Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony and Joe Russo – 2014) A-

It’s really amazing what Marvel has managed to do. We have what is basically a long running series with interconnected stories that are at the same time independent. Some  of those were not great films other were pretty damn good. Here we have another good one. Captain America, played by Chris Evans, manages to be earnest and a genuinely good guy without coming off too cheesy or corny. He is really a fish out of water both in terms of time and his moral values. The movie has some good supporting characters as well like Scarlett Johanssen’s Black Widow and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. We also get some more Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury and he has a fantastic car chase fight scene that is like nothing we’ve seen him do before. The movie tackles some interesting topics like government surveillance and has some very high stakes and conclusions that made me wonder what the future Marvel/Avengers movies will be like. The action sequences are spectacular and lots of fun even though the aforementioned Winter Soldier is not very compelling as a character. Another thing Marvel is good at: making sure we stay in our seats happily until the credits are done to get our teaser fix.

Apple Mille Feuille with Buttermilk Waffle Ice Cream

Apple Mille Feuille-Buttermilk Waffle

The fourth and final course of our Valentine’s Day dinner is one I am very proud of. It worked so well and was a delight to make, look at and eat that I could not have been happier with how it turned out. Well, like everything, it can be improved upon and perfected some more, but really it was a lovely ending to a delicious meal. It’s a take on the traditional French dessert known as Mille Feuille meaning a thousand sheets, a reference to the many layers of flaky puff pastry. Another name for this type of dessert is a Napoleon.

The inspiration of this recipe is from both Daniel Boulud and Heston Blumenthal. Heston has recipes for a dessert with candied apple and puff pastry in at least two of his books and they look spectacular with layers of caramelized apples, cream, apple confits, ice cream and such. Auldo prepared the version from The Fat Duck Cookbook, simply called Cox’s Apple, on his blog a while ago. More recently I saw a simpler but also very refined version in Daniel Boulud’s  latest book Daniel: My French Cuisine. Boulud’s version is a layer of candied apple confit sandwiched between puff pastry and a layer of whipped calvados cream topped with caramelized puff pastry (aka an arlette).

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The apple confit layer is simple to make following Boulud’s instructions. Thinly sliced apples are layered with raw sugar to almost fill a small loaf pan. This is then covered in foil and baked until the apples are deep mahogany caramel color. The confit is then cooled and frozen to make slicing it easier. This process works very well, but next time around I’d rather put a layer of parchment in the bottom of the pan or at least butter the pan. This would’ve made removing the block of apple confit much easier.

Apple Confit2

Apple Confit3

I was hoping to make my own puff pastry but really got tight on time with the other dishes I needed to prepare. So, I opted to buy some good quality all-butter puff pastry. The key here is to buy the puff pastry made with only butter, not the Pepperidge Farm crap. I cut the pastry into large portions and baked some on a baking sheet weighed down with another baking sheet to control how much the pastry rises. These were then cut into even rectangles and formed the first two layers of the plated dessert. The third (top) layer was the arlette, the caramelized thin puff pastry. I used Blumenthal’s instructions to help with this one. The pastry is rolled thin while constantly being dusted with confectioner’s sugar. Then it is baked with additional weights on top to keep it on the thin side as it cooks and caramelizes.

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The ice cream that went with the mille feuille is my own recipe. I wanted something with a tart flavor and almost a bit savory. I knew it would include homemade buttermilk and was thinking of maybe using some yeasted cream as well similar to what I used with this waffle dessert. That’s what brought waffles to mind, specifically yeast waffles, not the quick baking powder ones. I love a recipe for yeast risen waffles from Shirley Corriher’s classic book CookWise that she aptly labels “Crisp-crusted, feather-light raised waffle”. So I made some of that and as usual I used oat flour for about a quarter of the flour in there and used buttermilk instead of milk. I then allowed the waffles to completely dry and crisp in a warm oven eventually ending up with about 100 gr of waffles, crumbled. I soaked these in a mixture of cream and whole milk overnight and then strained them out. Then I proceeded to make the ice cream using my go to method per Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream book. When the ice cream base was cool I stirred in a 100 gr of buttermilk, allowed the mixture to cool in the fridge and then churned it into the most amazing buttermilk waffle ice cream.

Buttermilk Waffle Ice Cream

The cream under the top caramelized puff pastry layer is simple sweetened whipped cream flavored with Laird’s apple brandy. That goes on the plate in a few dots first to anchor the first layer of pastry, then goes a rectangle of apple confit, then more pastry, the Laird’s cream and the caramelized pastry. The green-ish sauce around the dessert is just Granny Smith apple juice thickened lightly with Xanthan gum and it gives the dish a nice fresh apple flavor.

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Apple Mille Feuille-Buttermilk Waffle10

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson – 2014) A

This really is one of my favorite Wes Anderson films. Anderson uses many techniques, color pallets and even aspect ratios to tell the story of Gustav H. the concierge of the Grand Budapest between the wars. The story is set in a fictitious eastern European country named Zubrowka and in a smart opening is told to us through the aging Zero Moustafa the lobby boy who is retelling it to an author whose book with the story is being read by a girl in the cemetery at the opening of the film. Anderson is really a divisive filmmaker and even those who like him might not like all his work (I do not care for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). This one is no exception and will not make those who dislike his films fans all of a sudden. I just loved his work here where he composes shots so perfectly, his characters are as quirky as usual, the dialogue is a wonderful mix of high-brow with deadpan profanity as an exclamation point. He also mixes live action and stop-motion animation, comedy with shocking violence, Brooklyn accents with proper British ones,…. It just works.

