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Tom and I are just back from a trip to France. We spent the first three days in Paris, staying in a small hotel on the left bank, near the Sorbonne. I’d made two advance dinner reservations at long-favorite restaurants, and for our first evening we wanted to try finding someplace simple in the neighborhood.

We absolutely lucked in.

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This is Au Père Louis – an old-fashioned (in the best sense) bistrot and wine bar just a block from our hotel, and a little gem. The friendly but properly serious young staff greeted us with courtesy, albeit mild amusement at my so-careful French. Asked for une table tranquille, they gave us a virtually private one in a low balcony room, overlooking the active bar area. Most of the clientele seemed local.
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The menu was everything we’d hoped for, with classically simple traditional fare, at very reasonable prices. We each started with os à moelle – roasted marrow bones topped with fleur de sel sea salt from the Guérande and served with lightly grilled bread. The marrow was so fragrant and luscious that I forgot to take a photo until we’d almost finished our portions.

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Having the bones sawn lengthwise as these were makes extracting the marrow much easier than digging it out of the round hole in a cross-cut section of bone. I was tickled by the menu’s picturesquely calling that technique en gouttière, which means gutter-style.
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My main course was magret de canard grillé, avec purée maison. The large, rare duck breast came with a red wine sauce that had an intriguing hint of cherries, and with very flavorful mashed potatoes.
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Tom had saucisse au couteau d’Auvergne – a hefty piece of spicy pork sausage, served with the same good mashed potatoes. Preparing sausage au couteau means coarsely chopping the meat with a knife, not putting it through a grinder. It’s said to preserve more flavor.
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These were two very rich, filling dishes, so for dessert we shared a slice of a rich, filling (!) apple tarte tatin, which came accompanied by whipped cream so thick it was almost butter.

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Our dinner wine was a 2020 Chinon from Marc Brédif. Here are Tom’s comments on the wine.

Marc Bredif is a century-and-a-quarter old Loire winery, with fabled deep aging cellars – really caves – cut into the hillsides. It was taken over in 1980 by Baron de Ladoucette, one of the most esteemed producers of Loire wines, and has since grown in stature as a specialist in Vouvray and Chinon. Our bottle was a classically lovely Loire red, rich with soft Cabernet franc flavors.

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Finally, for digestifs, Tom had a glass of clear eau de vie distilled from Normandy apple cider, and I a glass of Louis Roque’s La Vieille Prune Reserve, a fine plum brandy. Both were excellent, and both did their digestive work quite efficiently.

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This supremely satisfying meal – pure perfection for a first evening in Paris – cost only €146, which is $154. In Manhattan, it could easily have been twice that, and we’d have been hard put to find a restaurant that actually had a quiet table. When we stopped back two days later for a light lunch, we were recognized and warmly greeted. That’s part of the charm of Paris – not just international éclat but also neighborhood warmth.

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Mies van der Rohe notwithstanding, less is not always more. Sometimes, less is definitely less.

That, alas, was the case when I embarked on my first new chicken recipe of 2021. As my regular readers know, chicken is one of my all-time favorite things to eat, and I never tire of looking for new ways to serve it. Poulet Sauté d’Yvetot, Chicken Sauté Normandy-style, looked simple and unusual when I read the recipe in the Poultry volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. Other than chicken, salt, and pepper, the only ingredients were classic Normandy flavors: apples, butter, and Calvados.

I’d never cooked chicken with apples, but the combination seemed worth a try. So, on my next trip to a reliably good grocery store, I picked up a pair of big chicken legs – not organic, not free-range, not brand-named; just what was available that day. The first cooking stage was to brown them in butter in a sauté pan.

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The chicken sautéed for about 20 minutes, until half cooked. While that was happening, I peeled, cored, and chopped an apple – the kind of chopping job for which it’s fun to use my mezzaluna.
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When the chicken legs’ time was up, I salted and peppered them, set them in a baking dish in which I had spread the chopped apples, and deglazed the sauté pan with Calvados.
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I poured all the pan juices over the legs, covered the baking dish, and put it into a 350° oven for 30 minutes, until the the chicken tested done. Discouragingly, it had looked better on its way into the oven (left, below) than when it came out (right). Gone was the taut, crisp skin and warm brown color of the sautéing. The legs were pale, limp, grayish, and soggy looking.
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Well, whatever else that chicken was, it was dinner for that evening. I made sure to load the plates with lots of vegetables, just in case. And the vegetables were needed. The chicken had turned out bland and boring. Lacking much flavor of its own, it hadn’t taken on any from the apple, either. The apple, tasty enough in itself, hadn’t even seemed to notice that it had shared an oven with chicken.
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What went wrong here? Two things, I think. First, the chicken legs must have been from a battery fowl, to have flesh so tasteless. Their anonymity and low price should have warned me away, and I should have held off until I could find chicken with a provenance. Second, I think the recipe was misguided: It was more of a braise than a sauté, which made the chicken skin unpleasant; and while the richness of duck would have made a good match with the sweet acidity of apples alone, I now suspect that even good chicken would have needed more supporting flavors.

