BOOK CLUB, DINNER PARTY, GATHERINGS

An Afternoon with Coco Chanel

Our first book selection on 2022.

Two Thousand twenty-two marks the eighth year anniversary of my Social Writes Book Club. We’ve had a couple of members that have left the group, and few new members creating a strong membership of 11. To begin this new year of reading, it was important to select a book that was both interesting, entertaining, and inspired a theme that was festive and fun.

One late Fall afternoon, I stopped at the local bookstore in search of something new to read. Far behind the larger display of current new fiction, stuck in a small corner, one book’s cover caught my eye. The striking cover sparked my interest and I picked it up then turned it over to read the blurb on the back. Earlier in 2021 I had read “The Chanel Sisters” by Judithe Little that chronicled Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s life as a young orphaned girl who would eventually find a path to becoming a famous designer. The book I discovered by chance on this day described Coco Chanel’s life during the war and hinted at her being a spy for the Germans. Intrigued I decided to buy the book and headed home.

The Chanel Sisters: Historical fiction that covers Gabrielle (later Coco’s) life as a little girl brought to an orphanage, where she learned her sewing skills; her life’s journey after the orphanage to seamstress, singer, mistress, hat designer and beyond.

Later that evening I sat to look over the book more closely, the name of the author seemed familiar to me. I searched the internet and the photo I found confirmed my thoughts.

Several years ago, when my book club was just in its second year of inception, I was at a local store waiting for assistance to purchase a fruit tart for my meeting. Pamela stepped up beside me and as we looked at each other with quizzical expressions (wondering if anyone was going to assist us), I explained that I was buying a tart for my book club. I told her we were discussing “A Paris Apartment” by Michelle Gable and I was trying to do as the French do – buy dessert from a local patisserie (or basically from what we had available in Mandeville, Louisiana. )

She responded by saying, “You should read one of my books.” I was taken aback and asked her name, wrote it down and told her I would look for some of her books. She also explained that she was in the process of writing a book set in Paris that would be published in the future (something about The Queen of Paris). Surprisingly, here it was in my hands five years later. Pamela resides here in Louisiana, just a few miles down the highway from me. It was quite interesting how a store filled with so many books would accidently lead me to hers and the memory of this chance meeting and brief conversation.

As I read the book, that I thoroughly enjoyed, I realized that without having read “The Chanel Sisters” by Judithe Little, it would have been harder to understand why Coco would eventually do the things she had to do to survive the war and try to protect her financial future. As a result, I recommended that my group read both books. Overall I find the two books together, cover Coco’s story in a way that explains why she is so determined to succeed and for the most part made unscrupulous choices to to so. She had a unique gift of creativity that even she was unaware of and with all of her difficulties found a way to build an empire that still exists today. What could be more interesting than an afternoon with Coco Chanel?

Setting an elegant table with a formal handmade menu adorned with pearls and Coco’s favorite flower the white camellia because it had no scent to compete with her signature
parfum Chanel No 5.

I wanted a light, but elegant French menu. After some thought I searched for savory soufflés and decided on a brie soufflé. It’s important to test a new recipe in advance to avoid day of the event failures. I also like to add my own twist to the ingredients and confirm the actual portions to determine if I’ll need to double the recipe to ensure I’m not short on servings.

The test bake went well, but I felt the flavor needed a little boost. I remembered I had some white truffle butter in the freezer that I decided to use in place of the salted butter in the recipe. It turned out great. A small bistro salad will be served on the side with warm breaded goat cheese croutes.

The test bake went well.

The recipe that inspired my White Truffle Brie soufflé is in the link below. I added 1/2 tsp of kosher salt to the batter and I used this white truffle butter in place of the salted butter in the recipe. I also buttered the souffle dishes with the truffle butter before filling with the batter.

TIP: The batter can be made ahead and set aside. Whisk the egg whites just before ready to bake and fold into the batter base.

https://www.platingpixels.com/easy-cheese-souffle-brie/

The soufflé will fall quickly, but are still beautiful.
Bistro side salad: spring mix tossed in a red wine mustard vinaigrette, topped
with a few haricots verts and warm panko crusted honey goat cheese.
At the top of the picture a slice of truffle chicken liver pate’ and baguette crisps.

On to the table decor. I used a black table cloth, my Mom’s black and gold bone china and goldware. Champagne flute glasses will be used for the Champagne cocktails of St. Germain’s elderflower liqueur and bubbly garnished with a pale pink rose petal.

A cocktail or aperitif at the ready is important as the guests arrive and Coco would expect champagne. For my cocktail, I’m using a French Crémant with a rose petal and splash of St. Germain Elderflower liqueur.

As part of my planning and searching for items to set the table, I found and purchased some Chanel ribbon. Originally I thought I would use it to tie the napkins, but due to the small amount I had (2 yards) and the number of guests I would have 11 – it pained me to think of cutting the ribbon into such small pieces. That’s when I came up with the idea of forming the linen napkin into a “Little Black Dress”.

