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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Cooking Class with William Werner


As you may recall, I attended a food and wine event at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay last October at which an up-and-coming pastry chef thoroughly impressed me with his innovative and delicious desserts.   His name is William Werner, and I posted here at the time about the many wonderful creations that I was able to sample from this talented gentleman in just that one evening.   One of these even inspired a course that Rhonda and I served at a dinner party last month.   Well, I'm excited to report that Werner will be sharing the recipes and techniques behind some of his popular confections in a session he's teaching as part of the Ritz-Carlton's Winter School.

The class is entitled "A Passion for Desserts", and it will be presented on Friday, February 2, 2007 from 6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m. at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay.   Tickets cost $70 per person, and attendees will receive a tasting of each dessert that's presented along with a copy of the corresponding recipe.   You can register for the class here.   The hotel is also offering a few interesting packages.   For $150 per person, you can attend the class and then immediately thereafter enjoy a three-course dinner at Navio -- the hotel's flagship restaurant.   And for prices ranging from $549-$589, you and a companion can attend Werner's class and then spend the night in a coastal view room.

I have never attended a session of the Ritz-Carlton Winter School, so I'm not really in a position to tell you how worthwhile this experience will be.   What I can say, however, is that William Werner is one pastry chef to keep an eye on -- and that's exactly what I intend to do on February 2.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Menu for Hope III - The Results Are In


Last month, food bloggers from around the world came together to sponsor a fundraising campaign to combat world hunger.   Each of us donated one or more prizes, and readers then purchased $10 raffle tickets for the prizes of their choice -- with 100% of the proceeds going to the United Nations World Food Programme.   My contribution to the effort?   A $350 gift certificate to one of my favorite restaurants -- The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton.

To say that this year's Menu for Hope was an enormous and astonishing success would be a gross understatement.   Over 12 short days in the middle of the hectic holiday season, you -- our readers -- kindly took the time to reach deep into your pockets and to donate your hard-earned cash toward this important cause.   Together, we raised an amazing $60,925.12, a 258% increase over the amount that this event raised in 2005.   I want to take this opportunity to sincerely thank each and every one of you who contributed this year, with an extra special thanks to those who directed their raffle tickets toward my prize.   The generosity and giving spirit that all of you displayed was truly an inspiration.

After putting in an incredible amout of time, energy, and hard work, Pim and Derrick drew the raffle winners for each of the prizes a few days ago, using a clever program that Derrick wrote just for this purpose.   And in case you missed the announcement on Chez Pim yesterday, the winner of my $350 gift certificate to The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton is . . . Rory C. Berger!   Congratulations, Rory -- I'm sure that you'll have a wonderful evening enjoying the outstanding cuisine of Executive Chef Ron Siegel, served in one of my favorite dining rooms in the entire Bay Area.

Finally, I want to thank Pim for conceiving, organizing and administering this fantastic event, Sam for serving as the host, coordinator and promoter for the West Coast prizes, and Derrick for volunteering his time to write the program to select the winners.   Thanks also to those who served as regional hosts for prizes from other parts of the world -- Kalyn, Adam, David, Jasmine, Helen, and Alder.   None of this would have been possible without the tireless efforts of these remarkable individuals, and we all owe them a debt of gratitude.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

White Truffle Dinner 2006: Conclusion


This is the tenth and final installment in a series of posts directed to the Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner that Rhonda and I recently held at my home.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Introduction | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Course 7 | Course 8 | Conclusion

I've spent the past month describing our Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner in some detail, from the thinking that went into the menu to the composition of the eight courses that comprised the meal.   I'd now like to conclude this series of posts by acknowledging a number of people who made the event possible.

First up are the friends who attended this year's dinner.   I've always felt that the most pleasurable aspects of food are those that come from sharing it with others, and a big part of what motivates me to put together a meal like this is to express my appreciation for the wonderful people that Rhonda and I get to call our friends.   The eight individuals who came to my home last month, and the folks who came to the dinner in previous years, are among the most generous, kind, and thoughtful people that I've ever met, and Rhonda and I are truly fortunate to have them in our lives.   They are, in a real sense, the raison d'etre of the truffle dinner itself.

