Thursday, December 20, 2012

Holiday Cheer

This little garland is my Christmas tree. It was December 1 when I first wrote this and snowing in Boston. Light, flaky snow that has been coming down slowly all day. It is coating the trees and bushes in what looks like sugar cookie icing and dissolving when it hits the streets. I am into the holiday spirit and counting down the days until I fly home for an entire week.

I'm getting used to this new city and my new apartment bit by bit. I almost always know where I put items in the kitchen, and I've got the light switches down. It so strange and frankly disorienting to be in an all new place, especially one as confusing as Boston where none of the streets lead where you think they should. It's like we're on a different plain, and I don't quite know north from south. However slowly, things are becoming ever so slightly more like home. And if my home includes a hearth like this and art-deco inspired yet flawed floor tiling, then I think I like it. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Levi Strauss

I have been thinking lately that I might have to give up my blog. I'm in a new city now and with that comes this change of life's season. I started the blog eight years ago to chronicle my escapades and fiascos in the kitchen. Of which there have been many, many of which have paralleled my life in some way allowing me to make easy analogies about fires, stolen tomato plants, and throwing things together but having it all turn out OK in the end. It's been fun. I can't give it up completely. But things need to change.

I can't really write recipes because of this new job I have writing recipes, but nor do I want to. I spend all week cooking, my blog needs to be an outlet of a different sort. I'm not really sure what will rise up from the ashes, but I don't really care. I'm sure that after a year of incredibly sporadic updates, nary a soul is still reading, so I will just go ahead and be as self indulgent as the next blogger and qualify myself to write unoriginally and to steal images from the interwebs to make my meager and dull words more compelling.

Let my first official new post be about style.

I wish I came of age in the 70s. I adore the high waist. It's slenderizing, it's clean, it makes me look taller. It makes a plain T-shirt look like something. The cashier at Macy's does not understand this. I did not understand this when I was a young wippersnapper judging my mom's old tapered jeans that made it nearly to her belly button. Those were the 90s, when I was wearing low low low waisted pants a la Britney Spears. Do you all remember those days? That was not a good look. She probably had to shave, like down there, to wear those jeans. It was so obvious, no mystery--just tight tops, sequins and bootiliciousness.

So I've been out looking for high-waisted jeans. I've been looking for them for years. They pop up every now and again at the Gap or elsewhere. And then I got cable and saw this Levi's commercial.

So cool. I need those jeans. And baby, I found them. One pair for $189 at the Levi's store on Newbury Street. Excuse me, no. The sales people at this "vintage Levi's" store is swearing to me that I can only find those Levi's at that store and nowhere else in the world or online. Because Levi Strauss has been around for almost $150 years thanks to of its exclusivity.

Meanwhile, at Macy's, I was rifling through piles of Levi's priced at $35 not sure where to go. The sales lady was completely shocked when I inquired about the high-waisted pants. She just blurted out, "but those are mom jeans. I mean, to me." And then the self doubt rushed in a bit. Was I pulling off it off or just looking frumpy? My sister reassured me via telephone to rock my Farrah Fawcett look. Don't mind if I do.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Appley Apple Crumble

A month or so ago, I treated myself to Nigel Slater's Ripe. This is a beautiful encyclopedia of gardening tips for fruit cum cookbook. I am fantasizing about my future garden, all of which can be achieved with only a tiny urban plot--that's all Slater has at his London flat. There won't be any weeds or slugs, and the light will filter romantically through the leaves of my plum trees. My prose will be succinct but redolent, just like Slater's. This man has a serious way with words. Listen to this random collection of phrases that I just opened the book to, "This is a fruit soft and tender as a baby's cheek, with a scent that is part honey, part almond. A fruit whose flesh has notes of peach, brown sugar, and orange blossom and opportunity for pleasure that is too good to miss." Can you guess the fruit? Apricot.

I'm a bit rusty with the writing these days. It's easier to distract myself with TV (I have cable for the first time in six years) and the Internet, and I leave no room for my cooking, reading and writing much less cleaning. But it does feel so good to clack my fingertips on my old keyboard and see my thoughts appears as if magically on a screen. Slowly I am whittling away at writing again and cooking odds and ends when I'm not at work. My first recipe from this tome was "A deeply appley apple crumble," as if I could skip it. Molly Wizenberg plugs it on the back and so I made it my first conquest.

