The French Laundry: Pear Strudel with Chestnut Cream and Pear Chips

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Back to that endless well of inspiration and technique, The French Laundry Cookbook. It’s like a small mini cooking course for every…course. I refine, learn and always end up with an awesome dish or two. This dessert was from a couple months back when pears were at their most abundant. I had some of the fruit and wanted to make some kind of pastry with them. A quick search against my cookbook database using -the very useful- Eatyourbooks.com resulted in several recipes using pears in a pastry including this lovely and refined version of a strudel.

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The first component I prepared was the fruit. I cut the neck from the pears and peeled the remaining rounded part. I used two different round cutters to make even cylinders and to hollow them out. These got poached in a syrup of white wine, vanilla, sugar and water. Once cool they went in the fridge until baking time.

Poached Pears

With another large pear I made the crystallized pear chips. Using a mandolin, I sliced it into paper thin slices. I poached these in a syrup of sugar and water, heavy on the sugar, until translucent. I laid them carefully on a Silpat and dried them in a 275 F oven until perfectly crispy. I reserved these in a container with a pack of silica to keep them crispy.

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Pear Chips2

This is by and large a classic recipe with classic components like the crème anglaise. It is really one of my favorite sweet treats. It’s just egg yolks, sugar, vanilla seeds made into a velvety custard with hot milk. I have made this using my sous vide precision cooker many times but this time i went old school and made it in an old fashioned pot and whisk. It is so delicious that I can eat it by the spoonful.

Chestnuts are not as beloved in the US as they are elsewhere and that’s a shame. They have a rich nutty and sweet flavor with a great buttery texture. Here roasted chestnuts get cooked with heavy cream and vanilla for an hour or so. Then they get pureed along with a bit of the pear poaching liquid and strained to make a luscious smooth puree.

Custard-Chestnut

To complete the strudel I brushed 4 layers of filo with clarified butter and sprinkled each with sugar. I stacked them and cut them into strips a bit wider than the pear cylinders. I laid the cylinders on the filo and rolled them up to make neat packages. I baked these at 350 F until golden brown and let them cool slightly before serving.

Pears-Filo

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I plated the pear strudel and dusted it with a bit of powdered sugar. I poured some dollops of the custard next to it and each got a bit of reduced pear poaching liquid in the center. Then a scoop or thick smear of the chestnut puree went next to the strudel. This is a delicious dessert with contrasting textures, temperatures and flavors. I was a bit skeptical about how the chestnut puree would work with the rest of the dish other than that it has the perfect texture to hold the pear chips. However, it was delicious and added a great almost-savory accent to the dish along with a rich creamy texture.

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Naturally Leavened Panettone

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This is another recipe from this past holiday season and it is worth recording for reference (and I got it posted before the end of January!). It worked very good but I will need to change a few things next time around, so a quick record of it is a good idea. Usually I make a Panettone or Stollen for Christmas but never with a 100% natural leaven. The idea to make a Panettone with natural levain is something that I wanted to do as soon as I saw the loaves made by Roy.

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I used my regular 100% rye starter to make the levain as always using 50-50 mix of white and whole wheat flours. For the recipe, I used Peter Reinhart’s from Artisan Breads Everyday as a reference. Seeing pictures of Roy’s bread I decided on chocolate and cherry as my flavors.

I soaked the cherries in dark rum while I worked on the starter and dough. To make the levain I mixed roughly 40 gr of the rye starter with 170 gr of 50-50 white and whole wheat flours. After about 6 hours it was bubbly and good to go. The dough in Reinhart’s recipe uses commercial yeast in addition to the levain, I opted to stick only with the natural starter and skip the yeast.

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Since the dough is enriched with soft butter and egg yolks it is a good idea to make it in a KitchenAid mixer to get everything well incorporated and the gluten developed. I decided to bake it in one large loaf using a bundt pan that I sprayed with non-stick oil. The dough, like most Panettone is too slack to really shape it so I just transferred it from the bowl of the mixer into the bundt pan and evened it out as much as possible.

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The dough rises slowly for about 12 hours and develops a lot of flavor. After baking and cooling it is ready to slice. The shape, look and texture of the finished loaf are all excellent. Due to the levain and the long fermentation time, the bread had a great robust flavor. This however did not really work as much as I would’ve liked with the tart cherries and dark chocolate chips.  There was almost too much flavor in there and the bread needed more sweetness and mellow flavors. Next time I’ll go with some almonds and some sweeter fruit like currents, apricots, prunes and maybe just a few cherries.

