Maybe, I have been feeling a little homesick lately but I’ve been looking through my French recipes books and folders more often than usual. This has prompted discussions with my son as to what were my favourite dishes as I was growing up. I was lucky to have a mum who went to “l’école hotelière” (culinary school) – even though, she was training to become a waitress, she had to have serious training in the kitchen and could have chosen to be a chef if she had wanted to. So my mum = excellent cook. And even though, it was only the two if us through most of my childhood, she never relied on ready-made food: she always cooked from fresh.
As I was growing up in France, I cannot remember much reliance on ready-made meals. However, I’ve been living away from France from almost two decades so things might have changed now. But, when I grew up, the emphasis was on fresh food cooked from scratch. I also remember food being simple – French food has a reputation for being fussy. Maybe in restaurants, it is so but home-cooked food is easy to make and wholesome.
So I’ve decided to revisit some of my favourite recipes. Like Proust and his little madeleine cake dipped into tea, it is all about remembered flavours – smells and tastes I grew up with; beautiful, simple and wholesome food that is (I’m sure of it) good for the soul.
“[…] as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it? […]And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, all from my cup of tea.”
“A la Recherche du Temps Perdu,” Marcel Proust
Quiche Savoyarde (Cheese and Bacon Quiche):
As a nutritionist-in-training, I cannot lie and say that the following recipe would do you any favours if you ate it every day. But, as an Haute-Savoie native, this recipe could not be closer to my heart and there is no denying that it tastes good. It is ideal paired with a simple green salad for a fuss-free meal with family or friends.
For the shortcrust pastry (pâte brisée)
This is my mother’s recipe and the one I have used for years – I actually wouldn’t dream of using any other recipe for pastry. It makes for an easy-to-handle dough that does not break when lifted or rolled.
Cook’s note: today, I decided to experiment (with hindsight, the day I decided to photograph this recipe may not have been the right day to play with the dough recipe but hey-ho!) I wondered if rice flour could be used for making the dough, if you are trying to remain gluten-free. The good news is that it works and tastes lovely. HOWEVER, it creates a dough that cannot be rolled. Even with plenty of rest, the dough is too crumbly to be rolled.
But, it can be pressed into the flan dish with your hand as you would a shortbread crust. And therefore, this is the method that you will see in the photos accompanying this blog. If a gluten-free pastry is required, use 200g rice flour instead of traditional flour.
100g butter, cold and diced
Pinch of salt
A little cold water
Put the salt, flour and diced, cold butter in a bowl. Rub the flour and butter between your fingers until you reach a rough, sandy texture.
Add the egg and mix with your hand until the dough starts to form. You may need to add some cold water to reach the correct consistency. If so, do it 1tsp at a time: it does not take long for the dough to form.
Shape the dough in a rough, flat disc and wrap in cling film. Put it in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes.
To roll, sprinkle your working surface and rolling pin with flour to prevent sticking and roll out to the desired size.
For the quiche:
1tbsp Dijon mutard
175g lardons, or bacon, chopped
1 onion, chopped
300ml single cream
150g Gruyère or Emmental cheese, grated
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat your oven at 200oC/180oC for a fan oven. Lightly grease a 23cm flan dish. If using traditional shortcrust pastry, roll it out thinly and line the flan dish with it. Then prick the base with a fork (this is called docking the pastry.)
If using the rice flour pastry, press the pastry in the flan dish with your hand, working it up the fluted side of the dish, keeping it as even as possible. There is no need dock this pastry.
From that point on, the method is the same for both pastries.
Lightly grease some foil and line the pastry base with it. Fill with baking beans and bake for 15 minutes.
Remove the foil and beans, brush the pastry base with 1tbsp of Dijon mustard and bake for a further 5 minutes. Take the baked case out of the oven and set aside. Turn your oven down to 180oC/160oC for a fan oven.
In a frying pan, cook the lardons (bacon) over a medium heat until the fat has rendered and your lardons are brown and crispy. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside. Keep the bacon fat in the pan as you will use it to cook your onions.
Add the chopped onion to the pan and cook over the same medium heat, stirring often, until soft and a dark gold colour. This will take about 10-15 minutes.
Beat together the cream, eggs, salt and pepper.
Sprinkle the onion at the bottom of the pastry case, top with the lardons and then, the grated cheese.
Pour on the egg and cream mixture and bake for 35-40 minutes until set.
Leave to cool slightly before serving with a simple green salad dressed with a French vinaigrette.
Which dish or recipe brings back memories of home for you? Please let me know in the comment section below!