Roast Duck & Smoky Mushroom Vols-au-Vent with Sweet Potato Hash

The most important question I asked myself this month went something like this: What does one do with 729 layers of butter wrapped in crispy puff pastry? My answer went something like this: Serve it with Bacon. Because sometimes the best answers are also the most obvious.

More precisely, I served my vols-au-vent filled with roasted duck and wild mushrooms with bacon, and I finished that with a little red wine. To make things even more festive, I also made a roasted sweet potato and butternut squash hash with rosemary--really because I was craving some holiday fare and the flavors were a nice light, sweet complement to the earthy richness of the buttery, smokey duck entree.

The best part about these components is that you can serve them so many ways. Next time I'll serve the duck breast with the skin on, and finely shred the rest of the duck and chop the bacon and mushrooms smaller for a more refined, less rustic dinner. And the sweet potato hash is great paired with a gamefish like a meaty swordfish for a simple yet flavorful meal.

Sweet Potato & Butternut Squash Hash w/Rosemary:

1/2 large butternut squash
3 large sweet potatoes
3 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp. kosher salt (sounds like alot, but it keeps the dish savory instead of too sweet)
1 tsp. fresh ground pepper
4 Tbs. fine chopped fresh rosemary
1 Tbs. pumpkin pie spice
2 tsp. ground nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the skin from the sweet potatoes and the butternut squash. (It's easiest if you pull towards you on the squash, since it's skin is more like a rind and doesn't peel easily.) Cut them into 1-inch cubes and place them in high-sided baking dish.

Toss the remaining ingredients with the chopped squash and sweet potatoes, and bake on the top rack of the oven, uncovered, for 35 minutes or until the vegetables are easily pierced with a fork and slightly browned.
Roasted Duck & Smoky Mushroom Vols-au-Vent:

4 large puff pastry vols-au-vent
1 4-5 lb. whole duck
3 large garlic cloves
3 sprigs rosemary
2 medium-sized white onions
5 strips of uncooked, smoked bacon
4 cups oyster and sliced cremini mushrooms, washed
2 cups red wine
1 oz cold, unsalted butter
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

Gratuitous oyster mushroom closeup
Remove the gizzards, liver, ect. from the duck and rinse inside and out. Pat dry and season the inside of the duck with salt and pepper. Smash the garlic cloves and add them and the rosemary sprigs to the inside of the duck. Place 1/2 of an onion in the opening to "block" it and keep the seasonings in. Tie the duck's legs and wings if necessary.

Prick the duck skin all over with a sharp knife, cutting through the fat but not the meat and season with salt and pepper. Roast the duck in an oven at 375 and according to these directions, or rotisserie the duck for 1 hour. (Thanks Mama and Papa BaCon for my awesome rotisserie!) If you use your rotisserie, your skin will be less crispy, but you'll have an easier go.

When the duck is finished, let it rest for at least 15 minutes before carving.
Place bacon strips in an oven proof saute pan, and render at 500 degrees until bacon is crisp but not burnt. (Approx. 10 minutes). Remove the bacon and crumble when cool.
Add 1 onion, coarse chopped, and the mushrooms to the saute pan, stir to make sure that everything is covered in bacon drippings, and bake at 500 degrees covered for 5 minutes and uncovered for 10. The onion and mushrooms should be slightly browned and cooked through.

Remove the mushrooms and onions, and drain any remaining bacon fat. Add red wine to the saute pan and simmer over medium-low heat, scraping up any browned bits in the bottom of the pan, until the red wine is reduced to 3/4 cup. Only add salt and pepper after the wine has reduced, to ensure that you don't over-season. Add bacon, mushrooms, and onions to the red wine reduction and toss to coat. Serve in vol-au-vent shells with the duck and the sweet potato hash on the side.

729 Layers of Butter: The Daring Bakers make Puff Pastry Vols-au-Vents

The September 2009 Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan.
I loved this challenge, and I'll likely become a puff-pastry-making fool after this. Don't be surprised if you stop by for some Project Runway and a pizza and I bring you a slice in a giant puff pastry. And don't think you can get out of it by simply coming over for drinks. Mr. Luz's martinis can be served in puff pastry vols-au-vent--what do you think I had for dinner last night?

Maybe it was the fact that I took four sticks of butter and beat them with a rolling pin into an inch-thick, 1 lb. slab of creamy fat. Maybe I just like the term "laminated dough." (Laminated documents are kind of sexy. They're all glossy and crisp.) But I think that I really loved this challenge because I created a dish with 729 layers of butter. That's effing crazy, right?!

