Duck Consomme with Porcini Mushrooms and More

Sunday dinner. Hopefully the one night where dinner tables around the country and world are filled with families sitting down to a nice meal before everyone heads their separate ways and begins their busy work/school week. Here, we appreciate Sunday’s for another reason: time. I had written the post on duck and wanted to create a meal that would best showcase the variety of flavor the duck has to offer, and having an entire weekend to complete the meal certainly afforded me more options than you would have on a Wednesday.

I decided to keep the preparation of the duck simple. A simple sear of the skin, followed by a couple minutes in the oven is more than enough to crisp up the skin, while keeping the meat medium rare. Since dinner was for four people, the process started by quartering two whole, thawed ducks.

Back? Excellent. Now that we’ve got the breasts separated, it is time to consider a brine. A brine, in its simplest form is merely a liquid that is saturated or nearly saturated with salt. In the kitchen, a brine is an excellent opportunity to add flavor to the meat you are preparing. I almost never prepare poultry or pork without first subjecting the meat to a brine overnight. A brine works on a chemical level, because molecules in suspension will always move from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration, until a uniform concentration is achieved. With regards to a piece of meat, and specifically our duck breasts, the salt contained in the solution will move into the meat (which has a lower sodium concentration) until the meat and liquid contain a uniform concentration of salt. An added benefit of the brining process is that we are afforded the opportunity to introduce other flavors to the meat that will be carried to the interior muscles of the duck by the salt. In this instance, I’ve chosen to brine my duck with chicken stock, brown sugar, salt, peppercorns, and just a touch of a wonderful Spanish smoked paprika. The proportions are:

1.5 cups salt
1 cup light brown sugar
20 (or so) whole black peppercorns
Enough chicken stock to cover
A pinch of smoked paprika (A little goes a long way)
Simply dissolve the dry ingredients in the stock and immerse the breasts in the brine. (A plastic container will work, but I prefer to use a zip-lock bag.) Stash the bag in your fridge. I wouldn’t do this for any less than 4 hours, and overnight is preferable.

Once the duck has been taken care of for now, I turned my attention to the appetizer. I figured that with two completed duck carcasses, I’d be able to make an excellent and rich duck stock that I would turn into a soup. I made the stock in the same manner one would make chicken stock, and you can read the step-by-step for what ended up being a wonderful consomme with porcini and chanterelle mushrooms here.

Since the duck only takes a few minutes to cook, I figured I could make a simple desert that would compliment the meal. Since I am by far the least accomplished baker in our trio, I stuck to a dough that I am extremely comfortable with. Pâte à Choux. Making a choux is a simple combination of heating butter and water, then adding flour. The dough is then stirred vigorously while being heated. What we are trying to do here is exactly the opposite from what you would do in making a muffin or cake batter. We are trying to activate as much of the gluten in the flour as possible. Since there is no yeast in this batter, we are going to use steam to make our pastries rise. While the stirring activates the gluten contained in the flour, the heat is important because it gelatinizes some of the starch granuales which is going to reinforce the glutenous batter and better trap the steam inside the pastry. OK, I need to go on a little food-chemistry tangent here. Please bear with me (or skip the next paragraph in its entirety!)

Gluten is a glycoprotein (a carbohydrate plus proteins) comprised primarily of two starches (amylose and amylopectin) and two two proteins, glutenin and gliadin. It is the proteins here that are important, so we’re going to ignore the starch molecules for now. Gliadin is a fairly boring monomeric protein that serves to provide some structural support in the protein matrix that we are creating when we activate the gluten in flour. It is the glutenin that is the real star of the show, so to speak. Interestingly, glutenin contains cysteine residues. Cysteine is an important amino acid, with a chemical formula HO2CCH(NH2)CH2SH, and is only one of two amino acids that contain sulfur (the other being methionine.) The interesting quality of cysteine is that it contains a thiol group (simply a sulfur atom bonded to a hydrogen atom, noted as -SH, as seen in this bolded cysteine structure HO2CCH(NH2)CH2SH.) These thiol groups are extremely reactive, and when the thiol groups of two cysteine molecules are brought near each other, the thiol groups undergo an oxidation reaction to form form disulfide bonds that now link the two cysteine molecules. It is these disulfide-linked cysteine molecules that build the structure for our dough. When we are vigorously stirring our flour, butter and water mixture, what we are trying to do is increase the number of the thiol groups that come in contact with each other to increase the amount of disulfide linkages, linking more and more molecules of glutenin together. It is these globs of linked glutenin that ultimately serve as the backbone for the protein matrix that we plan on blowing up like a bubble during the cooking process.

