Thursday, January 29, 2015

More Tartine Bread

Emboldened by my success making levain rustic loaves from Chad Robertson's Tartine, I decided to try some variations that he provides in the book. I made his standard two-loaf recipe, then divided it into two loaves early in the "bulk fermentation" process rather than at the end, and added the extra ingredients: chopped olives and walnuts in one, toasted sesame seeds in the other.

Spectacular success, particularly the olive walnut loaf, which was moist, light and earthy and certainly one of the best things I have ever made. Both had inviting dark crusts.

Tartine olive walnut levain loaf
Tartine olive walnut levain loaf - interior
The sesame loaf was excellent, too, but did not rise to the heights of the olive walnut loaf. But some of the best toast ever.

Tartine sesame seed levain loaf
It is pretty crazy to make this bread, given the time and timing commitments, but the results are pretty fantastic!

Bobby Jay

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Tartine Bread

Inspired by Michael Pollan's excellent Cooked, in which the author spends many pages describing his efforts to make Chad Robertson's levain bread, as chronicled in detail in Robertson's Tartine Bread, I decided to try again to follow Robertson's 50 pages of instructions on making basic country bread. The secret of Robertson's bread, and the reason it is so difficult, is that you must first make a levain starter, for this bread is made without yeast, apart from that which appears by serendipity in the starter. Levain is like sourdough but -- guess what! -- less sour.

A couple of years ago I spent months trying to use levain starter in conjunction with Jim Lahey's brilliant, easy and foolproof no-knead bread, which I have discussed before. I never could get the oven spring that I wanted (i.e., the loaves were too flat) without adding just a smidgeon (1/8 tsp) of yeast, but that was cheating. When I went for the full Tartine bread, I still did not achieve the oven spring I wanted.

As noted above, I tried again, but this time I could not get the starter to start. A disgusting mess, which is fine, but without the bubbles, which is not. In frustration, I got the (pretty brilliant) idea of buying sourdough starter from King Arthur Flour, which I fed a few times according to their directions and then transformed into levain starter by feeding it as Robertson suggests. This worked and in a couple of days I had a very vibrant starter ready to go.

Now all I had to do was spend the next 26 hours following Robertson's recipe. You feed the starter and turn it into levain overnight. Then in the morning, when it is ready (a little bit of it will float in water, but mine took an extra 2 hours), you add water and flour to make dough. After a short rest, you add salt and a bit more water and leave for 3-4 hours, the "bench rest," folding (not kneading) the dough in the prescribed manner every 1/2 hour or so. Then shape the loaves and leave for another 3-4 hours. Finally, place a loaf into a covered dutch oven at blazing high heat for 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes uncovered . . . and then you have bread.

Two loaves of Tartine levain bread
And what bread it was! Gorgeous, beautifully colored, soaring, with a perfect rustic crumb and a slightly sour, almost bitter note playing against the sweetness of the wheat (about 22% whole wheat, in case you're curious). The bread was light, but less so than Lahey's, and with a more substantial structure.

Beautiful crumb inside a Tartine bread
I was thrilled that my project had worked, and the bread was one of the best I have ever eaten. But it is a lot of work . . .  well not so much work, although some technical skill is required, as being there -- a lot. You can go out, you can delay baking by refrigeration and other techniques, but you still have to be around. Is it worth it, given the degree of difficulty and time management compared to Lahey's no-knead bread? Hard to say, but I will definitely be doing it again. But then, I am retired and projects like this are my "bread and butter."

Bobby Jay

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Cooking Highlights of 2014

I have made an iPhoto book of highlights of my cooking year. To see it, click on the cover page below. Unfortunately, you won't be able to see side-by-side double pages, so some of the text may seem a bit misplaced. I am working to solve this problem, but for now . . . .

Bobby Jay

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Alain Passard, an Amazing Perfectionist

Recently Nadège, the most loyal follower of my blog, recommended that I watch some short cooking videos by Alain Passard. They are terrific, and more on them later.

