Eiffel Tower

Whew. Where did last month go? I’ll tell you: to Paris.

Our departure was a whirlwind of expedited passport renewals, last-minute airfare, and a fifth-floor walkup apartment booked the day before we left. The transatlantic flight touched down to a gray dawn, and so commenced our first trip to Paris (my first to France, period).

Post-picnic smooch

Bubbles on the street in Paris

As for the food? Given that I approached the trip with the feverish zeal of a pilgrim gone to a gastronomical Mecca, things got complicated fast.

The first 48 hours in Paris I heard a constant rushing sound in my ears—the whir of the seconds ticking down to our departure. By lunchtime the second day, panic set in. My blood sugar plummeted and to my dismay I had no idea which café was the best place to dine, with the best baguette, and the best menu à la carte, let alone whether we could afford it. I clutched my foodie travel guidebook and flipped through its pages, desperate, scanning the listings as if they were an indecipherable gospel. Hang it all.

Stained glass in the Sainte-Chapelle

French flag

I’d been in this state before, dragging my poor friend Rose up and down the canals of Amsterdam. Driven by that near-obsessive desire to suck the marrow out of the experience, to leave no cobblestone of historical significance or culinary excellence unturned… Are you exhausted yet?

Somewhere in the 5eme arrondissement, his wife in hot pursuit of the chocolate shop on page 181, my husband begged me to put the book down.

“But we might miss it!” I protested, catching the whiff of irony in the words.

That afternoon I photographed graffiti on a wall near the Eiffel Tower, learning only later with a French-English dictionary that it means: “Be free from time to time.”

Be free from time to time

Sleeping in

Slowly I unwrapped my fingers from the slim volume of the guidebook. In 20 years, we would remember what we did, not what we did not. The boulangerie in Chapter 3 could wait; leisurely strolling the sidewalks could not. With that, the noise in my ears dropped a decibel or two.

In its place I heard the sound of recess. Shouts of schoolchildren playing in hidden courtyards echoed off the city’s distinctive limestone walls, at all hours of the day it seemed. The week progressed as a constellation of sights, sounds, and tastes strung together in the City of Lights:

Passing through a crowd of Parisian high school students loitering en masse, cigarettes in hand, an undeniable air of sophistication about them.

Walking up the spiral staircase to the front door of our rental pied-à-terre, negotiating the dimly lit stairwell worn down by a thousand footsteps.

Renting Vélib’ bicycles, a citywide bike sharing system, and taking to the streets with our scarves whipping in the breeze.

Indulging in immoderation our final night in Paris before driving to the Normandy coast for two days. Fortified with red wine, champagne, and whiskey, my husband performed a rousing routine of cycling acrobatics for an audience of one.

The Louvre

bicycle acrobatics

Snacking through the narrow sidewalks of the city: pain au chocolat… a perfectly ripe pear… baguette after baguette after baguette… café au lait… takeout pasta and red sauce from a specialty store down the street… mushrooms braised in butter… scallops…

And a potent spice called quatre épices, or “four spices,” from an upscale shop on Place de la Madeleine. The mélange of peppercorns, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg became my traveling-light souvenir.

Quatre epices

Trouville-sur-Mer at dusk

Scallops on the halfshell

I baked this cake the Monday morning after our return to California. Jet lag lingering, I decided to pretend I was a pastry chef (or second-year resident at the hospital) and woke up at 4:30 a.m. to do something productive. Not all the pistons were firing at that hour, however, and I accidentally measured out the entire package of the spice—three times more than the recipe calls for—into the frosting. C’est la vie. Savor the moment. Add some spice.

Four spice cake

French Four-Spice Cake With Browned Butter Spice Frosting

Recipe courtesy Sunset magazine

Serves 12 | 1¾ hours total time

This cake starts out tasting like citrus and sweet spices, then builds to a gentle pepper glow if the quatre épices is made with white pepper, or a good kick if it’s based on black pepper.

Cake

½ cup butter, softened

1 cup packed brown sugar

Zest of ½ orange

2 large eggs

1 1/3 cups flour

2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa

2 teaspoons quatre épices

1 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon each baking soda and salt

½ cup buttermilk

Frosting

2/3 cup butter

¼ cup honey

1 teaspoon quatre épices

2 tablespoons half-and-half

1 ½ tablespoons lemon juice

3 cups powdered sugar

2/3 cup chopped toasted walnuts

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch square pan.
  2. Make cake: Beat butter, brown sugar, and zest in a large bowl until fluffy. Add eggs and beat until well blended. In another bowl, combine flour and other dry ingredients. Add flour mixture to butter mixture one-third at a time, alternative with buttermilk half at a time, and beating on low speed after each addition until blended. Spread batter in pan.
  3. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool on a rack, 10 minutes. Loosen cake from pan with a slender spatula, then invert on a rack. Re-invert onto another rack; cool completely.
  4. Make frosting: Cook butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, swirling pan occasionally, until deep golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Pour into a mixer bowl, let cool, then chill until firm enough to beat, about 30 minutes. Add remaining ingredients except for nuts and beat until fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes, occasionally scraping inside of bowl.
  5. Split cake horizontally with a long serrated knife. Lift off top layer with 2 wide spatulas. Set bottom layer on a platter, then spread with half of frosting. Replace top layer. Spread top of cake with remaining frosting, then sprinkle with nuts.