Le Parfum du Pain - Paris, Chapitre Un

Another whirlwind vacation -- Paris -- has come and gone. A week in the City of Lights, walking, talking, eating, shopping, taking in the sights, laughing, and having a great time with my mom.

The last time I saw Paris was in 1973. Mama, Nini Belle, our French teacher Camille Kessler, and Nini Potter and Julie Neil, two other French students at Vicenza American High School, boarded the Orient Express in Vicenza, Italy, bound for Paris. We had reserved seats for each segment of the trip to Paris (Vicenza to Milano, Milano to Lausane, Lausanne to Paris) -- a must if you didn't want to stand for the 12-hour trip. We got on in Vicenza, or tried to anyway. We never got to our seats, because the entrance to the train, the little section between cars, was packed full. How full? Passengers were shuffling chicken crates and bundles of goods to make room for the 6 of us to squeeze in. Squeeze in for the one-legged ride to Milano. Each of us stood the whole way, one leg on the floor, the other bent-kneed on our little suitcases. Mama was fortunate enough to be packed in face to face with a gentleman who understood enough English to laugh heartily every time one of us spoke. Unfortunately for Mama, this gentleman had consumed a hearty, bowl-you-over dose of garlic before getting on the train and she was stuck there enduring one hellacious dose of ozostomia. Fortunately for Mama, there was no way she could fall over :) Thirty six years later, we still laugh about that one.

We arrived in Paris the next morning, took a taxi to our hotel in the sixieme arrondissement (6th) on the Left Bank, the Hôtel de Chevreuse, quickly unpacked and headed out to explore our Parisian wonderland.

Fast forward to 2009. We arrived in Paris in the morning, took the Air France shuttle to our lodgings in the seizieme, the Gentle Gourmet B&B, unpacked, had a cup of tea and some gluten-free biscuits, chatted with Deborah (the lovely and gracious owner), then headed out for a relaxing week of whatever we wanted to do. No plan, no agenda, except to have fun together.

And we did just that. Each day we set out on the Métro in one direction or another, thinking we might like to visit this or that museum, or shop here or there, or eat at this or that vegetarian restaurant. In fact, we'd get on at either the Argentine (Ligne 1) or Victor Hugo (Ligne 2) stop and head towards our destination, exit the subway, and act like we knew where we were going. I guess we looked like locals because quite a few times we were stopped and asked in French (by French tourists) if we knew where a particular monument or metro stop was.

Désolée. Nous ne sommes pas d'ici. "Sorry, we're not from here," Mama might say.

Or, Oui, le Petit Palais c'est la. "Yes, the Petit Palais is there," pointing in a given direction towards the museum.

A constant in our daily adventures were the boulangeries/pâtisseries, the bakery/pastry shops. Windows laden with beautiful golden baguettes and other pains (breads), like pain au chocolat (chocolate-filled croissants), or Rubenesque braids of mixed grain. Then there were the little jewelbox pastries and tartes, fruity gem-like concoctions presented like crown jewels. I was oohing and ahing each time we encountered a new neighborhood bakery. It is said one eats with the eyes first. To be sure, these "daily breads" were beautiful to behold. But, to me, it was the scent wafting around the bakeries that was intoxicating.

I've always thought I could truly live on bread alone. I l.o.v.e. bread in just about every form. All the different flatbreads, like the yeasted pita, barbari,and crackers. Unyeasted chapattis and sprouted corn tortillas. Black and whole grain breads. Challahs, Stollens, sourdough and sweet yeast loaves. Caramel cinnamon rolls, injera, naan. Scones and muffins, both the quick and English types. Name any bread -- I love it. Mm, mir läuft das Wasser im Mund zusammen. Mm, my mouth is watering.
I used to bake breads all the time, too. Especially yeast breads. I guess it's the activity of the yeast that I really love to smell. There's no more comforting scent to me than bread baking. It evokes warmth and satisfaction, and every good memory possible.

