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1950s Archive

Noël à la Ritz

Originally Published December 1956
Louis Diat, once the celebrated head chef at New York's Ritz, as well as a prolific Gourmet contributor, offers a behind-the-scenes peek at the posh hotel's old-world holiday traditions, complete with 11 recipes for ritzy Christmas specialties

Members of head chef Louis Diat's kitchen brigade at the Ritz-Carlton New York, show off three of the hotel's celebrated French dishes: Terrine of Duckling Rouennaise, Aiguillette of Duckling Montmorency, and Pâté de Foie Gras Strasbourg.

For Gourmet Live's 2012 Holiday issue, we return to this midcentury account of Christmas celebrations at New York's original Ritz-Carlton—because nostalgia is always in season. — The Editors

When the Ritz-Carlton opened its doors in New York, around the turn of the century, it bore the unmistakable imprint of its progenitor's faultless taste. Like every Ritz Hotel, it was small to encourage exclusiveness. It was elegant, down to the least important detail. It combined contemporary smartness and convenience with old-fashioned dignity. Staff members were so carefully selected and so highly trained that for most of them the Ritz became a career. Traditions that grow up in this milieu are not lightly discarded: it was natural that at the new Ritz-Carlton the Christmas traditions of the Continent should survive even as over the years they absorbed some of the flavor of the New World.

Christmas at the Ritz was a season, not just a day. The weeks before the twenty-fifth of December were the gayest and busiest of the year. Every night the Ballroom and the Crystal Garden saw débuts and dances; the annual Junior Assembly and the Knickerbocker Ball always took place during these weeks, and the hotel was alive with music and laughter.

No New York gourmet worthy of the name would let December go by without coming to the Oval Room or the Oak Room to lunch or dine on our holiday pâtés, truffled birds, or venison specialties. The public rooms were banked with greens and scarlet poinsettias, and holiday gaiety was unabated through Christmas Eve.

But on Christmas Day itself, the old Ritz became a quiet home for its permanent residents and for their families and friends. Many of these groups were served holiday meals in their own apartments, but even in the public dining rooms Christmas dinner was a family affair. In most cases dinner had been ordered in advance, and no menu was in evidence. Most of the guests went to church in the morning, and the gentlemen, still in the striped trousers, cutaway coats, and top hats which were de rigueur for church before World War I, were apt to go straight from church to the Oyster Bar, downstairs next to the big kitchen. Since these precincts were forbidden to the ladies, the gentlemen, top hats and all, could stay themselves until the dinner hour with a dozen or so freshly opened oysters on the half shell.

One of the many Continental customs which we observed at the Ritz, to the surprise and delight of foreigners visiting the hotel, was the buffet display. At one end of the Oak Room stood a table on which were arranged all sorts of birds; turkeys, geese, capons, pheasants, partridges, of many sizes, still raw, but already stuffed with rich foie gras or truffles. Although one could not see a break in the skin, the faint shadow of sliced truffles showed beneath the skin against the snowy breast. The host could choose a bird from the display. It was then tagged with his name and scheduled to be served, perfectly roasted, at the appointed time. Perhaps you are one of those who remember, as I do, this spectacular effect, each bird on its own platter, each platter bedded in cracked ice, and the whole fancifully and tastefully decorated with Christmas greens.

Meantime, behind the scenes, in the great kitchen, there was a bustle and a flurry that had little to do with Christmas dinner, although all the elaborate pâtés and terrines of the season, even the festive bonbons and chocolates, were made there. It was our custom at the Ritz to give plum puddings and other specialties of the kitchen to our regular guests; many of our guests, too, ordered food gifts for their friends, and special wrappings and boxes marked with the Ritz crest were part of the gift. For many years, too, we served dinner on Christmas Day to about fifty disabled war veterans, and this party was a high spot of the season for the hotel staff and for many of the guests. The members of the staff, in their turn, were presented with Christmas fruit puddings made in our own kitchens and with turkeys and bottles of whiskey as well. Noël à la Ritz meant Joyeux Noël for all of us.

