Archive for March, 2006

I Trussed

Wednesday, March 29th, 2006
Roast Chicken

I’ve been on a Thomas Keller kick this week, after I somehow came across this NYTimes review of Per Se in New York. When I noticed that reviewer Frank Bruni described the restaurant with the gleeful awe that I usually reserve for my favorites that I mention on my blog, I knew I had to find out more about this chef. Since I didn’t know much about how he or his food evolved or got to Napa, I searched Google, and read some informative interviews and articles.

Then, I searched for his recipes. And studied each one carefully. And ran out to buy Bouchon. I now believe that a rather wonderful culinary education can be had by reading through and making his recipes (and I’m dying to get The French Laundry Cookbook). Thorough yet concise, they each display such a respect for and understanding of food, that I feel like once prepared, the food would want to say, “Thank you. Now, you understand me.”

Much of the beauty of these recipes for classic dishes has to do with clever technique and attention to detail, and they run the gamut from simple to advanced (with part of the challenge being to find some rare ingredients and at high quality). I’m excited about the Onion Soup, Chickpea and Carrot Salad, Roquefort and Leek Quiche (which he insists should be made in a 2″ high pan to get the correct consistency and flavor out of the custard; now I understand quiche), Gnocchi with Mushrooms and Butternut Squash, Pike Barigoule, Tartine of Lamb with Pickled Red Onions, Duck with Olives and Red Rice, Duck Confit with Brussel Sprouts and Mustard Sauce, Lamb Stew with Spring Vegetables, Provencal Vegetables, Chilled Leeks with Vinaigrette and Eggs Mimosa, Chocolate Mousse Tart with a Hazelnut Crust, Vanilla Macarons…

Oh, and the pictures are beautiful, as is the commentary.

I decided to start testing out the book with two barebones recipes that are vital to French bistro fare: Roast Chicken and the House Vinaigrette.

Keller seemed to rhapsodize about the wonders of roast chicken in just about every article that I read. His trick is to not do anything to the chicken before roasting except to dry, truss, and salt/pepper it. It was the first time I actually trussed, so good thing I moved my unwrapped roll of kitchen string from LA to Davis to Napa. It’s very easy, and the instructions are clear. In the process of drying the chicken out with paper towels, I discovered ice crystals by the neck, so I let it sit out a little while and then went through drying again once thawed. Next, I rained down the 1 tablespoon of coarse salt onto it and sprinkled it with black pepper, so that it was bone dry and sparkling when it went into the oven in my 10″ skillet.

An hour later, it emerged sitting in its juices like a dull, matted imitation of a chicken, but once it was basted with the juices and thyme, it sprung to life in full shining gold.

It was fantastic. The best roast chicken I’ve ever had. Beyond moist and flavorful, I would rhapsodize about it in interviews, too, if given the chance. Many other recipes call for the skin to be salted, but maybe the quantity of salt here seals the moisture of the meat while keeping the skin crisp and dry until it is doused with its juices at the end. I don’t usually like skin, but I couldn’t get enough of this one. I think the large amount of coarse salt also spikes the flavors in the best way, just like the fresh thyme added at the end.

Keller recommends serving it with mustard on the side (or slathering it in fresh butter… or with a salad). I chose a salad with mustard in the dressing. I wanted to make the Bibb Salad from the link above, but I couldn’t get the ingredients, so I settled for a baby spring mix with chives and parsley. I’m not very much into dressing because I actually like the flavor of lettuce and vegetables and don’t like oily consistencies, so I usually just sprinkle in some vinegar, s&p, and maybe a little oil.

But this time, I did the dressing right: in the blender, with tons of oil. And it, too, was fantastic. It emulsifies into such a creamy consistency and smooth, piquant flavor, that I couldn’t believe that it was just Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, and canola oil. It’s a bit heavier than what I think of as a bistro house vinaigrette that lightly coats the lettuce, but it does manage to spread rather lightly on the leaves. Old habits die hard, though, so I didn’t thoroughly coat all the leaves.

Keller is also a huge believer in the importance of sources, so I kept in mind that organic, fresh ingredients were a large part of these preparations, and I think I was rewarded for it.

