Brideshead Revisted is one of the only novels I have ever read after seeing the movie. I usually try to avoid this at all costs, preferring to imagine the settings and characters’ faces and mannerisms with only the words of the author to guide me. But a few Christmases ago I was home visiting from college and my parents and I were trying to find something to watch. My sisters had long since disappeared upstairs to watch The Real Housewives of New York (I am not for a second saying I haven’t enjoyed this fine program myself) so we felt free to like our dork flags fly. My dad pulled out his boxed set of the 1981 version of Brideshead Revisited and started to reminisce with my mom about how, in their first year of marriage, they used to wait all week for a new episode of the eleven-part-miniseries to air, my dad rushing home from his job as a teaching assistant to make it in time. My mom found out she was pregnant with my older sister during the course of the miniseries, and fell so in love with Lord Marchmain’s level-headed, insightful mistress, Cara, she decided to name her next daughter after her.
After hearing all of this I decided to break my own rule, even knowing that the novel was on my Spring syllabus (I know, I’m wild, I can’t be tamed). At first I wasn’t sure about the movie—the opening is all noisy cannon-fire and muddy 1980’s colors, but soon Jeremy Iron’s voice drew me in and I was hooked. The three of us spent the rest of my vacation crammed on the couch, watching episode after episode until they were all done. Reading the novel that spring I realized that one thing that the movie couldn’t hope to capture as well as the novel is Waugh’s incredibly descriptive food scenes, my favorite of which takes place when Charles has dinner with Rex Mottram.
I remember the dinner well—soup of oseille, a sole quite simply cooked in white wine sauce, a caneton a la presse, a lemon soufflé. At the last minute, fearing the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviare aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a bottle of 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and, with the duck, a Clos de Bère of 1904… The cream and hot butter mingled and overflowed, separating each glaucose bead of caviar from its fellows, capping it in white and gold.
“I like a bit of chopped onion with mine,” said Rex. “Chap-who-knew told me it brought out the flavour.”
“Try it without first,” I said. “And tell me more news of myself.”…
The soup was delicious after the rich blinis—hot, thin, bitter, frothy. The sole was so simple and unobtrusive that Rex failed to notice it. We ate to the music of the press—the crunch of the bones, the drip of blood and marrow, the tap of the spoon basting the thin slices of breast. There was a pause here of a quarter of an hour, while I drank the first glass of the Clos de Bère and Rex smoked his first cigarette. He leaned back, blew a cloud of smoke across the table and remarked, “You know, the food here isn’t half bad; someone ought to take this place up and make something of it.
The first time I ever tried caviar was on my birthday a few years ago. My birthday is New Year’s Day, and because New Year’s Day happens to be one of the biggest brunch days of the year (resolutions be damned, hangovers need biscuits) I, as a former baker/pastry girl had gotten very used to having to work on every birthday. A few years back, on my twenty-third birthday, I was working as a baker at a restaurant, slogging through my birthday brunch shift, maybe feeling a little bit sorry for myself as I rolled brioche after brioche with my sticky, cramped fingers.
It finally came time, after a two-hour walk-in refrigerator deep-clean, for me to leave. I was so exhausted that I didn’t even notice that my bag was significantly heavier upon leaving than it was when I had left the house that morning. I got on the subway, opened my backpack to get my book out and instead pulled out a huge bottle of champagne and a tiny tin of caviar left over from the New Year’s Eve special the restaurant had run the night before. Attached to it was an order slip with “happy birthday!” written in scratchy boy handwriting and the signatures of all the cooks. Much to the horror and confusion of the woman next to me I actually burst into tears right there on the G train,—total-body exhaustion mixed with pure, unadulterated joy always has that affect on me. It remains, to this day, one of my favorite birthday memories. I haven’t had caviar that good since, and it’s highly possible that I never will. Maybe it’s because of the memories tied to my first taste of it, but that tin of caviar will always remain one of the best things I have ever eaten. Brideshead Revisited Blinis with Caviar
Makes 3-4 Dozen
There are lots of different ways to make blinis, which are basically just a thin buttery pancake perfect for holding caviar or smoked fish. Lots of them use buckwheat flour and clarified butter but after mixing a few recipes I decided I liked this one best. Yeast and buttermilk give them a slightly sour kick and stiff egg whites give them a beautiful airiness.
