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Making Billi Bi out of my cookbook addiction

Making Billi Bi out of my cookbook addiction

Hi. My name is Catherine and I have a cookbook addiction.

I realized how problematic this was when we had our kitchen renovated last year and had to move each and every one of those big thick wonderful books filled with delicious promise down to the basement before they demoed the whole kitchen. It's not as if I didn't know we had all of them, but as I moved them, I started to ask myself life's serious questions like, "Do we really need six different cookbooks that contain only chicken recipes?" We vowed to "weed out" what we didn't want/need before moving them back into the kitchen. Of course, I thought I needed ALL of them ....I mean... I haven't tried every recipe from them yet! 

But alas, we did manage to get rid of quite a few and soon realized that we did not, in fact, put into the kitchen design where these cookbooks would go. Details....details... 

Apparently I never met a cookbook I didn't like. Some of our cookbooks were bought, some were gifts, some were library sale/garage sale finds, and others were inherited. One cookbook that made the cut is the 1961 New York Times Cookbook, which  was the first year the New York Times Cookbook was ever published. It was one that belonged to my father-in-law. It's a classic and I think my husband's parents, who liked to cook when he was younger, liked Craig Claiborne (former NY Times food editor) and that may have influenced how my husband got his name. So, it was a keeper.

NY Times Cookbook 1961

With this new "slimmed-down" collection of cookbooks, I have a renewed determination to "use" them more and I started with this classic. As I looked in the seafood section, the recipe that caught my attention was one called "Billi Bi," which had the following description:

This may well be the most elegant and delicious soup ever created. It may be served hot or cold. This is the recipe of Pierre Franey, one of this nation's greatest chefs.

Could you walk away from the challenge of making "the most elegant and delicious soup ever created"??? No, you wouldn't...you couldn't. Even the New York Times has labeled this dish a "Times Classic." 

Billi Bi

When I looked up Pierre Franey, a name I was not familiar with, I was so pleased to find a website created by his children, Claudia, Diane, and Jacques as a tribute to him and his recipes. Franey was executive chef at Le Pavillon in Manhattan (working with then young chef Jacques Pepin). He was the New York Times "60-Minute Gourmet" columnist and was also known for his popular cooking shows on public television. What a lovely tribute that site is to their father. Nice find. How did I not know of him? Anyway...

Billi Bi is essentially "cream of mussels soup." As for its origins and its name, according to oldfoodie.com, one of France's famed restaurants, Maxim's, gave their mussels soup the new name "Billi Bi," named for the tin magnate William B. Leeds (who was known by his friends as "Billi B"). Maxim's didn't invent this recipe for him (mussels soup is popular throughout France), but they were likely currying favor with a wealthy patron by renaming his favorite dish in his honor.

I played with the instructions here a bit - they're mostly the same as the original, with some updated language and slightly different techniques.  I was happy to be able to use some herbs (parsley and thyme) from my garden. So, here it is...the most elegant and delicious soup ever created. Thanks to Pierre Franey and Craig Claiborne...and my father-in-law.

Billi Bi

Yields 4 servings


2 pounds mussels
2 shallots, coarsely chopped
2 small onions, quartered
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs of thyme
2 sprigs of parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 cup dry white wine
2 TBSP butter
1 pint heavy cream
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten


  1. Scrub the mussels well to remove all exterior sand and dirt. Place them in a large saucepan with the wine, butter, shallots, onions, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, salt, pepper, and cayenne. Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer about 5-10 minutes or until the mussels have opened. Discard any mussels that do not open.
  2. When the mussels are cool enough, remove the mussels and discard the shells. Set aside.
  3. Strain the liquid through a double thickness of cheesecloth into a saucepan. 
  4. Bring the liquid in the saucepan to a boil. Remove from heat and whisk in the heavy cream. Return to the heat, and stir frequently as it comes to a boil.
  5. Remove the cream mixture from the heat and add the egg yolk. Stir until blended and return to the heat. Heat long enough for the soup to thicken slightly, but do not boil.
  6. Add the mussels to the soup. This is labeled as optional in the recipe, but I can't imagine not putting them in.
  7. Also listed as optional - stir in two tablespoons of hollandaise sauce into the soup before it is served. (I didn't do this as I thought the soup was rich enough on its own.)

P.S. - I know it's technically called 'The New York Times Cook Book' (with cookbook being two words), but for the sake of consistency and the fact that I can't bring myself to write it as two words, I used "Cookbook.")

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