Friday, June 29, 2007

Behold! The Cake of Insanity!

Wait, I ess-plain. No. There is too much. I sum up. As Chef herself said, "these cakes are not supposed to be pretty."

Our four-sided cake project is sort of a crash course/practical exam in different cake decorating techniques. Chef showed us each of the different required components one after another, and then we were expected to do them on our individual hunk o’ styrofoam (that’s right, it’s not only ugly on the outside... this cake is ugly on the inside, too!). With several different required media and elements, we basically had to do each side of the cake in a completely different style.

As for the color scheme (I called it my "Edgar Allen Poe Memorial Cake,") we had to make the rolled fondant that’s covering the styrofoam cake on our own, but then for the rolled fondant elements such as the swag and drapes, we had to use whatever leftover bits of fondant we could find in the "leftover bits of fondant bucket." I decided to do another assignment first (making buds for gum paste flowers), so by the time I got to the bucket, the only colors left were neon red, leprechaun green and black. The choice was obvious.

Here’s a shot of our (mostly) finished cakes (a few of my classmates didn’t finish theirs, tsk tsk) that shows how, despite its macabre appearance, my cake had one of the more restrained color combinations:

Just to recap the required elements: I marbled the white fondant with some violet gel coloring to get the marble effect, which was my favorite part of the cake. Enrobing the cake in rolled fondant was one of the things we had to do... and doesn’t "enrobing" sound ever so much cooler than "coverin’"?

Next came the royal icing agitas... we had to do a large lace point design that stood up from the cake and "had air around it" (the standing butterfly) and one royal icing runout design (the puffy butterfly on top of the cake) plus one side of royal icing ropes (not shown, on the back), one side of small lace point designs and one side of royal icing extensions. I combined my small lace point and extension elements on the left side of the cake as shown by using the lace points as the anchor for the extensions (which was allowed).

We also had to do a royal icing shell border along the bottom of one side, which is on the back (not shown, but pretty decent).

Royal icing is a maddening thing, as it has to be thin enough to be all purdy-like, but still thick enough to stick where you want it. While fighting my way through it, I was scolded by Chef for falling behind and working too slowly. I made the mistake of trying to explain myself, which got the "Thou Shalt Not Question Chef" look of withering and loss of Daily Performance Points Towards My Final Grade. Oh well. What I knew, and Chef did not, was that rolled fondant to me is just like marzipan. And I know my marzipan. I wasn’t worried about that portion of the project; it was the royal icing that was vexing me, so I was taking my time with it.

Here’s another ghastly view:

The decorative fondant requirements were one rope and one textured border, drape and swags with decorative thingies of our choice to hide the edges. I went for little black roses. It just seemed right. The final element was to use a silicone press of some kind. I was having some trouble with the black fondant because, to get it that dark, you need to add a lot of coloring agent, which makes the fondant softer. I knew it would just get stuck in a lace pattern press, so I grabbed a simple leaf. It was unshapeable due to the softness of the fondant, but its lifeless, rumpled form on top of the cake somehow goes with my funereal color scheme.

When I finished right on time (and ahead of a few classmates, one of whom never completed hers... so there), Chef seemed pleased and called my roses "darling," so I guess I’m back in her good graces. She’s still my favorite non-German-speaking chef, anyway.

We have two more cake projects to go: one two-person wedding cake and one "individual" three layer cake. All I’ll say for now about my individual cake project is that I am very, very, very excited about it, and that, when I showed her the sketches for it, Chef’s comment was "I’m looking forward to seeing that one," sort of in the same tone people use when they admit they only watch car racing for the crashes.

The two-person wedding cake is going to be very cool. Legolas and I decided to work together again. Chef initially picked an ultra-femme dainty cake for us that was all royal icing lace points and other fiddly delicate stuff, and added that it had to be pastel colors.

"The two of you are real color fiends, so I’m going to have to restrain you," she said. (By the way, in the group cake photo above, Legolas’ cake is the lurid red and blue one on the right end... color fiends indeed!)

We were submissive. We nodded along. I didn’t give a crap about the color, quite frankly, I was dreading all that royal icing. Shudder.

After lunch, she called the two of us back up and said she’d reconsidered our assignment and was giving us a different cake. That was cool because the whole idea of the cake project is to do something according to "the customer’s preference," not your own, but I think she saw our hearts sink ever so slightly when she showed us that first dainty-paintsy cake.

So our new cake is a crazy, bold, graphic design of interlocking and overlapping fondant circles with a cascade of roses down one side.

Oh, and not one stitch of royal icing. Wheeee!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Coming Soon... The Cake of Insanity!

I took some hilarious pictures of my "four-sided cake project" yesterday that I'll be posting as soon as I have a moment to upload and resize them without laughing too hard, so watch this space...

In the meantime, you can watch my current chef on YouTube!! No, not SugarMomma... the bad news is, SugarMomma was picked by the dean to attend the World Pastry Conference (yes, there is such a thing) this week, so we won't see her again until the last two days of class. The good news is that our substitute chef is none other than The Divine Chef M, my cakes chef from last year, who may well be my favorite chef ever, after der Erlkonig, of course. I really like her teaching style and her sense of humor.

Yesterday, discussing the realities of special occasion cakes made for difficult customers, she noted "I always drink champagne when I'm doing a wedding cake. It relaxes me." (She's the same chef who recommended margarita popsicles for kids' pools parties because "it's so innocent! No one suspects anything when mommy has another popsicle." Though my all-time favorite quote from her came when describing how improper storage of pastry cream could result in poisoning a wedding party: "They'll blame the fish! They always blame the fish! No one will think it was the pastry, but you'll know, and you'll have to live with that for the rest of your life.")

Anyway, this morning while giving a demo on gum paste flowers that had some technical problems (our fancy video cam that displays on a screen wasn't working quite right), The Divine Chef M asked us "have you seen my YouTube?" and then told us how uncomfortable she'd been making it because appearing on tv is really not her thing.

I just looked it up. It's on cupcakes, and if you know her, it's pretty funny because she is so mellow and serious in it, but if you're at all interested in putting a face (and voice, and a real name) to the nicknames I give my chefs, check it out here.

And remember... check back soon for the Cake of Insanity!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Holy Parthenogenesis, Batman! (Part Two)

Okay, first it was a hammerhead shark ... now a blacktip shark has played Mary in a new version of the Immaculate Conception. Are aquariums just monitoring their sharks better, or is there some weirdness at work here?

I'm thinking big picture, the way several frog species are imperiled because the males don't form genitalia, how there has been a spike in the number of hormone-related cancers in women of child-bearing age, how girls are experiencing menarche at a younger and younger age on average.

Maybe it's nothing, but maybe it's all part of some environmental weirdness. I'm convinced that 300 years from now, assuming humans are still around, they're going to look at us with the same incredulity we have when we talk about Elizabethans smearing mercury on their face for skincare, only the People of the Future (probably the Finned People of the Underwater Future) will be saying something like "can you believe that instead of powering their scubaboats with it, those people actually ate high fructose corn syrup? No wonder we were nearly made extinct!"

Chocolate, Thou Art My Torment

Yeah, there it is. My very first start-to-finish chocolate showpiece. Whatever.

Actually, I am pleased with a few things about it, most particularly that I finished the damn thing and got it critiqued by Chef before it tumbled into pieces (for the record, it’s currently still standing).

While the actual composition was up to us, our showpiece had to have several required elements that weren’t about visual brilliance as much "here, try this, and this, and see how to do this," similar to our sugar showpieces.

