The World Digested
Real Foodies Do Not Eat Quiche
Real Foodies Don’t Eat Quiche.*
Why would you? Why would anyone eat a quiche when you have other eggy choices? For something substantial, you cannot beat the tortilla Española, in which stars the olive-oil poached potatoes. If you want a bit more vegetables and a little less guilt, then there is the reliable Italian frittata. Or if you want to go fancy with a knife and a fork and a crusty baguette, choose a buttery omelet for the gooey center; if not, then go lazy and do a scrambled and serve it in situ. All these are perfectly serviceable and sensible: every egg for every occasion. With a good cast iron pan, the eggs can travel across Europe faster and smoother than the Eurostar. The egg – true to its nature of being an egg – is highly versatile and universally likeable.
But a quiche? What is it anyway? It is a part custard and a part crust. A custard is usually sweet, and so is a pie or a tart. A quiche mimics all the other custardy sweets: like a flan pâtissier (not to be confused with the Spanish flan), it has a buttery crust; like the crème brûlée, it is enriched with cream; and like a clafouti, it is studded with fillings. And yet, and yet, it is not sweet. No, a quiche is definitely not sweet. Despite sharing the overall genetic profile, it dares to differ from its kinsmen and be salty. With bits of lardons or shavings of cheese, it is as savory as it can be.
And, where do you eat this thing called quiche? At home? The extra step of making the pâte brisée (short pastry) is itself daunting as it requires a deft pair of hands (and a good food processor), not to mention that the rolling leaves the kitchen, self included, in a white, floury mess. Adding to the list of woes, the chilling time in the fridge and the blind baking in the oven all take just so much time and energy. Certainly, there is the pre-baked or frozen dough, which comes even helpfully in an aluminum pan, but those store-bought crusts can never be so good as to justify all the calories you are about to consume. Therefore, although a quiche arguably makes an agreeable lunch, it is just not worth the trouble, and a good sandwich is just as satisfactory.
Therefore, notwithstanding the simplistic appearance, a quiche is not simple, and it is best prepared by boulangers or patissiers – as they rightfully are in France – where there are eggs, milk, cream and butter at hand and an oven ready and fired up. While there is nothing fancy to these quiches, they are good: they are good because the milk, the cheese, the cream and the butter are far superior to those found elsewhere (although the evil UHT milk has firmly dug in its claws into the Hexagon as well) and so are the eggs. There is a wholesomeness to the quiches there, which cannot be entirely attributed to the euphoria of dining by the Seine.
Well, we are not in France, so where do we find good quiches? In restaurants, a quiche looks apologetic next to truffled duck egg or even the salmon mi-cuit on the menu; worse on the deli counter, it disintegrates in its own sorrow as the day wears on. Forget those who serve them at parties as finger food: they know not what they do nor the difference between a tortilla Española and a quiche: the former easy and elegant in cubes, the latter crumbly and awkward even in individual mini cups, not to mention that they have been most likely previously frozen. And, while some boulangeries and patisseries, even outside of France, do carry quiches, the pale squares or circles seem mere afterthoughts.
So, there is really no place for a quiche. Its own mediocrity is its own downfall; and its ambiguity, teetering between sweet and savory, pushes itself far down the priority list.
However, we are human; and follies define humans, if intelligence does not. Hence, on some days when we cannot fully account for our own actions, we may hear ourselves blurt out, “hhhmmmm….the quiche, please” in a moment of weary indetermination. But, then what do you get? A pale, semi-warm, wobbly thing on a soggy bottom. Your own indecisiveness has become your own punishment. It is either under-seasoned or over-seasoned since tasting the raw egg is utterly unpalatable and even unadvisable. Seasoning a quiche is no simple matter: depending on what goes into the quiche, the recipe must be altered and adapted accordingly, such that inclusion of lardons, bacons, smoked salmon or Roquefort will naturally call for less salt, whereas the vegetables must be pre-cooked separately and seasoned accordingly, so they will not remain horribly bland or worse, release undue moisture during the baking as to cause the belabored quiche to fall apart.
Falling apart – that is always the problem with human creations, but foremost with pastry. Be it a pie or a tart, a pâte brisée, a pâte feuilletée or a pâte sablée, intrinsic to all pastry families is the soggy bottom syndrome. The general public appears quite unperturbed by it, however, and seems even eager to contribute to the sopping mess by further adding scoops of ice cream or squeezes of whipped cream. The few chefs with more oral sensitivity address the annoying phenomenon – via corn starch, soda crackers – but only in terms of juicy, fruity pies – i.e., apple pie, plum pie, peach pie, etc. No one seems to care when the affected is quiche because, looping back to the beginning of the question, who cares? Nobody eats a quiche.
