Moules au Safron et à la Moutarde

Butter sauce made with garlic confit, minced thyme and shallots, sauvingnon blanc, and saffron. Cook mussels for a couple minutes in the sauce.

Served with "aligot" potatoes, with modifications. First boil and rice the potatoes, then mix in butter until the potatoes can't hold any more. Then mix in shreds of mozzarella until the potatoes are stringy and sticky.

Also had lightly sauteed spinach, simply seasoned with salt & pepper.


I received a shipment of goodies today, among them Isomalt. Isomalt is an alcohol sugar made from beets. It is half as sweet as sucrose, table sugar. It also has some neat properties, one of which I played with tonight after dinner.

I took 1 cup and melted it in a sauce pan. I formed a ring with some metal wire I had laying around and decided to make some "glass".

This photo is of a bit of cranberry left over from making the cranberry stock for "Cranberry Frozen & Chewy" encapsulated in a thin membrane of melted isomalt. Like blowing bubbles with a ring, what I did was melt the isomalt to 240 F or so, and then dip the ring in the liquid sugar. I dropped some of the cranberry through the center of the ring. When the isomalt cools, it becomes brittle, like glass. You can pop it in your mouth and get a fun texture with the flavoring you use.

This is an extremely difficult technique. The fine cooks at El Bulli manage to do this perfectly. They have better equipment that keeps the isomalt at the perfect temperature, and with a better method of creating the shell.



My latest batch of macarons, with framboise pastry cream

It is really hard not to succumb to macaron madness. They still cross my mind every other day--should I try to make more, will this time mean days or weeks of confectionary torture?

I caved a couple days ago.  I had 7 egg whites left over from the dinner last Saturday (they freeze well).   Since my brain has been rewired to equate egg white with macarons (these are infectious confections), what else could I do?

I first attempted these a while back.  On my first attempt ever, I was stunned they turned out so well. Macarons have a reputation for being extremely difficult to do. I did 3 batches in the oven and they all had 80-90% success rate. A few lumpy ones, a few oblong, but all had a shiny shell and well developed foot. That said, here is some evidence of what can go wrong. What a massacre.  Thankfully, this doesn't happen anymore.  That day was humid and I did not adjust my recipe for this fact.  Now I know better.

The recipe is simple, involving a few ingredients.  The execution is not so simple.  These are delicate confections, and they will test your mettle.

The recipe is:

100%     Egg White
140%     Almond Flour
140%     Confectioner's Sugar
140%     Granulated Sugar
 33%     Water


You'll need a couple bowls, and a small sauce pan.  A thermometer and a kitchen scale.

Divide your egg white into two equal parts, e.g. if you have 100 grams of egg white, separate them into 2 small bowls 50 grams in each.

Line a baking sheet or two with parchment paper or silpat

The sauce pan should be very small because you have very little water.


1.  Combine Almond flour and Confectioner's sugar and pulse in a food processor to mix and mill them to a fine powder.  Set aside in a medium sized (1-2 liter non-reactive bowl...steel or glass)

2.  Set Granulated sugar and water in a small sauce pan.  Heat over low heat, stir only once or twice to help dissolve the sugar. 

3.  Meanwhile, whip half the egg whites to firm peaks.

4.  When the syrup reaches 245 Fahrenheit, take off the heat and, working quickly pour it in a thin stream into your meringue.  Whisk constantly.

This cooks your meringue and turns it into a opaque white mixture that should be silky and fall like ribbons.

5.  Add the remaining egg white to the almond flour-sugar mixture and then fold in the cooked meringue.  You can add flavorings (extracts of vanilla, almond, etc) or food coloring.

Stir to incorporate.  Don't overstir, just enough to remove lumps

6.  Put the batter into a piping bag fitted with a plain half inch opening.

7.  Pipe 3/4 inch mounds of batter, separated by 1.5 inches.

8.  Let the batter sit for 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 285 F.

9. Bake for about 20 minutes.  

10.  Let cool completely before you try to remove them.


Dinner 11-19-2011

When I received the French Laundry cookbook, I wasn't sure what to make of it.  The food was refined, but familiar.  It had Keller's spirit in it, which I experienced from trying things from his Bouchon cookbook.  But, TFL was a whole 'nother level.  It has a reputation for being quite challenging, so maybe I was a little intimidated.

