I have been waiting over a year for this cookbook to come out. Thomas Keller is of course the chef behind The French Laundry, Per Se, Bouchon, Ad Hoc, and the Bouchon Bakeries. Sebastien Rouxel, the pastry chef and Matthew McDonald, the baker have found a way to pass a lot of their expertise through the recipes which is simply fantastic. All of the recipes are given in weights as well as standard measurements which made me so happy since weights dramatically improves results. This book is definitely more on the advanced side but if that doesn’t intimidate you and you like baking this book needs to find a way into your home.
When my pre-ordered book arrived in the middle of the week I really wasn’t sure even where to begin. Every recipe looked like something I needed to try. As luck would have it events and the farmers’ market helped make up my mind for me. First we got invited to dinner. In California we can get pretty good strawberries almost year round. I found something called a Madeleine Cake that paired with fresh fruit so I gave it a whirl. It is a delightful, lemony, light cake that does pair wonderfully well with fresh fruit.
Next up a friend of ours was celebrating a birthday (I think 29). They had no plans so my wife decided they should come over for champagne and dessert. I found some Santa Rosa plums at the market as well. I had been wanting to make Tarte Aux Prunes ever since my side trip to France and was psyched to find a recipe in the book. Turns out Chef Rouxel is a mad genius. The Pâte Sucrée dough for the tart has almond flour and vanilla bean in it. It tastes and smells amazing all by itself yet alone with almond cream and market fresh prunes. Oh yeah, and Créme Fraîche ice cream I had made. Superb!
Then my wife decided that 15 other people should come too so I needed another dessert. This time I turned to the chocolate Oh Oh recipe. I didn’t have the right chocolate to coat them with so I had to wing that but these still got rave reviews.
Of course one of the reasons I’d been looking forward to this book was the bread. There are exhaustive instructions on creating bâtards (among other breads) from a poolish and I couldn’t wait to give it a try even though I had desserts to make. The directions are excellent and as the dough was coming together I could just tell it was going well. I definitely need more practice shaping and scoring but I’ve never gotten oven spring like I did with these and the flavor was great. Can’t wait for the second attempt!
Fennel has shown up at the farmers’ markets here. I have always wanted to love fennel but I have always found it to be incredibly finicky. You can shave it raw for a nice refreshing salad but to get fennel cooked so that it is firm without being too crunchy or too soggy is something that has eluded me. Thought of perfectly cooked fennel, deeply caramelized keeps me coming back to try.
I have read a lot about the merits of sous vide for cooking meat and fish. I haven’t, however, read a lot about sous vide and vegetables. It turns out that cooking sous vide allows for better retention of vitamins (I even found a study) and allows you to force desired flavorings into the food in a remarkable way (edible cocktails anyone?). In the case of fennel you can cook it until it is done but still firm and then quickly sear it in a pan and enjoy some of the best fennel I have ever had.
Carmelized Fennel (Borrowing heavily from Keller’s Under Pressure)
Sachet: Bay leaf, thyme, pepper corns, star anise
Two medium fennel bulbs
Chop off the fennel tops. Remove any damaged leaves from the fennel leaves and/or peel the outside. Slice the fennel into 1/2 inch sized wedges trying to keep a piece of the core for each wedge. Toss the fennel with some pernod, olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Vacuum seal with a sachet. In my case I used two bags each with a sachet. Cook at 85.5 C for 40-60 minutes until tender. I was closer to 60. Pull them out of the bags and pat dry and then sear in a skillet with some canola oil.
I added them to a “no kids eating dinner” salad with beans and radishes from the garden, lettuce from the market, bread toasted in butter, tuna, olives, and a little cheese. I tossed all the ingredients separately with a champagne vinegar and honey dressing to taste adjusting salt and pepper accordingly. The fennel had the wonderful deep flavor I’ve always wanted with just the right texture. Wonderful.
This is part three of my Turning Old Birthday Party. If you haven’t read part one or part two you might want to start there or even with the Turning Old intro.
