A Birthday Eve Feast…
It was a very, very delicious birthday weekend.
It started Friday evening, the night before my actual birthday, which I suppose is sort of the Sabbath-begins-at-sundown approach to celebrating a birthday. I know people who celebrate “birthday week” or even “birthday month” (!), but adding the celebration of Birthday Eve to the festivities is enough for me–at least for now.
Birthday Eves are celebrated, in case you didn’t know, with soupe à l’oignon, a simple green salad, some crusty bread, a heavy-handed pour of a nice red wine, and later, an achingly rich and perhaps overly generous portion of mousseline au chocolate. It is celebrated with your nearest and dearest, in my case, my husband, my son, and my best friend, Johannah. If you are as lucky as I am, you may even receive a new pair of earrings on your Birthday Eve–made of delicate shell and brought from Spain, no less. Thank you, Joh.
How your Birthday Eve unfolds from there is up to you. We watched a few episodes of Parks and Recreation…while we overdosed on mousse. (You will note that the bowls I put the mousse in are…ah-hem…soup bowls. Espresso cups would have been about right).
Then of course, there is your Birthday Morning, which may include the luxury of sleeping in (even Jacob had a present for me!), a cup of coffee made from the best, most freshly roasted beans around, cheesy scrambled eggs, a strip of happy hog bacon and salsa rolled into corn tortillas, and then a jaunt to the nearest thrift store where, if you are lucky, you will find a new outfit to wear to dinner later, including a new (mustard yellow) handbag. As for Birthday Afternoon: The sun breaking through, and the spending of birthday money from generous in-laws on books. All the while you are thinking about Birthday Night, namely, what you will order for dinner sometime around 9 p.m.–a late dinner, very French of you–and the glass of wine you will order to enjoy with it, and the lovely friends you will relish your meal (and uninterrupted conversation) with.
This, at any rate, is how spent my 32nd birthday. As I said, delicious.
Now, I may have mentioned elsewhere that one of the major differences between Italian and French cooking is the standardizing of French cuisine–as Waverly Root quotes Enrico Galozzi, “French cooking is formalized, technical and scientific. Order Bearnaise sauce in 200 different French restaurants and you will get exactly the same sauce 200 times. Ask for Bolognese sauce in 200 different Italian restaurants and you will get 200 different versions of ragù.” Perhaps this is why a title like Mastering the Art of French Cooking is accurate, and an effort to do so possible. While my sensibilities in the kitchen are in every way given to a more Italian approach to cooking, I must say I enjoy the challenge of learning to make soupe à l’oignon and mousseline au chocolate just so. I will confess, though, that on Friday I couldn’t keep myself from improvising here and there, and making a few substitutes, in part because I did not plan enough ahead to have stocked the necessary items, and in part because I am cheap: I have not yet sprung for Vermouth and Cognac and Orange Liqueur, though I do have aspirations to fill out my cooking alcohol pantry. The recipes below reflect my twists on Julia Child’s recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Soupe à l’oignon (adapted from Julia Child’s recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking)
Yield: 6-8 servings
This soup epitomizes the fact that a soup is always better the next day. So if you are able, make it the day before you wish to serve it, or as I did, make it early the day you plan to serve it so that it has a few hours for the flavours to develop. Julia says to count on 2 1/2 hours at least from start to finish, though most of that time is unattended simmering.
5 cups thinly sliced yellow onion
3 TBS butter
1 TBS oil
1 tsp dried thyme [my addition to Julia’s recipe]
5 cranks freshly ground black pepper [my addition to Julia’s recipe]
Cook slowly in a covered, 4-qt. saucepan or a soup pot for about 15 minutes. Ensure that whatever pot you use is heavy-bottomed.
While the onions are cooking, bring 2 quarts of beef stock (or combination of water and stock) to a boil in a separate pot. I used 8 cups of water combined with 6 tsp of Organic “Better Than Bouillon” Beef Base.
