Tuesday, January 29, 2008

White Truffle Oil-Infused Custards with Black Truffle Ragout

I had this canapé at Per Se in October, and it was absolutely delicious. I knew I could make the custard without much difficulty, but the thought of gently slicing through the eggshell to make those adorable little custard cups without cracking the whole thing was daunting. Okay, maybe not exactly daunting... more like it was an easy opportunity for me to deplete the world's egg supply just trying to get eight eggshells to not shatter all over the place. I'm not exactly known for my patience. I also knew the chive chips would be challenging, since I hadn't really had much luck with earlier versions of potato chips.

So, even though this canapé sounds uncomplicated, I brought a whole cargoload of culinary baggage as I prepped for this dish.

Let's start with the chive chips, which as you'll see, did not turn out as I'd hoped. After preheating the oven to 300 degrees, I peeled a russet potato, then pared it down to be the shape of a very thick Band-Aid (about 4" tall by 1" wide). I sliced it as thinly as I could with my mandoline, then put a slice on a Silpat-lined baking sheet that had been brushed with melted clarified butter. I put a chive tip on top of that slice, then topped it with another matching slice of potato:

I placed another buttered Silpat face down on top of these chips, weighted it with another baking sheet, then put them in the oven for 35 minutes, turning the pan halfway through the cooking time. Here's what they looked like when they were done:

Whoopsie. Obviously, I need more practice in the slicing arena. The French Laundry Cookbook says you can store these chips in an airtight container for up to two days. So, I let mine cool, then stored them for just two hours and they got all floppity, bendy, and depressing. Only one of the chips stayed nice and crisp and stiff, and you'll see that in the final photo. The rest just looked tired and sad and in need of a certain little blue pill when I picked them up. Poor little guys.

But let's not dwell on that. Just like the agnolotti, I'll get those chips right if it's the last thing I do. On to the custards!

When I read that I had to cut the bottoms off multiple eggs to make this dish, I was CERTAIN I'd screw up at least a dozen of them in the process, so I bought three dozen eggs for this dish, even though I only needed 8 eggs. What can I say? I wanted to be prepared.

I took each egg, one-by-one, and placed it on the counter, gently swaddled with a dishtowel:

Isn't he just precious?

Using a serrated knife, I gently sawed back and forth on the wide end of the egg until I could pop off the "lid" that formed. I put the egg whites and yolks into a bowl nearby and rinsed out each eggshell, gently wiping out the inside with my finger so as to remove all the membrane.

I threw away the lids and turned each eggshell upside down in the egg container so they could drain and dry out a bit before I put the custard into them. And, I know you must be dying to know -- did it take all THIRTY-SIX eggs to get the eight I needed? No, it did not. It merely took nine of them. I am proud to admit (and please feel free to call CNN to get this on the crawl), I mutilated just one egg beyond repair -- all the rest happened quite easily.

As the eggshells dried, I made the custard. I heated milk and cream in a saucepan then added it to a blender. I turned on the blender, and while the custard base was misxing, I added truffle oil, two eggs, salt and white pepper. I strained the mixture through a chinois and into a small pitcher -- in this case, my coffee press carafe:

See how it separated? That's a good thing. I removed the foamy top part and poured the darker yellow custard into the empty eggshells, which I'd turned upright in the carton, and placed in a baking dish with some newspaper on the bottom to more evenly disperse heat:

This is one time I wish I had used white eggs instead of brown eggs because the edges of the shell might not have looked so haggard.

