Saturday, July 13, 2019

Oven-Baked Ratatouille - July Cooking

Traditionally Ratatouille is a French Provençal dish, originating in Nice, sometimes referred to as 'ratatouille niçoise'. It's a slow-cooked dish of eggplant (aubergine), tomatoes, peppers and zucchini (courgettes) that is usually served as a room temperature side dish. It dates back to the 18th century when it was a sort of 'coarse stew'. Nowadays it can be considered as a wonderfully healthy and simple way to enjoy the summer’s best produce, and makes the best leftovers. Sometimes I adapt it for my version of Summer Ratatouille Pasta.

And then there is this Oven-Baked Ratatouille, this recipe is one not original to me, but this is my summery version and I love the ease with which it can be prepared. It is a dish of layered vegetables baked in the oven until tender. Basically, like a gratin. There is nothing fancy about it at all. But it can look very pretty when the vegetables are thinly sliced and laid with care. This method of preparation certainly makes the most of such humble humble of ingredients as summer tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant.

The overlapping, melting vegetables look very special and effortful but is easy enough to do as a weekday meal, especially if you already have a thickish homemade tomato sauce on hand.

This dish works great as a main meal or a side and depending on and how large your skillet is, you may not end up using all of the vegetables in this recipe but then again you might – just make sure to keep any leftover veggie bits for that Summer Ratatouille Sauce.

Oven-Baked Ratatouille

  • 2 zucchini (courgette), medium size
  • 2 yellow squash (summer squash),  medium size
  • 1 eggplant (aubergine), medium size
  • thickish homemade tomato sauce (enough to cover the base of your baking dish), about 350g OR use a good-quality store-bought Passata di Pomodoro or Tomato Passata (an uncooked tomato purée that has been strained of seeds and skins)
  • a few sprigs of lemon thyme, thyme or rosemary or whatever strikes your fancy
  • 50g shredded mozzarella NOTE: the cheese is optional, you could also opt to add some Ricotta Salata (a salted and dried cheese, providing a texture similar to feta cheese) to the finished dish
  • fresh basil (to serve) - try to change things up here and maybe use purple basil with that slightly spicy flavor as well as your regular basil 
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • a good fruity olive oil for brushing the vegetable and for serving

  1. Prepare your veggies: thinly slice all your veggies – this is best done using a mandoline but you can also slice each vegetable with a sharp knife, aim for thin slices.
  2. Preheat your oven to 180° C (350°F).
  3. Heat your homemade tomato sauce over medium-high heat. Once warmed, taste one more time for seasoning and then pour sauce into the base of your chosen baking dish (go with a pie or glass baking dish or use a cast iron pan).
  4. Next, layer the sliced vegetables in a spiral pattern around the dish and on top of the tomato sauce until the entire pan is covered.
  5. Brush with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Layer a few sprigs of herbs on top of the veggies.
  6. Cover the dish first with baking parchment, then tightly wrap with foil. Place the dish in the oven and bake for 40 to 45 minutes covered. Check to make sure that the veggies have taken on some color, are soft and the sauce is bubbling around them.
  7. Remove the foil and the baking parchement, then the sprigs of herbs, then add some shredded mozzarella on top and return to the oven for another 10 to 15 minutes until the veggies are nice and soft, slightly charred and the cheese has melted.
  8. Very carefully remove from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes before eating warm or at room temperature.
  9. Scatter a few basil leaves on top (optional), add a few drops of a fruity olive oil and some freshly ground black pepper (to taste).

Enjoy summer veggies at their peak. This Oven-Baked Ratatouille is a delicious, easy lunch to enjoy in the summer sunshine, just serve with fresh bread, a crisp salad and an assortment of herb-marinated olives.

July cooking is delicious.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Sacristains & Summer Vacation Vibes

Sacristains are a puff pastry specialty from Provence (Département Vaucluse) in the Southeast of France, to be exact. These crunchy puff pastry twists are generously filled and sprinkled with pearl sugar and slivered almonds. They can be found in most bakeries (boulangeries) and many markets (marchés) throughout Provence.

The origin if the name ‚Sacristains‘ is not entirely clear but the French word ‚Sacristains‘ means ‘parish clerk‘  in English, hence, an official designated to carry out various duties for a church parish. The twisted shape of the Sacristains is said to represent the shape of a parish clerk’s walking stick or the rope that was tied around said walking stick. Now, whether that is exact or not, it is a fun and interesting way to explain their name and one fact remains undoubted, namely, these Sacristains taste absolutely heavenly.

This recipe is easy to make and a delicious and rather decadent sweet treat. Use a roll of ready-made, all-butter, good quality puff pastry (pâte feuilletée)  that you buy at the grocery store near you or were lucky enough to have bought in France OR go all the way and make these Sacristains a real treat and make the puff pastry from scratch – believe me when I say that agreeable wheather (meaning cooler temperatures) is helpful when making these from scratch.

