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“Chicken with cheese”: The words conjure up visions of that college-student standby, the fried-chicken melt. But poulet au fromage is something quite different — something elegant and perfectly delicious.
Exemplifying the cookery of early 18th-century France, long before the famous chef Marie-Antoine Carême came along and codified haute cuisine, the recipe appears in “Nouveau Traité de la Cuisine,” Published in the 1740s by a writer who used the pen name Menon. (Note that it wasn’t until the 20th century that chefs regularly began to publish their recipes while they were still fashionable; before then, chefs typically didn’t reveal their secrets until after they’d retired. So published recipes tended to represent the cuisine of an earlier era.)
Haute cuisine standards
Anyway, poulet au fromage is a delightful dish with a family resemblance to the 19th-century haute cuisine standard veal Foyot. In both cases, meat is simmered with broth and white wine and then baked under a covering of Gruyère (or Swiss) cheese; the ingredients meld into a concoction with a savory, sophisticated flavor.
But there are differences (besides the obvious fact that veal Foyot contains veal, which is expensive and troubles some people on ethical grounds). Poulet au fromage includes a substantial amount of herbs, which was more characteristic of French food in the 18th century than it was in the 19th (and is perhaps a little more to our present-day tastes). And it does not include fried minced onions, as veal Foyot does. If you felt like discreetly sprinkling some lightly fried onions on the chicken before adding the final cheese layer, however, I would be willing to close my eyes.
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Menon’s recipe calls for a whole chicken, but the chickens of his day were younger and therefore more tender than those we can conveniently get in our supermarkets. I substitute chicken breast; to make up for the slight loss of flavor due to the absence of bones, I tend to add a bit of bottled chicken base.
Properly, the herbs should be added in the form of a bouquet wrapped in cheesecloth. But if you do that, you have to transfer everything to a saucepan, because in a frying pan the liquid will nowhere near cover the bouquet. It’s therefore more convenient to add all the herbs loose; given that are no other ingredients in the cooking liquid, they’re easy enough to strain out later.
Poulet au Fromage
Prep time: About 20 minutes
Cook time: About 1 1/2 hours
Total time: About 1 hour 50 minutes
Yield: 2 to 3 servings
2 1/2 to 3 pounds chicken breast
2 ounces butter
3/4 cup dry white wine such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc
1/2 cup chicken broth
3 sprigs parsley
2 shallots, sliced
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
2 small sprigs fresh thyme
3 leaves fresh basil
Salt and pepper
1 pound Swiss or French Gruyère cheese, grated
1. Remove any bones and skin from the breasts, pound them with a kitchen mallet to flatten and cut them into pieces 1 1/2- to 2-inches square. Melt the butter in a large pan and fry the pieces in two batches until lightly browned, about 15 minutes.
2. Add the wine, broth, parsley, shallots, garlic, cloves, bay leaf, thyme and basil along with salt and pepper to taste. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, loosely covered, for 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 475 F.
3. Remove the meat from the pan. Strain the cooking liquid and transfer half of it to a 2-quart casserole or baking dish. Sprinkle with half of the cheese, add the chicken pieces and the rest of the cooking liquid, and top with the remaining cheese. Cover the baking dish tightly and bake until the cheese is entirely melted, 10 to 12 minutes.
4. Raise the temperature to 500 F, remove the cover from the casserole and return to the oven until the cheese has begun turning brown in spots, 5 to 7 minutes.
Main photo: Poulet au fromage. Credit: Charles Perry
Here’s a holiday drink that’s loaded with tradition — and most respectable tradition at that: It comes from Martha Washington’s personal cookbook. But it’s not eggnog. In fact, it contains no egg, and it’s served cold, with a sporty flavoring of rosemary and lemon zest. Martha’s recipe calls it “posset,” but it also resembles an old English dessert/drink with the particularly silly name of “syllabub” — which itself has a family resemblance to a dessert with the particularly foolish name of “fool.”
