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Individual mozzarella soufflés make a nice, light first course for a dinner: simple, elegant, and delicious. True, all soufflés require special efforts, but these are much less trouble to make than large traditional ones. More of the preparation can be done in advance, assembly is easier, baking time is shorter, and the finished dish is not as fragile and quick to deflate as most soufflés are.

For this recipe, from Tom’s and my book La Tavola Italiana, there are two major considerations: having a lot of egg whites available (the recipe doesn’t use any yolks) and having an electric mixer capable of rapidly whipping the whites to stiffness. Those are easy for me, because (a) I often use more yolks than whites, so I keep a container of extra whites in the freezer, and (b) my heavy-duty Kitchen-Aid mixer whomps egg whites in next to no time.

Of course, the better the quality of the mozzarella you use, the better the soufflés will taste. As always with Italian cooking, the prima materia is crucial.

Are you still with me? I hope I haven’t discouraged anyone. What follows is an account of four of these little soufflés that I made the other day for dinner with my brother- and sister-in-law.

In the afternoon, well before dinnertime, I made up the sauce base. This required melting two tablespoons of butter in a pot, stirring in two tablespoons of flour, and cooking over low heat for two minutes, stirring and not letting the flour brown. Off heat, I dribbled in a cup of heavy cream, vigorously stirring to keep the mixture smooth. Then I returned the pan to low heat just long enough to stir in half a cup of grated parmigiano and eight ounces of diced mozzarella.
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This base sat at the back of the stove, uncovered and requiring no attention, for several hours. Also early in the day I defrosted ¾ cup of egg whites (six eggs’ worth) and buttered four 1½ cup ramekins and set them aside. In the evening, all that was left to do was whip the whites and fold them into the sauce base.
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For ease in getting them into and out of the oven all at once, I set the filled molds in a shallow (empty) baking pan.
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After 20 minutes at 375º the soufflés are normally done, but I think my oven needs adjustment; this time I had to give them 10 more minutes. They never do rise as high as conventional soufflés, so you don’t get airy towers of custard. But as I said above, they don’t sink as fast either, so you don’t have to sprint to get them – and your diners – to the table. Even when they do deflate a bit, they still have a lovely soft, pully texture under the thin, crisp crust. They have both intensity and delicacy of taste and texture that you wouldn’t think mozzarella would provide. In short, they’re a very satisfactory dish, well worth the effort required.
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There’s a rough, chunky Italian cookie that’s known as brutti ma buoni – ugly but good. At a dinner party of ours last week, the principal dishes all turned out that way: brutti ma buoni. It was one of those days when everything you touch tries to go wrong, and only luck kept the meal from being a disaster. This was the menu:

Mozzarella in Carozza
Spaghetti all’Amatriciana
Stuffed and Rolled Flank Steak
Sauteed Swiss Chard
Assorted Cheeses
Fig and Almond Crostata

I can’t blame unfamiliarity with these dishes, because I’d made them all before; most were even from Tom’s and my own recipes. Mercifully, Vicky and John, our guests for that evening, are good sports as well as adventurous eaters, so they were unperturbed by the appearance of their plates.

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The first setback was the antipasto, my mozzarella in carozza.

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This should have been a good-looking dish, as well as a delicious one. It’s made with slices of bread and slices of mozzarella, floured, egged, pressed together, and fried in olive oil. I’ve made this successfully for years (even wrote about it here once), but this time the egged bread tried to fall apart, and the mozzarella broke through its supposed-to-be-golden crust. Though it didn’t look at all appetizing, it still tasted much as it ought, and we all ate it happily enough, along with a little sauce of anchovy, butter, and cream.
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The spaghetti all’amatriciana also was from one of my recipes, this one in La Tavola Italiana.

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The only thing wrong with the pasta this evening was that the classic recipe uses bucatini, not spaghetti, and I only discovered that I didn’t have enough bucatini for four when it was too late to run out and buy more. Though very plain-looking, the dish tasted especially good because the tomato sauce was enriched by a particularly flavorful artisan variety of guanciale (air-cured pork jowl) that we’d smuggled in (shh!) from our last trip to Rome.
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But then came the stuffed flank steak: braciolone alla napoletana, yet another recipe from La Tavola Italiana. To get the full effect of this near-disaster requires several illustrations.

The flank steak, butterflied by our butcher

 

The stuffing ingredients: prosciutto ground together with parsley and garlic, plus golden raisins, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, an egg, and grated pecorino romano

 

The flank steak trimmed and spread with the stuffing

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Now, here was the first problem: Which way should I roll that meat? Starting at the short side would have made a great blimp of a cylinder, with many opportunities for the filling to leak out during the cooking. So I rolled from the long side, making a long skinny tube.
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The size of it presented the second problem: Do I have a pot that will hold a 14-inch long roll? It had to be my ancient, rarely used 13-quart Creuset Dutch oven. (I could hardly lift the 21-pound monster out of its place in the bottom of a kitchen cabinet.)

