In the early days of the Renaissance, the painter Giotto supposedly earned a commission from the pope by drawing a perfect freehand circle. For chefs, making consomme is exactly that sort of deceptively simple test. Consomme is a perfect broth, absolutely clear and yet richly flavored. The classical repertoire was filled with consomme recipes, each with its own distinctive garnish. They're seldom served in restaurants anymore, but every classically trained chef and many food enthusiasts still know how to make them.
I Can See Clearly Now
Consomme starts with a rich, well-flavored broth. After it's been refrigerated and all excess fat removed, you pour the broth into a tall, narrow pot. Next you mince up some of the meat the broth was made from -- beef, chicken, veal, game or fish -- and mix it with egg whites, aromatic vegetables and an acidic ingredient such as chopped tomatoes. As you heat the cold broth, those ingredients form a repellent-looking "raft" of proteins at the top of the pot. Like a marsh filtering groundwater, the mesh of egg proteins traps impurities from the broth. When it's finished simmering, the newly crystalline broth must be carefully ladled out from underneath the raft.
Bringing the Garnish
To cooks, a soup's garnish is anything that's added to the broth. Viewed in that light, your chicken noodle soup is chicken broth garnished with noodles and diced chicken. Classical consommes typically have well-established names, which tell aficionados their contents. These classic combinations of soup and garnish are period pieces in the modern world, but like Lalique's art nouveau enamels, they're still appreciated for their beauty and simplicity. Many garnishes are used, and some consommes include several.
For example, many are garnished simply with vegetables cut in different ways. Consomme Brunoise is garnished with vegetables cut into tiny dice, just 1/16 of an inch square. The vegetables are cut into matchsticks for Consomme Julienne, or into large, thin squares for Consomme Paysanne. Consomme Printaniere is garnished with peas and pea-sized balls of turnip and carrot.
Some classic consommes require garnishes that are prepared ahead of time, then cut for the soup as needed. For example, Consomme Royale is garnished with small shapes cut from firm, savory custards. Consomme Celestine calls for a garnish of finely julienned crepes. Many others call for profiteroles -- tiny balls of the same dough used for cream puffs -- stuffed with various ingredients. For example, Consomme Alsacienne fills them with chicken while Consomme Chasseur fills them with minced game.
Some of the most elaborate consommes in the classical repertoire were created in honor of contemporary celebrities, and were intended to showcase the chef's skills. For example, Consomme George Sand -- named for the popular 19th century novelist -- is based on a fish consomme. It's garnished with quenelles, or boat-shaped portions of mousse, made from both white fish and crayfish. It also contains earthy, deep-flavored Morel mushrooms, and croutons spread with soft-cooked carp roe.