Bound by a common philosophy, linked by live video, staffed by a cadre of inventive and skilled chefs, the kitchens of Thomas Keller’s celebrated restaurants—The French Laundry in Yountville, California, and Per Se, in New York City—are in a relationship unique in the world of fine dining.
Ideas bounce back and forth in a dance of creativity, knowledge, innovation, and excellence. It’s a relationship that’s the very embodiment of collaboration, and of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. And all of it is captured in The French Laundry, Per Se, with meticulously detailed recipes for 70 beloved dishes, including Smoked Sturgeon Rillettes on an Everything Bagel, “The Whole Bird,” Tomato Consommé, Celery Root Pastrami, Steak and Potatoes, Peaches ’n’ Cream and Victoria Sponge Cake.
Just reading these recipes is a master class in the state of the art of cooking today. We learn to use a dehydrator to intensify the flavour and texture of fruits and vegetables. To make the crunchiest coating with a cornstarch–egg white paste and potato flakes. To limit waste in the kitchen by fermenting vegetable trimmings for sauces with an unexpected depth of flavour. And that essential Keller trait, to take a classic and reinvent it: like the French onion soup, with a mushroom essence stock and garnish of braised beef cheeks and Comté mousse, or a classic crème brûlée reimagined as rich, creamy ice cream with a crispy sugar tuile to mimic the caramelized coating.
Throughout, there are 40 recipes for the basics to elevate our home cooking. Some are old standbys, like the best versions of beurre manié and béchamel, others more unusual, including a ramen broth (aka the Super Stock) and a Blue-Ribbon Pickle.
And with its notes on technique, stories about farmers and purveyors, and revelatory essays from Thomas Keller—“The Lessons of a Dishwasher,” “Inspiration Versus Influence,” “Patience and Persistence”—The French Laundry, Per Se will change how young chefs, determined home cooks, and dedicated food lovers understand and approach their cooking.
At the restaurant we serve the Victoria Sponge in a plated version, building an individual slice but keeping all the components separate. We bake the sponge in quarter sheet pans and slice it into thin rectangles. We place one rectangle of the sponge on the plate, in the lower third. Above it, we pipe small kisses of the strawberry puree then pipe kisses of the buttercream above the puree. We continue this layering until there are 3 pieces of sponge and 2 layers of filling on the plate, then garnish the top with slices of fresh strawberries, candied angelica or other candied fruit, tiny meringue dots, and marigold greens and blossoms
Makes 8 to 12 servings
Italian Meringue Buttercream
60 grams egg whites
33 grams of water
147 grams of sugar
182 grams whole butter, cut into ½-inch (1.25-centimeter) cubes, at room temperature
5 grams of vanilla paste
3 grams kosher salt
10 fresh strawberries
400 grams strawberry wine, plus extra if needed
½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise
60 grams of sugar
40 grams of lemon juice
10 grams apple cider vinegar
4 grams agar-agar
150 grams all-purpose flour
7 grams of baking powder
4.5 grams kosher salt
165 grams whole butter, cut into 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) cubes, at soft room temperature
160 grams of sugar
Zest of 1 large lemon
Zest of 1 large orange
7.5 grams vanilla paste or vanilla extract
150 grams eggs, at room temperature
5 grams of orange blossom water
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
#801 (3/16-inch/5-millimeter) plain piping tip
This is a classic British dessert, named after Queen Victoria, as she was known to be partial to cake sandwiched with jam with her afternoon tea. Both restaurants have served this in the classic manner as a whole cake at special events, and as a plated dessert. In the beautifully plated dessert, we use the components to create the visual effect of a slice of cake while keeping them distinct: precisely cut pieces of Victoria sponge cake with piped buttercream and a fruit jam, fruit, and a garnish of dianthus and marigold flowers, as well as candied angelica, which we grow in the garden. The garnish is meant to complement and deepen the dessert, rather than take it away from being a simple slice of cake on a plate.
Both the sponge and the buttercream can be made in a couple of ways. The buttercream here uses an Italian meringue, in which the sugar is cooked into a syrup and that syrup is poured into the whipping egg whites. This sponge includes butter, which means the cake will be a little richer than a sponge made without the fat, and the crumb, because of the fat, will be a little tighter, which also allows us to cut the cake with more precision. The sponge still retains lightness due to the addition of baking powder to the batter.
The jam is the fruit, cooked in strawberry wine so that it releases all its juices and then strained, giving us just the rich essence of the fruit. We add agar to the essence while it’s cooking so that it will set up into a brittle gel, which, when blended, becomes a beautifully textured puree.
For the Italian Meringue Buttercream
Careful timing is critical when making an Italian meringue. The syrup should reach 250°F (121°C) at the same time that the egg whites are holding a soft shape.
Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk. Combine the water and 120 grams of the sugar in a 1-quart (1-liter) saucepot and heat over medium-high heat. When the sugar syrup has reached 203°F (95°C), begin whipping the whites on medium speed. When the whites are frothy, gradually add the remaining 27 grams of sugar.
