Friday, February 22, 2013

A Rant-Review of Thomas Keller’s BOUCHON BAKERY Cookbook

Our household has a love-hate relationship with Thomas Keller.  Will loves him; I hate him.  Well, that’s a little harsh perhaps, so let’s revise that to: we love eating his creations but hate having to work so hard for them.  Maybe a bit wordy and not nearly as pithy, but that offers a more accurate assessment of our mixed feelings about this genius.

For Christmas, Will asked for the Bouchon Bakery cookbook.  I knew it was dangerous when he blocked the cramped aisles of a Sur La Table store holding up the gigantic book—for a LONG time.  Then he asked for it.  How can I not get him the one thing he asked for by name?  Yet I hesitated because I’ve seen how this precision-obsessed master chef takes pages to cut up a green olive into perfectly even matchstick pieces.  Who juliennes olives, for crying out loud?!  Apparently Thomas Keller does.  And THAT was for a rustic, home-style Ad Hoc at Home cookbook.  Imagine what he would do with baking recipes which are already more detail-oriented!  I like baking brownies and cookies and cakes as much as the next home cook, but I’ve always slightly resented how baking seemed so “precise,” following directions to the tiniest gram of baking soda or powder, not allowing much flexibility or creativity.  My engineer husband Will, on the other hand, enjoys the orderliness of baking more than “regular” cooking.  Yin/Yang.

Actually, it turns out that it’s not Thomas Keller’s cookbook after all, not really.  His pastry chef Sebastien Rouxel is the baking guru, and his story is also told in the opening pages.  In fact, the beginning of the book reads more blog-like: reminiscing about Paris, trying to historicize events, setting up to introduce the hero who would save the Bouchon Bakery.  I even got fooled into thinking that the recipes were almost too simple because one for "Pecan Sandies for My Mom" sounded like it came out of a Reader's Digest version of a Keller recipe.  In any case, the stories are interesting, and the photos are lovely.  I’m particularly enamored of the pictured brown poodle (p. 53, for “Dog Treats”).

But—and here’s the love-hate part asserting itself—the following is a good example of the fussiness of this cookbook.  For the first item to attempt from the cookbook, Will chose "Traditional Madeleines" on purpose since this recipe seemed to call for the least number of hard-to-get ingredients and the fewest steps.  (I should note here that in baking a few simple items like muffins and scones and these madeleines, we have thus far used “lemon oil,” “vanilla paste,” and “blackstrap molasses.”  Because, after all, these recipes need to be distinguished from plain old recipes that use lemon juice or peel, vanilla extract or even beans—which we have around in abundance—and plain unsulphured molasses!) 

As I was trying to ignore Will’s many more steps in baking madeleines (recipe on pages 94-5) than I remember EVER needing to before, he grunted ruefully and exclaimed: “Nothing is simple with him!”  (That “him” is Thomas Keller and any cookbook related to him, and I was heartened to discover that Will was finally seeing things my way!)  It turned out that in being so busy measuring out on a kitchen scale the “0.6 grams” of kosher salt and then beating eggs, pushing them through a fine-mesh sieve with his fingers, and then measuring out “83 grams” of that beaten egg, Will didn’t realize he was supposed to “place the batter in a covered container and refrigerate overnight.”  Madeleine batter had to be refrigerated overnight?  There goes my afternoon snack with tea…  When ready to bake—the next day—he was also supposed to place the madeleines pan brushed with melted butter in the freezer to “harden the butter.”

I have a suggestion for the next edition of the baking book.  Perhaps they need to add the list of hard-to-get ingredients the recipe calls for and the approximate time required for the product from start to finish.  I’ve seen such information supplied for much easier recipes, so why not these really tough ones?  Especially since the directions are written in narrative form (without separate numbered steps), it is easy to miss the end of a long paragraph informing you that you need to refrigerate batter overnight.

The madeleines were fine.  Will was disappointed because he was hoping that the difficulty of the recipe, the time involved, and the expensive ingredients would yield the world’s greatest madeleines—that would make pale in comparison anything that Marcel Proust would have written about.  Alas, they were just madeleines.  Not better than other recipes we’ve tried.  Not better, in fact, than those we buy from Sugar Bowl Bakery.

