Thursday, July 12, 2012

Alice B Toklas Cookbook Part II, Eggs Francis Picabia

Naomi Barry knew Alice B Toklas (1877-1967).   A stellar essayist at Gourmet Magazine (a publication that was thoughtful as well as delicious from its inception),  Barry wrote of Toklas :  “The most memorable table I have known in Paris was in an apartment over a printing plant at 5, rue Christine.  The entrance was little better than a slum, but in the old quarter of Paris the entrance tells little.  Once you were inside, the rooms were spacious and the furniture, the objets d’art, the bold individuality of taste, the reflection of strong personalities made you feel as though you had gone straight through the looking glass…. Alice B Toklas was the first true gourmet I ever met.  She knew how to grow, to buy, to prepare, to cook to savor, to serve –– and how to put food in its proper place.  She understood flavors so that you were deliciously tormented trying to grasp them. A lunch at the rue Christine lasted three hours if you broke away brusquely, but it was more likely to be a leisurely four hours, for the meal was meant to be a trampoline for conversation and pithy criticism.”

Stein and Toklas 5 rue Christine, Cecil Beaton 1928

After many meals of boeuf bourguignon, Singapore ice cream, perfect poached apple pies, eels in sauce verte and spaghetti au gratin, Barry felt  “in Miss Toklas’s apartment the food always fitted into the surroundings and the company.  In its preparation, she was always painstakingly finicky about every detail.” Perhaps it was because  she felt,  “If you want to be a good cook, you should go at it as a daily pleasure.  You should never economize in the kitchen.  Once the menu is established, the materials should be the very best.” (I found this essay in a great book called Remembrance of Things Paris: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet ).

Alice B Toklas, 1959, in one of her very expensive hats

A 1968 NYT article by James Mellow revealed more of Alice’s last years:  “In 1960, to avoid the rigors of a Parisian winter, Alice stayed for an extended period of time at a pension run by the Canadian Sisters of the Adoration of the Precious Blood in Rome (after Gertrude's death she had become a Roman Catholic convert). It was while she was in Rome that the landlord threatened to take possession of the apartment. The Stein heirs, finding the apartment unprotected and some of the pictures missing, had the collection sequestered in the Chase Manhattan vault.  With the collection impounded and little means of support, Alice was in straitened circumstances. She was in her mid-80's suffering from arthritis and barely able to see. Nevertheless, she maintained a healthy appetite. Her tastes could often run to the exotic –– a yearning for fresh peaches in mid-November –– and, with the true conviction of a gourmet, she insisted that the shopping be done at Fauchon, the most expensive green- grocer in Paris. When funds were at a particularly low ebb, friends would supply the maids with the distinctive black and white Fauchon bags and send them shopping around the corner.”

It is interesting to triangulate other's recollections of Alice and her own accounts of her life.  Her love of food and entertaining and the pleasures shared at her table come through all of them like a dinner plate  moon on an India ink night –– it was who she was.  And what of her glorious food?  In The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, inspiration for it came from unlikely sources –– like cars with names.

Photograph of Stein and Toklas by Cecil Beaton, 1939

In the chapter entitled “ Food to which Aunt Pauline and Lady Godiva led us” we discover Aunt Pauline was a Model T Ford that was driven by Stein during WWI for the American Fund for French Wounded.  It would only go 30 miles an hour so they were always late, even for rare well-provisioned lunches like the one in Saulieu with Panade Veloutée (a bread soup) and Peches Flambées (flaming peaches) or the one in Lyon at La Mére Fillioux where they had fish with a butter sauce, hearts of artichokes with truffled foie gras, steamed capon with quenelle (a kind of poached meat  dumpling) and Tarte Louise (an orange tart). It was remarkably fine dining considering what war was doing to the French table.  Even the hard work of stuffing a depot with war materials led to a great Catalan table for them to dine at after their labors.

