Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Evolution of Flaky Pie Crust

I kinda feel like I have made pie crust for a statistically significant portion of Portland area households having Thanksgiving dinner. This is hyperbole, but what I have done still surprises me given Pies I Have Known.

My first experiences with pie crust were not, of course, my own, but my family's crusts. My mom made pies often, her apple crumb pie a vivid, mountainous memory and the crusts were distinctly undercooked. I loved them that way, soft, pale, laden with apple goo. They did not hold up well on their own, and she never made pies with a top crust. I wonder why.

When I was in college I had a cooking buddy, Amanda. We were a good match because she baked, and I cooked, and neither of us was exceptionally good at the other. Both of us were convinced we had found our specialties. I don't know how her cooking is now, but my baking has improved. She would talk about flaky pie crust, offering suggestions about the importance of cold, refrigerating the bowl. I tried this, and found some improvement, but not enough to warrant regular pie baking.

As I started exploring cooking, I went through a quiche phase. Why quiche? I love eggs, I love stuff mixed with eggs, and had not yet heard of the existence of a frittata. The Silver Palate books suggested pate brisee, my first all butter crust. Holy crap that was good. Having grown up with salt free crisco crusts, it was nice to see the crust could have a flavor unrelated to the filling.

When I started getting serious about cooking, I picked up Harold McGee's masterwork On Food and Cooking. In the continuing efforts to avoid gluten formation, he detailed how to add the ice water, and the importance of letting the dough rest. Now I was getting somewhere.

I didn't make a properly cooked pie crust until I went to pastry school. School, for me, was a great deal of relearning the things I already knew but knew wrong. I learned where pie was concerned, you shouldn't taste raw flour in the crust. That it should have real deep color, because the color also will indicate flavor. Oddly revelatory.

Then came real production. I stopped looking for a perfect homogenous mixture knowing that was the worst thing that could happen. I actually could see how marbling of the butter in the top crust made for beautiful browning, and how a little too much mixing could make a crust shrink and deform. My crust mix looked a lot like my rough puff pastry and in some ways acted like it as well, water creating steam in the bake, causing those sought after layers.

I'm still learning pie crust with each batch. I've made about thirty batches this month, which works out to somewhere around 400 pies. Just me. Scaling, mixing, rolling out and cutting. It's all butter, with salt, kept cold, mixed just enough, rested before rolling. I don't do the baking, but the folks who do know what it means to bake it all the way.

While I've been busy with the crusts, our sous chef has been busy with the filling and forming, perfectly crimping crusts, piling fruit high. I asked her if she ever made pie at home. She said yes, but she never made crust, she just took home some from the bakery.

Not bad for someone who didn't manage to mix a decent crust until she was in her 30s.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

something to think about

Second, third, fourth, how ever many hands this passed through, I found it in this post on Alinea at Home, and she got it from a friend who read it from an interview with fashion designer Isabel Toledo:

"Craft takes time, and therefore it is luxury. You cannot do an amazingly well-made garment without taking time—not just the time it takes to make something but also the time it took the maker to come up with the idea. That is all luxury, and that has been lost because we're trying to make things faster and faster, cheaper and cheaper. The consumer tends to lose track of what luxury is."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A quick Shout Out

My sweet friend SisterDiane (Diane Gilleland) does a podcast and blog about all things crafty, particularly if it involves building community through social networking, supporting independent crafting or the joys of plastic canvas. She is not a cook, which makes her a nice conversational change of pace in my world, but she does appreciate cooking as a craft.

She decided she wanted to do a podcast on cooking and interviewed me about things like finding inspiration for cooking after doing it all day and how to avoid burnout; I'll probably explore some of those ideas here more later, because they are interesting topics. For now, though, I'm just going to mention this and go back to finishing the next video post.

Coming soon, upsidedown cake!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

What Gourmet Magazine did for me

I started putting together a list of memories tied to the magazine- a long list - to try and portray just how important it has been in my life. Thing is, if I had to say just one thing about this magazine, there is really only one story I could tell.

My mother was dying from cancer. We all knew it. Brain surgery had just revealed more tumors, it was in her bones, it was a matter of time. Not much time. I was spending my days in a regular pattern. In the mornings, I would go to work. I couldn't skip out due to a project deadline. My boss, being a decent human being, gave me my afternoons. I would leave work, drive the hour to the hospital, sit with my mom, my dad, and various other grieving friends and family, get in my car and drive back.

But I wouldn't go home necessarily. Sometimes at home, sometimes at the home of good friends, I would cook. I grabbed various copies of Gourmet, flipped through for anything that sounded interesting, and cooked. Pork tenderloin? Now was the time to try it. Gratins? Sure. Crazy, elaborate over the top dishes using ingredients I had never dared to buy before was exactly what I needed.