In my notebooks, which I have kept carefully over the years, I find that the Christmas Day menu chosen by our clients did not change very much. The usual hors-d'oeuvre was oysters, although some guests preferred a slice of one of our terrines or pâtés. A stimulating cup of consommé was served next, and the favorite fish course was a delicate mousse of sole filled with rich lobster Newberg. Almost everyone who dined at the Ritz on Christmas Day chose a truffled bird from the display in the Oak Room, but an occasional guest might decide in favor of venison, usually a cut from the tender roasted saddle. Cranberry sauce and corn fritters were customary accompaniments to the bird, along with braised hearts of celery. For the salad there was magnificent asparagus, hothouse grown especially for us, or sometimes imported from Hawaii, served with a vinaigrette sauce. Most of our guests clung to the tradition of plum pudding for dessert, but we were sometimes asked to climax the dinner with a lighter dessert, perhaps a frozen mousse or ice cream.

I think that it is fair to say that of all these the truffled bird was the indispensable element of Noël à la Ritz, a turkey or perhaps a capon or pheasant chosen from the buffet display. To prepare the bird so that the skin does not appear to have been cut, follow our method: Remove all the pin feathers, being careful not to tear the skin. Cut off the head, leaving on as much neck as possible; slit the skin at the back of the neck and remove neck and crop. Now, working very carefully with a sharp knife, cut the wishbone away from the breast meat. Use this neck aperture to clean out the bird. To detach the end of the intestinal tract, cut as small an opening as possible under the bird's tail. Make sure the bird is cleanly drawn and wipe the inside thoroughly with a damp cloth. Pack the prepared stuffing loosely into the cavity, reserving 1 or 2 cups to fill the crop cavity. Carefully loosen the skin over the breasts and slide under the skin on each side 6 slices of truffle which have been soaked in Madeira. Fill the crop cavity, bring the neck skin over to the back of the bird, and sew the skin neatly in place.

Thread a kitchen needle six or seven inches long with strong white string. Hold the legs and second joints close to the bird's body and run the needle through the second joint, the body, and the second joint on the other side. Insert the needle in the leg and run it back through to the first side, piercing leg, body, and the other leg. Tie off the two ends. Repeat the process with the wings and wing tips. Sprinkle the trussed bird with a very little flour and cover the breast with thin slices of fat salt pork. Wrap the bird loosely in buttered paper and refrigerate it for a few hours, so that the parfum aux truffles permeates the flesh. Remove the bird from the refrigerator an hour or so before roasting time. Lay the bird on its side in a deep roasting pan and roast it in a hot oven (400°F) for 1 hour, turning it from side to side every 15 minutes and basting it frequently through the paper. Reduce the heat to moderate (350°F) and continue to roast, basting and turning as before, until the bird is cooked and the juice which follows a kitchen needle inserted in the second joint is clear and free from any pink tinge. Remove the paper and the fat pork. If necessary, the bird may be returned to the oven for further browning. Serve the truffled bird with sauce périgourdine.

Périgordine Sauce for Poultry

To 1 cup sauce espagnole (November 1956), add 3 tablespoons Madeira, 1 tablespoon chopped truffles, a little of the liquid from the truffle can, and the juices from the roasting pan, free of fat. Heat all together, swirl in 1 tablespoon butter, and remove the sauce from the heat as soon as the butter is melted. The sauce should not boil after the butter is added.

Turban de Mousse de Soles au Homard Newberg (Sole Mousse with Lobster Newberg)

With the dull edge of a heavy butcher knife, pound and chop very finely 1 pound good white fish, sole, sea bass or cod, free of skin and bones. Work in 1/2 teaspoon salt and a little white pepper, then gradually work in the whites of 2 eggs. Rub the mixture through a fine sieve or purée it in an electric blender. Turn it into a metal pan, set the pan in a bowl of cracked ice, and with a wooden spoon work the mousse until it is well chilled. Gradually blend in 2 1/2 cups heavy cream. Slip a small ball of the mixture off the end of a spoon into a little warm water in a shallow pan. Bring the water slowly to the boil, then turn the ball over. If the mousse has been worked enough, it will become firm as it cooks. If it has not been worked enough, it will fall apart. In this case, return the pan containing the mousse to the bowl of ice and continue to work it with the wooden spoon.

