"I'm thinking about creating the world's most expensive cupcake," says Ludovic Lefebvre as he drowns nuggets of fattened goose livers in heavy whipping cream for a foie gras chantilly. The James Beard nominated chef is in the kitchen early, working out the final details for his version of the quintessential chocolate cupcake. You may or may not want to try this at home: just remember that the foie gras chantilly is optional.
On the stainless steel prep table there's a reduction of twenty-year old balsamic vinegar and maple syrup cooling over ice. Across the kitchen there are candied almonds melting in a pan. Lefebvre is prepping the final elements for the savory chocolate cakes he'll feature tonight at his restaurant, Ludo Bites, as restaurant-in-residence concept currently at BreadBar in West Hollywood five nights a week.
Lefebvre stops puréeing the foie gras when he catches the scent of burning sugar in the air. There are cooks working at the stove near the smoking pan--lunch service is in full swing--but the two BreadBar employees ignore Lefebvre's burning candies to focus on their own work. Frustrated, the French-born chef tosses the sticky, black mess into the sink. He grabs another pan and starts over. What can he do? These aren't his cooks. This isn't even his restaurant. But by nightfall, it will be.
Dreamed up after leaving his job as executive chef at two highly-acclaimed restaurants, L'Orangerie and Bastide, Chef Ludo created Ludo Bites to be a transitory restaurant that emulates the Parisian culinary craze called "bistronomy"--a trend towards smaller restaurants that serve elegant food at an affordable price.
Above the swirl of his foie gras chantilly, the tattooed chef drizzles the sweetly acidic maple and balsamic reduction, then sprinkles salty flecks of maple-soaked bacon and deconstructed candied almonds over the top.
"It's hard for me to cook simply," Ludo admits. "I need to surprise people." No worries on that count, especially If you're used to getting your cupcakes from Sprinkles.
CHEF LUDO'S CHOCOLATE CUPCAKE*
*with optional elements such as Foie Gras Chantilly, Maple-Bacon Coulis, Caramelized Almond Dragées, Balsamic-Maple Syrup
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-processed)
2 ounces high-quality milk chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 cup cake flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel
2/3 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup grapeseed oil
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Line 18 standard (1/3-cup) muffin cups with paper liners. Combine the cocoa powder and milk chocolate in a medium bowl. Pour the 1/2 cup of boiling water over the cocoa powder and chocolate and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the buttermilk. Set the chocolate mixture aside.
2. Whisk the flour, baking soda, and fleur de sel in another medium bowl to blend. Using an electric mixer, beat the brown sugar, granulated sugar, oil, eggs, and vanilla in a large bowl until well blended. Beat in the dry ingredients and chocolate mixture. Divide the batter among the prepared muffin cups. Bake until a tester inserted in the center of the cupcakes comes out with some crumbs attached, about 18 minutes. Cool in pans on a cooling rack for 10 minutes. Transfer the cupcakes to a rack and cool completely. Maintain the oven temperature.
For a truly Ludo Bite experience, decorate with the following:
Foie Gras Chantilly:
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
7 ounces foie gras, cut into 1-inch chunks, room temperature
6 slices applewood-smoked bacon
Pure maple syrup (preferable Grade A dark amber), for brushing
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil
Caramelized Almond Dragées:
1 cup white almond dragées (also known as Jordan almonds)
1/2 cup 12-year-old balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup pure maple syrup (preferable Grade A dark amber)
For the foie gras chantilly:
1. Bring the cream and powdered sugar to a simmer in a heavy small saucepan over medium-high heat. Combine the hot cream mixture and foie gras in a high-powered blender and blend until the mixture is very smooth, about 1 minute (do not over blend). Pour the foie gras cream into a large bowl and set the bowl over another large bowl of ice. Whisk until the foie gras cream is cold, thick, and fluffy, and able to hold its shape when piped. Transfer the chantilly to a pastry bag fitted with a plain 1/2-inch tip.
For the maple-bacon coulis:
1. Lay the bacon slices on a heavy rimmed baking sheet and brush them with some maple syrup. Bake in the oven until the bacon is crisp, 25 to 35 minutes. Cool completely. Blend the bacon strips with the grapeseed oil in a food processor until the bacon is very finely chopped.
For the caramelized almond dragées:
1. Stir the almonds in a heavy medium sauté pan over medium-low heat until most of the sugar melts and becomes amber brown, about 5 minutes. Working quickly, transfer the caramelized almond mixture to a silicone baking mat (such as a Silpat) or parchment paper and cool completely (the caramel will harden when cool). Remove the almond mixture from the mat and finely chop.
For the balsamic-maple syrup:
1. Simmer the balsamic vinegar and 1/2 cup of maple syrup in a heavy small saucepan over medium-high heat until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Set aside to cool completely.
To decorate the cupcakes:
1. Pipe the foie gras chantilly onto the cooled cupcakes. Spoon the maple-bacon coulis atop the chantilly. Sprinkle with the chopped caramelized almond dragées then drizzle with the balsamic-maple syrup.
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Chef's Note: The cupcakes and chopped caramelized almond dragées can be stored separately in airtight containers at room temperature for 2 days. The maple-bacon coulis and balsamic-maple syrup can be stored separately in airtight containers and refrigerated for 2 days; bring them to room temperature before using.