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Interview: Marie Constantinesco (Plum Tart with Lavender Crust)

prithi gowda
Interview: Marie Constantinesco (Plum Tart with Lavender Crust)

I remember the first time I watched the delightful series that is My Life In Sourdough- full of elegant shots of fresh produce and chilled butter running through manicured red nails. Only a French woman could produce a show so beautifully composed and mouthwateringly delicious, yet, utterly effortless. Marie Constantinesco is the creative and culinary force behind MLIS and is also the lead of the fictional video series. It’s easy to see that Marie clearly understands food on an extraordinarily deep level and has a very strong sense of who she is, both as a director and in the kitchen. I’ve yet to discover another culinary series which artfully marries food, humor, romance and a beautiful aesthetic. I spoke with Marie about her love of cooking, photography and what inspires her. Marie also shared one of her delicious recipes, which even has this non – baker reaching for the flour. You can find everything relating to Marie and MLIS here. Below is our conversation.
Xo,
Romilly

At what age did you discover your love for cooking?

First I think it was a love of eating. My very first memory is actually drinking a hot chocolate in daycare. That hot chocolate became my 4 o’clock goûter (snack) up until I became a teenager. My mum would make it with warm milk and my dad with cold milk. I started baking on my own when I was about 9. And then cooking entire meals more around 14 where I would take over the kitchen: making weekly menus for my family, carefully hand writing new recipes from cookbooks I would found at the library and making things we had never made at home before like fresh tuna basquaise, croissants or gougères.

Was there someone who taught you how to cook or did you pick it up on your own?

I learned from people around me but also by myself. My dad taught me something that’s unteachable really: the art of improvising. He can literally make something incredible even when there is only half a pepper and a tomato left in the fridge. He hates following recipes by the book and we spent years fighting over ingredients we didn’t have and which I thought were crucial to a given recipe. Now, I very rarely follow a recipe (except when I’m baking but even then I experiment). My mum is also an inspiration, I baked my first cakes and fruit tarts with her and we still make red currants jams together in the summer. As a kid she really encouraged me to cook and eventually when I started baking on my own at around 9 years old, she would just come into the kitchen to turn on the gas oven but would actually leave me in the kitchen by myself. To this day, my parents are always a bit nervous when I start cooking because they know it’s going to take a while and they worry they’re going to end up with a messy kitchen and a ton of washing up – but I’ve grown up and I clean up now! My grandmother was also a great source of inspiration. As a political refugee, she had picked up recipes from all over Europe: Romania, Hungary, Spain, Germany, France. She would religiously weight everything on an old metallic scale with weights when we made Christmas biscuits together. She taught me the precision that goes into baking.

How large of a role does food play in your life?

A large part! The thought of breakfast is often the reason why I get out of bed (semi-joke). No seriously, I just feel happier when I cook and eat good food. Eating a bad meal just depresses me – I’d rather not eat actually. Working on film sets can be tough because the food is often quite disappointing so I just bring my own

What is your favorite cookbook?

There are so many beautiful and inspiring cookbooks out there! I love cookbooks that have great photographs so anything shot by David Loftus I absolutely love. I’m also a huge fan of Nigel Slater’s writing and Dona Hay’s styling. Recently I fell in love with Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s cookbook Jerusalem which is absolutely brilliant and challenging – making me discover new spices and ingredients. Not a cookbook per se, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn is hilarious and filled with cheesecake and key lime pie recipes.

What in your opinion makes a good dish?

Love. (And butter).

Where did you first get the idea for MLIS?

I’d been thinking about making a cooking show for a few years. Before coming to New York, I shot a few recipes with my friends in France. In NYU grad film, my films always had an element of baking or cooking, and my new filmmaker friends encouraged me to create something around food. I wrote the episodes and shot the first season thanks to a team incredibly talented filmmakers who really made My life in sourdough come together. Chananun Chotorungroj in particular contributed to creating the look of MLIS.

In your opinion, what is the key to photographing food?

