Three Asparagus Recipes and Four Centuries of Cookbooks Wednesday, Jun 13 2012 

Simple Things

The first time I saw asparagus growing I couldn’t believe my eyes. My friend Tim and I were touring the kitchen gardens at Monticello and there it was, popping up out of the ground one spear at  a time. I was awestruck. Sometimes the simplest of things can be absolutely astonishing.

Hanging on the wall in the corridor at Château du Fey was, at first glance, what appeared to be a menu from Catherine de Medici. (I later found out it was an Middle Ages inventory list of sorts written by her kitchen manager.) It hung in a small, simple frame just outside the bedroom suite of  Anne Willan and her husband, Mark Cherniavsky. I was in France as a stagiare at Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne, founded by Anne at the encouragement of Julia Child and named after Francois Pierre LaVarenne. LaVarenne  was the author of Le Cuisinier françois, the founding cookbook of modern French cuisine. I remember the first time I saw the ancient list. It seemed inconceivable that this historical document hung there on the wall just like you or I might hang a family photo. Other than the fact that it was over 500 years old, it was as simple as simple could be, a list of food in the kitchen for the day – a medieval post-it note. Amazing.

This small document was part of their collection of four centuries of cookbooks. Their oldest book dates to 1491. Unbelievable, right? Cookbooks and other how-to books are the most simple of books, instructing us how to manage our daily lives and feed our families. For the most part, they are not great art and few will go down in history as some of mankind’s greatest achievements. Cookbooks are so much part of our daily lives that they are far from sacred — which to my mind is the real and actual reason that they are.

Clearly, cookbooks are very important to Anne and Mark. Their library is truly one of the best-assembled collections in the entire world. While in France, I once worked on an essay on herbs and used a 1633 edition of Gerald’s Herbal, a very important historical book about botany. My access to such an amazing book was astonishing to me as a novice cook and writer. What a gift!

History and Respect

Their collection has resulted in a collaboration by Anne and Mark titled The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes that Made the Modern Cookbook . It’s a life’s work of such importance and gravitas that anyone that has real interest in food and cooking must read it.

Russ Parsons of the LA Times says, “If you really love cookbooks (or books in general) and you love history, this is a book you have to read.” It’s clear in his glowing review he has a fondness and respect for Anne. Many of those of us that have worked with her share those sentiments. I learned an immense amount working for Anne. I cherish our professional relationship, as well as our personal friendship. Of all the people I have worked for, working with Anne perhaps makes me the proudest. I have huge respect for her and her work. I don’t mean to be disparaging to any other key influencers in my professional life, it’s just that my time in France was life-changing in a very real sense of the phrase.

Recently I attended at a signing for The Cookbook Library. That very afternoon I had attended a talk about monetizing blogging where I realized that I couldn’t worry about what I wasn’t, only what I was, which I wrote about last week. Unknowingly, Anne was part of that realization – it’s more important for me to have her respect than ever compromise my integrity and principles.

Real and Delicious Recipes

I started thumbing through the pages of The Cookbook Library perusing ancient recipes such as Spicy Roast Pork, Quail with Bay Leaf, Apple Dumplings, and Sage Fritters with Saffron. Positioned between the history lessons are very good and delicious recipes, all doable. I am enough of a history and food geek to absolutely love cooking a recipe that’s been made for centuries.

Asparagus caught my eye because it’s asparagus season here in Western Massachusetts. I smiled broadly when I saw it was a recipe from LaVarenne’s Le cuisinier françois.

Many thanks to Anne and Mark for this wonderful book  — and many, many other things.

Bon Appétit, Y’all
VA


Asperges à la Crême
Asparagus in Cream and Herbs
Serves 3 or 4

This is a deliciously decadent dish. I used the bouquet garni method and the flavor and aroma was fantastic — and very, very French.

From François Pierre de la Varenne, Le cuisinier françois (Paris, 1651; recipe from Brussels 1698 edition):

Cut them [the asparagus] very small, leave nothing but the green, sauté them with fresh butter or melted lard, parsley, green onion, or a bouquet of herbs; after that simmer them very gently with crème fraîche, serve if you like with a little nutmeg.

