Tomorrow is Bastille Day and as celebrations ring out all over France, what better way for us to acknowledge le 14 juillet than with a nod to the country's cuisine.
From soufflé to family-style pot-au-feu, crusty baguettes to buttery croissants, crèmes brûlées and caramel, not forgetting entrecôte-frites and boeuf bourguignon, it is hardly surprising that this nation is known for its food.
When it comes to French restaurants, we have dining options aplenty. In Abu Dhabi you can sample traditionally influenced dishes with a modern twist at Bord Eau, slurp down escargots and French onion soup in convivial surroundings at Le Beaujolais or start the day with a home-made pastry at La Brioche.
In Dubai, meanwhile, Reflets par Pierre Gagnaire has a reputation for fine dining with added flair and it's worth noting that from Monday to Friday, the lunchtime menu du marche (set menu) costs just Dh180 (a fraction of the price of an evening meal). With its modern bistro feel and Mediterranean-influenced food, La Petite Maison in DIFC has captured many a heart, and Crumbs Elysée, the bakery on Sheikh Zayed Road, serves very good baguettes.
But what about when it comes to cooking at home? While the language associated with this cuisine might sound intimidating (terrine, ballotine, bisque, etc) in France home cooking is about simple, flavoursome, gutsy dishes rather than cordon bleu fare. In the following recipes I've looked at three classic dishes which might seem intimating, but are in fact rather easy, provided you follow a few rules.
It is surely one of the triumphs of French cuisine that through the judicious application of cream (lots) and garlic (a hint), the humble potato can be transformed into something quite so delicious.
Those who wish to perfect their "dauph" need to bear a few things in mind, though. Waxy potatoes are a must for this recipe; they are more dense than their floury counterparts and will absorb the liquid and hold their shape as they cook. Floury varieties will simply turn to mush.
The potatoes then need to be sliced thinly and uniformly (no thicker than 1cm) to ensure even cooking. A mandolin is excellent for this, but failing that a steady hand is fine. If the potatoes are cut too thickly they will take much longer to cook and all the liquid will evaporate. Be generous with the cream and use plenty of salt and pepper (a dusting between each layer of potato) or the end result will be disappointingly bland.
The idea is to bake the potatoes slowly at a relatively low temperature - turn the oven up too high and the cream will split.
When it comes to the addition (or not) of cheese it really is up to you. Some cooks view this as an indulgence too far, while others are seduced by the bubbling, golden gratinated crust that comes courtesy of a sprinkling of gruyère.
600g waxy potatoes (eg Désirée, Charlotte, pink fir apple)
2 garlic cloves, peeled
300ml whole milk
350ml double cream
50g gruyère cheese, grated (optional)
salt and black pepper
Heat the oven to 160°C/fan 140°C/gas 3. Peel and thinly slice the potatoes, pat dry with a clean tea towel and tip into a large bowl.
Finely chop one of the garlic cloves. Stir the cream, milk and chopped garlic together and season with salt and pepper. Pour the mixture over the potatoes and mix well to ensure that each slice is coated.
Cut the remaining garlic clove in half and rub around the insides of a shallow, ovenproof dish. Layer the potatoes into the dish, adding a little of the remaining liquid in between each layer. Press down on the top with the back of a spoon and pour over the leftover liquid.
Bake for 90 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife. Ten minutes before the end of the cooking time, increase the heat to 200°C/fan180°C/gas 6 and sprinkle over the cheese (if using). Leave to rest for five minutes before serving.
Traditionally brioche is a special occasion bread: it is rich with eggs and butter and a bit of an effort to make. The following recipe is simpler than most (it doesn't require overnight resting) and uses less fat, yet still results in a soft, golden loaf that tastes particularly good when toasted. That said, it does take a while to make (set aside a morning), but most of this is proving/resting time and the recipe is not labour-intensive. As always, for best results you need to use quality ingredients: strong white bread flour and free-range eggs will make a difference. Unsalted butter is best in this instance - the fat needs to be hard and cold when you add it to the flour and the salted stuff tends to be too soft.
Turn the oven on as soon as you begin to make your brioche. This ensures that it will be properly hot by the time you come to cook the brioche and also warms up the room, meaning that the dough will be more responsive when you leave it to rest. A chilled, air-conditioned environment will slow this process down.
Makes 1 loaf
For the yeast batter
2 tsp dried yeast
4 tbsp milk, hand-hot
1 tsp caster sugar
25g strong white bread flour
For the dough
1 tsp salt
200g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
1 tbsp caster sugar
50g butter, plus extra for greasing
Preheat the oven to 220°C/fan 200°C/gas 7. Stir the yeast into the milk and leave to stand for five minutes. Add the flour and the sugar and leave in a warm place until frothy (approximately 20 minutes).