And that's what I smelled at around 2:45 a.m. of our last morning in Paris. One sleepless second I was breathing in the scent of one of the perfumes I'd been spritzed with at the Galeries Lafayette department store and the next I inhaled the perfume of bread. And inhale I did. Inhaled till I couldn't distinguish the smell anymore and wondered if I'd actually dreamt it up.
It may as well have been a dream because of all the breads I saw in the shop windows, I couldn't eat a single one. Surrounded by some of the most incredible breads on the planet, and I couldn't have even a single, teeny tiny little bite, as not one was gluten-free.

Well, I actually did have some nice bread while in Paris. Deborah found some gluten-free loaves made with quinoa, teff, and chestnut flours. Dense and flavorful, they were wonderful sliced and toasted for breakfast. Although I couldn't have the breads of my dreams, I feasted on some rather tasty and nutritious gluten-free ones. One morning we were discussing whether or not these breads could be made into french toast. Deborah mentioned making vegan french toast with a banana and soy milk batter. Not sure if that would work with those dense breads, but it got me to thinking about how I hadn't made my vegan french toast since I went gluten-free. So guess what we had for breakfast this morning? Vegan french toast made with Udi's bread. It was perfect!

One of Firefighter's friends in high school was a vegetarian from India. He spent the night once and fairly early the next morning I heard him getting ready to leave. I guess he thought I'd be serving eggs and bacon with biscuits and gravy for breakfast. I assured him I'd been vegetarian longer than he was old and would make him some breakfast without using dairy or eggs. I whipped up some french toast served with maple syrup and tempeh "bacon" -- he ate every bite. A few days later I had a call from his mom, wanting to know if I could give her my recipe because Shubham kept talking about how good it was.

I don't remember how I came up with the recipe -- no doubt it's a combination of many different vegan versions I read about in books and on the internet -- but it's a good one. Best of all, it's vegan and gluten-free, and good enough that I just might make it again for breakfast tomorrow :)

Without further ado, here's my vegan pain perdu, or french toast...

French Toast - Vegan and Gluten-free
1 tablespoon tahini
1 tablespoon ground flax seeds
1 cup coconut or soy milk
2 tablespoons brown rice flour (or gluten-free or other all purpose flour)
1 teaspoon sugar or maple syrup
Sliced bread
Coconut oil for pan-frying

1. Mix the tahini and flax seeds; slowly stir in the milk. Whisk in the flour and sugar.
2. Heat a large saute pan.
3. Soak as many slices of bread in the batter as will fit in your saute pan. Turn to make sure the bread is covered. I usually soak mine for about 5 seconds per side.
4. Add about 1 teaspoon coconut oil to the pan and swirl to coat.
5. Lift the bread slices from the batter and carefully lay them onto the pan. Flip the toast when the underside is golden and crispy, and allow the second side to saute until crispy golden brown.
6. Serve hot.

I like to serve mine with maple syrup and apricot-applesauce.

NB: I like to use raw tahini, but any good tahini, or even cashew or almond butter, will do. This makes enough batter for about 4 or 5 slices of bread, but it also depends on how long you soak the slices. I don't let mine get too soggy, otherwise the slices are too hard to lift out of the batter and are custardy inside.

Colorado 2009 -- The Working Vacation

40+ years of knitting

Like most knitters, I've got lots of projects going simultaneously; never have enough sets of needles; keep buying yarn even though I've got tons of unused balls and hanks stashed; and enjoy drooling over the beautiful patterns and items that craft bloggers post -- all the while, plotting more projects. In other words, too much yarn and too little time.

A few weeks back, I was glancing through The Nerd and the Needles blog and saw a photo of a cute little scarf. Every once in a while a pattern hits the craft circle and everybody is making it, gifting it, and/or wearing it. Baktus is one of those. It's nothing fancy or special, but it's fast and easy, and takes very little yarn to complete. There are lots of variations out there -- some are striped, some have a simple lace component added, some are larger, some smaller. Google "baktus" and you'll see what I mean.

Hm, I thought, think I'll try it with that grey sock yarn. Maybe stripe it with the orange sock yarn? Hmmm...

I've been knitting since I was about 10 years old. Sounds impressive, but in reality I had to knit when I was 10 years old. I'd been crocheting, which I really enjoyed because it creatively facilitated my inability to coordinate two-handed projects. That's why I never could play piano. How do you work the left and right hands at the same time?!

