While I'm not really interested in a career change, in the last few years I've been really wanting to put more effort into upping my skills in the kitchen and challenging myself with recipes outside my comfort zone. I'm a confident home cook who is just as comfortable cooking from Heston Blumenthal at Home as I am freestyling a pasta of whatever is in the fridge, but as someone who is very much a product of my Art School education, the challenging modernism of contemporary fine dining restaurants is the kind of cooking I find most appealing. It is to this end that I've started Ministry of Gluttony at Home - a series of multi-course dinners for 8 (including Alissa and myself) focusing on recipes from challenging chef's books; the kind of cookbooks filled with multi-component recipes and esoteric ingredients that combined with time consuming methods and restrictive equipment requirements means most copies sold end up on coffee tables rather than kitchens.
I have a few of these chef's books scattered between the more everyday cookbooks in my collection, and I was able to quickly plot out the first four months of dinners based on what I had on hand. Wanting to work up to the complicated nature of cooking a 3-4 course meal from The Fat Duck or the difficult sourcing task that will be recreating Attica dishes, I decided to start with a series of dishes from Momofuku Ko, the near-impossible-to-book, no-photographs-allowed fine diner in David Chang's Momofuku empire. The timing couldn't have been more prescient, as the wildly successful restaurant group is currently celebrating 10 years since the opening of its first outpost - Noodle Bar.
For the meal, we were joined by Jason and Verity (who had joined us earlier this month for a meal at Maya Indian), Ben Basell (who co-runs the Occasional Dinner Surprise), my songwriting collaborator Casey Ormond and my parents Alan and Maya. With my being busy with cooking, my mother graciously helped out with many of the photos during the course of the evening. We decided to serve our guests a cocktail aperitif upon arrival. Given the Manhattan location of Noodle Bar, Ssam and Ko, a Manhattan seemed a fitting cocktail choice, though we thought of giving it a Momofuku themed twist. With Momofuku meaning 'lucky peach', we substituted in some Southern Comfort for the regular whiskey content to introduce some peach flavour, and I put the vermouth in a cream whipper to infuse it with some lychees. The result worked quite well, with the infusion of the lychee and the peach flavour of the Southern Comfort providing a nice fruitiness.
For an Amuse Bouche, the Ko section of the Momofuku cookbook only features a single recipe, but when that recipe is for a dehydrated and deep fried pork skin that results in a puffed up and crunchy pork cracker its one that is destined to be a crowd pleaser - and a dish that requires some prep work, but literally takes seconds to cook. As you may notice, I got a little heavy-handed with the Japanese 7-Spice Seasoning, but the result was loved by all the guests - with Jason going as far as to say it was one of his favourite dishes of the evening.
Although the aim of the evening was to cook a series of dishes from Ko, I think our guests would have been disappointed for us to have done a Momofuku themed night without attempting the famous Momofuku Pork Buns. Looking at the recipe for the pork belly, it seemed all too simple and a little wrong - salt and sugar rub, cook at a ridiculously high temperature than cooked some more at a low temperature. As someone who owns a smoker and was an early adopter of an immersion circulator in a residential kitchen, the method goes against the entire 'low and slow' mantra that is popular these days, but the results are really incredible with the salt and sugar caramelising in a manner that actually tastes like it was cooked in soy sauce. The best part of the pork is that you can basically take it right to the second last stage of cooking during mise en place time, and then just quickly heat it through before serving. When doing a multi-course meal, its these kind of recipes that make the process that much easier.
While still tasty, my steamed buns didn't turn out quite as fluffy as I'd hoped (I should have bought new yeast as they didn't rise as much as I'd hoped, and the buns yellowed for a less appealing appearance) however they did at least taste right. Though much copied and often made more complicated by imitators, everyone agreed that the combination of pork belly, brushed-on hoisin sauce, pickled cucumber, sliced spring onion and Sriracha was truly better than other versions we've tried. Ben has eaten the Pork Buns served at Milk Bar, and he thought that what I made tasted better than what he was served there! I can't take any credit however - I was merely following a great recipe, and the less than perfect buns still bothered me even if they tasted good. I made enough for two per person, which was probably overkill considering the fact we had 3 courses to go plus Petit Fours, but everyone dutifully tucked into the second bun without hesitation.
The next course was Ko's signature Shaved Foie Gras with Lychee and Pine Nut Brittle. Without doubt the single most expensive dish of the entire evening, it was also a largely simple assembly job of placing chilled tinned lychees, a gelee made from Riesling and Pine Nut Brittle in the bowl...
