Monday, December 19, 2011

Lessons in Plating

One great thing has happened that directly impacts this blog: I have an iPhone! Which means that I have a decent camera with me at all times, ready to document all my culinary adventures. And believe me, there have been a few this past week.

Right now, I'm enrolled in baking production class. It meets twice a week for like 10 hours--until the school's restaurant Sage Bistro closes on Monday and Tuesday--and we make the baguettes for the restaurant along with any desserts for catered events. The class meets at the same time as the Plated Desserts class, which essentially has students be the pastry chef for the bistro for the quarter. There happens to be only one student in that class this quarter, and she is responsible for producing four completely unique desserts each week. So alleviate her insanity, our instructor is having different students from my class fill in to help her each week. I got to go first, along with my friend Katie. Let me say, thank goodness I had Katie to bond with, freak out with and laugh with because it was a complete cluster.

We we responsible for two desserts: creme brulee (pretty easy really) and this thing called a tian (refer to the strawberry-orange dessert displayed above). I would be very happy to never make that dessert again.
The thing was Chef Mar's idea. She brought us a print out of the concept: cookie, marmalade, mousse, and packed with fruit. She said we could reinterpret it how we wanted. So we made a sable cookie, used some in-house marmalade, I made an orange-vanilla bavarian cream stabilized with gelatin, and then we chopped up a bunch of fruit. Monday morning before the restaurant opened, Chef Mar hated it. It was all wrong, she said. The fruit looked disgusting--it kind of did. Katie and I were clueless. I had no idea how to fix it. Finishing things is not my forte--Katie is much better at it than I, but we were both at a loss. Finally Chef Mar came over and showed us what to do, but not after an agonizing period during which time we flubbed around with the dessert. We got out of the kitchen after more than 12 hours of work without more than a 15-minute break then we turned around and came back the next day for more.

I had made a batch of the mousse on Monday to use Tuesday and Wednesday, except that by the time we left the kitchen at 10 p.m. or so the mousse was still a runny mess. I was paranoid that it wouldn't set and that there wouldn't be enough time to make another batch and set it so that it stood up on the plate long enough to travel from the kitchen to the dining room. The only way I got any sleep was to give it up. I thought, "There's nothing to be done now. I'll just arrive and remake it." But Tuesday, miracle of miracles, the mousse was solid enough to work--barely. Tuesday went much better. Katie and I both had a handle on what we were doing and what to expect, and we left planning to leave everything to the student managers on Wednesday and Thursday. That is until some of the Table Service students tried to eat our dummy dessert.

We had to make a false dessert to display to the restaurant's customers. The creme brulee was really, but the tian--not being shelf stable for hours--needed a stunt double. Katie made this perfect model out of Crisco and a little food coloring. It looked so realistic that the students got hungry and ate the creme brulee and started in on the mousse. The student manager caught them before they finished it, but they had effectually ruined the dessert. I got called in to remake the dessert for Thursday's service. What a week.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Deer Tenderloin

I had four or five paragraphs written out about this deer tenderloin, but things just kept rambling on and on very amateurishly so I deleted it. There were all sorts of ponderings about life and blogging and eating and dating--trust me it was boring. Just look at the photos.

I cooked the deer, brought to me straight from the woods from my friend Dan, with a fennel and crushed bay leaf rub. I've used it before on pork tenderloin--quite tasty and not at all as weird as it sounds. Try it with this season's trappings.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Me Oh My, I Love Pie

I'm usually a nut for pumpkin pie at Christmas and Thanksgiving, but I have lately been converted to the pecan variety. I've been making this pecan pie for work quite a bit lately to pretty rave reviews, but I hadn't tried it myself yet until last week. It is great. No surprise here, the recipe hails from Tartine Bakery's cookbook. Every recipe is a knockout. This one is great with the addition of whiskey and my substitution, orange zest. Tasting the batter before the bake, the whiskey is overpowering but ends up perfectly balanced.

The recipe also calls for several kinds of sugar, as opposed to just corn syrup. It adds a lot of depth the pie, making it not just sweet sweet sweet--my usual complaint with pecan pies. I was careful to add extra salt here too if you're not using salt pecans. I just love salted nuts, it seems such a shame to miss the opportunity for salted and toasted pecans covered in caramel.

Pecan Pie:
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup maple syrup, I've also used honey
1/2 cup corn syrup
2 tablespoons whiskey
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter, unsalted
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups pecans
zest from one orange

One partially baked pie shell.

In a small saucepan, melt the sugar, maple syrup and corn syrup together with the salt. Boil for one minute. Remove from heat and pour in a mixing bowl. Let cool a minute then add the vanilla, whiskey and butter. Stir. Then add the beaten eggs. Stir to mix. Pour the pecan in the partially baked pie shell then pour the batter over the top. Bake for 45 to 60 minutes at 350 degrees until the filling is just set.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Three Posts in One Week and an Awesome Tart

I hosted dinner last night for friends in honor of a couple friends who are embarking on big journeys this week. One friend, Liz, is traveling to the brand new country of South Sudan tomorrow morning. She has "humanitarian" stamped into her passport. Incredible. And my friend Justin and his girlfriend Audrey are moving to Colorado on Thursday. Justin has never lived outside Omaha before, so this is sure to be a great adventure, one that should be marked off by a homey dinner with friends.

It's finally starting to get cold here, and with leftover turkey on my mind, I made two pot pies. One all mushrooms and one chicken. It actually took quite a bit of searching to come up with a meal plan. Justin is a vegetarian, so there couldn't be meat, but it's not exactly prime produce season and I didn't want to serve a bunch of sides. I leafed through what seemed like all my cookbooks (sometimes I can get obsessive), and finally found something on Nigel Slater's column about a mushroom shepherd's pie. It was an easy jump to pot pie (in theory). I have come to realize through my cakes final and my first year testing that I need a lot of work on finishing products. I start out strong, cover my bases with good technique, some expertise and quality ingredients. And then I've got to put the top on the pie, which it shall be noted was not in a pie shell, and I just throw it on. Of course it totally shrank in the oven. I may as well not have even topped it (the topless chicken pie turned out just fine).

