For me, entremets are the food history equivalent of Gozer the Gozerian. You know, Gozer – the lace-body-suit demon lady from Ghostbusters? Venkman tells everyone not to think of a form for it to take, and Ray immediately thinks of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. It’s that classic brain gaffe – if someone tells you to not think of something, you can’t stop thinking about it.
That’s what happened to me when I looked up entremets in one of my favorite books, Alan Davidson’s wonderfully comprehensive Oxford Companion to Food. If you will forgive me the fifth-grade-essay transgression of beginning a piece with a definition quote, here is Davidson’s entry on entremets in its entirety:
entree, entremets a couple of French terms which no doubt retain interest for persons attending hotel and restaurant courses conducted under the show of French classical traditions, but have ceased to have any real use, partly because most people cannot remember what they mean and partly because their meanings have changed over time and vary from one part of the world to another. Forget them.
Forget them? Davidson, my man, come on – when almost everyone else has forgotten about something, that’s the time when you should remember it. Those almost-forgotten things are where fantastic weirdness usually hides. In the case of entremets, that fantastic weirdness is young boys singing duets with deer and roast pig heads vomiting fire like drunk dragons. But more on that in a moment.
To be fair, Davidson is right – the definition of entremets is murky and has shifted a lot over time. At its core, the word refers to items served up in-between courses – whether that is food, entertainment, or both. Often, the purpose of entremets was to delight dinner party guests.
One of the first mentions of entremets is in Le Viandier de Taillevent, a late 1300s cookbook by (or, according to some sources, at least updated by) Guilliame Tirel, chef for the king of France. Taillevent was Tirel’s nickname – it means “wind slicer” (which would also be a great name for a horse, a child who discovers he has mystical powers, or a horse who discovers he has mystical powers). According to D. Eleanor Scully and Terence Scully in their book Early French Cookery, in Le Viander, Taillevent details how to create multiple food-based entremets designed to delight and awe banquet guests. One of the most popular items were beautiful birds – usually swans or peacocks – that were skinned, cooked, and then placed back under their original feathered skins to be served.
But, Scully and Scully go on to explain, the entremet game really ratcheted up in the 1400s. In the 1420 book Du Fait de Cuisine, Master Chiquart Amiczo, chef for the Duke of Savoy, describes entremets that are, simply, epic. For example – a giant castle with a wine-pouring fountain that guests could use to fill their glasses, woodsmen shaped out of meat and bean paste, and multiple turrets. Oh, just boring turrets? NO, NOT JUST BORING OLD TURRETS. In each turret was a different cooked meat, and almost all of them were breathing fire, including a fire-breathing pig’s head and fire-breathing swan (prepared in the same fashion as described in Le Viander). Stuck underneath the castle were musicians (real ones, not made of food), playing music (and, unfortunately, not breathing fire).
Around this time, the live entertainment associated with the entremets became more prevalent – in fact, in some texts from the time period, “entrements” refers only to the live entertainment between courses, not any of the food served. An 1812 issue of The Port Folio magazine contains a summary of entremets served by Phillipe de Bon, duke of Burgundy, in the 1450s. While some elements were still food-based, these entremets were, on the whole, much more entertainment-focused. There are some doubts about the veracity of these banquet accounts, but even if they’re only half true, this dude was still rolling with some Kanye-level luxury. Here are just a few of the bits highlighted in The Port Folio:
- A young boy riding in on a white stag, and singing a duet with it. Yes: The stag sings.
- Two hawks killing a heron live, in the dining hall.
- A statue naked woman that had wine flowing out of one breast, guarded by a live lion. A shield in front of the lion read: “Do not touch the lady.”
Phillipe de Bon wasn’t the only one throwing down epic between-course entertainments either. An article in The Living Age magazine from 1870, meanwhile, claims that, in mid-1400s banquets, “The mountain was, in short, the favorite form of entrement.” Here’s just one of the entremet mountains described:
A third mountain had fountain of scented water at each corner. Beside these fountains reclined four picturesque savages, and on the mountain stood a pretty girl in the guise of the fairy queen. These characters descended, danced ,and resumed their places; the fairy then raised her wand and struck the hill. Scores of little doors opened all over it and out flew a multitude of sparrows. A second stroke released a crowd of rabbits whose scurrying among the guests occasioned much laughter. A third brought forth a company of singing damsels. And a fourth let loose a troop of howling demons who executed a number of acrobatic feats and then ran off with the nymphs.
But these performance-based entremets faded with the Middle Ages. As Anne Willan and Mark Cherinavsky write in their book The Cookbook Library, “Only so much can be done to amuse a static audience, and by the end of the fifteenth century, guests were going with the flow, moving from dining hall to buffet tables set in another room or possibly outdoors.” While I disagree with the “static” reasoning (the average American watches five hours of TV a day, and somehow I doubt those are all spent getting fierce on the elliptical at the gym), it’s true that soon after the 15th century, entremets no longer referred to entertainments, and were simply considered to be small, between-meal courses, primarily in French dinners.
These later entremets were meant to be served after the entrees and before dessert. But it wasn’t like chefs were just sticking another dish into your regular three-course meal – many meals that featured entremets had multiple dishes in every course, sometimes so many that it was almost impossible to even try them all. In her fantastic book Food in History, Reay Tannahill mentions an 1871 dinner given by the British Prince Regent, but in the French style. The Regent served over 50 dishes – in just the first course.