Before I get to the challenge recipe, I have a few comments and tips for anyone trying to recreate it. First, I used bleached flour and cheapish butter and the results tasted great but weren't as pretty or puffy as they could have been. Next time, I'm getting fancy, fatty butter and unbleached flour so everything comes out golden and crispy. Also, I made square pastries first, and the dough seemed to like the straight cuts better. There was more definition between the layers, BUT I applied 4 strips of dough to the bottom layer to make the puffed walls of the vols-au-vent, and they came out wonky. Next time I'll cut two squares of the same size, and then cut an inner square out of the center of the top layer so the walls are all one piece.

Also, do a little research on puff pastry so you get the directions stated a few different ways. This Julia Child video on making puff pastry is educational and enjoyable, so grab a glass of wine and start your project with a little Julia.

And just to prove that I did not throw my DB challenge on the floor this go round, here's a pic of it, dough-free.

Michel Richard’s Puff Pastry Dough
From: Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan

Puff pastry is in the "laminated dough” family, along with Danish dough and croissant dough. A laminated dough consists of a large block of butter, the “beurrage," enclosed in dough, called the “détrempe”. This dough/butter packet is called a “paton,” and is rolled and folded repeatedly to create the crisp, flaky, parallel layers you see when baked. Puff pastry dough contains no yeast in the détrempe, and relies solely aeration to achieve its high rise. The turning process creates hundreds of layers of butter and dough, with air trapped between each one. In the hot oven, water in the dough and the melting butter creates steam, which expands in the trapped air pockets, forcing the pastry to rise.

2 1/2 Cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/4 Cups cake flour
1 Tbsp. salt
1 1/4 Cups ice water
1 lb. very cold unsalted butter
Plus extra flour for dusting work surface

Mixing the Dough:

Check the capacity of your food processor before you start. If it cannot hold the full quantity of ingredients, make the dough into two batches and combine them.

Put the all-purpose flour, cake flour, and salt in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse a couple of times just to mix. Add the water all at once, pulsing until the dough forms a ball on the blade. The dough will feel like Play-Doh.

Remove the dough from the machine, form it into a ball, and slash the top in a tic-tac-toe pattern. Wrap the dough in a damp towel and refrigerate for about 5 minutes.

Place the butter between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and beat it with a rolling pin until it flattens into a square that's about 1" thick. Take care that the butter remains cool and firm: if it has softened or become oily, chill it before continuing.

Incorporating the Butter:

Unwrap the dough and place it on a work surface dusted with all-purpose flour with your rolling pin (preferably a French rolling pin without handles), press on the dough to flatten it and then roll it into a 10" square. Keep the top and bottom of the dough well floured to prevent sticking and lift the dough and move it around frequently. Starting from the center of the square, roll out over each corner to create a thick center pad with "ears," or flaps.
Place the cold butter in the middle of the dough and fold the ears over the butter, stretching them as needed so that they overlap slightly and encase the butter completely. You should now have a package that is 8" square.

To make great puff pastry, it is important to keep the dough cold at all times. If your room is warm, or you find that for no particular reason the butter starts to ooze out of the pastry, cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate it .

Making the Turns:

Gently but firmly press the rolling pin against the top and bottom edges of the square (this will help keep it square). Then, keeping the work surface and the top of the dough well floured to prevent sticking, roll the dough into a rectangle that is three times as long as the square you started with, about 24" (don't worry about the width of the rectangle: if you get the 24", everything else will work itself out.) With this first roll, it is particularly important that the butter be rolled evenly along the length and width of the rectangle; check when you start rolling that the butter is moving along well, and roll a bit harder or more evenly, if necessary, to get a smooth, even dough-butter sandwich (use your arm-strength!).

With a pastry brush, brush off the excess flour from the top of the dough, and fold the rectangle up from the bottom and down from the top in thirds, like a business letter, brushing off the excess flour. You have completed one turn.
Rotate the dough so that the closed fold is to your left, like the spine of a book. Repeat the rolling and folding process, rolling the dough to a length of 24" and then folding it in thirds. This is the second turn.
Chilling the Dough:

If the dough is still cool and no butter is oozing out, you can give the dough another two turns now. If the condition of the dough is iffy, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes. Each time you refrigerate the dough, mark the number of turns you've completed by indenting the dough with your fingertips. It is best to refrigerate the dough for 30 to 60 minutes between each set of two turns.

The total number of turns needed is six. If you prefer, you can give the dough just four turns now, chill it overnight, and do the last two turns the next day. Puff pastry is extremely flexible in this regard. However, no matter how you arrange your schedule, you should plan to chill the dough for at least an hour before cutting or shaping it.