Starting to brown the roll, along with chopped onion, carrot, and celery

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I’d placed the roll in the pot seam-side down, hoping it would seal. Nope! What it did was spread open as far as it could around the strings, as the meat shrank during the cooking. With the stuffing exposed that way, I didn’t dare turn the roll at all for the hour of slow, gentle cooking it would need. So I poured in white wine and diluted tomato paste, covered the pot, and looked in every 15 minutes to baste the meat with the juices and be sure it wasn’t sticking to the pot.

When fully cooked, the roll was definitely brutti.
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Maneuvering the meat out of that deep pot onto a cutting board without its breaking apart was a little tricky but we did it. And despite my fears, when I cut off the strings it stayed intact. In fact, it divided into not-bad-looking thick chunks for serving.

And if I do say so myself, the beef and its stuffing were both delicious: genuinely buoni.
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In retrospect, I can see it was a mistake to spread the stuffing all over the butterflied steak. In previous (forgotten, evidently) cases, I must have mounded the stuffing in the center and closed the meat over it, with enough overlap to ensure the stuffing stayed covered. I’d better annotate my recipe to that effect, to avoid imperiling future dinners.

The cheese tray, requiring no cooking or manipulation, was safely beyond my ability to harm it, but my dessert, the fig and almond tart, was one more barely averted disaster. I’ll save the rest of that story for my next post.

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Yes, spring is just a week away, but winter has not started loosening its grip yet. There are still days that are so raw and cold and windy that I can hardly force myself to get out of the house even for essential errands. When I do, nothing thaws me out and comforts me like coming home to a bowl of hearty homemade soup.

I like trying new soup recipes, as regular readers of this blog should know: I’ve published posts about more than 30 kinds. One of my good sources is Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook. Its soup chapter contains 19 recipes, several of which I’ve made. I wrote about two of them here. This time around, I tried two more.

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First I made a simple Barley and Leek Soup, which the recipe said would serve four. I started by chopping two leeks, a stalk of celery, and a carrot, and sauteeing them in olive oil along with a sprinkling of thyme.
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Next I was to add a cup of barley and 6 cups of broth, bring it to a simmer, and cook for 45 minutes, or until the barley was tender. Tom, who had been looking on with a knife expert’s interest while I chopped the vegetables, totally disbelieved the quantity of barley. “That’s going to absorb all the liquid and swell to triple the amount!” he warned. I knew he was probably right, but I was determined to follow the recipe, and I did.

It was way too much barley. It swelled to about four times its bulk and indeed absorbed all the liquid, ending up as thick as a risotto. The recipe didn’t even say to cover the pot, but I did, given that long cooking time. It did say I could add a little water if it was too thick at the end. A little? I had to stir in two whole cups of water, just to turn it back into a soup.

Diluted down, seasoned generously with salt and pepper, and topped with grated parmigiano, the soup came out well. I would have liked the leek to be more prominent: less barley would have made for a better balance. But the soup’s mild flavor and soft texture were very comforting.
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And it’s a good thing that it was a good soup, because that four-serving recipe made enough for at least eight. Happily, soups freeze well.

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A few days later, with my soup jones still pestering me, I turned to the book’s Lentil, Potato and Spinach Soup. This recipe was to serve 4 to 6. With caution born of the preceding experience, I considered the fact that it called for a whole cup of lentils and decided to make half a recipe’s worth.

This time, I put chopped carrot, celery, and onion, plus rosemary and thyme, into the soup pot with olive oil and cooked for 10 minutes to soften the vegetables.
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I added a minced clove of garlic and continued cooking for a minute; stirred in half a cup of lentils and a tablespoon of tomato paste; and added a diced all-purpose potato, salt, pepper, and three cups of water. As before, I simmered the soup for 45 minutes, stirring often to keep the lentils from sticking to the bottom of the pot. And as before, the lentils behaved just like the barley and absorbed so much water they made a porridge. I had to add another whole cup of water to bring it back to soup.

For the last step, I tore up enough cleaned spinach leaves to pack into a one-cup measure, stirred them into the soup, and continued cooking just long enough to wilt them. At serving time, as the recipe suggested, I drizzled olive oil onto each bowlful.

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This was also a good soup – a little more complex in flavor than the previous one. The lentils were the prominent ingredient, with the spinach and potatoes offering nice color and texture contrasts. And, as I’d suspected it would, the “two-serving” half recipe made four generous bowlfuls.

