“The neighborhood around Boulevard Haussman was residential and stuffy, staid apartment houses with few shop windows to peer into. But before long I found myself in front of a façade masked with heavy curtains and the name Cordon Bleu stamped in gold letters on a discreet dark blue background. The door was ajar, so I stepped inside, just in time to mingle with the audience at a cooking demonstration. The chef’s appearance behind his long workspace hushed the female chitchat. His performance was so gripping that, two hours later, I signed up for a month of hands-on cooking classes and demos.”—Diana Farr Louis
Eating Well Is The Best Revenge
By Diana Farr Louis
ATHENS Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—(First Published on October 24, 2011)—Like the character Gil, in the film Midnight in Paris, I always wanted to have lived in Paris in the 1920s. Unlike Gil, I did live there in another belle époque, the early 1960s. And most of the time, I knew even then that I was just where and when I wanted to be.
By the same token, I’m not at all sure I want to be in Athens in October 2011. After four months on Andros, coming back “home” has jerked us into an unpleasant, uncertain reality. Smelly piles of sodden garbage sprawl around every bin, the week’s list of strikes cover half a page in the newspaper and, most days, there isn’t a single form of public transport that will even convey us into The Big Olive. Unless we want to attend a protest march.
Maybe we should rename it The Rotting Olive, for the time being.
So, rather than dwell on our increasingly bleak present, I’ll turn my thoughts to the past and travel back in time to October 1963.
I had just arrived in Paris after a blissful summer in Greece. No question of not knowing how happy and lucky I was. And I intended to follow my dreams and have my year in the City of Light, even though Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, or even Sartre, de Beauvoir, and George Plimpton were not likely to cross my path.
After I got my bearings, I enrolled in the Alliance Française to put my ten years of school French into usable form. And then I took myself down to The International Herald Tribune Offices.
“How can we help you?” asked a flunkie editor.
“I’ve come to apply for a job,” said I.
“Well, I just graduated with honors in English from Harvard, so . . . I . . . thought . . .”
“You and how many others?” He yawned, lowered his head, and went back to marking up his text.
Those hopes dashed, I found myself a post as a jeune fille au pair, so I’d have free room and board in exchange for looking after Jerome, a gosse (brat) of six, while I researched other job possibilities.
On my second or third day there, Jerome’s mother, a tough lawyer, told me that in order to continue, I’d have to be enrolled at an “institution of higher learning.” The Alliance Française was just a language school and did not count. She wanted her largesse to help a bona fide student.
More studying was the last thing I wanted. Just out of college, I’d had enough of lectures, exams, and term papers.
So I did what I always do when I need to think. I went for a walk.
The neighborhood around Boulevard Haussman was residential and stuffy, staid apartment houses with few shop windows to peer into. But before long I found myself in front of a façade masked with heavy curtains and the name Cordon Bleu stamped in gold letters on a discreet dark blue background. The door was ajar, so I stepped inside, just in time to mingle with the audience at a cooking demonstration.
The chef’s appearance behind his long workspace hushed the female chitchat. His performance was so gripping that, two hours later, I signed up for a month of hands-on cooking classes and demos. We would meet Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning and every weekday afternoon. My French would improve, I could learn a new subject without opening a book, and we would eat whatever we had prepared.
Jerome’s maman grudgingly approved my decision. Granted, it was not an academic course, but she could not deny the role of the kitchen in French culture.
Soon I was bursting with it (in more ways than one). It’s a shame I cannot remember the name of our chef. When he was not tutoring mostly foreign women in the culinary arts, he was the head chef at the Hotel Crillon.
His afternoon demos held far more theater than simple cookery. A pink-faced man with a belly that spoke of a lifetime of tastings, our chef was first and foremost a performer. He knew exactly how to capture and hold our attention. As he chopped, stirred, and assembled his dishes, he’d describe with passion each step, each trick, building up to the moment when, like a magician he’d raise his creation in triumph from the oven.
Desserts were his favorites. Wielding pastry glove like a paint brush, he would inscribe frills and garlands with a flourish while total silence reigned. We dared not trespass on his concentration. Finally, eyes sparkling, he would lift his head and beam the widest smile at his audience and we, delighted, would break into applause.
But it was during our morning lessons that I got to deal with the nitty-gritty of French cuisine. Over that month, I either cooked or watched 96 recipes. An astonishing number of them are for dishes I wouldn’t/couldn’t consider serving today, from Riz à l’imperatrice—an elaborate form of rice pudding studded with glazed fruit meticulously carved into tiny squares and triangles—to Chicken in Half-Mourning, glazed with white gelatin decorated with thinly sliced truffles.
Among them—I still have the faded green notebook with yellowed, grease-stained pages where I wrote them down, first in English, then in Franglais, and finally in French—are instructions for strange combinations, like apple tart with rice, or a complex paté de veau et jambon en croute that covers three pages, or the reassembling of a lobster en Bellevue—with a mosaic of vegetables embedded in mayonnaise.