End of food-chemistry rant. See what happens when you let someone with a degree in biology near some flour?

OK, right. Back to the choux. The choux recipe I used is an adaptation of something we pulled out of a 200 year old french cookbook when we made our first batch of gougères. It is quite simply:

80g butter, cut into pieces
80g flour
200g (ml) water
3-4 large eggs
You can pretty much make as much or as little choux pastry batter as you’d like as long as you stick to the 1:1:2.5 ratio seen in the above recipe. You will get a feel for the proper amount of eggs once you’ve made it a couple of times. During this preparation, I actually ended up using 5 eggs because my batter didn’t look quite right.

A lot of folks include sugar in their choux mixture. Honestly, I don’t think it needs it. Feel free to tweak as you see fit. If you want to make a more savory choux pastry, you can certainly add some salt to the mixture.

To make the choux, add your butter and water to a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Then add the flour all at once and stir like a madman. Once the flour is incorporated, continue to stir until the flour picks starts to look a little shiny- usually between 2-4 minutes- it’s going to look a little lumpy, that’s OK. Then remove the mixture from the sauce pan and add to the bowl of a stand mixer. (You can do this by hand, but your arm will be tired by the end!) Incorporate the eggs one at a time, making sure that each egg is fully incorporated before you add the next one. You know you are done when the batter has smoothed significantly and should be back down to around room temperature. Put the batter into your fancy piping bag. Or, if you are me and have none of the appropriate accoutrements for properly piping pastries, just put the batter in a ziplock bag.

Lay down a sheet of parchment paper or a Silpat and pipe your batter. The great thing about cream puffs is that they are going to look great regardless of your piping skills (I have none.) Simply pipe a two inch disc, then lift the pastry bag slightly a pipe a one inch disc on top of the two inch disc. Bingo! You’ve got a perfectly formed cream puff (or profiterole, depending on what you plan on sticking inside!) When piping a tray of puffs, make sure you give them plenty of room. They are going to significantly expand during the cooking process.

Put the soon-to-be puffs in a preheated 425 degree oven for about 25 minutes. You are going to want to check them every couple of minutes after 15. Once they are done cooking and nicely browned, remove them from the oven. Because the puffs puffed by the steam being released from the batter, we need to give that steam a place to escape, or we will have condensation inside our puffs and they will become soggy. Take a pairing knife and cut an “X” into the bottom of each puff. Put the puffs back on the sheet pan with the “X” facing up, and put them back in the now turned-off oven with the door slightly ajar. We do this because the oven is still fairly hot, but very dry. The additional time in the oven will allow the puffs to dry fully and give them a really nice crispy texture. (The puffs can spend several hours or even overnight like this in the oven.)

Now is a good time to contemplate filling. If I thought there was a chance of any homemade ice cream being left in the freezer, I would’ve turned these into profiteroles, but since I knew there was none to be had I decided to make some homemade pastry cream. Making your own pastry cream is a simple process that takes almost no time at all. The only things I did different was that I halved the recipe and doubled the amount of vanilla bean, as I wanted the pastry cream to have a distinct and strong vanilla flavor.

Once the pastry cream is complete and cooled, you can cut about half of the “top” portion off the puff and pipe cream inside. If you have a frosting injector real piping bag, just stick the tip inside the bottom of the puff and squeeze until filled.