Cinched high at the top with black and white ribbon and then tied tightly in the back, the ends formed into loops to create a bow, with a flat backed pearl in the center –
creating a “Little Black Dress”.
The backside with a little bow. Turn the napkin over and slide hand inside of the bottom to fluff out the skirt into a little black dress.

With my two yards of Chanel ribbon still in tack, I searched for ways to use it. Then I remembered my small form mannequin that I use for my annual mothers’ tea. After all – Coco was a seamstress who became a designer. Of course there would be form mannequins! I draped the ribbon from bottom to top and tied the ends into a bow. I made a small white flower with gift bag tissue paper (like her favorite camellia) and pinned it to the center. I also repurposed a necklace with a small spool of thread, scissors and soft pink rose that fit in perfectly. Finally it had to be draped with pearls to be truly Coco.

An afternoon discussion about Coco wouldn’t be complete without Coco Chanel quotes. I found and wrote out several, on these gold embossed Eiffel tower cards with pink borders (tucked away in my stationary drawer for several years) and sealed each into their envelopes with ribbon and a wax stamp. Each of my guests will pick an envelope to open and read a quote to the rest of the group.

Coco Chanel’s infamous quotes.

A simple, inexpensive square glass vase was given a Chanel No. 5 label on all four sides for the entire table to see from all angles and filled with lush pale pink roses for a pop of color.

French architectural paper luminaries I found several years ago at Tuesday Morning were each $1.49. I had tucked them away with my stationary knowing one day they would be of good use for one of my parties. On this day they will make their debut.

I use place cards to help mix up the group at the table, otherwise the same people always sit together. Sitting next to someone new encourages everyone to become familiar with one another. I dug through my stash of supplies (little finds that attract my attention and I somehow feel I will use in the future) and found these little tote bags with a white flower that I’ll pretend is a white camellia for Coco’s sake, and two pages of gold letters.

First I had to open the package of letters and spell out everyone’s name to ensure I had enough letters. One name (Stephanie) was shortened to Steph in order to complete the names of my other guests. I then centered the little tote bag on to the same soft pink cardstock I used for the menu and underlined the name with the pearls also used on the menus. Calligraphy or hand written names would be appropriate to the era, but I had these letters and decided to add a little golden glam to the table.

Champagne with elderflower liqueur and a rose petal.
I only drink champagne on two occasions,
when I’m in love and when I’m not.” -Coco Chanel

Time for dessert….. Strawberries are plentiful during the month of February in the south. Not so far from where I live is a town considered the Strawberry Capital (Ponchatoula, Louisiana). Strawberries are often associated with champagne, so I decided to make a champagne sabayon to pour over fresh strawberries and then lightly brûlée the sabayon just before serving. The sabayon can be made early in the day or the day before and placed in the refrigerator until ready to serve. The recipe I referenced is below.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/recipes/champagne-sabayon/15061/

Fresh strawberries with champagne sabayon.

One can’t have a French luncheon and not serve chocolats français. As luck would have it, stores like Homegoods have a variety of chocolates from various parts of the world in stock for Valentine’s Day. When I saw this box – I grabbed it!

A plan can be made, but never set in stone. The Saturday prior to our luncheon I drove to Trader Joe’s about 45 minutes from where I live expecting to find beautiful fresh roses and an edible flower I could use for the salads. I was there before the doors opened only to find mixed floral bouquets as the only available option. There were other items I hoped to purchase while I was there that were also unavailable. The cashier explained that the winter storms that blew through Texas the two days before had delayed their trucks. I spent a few hours going to every grocery store and even some florists to find they also had not received shipments. So I had to pivot – the word we’ve heard used so much over the past couple of years.

Afraid I wouldn’t find the pale pink roses I wanted, I bought two bouquets of pale pink tulips. Many years ago I learned a trick for how to make tulips last longer. On the left the tulips lay on their side after arranging. Pretty, but if left this way they would continue to extend out and not look so attractive.

As soon as possible, I had been taught to trim the ends and place the bouquet into a jar of cold water and refrigerate overnight. The next day, using a straight pin, prick a horizontal hole through the stem just below the flowerbud. For some reason this encourages the water to come up to heal the hole. The following morning notice what happened in the picture on the right. The tulips are all standing up straight.

My diligence paid off and I finally found one slightly shabby bouquet of pale pink roses for the table, but no one knew the difference. They were too busy savoring their champagne cocktails, white truffle brie soufflés, bistro salads with truffle chicken liver pate’ and finally strawberries with champagne sabayon and chocolats français with a rich cup of coffee discussing the life and legacy of Gabrielle Coco Chanel.

What a lovely ladies lunch we had! It was so fun to gather everyone together again. So looking forward to the next 📖!

Don’t forget to wear your pearls now and then. As Coco said: “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress. Dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”

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