Posset’s ancestry is somewhat obscure. The name itself is a mystery. When it was first written down in the 15th century, it was more likely to be spelled “poshet” or even “poshoote.” The descriptions of the time show that it was a soothing drink for people in sickbed, consisting of milk curdled by the addition of ale and flavored with spices, which were thought to be medicinal. By Shakespeare’s day, it had become something people drank for pleasure — Lady Macbeth helps her husband murder his rival Duncan by drugging his chamberlains’ possets. In the 17th century, possets were generally made with cream and raisiny Mediterranean sweet wines such as sherry or Malmsey. (Sometimes they were thickened with egg yolks in a manner similar to modern eggnog, complete with a touch of nutmeg or cinnamon.)
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Flavored with German wine
Martha Washington’s recipe is unusual in that it’s flavored primarily with German wine. This gives it a lighter, more floral character than eggnog has, without so much of the musty dried-fruit aspect that can grow kind of tiresome during the holiday season. In fact, though the recipe also contains sherry, I prefer to cut the amount down to half a cup to give Riesling a chance.
And the degree of sweetness is up to you. Her recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups of sugar, which is a whole lot for flavoring seven cups of liquid. Go ahead and use that much if you want, but remember the condition of the Father of Our Country’s teeth. I prefer one cup.
Finally, Martha’s version is a whipped (or as she wrote it, “whipt”) posset. It doesn’t whip up anywhere nearly as high as whipped cream, but it does thicken appetizingly, and the foam gradually rises to the top as a kind of frosting on the drink. In this it resembles syllabub, which was also a mixture of cream and wine (though not whipt as much) that separated into alternately rich and winey layers. Note that a certain degree of curdling is caused by the acidity of the wine, giving posset its affinity to the aforementioned English dessert fruit fool.
Prep time: About 10 minutes
Total time: About 10 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 quart (2 pints) whipping cream, well chilled
2 cups German Riesling such as Rheinhessen, or a California or other New World Riesling, if preferred
1 cup cream sherry
1 cup sugar
Several sprigs of fresh rosemary
1. In a mixing bowl, combine the cream, Riesling, sherry and sugar. Whip at low to medium speed for about 5 minutes, then 5 minutes more at medium to medium-high speed (so long as it doesn’t spit posset out of the bowl).
2. Grate the zest of half of the lemon and stir into the mixture. Cut the remaining half of the lemon peel into twists.
3. Squeeze a sprig of rosemary between your fingers, drop it in the bowl, stir and let sit for a minute or two. Taste to see whether you like the amount of rosemary flavor; if you’d like more, stir the mixture again and leave the sprig in a bit longer.
4. Spoon the posset into wine glasses, using a large-mouthed funnel to keep the presentation neat, and garnish each with a rosemary sprig and a twist of lemon.
Main photo: A spot of whipt posset. Credit: Charles Perry
There used to be lots of ketchups, but now we have only one, the omnipresent tomato. In the 19th century, though, ketchup was often made from — bet you didn’t know this! — berries: gooseberries, say, or currants (the real ones, not the little seedless raisins) or grapes (which are technically berries, from the botanical point of view).
My favorite version is blueberry ketchup, not only because it’s made from good old blueberries but because it’s so startlingly purple-blue. I wouldn’t put it on a burger, but it’s quite delicious and would make a special Christmas present.
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You can find recipes for it on the Internet, but most aim to mimic tomato ketchup. The 19th-century recipes were quite different. They had more in common with apple butter than any ketchup we’re familiar with. (You could think of them as berry butters.)
A Dollop of History
Sweet ketchup was the result of a long development, beginning in the late 17th century. That was when English cooks started making “ketchups” in what seems, in retrospect, a rather feeble attempt to imitate soy sauce using English ingredients. Their faux-ketchups were based on anchovies, mushrooms, pickled walnuts and such things they had been using to flavor sauces. These liquids were basically a convenient way to vary gravy, which they put on meat, or melted butter, their universal sauce for fish or vegetables.