... with the grating of the frozen Foie Gras Torchon being the only slightly arduous part. We did try grating it in directly over the bowl, however with only one torchon and two of us, we simply couldn't work fast enough to plate 8 bowls.
The resulting dish was very decadent - even with the light airiness of being grated, the Foie Gras by itself was a bit much. However this was a dish of contrasts, and with the sweetness of the lychee, the not-so-sweet Pine Nut Brittle (made with three different sugars to get the right sweetness level!) and the slight tartness of the Riesling, it all worked together almost as a strange, semi-savoury ice cream that to me was quite delicious. It was universally loved by everyone dining, however I appreciated the balance of the components and the novel use and preparation of the Foie Gras.
The main for the evening was 48-Hour Short Rib with Braised Daikon, Pickled Carrot and Mustard Seeds, and was easily the most difficult and time consuming dish of the evening; the ribs needed to be cooked sous-vide for 2 days, chilled in an ice bath and then deep fried, the carrots and the mustard pickled (the former for at least two days and the reserved marinade put on the stove and reduced to make a jus. Getting the marinade reduced took a lot longer than I had anticipated, causing us to fall behind our schedule for the first time and forcing me to keep the fried ribs warm in a low oven as we waited. Thankfully, keeping the ribs warm didn't have a negative effect on the final product, and when served the rib meat was universally loved for its tenderness, and the sweetness of the marinade that had formed a lovely caramelised crust.
The Pickled Carrots and the dashi-braised Daikon were great, flavoursome accompaniments that I would love to have with my meals on a more regular basis, and the interesting caviar-like texture of the Pickled Mustard went really well with the Daikon and the Short Ribs. If anything, I think this dish was probably the most educational, as it taught me some techniques I can see being incorporated into a regular home cooking repertoire - the pickling of the carrots and the braised daikon will make great sides to whatever proteins we may have on a weeknight, and I've already tried out the sous-vide, ice bath and deep fryer technique with some kangaroo with great results.
Knowing the complicated nature of the 48-Hour Ribs, I decided a dessert that was largely an assembly job would be preferable, and Cereal Milk proved just the ticket. As the name suggests, the panna cotta in this dish is made with milk steeped in corn flakes, served with a salty Caramelised Cornflake crunch, Avocado Puree and an aptly named Chocolate-Hazelnut Thing.
I managed to find moulds that were exactly the same size as the ones used at Ko, and though some of the edges of the panna cotta ended up being slightly more wonky than what is pictured in the Momofuku cookbook, I was reasonably happy that I'd replicated the dish as close as possible. Having tried some other Christina Tosi desserts that Alissa has cooked up, the classic salty-sweet combination in her cooking was unmistakably present, and Jason commented that it was surprising to find the Avocado Puree to be the sweetest component on the plate. Everything worked balance out on the plate however, and the textural contrast of the soft panna cotta and the puree against the crunch of the Caramelised Cornflakes and the not-overly-sweet Chocolate-Hazelnut Thing made this a joy to eat, and a wonderful end to the meal. While Alissa made Cornflake Chocolate Chip Marshmallow Cookies (from the Milk Bar cookbook) as Petit Fours to go with our tea and coffee (not pictured unfortunately), we were glad that Alissa had thought to package it in brown paper bags our guests could take away, as we were all so full after what had been a delicious meal, and a successful start to the Ministry of Gluttony at home dinners.
But of course, pulling off a multi-course meal like this requires a lot of organisation and prep work. One of the things I could see quite clearly in these recipes was the reality of not wanting to keep customers waiting has necessitated a style of cooking that is quite easy to finish, plate and serve but requires a lot of mise en place time. Here's a look at some of the behind the scenes work that went into making this dinner a reality as I prepared components over the week leading up to the Saturday dinner.
The Pine Nut Brittle requires three different sugars - easy to find Caster Sugar, the more uncommon Dextrose and the very specialist Isomalt, which is a not very sweet sugar.
Once the sugar had been heated to a caramel, it was mixed with butter, salt and toasted pine nuts and then set nicely on a Silpat...
... before being shattered into bite size pieces. With more than was required for this dish, these make a nice snack to keep in the fridge.
The marinade for the ribs was fairly easy make...
... as all the ingredients were combined, brought to the boil, simmered for 10 minutes and then strained.
