I made Christmas dinner this year trying to use as many techniques from school as I could. Or, at least, I used a good many of them. I also did several recipes straight from the “text binder” provided by the school. Overall, it was pretty good. There were no outright disasters (except maybe one), a few misses, and a few real successes.
I was suppose to be assisted by a working professional chef from one of California’s best and most famous restaurants, but he could not come at the last minute. (He knows who he is.) He did more or less plan the menu, so I have him to thank for that. He also gave me several tips on how to get it done. And I thank him for that as well.
We were going to do five courses, plus an hors d’oevre of gougeres (puff pastry cheese balls). I dropped the hors d’oerve altogether. The third course was also going to feature home-made pasta. The chef was going to bring his pasta attachment for my mother’s Kitchenaid mixer (this was done at her house). She has the stand mixer but not the pasta-maker attachment. Plus, he knows how to make pasta and I don’t. So when he bailed, my first instinct was to drop the pasta course. It was going to be pumpkin pappardelle, with a sage butter sauce. But in the end, I kept the course, only modified. One of our family traditions is to have ravioli on Christmas. We make the filling (always spinach) and the sauce (ragu) but take the filling to an Italian market where they actually put it into the ravs. My grandmother used to make it all herself, but even she gave up on that long ago. So I used the ravs and made the same sauce I would have made anyway.
So the courses were:
- First: Salad Lyonnaise.
- Second: CrÃ¨me Dubarry (cauliflower soup)
- Third: Spinach ravioli with pumpkin sage butter sauce
- Fourth: Chateaubriand with mushroom & onion stuffing, Sauce Bordelaise, celery root/parsnip/apple puree, carrots and green beans, Pommes Dauphinoise in individual terrines on the side.
- Fifth: Chocolate soufflÃ©
The first thing I wanted to do was get the sauce on because it would have to go through two rounds (espagnole, then bordelaise) each of which would need to simmer for a long time.
But I needed mirepoix for the sauce, and I knew that I would have carrot trimmings from the tournÃ©. Chef X taught us to waste nothing, and I wanted to be true to his dictum. So the first thing I did was turn those carrots.
Now, admittedly, there was no point to doing all this tournÃ© beyond showing off and practice. It was something we learned, something that classically trained chefs consider important, and therefore something I have struggled with getting right. I still don’t have it down, to be honest. I can work them into more or less the correct shape. But each one is supposed to have exactly seven smooth sides. Mine don’t.
One thing that did make it all a little easier is got for Christmas a very sharp birds beak paring knife, or tournÃ© knife.
I used to use my regular paring knife. It worked OK, but the birds beak is better; it allows for more control as you try to navigate the turn. I have another one from Wustof, but it is simply not sharp. No amount of effort on my part could make it sharp. The new one is a Shun, and it is wicked sharp. Still, even with that tool, I did not do a perfect tournÃ©, merely good enough, or at least as close as I was going to get.
Chef X. pooh-poohed these and claimed they offered no advantage beyond an ordinary paring knife, or at least, that a good chef should be able to turn with the latter. Well, I am no genius with tournÃ©, so I need all the help I can get, and this helped.
The stuffing for the roast uses cremini mushrooms, which I peeled and stemmed (just as I was taught), because stems and peelings are not supposed to be left on mushrooms that you are going to cook, especially if you are going to cut them into duxelles, as I was going to do later.
But, in keeping with the principles of waste-not and flavor reinforcement, I used all those trimmings in the sauce. Chef taught us that whenever we have mushroom trimmings on hand to put them in stock or sauce. I have also learned from many books that sauces ought to have the flavor of what they will accompany incorporated to the extent possible.
I now had trimmings for mirepoix. I cut some onion, got together the herbs, sautÃ©ed the bacon, and got the sauce on. Here is the mirepoix pre-liquid:
Now, this is an old fashioned sauce with a brown roux. I understand that high end restaurants do not use this any more. Even Keller, who is in a lot of ways the most traditional-minded chef in the US, does not use a roux-based brown sauce. But it is what I learned, before the FCI even, and it was reinforced in school and it is what I know how to do. Plus, it works and I like it. So I did that. I used beef stock that I had made for my mother on a prior trip. Once on the fire, it simmered for about two hours.
Next I got out the roast and trimmed it. The roast was a chateaubriand, that is the very center of a filet strip. It was about three pounds. It looks hard to turn a cylindrical piece of meat into this:
But as long as your knife is sharp and you go slow, it's not that hard.
The recipe for this is from America’s Test Kitchen. These people are not taken seriously by the food snobs, I realize, but I rather like them and they do come up with some good recipes.