I wanted to add a last finishing touch to desert to really make it stand out. I love figs, and had the idea to roast some figs to balance out the sweetness of the puffs and pastry cream. Simply take your figs,slice them in half and put them on a sheet pan. Drizzle some olive oil over the figs and shake them around the sheet so that they are uniformly coated. Stick them in a 400 degree oven for 20-30 minutes and they will look like this:

Now that the figs are in the oven, we need to turn our attention to the sides for dinner. With our duck breasts, I wanted to serve a potato dish. To this end, I’ve skinned 12 baby yukon gold potatoes. The potatoes are then placed in a pot of cold salted water and boiled until tender. The now cooked potatoes are then mashed with a little of buttermilk to bring them together. The now-mashed potatoes would have been a nice addition to the meal as is, but I knew that we were going to end up with a hot pan full of duckfat after we cooked the breasts, so husband had the great idea to spoon them into ring molds to make nice mashed-potato rounds.

Now, we wait for our fat to be ready. To get the fat for the potatoes, we need to cook the breasts. Pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees and place a large saute pan (if you are cooking 4 breasts, you will need the biggest one you’ve got) over medium-high heat and add just a touch of grapeseed or other oil with a relatively high smoke point to the pan. The oil isn’t necessary for lubrication purposes- we will be rendering plenty of fat from under the skin of the breasts to prevent sticking. We are using the fat here just as an indicator for when our pan is hot enough. When the oil gets glossy (but before it smokes) or a drop of water instantly disappears, we are ready for the breasts. Place the breasts in the pan, skin side down for about 5 minutes- the cooking time will depend almost entirely on the thickness of the breasts, and these were a little thicker than normal. After 3 minutes, take a peek at the skin. The purpose of this step is only to make the skin crispy and delicious. As soon as the skin is nice and caramelized and crispy, remove the pan from the stove top, flip the breasts so the skin side is up and place in your hot oven. They will need 3-5 minutes in the oven to finish cooking. Duck breasts should be served medium-rare, as they tend to dry and become stringy if cooked beyond this point.

Some great looking duck in the oven:

When the duck is ready, remove the breasts from the pan and set on a carving board. The duck breasts must rest for no less than 10 minutes. The rest here is critical to ensure that our breasts make it to the plate nice and juicy. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post to read more about resting and temperature control.)

Next, I needed to finish off the potatoes. Add the potatoes back to the pan you cooked the duck in and cook over medium heat until the potatoes begin to brown. My potatoes were very thirsty, so I had to add some basil and garlic olive oil after about 5 minutes. About 10 minutes total should do the trick nicely.

Yum:

Our duck is resting and our potatoes are nearly done, we are almost ready to eat. Now is the time to begin to prepare the finishing touch for our desert. I wanted a syrup the figs (and for plating purposes) that wasn’t too sweet. A simple balsamic syrup goes perfectly with the roasted figs. Add a cup of balsamic vinegar to a sauce pan with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Put the saucepan on medium heat and reduce, stirring often. You have to watch this fairly carefully- things will start to happen quickly after 10 or so minutes and you don’t want the syrup to over-reduce. The syrup is going to thicken significantly when it leaves the heat, so remember to pull the syrup and plate while the syrup is still a little on the thin side.

Balsamic syrup reducing:

When you are ready to plate the completed meal, take your 4 duck breasts and cut them into half inch pieces along the bias, with the knife angling away from you at a 45 degree angle. Place a potato disc in the center of a plate and arrange the cut pieces of breast in 4 “spokes” around the potato. Finish with some wilted chard and chervil and it’s time to eat!

In this closeup of the duck, you can see that it is cooked to perfection. Wonderfully medium rare and juicy, with divinely crispy skin.

When you are ready for desert (in our house, this took about 5 minutes!) arrange the figs around the outside of a plate with the cream puff in the center and drizzle the balsamic syrup over the figs and enjoy!

I do hope you give this meal a try. Aside from the consomme, which turned into a bit of an unnecessary side-project for me this weekend (albeit an insanely delicious one) there is nothing all that difficult or time-consuming about the preparation. Both the pastry cream and the cream puffs can be made the night before, and the duck, potatoes and figs all take less than 30 minutes of hands-on cooking time. At the end, we had an aesthetically impressive, luxurious meal that was a big hit. What better way to ease into the work week than with a belly full of this wonderful meal?

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