Altrincham’s answer to Babette’s feast

March 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

The newly formed Altrincham Film Club chose the classic 1980’s Danish film “Babette’s Feast” for its March screening. The film is a loving adaptation, in almost BBC costume drama style, of the Karen Blixen novella which describes the effect of the arrival of refugee French chef Babette on the lives of the inhabitants of a remote and puritanical and village on the coast of Jutland. The story culminates in the preparation and serving of a stupendous French dinner which changes the lives of those lucky enough to share it.

The description of the meal and accompanying wines in the book is in fact a little sketchy with only these dishes and wines named specifically:

Turtle soup (Amontillado sherry)

Blinis Demidoff (Champagne Veuve Clicquot 1860)

Cailles en Sarcophage – Quails in coffins (Clos Vougeot 1846)

Grapes, peaches, fresh figs

The film necessarily fleshes out the meal with a salad course of chicory, frisée and walnuts, a plate of delicious cheeses, and its crowning glory, an immense glazed savarin liberally dosed with rum and finished in the Fanny Craddock manner with whole glacé fruits and whipped cream.

The Altrincham Film Club Committee decided they couldn’t let the opportunity of a food film go by without serving some film-themed snacks before and during the screening. Volunteers to bring cheese, pineapple, bruschette and blinis and so on soon came forward. Then my friend Gwyneth, baker extraordinaire (have a look at to see what I mean), approached me with the idea of collaborating on producing some sweet nothings to complement the savoury nibbles already on offer.

Thus the idea for the Babette’ Feast “bento box” was born, to contain an individual savarin modelled on the one in the film, a pot of Chantilly cream to accompany it and a final tiny pot containing a macedoine of black and white grapes, a passing reference to the immense platter of fruit served in the film. All this would be presented in a crisp white cardboard box with wooden cutlery, a nod to Scandinavian style and all fully disposable and biodegradable.

Here’s one of the completed mini-savarins sitting in its foil case which is happily durable enough to stand up to all that lovely rum-infused syrup:

The box I photographed below doesn’t look quite as pristine as the ones we actually served as I forgot to take a picture until I brought my own box back home again after the film, so it’s had quite a journey dislodging one or two of the carefully placed fruits!

And of course, we didn’t just have a handful of boxes to prepare but in order to cater for the AFC audience we needed a whole fifty of them which just about filled my dining room table:

The whole bento box production exercise took the best part of three days.

On day 1, a savarin recipe was developed and all the necessary ingredients ordered online. Hardest to track down was proper glacé fruit (not just common or garden glacé cherries but plums, figs, apricots, peaches and so on in the French manner) but a lovely deli in Wellington, Somerset up trumps and was able to despatch a shipment in time. The flour, butter and eggs were all organic, the sugar all unrefined and fairtrade, the rum not Bacardi but finest Angostura from Trinidad and the vanilla the best available from Madagascar. This was going to be a baking project truly in the spirit of “Babette’s Feast”.

The next step was developing the right recipe. I began with Julia Child’s baba/savarin recipe (the two doughs are interchangeable, just the shape being different) from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. This produced quite a stiff dough, easy to shape:

but the resulting buns were dense with a tight crumb that become a tad slimy when soaked in the syrup. We needed a wetter, stretchier dough that would bake to open-textured puffy perfection and would soak up and retain the syrup.

Over to baking guru Dan Lepard who gives a rum baba recipe in his recently published “Short and Sweet” book. I haven’t bought the book yet so had to rely on a republished version of the recipe given on the website of the Melbourne newspaper “The Age”. This was much better, a very wet dough that was hard to handle but produced a brilliantly light stretchy dough. I wasn’t happy with certain aspects of the recipe though – there was too much salt and too much yeast in it for my taste.

The third and final recipe is a conflation of the best bits of all the recipes I looked through and is the one we ultimately ran with. I give it in full below. Whilst I love the aroma of good rum, I don’t like too strong a taste of raw alcohol in a cake or dessert. In flavouring the savarins with vanilla, golden caster sugar and lemon zest and their syrup with unrefined sugar, citrus peel, more vanilla and cinnamon I’ve tried to incorporate the rum flavours without adding very much rum at all. Each savarin is anointed with just a teaspoon of rum to point up these flavours. Much less wasteful than pouring half a pint of rum into the syrup and then having to throw lots of it away.

