Long, long before my time, in the era of that great nineteenth-century master, Marie-Antoine Carême, desserts played a double role in classical French dinners. They not only provided a magnificent last course, but they served also as the decorations. In fact, only a chef trained in the Carême tradition possessed the skill to produce the towering decorated cakes, the elaborate creations made with spun sugar, and the complicated pyramids of fruit that were a part of every banquet. They were arranged down the center of the table and dramatically illuminated by gold and silver candelabra. Admiring guests viewed the desserts as important works of art; and the cutting and the serving of these confections and fruits became rites.
Our modern table decorations conform, of course, to our simpler way of life. Flower arrangements or fruit bowls have taken over the role previously assigned to sculptured desserts. In today's cuisine, desserts must still please the eye, naturellement, but the first concern is that a dessert complement the other dishes on the menu. And, unless we are planning an elaborate buffet, we consider a single handsome dessert sufficient.
In France, milk, eggs, and cream are the traditional ingredients for desserts, simple or complex. France has always been blessed with generous supplies of dairy foods. Much of our dessert cookery has evolved around the ways in which these foods combine with each other and with other ingredients and how they react to different methods of preparation—boiling, baking, and so on.
When I was preparing desserts as part of my chef's training at the Maison Calondre, I did not realize how soon I would be teaching others to make them. Hardly had I started my first job in the Hotel du Rhin in Paris when I was called upon to help train a young Englishman who had come to France to learn the chef's trade. Then I discovered that we usually had a few English girls working in the kitchen; they had been sent over by aristocratic English families who could not find properly trained assistants for their French chefs. And without the skillful help they needed, these fine chefs could not be persuaded to stay at a job. Sending their most intelligent maids to Paris for a few weeks to learn the rudiments of French cooking solved the problem.
The language barrier was the greatest hurdle. Because I was willing to teach these girls, I was often selected to deal with them. M. Mignot, the head chef, liked to tease me about it. “How well you work with les petites anglaises, eh, Louis?” he would say. Alors, I regarded encounters with les petites anglaises as pleasant interludes in my very hard-working life.
My first rule, as I taught these girls so long ago, concerns the actual ingredients of desserts. Eggs, milk, cream and anything else you use must be good and, especially, fresh. One stale egg or a little “off” cream can spoil a dish on which money and time have been lavished. Economizing on ingredients, using one less egg or adding less than the required amount of cream, will also prevent a perfect result. A good cook never takes this chance. At the same time, be warned also that you can spoil a dish by being too lavish and upsetting the balance of the ingredients. For example, adding more than enough eggs or egg yolks may, instead of improving your custard, give you something that is more like runny scrambled eggs. The next rule concerns cooking temperature, always an important factor in preparing any mixture that has a high proportion of eggs. As I have explained before, excessive hear toughens eggs. Cakes like spongecakes, modeleines, and meringues are therefore baked in a slow oven, 300° F. or less. Follow the same low-temperature procedure when you cook eggs with milk to make custard. The eggs must be kept below the boiling point or the mixture will curdle. If the heat can be kept very low and a heavy saucepan is used, custards can be made successfully over direct heat. I learned to make them this way on an old-fashioned stove on which the pan could easily be moved from the hottest part of the stove to a cooler spot. But the safest method is to use a double boiler, keeping the water just simmering, not boiling, in the bottom pan.
When you bake custards or molded meringues, place the baking dish or mold in a pan of water and bake the desserts in a slow oven, 300°F. or less. To keep the water in the pan from boiling, add a little cold water to it occasionally. A baked custard full of tiny holes, or one that separates into a very firm curd floating in a great deal of liquid, has been cooked at too high heat or it has been cooked too long. Use high heat only if the cooking time is very short, so short that the heat cannot affect the mixture adversely.
Here are some actual procedures to follow in cooking these desserts: Use a double boiler to scald milk unless you have a very heavy saucepan and use very low heat. Milk scorches easily, and once it scorches, the flavor is unpleasantly affected. Beat eggs or egg yolks or a combination of the two with a wire whip or a beater, then add sugar gradually and continue whipping until it is thoroughly mixed in. For a meringue, beat the whites until they begin to form peaks, add sugar gradually, and continue beating until the meringue makes firm peaks and all traces of graininess from undissolved sugar have disappeared.
In making custards, the crucial points come when the hot milk is combined with the eggs and sugar, and during the actual cooking. Never add eggs directly to a hot mixture. Always pour some of the hot liquid into the eggs, or eggs and sugar, stirring briskly, then return this warmed mixture to the remaining hot liquid in the pan. From that time, stir the custard constantly—over the low heat already mentioned—until it acquires body or, as the French say, du corps. You can test the custard by letting it run off the back of the spoon; if a light coating clings to the spoon, the custard is done. The French call this consistency à la nappe. With experience, you “feel” when the custard has cooked enough. Now remove it immediately from the heat, pour it into a cold bowl, and stir it briskly a few times to dissipate some of the heat. Stir the custard occasionally as it cool:, to prevent a surface skin from forming. When it is cool, chill it in the refrigerator.