Monday, February 20, 2017

Valentine's Day at Home

Joan and I are never home for Valentine's Day, but this year we were. So I decided to make a special romantic meal for the two of us, incorporating some luxury ingredients that I don't use every day.

We started with slices of foie gras from Comptesse du Barry, from a can but still delicious, served on toasts from my recent challah efforts. Traditionally brioche toast is used, but challah, though a bit less rich, is pretty similar. Served with Champagne Gosset Brut Grand Reserve.

For the appetizer, tiny Nantucket Bay scallops sauteed on skewers and glazed with a sauce of soy sauce, white pepper and red wine vinegar, courtesy of the great Joël Robuchon (from Simply French, written by Patricia Wells). Served with a simple salad of micro greens from the Sunday farmer's market behind the Museum of Natural History, dressed with a thinned version of the same glaze.

Then a simplified version of poulet en demi-deuil (chicken in mourning), so named because a layer of black truffles cooked under the skin is thought to resemble a widow's mourning dress. Buttered and roasted in foil with a little cognac and Madeira in the cavity. Not as truffly as you might expect, but delicious and succulent in any case; a simple cooking method that I might try again. Served with buttered egg noodles and sauteed asparagus wrapped in prosciutto. A nice Côte-Rôtie Brune-et-Blonde de Guigal1999 accompanied the main course.

Truffled roast chicken, egg noodles and prosciutto wrapped asparagus
Finally, a decadent chocolate dessert -- Rose Levy Beranbaum's Choccolate Oblivion Torte, made with only three ingredients; Schaffenberger's 62% chocolate, eggs and butter. No flour, no sugar. Instead of cutting wedges I cut out rounds with a heated cookie cutter. Served with crème fraîche, raspberry sauce and raspberries. A pretty presentation, including the red notes appropriate to Valentine's Day.

Rose Levy Beranbaum's Chocolate Oblivion Torte
I hope you, too, had a happy Valentine's Day, no matter what you were doing or eating.

Bobby Jay

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Changing Bread Gears -- The Challah Chronicles

A slice of challah from Breaking Breads recipe
 I have been having fun for a number of years baking country style breads. First, Jim Lahey's no-knead bread, as taught at length in his My Bread, then Chad Robertson's, as taught in his Tartine Bread and Tartine Book No. 3. Lahey's bread uses 1/4 teaspoon of yeast per loaf, abnd relies on a long, slow (12-18 hour) rise to get the necessary gluten development. Robertson's uses natural leavain starter instead of yeast. Lahey's is easy and produces excellent bread: Robertson's is hard, but produces a loaf of great complexity and interest, worth the trouble.

Recently I read Molly on the Range, in which Molly Yeh, who is half Jewish and half Chinese, has a number of challah recipes, and determined to make one or more of them. Then Molly recently said on her blog, My Name Is Yeh that she had encountered the challah made by Uri Scheft, owner of Lehanim Bakery in Tel Aviv and Breads Bakery in New York City, and concluded: "it was the best challah ever and i swore off my own challah recipe. byeeeee."

Enough said. I bought Scheft's newly released Breaking Breads, and set off to make challah his way. Here is my first effort, topped with a mixture of nigella, poppy and sesame seeds:

Challah from Breaking Breads recipe
Not bad looking, but I did not use enough egg wash so the loaves did not shine they way they should have. More important, although the taste was fine, the texture was not quite right, a bit dry and not the "very tender bread that pulls apart in cottony strands" that Scheft describes. I made the loaves with butter instead of oil, which is traditional because challah is generally eaten with meat dishes and dairy and meat don't go together in Kosher tradition. While Scheft says using butter makes for a richer and more tender loaf, I wonder whether that choice was wise. Even good European style butter has about 16% water, so using the same weight of butter as oil results in less oil in the bread. I determined to use oil next time.

Today I tried again changing two things. First, I put a heavier coating of egg wash atop the bread, and yes, it was shinier, although I have room to improve on that score. A side benefit of a heavier coating of egg was that more seeds adhered to the surface.
Challah from Breaking Breads recipe - second try
My second change was to use grape seed oil instead of butter, which, as I had guessed, resulted in a delicate and tender crumb.

Challah from Breaking Breads recipe - second try: crumb
Scheft's challah tastes great and keeps well if stored in a plastic bag with the cut end covered. And compared to Robertson's natural leavain bread, which requires daily feeding of your starter and 22 hours once you decide to make the bread, its simplicity itself. Less than three hours from start to finish.

Scheft's book has many variations on challah, then an extensive chapter on babka, many exotic flatbread techniques, etc. Lots to think about and try. In the meantime, more challah is definitely in the picture.

