The custard is deep and luxurious, ivory colored and liberally studded with bits of filling -- pale leeks, tawny mushrooms or bright green spinach. Maybe a curling ribbon of ham. The top is a mottled mixture of gold and brown. The crust is crisp and a little flaky, just sturdy enough to contain it all. You cut it with a fork and the custard quivers, seemingly on the verge of returning to cream. The crust shatters against the plate.
I’d forgotten how memorable a great quiche could be. But I’ve been working hard at getting reacquainted. Over the last several weeks, there has always been at least one in my refrigerator.
Quiches make elegant appetizers for a dinner party, and they’re perfect for everyday eating. They are good hot, at room temperature or cold. If I bake a quiche on Sunday, I’ve got a couple of the week’s meals lined up -- a satisfying dinner (with a green salad, a glass of Riesling and a Laker game), a sack lunch my daughter can pack to work, and a great snack for me to nibble straight from the fridge.
For something that seems so fragile, a quiche is surprisingly durable. Once it’s baked, it can be stored in the refrigerator, tightly wrapped, for up to a week. Whack off a piece, plop it on a cookie sheet and bake it until it’s heated through -- 10 or 15 minutes. You’d never guess it wasn’t freshly made.
I have Thomas Keller to thank for my reintroduction. While looking through his new “Bouchon” cookbook over the holidays, I noticed that there was an entire section devoted to the dish. America’s greatest chef in love with the quiche? Who’da thunk it?
Keller, who serves quiche regularly at his Bouchon bistros in Yountville and Las Vegas, practically lights up when he talks about the dish. “I still remember the first time I had a real quiche. Just understanding that that was the way a quiche should be, suddenly it all made sense. It was one of those moments of sheer pleasure.
“When I see a well-made quiche, it gives me a sense of comfort, a sense of grounding,” he says. “Good food is not about fashion; it’s about quality of product and execution. A dish that is good lasts forever.”
Keller is far from alone in his affection for the dish. Here in Southern California, Josie LeBalch has attracted a cult following for the mushroom quiche she serves as a complimentary appetizer at her Santa Monica restaurant Josie. What began as an emergency fill-in has now turned into an 80-pie-a-week habit.
LeBalch’s quiche is a twist on one her father served at his ‘70s Valley bistro Chef Gregoire. She started making it because in the rush to open Josie, she didn’t have time to think of anything else.
“At first we were planning on serving it just until we got caught up with everything, but then the quiche caught on and now we can’t take it off the menu,” LeBalch says.
In addition to the sliver of mushroom quiche that goes out to every diner in the restaurant, LeBalch also offers others as occasional specials.
One of her favorites is another twist on the traditional Lorraine, this one made with diced potatoes and Morbier. The ham is in a single sheet, pinched into a ruffled little bow so that the browned ends poke through the puffed brown cheese on top.
Variations on a theme
It is interesting comparing Keller and LeBalch’s quiches. The differences show just how flexible the dish is. Keller’s crust is flaky; LeBalch’s is more like a cookie. Keller’s filling focuses on the custard; LeBalch’s is all about the cheese. Still, they are both delicious.
That says a lot about the eternal appeal of the quiche, despite whatever has been done to it in the past. And as any diner can tell you, in the wrong hands a quiche is not a pretty thing. Too often, careless cooks have turned it into a kind of dumping ground for tired ingredients -- a curdled casserole in a soggy crust.
And then there was that whole reputation thing.
“The quiche just got a bad rap,” says LeBalch. “It was too frou-frou or whatever. ‘Real men don’t eat quiche.’ Ha! I’ll tell you what: All my men love my quiche, are you kidding me?”
The most basic quiche is the original from the French-German province of Lorraine. In its simplest form, it is merely a savory custard baked in a pastry crust (though the “Larousse Gastronomique” reports an even earlier version baked in bread dough). The more familiar version of quiche Lorraine adds thin slices of blanched bacon and Gruyere cheese.
Today, there is all manner of quiches containing different kinds and combinations of vegetables and even seafood. In “Bouchon,” Keller includes fillings made with spinach, leeks and Roquefort, mushrooms, and ham and long-cooked onions.
Of course, Keller being Keller, he has some pretty specific ideas about how a quiche should be made. First of all, it should be thicker than most people make it. Most tart shells are one inch deep. Keller insists that a quiche has to be two inches deep before you get the true custard texture that is his favorite part of the dish. He uses a ring mold; a removable bottom tart pan works well.
Be forewarned that the pastry recipe is a little tricky; it tends to leak if you don’t follow the instructions carefully. Be sure to leave the pastry thicker than you normally might. The dough handles so easily and is such a pleasure to roll out that you might be tempted to just keep going past the thickness Keller calls for (precisely three-sixteenths of an inch, though one-quarter inch is just fine).
Rolling too thin is a mistake that will result in a thoroughly leaky crust, I learned to my dismay, as I watched my golden lab-pit bull mutt lap delightedly at the floor below the oven after my first try. (I also was reminded it’s always a good idea to bake quiche on a jellyroll pan to catch any spills.)
Add the custard batter and the filling ingredients to the pie crust while all of them are still hot. This lets the custard thicken quickly, helping to avoid leakage.
Keller waits to trim away the excess pastry dough until the quiche has already been baked. Instead, he presses it to the outside of the pan to help prevent the shell from shrinking. He also advises keeping pastry scraps around for patching any cracks or holes that might develop during forming, chilling or the initial baking of the crust. Moisten them slightly before pressing them into place.
Also, the crust must be well baked before the filling ingredients go in because the custard will prevent it from browning any further.
The custard filling must be blended until it is quite light and foamy -- it’s those bubbles that will suspend the cooked ingredients throughout the custard instead of allowing them to settle down to the bottom. If your blender is small, divide the custard in half in order to get the texture as frothy as possible. Adding the custard and filling in two portions helps get a better distribution of ingredients too.
Keller likes to chill the baked quiche thoroughly before serving it. This serves two purposes: It sets the custard so it can be sliced cleanly, and it allows the flavors to mellow and combine. For the less perfectionist (or patient) among us, quiche can be eaten straight out of the oven if you allow a 15-minute rest to cool and set.
Once you’ve got the basics down, whether you’re using Keller’s crust or LeBalch’s -- or your own -- you can change the filling to fit your taste. There is no set ratio of cooked ingredients to custard and crust, because different fillings will vary in flavor intensity -- you would add much less ham, for example, than you would mushrooms.
And it’s most important that all the filling ingredients be cooked to rid them of as much moisture as possible. Meat and fish can be sauteed; vegetables should be blanched first. Everything should be patted dry to remove any liquid remaining on the surface.
In general, plan on about three-quarters of a cup grated Gruyere per quiche, but don’t be afraid to play around a little.
Keller even includes quiches on the menu at the French Laundry and Per Se from time to time. Of course, these are individual serving size and they tend to come with interesting twists.
One of his favorites he calls the Caesar salad quiche. He makes the custard from milk that’s been infused with a Parmesan rind. “See, the cheese portion of the salad is the custard and the crouton portion is the crust -- you know how convoluted we get,” he says, laughing. “We serve it with romaine lettuce dressed in an anchovy vinaigrette. And, of course, it’s baby romaine.”