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

Pear Strudel-Custard-Chestnut8

Pear Strudel-Custard-Chestnut11

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.

Pear Strudel-Custard-Chestnut3

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.

Pear Chips3

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

Pear Strudel-Custard-Chestnut2

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.

Pear Strudel-Custard-Chestnut4

Advertisements

Under Pressure: Glazed Breast of Pork with Swiss Chard, White-Wine-Poached Granny Smith Apples, and Green Mustard Vinaigrette

Pork-Apples-Chard5

A bit more complicated to make than those delicious pork buns is this dish from Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure using the second chunk of the pork belly I had. Pork and apples is a classic combination that always works well. On top of that we have strong sweet-tart flavors and sharp mustard with chard to round up a very unctuous and rich dish. As usual with these dishes I split the prep over a few days and it worked very well even if the plating was not quiet as ideal as the book picture.

Green Apple Mustard2

To start I soaked the pork belly in a spiced brine that has some cure #1 (Sodium Nitrite) overnight to give it a cured flavor and color (like bacon). I packaged the meat with chicken stock and some herbs then cooked it sous vide at 82 C until very tender, about 12 hours. Here the goal is to go for a very tender texture not something like a steak texture. When the meat was cooked I really should have figured out a way to lay it very flat and weigh it down to get a nice even flat block. Instead I just chilled it and kept it in the fridge until ready to serve.

Pork-Apples-Chard

Thomas Keller’s recipe asks for a specific kind of mustard, green apple mustard. It is something you can find online. However, I figured why not make something on my own. It is most likely not the same thing but will be delicious never the less and is all mine! I’ve made mustard condiment before and I like a simple recipe from John Currence’s book Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey. So I used that recipe as a guideline and started by poaching Granny Smith apple slices in Apfelwein (homemade apple wine) until the apples were tender and most of the wine evaporated. More apple wine (Currence’s recipe uses Guinness; also an excellent version) and apple cider vinegar are also used to soak a bunch of mustard seeds overnight.

Green Apple Mustard3

The next day, I simmered a mixture of mustard powder, honey, turmeric, salt and pepper in more apple wine and apple cider vinegar. I added the soaked mustard seeds and allowed them to simmer for a few minutes. To finish it up, I pureed most of the seeds along with the cooked apples and left the remainder of the seeds whole to mix in and add some texture. I ended up with a delicious mustard that is great on anything from vinaigrettes to sandwiches.

Using a melon baller, I prepared several spheres from Granny Smith apples. I packaged those along with a poaching syrup (sugar, apple wine, water…) and cooked them sous vide at 85 C for 30 minutes until tender but keeping their shape. After cooling they went in the fridge as well.

Apples

I was really hoping for three different chard colors but of course the one time I go to Whole Foods to buy some they only had red and green. So two colors it is. I separated the leaved from the stems and trimmed the stems. The leaves get coarsely chopped. I cooked the stems packaged with herbs and oil at 85 C for 1.5 hours. Then I trimmed them into 2 inch long batons. These get seasoned with vinegar, salt and pepper and warmed up right before serving.

Chard

Chard3

The chard leaves get turned into an intense side for the pork. I cooked them with aromatics, butter, a chunk of bacon and vegetable stock. After the greens cook in the oven for about 30 minutes or so I cooled them a bit then finely chopped them.

Apples-Chard-Vinaigrette

Pork-Apples-Chard2

Last item to prepare is the green mustard vinaigrette. It’s just a mixture of the apple mustard, Dijon mustard, honey, olive  oil and a touch of vinegar. To serve, I reheated the pork in the pouch at 55 C, removed the meat from the bag and patted it dry. I crisped and browned the pork in a skillet but I did have a few issues keeping the pieces flat and even. Turning them frequently alleviated some of the issues. I used a mixture of the pork cooking juices from the bag along with butter, wine and some stock to make a quick pan sauce for the pork. I added the pork pieces to the pan with the sauce and got them nicely glazed.

Pork-Apples-Chard4

To serve, on a plate goes a few drizzles of the vinaigrette and the pork pan sauce. Top that with a piece of meat and line up three apple balls along the side. The marinated chard stems go on the apple and a neat Swiss chard oval goes next to the pork. It’s delicious, a refined dish with a lot of rustic flavors going on from France to the American South with all those earthy bacon-y greens.

