Thursday, May 17, 2012

Henri-Paul Pellaprat, a Great Cookbook you may not know, and Sole Colbert

Julia Child with teacher Max Bugnard, Cordon-Bleu School, Paris 1950

If you saw the film Julie and Julia, you might have the idea that there had never been a comprehensive book on French Cuisine until Julia Child and Simone Beck wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking 
in 1960.

Craig Claiborne called Mastering the Art of French Cooking a “most comprehensive, laudable and monumental work” that would “remain as the definitive work for non-professionals…. It is written in the simplest terms possible…without compromise or condescension.  The recipes are glorious.” Amen, but….

Not long before Julia and Simone created their masterpiece, Henri-Paul Pelleprat released Modern culinary art –– L’art culinaire modern –– that first appeared in France in the 1930’s and then was translated into English in 1950 with 3500 recipes –– it too is a masterpiece and they are related –– in more than a 6-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon way. 

I can’t imagine that Pellaprat’s book didn’t influence the ladies as they wrote their magnum opus since Julia and Simca both went to the school he had been associated with for decades –– L’ École de Cuisine du Cordon-Bleu in Paris.  The book was already a huge hit in France when the ladies were attending the school.

Simca Beck

Child went to L’ École de Cuisine du Cordon-Bleu to learn how to cook proper French food when she moved to France (a California class she had taken made hollandaise with lard –– can you imagine?). After her Cordon-Bleu classes she got her teacher, Max Bugnard (who had worked under Escoffier) to give her private lessons. Simca Beck, her partner in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, thought along the same lines and actually had Pellaprat as her private tutor after her initial class training (she attended a few years before Child).

Marthe Distel, 1896  Ecole de Cuisine du Cordon-Bleu

1896 collection of La Cuisiniére Cordon–Bleu.

The school had a rather interesting beginning that I never knew about.  It was begun by a journalist named Marthe Distel and grew from a popular magazine, La Cuisiniére Cordon-Bleu. The magazine,  full of chefs talking about food and restaurants and recipes,  had such a loyal following that Distel decided to reward her subscribers with free cooking classes in 1896.  The rest is history.  From those free classes grew a school with paying students in classes taught by well-known chefs.  The school still exists today. By Julia Child’s time in the 1950’s, Distel had passed away (in the 1930s) and the tyrannical (at least by Child’s reckoning) Madame Bressart had been in charge since 1945.  She stayed for nearly 50 years.

Henri-Paul Pellaprat was one of the early teachers there and quite a catch for the new school.  Born in 1869, he had worked at legendary Parisian restaurants like Café de la Paix and La Maison Dorée with Casimir Moisson (that I wrote about HERE).  He wrote his Modern Cuisine over 30 years of teaching at the school, perhaps inspired by his friend and mentor Escoffier who wrote the original encyclopedia for French cuisine, the enormous Le Guide Culinaire –– The Escoffier Cookbook and Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery: For Connoisseurs, Chefs, Epicures in 1903.

As Claiborne had said, Child’s book broke down recipes in a clear, concise way that hadn’t been seen before (Escoffier’s book was for chefs, not for home cooks), but both the Escoffier and Pellaprat books cover enormous ground with thousands of recipes and techniques that are not really difficult to follow.  The concept of “mother sauces”  (that are the basis of hundreds of other sauces) first appears in Escoffier’s book (although Careme was the first to mention 4 foundational sauces).  Pellaprat covers them methodically and well. His book does assume a level of proficiency that Child’s book does not.

When you think about classic French recipes, you think butter and cream and more cream and more butter but that really isn’t always the case  –– they also used demi-glace.  Demi-glace, a thick stock reduction, was used in so many sauces then, and should be now, if you ask me.

In my mind, it is terribly underused today and that is a crime.  I used it a few weeks ago with the Chicken bordelaise recipe.  The flavor was through the roof with the addition of that rich tasting, but low-caloried, demi-glace.


I had discovered Modern Cuisine when working on the chicken bordelaise recipe and simply HAD to get one for myself after reading about it.  When the enormous tome arrived at my door I was stunned.  Full of hundreds of illustrations (oh, how food presentation has changed –– these are just a few of the fish illustrations, don't you love the way he used lobster legs?) and 3500 recipes, it really gave me a better understanding of this type of culinary art (I got the 1950 version, there is also a 1968 version with different food photos).  The other thing it did was interest me in trying more recipes with demi-glace. 

Today we rarely think of fish with a meat-glaze.  Big mistake. As I was looking through Pellaprat’s book, I read “Sole Colbert” and that little light bulb came on above my head (couldn’t remember what Colbert was –– thought of the Colbert Report and smiled –– how does my mind work?) –– I stopped to read about it.

