Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sweet Vindication

I told you chefs see everything, right?

Well, this morning my current teammate Mandilicious (whom I adore) ran into Chef Tony Santa, our chef from last class. Back then, while I was dealing with Zesty, Mandilicious had to deal with a classmate who is extremely short-tempered but not the most talented person in the world, so you get a lot of attitude without much to back it up.

Anyway... Mandilicious asked chef when our grades would be posted online and he said they should be there already, then asked who her teammate was this class. She said me, and told me later that Chef grinned and said "that's good. I felt so bad for the two of you in my class. I was sure one of you was going to kill your teammate."

So I got my grade from Chef Tony Santa. It's an A.

Even better? This class, Zesty has been paired with Mandilicious' old teammate and together they have become Darth Chocolate's special re-education project. Every time he rips into them for poorly tempered chocolate or not following directions or doing something truly Zestabulous, Mandilicous and I just look at each other and smile.

Just desserts are delicious.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

CineSuccinct: The Hugh Jackman Voiceover Edition

My movie reviews in one sentence, followed by a brief explanation, or at least an attempt at being brief.

Happy Feet: I don’t get it. Enough with the damn penguins already. And why was the only cool character, the leopard seal, in the movie for like two seconds? Oh, and I recall hearing part of a Terry Gross interview on NPR when it came out. The ever-insightful Ms. Gross (only not... she gets under my skin like few other NPR people can) remarked that "Happy Feet" was such a wonderful example of cultural diversity. I guess she meant the tired Latino stereotype schtick of Robin Williams, or the fact that, gosh! one of the penguins was voiced by a rapper! (Whose sole line seemed to be "you ok, baby?") Or maybe she meant that extremely diverse leading cast of... uh... Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brittany Murphy and Elijah Wood (voicing a blue-eyed penguin), four of the whitest people in the known universe.

Whatever. I was rooting for the leopard seal.

Flushed Away: Yay! The trailer I saw for this was a turn-off, and as I am the Girl in the Cookin’ School Bubble with no awareness of Pop Culture, I don’t know if other potential viewers felt the same way. But I RedBoxed it since it’s from the Wallace and Gromit crew and have to say: ha ha ha ha ha. What a hoot!! I laughed almost start to finish. If you haven’t seen it and need a funny movie pick-me-up, I highly recommend it. In addition to Jackman as the lead rat, mistakenly known for most of the movie as Millicent Bystander (haha), the voices include Jean Reno (yay!), Kate Winslet (yay!!), Bill Nighy (yaaaay!) and two-ninths of the Lord of the Rings fellows, not the scrumptious bits, but a deliciously over the top Ian McKellan and Andy Serkis.

Millicent Bystander... get it? Hee hee!!

Gone Batty

I have pictures to post (of chocolates, of course) and much more Darth Chocolate news, but for now, as I am short on time, I’ll just share the mornings I’ve been having the past few days.


I put my stuff in my car just as the sun is rising and, for the past week or so, have had the joy (and I mean that sincerely) of watching a bunch of bats coming home for a snooze after feeding. They flit and zoom and dart all around the area between a large tree and where I park my car. I happen to like bats, and it’s a thrill to see them doing their thing.

I can barely restrain myself from putting on a bad Romanian accent and exclaiming "Yes, yes! My children, creatures of the night! Gorge upon the insects! Eat your fill and come back for more, my darlings!"

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

My 100th Post!

I'm a touch paranoid (again) that my blog has been discovered by the Powers That Be at Cookin’ School. I ran into a guy from admissions who asked me if I was doing any writing, any writing at all, about the food I was making and my experience here as a student. I said no, I was taking a break from journalism (which is true, after all). He raised an eyebrow.

Then yesterday, Darth Chocolate assigned Mandilicious and me a recipe based on my favorite drink, which happens to be made with my favorite rum, Gosling’s Black Seal Black Rum, of which I have sung the praises more than once on this blog.

Mmmm, Gosling’s.