The year my dad was in Viet Nam, Nini Belle and I attended German college prep school -- 1. Klasse Oberschule at the Annette-Kolb-Gymnasium in Traunstein. And in the 60's, that meant we'd be learning to knit, crochet lace for hankies, weave baskets, embroider, and all sorts of other things that would ensure that we were proper young ladies -- all for a grade. And 10 was a good age to start building a trousseau, ja? My aunt, Tante Marie, had attended a convent school and had made some of the most beautiful needlework projects, a few of which I still have. Her linens (actual finely woven linen and hemp) were embroidered with her initials, MW (a beautiful combination of letters for artwork), and had hand-made crocheted, tatted, and bobbin lace insets. Just gorgeous. Same with her pillowcases and hankies.

I had hopes and aspirations (severely misplaced, I now realize) of producing similar quality school projects. I could see my teachers oohing and aahing at my natural talent. Mm, wunderbar gestrickt und bestickt. It didn't happen. Oh, my crocheted lace was nice enough - a relatively simple shell pattern crocheted with sewing thread (yes, that fine). But then I had to engage both hands (right and left? at the same time??) for a knitted scarf and hat, and in that two-needle swoop my trousseau dreams were felled. I tried, and cried, and in the end, my mom and grandmother finished my scarf and mittens. They both got passing grades ;)

So, I have been knitting since I was 10, just not continuously. I picked it up again some 20 years ago when I was pregnant with Firefighter. I wanted to make him some booties and sweaters and all the patterns I liked were for kniting. I tried it and it actually wasn't bad. I think my brain-hand-eye coordination benefitted from that 20 year hiatus. Well, if you don't count my first attempt at mittens a few weeks back. One fits me, the other fits J. How embarrassing! I just wasn't paying attention.

I picked up a few beautiful merino lace yarns while we were in Buena Vista, but I'm saving those for something special. Not yet sure what, but Ravelry's got plenty of patterns to choose from. So, maybe the blue sock yarn for the Baktus? Or the malabrigo merino?

I settled on the sock-yarns: a self-striping grey (grey, toffee, pistachio, and pumpkin) alternated with "tequila sunrise" (pumpkin, wine, gold, peach, blue, and olive). Got out some 4.5mm needles and went to it. The original pattern calls for using a skein of yarn, using half of it to increase to the middle, and the remainder to decrease till done. It involves weighing the yarn at the start, then weighing again once you think you're about halfway done so that you have enough to finish. A little too exciting for me, so I just knitted the basic pattern till I had 55 stitches on my needles, then I started the decreases. Larger than the original, but more to my liking. Check out the slide show (on the right side of this page) and let me know what you think. Isn't Sonoma cute? The colors suit her.

The pattern was great for mindless knitting (my kind of knitting) and I had it done in a few evenings. Certainly will be making a few more of these. Maybe I'll try the Karius variation, which is stockinette stitch vs. garter stitch. I even thought about running a cable along the increase / decrease edge, or maybe a leaf pattern. Check out this Karibak (a combination of Karius and Baktus) on Knitorious. Love her yarn choice!!

Have one really special project on the needles. Special project for a special person for a special occasion. When done, it'll contain about 9,000 stitches. Worth every one. You'll see when I'm done and it's gifted.

Do you knit?

Fall is here....and it's dudh chia time!!