I wasn't hungry. I tasted what I made but I don't remember eating much. That was not the reason I cooked. What I needed through those long days was that moment when I served dinner. When we gathered to eat those meals I put together, that was where I found that food isn't just about sustenance. It was then about finding good, constant things, the comfort of friends, and just knowing that there was more to the world than just the job, the drive, the hospital.

It's not everyone would have done. Indeed, it was probably one more reason that when I did decide to change careers, my family was completely unsurprised. But at the time it was how I got through each day. One could say that I could have found that with some other task, some other magazine. All I know is that when I realized that I needed to cook, to keep my world in focus, that was the magazine I grabbed from my shelves. It could have been something else, yes, but I'm glad it was Gourmet.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

the giant annoying brick wall that is looking ahead

The first kitchen I worked in, I was paired up with Bill, who, in addition to being the oldest guy in our kitchen, was a career prep cook. Not a sous, not a chef, but certainly a prep guy that could be relied upon to cover for an overly enthusiastic kitchen puppy like I was. I never asked him, then, why he stayed at the level he did, I was too busy trying to learn, trying to keep up. I didn't know that was the kind of thing I should be trying to learn, too.

I imagine that military folks, coming to the end of their enlisted time and suddenly considering they may want to go career may go through something similar, but I could just be making this up.

So the question of the day is "Where is this taking me?" or, better perhaps, "Where do I want to go with this?" (See, passive vs active voice, I get it.)

This would be easier if I were younger. I could take the time to work some really terrific places, enduring less than ideal living situations. I could work a lot, 36/8. Really build up a resume, a repuation and then take it to wherever. The reality is, I'm not. I don't want to dorm up with three other people. Yes, as odd and far reaching a dream as my $14 saving account may suggest, I would like to own rather than rent. Of course, I have some aches and pains and things that tell me that physically 36/8 just isn't an option (or at least not one for the long term) I have more than just me to consider, too; my sweetheart has endured two multiple time zone moves now, I think I've used up that get out of jail free card.

Stability is not what you come for in this industry. Sure, there are varying degrees of slippery slope but things can slide at any time. All tied up in the question of what do you want in your career is the bigger question of what are you willing to risk? And don't kid yourself that it's just professional risk. How important is that house to me? Important enough that I should give up the idea of my own shop? What do I save up for?

Stepping up my game at work is all well and good, but I'd like to know what I am stepping up to do.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

not exactly a farmer cook

There are certain food absolutes you learn early, hear often. Respect your ingredients. Fresher is better. Know where your food comes from.

In a professional kitchen, this can translate to recognizing the giant truck when it pulls up with your order, or actually visiting farmers, or even doing it yourself.

At home is a different story. At home you are free to explore the whims of your mind and stomach, and not have to worry so much about whether or not the berry yield will last you until January. I have an idyllic vision of what I like my home kitchen to be. It involves, among other things, a home garden with endless fresh herbs, happy vegetables and a cat napping under some heirloom variety of something.

Reality check: I live in an apartment, and I kill plants. Herbs that are "easy to grow" die at my hands. Our little patio gets sunlight only late in the Oregon afternoon. But I try. I can tell you lots of facts about plant needs. I know the difference between xanthophyll and chlorophyll. Facts, however, do not translate into vegetables. I bought my plants this year expecting to soon be throwing away depressing half dead specimens. I threw away the snap peas first.

Why did I go to this expense with a budget stretched thin enough? Because every time one of those plants died, I felt I was somehow failing as a cook. I know what to do with these things when they arrive triple washed and shrink wrapped. I should be able to do better than that, I felt. At home, especially, I should be able to go straight to the source. Sun and soil and water can translate into flavors we can't replicate. As good as my strawberry shortcake may be, it's a biscuit and cream without the berries. And I know the best berries can never see the inside of a fridge, can handle only a few minutes of travel and will never see the supermarket shelves. How good of a cook can I be if I can't get the best ingredients? So I try again.

This summer, I have learned something. The more I ignore plants, except to water them, the better they do. I've actually gotten to make tarragon vinegar with my own tarragon and so far I've harvested exactly one tomato (It was on the plant when I bought it) but it looks like there should be a jalapeno and a cucumber soon. I'm excited for each morning as small as the bounty may be. And each time I cook with these plants, I'm aware of all it took for them to get to where they are. Was that the best tomato ever? No. But I cooked it the best way I knew, and the result was very good. I'm learning. The next one will teach me more.

red rubin basil, the most beautiful basil I've ever seen.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Five years in

Five years ago this month, I changed careers.

How do you articulate a life changing event? An incident so personal, so entwined with the person you become, regardless of success or failure?

