Monday, January 29, 2007

Whipped Brie de Meaux en Feuilleté with Tellicherry Pepper and Baby Mâche

I'll admit from the get-go that I was a bit distracted when making this little cheese course, because I was on the phone with an old high school friend dissecting the recent yet-not-totally shocking demise of another high school friend's marriage. So, while this dish turned out brilliantly and tasted sooooo good, I don't have any photos of the mise en place, and there aren't as many photos of all the different steps as I had planned. Another side note before I get started: I know at the end of my last post, I said that the next thing I'd be making is a fruitwood-smoked salmon with gnocchi, but I lied. I need a bit more time to make some of the oils and other things that go in that dish, so I'm waiting until later in the week when I have a totally free evening.

Anyhoo, enough of the chit-chat. Let's talk about cheese. It's a tad coincidental that I chose to make this cheese-e-tizer on the same I day I went to the gym for the first time in, oh, three years (and of course by three years, I mean nine or ten years... or maybe 12... or, like, ever.). After 45 minutes on the treadmill listening to my iPod, I had a hankering for something dairy, so I headed over to Whole Foods on the way home to pick up the ingredients I needed. Yeah, it really sucks having a gym so close to a Whole Foods. And Starbucks. And Chik-Fil-A. And a sushi joint. I suck, I know... I KEEP DIGRESSING. I need to knock it off.

So, the whipped brie. Let's break it down (I'm so dope). The first thing I did was remove the rind from the triple-cream brie and put it in the KitchenAid mixer, and using the paddle attachment, whipped it on medium for 12 minutes. Here's what it looked like when it was done:

At the same time the brie was whipping away, I sliced a baguette on the diagonal to create croutons. I brushed each slice with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled them lightly with kosher salt. Into a 300-degree oven they went for 12 minutes:

Now, it's assembly time. First on the plate is a drizzled design of balsamic glaze, which you may recall I made when I did the gazpacho. My drizzled design was in the shape of an aneurysm since I don't quite have the artistic touch yet to do artful drizzles. I'll need to work on that some night when I have some free time, which will be pretty much NEVER, so deal with it people.

After drizzling the balsamic glaze, I layered a quenelle of the whipped brie. A quenelle is when you take two spoons and through creative and tactical scoopage you create an oval-ish shape of whatever substance you're working with. Mine certainly would not make it into the Quenelle Hall of Fame, nor would they even get an honorable mention, but they also sort of resembled the shape they were supposed to be, so I didn't sweat it too much.

Next, you layer one of the croutons on top of the brie. Then, you add a few leaves of baby mâche, which the market didn't have, so I used arugula instead (which is in the same peppery leafy greens family). I then dropped a few drops of olive oil onto the arugula, then added a tiny pinch of sea salt and an even tinier pinch of fresh-ground tellicherry pepper. Then, you add another crouton on the side, and another quenelle of brie.

Then, you tell your dog to STOP BEGGING and WHINING for the eleventy-millionth time because he simply cannot stand to be in the same room as CHEESE and not get to EAT IT.

Then, you dig in and eat it just as it is presented here...

... and because you don't want to defeat the entire purpose of having gone to the gym, you give the rest of them to your neighbors as an appetizer before they sit down for dinner.

In closing, this was so easy and really, really good. I have to admit: I'm not a huge fan of brie. It always seems to have a chlorine aftertaste to it, but when it's whipped like this was, and you add the balsamic glaze and the arugula, I think I'm in love. Another little amuse-bouche I can take to Friday afternoon cocktails in the future.

Up next: Warm Fruitwood-Smoked Salmon with Potato Gnocchi and Balsamic Glaze (I mean it this time).

Wine Pairing:
Joseph Drouhin, Mersault (it's so clean and really lets the brie do its thing)

Brands Used:
Cheeses, bread and produce from Whole Foods
Calphalon baking sheet
Kuhn Rikon S&P grinders
KitchenAid stand mixer

Music to Cook By: White Nights Soundtrack. This was one of my favorite movies in high school (because I am a huge nerd), and I recently rediscovered this soundtrack and I love it so much I might marry it (again, because I am a huge nerd).

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Parmagiano-Reggiano Crisps with Goat Cheese Mousse

Every Friday, my two neighbor friends and I (Hi, Linda and Holly!) and I get together for a glass of wine (or three) and snacks when their kids get home from school. It's become a tradition that we love, and that every now and then we open up to other friends. This week, it was Linda's 27th birthday (not really her 27th, but maybe she'll shovel the snow from my sidewalk if she sees that I wrote she turned 27 instead of her real age), so we invited some other girls from the neighborhood, as well as some of her friends, so that we could have a nice afternoon of beverage-induced celebration. I decided that instead of a bag of Turtle Chex Mix (which is what I usually bring; and if you're like my girlfriends from the beach with whom I ate this lovely delicacy all summer, you will also call it "Food of Satan" once you've had it -- it's that good), I would have my second installment of French Laundry at Home be Thomas Keller's Parmagiano-Reggiano Crisps with Goat Cheese Mousse (pg. 49).

