The French apéritif dinatoire–cocktail dinner–is a way to invite a crowd for dinner without having them sit down around the table. More than just cocktails with hors d’oeuvres, it’s a whole dinner but not served in the usual French style with courses, and with everything in small portions that are easy to manage while standing and mingling.
On Saturday, our little house was packed to the gills with friends for the Fête de la Lumière, or the Festival of Light, a tradition started by dear friends who moved away and whom everybody at the party admitted to missing terribly. We picked up the baton because it was such a great way to see people, whereas with dinner parties the number of guests is limited to four or six (with us that makes six or eight around the table, which is about all you can do and still have conversation).
Recipe testing began a few weeks ago, and, despite good intentions to make dishes in advance and freeze them, I made everything in the days before the party. I kept a spreadsheet with dishes, showing how many days ahead they could be done, ingredients and links to the recipes.
The spreadsheet was very useful for assembling the shopping list. I could go through and count, for example, how many eggs and how much butter and flour in total.
I could have cut the number of chicken wings by half; since they were done fresh, we froze the leftovers. The madeleines won raves, but I could have made a single batch (considering we ate the test batch quickly, I was surprised). Happily they freeze well. Also the chorizo cookies–double the recipe would have sufficed. It seemed to me it made such a small batch. Also froze the leftovers. Nothing wasted.
On the other hand, the meatballs and deviled eggs disappeared. The nut cake was nearly gone and a fan happily took the few remains home.
The list above, plus charcuterie, cheese and baguettes, came to about €200 for a guest list of 36. Cheese alone was about €40. The total doesn’t include the wine because we tapped our cellar. Most of the food was on the dining table, with no decorations but a silver tray with candles. We put the charcuterie on a buffet and the cheese board on a small bookcase near the table. We had two conversation areas, but people stood for the first two hours, mingling and eating, before slowing down and migrating to the chairs and sofas. Although everybody was from the village, not all the guests knew each other, though they all knew at least some of the others. The grown daughter of a neighbor had come back to visit her parents; she had been our babysitter back in the day. She came, which I took as a high compliment, since she certainly had other options for socializing on a Saturday night than hanging out with neighbors her parents’ age.
Here are the links to the recipes again:
Zucchini cheese chips (no need for a recipe, since it’s grated zucchini and cheese, dumped in little piles and baked–you can find many similar).
The Thai chicken wings and nut bars are from cookbooks; I’ll share those later. The meatball recipe changed when we couldn’t find the ingredients (no hoisin around here), so I just mixed ground pork with breadcrumbs, eggs, lots of minced onions and herbes de provence and baked them (honestly, the onions made them. OMG). The crinkle cookies and chocolate cake are old family recipes that I also will expand on later.This shouldn’t sound intimidating. It was a lot of work for two days and totally worth it. The advantage of cooking ahead and freezing is that the work gets spread out into small bits; but the advantage of doing everything just before is that it’s all fresh and you can freeze leftovers. A win either way.
Also, don’t overthink. We decorated the tree and put Christmas balls here and there, plus lots of candles. No elaborate centerpieces. The food is the main event. Actually, the conversation is the main event, and the food is just fuel for it.
The countdown to Saturday’s apéritif dinatoire begins. Shopping, decorating, cooking, cleaning, and more cooking.
We put up the tree and added a few decorations. We even strung lights outside.
We did most of the shopping. My favorite sous-chef made a double batch of chocolate crinkle cookies, which passed the freezer test with flying colors. Just as good thawed as fresh.
You can’t see the snowflakes here, but it looked a lot like Christmas.
My do-everything-ahead plan was thrown off by two days spent in Carcassonne at our apartments. Still, it felt like a mini vacation, especially the sauna, and was a nice breather. Our kid had events all day on Saturday, when it snowed. People here panic when it snows. The ones with SUVs drive far too fast, not realizing that big vehicles still slide on ice. Other people creep along at a maddeningly slow crawl, causing backups and then some idiot comes along and decides to pass despite not being able to see whether it’s clear. Some years ago I had to drive to town during a snowstorm. I cut my speed by half–not a crawl but slow enough that I wouldn’t need to brake hard to stop. I counted a dozen cars in the ditch in a 20-minute drive. Rather than take any risks with snow forecast, we decided to stay in at our Carcassonne AirBnB apartments, which was empy between guests. The snow fell as if cued by a movie director, light flakes drifting down cinematically all day. All the kids had their faces turned skyward to catch the fleeting flakes. It was cold for here (low 40s) but too warm for snow, which melted as soon as it touched the ground.
