This post started as quick recipe for vin d'orange - a refreshing orange-infused liquor that Stephen and I sipped all summer long last year. And just as it should, food (or in this case, a drink) sparked a memory, which turned into a story, and I couldn't bear to give you one without the other.
During the summer of 2013, Stephen and I brought nine-month-old Charlotte with us to Europe to visit David, Kelly and their two young girls, some of our dearest college friends who were living in Germany. David, Kelly, and Stephen are travelers and adventures by nature. They are people who would happily leave on a moment's notice to go anywhere in the world, throwing a few items into a bag and trusting they'll find food, shelter, and friendly people to help when needed. They are flexible, up for anything, and can spin a traveling nightmare into a hilarious memory. I need these people in my life because as much as I love traveling while in the midst of it, the planning and preparation is exhausting.
I have spent time in Europe, Africa, Asia and all corners of the US, and before each trip, I have the same internal dialogue. The homebody in me is anxiously screaming, "It would just be so much easier to stay home," and the adventurer in me, who for years has been fighting to get out from under a pile of practicality, is faintly heard in the background, reminding me I'll love it once I just get out of the house and make it to the airport.
This exact scenario played out as I prepared for us to visit David and Kelly, and after weeks of self-doubt, followed by self-talk, I locked our front door and headed to the airport, ready to brave an eight-hour flight with a nine-month-old, who by the way was an absolute rock star. She slept nearly the entire flight there, and I was appalled that the other passengers weren't applauding for us as we exited the plane in Germany. Didn't they know how many hours of worrying went into the planning of this flight? And surely it was those well-spent hours of worrying that contributed to such a successful journey.
David picked us up at the airport, and despite our desperate need for a change of clothes, a shower, and a toothbrush, we went out for pastries and espresso instead. I love Europe.
For the next two weeks, we piled three car seats into the back row of David and Kelly's mini van, and our team of seven took western Europe by storm. We drank too much beer, ate too much schnitzel, and sadly bought nowhere near enough pastries from the morning bread truck. We strapped our children into Ergos as we roamed cobblestone villages and held on for dear life as David drove that mini van up the narrow, windy roads of northern Italy during our four day stint on Lake Como. And because David and Kelly are awesome like that, they encouraged us to leave Charlotte with them for a night and hop on a train to Paris. (I try to use the phrase "hop on a train to Paris" as much as possible in my life because it makes me sound way cooler than I am.) We left Germany in the wee hours of the morning, and made it to Paris in time for an early lunch and a day of sightseeing.
Paris has always intimidated me. I have not one trace of French in me, and I am quite certain my Chicago accent, boot cut jeans, and inability to even look at pâté immediately foiled my best laid plans to pull off Parisian class. Nonetheless, we did Paris right. We saw the Louvre, toured Notre Dame, and took at least forty-seven pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower. We wandered bookstores and art galleries, kissed on the Locks of Love bridge and, most importantly, sampled the best of the Parisian cafés.
Stephen and I can hold our own in various food situations. We can pound greasy burgers from a hole-in-the-wall diner, and we can happily overpay for small portions of pretentious food. We like trying unique foods and approach our travels with an "eat as the locals do" kind of attitude. The vast majority of time, this theory has served us well, leaving only a small handful of times we couldn't quite stomach the local delicacies. But we certainly weren't expecting French food to give us any trouble. I am embarrassed to admit we still have not lived down the shame of our one and only dinner in Paris.
Stephen found a small, charming restaurant, A la Biche au Bois, that online reviews raved about, dubbing it a local, affordable gem not yet taken over by tourists. Sounded perfect. It opened at 5 pm, and there was a short line waiting outside the door. The restaurant was small with one main room and tables no more than 12 inches apart. The maître d' began seating guests, filling tables in a counterclockwise system, beginning with the table in the front right corner.
Stephen and I were the third party to be seated, and we squeezed into a tiny table, carefully keeping our elbows tucked to our sides lest we bump the lady who was sitting alone at the table next to us. The maître d' promptly sat the next guests at the table on our other side and continued down the row, filling up all the tables on the right side of the restaurant; it didn't seem to matter that there were a couple dozen empty tables throughout the room. The method was clear - pack 'em in tight and do so in an orderly fashion.
As to be expected, the menu was written in French and the server only spoke French. We began pointing to items on the menu and hoping for the best. Various wines, salads, soups, and pots of bubbly goodness came to our table, and to our delight, everything was outstanding.
Midway though our main course, the lone lady next to us had finished her entrée, and the server brought her out a glorious site - a large tray filled with at least ten different cheeses. The customer pointed to the cheeses she wanted, and we watched as the server cut off unlimited chunks of cheese and piled them onto her plate.
Stephen and I could read each others' faces: what did we have to point to on the menu to get that tray?
A few minutes later, the server brought the same tray over to another table, and we watched in awe out of the corner of our eyes. We soon came to realize that this heaven-sent cheese tray was offered to all guest between their entrée and dessert. Can you imagine? A limitless cheese course, in Pairs.
Stephen and I lean toward excessive, unabashed enthusiasm when it comes to good food, and we totally wanted to pull a Zach Morris "time out" moment to scream our heads off with excitement. It took every bit of self control in us to maintain our Parisian demeanor.
We picked up speed during the second half of our entrée and eagerly watched as our dishes were cleared. We must have been giddy with glee when the server lower that glorious platter down to our table. The language barrier couldn't stop us now; cheese is a universal language, and we had our plates piled high with samples of nearly every type of cheese offered, far more than we saw anyone else take.
