Islander’s European heritage plays central role in her kitchen
On both sides of the Atlantic, a spirit of freedom marks the month of July.
“Just as July 4 marks our Independence Day here in the United States, July 14 memorializes Bastille Day in France,” said former Parisian Aline Wardle as she stood in her French-inspired kitchen overlooking Galveston’s Sydnor Bayou.
“Fireworks, music, balls and, of course, delicious food — these are all part of how the people of France mark their 1789 revolution and overthrow of the royals,” she said, gently cutting into a classic crème renversée au caramel dessert topped with almonds and French flags.
Although she arrived in the United States 50 years ago as a young bride, the culture of her youth has continued to play a central role in Wardle’s island lifestyle. In addition to sharing her intimate knowledge of French language and culture by teaching for 16 years in several area schools, she has in her home — and especially in those areas devoted to the preparation and serving of food — created a small museum of memories honoring her family’s European heritage.
Incorporating the traditional designs and colors of French Provincial style, her kitchen is strikingly similar to that of the famed artist Claude Monet, as depicted in Claire Joyes’ book “Monet’s Table: The Cooking Journals of Claude Monet.”
Blue and white canisters — labeled in French according to their contents — are aligned across a white marble countertop that also includes gleaming brass pieces used for serving hot chocolate, a small sign declaring “Fermé le Samedi” — or “Closed on Saturday” — and a framed photo of her sons’ visit long ago to their great uncle’s house in Enghien-les-Bains, a Paris suburb.
Farm-style cabinetry with glass inset doors and drawers accented with cobalt blue glass hardware allow for the display of treasured dinnerware, including one rare piece manufactured by Creil et Montereau in a pattern created by Monet for use in his own country-style kitchen in Giverny. The treasured keepsake was a gift from a friend who had inherited it from her own French grandmother, Wardle said.
“I cannot tell you how much this piece means to me,” Wardle said, as she hugged the fragile blue and white treasure to her chest. “When she gave this plate to me, she gave me a piece of her heart.”
Wardle’s skill in woodworking and cabinetry can be seen in a hutch she built that incorporates a bank of small drawers inset with blue and white tiles labeled with the names of various herbs and other seasonings. It sits atop a base, painted to match, that she and her husband, Bill Wardle, created from a $10 table they found at a garage sale. Providing a perfect cubbyhole for the storage of an awkwardly long, narrow metal pan, or poissonnière, used for poaching large fish, the adaptation was achieved by cutting the table down the middle lengthwise and stacking the two halves on top of one another so both sets of legs faced outward.
A corner cabinet that was once among the fixtures in a 19th-century Virginia emporium displays such Americana collectibles as an antique cough medicine bottle and a well-worn, but empty can labeled “insect powder.” Chinaware includes a number of items in various Blue Willow-style patterns and a set from the French Riviera, each piece personalized with the first name of a Wardle family member.
Kitchen wall art includes a framed blue and white dish towel depicting a variety of kitchen tools or batterie de cuisine, each implement labeled in French, and on an adjacent shelf rests the antique blue enamel coffee pot Wardle remembers seeing her Russian grandmother use to make coffee every day. A set of copper pans in graduated size — the first purchase Wardle made when she learned she was going to be married — are displayed above a framed set of vintage personalized table linens, including one stitched in red by her mother while attending finishing school in Paris.
Wardle’s talent for mixing antiques from two continents with family heirlooms, local resale shop purchases and pieces found at vide-greniers, a type of flea market popular in Paris during the summer months, also can be seen in the kitchen’s contiguous sunroom, where the family cat, Saphir, enjoys long, leisurely naps. Other tributes to Wardle’s creative talents here include an elongated pillow sham she has adapted from an embroidered sheet that once graced her baby bed in Paris, and a locally acquired wicker elephant that she made over by changing his natural gray to crisp blue and white.
“My husband says that he has to be careful and not sit in the same place too long or I will paint him blue and white, too,” Wardle said with a laugh.
This traditional French dessert can be made a day ahead and refrigerated until serving time. Be sure to choose a serving plate with sides deep enough to accommodate the caramel sauce that will run down the sides of the custard when it’s unmolded.
Crème Renversée au Caramel
Servings: 6 to 8
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed and strained lemon juice
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3½ cups whole milk
½ cup toasted almonds (optional)
Fresh fruit (optional)
Preheat oven to 325 F. Prepare caramel by sprinkling ½ cup sugar evenly over the bottom of a small, heavy skillet. Cook slowly over low heat until sugar melts and turns into a golden syrup. Do not burn.
Pour in lemon juice, and stir with a wooden spoon until ingredients are completely combined and melted together. Note: The lemon juice will sizzle as it first comes into contact with the sugar syrup — this is normal. Keep stirring.
Remove syrup from heat and immediately pour into the bottom of a metal 5-cup ring mold that has been preheated in the oven. While the syrup is still liquid, tilt the mold so that the syrup flows over and coats the inside bottom and side surfaces of the mold. Note: The caramel syrup will become more firm and adhere to the mold’s interior surface as it cools.
In a large bowl, use a wire whisk or hand beater to combine eggs with sugar, salt and vanilla until mixed well. Gradually add milk, beating until smooth but not frothy. Pour egg mixture through a fine sieve to remove any unincorporated and/or solid particles. This will help ensure a silky smooth custard.
Place prepared ring mold with caramel coating into a shallow baking pan. To help prevent spillage, remove 1 cup of egg mixture from bowl and reserve, then pour remaining egg mixture into ring mold.
Place baking pan on middle rack in preheated oven, then pour reserved egg mixture into the ring mold. Pour enough hot water into the baking pan around the outside of the mold so that it comes up to a depth of about 1 inch. Bake 55 to 60 minutes or until a silver knife inserted 1 inch from the edge of the egg mixture comes out clean.
Carefully remove mold from hot water to a rack to cool completely, then refrigerate to chill for at least 2 hours or overnight. When ready to serve, place serving plate upside down on top of mold and, holding the mold and serving plate together firmly, quickly reverse the two so the mold is upside down on top of the serving plate.
Shake gently to release custard from mold, then lift mold gently off the top of the custard. At this point, the caramel will run down the sides of the custard. If desired, sprinkle top of custard with toasted almonds and/or fill center with fresh fruit, such as strawberries or other berries, pineapple cubes or small seedless grapes. Bon appétit!