There’s a picture on page 253 in the 1996 edition of Larousse gastronomique that has always intrigued me. The picture is of a cream-colored serving plate with a central object that appears to be a boneless, skinless chicken breast coated with a thick layer of white icing. The breast is decorated with a few fresh herbs and served with some leafy salad greens and a sprinkling of pine nuts. Besides being a very nice photograph, the dish looks quite appetizing to me.

The first few times I ran across this picture, I simply admired it. Then I noticed that almost every time I opened this 1215-page tome, the book seemed to open to this picture. A phenomenon that I attribute more to the way the signatures are bound in the book than to some cosmic effect. Although I noticed the caption printed alongside the picture, Chaud-froid de poulet, salade de pourpier et de roquette, I never bothered to delve deeper into the underlying recipe. Recently that changed. My curiosity could no longer let me ignore the picture.

The picture and its accompanying recipe are part of a section simply labeled chaud-froid, which literally means warm-cold. The source of the term chaud-froid and when it was first used is a bit cloudy. I have three different editions of Larousse gastronomique and each tells a slightly different story.

The most plausible seems to be the one offered by Philéas Gibert (1857-1942). In 1759, the Maréchal de Luxembourg was hosting a banquet near Paris at the Château de Montmorency. Just as the festivities were about to begin, the Maréchal was summoned to the King’s Council. He ordered that the banquet proceed in his absence. When he returned, long after the banquet had finished, he asked for one dish. This dish was a chicken fricassee whose ivory-colored sauce had long since congealed around the meat. The Maréchal apparently liked this cold concoction so much that he requested it again a few days later. The dish was presented under the moniker of refroidi, but the Maréchal ordered that the name on the menu be changed to chaud-froid.

There is an alternative group of historians that believes the preparation dates back to Roman times. In the 19th century excavations at Pompeii, a jar was discovered that contained fragments of meat packed in aspic. The jar was inscribed calidus-frigidus, which can be translated as chaud-froid.

Because recipes for this type of preparation don’t appear in print until the beginning of the 19th century, the first explanation sounds more plausible. But whatever their origin, the popularity of chaud-froid preparations seems to have peaked at the end of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th. Today, these dishes are practically non-existent.

Grimod de la Reynière (1758-1837) mentions a chaud-froid de bécasse in his 1808 Manuel des amphitryons. Prosper Montagné (1865-1948), in the original Larousse gastronomique, quotes a recipe from Marie Antonin Carême (1784-1833) in Le Pâtissier parisien for chaud-froid de poulet à la gelée and there may have been others in the same book. Carême’s five-volume L’Art de la cuisine française au dix-neuvième siècle seems to be devoid of any chaud-froid recipes. In the middle of the 19th century, both Urbain Dubois (1818-1901) in La Cuisine classique and Jules Gouffé (1807-1877) in Le Livre de cuisine provide numerous examples of chaud-froid dishes. In the early years of the 20th century, Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) in Le Guide culinaire and Ali-Bab (1855-1931) in Gastronomie pratique also provide many examples. By mid-century when Curnonsky (1872-1956) published Cuisine et vins de France, only one chaud-froid recipe is included. Raymond Oliver (1909-1990) revived interest in these dishes briefly in his 1967 book La Cuisine, but that may be the last great cookbook to include classic chaud-froid preparations.

In its classic preparation, a chaud-froid dish consists of cooked poultry that is cooled and then coated with a jellied white or brown sauce. The final dish is served cold. Although Dubois describes eight different recipes for sauce chaufroix, all the preparations can be divided into those made from sauce espagnole (brown) or sauce velouté (white). In each case the master sauce is augmented with gelatin to cause it to solidify better at room temperature. The individual sauces are either used as is or supplemented with other ingredients, like truffles, blood, artichoke purée, tomatoes, herbs, and such. The poultry is cooked, skinned and partially boned, cut into serving pieces, and coated with the sauce. Dubois was known for his “architectural” creations. For his chaufroix, the coated pieces of meat would be arranged in a structural form and further decorated with other ingredients. Although preparations for small birds often started with a dozen or more whole carcasses, Dubois also created preparations made from just the breasts or tenderloins of the birds.

Gouffé presents similar presentations to those of Dubois. In addition, he presents a chaud-froid of fruit intended to mimic his chaud-froid de poulet à la gelée in appearance. Apples are used to represent the chicken breasts and are coated with blanc-manger instead of a white chaud-froid sauce.