Pack the mousse firmly and carefully into a buttered ring mold. Level it off at the top, then slap the mold against the table a couple of times to settle the mousse and make it compact. Put the mold in a pan of hot water, cover it with a piece of buttered wax paper, and bake it in a moderately hot oven (375°F) for 15 to 18 minutes, until a small pointed knife or a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the mousse stand a few minutes before unmolding it on a serving dish. Fill the center of the ring with lobster Newberg.

Homard Newberg (Lobster Newberg)

With a heavy butcher knife, remove the claws from 3 live lobsters weighing 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds each, and cut them into 3 or 4 pieces. Cut the bodies into 3 or 4 pieces. Sprinkle the pieces with 1/2 teaspoon salt and a little white pepper and sauté them for 5 minutes in 3 tablespoons butter in a large shallow pan. Add 1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot or onion. Pour 2 or 3 tablespoons Cognac over the lobsters and ignite it. When the flame burns out, add 1/4 cup dry Sherry and 1 1/2 cups light cream. Cover the pan closely and cook about 20 minutes. Remove the lobsters and reduce the liquid in the pan to about one-third its original quantity. Add 1 cup cream sauce made with 2 tablespoons each butter and flour, and bring the sauce to the boil. Mix 2 egg yolks with 1/3 cup heavy cream and add some of the hot sauce. Return this mixture to the pan, stirring briskly all the time. Remove the sauce from the heat the minute it reaches the boil and add 1/4 cup dry Sherry. Strain the sauce through a fine sieve and correct the seasoning with salt. Remove the meat from the lobster shells, cut it in pieces, cover it with some of the sauce, and heat it, but do not allow it to boil. Fill the center of the mousse ring with lobster and sauce and spoon the rest of the sauce over the mousse.

Canned truffles come peeled and unpeeled. If they are unpeeled, the rough skin must be cut away as thinly as possible, and the peelings reserved for another use.

Farce aux Truffles (Truffle Stuffing)

Remove the skin and membranes from 2 pounds fine white fresh pork fat using, if available, panne, or kidney fat. Combine 1/2 pound goose liver or goose liver pâté, the truffle peelings, if any, and 1 teaspoon salt mixed with 1/8 teaspoon Parisian spice or poultry spice. Put fat and liver through the finest blade of the food chopper. Add 6 whole small truffles or three large ones cut in half, a small pinch of thyme, 1/2 bay leaf, finely crushed, the juice from the can of truffles (about 1/2 cup), 2 tablespoons brandy, and 1/4 cup Madeira or Sherry. Mix the stuffing thoroughly and store it in the refrigerator for 12 to 15 hours. Fill the cavity of the bird loosely. This amount is sufficient for a 10- to 12-pound bird.

For a less rich truffle stuffing, I evolved the following formula:

Farce aux Truffles Diat (Truffle Stuffing Diat)

Remove the skin and membranes from 1 1/2 pounds panne, fresh pork kidney fat. Combine 1/2 pound lean pork, or half pork and half veal, 1/4 pound goose liver trimmings or pâté, and 1/4 cup truffle trimmings. Put all through the finest blade of the food chopper. Add 1 teaspoon salt mixed with 1/8 teaspoon Parisian spice or poultry seasoning, a small pinch of thyme, a finely crushed bay leaf, 2 tablespoons brandy, 1/4 cup Madeira or Sherry, and 1/2 cup juice from the can of truffles. Mix all together thoroughly and add 1 lightly beaten egg. Add 6 whole small truffles or 3 large ones cut in half. Store the stuffing in the refrigerator for a few hours or use it immediately.

Another stuffing popular in the holiday season was the traditional one made with chestnuts.

Ritz Chestnut Stuffing

Chop 1 pound each of fresh lean pork and fresh fat pork, using the finest blade of the food chopper. Add 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon Parisian spice or poultry seasoning. Add 1 pound chestnuts, cooked, shelled, and cooked again until they are tender, and 1 cup fresh bread crumbs. Toss all together lightly and sprinkle with 1/4 cup Madeira or Sherry. Fill the cavity of the bird loosely. This amount is sufficient for a 10- to 12-pound bird.

