For the sunny French cook and author Heloise Brion, there’s more to whipping up a storm in the kitchen than just food. “Lots of jobs today require working on computers and tapping on screens. You never get to hold an end product in your hands,” says Heloise in her delicious, warm-hearted voice over the phone from her home in Normandy. “With cooking you make something with your hands. You not only nourish your body, but you also nourish your heart.”
This is something Heloise knows from experience. Born in the north of France and raised in Florida, she spent 15 years climbing the echelons of Paris’s fashion industry, first at the International Herald Tribune, later at Calvin Klein, then Schiaparelli as head of PR. And then? “I had burn out,” she says. “I loved the fashion industry, but it was a business. I felt I lost touch with the human creative side of it.” At the time, Heloise and her husband were living between city life in Paris and a bucolic dream in Normandy, in a house they fondly nicknamed Miss Maggie for its high ceilings and “old British woman” personality. Cooking and setting beautiful tables were already part of her daily routine, a balancing act to smooth out the stresses of work. When her husband, a photographer, suggested creating a tiny journal of recipes for friends and family, one thing snowballed into another and in 2017 her blog was born. It’s name? Miss Maggie’s Kitchen – what else?
Now, her Instagram account is a go-to for exquisite home-cooked feasts and comforting bakes – think oozy galette with orange blossom, pistachios and hazelnuts or creamy gratin dauphinois – and her recipe book, Miss Maggie’s Kitchen: Relaxed French Entertaining, was published in English in September. While the office grind is behind her, cooking is still her meditation. “I felt like I lost touch with myself,” she says of PR days past. “Going back to cooking and having hands in butter and flour, I reconnected with myself. We need that touch. It helped my creativity come back.”
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“Going back to cooking and having hands in butter and flour, I reconnected with myself. We need that touch. It helped my creativity come back.”
It’s a message she is keen to share with her readers and followers on Instagram. “I have found that 92 per cent of the people who follow me are not very confident in the kitchen. My recipes are very easy. I want them to be a meditation. My goal is not to become a superstar chef. What is important to me is that people nourish themselves and are happy doing it.”
She applies the same ease to her table settings, which usually sees her long French dining table artfully scattered with mismatched plates and foliage freshly picked from the garden – every bit as warm and comforting as the dishes she makes. “There are little things you can do with the things you have at home that are very simple. I love using fresh herbs, especially if they are needed in the recipe: sage, thyme, lavender, rosemary. I pick fresh thyme and put a little ribbon around it for place settings. Another thing I love is to use bunches of lemons or apples and set out little pots of pink Himalayan salt on the table.” Candles and “tons” of peonies are always a must, and even Heloise’s two sons bring their own spin to table decoration: “The boys set the table on weeknights with their treasures of flowers and rocks.”
When it comes to entertaining, it’s all about sharing in the Miss Maggie house. “I love to load up old wooden pizza boards with dried and fresh fruits and honeys and jam, and I always have a big cheese board for crackers. A separate bar area on another table that you can decorate as well is always a lot of fun and means that everyone can help themselves while you finish cooking. Have the table already set and done earlier in the day, so you can take time to take care of yourself and put your dress on.”
Heloise’s final flourish, whether she’s preparing family dinner or hosting a big gathering? A sweet smelling kitchen. Luckily, she has shared her recipe for her orange and cardamom cake – AKA her family’s “comfort cake” – so you can be transported to Miss Maggie’s in Normandy from your own kitchen at home. “The boys love oranges and there is something very comforting in the smell.” What’s more, it only takes 15 minutes to make. Scroll down for more, and buy Heloise’s gorgissima recipe book, here.
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C/Gas Mark 4) and grease an 11-inch (28-cm) round cake pan with butter. Finely grate the zest of the oranges and juice one of them.
2. In a large bowl, combine the butter, superfine sugar, granulated sugar and orange zest until pale and creamy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in the orange juice. In another bowl, combine half of the flour with the salt, baking powder, baking soda and cardamom.
3. Stir two-thirds of the flour-cardamom mixture into the egg-butter mixture, followed by half of the crème fraîche. Gently incorporate the remaining plain flour and the rest of the crème fraîche. Finally, fold in the remaining third of the flour-cardamom mixture.
4. Pour the batter into the cake pan and bake for 35 minutes — the tip of a pointed knife inserted into the center should come out clean. If the cake is not done, bake it for another 10 minutes or so. Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool in the pan for 30 minutes, before turning it out onto a wire rack to cool completely.
5. To make the glaze, whisk the orange juice and confectioners sugar together. The glaze should be thick enough to coat the top of the cake and run down the sides,so add more confectioners’ sugar as needed. Pour the glaze evenly over the cake and chill briefly in the refrigerator if you are not serving it right away.
6. If you like, decorate the cake with a few orange slices (fresh or candied) and some edible flowers.