I remember the next moments vividly. Stephen, whom I have watched devour an entire block of bleu cheese entirely on his own, went right for the veiny wedge while I scooped up a chuck of what appeared to be brie. Within three seconds, our childish, goofy grins turned to confusion, then shock, and finally pure disgust.
What was in our mouths? Our senses were awaken to the taste, smell, and feel of rotten just sitting on our tongues. We starred at each other, unsure of the next move. Stephen finally close his eyes and swallowed; I honestly thought he was going to hurl. I wasn't as brave. Ever so mindful of the other guests just inches away, who just minutes earlier had happily consumed their own cheese plates, I casually brought my napkin to my mouth and disposed of the rancidness.
Again, how badly we needed a time-out moment to figure out what had just happened. Cheese platters are our love languages. We both looked down at our plates which still contained a small mountain of various cheeses. We couldn't stop now and embarrass ourselves by becoming those wasteful Americans who couldn't even handle real French cheese.
Maybe we just had a rough start. Surely they couldn't all be so foul.
Oh boy. Same scenario.
Stephen somehow managed to get it down, while my napkin again came to my rescue. I was ready to call it quits, but Stephen is much too prideful when it comes to cheese. I knew he'd never surrender to thought of being taken down by a cheese course.
"Put it in your purse," Stephen quietly commanded me.
"Are you kidding me? I'm not putting chunks of cheese into my purse."
Stephen whispered, over pronouncing each word. "Wrap them in your napkin and put the napkin in your purse."
"You want me to steal the napkin?" I responded, hopeful that we really were the only ones who spoke English.
"We cannot leave all this cheese on our plates. If we do, we might as well leave our dignity, too."
Over the course of the next five minutes, I slowly managed to get most of the uneaten cheese into the pockets of my purse. We'd like to think no one saw, but there really is no way to be sure. We watched that cheese tray come and go from each table, hoping we'd see another diner who thought something was off. But alas, it seemed all of Paris was happy with the contents of this platter - a platter we could only presume sits out at room temperature for weeks on end.
It's been nearly three years, and we still carry the shame of the cheese tray.
Soon after returning from our weeks in Europe, Stephen declared he wanted to cook more French food. I have learned that when Stephen makes such a declaration in the kitchen, it is best to respond with great enthusiasm and then step out of his way, keeping all feelings of hesitation buried as Amazon boxes begin arriving at our doorstep with the needed cookbooks, tools, and unusual ingredients for his culinary adventures. Anything less than enthusiasm might be portrayed as unsupportive and result in banishment from my role as official taste tester.
Do not mistake my sarcasm for complaining; I love when Stephen goes all Top Chef in the kitchen. If you follow our Instagram account, @bakeitlikebecker, you know Stephen has been in a homemade pasta-making craze for the past year, and despite the influx of new cookbooks, awkwardly shaped gadgets, and fifteen bags of imported pasta flour (I wish I was kidding), I have nothing but good things to say about his culinary endeavors. (And, for the record, Stephen's ragù is otherwordly.)
And just because writers give three examples to prove a point, I will also tell you that we have 700 bags of organic black tea, glass bottles of various shapes and sizes, and a giant SCOBY (which has an eerie resemblance to a placenta) growing in our pantry from Stephen's days of homemade Kombucha making.
He is so ridiculous, and I absolutely love him for it.
The following recipe is one of many perks from Stephen's French cuisine phase. He saw this recipe for vin d'orange on The New York Times, and since we already had all those class jars and bottles (thank you homemade Kombucha), we made it last spring and enjoyed sipping this liquor all summer long. We just mixed up another batch this weekend and since it must sit for 6 weeks, now is the time to get started.
Your summer evenings on the back patio will thank you.
4-5 oranges (If you can get your hands on Seville oranges, you will be a purist in vin d'orange making and don't need to add the grapefruit as Seville oranges already give a slightly more bitter flavor. But Seville oranges are hard to find in the US, and other oranges will work just fine.)
1 1/2 cups of sugar
1 vanilla bean, split in half
1 cinnamon stick
3 bottles of rosé wine
1 cup vodka
1/4 cup dark rum (optional - this can be added to the finished product if you want a slightly less bitter flavor)
Wash your fruit well since anything in the peel will be brought out by the alcohol.
Slice or quarter your fruit.
Add one bottle of wine to a large glass jug. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved.
Add the fruit, vodka, and as much of the remaining wine as will fit into your jug.
Feel free to drink the rest.
Stir everything together, and then throw in your vanilla bean and cinnamon stick.
Cover your jar and store in a dark, cool place for six weeks. No need to refrigerate, but you can if you want. Stir occasionally throughout the six weeks. Practice your patience.
After six weeks, remove the fruit, vanilla bean, and cinnamon stick. Strain the liquid through a cheesecloth several times to remove all the pulp.
If using rum, stir that in.
At this point, some recipes say to let it rest in your fridge a few more weeks before drinking, but let's be honest - no one is doing that.
Traditionally, vin d'orange is served over rocks or neat as an apéritif on a hot summer day, but we also liked it mixed with champagne or sparkling water.
Here's to travel, stinky cheese, and culinary adventures. Cheers.
P.S. Stephen is determined to go back to that same restaurant in France and conquer the cheese plate once and for all. I'm bringing Tupperware in my purse just in case.