Historic Heston: The Chicken Liver Parfait

Chicken Liver Parfait6I hesitate to call anything perfect or the ultimate or the best, but really this chicken liver parfait is it…at least for now. I have made rich and decadent chicken liver mousse before but this recipe (itself part of another recipe) uses a couple of techniques that result in the most luxurious pink hued chicken liver parfait ever. The flavor is superb with the strong liver minerality working in perfect harmony with the wine, butter, shallots and herbs.

The main problem with chicken liver dishes is the texture – well, at least for me it is. That grainy sometimes chalky chopped liver texture is loved by some but I find it very off-putting. This is usually due to the liver being overcooked at too high of a heat. When making chicken liver mousse or parfait it’s very important to cook the meat properly. Most recipes will just have us puree the liver with the rest of the ingredients and cook in a ramekin or maybe saute the liver and then puree it with aromatics and such. Blumenthal goes through an extra step or two that are very much worth their effort.

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The primary ingredients of the parfait are cleaned and de-veined chicken livers (free range ones from Yonder Way Farm), eggs mixed with a flavorful liquid reduction (port, wine, brandy along with shallots and herbs) and a whole lot of butter. The butter weight is actually almost equal to the meat weight! The livers (seasoned with salt and curing salt), egg mixture and butter all go in separate bags and are placed in a water bath heated to 50 C with an immersion circulator. The bags stay in the water for about 20 minutes. This temperature and time are obviously not long enough to cook anything. The purpose is to bring everything to the same warm temperature. This helps insure that when I blend the three mixtures together the parfait mix does not split. Mixing cold butter with cool chicken livers and room temperature eggs can really end up hurting the texture.

Chicken Liver Parfait

This is where top level chefs separate themselves from the rest. Attention to the crazy minute details. Maybe making sure that the components of the chicken liver parfait are at the same warm 50 C temperature is a little thing. Maybe it does not make THAT much of a difference. These little things though do add up and make something that is very good great. The other step to really get that texture just right is to pass the blended liver mixture through a very fine sieve. Now the parfait is ready to cook. The mixture goes into a terrine pan that sits in a pan of very hot water (a bain marie ). The parfait is a custard that needs to cook gently like any flan or creme caramel. This one cooks for about 35 minutes in a 212 F oven until the center registers about 147 F on a thermometer.

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Another issue with preparations like this is that the cooked parfait gets an unattractive greenish dark layer on the surface due to oxidation. Even with the Sodium Nitrite (the curing salt added to the livers) this discoloration will still happen). This only gets worse after the parfait sits in the fridge for 24 hours to set. That ugly layer also has a strong flavor. So it messes up all the hard work we’ve been through so far to make a beautiful creamy dark pink chicken liver parfait. The solution? Well, very easy really. Just scrape it off before transferring the cooled parfait into another container.

 

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I put the parfait into a piping bag and piped most of it into small silicon half sphere molds (more about that in the next post) and the rest went into a couple of small ramekins. If I leave the the ramekins like that with the surface of the parfait exposed the will develop the oxidized nasty top layer again. So, I quickly made a vinegar gelèe with apple cider vinegar and little sugar and gelatin. It’s the same idea as the one I made before  for the “Faux Gras” but this time I left the vinegar mixture totally clear instead of mixing it with parsley. The gelèe both protects the parfait and makes a delicious tart condiment for the liver. The parfait topped with the gelèe like that can sit covered in the fridge for a couple weeks with no problem. We ate the contents of the two small ramekins smeared on toasted brioche with a glass of crisp white wine. This really is the best chicken liver parfait we’ve ever had. It is luxurious, rich, creamy, smooth and has a marvelous flavor.

Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer – 2013) A-

A movie with very little dialogue and striking music. It is set in Scotland and follows an alien who looks like Scarlet Johansson. In the silent long opening scene we see her take on the new skin and dress herself in the clothes of her dead predecessor. We can immediately tell they have been doing this for a while. She walks among the people and she seems equal parts a child, a seductress and a spider. It’s fascinating and haunting. Her mission is not really spelled out for us but seems to consist of luring men into her lair where they sink and dissolve into a black pool while she just walks on the surface. The men seem to get “processed” for…? what? food for the home planet? Doesn’t matter really. Under the Skin is a portrait of an alien who is born, starts to learn about the world around it and maybe starts to feel something. It’s sad, creepy and at times just ugly in its imagery.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese – 2014) A

Money, greed, debauchery and drugs. It’s all way way over the top and so is Scorsese’s movie about Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street guy who made it insanely rich off stocks in the 80’s and 90’s while still in his twenties. It’s a movie with no boundaries and no inhibitions. It revels in excess. Why shouldn’t it? Scorsese has made movies about mobsters, disturbed individuals, small time criminals and gangs in 19th century New York. Here he has a story about an admittedly boring subject. his main characters are criminals but they are no Henry Hill. In one seen one of them vomits at the sight of some blood. What they are is group of con artists playing with a whole lot of money. This is boring and a lesser director would’ve made a very shitty movie with this material.