Uncover the onion pot, raise the heat to moderate and add:
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp sugar (helps to caramelize the onions)
Cook for 30-40 minutes stirring frequently until the onions have turned a deep, even, golden brown.
Add and stir for three minutes:
3 TBS flour
Add and simmer partially covered for 30-40 minutes, skimming occasionally if necessary:
Boiling beef stock
1/2 cup red wine (Julia calls for dry white vermouth or white wine–I’ve tried both white and red wine and I prefer red)
Taste and adjust salt and pepper.
If you have it, Julia calls for 3 TBS cognac to be stirred into the soup just before serving. I have not done this, but of course it could only be delicious.
Pour soup into individual serving cups, top with a round of toasted French bread, and top with grated Swiss and Parmesan cheese. Place cups on a cookie sheet and put under broiler until the cheese is melted and beginning to brown a bit. Warn your dinner guests that the bowls–and the soup!–is very, very hot.
[Note: For the toasted bread, I slice my rounds about 3/4″ thick, spread on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil on both sides and bake at 350F, for about 20 minutes, turning half-way through, until the rounds are deep golden brown and very crunchy. Julia notes the option of basting the bread with beef drippings. Whatever you do, don’t forget to rub one side of each piece of toasted bread with a garlic clove.]
Mousseline au chocolate (adapted from Julia Child’s recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking), OR “Honey and Cardamom Dark Chocolate Mousse”
Yield: About 5 cups, or 6-8 servings [Not five servings, Sarah!!]
You will need a 3-qt. stainless steel or porcelain mixing bowl, a wire whisk and an electric mixer.
Also, prepare a small pot of simmering water you can place your bowl over, and a basin of cold water.
4 egg yolks (reserve your whites for later)
1/2 cup honey (my variation; Julia calls for 3/4 cup finely granulated sugar)
1/4 cup brandy (my variation; Julia calls for orange liqueur)
Beat the yolks and honey together until the mixture is frothy (if you use sugar, Julia says to beat the yolks and sugar until it is “thick, pale yellow, and falls back upon itself forming a slowly dissolving ribbon”). Beat in the brandy or liqueur. If you use honey, set the bowl over the pot of barely-simmering water and continue to beat for 4-5 minutes until the mixture thickens to the consistency of mayonnaise, then beat over the cold water to cool down. If you use sugar, Julia says, “Beat 3-4 minutes until the mixture is foamy and too hot for your finger. Then beat over cold water for 3-4 minutes until the mixture is cool and again forms a ribbon. It will have the consistency of mayonnaise.” I take it, whatever sweetener you use, the goal is “the consistency of mayonnaise.”
6 ounces of fine, dark chocolate, chopped (I used 72% Belgian dark, plus a couple of squares of unsweetened baking chocolate to bring me up to 6 ounces)
4 TBS strong coffee (If you have a stove-top espresso maker, use that)
6 ounces of softened, unsalted butter
1 1/2 tsp ground cardamom (optional; my addition)
In a bowl or small saucepan, melt the chocolate and coffee over the simmering water. Remove from heat and mix in the butter a bit at a time to make a smooth cream. Beat the chocolate into the egg yolk mixture and add the cardamom if you like. My resulting mixture looked a little gelatinous, so if yours does too, don’t worry!
4 egg whites
pinch of sea salt
1 TBS honey or sugar
In your electric mixer, beat the egg whites and salt until soft peaks form; add the honey or sugar and beat until stiff peaks are formed. Stir one-fourth of the whites into the chocolate mixture. Gently fold in the rest. Turn into serving dishes–I recommend going with the suggested 6-8 servings!–and refrigerate at least 2 hours, or overnight.
Top with whipped cream (I added a bit of honey and ground cardamom to my cream), a sprinkling of shaved dark chocolate and a pinch of fine sea salt–fleur de sel if you have it. I used a pinch of Trader Joe’s sea salt with edible flowers–fun!