Stein's favorite photo of herself  and Basket the poodle at Bilignin by Van Vechten, NYPL

After WWI, Stein retired Pauline and opted for a spare, stripped down vehicle christened Lady Godiva with which she  and Toklas could take field trips outside of Paris to country inns and restaurants all over France.  They toured Chartres, the Loire Valley, Cote d’ Azure and Rhone Valley and ate chicken and roast beef picnics with strawberry filled cream puffs, salmon with hollandaise, a Måcon cake with layers of  mocha, kirsch and pistachio, perch with fennel, hen à la Provençale. They returned a few times a month to Marseilles for bouillabaisse. Lady Godiva was finally retired after they found their favorite restaurant (belonging to a Madame Bourgeois in Priay), and finagled a lease on  their fairytale country house in Bilignin (this involved getting the current military-man tenant promoted and transferred but they were so in love with the place at first sight they pulled it off). 

But it is what Toklas prepared for Stein and their friends that resonates for us all these years later.

Atget,  Courtyard View, 1898

Jonathan Gold  (in Remembrance of Things Paris) said  “We all want to experience the Paris of Hemingway, of Picasso, of Baudelaire; we want to dine in Atget photographs, to sup on meals that Alice B. Toklas might have approved of, that Mére Poulard might have cooked.”  I can’t agree more.  The recipes are basted with greatness.  I could cook from this book for ages without getting bored. You can have a Midnight in Paris moment and imagine all her extraordinary friends around a table with each mouthful you take, enjoying Toklas's art,  and it was art, albeit an evanescent one.  Toklas art was the art of the table and entertaining.

Artist Francis Picabia

So why not share a favorite dish of hers ––  an artist's dish. Alice said “The only painter who ever gave me a recipe was Francis Picabia and though it is only a  dish of eggs it merits the name of its creator.”   Pay attention to the recipe. Yes, that much butter.  Yes, that long to make them.  Yes they are the most amazing eggs you will ever have, but I couldn't stop there.

Toklas and Stein had many cooks.  Many were not terribly good, others were great but extremely idiosyncratic and unspeakably unreliable.  One of these later types was named Jean who hailed from Martinique.  Her “cocotte” smile was endearing, as was her unorthodox way with eggs.  The dish that caught my eye was her Poached Eggs à la Sultane.   Placing poached eggs atop puff pastry shells is a fitting pedestal for beautiful eggs from pasture raised chickens. Knowing Alice, she would have insisted on the finest egg. The delicate pistachio sauce is something else. It is terribly elegant with a style that you don't taste very often –– subtle and delicate with the barest suspicion of pistachio.  May I say the sauce is great the following day and would be good on chicken or even a vegetable like cauliflower. It's a great sauce.

Eggs Francis Picabia serves 8 (they are VERY rich)

“Break 8 eggs into a bowl and mix them well with a fork, adding salt but no pepper. Pour them into a saucepan - yes a saucepan, not a frying pan. Put the saucepan over a very, very low flame, and keep turning them with a fork while very slowly adding in very small quantities ½ lb. butter - not a speck less, more if you can bring yourself to it. It should take ½ hour to prepare this dish. The eggs of course are not scrambled, but with the butter, no substitute admitted, produce a suave consistency that only gourmets will appreciate.”

*Just a tip, cooking the eggs over very very low heat is the key -- use the low heat burner set just above its lowest setting. I used a small heavy enamel pan for the mixture.  I buttered the pan and added the eggs, then added the butter in end-of-thumb size pieces and added more as each dissolved. The mix will not change until the last 8-10 minutes.  Then it will begin to look like scrambled eggs. You will see them come together.  Remove from the heat when they do and serve immediately.  They are worth the effort –– wicked rich, baying at the moon, bug-eyed loony great eggs.

Poached Eggs à la Sultane

“Bake puff paste in fluted pâté shells.  When baked and still hot place in each one a poached egg.  Cover with a sauce made this way:

For 6 pâté  shells, melt 1 ½  T  butter in a saucepan over low heat.  When butter is melted add 1 ¼ T flour.  Turn with a wooden spoon until thoroughly amalgamated, then add slowly ¾ c strong hot chicken bouillon.  Stir constantly over lowest heat for 5 minutes.  Add ½ c heavy cream.  Do not allow to boil.  Add ¼ c pistachio nuts that have had their skins removed by soaking for 3 minutes in hot water.  Dry and rub in cloth –– the skins will loosen and finally remain in the cloth.  Pound them in a mortar with a drop of water added from time to time to prevent the nuts from exuding oil.  When they can be strained through a sieve, add ¼ c and 1 T soft butter to them and mix together.  Add this mixture very slowly (called, naturally, pistachio butter) to the chicken bouillon cream sauce.  Heat thoroughly but do not boil.  Cover the eggs with this and serve at once.  As good as it looks”

