The Frugal Fraulein
Gingerbread, fig cake & more: European treats to spice up a Houston holiday
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know … in Europe. There, people warm themselves up with delightfully sentimental, seasonal traditions and treats all through the cold, snowy days stretching from late November through Christmas.
Although I’m not in the Old Country at this festive time, I’ve located, right here in Houston, a number of the lovely little treats that I’ve enjoyed in the past in various parts of Europe. I’m particularly relishing these treats this Christmas in Houston because Europe has had an extra mantle of snow this year, and that’s been creating travel problems at major airports. Ho, ho, ho, for once, I’m glad I’m here and not there right now.
Well, not stuck for an interminable time inside an airport, anyway. That happened to me once in Charles de Gaulle due to a problem affecting my flight back to Houston, and believe me, it’s not the same thing as being delayed for hours anywhere else in Paris.
Here’s a short list of affordable little European treats to spice up your Houston holiday:
1. German gingerbread
Gingerbread is the No. 1 food item that comes to the Frugal Fraulein’s mind at this time of year. If I were in Germany right now, I would be standing in an open-air Christmas market (Weihnachtmarkt) somewhere in Bavaria, wearing three pairs of gloves against the freezing cold, staring fondly at all the Lebkuchen (gingerbread) being sold from the gaily festooned wooden huts all around me.
Or else I’d be buying some Lebkuchen at the wonderful bakery I discovered when I was last in Munich, in Marienplatz. (As long as I’m here, give me a slice of that gorgeous, apple-packed Apfelkuchen as well, bitte!)
Given that I am not in a German city, but in Houston — a big city blessed with groceries stocked with plenty of imported products — I’m going to have myself a merry little Christmas anyway, by getting myself some good imported gingerbread. It’s a must at Christmas, not just for Germans, but for people of many other European cultures, who know it by different names. Whatever you call it, gingerbread tastes like Christmas to me and quite a lot of other people all over the world.
If you want to enjoy a small taste of a real German Christmas, and you're already doing your grocery shopping at Central Market or Rice Epicurean, pick up a small bag of cookies bearing the label “Lebkuchen” with the fine-print statement “Product of Germany.” If you can’t find any Lebkuchen --- or even if you can — get yourself a bag of Pfeffernüsse, because these spicy cookies are also traditional German Christmastime treats.
I have two bags, actually. I always recommend a backup in vitally important matters. Plus, you're already there, right? It's not like you have to go out of your way. Stock up for the New Year!
And get this — you won’t have to feel guilty about indulging yourself with these delectable cookies, from a nutritional standpoint. Unlike most Christmas cookies, these store-bought German imports, like those made by Schlünder, are very low in saturated fat. But check the “Nutrition Facts” on your brand’s label to make sure, just in case you find that you can’t resist more than a few of these delicious treats at one sitting.
2. Spanish fig cake
I will never forget the first time I bit into a fresh fig at an open-air market in a city in southern Spain, many years ago. Oh, that scrumptious, darkly rich taste, that dense texture! Imagine my excitement when I recently discovered my neighborhood Kroger store was selling cellophane-wrapped, alluring-looking, thick chunks of a huge round fig cake imported from sunny Valencia.
The Kroger label calls this treat “Forever Cheese Fig Cake,” and describes it as “an all-natural accompaniment to your cheeseboard.”
Cheeseboard, shmeeseboard — I don’t need any cheese to enjoy this spicy treat, and neither do you. It’s made of tightly packed, whole Panajero figs pressed with Marcona almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts. Forever Cheese imported this product, which i handmade in Valencia, from a Spanish company called Mitica. Bonus points: the “Nutrition Facts” section says “Saturated Fat = 0 g." Yet another opportunity to stock up for a happy and healthy New Year!
3. French quiche
If I were in Paris right now, I’d be standing outside the window of the Gerard Mulot bakery on the rue de Seine, rapturously smiling at an astoundingly beautiful architectural wonder: a slice of orange- and green-marbled quiche, with a sign above reading “Saumon et Epinard” (salmon and spinach.) When I first saw it, years ago, I contemplated it for a long time before venturing into the shop. It was so perfectly constructed, such an artistic beauty, I wondered whether it could possibly taste as good as it looked.
