Sunday, December 30, 2007

Gluten-Free Brownie Goodness

I didn’t set out to make gluten-free brownies, or even brownies. I’m trying to pare down my pantry in anticipation of moving next month (where to, don’t ask... I have three possibilities pending, and each is in a different time zone. And there remains my fantasy of opening my own little bakery in Iceland. Or the Isle of Man. Or New Zealand. Some scenic island somewhere that has lots of sheep but no Fox News Channel).

Friday night I looked through the cupboards as I waited for a batch of mint granite to freeze (yum) and decided it was time to do something with the unsweetened chocolate I’ve had for an embarrassingly long time.

Brownies seemed the natural choice. Flipping through a couple cookbooks on my "use it or lose it" pile (books I plan to donate unless I find some need to keep), I found a recipe I hadn’t tried that had some interesting methods, both for the cooking and the baking.

I changed a couple things around to fit the ingredients I had on hand, and unintentionally made it gluten-free in the process. The results were delish for anyone who likes gooey, chewy brownies, and I like that you don’t need a mixer or any other special equipment. Since I fudged about, pun intended, with the recipe enough that I don’t think I’m violating any intellectual property laws or somesuch, I thought I’d post it:

Gluten-Free Brownies

4 oz. (one stick) unsalted butter, cut in chunks
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate, cut in chunks
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt (I used a generous 1/4 t of Kosher salt; use a little less if using regular table salt)
2 large eggs
1/3 cup almond meal (you can make your own by throwing almonds in a coffee grinder and grinding away to cornmeal texture)

Preheat oven to 400F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8x8 pan (not glass) with parchment paper or foil.

Melt butter and chocolate in double boiler over low simmer, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat and add sugar, vanilla and salt. Stir to combine. Add eggs one at a time, stirring to fully integrate. Add almond meal and stir until homogenous. Pour into prepared pan.

Bake 20-25 minutes until sides begin to pull away from pan. While it’s baking, clear a space in your freezer somewhat larger than the pan. Fill your sink with a couple inches of cold water and add ice, if desired. When brownies are done, remove from oven and place gently in sink. My pan floated, which I thought was really cool, but just in case yours doesn’t, hold onto it with oven mitts as you quick-cool it a couple minutes. Place in freezer until room temperature. Pop out of pan and cut into 16 squares.

What I really liked about the results were the chewy, crispy exterior and utterly goo-tastic interior. And yeah, I liked floating the pan in the ice water, a step not called for in the original recipe, which said to pop it right in the freezer.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Doing some research on a chef whom I was told to contact about a possible job, I stumbled on a series of hardcore foodie sites. And I don't just mean people who like food. I mean snootyfoodies. You know the type.

Anyway, after reading an exhaustive analysis of just what was in a braised short ribs plate and how expensive each ingredient simply must have been, I thought I'd share my latest and proudest creation. It has exactly five ingredients, and one is water. It took about three minutes to make, plus some additional hands-off time to steep and then freeze, with only occasional attention from me.

Of the four ingredients I have not yet mentioned, three are cheap pantry staples that I use for a multitude of things. The fourth was a pile of scraps. On Christmas Eve, my mom came over and I made a simple dinner: herring with paprika on poached eggs, seared scallops on sauteed fennel, oven-baked tilapia with roasted root vegetables, roasted grapes and the Pastry Pirate Family Christmas staple of (store-bought) pierogi with sauteed onions, an experimental cake of almond jaconde soaked in vin santo and Italian buttercream and, as a back-up in case the cake didn't work out, and also an experiment in itself, pomegranate souffle, which tasted way better than I anticipated. I would actually make it again.

Anyway, I had some fennel scraps left over, and yesterday morning, as I hate to throw any food out, I decided to make a fennel granita. And damn. It was good. I mean, really good. Like a rival to the mint granite at Gordon Ramsay's.

I was pleased it was good, but mostly I was happy because the chefs I really admire and respect are not the ones who order asparagus from Chile in the dead of winter because they can, or the ones who make a fuss about using the most prestigious salt or butter or whatever. It's the ones who take the simplest of ingredients and turn them into not one or two but three or more different things through ingenuity and a determination Not To Waste.

Oh yeah... I know fennel isn't in season, but I got it for cheap.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Mostly Ex-STRAW-dinry

The day after graduation, after Dr. Virago left to head home for the holidays, Shorewoodian and I went into The City. She had never been there, so we hit several of the big To-Dos, the Guggenheim (covered in scaffolding! D’oh!), the Met (actually, just the Met’s gift shop, though I did talk the guard into letting me into the museum proper without admission just so I could pee in the Roman period. Uhm, in the bathroom located in the Roman period hall, to be more exact. What can I say? It was a long train ride. Nature called.), Empire State Building, Herald Square, Times Square, past some of the Broadway theaters and of course Rockefeller Center and the tree.

It’s funny, but when I lived in New York, I never went to Times Square and never ventured into Midtown during the Christmas season because of, you know, all the tourists, so most of our route was as new to me as it was to Shorewoodian.

We also ducked into St. Patrick’s Cathedral before heading to dinner at Gordon Ramsay at The London. I’d made the reservation weeks earlier, because when I got the crazy idea to do this whole career change, I was partly inspired by Ramsay as a chef. I say "as a chef" because I do think he’s talented, based on his cookbooks and his columns in Olive and other British food mags that I read regularly. Let me state that my appreciation for Ramsay predates all the Hell’s Kitchen foolishness and overexposure that he’s had in the last few years.

Anyway, we went to GR@tL, where I decided hell, this is the only time I’ll eat here, or in any such ridiculously posh restaurant, so I’m going for the five-course tasting menu. That’s what credit cards are for, right?

Here’s my review, not as a professional restaurant critic, because I’m not and never want to be one, but as, well, just me, The Pastry Pirate:

The dining room was small and done mostly in silvers and grays... I think. It’s hard to say for sure, because it was so damn dark. That would be my only major complaint about the setting. It was hard to see a lot of details in the food, even. I felt a lot of the other people there were there because they are Ramsay groupies... I heard two different tables giddily ask if he was in the kitchen. Puh-leez... I’m sure he helped develop the recipes, but he’s never in the kitchen (one of his proteges is the head chef). As if.

The waitstaff was younger and less stuffy than I’d expected. Our back server in particular was pretty funny and laidback. Most seemed to be European, particularly French, but not the fussy nose-in-the-air sorts.

First they brought out two tiny pre-amuse bouche croquette-like things apiece with mushrooms and cheese. Okay, but not earth-shaking. The actual amuse bouche came after that: butternut squash veloute with parmesan foam and fresh thyme. Now that was something. The flavor was so intense but the texture was weightless. I’m not a fan of the whole foam trend, but I thought it was used judiciously. Scrumptious.

They gave us two breads: an Italian fluta, which was excellent, rich and flavorful with good crumb, and a multigrain which, I’m sorry, sucked monkey butt. I guess I just got used to the bold, hearty multigrain we make at school. This one was weak in flavor, with a tight crumb and dense crust that suggested overbaking and poor shaping. So sayeth The Laminator.

The first course was little discs of free range chicken, each topped differently: poached quail egg and chive, truffle and frisee and confit foie gras with pear chutney. Normally I am not a fan of foie gras, but here it was light and subtle and meltingly good without overwhelming the chicken, which was moist and intensely flavorful. The chutney also helped to cut what I think of as the globby mouthfeel of foie gras. My favorite of the three was the one with quail egg, as I am a fan of perfectly poached eggs, and this one was splendid.

The second course was tiger prawn ravioli with fennel cream, chervil veloute and shellfish vinaigrette. The ravioli skin was tender and super-thin, but the filling, while tasty, seemed a bit chunky and just a little salty. I like salt, so I loved it, but I was surprised to taste it so obviously in a place so inspired by classical French cooking, which I think of as "tournee everytheeng, but skeep the salt... it is for, how you say, the peasants, no?". The cream, veloute and vinaigrette just sort of became one creamy, vaguely herbaceous presence on the plate, which is not a bad thing, but it didn’t have quite the distinctive character suggested by the froufy description.

The third course, wow. Fluke fillet with almond bread, Concord grapes, celery hearts and champagne veloute. The fish was meltingly good, delicate and cooked to perfection, the thin layer of almond bread on top too soft to be considered a crust, but with excellent contrast in texture and flavor. The grapes were a succulent surprise. I was getting a little velouted-out at this point, but here it was so light and complimented the fish so well that I’m not going to complain too much.

My main course was medallions of venison with red cabbage, quark dumplings and cocoa sauce. The venison was perfectly medium rare and, while I’ve had venison before, the flavor was so intense it knocked me back. I realized it was the bitter cocoa (bitter in a good way) that was really bringing out the meatiness of the deer. It reminded me more of the one time I had wild boar than any other venison I’d had. It was excellently prepared, though based purely on personal taste preference I’d have to say the fluke was my favorite.