So, when the opportunity to make dinner for some guests arose, I quickly turned to TFL to try my hand at some of these things.  This dinner was by far the most technically challenging I've done so far.  Many of the recipes have few ingredients, which really puts the emphasis on great execution.

I think I pulled it off.   I'm proud of myself that I executed each dish without any major fails.  Judging from what I've seen elsewhere on the web, when people attempt a single dish from TFL they find it very difficult.  I offered my guests a multicourse meal cooked and served alone.  I do mean to gloat.

As guests arrived, I offered champagne (well, sparkling white wine) from Napa Valley.  I tried some, and I think it went very nicely with the initial round of food.  First up were gougères, little balls of pâte à choux.  These were mixed with grated Gruyère.  The water in the batter causes the dough to hollow out.  This is the same stuff used to make the eclairs from a while back (minus the cheese).

Next up were white truffle custards with black truffle ragout and chive chip.  The tastes and textures are great in this one.  Crispy and silky at the same time, it also had a striking aroma.  At the same time pungent and sweet.  Intensely meaty with a delicate structure.  That aroma....oh truffle, you are awesome.  Nobody had tried truffles before, so it was new for everyone.  I think they liked it, judging from the happy sounds from the dining room.

For a small package, this was by far the most time consuming dish.  First, make stock, then make a remouillage from the bones and aromatics.  Combine the two batches and reduce, reduce, reduce.  Once I have a concentrated stock, which took on a rich brown color and amazing flavor, I make the ragout by finely dicing some black truffles and reducing to a thickened sauce.  The last step is to swirl in some butter and a few drops of vinegar.   

The chive chips worked on the first try, which surprised me.  I'm so glad I bought a benriner mandoline. This allowed me to make paper thin slices of russet potato, which were used to create a little chive sandwich, brushed with clarified butter and baked between two silpats.  

The eggs to hold the custard.  We have a standard custard flavored with white truffle oil, salt, and white pepper.  The egg shells were fun to make, but difficult to do without the right equipment.  After some trial and error, I came upon a good technique to make them.  I used a serrated knife and carefully cut perforations around the shell before slicing through.  This method helped to prevent the egg shell from shattering as I cut into it.

After the custards, I gave people yet another dish they hadn't had before: bone marrow.  Served with parsley, garlic, caper, with olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrette, homemade baguette slices brushed with garlic infused oil and seasoned with green salt, and a line of yellow and brown mustard powder. This of course is a great tasting dish.  I totally get why Anthony Bourdain loves it.

Rather than roasting the marrow this time I soaked it and pulled (really, pushed) the marrow from the bone.  They'are then diced and seasoned with salt and covered in flour before being fried in oil.  The marrow is mostly fat, so if the oil is too hot you can burn the flour.  If it is not hot enough, you can cook away the marrow before it has a chance to crisp. While the presentation isn't great, this is a difficult dish to execute.   I nailed it.

Now we start on the "mains."  First was a dish you won't find in TFL, Bouchon, or Alinea, but it has elements from all three.

The pasta is a chestnut-white truffle agnolotti.    Served with nutmeg creme fraiche, fried sage leaf, and thin celery strips.

This was a lot of fun to make.  The pasta was a standard ratio of flour to eggs (3:2).  The chestnuts are from a local farm. They're roasted, then simmered in vegetable stock and pureed.  The filling is finished by mixing in some mascarpone cheese (which was easy for me to make), and white truffle oil.

The creme fraiche I've made before, documented on this blog.  It was simply whipped with freshly grated nutmeg and a little salt.  

The celery strips, pretty cool thing from an Alinea dish.  Showing that you can get great texture, color, and flavor without anything fancy.  The celery is peeled to get the stringy bits out.  Then with a vegetable peeler, I cut thin strips.  Soaking them in ice water causes them to crisp and curl.