Be sure to dry the eggs off (put them on paper towels for a moment before gently putting them on the puff pastry base).  When making the  pistachio, do add the drops of water as recommended.  Putting the pistachios in boiling water softens the nuts and makes it easier to butter them in the mortar.  I pushed them through a fine strainer to get a butter consistency that is necessary for the dish –– you don't want graininess in an elegant sauce. If you have pistachio butter, I would say use about 3 tablespoons for this dish instead of going through the steps to make it from scratch but make sure it is smooth–– you still may have to strain it. 

My favorite recipe for puff pastry is HERE


pam said...

I don't know what I loved more, looking at the wonderful old photos or fantasizing about those buttery rich eggs!

Diane said...

Love this post it is more than interesting especially as it is based in France. Not sure that I would have the patience to cook eggs slowly for half and hour, or would I want to use that much butter, but I bet they taste fantastic never the less!!! Diane

La Table De Nana said...

I agree I love the old photos..Oh that courtyard:) I would love to be there for a few days living behind one of the windows:)

I loved that about Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris..seeing the women..the parties..Well I just loved the movie.
I am reading a light book Life FRom Scratch and the first thing she learns to cook is an egg..on LOW..reminded me of this method..albeit not poached in buttah:) Butter and salt make eggs:)
Rich photos..Yours too! Earthy rich.

Lora said...

Wow what a post with two interesting and intriguing egg dishes.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

What a fascinating woman and a tale of her food life! The eggs must be so creamy with the 1/2 pound of butter. I'm so intrigued as to the taste. I must give it a go! :o

Julian said...

Just back from a complete physicial and the doctor said, to my amazement "No problem with cholesterol. You must eat healthy." If he only knew! I'm making the buttered eggs in the morning and giving thanks for good genes! :)

Charlie said...

I love making scrambled eggs with butter!

I have been doing this for about 20 years.

I don't use quite that much butter, but they are

awesome anyway. Soft spongy and OH! so good.

Thank you for sharing both recipes.

I'll try the scrambled with the extra butter.

Will definitely do the second!

Have a Joyful Day


Barbara said...

Lord, they were an unattractive pair. But I've read so much about them both, I'm fascinated. It's fascinating to read the account of others re the two of them. So many other writers were in their circle and have written about them. You see them from all angles.

The one photo of them with all the snake-like gargoyles...wonder if that was in Florence? Saw so many things like that in Italy, but I remember one grotto in Florence I adored.

What I had never heard about was this particular cookbook. Cooking yes, but not the cookbook. I wonder how it sold, as she wasn't wealthy. Think also it was quite sad to read about the poverty of her last years.

At any rate, the scrambled eggs look divine. Could I bring myself to incorporate that much butter? Yowee. (My father scarfed down tons of butter all his life and lived to 96.) Love the idea of the pistachio butter though.
Great post, great fun to read and super photos, Deana.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

MY GOODNESS, that is a rich concoction of eggs and butter but why the heck NOT!!! That has got to be so delicious with a hunk of bread and a hot beverage, on a cold morning. The taste of these dishes has got to be heightened just by the history behind their discovery and only YOU my dear, can dish it up so beautifully!

Thank you for visiting today. I am turning off my computer tomorrow (ahhh!) to prepare to see my high school buddy with whom I shared many a good time. BE WELL AND SEE YOU NEXT WEEK! Anita

Laura@Silkroadgourmet said...

Hi Deana:

Wonderful post. What struck me most, was how different most of their food was from today's gourmet offerings.

I wonder if Stein and Toklas would look on today's gourmet offerings and appreciate them as much as they did the dishes of their own time. Likewise what will "gourmet" mean in 100 years and would any of us recognize and appreciate it. . .

Love pistachio butter - have encountered it in food of the Caucasus, Western Asia (Iran) and Central Asia. Persians also use pistachios is their own egg dishes (kukus)with delicious results.

Will try the early 20th French gourmet version of the pistachio butter eggs soonest!

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

What interesting reading and the photos are amazing! I can see what a little goes a long way with those eggs made with butter. They must taste exquisite, though.