Oh well, you can’t win them all. Little after-dinner glasses of Calvados helped reconcile us.

 

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The favorite everyday desserts in our house are cakes with baked-in toppings or additions of fruit. The batter is usually quick and easy to put together – not even any separating of egg yolks and whites. The gentle contrasts of moisture, texture, and flavor are comforting and pleasing without being overly rich or sweet. I’ve written about several desserts of this kind in previous posts, such as these:
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Clockwise from top left: plum cake Cockayne, from Joy of Cooking; peach cake from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen; blueberry grunt, with a sweet biscuit dough; cherry clafoutis, with a sweet pancake dough; 1917 cake, with raisins and applesauce; polenta cake with raspberries and blueberries

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Now I have another one to add to my repertoire: Torta di Bernardone, an apple and pear cake from The Tuscan Cookbook by Wilma Pezzini. This is the third of three excellent recipes from that book that I’ve made recently. (You can find my posts on the first two here and here.)

The recipe is credited to a trattoria run by three sisters in a country town near Pezzini’s home in 1977. Today, according to Google, there’s still a restaurant and inn called Bernardone in that town. I’d love to visit it one day, when transatlantic travel is possible again!

But back to the cake. The recipe expects you to be making the batter by hand, with a wooden spoon. I chose the lazy route – my heavy-duty mixer. It quickly beat together ¾ cup of sugar and a jumbo egg, then incorporated a cup of flour, a teaspoon of baking powder, 3 tablespoons of melted butter, a heavy ¼ cup of kirsch, and just a drop of vanilla extract.
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The batter waited while I peeled, cored, quartered, and cut into fairly thick slices an apple and a pear.
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With the batter spread into a buttered 9-inch cake pan, I arranged apple and pear slices alternately in a pinwheel pattern over the surface – entirely covering it with fruit, as the recipe instructed.
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The cake baked in a 350° oven for about 45 minutes, until the batter had risen around the fruit and the center of the cake tested done. It surprised me a bit to see that, while the apple slices stayed pale, the pear slices had browned. In retrospect, I think it was because the pear was very ripe. They made a nice color contrast, though, giving the recipe a bit more visual appeal than I had expected.
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Really, this little cake is a classic of its kind: a simple, old-fashioned, light, homey dessert. Like similar fruity cakes, it’s good warm or cold, and also lovely for breakfast for the next few days – if it lasts that long!
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According to Pezzini, the apples and pears make this the Bernardone sisters’ winter version of the cake. In summer they do it with peaches or cherries. I look forward to trying it with those fruits too, when they come into season.

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1917 Applesauce Cake

I’m not much of a cake baker. When I was growing up, any cake my mother made came from a commercial cake mix box, so I never acquired any of the skills. (She was a good pie maker, though, so I did learn that from her.) The few cakes I do make tend to be things like this one, which I wrote about here a few years ago: a very basic batter topped with fresh fruit before baking.

About two years ago, intending to expand my baking repertoire, I bought a copy of Anne Byrn’s American Cake. I couldn’t resist its subtitle: “From colonial gingerbread to classic layer, the stories and recipes behind more than 125 of our best-loved cakes.” Ever since, alas, I’ve mainly used it as a dream book: turning pages to admire the gorgeous big color photographs and reading about cake making history and techniques; but hardly ever venturing to make something from it.

