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A late summer cake from a misunderstood master of French cuisine



A late summer cake from a misunderstood master of French cuisine

One day in March 1968, cookery teacher Madeleine Kamman was leafing through the Times when she came across a recipe she thought was rubbish. It was for what the newspaper’s then food editor, Craig Claiborne, called “Provençale snails on toast,” or snails cooked fresh in a sauce of tomatoes, garlic, shallots, butter, salt and pepper and spooned over bread. Nonsense, thought Kamman. “Merci, merci, for advocating snails,” began her politely brutal letter to Claiborne. “I have only been an American for eight years and I still vividly and fondly remember the small meetings in my French homeland. We made them from scratch by the thousands, and then there was a feast with Chablis. ”Kamman, who moved from her French homeland to a suburb of Philadelphia eight years ago, criticized Claiborne’s recipe and recommended a superior preparation based on the French Languedoc Province – Snails in a braised lettuce puree, kissed with hollandaise sauce and served on a loaf of ficelle.

Claiborne was so impressed by Kamman’s passionate letter that he decided to visit her home, where the kitchen walls were lined with her grandfather’s copper pots. He wrote a story about her that ran in the Times in May under the headline “A Snail Addict’s Enthusiasm Helps Turn a Meal Into a Feast,” and paved the way for Kamman’s remarkable career. Her first cookbook “The Making of a Cook” was published three years later. An energetic woman with blue eyes and a strong French accent, she ran cooking schools and restaurants and starred in the television show “Madeleine Cooks” from 1986 to 1991.

But Kamman remained a cult figure until her death in 2018 at the age of eighty-seven. The attention she received was often less focused on her cuisine than on her habit of criticizing gastronomy favorites. In France, Kamman had studied at Le Cordon Bleu and the L’École des Trois Gourmandes school, which Julia Child co-founded, and she and Child were social acquaintances. But in the classes Kamman taught in the United States, she reportedly forbade students from watching Child’s show The French Chef and ordered them to destroy their copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Another target was the Lyon chef Paul Bocuse. “Women lack the instinct for good cooking,” said Bocuse in 1975. In response, Kamman turned a framed photo of Bocuse upside down in her restaurant. The press was often fixated on these conflicts. Kamman has been referred to as “abrasive”, “arrogant”, “difficult” and many other terms that we now recognize as sexist dog whistles. But it is Kamman’s career that most severely criticizes Bocuse’s silly claim, more than any of her “cheeky” comments.

Kamman was born Madeleine Marguerite Pin outside of Paris in 1930 and was the only child of a working-class couple. She spent much of her youth watching the women in her family cook, including her aunt Claire Robert, who owned a two-Michelin-star restaurant in the Touraine province. After the war she moved to Paris, where she studied languages ​​at the Sorbonne before doing culinary training. In 1960, however, she married the American Alan Kamman, a civil engineer, and moved to the United States, first in Alan’s home state of Pennsylvania and later in the Boston area. In order to avert the loneliness in her adopted country, she cooked – and she regarded home cooking as an art form, even if the society around her did not recognize it as such. Over time, their cuisine adapted to their American surroundings. She could take blueberries, a fruit that seemed to be ubiquitous in America, and whip them into a crème bavaroise that reminded her of her French homeland. She could look at a dish like corn and lima bean succotash and give it a French twist by adding chicken broth, a dash of sugar, and whipped cream.

Kamman’s opus “When French Women Cook” was published in 1976. The book, a mixture of memoirs and recipes, was “a feminist manifesto in its own way,” she wrote. Kamman not only urged Americans to respect French cuisine; others, including Julia Child, had already done it. She urged Americans to respect French women’s cuisine, a more complicated fight. She dedicated the book to “the millions of women who have spent millennia in kitchens creating unrecognized masterpieces”. (In a characteristically sly gesture, she specifically mentioned Bocuse’s grandmother and mother.) In the book, Kamman portrayed eight women who had influenced her work in the kitchen, including her great-grandmother Marie-Charlotte, with whom she had traveled to weekend markets; her aunt Claire, the restaurateur; and Loetitia, a gifted home cooking from Brittany. Life had given each of these women difficulties. They had lost children to wars, were widowed, had suffered heartbreak. These struggles forged their creative output. Kamman saw the recipes of these women as proof of their strength and skill: Marie-Charlotte’s lemon cruller, Claire’s eel pate, Loetitia’s fig tart.

Kamman labels their recipes according to their level of difficulty – “easy”, “medium”, “tricky”. The fig cake falls into the first category. The cake, which comes together in about two hours, is ideal, writes Kamman, for the last months of summer and the beginning of autumn. She peeled off the stalks of two dozen fair-skinned fresh figs, then shaded their undersides so their seeds could peek out. Then she bakes them in a brew of apple cider and honey until they soften. The fruit sits in a pastry bowl on a thick bed of cream, whipped with sugar and a dash of dark rum. The dessert is quietly elegant, an ointment for sticky summer afternoons. Kamman does not add an explanatory top note to this preparation, no illuminating anecdote that explains the meaning of the cake to the readers. Like so many other dishes in the book, this one speaks for itself, as a small portal into a woman’s creative soul.

Many of the book’s recipes have never been written down before, Kamman wrote on the opening pages. In that sense, When French Women Cook was also an act of recovery. “Where are you, my France, where the women cooked, where the stars in the kitchen did not go to journalistic men but to women with worn hands, stained with peeled vegetables, dried out from work in the house, garden or field, wrinkled from the Age and experience, ”wrote Kamman. “Where are they?” She did everything she could to find this place on her own terms.

Fresh fig tart (fig tart)

Courtesy When French Women Cook, Copyright © 1976 by Madeleine M. Kamman. Preface Copyright © 2002 by Shirley Corriher. Published by Ten Speed ​​Press, an imprint of Random House.

Servings: 6

Cost: Expensive

Execution: simple

Total preparation time: 2 hours

Best season: August to October


  • 24 fresh figs, light-skinned
  • 1 tablespoon. butter
  • 1 cup of apple cider
  • 1 tablespoon. honey
  • Normal shortcrust pastry (recipe follows)
  • 1 cup of heavy cream
  • 2 TBSP. dark rum
  • 1 tablespoon. Granulated sugar


1. Remove the stems from the figs and cut a small cross in the end of the root. Grease an ovenproof baking dish with the butter. Put the figs in the baking dish. Mix the apple cider and honey and pour into the bowl. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven until the fruit is soft (varies depending on the variety). Drizzle once or twice with the cooking juice while baking. Cool.

2. Roll out the dough into an inch thick sheet. Fit into a dough ring 8 to 9 inches in diameter. Cut and shape the edge correctly, line with foil and fill with dried beans. Pre-bake for 12 to 15 minutes in a preheated 425-degree oven. Remove the beans, turn off the oven and let the batter dry. Take out of the oven after 5 minutes and let cool on a wire rack.

3. Whip the cream with the dark rum and sugar (you can use more sugar if you like) until stiff. Fill the pastry shell with the cream.

4. Place the figs on top of the cream and spread the glaze that was left in the baking dish over them. Serve at room temperature.

Ordinary shortcrust pastry

Courtesy When French Women Cook, Copyright © 1976 by Madeleine M. Kamman. Preface Copyright © 2002 by Shirley Corriher. Published by Ten Speed ​​Press, an imprint of Random House.


  • 1 ½ cups sifted flour
  • 3 to 4 ½ tbsp. cool water
  • 1 teaspoon. salt
  • 9 tbsp butter, chilled

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