2 pounds (900 g) asparagus
2 tablespoons (30 g) butter or lard
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 green onions, sliced, or a bouquet garni of 4 or 5 parsley stems, 4 or 5 sprigs thyme, and 1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper
1 cup (250 ml) crème fraîche
Freshly grated nutmeg (optional)

Cut the green stalks of asparagus on the diagonal into 1-inch (2.5-cm) slices, discarding the tough ends. Melt the butter in a sauté pan or shallow saucepan. Add the asparagus, parsley, and green onions or bouquet garni and season with salt and pepper. Cover the pan and let the asparagus sweat over very low heat in its own juices, stirring oc­casionally, until it is almost tender when pierced with a knife, 8 to 10 minutes.

Add the crème fraîche and leave the asparagus to simmer very gently, uncovered, until just tender, about 5 minutes longer. Do not let too much of the crème fraîche evaporate or the asparagus will scorch. Discard the bouquet garni if using. If you like, sprinkle the asparagus with grated nutmeg. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and serve hot.

Recipe reproduced with permission from University of California Press from The Cookbook Library: Four Centuries of the Cooks, Writers, and Recipes That Made the Modern Cookbook by Anne Willan with Mark Cherniavsky and Kyri Claflin (University of California Press, 2012)

Asparagus Gratin
Serves 4 to 6

This dish with the sauce Mornay is a wonderful dish for a dinner party. It would be wonderful with broiled salmon. You can also make it ahead and broil it at the last minute.

1 cup 2 % milk
1 bay leaf, preferably fresh
6 black peppercorns
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 pound medium asparagus
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 cup grated Gruyère cheese
1 egg yolk, optional
1/2 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper

Heat the oven to 350° F. Combine the milk, bay leaf, peppercorns, and thyme in a small saucepan. Bring to a low simmer over medium heat. Once small bubbles appear around the edges of the saucepan, remove from the heat and let the flavors infuse, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, trim the tough woody ends from the asparagus. Heat the water over high heat in a medium saucepan. Add asparagus and season with salt and freshly ground white pepper. Cover and cook until just tender and bright green, about 3 minutes. Remove the asparagus to a medium baking dish. Pat dry.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a small saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook for a minute or two until foaming to make a roux. Strain the steeped milk into the roux and bring to a boil over high heat, whisking constantly until the sauce thickens. Season with freshly grated nutmeg, salt, and freshly ground white pepper. Reduce heat to medium and let simmer for 2 minutes. The sauce should coat the back of a spoon. Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the cheese until it melts. Place the egg yolk in a small bowl. Spoon over a couple of tablespoons of the sauce into the eggs and stir to combine. (This is called tempering and will help prevent the eggs from cooking in the heat of the sauce.) Return the now-tempered yolk to the larger saucepan of sauce and stir to combine. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Spoon the sauce over the asparagus in the baking dish. Top sauce with breadcrumbs and bake until the breadcrumbs are pale golden, about 10 minutes.

Light Asparagus Salad with Lemon and Herbs
Serves 4

After the 1st two rather rich recipes I thought I would offer up something more on the lighter side. This salad recipe is fresh and crisp – perfect for summer.

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon sherry wine vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 pounds medium asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 bunch thinly baby Vidalia onions or green onions, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 English hothouse cucumber, partially peeled, seeded, and cubed
1/4 cup chopped fresh mixed herbs such as parsley, mint, tarragon, and chervil
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper

Whisk together the lemon juice and sherry wine vinegar. Add oil and whisk until combined. Fill large bowl with ice water. Cook asparagus in large pot of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes.  In the last 30 seconds of cooking, add the green onions. Transfer vegetables to bowl of ice water to cool. Drain well and transfer to a large bowl. Add herbs and dressing; toss to coat. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Anne Willan and Mark Cherniavsky Photo Credit: Patty Williams
Asparagus photos by Virginia Willis

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

Rise Up: Setting Goals & Peach Soufflés Thursday, Jul 28 2011 

NYC and Food52

This week I was in NYC and stopped by to see my friend and colleague Amanda Hesser. Amanda and I were at LaVarenne at the same time in the mid-90s. We were both editorial stagiares for Anne Willan. In school speak, Amanda would have been a “sophomore” when I was a “freshman.” It was great to see her. We also taped a segment for her website food52.

During the interview she asked me what all I did — I responded that everyday is completely different. Some days I am writing an article or testing recipes for a magazine or scheduling a cooking class. Other days I am food-styling for a photo shoot, or perhaps like today, puttering around on my blog. I might be consulting for a corporate client, planning a menu for a fundraising dinner, or working on pre-production for a TV shoot. My days are widely varied and I travel all the time, meeting new people, tasting new dishes, seeing new things. I love it.

