When we think of Paris, we can’t help but think of its food: cheese, pastries, and culinary classics that never lose their luster (think French onion soup or a good croque monsieur). But what is it really like to cook and eat in Paris today — as a local?
In his new book My Paris Kitchen, expat blogger and author David Lebovitz gives readers a glimpse of modern life in Paris, sharing over 100 of his favorite recipes to make at home. From traditional cassoulet and madeleines to dishes that reflect contemporary food influences in the City of Light — fattoush, naan bread — these are recipes that reflect the evolving landscape of French cuisine. And, as fans of David’s blog and memoir The Sweet Life in Paris will be happy to learn, the book is also full of personal stories about the trials and joys of cooking, shopping and eating in Paris.
Here, we ask David all about the new book, what it’s like to cook in his Paris apartment, and what you’ll find at a typical French dinner party. He’ll also be joining us for book signings and Q&As in our San Francisco (Union Square) and Santa Monica stores — scroll to the bottom of this post for details!
Tell us about your first kitchen in Paris. How was it different from where you lived in the states?
My first kitchen was tiny, about the size of a chessboard. And when you add a stand mixer and toaster, two essentials in my kitchen, it was a challenge to bake anything that requires more than one bowl. My kitchen in San Francisco was normal-sized, by American standards, with a large counter and plenty of space to spread out. However, I learned how to cook and bake more efficiently, what kitchen equipment I really, truly needed, and to be more creative (i.e.: realizing that the roof made an effective cooling rack!)
How has living in Paris changed the way you cook?
The availability of ingredients is so different. In the states, we have a large variety of things; if you go to the San Francisco farmers’ market, there might be seven kinds of spinach and twelve kinds of plums in the summer. In France, we don’t have that range of ingredients, so I dial in on what’s best when it’s in season. We also have amazing cheeses in Paris, which need no adornment, so when entertaining, after a trip to the fromagerie, well, that’s one course taken care of. And I’ve also learned to use the butchers, letting them cut and tie up meats for me, since that’s what they do best, and I eat and serve a lot more charcuterie, because the hams, pâtés, and terrines are so spectacular — and delicious.
After cooking in a small kitchen, what are your go-to essentials?
I always keep a stack of stainless-steel bowls, and now that I have a larger kitchen, I’ve acquired a lot more. I keep plenty of spatulas and whisks on hand, because when baking, I don’t like to have to stop to keep washing thing. I’ve also learned to stock up on basics, like flour, butter, sugar, almonds, etc., because stores in Paris don’t keep the long hours that they do in the states and there’s nothing worse than craving a batch of madeleines, then discovering that you’re down to your last pat of butter on a Sunday afternoon, when everything is closed.
What about pantry staples — what do you use most frequently?
I use a lot of butter, naturally. Also dark chocolate, which I buy in bulk. I keep a stash of nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans), dried fruits (for baking and snacking), jars of nut butter, a variety of hot sauces (which are not Parisian, but I like spicy food), dried beans, polenta, and wheat berries. I also usually have a jar of confiture de lait (dulce de leche) on hand, for dipping a spoon in, when I have a craving.
French cooking uses lots of mustard, so I always have a variety of jars in my refrigerator, and vinegars. Most people overlook vinegar, but there’s a big difference between ordinary vinegar and great vinegars (which isn’t that much more expensive) — and in the book, I explain why people should consider dialing up their vinegars and descriptions of the ones that I use.
How do you shop for food in Paris?
I try to do as much shopping at the outdoor markets as possible, which is one of the great pleasures of living (and cooking) in Paris. Because each neighborhood market is two days a week, it takes a bit of planning in advance so you can get what you need on those two days. I’ve also discovered the natural food stores in Paris, which have beautiful produce, most of it local and organic, and you can find things at them that are harder to find at the outdoor markets, such as citrons, rutabagas, and kale.
Describe the contemporary food scene in Paris. How has it changed in recent years?
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the contemporary food scene in Paris, acknowledging the many foreign chefs (from Australia, the United States, and Japan), who are bolder and doing some creative things with French ingredients. Traditionally, French chefs started their careers in their early teens, then cooked until they retired. It’s not like in the states, where someone who is a lawyer might change their mind mid-life, go to culinary school, then become a chef. So the ideas about cooking in France are very ingrained, and creativity wasn’t as important as preserving traditions. That’s changed in France with the younger generation of French cooks, who are interested in being more creative and not feeling tied so much to the past. It’s an interesting development and I think the next few years will be a very exciting time for younger chefs in Paris.
What are some of the most noteworthy new influences and trends?
No doubt it’s the “single-subject” restaurant. Those have been springing up all over Paris in the last couple of years, offering everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to fish & chips. As the style of the food implies, much of the inspiration comes from foods from elsewhere. But lately we’ve had places (and food trucks) that do Breton cuisine, quiche, and even a bike that sells pralined nuts!
What do people cook at home? Any distinctions between a French dinner party and an American one?