Now I’ve stepped up to the (cake) plate – albeit with one of the book’s simpler recipes. Byrn’s 1917 Applesauce Cake is a model of wartime frugality. It has very little butter, no eggs, and not too much sugar, relying on the natural sweetness of apples and raisins. Nevertheless, it makes a hearty, moist cake with plenty of flavor. Frugality should always taste this good.
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The first step in the instructions was to cream the butter and sugar. Beating a mere two tablespoons of softened butter into a cup of sugar produced something more like a feathery fluff than a cream, but I hoped that would be all right. It was.
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The dry ingredients are two cups of flour and small quantities of salt, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. The raisins you see here have been tossed with a little flour, which the recipe footnote informed me keeps them from sinking as the cake bakes. The applesauce, totally unsweetened, I made from two big Winesap apples.
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I was a bit surprised to see baking soda alone as the leavening agent. I make scones, muffins, and quick breads fairly often, and whenever a recipe calls for baking soda rather than baking powder, there’s always buttermilk or yogurt for acidity. I guess the applesauce serves that purpose here.

I let my heavy-duty mixer stir the applesauce into the sugar-butter fluff, then the dry ingredients, last the raisins. The thick batter went into a buttered baking pan.
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The cake was to bake at 350° for 30 to 35 minutes. Mine took a little longer than that. It came out with a slight depression in the center. That was probably because the test for doneness was whether the top springs back when lightly pressed in the middle, and I had to do that three times, maybe with too much pressure. I usually test baked things with a skewer. No real harm done, though.
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This is the kind of cake I can manage: no layers, no icing, no decoration – just slice and serve. And it was fine: nothing that’s going to revolutionize my life, but just plain good. I want to call it a friendly cake. Not too sweet, not too spicy, nicely moist and gently fruity from the apple and raisin. It loved being served with a topping of crème fraiche, and I’m sure it would like whipped cream too, but it was just as pleasant on its own. It even went well with the white Rioja we’d been drinking with our dinner. You can’t ask for much more than that from an austerity-rations, wartime dessert.
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I’ve discovered a terrific stuffing for a pork shoulder roast. It’s made of apples, bacon, butter, mushrooms, onions, sage, a pinch of sugar and a touch of vinegar. The combination is from a recipe for a pork loin roast that I clipped from Saveur magazine several years ago and now have adapted for a piece of rolled and tied pork shoulder.

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There was a fair amount of preparation work to do for the stuffing: slice a medium onion, slice two ounces of mushrooms, chop a teaspoon of sage leaves, chop a thick slice of bacon; peel, core, and slice an apple, and toss the slices in a bowl with just a little sugar. Tom, my obliging knife man, did most of that work, leaving only the apple for me. He may have been thinking of the apple Eve gave Adam.

Well, that was fair enough. On to the cooking.

To begin, you crisp the bacon in a skillet, add the apples, and sauté them in the bacon fat until tender.
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Remove the apples and bacon to a bowl, melt a generous tablespoon of butter in the skillet, sauté the onions in it, add the mushrooms, and continue cooking until everything is tender. (The green bits you see below are scallions, which I used instead of yellow onions.)
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Raise heat, add two tablespoons of vinegar and stir until it evaporates. (The recipe calls for cider vinegar; I had sweet apple vinegar, which worked just as well.) Stir in the chopped sage, salt, and pepper.
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Finally, return the apples and bacon to the skillet, mix everything together, and set the pan aside to cool.
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For the recipe’s intended loin roast, a pocket is to be opened down the middle of each segment that will become a chop when the roast is carved, and as much of the stuffing as will fit is put in, with any excess being strewn around the meat in the roasting pan. For my piece of shoulder, I untied the strings, made one deep cut down the middle of the meat, filled the opening with all the stuffing, and retied the piece.
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I salted and peppered the meat, poured about half a cup of water in the roasting pan, and put it in a 350° oven for about two hours, basting occasionally. The little roast plumped up and browned beautifully . . .
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. . . though I must confess that it sliced rather messily.
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Nevertheless, it made for gorgeous eating: There was a wonderful exchange of flavors between the sweet, juicy pork and the varied medley of stuffing ingredients. This is a combination I look forward to making many times again.
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P.S. Jennifer, our dinner guest, looking on as Tom and I prepared to serve the meal, sneakily took a picture of me as I was taking a picture of the meat. She caught me leaning forward: I assure you my head and hands are not as much too big for the rest of my body as they appear here!
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Science has shown that you can make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Sometimes kitchen arts can do that too. It worked, this week, for me.

Beloved Spouse had innocently brought home a new variety of bread to try – a large baguette-style loaf listed by our usually reliable market as Italian Bread. It looked reasonable, though it felt a bit hefty. When sliced into, it proved to be essentially commercial white bread: The dense, fine, slightly sweet crumb had to have been due to more ingredients than the flour, yeast, and salt that a proper Italian loaf uses.

