You guys, this is a really hard post to write.
I keep typing, then deleting... then typing more slowly... and stopping to just watch the cursor on the screen blink on and off after each word I type.
I don't even want to think about, when I'm done writing this, how long I'm going to stare at the "Publish Post" button at the bottom of the screen when all the writing is done and let the little hand-shaped cursor linger over that.
Make fun all you want of little miss sarcastic here getting all sappy and goopy, but having to actually sit down and write this post is weird and strange and much more difficult than I ever could have imagined.
I spent almost an hour this morning staring at pages 316 and 317 of my copy of The French Laundry Cookbook... gliding my finger left to right under each line as I read and re-read the title and corresponding page number of each dish....seeing my checkmarks (some in black pen, some in blue pen) indicating which dishes I'd already done, hoping that maybe, possibly, (please oh please oh please) I'd see a small blank space and find that I'd missed one. But I didn't. With this dish, I'd done them all. Cooked all 100 dishes in this book, and a few extras to boot.
I closed the book, laid it on the wooden butcher block you've seen in so many of my photos, stood there with my hands pressed down on the cover of it, and just cried.
It wasn't a big weepy, ugly cry... it was a quieter "wow" and a "whew" kind of cry. And after about 15 seconds, I saw my reflection in the kitchen window and had to laugh at myself because it's been the most amazing ride, hasn't it? I knew I'd been heavily invested in this project for quite some time, but instead of bursting into tears, I really thought I'd feel joyful, jubilant, celebratory, accomplished and victorious. And I do. I just have a dorky way of showing it.
I've known for a long time that I wanted this dish to be the last one I cooked and the last one I posted, since it's one of the first things (along with the gougères) you're served at The French Laundry and Per Se when you sit down to eat.
In fact, now that I think about it, it's almost a year to the day that I ate at Per Se for the very first time, and got to hold one of these cornets in my hand... unwrapping the perfect little, white napkin from the cone, and making sure I got the salmon tartare, red onion crème fraîche, and the top centimeter of the cone into my mouth in the first bite. I remember saying to myself, "Stop. Think. Taste. Remember. Because you're going to make these one day, and they need to be great. This is one dish you cannot and must not screw up."
I had the cornets again the second time I went to Per Se for dinner, and then again the third time, when I went there for the Under Pressure book preview luncheon. That time, as I stood in the front lobby-lounge area at Per Se, meeting journalists, writers, publishers, and others I'd long admired, one of the servers brought around a beautiful tray with white napkin-wrapped salmon tartare cornets nestled inside. With a glass of champagne in my left hand, I picked up a cornet in my right hand and just stared at it for a few seconds. I thought about whose job it was to perfectly fold and then perfectly wrap all those little napkins around the cones. I thought about how many of those tiny savory cones must get made every week, and if any ever break, or are they all perfect every single time. And I thought about how lucky I was to be in this place, seeing Thomas Keller just a few feet away talking to his publisher, Ann Bramson, before the sous vide demonstration was to begin... and I thought, how in the hell did I get to be this lucky?
I took a bite of that cornet, unwrapped the napkin from the rest and finished it in the second bite, and magically, someone appeared by my side to take the napkin from my hands. That was, without a doubt, my favorite cornet of all... until I made my own. Granted, I also had them in August when I ate at The French Laundry and Per Se, and they were lovely. But there's something about having eaten something so perfect and playful in the most amazing context surrounded by people who wow and amaze you, and then being able to replicate it in the most perfect way I am capable of that really made me feel like I'd accomplished something pretty freakin' amazing. Because it wasn't about just making these cornets and having them be phenomenal, it was also about having them serve as the perfect ending to what really has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.
* * * * *
In the past few years, I've seen a number of online and literary accounts of people trying to make these cornets, and read all about the burned fingertips and cracked or burned cones, the alternate methods of serving the tartare on a flat tuille instead, the frustration others experienced in plating and serving them, and figured it would be one, big, colossal FAIL when it came time for me to make them.
I was so happy to be proven wrong.
The first thing I did was make the stencil for the cornets. I needed a 4" diameter ring, and a deli container lid with the center cut out worked perfectly. I lined it up on a plastic binder divider tab thingamabob, traced a circle, and cut out a stencil on that.
Next, I made the batter for the cornets. Big disclaimer here: I did not follow the exact instructions in the book, because I'd heard from a number of very experienced people (and saw a video of Thomas using the Cuisinart for this step; link below) that you can make this batter in a food processor and it works out nicely. So, I decided to give it a whirl and see how I fared. I put the butter into the food processor and zapped it around until it was smooth and almost like mayonnaise in texture, then added the flour, sugar, salt, and egg whites, and pulsed it until everything was combined and smooth, and there were no chunks or lumps.
I placed the stencil onto a Silpat and spread the batter using an offset spatula. Note, you will see a little glob of butter in one of the rounds below.... so I guess I kind of lied about my zapping it around the food processor until there were no lumps. Ooopsie.
