EVOLUTION OF A GATEAU — My daughter Alison made our Seven Layer Cake (see Desserts) the other day for a house-warming and thanks to her finding an insufficiency of butter and white sugar in her cupboard she had, zounds, to resort to some honey and brown sugar to fill out the recipe. Could this be why these seven indubitably warming layers seemed the best I’d ever tasted?
BIOGRAPHICAL EATS — It’s not all that easy to find delectable meals mentioned in literary biographies. The cold ham and proper joints that Virginia and Leonard Woolf seemed to favor on the English side of the Channel sound pleasant but not exciting; there’s scant evidence of John Cheever sandwiching his highballs and skinny-dips with coq au vin; and I know my hero Nabokov cared more for metaphor than moussaka. This is not to mention a highly articulate John Adams going to Versailles but not telling Abigail what he ate there. But hark, I’ve been reading Hermione Lee’s superb bio of Edith Wharton, that witty and wealthy chronicler of doomed love in high places, and here is what she served her guests at one or the other of her two French maisons in the Twenties: rice and chicken livers followed by maximally tender roast chicken and peas, with strawberries and cream for dessert, or, a tad lighter perhaps, a good potage followed by grilled turbot and sauteed salsifis, with apple charlotte for dessert.
And now I wonder what Edith had for her lunch break when she was home alone with the servants and spinning one of her meticulously crafted tales of faulty matrimonial carpentry, drenched of course in the sauces of satire. An omelette fines herbs, I’ll bet you, or a little mayonnaisy salade of leftover chicken. And no Charlotte, thank you, I’ve been putting on weight.
A MILKY VARIATION — A recipe writer is permitted to change his mind and I’ve decided to do our Lemon Milk Chicken a new way.
Alterations as follows: 1) use chicken on the bone, 2) add Marsala to taste plus a few juniper berries in the lemon-milk mix, 3) bake the lot for a short hour at 350 degrees. The sauce will separate but taste lovely.
IT’S A SOIR THING — Every once in a while I get down from a shelf in my cookbook corner a fifty-year-old volume I inherited from my mother called French Family Cooking, a collection, this, of translated recipes by one Philomene who was for some years a food columnist on France Soir, the man-in-the-street’s evening paper in Paris. In my salad days by the Seine, courtesy of Oncle Sam, you’d see retired civil servants and pinstriped supernumeraries as it were out of a Jean Gabin movie reading this sheet at places like good old Valentin on Rue Marbeuf, served by female waitpersons of a certain age dressed in black uniforms with those cute little tea aprons that have gone the way of the dinosaur — although, heavens, perhaps they still exist in the posh female persons’ luncheon clubs positioned like culinary nunneries behind colonial downtown doors in San Francisco, Cincinnati, Boston . . .
At all events, a dish from the Philomenean files recently caught my eye, having just spotted some veal stew lined up pristinely at the butcher’s down the street. This was Ragout de Veau a l’Estragon, simply veal stew browned lightly, then floured and browned a little more, the next step the administering of a cup or more of warmed white wine (I opted for an unashamedly oaky budget Chardonnay), the lot simmered cover-on for an hour and a half, then decorated with plenty of chopped fresh tarragon before serving. Philomene doesn’t mention the option of reducing the sauce, which I found necessary, but just a little, because this is a dish in which the ingredients swim rather than drown. “A most delicate and unusual dish,” says Philomene from behind her trusty typewriter. Right she is. And she might have added that this ragout has the sunniest disposition. It’s not a grumpy steak, a coy quail or a slippery scallop.
AND A MENU IN THE ATTIC — I’ve just come across a six foot tall and charmingly conversational bill of fare from Manhattan’s faithful Barbetta on West 46th. The date is about 1963. Well, I think I’ll order the Bolliti Misti Piemontesi Served from the Silver Wagon, price $4.75.