the basics, part 2

I mentioned on Monday that today, I’d be giving you what I’ve found to be the essential ingredient of French cooking & baking.For cooking, it’s mirepoix–similar to the Holy Trinity of Cajun/Louisiana Creole cuisine. For baking, it’s sucre vanillé.

Mirepoix (that’s meer-pwa) is less a recipe & more a concept. When I think back on our time in France, when I was deciding which new recipes to try & writing up grocery lists, I can’t think of a single time I went to the market & didn’t buy celery, onion & carrot. The “aromatics,” less ingredients of the recipe than fresh herbs & spices.

Whether you’re adding them in large, chopped chunks to water, some animal carcass* & bay for a simple broth (fond blanc) or dicing them up to sauté for a good, thick sauce to cover your chicken, these three lovely ingredients aren’t often found in the final dish.

I was surprised, when watching a friend make chicken fricassee the Julia Child way, that when the sauce was ready–had taken on the color & flavor of the three-vegetable saute–that the sautéed bits were scooped out & tossed away, to keep the texture of the sauce consistent. (Now, we’ve long known that the French aren’t overly concerned with balancing bread & meat with vegetable intake, so this shouldn’t be too much of a shock!)

So there you have it: the mirepoix. Next time you’re preparing stock or soup–or shoot, even chopping up a salad–and the casual onlooker asks about ingredients, just give them your best French stare & say, “Oh, well you just start with mirepoix.

*No, but seriously. Just the carcass, not the meaty bits. I wasn’t all vegetarian-high-horse on that one!

Baking… oh, baking in la belle France. Vanilla-infused sugar is more common in recipes than brown sugar is in the States. (In fact, it actually took quite a bit of time to find brown sugar in France.)

As with mirepoix, sucre vanillé is largely an aromatic ingredient–just a small amount to replace the liquid vanilla we use.  I tell you. French toast–the real stuff, the pain perdu with stale baguette & a bit of vanilla-infused sugar. Wow. No syrup necessary. You smell it frying in the pan, with the sweetness of the butter…

I feel like no French recipe collection is complete without acknowledging this magic ingredient. Use it sparingly, but use it often.

Sucre vanillé

  • 2 cups granulated, basic sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 1 airtight container


  1. Pour your sugar into your airtight container.
  2. Cut your vanilla bean open, running the knife from stem to stern without really cutting it all the way in half. Like a filet of vanilla. Like a book.
  3. Scoop out the delicious vanilla seeds. Drop them on top of the sugar. Use the vanilla bean to swirl all those flavor specks throughout the sugar.
  4. Leave the bean in the sugar; add airtight lid; give a final shake.
  5. Allow to sit for one week, shaking occasionally, before use.

Instructions, use

If using French recipes, you’ll be given proportions of vanilla sugar–usually a “packet,” like a yeast packet (about two to three teaspoons). If you’re making anything else, I highly recommend using vanilla sugar, but you only need that packet-size for full flavor impact.

Replace several teaspoons of granulated & the vanilla needed for the recipe with several teaspoons of your vanilla sugar. Use some basic logic here. If you need multiple teaspoons of vanilla in a recipe (1) What are you making!? (2) Increase the amount of vanilla sugar used while continuing to decrease the un-vanilla sugar.

If the recipe also calls for brown sugar, then that’s enough flavor-altered sugar for one recipe. Let the molasses do the talking. Only add in sucre vanillé for those all-white sugar recipes, so that you get the full flavor (& save the expense, since vanilla beans can be pricey).

My favorite place for it? The crackling, brûlée-d top of crème brûlée. Equally delicious on cinnamon-sugar toast, in strong teas or in yellow cakes.


About meganbetz

human geography PhD Student at Indiana University; wife, reader, writer, baker, gardener
This entry was posted in being married and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to the basics, part 2

  1. Pingback: lent: the vegetarian returns | francofile

  2. Pingback: French market cookies | francofile

  3. Pingback: OK, so they’re not madeleines | francofile

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