Thursday, December 25, 2008

Why are marshmallows and cocoa so good together?

Is it something in the added creaminess without the addition of cream? A textural element? Nostalgia?

The cocoa was a gift, given generously by someone in my chosen (rather than birth) family. It's not handmade, the marshmallows came from who knows where, but it is all worth savoring anyway. In fact, it's delicious.

Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The weather outside is frightful...

It's pretty much the worst thing that could happen.

Imagine you are a small business owner in troubled economic times. You are doing ok, you're holding your head up above water and it's the busiest time of the year. Then during the busiest week, the money maker, the big cheese, the work until you drop time, the snow starts falling. And falling. And falling.

And the city shuts down. For days.

So what does this mean to me, lowly employee? It means that bread is still a living product. It means my detrempes are still active, the starters still need feeding. It means, in a nutshell, that I am still going to work. It means that if (when) I get the call saying, "well, you know how you said you could..." I'm already in boots getting ready for my walk.

We go in to work, however we can get there. We work a long day, but not as long as it should be, and we're vaguely grateful for the break, bittersweet. We are grateful for the work; we're decidedly less stir crazy than most of our customers, and many of our significant others. It's nice to have a purposeful way to fill the hours. There is also that tiny voice that tells us how lucky we are to be working at all. The gift for my labors was an extra day off. I'm not sure what to do with myself.

Holidays are always rough in this business. I think I'd rather have it the other end of the spectrum, though. Of course, I know that next December, when I'm completely in the weeds, I'll look back and dream of a white Christmas.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Share or Horde?

It baffles me that sometimes people, in this day and age, won't share recipes. I mean, really, is there a recipe for anything that can't be found in some fashion online? No, it may not be your Uncle Edgar's secret recipe for dumplings, but still, the dumplings are there. And why not make it YOUR recipe for dumplings?

I think Jeffrey Steingarten, in one of his essays (gratins, maybe?) talked about an endless quest to perfect a recipe. He tweaked and puzzled and got one that he could make and make again and it was perfect. And it turned out to be nothing like the original recipe. So really, what difference does the original recipe make?

I have one recipe that I won't share. One. And I won't share it because the chef who gave it to me is someone that I respect, and he specifically asked me not to share it. I also won't flat out copy a recipe exactly from a book and post that as my own, but that relates more to my opinion of copyrights, and why it was unfair that Sam Clemens was broke so often. Otherwise, there is too much of a teacher in my blood to horde.

Chocolate Moelleux for Diane.

100 g dark chocolate (this is the meat of the thing so a good dark chocolate is in order. I prefer a 70-75% bar for deeper flavor)

70g butter (you don't have a kitchen scale? But, um, why not? Ok, 5 tablespoons)

45 g (4 Tablespoons) all purpose flour

13 g (1 Tablespoon) cornstarch

60 g (3 Tablespoons) agave syrup

a pinch of salt

2 eggs

flavoring (see gilding the lily)

1. Preheat the oven to 350. This may take longer than anything else depending on your oven, so yeah, do this first. Spray four small tart rings or one 9" tart ring (or pie pan) with pan spray and place on a sheet pan. Love the pan spray. Fear it not. It is your friend.

2. Melt together the butter and the chocolate over a double boiler, or, if you are like me, a metal bowl set over a pot of simmering water. stir together every once in a while as it melts.

3. In another, larger bowl, whisk together everything else possibly including any appropriate lily gilding. This is really tough, eh?

4. When the butter and chocolate are completely melted but not hot, whisk chocolate mixture into the egg mixture. The batter will thicken up as the chocolate cools. Spread the batter into the prepared tart rings.

5. Into the oven it goes. Now is the time to not get distracted. Before, not so bad. Now, well, this cooks up in about 10 minutes, maybe less depending on your pan, so if you hear the cat making the incoming hairball noise? Pretend it is just CNN and ignore it for a few minutes. You are cooking this until the edges feel set to the touch, but don't wait for the middle to set completely. It's going to be fudgy.

6. Let it cool in the pan. If you can. I mean, it's good while still warm. So it can be kinda hard to wait. It depends on what is happening next. If what is happening next is fancying it up, and serving for company, go ahead and do that after it has cooled a bit. If it is just an immediate chocolate fix, I recommend a nice cuppa (Earl Grey is also stellar with dark chocolate) to go with it while it is still warm. Do you have any idea how hard it is to write out recipes? Man I need another piece now...

Gilding the lily

Ok, I'm better now. The beautiful thing about this recipe is that you can do a gazillion things to it to suit your menu. Easy rustic? Mix in some chopped roasted nuts like hazelnuts, and serve with your favorite ice cream variant. Tropical? Try a sauce of passion fruit and mango nectars and serve with starfruit and lychee. Classic? A dash of grand marnier in the batter, and some candied orange zest and ganache on top. Seriously versatile. And then there is the Chocolate Mint version here, where I flavored the batter with a bit of mint extract, and topped it with ganache and some crushed sugar free peppermint candies.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Holiday Spirits for Bakers

No, no, I'm not talking about alcohol, although I do have an idea for a Christmas punch recipe that would kick. In every job, there is that same meeting every year. "This is it don't screw it up we make all our money now and you like getting a paycheck, right?"

Something to that effect.

It's the most wonderful time of the year; where clients get even more crazy and the work gets even more hectic. Suddenly you look up and see you have stood on your feet for something like 13 hours and didn't even notice even though you have been checking timers in twenty minute intervals at least forty times. Online shopping is the only thing that is saving you from disinheritance if you remember to shop at all. Your house appears to be festively decorated with fake snow, but you know that's just flour you've brought home with you.

Embrace the spirit.

I look at it this way; eventually, the endorphins will save me. I can dread it, prepare for a month of misery and exhaustion, or I can make chemistry work for me. I will come home and bake cookies after spending all day baking cookies. I will fill the house with the scents of the season - citrus, cinnamon, clove. I will think of new ideas for festiving up our regular products while churning out what I need to. I will NOT sing carols to my coworkers every day because they have limits, and I don't know who owns a gun. I will, however, try and remember pleases and thank yous because after 15 hours that can go a long way.