My first day I was delirious. Giddy. High as a kite and soared on that emotion for hours afterward. I have a record of it somewhere in the bowels of the internet and reading it this week, I smiled.

Someone asked me last weekend what it was like, to work in the business. He wasn't sure if he could handle the work. Was it really like what they show on tv? Could it really be that bad?

No, I said. It could be a helluva lot worse. It could be sitting on the side of a major city road during rush hour repairing a cake the fell over inside of the car on the way to an event. It could be going to work at midnight to be ready for a six am shop opening on the day of Christmas Eve. Discreetly ignoring the boss's drug use. Putting your feet up during the train ride home in hopes that you will still be able to walk on them when your stop arrives, if you don't fall asleep and miss your stop. The sinking feeling when you find out that because of business your hours are going to be cut, again. Keeping your head down, continuing to work and saying absolutely nothing while someone has a complete meltdown next to you. Days where you see no daylight. Nights that seem inhumanly hot, humid and endless. Equipment failures that happen at all the wrong times and menial, repetitive tasks that you perform (hopefully) perfectly, endlessly, day in and day out. Having that insane compulsion to push longer, harder, no matter the circumstances, for no good reason other than personal pride.

So, he said, after I wound down, Do you like it?

No. I love it.


Friday, June 26, 2009

My breakfast is better because I use a scale.

There is nothing I dread more in a recipe than the words "3/4 c. brown sugar, packed".


I almost never baked growing up. I was notorious for being the one who screwed up the toll house cookie recipe. Oh, I could cook. There was no question how I felt about food. My nearest and dearest saw my chosen profession long before I quite my job and went into food service. But baking? Was I sure?

A scale changed my life. My world opened. I have not looked back.

You need a scale to bake. Especially if you bake regularly. Why? Well, I'm not going to rehash arguments made elsewhere. To sum up, scaling is easier. Scaling entices you to play with things. Scaling lets you see how it goes together, not just what. No, rather than go through all that, I'm going to make my own version of grapenuts-like cereal. Now, if I followed the recipe I found, I would have to dirty up a whole bunch of measuring utensils. Instead, I pulled out one bowl, preheated my oven to 350 and then dumped in my bowl:

470 g whole wheat flour
58 g barley flour
65 g buckwheat flour
220 g brown sugar
7 g salt
5 g baking soda
5 g cinnamon
10 g vanilla extract
475 g buttermilk

I love a tare button.

Ok, I would have dumped it in my one bowl if I wasn't dealing with recipe conversion and innovation. Since the recipe I had was not created for a kitchen with a scale, I was forced to convert. Forced to dirty many cups and various sized spoons, pack brown sugar. How hard are you supposed to pack it anyway? Why does my cup of flour weigh something different from that other person's cup of flour? Why has no one ever made a half tablespoon scoop a regular addition to those little spoon rings? I muttered darkly through this process, knowing I won't have to do it again.

And I had to deviate from the text. In the real trademarked cereal, the ingredients (a seriously short list) note both wheat and barley. All the internet recipes I found just had wheat. Wheat is nice, but barley adds sweetness and flavor and why not add it? I had the buckwheat, so, why not add it as well? Those weird numbers are actually a half a cup each, the way I measured them. So inconsistent! But I know that since I scaled them, next time it will work out the same as this time.

I mixed it all together and spread it on a silpat, but I'm sure parchment paper and a little pan spray would work fine. I baked it on a sheet pan for about 20 minutes. I let it cool, then raked it into pieces with a fork and my hands because who needs a food processor anyway. Then it got the granola treatment- I divided the crumbs from one pan into two pans, to give them space to brown and get crunchy. Baked for an hour at 300, with lots of stirring (which I continued to do with the fork to help further break up the clumps), they smelled like cinnamon rolls and looked like, well, breakfast cereal. They cooled into the dense crunchy clumps that I adore with my yogurt only better.

And next time? I'll only need to wash one bowl.

Monday, June 15, 2009

rhubarb ginger ale and intuition

People seem to be talking a lot about intuitive cooking lately. You have books like Ratio which hope to inspire more of it. You have the great chefs who talk about a cook's intuition and its role in creativity. Then you have just regular people who are working on their own skills and realize that at some point you have to put the book away and just cook.

The Amateur Gourmet did a post on making your own ginger ale where he put the book away. To sum up, he had a recipe for the world's greatest ginger ale, in my humble opinion, and he just sort of put it together with what he had. It turned out great. This is the kind of subtle inspiration I love. You have a formula, a basic idea, a technique, a structure and then you just play around it.

I had some rhubarb. I thought, that would be good with ginger ale. And then I thought that I like honey with rhubarb better than sugar. So why not replace it? Well, honey can be a little strong, so why not cut the honey with agave? Sugar free rhubarb ginger ale?

Well, why not?

