Musings on the zen of ramen-making

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A tasty bowl of ramen

It took me some planning to set project ramen into play. For my sanity, I figured I needed at least 3 days to make this happen. I’m not talking about the instant noodle variety here. If you “google” how to make ramen, you will sadly get some hits on Youtube of how to make ramen in a microwave oven.

Nope, we’re past college days here, folks. We’re talking about the revered art of ramen-making where the broth is a significant if not the ultimate component. It is the broth that animates your noodles and everything else you put into your bowl.

I was serious in my quest for the perfect ramen. I even watched “Tampopo” in preparation and the movie reiterated how the Japanese culture takes this noodle soup seriously. I was immediately taken with how a ramen grand master guides his apprentice on how to appreciate a humble bowl of ramen before tucking into it. For hard-core ramen makers, the position of your toppings also matter, but there is very little else written about that.

Hubby reminded me to be careful about what I was feeling when I made the broth. From another movie, “Ramen Girl”, one should pour your emotions into its creation, it doesn’t matter if you are happy or sad, otherwise your broth, despite following careful instructions to simmer 6-7 hours, is going to end up bland and lacking the nuance of spirit.

I remember a giant cauldron of stock beside the main cooking stations in our restaurant. Whole chickens and pork bones would go into the pot in the morning and simmer for an entire day and dishes from stir fries and soups would draw their liquid from it. There are times when the noodle soup (chicken mami) would taste fantastic and there are times when the soup would taste anemic like dish water (not that I know what dish water tastes like). I think it depends how inspired the cook was that day, huh?

That is why I broke up my ramen-making schedule into 3 days because I didn’t want to feel rushed, impatient or annoyed at my broth. So I don’t want to feel rushed, impatient or annoyed after eating my ramen.
 

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Three days to ramen

Because the recipe is almost 4 pages long, I’ll preface the recipe with my cooking notes. Most of the recipes I used, except the noodles ,are from David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook. I experimented with ramen noodles earlier this year and the recipe could be found here.

I’m also sold on Benton bacon, the smokiness it imparts to the broth is unparalleled. I think Alan Benton’s bacon is in high demand right now because his website states a waiting period of 4 weeks so if you are planning to use his product, you better take note of its availability. I ordered mine in January and had to wait 3 weeks before it arrived.

momofukubroth
Components of the broth

Other sources for Richmond folks:

Neck Bones – can be obtained from Whole Foods, they arrive every Tuesday.
Chicken Backs – also at Whole foods, I believe they’re frequently available.
Pork Belly – I like to get mine from Tan-A or Far East Grocery located on Horsepen and Broad. I find that Asian pork belly are meatier and more suitable for Asian cooking. Don’t forget to have them take the skin off.
* You can skip the pork belly and use Char Siu also known as Chinese roast pork. Full Kee sells this on the weekend and they make them well.
Usukuchi, Sake and Mirin – are available at most Asian markets. But I buy most of my Japanese ingredients from Tokyo Market in Carytown.

I don’t think I’m going to poach my eggs this way again, too much work for home cooking. But if you want to, the more water in the pot, the easier it is to keep a steady temperature.

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Poaching eggs in 140F temperature

However, it was amazing to see a seemingly uncooked egg fall out of its shell – quivering whites and an intact yolk.

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poached egg

The process of preparing a ramen bowl isn’t complicated as it’s a list of easy tasks, some as simple as simmering ingredients together. However, it can be confusing. So after trying to arrange the steps chronologically in my head, I finally put things on a little worksheet so I don’t forget anything.

The most time-consuming part of course is the broth. I cooked mine for six hours. In case you are wondering why you can’t just throw everything in the pot together and simmer, some ingredients like the konbu has a temperature where it releases maximum flavor and any extended steeping might introduce a bitter taste. The bacon, for example, is taken out after 45 minutes, maybe so it doesn’t become the dominant flavor or aroma. Spent shiitake mushrooms can be pickled afterwards.

I decided to give my chicken a salt rub so there will be less scum in the broth.

roastedneckbones
roasted neck bones

The pork neckbones spent the longest time in the broth. I always thought 6 hours was excessive, but I could tell subtle differences in the depth of flavor as it cooked longer and it was not from concentrating the liquid either because I was constantly replenishing with water. Like any stock, do not allow the liquid to boil and be diligent in removing impurities.

So, was making my own broth worth it? Definitely. I even dare say that mine tasted better than what I’ve had a Momofuku’s. There was so much joy and satisfaction getting in that first bite and slurping in that last drop from a noodle bowl made carefully from one’s own hand . I think I did pour the right emotion and spirit into the making of my ramen. 🙂

related posts:

Ramen noodle recipe

Pork Belly Buns

ramentoppings
Toppings: enoki mushrooms (which I skipped), chopped scallions, pickled shiitake, egg, naruto (steamed fish) and braised bamboo shoots
ramenbowl02
 

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momofuku pork belly buns

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Pork Belly Buns

Pork belly, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

It’s funny that bacon is not my favorite incarnation of pork belly. Bacon tastes fantastic, but really, it’s not all that. Has anyone tasted lechon kawali (crispy pan-fried pork belly) or lechon macau ( a specialty of my grandmother which I never learned)? How about deep-fried pork belly confit? I know…I know…a lot of you are probably saying, “Come on, Veronica, do you have to promote all this heart-attack inducing fare. As if pork belly is not full of fat already, you’re even thinking of deep-frying.” Believe me folks, it’s not like you’re adding any more fat if you know how to deep-fry properly. Still not a fan of deep-frying? Grilled pork belly, simply salted, sprinkled with pepper and scented with a hint of garlic makes for an equally ecstatic meal. Whatever caloric fat you may have eliminated by grilling, I guarantee you’d make up with the amount of rice you’re bound to gobble up, specially if presented with a side of grilled eggplant, chopped tomatoes and onion-vinegar dip. Pork belly also lends itself well to a hearty braise of just soy, brown sugar and star anise.

