At the high school I attended on the East Coast, back in the dark ages, they offered four options when it came to studying a foreign language: Latin, German, French and Spanish.
Hardly anyone took Latin. Suburban Philadelphia was not a hotbed of classicists or wannabe Etonians. I think Latin was mostly offered as a lure to attract Catholic parents who might otherwise send their kids to the local parochial schools — but since even the church was phasing it out at the time, it was not much of a draw.
German was even more unpopular. Anyone who took it was liable to be viewed with suspicion as a closet Nazi sympathizer. All the dads in the neighborhood were World War II veterans, and anti-German sentiment was still strong.
Which basically left French and Spanish.
Spanish was popular with the jocks and the less than academically inclined, as it had the reputation of being easy (since most of those taking it seemed to believe that all you had to do was add an “o” to the end of English words).
But for us nerdy nonathletes, the prestige choice was clear. It was French all the way.
After all, French was the language of love. The language of diplomacy. The language of fashion. The language of intellectuals.
At least, that was its reputation.
Actually, it turned out just to be the language of France. (And a few countries in Africa, plus Haiti and Quebec, if you could ever understand the impossibly thick local accents. But mainly just France.)
It’s a lovely language. I don’t regret having studied it, even though it hasn’t been very useful, except for rare visits to Europe, doing crossword puzzles (the New York Times puzzle editor clearly went to a high school like mine) and deciphering what American chefs mean by the incorrectly accented and invariably misspelled French dishes on their menus.
It has stuck with me, though. It’s a funny thing about the stuff you learned as a kid. I have a hard time remembering the title of the movie I saw last week, or why I walked into the room just now, or pretty much any proper nouns, but I still remember all the French I learned in high school, however little I use it.
It’s in there so deep that I think I have unconsciously assumed that a basic knowledge of French is universal.
Someone recently asked me about the name “amuse-bouche” and what it means. And it occurred to me that when I so cleverly named the column all those years ago, I was acting on that assumption.
But here In California, folks are far more likely to have studied Spanish in school — not because you can speak it by adding an “o” to everything (you can’t), but because it is relevant to everyday life here, and lots more useful than the ability to wince at the mangled French on a menu.
So, for the benefit of those to whom French is a very foreign language, please allow me to explain.
Literally translated, “amuse-bouche” means “entertain-mouth” (that is, something whose purpose is to tickle the taste buds). In food terms, it is the name for the tasty tidbit the chef in a la-di-dah restaurant sends out to you before the meal, to tempt your taste buds and/or keep you from snapping at the waiter when it takes forever to get the appetizer you ordered.
In the case of this column, of course, it refers to the little somethings I send out to you every two weeks to entertain you and make your mouth smile.
And by the way, it is pronounced “ah-mooz” not “ah-myooz.”
There, wasn’t that educational? You now speak French — or as much French as you need to read today’s column, anyway.
But there’s more to learn. Once you’ve absorbed this tasty tidbit, let me know, and we’ll move on to French 102, where I will explain the proper use of accents in crème brûlée.
Why should I be the only one wincing at menus?
I was lucky enough to hear the unbelievable trumpeter Chris Botti at the opening night of Blue Note at the Napa Valley Opera House last week. The venue is great and I can’t wait to go back. The music was astonishing, the ambiance is a major improvement and the food was excellent.
With the exception of dessert.
I had the fruit tart, which had a tough and flavorless crust and insipid cream filling topped with fresh fruit (the only edible part of it). It needs some work before it is up to the quality of the rest of the operation. It would never pass muster in a Parisian patisserie.
In case their chef reads this column, and so you can also enjoy it at home, I’m providing a much better recipe for a tart crust. In the interest of space, I’m not giving you one for cream filling, as there are many versions on the Web, all of which are quite similar and easy to follow and at least as good as the one used at Blue Note. Or to make it really simple and add a little flavor, instead of cream filling, use lemon curd, either homemade or store bought.
4 Tbsp. butter, room temperature, plus butter to grease the pan
1/2 tsp. vanilla bean paste
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
2 egg yolks, room temperature
1 cup flour, sifted
Pinch of salt
Pastry cream or lemon curd
Fresh fruit or berries for topping
Blend the butter and vanilla paste in the food processor until smooth and light. Add the sugar and process, then the egg yolks. Once everything is well blended, add the flour and a pinch of salt, and pulse several times just until the flour is incorporated. (Don’t keep going until it turns into a ball.) If it is very wet, you may need to add another tablespoon or two of flour.
Scrape the dough from the container onto a piece of waxed paper, and pat it into a flat disk. Wrap and chill for at least an hour, or overnight.
Butter the inside of a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.
Roll the dough out between two sheets of waxed paper, into a circle roughly 11 to 12 inches across. Using the tart pan as a template, cut out a dough circle the size of the bottom of the pan and place it in the pan. (This will make a very shallow tart, so you will be building the edge rather than taking the dough all the way up the side of the pan like you would with a pie.)
To make the edge, take the dough trimmings and, using your fingertips, roll them into skinny cylinders about 1/2 inch across. Brush the edges of the pastry disk with water, and place a single row of the cylinders around the outside edge. Use a bit of water to attach segments together. Then take a chopstick or similar rounded object and, working on a diagonal (rather than perpendicular to the edge of the pan), gently crimp the top of the pastry edge all the way around to make a decorative edge.
Chill, covered, for another hour.
To bake, preheat the oven to 375 Fahrenheit. With a fork, puncture the bottom of the dough all over. Bake for 5 minutes and check. If areas are bubbling up, puncture them again with the fork, and continue baking. Check frequently. It should be done in about 15 more minutes, when it is golden brown, but keep an eye on it as it will overcook quickly.
Cool to room temperature.
To assemble the tart, fill the shell with pastry cream or lemon curd to a depth of about 1/2 inch, or to just below the top of the pastry edge.
Arrange fresh fruit on top in concentric circles to make an attractive pattern, covering the cream completely. My favorite combination is blueberries, raspberries and green grapes cut in half lengthwise, but use your imagination. Strawberries, blackberries and slices of mango or peach also work well.
Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.