Recipes with roots

The more I discover about food, the more I find that the dishes I’m drawn to are the ones with history, with deep roots in the land and the people who live on it. Usually these are not particularly complicated recipes, nor do they call for particularly fancy ingredients or preparations. I love the infinite variety that comes from the simplest ingredients–flour, sugar, butter, eggs, salt, lemon, yeast–and how each family, town, country, culture can make something that is completely and uniquely theirs.

Golden brown and delicious

Of the (many) food-related souvenirs I brought home from Paris, the absolutely beautiful–in picture and word–cookbook A Kitchen in France may be one of my favorites. I stumbled on Mimi Thorisson’s blog, Manger, a few years ago but somehow managed to forget about it until I was flipping through her newly published first book in a tiny cramped aisle of Shakespeare & Co. The pictures of her food, home, and the Medoc countryside are stunning; the stories are the stuff of my daydreams. Most important of all, though, are the recipes.

Six basic ingredients
Butter, sugar, egg, lemon

The recipes in this book are everything I mentioned at the beginning of this post. They’re recipes with roots; roots either in a particular area of France, in Mimi’s family or her neighbors’ history, in a unique local ingredient, in a particular season. Some are incredibly simple, like the recipe below, some with a few more steps, like the bouillabaisse, but what I love about all of them is that it’s easy to feel their history.

Add flour
Risen
Sticky dough

I don’t think it was coincidence that flipping through this book over the course of a week, it kept falling open to this particular recipe. I took it as a sign and as soon as I started mixing the ingredients together, I had an immediate feeling of being home. I knew this smell, the rich combination of butter, sugar, lemon, yeast. I don’t even know exactly what recipe this reminded me of (maybe my grandma’s lemon cream cheese swirls?), but it struck something deep and nostalgic.

There’s nothing particularly local or seasonal about this recipe–it is, after all, only six of the most basic ingredients in baking–but it’s easy to feel the history in it, from when butter and sugar were special treats because they were rare (according to the cookbook, this is a medieval recipe from the town of Pérouges) to when butter and sugar are special treats because they’re a welcome break from multi-syllabic preservatives.

Beyond that, it’s easy and just tastes really, really good–it’s hard to go wrong with warm lemony, buttery brioche dough topped with melted butter and slightly crunchy caramelized sugar. It’s impossible to go wrong actually, which is why you should make this immediately.

Pinch up the edges
Sugared
One delicious slice

Galette Pérougienne (Lemon Sugar Bread)
Adapted slightly from A Kitchen in France and Manger. The original recipe calls for all granulated sugar, but I like the slight caramel flavor from the darker turbinado sugar; I’ve also seen variations with sliced almonds sprinkled over the top with the sugar. It’s really best served warm out of the oven (plain or with some fresh fruit and creme fraiche), but any leftovers are certainly not bad the next day rewarmed in a low oven for a few minutes.

3 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/3 cup lukewarm water
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter (plus more for the bowl) at room temperature
1 large egg
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1/4 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
3 tablespoons turbinado sugar
1 1/3 all-purpose flour, sifted

Mix the yeast in the lukewarm water in a small cup. Set aside for 5 minutes to allow the yeast to dissolve.

In a large bowl, mix together 8 tablespoons (1 stick) of the butter with the egg, lemon zest, salt, and 2 tablespoons of the granulated sugar. Add the yeast mixture (don’t worry if it looks slightly curdled, it’ll be fine when you add the flour) and then gradually stir in the flour, mixing with a wooden spoon until you have a soft and elastic dough.

Shape the dough into a ball, put it in a buttered bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, at least 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

On a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet, pat the dough into a 9-inch circle. Press on the edges to make a 1/2-inch wide raised border. Mix the remaining 3 tablespoons of granulated and the turbinado sugar together and sprinkle over the dough. Dot with the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter.

Bake until golden and caramelized, 15-17 minutes. Cool for a few minutes before slicing and serving.

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