Crème mousseline

Choux buns filled with crème mousseline

Yesterday I attended a half-day patisserie workshop based around choux pastry. In the course of it, we made some crème mousseline to fill our choux buns. This was a new one for me: it’s basically crème pâtissière with an unfeasibly large amount of butter beaten into it, resulting in a cream that is both airy and rich, and will not collapse under load. It’s apparently the basis for such treats as fraisiers and tropéziennes. Useful as a filling because its firmness means it won’t squelch out or drip when cut or bitten into. But it is very, very calorific, so special occasions only!

Best used on the day it’s made; it will go solid if refrigerated for more than a couple of hours because of all the butter. Apparently that can make it go grainy, but this can be fixed by putting it in the bowl of a stand mixer, starting the whisk at high speed, and then gently and briefly warming the outside of the bowl with a blowtorch (this is clearly a standard technique as our chef/instructor did this when the butter was too hard!). You could make this without a stand mixer (people obviously did in the past) but it’s a lot of work: much vigorous beating required.

The recipe below makes a massive amount, enough to fill at least 15 choux buns.
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Mini fruit financiers

Cherry financiers

I made these to use up some leftover egg whites. They are lovely, crisp at the edges and squidgy within. Normally financiers are made in small ingot-shaped moulds, but I don’t have any, so I used mini muffin moulds, which were perfect — they make dainty little cakes to serve with coffee or as an accompaniment to another dessert. The recipe, by Elly McCausland, specified plums as the fruit, but there aren’t any in December; instead I used cherries from my home-made whole-cherry preserve. Use any soft fruit you fancy, sliced if necessary: plums, apricots, raspberries, cherries, peaches … or else a small blob of good-quality jam.
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Jerusalem artichoke velouté

Many years ago, we grew some Jerusalem artichokes. I loved the flavour, but the knobbly little roots were such a pain to scrub and peel that it was a one-off experiment. But the other day I was shopping for Christmas in the wonderful covered market in Narbonne. Apparently progress has been made in selective breeding of Jerusalem artichokes. One stall had a box of oval pink topinambours about the size of new potatoes. No lumps and bumps! A plan was formed, and I bought half a dozen.

With my idea in mind I had a quick browse on Marmiton.org and picked this simple recipe for its overwhelmingly favourable reviews; everyone who tried it gave it 5/5. An excellent choice: easy to do, and the flavour was exactly what I hoped for. I’m serving it in shot glasses garnished with small cubes of foie gras, as an amuse-bouche on Christmas day. If that doesn’t float your boat, you can garnish with shreds of crisp-fried prosciutto, Iberico ham, or bacon; shavings of truffle; or just a drizzle of truffle oil.
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Tarte aux noix

Walnut tart is a classic in south-west France, especially the Dordogne. Recently some visitors arrived from the Lot with a big bag of freshly gathered walnuts, so I had to try making it. It looks a bit odd, but it’s delicious, like a very sophisticated version of treacle tart. I used the recipe from Geraldene Holt’s lovely book of traditional French cuisine, French Country Kitchen, which is no longer a neglected cookbook.

It’s well worth making the pastry with orange juice; it adds an extra zing. In light of this, I substituted Cointreau for the rum Geraldene uses in her filling, and that was a good idea too. Pro tip: it takes ages to shell enough fresh walnuts for this, but listen to something nice on the radio while you do it 🙂
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Neglected cookbooks: Simple French Food by Richard Olney

Simple French Food by Richard Olney

I was given Provence, 1970 for Christmas and have just been reading it. In it, a group of well-off Americans, all interested in food, gather in Provence in autumn 1970, cook, dine, and have endless conversations about food and wine. They just happen to include Julia Child and her husband Paul, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, and Richard Olney. I enjoyed it in a cosy sort of way, eavesdropping on their gossip and occasional snobbery. The author, Luke Barr, is MFK’s great-nephew, and he used letters and especially his great-aunt’s notebooks and diaries, to reconstruct whole evenings of conversation in a convincing way. I have to say that I wasn’t surprised to find that Olney, while probably the best cook of the lot of them, could be a somewhat unpleasant character — his Simple French Food is written in such a way that I never felt I’d be comfortable in the kitchen with him, just as I wouldn’t be with Elizabeth David. Whereas Jane Grigson, MFK, or Julia Child would surely be good company. It was a bit disappointing to find that Sybille Bedford (partner of an old friend of MFK’s) could be rather obnoxious as well though.

