I used to want to go out to eat or something like that, but now I feel enough confidence in my cooking that I would rather make something for myself and the wife. By coincidence I received the Bouchon and The French Laundry Cookbook in the mail a couple days before. This has inspired me to make a few things the past few days, some of which I decided to do for my birthday. While I cook every day, I think allowing me to make something delicious for others is a great birthday gift. Nothing gives me more pleasure than offering such an experience to people.
I try to make as much from scratch as I can. I do that so I can learn techniques and foundations.
For the appetizer I had some homemade lean bread, brushed with a honey-olive oil mixture and sprinkled with Maldon Sea Salt . The bread is simple to make, requiring that you remember two things. First, 5:3 ratio of flour to water. This is the basic structure for the dough. Adding a teaspoon of active dry yeast per 15-20 ounces of flour gets the bread to rise. A bit of salt in the dough gives it flavor. From there, you can make all kinds of variations from olives, roasted garlic, hard herbs, and I've made a chocolate/olive/walnut bread which was deliciously sweet & salty. Second, you have to remember knead, double, knead, rest, shape, proof, or more simply: rise twice, rest twice. The kneading develops the gluten structure, which traps and holds the water and starch (food for the yeast). The doubling gets the yeast time to be active. The second kneading redistributes the yeast to new supply of starch. Shaping and proofing allow the bread to develop its structure and the air pockets to develop. It is important to knead enough so that the bread is elastic or you'll have flabby and dense bread rather than a light crumb. Once you get the hang of it, it won't take you longer than about 30 minutes for the initial mixing, then it is mostly waiting and baking. The kneading is also a great stress reliever and the results more satisfying, I think. The results will blow away your typical bakery and grocery store bought bread.
With the bread, I made an olivade. Homemade fromage blanc with chopped olives, capers, red onion, chives, tarragon. Not finding fromage blanc at the grocery store, I decided to make my own. Turns out it is very easy, and much cheaper to do yourself. It requires a couple tablespoons of lemon juice, buttermilk, and whole milk. You can add a bit of heavy cream to make it richer, but it isn't strictly necessary. Lacking fresh buttermilk, I reconstituted dried buttermilk I had left from a previous recipe to make a cup. Mix the buttermilk and lemon juice, then add this to about a liter of milk. Stir to incorporate and heat gently to 175F. Stir a couple times, but leave the milk to heat on its own. Make sure you don't scorch your milk (i.e. watch the temp closely). Once it reaches 175F, take it off the heat and let the milk rest for 10-15 minutes. Then carefully strain away the whey, leaving a very soft curd behind. There you have it.
For the spread, I pitted and finely chopped some kalamata olives, minced some red onion, capers, chives, and tarragon. Seasoned lightly with salt and pepper, this made a great spread for the bread. It can also be used with meats, salads, fish, etc.
Next, I made a roasted beet salad. I thought to add variety by using both gold and red beets here. Beets were roasted in a foil package at 375F for about an hour to hour and a half with some olive oil, salt, and pepper. Then quartered and marinated in a tablespoon or two of olive oil, sherry vinegar, and fresh squeezed orange juice for at least half an hour in the fridge. I added chopped red onion, chives, and tarragon to finish. This is a sweet and refreshing salad, very simple, and delicious.
For the main course, I had salmon with leeks. The salmon was seared on one side until done half way through to produce a crispy skin and render the fat, while leaving the salmon tender. Leeks blanched until fork tender. Beurre blanc. Tender and succulent, the rich taste of salmon balanced well with the leeks. The skin, with its fatty substrate was absolutely delicious with the tender flesh of the fish and leeks. Beurre blanc was made with a reduction of shallot, bay, and thyme infused in cotes du rhone and champagne vinegar until syrupy.
For dessert, I went simple again. This is a basic vanilla custard creme caramel. The caramel is made by melting sugar and water with some glucose (which helps inhibit crystallization of the sugar). The caramel is then poured into the bottom of a few ramekins and left to cool and harden. The custard is very easy. 5 whole eggs and 3 egg yolks beaten to smooth in a bowl. Then, in a sauce pan, 4 cups of milk is mixed with a cup or more of sugar (depending on how sweet you like it). Flavorings can be added here by incorporating extracts like vanilla, almond, etc., or by infusing mint and so forth. Bring the milk to below a simmer, just so the sugar dissolves completely. Then, let the milk cool a bit. Whisking constantly, slowly pour the warm milk into the egg yolks. Strain into a container with a spout so you can pour this into the ramekins. Set the ramekins in a baking pan with hot water up about 3/4 to 2/3 the sides of the ramekins. Finally, bake at 300F for 30-50 minutes until the custard sets. You then let the ramekins cool and chill in the fridge for a couple hours, at least. When you're ready to serve, put the ramekins in a hot water bath for 30 seconds to a minute to loosen the custard. Run a paring knife around the edge, carefully. Put a plate upside down on top of the ramekin and invert. The custard should fall out and, because of the hot water, the caramel will have melted and create a sauce on top.