RETURN TO AFRICA – Part I
The blazing sun streams through the hazy oval of window and stretches across the book open on the small square of table in front of me as we dip down towards earth. The land below me rises upwards, offering me a carpet of geometric, well-defined, sharp-angled patches of cream, almond, caramel and toffee only broken here and there by the occasional vibrant, lush rectangle of jade or lime. A maddening deep, dark squiggle cuts a swath through the landscape like a drizzle of bittersweet chocolate, hinting of the Dark Continent. Mountains push up from the ground in craggy relief like some smart kid’s junior high science project giving form to the flatness that stretches out before me.
The plane dips once again, leaning in closer to the horizon as my eyes search for the ocean, the same ocean that kisses the scorching sand that reaches out to form the beach where I grew up somewhere far, far away, the other side of the world. The same ocean that batters the rocks off the Brittany coast where we spend holidays, the same waters that offer us plump crabs and tiny black bigorneaux that we scoop up and eat by the dozens back home in France. But catching sight of that deep blue body of water here seems unreal, as surreal as the backdrop of mountains everywhere I turn, mountains that are always there, unexpectedly, behind houses, beaches, vineyards, everywhere as if painted against the sky in some monstrous photographic studio and we are meant to turn around and smile at the camera. The image is jarring and makes my entire week seem an illusion, everyone acting a well-scripted part on some stage, the curtains parting as each change of scenery is wheeled into place, the lights raised or lowered, the wind machine snapped on or off, but all the while that wall of painted mountains looms over us.
I clutch anxiously at my good luck pendant hanging loosely on a thin silver chain around my neck and whisper my little prayer. This is all I have to hang on to, what gets me through these long hours above the ground, I who am terrified to fly yet so desperately want to travel. And here I am, back in Africa. I don’t often think of my other trip to this continent all those years ago, before I married, when I brazenly fled to Nigeria to be with someone I thought maybe I loved. I knew as soon as I landed that I loved another but spent enough time in that curious place, exploring that darkly dangerous country to feel a wide-eyed awe and mysterious fascination with all that is unknown, exotic, treacherous. But this new experience, this return to Africa, well, I knew that I would be in careful, safe, loving hands. And from all that I had heard, this Africa was rich in culture and fine food, gorgeous summer weather, sandy beaches and extremely happy friends.
Colleen and Donald, my wonderful, generous hosts, met this exhausted, bedraggled, woozy excuse for a food blogger at the airport, tucked me into the front seat (Wrong side, Donald!) and zipped off into a brilliantly sunny Cape Town summer day. Palm trees flew by me, beautiful palm trees waving gently in the breeze reminding me of Florida yet not, the car only slowing down as we approached their part of the city when suddenly a gorgeous vista opened up on my left: False Bay, a tiny cove-like beach and port upon whose rocks the Indian Ocean waves were crashing furiously. The Indian Ocean! Who would have ever thought that I would actually see the Indian Ocean with my very own eyes? Table Mountain loomed above on my right, growing ever closer as we pulled into their driveway, standing majestically, protectively behind their warm, friendly home.
and the two most generous people I have ever met. Thank you both!
The two days leading up to the Indaba, the South African Food & Wine Bloggers’ Conference, was filled with activity as I tried to catch my breath. I spent one day with Colleen and family furiously filling goodie bags, organizing stacks of cookbooks and magazines, arranging boxes of wine that kept arriving at the door, oooohing and ahhhing over all the amazing goodies that filled her house from wall to wall, floor to ceiling, threatening to take over the Grove home completely, mercilessly. Colleen sat morning, noon and night at her computer, cell phone pressed to one ear, sucking on a never-ending bottle of water, her only sustenance, and trying to keep her nerves under control while tying up last-minute details. Her wonderful husband, ever cheerful even under pressure and the most trying of times, organized, ran errands, drove all over Cape Town in search of the last boxes of goodies and gifts, and proved himself totally indispensable, as passionate about this event as any dedicated food or wine blogger. And through it all, there were always perfectly mixed mugs of café au lait magically appearing for me on the kitchen counter.
Saturday I spent with Jeanne, Nick and family and friends out on Franschhoek in the Winelands, lunching at a lovely restaurant overlooking vineyards with the ever-present backdrop of mountains. The evening was spent at Nick’s mom’s home where he put together a wonderful braai for us and a couple of friends. We talked late into the night, the music from some distant concert enveloping us in the darkness, our own laughter filling in the spaces in between.
The February 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mallory from A Sofa in the Kitchen. She chose to challenge everyone to make Panna Cotta from a Giada De Laurentiis recipe and Nestlé Florentine Cookies. I, of course, long a panna cotta lover, chose to make a wonderful Café au Lait version of this luscious, creamy dessert with the addition of a fabulous Bittersweet Mocha Sauce drizzled over the Panna Cotta which created the perfect dark edge to the lovely, light coffee flavor of the panna cotta. As the Florentine Cookie recipe called for corn syrup which I have never been able to find in France I decided to add a crunchy side to the Panna Cotta with very Italian Chocolate Chip Cappuccino Biscotti. Here is to a wonderful week in Cape Town drinking perfect Café au Lait as well as many cups of bittersweet coffee swallowed one after the other on the plane down and back up as well as several to kick start my old routine once I returned to Terra Firma and home.
I was honored to be interviewed by the very cool people at Chudleigh’s, the apple farm and bakery outside of Toronto. Hop over to their Chudleigh’s Blossom Blog to read my interview!