 

Napa: Dinner at The French Laundry

FL-Pin

There really is no shortage of reports on the web about The French Laundry and it’s food. I’m sure many are very thorough and detailed, especially on sites like eGullet.org. My post here will be more on the short side word-wise. Last time I enjoyed a meal that I had been looking forward to for a very long time at a three-star restaurant that was elBulli and I had chosen not to take any pictures. I have since regretted not having a set of pictures to share here and keep as a souvenir. So this time around I asked our very professional and nice waitstaff if it’s ok to snap flash-free pictures and documented our memorable 4-hour meal as best as I could.

It’s been probably more than 10 years since I first heard about Keller’s French Laundry on Anthony Bourdain’s episode-dinner on his first show, “A Cook’s Tour”. If you do a search on my blog for “Keller” or “The French Laundry” or “Bouchon” you’ll have a pretty good idea that I am a huge admirer of the Chef and his work. We were set to go to a wedding in Napa in March 2013 and I knew that I will try to snag a reservation at this restaurant. It took over a hundred calls back to back…until OpenTable.com came through for me (heh, who knew…)  and I got a reservation for 4 on Sunday, March 16th. It was everything we expected to be. I had very high expectations and suffice it to say that I was not disappointed in the slightest. The service was impeccable. It was efficient, friendly and not at all stuffy. It was a lovely meal and a great time with Diana and two great friends of ours.

(Since I used no flash, as the natural light faded away the later pictures are a bit “hazy”. Sorry about that)

After being seated we chose our menu options and supplement courses. We also chose a bottle of an excellent Riesling to go with the meal. I love that the very courteous  sommelier did  not bat an eye when I requested a “white bottle under $100”. He simply picked two and explained in detail why one of them (the less expensive one) is the right choice. We were then served the Laundry’s classic canapes – Gougere and the Salmon Tartar Cornets. My wife and I opted for a couple of glasses of Champagne to start with as well. Then the meal started.

Oysters and Pearls

“Oysters and Pearls” – “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

This is a French Laundry classic. It’s creamy, briny and delicious.

Royal Osetra Caviar

Royal Ossetra Caviar – Cauliflower “Panna Cotta”, Meyer Lemon, Black Pepper, Pine Nuts and Toasted Brioche

My friend ordered this as a supplement instead of the Oysters and Pearls. Beautiful and very tasty. (Yes, we passed the dishes around so we all can have a taste)

Heirloom Beets2 Heirloom Beets

Salad of Heirloom Beets – Pickled Green Strawberries, Yogurt “au Poivre Vert”, Marcona Almonds and Wild Oxalis

Everyone, except me go this “salad”. Very good and fresh. Instead I got this beauty…

Risotto-Truffles

“Carnaroli Risotto Biologico” – Parmesan “Nuage” and Shaved Black Truffles 

This was a supplement dish and worth every penny for the loads of truffles the server shaved on top of this creamy heavenly concoction. After showing us a box full of fist size fragrant truffles, she proceeded to cover the risotto with shavings. After eating half the dish, she actually came back and covered the dish again with more shavings of truffle.  Her comment “Chef would like every guest who pays for truffles to REALLY taste the truffles”. Thanks!

Lubina

Sautéed fillets of Mediterranean Lubina – “Picalilli”, Mustard Seeds and Thyme infused Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Tasty and perfectly cooked fish. I would’ve preferred if the skin was crisped though.

Butter Lobster

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster “Fricassee” – Kendall Farms Creme Fraiche “Pain Perdu”, Fava Beans, Green Garlic, Watercress and “Lobster Bearnaise”

Butter and lobster, rich sauce, fresh favas and crispy French toast. Perfect.

Poularde2 Poularde

Four Story Hill Farm “Poularde” – Poached Field Rhubarb, Braised Spigarello, Sicilian Pistachios and Black Truffle Jus

It’s not a simple a chicken as it looks. The breast meat is perfectly cooked and juicy. It is also stuffed under the skin with a layer of chicken mousse and black truffles.

Veal Oscar

Marcho Farms Nature Fed Veal “Oscar” – Alaskan King Crab, David Little Potatoes, Sacramento Delta Green Asparagus, Garden Radishes and Shallot Sauce

This was a surprise of a sort. I was not sure what to expect, but it ended up being one of the highlights of the meal. Not pictured here is a small porcelain pot that was filled with very rich and airy potato puree. This was the ultimate meat and potato dish.

Cantal

“Cantal” – “Thomas’s English Muffin”, Green Apple Relish, Petite Onions, Frisee and Black Walnut Puree

This was the composed cheese course. Lovely with a mix of textures and temperatures to go along with the Cantal cheese.