Daylight. Even though Deb from Smitten Kitchen regularly succeeds in breaking that rule, I think food just looks better in daylight, which you can control with a cheap bounce board (I have just a piece of white styrofoam). I tend to photograph food in the same way I photograph people, with a soft side light for a natural feel.

Who inspires you in the food world?

Here in NY, I admire the work of Camille Beccara (Chef, food stylist, Navy) and Nicole Franzen (food photographer), their work is very innovative yet has this classical feel I love. Also love the Food52 community website. In France, I really like the pâtisseries and recipes of Christophe Felder (who comes from Alsace, where I was born) and the originality of the recipes and the tongue-in-cheek writing style of Clotilde Dusoulier (Chocolate & Zucchini). In England, I love the creativity of Rachel Khoo (My little French kitchen) – her original background (a BA in art and design from St Martins followed by a pastry degree) is what makes her food so unique and artful.

You’re French but now reside in New York, how would you describe the difference between the two food cultures? Do you prefer one to another?

I don’t prefer one food culture over the other, I like switching and mixing them up.
When it comes to food, the French are obsessed by three things in particular: yogurt, bread and cheese. New Yorkers have only recently discovered good yogurt (Chobani, Siggi’s, to name a few) while the French’s yogurt aisles are just phenomenal in comparison. Good upstate produced cheese does exist and is becoming more common but is quite far from mainstream and often a bit pricey – but worth it: goat cheese and yogurt from the Butterfield dairy farm (Union square market) are just amazing. There are more and more bakeries in NY, but buying bread every day is not as rooted in the culture as it is in France and the quality of bread can be disappointing. Having said that, I must admit the bread of She Wolf bakery is pretty spectacular. But usually, when I’m in NY, I tend to bake my own bread – or eat rice cakes when I don’t have time. Another striking difference is that even in Paris, where small apartments are also the rule, parisians always invite each other for dinner, even though people might have to eat on their lap. This is still quite rare in NY, the temple of take out, even though I think the culture is definitely changing. I tend to see myself as a bridge between these two cultures, baking cheesecakes in Paris and sourdough bread in New York.

Do you remember your first or biggest culinary success?

I remember a lot of disasters! But one of my first and probably biggest success was baking croissants from scratch when I was 15. It took me a whole night. I think my parents were out, and instead of partying all night, I was in the kitchen passed midnight struggling with my croissant dough (over 3 sticks of butter went in the dough, which of course needs to be refrigerated between turns otherwise everything melts). I baked the croissants the next day, they were small and really delicious, very soft inside but not too buttery. My mum was very pleased because she had invited some friends over for tea that day so everybody just ate my fresh batch of croissants. I was both happy my food was good enough to be shared but also a bit upset I couldn’t just eat them all. I’ve never made croissants like this again. I tried a couple of times, but it just didn’t compare.

Where is your favorite place to shop for elements in the city?

The farmers markets of NY (Union Square, Mc Carren Park, Greenpoint) are really great all year round. I try to go twice a week and always shop in small quantities. I sometimes go to the Meat Hook in Brooklyn for a treat. I also love the quality of the products at Eataly. Recently I was inspired by a boy who said he liked my food but that he just wanted to eat more meat. I head over to Eataly where I bought a relatively cheap end of a prosciutto ham for $12. I cut some of it in dice and added it to a loaf of sourdough bread with some Provolone cheese – the cheese melted and the ham flavored the bread in a very intense way, it was pretty amazing! Why the French version of that store doesn’t exist yet is a mystery to me. The Italians do it better than the French I guess.

What’s your advice for someone who’s just learning how to cook/developing a passion for food?

