25 July 2010

La Première Année de Cuisine, Part 21

No photographs exist of the plum preserves I have made.
The black-currant preserves here are the result
of an absurd amount of labor on my part —
because I didn’t follow Tante Victoire’s lesson.



Plum preserves.

We were very busy all week not only because of our upcoming departure, which obliged us to make all the winter preparations for the house in the country, but also because we made preserves.*

Tante Victoire’s fruit garden isn’t very big: one cherry tree, a few red-currant bushes, a plot of strawberries, that’s not much. But what beautiful plum trees! There are three trees of mirabelle plums, two of Reine-Claude, four of Sainte-Catherine. And precisely this year, the fruit was abundant, such that the plum trees produced enough to make great quantities of preserves.

We began by taking down from the pot-rack the pans and other utensils needed for cooking fruit. Even though they were clean, we rinsed them in fresh water and wiped them with care.

I couldn’t explain for myself why utensils made of copper are used to make preserves, and I asked Tante Victoire the reason for it.

“Tante Victoire, couldn’t we cook the fruit in this pan made of wrought iron? It’s big, very clean, and it seems to me that it would be perfectly adequate.”

“No,” Tante Victoire answered me. “We have noticed that galvanized utensils change the color of preserves, and these ones that we’re making today, in cooking, would damage the wrought iron. This is without doubt because of the acidity of the fruit juices. Let us take instead this beautiful pan made of red copper, this other one made of yellow copper, these two copper skimmers; you’ll see that our preserves will be beautiful and that our utensils will not deteriorate or blacken at all when we use them.”

Our plums were gathered two days ago. In the evenings, our time was spent in removing the pits. Everything was ready on that score. We weighed the fruits and the sugar that we would use. For these preserves, it’s necessary to measure, as cooks say, pound for pound, that is to say the same weight of sugar and of fruit. On one scale, we placed the fruit, on the other the sugar, and we balanced them. You must realize that we started this operation several times over, since we had such a wealth of fruit that we couldn’t place the entire harvest on the scale.

In short, our twenty pounds of sugar were measured, and we had just enough.

We had begun by making the syrup. Tante Victoire had explained to me that syrup is sugar cooked in a very small quantity of water.

The sugar was placed in a pan with a half-liter of water for each kilogram of sugar, and we let it cook while I washed and I prepared the pots of glass and porcelain destined to receive the preserves.

Tante Victoire kept watch on the syrup as it cooked. I say her plunging the skimmer into the pan from time to time, pulling it out and blowing across it.

“Is it to cool off the skimmer that you blow upon it this way, Tante Victoire?”

You know how to skim, don’t you?
Just put your lips together, and blow.

Tante Victoire began to laugh. “What an idea! …Not at all, my little one: it is so that I may see if the syrup is cooked enough to begin adding the mirabelles. It is necessary that, in blowing hard on the skimmer, one makes the syrup pass through the holes and that there remain sticking to the skimmer’s surface some small balls. That’s what we call syrup that beads up.”**

And, in saying this, Tante Victoire continued her experiment.

Soon, indeed, the sugar passed through the holes of the skimmer, forming little balls. It was just right.

Then Tante Victoire threw the fruits into the pan, leaving them there just until they began to boil, then removing them, always using the skimmer, and placing them gently in the pots. She left the syrup on the fire, where it reduced. Then she poured it over the plums, right to the brim of each pot.

“You see,” she said to me, “I haven’t completely filled the pots with the plums, because it’s necessary for the syrup to cover the preserves completely. It is always the same rule for preserving fruits or vegetables: things to be preserved must be sheltered from contact with the air. Here, it is the syrup that preserves the fruits, as the butter preserved our sorrel, as the lard preserved our goose.”

“Truly,” said I, “it’s not at all difficult to make preserves, and I believe that now I shall know how to do it all by myself.”

“Nothing in cooking is difficult,” said Tante Victoire; “with attention and care one almost always succeeds, but here it is above all a question of habit, and it’s possible that your first attempts, if you were alone, would not turn out happily. What’s more,” she added, “we shall soon see. I am making a gift to you of six pots of plum preserves, on two conditions: the first is that you yourself shall prepare them; the second is that you will promise me to return the pots to me when the jam is finished, since, like every housekeeper, I hold to my reserve of pots and utensils even more than to my fruits.”

I promised Tante Victoire everything that she wished, and I was quite content. I myself prepared my six pots of preserves. I must admit that the syrup was not perhaps quite done when I poured it over the fruit. I realize also that I had perhaps left the plums a few instants too long in the pan and that they crushed a bit, like a marmalade, but the preserves were good, despite these slight flaws, and I declared myself satisfied.

Tante Victoire remarked to me that I was content with too little, and that to become a good cook, I must be tougher on myself: “It is,” she said, “by this system that one winds up neglecting things and spoiling much. Be very severe with yourself in every little job in the kitchen and in the household. It’s the only way to attain perfection. Without it, from one small oversight to another, one winds up doing things by half-measure. In domestic life as in everything that concerns existence, distrust half-measures.

Thus speaks with great wisdom my good Tante Victoire. I shall remem­ber always, I hope, her excellent lessons.


[To copy and to keep]

1. Whenever I wish to make dishes with dairy (pudding, rice pudding, etc.), I shall take care to use the best milk, otherwise I should risk making the task wothless, bad milk making only detestable dishes.