Don’t be deterred though.  It turns out that the Bouchon Bakery book has perhaps the best Cinnamon Scone recipe we’ve ever tasted—which I’ll reserve for another post.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Super Simple, No Egg, Country Style Tiramisu

In March 1999, Will and I had the best tiramisu we’ve ever had—before and after that date so long ago.  It’s possible, yes, that our excitement about being in London together during our first year of dating might have contributed something to this rosy recollection.  But bathed in nostalgia as that memory might be, we can honestly say that other food we had in London that week didn’t compare nearly so well to what we could get in Chicago.  Perhaps there is something to be said for that tiramisu.

We don’t remember exactly where the restaurant was—though I vaguely recall that it might have been yet another rustic country Italian restaurant named Campagnola (aren’t there a frightful lot of them?)—nor even what we ate for the rest of the meal.  But we do remember that when we ordered tiramisu for our dessert, someone rolled up a cart next to our table.  A cart?  Yes, like a cheese cart, or when they need to carve up your duck or something like that.  But, of course, since we’d only ever had tiramisu delivered as a rectangular shape on a plate, Will and I were a bit mystified by the process.

We were further puzzled when we saw a huge half-filled punch-bowl in the middle of the cart.  A matronly-looking woman then took a large spoon, scooped up a portion, and plopped it into a bowl.  Then—well, this being England—she picked up a pitcher and poured Crème Anglaise all around the mound sitting inside the bowl.  Indeed, it turned out to be tiramisu.  Or rather, it smelled like it and tasted like it—though admittedly it didn’t resemble any tiramisu in our experience.  We loved it.  The casual appearance, the unceremonious plopping onto the bowl (as opposed to the much more ceremonious “plating” we were used to), the creamy texture that was more ice cream-like than the usually more cake-like tiramisu we’d had.  It is still our fondest tiramisu memory.

So, when I found in Gordon Ramsey’s Fast Food cookbook a recipe for “Easy Tiramisu” that could possibly be converted to approximate my memory of that London tiramisu, I got to work.  I use heavy cream instead of his light cream (for a little extra "body," for substance), only 12 ladyfingers, and I make a whole batch and serve it in scoops—to be more “country style.” 

Here is the recipe I’ve come up with, modified from Gordon Ramsey’s.

Ingredients to serve 4-6:

For the cream portion:
2/3 cup heavy (whipping) cream
3 T powdered sugar
1 cup mascarpone
1 t vanilla extract
1 T Kahlua or other coffee-flavored liqueur

To dip:
¾ cup strong coffee or espresso at room temperature
1 T powdered sugar
2 T Kahlua or other coffee-flavored liqueur

12 ladyfingers

Unsweetened cocoa powder (no more than 1 teaspoon is needed)


Blend 3 T powdered sugar and the 2/3 cup cream just until evenly combined, and then add mascarpone, vanilla extract, and the 1 T liqueur.  Whip until you reach the consistency of a fairly stiff whipping cream.

In a shallow bowl, blend the 1 T powdered sugar into the cooled coffee, and then stir in the 2 T liqueur.

Dip 4 ladyfingers in the coffee mixture, turn to soak from the other side, and then layer vertically in a rectangular 6x6 container.  Spread about 1/3 of the mascarpone mixture over the top, being careful not to scrape the delicate dipped ladyfingers.

Dip another 4 ladyfingers in the coffee mixture and then lay down horizontally on top of the mascarpone layer (like the picture above).  Yes, you just want to layer in the opposite direction to reduce unevenness in layers.  Then layer another 1/3 of the mascarpone mixture.  Repeat with the third layer of ladyfingers, drizzle any remaining coffee mixture on top, and then cover with the remaining layer of mascarpone.

Dust the top evenly with cocoa powder.

Cover the container and refrigerate at least 1 hour. 

When ready to serve, bring out plates or bowls, take a large serving spoon (long enough to reach the bottom of the container) and scoop out a desired-sized portion.  Try to lay it down such that you would be presented with the layers of cream and ladyfingers.  (No need for any crème anglaise!)

Happy Valentines Day!--weekend, month. . .

Friday, February 8, 2013

Brie and Cremini Omelet for Dining European Style

Europeans consume a lot more omelets for dinners than Americans.  In fact, they probably eat a lot more other “breakfast” foods throughout the day than Americans—like savory crepes, tortilla espanola, and frittata. 

They possibly take omelets more seriously too.  When Will and I were in Paris in October 2006, we went into a wine bar for dinner.  One of their specials of the day was a mushroom (specifically, “cepes”) omelet which cost as much as a beef dish we were also ordering.  We were surprised since, as Americans, we just expect meat to be more expensive than vegetables.  Wondering whether it would come with some additional goodies, we went ahead and ordered it.  Nothing additional.  Just an excellent omelet with good eggs, and the best, freshest mushrooms.  On another night, I got a veal chop with sautéed chanterelles in a cream sauce which was twice as expensive as the next most expensive dish.  And it was soooo worth it.  Those chanterelles!

