Cherries, Elsie Style

Elsie de Wolfe's Flaming Cherries, halfway to completion.

Any recipe involving liquor and a match makes dinner a celebration. One of the easiest desserts involving these two elements is Flaming Cherries from Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining. As the ending to an evening meal it is simple, basic, and good, a sophisticated version of nursery food.

Flaming Cherries, ready to eat.

Below is de Wolfe’s recipe. Following that is our seat-of-the-pants adaptation, using E & J brandy (my husband called it “wino quality”), canned Bing cherries, and Nuyens Wisniowka, a cherry cordial we found on the bottom shelf of our bar, hidden so well it had a coating of dust. Feel free to substitute our happenstance ingredients with anything suitable that happens to be hanging around your pantry. Our daughter’s verdict? “I didn’t like the cherries but the cherry sauce with the vanilla ice-cream tasted good.” Oh, and in case anybody’s wondering, her serving of ice cream was topped with three cherries without the cherry-liqueur addition.

FLAMING CHERRIES

SOURCE: Elsie de Wolfe’s Recipes for Successful Dining (The William-Frederick Press, 1947)

Take a bottle of very best conserved red cherries and heat well. Add a large wine glass of brandy and set aflame. When flame has died down, add a small glass of Kirsch liqueur. Serve hot with vanilla ice-cream.

FLAMING CHERRIES

ADAPTED BY THE AESTHETE COOKS

SERVES 6

INGREDIENTS

An 8-ounce can Bing cherries, drained

1 cup E & J brandy

1/4 cup of Nuyens Wisniowka cherry liqueur

Vanilla ice cream

DIRECTIONS

Heat the cherries in a skillet over a medium-high heat. Add the brandy and carefully light. When the flames subside, add the cherry liqueur. Spoon the hot cherries over ice cream and serve.

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A Barbecue-Chicken Alternative

Poulet au Vinaigre, placed on an old Limoges platter.

Chicken is a staple at our house. It is rustic, easy to cook, and our daughter loves it. So we typically have chicken at least twice a week—fried, roasted or sautéed. But this basic fowl can be boring, frankly. Often I crave barbecued chicken but it’s impossibly messy, staining napkins and rendering fingers sticky.

There is a chicken recipe in Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Cuisine de France (Orion 1961) that has a barbecue appearance and flavour but without the mess I associate with it. Poulet au vinaigre, or vinegar chicken, is cooked in a heavy covered pot instead of on a grill. The sumptuous sauce incorporates several ingredients that one finds in traditional barbecue sauce, such as tomato purée. But instead of being slightly sweet, as so much barbecued chicken often is, the dish is infused with a subtle but sprightly tang of vinegar. (A reader recently commented that the balance between acid and sweet reminds him of Indonesian cookery.)

Our daughter agreed and proceeded to speedily devour both drumsticks, saying it was “the best barbecued chicken I have ever had.” As for my husband, he is sold on the splash of vinegar, which, he observed, brought “an intense dimension I didn’t expect.” He is also increasingly sold on preparing chicken in a pot on top of the stove, which cooks the meat quickly and in this instance richly caramelized the skin.

POULET AU VINAIGRE

SERVES 4 PEOPLE

INGREDIENTS

2-1/2 or 3-pound chicken

6 tablespoons butter

5 teaspoons white wine

4 tablespoons white wine vinegar

2 cloves garlic

3 teaspoons French mustard

4 teaspoons tomato purée

4 teaspoons heavy cream

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Choose a chicken that is not too fat. Have it cut in pieces and cook it in a covered heavy pan with the butter and unpeeled garlic, salt, and pepper for 25 to 30 minutes, until the chicken is cooked.

Meanwhile mix in a bowl the mustard, tomato purée, and white wine.

When the chicken is cooked, add the vinegar. Cover the dish and cook until the chicken is almost dry. Remove the chicken and keep hot on a serving platter. Pour the mustard mixture into the pan and cook down a little without a cover. Add the cream and the Worcestershire sauce. Stir well and pour over the chicken. Serve immediately.

It Ain’t Chopped Liver

X. Marcel Boulestin's foie de veau, with a side of asparagus.

X. Marcel Boulestin is a name lost in the culinary mists of time, at least as far as popular kitchen culture goes. But in the 1920s and 1930s this dapper, energetic Frenchman ran one of London’s swankest restaurants. At Boulestin’s, which opened in Leicester Square in 1925, moved to Covent Garden a year later, and closed in 1994—it was replaced by a Pizza Hut—the décor was colourful (he once worked as an interior decorator and was greatly influenced by Paul Poiret’s Atelier Martine), the clientele posh (Lady Diana Cooper was a fan), and the menu a tasty mixture of French standards and English country.

