Archive for the 'celebrity chefs' Category


Michel Richard knows his way around a dessert

Napoleon a la Michel

Now that’s a napoleon (mille-feuille)!

A while back, I had the good fortune of stuffing my face at a work lunch at Central in downtown DC, a Michel Richard joint. The chef’s known for his playful turn with foods (as well as looking a lot like Santa Claus).

A profile of Richard that ran in The Washington Post many years ago revealed one of his culinary inspirations: KFC’s fried chicken. Yup, his haute cuisine is inspired by the Colonel. That gives you some insight into why his creations, sweet or savory, are big on contrasting textures and often have a crispy element.

Michel's crunch bar from Central

Those of us who didn’t order Michel’s crunch bar were jealous of those who did.

Without further ado, here’s a rundown of the 3 Central desserts we tried.

The restaurant’s best-known treat is Michel’s chocolate bar, the chef’s Kit Kat-inspired happy ending. This was chocolate-y without being cloying, and had a nice crispy texture. If you’re unsure which dessert to try, go with this one. It was the all-around favorite.

The gimungous size and presentation of my napoleon made for some envious looks around the table. But the layered pastry and cream, while delicious, needed a little kick. A drizzle of chocolate or fruit puree, or even the traditional napoleon icing, would’ve made for less monotonous eating. It’s unusual that I don’t finish a dessert, but I left some of this on the plate.

The disappointing lemon bar from Central.

The lemon tart didn’t find many fans at our table.

My comrades in gustatory indulgence who ordered this lemon tart weren’t super happy with it. It’s a layer of shortbread topped with bland lemon mousse topped with meringue. Next to the more showstopping dessert options, this one’s a dud.

A peek at Central DC's kitchen.

Central’s kitchen, where the pastry magic happens.


A sweet-tart fix for the holidays, Barefoot Contessa’s apple-cranberry cake

Barefoot Contessa's easy apple-cranberry cake

I rarely buy cookbooks, because there are usually only a few recipes from each that I want to try, much less make over and over again. Instead, I print recipes from the web and organize them in binders with clear sheet protectors (= easy to wipe when schmutz gets on them during cooking). Only a select few kitchen-tested recipes make it into the binder—the ones I know I’ll come back to.

This apple-cranberry cake (Is it a cake? Is it a crumble? The user comments are abuzz debating this point.) is one I plan on revisiting. It’s got lots of fruit like a pie but the vanilla cake is a nice foil, soaking in some of the juices. Also, this cake is mouth-puckeringly tart, fragrant with the orange and cinnamon flavors of the holidays. The simplicity of the recipe, coupled with the delicious result, is why so many of us wish we were one of the Contessa’s frequent dinner guests.

I doubled the recipe to make 2 (didn't want to waste the rest of my container of sour cream).

After sifting through the comments section, I decided to go with 2 Granny Smiths* and ½ bag cranberries, rather than the recommended 1 apple/1 bag cranberries. The cake was plenty tart using this alternative fruit combo. I also took a lighter hand with the orange, using the zest from just 1 orange (didn’t want it to overpower the other fruit flavors). There was just one instruction the Contessa overlooked: place a cookie sheet under your cake as it bakes. As the fruits begin to bubble, my cake pan runneth’ed over, causing a right mess on the bottom of the oven.

BTW, fresh cranberries are seasonal so if you plan on making this after the holidays, stock up while they’re on sale. They freeze beautifully.

*Great apple pie that tip the Contessa mentioned during this episode: if you want your filling to be less runny, use Granny Smiths. They have lots of pectin that prevents that watery consistency.


Dead simple chocolate mousse (the secret is marshmallows)

I wasn’t sure whether to try this chocolate mousse recipe from Nigella Lawson. Then I read the reviews, which were positive all around. I also had all the ingredients except the whipping cream in the house. Why not?

Nigella Lawson instant chocolate mousse

This recipe is quick to whip up, almost indistinguishable from regular chocolate mousse, and you don’t need to worry about getting salmonella!

The interesting thing is that you can’t really tell this from a regular chocolate mousse, except that the consistency is a bit fluffier and stickier. Next time, I’m going to whip 2 cups of cream rather than 1 so I can adjust the sweetness a bit more, and have some cream leftover for the tops. Because I reserved some of the 1 cup of whipped cream the recipe prescribes to top off the mousses, they turned out overly sweet for my tastes (and I didn’t have any more cream left to course-correct).

Folding the chocolate-butter-marshmallow mixture into the whipped cream.

Make sure to fold the chocolate mixture (after it’s cooled to room temperature) into the whipped cream. If you stir, it’ll be less fluffy.

I appreciated the fact that this recipe takes very little time and effort–save for waiting for the chocolate mixture to cool down enough to fold into the cream. The most labor-intensive part was cutting down my jumbo marshmallows into mini-marshmallow size (I only had jumbos in the house). Next time, I’ll just spring for the $1 bag of minis rather than create a sticky mess from the jumbos.

This recipe would also be great for a parfait, like layering layers of mousse, graham cracker crumbles, and whipped cream.


Unhappy endings @ Chez Panisse & Commonwealth

Let’s say you’re out at a fancypants restaurant, the type that offers a tasting menu. You have an enjoyable meal. Then the desserts come out. And–pfffffft–your gastronomic high is deflated due to the lameness of this final course. Sound familiar?

Here are a few things that might end a nice meal on a down note:

1)      A “unique” ice cream flavor. Frankly, it’s a copout. Haven’t we learned this from Iron Chef yet? Please, no more curry/tarragon/whatever ice creams. There are plenty of gelato places where we can get inedibly exotic flavors.

