My anniversary gift this year was a “Cooking with Julia” class in the Institute of Culinary Education. I’ve been interested in French cuisine lately, reading a few books about French eating culture, as well as its passion for wine, bread and chocolate (I wrote a little about it in my “Look Younger. Why?” post). Julia Child made her life mission to bring authentic French food to America. Her landmark “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is a must-have for anybody interested in the subject.
When I originally read the description of the class and recipes on the list, I was hesitant. I cook for my family, and know my way around the kitchen, but “Caneton Roti A L’Alsacienne” and “Galettes Au Gruyere” sounded quite scary. I did not know what to expect.
I caught an early train into the city, and walked another 10 blocks to W23St. It was cold and windy; aside for occasional cafes open for breakfast, New York was still sleeping. There was no sign on the building. I found the street number and took an elevator to the 5th floor. The class started at 10am sharp. Legendary chef Nick Malgieri was teaching. With tons of cooking books and many TV appearances, he is a former executive pastry chef at “Windows of the World”. I did not recognize him from the picture; in life, he looked much older and shorter. However, the light gray beard and clever, curious look in the eyes behind large glasses could not be missed. He was approachable and very passionate about his work.
This was my first time in the professional kitchen. Huge stoves and ovens lined the walls; big tables with metal tops and shelves with all kind of pots and pans seized the middle. Each table had a food processor, a few cutting boards, knifes, a cookie cutter, etc. We took our seats around one of the tables. Chef Nick talked about the class, Julia Child, and working with her on Baking with Julia series on PBS. That was the last project she was working on, yet after taping each episode, she was running around like a little girl asking to see the footage, worrying how it came out. In spite of her upper class upbringing, she was a very nice, easy-going person with down-to-earth values. Her open, sincere personality was the secret to her success. Nick cracked a few jokes, saying to the woman named Charlotte that he loved when a person was named after a dessert.
Since we “didn’t have any more time to waste”, we put on our aprons, washed our hands and got to work. The 13 students group was diverse. We had a few housewives, a newlywed couple, an Asian gay couple, French men on a business trip, an older woman (who was Nick’s friend) that was running a successful cooking school in Texas , and several Upper East Side type women. In spite of our difference in backgrounds and life style, we all got along great; chatting, helping each other, cutting, cleaning, curving, etc. Chef Nick spoke to our Parisian classmate in French, reminiscing about his favorite places in Paris, how the language changed over the years, and best cooking schools.
The first courses were cheese cookies with almonds and quiche. We made the dough, Chef Nick showed us how to roll it evenly, how much flour to use, and shared few tricks how to make sure the crust cooked perfectly. We had some dough left over, and the “cooking school” lady kept asking him what he was planning to do with it. It reminded me of my grandmother. When she baked, she always made sure that every single crumb would be used. Wasting good products was a deadly sin in her book, and rightfully so; she went through a lot of hardships in her life and knew the price of that crumb.
After we successfully completed composing cookies and quiche, we had few ducks waiting for us to get them ready for the oven. The Frenchman was in charge of pocking the skin (to make the fat melt), tying up the legs, and putting an herbs bouquet in the cavity. The duck cooperated, laid quietly and did not quack. In a few minutes we sent her the merry way. The other two tables were busy making tomato sauce for the filet of sole. Eager to learn, we constantly peaked on what other tables were doing so that we did not miss anything. To give the tomato sauce a nice flavor, it was cooked with a bouquet of fresh herbs, which later would be thrown out. This trick really made a big difference.
The quiche came out of the oven, and had a perfect light-brown crust, as expected. We attacked it like hungry wolves, complementing the chef and ourselves for the job well done in-between the chews. Life was about to get better, and we knew it.
Next came stuffing made of Italian sausages and apple wedges, and puree of celery and potato. The celery was a strange looking, ugly vegetable similar to turnip. Chef Nick explained that by itself it had a washed-out taste that was why potato was added. I’ve never seen it in the store, but was curious to try. The first step was to peel it, cut it, and put it in the boiling water. The stuffing did not go as planned. The apple was supposed to start cooking in sausage’s fat, but there was no fat to speak off. Chef Nick made us put it in the processor and add a little oil.