Sieve the flour, salt and sugar into a large bowl then rub in the butter.
Beat two of the eggs into the frothy yeast batter, pour this into the flour mixture and bring together to form a soft dough.
Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured surface and knead until soft, smooth and elastic. Cover with a dry cloth and leave to rest until the dough has doubled in size (approximately one hour to an hour and a half).
Lightly grease a small loaf tin (7in x 3in) with butter. Punch the dough to knock out the air, shape into a cylinder and place in the prepared tin. Cover with a cloth once more and leave to prove for 45 minutes to one hour or until doubled in size.
Brush the top of the dough with the remaining beaten egg and bake for 18-20 minutes, until the loaf sounds hollow when tapped. Tip out on to a wire rack and leave to cool.
French fruit tart
From pissaladière groaning with sweet onions and studded with anchovies to the apple tatin made famous by the sisters from Lamotte-Beuvron, not forgetting the classic quiche, the French are famed for their tarts.
A fruit tart, with its delicate pastry and sweet, scarlet berries resting on light, vanilla-scented cream is a lesson in refined simplicity and, crucially, isn't hard to make.
When it comes to short-crust pastry, the adage about cold hands certainly rings true, so make sure you keep the ingredients, bowl and your hands as cool as possible. It's also important to work quickly and to handle the pastry as little as possible - otherwise the fat will melt and turn the dough greasy. Chill the pastry twice, to allow the gluten to relax and gain elasticity and to prevent the pastry from shrinking in the oven. Using a combination of egg yolk and water not only makes the dough easier to roll, the end result is more crisp.
Crème patissiere is nothing more than an egg custard with added flour. For best results, make sure you whisk the eggs and sugar together until light and thick. While bringing the eggy liquid back to the boil once you return it to the stove might sound counter-intuitive, it is essential in order for the custard to thicken. You then need to simmer it for a couple of minutes to cook out the flour. Stir continuously to prevent the mixture from catching and if lumps do start to form, remove the pan from the heat and whisk vigorously. Once the crème patissiere is ready, cover the surface with cling film or brush it with a small amount of butter to prevent a skin from forming.
For the crème patissiere
6 egg yolks
140g caster sugar
50g plain flour (sieved)
500g full-fat milk
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
For the pastry
90g very cold butter, diced
1 egg yolk
175g plain flour (sieved), plus extra for dusting
45g icing sugar (sieved)
pinch of salt
30ml ice cold water
250g mixed berries
24cm loose-based tart tin
To make the crème patissiere, whisk the eggs and half the sugar in a large bowl until pale and thick, then stir in the flour.
Pour the milk and remaining sugar into a pan, scrape in the vanilla seeds and place over a low heat. As soon as the first bubbles begin to show, remove from the heat and gradually add to the egg and sugar mixture, whisking continually.
Pour the liquid back into the pan and return to the heat. Bring to the boil, stirring constantly, then reduce the heat and simmer for two minutes.
Pour into a bowl and cover the surface with cling film to prevent a skin from forming. Leave to cool, then keep in the fridge until needed.
To make the pastry, stir the cold water and egg yolks together with a fork.
Put the flour, icing sugar, salt and butter into a food processor bowl. Pulse until the mixture comes together to resemble fine breadcrumbs.
Add two-thirds of the egg yolk/water mixture and pulse again. If the mixture seems too dry, add the remaining liquid (you won't necessarily need all of it). Stop pulsing when the mixture has the consistency of chunky breadcrumbs.
If you are making the pastry by hand, rub the butter into the sieved flour, icing sugar and salt until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and water a bit at a time and use a knife to gently bind the dough together.
Turn the pastry out on to a clean, floured work surface and bring together to form a smooth dough (don't be tempted to knead it, though). Shape into a flattened ball, cover with cling film and leave to rest in the fridge for at least 15 minutes.
Remove the pastry from the fridge and roll out into a circle that is slightly larger than the tart tin. Drape the pastry over a floured rolling pin, carefully unroll it on top of the tin and use your hands to press the pastry into the corners. Prick the base all over with a fork and place in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/gas 6. Line the pastry with a round of baking parchment and fill with baking beans (or rice). Bake for 15 minutes or until the edges of the pastry start to turn brown. Remove the paper and the baking beans and return to the oven for a further five to 10 minutes, until the base is golden brown and cooked through. Leave to cool, then trim off any excess pastry from around the edges using a small sharp knife.
Pour the cooled crème patissiere into the pastry case and smooth the surface with a spatula. Decorate with the mixed berries and chill in the fridge until you are ready to serve.