So it had to happen, over the past few weeks, slowly, deliciously, I have been sliding off my low-carb wagon. I’ve been staying with my French amoureux in a tiny Normandy outpost (which might well be one of the last dietary restriction-free zones on the planet) where not only I have had to relinquish all control of the kitchen and the shopping, but also, quite naturally, was expected to pitch in. Leaving pastry, pasta, potatoes and root vegetables out when cooking for a Frenchman, in France, is fine for a few days, particularly in summer, but letting go of Our Daily Bread is simply a step too far.
And I’m surprised how quickly la baguette fraîche requirement has seeped back into my consciousness, despite the fact that I am hardly eating any of it. How I have integrated opening times for my three local boulangeries to the point of sometimes organising my schedule around them (oh the feeling of mild panic when the house is breadless and the church bells ring at 12.15!) and how bereft I was when both bakeries in my nearest village closed simultaneously for three weeks in August. How picky I have become over crispness, crumb and flavour, even making myself go twice daily to my favourite bakery if I am cooking in the evening.
The daily bread obsession fallout is considerable. For a start, it is generating quite a bit of almost soggy, leftover baguette. Asking for half a 95 cent baguette from my lovely boulangère feels so mean, wasteful and sad (will she really find a taker for the other half?) and on the table it always looks so innocently meagre that it always makes me eat more, just to put it out of its misery. But a whole baguette is always too much for two, especially when you seem incapable of consuming it only at peak freshness.
The result is that almost stale baguette has become a permanent feature on my kitchen table, abandoned in its cute, cloth-lined basket, still looking perfect on the outside but with its fleeting glory fading by the hour. I have never been closer to keeping live chickens, if only to free up my freezer, currently 83 per cent full of frozen breadcrumbs. There are only so many dead chickens I can stuff, or panzanella or crisp breadcrumb-topped salads I can feed to friends, or to myself, particularly as I am “not eating bread”.
But by far the most excruciating by-product of my new baguette–buying habit is the daily close proximity to cake. I’m talking proper, serious, French pâtisserie here, as it turns out the rule of “good bread, poor pâtisserie and vice versa”, does not apply to my favourite local bread makers, they are all excellent cake-makers too! From thick wobbly flans, to delicate, lemon meringue tartes and flaky, creamy millefeuilles, it’s all good, and often exquisite.
In Bellême, le Carré Bellêmois makes one of the best coffee eclairs I have ever tasted, and shamelessly offers giant versions you can have sliced for you by the centimetre, a concept whose excessiveness I feel obliged to honour. They have baskets of free chouquettes to nibble on when I’m waiting for my bread to be sliced or wrapped. And then, just to tip me over the edge, they also have the audacity to be excellent chocolatiers.
In Marolles, La Maison Triboté’s wonderful baguette tradition is a regional prizewinner, but their sweet speciality is ice-cream cakes or vacherins. They also make their own adorable choc ices, in two sizes, small and mini. On Sunday mornings when the display is full to burst and the long queue moves most slowly, sometimes you can spend five minutes shuffling along in the snail-pace line, barely centimetres away from those ice creams. Just try resisting something which is so perfect and tiny and easy to devour in two bites, it’s almost as if you didn’t really eat it at all.
I know that giving in to the relentless exposure, even for a mini choc ice or a quarter baguette, is a soapy slope, as my Frenchman would say in his usually impeccable English. But the extreme availability of all this superior pâtisserie, teamed with Bake-Off’s inferiority complex-building new season means that I have yet to slip further from the low-carb grip into my once copious home-baking habits. These days, when I bake, it’s not for two, but for a crowd who will always eat it all, and I stick to my favourite classics. That way, leftover cake – way more appealing and dangerous than bread – is not joining the forlorn and lonely bits of baguette on my table, demanding to be eaten.
Old-Fashioned Quatre Quarts Cake
Four-quarters cake (or quatre quarts cake) uses an equal weight of eggs, sugar, butter and flour. Delicious with buttercream topping.
5 minutes preparation
25 minutes cooking
225g plain flour • 225g golden caster sugar • 225g good salted butter, softened • 4 medium eggs at room temperature • 1 1/2 tsps baking powder
• A few drops of vanilla extract
1. Heat the oven to 180oC. Grease and flour a 23cm loaf tin.
2. Beat all the ingredients together in a mixer on high for 2 minutes or so, scraping the sides of the bowl halfway through.
3. Tip the mixture into the tin and bake for 25 minutes or until it is golden and coming away from the sides of the tin. Test with a skewer in the centre.
4. Remove from the oven, leave to cool slightly before turning out onto a wire rack and leaving to cool completely.
450g icing sugar, sieved • 225g softened butter (I like it salted) • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Whisk the icing sugar with the butter until the cream is light and fluffy, adding the vanilla extract towards the end, then spread over the top of the cake.
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