By the way, whenever I hear about a roast chicken recipe, there’s always a testament to how simple it is to make… which is true, but no one ever talks about the clean up — am the only one left with a kitchen full of chicken residue? First the roasting dish gets full of juices and stuck with skin and grizzle, and then this ever so juicy bird bomb (even after resting it) has to go on my small, flat cutting board, and it’s carved one way or another, and I have to find some way to store the remains of the unruly carcass. My tiny kitchen suddenly gets tinier, and full of adhere-able surfaces. I always start out with a plan for an easy down home dinner, until I find myself rushing through eating it so that chicken substances don’t glue themselves to my kitchen. My innovation this time, though, was laying my cutting board in a baking sheet when I carved so that the parts and juices would be easily contained… One more dish to wash, but also one less counter to scour.

Whatever, it was worth it.

The Cookie Experience

Wednesday, March 29th, 2006
Linzer CU

Things have been pretty quiet on the culinary school front. We finished our four day cookie segment yesterday. They made me think back to making rolls, because cookies, in their infinite numbers, must also be given individual attention. I know that when I settle in to eat delicious cookies, I look for the most pleasantly-shaped ones (and then break off a half or quarter to eat). So, in this way, I was happy that the cookie segment made me more exacting about the placement of each strip of dough laid on top of linzer bars, to each scoop of cookie dough, and to the piping out of each madeleine.

We also practiced the creaming method for just about every cookie, so it is absolutely clear that, first, soft butter and sugar must be creamed together. This takes about 5 minutes in a mixer, and requires occasionally scraping down the bowl and paddle (and I never did find a non-awkward way to do that). The eggs should usually be added in small enough additions so that they emulsify smoothly with the creamed batter. If they make the batter look curdled, they may incorporate after more mixing, or they may remain separated and result in a denser product. Usually, this separaration is caused by cold butter; it should be softened out of the fridge, but fyi, you can heat the outside of the bowl with a blowtorch while mixing to fix the cold problem. Then, the flour should be just mixed in or folded in, and then the chips or any other chunky additions. You don’t want to overmix. Alton Brown identifies this as the Muffin Method in his book, because it’s the same technique as muffins. If you overmix the flour into the butter, it’ll develop gluten, and result in “tunneling” throughout the crumb and a tougher chew. That’s because flour + water + agitation = gluten.

The segment was a bittersweet experience, though, because while we were focused on technique, texture, size consistency, and presentation, I wish that we would learn more about taste, and creating flavors, and how to look at or create a recipe and have an idea better than a guess (or blind faith) that the spices, or peels, or flavorings will result in a delicious dessert. Aside from our first day’s work with refrigerator cookies, the flavors of the cookies generally tasted off in one way or another, even if they looked good enough…

So, anyway, here’s the rundown….

Drop Cookies

Clockwise, white chocolate macadamia, peanut butter choc chip, oatmeal raisin, and mud slides. I liked all of these because of their chewiness and strong flavors. I was even impressed that the mud slides were similar to the melted chocolate chip cookies at the City Bakery (um, but not quite as good).

Macaroons

Front to back, chocolate almond macaroons, almond macaroons, and coconut macaroons. These were good exercises in piping (and matching up halves). The ganache for the almond ones took a surprisinly long time to firm up enough to spread onto the cookies. We also dipped the coconut macaroons in chocolate, and learned that, to retain the shape of the cookie under the chocolate, to dip the cookie in chocolate and then move it up and down while always retaining contact with at least a stream of chocolate in the bowl; the surface tension will take away extra chocolate and then you can scrape the bottom on the edge of the bowl before letting it set.

Also, when I read that we were going to make almond macaroons, I had thought that we were going to make French Almond Macarons, which I love. No go. These were basically almond cookies sandwiched together.

Lemon and Biscotti

Next, almond anise biscotti and lemon bars. The biscotti was good structurally, but should have had less anise flavoring. The lemon bars were decent, and it’s important to pour the filling into the hot pre-baked crust before baking them both together, or else they’ll separate.

Bar Cookies

Clockwise, vanilla pretzel, madeleine, linzer bar, sable cookie, and English West Country Easter Biscuits. Thanks to Sam for suggesting the Easter Biscuits, which were the tastiest of the day. They were spiced shortbread cookies that were citrus-y and Poire William-y.