Day 2 was devoted to baking the savarins in three double batches. Fermentation was long and slow so each batch took 5 hours start to finish so although the workload wasn’t huge, this was a lengthy task. The dough started with making a “sponge”. a wet dough used to get fermentation going and add flavour to the finished product:

Once the remaining flour, butter and eggs had been added, the completed dough looked like this as it began its first proving proper:

After proving and knocking-back, the very soft dough has to be poked and coaxed into the dinky mini savarin tins:

I picked up this mini savarin tin in Zurich earlier this year and am delighted to have been able to put it through its paces. Large individual kugelhopf/savarin/bundt moulds are beginning to appear in the UK but I haven’t been able to find a similar mini moulds over here yet.

This is what the risen buns looked like just before baking – they increase in size dramatically creating all those lovely air pockets:

And this is the end result after baking:

And of course, every batch requires quality control to make sure taste and texture are just right. Very pleased with the open texture of the dough here:

And finally, we’re on to day 3, the day of the screening itself and the major task of completing the savarins and assembling the bento boxes. The first job was the preparation of the black and white grape macedoine. Black and white grapes were halved and macerated in a light syrup of Sicilian blood orange juice, freshly grated lemon zest and just a little unrefined sugar. These were then left in the fridge for the flavours to mingle.

It was a great relief when Gywneth arrived mid-morning and immediately and calmly took charge of the rum application, glazing and decoration of the savarins while I syruped and dunked and drained. Six man hours later, we’d produced 50 bento boxes arranged in serried ranks across the dining room table and my generously proportioned fridge was filled with 50 mini cartons of grape macedoine and Chantilly cream.

Final thanks must go to my long-suffering husband Tim who barely raised an eyebrow at this 3 day baking marathon and who patiently transported the boxes to the cinema in the boot of our car, and wasn’t even able to stay and watch the film!

The boxes were handed out to the Altrincham Film Club audience right on cue with no spillages – job done – and we even managed to remember bin bags to clear up afterwards. Job done!

Anyone fancy La Grande Bouffe for April’s screening…?

Recipe for individual rum savarins

Makes 24 savarins. This is the smallest quantity of mixture which it is feasible to make in my Kenwood mixer, so if you just want 12 savarins, halve the quantities and mix by hand with a wooden spoon and dough scraper.


For the savarins

250 ml milk
12g fast action dried yeast
450g strong plain flour – use 150g for the initial sponge and add 300g to complete the dough
4g vanilla powder
25g golden caster sugar
5g salt
150g softened unsalted butter
4 medium eggs
grated zest of a lemon (scant – the flavour of the lemon is quite strong so don’t be too thorough with the grating)

For the syrup

500g demerara sugar
500g granulated white sugar
1.1 litre water
2 vanilla pods
6 strips lemon peel and 6 strips orange peel pared without pith using a vegetable peeler
juice of a lemon

To serve

1 teaspoon dark rum per savarin (I like Angostura)
Apricot glaze
Selection of glacé fruit (optional)
Chantilly cream (I like a mixture of cream and fromage frais for lightness).

Begin by weighing your mixing bowl so that you can accurately divide the completed dough by weight later on in the recipe. Note the weight down. My Kenwood bowl weighs 1,029g for future reference.

The recipe proper begins by making an initial wet dough, the sponge. Put 150g of the flour, the milk and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together by hand using a balloon whisk until thoroughly combined and scrape down the sides of the bowl using a dough scraper. Leave the mixture at room temperature until it starts to bubble up. This might take 45 minutes or so, maybe longer.

While the sponge begins to ferment, break the eggs into a small bowl; mash the butter using a fork to make sure its very soft and malleable; sift together the flour, salt, sugar and vanilla powder and stir into it the grated lemon zest.

Now complete the dough. Add the flour mixture alternately with the eggs to the bowl in three or four batches. Mix the dough after each addition using the dough hook on a low to medium speed. Scrape the sides of the bowl using a plastic scraper frequently while you do this. Once all the flour and eggs are incorporated, turn the speed up to medium and let the dough hook do its work for 2 minutes.

Next, incorporate the softened butter into the mixture. Make sure the butter is really soft before attempting this. Add a spoonful or so of butter to the bowl and mix at a low speed until incorporated. Keep going until all the butter is added, scraping the butter plate clean with your dough scraper to make sure every last bit ends up in the dough and not on your dishes. Turn the speed up to medium and work the dough for 2 minutes. The resultant dough will not resemble bread dough but will be very soft and stretchy like an elastic cake mix. This is absolutely fine, do not under any circumstances be tempted to add more flour.

