Sometime in the Summer of 2003, in a fit of what can only be described as insanity, I convinced myself to embark upon an almost absurd culinary undertaking: the preparation and presentation of a multi-course tasting menu featuring the flavor of white truffles in every savory dish. Looking back on it now, I can honestly say that I have no idea what possessed me to even entertain the idea. Sure, I had previously hosted my fair share of ordinary dinner parties for small groups of friends, preparing an appetizer-entree-dessert combination by carefully following favored recipes. And yes, I had generally partaken in multi-course tasting menus out in top-tier restaurants. But presenting a tasting menu at home? Never. Designing a menu full of courses, let alone one featuring the flavor of white truffle in every dish? Nope. And cooking for 12 people at once, instead of a more reasonable number like 6? Certainly not.
Nevertheless, I pressed on. And after months of planning, weeks of sourcing ingredients, days of experimenting, and more than 30 hours of cooking, I somehow pulled it off. It wasn't necessarily pretty; the meal went much later into the evening than I had hoped, there were uneven delays between the seven courses, and the real-time completion of certain dishes raised complications that I had not foreseen. Still, there were no major catastrophes, everything made it to the table more or less as I had intended, and I came out of the process having learned an extraordinary amount. Best of all, I also managed to get my hands on some fresh white truffles from Alba, enough to shave over one of the dishes on my menu. All in all, I have never been so completely wiped out from sheer exhaustion. Yet, paradoxically, the experience also left me thoroughly exhilarated.
I suppose it's no surprise, then, that the White Truffle Dinner has since become an annual tradition. In 2004, I moved to an eight-course format, adding a pre-dessert palate cleanser where none existed the year before. I also decided to rotate out four of the original seven dishes in favor of new ones, just to keep things interesting and to force myself to experiment with some new concepts. I continued that practice of turning over half of the prior menu in 2005, and I'll do the same again for this year's dinner -- which is scheduled to take place this coming Saturday. With each passing year, some of the stress associated with the pre-party planning seems to dissipate, and Rhonda and I have probably become a bit more efficient in certain aspects of the execution. Still, the intensity of experimenting for new menu ideas and cooking nonstop for the two days leading up to the dinner remains just as exhausting -- and exhilarating -- as ever!
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There's more...The guest list for my White Truffle Dinner over the years has been in a constant state of flux. Space constraints at my dining table preclude Rhonda and me from inviting all of our good friends over at once, and doing the dinner twice during the limited white truffle season is simply impractical. We have accordingly ended up holding two different parties in past years, one featuring white truffles and another focused on a different theme. The second dinner party last year, for example, centered around dishes inspired by the Bay Area's four-star chefs. This time around, however, we regrettably have the bandwidth to host only one dinner party, so Rhonda and I had to make some difficult choices on the guest list.
After last year's White Truffle Dinner, I intended to post a brief description of the meal here along with some pictures. Unfortunately, a number of unexpected developments at work in January conspired to prevent me from actually doing so. As a prelude to this year's dinner, I thought that I would finally complete the post that I intended to put up so long ago. So, here is a quick summary of what I served last year:
|Truffled Cauliflower Soup|
I've noted here before how much I enjoy cream soups, so it was almost a foregone conclusion that there would be one on my menu. I particularly appreciate soups in the context of multi-course menus, as they can be finished well in advance of the meal and reheated right before service. Cauliflower is a vegetable that I have always felt is underappreciated, so providing a platform to showcase its delicate flavor struck me as a great idea. I finished this soup with a small amount of white truffle butter, and just enough kosher salt to make all of the flavors jump out of the bowl.
|Chilled Crab with Truffled Crème Fraiche and Avocado|
The inspiration for this dish originated in one of the courses from my "Four-Star" dinner, namely Chilled Crab with Mango, Red Onion & Creme Fraiche. I figured that mango would not harmonize well with the flavor of white truffle, but I had to experiment a bit before I realized that even the red onions threatened to be too overpowering. Finding myself left with only crab and creme fraiche, I started to think about other ingredients that might work well in this dish. Avocado came quickly to mind, and a few experiments later I found myself pleased with the result.