Or is that why? Is it because no one eats it, so there is no good quiche? If there is no incentive, no knowledge and just no reason to make it well, then of course there will only be bad quiche around; and when those potential or latent quiche eaters meet those sorry specimens, their budding interest is quickly soddened.
However, there are quiches, aren’t there? In restaurants, in bistros, in cafés, in Starbucks, too. For something generically bland and generally unsatisfactory, puzzlingly, it is ubiquitous. Hence, there must be a demand for the soggy bottom and the sorry ingredients. Granted, many are indifferent to taste and texture, but why would someone choose a quiche over, say, a sandwich or an omelette? Because a quiche is “exotic.” It is French and, therefore, it is “chic.” When one dines out, one does not just pay for the food. One pays for the service, the scene, the seat, and to see and to be seen, just as much as the nourishment or even more. It is this phantasma, which makes up the bulk of the final bill in a fancy restaurant. While not many can afford a Michelin meal, but a great number can surely afford a slice of quiche – a slice of borrowed Parisian glamour.
From the point of view of the restaurants, a quiche works perfectly as it is easily presentable with some tossed salad; it can be prepared in advance (and frozen); and it can be served quickly. Let’s face it: even at restaurants, most of the crusts are bought ready and frozen (and cheap) and the custard buries many flaws, including leftover bits and pieces of bacons and vegetables and, most of all, lack of culinary talent.
That is why it is so popular in Japan.
Every French-themed or Italianesque restaurant seems to have a quiche on the lunch menu; not just restaurants, more casual bistros, trattorias, even Spanish restaurants, have adopted it, and of course, the hotel buffets have long incorporated it into their array of canapés. In Japan, the first hurdle for lunch business to jump over the is the “one-coin” – JPY500 – which is the allowance mainly for the no-frills salarymen. Then comes the JPY1,000 threshold for the “office ladies,” who are willing to indulge with co-workers occasionally, if not on a daily basis. JPY1,000 is a hard hurdle to cross; and the restaurants must be ingenuous to win the battle over lunch money and earn that one bill, featuring a dead poet. Not surprisingly, the-more-the-merrier rule applies, and a lunch set usually consists of an appetizer plate of a bit of cold cuts, a few green leaves, a sip of soup, a spoonful of this and that. On this chef’s platter of bric-a-brac, the sliver of quiche becomes a star.
Despite its miniscule size and mediocre flavor, a quiche has a glamourous allure because Japan is primarily an oven-free country where baking in oven is still seen as a novelty rather than a routine. Anything coming out of an oven mesmerizes the clients into thinking that they are getting their money’s worth, that they are getting something special and “oshare” (Japanese for “chic”).
However, quiche suffers the worst humiliation in cafés. Dreaming of picket fences and lacy curtains, too many café owners seem to mistake having an oven with having the ability to cook with it. Having no notion or misguided notion of what “oshare” is, they strive to provide what they believe or imagine to be “chic” in the convenient form of a quiche. Presumed sincere until proven otherwise, their version of a quiche is nevertheless a mockery or a mimicry of what it actually is.
The reality of quiche, in Japan, is a sorry mismatch of imagination and execution: “meat sauce” (Japanese Bolognese), avocado, mayonnaise, teriyaki chicken, grilled chicken (and rather a lot of chicken) – which may, or may not, have been the leftovers from the previous day’s (or week’s) lunch special – make their ways into the pie dish, although they really have no business being there. In the case of Le Case, a restaurant in Nara which claims to specialize in quiche, they even proudly present an array of “aspic” on cold quiches – i.e., Salad Caprese in aspic on quiche, dagger-tooth pike conger (a.k.a. “hamo”) and grapefruit in aspic on quiche, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. You get the picture.
Their intention, however, is noble. The said Le Case proclaims “Making children eat more vegetables” as their CSR in their homepage, which is a conceptually silly remark. Yet, their sincere sentiment seems to be shared by many quiche makers in Japan, as there is a well-received cookbook also promoting quiche as a vehicle for vegetable consumption. In fact, the book stretches the definition of quiche into including crusts using leftover spring roll skin, dumpling skin, sandwich bread or even offers a no-crust quiche baked in a pumpkin shell.
Not only do the Japanese people have an ingenious way of tweaking the crust, but they also must mess with the appareil. Many vegetarian or health-themed restaurants – “health” is no doubt the fastest growing industry in an aging nation – replace the eggs, the cream and the cheese and make a quiche out of tofu, which is understandable if not desirable. However, a few pioneers have ventured further into the wild by replacing the filling entirely with brown rice.
What was a quiche again? It is sad to say that a quiche in Japan has a very shaky identity. Incidentally and interestingly, when the French says someone is a “quiche,” it means that the person is “inept at something.”