 It is a soup course too.   I thought the flavors would pair well here, so I combined the TFL/Alinea-inspired dish with the butternut squash soup recipe from Bouchon.  I think this knocked people's socks off.  It got great feedback.  

Next was the "fish" course.  This is pretty much straight from TFL.  Butter-poached lobster tail atop red beet juice reduced and enriched with butter.  The lobster is resting on a thinly sliced round of leek which was blanched for a minute and chilled.  Topping off this tower of deliciousness was a piece of "pommes maxim."  As TFL notes, this potato crisp was created in France first.  It is made by taking paper thin slices of yukon gold potatoes and tossing them in clarified butter, then layering and baking until crisp.

This dish is what I had in mind when I said execution is so important.  So few ingredients to produce an amazing combination.  This is definitely a great dish that Keller has developed over years and years of serving it.

Next up was duck breast spiced with fennel, coriander, and cumin.  Served with a port-wine and sherry vinegar reduction.   None of my photos turned out, so I'm reusing this from when I served this for dinner a little while back.  I wanted to get feedback from folks, so I put it on the menu.  Best I got was that it was done perfectly.  People compared it to the duck they had in some truly great restaurants.  The sauce they said paired well with the duck, and it was a hit.  I think I served too much meat though, as some mentioned it felt like a lot on the plate.  I have some ideas to improve this dish in the future.

For a palate cleanser, I went with a dish from Alinea.  This is my rendition of "Cranberry Frozen and Chewy".  It is tart and sweet, and melts in your mouth as you chew it.  It has a creamy texture without any fat added.  This is achieved through the use of two cool techniques.  First, the cranberry stock is mixed with Ultratex-3, a modified starch that helps thicken and prevent large ice crystals from forming.  Second, the mixture is flash frozen in a balloon with liquid nitrogen.  Lacking liquid nitrogen, I had to figure out a way to make a super cold liquid that won't freeze at the temperatures I needed.  I decided to use isopropyl alcohol and dry ice.  The dry ice drives the temperature of the alcohol down to the point where the alcohol turns to slush (close to -173.2 degree Fahrenheit).

Dessert, finally!  This is also straight from TFL.  They call it "Coffee and Doughnuts".  The doughnuts were fun to make, basically a simple sweet dough fried and covered in cinnamon sugar.  These are light and airy, and just wonderful fresh from the fat, still warm.

The coffee is a frozen coffee flavored mousse.  Topped with a hot milk foam.  I'm proud of my solution for the milk foam.   I don't have a frother or steam thingy you see in coffee shops.  I do have an iSi Siphon, however.  Charged with nitrous oxide, I could get the microfoam, but they would disappear almost immediately.  So, I tried adding xanthan gum to stabilize the foam.  That worked, but the foam disintegrated when I heated it (I couldn't start with hot milk because the siphon isn't designed for use with hot things).   So, I knew I needed something that would be stable at high temperatures...I happen to have gellan on hand, so I used that.  Success!   Thanks to khymos.org, I was able to zero in on a good concentration of these hydrocolloids to produce a good produce that was heat stable.

So, that was dinner.  I was exhausted by the end, and quite happy with the result.  I think 6 people, 8/9 courses is about my limit right now.  Still, I executed well, but felt like I was falling behind, and I did.  I thought the dinner would clock in at 2.5 hours and it turned out to be closer to 3.5 (yikes!).  I need to work on speed and efficiency, but not at the expense of good execution.  I think I did something I can build on and learn from.


I've Been Busy

I haven't posted in a while.  The reason is that I'm preparing for a dinner on Saturday.  We've invited the head of the Art department, his family, and two others here for dinner.   Here is what I've been up to (I know I have missed some tasks, and most of these involve multiple steps I didn't mention).   8 courses.  Photos of the plated dishes in a post to come, probably on Sunday.