Bobby Jay

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Dark Chocoolate and Coconut Macarons

Chocolate coconut macarons
Each year J is an exhibitor at New York's Winter Antiques Show, one of the best art and antiques shows in New York, and I have a tradition of supplying macarons for her to share with clients and fellow dealers.

Inspired by our flavor discovery at the renowned Berthillon, on the Île Saint-Louis -- sorbert cacao amer with glace noix de coco -- I set out to make chocolate coconut macarons this year. I found two credible recipes in my cookbook collection, one by Pierre Hermé, the king of macarons, and the other by the excellent pâtissier Christophe Felder. The problem with both was that they used milk chocolate, which J does not like. While I sensed that milk chocolate might be better in theory, the way hazelnut gianduja is better with milk chocolate, I decided to stick with dark. But not too dark: I used Ghirardelli's 60% baking bar to avoid the potential clash between the bitterness of very dark chocolate with the gentle sweetness of the coconut. Also, the texture of very bitter chocolate when melted is not as smooth as that of more moderate choices.

Macaron shells are made by folding a soft meringue into a mixture of confectioner's sugar and powdered almonds. The meringue may be French style, made by mixing granulated sugar into egg whites as they get whipped to soft peaks, or Italian style, made by mixing hot sugar syrup into the egg whites and whipping until the whites cool down. Italian meringue is much harder to make but results in a meringue that has a denser texture and is more forgiving to cook with. So I went with Pierre Herme's Italian  meringue mixed with unsweetened coconut flakes and, to my amazement, it came out perfectly.

Uncooked coconut topped macaron shells
Baked macaaron shells, interior
Baked macaron shells, tops
 For the filling I made Pierre's chocolate coconut ganache, using the aforesaid 60% chocolate and this, too, came out well. But this was no surprise, since a ganache is very easy to make.

There remained only the assembly, making little chocolate ganache sandwiches with still more coconut flakes sprinkled on top, and then a couple of days in the fridge. This improves the texture dramatically, and two days later they were perfect. Here's a nice one:

Chocolate covered macaron
Technically, they were the best I have ever made, by far, as attested by a number of my "customers." Personally, though, I would have preferred an even darker chocolate ganache made without coconut in order to recapture the satisfying chocolate hit that I remembered from Berthillon.

Next time I hope to reach chocolate coconut macaron Nirvana!

Bobby Jay

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Christmas and New Year's Eve Dinners in Paris


We had our great Japanese friends over for Christmas, as we often do. Although we were only five, I made a bunch of hors d'oeuvres and a pretty big meal.

We started with my annual foie gras, made with cinq épices and white Port. This year's tasted fine, although I guess I overcooked it because it shrank by more than half from the raw liver I began with.

Then I made socca, chickpea crèpes from Nice, but my broiler was not working and the convection oven, even at 550 degrees, was not up to the task of burning and blistering them. The taste was good, though.

Finally, I made my ricotta and sun-dried tomato spread, which was a saga. It turns out it is very difficult to get ricotta in Paris, either at cheese shops or our local Italian épicerie. So I went to the Thursday market near the Bastille to the Italian/Portuguese stand, who said they had sold their three containers to one person just before I arrived. Google led me to a good Italian épicerie where the lovely guy at the counter asked if I wanted sheep, goat or cow ricotta: now that's an Italian grocery.

For dinner, I started with spaghetti alla bottarga, with great bottarga and pasta from Bon Marché. I knew this would be a hit with Japanese people, who love that fishy funky taste, and that turned out to be true.

For the main course, pork arista rolled with pancetta and rosemary, a tried and true roast. But never as good as this time, with incredibly succulent and tasty pork from our local butcher on the Rue St-Antoine.

Arista - rolled pork loin with rosemary and garlic
Then cheese: my favorite Vacherin de Mont d'Or, which was a little disappointing this year because it just wasn't quite ripe and runny enough, despite a considerable discussion at the fromagerie three days before.

Dessert was a chocolate tart with aniseed glaze from a recipe that I got from Mario Batali. Beautiful and seriously chocolatey!

Anise seed glazed chocolate tart
 New Year's Eve

We are rarely in Paris for New Year's Eve, but this year we were, and had dear old friends to dinner. J set a gorgeous table and decorated the dining area for the holiday.

New Year's Eve talble
(I made a nice meal, but stupidly took no photos. We had leftovers the next night, and the photos of that dinner will have to do.)

We started with foie gras. After the one I made for Christmas, I wanted to be sure not to overcook it, so undercooked it a bit. Still, it was pretty tasty and looked great.

