A delicious failure. This could be the title of my autobiography rather than the title of my dinner. There’s just something so tragicomic about it, no? If my life was full of exquisite meals yet devoid of the true tenets of success, I suppose I would be ok- who needs a white picket fence and neighbor’s named the Joneses anyway?
However I won’t be satisfied in my career if I only make food that tastes good. It has to be well-executed renditions of my original vision, too. I’d rather eat a terrible meal that is interesting than a delicious one that is boring. I know that pot roast and corn-on-the-cob have an undeniably-visceral appeal, but I’m confident I can make them passably 10 times out of 10. Instead, I would prefer to invent rather than to simply reproduce. Which is why I tackle some of the meals I tackle.
They start as inklings and get jotted into the notes section of the iPhone. A recent note read “foie gras. Peanut butter. Consider grape jelly from champagne grapes. Cupcake gone mad!!!. PBJ hot dog with foie gras.” The results of this stream-of-consciousness have yet to hit the plate because the idea isn’t fully congealed. Kind of like the demi-glace that ruined the dish I’m about to describe.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Xiao Long Bao- the famed steamed Chinese dumplings that are filled with broth and meat that oozes onto your tongue with the first cautious bite. I’ve eaten Xiao Long Bao in the most cultish restaurants in Richmond, BC- the supposed hotbed of authentic Chinese cuisine on the west coast of America. I’ve also had them at the Bellevue, WA offshoot of Michelin-starred Din Tai Fung. Eating a good one is like witnessing the results of a well-placed whoopee cushion: what’s inside comes outside in just the right manner and everyone in the room is happy to the point of laughter.
But I’ve always felt there was something missing. This is absolutely no fault to the masters of the centuries-old guarded recipes for Xiao Long Bao, it’s based on my own taste. I love their delicate broth, but I am IN LOVE with headier, more robust broths- those based on demi-glaces that have been reduced to caramel and brought back to gelatinous buoyancy with the measured reintroduction of spoonfuls of stock. I also prefer egg noodles made with partial semolina flour to the hot water dough that is the basis for Xiao Long Bao. Again, it’s not them, it’s me.
My heart is so steeped in the sauces of France and the doughs of Italy that it will never love another so deeply. Thus I tried to capture the magic of Xiao Long Bao using Europe-centric techniques. I made demi-glace from the bones and jewels of a duck carcass. The demi-glace process involves the marriage of two sauces and lots and lots of reducing. If you wish to learn more, start with Escoffier. After I had a rich and translucent demi-glace, I set out to caramelize it by reducing it to a thick swirl of mahogany. I added just enough stock to the duck caramel to give it buoyancy, and then I refrigerated it and sliced it into rough cubes.
Meanwhile I braised oxtails in port wine, plums, beets, and the usual trilogy of vegetables- carrots, leeks and celery. When the meat was tender enough to fall off the tail, I shredded it between my fingers, carefully tweezing out every fragment of cartilage and bone. While the meat was cooling and the demi-glace caramel was solidifying, I made my dream dough, which consists of twelve egg yolks for less than three cups of flour. I like to blend half semolina flour with half tipo “00” flour because pure semolina makes ravioli dough too hard and prone to cracking to make filling viable, whereas straight tipo “00” or all-purpose flour never retains enough of the al dente je ne sais quoi for me. It’s a battle to get the dough just right- the maximum amount of semolina it will hold produces the best result, but your hands really have to have sense memory and pasta-making dexterity to work it properly.
I decided to make the ravioli triangular; they are actually called triangoli in Italian. This was my first mistake. I should have thought harder about encasing what is essentially only a temporary solid (the demi-glace) with a pasta shell. Had I, I would have understood that the reason Xiao Long Bao are pinched at their tops is so that the melting demi-glace cannot escape out the sides. This is also why they are steamed, not boiled. Forming the little ravioli was tricky, I could only work with a few at a time because if the demi-glace became too liquidy, it would cause a mess before I could pinch the triangles closed. Eventually I fell into a comfortable, if attentive cadence.
I rolled two sheets of pasta, mounded several dollops of oxtail meat along one sheet equidistant from each other, and then gently rested cold slabs of caramel demi-glace on top. Between each round, the demi-glace chilled in the freezer. The final layer was a thin shaving of parmigiano reggiano that I reasoned would protect the top sheet of pasta from over-saturation by the melting demi-glace. Once I had carefully formed all the ravioli, I boiled a pot of water and reduced the braising liquid from the oxtails into a thick sauce rife with woodsy, sweet flavors.
Mistake #2 occurred when I boiled the ravioli. Not all of them, but some of them couldn’t take the pressure of the boil, and the carefully pinched pockets slowly leaked my careful caramel broth out into the cavernous pot of dilute, boiling water. I watched them seep, but there was nothing I could do to rescue the precious substance. I furrowed them out of the water as best I could and served them to an eager crowd of four. Everyone proclaimed them delicious, but in my heavy heart I knew I’d failed. When I set out to marry worlds, I don’t want them to clash apart and end in a bitter annulment. There was enough broth left to simulate my desired effect, but it was nothing like biting into a gushing pocket of Xiao Long Bao, even if the flavors were more to my liking. Next time I’ll choose a shape that is pinched at the top. And I’ll experiment with steaming egg noodles instead of boiling them.
There is a silver-lining to this tale of delicious woe- I had leftover oxtail meat so I formed cakes out of it and set the cakes on rounds of polenta. That recipe, in all its successful glory, is coming up next on Salty Seattle.