And there were certainly plenty of entremets to serve. In 1908’s The Menu Book, an instruction manual for culinary students, Charles Herman Senn lists hundreds of possible entremets, which he broke into three areas: The Dressed Vegetable, The Sweet, and Savouries. These dishes range from things we’d think of as appropriate post-entree eats (many of the dishes we think of as dessert today were actually once served before dessert, as entremets) to vegetable dishes akin to side dishes to things like kipper fritters and deviled smoked calves’ tongues.
But despite the sheer number of entremets Senn listed, by the time The Menu Book was published, entremets were already out of fashion. As Tannahill wrote, “when pastrycooks…disappeared from all but the grandest houses, pastries and ices were served simultaneously with the entrements, which thus, instead of being the ‘between-courses’, became the last course.”
So, Alan Davidson was right – even in the early 1900s, entremets were mostly the domain of those attending restaurant schools in the French tradition. But I still don’t think entremets are worth forgetting. The two most important elements to a good dinner party are good food and good friends, but entremets bring up a third element that can make a truly amazing gathering – spectacle. You don’t need to come riding in on a singing stag, or have a fire-breathing pig’s head (although if you do – pictures, please). But taking things up a level – in food, in entertainment, or both – isn’t just fun. It’s memorable.
With the idea of spectacle in mind, I’ve included two recipes for sweet entremets that were listed in The Menu Book. Both would make good desserts, and both give the awesome appearance of spectacle while being pretty easy to make. Why are they so easy? Because you are going to use frozen puff pastry. Don’t scoff – puff pastry is a pain in the artichoke to make, and the frozen stuff is good. If you want to prove to yourself that you can make it, have at it. But I’d suggest spending your time something else, like perfecting your swan-skinning technique.
Chocolate St. Honore’s Cake
This classic cake is sometimes considered a pastry chef test because you have to make three important elements of pastry for this one dish – pastry cream, puff pastry or short paste (either can be used for the base), and pate a choux (cream puff dough). I served this at a dinner party, and the guests couldn’t stop fawning over it. If you end up with extra pastry cream/cream puffs (as I did), offer the puffs up for dipping in the pastry cream after the cake is wolfed down (and it will be wolfed down).
I started with the recipe below, but I did a few variations:
- Instead of using the short paste (which you are welcome to do), I made a base with a big circle of frozen puff pastry, which I cooked at 400 degrees until it was puffy and started to turn golden brown. Cool on a rack.
- I cooked the puffs separately, on a silpat on a baking mat. (A Ziploc bag with the corner snipped off makes a good in-a-pinch pastry bag.) 10 minutes at 425 degrees, then turn the heat down to 350 degrees and cook until they also start to turn golden brown. Cool on a rack.
- Instead of adding chocolate to the cream, I simply eliminated the lemon and added the vanilla.
- Top with chopped or shaved chocolate if desired.
Make a pate a choux as follows: put in a saucepan three gills of water, three ounces of butter, and a teaspoonful of sugar; boil a minute; add at once half a pound of sifted flour, mix well and stir on the fire for a few minutes until the paste ceases to cling to the saucepan; take this from the fire; put the preparation into another vessel, and mix with it, one by one, six or seven eggs; put a thin round ten inch wide flat of short paste on a baking sheet; wet the edge; put the choux paste in a thick cloth or paper funnel with a half inch hole at the point; then press the short paste gently out on the wet edge to form a border, and spread a little of the choux paste in the centre; egg the border; pick the paste in the centre; and bake in a moderate oven; with the rest of the choux paste, press out small round cakes on a baking sheet; egg and bake them also in the oven; dip these in sugar cooked au caramel at 310 degrees Fahrenheit; arrange them one against the other upon the border.
Make St Honore cream as follows: Put in a saucepan six egg yolks, half a pound of sugar, three ounces of flour, and the rind of a lemon chopped fine; mix well; dilute with three gills of milk; set on the fire, and stir steadily till the cream boils; beat eight egg whites to a hard froth, and mix carefully with the cream; pour in a heap into the cake; cool half an hour and serve.
St Honore Cake au Chocolat: Prepare a St Honore cake as directed, but dip the small cakes in melted chocolate instead of caramel sugar; sprinkle a little granulated sugar over; and range them on the border; mix two ounces of melted chocolate and a few drops of vanilla essence in the cream instead of chopped lemon rind as directed in the above number, and serve in the same way.
From The Franco-American Cookery Book, 1884
Vol au Vent a la Creme
I hesitate to give you the entire Vol au Vent recipe from this book, because the description of how to make the main Vol au Vent is more confusing than helpful. Basically, you’ll be taking frozen puff pastry and cutting out circles of whatever size you desire – I cut mine with a small canning jar. Then, indent a smaller circle in the center, but don’t cut all the way through. Cook at 400 degrees until the vol au vents are raised and golden, remove, and cool. Once they’re cooled, remove the inner circle of puff pastry to make it into a little pastry cup, and follow the recipe below. I used strawberry-rhubarb jam, and I made my whipped cream stiff and used a pastry bag to pipe it in, but you can just as easily pop on a dollop of not-as-stiff whipped cream.
After having raised the cover and emptied the vol au vent, lay it on a sheet of paper, and let it become cold. Fill it just before it is sent to table with fruit either boiled down to a rich marmalade or stewed as for the preceding vol au vent, and heap well-flavoured, but not too highly sweetened, whipped cream over it. The edge of the crust may be glazed by sifting sugar over it when it is drawn from the oven and holding a salamander or red hot shovel above it, or it may be left unglazed and ornamented with bright coloured fruit jelly.
From Modern Cookery, for Private Families, 1860