Cooking With Babette

I made the richest, most expensive dish from the best food movie of all time.

Still from Babette's Feast, 1987.
Still from Babette’s Feast, 1987.

Courtesy of Panorama Film A/S/The Criterion Collection

Rare is the film that can make your mouth water. So rare, in fact, that when it happens—when a movie really gets food and cooking—it’s easy to gorge yourself on it, stretching lazily into the conclusion that nothing better could hope to exist. I made this error, for example, with Julie & Julia, the 2009 film in which Meryl Streep plays a buoyant Julia Child and Amy Adams an annoying food blogger—here was clearly the best movie about food ever made. My mistake was an honest one: Like many home cooks who approach cooking as a discipline demanding of study rather than a slapdash hobby, I immediately felt a certain affinity with Child’s joyful yet utterly serious devotion to her craft. I bought a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, prayed that it would usher Julia’s warm spirit into my own modest apartment kitchen with each new stain on its pages, and felt the food-movie contest to be closed. But that was before I met Babette.

I watched Babette’s Feast for the first time about a month ago, and by the time the credits rolled, it was clear to me that reassessments would need to be made. To a degree that I couldn’t have imagined (and certainly more so than Julia), Babette articulates a cooking ethic—one of generosity, care, artistic integrity, and above all humility—that I have aspired to for many years. With the 1987 Oscar-winning film by Danish director Gabriel Axel joining the Criterion Collection this month, that ethic and the small, lovely story that conveys it are enjoying the grand presentation they deserve.

The plot of Babette’s Feast, which is set in late-19th-century Denmark, is so simple as to be nearly nonexistent. A French woman named Babette arrives in an ascetic rural Lutheran community seeking shelter. She is taken in by the spinster daughters of the town’s deceased patriarch, and she works quietly as a housemaid and cook for many years. One day she receives word that she has won 10,000 francs in a lottery back in France, and she arranges to cook a “real French dinner” for the few (and increasingly querulous) residents remaining in the town to mark what would have been the 100th birthday of the patriarch. Though the sect’s members are wary of earthly pleasures, Babette’s exquisite, beautifully composed meal—featuring most memorably a dish of stuffed quails in puff pastry called cailles en sarcophage—ultimately brings the village together again.

And how couldn’t it? Real turtle soup, sparkling Veuve Clicquot, and baba au rhum would inspire just about anyone to sing hymns under the stars. Yet the sentimentality of Babette’s Feast is tempered by a certain seriousness—seriousness about fine cooking, of course, but also about the power a cook has to, as the sociologist Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson points out in an interview on the Criterion edition, help transform consumers into a community, however briefly. But today, when caloric abundance is the rule rather than the exception, does a complicated, lovingly prepared meal still have the power to bring people together? To find out, I determined to recreate Babette’s pièce de résistance, the cailles en sarcophage, for a group of friends.

There are a few serviceable recipes for the dish floating around online; I chose the one that seemed richest, calling for homemade duck-fat puff pastry and a luscious fig and Madeira sauce along with the truffle- and foie gras-stuffed quails. True, my Styrofoam-packed shipment of the gourmet items from D’Artagnan lacked the romantic appeal of Babette’s seaborne delivery, but it was exciting to have a single $25 summer truffle in the house, much less a fridge full of foie gras, delicate little partially deboned birds, a rich duck-veal demi-glace, and fine puff pastry. Discerning readers will detect that at this point I’ve already compromised by cheating on a few steps—the store-bought demi-glace, for instance, and certainly the puff pastry, the homemade pursuit of which I abandoned when a chef friend informed me that it would take at least three days to do properly.

The first step was to marinate the quails in pricey Bual Madeira and a little cognac overnight, along with thyme and garlic (my additions). After that, the process of assembly was surprisingly easy, if fragile. To create the puff pastry nests, I needed circular cutting implements of 5- and 3-inch diameters, respectively—a martini glass and small prep bowl filled the role nicely. As anyone who’s worked with puff pastry in a hot kitchen knows, the fickle stuff demands to be rushed back into the freezer after just a few minutes of handling lest it become too sticky, so the cutting process was slow. But once complete, I had four nice rounds with smaller circular indentations in the middle. After the pastry baked and rose majestically, I used the indentations as a guide to gently cut out a neat hole in the center of each puff—voila, we had sarcophages!  

Photos courtesy of Cam McDonald

Next I turned to my baby birds. Having purchased them already cleaned and deboned save for the legs and wings, I really only had to stuff and truss them like toy chickens. Though relatively easy, I will offer the following observations: Foie gras does not slice well in a hot kitchen (producing lots of messy errors I had no choice but to eat), and truffles, though insanely delicious, smell kind of like spoiled milk when waiting in your fridge.

Photos courtesy of Cam McDonald

Now all that was left was the actual cooking. After a brief sear in duck fat and a careful roast in the oven, I tucked my birds in their nests with the richest sauce my pan has ever contained, including figs, white wine, homemade chicken stock, demi-glace, and more Madeira. Sitting on their white plates, my cailles were not nearly as elegant as Babette’s, but they were, in the words of a dinner guest, remarkable. (And at roughly $37 dollars a plate, that’s fortunate).

Photos courtesy of Cam McDonald

Was the result worth the effort and cost? Considered purely as an exercise in cooking, I’d say sure—the cailles were as rich, succulent, and delicious as advertised (though there is some small irony to be found in the fact that my guests were more vocally appreciative of the first-course vichyssoise, which cost something like $4 per person.) However, my relative success with Babette’s special dish is not the thing that I value most about that evening. Instead, it’s my role as a cook in relation to my guests that I keep thinking about as the flavors fade from memory.

During this dinner I spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, prepping the next course, opening more wine, and generally taking pleasure in the fact that my guests were enjoying themselves—my food and service, as the grist for the gathering, were more important than my constant presence. In this sensibility I share something fundamental with Babette, who cooks not to impress or to show off (indeed, she never appears in the dining room), but rather to facilitate the alchemy that transforms good food into great fellowship.

This is an ethic that is all too rare. We live in a food culture dominated by the notion that cooking is a performance art, something that you wow people with from behind the island of your open-concept kitchen as if you were the host of your own Food Network show. The covers of glossy cooking magazines exhort you to “impress your friends” with this or that new technique, while “celebrity chefs” by their very existence make the argument that a cook’s personality is more important than her food. This is the contemporary self-centeredness that makes Julie’s half of Julie & Julia so unbearable—she may master French cooking, but in the end, the only guest she’s interested in feeding is her ego.

Contrast that with Babette. My favorite scene in the film comes after the last, glistening course has been served, when she finally sits for a moment in the kitchen, her skin dewy from work, quietly sipping a glass of wine. The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care. Indeed, Babette’s story is an argument for the idea that spending money, time, and energy cooking for friends is the best gift a home cook can give, especially if they enjoy themselves so much that they practically forget who’s behind the stove.

I can think of no more eloquent way of summarizing this ethic than Babette’s own words: “I was able to make them happy … when I gave of my best.” Anyone can learn to stuff a quail with fancy things; perfecting the recipe for fleeting, full-bellied happiness is a far more impressive feat, and one that any home cook worth his kosher salt should be after every time he picks up his knife.