But though I would never attempt such recipes now, they contain invaluable tidbits of information: a few drops of cognac in the mayonnaise is good; pie crust is easier with margarine; use a white of egg in frying, it’s drier than a whole egg; fish should not be boiled—bring it and the liquid to the boil, then cover, and remove from the heat . . . unless it happens to be monkfish.
In addition, our mornings introduced me to basics that had been mysteries until then: how to slice, how to chop, how to make sauces, whisk cream and egg whites in a copper bowl, deglaze a pan. My repertoire soon leapt from bacon and eggs to gnocchi, profiteroles, oeufs à la Benedictine, and Omelette norvégienne (Baked Alaska). I learned to think in terms of an “egg-size” dab of butter rather than a “pat,” and that the principle in braising was equal browning on all sides, not burned on one and pale on the other.
For our classes, we were divided into groups of three or four students who got a chance to work on all three courses, hors d’oeuvre, entrée, and dessert. What made those mornings particularly pleasant was the assistance of a team of menials—young lads aspiring to be chefs—whose only job was to clean up after us. So we had no pots and pans to scrub, no surfaces to wipe, or peels to discard. (I would never be so spoiled again.)
We also had a double reward: we sat down at noon to eat the fruits of our labors, always accompanied by red or white wine, and we had individual instruction by one of the best chefs in Paris. We were just a little terrified of Monsieur X, for he could erupt with scorn if we or the boys did something careless. But he would also be the first to console if a mayonnaise curdled or a souffle caved in.
Meanwhile my cooking class was emerging as the only tenuous bond between me and my charge, six-year-old Jerome.
Every afternoon when he’d come back from school, he would ask, “Alors, qu’est-ce que vous avez fait aujourd’hui?” [What did you learn to cook today?] Even at his tender age, he was a connoisseur.
One day, my answer was: “Bouchées à la reine.”
“Ah,” said Jerome, “ça j’aime beaucoup. C’est le ris de veau avec de la pâte feuillettée et une sauce béchamel.” [I love that. Sweetbreads with puff pastry and bechamel sauce.]
I was bowled over. Where else in the world would you find a six-year-old who not only knew what sweetbreads were but actually smacked his lips at the mere mention of them?
And so, like Jerome, I became immersed in the glorious world of food. I often say that that month might not have taught me how to be a great cook, but it certainly taught me how to eat.
(Gougères au Fromage & Profiteroles au Chocolat) Cheese Puffs & Cream Puffs
Most of the recipes in my battered green notebook are definitely not appropriate for times of crisis. But as my husband, Joy of the People, is wont to say, “I miseria thelei kalo perasi” (misery needs a good time), and so here are a couple we may be revisiting. Once you’ve made cream puff pastry, you can fill it with cheese or cream, custard, or ice cream. I haven’t made these for a while, but I remember it as not being too tricky.
First make the pâte à choux or cream puff pastry
240 ml (1 cup) water
120 g (4 ½ oz) margarine or butter (I don’t even have margerine in the house, but our chef preferred it)
125 g (4 ½ oz) flour
1 tsp salt OR 1 Tablespoon sugar & a pinch of salt
Bring the water to the boil with the salt or sugar and the margarine. When it boils, remove from heat, and add the flour all at once. Return to the heat and mix quickly and well with a wooden spoon until the dough forms a ball and comes away from the sides of the pan. Cook another minute so the mixture dries a bit. Let the mixture cool for 5 minutes or transfer to a bowl and then beat in the eggs slowly, one at a time, letting each one get absorbed before you start the next. Continue beating for another minute. The mixture will get smooth and glossy.
Lightly butter 2 baking sheets or use parchment paper.
Fill a pastry glove (piping bag) with the mixture and squeeze out walnut- sized swirls about an inch (3 cm) in diameter, 2 inches apart.
Place the sheets in the oven preheated to 425ºF/220°C and lower temperature to 350°F/180°C after 10 minutes. Watch them closely. When the swirls start to color, turn the baking sheets around so they cook evenly. When they begin to puff, turn off the oven completely and leave for up to 25 minutes or until they are golden. DON’T let them brown. If you see them getting too dark, stick a spoon in the oven door to hold it open.
Remove from the oven and pierce with a knife on the side to release steam. Cool on a rack.
Next, for profiteroles, our chef would fill the puffs with a crème patissière or custard, which I’m not going to give you, since I never liked it much. Instead serve them filled with whipped cream or ice cream and topped with hot fudge sauce. You can squirt the former into the puffs with the pastry glove or slit them and spoon in the ice cream.
For gougères, stir in ½ cup (4 oz) finely grated gruyere cheese into the choux mixture after you’ve beaten in the eggs. And sprinkle a little on the top of each “walnut swirl” just before baking.
Actually, this is a most versatile recipe. Change the shape or filling and your only limit is your imagination.
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