Food: Nostalgia in the Kitchen
Experiencing retro dishes
Like fashion, food can be trendy and cyclical.
I was in a restaurant and a waiter sailed by me with a dessert in his hand that looked like something my mother made in the 1950s. For the life of me, it appeared to be Floating Islands, rich custards topped with mounds of whipped egg whites.
When my waiter came back with my check, I said, “I saw this dessert go by with little puffs on top.” “Oh, you mean Floating Islands,” he said, describing how everybody who saw it talked about their mothers making it. That is, those who were a little past middle age. No one else would have recognized it.
Let me tell you: There are few things in the world more delicious than Floating Islands. I came home and looked for my mother’s recipe and looked up the history. It is a French dessert consisting of meringue floating on crème anglaise, a vanilla custard. The meringues are sweetened and poached. The English loved the dish, too, and named it Floating Islands.
I now have my own version. It is a little trouble to make but worth it for a special occasion. I won’t make it often, but the next time I go to Chateau du Lac, I will not fail to order it.
This came only a few months after I discovered pimento cheese at the High Hat, a restaurant filled with nostalgia – especially for me, since I danced many nights at the Memphis High Hat, the namesake for our new local restaurant on Freret Street. Pimento cheese happened to be my lunch at least twice a week for my whole childhood and teenage life. I think this sandwich spread was the rage across the Deep South but didn’t compete in south Louisiana with seafood poor boys or boudin. I always make it for car trips, just as my mother did. I can even remember being on trains from Memphis to New Orleans with our little bag of pimento cheese sandwiches and stuffed eggs.
A dish that I know was popular here years ago has made a similar return. In my opinion, the croque monsieur is one of the most delicious sandwiches ever made. It can serve as a brunch or lunch entrée, or even a light supper. Paris cafés began serving the dish in the early 20th century, and now it can be found in some upscale cafes such as Lüke, the John Besh brasserie in the Central Business District.
But if you want to make it at home, a good time to try it is when you have leftover ham from a holiday. Otherwise, have a top-quality baked Virginia ham sliced a little thicker than usual in your grocery store deli. By the time you slather it in a creamy gruyere (or other Swiss) sauce, you’ll have a meal fit for a king. The word “croque” comes from the verb “croquer” or “to crunch.” So a croque monsieur roughly translates to “mister crunchy.” The feminine version, a “croque madame,” includes a fried egg on top. My recipe is one slightly changed from a version by Ina Garten of Television Food Network’s “Barefoot Contessa.”
6 eggs, 5 separated and 1 whole
1 quart milk
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup plus 1 Tablespoon flour
2 teaspoons vanilla, divided
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 cup sugar
Nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
Separate 5 eggs, placing the whites in an electric mixer and the yolks in a bowl. Whisk the egg yolks plus the whole egg together. Set aside.
In a double boiler, heat milk to hot but not boiling. Mix sugar and flour together, and stir gradually into milk. Add egg yolk mixture very slowly to milk mixture, stirring constantly. Cook custard over medium heat until thick, stirring constantly, about 10 minutes. When thickened, remove from heat and cool. When cool, stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla.
When custard is cooled and you’re ready to serve, heat a wide skillet nearly filled with water. Do not boil. Beat the 5 egg whites until foamy. Add cream of tartar and continue beating. Gradually add sugar and remaining vanilla and beat until stiff peaks form. Using a large spoon, scoop meringues and drop into simmering water. Cook for 2 minutes on one side. Turn and cook for 4 minutes on the other side. Lift out with slotted spoon and drain. Place on a plate until ready to serve.
When ready to serve, place custard in dessert bowls with an “island” on top of each one. Or, for self-serve, place all custard in a large bowl with islands scattered on top.
10 ounces extra-sharp good-quality cheddar cheese, at room temperature
6 Tablespoons good-quality mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons drained diced pimentos
Cut cheese into small cubes and cream in a food processor. Add mayonnaise and pulse until creamy. Stir in pimentos.
Serve at room temperature, spread liberally on soft bread slices.
Makes about 6 sandwiches
3 Tablespoons butter
3 Tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
5 cups grated Swiss cheese
12 ounces, preferably gruyere,divided
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
16 slices sandwich bread
8 ounces baked Virginia ham, sliced 1/4-inch thick
Preheat oven to 400 degrees
Melt butter over low heat in a small saucepan. Remove from heat, add flour and stir in until smooth. Slowly pour in the milk while stirring or whisking constantly until the sauce is thickened. Remove from heat and add salt, pepper, nutmeg, half the grated Swiss cheese and the Parmesan cheese.
Toast bread. Brush half of the slices with Dijon mustard, add ham and sprinkle with half the remaining Swiss cheese. Top each with another piece of bread and slather the tops with the cheese sauce. Sprinkle with remaining Swiss cheese. Place on a baking sheet and bake the sandwiches for 5 minutes. Turn on the broiler and broil for 3 to 5 minutes or until the topping is bubbly and light brown. Serve hot.
Serves 4 for large entrée or 8 for brunch or light supper.