Passard is the chef of the famed Arpège, in Paris, where the spectacular and spectacularly expensive food is mostly, but not exclusively, vegetarian. A number of years ago, J and I went to Arpège with our good friends H and O and had a wonderful meal, but . . . we really felt ripped off paying nearly 300 euros per person (it's more now, of course) for the meal and we also felt that the restaurant's staff made the experience about them, not us. Yet I have to admit that I can still remember the taste of his most famous creation, a dessert consisting of a tomato that is confited for the better part of a day.

I thought nothing more of this until I happened upon a bande dessiné (graphic, comic-like book), En Cuisine avec Alain Passard, written by a journalist who got to spend a lot of time with him.

Reading this book gave me a new respect for Chef Passard. He sources nearly all the vegetables he uses at one of two organic farms that he owns. One is more or less conventional, the other uses horse-drawn plows and ancient planting and harvesting techniques. He tries growing the produce at each farm and then chooses the one that give the best result for future production. And he is a workaholic, spending virtually all of his time at the restaurant, creating, sampling, creating, etc. He has decided not to expand like other chefs because he cannot imagine producing the level of cuisine that he produces at Arpège without personally supervising every step. The level of Chef Passard's attention to detail is pretty amazing.

Now I get it.

As to the videos, there are a large number accessible by searching "alain passard youtube"; the dozen or so that I have viewed so far (and I plan to see them all) are remarkable. The food is amazingly creative and beautiful. And the lessons are so well expressed that they seem doable by a mere mortal who knows how to cook. But the best part is the enthusiasm displayed by Chef Passard. The man is clearly excited by what he does, a point made clear in En Cusine, but in the videos the passion is infectious; I want to cook each thing that he illustrates, right then! Here's an example, in which Chef Passard shows how to make a roulade of autumn vegetables:

There is one problem, which you may have suspected: the lessons are in French. The language used is not difficult, and the videos are so well illustrated that they are easily followed, but the fact remains that they are in French. Still, I encourage you to give them a try if you have even a little French and love to cook (or eat). Just looking at what he produces will be an inspiration.

Will I go back to Arpège knowing what I do now? I'm seriously thinking about it.

Bobby Jay

Monday, December 29, 2014

Happy New Year from Paris -- 2014


As always, we are spending the end of the year in Paris. Here are some nice, mostly food-oriented, images from Paris in late December.

Réligieuse at Dalloyau
Snowman at Dalloyau
Baby bûches de Noël on Île Saint-Louis
Merveilleuses de Fred
Chocolats Marquise de Sévigné
Macarons at Ladurée
Chocolats Michel Cluizel
Au Petit Versailles, a gorgeous boulangerie patisserie
Display at Edwart, a new and quite wonderful chocolatier
Shoe train in Printemps window
Bobby Jay

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Paris - Christmas Dinner 2014

As has become our tradition, we had Christmas dinner chez nous with good friends from the Japanese ceramic world: a renowned Japanese potter from Kyoto and her friend, an excellent Japanese potter who has been living and working in Paris for decades and the director of one of Paris' Asian art museums. J, of course, the great dealer in contemporary Japanese ceramics, and me, the sole male and the chef.

As always, J set a magnificent table. With flowers a bit lame in the market on Christmas day, she improvised with fruit and vegetables to great effect.

Table set for Christmas dinner
For hors d'oeuvres, I prepared some curried roasted cashews and smoked paprika-spiced almonds, and tapenade and mustard palmiers. And, of course, the foie gras that I described in my previous post (sorry for the repeat picture).

Foie gras Bobby Jay
Dinner consisted of a mushroom soup from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table, served over chopped mushrooms, scallions and chives, with, of course, a dollop of crème fraîche.

