Project Food Blog 2010, Round 5: Cassoulet Meets Pizza!

White bean puree, topped with duck confit, duck cracklins, garlic sausage, and Gruyère de Comté breadcrumbs. Click any pic to zoom.

The idea of a “cassoulet” pizza popped into my mind the other night, if I remember correctly, somewhere between my second and third bottle of Cab Sauv. I’m a comfort food junkie above all else, and cassoulet ranks as one of my all-time favorite dishes, especially in the fall. As I thought about it further, the entire concept of “cassoulet pizza” soon began to reveal itself: The duck confit and garlic sausage would garnish the pizza, of course, but the white beans themselves would comprise the sauce, in the form of a light puree. More than that, I realized that this pizza should even feature breadcrumbs, a nice detail that could really help to spin a crispy, thin-crust pizza even further into cassoulet territory. I figured, why not see how it all turns out? With enough attention to detail, and with enough duck confit, how could it not be delicious? Someone had to do it. So here it is, folks, the prototype for cassoulet pizza. Enjoy.

• • •

It all begins with duck legs, pictured below in their raw splendor, and soon to become duck confit. I say “soon,” but at the very least, duck confit requires upwards of eight, 10, or even 12 hours of cooking time, not to mention an overnight “curing” session (not a true “cure” by definition, but along the same lines). It’s a slight commitment, but it’s also a process that requires almost no technical skill, just patience, and the reward is indeed epic: If you’ve never had duck confit, you’ll need to make up for lost time, and treat yourself to the tastiness. But before I get too far ahead of myself, I should also point out that some of the other pizza components will also require some day-before prep, including the dried white beans, which should be soaked in salt water overnight, and the pizza dough itself, which will develop a much more profound flavor if it can rest in the fridge overnight. In essence, Day #1 is all about ensuring great results by preparing the early groundwork for the duck, the dough, and the beans. And on Day #2, they all merge together in perfect harmony.


I think the skin that covers the ankles features a really beautiful design, but I'm just like that sometimes.

As a practical ingredient, ducks legs certainly aren’t a given, not even here in the Napa Valley where it often appears on restaurant menus. Compared with chicken (or even turkey, for that matter), duck is hardly your standard super-market staple, and last Sunday, I actually purchased the only four legs that they had at Whole Foods Market. Lucky me, and smart to call ahead (or perhaps it didn’t matter). The duck legs, pictured above, were sold as two per pack, and they were shipped frozen by the purveyor. I thawed these duck legs in the fridge, and when I finally removed them from their packaging, I felt that they looked really promising, with great color and no tears or holes in the skin. And it would only get better.

• • •

Porcelain slipper: As we'll soon see, a snug-fitting dish with high sides means that less duck fat can cover more duck, and more thoroughly.

Classically, duck confit is seasoned before the cooking process, and not during. My guess is that the duck legs are traditionally cleaned before cooking so that the poaching oil remains sound, and is available for another usage. Whether or not this theory is true, I don’t know. But regardless, it requires for the duck legs to be seasoned the night before, and quite liberally. To that effect, I sprinkled a generous amount of salt and pepper in the bottom of a two-quart ramekin, along with several sprigs of thyme. I then microplaned five or six cloves of peeled garlic, and I coated the duck legs completely with this oily, garlicky balm. I then placed the duck legs into the two-quart ramekin, and I added an equal layer of salt, pepper and thyme over the top. Then, I refrigerated this preparation overnight, covered, and photographed it in the morning, above.

• • •

Rinsed and well-oiled.

Duck fat is somewhat expensive, relatively speaking; it’s about $1 per ounce, if you can even find it (Whole Foods continued to impress, with plenty on hand last week). In the interest of economy, it’s best to prepare the confit in a dish that will contain all four legs in a single layer, but with very little room to spare. Pictured above is a standard two-quart ramekin, which contains the four legs, after I had carefully rinsed them of their overnight seasonings. For the photo above, I melted seven ounces duck fat on the stove, and poured this liquid into the ramekin, although the oil didn’t cover the duck legs completely (it did come pretty close, however). Since total submersion in oil is necessary for proper confit, I added six additional ounces of pork fat, which I had judiciously saved after rendering a pork belly for a previous recipe (the Morimoto 10-Hour Pork Belly, specifically). With the duck legs now submerged underneath a good half-inch of fat, I simply placed the ramekin in a 200ºF oven, and returned in eight hours.

