Midnight in Paris…

Marcel Proust was partial to dipping one into his cuppa; the French in general appear to have a penchant for them at most times of day, but it was a surprise when a plate of madeleines was proffered late last Friday night, their scalloped edges just the golden side of crisp. I did wonder how they’d slip down with my vin rouge. They were hard to resist, even after such a meal; they were warm and fragrant and just seconds out of the oven.

The BSG and I took in the City of Light under high azure skies after what had been a painfully prolonged absence. Amidst varied excursions to the Eiffel Tower, Monet’s gargantuan lilyscapes at l‘Orangerie and a boat trip under the many bridges of the Seine there were some truly memorable fuel-stops (in truth, the excursions were really the punctuation marks in this two-day gastronomic tour).

At the planning stage, we’d heavily researched the food aspect of our tripette and decided we’d try to get a table at Spring, the eatery du jour. The operative word being try….The phone rang – and rang. If Spring’s PR mantra is ‘treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’, then they’ve got it, spot on. Though I’m not sure I do.

And so we put Spring behind us and the lovely Kate took over. Kate is chic, knowledgeable and has discerning taste in most things, especially when it comes to food, so we knew we were in safe hands – after all, it was she who was responsible for our last great Paris discovery, Chez l’Ami Jean, a secret we have proudly shared ever since with friends who are visiting the city. After meeting first for a drink and an hour watching the beautiful people at Hotel Costes, we took the scenic route through Place Vendome to Bistrot Volnay.

The emphasis here was on quality produce: various seasonal mushrooms appeared throughout the evening’s menu; alongside razor clams or St Jacques to start; pan fried with sweetbreads and foie gras to follow; stirred through the darkest, glossiest osso bucco. I had the pheasant tourte: a type of savoury pasty filled with meat, bacon, foie gras and chanterelles, with grapes and spices lending an autumn sweetness. It was very elegant and very simply done, a description that could be applied to the Volnay itself. Whilst it’s clearly a Paris bistro – complete with plaque-studded counter-bar commemorating lifelong regulars – the restrained and quietly chic palette is redolent of Manhattan; it has the feel of a neighbourhood restaurant. The staff were chatty and helpful, and we felt welcome from the off.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to those madeleines…

Eyes bigger than stomachs, three of the four of us just had to order riz-au-lait, which came with extra cream and a dark salty caramel sauce. Kate’s husband Emmanuel finished his with aplomb – like any self-respecting foodie, but all I could do was stare at the remainder on my plate and wish it a good home somewhere else – it was enormous. Therefore, when wafts of the freshly-baked-cake variety started to circulate, it took the brain a little while to recover itself and ape some kind of hunger pang. It was nothing other than gratuitous, but everyone else in the place was tucking in to those dainty sponge shells so surely it would have been rude not to….wouldn’t it?

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A salad of fennel, orange, Parmesan and hazelnuts

Before I started working from home I had this romantic notion that I would float between desk and kitchen, keeping a vague eye on something wholesome on the stove or in the oven, blipping away until lunchtime. Now that I’ve worked here a year, I can testify to devoting even less time towards my lunch at home than I did when I had to rely on the ubiquitous sandwich chains for the weekly rotation of wraps, salads and soups – most of the time; there constantly seems to be something else that needs my attention.

Yesterday, however, was a punctuation mark of a lunch, a seagull-topped buoy on the recent sea of lacklustre lunches, and it’s inspired me to make more of an effort even though it’s only me. After all, lunch is pretty important, in the grand scheme of things.

Like all the best food daydreams, this one had an outside chance of becoming a reality as I happened to have all the ingredients in question. And the reality was delicious.

Serves 1 (or 2 as a starter)

1 bulb fennel

8 good shavings off a block of good Parmesan

Handful of crushed hazelnuts

1 orange

For the dressing:

Cider/white wine vinegar

Mustard

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

Slice the very bottom off the fennel bulb and wash/discard any manky outer layers. Slice it very finely, or better still, shave it with a vegetable peeler (or – yikes! – a mandolin).

Peel and halve the orange, discarding any pips, and slice.

Make the dressing to taste (but a mustardy, zingy slick is best).

Dress and mix the fennel, nuts, cheese and orange slices in a bowl.

Eat directly from said bowl if you can stay away from your desk no longer.

Gruyère, cheddar and bacon soufflé

I’ve always been a bit scared of soufflés. I adore eating them, but would sooner leave the manufacture to someone else. The process always seems to me way too fraught to be a satisfying one, with that mad sprint finish over the last yards from the degree-perfect oven to the table. Scoping out options for supper last week and finding two rashers of bacon, a few eggs and two lumps of cheese left I suggested to the BSG that I might try making one and he said ‘why not?’ Why not, indeed? So I did.

I love nothing more than cruising the pages of all our beautiful cookbooks, but when I am all at sea and in need of the recipe equivalent of a stern lecture (or that fun instructive part of Blue Peter) I go to the most unsightly of the lot: Leith’s Cookery Bible. Stripped of its dust-jacket, its pages stuck together and occasionally brittle with goodness-knows-what, the spine and boards rebound with parcel tape of the muddiest brown, this beloved manual has been with the BSG for 12 years, since he did a course at Leith’s. Aside from a few breaks of colour photos (and BSG biro-scribblings), it is nearly 700 pages of pure instruction, and has been so relied upon and loved over the years that if it were a toy it would be the Velveteen Rabbit.

So, with Prue’s expert help, I made my first soufflé*. And it felt a lot like a magic spell; it never ceases to delight me how the lowly egg creates such towering spectacle.
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*(I don’t think I have ever followed a recipe to the letter and this was no exception; I put chopped fried bacon bits into the bottom of the dishes).

Serves 2 apparently (but easily 6 as a starter)

Ingredients

40g butter
Dried white breadcrumbs
30g plain flour
½ teaspoon dry English mustard
a pinch of Cayenne pepper
290ml milk
3 oz sharp Cheddar or Gruyere cheese, grated (I used both)
4 eggs, separated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 200ºC/400º F gas mark 6.

Melt a knob of the butter and brush a 15cm/6in soufflé dish (or 6 ramekins) with it. Dust lightly with the breadcrumbs.

Melt the remaining butter in a saucepan and stir in the flour, mustard and cayenne with a wooden spoon. Cook for 45 seconds. Add the milk and cook, stirring vigorously, for 2 minutes. The mixture will get very thick and leave the sides of the pan. Remove from the heat.

Cool slightly and add the cheese, egg yolks, salt and pepper. Taste; the mixture should be well seasoned.
Whisk the egg whites until stiff but not dry, mix a spoonful into the cheese mixture. Then fold in the remainder until just combined. Pour into the dish(es), which should be two-thirds full. Run your finger around the top of the mixture. This gives a ‘top hat’ appearance to the cooked soufflé.

Bake in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes (13-20 minutes for small versions) and serve immediately. (Do not test to see if the soufflé is done for at least 20 minutes – less for smaller dishes. Then open the oven just wide enough to get your hand in and give the soufflé a slight shove. If it wobbles alarmingly, cook for a further 5 minutes.)

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