The "pre-dessert", pseudo-intermezzo was an adorable rounded shot glass layered with passion fruit curd (at least that’s what it tasted like), mint granite and coconut cream. I have stated my position on passion fruit before (enough already!), and am not a huge fan of coconut, but both were so subtly flavored and perfect in texture that I really enjoyed them. The mint granite was ex-STRAW-dinry (for non-Ramsay fans, he has a habit of pronouncing anything he likes as "extraordinary" in a rather declarative way), though. Real, fresh mint, herbaceous rather than sweet. Huzzah.

Shorewoodian and I got different desserts: she went with a chocolate savarin that came with mandarin oranges and bay sorbet, while I had a cinnamon and raspberry sable with lemongrass foam and raspberry cremeux. I thought mine was okay; I liked the pairing of lemongrass and raspberry with cinnamon, but I’ve had much better sable. Hell, I’ve made better sable, and the caramelized phyllo decor on mine tasted slightly stale. Shorewoodian’s bay sorbet was excellent, but her mandarin orange segments came with membrane and all. That really surprised us both. I know doing citrus supreme on a mandarin is a pain, but it’s not that big a deal – I did my share on externship – and honestly, it ought to have been done.

They brought over the "bon-bon cart," which is apparently what they decided to call their mignardise. We picked an assortment of treats, including all the molded chocolates, which I cut in half and inspected, as much as I could in the dungeon-like lighting, before sharing with Shorewoodian. The chocolates were fairly well done, capped a little thickly here and there, but one of the macaroons was stale (mon dieux!) and flavorless. Of course I was being very nitpicky, in part because it was so expensive but also because I can remember long hours spend julienning individual pistachios when I worked at the fancy-pantsiesed of the fancy-pantsed restaurants I was at during externship, or the way LeChef had us re-do our apples over and over just to get them absolutely to his standards.

So, while I found the desserts and sweets somewhat wanting and the lighting too dim, I will say the savory courses were fabulous, especially the butternut veloute and fluke. I also liked that the service, and the menu itself, was not pretentious. No one came around with a capsule of essence that I was supposed to sniff before tucking into the first course to enhance my dining experience, you know? And the food was all recognizable as food, not some strange post-modern sculpture on a plate, which I was pleased to see. But the mandarin oranges and multigrain bread, and the lighting or lack thereof, will not be forgotten, or forgiven. Not quite fully ex-STRAW-dinry, Gordon.

I Done Been Graduated

Well, it’s over. On Thursday I became an official alumna of Cookin’ School.

The school did a really nice job with the ceremony, and as we were lining up as a class to go in, I felt a bit like this was my first real graduation. I never graduated from high school (true... I am technically a high school dropout), and for my college graduation I was one in a sea of anonymous robed people, our class just one of many classes graduating together from the university that day. Because my closest friends were either a year ahead or behind me, I was with only one friend, my suitemate Jim, and we sort of just stood there surrounded by people we didn’t know and straining to hear a series of speakers whose names I can’t recall.

For my master’s degree (jeez, am I overeducated or what?), there was no ceremony whatsoever. Just hand in a final paper, shake hands with a couple professors I liked and then pack and hit the road.

So anyway, I found the ceremony on Thursday more meaningful and momentous than I’d expected. Aside from this being my first real graduation event, I have to say this degree was also the one I worked hardest for. I mean, I woke up early in the morning, sometimes ridiculously early, every day of my second year. I stuck my fingers in beyond-boiling sugar for this! (Uhm, okay, that last part was just for fun, but still...)

Right as we were lining up, I found out that, due to the order in which we were entering (reverse alphabetical), I would be carrying the flag for the baking and pastry class. Cool! I felt so like Arwen at the coronation, or one of the Rohirrim (yes, I’ve been watching the Lord of the Rings DVDs as a stress management technique the past few weeks).

Here’s a shot of me walking in, totally amused by the whole flag thing:

The photo was taken by Dr. Virago, who attended my graduation along with Shorewoodian. They’ve been so supportive of me to do this, even from my first inkling of changing careers and flinging myself into the unknown, that I was really happy to have them there.

Another thing about graduation: the culinary and baking students elected me to be the student representative speaker. I never ran for the position, and was kind of dreading Making a Speech, but it went well. People laughed when they were supposed to laugh, I didn’t stutter and my pants didn’t split, which is really all one can ask for when making a public presentation.

The bakers as a class first picked LeChef to be our faculty speaker, but sadly he was unavailable (he took a few weeks off to work in some restaurants and update his techniques), so we asked Der Erlkonig to do it. He’s said no to several classes recently because everyone wants him to speak (it’s his supernatural hold over us all), but he agreed to do ours. His speech was like his lectures, funny, slightly rambling, sweet and sometimes indecipherable.

Our guest speaker was Chef Irvine, whom most people know from his show on the Food Network, though the thing that impressed me most about him was that he was the head chef for the HMS Britannia for several years. My favorite thing about his speech was how he ended it: "enjoy this Christmas... it’s the last one you’ll have off."

The president of Cookin’ School spoke as well. He’s usually a very by-the-book kinda guy, so I was surprised and highly amused by his long tangent about the secret passion shared by all chefs: fire. "We are all enlightened pyromaniacs," he said of the profession.

Well, uh, yeah.

They gave out class awards (not to brag, but I got two of the three awards doled out to the bakers... after Der Erlkonig presented me with the first, he said "now, you stay heeere, don’t seeet down, hyahhhh," and promptly called my name for the next award, too. Below is a photo of him presenting one of them to me) and then our graduation medals, there was a final round of applause and all that and then we filed out.

The bakers walked out first, and Der Erlkoing was there at the exit to give us each a hug. This ended up holding the line and causing several culinary kids to grumble, but hell, it’s Der Erlkonig. He can do as he likes.

Immediately outside of the hall, we broke apart and went our separate ways. Sunshine, Mandilicious and I had a final photo op (below) before they left. Note my armful of bling (the awards I won), which I’m proud to say I did not drop at any point.

After the ceremony came a luncheon, a final round of good-byes to my chefs and well wishes from people I passed in the hall, some of whom I knew and others recognized only by sight. Then it was over. I felt a bit like Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry, sitting in The Green Dragon after the Ring has been destroyed and thinking well, now what? (Note to self: get some new DVDs.)

Actually, I am not, of course, without a plan. I will be spending the next few days doing nothing, or at least nothing of consequence, before going out to a couple places interested in hiring me. They want me to work a couple days in the kitchen to see if I’m a good fit, which is fine, because I want to go out there and see if that’s where I want to be. Chef Wednesday* also gave me the name and email of a friend of his who is opening a new place and looking for a head baker, so I’m going to contact him and see where that goes.

*I decided to call the chef for whom I laminated Chef Wednesday due to the similarity in speech pattern, intensity and skin pallor to Wednesday Addams. It just seems right.

Now that my formal bakin’ education is over, I’m not sure what direction I’ll take with this blog, but until I sort that out... have you seen my lamination?

Friday, December 14, 2007


I mentioned in my last post how I get to come up with granita flavors. My first, a Mint but Rum-less Mojito, was a failure. I thought it tasted good, but the teaching assistant in the morning (I work the second shift) declared that it tasted like toothpaste and threw it all out before we opened the day it was supposed to be served.

My second attempt was a Chocolate Toffee that everyone loved and all the teaching assistants, student workers and hangers-on kept drinking as free "samples," which meant I had to make more and more. Ugh.

Wednesday, I got my revenge. And it was delicious in every sense. I made a gingersnap-flavored granita that was Extremely Gingertudinous. I started calling it Gingerslap, though my classmate Sunshine observed GingerSpank might have been more on target. A lot of people were spitting it out. Except the gingerphiles. A handful of us who adore ginger were sucking it down all day. One of my chefs tried it too and said he really liked it. He finished the whole cup, so I'm thinking he was being honest.

I have to say it was so yummy, but it was even more wonderful to hear all the Chocolate Toffee trolls whine and complain about how disgusting it was.

Thursday was supposed to be GingerSlap Day Two, but the morning TA, who is your typical arrogant Cookin' School grad (I am humble compared to most of the people around here), said he couldn't find the batch I made (despite it being labeled, clearly, and on the front of the shelf in the cooler), so he made a flavor he liked.

Whatever. That left me a lot of Gingerslap to sip on my own the whole dang day today (I never got to class yesterday because they declared a snow day before noon... whoo hoo!).

In any case, I win.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

All I Want for Christmas is a Refractometer

My current class is front-of-house for the bakery and cafe open to the public on campus (though a lot of students eat there, too). It's not rocket science, and I've had worse jobs, and when it gets stressful because everyone is ordering at once and I'm out of granita mix and someone drops a glass that smashes all over my station, it's still, well, not hard. I mean, no one is going to send me to a gulag if the milk-to-base ratio on my iced chai latte isn't perfect.

My station, as you might surmise from the preceding paragraph, is cold beverage. Iced espresso drinks, made-to-order Italian style sodas, frozen slushie-type products that for some reason they call granitas, iced teas, juices, the odd glass of milk here and there. I don't love it, but I don't hate it. It is what it is.