What Scorsese does instead is give us a film that is fast paced and loud. The characters are colorful but by and large are horrible people. So why did I keep watching this long movie about a boring topic with vain characters? Because it is entertaining and the material handled just right by a master film maker. He makes Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) talk directly to us, tell his story from his perspective. We are mostly with him, we can hear his thoughts lots of the time, he breaks the fourth wall often and lets us in to his most depraved thoughts, a bit like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. He also uses a lot of replays of various scenes to tell different points of view. Some scenes that you would think should go on for a few seconds go on for a long time, like when Belfort is trying to get into his car after taking a lot of bad drugs or when he is discussing with his “team” what they can and cannot do with the little people hired to be the entertainment for the office! These really should not work but they do. We get to be transported into these characters’ world and live there for a bit instead of just watching a quick story about some crooks. The supporting cast does a great job (especially Jonah Hill) with injecting energy and humor into the story. It might be funny at times and it is very entertaining but The Wolf of Wall Street is really a sad portrait of a man-child and his immature crew who happened to have great sales skills and little morals.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney – 2015) A

It’s crazy how an organization, a cult really, based on the writings and insane ramblings of a self admitted crazy person with billions of dollars in its coffers can remain tax exempt while it freely commits crimes. Going Clear does a great job of exposing the crimes that happened and continue to happen under the guise of Scientology. It shows much footage of the person who started the whole thing, L. Ron Hubbard (or LRH as the brainwashed call him), and his motivations – namely how to make money and not pay taxes. The most compelling and horrific stuff though relates to the current chairman, Miscavige, a true megalomaniac cult leader. We get a clear picture of how he controls his church’s image, the extortion war he waged on the IRS and how he keeps his subjects (including people like Tom Cruise) in check. Other than providing me with a fascinating exposè of Scientology, Going Clear really puts The Master in perspective. P.T. Anderson’s movie makes much more sense now. I need to revisit that for sure.

Bread: 100% Rye Starter, Tartine and No-Knead Brioche

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It’s time for a proper bread baking post. It’s been a long time since I’ve dedicated an entry to bread and the last one was not that informative. It’s truly fascinating as to how much we can do to stretch the capabilities of what flour and water with a bit of bacteria (yeast) can do. The first loaf I ever baked I credit to Jamie Oliver more than 14 years ago. He made it sound like a no-brainer to bake a loaf of bread. Ditto with the first ever naturally leavened loaf (sourdough). I made my starter using his method and have been maintaining it for 12 years or so. Since then I’d like to think I’ve come a long way and the credit for this post really goes to Chad Richardson of Tartine bakery/books, to a blog called Girl Meets Rye and to the couple from Ideas in Food.

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100% Rye Starter on the left and the Levain on the right

Tartine bakery is now a very popular and duly lauded place in San Francisco. I’ve never been there but  have heard about the place and seen the books. I did not think that I needed yet another bread book until I saw Tartine Book No.3: Modern, Ancient, Classic, Whole at Powell’s Book Shop in Portland. It focuses on whole grain baking and highlights ancient grains and flours like Kamut and Einkorn. Chad Robertson’s recipes only use natural leaven and no commercial yeast at all. The book really pushes what you can do with flour and water using long fermentation times, fermented grains, porridges, sprouted grains. There is one master recipe or more like process and almost all formulations in the book follow that process to make mostly round rustic loaves.

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A loaf made with 20% rye flour, whole wheat and white flour

While doing some research about Tartine methods of baking I stumbled on the Girl Meets Rye blog. My key takeaway from that blog is to switch to using a 100% rye starter for my bread – all my naturally leavened bread. So, I took a portion of my old white flour starter and converted it into a rye starter. It’s made a huge difference in the flavor and fermentation activity due to the high levels of enzymes in rye. Another simple trick I learned from Girl Meets Rye is to store my starter in small jar and refresh it in there using 50 gr starter, 50 gr rye flour, 50 gr flour. How do I know easily how much starter is in the jar? Well weigh the empty jar first and record the weight right on it (stupid obvious, but I had not thought of doing that!). My jar weighs 260 gr, so I ensure I have a total weight of 310 gr with the starter and then add the flour and water. She also streamlines the baking process by using parchment paper to move the bread from bowl to pot. A very helpful tip when dealing with a crazy hot cast iron pot.