What is Sole Colbert?  Well, it was named after Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Minister of Finance to Louis XIV in late 17th century (no, nothing to do with Stephen Colbert!). The recipe uses Colbert butter that is made with the better-known base of lemony Maître d’ hotel butter to which demi-glace and tarragon are added.  

Sole Colbert was made by putting the gorgeous hybrid compound butter between soft, pillowy layers of sole, surrounded by a crisp, bread crumbed-crust (fried in lard in the 19th c … strange today but boy, what a combo).  The butter perfumes the flesh, the demi-glace adds a dark umami to the lemony butter… it is fast and terribly delicious. This is like a Chicken Kiev in a way… the hot butter oozes from the crispy fish brilliantly. 

The original would have used a whole, boned fish, with the butter inserted after cooking where the backbone had been … I used filets but followed the rest of the preparation fairly closely.

The original recipe for Colbert Sole in the book:

"Remove the black skin and scale the white. Then, on the skinned side, lightly lift the fillets without completely removing them.  Break the backbone in 2 places so that it may easily be removed after cooking.  Dip the sole in milk, flour, egg and bread crumbs.  Fry and when well cooked, remove the bone carefully so as not to break the fish.  Fill the space with Colbert Butter. "

Here is the recipe for Colbert butter in the book:

 "Add to Maître d' Hôtel butter* a heaping tablespoon of melted meat glaze"

*Maître d' Hôtel butter: Knead 3 1/2 oz of soft butter, Add the juice of 1/2 a lemon, salt pepper and chopped parsley

 You can use packaged demi-glace (my friends at D’Artagnan make a fabulous version of duck and veal) that makes preparing this dish a snap to make and is remarkably cost and time effective –– OR you can make a good cheat yourself –– it takes a lot of time but very little effort.  Make a rich stock with the bones and veggies, strain, de-fat and reduce –– it doesn't have the veal in it but is great with most things.  A gallon makes a cup, but what a cup, and it’s a 12-hour process –– like I say, the purchased demi-glace is easier and not that expensive.    

The dish takes less than a ½ hour to do if you have the demi-glace (all that flavor takes up very little space in the freezer).

This is delicious with cucumbers gently sautéed in butter with a pinch of sea salt and nutmeg.  I couldn't help using herbs from my new potted herb garden... the borage flowers taste of cucumbers and the golden flowers of Texas tarragon are delicious.

Sole Colbert  (based on recipes by  Pelleprat and Soyer) serves 4

1 pound sole filets (I used Dover Sole)
1 1/2 cup milk
1 1/2 c flour (seasoned with salt, pepper and paprika)
2 eggs
2 c breadcrumbs
1/3 c fat for frying plus more if needed –– don't skimp  when you flip the fish ( I used a bit of lard and olive oil)

Sauteed cucumbers (with butter and a pinch of salt and nutmeg and a scattering of fresh herbs)

Soak the sole in milk for 1 or 2 hours, then discard the milk (this is an old trick of my grandmother –– she said it made the fish taste sweet).

Place 2 slices together (this will form a pocket for the butter) and dredge the sole pairs in salt and peppered-flour with a pinch of paprika.

Whip egg plus 2 t water till combined.

Coat the sole with the egg

Dredge the sole in breadcrumbs and refrigerate.

Fry the fish in 1/2 of your fat over medium heat, flip when one side is done, adding more of your fat/oil/butter till crisp and done –– don’t overcook. Place on a warm platter.

Gently insert a few tablespoons of the Colbert butter between the fish pieces and put back in the pan, cover and heat for a few minutes over a low flame. Remove and serve with lemon slices and any extra butter you may have.


You can put the chilled butter between the 2 layers of fish as you put it together and fry it with the butter inside -- use a bit of the flour to stick them together. 

To make the Colbert Butter

1 stick butter
2 T lemon juice
1 T finely chopped parsley
½ t salt and ¼ t pepper (do this to taste)
¼ c de-frosted demi-glace -  D'Artagnan Duck and Veal is a great choice (the original called for 2 T)
1 t chopped tarragon

I couldn’t get the lemon to bond with the butter the way the original recipe instructed so I softened it to about ¾ melted in the microwave and then stirred the lemon into it easily (don't overheat, start with a few seconds).  I added the salt and pepper, parsley to make the Maître d’ hotel butter base.  

Combine the nearly liquified butter with demi-glace (I used more than the original), 1 t chopped tarragon and reserve. Refrigerate to get it back to a solid form, it will still be easy to work with. I poured it in a deep, flat plate. If you do this the night before making the dish takes no time at all.
This will make more than you need... but it is great with everything and freezes well.