The best-laid plans still go astray, whether due to weather or other reasons.
Here are some of the things that can be made well in advance:
Chocolate crackle cookies. They need to chill for a few hours or overnight. I think that, like chocolate chip cookies, they are better if the dough sits overnight. When they are cool, store them in a plastic container with the layers separated by parchment paper. Freeze.
My handwriting, from 1979. Talk about a keeper recipe! Melt the chocolate, stir in everything, chill, scoop out little balls, roll in regular sugar then in powdered sugar, bake at 350 F for about 10 minutes.
Other things you can freeze:
Chocolate cake–not frosted. Chocolate cake also gets better after a couple of days. I will make it three days ahead.
Depending on how things are going, I might also make a kind of French “cake,” which is a savory loaf with vegetables and meat or fish. I was disappointed with the tuna-zucchini recipe, but might try a different one.
Today I am going to make the nut bars, deep clean and rearrange the furniture. More photos coming Friday!
More Carcassonne Christmas décor. BTW, the bûches de Noël in the top photo are from across the street from here, Noez bakery.
The French have a fantastic take on the cocktail party. Called un apéritif dinatoire, it’s a dinner made of hors d’oeuvres and appetizers. Like tapas or mezze/meze or antipasti. More than nuts and chips—a meal.
Some beloved friends used to do this every year for the feast of Sainte Lucie, or la Fête de la Lumière, the festival of light. When they moved away, we missed not only them (shout-out to you!) but also their party, which was a chance to chat with people we rarely had opportunity to connect with as much as we’d like.
For us, “in a big way” means inviting over 30-some friends for dinner. We usually do a big bash in the summer, around July 4, with hamburgers, but that’s outside, where we have room for plenty of people. Our house is modest, and we have seats for just 16 people. If not everybody can sit, it’s best to have such a crowd that at least as many people are standing as sitting, and no chairs are at the table. The food buffet should be where folks have to get up to get at it, liberating a seat, which gets taken immediately, and which results in people mingling.
We have a big stack of plain white dessert plates from Ikea, as well as real silverware and glasses. No plastic allowed, and only the napkins are paper. People who are standing don’t want to balance a glass, a dish and a knife and fork. Therefore, most of the offerings are finger food. The ante is raised in France, because while Americans are unfazed by dips and foods that require licking one’s fingers (buffalo wings, nachos), the French don’t really do that. To-go French fries are served with tiny forks (charmingly represented by the Belgian luxury leather company Delvaux’s Belgitude collection, which includes a handbag that looks like a sachet of fries, and the keychain has a little red fork, just like the real ones. Check out the surrealist and so-Belgian video). There are people here who eat fruit with a fork and knife. This of course reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George eats a candy bar with a fork and knife.
We want the menu to be varied and to be as satisfying as a dinner. Chips and dip with a cheese tray isn’t going to cut it. And as good as puff pastry baked with various fillings may be, one cannot live by puff pastry alone. This is a cocktail party plus.
Catering something like this just isn’t done around here. Maybe in big cities, like Paris, where socialites would not be in the kitchen themselves. Or for a milestone birthday or anniversary party, which, in any case, would take place at the community hall. But for a holiday drinks soirée at home, catering would be gauche. At least in our village.
Another option would be to hit a place like Picard or Thiriet, which have mind-boggling selections of frozen, heat-and-serve dishes, from simple to fancy. But as good as their stuff is, it’s still industrial. And kind of expensive. I’ll buy readymade pie crust but that’s the extent of it.
Other requirements for the food:
—Must be made in advance. It isn’t possible to mingle with guests and cook at the same time. By advance I mean two or three days to a couple of weeks. In looking for ideas, I found far too many for which “advance” meant two hours. That’s fine if you’re inviting four people, but not if you’re expecting three dozen. There are better things than cooking to do the day of party, like resting.
—Must be not just edible but delicious if it gets cold. Some items can be heated in the oven as guests arrive, but last time the grazing went on for six hours. Savory tarts are good. So are tartines.
—Must resemble a well-balanced meal: vegetables, starch, meat, cheese, dessert.
—Must be easy to eat. Salads are great for a crowd, but require more than fingers.
—Must be easy on the budget.
—Must be in season.
The party is Dec. 9. I started testing recipes the week of Nov. 20. Somethings look better on Pinterest than in real life. Failures included:
Roasted Brussels sprouts, split and stuffed with prosciutto—too much work, disappointing.
