Poulet Sauté Chasseur (1932)

The front door of Villa Sebastian in Hammamet, Tunisia, where chef François Rysavy once ruled the range.

Last month I immersed myself in one of my intense, periodic obsessions about style and design. This time around my focus was Villa Sebastian, a vast, early 1930s house of some modernist importance, located beside a snow-white beach in Hammamet, Tunisia. You can read more about its history on my other blog, An Aesthete’s Lament (click here).

The owners of that extraordinary house, Romanian-born George Sebastian and his American wife, the former Flora Stifel, not only commissioned a much admired winter retreat, they maintained a high standard as North Africa’s leading hosts during their relatively brief marriage. Part of this success was due to the couple’s canny hiring of François Rysavy, a chef they met in Paris on their honeymoon and made the star of their Tunisian kitchen. There, for several years, he produced all manner of delectable dishes for the Sebastians and their glamorous guests, from Greta Garbo to W. Somerset Maugham to the future Duchess of Windsor. As Wallis Simpson, the last-named visitor spent a holiday with the Sebastians in 1932, joined by her second husband, Ernest. One of the dishes made for the Simpsons by Rysavy—who went on to serve as White House chef during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations—was a French favorite, Poulet Sauté Chasseur, or chicken with mushrooms. It happened to be one of the Sebastians’ preferred plats.

My interest piqued by the chef’s association with the Sebastians, I swiftly hied myself to Amazon.com and acquired a copy of Rysavy’s culinary memoir, A Treasury of White House Cooking (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972). My husband and I have been greatly entertained by its recipes, as well as Rysavy’s tittle-tattle about his presidential employers, though it came as little surprise to learn that Mamie Eisenhower had a delicate stomach, leading her to ban garlic and goulash. (The First Lady did, however, love mint and caramel.) Pat Nixon, on the other hand, was a fiend for chicken in any form, especially enchiladas, while Jacqueline Kennedy, Rysavy explains, “would have been almost incapacitated in her social life if she could not serve veal in its many succulent forms or lamb.” President Nixon loved tacos, even ordering them for his 30th wedding anniversary celebration, though he did have an amatory reason: tacos reminded him of his honeymoon, which had been spent south of the border.

But I digress. A few weeks ago my husband took on Rysavy’s Poulet Sauté Chasseur and made it the centerpiece of a triumphant family dinner. Moistened with an unctuous sauce composed of brandy, wine, mushrooms, and chicken stock—which gave a far richer flavor than the recipe’s called-for consommé—this chicken creation turned out to be one of the finest dishes ever to come out of our kitchen. No wonder the Sebastians craved it, and, yes, found it fit for a future royal duchess. As Rysavy points out, Jacqueline Kennedy loved it too, serving it at Mount Vernon during a state dinner for the president of Pakistan in 1961.

François Rysavy's Poulet Sauté Chasseur, with a side of asparagus.

POULET SAUTE CHASSEUR
SOURCE: A Treasury of White House Cooking by François Rysavy, as told to Frances Spatz Leighton (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972)
SERVES: Four (4) persons

INGREDIENTS
Salt and pepper to taste
1 3-pound fryer, cut into 8 pieces
¼ pound [unsalted] butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ pound raw mushrooms, sliced [NOTE: We used presliced baby portabellas.]
3 shallots, finely chopped
1 cup chicken consommé [NOTE: We used boxed chicken stock.]
1 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons brandy
¼ cup tomato paste
½ teaspoon chopped tarragon
Parsley (chopped, for garnish)

DIRECTIONS

1. Salt and pepper the pieces of fowl, and sauté them in a large skillet with the butter and olive oil until brown.

2. Take the pieces of chicken out of the skillet and set aside on a platter or dish. Sauté the mushrooms and shallots in the skillet, using the now-chicken-intensified butter/olive oil mixture. When they begin to turn a golden color, pour in the consommé, white wine, and brandy. Let simmer, uncovered, until the liquid is reduced by about one-third. Then add the tomato paste and tarragon, and immediately return the chicken to the pan.

3. Simmer the chicken, covered, until tender—about 30 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

4. Place the chicken on plate or platter, cover with the sauce, sprinkle with chopped parsley, and serve.

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Wine Jelly (1942)

An American expatriate hostess extraordinaire, the Duchess of Windsor, in the late 1930s.

 

Whatever else they may have thought of her life’s eye-popping trajectory, the family, friends, and guests of Wallis Warfield (1896—1986), the Baltimore belle best known as the Duchess of Windsor, hailed her skills as a hostess. As a friend of the duchess’s wrote in a letter in 1931, when the royal spouse was still Mrs Ernest Simpson, “Wallis’s parties have so much pep no one ever wants to leave. Cocktails with sausages, not on skewers, caviar with vodka, soup with sherry, fish with white wine, hock, champagne, from then on to the brandy. Needless to say, I do not attempt this lavish mixture. But her food is as elaborate as her wine list.”