Sometime last year, I’ve encountered another clever approach to using oven-roasted pork belly.

I’m sure most of you have heard of David Chang’s famous pork belly buns. I must commend him for putting two of my favorite dishes together…Peking duck and pork belly. Peking duck is a roasted duck made famous in Beijing. The perfectly crisp skin is sliced off and served with pancakes, hoisin sauce and green onions. Chang decided to substitute the duck with pork belly, and instead of the traditional pancakes, steamed buns – an idea he got from Oriental Garden in Manhattan – was used. And the rest, they say, is history.

I’m no stranger to steamed bread. Our restaurant in the Philippines used to be famous for siopao, known here as steamed meat buns. I remember our cook, who my parents recruited from Hong Kong, would come in at 10pm in the evening and by 6 am, will have fresh steamed meat buns ready for breakfast. We had this big bamboo steamer, about 20 inches in diameter and 8 stacks high. Funny thing was, I loved the bun but didn’t care for the filling. I would peel off and eat the bread and leave the meat behind. I guess I was in my picky-eater phase then.

So having tasted pork nirvana at Momofuku, what’s to stop me from making my own?

Pork belly is an extremely versatile slab of flesh, I wonder why it’s not more available in general grocery stores. Even with local artisan butcher shops, I haven’t been so lucky. Their meat-to-fat ratio (MTFR) is usually meant for making bacon. I haven’t tried online shops but I find the best source of pork belly locally for the type of cooking I have in mind comes from Asian grocery stores. I’m not sure if the hogs they use are bred for a better MTFR typical for Chinese dishes.

I bought mine from Far East grocery store here in Richmond (I prefer to go here than Tan A because it’s more organized and you could actually get some help). I consciously picked a belly that was leaner because I wanted the hubby to enjoy this dish with me. When I asked for the skin to be taken off, the butcher looked at me derisively as if I didn’t deserve to look Asian…hahaha! Next time, dude, I’ll take the skin too. I now have found a good source for pork skin for cassoulet. 😀

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Belly before baking or roasting or whatever you call it…

 Because my pork belly was leaner than what I had at Momofuku, it barely rendered fat which caused the sugar from the sugar-salt rub to quickly turn black. Next time, I think I shall just use a disposable roasting pan. See below:

porkbelly04
Pork belly after cooking

Beautifully roasted, huh? The blackened dish took 4 soakings and took a fair amount of the hubby’s elbow grease to clear up. Thought y’all would appreciate the heads-up. 😉
I was disappointed in my buns – steamed buns, I mean. I didn’t think my dough doubled in size and I did leave it longer to rest than required. I did not proof the yeast, so I’m not sure if that was partly the problem. I also used duck fat – not sure either if that affected the outcome. The resulting buns were not as puffy and as soft as I would have liked them to be and they were too small not to mention I was 9 buns short! I’ll definitely be searching for other recipes. The process for making this was relatively simple.

buns01
Make the dough in your kitchen aid
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I was 9 short of 50 ping-pong sized balls

I actually weighed them, 25 grams each. Coming up short led me to believe they did not rise enough. (bread bakers, does dough get heavier when it rises? If it doesn’t then I measured my ingredients wrong.)

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Shaping the buns
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let them rise a bit more

*NOTE: I made the buns a day before the pork belly. They freeze well, so that’s an advantage to break up the time it takes to make the whole thing.

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letting them cool on rack after steaming

It took me a while to figure out how not to overcook them.  Also the latter ones were softer which led me to believe that the house was too cold for them to rise properly. (After all it is winter!)

porkbellyslice
A cross-section of the belly

I would have loved the pork belly to have a better defining layer of fat, but the hubby ate five of this pork buns and this guy does not even like pork, so believe me when I say, these were fantastic! (I, myself, ate four.)

It took all my willpower not to pinch a piece off the pork belly when it was fresh out of the oven. After it had been chilled properly (makes for easier slicing), cut 1/2 inch thick pieces, warm in a saute pan, stick in a steamed bun, garnish with scallions, pickled cucumbers (recipe here) and hoisin sauce. Eat and repeat!
 

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Shanghai Soup Dumpling, plus a new look !

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Shanghai Soup Dumpling

Like the new look?
I know, I know, what can I say, I’m a fickle woman. Not that I wasn’t happy with my previous design but I thought there was too much going on with the colors and the sidebars that they were diverting the focus away from the blog posts. I knew I wanted a design that would let the photography stand out and leave the readers more at ease when visiting the site. At first we, the designers and I, were simply going to switch to a 2 column blog and shrink the header. Soon, the project took on a life of its own and it was finally decided that an almost all-white background was what worked best in a blog with pictures. The good folks at Foliovision worked above and beyond to give me a design that “gets” me. I longed for a clean and streamlined look but at the same time I wanted romantic “girly” undertones. Now I got both, starting with the cute black and white graphic on the header and sidebar images to my fondness for the cursive font.

