Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Delicious Things with Leftover Brioche

I constantly overestimate how much two adults (greedy ones) can eat in one sitting.

I am incapable of throwing food away.

I love making brioche. I worry about it in phases - boringly enough for those I feed, for weeks on end - where I'll bake nothing else.

And so, before I'm siezed by another bout (which according to retrograde analysis, can't be too far off down the line), the freezer needs to be purged of the vestiges of one such last attack. Not that I'm complaining - brioche, when wrapped and stored properly upon cooling from being first baked, freezes and reheats wonderfully. The remaining petites brioches à tête (made from the fabulous 87.7% butter-to-flour recipe for Rich Man's Brioche in Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice) have long been enjoyed at recent breakfasts, served piping hot with some more good French butter and preserves. The space-hogger in question is a pullman-style shaped sandwich loaf (the lovely Brioche Loaf recipe in Nancy Silverton's Sandwich Book).

Sure, leftover brioche makes the definitive pain perdu or French toast. It also makes for a richly custardy, vanilla seed-flecked, raisin-studded bread-and-butter pudding. But rather than sweet beginnings to the day and endings to a meal - both routes I've had plenty brioche to go previously explore - I had bigger main-event designs on that last generously-proportioned loaf.

In the savoury scheme of things, brioche is superb partnered with myriad foie preparations both hot and cold. Spliced into chubby fingers and toasted, you'll be hard put to find a happier trooper for dipping into eggs soft-boiled or en cocotte, accompanied by a fat scrunch of sea salt. Brioche is also most obliging in certain sandwiches (many fantastic ideas for which abound in the aforementioned book). It's this last, the comforting meal-unto-itself that happens to sit on a tranche of brioche, that inspired the final fate of said loaf - no ordinary sandwiches, these two, and by no means sandwiches in the conventional sense.

Baked Ham & Cheese Bread Pudding

The idea for this was sparked by a recipe in Tessa Kiros' Apples for Jam. Sepia memory, heirloom recipe and charming anecdote are threaded together with the poetry and grace of a daisy chain in this beautiful cookbook-meets-journal - an eclectic and original style fans of Falling Cloudberries and Twelve will be familiar with.

Depending on what appeals most to you, think of this one-dish bake-and-serve wonder as a strata, a twist on ham and cheese sandwiches, or a savoury bread-and-butter pud. The recipe acts much like a template that invites tinkering. Use whatever combination of bread, ham and cheese is most convenient or alluring to you, or add an additional ingredient between the layers if you fancy - I used brioche in conjunction with Bayonne ham, gruyère, and parmesan.

A savoury custard, rich in eggs and cream and scented with freshly grated nutmeg, melds the layers together. No more than 15 minutes of prep work, the oven does the rest - in other words, the perfect antidote for when you're feeling less than up to a big production for dinner.

Oeufs Bénédictine, or Poached Eggs with Brandade & Saffron Hollandaise

I first read about and consequently lusted after oeufs Bénédictine - not to be confused with eggs Benedict - thanks to Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking, where at the end of her evocative explanation of that Nîmes' speciality, la brandade de morue, she casually mentions that "one of the nicest subsidiary dishes to be made with this creamed salt cod is oeufs Bénédictine, poached eggs placed on top of the brandade and covered with sauce hollandaise". So when I finally came by a full-blown recipe for what on paper already sounded like a sublime combination, I was over the moon. The recipe comes from Damien Pignolet's French, a book I've come to utterly adore. This particular rendition is inspired by Gay Bilson's signature dish from the heady days of Berowra Waters Inn, in turn her very special take on classic oeufs Bénédictine - the legendary Australian chef would place the brandade and poached eggs in a puff pastry case and coat the eggs with a saffron hollandaise sauce. Damien Pignolet describes it as "a sumptuous dish with a perfect balance of texture and flavour", then graciously proffers "a simplified version I urge you to try" - resistance, as they say, is futile. This vibrant revival of a dish that has all but disappeared from restaurant menus keeps the exquisite saffron-hued hollandaise of Gay Bilson's imagining but uses thick slices of toasted brioche in lieu of puff pastry.

OK, it's not exactly something to put together in a hurry, requiring as it does time and effort on the cook's part. It's just the thing, however, if you happen to rouse early on Sunday morning and are in the mood for leisurely preparation of a luxurious brunch. Quite aside from the brioche - hopefully homemade - and the last minute flurry that the making of hollandaise sauce entails, there's the brandade of salt cod to contend with, for which there's an excellent, precise, and meticulously detailed recipe in the book. After soaking the salt cod for 24 hours, it needs to be gently poached in a court-bouillon before being pounded in a mortar, with warmed olive oil and cream gradually worked in, trickle by patient trickle much as you would with mayonnaise so the emulsion doesn't break.