I have to wonder if there was a copyediting glitch somewhere in that book. But look on the bright side: With people to feed, a recipe that makes too much is better than one that makes too little.

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I’m an inveterate list-maker. Besides shopping lists and to-do lists, I keep lists of foods in the freezer and bottles in the wine closet. For dinner parties I list the timing of every step in the final cooking and serving. And tucked into many of my cookbooks are lists of recipes I want to try some day. The day just came for one of those.

Today’s dish is from my list for Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine: gratineed ham crêpes. The filling sounded tasty, the creamy sauce was made with an unusual technique, and the final gratin was also unusual. His separate recipe for making the crêpes themselves didn’t attract me, but I could work with the Julia Child crêpe recipe I’ve always relied on. So on to the attempt.

One day in advance, I put together the crêpe batter – mixing flour, salt, milk, water, eggs, and melted butter in my old blender. Crêpes are about the only things I still use a blender for: I’ve found that the food processor can leave lumps. The batter needs at least two hours of chilling, but it’s perfectly happy to sit in the refrigerator overnight.

Next day, feeling quite professional, I assembled my batterie de cuisine on top of the stove: two crêpe pans, a little dish of oil and a brush to grease them with, a plate to receive the cooked crêpes, the blender jar of batter, a quarter-cup measure to dip it out with, and a little bowl to hold the wet cup. All was set up for fast, efficient cooking of two crêpes at a time.
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Pride goeth before a fall! It had been too long since I’d last used those crêpe pans. They’d lost their seasoning, so when I poured in the first batter it instantly cemented itself to the pans, even though I’d greased them. It had to be scraped off in bits – which didn’t do the pans any good.
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Chastened, I selected the less-bad-looking pan, scrubbed it with salt, oil, and paper towels, re-seasoned it as well as I could at the moment, and resumed cooking my crêpes – slowly and carefully, with just the one pan. They gave no further trouble, thank goodness.
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That taken care of, I could go on to make the sauce, while Tom minced half a cup of good smoked ham, shredded half a cup of gruyère, and beat an egg yolk with two tablespoons of heavy cream.
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The sauce started as essentially a bechamel, but made differently from the way I’m familiar with. First, I had to brown the mixture of butter and flour, rather than letting it foam along without browning. Then the milk to be added had to be lukewarm, not boiling. Third, after additions of nutmeg and cayenne it had to cook for 10 minutes, which is a longer time than I’m used to, before being enriched with the egg yolk-cream mixture.
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I set part of the sauce aside for topping the filled crêpes and mixed all the ham and most of the gruyère into the rest of the sauce. I remembered to lay out the crêpes ugly side up, so when rolled they’d show their better sides. It seemed like very little filling.
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I laid the rolled crêpes in a buttered baking dish and topped them with the remaining sauce, thinned out a little with cream, the rest of the grated gruyère, dots of butter, and – what for me was another unusual feature – fine dry bread crumbs.
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The dish baked for 15 minutes at 400°. It came out looking quite nice, except that the butter had made little puddles rather than spreading out. I guess my dots were too big. No harm, though.
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The crêpes were excellent. Richly flavorful, despite the modest amount of filling; though Tom would have liked a stronger ham presence. The texture of the dish was one of its best features: soft in the center but pleasantly crunchy on top from the breadcrumb gratin. I may adopt that gratin for when I make other kinds of crêpes – which I must do soon. Gotta keep those pans seasoned!
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Every now and then I come across something in the back of a pantry shelf that I’d completely forgotten about. Current case in point: most of a package of imported Italian dried chickpeas. Since they clearly had seniority among my dried beans and pulses, I felt I should make a special effort to use them.

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A timely email newsletter I received from the heirloom bean company Rancho Gordo featured a recipe for a winter salad of garbanzo beans (Rancho G uses the hispanic name) and carrots. So I started by making that.
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I soaked my chickpeas overnight in cold water. Next day I tossed them in a small mince of carrot, onion, and celery sauteed in olive oil, covered them generously with water, simmered until they were tender, drained and let them cool.

The remaining vegetables were raw: grated carrot, thinly sliced shallot, minced garlic, and chopped parsley. All were tossed together with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and ground cumin. I cut back on the recipe’s carrot quantity. It wanted 5 or 6 large ones to a cup of cooked chickpeas, which seemed like much too much.

It made a pretty dish, but it’s definitely one for lovers of the allium family: the amount of shallot and garlic were almost shocking at first taste. But the interplay of that sharpness with the sweetness of the carrot, the savoriness of the chickpeas, and the spiciness of the cumin grew on me. I wouldn’t want it often, but it was an interesting discovery.

