Review: The Little French Bistro by Nina George

32283424***This is the start of a new section of the blog, where I keep my reviews for all francophile reads!!! The regular book blog is still here, too.***

Marianne, wife of a German military officer, has suffered for decades under an uncaring husband when she throws herself into the Seine. Later, after breaking out of her hospital room, she finds her way to Brittany, reputed to be “the end of the world,” and to a little restaurant called Ar Mor. There, Marianne learns to discover what she has for so long missed.

In The Little French Bistro, Nina George explores self-love, renewal, second chances, and adventure, showing that despite past choices, it is never too late to turn around.

Love is twofold in the world George creates. There is external love, given by others. However, there is also a love of self, a permission we grant ourselves to be who we are. Arguably, lack of self-confidence and self-love can be infinitely more limiting than lack of external love. Marianne must learn this as she learns to love, be loved, and give herself permission to take ownership of her life.

At 60 years old, it seems that she has let her life slip away. Her unexplained unwillingness to leave her husband shadows her throughout the novel, but her actions in Brittany attest to the belief that we can always have a fresh start—but that we choose it is key. In many parts of the novel, Marianne is on the verge of returning home, believing that it is impossible to stay and own her life in the small coastal village. But, as she slowly discovers what it means to be alive, she finds her will to commit suicide and her urge to run back to her husband waning.

Through all of the lessons, George still shows that Marianne is very human, and highlights the struggle to break free of our old selves. One of the greatest powers we have is that of choice, and oftentimes it is our unwillingness to make or commit to one that traps us.

Palmiers (On Trust)

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For this week’s adventure in pastry, I decided to make palmiers. Pronounced PAL-me-yay.  But honestly, it wasn’t much of an adventure, because I used store-bough puff pastry. It’s been so warm and we have no air conditioning, so even if I had wanted to make my own, it was not happening.

I poured some sugar into a bag of lavender that I had lying around- lavender is one of my favorite flavors. It’s delicate, very floral, and can stand its own.

In making this pastry, I started thinking about trust. (I like to explain life by means of food.)

Puff pastry can be rather difficult to make. And in this instance, we’re the scattered lavender, but what we want to be is the dough.

I don’t have much time left in school, and it’s (really) freaking me out. Any notion of “what I want” is out the window. The most honest answer is “I don’t know.” Scattered lavender. No particular place to be. No particular place. As much as lavender is lovely, it needs a vehicle as it’s not too great straight off the bush.

This pastry is a perfect encapsulation of me—and perhaps people. Multi-faceted, many layers, fragile, finicky. But, I think that if we trust (in my case, God, but fill in your blank), that we will find it easier to stretch when life stretches us, because we are in very capable hands that are not our own.

Why should we trust these hands? Because only someone incredibly skilled can manage something like puff pastry. I know because I’ve tried, and it didn’t turn out very well. We are in very, very capable hands. And while we are fragile, we don’t have to break. We can be mended, stretched, puffed up.

However, we can only move from petals in the wind to something sturdier if we trust and allow our essence to be place there. With trust comes the confident expectation of good things. Not to say that our pastry will never tear nor will it ever have holes. But when we can trust; when we can be confident; when we can hope; we will find courage to take flight.


For the palmiers

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1 sheet puff pastry, thawed according to directions

(up to) 1/4 cup sugar (you can use citrus zest, vanilla pods, etc. to impart some flavor)

Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Roll out puff pastry on a floured surface, up to 14×9. Sprinkle with sugar (and anything else you fancy. These can be savory, too.) Roll one of the long sides like a cinnamon roll until it meets the center. Repeat for the other side.

Using a sharp knife (chef’s knife is fine), cut into 1/2 inch cookies and lay on a baking sheet. They do puff up, so leave some room, at least an inch. Place on parchment paper.

Bake for around 18 minutes or until nice and deep golden brown. Cookies should also be sufficiently puffed. Let cool for 20 minutes.

Rose Meringues (On Perseverance)

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Pot after pot after pot yielded little more than one more frustrated sigh than the last. Pan after pan held lackluster, pale shells that were dry at best and at worst, extremely doughy. Slowly defeat overcame me, and I accepted that the glorious speculoos éclairs I had envisioned hours earlier were not going to be realized today.

Looking at the egg whites I had amassed from several recipes, including the many batches of failed éclairs, I settled on making meringues the following weekend. But I couldn’t help but appreciate the fiasco, as frustrating as it was.

Baking teaches you a lot of things.

To be organized, to mise en place.

To manage your time, for beautiful bread.

To set goals, to learn.

To see the big picture and small details.

To appreciate the work, so you can have beauty.