I do this with everything I've come to realize. All projects. Writing a story; I get through the first draft and read through it and turn it in. I'll come back and give it some work, maybe. But by the end, I'm just doing the bare minimum. How do I motivate myself to put forth as much energy at the end as I do at the beginning when I'm absolutely slaving over coming up with the perfect lede for a story. Does anyone out there have any tips? One thing I can think of is practice. For example, if I'm well practiced at making petit fours, I can do them just as well after oh say 15 hours of work as I do after one hour. So there's something. But what about writing? If any of you have tips on that front, let me know!
I found three different kinds of mushrooms for the pot pie at Wohnler's: dried shiitake that I rehydrated, baby portobellos and oysters. Slater recommended pairing the mushrooms with a sliced leek, sauteing, deglazing with red wine and and lemon juice and adding vegetable stock before popping it in the oven. A couple heaping tablespoons of flour was plenty to thicken the stock to a stew inside the flaky pie crusts, and the pot pie turned out exactly how I had hoped: a sweet and woodsy hash with chunks of mushrooms. I treated the chicken pot pie in the same way, except added some extra celery and carrots that had been chilling in the freezer for a loooong time (yikes), almost as long as the chicken.

But the highlight of the meal was definitely dessert. I saw a recipe a for hazelnut-plum tart on Smitten Kitchen and made a mental note to make it as soon as there was time. (And I'll be making it again for work this week.) In absence of fresh plums, I used cranberries. It. was. incredible. The hazelnut butter crust was was crunchy with a bit of sweetness and just a hint of salt. The salt was the kicker. I love a salty dessert. And then there was the center. Creamy baked custard filled in the cracks around the tart little cranberries that just bled out juice under the heat of the oven. And to top it all was the rest of the hazelnut crumb crust and a little whipped cream (homemade, might I add). My good friend Dan has never ever eaten more than a polite bite of any desserts I have made (he doesn't like sweets) asked for a second slice--there wasn't any.

Mushroom Pot Pie:
Filling: by Nigel Slater
16 ounces assorted mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 leek, sliced
a couple tabs of butter and glugs of oil, enough to get all the mushrooms
2 heaping tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons red wine or marsala
1 1/4 cup vegetable or chicken stock
salt and pepper
fresh thyme
juice from half a lemon

Crust: from Tartine Bakery Cookbook yields two 9-inch pies
1 1/2 cups cold butter
16 ounces flour
1 cup ice cold water
1 teaspoon salt

I mix smaller batches of flaky crust by hand nowadays. I slice up the butter and add the flour and salt to it. Then I crumble up the butter with my fingers until they're about the size of peas, some smaller pieces some bigger. Then I add about half the water and stir with a wooden spoon. Then add only enough water until the dough comes together. I knead it a couple times, then wrap it in plastic wrap and chill it for at least an hour before rolling. This recipe makes enough for two whole pies with the tops, if you conserve your leftover pieces.

For the filling, slice up all the vegetables. Heat the oil on medium in a stock pot. Saute the leeks and the heartier mushrooms like portobellos, then add the shiitakes and oysters and the like. Saute until the moisture is starting to leech out of the mushrooms. Add the flour and stir to coat. Deglaze with the wine and the lemon juice. Then add the stock. Season throughout cooking with salt and pepper. It should taste good before it goes into the shell. Pour into the shell, pinch the top closed, brush with an egg wash and bake at 350 degrees for an hour or until the crust is a nice golden brown.

Hazelnut Cranberry Tart: from Smitten Kitchen
3/4 cup butter
1 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup hazelnuts, toasted (this is a crucial step!)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt

10 ounces fresh or frozen cranberries
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon flour
1/4 cup plus two tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup cream
1/4 cup milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Toast the hazelnuts until they are light brown and nicely fragrant. Pulse in a food processor until coarsely ground. Combine with the butter, flour, salt and cinnamon, blending using your hands until the butter is the size of a pea. Use about two-thirds of the crumb mixture and press into the bottom of a tart pan or spring form. Bake at 350 degrees until "set," about 15 minutes. Let the crust cool a bit.

Add the cranberries and arrange on top of the crust. In a separate bowl, whisk together the rest of the ingredients. Carefully pour over the cranberries. Bake at 350 for 45 to 50 minutes or until the custard has set and the top has browned a little. If you gently shake the tart and the center is visibly quite jiggly keep baking. But if it seems more solid than liquid pull it out, it will continue to set while it cools.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Breaded Squash

And the beat goes on. It would have been a great idea to post this recipe before Thanksgiving, but I'm not exactly punctual. Up until last week, I was barely treading water. I have reclaimed my life, if only temporarily. If there's anything I've learned going to school the second time around, it's to soak up the free moments. I've got another two days off this week before winter classes start (International Breads, so excited), and I'm glad to spend a few minutes recording some recipes in this space.

I hosted another potluck probably three weeks ago now, and I found this easy fall recipe at Sprouted Kitchen, which is a vegetarian blog (some seafood I believe) with the absolute worst most disgusting photos you can ever imagine (sarcasm) and written by the ugliest meanest writer (lies, she's so gorgeous you want to hate her). The breaded squash turned out to be a real hit at the party though. There were a few pieces left at the end for me to nibble while cleaning up. I love winter squash. It's so hearty and bold. It's a vegetarian's best friend. I love that this dish is roasted--such a fall thing--with rosemary and thyme and a whole clove of garlic. I just love a kitchen that smells like rosemary and garlic. The rosemary comes straight out of the forest while that garlic is remotely offputting in a way that makes you want more--you know how you keep smelling that gym bag? This, my friends, is a winner.