I sprinkled some poppyseeds onto the rounds (couldn't find black sesame seeds anywhere)...
... and put them in a 400-degree oven for 4 minutes. At the four-minute mark, I opened the oven, pulled out the baking sheet and put it on the open oven door so I could keep the rounds warm while I used an offset spatula to lift the edge and then flip each one WITH MY BARE HANDS HELLO HOT BUTTER, and then rolled them around the cornet molds (also called cream horn molds or cornucopia molds). The book's explanation of how to do this step is pretty straightforward, but this video of Thomas making the original tuna tartare cornets on the Jewish Television Network might help if you're stuck. It's a really great demo of how you roll these suckers, and you get to see the master at work, which is always a treat. [Thanks to all of you who also emailed me that link over the past 8 or 9 months. You're right; it IS helpful to see.]
You'll see above that one of them has a hole in the cone -- that's where that lump of butter was. So, when you're doing these at home (and you really should do these at home), make sure you don't have any lumps, bumps, or clumps of butter, or else it will melt and leave you with a hole in your cornet. And that would be bad. Very bad.
I put the cornets back in the oven so they could finish baking -- another three and a half minutes -- took them out, let them rest for about 45 seconds, then removed them from the baking sheet WITH MY BARE HANDS HOT CONES BURNY FINGERTIPS AAAAUUUGGGGHHH, and put them on a paper towel to cool to room temperature.
After just 30 seconds on the paper towels, I removed the molds from the finished cornets and used them on the next batch already in the oven. Make no mistake, and in case you missed my not-so-subtle clues, these things are hotty hot hot when you handle them, especially when you have to flip and roll the rounds around the molds. Using gloves is not an option, because you need to be able to work directly with them to get them to wrap and roll tight against the mold. In my experience, the best tool for doing this step expeditiously, yet carefully, is to repeat a lot of swear words in a mantra as you're doing it. Turn those swear words into a song. Or a chant. Or a haiku. Whatever works for you. But for me? I needed to let a few expletives fly to get the job done. Sorry, Mom, but it's true.
When all the cornets had cooled to room temperature, I stored them in an airtight container until I was ready to serve them.
The next thing I did was prepare the salmon tartare.
I minced that lovely 6-ounce piece of salmon belly and put it in a bowl with some olive oil, lemon oil, minced chives, minced shallots and a pinch or two of salt, then mixed it together before covering it with foil and refrigerating it for about an hour.
The last thing I needed to make was the red onion crème fraîche. I put some crème fraîche in a mixing bowl and whisked it by hand until it had soft peaks.
Then, I rinsed the minced red onion under cold water for a few seconds, dried them on paper towels, and gently folded them into the crème fraîche.
I added a pinch or two of salt and white pepper to this mixture as well. I made a little more than the book instructed because I knew I wanted to use some as an omelet filling the next morning for breakfast, along with the leftover salmon I knew I'd have because I upped the quantities a smidge on that part, as well.
I called my friends... my loyal neighbors who are my most trusted tasters, and who have eaten nearly every single dish you've read about on this blog... and gave them the two-minute warning to come on over.
During that time, I used a ziploc bag to pipe red onion crème fraîche into each cone, topped it with a little scoop of salmon tartare which I then topped with a chive tip.
I had 22 in all (one cone had a hole in it, and I dropped one on the floor), and served them in a test-tube rack I found online at some bizarro homeschool supply web site (which I now just realized totally explains all the bizaro fundamentalist catalogs and literature offers I'm getting in the mail):
Here's a close up of the very first one I made:
Not too shabby, huh?
I went back and re-read one of my old posts about when I had these at Per Se and found this:
Salmon Tartare Cornets: I really wish there were words to describe how good these are. Note to self: Ummm, you'd better figure out what those words are by the time you make these.
And you know what? I finally did find the words to describe how good these are:
You gotta make 'em yourself to know what I mean, and to know what they taste like. It's worth it, I promise.
Up Next: French Laundry at Home Lists and Menu Suggestions (and what I think will be a very cool giveaway opportunity)
King Arthur flour
David's kosher salt
365 organic butter
Eggs from Smith Meadows Farm
Poppyseeds, chives, shallot, red onion, white pepper from the TPSS Co-op
Salmon from BlackSalt
Monini olive oil
O lemon oil
Vermont Butter and Cheese Co. crème fraîche
Music to Cook By: Earth Wind & Fire; Essential Earth Wind & Fire. There's just something so happy and wonderful about a giant, groovy 70s band with a full horn section and an overall sound I just love. When I was in elementary school, my friend, Molly, and I used to play her parents' Earth Wind & Fire records full blast on the record player as we jumped on the sofa and danced around the living room (but not jumping so hard we'd make the record skip), pretending we were on American Bandstand and Soul Train, with our Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers (root beer!) hanging around our necks. I don't know how you could listen to "Got To Get You Into My Life" and not want to dance around your own kitchen, you know?
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