Ah, fall has arrived in North Texas. I saw the signs in late August. One yellowing pecan-tree leaf was spied butterflying through the air while I was walking the girls on the greenbelt. When I got home I announced to J that fall was upon us.
"It's 95 degrees outside!!"
"Yeah, but it feels different."
A few days later I noticed that Leia seemed to be shedding a lot. Chicken Little made another pronouncement, quickly and deftly refuted by J -- along with a look and shaking of the head that suggested I might indeed be "off" in more ways than one.
So we packed up the car, loaded the girls, and headed off to Colorado. I like to think that I was tracking down autumn, but we were in fact headed out on vacation. Can you say working vacation?
We drove up to Buena Vista where we'd rented a cabin with easy access to some of the Collegiate 14ers: Mts. Yale, Oxford, Harvard, and all their ivy cousins. And we were going to climb a 14er (my first) this year.
Last year while in Colorado, we stayed in Leadville (first and last time) and attempted several of the 14ers, but the weather was so rainy that we didn't have much luck in getting up any of them. We did Pike's Peak, but it didn't really count because we drove up most of the way, parked at one of the trailheads, then climbed the remainder. You walk a short way along the road, cross over, and then hike up a path to the boulders that separate you from the peak. As we got to the boulders, it started raining. Then the graupel started. Then the lightning. But we made it. And it was such a let-down because, as you're sucking in those deep breaths in that 14,000 foot thin air, you realize you're inhaling pure car exhaust. We snapped a few pics at the summit, by which time the sleet was coming down in sheets, and then a couple generously (as mountain people are wont to be) offered to drive us down to our car. Pike's Peak - proof that no 14er peak should be accessible by car.

We attempted Mts. Belford and Elbert, but decided we didn't want to experiment at being human lightning rods and high-tailed it down as fast as one can "run" down a mountain, through wooded switchbacks, over streams with slippery log crossings, and to the dry safety of the car. Whew!

This year we were going to give Mt. Belford another try. We were going to start early (around 3 a.m.); do the switchback route (that I didn't want to do last year because it looked tough and like there were "exposed" areas); take the alternate route back; and hopefully be back to the car by 1 or 2 in the afternoon. The route is an ankle-twisting, torture-every-fiber-of-muscle-in-your-legs 11 miles long -- 5.5 miles of which is up, up, and more up.

I hadn't prepared myself at all for the climb. First of all, I really hadn't done anything resembling a workout since last December's surgery. Then, two additional surgeries were plenty of justification to go ahead, take it easy. So my body's been through the mill with surgeries and healing, I haven't done anything physical to speak of, and I'm about to embark on a trip to Colorado to do some hike/climbs that are listed as "moderately difficult." See, I said it was a working vacation. A moderately difficult working vacation.

So about 2 weeks before we left, I decided I should probably start walking, doing squats, riding my bike. Something. Anything. But it was so hot. Fall, but hot nevertheless. And so I put off my training hoping that somehow I could miraculously make it up the mountain.

Instead, I concentrated on our food. I mixed up the spices for our sweet milk tea (Nepali dudh chia); mixed up our mueslis (oat groats for me, rolled oats for J); gathered and packed our breads (gluten-free for me, foccaccia for J); sliced cheese and Quorn roast for sandwiches; made tempeh chili; made arepas; made wonderful little rice crispy treats from Heidi's recipe (you MUST try these); packed the girls' food and treats.

Ah, the day of judgment was coming. Fast.

In Buena Vista we checked the weather, meticulously, over and over, and determined that Monday the 14th would be the day. Meantime, we did a few little hikes on the trails above the rec center park, walked from our cabins to the farmer's market, to Serendipity yarn shop (often, heh heh), and just enjoyed being in the mountains.

"Doesn't this place feel like home??" J kept asking. "I want to move here. I need to move here."

Leia and Sonoma love it, too. J played ball with them every day at the soccer fields.

Fast forward to the day of judgment. Up at 2 a.m. Fed the girls, grabbed our muesli to eat in the car, and drove to the trailhead. Good thing we had dudh chia to start it off, because 3 a.m. at 9,500+ feet in September is ch.ch.chill.ly. Got the girls' backpacks on, got ours on, quick photo (the reflective strips on the girls' stuff lights up brilliantly!!), and hi-ho hi-ho it's up the mountain we go.

If you've never done it, you need to start off on a hike while it's still dark. And cold. It's quiet. Peaceful. Headlamps help you navigate the trail, as you feel the excitement and energy of a new adventure.

The girls felt it, too. Both of them were pulling so hard that I felt out of breath just trying to keep up their breakneck pace. After just a few minutes of this, I seriously regretted my lack of physical preparation. OMG and we still had hours to go before daylight....