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When we want white bread in our house I make the White Bread Plus recipe from Joy of Cooking, and it’s a very different animal. So this travesty was going to be useless unless I found something decent to do with it. Resourcefully (she modestly said), I did: Bread pudding.

From a few unfortunate restaurant experiences, I know it’s possible to produce a boring bread pudding, but all the ones I’ve ever made are wonderful simple desserts – easy enough for everyday use, interesting enough to serve to guests. So I set to work on this one, using only ingredients that I had on hand.

My bespoke knife man (a big bread pudding fan) cheerfully reduced the loaf of bread to cubes. It made almost six cups’ worth.

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The next thing I needed was two cups of milk. I didn’t have any fresh, so I made up some with nonfat dry milk powder, boosting its butterfat with a leftover half cup of heavy cream. I scalded that liquid, melted in half a stick of butter, stirred in ⅓ cup of sugar, poured it over the bread, and left it for 15 minutes to be absorbed.

Then I considered fruit for the filling. My fruit bowl contained several bananas, a pear, and an apple. Any of them would have been good. I chose the apple, peeled and chopped it, and added ¼ cup of raisins to it.

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When the bread was thoroughly moistened, I mixed in the fruit, along with two eggs beaten with a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt.

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The pudding mixture went into a heavily buttered baking dish and then into a 350° oven for about 45 minutes, until the top was lightly browned and a knife inserted into the center came out clean.

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It was a delight, as always – warm and fragrant, lightly fruit-sweet, moist enough not to need a sauce (though it never objects to a ladleful of crème anglaise). Of course, there was far more than two of us could eat at a sitting, but one of the beauties of bread pudding is its resilience. It keeps well, reheats well – even freezes well, though mine rarely lasts long enough for that.

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Best of all, in any of its homely or elegant variations, bread pudding is a thoroughly comforting thing to eat. And given the way things have gone this fall, we all need as much comfort as we can get. Beloved Spouse and I may eat a lot of bread pudding this winter.

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Though Tom and I were away on a trip last week, we still had a Christmas dinner at home – one day on the week before the actual holiday. It was a full-fledged feast.

It started with a trial of three kinds of caviar, all osetra style: one from California, one from Israel, and one from Italy. We liked the Californian, from American transmontanus sturgeon, best. It was also the most expensive of the three, but still only a fraction of the cost of Caspian Sea caviar from actual osetra sturgeon. This led to reminiscing about the days when “real” caviar was affordable, if expensive, and when occasionally you could find some at a great price: It fell off the truck, no doubt. The Israeli caviar came in second, for both price and preference. The Italian, alas, was the least of them. (I’m putting all this on the record so I’ll remember it for next year.)

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Then we went on to an outrageous indulgence for a two-person dinner: a four-???????????????????????????????pound prime rib of beef – two beautifully trimmed and tied, juicy ribs. Call it the king of all planned-overs. I roasted it in a way entirely new to me. I had just bought myself The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook – a hefty tome of almost 900 pages. The book is full of earnest expositions of why its recipes are best of breed. For “perfect prime rib” it calls for roasting at 200° F, a much lower temperature than I’d ever used before.

Since total slow roasting leaves an unsightly fatty exterior, the book says to brown the entire piece of meat on the stove before putting it in the oven, so that’s what I did. My biggest cast-iron skillet served well for both the browning and the roasting.

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Assuming you want your roast medium rare, the recipe calls for cooking it 30 minutes to the pound, which would have been 2 hours for mine. Since Tom and I like our beef practically still mooing, I gave it an hour and 20 minutes, plus a 25-minute rest before carving. It came out beautifully, and tasted every bit as good as it looked.

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Our vegetable accompaniments were leeks braised in broth with a dab of tomato paste and a dash of Cholula hot sauce; and a puree of Green Mountain potatoes and parsnip, gratineed with cream and an egg. Also in the photo is a 1985 Biondi Santi Brunello – a very special wine, which to our surprise still wasn’t fully ready to drink. It could have taken ten more years of aging, even after the far-from-optimum conditions of our storage. An amazing wine.

Finally, at the back of the table you can see the tiny apple tart I’d made for dessert. Perfectly lovely Christmas fare, all of it, even if it wasn’t enjoyed on December 25 – and it provided luscious leftover beef for another full meal for two, plus sandwiches.

