Honey and spice bread

How to find a little sweetness in a world of brutes

Honey and spice bread

Last Sunday, helicopters were still grinding through the blue-gray Parisian skies as I walked home through the blustery Père Lachaise cemetery late in the afternoon and began typing these lines. Far below the helicopters, millions of demonstrators were marching peacefully through the streets of eastern Paris in support of the 17 men and women murdered last week in Paris in connection to the weekly satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo.

Honey and spice bread

When the vast majority of Parisians were taking to the streets with “I am Charlie” signs, in solidarity with the families whose loved ones were brutally killed, a few others began claiming on social networks “I am not Charlie.” What happened ?

The people I saw posting Je ne suis pas Charlie aren’t members of France’s extreme-right National Front party, as far as I’m aware. Nor would they ever make the barbaric and revolting claim that anyone “deserved” to be killed for exercising their right to freedom of expression, a right won during the French Revolution and during the protests of May 1968.

Dada or May ’68 ?

So what gives ? I feel firmly "Charlie" and I’m terribly sad, for France, and especially for the families of those who died. My point here isn’t necessarily to condone or condemn the illustrators Charb, Cabu, Honoré, Tignous, and Wolinski for their drawings. What interests me is to understand the cultural context of the satirical Charlie Hebdo. What led those cartoonists to make such controversial drawings when they had already been attacked in 2011, and knew their lives were in danger ?

Some friends I spoke with cited Charlie’s roots in the absurdist urges and the deliberate offensiveness of the Dada movement. Others, of course, mentioned the free-thinking ideals of the French Revolution, and still others talked about the student and worker’s demonstrations of May 1968.

They died laughing

But Charlie Hebdo isn’t the only media that exhibits the French sense of the absurd. If you’ve ever seen Jean Dujardin’s portrayal of secret agent OSS117 Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath in the spy spoof Lost in Rio, you’ve witnessed the irreverent mockery found in some French humor.

OSS117 is a secret agent stuck in the 1950s, and the world has moved on without him. A little along the lines of the Naked Gun series (with Canadian Leslie Neilsen), Lost in Rio is more than politically incorrect. Agent OSS117 is offensive, racist, and so outrageous, no one could possible take him seriously.

Honey and spice bread

Or could they ? A few deranged extremists took Charlie Hebdo seriously enough to kill 17 men and women. At the demonstration, we saw this sticker : “They died laughing.” Is this just another joke made in bad taste ? Whose taste ? Or is this a way of saying that the cartoonists died the way they would have wanted ? What about the other men and women who died, not laughing ?

Mad magazine

Either way, there’s no denying it : Charlie Hebdo has always exercised its right to be provocative since its founding in 1970, after another satirical newspaper, Hara-Kiri, was banned. Back when I was married to a Frenchman, I used to see his old copies of journals called Fluide Glacial or Hara-Kiri around the house. They looked kind of trashy, and reminded me a little of Mad magazine back in the U.S.

After the May 1968 protests shook France, illustrators began publishing cartoons that weren’t for kids. They were exercising their newfound freedom from censorship under de Gaulle, president from 1959 to 1969. In fact, if you understand French, secret agent OSS117 talks about France under de Gaulle in this video, once again displaying the obliviousness and absurdity for which he’s known.

Equal-opportunity offender

Obviously, not everyone thinks the French sense of the absurd, this culture of la connerie or talking-crap nonsense, is funny, least of all the French government back in 1970. That first newspaper, Hara-Kiri, was banned because it made a joke out of the president’s death. (In fact, the Charlie in Charlie Hebdo refers to Charles de Gaulle.) Both journals were a pure product of the previous period, la France gaullienne, and Charlie Hebdo became an “equal-opportunity offender,” making fun of Catholics, the Pope, Jews, and Muslims.

It seems like everyone (including this culture blogger) except Parisians have pointed out that just because free speech exists, that doesn’t mean we should use it to mock others. But that’s the whole point of absurd humor : to provoke people. To provoke them into some kind of reaction, to spur them to find out more about an issue, and to decide for themselves if it’s right or wrong – anything to shake them out of complacency.