In the beginning, they were typically extracted with vinegar, so the first tomato ketchups, made around the beginning of the 19th century, were quite sour. If you added them to butter or gravy, they made a sort of instant tomato sauce. Kind of a weird one, we would now think, after more than a century of experience with marinara.
As the century wore on, sugar became cheaper, and some homemakers took advantage of this, making sweet tomato ketchup as a way of preserving some of the summer’s crop. It was a short step from there to the berry versions.
The Versatility of Berry Ketchup
How do you use blueberry ketchup? It’s actually sweet enough to go on pancakes, but its natural partner is pork. Forty years ago, food writer Richard Olney noted that there’s “something flat and sinister” about pork that cries out for fruit flavors, hence the traditional applesauce with pork chops and the pineapple that often pairs with ham.
You might also preserve the 18th-century tradition and use blueberry ketchup to doctor other sauces. Mix it with steak sauce (the cheapest supermarket brand you can find would be fine) to make a unique blueberry barbecue sauce. Try it – it’s remarkably good.
You can vary the spices, using nutmeg or allspice, say. The combination of cloves and mace was very popular in the 19th century and actually survives in many a modern tomato ketchup. You can also replace some of the white sugar with brown sugar or honey if you like.
As for grape ketchup, the traditional grapes are American varieties such as Concord, which gives as vivid a purple color as blueberries, but you can use any type you like. (Note that the familiar green Thompson Seedless grapes are relatively flavorless.) European wine or table grapes such as Flame Tokay have more sugar than native grapes, so reduce the quantity of sugar accordingly.
Prep time: 8 minutes
Cooking time: 45 to 50 minutes
Total time: 53 to 58 minutes
Yield: 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 cups
2 pounds blueberries
2 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup vinegar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1. Wash the blueberries and pick them over to remove stems and any spoiled or unripe berries. Drain and transfer to a 3-quart saucepan. Add the sugar and vinegar and bring to a boil. Cook until the berries are softened and have given up their color, 5 minutes or so.
2. Drain the berries in a colander and reserve the juice in a mixing bowl. Process the solids in a food processor 20 to 30 seconds and drain through a sieve placed over the bowl, using a spoon to press out as much of the juice as possible. Discard the solids.
3. Transfer all the liquid from the bowl back to the saucepan. Add the cinnamon, clove, pepper and a dash of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium high and cook at a rolling boil until thick, 45 to 50 minutes, frequently scraping the sides down with a spatula and stirring to prevent sticking. To determine doneness, stir the contents of the pan around and remove the spoon; when they immediately stop moving, the ketchup is ready. At that point, a spoonful dripped onto a plate should stand up at least 1/16 inch.
Tightly covered, the ketchup will keep at room temperature at least two weeks, two months in the refrigerator.
Main photo: Put away the tomato ketchup — try blueberry instead. Credit: Charles Perry
In the beginning, there was the pineapple, and it was good — very, very good, about as good as anything ever gets. But if you didn’t live in pineapple country, it was hard to obtain ones perfectly ripe and in good condition. Then there was canned pineapple, and though it might not have been quite as good as fresh pineapple, it was still pretty darned good. In fact, it begat one of the great creations of the 20th-century American kitchen: the pineapple upside-down cake. Its informing flavor came from the caramelization of the slices that lay on the bottom of the cast-iron frying pan while the cake baked on top.
But then fresh, ripe pineapple became more readily available, and people got tired of dealing with cast-iron pans, and anyway, new pineapple dishes had come along (hello, tiki cuisine). In the 1960s, the pineapple upside-down cake faded away.
Finally, in our own time, chefs discovered the idea of roasting pineapple and started roasting pineapple all over the place, and it was good. It was good for the same reason that pineapple upside-down cake had been good: Pineapple goes wonderfully well with caramelized flavors.
