Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Sherlock-Style Hiatus


After the riveting post about making Brioche from scratch, I practically disappeared from the blogosphere here at Two Beans Or Not Two Beans.

I just wanted to let you all know that I am not dead.

I am not dead and I will make an entrance sporting a fake drawn-on mustache and mimicking a cheesy French accent.


To be honest, life has been rather unstable for me since the year began. I won't bore you with all of the details, but I will explain the few key points.

After much deliberation caused by several months of unemployment, I, with the help and advice of close friends and family, decided to apply for a Masters program in France. This meant needing to amass a deluge of paperwork, photocopies and translated legal documents as per French university requirements.

That's when things started to go awry: my laptop started malfunctioning in which it refused to open any of my files or let me use Microsoft programs, including Paint and Word. Moreover, the wi-fi connection went down in my building and the then current landlord was unable to do anything about it. Seeing as how the university applications (not to mention posting blogs) relied heavily on the use of Internet, I found myself scrambling all over Le Mans to leech off the wi-fi in local cafés, dragging the nearly-moribund laptop.

This meant that blogging took a backseat to my real life priorities.

Despite all odds, I was indeed accepted to my choice university. It was such a wave of relief to have gotten my acceptance letter in the mail back in June. However, this meant that I had to move once again...for the fourth time in six years.

I said good-bye to Le Mans and, after completing the visa and student paperwork, welcomed Angers into my life.

The famous Angevin castle 
Being accepted by l'Université d'Angers means that a certain aspect of my life has come full circle.

Back in 2008, while relishing the profound interest I have for the French language, I had contemplated in using my Alma Mater's study abroad program to do a summer semester of intensive French lessons in Angers. Except my university canceled the study abroad program for that very year. Dejected, I lamented not having been able to do my university coursework in France and in a city as lovely as Angers.

Now, several years on, I find myself in the odd situation of starting my Masters program there.

I'm absolutely petrified at the prospect of studying in France, yet for the first time in several months, I am hopeful that things are going to turn out just fine.

At least, things will turn out fine provided that I stay on top of the paperwork and photocopies...

Barb the French Bean

Friday, March 6, 2015

Adventures in Brioche-Makin' (with recipe)

In the hectic side project that is dealing with my life, I have temporarily forgotten to update my little corner of the Internet.

Today, with my apologies, I offer you all a glimpse of the activity that I have been working at for the past month or so: brioche baking.

The urge to make my own brioche started from mere curiosity. I wanted to embark on the journey of making this traditional French bread...and balked at the idea that the entire process would take around fourteen hours.

However, most of the time in question involved waiting for the dough to rise.

Making a brioche (without a machine, mind you) can at times be frustrating, especially when the result you envisioned is far from the reality.

I offer, as an example, photographic evidence of what I entitle Brioche #1.

I won't sugarcoat my actions: Brioche #1 was a failure from the very beginning. I had used too much liquid which gave the dough a very fluid consistency, even after having dumped extra flour on it.

According to some tips that I had read, the brioche dough needed to proof for approximately ten hours in the refrigerator. Since my fridge's capacity to chill items proves highly effective, I worried that the temperature would slow down the yeast. Despite my better knowledge, I covered the bowl with a damp towel and set it in the fridge.

Ten hours later, the dough had hardened and the stiff towel formed a statue making an interesting cloth interpretation of a small table.

After waiting four extra hours for the dough to de-frost, it became runny once again, albeit in double of its original volume.

When I finally deemed the dough ready for shaping (after fourteen hours), I greased a pan with a knob of unsalted butter and divided the dough. As I found the braided technique too daunting for the first try, I thought that I would instead make five pull-apart briochins. I covered the pan with some aluminum foil and nestled it into the mini counter-top oven that has the bad habit of burning everything.

I started out with this:
If you look closely, the dough's appearance is not at all smooth...

Three hours later: more rising and covered in an egg wash

...And ended up with this.

I only *wish* that I could have had a photo of the look of disappointment on my face when I saw this brioche come out of the oven.

C'est la vie.

However, this failure did not deter me from trying again. I made Brioches #2 (success), #3 (nice form, but the dough was too hard), #4 (pretty good), and finally #5 (success).