Given Boulestin’s celebrity, it comes as little surprise to learn his recipes were staples in the pages of Vogue, The Manchester Guardian, and The Daily Express and enjoyed a great deal of popularity. Or that he became reportedly the first televised chef, thanks to his appearance in 1936 on the television programme “A Scratch Meal with Marcel Boulestin.”  This native of Périgord (1878-1943) gathered his restaurant’s specialties into charming cookery books intended, he wrote, for “people who have a good cook, to those who only have a plain one, and to those who have not got one at all.” Part of what makes the volumes so delightful is the impressionistic illustrations by Jean-Émile Laboureur (1877-1947), an artist so close to Boulestin that one suspects their friendship was a bit more serious than mere camaraderie. Another pleasure is the wit that infuses the pages, with such well-turned phrases as “the mellowing influence of food on civilised beings.” Elizabeth David, for instance, called Boulestin’s books “fresh and original.”

In any case as I was lazily sipping a cup of tea Saturday morning my husband announced he and our daughter were going to the grocer and that I’d better make a list. So I broke out several cookery books for guidance, including Boulestin’s A Second Helping (Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1925). From its pages I decided we would dine that evening on foie de veau or liver.

The liver that came out of my mother’s kitchen during my childhood was a sad thing, leathery and tough. It was only after I was grown that I learned liver, a most delicate organ, should be cooked medium rare, so it is silken in texture. With that in mind we dove into Boulestin’s recipe, which is incredibly simple, just a bare paragraph of instruction; I’ve given it a bit more structure and insight, as seen below. We paired it with slender spears of green asparagus cooked with a bit of olive oil, butter, salt, and pepper. The wine was Colli Vicentini’s Cabernet Veneto 2008, a perfectly acceptable Cabernet Sauvignon from the sale bin at Astor Wines & Spirits; it cost $3.59. Astor calls it “full of blackcurrants and … incredibly accessible and soft on the palate.”

Our daughter, Catherine, loved her first dish by Boulestin, saying it tasted like cheese; when pressed, she explained she meant the texture. Then I slipped up and used the L word, at which point she screwed up her face and downed a glass of water to rinse the taste out of her mouth. Ah, well. It’s often safer just to describe liver and other such viands to her in general terms as “meat.” That four-letter word is vague enough not to disturb a child’s delicate sensibilities.

FOIE DE VOIE AU FOUR

SOURCE: A Second Helping by X. Marcel Boulestin (Frederick A. Stokes, 1925)

Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

1 slice bacon, raw and finely chopped

A handful of parsley, finely chopped

1 shallot, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 pound liver, cut into two-inch pieces

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened

Parchment paper

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Toss the bacon, parsley, and shallot together in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle this mixture evenly in an ovenproof dish (approximately 10 x 10) and set aside.

Heat a skillet over a medium-high heat for about 4 minutes. Add the 6 tablespoons of butter and when it has melted and ceased to foam, add the liver. Cook it a scant two minutes per side, so the liver is browned but medium rare. (NOTE: This is a crucial step, so watch the liver carefully, otherwise it’s going to overcook.)

Covered with a buttered sheet of parchment paper, the foie de veau is ready to place in the oven.

Place the browned liver in the ovenproof dish on the bacon, parsley, and shallot mixture, and pour over it the butter in which it was cooked. Cut a piece of parchment paper just large enough to cover the liver completely and butter one side of it; lay it on top of the liver, butter side down.

Bake for 15 minutes and serve.

One Terrific Tart

Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec's onion-and-anchovy tart, piping hot from the oven.

When I think tart or quiche, creamy egg- or cream-based fillings held within a framework of flaky pastry come to mind. So when my husband announced a couple of nights ago he was going to make an onion tart from the pages of La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961), I had some inkling of what we would be dining on last night.

Boy was I wrong.

Tarte aux oignons brestoise, or onion tart in the style of Brest—an unromantic industrial port and naval base in Brittany, in northwestern France—is like no tart I’ve ever had. (Note: A reader of this blog has pointed out that there is no such thing as a tarte in the style of Brest, however, and this recipe is a pie-size variation on the classic pissaladière of Nice, a sort of flat anchovy-and-onion pizza.) The pastry shell was in evidence,  of course, and it was perfectly flaky, even though, as my husband reported, he didn’t let it chill in the refrigerator before rolling it out. “I just let it sit covered on the counter for 30 minutes,” he said. “But it worked out fine.” (He is prone to blithely ignoring recipe directions that I believe to be carved in stone.) The filling lacked any traditional binding agent such as eggs or cream. Instead it held nothing more complicated than a thick layer of chopped onions that had been cooked in a bit of olive oil until they were meltingly soft. That’s it. The surprising fillip was the topping: a couple of dozen anchovy fillets carefully and decoratively arranged into a latticework.