Daylight did come and it was magnificent. Hard to describe, but whenever I get to watch a sunrise, even after I've already put in a few hours of hard labor, it feels like all is right with the world. You're not thinking about phone calls and emails you have to return, or what needs fixing around the house, or whose sales are hitting forecast. You just know that this earth, terra firma, is home and you're connected to it and every living thing on it. It's all good.

Out of the trees, into the daylight, and the switchbacks are directly ahead. Take a deep breath, because you're gonna need it. Well, I needed it. I needed it to energize myself. I needed it to focus myself on the task at hand -- a few thousand feet of switchbacks and dizzying heights. Did I mention I have a horrible fear of heights?? It was at this point that I started my mantra: Look up and ahead. Take it one quiet step at a time. Left. Right. I didn't dare even suggest to myself not to look down. I was trying to be positive and think only about up and ahead, and that each step would get me closer to the top.

By this point, J had taken on both Leia and Sonoma. I couldn't deal with the heights, the exposure, and the thought of having one of them pulling me....right off the side of Mt. Belford. So J and the girls sped ahead and every once in a while would take a little break while I huffed and puffed my way toward them. By the time I reached them, they were rehydrated, snacked up and refreshed, and ready to move on.

I, on the other hand, never stopped. I kept going, one step at a time, looking up and ahead -- till I got to the spot. The exposed spot. I saw J up and ahead looking down at me, and I had the feeling he wanted to say something, but he just kept watching. Yeah, he was thinking this was the spot where I call it quits. I was thinking the same thing. Only I had begun to crouch in toward the side of the slope and knew that there was no way I could walk back down the switchbacks (because that would mean looking down, not up and ahead!!), and that to get off this mountain I had to get to the summit. Heartrate speeds up. Or call in the mountain rescue and chopper me out. Heart beats faster. And where did I propose they land?? Heart beats a lot faster. So, it's up the mountain or...

Out of nowhere, this guy comes running up the switchbacks and says, "Perfect day, isn't it?"

I took a deep breath and on the exhale quietly said, "I'm terribly afraid of heights" in a voice that made him stop and say, "Yeah, it's a little exposed here. Wanna take my hand and let me help you around this spot?"

At which point J calls down, "Sir, could you please help my wife around that spot?"

J thanked the guy and explained to him about the cancer and the surgeries, and that Nini Belle was going through chemo, and that I was climbing this mountain for us. Telling the guy how strong I was. And the guy was saying how great and inspirational that was. Yadda yadda. Totally obligating me to beat the mountain since I'd beat the cancer.

And the rest is history. Well, herstory. But not that fast!

It was a long, cold haul up there. Made it through the icy graupel patches. Through the shivering wind. I never stopped moving till I reached the sunshine-swathed summit. Then I cried. Cried hard. Because I made it. Because I beat it. The cancer and the mountain.

A kiss from J. Hugs for Leia and Sonoma. A few summit photos. A delicious sandwich and big gulps of water. Five and a half miles back to the trailhead. Drove back to the cabing. Mugs of dudh chia. A long, hot shower. A great day.

Will post more pics.

Dudh Chia

In Estes Park, there's a little family-run restaurant we've always gone to eat called Nepal's Cafe on Elkhorn Avenue. The family serves delicious hot spiced milk tea the way it's made in Nepal. While I don't know exactly how they make theirs, I played around with spice combinations and this comes as close to our memory of their tea as I can imagine. First you have to make the spice mix. Then, mix that with milk, water, sugar, tea and enjoy. Take a sip, close your eyes, and pretend you're at Base Camp on Everest.

Spice Mix:

1 tablespoon each of ground cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves
1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Stir the spices together and keep in an airtight glass jar. Obviously, the fresher the spices, the tastier the tea.

To make the hot tea, heat 1 1/2 cups water, 1 cup milk (I use coconut or soy), and 1 tablespoon sugar (or honey) in a saucepan till boiling. Stir in 1 heaping tablespoon of black tea (I like Earl Grey) and 1-2 teaspoons spice mix (I use 2 because I like it spicy). Allow to simmer about 5 minutes, strain into heated mugs, and serve. Makes 2 servings.

** Editor's Note: Editor-schmeditor -- the layout is virtually impossible to control. Sorry!!