The Quiche That Got Away
We'll always wonder about what might have been.
IT’S BEEN 84 YEARS SINCE I worked at the Red Lion Inn in Vail, Colorado, back— as I have mentioned here before—when it was a quaint town full of Ivy League dropouts who’d come to ski and never left, and handsome soccer players with great legs and floppy haircuts, and heavily accented Austrian men who’d broken their backs skiing in the Alps and retired to Colorado with their blond wives and were now running restaurants with fire pits and fondue.
During the daytime, I wore myself out hiking, playing tennis, riding my bike, and trying to find the book guy, Tom. (There was no bookstore; Tom had a big cardboard briefcase full of new books to loan people.)
At night I’d show up at the Red Lion, where they’d put me in pantry, plating desserts (individual pastry crust, one scoop French vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce that made a hard shell, chunky raspberry sauce) and side salads (soft, pale green lettuce, spoonful of toasted slivered almonds, tiny ladleful of some kind of creamy faintly mustard dressing), and doing other kitchen chores. And I was the bread girl (as I mentioned just last week), which meant I paraded through the dining room and across the terrace in a red dirndl skirt carrying a basket from which I dispensed tiny blueberry muffins and heavenly little cinnamon croissants and hard rolls to diners, one of whom invited me to take a ride in his new Jaguar even though his wife was sitting next to him finishing a bottle of white wine.
Anyway, some people have a former love they never stop thinking about. I have a quiche—the Quiche Lorraine that got away. I met it at the Red Lion all those years ago. It was a served in a thick slice whose archeological cross-section revealed minimal custard holding together layers of warm stretchy cheese (in slices rather than grated), bacon, and onion (maybe shallots). It was topped (perhaps even layered among those other ingredients) with what my memory insists was large parmesan crumbles. What? Why hadn’t these delightful, sandy cheese crumbles melted? And was it a crustless quiche? I feel that it may have been, because I am seeing my hand covered in these exquisite crumbs after I picked up the entire slice, like an animal, to eat it.
Today, the Red Lion appears to be more of a saloon serving TGI Fridays fare—but back then the delicious food made my head spin a little. Trying my first ever tastes of good French Onion soup, my first plate of snails, my first steak tartare, crab legs with hollandaise, and a lamb chop, I got the distinct feeling, over and over, that someone had been purposely hiding extremely important stuff from me all my life. How long had this been going on?
Lately, though, I have begun to think maybe I dreamed the quiche up, because Quiche Lorraine is not on the Red Lion’s 1979 dinner menu that I found on E-Bay. Perhaps it was a lunch item. Maybe it was even a staff-meal dish.
After weeks of forlorn searching and fretting, back here, in 2022, I still have not found record of my quiche anywhere, despite all the help I’ve gotten from people like my friend Kevin, who suggested I call Dick Cheney to see if he remembers having it at any of the Vail parties thrown by Gerald Ford (I’m not doing this), and from readers, one of whom sent me a link to a book I already own, What’s Cooking In Vail, Volume II, which doesn’t have the recipe, but I’ve ordered What’s Cooking in Vail, Volume I.
Having clamped my mind so stubbornly on recovering this quiche from the past, I naturally wondered why the hell it meant so much to me. We live on a planet full of quiche recipes, I told myself.
Did it imprint itself on me so indelibly because it arrived in my life during my first truly unchaperoned leap into the world? We all recall the strangeness of finally being free, plus Vail itself was extremely strange, with an almost cartoonish atmosphere and architecture, opened in 1962 by two former ski bums who built it to resemble a cozy Bavarian village.
Even the landscape had a Disneyesque quality—surrounded by the Rocky Mountains’ fantastical snow-tipped peaks and surreal Columbine flowers, the swaying aspens, and those cute little prairie dogs popping up everywhere—which everyone who stuck around after the skiers had departed seemed to revel in. (One night, I returned to the enormous kitchen in my dirndl skirt to find it completely empty. All the chefs had disappeared. I checked the walk-in refrigerator where inhaling the nitrous oxide from the canned whipped cream was a popular activity, but eventually found them all out by the back door along Gore Creek, smoking a joint and silently watching the spectacular sunset.)
It takes two kinds of lettuce (🥬 + $$) to keep the Department of Salad alive. The best way to support us: punch the green button.
Anyway, so many people use food as their personal baby book—markers that make the past come rushing back to us to remind us of our history and origins, the people we used to be, stirring an exquisite, painfully sweet nostalgia that washes over us then disappears. Blah, blah, blah.
But when I sat myself down and asked What are you really searching for, Emily? it turned out that it really was the damn quiche. Losing a part of who I used to be—which, it must be said, was not all that great—is not nearly as upsetting to me as the idea that I may never find this quiche recipe.
What I do have that I certainly didn’t have as a hungry, rather flaky kid acting like she’d been shot out of a cannon: the skills to create my own Quiche Lorraine.