Moreover, where a crisp, green salad will do nicely as an accompaniment, a quiche à la Japonaise often arrives with rice – plain – and sometimes, even with a miso soup. This tendency is more frequently observed at health-conscious cafés, where they serve brown rice and the said fermented soy bean paste soup with their popular tofu quiche. Theoretically, despite already having a carbohydrate shell, a bite of the quiche is to be followed by a mouthful of rice and perhaps some salad leaves and to be washed down by a gulp of miso soup. Not surprisingly, then, the people in Japan often regard the word “vegetarian” as some sort of a new cult.
What is a true quiche then? A good quiche has a shell, that must break finer than the sand, an appareil softer than a sigh, and each bite must contain the crust, the custard and the cheesy fillings so that it creates a multi-dimensional sensation. When scooped into the mouth, the crumbling, the silky, the juicy and the chewy must all come in an avalanche of warm fulfillment. That is a quiche.
Therefore, a quiche must have a crust. That is the first rule and also an inalienable right of a quiche. A quiche without a crust is worse than a fish out of water; it simply is not a quiche, but a frittata. And the said crust should not be made of anything else other than pâte brisée – short pastry – so that it will be sturdy enough as a vessel for the silky egg but fragile enough so that it crumbles and blends into the appareil. (It is like sushi – you do not want to be left stranded with a piece of chewy fish or overly al dente rice, alone, in your mouth.) For that end, the crust can only be the short crust – which is like a butter cookie but savory: the pâte feuilletée and the phyllo dough are made of “sheets,” thus a little moisture could turn the sheets into elastic sheeting for a fork to fight alone, even with the assistance of a knife. Even if they do survive the moisture – the ephemeral few minutes fresh out of the oven – the layers of sheets “shatter” instead of crumble, so that they are not only inadequate as a vessel, but also they do not blend into the custard as easily. It seems that in the ancient times, a quiche may have been made with a bread dough; however, it has firmly moved onto better pie since then in the name of human evolution (and for a doughy, portable substitute, please consider the calzone). Last note on the crust, even if it is made of short pastry, it should not be too thick so that it will become as thick or hard as a dam wall, water-proof or water-tight notwithstanding.
Now, the fillings – they should never overwhelm: anything added must not break the harmony by being chewy or hard to cut with a fork. Thus, not too meaty – a quiche is not a shepard’s pie – or too fishy – neither is it a fish pie, and most certainly not a tuna casserole – or too creamy – neither is it a chicken pot pie; and definitely not overly cheesy – no strings attached upon separation. Hence, lardons and hams for the meat and smoked salmon and crevettes for the seafood are the limits. Whoever ladles in the leftover Bolognese sauce – a quiche is not a lasagna – or throws in sausages and salami – not a pizza pie – are doing such a disservice to the combined Italian, French and American cultural heritage that he/she should be banned from the kitchen.
Most of all, bear in mind that a quiche is an indulgence; it is a casual and chic luxury item and not a necessity. There exists no such a thing as a “healthy” quiche – such oxymoron is a violation to the integrity of a quiche. Its richness comes from the appareil made of eggs and cream and cheese (and a little bit of milk if you wish), which means that the texture must wobble, crumble and, almost but not quite, melt. Therefore, tofu has no place in a quiche even for the vegans or the vegetarians (there are better replacements); and brown rice should stay as far away from the quiche as possible, not just from the filling but also from the plate as well. On the other end of the spectrum, indulgence is not a sanction for any reckless or wanton abandon so that one should not stuff in any type or any quantity of cheese: sweet and nutty Gruyère and Emmental are the best, while mozzarella and jack should find somewhere else to go. However, a restrained use of blue cheese, cheddar and parmeggiano reggiano are permissible as accents.
Having asked for the moon, now what do we do? Just as the celestial body was once considered out of reach, a celestial quiche may be out of bounds, well, out of borders, so to speak.
Or is it?
The human beings have gazed at the Moon since time immemorial, and look what happened: we put a man on the Moon (R.E.M.) – although for some it is still debatable whether the moon landing in fact occurred. Thus, if we dream of a perfect quiche long enough, it may happen one day.
Then, a picture happened – a picture of a picture-perfect quiche. However, a picture can be deceiving: after all, there was no beautiful lady or a bunny rabbit on the Moon. Few quick clicks on the photoshop, then, a whole new world opens up, for we live in the brighter and sharper virtual reality, flooded by image upon image of everything. In this kaleidoscope of hyperreality, it is just as easy to miss as to find, and finding that one clue, virtual or real, buried in a massive mound of data trash is literally as hard as looking for a needle in a haystack, with odds akin to winning a state lottery. However, some people do win the lottery, don’t they? According to the The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, by David J. Hand, if you don’t play, you don’t win; and if you play, someone is bound to win.
