Thursday, November 29, 2012

France 2012

You know, there is so much more to France than Paris alone. I love Paris but I'm in love with the south of France. There is something very real and raw about rustic small towns and villages ... a certain je ne sais quoi that disarms even the most jaded traveller.

The pace is slower, the people friendlier, traditions are preserved, and yes, coming from a tiny city state like Singapore, I lapped up the great expanse of space like a caged animal freed.

I based myself in beautiful Avignon and was extremely lucky to get only one rainy afternoon during my entire time there. The sun was glorious and it gave a glow to the already golden scape. Ah, autumn ... my favourite season!

I hired a private guide to show me around. I guess I could have chosen the more popular option of self-drive, but given my non-existent sense of direction, I would have ended up in the Rhône river at first turn. No, really.

Besides, I was on a vacay, for crying out loud. I just wanted someone else to take charge of everything for a change. Thankfully, I hit the jackpot choosing the perfect guide.

I found Laurent on the Internet and decided on him after we exchanged a few emails. I pretty much knew what I wanted out of my holiday: Van Gogh, hilltop villages and Châteauneuf-du-pape.

I got all that ... and more.

Laurent gave me a wonderful insight into the rich history and flavours of the land. He walked me through winding village corridors, into wooded areas and along babbling streams. We popped into little churches and charming towns; stopping here and there to sample tapenade, olive oil, honey and wine.

Time seemed to have stood still as we'd spend the arvo marvelling at landscapes or foliage or ducks in the water. Once, we stopped by a random field and he coaxed not one but five Carmague horses to come to us. And yes, it was so good talking about everything and nothing under the gorgeous Provençal sun. :)

These are what memories are made of - moments. Not so much what you saw, but what you felt. And they remain with you for a long, long time.

Of course, I got to fulfill my dream of tracing Van Gogh's footsteps in Saint-Rémy and Arles.

Standing in the middle of his room at Saint-Paul asylum where he was institutionalised ... looking at his bed and belongings ... it was one of those surreal, lump-in-throat moments. The man is long gone but his legacy lives on. I was so overwhelmed I actually shed a tear, can you believe it?

And then there was Roussillon. The ochre-hued beauty that is undoubtedly my favourite amongst the quaint hilltop villages I visited. It has a charm and character that speaks to me. What joy it was to be there and see it for myself!

One evening, as I watched the setting sun from the gardens of Le Palais des Papes, I could not help but recount a verse from William Henry Davies' poem. It goes:

"What life is this, if full of care,
We don't have time to stand and stare"

Indeed, everything comes to nought if we merely exist. After a hectic year - oh, what a year it has been - it was sheer pleasure to stand and stare, take stock of everything ... and press that refresh button on my life once again.

- The rest of my photos, including my Paris ones (which I took during my 5-night stay), can be viewed on Instagram.

- All photos taken with the iphone4S and all rights reserved.

- Useful links: Avignon Tourism website, All Provence Private Tours website.

- This time last year.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Salted Caramel Brownies

Yoohoo! Hello, everyone. :) I'm so happy school's finally out! Nothing went as planned this year, but it kinda came together in the end and we actually survived. Still, I counted my blessings everyday and constantly reminded myself, "be thankful, it could be worse".

Anyway, I can finally kick back, relax and take a break from everything. And by everything, I mean EVERYTHING. First up, a trip (tonight!) for some precious me-time.

*rubs hands in glee*

Some of you may remember my little European excursion last year. Well, looks like it's gonna become an annual tradition. :) Hey, if the currency exchange rate is in my favour, why not? Ha!

Join me (@littleteochew) on Twitter and/or Instagram and keep me company while I am en France. I promise to share some nice photos when I find free wifi. Tee hee! Till then, feast on these yummy Salted Caramel Brownies. Signing out for now. 

À bientôt!

When these Salted Caramel Brownies came out of the oven, I winced. They were so ugly. I had looked forward to slicing up a slab of pretty swirls, but what greeted me was anything but. The caramel marbling was uneven and the surface still had that gooey, uncooked look. "The ugliest brownie I have ever baked" - I tweeted. Yes, it looked that unappetising.