Panko-breaded Butternut Squash:
1 butternut squash
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs, smashed up a bit more than how they come in the bag.
1 clove garlic with the bottom sliced off
several sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme
olive oil
salt and pepper
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Peel and dice the squash into equally-sized portions. Place in baking pans.

In a separate bowl, combine the panko crumbs, which you will want to smash up a bit more than how they come in the bag so they really stick to the squash, parmesan cheese, and salt and pepper. Drizzle the squash with olive oil and toss to coat. Season a bit with salt and pepper--not too much remembering the seasoning in the bread crumbs. Toss the bread crumb mixture in with the squash. Press the crumbs into the squash if necessary. Add the rosemary, thyme and garlic to the pan. Roast at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until the squash is soft to the bite but not mushy.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Ends of Cakes

It has officially been the longest since I have posted on this blog. More than a month. In fact, this is the second time I've attempted completing this particular post. I fell asleep the first time. (If even the writer is falling asleep, this is not a good sign.) Obviously I have been busy. I have finally made it to the end of a clusterf*** of a week-and-a-half that went something like this: two stories due, cakes final examination, out-of-town wedding that served as a nice break, three grueling days going through the first-year culinary tests , a 15-hour day at work, intense cleaning at school (I took on a deep fat fryer--gross) and some light-to-heavy drinking (whoops).

I have emerged somewhat unscathed. I passed my exams and assumedly my cakes final, the output of which you can see in these photos. I look at the cakes up close and cringe a little. They look so sloppy--look at that broken ladyfinger below. I swear none of the other ladyfingers broke. And that chocolate cake doesn't look polished at all. It's supposed to have these smooth finished sides. But, they did taste delicious.

For a project, our cakes instructor gave each of the students an artist to design two cakes and 20 petit fours for. I drew Maria Martinez, who is an American Indian pottery artist known for developing this amazing black on black technique. She is credited with being the artist to bring American Indian art to museums and collectors.

I really lucked out with her because she is from New Mexico, an area with a distinct culinary tradition. I developed my cakes around the flavors of the Southwest. Note: Do not attempt these at home. It took me six hours, including quite a bit of actual running, to finish on time. The pink cake has a corn meal sponge bottom followed by a layer of lemon curd mousse, a sunflower seed baked meringue (which was awesome), then a prickly pear mouse and surrounded by ladyfingers. The chocolate cake had a chocolate sponge base, then chocolate-cinnamon-cayenne pepper mousse and a brown-sugar bavarian cream with another sunflower meringue and topped with chocolate-cinnamon-cayenne ganache and chocolate feather cutouts. The petit fours have a lemon sponge with sage-flavored pastry cream filling, a poured fondant top and royal icing piping.

I enjoyed playing around with the Southwest theme and thought everything turned out alright, aside from the fact that I think the cakes are the equivalent of a third graders coloring book instead of a professional but whatever.

I really grew to adore mousse even more in this class. I hadn't realized how easy it can be to attempt, although I feel a long way from perfecting it. During my later examinations, I was chided for mixing the chocolate with the whipped cream when the chocolate was too warm, which causes the cream to break. But if the chocolate is too cool it seizes up and hardens mid-blending. It's such a subtle art this pastry, and I am not a subtle person.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Almost Thai Green Curry

I have no photo to share, and whenever I don't have a photo I assume that no one will read what goes along. Truth is, I'm probably right--not that my writing is something to slow down your day for. I haven't been snapping photos, but I have been cooking. A couple weeks ago I made a vegetable curry stew for friends. It was so good, I saved the leftovers and ate them all, which is something I never do. I don't ever eat leftovers, aside from soup. But this curry, this curry could not be thrown away. It came from Nigel Slater's Tender: Volume 1, a most beautiful tome that I haven't even read through despite the pictures, the useful information and the riveting prose (listen to this: "the dusty 'old as time itself' taste of ground turmeric" I could never come up with that). This curry was the closest I have ever come to replicating the green curry I would order almost nightly from Phee Lek, my Thai grandma. When I was teaching and eating in Thailand, she was the cook at the restaurant on the compound of my apartment complex. Was teeny tiny, not even five feet tall and a sweet sort of wily. She ran this tiny little restaurant that had five or six tables and a large television that played a lot of MTV, her daughter's favorite. She spoke hardly any English, which was perfect because I spoke hardly any Thai. We communicated with action and pointing. 

After getting sick of rice for every meal, I tried ordering vegetables without it. Complete with hand motions I said the English equivalent of "No want rice. Vegetables. Big big vegetables." With some trial and error, I received before me a platter of the sauteed tomatoes, baby corn, eggplant, onions, peppers and several kinds of mushrooms--it was a veritable cornucopia--all doused in delicious MSG. She also taught me how to properly pronounce green curry with chicken in Thai, quite a feat considering the intonation. I don't order it much any more--too much disappointment--but I have requested green curry at a restaurant downtown and the waiter was very impressed. The curry was my other standby in Thailand. Lek made it with Japanese eggplant and pumpkin, if they were available. I ordered the smokey curry with a spice level of one and slurped down the stew sweetened with coconut milk with only a little rice. 

This dish doesn't have the complications of making a curry paste beforehand out of God knows how many herbs, spices and aromatics, but it still has that depth that makes you wonder, what is in here? I went to the Asian Market, a relatively new store, to find real lemongrass, which made such a difference. I always want to substitute lemons for lemongrass but it's not quite right, not earthy enough or something. I didn't even realize how close I would come to Pee Lek's green curry, but with the inclusion of squash or pumpkin--it's nearly there.