Now, I work in a professional kitchen, so I've learned one thing about these kinds of experiments that you don't always learn at home: You need to be able to replicate something good. Take Notes. So these are my notes:

175 g chopped rhubarb - 1 good stalk
100 g chopped ginger
150 g agave
50 g honey
350 g water

simmer to syrup, taste and adjust, 15 minutes +, rhubarb mushy. Strain. Chill. Mix with club soda/spark h20.

What you don't see with these notes are the cross outs, the scribbles. I started with 50 grams of ginger and after first taste, dumped in 50 more. I could have gone higher. There is a note about adding a squeeze of lemon, which would probably be nice. The word "strawberry?" appears and I'm sure that would really be nice. I may do that one next. I may do strawberry on its own. Someone else may have added more honey but I don't like that much sweet. I didn't even note the syrup consistency because I eyeballed it. It wasn't important, compared to the flavor. I could make this again with the notes I have, but I could do a lot more as well.

It is bare bones, not really a recipe, but I think that may be the best thing about it. It encourages adaptation. What is the most important part of cooking intuitively? Why is it so attractive? Because there is a chance that you will come up with something really good or really awful. Recipes can fail, yes, but that sort of failure is personal, you are more likely to blame yourself - what did I do wrong? The recipe must be right (although eventually you learn that isn't true.).

If you have no recipe and you fail, it raises more questions. Why did this not work? What can I change? Will it work if I do this instead? And if you succeed, those same questions are there. Why did this work? Will it work if I do this instead? What can I change? Freedom to fail and learn so you can fall and rise up again. Freedom to just cook, to just play. That is why you develop your intuition.

the hands remember

It was one of those remarks that sticks with you. I was considering leaving my job with Monsieur Le Chef, and I wanted to consult with him first about the position I had been offered. (He was starting up a new venture himself and although he had given me the chance to tag along, there just wasn't enough work. That is how it goes sometimes.) He said yes I should take it, they would be lucky to have me but, and he meant this in the best possible way, "You need to watch your judgement, baby." And then proceeded to list examples. Sometimes, I hate examples.

What I am learning as my career progresses is that judgement is not in the head, it is in the hands. This is a tough lesson for me. I spend a lot of time hashing things out in my brain. I think and rethink. I create scenarios. I have an inexhaustible need to learn the hows, whys and wherefores. You ask me how something is made and I don't know, it is going to really bother me until I go and look up the answer.

And that is the problem.

Cooking is not about "looking up the answer". Sure that can help, but it comes down to those wiggly parts at the end of your arms, and your nose, and your ears, and all those other things not made from grey matter. I'm still learning to trust my senses. I'm not quite good at it yet. There was an incident at work, not long ago, when I looked at some bread dough and said, a la Miss Clavel, "Something is not right!" But my brain whispered sweet excuses in my ear. I went with my brain and paid for it the next day.

But I am improving. All of my recipes from Monsieur Le Chef are simply ingredient lists. No technique, maybe an occasional note. I have to trust that ethereal judgement will shape it. I made the chocolate mousse cake for the first time in over a year this weekend, and as I laid out my mise, I had no idea how it went together. I intended to just do part of the recipe, to be safe, to give myself time to think and remember. I was half way through the recipe when I realized that without any thought I had gone past my stopping point and set up everything to finish the whole shebang. And I knew what needed to happen next.

It came out lovely. The hands remember.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

the things we sacrifice/ things we gain

nights, often
weekends by the calendar's definition
financial stability
luxurious benefits
the ability to call in for a "mental health" day
mostly the ability to call in at all
various body parts - feet, knees, back, wrists
friendships with people with "regular" jobs, often

a deep connection with our coworkers
friendships that can withstand anything
instant camraderie from others in the industry
sexy, sexy forearms
the ability to say "I made that"
amazing acts of generosity
great stories
a finely honed bullshit threshold
appreciation for leisure
beautiful food, and the chance to eat it

Thursday, May 7, 2009

trying to perfect the imperfectable

I have a new obsession. Growing up on the East coast, doughnuts were either dunkin, or, in my world, Schneider's. I've gone through phases with cake and jelly. I distinctly remember my first beignets. I've moved around a bit, experienced hot doughnuts now, locally made doughnuts of good varieties and generally, I'm a fan. Hell, I even had them on the dessert menu at one of the places I worked. We called them Dishwasher Crack and had to take them off the menu because, strangely, sales did not match the number that were going missing each night...

To sum up, working in pastry has totally ruined doughnuts for me.

I can't imagine just grabbing a doughnut every morning. I mean, sure I could eat a doughnut regularly, but now, when I succumb to the urge, all I can think is "Crap. Mine are better." I can taste the bad fry oil (and worse, recognize it), notice the flavorless batter, scoff at poor quality toppings. Sure, there are good doughnuts out there, but, you see what I'm saying.

