The sun is shining down hard as Jim and I walk along the old cobblestone paths in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The leafy buckeye trees provide some shade in this peaceful oasis where many have found their last resting place.
As many visitors do, we are here to pay our respects to some famous personalities: Jim Morrison is at the top of everyone’s list. I also want to see Edith Piaf’s tomb and also happen upon Georges Moustaki’s (one of my favorite singers growing up) and Paul Eluard (poet).
Yes, we are back in Paris for our yearly fill of real French bread, delicious cheeses and flavorful wines. It’s also a chance for me to reconnect to my mother tongue and the Old World culture of my youth.
This morning, after going down six floors on the old wooden stairway of our apartment building, I buy our first (but not our last) fresh baguette for breakfast. Life on the rue Saint-Antoine at that time of morning is lively: school kids in clusters on their way to school, dogs walking their owners and vice-versa, a young woman sniffing a bouquet of flowers just bought at the flower shop, a man stacking up fresh peaches at the corner produce stall, and many sitting at the typical French cafés, sipping their first cup of the day.
Later, as we walk to the cemetery, we can’t help but think of the Paris attacks as we pass by the Café des anges. Life seems back to normal, though they lost workers in the attacks and armed soldiers patrol nearby. And at the cemetery, a fresh grave with many flowers beckons us: it is for one of the victims of that fateful November Friday. But mostly in Paris, daily life continues and we try to participate in it.
This time around, we are spending a little time each day at the yearly bread festival that takes place on the square in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. In an enormous tent, mixers and ovens have been moved in. And many bakers dressed with white T-shirts and white aprons run around mixing, shaping and baking the typical French bakery fare. There are tubs of flour and sugar, rich pastry cream and golden raisins, chocolate chips and almonds, and thousands upon thousands of baguettes being made and baked and sold and eaten.
Even though I am on vacation, I can’t help myself. My fingers itch to touch the dough. I have to feel it. I ask one of the volunteers and she brings me a piece of French bread dough. It is strong and yet as light as air: exactly what one seeks in a good baguette. I chat with another baker about currant and cream rolls and watch him make them, just like I do at the bakery. Yes, even continents apart, I know that feeling of flour and dough residue on the hands, whether the pastry cream is smooth and perfect or not, the smell of baking bread… it is our passion.
I buy two loaves from the newly crowned best baguette baker in Paris, tuck them under my arm, and we walk back to our apartment, nibbling off an end on the way. These are the days to soak in what we can. And soon, I can take back what I learn and apply it. Meantime, will you please pass me the butter? I need another piece of baguette.
Here is a recipe for a sweet bread that is great for an afternoon snack or breakfast.
DRIED CHERRY FOCACCIA
• 1 cup dried cherries
• 1 tablespoon yeast
• 1 3/4 cup warm water
• 6 tablespoons brown sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
• 1 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 3 to 5 cups flour
• 4 tablespoon butter, softened to room temperature
For the topping:
• 1/4 cup plain yogurt
• 1/2 cups brown sugar mixed with 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1. In a small bowl, soak the dried cherries in warm water. While they soak, make the dough.
2. In a mixing bowl, mix the yeast and the warm water until the yeast bubbles. Add the brown sugar, cinnamon and salt along with 2 cups of flour. Mix until smooth, then mix in the butter.
3. Drain the cherries and add them to the dough. Add flour as needed to make a dough that forms into a ball.
4. Dump out on the counter and knead until smooth, about a few minutes.
5. In a greased bowl, place the dough and let it rise and cover with a damp towel. Let rise for 45 minutes or an hour.
6. Heat the oven to 400 F.
7. Shape into two focaccias by flattening the dough with your hands and stretching it into an 8-inch circle.
8. On a greased cookie sheet, place the dough. Let rise for a half hour or so, until puffy.
9. Poke the focaccia with the tips of your fingers. Brush with the yogurt and sprinkle with the brown sugar and cinnamon mixture.
10. Bake for 20 or so minutes, turning the pan once, until the top is slightly caramelized and the dough is cooked through. (You may shape the dough and keep it in the fridge overnight. Bring to room temperature and bake as directed.)
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