I will probably crochet up a few festive hats. sorry.

And then, when all is said and done, I'll rest, and let my brain do it's thing, flooding me with chemicals that will make me say, "Hey, that wasn't so bad. It was actually kind of fun. How long until next holiday season?"

And then I will duck so nothing that got thrown at me will hit me in the face.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Now with Video!

So each year, one of my favorite newer thanksgiving traditions involves my friend Samantha and panicked phone calls. It started a few years back when she asked me for a from scratch recipe to make for her family. There was a voicemail I saved for years desperately asking about the difference between corn bread and corn muffins and that was all it took. We were both hooked. Eventually, I'll get her up to cooking the bird, but for this year, it is, by her request, gougeres.

And, since I have my shiny new camera, rather than just fabulous still pictures, I figured I'd help her out with a video demo, too.



The recipe is adapted from the French Laundry Cookbook, because that is what I served her when she had them, but you know, I think I still prefer a combination of milk and water rather than simply water. So my version would be like this:

.5 cup water
.5 cup milk
7 tablespoons (3½ ounces) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon kosher salt, or more to taste
Pinch of sugar
1¼ cups (5 ounces) all-purpose flour
4 to 5 large eggs
1¼ cups grated Gruy√®re (5 ounces) or cheddar, or cheddar and parmesan, or you know, cheese.

You'll have to find your own distractions while you wait for 10 minutes.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sometimes, the big companies can do something right

If I came up with peppermint tootsie pops, I would be livin' large now. This is hands down my favorite commercially available seasonal candy. Even more good than Cadbury mini eggs. Seriously.

Monday, November 17, 2008

On Welcoming the Power of The Cookie in Your Life

It's become reflexive for so many people.

"No, no, don't do anything special for me..."

Well, why the hell not? I'm certainly guilty of it too, particularly where food is concerned. We have translated cooking into, instead of an act of community, survival, sharing and comfort, an act of effort, of time lost, of conditions and obligations. As a professional, I worry that someone will hold themselves up to impossibly high standards when really, I'm so damn flattered that you would make anything for me that you could probably poison me and I'd still say thank you. Maybe. Depends on the gentleness of the stomach pump.

And when I'm doing the cooking? Well, man, this is what I DO, how I'm wired, this is my "to be". I don't care if it is nut gluten sugar fruit chocolate dairy egg free (although that would be depressing. And tricky. Steamed rice cake, maybe?) I want to cook for you. Hell, it's a chance for me to show off, and if humans didn't want to show off they wouldn't have invented language.

The Power of the Cookie works because we are flattered by generosity when we receive it, and because we get a similar rush of good feeling when we DO it. So rather than deny myself those happy endorphins from giving to others I just bake. And it doesn't matter what time of year it is.

It's just nice that right around now, people are so much more willing to take generosity of spirit as it is offered, and enjoy it, without feeling obligation.

Now if I could just get more people to act that way in July.

sugar free sweet potato madelines

Thursday, November 13, 2008

42 Days

It doesn't seem like very much time, does it?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Going Native

There's a strange thing going on in my kitchen. My eggs are from Kookoolan farms. My honey is native fireweed honey. The Deep Roots folks supplied me with black kale last week, collards this week, and then there is the bacon ends, ham hocks and sausage from Sweet Briar farms. I have my turkey on order for thanksgiving and awesome examples of fractals in nature from the cauliflower I picked up yesterday.

I know where all of this stuff came from.

And strangely enough, some of the market vendors are starting to recognize me. I chat about work while I buy coffee. And when I need good local grapes for a galette I end up with stunning interlochen from here. The woman who I buy them from was the same person who trusted me to know what to make with those fabulous fresh italian plums. It's like I'm living in an actual community, or something.

In the past, produce came from giant trucks. Or sometimes smaller vans, but still, the vans were not driven by someone who would say, "Sorry I couldn't get these too you yesterday but we were picking to catch up from the rain earlier this week." Instead they were driven by guys who would ask me if there was a way to tell if a cantelope was ripe from the outside. Or, in the best of times past, the produce would come from a market, yes, but one which brought things in from all over the world, nary a farmer in sight.

Here, it is all so close, so accessible, that it is carrying over to what we eat at home. Now if only I could figure out how to grow a cacao tree indoors.

They totally taste like Apple Jacks


Cinnamon macarons with pippin-cox apple butter.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Branding myself


So, what do I want to be when I grow up? Going to pastry school, I had to reevaluate what that meant for me. I came to a conclusive, absolute decision.

I am never going to know what I want to be when I grow up.

(My friends are laughing at me right now, because of how true to me this statement is.) I can make a list of things that I would like NOT to do, and some of them even relate to the food industry. The thing is lately, I'm starting to formulate an idea of what I would like to do. Or at least, aspects that I would like to incorporate into something that could become the thing that eventually is what I do.

Um, does that make sense?

It starts, of course, with the food. That is the easy part. A list is forming, recipes being played with, tested. In many ways, this is the fun part; I'm covered in terms of my living expenses, this is just time to fail, retry, succeed and just come up with wacky schemes without risk. Time to define and refine what I'm looking for.

It is a deeply personal thing, these products. They are, more than any words, a direct reflection of my heart. My spirit in sugared form. It's funny, I'm sure there are cooks out there, chefs even, who could come to this point and not see this as so deeply their own. Me, I don't know any other way to do it and have a chance for it working.

And maybe that is why this work can be so heartbreaking.

For now though, I'm still having my first crush.
(pandan ginger and lemon saffron lollipops)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

My, how things do change

My grandmother has been slowly dumping old cookbooks on me for a few years now. It's kind of a funny situation because I am very picky about having lots of cookbooks. My parents had a huge number of cookbooks, filled with lovely, fascinating recipes and they never cooked ANYTHING from most of them. I don't want that to happen to me, so I have one shelf of cookbooks. That's it. But so far, most of the ones from my grandmother have managed to claim a coveted spot on that shelf.