Ah, and true to my newly realized tagline “Tales of culinary obsessions”, which recipe did I immediately zero in on when I got Andrea Nguyen’s new dumpling book?

Not the more familiar Filipino lumpia or simple wonton, of course I had to go for the Xiaolongbao, otherwise known as Shanghai soup dumplings, and there was no question I was going to make my own wrappers too. I think I do have some level of masochista in me, don’t ya think?

Because the recipe is close to three pages long and painstakingly explained, I will preface it with my cooking notes rather than have it at the end.

soupdumpling2
 

Cooking Notes

I did not include the recipe for the Asian Chicken Stock, but I used a whole chicken, 4 quarts water, 1 large yellow onion (quartered), 3-inch piece fresh ginger (smashed) and 2 1/2 tsp. of salt. Bring the chicken, water and salt to a boil, add the onion and ginger and simmer for at least 2 1/2 hours. Skim away impurities. If the stock is not flavorful enough you can reduce it further. Strain and let cool and remove the fat that forms on top.
I used pork belly for this recipe and ground the meat using a recovered meat grinder from the attic.

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Rolling out the wrappers

I loved making the dumpling dough and I loved the way Ms. Nguyen demystified the pouring of boiling water to make the hot water dough which I always thought was a dangerous thing to do. In her book, she uses just-boiled water. After the water comes to a boil, turn off the heat and wait for the bubbling to subside around 30-90 seconds and then pour the amount needed into a glass measuring cup. She stresses not to wait more than 2 minutes after the boiling to use the water.
I use glass measuring cups made by Anchor Hocking – as I had used them often for sugar syrups that are way above the boiling point of water (212 F).
I have long abandoned using food processors in making any kind of dough; I feel that they overwork the mixture. I didn’t want to use my fingers either when dealing with hot water so I used chopsticks and it does the job well in my opinion.
I used a tortilla press to flatten the dough. Rather than explain the process in detail (which the recipe already does), let me direct you to a video on Andrea Nguyen’s site. It explains how to maintain an even thickness throughout your dumpling and how to avoid the unusually thick layer you usually get where you pinch the ends together.

It was a bit challenging for me to fill the dumplings initially, but after the first few pieces, it got easier. Holding the wrapper on a cupped palm allows you to push the filling down while you form the pleats.

dumplingassembly
Filled Dumplings

I used my huge metal steamer lined with pieces of Nappa cabbage to cook the Shanghai Soup dumplings; it took me around 7 minutes to cook them through. It is essential to eat these dumplings immediately otherwise the soup will get reabsorbed into the meat and you will not get that gush of broth when you first tear through the dumpling skin.

I’m not going to lie and say I can’t wait to make this again ‘coz it does take a lot of time to prepare, but the dough is fantastic – tasty and slightly chewy – it sure hell beats any store bought one. Of course, if I’m tasked to make 200 dumplings, then store-bought ones it is.

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Gelatinized Broth

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Pierre Herme’s Vanilla Tart

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Pierre Herme’s Vanilla Tart

… A.k.a. the tart that almost wrecked my kitchen. I’m not mincing words here, if you do not like multi-step recipes, do not even think about making this. If you do not like reading recipes 3x before starting, do not even think about making this. But if you want a piece of vanilla heaven – especially if you love the taste of real vanilla beans –  then proceed, for this dessert is one you shall savor with every little bite.
This tart recipe is from the Pierre Herme class I attended last year. Don’t let me daunt you with my initial ramblings, but let me at least paint you a picture of the kitchen carnage that may follow should you choose to make this: a sticky mess of pots and pans including countertops, a calculator whose keys were frozen in time because some random syrup decided to drip on it, burnt spots on the stove from unknown sources – maybe syrup, maybe cream and then just a whole lot of “Oh shit! The cream!”
This recipe is lengthy in ingredients and has lots of stages (instructions are very brief) but most of them are as simple as boiling the ingredients together. The reason I made such a big mess in my kitchen was lack of foresight. First, I did not read the recipe carefully to plan the steps ahead of time and second, I did everything in one day. I fully planned on making the mascarpone layer the night before but failed miserably because I glossed over the brief instructions in the recipe. And whoever thought one could whip the crème anglaise to stiff peaks must be smoking something, or as Helen said, drinking. My only excuse was that it was late at night and I just came back from the movies and must have had some “Hangover” (hilarious flick, by the way) too.
 

cremeanglaise
What you need for creme anglaise

Cooking Notes:
I was apprehensive about two recipes, the vanilla mascarpone cream and the vanilla glaze.
For the mascarpone cream, do not, I repeat do not overwhip the mascarpone otherwise, you will not be able to form the discs – mine was too liquid the first time. As you whip your chilled crème anglaise (again, not too chilled because the gelatin will start to set), start incorporating the mascarpone a tablespoon at a time and use immediately. Have pan of hot water ready with your circular molds in them. I did not have the right molds at hand and just used 3-inch tart rings (same ones I used for the shell) for this stage which was why the discs were not as defined as I wanted them. Smoothing the cream out is essential because your glaze will follow whatever shape your discs will be. This is a case of what you do now will come back to haunt you later. Work quickly before your mascarpone cream stiffens too much. It’s delightful to see the stocky cylinders form as you lift the mold.
 

