As any self-respecting, French speaking, art and food obsessed college student would do, I spent a semester abroad in Paris my junior year. According to my transcript, I was studying something along the lines of French language and literature. According to me, I was doing an intensive independent study in hot chocolate and pastries. Intensive.
I made a point of going to a different spot and trying a different pastry every day. I roamed the city, exploring quaint neighborhoods and corner bakeries, charming cafes and hyacinth-lined gardens. If my study-abroad major was pastries, my study-abroad minor was people-watching. And dodging men who were intent on getting to know me – solely because I was blonde, and because they were French, and that seems to be the way of things.
Choosing walking as my preferred mode of transportation, I also wandered through plenty of neighborhoods where I quite possibly shouldn’t have, or at least wouldn’t have selected as a destination. But, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to get from point A to point pastry.
It was a good thing I was walking somewhere in the realm of 10-13 miles a day (I’m a determined walker. It runs in our family.) because in between hot chocolates and pastries, I was dabbling in croissants (technically a pastry, I suppose, but I gave them their own separate classification), baguettes, cheeses… Those too, varied from one creamy grey stoned nook or cranny of the city to the next. More cause for walking, exploration, and sampling.
But, somewhere around halfway through my stay, I made a discovery (whether unlucky or lucky depends on your point of view, I suppose) that turned me into a lunchtime almost-monogamist.
Quiche. I had never been a quiche person, most of the quiches of my experience having been of the gummy, soggy church basement variety. But, one afternoon, I stumbled upon a boulangerie tucked just right around an unassuming corner from my school. It had salmon striped awnings and cotton candy colored paintings of flowers and children on the walls. And, it had beautiful, golden quiches with burnished, crimped edges. In individual portions. Just the perfect size to balance on the palm of one hand.
I ordered the one labeled quiche au saumon et épinards (though it was a tough call between that one and the tuna and tomato version). Then I took it, in its brown paper wrapping that quickly began to show splotches translucent as stained glass, and settled on a bench next to Saint-Germain-des-Prés. And my life was transformed. Well, as transformed as it can be by quiche, which, you know, is perhaps no small amount.
It was the first time I’d ever eaten something where the crust felt like it had a point in being there. Before that I’d always considered quiche and pie crusts to be more structural than anything else, mere vessels holding a much more precious contents. But not this crust. This crust was integral to the entire flavor and texture of the quiche. It tasted gloriously of butter, with a texture that negotiated glibly between the dispositions of a flaky shortcrust and a crumbly, compact shortbread.
The crust transitioned smoothly into the filling, which, to my amazement was not so much eggy as it was silky, a barely wobbly custard. It yielded smoothly and willingly under the teeth to reveal that suspended in each and every bite were generous chunks of smokey fish and thin slips of spinach.
I went back the next day. And the next. And the next. The streak was really only broken when I was cruelly forced to eat somewhere else, for example by my professor inviting me out to lunch, or a side trip to Provence. (Oh yes, cruel, cruel world.)
Ever since then I have been on a quest to recreate that quiche. Not a particularly active quest, I’ll admit. That is, not the kind that has had me searching every cookbook and churning out quiches every weekend. But a quest of the sort where the main character keeps stumbling into a new portion of the plot. The memory of the quiche would flicker into my mind like a picture on an old television, long enough to lead me to play with some crust compositions or egg to yolk ratios. Then it would flicker out again.
But, since we were talking about butter, that quiche came back in my sensory memory full force, and I decided this was it. I was going to pull everything I now know together, and I was going to make. that. quiche. And what do you know, though it adds little to the twists and shivers of the plot, I came pretty darn close this time. Close enough that Joel, who never has a good word to say about quiche told me this morning, “that was a truly fine specimen of a breakfast.” And that was about the leftovers.
This quiche is full-sized, not palm sized, and as such it would be a little unwieldy to wrap into a parcel and transport to a bench by a small cathedral. But, that should not really stop you from trying. Because this would make remarkable picnic food, with a couple of linens and glasses of white wine. But wherever you have it, it will take you on a little stroll to Paris. That’s the power of butter.
Smoked Salmon and Spinach Quiche (makes one 9-10 inch quiche)
- 1 cup plus 3 Tbs. all purpose flour
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 6 Tbs. good butter (European style cultured butter will give you the best results), cold, cut into pieces
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- about 2 Tbs. ice cold water
- In a smallish mixing bowl, stir together the flour and salt. Working quickly, rub the butter into the flour with your fingers until you have a mixture with pea-sized butter lumps. Make a well and add in the egg and water. Stir together until it forms a messy dough in a bunch of clumps, adding a tiny bit more water if it seems way too dry. Scoop the clumps together and press it into a ball. Flatten into a thick disk, wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes.
- On a lightly floured surface, roll the chilled dough out into a circle about 1 inch larger in diameter than your tart pan. Gently transfer the crust to the tart pan and press it in. Fold any overhanging edges back inward and press them into the crust, reinforcing it and making it thicker. We’re going for a solid crust here, not some eggshell thin delicate little number. Put the tart shell back into the fridge for 30 minutes.
- Preheat your oven to 350F. Prick the tart shell all over with a fork, then line it with foil or parchment paper (cover the sides and edges too) and fill the bottom with beans or other weights to weight it down. Place it on a rimmed baking sheet to prevent drips, and bake in the oven for 30 minutes until lightly golden. Remove from the oven, and remove the lining.
- Fill the crust with the filling and bake as directed below.
- about 4 oz. hot smoked salmon, crumbled into flaky chunks
- 1 Tbs. olive oil
- 1 large shallot, diced
- 3 or so oz. baby spinach
- 4 large eggs plus 2 large egg yolks
- 1/2 tsp. salt plus freshly ground black pepper
- 3/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup whole milk
- a pinch of nutmeg
- In a medium saute pan, heat the olive oil over medium high heat until it shimmers. Stir in the shallot and cook until it starts to lightly brown. Then, stir in the spinach and a pinch of salt, and cook just until the spinach is nicely wilted. Remove from the heat.
- In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, 1/2 tsp. salt, a couple grindings of black pepper, the cream, milk, and nutmeg.
- Place the quiche crust back on a rimmed baking sheet (if you ever even took it off) Spread the spinach mixture into the prepared crust. Sprinkle the crumbled salmon evenly over this. Then, gently pour the egg mixture over the top until the quiche is filled. Carefully transfer the quiche into the oven, which should still be at 350F. Bake for about 45 minutes, until the quiche is puffed and the center is set. Cool on a wire rack for at least 15 minutes, or longer, before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature accompanied by a light green salad.