Yeah, like I'd throw away all of MFK Fisher, or that old James Beard.

So the one I received yesterday was 'Home at the Range with George Rector", copyright 1939. Rector did a few things with his life - restaurants, a hotel, some film roles as himself - and he writes as though the reader of the book would consider him a household name. He doesn't even have a wikipedia page, now. IMDB has him listed, though.

What fascinated me about the volume is the commentary about his restaurant and food in general. Japanese food was simply derivative of Chinese. Chinese food (as well as some Spanish dishes) was quite complicated, given the number of ingredients. Canned food was indistinguishable from fresh (He suggested a blindfold taste test, like the kind they use for cigarettes). Stock is something everyone would have around the house.

He even touched on seasonality. He lamented the availability of out-of-season items to everyone, because what could restaurants then use to surprise and delight their guests?

Huh.

Stuff that is in season, maybe?

Friday, September 26, 2008

It's the most wonderful time of the year...

You have no idea how happy this makes me. Even if it is less than three months until Christmas.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Stories

There are regular periods of downtime that you can expect, plan for. Between meal rushes. January. Those are times for rejuvenation, restoration. They help restore the psyche for what can be a grueling job even as they offer a little too much time for practical jokes.

I'm not so good with practical jokes.

What I like, though, are the unexpected downtimes - minor, surmountable disasters. Like the tree that knocked out power for the last three hours of the shop's day. After the flurry of getting everything as taken care of as we could, we started to wait it out. You have to wait it out, at least within reason, because those freezers need to come back on when the power is restored. Those timers need resetting, and if you can, you still need to get those doughs made. But until then, what else can you do but sit around, (possibly with the sudden manifestation of beer) and tell war stories. And don't think it is not a competition for the best fish.

We got some doozies. Boston blizzard deliveries with customers screaming about why they shouldn't pay because they weren't able to open even though you got the bread there on time. Side of the road wedding cake repair after a fender bender. The hands-down winner was the almost no power for three days after a windstorm the week after Thanksgiving. As in, driving proofed bread to another bakery to bake off just so you wouldn't lose it, and getting the power back only after you'd wiped out all the holiday backstock inventory you'd been prepping for weeks. Ouch.

Power was still out when I left, back on as usual the next morning.

Friday, September 5, 2008

How to make hot chocolate

Go downstairs to the kitchen. Watch the cats laugh at you when you step on the cold linoleum floor. They, being smarter than you, are sitting on the edge of the carpet, which they will not leave until you open the cat food, and then will return to the carpet as quickly as possible. The food will keep. You consider once again that the kitchen would not be so cold if you didn't leave the window open at night, but realize that you like it, because it reminds you of cooperstown and gives you more of a reason to have hot chocolate. You'll start closing the window soon. Maybe October.

Throw some vegetarian specialty kinda poptarts in the toaster oven because you find them strangelly compelling. Look at the box for the first time and snicker at these "healthy" roof tiles being 420 calories for two. It being a special occasion, you throw the box away, never to contemplate such numbers again.

Grab the New Favorite Pot, a large chunk of dark Callebaut (because you are the sort to have this lying around) and some water. Slosh water into the pot and turn on the stove. Chop a larger quantity of chocolate than you think necessary, and throw it in the pot. Add some sugar, vanilla paste and salt, because you have learned only as an adult that salt is good. Scoff at the milk. The milk is for pussies. You are having Hot Chocolate. You are not having a latte. You are not having anything Au Lait.

The not pop tarts are starting to smell good.

Deem it Time to Begin Whisking. Contemplate Brillat-Savarin and MFK Fisher and their great Hot Chocolate Wisdom. Whisk madly, stop, and taste. Be surprised that the flavors are right on the first try, because you always are. Become deeply critical, adjust flavor accordingly. Consider the Chinese 5 spice powder, restrain. It would not harmonize with the not pop tarts. Turn off the heat as the mixture begins to boil.

Grab a ladle and pour ladlesful of the hot chocolate back into the pot from high above, not to aerate, but to make yourself feel like willy wonka. Such is goodness. Pour some Hot Chocolate into the cup.

The toaster oven dings.

Wrap a hand around the warming mug and begin nibbling off the dry flavorless parts of the not pop tart. Quickly follow with a sustaining flavorful sip of the hot chocolate to rehydrate your tongue. Retreat to upstairs where the floor is carpeted to savor beverage and open birthday cards.

Good morning.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Exit wounds.

I read something somewhere that when it comes to kitchen injuries, burns are sexy, cuts are when something stupid goes wrong. It was probably Tony Bourdain.

I was sitting in front of an endless pot of chocolate pastry cream one day (guest chef insisted that the recipe could not be increased and so to feed the event I had to make the same batch 16 times). Event cook of reasonable aptitude totally gets me with the oil he's using to pan sear his tuna. I flinch (I've named the scar after him) and keep stirring. "Oh did I get you?" he inquires. I flash the blistered skin. "Yeah, you pastry cooks don't know about burns."

Ahem, what?

When I interviewed for this job, as things were winding down we noticed that all three of us - owner, manager, and me, had identical marks. I told them of the wisdom of hot side event cooks. There was laughter. Sheet pans are hot. Pastry cream is hot. Water baths suck and I hate them. Anyone who suggests that pastry cooks don't know from injuries can go suck an egg. Just not the farm ones because those are expensive and better for the custards and Oh you don't know how to tell them apart? Snort.

I have a knife cut on my hand. Our butter comes in beautiful 44 pound blocks and my croissant detrempe does not need quite that much. So in cutting it down with the machete my hand slipped across the top edge the wrong way. Yes that is right I cut myself cutting butter, and I did it with the non-sharp side of a machete.

