Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Retro food: Eggs in aspic

In the beginning I said I would never cook anything just for the blog. It doesn't really work that way, though. When you write about food just about every day, every morsel that you eat or cook could be a topic and every decision about what to buy at the store and what to make for dinner becomes a choice not only of what to eat but also of what to write. So when I decided to make calzones the other day, it occurred to me that I had not yet blogged about calzones and this made me all the more eager to make them.

(I suppose now I should tell you that I made them with a recipe of pizza dough, a pound of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained well, two beaten eggs, half a pound of ricotta, about a quarter cup of grated parmesan, a half cup of grated mozzarella. a few strokes of grated nutmeg, salt, and pepper. This makes two calzones. I brush the outside with an eggwash made with one beaten egg, a little cold water, and a pinch each of salt and sugar. They bake at 375 for half an hour and are nice with some homemade tomato sauce on the side.)

Until now, I don't think I have made anything I would have been really unlikely to make without a blog in which to discuss it. Part of my interest in making aspic is that I think it's an odd food and I want to explore it, get to know it, uncover its mystery. This is more interesting, I think, if I have someone with whom to share my discoveries. Thanks for being that someone.

I approach retro food in good faith. I don't see outmoded cuisine as a product of horrendous taste which has been cast off after decades of progress. Our food is not naturally better than the foods of the past. It's easy to see today's über-fresh, hyper-multiculti food ethic as an advance past the atrocious jello mold salads and béchamel-rich casseroles of yesteryear. And of course there have been plenty of embarrassments over the years that no one should try to recreate. But the trendy foods of today sometimes seem odd and nasty to me now and who knows what people will think in a few decades? (Here are some foods of today that I think are all wrong: sandwich wraps, fat-free and artificially-sweetened yogurt, instant individual-serving packages of soup, veggie burgers, supermarket sushi, energy elixers, Starbucks 900-calorie drinks, meatnormous omelette sandwiches, and of course the ubiquitous boneless-skinless chicken breasts.)

I see retro food as dishes worth getting to know in spite of their status as fashion victims. A few weeks ago I made and wrote about Chicken a la King and said, "It tasted like cafeteria food. I loved it." I was hoping to love it and I did. I'm not going to make anything that I expect to taste like crap just because it might look cool or sound funny. I don't think it's clever to poke fun at the taste of old times without also appreciating what was good and interesting about it.

Eggs in aspic, oeufs en gelée, are a bygone first course or buffet food. I chose to make them before I noticed that they're the dish Julie Powell considers the lowest moment in her year with Mastering the Art. (She notes that her "cats like aspic just fine.") I sense that when people peruse decades-old illustrated cookbooks, it's the photos of aspics and jellies that most make them wince. Clearly the point of aspic is to look impressive but it can also look ridiculous and it's always worse to look ridiculous when you're trying to impress.

The fish on the cover of this book, where I got my eggs in aspic recipe, looks appetizing to me but I fear to many today the idea of making a fish-shaped mold containing fish is the stuff of parody. Did someone actually eat that?

Aspic is savory jello. It's not hard to make but it does time time. Some stocks are high enough in gelatin to be solid at room temp. A stock made with veal knuckles is naturally gelatinous. (That's how JP did it and perhaps that explains her bad experience.) But mine was not so blessed, so I added the contents of one envelope of powdered gelatin to my clarified stock (clarified to make a pretty aspic) which had been heated with one chopped shallot and a teaspoon of dried tarragon and left to steep and cool down as the flavors infused. (I did strain it before adding the gelatin.) So this required making stock, clarifying stock, reheating stock with aromatics and waiting for it to cool, then warming with the gelatin and cooling again. For those scoring at home that's four cycles of heating and cooling. I will concede that no one, myself included, really has time for this.

I poached my eggs in water just short of covering them. This was not on purpose, really, but it had the effect of leaving the top part of the yolk a nice yellow instead of filmed with white. And this made my aspic all the more attractive. The cookbook didn't say whether to leave the yolks runny or cook them through and I wasn't sure about the idea of cold, runny yolks. But then, Mrs. Latte came to my rescue. She describes the oeufs at Chez Georges in Paris as runny-yolked, so I was determined to leave mine loose.

When I had cold eggs and cold liquid, I poured a quarter inch of the stock into each of my four ramekins, then chilled both the ramekins and the aspic for about an hour. The aspic in the ramekins was now set, and the rest was thick and syrupy. I put a neatly trimmed egg in the center of each of the ramekins and covered it with aspic. The recipe calls for first decorating the top with tarragon or watercress leaves but I didn't have any of these and wasn't about to spend needlessly on decorative herbage. (Funny, the time I spent on this hardly seems worth worrying about and yet I won't let a frivolous $2 slip through my fingers.)