Next up was a melange of roasted birds -- quail, partridge, pigeon and guinea hen -- served over polenta. From a recipe by Jamie Oliver. It turns out that non-instant polenta is just about impossible to find in Paris, but I found some good instant and made it into non-instant by very long cooking at a low temperature.

Roast of various game birds over polenta
Then a wonderful selection of cheeses brought by one of the guests: Bleu de Gex, Vieux Comté, a wonderful runny chèvre whose name escapes me and Soumaintrain.

Wonderful French cheeses: chèvre with forgotten name, Vieux Compté, Soumaintrain
For dessert we had a marvelous chocolate cake from Carette, one of the best pâtissiers in Paris, and it did not disappoint.

The next-day photos do not do the meal justice, I'm afraid, but a delicious good time was had by all.

Bobby Jay

Friday, December 30, 2016

Paris -- Great Meals at Two Old Favorite Restaurants

We recently returned to two of our favorite informal restaurants in Paris: Sardegna a Tavola and Chez René.

We have never found an excellent Italian restaurant in Paris, despite many people telling us that they know a real one. The pasta is nearly always overcooked and oversauced, and the French, despite  their great culinary heritage, just don't get Italian food. We are spoiled by New York, I guess. Our solution is to go to Sardegna, a fantastic Sardinian place in the 12th arrondissement, not far from the Gare de Lyon, which, while not Italian, satisfies the same cravings. This week we were four and shared a wonderful meal consisting of this amazing burrata, followed by two pastas and a tuna and artichoke dish from heaven. When the burrata arrived, I said it looked like it would be the best we had ever eaten. And it was.

Burrata at Sardegna a Tavola
Our other great meal was at Chez René. When I discovered the place last year, the waiter told me that they have the best pot-au-feu in Paris, served on alternate Thursdays (blanquette de veau is the star the other weeks), and I have been trying to get there on the right night ever since. We finally made it last night, and three of us ordered the rich, beefy pot-au-feu, which is rated second in Paris by Le Figaro (Drouant is rated Number One). It is delicious, huge, satisfying and a screaming bargain at 17 euros. And I learned a trick from one of our dinner companions, whose family is from Normandy, which is to serve it with a little crème fraîche in addition to the traditional mustard, coarse salt and cornichons. I had no camera with me so swiped this little picture (sorry about the poor quality) from the Internet to give you an idea.

Pot-au-feu at Chez René
Even if you don't like pot-au-feu (or, like J, can't eat beef), all of the classic cuisine at Chez René is excellent, the place is lovely, if in a bit of a time warp (in the same location on the Boulevard St-Germain since 1957), and the service just right.

In the suddenly cold and damp Parisian weather, these types of dinners warm the body as well as the soul.

Bobby Jay

Monday, December 5, 2016

Baking Bread

I have been baking bread pretty often over the last few years, and it has become almost a ritual. (Indeed, I did a post on this topic in January 2015.) As in all things, practice makes better, and I have become fairly accomplished. I derive great satisfaction from producing a beautiful and tasty country loaf even though I can buy spectacular (and better, to be honest) bread from the She-Wolf Bakery's stand at the Sunday green market on Columbus avenue between 77th and 81st Streets.

My most recent effort, a fermented oat loaf from Chad Robertson's Tartine Book No. 3, was this gorgeous loaf.

Fermented oat bread
But this is the culmination of a journey that began with the no-knead bread from Jim Lahey's iconic My Bread. Lahey invented a way to make delicious country-style bread that is dead simple and works every time. You take a tiny amount of yeast, flour, water and salt, mix well and leave for 12-18 hours, then shape (no need to knead) the loaf and let it sit for or a couple of hours and, finally, bake in a Dutch oven at high temperature, removing the cover in the middle of the process.

You get a lovely and deliciously earthy loaf.

Lahey's no-knead loaf
Lahey's no-knead loaf with three seeds
The only drawback is that his crumb is, in my opinion, not dense enough, so the bread is very light. But also, it's too easy.

I then heard about Chad Robertson, whose Tartine Bakery in San Franciso is a legend, and his first book, Tartine Bread. Robertson dispenses with yeast altogether, using natural levain starter. This is like sourdough starter in that it consists only of flour and water exposed to the local wild yeasts until it begins to ferment. Good French bread in France is made with levain, not yeast, so this is nothing revolutionary.

Once it gets going, the starter must be "fed" often, preferably every day; this means discarding 80% of the starter and replenishing with flour and water. When you are going to bake, you take a tiny bit of starter, add a bunch of flour and water, leave overnight and then incorporate in your bread. There follows a detailed set of steps: letting the mix sit, then turning it every 30 minutes for four hours, shaping again, letting it sit for 3-5 hours, then baking in a Dutch oven in a very hot oven for nearly an hour. From start to finish, my last effort took 22 hours although there is very little active time. Robertson's highly illustrated description of this process takes up 25 pages of Tartine Bread. Of course there's lots more commentary and there are many variations, such as country rye, polenta, ___ and __ breads, as well as pizza dough, baguettes, etc.

