The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook (book number 11), is the last book in our sub-collection of Alice Waters/Chez Panisse books. There are a number of recipes in this book that we want to try, but we had actually decided to defer it until later, because we felt obligated to cook a menu in its entirety and were rather overwhelmed by how indulgent and extravagant a least a few dishes on most of the menus are. It’s a lot of fun vicariously enjoying these elegant menus from Chez Panisse’s first decade, but this was the first book in our cook-through that, at least to me, is more of an aspirational and inspirational book than one that is really practical to cook from at home.
When we came home from our last trip to Portland with a tiny jar of Osetra caviar for Christmas Eve, we decided to go Russian and make buckwheat blinis (little pancakes) to eat it on. Kate put out a call to the hive mind on Facebook for a good blini recipe and, lo and behold, our friend Anna suggested the Blinis à la Russe recipe in the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. It was obviously fate, so we gave ourselves permission to make just two of the recipes from the Champagne Dinner menu Chez Pannisse served for the launch of Billecart Salmon Champagne in Northern California. Since we were already planning to have oysters on the half shell for Christmas Eve, we decided to also make the Mignonette Sauce for the oysters. The recipes are both written for six servings, so we divided them by three to make just two servings that proved to be plenty.
The mignonette was a piece of cake to put together: minced shallot, Champagne vinegar, dry white wine, and freshly ground black pepper mixed in a little bowl. We normally just take our raw oysters straight up, but a little dash of tart mignonette does make a nice counterpoint to a plump briny oyster.
The blinis are made with a yeasted batter, so they were a bit more work and took some time. First, we let the yeast bloom in lukewarm milk and then mixed in buckwheat and all-purpose flours, salt, sugar, and an egg yolk to make a sponge that we allowed to rise until double in bulk. Thank goodness I had just bought a heated proofing box to proof the dough for our Christmas morning Swedish cardamom bread, because, even with the furnace on, our kitchen is too cold to successfully bake in after October. The sponge doubled in an hour with no problem in the proofing box. We added more flour and milk and then worked the batter though a fine mesh sieve, a step I’d never done before with a pancake batter, and let it proof until doubled in bulk again. I had put the batter though the sieve into a glass measuring cup, so it was very easy to confirm when it had doubled. After the second proofing, a beaten egg white was folded into the batter before cooking. This batter was so lively, in fact, that, even at room temperature, it kept overflowing first the measuring cup and later the squeeze bottle that I put the batter in before cooking the blinis to make it easier to make them all a uniform silver dollar size. Cooked in a skillet with a thin coating of butter, the resulting tiny pancakes were well worth the effort. Crisp on the outside and light as a feather inside, the earthy buckwheat was a perfect foil for a dab of rich crème fraîche and the salty snap of caviar.
The oysters and blinis were scrumptious as part of our Christmas Eve seafood spectacular that was rounded out by slices our home-cured gravlax, also delicious on blinis with a sprig of dill and a dab of crème fraîche, jumbo prawns sautéed with garlic and smoked paprika, and little boiled potatoes as an alternative caviar delivery vehicle. The whole was deliciously washed down by bubbly, in this case a bottle of Ammonite Crémant de Loire Brut Extra unerringly recommended by our friend Joel, the wine buyer at Now You’re Cooking in Bath. If you live anywhere near Bath and you haven’t been there, check out Now You’re Cooking. It’s one of the best stocked and friendliest kitchen stores I’ve ever been in and they have a fantastic wine section.
We made about a dozen blinis for Christmas Eve, which only used about half of the batter, so I stuck the rest of it, still in the squeeze bottle, in the refrigerator for the next day, assuming that the cold would arrest, or at least slow, the batter’s fermentation. Imagine our surprise the next morning to find batter bubbling out of the spout of the squeeze bottle and a sticky brown puddle spreading across the top shelf of the refrigerator like the Blob. Still, despite the overflow, we were able to make another dozen blinis for a Christmas afternoon snack, with more gravlax, and the blinis were just as good as they had been the night before. This recipe is a definite keeper as a base for all manner of little bites.
I probably first heard of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until I moved in with Kate in 2006 that I had ever looked at any of Alice’s cookbooks, and, prior to this cook-through project, I had only really read or cooked out of The Art of Simple Food. Between the two of us, Kate and I own all but a couple of Alice’s cookbooks, which span the entire 47 year history of Chez Panisse and document the evolution of the broader Northern California food philosophy that we lived in the midst of for so many years in the the Bay Area. The experience of finally getting into and cooking at least one recipe out of all of these books has been inspirational, but rather bittersweet at the same time. I’m glad we finally had dinner at Chez Panisse for Kate’s birthday in 2017 and got to see Alice in action before we left California.
Up next: Weber’s Big Book of Grilling.