2)      Overly rich chocolate desserts. I’ve seen leftovers of gorgeous chocolate mousses/tortes at Elizabeth’s Gone Raw and CityZen that met a tragic end in the trash. Don’t serve a brick of chocolate at the end of a long meal. Your patrons may explode.

3)      Something reminiscent of a Sara Lee product. See Chez Panisse almond torte below.

4)      Desserts that are heavy on concept, light on substance. See Commonwealth below.

While in San Francisco, we had a special meal planned at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ legendary restaurant in Berkeley. Known for founding “California Cuisine,” Chez Panisse is also famous for its desserts (thanks to the talents of Lindsey Shere, its longtime pastry chef who retired in 1998).

Needless to say, I had high expectations of what was billed on the menu as “almond torte with Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise sabayon.” Maybe I’m just easily impressed by foreign words.

Anyway, out comes this:

If it looks like a fluffier version of Sara Lee pound cake, it pretty much is. Was the sabayon sauce delicious? Yes. Was the fruit fresh? Absolutely. BUT it was clear that the restaurant was phoning this course in. Not the impression you want your guests to leave with.

Our other nice meal was at Commonwealth, a random discovery in the Mission. Initially we hesitated to try this place because I’m not a huge fan of molecular gastronomy. While I appreciate the creativity that goes into it, often the food leaves my taste buds high and dry. Bottom line is, if your foams-dirts-spheres don’t taste good, the interesting presentation doesn’t make up for it.

Let me explain. My first experience with molecular gastronomy was a business dinner at wd~50, celeb chef Wylie Dufresne’s place in NYC. The food at wd~50 was totally imaginative. Maybe too much so: my root-vegetable lasagna had no pasta in it—just thinly cut slices of veggies layered to look like lasagna. An edible work of art. But after a few bites, I was wishing I was at a red-checkered-tablecloth joint, digging into the real deal.

Back to Commonwealth. It was probably our best meal of the trip. Then came the desserts. I got a deconstructed apricot cobbler with a piece of meringue that’d been zapped with liquid nitrogen. But the combination of torched apricot, cookie crumbs, and meringue was hardly as spectacular as the presentation. In fact, it felt like I’d eaten a lot of air and sugar.

Mr. X-sXe had better luck with his peanut butter semifreddo, a peanut-butter candy bar with popcorn that’s actually frozen bits of cream. Commonwealth partially redeemed itself with this creation. It felt like a better balance of execution and creativity than my letdown of an apricot cobbler.


Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate: For Brunch

This episode was particularly awesome because (1) only the most curmudgeonly of curmudgeons doesn’t love brunch, and (2) Alex Guarnaschelli namechecked Norma’s, the Grand Poobah of indulgent brunch food in NYC. Specifically, she mentioned the chocolate decadence French toast (below), made of slices of cake. Which is just crazy genius or suicide, depending how you look at it.

Face it, brunch menus tend to be underwhelming. There’s the standard egg-based fare (hollandaise, omelets, huevos rancheros). Then there’s the starchy stuff—if you’re lucky, tricked out with a variation on the theme (stout waffles, challah French toast, or ricotta pancakes, let’s say). Lastly, there’s a couple nods to the health-conscious: yogurt & fruit, Irish oatmeal, tofu scramble. Yawn.

The Waz-Za is what happens when a fairy throws up on your waffle. Cheers to for the photo.

A couple years ago a friend and I hit Norma’s on a whim, and I’ve been meaning to go back ever since. Even the most jaded bruncher can find something to like on their menu.

Me, I went straight for the Waz-Za waffle, which was as close as you’ll get to dessert for brunch (apart from cake for toast). Waz-Za! perfectly sums up how you feel when you set eyes on this dish. A pile of blueberries sits on a layer of brulee. As you stick your fork in, the brulee gives way to a pool of lighter-than-it-looks berry cream atop sliced bananas, lounging on one perfectly formed waffle. I’m getting a bit wistful at the memory, as this was one of the most luscious breakfast dishes to have ever graced my taste buds.

My friend had a savory cheesy toast that she didn’t end up finishing; she had a slight case of food envy. Moral is, the sweet options are a safer bet. Just plan on a lazy weekend, because crashing after the sugar high is inevitable.

Where to get it:

Norma’s at Le Parker Meridien

119 W. 56th St.

New York, NY 10019

(212) 708-7460

Before Food Network, there was Jules and Jacques

While channel surfing the other day, I caught an episode of Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home. It was a glorious reminder of the days before Food Network turned the cooking show into a well-oiled machine and the celebrity chef into an industry. In this day and age of the multiple take, it was fun to see Julia and Jacques in all their minimally edited glory.

Photo from

For instance, every time Julia or Jacques used their hands to work with the food, Julia would crack, “Now we use our immaculately clean hands to…” At one point, a close-up revealed that Jacques had black crud under his nail. That would’ve definitely been edited out of today’s cooking shows, where a raw chicken on the set merits a gratuitous lesson in hand-washing.

The other thing that struck me was how many tips I picked up from a single episode (this particular one focused on crepes):

  • The fastest way to separate eggs (and to keep the yolk intact) is to crack multiple eggs into a bowl, then fish out the yolks with your hand by cupping them.
  • Never flambe anything by pouring the alcohol directly from the bottle onto the dish/pan. Pour the alcohol into a spoon first. Otherwise the flames could travel up back into the bottle and explode it. Which makes me even more wary of flambeing anything, ever.
  • Pour your crepe batter onto the edge of the pan, not the middle. Quickly tilt the pan to coat the bottom. Always keep the batter moving.
  • You can stack crepes on each other, spreading different fillings between them to create a cake-like creature (see photo below).
  • Perfection is boring–what you see in a Martha Stewart/Barefoot Contessa/Giada De Laurentiis show is not real life. Not most of ours, anyway.

From Click on photo for Julia Child's recipe.