Mini stacks of sliced potato gratin—too much work; didn’t hold together.
Mac and cheese in mini cups of ham—too much work; didn’t hold shape; didn’t like the crackly macaroni on top.
Tuna/zucchini/carrot cake: too wet; didn’t hold shape; fade (bland). Will try another recipe. This is the French “cake,” which is savory, not a sweet gâteau. We will have plenty of those, too.
I have a few others that worked well. I wanted to make gougères, but they are best straight from the oven. Instead, I found a recipe for savory, cheesy madeleines. Two thumbs up from my taste testers. I froze half the batch to make sure they would not soggy after being thawed. I’m going to make a big batch this weekend to freeze. Here’s the recipe.Ever since I first had chicken satay on a beach in Thailand, I have been hooked. Rather than deal with little skewers, I use chicken wings, with a peanut dipping sauce. Under the broiler in advance, and then heated in the oven, one of the few things I heated last time. Despite their inherent messiness, they disappeared quickly. Will be doing this again. The recipe is from “Cooking Thail Food in American Kitchens,” by Malulee Pinsuvana. I love that one column is written in Thai. Authentic!
I will come back on Tuesday with more recipes, a proper menu, and the game plan for carrying this out so it isn’t harried. Even the budget–it’s possible to pull off a classy event without breaking the bank.
Are you entertaining during the holidays? Feel free to share your tips!
September is the season for zucchini–courgettes in French. There are so many kinds, and so many ways to prepare them.
In the raw: Zucchini and chickpea salad
I’ve eaten zoodles (zucchini noodles) all my life. My grandma used to make a wonderful creamy tomato soup with zucchini noodles. No spiralizer for Grandma. She was all about the knife, the wooden spoon and the arm muscles, though I think she did have a mandoline. Following in her footsteps, use a mandoline to make fettuccini of 3-4 medium-size courgettes, about 6-8 inches long. (Grandma grew everything in her garden to size XXL, but you’d do well to avoid baseball-bat zucchini, with their big seeds.) Salt and let sit a while in a colander to soften them up and become more noodle-like. Rinse and pat off some of the water with a paper towel.
In a large bowl, mix the zoodles with a drained 15 oz. can of chickpeas (you can cook up a batch from dried, but that requires planning, whereas this recipe is quick and dirty), some chopped fresh herbs (parsley, mint, basil–your choice), a swirl of olive oil, a splotch of red-wine vinegar and some pepper. Because the zoodles were salted, taste before adding any more.
I’m usually of the opinion that more is more when it comes to salads, and I tend to include anything and everything that’s in the fridge. But I left this salad simple and it was delicious, the zucchini and chickpeas both being mild and not in combat for dominant flavor. I’ve also done it with halved cherry tomatoes, which add color.Les courgettes sont cuites
(Actually, the saying is “les carottes sont cuites”–meaning “all is lost” or “the jig is up.” I saw many dubious explanations for the origin of this phrase–dubious, because if one can’t spell correctly in a piece about etymology, well, lescarottes sont cuites. Fortunately, the book Légumes d’hier et d’aujourd’hui–Vegetables of yesterday and today–says it’s because in a mix of root vegetables, carrots are the last to be done.)The first time I ever had French food was in a fancy restaurant in the Midwestern city where I grew up. I was still in high school, being high-falutin’ going there. I remember the white-washed brick walls, which were SO radical in the ’70s, the simple black furniture, and the zucchini. Considering I could peer through the windows and see that interior regularly over the years, I suspect that ALL I really remember about that meal is the zucchini. Simple matchsticks of zucchini, sautéed in butter. Nothing haute about it, but you need to use good butter (NOT margarine). The zucchini caramelize in the browned butter and then melt in your mouth.Here you have it:
Cut some small zucchini into matchsticks. You want smallish ones so they aren’t full of seeds. Count on at least one per person–they melt down. You can peel them, but that (1) has less nutrition, (2) is more work and (3) is wasteful (a future post is coming on a French cookbook about using peelings and scraps). The easiest way to make matchsticks is to first cut coins and then make little stacks of the coins and cut them into slivers.
Brown a tablespoon or two of butter in a skillet. If your skillet is big and you have a lot of zucchini, add more. When the bubbles subside, add the zucchini and stir. It should be hot enough that the zucchini brown without getting mushy. Almost seared. That’s it. A little salt and pepper. A perfect side to any main.Yes, you can vary this by sautéeing minced garlic or onions before adding the zucchini. And you can add fresh or dried herbs, whether oregano, basil, parsley or rosemary. But sometimes, the simple version is a revelation, especially when the brown butter makes the zucchini sing.