You don’t have to roast the fruit to get the same effect. You can even combine fresh or canned pineapple and butterscotch to get that old-fashioned caramelized flavor. This recipe is based on a pineapple-coconut cake in Nancie McDermott’s “Southern Cakes” (Chronicle Books, 2007). It’s kind of frivolous, but it is good.
Prep time: About 30 minutes
Cooking time: 30-35 minutes
Total time: About 1 hour
Yield: 1 two-layer cake, 6 to 8 servings
For the cake:
About 1/4 cup butter and 3 tablespoons flour for coating pans
3 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
For the butterscotch-pineapple filling:
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1 20-ounce can crushed pineapple or 1 1/2 cups crushed fresh pineapple with liquid
3 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup butterscotch bits
For the frosting:
2 egg whites
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2/3 cup pineapple juice, reserved from filling
Optional: 2 or 3 drops of yellow food coloring
For the assembly:
1/3 cup butterscotch bits
For the cake:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Smear the interior of two 9-inch cake pans generously with butter. Line the bottom of the pans with 9-inch rounds of parchment paper or waxed paper and butter them (this step is optional, but it will help you to remove the cake layers intact). Sprinkle the interior of the pans with about 1 1/2 tablespoons flour each and shake around to coat; overturn the pans above your sink and tap to remove excess flour.
3. In a bowl, mix the 3 cups flour, baking powder and salt and set aside. In a separate bowl, mix the milk and vanilla and set aside.
4. Using an electric mixer, beat the softened butter at high speed in a mixing bowl until light and lemon-colored. Continue beating the butter and slowly add the 2 cups sugar. When the mixture is smooth, about 2 minutes, add the eggs one at a time, beating for 20 seconds after each addition and then scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula or wooden spoon.
5. Scoop in 1 cup of the flour mixture and beat at medium speed until the flour is just incorporated. Add half of the milk-vanilla mixture and beat at high speed until incorporated, gently urging all the ingredients together with a spatula. Repeat, alternating flour and milk, until the batter is just incorporated.
6. Scrape the batter into the prepared baking pans, smooth the tops and place in the oven. When the surface has just started to brown, 30 to 35 minutes, give the center a gingerly touch to see whether it has set — it should spring back. (The layers are definitely done when they start to pull away from the sides of the pan, but by that time they may be a little dry.)
7. Remove the pans from the oven and let them rest on racks or folded dish towels for 10 minutes. Set a plate or another rack on top of each pan and overturn it; the layer should pull away at a tap. Overturn the layers again so they’re right side up and let them cool for 20 or 30 minutes.
For the filling:
1. Stir the flour into the sugar.
2. Drain and squeeze the pineapple, reserving 2/3 cup of pineapple juice for use in the frosting.
3. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and butterscotch bits. Add the sugar-flour mixture and stir until incorporated. Add the crushed pineapple and stir until thickened, about 5 minutes.
For the frosting:
1. Put the egg whites, sugar, corn syrup and pineapple juice in the top of a double boiler. Put about 1½ inches of water in the bottom of the double boiler and, over high heat, bring it to a boil. Meanwhile beat the frosting ingredients with an electric beater for 1 minute.
2. When the water has reached a full boil, set the top of the double boiler over the bottom, reduce the heat to medium-high and start beating again. After about 7 minutes, the frosting will start to lose its sheen and to form stiff peaks when the beaters are lifted from it.
3. Remove from the heat, add food coloring if desired and beat for 1 minute longer.
To assemble the cake:
1. Place one cake layer on your serving dish with the flat side up. Spread half of the butterscotch-pineapple filling over it, almost to the edge.
2. Set the other layer on top of the first and spread the rest of the filling over the top and sides of the cake. Sprinkle the butterscotch bits as evenly as possible across the top.