The vanilla pretzel, oddly enough, contained no vanilla, and is coated with Semper chocolate coating, which does not need to be tempered because, if I remember correctly, it does not contain cocoa butter. The taste suffers. I think of it as chocolate-y, not chocolate, so in effect, they were chocolatey, non-vanilla pretzel cookies. We traced a pretzel stencil multiple times on parchment paper to help pipe the desired shape. I like how they look, with the smooth shape and coarse sugar mimicking salt.

The sable is created by making logs of different color dough, cutting them into 8 wedges and then working them together. Although they tasted of bitter cocoa, I see something in this technique; it reminds me of a terrine, in which disparate things are pressed together. Maybe it can be done with fruit somehow, or pate de fruit. The trick would be to get the pieces to stick together; here, the pieces stuck together by brushing a little water on one piece before the next piece was added.

And the linzer, after a day to make the dough, a day to shape and bake the dough, and a day to cut the bars, needed a stronger hazelnut (or I think, almond instead) flavor in the dough to offset the strong sweetness of the seedless jam. The lattice effect is very easy to achieve with very little work. You simply lay all the dough strips in one directions, and then top them with strips going in the direction. When they bake, the parts of dough over the jam sinks down a little bit, and creates an interesting texture.

The madeleines were cakey and lemony and nicely humpbacked, like most other madeleines I’ve had. I can only hope I someday discover why some people enjoy eating them. They’re always too dry and bland for me, no matter where I try them.

Yazdi Cupcake Pudding with Cherry and Blueberry-Pom Compote

Monday, March 27th, 2006
Yazdi CupPudding

I figured that if you can make bread pudding out of old bread, then you can make cake pudding out of old cake… as long as there’s no icing involved.

Since cakes are already full of butter, eggs, and sugar, I thought that a good goal was to make my pudding moist and smooth, without being too rich or sweet. Since the floral cardamom flavor was so pronounced in my Yazdi Cupcakes, I wanted a garnish that would match that, so I decided on a compote made with cherries and the remains of a Blueberry-Pom pomegranate juice drink in my refrigerator for the liquid.

I cut up about 9 remaining yazdi cupcakes, toasted them at 350 for about 15 minutes to dry them out more, and soaked them (and occasionally pressed down on them) for half an hour in 3/4 of a mixture of 1.5 c milk, 1/4 c cream, 1.5 eggs, and 1/8 c sugar. I didn’t cook the milk mixture beforehand into a custard, because I didn’t want it too cloying with the cake. I topped it off with the remaining 1/4 of the milk mixture, and baked it in an 8×8 glass dish covered with aluminum foil at 350 for 30 minutes, then uncovered it, sprinkled it with chopped pistachios, and baked it for 20 more minutes until it was puffed up and golden.

It turned out like a good custard-y pudding…. It had soaked up a lot of liquid, and also puffed up and toasted quite nicely. The cardamom and pistachio flavors remained nicely intact. It wasn’t as creamy as many bread puddings, but that’s what I was going for. I might decrease the egg to just 1 for this amount, though, as it was just a bit too eggy.

I looked around for a compote recipe and fashioned mine after this Emeril recipe. I halved the recipe, used defrosted frozen cherries and their juices, used blueberry-pomegranate juice for the total liquid called for, and a combo of rose water and maraschino liqueur for the alcohol component. Although the cherry and pomegranate melded nicely, the blueberry ended up dominating the flavor, and it was a bit too liquid-y. Next time, I’d use regular Pom (or cherry-Pom) and maybe dilute it with some water, and either simmer it longer or use less liquid; the juices from the frozen cherries probably put it over the top. I’d also add a little bit of cardamom or cinnamon, because the flavor of the cupcake could get overpowered if eaten with too much compote.

Actually, next time, if I wanted to make it a little richer and spicier, I’d add dried cherries plumped in maraschino liqueur to the pudding, nix the compote, and top it with my clove ice cream.

Dessert Tastings!

Sunday, March 26th, 2006

This week, my school hosted the Fourth Annual Worlds of Flavor Baking & Pastry Arts Invitational Retreat. The theme for this year was “Flavor Design & the Experimental Pastry Kitchen: In Pursuit of Pleasure, Health, and Well-Being.” So, for four days, about 30 or so of America’s top pastry chef’s participated in lectures, forums, demonstrations, and tastings focused on healthy desserts. They came from such establishments as Spago, Le Bernadin, the Ritz-Carlton SF, Citizen Cake, Starbucks, Cafe Gray, Disney, Canyon Ranch, Farallon, Guittard, and others.

