Second instalment of the Social Distancing Dinner Party Series - a feast of comforting French style food. Call you friends and invite them to your virtual dinner party: cook this menu together; eat together and find some much needed joie de vivre.
I have a little red leather notebook sitting on my bookshelf, in amongst the cookbooks which contains all the menus that I have cooked for people over the years. I record the date, who came, and what I cooked for us, along with little notes like "first time mum and dad came for dinner" or "first dinner in our new house". This particular menu is one that I first cooked in October 2017 for a large family party - a surprise party to wish my parents bon voyage before they moved to France. It's a great menu for a crowd - but you'll have to make do with just cooking it for whoever you live with for now. It's simple, decadent as hell, and therefore feels terribly French.
The Joie de Vivre
A note on the menu: look, let's be quite clear - a baked Camembert definitely should not only serve two, but these are tough times! And cheese feeds the soul. So if you eat it all - nobody will judge you. The gratin is also too much for two people, however the leftovers, along with the leftover baked cheese, can be used to make my cheese and onion pie from my March blog post - recipe here. The beef casserole is on the generous side too because, frankly, that's the kind of cook that I am. You can freeze the leftovers and reheat them as is another day. Or you can top it with mash and turn it into a pie, or serve it as a rich ragu with pasta or creamy polenta.
This menu needs time: the pastry must set; the stew must simmer for several hours, but at the moment, we find ourselves fairly flush for time. Besides, the joy is in the process really.
A whole, round Camembert - ideally in a wooden box
Crusty bread* (you could also dip crudités such as radishes, carrot or celery sticks. Or you could use breadsticks)
Approx 600-800g stewing beef, diced (ox cheeks, stewing steak or shin are best)
3 rashers smoked streaky bacon
2 sticks celery
1 tray button/ chestnut mushrooms
Green veggies of your choice (kale, broccoli, green beans frozen peas... you decide!)
4 medium potatoes
1 pot cream
30g unsalted butter - cold.
5 apples* (or a mixture of apples and pears)
Check your store cupboard for:
Garlic (at least 2 cloves)
Rosemary or thyme
Stock (chicken or beef - fresh is better but cube will be fine)
1 bottle full bodied red wine
50g plain flour (plus a little extra for dusting and thickening the stew)
20g caster sugar
Brandy, calvados or dark rum
Tartlet tins - or you could use a yorkshire pudding tray or possibly a muffin tray
Baking paper and cling film
Make the Tarts
1) Make the pastry by weighing 50g plain flour and 30g unsalted butter (which is straight from the fridge) into a bowl. Rub the flour and butter together as if making a crumble topping until it resembles breadcrumbs.
2) Mix through 20g caster sugar before adding 1 tbsp cold water. Use your hand to bring the mix together into a dough. Wrap the pastry in cling film and pop it in the fridge for an hour.
3) Meanwhile prepare the filling. Peel and core 3 of the apples. Roughly chop them and throw them in a small saucepan over a low heat. Put the lid on and let them cook slowly for about ten minutes.
4) Core another apple, skin on this time. Slice it into thin segments. Pop it in a small bowl and cover with the juice of half a lemon and 1 teaspoon caster sugar. Set aside for later.
5) Once the apples on the hob have begun to soften, taste them to see how sweet they are - add a little caster sugar to your taste. Squeeze over the juice of the other half of the lemon and 3 tablespoons brandy/ spirit of your choice. Continue to cook over a low heat until you have a thick apple sauce that holds its shape. Turn of the heat and leave to cool.
6) Heat the oven to gas 4/180. Remove the pastry from the fridge and turn out onto a lightly floured work surface.
7) Roll from the centre up, from the centre down. Turn the pastry over and turn it 90 degrees. Repeat until the pastry is about as thick as a penny and you can just see the work surface beneath.
8) Grease your tartlet dishes well - don't scrimp on this. Tartlets are fiends for sticking.
9) Cut two circles from the pastry which are about 1cm larger then the tart dish. Lay the rounds carefully in the greased dishes and use a small lump of pastry to gently push the dough into the shape of the tin. Around the fluted edge, press a little more so that the metal just slightly starts to break through the pastry - this will help when you come to trim them later.
10) Use a fork to pierce the base of the tartlets before lining with baking paper and baking beads.
11) Place them on a tray and cook for about 12 minutes. After 12 minutes the pastry should look baked and should feel firm to the touch. Remove the baking beads and paper and return to the oven for a further 15 minutes until they are golden and crisp. Use a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler to trim off the excess pastry when they are cooled enough to handle. You may be able to simply snap the trim off using the fluted edge. Eat the trim (or put in the bin if you're that kind of person).
12) Set everything aside to cool and clean up. The tarts will be assembled and baked before service.
Prepare the stew
13) Turn the oven to gas mark 2/ 160c. Finely dice the carrots, celery and onion. Halve or quarter the mushrooms. Slice the bacon into lardons. Take your time chopping each thing - enjoy the process.