Next are the numerous food purveyors who provided the raw materials that we used in preparing the various courses.   At the risk of stating the obvious, the success of a finished dish is inextricably linked to the quality of its component ingredients, and that is precisely why I spend so much time and energy on trying to find the best sources.   Although all of the food items we used this year were excellent, several were exceptional -- so much so, in fact, that I would readily recommend them to others without hesitation.   Here are those products and the purveyors who produced or sold them:

Last but certainly not least, I have to thank Rhonda.   Her numerous contributions were both invaluable and indispensable, from helping to plan the event and taste testing my experiments, to cooking the meal itself and striking an elegant tone for the evening with her wonderful table decor.   Her warmth, grace, good humor and charm made her the consummate host, and she made the entire process -- from start to finish -- a thoroughly enjoyable experience for me as well.   Simply put, the white truffle dinner could not happen but for Rhonda.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There's more...
As we sat finishing our desserts at this year's dinner, my friend A talked about how she would be taking a sabbatical from work at the end of 2007 in order to travel through Europe.   When I commented that she should make sure to get to Italy during the height of white truffle season, she replied that we should meet her there and hold the Fifth Annual White Truffle Dinner right in the heart of Alba.   Check back later this year to see whether we managed to pull this off!

I'll close with a pictorial recap of the eight courses that we served this year.   Click on any picture to be taken to the post describing the corresponding dish.

Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner
December 9, 2006
Truffled Corn & Leek Veloute
Burrata Cheese with Arugula in a
White Truffle Champagne Vinaigrette
Dungeness Crab Cake with White Truffle
Crème Fraîche & Cucumber Foam
Prather Ranch Beef Filet with
Truffled Parsnip Puree
White Truffle Risotto with Fresh
Truffle Shavings & Browned Butter
Butter-Poached Maine Lobster with
White Truffle Cauliflower Gratin
Duo of Sorbets:  Pineapple Lemon
Verbena & Raspberry Rose Geranium
Pear Cake with Pain D’Epice Crème
& Brown Butter Ice Cream

Friday, January 05, 2007

White Truffle Dinner 2006: Course 8


This is the ninth in a series of posts directed to the Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner that Rhonda and I recently held at my home.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Introduction | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Course 7 | Course 8 | Conclusion

The eighth course for this year's White Truffle Dinner was Pear Cake with Pain D'Epice Crème & Brown Butter Ice Cream.   Whenever I order a tasting menu out at a restaurant, I'm always struck by what a difficult challenge the pastry chef faces.   Whereas the executive chef has six or more courses through which to impress diners (with each dish hopefully surpassing the one before), the pastry chef is lucky to have two.   Moreover, the pastry chef has to continue the upward trajectory set by the savory courses;   after all, there's nothing more disappointing than a spectacular meal that fizzles out into a pool of mediocre desserts.   Finally, it falls on the pastry chef to make sure that the final note on which the meal closes, the one diners will have most prominently in mind when leaving the restaurant, is an outstanding one.   All of these thoughts weigh heavily on my mind whenever I plan a menu, and I always come out of the process with an even deeper respect for what pastry chefs have to do on a regular basis.

The dessert course that we presented at this year's White Truffle Dinner was inspired by two of the best desserts that I tasted during the past year.   The first, and more recent, was from William Werner -- Pastry Chef for both the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay and its flagship restaurant Navio.   As I described here a few months ago, Werner nearly stole the show during the Four Star Grand Cru Wine Dinner held at the hotel last October, serving up one innovative and delicious confection after another.   Included among these was French Butter Pear Nage with Pain D'Epice Ice Cream and Creme Fraiche, comprised of individually delicious flavors that together achieved an almost magical result.   Yes, Werner truly left an indelible impression on me that evening, one that I knew would have to be reflected on this year's truffle menu.

