In her latest title, Secrets from the La Varenne Kitchen, Willan takes us back to the beginning by sharing the essential recipes that are useful to any cook who wishes to master their craft in the kitchen. Willan discusses the early days of distributing recipes at her school, why her new cookbook is an important reference tool, and her opinions on French cooking, recipe writing, and food writing.
New Times: How does your new cookbook enhance your existing bibliography?
Willan: This book goes back to the beginning of my culinary career. It was originally compiled in 1975 when we opened La Varenne. I typed it and we offset it for printing, but we never published a booklet. We were handing out large quantities of paper every week to the students. Over time I realized that a lot of the recipes were basic recipes, where you couldn’t make the extended recipe without things like choux pastry and veal stock. So, we put it all together and it turned out be 50 of the most basic recipes that we teach our students.
What makes Secrets from the La Varenne Kitchen such a great reference tool for aspiring chefs?
Although the wording of the recipes in the cookbook are different from the basic reference booklet we provide to students at École de Cuisine La Varenne, they are still designed to perfect the art of French cooking. It’s extraordinarily useful for professionals, because you can lay your hands on the proportions of choux pastry or another type of French pastry, to figure out exactly what you need. For people just starting out, you will learn how to make a pie pastry, a basic ice cream, and three kinds of meringue pie, as well as the difference between those recipes, and what they are used for. Any type of cook will find use for this book.
Why did French food become your specialty?
The French analyze the art of cooking and dining more than any other Western nation. They talk about it all the time. It’s having an effect on the United States, as people are far more interested in the ingredients and what is on the plate and where it is coming from than they used to be. Whenever I look at top chefs and teachers, people like Alice Waters and Daniel Boulud, they have all been strongly influenced by French cooking.
What is one of the hardest things about creating recipes?
I’ve been at it a long time but there is a particular style of organizing ingredients. The standard way to write a recipe is to put the steps in order and be accurate when you say things like “one onion chopped.” Do you mean a small chop or a medium chop or a large chop? If you say a tablespoon of chopped parsley or parsley chopped, you need to indicate the difference. Once I have written a recipe and I think it’s going to work, I write questions at the bottom. Questions can include things like “How many does it serve?” or “Is the oven temperature right?” You also have to consider if there are unusual steps or mixing methods that are not clear.
After I determine those details, I take it into the kitchen and hopefully get other people who have not made the recipe and don’t have a clear vision of the recipe is supposed to be, to try cooking it. It’s surprising what will turn up from something that you think is crystal clear. One of Julia [Child’s] pet peeves was the word “combine.” She always used to say, “What do you mean by combine? Do you mean stir, mix, whisk — what do you mean?” And quite a lot of recipes say to rub small crumbs. “Well, what do you mean by small crumbs when making crumbs?”
When we are doing this at La Varenne, we sit down after cooking the recipe and answer a form that asks those type of questions. One question asks, “Would you make it again?” That’s a very telling verdict, and respondents are asked to give the recipe a grade — A, B, or C. If they choose “C,” you can probably forget about the recipe. If they choose “B,” you need to determine if you want to improve it. And then we all know what “A” stands for.
What do food writers need to do in order to distinguish themselves from others?
They need to get into the kitchen. They need to have plenty of practice in cooking, but they also have to write down what they have been doing. It’s surprising how difficult how it is to write a recipe that is both accurate and easy for someone else to follow.
Basic Ice Cream
Recette de Base pour Glace
- Chosen flavoring
- 2 cups milk
- 5 egg yolks
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1 cup heavy cream, whipped until it holds a soft shape
Bring the milk almost to a boil. Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until thick and light. Whisk in half the hot milk and whisk the mixture back into the remaining milk. Heat gently, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the custard thickens slightly; if you draw your finger across the back of the spoon, it will leave a clear trail.
Note: Do not overcook or boil the custard or it will curdle.
Take the custard at once from the heat and strain it into a bowl. Let cool and pour into a churn freezer. When the ice cream is partly set, add the whipped cream to the mixture and continue freezing in the churn freezer until set.
Gillian Speiser is a contributing writer for About.com's Cookbooks & Food Writing page. Follow Gillian Speiser on Twitter.