Don’t miss the latest developments over at From Plate to Page! We recently announced and introduced our newest sponsor: Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board who is generously partnering with us at From Plate to Page so we can make this the best hands-on workshop for food bloggers, writers, stylists and photographers ever! And our latest guest post is from fabulous food stylist and creative director Robin Zachary who lets you into her… Prop Closet.
And one more thing: I want to thank each and every one of you who took your time to go to the Blogger’s Choice site and vote for Life’s a Feast. Yes, I am nominated for a Blogger’s Choice Award in the category of Best Food Blog. If you enjoy my blog and haven’t yet voted, I do hope that I can count on your vote! And know how very much I appreciate it!
Stay tuned for Return to Africa – Part II.
COFFEE PANNA COTTA with Bittersweet Mocha Sauce
1 cup (250 ml) whole milk
1 tablespoon (8 g) unflavored powdered gelatin
3 cups (750 ml) whipping cream (whole fat heavy cream)
1/3 cup (80 ml) honey
1 tablespoon (15 gm) granulated sugar
pinch of salt
2 tsps instant espresso powder or more to taste
Prepare 6 to 8 ramekins or individual bowls or demitasse cups. If you want to be able to turn the Panna Cotta out of the bowl or ramekin, run the bowl under cold running water, pour and shake the water out but do not dry.
Pour the milk into a medium-sized saucepan and sprinkle the gelatin over the milk. Whisk quickly and lightly just so it is all wet and then allow to sit for 5 minutes. This softens the gelatin. Place the saucepan over medium heat and, whisking gently, allow the milk to heat until it is hot but not boiling, 5 more minutes. The yellow shiny splotches of gelatin floating on the surface will disappear when the gelatin is completely melted/dissolved.
Add the cream, honey, sugar, pinch of salt and 2 teaspoons instant espresso powder to the hot milk and continue to heat, stirring, until the honey, sugar and espresso have dissolved. Taste and add more espresso powder if you desire a stronger coffee flavor.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow to cool for several minutes. Whisk to combine well before pouring into the glasses, bowls, cups or ramekins. I always find it much easier to pour the liquid into a glass or Pyrex measuring cup with a spout and pour from that instead of directly from the saucepan.
Cover each bowl or ramekin with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or, ideally, overnight.
A half hour or so before serving, prepare the Bittersweet Mocha Sauce. Once the Sauce has been made and chilled, serve the Panna Cotta, each drizzled with the Sauce and a Cappuccino Biscotto or two.
BITTERSWEET MOCHA SAUCE
2 ounces (60 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, or more to taste
¾ cup (200 ml) heavy whipping cream
2 tsps instant espresso powder
1 Tbs to ¼ cup (50 g) granulated sugar to taste
Coarsely chop the chocolate and place it in a small saucepan with the heavy cream, the espresso powder and 1 tablespoon sugar. Heat very gently over medium-low heat, whisking or stirring, until the chocolate, sugar and espresso have all melted and dissolved. Taste, adding sugar until desired sweetness. Remove from the heat, allow to cool for a few minutes, stir again and pour into a glass measuring cup, bowl or jar and refrigerate until just cool enough to serve over the chilled Panna Cotta.
CAPPUCCINO BISCOTTI WITH CHOCOLATE CHUNKS
Makes 25 to 30 biscotti
2 cups (280 g) flour
¾ cup (150 g) granulated white sugar
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
Rounded ½ tsp ground cinnamon, optional
1 rounded tsp instant espresso powder or instant coffee powder
Rounded ½ cup (3 ½ oz, 100 g) mini chocolate chips or coarsely chopped chocolate
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp vanilla
Cinnamon-sugar for dusting, optional
Preheat oven to 300°F (150°C) and place the rack in the center of the oven. Line a baking/cookie sheet with parchment paper.
In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs and the vanilla extract.
In a large mixing bowl, blend the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and coffee powder/granules and whisk together or beat with an electric mixer on low for 20 or 30 seconds to combine well. Stir in the chocolate chips or chunks.
Whisk the eggs until blended and whisk in the vanilla. Pour this over the dry ingredients and, using a fork or wooden spoon, stir until all of the dry ingredients are moistened and begin to pull together and form a dough. Scrape out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead very briefly until you have a smooth, well-blended dough. Do not add in too much flour, just enough that this sticky dough can be handled.
Divide the dough in half. With floured hands on the lightly floured work surface, form each ball of dough into a log about 10 inches (25 cm) long and 2 inches (5 cm) wide. Carefully transfer the logs onto the prepared baking sheet spacing them about 3 inches (7.5 cm) apart to allow for spreading.
I sprinkle the surface with granulated sugar and ground cinnamon which gives the final, crispy outside of the biscotti a sweet, cinnamony touch.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until firm to the touch. They should have puffed up and spread out a bit. Remove from the oven – do not turn the oven off – and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
Transfer the logs, one at a time, to a wooden cutting board. With a good, serrated knife, cut each log crosswise on the diagonal into ¾ inch (2 cm)-wide slices. Cut slowly and carefully to avoid the biscotti breaking or crumbling.
Arrange the slices on the lined baking sheet cut sides up (you can place them close together as they will no longer spread) and bake for 10 minutes. Open the oven and flip all of the slices over, slide back into the oven and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool.
These can easily be stored for days and days in an airtight, preferably metal cookie tin.