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In 1923 Joseph Conrad published his last complete novel, The Rover, and wrote the preface to A Handbook of Cooking for a Small Home.  The author of the cookbook was his wife Jessie.

“I come forward modestly but gratefully as a Living Example of her practice,” he said of Jessie’s cooking.  “That practice I pronounce most successful.  It has been for many priceless years adding to the sum of my daily happiness.”

Adding a measure of happiness to life is what well-made food does.  Everyday dishes, well-made, improve humours with their familiarity and good sameness.  Others, like Steak au Poivre, do it by making you feel like you are having a great dinner in a restaurant without stepping outside your front door.  It is a dish that is easily well-made for a few people.  Small and celebratory times are the opportune ones for it.

Steak au Poivre and Brandy Cream Sauce (for 2 or 4 people)

Making the Steaks and then..the Sauce:  Ingredients and Directions for the Sauce are given below in Part C.  Part D describes Arranging the Steaks on plates.


  • 2 – 4 beef filet steaks  (See the directions below for cutting the steaks from a small, whole beef tenderloin.  New York Strip Steaks are a substitute for steaks cut from a beef tenderloin.  Strip Steaks are also known as Shell Steaks, and, internationally, as Club Steaks.)
  • about 1 teaspoon of bacon fat or olive oil or butter
  • Cracked White peppercorns or Cracked Black peppercorns for pressing onto the sides of the steaks  (The photographed steaks are peppered with the White.)

An optional Garnish is some finely chopped Parsley.


  • a heavy, flat-bottomed pan:  cast-iron ones are very good

A.  How to Cut the Steaks from a Whole Tenderloin:  Cutting on the Bias

This method is one used in many French restaurants in Francophone Africa.  The more common way of cutting filet steaks makes thick, round little pieces–a shape that requires longer cooking that can cause the pepper crust to burn before the steaks are done.  Even if it is a thick piece, the traditional round shape also looks small on the plate.

1.  Pull away the slender side piece attached to the main part of the loin, if it was not already removed by the butcher, and save it for making something else.

2.  Remove the white silverskin running down the side of the loin:

3.  Stretch out the filet on a cutting board.  Begin at the narrow end.  Place the knife at a sharp angle on top of the filet about 6-inches in from the tip of it…

and make a bias cut, 3/4 -inch to 1-inch thick:

4.  For the second slice, place the knife about 3/4 or 1-inch back from the edge of the first cut and slice a second piece on the bias at a sharp angle:

5.  Continue slicing, using this same basic technique.  A 1 and 1/2 pound tenderloin will make about 4 steaks with some leftover pieces to use for another recipe.  If the slices are not uniform–it does not matter.  They will be of similar thickness (and so, cook at the same rate), and all of a decent size:

B.  Cooking the Steaks

1.  Put some cracked peppercorns on a plate and press the sides of the steaks in them, adding more peppercorns to the plate as you need them:

2.  Heat the pan over medium heat, and when it is hot, add the bacon fat, oil or butter.  In a few seconds, when the fat is hot, add the steaks.  Cook them on the first side for 4 minutes for Medium Steaks:

3.  Turn and cook them for another 3 – 4 minutes on the second side.  Transfer the steaks to a cutting board and cover them loosely with aluminum foil so they can collect their juices and stay warm while you make the Brandy Cream Sauce.  (Use the same pan, unwashed, in which the steaks have cooked to make the sauce.   These cooking times are for steaks done to Medium–with a warm, red, firm center:

C.  Making Brandy Cream Sauce (for about 1 cup of Sauce–enough for 4, plenty for 2)


  • 1/4 cup of Cognac or Brandy:  the latter is cheaper and fine
  • 1/2 cup of heavy cream
  • 4 Tablespoons of butter, cut in pieces and placed in the freezer until added to the sauce
  • 1 beef bouillon cube dissolved in 1 cup of water or 1 teaspoon of Fond de Veau dissolved in 1 cup of water

A Note:  Fond de Veau is very useful in making sauces because it thickens a little as well as flavours them:


  • the same pan, unwashed, in which the steaks have cooked
  • a whisk
  • matches

1.  Over medium heat, add the Cognac to the pan.  Warm it a little and ignite it.

2.  When the flame dies and the Cognac has practically evaporated, add the water mixed with the bouillon cube or Fond de Veau.  Reduce the liquid by about half over medium heat.  Run a spoon around the pan’s edges now and then to bring the concentrated flavoring back down into the liquid:

The finished reduction will have a thin, slightly syrupy consistency:

3.  Add the cream and reduce again.  This time, simmer the liquid gently to reduce it.  The finished reduction puckers at the edges and bubbles:

4.  Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the cold butter, a couple of pieces at a time, incorporating each addition completely before adding the next.  The sauce may be reheated gently–although it probably won’t need it–but not boiled.

D.  Arranging the Steaks au Poivre on plates:

1.  Cut the steaks crosswise in slices and transfer the sliced steaks to plates:

2.  Pour sauce down over the tops of the sliced Steaks au Poivre…

…and sprinkle on some parsley if you want to:

A Note:  In October 1976, a recipe for Steak au Poivre appeared in Gourmet Magazine.  This recipe is adapted from that one and is the Main Course for the Dinner Menu:  Killing Time with a Killer.

A Second Note:  For those who will like this sort of thing, Wikipedia has an interesting article on Peppercorns and the differences between the various colors of them.

© Elizabeth Laeuchli, the diplomatickitchen, 2011-2012