I’ve cooked beef burgundy, apple pie, coq au vin, baguettes, steak au poive, pasta Bolognese, omelettes and other intimidating-at-first-glance dishes. If I’m not thinking about meals I’ve had or foods I’m craving, I’m adding dishes to the great to-do list in my mind – the stuff that one ponders before attempting, and devotes an entire Saturday afternoon to the execution and mastery of. The list continues to evolve, but I’ll share some of the dishes currently on it.
– Croissants: I make the pop-open can variety several times per week, and they serve their purpose – a quick breakfast item that can bake while I shower and I can eat at my desk at work (I’m aware that this is an awful breakfast routine – I’ve recently added oatmeal and dried fruit or nuts into my breakfast-at-work lineup). But as everyone who has ever had a real croissant knows, the canned variety just pales in comparison. Real croissants have tender, flaky layers with an almost melt in your mouth texture. And the croissants that I hold in the highest esteem are those from the Italian French Bakery in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. They make several varieties each morning, but the chocolate croissants are the ones I dream about – a thin bar of bittersweet chocolate is baked into the center of each and every one. So, mastering the basic croissant is high on my list – so I can move on to figuring out how to recreate the amazing chocolates ones I’ve been craving since the first time I had them, years ago.
– Cassoulet: Oh, the humble bean. You can do so many things with beans – pasta sauces, soups, salads, side dishes – and casseroles. Cassoulet is the grandmother of bean casseroles; perhaps of all bean dishes. The proper line up of ingredients in cassoulet has been debated for ages, but the mainstays are white beans, stock and several varieties of meats – sausage, ham, and confitted duck, at the very least. It’s a hearty winter dish, simmered long and low in the oven. The top gets a crunchy crust, while the interior is a silky smooth texture. The perfect one pot meal.
– Baklava: This is one of the best confections ever – a sticky, gooey honey-nut crunch amid layers of delicate pastry. I like to buy mine from the Middle Eastern Bakery in the Andersonville neighborhood – you can get a few different varieties in different shapes – pistachio, walnut, etc. My favorite is the small sampler for $5.00. But I could eat them so often that travelling across town and spending five bucks a pop is a bit much, so it’s time I learned to make my own. With some frozen phyllo dough and some patience, I think I just might be able to pull it off.
– Duck Confit: Duck is tasty and I love preserving food, so it seems like the perfect combination. And there is nothing better than roasted Brussels sprouts with duck confit – it’s one of my favorite things to eat. So it’s high time I got out my stock pot and rendered some duck fat. The unfortunate part is that ducks and duck fat aren’t exactly cheap so I’ve got to head down to Chinatown or Little Vietnam and see if I can find a good deal. But once I do, I’m making a big batch of confitted duck legs – they’ll keep, preserved in their fat, for three months in the refrigerator.
– Cakes: I’ve made plenty of tasty cakes in my time – the tunnel of fudge, carrot cake, applesauce spice cake, chocolate lava cakes and dinette cakes. These cakes are simple, homey affairs – farmhouse cakes, if you will. No elaborate fillings or frostings and certainly no decoration. Bake, cool and slice cakes – and these are the cakes that should be standard fare in any good kitchen. But there are cakes, and then there are cakes. I want to learn how to make cakes that require tools like a rotating cake plate, a trio of sized pans and an offset spatula (a recent gift from husband, waiting eagerly in the wings). I’m talking about the Lady Baltimores, the Red Velvets – cakes that require slicing into wafer-thin disks with dental floss, layering with jams or creams, and topped with elaborate swirls of such frostings of Betty Crocker lore as tinted buttercream or Seven Minute Frosting. Assembly should require, in the more elaborate examples, toothpicks or wooden dowels, with decorations of marzipan fruit, fondant cutouts and candied violets. Yes, I desire to make cakes that drive experienced baker’s simply mad on some days – but what the hell, you only live once. Let them eat cake.
– Xiao Long Bao: I simply cannot wax poetic about my devotion to xiao long bao because I’ll never do it proper justice, so I’ll just stick to the facts. I got acquainted with it (as some of you know from previous musings about it) on a trip to San Francisco about a year ago at a fabulous restaurant in Chinatown called Hunan’s Home. Xiao long bao, also known as the ‘Shanghai Soup Dumpling’ is an exquisite example of what dumplings should be. It’s a basic meat filled dumpling served with a dipping sauce, but the magic comes in the fact that rather than being a dumpling in soup, the soup is in the dumpling. It’s a feat pulled off by the fact that gelatinized stock is mixed into the filling, and once the dumplings are steamed, the gelatin liquefies, creating the perfect little pocket of goodness. (I’m confident that revealing this little secret won’t reduce that magical first taste for you at all). I’ve made wonton in several flavors, and egg rolls, but xiao long bao is the holy grail. One year later, and it’s still high on the list.