Tony Bourdain may have been right.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Epic Battle between Man and Machine

A new home kitchen is a living beast. Relationships are often established quickly, and can only be reshaped through constant, repeated effort. You do your best to set up familiar territory, to make sure your arsenal is ready when the unexpected strikes, but the fact remains the place is different. Outlets on different walls. Cabinets in different configurations. Worse still, in the case of the rental, different appliances.

A pizza box does not fit in my new oven, but thankfully, the half sheet pans do. There are only two outlets in the whole kitchen, and in order to plug in the mixer, I have to unplug and move the toaster oven. It has tiny, narrow cabinets and a single sink rather than the double I used to have.

There is a window, looking out into our patio and the hill with the hazelnut tree and the murder of crows that our landlord feeds. An open set of shelves gives me easy access to pantry items, and the general setup feels airy even though I know with absolute certainty the space is small.

I've made lovely cookies so far. That torte and a cherry clafoutis. Some terrific, farmer's market inspired dinners. Chili cheeseburgers. Udon. Eggs. Chocolate Marionberry jam.

I think we'll be ok together.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Rustic or refined?

I'm in the honeymoon phase. I'm feeling slightly awkward, slightly off kilter... the order of things is just different enough to keep me on my toes. My confidence level is weird, and I find myself asking for assurances in such a way that I find it annoying.

I'm working on that.

But the work itself is fun, interesting, the atmosphere a gazillion times better from what I left. (Sometimes I think that is part of the problem. I'm waiting for abuse that doesn't happen so I'm all confused. Human beings can be so ridiculous.)

The product we put out is lovely - small batch, artisan care, and serious commitment to the local. Our flour is locally milled. That is just crazy, and couldn't happen just anywhere. The style of the work is rustic.

Rustic is interesting. It doesn't mean careless, sloppy. There is a level of concern over the quality of our goods that I haven't seen in a long time. Indeed, sometimes the concern is a bit mystifying, given what I've been doing. What I have been doing, professionally, would not be called rustic. It would be considered a more finished style, more artful and stylized. Indeed, that's the kind of thing I tend to do at home as well, maybe even more so.

Now, I'm being asked to forget that. But still, there is finely detailed piping on those plain cut cakes. Deliberately placed currants among rough curled chocolate. Carefully cut and scaled laminated doughs filled with a local seasonal fruit mix. So I'm looking at a different style at home, too, for practice. The most perfect fresh prunes I have ever seen (The farmer told me they would be best baked, and then smiled and said considering where I worked, I would know what to do with them) become a rough torte. Monsieur le chef would have approved of this one.

Even if it is rustic.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Notebooks


In my past existence, I had a notebook fetish. I did a lot of project based traveling, and each trip had its own notebook - a lifeline of everything from expenses and coworkers' hotel room numbers to daily lists of necessary tasks. I still find these notebooks, tucked in corners. They are virtually useless now, but each time I find one, bent and broken from being shoved in pockets, I find it difficult to get rid of it. For a month, each one was my life. I may not remember the faces of those people, or the meanings behind my own shorthand mutterings, but there it is, that month of my life.

Notebooks have a different meaning in my life now. They are no less crucial. Perhaps they mean even more because now they live on, potentially long after me. Now, they are my recipes. Each job has had a different notebook, and what I put in them was a direct reflection not only of me, but of the person I worked for.

Monsieur Le Chef never required that I have a notebook, he gave me free range of his own. I made one anyway, pocket sized. The cover is gone from repeated use. The recipes we used all the time were at the front, strange seasonal and experimental ideas were at the back. The recipes themselves are just lists, the barest notes on process. I refer to them regularly.

My most recent notebook is in pristine condition. It did not fit in my pocket. Each recipe is categorized by type, and lists not only the ingredients but also extraordinarily detailed ("Three sheet pans, lined with paper, pan spray around edges") notes. The chef would check our notebooks regularly to see if we were writing down each detail, and even told my coworkers that my promotion had been in part based on the quality of my notebook. I care about maybe three of the recipes in this book.

Then there is my home book. It is not pocket sized. I've copied over all the important recipes, and have that first notebook tucked in the side pocket. It has my own recipes in it, sketches, plating notes, notes of inspiration. Inside the cover I tucked a photograph. It's not my own, and one of a series of three showing a flowering branch with varying levels of focus. A standard to reach for.

I started a new book this week. It's pocket sized. I'm trying to figure out how to balance the characteristics of the other notebooks. If I can do that, it will really mean something.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

New

Auto-complete is a funny thing. You start typing a title and get a little jolt from the past. I typed with word "new" in this title and my computer wanted it to be "New Beginnings, Same old mistakes."

What the hell is that??

I have no idea when I said that. It wasn't, in fact, here ( I checked). It is also, for me, ridiculously pessimistic and negative. Change may not be my favorite thing to cope with, but it has to happen. Make it the best possible, try and get something new from it. Or at least, that is how I think I think I am. Stuff like auto-complete tends to bash my head about a little.

So I got a new job. We're moving away from our life with this step. I am, in fact, scared. Not as to whether or not I can do the job - I am confident that I can. I am scared about my judgment. And that is a devastating thing to be scared about. I have been told many times that my judgment is flawed. It was always in the context of doing exactly what someone else told me to do, rather than following my own instincts, so you would think that would make me want to stick to my guns more. Apparently not. And it gets tangled up with authority figures and roles of responsibility. Basically, it makes the people who said I have crappy judgment correct. Screw that.

This is a different kind of job for me. Not in terms of work, but in terms of structure, culture. Attitude. I can learn all the things I was hoping to learn from my last position and more I would never be able to learn here. New things. New Beginnings. Maybe some new mistakes, sure, but new mistakes are a lot more interesting than the same old ones. And if I do make old mistakes, well, maybe they will look different in the new place, and I can learn to stop making them.

All the wonderfulness of an apricot, just with a new skin.

Friday, June 20, 2008

What you take with you.

I hate last days. I've moved around a lot, had a number of last days and given my general state of mind, I give those last hugs listening to the little voice in my head say, "I won't remember your name in two months."