Okay, I admit, very possibly pure coincidence, but I just felt I needed to say that, even if my blog has been discovered, I’m not taking it down like last time. I haven’t used any real names, not even of Cookin’ School, and my experience has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve told the truth, with only the occasional slight exaggeration (I have no proof, for example, that der Erlkonig possesses superhuman powers). And hey, it’s not my fault Zesty got to her second year without learning how to zest an orange, make a caramel or the difference between French and Italian meringues.

Speaking of Zesty... it is indeed a pleasure to be parted from her as a teammate. Working with Mandilicious is everything I thought it would be: we pay attention, we work hard, we get decent results and we have fun. What more could I want? I’m sure we’ll have a bad day at some point, but so far we’ve been working really well together. It’s like night and day.

And, I know I shouldn’t rejoice at another’s misfortune, but I couldn’t help but smile as Darth Chocolate went after Zesty yesterday, not once but twice in his chilling, imperious way. (Favorite Darthism uttered to Zesty so far: "You should attempt to follow the procedures I explain to you. That’s sort of why you’re here," delivered in a malevolent "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die" tone.) She seems to think she can just smile her way through everything and that screwing up isn’t a big deal because she’s active in student government, but I have faith that Darth Chocolate will whip her into shape the same way he muscled her separated ganache back into usable form this morning.

Until Mandilicious and I land in his crosshairs, I’m really enjoying Darth Chocolate. He is a master of dreadful puns - he called his lecture on ganache "Sweet Emulsion, with apologies to Steven Tyler and Aerosmith" - and he does a pitch-perfect impersonation of der Erlkonig. It turns out he worked under der Erlkonig early in his career.

"He was not as gentle then as he is now," Darth Chocolate noted cryptically.

He has a great sense of humor about himself, too, referring to himself in the third person sometimes as a know-it-all, or mocking his own evil supergenius persona. On Monday, as we were coating truffles, he walked past, looked at my bowl of chocolate and said "nice temper." As he walked away, I murmured to Mandilicious "I don’t know if he was serious." He heard that, of course, and turned to say "I know. It can be hard to tell with me. Sometimes even I don’t know whether I’m serious or not. But that is a nice temper."

He is also an exceptional lecturer. As much as I’ve loved Santa and the Divine Chef M and a few others, they sometimes wandered off on tangents. Darth Chocolate will announce "this morning’s lecture will conclude at 8:13" and damn if he doesn’t perfectly wind down at 8:12:56. He is uber-organized and so precise he makes the other chefs look like slackers.

I imagine he would be a terror to work for, but hey, for three weeks I intend on learning as much as I can from him (already quite a bit... at last my chocolophobia is ebbing).

And trying not to look too gleeful when he tears Zesty a new one.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Darth Chocolate Revised

Okay, I feel much better.

Currently on lunch break in Day One of Chocolates class, and I feel the urgent need to officially revise my opinion of Darth Chocolate. I'm still calling Chef that because hey, it's a cool name, but it turns out he is very, very funny. He's got a ultradry sense of humor and a penchant for using the big words, and yeah, he still reminds me of James Mason playing the villain, but so far, I've been impressed with him both as a personality and as a teacher.

Yes, he's still a nutball. But I mean, come on. He's a chef. I haven't met one yet that didn't have an oversized personality, for good or ill.

More to come.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

I Go To Meet My Doom. Again.

The above is what the class ahead of us did for the pre-graduation hootenany on Friday. It is a taste of what my classmates and I will be doing in less than three weeks, when we finish the class that we start tomorrow (Monday).

It is the class, and the chef, that above all others I dread. Chocolates.

Nevermind that my hate-hate relationship with chocolate has been well-chronicled on this blog. The chef who teaches the class is an internationally-known superdude on the topic, but he has the appearance and mannerism of a Bond villain (and an old school Bond villain at that). His speech pattern reminds me of a middle-aged James Mason playing the evil yet ettiquette-obsessed genius. He speaks quietly, in full sentences, with just a touch of imperiousness and a malevolent gleam in his eyes.

In his online pre-day one notes he warns against "internecine conflict" among the teams.

