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.

Chicken fit for a Queen

Coronation chicken was created for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. I love how happy she looks here…

For as long as I can remember, Easter and coronation chicken have been inextricably linked. One of my mum’s favourite special occasion dishes, a giant platter of gloriously golden coronation chicken on an abundant bed of rice and iceberg lettuce leaves scattered with toasted almonds and dotted with grapes is as synonymous with Easter for me as chocolate eggs and the Easter bunny.

Originally called Poulet Reine Elizabeth, coronation chicken was created by flower arranger turned food writer, Constance Spry, and chef Rosemary Hume, who devised the dish while working at Le Cordon Bleu in London. A Paris graduate, Hume founded the London outpost of the revered French cookery school in 1933. Little did she know that 20 years later she would be cooking a banquet for 350 of the Queen’s most esteemed guests from around the world to celebrate her coronation.

The menu served to the Queen’s guests on her coronation

Among the other dishes served at the coronation banquet were tomato soup, river trout and a strawberry tart. It looks like the guests drank well too – one of the wines on pour during the feast was Krug Champagne from the victory vintage of 1945. Forming the centrepiece of the lunch was Poulet Reine Elizabeth, which was thought to be inspired by Jubilee chicken, a dish served at King George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935 that made a hero of curried mayonnaise.

Spry and Hume’s recipe calls for curry powder, as exotic spices weren’t readily available in post war Britain, with rationing only having recently been phased out. The Cordon Bleu recipe is a lot more savoury than modern incarnations of coronation chicken, which is now most commonly used as a sarnie filler for picnics. While often found in contemporary versions, sultanas had no part to play in the original recipe. Dried apricots however, did.

Constance and Rosemary suggest poaching the chicken for 40 minutes with a carrot, bay leaf, thyme, parsley, peppercorns and a generous glug of red wine. Staying true to their Cordon Bleu roots, the sauce has an onion base, to which the curry powder is added, along with tomato purée, lemon juice and a slug of wine, which you simmer for a few minutes then strain and cool. For the final flourish, you add diced dried apricots and an unholy amount of mayonnaise. The original recipe also includes whipped cream, which seems outlandishly decadent.

My coronation chicken looks like it’s straight out of a 1970s cookbook

Keen to put the Cordon Bleu recipe to the test, I decided to do a sauce off, pitting the original against my mum’s version to see which I preferred. In her remix, my mum swears by Branston pickle, simmering it on a low heat with the curry powder for 20 minutes so all the wonderful spices infuse into it. She also adds a teaspoon of honey and a quarter of a pint of double cream. Making the two sauces was a fascinating exercise. I felt rather like Goldilocks trying out the three bears’ porridge.

I found the Cordon Bleu sauce to be a tad on the savoury side and slightly lacking the punchy curry flavour I have come to associate with coronation chicken. While I preferred my mum’s sauce (perhaps from sheer nostalgia), in comparison with the original recipe, it seemed slightly too sweet. Blending the two into one master sauce, the savouriness of the former balanced out the sweetness of the latter into a ‘just right’ sauce that offered the best of both worlds.

With the sun blazing and four days off work, this was the hardest weekend of the lockdown so far, and the time I most yearned to be with my friends and family – crackling open a bottle of wine by yourself isn’t nearly as pleasurable as sharing one – but, as the Queen said in her speech last week, “better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again”.

She knows her onions

Onions are given a starring role in pissaladière

Onions and I aren’t the best of friends. An unsavoury reaction to the French onion soup at Brasserie Zédel a while back has made me wary of them ever since. While pleasant to eat, digesting it felt like someone was making balloon animals with my intestines. Priding myself on the fact that I eat almost everything, my onion aversion is a source of angst for me. The deeper I delve into French cooking, the more vital I realise onions are for imparting flavour. While they almost always play a quiet but important supporting role, every so often they are the star ingredient.

One such dish where onions play the lead is pissaladière, a Provençal pizza of sorts. A popular snack on the French Riviera, while pissaladière hails from Nice, the roots of the dish are Italian. The name is said to be a translation of ‘pissalandrea’, or pizza all’ Andrea. A Ligurian creation made with onions, anchovies and olives, the dish is named in honour of Genoese admiral Andrea Doria. The original pissaladière was made with bread dough and contained tomatoes and garlic. The French version does away with the latter two ingredients, using caramelised onions as its base.

The dish requires an indecent amount of onions – perhaps not one for a first date…

The name may also come from ‘pissalat’ (from peis salat) meaning salted fish in Niçard – a condiment made from anchovy purée flavoured with cloves, thyme, bay leaves and black pepper, which was traditionally used in the making of pissaladière. The key to this dish is being patient with the onions and allowing them the time to caramelise to such an extent that they practically melt. Given my tempestuous past with onions, it was with trepidation that I began chopping a trio into a heap, my eyes streaming like I’d just watched the final scene in Call Me By Your Name.

Onions are easy to get hold of during the lockdown. While eggs and spaghetti remain elusive, on a recent trip to the supermarket I was delighted to discover that the shelves were abundantly stocked. The panic buying seems to have subsided. My online shopping habits however, are becoming increasingly erratic. During one lunch break last week I bought two Haim albums and a giant packet of MSG. I’m sure the two will pair wonderfully. The lockdown is bringing out strange sides to us. The other night in a fit of OCD-fuelled lunacy I felt compelled to rearrange my spice cupboard but stopped short of alphabetising them from allspice to za’atar.