It's simple, of course. Apples, brown sugar, lemon juice and a buttery crumb layer on top. I even dusted off my new ice cream maker. I got it for Christmas last year from my boyfriend and had yet to use it. I had to pack it away all summer in my subletted apartment where it was probably used as an ashtray like some of my other kitchenware. I had some buttermilk in the fridge--true buttermilk from when I had made cultured butter (see what I mean about the odds and ends)--so I made buttermilk vanilla ice cream. It could have been brilliant, but I scalded the sensitive buttermilk and it separated and formed a grainy end product. I should have just threw out the custard base and made an egg-less cold cream.

Apple Crumble
2 pounds apples
half a lemon
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter

For the Crumble:
6 tablespoons butter, sliced into 1-inch chunks
2/3 cup flour
1/4 cup brown sugar

Peel and core the apples and cut into 1/2-inch chunks. Heat skillet on medium high to melt butter. Toss apples, sugar and lemon juice from half lemon into skillet and saute until sugar dissolves and apples just begin to leach out juice. Carefully transfer warm apples to small baking dish.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In separate bowl, combine butter, flour and brown sugar for crumble. Rub butter into flour and sugar with fingers until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Sprinkle over top of apples. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes.

Monday, September 10, 2012


Lately, the only things I've been cooking for myself are salads. So I'm not so much cooking as chopping and combining. You see, I've got this new job that involves lots and lots and lots of cooking. I'm spending 40 hours of my week up on my feet cooking away. Sometimes it's really hard, but mostly it's just great. I've gotten over the fear that they accidentally hired the wrong person and am trying to make as few mistakes as possible.

That means I'm back in Boston, permanently, and am nearly finished with my year living out of a suitcase. I never thought I would miss my bed so much. Or cooking for myself. I'm looking forward to my weekend projects making pies, cheese, bread. It's almost a bewildering experience to not have to cook for myself. It's quite a luxury to be so spoiled by Bert and my mom with homemade cookies and food hot and ready when I get home from work. There are things I will miss: the simplicity of only worrying about what happens between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., people who love me so close I can hug them whenever I want, and the piles of money I'm saving. But it'll be good to be back on my own.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Fresh Lobsters

It's a small tragedy that my mother is landlocked because she adores seafood. My dad, on the other hand, is happy as a clam to be situated close to the best red meat money can buy. When my dad came to visit me in Boston, he was charged with bringing back some lobster for my mom. That was all she wanted. Lobster. I poo-pooed the idea. I'm not sure she understood the reality of cooking lobster at home. It either comes in a plastic bag already cooked or still alive. She didn't quite get it, and even though she was mad at first, I think I made the right call.

She got some delayed gratification on her birthday a couple weeks ago. My sister stopped by Absolutely Fresh Seafood and picked up some enormous lobsters, which cost about three times as much as they do on the East Coast but whatever. They were still delicious, salty, sweet and fresh. The trouble was getting them into the pot.
One of the lobster--the largest one of course--had somehow lost one of the bands that keeps its claws clamped shut. My sister had completely buried them in ice, making it difficult to grab those arachnids. She had them chilling, literally, in the cooler for a couple hours. The dog strolled on by a dozen times and didn't notice them until one of them made a sudden movement--a last effort to escape the pot.

Avoid the water they did not. In better hands, things would have gone better. I regret to say that neither culinary school nor a three-month stint in Boston (and plenty of lobster) made me much good at grabbing these boys. For starters, I just couldn't touch them. I had to use a glove. Not that the gloves would protect me from their claws or pokey legs or overall grossness, but it was an effective placebo. The other problem we encountered was that my mom doesn't have a pot deep enough for lobsters. We had to use my Dutch oven for the two smaller ones, who had to be squeezed under the lid like a fat lady in a cat suit. It was not what I would call pleasant. But in the end, my mom was happy and we had a delicious meal.