From the bottom up, it’s an oval 1/4" dark chocolate base with six hidden little dark chocolate disc feet to make moving it around easier, followed by a 1/8" marbled white chocolate plaque (yes, marbled by yours truly). Then it’s thinner-than-thin dark chocolate "ribbons," a rose made of two-tone modeling chocolate, a hollow dark chocolate sphere dusted with metallic purple and silver coloring and three 1/8" dark chocolate scrolls.

I will say it’s pretty cool that I started with two bowls of chocolate chunks, one white and one dark, and ended up with all this, but it was a long, hard road.

Der Erlkonig has likened chocolate to a wild stallion ("it will do what it wants with you") but I’ve found it to be more like my sophomore year roommate in college. Really, really needy and whiny and never happy. Waaaah, I’m too cold! Waaaah, I’m too hot! Waaaaah! Quit stirring me! Waaah! What are you doing just standing there when I want to be stirred!

Give me flesh-searing sugar anyday. Sugar I understand. It’s like the hordes of Genhis Khan, relentless, merciless, blood-thirsty (don’t believe me? Try dripping some sugar at hard crack stage on your hand and watch as it eats through your flesh all the way to the bone).

Chocolate is just a big baby.

Anyway, I will say I like working with modeling chocolate, which we made from scratch on our own. It’s a lot like the Plasticine I remember loving as a kid in terms of texture and malleability, though it does dry out faster.

I also had the least trouble doing my chocolate sphere out of everyone in my class. Know why? Because I made 5,000 of them for the New Year’s Eve party at the hotel in Vegas. Everyone else was letting their chocolate sit too long, or pouring it in too hot or not scraping it right or forgetting to flip it over and having to redo it, but I got mine out of the way in one shot, and the halves were nice and thin (which of course you don’t see once you glue it together).

The base and plaque were easy. The ribbons were irksome, partly because the purple coloring powder I dusted on the acetate never showed, and also because I was rushing to finish them and put slightly too-cold chocolate on too thinly, which caused cracking and other small disasters. That said, I think the ribbon "ends" as opposed to the ribbon loops came out well. Chef liked them.

Then again, she didn’t have to make them.

The scrolls. Sweet baby Jesus, the scrolls. We were only required to have two, one big, one short, on the showpiece, but I made one extra, just in case. They’re only 1/8" thick, and tricky tricky tricky to cut, get off the acetate and then assemble. A lot of people broke all their scrolls and had to redo them. I got to the point of gluing mine on Friday only to find my chocolate was just a teensy bit too hot and refused to set. Pressed for time, instead of trying to wrangle with it I just set it aside (our projects don’t have to be finished until next week, though finishing in the two-day window you’re given to work on just that is the way to go, since every other day we move on to a new medium, with a new project).

Monday I finished it, tempering a little chocolate during lunchtime and, for the first time, not feeling like I wanted to scream while doing it. The chocolate tempered nicely, and quick, and I stuck on the short scroll. Yay! I picked up the tall scroll. CRACK! Yes, it split down the middle in the lower third for no reason whatsoever. Dammit. I mended it using a trick I’d seen some of the guys in Vegas do, spreading a thin layer of chocolate band-aid over the wound with my paring knife. It set, but the mend was obvious. Hence the "extra" short scroll, glued tactfully in front of it. When Legolas accused me of being an overachiever with three scrolls, I explained what happened. He looked at the showpiece from every angle, for a long time, before pronouncing "I don’t see where it broke."


Here are a couple more shots from different angles. Not my finest work, but at least it’s in one piece, with decent shine and all the required components:

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Pour Some Sugar On Me.. Ouch! That Hurts!

Yay! I’m back in the bakeshops and done with those odious classroom classes. And I am loving my current class and chef. The class is Confectionary Art and Special Occasion Cakes, all about the decorating aspect of pastry arts. My new chef is great. As my buddy Legolas put it, "she’s so... normal." She’s very calm and collected and straight-forward, with a dry sense of humor, and she’s worked all over the world in both hotels and restaurants. I get the sense that nothing would phase her. Like, God forbid there was a Virginia Tech/Columbine-style incident, I think she’d look up at the gunman with an unimpressed expression and say "do you mind, we’re pulling sugar here."

On Monday, the first day of class, she mentioned we would have a substitute Wednesday because her oldest son is graduating fifth grade and it was important that she be there. Legolas leaned over to me and whispered "I liked her before. Now I love her." Wow! A successful chef with a family! Spouse! Kids! Her priorities straight! A chef who doesn’t live 24/7 at her job! How refreshing.

Anyway, our first topic was sugar work. On externship, I had to pipe sugar a few times, which is a pain (literally) because it’s superhot and likes to go exactly where you don’t want it. But I kind of enjoyed the pain and frustration (much in the same way that I enjoyed hiking during a hurricane in Iceland). So I was interested to see what we’d be doing for this topic in class.

And what didn’t we do? Chef... I’ll call her Sugar Momma, demo’ed how to do pulled sugar, poured sugar, rock sugar, bubble sugar, blown sugar, straw sugar and even how to pour prepared sugar into a bain marie of ice cubes to get funky stand-alone designs. Then she created a quick showpiece combining several techniques. We were to create individual sugar showpieces of our own design, with a marine/fish theme and a certain number of minimum elements (at least one fish, coral, shell, a piece of rock sugar and seaweed).

Here’s a shot of Legolas taking a picture of Sugar Momma’s superfast showpiece:

We had about a day and a half of class time to do our showpiece on our own. Meanwhile, chef went from station to station working one on one with us to make sure we knew how to create pulled sugar.

Creating pulled sugar is basically step one of making the sugar used for pulling, straw and blown sugar. It involves boiling a stock syrup of granulated sugar, water, glucose and corn syrup to hard crack, then cooling it on marble until you can pick it up and work it in specific patterns, rolling, then pulling, then twisting and pulling at once, until it becomes shiny and then hardens. You cut the sugar into chunks and store them until you need them for pulled, straw or blown sugar.

On Wednesday, our substitute was none other than The Divine Chef M, my cakes chef from last year (and, by the way, another successful woman chef who also has a spouse and a family and appears to be terribly normal). But our substitute critic was the dean of the baking program, a guy who’s done a lot of international competitions and has a reputation for pulling no punches when critiquing students... for example, when I did my two-day practical exam in November, we were all praying we wouldn’t get him as the judge, as he rarely gives anything higher than an 80. (Fortunately, Legolas and I and a few others got the jovial French chef whose hair is always suspiciously perfect.)

I really wanted to do a squid for my blown fish, but alas, my attempts were thwarted. The squids kept exploding on me. And yes, blown sugar is done using a technique similar to blowing glass, by heating the sugar and then inflating it with a copper pipe attached to a hand pump. The trick is getting it at just the right temperature so it’s pliable and inflates without shattering, yet retains its shape. By the time I got the squid shape, the sugar was too hard to cut the tentacles and either exploded or crumbled.

Many a shattered squid landed in the "sugar cemetery" bucket chef had us set up.

In the end, I had to make due with a couple stylized fishes and one octopus that I was rather proud of. Then came the nightmare of assembly. Wednesday was an exceptionally humid and hot day and everyone’s sugar was sticky and melting. I’d made a lot of seaweed, but more than half of it wilted or crumbled or got stuck together. Everyone was having problems assembling their showpieces. I lost all the fins on one fish and one fin of the other just trying to peel them off the tinfoil where they were resting.

I decided to do something different with my composition and the rock sugar element. Normally, you make rock sugar (cooked sugar into which you stir some royal icing till it foams) by pouring it into a pan or bowl to let it set and then breaking off a piece to use almost as a garnish. I decided to pour mine into a bowl and then put another slightly smaller bowl on top so that it set in a bowl shape, and to use that as the base for my showpiece, mostly because I thought it created a better sea bottom than the disc of plain poured sugar we were to use (I just put that underneath the rock sugar).

