IMG_3828One 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).IMG_3812In 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.IMG_3829Our 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

Cheese course

Dessert: crème catalan and baba au rhum (Christine often serves two or three desserts. Miam!)

IMG_3843
Egg yolks with sugar for the crème catalan. The leftover whites went into quiche a few days later and the egg shells into the garden to ward off snails.

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!IMG_3867Fourth: 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 lemon

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.

IMG_3841
Milk, lemon zest and cinnamon bark.

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.IMG_3856Pour 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.

IMG_3871
Strain before cooking 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.IMG_3877Just 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.IMG_3880

Next up: Baba au rhum.

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20 thoughts on “In the French Kitchen

  1. Congrats on the cooking classes, an art that is dissapearing.

    Just yesterday sorting out the bookshelves for keep-donate I found my mother’s “Ma Table”. A kind of copybook where she wrote the name of her guests, what she wore, what she cooked & served, the flowers, and snippets of what happened. So many memories!
    I remember my parents discussing what to serve, how to cook, the wine that my father chose specifically for each dinner. Moreover when they came with goodies from France. To tell the truth, my father didn’t even know where the kitchen was, but he did know his wines!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. One of my sisters is a wonderful chef. She is keeping her Larousse Gastronomique. I used to have formal dinners until my husband passed away long time ago. French cuisine, something different every time. Since then I only “cook” when friends come for dinner. Anyway, the Limoges, silverware and crystal are on the table everyday.

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      2. Your dinner guests must have relished your invitations!
        As for the Limoges, same here–why have “good” stuff that sits in a cupboard? Like the l’Oréal ad: we’re worth it.

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  2. This is a great new series you have started. A very good idea to start with dessert. Looking forward to the rest of the meal.
    I love the variety of your blog topics…
    Ali

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Taking notes like mad!
    If that is Christine’s manicure, I am impressed.
    You mention eggshells vs. snails in the garden — dropped as is, or crunched up? Do you wash them out first?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, her hands. Mine are in other shots. Already 20 years ago, my niece remarked that my hands looked old. Sigh.
      The eggshells–I crumble them (ouch), and if I think of it I wash them first, but not always. The number of snails is definitely smaller than without eggshells. And I figure the shells will bring something to the soil, regardless of the effect on snails.

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  4. Again a lovely menu provided by you and instructed by a lovely French cook! We are a part of an alphabet dinner group where every month we pick a restaurant that starts with the letter for that month, eventually going down the alphabet. It ou month for “F” and I can’t find a suitable place so I’m have a French Bastille Day dinner. That counts for “F” right? I will use your ratatouille, starter tart of some variety, and tampanade for sure!
    Thanks,
    Amelia

    Liked by 1 person

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