Practice makes parfait

Having been given a shiny new set of knives for my birthday last week, I was eager to put them to good use. My collection thus far has come together almost by accident, acquiring the odd one here and there with each new flat share. I can’t remember how most of them ended up in my possession, but all of them are blunt beyond salvation. This made the joy of using my gleaming new quartet all the sweeter. Slicing a tomato with a pristine blade is like cutting through silk.

Having largely avoided meat dishes so far on my French culinary journey, I felt it was time to tackle a classic – chicken liver parfait. Despite enjoying many a mouthful of the luxuriously creamy starter, I’d never given its origins much thought. Scouring the supermarket aisles for chicken livers gave me a perverse thrill – like I was venturing into dangerous territory only brave cooks dare to tread. Having struck upon them, I picked up the packet and gazed in fascination at the tightly packed livers enveloped in a pool of blood the colour of ruby Port.

They filled me with terror, but, if handled with care, the reward would be worth the ordeal of cooking organs. I’m not wildly carnivorous and turn green at the sight of blood, so it took me a few minutes to muster the courage to open the packet. It was the smell I was most worried about. A smell, I feared, that may be like a tiny rehearsal for death. Julia Child’s advice to “remove any greenish or blackish spots” did little to assuage my fear. Upending the packet, my chopping board became my operating table. The livers were surprisingly silky in texture, smooth to the touch like polished pebbles. I found myself working through them with confidence, only squirming once or twice when removing the sinewy white connecting tissue.

Not for the squeamish – the ruby red livers are sautéed with shallots and thyme

Like so many French recipes, the parfait begins with a base of chopped shallots, hot melted butter and a sprig of thyme. I have no idea whether Julia intended to be saucy in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I rather hope she did, but so many of her instructions seem suffused with smut. For the handling of the livers, she advises to sauté them “until they are just stiffened but still rosy inside”, which takes around three minutes. Parfaits are raised from the mundane to the magnificent with a hearty glug of booze. Anything from Port and brandy to Madeira will work, the latter’s inherent sweetness adding to the decadence of the dish.

Having recently run out of Madeira, I opted instead for a sweet Sherry and a miniature bottle of 1992 Frapin Cognac, having been sent two samples in the post for a tasting when the first failed to arrive on time. With all cooking, the better the wine or spirit you’re prepared to use, the better the outcome. I used two shots of each. While Julia suggests lobbing the livers into the blender before they’ve seen a whisper of alcohol, I let mine mingle in the boozy broth for a minute to soak up the flavour, then reduced the sauce down to three intense spoonfuls.

At this stage allspice is added for warmth (nutmeg works equally well), along with a generous pinch of salt and pepper – confident seasoning is key to a tasty parfait – and 1/8 of a pint of double cream, because almost every Child recipe requires it. Raymond Blanc and Heston Blumenthal like to use eggs in their parfaits, but they’re by no means necessary. After less than a minute in the blender, the parfait starts to take shape. It gets its velvety texture from the slow addition of melted butter added while the motor is running as you would with oil while making mayonnaise.

The smooth liquid looks more like chocolate mousse than chicken liver

A paté becomes a parfait from one simple move – passing it through a sieve to refine its texture, making it impossibly smooth, as if whipped by angels. Reading that the recipe required a sieve made me shudder, bringing back painful memories of grappling with prawn shells while preparing a bisque. Parfait is far more forgiving. Gliding through the mesh with ease, the smooth brown liquid looked more like chocolate mousse than a savoury snack.

Julia has an aspic fetish – “a beautifully flavoured and moulded creation glittering in aspic is always impressive as a first course” – but I bypassed the jelly mould and dolloped the mixture straight into a pair of ramekins. They need at least three hours of chill time in the fridge to set, but if you can wait until the next day, the parfait will be all the more delicious, giving it ample time for the flavours to infuse. Many chefs believe parfait tastes best after two days, making it the perfect dinner party dish for time poor urbanites who like to talk to their guests.