Main photo: Pineapple-Butterscotch Cake. Credit: Charles Perry
As we slide into the holiday season, my mind turns toward maple: maple syrup, maple frosting — and maple fudge.
The world has quite enough chocolate fudge, in my heretical opinion. Chocolate is certainly majestic, but maple has something wonderful and poetical to say for itself. Nobody who has had a bite of maple fudge will ever turn another down. It’s the ideal Thanksgiving sweet, the boss of all stocking stuffers.
These days, a lot of people seem to think that fudge making is so difficult it has to be left to professionals. Oh, fudge, I say. Homemade fudge is an American tradition. Nineteenth-century college girls are said to have invented chocolate fudge — apparently without spoiling their grade-point average.
The anatomy of a beloved candy
Culinarily speaking, fudge is related to caramel because it involves cooking a dairy product (milk, half-and-half or cream) to the point that it undergoes the Maillard reaction, which produces appetizing browned flavors. Specifically, fudge is related to the 19th-century Mexican candy called panocha, which included the decisive step of stirring in chopped nuts.
Fudge has a luxurious texture because it is whipped as it cools to prevent the formation of large crystals. Small crystals melt easily and appealingly, and a fat-based ingredient — butter or chocolate (or both) — adds its own lusciousness. The faint bitterness of the nuts takes the curse off the overwhelming sweetness of the candy, which is why nuts have become all but universal in fudge recipes.
For maple fudge, the most common nuts are walnuts or pecans, which are both excellent. On general principle, I would first toast them at 350 F until they can easily be pierced by a needle, about 7 minutes. I have also tried toasted coconut as a substitute, which is pretty good, though I was surprised to find that the coconut flavor dominated the maple more than I liked. Ultimately, I decided I favored the version made with toasted hazelnuts. Because, face it, hazelnuts are awesome.
It’s not as hard as you think
Many fudge recipes call for a pastry marble to cool the syrup on, which can make those who don’t own one uneasy. So just use a baking pan instead. (I wouldn’t recommend a cookie sheet without a raised edge, however, because if it isn’t perfectly level, the hot syrup can drip right off.) You do need a good thermometer, but these days any serious cook has one.
In short, the following recipe is somewhat flexible. You can cook the syrup to 240 F or so; you can let it cool to 105 F before beating it; you can beat it longer than the specified time. The crucial thing is that the syrup must reach the soft-ball stage, 238 F at sea level. (If you live at an elevation above 3,500 feet, you are probably familiar with the degree to which you must adjust your temperatures.)
Prep time: 5 to 10 minutes
Cooking time: 30 to 35 minutes
Total time: About 2¾ hours (includes cooling time)
Yield: 25 to 36 pieces
4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter, divided, softened
3 cups sugar
¾ cup maple syrup
1½ cups half-and-half
3 tablespoons corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla
1½ cups roughly chopped nuts — pecans, walnuts or toasted hazelnuts — toasted for 5 to 7 minutes at 350 F
1. Line an 8-inch baking dish with aluminum foil (make sure that the edges extend past the rim) and grease with 1 tablespoon softened butter.
2. In a 3-quart pot over low heat, stir together the sugar, maple syrup, half-and-half, corn syrup and salt until smooth. Continue to stir until the sugar is dissolved, 5 minutes.
3. Insert the sensor of a candy thermometer into the mixture. Increase the heat to bring to a boil and cook without stirring until the syrup reaches the soft-ball state (238 F), about 15 minutes. The syrup will foam up alarmingly but settle down by 225 F. Warning: The heated syrup can cause severe burns. Wear an apron and use oven mitts.
4. Remove the thermometer probe from the pan and pour the fudge onto a pastry marble (if you don’t have one, use a 12-by-18-inch baking pan sprayed with nonstick spray). Divide the remaining 3 tablespoons of softened butter into several pieces and dot them here and there on top.
