Thursday, August 17, 2017

Haïti at Home: La Cuisine Créole - Part 2

No Haitian meal is complete without a little something sweet to finish it off. One of my favorite desserts is blancmangé. This coconut-based gelatin dessert perfectly highlights the sweet island flavor of coconut in an unconventional texture of dessert.

Blancmangé is a well-known and widely enjoyed all across the French West Indies. When I told some Martinican friends of mine that I was preparing this dish, the excited expressions on their faces perfectly captured the sentiment shared among me and all my family members when my aunt brings out dessert at the end of our family celebrations.

To begin my preparation of blancmangé, I started with a journey to TropicMarché, an Antillean supermarket in St. Ouen. This is where I purchased the coconut milk, condensed milk, cinnamon, and vanilla essence.

TropicMarché - façade
Image courtesy of Tatiana Balabanis

They also sell a powdered mix of pre-prepared blancmangé which only requires the addition of hot and cold water, but I wanted to make it from scratch.

The most important part of going to an authentic Antillean supermarket to buy my ingredients was finding the right vanilla essence. Back home, my grandfather prepares vanilla essence from scratch and that’s the kind we always used in my household. I wanted to make sure I could get something as close to Grandpa’s essence de vanille as I could find. I found a brand that had a stamp indicating its production was in the French West Indies.

Vanilla essence (extract)
Image courtesy of Tatiana Balabanis

The rest of the ingredients, which were simply a packet of gelatin sheets and sweetened shredded coconut, I was able to find at my neighborhood Monoprix.

Ingredients for Blancmangé
Image courtesy of Tatiana Balabanis

For the recipe, I had to make a call to my Aunt Chantal, who is the blancmangé expert in our family. She guided me through the process to make sure I captured the right flavors and consistency of the dessert.

The first step was to prepare the gelatin. I used gelatin sheets, but you can also use powdered gelatin.

Be sure to follow the instructions on the packaging for the correct measurements of hot much water to add! This can make a big difference because if you add too much water, the blancmangé will not solidify to its proper consistency.

Soak 5 sheets of gelatin in cold water for approximately 5 minutes.

Soaking the gelatin sheets
Image courtesy of Tatiana Balabanis

Then, bring 20 cl of water to a boil. Add the wet sheets of gelatin to the boiling water and stir until the sheets have completely dissolved.

Dissolving the gelatin sheets
Image courtesy of Tatiana Balabanis

Next, in a large bowl, mix 400 g of condensed milk, 200 g of coconut milk, the dissolved gelatin mixture, and an additional 15 cl of water. Thoroughly whisk these ingredients together until they are evenly distributed. Add a dash of vanilla essence and a pinch of cinnamon and whisk them in.

Milk mixture and vanilla
Image courtesy of Tatiana Balabanis

After you’ve prepared this mixture, transfer it into a relatively flat mold. Any baking mold will do, but traditionally a circular bundt cake mold is used for the most aesthetic final product.

Put this mold in the fridge and let the blancmangé sit for a minimum of 6 hours. For the best results, leave it in the fridge overnight.

Blancmangé in the refrigerator
Image courtesy of Tatiana Balabanis

Now, for the coconut shreds. To garnish the blancmangé and give it a little crunch, toasted coconut shreds are sprinkled on top the dessert once it has fully set.

To toast the shreds, simply put a frying pan over medium heat and spread the shreds across the pan, periodically moving them around in the pan until they reach a brownish color.



Toasting coconut shreds
Images courtesy of Tatiana Balabanis

Store the toasted coconut shreds at room temperature until you are ready to serve the blancmangé.

Once it has fully settled and you are ready to eat the blancmangé, flip the container onto a plate or any flat serving tray, sprinkle the toasted coconut shreds on top, and voilà! You have yourself a delicious Haitian dessert that everyone is sure to enjoy.

Blancmangé - plated and garnished
Image courtesy of Tatiana Balabanis

Tatiana Balabanis is a rising junior at Stanford University. She is currently serving as a summer intern for the Wells International Foundation.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Josephine Baker’s Heyday: The 1930s

Josephine Baker reached the height of her career a mere five years after being catapulted to stardom on October 2, 1925, the day that La Revue Nègre opened at the Théatre des Champs Elysées in Paris.

Between 1925 and 1930, her stage persona evolved from savage to sophisticated. Through relentless effort by her manager and lover, Pepito Abatino, she became a music hall icon and the inspiration for a line of cosmetics called Bakerfix. After a tour of Europe and South America, the couple purchased an apartment building in Paris’ 16th arrondissement and the villa, Le Beau Chêne, in the Paris suburb in Le Vésinet.

The stage was appropriately set for what was arguably the most important performance run of her career – Paris Qui Remue at the Casino de Paris.


The show opened on September 26, 1930. Baker performed what would become her signature song, “J’ai Deux Amours,” for the first time. And she became irrevocably identified as an animal lover when made a house pet of a stage prop, Chiquita the cheetah.

Paris qui Remue was updated and renamed La Joie de Paris in 1932. After over 300 performances, it traveled to several European capitals as well as to Alexandria and Cairo.


From 1933-1935, Baker starred in her second film, Zou Zou, with French actor Jean Gabin*;



her third film, Princess Tam-Tam, with French actor Albert Préjean;



and her first serious stage acting role as Dora, the protagonist in Jacques Offenbach’s operetta, La Créole.


She returned to the U.S. to appear in the Ziegfield Follies in New York City in late 1935. The trip was disastrous and led to Baker and Abatino's break-up. Abatino returned to Paris alone and moved out of Le Beau Chêne. He died of cancer a few months after Baker returned to France.

During the last weeks of her NY tour, Baker was recruited by the Folies Bergère theater in Paris to return to their stage for a musical performance run. She opened in En Super-Folies in October 1936 and established a second Chez Josephine club in the Hôtel Frontenac on rue Francois I in the 8th arrondissement. (The first Chez Josephine in Paris operated in rue Fontaine from 1926-1927.)


Baker married a Jewish Frenchman named Jean Lion in November 1937 and obtained French citizenship shortly thereafter. She began a series of “farewell” performances to appease her husband’s desire for a stay-at-home wife. She reportedly became pregnant and lost her baby (one source says that she never conceived).

Shortly thereafter, she returned to performing full time and went on a second tour of South America. She filed for divorce while in Brazil.

Returning to Paris in July 1939, she found France in the throes of preparing for war. She and Maurice Chevalier performed for French troops stationed at the Maginot line and then returned to Paris to star in a revue called Paris-London at the Casino de Paris. The proceeds from the first performance were given to charities – Baker donated her portion to the Red Cross.

Newspaper announcement for benefit performance
Le Journal, 30 November 1939, p. 5**

This same year, Baker was recruited for undercover work by Captain Jacques Abtey and filmed her fourth movie, Fausse Alerte. The film opened in France on May 1, 1940. (It was released in the U.S. in 1945 under the name The French Way.)


When Holland and Belgium fell to the Germans in May 1940, France was overrun with refugees. Baker worked at a homeless shelter in the 13th arrondissement to help the new arrivals. Business at the Casino de Paris dwindled and the theater was shut down. Baker then volunteered for the Red Cross to help refugees. She left Paris for Les Milandes, her château in the Dordogne, in June 1940.

In December 1940, she staged and performed in a revival of Offenbach’s La Créole in Marseille prior to traveling to North Africa to continue her clandestine activities for the French Resistance.

*Baker's first film was La Sirène des Tropiques. It was released in 1927.
** Thanks to Bob Tomlinson for supplying the name of the newspaper in which this announcement was published.

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