|Manchego & Truffle Panna Cotta with Mâche in a Truffle Champagne Vinaigrette|
This course had its origins in two very different dishes from two very different restaurants: Parmesan Budini at Tra Vigne, and Cauliflower Panna Cotta at The French Laundry. I was so impressed with the former when I had it several years ago, that I resolved to figure out how to make it for my first White Truffle Dinner in 2003. The French Laundry's Cauliflower Panna Cotta, meanwhile, had long been one of my personal favorites, and I included it on the vegetarian version of my white truffle menu in 2004. For last year's dinner, I brought the two concepts together and replaced the Parmesan with a cheese with which I had recently become enamored -- Manchego.
|American "Kobe" Beef Filet with Truffled Creamed Leeks|
Another food-related interest that I was continuing to explore last year related to American "Kobe" beef. This product had been showing up with increasing frequency on the menus of upper-tier restaurants, and I had cooked with it myself a few times before. I had stayed away from including red meat on earlier white truffle menus for fear of the truffle flavor getting overwhelmed, but Ron Siegel at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton had presented a spectacular veal with white truffle that gave me the confidence to give it a try. The creamed leeks had been on both of my prior menus and had been well received, so it seemed like a natural choice for accompanying the beef.
|White Truffle Risotto with Browned Butter and Fresh Truffle Shavings|
Only two dishes found their way onto all three of my menus from 2003 through 2005, and this Thomas Keller risotto was one of them. The recipe for the rice itself is fairly standard, although it's enhanced considerably by luxurious finishing touches such as unconscionable amounts of butter, Parmesan cheese, whipped cream, and white truffle oil. But add in fresh white truffle shavings and some deliciously nutty browned butter, and the dish is transported into another realm. This risotto epitomizes the genius of Thomas Keller, and it remains one of my absolute favorite dishes to eat.
|Butter-Poached Maine Lobster with Truffled Sweet Corn & Shallots|
This is another course that remained unchanged over the first three incarnations of the White Truffle Dinner. Although I've always loved lobster, it wasn't until I had my first lobster dish at The French Laundry that I realized its full potential. Keller gently poaches the meat in beurre monte, butter melted carefully such that its component ingredients remain in an emulsified state. The result is tender, flavorful, and buttery, without any of the rubbery attributes that develop when lobster is cooked violently. After a few test runs back in 2003, I concluded that butter-poached lobster simply had to have a place on my menu. The sweet corn and shallots combination, on the other hand, was an exceedingly simple side dish that I had devised long ago. And because the pairing of lobster and corn has always held great appeal for me, this course practically came together on its own.
|Lemon Lavender Cappuccino|
I happened upon the idea for this palate cleanser during my preparations for the "Four-Star" dinner, for which I ultimately put together an Orange Lavender Cappuccino inspired by a brilliant concoction I'd been served at Campton Place. The basic idea was quite simple: a flavorful liquid is partially frozen until it reaches a slushy consistency, and it's then placed in a cappuccino cup and capped with a flavored foam. As I was experimenting with the combination of orange and lavender, I remembered a recipe that I had once tried for a delicious lavender lemonade. When the time came to select a palate cleanser for the White Truffle Dinner, the choice was obvious.
|Gingerbread Cake with Poached Anjou Pear and Crème Anglaise|
Dessert is the one course that I have always changed from one year's menu to the next, typically to reflect something that has caught my interest. Few things say the holidays quite like gingerbread does, so I was curious last year to see whether I could find some flavors to pair with a small gingerbread cake. I have long been a big fan of pears, and I had been playing around with poaching them in a variety of different liquids. I ultimately settled on Anjou pears poached in Bonny Doon Vin de Glacière and vanilla bean, which yielded an absolutely delicious result. And the final component here, a rich crème anglaise sauce that showcased a plump fragrant vanilla bean, complemented the cake nicely.
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I first started thinking about this year's White Truffle Dinner a few months ago, and I began -- as I always do -- by looking at the prior year's menu. After identifying certain courses that should be rotated out and others that perhaps ought to make a repeat appearance, I set off on a process of research and experimentation that ended just this morning. The menu is now finally set, and it has a few minor twists, a few more significant ones, and a few old favorites. It also reflects some of the food that I've enjoyed, the interests that I've developed, and the inspirations that I've drawn over the course of the past year. I won't reveal the details of the menu just yet, but I'll provide a full rundown at a later date. For now, I'll close with a few more pictures from last year's dinner.