Next, I filled the baking dish with warm water so that it came up around the sides of the eggshells:

The French Laundry Cookbook suggests baking the custards in this water bath at 275 degrees for 45 minutes. After about 40 minutes at 275, I checked on them to see if I needed to take them out a few minutes early and was surprised to see how runny they were. So, I decided to up the temperature to 350 degrees -- for a total cooking time of an hour and 15 minutes -- 40 minutes on 275 degrees and another 35 minutes at 350. Here's what they looked like when they were finished:

While they were baking, I made the truffle ragout. I combined some veal stock and a few drops of white wine vinegar in a small saucepan and brought it up to a simmer until it had reduced and thickened from a stock consistency to more of a sauce. I added some minced black truffle and a little bit of butter and white truffle oil to finish it:

I wish you could've been here to smell this ragout. I don't think there are adjectives in the English language to do it justice. It's like when you've been cooking something and then you walk outside to pick up the mail or take the dog for a quick walk around the block and you come back and open your front door and the *ka-pow* and *aaahhhh* are followed by a huge grin of satisfaction that something you created can make a house smell like a home.

To plate, I placed each egg on top of one of my grandmother's green shot glasses (because I don't have egg cups and didn't feel the need to buy any), spooned in a bit of the truffle ragout, and stood a chive chip in the custard. This was the only chip that looked good (and that's even a stretch). I didn't take photos of the sad, droopy ones because they were too pathetic.

We stood around the butcher block in the kitchen and ate them with little espresso spoons... which was kind of funny, since these were the de facto birthday cake for my neighbor's birthday. Of course, we had to bust on him for having a manly-man birthday and eating these dainty little treats instead of diving into a steak and big-ass chocolate cake. Guess you had to be there.

Anyhoo, these custards were really, really good -- and if I do say so myself (which I can because it's my blog and I can do whatever I want, so there), these were almost as good as the one I had at Per Se, which made me feel pretty frickin' spectacular. I'd make these custards again in a heartbeat because they were really pretty easy to do, and that truffle ragout was out of this world and added so much depth and fragrance to the dish. I'm a big fan of all things custard-y, so I knew I'd enjoy both cooking and eating this dish. It's just those damn chips that I need to work on for next time. I think I need to go to chip school. Must look into that. Could you imagine what an awesome place chip school would be? Almost as good as bacon school, caramel school, or coffee school. Chip school..... a girl can dream, can't she?

Up Next: Roasted Sweetbreads with Applewood-Smoked Bacon, Braised Belgian Endive, and Black Truffle Sauce

Chives, and russet potato from Whole Foods
Eggs from TPSS Co-op
Organic Valley milk and cream
Black truffle from D'Artagnan
Saveurs white truffle oil
365 organic butter

Music to Cook By: Gap Band; Ultimate Collection. And now I can't stop singing "Ooops, up side your head, I said ooops upside your head." I also remember the dance the Gap Band did to "(You) Dropped a Bomb on Me" when they were on Soul Train back when I was in sixth or seventh grade, so of course I had to scuttle around the kitchen doing that dance while the custards were cooking. I can't tell you the year that World War I began, but I can remember the Soul Train dance to "You Dropped a Bomb on Me." I'm excellent.

Read my previous post: "Coffee and Doughnuts"

Thursday, January 24, 2008

"Coffee and Doughnuts" -- Cappuccino Semifreddo with Cinnamon-Sugar Doughnuts

Doughnuts? Me love you longtime. My late uncle was a baker, and his bakery was in my little hometown across the street from my elementary school. Walking to school in the morning, you could smell all the cakes, doughnuts, breads and cookies being made, and after school was out, we'd flock to the bakery to gaze at the wedding cakes on display, and order a doughnut. Or three. Glazed, sugared, iced, custard-filled... they were all really delicious, and I felt super-special because it was MY uncle and his sister and brother-in-law who were making them.

After he passed away and the family bakery had changed hands, I had a hard time finding doughnuts that were as good as his. Dunkin' didn't come close. Neither did Krispy Kreme. Other smaller bakeries couldn't match them either. It wasn't until I had the "Coffee and Doughnuts" at Per Se that I had a Ratatouille/Anton Ego moment in which I was transported back to that bakery (which happens to be right across the street from the famed chestnut tree I've written about). One bite of the doughnut at Per Se, and I could smell my hometown bakery with its flourescent overhead lighting and faux wood paneling, and recall how tall I was by what I could see in the bakery case. I could see the faces of my childhood friends and the winter coats they wore. The only other time a doughnut had that kind of impact was when I bit into a maple bacon doughnut at VooDoo Doughnuts in Portland, OR. The texture and weight of the doughnut was the same, and it was a really nice moment.