Now, I could make them at home. I just hate deep frying at home, for all the reasons anyone would hate deep frying at home. So I've embarked on a quest. I'm trying to make perfect baked doughnuts. Not "not too bad" as I saw one recipe described. Not a muffin. Not in a doughnut pan either because on some base level that seems like cheating. I'm trying yeast and chemical leaveners. I'm playing with flours, and I have a couple of weird ideas that may or may not work. And any real doughnut fan will tell me it is just not possible, because hello, frying! Totally different cooking medium! I'm trying anyway.

The ones in the picture are from batch three. They were ok. How many batches will I make before they come together, I wonder.

Monday, April 27, 2009

cost breakdown in plain english

It's the labor, that's why. Someone mixed this dough, laminated this dough, cut this dough in to individual pieces with a very large knife and then rolled each individual piece in to a rope, and coiled each rope into that lovely danish you're admiring. By hand. Over and over again.

That's why your perfect Saturday breakfast costs what it does.

In case you were wondering.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

sustenance without food

I admit it, I can be single minded. I can bore my coworkers with the history of rhubarb, cure my sweetheart's insomnia with possible dinner menus and even make myself crazy thinking about food.

It's easy to get caught up. There are so many tools available to connect us with other cooks the world over, even with the odd hours we keep, and hash out recipes for the perfect lemon tart. At any given moment, there is someone ready to discuss whether that amuse bouche really did set the tone for the meal or the tragedy of an unappreciated dessert item. Scientific evaluations on the roasting of potatoes and snarky gossip. Thoughtful poetry on a chef's inspirations and useful hints on a home garden. And I am so so tempted, if not to chime in, then to at least observe the diatribes. Information junkie that I am, I want to sample it all. I have to force myself to walk away.

The world does not exist solely within the rim of a plate.

In fact, some of the best parts don't involve plates at all. And maybe, if I'm really lucky, they can serve to inspire anyway. The cooks I most admire talk about sculpture and nature, science, architecture, literature, politics, art, philosophy and make hardcore use of their free time. Sure, they can talk food at length but that conversation is layered with everything else they know. More importantly, they bring everything else into their food, enriching it in a way that can't be taught. There is value not only in devoted study but in the exploration of other disciplines.

I guess even cooks need hobbies.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A question of Raspberries

Rhubarb has taken over my world, pies, turnovers and cases in the walk-in. The danish doesn't even have apples on it anymore and I thought that would be one of the holdouts. Yeah, sure there is a rhubarb apple pie, but seasons don't change overnight. Lemon curd still lingers. We're all looking ahead to strawberries. And savory is in on it too with rapini that makes me flat out hungry every time it is prepped.

But we also have a cake with raspberry buttercream. Now, it's raspberries that we got fresh and froze ourselves back in warmer times, but still, the berry bushes are spindly, mostly leafless and invisible. Even the plum tree in my back yard is barely past budding. So is this ok? A slippery slope? Where do you need to cross the seasonality line? When is chocolate's season, really?

Regardless, it is a damn good cake. And that's a slippery slope too. Someday I'm going to be the one deciding where the line is. What happens when it is a bad year for raspberries? Does an item like this, one of our cake staples, fall off the menu? Or do you devote what supply you have to just this item and change out something else? This is what I am learning about now. Good lessons.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

How to go out to eat

So, we went to DC and went out for dinner. A serious, big, splurgy, my sister's 30th birthday dinner where we made up for belatedness with an extra shot of awesome. We did the tasting menu, wine pairings, and had a great time. Of the four of us, one was new to the whole idea of dining at that level so we tried to give him an idea of what to expect. No big rules and regulations, just suggestions on how to get the most out of things. I'm pretty sure it worked, he had a great time (as we all did) and I think the chef only spotted him licking his plate once or twice.

It occured to me as we were throwing a few simple ideas his way that people don't think about going out to eat as an event anymore. Maybe it went the way of men wearing hats all the time and ladies' gloves. That's a shame, too, because the way to get the most out of a meal that someone else is cooking is to look at it for the splurge it is... not just something from the drive through. And when one is trying to economize, if you can make even the smallest indulgence feel more decadent, it will satiate you longer. So these are a few of the things we covered at dinner on how to really go out to eat:

1. Choose the dinner companions that are best for the situation. Seriously, a tasting menu with a bad companion is an exercise in contemplating infinity. Someone with serious germphobia might ruin your fun tracking down a local taco truck. A good hint, enthusiasm for the idea. Don't forget to be a good dining buddy yourself. If you have to, work out piddly details like who will cover what part of the check beforehand so you can just relax and enjoy your occasion.