When we returned to the U.S. from our year sojourn in Europe (May 2006-May 2007), we found ourselves cooking a bit more in the European style: smaller portions at dinner, quality preferred over quantity, and more egg dishes beyond breakfast.

A simple dinner we like: Brie and Cremini Omelet with a salad.


Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 cups quartered cremini mushroom (sliced further if large)
1 shallot minced
½ teaspoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
2 eggs lightly beaten (for one hungry diner, or 3 eggs for an omelet to share) and     lightly salted
2 oz. Brie/Camembert cheese sliced in thick wedges (with or without rind)
Salt and Freshly Ground black pepper
Truffled olive oil


Melt 1 T butter and 1 T olive oil together over medium-high heat in a heavy skillet or omelet pan.  Add minced shallot and then the sliced/quartered mushroom and sauté until prepared (and cooked down) to your liking (3-4 minutes), adding chopped thyme in the last minute of cooking.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Remove mushroom mixture from pan and place in a bowl.  Wipe down skillet with paper towels.

Again, melt 1 T butter and 1 T olive oil over medium-high heat in the same (cleaned) skillet.  Pour in the beaten eggs, swirling or spreading the egg to cover the bottom of pan.  When the eggs is about half set, carefully flip with a large spatula. 

Lay down wedges of Brie on one half of the egg, and then layer the mushroom mixture over the cheese.  Let the cheese melt slightly and then carefully flip the other half over.  Slide the omelet onto your dinner plate, and then drizzle with truffled olive oil.

Note: Serve with a green salad dressed lightly with olive oil and sherry vinegar.  You should try to stock your kitchen with a good truffle oil and a sherry vinegar.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Double the Deliciousness: Pan-Fried, Pan-Roasted, Double-Cut Porkchop

Once, at an Italian restaurant called Leonardo’s, Will had a scrumptious double-cut roast pork chop stuffed with Italian sausage.  At our one and only meal at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc Restaurant in Napa Valley, the main course of the evening—you don’t get a choice there—was a lovely roasted double-cut pork chop.  So when the cover of the January 2013 issue of Bon Appétit featured—you guessed it—a double-cut pork chop, it made menu-making easy for the weekend.

We are a pork-loving family, but we are a little nervous about making sure that pork is cooked all the way through too.  (Past practice…)  So we experience a bit of anxiety especially when cooking thick cuts of pork lest we dry out our meat in the quest for certainty in the area of done-ness.  However, the recipe for “Pan-Roasted Brined Pork Chop” dispelled our fears with a 4-step process: 1) Brine.  2) Pan-sear.  3) Pan-Roast.  4) Butter-baste. Perhaps it seems a bit complicated, but really it was quite simple, and really truly delicious.

1) Brine.
Actually, now that I’ve given you the link to their recipe, I can tell you that I didn’t really follow their steps entirely faithfully.  We simply didn’t have enough time to brine the chops for 8-12 hours required!  Nor did we have juniper berries (which I thought we had).  But no worries.  Brining in sugar, salt, black peppercorns, thyme, and garlic worked out just fine.

2) Pan-Sear.
Yes, I do recommend that you sear every surface of your chop.  Even though the recipe suggested browning one side, then the “second side” and then back and forth again, I browned the edge-sides as well (as you can see from the picture below)—any surface that was exposed got a nice browning sear.  That sealed in juices so that I knew that the inside would be tender.

3) Pan-Roast.
Bon Appétit wanted us to flip the chop every 2 minutes while pan-roasting in a 450 degree oven.  I switched it to every 3 minutes mostly because the smoke-alarm started getting a bit agitated and we wanted to reduce tension on that front by extending the time between each smoky opening of the oven door.

4) Butter-baste.
Foaming up butter along with unpeeled garlic cloves and thyme sprig produced a heavenly aroma.  I almost cut short the number of minutes I basted the chop with the flavored butter because it seemed to be getting quite dark, but the chop turned out to be beautifully browned, not too cooked. 

One final tip.  The recipe doesn’t suggest this, but I cut the chop (after it got its proper rest) and then drizzled the hot foamy butter over the chop so that cut portions also got flavored—and so that we could dip the pieces.  That was a delectable addition I am not likely to skip over!