Practice makes parfait

With chicken livers costing just £1 a packet, it’s hard to find a more luxurious dish made with cheaper ingredients. Rich, decadent, velvety smooth and creamy, my generous measures of Coganc and Sherry paid off, the alcohol adding sweetness and spice to the intensely savoury, earthy flavour of the parfait. It comes into its own when liberally slathered over brioche and crowned with a dollop of sticky fig chutney. It tasted so sophisticated I had trouble believing that I’d made it.

A word of warning – dispose of the discarded liver as soon as the parfaits are in the fridge. I made the mistake of leaving mine to fester over night and woke up to what smelt like a rotting corpse in my kitchen that took a deep clean to remove. But if you act quickly and use good quality alcohol, this French favourite is richly rewarding.

Holy crêpe

The flamboyant Luigi Cagnin makes crêpes Suzette with theatrical flair at The Ritz

Is there anything more French than a pile of paper-thin crêpes ready to be slathered in Nutella, squeezed with lemon, or stuffed with cheese then rolled up tightly like a Turkish rug? While the humble crêpe is easy to make from three store cupboard staples – flour, eggs and milk – a sweet version of the dish, crêpes Suzette, is served at grand hotels the world over and lauded as a retro classic. While the origin of the dish is disputed, it’s hard not to be taken in by one particular story involving a 14-year-old apprentice chef and the future king of England.

In his biography, Henri Carpentier claims he invented the dish by accident in 1895 when preparing a dessert for Queen Victoria’s son, the future King Edward VII, at the Café de Paris in Monte-Carlo. Aged just 14 and working as an apprentice chef, Carpentier was making crêpes for the king’s dining party at their table when the orange liqueur he doused them in caught fire. Worried he’d ruined the dessert and terrified of keeping the king waiting, he surreptitiously tried a spoonful of the syrup and found it to be “the most delicious melody of sweet flavours” he had ever tasted, which “would reform a cannibal to a civilised gentleman”.

My quartet of crêpes await their orange bath

Confident the dessert was fit for a king, Carpentier served his accidental creation to Edward, who was so taken with it that he asked for a spoon so he could enjoy every last sugary drop of the liqueur-laced sauce. Plate clean, he asked what the dish was called. Thinking on his feet, Carpentier dubbed it ‘crêpes Princesse’. In honour of the French lady in his dining party, Edward suggested the dish be called ‘crêpes Suzette’. Delighted by his dessert, the following day the king sent Carpentier three gifts to show his gratitude – a bejewelled ring, a Panama hat and a walking cane. Whether the story is true or not, it’s a wonderful nugget of culinary history.

Crêpes Suzette will forever remind me of a sublime five-hour birthday lunch I enjoyed at The Ritz last year. My mum and I were seated at 1pm and didn’t leave until after six. At one point the waiting staff began hoovering around us before a few pre-theatre couples sat down for dinner while our lunch was still in full flow. It culminated in Luigi Cagnin, the restaurant’s larger-than-life manager, a charming Venetian dressed in a navy blue tailcoat, theatrically preparing the pudding at our table while telling us the story of the how the dish came to be.

While the crêpes bubbled away happily, the addition of Cointreau failed to ignite their interest

Dousing the pancakes with a generous glug of Grand Marnier, Cagnin worked the flaming pan like a magician, filling the room with the glorious scent of melted butter. Having yet to see my mum or enter a restaurant since lockdown, the memory of that blissful afternoon is all the more precious and poignant. Keen to make the dish myself, I grabbed my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and went straight to desserts. Julia has some sage advice for crêpes Suzette novices: “If you plan to perform in public, it is a good idea to practice on your family until you become adept at folding and flaming”. Luckily for my family, I live alone.

