First course: Stephane’s prawns flamed in Pernod were wonderful. The only thing I can ‘fault’ is you need asbestos fingers to eat them. But worth it. Washed down with a glass of cold, crisp ‘good French white’. They had been marinated for about 36 hours in the garlic, ginger and olive oil, with a pinch of cayenne.

The marinated prawns after 2-3 minutes a side on a very hot iron pan

The marinated prawns after 2-3 minutes a side on a very hot iron pan

This was Petronela's best effort to capture the 5 second event; I didn't - as she thought was certain - burn the house down

This was Petronela’s best effort to capture the 5 second event; I didn’t – as she thought was certain – burn the house down. Maybe the blur adds the right atmosphere

Main course: The decision to have a brioche dough for the ‘filet de boeuf en croute‘ was the right one – I think it’s much better then the usual puff pastry. I didn’t quite get what I was aiming for – the outside slices ‘a point‘ and the inside ‘bleu‘ (Petronela would have ‘passed’ at the sight of blood) – lack of practice I think (see below). The effort put into a real ‘sauce brune‘ is worth it: you just had to lift the lid of the saucepan, even when cold, let alone taste it, to know why. This washed down with a bottle of Languedoc; I did consider a Fleurie but decided a Burgundy was a bit robust for filet steak. (Just had a thought, I could have taken out a couple of slices and given them a minute or two on the griddle before re-assembling and then baked the whole thing for ‘bleu‘; didn’t think of it at the time).

A touch overdone (lack of practice) but still impressive I think

A touch overdone (lack of practice) but still impressive I think

Again, anxious to avoid putting my wife off her dinner completely with a sight of blood, a bit overdone for my taste

Again, anxious to avoid putting my wife off her dinner completely with a sight of blood, a bit overdone for my taste, though the inside slices were still nicely pink. The duxelle stuffing turned out wonderfully despite the lack of foie gras

3rd course: The pilgrim’s timbale was delicious, though not as pretty as I would have liked because the apricot glaze had to be omitted to satisfy Petronela’s aversion to fruit (so I just put my kirsch-poached apricots around with a few physalis). As I said before, far too much for us but it will keep for New Year’s Eve, when we’ll have open house for the day (Petronela’s birthday) so I’ll dress it up for that. By the way, the name – Le Pelerin en Timbale – comes from the lack of fridge etc so the pilgrims carried nuts and fruit to sustain them.

Delicious! But it'll be made prettier for New Year's Eve

Delicious! But it’ll be made prettier for New Year’s Eve

Practice

35 years ago, when I cooked such meals regularly, it would have been much easier. It’s the little things which really make it an effort. One example: making the classic ‘custard’ (creme anglais) with egg yolks, sugar and milk. When I made it regularly it was a doddle, taking just a few minutes. Through lack of practice I was anxious to avoid curdling the custard so had it on a very low heat; it took ages.

Similarly, well-practised I could have produced a piece of meat with outside ‘a point‘ and inside ‘bleu‘ without a second thought. But way back I had an Aga, which beat a modern fan oven hands down. And, of course, I still have a piece of the wonderful filet in the freezer so, without the croute, I’ll have my bit ‘bleu‘ and P’s ‘a point‘ without a problem. But the meat’s so good I might make myself a tatare.

And this point is brought home to me each time I want to produce something to post on my photo blog.

The point about practice was also brought home by my evening tv viewing: the Marlinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg ballet performing Swan Lake, with the almost incredible dancing of prima ballerina Ulyana Lopatkina in the principal role(s) – in fact of the whole corps de ballet – and the little explanations of technique given by our own Darcey Bussel. Blown away by the performance I didn’t get to doing this postscript last evening as I originally intended.

Now that my cooking marathon is over, I’ll get back to posting about other things which thrill, irritate or fascinate me – like how does a culture which can produce something as beautiful as what I saw last evening also produce something as ugly as so much of Communism?

50th post: I was surprised to be informed by WordPress that yesterday’s post was Grumpytyke’s 50th – in about 6 months; not a lot by the standards of some of you but I’m quite impressed with myself. Rest day today; we’re going to one of our local pubs for lunch.