May I add that the great Prosper Montagné, native of Carcassonne and author of the original Larousse Gastronomique, has a similar recipe in his book Les Delices de la Table that I translate here as closely as possible to word-for-word: cut three peeled zucchini into coins not too thin. Salt them and sauté in a skillet with butter. Let them brown well. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve in a vegetable bowl (légumier).*
He goes on to note: Habitually, one sweats them by lightly sprinkling with salt, and one dredges the courgettes, as well as eggplant, in flour before sautéing them. We discourage this system. Zucchini and eggplant sautéed in oil or butter cook perfectly put into the skillet as they are. Far be it from me to argue. By the way, for those first chilly days of fall, check out this great zucchini soup recipe.
*Do you notice that there’s exactly one measurement in his recipe, and it’s three zucchini? But of indeterminate size. All the old recipes are like this!
Our kid has always eaten red peppers as if they were potato chips. Never refuse a kid who wants vegetables. (I guess potato chips are technically vegetables, but you know what I mean.)
While plain, raw peppers are crunchy and juicy and tasty, cooked peppers make for a colorful side dish. And this recipe, from Patricia Wells’ cookbook “Vegetable Harvest,” is a winner for entertaining because it can be made ahead and served hot or at room temperature. As Wells points out, leftovers are good as a sauce on pasta or polenta. They also freeze well, so don’t hesitate to make a lot.Red Peppers, Tomatoes, Onions, Cumin and Espelette Pepper, from “Vegetable Harvest” by Patricia Wells
2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
4 red bell peppers (or a mix with yellow and orange–as long as they are the sweet kind)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 medium onions, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced (I used an enormous red onion, which is pretty)
1 teaspoon ground piment d’Espelette (substitutes: dried Anaheim chilies, ground mild chili pepper or paprika)
2 pounds tomatoes, cored and cubed but not peeled Toast the cumin in a small, dry skillet, shaking regularly because they can scorch quickly. About two minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool.Cut the cleaned peppers quarters and then into 1/8-inch-thick slices. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add the onions, cumin, piment d’Espelette and salt. Cover and let it sweat over low heat for three to four minutes.
Add the peppers and tomatoes and cook, covered, over low heat until the peppers are soft and tender, about 30 minutes. I’ve made this recipe a lot, and I’ve reduced the tomatoes a little and cooked the peppers with the onions so they soften before adding the tomatoes toward the end. It makes the result a little less juicy/soupy.
By the way, I love, love, love this cookbook. I’ve made many of its recipes, and they are delicious but not difficult. And they all have a French flair.
And I say tomate. They are at the height of their glory here in France these days, and we are enjoying them in so many ways.
A summer tomato bears no resemblance to the winter hothouse versions, which are nothing but ghosts of tomatoes, lacking flesh, with their watery insides dripping from mere skeletons of tomato-ness. A summer tomato is full and fleshy. It’s sweet and juicy and substantial enough to eat alone.
But we do like to gild the lily.
A little onion. A little garlic. A little olive oil. Some parsley. Or basil. Or thyme. A little breadcrumb crust to soak up the olive oil-enhanced juices. So many possibilities. It’s a good thing, because when tomatoes are in season, we eat them a couple of times a week. Same as with asparagus, or strawberries. In season or not at all. So make that season count. And do not refrigerate!
I had promised a while back to include the recipe for Christine’s tomates provençales from our cooking lesson. Here it is, at last.
How many tomatoes you need depends on their size (and what else you’re serving). If you have big ones, you might want just half per person, or one per person. If you have small tomatoes, like the roma variety, you might want one or two per person. We are tomato gluttons, and we like having leftovers, so I figure on a big tomato per person or its equivalent in smaller ones.
Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit (180 Celsius).Cut the tomatoes in half. Score them, sprinkle with a little salt, and turn them upside down to drain for 15 minutes or more. You can put them on a cooling rack or a flat strainer or just on paper towels. Chop up a big bunch of parsley. It makes no difference whether it’s flat or curly. Chop up two to eight garlic cloves, depending on how much you love garlic (there is no right or wrong in this recipe). The chopping is greatly aided by a food processor. Christine had a small one–a spice grinder–that she brought to the cooking class. I have only a knife and limited patience, so my parsley here is too big. You want it to be fine so that, when you mix it with the garlic and a generous half cup (15 cl) of olive oil, you end up with a green slurry. It’s good on lots of things–roasted carrots, chicken, potatoes… Persillade is to savory food as diamond studs are to accessories–it goes with almost anything.Place the tomatoes cut-side up in an oiled baking dish. Spoon the persillade over them and roast them for an hour. They should get caramelized but not hard or crusty.You also can cook them faster–20-30 minutes–in a hot oven (400 Fahrenheit/200 Celsius), but they don’t get as caramelized as the low and slow method. Also, the persillade risks browning too much (sometimes called “burning”). On the other hand, sometimes we don’t have an hour to get dinner on the table.
Other tomato alternatives:
I like to slice them, because it’s pretty, and I can tuck thinly sliced onions in between. Top with olive oil, or with breadcrumbs and olive oil, or with breadcrumbs and parsley and olive oil, or with persillade. You have options. This version benefits from low and slow because the sliced tomatoes aren’t drained, and the juices need time to evaporate.
Did you know that if you have burned something in a pot or pan, you can get it off easily by squirting a little ketchup on it? Just let it sit–overnight, maybe a couple of days. It will come off eventually! The acid in the ketchup works off the burned material without scrubbing (or scratching your pan). The wonders of tomatoes never cease.
Pâte feuilletée, or puff pastry, sounds like such a challenge to make–all that rolling, all that butter. It turned out easier than I had thought and far more delicious than readymade pie crust. That is saying something, because store-bought pie crust in France is, honestly, fantastic.
I used the recipe from my 1933 cookbook, “Le Nouveau Livre de Cuisine,” by a so-called Blanche Caramel. I had previously read that you have to beat the cold butter with a rolling pin, and not just any rolling pin but the plain wooden dowel kind. While Blanche specifies using a wooden rolling pin, she says nothing about batting butter. She even says that “in winter, it’s necessary to soften the butter a little by putting it in a bowl warmed by bowling water.”
While I understand the science of it–the “lean” water-based dough is wrapped around cold butter and the air bubbles released during baking are what make this pastry puff–I also am intrigued by the fact that puff pastry predates refrigeration. Only 3% of French homes had frigos (fridges) in 1950. What did Blanche do? Are we depriving ourselves of fresh, preservative-free puff pastry because we are worried about not living up to cold butter standards?
Let me say: Do not be afraid!
Some years ago, I toured the château of Guise (pronounced geez) in northern France and learned that in medieval times, people collected ice, stuck it in the deep cellars beneath the chateau, packed with straw for insulation, and used it to make sweet sorbets during following months. Here are my notes from that trip:
The underground tunnels were very effective at keeping things cool. People would put snow and ice in them and it would keep for several months into the spring, and they would eat fruit sorbets made from the ice. However, it didn’t occur to them to use ice to keep food cool and fresh. One thing they used to do, and our guide said she found a medieval recipe for this, was to take a fresh pheasant and bury it in manure with the head sticking out. When the beak came off gently, it was ready—the meat would be falling off the bones. You’d unearth it, clean off the maggots, and cook it in lots of spices and wine to mask the fact that it was rotten. If people had such lousy teeth back then, they needed the meat falling off the bones so they could just gum it, since they evidently couldn’t chew.
Anyway….Blanche says the dough must rest in a cool place (“au frais”), and I did take that to mean my fridge.
The ingredients are simplicity itself:
200 g (2 cups) flour
4 g (1 tsp) salt
100 g (3.5 oz. or 7/8 cup) water
200 g (a tad over 7 oz. or 7/8 cup) butter
The recipe starts with the flour on a pastry board–just as my grandma seemed to start all of her cooking, from homemade noodles and dumplings to massive batches of cookies. Come to think of it, my grandma was of Blanche’s era, a housewife in the 1930s.
Make a well in the heap of flour. Pour in the salt, and little by little add the water while kneading by hand. The dough will be smooth and soft.
Form it into a ball, cover with a tea towel and let it rest for an hour or two.Sprinkle the pastry board with flour and roll out the dough until it’s 1 cm (less than half an inch) thick. Slather it with all the butter.
Fold the dough in half, then half again, sealing the edges so the butter doesn’t escape.
Roll it out as long as possible without tearing. Fold it in thirds lengthwise and then again in thirds along the width. Let it rest (in a fridge if you have one) for 10 minutes. That’s called “one turn” of the dough.