Steph’s extra tips:
-Many puff pastry recipes use a teaspoon or two of white vinegar or lemon juice, added to the ice water, in the détrempe dough. This adds acidity, which relaxes the gluten in the dough by breaking down the proteins, making rolling easier.
-If you chill your paton longer than the recommended time between turns, the butter can firm up too much. If this seems to be the case, let it sit at room temperature for 5-10 minutes to give it a chance to soften before proceeding to roll. You want the butter to roll evenly, in a continuous layer.
-Roll the puff pastry gently but firmly, and don’t roll your pin over the edges, which will prevent them from rising properly.
-Try to keep “neat” edges and corners during the rolling and turning process, so the layers are properly aligned.
-Brush off excess flour before turning dough and after rolling.

Forming and Baking the Vols-au-Vent

Well-chilled puff pastry dough
Egg wash (1 egg or yolk beaten with a small amount of water)
Your filling of choice

Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.

Using a knife or metal bench scraper, divided your chilled puff pastry dough into three equal pieces. Work with one piece of the dough, and leave the rest wrapped and chilled. (See the layers? MMMMmmmmbutter encased dough layers....)

On a lightly floured surface, roll the piece of dough into a rectangle about 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick. Transfer it to the baking sheet and refrigerate for about 10 minutes before proceeding with the cutting.

For larger sized vols-au-vent, fit for a main course or dessert, use a 4” cutter to cut out about 4 circles. Make clean, sharp cuts and try not to twist your cutters (or your sharp knife, for squares) back and forth or drag your knife through the dough. Half of these rounds will be for the bases, and the other half will be for the sides. (Save any scrap by stacking—not wadding up—the pieces…they can be re-rolled and used if you need extra dough. If you do need to re-roll scrap to get enough disks, be sure to use any rounds cut from it for the bases, not the ring-shaped sides.)

Using a 2- to 2.5-inch round cutter, cut centers from half of the rounds to make rings. These rings will become the sides of the vols-au-vent, while the solid disks will be the bottoms.

Dock the solid bottom rounds with a fork (prick them lightly, making sure not to go all the way through the pastry) and lightly brush them with egg wash. Place the rings directly on top of the bottom rounds and very lightly press them to adhere. Brush the top rings lightly with egg wash, trying not to drip any down the sides (which may inhibit rise).

Refrigerate the assembled vols-au-vent on the lined baking sheet while you pre-heat the oven to 400ºF (200ºC). Once the oven is heated, remove the sheet from the refrigerator and place a silicon baking mat (preferred because of its weight) or another sheet of parchment over top of the shells. This will help them rise evenly. Bake the shells until they have risen and begin to brown, about 10-15 minutes depending on their size. Reduce the oven temperature to 350ºF (180ºC), and remove the silicon mat or parchment sheet from the top of the vols-au-vent. If the centers have risen up inside the vols-au-vent, you can gently press them down. Continue baking (with no sheet on top) until the layers are golden, about 15-20 minutes more.

Remove to a rack to cool. Cool to room temperature for cold fillings or to warm for hot fillings.
Fill and serve.

Good Eats St. Louis: Annie Gunn's Restaurant

No trip to St. Louis, Missouri--my original hometown--is complete without a trip to Annie Gunn's Restaurant.

Annie's promoted sustainable, artisanal, locally-sourced ingredients before such things became de rigueur in fine dining. And to list a few of its many distinctions, Annie's has been recognized as one of the Distinguished Restaurants of North America (DIRONA), and Chef Lou Rook III was a recent semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef, Midwest. Glenn Bardgett's wine list consistently wins the Wine Spectator "Best Of" Award of Excellence in addition to other prestigious awards, and reads like a bacchanalian, lyrical love poem to some of the best wines in the world. (ie: "Etude 2006 Carneros ~ An old favorite never fails to excite, always a benchmark of Carneros")

But above all, to me, Annie Gunn's means family. Although I only worked at Annie's for 2 years, it's like no time has passed when I go back. I'm always greeted with happy hugs, warm smiles, updates about children and now grandchildren (!), and it is a loving and wonderful homecoming. The most significant and unexpected of these homecomings happened in September, 2005. Just one month after I left Annie's and moved to New Orleans for law school, Hurricane Katrina sent me back home with nothing but my dog, a few law books, and 3 changes of clothes. Annie's took me back with open and friendly arms. Co-workers donated uniforms, shoes, and clothes, and I was immediately back on the schedule. For several months, I was panicked, and grief-stricken for everyone and everything that we lost in the floods after the storm, but I was never alone--my Annie's family made sure of that.