Amanda then commented that it seemed I had the perfect food job. It struck me as interesting because last week I answered a series of questions for an interview and the journalist said pretty much the same thing.

Hmm….last I checked I thought Amanda had the perfect food job.

But, you know what? I think we just might share the title.

Open to Possibilities

I’ve been very fortunate regarding my experiences and who’s hired me – Nathalie Dupree, Bobby Flay, Anne Willan, Martha Stewart, Epicurious, Turner Broadcasting….

To be very clear, I am extremely thankful and incredibly blessed to get to do what I love and love what I do. I’m also not trying to brag or name-drop – those leads, jobs, and contacts didn’t, and still don’t, fall in my lap.

There’s no preferential treatment. I positively bristle at that suggestion. It’s unfair and rude. I love what I do, but I work hard. I set goals and put myself out there. Frankly, it’s all I know how to do and all I’ve ever done.

My attitude is that if you try, you might fail, but if you don’t try? You are certain to fail. When I was in culinary school my hand shot up first at the call for volunteers when it was time to strain the stock, clean the walk-in, or organize a messy jumble of pastry equipment. I felt that if I volunteered for the grunt work and did a good job that I would eventually be called upon to do something important.

Years later, I still have the same approach.

My first job cooking was as an unpaid apprentice for the taping of Nathalie Dupree’s TV cooking show on PBS. At the end of taping I asked if I could continue to apprentice. I did, and eventually Nathalie offered me a job. I knew I eventually wanted to go to France to learn, study, and eat. I set my goal to work as an stagière (French for unpaid apprentice) for Anne at LaVarenne. I wanted to learn more about the editorial process. After a series of interviews and recommendations, I was accepted and off I went. Amanda and I worked side by side in the LaVarenne kitchen, making jam and cooking dinner for 20 at the same time. I apprenticed for several months and eventually Anne offered me a job. I was meant to be there for 3 months and I was there for 3 years.

Several years later, I started the process of trying to get my foot in the door at Martha Stewart. It took me over a year to get an interview, but eventually I was able to trail for a day, that time-honored tradition of working in a kitchen “trailing” a lead cook. It’s where the rubber hits the road. A paper resume only means so much in a working kitchen. You’ve got to know how to cook.

In 2002, when I knew I was intended to move from NYC, I started the process of trying to get on at Turner Broadcasting. I moved South, but it took me nearly 3 years to get an interview at Turner. I persistently wrote gentle inquiries every 3 months and finally, nearly 3 years later, I was offered a job. In the meanwhile, it took me nearly the same amount of time to get Susan Puckett at the Atlanta Journal Constitution to let me write for her, but I did and it was one of the many steps that lead to writing my first cookbook.

It’s all about setting goals and putting myself out there, and yes, fierce determination and patience are also key.

It’s also important to remember it’s not always about the big name. I try my absolute best to respond just as quickly to the local PTA newsletter interview request as I do to a text message from the reporter at the New York Times. It’s the same principle as volunteering to strain the stock.

Rise Up

When I first went to France, one of my culinary goals was to learn to make soufflé. The first time I cooked a soufflé for Anne Willan, I opened the oven door to discover a lopsided disaster, something more like the tower of Pisa than le Tour Eiffel. I set my goal to learn from the master, I cooked a soufflé once a week for months. It was brutal. We’d huddle at the oven, and she’d cleanly, crisply dissect the soufflé (and my technique) — the whites weren’t beaten enough, or I’d needed more butter to coat the dish, or it needed a pinch of salt.

Finally, I called her in to see what I’d hoped to be my triumph. I squirmed nervously as she tasted the puffy and golden brown soufflé. She nodded and proclaimed I’d finally done it.

I am often asked, “What advice would I give aspiring food writers?” My answer? Set goals and put yourself out there.

Today I want to share with you some basic soufflé techniques and a couple of recipes to help you set goals, rise up, and make soufflés in your kitchen and in your life. I hope you enjoy.

Before I sign off,  I feel compelled to tell you about a friend and colleague who’s rising up and working tremendously hard on a very personal goal. Sally, who never ran more than a lap 2 months ago, is running a marathon — yes, a marathon, 26 miles and 385 yards, in October, a mere 5 months after she started training.

