Hemingway, french toast, & garden starts 

EHemingwayHow are you & how’s your  week? It’s chilly and rainy here in Chicagoland, with the potential for snowflakesI I was working on a couple of posts, then realized I could just mash them into one. Hopefully a little something for everyone.  Here for your reading pleasure are books, looks, cooks and gardens all in one! Enjoy!

Did you watch the 3-part Hemingway series on PBS? As an English major with a concentration in 20th Century American writers, I positively devoured each episode. (Plus, it’s produced by Ken Burns. How could you go wrong?)

Hemingway is all you would expect from the Ken Burns team — a deep dive into a man both charismatic and cruel, a brilliant writer in search of “one perfect sentence.” Many of his books were deemed instant classics, others suffered withering reviews. While still in his twenties, Hemingway and his first wife became part of the romantic group of authors and artists in Gertrude Stein’s “salon.” In fact, Stein read and critiqued much of his work and F. Scott Fitzgerald introduced him to his publisher. 

What has always fascinated me about Hemingway the writer is how spare he is with words. Editing, revising, and editing more. Some of the most telling scenes of the series detailed his careful, endless editing of his own work, crossing out words, sentences, and entire paragraphs until he had the manuscript he wanted. He wrote books and short stories full of perfect sentences, but as the literary scholars and contemporary writers in the series point out, some of his writing was stunning, some just fell flat. 

Hemingway the man was complex. He married fours times, falling in love with wives number two, three and four while still married to their predecessors. He adored his three sons but later experienced angry splits with them just as he had with his own mother. He drank too much, dared too much, inserted himself into two world wars and more than one foreign civil war. He loved bullfighting, hunting big game in Africa and designed his own boat for fishing the waters off Key West and Havana. He lived a very big life that was often depicted in his novels and short stories.

For me, Hemingway is both writer and cultural character  from a significant period in American history. The series captures that history memorably. You need not be a book lover or Hemingway fan to appreciate the context.

(If you want to toast the new season with Hemingway’s famous daiquiri, you can get the recipe from David Lebovitz here, )

French toast perfection

IMG_4741For years I made the most basic pancakes and waffles — you can do just about anything with that box of mix, right? My husband, however, really likes french toast. His is pretty basic: sandwich bread dipped in beaten eggs and grilled. I just never saw (or tasted) the charm. However, our annual beach trips have always included at least one trip to a breakfast buffet I would describe as breakfast nirvana — chafing dishes of bacon, sausage, grits, potatoes, waffles, pancakes or — wait for it — french toast. This is thick, flavorful french toast, much more than eggs and bread. Earlier this spring, when my husband and I had way too much time on our hands and were hanging around the house waiting for vaccinations, we went on a quest for french toast perfection.

IMG_4707The bread is essential. We tried an unsliced white country-style loaf that we could slice thicker. It was good, but I thought the bread should contribute more flavor. Next we tried a brioche, again in a loaf we sliced. This was too soft (maybe I should have let it sit for a few more days?). It did not hold up well to eggs or grilling. Finally, I found an unsliced challah loaf. This was our favorite, although I think it should also age for a day or so. 

We also needed the right egg mixture. We took a look at some “fancier” recipes and began to tinker with each batch. We beat the eggs with cream instead of milk. (Typically the only milk in our refrigerator is skim and it just doesn’t work in recipes requiring a certain silkiness.) To boost the flavor, we added fresh orange juice, orange zest and a dash of Grand Marnier. (The additions in the restaurant recipe we used as a jumping off point.)

The first batch with the country white bread, juice, zest and Grand Marnier was a definite improvement over our old bread and eggs, but too orange-y. When we tried it with the brioche we skipped the juice and used the zest and Grand Marnier. Better flavor, messy toast. Our next effort used the challah and the improved egg mixture. This was the keeper. 

We learned a few things from our recipe testing: 

  • Using cream or cream cut with half & half gave the egg mixture a lot more body. 
  • Beat eggs until they are completely smooth (no globs of egg white). 
  • Zest is better than juice; a tablespoon of liqueur adds a subtle touch. 
  • The bread is everything. It needs to be at least a day or two old and sliced 3/4 to 1-inch thick. 
  • We dipped the bread in the egg mixture, flipping it over to make sure it was fully coated, then laid the slices in a single layer in a shallow pan. When all the slices were in the pan we poured the remaining batter over them.

IMG_4708As a cook, I enjoyed making this a few times in quick succession, tweaking the recipe until I had something I was willing to serve friends and family. But, let’s face it, this was a decadent experiment. We only added the bacon and fruit on the last try and each time we made this it was more brunch than breakfast. We used 4 eggs and 3/4 C of cream to make 6 slices, two of which we never touched. 

So, we’re ready for houseguests, brunch on the porch and maybe even Father’s Day, but it’s probably best for our waistlines and our cholesterol that we’re vaccinated, the weather has warmed considerably, and we’re tackling a long list of outdoor projects. 

Garden starts

Chicagoland gardening is slow to start compared to so many other parts of the country. But despite erratic temperatures,  Mother Nature has been busy. Daylilies, daisies, hostas and perennial geraniums are greening up the beds. I have tulips and daffodils in all stages of bloom. And this redbud is getting ready to show off. 

Although I am not at all good at starting annuals by seed, I did start one tray of marigolds and cosmos, and look! They’re coming up. The real trick, however, is making the transition from these nurturing peat pots into garden spaces. Fingers crossed! 

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I hope your garden is greening up, you’ve found something engrossing to read or watch, and — if all else fails — just make some french toast!

Thanks for stopping by. See you aqgain soon!

Three footnotes to France

 

NiceRoadSignWelcome to Part 1 of an occasional series of armchair travel snippets, brief moments along the way that are memorable because they were teachable or funny or even a mini history lesson. I think of them as travel footnotes, not on the itinerary, but sometimes the best part of the trip. 

