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COOKING

Chef to six French presidents spills secrets

The chef who has catered for the culinary needs of six French presidents over the last 40 years has finally hung up his apron. Bernard Vaussion, who retires on Thursday, has revealed a secrets or two about the tastes of the men he cooked for, including one president who had a penchant for calf's head.

Chef to six French presidents spills secrets
The chef to the presidents Bernard Vaussion hangs up his apron in Thursday but not before he reveals all about the men he cooked for. Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP

Nicolas Sarkozy abstained from cheese, Jacques Chirac liked calf's head and , while the present French President Francois Hollande is an unfussy eater partial to most things.

Bernard Vaussion has built up a comprehensive picture of the culinary tastes of six presidents during his 40 years in the Elysee Palace kitchen.

But ever discreet, the Elysee head chef who retires later on Thursday says their specific preferences are best not discussed in too much detail.

"One avoids disclosing the dishes that are particularly appreciated. Otherwise they find themselves eating the same dish everywhere they go," he said.

"This was the case for Mr Chirac with calf's head. I made it for him two or three times because he was given it everywhere," he said.

SEE ALSO: Twelve French delicacies Anglos can't stomach

Others Vaussion has catered for during his four decades at the French president's official residence include former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, US President George W. Bush, the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and Britain's Queen Elizabeth.

Vaussion, who has just turned 60, started as an assistant chef in 1974 following a three-year stint as a sous-chef at the British Embassy in Paris.

"I remember the apprehension of cooking for world leaders and our head of state," he said in an interview at his office at the Elysee.

"There is always a lot of pressure…. In a restaurant, if there is an error, the customer doesn't come back. Here it is me who would be asked to leave," he added.

Asked about changes over the years, Vaussion highlighted the effects of the current climate of economic austerity.

"We buy differently. Some luxury products have disappeared like truffles (and) crayfish," he said.

Vaussion will be succeeded as the head of the round-the-clock 20-strong Elysee team by his deputy, Guillaume Gomez, 35.

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COOKING

How to make France’s famed Île Flottante dessert

Île flottante, literally 'floating island', is a foaming meringue floating in crème anglaise (custard) sprinkled with caramel and pralines. It has a reputation for being a tricky recipe to master, so here's how you can do it at home.

How to make France's famed Île Flottante dessert
Photo: Paul Oatway

These step by step instructions, from France-based food blogger Laura Tobin, are easy to follow and should help you impress your friends with this tasty dessert.

Ingredients

For the Crème Anglaise (custard):
• 500 ml of milk
• 5 egg yolks (use 2 whites for the meringues; the remaining 3 can be stored in the freezer)
• 1 vanilla pod
• 65 grams sugar

For the Meringue:
• 2 egg whites (at room temperature)
• 115 grams of icing sugar
• Pinch of salt

For the caramel and topping:
• Sprinkle of praline
• 100 grams sugar
• 100 ml water

You will also need a small amount of butter or light vegetable oil for coating.

Method

1. To begin, start making the crème anglaise. Cut the vanilla pod in half and with a knife scrape out all the seeds. Warm up the milk and infuse the vanilla seeds and the pod in the milk for at least 30 minutes, then strain the milk to remove the vanilla pod and any other large pieces.

2. In a bowl whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until the mixture turns a lighter colour and starts bubbling.

3. The crème anglaise has to cook at low heat, otherwise it curdles. The best way to achieve this is to cook it au bain-marie: not on direct heat but inside a pan full of water. You can use any small pan inside a larger pan, but make sure the small pan does not touch the bottom of the large pan otherwise the heat will be too strong. Be patient, pour the warm milk into the egg mix, keep the water simmering and stir the custard with a wooden spoon until it thickens. This can take up to 15 minutes.

Make sure the water in the pan does not boil vigorously, but just simmers away. If the heat is too high and the custard curdles, remove the pan from the heat and either strain the custard or mix it with a blender.

4. Once the custard has thickened, let it cool down completely, which you can do by immersing the pan into cold water. You can also cook the custard the day before and let it cool in the fridge overnight.

Meringue:

Making the meringues is not difficult as long as you follow these key rules strictly:

  • The egg whites should be at room temperature
  • There should be no trace of egg yolk
  • Bowl and whisk should be completely clean
  • Add a pinch of salt to the egg white

5. Using an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites at high speed until they become stiff.

6. Add half of the icing sugar and continue to whisk.

7. Once the mixture becomes firm combine the remaining icing sugar.

8. Butter four small but deep ceramic (or microwave resistant) cups and pour the egg white mix in equal amounts. Make sure there is enough room left at the top of the cups as the meringue will rise while cooking.

9. Cook the meringues in the microwave at medium power (800 watts) for 2 min 30 sec. 

Caramel: 

  • For the caramel you need to follow these key rules strictly:
  • Never stir, touch or move the pan while the syrup is cooking otherwise it will crystallize, transforming back into sugar
  • Use a small but heavy and even pan. The heat should distribute evenly as you cannot stir the syrup
  • Keep the heat to medium, as a vigorous boiling can also crystallize the syrup
  • Be patient and be vigilant, caramel can burn in seconds

10. In a pan pour the sugar and the water and bring to boil at medium heat. With a thermometer keep measuring the temperature of the syrup, the caramel will be ready when it reaches 125 C. Don’t get distracted as the caramel, once it is formed, can burn within seconds.

11. Once the temperature is reached, immediately remove the caramel from the heat. Move the pan gently and not too far. Remember, too much shaking can re-crystallize the caramel.

12. Let it rest for a few seconds until the bubbling stops, but not too long otherwise it will solidify.

13. Oil four small bowls with a light vegetable oil or butter and whirl the caramel on the bowl with a spoon making swirls shapes. The caramel will solidify very quickly.

14. Time to assemble the desserts! In a soup bowl pour ¼ of the crème anglaise. Position one of the meringues over the crème anglaise in the centre of the plate to make the island.

15.  Sprinkle with the praline and top the meringues with one of the caramel curls. You can also sprinkle the caramel directly onto the Île Flottante, like in the cover picture of the article. Serve and enjoy!


If you want to save or print the recipe you can find it here on Your Guardian Chef.

All photos: Paul Oatway

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