The high point of the class for me has been the tastings and my daily refractometerizing. For the first seven days of class, we had tastings and pairings in lectures before class itself... coffee, teas and tisanes, beers, wines and dessert wines. It was interesting to learn the difference between ales and lagers, how to tell wines by the bottles (the shape, not the label) and so on. I will never be one of those people who swirls a glass, sniffs and declares "I'm getting slate on the south side of a roof, primrose, tobacco and apricots," but I do enjoy understanding more about the basics.

As for my daily refractometerizations.... because I make the "granita" bases, sometimes following recipes and sometimes creating my own flavors, I have to check the Brix of each batch. Basically, I check the percentage of sugar to be able to judge whether it will freeze and have proper texture and so on. For that you need a refractometer, which looks like a chunky pen. You drip some of the liquid onto the lens, close the cover and then hold it up to light and look through the opposite end to see where it falls on the Brix chart. It's just "Blinded Me With Science" enough to amuse me.

Anyway, I have checked the Brix of sorbets and spumas and ice creams a lot, especially in my second year of school. And every time I did, the chef whose refractometer I was borrowing made a fuss about it being an expensive and fragile piece of equipment, costing hundreds of dollars.

Yesterday, out of curiosity, I went online and found the model I've been using, the one all the chefs have. $46. Yeah, new, from the supplier, not even on Ebay or something.

Damn chefs.

But, uh, Santa? If you decide to slip a refractometer into my stocking because I've been such a good little pastry pirate all year, please note: there are two identical-looking models. One measures Brix in sugary things. The other measures the specific gravity of urine. Please be attentive to detail when ordering. Just sayin'.

Friday, December 7, 2007

I Laminate, Therefore I Am

The teaching assistant in my last class, when I was The Laminator, finally e-mailed the photo he took of my laminated danish, which made the "Top Ten" Wall of Fame in the bakeshop.
The very last day of class, Chef, who has a way with words (among other things, he told me I had to be food steward and take out trash every day "so you get to practice and eventually get good at it." Thanks, Chef.), said "Hopefully you took notes so that you'll remember how to laminate, because now you have a skill. Now you have value."

Again, thanks, Chef. At last I have value. Anyone hears of an opening for an ace food steward/trash collector/laminator, hook me up.

Here is proof of my value:
For baking folks looking at the photo, you'll get it, and maybe even give me kudos (you think this is awesome?? You should see me take out the trash!).
For non-bakers, to get this kind of even honeycomb, you have to keep the dough and the butter layers at the right temperatures, relax them a certain way at certain times, remember to remove excess flour and fold properly and yadda yadda yah. It's complicated. But if Chef was happy, I'm happy.
Funny thing is, I may have nailed lamination, but my dinner rolls still suck.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

She Dwells In Darkness. She Is... The Laminator

Yes, I am still alive, and with almost all my digits intact. Uhm... more on that in a bit. I am still on the godless graveyard shift, waking up at midnight to laminate, cut and shape danish dough through the wee hours of the morning. But the end is in sight...

(I don’t want to say "I can see the light at the end of the tunnel" because it makes me think of the line in Metallica’s "Four Leaf Clover": "and the soothing light you see at the end of the tunnel is just a freight train coming your way." Then again, that makes me think of Metallica, and James Hetfield when he was still dreamy, all surly and angry, before he went into therapy... but I digress.)

Yes, in three weeks and two days, I will be graduating...

Yikes! Mustn’t think about that now, precious, nooooo, focus on the near future, yesss...

Ok, in two days, I will be done with lamination. It’s not the worst thing in the world; in fact, since I spend half the time in a separate bakeshop, completely alone and without my yappy classmates, I much prefer it to some of the other stations. But I’m also responsible for picking up the food and sanitation orders (the former of which can be half a ton of food at times) and for taking out the trash, which can be exhausting.

Anyway, just to update my audience, such as y’all are, on developments over the last three weeks or so:

Wiley is OK. Some of you may know that just as I started cross-training for this class, waking up at midnight to laminate and then going to LeChef’s class the rest of the day, Wiley got very sick. The vet thinks it’s acute onset of Lyme disease. It was very scary for about a week (I thought I was going to have to put him down), but he’s on megadoses of antibiotics and has been doing much better. Yesterday he even wanted to play a little, which did my heart good to see.

Like Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, only different. I was really sad to finish LeChef’s class. It was also his last time teaching for a while, since he’s taking time off to write a book. The last days of class, he took us out in the hall one by one to give us feedback. One of my classmates told me he told her "you’re going to be scooping cookie dough and peeling apples the rest of your life because that’s all your capable of." Ouch. But to me at least he said several really nice, sweet things. He told me where I could improve, too, but in a constructive way that made me want to say "You make me want to be a better baker... er, pastry chef... er, pastry chef aspirant... oh, a better whatever the hell I am."

Actually, what happened when he said those things was that I started crying. It was so embarrassing. But because of cross-training and Wiley being sick, I had been up for about 40 hours straight, all of it in motion, running around and stressing out about the career fair which was also happening that day. It was just a little too much to have someone I really respect sort of lay it all out about my strengths and weaknesses. Poor LeChef! He wasn’t expecting that reaction to his feedback. His eyes got really big and I thought he was going to cry. Der Erlkonig came walking down the hall, saw us and narrowed his eyes. Later he came up to me and said "Is he putting you down, young lady? You tell me, because I beat him up!"

I'm going to miss these guys.

Anyway... LeChef was very understanding about the no-sleep situation. He’s still on campus doing work, just not teaching, so every now and then he stops in to watch me laminate or ask how Wiley is. And every time I feel I might start singing the theme from "The Bodyguard," but so far I have nobly restrained myself.

Watching The Laminator is a popular chef pastime in general, by the way. Every morning, as the morning chefs roll in to get ready for their 0700 classes, they congregate outside the big window that looks into the bakeshop where I work. The sheeter I work on happens to be right in front of the window, so they stand there, sipping their coffee and chatting and idly watching me do things like break rolling pins (I snapped the handle off one on my first day. Good times.) and spill flour on the floor and all over myself.

Just what I need at 0-dark-thirty in the morning. An audience.

As for my actual product, I’ve surprised myself. The danish has been coming out almost always great, sometimes even "excellent" according to my current chef, for whom I have not yet devised a clever Nomme de Net. Yesterday they even took a photograph of the interior for posterity. I asked for a copy and if I get one, I’ll post it. I’m just pleased that I haven’t missed my tri-alarm clock wake-up time or gotten my jacket caught in the sheeter while my audience looked on.

Call me Frodo of the Nine Fingers. Or Auntie Maim. I knew, by the way, I was going to hurt myself during this block. Asking me to work graveyard shift is just an invitation to injury. I assumed that I’d twist my ankle or throw my back lugging that stupid food order up to the bakeshop every morning, but I was wrong. No, instead, on the first weekend after being on lamination, I decided to have a Dark and Stormy... Goslings Black Seal Rum and ginger beer. Delicious. Sitting at home, in my green flannel pajamas with monkeys on them, knowing I didn’t have to set my alarms for midnight, life was good.

At about 10 p.m., I decided to make marzipan. I eyeballed some almond flour and some sugar and added a dash of amaretto and mixed, using my hand mixer, aka stick mixer, aka burr mixer. It’s essentially a cuisinart on a stick. The almond flour got gunked up in the blade so, being the true pastry professional I pretend to be, I stopped the mixer to scoop out the flour with my finger.

You know where this is going...

Yes, so while my right index finger was degunking the Very Sharp Blade of the stick mixer, my left index finger, perhaps acting out some kind of subconscious revenge fantasy after having to live in a right-hand-dominated world for so many years... well, yeah.

I turned the mixer back on. With my finger still in it.

Now, you may be cringing and saying to yourself "what a stupid thing to do." Funny enough, that was exactly my reaction.

I didn’t cut my finger off, not quite, but as the nurse would later say, I "really did a number" on myself. Two minor lacerations framing an inch-long, nearly half-inch deep gash that made me look like I’d been mauled by a very small, very angry bear.

Here’s where the pirates separate themselves from, er, the thinking people. After expressing my indignation very colorfully, I sat down on the kitchen floor, resting my right hand on the countertop so it was elevated, applied pressure and finished my Dark and Stormy. I also ate some of my bloody marzipan (hey, it was my blood... besides, what part of pirate don’t you understand?).

What can I say, it was Saturday night, which meant I would have been sitting in the ER forever with my desperately sick dog home alone. Plus I was in my pjs, all cozy. Aside from the gaping wound in my finger, I was quite comfortable.

I got the bleeding to stop, wrapped it up and went to bed. I didn’t even bother to clean off the rather cool blood splatter from my kitchen wall until the next day. And the wound itself was in pretty good shape, until it came time to do the food order Monday morning... and I dropped a 40 pound box of apples on it.

It wouldn’t stop bleeding, so I went to the nurse who cleaned it up, steri-stripped it, chastised me for not getting stitches when it happened (she wasn’t buying the "too comfy to leave the house" argument) and demanded that I come back every day to get it cleaned, rewrapped and monitored.

Right now it’s looking good, as gaping wounds go, anyway. It’s not infected and I wear a double-layer XL glove over the padded full-finger bandage in the bakeshop to keep it clean (and to keep the danish from being, er, Pirate-flavored). I will probably never get feeling back in the tip of my finger, at least according to the nurse, but I am going to have an awesome scar.