Creme fraiche
White beef stock
Remouillage of beef
Reduce stock to 1/6th
Vegetable stock
Roast & peel chestnuts
Braise and puree chestnuts for agnolotti filling
Pasta sheets, formed agnolotti
Cranberry Stock
Make poolish for baguette
Knead dough, bake baguette
Mix doughnut dough
Cranberry spheres
Made coffee 'semifreddo'
Shaped doughnuts
Chive chips
Mustard powder
Carrot powder
Juice cucumber
Make cucumber gel
Make egg shell 'ramekins'
Roast butternut squash
Make butternut squash soup
Grate nutmeg
Grate gruyere
Whip creme fraiche
Soak and extract marrow
Peel and blanch celery
Slice celery
Poach lobster
Make white truffle custard
Make black truffle ragout
Make pate a choux
Pipe and bake gougeres
Make persillade
Make crostini
Boil agnolotti
Reheat soup
Quenelle creme fraiche
Saute marrow
Slice yukon gold
Make pommes maxim
Make 'red beet essence'
Julienne leeks
Poach leeks
Poach figs
Make spice mix for duck
Sear duck breast
Make port-sherry vinegar beurre monte
Orange puree
Make hot milk foam


Raspberry Napolean

Used  puff pastry dough I made a while back. Laminated doughs like this are fun to make, but take a while.  This was easy since I had some left over from the pork belly dish.   Baked this between two silplat mats to weigh down the puff paste.  Once it was cooked, I glazed it with some light corn syrup and put it back in the often to create caramelization on top.  Then the puff paste is cut into planks after allowed to cool.  Finally,  layered with a Framboise Lambic infused pastry cream I made while the dough was baking and fresh raspberries.  Final touch is a dusting of confectioner's sugar.

Not the greatest presentation in the world, but it tasted very good.


Title Change

I've decided to change the title of the blog.  I always intended the original blog title to be temporary.  I chose Hungry Ghost because it resonates with where I am right now in my culinary pursuits.

Hungry ghosts desire, but cannot attain what they seek.  I think this is true for any creative endeavor.  I think there's a constant struggle to identify the spirit of a dish or ingredient and bring that forth as clearly as possible. The idea is always more perfect than the execution, but perfection is elusive.

Another reason is that I want cookery to be more than about food as a creative and sensual outlet.   There is great satisfaction from "simple" foods.  Likewise, there is excitement when a dish engages one's intellect.  The problem I'm sensing (vaguely) through my exploration of The French Laundry and Keller's approach in general, is that food can be really tasty, but lack the engagement with the mind, while food that is intellectual, technical, and precise can often lack soul.

 I think I want to pay due respect to my "ancestors" in cooking.  Those hungry ghosts, the cooks and dishes that have built a foundation and a canon of not only tasty foods, but those which have lasted through time.  They have something deeper that allows them to be a springboard for interpretation and creativity.  I think this will not only be an exploration of traditional cuisines, but an archaeology of what my experiences have consisted of up to now.


Duck Breast and Port Wine-Sherry Vinegar Beurre Monte

Pairing sauces with proteins is an important thing to learn.  I'm still trying to get the hang of this, but I pulled the components of this dish from two different sources of inspiration.    Also here, I get to work on the proper use of heat to cook meat, seasoning and spicing proteins, as well as the making of a reduction sauce and a new technique for me: beurre monte.

Duck breast pan seared. I made a spice mix for the skin side: fennel seeds, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, all ground in a mortar & pestle, then seasoned with white pepper and salt. The other side was seasoned with just salt & white pepper. Seared in a pan w/o added fat.

Sauce is a beurre monte. 1:1 port wine and sherry vinegar, reduced to nearly a glaze, then butter melted into it without whisking to create the mirror like sheen.

Sauce and meat were made for each other. The duck is very rich and meaty, the sauce sweet and sour.  I really love the acidity in this. The sourness makes you salivate, which really elevates the duck flavor.  I had some carrots with a spiced glaze with this (not pictured, but the glaze was honey, cumin, and cayenne)



I've been thinking about salads lately. Their composition on the plate, as well as the palate.  They are part of the curriculum at culinary schools, which elevates their status.  Rightfully so, I think.  The more I think about it, the more I think of them as a test of one's ability to compose flavors and a plate.  The flavors will stand out, and each bite will be different, but hopefully share a common thread.  I'm mystified by what makes them work.  The salad I made below does work.  It is like magic to me.  I particularly loved the bites with the vinaigrette, the roasted pepper, and artichoke.  The herbs were sublime.