The other influence for Course 8 came from Boris Portnoy, presently the Pastry Chef at Campton Place.   In an earlier stint at the now-shuttered Winterland, Portnoy served one of the most delicious desserts that I have ever had:   Caramelized Brioche.   A small piece of delicious brioche from Bay Bread was soaked in creme anglaise and baked, after which it was dusted with sugar and torched to create a caramelized surface.   Served on the side was the most incredible ice cream, one made from -- of all things -- brown butter.   Now, if you've been reading the earlier posts in this series, you know about my great affinity for brown butter and the fact that I've used it for four straight years now in conjunction with the risotto of Course 5.   But it had never occurred to me to try it in a dessert, and my first taste of Portnoy's creation in the opening months of 2006 simply astonished me.   I wasn't alone in this reaction;   there was extensive discussion on Chowhound about the dessert and how it might be replicated, until somebody from the restaurant finally appeared and posted the recipe for all to see.   Portnoy's clever use of brown butter was thus another concept that demanded some sort of acknowledgement on my menu.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There's more...
Once I had identified the motivating factors, the flavors that I should incorporate into Course 8 became self-evident:   gingerbread, pear, and brown butter.   Coincidentally, the first two of these had been featured prominently in the dessert course from last year's White Truffle Dinner -- i.e., Gingerbread Cake with Poached Anjou Pear and Crème Anglaise.   Because I enjoy forcing myself to devise a new dessert for each truffle dinner, I was generally opposed to using a straight repeat of any of the components from last year's dish.   Yet, I was not against exploring variations on the flavor combination that I had employed there, nor was I averse to repeating the concept of a dessert anchored by a small cake.   But which of my three flavors should go into the cake?   And how would I get the other two into the dish?

I decided to take a step back and approach this from a different direction.   One easy component to use would be ice cream, and what better way to pay tribute to Portnoy than to include his brown butter ice cream exactly according to his recipe.   One flavor down, and two to go.   Gingerbread could not go into the cake if I wanted to avoid a repeat, so that left only one viable option:   pear cake.   My thought was to puree some Bartlett pears and then add them to a standard batter, perhaps even sauteeing the pears initially in butter and brown sugar to deepen the flavor of the finished cake.   I conducted some experiments and was satisfied with the outcome.   Once the pear cakes were in place, a gingerbread custard sauce struck me as a nice accompaniment.   I pulled out the cake recipe that I used last year, identified the precise ratios among the ingredients that give gingerbread its distinctive flavor, and then calculated the amount of these ingredients to use per unit volume of custard.   My first test batch tasted like gingerbread, but the molasses was overwhelming to the point of distraction.   In penciling out the numbers for the second batch, I found myself reluctant to reduce the amount of cinnamon, cloves and ginger from their already low levels.   But if I reduced only the molasses, would the overall flavor balance be thrown out of whack?   I took a leap of faith and tried it, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the sauce tasted exactly as I had hoped.

In talking to Rhonda the next day about my plans for the final course, we concluded that there was a texture missing.   Specifically, something crisp or crunchy would go a long way toward rounding out the dish, while also keeping our diners interested.   After considering brittles, pralines, toffees and wafers, I remembered something that I'd been wanting to explore for as long as I could recall:   caramelized sugar decorations.   For years, I had marveled at what professional pastry chefs could achieve with melted sugar, but I had never figured out exactly how it was done.   After digging around online, I set a pot of sugar and water over a high flame and was on my way.   When the temperature of the mixture edged over 300 degrees and its color had reached a deep amber, I plunged the pot into an ice bath for 10 seconds and then began drizzling the liquefied sugar onto Silpat using the tines of a fork.   I was actually surprised at how easy -- and fun -- this was, and how even the most haphazardly-deposited lines yielded something that looked like it had been designed by the most talented of artists.   I figured that I could put a small piece of this sugar creation on top of the brown butter ice cream in my dessert, giving the dish a decorative flair that would also provide the desired textural contrast.

All of the components of Course 8 could be made in advance of the dinner, and that's exactly what we did.   When the time came, we merely placed some gingerbread sauce on the bottom of each plate, positioned a pear cake on top, added a small scoop of brown butter ice cream, and finished with a piece of the caramelized sugar decoration.

Finally, to give you a sense of how the menu has evolved over time, here's a summary of the Course 8 selections that we have served since the inaugural White Truffle Dinner in 2003:

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

White Truffle Dinner 2006: Course 7


This is the eighth in a series of posts directed to the Fourth Annual White Truffle Dinner that Rhonda and I recently held at my home.   For more on the dinner, please see these posts:   Introduction | Course 1 | Course 2 | Course 3 | Course 4 | Course 5 | Course 6 | Course 7 | Course 8 | Conclusion

The seventh course for this year's White Truffle Dinner was Duo of Sorbets: Pineapple Lemon Verbena & Raspberry Rose Geranium. The use of a sorbet as a palate cleanser is quite common in upper-tier restaurants, as is the concept of presenting at least two distinct dessert courses whenever a tasting menu is ordered.   Yet, neither one of these ideas occurred to me while I was planning our first White Truffle Dinner in 2003.   Perhaps it was because I was too consumed with trying to devise six savory courses and one solid dessert, or maybe it was due to my general anxiety about how we would be able to pull of a seven-course menu at home in the first place.   In either case, it wasn't until after that first dinner had passed that the need for a second dessert offering finally came into sharp focus.   It occurred to me that there were two choices:   I could serve two fully-realized dessert courses, preceded by an intermezzo comprised of an exceedingly simple sorbet (e.g., grapefruit or champagne);   alternatively, I could come up with something for the first course that could serve double duty as both palate cleanser and dessert.   I chose the latter option in the interest of keeping things simple, and I have followed that path ever since.

