When I ate at the French Laundry almost seven years ago, the thought of making my living as a food writer and photographer hadn’t even flickered into my mind. That’s my excuse. (That and the mid-honeymoon Champagne haze.) But when Danielle needed a food shot to accompany her amore Christian’s post a few weeks ago, I saw a chance to return to my roots. I’d dust off the ol’ French Laundry Cookbook to replicate and photograph the restaurant’s signature “oysters and pearls” dish.
Yeah, I used to cook from The French Laundry Cookbook for fun. And the Alinea cookbook too, and from a bunch of other cookbooks that now serve more as a reference library than practical coursework since my refrigerator started filling up with recipe-development leftovers, leaving no room for experiments on the side. These days, the pleasure of following a recipe without a pressing assignment deadline or an editor’s waiting pen—even if it’s my own hand poised to correct—is a luxury, and a chance to unlock a part of my brain that’s been sitting unused.
Breaking down a recipe that seems complex at first glance reminds me of the thought processes needed to decipher one of those reading comprehension questions on standardized tests. (The ones that made more sense than stories of talking pineapples and hares, I mean.) Returning to the recipe as I cook, reviewing each sentence as I move forward, I double-check my movements against the mise en place I’ve prepared—and now I appreciate the value of well-written instructions even more than I did as a novice. No recipe is impossible when tackled step by step, and this one wasn’t even that difficult once I got the hang of shucking oysters. I can even tell you in two sentences how it was done.
I pulled together a savory tapioca pudding by simmering the pearls in oyster juice-infused cream, then whipping egg yolks and more oyster liquor into a sabayon and folding that, along with creme fraiche and freshly whipped cream, into the pudding. After an overnight chill, the puddings got a quick puff in a hot oven while I whisked together a quick sauté of shallots, vermouth, chives, a final dash of oyster liquor, and a whole lotta butter to make a sauce that was generously drizzled—or napped, if we’re being schmancy—over the finished dishes.
So basically, cream, eggs, more cream, and butter, with a dash of oyster juice and aromatics. I done made myself a fancy artery-clogging custard and barely broke a sweat once those raw bivalves were bisected. (Want a play-by-play of each step? Here you go.)
“You’re living the dream,” I’ve had more than one person say to me lately. They’re almost right—the fear of freelance has paid off in fulfillment and I’m not complaining, but the dream is still work. There are still frustrations, setbacks, and yes, I still mess up every now and then. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, amirite, Colonel Mustard?
I got into this gig because cooking made me forget the outside world, but as cooking became my world, I somehow left behind the buzzy satisfaction of cooking for myself. Sliding off the white dust jacket and cracking open the navy spine of the Keller tome reminded me that I gotta stop developing recipes, flip through a book, and run through a recipe for the sheer pleasure of it every once in a while.
It would be an ego boost to hope that somewhere out there, cooks are using my formulations for lemon ginger shortbread or risotto carbonara and getting the same brain buzz. In the meantime, if cooking a French Laundry recipe means going back to my roots, that’s fine with me.