Vanillaglaze
The glorious vanilla glaze is my favorite part of the recipe

The vanilla glaze is a patissier’s dream glaze. It is gorgeous and damn tasty! Who knew white chocolate could enrobe a dessert in such silky luxury. It uses an ingredient called NH pectin which is available at L’Epecerie . The neutral glaze recipe is one I just deduced from PH’s exotic glaze, leaving out some flavoring ingredients – after all it is supposed to be neutral. It was not hard to put together at all but used a lot of dishes because I had to make a white chocolate ganache, a neutral glaze, white colored paste etc. and this easily threw off my game (especially when a steak dinner fast approaching.) You can very well make the glaze beforehand and microwave in 30 second increments to restore fluidity. This is also the case with the neutral glaze because the NH pectin is reversible and you can just reheat before using.

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Components in assembling the tart

To coat your disc, insert a knife into the bottom center of the frozen mascarpone cream and dip into the glaze, let the excess drip off and lay on a wire rack to set. Use a spatula, dipped in warm water, to transfer the mascarpone layer to the tart.
A note about the recipe amounts. Most of the recipes ingredients are half of the original measurement. For the lady finger (biscuit cuillere), you could halve the recipe further as it made a half-sheet and 1/3 sheet. I think I underbaked mine but I’ve never made lady fingers before and was not sure what to expect. You must pay attention to how much of one recipe to use in another recipe. For example, in the mascarpone cream, you only use 375 g of the crème anglaise but the recipe for it makes more than that. I used pastry flour for flour type(55) and  sucrose is just sugar. Trimoline is also available at L’epicerie.
I did spend a fortune on vanilla beans but it was worth every penny. The only recipe that I used vanilla extract and paste was in the soaking syrup for the lady finger. I did not have Tahitian vanilla bean so I used 2 Madagascar bourbon and 1 Mexican for recipes that called for all three beans. The reason PH uses three different types of vanilla pods are because of their different properties. Madagascar bourbon has the best flavor, in my opinion, and has the distinctive taste of vanilla that I look for. The Mexican beans add a spicy undertone. Tahitian vanilla beans’ contribution are their floral fragrance but because of fewer beans, their flavor is more muted – they are also the most expensive. If you are having problems working with vanilla pods because of their irregular shape, a technique I learned from PH was to flatten the beans very well with the back of a paring knife and then use the tip of the knife to cut through the center. Because the pod is now flat, it’s easier to scrape the seeds out.
 

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Vanilla glaze, mascarpone layer, lady finger, ganache, tart shell

The question is: will I make this again? YES!!! Besides being an elegant dessert, it is just as delectable on the inside – velvety glaze, creamy mascarpone, crunchy tart shell and lady fingers soaked in rum-vanilla…need I say more? Now, that I have made it once, I can see where I can break up the steps to preserve my sanity in the future.

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An Ode to Duck Confit

Duckleg_crisp_lores 

Thirty pounds of duck legs, 25 lbs of duck fat, and countless hours spent cooking, it’s been quite a series of experiments. Though, I have probably tried making duck confit more than 6 times in the past 2 years I must say that it was my latest effort that has left me palpably giddy with gastronomical glee.

The first time I attempted this method of meat preservation was through a recipe from Judy Rodger’s Zuni Café Cookbook. That time I did not understand the importance of having enough fat to submerge the duck and I simmered it stove top. The resulting duck legs were barely edible.

Then I started this blog to further my uhm…obsession in this particular realm of duck preparation. That time my references were Thomas Keller’s Bouchon and Ruhlman’s Charcuterie. The ensuing duck confit were delicious but not quite as tender as I wanted them to be and the required cooking time of 8 hours or more were simply not acceptable to my life style.

Ingredients 

I finally decided to give the Balthazar’s cookbook recipe a try, after all it was the picture of their duck confit that caused me to swoon and be fixated about it in the first place. And I preferred the ingredients listed on their recipe – cloves, star anise and cinnamon.

Their set temperature of 225F for cooking the duck confit caused my duck fat to boil. The lovely gams almost fell apart and the skin got too thin and was difficult to crisp. That confit, though tasty, was on the greasy side.

Believe it or not, even if the legs are cooked in their own fat they should not be greasy.

Now for a little tweaking

So I do have a base recipe to work with. All that really mattered now was the cooking temperature, which upon further research, was definitely a key component of successful confit.  I have found that Paula Wolfert’s treatise on the subject of preserving duck legs in her book “The Cooking of Southwest France” a priceless guide in my pursuit for the elusive flavor I have developed in my head. Though I have tasted Balthazar’s duck confit in New York last year –which was very good by the way – I wanted something more and what that was controlled what spices and herbs I used as I continued the next iteration of my trials.

For a time I would experiment with two duck legs, playing with the dials of my stove top and the knob of my oven – I was even convinced that my oven was flawed. Just to give you an idea of how this quest has totally consumed me, I have three oven thermometers sitting at different parts of the oven cavity – none of them agree with each other within a twenty-degree range – that drove me crazy. I finally started measuring the temperature of the fat itself with an infrared as well as an immersion thermometer.

Last year, I was pretty close to what I considered a success. But it turned out I was too timid with the salt so I put the rest in a cassoulet, which injected more flavor into the duck legs – and that was incredible!

I was all set to make my adjustments and make this again, but my macaron adventures sidetracked me.

Last October, I decided it was time. I needed to get back on track and give this culinary journey some closure.