Well, I am kinda bad with names.

I'm good with personalities, though. This team will set types in my head for many moons to come - the ambitious production guy, the batshit bipolar cook, the seriously mellow dishpit king, the cake girl. Some people will be beyond recasting, like the handicapped drug dealer prep cook who wants to get it on with my little sister. I won't find another one like him. But those roles will be how they live on in my head.

There's some practical lessons gained, too. Some, I will work hard to overcome almost immediately. Others I will write down, or don't even need to write down, because they are mine now, incorporated into the whole. A few recipes, too. Like that flan. Without the cockroach. Don't ask.

There is still a little part that wonders what would be if I stayed. And what all of those people would become. But they will, in their own time and place, leave as well. I'm going on my terms, and that makes it worth the wondering.

Next!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Broken.

Things do that, you know. Break. You can call it planned obsolescence. You can call it a bad emulsion. Or you can just fix it and go on with the important things.

The praline paste was broken, and was going to get thrown away. Like half a bucket's worth. I snagged it from an untimely demise and brought it home to fix it. Fix it, I did, now I have exquisite praline paste. Of course, I burned out the motor on my immersion blender doing it. Broken. So I ordered a new one. It arrived today. Fixed.

It made me think about broken things. Broken things are important in a way that whole things are not. Whole things are lovely and accomplished and get crossed off the to do list. They fall away like something memorized by rote. Broken things frustrate, challenge, teach. They become the whys and hows.

"Why is the stupid a/c broken the first week of 90 degree weather? How am I going to temper chocolate when tempered chocolate is just melting from being in here?"

It is a shame that we are such a disposable culture. Sometimes, yes, a broken thing needs to be discarded. Corporations, among others, plan it that way. But the worst possible method of teaching, to me, is the "start over" method. That may be what is required, but figuring out what went wrong first, exploring how to fix it, or why it cannot be fixed, that is where confidence begins.

It isn't just about doing it over and over again. It is about understanding what it is you are doing in the first place.

But you'll still have to throw away all that ice cream if your walk-in freezer dies over the weekend.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Play

People are surprised to find out I make pastry items at home. I'm not sure why this is, really. Home is my lab, library, playground and comfort zone. At home I can make mistakes and call them innovations, failures can be called learning experiences. No one is waiting for my work but me, and I enjoy my own breathless enthusiasm. I can create silly, exotic, fun without worrying about it fitting with the style of someone else. At home there is not a single god damn pecan tassie, prescooped cookie and sweetened condensed milk is kept at an absolute minimum. That stuff really creeps me out.

And, if I do show someone something from home and am asked, "Why would you make dessert caviar?", "Why not?" is a perfectly reasonable answer.

Black cherry caviar, honeyed yogurt, vanilla pancake and fennel.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

My sister, on why I should just apply for that thing...


"it turns out disappointment isn't so bad that it is worth missing out on enthusiasm."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

You're Laborers; you should be laboring.

I'm smart, and I'm not going to apologize for it.

I spent years working though all the psychological baggage that led me to believe this was a bad thing and I know that, in fact, it's a damn good thing. It's not that I am a prodigy of any sort. I'm not a wizard or some superhuman thingamabob. Just good and smart. And yes, I have an education.

You would think this would make my life easier.

Instead I chose to work in an industry that has a highly skeptical if not cynical view of the value of classwork. And why shouldn't they? They have earned their education in a very real and practical sense - apprentices were around long before the idea of a professor - and have all seen some of the lesser examples of education without practical knowledge. And it is not simply my job that has this viewpoint. Some of the best chefs out there scoff at the skills of the culinary school graduate.

I am very conscious of not waving my brains about at work. In particular, my immediate supervisor is not educated and is very sensitive about it. I have actually had to ask him to stop dismissing the skills of the instructors at my school because of things he felt I should know. I have never corrected his science when it is flat out wrong, because he is not the kind to respond to that well. I am tolerant that when asked what six times nine is, someone is going to check my math on a calculator. But dammit, I AM going to say something about that butter cookie they want to send as a lactose intolerant dessert. And it is really hard to not react strongly when the response is "So? Only milk has lactose."

I had great teachers in culinary school. Intelligent individuals who were perfectly comfortable with letting me know how much I wouldn't know when I got that piece of paper, even while they fed my brain. They encouraged me to get out there while going to classes to see what is really like, and I did. They understood, and helped me to understand, that what I was getting from them was a vocabulary. They gave me the freedom to fail. That freedom gave me confidence to try again, and try different, and question how and why and what. To learn. To be educated.

Is it any wonder that of all the options available to me for the long term, I want to be like those that valued my brain, challenged me even while letting me know that I was working in an idealized, sheltered environment? Could you blame me for wanting nothing more for the immediate future than a chef that is, if not as smart as I am, cognizant of what to do with someone who is smart?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

What is a cook's resposibility to the world?

I should not be allowed to read post apocalyptic novels.

Particularly the well written ones, the ones with characters that understand that dried beans are better than canned, the appreciate early on the importance of salt, sugar and the coming of winter. I read them and suddenly I want to start hoarding, make slow simmering soups, and in general preparing my swiss army knife for the imagined difficulties that lie just ahead.

So what happens when the news starts reading like a post apocalyptic novel? When you start to see, if not catastrophic changes, then at least significant ones that affect your own kitchen?

There is waste in a professional kitchen. A good chef will minimize it, to be sure, but it is there nonetheless. In a catering kitchen it can be flat out appalling; you know what bad form it is to run out of food at your own party, and when every order is a party...

Add to that the question of local/sustainable/seasonal/organic. Can you offer a client an organic option when you have no idea if three months from now that option will even be available? What happens if you do and then the guest count goes up beyond the capability of the farmer?

We have unbelievable opulence where our food is concerned and I see it getting taken for granted daily. What should my responsibility be? To give the clients what they want? To educate from within? To leave it behind in protest?