Roll out the dough again, fold it in quarters. Roll that out and fold it in thirds lengthwise then in thirds along the width. Let it rest (in the fridge!) for 10 minutes. That is the second turn of the dough.
Do another turn of the dough and your puff pastry is ready to use. I cut it in half and put it in two 9-inch pie pans.While it was resting, I prepared quiche innards:
2 cups milk or cream or sour cream or yogurt or a mix of any or all of them
some leftover ham
any other leftovers in the fridge
The only thing I measure with quiche is the number of eggs. Three fills one 9-inch pie pan. I had enough crust for two, so I used six eggs. Quiche is a good place to use up egg whites or yolks left from some other recipe. Beat the eggs with a fork. Add the milk /cream/yogurt, which makes the quiche less dense and more fluffy. Add whatever else you want in your quiche. Don’t forget salt and pepper, and maybe some herbs if you feel like it.
Stab the bottom of the crust with a fork a few times. Pour in the quiche filling. Bake in a preheated oven at 190 degrees Celsius/375 degrees Fahrenheit. I considered pre-baking the crust and then went without and it was fine–no soggy bottom at all.
A very simple tarte à l’oignon is a great starter for a dinner party–it’s good hot or at room temperature, so you can pop it out of the oven or make it ahead.
I routinely make a couple of different savory tarte tatins–a French kind of upside-down pie. A favorite that I often serve as a starter, is tomato tarte tatin.
For our cooking class, my cuistot-par-excellence Christine suggested her onion tart as the entrée (starter in French). It’s flavorful and rich, but not so rich that you can’t eat the main course. Perfect.Christine’s Onion Tart
1 flaky pie crust (you can make your own–recipe from Blanche Caramel coming soon–but the ready-made version here is really good. It even has its own sheet of parchment paper.)
4 big onions, cut in half and sliced thinly
1 1/3 cups (33 cl) crème fraîche semi-épaisse, or half-thick sour cream. Does such a thing exist outside France, with its gazillion kinds of crème fraîche? You can mix sour cream with liquid cream, or just use sour cream. When I remade the tart, I had bought thick cream by mistake. The tart turned out great anyway.
Salt, pepper, 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 360 degrees Fahrenheit (180 Celsius).Heat the olive oil in a heavy pan and cook the onions on high heat, stirring constantly so they don’t stick or burn. It should take only a couple of minutes for them to soften up.
Mix the onions with the other ingredients in a mixing bowl.Spread the pie crust on its parchment paper in a tart pan. You can use a pie pan, but it will be smaller and deeper, and the portions will seem smaller.Stab the pie crust a few times with a fork. Spread the onion mixture onto the crust. Fold the edges toward the middle if necessary (Christine’s tart pan was bigger than mine and didn’t need folding).Bake for 25-30 minutes. Serve hot or at room temp.
A classic dish of the south of France is ratatouille niçoise. It’s summer on a plate. It’s also a great dish for entertaining because it’s even better the second day, so it’s ideal to make ahead. Nice gets credit for its creation but it’s a dish common to all of Occitanie, the broad swath of southern France.
My friend Christine put it on the menu for our cooking class, along with grilled thyme lamb chops, which I’ll also include here.Remember, for a same-day dinner, we made the desserts first, starting with the crème catalan, then the baba au rhum. Once the baba was cooling, we tackled the ratatouille, or rata, as the French like to say. It’s very French to cut off words to two syllables: Coca-Cola becomes Coca (not Coke); McDonald’s is known as “MacDo”; spaghetti bolognaise is called “bolo”; Carcassonne is called “Carca”….
Even first names get shortened to two syllables (often one syllable repeated twice) to form a nickname: Laurence is Lolo; Louis is Loulou; Alphonse is Fonfon; Georges or Joseph becomes Jojo; Julien is Juju. Now that I think about it, all those are male names. Though I know a Brigitte who goes by Bibi. Female names often get -ou at the end: Michelle becomes Michou (sounds like mishoo); Giselle is Gisou. And there are another range of nicknames that also use the repeated two-syllable style: uncle (officially it’s oncle, but familiarly it’s tonton); I know a Tintin… But there are exceptions: a son (fils) may be affectionally referred to as fiston. Aunt (tante) becomes tatie. Grandmother (grand-mère) is more likely called mamie.Back to the rata.
Here’s what you need (easy to remember, it’s 3 of everything):
3 onions, minced
3 small eggplants, (large) dice. Purple ones should be peeled; white ones have a thinner, milder skin that can be left on.
