Say Cheese! A taste of the French Alps
July in Sydney means the dead of winter. It also happens to be the time when the French Food Festival is held in the city to celebrate French National Day ( known as Bastille Day in Australia ) and a lot of restaurants feature a French specialty dish for a month. Anne and I attended the festival one weekend and I dragged Mr T along to a large hotel’s buffet that advertised France’s most famous dishes. We were disappointed in both occasions. The Festival was crowded and pricey ( $5 for one canele, yes, one!!) while the buffet’s offering was quite limited and of some dubious quality.
So I decided to create my own French Food Festival at home last weekend and invited the family over. As usual, we had to have a theme, and I could not think of anything more fitting that French Alps cuisine, loosely inspired by apres-ski sessions during our past skiing holidays. I decked out the house in rustic “chalet” mode with vintage table clothes, plaided throws, sheep skin cushions, pine cones and board games for the kids. A patio heater substituted for an open fire while a few snowflakes window stickers hinted at the elusive snow. The mountains and the view over the Mont Blanc may have been missing, but the cold of a Sydney winter could certainly be felt. Ugg boots and shawls were handed around, along with welcome drinks!
Our guests joined in the fun and brought along a French dish as assigned. They were mainly appetisers and side dishes as these are easy to transport. I always chose to make the main course and desserts, because one can cook in the oven while we have snacks and the others can be prepared in advance and sit in the fridge until ready.
Shelley and Tania prepared the mother of all charcuterie and cheese platter, going to great lengths to procure genuine comte cheese as well as pate, cornichons and cold meats.
Danielle brought along a hot french onion dip “fondue-style” which was an absolute hit: a creamy french onion dip, enriched with the addition of bocconcini balls, was encased in a hollowed out sourdough loaf. Baked in the oven for 20 minutes, we used croutons and/or carrot sticks to dip into the piping hot mixture. There were no leftovers and I love the fact that there was no washing up either!!
Rosalie was assigned a green salad with a sharp dressing, to cut thru the richness of the cheesy main. Leanne brought along enough sourdough bread to feed an army, which was good because we had a lot of sauce to mop up.
That brings me to the mains. Tartiflette was on my mind, ever since I saw it on offer at the French Food Festival. A typical alpine dish, it is made with potatoes, lardons, onions and reblochon, the local washed rind cheese. We used to love sitting to a plate of this after a day on the slopes, and generally we would not eat anything else, it is that filling! Unfortunately Reblochon is nearly impossible to find in Sydney, so I used Raclette cheese instead, which has a slightly different taste but melts just as deliciously! Beside we all love raclette so it was a win-win!
I also wanted to make a chicken dish, in case we would still be hungry. A long time ago I read about Chicken in Yellow Wine, a traditional recipe from the French Jura region and waited for the occasion to pair the creamy sauce with potatoes. The original recipe calls for a specific yellow wine from Jura, made with Savagnin grapes. I managed to find an Australian drop made from Savagnin vines planted in the Barossa Valley. I don’t know if it is close to the traditional dish, but it certainly tasted divine and it is one of the simplest recipes.
Unlike some of the desserts I chose to make. Memories of family holidays in the Alps always include picking up blueberries when I was a child. My mother would take us hiking in the hills, foraging for these tiny dark berries and she would turn our harvest into tarts or jams. They have alway been my favourite dessert, along with strawberry tarts.
Then there are the savoy biscuits, which are like a drier version of a sponge biscuits and known as ladyfingers when they are shaped so. I have a weakness for these, especially when turned into tiramisu or simply dipped into champagne.
Embarking on a baking frenzy, I decided to make my own pastry and bake individual blueberry tarts. On the other hand, I opted for a savoy cake rather than individual biscuits, filled with a honey pastry cream for a little extra sweetness and unctiousness. And because no French meal is complete with “petits fours” or after-dinner treats, I also baked chocolate madeleines and caneles. Technically they are not from the Alps, but as far as our guests were concerned, they were French and that’s all that mattered.
To say that we were all full would be an understatement. There was enough tartiflette and chicken leftover for another meal the next day, some of the desserts found their way to a friend for afternoon tea and I personally can say I have had enough sugar to last me for a month!
Maybe next time, we should have a real mountain to ski on first.
Chicken in Yellow Wine
Adapted from A Kitchen In France, by Mimi Thorisson
1 chicken cut into 6-7 portions
OR mixed chicken pieces ( 2 wings, 2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 2 breasts, with skin on )
1 cup Savagnin wine ( or try 2/3 white wine + 1/3 dry sherry )
1 cup sour cream
2 tbsp olive oil
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
200g swiss brown mushrooms, sliced
1/3 cup unsalted butter
Salt and pepper
Parsley or Chives for garnish
- In a large pot, heat the olive oil and fry half of the garlic slices on medium to low heat for 5 minutes. Add the chicken pieces and fry on each side for a few minutes until slightly golden. Pour the wine and reduce on high heat for 3-4 minutes, lower the heat as low as possible, cover and cook for 1 hour or until tender.
