Mix(er)ed Results

MC Warm Spice is off visiting the family, so I decided to have friends C&J over for burgers. I thought this would be an appropriate time to try grinding my own burger meat, as per Thomas Keller’s recipe in Ad Hoc at Home. Incredibly, Crappy Tire had (has) the KitchenAid box set of attachments at 50% off, which made it just about affordable. Thus armed, I set off to St. Lawrence Market, only to stumble into Buskerfest – a several-blocks-long clusterf*** of strollers, fast food, and other obstacles to efficient shopping.

Back at the ranch, I set to work on the first course, a melon mousse with serrano ham that has intrigued me since we picked up The Book of Tapas a couple of months back. You can find the recipe (and several others) here, but the specified 1.5L of water is actually not in the book… ahem. In short: puree cantaloupe, mix it with leaf gelatin, fold it into whipped cream, and spoon it back into melon shells.

Gelatin leaves soaking. Why are these not more widely available in Toronto? They're soooo much easier to work with than powder, and they never yield a grainy gelatin.

Julia, our stand mixer, hard at work whipping cream for the melon mousse.

The melon mousse, ready for the fridge.

The mousse was a failure: it separated into a moussey top layer and a liquid bottom layer (which, in itself, was a tasty enough melon soup). But it was a highly instructive failure in that three things were wrong. First, the instructions called for three small melons. This level of imprecision is fine when you’re chopping up melon for a fruit salad. But trying to set a gel using a specific amount of gelatin and a vague amount of liquid/puree is a recipe for failure. Second, although I was aware of that risk, I got frazzled and it didn’t occur to me to look up the proper ratio of liquid to gelatin. That was a huge dumbass move on my part. Finally, though, the diners all agreed that the concept was destined to produce a “meh” result. The spoon- and mouth-coating lipids from the cream actually detracted from the serrano ham “experience”. We would have been better off with a clean melon sorbet or granita, or (duh) just the classic slices of melon. So much for innovation.

Onward and upward to the burger accoutrements. This week’s Splendid Table broadcast included a recipe for a tomato jam that I thought would be a nice substitution for ketchup, and very much in line with the quasi-DIY theme of the burger. Now, I love me some Lynn Rosetto Kasper, but every now and then she takes shortcuts that make no sense. Worse, she backs them up with half-correct justifications. E.g., “I can’t bring my self to peel and seed a good tomato — much of the flavor is in the gel surrounding the seeds.” Well, that’s absolutely right. But it doesn’t follow from this that you need to leave the seeds and peels in the final product. Following the recipe would leave you with all of this in the completed tomato jam:

Much better to leave the seeds and skins in the pot, and use a food mill to extract the oozy goodness at the end. That produced a super-succulent, silky, sweet ketchup replacement that could have been a bit better had I added more lemon juice and hot chilis. But still… nom.

If you don’t have a food mill, get thee to a restaurant supply store. It’s an essential time-saver for mashed potatoes, gazpacho, and any number of other smooth foods.

The burgers themselves were fun to make. Keller’s recipe is actually super-simple: for burgers for 6 people, take 1.5 lbs. of sirloin, 12 oz. brisket, and 12 oz. of chuck (blade roast at my butcher) and mix in a teaspoon of salt and a half-teaspoon of pepper. The new meat grinder performed really well (although it did need to be partly disassembled once, to remove a glob of connective tissue). It also made comical squishy pressurized-air-meets-raw-meat sounds, much to the delight of the chef and guests, who revert to potty- and bedroom-humour when under the influence of Anchor Steam Beer.

Keller’s instructions omit the need to grind the meat twice through the large grinder plate, assuming that the reader will read his/her grinder’s instructions. A good tip from Keller, which I used, is to feed a wad of plastic wrap into the grinder at the end of the process, to ease out the remaining bits of meat. The other not-so-secret to good burgers is to compress the meat as little as possible – just enough to get it to hold its rough-edged, lumpy shape. That means that you need to be careful moving the patties around on the grill, but the tender texture is worth the extra care.

The burgers were served on Ace Bakery buns, with our homemade dill pickles, organic yellow mustard, aged cheddar, and really excellent bacon (which, like the burger meat, came from White House Meats at the St. Lawrence Market.) As usual, I overcooked them – I have yet to trust myself enough to successfully produce medium-rare burgers on the Weber grill – but the texture of the grind, and the flavour, were superior to any prepared ground beef I’ve bought.

Dessert was also from Ad Hoc at Home: a cheesecake with blackberry sauce. I’ll say right up front that this was the hit of the night. (To my consternation, as someone who is generally averse to sweets, dessert is often my most successful course at dinner parties.)

Keller uses a mix of cream cheese and mascarpone, and this, combined with the technique of cooking the ‘cake in a bain marie, produces the smoothest possible filling. The element of the meal that gave me the most pride, though, was the blackberry sauce. Because of laziness, frugality, and lack of time, I didn’t have a key component on hand: tawny port, Banyuls wine, or late harvest Zinfandel. I decided to substitute some balsamic vinegar glaze that was in the pantry, and a bit of Grand Marnier. The results were perfect: subtle sweetness, heady aromatics from the berries and liqueur, a profound depth of smoky-complex flavour, and ideal silkiness. This was a very grown-up cheesecake topping indeed. C perhaps said it best:

Not content with licking her own plate, a guest moves on to others'.

Don’t worry, MC Warm Spice: the blackberry sauce and tomato jam will still be here when you get back.