I usually save French cooking for special occasions and this California version is no exception. The ingredients should be of the best quality, locally farmed, and shortcuts kept to a guilty minimum. In particular, I love the light fruitiness that the apples give to what could otherwise be too rich a sauce. Even so, this is an indulgent, decadent dish that is best reserved for those you deeply love.
4 poussin (baby chickens), each about a pound
Freshly ground black pepper
4 large sprigs fresh thyme, please ½ teaspoon finely chopped thyme leaves
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus 4 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
¼ cup chopped shallots
1 large local Orchard apple, peeled, cored, and cut into wedges 1/8 inch thick
¾ cup best-quality heavy cream
1 onion, quartered
1/3 cup organic apple cider
½ cup dry California apple brandy
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Generously salt and pepper the cavities of each bird and insert a spring of thyme and one onion quarter.
Melt 4 tablespoons butter in an 8 inch skillet over medium-low heat. Add the shallots and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Stir in the apple and ¼ teaspoon salt, tossing to coat. Reduce the heat to low; cover and stew the apples gently, stirring once or twice, until very tender but not falling apart, about 15 minutes.
Scrape the contents of the skillet into the bowl of a blender. Add the cream and process until the mixture is very smooth, 20-30 seconds or so. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Rub the birds all over with the softened butter, generously coating the breasts. Generously salt and pepper them and tuck the wings beneath the back so they don’t burn. Place them in a glass baking dish with space to spare, place in the oven and roast for 15 minutes. Baste with melted butter in the dish and roast for another 15 minutes. Add the cider to the dish and cook until the thigh juices run clear, another 15 -20 minutes.
Remove and transfer to warmed serving plates. Pour the brandy into the hot baking dish and deglaze to dislodge any browned bits stuck to the bottom. Transfer the contents to a 6-8 inch skillet and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Carefully ignite with a kitchen match, let the flames die while shaking the skillet and then simmer until liquid has reduced by half, a couple of minutes. Increase the heat slightly and stir in the apple cream and ½ teaspoon thyme leaves and bring to a simmer until consistency is creamy. Don’t over thicken though. Add salt as you like.
Serves Four. This recipe was adapted from Falling off the Bone by Jean Anderson, and I actually used Game Hens – the best I’ve ever roasted!