Blanched baby bok choy, baby carrots, artichoke; red pepper batons roasted with olive oil and salt/pepper; radish wedges; fresh tarragon, basil, oregano, parsley, thyme; on a bed of cauliflower which was put through a food processor to give it the consistency of cous cous, then simmered just until tender.

Vinaigrette of maille dijon mustard, salt, champagne vinegar, and toasted almond oil. The vinaigrette was awesome. We ended up using the remains of the artichoke and veggies as an excuse to pour it into our gullets.


Crab, avocado, coconut, basil

Bought some crab legs today. Just boiled them for a couple minutes, extracted and chopped up the meat. Avocado medium dice, coconut milk and whipped homemade creme fraiche, lime juice, yuzu marinated ginger, coconut flakes. Served with a lime-basil sauce and hot chili oil.

I'd like to add some crunch to this, some garnish, and cut back on the cream, which muted the flavors a bit.  I'd also like to boost the chili and citrus.  I'm not sold on this presentation, either.

The crab shells are in the freezer.  Next time I buy whole shrimp, I'm going to make some etouffee.  Probably next week sometime.


Dinner November 6, 2011

Lentil puree soup enriched with cream. Served with a homemade baguette:

For dessert I played with some techniques I've out of Grant Achatz' shop at Alinea.   

From bottom left. Hazelnut puree with homemade spiced cranberry jam, crushed toasted hazelnuts. Granny smith apple capsule filled with gran marnier cream and topped with a hazelnut "chip"" made from dehydrating hazelnut puree. Apple shortbread with cinnamon streusel.

I think I would serve just the cake with the capsule in the future (you'll see why in the next photo). I wanted to play with different plating ideas though.

Crack open the capsule and the gran marnier (orange flavored cognac) cream mixture pours out over the cake. In the future Im going to make the cream mixture more viscous and the walls of the capsule thinner.



"Where the steady, even pace of life is not troubled by any preoccupations,...,the art of cookery always flourishes because it contributes to one of the most agreeable of the pleasures given man to enjoy.
"On the other hand, when life is hectic,...,good living can only play a minor role.  More often the need to eat appears to those caught in the throes of business, as no longer a pleasurable occasion but an unnecessary chore.
"Such habits can and must be condemned, if only from the point of view of the health of customers whose stomachs have to put up with their consequences..."

To put this in context, Escoffier seems to be expressing his disdain for the changes he saw, while acknowledging that the cook and his craft is embedded in the society in which he or she lives.  A cook that refuses to accept the realities of the demands on diners is a cook without anybody to serve.  That said, he was making these observations in 1907 in the introduction to the second edition of Le Guide Culinaire.  I wonder what he would make of today's cuisine, at once more immediate, customer driven, and at the same time seemingly with more promise than at any time since his book was published or the advent of Nouvelle Cuisine.


Crème Fraîche

Crème fraîche really is expensive, and might be difficult to find in your standard grocery store.  Why not make it yourself?  Along with yogurt, fromage blanc, pasta, preserved lemons, and a host of other products, this one is much less costly to make than to buy, and very easy to do.

Crème fraîche is similar to sour cream, but I think it has a nicer mouth-feel, and has a wider variety of applications.  It has a sour note, but it also a hint of nuts.  It can be whipped to create a light structure.  It can be used in savory or sweet sides of the kitchen.  I've seen it flavored with fruits, curries, and more.  You can make dressings for salads or other vegetables with this, as it is a nice base for remoulade. It is also a great way to add richness to meat and fish sauces.  This will keep for a week to two weeks in the fridge.

The process is very similar to making fromage blanc (also called fromage frais).  For fromage blanc, you start with whole milk and add lemon juice with the buttermilk.  After heating these, you let it sit for a few minutes and strain to make the fromage blanc.  To make crème fraîche, start with heavy cream, warm it gently over low heat.  Then add two to three tablespoons of buttermilk.  You can use powdered buttermilk here (3-4 tablespoons per cup of water, mixed well).  Mix to incorporate the buttermilk and pour into jars, loosely covered.

