Monday, January 30, 2006

Dashing through the snow

What a great start to the week - just coming out of a lovely (semi-)domestic weekend, and the weather's finally warm enough to pull on a skirt and my new high leather boots. Didn't get anywhere near as much work done on the weekend as I had planned, but it's the fault of the damn recruiters I tell you. (OK, so there was only one application due, but it was hard work for someone who's never written a cover letter before.) (OK, so I only ended up spending an hour on it, but gosh darn it sure sapped a lot of my energy.)

Anyhows, here's a quick breakdown. Braved the whipping wind on Saturday to run with S. Never thought I could run comfortably for an hour, but the combination of brisk weather and gorgeous running trails (witness above) has done wonders for my stamina. Back home for a wonderful solitary meal of toasted baguette, scrambled eggs, duck mousse, pork rilletes and my precious Epoisses. It's early days yet, but right now I would be happy to graze on bread, pate and cheese everyday. Certainly helps that I've managed to find some pretty decent stuff in the supermarkets and can highly recommend the Fleury Michon brand of mousse pur canard (recette par Joel Robuchon!).

Quick run to the supermarket - more chocolate - and it was back home to prep for Chinese New Year dinner at Chez S&K. Nothing fancy, P. came over and we whipped up bak kut teh, honey chicken and brownies (new recipe) for a cosy group of 7. Just something to line the stomach while we headed out to the Seven Sins party at chateau Villecerf. I can't imagine what it would be like to live at one of these chateaus - to host half the school in every inch of shared space available, with a DJ and open bar and, in the case of the Villecerf folks, bonfires and fireworks in the backyard. More outrageous costumes, kissing of cheeks and the occassional grabbing of waists. The downside to these parties is that they never fail to remind me how crap I am at networking. Put me in a group of friends and I'll gladly ham it up for everyone's amusement, but leave me next to a stranger for 10 minutes and I'm making excuses to go to the washroom. That's definitely top 5 on my list of lifeskills I need to pick up in the next year. Freshly taken off that list is driving - especially after witnessing the pileup of cars on the icy road back from Villecerf.

Woke up ridiculously late on Sunday, went for another run, and back home to prep for another potluck CNY dinner - this time with the entire Chinese community at Chez School Cafeteria. S. convinced me that we should don our qipaos, which turned out to be good fun, thanks to the other folks who turned up in kungfu costumes and Mao jackets. Couldn't keep my hands off the roasted duck and char siew, and now JJ has the photographic evidence to prove it. Ah well. I know this might sound lame, but I really enjoy hanging out with the Chinese community here. Not that I'm not mixing with non-Asians, but there's always so much to laugh about once people start trying to speak in their not-so-native Cantonese and Mandarin.

Got home just in time to work on my internship application. (The astute amongst you will note that this was the chief reason why I had so little time for schoolwork.) Sent it off 5 minutes before the deadline and duly rewarded myself by whipping up my first-ever batch of Nutella triple-choc cookies. I foresee being on very friendly terms with the size-of-your-head-I-kid-you-not tubs of Nutella in every French supermarket.

So, another weekend has passed in a blur and the week ahead is loaded with group work. Before I run, here's a picture of my first snowfall in Fonty, taken with my trusty Nokia N70. A tout a l'heure!

Friday, January 27, 2006

This song is dedicated to ...

It's 1.56 a.m. on a schoolnight, I'm plodding through tedious Economics revision for a quiz in 6 hours' time, and I'm happy. Jack Johnson is singing about Cookie Jars and Rodeo Clowns, and I'm actually relishing the solitude of being the only person awake in a house of four. Fiddling around on my laptop, immersed in my Sennheiser world, I'm reminded of how important a role music played in my previous professional life, when a Beethoven symphony or india.arie ballad would sometimes be the only thing keeping me from keeling over in sheer boredom, or freaking out at moments of high stress.

Music has a wonderful way of breaking down barriers and bringing people together. Some of my most enjoyable moments in France so far have been spent around the dinner table, jumping from one iTunes song to the next, finding common musical ground with new friends. It's hard to explain why it gives me such great joy to find someone who has listened to 'Girl from Mars' on repeat for an entire car journey and can hum a song by the Boo Radleys; to drive through Paris with a carful of people singing along to Jack Johnson; to exchange iPods with someone who has both Kayne West and Leo Ku on his.