Annie's is an amazing family because the people who work there--many of whom have been there for more than a decade--share a real compassion for one another that can handle any crisis. (Something that I will always be thankful for.)

And Annie's is an amazing restaurant because its staff shares a collective passion for fine dining with its guests day in and day out. Obviously I can't write a real review--it would be like trying to critique Mama BaCon's jambalaya recipe--but here are some photos from my latest trip to Annie's. Like my most recent visit, here's hoping that my Annie's homecomings from now on are merely sweet, and always familiar. And if you, dear reader, get to visit any time soon, I hope you are able to recognize that Annie's is much, much more than just a restaurant. And the maple glazed smoked shrimp are not to be missed.

(If you guys end up reading this Glenn, Lesley, Pappa & Claire, and Chef Lou--I miss you guys all the time. You'll never know how much you mean to me, but maybe this helps? I love you!)

Herb Crusted Missouri Goatsbeard Farm Goat Cheese with Local Arugula, Oil-cured olives, Alici and Local Plum Compote and Lamb Bacon

Daily Lunch Special of Sauteed Gulf Shrimp in an Herb Heirloom Tomato Broth and Crispy Risotto Cakes

Grilled Medallion of Beef Tenderloin and Sauteed Hudson Valley Foie Gras with a Schlafly Pale Ale Tamarind Caramel Glaze and Whipped Yukon Gold Potatoes

(aka "Foie Gras As Big As Yer Head")

St. Louis Good Eats: BBQ Pork Steaks

Summer's almost over, but it certainly ain't over yet and I have another grilling recipe to prove it. Keeping with tradition here at BaCon, this recipe produces pretty impressive results with relatively little work. (leaving plenty of time for beer drinking and impromptu dance parties, of course. I have my priorities in line.)

My love for the grill actually started one Summer afternoon in South St. Louis, Missouri. I was a recent college grad, and I found myself with some free time, absolutely no cooking skills, (Mama BaCon will tell you that at this point in my life I could "burn water"), and a tiny table-top charcoal camping grill. On this particular day, I skipped the frozen section at the grocery store and instead headed to the more daunting butcher department for some pork steaks. I was craving some St. Louis Summer food, and though I didn't quite pull it off on that day (don't ask), I became mildly obsessed with the smoky, familiar smell of meat on a hot grill, and the pursuit of the perfect grilling recipe.

Now for the facts. If you've never had a BBQ pork steak, well--I'm truly sorry. Pork steaks are also known as blade steak or pork shoulder steak because they come from cutting a Boston Butt, or shoulder roast, into 1 inch steaks. They're typically rimmed with fat and almost like beef brisket in texture--super dense and flavorful--so they're perfect for BBQing. Although they're truly a staple of St. Louis Summers, you can find pork steaks in D.C.. Mama and Papa BaCon drove mine down from St. Louis when I was in NOLA (yes, am spoiled) but you can have the butcher at your grocery store cut some for you if you find yourself without a cross-country delivery service.

Besides fire and smoke, the key component to any good St. Louis style pork steak is either a tasty caramelized crust or a slow simmer thanks to a sweet, spicy tomato based BBQ sauce. I start with Sweet Baby Ray's and doctor it, but feel free to use your favorite from the store or your spice cabinet, so long as it's tangy and tomato based.

St. Louis Style BBQ Pork Steaks:

4 pork steaks, untrimmed and seasoned with salt and pepper
3 cups of your favorite BBQ sauce
3 large cloves of garlic
1 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 Tbs. dried oregano
1 Tbs. brown sugar
3-4 beers (and more for drinking)

Prepare your charcoal grill or turn your gas grill on medium direct heat. If using charcoal, spread the hot coals in an even thin layer over the bottom of the grill. Grill the seasoned pork steaks over medium direct heat for 7-10 minutes, or till the meat has browned and some of the fat has rendered and turn and cook the other side for another 5-10 minutes. In an older, clean metal baking pan or an aluminum pan with high sides, add the BBQ sauce, garlic, cayenne, brown sugar, and oregano with one beer.

Place the pork steaks in the pan, and add more beer until the pork steaks are 1/2 covered. Tightly cover the pan with foil, and place on the grill. Cover, and simmer for 2-3 hours. Occasionally listen to the pan, and if it's stopped bubbling, add 1 more beer and re-cover to continue cooking.

When the pork steaks are mostly falling off the bone, carefully remove them from the pan and serve.

Obelisk Restaurant, D.C., Because I Deserve It

This past weekend I spent a quiet, lazy morning sipping coffee and puttering around in the cool, sunny air breezing through my open windows, and I felt thankful, and peaceful, and sad all at once. One part of me feels sentimental about the end of Summer, my first year away from New Orleans and in a Real Job, and the recent and abrupt end of a chapter in my personal life that I haven't quite come to terms with yet.

