‘White Truffles in Winter’; that sounds like a book I’d like.
A bit of historical fiction, laced with food anecdotes? Why yes, this is exactly the sort of thing I want to take with me on a long flight, or to the couch with a pot of tea on a day when it’s too grey to want to leave the nest.
Rather than thick tomes of fiction or well thumbed recipe books, these days it’s most often a food memoir that sits on my bedside table. High on the favorites lists; anything by Ruth Reichl- but ‘Comfort me with Apples‘ shines brightest, Nigel Slater’s ‘Toast‘, Gabrielle Hamilton’s ‘Blood, bones and Butter‘ Amanda Hesser’s ‘Cooking for Mr Latte‘ and Molly Wizenberg’s ‘A Homemade Life‘.
It might be how they temper the sweet with the salt. All of these authors deal in some way with loss and then write about the comfort they regained through food. It’s an easy thing to get.
N.M Kelby’s ‘White Truffles in Winter’ is a little different. For one, it traces the adult life of a man long gone- but one who’s influence is still felt in how we eat most days. Most know of Escoffier after tasting Peach Melba or reading menus he designed for the Titanic. Others will know of his work codifying how modern kitchens are organized or by his relationship with the grand hotels of The Ritz and Savoy.
This book goes further. Into his affairs with the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, who kept coffins, leopards and alligators for kicks. It’s about living wedged between wars; Franco/Prussian and World. It’s about drive and hunger.
And it’s about a wife; a poet- Delphine Daffis, won in a card game.
White Truffles could feel gaudy with its layers of adjectives and graspingly broad in its reach- if it wasn’t so grounded in the food. Woven into the story are techniques and flavor combinations, notes on timings and textures. And the linking thread of all is the frustration of a woman whose husband will toil to create dishes inspired by others, but never for her.
How do you express commitment in a dish?
Standing over the stove and stirring scrambled eggs for fifteen minutes may be one way.
These truffled egg brioches are not a spoiler- this is not the recipe that summarizes the tempered love Escoffier had for his wife. It’s the what he first taught her- and how he seduced her.
The dish was simple. Six large brown eggs, thirty grams of sweet cream butter, and a poele – “Americans charmingly call this a ‘frying pan’, but since it is not fried, I have no idea why”- that was the heart of it. Escoffier beat the eggs, but not too much. He then added a bit of salt and pepper and placed the pan on the barest of heat. With one quick movement, he stabbed a peeled garlic clove with the tip of a knife, and held it up as if it were a prize.
” Madame Escoffier,” he said as if testing the sound of her new name, trying it on.
“Madame Escoffier, come here.”
“This is my secret. I tell everyone that the eggs are made in a special silver pan and that is what gives them their perfect taste”. … “The eggs cannot cook too quickly or that will cause lumps to form- this is a thing that should be avoided above all. So again, slow. Slow.”
….p 15, White Truffles in Winter.
Those eggs, cooked together in his steaming kitchen find their way into brioche cases and are served with champagne. There are no truffles in this dish; a rare exception from the man who invented Tournedos Rossini and Poularde Derby.
Yet adding a little truffle butter makes this into a particularly seductive, excessive brunch dish or supper. The key seems to be gently beating the eggs with a fork- its tines softened by spearing a clove of garlic. It is twirled and swiped through the melting fat, then used in place of a spoon to slowly, slowly paddle the eggs around the pan. The result of these slow and low cooking is more of a custard than the gentle folds of scrambled eggs I’m accustomed to.
There’s a whisper of earthiness that comes from the garlic and the texture of eggs in the hollowed warm brioche is like clouds. All it needs then is some truffle or thyme and a glass or two of Moet.
It may not be the best way to express the extent of love for a spouse, but it is one way to apologise for spending most of the weekend with your head in a book.
Makes 2-4 brioches, enough for a light supper for two. Note, you could substitute the truffled butter for porcini butter, or straight butter and add thyme or chives at the end. You could also easily double or triple the recipe, just use a larger fry pan.