Using any recipe involves a great deal of trust. Personally, I’d much rather pay $50 for a cookbook with recipes that are well-written and accurate, than take a chance with recipes from an unknown source. For the cost of ingredients and the time I spend making a dish, I feel I owe it to myself to make sure I’m working with the best recipe I can find.
Although recipes for French comfort food are easy to come by, I had been eagerly anticipating Thomas Keller’s cookbook on the subject for the past year. If you're familiar with my blog, you may have noticed that I’m a big fan of Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook. Not only do his dishes taste wonderful, but his techniques and preparations are more refined than any other cookbook I’ve seen. And while it’s true that the amount of refinement can make his dishes long and elaborate, everything is done for a reason, and the results have always been worth it.
Three weeks ago when Keller’s Bouchon cookbook finally arrived, I was bouncing off the wall with excitement, and then I was blown away. Much like his food, attention has been paid to the smallest of details in this book. The writing and photographs are beautiful, and the recipes I’ve tried so far have been delicious.
The contents of Bouchon are chronologically ordered and include:
- First Impressions (Hors d’Oeuvres, Charcuterie and Terrines, The Raw Bar)
- Anytime (Soups, Salads, Quiches, Tartines)
- First Courses (Fish and Shellfish, Birds and Meats)
- Main Courses (Gnocchi, Fish and Shellfish, Birds and Meats, Accompaniments)
- Desserts (Custards, Tarts and Cakes, Ice Creams and Sorbets, Puffs, Crêpes, Cookies and Fruits)
- Basic Preparations and Techniques (Building Blocks, Sauces and Butters, Stocks and Jus, Sweet Doughs and Creams, Techniques)
Each section begins with an essay about the importance of the particular topic, or about an aspect of bistro cuisine. For instance, in the Quiches section, Keller writes about the qualities of a great quiche, its history, the tools needed, and the proper technique. He then explains in exacting detail how to make a basic quiche shell and a basic quiche batter. Finally, he provides recipes for four classic variations including Quiche Lorraine and Quiche Forestière, before moving onto the next subject, Tartines.
In addition to the essays that begin each section, each recipe also starts with a brief blurb about the importance of the particular recipe, or with a few useful hints. Above all else however, the blurbs, essays and recipes convey the passion with which Keller approaches food. It’s like he’s talking to you – telling you why you should care, before guiding you step by step through each recipe. Though not every recipe has a picture, they seem to be there whenever they’re needed. And as with The French Laundry Cookbook, the photography is beautiful and meaningful.
The recipes in Bouchon range from very simple to elaborate. Though the recipes may not be as exotic and complex as those in The French Laundry Cookbook, they're still very refined, and don’t opt for any shortcuts.
According to Keller, “Whereas The French Laundry Cookbook is about using the ideas and techniques of classic cuisine as a springboard for the imagination to create new dishes, Bouchon is about maintaining classic traditions, renewing our respect for those great dishes, holding them up to the light to understand them, in order to perfect them. To that end, the recipes detail the important qualities to strive for in each dish . . . and the techniques you’ll need to achieve them.”
And according to Jeffrey Cerciello, chef at Bouchon (the restaurant), “These dishes are made and served in home kitchens and restaurants throughout the world, so what distinguishes one onion soup from another, one lemon tart from another, is not a recipe so much as a standard of technique.”
To put Bouchon’s recipes to the test, I chose two simple recipes, roast chicken and pomme frites, and two lengthier recipes, onion soup and duck confit.
Roast Chicken: There’s not much more to this recipe then salting, trussing, roasting, and resting. But it’s very delicious and satisfying. The meat is moist and almost creamy. I actually prefer this recipe over the roast chicken recipe from the Zuni Café that I normally use.
Pomme Frites: Another simple recipe that works very well. There’s nothing particularly special about this recipe. As you might expect, it involves frying the potatoes first at a low temperature, before frying them again at a higher temperature to get a crisp exterior.
Onion Soup: I thought this soup actually tasted better the longer it sat in my refrigerator. My guess is that either the flavours developed over time, or that it tasted better the more I reduced it. It’s a very satisfying dish, particularly on a cold day. The comté cheese, toasted baguette, and soup make a wonderful combination. I was a bit surprised by the preparation time: seven hours for the beef stock, four hours to caramelize the onions, and another hour of reduction.
Duck Confit: Admittedly, I don't remember if I’ve ever eaten duck confit before, so my basis for comparison is limited. I was impressed by the incredibly tender meat, but more so by the crisp skin which lay on top of a thin, molten layer of fat.
In the future, I hope to try many more recipes from this book. The recipes for rillettes, quiches and gnocchi are dishes that I'd never thought about making, but now they're on the top of my list.
Overall I’m very impressed with Bouchon. For the recipes, stories, pictures and knowledge that I’ll gain from using this book, it’s well worth the price. A few things that I wish had been included in the book are: more discussion about wine pairings, a glossary or a separate index of terms, techniques and tools, weighted measurements for pastry recipes, and a larger selection of viennoiseries such as croissants and palmiers. But again, Bouchon is exceptional compared to just about every other cookbook I’ve seen. If you’re interested in hearing more about this book, check out this radio interview which Thomas Keller and Jeffrey Cerciello did yesterday on QKED.
Authors: Thomas Keller with Jeffrey Cerciello along with Susie Heller (co-author), Michael Ruhlman (writer), and Deborah Jones (photographer)
Published by: Artisan, October 2004
360 pages, $50 US/$69.95 CAN