Lessons learned so far:

Salting – I have played around with this quite a bit. Wolfert’s recipe is 2 teaspoons per pound, Balthazar’s 2 teaspoons per duck leg – so I kinda stayed in the middle. Last year, I was using Maldon salt that is flakier and that threw off my calculations. This year, I am sticking with Diamond Crystal, which was what Paula Wolfert used in her book.

Temperature – I will preheat the oven to 200F. I will slowly simmer the pot stovetop until the fat reaches a temperature of 190 F and then I will transfer to the oven.

Staraniseclove 

Spices – I love star anise and want it to balance the clove and the garlic. Aside from being part of the salting mixture, I will put it in the simmering duck fat. Cinnamon does not come through from sticks alone; it is better to use the powder to evenly distribute the flavor.

Duck legs – I have used Moulard Duck legs exclusively in all my experiments. I find them to be meaty and flavorful and very suitable for the preservation process. For my duck fat I find the ones from Maple leaf farm very aromatic. They come in 3.5 lbs tub.

Duckfat 

Below is the recipe for Duck Confit that I have tweaked over the years.

Duck Confit

Serves 6

            6            Moulard Duck legs (around 5 lbs.)

            6            tablespoons of salt

            ½            teaspoon cinnamon

            1            tablespoon freshly ground pepper

            4            sprigs of rosemary, cut into 1-inch pieces

            6            sprigs of thyme

            3            bay leaves

            4             heads of garlic

            4            star anise, broke up into pieces

            2            cloves

            4-7         lbs. of duck fat

Rinse duck legs and pat dry. Combine salt and cinnamon and pepper and rub evenly on the duck legs, taking care to cover every crevice. Take the first two heads of garlic and crush with a mallet and sprinkle over the duck legs. Lay the rosemary, thyme, bay leaf and ¾ of the star anise pieces on the legs. Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Put the duck fat into a pot and melt over warm flame. Take your legs out and run cold water over them to wash away the spices. Pat dry and lay them on the bottom of the pot –no more than two layers.

Carefully ladle the melted fat until the legs are completely covered. Cut the tops off the two remaining heads of garlic. Insert a clove and the remaining star –anise pieces into each garlic and add to the duck and fat.

Turn your stovetop on to low heat and slowly bring the duck fat to a temperature of 190 F. This process should take about an hour. Any quicker than that and you risk turning your duck legs stringy.

Pre-heat your oven to 200 F.

When the duck fat reaches a temperature of 190F, transfer the vessel, uncovered to the oven. Cook for 3 hours. The duck leg is done, when a knife easily pierces the leg, and the fat is clear. This means that the duck has rendered all its fat.

After cooking, it is important to let the confit cool down before storing. Carefully lift each leg and put them in a container. Spoon the fat over until the legs are completely covered.

Store for about two weeks before consuming, any sooner than that and the robust, husky flavor that is the trademark of a true confit will not be attained.

Crisping the confit

Two hours before preparing the confit, take your container out of the refrigerator to allow the fat to soften. Preheat oven to 400F. On a non-stick skillet over medium heat, carefully brown your duck legs – about 8 minutes. Transfer to a baking dish, skin side up and finish crisping in the oven.

Cooking Notes:

Duck Confit is not hard to make but it does take time and patience. Do not be daunted by my list of ingredients, you can make confit just by using salt. Before I cook the confit, I usually snip a little piece and cook it to check my salting. If it is too salty, I rinse the duck a little more. The fat really needs to be gradually brought to 190F. In the oven, you must monitor the temperature of the fat, if it falls below 190 F, increase the oven temperature for a bit (maybe to 210F) and then drop it down once you’ve restored it to ideal temp. The time of 3 hours is approximate; I usually like to see some of the bone exposed at the base of the leg before I pull out my confit. I have also read that you can cook confit in a slow cooker but I have not tried this method.

I will not even pontificate about what the hallmarks of a great confit are. All my experiments do not make me an expert. But I must say, this last batch made me feel like I have won a lottery of sorts.

Starting with perfectly crisped skin yielding to tender succulent meat that pulls away effortlessly from the bone – not one flavor overpowers, all were one cohesive unit in its assault on my senses which were actively savoring the perfect balance of all the herbs and spices. I had to slow myself down, chewing with purpose and taking in each bite even as I watched my piece of duck leg disappear before my very eyes. Even with just the bone left, I held the carcass in my hand and continued to suck the flavor out of the bone until my brain told me to stop this madness and to accept that it was all gone.

I had an image in my head about how the skin rides so sexily up the duck leg. I couldn’t resist imagining it in heels. And Ximena of Lobstersquad, in her intuitive drawing style, was able to put my strange thoughts on paper.

Ducklegs

A question came up between the “Hungry” Hubby and myself: Who were we going to invite for a duck confit dinner? We looked at each other and with a conniving smile on our lips, the answer was clear: No one. The duck confit was for us and us alone.

The Pie Crust Experiment

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        Talking with my sister-in-law one day, she told me how my mom was trying to teach her how to make pie crusts. My mom is 79 years old and lives oceans away from me. I have never learned to cook from either my mom or my dad who are revered culinary geniuses in my hometown. I remember the competition in my family about who could cook better. When your parents ask you point blank:

“Who’s {insert food here} tastes better?”