At 3 1/2 years old Sally was diagnosed with leukemia. Now in her mid-twenties, as a cancer survivor she’s raising money for Team In Training, and organization that helps raise money towards cures for blood cancers like leukemia — the No. #1 disease killer of children. Participants in Team in Training such as Sally, raise money for research and the support of cancer patients and their families. Sally set her goal to raise 10K and she’s already over 3/4 of the way there in less than 2 weeks! Now, that’s setting a goal. I am in awe of her fierce determination, the very same determination that is one of the reasons she is alive today.

Please do what you can to help and click here to read Sally’s story and contribute to her efforts.

Thanks for listening.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
VA

Georgia Peach Soufflés

Serves 6

This soufflé uses the meringue method to rise, and the flavor is delicate and light.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, for the ramekins
2 to 3 peaches, peeled and sliced (about 2 cups)
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
7 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
3/4 cup granulated sugar
Confectioners’ sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Generously butter six 8-ounce ramekins. Set aside on a rimmed baking sheet.

In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, pulse the peaches until coarsely chopped. (The pieces should be no larger than 1/4 inch.) Remove 3/4 cup of the chopped peaches and place 2 tablespoons of them in each of the prepared ramekins. Set aside.

Add the lemon juice, vanilla extract, and a pinch of salt to the remaining chopped peaches in the bowl of the food processor. Process until very smooth and pureed. Transfer 1 cup of the peach puree to a bowl, discarding any remainder or reserve for another use, such as an ice cream topping or base for a smoothie. Set aside.

In the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk, beat the egg whites with a pinch of the salt on medium speed until foamy. Add about 1 tablespoon of the granulated sugar and beat on high speed until the whites hold soft peaks, 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly add the remaining granulated sugar and beat on high speed until the whites are glossy and hold stiff peaks when the whisk is lifted.

Add about a quarter of the beaten egg whites to the peach puree mixture and stir until well mixed. Pour this mixture over the remaining whites and fold them together as lightly as possible.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared soufflé ramekins (the mixture should come up to the top of each). Smooth the top with a metal spatula. Run your thumb around the inside rim of each dish, making a shallow channel around the edge of the batter. (This will help the soufflés rise up straight and tall.) Set the filled soufflé ramekins on the rimmed baking sheet.

Bake until puffed, golden, and gently set in the center, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar, and serve immediately.

Need more instruction? Check out me making Peach Soufflé with Lucinda Scala Quinn of Mad Hungry TV.

Basic Soufflé Techniques

Simplifying Soufflés

There are two basic kinds of baked soufflés: savory, which are served as a first course or a light meal, and sweet, which are served as desserts. The name itself originates from the French souffler, which means “to blow up.” It is controlling the “blowing up” that can be tricky. Simple baked soufflés are best served as a main-course lunch, light supper, or elegant starter, and of course, as the pièce de résistance for dessert.

Savory soufflés are composed of stiffly beaten egg whites and a flavored base made from a very thick, well-seasoned béchamel sauce. The sauce must be highly seasoned with flavorings and aromatics to compensate for the blandness of the egg whites. Baked dessert soufflés are made by one of two methods: preparing a flavored meringue by simply adding fruit purée or melted chocolate to a French or Swiss meringue or by preparing a flavored base of crème pâtissière (pastry cream) that performs similarly to the béchamel sauce. Dessert soufflés are very simple, since the sugar and chocolate help create a very stable foam.

Preparing the Soufflé Mold

The dish must also be well coated with softened (not melted), room temperature butter to insure the soufflé will climb the sides of the dish and not stick as the mixture rises and expands. Often when the mixture sticks, it will create a lopsided soufflé. To coat the dish, brush the inside of the soufflé mold with butter and place it in the refrigerator. As the butter chills and firms, you can very clearly see any spots you might have missed.

