One of the highlights of last week was a cooking class for guests at one of our vacation apartments in Carcassonne. The teacher was my dear friend and excellent cook, Christine.
The idea sprang from an article some years ago in in a French magazine. The hilarious columnist often conducted various tests, and one of my favorites was one that asked whether a man could cook as well as a woman. She chose a well-known professional chef to get the answer.
The rules of the game were that the chef had to do what any French woman does daily: cook a well-balanced family meal of starter, main course and dessert. And he had a limited time to do it—because most French women work, they spend an average of just 36 minutes cooking a week night meal.
That meal turned out OK, although the chef managed to make a fool of himself (not least by turning over vegetable prep to a sous-chef, who was banished by the columnist on the argument that French home cooks don’t have such a luxury).In this spirit, I wanted to offer classes on French cuisine, not from a chef’s perspective, but from the experience of truly great home cooks. My role is translator and dishwasher. I understand that non-French speakers might be tempted by cooking classes offered in English, but they often are given by non-French cooks. What’s the point of that?
Christine is almost a sterotypical française. She is always, always chic. Even when she’s gardening, she dresses with flair. It’s ingrained. Her makeup is always tasteful, her shoulder-length blonde hair often swept up in a twist. She’s a grandmother, but in the style of Catherine Deneuve, whose younger self she resembles quite a bit.
And when she cooks, those of us invited to her table swoon.Our menu was for a dinner party, more elaborate than a weeknight meal, but with plenty of things that can be done ahead so the host/hostess can be devoted to the guests and enjoy the actual moment of the dinner.
Here’s the menu:
Hors-d’oeuvre: toasts with choice of foie gras, green or black tapenade and eggplant caviar.
Entrée (starter): onion tart
Main dish: grilled lamb chops, roasted tomatoes with persillade and ratatouille niçoise
Dessert: crème catalan and baba au rhum (Christine often serves two or three desserts. Miam!)
Everything but the toasts and meat could be done ahead, either entirely or partly. In fact, some things, like ratatouille, actually are better the second day.
The weather was unusually hot and sticky. It often gets hot here, but such humidity is rare. It’s one reason why we sent the meat outside to the grill.
We’ll examine the dishes in separate posts. If you’re cooking the same day as serving, as we did, here’s the order for preparation:
First the crème catalan, which is similar to crème brulée. Reason: it needs to chill for a few hours before getting its sugar crust.
Second: the baba au rhum. Reason: it needs time to drink up the rum syrup.
Third: the tart. Reason: the oven was still hot from the baba. And the tart is good cold. Also, it’s better to cook oniony/garlicky dishes AFTER the dessert, not before!Fourth: the tomatoes: Reason: While the tart was cooking, the tomatoes were degorged. By the time the tart was done, we turned over the tomatoes, added the persillade and popped them in the oven.
Fifth: the ratatouille.
Last: the lamb chops.
Here’s the first recipe: for Crème catalane:
3 cups (75 cl) whole milk
6 egg yolks
2/3 cup (150 g) white sugar
1 stick of cinnamon
2 heaping tablespoons cornstarch
1/3 cup (75 g) brown sugar
Wash and dry the lemon, then grate half the peel.
In a saucepan, put the milk, the cinnamon stick and the grated peel. Bring it to a boil, then turn off the heat, cover and let the mixture infuse for 5-10 minutes before removing the cinnamon and zest (she poured it through a sieve).
In a mixing bowl, beat the yolks with 2/3 cup of sugar for about half a minute. Add the corn starch little by little. Thin the paste with the warm milk.Pour the mixture into a clean saucepan. (Tip from Christine: if you use the same saucepan, the milk sticking to the sides will burn). Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon (Another tip from Christine: make sure you’re using a spoon that doesn’t smell like garlic—keep one of your wooden spoons for desserts only.) Let the mixture thicken so it covers the spoon—if you swipe your finger, the line shouldn’t disappear. It takes about seven minutes to thicken.
Pour the thickened mixture into ramekins and refrigerate for at least two hours. Again, make sure there isn’t anything that smells strongly in the fridge, or the crème will absorb it.Just before serving, sprinkle with brown sugar. Christine has wonderful old-fashioned irons that are just the size of the ramekins—you set the irons in the coals and then press them on the sugar to make a crust. Otherwise, you can put the ramekins under a broiler for a minute or two.
Next up: Baba au rhum.