One of the dessert courses (yes, as in one of many) at that French Laundry meal that you are are likely tiring of at this point was something called White Truffle Float. I was a bit confused by the notion of truffles in dessert. The confusion quickly turned to awe when I tried it. Somehow, someway, when placed in a dessert the white truffle metamorphosizes into something else. Something closer to deep nutty flavors with a complexity the average tree fruit only dreams of. It was quite simply the best dessert I have ever had. I remember wondering if I would ever have it again.
Enter the truffle. When I saw the size of the truffle I had managed to get I knew that I had to try to recreate the dessert. I knew that if I could do it justice my guests would be in for a treat. A recent addition to the cookbook collection (yes, I admit to having a problem) is Eleven Madison Avenue. It is an impressive and interesting book but to be honest I got it for one reason. It contains a recipe for white truffle ice cream! Another recent cookbook Heston Blumenthal at Home (it was a gift I swear!) instructs the crazy home cook to use dry ice when making ice creams that contain eggs. Of course I to try, right? A word of warning, the reaction can be dramatic though the results are stunningly smooth ice cream in approximately 60 seconds. I first tried this late in the evening after everybody had gone to bed. I could barely stop laughing which meant I had to make a second ice cream, caramel in this case, just so I could do it with spectators.
When the time came I spooned some caramel from the Milk cookbook into some glasses, added a scoop of caramel ice cream and then two scoops of white truffle ice cream, some Virgil’s Creme Soda, and then topped it off with shaved truffle. Not as good as The French Laundry but awfully darn good! Part way through the course came my favorite quote of the evening: “Josh, you made me feel like a kid again!” For an avid cook, with more than a bit of the hospitality gene, this is as good as it gets. A course with the ability to transport. Awesome!
After the last of the desserts disappeared the after dinner drinks found there way to the table including a birthday gift 40 year old Graham’s Tawny Port. With the cooking chores behind me I relaxed into this amazing beverage savoring what was the finest meal I had ever made for the best dinner party we had ever thrown. I couldn’t quite believe I had pulled it off, seven courses, excellent wine pairings, 11 happy diners. What a way to celebrate!
Now what should I do for the next big one…
This is part two of my Turning Old Birthday Party. If you haven’t read part one you might want to start there or even with the Turning Old intro.
Several years ago I was in a small restaurant in Bologna where I had Ragu Bolognese. The restaurant looked old enough that Galileo may have frequented it. The ragu was a revelation. I was pretty sure they were practicing witchcraft in the kitchen. How else could something so simple and humble be so good? As a result ragu is something I am always returning to at home and at restaurants though the latter usually meets with disappointment compared to the memory. Because of my fondness for this dish I decided it had to be part of the party. I wanted something a bit more elegant so I thought I would wrap it inside a ravioli. Of course I couldn’t do a regular ragu so I made duck confit and then used the confit in place of pork/beef and substituted fennel for celery because it just sounded like a superior match to duck and looked so good at the farmers’ market.
The pasta dough was parsley, black pepper, and Parmigiano-Reggiano from The Glorious Pasta of Italy cookbook by Domenica Marchetti. I admit it took a lot longer to fill these than I had anticipated! I made a duck consommé to serve them in, an homage to another Emilia-Romagna classic: tortellini en brodo. I topped the ravioli with a little Parmigiano and a splash of special 50 year old balsamic purchased on that same trip to Italy. I clearly need to figure out how to make this kind of dish look a little better but the flavor was everything I was hoping for and I don’t think I saw a bowl with a drop of leftover consomme. I paired this with the 2009 La Pommeraie Benovia Chardonnay because when I made a test ravioli the week before I was struck by the sweetness of the duck and I wanted to complement it.
A year ago we were lucky enough to dine at The French Laundry near my birthday. This is Thomas Keller’s three Michelin star restaurant in Napa wine country. It was white truffle season and we had two courses that included this very special ingredient. It was the first time I ever had white truffles and I was blown away. It is simply like nothing else in this world and I can still close my eyes and return to that revelatory moment. Because I enjoyed the truffle courses so much I very much wanted to share this experience with my guests to whatever ability I had. Through a very special contact I was able to procure the truffle pictured above. I let the table take a whiff of this special ingredient that had traveled so far before serving, a step I recommend.
