A French Candlelight Dinner
Let me just start by stating the obvious: French cooking is all about the stock. I’ve made stock for years, but now, cooking mainly French dishes, I’ve always got chicken bones or duck bones in my fridge, along with scraps of fennel and celery leaves. And so when I decided I needed a dish that would be really and truly impressive for a special dinner guest, I settled on Paula Wolfert’s Duck Leg and Sweetbread Ragout, from the Cooking of Southwest France. And of course, I started by making the stock.
Basically you make two separate ragouts, one with duck legs and white wine, the other
with sweetbreads in a vermouth and Port sauce. This was my first time working with sweetbreads, and I have to admit that they are intimidating when raw. But since I love to eat them when somebody else does the cooking, I figured that it was time to overcome my nervousness and dive in. And believe me, it was oh so worth it. Once you have the two ragouts made you put them together and reduce the combined sauce until it’s heaven on a spoon. And believe me, I’m not exaggerating. This is a stunningly delicious dish
which I strongly suggest you serve by candlelight, since beauty is not its strong point. Here I served it with Quercy-style roasted potatoes from the same book, and braised endive, whose bitter notes cut perfectly through the richness of the ragout while admittedly leaving something to be desired in the color contrast department. If you don’t have the book, the recipe is here and I recommend that as soon as possible you set aside an entire day to play in the kitchen and prepare this amazing dish. And don’t be afraid of sweetbreads, they’ll soon be your new favorite ingredient.
As a first course I served another candlelight special, small portions of fresh cod on a bed of melted fennel and leeks, with a fennel pollen cream sauce. I chose this because I wanted to mystify our guest, a former restaurateur, with the haunting and elusive flavor of fennel pollen. And indeed, he couldn’t guess what it was at all, and was almost as blown away by this dish as he was by the ragout. Almost, but not quite, because that ragout is Really Something.
And then of course there was cheese, which was also dessert for me, and which looks good in any sort of light,
but for the guys I made a lovely chestnut tart. Even though the dough was sticky and hard to roll out, I had fun putting it all together with my fingertips. Want to try it at home? The recipe is below.
It’s not super gorgeous either, making it a perfect candidate for candlelight. I have a new appreciation for candle-lit suppers after this one, because in the warm, dim light no one thought for a moment about the fact that the food was nearly all brown, and somewhat dowdy.
The tart takes a couple of special ingredients: cream of chestnut spread
and chestnut liqueur. I think you can find both of these in specialty stores just about anywhere, but if you have trouble with the liqueur, you can use Frangelico or brandy. Oh yes, and don’t forget to add candles to your shopping list!
Chestnut Fluff Tart*
For the pastry:
250 gms/8.5 oz flour
25 gms/1 oz sugar
large pinch of salt
125 gms/4.5 oz unsalted butter
1 egg yolk (save white for later)
5 cl/1.5 T water
For the filling:
500 gm/18 oz chestnut cream
3 egg yolks
2 cl/2 tsp chestnut liqueur
200 gm/8 oz cream, whipped to soft peaks
6 egg whites, beaten to soft peaks
Make the pastry by putting the flour, sugar, and salt on a pastry board or the countertop and mixing together with your fingertips. Work in the egg yolk and the butter very lightly, with just the tips of your fingers. Sprinkle with the water, adding a tiny bit more if necessary, and work the dough lightly into a ball. Flatten the ball, wrap in plastic, and chill for 15-20 minutes. Roll out the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap or parchment paper and fit into a tart pan.
Preheat oven to 200°C/400°F. Make the filling by placing the chestnut cream in a bowl and stirring in the egg yolks and chestnut liqueur until the mixture is light and smooth. Whip the cream and fold it in gently. Beat the egg whites and fold them in gently.
Fill the tart shell and bake for approximately 30 minutes, until the filling is set in the middle but not overbaked. When the top of the filling first begins to brown, reduce the oven temperature to 180°C/350°F and continue baking until done. The tart can be served warm or at room temperature, and a little whipped cream on the side wouldn’t hurt.
*This recipe comes to you courtesy of Restaurant Le Panoramic, Ozon