Onion tart in the Brestoise style is earthy and rudely direct, without an ounce of artifice or gentility. It is unsentimental, unsophisticated, and far from pretty. It is the sort of thing you would eat with a tart frisée salad and a heavy tumbler of undistinguished but tasty white table wine. Could it have been concocted by a cook with few ingredients at hand but who was under pressure to serve something warmly filling in record time? Perhaps the dockworkers of Brest and their families have better things to do than fuss around a kitchen for very long. I’m just speculating, of course. But I am certain of two things—tarte aux oignons brestoise is a bracing, soulful dish that tastily combines two harvests, one of the sea and one of the garden. Eating it makes one feel like a sea captain come home to roost. And it tastes even better warmed up for breakfast, after the salty anchovies and buttery onions have married overnight.

Our young daughter’s reaction? “I don’t like onions or anchovies,” she said politely. “But the pastry was delicious.” At least Catherine gave it a shot. As she observed upon learning of the ingredients, with a sigh of resignation, “You get what you get and you don’t complain.”

TARTE AUX OIGNONS BRESTOISE

SOURCE: La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961)

INGREDIENTS

Tart pastry

2 pounds onions

4 tablespoons olive oil

3/12 ounces anchovy fillets

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Make the pastry of your choice, and when it is rested, roll it out to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Line a tart or pie pan but do not bake.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Peel the onions and chop them very fine. Cook them gently in a covered skillet in 3 tablespoons of hot oil until tender. Do not let the onions brown.

Pour the onions into the unbaked tart shell.

Rinse the anchovy fillets to remove excess salt and with them make a lattice pattern over the surface of the onion-filled tart shell. Bake 15 to 20 minutes.

Drunken Scallops

I grew up in a seafood-loving household. You name it, if it came out of the water, we loved it—trout, shrimp, catfish, tuna, skatefish, and more. Scallops, however, are arguably my mother’s favourite water-sourced ingredient, so she served it as often as the family finances allowed. The best scallops I ever consumed, however, were fresh from the sea in the Moroccan coastal town of Essaouira, at a small plastic-tented dockside booth. We chose each scallop by hand from a basket, watched them be shelled, and then prepared to eat, some “cooked” in citrus juice, others smokily grilled; my pleasure in that moment remains strong. So when my husband announced he was going to make a special scallop recipe out of Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1961 cookery book, La Cuisine de France (Orion), I practically rushed to set the table.

Called coquilles saint-jacques au vermouth (scallops with vermouth), it was a mouthwatering delight. Once again our daughter found something to dislike about the dish—loved the mushrooms, loathed the scallops—which surprised me. She is a child who can devour a platter of sushi and sashimi without blinking even one of her twinkling brown eyes and grins like a Cheshire cat when she spots pâté de fois gras. Oh, well, we’ll be testing her tastebuds again and again as this blog progresses, hopefully educating her palate even more. But trust me: Mme. de Toulouse-Lautrec’s vermouth-soused scallops are swell, especially with some sea-salted spinach on the side.

Coquilles saint-jacques au vermouth, hot and ready for its sauce.

Coquilles saint-jacques au vermouth, sauced and ready to serve.

COQUILLES SAINT-JACQUES AU VERMOUTH

SOURCE: La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961)

SERVES 5 PEOPLE

INGREDIENTS

1-1/2 pints scallops

1 cup vermouth

3/4 pound mushrooms

7 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup white wine

1 onion, chopped fine

1 tablespoon flour

3 eggs yolks

3/4 cup heavy cream

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

STEP ONE

Cook the scallops with the vermouth in a small saucepan for 10 minutes.

STEP TWO

Wash, trim, and slice the mushrooms and sauté them in half the butter for 5 minutes.

STEP THREE

In another saucepan cook the wine and onion together for 15 minutes.

STEP FOUR

Heat the rest of the butter in a larger saucepan and stir in the flour. Add the wine with the onions and stir until smooth. Strain the broth from the scallops into the pan and continue stirring. Season with salt and pepper.

STEP FIVE

Beat the egg yolks and cream until blended and add that to the sauce. Reheat but do not let the sauce boil.

STEP SIX

Put the scallops in the center of a heated serving dish. Surround with the mushrooms and pour the sauce over everything. Serve very hot.

A White House Dessert

Grace Coolidge, First Lady of the United States, in 1924, the year she donated a recipe to the Richmond Day Nursery Association's cookery book.

