Duchess potatoes

Modern Duchess and a trip to eastern France

If you’ve ever spent any time in front of a Parisian news kiosk, you’ve no doubt run across lots of women’s magazines similar to the ones you’d see anywhere else, like Elle or Cosmopolitan. More contemporary magazines, like Causette or Bridget, have shaken up the traditional press by providing a feminist point of view. And then you’ve got the old stalwarts, like Femme Actuelle – or Modern Woman – which, in the end, isn’t really very modern at all.

A few months ago, David-Nicolas and I traveled to the beautiful city of Nancy, in eastern France’s Lorraine region. It’s surprising I’d never been, since I’m a huge fan of Art Nouveau – the École de Nancy was the major force behind the Art Nouveau movement in France at the beginning of the last century. Little did I know what was in store for us!

Backseat driver

So we walked. And walked. The Office de Tourisme graciously provided us with a special “Art Nouveau Itinerary” and we weren’t disappointed with the quantity and quality of Art Nouveau structures around town, not to mention the famous École de Nancy Museum. We also toured the Villa Majorelle, built by major Art Nouveau player Louis Majorelle, whose famous fireplace I’d only seen (and drooled over) in books. Being up close and personal with all those sinuous lines and stained glass panels was breathtaking!

One day though, in need of trees and a walk in the country, we decided to explore the area around Nancy. The day was deepest gray and stark as we set out in our little rental car. (And I thought February in Paris was rough!) But we hopped in and set out as we usually do: David-Nicolas navigates with skill, and I drive, since like many native Parisians, David-Nicolas has no driver’s license. Which actually works out pretty well for an obsessive backseat driver like myself – I’m happiest behind the wheel!

The Versailles of Lorraine

We set out for Lunéville, about a 40-minute drive from Nancy for “normal” people. But by the time we’d stopped in the most improbably quiet villages, had our coffee surrounded by the 1970s decor that you’ll find in most provincial cafés, and hunted down the defunct and fascinating beer factory we’d seen in the distance, it probably took us more than an hour to reach the Château de Lunéville.

Built between 1703 and 1720, the “Versailles of Lorraine” was as austere as it was impressive. Charles III, Henri II, and François III all lived there, but the most famous resident of the château was Stanislas Leszczyński, king of Poland, Duke of Lorraine, and father-in-law to Louis XV.

Rum baba and madeleines

King Stanislas built the largest plaza in Nancy, now named after him of course, and more importantly, he was a fan of the arts and a fin gourmet. The famous rum baba was allegedly invented by one of his chefs, and the first madeleines were thought to have been baked by Madeleine Paumier in the Lorraine around 1730: she made them for good old King Stanislas! I’ll be speaking about this, and about the history of other French pastries in Virginia soon, so if you happen to be there on June 1st or June 8th, come and listen in French!

But my most surprising discovery at the Château de Lunéville came from the gift shop – you know, the one you always have to walk through to exit? Normally I breeze right through those shops, but this one had liqueurs, games, and magazines, like Modern Duchess.

Would you make a good king’s mistress?

A spoof on Femme Actuelle, this magazine has articles on fashion (“Never without my hoop skirt!”), beauty, and interior decoration (“How to furnish your state bedroom”). It also featured a titillating test that provided lots of laughs when I took it with a friend: “Would you make a good king’s mistress?” (Known euphemistically as a favorite in French.)

And the recipes of a modern duchess? A bit complex: a hare (or jackrabbit) terrine, and a dessert with lots of eggs, even more egg yolks, and hard-to-find ingredients like cookies from the Savoy and praline orange flowers. I love a good challenge in the kitchen, but I also like to eat and share the recipes I make with friends. If I find a hare at my butcher’s, you’ll be the first to know, but in the meantime, I’m sharing with you this recipe for Duchess potatoes – easy to make and even easier to eat!

Duchess potatoes

My first cooking teacher taught us the word for laying any type of dough out onto a baking sheet using a pastry bag: coucher (we say “to pipe” in English). But coucher also means to lay down to bed, so coucher la duchesse…. Well, you can just imagine the titters and jokes in the kitchen around that one!

No one really knows for which duchess these potatoes were named. This article claims that the potatoes were made for a British duchess, but an article in Saveur magazine explains the name may have been a clever marketing technique on the part of French chefs wanting to elevate the then-exotic potato’s status to royal standing.

Also according to Saveur, a recipe for pommes duchesse appeared in an 1817 French cookbook called La nouvelle cuisinière bourgeoise. Duchess potatoes also appeared in Auguste Escoffier’s 1903 Guide culinaire and then in l’Art culinaire moderne (1936) by Henri-Paul Pellaprat.

But this uncomplicated recipe comes straight from one of my very favorite books, French cooking: Classic Recipes and Techniques, by Hubert Delorme and Vincent Boué. It produces fluffy swirls of potato goodness — this recipe makes 4 per person, but feel free to double it!

One last note: conventional French cooking wisdom would tell you that these potatoes require an egg wash to be beautifully browned. Que nenni! Absolutely not! But if you have a convection feature on your oven, definitely use it.

- about 1 pound (450-500g) starchy potatoes (like Russet), scrubbed and rinsed well, peeled
- 1 tablespoon coarse salt (for cooking)
- 3 egg yolks
- 5½ tablespoons (80g) butter, cut into dice-sized cubes
- a pinch of grated nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
- white pepper

how to make it:
1. Cut the potatoes in half. In a medium casserole, bring the potatoes and coarse salt to a boil. Cook over medium heat for 20-25 minutes.
2. Before the potatoes have time to cool, push them through a food mill or potato ricer. If you only have a hand masher, use that, but you’ll have to really mash and mash to get the potatoes smooth.
3. Place the mashed potatoes back in the casserole, and dry them out by heating over medium heat and stirring constantly for about 3-4 minutes.
4. Transfer the potatoes to a large bowl and add the egg yolks and butter, stirring well. Add the nutmeg, salt and pepper.
5. Stir well and transfer the mixture to a pastry bag with fluted/star tip.
6. Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C).
7. Pipe onto a shallow non-stick oven pan by making spiral swirls, starting in the middle and working your way out to make a flat spiral, then spiraling inward and upward. Refrigerate the potatoes for 15 minutes.
8. Bake in the oven for about 20-25 minutes. Serve straight from the oven along with a main course.

serves 4-6

Tags : Duchess potatoes , potatoes , Nancy, France , Ecole de Nancy , Château de Lunéville



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Eloise 21 May 2015

Loved this edition. So proud of you. Keep up the good work, ma petite.

Allison Zinder 21 May 2015

Thanks, Eloise! I will, and I’m so glad you liked the article.

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