3 zucchini, peeled and diced
3 tomatoes, peeled (blanche first) and cut into large chunks
1 green pepper, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1 yellow pepper, diced
salt, pepper, thyme, and a bay leaf or two
Cover the bottom of a large, heavy pan with a coat of olive oil. Cook the onions over medium heat, stirring often, until they soften.
Add the eggplant, and continue to stir until it softens.Add the zucchini. Then the peppers. Then the tomato and spices.
Let it cook until everything has softened up. Don’t put on the lid or you will end up with a lot of juice.
Serve hot, cold or lukewarm.What I like about rata is that there are no mistakes (unless you really burn it or you overcook the vegetables into mush–one of the Carnivore’s sharpest insults for a mix of overcooked food is “ratatouille”) and lots of room for variation.
To reduce the juice, I like to cook everything quickly and separately over high heat, so the outsides of the zucchini and eggplants, especially, brown, but the vegetables aren’t too cooked. They get added in turn to a mixing bowl and then heated together before serving. Or not heated. I learned, while writing this, that cooking the vegetables separately is the method that the French bible of cuisine, Larousse Gastronomique, suggests, though it says to cook the mix about 20 minutes in the oven. Putting the dish in the oven is a good way to avoid scorching the bottom, but I’d rather just keep it stovetop and not heat up the kitchen.I rarely peel vegetables–out of laziness and also for the added nutrition. I also add plenty of garlic–three or four cloves. Sometimes I use herbes de provence, a mix of thyme, marjoram, rosemary, basil and savory, which we tend to put into almost everything. Other times, I use fresh herbs from the garden–thyme, rosemary, basil. Rata is a good way to eat the rainbow. Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables gives you different nutrients, since the colors are linked to different disease-fighting chemicals, called phytochemicals.
Another plus for ratatouille: leftovers are great, and you can even put it on pasta or rice for a vegetarian meal.
We served it with provençale tomatoes (recipe coming soon) and thyme lamb chops.For the lamb chops:
Cut off the egregious hunks of fat. They will just cause your grill to flame up.
Brush both sides with a little olive oil so the thyme sticks to the chops and so the chops don’t stick to the grill. Sprinkle with thyme, salt and pepper on both sides.
Cook to taste on your grill. The Carnivore swears by wood charcoal, but we won’t get judgy if you use gas.
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was such a gourmande that he not only has a dessert named after him but a cheese as well. Even better, it’s an especially rich version of Brie (75% fat!!!), a soft cheese with a soft, white rind. My mouth is watering just typing this. It previously was called Délice des gourmets (Gourmets’ delight) before being renamed after the king of gourmets. (Note to self: get into cheese, too?)
Brillat-Savarin officially was a lawyer and politician, but he is best known as a food writer. This is no small feat, considering he was politicking (small-town mayor) during the French Revolution. Things soured, as they tend to during revolutions, and with a bounty on his head Brillat-Savarin fled to Switzerland, then the Netherlands, then the U.S.
Exceptionally for a refugee from war, he still managed to eat well and to write about it. His masterpiece, “Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante; ouvrage théorique, historique et à l’ordre du jour, dédié aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusiers sociétés littéraires et savantes.” Translation: “Physiology of Taste, or Meditations on Transcendantal Gastronomy; a work that is theoretical, historical and on the agenda, dedicated to Parisian gastronomes by a professor and member of numerous literary and wise societies.”I want to be a member of numerous literary and wise societies, especially those that seriously discuss cheese and dessert and that meditate on transcendental gastronomy.
Renowned francophile-California foodie M.F.K. Fisher translated Physiology of Taste to English, and she doesn’t let many chapters of her own memoirs go by without raving about the genius of Brillat-Savarin. However, despite M.F.K.’s voluptuous praise of him, until I started to write this I wasn’t sure what Brillat-Savarin had accomplished, just that it was great.
Brillat-Savarin set out to deliver a scientific analysis of food, eating and pleasure. However, his most famous quotes are more sociological, still current considering he died in 1826, and very tweetable:
Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.
To invite people to dine with us is to make ourselves responsible for their well-being as long as they are under our roofs.
The fate of a nation depends on the way that they eat.
The science which feeds men is worth at least as much as the one which teaches how to kill them.
The way in which meals are enjoyed is very important to the happiness of life.
Animals feed themselves; men eat; but only wise men know the art of eating.
Those who have been too long at their labor, who have drunk too long at the cup of voluptuousness, who feel they have become temporarily inhumane, who are tormented by their families, who find life sad and love ephemeral……they should all eat chocolate and they will be comforted.I totally understand why M.F.K. Fisher named him one of the two or three men she couldn’t live without (though to be clear, he died almost a century before she was born).