When the sugar syrup reaches 250°F (121°C), remove the pan from the heat. Immediately turn the mixer to medium-low speed and slowly add the syrup, carefully pouring it between the side of the bowl and the whisk. If the syrup hits the bowl or whisk, it could harden and won’t be incorporated into the egg whites. The meringue will deflate somewhat.
Increase the speed to medium and whip for 5 minutes. The meringue may feel slightly warm but should not feel hot before the butter is added. Gradually add the butter. Once incorporated, stop the mixer and scrape the sides and the bottom of the bowl well to ensure there are no pieces of butter remaining. Add the vanilla and salt and whip on medium speed for 4 to 5 minutes more, until shiny, light, and fluffy.
The buttercream can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
For the Strawberry Puree
Wash the strawberries and cut out the calyxes (green tops). Thinly slice the strawberries and place them in a medium pot. Add the strawberry wine. Scrape the vanilla seeds into the pot and add the pod. Place over medium-high heat and simmer gently for 5 minutes, adjusting the heat as necessary.
Remove from the heat, cover with a lid, and let stand for 5 minutes to allow the strawberries to impart more flavour to the wine. Strain the strawberry liquid through a chinois, without pressing on the berries (the strawberry pulp would cloud the gel). Discard the pulp.
Pour 300 grams of the strawberry liquid into a medium pot. If you have less than 300 grams, add more strawberry wine to reach 300 grams. Add the sugar, lemon juice, and vinegar, bring to a boil, and remove from the heat. While whisking, add the agar-agar and whisk until it is fully dissolved. Return to a boil and whisk continuously for 30 seconds to activate the agar-agar.
Remove from the heat and pour the gel into a container so it forms a layer no more than ¾ inch (2 centimetres) thick. Cover the container and refrigerate for about 2 hours, until firm and cold. Cut the gel into ½-inch (1.25-centimeter) cubes and place them in a high-powered blender. Blend until smooth and shiny, using the tamper to keep the puree moving. Strain the puree into an airtight container. Refrigerate for up to 3 days.
For the Victoria Sponge
Preheat the oven to 325°F (163°C). Spray two 8-inch (20-centimeter) round cake pans with nonstick spray. Line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment paper cut to fit. Cut strips of parchment paper long enough and high enough to line the sides of the pans and spray with nonstick spray.
Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl, stir in the salt, and set aside.
Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle and beat on medium speed to lighten the butter. Add the sugar, lemon zest, orange zest, and vanilla and beat for about 4 minutes, until the mixture is light and fluffy.
Put the eggs in a bowl and whisk until well combined (see Note).
With the mixer running on medium-low speed, very gradually add about half the eggs, maintaining the emulsion throughout, then stop the machine to scrape down the bowl. Return the mixer to medium-low and add the remaining eggs.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and, using a silicone spatula, fold the sifted dry ingredients into the creamed mixture (this will create a lighter sponge). When they are almost fully incorporated, fold in the orange blossom water and continue to fold until no lumps of flour or unmixed butter remain.
Divide the cake batter evenly between the two prepared pans. Using the back of a spoon, spread the cake mixture to the sides of the pans and then tap the pans on the counter to help even out the layer. Bake for about 15 minutes, until the cake is golden brown and springs back to the touch when gently pressed. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pans for 10 minutes.
Place a piece of parchment paper on a cooling rack and spray with nonstick spray. While the cakes are still warm, invert them onto the parchment paper. This will give them a smooth top. Let cool to room temperature, then invert them so they are right-side up and cover with plastic wrap. The cake layers are best on the same day you bake them.
Remove the buttercream from the refrigerator and soften at room temperature, then whisk by hand or using the stand mixer until it is shiny, holds its shape, and has the texture of well-whipped cream before using.
For the best results, the cakes should be at cool room temperature, the buttercream should be smooth and shiny, and the strawberry puree should be cold, smooth and shiny, and firm but spreadable.
Place the flattest of the two cakes in the center of a serving plate. Spoon the strawberry puree into the center of the cake and, using a small offset spatula, spread it into an even layer, leaving a 3/16-inch (5-millimeter) border.
Transfer the buttercream to a disposable piping bag fitted with a #801 (3/16-inch/5-millimeter) plain piping tip. Beginning in the center of the cake, pipe concentric circles of buttercream, each touching the next, to create a solid layer of buttercream covering the layer of strawberry puree. You may have extra buttercream.
Carefully place the second layer of cake, skin-side up, on top of the buttercream and press gently to secure. As you press on the cake, the gap around the outside of the cake should fill with the puree and buttercream to reach the edge of the cake. Dust the top with confectioners’ sugar.
Slice and enjoy with tea. Any leftover cake can be covered and refrigerated overnight. Return it to room temperature before serving.
By whisking the eggs before adding them to the butter, you are able to add the eggs slowly (rather than one by one), and by having the ingredients at room temperature, there is less of a chance that the mixture will split.
Excerpted from The French Laundry, Per Se by Thomas Keller (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020. Photographs by Deborah Jones.