The film is a heist film, a murder mystery, a prison escape but really above all it’s about a world that is changing and Gustav who is mourning the change. He is a gentleman who loves a certain way of life and traditions that are being eroded by time, politics and an upcoming war. Ralph Fiennes in the role of Gustav is fantastic. His delivery of the dialogue and mannerisms are just perfect. Like almost every Anderson film is, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a fairy tale but somehow it feels like these people are real somewhere, possibly in Zubrowka.

We Are What We Are (Jim Mickels – 2012) A-

I don’t go for horror movies much. They are usually very cheesy and repeat the same story it seems over and over again. Both of these are not necessarily bad if done well, but modern horror films are geared to either give the PG-13 crowd a “boo” moment every five minutes or graphic gore and torture porn throughout. In this skillfully made film, Jim Mickels gives us a tense story about a family that has “something off” about them. It’s creepy but not heavy handed at all. It does a very good job in making us care for the two daughters and their brother while not always sure if we should. I guessed what is going on pretty early in the run time but the film still maintained its high wire act perfectly. Boy was I not prepared for the horrific last five minutes or so here though. That’s one scene and a few lines of dialogue that I will never forget.

A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm – 2012) A

All to often we get corporations and executives portrayed as these big behemoths who could not care less about their employees. They only care about the bottom line. They are the evil men in suits. Well the best part of this small Danish flick is the portrayal of Peter, the CEO of a shipping company as he tries to navigate the rough long negotiation with hijackers who took over one of his ships. He really cares and wants the best possible outcome while  at the same time answering to the board as well as the family of the ship’s crew members.
A Hijacking is not sensational, it is a negotiation from beginning to end with the principal characters and a few side characters. Everyone is excellent in their performances. We have the aforementioned CEO, we have the ship’s cook who is terrified and wants to go back to his family while at the same time being used as a bargaining chip by Omar. Omar is the translator and the one who communicates with Peter, but he vehemently insists that he is not one of “them”, referring to the hijackers. These three are at the heart of this story. Another fascinating character is the consultant hired to help Peter navigate through the negotiation process. The film is subtle and while not much “action” happens, it is captivating from minute one to closing credits.

Dry-Aged Strip Steak, Carrot and Sour Onions

Steak-Carrots-Onions3On more than one occasion I’ve heard people say something along the lines of “Oh what’s the big deal with dry-aged beef…I got a couple of steaks and they are not that different that the run of the mill steak from Costco”. Well, these guys are either not really buying dry-aged steak or have some taste buds missing. A proper dry-aged steak is a thing of beauty, expensive but worth every penny for a special occasion like a Valentines Day dinner for two.

Dry aging beef is a process where large primals (like a whole side of strip loin) is left at a controlled temperature in an aging room uncovered. The meat usually hangs from hooks and is left anywhere from a couple of weeks and sometimes up to  months! During that time the meat loses a lot of moisture. This translates to water weight loss (one reason why it starts getting expensive) and concentrating of flavor and minerals in the meat. Another thing that happens is that the enzymes in the meat start breaking down the flesh making it very tender. That is why the meat has to be kept at a specific temperature (again that costs money), too warm and the meat would just rapidly spoil, too cold and the enzymes would not function. Last, but not least is that the aging process is basically a controlled “spoilage” in a way. The meat develops a lovely flavor as it matures and for really long aged beef it is sometimes describes as funky or similar to cheese! I have not had any of the latter, but I can certainly tell that the steak we had was tender and superbly flavorful with a brilliant savory taste due to the aging process.

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Hopefully my cursory summary of the dry-aging process as I understand it was helpful, but if not there are a lot of good resources out on the interwebs and many books on the subject. So what did we do with this nice steak? The meat was cooked very simply. I cooked it sous vide to medium rare and then finished it off in a very hot cast iron pan with some butter.

The onions are my attempt to try the sour onions from Magnus Nielssen’s Faviken. Magnus gently cooks thinly sliced onions in a mixture of whey and butter until the liquid evaporates and the onions are soft. The onions end up wonderfully tart and very deeply flavored with the whey (I used some from a cheese batch I was making) and butter. Unfortunately I could not manage to keep the onions intact in their original shape of thin rounds. I have no idea how the chef at Faviken manages to do that but I could not.

The other two items on the plate were marble potatoes and pureed carrots with vadouvan (an Indian spice mix heavy on coriander and citrus notes). The potatoes were just steamed and then crisped up in olive oil and herbs. The carrots were cooked sous vide with plenty of butter and a good pinch of the vadouvan spice mixture. When fully tender, I pureed them and passed them through a sieve. I prepared a sauce with reduced beef stock and red wine and finished it off with a bit of butter.

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