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I typically refresh the starter about three times before proceeding to the next step per Robertson, making a leaven. The recipes in Tartine No. 3 all use this leaven made from a tablespoon of active starter and equal amounts of flour and water (200 gr each). That makes a lot of leaven and is enough to make more bread than I need. It actually makes more than you need to make any of the recipes in the book (typically each recipe makes 2 loaves). So I usually make half of that for my leaven and it works great.  Robertson uses “High-extraction flour” a lot but this is not something easily found in my local grocery store. This flour is basically similar to white flour but has more of the wheat bran still in it, almost like a halfway flour between whole wheat and white. That explains why Robertson advises homebakers to use a mix of 50-50 of whole and white flour to mimic the high extraction stuff. This has worked perfectly for me using King Arthur All-Purpose and Whole Wheat flours.

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Leaven and the 20% rye bread mix

The fermentation of these loaves is long but pretty simple. The leaven, various flours/seeds/other and water are stirred together in a bowl. Over the next couple of hours the dough is turned and quickly folded every 30 minutes to develop the gluten. The dough then ferments and rises for another couple of hours. The bread can be formed into boules at this point, allowed to rise for two hour and baked. Usually it works much better for my schedule and -more importantly- for superior flavor to form the dough, place it in a cloth lined bowl and let it sit in the fridge overnight (a process called retardation). I bake it straight from the fridge with great results.

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Baking in a dutch oven – a Le Creuset pot in my case- is not new to the Tartine process. I first heard about it and have been using it since Jim Lahey via Mark Bittman re-popularized the No Knead Bread. Here is the streamlined process I follow now:

  1. Put the pot in the oven and heat it up as high as it goes (550 F)
  2. Use a parchment paper covered peel to gently drop the loaf from it’s fermentation bowl onto the parchment and brush off any residual flour on the surface
  3. Remove the hot pot from the oven and uncover it
  4. Lift the loaf with the parchment and gently put it in the -now very hot- pot. slash the loaf or not, depending on nothing but my mood really. Not slashing makes it look craggy and very rustic.
  5. Cover the pot and put it back in the oven for 20 mins
  6. We do not want the bottom of the loaf to burn so after the first 20 minutes I put the pot on a baking sheet and slide it back in the oven. Reduce the temp to 425 F and bake for another 10 mins.
  7. Uncover the pot, put it on another cool baking sheet and put the whole thing on the first sheet (so now the pot sits on two baking sheets) and put it back in the oven. Again the goal is to insulate the bottom of the loaf so that it would not burn.
  8. Bake it for another 18-20 mins until it is deeply dark brown on the outside. Remove it from the pot and let is cool on a rack.
  9. Through out the whole process enjoy the amazing smells that will be coming out of the oven. Really heavenly stuff.

Barley Loaf3

This is a loaf that has a good percentage of cooked barley mixed in. Rolled in oat flakes while proofing.

All I’ve talked about so far is lean bread with no oil, butter, dairy or eggs. That’s the bread I make on a regular basis and use for everything. I was curious how my rye starter would work with very rich breads. In their book, Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work Aki and Alex have a fantastic no-knead brioche recipe. I love it because it is easy to make, not very fussy and produces superb rich brioche. The recipe like the ones from Tartine relies on long fermentation times and refrigerator rest as well as a boatload of eggs and butter. I followed their recipe as usual but used leaven instead of using any commercial yeast.

Brioche-Rye

My concern with the brioche is the large amount of fat in the dough would somehow interfere with the natural leaven’s work. I should not have worried. The brioche loaves exceeded my expectations. They rose beautifully and had an spectacular flavor. In addition to the usual sweet buttery taste these guys had a deep nutty taste with a slightly sour background that can only be achieved from natural leavening.

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The brioche is a favorite in our house for French toast topped with maple apples or toasted and topped with jam. It also goes perfectly with savory toppings like a rich chicken liver parfait or a slice of sharp cheddar. This rye starter really is one of the best bread improvements I’ve made since I started baking.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service (Mathew Vaughn – 2014) A-

I love the Bond movies, one in particular holds a special place in my heart. Moonraker is not particularly good but it is the very first 007 movie I’ve ever seen and I saw it repeatedly on VHS. Kingsman reminded me of Moonraker and countless other classic over-the-top crazy Bond movies. Kingsman even has a similar plot to Moonraker including a space scene! It also has an eccentric villain, a cool secret society whose members are remarkably well dressed and well trained, a brunette with crazy sharp swords instead of legs and slick well-choreographed fight scenes…one in particular is both insanely good and uncomfortable with how violent it is. The film is an origin story of sorts and a heck of a fun romp.