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We recently received a reviewer’s copy of Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter written by Phoebe Damrosch. Phoebe was part of Per Se’s opening team and her charming memoir offers an amusing peek at the goings-on behind the scenes of a high-profile restaurant opening. The sweet coming-of-age, romantic tale makes for engaging light reading and I zipped through most of the book on a couple of short-haul flights I had to take lately.
Early on in the book, the author talks about being interviewed for a position at Per Se and being grilled about Thomas Keller’s cookbook. Her interviewer offers her a little piece of advice. He tells her not waste time trying to make Keller’s famous cornets because they break easily, i.e. they’re ridiculously delicate. The salmon cornets appear as the very first recipe in The French Laundry Cookbook and are also the first things guests are served at both of Keller’s high-end establishments. Naturally, Damrosch promptly tries to make the cornets, despite not having the stencil, moulds and Silpats called for in the recipe. The results are disastrous but make for very good and humourous reading. (She does attempt the recipe again later, after acquiring the requisite tools, and manages to produce a couple of usable cones.)
Inspired by her hilarious tale, I attempted the recipe too. The fabulous thing about The French Laundry Cookbook is that while its recipes are ridiculously elaborate, if you have the time and patience to follow them, you do end up with pretty tasty dishes. I have to admit that while Phoebe deviated from the actual recipe (making do with whatever she had), I followed the instructions religiously (that’s just the way I am; CH calls me “anal” but I still love him). Despite this, I still managed to screw up the first batch because I baked them for too long before I rolled them. But with a little patience, I did eventually end up with exactly 24 usable cones. Our guests enjoyed them so much (CH made his trio of tuna tartares to go into them) that we decided to make them again. This time around, we opted to serve just one cone per person (because I don’t have a death-wish) and filled it with CH’s salmon tartare. Yum! This recipe isn’t for the faint-hearted, but the pleasure your guests are bound to get from tasting these bite-sized bits of fun more than makes up for it.
Service Included goes on sale in the United States on 25 September 2007.
Adapted from a recipe from The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller
Makes approximately 24
¼ cup plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon caster sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 ounces unsalted butter, softened but still cool to the touch
2 large egg whites, cold
2 tablespoons black sesame seeds
First, you’ll need to create a circular stencil. I cut a square of thick plastic from a folder and cut out a 4-inch circle (you throw the circle away). You will also need (ideally) two Silpats that fit into two baking sheets, and cornet moulds (I bought mine at Phoon Huat).
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius (400 degrees Fahrenheit).
In a medium bowl, mix the flour, sugar and salt together. In a separate bowl, whisk the softened butter until it is completely smooth and mayonnaise-like in texture. Given the heat in Singapore and in my kitchen, I found it easiest to whisk the butter in my KitchenAid. Using a stiff spatula or spoon, beat the egg whites into the dry ingredients until completely incorporated and smooth. Whisk in the softened butter by thirds, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary and whisking until the batter is creamy and without any lumps. Transfer the batter into a smaller container (this will make it easier to work with).
I’ve found it useful to refrigerate the batter for 10 minutes before I use it (again, this may be due to the fact that I work in a really hot kitchen).
Place the stencil in one corner of the Silpat. Scoop some of the batter (I use a smidgen more than a level teaspoonful) and spread it in an even layer over the stencil. An offset spatula is useful for the spreading process. Run the spatula over the stencil to remove any excess batter. This takes practice and patience, but it isn’t rocket science. Lift the stencil and repeat the process (leave 1½ inches between the cornets). I find that I can only handle four circles at a time. You might wish to work with more. Sprinkle each cornet with a pinch of sesame seeds.
Place the Silpat on a heavy baking sheet and bake for 4-6 minutes or until the batter is set and you see it rippling from the heat. I stopped looking at the clock after awhile. You’ll learn to work out when it’s ready simply by looking at them. The cornets do ripple at the edges and you want them to have a crepe-like pliability when you take them out.
Remove the pan from the oven and flip the cornets with a spatula. Roll each cornet around a mould to create a cone. To do this, place the tip of the cone at the lower left edge of the cornet, roughly at 7 o’clock on a clock face. Fold the bottom of the cornet up and around the mould and carefully roll upwards. It should remain on the sheet pan as you roll. Repeat with the rest of the cornets. Roll each one as quickly as you can because the metal moulds conduct heat rapidly and you’ll burn your fingers. Arrange the rolled cornets seam side down on the sheet pan.
Return the cornets, still wrapped around the moulds, to the oven and bake for another 3 to 4 minutes to set the seams and colour the cornets a golden brown. Remove the cornets from the oven and allow them to cool slightly. Remove the cornets from the moulds and cool on paper towels. Repeat with the rest of the batter. Be sure to let the Silpat and baking sheet cool before using them again.
The cornets can be stored for up to two days in an airtight container.