Which is what really matters in the end, isn’t it?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

November Is A Monster

It’s not often I get to paraphrase a Morrissey lyric, but I think the subject line sums up what my life will be for the next month. So, in addition to this being another lovefest post about LeChef, it’s a bit of a farewell. I am not shutting down the blog, but I don’t know when or if I’ll have time to post again, at least before graduation.

Let’s start with the positives... I continue to adore LeChef, who continues to boggle my mind with Stuff He Knows (and is willing to share). I wish I was more of a morning person, because sometimes I feel like I’m only getting 60% of his tips, ideas, insights and suggestions due to my zombie-like state at 0-dark-30 as we used to say in guv’mint. He also hasn’t lost his temper or patience yet, which, given some of the mistakes I and other classmates have made, is just as impressive as his mad pastry skillz.

Several of you have emailed requesting a shot of LeChef in action, so here he is, discussing the composition of a contemporary Bananas Foster:

I also adore my current teammate, whom I call Sunshine because of her unfailingly positive attitude. It’s so much easier to work hard beside someone who is upbeat, you know? And, aside from some really dumb mistakes (she covered apple chips with a Silpat so they never dried out, I opened the ice cream mixer while it was still running and got ice cream mix everywhere, and so on), Sunshine and I have generally had a lot to be upbeat about.

Here are a couple of the desserts we put out this past week (we do ten plates at a time, but I thought they looked better photographed singly):

It’s a modern tart tatin with vanilla ice cream, apple chip, and caramel and white sauces.

Here’s a key lime tart with tuille garnish and, you can’t quite see it, but a quenelle of creme chantilly. Quenelles are going to be the death of me. I practice and practice and practice them and they still look like dog poop (literally). LeChef tried to help me figure out what it is I’m doing wrong, but even he said, as he quenelled beside me, "it looks like you are doing the same movements I am doing, but..." His voice trailed off, leaving the obvious, that my quenelles look horrific, unsaid.

Sunshine and I had better success with our Molten Cake project. LeChef had us make molten chocolate cakes and then decide which components to add, keeping in mind seasonality and balance. We went with cardamom and brown butter ice cream with candied walnuts, spiced pear and cherry compote and cherry sauce, and a tuille half-dusted with cocoa. The basic flavors were our idea, but the recipes and tweaks came from LeChef (he was the one who suggested adding cherries to our compote and brown butter to our ice cream, for example, and both really made a fantastic difference.) He also did the first plating, apologizing in a way as he did for not allowing us to decide how to plate it. "People say I do not allow creativity. That is not true. But, you know, before you can be creative, you have to know something. So I will do and you will duplicate."

His design was, of course, way better than what we had in mind. I don’t mind duplicating at all when I’m learning from someone who’s gifted and a nice person, you know?

In the end, Sunshine and I were very happy with the dessert, and LeChef was very happy with it, which made us even more happy. Here’s a shot of some of our babies, lined up and ready to go:

And here’s a shot of Sunshine and I, proud parents (me in my geektastic Tina Fey glasses):

Now to the bad news.

On Friday, we start working in the bakery and cafe that’s open to the public. We met with our next chef yesterday and got our schedule. Because we have to hit the ground running on Friday, we have to train for our stations this week, even though we’re also still in LeChef’s class till Thursday.

So, beginning Monday morning and carrying on for the next four weeks, I have to be in class no later than 2:30 a.m. This week, I’m in the bakery training 2:30-6:45 a.m., and then run to LeChef’s bakeshop to work there from 7 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. After this week, I will be working from 2:30 a.m. "until we’re done," in the bakery, which for most people is 2 p.m.

As some of you know, aside from not being a morning person, I also have a problem with seasonal affective disorder or whatever it’s called. I never believed it was a "real" disease until five years ago when I woke up one morning in early November feeling like I’d been hit with a 2x4. Since then, like clockwork, right after Halloween it slams into me like a hurricane and lingers until early March. I don’t get depressed, I just get numb (literally) and stupid, especially in the morning. I generally deal with my zombietosis by trying to follow the natural day cycle to be out as much as possible in the sun, what there is of it, and by scaling back on activities that have me out past sunset. I’ve never had to deal with it while working with heavy machinery during the graveyard shift.

This is going to suck.

Even better, this Tuesday and Wednesday, just when I expect to be at my worst trying to adjust to my new schedule, is our career fair. Yeah. I’m sure I’ll make a great impression on potential employers when I drool on them and then slump to the ground, snoring.

I guess the good news is the little old lady who lived next to me moved just this week into an assisted living home, so for now at least the apartment next to me is empty (and mine is an end unit), which means both that I won’t be awakened by someone watching "Law and Order" and that no one will be awakened by Wiley’s mournful howls when I leave at one in the morning every day.

I’ll probably survive, hopefully with all my digits intact, but I anticipate being an utter zombie for the next month, so I doubt I’ll be posting much if anything. I also know I’ve been bad at replying to emails and comments... I’m sorry, but don’t expect a change on that front, either.

I just want to say thanks to everyone who’s read along and posted or emailed encouragement. I hope to be back to blogging soon, with lots of stories and photos to share. Till then...

Friday, November 2, 2007

Sometimes A Cup of Coffee Is Just a Cup of Coffee

The pace of my life continues to accelerate as I hurtle towards graduation (yikes!). I am still loving restaurant plating, especially this week when we were doing desserts for staff and other students, so things were slightly less stressful than when we did it for the VIP event. Of course, at the same time, my days are filling up with meetings about the next six weeks and other training.

Friday, for example, in the afternoon we had the second day of coffee training to prepare us for working front of house at the bakery and cafe in December. Day one was the origin of coffee and how it's processed, but today we did a "cupping" ("is that like spooning?" Legolas asked yesterday).

A cupping is essentially like a wine tasting, where you evaluate first the fresh-ground beans and then coffee made from them for fragrance, aroma, flavor, body, "brightness" (the acidity) and aftertaste.

We cupped four different coffees without knowing anything about their origin. It was interesting. To a point. The woman explaining it all couldn't help but be pretentious. She was nice enough, but I'm sorry, when you put your nose in fresh-ground coffee and say "I'm getting nectarine" I just don't buy it... Of course, on my tasting sheet I wrote down such impressions as "wet leaves," "musty hotel room," "wet asphalt" and "caramel." I scored big points with her for saying I got a "passion fruit-like" brightness from one bean, which I did, but really... you could stare at paint chips all day and find as many descriptors for essentially red or green color, you know?

So, yes, I don't have a great nose, but I could detect which coffees were floral and which had more body and more or less acidity, but just like with wine, I lose patience with the details. The woman was hinting that she simply didn't have time to discuss how to pair coffees with desserts in a mere three hours because it was so complicated, but she also said "think about how people will drink their coffee" when we were designing a "coffee list." (Yes, having made wine and more recently chocolate annoyingly complicated, the people who make their living off the more pretentious tendencies of foodies are now trying to make coffee just as exalted and complex... Fair Trade my ass, these people are motivated by the money they make off convincing people that serving anything other than a particular single-origin blend roasted by their particular process would be like asking guests to drink from the dog's water bowl.)

Anyway, enough ranting. I took her advice. I thought about how people do drink coffee. Yes, I can see how it's important to think, in general, about, say, acidity of a particular coffee compared with the acidity (or lack thereof) in a particular dessert, just as I wouldn't go serving a Riesling with spaghetti bolognese. But when it comes down to it, here's how every person I know drinks their coffee: either in a morning-induced stupor as fuel, or relaxing during a meal with others, while socializing and talking about things other than the "brightness" of their coffee (most people I know also sweeten and/or add milk to their coffee).

I don't know anyone who drinks their coffee by sticking their nose in the glass, then loudly slurping a half-teaspoon of it and announcing "I'm getting fresh hay and coriander."

I mean, honestly.

Mon Cheri

I haven't posted about Wiley in a while, but not to worry. He's doing okay, though his arthritis is acting up a bit. You can see from the above photo he's still got his DoggiYogi flexibility (in the shot, he was nibbling on his dew claw and looked up mid-lick just as I snapped it).

Monday, October 29, 2007

Can You Feel the Love?

Today, as I was cleaning the sink after class, LeChef came over and said "Good job, [Pirate]." I said thank you (uhm... it's a sink) and he added "No, I mean good job. You work verry well. Good hand skeells. You are aware of what eez around you."

He went on a bit, but I'll stop there, because basically, you know in the cartoons when, say, Pepe le Pew sees his lady friend for the first time and his eyes turn into hearts and he floats on a cloud while more hearts circle around him? Yeah, that was me. Sigh. I [heart] LeChef verry beeg time, guys. I may have to keednap him so I can keeeep him wit' me always, guys.

I'm sure I'll eventually burn something or chop off my finger or whatever and get that slightly bulgy-eyed "I want to keel her!" look from him, but for now, sigh, I have the urge to start singing "Deed you ever know that you're my heeerrro, you're everyt'ing I would like to beeeee..."