The recent versions of Larousse gastronomique, both in French and English, include game, meat, and fish in their general descriptions of chaud-froid preparations, but only include a salmon recipe to serve as an example. In this case, the sauce used for the coating is the poaching liquid, a well-seasoned fish stock. There’s no mention of augmenting the sauce with gelatin.

But what about that original recipe that attracted me to this subject? After reading and considering many, many chaud-froid recipes in books from the last 250 years, I decided to try the recipe that accompanied the picture that originally caught my eye. The recipe is as follows:

Vider, flamber et brider 1 poulet de 1,8 à 2 kg. Le faire blanchir 3 min, de même que, dans des eaux différentes, 1 pied de veau fendu en deux et 500 g d’ailerons de volaille; les rafraîchir et les égoutter. Éplucher 2 oignons, 2 gousses d’ail, 3 carottes et 1/2 poivron rouge; bien laver 3 blancs de poireau. Piquer chaque oignon de 2 clous de girofle; aplatir les gousses d’ail avec le plat d’un couteau. Couvrir d’eau le pied de veau, les ailerons de volaille et les abattis du poulet. Porter à ébullition, écumer et ajouter les légumes avec 1 bouquet garni, 5 grains de poivre et du sel. Maintenir 1 heure à petits bouillons. Remplacer les viandes par le poulet et laisser frémir 1 heure. Retirer la peau de la volaille et attendre qu’elle refroidisse dans le bouillon filtré. Tremper 3 feuilles de gélatine dans de l’eau froide jusqu’à ce qu’elle ait gonflé. Plonger la moitié d’un bouquet d’estragon dans le bouillon et le réduire à 40 cl y faire fondre la gélatine. Ajouter en remuant 30 cl de crème liquide, puis 1 jaune d’œuf et le jus de 1/2 citron. Étaler une mince couche de cette sauce sur un plat et le mettre dans le réfrigérateur pour qu’elle prenne. Découper le poulet en huit et désosser le haut des cuisses. Tremper les morceaux de poulet un par un dans la sauce refroidie, puis les poser sur une grille placée sur une feuille de papier d’aluminium et les mettre 30 min dans le réfrigérateur. Couvrir ensuite les morceaux de volaille d’une deuxième, puis d’une troisième couche de sauce chaud-froid, en remettant au frais entre chaque opération. Décorer de pignons et de quelques feuilles d’estragon. Réserver 5 ou 6 heures au frais et servir avec une salade de haricots verts très fins ou une salade de pourpier bien assaisonnée. Gut, singe, and truss a 1.8 to 2 kg (4 to 4.5 lb) chicken. Blanch for 3 minutes. In a similar manner but in different water, blanch 1 calf’s foot split into two and 500 grams (1.1 lb) of chicken wings. Chill the meat in an ice bath and drain well. Peel 2 onions, 2 garlic cloves, 3 carrots, and 1/2 green pepper. Wash the whites of 3 leeks. Prick each onion with 2 cloves. Flatten the garlic cloves with the side of a knife. Cover the calf’s foot, chicken wings, and gizzards of the chicken with water. Bring to boiling, skim the foam, and add vegetables along with 1 bouquet garni, 5 peppercorns, and salt. Simmer for 1 hour. Replace the meats with the chicken and let it simmer for 1 hour. Remove the skin of the chicken and set it to cool in the strained cooking liquid. Soak 3 gelatin leaves in cold water until soft. Plunge half a bunch of tarragon in the cooking liquid and reduce it to 40 cl (1-2/3 c). Add the gelatin to dissolve it. Stir in 30 cl (1-1/4 c) of cream, 1 egg yolk, and the juice of half a lemon. Spread out a thin layer of the sauce over a plate. Put it in the refrigerator to see if it jells. Cut the chicken into eight pieces. Bone the thighs. Dip the pieces of chicken, one by one, in cooled sauce, then drain them on a rack placed over aluminum foil. Place them in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Cover the chicken pieces a second time followed by a third layer of sauce chaud-froid, while allowing the coating to jell between each coating. Decorate with pine nuts and some tarragon leaves. Set aside for 5 or 6 hours. Serve with a salad of very fine French beans or a salad of well-seasoned purslane.

