In a way, standing over the stove is not so different than standing in front of the anvil, materials and tools at hand, making decisions in the moment with the goal of creating something to the best of your abilities. When my mind isn't on my work in the studio then there is a good chance it is on the next meal at hand. I make no claim of culinary proficiency, but cooking in the kitchen and consuming the fruits of my labor, or someones else's for that matter, brings a unique and essential joy to my life.
It was about a year ago when a friend, knowing my weakness for over the top creation in both food and craft, handed me an issue of The New Yorker with an article he thought I would like. The article, written by Bill Buford, is about cooking with French chef Daniel Boulud and features an elegant dish that uses a very intriguing piece of kitchen equipment. The dish is Canard á la Presse, and the equipment, or "flashy dining room toy" as Buford refers to it, is the the Duck Press. As I learned more about the dish and the press, the wheels started turning. There was no denying that I would need to make one of these. How could I not!? A few months later I was invited to participate in a show at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft that would explore the relationship between craft and dining. They would be featuring a cleaver and meat tenderizer I made, and when the curator asked if there was anything else I would like to include, I knew the Duck Press' time had come.
Most duck presses are cast bronze or steel that has often then been silver plated. Seeing as though I would be forging the press instead of casting it, my initial design challenge was deconstructing the framework into multiple parts that could be assembled after the fact. Once I had established a design on paper I was happy with, I made a model out of wood to see if the proportions would translate well three-dimensionally. That exercise led to some minor design changes, but then I was ready to begin.
First the cylinders were rolled out of thick copper sheet and the bottom, rim, spout, and spacers were soldered on. Next I began work on the forgings. Except for the main screw, all steel parts on the press were forged first and then finished and detailed with files. That includes the 0.5" thick base plate which I cut with a striker and specially made hot cut. I had played with the idea of forged steel legs, but ultimately settled on making a wooden base for the press to be mounted on. I really do love the pairing of wood and steel, and along with the copper these materials create a really pleasing palette. The copper inlay was the last step, and by using the same half round wire the rim of the cylinders are made of, all the components tied together nicely.
Canard á la Presse, or Pressed Duck, is the name most commonly given to this dish. It is simple in concept, but quite complex in execution. This dish is as much about the presentation as the food itself, and by many accounts is the height of tableside showmanship and elegance in French cuisine.
For cooking this dish I turned to my friend Dan for guidance. From the beginning, Dan was completely on board for trying this dish, regularly asking when the press would be done. As an added bonus, he raised ducks this year so it didn't take much more than a walk to the backyard for our main ingredient. We slaughtered the duck a day ahead of time, and on a Sunday afternoon we took the press for a test drive. We did not intend to have the white tablecloth and silver cart meal that this dish is normally served as, but we were excited to see how the press would perform, and to do our best with this French classic. Following is a loose account of the steps we took.
We cleaned the duck, leaving the heart and lungs in and reserving the liver to add to the sauce later. The duck was then roasted for 20-30 minutes at a high heat in order to brown the skin and leave the meat very rare. In any restaurant that serves this dish, everything after this point would be done tableside. After the duck came out of the oven, the breasts and legs were removed. The legs would be returned to the kitchen while the breast stays at the table to be served with the sauce. This is where the press comes in. The rest of the carcass was cut up into manageable sized pieces that would fit in the press. Once the press is loaded, the handle is cranked down which lowers the plunger and crushes the pieces of carcass. The inner cylinder of the press acts as a colander, holding back the bones and pressing out the blood, marrow, and any other liquids. Theses juices flow out the spout and are collected to be used for the sauce. We cooked the pressed juices in a saucepan to which we added Cognac (many recipes call for Brandy of some sort), the liver, and blood we had collected when we slaughtered the duck. As the sauce finished, we poured it over the sliced duck breast and along side some roasted potatoes.
This press was five months in the making - a long time to build up to a single course. It is exciting and rewarding for so much to go into one event, even if only for an afternoon with friends. I owe a huge thanks to Dan for seeing this one through, and I look forward to more pressed duck in my future.