Wednesday, 2 January 2008
The Curious Incident of A Duck In The Day-time, Night-time, Day-time, and another Night-time
It's not a word to be used lightly. Ben Hur is an epic. The Iliad is an epic. Villa's 4-4 draw with Chelski on Boxing Day was an epic. Epics are filled with challenges to be faced, triumphs over adversity, and occasional lessons in car waxing by wise Japanese mentors.
Heston Blumenthal's Peking Duck recipe is epic. If these were ancient times, the Oracle of Delphi may well have given Hercules the choice of capturing Cerberus alive or making Peking Duck as his twelfth labour. Deal of no deal? No deal. Cerberus was a puppy in comparison.
It's Wednesday 2nd January 2008. I'm off the saline drip and out of the Bacofoil blanket. Light beads of sweat are still clustering around my temples but the worst of the palpitations are over. They say I may never be the same again, that the nightmares may persist into old age, that I may wake up in the middle of the night screaming about ice filtration. Please Mummy, let the pain stop. Bring back yeast and puff pastry. All is forgiven.
Here is my story. Let us never speak of it again.
Saturday 29th December and it's the first of several shopping trips. I visit See Woo to pick up some Chinese ingredients including maltose, mushrooms, won ton wrappers, and frozen pancakes. I pass the ducks, hanging all bronzed and ready to eat. How easy it would be to just buy one for £8, chop it up, and serve it to our guests. I continue walking, laughing at such a ridiculous thought. A wizened old Chinese lady looks at me strangely and i eyeball her right back. She cackles to herself, her demented rictus further wrinkling her wafery skin. She knows something that I don't.
I pick up two Taste the Difference ducks at Sainsburys for £10.53 each. This meal might bankrupt me as well as mentally and physically destroy me. Oh well. What need is there for money in an asylum. We head into London to spend my Pages voucher but they only have giant pressure cookers for sale. We watch a rubbish French film at the Curzon with no plotline or entertainment value and then we head home without a pressure cooker knowing the stock needs to be started early on Sunday morning and the first mild panic begins to set it.
On Sunday 30th I'm up at 7.30am. I need to be at Argos in Peckham at opening time to buy a pressure cooker and grab some pork ribs from the butcher so I have a couple of hours to skin and joint the ducks. The first real challenge begins: Skinning the ducks while keeping the skin in one single piece with no holes. I complete the first but struggle down the centre line of the breasts where the skin seems to be welded to the meat and a few little holes appear. Still, it's not bad for the first go. The second skin is slightly better, but still a couple of holes are in evidence. Thank God I'm not performing some vital skin graft.
I'm back home with a new pressure cooker and some pork ribs by 11.30am so the first stage in the stock making process is underway by midday. The recipe calls for the meat to be added in two stages so it should be done and cooling by two pm. I'm a couple of hours behind schedule already.
The stock contains aromatics including ginger, szechuan pepper, shaoxing wine, star anise, cinnamon, and spring onions.
There's enough meat in there to make a vegetarian weep.
When done, the stock smells great and the aromatics have certainly done their job. It's beginning to smell like a Chinese restaurant in here. Now to turn it into consomme with no egg white clarification involved. We're ice filtering which should leave a perfectly clear liquid. I figure on a couple of hours to cool and jellify and then 4 hours in the freezer to solidify so I can start the ice filtration process at around 8pm giving me the required 24 hours to filter.
Meanwhile I start to confit the legs. They need to be kept in a salt/spice mix for twelve hours before cooking for six hours at 65 degrees. Mandarin zest combined with cinnamon, cardamon and star anise gives the mixture a lovely chrismassy aroma.
Well at least that was fairly simple.
Time to check on the stock. It's 4pm and still no sign of jellification and in fact it's not jellified until 6pm. My legs are also beginning to turn to jelly. Straight into the freezer with the container. I'm in trouble if it doesn't freeze in four hours. Now to brine the duck crown for 12 hours. This should cause moisture to enter the flesh via osmosis making it succulent when cooked.
The legs are salting, the crown is brining, there are a load of chemical reactions set to happen in the fridge overnight. At 8pm the stock in the freezer is still jelly, but unfortunately not frozen jelly. At midnight it's the same story with just a few ice crystals beginning to form. I'm beginning to suspect that the book has lied to me or that Heston hasn't taken into account the freezing capabilities of a domestic freezer. I need to go to bed.
I wake up in the night. It's 1.30am so I head down to the kitchen to check on the stock. Still wobbly. I'm in deep doggy doo-doo. There's nothing for it but to get up early and hope for the best. Five hours later I'm downstairs again and it seems to have frozen but not particularly solid. Still, there's no more time to waste and the block goes onto muslin and over a bowl to collect the consomme. Please Lord, let it drip like an incontinent geriatric.
It's New Year's Eve. The last day of 2007. Will it turn out to be the day from hell? The morning is calm and I prep my mise and make my raspberry rice pudding for dessert. Oh, did I forget to mention that I was making a dessert? It's a raspberry rice pudding with home made coconut icecream. Or maybe I should have done that Baked Alaska...
