Saturday, December 1, 2012

Cheddar Gougere Smackdown

Cheddar Gougere Smackdown, originally uploaded by riptideredsf.
The next big thing to happen to the little kitchen recently was a lovely surprise from my fellow foodie, friend and neighbor Sheena.
The Thursday after Thanksgiving, she picked me up after work to take me to a surprise event she'd been cooking up for several weeks. All I knew was that we were headed across the Golden Gate Bridge to a pre-paid, non-refundable event that started at 6:30 and that it involved food.
As we approached the private dining room at the Left Bank Brasserie in Larkspur that dark and stormy night, and I realized what was in store for us, I was blown away by crazy coincidence. Let me back track a moment.
A few years ago I came across two books that would unexpectedly, collide with a third on this evening, propelling my little kitchen OCD to a whole new level.
It started with Dorie Greenspan's gorgeous book Around my French Table. The most repeated recipe is her Cheddar Gougeres- light, airy, cheesy puff pastries that are super simple to make and pair perfectly with soup or just a  glass of wine.
The other book, The Best Food Writing of 2009 was picked up at Community Thrift around the same time, perfect for bedtime and bus reading. The most re-read story has been Kitchen Smackdown, an entertaining and engaging trio of articles by Kim Severson, Julia Moskin and Frank Bruni, New York Times food writers, friends and co-workers. The articles recount the challenge Mr. Bruni set upon the two friends and collegues to prepare a dinner for six for $50.  He would attend both dinners and judge a winner. 
I hadn't picked up the book in ages, but an impromptu bus ride had me scrambling for some reading as I rushed out the door on Wednesday morning.  Kim and Julia's story was re-visited.
Thursday evening, I was dining with Kim Severson and Julia Moskin.
I didn't know this as we were led through the restaurant, back toward a private dining room. There were about 5 people sitting at a large, lovely table set for 14. A woman standing at a small round table at the entrance checked Sheena and Guest off her list and  handed us each a book, informing us that the authors hadn't yet arrived due to the dark & stormy. I peruse the cover:
CookFight!  I was utterly gobsmacked. I've been OCD/ADD-ing in other places, completely unaware of this books existence (much less this event), the culmination of 11 subsequent kitchen smackdowns between Kim and Julia since that first (and the only one on my radar) in 2009. What a weird, wild and amazing coincidence. Sheena and I had never discussed their names and she had no idea what to expect herself when she set forth planning this.
What an amazing surprise!
I mentioned this to the authors as we had our books signed. Kim wrote:
"To Michele, I love how the universe works!" I'm still floored by it.
The menu that evening consisted of recipes from the book, prepared by the Left Bank chef. It was a series of courses, each consisting of two dishes from the book, from each of the authors.
There were some interesting stand-outs, but maybe not for the reasons one might expect.
Julia's Cheddar Gougeres was one of the starters. I was intrigued because I love Dorie Greenspan's gougeres so much. The ones that I ate that night? not so impressed. They were dry, pale and barely hinted of cheese. How could this be? Was it the recipe or the cook?
There was actually an interesting discussion at one point during the evening when the bookseller commented on chef/authors who insisted on bringing in their own team to cook the event meal. I guess this was case in point. The meal was bookended with a similar kitchen faux-pas in the dessert course,  over-baked Bacon Fat Gingersnaps. Everything else was wonderful. Baking must not be a strong suit at Left Bank.
I couldn't get  those gougeres out of my head. Julia had even commented on their dryness.
Thusly, the little kitchen created The Gougere Smackdown the very next morning. Dorie's recipe came first and resulted in their usual, lightly puffed, cheezy, can't -stop- shoving -these- in- my -mouth, delicateness.
 In the afternoon, I made Julia's, which turned out nothing like the dry biscuits we had the night before. The two variations I'd just prepared  were identical in appearance and consistency and the recipes were slightly different. An additional egg and milk in Dorie's recipe had me thinking they would be the moistest of the two, where Julia's had the additional zing of mustard powder and cayenne. I was using inexpensive, supermarket, extra sharp block cheddar as opposed to some kind of fancy white cheddar that was most likely behind the version I had a the restaurant.
I took them both to Sheena's and had her choose the favorite:
Julia's Gougeres are vindicated and triumph!

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