As I was building my showpiece up from the base, I decided to stick the half-destroyed purple fish on the back to give the rear view a point of interest, but also because I was really in love with the tail of that fish and didn’t want to just resign it to the sugar cemetery.

When I stuck the fish onto the back, however, it upset the balance of the whole showpiece and the thing started toppling. I saved it, but realized I had to add a counterweight to the front. So I stuck on a really ugly shell that I’d planned on tossing and also a purple octopus, the very first piece of blown sugar I’d attempted. I was going to just toss that, too, but I learned early on to always keep everything until you’re absolutely sure you don’t need it, at least in the kitchen.

I managed to glue the fin of the main pink and yellow fish back on and then semi-hide the seam by sticking a piece of seaweed in front of it. I added pieces of blue bubble sugar in layers; I wanted to create the feeling you have when snorkeling of your visibility diminishing but still being able to see shadows and hints of things just beyond your vision’s range.

The dean was pretty brutal on other students, but when it came my turn, he said he really liked what I did with the rock sugar (everyone else just stuck a random chunk on as coral and built up from the poured sugar base) and that all my components were well-made (clearly he did not look too closely at that ghastly purple octopus or finless fish!), but that I put too much bubble sugar on (he wasn’t buying the layered effect) and the overall composition had no natural flow. I agree with the latter, and when I looked at the photos, I agree I went a little crazy with the bubble sugar, mostly because it’s so damn cool-looking.

Essentially, with the bubble sugar, I was like a little kid saying "look! I made this! I made this!" That’s how I looked at the whole project, actually. Wheeee! Look at what I’m doing with sugar!! It was so much fun, and even during the stressful, humidity-induced bits, I loved it.

Here’s the finished product:

From the bottom up, you can just see the edge of the amber-colored poured sugar disc base. No fancy stuff here, just sugar caramelized and poured into silicon molds.The white bowl is, again, the rock sugar, which has a really cool coral texture when you see it in person.The nasty pink-red shell laying on the poured sugar base is my second attempt at blown sugar. Yuck. I hate it, and it’s got lousy shine, but again, I wound up needing it as a counterweight.

Another counterweight: the ugly purple octopus clinging to the front right side. I’m much happier with my shiny bronze octopus toward the left foreground. The purple octopus is entirely blown sugar. The bronze one’s body is blown sugar, with pulled sugar arms attached from below.

The freaky-looking orange "coral" pieces with yellow tips are made from melting and coloring isomalt (a manmade sugar) and pouring it into a bain marie of ice cubes. Wicked cool. I love this technique.

The remnants of my humidity-stricken seaweed are in the center of the composition (the pale green twisty strands standing upright).

The big, slightly phallic thing in the center is straw sugar. If you were to crack it open, you’d see a honeycomb of air pockets inside, but as chef used hers as a support, so did the rest of us, leaving it whole. You make it by pulling sugar and folding it in a way that creates little envelopes of sugar with hot air inside. The more you pull, the shinier it gets.

My main fish has a gold blown sugar body and pink pulled sugar fins and face. After hearing the dean mercilessly critique another student’s showpiece ("have you ever even seen a starfish? Do you know what they look like?") I was ready to bluff and call it the "rare South African flying fish," but he never said anything about my weird birdfish, so neither did I. Actually, he did tell me that my marine animals were "recognizeable and clearly modeled after real living creatures," so maybe he is already familiar with the rare South African flying fish. Ahem.

The excessive mess of blue bubble sugar speaks for itself, but damn I love the stuff. You make it by sprinkling Isomalt and coloring between two Silpats and baking it in the oven.

At the rear left, you can just see the purple tail of my finless purple fish (the, uh, "rare Antarctic carp."). Damn I love that tail.

Here’s a side view that shows you more clearly how I layered the bubble sugar. You can also see the purple fish hanging off the back rim of the rock sugar bowl. And, quite frankly, you can see my seaweed listing to starboard as it wilts in the humidity.

And finally, here’s a rear view. One more look at that purple tail. I really liked the way both fish tails turned out, actually, and think that of all the techniques I learned, my favorite is pulling sugar, followed closely by bubble sugar and the neat Isomalt-on-ice trick.

So, yeah, composition-wise it’s definitely a hodgepodge, but as we were being graded only on whether we completed it by the deadline (all of us did), I decided to do the equivalent of coloring a single page of a coloring book with every crayon in the box. I wanted to play with every technique, to see what I liked and what didn’t work, rather than to create a visual masterpiece.

I was surprised that the dean was as kind to it as he was. But then, I had the only octopi in the whole class. As well as the only rare South African flying fish.

And one day, my friends, one day... my dream of SugarSquid will be realized. Oh yes.

Snakes Alive!

Sunday on the way to the dumpster I noticed something moving along the pond edge beside my apartment. It was one of those huge black snakes that reside in my ‘hood... and it had something wriggling in its mouth! Of course I ran inside, grabbed my camera and walked over to it. I’m sure the snake thought "damn paparazzi," but I was fascinated watching it eat the semi-adult frog (it was in that awkward "too big to be a tadpole, but no developed legs yet" phase).

Munchings and crunchings of the teenfrog...

Swallowed whole!

Lifting its head to let gravity help get the meal down.

After downing its dinner, it slithered back into the pond. I was amazed at how close the snake let me get. That’s one thing I love about where I live. Tons of wildlife, and none of it particularly shy.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Tri Again: Week Five Training Recap

This week was an improvement over last week’s unintentional slacking. Good thing, since it’s also the halfway point to July’s triathlon. I expect this coming week to be horrible because I’m switching to an early morning class schedule, but I’m hoping to maintain the quantity of training time and as well as improve the quality.

Sunday 10 June: a neighborhood ralk of 4.5 miles.

Monday 11 June: morning Pilates, and after class, a 30 minute session on the elliptical varying the resistance between high, very high and are you kidding me?, followed by a 25 minute fast walk on the track and 45 minutes of weight training.

Tuesday 12 June: my second Aquachef encounter, the "highlight" (or not) of a 35 minute swim workout.

Wednesday 13 June: morning Pilates and, after class, a 40 minute ralk on the track. When I went to pick up the "svimmink" books as instructed, Aquachef noted "Ya, I vent svimmink again zis morning but zere vas no one zere. I vas all alone." He then proceeded to critique my form, noting I lacked extension in the arms and "had too much drag." I know he means well, but I wish he’d stick to criticizing the uneven seams of my baguettes and the fact that my challah always looks slightly, well, larval.

Thursday 14 June: 30 minutes on the elliptical at high/crazyhigh resistance, followed by half an hour of weight training.

Friday 15 June: a 40 minute pool workout (Zere vas no one zere. I vas all alone. Yay!). Instead of just doing laps, I tried one of the drills in one of the books Aquachef gave me on Wednesday. Eh. I didn’t feel I got a super good workout, but I will say that the next morning my legs felt a little more used than they usually do after a swim, so I guess that’s something. This coming week I vill vork on improving my extension and reducing my drag, ya.

Saturday 16 June: a "physical rest day," since I’ve worked out nine days in a row. But an important "mental day." After morning Pilates and errands, Wiley and I made the six hour round-trip to the triathlon site in Massachusetts, south of Worcester. I had to see Mt. Doom and the rest of the bike course with my own eyes, because my overactive imagination had created a black, lava-spewing mountain of pain and torment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Everything has its time and place. I just don’t want to be biking up it.