Pumpkin-chickpea Curry: from Tender by Nigel Slater, serves 6
1 15-ounce can chickpeas or 1/2 cup dry chickpeas, soaked overnight
1 large onion, diced
1 teaspoon canola oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 thumb-size piece ginger, minced
3 stalks lemongrass
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
dash of cayenne pepper (to taste)
1/2 small pumpkin (about 8 ounces), cubed
250 mL vegetable or chicken stock
400 mL coconut milk
1 tablespoon mustard seeds
2 cups rice, cooked

Mince the garlic and the ginger together. Saute the onion until it's translucent. Add the minced garlic and ginger. Stir in the spices. Add the pumpkin, chickpeas and vegetable stock as well as the lemongrass with its tough outer leaves removed. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until the pumpkin has softened a bit and the chickpeas have split. Thicken with cream, season to taste. In a separate pan, saute the mustard seeds until they spit, add to the curry. Serve over rice.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hummingbird Cake

I know I swore I hated cakes, but I'm learning some aren't so bad. Every Thursday I go to my class devoted entirely to the subject. All I eat all day Thursdays is cakes. Everyone in the class makes a different cake, and I try them all. Sometimes I can't stop, especially on mousse day. I was dipping my fork in everything chocolate, caramel and fruit-flavored. This hummingbird cake, the one pictured above, was part of the classic American cakes day. It was so easy and such a showstopper. The Southern favorite reminded me of carrot cake, really moist and sweet. The batter has crushed pineapple, bananas and pecans in it.

Below is the Heaven and Hell cake, which apparently goes for like $100 at the Mansion, a fancy hotel-restaurant in Dallas. It's certainly a Texas-style cake: six layers with peanut-butter mouse in between each and covered with chocolate ganache. The cake cleverly features alternating layers of angel food and devil's food cake. Decadent and ridiculous--that's Texas for you. I much prefer the simpler, homier hummingbird.
Hummingbird Cake:
110 grams pecans, chopped and toasted
420 grams flour
400 grams sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 eggs, beaten
180 mL canola oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
227 grams crushed pineapple, undrained
2 cups mashed bananas (3 to 4 bananas)

Cream Cheese Frosting:
57 grams butter, room temperature
227 grams cream cheese, room temperature
454 grams powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
55 grams pecans, chopped and toasted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Makes two nine-inch rounds. Mix flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, mix together eggs, oil, vanilla, pineapple, bananas and pecans. Combine ingredients being careful not to overmix. Divide the batter evenly and bake 25 to 30 minutes until a toothpick comes out of the cake cleanly. Let cool before frosting.

For the frosting, cream the butter and cream cheese together until light and fluffy. Sift the powdered sugar and add to the butter gradually. Add the vanilla and beat until smooth. Stir in the pecans by hand. Ice the cake.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Zuccotto, Dessert of the Gods

Just when I'm ready to write off all things cake, cup and otherwise, something comes along that completely changes my mind. This time it is a cake called zuccotto. It's Italian, as all good things are, and it is divine. 

The cake is constructed, something I love about pastries. It's layers pieced into layers; in the way a good tart has a crust, a filling and a garnish, this cake has a crust filling and more filling. I made the cake for a school presentation--because I had time and desire to make more cake last week (I was so over them until this moment). Look at my kitchen. It's a complete mess; I don't even want to talk about it. I had signed up for the cake on a whim from a list of 18 choices. When I did a quick look online about the cake I saw "semifreddo Italian confection" and I wanted to scream at Chef Mar, "You assigned a freaking ice cream cake?!" I was thinking of the quick Italian ice cream that doesn't need a machine to aerate it, but I was blessedly wrong. Semifreddo in this case refers to mousse.

Mousse has been my new sweet obsession since Sylvain Leroy visited the Institute. I made chocolate-raspberry-lime flavored mousse and plain vanilla for my pastries final, mixed berry for a catering order at work and a chocolate mousse pie with candied pecans and caramel sauce for the deli. This is a new incarnation that tops all the previous efforts, thanks, in no small part, to the inclusion of amaretto liqueur, which improves all baked good, if you ask me.

The cake starts with a pound cake base lining any sort of bowl. I followed Giada dii Laurentis' recipe, which recommended store-bought pound cake making the zuccotto that much simpler. I questioned things pretty whole-heartedly at this point. Martha Stewart's Real Simple makes the cake look so easy and beautiful, but you know the cake in the photograph could very easily be glued together with actual glue. Mine would not have glue and could feasibly fall apart once I turned it out. I had nothing to do though but continue on. I soaked the pound cake in amaretto liqueur and then lined the inside with a concoction of whipped cream, sugar, almond extract and ground almonds leaving a large well to be filled with the food of the gods, chocolate mousse. I closed the cake with more pound cake and refrigerated it overnight. 

The cake flipped out of the bowl in a snap and looked nearly as good as the Martha Stewart version (except for the visible uneven distribution of amaretto syrup in the pound cake). But the real life flavor of the cake was just perfection. The cake was soft with an aroma of almond and cherries, the whipped cream with almond was light and crunch and then the mousse, the mousse was light and fudgy. Just the absolute perfect combination. I won't speak badly of cakes for at least another week. 