5. Clean the thermometer sensor and stick it anywhere in the fudge. When the temperature measures 110 F (about 5 minutes on a marble, 10 or 12 minutes on a baking pan), scrape the fudge into a mixer bowl with the mixer paddle attached, add the vanilla and beat until the fudge is thick and losing its shine, 5 to 10 minutes.
6. Mix in the nuts. Turn the fudge into the prepared baking dish and let it cool to room temperature, 2 hours.
7. Remove the fudge from the dish by lifting the edges of the aluminum foil and transfer it to a work surface. Rub a chef’s knife with a piece of paper towel wetted with vegetable oil and make 4 cuts in one direction and then 4 cuts in the other, or 5 cuts in each direction, re-oiling the knife as necessary. Wrap the pieces in waxed paper.
If it is not to be eaten immediately, store the fudge in an air-tight container (it can otherwise absorb moisture and soften, particularly in damp weather). It will keep several weeks in a refrigerator, but generally speaking, it’s a gift best given fresh.
Main photo: Maple-hazelnut fudge. Credit: Charles Perry
Chambord is a luscious, expensive French liqueur made from black raspberries. Shambord, made from blackberries and bourbon, has a similar flavor but with a rowdy American edge, and it’s a lot easier on the pocketbook. Also, if you care about such things, you can pride yourself on its being locally sourced (if you can get local blackberries).
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I first encountered the idea — not under that name, which I just made up — about 15 years ago in Kentucky, where a chef had created a sauce by marinating blackberries (as well as strawberries and blueberries, I believe) in bourbon. Black mulberries, which lack the faint bitter edge of blackberries, would be good too — if you can obtain them; they’re scarce in the U.S. In fact, I suppose just about any berry would be good with bourbon: raspberries, huckleberries, possibly even beebleberries.
Naturally, it’s best to make Shambord with fresh blackberries, but frozen berries are acceptable. As for the bourbon, it needn’t be Booker’s or 17-year-old Eagle Rare. Basically, you want any bourbon with a good heady aroma of vanilla and caramel, which goes particularly well with berries.
The Kentucky chef put his sauce on ice cream and fresh fruit, as I recall, and Shambord is good served that way as well, but I like it in wine cocktails. You can add it to sparkling wine as you would crème de cassis to make a Kir cocktail. And because it’s denser than wine, you can layer it with white wine to make a sort of two-tone pousse-café — a silly idea, and possibly more fuss than it’s worth, but a fun one.
Shambord is also excellent on its own as a liqueur, but in that case I’d consider increasing the quantity of whiskey in the base recipe a little, from ¼ cup up to as much as ⅓ cup.
Prep time: 3 minutes
Total time: 3 minutes
Yield: About 1½ cups
12 ounces blackberries
¼ cup bourbon
½ cup sugar
Put the blackberries, bourbon and sugar in a food processor and puree until smooth. Sieve the liquid from the seeds and store it in a lidded container. It will keep in the refrigerator for at least a month.
This is just a fake Kir cocktail.
Prep time: 1½ minutes
Total time: 1½ minutes
Yield: 1 cocktail
⅔ cup sparkling wine
⅓ tablespoon Shambord
Put ⅓ cup wine into a champagne flute. Carefully spoon in the Shambord, making sure that the champagne doesn’t bubble over. Add the remaining wine. When the bubbles subside, gently stir to mix.
Prep time: 2 to 3 minutes
Total time: 2 to 3 minutes
Yield: 1 cocktail
2 tablespoons Shambord
1½ cups dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
Pour the Shambord into a large wineglass. Suck up some of the wine in a bulb baster and, while holding a spoon under the flow to slow it down, drip it onto the inside of the glass. The Shambord is so much denser than the wine that it will tend to remain at the bottom. Repeat until all the wine is transferred into the glass — as the layer of wine thickens, you will be able to work faster.
Serve, and when your guest is adequately impressed, stir the Shambord lightly into the wine.
Main photo: Liqueur in martini glasses. Credit: iStock / IJzendoorn