Verjus Blanc

“Verjus Blanc” – Demi-Sec Grapes, Jasmine Tea Ice Cream and Marshall Farms Honey Crisp

A complex little palate cleanser before dessert

Swiss Roll

Passion Fruit “Swiss Roll” – Valrhona Chocolate Cremeux, Caramel Mousse and Banana Ice Cream  

The ladies got this for dessert while , funny enough, the guys got the…

Princess Cake

“Princess Cake” – Animal Farm Buttermilk, Navel Orange Marmalade, Toasted Marzipan and Cara Cara Orange Sorbet

I have to say that the desserts were the least impressive of the meal. Nothing bad or wrong, just not as “up there” as the savory courses that preceded them.

After all that food and almost four hours we got some warm donuts and coffee.. .

Coffee and Donuts

This extra course is the same one I posted about recently, Coffee and Donuts. It’s cool to taste it there and, except for the much better foam on the semifreddo, my dish was pretty damn close to the real thing. This was also delivered to the table with a bunch of Mignardises – a selection of chocolate truffles and chocolate covered macadamia nuts.

We left with a small box each of buttery shortbread cookies and the memory of a lovely evening of good food and excellent company at a unique and beautiful place.

 

French Laundry: ‘Coffee and Donuts’

Coffee and Donuts3

Yeah, foam is a crazy new fad. Afterall, no chef was making any food with “foam” ten or 50 years ago. Right? Well, no. Wrong. Foam in cooking, baking and beverages is everywhere. Sometimes it is obvious like a nice froth on a cappuccino. Other times, like in this dessert, it’s a bit less recognizable. This dessert (part 2 of my French Laundry meal) is composed of several foams. Five types to be precise. As the name suggest and the picture shows this is a sort of coffee with a nice froth on it served alongside some perfect donuts. This is a classic French Laundry dessert that is much more than it seems.

Donuts-Sugar

The coffee part is actually a coffee semifreddo topped with steamed frothy milk to give it a traditional cappuccino look. Semifreddo literally means semi-frozen or half frozen and it is a very traditional Italian dessert made by mixing three foams. A custard foam made from egg yolks, sugar and flavored with instant espresso powder is mixed with stiff-whipped sweetened cream and a simple meringue (whipped egg whites and sugar). The three are gently folded together and portioned out into small coffee cups and then frozen. The frozen product has a wonderful smooth rich texture similar to frozen mousse. It is allowed to warm up for a few minutes and then it is topped with hot frothy milk. The effect is both lovely to look at and just delicious with the fantastic juxtaposition of hot and cold.

Semifreddo1

Bread and cakes are filled with air bubbles. They are also a type of foam that we bake, steam or fry to trap those air bubbles. As the air in those bubbles heats up it expands  producing airy products that are at the same time light and sturdy. These donuts belong to the category of yeast-risen doughs as opposed to cake donuts which are a quick bread leavened chemically with baking soda and baking powder. Chef Keller’s donuts are rich and almost like a brioche dough. they are made with flour, sugar, eggs and butter. After I made the dough I put it in the fridge to allow it to rise slowly and develop flavor. A couple of hours before frying, I rolled the dough and cut it into 2-inch rounds and then used a much smaller round cutter and punched holes in those rounds to get both donuts and donut holes.

Coffee and Donuts-Horz

When ready to serve, I fried the donuts and holes. It’s really neat seeing them go in the oil then bob up when they puff with the heat. While they are still hot, I rolled them in a mixture of cinnamon and sugar and plated a donut and a donut hole alongside the “coffee”. The combination, just like the braised pork cheek dish that preceded it, is comforting, familiar and refined. The semifreddo gets soft enough to even dunk the donuts in it. I highly recommend you do that if you decide to try making this. The recipe makes a good bit of donuts and that’s a good thing because one is not enough.

Coffee and Donuts2

French Laundry: Braised Pork Cheek with Yellow Corn Polenta Cakes, Glazed Vegetables and Sweet Garlic

Pork Cheek-Polenta-Glazed Vegetables3
A week before our much awaited dinner at The French Laundry (I’ll post something about that at some point…hopefully soon) I wanted to make the family a meal from one of my favorite cookbooks. I thought of it as an appetizer of sorts. Of course my meal was not a 10 course 4-hour extravaganza but only a couple of courses, a main dish and a dessert. When both come out so perfectly delicious though, it really is a treat. In the book there are several recipes for “cheap” cuts of meat, not just pricey and exotic cuts. Chef Keller uses cuts like beef cheeks, tripe, pig head and transforms them into refined three-star plates of beautiful food. This is such a recipe. I’ll post about the dessert in a subsequent post.