Zuccotto: Giada dii Laurentis (with some help from me)
1 loaf store-bought pound cake
2 tablespoons amaretto liqueur
4 cups whipping cream
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup almond, ground
1 teaspoon almond extract
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate morsels

The proportions here depend on how large your bowl is. I used a fairly big on and had to increase the amount of chocolate mousse filling (what a shame). You can buy or make the pound cake for the shell. Slice the cake and arrange along the bottom of the bowl. Whip two cups of the heavy whipping cream with sugar and almond extract until stiff peaks. Fold in the almonds. Spread the cream across the pound cake, leaving a well in the middle. Whip the remaining cream until medium-stiff peaks. Melt the chocolate in the microwave or in a double boiler. Combine the chocolate and whipped cream, being sure that the chocolate is just barely warm to the touch, not too hot or the whipped cream will melt and it won't be good at all. Fill the rest of the bowl with the chocolate mousse. Cover with the rest of the pound cake, wrap and refrigerate until the mousse has set. Turn out, slice and enjoy.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Cupcakes and a Broken Dream

Having a cupcake stand at the Old Market Farmer's Market was a lot like the KoolAid stand my sister and I set up in front of our house when we were six and three years old except more expensive. It was fun and silly and we ate more product than we sold.

Back in March when I hated my job, I signed up to sell cupcakes weekly at the farmer's market. Now I love that same job and I hate all things cake. I had this fantasy of my sister and me frolicking around the  Old Market in sundresses selling cutesy little cupcakes with fancy garnishes, flavors like French lavender, apricot and Meyer lemon. We would be the most popular vendors at the market. Men would cluster at our table, vying for our phone numbers. Reality, my friends, is cold and cruel.

They called me Tuesday of last week to see if I could work the market. I said yes without even thinking about the logistics of my weekend. Fridays I wake up at 4 a.m. to bake something I like to make (bread) and work for 10-plus hours on my feet the entire time. That leaves the rest of Friday to make 200-some cupcakes and interview three people for a story due Monday. Stupid. Just stupid. I don't function well on not enough sleep. I get mean and dramatic and I have big meltdowns.

After work and emergency errands, I got started on the cupcakes around 4 p.m. I made a large batch of orange-chiffon and burned one tray. Calmly, I threw them out and kept going--really keeping my cool. My sister joined me at 5:30 or so and got going on the sign (see top photo of the classy sign to go with the "classy" Husker tent we were extremely happy to have). The sign, so cute, but never to be used again. She worked on the sign for four hours. She was happy. She was singing, talking aloud "Oh I just love this. It's so creative. I just love making things like this. Lalala." She cut out letters and ironed them to the banner while watching episodes of Sex and the City. Meanwhile, I labored away in a hell of my own making. Cupcakes are messy. And for a messy person such as myself, things get out of control quickly. There's runny batter and sticky icing, flour everywhere. I would gaze into the oven after each batch, hoping that they would rise to the perfect level, ballooning over the rim of the cupcake liners. But the cake-making was a cinch compared to the icing.

Buttercream, real buttercream, is a hot whipped meringue that you let cool and then add butter until it forms a fully emulsified, creamy and airy, delicious frosting. The key here would be letting the meringue cool. Patience is not something I can boast about personally. In the end, it took half an hour or so of whipping on near maximum velocity in the mixer until I could add the butter. This was after two failed attempts. It was 10 p.m. or so, my sister was nearly done with the sign and I was totally ready to give up. It seemed like a better idea to call the market people and tell them I couldn't do it. Or better, just not show up. I could sleep in until 10 p.m. on a Saturday, at which point the market would be nearly over, and life would be beautiful and cupcake free. Instead, I took a shower. In the shower, I was so tired that I couldn't stand anymore, so I sat down and took a bath. I thought about giving up a little more. One more attempt at buttercream, I thought, one more attempt.

I sent my sister to the store for more butter and eggs. I hated just a little to tear her away from the happy world of sign-making into the den of cupcakery, but also, I wanted to scream at her. I told her we should give up. She was so cheery in her response "No, this is great." Her sweetness doesn't belong with the cupcakes. I called my mom. We had a pep talk, I got a new plan and called Allison to pick up cream cheese and powdered sugar at the store. "I'm baaaack," she answered in a sing-song voice. There's nothing worse than happiness when all you want to do is throw a pastry bag of whipped cream at the wall (which I had earlier that day at work). But it worked. Allison filled the peach cupcakes with mousse while I made cream cheese icing, just enough for the peach and orange-chiffon cupcakes. And this time, I made the buttercream right. I was in bed in time for four hours of sleep for the second night in a row.

Even after the cupcakes were made, our farmer's market dreams did not come true. We did not wear sundresses and only a few young men visited our tent but only because they happen to be good friends. We froze our asses off when Seattle weather descended upon Omaha, Neb., in September. Hardly anyone came to the market; the balloon man who usually has a line 10 deep was pacing around quite bored. I actually will give myself a little credit for not crying on the spot. I didn't care anymore about selling the cupcakes to make back all the money I had spent on supplies and a portion scoop ($18!). At least the cupcakes were over and I never have to make them again. And the sign really was quite cute

Friday, September 9, 2011

Tortilla Soup

Some weeks life feels a little like a no-hit winner. It's long. Nothing really good is happening. Thankfully someone makes a mistake and you get on base with a ball and you steal your way to home plate.

I chipped a tooth at work this week. Big time. I looked like a hillbilly when I opened my mouth. I bumped into a cart I was pushing when it bumped into the sink in the meat kitchen. My right front tooth just crumbled in my mouth, painlessly but dramatically nonetheless. In the basement bathroom, I cried, sobbed actually, and for three straight hours, any extended thought spent on my tooth and my now inability to ever get a date ever again led to more and more tears. It wasn't until lunch that I pulled it together and not until 2 p.m. that I got official word that workman's comp was going to cover it. One of my co-workers hugged me and said "Don't worry baby, you still sexy." Something I needed to hear, though I'm not sure I really believe I'm sexy at all (I'll take the compliment).