And even though I rarely, if ever, have doughnuts with coffee, it's no secret that I love coffee. I love the way it smells and tastes, and it's the first thing to make me smile in the morning. I make mine using a French press and prefer it that way over a drip machine.

All that is to say that because I love coffee and doughnuts so so so much, this is one of the dishes I'd been most looking forward to making since I started this project. I lust over the photo of it in the book (page 261) and practically committed the recipe to memory, I've read it so many times over the years. Let's not keep you groovy cats waiting any longer. Here goes...

The day before I knew I was going to serve this, I prepped the doughnut batter and made the cappuccino semifreddo (semifreddo = "half cold"). To make the semifreddo, I put a few egg yolks and some sugar into my mixer bowl, added the whisk attachment, then scraped the seeds from a vanilla bean into the mix. I whisked it for about 13-14 minutes on medium speed; the mixture tripled in volume.

I then beat in the coffee extract and removed the bowl from the mixer stand and let it sit in a bowl of ice. Using another mixing bowl, I whipped some heavy cream with some sugar (until it held soft peaks), then folded it into the coffee-laced mixture:

I then whipped some egg whites with some sugar until they were frothy. I did this by hand because I ran out of clean mixing bowls. I folded this into the main mixture and then spooned it into coffee cups:

I covered each coffee cup with plastic wrap and put them in my freezer overnight:

The last thing I had to do that night was start the doughnuts because they needed an overnight proofing.

The first task was to make the "sponge." To do that, I put some water in the bowl of my mixer, then added the yeast. The French Laundry Cookbook says to use compressed fresh yeast. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't find any anywhere. I did a little research and calculated what I thought would be a mathematically appropriate substitution using fresh bakers' yeast instead. So, after about a half-hour of number crunching by hand and on the calculator (I'm very serious, I totally did this), I added what I thought would be the right amount of fresh bakers' yeast, dissolving it in the water. I then added the flour to the bowl, attached the dough hook to the mixer, and mixed is slowly for about 2 minutes, until everything was thoroughly combined. I transferred this mixture to a bowl:

I covered it with plastic wrap and a towel and let it sit at room temperature for two hours until it had doubled in size:

In a separate bowl, I combined more yeast into some milk, and stirred it until it had dissolved. In my mixing bowl, I combined flour, sugar, and salt, then started mixing it using the dough hook attachment. I poured in the milky yeast mixture slowly, then added a few egg yolks and some melted-then-cooled butter. Last but not least, I added the proofed sponge and the rest of the flour. I mixed this on low speed until everything had combined. I then cranked up the speed a little bit and kneaded the dough for about 4 minutes. The dough formed a ball and cleaned the sides of the mixing bowl. I removed this newly formed dough and put it in another bowl, covered it with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge to proof overnight.

The next day, I placed the chilled dough on my lightly floured kitchen block and rolled it out to about a half-inch thickness. Using a doughnut cutter (because the thought of using two separate biscuit cutters did not appeal to me in any way, shape or form), I cut out about a dozen doughnuts and doughnut holes. I put them on a parchment-lined baking sheet and covered them with plastic wrap I'd sprayed with Pam. At the same time, I heated a pot of oil in which to cook the doughnuts.