If, like me, you have only one tray of mini savarin tins, you will need to retard the proving of one half of the dough. Weigh your mixing bowl, subtract the weight of the bowl which you noted down previously and remove half the dough to a separate bowl. Scrape it into a neatish mound, cover with a plate or cling film and refrigerate.

Do the same with your original bowl, but leave this one out at room temperature to prove. Leave it until the dough has begun to swell visibly and if you poke it you can see lots of spongy bubbles in the mix. It won’t necessarily have doubled in size.

While the dough proves, make the syrup. Put all the syrup ingredients into a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Boil the syrup vigorously for 3 minutes then switch off and leave all the flavours to infuse.

One the dough has proved, knock it back by beating it vigorously with a wooden spoon for 10 to 20 seconds. Now for the fiddly bit which is filling the savarin moulds. Make sure your moulds are well greased. I like to use Dr Oetker baking spray to do this quickly and conveniently.

Half fill each individual mould using about a tablespoon of mixture. Using a teaspoon and/or your fingers, gently tease the very soft dough into the mould and around the central metal spindle. Make sure the quantity of dough in each mould is approximately equal. This is very fiddly.

Cove the savarin tins with a big upturned roasting tin or similar and leave to prove a second time until the dough has risen to fill the moulds completely and puff up a bit more. This takes about an hour, maybe less. Make sure you catch the dough on the up rather than leaving it too long in which case it will collapse.

Put the tray of savarins into the centre of an oven preheated to 190 degrees C (fan). Chuck a small coffeecup of water onto the oven base to create steam and shut the door quickly. After exactly 10 minutes, turn the temperature down to 170 degrees C, rotate the tray of buns so they bake evenly, and bake for a further 10 minutes. They should have a good golden brown colour and be just shrinking away from the edges of the tin. Remove from the oven and turn out onto a wire rack to cool.

Once the savarins have cooled to a warm temperature, they are ready for dunking in the syrup. Drop them into the pan of warm syrup and gently push them under. Leave them in the syrup for about 7 minutes to absorb all that lovely sugar, basting frequently. Remove from the syrup bath, invert them and leave them to drain for about 15 minutes on a rack set over a roasting tin to drain. Try and do the dunking with the savarins facing down and the draining with them facing up to ensure even syrup distribution.

This is a long recipe, but we’re nearly there now. All that’s left to do is to drizzle a teaspoon of rum carefully over each savarin, brush with apricot glaze and if you like, decorate with diamonds of glacé fruit. Serve with a dollop of softly whipped Chantilly cream.

Julie and Julia review

October 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

I finally made it to our local cinema to see  “Julie & Julia” along with my son George, aged 13.  This was the first day of his half-term holidays and I am pleased that he chose to indulge me and see a film about cookery rather the latest Transformers movie or whatever.

This turned out to be a private screening just for us as we were the only people in the cinema at this Monday afternoon matinée.  Well, it has been out for a while and I imagine most good cooks would be busy preparing the evening meal..

We both had a really enjoyable afternoon – George, who is interested in cooking and even more so in eating, pronounced it “good” – high praise from him!  In my case, this was preaching to the converted – after all I am trying to become a blogger myself, and the book which is central to the film plotline “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” has long been a favourite on my kitchen shelf.

Until recently, the three authors of this book, listed in alphabetical order as Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child, had no more significance to me than as practically anonymous writers of a technical manual, albeit a useful and readable one.  I began to have an inkling that Julia Child must have a reputation as a celebrity cook in her native United States when chatting to my good friend Matthew who now lives in San Francisco.  He dropped her name into conversation as being a well-known cook and given that his signature dish is baked beans with cheese, I concluded that she really must be a household name over there.

I imagine that many British people watching this film must have been rather bemused by the larger than life figure who is Julia Child.  By all accounts, Meryl Streep’s portrayal of her is uncannily accurate but this aspect of the film is lost on us Brits.  It doesn’t matter as the film stills works on many levels.

Following the life-story of Julia and her husband Paul through Paris in the 1950s and discovering the genesis of the book was like a marvellous fairy story.  I was left with a deep admiration for her as a person, for her generosity of spirit and determination.  The cookery book has now taken on an extra dimension for me and I can now sense the character of the women who wrote it beneath the specifics of the recipes.

