(by Penelope Rowlands)
Quiche. The word, with its one, squishy syllable, seemed baffling to us. We must have first heard it in our chaotic family apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, uttered by our garrulous mother from her command post at the black Bakelite telephone in a corner of the living room. When she wasn’t at work, Mom could often be found there: chatting; shrieking with laughter; despairing; gossiping; worrying out loud; laughing some more. I can hear her still. Her joy.
At first “quiche” was just another word overheard in long melodic calls with Mom’s army of female friends. No doubt she trilled it loudly, with great cheer, as so often when she was on a fun tangent. None of us knew what it meant, at first, even though, as families go, we were sort of sophisticated. (Not that we would have thought that way, or ever used that word.) We were, in any case, a mix of cultures. My brothers and I had been born in England; our mother, who descended from an old New York family, was pure Manhattan. Our father arrived almost daily from a world far away in the form of blue aerogramme letters; our Queen—did she still belong to us?—gazed tranquilly from their upper right-hand corners.
The food at home wasn’t particularly good. Still, to us it was fine. Amazingly, fresh vegetables were hard to come by back then, even on the Upper East Side. We didn’t have a taste for them anyway. Frozen was good enough. There was white rice and bacon and who-knows-what-else. Welsh rarebit came from one box, butterscotch pudding from another. My mother—tired, exuberant—would rush in from the office just as we were sitting down to eat. It was up to our saintly grandmother, our emissary from the 19th century, to defrost and reheat. Granny had grown up in a townhouse with servants, less than a mile away. Now she took up their tasks—for us—with preternatural dignity and calm.
Then my mother remarried. A suave, faintly dubious, former advertising man moved in. A stepfather! I don’t think we’d ever imagined having such a thing. Yet there he was. Soon, something called the Cocktail Hour was introduced. In this confusing ritual, friends of the new couple would gather in our living room, ice cubes clinking, their voices ever louder as we waited for dinner to appear.
It was through one of these bons vivants—I’ll call her R.—that quiche first entered our lives. R. was the food editor at a famous magazine. It must have been from she that Mom first learned of quiche Lorraine. A dish with a female name! It sounded queenly. Fittingly, we were introduced to it with great ceremony, one evening at R.’s apartment on Madison Avenue. Out it came, cheesy and custardy— steaming!—with tiny, savory chunks of bacon. R.’s pitch-perfect pastry seemed to cradle it, almost lovingly.
We ate, we exclaimed. It slid down our gullets, heaven on a fork. In France it was usually a first course, R. told us; here in America, where we knew nothing of haute cuisine—nothing of anything, it seemed to me—it was likely to be the main one. It came in different guises; you could add onions, zucchini, anything you liked.
While this dish was new to us, it had arrived in America more than a decade before. The New York Times heralded it, approvingly: “Quiche Lorraine Is a Palatable Entree; A Glorified Custard Pie,” the headline proclaimed. Now the tart was entering the mainstream, where it remains.
On the evening of our own introductory dinner—in memory, at least—we chatted all the way home about our new discovery. It was only a walk of a block or so, but we filled it with quiche.
The next day, I headed to school armed with the ultimate status symbol for teenage girls: advance knowledge of a coming trend. For once, I could impress my classmates, some them ultra-rich. (One girl, with a robber baron’s surname, had just addressed a Friday assembly about her weekend in Bermuda.) It would be my turn to speak with authority about something no one else, I was sure, had ever experienced.
Um, what was I thinking? At school, black Chanel quilted bags were trending with a vengeance, toted with faux nonchalance by more girls with each passing day. They seemed to sprout up on their desks in Latin class, one right after the next. A culinary trend wasn’t worth a whisper.
On the home front, though, it was a hit. My mother fell upon quiche, and gradually a more sophisticated approach to food. She turned to it with the unbridled enthusiasm she brought to all the things she adored: the clothes of the moment—we shopped together at stores called "boutiques" (that word, too, was new), with names like Paraphernalia and Fashions for Girls; the beautiful objects she positioned in the living room, from floral cache-pots to family antiques, each with a story to tell; the creatures she loved so effusively, among them, an expanding family of cats.
And now, this exalted pie. It was best served with salad—this, too, was becoming commonplace. Soon quiche was everywhere, as if its time of harvest had arrived. Tiny versions of it were passed around at cocktail parties, exclamations following in their wake.
At about this time, life at home seemed to add a new dimension. Where once Mom’s fun single friends from work might turn up to share our evening meal, guests were now apt to arrive in pairs. Dinner parties unfolded like plays. The house became more masculine, somehow; men, in all of their mystery, appeared for parties, often with women on their arms.
R. published a cookbook, with her name on the cover. (An aspiring writer, I thrilled to this brush with fame.) Mom kept it on a kitchen shelf. Always in a rush, she’d screech to a halt before it, rifling through its pages, contemplating new dishes, many of them French: boeuf bourguignon, crême brulée….
Around us, so much of Manhattan seemed to be doing the same.
Although my mother died several years ago, she is still an outsized presence in my living room, just as she was in our childhood one, so many years ago. Now, though, she is silent. She stares out from a silver-framed black-and-white photograph, set dead center on the upright piano. She is eight years old and smiling, her eyes bright with laughter.
I have no idea where, in her beloved New York, this photo was taken. My guess is that it was Carl Schurz Park, the one overlooking the East River, where she used to walk Dukey, her adored cocker spaniel, about whom we heard so much. She is wearing an Easter bonnet, her brunette curls spilling out below. Her spring coat has a faint horizontal line at the hem where Granny must have lengthened it. Mom’s smile is the most radiant one I have ever seen. Every single time I stop to look at this image I remember her joy—in quiche, and so much more.
1 3⁄4 c. flour
8 T. unsalted butter, plus additional 1 T. cut into small pieces
1 t. salt, divided
3⁄4 c. grated Gruyère cheese
1⁄2 c. heavy cream
1⁄2 c. milk
1⁄4 t. cayenne
1⁄4 t. freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 slices bacon, finely chopped
Place flour, 8 T. butter, and 1/2 t. salt in a bowl.
Rub the mixture together with your fingers until pea-size crumbles form.
Add 1 egg and 1 T. ice-cold water, stirring until dough forms.
Knead dough briefly until it is smooth, then shape into a disk.
Wrap in plastic and chill for 1 hour.
Whisk together remaining 2 eggs, cheese, cream, milk, cayenne, nutmeg, 1/2 t. salt, and pepper to taste in a bowl.
Cook bacon in an 8-in. skillet over medium heat to render its fat, about 12 minutes; cool.
Add to egg mixture; set filling aside.
Roll the dough into a 13-in. circle and transfer to a 11-in. tart pan with a removable bottom, pressing into bottom and sides.
Trim excess dough; chill for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Prick bottom of dough with a fork; cover with parchment paper, fill with dried beans, and bake until set, about 20 minutes.
Remove paper and beans; bake until light brown, about 15 minutes.
Reduce oven temperature to 325 F.
Pour filling into crust and add dot with additional 1 T. butter.
Bake for about 20 minutes, until puffed and browned slightly.
Serves 6 - 8.