Thanks to Gollum for hosting Foodie Friday!


Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

What an amazing cookbook! The dishes look so elaborately beautiful. this Colbert butter sounds so versatile too!

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Deana:
We thought that the film 'Julie and Julia' was absolutely enchanting and the performance by Meryl Streep a classic! Indeed, we had heard and knew practically nothing of Julia Child before seeing the film, being reared on Fanny Craddock as the English equivalent!

The background to the two cookbooks which you give here is most fascinating as are the characters involved in their writing. Although we are no cooks ourselves, we should rather like to have copies if only to dream of the tastes of the dishes and to be amused and amazed at the illustrations!

The Sole dish sounds truly mouthwatering. We are great fans of Sole but eat it rarely and fish of quality is not easily come by in landlocked Hungary. However, we are now tempted to seek it out when next in England!

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

What an interesting story about the cooking school and Henri Paul Pellaprat. Evidently, timing is everything with regard to books. Perhaps Americans were much more willing to accept of their own as an expert on French food?

I adore Dover Sole but rarely see in on menus anymore! Your Sole Colbert looks beautiful and so delicious!

Barbara said...

You're right, I'd never heard of this cookbook. And I'd order it, but I'm running out of space which sounds as though I'd need it for this one! I'll depend on you for info and recipes.

Love the photos, what a delight. The presentations are so creative and fun. And I have used demi-glace, but never considered it with fish. A beautiful dish, Deana, and perfectly presented with the cucumbers. My mother and grandmother used lard all the time...swore by it. Their pie crusts were to die for, so they knew their stuff. I'm trying to remember if they fried smelt in it...and their perch roe, two dishes I was served often as a child. I'll ask my sister.
Like the idea of frying with a combo of lard and olive oil.
Lovely post, as usual.

Marjie said...

I made my dearly beloved watch Julie and Julia with me, and he tolerated it very well. That's not quite a sainthood feat, but it's pretty good.

Your fish looks wonderful. Glad to see you enjoying our indoor herb garden!

Linda said... all the pics in this post. The fish looks amazingly delicious! Of course that plate is gorgeous! You know I love your taste in antique plates!

Anonymous said...

The cookbook sounds fascinating and what a gorgeous dish! It's an excellent preparation of sole!

Diane said...

Love this post, as always so interesting.

I have to admit to not really being a sole fan although I love fish. I have always thought sole a bit tasteless but perhaps your recipe gives it more flavour. Your dish really does look appetising.

Thanks so much for you kind thoughts and condolences, much appreciated. Diane

Lori Lynn said...

Just fabulous Deana! Love your presentation, have been infatuated with borage flowers for a while, recently planted seeds in my garden, anxiously waiting the blossoms.
This dish sounds so rich, I can imagine serving it for a special occasion...

Frank said...

I'm a bit fan of Pellaprat's book and cook from it from time to time, most recently his recipe for rillettes de porc. Delicious, just as I remember it from my Paris days…

El said...

Another amazing post. That's very interesting about the cookbooks published before Julia and Simone. I always thought of theirs as the first for an American audience. Your post is gorgeous as always!

Vagabonde said...

I found your blog by chance. Reading your post brought back memories. My mother had L’Art Culinaire Moderne de Pellaprat and used it when I was growing up in Paris. I did not take it with me when moving to the US but I bought in 1968 Pellaparts’s Everyday French Cooking for the American Home after I was married in 1967. I just went down and looked and it is still on my shelf with a bookmark at “blanquette de veau” which is the recipe I used. All those pictures your show also brought back memories. My parents had a café tabac hotel restaurant 14 kms north of Paris. They had banquets and weddings there. My mother would hire one or two chefs from the Cordon Bleu and they would make dishes like those pictured. I was not allowed in the kitchen but would take a look when the dishes came out and sometimes they let me sample them. Miam miam! I’ll come back and look at more of your posts – mais cela me rend nostalgique!

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Ahhhhhhhh YOU GOT IT. YOU HAVE ALL that it takes to make a sensational PARIS POST that will make us SWING and ROCK and BE READY to devour the greatest of culinary creations! DEANE! I am so excited to see what you will contribute to the Paris link party! I think all the visitors will get a HUGE variation of experiences PARISIAN style!!! WOW, this post is worthy of being celebrated as a knock 'em dead tribute to our target city. THANK YOU so much for coming on board and flying over England with us. If there is anyone who could right a book or two about English cuisine, it would be YOU!!!!


Tasty Trix said...

How interesting! I did not know about this precursor to the Child book. And yes, I couldn't agree more: demi glace makes things positively sing!!