07 March 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 3

In the original illustrations for La Première Année, Tante Victoire looks remarkably like the woman in Gericault’s portrait, The Madwoman.
No wonder Madeleine’s family humors her all the time!


Third Entry

Dinner for fifteen people —
A slight misadventure befalls Madeleine

That day was Papa’s name-day and, as is the custom, we were to have a family dinner. Now, we have a big family; five at our house; Tante Victoire made six; the aunts, uncles and cousins, ten, twelve, fifteen people.

Fifteen people! That seemed to me to make the ordinary chores singularly complicated.

Since I’d never done housework, I admit that I had hardly thought about it. Maman, my dear Maman, took all the trouble herself and left us only the pleasure of sitting down at table before all sorts of good and well-prepared things.

Now that I was also a bit of a housewife, I felt the work of this dinner party weighing upon me.

However, the thought of preparing some good little surprise for my father, and also the self-respect of succeeding, gave me courage.

“Let’s get to it, Madeleine,” I said to myself, “think how you’re going to show off your little talents, and think that we’ll be tasting your cooking.” My cooking! Well, yes! It had been agreed with Maman that I would prepare two dishes all by myself. I had a choice.

Here is our menu: vegetable soup with Italian noodles [a.k.a. pasta]; — baked sole; — wild rabbit; — roast leg of lamb; — white beans; — lettuce salad; — œufs à la neige [a kind of meringue served with crème anglaise]; and fruit, which wouldn’t be difficult, since this was the month of July.

I wanted to prepare the vegetable soup and the œufs à la neige.

You’re going to say, “I see that Madeleine is a bit lazy, because she chose that which is the least difficult to make.” Don’t be mistaken. Besides my soup and my œufs à la neige, I fully intended to help Maman in the preparation of all the other dishes; but those two, the soup and the œufs à la neige, were mine alone. What’s more, I was too new to cooking to set out to make complicated sauces.

We had made pot-au-feu the evening before, and we had eaten that cursed broth that makes us grimace every time it appears on the table. Since we had the broth already, it didn’t take long to make the vegetable soup. Maman had taken the broth to the cellar to keep it cool; but beforehand we had poured it through a colander and carefully degreased it.

The grease was placed to one side, in the frying pot.

In this way, going to fetch the broth from the cellar the next day, I had the pleasure of finding it perfectly fresh and not at all bitter, thanks to these precautions.

My little sister Jeanne had come with us to the market that day, since we were really stocked up with provisions. You should have seen her trotting along before us, carrying the lettuce and the fruits. She was as proud as the butler in a palace and believed herself very important, I assure you.

When we got home, we examined all our purchases more closely. If you knew what we found! Two of our soles, out of six, weren’t fresh. They were grey on the underside instead of being rosy; the eyes were no longer shining. As for the rest, their odor betrayed them. However, the gills were red as if the soles were fresh.

“Ah!” cried out my mother, “those wicked merchants! If you’re in just a bit of a hurry, they fool you very easily. Here, look, Madeleine, see how the gills of these fish appear fresh. How misleading. They’re simply reddened with a bit of chicken blood. Let’s hope we have no other problems!”

No, there was nothing else. The eggs were fresh, the rabbit quite plump, the lamb weighed what it was supposed to, it was fresh and didn’t have any of those little clusters of white dots that one sees on meat that is a bit too old. These white dots are nothing but worms that are forming, according to what my mother taught me; but we had no reason to worry: there were none at all.

Sole meunière

Two soles less! And we had bought just the amount we needed! Too bad for me, I said to myself, I won’t eat any, I’ll act as if I don’t want any, and I will warn my brother Jules, who will refuse it just as I do, for I do not want Maman to deprive herself for us, and certainly she would do it. In this way, each of our guests can have a better portion.

And, secretly, I told Jules what had happened. He agreed with me: we would deprive ourselves of sole.

Ah! that was a full day’s work, that day! However, I was happy, since I have much self-respect and I was convinced that I would succeed in making my vegetable soup and my œufs à la neige. For the soup, it will be very simple, I told myself; I will take care of it a few minutes before dinner, that will suffice. Let’s start instead with my dessert dish.