Steamed Lobsters: serves 2
2 lobsters

Fill a large stock pot with a couple inches of water and bring to a simmer. Place lobsters into the simmering water. Cover with a lid and steam for 18 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for five minutes. Melt butter and go to town.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Scorching--Not in Reference to the Weather

I haven't had a certifiable kitchen disaster in a long time. This one wasn't my fault--I swear it. Look at what happened and then let me explain.

It was the oven. Seriously. I woke up early on a Saturday morning first to take my car into the shop (a great way to kick things off) and then to make hors d'oeuvres and dessert for my good friend's bridal shower. Salad went smoothly, and I made pesto with fresh basil from my mom's garden. I had whipped up some peach curd and lemon cream to fill tarts, meanwhile the oven went berserk. I rolled out the crust and filled the tins perfectly. I mean perfect. It was smooth; it was even. The world will never know because right before I popped these babies in the oven, it locked and kicked it up to "auto clean" level.

My dad surveyed the situation pessimistically. Apparently the oven had done this before, and it required a mechanic and a specially-ordered part to be back in working condition. I didn't have time for that. So when the oven unlocked after we had turned it off, I foolishly put two of my three tart shells in, hoping to bake them quickly and be done with it. Obviously, that was stupid. Within five minutes, the oven locked itself again and commenced scorching my tart shells right before my helpless eyes. I flipped it off. But these newfangled computerized ovens have a mind all their own, and it refused to let me save the tarts until the kitchen smelled of smoke.

I was at a loss. With only two hours until the party, I patently refused to remake the crusts. Too stressful. At the last minute, I ran out and bought a frozen pie crust and baked it at my neighbors' house. I had to put the crusts in the freezer to cool in time to add filling. My friend was very gracious about the tarts and pies, which turned out good enough.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

New England Clam Chowder

Reflecting back on my three-month stint in New England, it's easy to get stressed. I'm still dealing with the gastrointestinal repercussions of driving in Boston and putting way to much pressure on myself in school and at work. But when I think about the great food that I forced into my possibly ulcerated throat, nothing was more worth eating that the clam chowder at Petey's Summertime Seafood and Bar in Rye, N.H. 

I stopped there for the first time with my dad when he came to visit. We thought the line out the front door before the doors opened for lunch boded well. My dad is not a big seafood fan, and it has been a bone of contention in our family. My mom loves fish, but whenever she served it for dinner she would have to make something else for him and my youngest sister, Emily. He was a more than a good sport to indulge my craving for seafood on our day to the coast. In fact, I feel that I may have converted him. 

I ordered a cup of clam chowder and some fried clam strips while he went with baked shrimp--shrimp happens to be on his very short list of edible seafood. It was a brisk day on the beach, so the hot chowder was welcome when it arrived. I offered him a taste. "When I just might give it a try," he said whilst gingerly dipping his plastic spoon in my cup. 

Clams, potatoes and onions were packed into the thin opaque broth that tasted like it might be perfect for mermaids. I'm so used to those thick, almost pudding-like, chowders garnished with cheddar cheese like baked potato soup. This was not that at all. It was completely absolutely fish-y, not disguised at a tuna steak or mixed into a lobster mac-and-cheese. This chowder was boldly clam-tastic, and my dad, fish-hater, was eating it up. He promised me on several occasions "This will be my last bite." But then he didn't put down his spoon, and I couldn't very well deny him even though I could have easily polished off the entire cup. 

I came back several weeks later with my friend David. We didn't skip the clam chowder and both sprung for Petey's famous lobster rolls, which, for Midwesterners like myself who are unfamiliar, is a sandwich of bread filled with a lobster-mayo salad. Big deal, let me tell you.

Petey's, if you couldn't tell by the yard art in the top photo, catches its own lobsters. The second time I went to the restaurant, the boat and at least half the cages were missing--surely put to good use drawing in the days catch. I don't know that it could get any fresher, about 100 yards from the beach.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Barbecue and a Chocolate Cake

After what one could label a tedious 24-hour drive, I have arrived back home in Omaha totally broke and on the mend. My acid reflux, which had become something of an obsession (re: I troll the Internet at all hours trying to come up with a breakthrough), has lessened ever so slightly but enough, although I am still abstaining from all things fun, which is to say beer, spicy food, coffee, tea and carbonated beverages.

