At one end of a long kitchen, two refrigerators are giving each other a cool stare. Two ovens are going at once, one baking a colorfully layered vegetable mousse, the other putting the final golden touches on a custard. An island in the middle of the room holds two stove tops, one electric and one gas, with work space enough for two at the other end.
The kitchen is even outfitted with two sets of spices.
A puzzled guest might do a double take, thinking the kitchen has been designed for a catering company, at least, but the room is really just part of the everyday home of Howard and Barbara de Franceaux.
"We made two of everything to keep out of each other's way," explains 75-year-old Howard, and this practical planning measure has not only helped their marriage, but allows for plenty of activity in the kitchen.
Especially since Eileen Mayer, the daughter of friends and now herself a close friend of the de Franceauxs, turned the culinary team of two into a triad and helped turn weekly cooking marathons in the Bethesda kitchen into a regular institution.
Mayer, an assistant U.S. attorney in her mid-thirties, had an interest in cooking and found the de Franceauxs willing teachers. She still takes direction from Howard ("that goes on the bottom rack," or "leave the oven door open just a bit"), but has steadily moved from apprentice to co-chef.
"I do the prep work," he says, "and she's my chop-chop girl."
"Now we consult instead of just him telling me what to do. Howard asks my opinion now," says Mayer, and he adds, "When she first started coming here, I wasn't interested in her opinion!"
With all the resources at hand, meals are prepared in multiples. On any given Saturday, besides preparing a lunch for themselves, future meals are planned, for family dinners or for occasions when Barbara, a real estate agent, offers food at open houses.
Lamb stew garnished with pearl onions will come out of one oven, to be frozen for a later date, or Howard might make a favorite chicken dish, chock-full of fresh vegetables, that keeps well. Mayer makes food to give to her family, or for the gourmet group she belongs to that meets monthly.
"After this," she says, gesturing to the cutting board piled with chopped herbs, "I have to make four pies. And I'm tired!"
Mayer casts an approving glance around the kitchen. "First of all, if I ever got to design a kitchen I'd know what I want," she says emphatically. "They don't trip over each other at all."
There are plenty of objects around the room to divert one's attention, like the painted Portuguese tiles that line the counter tops, or the clay pig's head, with a length of string extruding from its mouth, that looks over the bookcase. Woven baskets, copper pans and a bay leaf wreath hang over the sink and lend an atmosphere of a country farmhouse.
The house also boasts a wine cooler, with a capacity for 224 bottles, that waits in a hallway outside the kitchen next to a large freezer. The wine cooler is unique in the house, but there is, of course, a second freezer, which has found a home in the basement.
Other utensils, such as a wire egg-holder tree that holds a dozen eggs to bring them to room temperature, were bought piecemeal.
"It's not as though a decorator came in," says Barbara. "Things just evolved."
"There are memories in a kitchen. When I make refrigerator rolls in this bowl," she says, wrapping her arms around a large white ceramic bowl that says "CREAM," "I think of Eileen's mother."
Barbara is considered a "good, American cook and a good pastry cook" (her walnut torte being a specially treasured dessert), says Howard, adding that he likes ethnic foods such as Middle Eastern and French.
That interest was evident on a wet afternoon in the spring, still chilly enough to have a fire going in the dining room, when he set out an appetizer of grape leaves stuffed with seasoned ground meat and a dipping sauce of yogurt with mint next to a pitcher of kir royal, a blend of champagne and cre`me de cassis.
Howard says that although friends have suggested to him over that years that he open a restaurant, he feels that would take away the pleasure of cooking.
"I wouldn't want to have to do it," he says. Besides, he adds, "If they're paying for it, they have a right to complain, but here, if they don't like it, it's too damn bad."
One of his specialties is a galantine of chicken -- a boned and stuffed whole chicken -- that he learned from a Julia Child recipe. "When I started it took an hour; now I can do it in 15 minutes without breaking the skin," he says. "That's what I use to wow people."
The de Franceauxs get a chance to "wow" guests outside the usual circle of family and friends when they auction off an annual seven-course dinner to benefit charity. The guests are given some choice as to what their main course will be, but a dessert that almost always makes an appearance is Barbara's walnut torte, a rich dark torte oozing brown sugar and nuts.
But even a weekend lunch turns out to be elegant. For a meal by the fire, Barbara sets out a quilted basket holding thinly sliced Dijon rye bread next to a plate of smoked trout, to be served with a flavorful mustard sauce, the recipe for which Howard steadfastly refuses to divulge.
Savory cheese, tomato and onion tarts are brought to the table, fragrant and still slightly steaming, the deep red tomato slices glistening with oil and dotted with strips of tarragon, over a sunny blanket of bubbling cheeses. For dessert, an apple pastry is cut into rectangles and served still warm, the pastry flaky and golden and the apple slices burnished with a light glaze of apricot jam.
