Have you ever left an art exposition or concert wishing you had understood more, that Leonard Berstein or Bernard Berenson had been at your side? That is how some of us feel about French chefs. Chefs, like artists or musicians, know exactly what they are doing with their medium, but too often, both figuratively and literally, they speak different languages from ours.
La Varenne Cooking School in Paris has found a solution to this problem. Because of it, those who spent last week at What's Cooking in Rockville (some coming from as far as Richmond) left with a fuller understanding of French cuisine.
While bright-eyed, 64-year-old Chef Albert Jorant, La Varenne's pastry chef, sailed through six classes of classic French cuisine, his interpreter and assistant, 27-year-old Steve Raichlen of Blatimore enthusiastically explained the cooking techniques.
Raichlen's unpretentious, articulate rendings of the chef's French and his own scholarly interest in the chemistry and entymology of French food terms only added to a most professional demonstration.
Jorant, clearly knowledgeable in the techniques of French cuisine, was a pleasure to watch. After a heart atttack 10 years ago, he retired from his bakery/catering establishment near Paris to become a teaching chef at Cordon Bleu. In 1976 he became La Varenne's master pastry chef. His first book, "The French Cuisine of Your Choice," co-authored with Isabelle Marique, will appear this spring.
The Left Bank cooking school is named for Francois Pierre de Varenne, the famous 17th century chef who served as "minion" for the sister of Henri IV. He is best known today as the author of the first modern French cookbook. The school was founded in 1975 by Anne Willan, once food editor of the Washington Star, a graduate of the Cordon Bleu and author of several books including the 20 volume Grand Diplome Cooking Course. The school has been given the culinary blessings of Julia Child and James Beard.
Unlike the classes at La Varenne itself, the chef's work here was restricted to demonstrations. Had the students been in Paris, they also would have been treated to a 5 a.m. trip through the Rungis marketplace (the new suburban Les Halles), a meeting with a Maitre d'Hotel to learn about the inner workings of his business and, most important of all, hours and hours of rigorous practical work with the chef himself.
Nevertheless, the pricey classes (three for $165 or 6 for $300 with a certificate from the school) were well worth it for anyone wishing to learn the elements of classic French cuisine. After Washington, the chef and his assistant will give similar classes in five other American cities before returning to France.
Starting with a colorful terrine of eggplant, a molded ratatouille, and a tarte tatin , a marvelous upside down French caramelized apple tarte, the students watched the chef work upwards to the more difficult, through a fish souffle and homemade ladyfingers to a gateau caravelle, genoise garnished with a turbon of nougatine and filled with praline, feuillette de cocktails (puff pastry palate pleasers.)
From Jarant and Raichlen the students learned how to cut meat naturally, not "hacking" it as they do in this country. They also learned how to tell when a creme anglaise is ready: When the foam starts to disappear; when the heat reaches about 165 degrees and you can smell that the raw eggs are cooked; when it takes on the consistency of heavy cream and your finger leaves a mark on a coated spoon.
Jorant's philosophy in teaching cooking is that once you have learned the basics you can adjust them and everything flows from there. All sponge cakes, for example, are made the same way . . . from lady fingers to geniose.
Jorant's precription for a good kitchen is two-fold -- a good oven and a good set of hands. Everything else, even knives, are secondary. To him bowls are like women. They are never quite the ones you need. But the bowls at What's Cooking were evidently what he needed and the mostly female audience left contented somewhat stuffed and much more knowledgeable.
As for the chef, six strenuous three hour sessions in three days before a dozen or so continually questioning students did not daunt him.
"When you do something you love, it is easy." SOUFFLE DE POISSON, SAUCE CURRY (Fish Souffle with Curry Sauce) (6 servings) Souffle: 2 tablespoons browned breadcrumbs (for preparing the mold) 3tablespoons unsalted butter 2finely chopped shallots 3cups milk, infused with slice of onion, pinch of nutmeg, bay leaf and 5 peppercorns. 3tablespoons unbleached all purpose flour 1 1/2 cups (3/4 pound) cooked, flaked fish (salmon, cod, coalfish, smoked haddock plus 1 or 2 crabs for flavor) 1/4 cup heavy cream Pinch dry mustard Salt and pepper to taste 4 eggs, separated 2 egg whites Curry Sauce: 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 2 finely chopped shallots 2 to 3 teaspoons curry powder 3 tablespoons unbleached all purpose flour Salt and pepper to taste 1/4 cup heavy cream
Note: This souffle has a closer texture than the usual French souffle and is cooked at lower temperature for a longer time so it is fairly firm in the center. Chef Jorant prefers to call it a "gratin."
Thickly butter a 6 cup souffle dish and sprinkle it with breadcrumbs. Infuse and strain for both the souffle and the sauce.
Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the shallots and cook gently until soft. Stir in the flour, cook until foaming, then pour in 1 cup of the infused warm milk, adding it in one fell swoop. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and simmer 2 minutes. Stir in the fish, cream, dry mustard, salt and pepper to taste -- the mixture should be highly seasoned. Remove from the heat and beat the egg yolks into the hot mixture so it thickens.
Stiffly whip the egg whites, using if possible a copper bowl and adding salt and a few drops of lemon. (This prevents the whites from curdling.) Heat the fish mixture until it is hot to the touch. Add about a quarter of the egg whites and gently fold in with a whisk until well mixed. Add remaining egg whites and fold together as lightly as possible. Pour this mixture into the prepared souffle dish. With your finger make a slight indented border around the edge and, if you wish, a design in the center. Up to this point the souffle can be refrigerated until ready to heat. It can be made up to a day in advance.
