It’s no surprise that a lot of reminiscing went on this past weekend while Anne Willan was in town. She was here, after all, to celebrate the release of her new memoir, One Soufflé at a Time: A Memoir of Food and France, so she’s heavy in memory-mode, going back to her early days in the wilds of Yorkshire, England. I spent about 2 1/2 of the most impactful years of my life at Anne’s La Varenne cooking school, initially as a stagiaire (a sort of work-study program), then working for the school — a bit as a program director one summer, a nice chunk of time working on many cookbooks with her, from about ten volumes of the Look & Cook series to the elegant Château Cuisine cookbook that drew recipes from chateaux scattered around France.
I’ve only made it through the first part of the book thus far, she’s just gotten rolling at Cambridge in the economics school. I know a bit about the high points of her career stepping-stones that are to come, but look forward to more of that story. It’s going to be fascinating to continue up to the time that I first met Anne at the end of that long dusty road leading to the small courtyard of Château du Feÿ on a warm August day in 1989. That chunk of her life forward will be more familiar, as I essentially called the chateau home for a few years and visited many times after a finished the program. Anne and her husband Mark Cherniavsky made us long-term live-in folks feel very much like family–down to sharing lunch and dinner on the “family” side of the chateau. The routines of the work day and school activities were punctuated by lively conversations around those tables, even more true when cool and interesting folks that passed through for visits.
I feel like I could almost write a memoir (granted, a short one) about my few years with La Varenne, just thinking about that time brings to mind so many stories. But I’ll show some restraint right now and stick to the subject at hand: cheese.
If you’re living life right in France, cheese is part of very day, if not making multiple daily appearances. Because we were, of course, living right at the chateau, there was always-always-always a tray of cheese on hand for lunches and dinners. And as it goes, when a piece of cheese gets down to the last nubby bit, it seems silly to set it back out on the tray for the next meal. So you’re left with a bunch of random cheese bits. And that always led to whipping up the most amazing variation of quiche that you’ll ever have: throw those bits in a pastry shell, add eggs/cream and bake. It will not be the same from one to the next, thanks to the delicious randomness of the mix at hand.
As part of Anne’s visit to Seattle last weekend, my husband and I had her and some other friends over for dinner. We’d been out for dinner the night before, at The Whale Wins — which was lovely and delicious and a delightful evening, no doubt. But by far my favorite way to convene with friends is over dinner at home. I love the cooking part, we’ve got a great house for entertaining, we can kick off our shoes, light a roaring fire, linger as long as we like without overstaying our restaurant welcome and without the distraction of the buzz and din of activity around us.
I chose to go super Northwesty with the menu, smoked salmon crostini, Dungeness crab-radish-Braeburn salad, halibut with hazelnut, lentils with chanterelles. But it was impossible to resist having cheese after dinner, à la française. Some from Mt. Townsend, Rogue Creamery blue, some Laura Chenel goat, I don’t recall what all exactly. Despite our best efforts, there was a motley mix of cheese bits left. Which inspired this cheese-bit quiche I made the next day that my husband and I devoured with delight.
I promise you, you can buy the very best of any one type of cheese to put in a quiche and it won’t ever taste as amazing as one that has 3, 4, 5, however many various types might be represented by whatever’s left on the cheese tray the next day. (Hint, this also proves true for macaroni and cheese, though in that case the melty-coating nature of the cheese has impact on final results so it pays to be sure you’ve got enough that melt well to do the job.)
Don’t have some random delicious cheeses lying around to use as leftovers?! Well, there’s a simple solution to that. You know what to do.
Cheese Bit Quiche
Because this is pure cheesy-eggy goodness, I didn’t make the quiche very deep–a little goes a long way. But if you want more volume to your version or you’re using a larger pan, you could surely up the eggs to 4 and the liquid to 1 cup with good results. Bake time might take a few minutes longer. I wasn’t patient enough to do a partial blind bake of the pastry shell this week, but it’s always best with a wet filling like this one, avoids a soggy bottom to the crust. Found a nice how-to here.
I leave soft “bloomy” rinds (like found on brie) on for this, but be sure to trim away wax, leaves or other less edible casings from the cheese before using.
5 to 6 ounces mixed bits of cheese, crumbled or finely chopped
3 large eggs
3/4 cup whole milk or half-and-half
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons minced chives (optional)
1 cup all-purpose flour (I use unbleached)
1/4 teaspoon kosher or flaky sea salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces and chilled
3 to 4 tablespoons chilled water
For the pastry, combine the flour and salt in a food processor and pulse once or twice to blend. Add the butter pieces and pulse until they are finely cut into the flour and the mixture has the texture of coarse sand. Drizzle in 1 tablespoon of the water at a time, pulsing a few times between additions. The dough should not come together in a ball in the machine (to get to that point would mean overworking the dough). Instead, take the lid from the machine and pinch some of the dough in your fingers; if it comes together in a supple, cohesive ball, you’re good to go. If still dry and crumbly, add a bit more water. Dump the contents onto the counter and quickly form a disc, wrap it in plastic and refrigerate for about 30 minutes (or up to a day).
Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to a circle about 11 inches in diameter. Use that dough to line a 9-inch removable base tart pan, pressing the dough well into the angled edge of the pan and trimming excess from the rim (lay excess dough over that pan rim and roll across the top of the pan with your rolling pin: presto, perfect trim job!)
Scatter the cheese across the base of the pastry. Beat the eggs in a medium bowl until well blended, then add the milk with a good pinch each of salt and pepper, stirring to blend. Pour this gently over the cheese to not disturb distribution too much, then sprinkle the chives over.
Bake until the quiche is set (it should not jiggle in the center when the pan is nudged, and a knife inserted will come out clean) and lightly browned on top, 20 to 25 minutes. Set aside to cool at least slightly, then carefully remove the outer rim of the tart pan. Cut into wedges and serve!
Makes 6 to 8 servings