Mushroom soup with obligatory dollop of crème fraîche
For the main course, roast leg of lamb with anchovies, rosemary and garlic (and lots of butter and white wine) from Simon Hopkinson's Roast Chicken and Other Stories. See my previous post for a picture of the leg slathered in anchovy butter before roasting. As is customary in France, green beans with rosemary on the side.

Roast leg of lamb before carving (which didn't make it look any better)
Then the thing that, in my opinion, blows away whatever I cook: a perfect vacherin de Mont d'Or, eaten with a spoon, a Christmas tradition in France and my favorite cheese in the world. I prettied it up with slices of pear and walnuts, but the cheese is the thing here.

Vacherin de Mont d'Or with sliced pears and walnuts
Finally, Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake, also from Around My French Table, a great make-ahead dessert that keeps for days on the counter, served with yet another dollop of crème fraîche.

Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake
Really finally, assorted chocolates from La Mère de Famille, thoughtfully provided by one of the guests.

Chocolates from La Mère de Famille
A good way to pass the night with friends.

Bobby Jay

Friday, December 26, 2014

Paris - Gardil: A Great Butcher

Near our new apartment is one of Paris' best butchers, Jean-Paul Gardil et Fils, in the middle of the magnificent Île Saint-Louis. Although Gardil is wildly expensive, I decided to give it a few tries, and had not only great products but nice experiences.

Gardil's window display of great poultry
I visited Gardil on Friday, December 19 to order provisions for dinners on December 23, a Tuesday, and Christmas day, a Thursday. And I needed duck foie gras to prepare on Saturday, December 20. First, the foie gras. It was not de-nerved, and taking out the nerves is a job I do not want to do ever again, having made a disgusting mess of it when I tried. No problem, said the butcher (I had Gardil fils), he would do it the next morning (it needs to be out of the fridge for two hours before de-nerving) and I could pick it up at 10 on Saturday.

Foe gras resting under a layer of duck fat
My best foie gras ever
Then, chicken for Tuesday. I ordered it for Saturday, but the butcher thought that would leave the chicken in my fridge for too long. I said I was marinating it Monday night, but he was insistent. Luckily, the shop, normally closed on Mondays, was open exceptionally for the holiday season, so we made a date for Monday.

As for the lamb, since I was serving it Thursday, the earliest he would let me have it was Tuesday, otherwise it would be too long in my fridge. I'm sure he would have preferred Wednesday, but I didn't want to face the Christmas eve crush.

The point of the story is that Gardil takes enormous pride in its products and wants its customers to serve it while still at maximum freshness, a level of attention I have never seen before. I went to pick up the foie gras on Saturday, and the butcher said it was ready and could hardly wait to show me how beautifully he had done the job. And he had. The foie gras was the best I ever made, and there was not a nerve to be seen, no matter how tiny.

Monday I picked up the chicken, which was prepared before me at considerable length. This is how it's done in Paris: head and feet cut off, joints stretched, giblets removed (and saved), when the chicken is sold, and not before. Slow but, again, freshness is all. I asked him to cut the chicken into eight pieces, which he did with great precision and speed, keeping some bones and the neck separate for me, which I used to make stock for Christmas dinner. (Unfortunately I forgot to ask for the feet, which add a lot of depth to stock due to the collagen within.) As with the foie gras, the chicken was simply the best I have ever made. A poulet fermier, it was rich in flavor but not tough as they sometimes are in the US.

Chicken from Gardil
Tuesday I returned for the leg of lamb. By now we were old friends, and I got an especially nice greeting. It had already been prepared and was ready to go. The butcher gave me instructions, which I did not follow because I was using a recipe that I had tried before with success. The lamb was excellent, but unlike the foie gras and chicken, was not the best I have ever made.

