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8 Jan 2008

Gifts from the Hominid – With the holiday season over, and my body having finally decided that maybe it doesn’t want to fall apart at the seams after all, it’s finally time to get something new up here to push that depressing piece I wrote at the end of last year off the front page. What better way to change the mood than talk about some of the wonderful stuff I got for Christmas?

“...the jam was homemade from fruit picked near where his French family lives.”

Although I received gifts from a number of people, I will deal with the highlights of these in separate review entries (a lot of what I received was media like DVDs, CDs, and books). Today I’ll start with some gifts that Kevin, the Big Hominid himself, picked up during his recent visit to Europe. He asked before he left what sort of stuff he should pick up for us, and I told them that, if he insisted, chocolate would be nice. Rather than settling for run-of-the-mill European chocolate, he got us two bags of sweets from Nantes, France.

On the left are almond-covered chocolates covered in cocoa powder. As luck would have it, almonds are my favorite nuts. To the right are fruit-flavored candies with soft centers—very tasty. Unlike some people, I don’t have a problem with being tempted by sweets. I enjoy chocolate and sweets like anyone else, but I usually eat them very slowly. I am not the kind of person to just sit there and eat an entire bag of candy or chocolate in one sitting. Which is fortunate, because I’m at home all the time these days. It’s fortunate that a certain other member of the family is not home nearly as much.

Also in the box was a jar of homemade jam. The cap said “Mirabelle,” which in English apparently means “mirabelle plums.” According to the Hominid, these are a specialty of the Alsace-Lorraine region, and the jam was homemade from fruit picked near where his French family lives.

This photo doesn’t really do the jam justice, of course. I don’t think any photo really could. But since I get to eat it and not just look at it, I was faced with something of a dilemma: what should I spread it on? The obvious answer, of course, is bread or toast, but regular readers of Liminality will know that I do not take the subject of bread lightly. A confiture this good could not be spread on any old bread. It would be like casting pearls before swine. This jam called for something special, so I decided to make a French bread.

Mind you, when I say “French bread,” I don’t mean what many people (Americans, for example) think of when they hear those two words together. I’m not talking about that dry, tasteless approximation of a baguette, the kind of bread they used to slice up, slather with tomato sauce, sprinkle with grated mozzarella, toss in an oven, and call “French bread pizza” at my elementary school. That sort of bread represents French baking in much the same way that Freedom Fries represent American freedom.

When I say “French bread,” I mean a bread that is prepared and baked in as close to the French style as I can get. My original intention was to make pain de campagne, which is a white bread with a small amount of rye flour. Unfortunately, I only had forty grams of rye flour left, and that wasn’t enough. I considered making pain complet, or French whole wheat bread, but what I ended up making was something in between—a whole wheat bread with a very small amount of rye flour. Had it been any other condiment destined for this loaf, I would have probably just used one hundred percent bread flour for the white flour, but I was cutting (almost) no corners this time. The bread flour used in France has less gluten than the bread flour used here in Korea, so to approximate the French flour I mixed bread flour with all-purpose flour at a ratio of 4:1. The only thing I didn’t get completely authentic was the yeast—I used instant yeast as opposed to the dry yeast called for in most bread recipes.

I let the bread machine do the initial kneading, then took the dough out for the rise, folding, and shaping. I waited anxiously as it baked, and when it came out of the oven I knew that I had a bread worthy of the jam.

What you see on the top is a very un-French addition of my own—before scoring, I brushed the loaf with water and sprinkled it with wheat germ. Although a true pain de campagne would be sprinkled with rye flour, rye flour actually has something of a bitter taste (not to mention the fact that I had none left), but toasted wheat germ tastes great. What you can’t see in this photo, though, is how the bread smelled when it came out of the oven. There are few moments in the course of my baking adventures that I am truly happy with my creations, but this was one of them—it just smelled so good, like you would expect a French bread to smell. If you’ve seen Ratatouille, you’ll surely remember the scene where the critic Anton Ego takes a bite of the signature dish and is immediately transported back to his childhood kitchen, where his mother is preparing the dish for him. That’s sort of what this was like for me—one whiff and I was transported back to the bakeries of Paris. This is not to say that I am at that level, of course, but somehow I managed to capture at least a hint of what made those bakeries such a wonderful experience for me.

I realize that this has turned into an entry about my bread, but that was not my intent. I just wanted to show how seriously I took this. As the bread cooled on the rack, I was sorely tempted to rip into the loaf right away, but I did not. We had decided that toast and jam would be our breakfast the next day. And when the next day—yesterday—came, I sliced up the bread, stuck it in the toaster, and waited. After a few minutes, we finally had toast and jam.

Again, a photo can’t but be anticlimactic. In a photo, it’s just jam on toast. But when I took a bite of what you see here, I knew that all that effort that had gone into making the bread had been worth it. It’s hard to describe exactly what mirabelle plums taste like. Being plums, the taste is reminiscent of the plum/apricot family. I really wouldn’t know what else to say, though. All I can say is that it was really good. So good that I had it for breakfast again today, slathered generously over toasted slices of my French bread. I’ll probably have it again for breakfast tomorrow. It’s not overly sweet, as store-bought jams tend to be, so I don’t imagine I will grow tired of it.

Some time last year, we gave Kevin a jar of homemade strawberry jam. It appears that Kevin did not forget that, and I suppose this jar of homemade mirabelle jam was his way of saying thanks. Whatever debt may have been incurred by the strawberry jam has been well and truly paid. In fact, I would say it has been more than paid, and now I find myself in debt. The repayment of that will have to wait for our next meeting, when I have promised to prepare steak and kidney pie. Now all I need to do is get my hands on some kidney (if by chance anyone out there in Korea knows a reliable source of beef kidney, please drop me line).

There was more in the package, but it was not as photogenic as what you see above—though it was just as appreciated. But there is no need to belabor the point. Hopefully this has been sufficient to make you all very jealous of my good fortune. Merci again to the Hominid for his thoughtfulness. Hyunjin and I have been singing your praises with each bite of jam, candy, and chocolate.

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