or make him forget it. It is a reference to the fishing industry,  where fishermen repeatedly pull hooked fish in and out of the water to wear them out, I guess so they don't flap about as much when you finally pull them out for good. (Translated from with my charming commentary at the end).

Pretty good advice for presidential candidates? I think so. 

Stop drowning the damn fish!!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Squirrels and Three-Legged Yorkies

My neighbor is enjoying this fine July evening by watching Jersey Shore at full volume with his door open. I figured, might as well write you folks a blog post, complete with two stories. One takes place at the laundromat, the other at the work lunch table.

I. Bastille Day...schizophrenic weather made planning an actual activity rather difficult. Did some grocery shopping with the masses, and heard but didn't see actual fireworks. Bummer.

Sunday, I finally ran out of clean sheets and towels and forced myself to go to the laundromat. It's about a 10 minute walk, if that, and it's in a pretty chi chi neighborhood across from a famous covered market. I read the instructions, written on the wall and surmise that I must pay separately for laundry detergent. I go over to the central pay station and type in the number to have it vend me laundry detergent. I put in my euro, and clonk, out pops a wrapper with a coke brick of laundry detergent. Having never seen a brick of cocaine, and after just googling it, I have discovered that a brick is a kilogram! Who knew? So, it was probably more like 1/16 of a brick of laundry detergent wrapped in foil.

I put my stuff in the littlest washing machine (you pay depending on the size of the washer) and drop in half of my laundry detergent powder brick with my sheets. I set the temperature, trot back to the central paying machine, type in the number of my washing machine and put in my €4.20 (extortion!). I sit back with my kindle and prepare to wait. Then, I notice on the wall, in a different section than where I read the instructions, is a little diagram of a square with four sections, and it says laundry detergent, pre-wash, fabric softener, and something called "javel" (which word just told me is bleach). I am confused. Where is this little square, I ask myself? I keep reading, hoping that my laundry will get clean.

Then a rather well-dressed fellow arrives and flips this little silver lid on the top of the washing machine. Lo, the little square in which one is to deposit one's detergent! It's a front-load washer, so I was not really paying attention to the top of the washer. Humph. I note that my washer still has another 40 minutes (!) left, and does not look particularly sudsy. Oh well.

I duck out to a bakery I know that's open and get a lemon macaron. They have macaron "individuel" that are larger sized than the half-dollar size ones that you usually buy in batches of 6 or so. Or, as my husband calls them, hamburger macarons. In fact, they are slightly smaller than palm sized, so not really hamburger-size, but close enough.

After going back to the laundromat, I began nibbling on my macaron, at which point A rather iffy-looking woman with numerous missing teeth and a flashy pink hoodie walks in with a yorkie under her arm. She looks at me and says, "Bon apétit," in kind of an unhappy though I deign eat in her laundromat. All this in front of a sign that says "We remind you that dogs are forbidden." She attends to her laundry, and in follows another yorkie.

First thing I note is his face. He appears to be missing teeth on the right side of his face, so his tongue is lolling out in that direction, no longer confined to his mouth by pesky teeth. He is wet from the recent rain and I hear his owner call out in French that he should stay there and dry himself out. He turns in profile to me, revealing that he only has three legs. He starts to shake himself off to dry, and loses his balance and falls flat on his butt. As my husband aptly asked, "How do you say 'hot mess' in French." Three-legged toothless yorkie in a laundromat, that's how.

Owner puts down the other yorkie, who is clean, fully limbed, and well-brushed with a ponytail on the top of her head. I come to learn that the ponytail wearing yorkie is named Inès, and our mangy friend is Jude.

Meanwhile, this woman in a Prada raincoat looks on impassively. You always get a pretty good cross-section of the population in a laundromat, I guess.

Today at work I had my first really amusing misunderstanding.

My coworker, A, is telling a story about going to the US last fall for an all-firm meeting of the litigation group with a then-pregnant colleague, C. Apparently, the city that they went to just smelled of food everywhere, even in the airport. With all the weird smells, C was super put off of food. In French, I heard the word "ecureuil," which means squirrel.

I'm thinking to myself, oh that kind of makes sense. Squirrels don't eat that much and the French have all kinds of expressions about animals ("poser un lapin à quelqu'un," literally put down a rabbit on someone, means to stand someone up), so be a squirrel probably means just being put off food. The conversation winds down and I ask A, what does "blah blah ecureuil" mean?

She looks at me blankly. I explain, "You said C was pregnant and she was ecureuil because of the food smell." Then, A goes, "OH, ecœuré!!! That means disgusted, grossed out, sickened!" The whole table is cracking up at my misunderstanding, and one colleague, F, I think was crying. I explain that I thought being a squirrel was an expression and how I thought I had learned something new and idiomatic! F said that she really liked the image, so maybe it will catch on as an expression now. ;)

So, in case you ever feel grossed out, just say you're being a squirrel.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Christmas in July

Word on the street is that it has been blooming hot in the States.

Not so in Paris. Not so at all, my friend.

I am currently bundled in my duvet cover, blanket, and I have a pillow on my lap for extr warmth/iPad the 6th floor attic of an apartment building. There is no heat to rise right now, so my attic is nowhere near as toasty as I had fearfully predicted.

So, I may not be celebrating actual Christmas in July but the weather is close enough that I might as well. Since my arrival in mid-May I think we have only had three days over eighty degrees Farenheit. And it's mid-July. The girls at work are grousing because there has not been the opportunity to wear summer outfits to work. One of the grousers persists in wearing all black everyday even though it is, as I reminded you earlier in the post, mid-July. I guess there is not a happy place between all black and summer wear. Alas my light khaki summer suit sits forgotten in my closet, too.