I'm reminded again of friends dear and far - of AG and her obsession with Ash and Jay; of B. and his phenomenal music collection in at least four different languages; of D. and his 'mix tapes'; of W. and his tireless attempts to teach me about classical music. I remember headbanging to Fountains of Wayne while stuck in Beijing traffic; sitting at Cafe Iguana, singing 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' in between laughing and gasping for air; looking up Guns n' Roses videos on the internet with N. and G.; sitting around for hours after the office X'mas party for a group '80s-singalong.

There's plenty of new music I have yet to discover, and I'm looking forward to learning from my friends.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Another point of view

JJ the secret squirrel has been pulled out of his closet. Read about his exploits here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Heels over head

I seem to have a talent for doing things backwards. Like how I'm taking a study break now before I've even started studying. I'm sitting in the library with P. and S., my Corporate Finance and Economics textbooks stacked neatly next to me, a huge yellow Stickie on my computer screen reminding me of the dozen other things I'm supposed to be doing before tomorrow.

Things have really started to hot up around here, with intensive recruiting starting this week and group project deadlines looming around every corner. It's barely been 2 weeks off the starting block, and my first internship application is due this Friday. Naturally, in classic lecoq fashion, all that means is I've had to quadruple the time spent on bitching about how crazy the schedule here is. I've heard several times to expect barely enough time to breathe in my first 4 months here, and believe you me, that is turning out to be no great exaggeration. Between readings, meeting for group assignments, company presentations and a heavy opt-in social calendar, it sometimes feels like the only time I have for myself is in the shower.

Thankfully, I've found a constant companion to be my anchor through the craziness. Chocolate. Chocolate in all its splendiferous incarnations. Chocolate at its most fancy, dressed up as a French tart, all darkness and danger. Chocolate as wholesome girl-next-door, wrapped around caramel and biscuit, robed in a golden Twix wrapper. Chocolate with European chic, flavoured with creme brulee and lemon meringue. You can tell the sophistication of a country by the number of Lindt flavours on an ordinary supermarket shelf. At the rate I'm going, half of them will be in my bedroom by the end of the week.

I'm in deep now.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Ball sense

You can add that to the list of things I don't possess. Along with a head for numbers, a passing grade in the French exemption exam, and the ability to curb my appetite for all things doughy. It's pretty amazing what you can find out about yourself in 1 day at business school, and this isn't even the stuff I paid to learn.

In spite of these ego-shaking revelations, the day turned out pretty well. A special 4-hour long module on Ethics in the morning was a blast. The entire promotion (minus the several who have already started cutting classes) gathered together to listen to discourses on and to debate issues of ethics in business. I found my break-out discussion group particularly invigorating. A small Italian guest professor in an immaculate 3-piece suit had formulated the key issues in a rather arresting manner - "Can a leader keep his hands clean?" Extremely articulate with a PhD in political philosophy, he peppered the discussion liberally with references to seminal ideas in philosophy, psychology and anthropology. Sitting at the back of the classroom and taking in his words on Plato and Hannah Arendt, I felt the same curiosity that had compelled me to get through my 'A'-level Economics Special Paper by studying issues of methodology and philosophy ("Why do economists disagree?") rather than 'practical' and quantitative issues.

The contrast was even starker as I struggled through the afternoon's Corporate Finance class. Somehow, calculating NPVs of future cash flows just doesn't strike a chord with me. Doesn't bode well for the rest of my year here, but I'll have to manage somehow. Came out of class to find out that I was the only Singaporean who didn't pass the French exemption exam, went downtown to subject myself to the incompetence of French banks for the third time in 2 weeks, high-tailed it to my favourite boulangerie for a consolatory baguette, and ate a third of it on the short walk home.

Oh, and what about the lack of ball sense? No better way to find out than joining a practice session for the women's football club! Had a lovely dinner after at Le Petit Alsace - my first French meal in Fonty, ever - with the South-East Asians, which effectively turned out to be 7 Singaporeans, 1 Indonesian and 1 Thai, the latter 2 of whom were at Penn the same time as me. There'll be plenty of time later to meet new people - for tonight, I was happy just to be in the company of laughing, familiar faces.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Moral hazard

My heart sinks a little every time a professor announces that class participation will count towards your final grade. In a room with almost 80 people, that guarantees at least a handful who will take this as an incentive to make comments ranging from the inane to the know-it-all to the plain rude. You know the sort -

(names and events have been changed to protect my identity)

Professor: "Good morning class. By the way, call me Tom. I hate being called professor."
(Edward eagerly raises his hand)
Professor: "Yes, Edward?"
Edward: "Professor, good is a relative term. Also, it's unclear whether you're telling us that it's a good morning, or whether you're wishing us to have a good morning. Perhaps you can be more specific and say "I hope you'll have a productive morning" instead. I should know because I used to work closely with senior management in a top investment bank, and I greeted them this way every morning. By the way, you can call me Ed."
Professor: "I can think of several other things I'd rather call you."