More than 100 of the duchess’s dishes, from appetizers to desserts, were published in Some Favorite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942), a slender but stylish cookery book whose royalties were earmarked for the British war-relief effort. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt penned the painfully earnest foreword, while the duchess, then cooling her high-society heels in the Bahamas, wrote the introduction, observing, “I have been very happy to help carry some of the well-known dishes of my native land to other countries, and especially to have served on my table Southern dishes which appeal to the Duke … [It] is the simple dishes of my homeland which are most popular with me, and which are the ones most frequently served at my table.” Whether Wallis Windsor actually wrote those words is arguable, since the book was copyrighted by food journalist Marie M. Meloney, a friend of Mrs Roosevelt’s. It was Mrs Meloney who doubtless encouraged the duchess to provide only easy, accessible recipes, which most of them, perhaps surprisingly, are.

My husband had first crack at the book when it arrived in the post, and last weekend, for a large dinner party, he made the duchess’s recipe for Wine Jelly. Think of a cool, quivering dessert the color of French-vanilla ice cream and infused with the delicate taste of white wine. Odd, perhaps, but strangely elegant, especially when prepared in a ceramic mold that gave it a decorative appearance, rather like carved Carrara marble. My husband has begun to amass a collection of such molds, so expect some extraordinary desserts to result as time goes by.

The verdict? A slightly bland but refreshing dessert that might have been improved with a bright drizzle of raspberry sauce. We’ll be serving it again—the looks are impressive, which is half the battle, don’t you think?—though I will be experimenting with other types of wines. Wine Jelly might look beautiful prepared with jewel-tone layers of rosé and white wine or even Champagne. And instead of white granulated sugar, which the recipes calls for, perhaps light brown sugar would add a deeper flavor note.

 

 

WINE JELLY (1942)
SOURCE: Some Favorite Southern Recipes of the Duchess of Windsor (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942)
SERVES: Six (6) portions, according to the cookery book, we managed to get nine (9) good slices out of the recipe.

INGREDIENTS

1-1/2 tablespoons [powdered] gelatin
2/3 cup white wine
3 eggs slightly beaten
1/2 cup [granulated white] sugar
3 cups milk, scalded

DIRECTIONS

1. In a bowl, soften the gelatin in the wine and set aside.

2. In another bowl, combine the eggs and sugar. Add milk slowly, stirring constantly.

3. Transfer to a medium sauce pan over hot water, or to a double boiler, until the mixture coats a spoon.

 

 

4. Remove sauce pan from the heat. Add gelatin to the milk-and-egg mixture. Stir until dissolved.

 

 

5. Carefully pour the mixture into a mold. Chill until firm.

6. When ready to serve, dip the mold, for just a moment, into a bowl of warm water to loosen. Place a serving plate, upside down, on top of the mold, and turn the mold over, waiting for the jelly to loosen.

7. Serve immediately, slicing the mold as one would a loaf of bread, with one slice per person.

Charlotte à la gélée au coing (1961)

Heinrich Hurter's 1781 miniature of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III of England, framed with pearls and rubies. Formerly a princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, she has been proposed as the namesake of the classic desserts known as Charlottes. The miniature is held by The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection in London, England.

My husband and I were gratified recently when a friend recently told us he looks forward to our dinner and drinks invitations because we always have an unexpected guest list. This set us to beaming, obviously—our gatherings may not be perfect but we do try to make them congenial as well as spirited. Our village is so small that everyone knows one another, so planning a gathering enlivened with a few surprise elements is more difficult than one might imagine—blending old friends, new friends, couples, the unattached, conservatives, liberals, professionals, and free spirits into an amusing whole. The space issue can be another serious challenge: our dining table only seats eight people comfortably, yet we want each meal to be memorable. A stellar dessert always helps.

Recently I have become enamored of Charlottes, an age-old dessert basically composed of fruit purée encased behind a decorative fortress of liquor-soaked lady fingers. Its history is as complicated as its preparation is simple. No book agrees on the origins of the Charlotte though it seems clear that the baked fruit desserts of the Elizabethan age rank early in its genealogy and that the trifle is a close cousin. Given the Charlotte’s popularity in the late 18th century, some sources believe that the wife of George III of England is the dessert’s namesake, perhaps due to her love of apples (apple Charlotte is a culinary classic) or as a tribute paid by Marie-Antoine Carême, superstar chef to an enviable array of crowned heads. Another scholar believes the name can be traced to one Goethe’s fictional characters, a certain Charlotte Buff, heroine of a bestselling 1774 novel called The Sorrows of Werther. Complicating matters is the assertion of Richard Olney, in The French Menu Cookbook, that Charlotte correctly refers to the straight-sided metal mold used to prepare such a dessert—and only, by association, to the dessert itself. Then there’s the thorny issue of capitalization; does one or does one not? I like the formality of the capped C and am sticking to it.