Try as I might, I could not get starter to start from scratch, even after two one-week tries. So I cheated, and bought sourdough starter from King Arthur, which I then treated the way Robertson suggests, and got nice levain starter.

However, my first levain loaves, although they tasted good, were a flat. Somehow my levain did not have enough oomph.

Tartine olive bread
Over time, my results improved. Here are two plain country, semolina and country rye loaves, all of which looked and tasted awfully good.

Tartine plain loaves
Tartine semolina loaves with three seeds
Tartine country rye loaf
Once the world had digested his first book, Robertson released Tartine Book No. 3, in which he uses a high percentage of whole wheat, explores different flours, including heirloom varieties (like emmer, spelt and einkorn), and additions of whole grains in various states (flaked, rolled, ground), including fermented or unfermented porridge and other hard-to-find (or make) add-ins. A real challenge!

So far I have made several breads from Book No. 3, including the one first pictured above and this oat porridge bread, and all have come out well.

Tartine oat porridge bread
Is homemade levain bread worth the effort? Clearly not, especially in these days where good bread is so abundant. But as a challenging hobby, definitely yes!

Happy bread baking!

Bobby Jay

Friday, November 25, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016

As I have for quite a few years now, I prepared Thanksgiving dinner for the family yesterday. I generally try to cook some things that are proven hits, mixed with some new ones that seem promising. Sometimes I try the new ones before the holiday, like these hasselback style butternut squash with bay leaves,

Hasselback style butternut squash
sometimes not.

This year's hors d'oeuvres consisted of bar nuts, courtesy of the Union Square Cafe Cookbook and now Food52 Genius Recipes, my renowned (if inevitable) ricotta, sun-dried tomato and lemon zest crostini,

Rcotta, sun-dried tomato and lemon zest crostini
shrimp with toasted garlic, from Tyler Florence (no photo), spinach and dill hummus, topped with dill, toasted pine nuts and olive oil, from Food and Wine, served with my own pita toasted with za'atar and sumac,

Spinach hummus with dill, toasted pine nuts and oil; pita with za'atar
and cheese gougères, from Clotilde Dusoulier's Chocolate and Zucchini, with a food processor technique for mixing the chou pastry from Jacques Pépin's Essential Pépin.

Cheese gougères
For the main event, I made turkey breast, porchetta style, from a recipe in The New York Times, with chicken sausage and stage stuffing from Kenji Lopez-Alt's masterpiece, The Food Lab. The turkey started out like this, after I broke it down and stuffed the breast and also the boned-out thighs,

Turkey, with porchetta style breast and thighs, before cooking
and turned into this:

Turkey, after roasting
Sides were the hasselback style butternut squash pictured above, a very mustardy and spicy cranberry mostarda, from Food and Wine, and hashed Brussels sprouts with lemon and poppy seeds, from the Union Square Cafe Cookbook.

Hashed Brussles sprouts with lemon and poppy seeds
Finally, desserts: Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake, from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table and now Food52 Genius Recipes,
Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake
and and incredibly gingery, light and moist Fresh Ginger Cake, from Davis Lebovitz's Ready for Dessert, served with crème fraîche.

Fresh Ginger Cake
No one left hungry.

Bobby Jay

Sunday, November 13, 2016

France -- Cool Old Products

When I went to Europe after my sophomore year of college, I was overwhelmed by a lot of things, most notably the art that I saw in museums and churches, the churches and old cities themselves, and generally the length and presence of the history of the numerous countries and civilizations I encountered.

Since then, I love to see products, especially food products, that have long histories. Better still if the same brand has been in existence for centuries.

Here are a few that I found during a recent trip to France.

Each of these products has a lot of history -- culinary and regional -- and a stylish box to match. But for me, the best find of the lot are Les Macarons de Joyeuse. The card inserted in the box recites the following legend (my translation so bear with any awkwardness):
Joyeuse, a medieval town, owes its name to the emperor Charlemagne, who in 802 named it after his beloved sword, lost during a hunting party and later found at the site where our towns walls stand today.