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Next I tried a new-to-me chickpea soup. Soupe aux pois chiche is a Languedoc recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking, a book I usually find very reliable. This dish was not a success.
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Several aspects of the instructions seemed peculiar. To start with, there was an odd initial treatment of the chickpeas. After an overnight soak, there was a one-hour simmer, uncovered, starting with fresh water; then another uncovered simmer, in yet more fresh water, for another hour or more, until the chickpeas were tender. Wouldn’t all that plain water leach out some of the peas’ flavor?

Meanwhile I softened a sliced onion and a big sliced leek in olive oil, added a cut-up tomato, and cooked for a few more minutes. Then I was supposed to drain the chickpeas; return the water to the pot and bring it to a boil; add the sauteed vegetables and half the chickpeas; and cook until they could be crushed easily. The rest of the chickpeas were to be kept for another recipe. What was the point of that?! I just used half the amount of chickpeas to begin with.

I pureed the soup, reheated it and served it with croutons, as directed. It was totally insipid. The chickpeas could have been excelsior, the other vegetables were undetectable, salt was desperately needed, and when it went in, salt was all you could taste. I expect to occasionally come upon recipes I don’t like, even from cooks I respect, but this one was truly dismal.

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After that disappointment, I turned to a tried and true recipe for the rest of my chickpeas: pasta e ceci, from Tom’s and my second cookbook, The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. The dish this simple recipe produces is the sort of thick soup or wet pasta on which generations of Italian peasants gratefully survived winter. Pure southern Italian soul food.
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After the chickpeas are initially reconstituted (the recipe uses the two-minute boil plus two-hour hot-water soak method rather than the overnight cold-water soak; either is fine), they’re drained, returned to the pot, and stewed with canned Italian plum tomatoes, olive oil, salt, and fresh water, absorbing flavor as they go. Needing only an occasional stir, the chickpeas simmer along gently until tender. Since that can be anywhere from two or four hours, depending on their freshness, it’s good to do this in advance.

The pot can sit on the back of the stove until dinner time approaches. Then you bring it to a boil, stir in short pasta, such as shells or ditalini, and cook for about 20 minutes, until the pasta is done. Add an aromatic mince of garlic, basil, and parsley, some olive oil, and lots of freshly ground black pepper, and serve. Ambrosia!

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During the holiday season just past, I served two excellent French-style dinner-party appetizers that I look forward to making again in the coming year. As an aid to memory, I thought I’d start my 2019 blog with an appreciation of the two dishes.

One, asparagus croûtes, was quick, easy, and even tastier than I’d thought it would be from reading the recipe. The other, salade de geziers, was also quick and easy in the assembly and thoroughly delicious in the eating, but the chief component has to be prepared far in advance.

 

Asparagus Croûtes
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This is a plain looking dish, but its simple flavors come together in one of those magical French ways that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. (Hint: Think butter.) The recipe comes from esteemed chef Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine, which gives it a distinguished culinary pedigree.

For each serving you need one slice of homemade-style white bread, crust cut off and the slice cut in half; and enough spears of asparagus – thick or thin, as you prefer – to top the bread completely. In my version, on each half slice I used the tip ends of four thinnish spears, cut in lengths the size of the bread.

The asparagus gets cooked in boiling salted water until just tender, then sauteed gently in butter for two minutes. The bread is fried in butter and olive oil until golden. In a baking dish you place the bread slices, arrange the asparagus on them, and sprinkle generously with grated Swiss cheese and fine dry breadcrumbs.

Then, you either run the dish under a broiler or else bake it in a 450° oven until the croûtes are golden and bubbly. Doesn’t look like a lot on the plate, but it’s quite filling. Of course, if you’re feeding very hearty eaters, you can always increase the number of croûtes per person.

 

Salade de Geziers
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Geziers are gizzards, an ingredient many Americans consign to cat food – a big mistake. Gizzards can be delicious. While one of them should be included in every bag of giblets tucked inside a purchased chicken, it takes a long time to collect and freeze enough gizzards to do anything significant with, so I buy them separately. And what I do is confit them. Making confit is a time-consuming process, but once it’s done you have the wherewithal for this splendid salad.

Essentially, to confit gizzards you toss them with salt and refrigerate them for a day. Scrape off the salt, put the gizzards in a heavy casserole with melted duck fat to cover, bring it to a simmer, and cook covered in a very low oven for several hours, until they are tender. Drain, cool, and transfer them to a large jar; and pour over enough of the cooled cooking fat to cover them completely. They keep in the refrigerator for months.