I soon lost patience with Julia’s recipe, as the first instruction involved rubbing sugar lumps over the skin of two oranges. The recipe felt unnecessarily labour intensive, so I abandoned it in favour of Nigella Lawson’s version, who says, “If you’ve ever thought of crêpes Suzette as some amusing vestige from an irrelevant culinary canon, think again”. I quickly set about zesting an orange, which filled the kitchen with a magnificent scent that took me straight to Seville. Nigella’s recipe calls for the juice of two oranges, but, being a citrus fiend, I used three.

The scent of the freshly squeezed orange juice filled me with nostalgia. Perhaps because scent is so closely linked to memory, the fragrant citrus reminded me of the sweet smell of orange peel in an Old Fashioned and filled me with longing for an expertly mixed drink, elegant surroundings and the company of strangers. I digress… Batter made, while crafting the crêpes I put on Christine and the Queens for added French flair. Why is the first pancake always such a disaster?

My version of the dish was less syrupy and sweet than the one I enjoyed at The Ritz

I managed to make four lace-like crêpes, which I folded into quarters and arranged in a fan shape in a pan where they awaited their orange bath. Nigella’s recipe cuts corners, and sees the orange juice, zest, sugar and almost an entire packet of butter flung in the saucepan at once. Most recipes begin with creating a caramel from the sugar and butter, to which the orange juice is gradually added. Once it thickens into a syrup, you pour it onto the crêpes and let the flavours fuse on a low heat. Bottle of Blood Orange Cointreau in hand, my inner pyromaniac was gearing up for action.

Having deeply enjoyed setting fire to my mushroom stroganoff a few weeks ago, I was looking forward to giving Cagnin competition in the flame department. To my huge disappointment, nothing happened when I added two shots of Cointreau to the pan. Not even a whisper of a flame. The pancakes bubbled away nonchalantly, oblivious to the alcohol onslaught. This may explain why my crêpes were so boozy – I didn’t burn off all the alcohol – but this only added to their appeal.

The sweet syrupy symphony of orange, butter and booze is a delightful one, and I wolfed down two crêpes at lightening speed, making like King Edward and slurping up every last drop of sauce with a spoon. The other two crêpes were left swimming in the saucepan. They looked a little sad there, and were crying out for hungry mouths to devour them. Cooking a dinner party dish at a time like this is bitter sweet. It made me hanker for the chance to entertain again. To break bread with friends and talk until the small hours. I miss the freedoms we all took for granted.

Fish for breakfast?

King George V and Queen Mary arriving in Delhi in 1911

One of the plus sides of being a journalist during the lockdown is that high profile people have suddenly found themselves with a surplus of time on their hands and nowhere to go, making it far easier than usual to access these celestial beings. Among the more surreal moments of lockdown so far is having a Zoom chat with Lord Carnarvon, owner of the real Downton Abbey – Highclere Castle in Hampshire – about his new gin, which is made with botanicals from the castle grounds, including lavender, orange peel and oats usually used to fuel racehorses.

Carnarvon’s great grandfather, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in 1922 with archaeologist Howard Carter. My Italian grandmother grew up in Alexandria, so Egypt has always held a fascination for me. After chatting about his gin, Lord Carnarvon told me about his great grandfather’s fateful find. “Sadly, he died in the hour of his triumph. While in Egypt he got bitten on the face by a mosquito, which got infected and led to pneumonia. Curiously, the weakest part of Tutankahmun’s gold mask is exactly the same place where my great grandfather got bitten,” he revealed.

While kedgeree can be made with salmon, it traditionally features smoked haddock

“My grandfather was quite superstitious of the story, and chose not to trumpet it as the extraordinary feat it was. After he died my father discovered an incredible collection of Egyptian objects in a hidden cupboard between the drawing room and the smoking room while doing an inventory in 1988 with his very Carson-like butler, Robert. Among the objects was a ladies make-up set, tweezers and an eye decorating kit dating back to the time of Hatshepsut, one of the first female pharaohs who pioneered expeditions to the Horn of Africa.”