And if you're somewhat obsessed with doing things from scratch, have little access to decent salt cod, or simply fancy giving it a whirl, there's the cod to salt. While fresh home-salted cod will never possess the unique flavour and texture of the staple over which legions of avid bacalao consumers - split into camps along regional lines - argue so passionately about (see Mark Kurlansky's Cod for a fascinating biography of "the fish that changed the world"), it's certainly a very fine alternative to say, not making brandade at all because there's no quality salt cod to be had where you're located. (I like the simple, fool-proof method given in Rick Stein's Seafood.)

As for the poached eggs, I take the stress-free route by cooking them ahead and holding them in cold water till needed. To reheat a poached egg, simply immerse in a bowl of boiling water for 30 seconds - a nifty trick I picked up from Michel Roux's Eggs, which completely de-mystifies the poaching process with clear instructions illustrated by step-by-step photography, and incidentally, happens to be a stellar collection of every egg-centric recipe you may care to cook.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Bedtime Stories, Suppertime Dreams

Post-dinner, tucked under the duvet, a pile of new cookbooks to delve into, a mug of steaming camomile tisane on the bedside table, dreams of what to sup on brewing - there are few things I find quite as enjoyable. Top of the pile as of late? Suzanne Goin's Sunday Suppers at Lucques, a gorgeous book with recipes for food that, as Alice Waters says in her glowing foreword, "is truly a creation, in the best sense of the word, but lacks any haughtiness". While arranged into three-course menus and organized by season, Goin urges the reader to "feel free to mix and match the dishes according to your own tastes and cravings", which of course is most likely the way most would use the book. And this is one book destined to be used - annotated on, dog-earred, stained, and actually, really, pleasurably, cooked from.

I like to imagine that the real estate a cookbook occupies on the shelves is the best indication of where it stands in the cook's headspace (incidentally, the very reason I love peeking at other people's shelves - the hows and whys are always as fascinating as the whats). In this instance, when it eventually makes it out of the bedroom, prime realty - I've already made space next to my much-beloved cluster of Alice Waters' classics, Chez Panisse Cooking and Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook.

Below, culled from the pages of Sunday Suppers at Lucques I've excitedly flagged as must-cook (and what a vast number they are!), a simple but immensely satisfying supper menu.

Kabocha & Fennel Soup with Crème Fraîche and Candied Pumpkin Seeds
I knew I had to make this soup as soon as I read the recipe, using as it does two of my favourite vegetables - kabocha squash (or Japanese pumpkin, which possesses a beautifully rich, dense and buttery-textured flesh), and fennel, roasted in the oven to intensify their natural sweetness before being added to the soup pot. The spicy candied pumpkin seeds (coated in sugar, paprika, cumin, cinnamon and cayenne) - very moreish in an exotic bar mix sort of fashion - are a genius finishing touch to the creamy soup.

Cured Pork Chops with Sweet Potatoes, Bacon, and Romesco

Here, brining for 24 hours before grilling transforms your typically lean pork chop and makes all the difference - that is, if you like it deeply flavoured and succulent, each bite bursting with meaty juice.

Flecked with juniper berries, allspice, fennel seeds, cloves, bay and thyme - herbs and spices which have a terrific affinity with pork - the aromatic wet cure permeates the meat with a savouriness that's almost sausage-like in flavour.

I had picked up the kurobota loin chops and kabocha from the local Japanese supermarket, so sweet potato-wise, decided to go with satsuma-imo (or Japanese sweet potato, which can range in colour from pale yellow to rusty red). The chunks are tossed with brown sugar and browned butter - both of which enhance the vegetable's inherent nutty flavour - before being roasted with sage and thyme. Finally, when done, crisped snippets of bacon and baby spinach are mixed through.

As for the Catalan romesco, I had made a large batch of this piquant tomato, chilli, garlic, hazelnut and olive oil condiment as it keeps fairly well for a fortnight or so. Besides being gorgeous with grilled or roasted meats and fish, this endlessly versatile Tarragona specialty is also great as a dip, as a dressing for vegetables, spread in sandwiches or simply dolloped atop a fried egg or wedges of tortilla - in other words, it works with just about anything.