Fortunately, so far I've been able to restrain myself. Just.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Real Class Act

In addition to the whirlwind that was our first week of restaurant plating production class, my classmates and I had to get our graduation photos taken. Yes, I know... nearly two months away and already we’ve had to get our pictures taken for the big day. Gulp.

We had individual photos with the medals we’ll be given on graduation day, then the photographer, who had absolutely no sense of humor, took us outside for a formal group photo.

There we were, in our cleanest chef’s jackets with our Serious Chef black pants, all arranged standing or sitting, our best "this is for posterity" faces. Then the photographer said we needed to take a couple "candid" shots for our classbook.

My class is many things... dysfunctional within yet fiercely tribal when it comes to dealing with other classes (We Hate Every Other Class Ever), bitchy, catty, back-stabbing, united when it comes to crunch time but always ready to turn on each other the moment the rush is over... For all its faults, however, one thing my class has going for it is a screwball sense of humor.

So when our wooden photographer said it was time to take some candid shots, well, we got candid. For about five seconds, we listened to his instructions ("Everyone lean in and smile..."). Then we spontaneously flashed the peace sign that one classmate (Sunshine) is always giving in photos.

This seemed to annoy the photographer, which delighted us. We responded by starting to remove our clothing in an equally spontaneous fashion (below photo taken by my classmate Momma, who pronounced herself "too fat to be part of this nonsense").

From there, things degenerated quickly, in all senses of the word. The official photographer wandered off in disgust, we changed locations because we felt we’d have better lighting and, well, mugged for the camera. Which is probably what we do best as a class, anyway.

Oh yeah, we’re classy alright. It went downhill from there with my more exhibitionist classmates, but I’ll save those photos for blackmail purposes in years to come.

Some of you who’ve been following my Cookin’ School Saga may notice that one face from the last class photo is missing.

Sadly, Zesty is no longer with us. Yes, it’s tragic, I know. My heart bleeds for the loss. Only not. My one-time teammate, who didn’t know how to zest an orange and couldn’t aerate a mousse to save her life, left us after breads class to "take some time off." We figure she knew she would never pass the second-year practical (hell, none of us thought she had a chance of passing) so she bailed rather than face the same humiliation she went through last year with failing and retaking the first-year practical several times (to be honest, I lost count... two or three retakes for certain). She’s still on campus, auditing some classroom classes and generally being a kiss-ass to the chefs. We think she’s lingering until we graduate, at which time she’ll try to sweet talk her way out of taking the practical, or that she’ll simply stick around until chefs have forgotten she never took it.

In any case, with her gone, class morale has improved. Somewhat. Class class, well, that’s another matter.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Zut Alors!

It’s been a crazy week, even more than usual, but in a good way. Although this is our last "classroom" class before going to the bakery and cafe that’s open to the public, my current restaurant plating class is a production kitchen, which means we have daily orders to fill and deadlines to meet.

The first week of class was spent doing all the desserts for all the lunches and dinners held in conjunction with the annual Cookin’ School board meeting. In other words: high stakes.

Fortunately, our current chef is probably the best person I can think of to be in charge. I love him. Holy crap, he is adorable in every sense. He’s this boyish French guy who’s crazytalented and, thank God, never loses his cool.

I encountered a couple French chefs working in Vegas. There was my brief time working under the crazy, paranoid screamer who would steal people’s recipes, promote them as his own and then, when the person protested, accuse that individual of being out to get him. Charming. There was M, the left-handed sous chef whose comically bad English ("how many time you touch? Me? Thousand times.") was equaled only by his appetite for vodka and apple juice, a favorite from his native Brittany (try it... you’ll like it. Way better than the usual vodka and OJ). And of course there was Chef Lumiere, the garrulous, flirty Frenchman who looked like a bouncer and drove his golf cart through the hotel’s back of house like a maniac. No, worse. Like a Russian.

In any case, my current chef (for now, for want of a more fitting description, I’ll simply call him LeChef) is an altogether different Frenchman. He is equal parts mischievious schoolboy, firm but gentle schoolmaster and artiste. He’s teaching not only contemporary pastry techniques, but neoclassical as well, in addition to what to do with all the scraps... and usually dispensing all of that knowledge in the same sentence. Every day I’ve felt as if my head gets cracked open at 7 am and learning just poured into it like molten gold. Exciting, yes, but also exhausting.

I kept forgetting my camera this week, but a few classmates promised to email me photos, which I’ll upload to give you a visual idea of what I’m talking about.

Aside from being a passionate teacher and creative pastry chef (mini-bombolini - think Italian doughnut - flavored with anise and stuffed with ricotta and candied fennel, garnished with a fennel chip... Concorde grape sorbet with goat cheese dressing and dried grapes rehydrated in wine... deconstructed pine nut creme brulee... coffee savarin with sabayon made a la minute and chocolate twisty garnish... and that was just on one plate, for a dessert sampler), he has the cutest personality.

After my teammate and I cored, peeled, sliced and tourneed a few dozen apples (tournee is trimming each apple segment so there are no straight lines at all, only rounded edges), poached them in cider and Calvados and then dried them slightly on a rack, representing several hours of work, LeChef looked at them for a long time and then said "It eez nothing personal, but these apples, ah, zay are not to my heart. We will do again, okay?"

When a couple other classmates tried and failed to cook a sugar and glucose mix to soft ball stage a few times, he was on the edge of exasperation. Just the edge, though. He never stepped over the line. Mandilicious thought to test the different thermometers they were using and found each had a different reading, varying by as much as fifteen degrees Celsius. When she told this to LeChef, he gave this "mon dieux!" smile and started laughing in that distinctly French way, then added "that eez verrry funny, no?"

Instead of yelling at us to go faster, he’ll say "okay, guys, accelerate, okay?" When one of us does something particularly boneheaded, his eyes bulge a little and you can see he just wants to throw that person out the window, but then he swallows it down and chuckles, or makes a joke, sighs, smiles and says "Okay, guys, zees is what we do..." and then plunges ahead with Plan B.

He’s a big Plan B guy... several times this week, as we prepped and then plated various desserts for campus functions, he would look around, see that our skills didn’t quite equal his vision, and announce "Okay guys, we go now with Plan B," without missing a beat. I’m guessing he’s already got plans C, D and E figured out as well, just in case.

The closest he’s gotten to yelling came when a few of us, taking a rest between plating up lunch and preparing for dinner, were sitting on the floor outside the classroom. He came around the corner, saw us and said "Ah! Come on, guys! Zees is so unprofessionale, eh! Get up!"

I know several other chefs, including some of my other favorites, who would have laid the smack down on us and even written us up.

He does have his quirks, of course. We don't just sweep or mop the bakeshop at the end of each class. We sweep, scrub with soap and hot water, mop and then squeegee the floors... after getting on our hands and knees to scrub every above-floor nook-and-cranny. But then, there are worse things to be than a clean freak.

In between the lectures and the prepping and the plating and the putting out of fires, sometimes literally, LeChef finds the time to dispense wisdom gleaned from years of working in some big name kitchens here and in Europe.

"Before you take a job, eh? You go look in zee kitchen," he said one day while demonstrating proper flambe technique. "If you see a lot of dent in zee refrigerator doors, don’ go work there, okay? It means ze chef, he has a verrry bad temper and heet zee doors a lot wit’ eez hands, or he throw things a lot, okay, guys? You remember zees, eh?"

I’m guessing, just from his unflappably upbeat demeanor, that he’s never dented any fridge doors.

Vive LeChef!

Monday, October 22, 2007

Eye of the Hurricane... er... Tiger... er... Hurricane Tiger?

My classmates and I are enjoying a three-day weekend (our chefs have a faculty workshop) so I finally have a moment to provide an update.

My last class (the R&D-ish one with all the gluten-free, sugar-free and vegan, etc., experiments) ended on Friday on a high note. My project, modifying Devil's Food Cake for various dietary needs, came out really well and I got a crazyhigh grade from Chef for both that and the entire class. My highest grade so far, I believe, except for Culinary Math, in which my overall grade was a 104 out of 100 (I got all the bonus points...). I really enjoyed it and loved having Chef AbeLincoln who by the way is a part-time lumberjack. No, really. I told you. Chefs are all characters in one way or another.

On Saturday I went to the local Sheep and Wool Expo to watch the sheepdog trials, and yesterday we had a party for Mandilicious, who got engaged last week. I think we (meaning my classmates) are all sensing that this is the eye of the hurricane. Tomorrow we plunge back into the fray with a new class, Restaurant Plating, our final class before we move to the bakery/cafe that's open to the public. From tomorrow until graduation in less than two months (!) the intensity, our hours and the chefs' expectations are all going to be kicked up a notch or two or ten. In addition, we're starting to have graduation meetings, portraits and so on.

Our next chef is the adorable Frenchman who proctored my practical exam last year. He's cute, yes, but also tough, and his class is about speed as much as precision, artistry, yadda yadda yah. It's essentially recreating the experience of working the pastry station at a busy super upscale restaurant.

During our pre-class meeting on Friday, he noted: "I'm nice guy, but I am demanding, too. If something needs to be squeezed, I squeeze it."

Uhm..... okay.