The day after our intriguing phone call, a bottle of Highclere Castle Gin and a weighty coffee table tome, At Home at Highclere, written by the Countess of Carnarvon, arrived at my door. Within it was a recipe for Anglo-Indian breakfast dish kedgeree. Keen for a break from French food, I decided to give it a go. A Victorian breakfast staple, kedgeree became popular in the 19th century during the height of the British empire. According to Larousse Gastronomique, the dish’s roots date back to the 14th century, when it was a simpler concoction of spiced lentils, rice, fried onions and ginger known as ‘khichiri’.

The fish can be poached in water or stock, but warm milk and a couple of bay leaves works a treat

British colonists developed a taste for khichiri, and, with fish being a mainstay of the Raj breakfast table, Indian cooks soon began integrating the two, later adding soft boiled eggs as a garnish. The fish used was unlikely to be the smoked haddock found in kedgeree today. Rather, cooks would fling in the catch of the day, serving it for breakfast so it didn’t spoil in the heat. Keen to enjoy the exotic dish back home, the colonists brought the recipe to Britain, and it soon became a Victorian breakfast table staple, the mildness of the spicing appealing to Brits’ delicate palates – Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale were particularly partial to the dish.

One of the joys of kedgeree is its versatility – it can be eaten hot or cold at any time of day, but the sweet spot is serving it warm as a brunch dish. While wildly unfashionable at the moment, I feel kedgeree is due a revival, and could one day rival the likes of shakshuka as a hipster brunch favourite. Lord Carnarvon likes his with salmon, but I went traditional with smoked haddock, poaching the golden hunks in warm milk. Kedgeree is a relatively simple dish to make, but it’s a true test of your multitasking skills. At one point I had all four hobs on the go and felt like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia making magic with the elements from his clifftop perch.

I made enough kedgeree to feed an army, garnishing the dish with soft boiled eggs, peas and parsley

It doesn’t really matter which parts of the dish you do first – ideally you’ll be boiling your eggs, cooking your rice and poaching your fish at the same time to ensure none of them end up going cold. The haddock needs to simmer in its milky bath for around 10 minutes. For added flavour, you can cook the rice in the milk that poached the fish, but the real flavour comes from the fried onions, butter and curry powder added afterwards. A tablespoon of turmeric helps to ramp up the vivid yellow of the rice in a similar way to saffron. The eggs need eight minutes, so they’re hard enough to keep their shape but soft enough to retain their gooey yolks.

The jury is out as to whether peas have a rightful place in the dish. I love the flashes of green they brought to the party, which popped wonderfully against the sunshine yellow of the rice. Some recipes call for cream, others don’t. Lacking any in the pantry, I used crème fraîche, which made the dish all the more luxurious. For a first attempt, I was delighted with how it turned out. The only problem was that I’d cooked enough to feed an army, so ended up having to eat the damn thing for the next three days. Cold kedgeree can by jazzed up with a generous squirting of Kewpie mayo, though I’m not sure Queen Victoria would have approved.

Gougères baby!

A good gougère should be light as air

My first memorable encounter with gougères – joyous, light as air golden globes enrobed in cheese, was during dinner at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester. I was invited to review the new truffle tasting menu at the restaurant, and, before the truffle fest, the meal began in a suitably decadent fashion with a pyramid of gougères. Ducasse is well known for them, and his recipe is considered the Holy Grail, so I decided to bypass Julia this week and give his gougères a go.

Unlike many French classics, the history of the gougère remains shrouded in mystery. Even the origin of the name is unknown. Hailing from Burgundy, early incarnations of the snack were made with just three ingredients: eggs, cheese and breadcrumbs, and were flatter than their modern day cousins. Even earlier versions were more stew than pastry, and featured herbs, bacon, eggs and spices mixed with animal blood and prepared in a sheep’s stomach – yummy.