The crown is rinsed of brining solution over a two hour period, with the water changed every 15 minutes. The duck legs are removed from their rub and rinsed as well. The recipe doesn't say how many times to do this and I don't want to remove the flavour of mandarin and spices too much. Bit of a gamble on this one as I fear it could end up too salty. At 1pm they are covered in duck fat and go into an oven for 6 hours.
Time to attempt the skin. I stretch one over a cake rack and using a combination of saftey pins and butcher's string manage to attach it fairly securely. It looks like something out of Silence of the Lambs. It goes in with the legs to cook for 3 hours.
A few more things to do. The consomme is slowly filtering through and by 4pm I have about enough to feed a small dieting midget. The mushrooms are braised to go with the consomme and I need some of the stock to reduce with some mirin which has deglazed the pan.
Now for the dumplings to go with the consomme. Leeks and savoy cabbage are sweated and then cooled and added to minced duck breast and various aromatics. This is the only part where I wander off recipe. I think the quantities may be wrong - there seems to be far too much leek, cabbage and spring onion in ratio to the duck meat. I use half the quantity suggested.
Time to give the wife a fun job. She does a great job of filling the wonton wrappers and the dumplings are ready to go. Again the pictures in the book show no sign of the vegetables in the mince mix - it just looks like meat to me.
It's 4.30pm and our two guests are due to arrive in three hours. I have now got enough stock to feed one non-dieting midget, but I think I need to start poaching the crown. Problem is the book says the crown meat needs to get to 70 degrees but I have no idea how long that will take. I reckon 3 hours in 70 degree water. I concede defeat with the consomme, there are no more ice crystals and so nothing else to drip through. I will not achieve perfect clarity but the taste should still be good. I warm the jelly back into a liquid and start to poach the crown using the strained aromatics, some of the consomme, and additional water.
At 6pm the confit is ready. I taste it and as I feared, it's too salty for my taste. Damn it.
Nevertheless I shred the meat and reserve for the stir fry. The skin is looking good and I add the maltose glaze and cook at a higher temperature. Sticking a meat thermometer into the crown I see it reads 50 degrees. Still some time to go yet.
It's 7.30pm and I'm ready. The kitchen looks like the aftermath of a midwestern tornado, but I'm where I want to be in terms of preparation. Everything is chopped and ready for the stir fry, the dessert is done, the crown is poaching and the consomme and dumplings just need to be heated and steamed. Testing the meat again, it's at 65 degrees. Nearly there, I test the other breast. The reading jumps to 96 degrees. What the..? It's overcooked. The guests aren't even here. Argggggggggggggggggggggggh! I need to take it out but it will dry out and lose its moisture, the brining will have been for nothing. NIGHTMARE!
Alex and Kirsten arrive. Given the state of the crown we're going to have to eat earlier than expected. The pancakes are steamed and the duck and skin are sliced.
Course One: Duck Pancakes
Ok, so the meat was overcooked but it was still tasty. The skin was a crispy success although I didn't manage to get the lacquered finish that Heston achieved. Was it the best duck pancake I'd ever eaten? I'm afraid not, but if I was to do it again I would get a new meat thermometer and put more maltose glaze on the skin. Verdict 6/10.
Course Two: Duck Confit and Shitake Mushroom Stir Fry with Iceberg Lettuce
This course seemed to go down the best around the table, although I felt the saltiness of the meat overpowered the dish. Having said that, there were a few salt fiends present. Wrapped in crisp iceberg lettuce leaves it was packed with flavour and had a nice chilli kick too. For me, simply removing more of the salt prior to confit would have made this a winner. Verdict: 7/10
Course Three: Duck Consomme with Dumplings and Pickled Cucumber
Visually this was a stunning dish and the consomme ended up pretty clear in the end. The real key to lifting the dish was the pickled cucumber which added a sweet and sour punch to the dumplings and broth. I'd say the consomme could have been reduced a bit more to give more flavour and if the ice filtration was properly done I'm sure it would have been closer to perfection. Given a second go then, I'd add more cucumber to the finished dish,and add a bit of crunch to the dumplings for textural variety, maybe with some diced water chestnuts. Verdict 7/10
Course Four: Raspberry Rice Pudding with Coconut Icecream and Bitter Chocolate Shard
I was really happy with this dessert. The flavours worked really well together and the ice cream was smooth and rich. The portions were slightly too big but that can be changed next time. Verdict 8/10
So in summary, was it the best Peking Duck meal ever? No. Was all the time and effort noticeable in the finished dishes? Not really. Did I learn anything from the experience? Yes. And that, dear friends, is the most important thing. The first time you do something, it will very rarely be perfect. You learn from your mistakes, make the necessary changes, and second time round things will be much closer to perfection. If I were to do it again it would be way better, but alas, that will never happen. Life really is too short to do that twice. Maybe Heston will come across this post and at least feel satisfied that somebody has actually followed the recipe from start to finish. And then maybe he'll ring me and offer me a job in his research kitchen. We should all have dreams for 2008.
Happy new year, everyone!