So, anyway, we hit the road on a beautiful day, clear and warm but breezy, not a cloud in the sky. It’s a beautiful drive, too, up along the Taconic State Parkway and then through the Berkshires. As we neared Worcester, the sky turned black. Pouring rain. Lightning. I worried it was some kind of omen (ya think?).

Then, oddly enough, just as I turned off the Interstate, the rain stopped. The sky cleared. The sun came out. I found the bike course and drove it, tensed for the appearance of Mt. Doom. Uhmmm... Couldn’t find it. Circled back around, checked the directions I’d downloaded and confirmed yes, this is the bike course. No giant black mountain. No lava spewing hellfire. Not even a single flying monkey.

The course profile posted online has to be wrong. Yes, there are hills, and there is one very long, fairly steep hill right about where Mt. Doom should have been, but the landscape is almost identical to the hills around my house where I’ve been riding. In fact, for the last six or seven miles of the course, it’s much flatter than where I live. Ha!


It’s actually a gorgeous course, mostly through residential areas and dense, undeveloped forest. Much more Lothlorien than Mordor. There is a portion on the downhill of what I guess is Mt. Doom where the paving is very old and broken up. I could see hitting a pothole there at speed and being very, very unhappy. There are also two very sharp turns, one at the base of the Mt. Doom downhill and another on a very short but very steep uphill. But overall it looks challenging but manageable.


On the way home, we stopped at a Trader Joe’s outside Worcester to stock up on salmon, almond meal and roasted red pepper soup. I always wonder how TJ’s manages to have such cool stuff for so little money. The answer probably involves torturing cows and using child slave labor, so I probably don’t want to know too much. Better just to enjoy my $4.99/lb wild salmon and not ask questions.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Free At Last, Free At Last


I finished the last of my finals for classroom classes. Now until I graduate on (hopefully) Dec. 20, it will be all bakeshop classes. Yay!! And not a moment too soon. I was really underwhelmed by the quality of instruction as well as the intellectual curiosity, or lack thereof, of my classmates.

In any case, on Monday I'll start Special Occasion Cakes, which I'm really excited about. Becoming an A.M. student? Ah, not so much. For the past six weeks I've been a P.M. student, but from Monday until graduation, I'll be on the A.M. shift, starting class anywhere between 3 and 7 a.m. and finishing early afternoon. Fortunately, the chef for Cakes is a reasonable person and doesn't expect us there until 6:45 every morning, but later this year I'll be doing an artisan breads class that will have me up long before the roosters.

Next week, in addition to morning class and maintaining my "kicked up a notch" triathlon training, I'm doing the tour guide thing every day, so my posts may be few and far between. Hopefully they'll be interesting, however... in the first two days of class alone, we're going to be pulling and blowing sugar and building chocolate showpieces!

Now, doesn't that sound like a lot more fun than business management and controlling cost?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I went swimming with der Brotmeister again. You may recall my first pool encounter with him a couple weeks ago, which left me mortified.

Tuesday morning I didn’t have a tour, so I decided to work out before class instead of afterward. Well, I recognized his fishy form gliding with ease and grace as soon as I stepped out of the locker room. Goddammit.

But once you’ve been seen in your bathing suit with no makeup, bad hair, swim goggles and neon pink silicon nose clips, how much worse can it get? I cursed Fortuna silently but got in the pool and started swimming.

Well, someone had his aqua fins with him, and was doing all kinds of fancy little water manuevers in between annoyingly fast and apparently effortless laps. Showoff.

I much prefer swimming in the lane next to the struggling, chubby culinary chef whose name I don’t know but who tends to swim at the same time as I do when I go in the evening.

Anyway, sometimes when I swim and get in a really good groove, I hallucinate. Nothing scary. Usually I just think I see sharks in the pool, or that I have become a shark. Sometimes I can barely control the urge to bite the swimmer in the lane next to me. Okay, maybe that is a little scary but in any case, I was about 20 minutes into my workout when I notice der Brotmeister is on the bottom of the pool in the lane beside me.

He is swimming along the bottom of the pool exactly like Patrick Duffy in that woefully cheesy tv series of yore, "Aquaman." In other words, he’s not using his hands and arms, and is instead sort of slithering along the bottom of the pool, at speed, from one end to the other and not coming up for air.

At first I thought I was hallucinating, but then I realized he was actually there, doing that, and it freaked me out just enough to lose my rhythm and breathe in when I should have been exhaling.

I came to the surface sputtering and flailing. Nice.

He took his fancy aqua fins and freaky sea snake swimming style and left a few minutes after, thankfully.

For those of you who have intimated by phone or e-mail that der Brotmeister is smitten with my uncanny impression of a manatee when I swim, I offer this:

On my way home Tuesday night, I ran into him.

"Come to see me tomorrow, ya, because I haff two books on swimmink zat I vill lend to you. Because you need help. You really need help."

Yes, Chef.

Quorn: It’s What’s For Dinner, part two

In a recent phone call, my Mommy expressed concern that I might be too busy to cook healthy food for myself, so I offer this as evidence to the contrary (hi Mom!) as well as yet another big wet smooch to the people who developed my favorite fungus, Quorn.

Tuesday night I blanched broccoli in some salted water, drained it reserving the water at a boil, tossed in a sliced Quorn Naked Cutlet, let it poach for a minute and then tossed it with the broccoli and some radish salad I made over the weekend.

The radish salad is a must if you like the pink pickled ginger they serve with sushi. All I did was slice a bunch of breakfast radishes (the oblong, mild kind) on my $5 mandolin (which actually works well), put in a container with a 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar and 1 Tablespoon rice wine vinegar. Cover and shake and refrigerate for a couple days, shaking early and often and whenever tempering chocolate makes you agitated. Drain the excess liquid and voila! Flavor and crunch galore.

I don’t fuss with plating if it’s just for me, so here’s my dinner:

Virtually fat-free (the Quorn has 2.5 grams), very high in vitamins and antioxidants, and 11 grams of meat-free, soy-free protein. Oh, and it tasted awesome, with a nice balance of crunch and soft juicy faux-meatiness. Poaching the Quorn gave it a nice tender and moist quality, like a chicken breast cooked properly instead of burnt to a cinder.

Yay Quorn!! Quorn Quorn Quorn... I’m hoping the good people at Quorn use one of those webcrawler alerts to posts that reference their product and decide to send me my weight in Quorn as a big thank-you for championing their lab-grown fungus. No, really, it’s delicious. I consider myself a Quorn ambassador and really hope you’ll consider trying it.

Hey Quorn people... call me.

Temper Tantrum

File this under the "that which does not kill us makes us stronger category," I suppose. Over the weekend I decided I was going to christen the super cool chocolate mold I bought at Chef Rubber as a present to myself for making it through externship.

And using the mold required tempering chocolate. For some reason, I decided to do white chocolate, which is notoriously finicky to temper because of its lower melting point and working temperature.

Undaunted, I got together my chocolate (the Baker’s brand, because it was the only cheap chocolate I could find that didn’t have yucky additives), cream and lavender for the ganache filling, and all my tempering stuff. Because my kitchen is tiny and has virtually no counter space, I decided not to bother running to Home Depot to buy a slab of marble for tabling (one method of tempering) and instead used the seed/block method.

Oh yeah, just in case you’re wondering, tempering chocolate is the process of melting chocolate by heating it to a certain point, cooling it while constantly agitating it to a specific point and then bringing it back up to a working temperature. The actual temperatures depend on what kind of chocolate you’re using and its cocoa liquor percent (not actual liquor, that’s just what they call the chocolatey essence of what makes chocolate). For white chocolate, you melt it at about 105F, take it down with agitation to 80F and then bring it gently to a working temperature of 86F.

