A timbale—which is the name of both the finished dish and the dish it’s cooked in—is great for entertaining. A timbale may take a bit more advance preparation than, say, grilled fish, but when it comes time for the final cooking and assembly, it’s actually easier. You fill the individual molds with layers of fish fillet and scallop mousse, cook them gently in a water bath, and then finish them with a beurre blanc, the classic French butter sauce (and a touch of luxurious caviar, which tastes and looks beautiful). You’ll get consistent and delicious results, the presentation will be fantastic, and because of all you can do ahead, you’ll have more time to spend with your guests.
Choose a timbale mold by capacity, not just diameter
To cook this fish timbale, I’m using ramekins that hold 4 ounces. My ramekins happen to be 2-1/2 to 3 inches wide and about 1-1/2 inches deep, but for the final yield, capacity is much more important than dimension (3-inch ramekins can hold anywhere from 4 to 8 ounces). You can use molds of ceramic or stainless steel, or even a nonstick muffin tin; however, stay away from aluminum, cast iron, or any other reactive material that would alter the delicate flavors of the fish. At the restaurant, I sometimes use circular stainless-steel timbale molds that you can find in various sizes at restaurant-supply stores. If you do use metal molds, keep in mind that the timbale will cook more quickly than it will in a ceramic mold.
The fish is the star, so buy the very best
The most important step of any fish dish is buying the best-quality fish; if you can, get to know a reputable fish merchant.
When choosing fillet of sole, look for firm, shiny flesh that smells like the ocean, with no fishy odor. If the fish is whole, be sure it has glistening skin, clear eyes protruding from their sockets, and deep red color in the gills, and then get your fishmonger to fillet it. (Searching out whole sole and having it filleted is worth the trouble, because chances are you’ll get a fresher, better-tasting fish.)
When choosing sea scallops, look for firm-textured flesh and a sweet, musky smell, again, with no fishy odor. Stay away from “soaked” or “wet” scallops, which have been chemically treated. This compromises flavor and causes the scallops to retain water, affecting the quality of your scallop mousseline. At this time of year, you’ll find excellent scallops coming from Canada, from off the coast of Massachusetts, and from the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. From November to April, look for inshore scallops from Maine, often called “day boat” or diver-harvested scallops; this is the most specific indicator of very fresh scallops.
For the lightest mousseline, chill the ingredients and process briefly
A mousseline is an emulsion of fat (in this case, cream) into protein (scallops and eggs). In this recipe, the scallop mousseline binds the timbale and serves as a light-textured complement to the sweet flavor and delicate texture of the sole. Processing ingredients while they’re cold will help you get the smoothest result.
The mousseline needs just a brief whirl in the processor. Stick to the 10-second interval I’ve specified in the recipe; overmixing the mousseline will make the timbale tough and rubbery, rather than tender and light. If your kitchen is very warm, pass the mousseline through the sieve in batches, keeping what you’re not working on in the refrigerator. After you get the hang of making a mousseline, you might want to experiment with different fish: sole and salmon are two others that work well in mousselines. Try making fish quenelles by scooping ovals of cold mousseline with a spoon dipped in hot water and poaching them in lobster or fish stock.
A water bath ensures gentle, even cooking
Cooking these timbales is the easiest part. I’m using a water bath to keep the cooking slow and controlled so the sole cooks in the same amount of time it takes for the mousseline to set. Any ovenproof pan will do; just be sure the pan is wide enough to fit the molds and deep enough to fill with water to go halfway up the sides of the molds.
There are a few ways to check doneness, as you’ll see in the recipe. To be absolutely certain, you can even slice a tiny section out of the top of one of the molds. (The top will become the bottom of the timbale when you invert it, thus hiding the missing sliver, but be sure to serve that timbale to yourself.)
A satiny beurre blanc needs great butter and gentle heat
Beurre blanc is a sauce made by whisking chunks of cold butter into a reduction of white wine, white-wine vinegar, shallots, and often peppercorns and herbs. The butter should be the best quality you can find; high in fat, low in water, with a sweet, full flavor. At the restaurant, we use Président, imported from France. I also like Plugrà, a European style butter made in New Jersey. Excellent American artisan dairies, such as Egg Farm Dairy in New York State and Straus Creamery in California, make delicious butter as well.
Cook and hold beurre blanc over low heat. If the heat is too high, the butterfat will separate from the solids and the sauce will break. I recommend doing the reduction an hour or so in advance and then taking it off the heat (a little evaporation will occur, which is fine). While the timbales are cooking, put the beurre blanc pan over a very low flame and start whisking in the butter as soon as the pan is warm (not hot). Serve the beurre blanc right after making it, or else hold it in a bowl above gently simmering water for up to 30 minutes. A classic beurre blanc has nothing in it to stabilize the emulsion, such as cream, which perhaps is why it has a reputation of being finicky. If you’re worried about the sauce breaking, however, add a few tablespoons of cream at the end of the wine reduction, before whisking in the butter.