After him, we get a Spanish chef that everyone is terrified of, due to his fondness for making people cry, kicking people out of his kitchen and criticizing every last detail. I'm not scared. Because on my tours he sometimes waves to me with this adorable little boy wave (unless he's yelling at someone as we pass). And because another student a bit ahead in the program has told me about his great sense of humor, including his fondness for the Survivor song "Eye of the Tiger."

It's going to be an interesting last nine weeks...

Monday, October 15, 2007

And Finally...

Above is a shot of a display case in the gift shop of Reykjavik 871 +/-2. A local pastry chef designed chocolates in the shapes of four of Iceland’s most famous volcanoes, each filled with a variety of gooey, sweet "magma" and "lava."

My kind of pastry chef.

Leifur Eriksen Weekend, Part III

The town of Heimaey viewed through an arch of volcanic ash on the summit of Eldfell. Because you didn’t think I could take 100 photos in a weekend and not find at least one archway, did you?

Helgafell as viewed from the summit of Eldfell, with some of Vestmannaeyjar’s other islands, islets and skerries in the distance.

Late afternoon on Sunday, I took a final hike along the western coast of the island. With twilight gathering, I spotted this Icelandic horse, an ancient and genetically pure breed more closely related to the Shetland pony than the Norwegian fjord horse. Hey, you get to know this stuff if you spend too much time with interactive displays in museums. In any case, I like the light in this photo.

A shot of Heimaey’s harbor Monday morning as the ferry put to sea with Eldfell in the background... the island catches more fish per capita than any other spot on Iceland, but I never saw the boats bustling, even though it’s Iceland’s largest fishing port.

A shot of the same island I’m so enamored with, but on the ferry back to the mainland and from a slightly different angle, just because I love the oddness of Icelandic rock shapes. Such a strange place. No wonder Bjork is from there.

Leifur Eriksen Weekend, Part II

A fishing vessel heads out on Sunday morning.

Before climbing Eldfell, I saw its destructive power. This was the town’s water tank prior to the 1973 eruption. It got a little damaged.

The town’s cemetery gates flanked by Heimaey’s two volcanoes: the younger and more active Eldfell ("Fire Mountain") on the left and the more sedate Helgafell on the right.

The view northeast from the summit of the volcano Eldfell, which erupted in 1973 and gave the residents of Heimaey a whole lot of trouble. The glacier-capped volcano on the Icelandic mainland is Katla. She’s due to blow any day now, geologically speaking, and the pyroclastic flow likely will trigger a tsunami that they expect to boomerang off Vestmannaeyjar and wallop the same coastal lowlands devastated in the initial explosion. It is for this reason, and this reason only, that I am not moving to Vestmannaeyjar.

Now, About Leifur Eriksen Weekend...

I’ve been having some trouble uploading photos to Blogger, so I’m not sure how many parts I’ll have to break this in to, or whether the photos will display properly. Let me know if you can’t see what’s captioned.

So yeah, I went to Iceland for our three-day Leifur Eriksen Weekend, aka Columbus Day Weekend (the Vikings were first! The Vikings were first! Okay, maybe Irish monks were actually first, but we have proof at least that the Vikings got to the New World half a millennium before Columbus!).

I was watching airfares in my obsessive way and, after weeks of prices near a thousand bucks, one day, I found the flights I wanted for less than $500. Way less.

I took it as a sign that Baby Jesus, or perhaps Baby Odin, wanted me to go to Iceland. It took me exactly 53 seconds to book my ticket.

I knew just where I wanted to go: Vestmannaeyjar, a handful of rocky islands off Iceland’s south coast. I’ve been hungering to go there for years, but never was able to fit it in to earlier visits.

I flew from JFK on Friday, after Mandilicious gave me a ride straight from class to the train station (from Grand Central I took a bus right to JFK... it couldn’t have been easier). I arrived at Leifur Eriksen International Airport (hell yeah!) in Keflavik at about 0600 Saturday, took the bus into Reykjavik, grabbed some supplies from the grocery store and caught another bus to Thorlakshofn. From there I boarded the ferry to Heimaey, the only inhabited island of the Vestmannaeyjar chain.

If you were around in the sixties and early seventies, or if you are into the Discovery Channel, you may recall footage of a couple volcanoes going nuts off the Icelandic coast. In 1963, Icelandic fishermen noticed the sea was bubbling and steaming so, in true Viking spirit, they got closer, and were the first to see what would become the island of Surtsey in the throes of its volcanic birth. Surtsey is part of the Vestmannaeyjar chain.

In 1973, you may recall footage of another Icelandic volcano belching fire and ash into the sky and burying half a village. That would be Eldfell, one of two volcanoes on the island of Heimaey.

Heimaey has a couple other claims to fame... It was first inhabited by Irish slaves ("Vestmann") who ran away from their Icelandic masters. They were promptly recaptured and killed, but the islands still bear their name.

Back in the 17th century, Heimaey was also raided by pirates (you knew there would be a pirate connection, didn’t you?). Historical accounts differ on the ethnicity of the pirates... most put them as "Turkish," but they were most likely Moroccan or Tunisian. In any case, they kidnapped more than half of the island’s population and tried to kill the rest who were hiding in caves used to dry fish.

What’s not to love?

Did I mention the hiking opportunities? Two words: active volcano. Three more words: sea cliff precipice.

Oh yeah.

The nearly three-hour ferry crossing on Saturday morning was surprisingly calm, despite all the warnings I’d read in Lonely Planet and on various websites. After docking in Heimaey, I checked in at the guesthouse I’d booked online. Funny enough, I’d tried to book it in my baby Icelandic. I received a reply from the German woman who runs the place, in perfect English.

Speaking of Icelandic... I had a lot of fun trying out the three things I can say with confidence on the locals. The people at Icelandair smiled as if they’ve heard everything (I’m sure they have), but other Icelanders simply gawked. Jaws dropped. Eyes bugged. People stared at me like I’d grown an extra limb... coming out of my forehead.

The first couple times, I thought my accent must be so bad that I’d accidentally offended them. So I said, in English, "oh, I’m sorry... my Icelandic must be bad." And every time, the person I was talking to shook his head slowly, still staring at that extra limb coming out of my forehead, and said (in English) "No. I... understand... you."

They were simply shocked that a foreigner would speak, or try to speak, their language.
My favorite reaction was one guy taking tickets as I boarded the ferry... I said "Hi, how are you?" in Icelandic. He dropped his tickets and stuttered, in English, "But... you’re Italian!"

Tee hee!!

(As an aside, I’m always amused by people guessing my nationality when I travel in non-English-speaking countries. South of the Alps, even in Africa and South America, people always think I’m German. North of the Alps, people always think I’m Italian. Except in Finland, where everyone thought I was Finnish. Go figure. I’m just grateful that apparently no one ever thinks I’m an Ugly American.)

Okay, okay... so, besides having fun with my ridiculously limited Iceland, I hiked. That was pretty much all I did the day and a half I was on Heimaey, before boarding the ferry Monday morning back to Thorlakshofn to catch the bus back to Reykjavik to catch another bus back to the airport to catch my plane to JFK to catch the bus to Grand Central Station to catch the train back to Cookin’ School Environs to get a cab back to campus where I’d left my car and then drive the ten miles back to my apartment.

The one detour I made was in Reykjavik. I had exactly enough time between buses to haul ass past the Tjornin, their impossibly cute city pond, and visit Reykjavik 871 +/-2.

The last two times I was in Reykjavik, I remember having to go around this big construction site. I thought they were widening the road or repairing a water main or something, but it turns out that, while renovating a 19th century building, they found the remains of the oldest known settlement in the city. The 10th century farmstead and 9th century wall may be the remains of the nation’s very first settlers.

They preserved the site and built a subterranean museum called Reykjavik 871 +/-2. In addition to sounding cool in that effortlessly Scandinavian way, the name refers to the dating of the oldest part of the remains, within a four-year range. The museum itself, while small, was brilliantly done and had so much information and cool interactive displays that I nearly missed my bus to the airport to the plane to the bus to the train to the cab to... oh, you get it.

If you visit Reykjavik anytime soon, don’t miss it. And don’t miss the special interactive map on Icelandic DNA... two in every 1,000 Icelanders have DNA that links them to a specific population that exists only on the Kamchatka peninsula of Russia and the Bering Strait! Freaky!

So, that was my weekend. Ridiculously extravagant carbon footprint-wise? Yeah, but I don’t care. I spend enough of my time conserving electricity and recycling. Sadly, the polar bears are going to be extinct whether or not I jaunt halfway across the Atlantic for a weekend Icelandic hike.

Plus Baby Jesus/Baby Odin really did want me to go. As proof, there’s the weather. In addition to the crazycalm ferry crossings to and from Vestmannaeyjar, the weather while I was there was brilliant sunshine after days of muck and rain.

As Conan the Barbarian once said: Enough talk! Here are the first batch of photos, displayed in whichever way I can convince Blogger to do so:

I am irresistibly drawn to Vestmannaeyjar, the Westfiords of Iceland and the Faroe Islands because of scenes like this: improbably shaped chunks of rock and sea cliffs that look like shark fins in profile. I don’t know why, I just really dig it. This is one of the uninhabited islands that make up the Vestmannaeyjar chain (Eidey, I believe), photographed from the ferry.