When I unmolded the first egg, after dipping the ramekin in warm water and running a knife around the edge, I was stunned by its elegance. Then I started to eat it, with buttered bread to mop up the runny part, and while pleasantly surprised by the cold yolk I was instantly disappointed that neither the effort required to make this nor the attractiveness of the presentation was in proportion to the meager pleasure offered by the food qua food. I would prefer a warm poached egg on a buttered English muffin, which takes all of five minutes to make, to a cold poached egg in a tarragon aspic. But I'm quite thrilled that I made this little oddity in my very own kitchen even if I don't intend to do such a thing ever again.


Blogger Pyewacket said...

I confess: I like aspic. At least, the aspic I've had out. I've made tomato aspic at home, and it was okay, but not that interesting. But I've had aspic on pate plates in restaurants and really, really liked it.

Glad to see someone else cooking from old cookbooks.

3:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Food blogging has strange effects on how and what I eat, cook and buy. See spam comment. Calzones are on my list of exotic foods to make.

10:23 PM  
Blogger Robyn said...

Mmmmm, calzone. Warm pocket of...gooey stuff. Looks yummy. GIMMEH.

I'm not even that fond of sweet jello, so I'm gonna say no to savory jello.

10:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brave of you! Glad you're back btw.

2:44 AM  
Blogger Barbara Fisher said...

I made aspic a lot in culinary school. They still teach the classics, you see, and aspic--is a classic.

Most of what we used it for, however, was not to eat as such, but to encase other foods, and to line serving trays. We made colored aspic sheets (green had spinach puree, red had ketchup, brown had demi-glace, yellow, mustard, orange--red and yellow pepper puree--you get the idea) and then used tiny cutters to cut designs from them which we used to decorate the white or silver trays.

Then, we poured liquid aspic over these cut outs in a couple of layers. If we got a bubble in the aspic, we'd take a small blowtorch to it to melt it out to glass-like smoothness.

Then, we placed our cold foods on the trays in a lovely pattern. If we had something large like a terrine or pate , those were often glazed with aspic.

My partner and I got to do a whole poached salmon, which we positioned as if it were swimming and alive. We replaced his eyes with olive slices and made tiny scales out of cucumber and scallops cut from red bell pepper. We had a bit of skin cut out into a "window" on his side, so that when it was served, folks could pick out the cold poached salmon flesh.

The entire thing was coated with aspic to make him look alive and wet, and we made aspic "water" for him to be leaping from.

It was a pain in the butt, but it was something to behold. Sadly, no one but myself and the instructors ate that salmon, because my classmates were not fish-eaters.

He tasted really good.

But I cannot say the same for the aspic.

9:24 AM  
Blogger mzn said...

Barbara, that salmon sounds amazing. Do you ever wish you had been keeping a blog in your culinary school days? Perhaps you might have written about culinary students who won't eat fish. I'm cool with other people's dietary choices and consider them each person's own business, but if you're going into the culinary trade it seems odd to avoid certain foods altogether, unless of course there are health reasons.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Barbara Fisher said...

Back then, I didn't know from blogs, but yeah--it would have been cool.

And funny, too--boy, the funny stories I can tell from culinary school. Everyone there was a character in an unwritten novel.

As for the students who wouldn't eat this or that--it bugged the hell out of me. Religious reasons (kosher, halal) do not bother me. Ethical (vegetarian) reasons do not bother me.

But folks just refusing to eat something just because they preconceive that it is nasty--piss me off. Especially if they are aspiring to be chefs. It drove me mad.

I tasted everything. Everything, even if I could tell by the way it was overcooked, undercooked or just plain badly mangled by incompetent hands, that it was not going to be good.

But, again--I was much older than the average student--most of them were straight out of high school.

It was an interesting experience--one that I am really glad I had.

6:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You must read:


10:57 PM  
Blogger mzn said...

Thanks for the link, Stacie. Maybe I am truly tasteless but many of the dishes pictured at that site look appealing to me. The names are atrocious, though, and the sarcastic captions are devastating.

7:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great read! I was heartened by your comments, as my attempt last night at the same dish yielded about the same result, and I couldn't help but think that the dish would have been greatly improved by a few seconds in the microwave, producing a warm egg and some tasty stock. I also visited the web page for Knox Gelatine (now owned by Kraft), and noted that not even they were giving recipes for poached eggs or cold chiken in aspic--that's how completely American cooking sentiments have abandoned savory jellies in the past few decades.

10:21 AM  

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