Here are the eggs, quite fresh. Here is the milk…. — it’s the best that I found, — and yet I perceived that it had a light blue tint that worried me. I know that it is by this that one recognizes milk that has been watered-down. However, I placed it on the fire, I sugared it, I flavored it with a bit of vanilla.

While it heated and up to the point when it was boiling, I had the time to break my eggs and to beat the whites. Six eggs for each liter of milk, and that will be very good. I beat the eggs in a salad bowl with a fork. They rose in no time. My milk is boiling, I throw in the whites by the heaping spoonful. They cook, they set; I remove them and I set them apart on a plate.

Now let’s make the cream, the sauce, as we say. I sugar the yolks with powdered sugar, I break them, I mix them with hot milk that I add bit by bit, then I pour this mixture into the saucepan where my milk is boiling and I slowly turn the cream without stopping, with a wooden spoon, as Tante Victoire wisely recommended…. I feel that the cream is thickening… quite a lot… Ah! mon Dieu! My cream is curdling! I cried out.

It was true, alas! my cream wasn’t turning out properly. Why? How? I don’t know. And I cried, yes, I cried, since I had counted on this dish to establish my reputation as a cook.

Tante Victoire arrived and found me in tears: “There, there, little one, don’t cry so hard now. This is one of those very small misfortunes to which you must accustom yourself when you are an apprentice cook. Let’s find the cause of the problem and then we’ll try to fix it, if that’s possible. Were your eggs quite fresh?”

“Yes, Tante Victoire, I candled them all [held them up to the light] before breaking them.”

“The saucepan, was it absolutely clean? You know that for milk dishes to turn out right, you must, as much as possible, always use the same saucepan, which should serve no other purpose than to cook milk.”

“Yes, aunt, the saucepan was very clean.”

“So it is the milk that is of poor quality… Eh! surely yes,” added Tante Victoire in examining it closely; “you see how your cream is pale, almost white, despite the quantity of eggs you have used. Don’t you have any uncooked milk left over, to show me?”

We found a bit at the bottom of the milk pail.

“That explains everything,” said Tante Victoire. “You see: the bluish tint of your milk indicates that they put water in it. And this sediment, at the bottom of your milk pail, that is rice starch that has been added to give the milk greater consistency. As your milk boiled, it thickened more than is reasonable and too quickly, without leaving the egg time to cook; also, the yolk curdled instead of mixing perfectly with the milk… There’s nothing to be done, all is lost.”

“But, Tante Victoire, how could I have seen all that?”

Closeup view of œufs à la neige

By carefully examining the boiling milk before adding the eggs to it. You would have seen it too thick, you would have been surprised, and you would have asked your mother to explain to you why it was so. Your mother, who is a very good cook, would not have been misled, and only the milk would have been lost.”

“Meanwhile,” I added, quite saddened, “now I have wasted twelve eggs, some sugar, and some vanilla.”

“Now, now, console yourself,” said Tante Victoire. “You’ll make up for it with your vegetable soup, I’m sure of it. In the meantime, go ask Puss whether he wouldn’t be happy to taste the cream that went wrong.”

I couldn’t keep myself from smiling, and I hurried to call to Puss; but I saw that he had already granted himself this pleasure, without asking permission, and that he already had his nose in the saucepan which I had set aside.

I sighed: four sous’ worth of milk, twelve sous of eggs, six sous of sugar, a piece of vanilla, that makes twenty-two sous squandered, just to make Puss happy, that is truly too expensive! Ah! I will remember this lesson.


(To copy and to keep)

1. I will examine with care the goods that I buy, to assure myself that they are fresh, especially when it concerns fish.

2. Once I have returned home, I will examine them again before using them.

3. I will be wary of milk that has a bluish tint and of that which leaves a sediment at the bottom of the milk pail or the saucepan, for these are two signs by which we recognize adulterated milk.

4. I will remember that, without paying attention, one can waste many good things and, as a consequence, waste the money that one spent to buy them.

Next time: Papa gets gastroenteritis … and guess who’s to blame?

Getting to know good food

8. The principal products that serve to feed us are: bread, meat, poultry, game, fish, vegetables, butter, milk, eggs, fruits.