The hard part was getting the marinade to work with the sous-vide process. Not having the money for a chamber vacuum sealer, I have to deal with some of the shortcomings of using a cheap domestic model - the worst of which is that these machines actually suck up liquid as well as the air!
The way around this is to freeze the marinade first, however with a certain amount of sugar content it wasn't set 100% solid, and the process of transferring the marinade from the tray I had frozen it in, to the bowl on the scales and into the bag caused some of it to melt. I managed to get all the bags sealed with the marinade eventually, however in future I would definitely freeze the marinade straight into the bag to avoid the hassle.
Although we've had an Anova Sous-Vide Immersion Circulator for a while, we've not cooked anything that has required quite as many portions or quite as long a time as the ribs. My usual method of clipping the Anova to our pressure cooker pot resulted in overcrowding...
... necessitating a transfer to a large plastic container. I have always been impressed by the Anova, but seeing it work so commendably near its maximum capacity only strengthened my resolve to buy a second Anova Immersion Circulator when their new model comes out.
The Hazelnut-Chocolate Thing was one of the most pesky components to put together. Gianduja is a required component, and was near impossible to find resulting in me having to blitz up Baci chocolates as they were the closest thing available (comically, I found some legitimate Gianduja five minutes from my work a few days after the dinner had already come and gone). Additionally, the Hazelnut Praline recipe nearly killed our food processor and our Bamix as the setting caramel caused blades to seize and smoke to rise from the processor's motor. I ended up throwing away the first batch and for a second batch let the caramel set before blitzing it with hazelnuts that had already been blended into hazelnut butter.
Thankfully the end result worked quite well, seen here setting on our Silpat and topped with Caramelised Cornflakes.
Speaking of Cornflakes, the Cereal Milk recipe uses a lot of cornflakes -thankfully, it is a relatively cheap ingredient.
Unfortunately, there is either a difference in the saltiness of the salt we were using Australia vs what Momofuku use, or Christina Tosi has an insane salt tolerance as the first batch I made was far too salty, requiring me to make it again on the day of the dinner.
The good thing about having to make two batches was I was able to test out getting the Panna Cotta out of the moulds. There is a bit of a trick to it, and having a batch to completely mangle helped me get my technique down pat for the real plating.
Everyone loves some good Pork Food Porn. Salt and Sugar was rubbed into the Pork Belly the night before.
After its first hour cooking at a high heat, the meat already have a lovely glaze of caramelised sugar, salt and pork fat...
...before darkening and setting for a lovely caramelised crust by the end of its cook at the lower temperature.
While we have a fairly well equipped kitchen, the Chicharrons required a new toy - a Dehydrator!
The dish is actually quite economical, as the skin used was reserved from the pork belly, and supplemented with some additional rind that the butcher kindly gave us.
Finding daikons the right thickness proved impossible, so I used a cookie cutter to cut them to a uniform size - an idea I co-opted from another blogger who has made this dish. I think this gave the daikons a lovely uniformity that was well worth the extra effort.
I should have known looking at the dough that it was not going to be as white as I had hoped...
... and seeing the dough rise less than expected clued me on to the fact the yeast hadn't worked quite as it should have. Unfortunately, this was one of the components that was made to be fresh for serving and I ran out of time to try making a second batch.
Having a tiny kitchen makes plating a difficult prospect, so we converted our usual dining room into a a plating station. This really helped make the dinner a lot less stressful, as I could use all the appliances and counter space in the kitchen for cooking without needing the counters clear for plating. The dehydrator doubled up duties during service as a plate warmer.
Alissa took care of the table arrangement, and our living room was converted into the dining room for the evening.
So how was the experience of cooking from the Momofuku cookbook? As with a lot of Chef's cookbooks, the multiple components required for the dishes makes them look a bit daunting, but when broken down each component is actually quite achievable. The thing I liked most is that these are actually really good dishes to do for dinner parties where food is served in courses. Alissa and I have hosted many dinners that have been more stressful due to the small margin of error that results from having to do so much of the actual cooking right before serving; being able to get thing done in advanced make it so much less of a hassle. On the downside, some components were difficult to source, and the directions for the Cereal Milk dessert seemed a bit off in terms of the saltiness, and the fact that the Praline nearly destroyed two of our appliances. But otherwise I don't see why a home cook of moderate skill and a good dose of patience to see it through shouldn't attempt any of these dishes - especially when they taste soooo good.