I got my tooth filled the next morning and things are fine, though no dates to speak of--I will forever blame the tooth. I've been babying my mouth ever since. Avoiding apples and carrots, even gingerly biting into crackers with my left front tooth instead of the right. Soup seemed about right for the occasion. So I dusted off my Dutch oven for the first time in months and made a tortilla soup.

I don't just search for any recipes online. There are a lot of bunk tips on the interwebs. Mark Bittman plus anything food is a worthy search, and this time proved to be no error. I didn't even have all the ingredients--avocado would have been a plus, but my fresh chili pepper (straight from the garden) worked just fine. The garden is wilting a little, so I plucked all the ripe black cherry tomatoes I could and plopped them in with an onion and some garlic. I added about a tablespoon of chili powder plus my very spicy pepper (serrano? habanero? not sure). The soup, once blended with roasted chicken added, was comforting in a way only soup can be with a little fire to finish.

Tortilla Soup: inspired by Mark Bittman
6 flour tortillas
1/2 cup canola oil
1 large onion, small dice
3 garlic cloves, sliced
3 medium tomatoes, diced
1 serrano pepper, finely chopped
1 teaspoon chili powder
6 cups chicken stock
6 ounces shredded chicken
juice from one lime (or lemon)
avocado and Mexican cheese to garnish

Heat up the oil and then fry the tortillas. Remove from pan. I tried this but my tortillas were about one year old and started to smell sour and break apart in the pot so I tossed them. Chips will work fine. With the remaining oil, saute the onion for a couple minutes then the garlic, which cooks faster and should be added second. Once the aromatics have softened, add the tomatoes, the pepper and the chili powder. Saute for five minutes. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Puree the soup. Put back in the pot and add the chicken. Simmer for five minutes until chicken is warm. Add juice and serve garnished with avocado and/or cheese.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Bacon Lettuce Tomato Sandwich

I've been eating a lot of BLTs lately with tomatoes from my garden and a honey-mustard mayonnaise I made two months ago and forgot about.

My tomatoes have been a smashing success this year. The large red heirlooms (variety forgotten) are plump and juicy, but the little black cherry tomatoes are the showstopper. These guys are the best tomatoes I have ever eaten in my entire life. Every time. When people come over to my house, I make them sample the tomatoes. "Try it, just try it," I goad on. They all agree--quite good. The little orbs are so pretty: they're red, green and purple. But inside, oh inside, they just burst open in your mouth with sour juice and seeds.

The BLT has so much potential, and without good tomatoes you may as well skip it. But I am just rationing out this mayo liberally on all pieces of toast. I have eaten BLTs probably at least twice a week since the beginning of August. There's so much crunch and juice going on that the creamy mayo is just the icing on the cake, so to speak.

The mayo first appeared in this meal back in June (but not written about until July, just so can get a feel for how long I let things sit in my fridge). If you haven't ever made mayonnaise, it is something that just must be done. I can't tell you how much better it is than Hellman's or gawdawful Miracle Whip, which has this jello-like consistency. (I know people love it, but no thanks here.) It's so soft and creamy. My mom raised me to be afraid of the fat and cholesterol content, but dang mayo is totally worth it for a tablespoon a couple times a week.

Honey Mustard Mayonnaise:
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vinegar, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, plus more to taste
3/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
3/4 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon honey

I started this by making the basic mayonaise out of James Peterson's Sauces in which I whisked the yolks, mustards and vinegar together. Then slowly poured a combination of both oils into the yolks, whisking constantly. The mayonaise will thicken up quite a bit. Just go until the oil is completely incorporated. Season with salt and pepper. Add the honey and a bit more vinegar. Taste and adjust mustard, salt, pepper, honey and vinegar to taste. You'll want to have the vinegar to water down the dressing a bit so it's easier to pour. Toss the mayo with the fruit and vegetables and plate the salads.

Monday, August 29, 2011

All-day Croissants

It's a bit unbelievable that I am able to make bread. Shocking really. Patience is a trait everyone who knows me well teases me about not having. When I was in high school, my parents told me I wouldn't make a good social worker because I wasn't patient. I would expect people to change on my schedule, and they wouldn't. My friend Katy once gave me a "patience" candle. Maybe one of those aromatherapy things, or possibly a sales gimmick--either one.

Yeast bread is one of those things that comes absolutely on its own time. And maybe that's why it has taken me so long--with so many trials and errors--to get it. It involves precision, attention to detail, (another thing NOT on my list of strengths) and waiting. But I think I like it because it's such a challenge. Plus, wow, the payoff is pretty great.

I made croissants for the first time when I got back from Thailand. It was this phase I went through, cooking everything I had never tried before. At the time, I only had a part-time job then and had just spent six months in Thailand without a kitchen. The apartment I was living in there had like one pan and someone gave me a rice cooker, which was completely ridiculous since I could go downstairs and buy plain rice for like 20 cents. Back in Omaha, I had my mom's newly remodeled kitchen and an endless supply of free food waiting for me to experiment with. I can recall making croissants, French baguettes (which turned out horribly), squash risotto and a pork roulade. The croissants, I recall, were incredible. A fluke I'm sure. I hadn't made them again since probably because they are definitely something worth buying over making.

It takes hours, half a day to finish. Whereas one can buy a perfectly crafted chocolate croissant at the Bread Oven in Dundee for probably $2. Well worth it. Not that I think my time was wasted making croissants five years ago or a couple weeks ago for that matter. Au contraire. It's illogical to think that I would spend six-plus hours on anything that had incredible potential to be a bust based on my lack of skill. I do possess the tools now to make something that in this case turned out incredibly tasty, light, flaky everything croissant-like yet very lopsided and burned on the bottom. I couldn't even eat all the croissants I made. I gave more than half of them away to happy recipients: friends and neighbors. These were filled with not quite enough almond frangipane cream and strawberry jam (if it's even possible to overdo this not-too-sweet almond filling).