9. We can tell good bread by its agreeable odor, its golden crust, its mie* fluffy and airy, that is not dense but presenting numerous tiny holes.

10. Good meat of beef and mutton is a beautiful dark red; it is at once firm and elastic to the touch; its fat is a yellowish white.

11. Meat of veal and pork has the same characteristics, only it must be pale pink. The fat is very white.

12. A good roasting chicken must be young, plump, and meaty.

We can tell that a chicken is young: First when the skin on its legs is fine; second when the claws are only slightly developed; third when the bone of the bréchet (in the chest) breaks easily when pinched.

13. A stewing hen of good quality must be very fat and meaty, which we can see when its bones are barely visible and its flesh is firm everywhere.

14. For game to be tender, it must not be eaten immediately after being killed. We let it sit three, four days or even more, according to the temperature. This is what we call “letting it season.” But it is necessary to eat it before the blood becomes completely black and before the eye takes on a greenish hue.

15. Good fish is firm, shining; it has bright eyes and bloody gills.

16. Sometimes merchants try to sell old fish as if it were fresh. To do this, they rub the gill of the fish with fresh blood. But if we know how to be on our guard, the odor and the color of the eye will not mislead us.

17. All fresh vegetables have a beautiful, vivid color: cauliflower is very white, artichokes very green; asparagus is firm; the husk of green peas is shining and juicy; the stems of celery are white and resistant; carrots, turnips, parsnips have a fine, bright, firm peel.

18. To tell whether eggs are fresh, we candle them, that is to say we hold them up to the light. The best ones are the most transparent, showing no empty spaces in the large end.

19. Good butter has a slight odor of hazelnuts, it is firm and pale yellow.

20. Old butter smells rancid or bitter. Its color is dull and dark yellow.

Also sold in markets, under the name margarine, is a product that resembles butter, and which is made of grease, prepared in a certain manner.

21. One can easily distinguish between butter and margarine by melting them separately. Butter from milk melts at 35 degrees; margarine melts at 70 degrees, that is to say half as rapidly as true butter.

22. We can tell good milk by its slightly yellowish white color. When we allow milk to sit, it covers with cream and leaves no deposit in the bottom of the container.

23. Milk that has been watered down or skimmed is bluish white.

Milk that has been adulterated with flour thickens while cooking and leaves a deposit at the bottom of the saucepan.

*NOTE: There is no English equivalent for the French word mie, which refers to the inside of the bread — the body or meat of the bread — that is, all that which is not crust.


Anonymous said...

I believe "crumb" is the translation for mie.

Love the Marseillaise fishwife!


William V. Madison said...

Glad you liked the post, which makes it awkward for me now to correct your mastery of French vocabulary: the word for "crumb" is miette, or "little mie." Please forgive me!

William V. Madison said...

Mortified apologies of a failed pedant! On a tip from Kara Lack, I looked up the English definition of "crumb," and guess what? Among the meanings of the word is "the soft inner portion of bread."

I guess I really do need to brush up on my command of my native tongue -- or else hang out with English-speakers who talk about bread more often. Because apparently, I've been loafing too much.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you just knead to eat more pain de mie!


William V. Madison said...

Ewww! I hate that pain de mie stuff so much, I can't even come up with a punny rejoinder!

In short, you'll get no pun de me.

jodig said...

Hi Bill, I am enjoying this and am remined how much I adore oeufs a la neige.....do I dare attempt to make it myself? Why not.....perhaps next weekend.....making sure to get the FRESHEST ingredients of course! Jodi

Mikebench said...

Has anyone else noticed how Madeleine's sister went from being Juliette in chapter 1 to Jeanne in chapter 3? Bill, I DEMAND an explanation or my money back! LOL

William V. Madison said...

Hmmm. I'm going to have to go back and look at the original text to make sure I was translating correctly, but I thought Juliette was the older sister, and Jeanne the younger. Of course, we never do hear another word about Juliette, whereas Jeanne pops up several times.

Coincidentally, perhaps, the original owner of our copy of La Première Année de Cuisine was named Juliette. So maybe this is a sci-fi thing where the character escaped from the book and went on to live in the real world. Welcome to the Twilight Zone.