Posts Tagged ‘puff pastry’

Champagne. Oysters Rockefeller. Ham Pithiviers. That’s the eccentric dinner I just made to celebrate the eccentric digital publication of an eccentric scholarly book by my admirably eccentric spouse.

Many of my readers know Tom from his wine blog, as well as his wine and food books. He was also a university professor, with four scholarly books published before he retired. His magnum opus on allegory, on which he spent many years, unfortunately never found an academic press. Now, with all the extra time at home that we’ve had during the pandemic, we’ve taken matters into our own hands and created it ourselves as a digital book. Please take a peek at The Strangeness of Allegory.

For a tiny two-person celebration of its publication, we wanted a bottle of champagne and some interesting foods to enjoy it with. After much cookbook research and many tempting items to choose from, we settled on the two mentioned above.

Oysters Rockefeller

Invented at Antoine’s restaurant in New Orleans in 1889, Oysters Rockefeller is a warhorse of old-style elegance in American cooking, and a dish neither of us happen ever to have tasted. No better time than this! My cookbook collection yielded nine different recipes for it. I chose one of the simpler ones, from The Grand Central Oyster Bar Restaurant Seafood Cookbook.

It calls for raw oysters in their half shells to be covered with a thick green topping made by blending sautéed parsley, shallots, celery, chervil, and spinach with fresh breadcrumbs, softened butter, salt, pepper, cayenne, Worcestershire sauce, and Pernod. Then the oysters are bedded down in hot rock salt on metal pans and briefly baked in a very hot oven.

The topping was easy to put together (though I skipped the chervil and substituted Italian white vermouth for the Pernod). But hot rock salt was beyond my capacity. The closest I could come was to ease my dozen filled Wellfleet oyster shells into the dimples in four escargot tins and give them a longer time in the oven.

Definitely not as picturesque as a bed of rock salt, but it served just as well. Other recipes call for larger amounts of breadcrumbs, so that the oyster topping turns brown and crisp. This one left them a soft, beautiful intense green, which we found very pleasing. The dish is clearly a close relative of the French escargots à la bourguignonne, but the absence of garlic and the medley of aromatic vegetables made for an unusual and piquant presentation.

The Wellfleets were beautifully saline and loved their buttery green robes. We slowly savored every one of the rich little creatures, and wiped up their extra sauce with bits of crusty bread. They went very well with the champagne.

Ham Pithiviers

It was the mouthwatering picture of this pithiviers in Julia Child & Company that induced us to want it as the entire second course of our festivity. Years ago, when I was young and enterprising, I had moderate success with a dessert pithiviers, filled with almond cream, from Julia’s Mastering, II. I even made the puff pastry from scratch. I’m not so ambitious any more, but excellent, buttery, frozen puff pastry is available now in stores, so I bravely ventured again with this savory version.

I’m not going to show you the book’s picture, because it’ll make mine look like a big girl scout cookie, but I have to say I was nevertheless pretty pleased with the way it came out. It was only a little lopsided.

Impressive looking as the dish is, it’s actually easy to make once you have the dough. The filling is humble, everyday boiled ham gently cooked in butter with shallots, then off heat mixed with egg yolk, heavy cream, Worcestershire sauce, hot pepper sauce, and grated Parmesan cheese.

You put a round of dough onto a dampened baking dish, mound the filling in the center, lay a second round of dough on top, and seal all the edges well. Paint the top with egg glaze twice, and then scratch a decorative pattern into it. (Julia gives detailed directions for patterns.) Bake in a very hot oven for about an hour.

And very tasty indeed it was. The pastry had actually risen as it should (my puff pastries don’t always do so) and was beautifully crisp and flaky. The filling was rich and good, though we felt a little more of it would have made a better balance with all the pastry.

Still, a definitely worthwhile experiment for an eccentric celebratory meal. The champagne liked it too.

That champagne, by the way, was also slightly eccentric, a Grand Cru Bouzy brut by Baron Dauvergne called Oeil de Perdrix – eye of the partridge, which accurately describes its color.  Bouzy is the Pinot noir capital of the Champagne zone, and this largely Pinot noir wine was big and robust as well as polished and deep, and it played wonderfully well with both the evening’s dishes. Tom considered it a perfect book-launching bottle.

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P.S. Don’t forget to check out the allegory book. There’s a lot to look at on the opening screen.

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Sweetbreads Taillevent

Tom had a birthday recently. Between a festive dinner in a restaurant or one at home, he chose home (where properly aged wines don’t cost a fortune). He asked for sweetbreads en croûte. I knew this would put me on my mettle. Tom still dreams about one of the best meals of his life, at Taillevent in Paris, in 2007, where his main course was a heavenly Chausson feuilleté de ris de veau, sauce mousseuse à l’oseille. We still have the menu we brought home that evening, signed by the proprietor, Jean-Claude Vrinat, and his chef, Alain Solivérès.