Why do we temper chocolate? Because we are obsessive yet sad people with no social lives to speak of. No, no, no, wait, that’s why we make puff pastry from scratch using only our hands and a rolling pin. We temper chocolate so that it sets quickly, has a nice shine and snap to it and feels creamy in the mouth. All of this happens because the melt-cool-agitate process encourages the formation of the right size and shape of fat crystals.

One way of tempering chocolate is tabling, which I have the most success doing. Plus it looks really cool to spread the melted chocolate in a thin layer on marble and get all cheffy on it with two spatulas going back and forth acting as the agitators.

The other methods are seeding, blocking and the seed/block combo. Essentially, you melt the chocolate and then cool it by adding a lot of little pieces of already tempered (not melted) chocolate, which is seeding, or by adding a big chunk of already tempered chocolate, which is blocking. Blocking takes forever and seeding runs the risk of lumps, so one of my chefs, the Divine Chef M*, taught us the combo method. Early on, you do seeding to get the chocolate to cool quickly, but then instead of adding more small bits, you add one big block to finish the process, as it’s easier to fish out and less likely to break into unmelted lumpy bits.

(*The Divine Chef M was my cakes chef, and the first woman chef I had as an instructor. I adored her... I know I say that about all my chefs, and it’s true, but I learned a tremendous amount from her and loved her teaching style, as well as the gleam in her eye that she’d get when theorizing how many people would die from your dessert if you didn’t properly store the pastry cream. Another tip: always make yourself a big batch of margarita popsicles, heavy on the tequila, when throwing a pool party for your kids. In the words of Chef M: "it’s so innocent! Oh look, Mommy’s having another popsicle! No one will suspect anything, and it will make the pool party go by much faster.")

So I seed/blocked the chocolate, though I didn’t have marble to set the bowl on (marble does an excellent job of drawing away thermal heat), the glass bowl I was using stayed way hotter than the stainless steel we use at school and... did I mention I have an electric range? Ugh! I hate cooking on an electric range.

Anyway, before starting the tempering process, I’d painted the molds with an iridescent pale purple that looked so cool. I’d also made a soft white chocolate-lavender ganache. I was really excited about the prospects.

The chocolate had other ideas.

Whenever I temper chocolate, I think of what my favorite chef, der Erlkonig, said before our first tempering adventure: "Chocolate is like a wild stallion. It will do what it wants with you."

The chocolate got too hot too quickly, took forever to cool down and then, before it even reached 80F, started to set and got all thick and crusty on me, even with nonstop stirring. I took it back up and brought it back down again with the same result. It was getting late and I still hadn’t done my homework. Let’s just say the chocolate wasn’t the only thing getting agitated.

I finally brought it down again and then tried taking it up to 86F but overshot it and went to 90F. At that point, with midnight approaching, I decided just to get the chocolate off my damn stove and went ahead and filled the molds.

Sadly, the cool cocoa butter design melted when it came in contact with the too-hot chocolate and went from curvalinear lines to random swirls. As soon as it cooled, I piped in the ganache (successfully, I might add) and then, once that set, sealed the chocolates and threw them spitefully in the fridge overnight just to get them off the counter (I know many people will tell you never keep chocolates in the fridge, and we don’t at Cookin’ School, but interestingly enough, on extern every outlet I worked in kept their chocolates refrigerated. Go figure.).

Here’s the result:

In a word, very disappointing. Okay, that’s two words. But in any case, lousy shine, too many air bubbles even though I tapped the bejesus out of the mold, and the design was ruined. That said, I will say that the actual shell was surprisingly superthin (a good thing) and that the ganache, which at first I thought would be too strong, was perfect with the white chocolate shell. I was also pleased that the chocolates popped right out of the mold... one master baker on extern warned me that if you put too-hot chocolate on a cocoa butter design, it would never come out of the mold and you’d spend the rest of your days trying to wipe the mold clean like Lady Macbeth scrubbing her hands.

I’m going to try again, and again, and again if need be. I’m already thinking of a white chocolate with rhubarb ganache (mostly because I have rhubarb and rhubarb wine that I want to use up) for this coming weekend. Stay tuned. And stay tempered.

Cafe Brulee

Perhaps, like me, you enjoy a giant latte in the morning, especially with gobs of airy milk foam. And perhaps, like me, you find your favorite part of creme brulee is the thin, crisp layer of torched sugar on top.

And maybe you too have wondered: what would happen if I combined these two taste sensations?

The answer:

I made the latte as usual, with very cold skim milk for maximum foam power. I sprinkled some granulated sugar in an even layer on top of the foam and torched it. I expected the sugar to melt into the foam and/or the foam itself to collapse under the direct heat, but the foam stayed firm, or at least as firm as foam gets, and the sugar got wonderfully caramelized and crunchy.

I let it sit on the counter for a few minutes, waiting for the foam to go flat, but it didn’t. The actual sensory experience of drinking it was interesting, too: breaking through a thin layer of sweet crunch to cold foam and then getting the hit of hot coffee. I don’t see Starbucks adding a Bruleeccino to its menu anytime soon, but if you’ve got sugar and a blowtorch on your hands next time you’re brewing your morning cuppa, try it for yourself.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Tri Again: Week Four Training Recap

Ok, this week was not my finest training-wise. I took two unintentional days off because of my schedule: work in the morning as a tour guide, go to class in the afternoon (with no time in between to work out) and then suffer through group project meetings. One thing that drives me nuts about the classroom classes at Cookin’ School is that many of the teachers are really big on inane group projects. One of the ones I had to do last week was summarize a classmate’s externship experience in a PowerPoint presentation, for example. And no, we couldn’t do a presentation on each group member’s externship. It had to be just one student’s, and it was stuff like one slide on hours of operation, another on how many people worked there, etc.

What did I learn? I learned that I get really annoyed when we’re assigned stupid and pointless group projects.

In any case, after being on campus for 12 hours straight on Tuesday and then again on Wednesday, not only was I tired, but I didn’t want to leave Wiley alone any longer than I had to, so I skipped the gym and took him for an extra walkies instead.

Sunday 03 June: rest day, as planned.

Monday 04 June: morning Pilates, and an afterschool 35 minute swim.

Tuesday 05 June: cranky and unintentional rest day.

Wednesday 06 June: even crankier and unintentional rest day.

Thursday 07 June: morning Pilates, and after class, 30 minutes on the elliptical at high resistance and varying crossramp (incline), followed by a 12-minute mile on the indoor track.

Friday 08 June: 35 minute swim, fitting in two more laps than usual. I’m proud of this workout because I did almost all of it using the alternate breath method, which is supposed to make me a faster and more efficient swimmer. Usually, when I warm up, I inhale every fourth stroke and then, once I’m swimming "at speed," if it can be called that, I inhale every other stroke. To swim straighter and also develop my muscles more evenly, I switch which side I take a breath on every lap: lap one, right side, lap two, left side, etc. With the alternate breath, you’re supposed to breathe every third stroke so that you’re constantly alternating sides.

This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but swimming for me is a very rhythmic thing, and up till now it’s been very 4/4 time (I look at it like music), with my kicks and strokes and breath all in sync. The alternate breath method throws a waltz in there... instead of breathe stroke stroke stroke, breathe stroke stroke stroke, it becomes breathe stroke stroke, breathe stroke stroke.

The result is that, for the first ten laps or so, I occasionally fell off count and spas’ed out, momentarily flailing about in my lane and causing the life guard to look up from her book and ask if I was ok. Fortunately the only other person in the pool was a chef I don’t know who swims like an absolute tiger shark. I don’t know how long he swims for, but he’s always in the pool by the time I arrive and stays until after I leave. I’ve never seen him alternate speed or take a break or change strokes. He just swims freestyle at a moderate but relentless pace. Damn.

