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Twelfth Night: A French Meal with Easy Chicken Cassoulet

January 5, 2014

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There’s some controversy as to whether Twelfth Night is 5 or 6 January but arguments come down in favour of the 5th, stemming from the practice of Christmas celebrations beginning at sunset on Christmas Eve – 24 January – and ending on the 5 January, the eve of the Epiphany, the day when the three kings were said to have arrived in Bethlehem. While the 25th is the big day in UK, many countries, like Germany and Scandinavia, have their major celebration on the evening of the 24th, so for them, that is Day One – or at least, Night One. But despite the UK celebrating on the 25th, few people seem to see the 6th as Twelfth Night and it’s usual for everyone to take their decorations down on the 5th and put their Christmas trees out of the house.

If music be the food of love love, play on‘ Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Shakespeare wrote his play for Twelfth Night celebrations. I’ve always liked to turn this well-known quote on its head and say ‘if food be the music of love’ because I’ve always considered food that important! I’m not sure love could blossom for me with someone who only thought of food as fuel! In the same play, we read:

Do you think because you are virtuous that there shall be no more cakes and ale

Well, following on from my last comment, I don’t think anyone virtuous would last long in my house if there were to be no edible and drinkable treats! However, in The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare wrote:

Unquiet meals make ill digestion

It’s very true that eating while feeling ‘unquiet’, feeling upset or angry, will spoil your digestion and isn’t good for you. But some ‘unquiet’ is good: the babble of happy conversation; people laughing and sharing the pleasure of each other’s company and, of course, appreciating a fine meal.

My company for this Twelfth Night was Jonathan and Lyndsey (and Zeph their little Yorkie, of course! Though he’s trained to sit quietly on his blanket while we eat). I saw the new year in Italian style but Twelfth Night had to be French. For Twelfth Night always means a Galette des Rois for dessert. We were introduced to this ‘cake’ by a lovely French au pair when my kids were young (about 10 and 7). Stephanie had returned from France after Christmas carefully carrying this French speciality for us. Eaten on Twelfth Night, the ‘rois‘ – kings – clearly refers to the kings arriving on the day of Epiphany. It’s a celebratory cake traditionally made with puff pastry in a round shape and filled with frangipane. I always buy one from Paul, the French boulangerie and patisserie chain that is now in UK.

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When I went into our local Richmond branch this morning and asked for one, there was an anxious moment when they asked if I’d ordered one and seemed uncertain if they had one for me. But back the young woman came from the kitchen, with a big smile and carrying an apple version for me, which we like sometimes instead of the traditional frangipane. She warned me of the porcelain trinket inside. When the cake is cut, whoever finds a little porcelain trinket in their slice is said to have luck for the coming year, and they wear a crown – which Paul provided – and then give the crown to the person they want to be their king or queen.

A French meal means champagne. We drink a lot of prosecco when we want fizz (and believe me, we’re well practised at finding any old excuse to have some fizz!), but for me there’s nothing like the real thing: champagne. I really really love it. This half bottle I’d brought back from France last summer. A half bottle is great for three when there’s some good wine to follow. I even bought Badoit so we had French water. I didn’t make the starter: I put it together. And this is what I often do for simplicity and informality. There was some chicken liver pate (which I’d bought) on toasted sourdough bread, French saucisson with cornichons, olives and almonds. I used the table-runner I brought back from Provence in the summer to enhance the French ambience.

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The cassoulet I prepared early in the day so it just had to be heated through at suppertime. It’s an ‘interpretation’ of another old recipe (ref to my curry post the other day) torn from a paper years ago – 1991 – of a chicken cassoulet made by the Roux brothers. Yes, the original Roux brothers: Albert and Michel Sr. I’ve called it ‘easy’ because it’s not really a traditional cassoulet but a simplified version. I used to make it a lot and remembered it when thinking about what French dish to cook this evening. I added a few extra things, like some bacon, but kept their addition of sun-dried tomatoes – though actually used the less dry and sweeter sun-blushed.

A chicken from the farmers’ market was jointed and the carcass put into a large pan with onions, carrots and seasoning to make a stock. While that was simmering away, I got on with the rest. I coated the chicken pieces in flour seasoned with salt and pepper, shaking off the excess. I then browned them – in two batches – in some olive oil and removed to a plate.

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To the pan – with a little extra oil if needed – I added 2 rashers of bacon sliced, 1 medium onion chopped, 2 carrots chopped, 1 stick celery chopped, 2 cloves garlic crushed. Once they’d started colouring I added about 30g sun-blushed tomatoes, 1 heaped teaspoon Herbes de Provence and salt and freshly ground black pepper. Then I added a 200ml small bottle of white wine. I keep these little individual bottles for cooking as I don’t open full bottles of white wine often, especially in the winter. I let the mixture bubble away for a couple of minutes to start to reduce the wine, then I added a few ladlefuls of chicken stock straight from my simmering brew and 1 x 400g tin cannellini beans (drained). I returned the chicken pieces to the pan. The liquid should almost but not quite cover them.

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I then put a lid on and put in a 180C/160 fan oven for about 40 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the chicken and bubble up the liquid for a little to reduce and thicken and add a good handful of chopped parsley. Check seasoning. Now return the chicken to the pan and either eat straight away or put aside ready to warm up again later.

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I served the cassoulet with some little new potatoes tossed in butter and fresh mint, with a big green salad. We drank some very good St Emilion with it (mainly on account of it being the only bottle of French wine I had in the house!), because we were in French mode!

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Aaah! And then there was the Galette des Rois. I warmed it in the oven first then put it on a suitable serving dish, decorating it with the golden crown Paul gave me.

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We ate my Christmas brandy ice cream with it, which seemed very appropriate and it was actually very delicious to have it with what was, really, a hot apple pie! Lyndsey seemed disappointed when I explained that Paul only had the galette at new year, for Twelfth Night, and she’d have to wait another year before tasting it again.

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We ate half – and it would happily feed 6 to 8 – and no one had got the lucky trinket. So we had seconds (though not all the rest!). Lyndsey got the trinket but Zeph was crowned king.

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It was a lovely meal and just as good meals should be: the food all worked out really well but the important thing was we had some great conversation and some good laughs. We were fairly ‘unquiet’ but only in the best possible way!

4 Comments
  1. I do love a good cassoulet….

  2. So very pretty – the table, the meal, the dessert, and, of course, the crowned dog!!!

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