Choosing the right ingredients is as important as cooking technique. You can’t play amazing music on a terrible piano. The same goes for cooking. Try buying new ingredients, surprise yourself. Recently I discovered raw sprouted almonds – I am completely in love with the level of flavor and crunchiness of these almonds compared to regular ones. It is just outstanding. I’m never going back!
Not being afraid of trying new recipes and pushing yourself is essential. It’s so easy to fall back on classics, but to risk failing to sometimes succeed can be a rewarding challenge. My new adventure is going to be making pickles! I bought some dill flowers at the market and I’ve got plenty of beautiful Mason Jars so I decided to try pickling 12 different things – sardines, beets, cucumber, onions etc… Needless to say I have never pickled anything before! But I’m going to give it a try and who knows, it might turn out to be the best thing I ever cooked.

My Life In Sourdough

My Life In Sourdough

 

Marie’s Hazelnut and Plum Tart with Lavender Crust:

This is my go-to tart for the fall in New York where plums are still widely available at this time of the year. I add lavender flowers to the crust to give a little hint that takes us back to summer. Compared to almond, hazelnut meal is a little harder to find on this side of the Altlantic, but you can always make your own by grinding some hazelnut in a food processor. While the recipe isn’t per se butter free – I’ve been using sour cream or yogurt in lieu of some of the butter content for a slightly lighter effect. I usually bring dried lavender flowers from France, but you can buy some at the Union Square farmer’s market or at Kalystyan’s (which is a fantastic store for spices, Indian and Middle Eastern foods)

Pâte sucrée (the recipe for this lovely dough is adapted from the pâtisserie chef Pierre Hermé)
This will be enough for one tart and a few sablés (sweet biscuits). I usually double the recipe, divide it into three batches, wrap in cling film and freeze two for later. I always choose organic eggs, sour cream, and butter – because you can always taste the difference, especially in baking.

  • 125g unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 25g of sour cream
  • 90g icing sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 vanilla pod
  • 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract (try making your own!)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt (fleur de sel ideally)
  • 30 g hazelnut meal (or almond meal)
  • 250g flour (unbleached. I love daisy flours)
  • 1 tablespoon of lavender flowers

With a hand-held or stand-in mixer, start mixing the softened butter and the icing sugar together on medium speed. Add the egg, the seeds of the vanilla pod and the salt. Keep mixing until the dough is smooth. Incorporate the flour all at once and work it into the dough with a wooden spoon. Shape the dough into a ball, wrap with cling film and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Butter and lightly flour a large tart pan. With the help of a rolling pin, roll the dough on a piece of parchment paper until thin and larger than your tart pan.
Transfer the dough onto the tart pan, and delicately remove the parchment paper. Press the dough against the side and use your fingers to create a nice side border (you can make some sweet biscuits with the extra dough). Use a fork to gently pierce small holes into the dough (this will reduce the potential of trapped air bubbles forming under your crust). Put your tart in the refrigerator for at least an hour – this will help the sides of your tart stay up while it bakes).
Blind bake the crust at 180°C/350°F for about 10 minutes – until the crust is barely baked and just starting to color. To blind bake you can use dry chickpeas: cover your crust with parchment paper and add a cup of chickpeas before baking (note: you can keep the chickpeas but they will not be suitable to be eaten – they will just turn into your blind baking peas!)

Hazelnut cream

  • 75g soft butter
  • 25g sour cream (or thick greek yogurt)
  • 100 g sugar
  • 125g hazelnut meal
  • 1 egg (beaten)

Lightly roast the hazelnut meal at 300°F for 10 minutes (this will intensify the flavor of the hazelnut but it is an optional step!).

With a whisk or a hand help mixer, cream together the butter, sugar until it forms a light fluffy cream. Add the egg and the sour cream, keep mixing, then add the hazelnut meal. Refrigerate for an hour (or overnight).

Plums

  • 1kg / 2 pounds of small Plums (damsons, greengage, or Italian plums work well)

Wash and dry the plums. Cut them in half and remove the pits. Once your crust is blind baked, spread the hazelnut cream over it. Arrange the plums on the tart in concentric circles, skin down. Bake at 180°C/350°F for about 30 minutes (or until the hazelnut cream has set and the sides of the tart are nicely golden). Let cool and serve lukewarm.

Recipe + Image Via Marie C.