The Food Almanac: Wednesday, January 8, 2014

It's National Vol-Au-Vent Day!

The name vol-au-vent translates “fly on the wind,” which suggests the ideal lightness of these puff pastry cups.

Today’s Flavor
Today is National Vol-Au-Vent Day. Or, to translate into Creole, Pattie Shell Day. Made in sizes from that of a thimble to that of a coffee mug, vol-au-vents are made of two layers of puff pastry cut into circles. The top layer has a hole cut in the center. When stacked and then baked, they become cups to contain concoctions that typically run to the rich and saucy. The name translates “fly on the wind,” which suggests the ideal lightness of these puff pastry cups.

Unlike the smaller patty shells, vol-au-vents are usually made with a cap of pastry to cover the contents to keep them from cooling. The cap is always tilted off center, so the contents inside the vol-au-vent can be seen. Larousse Gastronomique says that vol-au-vents were invented and named by Marie-Antoine Careme, famous French chef and author of the nineteenth century.

In New Orleans, vol-au-vents are most often made into a dish called oyster patties–little vol-au-vents filled with oysters in thick sauce, baked a little more to make them crusty. Nine out of ten of these are terrible, usually because the the sauce is too thick. In the hands of a skillful chef, however, vol-au-vents can be fantastic. The best I ever had was a sweetbreads and mushroom dish made by Chef Denis Rety at the short-lived but brilliant Le Chateau in Gretna. The vol-au-vent was about five inches across and three inches deep, and was delicious enough to compete with the goodness of the creamy sauce and rich sweetbreads. You’d never know it was a close cousin to the gross little oyster patties forced upon you at wedding receptions.

The Old Kitchen Sage Sez:
If you have a delicious dish whose consistency registers as glop to some diners, and if it doesn’t seem right to serve over rice or pasta, bake it in a vol-au-vent. Everyone will find it very fancy.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Steakman Branch is a little mountain creek in the forested, coal-mining westernmost finger of the state, 159 miles west of Roanoke. It’s the kind of isolated countryside where one might well encounter a guy making moonshine behind his cabin. The branch pours into streams that wind up at the Clinch River, a major tributary of the Tennessee River. “Branch water” is supposed to be the best thing to mix with Kentucky bourbon, because it’s clean and clear. This one just might be. The nearest restaurant is six miles east in Raven: Ralph’s Country Club.

Edible Dictionary
cap bread, n.–A unique loaf of bread in the light, thin-crusted style of New Orleans French bread. It’s shaped like a pillow, about six inches long, four inches wide, and two inches thick. A narrow appendage coming off one of the ends wraps back on top. It makes the loaf look like a gigantic chrysalis. Cap bread was a tradition for a number of older restaurants, notably Tujague’s, Arnaud’s, and the Peppermill, but it did not come back strong after the hurricane. Originally, cap bread was much larger (it was usually served as a half-loaf, and then sliced). It also had a coarser texture and a much darker crust.

Annals Of Candy 
Walter E. Diemer, the inventor of bubble gum, was born today in 1905. (He also died on this date, in 1998.) Diemer was working for the Fleer Chewing Gum Company as a bookkeeper, but his interest in the product was fervent enough that he often fooled around in the test kitchen. He made a five-pound sample of pink gum that was both softer and more stretchable than standard gum base. It was tested in a store in Philadelphia, and became an immediate hit. Diemer not only created the gum but the technique for blowing gum bubbles, which he had to teach to his salesmen. He said that the most amazing thing about his gum was not its popularity but the fact that most of it is still pink, as if that were part of its essence. Fleer still makes Dubble Bubble.

Food At Sea
Today in 2004, the RMS Queen Mary 2 was christened by Queen Elizabeth II, the granddaughter of Queen Mary. At the time, it was the largest cruise ship in the world, and hailed as the peak of luxury. The Eat Club took its first voyage on the QM2 in April, 2009, New York to London. We did not dine as well as we expected, but still found the ship the most luxurious in our experience.

Music To Eat Banana Sandwiches By
Today is Elvis Presley’s birthday, in 1935. About twenty years ago a line of wines bearing Elvis’s name and likeness appeared. “Was this Elvis’s favorite wine?” I asked the distributor. “Elvis didn’t drink wine,” he said. “But if he had, this is the wine he would have liked.”

The Saints
This is the feast day of Saint Erhard of Regensburg, who lived in Bavaria in the 600s. He is one of many patron saints of bakers.

Politics And Food
Tonight in 1992, the first President Bush, attending a state dinner in Tokyo, became nauseous and lost his lunch in the lap of the Japanese Prime Minister. The White House explanation was that Bush had stomach flu, a euphemism for food poisoning. Make up your own sushi joke.

Food Namesakes
Soupy Sales, a deliciously wacko comedian who was on TV a lot in the 1960s–frequently with a pie flying in the direction of someone’s face–was born today in 1926. . . Bill Graham, the leading impresario of rock music in San Francisco in the Summer of Love (1967), began his trip today in 1931.

Words To Eat By
“All knives and forks were working away at a rate that was quite alarming; very few words were spoken; and everybody seemed to eat his utmost, in self-defense, as if a famine were expected to set in before breakfast time tomorrow morning, and it had become high time to assert the first law of nature.”–Charles Dickens, referring to the way we eat in America.


Words To Drink By
“Americans may be drinking fewer alcoholic beverages, but they are certainly eating more of them than ever before. Wittingly or un.”–Marian Burros, food writer for the New York Times.