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Wednesday
Dec072011

« notes on process: cookies & confit »

Many pizzamen I’ve met have described dough-making as a nuanced process.  If the goal is to make a quality product that will bake to chewy and crunchy perfection, they say you can’t follow an exact recipe because variations in humidity and air temperature affect the outcome.

Only experienced hands can make dough come out year-round within a narrow range of uniformity, and only a bread guru could transcribe that process into a set of reliable instructions.  Jim Lahey, the celebrated owner of Sullivan Street Bakery, did just that.  His bread cookbook (it also has pizza recipes) emphasizes a no-knead, 12-18 hour rise time process that culminates in awesome good bread. 

A few weeks ago I visited Jim at the bakery and watched him work.  As I arrived, the Hobart was churning a beige mass of butter, sugar and flour. The project — chocolate chip cookies — has been on his plate since early July, but he didn’t seem flustered by the amount of effort it has taken so far.

“What’s the goal?” I asked him. 
“Crisp and chewy at the same time,” he said, adding, “I’m never happy with anything, Michael.”
“But at some point you let it go.” I said. 
“Kind of,” he said.  “A bit.  I want to hypothesis-test and this is a hypothesis.  The issue is an execution issue.  I wasn’t really paying attention to weight.  I prefer using a spoon to do this — like old school — like Mom-in-the-kitchen school.”

I watched as he and his pastry supervisor addressed questions of leavening, spacing on the pan, flour on the board, rolling vs. spooning, bake time, cold dough vs. dough at room temperature, and size.  Jim won’t settle for a partway result.  He liked (but didn’t love) the cookies.  So he asked an employee to refrigerate the remainder of the dough for later testing and he moved on to sandwiches.  (Rollover above photo for a slideshow of Jim's cookie-making process.)

Most of us do not have the time or wherewithal to chase recipe perfection.  It’s tough enough to get dinner on the table.  We may adapt to failings over time by using less salt or reducing a bake time by five minutes, but we strive to improve — not to perfect.

I recommend the Jim Lahey approach: make something, be happy with it, also try to improve it, and savor the process.

I’ve bought plenty of cookbooks that feature great ideas but mediocre recipes.  If I decide to remake an average food because I like the concept or the picture, I tweak it on my own.  We can’t all own Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, an expensive multi-volume cookbook ($451 from Amazon) that presents science and recipes together.  But centrifuge and sous vide preps notwithstanding, a desire to experiment can feed the mind as well as the belly — and lead to obsession. That's what happened to me this November with duck confit.

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One summer many years ago Kristin and I visited Paris and stayed with our friend Sharon.  As we discussed where to have dinner one afternoon, Sharon raised the topic of duck confit.  “What do you mean you’ve never had duck confit?” she said.  “You have to have duck confit.”

She brought us to some restaurant and we sat at a table outside.  As we awaited our food, she worked to manage my expectations: “This is a good place for duck confit.  I doubt it’s the best in Paris, but it’s good.”  Brief pause.  “You know this isn’t the right time of year to have it,” she said, “It’s a winter dish.  But you have to have it.”

Melt-in-your-mouth tender briskety-but-soft duck meat with buttery warm richness and a hint of garlic and thyme.  I think there were potatoes and beer too but I can’t remember for sure — I was swooning from the duck.

For the next eleven years I didn’t think about confit, but it returned to my consciousness this November when my friend Laurent served it bone-in and skin-crisp, straight from a large black can he had brought to the US on Air France in August.  To prepare it, he wiped the fat off each leg and browned them together (one can contains 4-5 pieces) in a skillet.  Even the kids ate it; we told them it was “juicy chicken.”

For several weeks after, I couldn’t stop thinking about duck confit.  The only option was to make it from scratch.  Without researching recipes, I committed myself with no turning back: I spent $25 on duck legs at the farmer’s market.   (Above photo shows my homemade duck confit — mid-eating.   Rollover it for a slideshow of my process.)

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Duck confit (confit de canard in French) sounds fancy, but it is and always has been a people’s food.