This is a shot of the display case of the only bakery on Heimaey. Wow. I don’t know what the hell it is, either. Part of me thought "I could make a killing here just doing simple baguettes and cakes that didn’t look like they’d been run over by a truck." Another part of me thought "the locals probably like this kind of stuff and would reject a foreigner, especially an Italian, with her fancy straight-sided cakes and frou-frou French breads."

And of course, a third part of me reminded the other two parts about my whole issue regarding living in seismically active places. Ix-nay on the Vestmann bakery start-up.

After checking out the town on Saturday afternoon when I arrived, I got an early start Sunday and headed for Herjolfsdalur, the site of the first Icelandic settler of Vestmannaeyjar, as opposed to the first Irish settlers, who didn’t live long enough to build a home. The longhouse is a reconstruction based on the foundations of the actual archeological excavation site, a few meters off to the side. I took the photo mostly for the shot Eggjar in the background.

"Eggjar" is Icelandic, I believe, for "feel the burn." I’ve climbed up ladders that were less steep. It was one relentless haul upward, with the peril of strong winds, a narrow ridge and a sea cliff as the reward.

Yay peril!

Above is a view of Blatindur, the highest point on Heimaey, taken after my climb up the side of Eggjar and Haha (really, that’s its name). All three peaks are sides of the same extinct volcano.

The trail from Eggjar to Haha (I swear that’s what they call it, probably as in "Haha, we got another stupid tourist to climb that cliff!") Yes, the trail, as shown in the photo, goes along the cliff edge to the ladder over a fence. The fence is there to protect sheep from going over the cliff and smashing on the rocks below. The tourists, eh, they don’t care about. (That’s another thing I love about Iceland... no warning signs or fenced-off areas or any of the other overprotective biddiness you find in the States. It’s like they figure "okay, dumbass... you wanna climb that cliff in strong winds? Go ahead. Just don’t come crying to us when you break every bone in your body and are eaten by sharks." My kinda place.)

Yo, Here’s a Digression, My Shameless Confession...

Since leaving the glamourous (not) world of music journalism, I’ve bought just a couple CDs. Macy Gray’s "Big," which is the album I’ve been waiting for her to release for nearly a decade (Go Macy, you crazy mofo). The soundtracks to "Rome" and "Bride and Prejudice" (I dig anything in harmonic minor). And now...

Wait, I need to explain something. I have purposely placed myself in a pop culture vacuum since leaving my previous career. I have no idea if Britney and Fiddy are still alive and/or married (hey, it could happen), and I like it that way. I actively avoid Rolling Stone and the Billboard charts and anything remotely connected to Jennifer Lopez or Radio Disney.

So, Saturday I was at Target to pick up Drano, because yes, that is the exciting life I lead, and walking past the music department I saw that Kid Rock had a new album, on sale for $7.98. I bought it without hesitation, even though I haven’t heard a single track, or a single review (thank God).

It. Is. Awesome.

It is the perfect synthesis of AC/DC muscle, Lynryrd Skynyrd melodic drawl and old school rap, three things for which I have a deep and unapologetic fondness.

I love every damn song on the album, which made me reflect (probably not the typical reaction to a Kid Rock album) on our long relationship.

An advance copy of his breakthrough album "Devil Without A Cause" was one of the first CDs I got as a music reporter. I gave it one listen and, even though there was no buzz about him at the time, I told my editor we had to do something with it. She happened to have an inexplicable crush on him, by her own admission, so she agreed.

Since he hadn’t hit the big time or schtupped either Pam Anderson or Sheryl Crow yet, I, as a mere reporter from a smallish Midwestern daily, was able to land an interview with him.

We went way past the 15-minute time slot. About 45 minutes, if memory serves.

It was one of my favorite interviews. He wasn’t a delightfully brainy smartass like Dave Wyndorf of Monster Magnet (probably my favorite interview ever) or a thoughtful, somewhat droll professional like Rob Zombie. He was more of an Everyman, who gave honest, unrehearsed answers and was most passionate about the side of his music that people never seemed to acknowledge (we spent a lot of our time talking about his kid and race relations in America as well as his love of Lynyrd Skynyrd, back at a time when any press about him lumped him into the "white rapper from Detroit" category).

I met him at his show in town a couple weeks later. He shook my hand and thanked me for my support in an earnest kinda way.

I don’t know if fame changed him from the easygoing guy I talked to twice, but I think not. I can remember years later hearing grumbling from industry people that he refused to fire his drummer because she was a longtime friend, even though she was judged by the suits as "too fat" and "really unattractive."

Over the years, as his fame exploded and he circled back through town, first playing clubs, then arenas and finally amphitheaters, I dreaded having to write a negative review of him. After all, I liked the guy, and his music.

I had no cause for agitas. While I’m sure he had a bad night here or there, I’ve never seen it. Every show was pure power and energy and excitement, with turn-on-a-dime precision. He’s one of the few showmen I’ve seen that threw every ounce of himself into every moment of the performance.

I took a lot of crap for my support of Kid Rock. I got it from all sides.

Angry parents would send me emails along the lines of "You and that filthy-mouthed redneck are responsible for corrupting the morality of America! I took my five-year-old to the show!! You never warned me there would be strippers and expletives!!" Uh... have you listened to a Kid Rock song? Seen a video? Looked at an album cover? And what the hell are you doing taking a five-year-old to any rock concert, jackass?!

The hip-hop crowd called me a racist for liking "only" white rappers and suggesting that 50 Cent was cliche (nevermind that I gave some of my best reviews ever to Common and early Kanye West and pre-sell-out Black Eyed Peas... because I was white and a girl and happened to like Kid Rock, I was a no-good hata’).

At the same time, those insufferable hipsters would tell me what a moron I was for being able to appreciate only the common plebe noise of Kid Rock, while failing to grasp the musical brilliance of, say, The White Stripes or whatever pathetically overrated band was currently the darling of the black-rimmed glasses and ironic t-shirt crowd.


Now that I am a mere citizen again, with no ostensible power or responsibility, I say: I love me some Kid Rock. Kid Rock Kicks Ass. Every Freakin’ Song on "Rock and Roll Jesus" Is Freakin’ Awesome. Kid Rock for President.

(Hey, come on. It couldn’t possibly be worse than what we’ve had the last seven or so years... and wouldn’t you love to see Putin’s face when President Rock brings out the stripper poles at the G8 summit?)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Hells Yeah!

I don't have quite enough time to summarize my awesome weekend trip to Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland (yes, I went to Iceland for a three-day weekend. Screw my carbon footprint. I found super cheap airfare and decided to just do it. More on that soon, swear.), but I do want to say two things to update the blog:

I just found out I got another $1000 scholarship, on top of the $1000 scholarship I got a couple weeks ago and on top of the big pile of money the school gave me in the first place. Yesssss... the unexpected money will help me to be fiscally responsible and manage both my immediate financial planning and long-term goals-

Oh, who am I kidding? It will free up more cash for my next trip to Iceland!!

Also, I love my current class and chef. I've been looking forward to the class itself for sometime, but wasn't sure about the chef. He's this very tall, very lanky guy with a dour expression (think Abraham Lincoln) who strikes fear into the hearts of many students (Legolas was terrified of him).

We've heard stories (of course) about him reducing students to tears, giving horrifically tough exams or being overcritical. I wasn't dreading him mainly because he has his cabinet covered with pictures of animals, including his dogs, and a dog lover can't be that evil, right?

Of course, Hitler was a devoted dog lover, but let's not think about that.

Well, as with Darth Chocolate, it's all just a facade. Chef AbeLincoln has a sense of humor dry as the Karakorum Desert, but he's extremely nice and interested in teaching (and interesting... the man is a part-time lumberjack). He was intimidating during our practical, but now that we're in his class he's like the uncle you wish was your dad. At one point he somehow got Daria's shoe off her foot and walked around with it, refusing to return it until she answered his question.

The class itself is one big delightful geek-out. We're doing gluten-free, vegan, reduced-calorie, low-fat, no sugar added, etc., baking, and after following chef's directions for the first half of class, we're now on our own, developing versions of products by baking small "control" batches using the original recipe and then tweaking it this way and that to make it gluten-free, vegan, etc.

I'll share more about class, and about Vestmannaeyjar, but right now I'm headed home to let Plush Smalls show off his bandana at the local park. He's still quite pleased with himself. There'll be no living with him now.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

How I Spent Leifur Eriksen Weekend only a true Leifur Eriksen fan would. (And yes, October 5 is officially recognized as Leifur Eriksen Day, reminding the world that he and his Vikings were the first known Europeans in North America, beating Columbus and his ilk by several centuries.)

More on the details of my LE weekend adventure soon, but for right now I just want to add that Tuesday, when I picked Wiley up from the kennel, instead of his usual frantic getmeoutofhere act, he sort of strutted out to the waiting room. Wearing a camouflage bandana.

"What's with the bandana?" I asked the guy who brought him out.