For the salad, you want a leafy green that’s at least a little bitter, to contrast with the unctuous gizzards. Frisée is my first choice, but if it’s not available, tender leaves from the heart of escarole do very well. I dress them with a vinaigrette made with walnut oil and my homemade red wine vinegar, then top them with warmed gizzards. It’s an intriguing combination on the palate: crisp and soft, sharp and mellow, bracing and soothing.

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Both these dishes are truly – literally – appetizers. That is, they stimulate your appetite for what will be coming next. Nice.

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At a mid-autumn dinner at Manhatta, Danny Meyer’s newest New York City restaurant, I had a luscious lobster quenelle – the first I’d ever tasted. Its rich flavors stayed on my mind’s palate for weeks afterward. I just had to try making it at home.

Now, quenelles are not in my skill set. I’d only once made fish quenelles, many years ago, when I acquired my first food processor (the device that took the fantastically complex work out of making them), and all I recall now is that it still seemed like too fussy a dish to pursue. But quenelles with lobster – that’s surely worth another effort! Off to the fish market I went and picked up a good-looking pair of lobster tails.
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The first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking devotes six pages to quenelles, and Julia Child is very encouraging about them. She says they now “take literally minutes and have stepped out of the never-never-land of ultra fancy food into the everyday life of the average home cook.”

Julia, I adore you, but if you were still here among us, I’d tell you that that is an exaggeration.

The first step in the master recipe is to make a pâte à choux. No problem there: I’ve made puff paste for both savory (gougères) and sweet (profiteroles) dishes. I melted butter, salt, pepper, and nutmeg in boiling water; dumped in flour and beat ferociously; off heat, beat in an egg and an extra egg white; then set the entire pot in a bowl of ice water to thoroughly chill the paste.
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Next was to prepare the quenelle mixture. My bespoke knife man obligingly cracked open the lobster tails, extracted the meat, and cut it into one-inch chunks.
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The chilled lobster meat, the choux paste, and some heavy cream went into the food processor.
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If the mixture looked stiff after giving it a very thorough whirling, Julia said to blend in more cream – as much as it would take, which would keep the finished quenelles’ texture light and delicate. Well, it did look pretty stiff . . .
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. . . but I was warned against using too much cream, because the mixture had to be able to hold its shape on a spoon. Mercifully, Julia set up a test for that: Scoop out a bit of the paste, drop it into simmering water, poach it, and taste.
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Next instruction: “Process in more cream if you think it can be absorbed – but better too little than too much!” Worry worry worry. It took three more additions of cream and three more poachings to keep the test pieces from feeling rubbery in the mouth. (As you may have noticed, those Julian minutes were adding up.)

Finally ready to form and poach the quenelles, I filled a roasting pan with three inches of water and brought it to a simmer. Now the idea was to work rapidly, using two wet dessert spoons, to shape the batter into smooth ovals and drop them into the water. Here’s how that process worked for me.
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Pitiful! The batter wouldn’t smooth, it stuck to the wet spoons, and by the time the pieces hit the water, they had knobs and pimples all over. But after about 25 minutes they all duly came to the surface of the water, floated around, allowed themselves to be turned over a few times, and eventually swelled reasonably well.
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I must say it’s hard to understand how my half recipe’s worth of batter, which was supposed to make about 8 quenelles, turned out to make 24. I intended them to be a main course for 3 people, and it was clear we’d never be able to eat that many at a sitting. I selected the 18 least misshapen little lumps, set them in a dish, and left it covered in the refrigerator overnight. (Packaged up the rest separately.)
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Next day came the sauce making. The chopped up lobster shells went into a broth made from a fish bouillon cube and simmered together lengthily to make a concentrated stock. I cooked butter and flour together, beat in equal parts of boiling stock, milk, and white wine to make a very thick sauce, and thinned it out somewhat with heavy cream (cream and butter being the universal solvents of classic French cuisine).
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Finally came the assembly: Spread a thin layer of sauce in a buttered gratin dish, arrange the quenelles in it, pour the rest of the sauce over them, sprinkle on grated gruyere, and add – what else? – dots of butter. At dinner time the dish baked for 15 minutes in a very hot oven.
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It came out looking a bit messy but with an enticing seafood aroma. We could tell the quenelles were going to be very rich, so I put only three on each plate to start.
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They were marvelous! Light, fluffy, melting in the mouth, tasting intensely of lobster, with the sauce a perfect companion. So rich that none of us could eat more than three.

Now I’ve got some terrific leftovers to look forward to. And I’m very glad to have actually achieved this delicious dish. It was well worth all the time and effort.

But, dear Julia: mere minutes? everyday life? average cook? I don’t think so.

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