Ken Albala said...

That's butter sauce, held together with a little egg. Why not just omit the egg altogether? Or maybe just show the pan an egg.

Lori Lynn said...

I could spend all morning reading your posts Deana. Adore this quote- “If you want to be a good cook, you should go at it as a daily pleasure. You should never economize in the kitchen. Once the menu is established, the materials should be the very best.”
And although I am pretty sure I will never make Eggs Picabia, I must say I've immensely enjoyed reading about them...

Tasty Trix said...

My arteries clogged reading that one egg recipe!!! But worth the triple bypass I have no doubt. Fascinating stuff as always.

Dina said...

i can't wait to try the eggs. they sound divine!

Anonymous said...

When I cook the eggs a la Sultain my guests are always delighted! It is one of my favorite recepies. I tried also other Alice recepies as the Coconut tart. Realy delicious! Ciao Gregorio

Buying Gold said...

Lovely post on this blog. i love it.

Andre said...

The "gargoyles-like" setting of Gertrude and Alice's double portrait by their friend Cecil Beaton is known as the Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval, a monument of outsider art avant la lettre. Cheval was a French postman who spent 33 years building this functionless pile of proto-surrealist decorative elements, beginning in 1879. It has been preserved in remarkably good condition - perhaps owing to French Minister of Culture André Malraux's blessing - and can be visited in the town of Hauterives, in the Drôme, which is not terribly far from Getrude and Alice's summer residence in Bilignin.

Andre said...

A friend has recently reminded me of my youthful passion for the Facteur Cheval's curious single creation, and it occurred to me that the moniker by which that artist-architect has become known closely resembles that of his roughly contemporary, and similarly "outsider," le Douanier Rousseau. The detailed description of a banquet the Steins gave in honor of Rousseau serves as the festive overture to the grand opera that is "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas." The friendly reminder also gave me the impulse to return to the blog post for the first time since I commented on it three years ago. This time I found, to my consternation, that just about no proper noun is spelled correctly in the principal blog post (I hesitate to refer to it as "original"), and a few "improper" nouns haven't come out quite right either. I must have been so mesmerized on my prior visit by Cecil Beaton's affecting pictures, that I did not pay much, if any, attention to the copy (an apt synonym here for "text"). After all, since its undisguised second-hand, copy-and-paste "creative" process is evident at a glance, one might as well go and consult the original sources. Mind you, it is admittedly a charming confection, and if we must choose between charm and orthography, I too would unhesitatingly go for the charm. Yet, I cannot fathom why we can't have both; why someone capable of painstakingly extracting every last gram of charm from her sources, would be unable to extend her attention to those sources' grammar or spelling. She even cites the late James Mellow - he would have turned 95 last month - who is hardly a universal go-to for quotes like Walter Benjamin or Frantz Fanon. Mellow gave his definitive biography of Stein and Toklas the title "Charmed Circle," and indeed the book succeeded in being almost as bewitchingly captivating as its two subjects. In his obituary in The New York Times, Mellow was cited as having stated that the biographer "wants the life ... to have the verisimilitude of a period photograph: the exact hour of a certain afternoon, the forgotten details in place, the casual smile or anxious look fixed forever in its particular time." In other words, he aimed just as tirelessly for accuracy as he did for atmosphere. But even if he could not have everything, at the very least he surely would have liked that his name not be misspelled.

Deana Sidney said...

Anonymous Andre -- Goodness gracious, that was a lifetime ago. I deeply regret misspelling Mr Mellow's name and have repaired it.

As for the rest - I gather a bouquet of sources. I share them so people can go off and investigate. They are meant to be amusing and interesting. I comment on what I read. I cut and paste because, in this case,I am letting people that knew Toklas tell their stories. Many people I quote or write about are forgotten and I've endeavored to tell their stories (like Naomi Berry). Hell, most people have heard of Toklas cookbook only because of the brownies... not the divine eggs Picabia.

I don't think I've ever had anyone call me offensive and had no idea it was possible to misspell every proper noun.

I hardly ever have enough time to write these anymore -- I did spend a lot of time looking up sources and can't imagine I misquoted everyone so completely. I know I enjoyed doing it.

I can't imagine why you revisited my offensive drivel 3 years later!