Sometime late last summer, I got it into my head that I wanted to experiment with lemon verbena.   I'm not really sure what triggered this;   I had never cooked with the herb before, nor had I recently tasted anything having its distinctive flavor.   Nevertheless, on my next trip to the Ferry Building Farmers' Market, I sought out the one purveyor that seems to have lemon verbena consistently available, Eatwell Farm.   As I paid for the bunch that I had picked out, I had no idea what I was going to do with it.   Maybe I would try a creme brulee, or perhaps a custard sauce to enjoy with pound cake or fresh fruit.   I ultimately settled on ice cream, and after finding some guidance online about how best to infuse the cream, I prepared a batch.   The result was excellent -- bright, lemony, and floral all at once, yet so distinctive that not a single colleague at work was able to identify the flavor upon tasting it the next day.   I later infused some water with lemon verbena and used it to make an angel food cake;   I combined some of the same water with powdered sugar and made a lemon verbena glaze.   The possibilities were endless, I realized, and I couldn't wait to explore other uses down the road.

During my numerous visits to the Eatwell Farm stall to purchase lemon verbena, I happened to notice another herb that was far less familiar to me:   rose geranium.   Its fragrance was intoxicating, reminiscent of roses yet somehow more complex at the same time.   I eventually gave in and purchased a bunch, again wondering how I would end up using it.   I never found out the answer.   The following weeks were so busy at work, that the geranium dried out before I had an opportunity to experiment with it.   I made a vow, though, to revisit this unfamiliar ingredient at a later date.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
There's more...
In planning the menu for this year's truffle dinner, I knew that the seventh course should be sorbet.   There's nothing like an ice cold, sweet, and boldly-flavored treat to awaken the taste buds after six savory courses.   Yet, my view is that if I'm going to expect sorbet to serve not only as palate cleanser but also as a dessert course in and of itself, then I have to provide something more than a single scoop of a simple and familiar flavor.   Two years ago, I served a duo of relatively uncommon sorbets that shared a theme;   I could do the same thing again this year, I thought, so long as I change the flavors and/or the theme.   But what flavors, and what theme?   The answer appeared in my mind just as quickly as the question had been formed:   the theme would be herbs, and the flavors would be the duo that I had "discovered" back in the summer -- lemon verbena and rose geranium.

My initial inclination to serve a simple lemon verbena sorbet and a plain rose geranium sorbet soon gave way to another notion, namely to pair each of the herbs with a complementary ingredient.   But what ingredients?   The first idea I had for lemon verbena was pineapple juice, which seemed like a promising candidate when I tried to imagine the two flavors together in my mind.   I ran an experiment by infusing some leftover pineapple juice with lemon verbena, and I was thrilled with the result.   With regard to rose geranium, I found myself at a comparative disadvantage since I had never tasted the herb directly.   I knew from its fragrance, however, that it would have a rose flavor, so I figured that combining it with a berry of some sort -- perhaps strawberries or blackberries -- might be a logical choice.   I jumped online to do some research and quickly found a recipe coupling rose geranium with raspberries, a perfectly good idea that I saw no reason not to embrace.

I prepared the sorbets several days in advance, anxious to get Course 7 out of the way and out of my mind.   On the night of the dinner, all Rhonda and I had to do was take the containers out of the freezer and place a small scoop of each sorbet in each of the serving dishes.   A small garnish of mint was the final touch.

Finally, to give you a sense of how the menu has evolved over time, here's a summary of the Course 7 palate cleanser selections that we have served since the inaugural White Truffle Dinner in 2003:
  • N/A (2003)
  • Duo of Fall Sorbets: Asian Pear & Spiced Cider (2004)
  • Lemon Lavender Cappuccino (2005)
  • Duo of Sorbets: Pineapple Lemon Verbena & Raspberry Rose Geranium (2006)