Other than the grey and chilly weather, I have nothing new to report. I still have not yet decided on my plans for Bastille Day. My friends from work are pretty much all leaving the city to go elsewhere for the weekend, so I'll probably have to do something by myself. There are still some unexplored areas of Paris for me, and I just realized the other day that I haven't gone to this one museum I want to go to, so I'm just going to play it by ear.

Work is going well. I'm still playing catch-up from being out sick most of last week, and lots of people are on vacation so we are working with somewhat reduced capacity. I have gotten to do some pro bono work, which has been interesting and mostly comprised of immigration and translation work.

Oh, on an unrelated note I have a Wednesday pick-me-up for you. I was reading a book description on amazon (yes, for a free book) the other day that makes "caulking a gun" seem almost eloquent.

The description said something like: Mary Ann was determined to show Bobby that she was his solemate. iPad autocorrect likes to turn solemate into sole ate. So, there's that.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition!

It may surprise you to know that I don't really do very much in Paris. I go see movies, I walk around and window shop, I sit in Starbucks and enjoy my chai and this wonderful French Starbucks creation called the donut blanc (it's a donut enrobed in white and dark chocolate, also known as what I had for dinner today), but that's really it. Of course I've done the touristy stuff but after eight weeks in Paris and a limited budget, I'm kind of running out of classic tourist stuff to do.

My weekends are largely composed of reading free books on my kindle, or iPad/iPhone through iBooks. In fact, if you've never done this before I highly recommend giving it a shot just to see what kind of stuff people are putting out there for free. Sometimes it's good and sometimes it's horrific, but quite a few new eBook darlings (cough Fifty Shades of Grey cough Amanda Hocking cough) got their start as free or über-cheap books available on the kindle. Honestly, the most I pay for a book right now is $2.99, and that only when it's an author I know(ish) because I've read one of their free creations.

Sometimes, reading free kindle books is worth it for the sheer amusement value alone. My new goal (should I never find gainful employment as an attorney...I'm covering my bases) is to start an editing service for authors who are going to put their books on kindle for free or substantially reduced prices. I know I will make NO money, but I'm reading this crap for free anyways, I might as well edit it while I'm at it.

Which leads me number one free book pet peeve -- homonym mistakes. And I'm talking beyond your usual your/you're to/two/too mistakes, which are annoying enough as it is.

I'm talking great literary gems like:

"He pailed at the sight of her blood."
No son, we pale at the sight of blood. Pail is a bucket.

"I can't believe she baled on us!"
Yeah, I'm not that fond of chicks when they bale hay on me either. God forbid she bail on me!

"The tight tank top really showed off her bear arms."
Like the Second Amendment? Granted, this actually could be a legit sentence. Teenage paranormal romance being its own genre now, I could see there being a character with a human form, all but her bare bear arms. Heehee.

"Yeah, mmhmm, she's always been kind of lose."
Really? Loose and lose aren't even homonyms!

And the grand finale....

"He heard the squeak of footsteps on the stairs and quickly caulked his gun."

I almost rolled of my loft bed when I read that one. I just pictured our handyman hero getting out the caulk in response to a potential home invasion, and then caulking his gun. Which really could not help the gun. Even though they test some of those things like underwater and what not, I can't see caulk forming part of the testing battery.

On another note, I made a stupido stupido mistake today. I pranced out of the house this morning, excited because I had been sick all this week and today I was feeling back like my old self. It was a beautiful day, and this niggling little thought told me, "Oh huh, I totes thought it was going to rain at some point today but the sunny cloudless sky this morning probably means it's not gonna, so NO NEED TO CLOSE THE SKYLIGHT OVER MY BED, nuh-uh."

About 6:00, I'm looking up stuff about how long you have to archive your tax records for in France, when Tropical Storm Debby's twin, Debbée, arrives in Paris. This was some serious rain, and I stare out the window in HORROR thinking about my poor bed and how it doesn't deserve it.

I arrive home long about 9:30, and clamber up the ladder to my loft bed to find it not quite as wet as I might have thought but still more than damp. I bust out my hairdryer and go to work, so that worked out well enough. But sadly, my stuffed friend Watercolor Bunny (I never got around to giving her a real name, that's just the model name from Build-a-Bear) got a little drenched as well.

So I bust out the hairdryer aging and try my darnedest to dry her off, too. It worked to some extent, but her fur is not quite as...fluffy as it once was.

Which reminds me of an old bear I had named Ali, short for Ali Ba Bear, if you must know. Dear Ali was hanging out in my car after I packed up my stuff to go home from college for the summer one time. I was staying at a hotel near my school because I was hanging out after dorm kick out day because of my DEAR COUSIN'S graduation and wedding. So, I moved some of my stuff into the hotel, thinking that I had left Ali safe and sound in the backseat.

Next day, after a torrential southern Illinois thunderstorm I'm trotting out to my cousin's car to go on some errand and I notice Ali sitting on my car's trunk. Sodden, sopping, with little bits of gravel on his face. I guess he tumbled out of the car when I was moving my stuff and someone put him on the trunk. Ali and I had never discussed his end of life care, so I made the executive decision to chuck him unceremoniously in the trash bin in front of the hotel. I think he was beyond the hairdryer method.

Ironically, I just noticed that the song playing while I wrote those last three paragraphs was "Bring on the Rain" by Jo Dee Messina. And who said iTunes shuffle doesn't have a sense of humor!