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Scaling back a recipe that serves six to eight to a size for just two persons can be tricky. Arithmetically, it’s no problem (a pocket calculator helps) but in practice it doesn’t always work well. I’ve had fairly good luck doing this, but sometimes I’m reminded of the pitfalls. So it was this week, when Tom asked for a Tarte Tatin for dessert.

We both love this tender, caramelized, upside-down apple pastry, though I hadn’t made one in years. I could have made a full-size tart using any of several of my cookbooks, but it’s a dish that isn’t as good leftover as it is freshly made, so I decided to try creating just a tiny one.

way to cookI based my experiment on the recipe in Julia Child’s The Way to Cook, which Julia says is her fourth and, as far as she’s concerned, her definitive version of the dish. She calls for a heavy nine-inch frying pan to make a tart serving six. Dusting off my high school algebra again (A=πr2), I calculated that my little six-inch cast iron pan should be the right size for one-third of the recipe. Thus arithmetically fortified, I bravely set to work.

Preparing the apples was the first step. An easy start: One-third of six apples is two apples. I peeled, quartered, and cored them; cut the quarters in half lengthwise; and tossed them in a bowl with sugar and lemon. My apple eighths were my first mistake, as you’ll see in a moment.

Next I had to prepare a caramel syrup. I melted butter in the frying pan, blended in sugar, and stirred until the mixture turned golden brown. That worked all right, though I now think I should have let it get a little darker.

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Off heat, I had to arrange the drained apple pieces on top of the syrup in the pan. Here’s where things got tricky. There wasn’t enough room in it to make the pretty circular design of slices that’s characteristic of a tarte Tatin. I had to just squeeze in my big chunks of fruit wherever they’d fit – heaping the upper layers above the rim of the pan, as Julia said I should, assuring me that they’d sink down as they cooked.

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Well, they didn’t. The next step was to put the pan back on the stove and cook for about 20 minutes, drawing up the juices with a bulb baster and drizzling them over the apples, until they softened and the syrup thickened. My bulky apples stubbornly resisted softening, both uncovered at first, then covered. (The full glory of hindsight now told me I should’ve cut them thinner!) Furthermore, the cover I used wasn’t a tight fit, so juices kept bubbling over and spitting down into the stove.

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Eventually (more like 40 minutes than 20) I called a halt, took the pan off the burner to cool a little, and prepared to roll out a circle of dough for the pastry cover. I’d taken a slab of my leftover dough from the freezer in advance, thinking it was ordinary short-crust pastry dough. As soon as I began to work it, I realized it was actually pasta frolla: maddeningly fragile, frangible stuff. (Ever-ready hindsight now reminded me to always – ALWAYS – label everything.) True to type, the pasta frolla kept breaking apart whenever I tried to lift the sheet of dough. I finally had to roll it between sheets of plastic wrap to keep it together, and then hustle it onto the apples, patching and pasting the edges back together.  It wasn’t supposed to look like this:

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In the subsequent baking, the caramel syrup continued to ooze out around the edges of the pan. Fortunately, I was expecting that now, and I’d put a cookie sheet on an oven shelf just below the tart, to catch the drips. By the end, the pastry had crumbled some more, and I nearly despaired.

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The last instruction was to tilt the pan at that point and if the juices were still runny, to put the pan back on the stove and boil them down to a thick syrup. No way I was about to try that maneuver with my little mess of a tart! I just covered the pan with a plate, reversed the two, and lifted off the pan. To my great surprise, aside from being paler than it should have been, the tart didn’t look too bad.

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And in fact, it tasted quite good. Two of us had no trouble eating it all at a sitting. It wasn’t overly sweet – possibly because a fair amount of the caramel syrup had escaped during the cooking – but the apples were sweet enough in themselves. I don’t remember ever having this trouble with full-size tartes Tatin, and even though this time I snatched a victory of sorts from the jaws of defeat, I guess I won’t be trying a miniature again.

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Where the Caramel Went

Where the Caramel Went

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Postscript: Brooding on those caramel spillages after cleaning them up, I recalculated the math about pan sizes. By golly, I’d gotten it wrong! The area of a nine-inch frying pan is 63.6 square inches, and the area of a six-incher is 28.3 square inches. Ergo, my small one was close to one-half the size of a large one, not only one-third of it, as I somehow originally came up with. (I’m literate, not numerate.)

But here’s the weird thing: That being the case, why couldn’t my more-than-one-third-size pan hold one-third of the recipe’s worth of syrup without dribbling all over the stove and oven? Yes, bigger pans have higher sides, but only proportionately. Beats me!