A superb sauce is an essential part of many classic French dishes, and that means something more than the pathetic skidmark put on the plate according to current fashion. So today I’ll be making the sauce to go with filet of beef on Christmas Day. It’s little wonder that so many English restaurants have the menu in French; if I tell you I’ll be making ‘brown sauce’ you’ll likely say I’d save myself a lot of work by buying a bottle from the local supermarket. But I’ll be making a classic ‘Sauce Brune‘. I’m drafting this in advance, so it’s in the future tense, but it will be posted when the sauce is made.

The ingredients which turn good bouillon cubes into something approaching classic bouillon

The ingredients which turn good bouillon cubes into something approaching classic bouillon

Way back in the ’70s when I fancied myself as an ‘haute cuisine cook’, I lived in a fair-sized 17th century house with an enormous kitchen complete with Aga, had an equally enthusiastic ‘classic cooking’ partner, and had ‘dinner party’ guests at least twice a month, so I/we made my/our bouillon from scratch. Now I cheat, using some bouillon cubes as a starter.

There are only two of us for Christmas dinner so I’ll be making a little under a pint of sauce, the starting point being 2 bouillon cubes in a pint of water in a pan. To this will be added finely chopped carrot and onion (about 3 tbl – tablespoons – of each), and finely chopped celery (about 1 tbl). A couple of sprigs of parsley, a small bay leaf, a pinch of thyme, and a 1/4 pint of red wine will be added. This will be simmered for about 1/2 hr. Now I have my ‘cheat’ bouillon. 10 mins from the end I’ll begin the next stage.

In a thick-bottomed saucepan, I’ll ‘sweat’ finely diced onion, carrot, celery (about an ounce of each) in about 3tbl of clarified butter, with 1.1/2 tbl of finely chopped boiled ham, for about 10 minutes. Then I’ll slowly add an ounce of flour, stirring continuously over a moderate to low heat until the flour turns golden brown – 8 to 10 minutes. STOP – too brown and the sauce will have a bitter taste and will not thicken properly. Although making this sauce seems a long-winded process, in fact this is the only part of the process which, like scrambled eggs and risotto, requires your complete attention.

Off the heat, the boiling bouillon is tipped in all at once while blending with a wire whisk, then 1 tbl of tomato paste is beaten in before adding a a small herb bouquet tied in a bit of cheese cloth (a couple of parsley sprigs, a very small bay leaf and about 1/8 tsp of thyme).

Now it’ll be simmered very slowly, partially covered, for not less than a couple of hours, skimming off fat or scum from time to time and adding a little boiling water if it thickens too much. I should end up with a little less than a pint of liquid, which will be strained then degreased completely. A fine film of bouillon, reserved for the purpose, will be floated on top to prevent a skin forming, then when cool it’ll be into the fridge until Christmas Day. It isn’t quite finished of course; it’ll get its final fillip after the meat has roasted (watch this space!).

I’m leaving the pudding until tomorrow morning; it’ll then have a day and a half to ‘improve’ before Christmas Day evening. I’ve decided on the Malakoff/Bavarois cross – Le Pelerin en Timbale, I thought the day deserved a nod to the pilgrims – leaving out the apricot sauce for my non-fruit eating wife but with some poached apricots laced with kirsch on the side for me! There’ll be a jug of Chantilly cream on the table too.

By the way, it’s Sunday so earlier I made our usual Sunday breakfast – bacon, eggs and a Yorkshire sausage, what else? But don’t get the wrong idea; I don’t do all the cooking, I just write about some of mine. I do a bit more than half which is fair as I work part-time but Petronela, my wife, works full-time in the arduous job of a high school teacher. She will be making today’s evening meal – tochitura with mamaliga; that’s Romanian. She’ll also be making pretty much all the food for New Year’s Eve, the big Romanian celebration known as Revelion (same word as the French but their’s is Christmas Eve I understand), even though it’s also her birthday.

I said I’d post this after the sauce was finished but it’s now simmering away and I want to make the butter-toasted cake slices for the ‘Malakoff’ part of the desert so I’m posting it now.