Standing in a teaching kitchen, a La Varenne apron shielding her crisp, striped shirt, Ann Willan makes it easy to forget that she runs one of France's most prestigious cooking schools.
Until her unsuspecting assistant makes a wrong move.
"No, no -- you mustn't stir it too much," she says with nannylike authority as the assistant dares to blend the would-be caramel.
It is a pivotal point in creating the perfect apple tarte Tatin, a classic French dessert obsessed over by chefs great and humble.
Though not a "star" in the fashion of Julia Child or Jacques Pepin, Willan is one of the world's foremost French cooking authorities. La Varenne, which she started in 1975, has become a launch pad for 20 years of writing and teaching around the world. She also runs La Varenne at the Greenbriar Resort in West Virginia.
Willan's next cookbook, due in '98, will explain how to tell when things are done. And Dorling Kindersley has just repackaged her beautifully photographed "Look & Cook" series in paperback. The six "Perfect Cookbooks" ($9.95) begin with "Perfect Meat Dishes."
So when this British-born instructor says don't stir the butter and sugar too much, the audience listens. And scribbles notes.
The object, she explains, is to cook the caramel to a rich mahogany color without burning the sugar or allowing it to recrystalize.
With the same careful attention, she tosses together an Italian escarole soup so simple (and luscious) anyone could make it in 15 minutes.
Likewise, a roasted duck, seasoned with dried fruit and made from a 16th-century Italian recipe, is easy and quick. She starts it cooking on the stove top in an oven-proof skillet, then pops it in the oven to finish. Two hours later, it's falling-off-the-bone tender.
She uses the same stove-top technique for roasting the vegetables -- it helps speed cooking time. A little added sugar aids in the caramelization of the roots, she says.
Except for the tarte, which is like an upside-down apple pie, these are accessible dishes, easily accomplished by any cook.
She peppers her class with droll observations. "It's a myth that the French spend their time slaving over a stove," she notes. Like us, they buy ready-to-eat foods to minimize kitchen time.
But she never strays far from the plain and simple, the basic principles of good cooking.
"The most difficult thing to teach to students," she says, "is to taste things at every stage." It's the same whether you're making spaghetti for two or apple tarte Tatin for 20.
Italian escarole soup
Makes 4 servings
1 quart chicken stock
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small head escarole (about 1 pound, see note)
salt and pepper
1 small bunch basil
1/2 cup canned small white beans
Bring stock to a boil in a covered pan. Peel and chop the garlic cloves.
Heat the oil in a soup pan and cook the garlic gently till soft.
Meanwhile, discard tough green leaves from escarole. Trim the stem and pull the inner leaves apart. If they are dirty, wash them. Depending on the texture you want in the finished soup, chop the leaves coarsely or more finely.
Add the escarole to the soup pan along with salt and pepper and saute 1 to 2 minutes. Meanwhile, strip the basil leaves from the stems and coarsely chop them.
Add the boiling stock to the soup pan, cover and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, until the escarole is tender. Stir in the beans and a little of their liquid; return the soup to a boil. Stir in the basil, taste for seasoning and serve.
Note: You could use any delicate greens for this soup, including lettuce. You could even use leftover salad greens dressed with vinaigrette.
Per serving: 145 calories, 8 grams fat, 1 milligram cholesterol: 848 milligrams sodium, 54 percent calories from fat.
Pub Date: 3/30/97