- 1/3 of a cake of fresh yeast (.67 oz, or 1 whole ¼ oz packet of active dry)
- ½ cup warm water (no hotter than 110 degrees
- 1 cup AP flour
- rounded 1/2 teaspoon salt
- ½ cup buttermilk (full-fat if you can find it)
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted, plus extra for greasing pan
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 2 large eggs, whites and yolks separated
To pile on the blini I like chopped red onion, fresh dill, caviar, any smoked fish you prefer and crème fraiche (I like to make my own but you can buy it ready-made at most specialty grocers—I know that Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods both carry it. If you want a recipe let me know in the comments! Just know it takes 2-3 days to make)
Dissolve yeast in warm water, using clean fingers to make sure all of it is dissolved. Set aside for about 10 minutes (if you’re using dry yeast this is when it should get foamy, if you’re using fresh nothing will happen). Sift together flour and salt. In another bowl mix egg yolks, buttermilk, sugar, melted butter (make sure your butter isn’t hot or it will cook the yolks). Mix your yeast/water mixture into the egg/buttermilk mixture. Slowly pour the wet mixture into your sifted dry mixture and stir until smooth. Cover and place in a warm spot for an hour (a switched-off oven works). When you have about 10 minutes left, beat your egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold them into the batter gently. Melt butter in a medium skillet and using a small scoop for consistent sizing scoop batter into skillet. Fry until golden brown and top with creme fraiche, caviar (or smoked fish), dill, and chopped red onion. Lemon Souffles
Makes 6 (I used small ramekins and made 10)
Souffles are notoriously finicky and scare the bejeezus out of most home-cooks, but don’t be scared! My oven is the absolute worst and these souffles rose high and straight and proud (even though you can’t tell from the pictures–these suckers sink and flop faster than a camera can hope to capture). These souffles would be even better with sweeter, milder meyer lemons, which are in season November-January. It’s important with something this fragile to have all of your ingredients in place, so get everything together before you start and have it laid out in an organized way. Remember, don’t panic, the souffles can smell your fear.
- ½ cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
- fine zest from 2 lemons (about 2 tablespoons)
- Yolks from 8 large eggs, whites from 10
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 tablespoons butter, plus more (soft) for greasing ramekins
- 2 tablespoons AP flour
- ½ cup sugar (plus more for dishes)
- confectioner’s sugar for dusting
Butter your ramekins using room-temperature butter. If you have a pastry brush brush butter on in upward strokes (this will help the soufflés rise). If you don’t have a pastry brush just use your fingers. Coat the ramekins with sugar, turning them upside-down and gently tapping them to remove excess. Pre-heat your oven to 375 F. Put milk in a small saucepan over low heat. Whisk together egg yolks, flour and 2 Tablespoons of sugar (you want to get your milk heating before you do this so that it’s coming to a boil by the time all of these ingredients are mixed together—you never want to mix egg yolks and sugar too far in advance or they will “burn”). Once milk comes to a low boil slowly (slowly!) whisk it into the egg mixture, whisking constantly to prevent the eggs from cooking. Once it is tempered, return mixture to the saucepan and whisk vigorously over medium heat until the mixture is thick and pudding-like (about 3 minutes). Strain custard through a fine-mesh sieve and whisk in lemon juice and butter until smooth. Allow this mixture to cool and being whipping your egg whites. When the whites start getting foamy slowly begin adding your remaining sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. Make sure your custard is cooled and begin folding in your egg whites. Once they are all incorporated and the batter is smooth spoon it into greased ramekins. Smooth the top of the batter and run your thumb around the edge of the ramekin to get rid of any loose batter that could prevent the soufflés from rising. Bake for 16-18 minutes, or until risen and golden brown on top. Dust with powdered sugar and serve immediately (seriously, they fall in a matter of seconds).