My statistics professor has the right idea. You cannot earn points for class participation; you can only lose them. Asking pointless questions to show off or to somehow show up the professor is one good way to do so. Or should I say, productive.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Wireless and fancy-free

Yay! I never realised wireless access would feel this good. I've just gotten all the appropriate authorisations in place for campus access, so now I can get it anytime I want, at home or at school, in the privacy of my room or even on the go around campus. All I need is two free hands.

The Russian has landed

And now we are four. Three girls and one guy, a complete reversal of the male to female student ratio at school. The small proportion of females in the student body means that some workgroups have two females (out of five students in total) while others have none. Apparently every group with female members has a minimum of two to ensure their 'safety'. Hmmm. I hope my new housemate doesn't feel his safety threatened.

In other news, I still have yet to find baking powder in this country. A trip out to Carrefour this afternoon turned up 50 designs of bedroom slippers, 20 flavours of Lindt, 15 brands of mineral water, but still no baking powder. Surely those gateaux don't rise on their own?

Monday, January 09, 2006


It occurs to me that I have not properly announced my arrival in France. So here I am, sitting at my brown wooden desk in my cosy little room in a proper French maison on a street not 5 minutes walk from campus, nursing a big bowl of instant expresso mixed with fresh milk, and nibbling on chunks of a baguette bought from a local boulangerie, slatered with Monoprix butter (gourmet! with Guerande salt!) and wild strawberry jam. I can see the sunrise from the single window in my room, and it's gorgeous. Shiny, peachy new sky streaking across a dusky morning blue. Boulevard Andre Maginot leads directly from the A6 expressway from Paris to rue Grande, the main shopping street in Fontainebleau, so I can already hear a constant stream of traffic outside. No singing of birds or the bustle of morning activity from neighbourhood shopkeepers - it's not exactly the French morning Belle wakes up to in Beauty and the Beast, but it's mine and it's good.

I don't have much time as I have to be on campus in 45 minutes. Registration for last names beginning with 'C' begins at 9.30 a.m., and already I have been warned that this will probably be the latest start for me in the first 2 months. So instead of a prolonged recount of my first weekend in France, I leave you with a list of new experiences I will have to get used to, in no particular order, and to be continued:

1. Waking up starving and craving breakfast.
2. Jogging in the cold with nothing more than a sweatshirt and track pants on, hands tucked into pockets to avoid the same frozen fate as my exposed ears.
3. Not being able to find baking necessities in the local supermarket.
4. Taking an hour to find everything else, since labels come in every European language except English.
5. Friendly service from the French. (I forgot to get my apples weighed, and the checkout counter guy simply waved me through. I've been told it's not a sure thing though, since the odds are that I will be served by a crusty French grandmere at some point.)
5. Hiking up and down 4 flights of stairs to get from the basement, where the kitchen and laundry facilities are, to the 3rd floor, where the rest of the apartment is.
6. Sticker shock. Shelling out close to €5 for a pair of tweezers (a bargain compared to €8 everywhere else) really drives this home.
7. Being social.
8. Not being able to relieve myself before a bath without running down the hallway. I will never understand the French habit of building their WCs separate from their bathrooms.
9. Addressing everyone as 'madame' because that's the polite thing to do. I always thought that 'miss' would be a safer bet than 'aunty'.
10. Reminding myself that I don't have to scarf down 3 macarons everytime I pass a patisserie, because there will be another one right around the corner.

Alrighty, it's off to school I go. Wish me luck!

Sunday, January 08, 2006


That's how much it costs to feel Parisian for a day. More precisely, that's how much it cost me to 'do French things' on my first day trip to Paris as a semi-resident of France. For that princely sum, I got myself by train from Fontainebleau to Paris and back (50% off since we jumped the return train without punching our tickets); had a wonderfully thin and crisp Breton crepe at Creperie Josselin in the Montparnasse area; procured my first beauty product (if facial moisturiser counts as one) from French brand Avene; gaped at the variety of deli products and foodstuff in La Grande Epicerie of Bon Marche for the cost of a box of Lindt Pyreneens; stood in line for five precious macarons and a jar of Christine Ferber confiture from the much dreamed-about Pierre Herme; took away a tarte au citron from Legay Choc (all puns intended); and drank my first cafe creme standing at the bar counter of a French bookstore. The afternoon amusements of watching my housemate get picked up by a French policeman, and taking in the beat of the city along the Left Bank and across the Pont Neuf on foot, came free.