Properly beaten egg whites are the key to a masterful soufflé. While the soufflé is in the oven, the air trapped inside the egg whites expands, causing the soufflé to rise. Beating egg whites is quite simply incorporating air into the egg white foam. Very fresh eggs will produce a more stable foam. To create a stable foam, it is imperative that the whites must be absolutely free of any yolk or fat. Even a mere drop of yolk or fat will hinder the foam formation. The bowl and beaters must be spotlessly clean; use only glass or stainless steel bowls, as plastic bowls can retain a film of oil.
It is easier to separate eggs when they are cold and straight from the refrigerator; the whites and yolks are firmer and less likely to break. When separating eggs, crack one egg at a time into a cup, transferring each white to the mixing bowl only after it is successfully separated. There is nothing worse that ruining the entire batch on the last egg! Many soufflé recipes will call for 1 to 2 more whites than yolks to enhance the volume. Even though it is best to separate eggs when they are cold, egg whites will whip to greater volume when they have had a chance to warm slightly. To achieve this, let the egg whites stand at room temperature in the mixing bowl while you assemble the remaining ingredients. When ready to beat the whites, start slowly. In the clean metal bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whisk beat the egg whites on low speed until foamy. Add a bit of cream of tartar or vinegar. Adding acid helps create a stable foam that will hold up until heat cooks the egg proteins and sets the soufflé.

After adding the acid, increase the speed to high and continue beating just until the whites are stiff, but not dry, and no longer slip when the bowl is tilted. (My mentor Nathalie Dupree used to hold the bowl upside down over my head to test whether I had properly whipped the whites!) If the whites are underbeaten, they won’t achieve full volume. If overbeaten, the whites will appear “rocky” and can’t hold air well because all of the bubbles are smashed. Rocky, overbeaten whites will not expand properly when heated. Sometimes beating in an additional egg white might bring back a batch of overbeaten whites.

How to Fold

Once you have gone to the trouble of putting all that air in the whites, it is important not to deflate the whites when mixing them with the soufflé base. Folding is folding, not stirring. Gentle folding is the key to maintaining volume. I sacrifice about a quarter of the beaten egg whites into the yolk mixture to lighten the yolk mixture before adding the rest of the whites. This helps blend the whites with the base and makes the real folding easier. Then add the remaining whites. Using a large rubber spatula, gradually combine the mixtures with a downward stroke into the bowl, continuing across the bottom, up the side, and over the top of the mixture. Come up through the center every few strokes and rotate the bowl often as you fold. You are bringing a bit of the soufflé mixture at the bottom of the bowl up and over the egg whites. Fold just until there are no streaks remaining. Then, gently pour the mixture into the prepared dish. Lastly, run your thumb around the inside rim of the dish, making a shallow trough around the edge of the batter. This will help the soufflés rise up straight and tall.

The soufflé treatise is reprinted from Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking (Ten Speed Press 2008).

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.

Anne Willan & The LaVarenne Way Tuesday, Apr 13 2010 

Next week I will be in Portland attending a conference for the International Association of Culinary Professionals, or IACP. I am speaking on a few subjects, mostly about cookbook writing, what I laughingly call “sharing my mistakes”. I am only teasing, I am incredibly honored to be speaking to my peers, to be counted as an expert in the culinary world, to be recognized for my work. It’s extremely gratifying.

One seminar however is very special to me, more than the nuts and bolts of my trade, more than being recognized in my field. Several months ago Anne Willan outreached to me and asked me if I would like to submit a seminar titled “Willan and Willis: A Culinary Conversation”. I am not kidding you when I say it took my breath away and made me a little leaky around the eyes.

Thinking about my career, Nathalie Dupree took me out of my mama’s kitchen. She exposed me to things I had never heard of or knew about. I knew Mama made “patty shells” with creamed chicken, but I didn’t know they were puff pastry, and I sure didn’t know what that was or how to make it. Nathalie taught me to cook.

Nathalie shipped me off to France to apprentice with Anne. I learned a lot more about food and cooking when I went to France. Going to France allowed me to see, taste, and be immersed in a whole new culture, a whole new cuisine. The effects of living and working in France, both personally and professionally are immeasurable.

But, the one key thing, the lynchpin, the glue that holds my whole raison d’etre together?

Anne Willan taught me how to write a recipe.

The LaVarenne Way of recipe writing has evolved with Anne’s experience of over 35 years as a teacher, cookbook author, and food writer. She is known on both sides of the Atlantic as a leading authority on the cuisine of France and its culinary history. As the director of Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne, the cooking school that she founded 1975 with the encouragement and support of the grand doyenne herself, Julia Child, Willan has shaped and influenced countless professional and amateur cooks all over the world.