Charlottes have been a frequent dessert in our house of late, washed with crème à la vanille and carried into the dining room on a fancy silver platter of no great age but splendid appearance. My first attempt was just before Christmas, inspired by a cookery book my husband and I often use: La Cuisine de France by Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (Orion, 1961). The creative countess offers several Charlotte recipes but one in particular caught my eye. Called Charlotte à la gélée au coing, it interweaves ladyfingers and quince jelly (coing is French for the little-used fruit), which certainly sounded wintery enough to me. Unfortunately I could not find quince jelly in time for a dinner party so resorted to melting down, in a sauce pan, a few shimmering blocks of quince paste I picked up at Whole Foods on Columbus Circle in New York City. This decision, I hasten to add, was not an unalloyed success. The flavor of the paste was too strong and the texture, even when melted, somewhat dense, but our dinner guests finished the Charlotte and asked for seconds. In the end all that remained was a few crumbs and a puddle of leftover crème à la vanille.

Since that evening I have relied on Mme de Toulouse-Lautrec’s recipe as the foundation for other, quite toothsome Charlottes, including one made with apricot jam and another with raspberry preserves, each of which has been resounding successes. I plan on making an orange marmalade version in the very near future.

The finished quince-jelly Charlotte, on its platter, covered in crème à la vanille, and ready to be carried into the dining room.

CHARLOTTE A LA GELEE AU COING WITH CREME A LA VANILLE (1961)

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

SERVES: Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec states that the recipe serves six (6), but we had eight (8) people at dinner and several had second helpings.

CREME A LA VANILLE

INGREDIENTS FOR CREME A LA VANILLE

NOTE: Makes about two cups. You could also double the recipe, as I did, so there will be enough crême à la vanille to put in a pitcher as extra garnish.

1 pint whole milk

1/2 cup granulated sugar (NOTE: I used vanilla-flavored sugar, which my husband always keeps in the pantry; just insert a vanilla bean into a sealed container of sugar and allow the flavor to be absorbed.)

1 vanilla bean, cut in half, lengthwise

4 egg yolks

DIRECTIONS FOR CREME A LA VANILLE

1. Scald the milk and sugar in a sauce pan, with the vanilla bean segments.

2. Beat the egg yolks with a wood spoon in a large bowl.

3. Remove the vanilla bean and pour the hot milk mixture, slowly, into the egg yolks, and stir until well combined.

The vanilla cream, thickening over a low flame.

4. Pour the mixture back into the sauce pan and heat, over low flame, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, enough to coat the back of the wood spoon. Do not allow to boil.

5. Set the vanilla cream aside to cool and then refrigerate until cold and until ready to use.

INGREDIENTS FOR THE CHARLOTTE

1/2 cup kirsch (NOTE: I used the cheapest Polish cherry brandy I could find.)

1/2 cup water

3/4 pound ladyfingers, prepackaged (NOTE: Buy two packages to be on the safe side; either regular or gluten-free will work fine.)

1 jar quince jelly (NOTE: Almost any jelly or preserve will do.)

2 cups vanilla custard cream (NOTE: Recipe above)

DIRECTIONS FOR CHARLOTTE

1. Mix the kirsch and the water in a bowl and dip the lady fingers lightly into the mixture—do not soak them, just fully immerse each one before using. Line the bottom of the Charlotte mold with several moistened lady fingers; you will have to break some of the lady fingers into pieces for them to fit properly. Next line the sides of the mold, with the lady fingers standing upright. (NOTE: Since I wanted the Charlotte to be rather boozy, I dipped the lady fingers a few times, which meant I had to replenish the kirsch-water mixture.)

The Charlotte, in process.

2. Spread the bottom layer of lady fingers with jelly and continue alternating layers of jelly and moistened lady fingers until the mold is full. Finish with a layer of lady fingers.

The Charlotte, weighted with a jar of maraschino cherries and a wine coaster.

3. Cover the mold with a small plate weighted with something heavy so that the cake will be pressed together firmly. (NOTE: I used a big jar of maraschino cherries and a wine coaster.)