Serendipitously, we were looking for a recipe for stuffed cabbage and found one in Olney’s book. Oh, good, a chance to revive my neglected cookbooks theme! I’ve had this book for many years and even blogged a recipe from it once, but I don’t get it out often. There’s no denying the quality of the recipes; it’s the turgid prose that puts me off. The first sentence sets the tone: it’s 124 words long. He’s the kind of person who refers to himself as “one”, and his paragraphs are unnecessarily long and rambling.

Still, the proof of the pudding and all that. Alice Waters quotes him as her main inspiration for Chez Panisse, and by and large I’ve been happy with the results of the recipes I’ve tried. He has taken traditional French bourgeois cooking and turned it into an art form. I have to say that while stuffed cabbage may sound dull, if not positively offputting, it was spectacularly good. So if you’re a fan of traditional French cooking and you can get past the convolutions of his prose style, it’s worth having on your shelf. But if you’re not an experienced cook, I still believe no-one surpasses Mireille Johnston for authenticity and accessibility. Mireille’s is the book that’s splattered with food stains in our house. Such a shame it’s out of print; on the other hand it does mean you can obtain cheap second-hand copies.

Anyway, here’s the stuffed cabbage. We made this with pork mince from organic, free-range pigs browsing under oaks in the Aragonese Pyrenees, which probably had a lot to do with the excellent flavour. We didn’t have much stock, so we just made it up with water and flavoured it with a whole peeled onion and a couple of carrots. You need a piece of muslin or a string bag to wrap the cabbage in, and some string.
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Catalan lamb roasted with rosemary, cumin, potato crumble and garlic

From a cheffy recipe printed in the local paper, but heavily adapted to make it more practical. The original used a boned saddle of lamb — we replaced that recherché idea with a thick slice of leg, which worked very well for the two of us. Basically you need a lean, fairly thick piece of meat. We also cooked the garlic for longer, to make it soft enough to squeeze out of the skins.
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Sourdough focaccia

Sourdough focaccia

When you make sourdough you are always looking for ways of using up starter. This recipe (also known as fougasse in France) was a good accompaniment for post-film drinks. It’s great for picnics too. I started it in the morning and baked it late afternoon. It’s best warm or cold rather than piping hot from the oven.

This recipe is fine with ordinary plain flour, but you can use white bread flour if you want, or a half-and-half mixture. Whatever you choose, the dough is very wet and sticky to work with, so if you have a stand mixer with a dough hook, I really recommend using it. If not, use the “kneading” technique of using one floured hand to stretch and fold the dough in the bowl — no need to turn it out, and you can keep your other hand clean.

Toppings: this isn’t pizza, so topping should be scanty and not too complicated — two or at most three elements. You can keep it plain by just sprinkling fleur de sel and olive oil over it. For this occasion I did some with chopped rosemary and onion, and others with sliced artichoke hearts and a few squirts of pesto. Sun-dried tomatoes and serrano ham or prosciutto are a good choice too — or use your imagination and go for something more original like crumbled blue cheese and thin slices of pear. In all cases, finish with oil and salt.
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Salade Savoyarde

Poor neglected blog! Summer is a busy season; I just have time to post a recipe for this lovely salad from Savoie. It makes an excellent fuss-free starter when you are having a substantial main course; or you could eat it as a light lunch. Non-vegetarians can add strips of prosciutto or serrano ham, or crisply fried bacon bits. You can prepare all the ingredients in advance, adding the dressing and croutons at the last minute. This amount will serve about four people.
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French Country Kitchen, by Geraldene Holt: braised chicory with mushrooms