Halibut en Paupiette, Leek Royale, Red Wine Sauce

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One thing off the top here: Leek royale is awesome velvety delicious stuff. Ok, now that I’m done with that, the rest of this dish is very good too even if my execution is not as ideal or refined as I would’ve liked.

Chef Daniel Bouloud made this, a version of it actually, popular when when he was working at Le Cirque. At his restaurant, Daniel, he kept the popular dish in spirit but updated it a lot. In this version here I am doing a hybrid of sorts. The classic original is a fish, usually sea bass, wrapped in thin slices of potato and pan fried in butter. It is then served on top of sauteed leeks with a rich red wine sauce.

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In his book, Daniel: My French Cuisine, we get the updated version of the classic. It’s a steamed bass fillet with potato lyonnaise “rolls”, a rich leek custard (the aforementioned royale) and the classic red wine sauce, a Bordelaise. I started working on the recipe with the leek custard because that takes the most amount of work and needs to set in the fridge. I simmered the green part of the leeks along with Italian parsley until tender. I then cooked the drained greens in some cream and blended the whole thing, strained it through a fine sieve, seasoned it and blended in eggs and more cream.

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To cook it, I lined a small loaf pan with plastic wrap for easy removal later. I wrapped it with aluminum foil and cooked in a bain marie in the oven until set. This took a bit longer than the recipe recommends. I let the royale cool and popped it in the fridge until dinner time. Before plating, I gently unmolded the royale and cut it into neat 1 inch cubes and let them temper and come to room temperature. I tasted a few on their own. It’s rich with a lovely flavor of leek and has such a great smooth and comforting texture. For a few days after serving it with this dish we enjoyed the leek custard leftovers as a random side dish with dinner. It also goes great spread on crispy bread for a snack.

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Next I prepared the red wine sauce by reducing stock, plenty of red wine and some port along with shallots and thyme. Then I whisked in a crap load of butter until we had a glossy rich sauce. Chef Bouloud uses a vegetable sheeter to make long perfect sheets of potato which he uses to make strips to wrap the fish. I don’t have one of those contraptions so I bought the longest potatoes I could get my hand on and used the mandolin to make long paper thin sheets. This worked pretty well. I seasoned the halibut fillets with salt and pepper and some thyme. Then I brushed the potato sheets with clarified butter and used them to wrap the fish.

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The mistake I made here is to let the wrapped fish sit in the fridge for a couple of hours. The salt drew some moisture out of the fish in the meantime. So, it was a bit of a pain to get the fish to brown in clarified butter when I was cooking it for dinner. With some careful gentle heat I got the potato/fish packets cooked well, but next time I will wrap and fry the fish right away.

To plate, I poured some sauce on the plate and topped it with the fish. I put a couple of royale cubes on the side. I dressed a small salad made primarily of parsley leaves with lemon and olive oil. The salad went between the leek custard cubes. The flavors were awesome and the whole thing worked. With a bit of care with cooking the fish the dish could be quiet spectacular.

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Peaches, Cookies and Bourbon Cream

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This dish has a lot going for it even if the “cream” was not as successful as I would’ve liked. The flavors are spot on perfect and the textures work really well. It is a dish that I’d like to revisit and refine some more. I served this after a dinner of seafood paella to a couple of friends visiting from Florida. I wanted it to be a simple comforting summer dessert with familiar flavors and some refinement.

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The blue print here is a buttery cookie base, a Sablè Breton to be more specific, topped with poached peaches and served with airy crème anglaise (custard sauce) and garnished with pistachios. I prepared the sauce using the modern sous vide method from Modernist Cuisine at Home instead of the traditional stove top method. It’s simpler and requires little attention while at the same time pretty much eliminates the room for error that could result in a curdled sauce. To prepare it, a mixture of yolks, cream, milk, sugar and vanilla goes in a Ziploc bag. This is then cooked in 82 ºC water for 45 minutes. I chilled the mixture and whisked it for a few seconds and it is done. In addition to the vanilla I added bourbon to the sauce after chilling. Bourbon and peaches go great together so that made perfect sense. I purposefully did not cook the bourbon to evaporate the alcohol because I wanted to keep all the flavor in as well as a bit of kick.