• • •

Eight hours later.

To be fair, I did check up on the duck legs a couple times during the cooking process, just to ensure that as they poached, the they weren’t boiling in the oil. As the duck slowly cooks, the fat should only bubble occasionally. As long as you have the temperature dialed in, I don’t think there’s really anything that can go wrong. Many recipes will advise cooking the duck legs for 10-12 hours, while I’ve seen other recipes that require only 2-3 hours of cooking. I can say, however, that after eight hours of poaching, the duck confit was beyond tender, and I really can’t see how two more hours would have improved the results. I’m all about going the distance with 12 hours, in theory, but I honestly believe that eight is enough.

• • •

I always think of Han Solo at the end of "The Empire Strikes Back"...

For my pizza recipe, I decided to use one duck leg per pie; I cooled the remaining legs in their same cooking fat (strained), after transferring them to a smaller container. The confit cooking method has its roots in food preservation, and believe it or not, these legs will keep for a few months, if refrigerated in the fashion pictured above. Not only does the confit keep, but the kicker is that the duck begins to taste even better and better over time, especially after three or four months of aging. Talk about patience — I’m not there yet. I actually hope to use the remaining confit for duck rillettes in a couple of weeks.

• • •


Click the image for a larger view.

Making pizza dough from scratch requires some tactile skill that can only be developed through practice. Achieving the proper moisture content within the dough remains critical, and there’s really no way around that one. The problem is that recipes aren’t always accurate, even if they may appear that way. The very foundation of pizza dough, which is flour, presents an interesting set of variables based upon its age and the ambient humidity where it was stored. A good recipe might get you into the ballpark, but be prepared to make some additional adjustments, as well. Once you develop the feel for the proper texture, you’ll always make perfect pizza dough, and that’s when it gets fun. Whenever I make a pizza, I always use the recipe listed below, which I’ve borrowed from Cook’s Illustrated (originally published in January 2001).

In the composite photo above, I’ve presented the various stages of pizza dough: (1) Having just scraped the dough from the food processor, it’s quite sticky and shaggy, but as you add additional flour during kneading, the dough will soon become much more manageable; (2) The pizza dough features the proper texture when it really wants to stick to your hands (or to the cutting board), but it just can’t quite manage to do it; (3) Once the dough has been kneaded and adjusted, dress it with a light coating of olive oil, and refrigerate it overnight in a covered bowl; (4) After an overnight session in the fridge, the dough develops a pleasant yeasty character. The morning after, I also allow it to come alive for a couple hours; (5) After the dough has risen, punch it back down, and divide it into four equal parts. Allow the portioned dough to rest for 10 minutes or so, then press each portion onto a sheet of parchment paper, and then press a sheet of plastic wrap on top of that; (6) As it’s rolled, the dough will remain sandwiched between the parchment and plastic wrap, making it sinfully easy to work with. Once the dough has taken shape, the plastic wrap is then peeled away, and the pizza can be dressed. The pizza will remain stuck to the parchment paper during the entire baking process, but will magically release at the first sign of a crust.

As for the baking method, there is no prescribed technique, except to crank the oven up as hot as possible, and to use a well-heated pizza stone for the task (30-45 minutes of preheating should be fine). Rather than rely upon time, the pizza is done when the crust goes golden brown around the edges. But to be a little more specific, I’ve found that a thin-crust pizza will usually bake within 7-10 minutes. Don’t be alarmed if the parchment begins to brown during baking, that’s perfectly normal. One great advantage to baking the pizza on parchment paper is that you can simply grab a corner of the parchment when you need to slide the pizza off the stone. I’ll usually slip the pizza directly onto the flipside of a sheet pan, and then from there, slide it onto a cutting board for cooling and slicing.


Ingredients (makes four 15-inch pizzas)

• All-purpose flour, 20 oz, plus bench flour

• Honey, 1T

• Instant yeast, 1T

• Salt, 1T

• Olive oil, 1/2 cup

• Water, 1 1/2 cups (105-110ºF)


1. Combine the first four ingredients in a food processor, and while the machine is running, add the lukewarm water, followed by the olive oil. Mix until the ingredients come together to form a ball, about 45 seconds.