I followed the recipe very closely, cooking the chicken the night before I was planning to serve it and finishing the dish the following afternoon, except I served it with a different vegetable. The preparation went well from start to finish. The finished dish can be seen in the following photographs.

From the start, I was concerned about the length of time that the chicken would be cooked. One hour seemed like a long time to poach a chicken, especially since it is served cold and the meat tends to harden when chilled. My concern turned to reality and the finished chicken, although it looked nice, was so overcooked that I found it almost inedible. But since the rest of the preparation went well, I decided that I would try to make the dish again, but cook the chicken differently.

I decided to borrow from the century-old recipes and make the sauce as a separate preparation from the cooking of the chicken. I made the sauce from glace, cream, gelatin, egg yolk, and lemon juice. Instead of using a whole chicken, I used just boneless, skinless breast. The chicken was roasted instead of being poached. (There are poaching and steaming methods used in Chinese cooking that would also work well with this recipe.) The results were quite good. The chicken was tender and juicy and the coating was rich and flavorful. I think the second attempt, as shown below, turned out just as visually pleasing as the first. The final recipe follows the pictures.

Chaud-froid de poulet
1 whole (about 0.8 kg) chicken breast, intact with skin and bones
fine salt
1 leaf gelatin
135 grams glace
1/2 extra large egg yolk
100 grams heavy cream
1 teaspoon lemon juice
12 to 18 leaves fresh tarragon
1 teaspoon toasted pine nuts
1.  Preheat oven to 215 °C (420 °F).
2.  Skin the chicken breast. Carefully remove the large fillets from the breast. Remove the tenderloins from the fillets and reserve for other purposes. Trim the narrow ends of the fillets so their shape is similar at both ends. Trim any ragged protrusions from the edges of the fillets. The smoother the edges of the fillets, the smoother the final coating will be.
3.  Season both sides of the fillets with fine salt. Place the fillets, skin side up, on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Roast the fillets for 4 minutes. Flip the fillets over and continue to roast them until their internal temperatures reach 52 °C (125 °F), about 4 minutes more. Cover the fillets with another baking sheet and set aside to rest until the meat cools. When the meat is cool, transfer it to a plate, cover the plate with plastic wrap, and refrigerate very well, such as overnight.
4.  Place the gelatin in a glass of cold water to soften. Place the glace in a small saucepan over low heat and melt it. When the glace is fully melted, drain the gelatin and add it to the glace. Remove the glace from the heat and stir until the gelatin is dissolved. Dilute the egg yolk with a tablespoon or two of cream and stir it into the glace along with the remainder of the cream. Stir in the lemon juice and season with a little fine salt. Transfer the sauce to a metal container that will fit easily into a water bath.
5.  Prepare two water baths, one with very hot tap water and one with ice water. Remove the cooked chicken fillets from the refrigerator and pat with absorbent paper any moisture clinging to them. Arrange the fillets, skin side up, on a cooling rack placed over a plastic wrap lined baking sheet.
6.  Place the sauce container in the ice-water bath and chill, stirring continuously, until the sauce begins to thicken, which happens when its temperature lowers to about 20 °C (68 °F). If the sauce thickens too much, it will start to get lumpy. If this occurs, place the sauce container in the hot-water bath and continue to stir until the sauce is smooth again. It will only be a few degrees warmer but much thinner. Move the sauce container back to the ice-water bath and chill again only until it starts to thicken.
7.  Starting with the thick end of each fillet, carefully and slowly pour the sauce over the fillets until evenly coated. Because the fillets are cold, the sauce should start to solidify almost as soon as it contacts their surface. When the fillets are evenly coated, place the baking sheet in the refrigerator until the coating is fully jelled, which should take only a few minutes. Leave the extra sauce out at room temperature for use as “glue” in decorating.
8.  Decorate the breasts with tarragon leaves and pine nuts. The leaves can either be used raw or they can be briefly blanched and patted dry. Arrange the tarragon leaves on the surface of the breasts. Put a few drops of sauce on the breasts where the pine nuts will be placed. Carefully place the pine nuts into the sauce to “glue” them in place. Place the baking sheet back in the refrigerator to solidify the attachment of the nuts.
9.  Before serving the breasts, bring them to room temperature in order for the meat to soften slightly. Arrange the breasts on individual, chilled serving plates along with appropriate garnishes, such as salad greens or blanched green vegetables.
Yield: 2 servings.
©2005 Peter Hertzmann, Inc. All rights reserved.