Baking teaches perseverance, and it’s a very cheap lesson. For a few cups of flour and sticks of butter, I learned to try again. I learned to look at what went wrong; to observe the details; to adapt. I learned to focus on the result I wanted, and not give up because the first try was a failure.

Life is kind of like baking. You’ll want to be organized and have a goal in mind. But when the bread falls flat or the éclairs are too doughy, you don’t want to give up. You want to learn from your errors, adjust the strategy. You want to see what the final product could be. And you have to commit to trying again. And again, and again.

Whatever you’re working on right now—if it’s going great, that is fantastic. But if you’re struggling, don’t give up! This bread is flat, but your next one can rise. You only need to choose to get up. Be encouraged!


For the meringues

I based mine on a recipe in Pâtisserie Made Simple (Edd Kimber) and added rose water for flavoring. Floral notes always win me over with their delicate, heady punch. One to two teaspoons of rose water should do it, otherwise it’s like eating soap.

Lavender Lemon Pots de Crème

The spice shelves were dismal. The bulk spice section had been terminated. And no other grocery store seemed to stock it.

Time was ticking, and I still had no lavender. And, my rational self was screaming, “who does not keep lavender in stock!?!?!?!?!?!!?” Everyone, apparently.

Hedging a bet, I hoped into the Dragonfly (our lil’ red electric car) and zipped over to my favorite French bakery in the Tri-Valley, Sugarie. Faintly remembering they sold lavender-flavored goodies, I was now banking on being able to buy straight-up lavender from them.

A buttery scent greeted me, along with a case of pastries, as a scurried in. A mother was leaving with her toddler, who exuberantly hugged “Mr. Russ” (one of the owners) goodbye.

“Do I know you?” Mr. Russ asked. He squinted his eyes.

“I went to France last year,” I said. “You may not recognize me. I just cut my hair.”

“Oh, it’s you!” he exclaimed, and Natalie, his wife and co-owner, looked up. Their faces lit up with recognition.

“I’ve come to ask you guys a favor,” I said. “Will you sell me some lavender? I can’t find it anywhere else.”

“Honey,” Mr. Russ exclaimed. “Did you hear this? This girl just gets back from France and now she’s asking for favors!” he said, jokingly.

We laugh as Natalie scoops a couple tablespoons into a white paper pastry bag and seals it with a sticker. They won’t let me pay for it, but I leave money anyway.

And that, my friends, is how this post came alive today.


Hi friends.

After bumbling through my first actual week back here in the Bay, I’ve decided to implement my spring-semester epiphany.

In an effort to live out my francophile-ness (even more), this blog is doing a lil’ pivot to be my soap box for all things French. But don’t worry! I’ll still be talking about all the other stuff…but French recipes, novels, cookbooks, events, finds, fashions-anything French- is coming at ya. I hope you stick around.

So in the spirit of summer and my love of all things floral, my dear friend Haley and I made lavender-white chocolate pots de crème (literally “pots of cream”) from Baking Chez Moi by one of my fav authors, Dorie Greenspan!!

Haley and I have an unofficial cooking show (you can find it on Instagram stories- @mllemarissa) where we try out new recipes. Always- or very usually- dessert. And I got to choose (again), so I decided to conquer my fear of custards. Because water baths sounded scary and I am lazy, indeed.

Dorie Greenspan Pots de Creme

Here are les notes (the notes…) if you, like me, are planning to tackle your fear of custards.

  • 8oz ramekins are fine
  • A 9×13 pan is sufficient. Forget the roasting pan.
  • The white chocolate…is not very prominent. I think it plays the role of extra sweetening agent and extra richness.
  • Don’t walk away from the cream mixture. It will explode. Or at least overflow.  (Speaking from experience.)
  • Caramelizing sugar on top adds nice textural contrast, and slightly burned sugar adds a sharp bitterness to cut the creamy, floral custard.
  • Don’t caramelize the sugar with a lighter. You actually need a blow torch. I am speaking again from recent experience. (Let’s just say, 20 minutes to torch half the sugar, a dead lighter, and tired arms.)

Here’s Dorie’s recipe for caramel pots de crème, which is not too different from what’s in the book. Just melt 4 oz of white chocolate with 1/2 cup of the cream and add when you temper the eggs.

A Year On

The incense sticks are nibbled down by orange embers, and the smoke is thick in my throat. Smoke dissipates up toward the mantle, where the ashes are, between two candlesticks. The left one is burning more quickly. Tears are on the verge of cascading down my face, but I hate crying in front of people.

A year on. I can pretend nothing’s changed during the week, but the silence on Skype every weekend is overwhelming. A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon the last messages he sent. Nothing super special, but they were his words. The messages are old though, and the damn Internet has probably deleted them.

Now I understand why people still call just to listen to their loved one’s voicemail. Why they scroll through their social media feeds, why they keep the emails. Even the clothes.