No matter whether you make the puff pastry yourself or not, just remember that to be true Sacristains, these treats have to be filled AND topped with sugar and almonds.

Personally, I like them to be elegant and long but you can opt for shorter versions too. Serve them alongside a fresh summer fruit salad, ice cream or milk shake. Come cooler temperatures, these are lovely alongside a steaming cup of coffee, tea, hot chocolate or a tall glass of milk. If you are looking for a bit more of that French flair, why not opt to serve them with a glass of ‚Sauternes‘ (that French sweet wine from the Sauternais region), much like you would serve Italian Cantuccini (Biscotti) dipped into Italian dessert wine called ‚Vin Santo‘ (from Tuscany).

Sacristains - Almond & Sugar Puff Pastry Sticks
(makes about 10 to 11 sticks)

  • 1 roll all-butter puff pastry (pâte feuilletée) – around here a roll of ready-made puff pastry weighs about 275g (if you chose to use store bought, make sure to get the fresh kind, as frozen puff pastry tends to un-roll less well) OR use homemade puff pastry
  • 1 egg yolk (M), free-range or organic 
  • 60g pearl sugar (divided into 40g and 20g)
  • 8g pure vanilla sugar (or use homemade vanilla sugar)
  • ¼ tsp cinnamon (I like to use Ceylon cinnamom)
  • 60g slivered almonds (divided into 40g and 20g)
  • a bit of icing sugar for dusting (optional)
In addition
  • a bit of regular flour for working the pastry
  • rolling pin
  • baking sheets and baking parchment

  1. Preheat the oven to 200° C (180° C convection).
  2. Line a large baking pan/cookie sheet with baking parchment and set aside: Depending on the size of your baking sheet, you may need two sheets and bake them off one after the other).
  3. Roll out the puff pastry. Using a sharp kitchen knife, straighten the sides of the pastry. Then cut the pastry in half.
  4. In a small bowl whisk the egg yolk with a bit of water (eggwash) and brush one side of the puff pastry (keep a little for the rest of the procedure).
  5. Top the half that you brushed with the eggwash, with 40g of the pearl sugar, then 4g of the vanilla sugar, a tad bit of cinnamon and then 40g of the slivered almonds.
  6. Fold the other half of the dough over and flatten the two halves together with a rolling pin to press in the ingredients.
  7. Brush the top of the surface with the rest of the eggwash.
  8. Sprinkle the top with pearl sugar (remaining 20g), 4g vanilla sugar, cinnamon and finally the remaining slivered almonds (20g).
  9. With a sharp knife or pizza cutter, cut 10 to 11 (2cm) stripes and twist them against each other.
  10. Place the Sacristains on the baking sheet(s).
  11. Reduce the heat to 180°C (160°C convection).
  12. Bake for 15 to 18 minutes or until they become golden brown and crispy.
  13. Remove from the oven and pull them with the baking parchement onto a cooling rack. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
  14. Dust with icing sugar.
  15. Serve fresh from the oven, if possible. These taste best the day they were made but can be kept in a cookie tin for a few days. If you want to store them in a cookie tin, make sure to do so between layers of parchement and keep the tin in a cool room.

These Sacristains are great served as nibbles with a little French flare. Just think summer vacation in the Provence.

They are also very easy to make and while the traditional almond-pearl-sugar-version is my favorite kind, it is fun and equally easy to experiment with different fillings and flavors. I have seen them filled with a ‚Crème pâtissière‘ (a sort of vanilla custard), or a 'Ganache au chocolat‘ (chocolate ganache) or a ‚Crème fragipane‘ (almond filling) – much like the filling for my ‚Galette des Rois‘ (recipe and post here) – also with marzipan or homemade fruit jam. You can also opt to add a hint of orange or rose blossom water to their filling. But whatever be the filling of your choice, make sure to fill AND top them. And just let your taste buds and your imagination be your guide.

(Ad/Werbung): my recipe for French Sacristians from Provence is part of my series for a 'local' (meaning across the state of North Rhine-Westphalia) radio station, where, throughout the year, I talk about different baked goods that are closely tied to various holidays and seasons. If you are interested, have a listen (in German) HERE.

The various recipes can be found here:

  • in January, for Three Kings Day (Dreikönigstag) two kinds of Galette des Rois (Dreikönigskuchen) (HERE); 
  • for Lent (Fastenzeit) Lenten Soup with Lenten Beugel (Fastenbeugel) (HERE); 
  • for Good Friday (Karfreitag) Hot Cross Buns (HERE); 
  • then for Pentecost /Whitsun (Pfingsten) the fun Allgäu Bread Birds (Allgäuer Brotvögel) (HERE); 
  • and today, with respect to the beginning of the summer vacation, I talked about these lovely Sacristains (Almond & Sugar Puff Pastry Sticks) (HERE) - more delicious treats to come very soon.