February 27, 2015

The Sweetest Royal Treatment: Off-Season Vacation in Biarritz, France

La Grande Plage in Biarritz is desolate and spectacular in wintertime.

During summertime, Biarritz is either a tourist's dream or a nightmare depending on your point of view. The beautiful beaches become checkerboards of tightly packed sunbathers in orderly rows, partially shaded by cumbersome parasols. The sound of the waves is obscured by the noises of people chattering. However in winter, this Basque seaside resort in Southwest France is a haven of peace and exclusivity.

Michelin-Starred Villa Eugénie Restaurant at the Hôtel du Palais 

Prized for its expansive sandy shores, Biarritz was a favorite destination of Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoleon III. She convinced her Emperor hubby to build a seaside retreat at this stunning spot on the Bay of Biscay, and he complied with a glorious palace designed in lavish Second Empire style. Ever since, Biarritz has been a fashionable beach resort known for its refined restaurants and upscale boutiques
Elegant Second Empire Style Dining Room of Villa Eugénie Restaurant 

Napoleon and Eugénie's palace has been converted to the Hôtel du Palais, a 5-star hotel with luxurious accommodations, two gourmet restaurants and private beaches. The former grand salon is now the Michelin-starred Villa Eugénie Restaurant. In this elegant dining room of inspiring high ceilings and dazzling crystal chandeliers, guests indulge in the finest Basque cuisine while admiring the ocean views. Standards of excellence are seen in every detail, from the floral decor to the superb service.

Table Decor at Villa Eugénie Restaurant 
I was lucky enough to have lunch at the Hôtel du Palais' Villa Eugénie Restaurant. For the main course, I chose the Red Snapper Seasoned with Piment d'Espelette (a mildly spicy pepper that grows around the village of Espelette of the Basque region). The fish was served over Risotto with Calamari in a Squid Ink Sauce.
Espelette-Seasoned Red Snapper, Calamari Risotto with Squid Ink Sauce

The desserts were truly the highlight of the meal. The Vanilla Cake with Lemon Sorbet and Raspberries was artistically presented and exquisitely flavored.
The best dessert was surprisingly simple: Baked Pear over Puffed Pastry with Caramel Ice Cream. I'd like to attempt this at home!

The most original dessert was the profiteroles. Presented on a plate reminiscent of a painter's canvas, the Vanilla Ice Cream with Roasted Cherry Profiteroles were topped with a decadent chocolate sauce.
Vanilla Ice Cream and Roasted Cherry Profiteroles 
Adorable little after-dinner desserts provided the finishing touch. The platter included chocolate truffles, mini pound cakes glazed with lemon icing, pistachio-cream mini tarts, butter cookies and handmade nougat candies.
After-Dinner Dessert Platter

After the Hôtel du Palais, the next essential gastronomic stop in Biarritz is the Miremont Pâtisserie. Founded in 1872, this dainty boutique has catered to high society ever since it opened. King Edward VII of England was a loyal patron and King Edward VII of Spain had lunch here on occasion. 
Selection of Desserts at the Miremont Pâtisserie

The Miremont offers a selection of traditional French pâtisserie, such as charlottes and mille-feuilles, along with handmade candies and chocolate truffles.

Selection of Desserts at the Mirement

Of course the selection includes traditional Gâteau Basque, a double-layered tart filled with almond pastry cream and sometimes fruit.

You may take the pastries to go or savor them while seated down in the dining room, which offers lunch options as well. Decorated in refined 17th-century style, Miremont dining room gives the impression of being in Paris but with gorgeous ocean views. The room overlooks the Grande Plage (Grand Beach), the most popular beach in Biarrtiz.

View from the Miremont Dining Room

While in Biarritz, be sure to see the most famous sight: the Rocher de la Vierge (Virgin on the Rock). During winter, the Atlantic waves are wild and dramatic, exciting for surfers, and all the more exciting for traversing the bridge to see the Virgin on the Rock!
Rocher de la Vierge

Like all coastal towns, Biarritz has a classic lighthouse. I had someone snap a photo of me in front of that monument with my tour guide Veronique from Détours Pyrénéens. She was absolutely fantastic! I highly recommend this company for customized tours and excursions around the Basque Country.
With my tour guide Veronique from Détours Pyrénéens  
Following our visit to Biarritz, we traveled further south along the coastline to Hendaye. Here the scenery is simply breathtaking. The sheer cliffs drop off dramatically into the sea. This site is not for the faint of heart. I loved the scenery but it gave me vertigo!

Next we took a scenic drive through the countryside along the way to Saint-Jean de Luz. Opposite the coast are peaceful estuaries and typical Basque red-tile roofed houses.

Saint-Jean de Luz is another town with a regal past. In 1660, King Louis XIV married to Marie-Thérèse of Austria in the town's Church of Saint John the Baptist. The entire city is filled with quaint half-timbered houses and historic buildings.
All over Saint-Jean de Luz are charming buildings with red shutters typical of the Basque region. During summertime, residents close the shutters during the day to keep their rooms cool or perhaps to take a nap!
Typical Basque Building

Maison Adam is a must-stop shop for anyone who loves chocolates and macarons.
Maison Adam

In fact, this shop invented the macaron in the 17th century. They claim to have France's most authentic macaron.
Shop Window of Maison Adam

France's original macaron was a simple flour-less almond cookie. Maison Adam macarons are perfectly moist and not too sweet.
Maison Adam macarons
You'll find some of the best chocolates in the Basque Country here. An assorted box makes a lovely souvenir or gift (if you manage not to eat them all yourself!) 
Maison Adam chocolates

The selection includes an enticing variety of flavors. I miss these chocolates! If only Maison Adam would ship overseas...
More Maison Adam chocolates

Saint-Jean de Luz is also a gastronomic capital, with gourmet shops galore! Take a peak in the culinary boutiques. You'll find products to bring home or for picnic. Specialties include Jambon de Bayonne, a distinctive type of ham from this region, and Foie Gras.
Traditional gourmet food boutique in Saint-Jean de Luz

Gâteau Basque is even more ubiquitous in Saint-Jean de Luz than in Biarritz. You'll see this dessert in almost all the bakeries in town.
Gâteau Basque Galore!

In every corner, the Basque Country shows off its style. Even the fish wear Basque-style berets and scarves in this proud region.
Basque Fish Restaurant
Saint-Jean de Luz is full of ambience. Take time to soak up the atmosphere and blend in with the locals as they chit chat with friends and family. The entire city seems to be an open-air social gathering.
Social Life of Saint-Jean de Luz

Copyright © 2015, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

January 27, 2015

Warm Chocolate Cakes for Valentine's Day!

Homemade Warm Chocolate Cakes are perfect for any special occasion.

I'm here to share a secret with you: The most sophisticated of chocolate desserts is unbelievably simple to prepare! At many fine dining establishments, you may see warm chocolate cake on the menu, described with elegant adjectives like "decadent," "sumptuous," "rich," "lava," "soufflé " or "molten". Ask for more details and you'll probably hear about the fancy chocolate that they use (Valrhona, Callebaut or Scharffen-Berger) or about the luscious melted center. What restaurants won't tell you is how easy this dessert is to make! 

A wonderful book by David Lebovitz!

This dessert always impresses guests, and no one ever guesses how little effort it took. You can complete the entire prep and baking process in 40 minutes! You won't be disappointed, and your beau will be delighted! I recommend David Lebovitz' recipe, which is designed to prepare several individual cakes. 

 Dandelion Chocolate Maya Mountain 70% Dark Chocolate

The most important advice for preparing this dessert: Use high-quality dark chocolate, at least 62% cocoa up to 70% cocoa. I've tried the recipe with single-origin artisan chocolate from Dandelion Chocolate, and the results were excellent. The recipe also works well with Scharffen Berger Semisweet Chocolate (62% cocoa). You may use any type of baking tin (even cupcake molds), but I love the Williams-Sonoma Cakelet Tin. These individual heart-shaped cakelets are so cute!

Elegant Heart Cakelet Pan from Williams-Sonoma

Individual Warm Chocolate Cakes {David Lebovitz recipe}

An absolutely irresistible dessert, melty chocolate cakes are wonderfully rich yet light and fluffy. The texture is almost like a soufflé because the cakes are flour-less (so they're gluten free as well!) The recipe prepares six to eight individual cakes.

10 ounces of bittersweet or semisweet chocolate 
4 tablespoons of unsalted butter
4 tablespoons of sugar
4 large eggs, separated

Before you begin, preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. 

1.) Break chocolate into pieces and place in a bowl over a pot of boiling water. Combine with the butter and allow both ingredients to melt, then stir gently. Once melted and mixed together, remove from the heat.

2.) In another bowl, whip the egg whites. As soon as they get frothy, add the sugar and continue whipping until they are shiny and very fluffy. 

3.) Stir the egg yolks into the chocolate-butter mixture.

4.) Fold one-third of the egg whites into the chocolate-butter-egg yolk mixture, and stir gently. Then fold the remaining egg whites into the mixture.

5.) Spoon the batter into your cake molds (buttered and floured) and bake for 12 minutes. They should be slightly unbaked in the center so that the texture is like melted chocolate rather than a cake. After removing from the oven, allow the cakes to stand for a few minutes before releasing them from the molds. 

6.) Serve the cakes while still very warm! Add a touch of garnish such as powdered sugar, raspberries and mint leaves.

Copyright © 2015, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved. 

January 21, 2015

Francophile Me! {Review of Tartine Bakery}

When I visit Tartine Bakery, as I am waiting in line (which takes a while because the line is always long), I like to imagine the following conversation that must have occurred before the bakery opened:

Tartine owners: "How do we know if Americans will like French pastries? There is no precedent. French pastries are so delicate and less sugary."

French baking consultant: "Oh, mon dieu, compared to your American pastries, anything would be better, no?!"

Tartine owners: "True, but still..."

French baking consultant: "If they are good, then people with refined tastes will come. And for the people without refined tastes, just make sure that your pastries are BIG, actually HUGE. The bigger the better in America, no? I saw the movie by Michael Moore..."

Tartine owners: "So how BIG exactly?"

French baking consultant: "Obscenely BIG, you know like a Big Mac or a Super-Size Slurpee. An entire day's worth of calories in one croissant!"

Tartine owners: "Ok, good idea! French pastries for American customers."

Croissant from Tartine Bakery (with dollar bills to show scale)

Chocolate Chip Cookie from Tartine Bakery (with dollar bill for scale)
In all seriousness, Tartine Bakery is one of the best French bakeries in San Francisco. In fact, the owners of Tartine, Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson, were both awarded the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2008. Tartine Bakery is a must-visit place for anyone who loves desserts. This is a fact already well known to the local population—judging by the line winding down the street that you will see every Saturday and Sunday.

Hazelnut-Chocolate Tart
Tartine offers delicious pastries as excellent as the version you'd find in France, along with desserts that cater to more American tastes. Of the classic French desserts, one of my top choices is the chocolate-hazelnut tart. This pastry is absolute perfection: rich, creamy dark chocolate ganache with whole roasted hazelnuts in a flakey butter crust. The balance of flavors is wonderful and not too sweet. Definitely try the lemon tart, an amazingly citrusy and creamy custard on top of crisp butter crust.

Lemon Tart
Tartine also offers a selection of lunch options, including several different quiches, grilled sandwiches and its namesake "tartine," an open-face sandwich. Every option is filling enough for a meal. The sandwiches are made with Tartine's handcrafted rustic country bread, similar to the hearty pain de campagne that you get in artisan bakeries of France such as Poilâne in Paris (one of my favorite places anywhere!) If you want to have the authentic French experience of picking up your fresh baguette for the day from the bakery, you can call Tartine to pre-order your bread and skip the line! Bon Appétit!

Tomato and Shitake Mushroom Tartine (open-face sandwich)
Copyright © 2013-2015, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved. 

December 28, 2014

Fresh Peppermint Ice Cream {Simple Recipe}

There is something so irresistibly wintery about peppermint. The cool sensation of this herb is the taste equivalent of skiing through a field of powder snow. Even just a small hint of peppermint's refreshing flavor reminds me of the holidays. 

To celebrate the season, create your own fresh peppermint ice cream. It is surprisingly easy to do, with a few simple ingredients. The key to success is infusing the mint leaves overnight.

Recipe for Fresh Peppermint Ice Cream

* Handful of fresh mint leaves
* 1 cup of whole milk
* 1 1/2 cup of cream
* 3 egg yolks
* 6 tablespoons of sugar

1.) Wash and dry mint leaves. Tear into small pieces, soak overnight in the milk and cream.
2.) Mix egg yolks in a bowl with 3 tablespoons of sugar.
3.) Use a whisk to blend until the mixture becomes lighter in color and frothy.
4.) Strain the mint leaves from the milk/cream. 
5.) Add the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar to the milk/cream.
6.) Simmer the milk mixture in a saucepan on medium heat.
7.) Remove from heat, then pour a small amount of milk mixture over the egg yolks.
8.) Stir together and then pour back into the saucepan.
9.) On low heat, simmer until reaching a low boil.
10.) Allow to cool down and then place in ice cream machine.
{Optional: Add small pieces of fresh mint leaves to the cooled mixture for a touch of color.}

Enjoy! Happy Holidays!!

Detail from the Gingerbread House at the Westin Saint-Francis Hotel in San Francisco

Copyright © 2014-2015, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

December 15, 2014

Rainy-Day Rustic Apple Tart {Easy Recipe!}

Whenever the word "rustic" appears in a recipe, you can translate to "really easy to make" and "don't worry about how it looks." This tart is a perfect example. The actual prep time is only about 20 minutes, and the presentation is very simple. 

This recipe is great for a rainy day or anytime you feel like quickly whipping up a simple treat. The tart is delicious served with vanilla ice cream or crème fraîcheGive it a try!!

1 cup of flour
1 stick of butter (room temperature)
2 1/2 tablespoons of sugar
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon of cold water
2 - 3 Granny Smith Apples (peeled, cored and sliced)

Make the pastry crust: Combine flour, sugar and salt in a bowl. Cut the softened butter up into small pieces. Use your hands to blend the butter into the flour mixture. Mix in the water.

Continue blending until the flour-butter mixture has the consistency of pebbly sand. Then use the palm of your hands to work the dough, until it can be easily formed into a ball. 

Place the ball of dough in the refrigerator and chill for at least one hour. You can prepare the dough one to two days in advance.

On a clean floured surface, roll out the dough to 0.5 centimeter (1/8 inch) in thickness. You can make the tart crust any size in diameter, for mini tartlets or a large tart.

Image shows centimeter numerals (0.5 centimeter thickness)

Use a bowl to trace the circular outline of the dough. Then cut off the excess dough.

Arrange the apple slices on the tart dough. Sprinkle with little bits of butter and brown sugar. It will all melt together during baking

Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes. Remove from oven when the tart dough is golden brown. 

Serve warm with a dollop of crème fraîche. Enjoy!

Copyright © 2014-2015, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.

November 5, 2014

Dreamy Cream Puffs {Review of Choux Bakery}

Choux Cream Puffs at 248 Fillmore Street

The Lower Haight just became more hallucinogenic, thanks to a fancy little boutique selling a rainbow assortment of colorful French cream puffs. Choux Bakery is just what the neighborhood needed to edge forward from hippie to shi-shi. It's a taste of Parisian chic!

Opened this October, Choux Bakery is the creation of Laura Athuil, who recently relocated from Paris. Athuil trained at the prestigious Ecole Lenôtre and Atelier Alain Ducasse—two of the most renowned culinary programs in France.

Choux specializes in cream puffs made with a traditional soft, flaky dough and filled with silky custard in different flavors. The bakery uses high-quality authentic ingredients. Some of the key ingredients are special items imported from Europe that are favored by French chefs. There are 12 varieties: chocolate, vanilla, coffee, pistachio, rum, hazelnut, chocolate coconut, salted caramel, lemon, and seasonal flavors such as pumpkin. 

Laura's flair for design (she has a degree in Architecture and Design) is evident in the exquisite decor. The attention to detail in the frostings reflects the quality of the ingredients and adds a touch of refinement. Choux cream puffs are definitely worthy of a special occasion—a birthday celebration, baby shower, afternoon tea or dinner party. 

Choux cream puffs are a magical treat! C'est magnifique!

Delicious Cream Puffs with Beautiful Decor

Choux Bakery
248 Fillmore Street at Haight, SF, CA 94117
Monday to Friday 11:30am - 7:30pm
Sunday: 10:30am - 7:30pm
Closed on Saturdays.

Copyright © 2014, Lisa Alexander. All rights reserved.