We cleaned out the closet, Nye Nye and me, and hauled a trunkful of clothes to Salvation Army. Driving away, I felt like I was leaving a small piece of him behind in the blazers and shirts I had placed in the bin, left to warm in the blazing, muggy heat of summer.

The candles are extinguished, but the haziness of the incense remains, lingering, a memory. We embark on year two without you, but that doesn’t get easier. The world still turns like nothing has changed, but I think of you every day.

Junior (*gulp*) Year Reflections

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Me oh my, what a year.

As is often the case around here, it’s been a while, friends. I’ll make my excuses, but it’s up to you to decide whether or not they’re good.

After returning from France (and currently plotting my way back!!), I jumped into the deep end with intro classes for journalism. I filled out the paperwork in France and enrolled in a poorly-orchestrated schedule of my own design. Lesson: it’s okay to take things slow. That was a lesson gleaned in hindsight, because as they say, hindsight is 20/20. Although, I’d still question mine, because my regular eyesight is horrendous and I’d wager I’m legally blind without my glasses.

All classes except one required a good deal of reporting, so I spent most of the semester running around both Boston and Cambridge doing research, interviewing sources, gathering photos, and then plunking down on my bed for hours to organize, draft, edit, and do more research. I was a grumpy cat this semester.

Despite my grumpy cat status, it was a transformative semester, academically speaking. I learned a lot. I had the pleasure of making acquaintances I otherwise would have passed by. I finally understood what it meant to love something because I love writing. As much as the workload was stressful, I never felt obliged nor burdened. Starting assignments was difficult at times, but always immensely satisfying in a way other fields (except French) have never been.

That being said, I don’t know if I want to go into journalism as a full-time career, but I’ve picked up techniques, sharpened my writing skills, and learned so much. I’m grateful for that, and though I hate uncertainty and volatility, the biggest lesson of this year has been that God is faithful.

Faithful as in, He may not follow your plans, but He never ceases to walk along side you. Many times this semester I thought I would have a meltdown. Not a tantrum, but a committed-to-an-institution meltdown. There were too many things out of my control (and that are still out of my control) this past year, and while God has not provided answers, he has provided, graciously, peace beyond understanding.

I freely admit I detest- no, abhor- the lack of answers. Often I find myself enraged. But I have also received His peace, a soft whisper to my heart, telling me not to worry. Against my mind’s better judgement, my heart listened.

The second thing I’ve learned is that you have something to say. I’ve never believed that I have anything to say. I don’t like trouble. I’ll take things as they come. But this semester I’ve had to deal with confrontation and contribution as I’ve bumbled my way through membership on the Navigators’ student leadership team. That itself was surprising because I almost quit on two occasions. But it was probably one of the better decisions I made this semester.

My last takeaway (although there are many more), is not profound. Only this: it’s never too late to start.

I’ve been telling myself since freshman year that I would write for the school newspaper, but never mustered up the courage to join. Well, this semester, I did, and wrote for the features section. It’s not a huge accomplishment by any means, but I’m proud of myself for following through with a small goal.

Also, I lied. There’s one more thing- let life surprise you. It’s part of the adventure.

[Changes are coming to this little site of mine. Hope you’ll stick around. xxx]

 

Paris is Always a Good Idea

Contrary to what the silence on the blog may have led you to believe, much has happened since Montpellier. Lots of exams! But, after exams came 10 glorious days of vacation, one of which I spent in my favorite city.

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I can’t explain it, but Paris possesses a simply magical quality. The grand boulevards, Haussmann architecture, all the monuments, the pastry shops (of course!), the history, and the light- soft and sweet- together, all these elements give the city a romantic and nostalgic quality- as soon as you taste it, you’ll fall in love, too, and you’ll never want to leave.

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It’s been four years since I last saw Paris, so while on the train this time around, I was worried. I knew it had been a while…so what if Paris disappointed me? I had an elaborate, idealized dream of what she should be- what if she failed to live up to everything?

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But, no- like an dear friend, Paris welcomed me with open arms and once again, I was captivate by her beauty. In Paris, one has permission to dream a little bit. That is, I believe, the reason that so many fall in love with her. In Paris, it seems that anything is possible…and nothing is impossible.

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I spent the entire day walking throughout the city…and still didn’t cover everything on my list. Paris is not a city to be seen in a day. No, to do her justice you could spend a lifetime there. I ended up not taking many photos- Paris, in my unsolicited opinion, is best seen in the early morning, without the fellow tourists. But I also wanted to soak it all in- Paris has a certain feeling of je ne sais quoi, and it’s an enchanting one that begs to be imprinted on your memory for you, and only you. It was the most beautiful dream of my life and the one I will never forget.

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