I am glad to say that with Brioche #5's achievement, I feel confident enough to post a lesson on how to try to make your own brioche at home. 

A fair warning: I have the horrible tendency to eyeball the ingredients. I also learned how to make the brioche using grams and Celsius; sorry about that, fellow Imperial-unit users. 

Brioche- no machine required

200 grams of wheat flour
2 eggs
75 to 85-ish grams of softened salted butter
30 mL-ish of warm milk
2 teaspoons of cassonade (brown/turbinado sugar)
1 sachet/5 grams of brioche yeast (regular dry yeast works as well, but the taste will change)
Some salt to taste (but not too much since the butter already contains salt)

Egg wash + Pan
1 egg yolk
A splash of milk
Some extra butter to grease the pan

Large bowl
Wooden spoon
Damp towel
Basting brush
A firm grasp of sanity
Killer flexor and extensor muscles

1. Divide the butter into little squares. I do this first to allow for the butter to soften.

2. In a bowl, mix the dry ingredients.

3. Add the warm milk and stir with a fork. The milk shouldn't be too hot; otherwise, it might kill the yeast.

4. Add eggs and mix with a wooden spoon.

The mixture will look very sticky at this point. If it looks/feels TOO dry, don't be afraid to add just a smidgen of milk.

5. Incorporate the butter into the dough in three parts. Use a fork to crush the butter.

6. Try to mix dough with a wooden spoon.

7. Give up and use hands. Thus commences the battle with the sticky dough to make it do what you want.

8. After a while, the dough will start form stringy strands but still remain horribly sticky. Keep battling.

9. Get a stiff pain in your lower arm. Shake arm for a few seconds before you resume the battle to mix the enemy.

10. Eventually, you'll notice that the strands will look more like a homogeneous mass as they start to cling to each other to form a ball. The dough will start sticking less and less to the surface you are working on (and your hands).

11. Knead dough and form it into a ball that has a slight even sheen from the glistening mixture of butter and wheat.

Kinda like this (this picture of Brioche #2 will have to serve as a substitute as I hadn't thought of taking a picture of Brioche #5 during this step)

12. Cover the bowl with a damp (not dripping) towel and place it near a heat source/in a room with no drafts.

13. Allow for 7 to 10 hours for the dough to proof. Yes. Really.

14. After the 7 to 10 hours have passed, dump the risen dough onto a surface and flatten it.

15. Divide the flattened dough into three segments

16. Roll each segment into a long tube.

 17. Align the three tubes to braid them.

18. Braid as if it were soft, stretchy hair.

 19. Transfer the braided dough to the buttered pan.

That's what I get for having a small pan that fits into the mini counter-top oven...
 20. Cover the pan with a damp towel and let the bread rise for three more hours.


Be patient.

21. Once it has risen, cover it with the egg wash using a basting brush.

22. Bake at 200 degrees Celsius for 40 minutes. 

(For those of you using a mini counter-top oven like me, cover the bread with some aluminum foil and uncover during the last ten minutes to allow the bread to brown.)

23. Allow the bread to cool off for two hours before nomming.

24. Nom.

Barb the French Bean

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Reflections on Yesterday

First of all, I wish you a belated Bonne Année to everyone.

Yesterday, the headquarters of the controversial Charlie Hebdo newspaper faced an attack which resulted in the deaths of twelve people, including four of the magazine's cartoonists.

It took me nearly half a day to piece together that information before coming to the realization of what had happened.

I received the news, shortly before lunchtime, that a police officer in Paris had been shot. I wasn't entirely apathetic to the event, but I needed to have my lunch and be on my way to meet someone in town. Moreover, coming from a cultural background saturated in gun violence, the knowledge of yet another attack didn't really surprise me anymore.

I had my lunch, drank my coffee, brushed my teeth, and went to town.

When I got home a few hours later, I slowly began to discover the extent of that violent attack.

My recollections transported me to a time in September when I was a fourteen-year-old high school student sitting in the middle of her second period science class. The vice principal's voice echoed on the intercom and, in a couple of succinct lines, revealed the tragedy that had occurred that morning in our country. The confusion numbed me. Logic put forth a shield of disbelief. In the hours that followed, my teenager self would have to accept the reality.