The only reason I decided to try it was because once I ventured inside the shop, I could hear that all the patrons were speaking French. As the French are well known to have exceptionally highly evolved palates, especially when it comes to things from the boulangerie, I realized that I probably wasn’t going to go far wrong with this quiche. One bite proved that it did, indeed, taste as good as it looked. The warm, delicate, eggy confection was cloud-light and almost custardy. I could differentiate the fine tastes of the ripples of salmon and spinach with each forkful, which I examined closely and admired before bringing it to my appreciative lips.
Non, quiche is not, per se, a special Christmastime treat in France. That would be, for example, a buche de Noel (Yule log.) But I am not interested in a piece of cake. I am interested in indulging myself at Christmastime with my favorite taste of France, which is a cloud-light blend of eggs and salmon and spinach, in the form of a piece of quiche. Since I am not in Paris right now (sob!), I am indulging myself with a très délicieux local alternative: a slice of quiche from Croissant Brioche French Bakery & Café, 2435 Rice Blvd. in the Village.
I had a slice of broccoli quiche the other day at Croissant Brioche, and after one taste, I was smiling as happily as the last time I enjoyed a slice of quiche at Gerard Mulot in Paris — in a way, even more happily. I remember I was sitting in a tiny corner of the bakery, staring out the window at the people walking briskly along the cobblestoned street on that cold day. Suddenly, as if turned by a kaleidoscope, the already picturesque scene turned into a winter fairyland as it began to snow. Giant white flakes of snow, like huge pillow feathers, wafted slowly, slowly down onto the black-garbed Parisian pedestrians. I felt as if a modern-day version of Pissarro’s “Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning” were coming to life at street level before my eyes.
I wondered how I could possibly be any happier — except for the fact that I had to admit my plastic fork was unable to cut through the crust at the bottom of the quiche. It was too thick. I would speculate that the crust had to be that thick, to support the weight of the pieces of salmon and spinach in it. Other than that, however, the quiche was perfect.
The moment itself was perfect. But I left the crust sitting forlornly on its plate. I never leave anything on my plate if I really like it. (The difficulty lies in finding something I really like, you see.) The quiche, being French and sensitive to nuance, knew that. I felt a little sad, myself, as I said merci and adieu. Or rather, au revoir. We will meet again, my sweet French quiche ...
In contrast, the slice of broccoli quiche I had at Croissant Brioche the other day was absolutely perfect, from contents to crust. The crust was as light as the snowflakes that fell and quickly disappeared on that dreamy winter day outside Gerard Mulot. It is true that the smattering of broccoli did not unduly weigh down the contents, so the crust did not need to be thick to support it. It is also true that I had the benefit of real silverware — not a plastic fork — to cut my quiche at Croissant Brioche. Whatever contributing factors may be involved in the perfect quiche consumption experience, all I know is that Croissant Brioche is my new best friend on the local front.
By the way, after my successful foray into new quiche territory at Croissant Brioche, I adventurously tried a mocha muffin for dessert. It was a fabulous new taste sensation for me. All told, I can’t wait to take another educational taste trip to Croissant Brioche.
4. French scents
As long as you’re on Rice Boulevard, walk down the street a few steps to La Taste, and just let yourself go wild. You will if you love France, since this petite sliver of a store is redolent of the best scents of France, and after all, it’s Christmas. Here are stocking stuffers galore from France.
This charming shop smells good enough to eat. Every time I pass it, I inhale deeply, and I feel happily satiated. I feel even better after I go inside and buy some reasonably priced little thing imported from France. This is where I buy the olive-oil soap from Provence that I use on my face, and the tiny round containers of cream perfume by L’Occitane and Fragonard that I keep in my purse.
When you travel, you learn a lot about the little things that make you happy along life’s road, and you try to keep refining all of your senses — smell, taste, hearing, sight and touch — so that you can optimally appreciate all the beauty around you.
One lesson I’ve discovered during my travels is that if you search diligently enough, you can have your cake and eat it, too — at least, a small slice of it — right here at home. That will tide you over until the next time you feel you can economically justify the airfare to one of the faraway places that we travel addicts so love to dream about and explore.