Part of my healing process shall be to do some cooking, and yesterday being Father's Day, I had a great opportunity to thank my dad for all his love and support during the Boston internship by spoiling him with barbecued beef short ribs and a triple-chocolate cake. He deserved that and more. Really, he's the best.

Unfortunately for the Internet, I signed one of those pesky nondisclosure agreements with America's Test Kitchen and cannot reproduce the recipe here. However, you are in luck because the recipe is featured in this month's Cook's Illustrated magazine. Let me entice you to purchase the magazine for this (and an awesome grilled jerk chicken recipe that I can't eat right now because of the habanero chile). Beef short ribs are maybe a little bit of a restaurant secret. Braised beef short ribs was something I was taught almost right away upon entering culinary school. You can get a lot of bang out of those ribs. The cut has a lot of connective tissue, making it pretty tough unless you cook it for a long time at a low temperature, at which point it becomes that melt-in-your-mouth meat.

Contrary to everyone else in the world, I have actually not been a huge fan of beef short ribs. There is a lot of fat in the cut. A lot. And it's that chewy, collagen-esque fat. It is always a heavy meal, especially when braised and all that fat just sits there in the stewing liquid and solidifies all over your leftovers. This technique solves that problem by roasting the ribs that are coated with a general rub. The fat melts off and you leave it in the pan when you move the ribs to the grill where they are treated to a mustard glaze. The glaze is the real ringer in this entree. It's mustard, vinegar (a personal favorite ingredient) and brown sugar. You glaze the ribs every half hour until the ribs gets this sweet-and-sour crust on the outside. The meat is completely tender once your break through that delectable outer layer.

We were stuffing ourselves not wanting to leave any meat behind. But once we had our fill, the family dog, Shelby, was more than happy to clean the meat completely off the bone and gobble down the last layer of fat and collagen right next to the bone. It was astounding really. Our eyes had not yet witnessed her skill at tearing through tough meat. She really such a wussy dog--she can't even jump high enough to get into the truck and this is a large golden retriever--we were impressed that she could rip the meat, clean off.
Not one to disappoint, I'll leave you with a different recipe. One for a Brooklyn Blackout Cake. We made it in my cakes class at school and I subsequently featured it at a Sukkot dessert reception where I worked last fall. My dad went straight for the chocolate on the buffet and requested it for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I held off until now, and I am happy to report that the cake came off without a hitch. It's not perfect by professional standards, but I think I may have finally moved beyond my early cake traumas with a little practice and the help of a screaming instructor. I present you with the Brooklyn Blackout Cake: a moist chocolate cake with a chocolate pastry cream filling and chocolate-butter frosting. 

Brooklyn Blackout Cake

1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup butter, melted
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup brewed coffee

1 cup milk
pinch salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg
2 tablespoons corn starch
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
11 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1 2/3 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Mix dry ingredients including flour, baking powder and soda, salt, cocoa powder and sugar. Whisk to combine. 

In separate bowl, combine eggs, buttermilk, butter and vanilla. In bowl of standing mixer, add wet ingredients to dry. Mix for one minute until combined. Pour in coffee and mix until smooth. Divide evenly into two nine-inch cake rounds that have been greased. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes until toothpick comes out cleanly. 

To make pastry cream, warm milk and salt in a saucepan on medium-low heat until steaming. Meanwhile, whisk egg, sugar and cornstarch. Pour hot milk slowly over egg mixture, stirring continuously. Pour entire mixture back into saucepan and cook over medium heat until thickened. Pour hot pastry cream over chocolate. Stir until smooth as chocolate melts. Place in between layers of cake once cream is cooled. Assemble cake before making frosting.

For frosting, melt chocolate in microwave by pulsing and stirring frequently. Cream butter in bowl of standing mixer. Add powdered sugar and cream again. Finally, pour in vanilla and melted chocolate, mix until smooth. Frost cake before icing is cooled because it will harden at room temperature and be difficult to spread. Decorate outside with crumbs from evening out cake layers or leave plain as I have here.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Goodbye My Dear Coffeemate

I have sworn off coffee, and actually I'm quite pissed about it. Some people chain smoke, do recreational drugs, do prescription drugs, have loads of casual sex while gambling. These are the people who should have acid reflux not me. Coffee is my drug. I want it, need it. I love the way the warm mug feels cupped in my hands, I like to sip it on the weekend while gazing out the window pretending to journal, I want to share it with friends at brunch over eggs benedict. Its bitter-sweet-hotness is all I want in the morning. But no. One sip of coffee and there's a burning sensation running up and down my esophagus all day and a desire to burp without relief.