I also remember the global outpouring of condolences. To mark the solidarity, France's leader famously quipped "Today, we are all Americans."

Yesterday, I didn't have a high school principal break the news to me. It happened via Facebook. Amid the barrage of links to news reports and of the video recorded of the attack, the all-too-familiar coping mechanism of outright denial disappeared instantaneously.

This had happened in my second home.

I couldn't remain alone. I needed to be around others. I walked to the centre-ville. In Le Mans, Place de la République became the gathering point for mourning. A sea of huddled dark coats surrounded by metal barricades greeted my eyes. So many people had come out on this cold winter's night.

I then went to a friend's house to have dinner. The television reports shared intermittent images of candlelit vigils being held all over France coupled with the harrowing scenes of people fleeing death. I couldn't help but remember how the news back in September 2001 played back in a similar fashion.

Coming home once again, I discovered that people had rallied under the phrase "Je suis Charlie." I am Charlie.

I likened it to "Today, we are all Americans." I found it strange how people had chosen to identify as being Charlie rather than French. Why not state the nationality?

I began to wonder what "Je suis Charlie" could mean. Yes, it could mean respecting those who were lost at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters.

It could mean defending the freedom of speech for which the cartoonists had been slain. Freedom of speech knows no cultural borders or boundaries and, in an ideal world, remains protected.

I myself may not have agreed with the manner in which the cartoonists chose to express themselves. I found their humor, while undeniably witty, to be far too crass, even offensive, for my enjoyment. But even in my disagreement, I recognize that the actions taken to silence them should not have occurred.

The French are always ready to give their unabashed opinions and be vocal about the things that matter. Even if the goal is to start a conversation, they will tell you what they think whether you like it or not.

They are, after all, Franks.

In the wake of the heinous attack, I see a manifested threat to liberty. The liberté drenched in the blood of  the slain. We won't stand for that.

Today, we are all Charlie. Let us not forget it.

-Barb the French Bean

Monday, November 17, 2014

Punishment for the Perpetually Late: The Red Light

I've got a confession to make: I have a problem with being on time. In previous posts, I have hinted at my tendency of never being prompt, but I have downplayed how chronic my condition is.

Ever since I was a child and well into my adulthood, this self-imposed burden has at times rendered me a pariah among my punctual acquaintances. While they often assure me that arriving a few minutes late is no big deal, I know that in my heart of hearts, as they stare at me with their critical eyes, they lie.

You would think the solutions to this tardiness would be simple. "Get a watch!" a member from the invisible audience suggests.

But I've already got one.

"Set the alarm for an earlier time than the actual designated time!" shouts another as a helpful proposal.

Nope. Doesn't work. On the contrary, it's worse! Knowing about the extra time will further perpetuate the lackadaisical response on taking my sweet time.

"Well, then," the frustrated audience member exclaims though gritted teeth, "why don't you simply stop being so lazy, get off your butt and just GO?"

You are asking me to demonstrate non-existent motivation. Fat chance.

At this point, the audience gives up on this hopeless situation of expecting me to arrive on time and instead decides to claim that I am simply "fashionably late."

But there is no reprieve for the perpetually late. Trying to fight against what comes naturally to us is futile.

Yet despite our stolid nature at habitually disrespecting opening and closing hours and respecting appointments, people can witness some rare occasions in which we make the effort to arrive on time by leaving our homes early.

When those infrequent moments happen, an unfortunate circumstance will occur that impedes our otherwise timely arrival. It discourages us from ever trying to be prompt again.

However, I do not believe that these circumstances are purely coincidental.

Call it what you want: atonement, comeuppance, karma, just desserts, sweet vengeance. These earthly punishments are manifested in a variety of forms.

Today, I shall cover the first form, which involves facing a delay while waiting for a pedestrian crosswalk light to change.

Inevitably, on the one day you find yourself speeding to an appointment as fast as your legs can carry you, heart pounding furiously in your chest and your lungs strained to their full capacity, there will be a red light that brings you to a halt.

