Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ode to Lutèce

My favorite current show, Mad Men, had its season three premiere last Sunday and the hubby and I hosted a party for our friends to come watch it.

I'd spent a good week watching every episode of season two on blu-ray and exploring the set's special features, one of which is a delightful clip of the great André Soltner, chef and later owner of the much-vaunted restaurant, Lutèce, creating his famous tarte aux pommes à l'Alsacienne.

He is quite charming in the clip - when asked by an off-camera person, "What do you do [for a living]?," he answers, "Today, I am eating!"

The clip moves back and forth between cooking instructions and the story of how Soltner came to be a chef, then immigrated to America where he first worked at Lutèce and later owned it until 1994 (it later closed in 2004). The video is by no means an exhaustive study of a brilliant chef, but it serves its purpose: After carefully watching the clip three times (unfortunately, the blu-ray disc was programmed so that it was not possible to pause, rewind or fast-forward within the special features), I gleaned just about all the information I needed to replicate the tarte.

(One all-important ingredient for the dish's flan, the heavy cream, is mentioned in the clip, but not the quantity needed. This I gathered from a page of Soltner's cookbook that flashes across the opening screen of the time capsule special feature.)

The characters in Mad Men dine often at Lutèce in season two; it is also the location of the infamous encounter between Don Draper and Bobbi Barrett in the women's restroom.

So it's French, it's Mad Men, and I can't resist two things I love together. I made the tarte, it was fabulous, and I can't wait to make it again when golden delicious apples are actually in season!

Tarte aux pommes à l'Alsacienne
d'André Soltner

Part One: Pâte brisée (crust)
1 1/3 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into little pieces (keep very cold)
1 large egg

Mix the flour, salt, sugar & butter with your hands until well-blended. Break the egg into the mixture and combine with wooden spoon.

Remove from bowl and form into flat, rounded piece of dough (on floured board). Allow to rest in refrigerator for at least one hour, wrapped in plastic.

Part Two: Constructing the tarte
Preheat oven: 365° (between 350° and 375°, depending on your oven.)

3-4 large apples (preferred: golden delicious)
sugar (optional)
almond flour (optional)

Peel apples, quarter and remove core. Cut each apple quarter into quarters again. If using a not-so-sweet variety of apples, toss with a little sugar before putting into tarte.

Roll out pâte brisée on floured board to approximately 1/8 inch thickness. Press into moule, running rolling pin over top to get rid of excess dough.

If apples are very juicy (not usually so with golden delicious), sprinkle a light layer of almond flour in bottom of moule before layering apples.

Layer apple slices in concentric circles from outside to middle of moule. Bake on center rack for 15-20 minutes or until apples become soft (test with blade of sharp paring knife).

Part Three: Flan
1/2 cup sugar
2 small/1 large egg
drop of vanilla
1/2 cup heavy cream

Whisk together sugar and eggs until sugar is completely dissolved, then whisk in vanilla and heavy cream.

Once apples have softened, pour flan over top of tarte and bake another 20-25 minutes, until flan is firm and lightly browned. Serve at room temperature (French vanilla ice cream makes a wonderful accompaniment!).

Photo: Tarte maison. Copyright MLG.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Au Revoir to All That

I just finished reading Michael Steinberger's recent book, Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the End of France. The title caused me to initally think that this book had been written by a critic from the food industry who hated France. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Steinberger is actually a Francophile and was honestly trying to investigate the so-called "crisis" in French cooking.

Steinberger has the enviable journalistic privilege of managing to interview the most famous chefs and food critics in the world, some of whom died within a year or two of his speaking with them. Paul Bocuse, Pascal Remy, Jean-Luc Naret, and the widow of Alain Chapel were among his subjects.

The author does raise some valid points about the changes evident in French culture that began as recently as the late 1970s, and my heart did ache for him in his tale of Au Chapon Fin, a Michelin-starred restaurant at which he had dined with his parents as a child. He later returned as an adult to find the ambiance and food seriously lacking, and later to find the restaurant closed and its host town, Thoissey, wiped from the Michelin guide entirely. He uses this story as a framework for his investigation of France's restaurant industry and, to a certain extent, its food industry, though the latter seems more lightly researched and treated in the book.

Steinberger makes the point throughout the book that many producers of poor-quality breads, wines and cheeses still manage to survive and, in some cases, are edging out their higher-quality competition. I admit to having experienced this aspect of the "crisis" myself.

I was horrified that the only boulangerie in the small town in which I resided for part of my time in France had incredibly dry, nearly inedible bread. Yet this bakery was packed with people every day around 6 p.m with commuters who worked in nearby Tours. Folks who had forgotten to stop at Paul for their bread before coming home settled for this inferior product. I was perplexed that a shop with such bad bread could manage to survive in a French town, but it seemed that enough people in the town put up with the terrible bread to keep it in business. When I inquired about the situation, my host father explained that there had been a second bakery in town that sold much better bread, but it had moved closer to the city since it hadn't attracted enough business out in the country.

Despite Steinberger's vehement argument, I'm still doubtful that there's actually a crisis. In addition to this book, I've read several articles on the subject and none of them have convinced me that it is the cooking that is in crisis. Rather, what is in crisis is France's cultural identity. A government that has denied for years the influences of its former colonists has also denied the changes they've brought to the "French" way of life. When an entire culture changes so gradually, the things that were continually swept under the rug for so many years come as a shock when finally brought into relief.

I don't think that French people value good food any less; they are simply struggling with the issues that Americans struggled with in the 1980s. Women were entering the workforce and trying to manage the juggle between work and family. I like to think that there is more balance in this area today than there was when my mother was raising three daughters and working, but French women seem to still be in the "first generation" of women who spend more waking hours at work than at home each day.

Yes, it's sad to find that supermarkets with their snack aisles and convenience foods have become an integral part of daily life in France, but there will always be those who value freshly prepared seasonal cuisine and who will seek it out.

I would definitely recommend Au Revoir to All That to anyone interested in France's dining industry. I would not recommend it to anyone with a fear of repetitive words: the world 'eponymous' appears about 30 times. That word is just as bad as dry, tough bread.