2. Have a plan. This actually came up after our fancy dinner. My sweetheart suggested that having a budget in mind and that sort of thinking was too much work for a simple meal. I countered that if you have something in mind, you are more likely to find the best possible options. It is not a bad thing to say in advance, "We can spend 30 dollars tonight, and I'm just not feeling Chinese food but I would kill for nacho tots." It will help control the "I don't know, what do you want to do?" endless loop of bad feelings.

3. Go to the best place possible in your budget. This should be a given, but if chili's hasn't gone completely bankrupt by now, then it needs to be restated. Hell, if you only have $20 that will get you good pho for two in most cities. Live in the middle of nowhere? Maybe you've got some guy in the next town that makes killer catfish or a great burger. Explore your options, and if that doesn't work, stay home and save the money. There are worse things than not going out to eat.

4. Trust in the person cooking. If you followed suggestion #2, this will be much more rewarding. Not every dish needs to be fussed with before eating and sometimes you may enjoy something you would not normally like. Those moments are worth more than the monotony of every good hot dog you've ever had. I had a very wonderful, memorable meal in which the chef hit every single ick nerve of everyone at the table, but we tried everything anyway and loved it.

5. Attitude is everything. The internet is filled with people who take going out to eat too damn seriously. If you go into each meal with a mind ready only to critique, not to enjoy, then I don't want to eat with you. Remember, the dish that saved Anton Ego was a variation on a peasant dish, one that he sneered at for its baseness when it was presented to him. Be willing to be surprised by the simple things. I'm not saying don't pay attention to what you're eating, I'm saying don't clinically dissect every second of it.

6. Savor it. Relax a little. Laugh. Look around. Talk. Ignore your cell phone. Ask your server how she is doing tonight. Don't sweat the money you're spending because that is a decision you already made. Yes, this all goes back to #5 but it bears repeating.

We won't be going out to eat for a while, and I know that will have been our big meal for the year (although there's another 30th birthday next year, so who knows what that will bring). But I have lots of snapshots in my head. I have flavors and smells and can revisit that amazing scallop or the goat or that rhubarb sorbet and the occasion was special. That is why we spend the money, take the time, make the effort, why we go out to eat in the first place. I may be crazy for having put as much as I did into one meal, but bottom line?

Totally worth it.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dans le merde

The rhythm in a bakery is very different. My busiest day is my first day back; Saturday, I'm taking it easy, doing some extra dishes, getting out early.

Not like the line.

Which doesn't mean you don't get weeded. You do. But this is Production in a different sense of the word. And our weeds are different. It's like a different part of the swamp.

What I hate, though, are the weeds you can see from a distance, the weeds you see coming, but you just haven't reached them yet. Knowing they are mostly unavoidable. It comes from being part of a good solid team. You would think that would make it better, right? A good team can pull together, pull through. A good team can weather the occasional outbreak of the plague or maternity leave. Yes, maternity leaves come in outbreaks. Seriously.

What a good team can't do easily, is hum smoothly along when parts of it leave permanently. Sometimes it happens, through no fault of management, economy, or Acts of God, that you lose a few people all at once. Rolling over a quarter of your production staff in a two month period? That's pretty harsh. We're dealing with that now.

And if you're a team of two, and your other half is leaving? The half that could be relied upon to pick up all those thousand little jobs which, although each was a five minute job, those five minutes added up to hours of every day? The half that knew exactly what you meant when you forgot English was your native language and gibbered about the thingy. The half that made you crazy with cleaning even as you were inspired to do better yourself. The half that let you bitch about a job you love just because you needed to bitch about something. The half that actually deserved full credit because you knew that, even if that person could not do your job, you would have problems doing your job without them? When that half leaves, even if you understand, are genuinely happy for their opportunity, and wish them all the best, how do you roll with that?

You see the weeds coming. But you know the old saying about lemons.

I'll miss you, other half. Big shoes.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Worldly Distractions

Things in the world suck right now. Talked to various family members about how much money they are no longer worth thanks to the market. The place where I live was named in Business Week as the U.S.'s most unhappy city. Another friend lost his job. I'm the only source of income in my house and we just paid rent. That cat puked on the stairs. We have new neighbors and they have a barky dog.

So, I made candy. All day.

Why did I make candy? Because I love doing it. Because it is relatively easy, requires little in the way of cash and equipment. Because there is a good effort to reward ratio. It's a skill I like to develop. There is inifinite chance to adapt, to play. I shelled and toasted my local hazelnuts for toffee. I threw some matcha in the cream for my chocolate caramels. I found inspiration for my hard candies in what I was drinking and the flavor defined the shape. I got excited with each new batch to try something more. When I looked up, I had used every silpat in the house but one, I had candy everywhere and hours had passed. And I realized, for a while, it had been ok.