Saturday 09 June: morning Pilates, followed by the urge to slack off because it was so dang hot. Instead, I got my butt on Cerdic for the first time in a week (it was raining on the days I had some free time for a ride. Oh, darn.).

On the very first hill, I felt immediately that the grueling high resistance elliptical workouts I’ve been doing are paying off. Of course, lest I get cocky about it, I did have to walk up two hills later in the workout when I tried a new road I’ve never been down before. It was beautiful, past a small lake and gorgeous horse farms and forest, but it was also extremely hilly.

The only other time I had to stop and get off my bike came when I passed a little turtle in the middle of the road. He was alive, but who knows for how long given the way people speed on those back roads... so I picked him up and put him in the grass on the side of the road he appeared to be heading for.

Because we slow moving creatures need to stick together.

I wound up doing a 6.7 mile ride, the furthest I’ve gone on Cerdic so far. Then I got off the bike and walked a quick mile, just to get my muscles used to transitioning - it’s pretty funny how, when you get off the bike, to me the most unnatural thing in the world, your legs wobble for the first hundred yards or so. This is typical though, it’s not just me, and all the reading I’ve done on training notes that you have to do "bricks"... that’s the fancy triathlete term for combining two sports when training. Either you swim and then bike or bike and then run, just to get your muscles used to making that transition.

I’m still the world’s worst shifter on the bike, but now that I’m getting stronger, I find it’s actually easier not to shift, to keep it in second gear and use pure, ugly brute force to power up most of the hills.

Cerdic seems to approve. I knew it was a good idea to name my bike after a big, brutish, relentless barbarian.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Deer, Oh Deer

Wiley continues to be an interspecies love magnet.

While we were were having a lovely walkies through the woods of one of the Gilded Age Hudson Valley estates near where we live this morning, I spied a young deer about a 100 yards off the trail. I mentioned this to Mr. Kittenheads, who was off-leash, pointing in the direction of said deer. Wiley looked thataways but failed to see Bambi.

Bambi shook his head and stomped his feet as if on cue.

And Wiley took off, running full-speed, hurtling his knockwurst-shaped body at the deer.

The deer stood there and wagged its tail.

At the last moment, when Chuckles MacGillicuddy realized the deer had no intention of running away, he put on the brakes and veered, crashing inelegantly into a stand of overgrowth and tall grasses.

When he emerged, the deer lowered its head and began running toward him.

Wiley looked from me to the deer and back again with incredulity. I'm sure that if he could talk, he'd be saying "no no, I'm the predator, you're the prey!"

He started running toward me, taking a wide circle to avoid the deer, which wasn't being aggressive, just playful. This is all happening, by the way, about half a mile from the spot in the same woods where last year at about this time another young deer developed "special feelings" for my furry sidekick. I don't think it was the same deer, however, because this one was clearly still a juvenile.

The deer stopped running at him when he neared me and instead trailed behind us for a bit, while Wiley studiously ignored it. I, meanwhile, was laughing. Hard. Too hard. I should have been paying more attention to where I was walking, because as I climbed up and over a fallen tree, I slipped and fell right on my hip and elbow... in a pile of deer crap.

This only made me laugh harder (sometimes that's all one can do).

I see the whole outing as karmic retribution for W and I really enjoying that venison tenderloin a couple weeks ago...

Monday, June 4, 2007

Silicone: Bad for Boobs, Good for Cakes

On Sunday, in addition to seeing "Pirates of the Caribbean: Sexy Fishmen with Bonus Piratical Chow Yummy-Fat" (what? that’s not what it’s called?) with my culinary friend E., I went to an Actual Social Gathering.

My newish neighbors in the next building had a barbecue and invited everyone. Not a lot of people showed (my apartment complex consists of three buildings with nine units each, spread out across several acres of woodland, and populated, at least it seems, by introverts who all have different schedules), but I was glad I went because it gave me a reason to experiment.

I broke out the three silicone molds that I’d splashed out for at Chef Rubber while I was in Vegas. Chef Rubber serves all the Vegas chefs as well as thousands more through online sales, and I would highly recommend them if you’re a home baker looking to get a bit more fancy-pantsed. They’re a little expensive, but their stuff works, and isn’t it better to buy a $16 mold that works than a $5 one from Bed Bath and Bupkis that turns out lousy product until you finally give up and sell it at a garage sale for 50 cents?

I speak from experience here. When I read about chef after chef raving about silicone (or silicon... whatever... the flexible wiggly stuff that comes in pretty colors), I tried a few different molds from places like Bed Bath and Bupkis. They were horrible. Cakes got burnt on the outside but were still raw in the middle. They were impossible to clean. Everything stuck to them. I decided chefs were getting some kind of kickback by recommending these monstrosities to naive home bakers.

Then, when I got into the bakeshops at school and especially on externship, where my main chef was Fleximold-obsessed, I noticed there was an incredible difference in professional v. home grade silicone. Cakes, financiers, muffins, cheesecakes, mousses, ice creams, panna cotta, cookies... you name it, we fleximolded it, all with stunningly perfect results every time.

That’s actually what inspired my first trip to Chef Rubber. The black fleximold, full sheet tray molds of the highest grade, which we use in the bakeshops, are $70 and up, and, quite frankly, impractical for the home baker, as few have an oven big enough to fit them. But the second grade silicone, which is still leap years better than the Bed Bath and Bupkis variety, is just $16 for 10-18 shapes on a sheet and you can fit two sheets on most home oven-sized trays.

So, that’s my pro-silicone pitch. If you’ve tried the home grade silicone baking stuff and came away angry and frustrated, get thee to Chef Rubber, spend $20 and get happy again.

Thinking about my extern chef’s Fleximold-obsession reminded me also of his fetish for repurposing random things, like turning packaging material into cheesecake molds or pieces of cardboard into stencils to cut supports for chocolate showpieces. It’s something I notice most pastry chefs do, as well as make furtive late-night runs to Home Depot to stock up on exotic hardware and PVC pipes. (Most of our jocund stencils at school are sheets of decorative radiator covers, and der Erlkonig keeps a traffic cone handy for helping students learn to make croque en bouche.)

So, with that in mind, I’d like to urge you to get bronchitis. Or, if you’re not ready to commit to a couple weeks of coughing, go for a milder infection, anything that requires getting a prescription for cough medicine. Then, take your Rx to your nearest Target and they will give you the med in a bottle with a neat little top that fits perfectly with the supercool little plastic syringe they also give you.

How cool is this little fella? It has teaspoons and tablespoons and mLs marked on its side, it’s super easy to clean and it is perfect for, say, squirting just the right amount of booze-laced simple syrup onto a mini-savarin.

I love my little plastic syringe so much that I’m thinking of getting bronchitis again just so I can bring home another one.

Anyway, I whipped up (not literally... mustn’t aerate the egg whites!) the financier recipe I stole from the fancy-pantsiesed of the fancy-pantsed restaurants I rotated through while on externship. It was the one restaurant where the chef made a big deal about not letting me take any photographs or even see any of his recipes (at all the other outlets, the pastry chefs were usually very encouraging, or at least obliging, of me snapping pix and copying recipes). He used to call down from his office every day and ask the sous chef if I had a camera with me. Please. I really wanted him to accuse me directly of stealing his stuff so that I could say "Actually, I don’t want your recipes. I have better ones," but he never confronted me.

As an aside, he was French.

