The Essence of French Cooking by Michel Roux

Michel Roux shares his seventy years of experience in The Essence of French Cooking, a picturesque culinary journey through France highlighting its glorious food. Roux unabashedly taunts his great love of France, stating that he has visited over sixty countries during his career, but only in France has he encountered a wealth of resources and diversity of produce.

I am a fan of Michel Roux's work and four of his previous titles are amazing reference tools for any cook: PastrySaucesEggs and Desserts. When I first pored over the 150 recipes in this title, I had a passing thought that this food might be unapproachable by the home cook. However, as I read through the recipes and the history behind this world famous cuisine, I realized that Roux is providing us with the true essence of French cooking - pâtés, soufflés, sauces, soups, elegant fish dishes and show-stopping desserts. Also, the recipes are written so that the home cook can recreate them, while the more accomplished cook can stretch their culinary muscles. Just as other cuisines are known for their distinct characteristics, French cuisine is famous for its precise techniques and elegant presentation.

The recipes are organized by the following chapters: Soups, Appetizers, Eggs, Shellfish, Fish, Poultry & Game, Meat, Vegetables & Salads, Desserts, Stocks & Sauces and the Basics. Much appreciated is the stocks and sauces chapter, as well as the glossary of terms. Once you have mastered French stocks and sauces, the world is your oyster (or huÎtre). Speaking of oysters, the recipes range from an amuse bouche of Oysters Gratinées to a "Seven-Hour" Leg of Lamb. Other examples are Chicken Pâté en Croûte with Mushrooms, a classic Salade Niçoise and a beautiful Pear Tarte Tatin. There are also full-page colored photographs of nearly all the dishes which is always a benefit. 

For this review, I made the Quiche Lorraine. I once had a quiche from a French bakery at a friend's home and was only able to have a bite. My friend had purchased a small quiche, not understanding the wants and needs of a growing boy. I sacrificed my sliver for the greater good and allowed my son to enjoy it. The one bite I did have was so perfect - flaky and luscious and I wanted more. I've had and made other quiche recipes but nothing was as wonderful as that small bite. When making Roux's recipe, I was hopeful that it would result in something similar. It was better. His pastry crust method is akin to making a pasta dough - the mound of flour with a well of egg and butter in the center bringing it together with cold water and using the palm of your hand to blend the pastry until smooth. There are multiple steps in this process: chilling, rolling, chilling again, blind baking, egg washing, baking again, adding the filling and then baking. Alas, it was indeed worth those steps: it was perfection.

I fancy myself finding the time to cook through this book à la Julie & Julia. I would love to hone my skills and challenge myself. Perhaps, at a minimum, I will work my way through the desserts chapter, which is pure artistry. Perfecting those recipes would be a great accomplishment.

Challenge yourself, try something out of your comfort zone and expand your skill level. Life is short - eat French food and better yet, make it at home.

Quiche Lorraine

This famous tart, named after the region where it originated in Northeast France, has stood the test of time. It should be served just warm or hot, but not piping hot or its flavors will be lost on the palate. Some purists won't hear of using Comté or any other cheese . . . but I'm standing by my inclusion of both cheese and lardoons.

Serves 8 to 10

1½ Tbsp butter, to grease
10½ oz [300 g] flan pastry (page 262)
Flour, for dusting
½  egg, beaten

Filling

2 tsp groundnut oil
3½ oz [100 g] salted pork belly, rind removed, cut into small lardoons, blanched and refreshed
3 eggs, plus 6 egg yolks
2½ cups [600 ml] heavy crean
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1½ Tbsp Kirsch (optional)
3½ oz [100 g] Comté cheese, freshly grated
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Butter the inside of a tart ring, about 9½ in [24 cm] in diameter and 1 1⁄3 in [3.5 cm] high, place on a small baking sheet, and set aside in the refrigerator.

Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to a round, 1⁄8  in [3 mm] thick. Roll the pastry around the rolling pin and unravel it over the tart ring. Press the pastry into the ring using your index fingers and thumbs, making sure it is properly attached to the ring, then set aside in the refrigerator 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F [180°C]. Cut off any excess pastry above the top of the ring, using a small knife. Prick the base with a fork in a dozen or so places, then line the base and sides with parchment paper. Fill with ceramic baking beans, rice, or dried beans and cook in the oven 15 minutes.

Lift out the paper and baking beans or rice. Brush the insides of the pastry case with the beaten egg and return it to the oven 5 minutes, for the base to dry out. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool down, with the pastry case still in the ring.

For the filling, heat the groundnut oil in a skillet over medium heat, add the lardoons, and cook 1 minute, then set aside in a small sieve.

Put the eggs, egg yolks, and cream in a bowl and mix with a whisk, without overworking. Add the nutmeg, some salt and pepper, and the Kirsch, if using. Distribute the lardoons and cheese over the base of the pastry case. Pour the egg and cream mixture into the case almost to the top of the ring, and transfer to the oven (at 350°F [180°C]) for 20 minutes. Lower the oven setting to 320°F [160°C] and cook a further 20 minutes. 

Check the filling is cooked by inserting a trussing needle or skewer into the center; it should come out clean and shiny, with no trace of filling on it. As soon as the quiche is cooked and out of the oven, lift the tart ring up and off the quiche, taking care not to damage it.

To serve, use a large palette knife to slide the quiche onto a round plate, or serve it on the baking sheet. Use a sharp knife to cut it into slices at the table.

Pâte à Foncer (Flan Pastry) 

This pastry has a lovely crispness and is easier to work with than pâte brisée. It can be kept in the refrigerator for a week or in the freezer up to 3 months. Makes about 1 1⁄8 lb [480 g]

2 cups [250 g] all-purpose flour
9 Tbsp [125 g] butter, cut into small pieces and slightly softened
1 egg
1 tsp superfine sugar
½ tsp fine salt
3 Tbsp cold water

Heap the flour on a clean work surface and make a well. Put the butter, egg, sugar, and salt in the middle. With your fingertips, mix and cream the ingredients in the well.

Now, little by little, draw the flour into the center and work the dough with your fingertips to a grainy texture. Add the cold water and mix it in until the dough begins to hold together.

Using the palm of your hand, push the dough away from you 4 or 5 times until it is completely smooth. Roll the pastry into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to use.

Recipe extract courtesy of Michel Roux, Quadrille Publishing ©2014. Cover photograph by Lisa Linder. Photograph of recipe tested by Jenny Hartin.

1 Comment

  • rchesser  on  9/18/2016 at 9:54 AM

    Another book added to my must have list!

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