On Friday afternoon, I knocked off work early and spent about an hour working on this dish. The prep is easy and the execution is not too bad, as long as you're quick on the timing of the crisps and don't mind fondling HOT, BUBBLING CHEESE repeatedly to make the crisps into something presentable. I followed Keller's instructions verbatim and had a few mishaps, which kind of sucked on something this easy. I figured my own screw-ups wouldn't happen until much further into this project, but alas I was wrong.

The first thing I did was prepare the goat cheese mousse, which involved, um, goat cheese (duh), a little bit of whipping cream, some parsley, salt and pepper, and my trusty food processor. Here are the ingredients:

By the way, aren't those salt and pepper grinders cool as shit? I love them -- best find this summer at the TJ Maxx in Stone Harbor (thanks, Marty, for the tip; and see below for where to buy them). But I digress... so you combine the goat cheese, salt, pepper and parsley in the food processor and slowly add the whipping cream through the feed tube (no, not THAT feeding tube, Terri Schiavo) and it's supposed to whip up into a mousse. Which it did for about 3 minutes, and then it turned itself into more of a thick cream. See? Here's what it ended up looking like:

Not very mousse-ish. I'm not sure why that happened, but I plan to ask a friend of mine who is a chef. I'm sure he'll be able to tell me what I did wrong. It didn't affect the taste, but I think it would have looked better had it held the mousse-like texture.

After the mousse/cream was done, I started on the parmagiano-reggiano crisps, which involved hand-grating a brick of parm-reg cheese...

... and then creating 2.5" disk-like piles of it on the Silpat on a baking sheet. I didn't have a 2.5" ring mold, so I skipped out to Strosniders Hardware Store (if you're in the DC area and live near one of their stores, you should know they have an AMAZING kitchen supply section), where a most kind manager helped me find an alternative (since Sur La Table was closed when I went there the night before). He said that Michel Richard from Citronelle came in a few months ago and bought pre-cut pieces of PVC to use as ring molds at home. My first thought was, "holy crap, not only is this store manager totally cute but he also knows Michel Richard" and my second thought (which I actually articulated) was "show me to the PVC, mi amigo" which he did. They didn't have 2.5" and only had 2", so I gave it a shot. Next time, I'll use 2.5" because it will make a difference in the shape of the crisps, but this time the 2" worked just fine. Here's what they looked like as I was prepping them for baking:

Then, you put the cheese into the oven and bake them for 8-10 minutes. I wish the Internetwebthingy had smell-o-vision because these were a freakin' slice of olfactory heaven:

After you take them out of the oven, you're supposed to let them sit on the Silpat for 30 seconds before you start spatula-ing them off the mat and into an egg carton to form a tulip-shaped cup. Let me just say that the egg carton idea did not work for me. At all. Not even close. Thomas Keller must have super-groovy Andy Gibb magical supernova fantabulous egg cartons or something because all my parm-reg discs failed this part of the process. Only two of the first eight survived:

Of course, that wasn't all bad, because it meant I could EAT ALL BY MYSELF the crispy baked-cheese goodness of the broken, mangled failed crisps. Yeah, that sucked. I should've screwed up all 16 of them and showed up at my neighbor's cocktail gathering with cheese and the oil from it dripping down my chin. That would have been so attractive. But, it was her birthday and I had to make it not about me, and all about her. I know... life sucks sometimes.

Soooooo, I had to come up with another way to make these... and I ONLY HAD EIGHT MINTUES TO FIGURE IT OUT, because the next batch was already baking in the oven. I felt the presence of MacGyver enter my soul, and I flung (flang? flinged?) open the door of the corner cabinet in my dining room to see what I might be able to use. God bless my now-departed Grandma B, for she once owned these really odd-looking green shot glasses that I "inherited":

... and instantly I realized that if you turned them upside down and molded the cheese discs over them right after they came out of the oven, they'd form the tulip-like cups I needed:

This plan worked great, and I found I also needed to channel my mother during this process (even though she's alive... I still had to channel her somehow), because she has these krypton hands that can touch freakin' molten lava and not get burned, and let me tell you that holding this cheese onto the shot glasses two-at-a-time for 30 seconds each until they started to harden kind of felt like I was hand-molding a blown glass art piece with MY BARE HANDS (I know, I'm a wuss; shut UP). Anyway... I just kept telling myself that my mom seems to be able to do this kind of 9,000-degree-heat-touching thing completely effortlessly and I needed to quit my bitching, so I got it done.