14) Heat a tablespoon olive oil in a casserole dish over a medium-high heat then fry the bacon until it is sizzlingly crisp and browned and delicious. Remove the bacon from the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving the fat behind.
15) Now fry off the mushrooms in the same pan, adding a little more olive oil if necessary. Once they are browned, remove them from the pan and set aside.
16) Use a piece of kitchen paper to dry off the beef. In the same pan as before, carefully brown the meat. Don't over crowd the pan; you may have to do this in batches. Make sure it's really got a good dark brown seal on every side. Once you're happy with it, remove from the pan.
17) Turn down the heat and add the diced onion, celery and carrot. Sweat them down slowly with a little salt, using a wooden spoon to lift all the browned meat flavour nuggets from the bottom of the pan. This will take about ten minutes - stirring regularly to avoid too much colouring.
18) Increase the heat again and add one heaped table spoon plain flour to the vegetable base, mix it in thoroughly. Add the beef and bacon back to the pan, along with a bay leaf and a sprig of thyme then pour over about 500ml of the red wine, allowing it to bubble vigorously, scraping the bottom of the pan to remove any flour and flavour that's lurking there.
19) Top off with about 300ml stock - or just enough to cover the meat comfortably.
20) Pop the lid on and place it in the oven to cook slowly for about three hours. Check the casserole every 40 minutes or so, giving it a little stir and checking the tenderness of the meat by plunging a fork in it. It's done when the fork glides through easily and the meat falls apart.
21) Clean up, pop the mushrooms and shallots in the fridge for later and pop a cork in the wine to drink with dinner. Or pour yourself a glass now... it's what the French would do.
And the sides
22) Wash the potatoes to remove any mud. Take a large, sharp knife and slice the potatoes as thinly as you can - aiming for about the thickness of a 50p piece. It's best to get into a rhythm, slow and steady, to achieve even results. If you're worried about the potato slipping, take a slither off the longest side to create a flat edge. This should help it hold still. Or, if you have one, you can use the slicing attachment on a food processor.
23) Arrange the potatoes in nice rows in an oven proof dish. Or if you're using a round baking dish, concentric circles.
24) Pour the 200ml stock and 100ml cream over your potatoes. The liquid should come up about half way. Season and scatter with the herb of your choice. Crush the cloves of garlic with the flat of your knife and add them to the medley.
25) Cover the tray with foil and set aside until you are ready to serve you meal.
and place into the oven for about 30 minutes, until the potatoes are just soft.
26) When the potatoes almost cooked, turn the oven up slightly to gas 6/ 200c and cook for a further 15 minutes, until you have a lovely crispy, golden topping. By this point most of the liquid will have evaporated, but the bottom half of your potatoes will still be creamy and soft.
27)Wash and prepare your green veggies so that they are ready to steam or boil.
And the starter...
28) Take the cheese out of the fridge and unwrap it. Discard the plastic and return it to its box.
29) Core and slice the remaining apple, laying it in a concentric circle over the cheese. Crush a clove of garlic using the flat of the knife and pop it in the centre. Drizzle with honey, a grind of pepper and a smattering of rosemary or thyme leaves and it's ready.
Service - 30 mins before you want to eat
30) Remove the casserole from the oven when the meat is meltingly tender. If the sauce is a little thin looking, you may need to reduce the sauce. To do this, remove the meat and set aside then bring the sauce to the boil on the hob. Turn it down and allow it to simmer until it's reduced to your desired consistency. Crank up the oven to gas 4/180.
31) Place the foil covered potatoes in the oven on the bottom shelf. Place your apple and garlic adorned camembert on a tray and pop it on the top shelf. Set your timer for 20 minutes.
32) Meanwhile, get the water on for you veg and check on the sauce. If it's ready, add the pre-cooked mushrooms and the meat back to the sauce, check the seasoning and pop the lid back on, leaving it on low to just tick away happily. Slice your bread or plate up your veggies for dipping. Pour yourself the rest of that wine!
32) After 20 minutes, remove the cheese from the oven - it should be oozing and soft. Turn the oven up to gas 6/200 and remove the foil from the potatoes- set a timer for 15 minutes. Devour too much camembert.
33) After 15 minutes, removed the potatoes from the oven - they should have a lovely crispy, golden topping. By this point most of the liquid will have evaporated, but the bottom half of your potatoes will still be creamy and soft. Pop your greens into our already boiling water.
34) Serve the gratin and the beef bourguignon straight to the table and allow everyone to help themselves. Serve up the fresh greens with a little nubbin of butter and some salt. Turn down the oven again to gas 4 /180.
35) When you're ready for dessert, fill your pre-baked tart cases with the apply sauce, packing them as tightly as you can but being very delicate with the pastry. Top them with the apple slices, fanning them out in a pretty way.
36) Bake for 15 minutes until the apples are lightly browned on the top. Serve warm from the oven with the rest of the double cream.