There is an eternal debate about what healthy means, but here, it meant thinking about desserts with whole grains, fruits, plant oils, nuts, low-fat dairy, less refined sugar, and dark chocolate/tea/wine/spirits. The idea is that dessert doesn’t have to be a sinful indulgence, but an opportunity to provide nourishment with creative sweet flavors and textures. For instance, moderation is perfectly healthy and the body needs some degree of good fat to function, so one might try reversing the usual proportions of a plated dessert so that the fruit takes center stage and is garnished by an indulgence like a small cake.

On Saturday, the chefs, with the students’ help, prepared tastings of their ideas for healthy desserts, which were mostly designed before the retreat, but were perhaps amended based on new info. Below are some pictures from the Saturday morning group in no particular order– a second group went later in the day. Some are pic’s of the presentation dishes, and some are of the tastings dishes. You may want to keep in mind that these are all designed as healthy desserts as you look at them, but I know that once I start looking at them, I forget the theme and simply appreciate them as gorgeous, flavorful desserts.

Note: Apologies for occasionally showing off my skill for capturing slightly out of focus pic’s, but some desserts were just so great, that I didn’t want to leave them out here just b/c my hand got shaky. After all, I’m an eater, not a photographer. I also wasn’t able to take pic’s of everything, so believe it or not, there was even more.

Raspberry Summer Pudding with Port Wine Figs and Vanilla Bean Yogurt Panna Cotta by Erich Herbitschek. I liked that the wrapping of chocolate around the berry/cake summer pudding was just enough–if not more–than what you needed to satisfy the rich chocolate quotient. The port wine figs and panna cotta were perfectly flavored, too.

Retreat RaspChoc

Pineapple Pillow and Burnt Orange Yogurt Ice Cream by Stephane Weber. I think that the finished plate had sorbet and a cookie placed in the hole in the pillow, but I like the surreal window effect here.

Retreat Pillow

Passion Fruit Panna Cotta with Lemon Grass Consomme by Lincoln Carson. This was packed with flavor and described as a dessert designed to please people who would look to order a fruit salad for dessert.

Retr Passion2

Oven Roasted Banana, Roasted Hazelnut Madeleine, & Meyer Lemon Cream by Laurent Branlard. The creaminess and flavor of the meyer lemon cream was amazing, and an interesting pairing with the tender, roasted banana. I also love the loop fixture.

Retr Bana

Croustade with Huckleberry Sauce and Milk Mousse by Chris Broberg. Crispy on the outside and lushly fruity on the inside.

Retr Croustade

Apple Marmalade Cake with Rhubarb and Vanilla Yogurt by Emily Luchetti. I like the curved trail of rhubarb leading into the yogurt, something like a scarf for the cake.

Retr Rhubarb

Grilled Pineapple with Young Coconut Granita and Poivre Long Pepper Caramel by Bud Teasley. The young coconut added a nice further granular dimension to the granita.

Retr Pineapple

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A French Burger

Sunday, March 26th, 2006

There are two refrains to remember for this recipe:

  1. Do something… Add butter.
  2. Add butter… Do something.

I embarked on the preparation with all intentions of fearlessly adding all the butter all four times, but I… I… I couldn’t do it. I used maybe a quarter of it. It was still delicious, though.

This recipe comes from Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol 1, which lays down the statement that “real French people living in France eat hamburgers.” It is essentially a burger with finely chopped onions, thyme, and an egg added to the meat, and it is rolled in flour before being sauteed. Instead of a bun, it is finished with a sauce made from the coagulated pan juices, whose thickening is probably helped by the cooked flour in the pan.

They advise that the leanest beef makes the best burgers, which seems to be in disagreement with fatty beef advisors, but the recipe also calls for additional fat (such as… butter) to be mixed in with the meat. So, you still get your succulence.

I was very happy with the result. It has a rich flavor thanks to the onions, herbs, and butter that makes you feel like you’re eating something more complex than it is; the authors, in fact, recommend serving it as an “excellent and economical main course for an informal party.” You can serve it with red wine and vegetables you’d like with a steak. I would also recommend it as an quick dinner after a long day that gives you the chance to chop a little, mix a little, saute a little, and sauce a little.

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