Make the cheesy bread that the French nibble nightly
Greetings from Paris, where I'm pondering time, friendship, early-evening drinks and cheese bread.
I'm in Paris a whole less than I'm in New York, yet I see my French friends a whole lot more. It's not that I prefer the French set. It's not even that I'm more gadabout here. Nope, I think it's because there are so many more opportunities to see friends in Paris, and they're all built into the rhythm of the day.
In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner, there are three other let's-get-together moments:
Pre-work. The cafés open before the crack of dawn, and sharing the first coffee of the day with a friend at your regular place is simple. (My husband and our friend, Bernard, meet five days a week at the Petit Suisse, where the waiters start making their espressos as they see them coming down the street.)
At about 4 p.m. for gouter. While the word "gouter" is pretty much reserved these days for kids' after-school snacks, the practice of stopping for something sweet continues among adults, giving all of us grown-ups a kind of bonus: the chance to see friends and to be indulgent.
"L'heure de l'apéro." The cocktail hour.
Apéro really is just about an hour, but it needn't be cocktails that are served. Most often, the beverage is wine and the accompaniment is something nibbly: a tasty tide-you-over tidbit that will hush tummy rumbles yet leave room for a meal (which usually doesn't begin until 8 or later).
The go-along might be something as plain as salted nuts, a few slices of dried sausage or cherry tomatoes (a big French favorite that I don't fully understand), or it might be a kind of cheese bread, a member of the "cake salé," or savory cake, family. (Yes, the French say "cake"; they use the word for almost anything baked in a loaf pan.)
I had my first cheese bread about a decade ago in Reims, the champagne capital of France, and I've been a faithful fan ever since. Essentially a quick bread, meaning that it gets its rise from baking powder, not yeast, the cheese bread is hardly a light little nothing. Rather, it's a substantial loaf that, when cut into slender fingers or snackable cubes, is just the right thing with a glass of white wine or, yes, champagne.
Although the bread comes in as many varieties as there are cheeses, the one I make most often uses those not-at-all French classics, cheddar and Gouda, as well as bacon, walnuts, very untraditional apple and, for a surprise, cumin. I like to pack as much texture into the bread as I can, so I make the batter with grated cheddar and small chunks of Gouda; the cheddar melts into the bread completely, and the Gouda half-melts and half keeps its form. As for the cumin, it's a new addition chez me, one I adopted after having Gouda that was made with cumin seed.
• The bread is the kind of thing a resourceful French cook would make with whatever cheese was left over at the end of the week. This means that although you should respect the proportions of the recipe, you can go your own way with the cheese. Pick one you can grate for the batter, then choose whatever you'd like for the chunky add-in.
• I use ground cumin in the bread; it's an ingredient I always have on hand. But you can use cumin seeds, if you prefer. You could even go halfsies, using some ground cumin in the batter and some seeds along with the mix-ins.
• When you're combining the wet and dry ingredients, take it easy. There's no need to get a perfect blend, because you'll soon be stirring in the cheese cubes and their mates. With quick breads, undermixing beats overmixing.
• Cajole the batter into the corners of the pan -- it's a thick, unusually spongy batter, and you'll need to nudge it into place -- and don't give much thought to smoothing the top.
When you slide the bread into the oven, pop some white wine into the refrigerator. By the time the bread bakes and cools, it'll be "l'heure de l'apéro" and you'll be on top of it. Cheers!
• Dorie Greenspan is the award-winning author of 12 cookbooks, including the recent "Baking Chez Moi" and the upcoming "Dorie's Cookies." Read more on her website, doriegreenspan.com. @doriegreenspan