People tend to rely more on food that’s already prepared in Paris, which isn’t a bad thing. In most neighborhoods, there are “traiteurs” which sell marvelous take-away fare, like sausages, meats tied up and ready to roast, and snacks for pre-dinner cocktails. Parisians are very busy (which is obvious if you’ve even been run down by one in a métro station!) so there isn’t the time to hit the market when they are working all day. Another stand-by are the roast chickens sold at the butcher shops and the markets. Those make an excellent meal and I eat at least one a week.
Parisians do cook on weekends, when there is more time to relax and hit the markets. A favorite meal on Sunday night is an omelet. That’s when the refrigerator is mostly cleaned out from a weekend or cooking and eating, and it’s a nice Sunday meal, with a simple green salad and a bottle of wine.
What do you like to cook for guests? For yourself?
I tend to make long-cooked dishes when entertaining. Parisans are notoriously late, which makes former pastry chefs kind of crazy! (I have one friend who is usually at least two hours late…) So I calm myself and relax with dishes that benefit from a long, leisurely braise, such as caramel ribs or coq au vin.
What inspired you to write this book? What’s special about the recipes to you?
I wanted to show people what it’s like to cook at home in Paris today. People in Paris don’t try to recreate restaurant food — they are a lot less stressed when making a meal for company, and I wanted to show the more casual style of dining that I’ve picked up over the years here. Each recipe is something that I make frequently, and well-loved, except for the bûche de Noël, the Christmas cake, which I only make once a year. (Although it’s so good, I should probably rename it and make it at other times.)
Describe the recipes. Are they classics, or new recipes you’ve discovered during your time in France?
They’re a mix of both. I love some of the classics. There’s nothing like pulling a massive cassoulet out of the oven in the dead of winter, and serving up bowls of it with glasses of sturdy red wine. I can’t get enough aïoli, garlic mayonnaise, and it’s one of my favorite meals along with a big platter of fresh vegetables. One of my all-time favorite foods is duck confit, which you can buy pre-cooked in France (since it takes so long, and so much duck fat, to make.) So I’ve come up with a method to make it at home, anywhere, that doesn’t need buckets of duck fat; it just involves seasoning some duck legs, then baking them. And a few hours later, you pull out a pan of duck with extra-crisp skin. I love it!
I’ve also discovered brandade, a creamy cod fish-baked casserole that is easy to make in advance, as well as a range of foods from other countries and during my travels — like shakshuka and true Lebanese tabbouleh, heavy on the herbs with just a trace of bulgur wheat — that I’ve integrated into my personal repertoire.
What are some of your favorite foods/dishes you’ve discovered while living in Paris?
Buckwheat crêpes (called galettes), merguez (spicy sausage) and, of course, all the cheeses that you can’t get anywhere else in the world. I’ve also discovered kouign amann, a Breton pastry that is loaded with salty butter…which has been devastating for my waistline.
What are some of your favorite recipes in the book and why?
I love the salted almond crisps, since they make a great snack with pre-dinner drinks, especially cold glasses of rosé. And I think at least once a week this winter, I made a dish of Parisians gnocchi — with the blanket of browned cheese and creamy puffs underneath, it was hard to resist.
Which ones do you make most often?
I make the appetizer dishes a lot — the dips, spreads, and salty snacks that go with aperitifs, because the “aperitif hour” (the period when work ends, and the evening begins) is my favorite time of the day.
Tell us why you chose the recipes we’re sharing today.
I like the tapenade because it’s easy to make, keeps beautifully for a couple of days — no problem — and goes great with rosé. The slight saltiness is a great way to perk up the appetite before a meal.
The tart combines two of my favorite things that I like to keep on hand in Paris: dark chocolate and confiture de lait, called dulce de leche elsewhere. It’s like a candy bar, but a little more sophisticated.
Green olive, basil, and almond tapenade
tapenade d’olives vertes au basilic et aux amandes
When I started my website back in 1999, I never intended to focus on recipes. It was meant to complement my cookbooks by providing additional information, stories, and a way to be in touch with readers. But then I moved to Paris. And as I shopped and hit the markets, I got so excited to share all the great things I was tasting and learning about that I couldn’t resist posting those recipes right after I made them. However, I soon realized that I had to respond to an onslaught of recipe requests if I posted a snapshot of a basket of croissants or a gilded gateau Saint-Honor. I had admired in a bakery.
(Unfortunately, recipes for fancy Parisian pastries cannot be condensed into 140 characters, nor am I very good at tapping out instructions for rolling puff pastry while riding home on the metro using those itty bitty keys on my smartphone.)
I also realized that no matter what I wrote about on my blog, the ingredients that were available in Birmingham weren’t necessarily available in Brisbane or Bangkok, and every recipe I posted would be followed by a number of requests for substitutions. I had to learn to cover every conceivable base when writing recipes for a global audience because something common in France or America, like olives or canned artichokes, might not be available in Fiji or Argentina. Not to mention folks have various food preferences, allergies, and likes and dislikes, such as my fear of squid, which scare the bejeezus out of me (so I understand them 100 percent).
Fortunately I am pretty sure that anyone just about anywhere can make this recipe and there’s certainly nothing scary about it. Olives are hardy souls and are available jarred or canned. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country where almonds aren’t available. (But if you can’t get almonds, pistachios make a great substitute.) And basil is grown in greenhouses in places where the climate doesn’t welcome outdoor cultivation. So I think I covered everything and there’s no excuse not to make this—unless, of course, you don’t like olives, are allergic to nuts, or have an aversion to garlic. Then I can’t help you.