Another afternoon the mustard sauce is served with a savory and moist steak tartare, along with tricolor slices of a vegetable mousse that has layers of chopped carrot, spinach and artichoke hearts held in a creamy binding.
Many of these recipes come from their collection of cookbooks, all of which are cross-referenced and scattered with helpful notations; scribbled next to a recipe for Oranges in Caramel and Brandy Snaps in an Anne Willan cookbook is the legend, "Howard's oven only."
As Barbara thumbs though "Thoughts For Food," a well-worn 1946 cookbook, she says, with a tinge of surprise, "You think you're a teenager and all of a sudden the pages are falling out of the book."
VEGETABLE MOUSSE (8 servings)
1 pound carrots, peeled, cut into chunks, and steamed until soft
9 ounces artichoke hearts, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped fine
3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, or 1 1/2 tablespoons dried dill
10 ounces fresh spinach, steamed until soft and chopped, or 1 package frozen
5 large eggs
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt, pepper and nutmeg, to taste
Grease sides and bottom of a 4 1/2-by-8 1/2-inch loaf pan. Line with wax paper and grease again.
Gently pure'e the carrots, making sure there is still some texture to the vegetable. Set aside. Repeat process with the artichoke hearts.
Melt butter in a saute' pan, and add onion, dill and spinach. Saute' over medium heat until onion is tender and water has evaporated from the spinach. Gently pure'e, making sure there is still some texture to the vegetable. Set aside.
Stir together eggs, cream, milk, Parmesan, salt, pepper and nutmeg and blend until smooth. Separate into three portions.
Combine the spinach mixture with 1/3 of the egg mixture, the carrots with 1/3 of the egg mixture and artichokes with 1/3 of the egg mixture. Place the artichoke mixture in one layer of the loaf pan, the carrot mixture in the middle and the spinach mixture on top.
Make a bain-marie by placing the loaf pan in a large roasting pan, and pouring water into the roasting pan so that it comes about 1/2 inch up the side of the loaf pan.
Bake in a 375-degree oven for 1 1/4 hours, or until the mousse is set. Remove from oven and allow to stand for 15 minutes, then invert onto a serving dish and remove the wax paper. Let stand 20 minutes before serving. Refrigerate if not used immediately.
Per serving: 269 calories, 10 gm protein, 14 gm carbohydrates, 20 gm fat, 11 gm saturated fat, 227 mg cholesterol, 277 mg sodium.
TOMATO, CHEESE AND ONION PIE (6 servings)
1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter
2 ounces ice water
2 ounces cold milk
FOR THE FILLING:
6 ounces grated Swiss cheese, such as EmmenthalerSTART END NOTE
6 ounces grated Gruye`reSTART NOTE: END NOTE cheese
1 large white onion, sliced thin
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons chopped shallots
1 large tomato, sliced thin
1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
To make the dough, mix flour, salt and 6 tablespoons butter in a processor until grainy. Slowly add water and milk until the dough forms a ball. Wrap in wax paper and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Roll dough out to fit a 9 3/4-inch pie pan. Mix cheeses and place in the pie shell. Saute' onion slices in 1 tablespoon of butter and then arrange them on the cheese.
Saute' shallots in 1 tablespoon of butter, remove from pan and reserve. Saute' tomato slices in last tablespoon butter, sprinkle with tarragon and add shallots. Use a spatula to place tomatoes upon the onion slices, and spoon pan juices over the top.
Bake for 30 minutes, then bake for an additional 10 minutes with oven door slightly open to brown the bottom of the crust. The pie can be served hot or cold, and can be frozen for later use.
Per serving: 505 calories, 21 gm protein, 27 gm carbohydrates, 35 gm fat, 21 gm saturated fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 442 mg sodium.
BARBARA'S WALNUT TORTE (10 servings)
Barbara suggests using some black walnuts in the torte to give it a richer flavor.
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened and cut into pieces
3 ounces cream cheese, softened and cut into pieces
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
5 large eggs, beaten lightly
4 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups (8 ounces) walnut pieces or halves
To make the shell, combine the 8 tablespoons butter, cream cheese and flour and press into a 10-inch springform pan. Crimp the edges decoratively.
In a bowl, combine the melted butter, eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt. Add the walnuts, reserving some, and pour into the shell. Arrange reserved walnuts on top.
Bake for 40 minutes in a preheated 350-degree oven and let cool in the pan for at least 4 hours. Note: the bottom will be very gooey. Serve slices with a dollop of whipped cream seasoned with nutmeg.
Per serving: 735 calories, 11 gm protein, 98 gm carbohydrates, 36 gm fat, 14 gm saturated fat, 189 mg cholesterol, 303 mg sodium.