2. Turn the dough onto well-floured surface, and knead according to the photos above.

• • •


All Together Now (Clockwise from the Red Bowl): White Bean Puree; Comté Sourdough Breadcrumbs; Duck Confit; Duck Cracklins; Garlic Sausage; Rough-Chopped Arugula (Center).

The recipe I had envisioned featured an all-star cast of big, robust flavors. First and foremost, I had the duck confit, which I loosely shredded after eight hours of slow poaching. It was delicious and dead tender. However, I had also removed the skin from the duck leg, and I rendered it über-crispy in a nonstick skillet, over a very low flame. If you’ve spent any time in the South, you would recognize this as a cracklin, and you might even season them and eat them straight away. The flavor of a duck cracklin is intense and umami-rich — much more potent than bacon bits — so I crumbled the cracklin into pieces to use as a garnish.

It’s a rare post around these parts when pork receives second billing, but I haven’t really acknowledged the sausage yet. As would be traditional in cassoulet, I selected a garlic sausage, also known as Toulouse sausage. I blistered the exterior of the sausage in a saute pan, then I chilled it, and I sliced it thin. Keeping the center of the sausage rare helps to prevent it from over-cooking in the oven. That said, it’s nearly impossible to get nice thin, even slices on raw sausage (at least for me), which is why I blister it a bit first.

Since I really love the breadcrumbs on a cassoulet, I knew that I also wanted breadcrumbs on this cassoulet pizza. I knew that I also wanted the pizza to have a cheese component, just because. I decided to combine 1/2 cup of fresh sourdough breadcrumbs with 1/2 cup of grated Comté cheese, and one tablespoon of melted butter. Sprinkled liberally over the pizza, these breadcrumbs browned perfectly in the 500ºF oven, and actually exceeded my expectations by about a mile.

Before I discuss the white bean puree, I should also acknowledge the arugula, since everything else has been mentioned. Of course, arugula is not a classic component of cassoulet, but I felt that the pizza needed some color, and Ive always liked duck and arugula together. However, from a practical standpoint, I don’t care for whole leaves of arugula on pizza, because I’ve found them a little awkward to eat. I was thinking of a garnish more than a topping. Therefore, I chopped the leaves like parsley, and I sprinkled them liberally over the pie. End of story, almost.

• • •

It’s fitting to close this post with the sauce, since sauce has always played such a pivotal role in traditional pizza. For my white bean puree, I didn’t have a recipe, but I’ve prepared Creole red beans so many times, I knew that a white bean puree would take several hours. However, since the duck confit takes eight hours to prepare, there’s ample time to get the beans working on the stove in the meantime. My objective was to produce a white bean puree that featured the same consistency of tomato sauce. I soaked 16 ounces of white beans in salted water overnight, then rinsed and drained them, and added them to a pot with five cups of fresh water. I allowed the beans to simmer for the next four hours, adding water back into the pot as necessary, in order to prevent scorching.

As the white beans worked up to a simmer, I added two diced shallots, a chunk of bacon from last week’s project, and a sachet of thyme, bay leaf and peppercorn (pictured below). After nearly four hours of simmering (and scraping the pot every 10 minutes for the final hour) the beans became starchy and soupy. I allowed the liquid to slowly reduce to a sauce consistency, and then I passed the beans through a sieve, just to achieve a perfectly smooth and sauce-like texture (as seen in the photo above). For the record, I only used a small amount of puree for the pizza, but this bean puree can freeze extremely well. Thinned with a little chicken stock and garnished with crispy pancetta, this puree can easily become a refined version of white bean soup when the weather cools.

The Aromatics for the White Bean Puree: Classic and Simple.

• • •


For the pizza pictured below, I rolled a 15-inch crust, and spread about 1/4 cup of white bean puree to the edges. Before the pizza went into the oven, I added the duck confit, the Toulouse sausage, and the Comté breadcrumbs, but I garnished the pie with the duck cracklins and the arugula after baking. My impression when it was all said and done: The pizza was delicious, with full cassoulet flavor and character, and I was howling at the moon.

Ciao Revoir!

• • •

22 comments to Project Food Blog 2010, Round 5: Cassoulet Meets Pizza!

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