- When you are ready to serve, melt the butter in a shallow pan and fry the rest of the garlic and mushrooms for a few minutes. Add the sour cream along with 2/3 of the wine sauce from the chicken. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer on the lowest of heat for 10 minutes until reduced a little.
- Meanwhile place the chicken in serving dishes. Cover generously with the mushroom cream sauce. Garnish with parsley or chives. Serve with potatoes or rice.
Adapted from Les Halles Cookbook by Anthony Bourdain
Serves 6 ( triple for 20 if serving as a main alone, double as a side dish )
1.2kg potatoes, peeled
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
300g slab of bacon or speck, diced
300ml pouring cream
150ml dry white wine
Salt and pepper
500g raclette cheese ( or reblochon if you can find it, or any washed rind cheese ), thickly sliced
- Place potatoes in a large pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are easily pierced with a paring knife. Do not let them go mushy! Remove from the heat, drain and let them cool enough to handle. Cut the potatoes into small dice and set aside.
- In a large saute pan, cook bacon over high heat, letting them render their fat for 5 minutes. Add onions and cook for another 5 minutes until golden and softened. At that stage you can set the mixture aside until ready to assemble the dish.
- Preheat an oven to 175C. Add potatoes to bacon mixture in a large pot. Mix well. Place in an ovenproof dish. Pour cream and wine over. Break the raclette slices in half and place atop the potato mixture.
- Bake in the oven for 20 minutes or until bubbling and golden. Serve hot with a green salad on the side.
1 quantity of tart dough ( see below )
4 cups fresh blueberries, divided
2/3 cup caster sugar
2 tbsp almond meal
Zest of 1 lemon
- Spread the tart dough to a 3mm thickness and line a 25cm tart pan or 10 individual tartlet pans. Keep in the fridge until ready to use.
- Preheat the oven to 200C
In a medium size bowl, smash 2 cups of blueberries with a pestle or a potato masher. Combine sugar, almond meal, lemon zest and stir into blueberries. Spread he mixture into the tart crusts. Sprinkle with 1 cup of fresh blueberries. Place the tarts on a baking sheet.
- Bake for 35-40 minutes or until the crust is browned an the filling bubbly. Remove from the oven, arrange the remaining berries over the top and cool on a wire rack. these will keep at room temperature for a few hours or in the fridge for up to 3 days ( the pastry gets soggy over time !)
This recipe makes a very delicate, soft dough. It is a bit fiddly to handle so make sure it is cold and you work quickly. If you are making individual tartlets, cut out individual portions and put the parts you don’t work with yet in the freezer to keep them cold and easy to handle. And be gentle while rolling the dough.
1 cup pastry flour ( or 1 cup minus 2 tbsp of plain flour + 2 tbsp corn flour )
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup caster sugar
a few drops pf vanilla extract
- Sieve the flour in the bowl of a food processor. Add butter and pulse until the mixture resembles cornmeal.
- Make a well in the centre of the mixture and add the egg, sugar and vanilla extract. Process until it all comes together. Transfer onto a cold work surface and roll the dough into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and let sit in the fridge for at least 1 hour or overnight.
- Once ready to use, remove the dough from the fridge, unwrap and press down with the heel of your hand to flatten it on a well floured surface. Use a rolling pin to roll the dough GENTLY to the desired thickness ( 3mm )
- Line the tart pan or pans with the dough, patting it into every corner. Cut away any excess dough.
Honey Custard Savoy Cake
Honey Pastry Cream
1 1/2 cup milk
1/3 cup honey
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup corn flour
1 whole egg + 3 egg yolks
- In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, honey and vanilla extract. Heat over medium heat until the mixture starts to simmer.
- While the milk heats, whisk the sugar and cornflour in the bowl of food processor. Add the egg and the egg yolks into the sugar mixture , whisking until well combined.
- When the milk is simmering, gently pour 1/3 of it into the sugar/yolks mixture whisking constantly.
- Return the mixture to the pot and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to the boil. Keep cooking and stirring for a couple of minutes until the mixture thickens to a thick creamy consistency.
- Take off the heat and transfer the cream to a shallow dish and cover directly with plastic wrap to prevent a skin forming on top. Chill in the fridge.
1 cup caster sugar
7 eggs, separated
2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup plain flour
3/4 cup potato starch
- Preheat the oven to 140C. Butter and flour a 24cm round cake pan ( or a decorative pan if you have one )
- Combine the sugar, egg yolks,, and vanilla extract in the large bowl of an electric mixer and mix at high speed until the mixture is pale in colour and tripled in volume. Sift the flour and potato starch and lightly fold in. In another bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks and fold quickly into the batter. DO NOT OVERDO IT otherwise the cake will turn out tough.
- Spread the batter in the prepared pan and bake for 50 minutes or until the cake is golden on top and a tester inserted in the centre comes out clean.
- Turn off the oven, let the cake rest for 10 minutes inside with the oven door ajar then turn it out of the pan onto a wire rack to cool completely.
- When cool, slice the cake in half horizontally. Smooth the pastry cream on the bottom layer and cover with the other layer. Just before serving, sprinkle with icing sugar.