Cucina Verite: Babette's Feast

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Babette: Sometimes a salad is more than just a salad
You don't get to the food until the end of Babette's Feast, the 1987 Danish movie based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, but it's worth waiting for the elaborate dinner scene that occupies the final third of the picture. I'd seen this movie years ago and long since forgotten how complex and touching it is. Two pious old ladies, daughters of the deceased town minister in a remote Danish village, hire a Frenchwoman who has escaped Paris during the Revolution to act as their maid and cook. Like most Parisians, Babette is a food snob (in a quiet way), modestly revolted by the stale-bread gruel the ladies teach her to cook. Babette has lost both son and husband in the Revolution; the pious old ladies have long since given up their dreams of a richer life -- one a budding singing career, the other a blooming love with an upper-class Swedish soldier. All of them, including the aged and now-much-decorated soldier who returns for the final dinner, make a kind of gracious peace with their losses -- the wistfulness is still there, coupled with the metaphysical recognition that on some level you always do live what you lose. And the whole party discovers new, mysterious pleasures in the feast Babette presents to them -- once the most celebrated chef in Paris, we learn, she cooks this meal as a way to finally lay her loved ones to rest; the preparation of the feast is a ritual of mourning, the consumption of this lavish dinner a metaphorical burial.

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Dinner as funeral dirge.
Among the delicacies we watch being carted in, prepared, and consumed: bottles of Veuve Cliquot, turtle soup, blinis Demidof with Russian caviar and creme fraiche, a precious, rare tossed salad (probably impossible to come by in that snowbound village), and a centerpiece of cailles en sarcophages (whole quails stuffed with foie gras and truffles and baked in little puff pastry "coffins" -- another reference to the real point of this feast). There's cake, cheeses, and a platter of global fruit to follow -- recalling a time when a pineapple or a papaya seemed as exotic to Europeans as orangutans and crocodiles.

Dinesen seems to have invented the title for Quails in Sarcophagai if not the exact dish, but it's certainly a rarity. I did stumble across one recipe that seems to be pretty close, and once you get those quails deboned and pay for the truffles and foie gras, it's surprisingly easy. In the movie, Babette reattaches the little bird heads with toothpicks before she bakes them -- add this step if you want to be truly authentic. There's also an entertaining page about how to re-create the whole feast here, although the author takes some inexcusable short cuts.

Hit the jump for the quails in coffins recipe.
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Stuffed Quail with Foie Gras & Black Truffle in Vol-au-Vent (Cailles en Sarcophages)
3 whole quail
Salt and pepper, to taste
6 oz. foie gras
3 oz. butter
15 shavings black truffle
1 pkg. (16 oz.) puff pastry
1 egg, beaten with water

1. Debone quail; remove heads. Cut through back and remove carcass, leaving leg bones attached. Butterfly quail by cutting through the back and laying flat, skin-side down. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

2. Divide truffle slices and foie gras in middle of each bird. Fold both sides of quail over; secure with a toothpick at each end. Refrigerate 15 min.

3. Meanwhile, cut three 4-in. circles from puff pastry; brush with egg and place on sheet pan. Cut three 1-in. rings from remaining pastry. Place a ring on top of each circle; brush with egg. Bake in 400°F oven 10 min. or until light golden.

4. Fill a deep pan with 1/2 in. oil; place over med. heat. Brown birds, skin-side down, in hot oil 1 min. Remove; chill 15 min. 5. For service, place quail in pastry shells and top with a pat of butter.

Bake 10 min.
Yield: 3 servings.

*The photo above is the result of another re-creation of this dish; see this alternate recipe at http://www.stella-nova.dk/treasury/?categori=24
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