Here's what they looked like when they were hardened (this is six of sixteen):

I then piped the goat cheese mousse, which was now cream, into them and here's a shot of the final product:

Not too bad, huh? The real test was in the tasting of them. A bunch of the neighborhood kids came in while I was piping in the cream. Half of them thought it smelled great and looked awesome, while the other half made gagging noises and said that something smelled like a dog vomitted into a puddle of pee. No, kids... that's what Sandra Lee's concoctions smell (and probably taste) like. Not mine. Go away...

I took the crisps over to my neighbor's house for her birthday cocktail hour and the adults LOVED them. I will give some of the kids credit because they tried them and didn't gag... but I have to admit that even though I think they were good, they would have tipped the scale from good to FREAKIN' AWESOME if the filling had retained the mousse-like quality they started out with. The parsley and goat cheese worked really well together, and they were a nice complement to the sharpness of the parm-reg crisps. The two textures worked really well together, and I thought held up nicely with the wine I brought (see below).

Overall, these were easy to make, and I'd recommend doing them for a cocktail party or a potluck at a friend's house. If any of you have ever made these and the mousse stayed mousse-tastic and didn't get creamy, please let me know what you did differently, because I will make these again and I want to try and get it right.

Let me take a moment to say "Thank you" to everyone who commented or sent an email after my first post. I am so psyched that y'all are excited about this, and for all my local DC-area peeps, I can't wait to have you over so that you can try some of this great food.

Up next: Warm Fruitwood-Smoked Salmon with Potato Gnocchi and Balsamic Glaze

Wine Pairing:
Mer Soleil, 2004 Chardonnay (buttery and rich; it's my favorite)

Brands Used:
Cheeses and produce from Whole Foods
PVC from Strosniders
Silpat from Strosniders
Calphalon baking sheet
Kuhn Rikon S&P grinders
Cuisinart food processor

Music to Cook By: Cirque du Soleil "Alegria;" it's a mathematical-sounding album, and I needed something precise to get me through all these steps. Not necessarily anything I could sing along with, but it was really fun to listen to. I haven't listened to that CD (even though it's now on my iPod) since I saw the show back in 1996 with my friend, Chris. Oh, hi Chris!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Gazpacho with Balsamic Glaze

For my inaugural French Laundry at Home experiment, I chose the Gazpacho (pg. 35) with the recommended Balsamic Glaze (pg. 238).

Truth be told, the Gazpacho would be best made in summer with fresh ingredients, but my local Whole Foods had everything I needed and the quality of the produce seemed okay to me. I'm a big fan of cooking with what's actually in season, but in this case, I wanted to start with one of the book's easier recipes so I could gently ease myself into this crazy project.

Back to the Gazpacho... here are the ingredients:

Next, you to mix them in a large bowl and refrigerate overnight. Here's what it looked like before I covered it and put it in the fridge:

Pretty, huh? The book recommends making a balsamic glaze for this, so I did that last night, too, so the reduction would have time to cool down to room temperature today. Here's the prep work I had to do for the Balsamic Glaze:

Here it is in the early stages of reducing to a glaze:

The whole process of reducing the balsamic vinegar took about 2 1/2 hours, and my kitchen still smells a bit vinegary today, but I don't mind. The Balsamic Glaze should be stored at room temperature and drizzled onto the Gazpacho before eating it. I have lots of it left over, so I'll have to see what else I can make that uses this glaze. It's sharp and bright, but with a sweet and tangy aftertaste. It's the consistency of molasses... maybe even slower and thicker.

After the Gazpacho ingredients spent the night in the fridge, I removed the sprig of thyme and poured the ingredients into a blender, pureeing them until smooth. And now, the finished product in a bowl and ready for lunch:

Delicious. I took some across the street so that my neighbors could try it. Their ten-year old son loved it -- even the balsamic glaze. We're having abnormally warm weather here in DC for January, so I almost felt like it was summer. Well, not really, but you know what I mean. In eating this, I was reminded of the Spanish exchange students my parents hosted one summer. They used to cook for our family on weekends when they had their other exchange-student friends over, and I still remember how good that food was -- very different from the PA Dutch cooking I grew up with. I know they made gazpacho, but I can't remember exactly what theirs tasted like -- I just remember it made me want to go to Spain for cooking classes (which, 20 years later, I have yet to do). This is as close as I'm gonna get for awhile.

Whew! Two recipes down, soooo many more to go. This is fun! (Remind me of this sentiment when I'm knee-deep in trying to poach quail eggs and tearing my hair out making veal stock from scratch.)

Brands used:
Produce from Whole Foods
Antica Italia olive oil and balsamic vinegar

Muir Glen
Le Crueset

Music to Cook By: Original Soundtrack from "Invincible" (hey, the Eagles lost in the playoffs Saturday night, so this was a bit of a shout-out to them. Plus, the word "invincible"? Not a bad mindset to be in for this project.)