We both knew there was no way I could equal that fabulous dish. But I went looking in my cookbooks, and imagine my pleasure at finding a recipe in Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine called Sweetbreads Taillevent. It was not as elaborate as the restaurant’s dish – which was a mercy! Perhaps it was an earlier version. Oliver and Vrinat were contemporaries and friends, so it may have been meant as homage. In any event, the recipe looked appropriately festive, and it was not really difficult to make, except for the pastry crust.

I’ve always made puff pastry from a Julia Child recipe that’s very different from Oliver’s – slightly in ingredients, largely in technique. Hence, I could see this would be an interesting experiment. As a kindness to my readers who have minimal interest in comparative puff pastry making, I’ll discuss those technicalities at the end of this post. On to the sweetbreads!

We agreed that Tom would take the lead in preparing the sweetbreads while I focused on the pastry. (I was also doing a soufflé for dessert.) So this was very much a cooperative endeavor.

In the elaborate French manner, the sweetbreads had to be soaked for two hours, bits of fat and membrane cut off, soaked again, and blanched. A charming way to spend the afternoon of one’s birthday, n’est ce pas?! But from there it was not much different from a standard braise. Cut carrots, onions, mushrooms in julienne strips; simmer them in butter in a covered pan; add the sweetbreads and white wine, cover, and simmer for half an hour.

Then remove the sweetbreads and vegetables to a plate, reduce the pan juices, and add an outrageous amount of crème fraiche – a whole cupful for just the two of us. (Oh, those French!) Reduce that somewhat and set the sauce aside.

Meanwhile, there I was, attempting to make an attractive pastry case for the sweetbreads. I was cutting back a recipe for four, which gave me a lot of arithmetical exercise to calculate what size of a round pastry shell would equal half the volume of an eight-inch square shell. As I’ve said before in this blog, numbers are not my friends! Here’s what I came up with:

I must confess that never in my life has a baked puff pastry case risen for me the way the recipes say they will. This day’s was no exception. It didn’t behave horribly, but it was no very beautiful thing. And when we filled it with the sweetbreads and their sauce, placed its pastry lid on top, and set it on a serving plate, it looked like nothing so much as a poorly constructed flying saucer.

Still, the whole dish tasted just lovely. The pastry was crisp and angelically buttery; the sweetbreads were luscious; the crème fraiche had managed to absorb itself almost entirely into the other components. Alongside, we served spinach seethed in butter (as if the dish needed more butter!) and braised black trumpet mushrooms.

We were happy. And we learned something. We’ve always thought that the French were over-fastidious about sweetbreads, that all that soaking and blanching wasn’t really necessary. Italians don’t do it, and Italian sweetbread recipes have an attractive earthiness. This dish showed us that, while those steps may not be necessary, they do have a point. They firm the texture and etherealize the flavor, making sweetbreads very compatible, very easily integrated, with ingredients like the mushrooms and crème fraiche – and that, we can say on the basis of this recipe, is not a bad thing at all.

Here’s the birthday celebrant, trying to decide whether to drink the white wine we’d had with the first course – a 2009 Chablis premier cru – or the red wine he’d chosen for the sweetbreads – a 1990 Gevrey Chambertin. (He drank both.) Happy birthday, Tom!


Postscript on the puff pastry

In the past I’ve always made the “simple puff pastry” recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering, volume 2. This, when ready to use, consists of 72 layers of butter alternating with 73 layers of dough, which was impressive enough for me. For the birthday dish I decided to follow Oliver’s classic recipe, which results in – I kid you not – 729 layers of butter alternating with 730 layers of dough.

During all the folding and rolling and turning this requires, Oliver cautions, “It is very important that the butter not break through the dough at any time” and “it absolutely must not ooze out.” Well, fine, but I wish he’d also said how to prevent that, because I couldn’t. And since he regards a breakthrough as inconceivable, he doesn’t suggest any way to remedy it. So I struggled along, poking the butter back in and plastering over the breaks with flour.

Eventually I achieved a 5-inch-high brick of 1,459-layer dough. Then came the hardest part of the job: rolling it out to a thickness of ⅛ inch. That took a lot of time and muscle power – so much that I wonder if I worked the dough too hard, causing the pastry case not to rise as high as it should have in the baking. But, as I said above, the taste and texture were perfectly good, so I was content. I think I’ll stick to Julia’s recipe in the future, though.

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