Seriously, how does one mess up a brownie? Well, evidently I just showed myself it was possible.

There I stood in the kitchen - and this was almost at midnight - wondering what I should do with them. Slice off the tops? Scrape out the gooey bits? Bake longer? What???

Then my teenager coolly sauntered in after a day of Skyping and Youtube-ing (school hols/do what you like/sleep when you please), took a look at the wreck and said she wanted a piece.

"Really? You don't have to force yourself, you know ..." I counter-offered.

But she insisted, so I cut her a small piece and watched as she valiantly took a bite.

"Mmmmmm, it's good!"

What, really? I cut a piece for myself and realised the girl was right. Looks aside, these brownies really were yummy! My only gripe was the weak flavour of caramel but that was totally my fault. I didn't cook it long enough, and hence ended up with something a little too runny.

As if on cue, my daughter remarked, "I think you could have cooked the caramel longer. It would have been thicker and nicer. You know, sugar ... darker, browner. Thermal decomposition."

At that point - and I kid you not - everything flashed back to 13 years ago when she was a baby in my arms, incapable of doing anything except cry to indicate her needs. And now? Thermal decomposition, mum. 

Thanks a lot, darling. I learn (and re-learn) something new everyday, oftentimes from you and your brothers.

And yes, the more important lesson this time - that is, to give everything a chance and not judge a brownie by its cover.

Like a newborn, the brownies looked a lot better the next day! ;)

(slightly adapted from Brown Eyed Baker)

For the Brownies:
- 5 ounces (142g) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I used Valrhona 55% Equatoriale)
- 2 ounces (57g) unsweetened chocolate, chopped (I used Valrhona 66% Caraïbe)
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick / 113g) unsalted butter, cut into quarters
- 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
- 3 eggs
- 11/4 cups (280g) castor sugar (I reduced to 180g)
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1 cup (110g) all-purpose flour

For the Salted Caramel Sauce*:
- 1 cup (225g) castor sugar (I used 180g)
- 6 tbsp (85g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 2/3 cup (156ml) heavy cream, at room temperature
* Note: I only used half of my caramel as I prefer more brownie, less caramel. Of course you can make the full batch and keep the caramel for other bakes too.

Sea salt flakes (I used Maldon - yummy!) for topping brownies.

1. Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Grease and line an 8-inch square baking pan, with the baking paper overhanging at the sides. This makes for easy removal of the brownies later on.

2. In a 3-quart saucepan, heat the sugar over medium-high heat, whisking as the sugar begins to melt. Some of the sugar will harden into clumps, but that's okay - it will melt eventually - just keep whisking. Continue to cook the sugar until it reaches a dark amber color. At that point, whisk in the salt, and then add the butter all at once and whisk until it is completely incorporated into the sugar. Remove the pan from the heat and pour in the heavy cream (it will foam up when first added). Continue to whisk until it forms a smooth sauce. Allow to cool for 10-15 minutes before using in the brownies. The leftover sauce can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. (You'll probably need to warm it up a bit straight from the refrigerator.)

3. In a medium heatproof bowl set over a pan of almost-simmering water, melt the chocolates and butter, stirring occasionally until smooth. (Or, melt in the microwave on 50% power for 30-second increments, stirring after each, until melted and smooth.) Whisk in the cocoa until smooth. Set aside to cool.

4. Whisk together the eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt in a medium bowl until combined, about 15 seconds. Whisk the warm chocolate mixture into the egg mixture; then stir in the flour until just combined. Pour about half of the brownie mixture into the prepared pan and spread into the corners. Spoon 9 dollops of Salted Caramel Sauce on top of the brownie batter. Top with the remaining brownie mixture, spread into the corners and level the surface with a spatula. Again, spoon 9 dollops of the Salted Caramel Sauce on top of the brownie batter. With a dull butter knife, gently run it through the batter to swirl the batter just a bit (don't do it too much or it will all mix together). Sprinkle a bit of sea salt on top.

5. Bake until slightly puffed and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a small amount of sticky crumbs, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool on a wire rack to room temperature, about 2 hours. Remove the brownies from the pan using the overhanging "handles" and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into squares and give a generous sprinkle of sea salt flakes. Brownies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature.