Feeding the French: the great cheesecake challenge.

After so many years here in France, I am proud to have got the hang of most things French. I have learned to accept the sight of my husband drowning his fresh baguette, butter and jam in his coffee every morning, leaving oily pools on the surface and stranded pieces of fruit at the bottom of his coffee bowl. I have learned the great dance I have baptised “the pavement poop trot” to avoid literally putting my foot in it as I walk through the village, and have even successfully learned the basics of French sign language (which uses not only hands, but also eyebrows, eyeballs, head and sometimes arms and fluttering lip movements). I have learned that a car can throw itself out of a tiny street on your right as you drive down a main road because, bizarrely,  he has priority over you (I think this rule was invented to keep insurance companies busy). I eat snails. I know how to revive the remainder of yesterday’s baguette when there’s nothing left for breakfast. Yep, I reckon I’ve done well.

However, I still haven’t managed to successfully master the one cultural bucking bronco I abhor: making dinner for the French. Every time we have guests for dinner, I break out in a cold sweat. So when P.F beamed across the petits fours and Pastis glasses at the huge table of pals a few weeks ago and said “next time, it’s at our place”, my voice dried up and my stomach knotted up as I imagined serving up my burnt culinary offerings to a tableful of people whose gastronomic genes were so much more accomplished than mine.

Their reaction was the classic one I have become accustomed to since I first came to France: “Oh, are you going to boil us some meat and serve it with mint sauce?”, followed by laughter. I have learned not to take this personally: somehow, the old reputation of English food being inedible has stuck to the Brits like spotted dick and custard to last night’s unwashed bowls, and we’ll never shake it off.

P.F laughed, put his glass down and leapt to my defence. My knight in shining armour retorted that English food was brilliant, and that once they had tasted my fabulous cheesecake they would eat their words along with it.

Thanks to PF’s luminous suggestion, I was up at 7.30 on D-Day, ferreting through drawers to find the recipe, and trawling the net to find the French equivalent of cream cheese on Google. One 40km round-trip later I had bought myself a few packets of digestive biscuits at the “exotic foods” shelf of a hypermarket. The juxtaposition of the humble Digestive biscuit with the word “exotic” had me flummoxed; Digestives remind me of my mother, sitting on the carpet with a cup of PG Tips, a biccy and the Sunday TImes whilst the Cornish rain runs down the window pane. Comforting, yes. Homely, yes. But – with all due respect to my mum – hardly exotic.

But I digress. I suspiciously eyed the “Philadelphia” cream cheese package:  it was the closest to real English cream cheese from the cheese counter in Waitrose that I was going to get. I crossed my fingers and launched myself into the recipe, the one supplied by my mum, the one had helped me to conquer the heart of P.F back in my student days…..

Here’s the result (or what’s left of it). It was demolished by my guests, which was the compliment of the century. The rest of the meal went fine too; the words “mountain” and “molehill” came to mind as I saw everyone happily chomping away.

My mum’s lemon cheesecake.

I have included the recipe, just incase anyone got here after desperately typing “equivalent cream cheese in France” like I did. This is the uncooked variety, and not what I believe is the U.S baked version.

Lemon cheesecake.

For one 8″ (20cm)  round tin.

Ingredients.

For the base:

200g crushed plain Digestive biscuits (McVities sablés anglais, original)

110 g butter, melted.

For the cheesy bit:

300 g of Philadelphia cream cheese

115g caster sugar (sucre semoule)

2 eggs, separated.

2 lemons (plus two more if you want to decorate with lemon zest).

300 ml of double cream (crème fluide, I bought’ Elle et Vire” brand, but they’re much of a muchness).

6g gelatine powder (Vahiné brand, you’ll need two sachets of the stuff).

Method:

Crush the biscuits, mix with butter. Refrain from eating, press into the base of a loose-bottomed tin. Put in fridge. (If, like me, your kitchen is not equipped like Nigella Lawson’s, you can use any dish, just line it with baking sheet first so that you can remove the cheesecake afterwards).

Grate the zest from the lemons and squeeze their juice.

Beat the cream cheese and sugar together until it goes soft and is easy to beat.

Add the two egg yolks, beat again.

Softly whip the cream, then fold gently into the cholesterol cream cheese mix.

Add the lemon zest and mix gently.

Put the two sachets of gelatine powder in a small bowl and add 4 tablespoons of lemon juice. Stir and leave it alone. Heat the remaining juice in a small saucepan until hot but not boiling, remove from heat. Add the gelatine mixture to this and stir until it has dissolved. Whilst it’s cooling, whisk the egg whites as firmly as you can.

After a few minutes of cooling, add the gelatine mixture to the cream cheese mixture and stir well. Fold in the egg whites.

Spoon heavenly mixture on to the biscuit base, and place in fridge.

Lick out the bowl, feel all that fat, lemon and sugar hitting your happy hormones and wonder why people look for happiness in all the wrong places when it’s right under your nose at the bottom of the bowl.

I left my cheesecake 24 hours to get its act together, then decorated it with lemon zest. Otherwise, clever people can put a blackcurrant coulis on the top, or whatever floats your boat….
Bon appetit!
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(E-)Baying for blood.

My quiet minute with my necessary shot of caffeine was rudely interrupted yesterday morning as Bigfoot belted into the kitchen, his laptop grasped in his teenage paws. “Mum! Mum! I’ve found one ! An iPhone, and it’s brand new and it’s perfect and its cheap and can I… please, please, please, please, pleeeeease?????”

I looked into his face, and saw the same pleading puppy eyes as when he asked for Lego when he was little. What a shame that the toys he’s dreaming of ten years later are ones that his parents can’t and won’t buy, even for themselves. « Even your best Bambi eyes won’t get you one », I muttered darkly as he shoved the eBay ad under my nose. “You only need a phone to telephone and send text messages. The day you find one that does the washing up and cleans the loo, I’ll think about it, though”.

Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

I glanced at the ad. It was reassuring : 3 photos of a perfect white iPhone 4s held in delicately manicured, feminine fingers. Still under guarantee. 32 go of memory, 175 euros. I told my budding geek that the price was suspiciously low, and that it could be either a fake or broken. As his worldly-wise aunt was to point out later, if it’s too good to be true, it generally is.

He nevertheless sent a mail off to the email address : a certain « Silvie Marchant » from Carcassonne. Bigfoot pointed out that the name was very French middle class and the ad was written in good French. Well, son of mine, I don’t know…. Isn’t the correct spelling of “Silvie” supposed to be “Sylvie”? Now, let’s just google the lady. Surprise, surprise : Google and the phone directories showed no existence of  “Silvie Marchant” in Carcassonne.

In the car with Emmamuse on our way to bargain hunt, the phone rang. Bigfoot’s voice rang out over the loudspeaker : the lady’s away from home for health reasons, the poor woman had just lost her husband, but she can deliver the phone today via a delivery man, please please please please?

I drew in my breath and suggested that it was strange for her to reply so quickly if she had health problems, that if she was tearing her hair out with grief it seemed unusual to give priority to selling a phone, and that it was surprising that the brave lady still checked her mails on a suspiciously regular basis, despite the painkillers and Prozac.

On my return home, I read the email, saying that someone would come by to deliver the phone. Nothing about payment, nothing about speaking together for more details about object for sale. Curious, I  sent a reply asking for further details of payment. I called the mobile phone number and got an anonymous voice telling me that it’s the answering machine for tel n° 06 ….  and please leave a message.

Keef the Thief

Keef the Thief (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I began to smell a rat:  A, 21 carat gold, diamond-encrusted, cheating, scamming rat with a big, fat bank account regularly fed with innocent people’s money. This feeling was confirmed when my phone rang less than ten minutes after sending the mail. An undisclosed number did nothing but make me even more suspicious. Rather than a French lady with a local accent, exhausted from sickness and grief, I heard a very strong African accent belonging to an insistent man who announced that he was going to pop by to deliver my phone and pick up the money, that very afternoon. Oh, and don’t worry, the transport has already been paid for.

“Hold your horses, sunshine. Who gave you my number ?” I retorted. “Uhhh….. the seller. She’s away, so she asked me to deliver it for her”.

Bigfoot followed the conversation from the sofa, and his face fell slowly as he listened to my side of the conversation. “What delivery company do you work for ? …..Oh, you’re not working for a company, you’re just doing it to help, and you just happen to have nothing better to do today?”

I bit my lip as the fury rose in my throat.  “I see.  That’s really too kind of you. She is very busy, very bereaved, very unavailable and very ill, but she strangely still has time to sell a phone and read my emails, and even had time to call you to deliver something I haven’t agreed to buy yet……but she doesn’t have time to call me first? I find that a little unusual, don’t you? Well, for the moment I haven’t spoken to the seller in person, and until that’s done, I’m not buying anything. Clear? Goodbye”.

Afterwards, I took Bigfoot off to the kitchen, hit my keyboard with a vengeance and typed  “Iphone scams on E-bay”. Google obligingly turned up trumps with a long list of forum discussions between distraught people who had “bought” a phone in strangely similar circumstances, with similarly worded emails, no replies to their calls, and ended up with no phone and anywhere between 150 and 350 euros missing from their bank accounts. The crooks are from Benin or the Ivory Coast and ask their victims to transfer the money via Western Union. I return to my son’s mailbox, angry, and tell the seller that I refuse to buy without seeing her and her phone in Carcassonne on her return.

Broken Piggy Bank

The reply was as expected and confirmed the scam : “I’m abroad, and don’t want to have to wait so long for my money”. I wrote an email saying that the deal was off, and left one last message on “her” mobile phone : “I hope that you find the time between your grief, your illness and your holidays to brush up your E-bay act : Other people may react like me and wonder if you aren’t ripping people off”.

But it wasn’t over yet…… Today, my mobile phone has been ringing nonstop (18 times, and counting) as the voodoo iPhone doctor bombards me with calls. Bigfoot’s mailbox had a message from “Olivier”, who was apparently “Silvie”‘s alter ego and most probably plays the role of the delivery boy too. He/she confirmed my order in incorrect French and explained in detail how, when, and where I should organise a transfer to “my family” in deepest, darkest Africa, where someone carelessly named “Prudent” was no doubt impatiently awaiting my cash transfer to buy himself a REAL iPhone. I’d just have to give the nice man the code on arrival so that he could check that I wasn’t pulling the wool over his eyes…..

The ebay ad now mysteriously claims that the phone has been sold.  Bigfoot is disappointed, but he’s learned something : unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people out there who abuse other people’s confidence. It could have been worse though ; he still has his savings. Now we’ll just wait and see if Silvie, Christophe, the delivery boy and Prudent pop round later to give it a try anyway. Could be fun….