I asked a horticultural friend why he stays in an area that is still fairly backward where food consciousness is concerned- he has multiple jobs to keep afloat. He says he would rather stay to try and help the change happen, because if he doesn't, it will just make the area slip further behind. That is seriously noble.

As someone who isn't at the top of the kitchen food chain, who can influence very little, I wish I could go somewhere where I didn't have to trailblaze, where I could work with people who have some of the concerns I do. It is frustrating to have such a small voice.

I think it is important to keep speaking up, though. Or else the rice flour, the pandan, the sugar and the chocolate that made this bite won't be available. Even without an apocalypse.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

And Yet...

... I noticed today at work that our frozen peach slices (No sugar added! Individually quick frozen!) have "natural" peach flavor added to them.

Isn't natural peach flavor what they already should have?

Porch moments

We were never cake people. If I wanted cake, I wanted one that was very atypical. I remember at age six, when schools still insisted on a class cake for birthdays with no thought to allergies or nutrition, I wanted a spice cake. Lemon cake was another decent option, but otherwise, meh. Could care less. I still hate cakes.

That crisco icing on a dry sponge? Bleh. I think that was partially why I went for a French pastry education; the chefs understood that the world of dessert was so much better without a slab of yellow cake with chocolate frosting.

We love pies, though. What is not to love? A crust, baked dark to bring out the sweetness. Inside, those berries we picked off Mt. Otsego from that secret blueberry/currant/raspberry stash. Apples heaped high and topped with impossible amounts of brown sugar crumb. Or perhaps some lemon. Serious lemon. My first from scratch lemon meringue is legendary among my friends who tasted it. I cut down the lemon next time I made it, but that first one was sublime to me.

This past week I found this. It was a pie, online for the world. Whole lemons, skin and all, sliced thin. I saw the recipe and had to make it, feverish with desire, planning my time off around the ability to make this pie. I made it knowing there would be no one here to share it with; it would be, at best, distasteful to my nearest and dearest. Bitter with zest, tangy, just a bit of sugar.

The crust is my own, an all-butter deviation. I smiled as I crimped the edges remembering how magical crusts once were, how did she get that edge?, as a younger me watched pies made. Of course, the pies were never made by men. I never figured out why. Poor deprived souls. The filling is as I expected - this is a pie for my tastes alone, a race against spoilage. Can I finish it before it is lost to the world?

So I eat a bit more in the afternoon sun. For today, this is my favorite dessert.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Pam Shortt's broken both her legs...

During one of the less tense moments of my day today, I turned to my co-worker and asked him, "What makes this chef special? What can he show us how to do that we couldn't learn from someone else, possibly better?"

"Nothing."

I had come up with the same answer a few hours before.

I don't know why I haven't been asking this question. I have been trying to define what I want. And while it is important to be able to answer the question, "What DO you want?" when you're sitting there screeching, "I don't want THIS!", sometimes you need to rephrase the question to actually get the right answer.

I have been dithering about trying to come up with a vision of salvation. Duh, there isn't one. No chef is going to come sweep me off my feet. Ain't happening. But you know what is happening? Not a whole hell of a lot. And I am furious about that.

I haven't learned a new recipe in ages. I haven't learned new techniques other than what I have taught myself. And what I can learn, those valuable pearls that may still linger? I could learn them just as well somewhere else.

So now comes the hard part... I have to let go of the trappings that keep me here.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Educated Guesses

I have a theory about rhubarb. It goes something along the lines of soon, there will be a serious rhubarb fad. Rhubarb will be the next pomegranate, goji berry, there will be BarbWonderful and I will have this soup, and smile. And then, as quickly as the next issues of all of those magazines appear, rhubarb will fade away and I will smile again.

Rhubarb went through a bad phase. Around the World Wars it was considered a good thing to plant because it grows just about everywhere and it was a good vegetable substitute. What the propaganda neglected to mention was what part of the rhubarb to eat; since the leaves are toxic and the roots a laxative, well, a lot of people were turned off.

Happily, that memory is fading. And also, people are finding more ways to use rhubarb than just pie. (It is really good in pie, tho.) For example, rhubarb syrah soup with honey yogurt sauce is a really good use of rhubarb. I am convinced that most people who like tart things but claim to not like rhubarb would like this soup, at least until you told them it was rhubarb.

Rhubarb, for me, is spring. I never buy it frozen and so I only think of it at this time of year, like Shamrock Shakes. I have a long term taste memory for it, unlike anything else I can think of. I made the soup and thought, "The rhubarb is tart this year." We homogenize so much in our world, to try and maintain that same flavor each year, each season. Wine is a happy exception, but our food should have their peaks and eddies, as well. Strawberries, grapefruit, even our meat should have flavor that varies from season to season, place to place, year to year.

Why do humans prefer mediocre food just because it is unsurprising? Don't we realize that delight is found at the moment of discovery?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Dangerous Times in Food Photography

I confess to a certain degree of perfectionism. I'm not a neatnik, I don't compulsively wash dishes or take tweezers to my arm hair, but I am aware of details. For example, when I put pictures up for public viewing, while I may not be the most skilled photographer, I want them to look decent.
I tend to take pictures of food on my porch. Natural light is better than the nasty apartment lights in my kitchen, leafy trees make better backgrounds and overall, it makes me happy. But well, there are occasionally issues.


See, I made this lemon berry dessert. Lemon mousse, a berry gelee, almond crumble, and a nice joconde with a pink abstract pattern. I really like the joconde. Came out awesome. And the whole thing tastes pretty good. The plan was to plate, garnish, snap a shot, write something about it. I got it in my head that I would rather do a sugar curl than a tuile. So I made one with the leftover nearly dead isomalt I have lying around for practice. This is a neat trick because 1. I was warming up the sugar in my toaster over 2. This sugar is really crystalised and dead. Inevitably, I hated it. And the next one. The next one as well. Then I broke a few.... you get the idea. I get one that is passable and now it's time to plate. I have an image in my head of what I want the plate to look like, so the sauce goes on easily. Dessert on the plate, almost perfect temperature now because it has been out of the freezer for a while. On to the garnish!