Lamb from Gardil, slathered with anchovy butter
The fun part of this trip was the dialogue between the butcher and a woman who had purchased a magnificent and wildly expensive (probably more than $200) capon for the next night. The butcher explained exactly how to cook it - two and a quarter hours, turning it at specific times, adding wine at specific times, etc. The customer took notes and then asked if she could make it in advance. The butcher visibly winced, but after gathering his composure, told her how best to do it: do NOT put it in the fridge and then reheat very gently at 210-225 degrees Farenheit (my conversions) for about 40 minutes. He did not ask her what is the point of cooking a roast a couple of hours in advance and reheating it, which showed great sensitivity.

Along the way, I bought some ham made from Noir de Bigorre pork from the Pyrenees, a duck sausage and two pâtes. The pâtes were not extraordinary but the ham and sausage definitely were. In sum, I learned a lot, ate well and had a terrific time (actually four times) at Gardil. And people ask what I do in Paris!

Bobby Jay

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Paris -- Holiday Food

December in Paris is all about food. I've been here nearly a week and have done less walking than usual due to bad weather, but I'm starting to get around and check out what's new.

On the Île Saint-Louis, the famed butcher Gardil has a window full of gorgeous, well-dressed and expensive (64 euros per kilo -- $35 per pound -- for Bresse capon) birds. This is where I plan to provision myself for our annual Christmas dinner with our Japanese friends in Paris. Jews and Buddhists celebrating Christmas: why not?

Poultry at Boucherie Gardil
And there's a bakery on Rue Saint-Antoine that sells a big variety of what the French call "cakes," generally not overly sweet cakes made in loaf pans. I have to try one soon.

Cakes at bakery on rue Saint-Antoine
I did get to the Madeleine. As usual, Hediard had nice windows,

Hediard's Christmas window
And the Maison de la Truffe had about a million dollars' worth of black truffles in its display.

Giant truffles at Maison de la Truffe -- a study in noir et blanc
 Caviar Kaspia had a cute display, with fake Russian dolls,

Caviar Kaspia window
And Fauchon had a beautiful new cake this year. (They always beautiful products even though Fauchon is no longer the best that Paris has to offer.)

Gorgeous cake at Fauchon
More to come in future posts.

Bobby Jay

Paris -- Le Banh Mi Chez Moi

You'd think that with the large number of Vietnamese people living in Paris, the city would abound with great banh mi sandwiches. Wrong. I tried what was supposed to be one of the best and it was quite mediocre. So I solved the problem the way I did in New York, by making my own, following the wisdom in The Banh Mi Handbook: Recipes for Crazy-Delicious Vietnamese Sandwiches, by Andrea Nguyen.

After all, you can get great pork, great liver pate and great ham in Paris, and a much better baguette than you can find in New York. I used made the full combo, using the aforementioned ingredients, plus mayo, sriracha, Maggi sauce, homemade carrot and daikon pickles, cucumber, hot peppers and cilantro. The only tricky ingredient was the peppers, because jalapenos are not available in Paris. The closest thing, Moroccan peppers, are often not hot enough but the ones I found in the market were just fine.

I used crispy roasted pork belly,

 put the whole thing together on a great French baguette,

and made myself very happy.

Bobby Jay

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

This year we had a bigger Thanksgiving, 14 adults, one two-year-old and a three-month-old, and that turns out to be a lot more than the 10 adults we had last year. With careful planning, and knocking off three dishes a day, I was able to get a huge amount done in advance and was looking forward to a restful Thanksgiving day.

Until the turkey! I made it the same way as I did last year - deconstructed, then breast cooked upside down in a saute pan, and finally all cooked over the stuffing. But this year I dry-brined the turkey (salt plus baking powder) for two days, instead of wet-brining the breast overnight. And this year's turkey weighed in at 18 pounds instead of 14. For whatever reason, the breast just wouldn't get done and it was so fat that it had dried out on the outside by the time it had cooked through on the inside. In addition, it took 45 extra minutes, thereby throwing off the entire schedule. Finally it got done, and looked pretty good,

Turkey breast ready to be carved
but I ended up with the Thanksgiving nemesis - dried white meat - and a disorganized meal.