I can't say we'll all be ok, I can't even say that it will get better. There may be some sort of deeper meaning to choosing lemon and bitters to flavor my hard candy, other than the fact that it tastes awesome.

Whatever the world brings, sugar is easy to clean up. Water just washes it away.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

10,000 Hours

That's the magic number, as far as brains are concerned.

Even before diving in to Outliers, I'd heard the number before. It goes something like this: in order to master something (and I mean You are the Shit, the Bee's Knees, recognized for what you can do) you need to practice it for ten thousand hours. That's when the brain flips a switch and says "Ok, this? We've got it." The difference between good and great isn't just practice. It's many, many hours of practice.

Ten thousand hours works out to be about eight hours a day, seven days a week for four and a half years. Without a vacation. For most people, though, it works out to doing something for about ten years. Nine, if it's chess and you're Bobby Fisher. I wonder how it falls out with chefs, though. And I do mean Chefs - the real thing. Because yes, I imagine that if I am still at this job after four more years, I will be pretty well set in my laminated dough skill set. Less that that, even, because well, the crazy hours cooks can keep. But what about the rest of the products? Menu creation? How does 10000 hours translate into the development of one's palate? Do you need to taste things for ten thousand hours before you can really tell what is sublime? And then do you need ten thousand hours of plating techniques?

All I know for sure is I've been cooking professionally for five years now. I still have a lot to learn. But I think I've got scooping cookies down.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Some days, I find myself at work thinking about the cool things I can cook when I get home. Some days I find myself exhausted at the prospect of cooking at home, but do it anyway.

This industry is filled with crazed alphas who devote seemingly every pore of their body to the food they make. That's what it says in the magazines anyway. In the face of this, I don't see myself as particularly ambitious. I don't have the zeal to go work at another restaurant on my days off just to stay in the game. I may think about spending a vacation by staging at some great restaurant, but that would require me taking time off. Hell, I can't even give myself the freedom to collect debt by eating at the best restaurants around because I'd rather cook out of a cookbook at home and save the money. Maybe its an age thing. Maybe I started too late in this game.

I've been getting myself worked up over someone else's recipes. I've been pushing myself to come home and do a lot of baking after baking all day. My sweetheart has pointed out, somewhat rightfully, that I can take a break, that it isn't my recipes I'm working so hard on. I countered that these recipes are the work of a baker that has influenced me, and now I have the chance to help him inspire others. That its worth it because I'm getting a glimpse at a process I wouldn't otherwise see. I say all these things, but I'm not sure that's really what I'm feeling.

It's much more personal.

It's about promises I have made to myself about finishing things I start. It is about knowing that I can damn well do better than THAT and I'm going to keep trying until it comes out the way I want. You learn something from even the idiots out there, and sometimes the idiot is you. There is always room for improvement. You're only as good as the last work you did.

You're only as good as the last work you did. And you know that could be better.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

On Paying Attention to National Events

It took five of us to figure out what a football looks like so we could decorate cookies accordingly.

Friday, January 30, 2009

The First Two Hours

I remember retail.

I remember for years and years I would walk in to work, punch in, check the schedule, and more often than not, meander over to get a cup of coffee. Sure, there was a chance that I would be on register first thing, but I would still have time to get that beverage, say hello. At various points in my career, thanks to a certain kind of boss, my day could even start with a meeting; arrive at work to be forced to sit down, chat and have a nice drink for 20 minutes? Sybaritic luxury!

Now, if I'm not starting work at least a couple minutes early, I feel like I'm behind.

Cooks work in a cascade. The time one thing can take directly effects when you get to the next thing, and when hell breaks loose? Well, we all understand trickle down theory. One shift can teach you that in just about any cooking environment. For example, if we need pies for Saturday, then on Tuesday I'm prepping dough because Wednesday I mix, Thursday I sheet out and cut, Friday the pies get made, and Saturday we bake. Yes, you could shave a day or maybe (maybe!) two off that time but for the best pies, that's our schedule. Five days. Sure, the actual time involved on Tuesday is minutes, nothing compared to Friday's time - and notice I didn't mention the fillings get made somewhere in there, too. I had just better notice on Tuesday we need pies on Saturday.

I work two cascades, my daily one for the laminated doughs, and the one for multiple day projects. The multiple days work happens between the daily, so I'll do my first turns for the croissant, and while that rests I'll do the pie dough, or cut puff pastry, or pull out the product for tomorrow, then I'll go back and do my next croissant turn, and so on. On a good day, I'll have completed my first turns as well as a few of my multiple day projects and be into my last turn in two hours.