Pork Cheek-Polenta-Glazed Vegetables4

In the book, the recipe is made with veal breast. That’s, more or less, the equivalent of a pork belly on a calf. It’s tough, sinewy and flavorful. It’s also very tough to find at almost any store. I was not about to mail order it so I decided to improvise and see what I have in my deep freezer. I had two excellent pork cheeks in there and I figured these would make a very nice substitute for the veal breast. The recipe, from Keller’s pre sous vide days, braises the meat traditionally (sear, cook in stock with aromatics gently). I opted to first sear the meat really well and then bagged it  with carrots, celery, leeks, herbs, stock and white wine and cooked it sous vide at 82.2 C for about 8 hours. When the meat is cooked I removed it from the bag, discarded all the herbs and vegetables and strained the liquid to make a sauce from it later on. The meat went in the fridge to rest and set.

Pork Cheek-Polenta-Glazed Vegetables2

To complete the meat portion, I cut the cheeks into 2 inch rounds using a biscuit/cookie cutter. The cheeks are not as nice and even as a veal breast would be. See this post for an idea how the cooked cheeks look in one of the pictures. So some pieces were more even than others. Right before serving, I rubbed the meat with Dijon mustard and then rolled the flat sides in panko bread crumbs. Then I pan fried them well in grape seed oil and got them ready for plating. The meat from pork cheeks is really something special. It has a very deep almost slightly gamy flavor and unique texture. Braising the meat then pan frying it till crispy and luscious on the inside. Cutting the meat into rounds creates a good bit of extra chunks and uneven pieces that I used for the next few days in fried rice and tacos for the best ever crispy carnitas.

The rounds of pork sit on crispy corn cakes, aka polenta cakes. These are fairly classic made with polenta cooked in water and enriched with mascarpone cheese and butter. I then mixed in some chopped chives and poured the porridge in a silicone square cake pan to set. The cakes are finished similarly to these hominy cakes by rolling in flour and pan frying in some butter until browned and crisped.

Polenta

The vegetables in the book (carrots, turnips, celery root, beets) according to the recipe are supposed to be cut into different shapes. The beets into tiny pea-size marbles (parisienne), the carrots into small ovals (turned), the trunips into small fluted shapes and the celery root into small batons. So, I have no parisienne cutter and no vegetable fluter. I also opted not to use the the celery root since I did not have a kitchen brigade doing my bidding. Instead I cut the beets into small coin shapes and the turnips into small cubes. Then I turned the carrots. It really takes some time and skill to turn hard vegetables into acceptable small football shapes. It really makes one appreciate all the work that goes into creating and executing one of those dishes at a place like the French Laundry. It took me about an hour to make maybe 20 carrot ovals and they were by no means perfect.

Vegetables-Garlic1

Chef Keller in the recipe blanches the vegetables separately to cook them. Instead I bagged the carrots and turnips together and separate from the beets (to avoid discoloration since beets really stain)  and then cooked the two packages sous vide at 85C until perfectly tender. To finish the vegetables and plate them they get sauteed in some butter and sugar to glaze them (again the beets are glazed separately) and then they are warmed in a small pot of beurre monte, Keller’s ubiquitous butter-water emulsion. The last vegetable in the mix is the sweet garlic. These are garlic cloves blanched in several changes of boiling water and then slowly poached until very soft and then sauteed in butter to brown them and further flavor them. The garlic and the rest of the vegetables get tossed together at the last minute, right before serving. If I could change one thing about this recipe, it would be that last step of tossing in the beets. Even with all the care and even though the beet coins were mixed in at the last second, they still managed to slightly stain the turnips and garlic a shade of pink. Really I should’ve plated the beets without tossing with everything else.  