Choux can do it – the pastry base is easy to make

Ducasse’s recipe requires a piping bag, which I was excited about using. I’ve yet to dot any of my dishes with exotic gels from a squeezy bottle à la MasterChef, but there are certain pieces of kitchen equipment that make you feel like you’re creating something special, and a piping bag is one of them. Unable to find any at Sainsbury’s, in desperation I considered cutting a strategic hole in the blue DHL wrapper of a parcel I’d been sent, which I’d kept in my drawer as a last resort.

Luckily, I struck upon some at Waitrose on Saturday morning. I practically punched the air with joy when I clocked them on the top shelf. Nabbing the last tube, I skipped jubilantly out of the store into the spring sunshine. Vital to a successful gougère is the cheese. Gruyère works a treat, but I decided to mix things up a bit with the addition of nutty Comté for added complexity. After whacking the oven on and lining two baking sheets with parchment, I got to work making the choux.

I used a tiny nozzle by mistake, hence my spaghetti-like piping

Savoury choux is made by melting butter in a saucepan with half a cup of water and milk, to which you add a cup of flour and stir until you’re left with a giant ball of dough that soon starts pulling away from the pan. A crucial step is the addition of four eggs, which need to be added one by one to stop the choux getting soggy. The beating of the eggs required serious upper body strength and brought back unpleasant memories of my hollandaise disaster and all the whipping it entailed.

Choux is easy to work with, and soon absorbs all the fatty goodness from the eggs, and even responds well to being loaded with cheese. I used far more than suggested in the recipe to be sure the gruyère tang came through confidently. Along with my mound of cheese I added a generous grating of nutmeg. Next time I’ll add mustard powder, as suggest by Felicity Cloake. Keen to get them in the oven, I over-filled the piping bag and ended up with warm choux spewing out of both ends.

My golden gougères fresh out of the oven

In a classic rookie error, I used the wrong nozzle on my piping bag, opting for the small round one rather than the much larger star shaped one I should have gone for. Thus, my piping work was pitiful and my poor gougères looked like mounds of spaghetti before being blitzed in the oven. I wasn’t hopeful of the outcome. To help them rise, they need ten minutes in a piping-hot oven, then a further 10 at a more moderate heat to finish them off, so they emerge puffed up and gloriously golden.

To my unexpected delight, unlike my soufflés last week, the pastry gods were kind to me, and I opened the oven to be greeted by rows of adorable, perfectly puffy gougères on one of the trays, and slightly more spaghetti-like flatter ones on the other. Considering it a victory, I arranged them on a pastel-coloured cake stand I bought at an antiques fair for the full Great British Bake Off effect, though made sure I tried a few of each shape beforehand. Both were delicious, the flatter ones more intensely cheesy, and the round puffs lighter and more elegant in execution.

Piling a few onto a plate to enjoy on my roof, which I’m treating as my urban garden during the lockdown, while climbing out of the window, I knocked the plate over, sending the gougères flying across the floor like ping pong balls. Within seconds a flock of pigeons had swooped onto the roof and were fighting each other for the cheesy scraps. My new feathered friends devoured them with frenzied glee, which I took as a good sign. Perhaps I’ll try out all my new recipes on them…

À bout de soufflé

The impossibly cool Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de Souffle

Notoriously tricky to master, soufflé takes its name from the word ‘souffler’, meaning ‘to puff up’ in French. The same word also means ‘to breathe’, hence my tenuous link to Jean-Luc Godard’s effortlessly cool new wave flick Breathless ( À bout de Souffle) – any excuse to lead with a picture of Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo. The film was shot in Paris, where the classic French dish made its debut in 1783 at Antoine Beauvilliers’ La Grande Taverne de Londres. Beauvilliers is credited as being the inventor of soufflé, and served various versions on his menu.