All things considered, €60.90 was a small price to pay for an adventure that finally helped me settle a question that has plagued me for some months now - Pierre Herme macarons aren't better or worse than those from Laduree, simply different.

Monday, January 02, 2006

For Dee

While I have been baking the occassional cheesecake, brownie or muffin for quite a few years now, I have never attempted making my own cookies until a few weeks ago. (OK, so there was that one rather unfortunate time in college when I tried to salvage an overly viscous apple cake batter by shaping it into one gigantic cookie. That cookie-monster turned out to be a barometer of true friendship, since it was eventually polished off by my boyfriend and another male friend who was nursing a crush.)

For some reason, cookies have always seemed to me an insurmountable challenge - a result, embarrasingly enough, of my simple laziness to procure baking sheets. I have however been tempted in the past to try the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe of urban legend, which has appeared in various guises on several websites. Chancing upon the recipe on the Neiman Marcus website itself finally prompted me to run out and buy (disposable) baking sheets and parchment paper.

The chocolate chip cookie I aspired to was more Mrs Fields than Famous Amos, although I adore both. I wanted a moist and chewy cookie that was rich without being dense, with a medium-crumb and slightly airy texture. The Neiman Marcus recipe, which I have included below, distinguishes itself by the addition of coffee powder, which seems to deepen the flavour of the cookie. The recipe also calls for a lower oven temperature and longer baking time than other cookie recipes I have come across. The result, in my own experience, is a chewy but very thin cookie, since the batter has more time to spread in the oven before it starts to set.

To obtain a thicker cookie with more bite, I adapted a recipe from 'The Best Recipe'. This recipe uses an extra yolk as fat to keep the cookies moist without being too runny. While the original recipe calls for melted butter, I used softened butter since creaming this allows more air to be incorporated into the batter, resulting in 'spongier' cookies. I also reduced the original 1/2 cup of white sugar, and used Kahlua instead of vanilla essence to enhance the coffee flavour. Stick to the original specifications if you would like a slightly sweeter, denser cookie.

NM Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened / 1 cup light brown sugar / 3 tablespoons granulated sugar / 1 large egg / 2 teaspoons vanilla extract / 1-3/4 cups all purpose flour / 1/2 teaspoon baking powder / 1/2 teaspoon baking soda / 1/2 teaspoon salt / 1-1/2 teaspoons instant espresso coffee powder / 1-1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Cream the butter with the sugars using an electric mixer on medium speed until fluffy (approximately 30 seconds).
2. Beat in the egg and the vanilla extract for another 30 seconds.
3. In a mixing bowl, sift together the dry ingredients and beat into the butter mixture at low speed for about 15 seconds. Stir in the espresso coffee powder and chocolate chips.
4. Using a 1 ounce scoop or a 2 tablespoon measure, drop cookie dough onto a greased cookie sheet about 3 inches apart. Gently press down on the dough with the back of a spoon to spread out into a 2 inch circle. Bake for about 20 minutes or until nicely browned around the edges. Bake a little longer for a crispier cookie.

Yield: 2 dozen cookies

Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe (adapted from 'The Best Recipe')
12 tablespoons (1-1/2 sticks) butter, softened / 1 cup brown sugar / 1/4 cup white sugar / 1 large egg + 1 extra yolk / 2 teaspoons Kahlua / 2 cups plain flour / 1/4 teaspoon baking soda / 1/4 teaspoon salt / 1-1/2 teaspoons instant coffee powder / 1-1/2 cups chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees (approx. 160 degrees Celsius). Cream the butter with the sugars with an electric mixer.
2. Add the eggs and Kahlua and beat until blended.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt and coffee powder. Fold into the butter mixture using a spoon until just incorporated (over-mixing will result in a tougher cookie). Stir in the chocolate chips.
4. Chill cookie dough in the fridge for 15 minutes (a colder batter will spread less in the oven). Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Using 2 spoons or your hands, shape the cookie dough into balls slightly smaller than golf balls and place on the cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake for 15 minutes. Cool the cookie sheet under running water before reusing it.

Yield: 2 dozen cookies