After about 15 minutes at room temperature, they'd risen to be 3/4" high (just like the book said) and looked like this:

When I removed the plastic wrap, hilarity did not ensue:

Isn't that gorgeous? Don't you want an oil painting of that over your fireplace mantel? I know I do. Jeesh. How embarrassing. I didn't want to trash it all and start over because I just didn't. I'm sure this happened because I used the wrong kind of yeast, and I just didn't have the time or energy at that point to drive 100 miles (okay, four) to a bakers' supply place to get the fresh compressed yeast I had been looking for. So, I figured I could scrape together bits of the dough and make doughnut holes. Except, when I tried to roll the dough into balls, it just wouldn't cooperate, so instead, I made, well, you'll see in a minute. But if you make ANY cracks about The Colonel or 11 herbs and spices, I will personally kick your ass.

I deep fried the non-doughnuts and non-holes and while they were still hot, I rolled them in this lovely bowl of cinnamon sugar:

I let them cool on a baking rack while I got the milk warmed up to finish the semifreddo (which I'd taken out of the freezer a few minutes before). Wanna see what they look like? I know you're dying to. Oh boy....

They're dough-NOTS!!!

I warmed then frothed some milk until it was way foamy, then spooned some over each semifreddo to look like a real live cappuccino. Here's what the final dish looked like:

Wait, who wants a bowl of fried chicken with their coffee???

Kidding. Here's the final plating:

And, here's what it looks like when you've dug in and started enjoying the delicious goodness that is this dessert:

Yummmmmmm.... even though the dough-NOTS looked like something from a Swanson's HungryMan meal still left in the freezer from 1972, they actually tasted really, really good if I do say so myself. They were still warm, and their texture and weight were perfect. The cinnamon-sugar balance was great, too. The semifreddo? Wow. Just wow. The cold of the semifreddo and the warm of the milk was really playful and delicious. Despite the earlier foibles, I was really pleased with how this dish turned out, taste-wise. However, I'd forgotten that the coffee extract has more than a little alcohol in it, and I think the combination of alcohol and caffeine, along with the sugar on the doughnuts made us loopy and tired, interspersed with bouts of extreme punchiness for the next hour or so. I just giggled a lot and my eyes got heavy, and then felt like it was SPRING BREAKKKKKKK!!!! WOOO-HOOOOO!!!!! Well, maybe not that bad, but we definitely got a kick out of this dessert, as well as the impromptu wet t-shirt contest that followed. Kidding.

Wanna see what the Coffee & Doughnuts at Per Se looked like? It's the only photo I took all night. I knew going into the dinner I didn't want to photograph every course and post about it because I just didn't. But by the time we got to dessert and we'd had a bottle of wine, this looked so pretty and I was so happy and sated (and a little loopy) that I pulled out my Blackberry and snapped a quick one:

Sigh... maybe someday I can do that. Just not this time.

Up Next:
White Truffle Oil-Infused Custards with Black Truffle Ragout

Eggs, vanilla bean, cinnamon and yeast from TPSS Co-op
Domino sugar
Neilsen-Massey coffee extract, bought at Sur La Table
Organic Valley heavy cream and milk
David's kosher salt
365 organic butter and canola oil

Music to Cook By: Ella Fitzgerald; The Johnny Mercer Songbook and The Rodgers and Hart Songbook. I think I own every recording ever made of Ella's voice. If I had to go back in time and be someone else, it's a tie between being her or Dorothy Parker. Or a hybrid of the two. Also, I'd like to be Pat Benatar, although Pat Benatar is kind of 1983's answer to Ella, isn't she? Anyhoo, back to Miss Thing. If you don't have some Ella in your collection, you're missing out. Bigtime. There's no better voice in the past 100 years. And, she makes it sound so damn easy.

Read my previous post: Venison Chop with Pan-Roasted Butternut Squash and Braised Shallots

Friday, January 18, 2008

Venison Chop with Pan-Roasted Butternut Squash and Braised Shallots

I grew up in South Central Pennsylvania in a little town not far from the Susquehanna River, and within spitting distance of the Amish country. Not that the Amish are big spitters. Neither were we. It's just a colloquialism. Nevermind.