Strawberry, ok, blackberry maybe... oh hey, I have raspberries! Oh, they've gone moldy inside. Skip the raspberries, we'll make do with strawberry and blackberry. Ok, half a strawberry, yes, blackberry ok, sugar curl and...

No. Plate itself looks kinda empty and I don't like the balance of the fruit (Even as I am sitting here now I have another idea that would have been better. Oh well.) Try fruit on the plate. Nope. What if I move that strawberry? Oh, well, I guess the mousse isn't frozen anymore, will have to cover that and whoops!

"Hey!"

Adult that I am, I duck in the house so the kid who just got a mousse covered strawberry on his head can't see me.

Anyway I have another strawberry and you know I think I'll use one of those raspberries that's just moldy inside; it's just for the picture. Rearrange, no no no, ah screw it, I'll just cut this one open and get an inside shot. Decision made, I decisively pop the garnish fruit in my mouth. Including the moldy raspberry.

So here's the inside of this dessert, crumbs on the plate and all. I have to go drink something.

A little knowledge in the wrong hands...

It was suggested that the kitchen really needed to jump on this whole local/seasonal/organic trend and put together a menu reflecting a deeper understanding of where our food comes from in service to our clients.

My personal favorite item was the grass fed tomato.

Grass. Fed. Tomato.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Thousands of chefs can't be wrong, right?


My sister has ideas that often have merit. Case in point, the brown butter panna cotta was her suggestion, and while I still think it will make a killer flan and I need to tweak the actual process for this just slightly, the original idea was worth investigating. Many of her ideas of late have been focused around manager roles in a creative workplace in a digital/modern/changing world. I've been thinking about her ideas and if they would work in a kitchen. They are very mentor-driven ideas, full of facilitation and communication. How credit and praise get assigned. Less regimentation, more fluidity.

I'm not sure how many of them could work, and I'm not sure how much of that is me having bought into "the way things are done" in most professional kitchens.

Here it is, in plain English. I don't like the way my boss does things. I think some of his work is good, more of his work is outdated and the rest is at best half-assed. His style of mentoring doesn't teach us much of anything because most of the time his answers are the "because that's how its done" type. More than once I've asked about why something works the way it does and gotten an "I don't know". And then there are those other issues so common in an industry like this one. I'm not delving into those. But as I'm being screamed at for some trivial detail about how to plastic wrap a sheet pan that was perfectly legitimate yesterday there is a little part of me that says, "Ah, yes, this must be a real kitchen, he must be a good chef, because that's what they do." I sat in a meeting once in which we were told to suck up the abuse because one day we would be in charge and would abuse people because that is how things get done. Lots of kitchens follow this axiom.

I'm not sure it really has to be that way. Does it? What parts of the system do we keep, what parts to get rid of?

Escoffier is credited with the brigade system in most kitchens, specialized roles that define who does what where and when. And now there are kitchens where every cook learns every place, where they rotate out to the front of house and act as servers, even. But, as a specialized cook who would have a really hard time boning out a chicken, I kinda like that brigade. There is a tradition of cooking less and less as you move further up the scale, and I really don't like that one. I'd rather stay low, for now, and get my fingernails dirty. As for the screaming, the psychological damage, well, this industry is a pressure cooker and something has to weed out the bad veg. So what replaces that so that when you really need it, when it is your 23rd day in a row and tomorrow you feed a four course plated dinner to 600, you turn around and you have a staff there ready to go?

How do you get the passionate ones? And if you get them, is this how you keep them? Where is the line between practical, inspirational necessity and just stupid egotistical habit? I'm not sure what the answer is to that. I am scared of what such an answer would say about me and where I am right now. See, I've stayed with someone who may be on the wrong side of that line. Probably when I shouldn't have. Has that ruined me for the good kitchens? Will I even be able to recognize them or am I going to look for the wrong signs?

Rather than spend my weekend thinking about it, I'll just cook.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

I figured out the disconnect


We work a lot in this business. I hear it with my friends when we do manage to find a moment to catch up each other - ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen hour days - but it's not a oneupsmanship game. More a statement of, "Yes, I'm still here, doing this."

It's a statement that means more than you think.

There are statistics everywhere about the terrible parts of this business. There are the numbers about how many restaurants flat out fail in their first year of business. Numbers about alcohol and drug abuse among those in the industry. Appalling pay scales. Injury reports (and you know those numbers are higher than the statistics.) My company has an HR person, and there are things like sick and vacation days for those of a level to have been offered such things. Our chef asks us to not get sick when it is busy. He doesn't even say please, and we're surprised at his need to even vocalize such a thing. Who would allow themselves to get sick when we're serving 2000 people this weekend in three places at all the same time? I know, on a certain level that all of my coworkers are scarred, slightly damaged, or else they would not do this. Then I smile and wonder what they might imagine my damage to be, if they thought about such things.

My damage? I love this work. It's my curse, my albatross and anyone who recognizes it in me, however subconsciously, has totally got my number and I'm screwed. It is so easy to take advantage of me because I will think about each detail that I didn't get right, and it bothers me when I have to work at a level below what I think is good. I have a crappy day and I want to come home and cook. When I'm too exhausted to cook, I'm thinking about food anyway, reading about it. I want to travel to eat. I want to call up people and bore them with food talks at odd hours, as my sister will attest. Sure, I have other hobby things I do but I mean, I have been known to crochet cakes. I am a seriously damaged individual.

And I can possibly think of one person, of all the prep cooks, event cooks (there are over a hundred) and other culinary staff besides me in my workplace who may get that. That one person is not one of the management team. My own supervisor doesn't bake at home because it is too messy. In a word, I have no idea what their motivation is. They make similar money, work in the same environment, for the same hours and they don't flat out love this stuff? They don't want to taste everything and find out what a dragonfruit is, and contemplate new pairings for watermelon? The mind boggles.