I seasoned it, to let the salt especially get in there and flavor it, wrapped it in paper towel to soak up the liquid that the salt would leach out, and put it in the fridge. It is a myth that when meat loses water it loses “juice.” In fact, losing some water intensifies flavor. That is what dry aging does, for instance. So a few hours (or overnight) salted and resting on towels is like a mini-aging process.
Next I got the soup base ready. Emincer leeks. Core the cauliflower. Reserve a handful of small fleurettes (these will be used as a garnish) and then chop up the rest. Sweat the leeks in butter (no color), singer with flour and cook the flour (also no color), add a little chicken stock and whip, then add the rest, bring to a simmer, add chopped caul, simmer again and let simmer until half the liquid is gone.
Then puree in the food mill. I did this three times to really break it down. You could also use a blender, which in hindsight would have been easier.
The next step is the cream, but I was not ready for that. I figured it could wait until service. So into the fridge the soup went. This, by the way, is a recipe straight from the school, identical to the one that I made on soup day. Another gift this year was Keller’s newest cookbook, the one for ad hoc. It is supposed to be his “simple” “home cooking” book. Well! That would be a nice change, I thought. As ever with Keller books, it is fabulously done, beautiful and very interesting. But Keller cannot do simple to save his life. For instance, this one has a burger recipe. Simple for the home cook. How does it start? First, you have to grind your own beef. Three different kinds, no less. I half expected him to say that you had to raise and slaughter your own cattle. Anyway, Keller has a recipe for pureed cauliflower soup in this book, and of course it has a million steps.
My next task was to get the puree for the beef course ready. This was my chef buddy’s idea. Even though he was not going to be there, I had the ingredients, and so I did it anyway. I have worked with celery root and parsnip before, but not much. Celery root looks like a deformed coconut. Parsnip like an albino carrot.
These I simply washed, peeled, chopped and boiled in salted water until soft.
I also peeled and cored two tart apples, chopped them up and softened them in butter. Then all three went through the food mill and were pureed into the same pot and thoroughly mixed. That went into the fridge, to wait for the roast to be done hours later.
Then I brunoised the pumpkin. This was a pain. First, it has to be peeled with a knife, the outer skin is much too tough for a peeler.
Then you have to scoop out all the interior guts. This reminded me of Halloweens Past, especially the smell. It was a Proustian moment.
Then of course the walls are curved and had to be trimmed into planks, which you can see to the right, above. Then, finally, julienned and brunoised. Lots of waste, or excess. I did a decent job, but not perfect, and of course it took me forever.
Then I got the potatoes ready. Now, really, this was a wholly unnecessary dish. The root veg puree should have been enough. But I wanted to do this because it is delicious, and because I got these little pots and I really wanted to use them. In the end, I was very glad I had these potatoes, for reasons I will explain.
Anyway, I used Yukon golds, although russets would have been fine. But I think these were better in this dish. Peel, then trim into cylinders.
The latter step is not something I normally do, though it is something that Chef X. taught us to do. For this dish, I had to do it because the little pots are so small that the potato slices had to be uniform. There was no way to spread around any inconsistency to make it even out over a large pot.
The cylinders were sliced on a mandoline, then held in water. (Always do this, or the potatoes will turn red!) I buttered the bottom and the sides of the little pots and sprinkled garlic (minced by hand, don’t use a press!) on the bottoms. Then the potato slices were simmered in cream, herbs (thyme and bay leaves), some peppercorns, salt and garlic. The idea is to convey some of the flavor into the slices, but also into the cream, which gets used in the pots.
Then you spread the potatoes out one layer at a time. Three will fit if they are sliced thin enough (as they should be). Lay done one later in an overlapping circle. Season with a little salt and ground nutmeg (fresh, of course). Sprinkle with grated gruyere. Ladle in some cream from the pot where you simmered the slices. Repeat until you have three layers. Repeat all that until you have filled all your pots. Then I put them in the fridge.
Here is what the looked like when cooked:
Half our with the lid on, half our off. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Then it was time for the filet stuffing. Slicing the onion was of course very easy. Duxulle of mushrooms, not so much. The Test Kitchen recipe says to do it in a food processor. But my chef pal (the one who was supposed to come and cook with me) said that would be done over his dead body. I decided to honor his outrage. I know how to do duxelles, we learned that in school. But it is incredibly slow, at least for me. I can slice mushrooms very fast at this point. My knife skills have improved (from rock bottom, truth be told). But cutting them from there is hard. I try to stack a few slices, cut into batonnets and then into small dice. Something about the shape and softness of mushrooms just makes it very slow. For me.