2. If I must use eggs, I shall always choose very fresh ones.

3. I shall recall that sugary dishes are always fairly expensive and that I must consequently work hard to make them correctly, so that they take the place of a --- instead of being a mere dessert.

4. If the fruit is abundant and inexpensive, I shall make preserves, useful for dessert dishes in winter and for children’s tea-time.

5. To make preserves, I shall use utensils made entirely of copper, and not tin-plated utensils that spoil the color of the fruit.

6. I shall remember that in order to succeed in cooking, as in every thing, one must not be content with little, but must be tough and severe with oneself.

Next time: Coffee, tea, or chocolate?


Sugary dishes.

159. Pudding. — To make ordinary pudding, mix in a salad bowl six egg yolks, for example, with six spoonfuls of powdered sugar. Have already one liter of milk already boiled. When the sugar is melted, pour the milk bit by bit over the eggs, taking care to stir constantly with a wooden spoon. This being done, pour this mixture into a saucepan and place over a very low flame, while stirring gently and in the same direction, with the wooden spoon. When the mixture feels as if it is thickening, it is cooked. Pour into a compote dish or a bowl and eat it warm or cold.

160. How to vary puddings. — Vary puddings by adding to the milk substances that will flavor it different, vanilla or lemon, for example.
To make chocolate pudding, use milk to which chocolate has been melted, and to make coffee pudding, use milk to which coffee has been added.

161. Flan or upside-down pudding. — Prepare the eggs and the milk as you would for an ordinary pudding flavored with vanilla, but add to the yolk at least half of the egg whites. When the mixture is done, pour it into a deep dish and let it “take,” whether in the oven, whether into a bain-marie.
When one wishes that the pudding be upside-down, that is to say that it can be detached from the saucepan or the mold where it has cooked, smear the lining of this saucepan or this dish with some “caramel,” and cook it in a bain-marie.
The flan is cooked when a straw will stand up in it.
To unmold a pudding, briskly turn the mold over a plate and tap it lightly on the exterior edges and the base of the mold.

162. Gâteau de riz. — For one liter of milk, use a half-pound of rice, 30 grams of fine butter, some sugar, and a piece of vanilla. Let the rice absorb the milk until thick and flavored with the vanilla.
When it is cooked, remove the saucepan from the fire, let cool, and take three egg yolks that are mixed with the rice by stirring briskly with a wooden spoon. Then beat the egg whites until thick and add them to the mixture. Pour all of it into a mold smeared with “caramel” and place the mold either in the bain-marie or in a warm oven, that is to say only slightly hot. When serving, turn the gâteau over a deep dish or a compote-dish. It’s often served surrounded by a vanilla cream.

163. Rice pudding. — This is quite simply rice that has absorbed and been cooked in sugared milk and flavored. Leave it on the fire for about an hour. Serve it in a deep dish and eat it with a spoon.

164. Apple fritters. — To make fritters, it’s necessary first to prepare the batter. For this, place in a dish three spoons of flour, a spoonful of eau de vie, a spoonful of olive oil, a spoonful of powdered sugar, and a pinch of salt. Mix all of this and slowly pour over it a glass of lukewarm water which is incorporated while avoiding the creation of lumps. Then, beat some egg whites until thick and add them to the mixture.
To make the fritters, peel and cut into round slices some good, quite healthy apples. Soak each slice in the batter and drop it into boiling frying-oil.
When both sides are golden brown, remove the fritters one by one from the frying-oil, drain them and serve them as hot as possible.

165. Fruit marmalades.*** — Fruit marmalades are all made in the same manner. Peel the fruits, cut them into pieces, cook them over a low flame in a saucepan with a bit of water, a great deal of sugar and some kind of flavoring: vanilla or cinammon, or lemon zest. The marmalade is done when the fruit is completely crushed and the mixture has the consistency of a thick porridge.
Sometimes one cooks fruits that are whole or cut into large pieces. What one gets this way is not a marmalade, but a compote.

Poires au vin: See my note.

166. Compotes. — The fruits that are most often cooked in compotes are: plums, pears, apples. Do as you did to make marmalade, but without cutting up the fruit. Before serving, remove the fruit from the saucepan where they cooked. Stand them on a compote-dish. Leave the juice on the fire, where it will finish cooking by reducing. When it takes on the consistency of syrup, pour it over the fruits.
For pears and prunes, wine is sometimes used instead of water to cook them.

Though the process doesn’t look today as it did in Madeleine’s time,
making marmalade remains a popular activity in France.

* TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Madeleine correctly uses the word “confiture,” which refers to fruit preserves (jam), and is never used to refer to preserved sorrel or goose or any of the other foods that she and Tante Victoire have been preserving in recent chapters. The French language strikes me as slightly richer in vocabulary to describe the various means of preserving foods — but perhaps that’s because I’ve never preserved anything in English.

**Like Tante Victoire’s instructions on rubbing, her instructions on blowing are much less suggestive in the original French.

***Is this a radical change in French cooking? I don’t know. But what our esteemed author, L. Ch.-Desmaisons describes as a “marmalade” is now commonly known in France as a “compote.” In French, just as in English, the word “marmalade” is now used for preserves made of citrus fruits — while a “compote de pommes,” for example, now looks just like applesauce, and not like whole apples stewed and served on a plate.
Among people and restaurants I know, what L. Ch.-Desmaisons de­scribes as a “compote” is almost always made with wine nowadays, and I’m most familiar with “poires au vin,” one of Bernard’s great specialties.

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