French Country Kitchen is very similar in approach to Jenny Baker’s Simple French Cuisine. I was given Jenny Baker’s book around the time we bought our holiday house in the Languedoc, so I kept it here to provide inspiration. We had a very rudimentary kitchen then, so it was useful having a book of delicious recipes using local ingredients and requiring no fancy equipment. I tend not to pick it up much now; it may soon make an appearance in this neglected cookbook series!

Like Jenny Baker, Geraldene Holt is a British woman who came to southern France, fell in love with it, and being a keen cook, collected traditional recipes from friends and neighbours. I picked up a second-hand copy of French Country Kitchen recently; it’s out of print, so it can be bought for pennies on Amazon. I love the fact that the Internet has made it so easy to find out-of-print books.

This book is organised by ingredients — there’s a chapter on mushrooms for example, one on olives, one on chestnuts, almonds, and walnuts, more conventional ones on poultry and beef, and a whole chapter on the pig, covering every part of it of course., including making brawn and your own sausages.

I’m not a great meat-eater, so I decided to try the recipe for endive belge étuvée aux champignons, or braised chicory with mushrooms. Chicory is something I only discovered when I came to France, and I love its bitter flavour. The result was delicious and makes a change from our usual ways of cooking chicory (wrapped in ham and covered in cheese sauce, or braised with chicken). If you’re vegetarian you could leave the bacon out, although it does add an essential saltiness and a touch of fat to cut the bitterness of the chicory. I might add a splash of soy sauce if I left out the bacon.

The recipe specifies cultivated mushrooms, and that’s what I used. But I reckon it would be even better with wild ones — cèpes or chanterelles. If you’re making a vegetarian version I would recommend the tastiest mushrooms you can find. As fresh tomatoes are banned in our house from October to May, I used a spoonful of sun-dried tomato paste instead of the tomato, which turned out to be an excellent idea.

I like the homely approach of this book, and like the Jenny Baker book it is an excellent choice to take on holiday to France with you, if you like cooking and buying produce at French markets.
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L’Auberge du Vieux Puits, Fontjoncouse: restaurant review

La Montagne d'Alaric

Living in the back of beyond in rural France means that you have a Michelin 3-star restaurant within 30 minutes’ drive. But not along broad, straight roads. Nope, get ready to thread your way along narrow, winding roads through classic Corbières scenery: gorges with streaks of pale rock interspersed with the deep green of holm oak, Aleppo pines and broom. Lower down, the gnarled fingers of pruned vines grasp at empty air. Be ready to pull over at the narrow bridges if you see something coming the other way. As you get nearer the restaurant, the reassuring signs are more numerous: yes, it really is up this hill, round this bend, through this gorge. You imagine the Japanese tourists who have vowed to point-score every 3-star restaurant in France thinking, “But it can’t be up here!” Later I laughed at a Trip Advisor review claiming that you need to be a rally driver to get there. No, these are normal back-country roads that locals drive along every day to get to work.


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You arrive in the village and find the gates, decorated with giant metal fish skeletons and tongue-in-cheek sardine-can lids rolled back around their keys. Hmm, somehow the style of this metalwork looks familiar, and inside we recognise the work of Robert Cros, a sculptor from a neighbouring village: giant bent nails, catapults, light-switches with correspondingly giant price tags. The restaurant has got bigger since we were last there 10 years ago, gobbling up the eponymous well that used to stand in the courtyard, now under glass in the bar area. Another TripAdvisor laugh: a Parisian, after slagging off the food, appears to claim that “quelconque” villages in the Aude populated only by peasants and with inadequate car parks shouldn’t be allowed to have smart restaurants; they should be in a place that is more “historique et exceptionnel”. Paris, presumably.
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