Pork Cheek-Polenta-Glazed Vegetables5

To make the sauce for the dish, the braising liquid is reduced and flavored with chopped shallots and fresh parsley. At the last minute is is enriched with more of the beurre monte. For plating I put a spoonful of the sauce on the plate first and topped it with a corn cake. On top goes a round piece of crispy pork cheek and that gets topped with the glazed vegetables and the sweet garlic cloves. Is it good? Damn right it is. It is a delicious dish that combines comfort with Michelin – star cuisine. The flavors are deep and rich and the textures are amazing. Everyone loved it including the kiddos. It was a bit funny when my 9 year old asked for seconds and requested that the meat be cut into a circle again for plating and my 6 year old now routinely asks if we are cooking more food from “French Laundry”! That’s a lot of pressure. Next is dessert, another French Laundry classic…

Pork Cheek-Polenta-Glazed Vegetables

Bouchon Bakery: Pain de Campagne

pain de campagneIt’s been a couple of years or so since I posted a gratuitous bread post and picture on my little corner of the web. This particular one is just so beautiful that I had to post it up here and use it as a desktop wallpaper as well. This also gives me the opportunity to praise this inspiring and freaking gorgeous book from the Keller/Ruhlman team, Bouchon Bakery. The credit here also goes to the pastry chef and master baker for Bouchon Bakery, Sebastien Rouxel and Matt McDonald respectively. reading through it I literally want to make and consume every cookie, tart, cake, pastry, confection and bread recipe! It’s one of those inspiring books that makes one want to jump in and start baking. That should be no surprise though since the previous installments in this series were all fantastic from the classic The French Laundry Cookbook to the approachable Ad Hoc at Home. I know I will be making puff pastry soon and certainly trying out Bouchon’s croissant recipe to see how it stacks up to my latest favorite.

pain de campagne2

This first recipe I tried is this simple Pain de Campagne (country bread). It’s made with levain (liquid sourdough starter), all purpose flour, rye flour and whole wheat flour. Master baker McDonald instructs us to mix in the mixer on low for 20 minutes, longer than I’ve ever mixed a dough I think and then allow for a long 4 hour or so rise with periodic folds of the dough. I deviated from the recipe in the manner of baking though. I baked the loaf, like most loaves I prepare now, in a Le Creuset pot as opposed to on a baking stone. Really, if the loaf fits in my oval pot I bake it in there. It traps the moisture and gives the loaf a brilliant crust that is glossy, crackly and has just the right thickness.

Fried Chicken with Red Potato and Green Bean Salad

The last few weeks at work have been (and continue to be) stressful and frustrating. I barely had time to cook proper meals, let alone take pictures and post about them. It seems like I am finally seeing a light at the end of this particular tunnel. What better dish to bring some normalcy back into the kitchen than fried chicken? Well, several actually (including a nice sirloin with chimichurri sauce that I cooked up recently) but for now it is fried chicken time.

While not exactly last minute, I had not really planned on making fried chicken. The chicken was pretty good but with more planning the dish would’ve been superb. Most likely I would have brined the chicken and given it a buttermilk soak. Another version I’ve been wanting to try is the smoked fried chicken from Aki and Alex at Ideas in Food. Just like it sounds, that recipe applies  some smoke time to the poultry before frying it. It really sounds awesome. In my impromptu fried chicken dinner I had a couple of pouches of chicken thighs and legs that were cooked sous vide with nothing more than a little butter and salt. I soaked them in a mixture of seasoned buttermilk before shaking them in seasoned flour. Since they are technically already cooked, I just needed to focus on getting that nice crispy crust. So, I fried them at a higher temperature for a shorter time (400F for about 3-4 minutes) than your typical fried chicken.

This was the first time I use my brand new propane burner outdoors right on the backyard grass. I bought it from Academy to use for brewing beer, frying and wok stir-frying. It’s fantastic to fry a bunch of chicken and some onion rings (for garnish) with no worries about oil splatters gunking the stove or the frying oil smell lingering in the kitchen and living room for hours. The chicken was good with a perfect crust but tasted a little bit flat. Brining and soaking the chicken raw in buttermilk would certainly have helped with juicyness and tenderness. Maybe next time.

Now, the potato salad was pretty spectacular and would almost make a nice meal on its own. It’s from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home book. It contains boiled red potatoes and blanched green beans in addition to shredded Bib lettuce. The vegetables are tossed in creamy pepper dressing. That dressing is absolutely amazing and I’ve used the rest of it for days just to dip vegetables in and dress a chicken salad a couple of days ago. It’s a bit more involved than your typical dressing but not complicated. First, you make a sweet-sour reduction (a gastrique) from mixture of Banyuls vinegar, black pepper and honey. Once it is cooled it gets whisked with freshly made garlic aioli, creme fraiche, buttermilk and mustard. It’s got a wonderful combination of sharp, tart and sweet flavors and a lovely creamy texture.