Soooooooo, when I was in high school, no one would show up to class the Monday after Thanksgiving because it was the first day of hunting season. Seriously. Of my entire class of 144 students, only 3 or 4 of us turned up to school that day every year. Everyone else went hunting, or their parents went hunting so they played hooky. A few days later, the kids would bring in photos of their kill. Picture after picture of a ten-point buck, fully gutted and hanging from an open garage door, with a garden hose rinsing out their insides. From these deer, people made bologna, steak, and other cuts we all grew up referring to as "venison." I'm not opposed to hunting at all, but I could never get those images out of my head every time I tried deer bologna or venison, so I could never really enjoy it.

Add to that the fact that when I was much younger (maybe 7 or 8), my dad's secretary's brother (or something like that) went hunting somewhere in Alaska or Canada or Outer Mongolia and brought back what he said was venison. He gave a slab of it to my parents and my mom decided to invite some people over for dinner (including the hunter's family member who worked for my dad, but not the hunter himself, oddly) to try it. She said recently that just by looking at the meat, she knew it was going to be tough and might be difficult to prepare. I don't remember how she ended up doing it -- part braise, and part something else I think -- and when it was done, it was the same blue-ish, purple color it was when it started out. Mmmmm-mmmm....

I think they had to break out the electric knife (normally used for turkey carving) that night to slice individual servings. Using steak knives, each of us sawed away to try and get a taste of the meat, and had to chew each bite for two or three minutes to break it down enough to swallow it and not choke. I remember taking one bite and excusing myself (with less dramatic flair than you might imagine) to go spit it out in the toilet. Man, that stuff was bad. We found out later it was caribou or moose or yak or something, and not deer or elk or what most of us consider traditional venison. Now that I'm an adult, I've ordered venison twice in a restaurant since then and I didn't like it. Both times, it was dry and tough, and utterly tasteless.

So, you can imagine my JOY! and DELIGHT! when I knew I'd be making venison as part of this project. When I went shopping for it, I didn't like any of the cuts I saw at Eastern Market, so I decided to order it online from D'Artagnan. They source their venison from a farm in New Zealand, so it wasn't the cheapest thing in the world. But, people whose opinions I respect kept telling me how much they liked venison, and how good it is for you (low in fat, high in protein), so I was hoping to change my venison mojo and make this a dish we'd all enjoy.

The first thing I did was the day before the venison arrived -- I made venison quick sauce. These "quick sauces" are anything but fast to prepare, but I do think they make a difference in some of the dishes. The first thing I did was heat some canola oil in a stock pot, in which I later seared and browned some beef bones.

I cooked them for about ten minutes on each side, then added some water to the pot. I deglazed the pan and kept cooking it until the water had evaporated and the bones began sizzling and popping again. Next, I added some turkey stock. The French Laundry Cookbook calls for chicken stock but I had run out of it, so I used the turkey stock I'd made just after Thanksgiving and had frozen. I kept cooking the bones until the stock had evaporated, further deglazing the pan.

For the next deglazing, I added carrots, onions, leeks and blueberries:

The recipe called for huckleberries, which I couldn't find anywhere here in the area (fresh or frozen), so I substituted blueberries. The moisture in the vegetables allowed for this third deglazing:

After the vegetables had caramelized a bit, for the fourth deglazing, I added two cups of veal stock, more turkey stock, and a few cups of water. I simmered this mixture for nearly an hour, skimming every few minutes to remove the oil and other impurities that rose to the top:

I strained this liquid through a strainer, first to remove the bones, vegetables and other nonsense, then two more times just to further clarify the liquid. I put the liquid into a smaller saucepan and reduced it over medium-low heat until there was just about a cup of it left:

That's how you do Quick Sauce, kids. And, doing it the day before you're going to make the actual dish is a big help. I wish I'd had venison bones to use, but I only had beef bones. I think it worked well, but I'm curious to know how different it would be not only to use venison bones, but also huckleberries.