The process in making something like a yeasted croissant is not difficult, but it is so impractical and food is above all things practical. It's essential to life, yet here I am go taking all day to make something that did turn out quite delicious. It's essential to me in another way. To me, cooking is good for the soul. It's essential to me to spend a quiet afternoon listening to Cat Stevens while crafting a not-quite-perfect but soft and flaky pastry.

Almond Cream: from Tartine Bakery Cookbook
1/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons butter
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup almond meal (ground of nuts of any sort really)
2 tablespoons flour

Cream the butter and the sugar in a mixer. Add the egg, mix, and then add the vanilla. Add both the almond meal and the flour at the same time, mixing until smooth. Set aside.

Laminated Brioche: (for other ideas with laminated brioche go here)
600 grams flour
15 grams salt
65 grams sugar
250 grams butter
30 grams yeast
50 grams water
6 eggs

Make sure all the ingredients are cold. Mix all ingredients except butter in a KitchenAid or similar mixer with the dough hook until you can pinch a piece of dough, pull it away and have it stretch but not break (that is full gluten development). Add the butter a tablespoon at a time while still mixing. Ferment until doubled in size. Move on to the lamination step. 

400 grams dough
80 grams butter

Roll dough out into a rectangle. Beat the butter with a rolling pin until it is thinner and more pliable. Place the butter on half the dough and then fold the top half down over it. Roll it out. Fold it three times, roll it out. Fold it three times again and roll it out, resting the dough in between folds, possibly in the fridge to keep the butter cool. 

To form croissants, roll out laminated dough into a large sheet about one-fourth an inch thick. Cut into triangles. Spread the almond cream and/or a fruit jam or compote of any sort along the full length of the triangle. Starting at the flat end of the triangle and moving toward the point, roll the dough. Let the dough ferment again for another hour or so. Brush with an egg wash and bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown on the outside and flaky.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Pastries Final

Chef Mar's practical exams have a way of exhausting a person. Our Monday pastries final was four straight hours of intense concentration combined with running around the bakery in order to finish everything on time. It was a complete cluster.

We worked in groups to come up with a menu to start up our own pastry shop with the aim of making the offerings well rounded and along a theme. I love a them. Talking with Janelle and Gianni, we decided on comfort food of the Southern variety, and I went straight for the Georgia peaches (which I unfortunately burned), key limes and banana creams. The challenge was that we had to present a spectrum of skills learned in pastries fundamentals, while still finishing quality work on time. We could only use the same dough twice (tops) and we had to have three breakfast pastries.

My additions to the "pastry shop" were chocolate pavlovas (baked meringes) with a chocolate-lime-raspberry mousse, banana cream savarins (yeasted sweet dough) with vanilla bavarian cream and caramel sauce, a sweet potato-onion-bacon quiche (if that's not comfort food ...) and a laminated brioche filled with pecan frangipane and peach compote, except without the scorched peaches. The brioche was by far my favorite. It was so flaky and buttery--a heart-attack roll. They turned out enormous in the oven after the dough rose and the butter steamed out from between the pockets in which it was cushioned. The mousse and bavarian cream too were just devinely light. I stole home a deli container of the vanilla but didn't grab the chocolate before it found its way into the trash during cleanup.

I abhor meringues (see below), and my pavlovas turned out more like sugared cardboard than marshmallowy pillows. The quiche was a near disaster saved only by my partners. When I went to pull my dough out of the cooler, it had turned olive green over the weekend. Obviously inedible. Janelle had extra pate brisee dough, which was perfect, but all Gianni had was sweet tart dough for her creme fraiche pie. I used it anyway, hoping the instructors wouldn't eat from that quiche (they didn't!). My partners made beautiful rugelach, soft panna cotta, scones, sandwich cookies and a couple pies to round out our "display," which was totally overshadowed by the group who made a replica French bakery out of a cardboard box and Hobby Lobby supplies. It was somewhat ridiculous and totally made my group look like goons because we didn't even bring a cake stand or platter on which to display items in our fake bakery.

The final went from 8:30 a.m. until half past noon, after which point it took us all three or four hours to come down from the mind**** of the exam, which was great because that's how long it took Chef Mar to grade our pastries. The bakery was a complete disaster zone--one person had left a puddle of chocolate ganache on the counter in a rush to turn her pastries in on time. I cleaned every single sheet pan by hand, which was 20 to 30. The trash cans were spilling over. At least no one had injured themselves. We were all so exhausted in the end that we just sat around a table in the bistro laughing, laughing, laughing at nothing and everything at once. I came out of the class with an A, a point of great pride. I am extremely satisfied with a B in Chef Mar courses, so to get an A was a great feeling.
Puddle of ganache:
Chocolate Pavlovas: (if you like that sort of thing)
4 egg whites
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vinegar
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon cocoa powder

Preheat oven to 300. In the bowl of a standing mixer, pour the egg whites and mix starting on low and slowly moving up to high. As the eggs begin to foam and set up to soft peaks, add the sugar slowly. Once white have reached hard (stiff) peak stage but are still glossy stir in the vinegar. Once incorporated, add the cornstarch and cocoa powder and stir to incorporate. Portion into rounds on a baking sheet with parchment paper and form a well in the middle of the round to fill with whipped cream or mousse. Bake at 300 for an hour to an hour and half. Remove from oven when the pavlovas have just started to dry out--they will dry out more once they're out of the oven.

Chocolate Mousse with Raspberry and Lime:
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate
3 ounces butter
1 tablespoon raspberry jam
juice from one lime
8 ounces heavy whipping cream

On a double boiler, melt the chocolate with the butter, jam and juice. Once melted and smooth, start whipping the cream until it is medium stiff peaks (not completely stiff). Make sure the chocolate is still melted but isn't super hot and stir the whipped cream into the chocolate. Refrigerate until cool. Fill pavlovas and top with fresh fruit.

