photos by Lizzie Kerman
When I was about 25, I went to Paris to cooking school. My uncle had a contact that had found me an apartment in the 15th arrondisement and I moved in in September.
Those first weeks were terrible. The apartment was new, kind of tacky and lame. Not at all that dream I had of living in someone’s 17th century attic in the heart of Paris. I remember feeling completely out of my element as far as language as well. As my mom always said, I was like my long-departed (for New England) dad. I never wanted to talk to anyone in a foreign language until I wasn’t going to look like a fool.
Even though I had spent a summer in France in high school and taken some college French, my head was filled with Serbian and German. I have always felt that the problem with learning more than one foreign language is how to keep them all up front in your head at the same time. When I was speaking mostly French, that’s what was in my head. Once I spent time learning Serbian and traveling the then Yugoslavia, I had trouble finding the French.
So those first days in France were rough...incidents of opening my hand with random coins and having sweet cashiers collecting what they needed from my palm. Having the most unspeakably rude experiences at the post office. And being taken in hand by Parisian grannies. If you stand still for more than a few minutes in most parts of Paris, there is always a lovely older lady ready to give you a hand and wait patiently while you butcher their language.
When I first arrived, I took a French class to get my sea legs again. And I practiced thinking in French and not translating conversations with people I spoke to on the street into English before getting the meaning. That is a real trick. You kind of have to turn off your inner translator and be willing to absorb without having everything be perfectly clear.
I started walking. Partially because I was often lost at the beginning. And I was shy about the metro and bus. I walked and walked and walked. All over the city. I went miles and miles. I had a journal-- post college for diary. I found this recently as I was cleaning out our house to make room for my mom’s things and it was appalling. I know we should feel nostalgic for those 20’s, but I am so grateful to have let some of that angst go in the ensuing years.
I also cooked. First I went to cooking school and worked as an intern (stagiare) for the school. Then I worked as a private chef in the British Embassy.
I didn’t have a kitchen of my own, but especially at cooking school, I was able to make truly delicious food from supreme ingredients. I’ll never forget my final exam from school---I had to make a recipe from a basket of ingredients. I was so anxious. The chef told me the recipe in advance but told me “now there is no margin for error. Everything must be perfect.” Pan seared turbot with a puree of artichokes with beurre blanc.
My favorite dish from cooking school is probably tarte tatin. I love it partially because my beloved Chef Fernand Chambrette taught me, partially because it is a recipe he taught me without many measures written down.
Chef Chambrette’s Tarte Tatin
one tarte tatin pan or a largish heavy cake pan
Granny Smith apples (Chambrette used golden delicious but I have found that the ones I can get don’t hold up to cooking and keeping their form)
Put thick slices of unsalted butter along the bottom of the pan. Then put enough sugar in the pan to go to the bottom of your fingernail once you stick it in the sugar.
Then peel, core, and cut the apples in half and very tightly pack the apples on top. I like to pack them straight up for more appleness but many folks like to put them upside down so there is a lovely round apple top. I like to make sure they are packed tight enough that they are still full once they have melted some.
I start this on the stove. I cook it on the stove until the sugar and butter begin to pretty evenly caramelize. You will need to jostle the pan so that the hot spots don’t leave you with burnt sugar.
I cook it until there is caramel beginning to soak into the apples. I have been known to pull one apple out so that I can see what’s happening.
I then let it cook slightly and roll a piece of pie dough on top. Put it in the oven for 30-45 min. I do peek to see what is happening under that shell.
Then take it out of the oven. Let it cool some but not so much that it won’t un-mold. Then turn it over onto a plate. If you have some apples stick, just carefully scrape it onto the top and it should be fine.
My pie dough recipe, for what it’s worth:
9 oz flour
6 oz unsalted butter--- you could do 2 oz lard, 2 oz butter, 2 oz crisco
1/4 cup ice cold water
I put the flour and cold butter in the food processor and make sandy. Then add the water and mix til it just forms a ball. You might need more or less water depending on the weather and the type of flour you use