"Oh, he likes wearing it," was his response.

Uh, okay. Much like he enjoys wearing his Darth Vader Halloween costume, he did seem to like having the bandana, so I left it on. Here's a low-light shot of Plush Smalls relaxing on his bed. No comments about the clutter in the background; I'm getting my Halloween decor out and it's in the very back of my storage closet.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

By The Skin of My Teeth! By The Seat of My Pants! By The Power of Grayskull!

Okay, I passed my fifth term practical. Barely.

I got an 82, which for me is horrific, but Legolas, who is faster and more talented than I am, got an 80, so I’m not going to stress too much about the numbers. The important thing is the P on my transcript, and the fact, the joyous fact, that I don’t have to take it over again.


I knew Day One, Monday, would be stressful and tight schedule-wise, but I wasn’t expecting mousse cake issues. Going in, I felt the mousse cake was my strongest area. We build them upside down in a cake ring on plexiglass and acetate for a straight top. I had my cake layers cut and trimmed perfectly. I had the requisite 8 ounces of mousse per layer per cake portioned out and ready to pipe. It came time to put in the top cake layer (which would be the bottom of the cake) and, when I pressed down to ensure it was even, gobs of bright pink raspberry mousse erupted like Vesuvius.

It didn’t all fit in the cake ring. It was all over the place, though thankfully not on me, and Chef chose that moment to do a spot station inspection and snap "Make sure you clean that up." As if I’d leave my station covered in what looked like a Hello Kitty explosion.

It took a while to clean up the cake rings, get the cake layers settled as much as possible and clean up my station, so I was really rushed precoating my truffles. The truffles were already suffering: I weighed them out to be 5-6 grams each, as required, but when I finished the whole sheet tray of them, I thought "hey, wait... they look like they’re all different sizes." I went back and weighed a few and they ranged from four to ten grams. Whoa. Automatic failure. I didn’t have time to redo them, so I guesstimated and started ripping off bits of big ones as I was shaping them for the precoat.

That’s sort of like plucking the feathers as you’re breading the chicken for the fryer.

(In retrospect, I think something must have been touching the scale and throwing off the weight... five grams isn’t that much, after all... unless it’s the weight difference of your truffle.)

Because of all the mousse cake and truffle drama, I didn’t have time to scale out my challah and sponge for Tuesday. I decided to scale out at least the sponge and then hauled ass for precoating the truffles... I’ve never tempered chocolate so quickly. I set up my precoating station and just started cranking them out as the seconds ticked down on time. I figured I would just do as many as I could and that would be that. When Chef called time, I counted how many I did. 52. I needed 50. Whew.

Tuesday, I was able to get my challah sponge in the bowl and then into the proofer by 0600, which was my goal. While it proofed, I scaled out the rest of the challah recipe and got ready to temper chocolate for the mousse cake decor and the final truffle coat. While my precoat looked great temper-wise, the shape and size of my truffles was horrible due to the time crunch... I was sure that I was going to fail at least that portion. My goal was to do well enough with the cake and the challah that maybe I’d have a high enough overall score so I would just have to retake the truffle portion.

I was extremely worried about the mousse cake after the little eruption, but when I unmolded it, to my surprise, it looked great. Later, when I cut the sample slice to expose the interior, I saw my layers were straight and even. Who knows what the mousse burping issue was about.

I set up for dividing, shaping and braiding the challah dough and told myself that, no matter what state the challah was in, I was eggwashing it and putting it in the proofer no later than 0740. I made it, right on time.

While the challah was proofing, I did my tempered chocolate decor and finished the mousse cake presentation, cleaned my station and got ready for the truffle coating. Time was running out, and I was sure I was going to fail the truffle portion anyway, so I didn’t even check the temper of my chocolate with a thermometer or offset test. I just thought "it looks tempered, so screw it."

In the end, I finished about two minutes before time. I got a 28 out of 30 on my challah, a 26 out of 30 on my mousse cake, and a 21 out of 30 on the truffles... you need 20 to pass each portion.

Der Erlkonig, who graded the truffles, took off maximum points (and rightly so) for size and shape, but I scraped by because... my chocolate was in perfect temper.


I got 8 out of 10 bakeshop points to finish with that 82. Again, I’ll take it. And yes, I too am amused that my highest score was for the bread, my weakest area.

I celebrated by driving an extra ten miles to the nearest Blockbuster to rent the last disc of season one of Rome. Worth it.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Bringing It To You Old-School

Next to French regional shaping, the most fun I had in breads class was making bread from scratch. And I mean really from scratch. Most of the breads we did used commercial yeast, but we also did a couple sourdoughs, using starter that we fed on a daily basis.

In addition to the sourdoughs we made that were served on campus, we had our own sour-from-scratch project. Mandilicious and I used a 75% bread flour, 25% durum blend and started with nothing but flour and water, feeding it over more than a week before using that as our sour.

The idea is that by providing food (flour), water and a comfortable environment, the wild yeast in the air will settle in and start to multiply. It worked. By last Thursday we had a decent amount of gooey, foamy starter that smelled of paint (the alcohol released as a byproduct of fermentation) and pasta (the lactic acids in the durum, the flour traditionally used for making noodles).

We shaped it and allowed it to retard overnight before baking it off on Friday, the last day of class.

Here’s one of the loaves that resulted:

No, it’s not burned... color is flavor, after all. Look at that rise! Look at that ear! (The ridge that results from scoring)

Here’s a shot of the crumb (the interior), which I thought was decent. Not as open as a ciabatta or focaccia, but not as tight as commercially made bread:

Thanks to the inherent sweetness of the durum, the taste was complex and damn delicious, but the best part to me was being able to say I made bread the old-school way, using only wild yeast captured from my environment and carefully nurtured over time. In an era where we use technology as a crutch and expect instant gratification, I think that’s pretty damn cool.

My Hobbit Garden

I harvested the last of my small garden on Sunday, and I mean small in every sense. The bell peppers and tomatoes (red and golden) were beautifully formed but about 25% to size (surly French chef Pez dispenser shown for scale).


How did I celebrate the end of Specialty Breads class? By waking up at 0300 on Saturday, on purpose, and heading back to campus to bake more bread.

Yeah, that’s right. I went in on my own time for nearly seven hours on Saturday, one of my few precious days off.

Why? Because I found I have a weird obsession. You know how some people fixate on one small piece of their world, whether it’s the placement of the stapler in their office cubicle or getting the cheapest price for gasoline, which will send them 20 miles out of their way to save a penny per gallon?

Well, I am, to my amazement, kind of obsessed with French regional bread shaping.

Now, there is nothing I like better in breads than scoring, slashing that soft dough with a lame (pronounced "lahm"), a fancy French bread-slashing razor. But close behind scoring is shaping dough into the traditional forms which, back in the day, indicated the town of origin. Bakers’ apprentices had to master the form for their town as part of their training.

Earlier last week, I asked Chef* if I could come in on a Saturday (yes, it was my idea) to do the shapes I didn’t get to try in class, as well as repeat ones I had done. He said it was okay, because the teaching assistant is in Saturday mornings baking bread for the restaurants anyway.

So I showed up at just after 0500 (slacker) and helped Lauren (the TA) and a couple student workers shape brioche and prep couches and divide rolls until my dough was ready. It was a regular lean dough recipe, the same we use every day for baguettes and the rolls served at the French restaurant on campus.

I did a few 1.25 pound rounds in various traditional shapes:

The one on the left is not a traditional shape, but a supercool variation Lauren showed me, where you work a mixture of olive oil, lemon zest, rosemary and thyme into the dough while shaping.

I also did some larger shapes, including my biggest (and most inexplicable) obsession, the crowns... In front and on the left are Couronne Bordelaise, from Bordeaux, and in back and on the right are Couronne Lyonnaise, from the Rhone Valley:

I also did the uber-classic Pain des Vendage, traditionally made to symbolize the harvesting of grapes, though I didn’t dust it with flour, which would be truly traditional:

Part of me wished I slept in (a big part of me), but the weirdly obsessive part of me hasn’t had this much fun since reading up on the discovery of colossal squid. I can’t explain it, but I really, really dig the regional shaping. I’m guessing because it’s a little piece of history that has survived into the Post-Industrial Age of Global Sameness.

There was a last minute bread order for 40 people, so the bread I made was actually served, except for the more photogenic of the Couronne Bordelaise I made. It’s sitting double-wrapped in my freezer right now, waiting for an occasion worthy of it.

*as a postscript of sorts, Chef Khoi was really nice to me the last week or so, leading me to assume that either he is reading the blog or der Brotmeister had a word with him. Or perhaps, as Mandilicious put it, "either the Yankees won or he got some from his wife," because he was noticeably less obnoxious to us both. Perhaps it was just that all his frustration was directed at Zesty, who left the salt out of the bagel recipe, put her croissants in the proofer instead of the refrigerator and spent about half an hour looking for raisins one day.

In any event, I tried to get over my initial urge to whap Chef Khoi upside the head, especially after he was encouraging about the regional breads, but I never quite managed to do so.

And yeah, I corrected his grammar mistakes on the final.