On September 24, 1581, Duke Anne of Joyeuse, a favorite of King Henry III, married Marguerite of Lorraine, the king's sister-in-law. There followed fifteen days of grandiose celebrations organized by Catherine de Médicis, the costliest in the history of France, at which a number of hitherto unknown refinements were introduced: the first court ballet, "Circe, or the Comic Ballet of the Queen," was presented, and during the banquets a new pastry made with almonds from Italy, macarone, was served. Seduced, the duke introduced his duchy to these "macarons," of which the taste and tradition have been transmitted to the present day.

In 1867, the Joyeuse pâtissier André Maurice Pellier adapted the recipe to a new baking method It is this secret recipe that the Maison Charaix is still using today in an artisanal manner, selecting only natural ingredients in order to retain the taste of the original macaron.
And it works. Every time I have one, I feel the presence of Anne of Joyeuse, Henry III and Catherine de Médicis. And I feel joyeux. No Oreos these.

Bobby Jay

Giant Cannelé de Bordeaux

Giant cannelé de Bordeaux
For years I have loved eating and making cannelés de Bordeaux, which I learned at Ateliers des Chefs in Paris. These wonderful fluted confections are caramelized on the outside and contain a vanilla rum custard interior. The contrast between the textures is the thing.

Generally they come in three sizes, small (about 3.5 cm high), medium (about 4.5 cm high) and large (about   5.5 cm high). I make the small ones because I like the high proportion of crispy caramelized exterior to soft interior that they afford. Contrary to those who say you need to use copper molds, I make mine in inexpensive silicone molds with great results. Here's an example of my usual cannelés:

Recently, however, we went to Michel Trama, an inn and two-star restaurant near Toulouse, and were served a gigantic cannelé suitable for at least four persons (although J and I nearly polished it off ourselves).

I determined to make this. The first order of business was to find an appropriate mold. Hunting around in Bordeaux, I soon realized that there is no official cannelé pan of this size, but we found a kugelhopf pan (for making an Alsatian cake of the same name) and carted it home. The hollow middle means that the dough is never more than about 7 cm thick, and generally less, not so far from the 5.5 cm of a large normal canelé.

Recognizing that the cooking times for my minis would not work at all, I guessed: a clear failure. So based on what I learned, I guessed again, and this time nailed it. The result is above: a crispy exterior and delightful custard inside. I am looking forward to serving it at a post-Thanksgiving dinner party for six in just two weeks.

Bobby Jay

Monday, October 10, 2016

Tarte Tatin with a Twist

I made Tarte Tatin for guests the other day, and it was probably my most successful effort to date. I used the official version from the Confrerie des Lichonneux de Tarte Tatin for a classic beginning (see my post of January 16, 2016 for the recipe and illustrations). Just before covering with the puff pastry crust, I added raisins soaked in orange flower water, an idea found in Paula Wolfert's excellent The Food of Morocco. Ms Wolfert states that she tried in the book to avoid "nouvelle cuisine Morocaine" but could not resist the combination of Moroccan tastes with a French classic. And it worked! The orange flower water, raisins and buttery caramelized apples were a perfect combination.

Tarte Tatin with orange flower soaked raisins
And here's a close-up that I shot with my new macro lens (which I am enjoying using):

Tarte Tatin with orange flower soaked raisins - close-up
Not easy, but then not impossible either, as  you can see from the recipe, and a stunner every time.

Bobby Jay

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Takoyaki in New York

It is no secret that I love takoyaki, a kind of omelet ball that is stuffed with a tiny piece of octopus that is found all over Japan and especially in Kyoto but that is also apparently a favorite for Japanese people to cook at home for their families. I did a post on the subject in 2011, showing our friend Hitomi Kondo going through the process. I even helped in shaping the balls. Here is the almost finished product before saucing:

Nearly finished takoyaki balls
The takoyaki that Hitomi made for us, like every version that I have had until recently, was a firm ball with a firm piece of octopus inside, served with bonito flakes sprinkled on top and a special thickish sweetish sauce that resembles tonkatsu sauce. I say until recently because a couple of weeks ago I experienced a new take on takoyaki, in New York of all places. While waiting to get into Ramen Totto (see post of earlier today), I noticed Takoyaki Bar (also run by Totto) right next door, and resolved to return as soon as possible. Which I did.

Takoyaki Bar by Totto
To my surprise, the takoyaki here was very soft, almost impossible to hold with the traditional toothpicks they are served with, and had a very tender morsel of octopus inside. A wonderful new (for me) take on this iconic street dish served, as it should be, in a paper box, placed into a plastic external box.

Takoyaki Bar's takoyaki
For those squeamish about octopus (the tako in takoyaki), the restaurant makes takoyaki stuffed with bits of chicken (an oxymoron, of course). Not having any problem with octopus, I passed on this, but it does make it easier to go with a group, which might include octopodophobes.

Give it a try.

Bobby Jay