Not long ago my mother-in-law showed me a book of recipes published in 1924. It had been printed to benefit the Richmond Day Nursery, a school in Richmond, Indiana, where both sides of my husband’s family have lived for generations. The book belonged to his great-grandmother Muriel Bartel Rohe, and the yellowing pages are filled with favourite dishes of the local gentry, including several submitted by great-grand-aunts and distant cousins. The organizers of the cookery book also reached out to First Lady Grace Coolidge. Mrs. Coolidge—famously painted that same year by Howard Chandler Christy in peerless red velvet, her favourite colour, with the family’s white collie Rob Roy at her feet—graciously complied with a dessert called Coffee Soufflé. Its origin is unknown, though it may have come courtesy of Elizabeth Jaffray, the Coolidges’ housekeeper. Grace Coolidge was a witty, stylish woman who loved dancing, was a big baseball fan, and taught deaf children in her youth, but the First Lady considered herself hopeless in the kitchen.

Grace Coolidge and her collie Rob Roy, as painted in 1924 by Howard Chandler Christy.

Of course I was intrigued. Coffee and soufflé are two words that quicken my heart, and I’ve always had a fascination with Mrs. Coolidge, largely because of the glamour of the Christy painting, arguably the most elegant First Lady portrait to hang on the walls of the White House. So I tried the dessert out on friends with whom we dine nearly every week-end, and though we all agreed Mrs. Coolidge’s dessert is more a mousse than a soufflé, they pronounced it delicious. I, however, was somewhat disappointed in the result. It just seemed a bit too spongy for me, due to the gelatin required. The coffee flavour was subtle, though, and pleasing, and we provided some contrast to the coffee and whipped cream by sprinkling it with shavings of dark chocolate.

COFFEE SOUFFLÉ (MRS. CALVIN COOLIDGE)

SOURCE: Cook Book (Richmond, Indiana: The Richmond Day Nursery Assocation, 1924)

INGREDIENTS

1-1/2 cups coffee

1 tablespoon gelatin

2/3 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup milk

Yolks of 3 eggs

1/4 teaspoon salt

Whites of 3 eggs

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

A bar of dark chocolate

DIRECTIONS

Heat the coffee, milk, gelatin, and 1/3 cup of the sugar in a double boiler.

The first four ingredients being heated, as directed. We don't own a double boiler so I simply nestled a fondue pot inside a copper sauce pan.

Add the egg yolks, which have been slightly beaten, the salt, and the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar. Cook until the mixture thickens, stirring frequently; this will take some time, and it will eventually have the consistency of motor oil (it’s the only way I can describe the texture).

The whipped egg whites as folded into the coffee mixture.

Remove the coffee mixture from the heat. Beat the egg whites and the vanilla until stiff. Gently fold the whites into the coffee mixture. When thoroughly combined, pour into a mold, chill until firm, serve with whipped cream, and garnish with dark-chocolate shavings (see below).

An individual serving of Grace Coolidge's Coffee Soufflé, plated in a vintage Johnston Brothers bowl. It really needed a sprig of mint to brighten it up, but we hadn't any in the house.

A Farmhouse Tart

Cheese-and-onion tart and green beans on a circa-1880 English china dinner plate.

Who can resist cheese (the lactose-intolerant among you excluded, of course)? Every member of our family practically drools at the mention of cheese, whether it’s an undistinguished Cheddar intended for a grilled-cheese sandwich or a particularly ripe Époisses de Bourgogne, of which I have a very fond, very pungent memory from a long-ago tour of Burgundy. That includes the elder of our two dogs, Daisy, an elderly chow chow who spends her days in a largely catatonic state until she detects the aroma of Brie, for instance, or Emmenthaler.

With this family passion in mind, my industrious spouse decided last night to make Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s tarte aux oignons et fromage (that’s cheese-and-onion tart, fyi). Its spiritual warmth and elemental earthiness bore witness to the basic beauties of farmhouse cuisine, the luxury of sautéed onions suspended in a creamy golden matrix of baked eggs and Gruyère cheese. A glass of white wine plus a side dish of green beans cooked in butter with a dash of sea salt made it a worthy end-of-day repast.

TARTE AUX ONIONS ET FROMAGE

SOURCE: Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Cuisine de France (Orion Press, 1961)

SERVES 6 PEOPLE

INGREDIENTS

Tart pastry (go to this post for the easy recipe)

1 pound (4-5) medium onions

3 tablespoons butter

3 eggs

4 teaspoons flour

1-1/4 cup heavy cream

1 cup grated Gruyère cheese

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Peel and chop the onions very fine. Cook in boiling salted water for 15 minutes. Strain completely and sauté in the butter until golden.

Beat the eggs in a bowl with a fork and add the flour and the cream, beating continuously. Beat in the grated cheese and season with pepper. Do not add salt before tasting because the cheese may be salty enough. Finally stir in the onions.

Fill the tart with the mixture and bake 30 minutes until golden. Let cool for 10 minutes then serve.