Of course, given his attitude, I had to steal a recipe. I took a couple surreptitious photos, too, including the one I posted of Boy Wonder plating, but I particularly liked the financier recipe because it was easier than the one I learned at school.

When I make it though, I add salt. You have to. Just a pinch, but if you don’t, it tastes like nothing but the albumin of egg whites. The salt brings out the almond and the sugar. The French chef never added salt to any of his stuff, which is why I wasn’t particularly tempted to steal more recipes.

Anyway, after baking off a few dozen each of the three different shapes on Saturday night, on Sunday morning I soaked the mini savarin shapes in straight Frangelico (yum) and the mini-flan shapes in a syrup of equal parts concentrated mulberry juice, vodka and simple syrup. This was my first time using the mini-flan shapes for something other than panna cotta, and I didn’t expect the batter to rise quite so much during baking. I sliced off a couple tops to make a neat shape, then decided I liked the upended, untrimmed shape better.

It’s rustic.

(Another aside, and kind of an in-joke in the kitchens and bakeshops I’ve experienced so far: whenever something doesn’t turn out quite perfect, just call it rustic and suddenly your uneven dice or crooked apple slices are authentic.)

Right before walking over the soiree, I dusted the banquette-shaped chocolate financiers with cocoa powder and the mulberry-vodka soaked doozies with just a little confectioners sugar. I finished the savarin with just a star-shaped dot of freshly whipped cream and a raspberry. Then I took this photo (sorry about the bad lighting):

Nothing fancy and remarkably easy. They won rave reviews. I particularly liked the texture of the Frangelico-raspberry one, as the soft, ripe fruit and whipped cream melted on the tongue and the booze-soaked financier seemed surprisingly light (the mulberry ones felt heavy, maybe because they were so big, and the chocolate ones tasted dry to me, though they were the crowd favorites. What can I say, they were chocolate).

When I was cautioning parents about which ones had alcohol in them so that I wouldn’t be responsible for intoxicating the assorted toddlers and grade schoolers running about, one of my neighbors said "does everything you bake have booze in it or what?"

What part of pastry pirate don’t you understand?

While I’m on the topic of pirates, without revealing anything, I will say I was surprised by the new "Pirates" movie... while I saw several of the plot "twists" a mile off, I was thrown for a loop by a few others, and was particularly surprised by how dark the movie was, especially for something heavily marketed toward kids. I avoided reading any reviews before I went, so maybe everyone knows this, but I thought the ending in particular was pretty ballsy, especially coming from Disney, which after all bills itself as "The Happiest Place on Earth." The extended Depp-in-the-Actor’s-Studio bit in the middle was also, dare I say, shockingly avant-garde for the Mouse Kingdom.

I thought the movie was too long (jeez, it took Frodo and Sam less time to find Mordor and throw the damn ring back into the fires of Mount Doom) and, in typical Bruckheimer fashion, way too many things blew up or exploded or went bang. But I was also a bit emotional at certain points (probably not the ones you’d imagine... I was quite fond of that Kraken).

This was also another good Keira Knightley turn. I like that she’s almost always believable, strong and smart in her movies (I never thought I’d say this after the 1995 BBC series, but she’s my favorite onscreen Elizabeth Bennett... rent the "Pride and Prejudice" with her if you haven’t seen it). And yes, she’s beautiful, but in a more natural way than, say, Hannah Montana or the other bleach blond wenches I see on the cover of a lot of preteen mags.

Oh, and regarding the other performances in "Pirates," I just have to say that with or without tentacles, barnacles and unfortunate facial hair, Stellan Skarsgard, Bill Nighy and Chow Yun-Fat can join the crew of my ship any time.

I’ll supply the rum.

Tri Again: Week Three Training Recap

After what I feel were two successful weeks of base skills training, I kicked it up a notch, to use an Emerilism that I deeply despise. My reward for sticking to my training program: getting to listen to my MP3 player again when I ralk. Whoo hoo!

Sunday 27 May: week three got off to an ominous start when I took Cerdic out for a "mental conditioning" ride of 4.5 miles (I decided I’m too anxious (and slow) on the bike to include these rides as part of my physical training). The chain didn’t pop off once (yay!) and I didn’t have to walk up any of the hills, but I did get several bugs in my eyes, which resulted in moments of terrifying blindness. And shrieking. Then, on the way back, just a few hundred feet from my apartment, the daddy goose of the Canadian goose family living in the nearby pond came running toward me, wings flapping, as if he was worried I might run over his brood of four fuzzy ducklings.

Given my lack of control on the bike, his fears were probably well-founded.

I dodged him just in time to notice there was something odd in the road ahead. Something big and black and odd, stretching across the entire single-lane road with barely six inches of pavement free on one side. I thought it was some weird inner tube or something and considered running over it, but at the last minute decided to swerve and aim for the clear area of the road.

Good thing I did, or I would have wounded, or even killed, the biggest snake I have ever seen in person.

It was huge!

When I got back to the apartment, I grabbed the camera and ran back out to photograph it. It had already slithered off the road and was heading for the woods, but I did get this shot, which gives you some idea of its size. It had to be at least eight feet long.

After all the drama of the bike ride, I went to the gym and did 25 minutes on the elliptical at a resistance of 16 (out of 20). I decided right now to use the elliptical on high resistance for the next two weeks to build the muscles I’ll need to take Cerdic on the hills, which should help me both train better and build the confidence needed to tackle Mount Doom on the triathlon. Then I ralked for 25 minutes and lifted weights for 45. Needless to say, I slept well that night.

Monday 28 May: morning Pilates and an evening swim that was relaxingly chef-free. I did the warm-up, distance swim (one kilometer) and cool down in 40 minutes.

Tuesday 29 May: rest day.

Wednesday 30 May: morning Pilates. After class I got on the elliptical for 30 minutes, having an epiphany halfway through when listening to "Crazy Train." I decided that’s going to be my theme song for the triathlon, particularly the Mount Doom downhill, should I survive the uphill ("I’m going off the rails on a crazy train..."). Ralked for 15 minutes and then lifted weights for 45.

Thursday 31 May: I swam after class, shaving almost five minutes off my time just by focusing mentally on going faster. I’m feeling confident about the swimming portion. If the triathlon was tomorrow, I could do that leg in decent time. Of course, when it comes down to it, I’ll probably get a cramp or be swallowed whole by some previously unknown species of freshwater Kraken, but for right now at least, swimming is my twice-weekly "reward" training for the other two landlubber routines I force myself to do.

Friday 01 June: elliptical for 30 minutes, varying between 16 and 18 on the resistance, followed by a 15 minute mile walk to take it easy, as I was feeling a bit overtrained, particularly in my hamstrings.

Saturday 02 June: I really didn’t feel like working out today, but I told myself if I did, I could take Sunday off and go see "Pirates of the Caribbean: Hot Men In Leather and Barnacles." What? That’s not what it’s called? Hey, just leave me in my happy little reality construct, okay? Morning Pilates, and after spending four hours at the library doing homework (ugh), I ralked 3.1 miles on the track and lifted weights for 35 minutes, streamlining my usual workout by alternating working arms/chest and back/shoulders instead of just resting between sets.

Duck Duck Chicken Pheasant, Take Two

My eggs-periment with different eggs continued Sunday morning with a fry... tomatoes, sausages, bread and the aforementioned eggs. The photo didn’t come out well (I didn’t realize it was blurry till I uploaded it), so I’m not posting it, but my findings:
  • pheasant egg still tasteless and had no body. It was like skim milk instead of cream. I also read today that pheasant meat tends to be much leaner than that of other birds. I don’t know if it’s true, but the egg seemed leaner, if an egg could be described that way.
  • chicken egg was good, nice size and had decent flavor. I don’t have much more to say about it, though, as it was the control of the group
  • duck egg was awesome. A lot of yolk, yes, which Wiley was happy to help with, but it had a richer orange-yellow color and a lot of body. The taste wasn’t that different from the egg, but the body really sealed it for me.