2 cups (260 g) green olives, pitted
1/3 cup (35 g) whole untoasted almonds
1 small clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and squeezed dry
1/2 cup (15 g) loosely packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup (125 ml) olive oil
Sea salt or kosher salt
Put the olives, almonds, garlic, lemon juice, and capers in the bowl of a food processor. (I don’t use a mortar and pestle for this because I like the slightly chunky bits of almonds in the finished tapenade.)
Coarsely chop the basil leaves, add them to the processor, and pulse the machine a few times to start breaking them down.
Add the olive oil and a sprinkle of salt. Pulse the food processor until the mixture forms a coarse paste, one that still has a little texture provided by the not-entirely-broken-down almonds. The tapenade will keep for up to 1 week in the refrigerator. Serves 6 to 8.
Chocolate-dulce de leche tart
tarte au chocolat et confiture de lait
I wasn’t sure whether I was in the right supermarket aisle when I first saw sweetened condensed milk sold in tubes, like toothpaste, in France. It wasn’t until a French friend told me how much she loved to put the tube right into her mouth and squeeze the contents out that I got it. (Who says the French aren’t efficient?) After she explained this to me, I could see her thoughts drifting away, thinking about that souvenir of her childhood. I know that after I use a can of it to make my own dulce de leche, I can’t resist scraping the tin clean and licking the spatula, but the idea of buying (or eating) sweetened condensed milk in a tube does sound a little more efficace.
Even more efficient is buying confiture du lait, or dulce de leche, which is sold in many cheese shops in Paris. The dense, glossy caramel paste is ladled from wide earthenware bowls, and I use it as a base for a variation on the classic tarte au chocolat, with a layer of bittersweet chocolate ganache concealing a layer of confiture de lait. There’s no hiding the fact that it’s one efficient way to get your fix of chocolate and caramel at the same time. Now if someone could figure out how to put both flavors into a tube so I could carry it around, that would be even more efficient than carrying around wedges of this tart, which you’ll be as tempted to do as I am.
This recipe was inspired by one that originally appeared in delicious magazine.
6 tablespoons (3 ounces/85 g) salted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup (35 g) powdered sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 cup (140 g) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (35 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon fleur de sel or other flaky sea salt
8 ounces (230 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups (310 ml) whole milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, or 1 teaspoon dark rum
1 cup (240 g) dulce de leche
Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, for serving (optional)
Flaky sea salt, for sprinkling over the tart
To make the crust, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and powdered sugar on low speed just until smooth. Add the yolk, stopping the machine to scrape down the sides of the bowl, until it’s fully incorporated.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and cocoa powder. Add them to the butter, mixing just until the dough comes together. Form the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and let rest for 30 minutes at room temperature.
Use the heel of your hand to press the dough into a 9-inch (23-cm) tart ring with a removable bottom, getting the bottom as flat as possible and pressing the dough up the sides of the pan until it reaches the rim. Sprinkle the salt over the bottom of the dough and press it into the pastry. Put the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Line the chilled tart crust with aluminum foil and cover with a layer of pie weights or dried beans. Bake the tart shell for 15 minutes, remove the foil and pie weights, and then bake for 5 minutes more, until the tart shell is browned. Remove from the oven and decrease the oven temperature to 300°F (150°C).
While the tart is baking, make the chocolate filling. Melt the chocolate in a clean, dry bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Once melted, remove the bowl from the heat and set a fine-mesh strainer over the top.
Whisk the eggs in a bowl. Heat the milk in a saucepan, then gradually whisk the warm milk into the eggs. Scrape the mixture back into the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a heatproof spatula, until it’s steamy and thickens slightly, about 3 minutes. (If it separates a bit, remove it from the heat, and whisk it vigorously to bring it back together.) Pour the custard through the strainer into the chocolate. Add the vanilla and stir until smooth.
Spread the dulce de leche over the hot tart shell in an even layer, being careful as you spread to make sure you don’t break the flaky bottom of the tart. (If the dulce de leche is very thick, let it sit in the tart shell for a minute or so, to let the heat soften it, which will make it easier to spread.) Pour the chocolate custard over the dulce de leche, smooth the top, and add a generous sprinkling of flaky sea salt.
Bake the tart for 20 minutes, and then turn the heat off and leave the tart in the oven with the door closed to glide to a finish, 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool before serving. Serve the tart with softly whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, or just as is. Serves 10.
Join us at your local Williams-Sonoma store for a special book signing and conversation with David! He will be signing copies of his new cookbook, My Paris Kitchen.
Please note: David will only be signing copies of My Paris Kitchen purchased at the Williams-Sonoma store where the event is being held. Proof of purchase required.
Sunday, April 27, 2014 at 1:00pm
Sunday, May 4, 2014 at 3:00pm
Co-host: Alice Medrich, chocolate expert and author of Seriously Bitter Sweet (she’ll be signing copies of her book, too!)
340 Post Street, San Francisco, CA 94108