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I wanted the sauce to have some substance and texture on the plate so that it can take on some form instead of just drizzling it on. I added gelatin to the cooled sauce and poured it into an iSi cannister that I charged with N2O. The gelatin is there to give it the needed structure and using the iSi is to aerate and lighten the sauce on the plate. Ultimately I do not think I used enough gelatin in there (that seems to always be the case with me) and the sauce had some structure but not enough to maintain a cleanly defined form on the plate for more than a minute or so. What I really need to do is research a bit more how much of a certain gelling agent is needed to give me a set foam. I have all the resources I need to find this information, I was just lazy here.
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For the cookie portion, I used a recipe from Gordon Ramsay’s Gordon Ramsay: Three Star Chef book for Sablè Breton. This is a slightly sweet buttery pastry that is used to make tarts and cookie sandwiches. Due to the high butter ratio in the dough the cookies tend to spread if not baked in a ring mold. I wanted them to be nice and round. so I rolled the dough into a thick log and sliced it. Then I gently squashed the dough circles to flatten them between the bases of two small (about 3 in. diameter) tart pans. I baked the cookies in the tart pans and then used a cookie cutter to trim them into neat 2 inch circles while they are warm out of the oven.

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The peaches are the easiest part. I quickly blanched them, peeled them and cut them into wedges. These got poached gently in a sugar syrup flavored with vanilla. To plate I dispensed some of the well-chilled custard into a bowl and topped the Sablè Breton with a spoon of it. I added more custard to the plate and topped the dessert with poached peaches and toasted crumbled pistachios. The flavors and textures were fantastic.

Poaching Syrup Poached Peaches

Pok Pok: Wild Duck Laap, Thai Pork Fried Rice, Cucumber Salad


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I travel a lot for work typically for a project in one city that could take anywhere from a few weeks to over a year. Travelling every week for a few days to the same city can be weary. The upside to this latest particular engagement is that it is in the lovely city of Portland, Oregon. The weather is just perfect for me, the scenery is beautiful and the food is brilliant. I honestly have not had a bad meal in this city. One of the places that I had on my list to visit in a city full of good eats is Andy Ricker’s Thai place, Pok Pok. I’ve eaten several fantastic meals over there so far so getting the book and trying a few of the dishes at home was of course to be expected.

galangal paste

We’ve enjoyed several meals from the book and all have been very good. The papaya salad I tried first was pretty much identical to what I had at Pok Pok. The stir fried rice noodles with pork, Chinese broccoli and soy sauce (Phat si ew) was an excellent one dish meal. So, I was very pleased when Nathan chose a few recipes from Pok Pok for our Friday dinner. The recipes are pretty simple but involve a lot of chopping and prep work. The fried rice, like all stir fries, really needs all the ingredients ready to go in order into the very hot wok or else you end up stressed and the your stir fry crappy!

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Pok Pok refers to the sound cooks make when using the mortar and pestle. That’s where many of the “salads” are prepared like this cucumber salad. Strictly speaking this is my version of Ricker’s cucumber salad (Tam taeng kwaa). I simplified it a bit and removed the noodles he serves with it since we are already having rice. I prepared it like I do the papaya salad in the granite mortar by mashing some garlic, limes, palm sugar and salt together. Then the sliced cucumber goes in and gets a bit bruised along with cherry tomatoes before being seasoned with more lime juice and fish sauce. I garnished the salad with crushed peanuts for texture and because they taste wonderful with the cukes and the rest of the menu.

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Laap is another dish that in typical Thai menus in the US is referred to as a “salad”. I’m not sure why that’s the case honestly, but really these are mixtures of minced meat (pork, chicken, fish or game) that are cooked fairly quickly with lots of traditional Thai aromatics. This version is labeled as Isaan minced duck salad (Laap pet Isaan) and is a bit more complex than previous versions I’ve cooked. Typically Laap is flavored with lime juice, shallots, lemongrass and some herbs with a sprinkling of toasted rice powder for crunch. This Isaan version adds more spice in the form of a galangal-garlic-shallot paste. I first broiled the sliced galangal along with the shallots and garlic then wrapped them in foil and let them bake and soften. These were then pounded in the mortar to form the paste.

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I still had boneless skinless wild duck in my freezer from my hunt in the fall. It made perfect sense to use those in place of store-bought ducks. The wild duck’s gamy flavor worked great in this heavily spiced and fragrant dish. I used my cleaver to slice and mince the duck meat to maintain a nice texture and it’s quiet relaxing really. It took maybe 10 minutes to reduce the duck from breasts to minced meat.