While not part of the formal experiment, I also tried a new (to me, anyway) kind of sausage: since I don’t really like sausages and I was already meeting my weekly recommended amount of fat in just one meal, I opted for Boca breakfast links, a meat-free, soy-based product. Yuck. Tasteless and dry, TVP-like texture. Quorn and Morningstar faux-sausages are both better.

Though I will say the Boca links' taste and texture improved mightily when dipped in duck yolk. Probably not a helpful tip for a vegan, but for the rest of us, hey, it’s an option.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Cakes and Conspiracies

I had my first post-swimming incident run-in with der Brotmeister yesterday. He saw me and made a beeline for me. I thought oh crap, he's going to want to give me swimming pointers or something, but that was apparently the last thing on his mind.

"Haff you heard about zat guy?" he asked me, all excited.

I don't know how I knew exactly who he meant, but I said "Litvinenko?"

Of course that was who he meant. Der Brotmeister shares my love of a good conspiracy theory, though he seems to actually believe them more than I do. My personal favorite of his is how the United States works behind the scenes to keep the world in a constant state of war because it's good for the American economy. Yes, and this from a native German. Nah, the Germans never started any wars. Heck, they are the softest, most loving pacifists around. No martial tradition there whatsoever.

But I digress.

After we discussed the likelihood of Putin being behind Litvinenko's poisoning rather than British security services, der Brotmeister said suddenly, with his typical Teutonic directness:

"I sink you are lookink forward to getting back to ze bakeshops. Zees classes now must be not very interesting for you. I sink zey are beyond you."

Beyond me? Excuse me, Chef?

"No, no, I mean beneat you. Zees classes now must be beneat you. I sink you haff already done all zat."

How true, Chef, how true.

On a related note, at about that moment, my most beloved chef, der Erlkonig (the original pastry pirate and friend of der Brotmeister), walked past, giggled and winked. It's funny how my day immediately improves whenever I see his elfin, slightly maniacal smile.

Instead of proving der Brotmeister right and whining more about my current classes, something I did enough of last week, I want to say how excited I am about my next class, just two weeks away: Special Occasion Cakes. Whoo hoo!

Quite fortuitously, my buddy Laura sent me this link, which is already giving me ideas. One of the assignments in Cakes Class is to create a "personal statement cake" that tells the world who you are. I'm thinking of a dominatrix cake, not because that's who I am, but it's how many people perceive me (I think it's the height, the love of black boots and my inability to suffer fools, though I chalk all that up to my German roots).

Besides, it's always good to keep your chefs both intrigued and unsettled.

Friday, June 1, 2007

More Duck Duck Chicken Pheasant

Blogger wouldn't let me post all my scintillating egg photos in one post, so here's the second half:

Of course, the test of any poached egg is the yolk, so here’s a close-up trio:

The pheasant egg, despite a good size, was the most disappointing in color (boring pale yellow) and taste (absolutely tasteless).

Here’s the chicken egg, which was my favorite overall. Nice orange color (probably from that free-range, grain-fed chicken doing chicken aerobics or something), good body and, well, it tasted like an egg, nothing shocking, but still better than tasting like nothing. Also important: the proportion of yolk to soup, which I thought was just right.

And the duck egg... I liked the color, which seemed to deepen during poaching, and the shape, but damn, it was just too much yolk. It seemed like half a cup of just yolk. The taste was very rich, though I can’t say whether it was because of the yolk’s qualities or its sheer volume.

The winner, then, would be the chicken egg, which incidentally cost half as much as the pheasant and a third of the duck.

Though perhaps the real winner was Wiley. I ate the soup from all three bowls (hey, it’s damn good, and the way I make it, good for you) and the chicken egg, but after tasting the other eggs, I decided to let my furry sous chef in on the tasting. He gobbled them down indiscriminately and then cried until I let him lick the soup pot (don’t worry... I don’t do that in the real kitchen. But hey, I’ve got hell-hot water and anti-bacterial soap. And trust me, the plates you’ve eaten off of in restaurants have probably had worse things than a dog’s tongue run across them).

This weekend, I continue the experiment with that classic indicator of an egg’s quality: a good fry.

And yes, despite eating raw or undercooked parts from five different animals in a 36 hour period, Wiley and I were both just fine.

Duck Duck Goose! (or Pheasant... or Chicken)

I’ve been itching to post about this since the weekend, but alas this was an extra busy week at Cookin’ School with projects to be done, midterms to be taken and a large number of cranky old people to be herded about on tours.

On Sunday I went to the local farmers’ market and splashed out on a small package (two pieces) of venison tenderloin from a local deer farm. It was $15 well spent ($7.50 well spent, actually, since the second piece is in the freezer). I used the same Gordon Ramsay recipe that I used a couple weeks ago on the rib-eye and the results were equally delicious, served with barely-blanched broccoli and a pilaf of teff, mushrooms and onion.

I will post more about my love of teff one of these days, but if you don’t know it, go get yourself some and play around with it. I think it may be my favorite grain, though quinoa is certainly up there, partly because it’s so much fun to say aloud.


The only problem with the venison was that I was so worried about overcooking it that I seriously undercooked it. The center was raw and still a little cold. Still delicious, though.

Wiley agrees.

I also got another quarter-pound of scallops - the guys at the supermarket with the best fish around here just love me, because I’m picky and demand to know where the fish came from and smell everything before I buy and then, in the end, I usually get a quarter-pound of one thing and that’s it.

This time I dusted the scallops in a blend of 1 part kosher salt to two parts Chinese five spice powder and served them on a bed of stir-fried baby bok choy and mushrooms. I think the flavor of the scallops this time round was even better than last week’s pimenton scallop experiment, but I undercooked them – a developing theme for the weekend.

Still delicious, though, and Wiley agrees.

The venison smelled so good that I ate it before I remembered to take a picture (oh well) but I’ll be repeating the recipe soon. Very soon.

The most exciting part of the weekend, however, is what the subject line refers to. The farmers’ market also had duck and pheasant eggs for sale, though they were pretty pricey. I was excited because I’ve read in my British food mags how chefs prize duck eggs and pheasant eggs because of the more colorful yolk and richer taste.

Let us begin the experiment...

Here is a shot with the duck egg at 12 o’clock, the pheasant egg at 4 o’clock and a plain ol’ chicken egg at 8 o’clock. Actually, it’s an organic local egg from a free-range chicken, which I think may have skewed the results.

Crack! Left to right, it’s pheasant, chicken and duck. That’s a lotta duck yolk right there. I’m also disturbed by how yellow and cloudy the white of my chicken egg is, but as neither Wiley (who gets an egg now and then as a breakfast treat) nor I have signs of food poisoning, it can’t be that bad.

For this first experiment, I decided to rip off, who else, Gordon Ramsay. He did a starter with watercress soup and a poached egg in the center. I made a super easy (and super delicious) spring pea soup with bergamot and thyme from my garden, then set about poaching the eggs. Here is the result, before trimming, again left to right, pheasant, chicken and duck.

Obviously the duck egg held its shape the best, though that could have been my fault as the water was boiling a little too aggressively for the teeny pheasant egg.

Here are the three finished plates for comparison:

Again, it’s pheasant, chicken and duck, left to right. I think the duck egg shape was nicest, but the pheasant size was best proportionately, since one doesn’t really want a big honkin’ egg taking up the whole bowl of one’s soup.