Every morning at work people are quietly sipping at their mugs while they chitchat and start cooking. One day, I had to have dry biscotti--no dipping. Someone brings us free Starbucks every afternoon and I have to order lemonade. I love coffee more than most people I know. I have a stovetop espresso maker and a French press plus an autodrip. It's been years, years I tell you since I've gone a day without coffee in the morning. But depriving myself of my only addiction is the only way to abate the heartburn. Or, looking at it from another view: Coffee is giving me acid reflux.

I suspect it has something to do with stress. I have been at it with more self-assessed pressure than I've experienced for a long time. I feel I have been given a great luxury in my adulthood: To work for a short period without making any money, and I really feel that I have to make the most of my opportunity at America's Test Kitchen. I have learned the coffee-free and very hard way that I need to cool it. I've tried that, literally, with coffee.

I'm experimenting with cold-pressed coffee at the moment. I made a concentrated batch on Saturday night and steeped it overnight at room temperature for Sunday morning. The cold-brewed coffee has a fraction of the acid that regular coffee does, however, the caffeine still packs a punch. And in the case of my Sunday morning coffee, quite a mean punch. I was jittery and shaking from the caffeine for hours. I suspect I need to pay better attention to my one-to-three ratio. When I have the recipe down, you'll be the first to know.

Monday, April 23, 2012

New York City

I've had a setback in eating my way along the East Coast. Just when things were getting good on the ultimate food tour of New York City with my friends Thu and Eli as guides, I got the worst acid reflux. It had been bothering me for a couple weeks: that serving of calamari between games of Settlers of Catan and Bang Bang, the dim sum in Chinatown for Saturday brunch, red wine at dinner. But it all came to a head after I topped off a lunch of pastrami and matzah ball soup at the 2nd Avenue Deli with some grapefruit-flavored soda at Mario Batali's Eatily. A knot formed in my stomach, it twisted and refused to abate to make room for a pleasurable sample of baguette at Amy's Bread in the Chelsea Market and the perfectly brewed coffee in the Meatpacking District. I couldn't muster it. I had stuffed myself full of nosh at the deli and had to let me eyes do the rest of the feasting. In the end, it was nothing a few Tums couldn't neutralize in time for some great phad see ew and a couple cocktails.

Thu and Eli, friends from college, were the best tour guides. We slept in late and touched, smelled and photographed every edible item south of 42nd street--at least it felt like it.

Matzoh ball soup at the 2nd Avenue Deli--it was recommended to me by one of my old coworkers, a true deli fanatic.

Thu and Eli took me to Koreatown, which had the most incredible pastries and cakes. They were all completely beautiful and without flaws--I could never work there.

The iconic Flatiron--I adore this building.

Cheese at Eatily.

Fresh produce at Eatily, a market to end all markets.

I finally got to see Central Park. It has been the most incredible spring. The trees have had blossoms for an entire month or more. In Nebraska, the flowers on trees are so fleeting.

Inside the Chelsea Market

Lunch in Central Park before heading back to Boston. It was barely warm enough to warrant eating al fresco, but it being spring, we braved it.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The First Week

I've started my second week at the internship and frankly I'm almost too tired to post a blog update. There's all this new stuff to absorb that can be a bit overwhelming but also exciting. Little things like getting to work now take a lot of focus (and time). I rely heavily on my trusty iPhone to navigate me in and out of Boston's many squares. So far it has been a lot of fun and a lot of food.

Aside from all the tastings at work, there's Bert and Linc, my host family, who are hellbent on fattening me up for summer bathing suit season. They're very worried I could go hungry and serve me fabulous home-cooked meals nearly every night--plus wine. I am spoiled. Then there are the bakeries always just a jaunt away. My second day here I went a little out of my way to pick up some desserts at this local grocer called Butcher Boy. Their display case was impressive, featuring mousse pastries and sponge cakes. I got a flourless chocolate cake that was decorated with gold leaf, tiramisu and the best, a double-layer sponge with mascarpone lemon filling. It was so light (tasting only).