Anne’s body of work is astonishing. Her books have been published in two dozen countries and translated into 18 languages. Her awards include Bon Appétit Cooking Teacher of the Year, Grande Dame of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from International Association of Culinary Professionals. Practically every major food magazine in the US has LaVarenne alumni on staff that knows the LaVarenne Way. The alumni are called tongue in cheek, the LaVarenne Mafia. No secret society, the list reads like a who’s who of the culinary world. It includes among others: 2009 IACP award cookbook nominee and co-author of Golden Door Cooks at Home, Marah Stets; Food52 and NYT writer and editor Amanda Hesser; cookbook author Cynthia Nims; Barbecue Bible chef Stephen Raichlen; James Beard award-winning chef Ana Sortun; IACP award-winning cookbook author Molly Stevens; and Tina Ujlaki, Executive Food Editor, Food & Wine magazine.

Pause for a moment and think how many home cooks are reached by these alumni, how many recipes are written in LaVarenne style. James Beard award-winning cookbook author Molly Stevens says, “I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for Anne Willan and La Varenne. In addition to the invaluable culinary training I garnered in France, working directly with Anne over the years opened countless doors and opened my eyes to the possibility of making a career by teaching and writing. In addition, Anne is one of the hardest working individuals I know, and her drive for perfection has long been an inspiration.”

Originally based in Paris, LaVarenne later moved to the 17th-century Château du Fey. I arrived at La Varenne in 1995, initially as an editorial stagière or apprentice. Working in exchange for room and board I was able to polish my cooking, writing, and editorial skills testing recipes for Cook It Right, a comprehensive work that documents various states of cooking. It was hard work, long hours, and not a whole lot of freedom – after all I was living with my boss. New apprentices are low on the totem pole and chores exceed the confines of the kitchen.

It was similar to interning at a country inn and duties include pre-dawn baguette runs, toting luggage up winding flights of ancient stairs, and picking cherries for the breakfast jam. Cherry picking always seemed to need to happen just before dinner service, something I never could quite grasp. Of course, room was in the château and board included produce delivered each morning from the potager, still damp with the morning dew. It was a precious opportunity to learn how to actually cook it right from Anne herself.

Herbs

I was meant to be there for three months and instead I was there on and off for three life-changing years. I was starving, not just for the food, but for knowledge, for reason, for how and why. Anne gave me that. Wait, no, she didn’t give me that, she made me work for that.

It wasn’t all rosy, believe me. One of the most powerful moments in my entire life was a result of a long day at work. It was the end of a long work day of a long work week. I don’t remember even what it was, but we bumped heads a bit over something. I sulked off to my room and flung open the windows, cursing to myself, “What on earth?! Why I am doing this!” (Okay, I am taming the language for both Anne and my Mama, but you get the point.)

I look out the window and in the brightness of the late summer afternoon stood a massive field of sunflowers covering the hillside. The force of the view was so intense it literally physically pushed me back, it was as if someone smacked me on the chest and forced me down to sit on the bench. Now, I had seen those flowers before, but I had never seen them like that. That was the answer to my question.

One of my favorite tales from my time there is that while preparing for the Bastille Day picnic, I cut off the tip of my left thumb while preparing potato salad. I quickly wrapped my hand in a towel and raised it above my head. I grabbed the severed bit from the cutting board in my right hand, walked into Anne Willan’s office, and told her I had cut myself. She asked to see it. I refused. She repeated herself. I refused. See, I knew it was a pretty good cut. I didn’t want to spurt all over her office. Her eyebrows arched. (Anne is not used to being told “no”.) She insisted.

Finally, opening my right palm, I said, “Well, here it is.” The grand dame Anne blanched and replied, “Oh dear, I think we need a Cognac.”

Quickly, the lost bit was placed on ice and she sent me down the hill to Joigny for repairs.

She, then of course, went back to work.

I developed a tremendous respect for her work ethic and knowledge about food and cooking. Her way, the LaVarenne way is based on a regimen of rigorous recipe testing and editing. My first attempts at recipe writing were returned bleeding in the red ink of her razor sharp pen. I learned the importance of proofreading and attention to detail and I am not alone. Tamie Cook, Culinary Director for Alton Brown and former LaVarenne stagière says, “My experience with Anne Willan at La Varenne was invaluable. Never have I worked so hard and been so rewarded. Anne is driven to perfection like few people I have ever met and her willingness to open the doors of her operation to someone like myself with very little culinary experience at the time is a testament to her passion for teaching and life-long learning.” This premise is the foundation of Willan’s work and emanates from her writer’s desk to the stovetop. Anne says, “Learn the scales before you play the music. Cooking is about creativity, but it’s important to acquire discipline first.”