To make matters worse, the nefarious soul who was in charge of programming the light has deemed that said light will display the crimson feature for an indefinite period.

An entire lifetime can pass before your eyes as you wait for the little strutting green man to flash into view.

By the time the light changes to green, you'll have aged to the point in which your hypothetical future grandkids will need to assist you in crossing the street.

Realistically, this situation would never happen in France for the French are avid jaywalkers.

Barb the French Bean

Monday, November 3, 2014

French-Time: A Guide to Dealing with the Subleties of the French Timetable

In the past, I have dedicated a post to discussing what "Cuban-time" entails. This cultural analysis was only a warm-up aimed at the task of deciphering the rhythm of French life.

While living in France has its undeniable advantages, it's not all fun and games for any new Expat flung into the throws of this sometimes confusing culture.

*BADUM-PSSH* (Seriously, though, wine is said to be reserved for lunch and dinner to complement the meal. Drinking wine outside of those hours makes you look like an alcoholic.)

The general unspoken rules involved in what I call French-time can have some rather elusive features. However, thanks to sheer cultural immersion, I have through my observations learned the slew of nuances involved in French-time.

Throughout this post, I will make use of several acronyms, because that is the French way.

Let's start off with the most obvious of them all: "Bonjour-Time."

1) Bonjour-Time* (BT): The small window between 00.001 and 2 seconds it takes for you to establish the vital greeting with a person from whom a particular service** is or may be expected (bus drivers, store clerks, cashiers, SNCF workers), acquaintances or friends**.

Failure to act within this brief time frame may result with the interacting French person to exhibit a silent, glacial glare or to state an ironic reprimand of how polite you are. 

2) Au Revoir-Time (ART): It must be enacted at all costs, preferably 3 seconds prior to leaving the premises. May be used, at a bare minimum, 00.001 second before exiting through the door.

The punishment for neglecting ART will result with you being shamed from ever showing your face again. For, lo, the French have a rather impressive talent for remembering every single person who has slighted them for not engaging in BT and ART.

3) New Year Greeting-Time (NYGT): the crucial moment in which you wish your friends, family, work colleagues, potential lover, boss and pet goldfish "Bonne année!" the first time you encounter or communicate with them within the new year. This window of greeting is understood to occur during the month of January yet may extend well into February.

The faux pas of failing to enact on this expected duty will result in ostracism, broken friendships and lots of finger pointing at the village idiot (you).

4) Apéro-Time (AT); The thirty to sixty minutes before dinner in which it is acceptable to have an alcoholic beverage and snack foods. Usually better if done in the company of friends and family at the end of DPT. Otherwise, it's just a little sad to be having a conversation about existentialism by yourself.

5) Dinner Party-Time (DPT): Guests are promptly expected to arrive a minimum of fifteen minutes after the designated time. Try to avoid arriving early or on time lest the dinner host happens to not be French. AT will take place shortly upon arrival.

6) Coffee Break-Time (CBT): occurs in two or three intervals throughout the day (10 a.m., after lunch and 4 p.m.). CBT may also finalize a wonderful session started by DPT.

7) SNCF-Time (SNCFT)***: The fifteen to twenty minutes it takes for the electronic boards to display the train's track number.

8) Strike Season (SS): The period between September 1st to July 31st in which French unionists become disgruntled with government/company policies and remind them who's in charge by disrupting or withholding crucial societal functions (transportation, education, distribution of pharmaceutical goods).

"Pharmacy on strike." I can't make this stuff up. 

9) Off-Strike Season (OSS), a.k.a. Les Vacances: The period between August 1st to August 31st in which no-one bothers to go on strike because the weather is too nice.

*The same standard applies to Bonsoir-Time (not to be confused with BT) should you need to greet the French person within the evening hours.

**As a general rule, you only need to use BT once throughout the day, especially with colleagues. Repetition of BT will garner a series of funny, wide-eyed looks in which your fellow Frenchies will wonder if you are being rude, if you are unfortunate to have short-term memory because you forget that you already saw them, or, at a push, are irreparably brain damaged. 