The duck came out looking great, but it was a long time before it would enter our mouths. Chef Nick showed us how to carve a duck, while sharing his experience of trying Pekin duck in Beijing a few months ago. Apparently, the ducks in Chinatown were not the same, since they were Cantonese style, which required different spices for marinating. He asked for expertise from our Asian man in art deco, green framed glasses, but was told, “the ducks they get were already marinated”. Getting at the dead end there, we arranged our stuffing on the casserole plate with the pieces of duck on top, and sent it back to the oven. The bones of the duck could be used for the broth; the broth could be used for the duck sauce.
We still needed to get the fish ready for the oven, do rice pilaf, finish up celery potato puree, and start on the chocolate soufflé. Everybody was hard at work. Fish went into a buttered hotel pan, sprayed with white wine, and topped with tomato sauce. Cheese cookies went into oven. The newlyweds assumed responsibility for celery potato puree, drained it, put cream, butter and started smashing it in the pan with the handle in the middle that rotated, and puree fall in the bucket underneath. I did not know people were still using it in the era of electrical devices. Chef Nick tasted it, added some salt and nodded his head in approval. I moved to the other side of the kitchen to watch rice pilaf. It was simmered in the broth, with onion slightly caramelized in the butter underneath.
The culmination was a chocolate soufflé with cognac and fresh cream. Everybody gathered around the table. Chef Nick was busy attending to our many dishes, so the “cooking school” lady took charge. The pot with hot water was boiling on the stove; the pan with pieces of chocolate went on top for melting. Originally, we put butter in the pan, however, one of the students pointed out that the recipe called to put it in after the chocolate was melted. As we were getting butter out of the chocolate, Chef Nick asked what was going on. He said to leave it, and politely pointed out that it would all go to the same place anyway. The next time he strolled by our table was to put cognac into the mixture. He was not exactly precise at doing it, since he just poured what seemed like half a bottle in (the recipe called for 3 table spoons). The aroma of warm chocolate mixed with liquor was intoxicating; we were half drunk on anticipation of what would come next. After separating whites from yolks, putting yolks in the chocolate, beating the whites with sugar, and combining it all together, the mixture was poured into small cups. The fun part was to eat the future soufflé, scraping it with our index fingers from the mixing spoon, done by each and every one of us more than once.
Chef Nick commanded to move everything to one table and set up our aperitif area and dining area. Even though cleaning, probably, was not the chore of choice for majority of our students, tables were cleared out at the speed of light. We poured the glasses with the cocktail made by Chef and indulged on the cheese cookies. The drink was absolutely heavenly (look for the recipe at the end of the story). Then we moved to another table set up with wine glasses and silverware. Chef Nick platted the first course of filet of sole with rice pilaf. It was paired with white wine. The second course was duck with apples and celery potato puree paired with red wine. The fish melted in the mouth; the duck’s meat was so tender and juicy that you hardly needed a knife to cut it. The meal was phenomenal in every sense of the word. Chocolate soufflé concluded our majestic journey to French cuisine. It had a soft, puffy texture, a little bitter chocolate and alcohol taste and a drop of very light fresh cream on top. We took our time, listening to Nick’s stories about Julia Child, and Martha Stuart (one of the girls saw him on the show, and wanted to hear about it). The time passed fast. It was already around 3pm, and I felt like I just got here.
Nick showed us his new book “The Modern Baker” and offered to sign it. We jumped at the chance.
Now, I am in trouble, because my family expects me to replicate all of these dishes at home. Well, some day…
Vin D’Orange De Bramafam (magic drink) This recipe appears in Simca’s Cuisine by Julia’s co-author and friend Simone Beck. Simca wrote that she used small, bitter Provancal oranges for this, but navel oranges will do quite well. Makes about 1 quart. 6 large navel oranges 2 cloves 1 four-inch piece of cinnamon stick 1 bottle dry white wind ¼ cup sugar 3 tablespoons Cognac One quart mason jar or other large glass jar Use a vegetable peeler to strip the zest from the oranges. Set on a paper-covered baking sheet and let the peel dry until crackly, about a week. In a large mason jar, combine the dried peel, wine, and cinnamon stick. Set aside in a cool, dark place for a week to 10 days. Strain the wine. Pour 1 cup into a non-reactive saucepan, add the sugar, and stir over gentle heat, without letting the mixture boil, until the sugar is melted. Stir the sweetened wine into the remaining wine and stir in the Cognac. Bottle and chill. Serve it very cold, with a slice of fresh orange in each glass.