Replica bakery:

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Eggplant Hors d'oeuvres

Wednesday was one of the most beautiful days of my life not so much as a day but as a recognition of my contentedness, of life's overall beauty.  It was the day of the pastry demonstration, when my eyes were opened to the paradox of mousse; it being both deeply complex and incredibly simple. I went home feeling elated about the prospects of baking for a living and not so much for a living but for life. The weather was just perfection. The high, if you can believe it, on August 10 was 75 degrees. Seventy-five! I spent what seems like the entire month of July sequestered in air-conditioned buildings and now the air is thin enough that I can enjoy an afternoon on my screened in porch, sitting in my writing chair. I am sitting in it right now, in fact.

In total exuberance of life, which was only a little squashed by the reality of waking up before the sun in order to live my "baking life," I made a dinner for one. It was bruschetta with tomatoes, chives and basil from the garden, and sauteed eggplant. I had bought little Japanese and heirloom varieties from the Rhizosphere farm folks on Sunday at the market and by Wednesday they were already soggy (that orange globe in the first photo, by the way, is an eggplant). I had let them go too long! So I cooked them all, which turned into what could have been hors d'oeuvres for 10. Nevermind, it was delicious. I ate them on my porch, trying not to drip tomato juice on my legs.  
Eggplant Bruschetta: from Tender Vol. 1 by Nigel Slater
2 eggplants
6 tablespoons olive oil
zest and juice from one lemon
small bunch basil leaves
small bunch chives
salt and pepper
triscuits or French bread if you've planned ahead

Slice the eggplants into coins. Salt the eggplant in a strainer, let set for 30 minutes. Water starts to leach out of the eggplants after a period. Rinse and dry the eggplant. Saute on medium high heat until tender. Meanwhile blend the oil, lemon juice, herbs and salt and pepper to make a dressing. Toss the finished eggplant in the dressing. Serve on crackers. Good with tomato bruschetta. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Getting Fancy with Chef Sylvain Leroy

I just finished eating the most beautiful, most delicate desserts of my life. The Institute for Culinary Arts had a visiting chef in to demonstrate some fancy schmancy chocolate a local purveyor is carrying. Chef Sylvain Leroy, who visited the institute, works for the Paris Gourmet and travels some doing these demonstrations, mixing up the mousse that is the lightness of lightness and showing us the proper way to temper chocolate and how to make the best ganache. I am inspired. Mousse and Bavarian creams are things I have not been fond of. It's the gelatin. When used improperly, it is chunky and granular, but now I see that the gelatin allows the mousse to retain its effervescence. 

It was a bit exciting to see Chef Leroy (named one of the best 10 pastry chefs in the country by Dessert Professionals magazine!) masterfully play with chocolate, meringues and purees. I struggle so much, making a complete mess of my station in class and at work. In the two-hour demo, he made three desserts whose names are actually quite meaningless to me until described: first was an exotic coconut and mango verrine, followed by a royale blueberry cremeux and finished with a douceur. Right. What are those?

The verrine was pineapple compote base with a coconut mousse filling and topped with mango gelee. Incredibly light and tropical. It tasted so much like Thailand to me. They were a little obsessed with those bubble teas when I lived there and the pineapple compote was a bit akin to a bubble tea, except delicious, whereas those tapioca balls are completely disgusting. But it had the best parts of the creaminess of those drinks. 

The blueberry cremeux involved quite a bit of chocolate. He made a chocolate ganache, mixing hot heavy cream and pureed blueberries over chocolate morsels until they emulsified "like mayonaise" as he explained. He had a lavender streusel dough already chilled and ready to go, adding a delicate crunch to the chocolate. He then topped the dessert with glazed blueberries that were just in the absolute peak of ripeness. 

The best dessert, however, was the mystery douceur. Let me say this: white chocolate mousse. He mixed the white chocolate with plain Greek yogurt (brilliant), which added just a tiny bit of tang to what can be an oversweet ingredient. The douceur had the same streusel topping and he added some glazed strawberries. 

He closed the session with a demonstration in tempering chocolate. As much as baking and pastry is a delicate science, chocolate work is one more step beyond. He explained that the chocolate must be heated to this temperature and the cooled to this temp but not below and so on. My friend Ashley and I were sort of joking and chatting with him in the front row and he asked one of us to volunteer. We looked at each other and I sensed that she maybe wasn't quite convinced, though I'm sure she would have done it. But I just stood up and walked right up there to have him teach me how to make these lace-like chocolate fans. He poured out the melted chocolate on the counter and spread it thin with a spatula. After it cooled and dried a little, he used a bench scraper to quickly pinch and fold the chocolate into strips that then curled into a fan. I was so nervous to try that I couldn't even look up to see how many people were watching the demo. There were about 15 or so students plus pastry chefs from the casinos and some higher end restaurants in town. Fortunately, Ashley grabbed a photo before I screwed anything up or sat down. My heart was just beating beating beating. There I was about to make a fool of myself with chocolate, but it was, of course, fine. He gave me a few tips, and I got to see the chocolate up close. Tips from one of the best pastry chefs in the country. That's a once in a lifetime. 

Below are photos from the demo and a few explanations.

Chef Leroy garnishing the tropical verrine with a feullettine, this delicious cookie that is a combination of chocolate, wafers and hazelnut butter. Die.

The blueberry cremeux.

Blueberry cremeux up close

More up close. So pretty.


Strawberry-white chocolate goodness.

Tropical mousse

Working with chocolate.

Keeping a safe distance.

Ashley stealing the leftover white-chocolate mousse.
Christine, Melissa, Chef Leroy, myself and Ashley from my pastries class.