  You just have to be diplomatic; I recall with nostalgia the funny bickering that would ensue in our household. (Actually, I think my dad was better at traditional Cantonese cooking and American Food while my mom was better at Filipino cuisine and baking). My dad had since passed away and with him he took those precious recipes of strip steak, pork ribs, roast duck and the best roast turkey ever. My mom, in her twilight years could still throw a party for a hundred (literally). She could still walk to the open market herself to pick out the freshest ingredients. I remember when “Hungry” hubby and I went home for a visit to the Philippines, my mom had roasted lamb, ox tongue with mushrooms, roast chicken, her famous spaghetti and other delectable dishes all in one banquet.  Of course she had other prep cooks under her but she does the marinade, proportions and final cooking herself.

Which brings us back to the funny point of this post.

You know how you were always taught in baking that ingredients should be measured precisely? Well according to my sister-in-law, during this pie crust lesson my mom used her hand to scoop the flour out while saying you take “some of this and a little of that mix together quickly …don’t mix too much or it becomes tough …and that’s how you make the crust”. No rolling pin, she just shaped the dough out with her hand and patted it into the pie plate. And guess what, the crust was very tender and flaky.

Yes, that sure is my mom. From the childhood recesses of my mind, when we first opened the restaurant bakeshop and had no trained bakers yet, I remember standing next to her on top of a chair – late into the night she would bake the pies and cakes to be sold the next day. Unfortunately, I was not interested in the making of it, just the eating of it.

Wasted opportunities come back to haunt us later in life, but it is never too late to start learning.

          And since I couldn’t make that trip home yet I decided to do some research into flaky pie crusts and have narrowed the field down to the following recipes.

            A pie crust is basically flour; some form of fat and some liquid.  There are endless recipes, one promising to be the flakiest or the more tender than the next so I had to pick and choose which ones to include in this test batch or I would be experimenting till the next Presidential Elections.

            Here are the contenders and I have put the measurements in table form as well as by weight when possible. I had to bump the version from Tartine for Kate Zuckerman’s because of the wonderful step-by-step tutorial Kate had here. Cook’s Illustrated(Nov/Dec 2007) had a recipe that called for vodka, Rose Levy Beranbaum in her book Pie and Pastry Bible uses cream cheese and now recommends substituting heavy cream for the water on her blog. And of course, Sherry Yard, the lady who opened my eyes to baking through her wonderful book, Secrets of Baking – I cannot NOT include her version.

Rose Levy

Beranbaum

Kate

Zuckerman

Sherry

Yard

Cook’s

Illustrated

* Flour

10 oz (284g)

12 oz (327g)

12.5 oz

12.5 oz

Butter

6 oz (170g)

7 oz (198g)

8 oz

6 oz.

Cream Cheese

4.5 oz (128g)

*

*

*

Ice Water

1 oz (28g)

3 oz (84g)

4 oz (112g)

2 oz. (56g)

Shortening

*

*

4 oz

Salt

¼ tsp

½ tsp

1 tsp

1 tsp.

Vinegar

.5 oz (14g)

½ tsp

Baking

Powder

¼ tsp

Vodka

*

*

*

2 oz.

Sugar

*

1 tsp

2 tbs

2 tbs.

* RLB uses pastry flour, the rest were All-Purpose Flour

Before you can make a good pie crust, you need to understand your ingredients and how they interact with each other. Below is a distillation of what I have learned by experimentation and by reading Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Pie and Pastry Bible – a must have for any serious pie maker.

The balance between tender and flaky is a real challenge in making this pastry.

Flakiness comes from large sheets of cold fat in between gluten structures that when subjected to heat, the moisture in the fat produces steam and leavens your layers.

Flour -Tenderness is governed by the amount of protein in your flour. A higher protein flour forms gluten more readily and makes your dough hard to roll out. Low protein flour like cake flour makes for a dough that is too delicate it breaks readily when transferring. Pastry flour is ideal.

Fat – is what creates the flaky layers. Shortening is often used because it does not melt readily at room temperature but has little taste. Butter has great flavor and cream cheese? The best! But I am getting ahead of myself here.

Liquid – water is added to start gluten formation. It helps the dough stick together but you must be careful not to add too much or your resulting crust becomes tough. Vinegar adds acidity that interferes with gluten formation just enough to roll it out. Vodka was chosen by Cooks Illustrated version because ethanol that makes up 40 % of it does not affect gluten the way water does and adds enough moisture. It is tasteless and the alcohol evaporates in the oven. Your liquid must be kept ice cold so when it is added it keeps the fat from melting as you work the dough.

Baking powder– prevents dough from shrinking and tenderizes it.

So 7 apple pies and two weeks later…

Flakyclose

The first recipes I tried were Rose Levy Beranbaum’s (RLB) Deluxe Flaky Pie crust (recipe not included here) and her Cream Cheese Pie crust – I was convinced that I have found the ultimate recipe. It was relatively easy to make, she suggested the manual method first so you develop a feel for the dough. The resulting pastry was breeze to roll out.

My pet peeve with any pastry dough that had been refrigerated overnight was that you have to remember to take it out ahead of time so it can soften enough to roll out. This can take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes and can be quite annoying. Both of RLB’s recipes were ready in 15 minutes.

And what was my biggest fear whenever I made a pie? That the crust would break as I rolled it out thinly and I would end up with filling with no crust to put it in. This did not happen with any of the recipes I tried and believe me that speaks well of the recipes I had chosen because I’m the most clueless girl with a rolling pin which was why I made it my goal to at least be acceptably passable in this skill before the end of the year (yep this year – 2007).