First, the price is low — even from a pricey NYC farmer’s market: $6-7 per portion (though you must also invest in a $7-10 container of reusable duck fat).  Second, confit — which is salt cured and then slow-cooked in its own fat — evolved as a method for preserving meats for winter eating.  It’s like canning okra, but with duck: which would you prefer?!  Third, it’s easy to make.  I researched recipes, processes, storage, and cooking minutiae from multiple sources (including a helpful query on Facebook) and I made excellent duck confit in one try.

For benchmarking, I also purchased and prepared two ready-to-go confits.  D’Artignan’s (available in gourmet markets, or via www.dartignan.com for $9 per piece) resembled mine in flavor, but was not as meaty or rich.  The one from Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in Chelsea Market ($10 per piece) was too salty and chewy.  Lesson learned: DIY is worth the effort.

Preparing duck confit does require a few decisions and I made one mistake worth noting. It occurred when I was preparing to fry them for dinner.  As I inverted my duck pieces — still straightjacketed in their Tupperware-shaped block of solidified duck fat — into a saucepan for warming, I discovered a ½-inch-thick “duck jelly” coating.  Gelée. It shimmered and glistened and grossed me out, so I threw it away without thinking.  What a mistake.  It was liquid gold: a jus that I should have served over the mashed potatoes as gravy.

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A few days later, I travelled to Washington, DC to cook Thanksgiving dinner for 13.  I had read about the challenges of roasting a whole turkey — how it’s an imperfect bird because the dark meat needs more cooking time than the white.  I brined, I basted — I even iced the breasts before cooking.  Still, dry. 

No such problem with duck.  The confit cooked for over six hours with no maintenance and came out juicy and tender.  I won’t succeed in persuading Americans to eat duck on Thanksgiving — I tried with my family and it didn't work.  Americans may never embrace confit de canard en masse. The should know what they're missing. Below is my recipe. Embrace the process.

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Duck confit, serves 4.  (Modified from the Thomas Keller recipe, which I found posted here.  Cheers to Hudson Valley Duck Farm, from whom I purchased four superior Moulard duck legs.)

Ingredients.

4 fresh duck legs with thigh joints attached
16 oz rendered duck fat
½ cup kosher or coarse sea salt
2 bay leaves, crumbled
3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
⅓ cup Italian (flat) parsley leaves
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
4-5 cloves garlic, smashed

Equipment.

An ovenproof pot into which duck legs can fit in a single layer
Metal tongs
Mortar & pestle (optional)

Process.

Day 1.  Wash duck legs and dry thoroughly with paper towels.  Mix salt, garlic, and spices by hand, or mash together with mortar & pestle.  Rub spice mixture onto duck pieces and arrange tightly into the bottom of a glass or ceramic container.  Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.  (Or, separately wrap duck pieces in plastic and refrigerate for 24 hours.) 

Day 2.  Preheat oven to 200 degrees F.  Warm rendered duck fat in ovenproof pot over low heat.  Do not boil.  Wash spice rub off of duck legs — make sure to remove all salt — and dry thoroughly with paper towels.  Add dried duck pieces to melted fat in pot, place in oven, and cook uncovered for 6½ hours.  Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature.  Use tongs to transfer duck pieces to storage container, preferably glass.  Pour liquid fat through a strainer into duck container until all pieces are immersed.  Cover and refrigerate.  Pour remainder of fat through the strainer into a separate container.  [Note about the fat: you’ll have ~40% more fat than the beginning amount.  According to the duck farmer, you can reuse the fat twice, and then discard ⅓ of it after each new batch.] [Note on use-by date: most recipes suggest using duck within 6 month, but one stated that less intense salting limits preserve time to 1 week.  Feel free to comment on this.]

Meal day.  Invert duck-and-fat mold into pot.  Use spoon to transfer layer of “jelly” to a small saucepan.  Warm over low heat to use as gravy.  Heat nonstick or well-seasoned iron pan over medium flame.  Add duck pieces, skin side up, and cook until browned on bottom.  Turn pieces and repeat.  Serve and enjoy.

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