I haven’t mentioned memoirs on Bakepedia before, but after reading Anne Willan’s One Soufflé at a TimeI knew that would change. The book opens with a list of items she has smuggled in her suitcase over the years. The fact that she brought “trunks of American flour to France for testing recipes” immediately resonated with me. I had met Anne years ago at various IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) events but had never had the pleasure of a one-on-one chat. Anne took some time via phone to talk about how pastry chefs and cooks differ, how an apple is not always an apple and introduced me to Yule bread.
Dédé Wilson: Anne, thank you so much for taking the time to chat. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know you through your book!
Anne Willan: One Soufflé At a Time?
Oh yes, I should have clarified (she has published over three dozen books)…
Oh no problem…,
With Bakepedia being focused on desserts and baking, I made Marc Meneau’s Apple Gâteau. I had seen recipes similar to it over the years and they fascinated me. It is such a great example of how simple a recipe can be – there are so few ingredients – and yet the result is just pure apple essence!
Oh very good…it is fascinating isn’t it? I ate it at his restaurant and asked him how to make it and of course he didn’t have a recipe. I had to try it out…very few do, like you…you have to be a bit crackers to make it with all the slicing and intense preparation and of course a lot depends on the choice of apples. How did it work for you?
Quite well! I made it a few times actually. I used a mandoline – I think it is the only way for this recipe – so that part was fairly simple. And then I assumed, correctly I think, that I was just going to worry about the initial apple slices and how they were laid down in the mold. I figured that after cooking down that the slices in the middle wouldn’t really matter whether they were perfect single layers or not…and they were fine. The whole thing cooks down and compresses and caramelizes into such a luscious creation.
And indeed the end results are significantly different depending on the choice of apple…
This is a great segue because I was interested in your suggestion to use Granny Smith or McIntosh. They are so different that I couldn’t image them both working. It really works with the Granny Smith?
Oh yes, it does! And then it has that lovely tart flavor…
And they cook down enough that they soften?
Yes and it doesn’t fall apart. It is nice and tart.
The process of the long and slow baking does concentrate the sweetness…I am lucky since I am in new England I have a wide selection of apples…
What’s interesting with apples this year is that we make fresh apple juice each week with, oh what do you call it, an electric crushing machine and the new season apples are very dry, so we get a significantly smaller yield of juice…they would probably be very good for the apple cake because it would be very concentrated already.
Twenty years ago I was in VA, which is great apple country, and I was demonstrating a tart Tatin with apples that had just been harvested and it was absolutely impossible! It was very embarrassing – I was doing the demonstration – and the apples were so juicy that no matter what kind I tried they turned to mush.
It is an agricultural product. People forget the variables…
You have taught here in the U.S., at La Varenne in France and all over the world…what commonality do you see in your pastry students? And conversely is there a common approach that you have taught them? Techniques to impart no matter where you go?
It is not so much imparting techniques. It is about what is their innate character. Typically you are a cuisine cook or you are a pastry cook. Of course there are exceptions throughout history such as Câreme…but I would often amuse myself as I introduced the curriculum to students by saying now those of you who enjoy baking…you will be perfectionists and precise…you love getting things exactly right and when you are making cakes or cookies you are eager to get each one exactly the same…whereas with cuisine chefs – and I am one of them – you might say the steak is a bit tough today, so I will add a bit of this or that or perhaps it is tomato season and I will decide to go in that direction…the ability to improvise and the thought process are different…I will say right now that you will divide into two halves!
Do you enjoy teaching baking and dessert?
Yes, but I am only good at certain ones…I enjoy bread baking because it is about getting into it with your hands. It is so elemental and you have the lovely smell of yeast. In fact tomorrow we are having an assault on Yule bread. We have interns and friends and neighbors and we will make Yule bread and have the loaves to take around for the holidays.
Now of course I am familiar with Buche de Noel (Yule log), but what is Yule bread?
Ahhh, I can tell you it is a yeast bread with spice in it…always candied orange peel and raisins…it is just one of those perfect combinations…you know how sometimes you come across a recipe that is just so perfect and you must not touch them! They are just right. Oh now it is sounding like I am precise (she laughs lightly). It is my Auntie’s recipe and it signals the festivities of the holidays.
It sounds lovely. Will you share the recipe?
Yes, we will send it along.
Getting back to the Apple Gateau, I have to say that while I enjoyed making it – and eating it – that it was a bit frustrating to photograph. I do not think I captured its true beauty. In fact when I looked at some images – these were digital of course uploaded to the computer – it looked quite like salmon! Like gravlax or something!
When cooked slowly it does concentrate in color and can take on that rosy hue of quince…
And then it looks like salmon.
Well, it tastes like apples – pure and simple all the way through. I love it. I made it a few times. I served it with the caramel sauce once, a bit of crème fraiche another time and the third time I was out of everything and had it with a dollop of Greek yogurt and ate it for breakfast. I made it in a soufflé dish and also made it in a loaf pan…
Oh, the yogurt is such a good idea. Especially with the tart apples it can have a savory quality to it.
It was my way to have my dessert for breakfast and feel virtuous.
Oh that would be nice…an ideal breakfast.
Tell us what are you focusing on now.
I have just finished and corrected the final manuscript for my next little book, which is 50 recipes, and is the first published copy of La Varenne basic recipes…which every student was given…it has never gone to print…
What is it called?
Secrets of the La Varenne Kitchen and it is being published by a small publishing house, Springhouse Press, and they have been absolutely wonderful. It is a very elegant design, two colors on each page including a deep burgundy red, which I am wearing right now. And it has illustrations from Jules Gouffe’s Le Vivre de Cuisine published in 1867. When you see them you will recognize them. They have been reproduced all over the place…charming engravings of saucepans and knives and strainers and cake pans, lots of cake pans and lots of things you use in the kitchen…
For the book, which desserts are key?
There are all the basics, so you have pie pastry, sweet pastry – pate sucrée – puff and choux…this was the collection of recipes given to every La Varenne student and no student could be without it. I have talked to former students and trainees and all of them have kept it because there are those moments where you think, damn I can’t quite remember all the ingredients for a 5 egg quantity of choux…it is really a useful little book. All of the recipes go back to the 19th century and some back to the 16th century, perhaps the 15th…you just can’t do without them…génoise, brioche, biscuit, crepes, Chantilly cream, the 3 kinds of meringue, 3 kinds fondant glaze, royal icing…and sugar boiling…and basic ice creams and poached fruit…and how to make crème fraiche. Now you can purchase it easily, but that certainly wasn’t the case 40 years ago (when these were first written).
Anne, thank you so much for your time and we look forward to the new book (to be released march 2015). We wish you the best with it.
Thank you, Dédé, it’s been a pleasure…just a lovely chat.