Monday, May 19, 2014

Julia, meet Françoise

Lamb stew, ready for cooking
Lamb stew, ready for cooking
While Mastering the Art of French Cooking is the great and celebrated masterpiece, the cookbook I really want to do more cooking from is La Cuisine by Françoise Bernard. For a start, her recipes are a lot simpler, and use a lot less butter. So, when I needed a dish I went for Bernard's lamb stew with white beans, haricots aux mouton. Also, I bought the book quite a while ago, and I haven't made a single recipe out of it. A shame to leave such a large book neglected on the shelf.

Then I watched another episode of The French Chef. Julia was working with chicken livers and made timbales. Oh, how I wanted to make those right now (which was quite impossible, as I was watching tv in bed, it was late, and I had no chicken livers in the house). An appetizer of timbales followed by the lamb. A lovely French meal.

I had, by the time I was watching Julia make timbales, already bought my lamb. Everything was ready. My beans were soaking. The lamb recipe contains only a few ingredients (one of which is butter). I did have some reservations about it. It is a stovetop meal, while I prefer to see my bean dishes cook slowly in the oven. There were other items too, but this time I was going to make it exactly as the recipe said. It it were a success, I could tweak it later.

I also knew I was breaking the First Rule of Dinner Party Planning. Yeah, we were having a small dinner party and I was trying new dishes. Probably not the best idea, but I really did want to experiment. And I now that I won't be having much opportunity to experiment in the kitchen in the next few days. As part of my tasks on Sunday, I bought some chicken livers for the timbales.

Chicken livers, strained
The remains, after things
were strained.
Soon it was time to start cooking. I had figured out my start times based on when the guests were due to arrive. Ironically, our guests ran late and my dishes were ready a little early as a result. The timbales are easy to make. You make a béchamel, then purée it with cream, cognac, and chicken livers. The mixture is passed through a sieve and then partitioned into ramekins for baking in a bain marie. When Julia Child did this in 1963, it didn't look quite so much like the remains of a traffic accident in black and white.

The recipe called for topping the dish with a béarnaise. I'd never made one before, not even a hollandaise. All that cooking; I just don't do fussy French sauces. It's not too bad. When I was done with it, it was smooth, rich, and bright with tarragon and vinegar. I wanted to drizzle béchamel across everything. It was worth the effort in getting it done.

Thought I shouldn't have bothered hurrying. The sauce ended up ready long before I could corral people into eating the timbales. I was worried that the béarnaise was going to cool and coagulate, so I kept it on a very low flame. While I was unmolding the timbales, the sauce broke. I was ready to cry. This couldn't be worse.

Overcooked béarnaise on a boring timbale.
Goopy béarnaise.
So sad.
I stopped panicking, grabbed my phone to remind myself how to rescue a broken sauce, and had James got an egg yolk. I rescued the sauce, but not quite enough. The re-built béarnaise was too thick. It sat too heavy on the tongue (perhaps I should have tried thinning it out with some hot water, but I had none on hand).

And the timbales. Our guests were polite; I didn't have to be. These were unimpressive. Kinda dull, actually. The clotted béarnaise didn't improve matter any. This was a kitchen failure. The successful part was the biggest failure. A rich dish that just wasn't worth eating.

I redeemed myself a little with the lamb. This was an easy dish, but it had some problems. Despite that Bernard directed that a spoonful of flour be stirred in before the stewing, the liquid was thin (though flavorful). The next time I do this, I'm going to try it in the oven for a longer, slower braise, and at the end, I'll thicken the sauce, perhaps taking a cue from Julia Child and use a beurre manié. And maybe those little onions too.

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