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.


  1. wawoo! je suis très impressionnée! ça a l’air très très rapetissant tout cela! une vraie cuisine française... j'aurais le droit d'en gouter??? je peux envoyer le lien à des amis ici?
    neshikot et .. chapeau!

  2. Hi Yael! It was very nice to get your message. I would be honored to cook for you, and you can share with as many as you would like.


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