I also had to stop by the Clear Flour Bakery, which is on the other side of Brookline from the ATK office and has a line out the door pretty much every day. My instructor back home told me it was a must see. I even tried to volunteer there, but they don't take any. And yesterday, on an exploration through the North End, Boston's Italian neighborhood, which is still very Italian, I stopped with Craig and David at Modern Pastry for a chocolate cream filled cannoli. It's a good thing I do quite a bit of walking ...

Friday, March 2, 2012

Here's to Winter

Reporting here from a village outside Boston, Mass., and my has it been a whirlwind of a winter. In brief summation, my grandma's health went downhill very quickly after Thanksgiving and she passed away near the New Year, and I was pushed in a class beyond what I thought I could handle. I almost gave up and walked out a couple times, which is not something I've ever considered before (except when completing long runs on my college lacrosse team).

In the end I think I'm glad I learned the lessons and I feel very capable of handling whatever is thrown at me in my career because nothing could be worse than that class. And it's not that the class was bad because on the last day, when I was busy screwing up Italian buttercream, I had an epiphany: I realized that I am confident enough in my intellect to not be phased by a mere mistake. Mistakes happen and people get angry over spilled milk all the time, but that mistake says nothing about me as a person. No, that's not true. That and all the many other errors I made and will make in the kitchen say a lot of about me: That I am a person not afraid of screwing up, which is exactly the kind of person I want to be. I think that's what my instructor wanted me to take out of the class. I doubt she achieves that very often, but I think she would be proud. And even if she isn't, I am.

That doesn't get me to Boston. Knowing that plating desserts is probably not my forte, the world can be thankful that I scored an internship at America's Test Kitchen, which is based in Brookline, Mass. That's right folks, THE America's Test Kitchen, the one that publishes Cook's Illustrated and has a PBS show featuring a man with a bow tie. I start Monday.

I have many many feelings on the subject (I proudly embrace my emotions thank you): nervousness, excitement, nastalgia. I left Omaha in a hurry with a large and bouncing potluck and a week of intimate dinners to force my friends to remember me by. I hope they think of me whenever they eat something tasty! (A lofty goal.) I finally made my way back to my home kitchen where I squeezed fresh blood oranges for a gin cocktail and wrapped prosciutto around dried figs and parmesan cheese for an hors d'oeuvre. No one saw when I ate the imperfect pieces of fig in the middle of production or scolded me when I picked the few seeds out of the juice instead of straining them. I played the music loudly and sampled the cocktail well before anyone arrived--just to make sure it was OK. It more than satisfied.

Here's to many more potlucks and intimate dinners in my future.

Blood Orange Gin Cocktails: adapted from 101 Cookbooks
Yields One Cocktail
2 ounces gin
2 ounces blood orange juice
2 teaspoons simple syrup
2 ounces club soda or tonic water

To make the simple syrup, combine equal parts water and sugar in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil to dissolve sugar. Let cool. Combine the gin, juice and simple syrup. Pour over ice and top with club soda.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Pear Tart and Panna Cotta

I'm just making a quick post to update with some photos of my most recent dessert platings. My baking production class has become quite time consuming, and with a bar mitzvah at work last weekend and a stage at the Grey Plume this weekend, I have had time only to work and watch an hour of television before I go to bed. I'm hopeful that this week will provide some respite from that schedule. I'll only be spending 9 hours at school today!