Practicing the essentials and learning the basis are the fundamental building blocks of the LaVarenne Way. I once asked Anne what part of her illustrious career she is most proud of. Beaming with pride she answered, “Creating LaVarenne where so many people have been through and learned then going out and doing their own things, taking things further and creating their own careers.”

Thank you, Anne.
Gros bises.
See you next week.

Gâteau Breton
Butter Cake

Brittany butter is famous and the richest pastry of all is this gâteau Breton, with equal weights of all ingredients. No flavorings are added so the true taste of butter shines through. The same recipe produces either a single round ‘gâteau breton’ or 18-20 individual ‘petits gâteaux.’ This is great finger food for afternoon tea, or could become an elegant dessert when dressed up with fresh berries.

Serves 8

6 egg yolks
1 ¾ cups/225g flour
1 cup/225g butter
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons/225g sugar

9 to 10-inch tart pan with removable base

Set the oven to 375°F/190°C. Thoroughly butter the cake pan. Set aside a teaspoon of the egg yolks for glazing.

Sift the flour onto a marble slab or board and make a large well in the center. Cut the butter in small pieces and put it in the well with the sugar and egg yolks; work them together with your fingertips until the mixture is smooth. Gradually incorporate the flour using the fingers and heel of your hand, and then work the dough gently until smooth. It will be sticky at this point and must be mixed with the help of a metal pastry scraper.

Transfer the dough to the buttered pan and smooth it to an even layer, flouring the back of your hand to prevent sticking. Brush the surface of the gâteau with the reserved egg yolk and mark a lattice design with a fork.

Bake in the heated oven for 20 minutes, then lower the heat to 350°F/180°C and continue baking for 30 more minutes or until the cake is golden and firm to the touch. Leave it to cool then unmold carefully on a rack. Cut it in wedges for serving.

La Varenne Gougères
Makes 20 medium puffs

This is a savory version of the classic French pastry dough pâte à choux used to make profiteroles and éclairs. Gougères are a classic Burgundian treat commonly served with apéritifs at parties, bistros, and wine bars. You can increase the recipe (see Variation, following), but do not double it, as it does not multiply well.

A note of encouragement: don’t panic when you are adding the eggs and the dough starts to look awful. Just keep stirring and it will come together.

3/4 cup water
1/3 cup unsalted butter
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
5 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup grated Gruyère cheese (about 21/2 ounces)

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking sheet or parchment paper.

To make the dough, in a medium saucepan, bring the water, butter, and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt to a boil over high heat. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, add the flour all at once, and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth and pulls away from the sides of the pan to form a ball, 30 to
60 seconds. (This mixture is called the panade.) Beat the mixture over low heat for an additional 30 to 60 seconds to dry the mixture.

To make the egg wash, whisk 1 of the eggs in a small bowl with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt until well mixed; set aside. With a wooden spoon, beat the remaining 4 eggs into the dough, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. (It will come together, I promise.) Beat until the dough is shiny and slides from the spoon. Add the grated cheese.

If using parchment paper to line the baking sheet, “glue” down the paper at this point with a few dabs of the dough.

To form the gougères, use either a tablespoon for a rustic look, or for a more finished appearance, a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch round tip. Spoon or pipe 12 mounds of dough about 2 inches in diameter onto the baking sheet, spacing them at least 2 inches apart. Brush the puffs with the reserved egg wash.

Bake until puffed and golden, 25 to 30 minutes. To test for doneness, remove one puff from the baking sheet and let it cool for 45 to 60 seconds. If it remains crisp and doesn’t deflate, it is done. If not, return it to the oven and continue baking 5 to 10 minutes more. Remove to a rack to cool. Let the puffs cool slightly on the sheet, then transfer to a cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

making ahead: These are brilliantly resilient and freeze beautifully. Once cooled, store them in an airtight container in the freezer for up to 4 weeks. Warm and re-crisp in a 350°F oven, 5 to 7 minutes.

variation: To make 30 to 35 medium puffs, adjust the ingredient amounts as follows: 11/4 cups flour, 1 cup water, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 61/2 tablespoons butter, 6 eggs (5 for the dough and 1 for the wash), and 1 cup cheese.