Having been given a shiny new set of knives for my birthday last week, I was eager to put them to good use. My collection thus far has come together almost by accident, acquiring the odd one here and there with each new flat share. I can’t remember how most of them ended up in my possession, but all of them are blunt beyond salvation. This made the joy of using my gleaming new quartet all the sweeter. Slicing a tomato with a pristine blade is like cutting through silk.
Having largely avoided meat dishes so far on my French culinary journey, I felt it was time to tackle a classic – chicken liver parfait. Despite enjoying many a mouthful of the luxuriously creamy starter, I’d never given its origins much thought. Scouring the supermarket aisles for chicken livers gave me a perverse thrill – like I was venturing into dangerous territory only brave cooks dare to tread. Having struck upon them, I picked up the packet and gazed in fascination at the tightly packed livers enveloped in a pool of blood the colour of ruby Port.
They filled me with terror, but, if handled with care, the reward would be worth the ordeal of cooking organs. I’m not wildly carnivorous and turn green at the sight of blood, so it took me a few minutes to muster the courage to open the packet. It was the smell I was most worried about. A smell, I feared, that may be like a tiny rehearsal for death. Julia Child’s advice to “remove any greenish or blackish spots” did little to assuage my fear. Upending the packet, my chopping board became my operating table. The livers were surprisingly silky in texture, smooth to the touch like polished pebbles. I found myself working through them with confidence, only squirming once or twice when removing the sinewy white connecting tissue.
Like so many French recipes, the parfait begins with a base of chopped shallots, hot melted butter and a sprig of thyme. I have no idea whether Julia intended to be saucy in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I rather hope she did, but so many of her instructions seem suffused with smut. For the handling of the livers, she advises to sauté them “until they are just stiffened but still rosy inside”, which takes around three minutes. Parfaits are raised from the mundane to the magnificent with a hearty glug of booze. Anything from Port and brandy to Madeira will work, the latter’s inherent sweetness adding to the decadence of the dish.
Having recently run out of Madeira, I opted instead for a sweet Sherry and a miniature bottle of 1992 Frapin Cognac, having been sent two samples in the post for a tasting when the first failed to arrive on time. With all cooking, the better the wine or spirit you’re prepared to use, the better the outcome. I used two shots of each. While Julia suggests lobbing the livers into the blender before they’ve seen a whisper of alcohol, I let mine mingle in the boozy broth for a minute to soak up the flavour, then reduced the sauce down to three intense spoonfuls.
At this stage allspice is added for warmth (nutmeg works equally well), along with a generous pinch of salt and pepper – confident seasoning is key to a tasty parfait – and 1/8 of a pint of double cream, because almost every Child recipe requires it. Raymond Blanc and Heston Blumenthal like to use eggs in their parfaits, but they’re by no means necessary. After less than a minute in the blender, the parfait starts to take shape. It gets its velvety texture from the slow addition of melted butter added while the motor is running as you would with oil while making mayonnaise.
A paté becomes a parfait from one simple move – passing it through a sieve to refine its texture, making it impossibly smooth, as if whipped by angels. Reading that the recipe required a sieve made me shudder, bringing back painful memories of grappling with prawn shells while preparing a bisque. Parfait is far more forgiving. Gliding through the mesh with ease, the smooth brown liquid looked more like chocolate mousse than a savoury snack.
Julia has an aspic fetish – “a beautifully flavoured and moulded creation glittering in aspic is always impressive as a first course” – but I bypassed the jelly mould and dolloped the mixture straight into a pair of ramekins. They need at least three hours of chill time in the fridge to set, but if you can wait until the next day, the parfait will be all the more delicious, giving it ample time for the flavours to infuse. Many chefs believe parfait tastes best after two days, making it the perfect dinner party dish for time poor urbanites who like to talk to their guests.
With chicken livers costing just £1 a packet, it’s hard to find a more luxurious dish made with cheaper ingredients. Rich, decadent, velvety smooth and creamy, my generous measures of Coganc and Sherry paid off, the alcohol adding sweetness and spice to the intensely savoury, earthy flavour of the parfait. It comes into its own when liberally slathered over brioche and crowned with a dollop of sticky fig chutney. It tasted so sophisticated I had trouble believing that I’d made it.
A word of warning – dispose of the discarded liver as soon as the parfaits are in the fridge. I made the mistake of leaving mine to fester over night and woke up to what smelt like a rotting corpse in my kitchen that took a deep clean to remove. But if you act quickly and use good quality alcohol, this French favourite is richly rewarding.