Just before serving bake at 375 degrees 20-25 minutes or until the souffle is puffed and slightly brown.
While the souffle is heating or 3-4 hours ahead of time prepare the sauce. Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the shallots and curry powder and cook gently, stirring occasionally 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the flour, cook until foaming, then add the remaining 2 cups of infused milk. Bring to a boil, stirring, add salt and pepper to taste and simmer 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Adjust seasoning and rub the surface with butter to prevent a skin forming.
While the souffle is baking, heat the curry sauce, stir in the cream and adjust seasoning to taste. Serve the souffle directly from the oven with the sauce in a separate dish. COTES DE MOUTON CHAMPVALLON (Mutton Chops Champvallon) (4 servings) 4 mutton, lamb or pork chops (Pieces of goose, duck, or chicken can also be used) 1tablespoon vegetable oil 3 tablespoons unsalted butter 2 large thickly sliced onions 6 medium thinly sliced peeled potatoes 1 clove crushed garlic Salt and pepper to taste Pinch of thyme 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 2 cups veal or chicken stock 2 tablespoons chopped parsley for garnish
Trim off the excess fat and gristle from the chops. In a skillet, heat the oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter and brown the chops on both sides. Remove the chops and pour out the excess fat, leaving about 2 tablespoons. Saute the onions lightly in the pan, until they become transparent. Set aside.
If needed add more butter and oil to the frying pan and lightly pan fry the potatoes. Remove.
Thickly butter a shallow baking dish and rub it with the garlic. Place half the potato mixture in overlapping pieces into the dish. On top of the potato layer place the onions, then the mutton chops. Cover them with the rest of the potato mixture overlapping in a nice design. Add salt and pepper to taste, thyme, parsley, garlic and enough of the stock to come up to the potatoes. Dot with the one remaining tablespoon of butter. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for about 45-60 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender when tested with a skewer. The top layer of potatoes should be light brown and most of the liquid absorbed. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley and serve from the baking dish. BISCUITS A LA CUILLER (Ladyfingers) (about 30 ladyfingers) 2/3 cup all purpose unbleached flour Tiny pinch of salt 4 eggs, separated 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract Confectioners' sugar for sprinkling
Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper or butter and flour lightly.
Sift the flour and salt together twice. Beat the egg yolks with half the sugar and the vanilla until light and thick enough to leave a ribbon trail. Whip the egg whites until stiff, add the remaining sugar and beat 20 seconds longer or until glossy. Pour the sifted flour over the yolks. Add about one quarter of the egg whites to the yolk mixture and fold together with the flour as lightly as possible. Gently fold in the remaining egg whites in two batches. The mixture must be folded as quickly as possible but with great care as it must remain stiff enough to pipe.
Gently spoon the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a large plain tube. Squeeze out any air bubbles and pipe fingers about 3 1/2 inches long and 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheet. Immediately sprinkle the tops with confectioners' sugar, gently shake off the excess sugar and bake at 400 degrees 15-18 minutes or until the lady fingers are light beige, firm on the outside and still soft in the center. Transfer to a rack to cool. CHARLOTTE AU CHOCOLAT Chocolate Charlotte (6-8 servings) 12-15 ladyfingers (see above) 1 envelope gelatin 1/4 cup water 2 cups milk 2 teaspoons dry instant cooffee (optional) 5 egg yolks 1/4 cup sugar 6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped in chip sizes 1/2 cup heavy cream 1 tablespoon rum Garnish: 3 to 4 ounces semisweet chocolate 3/4 cup heavy cream 1 to 2 teaspoons sugar 1 teaspoon rum
Line the base of a 1 1/2 quart charlotte mold with a circle of waxed paper. Line the sides of the mold with ladyfingers, trimming them so they fit tightly.
Sprinle the gelatin over the water in a small bowl over a double boiler and leave 5 minutes or until spongy. (This prevents lumps from forming).
Bring the milk and coffee to a boil. Meanwhile beat the egg yolks with the sugar until light and thick. Whisk in the hot milk and return this custard mixture to the pan. Fold in the chocolate.Heat, stirring constantly, until the custard thickens slightly. Do not boil or it will curdle. Take from the heat and stir in the softened gelatin until melted. Slowly stir the custard into the melted chocolate and leave to cool, stirring occasionally. Whip the cream.
When the custard is cool, add the rum, set the bowl over ice and stir until the mixture starts to set. Fold in the whipped cream and pour the mixture into the lined charlotte mold. Make sure the mixture is fairly thick. Otherwise, it will soak the ladyfingers. Cover and chill at least 2 hours or until set. The charlotte can be made a day ahead and kept in the refrigerator but the gelatin mixture tends to stiffen, so let it stand 1 to 2 hours at room temperature before serving.
Before serving whip the cream in a chilled bowl until it starts to thicken. Add the sugar and rum and continue beating until the cream holds a shape and sticks to the whisk. Trim the ladyfingers level with the top of the charlotte and unmold it onto a platter. Using a small sharp knife or potato peeler scrape the chocolate into curls on top of the charlotte. Then, using the pastry bag and star tube decorate the base with rosettes or whipped cream as well as the space between the ladyfingers. Chill until ready to serve.