Most days are pretty good. I look at the clock constantly, checking my progress. Each time I look, I have no idea what the time actually means. I know how many minutes a set of turns should take (Six, but if I get it down lower I am doing great!). I follow the patterns, thinking about where I can shave minutes, because that will give me just a little more time in case something comes up, a few more minutes just in case. The idea that a clock can tell me where I am in my workday just doesn't follow. Then, I pause, breathe, look at the clock and think, "Huh. That time already? Two hours? How did that happen?"

I know how it happened, of course. I was watching the clock the whole time.

Monday, January 19, 2009


The people working to put food out in the Washington, DC area right now? (I'm including servers and chefs, dishwashers, linehogs, bakers, baristas, bartenders, purveyors, hell even the delivery truck drivers. Especially delivery truck drivers.) Those are the people who seriously deserve respect and admiration. I mean, imagine you run a bakery, a good one, and on the average Tuesday you go through, say, 88 pounds of butter. Now imagine that your city's population is expected to quintuple almost overnight, stay that way for a few days and then return to normal. How much butter should you buy? How much product do you make? How do you make sure that your retail staff doesn't collapse with exhaustion before 9 am and still can manage a smile at 10? How do you deal with a dairy company that has every single one of its clients dealing with the same problems you have? How do you make sure your staff can even get to work?

I have images of prep cooks all over that city catching catnaps on sacks of flour. Servers who turn the corner and break out in sobs. Chefs standing at the pass reciting the Saint Crispen's Day speech from Henry V.

Ok maybe not, but it would be appropriate, "Then he will strip his sleeves and show his scars and say These wounds I had on Inauguration Day".

Take care out there, ok?

And if you're in the DC area as one of the many witnesses to tomorrow's inauguration? Tip well.
OK, Tip well anyway, but you know what I mean.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Problems with Good Bread

1. It's time intensive.

2. Basic cost of goods is relatively cheap, and everyone knows it, so you can't charge enough to make much of a sustainable living off bread alone.

3. It has a very, very short shelf life. And you had better be able to come up with something to do with the leftovers when you have them.

4. The labor to make 15 loaves and 25 loves is similar, but you need to have something you can do with the other ten loaves, see #3.

5. Once you start feeding the bitch, you can't stop. It needs feeding at regular times, gets finicky about the day, the time, even the weather. And even if you are nice to it, there is no guarantee that your bread will be as nice today as it was yesterday. And if the bitch dies, it takes a while to get a new one going again. (Don't ask me what happened to the employee who threw away all the levain one morning.)

6. It requires special equipment. Not that a spiral mixer or a deck oven can't be used for other things, but for really good bread, that's thousands of extra dollars.

7. Every baker knows these things. They also know that there are wholesalers that they can just buy bread from and with everything else, it would just be so, so easy....

8. Everyone wants it. Why is this a liability? If you make enough to fill the need, it tends to be a dedicate your life to it or let it go choice. In this industry, which do you think works best for most small bakeries?

Scary list for a bread geek like me.

Find a bakery. If they make their own bread - and I said "make" not "bake" - start buying it. This is an affordable luxury even just once a week, and I don't think I need to list all the reasons why good bread is better than the preserved flour sponges that sell at the big chains. It's better than the "artisanal bread" from those same grocery chains because you know who made it, and can ask all the necessary questions, like, "Has this been frozen?". If the baker looks affronted at the thought, buy the bread.

I mean, look at the crust on this. I make good bread, but this? Totally worth $3.50.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Man, when was the last time I plated something?

There is no such thing as a pastry job that covers all the possibilities. Not even an instructor can do that. So with each position, you get some of one kind of pastry work, none of another. Bread bakers don't make much ice cream. Chocolatiers don't do many pies.

Right now, I don't plate anything.

I miss it.

I haven't composed a dessert, I realize, since I moved here. There has been no swirling of sauces, no quenelles. My garnishes have served a savory function only.

I really, really miss it.

I realized I missed it when I found myself composing a plated trio of desserts for an upcoming potluck. Thankfully, the hostess is a friend and coworker, who understood my odd excitement when I started blathering ideas at her. Of course, I know this is only the beginning. There is a small part of my brain that plots imaginary cocktail and dessert parties, sighs wistfully at the photos of blogging line cooks and will only be satisfied when I add a few more recipes to my notebook. So, I'll do all that, at home, because it is the only place I have for plated desserts.

The worst part is knowing that maybe, just maybe, in my career this may be my only plated dessert outlet. And you have no idea how much it hurts to say that.

I love my work. There are very few parts of it that I look at and say "No, I'm not interested in that." (For example, I am so over cupcakes, thanks, and have been since I was, oh, five.) To say that any option that I do like is closed to me? Bittersweet thoughts.

(chocolate cake, salted macadamia caramel sauce, thai coffee ice cream, cocoa nib tuile)

Sunday, January 4, 2009