Meringues "Closerie des Lilas" with Vanilla Ice Cream, Chocolate Sauce & Toasted Almonds

This is modelled after the Coupe Hemingway hailing from the Left Bank's most infamous bohemian haunt - besides Ernest Hemingway, the likes of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Henry James have passed through its fabled doors. The best part about this timeless dessert (apart from its classic combination of flavours and impeccable literary credentials, of course)? I typically have vanilla bean ice cream and chocolate sauce handy (as for the meringues, I find the making of any excuse, really) - so this was a real cinch.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

When You're Swimming in Goose Fat

Make that paean to the joys of salt and animal fat, of course. Being a bit of a paranoid hoarder, I stockpiled on these jars of graisse d'oie as soon as I laid eyes on them. Exactly how many jars? Let's just say should I be bequeathed a gaggle of geese or a flock of ducks anytime soon, putting up enough confit to last through a year's worth of cassoulet won't be an issue.

Duck and goose legs aside, pork belly makes for deliriously good confit. I adapted the instructions from Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn's Charcuterie. A variation on rillons, the recipe attributed to Jim Drohman of Le Pichet in Seattle uses a sweet spice cure that, in the Loire tradition, incorporates white wine.

Pork Belly Confit

As for the best way to reheat these succulent, deeply flavoured chunks of meat poached and preserved in goose fat (duck fat or lard also work)? In a deep vat of hot fat. Yes, deep-frying is the way to go - as Charcuterie explains, deep-frying not only ensures a uniform crust without and a melting texture within, but because the density of the deep-drying medium (the fat) and the confit are similar, juiciness is optimised. To serve, a dab of mustard and a pile of green beans tossed with vinaigrette and toasted, sliced almonds.

A crock of confit up your sleeve makes light work of cooking for company, freeing you to focus on other courses. We had some friends over for dinner on Saturday, and thanks to the assurance of having the main course virtually ready, I had time to rustle up a few other things.

Sake-Pickled Salmon with Wasabi Crème Fraîche

The recipe can be found in The Farallon Cookbook by Mark Franz and Lisa Weiss - a must-include seeing as it is one of the favourites at the restaurant - as well as the recently published 2006 IACP award winning culinary compilation, Cooking at De Gustibus by Arlene Feltman Sailhac - a must-include seeing as it is one of the most popular recipes ever demonstrated at the legendary cooking school. Sort of like an Asian escabeche, the salmon is part-cooked in the hot pickling solution based on sake, the Japanese grain alcohol. Served with a dollop of wasabi-flavoured crème fraîche and topped with ikura, it's a piquant, palate-rousing start to a meal.

Asparagus Soup with Morel Custard

Asparagus and morels are a classic pairing given an unexpected and wonderful twist (asparagus becomes a creamy soup, morels a voluptuous custard) in this recipe from Tom Colicchio's Think Like A Chef, a book I love for all sorts of reasons not least of which because it is just about one of the most home cook-friendly chef-authored cookbooks around - rather than list an intimidating barrage of restaurant recipes, he deconstructs the chef's creative process methodically. In the "Trilogies" chapter from which this recipe is taken, the same basic cluster of ingredients (say asparagus, morels and ramps, or lobster, peas and pasta) are used in a series of recipes designed to demonstrate how a little imagination is all it takes to put a vibrant, new spin on commonsensical combinations, proof that cooking can and should be about a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts.

Txangurro "Ravioli"

Adapted from Jane Lawson's Cocina Nueva, this is a lush take on that Basque stalwart of stuffed spider crab baked in the shell. The crustacean shells have been replaced by sheets of silken homemade egg pasta, encasing a luxurious filling of freshly picked crab meat bound by a rich tomato-based sauce scented with thyme. Instead of forming ravioli to be poached, I made plump pillows of "free-form ravioli" (part-cooked pasta squares loosely wrapped parcel-style around the filling) to be baked - I adore how fresh pasta goes all crisp and caramelised around the edges when subjected to dry heat, and thought it would make an admirable variant, what with the velvety final dressing of cream and Manchego sauce perfumed with bay leaf. A scattering of tiny olive oil croutons, some flat-leaf parsley, and a dusting of smokily sweet paprika later, you're good to go.

Chocolate Macaron Ice Cream Sandwiches

Just about the biggest payoff from figuring out how to make macarons - apart from the macarons themselves, of course - are the exciting composed dessert possibilities they present. Inspired by Pierre Hermé's lovely Miss Gla'Gla and Mosaic creations, I thought a pair of chocolate macarons sandwiched with scoops of ice cream would be a fun yet extravagant ending to the meal. On a whim, I decided to make 3 different flavours - Tahitian vanilla bean, bittersweet chocolate, and salted caramel - without sparing a thought for my incredibly long-suffering monolith of an ice-cream machine. Luckily, it happily obliged, churning out the batches in succession with nary a wheeze. Accompanied by shards of macadamia toffee crunch and a drizzle of chocolate fudge sauce, the resulting dessert is strictly for the inveterately sweet-toothed.