I was showing some pictures posted by a friend of mine of her Easter buffet and my boss, in astonishment, verified that yes, she was a classmate of mine, same level of experience and all he could say was, "Well, what happened to you?"

I didn't reply with, "I'm working in the wrong kitchen."

As for the watermelon, there are so many taste memories with this sorbetto from David Lebovitz's book and Friendly's watermelon sherbet coolers that I want to leave it alone. But watermelon and black pepper is pretty kicking. And cubes of watermelon with really good balsamic. Or some of those strawberries that are starting to come in. Or with tapioca pearls as a shot drink... I can keep going...

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Start with the inspiration.

One of those spring days. It's grey and dreary from rain, making the green of the leaves brighter, the wet tree bark black. From this came thoughts of green, pistachio, pandan, what was I looking for? Green tea! And chocolate, and cherry. How should it go together? Have to try the ladyfinger batter with matcha idea. It comes out lovely, but dark, dark. How to brighten the look? I opt for a green tea buttercream even though I hate buttercream and find a gazillion other ideas after the fact - I even find an almost identical opera cake made with scientific precision on another site, with microthin layers of perfect cake and an absolutely smooth ganache top. Well, at least hers didn't have cherry. The cherry is a really good idea, so I add a whole one. Not bad for a first run, and I still have half a sheet of the matcha biscuit left...

Friday, April 4, 2008

Territorial marking among guest chefs.

Here's a thing I wasn't aware of until I became industry entrenched - there's a status thing among chefs. Not within an individual workplace, that is a hierarchy of which I was aware. I mean between the kind of work you do: caterers vs. hotel vs restaurant and that kind of nonsense. Each can have its own kind of disdain for the other among a certain caliber of chef. For some, your numbers mean everything - if you can't do a party for 1000 in one night without breaking a sweat, what good are you? Others will scoff, and say 1000 is right dandy a number but what does that say about your food? And a blessed few ignore both sides and just do the work. I like those kinds.

I don't know if it is guest chef season right now or what. I do know that we've had our menus prepared for us by someone who has never ventured near our kitchens numerous times in the last week. It's kind of fascinating. The way it works for the events we do is fairly straightforward. Our Executive gets the menu from the guest chef. That statement makes it seem simple, but it's kind of like that string tied to a doorknob method of tooth extraction, from what I've seen. We order the products, sometimes with perplexity, we do the prep. The guest chef may or may not appear with direction and tweaking. We put the thing together, go to the event. Once again, possibly we get direction on plating, last minute changes and the like from the guest chef now that we are on site. We cook the food, we plate the food, we serve the food, and then the guest chef takes a bow. Success!

Now this is not true for every event or every guest chef. I've seen both ends of the spectrum - chefs who were so grateful and sincere in their work that they were a joy to have in the space. We made room for those chefs, gave up the line, shared secrets. The ones that only came in to criticize our work, scoff at our prep team as "mere" caterers and basically gum up the works? Well, of course they saw us at our worst - it was all they expected to see.

If I ever have the opportunity to be a guest chef somewhere I hope I can remember this time and be the good kind of guest chef. I hope I will have a recipe that works as well for 800 as it does for 4; even better if I have the math done for 800 already. I hope I will communicate early and often with my needs and then stop making changes unless I have to well before the event takes place. I hope I consider the season when my menu is being served. And mostly, I hope I remember to thank everyone who helps me.

And if I don't remember those things, then I will not have become the chef I hope to be.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

And then a little something I did at home...


So this is not the kind of mini dessert we do at work. It wouldn't work for 800 people very well. But this is closer to the look I like, the aesthetic of what I want to make, and, indeed, what I want to eat.

What is it? In the cup is berry curd and a sliver of fresh berry. The pearls are guava (nice, but I could have punched up the flavor more with a better puree). The fresh berry made it, flavor wise, and I ended up not liking the chocolate cup as distracting. Some of the leftover guava gelee got sliced and layered with the curd and berry for some mutant fraisier action and it was distinctly better without the chocolate.

Something along this line has been puttering around my brain for days now, glad to get this first rendition out.

In other so I remember notes, it was suggested I make melon-based pearls very very soon. I can do that.

My contribution to today


Everything I don't like about this cake was not my idea, so I think it's a nice little sample for a tasting. Entire cake is less than three inches wide and four inches high, to give you an idea of the size of the roses. Chocolate cake, ganache filling, wrapped in marzipan, coated in chocolate.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Absolutely appropriate

I noticed yesterday in the bathroom that I have a zit on my nose.

Let me back up. The first restaurant I ever worked in had a sous chef named Rob. Actually come to think of it, I have worked at three places that had sous chefs named Rob. Weird. Anyway, as it was my first restaurant job, I was green as grass. As a career changer I was old enough to actually know this. The sous chef, Rob, kinda scared the bejeesus out of me.

It wasn't anything that he said or did in particular. It was just that he was always there. I felt like everything that he asked me was a test. Some tests were easy, to me; when he offered to let me leave at the end of my first shift without needing to clean up, I said I'd stay. They didn't offer me the chance to stay on until after I mopped. Like I said, that one was an easy test. He'd also ask questions about methods and plans and what exactly I was doing and those were trickier.

At the end of every shift he came around and thanked everyone on the line including me.

But it got easier for me. I kept up a bit more, I contributed. I always stayed to clean. Towards the end of my tenure (I was working for free on the weekends while I was in school, so we all knew when I was leaving.) he came around at the end of the night to say thanks after he had changed into street clothes. We had worked the last nine hours together, he had pushed, I kept up, and still stood in awe of his position.

I noticed as he thanked me a rather spectaular zit on his nose. Nine hours, I hadn't noticed it. I noticed the smooth actions on the line, the being everywhere he needed to be, the good questions, the good food. It was a fascinating thing, that zit. Humanizing, yes, but I knew that if it was there the next week, I still wouldn't see it until he was in street clothes.

So when I went to the bathroom yesterday after they promoted me, the face that looked back in the mirror seemed to reflect history accurately.

Time to go to work...