In this case, jackpot. One photo of a quiche caught the eye, and held the eye, and captured the eye. Its elegant and elongated crust rose like a swan’s neck; the tanned skin shone more seductively than the nymphs in Nice. The beauty of the regal quiche was majestic and magical. It was the picture of a quiche at Café Sugatti. Tasting, sometimes, starts long before the food arrives in the mouth. Our eyes are a powerful tool and by looking – in this case looking at the beautiful brown – our brain is already hard at work in assembling and sorting through past quiche data and comparing the input to the data in memory. Then, once it realizes that it is nothing like it has ever experienced, then the brain starts imagining, extrapolating and then expecting.
“I only seem to make brown things,” Mr. Sugahara bemused. True – from the espresso, the pour-over, the cappuccino and the tea to the crème caramel, the banana cake, the walnut tart and, certainly, the quiche, they are all shades of brown. But what a bewitching brown it is. The menu is nothing but a list of Maillard reaction – the amino acids (the “umami”) reacting with the sugar in heat – and caramelization – the sugar reacting with water at a higher temperature. Both types of browning – not mutually exclusive – create that irresistible aroma, which beckons and pulls stronger than the song of Sirens.
Just as we cannot close our ears – not normally, unless we have a block of wax given by Circe handy – we cannot close off our nostrils, not normally and not for a long time. We taste not only with our tongue, but with our nose – the loss of the sense of smell significantly reduces the sense of taste. When we eat, as much as we associate food with taste, the taste is, as a matter of fact, the ultimate sensation involved because long before the direct sensory hit on the tongue, we feast on the appearance with our eyes and luxuriate in the feel with our fingers, and foremost of all, we smell it. Eating, after all, is a multi-sensory experience: the more you engage, the more you get out of it.
Having salivated after the quiche with the eyes, now finally in the presence of it, other sensory organs begin to work double-time. Hearing the opening of the oven door, knowing that the quiche is warming up in the oven, the expectation starts to rush toward the finale. Then the nose twitches as the savory aroma drifts and wafts over, and the heart races up the crescendo. Yet, no quiche. Not yet. The moment is hung in suspense as Mr. Sugahara carefully places the quiche on a plate and adds freshly dressed greens.
All of a sudden, the quiche materializes. On a white plate, against the green, accentuated by the creamy red of soup, is the glorious brown. The long-awaited quiche looks rustic with its rough terrain of the baked appareil and the rugged edge of the crust. However, the looks can be deceiving as the rustic appearance hides a noble soul, like a precut diamond. The creamy appareil, made of one of the best milk (“Kisuki Dairy”) in Japan, is just firm enough to stand and hold the fillings within and yet it crumbles, without effort, in the mouth and folds in the savory crust and cheese and the vegetables. The fillings change according to what the farm sends him – organic and fresh. A summer favorite is zucchini with cream cheese – in which miniature fireworks of pink peppercorns pop and pop. A surprising but solid combination is red kidney beans with asparagus. Mr. Sugahara takes care to cook his vegetables separately so that each is seasoned properly and cooked thoroughly. Therefore, the red kidney beans break upon the teeth pleasurably with the barest hint of skin, and the asparagus has no stringy fibers to mar the enjoyment.
However, after all, the crust is the crown jewel at Café Sugatti. Mr. Sugahara blind-bakes it once for half an hour, then applies an egg-wash once, twice and three times; and each layer of wash is flash-baked to harden. Then after all these pre-baking – if it can still be called that – he finally adds the appareil and bakes the whole quiche. Those who have been carefully counting will note that the crust is in effect quintuply baked. Hence, no moisture dares to leak or seeps into such a formidable crust. Formidable, yes, but forbidding, no. You may suspect that the crust must be quite hard, after being baked for five times, but, it is not. It is surely sturdy and solid as a properly constructed wall, yet a little pressure from the knife will cut it cleanly through since that wall is pâte brisée. A pâte brisée is the salty version of a pâte sablée – deriving from “sable” in French – and like a sand castle by the sea, it crumbles upon contact with the ocean. Therefore, once Café Sugatti’s crust enters into the cavern of the mouth – salivating a tidal wave by now – it breaks and each grain of sand instantly transforms itself into tiny, individual capsule of savory flavor, permeating and perfuming each bite with the scent of warm butter and toasted wheat.
Tearing off a corner of the homemade – pale brown – ciabatta roll, the eyes – ever insatiable – and the stomach – ever greedy – start contemplating the other brown items: the almondine, the Basque burnt cheesecake or the Croatian rozata.
“The coffee, please,” the sanity has spoken, trumping over other tempting Maillard reacted offerings, saving them for another day.
*Real Men Don't Eat Quiche, by Bruce Feirstein, 1982.
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