I very much liked the way the stories of Julia Child and blogger Julie Powell were intertwined.  I’ve always liked novels constructed in this way – The French Lieutenant’s Woman for instance (and by coincidence Meryl Streep took the leading role in the film adaptation of the novel).  For me, the story of the very much lesser character Julie merely served to show Julia Child’s achievements over a lifetime in sharp relief.

I disliked the Julie Powell character right from the start.  Whether this is a fair reflection on Julie or whether it results from actress Amy Adams’ portrayal of her I can’t say.  I began to have misgivings about her when early on in the film it is revealed that at the age of 30 she had never eaten let alone cooked an egg before.  Hmmm maybe this woman is a fraud or a faddy eater or maybe even both…and when the potentially agonising moment comes as Julie learns Julia’s reaction to her blog and tearfully tells her husband “She hates me!” I found myself cheering inwardly.  I’m not entirely sure this is the reaction director Nora Ephron intended.

A word on the two supporting actors, the husbands of each of the two women.  Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of patient, charming and debonair Paul Child was delightful whereas Eric Powell played by Chris Messina came across as a graceless slob.

I did feel the warm flush of familiarity as I watched Julie cook the recipes for boeuf bourgignon, boned duck and of course lobster Thermidor.  Watching her struggle with a live lobster much as I had done myself a month before (see my August 2009 posts Lobster Saga I and II) I was left thinking -Blimey I wish I’d had Julie Powell’s idea before she did.

Finally, I was amused by the unconscious irony of screening a Flora advert before this film which has the goodness of butter as one of its central metaphors.

An enjoyable afternoon and a film I’d recommend for teenage boys in touch with their feminine side (hope that’s OK George!).

Here’s a link to the film website:

And here’s an extract fromJulie Powell’s blog.  I have to say her prose, riddled with expletives, is not a patch on Julia’s lively and well considered writing:

Review of Jamie’s American Road Trip Channel 4 TV series

October 7, 2009 § Leave a comment

Watched the final programme  in “Jamie’s American Road Trip” last night.  He kicked off in Los Angeles for the first programme in the series on 1 September and concluded 6 weeks later on a Navajo reservation in Arizona.  There’s a whole host of food programmes on the television at the moment – too many to contemplate watching all of them – I’d rather be cooking than slumped on the sofa! But I picked this series to watch because I’ve developed a healthy respect for American cooking since picking up David Rosengarten’s fantastic book “It’s All American Food”.  Previously, I’d assumed American food was all peanut butter and jelly, McDonald’s and Taco Bell.  How wrong can you be.  I’d gone in search of a recipe for “Real Southern Cornbread” to serve with a Tex Mex chilli for a party – David Rosengarten came up with recipes that worked brilliantly for both in this comprehensive book.  It has no photos  but the recipes are detailed and they work and the seductive text draws you in and before you know it you’ve journeyed across America from Southern Breakfast Biscuits with Sausage Cream Gravy to Malasadas (Portuguese-Hawaiian Doughnuts) taking in Pho (Vietnamese Beef Soup with Herbs) and Extra-Crispy Potato Latkes along the way.

There is a similar ambition behind Jamie’s American Road Trip I think – an attempt to debunk the myth that American food means junk fund, and to show the diversity of American food brought about by a melding of different immigrant cuisines with that of the indigenous peoples.

The series succeeded up to a point but was a slightly odd mix of travelogue, anthropological study and cookery demo – think Alan Whicker meets meets Desmond Morris meets Fanny Craddock.  I must say I found some of the faux inpromptu meetings a little improbable – Jamie receives a supposed off-the cuff invitation to a Mexican family party in Los Angeles (programme 1/6).  “That’s Family..!” chunters Jamie for all the world like an extra from East Enders.

And that underground restaurant evening he threw in his New York apartment (programme 3/6).  We were led to believe that these were just a few random punters who’d found Jamie’s word-of-mouth invite on the internet.  But the crowd who turned up were a group of sleek, self-satisfied incredibly beautiful and well-groomed group of New Yorkers – straight out of central casting I don’t doubt.

Also the closing credits each week listed the cast of thousands supporting Jamie on this apparently solo trip.  In particular, there were several food stylists – what on earth is a food stylist and how have I managed without one for so long?  So, the picture of a lone traveller in a car was a fiction, but I enjoyed the series anyway.  Jamie’s heart is in the right place and his tastebuds are sound.

But if you are really interested in buying a book that gives an insight into American Food, don’t buy Jamie’s glossy coffee table but get hold of a copy of David Rosengarten’s instead.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the TV and film reviews category at The Rhubarb Fool.