So now, let's talk about the actual venison dish, 'cause I can tell you're getting hungry.

The first thing I did was prepare the shallots. I put two shallots with some thyme, olive oil and a wee bit of salt onto some tinfoil, which I then folded closed and put into a 350-degree oven for a half hour:

When they were done, I peeled them and cut off the root end, then cut them into small wedges:

While the shallots were in the oven, I prepared the venison. After frenching the bones as best I could, I tied a piece of kitchen twine around each chop to hold it together and bring the bone closer in:

I put the chops into the refrigerator as I finished preparing the rest of the dish. Next up? The butternut squash. I peeled that sucker with my kickass can-peel-anything-even-George-Hamilton's-face-probably OXO peeler and cut out some rounds, which I then made even more gorgeous by using a 2" biscuit cutter:

I scored each of the rounds and seasoned it with a little salt and pepper while I brought a pot of water up to a boil. I blanched and drained the squash rounds and got them ready for their final cooking step, which you'll see shortly.

I got the venison quick sauce out of the refrigerator and gently warmed it over low-medium heat. I also added some brunoise and butter to the shallots and warmed that over low-medium heat.

My final prep step before finishing this dish was to make some tasty, delicious, marvelous, wonderful, love-tastic bacon. Each serving of this dish was to be topped with a slice or two of bacon. Mine? Had five slices.

When the bacon was crispy and I was finished drooling all over the place like a lovesick puppy, I drained it on paper towels, cracked my knuckles, got out all my serving plates and silverware and prepared to dazzle myself by pulling this dish together because it already smelled to good in my house that I was really getting hungry. I called to give my neighbors the five-minute warning that they needed to get their butts over to my house, pronto!

Then, my WonderTwin powers activated and I took the shape of someone who can simultaneously cook venison AND butternut squash rounds AT THE SAME TIME without burning them or setting the house on fire. I heated some canola oil in two large sauté pans. I seasoned the venison with salt and pepper and put them in the pan. While they started cooking (I didn't touch them for about 3 minutes when they were ready to be turned over), I put the blanched (parboiled, technically, I suppose) butternut squash rounds into the other pan.

I cooked the other sides of both the venison and the squash and set about plating. Here we go; first, a spoonful of the venison quick sauce (which smelled so hearty, meaty and earthy):

Next, the squash:

Now, the venison (with the twine removed, obviously):

And finally, something I love even more than the idea of Mike Bloomberg being my boyfriend, or you know, the President of the United States... bacon:

I also put the shallot mixture off to the side, as you can see in that photo. This was outstanding. The venison was cooked just right -- medium to medium-rare -- and those who didn't like the rare-ish parts just ate around the edges. More for me, thankyouverymuch! The combination of these elements, in both taste and texture, were spectacular. It's completely changed how I look at and think about venison. I'm definitely adding it to my repertoire on a more regular basis, just like I have with duck breast since I made that. The venison sauce was full-bodied and reminded me of how different yet familiar an Oregon pinot noir was the first time I tasted it. The butternut squash was gorgeous and went so well with the dish. The venison chop was delicious... really, really good. And, well, who doesn't love bacon?

All in all, this was a great dish, and one I would happily do again and again. And, one that clearly the wildlife in my neighborhood enjoyed, too:

That raccoon (who lives under my deck and is that fat because I obviously have awesome garbage to eat) dragged the venison bones all around my yard and down the street that night. Dick.

Up Next: "Coffee and Doughnuts" -- Cappuccino Semifreddo with Cinnamon-Sugar Doughnuts


Venison chops from D'Artagnan
Produce and herbs from Whole Foods
Bacon from Niman Ranch

Music to Cook By: Peter Gabriel; Shaking the Tree. I don't know how to put into words why I love this album, or why I love Peter Gabriel's music. I just do, and I have since I was 14. There's something to be said for that, I think.

Read my previous post: Happy Blogiversary!