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Stayman Winesaps are my favorite cooking apple. The local ones seem especially good this year. They’re not one of the prettiest varieties – a little dull looking, but crisp, tart, and juicy. Here they are in my Greenmarket.

I almost always buy too many of them, but I’ve learned how to keep apples: in a brown paper bag in the refrigerator’s crisper drawer, where they stay well for a long time. My latest batch didn’t hang around for long. I made three apple dishes on three different days this week: a main course, an appetizer, and a dessert.

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Pork Chops with Apples in Cider Sauce

Pork and apples are always a good combination. I found this recipe for Chuletas de Cerdo a la Asturiana in Penelope Casas’s The Foods and Wines of Spain. I’ve always had good results from this book, such as the two dishes I wrote about here, and this one is no exception.

It’s a very easy dish to make. Salt, flour, and brown pork chops in butter and oil; set them aside and briefly sauté sliced apples in the same fats. Lay half the apple slices in an ovenproof dish, top with the chops and the rest of the apples. Deglaze the sauté pan with a little broth and hard cider; pour that over the chops and apples. Cover and cook in a moderate oven until the chops are tender.

It was delicious. The pork’s own sweetness blended with that of the apples, and the apples absorbed some of the succulence of the pork. The little sauce was good on boiled potatoes, too. Casas suggests drinking the same cider with the dish, but we found a Beaujolais went perfectly well. There was nothing in this recipe – neither ingredient nor technique – that wouldn’t have been perfectly at home in a Norman or a Breton kitchen. Or an English or American one, for that matter: Apples speak the international language.

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Chorizo and Apples in Hard Cider Sauce

I happened on this tapa recipe for Chorizo alla Sidra while flipping through pages in the Casas book. I had cider left from the pork chop recipe, and I had chorizos in the freezer (they’d survived the post-hurricane power outage). Those are the only two ingredients other than apples, so making it was a slam-dunk.

All it took was to simmer a whole chorizo, some sliced apples, and a little cider in a covered pan for 15 minutes, adding more cider as the liquid evaporated. Then slice the chorizo and serve with the apples and sauce.

It was okay – not exceptional. The apples and cider had tamed down the spiciness of the chorizo more than we liked. The apples were good, with just a hint of flavor from the chorizo, but I’d let the liquid reduce too far. More sauce would have helped. Altogether, the dish was a bit less than the sum of its parts.

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Grandmother’s Apple Tart

The grandmother in question here is not mine. The recipe for Tarte aux Pommes Grand-Mere, which I found in the Pies & Pastries volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series, was originally printed in a cookbook called La Cuisine Lyonnaise. I have many recipes for apple tarts, from the plainest, such as the one I wrote about here, to some elaborate ones that take most of a day to achieve. This one was a little different from any that I’d made before, so I gave it a try.

I lined a pan with the recipe’s all-butter short-crust pastry dough, paved it with sliced apples, and sprinkled them with sugar. Then – this was the first unusual thing – the pan went into a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes. I’m used to baking pies and tarts at much higher temperatures. Meanwhile I prepared a small mixture of an egg, sugar, heavy cream, and kirsch. That custard filling was another thing I hadn’t used in a tart before.

I poured the mixture over the apples and returned the pan to the oven for another 20 minutes. I’d expected the custard to swell and engulf the apples, but it really didn’t. You can barely see it in the finished tart.

The finished tart was very good. The crust stayed fairly pale, but it was fully cooked, crisp and flaky, despite the low-temperature baking. Though the custard base was hardly noticeable, it moistened and flavored each bite of the tart. I might raise the quantity of custard next time I make this recipe, because we liked it quite a lot. Those Lyonnaise grandmothers knew their stuff.

The final unusual thing about this recipe was an instruction to serve the tart hot. That idea didn’t appeal to me. I’d made the tart early in the day, so at dinner time I just warmed it slightly in the oven, and it was fine.

Next time I might try raising the oven temperature a little for the second half of the cooking, to brown the pastry a bit more. More color wouldn’t hurt the apples either – it’s a rather pale tart. And finally, when an open-faced tart involves two layers of apples, I must remember to save enough of the best-shaped slices for an attractive pinwheel arrangement on the top!

