Have you heard of Dîner en Blanc? It’s a magical Dinner in White – a fun, but very elegant, huge group picnic where participants come dressed all in white. Read about it here.
It all started in Paris over 25 years ago, when Frenchman François Pasquier came home after being abroad for several years. He wanted to see all his friends again, so told them to each bring a friend, and to meet for a picnic at a certain location. In order that they might all recognize each other, he asked them to wear white. The event was such a success it was repeated and soon became a Parisian tradition. Within a few years Dîner en Blanc took off worldwide and has now been held in beautiful public places in over 50 major cities around the world.
I first read about it in a novel (Christmas at Tiffany’s by Karen Swan), then looked it up online and was entranced. When friends invited us to attend the inaugural Dîner en Blanc here in Edmonton Thursday night, I was thrilled and couldn’t wait to experience it. You bring your own table and white chairs, white linens, glass and silverware – no plastic or paper allowed. All accessories must be white and everything must be portable. The alfresco event goes rain or shine, so all extra gear must be white, too. Elegance and formality are required, white hats, gloves and even wigs are encouraged. What fun!
You can also imagine Raymond’s reaction when I first mentioned it – much less than thrilled - We have to wear WHAT?!!! But he was a good sport, and I kindly kept him out of my endeavors to hunt down his wardrobe and all our necessary accessories (I figured that would lower my chances of him backing out altogether). A few judicious trips to sales racks and thrift stores and some good luck in borrowing a couple items, and we were both outfitted. His discomfort at looking like ‘the man from Glad’ was slightly dispelled upon seeing the hordes of other white-clad picnickers congregating at our prearranged meeting spot.
We joined up with our friends, then piled into the rows of big white buses to be driven to the secret location for Dîner en Blanc, which turned out to be the lovely Chinese Garden at Louise McKinney Park, along the river valley just below downtown Edmonton. The air filled with a festival feeling and a flurry of white, as over a thousand chic picnickers set up long rows of damask-covered tables, laid out silver and finery, poured wine, and unpacked picnic baskets or picked up pre-ordered gourmet boxed picnic lunches (which we opted to do). The upbeat strains of a live band, playing French-themed music, kept our toes tapping in spite of the grey clouds and imminent rain looming above us.
And suddenly my reluctant husband and partner got into the spirit of it – how could he help it, with the fun and laughter fluttering all around us? We were in the midst of a flock of very elegant and fun-loving white doves, experiencing something utterly magical and out of the ordinary on a Thursday night in Edmonton.
The repeated showers and cloudy dampness did nothing to dispel the party atmosphere threading twelve hundred, white party-goers into a cohesive, glimmering mass of happy humanity. Our shared experience was the umbrella that kept us dry (plus the very practical plastic rain capes we packed). Laughter, and toasts, shared chocolates, and laments over the weather turned strangers into the best kind of tablemates – wonderful new friends for the evening.
In my excitement, and due to the putting-on and taking-off of our plastic rain capes whenever rain showers descended, I completely forgot to take photos of our very delicious and elegant picnic lunches.
Raymond and I shared two different menus, one with a chilled watermelon gazpacho for starters and one with rustic bread with two different zesty spreads. Our main courses were Tuna Niçoise - grilled, perfectly rare slices of tuna, with sauteed green beans and new potatoes in a mustard sauce, and flavourful roast chicken with a zesty red quinoa pilaf. Desserts were a lavender honey pannacotta and a lovely lemon tart. Deeeeeeelicious.
To end our Dîner en Blanc with a glow, we all lit sparklers to wave in unison and mark the end of a beautiful and memorable evening (less-than-perfect weather not even an issue.)
I cannot wait to do it all again next year.
*Raymond and Gilbert made it into a photo of the event in the Edmonton Journal! (They’re the two guys at the front, in the picture with the - tsk, tsk - red and blue umbrellas.)
In honour of the Dîner en Blanc, here is my version of a Dessert en Blanc – an ice cream that is so basic, yet so smooth, rich, and sumptuous, it is sure to become our new summer staple – especially now that the hot weather is due to return.
I made several renditions of this ice cream to perfect it, thinking I was so smart and inventive, then when I went hunting on the internet to see what other kinds of coconut milk ice cream were out there, I discovered I was not the first one to think of this (imagine that!) and there are several similar versions already out there. (But that’s okay – I’ll just remain a legend in my own mind.) Mine is a little less sweet and more vanilla-y, which we love. It doesn’t taste at all like coconut – just smooth, velvety vanilla – wonderful on its own or as the à la mode to any summer dessert.
Kitchen Frau Notes: Arrowroot starch is used to prevent ice crystals from forming in home-made ice cream, so this step will help make your ice cream smoother and creamier, without using egg yolks to thicken the base.
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract is equal to about one 2-inch piece of vanilla bean, so 1 average vanilla bean is equal to 3 teaspoons extract. Vanilla bean adds the lovely little flecks. If using extract, your ice cream will be a little more ivory-coloured.
You can experiment with all sorts of flavour variations by adding in pureed fruits or other flavourings before freezing.
I have one of those electric ice cream makers with a liquid-filled freezing canister, and I love it! I just keep the canister in the freezer in the summer, and anytime I have a craving for ice-cream, it’s a cinch to make my own. Even though fancy one-purpose appliances are often a waste of money and space, I consider my ice cream maker a very worthwhile investment.
Honey Vanilla Ice Cream
gluten free, dairy free, egg free (and you’d never know it!)
- 2 cans (14 oz/400ml) full-fat premium coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon arrowroot powder
- 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 6 tablespoons (¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons/90ml) honey
- 1 vanilla bean (or 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract)
24 hours before churning the ice cream, place the canister for the ice cream machine into the freezer to make sure it is frozen solid.
Scrape the contents of one of the cans of coconut milk into a large 2 quart saucepan. Whisk in the arrowroot powder and the salt.
Heat over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until bubbles just start to form and the mixture is thickened. Do not let it come to a full rolling boil or it will lose its thickness – though it will still be fine in the ice-cream.
Remove from heat and whisk in the honey until it is melted. Add the remaining can of coconut milk and whisk until smooth.
On a cutting board, slit the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and using the dull, back side of the knife blade, scrape out the fine vanilla seeds from each half. Make sure to scrape up any little bits of seeds left on the cutting board, too. Add these to the ice cream base and stir well (or add the vanilla extract, if using).
Pour the mixture into a container and cover with a lid or plastic wrap. Chill for 3 to 4 hours or overnight.
Churn according to the ice cream machine manufacturer’s instructions. Eat immediately for soft-serve texture, or pack into a freezer container and freeze for several hours if a firmer consistency is desired. If the ice cream has frozen really hard, remove from the freezer for 5 to 10 minutes to allow it soften enough to scoop easily.
Makes a generous quart/liter of luscious ice cream.
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