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.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Salad of Fennel, Zucchini and Good Humor

I kept busy all week, distracting myself from the missing friends and lovers. Wednesday I had dinner with a friend and drank on the back porch, Thursday was the taco ride, Friday was crab and karaoke, Saturday was rock climbing and sushi and Sunday I cook. Rather, I assembled cold salads.

I made two jars of pickles a few weeks ago and they are already gone (one I sent with Amanda as a parting gift), so that was definitely in order. I have been craving those pickles for nine or 10 months now. Best I've ever had. I've also started my spree of nonstop caprese salads. As tomatoes are nearly inedible outside of July, August and September, I have to overstimulate my taste buds while I can. The garden I am sharing with the downstairs neighbor is a panoply of produce. The tomatoes are behaving on the heavy-duty cages and the cucumber is training up toward the clothes line, there are enough strawberries to please my neighbors greedy three-year-old and the lawn care folks take caution to mow around the zucchinis.

Home-grown zucchinis are my new favorite. I like them smaller than they come in the store, nearly babies, with the blossom still attached, which I've been stuffing with soft cheese and sauteing. The little ones are crisper but delicate and light. That mush they get at the store does nothing for vegetables. Then there's this salad I saw on 101 Cookbooks. One with fennel and zucchini, arugula and pine nuts and then sprinkled with parmesan cheese, lemon juice and olive oil, salt and pepper. Just the thing to assemble while listening to This American Life and feeling just a teeny bit sorry for myself until I heard about a man who was tortured for protesting in Egypt. It's OK to be emotionally nostalgic, but I should always remember hold onto my grip on reality. I made my new roommate try the fennel alone and in the salad. It is sort of strange by itself and sort of awesome with parmesan cheese and lemon juice. Alone it's too much like licorice but with salty creamy sour flavors it's light and aromatic. Much better than celery. The pine nuts were so buttery. All these lovely Mediterranean ingredients just as the day's light began to fade. I could eat a salad like that every day.

Sunday spent with casual cooking at home was such a nice way to ground the week. I really felt so joyous today making breakfast pastries at school. I was just singing my own personal karaoke ("Landslide" by Stevie Nicks if you must know). I was thinking about writing this weekend. Do I even like it? Am I even good at it? But hanging out with my friends Sean and Phil, we were talking about what we would do if we won the lottery. Sure there's travel and not worry about money (which is certainly false--mo' money mo' problems right?), but I would do exactly what I'm doing right now, except I would write more. I would create more space in my life for writing and reflection and who gives a damn if it's not good (well, I do at some point), but quality is not necessarily the point. Peace and happiness is.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Summer Savarins

My camera broke. Actually, I broke it. I carelessly put a water bottle in my purse along with everything else important (social security card) and it leaked all over everything, thus no camera, which is sad because I promised myself to take my camera to class more just last week for the express purpose of blogging. But it's also sad because time is a goon. My roommate moved last week and a few days later this fellow I've been seeing and liking quite a bit also moved. Pictures are one way of freezing a moment. I've been feeling a bit nostalgic lately, just letting the summer and previous few years steep in my mind. 

But thinking about things too much inevitably leads to personal existential crises, mostly in the form of "what the hell am I doing with my life?!" So I freaked out about that for a few days, wondering why everyone was always leaving and I've always staying, I suddenly wanted to be the one leaving. Moving can be such a great adventure, but I have two thoughts on the subject, 1.) it's scary and never as much fun in reality as it is in my mind and 2.) you can have adventures anytime, anywhere, anyhow if you're up for it. Not that I blame anyone for moving. Sometimes it's just right; it's just what you've got to do (in addition to being new and exciting). 

But doesn't it feel like people are always on the move these days? Not a few months go by without saying a hard goodbye or meeting someone brand new to the area. I should be more open to moving because if I frankly think about what I'm "doing with my life" it probably isn't living in Omaha forever and ever amen, but it does make me happy right now. I adore my friends. Adore them. And work, it's good. Really good most days. It's not forever, but gosh, it fits snugly right now. And school, I get to make mocha pots de creme that slide onto the spoon and down the hatch so smoothly. And these yeasted savarins soaked in orange syrup with apricot-orange mousse and creme anglaise -- so good and just the epitome of summer with fresh apricots and bright oranges. I get to spend all this time learning about ingredients and techniques and perfecting recipes. It's so good, it's all so good. Even when people I care about pass through too soon (it's always too soon). 

A couple days ago, I settled into life again, knowing that the things I'm worried about (i.e. my ability to pay for loans and be employed for real at some point) will work out whether I worry or not. For the time being, I am happy making savarins and hopefully new friends. 

1 1/3 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 teaspoon yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup warm water
3 ounces butter, melted
1/2 cup raisins, soaked and drained (optional)
1 teaspoon citrus zest

Combine flour, salt, eggs, yeast, sugar and water in a mixer and mix for eight minutes on medium. Scrape down the sides. Add the melted butter and mix another five to eight minutes until the dough is sticky but thick enough to pull away from the sides of the bowl. Transfer to bowl and let ferment until about doubled. Transfer to greased molds and let double again. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown. Saturate in a simple syrup mix of half water and half sugar (and flavorings of citrus or liqueur, etc.). Can be filled with pastry cream or mousse or lemon curd.

Fruit Mousse: (easiest thing ever!)
12 ounces fruit puree
3 ounces sugar
1 ounce brandy or liqueur (or water or juice)
.25 ounces gelatin (softened according to package instructions) (optional)
8 ounces heavy cream

Puree the fruit and send through a sieve. Stir in and dissolve the sugar and liqueur. Whip the cream to medium peaks. Fold into the puree and refrigerate. Serve quickly if not using gelatin.