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The duck is cooked with the paste and sliced shallots until just cooked through then flavored with sliced lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, green onions, dried chilies, lime juice and fish sauce. Before serving I tossed in plenty of herbs (Thai basil, basil, mint) and toasted sticky rice powder. It’s a very exotically flavored delicious dish with more toasted rice powder sprinkled on top for more crunch.

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The Thai fried rice is really simple, but like I said before it works much better if you prepare all the ingredients and have them ready to go into the wok (or large skillet).  The whole cooking process takes maybe 6 or 8 minutes and you do not want t be chopping shallots in the middle of that. I’ve really been enjoying using my outdoor propane burner (a.k.a turkey fryer rig even though I’ve never fried a turkey) for stir-frying in my large carbon steel wok. I use that same rig to brew beer and whenever I deep fry anything. Using the wok on it though is such an exciting way to cook and feels like playing with fire! I get all my ingredients on the outdoor table next to my wok and start tossing them in one after the other sizzling and charring where needed before getting the sauce in to bring everything together. It’s quiet the rush! For this recipe first goes the shallot oil, then the egg followed by shallots and garlic. Everything gets tossed with pork…stir…toss (up in the air if you feel like it) until the meat is cooked through. In goes the rice and gets fried for a minute then a sauce goes in made from soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar and some lime. Done and delicious with fish sauce marinated chilies.

Thai fried rice

 

 

Aerated Scrambled Eggs

Classically, proper French style scrambled eggs are soft, light, fluffy and creamy. They do not much resemble the diner-style scrambled eggs we typically know and cook. They are almost like a slightly curdled custard. Of course they are delicious, but the problem is they require close to 30 minutes of constant slow stirring, sometimes using a double boiler! They are not something I do often and honestly this type of scrambled eggs is not always what I am looking for. Usually the regular “drier” eggs is what I would make for myself and for the family.

With an immersion circulator controlling the water temperature to an exact degree, soft scrambled eggs are very easy to do. Another huge benefit to this method is that while the eggs cook, I am free to prepare the rest of the breakfast. The process involves mixing eggs with salt, pepper and a little milk and then bagging them with a few cubes of butter. They are cooked at 72.5C for about 25-30 minutes. They are done at that point and can be served after shaking the bag for a few seconds to break up the curds. The first time I saw this method was on the Ideas in Food blog and since then they published their book. So I used their procedure and took it to the next level like they did by quickly putting the cooked egg mixture in an iSi canister and charged it with one NO2 charge (Tip: put some very hot water in the canister, leave it in for a few minutes and dump it out before putting in the eggs to make sure they don’t cool down too quickly). That made the eggs very luxurious and light when dispensed warm from the whipping canister.

I served the aerated scrambled eggs with sauteed mushrooms and asparagus that was blanched and then cooked in butter. The mushrooms and the asparagus stems go in the bowl first, then I dispensed the eggs covering everything. I garnished the bowls with butter-fried bread chunks, asparagus tips and toasted butter solids. Those butter solids by the way are fantastic stuff. I first saw them on David Brazelay’s EatFoo blog (David now runs the Lazy Bear underground restaurant in San Fransisco). They are really the dregs left after clarifying butter, basically the milk solids. To make a bunch of them though a bit of dried milk powder is added to the melted butter and allowed to brown gently. What you end up with is a super flavorful and nutty little bits that add great buttery flavor and a nice texture to all kinds of foods.

Alinea: Chocolate, warmed to 94 degrees

From the title of this recipe one would not know what to expect. Is it a hot chcolate drink? Just warmed chocolate? Honestly it sounds a bit boring. Boring, though, this recipe is not! Without waxing with no end about the nuances of this dish I have to say that this dessert from Alinea is AWESOME. It’s so much more than the sum of its parts that at first glance I was not sure how they will work together. It’s a dish that combines braised figs, Bergamot tea (you know, like Earl Grey), a cinnamon flavored ice cream and dried chocolate mousse. The result is delicious, comforting, familiar and exotic at the same time and features amazingly harmonious textures. Oh and I just love how classy and lovely it looks…hence the tons of pictures in this post.