Today’s Emily celebrates her time spent in search of lost quiches not with tears but with a new quiche. My conviction has always been that the crust you usually get with quiche is either unremarkable, leaden, or extraneous. While reading Volume II of What’s Cooking in Vail, I came upon a dish called Gougère Extraordinaire, by a 1977 local name Kay Pitcher, in which she makes a single giant gougère filled with mushrooms, shredded chicken, and shredded ham. I decided to steal the idea for my quiche, which I am calling a quichère. ™️
It’s not the Red Lion quiche, but it is a great quiche to have in your back pocket, with a crust that is tender and light yet also very substantial. Since it’s made from choux pastry, which is a beautiful thing, you could eat the crust alone.
Will I ever forget my Red Lion quiche? No. Will I stop searching for the recipe? Also no.
NOTE: if you feel like free-styling some quiche of your own, the custard ratio should generally be 1/2 cup dairy to 1 egg. And you’ll almost always be happy with the texture of the final baked quiche if you keep the temperature low rather than trying to speed things up. Once it starts to puff around the edges, it’s time to start thinking about taking it out. The center can be jiggly, but don’t take it out of the oven if it still seems liquid.
*RECIPE: Emily’s Quichère (Or, Quiche Lorraine with a Gougère-Style Crust That Looks Like a Crown)
I have found the best way to get this done and not feel like you’re doing something complicated (you’re not) is to fry the bacon and shallots and set them aside, grate your cheeses, set them aside separately, then make your crust and line the springform pan. The custard should be the last thing you do, since it comes together in 2 seconds.
For the Filling
1/2 pound thick cut bacon, sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces
2 large banana shallots (or one medium red onion), thinly sliced (you want about two cups)
2-3 tablespoons reserved bacon fat (put the rest in your bacon-saving jar)
3 ounces Gruyère cheese (or other flavorful Swiss cheese), grated (you should have a little over a cup)
1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan (do not use those bags of thickly grated Parmesan)
1 1/2 cups cream
1/2 cup milk
1/3 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
For the gougère-style crust
1 cup water
1 4-ounce stick butter
1 cup flour
4 large eggs
3 ounces cheddar cheese, grated (about a cup)
Preheat oven to 300°F (148°C)
Using your favorite method (I do mine in the oven, at 400°F or 204°C), fry bacon until it is crisp, separating the slices with two forks once it has begun to cook. Remove from fat, and drain on a paper-towel-lined plate. Reserve 2-3 tablespoons of the bacon fat.
In a large frying pan, heat the reserved bacon fat over medium-high heat; add the sliced shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until they have become tender and translucent and a few of them are beginning to get dark brown and even crisp at the edges. Remove from heat and set aside.
Make the gougère crust: In a saucepan, bring water, butter, and salt to a full boil. Add flour all at once. Remove from heat and beat with a wooden spoon until the batter forms a ball and comes away from the sides of the pan. Add eggs one at a time, beating until smooth each time; it will seem like the slippery egg is not going to incorporate, but it will. Add cheese, beating until smooth and shiny. The cheese doesn’t have to melt. I crack each egg into a dark bowl or dish first, to make sure no shell gets into the mix. (If you’re using a food processor, put boiling water, butter, and salt into bowl fitted with steel blade. Add flour and process for 15 seconds. Add 2 eggs and half the cheese and process until smooth. Add remaining eggs and cheese. Process another 45 seconds.)
Scoop the sticky dough into the center of springform pan. Lightly oil your fingertips (you may use butter or olive oil; I used a tiny bit of the cooled bacon fat) then press the dough evenly along the bottom of the pan and up the sides. Make sure the area where the sides meet the bottom is not too thick. Don’t worry about how it looks along the top edge—you want it to be as wild and freeform as you were at 18.
Place the filling evenly on the bottom of the crust-lined pan in this order: bacon, parmesan, shallots, grated Gruyère.
Make the custard: in a large bowl combine the eggs, cream, milk, nutmeg, salt, and pepper and whisk vigorously but not punishingly. You’re adding air to make it light, not obliterating it.
Pour custard over the filling. Carefully transfer the springform pan to the oven and bake for 50 minutes to an hour, or until the filling has begun to puff and become golden brown and the center is no longer liquid. Jiggly is okay; it will continue to cook a bit. You may sprinkle the top with a few tablespoons of Parmesan cheese during the last 10 minutes. You may also want to tent the quiche with tinfoil if the crust begins to get too brown.
Let the quiche cool a bit before serving; you don’t want to eat it piping hot. It’s also delicious at room temperature.
🥧 🥗 🥧 🥬 🥧 🥬 🥓 🥬 🧀 🥧 🥗
THAT’S IT! WE’RE DONE HERE! Later this week, paid subscribers should keep an eye peeled for another treat. In the meantime, if you feel like sharing the Department of Salad with friends or family who deserve it, please do so with the buttons below. Thanks for reading.