4. Chill the weighted mold for several hours in the refrigerator.

5. Gently unmold the cake onto a dessert platter—you might have to slide a knife carefully around the edges to loosen—cover with the custard cream, and serve.

A cross-section of Charlotte à la gélée au coing, drenched with crème à la vanille.

Royal Gingerbread (pre 1920)

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The Duke of Windsor, at his country house in France's Loire Valley, in the 1960s. Image by Horst for American Vogue.

The Duke of Windsor isn’t known much for food, though he certainly made an impact on fashion with his idiosyncratic mixing of plaids and stripes. As a child, however, the future king of the United Kingdom and emperor of India had a passion for gingerbread — the stickier, the better, according to one of his doting aunts. The thin, crisp gingerbread we know today, primarily through gingersnaps and gingerbread houses, bears no resemblance to the royal child’s favorite confection. His was more like a cake or a brownie: dense, sweet, and, yes, sticky, thanks to a serious amount of treacle. Think of a sticky toffee pudding, without the sauce, and you’ll get the general idea.

Recently I was alerted to the duke’s preferred gingerbread recipe by a Facebook friend. It was published in Court Favourites: Recipes from Royal Kitchens (André Deutsch Limited, 1953) by Elizabeth Craig, a leading British cookery expert and author of masses of food- and housekeeping-related books. In recent years an adaptation of the recipe has shown up on various cookery related blogs. Do not, however, trust anything but the original, because the adaptations reduce the spices to an alarmingly degree and deliver instead a pleasing, middlebrow gingerbread without any real bite. The gingerbread preferred by the Duke of Windsor is apparently as bold as his suits—rich, moist, and intensely spiced, and the flecks of candied citrus peel give it an interesting, fruit-cake edge. As for the required stickiness, I didn’t have ready access to black treacle, so I was forced to substitute a blend of dark and light Karo syrups. I baked two gingerbreads and took one to work the following day. My co-workers quickly wiped it out, one pronouncing it the best traditional gingerbread she had ever tasted. As for the one I left at home, my husband nibbled at it over the course of three days, saying, “It was a very spicy cake, very delicious, though I thought the store-bought lemon peel was a bit too hard on my teeth. Homemade is better.”

When preparing this gingerbread, a stand mixer with the flat-beater attachment is the best course of action. Just keep a close eye on it, because the batter gets very thick before the softening addition of the treacle or syrups. I nearly burnt out the engine of our KitchenAid when I got distracted by a Netflix episode of “Green Acres.” How very Lisa Douglas of me.

NOTE: A reader of this blog has pointed out that the recipe will be significantly different if actual black treacle can be found. Therefore I have ordered Lyle’s Black Treacle via Amazon.com and will post again about this recipe once it arrives, perhaps as early as next week-end.

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THE DUKE OF WINDSOR’S GINGERBREAD

SOURCE: Court Favorites: Recipes from Royal Kitchens (André Deutsch Limited, 1953)

SERVES: Makes two (2) cakes

EQUIPMENT: Two (2) 9 x 13 cake pans, either metal or glass

INGREDIENTS

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2 pounds (4 cups) plain white flour

1 pound (2 cups) dark brown sugar

2 ounces ground ginger

1 pound (2 cups) slivered almonds

3 ounces ground caraway seeds (NOTE: I couldn’t find ground caraway at the market so bought whole seeds and pulverized them in a coffee grinder.)

4 ounces chopped mixed candied peel (NOTE: I used Paradise brand store-bought lemon peel.)

2 ounces ground allspice

1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

2 pounds (4 cups) treacle (NOTE: I didn’t have any Lyle’s Black Treacle on hand so substituted one 16-ounce bottle of light Karo syrup and one 16-ounce bottle of dark Karo syrup. I have since been advised that one could use 2/3 molasses mixed with 1/3 Lyle’s Golden Syrup to achieve a gingerbread somewhat closer to what the Duke of Windsor ate as a child.)

6 eggs

DIRECTIONS

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Rub the butter into the flour until it looks like coarse meal. (NOTE: I just dumped those two ingredients into the bowl of the stand mixer and turned the machine on low.)

3. Stir in the sugar, ginger, almonds, spices, candied peel, and the bicarbonate of soda until well combined.

4. Beat the eggs with the treacle and stir into the dry ingredients.

5. Pour the batter into two buttered and lightly floured 9 x 13 cake pans — fill them only half way — and bake in the oven until the cakes have risen and are “just” shrinking from the sides of the pan. (This will be about 35 minutes. Use a toothpick to test.)

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6. Turn out onto racks and allow to cool. Wrap in parchment paper and then wrap in foil.

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The finished gingerbread, slightly overcooked but it was delicious nonetheless.