Another part of me--the part that soon put down the coffee cup and spent the next 2 days baking, chopping, and basting--is impatient with all this reflection. I'm ready for the wisdom that comes from learning to be truly alive in a place I don't want to live, and for the confidence that comes from surviving my first year as an attorney in an occasionally-vicious industry. More than that, I'm ready to leave any self-doubt and heartache from the past year behind me.

But I do know that you can't force growth and maturity, no matter how ready you are to accept it. So I'm stuck with my sometimes-peaceful reflection and/or sadness, with occasional outbursts of purposeful joy and acceptance, until it all starts to come naturally again.

In the meantime, I can cook, and eat, and celebrate everything I possibly can, and Mr. Luz and I were able to do that this weekend at Obelisk in Dupont Circle. Formally, we were celebrating a seriously unexpected bonus from work hitting my bank account; informally, we were trying to take some time for ourselves and let the pure enjoyment of a perfectly executed 5-course tasting menu take precedent over all else.

If you get the chance, please go to Obelisk to celebrate something--anything. From Obelisk's crispy sardines and burrata antipastis and fresh, pillowy pasta courses (burrata is a fresh-cream-filled mozzarella from Italy that Obelisk only serves within 48 hours of its creation) to its bold entrees (including a wagyu beef sirloin), creamy complex cheese offerings, and its adventurous dessert combinations (ie: sour plum and caramel cream), you will be well cared for.

When you're at Obelisk, being treated to their warm service and divine ingredients, you're not thinking about your work schedule, or your cable bill. It's a place where you can be completely present in the flavors of your meal and the intimacy of good friends and family, and everyone deserves more of that in their lives.

PhotoCredit: Sklathill's Flickr

International Bacon Day!

I'm taking a break from my break to give you some bacony goodness that was too tantalizing to pass up. [Alliteration, yum.]

September 5 was International Bacon Day, and because I'm slow on the uptake, I deem September 5-12 International Bacon Week. In reality, all good things take at least a week to celebrate (you should be around for my birthday) so it's not too much of a stretch. Also, next year I demand a King and Queen of International Bacon Week. I want a pageant, and fanfare, and bacon-adorned regalia. I don't even have to be Queen, but I do have to be a member of the Court so I can get a tiara.***

Did you miss International Bacon Day? Well, you haven't missed Bacon Week, and here are some fun ways others partied on the 5th to inspire your own celebration.

The Royal Bacon Society, mysterious inner circle that they are, hosted a Bacon Day extravaganza in Santa Barbara, CA. As reported by Jennifer Eolin of the New Old Biddy, Bacon Day boasted creative cookies, bacon caramels, a tasty goat-cheese bacon concoction, and bacon strips drowning in a chocolate fountain. Jennifer's post also reviews some of the bacon-flavored novelties scurrilously capitalizing on the bacon meme (click on my Ads! click on my Ads!)

Bacon mints? Eh. I vote for J&D's bacon lip balm. It's just like rubbing smoky bacon all over your face in the name of beauty, and don't act like that doesn't sound awesome. RBS is promising recipes soon, but if I were you I'd just get one of those chocolate fountains, fry up a pound of extra smoky bacon, and have that for dinner.

Wan Life to Live risked life and limb to make a tasty bacon tempura. The recipe is fairly technical for all you chem geeks out there, and the end results looked divine. Not only is this bacon deep-fried, but it's deep fried in a puffy, airy, crispy coating that's perfect for dipping in ranch dressing. And Wan cusses a fair bit on her blog, which I find endearing. Crass bloggers of the world, unite!

And of course, the industry folks over at have dozens of ideas for your International Bacon DayWeek parties. Their favorite?'s ready-made Bacon Explosion, which may be available soon at your local grocery stores. Just think, the next time you're in the mood for a woven-bacon log filled with sausage and covered with BBQ sauce, you just have to run down to the grocery store and pick one up along with your prescription of Prevalite.

The International Bacon Day blog, which explains that IBD has been celebrated in at least 6 countries and embraces Vegetarians and Non-pork eaters by also recognizing the glory of non-pork bacon substitutes, will have a summary of all the 2009 festivities soon. That means we get to start planning for next year.

****The AntiCraft ladies remind those who wish to make their Pork Princess tiara: "You are going to be working with an enzyme that bonds protein. You are made of protein. Unless you want to glue your lungs together or glue your eyelids to your eyeballs, you absolutely must follow these safety rules."