While Beauvilliers did much to popularise the soufflé, and introduce it to the great and good of Paris, royal chef Vincent La Chappelle, who cooked for Louis XV’s mistress, Madame Pompadour, is the first to mention the dish in his 1742 cookbook, Le Cuisinier Moderne. His version contained a mixture of sweet and savoury ingredients, including veal kidneys and candied lemon peel. A number of soufflé recipes made it into Beauvilliers’ popular L’Art du Cuisiner, published in 1814.

The twice baked soufflé Suissesse at Le Gavroche

France’s first celebrity chef, Marie-Antoine Carême, was mildly obsessed with the dish, creating hundreds of soufflé recipes during the 1820s and giving it a lot of airtime in his cookbook. More recently, the twice baked soufflé Suissesse remains the signature dish at Le Gavroche in Mayfair, and the benchmark for the cloud-like perfection that can be achieved in a soufflé when all the stars align. This is no easy feat, as there are all manner of obstacles working against the soufflé novice.

Continuing my exploration of eggs, I knew I’d have to tackle the dish eventually. A well cooked cheese soufflé is one of life’s simple pleasures. There’s something magical about the alchemy of how the ingredients work together, and something beautiful about how such simple ingredients can be elevated into elegance. My first attempt last month didn’t go too well. Having not been made aware of the crucial ‘top hat’ trick, my quartet failed to rise. They did, however, taste pretty good.

The egg whites need to be whisked into Mr Whippy-like peaks

Determined to get a rise out of them this time, I was meticulous in my planning, greasing my four ramekins with a generous amount of butter then sprinkling the sides with grated gruyère to aid their smooth ascent. Oven on, I set about making my source mornay, melting butter then adding flour, a teaspoon of mustard powder and warm milk, mixing all the while, until it formed a wonderfully thick béchamel. While cooling, I whisked in four golden egg yolks and an enormous mound of gruyère, then seasoned the sauce generously with salt and pepper.

The most demanding part of the recipe (if you don’t have an electric whisk) is vigorously beating the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Having made a fair few meringues recently, this wasn’t as tricky as I was anticipating. As I began to whisk Insomnia by Faithless came on the radio, which proved the perfect backing track to a few minutes of frenzied stirring. Having turned the whites into a cloud of foam, I folded them carefully, bit by bit, into the cheese sauce. This part of the process is crucial, as the whites need to remain as light and fluffy as possible.

My soufflés had risen to twice the size in the oven, but sank within seconds

I quickly dolloped the sauce into the four ramekins and created a ‘top hat’ effect by running a knife around the rim of the ramekins to create a space for the soufflés to rise. For the final flourish, I gave them a dusting of gruyère before whacking them in the oven and hoping for the best. After 15 minutes I decided to check on them and opened the oven door to find my quartet reaching heavenwards, their tops having risen enthusiastically like glorious cheesy clouds. My heart swelled with pride. It was the single most satisfying culinary moment of my life.

Preparing to capture the moment, I closed the oven door and tidied my work surface to make it camera ready. Feeling rather smug, I was looking forward to photographing their towering peaks and being able to show off their impressive height, like an angler snapped cradling a three foot trout. Opening the oven, I placed the ramekins on a wooden board then arranged them for the photograph. To my horror, they began to sink in front of my eyes, their bountiful peaks disappearing in seconds. By the time I clicked the camera shutter they had buckled under their own weight. I began to wonder whether it had all been a mirage.

Had I been so desperate for them to rise that I’d imagined the whole thing? I cursed myself for not taking a picture of the quartet while they were riding high in the oven. The image of my four, perfectly risen soufflés will continue to haunt me until I have photographic evidence of their existence. I can see why soufflés are so feared by chefs, who must want waiters to sprint them out of the door for fear of their imminent collapse. While mine may have failed to keep their height, they did taste rather lovely; light as air and full of tangy gruyère. I’m determined not to let this dish beat me – I’ve got them to rise, now I just need to keep their heads held high.