Cooking with Sybille Bedford


Eat Your Words

This is the fifth installment of Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words column. 


The decline of the continental European aristocracy just before World War I doesn’t sound like a promising period for food … until you read Sybille Bedford (1911–2006). Bedford was the daughter of a German baron (part of the anti-Prussian aristocracy) and a wealthy Jewish German woman from Hamburg. She had Jewish blood and glamorous friends, and she escaped the Nazis with the help of Aldous Huxley. Her greatest novel, A Legacy, first published in 1956 and reprinted by New York Review Books Classics in 2015, is the story of two German families, one based on her father’s family, the other on Berlin’s rich Jews. These beautiful and inflexible characters collect objets d’art, gamble, eat sumptuous feasts, and unwittingly play their parts in the rise of fascism in Germany. It’s one of the book’s many pleasurable sophistications that the narrator is barely a character; once you’ve seen her parents—seen her legacy—you’ve seen it all.

Another sophistication is the food. The character based on Bedford’s father, “the beau Jules,” hides out in Spain. There he lives in the same natural, close-to-the-land way that he would have on his own estate, had his world not been collapsing. His table is luxurious in its rustic simplicity—a feast of uni and a whole flambéed loup de mer (a sea bass, “though not quite”) is served on fine china placed on a slab of pink marble under a mulberry trellis. The description reads in part: “There was a loaf of butter on a leaf, the bread was on a board; there was a dish of lemons and there were wooden mills for black pepper and gray pepper and the salt; the China was Eighteenth Century Moustier and the wine stood, undecanted, in a row of thick green cool unlabelled bottles.” Two kinds of pepper. Yum.

Jules’s first wife, Melanie, falls in love with him over this dinner, though she wonders where the sauceboat is. She is stirred when he “set fire to the next course” table side (this is the loup de mer) and “the flames, fed by rosemary and fennel, crackled, aromatic, invisible almost in the brilliant air.” At home, Melanie’s family dines in fusty Victorian splendor three times a day, politely disbelieving that the hoi polloi is rioting outside their gates. Bedford is at her most humorous describing their table, “the cream of chicken, the crayfish in aspic, the vol-au-vent, the calf’s tongue and currants in Madeira, the chartreuse of pigeon and the mousseline of artichokes … the Nesslerode pudding … ”

I found a vintage recipe online for that Nesselrode pudding, a frozen concoction of chestnut and crème patîssière that was once so trendy it was a cliché (definitely Bedford’s idea of a joke). It worked as well as I thought it would—making the Chestnut puree was absurdly laborious; the dessert was brick-like once frozen, impossible to serve and tasted like bland rum-raisin ice cream. But then I made some modern substitutions (ice cream for crème patîssière) and mixed in some other elements Victorians would have served with chestnuts (chocolate shavings), and the results were so amazing they’d deserve to be a trend today.

The other stuff—make bread, break down sea urchin, somehow cook a whole sea bass over burning sprigs of rosemary—I managed only partially, choosing to take the beau Jules’s Spanish theme and adapt it for sanity. I made bread and the simplest possible tortilla. I served not sea urchin but shellfish (flambéed) and baked two whole branzino in a crust of salt, using the suggested rosemary and fennel for stuffing.

Taste, for Bedford, is a luxury. You have to be someone to understand the value of your senses, to know what they’re telling you. Mine, after cooking in her style, told me that I should definitely aim to be more like a German aristocrat in Spain in my daily life. I should be regularly crusting more whole fish in salt, making my own bread, and mixing nut creams and bitters into my pints of vanilla Häagen-Dazs.

Bread au Beau Jules
This is the famous New York Times and Sullivan Street Bakery no-knead bread recipe, the only at-home bread-baking technique that has ever worked for me. My contribution is to vouch for it, and to note that I’ve tried the paper’s iterations (faster, whole wheat), and they haven’t been as successful.

Note on timing: this dough needs to sit overnight, and then it takes some hands-on time and two more hours of rising the next day. Realistically speaking, you need to do it the night before a day when you plan to be home all day cooking. And do the math ahead of time. If you put the ingredients together at 9 P.M., before bed, you’re starting the second rise at 9 A.M., baking at 11:30 A.M., and your bread is ready to slice sometime after noon. Adjust for desired time of service, and it’s okay to put the bread in the fridge between first and second rise.

3 cups flour
1/4 tsp yeast
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups water
Olive oil, for coating
Extra flour, for dusting

Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. Add water and, using a wooden spoon, spatula, or your hand, mix until wet and sticky, about thirty to sixty seconds. Place the dough in another bowl lightly coated with olive oil. Cover and let rest for twelve hours at room temperature.

Fold the dough once or twice and let rest for fifteen minutes. Next, shape into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel with flour; place the seam side down on the towel and dust with flour. Cover with a cotton towel and let rise one to two hours at room temperature, until more than doubled in size.

Preheat a six- to eight-quart pot at 450 to 500 degrees, at least thirty minutes prior to baking. Once the dough has more than doubled in volume, remove the pot from the oven and place the dough in the pot, seam-side up. Cover with the lid and bake for thirty minutes. Remove the lid and bake fifteen to thirty minutes uncovered, until the loaf is nicely browned.