Yet another photo of yours truly (surely a record), truffle in hand, adding as much truffle slices as I could before people stopped me.
I’m somewhat proud to say that this recipe was the only one actually taken straight from a cookbook. In this case The French Laundry Cookbook. The nice thing is the directions call for par-cooking the risotto and then finishing it quickly right before serving which is great because risotto typically takes so long to prepare. I paired this with a 2006 Hirsch Vineyard William Selyem Pinot Noir. A sublime match to a sublime dish. Truly everyone should experience white truffle risotto once in their lives. Please add this to your list or, as a good friend at work said, get me to invite you over for me to make it for you ;).
For the final savory course I opted for braised short ribs. Braised short ribs are something I look forward to making when the weather turns “cold” in California. I wanted to serve braised ribs but I wanted to do them in a special way. Enter a sous vide. I’ve been torturing myself over getting or not getting a sous vide for at least a year. Turning old was as good an excuse as I was going to get to take the plunge so I did. David Chang calls for braising short ribs for 48 hours sous vide in his Momofuku cookbook. The trick is that you can braise them at a medium-rare temperature (60-61 C). The long cooking tenderizes the meat but rather than melting into tiny pieces as braises usually does it has the “firmness” of a ribeye steak. At least that was the theory though I felt like I was rolling the dice trying this for the first time for the big dinner.
I usually use a recipe from Sunday Suppers at Lucques so I took the flavors from that recipe and paired it with the new technique. I decided to sous vide the heck out of the plate so I paired the beef with potatoes sous vide in duck fat and young red onions sous vide with herbs and olive oil. All three were browned right before serving and then plated with some horseradish creme fraiche, pickled mustard seeds (these were a surprise hit!) and some peppercress which was assuredly not just for show. It is delicious with a horseradishy bite. This was paired with a 2005 Alexander Valley Silver Oak Cabernet. All in all it was a very successful plate. The short ribs are very different than what you are used to but this was the favorite dish of at least one of our guests which, if you don’t mind, is saying something :).
One more entry coming…
Whenever we have people over for dinner I usually get too busy to take photos for the blog. Even though this was my most ambitious dinner ever I was determined to make sure I got decent photos of the dishes so I set up some equipment in the kitchen. This way I just had to grab the camera and take a quick shot or two right before serving. We also had some other people running around taking photos which meant we have some great memories of the evening!
We started with a selection of cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco including a cool Italian water-buffalo cheese called Castica, oysters on the half shell, and vintage Champagne (2002 Bollinger Grande Année and 2000 Billecart-Salmon Cuvee Nicolas-Francois).
Here is something you don’t see much on the blog: a photo of me in action. The first real course was a salad. It is a gussied up version of a simple salad I have served a few times. I learned of combining black olives and oranges a while back from Mark Bittman. It seemed like a strange idea when I first heard it but the combo is wonderful, especially if you sprinkle a little freshly ground fennel seed on top to seal the deal.
In this case I also steeped some bay, thyme, peppercorns, and fennel seed in olive oil and mixed it with the olives the day before to season them. Finally I paired it with a small frisee salad dressed with a sherry vinegar vinaigrette and topped with some thinly sliced radishes. This was paired with a Lazy Creek Riesling from Anderson Valley.
Ten years ago I had another big birthday and I served lobster. I thought it would be fun to return to it. Thomas Keller has a pretty killer way to do this in The French Laundry cookbook. You pour boiling water over the lobsters and “steep” them for only a few minutes. Just enough to free the meat from the shell but not enough to cook meat. This lets you make stock with the shells which is a really cool perk.
Saint Thomas then calls for finishing the lobster in a nice beurre blanc soak. This is perfect for a dinner party because you finish the lobster in a matter of minutes and it is perfectly cooked. Also, you can freeze the leftover butter and use it for things like crab cakes!