But I did it. Then I softened the onion on the stove, and added the mushrooms and cooked them until all the liquid was gone.
Then add some Madeira and cook until syrupy. Spread that out on the rectangular filet, lay down a later of spinach leaves, roll and tie.
FWIW, I tied this the wrong way. I feel sort of bad about it, but I do know the correct way. I just didn't think I could get it to work, given that there was a "hole" where the meat separated.
By this time the espagnole was done and I strained it through a fine chinois:
Remember, never press on the solids! It forces impurities thrpugh! You only want the liquid that passes through by iself, or with a little centrifugal force. You lose quite a bit of liquid that way, but it makes for a better sauce.
The next step of the sauce is to simmer some red wine together with shallots, crushed peppercorn (a/k/a mignonette), and herbs. I used a whole bottle because … what the hell.
Chef X. taught us to use tarragon, which is used in no other recipe for this I have ever seen, but man is it good. Medium low heat, it took over an hour to reduce down to a syrup. Then add the strained and de-fatted espagnole and simmer for a while longer. The espagnole is a sort of orangey light brown, but once it hits that wine it gets dark.
When the flavors have combined, strain:
and set aside:
The last “prep” I did was to get the soufflÃ© mix together—everything but the egg whites, which need to be beaten in just before they go in the oven.
At this point, it was time to start getting everything ready to serve. The potatoes needed the longest to cook, so then went into a 350 oven, covered first. They need about 30 minutes with the covers on, then another 30 with them off to brown.
The roast gets browned in a pan on the burner, then cooked in the oven. I was shooting for medium rare.
Meanwhile, the first course: mix the vinaigrette. In school, Chef X taught us that a vinaigrette was far more oil than acid. But my chef friend said that this one had to be the other way. It was like 3x1 champagne vinegar to olive oil. Earlier I had frozen some bread slices. Now it was time to cut them into croutons and cook them in butter. Earlier I had also cooked the lardoons. I cut the root ends off the frisee and portioned them out and tossed them in the vinaigrette. The last step was to poach the eggs. This was something we learned early on and that I rather enjoy doing.
Sprinkle eggs and croutons on the salad, top with a poached egg, season with some pepper, and voila. First course.
This was delicious.
Second course was the soup. Before making the salad, I had put the puree of caul back on the stove on low. When it was time to serve, I added the cream and seasoned. I also sautÃ©ed the reserved fleurettes and got the chervil ready. Now, the recipe I have says that the soup should be passed through a fine chinois. It also recommended a blender rather than a food mill, and I recall that we had used a blender at school. But I used a food mill this time, and that made getting the soup through a chinois a real pain. It took a while, and the guests were waiting. But the resulting soup was really spectacular.
Third course was disappointing. Like I said, I used the family ravioli, then I made my own sauce: brown butter sage with the pumpkin brunoise.
I am not sure what was wrong with this dish. It looked OK, although I overcooked the fried sage leaves:
But the taste was off. At dinner that night, I thought I had somehow screwed up the sauce. But the other night I had the same ravs again, in the traditional ragu, and I didn’t like it. I think there was something wrong with the ravs. The stuffing was doughy and flavorless. Then again, even if that is true, that does not explain why I could not taste pumpkin or sage strongly enough in my sauce. But at this point, I will never know.
The fourth course too forever to plate. I had to let the roast rest, slice it, cook the carrots (etuvee) and the green beans (anlglaise), reheat and season the sauce, add cream to the puree and whip it and season it, and finally get the potatoes ready.
The plating was perhaps inelegant, but by that time, the wait had been forever. I put some puree in the center, the filet on top of that, and the veg arranged around it. I spooned the sauce on last. The potatoes went off to the side, still in their little pots.
The roast was a little too gray at the edges but the interior was perfect.
Wine was an '89 Lynch Bages, which I am proud to say I had the presence of mind to buy on release and have cellared ever since:
BTW, the other wines of the night were a magnum of Mumms rose 1996 (delicious) and a Soquel Vinyards chard 2005 (meh).
The puree I did not like. Too sweet. Everyone else claimed to like it, though. The potatoes were excellent. The beef was fine, but not rave-worthy, at least not for me. Maybe I just don’t like filet enough. I was very happy with the sauce, though it combined badly with the puree.
After that I whipped the egg whites, folded them into the soufflÃ©s, and put them into the oven. I think I must have overwhipped the egg whites enough, because the mixture was a bit dense; when you overwhip egg whites they dry out. When I made these at school, the mixture was runnier. It poured more evenly into the ramekins and the tops came out of the oven flat (if tilted). These, not so much:
They tasted delicious, though.
Well, that's it.