Next one I tried was Cook’s Illustrated vodka version and Sherry Yard’s. The CI version uses the food processor but had the interesting method of adding the flour in two additions. Sherry Yard uses the Kitchen Aid mixer’s paddle attachment to beat the butter into the flour until they become walnut size chunks.

Another offshoot of this pie crust experiment was the mission to eliminate the soggy bottom crust of a two-crust pie that had a fruit filling. This led to the purchase of this perfect pie plate designed by RLB and let me tell you – perfect is an understatement.  I simply adore this pie plate. It gives you perfect borders, it is easy to clean and it conducts heat very well. But back to the subject of soggy crust- one solution to this was to add graham cracker crumbs to the bottom of the plate but I do not like the taste of this in my pie – so what to do?

A technique I learned from RLB’s All American Apple Pie, is to let the apples macerate and boil down the resulting liquid with your butter.

With this new method and pie plate I used Sherry Yard’s crust. I was making a special pie for the “Hungry” Hubby who was complaining of the sweetness of the apple pies produced thus far, he wanted the sugar cut to ¼ cup. Of course I wanted to hit him with the rolling pin ,but being a married couple you must exercise restraint and compromise. We finally settled on 1/3-cup sugar. I was not sure if it was the apples or the amount of sugar but the apples released very little liquid. And then I’m not sure if it was the apples, the amount of sugar, the pie plate or the crust recipe but I had a very crispy bottom crust! I was happy with the result but I did not know what made it that way. Argh!

Okay, I decided since it was RLB’s pie plate I needed to make one of her pie crust with it. I also decided to try Kate Zuckerman’s recipe to make two mini pies with the Norpro metal plates I had. So I decided to mix up a batch and a half of my apple pie recipe. It would have worked fine if I had calculated the ratios properly but I soon realized after I added the sugar and cinnamon that I doubled the sugar and cinnamon instead of multiplying it by 1.5 so I tried wiping sugar off not certain whether I have wiped off too much. My apples produced more than a cup of liquid after an hour and a half – uh oh. It took a while to reduce that liquid which was not typical from my previous two experiments.

So the cream cheese crust + RLB’s pie plate produced a nice flaky top crust, the bottom crust was not crisp but was not soggy either. RLB on her blog said that it was impossible to get a crisp crust on most fruit filled pies. I’m so tempted to say that it was Sherry Yard’s recipe that produced the crisp bottom crust but the recipe was not exactly the same and I blame the “Hungry” Hubby for convincing me to muck around with the sugar proportions. What happened to controlled testing?!

The final verdict:

For a flaky, tender, tasty pie crust and extreme ease with rolling out the dough, Rose Levy Beranbaum’s recipe is the clear winner. It was the amount of vinegar in her crust that allowed the rolling of it a dream.

Sherry Yard’s version is a close runner up because it was pretty tasty but not as tender or flaky and was a bit tougher to roll out.  If I did not have cream cheese on hand and I was pressed for time I would surely use her recipe in a heartbeat.

            The Cook’s Illustrated version was not very tasty probably because of the shortening and I think the vodka made the dough pretty limp and easier to tear.

            Kate Zuckerman’s dough took forever to soften after taking it out from the refrigerator. It was not easy to roll out either so I was glad I was making minis with her version because I was not sure if I had a usable portion for an entire pie. The taste was okay but clearly not as good as the top two.

            Clearly more experiments need to be done. I really wanted to duplicate the success of that crisp bottom crust. But for now, I must declare that Veronica’s Test Kitchen is Apple Pied-Out.  I also need to give HH a break from skinning and slicing the apples even if he was the main benefactor. Besides, I think my thighs will thank me for giving them a break too.

Directions after the jump.

Continue reading

Duck confit recipe quest

I have always loved duck. Peking duck has always been my favorite. The crispy skin folded into warm thin Chinese pancakes garnished with hoisin sauce and green onions has always been the top of my all time favorite meals. And of course, there was always the regular Pato Tim (duck stew) and roast duck that my Dad prepared regularly at home. But let’s not get away from the subject of duck confit.

I first encountered duck confit in Balthazar Cookbook, the famed New York brasserie of the same name; and if it is possible to fall in love and be obsessed about a dish just by a picture well, this is it. The skin on that duck looked so temptingly crisp and the meat so palpably succulent, I could imagine myself taking a bite through the skin, feeling the crunch until I taste the flavorful meat underneath. I read a lengthy description of the confit process from The Zuni Cafe by Judy Rodgers. The recipe called for cooking it slowly on   the stovetop. Aside from not having enough duck fat to fully submerge the duck, I think I poorly regulated the heat and it might have been hotter than it seemed. After 2 weeks in storage I tried the confit and it turned out to be a stringy mess. Full of disappointment, I gave up for a year but now I’m trying it again and this time I will try and figure it out until I perfect it. Duck Confit is not a quick meal to make but is not an overly complex procedure. Of course I may recant this statement after this second attempt fails again but I’m optimistic that it will be better than the last one. So what have I changed? I did more reading and came across several more books that contained more information about this Southwest France delicacy. The first one is Bouchon by Thomas Keller. The second book is Charcuterie by Michael Ruhlman. I will use Keller’s “green salt” salting guidelines. Both books suggested cooking the confit in the oven at a very low temperature which on average is 180°F to 190°F. It is cautioned not to exceed the 200°F temperature to avoid getting a tough duck confit.

