Thursday, Jul 10th, 2014
Sitting high above the countertops on a shelf many of can only reach on tip toes, we keep larger containers of dry goods we access on a near daily basis. Way up there was a relic of a dish past, dehydrated flakes of coconut, a byproduct of processing whole coconuts for our winter dessert of pumpkin, coconut, sage, and peanut.
Perhaps it was his large stature that kept Harry Flagers mind on the dried coconut, all 6 feet and 3 inches putting him at eye level with the stuff on a daily basis. He was the first to suggest using it when we discussed the mignardise for the evening, and it often made it’s way into the staff meals he prepared.
When he exhausted his own ideas, I passed him a recipe that has been with me since the beginning. This cookie, the coconut haystack is like a coconut macaroons older, sexier, naughtier sister, the one your friends parents mumble about with scorn and awe.
The coconut haystack came into my own life through the same path it arrived in Harry’s, via the tiny bites that finish a meal in a fine dining restaurant. At Lampreia, I would bring recipes in to test for our Petit Four plate, little cookies and candies. The coconut haystack came from one of my text books, citing it’s discovery to a time when war rationing was at an end and exotic flavors like coconut came back into daily life.
While we called them petit fours at Lampreia, as I’m sure many other establishments do, I more commonly hear them referred to as mignardise. Mignardise are simple confections, candies, cakes, cookies, and other minuscule sweets, small enough to be eaten in a single bite and presented after a guest has signaled for their bill. Be it a green foil wrapped Andes mint sitting on the handwritten check in a diner, a fortune cookie with the bill at a chinese restaurant, or the hand made specialties of a fine dining restaurant set on white china aside the billfold, these are all one last interaction between the guest and the restaurant, a final moment of hospitality.
Here at Blackbird, we offer a pair of mignardise each evening. An ever changing rotation of sweets, it is the creative responsibility of our line cooks to conceive, develop, and execute them on a daily basis. Inspired by the projects at Noma, I heard Rene explain to his overwhelmed cooks buried under their daily prep lists that when it came time to being a chef, you couldn’t walk out into the dining room and say “oh I’m sorry I don’t have anything new for you, I didn’t have time.” His projects are not only a way for cooks to express themselves, but an obligation to exercise creativity. Building yourself as a creative being doesn’t happen by chance. It comes through practice, and is a hard skill to come by. Rene’s point was not to wait until you had your own menu to begin exercising your creative muscles, and now just as in the future, there were no excuses.
We don’t have weekly projects here at Blackbird, but every person in my department has a creative obligation to the menu, one that allows them to enter the creative process under the guidance of a chef. Our sous chef is responsible for creating the intermezzo, a smaller dessert presented before the dessert course on our tasting menu, something that changes once a month. Our AM cook is responsible for the prix fix lunch desserts, one of which is always an ice cream coupe. Finally, our two PM cooks are responsible for mignardise.
So as I tracked down this recipe for the petit four plate I participated in creatively 15 years ago, I handed it off to Harry, a budding creative mind searching for a way to utilize our exceptional house made dried coconut flakes in his own mignardise plate. You’ll find it addictive, if you like coconut. The batter is made on the stove, an emulsion of butter and sugar, mounted with whole egg, and cooked to a tight dough with dried coconut. Once cooled, the batter can be rolled and baked in many sizes, although I don’t recommend anything larger than a nilla wafer. Do give this recipe a shot, who knows, maybe it will find a place amongst your own final offerings to your guests.