Here's an unexpected way to impress the French: make them British or American sweets.
Le crumble, les scones, le cheesecake, les cookies, les muffins and les brownies are all the rage in France. (To sound French you have to pronounce the words with a lilting stress on the last syllable). I learned this a few years ago when my mother-in-law asked me for a baked cheesecake recipe; my mother, herself diplomee in French patisserie from Cordon Bleu, passed on my grandmother's recipe but puzzled at why a French person would want to make an American dessert. Weren't the French self-proclaimed (and maybe even self-important?) masters of desserts, the finest desserts in the world?
Next came requests from recipes for le crumble. I told my MIL that I didn't really use a recipe: if I had apples or pears on hand and wanted to make a quick dessert, I would chop and toss them with sugar and cinnamon and bake with a Streusel-esque flour-butter-sugar-oatmeal topping. I also tried to explain that I was more partial to the New England cobbler than the English crumble, but I think the distinction was lost in my (clumsy) translation. Anyway, I can't figure out why the French love our Anglophone treats. They still think that British food is horrendous but have always held British teatime sweets in high esteem. I tried to explain to my students that London actually has fantastic food now, especially with the rise of gastropubs, but they fell over themselves laughing because they thought gastro was short for "gastro-intestinal", not "gastronomic."
I realised that this could be my secret weapon. To me, French culture, especially culinary culture, seems dominated by notions of what is correct: this is the word used to describe things done well, appropriately, correctly. When you are dealing with well-known, well-loved classic dishes that have been made in the same way for centuries, you know if they are correct or not correct. I used to panic about what to say and do when I visited France with MCM before we lived here. He would reassure me and tell me to just be myself and I would respond that he knew very well that France didn't work that way. It didn't matter that I was an educated, well-travelled and cultured person: I would only be judged by the standards of France and, in general, I felt that I was not correcte and meeting with disapproval. It didn't matter that I had a PhD, because I didn't have a Bac! (French national exam that confers high school diploma - a post in its own right). If I rested my bread on my plate instead of on the table, I had poor manners. As I live here longer and my French is better and more confident, I am coming to terms with this. It's a personal challenge: perhaps because I attended a Catholic primary school and study nineteenth-century culture, I love rules and order and I don't like to unwittingly break social codes. (Although I just split an infinitive - I am a rebel deep inside!). But I also recognise that, like in any other culture, French cultural confidence can veer towards chauvinism and I shouldn't to take it too seriously or feel self-conscious.
So, I decided that instead of attempting to make French desserts for French people or trying to conform to codes where I risked not being judged correcte, I would be exotic. I would bring brownies to social functions, make a crumble for dessert for the in-laws, or send blueberry muffins with MCM when he went to visit his parents. The reactions have been very positive. Ahh! J'adore ces petits muffins! It works for me on several levels - I love these desserts and they are easy to make, too.
This reached comic heights when MCM and I were invited to a brunch at one of his colleague's home. Brunch itself is, of course, a North American import - and very trendy with the French. In my experience it is more breakfast than lunch in France: pastries, fruit, sliced ham and cheese, juice, coffee. No bloody maries, either; I got looks of horror and fascination when I suggested that alcohol was served at an American brunch. I recently saw a cookbook on sale at my local Monoprix supermarket for le slunch, a horrific term that has apparently been invented by an enterprising French foodwriter to combine supper and lunch. It's almost as bad as le fooding, a trendy French word that supposedly combines food and feeling. Gag. I need another post how the French are plundering and abusing my beautiful native language. (In fairness, we've done the same to theirs...)
Anyway, I made a bold move and brought homemade orange-cranberry scones to the brunch. I adapted them from this Martha Stewart recipe, adding the grated zest of an orange and substituting whole milk for half-and-half. The French girls gobbled them up! There were squeals of excitement and one of them pronounced confidently, "Oh, tu sais, moi, j'adore les scones. Moi je suis tres scones." I've since told this story to my students and they think it is hilarious. "Je suis tres scones" translates, very approximately into American teen-speak, as "Omigawd, scones are just like, soooo me. I am so into scones."
I actually felt a bit embarrassed that everyone was eating my scones and not the other treats the hostess had purchased (yes, purchased). One guest, an Italian woman, actually announced that she would take the 2 leftover scones home with her. I think there were 2 left because no one wanted to take the last one and risk getting scratched. Meow!
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