Day 1: Salting the duck

   Ducksalting_3  I took out my 4 moulard duck legs, rinsed them under cold running water, patted it dry and proceeded to pull the visible fat from the flesh. I am experimenting with 22 grams of salt per 450 grams of meat (or approximately 1.5 tbs to a lb). The total weight of my 4 duck legs amounted to 1470 grams so I measured out around 71 gms of salt. I think the rest of the ingredients will be up to personal preference of flavor. The following are the rest of the ingredients I used.

Green Salt:

            71 grams of sea salt

            1 bay leaf, broken into pieces

            1 Tbsp chopped thyme

            2 TBS Italian parsley packed

            ½ tsp black peppercorns

I ran all ingredients through a food processor and rubbed it into the duck, taking care to make sure that every nook and cranny gets an even salting. I then covered the duck and placed it in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

Day 2: Cooking in Fat

           Duckfat_1  For those of you have cholesterol issues or have an aversion to fat, it might be best to stop reading now. I took out my 3 lbs of duck fat and started melting them slowly in a saucepan. Meanwhile, I set the oven temperature to 180 °F. I took out my duck legs and rinsed them under cold running water and after patting it dry proceeded to fit them snugly in a heavy bottomed pot. When the duck fat was all liquidly I transferred the melted fat to the pot containing the duck legs. I proceeded to heat the fat further along and then I transferred the pot to the oven.

            TIP: A 10 hour cooking period is a given. Since hubby would not let me leave the oven on unattended, what am I to do for 10 hours?  Well, watch “24” or any heart- pounding series will make the time pass quickly… very quickly in fact.

I checked at the 6 hour mark and saw that the skin at the base of the leg has not separated from the bone yet but the juices seem to be collecting at the bottom of the pot. This is known as the “confit jelly”, a very tasty by-product of the confit-ing process. When you confit meat and bones, they release juices and flavor and collagen and what you have is a very concentrated , tasty  gelatinized heaven that can be used in vinaigrette or served with the duck .

I checked again on the 9th hour. I think I’m going to end up with stringy duck legs again.  My duck legs appear very slow to cook, I don’t see much of the exposed bone that all the books are saying nor does it appear that it  is even close to falling off the bone. After 11 ½ hours in the oven I decided to call it a day. The duck does not look meltingly tender to me.  I transferred the duck legs to a glass container and transferred enough fat to cover the duck entirely. I will try the confit in the next few days to see what this weekend endeavor has yielded.

Day 3: Cooking the confit

            I took the confit container out of the refrigerator a few hours before I was to prepare the confit to let the fat soften so it will be easy to get the leg out without damaging the confit (although as tough as it looked it seemed nothing will break it apart). Preheating my oven to 400 °F, I proceeded to heat a nonstick pan on medium high heat.  When the non-stick pan was hot enough I lay the duck leg skin side down and proceeded to brown it. After I was satisfied with the browning of the duck’s skin I transferred the duck to an ovenproof casserole, skin side up for 20 minutes.

            In the meantime, I prepared the side dish which in French is called “Pommes ala sarladaise”. This is simply diced potatoes fried in duck fat and tossed with chopped parsley and garlic. I followed the recipe in The Balthazar cookbook although I used less fat than suggested. It’s a very easy side dish and very tasty, I could post the recipe of this later if anyone wants it.

         Duckconfit_2    Moment of truth; after plating the confit and potatoes, my husband and I could hardly contain our anticipation to taste this nicely browned duck leg. My fork pierced through crispy skin and surprisingly tender meat.  As I tasted it though, the flavor was there but the juiciness I was expecting appears to be missing. I was not totally disappointed because this was a vast improvement from my previous endeavor. In fact it only makes me want to try it again.

And the saga continues…

I will not post any succeeding blow by blow account of any Duck Confit that has not yielded anything short of the promise land. I feel this will be tedious for the reader to follow all failed experiments but I will publish the winning confit process once I have attained it:

Lessons learned:

a.      It appears that the temperature at which the duck cooked in its fat was very low. This might account for the lack of bone showing in the duck leg as it was finishing its cooking in the fat. The skin did ride up the bone when I was reheating the confit in the 400 °F oven. Temperature appears to be the main culprit for undesirable results in confit. Therefore, it is important to check the temperature with an oven thermometer at all times. I could have hit myself on the head on this one since all the books I’ve read said to do this but I showed too much faith in my oven.

b.      I also failed to heat the fat sufficiently on the stove top before transferring to the oven. I think this is important to kick start the duck’s own fat melting process.

c.       I don’t think my pot was the right one for the confit. I now have bought myself an enameled cast iron cocotte.

d.      Dealing with duck fat could be very messy. I think I will lay out saran wrap on counter surfaces to avoid finding greasy spots days later after cooking the confit.

e.      I will continue testing with just 2 duck legs instead of the regular 4 given in most recipes. I will be using less fat and it will take up less space in the refrigerator. (Although it can be countered that it takes up the same amount of energy since it will end up cooking as long)

f.       Although I believe slow cooking is the way to go, I will attempt The Balthazar cookbook method. I am trying this recipe because I find I like the ingredients in this more. I am also currently reading The Cooking of SouthWest France by Paula Wolfert , she has a very interesting topic on confit.