Two photos of me in the same entry is a new record. The chefs coat from a couple who came to the party. I have to say wearing it made me feel pretentious but my wife insisted so what could I do. I also have no idea why somebody thought I needed pens in the pocket but I was a bit busy!
Here is the final dish: lobster poached in butter with melted leeks, golden beet puree, and chive oil. Clearly I still need to work on plating but trust me when I say it was pretty darn good. If you have never tried beets with lobster they are quite nice together, give it a whirl! The wine pairing for this was a 2000 Paul Pernot Båtard-Montrachet which was my knockout wine of the evening and why I simply had to do the lobster course. Wow, what a wine!
To be continued…
Here are a few books next to the bed. I think I may be a sucker for anything that even mentions Thomas Keller in it because I am loving all of them. Ma Gastonomie is particularly interesting to me. It was a pivotal book in Chef’s Keller’s life and you can see the roots of The French Laundry in some of the descriptions of the famous Fernand Point an his iconic restaurant La Pyramide. Under Pressure is just fascinating and Life on the Line is the story of the head chef of Alinea and is exciting if you are a food nerd.
I took my first crack at a parfait recipe I got on my trip. Really two puddings that get layered on top of each other but I have to say it kinda kicked my butt. I thought it was going to be easy and learned some good lessons. Making the puddings was fine since my whisking skills are now beyond reproach ;). But I didn’t know/think that I needed to give the bottom pudding time to set before making the second. More importantly, though, I learned how hard it is to move the pudding into serving dishes while keeping them clean and making the layers look good. They make it look easy in the bakery but I assure you it far from easy to get a polished look. Makes you appreciate the drive for perfection that Chef Keller insists on all the more.
This weekend is pudding, my first attempt at Bouchon Baguettes, seed planting and garden maintenance, and Bouchon chicken. Hope to have some notes on all that throughout the weekend. Oh, I have now had more than 300 hits on the blog. This is a healthy bit over the number of times I have looked at it too proofread 😉 so wow. Not sure yet who all is reading since not many people are leaving comments (hint, hint) but welcome all the same.
Here are some of the seeds getting ready for a start today. Stay tuned!
So right off the bat I will admit that I am a bit unusual when it comes to food. Not long after I moved to California 16 years ago, I started a dinner club with some coworkers and embarked on a culinary journey that continues to this day. Back in those days the members of the club pushed each other to improve through increasingly elaborate meals that reached fruition with a garden party for 50 friends that was talked about, literally, for years. It was during this period that I started reading cookbooks cover to cover like normal people read novels. Since I was living in the bay area The French Laundry was always a mythical restaurant, and when the cookbook came out I devoured it and dreamed of one day getting to dine there. In September 2000 Emily and I first dined at The French Laundry with some or our cooking cohorts. It was an beautiful September afternoon in Yountville and we got to eat out on the patio. The meal was spectacular and we had the good fortune of being able to go into the kitchen and meet Thomas Keller in person.
(Photo Credit: Peter Graffagnino)
It was a very special day for us and the signed and framed menu of that meal is still proudly displayed on the wall of our kitchen. Over the years my cooking has improved a great deal and I have added even more Thomas Keller cookbooks to my shelf and more of his recipes to my repertoire. It would be fair to say I find Chef Keller inspiring. Emily and I have dined at all of his (local) restaurants multiple times and this past December were able to return to the French Laundry with some good friends for an even more spectacular evening in white truffle season! It was quite simply, a perfect evening in all respects.
White Truffle Float (More Photos…)
One of our group has a rather special relationship with The French Laundry. It was through her that I learned that they allow a few people to work in the kitchen in special culinary experiences. Suffice it so say, I was extremely jealous. So imagine my surprise when I got a text asking me if I wanted to take her place in the Bouchon kitchen this coming week. A last minute illness of her babysitter was going to prevent her from going and she was wondering if I could take her place. By some incredible stroke of luck (and because of my wonderful wife!) it turned out I could! I figured this was finally the thing to get me to start writing online so that people could follow my adventure…