Let the cream sit on a counter to at room temperature for 24 hours.  It will become thicker and start to develop some of its characteristic sourness.  It will continue to thicken and develop flavor as it sits in the fridge.  You can see that it is much thicker than cream. 

In More Depth

 I think there are two interesting things I want to highlight: fat and culture.  This is by no means a comprehensive discussion.


The fat in milk comes in the form of tiny globules.  Whole milk contains ~3.5% fat, while heavy cream contains upwards of 35%.  This makes cream better able to be whipped, resist curdling when heated, and gives it its characteristic mouth coating goodness.  The important thing to understand is that milk is a colloid, an emulsion of fat in water, held together with proteins.  You may know that raw milk will separate, the cream rising to the top.  Homogenized milk has been forced through a fine strainer at high pressure, breaking up the fat into smaller bits so they are more easily held in suspension.  Too much heat or acid and the emulsion will break.

I have often in the past tried using milk based products in making warm and hot sauces, but found that the fat and solids would separate, making a greasy and unappetizing appearance. What I was seeing were the proteins of the milk coagulating into a tight structure which  releases the fat and whey.  With heavy cream, and by extension crème fraîche, there is enough fat that the milk proteins are trapped, unable to curdle.  Sour cream will curdle with heat, as will milk and yogurt.  The reason for sour cream and yogurt is that their acidity already puts them on the edge, the heat easily pushing them to curdle.  More on acid below, under Culture.

The globules of fat also have a role to play when cream is whipped.  The mechanical action of whipping breaks up the globules into ever finer structures, which then can form into rings of condensed fat trapping air bubbles. If you continue whipping you break the globules and release the fat molecules, which will begin to coalesce into ever increasing sizes, producing butter.  Ice cream also illustrates the role of fat globules.  Like whipped cream, the fat stabilizes air bubbles produced when you churn the cream.   As a side note, ice cream is very interesting stuff with a lot to explore: the controlled crystallization of sugar and water, thermoreversability through the use of stabilizers, and tastes, all could be subjects in future posts.

You can make harder whipped creams by reducing the water content/increasing fat content (heat the cream to cook off some water), then chilling before whipping. To make softer whipped cream, add a bit of milk.  To aid quicker whipping, add a touch of acid (lemon, a dash of tartaric acid, etc).  This helps to separate the fat from the proteins.  That said, the amount of fat globules and the mechanical action of breaking them up is the key.


Milk fermentation.  Milk contains water, proteins, fat, and sugars (lactose).  It is this last molecule that makes fermented milk products possible.  The lactose serves as a food source for bacteria, which produce lactic acid, preserving the milk.  There are literally hundreds of different kinds of fermented fresh milks.  Each relies on a set of microbes to digest the sugars and acidify the milk.

Kept at moderate to warm temperatures, the microbes multiply rapidly and the process accelerates.  The acidic conditions produced by these helpful bacteria create an environment unfriendly to disease causing bacteria.  The acid also causes the proteins to get tangled up with each other, creating a gel structure which thickens the end result.  With yogurt and fromage blanc, the process is much quicker (yogurt can gel in a matter of hours, fromage blanc even faster).  The faster gelification of yogurt and cheeses produces a looser gel structure, which leaks whey and leaves behind the curds.   The slower process involved with crème fraîche creates a denser network of proteins, which retains the whey.

There's a lot going on, even in the ostensibly simplest substances.  We can easily take advantage of these complex processes to produce delicious results with very little cost.  I can only speak for myself, but I think knowing a little bit about what is going on to produce these foods increases my appreciation for them and helps me understand how to use them effectively in the kitchen.

Richard Feynman in What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988)
I have a friend who's an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don't agree with. He'll hold up a flower and say, "Look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree. But then he'll say, "I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull." I think he's kind of nutty. [...] There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.

The above adapted from my reading of McGee.  Any errors are my own.