I had seen this recipe years ago, right before the Alinea book was published. This one was one of the few “preview” recipes published by the authors on their Mosaic website. I just never got around to making it for the usual various reasons but mostly because fresh figs have a fairly short season here and when I do find them they are pretty pricy and the fruit is not that great. Recently though I found a bunch for an excellent price at Whole Foods, so I bought some to eat fresh and to make this recipe. The figs are braised in a mixture of wine, ruby port, glucose and sugar until they are soft. The cooking liquid is then reduced to a glaze and stored along with the fruit until plating time. The figs and their liquid delicious on their own. They will work great as a garnish for game meats or on top of vanilla ice cream.

The ice cream is supposed to be “cassia ice cream”. Cassia buds are the tiny flowers of the cassia tree, the same tree that usually produces a very fragrant bark that we use regularly -cinnamon. The buds are supposed to have a cinnamon flavor and aroma but are more flowery, citrusy and intense. At least that’s what I gathered from a couple of online sources. In any case, I could not find them locally and was not going to order them online. So, I used a bunch of cinnamon sticks and some corriander seeds that get toasted and steeped in milk. Like many of Alinea’s ice creams, this one is fairly low in fat and is supposed to be frozen in with a Pacojet not churned in a regular ice cream maker.

Usually I alter these recipes to make them more home-ice-cream-machine friendly like I did with the delicious buckwheat ice cream from another Alinea recipe. This time though I decided to see what would happen if I just made the recipe as is. Well, the resulting ice cream predictably froze much harder than is desirable and had a very light texture (not too icy though) on the tongue. To serve it I had to let it sit on the counter for 5 minutes or so I can make nice quenelle scoops out of it. On it’s own, the ice cream is not great honestly. It’s a bit too light and not creamy enough, but the cinnamon flavor with the accompanying corriander came through very well. When it was time to eat the plated dish though, the ice cream worked perfectly with all the other elements. It’s lightness played very well with intense chewy figs and the dark crunchy chocolate mousse. So, even though the ice cream could not stand on its own, it was perfect as a smaller player in a larger composition.

This was a neat and unique way to serve chocolate mousse. The mousse is that cracker looking piece on top of the ice cream. It’s a dehydrated chocolate mousse. The recipe is pretty standard with dark melted chocolate, egg yolks, whipped egg whites and sugar and it makes for a tasty version of this confection (I saved some and served it in a small ramekin). The rich mousse is spread on a acetate sheet and dehydrated for several hours until it is crispy and can be easily broken into shards. Those shards are addictively delicious all on their own and go great with a glass of milk. It’s a good thing that the (half) recipe of the mousse makes more than enough of the crackers for lots of servings of the dessert, because we snacked on those things like crazy.

For the bergamot tea, I cooked dried mission figs with water, sugar and a little salt. Off heat, I added earl grey tea leaves and let them steep for a few minutes. I strained everything out and then blended in a few grams of Ultratex-3 to finish the sauce. It’s interesting to note tha the Ultratex here does not make the sauce too thick or pudding-like. Instead it gives it just a little body and texture.

Last but not least, the recipe’s namesake is made..or more like “warmed”. One of the reasons people love chocolate so much lies in its melting point. Chocolate, or more accurately, cocoa butter melts at around 94 degrees F. Since our bodies maintain a temperature of 98 degrees F , chocolate just gently melts in our mouths and spreads is bitter sweet complex goodness. So, what Achatz is doing here is using that property to soften the chocolate by warming it just up to its melting point while maintaining its shape. Allen at his Alinea blog, just recently posted about this recipe (with his customary amazing pictures) and went to great lengths to create an environment that maintains about 94F. I did not. All I did was put a few broken quality dark chocolate pieces on the mousse shards. I heated my oven to about 100F, turned it off and left the pilot light on. I slipped the chocolate topped mousse shards in there for about 15-20 minutes by which time the chocolate got perfectly soft but did not run all over the place and maintained its shape. As far as I could tell using an oven thermometer the temperature in there remained around 95-98F.

To serve it, I put three braised fig halves and some of their liquid in the bottom of a bowl. I topped them with a nice quenelle of ice cream and layed a chocolate topped mousse shard on that. I gently poured some warmed bergamot tea/sauce around in the bottom right before serving it (at the restaurant they do this table-side). The dessert is supposed to be garnished with a bergamot flower, a pretty red one. I had none and went to my herb garden to see what I had. I ended up with some basil buds and pretty rosemary flowers. This really was a perfect dessert.