If, by some reason, there is a situation which requires you to return to see a particular person after you've applied ART, the phrase "Re-bonjour" may be used. 

***Delays or abrupt cancellations with SNCFT are to be expected as the majority of the train schedules coincide with SS. 

Learning this guideline by heart will make your way of navigating through the cultural minefield of faux pas a little bit easier. 

Barb the French Bean

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Last-Minute Costume Ideas

Need some costume ideas this Halloween? Are you in a panic to find a cheap, affordable, inexpensive, shoddy, half-assed, borderline offensive costume? Well, you've come to the right place!

1) Stereotypical Frenchie/Insert Nationality You Wish to Insult
Go to your local Forever 21/H&M/Marshalls/whatever cheap clothing store is nearby and buy a striped shirt and beret. Go to a bakery and buy a baguette. Carry the baguette as a prop.

If you are in France, merely recycle clothes from your closet and use the half-eaten bit of baguette that is still lingering from lunchtime.

(Yes, I am being sarcastic.)

Nota bene: this costume is probably not that good of an idea if you are in France, as it would merely look as if you are just walking home from the boulangerie sporting a simple marinière and, for some quirky reason, a beret.

For those of you with a bigger budget who want to poke fun at us Americans, you have two Stereotypical American options: the Country/Cowboy toting a (hopefully) fake gun, or the poorly-dressed "People of Wal-Mart"-esque American clutching for dear life to a greasy McDonald's bag (with Diet Coke) and riding an obesity scooter while holding a 'Murica #1 foam finger. The obesity scooter may be fashioned out of a bike and some painted cardboard boxes. Fat suit may or may not be required.

2) Mummy
Use white toilet paper to fashion a shirt and a pair of trousers for the mummy's bandages.

Warning: While white toilet paper is available, be careful using French toilet paper as it comes in shades of pink, blue, yellow, lavender and orange. These colors may prove inadequate to fabricate a mummy costume.

Be jealous of my pink toilet paper. (It was orange last week.)

On the other hand, you could potentially use the different colored toilet paper to be a gay-friendly Mummy.

3) Fumbling 20-Something Who Has No Idea What to Do with His/Her Life

Wait. That may not be an actual costume. Skip this option.


The clothing choices required are enough to scare anybody: wife-beater, '80s-style sneakers and an awkwardly-perched baseball cap with the not-removed shiny stickers are a must. Don't forget to accessorize with some fake tan, bling and those weird shutter sunglasses that probably only exist to impair your vision while giving your face the oddest tan lines ever.

This costume will prove to be highly-effective among your Hipster friends who know you are ironically donning the SWAG-YOLO Bro look for personal amusement.

5) Hipster

This costume will prove to be highly-effective among your SWAG-YOLO Bro friends who know you are ironically donning the Hipster look for personal amusement.

Get a haphazard variety of clothes from a local Goodwill/Salvation Army. Or, at a push, steal the clothes off a homeless man's/Hipster's back for a more authentic costume. Don't forget to accessorize with dyed hair (preferably an unnatural color), a handlebar mustache and pair of black, nerdy horn-rimmed glasses that you would have never, ever dreamt of wearing twenty years ago for the fear of oncoming ridicule by your peers.

6) Zombie

Stay up the night before getting absolutely blind drunk. Walk around the whole day plastered with a murderous hangover that renders you incapable of processing any cognitive thought and keeps you in a moribund, yet somehow still functioning, state. Accessorize with fake blood and a plastic severed limb.

I feel that I must stress the fake blood and the plastic severed limb part of the costume lest you want to actually kill someone simply for talking to you.

7) Nothing

For those of you who really can't be bothered to dress up at all but would still like to update the social media, upload a childhood photograph of yourself in a costume.

The more embarrassing, the better.

Here's a picture of Bibi (Yours Truly) wearing a pumpkin costume accessorized with a pumpkin treat bucket. This photograph documents the origins of my hatred for hermetically-sealed furniture. Thank God the trend to wrap sofas in plastic went the way of the crimped, high-volume hairdo. (New Jersey, circa late 1989)

Bonne chance with the costume preparation.

Happy Halloween,
Barb the French Bean