Before we get to the dessert, let’s dig into the metaphorical meat of the recipe. As the Brillat-Savarin cheese is a kind of Brie, so, too, the savarin dessert is a kind of baba, which is a kind of babka. (Cue the Seinfeld scene with Jerry and Elaine in the bakery, intending to buy a chocolate babka but ending up with a lesser babka in cinnamon). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xasrVIZQ4AE
Babka is a kind of Polish yeast cake or brioche (hah! the circle comes back around to France! and hah again for my unintentional pun, because the savarin/baba bakes in a circular form), introduced to France by Stanislaus I, who had been king of Poland until he was exiled to France in 1709. Yet another refugee.
Stan was pretty tight with the French. He married off his daughter to Louis XV and regained the Polish throne in 1733 thanks to French help. He was deposed again in 1736, this time by the Russians. Some things never change.Stanislaw headed back to France and had a good gig as Duke of Lorraine until he died. At some point, the story goes, he brought along a babka for the road. It was a little dry, so he—more likely his chef—added a little booze to soften it up. As one does.
The boozy babka became a baba. This is understandable, as “baba” rolls off the tongue more smoothly without that K, and everything rolls off the tongue when alcohol is added. However, Larousse Gastronomique, authored by Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné, says that Stanislaw named the dessert after his favorite character in “1001 Arabian Nights”–Ali Baba. The baba contained raisins or dried fruits, was soaked in a liqueury syrup and topped with patisserie cream (like vanilla pudding but better) or whipped cream.
The savarin, invented by a pair of Parisian pâtissiers in 1844, ditched the dried fruits, a move I totally approve of, and gave the dessert its wreath shape (it used to be a long cylinder). So really, the recipe I’m going to share is technically for a savarin, rather than a baba, though in restaurants, the two are interchangeable (that is to say, if you see baba au rhum on a dessert menu, you can order it without fear of confrontation with dried fruit). Although I adore saying “baba,” now that I have learned more about Brillat-Savarin, beyond M.F.K. Fisher’s gushings in her memoirs, I like giving him the credit, even though, as far as I can tell, he appreciated food strictly from a consumption point of view and didn’t cook himself.
However, the best part about cooking is that you can make things exactly the way you like them. For example, with whipped cream and without dried fruit. As my (and undoubtedly your) mother always said, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”
This is a great dessert for entertaining because (1) you make it ahead (the better for it to drink up its booze–you even can make it without the booze if that’s important to you–but making ahead is always key to successful entertaining) (2) anything with lots of whipped cream looks awesome (3) you certainly can make individual babas but when you make one big dessert that is cut into servings, the gourmands sometimes get a chance for seconds. And that is always nice.Baba au Rhum aka Savarin
120 g (1 cup) flour
50 g (a big half stick or 1/4 cup) butter
150 g (3/4 cup) granulated sugar
1 package (11 g = 2 big teaspoons) baking powder (yes, not yeast. but it turns out great)
3 tablespoons whole milk
3 eggs, separated
1/4 liter (1 cup) water
1/4 liter (1 cup) cane sugar syrup (you can use corn syrup; here, corn syrup is nearly impossible to find, but cane sugar syrup is in the cocktails aisle)
Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until the mixture is very white.
Mix the flour and baking powder.
Warm the milk and melt the butter. Add to the egg/sugar mix. Add that to the flour mixture.Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks (in French, this is beautifully expressed as beating them into snow). Fold them delicately into the batter. GENTLY STIR IN ONE DIRECTION! Chef Christine insisted on this!
Pour the batter into a buttered crown/wreath-shaped mold (a bundt pan will do).
Don’t overdo the butter on the mold, or the batter will make bubbles.
Bake for 25 minutes. When it’s done (a toothpick or knife comes out clean), let the cake COOL IN THE MOLD.
You must let the baba cool before adding the syrup!
Make the syrup:Mix the water, cane sugar syrup and rum and bring to a boil. Pour the WARM syrup evenly over the baba. It will stand on top; don’t worry—it will soak in after a couple of hours.
Just before serving:
Make the whipped cream by beating the cream and sugar (sugar to taste). If you use a stand mixer, check often lest you end up with sweet butter (voice of experience). Turn the baba onto a plate. Either fill the hole or frost the baba with the whipped cream. Serve with optional extra rum (to taste).