This post is an installment from the ongoing Dessert FourPlay project, in which I prepare and write about all of the desserts in Dessert FourPlay: Sweet Quartets from a Four-Star Pastry Chef by Johnny Iuzzini. For more on this project, click here.
I just have to reiterate, it’s so good to be back. Back to blogging (although still working through the issues that have caused all the pictures from the past six months to go missing), and also, back to Brooklyn, where I’m picking up shifts at my beloved Brooklyn restaurant while I look for my next internship opportunity. I’m delighted to report that for the first time, I’m getting paid for the work that I’m doing. Officially, one year after leaving my desk job and almost one year after starting at the French Culinary Institute, I’m cooking “professionally”.
It’s reassuring that there are some constants shared by my two restaurants so far, as the chefs at both the ritzy, Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant and the humble Brooklyn kitchen grabbed onto the big summer season opener, rhubarb, with gusto. (At the former, a certain very famous executive chef burst into the pastry kitchen one morning and demanded “zee sexy rhubarb!” for a spring photoshoot – these are the moments to which we unpaid students cling) And while I’ve waited until it was almost too late in the waning rhubarb season, I couldn’t resist the urge to pay homage to the vegetable I’ve come to love as one of the greatest pastry ingredients of all time.
There are several rhubarb recipes in the book, but I selected this one because of the unique ways it showcases the rhubarb, first as a vehicle for acidity and sweetness in the form of a pickle, and also a mellow version, full of earthy wine-poached flavors. The best thing for me about both kinds was the pleasant opportunity to eat rhubarb nearly raw and still crispy.
It all starts with a simple panna cotta, something I’ve come to regard as the cheat of all desserts. We’ve been serving one in Brooklyn for the past few weeks and when I come to it on the to do list, I can feel myself mentally relax, because it’s virtually impossible to mess up, even in large quantities for restaurant service. The key to panna cotta, as with all recipes where there are only a few ingredients, is using those of the highest quality available. I used Ronnybrook cream and Vermont Creamery fromage blanc. I did a double take at the grocers when I saw it was labeled “O% fat”, but a quick consult on the iPhone assured me fromage blanc it is supposed to be fat free, except in cases where fat is added back in for flavor.
I prepped the rhubarb by washing and peeling it,
and cutting it into batons.
I combined sherry vinegar, rice vinegar, honey, grenadine, salt and star anise in a saucepan, and brought the mixture to a boil. After it had cooled a bit, I poured it over the batons of rhubarb and allowed them to pickle. I did the same with a flambeed mixture of wine, port, and sugar, allowing the hot liquid to poach the rhubarb. These batons came out a little softer than the pickles, but still a bit crispy, which I liked a lot.
I also made a sheet pan of crispy phyllo. It was a lot like the stuff I made for this recipe, except this time I used honey and almond flour instead of simple syrup and peanut flour. I’m in love with crispy phyllo. I dare you to not snack away at a tray of it once its come out of the oven.
And the verdict? Almost a slam dunk. I loved the pickles on their own, but I thought the whole batons were too much pickle for one bite. They overpowered. I would dice them next time before using. I thought the port-poached batons were great just as they were. The panna cotta, a dessert that I’ve never been wild about, was one of the best I’ve ever tasted and had great texture. Thanks the smoothness of fromage blanc there is great, tangy flavor with absolutely no textural interference with the creaminess, which usually bugs me in buttermilk panna cottas. The crispy phyllo added lots of great crunch and held up well to the juices from the rhubarb batons.