I get a lot of questions about our willingness to travel independently and especially DRIVE in Europe. First, let me say we have only driven in France and Italy, where they drive on the right (as opposed to the UK where they drive on the left). Driving in another country is always a little unnerving. Highway signage is very much like it is in the US, but of course in another langusge. Speed limits and distances are posted in kilometers, not miles. But that’s just s bit of math. Parking, however, is always an adventure. After riding around the same block several times in Antibes, France, we did what so many others had and just parked on the sidewalk.

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But, there are times when the independence of car travel on your own is a real advantsge. Since our first visit to Provence when we toured the remains of the Roman coliseum in Arles, I have been struck by the number and sophistication of those ruins. First, they demonstrate how far the Roman Empire reached (It was everywhere!) and, second, the ruins show how much the Romans knew what they were doing when they were building.

Pont Julien, originally built in 3 B.C., is perfectly preserved and remained in use until a neighboring bridge was built in 2005! Now it’s reserved for pedestrians and cyclists. This bridge is not a big tourist destination; we noticed it on a map of the area the night before we would be driving nearby and decided to try to find it.

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Can you imagine the Roman soldiers marching across this bridge?

We stopped here after our visit to Chateau Sercy.  Pont Julien was built on the Via Domitia, a Roman road connecting Italy and Spain through what was then a Roman province, now Roussillon, Languedoc, and Provence in southern France. There is a modest parking area and some low-key signage, but perhaps most importantly Pont Julien is simply a part of the larger, country landscape, much as it was when it was built. While we were there, walking the bridge and taking photos, I was thinking about the Roman soldiers crossing this bridge, their carts of supplies and animals rumbling over the stones, in a time before this was even France. Imagine! 

Terrible timing in Aix

Our timing to visit Aix en Provence was terrible. We were there on a busy market day, the traffic was awful, we couldn’t find parking, and pretty soon Steve and I were both snapping at each other. (Which happens from time to time when you spend days in a car in a foreign country!)

We really wanted to visit Paul Cezanne’s studio in Aix. It’s out of the way in a residential neighborhood (which turned out to be very congested). We decided we’d skip the old town crowds and limit our visit to the studio. Even this scaled back plan was a challenge. Aix is very busy with narrow streets and modern traffic. We got as close as we could, parked in a hospital’s public lot, and walked the rest of the way.  We were hot & cranky and I wondered if Cezanne’s studio would be worth it.

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This is the studio Cezanne had specially built for his needs. The door used to move large canvases in & out is just to the right in this photo. The centerpiece here is one of his easels.

It was amazing! Cezanne’s studio is as he left it a few days before he died in 1906. His brushes and paints, easels and props are as he left them.

A little background is important. Cezanne knew this would likely be his last studio and had it built to suit his needs. The first floor had basic living quarters and the second floor — essentially one large room — was his studio. The artist even had a slim, vertical door built into one corner to allow him to move large canvases in and out.  

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Cezanne’s studiuo as he left it, days before he died. 

In October of 1906 the artist was working outside, a few miles away, painting one of his favorite subjects, Mont Sainte Victoire. An exceptionally cold, wet storm moved in, yet he continued to work. When he finally decided to return to the studio, the chill had already gripped him. He collapsed and died a few days later. After his death his family simply locked the studio. Later a writer acquired the space, but only used the first floor. Cezanne’s studio remained untouched. Eventually the property was put on the marketplasce, but a group of Americans, realizing the studio was still just as Cezanne left it, bought the space to preserve it. It remains today in its 1906 state.  

What happened at Versailles after the revolution?

I visited Versailles with my son on our first trip to Paris; my daughter was there as part of a school tour. We thought it was just “meh.” Big, crowded, and lots of lines. However, by 2018 my husband and I had been to France a few more times and Steve thought it was time for him to visit this French landmark. It helped that we were comfortable taking the train there ourselves, thus skipping the tour bus my son and I had taken, an experience I was anxious to avoid repeating.

We thought it would be important to “skip the lines” at the chateau so Steve researched tours. The one that appealed to both of us was described as an inside look at the King and Queen’s apartments. But, we got so much more! What we thought would be a 45-minute tour of private rooms was actually 2-1/2 hours with a Versailles curator. There were only about 15 of us in the group, making it easy to see the rooms and ask questions. The curator was a charming, and obviusly knowledgeable historian committed to educating us about the fine points of 17th and 18th century court life. He didn’t just point out this antique and that chandelier.

For example, drinking glasses were not left on the dining table. If a guest desired a drink, he or she signaled the footman posted behind the guest’s chair (one was assigned to each diner) for the beverage and then the footman took the glass back. Can you say pampered?

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We all hear about the Hall of Mirrors, the gardens, and the exquisite furnishings, but what happened at Versailles after the revolution? Most of the furnishings were sold off. The new government was desperate for money. (I didn’t learn that in history class, did you?). When we visited the King’s grand and gold library, the guide pointed out this commode was acquired post-revolution by one of the Rothschilds. During WWII when the Germans confiscated the best of European art and antiques, the commode was acquired by Hermann Goring. It has only recently been returned to Versailles (“Thanks be to God,” as the curator said.) That has been the story of many if not most of the palace furnishngs. Versailles was literally stripped of everything worth money and those treasures have only trickled back. They continue to track them down & buy them back.

And here’s my lesson from Versailles: some sights are well worth a second, closer look. You always lesarn something new.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this bit of armchair travel. And I hope you have joined the ranks of the newly vaccinated, or at least have it on your calendar. Thanks for stopping by.

PS: Here’s a bit of serendipity. This picture of my favorite Parisian square, Place Dauphine, popped up on Instagram the other day. Have a great day!

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