Last week, my desserts were featured once again at the Sage Bistro. I made a pear and almond tart and a coconut-mango panna cotta. In the end, I did come to love both desserts but it took time for them to grow on me. I was initially excited about them, but last Monday I was disappointed with the caramel sauce and the pastry cream filling. I tweaked them the next day, but it wasn't until I was plating them on Thursday evening that I really adored the tarts. I finally finally finally mastered the tart shells with a new trick (top secret). The panna cotta, once it set up, was just beautiful (if you ask me). I love the clean lines and the tuile top. It looks like it belongs at a black tie event. I am satisfied.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

More Foibles in Plating

I have been forced lately to think about my personal aesthetic. In the past, I just buy or am gifted my style. I don't think much about it. For a while, I would follow fashion blogs and pull away ideas, but now I need to apply what little I know about design to what I know about food, and more specifically pastries, to present it in a visually pleasing manner. This is a challenge. I normally put on a plate as if there were TV-dinner compartments. One spot is for vegetables, one spot for meat and another for potatoes. Desserts go on small plates and are garnished with a large dollop of whipped cream. In many ways, I ascribe to the school of thought that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover. That saying can get one into trouble. While true, if a book has a beautiful cover but not substance it will be cast aside. However, giving no thought to exterior presentation at all shows a laziness which is fine when serving dinner for your family or friends but is not acceptable when you expect someone to be impressed or better yet to lay down money for a good or service.

So I've been thinking about my personal style lately. After contemplating my wardrobe choices on a very very long road trip I have come to a few conclusions about myself. I like simplicity matched with a bit of flair. I own a large volume of plain T-shirts in various colors, mostly short-sleeved, and with differing neck-lines--boat, crew, v-neck--to name just a few. I wear three pairs of jeans: skinny, higher-waisted flairs and white jeans. I have one jacket, with a herringbone pattern, that I wear all the time along with this one pair of moccasins (brown) and subdued gladiator sandals. All boring, except for this one element: a pin. I got the pin at a clothing exchange with friends. It is completely singular and must be handmade. It is an old pocketwatch with the workings removed. In its place glued, tied and somehow or another way affixed is delicate drapings of chain mail, small rhinestone daisies and a large and somewhat gaudy plastic-pearl clip-on earring. I put a safety pin through the top of the brass pocket watch and it has hung galantly on my jacket for two years now. That is the perfect point of style for me. Minimal and simple and then there's this one piece of intrigue. I like scarves, funky sunglasses, I tuck my T-shirts into my pants to show of a belt. I have this one necklace that I bought in Spain for 6 euros in 2004. It's black with gold etchings of birds and flowers chiseled out of it. So what I want to learn and to refine is how to present a dessert that is delicious while being simple with just a touch of flair.

I am discovering there are as many ways to dress a plate as there are to dress a person. For instance, there's flashy with too much going on:

There's skill with a lack of a focal point:

There's trendy to a point of silliness:

What I want is minimalism with a point of interest:
The shape is nice, flattering. The goods are well made. Everything is great about this outfit. Her skirt is the obvious focal point, but it all shows off the person--her hair, her great body (jealous) and her cute face. There aren't these beautiful pieces distracting people from how lovely she is. Here is a reinterpretation of a lemon tart. We can't actually taste it, but the elements look well executed. The lemon curd is creamy and lump free, as does the meringue. The crumb layer appears to add some crunch. It's a basic tart presented in a different way. If only I could come up with something like this.
Last week, I made chocolate pots de creme. My instructor was insistent upon them being chocolate--not mocha flavored, not chocolate-hazelnut or chocolate peppermint. Plain but rich chocolate. The challenge is how to present it in a way that exhibits fine technique and good ingredients. I ended up using Tartine Bakery's recipe--no surprise there--which was rich and bitter and perfectly creamy.

I started with a quenelle of creme fraiche on the suggestion of the bakery student manager. I liked the plating below--looks like the last pedal left on a flower. However, no one agreed with me. I do really like the whipped and sweetened creme fraiche. It's something I hadn't tried before but worked nicely--it had that bit of sourness to give it one more piece of flavor.
At the suggestion and with the help of classmates and the TA, I flooded the top of the pots de creme with caramel creme anglaise. I then added a garnish of chocolate sauce. I learned that garnishes should be present only if they add something to the dessert--an idea I love but which can make plating trickier.
I came back from break with an idea for a triple chocolate pots de creme with a white chocolate creme anglaise and milk chocolate sauce. My instructor thought flooding the top with plain cold creme would be better along with some chocolate shavings. I'm not too crazy about the chocolate shavings because thinking of garnishes and desserts as a whole it's not much, however, the plate was just so white without the chocolate. I don't have a photo of the final dessert, but I'm pleased and hope that my efforts will come more easily in the future.