Pizza Provence style – easy as pissaladière

But back to onions! Julia recommends cooking them on a whisper of heat for an hour, which sounds excessive, but is the only way to achieve the softness required for a delectable result. To add to the Provençal flavour, throw some chopped parsley, a bay leaf and a sprig or two of thyme into the pan and enjoy the gorgeous garrigue aromas they create. To help the onions soften, cover the pan while they cook, lifting the lid for the final ten minutes once they’re caramelised. Have your black olives and anchovies at the ready for the fun part – decorating the dough.

I cheated when it came to the base. A bread dough is used, which isn’t tricky to make, but, keen to save time after spending an hour on the onions, I resorted to my faithful friend Jus Rol. Laying the whippet-thin base on a lightly oiled baking sheet, I topped it with the caramelised onions, then created a diamond pattern with the anchovies, placing the olives, as Julia suggests, at decorative intervals.

After 15 minutes in the oven my creation was ready to devour. I wondered if I might mourn the lack of a tomato base, but the onions brought a marvellous sweetness, which was balanced by the assertive saltiness of the anchovies and the savoury black olives. I wolfed down the entire thing in three sittings. While it made my tummy a little uncomfortable, I feel onions and I might be able to be friends after all. As Anthony Bourdain once said, “good food and good eating are about risk”.

How do you like your eggs in the morning?

It’s hard to look at a mushroom omelette in the same way after seeing Phantom Thread

As March draws to a close so too does my focus on eggs in all their glorious guises. Despite hollandaise disasters and quiches with soggy bottoms, I was hopeful of ending the month on a high, having left the quickest egg dish imaginable – the humble omelette – until last. With the UK on lockdown, eggs have suddenly become a luxury item. Good luck to anyone trying to find a six pack at their local supermarket. The only eggs that remained at Sainsbury’s in Chiswick were two lonely looking boxes of Clarence Court quail eggs, which I nearly bought on a whim to make the world’s tiniest omelette.

I managed to score some eggs at my local newsagent, which was selling them individually from an industrial-sized carton, meaning I had to practically juggle them home. I ended up dropping one on the kitchen floor and nearly cried. The decadence of wasting an egg at this fragile moment in time seemed particularly reckless. The history of the omelette is patchy, though is thought to have originated in ancient Persia. The word ‘omelette’, which came into regular use in the 16th century, is said to derive from ‘alemelle’, meaning knife blade, and was named thus due to its flat shape.

One of the earliest mentions of the dish appeared in Le Ménagier de Paris (The Parisian Household) in 1319 – a lifestyle guide for medieval housewives filled with recipes, gardening tips and advice on how to impress in the bedroom. Napoleon’s first encounter with an omelette came while his troops were passing through Bessières in southwest France. He was so charmed by the dish served to him by his innkeeper, that he asked the local residents the following morning to gather up all their eggs and make a giant omelette for his soldiers. An army marches on its stomach after all…

I jazzed up my omelette with chestnut mushrooms and a generous grating of Gruyère

In the 1920s, while living at The Savoy hotel in London, writer Arnold Bennett had an omelette named in his honour, made with smoked haddock, Parmesan and hollandaise, which remains on the menu at The Savoy Grill to this day. Julia Child is clearly very fond of omelettes, describing them, somewhat suggestively, as “smooth, gently golden ovals that are tender and creamy inside”. As for the cooking of them, Julia likes it fast and red hot. If following her recipe religiously, your omelette should be ready in half a minute, but I opted for a slower, gentler approach.

Three appears to be the magic number when it comes to how many eggs to use. All they need is a quick whisk and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. If you’re adding cheese then it’s better to wait until the eggs are in the pan. There is definitely an art to making omelettes, and a lot of it comes down to practice. The saucepan needs to be non-stick, the butter bubbling and the heat medium to high. Once the eggs are in you need to work quickly, sliding the pan back and forth to coat it evenly with egg. You’re supposed to stir the egg with a fork early on, but too much of this and they start to scramble.

It’s tempting to want to play with the eggs while they bubble away in the pan, but the less you prod them the better. After about 30 seconds it’s time to add the filling – I went for a generous grating of Gruyère and sautéed mushrooms. When it’s ready Julia suggests gathering the omelette at the lip of the pan then flipping it onto the plate. The easier way to finish it is to neatly fold it over and then slide it onto your awaiting plate. For an omelette novice, I was happy with how mine turned out, though I think a lot of it was down to beginner’s luck.

For a first attempt, I was pretty chuffed with how my mushroom omelette turned out

Smooth and golden on the outside, tender and creamy on the inside, with a wonderful earthiness from the mushrooms and a nutty tang from the cheese, it was an omelette Julia would have been proud of. I chose to make a mushroom one in homage to a chilling scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, Daniel Day Lewis’s swan song, in which he plays exacting fashion designer and discerning gourmand Reynolds Woodcock, who likes his mushrooms cooked with no more than “a whisper” of butter.

Food plays a starring role in the film and is used as a means through which to manipulate and control. Exasperated by the suffocating precision of his desires, Woodcock’s lover, Alma, cooks him a wild mushroom omelette at their country house in a bizarre act of consensual poisoning, with Reynolds seeking to surrender control so that he can be taken care of by Alma and nursed back to health. “I want you lying on your back, helpless, sweet, open only to me,” Alma whispers as he takes his final bite. It has made me forever wary of mushroom dishes, particularly those cooked by lovers…