Humor is a weapon

But if you don’t think the absurdity is funny, does that make you a reactionary or an extremist ? (Maybe that just means you’re not French – without resorting to sweeping generalizations, bien sûr.) What was different in the eras of the French Revolution, the Dada movement, or the 68ers, as those protesters are known ? Is Charlie Hebdo’s level of satire inappropriate for the world we live in now ?

It all depends on whether you think combating extremism was more or less important in those times than it is now. Parisians like to say that humor is a weapon. So is the answer to stop using that weapon, and back away from French satirical tradition in order to placate radical extremists who kill those who mock them ?

Honey and spice bread

Honey and spice bread

One of my favorite French expressions is un peu de douceur dans ce monde de bruts – a little softness or sweetness in a world of brutes. And right now, we could definitely use a little something sweet.

This bread isn’t only delicious : while it’s cooking, it fills the whole house with the sweet scent of honey and spices. Apparently, even the central staircase of our building is redolent with the odor when I make this bread, because a neighbor rang my doorbell once to ask what I was baking !

Pain d’épices, or spice bread, is eaten all over France, especially during the holiday season, which you might have noticed is finished. But I tend to make up batches of this bread well into late February, because it’s perfect for inviting friends over to dunk in coffee and is a great excuse to catch up, along the lines of “Hey, I have some honey and spice bread that needs eating – want to come over for coffee and something sweet ?”

Honey and spice bread is just that – it’s made with lots of honey, and lots of spices. This recipe in particular is an all-purpose one, that has absolutely no butter or oil. I use it for serving foie gras at the holidays – although I tune down the number and quantity of spices so I don’t overwhelm the taste of the foie gras – or I use it in “composed” cakes, like Honey, spice, and apple cake with apple brandy mousse, which has a delicious but very creamy-rich layer of bavarian cream on top.

But this bread is great on its own, or served with a little homemade applesauce. And definitely brew up some coffee – or some tea from Mariage Frères – for dunking !

ingredients :
- ½ cup (110ml) whole milk
- ½ cup (170g) honey
- 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 whole clove
- 1 star anise
- ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
- ¼ teaspoon allspice
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon ground coriander
- other spices of your choice
- ¾ cup (90g) rye flour
- ¾ cup (90g) all-purpose flour
- 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2¾ teaspoons (12g) baking powder
- 2 eggs, room temperature
- 3 tablespoons (35g) sugar

how to make it :
1. In a small saucepan, heat the milk over medium heat. Just before it boils, remove it from the heat.
2. Add the honey, stirring well with a whisk. If the milk separates slightly, that’s okay.
3. Add all the spices to the milk-honey mixture and cover. Let it sit for 20 minutes, then strain. Let the mixture cool completely.
4. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
5. In a small bowl, whisk together the rye flour, flour, salt, and baking powder.
6. Grease a round 9-inch (22cm) diameter baking pan, or a spring form pan.
7. Then sprinkle it with flour all around, tapping the pan upside down to get rid of excess flour.
8. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together using a sturdy wire whisk or a hand-held beater. Beat together vigorously until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
9. Add the cooled milk-honey mixture to the eggs and sugar, stirring to combine.
10. Add the flour mixture and stir quickly to combine.
11. Turn the mixture into the round baking pan, and bake in the middle of the oven for about 20-30 minutes.
12. Remove the honey and spice bread from the oven, and let it cool for about 5 minutes in the pan.
13. Transfer the bread to a wire rack. Once it’s completely cool, store at room temperature under a tea towel or wrapped in parchment paper. Honey and spice bread is best not straight from the oven, but 1-2 days after baking. The honey acts as a natural preservative, and helps develop more flavor over time.

Tags : pain d’épices , Charlie Hebdo , honey , Lost in Rio , Dada , Charles de Gaulle , May 1968


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Linda Smith 16 janvier 2015

Reads like a great recipe...am going to try it and the curried chicken. Enjoyed reading your blog too...thoughtful & well written. Like to be on your list. Love Aunt Linda

Allison Zinder 16 janvier 2015

Thank you ! Yes, the chicken curry is one of my very favorite recipes. If you want, sign up for my newsletter here (under the main menu in the right-hand column). Thanks for reading ! xoxo

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