That being said, everyone had fun and enjoyed the meal, which did have some real highlights.

Here's what I cooked:

Thanksgiving Dinner
 November 27, 2014

Salmon rillettes (from a class at Atelier des Chefs in Paris)
Slow poached garlic shrimp (from Tyler Florence's Ultimate TV show)
Mustard and tapenade palmiers
(from Dorie Greenspan, Around My French Table)
Feta with sumac, black sesame seeds and olive oil (from Bon Appétit)
Bar nuts (from The Union Square Cookbook)

Turkey with cornbread and turkey sausage and dried apricot stuffing
(from Cook's Illustrated for Turkey, Food and Wine and myself for stuffing)
Cranberry mostarda (from Food and Wine)
Sweet potato gratin with sage (from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook)
Brussels sprouts (from Food and Wine)

Bourbon caramel pumpkin tart (from Fine Cooking)
Chocolate hazelnut torte (from Gourmet)
Marie-Hélène’s apple tart
(from Dorie Greenspan, Around My French Table)

And here's what some of it looked like:

Hors d'oeuvres were served in the living room, around our old art deco table.

Slow poached garlic shrimp
Feta cheese with sumac and black sesame seeds
Then to the dining room, spectacularly arranged as always by J,

for a buffet dinner:
The turkey, deconstructed and carved
Sweet potato gratin
Roasted Brussels sprouts with caramelized onions

Thanksgiving plate, fully loaded
Finally, three desserts that I whipped up earlier in the week:

Chocolate hazelnut torte
Pumpkin tart with bourbon caramel and toasted candied pumpkin seeds
Marie-Hélène's apple cake
A good time was had by all, I think, except for myself during the turkey breast crisis.

Bobby Jay

Sunday, November 9, 2014


Well, the cold weather's here and it's time to get back to baking. In truth, I bake in most months, but desserts in summer are most often fruit with ice cream (especially homemade lemon verbena or ginger) or yogurt (homemade and flavored with shredded coconut or cardamom, vanilla and sugar) or luxurious crème fraîche.

Over the years I have made hundreds of apple tarts and am always working on ways to improve them. I recently invented the killer apple tart: apples over ginger caramel and minced candied ginger with ginger caramel sauce.

Apple tart with ginger caramel and candied ginger
For the crust, I use Clotilde Dusoulier's pâte sablée (short pastry), which, being a hand-shaped crust, solves the problem of dealing with brittle rolled sweet dough, as well as the need for pie weights when blind baking. Then I made a ginger caramel from a recipe that I found in Maximum Flavor, by Aki Kamozawa and Alexander Talbot, who run the amazing Ideas in Food blog. I slice the apples thin and heat them for 2-3 minutes in the microwave in 1/2 apple clumps of slices, to get rid of the excess liquid that can kill a crust.

I blind-baked the crust, then when cooled painted it with a thin coat of caramel. On this I placed a layer of minced candied ginger, the dry, spicy kind, and then the apples. Baked at 400 until ready, about 35 minutes, and voilà, a wonderful tart ready for eating, dressed with more ginger caramel or not.

What makes this tart special is the ginger, with an assist from the ginger caramel. I love ginger in all its forms and it really worked here. My only residual question is whether to add some ginger powder to the crust, for an apple ginger three-ways tart.

While on the subject of baking, I recently got Dorie Greenspan's brand new book, Baking Chez Moi, hoping that it would be as good as her Around My French Table. Too soon to tell, but first signs are good: the same excellent organization (including metric measurement!), logical recipes and lush photos. Most important, the recipes are extremely inviting and not intimidating. I made the very first one in the book: "Brown-Butter-and-Vanilla-Bean Weekend Cake": a simple cake that's a perfect vehicle for ice cream, fruit or compote, among other things.

Brown-Butter-and-Vanilla-Bean Weekend Cake
Happy Baking!

Bobby Jay