Tortilla Española
This recipe is adapted from my go-to cookbook for all things Spanish, The Foods and Wines of Spain, by Penelope Casas. The ingredients are simple, but the technique takes some work.

1 cup olive oil
4 large potatoes, peeled and sliced in 1/8 inch slices
4 to 6 large eggs

Heat the oil in an eight- or nine-inch skillet and add the potato slices one at a time to prevent sticking, salting the layers as you go along. Cook slowly, over a medium flame, lifting and turning the potatoes occasionally until they are tender but not brown.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, beat four eggs with a fork until they are slightly foamy. Salt.

Remove the potatoes from the skillet and drain them in a colander, reserving the oil. You’ll use about three tablespoons of it to fry the tortilla; the rest can be saved for future use.

Add the potatoes to the beaten eggs, pressing them down so they are completely covered. If it looks like you have way more potato than egg, beat and add one to two more eggs. Let sit for fifteen minutes.

Add two tablespoons of the reserved oil and reheat the skillet on high heat, making sure nothing is stuck on the bottom. When the oil is very hot, slide in the potato and egg mixture, spreading rapidly. Lower the heat to medium and shake often to prevent sticking.

When the potatoes begin to brown underneath, invert a plate of the same size over the skillet and flip the egg-potato mass onto the plate. Add one more tablespoon of oil to the pan, then slide the omelet back into the skillet and brown the other side.

If your pan wasn’t hot enough, the tortilla might break or stick. If that happens, don’t panic. Scrape the stuck bit off, repiece it onto the tortilla and carry on; it will all come together eventually.

Lower the heat some more and continue frying and flipping, two or three more times, until the tortilla is unified but slightly juicy in the center. Can serve warm or at room temperature.

Flambéed Shellfish
Serves four as an appetizer or two as a main course.

Big glug of olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 carrot, chopped
18 clams, scrubbed
1 2lb bag of mussels, scrubbed and if necessary de-bearded
2 tbs whiskey
1 tsp paprika
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp red-pepper flakes
Pinch of saffron
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 large tomato, chopped
1/4 cup chopped parsley, for garnish
Lemon wedges, for garnish

Sauté the garlic and carrot in the olive oil on medium heat, tossing until the garlic loses its raw edge, around one minute.

Add the shellfish, toss to combine, then add the whiskey and set the mixture on fire. Whoosh!

Add all the remaining ingredients, toss to combine, and cover. Cook until the shells open, around five minutes.

Whole Branzino Baked in Salt

1 or 2 branzinos, heads on, scaled and gutted
Thinly sliced fennel, around 1/2 cup
A few sprigs of rosemary
Box of kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 350.

Prepare a baking dish just large enough to hold the fish by filling it with enough salt to cover the bottom of the dish.

Stuff the fish with fennel and rosemary, and place them on the salt, pouring the rest overtop to cover the fish.

Bake for forty minutes.

When the fish is done, break it out of its crust, fillet, remove the skin (it will be very salty), and serve.

Nesslerode Ice Cream
This recipe is intended to fill a ten-cup Bundt-cake pan to the top, making an impressive-looking frozen confection that can be sliced and served like a cake. But it’s also great mixed, mashed back into the container, and eaten by the freezer.


5 cups good-quality vanilla ice cream
2/3 cup of Maraschino cherries, chopped
2/3 cup of unsweetened baking chocolate, finely shaved or chopped (70 percent or more cacao)
2/3 cup of golden raisins
2/3 cup good-quality candied ginger, chopped
1 cup chestnut puree, either homemade or store-bought “chestnut crème”
8 Maraschino cherries and 2 tbs chocolate shavings for topping

Let the ice cream soften enough to stir.

Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl, and mix thoroughly.

Spoon into a mold (or back into the ice-cream container) and refreeze overnight.

When it’s time to unmold your creation, run the tin quickly under hot water and invert, tapping until it comes free.

Garnish with more cherries and more shaved chocolate.

For homemade chestnut puree:

This complex two-step method of peeling chestnuts and making puree was adapted from the blog One Bite More. It wasn’t as easy for me as it was for the blogger, but the skins did basically slip off, and it seemed like it could have been worse. 

1 towel
1 large bowl
1 dish towel
20 chestnuts
Vanilla bean
1/2 cup sugar

Preheat the oven to 400 and put a baking tray inside.

Score the chestnuts with a large, deep X, all the way through the shell and the inner membrane into the meat; the larger the X, the easier the chestnut is to peel.

Put the cut chestnuts in a pan of cold water and bring to a boil.

When the water has boiled, drain the chestnuts and dump the steaming mass into the preheated baking tray.

Roast for twelve minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the vessel in which you’ll keep the chestnuts warm while peeling. (A cooled chestnut cannot be peeled.) Wrap the large bowl in the large towel, then place the dish towel inside.

Put the roasted chestnuts inside the dish towel and cover; this should keep them warm.

Peel, one by one, making sure to remove all of the bitter inner membrane, trying not to burn yourself or hurt your fingernails too badly.

Chop the peeled chestnuts roughly, put them in a saucepan with the whole vanilla bean, half cup of sugar, and milk to cover, and simmer for twenty minutes.

Let the mixture cool slightly and puree in a blender, adding more milk if it’s too thick.

Blend until it’s as smooth as you can get it, then press through a sieve with the back of a spoon.


Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York.

Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words here