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Christmas dinner needs an important dish for a centerpiece. This year Tom and I started cookbook research and planning for the meal weeks in advance. We finally chose an elaborate recipe that we’d never made before from Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine: Pintadeau farci Jean Cocteau, stuffed guinea hen served with boudins blancs, boudins noirs, and sautéed apples.

What did Jean Cocteau have to do with the dish, you ask? We wondered too. It isn’t explained in La Cuisine, but I found out that, five years before it was published, Oliver had produced a very small, elegant printing of another book called Recettes pour un ami, with a preface and many illustrations by Cocteau, for whom three of the dishes were named. That book is a collector’s item now, listed for 375 pounds sterling when last available, so I’m never likely to see it.

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La Cuisine’s photo of the guinea hen looked good; all the ingredients were interesting, and the instructions seemed quite plausible when we read through the recipe. It wasn’t until we actually began to make the dish that we realized how bizarre it was. (I must mention that this was a cooperative cooking adventure; Tom and I prepared the whole dinner together.)

To start with, the recipe’s proportions were Gargantuan. To serve two persons, it called for a two-pound guinea hen, four boudins blanc and four boudins noir (that’s a good pound of sausages per person), eight fried croûtons the size of the sausages, and four apples. I’d like to have seen Cocteau and his ami Oliver eating all that!

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We had a three-pound bird, which we knew would be ample for our four diners in the context of the rest of our menu. Ditto one each of the apples and black and white sausages. In a fit of abstemiousness, we skipped the croûtons.

The stuffing mixture was bread, hard-boiled egg, raw egg, the hen’s giblets, nutmeg, cinnamon, tarragon, chives, and chervil. We made the amount given for a two-pound guinea hen, and it was way too much even for our larger bird. I had to squeeze some of it into the neck cavity and sew it up tightly with a darning needle and thread.

The bird was to be wrapped in pork fat and casserole-roasted on top of the stove, with white wine and a mirepoix of carrots, onions, and garlic. Gargantua struck again here: You were to chop three whole carrots and three whole onions for the mirepoix. Even allowing that vegetables in France 40 years ago were probably smaller than ours are now, that still would’ve been a vast amount. And the whole cup of wine called for would’ve made a very acid gravy. So again we made adjustments.

Now, continuing the impractical instructions (don’t worry; this story has a happy ending): The whole guinea hen, once browned, was supposed to be done in 25 minutes. Have you ever tried to brown a bird that’s wrapped in pork fat? It’s simply not possible. And our larger bird took 45 minutes to tenderize. Then you were supposed to reduce the pan juices and just pour them over the bird for serving. Our mirepoix vegetables, even though chopped fine, and even after the longer cooking time, were still in recognizable bits, so the sauce would have been pretty ugly. We pureed it.

Here’s the dish as we brought it to the table:

Note how different it looks from the mahogany-brown bird in the book’s photo, above. Note too how pure white the book’s boudins blancs are, totally unmarked by sauteeing in butter, and the absence of apples or gravy in that photo. One more fraud perpetrated by the food stylists!

The good news is that the dish was really excellent. Odd as the combination was, the bird, the blood sausages, the mild sausages, the apples, and the gravy all came together felicitously. With them we drank a 2005 Moillard Beaune Grèves Premier Cru, and happy we were.

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A few more words about Cocteau and food. In addition to his serious writings, he did a jesting piece called Petit lettre à la dérive, which creates a litany of the dinner-table imperatives that parents deliver to their children:

Mange ta soupe. Tiens-toi droit. Mange lentement. Ne mange pas si vite. Bois en mangeant. Coupe ta viande en petits morceaux. Tu ne fais que tordre et avaler. Ne joue pas avec ton couteau. Ce n’est pas comme ça qu’on tient sa fourchette. On ne chante pas à table. Vide ton assiette. Ne te balance pas sur ta chaise. Finis ton pain. Pousse ton pain. Mâche. Ne parle pas la bouche pleine. Ne mets pas tes coudes sur la table. Ramasse ta serviette. Ne fais pas de bruit en mangeant. Tu sortiras de table quand on aura fini. Essuie ta bouche avant de m’embrasser.

Cette petite liste réveille une foule de souvenirs, ceux de l’enfance. C’est très longtemps après qu’on arrive à comprendre qu’un dîner peut être un véritable chef-d’oeuvre.

As a New Year’s wish, therefore, may we all, in 2012, eat our soup, sit up straight, not play with our knife, wipe our mouth before kissing anyone, and enjoy many dinners that are veritable chefs d’oeuvre!

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