Chestnut purée naturally goes with truffled birds; the corn fritters we served at the Ritz were an American innovation, as was the cranberry sauce.

Purée de Marrons (Chestnut Purée)

Force baked chestnuts through a fine sieve or purée them in an electric blender, and to each cup purée add 1 tablespoon each of butter and cream. Reheat the purée and correct the seasoning with salt.

Beignets de Maïs (Corn Fritters)

Bring to a boil 1 cup water, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon sugar, and 1/4 cup butter. Add 1 cup flour, all at once, and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture rolls away from the sides of the pan in a ball. Remove the pan from the heat, cool the batter a little, and beat in 4 eggs, one at a time. Add 1 cup well drained cooked corn. Slip the mixture by spoonfuls into hot deep fat (375°F) and cook the fritters until they are well puffed and brown on both sides. They will turn over themselves as they cook. Drain on paper towels and serve very hot.

When our guests wanted venison at Christmas time, they were likely to order a roast saddle, which we served with sauce poivrade.

Selle de Chevreuil Rôti (Roast Saddle of Venison)

Remove both skins and all sinews from a 5- to 6-pound saddle of venison. Combine in a saucepan 1 quart water, 1 1/2 cups vinegar, 1 onion, chopped, 1 carrot, sliced, 1 clove garlic, 1 teaspoon thyme, 2 bay leaves, 4 sprigs of parsley, 12 to 15 peppercorns, and 1 tablespoon salt. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook it slowly for 1 hour. Cool the marinade and pour it over the venison in a deep bowl. Store the meat in the refrigerator, turning it frequently so that the marinade will penetrate all surfaces. Remove the venison from the marinade, dry it thoroughly, and lard the top with narrow strips of fat salt pork. Season with salt and cover with slices of fat salt pork. Put enough fat or oil in a roasting pan to allow generous basting and roast the meat in a very hot oven (450°F), basting it frequently, for about 45 minutes to 1 hour. The meat should be rare, and the exact time depends upon the size of the animal from which the saddle came and the thickness of the cut. Remove the slices of fat salt pork and spread the meat with a little glace de viande or concentrated meat extract. Serve with sauce poivrade and chestnut purée.

Poivrade Sauce for Venison

After removing the venison from the roasting pan, pour off the accumulated fat. To the pan add 2 tablespoons vinegar, 1 tablespoon chopped shallot or onion, 1 1/2 cups sauce espagnole (November, 1956), 2 sprigs of parsley, 1 small bay leaf, a pinch of thyme, and 1 cup stock. Cook the sauce slowly until it is reduced to about 1 1/2 cups. In another pan, cook 1 cup red wine with 8 or 10 crushed peppercorns until the wine is reduced to 1/3 cup. Add the sauce from the roasting pan and cook slowly for 25 minutes, skimming as necessary. Correct the seasoning with salt, add 2 tablespoons red currant jelly, and strain through a fine sieve.

An English plum pudding was always part of our Christmas menu.

Christmas Plum Pudding

Mix together 2 cups finely chopped beef kidney suet, 3/4 cup bread crumbs, 1 cup brown sugar, 3/4 cup flour mixed with 1 teaspoon mixed ground spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, and very little clove) and a pinch of salt, 5 ounces each of Malaga raisins, sultana raisins, and currants, 3 ounces finely chopped mixed lemon and citron peel, 2 ounces blanched almonds, the grated rind and juice of 1 lemon, and 3 lightly beaten eggs. Add 3/4 cup each of ale and stout and 1 1/2 cups each of rum and brandy. Fill a pudding bowl two-thirds full and tie a muslin cloth over the top, or use a metal pudding mold fitted with a cover. Put the mold on a rack in a kettle, in water that comes one-third the way up the mold. Bring the water to a boil, cover the kettle very closely to hold in the steam, and steam the pudding for 3 hours. Add boiling water as necessary. Store the pudding in a cold place, covered, until serving time. Put it back in the kettle in boiling water and steam it for 1/2 hour or longer. To serve, unmold the pudding on a serving dish, sprinkle it with sugar, pour over it 2 or 3 tablespoons warmed rum, and ignite the spirit. Serve the pudding while it is blazing.