Internecine conflict? As much as I love all the chefs I’ve had, I don’t see any of them whipping out the five star vocab just cuz.

While every chef posts pre-day one notes online for incoming classes, it’s tradition for the group leader of every class to go to the chef the week before class starts to see if there is anything she needs to know.

On Tuesday, when our group leader went to Darth Chocolate to ask, you know, if there is anything she needed to know, his icy reply was "well, you can read, can’t you?"

Oh boy. Chocolate and a chef who’s channeling Grand Moff Tarkin. It’s going to be a long three weeks.

The good news is that I’ve been paired with Mandilicious, one of my favorite people in the class, a hard worker with a great sense of humor. Whew.

Because something tells me I’m going to need a lot of humor to get through this class.

The Caboose of Mousse

Here be the official final post about Mousse Cake class (Chef alleged on day one that the class was "not just about mousse," but everything we made had at least one mousse in it. I speak as I find).

Our final individual project was to create a cake of our own design, provide a binderful of details, including cross-section diagram, production timeline, equipment list and the costing out of each individual component, including glazes and garnish. We each then had to make two cakes, one garnished for retail and one for buffet.

For my inspiration I reached back to that damn Lebanese dessert that has become my obsession, kenefeh. It wasn’t enough to figure out through home experiments how to make it, or to do a mini-version for one of the Chef’s Tastings I did in Vegas, no no, I had to turn the warm baked dessert into a goddamn cold mousse cake.

Et Voila:

I have to say I am thrilled with the way it turned out. I mean, really. It was so goshdarn pretty! Aw, shucks. My classmates were dubious - I got more than one comment about the lack of drowning Vikings - but despite the outrageous girliness of it, I liked it. The above is a shot of the buffet cake (garnished for individual servings) with one slice removed so Chef could see the interior of the cake.

The shot below is of the "retail" version of the cake:

You may recall the kenefeh I became obsessed with at Ali Baba in Las Vegas was two thin layers of semolina dough surrounding the slightly-stringy al-kenefeh (also called al-kunefi) cheese, soaked in a syrup of saffron, rose and orange blossom water, served warm so that the cheese was just a bit gooey.

My adaptation, from the base up, was a pistachio japonaise (think meringue made with nut flour and baked till crispy), a layer of semolina and saffron madeleine, a layer of rose bavarian, another layer of semolina and saffron madeleine, topped with a ricotta and mascarpone mousse since neither Chef nor I could find al-kenefeh cheese.

The side garnish is a thin layer of jocunde (type of nut flour-based cake) baked with decor paste made to evoke strands of saffron, wrapped around the bottom two-thirds of the cake. The top garnish is an orange blossom, rose and saffron glaze topped with candied orange zest strands, candied pistachios and faux rose petals.

I wanted to use real rose petals, but Chef alleged that the storeroom didn’t have them. Maybe, or maybe he just didn’t wanted to order a pound of fresh petals at $70 a pop so one student could use nine of them. In any case, I was forced to make fake petals out of modeling chocolate. No biggie, since I like working with the medium and he seemed to really like the result, but not as cool as real petals would have been.

While Chef liked the neatness of the final product, especially the even layers (it looked exactly like my cross-section diagram), he wasn’t crazy about the flavors, though he added he wasn’t a big rose fan to begin with. I know I’m also going to lose points for using an "inappropriate garnish," but damn those nuts are pretty. You’re only supposed to use nuts like that for a plated dessert that will be made and immediately served, because the nuts in sugar tend to weep, melt, get sticky and generally make a mess. But after Chef showed us this super neat trick to make them, I felt I needed to use them, especially since their pretty, pearly, pastel color was a much better fit for the cake than plain pistachios.

After tasting it, I think I’d cut down on the rose water a little and make more of an effort to find the right cheese... the ricotta and mascarpone were utterly tasteless. Other than that, though, for once I’m happy.

Here’s a shot of all of our cakes, awaiting review:

There was one cake based on an Almond Joy and another on a Peppermint Patty. The bright red cake is a white chocolate, raspberry and pistachio creation. The two domes of torched meringue are Legolas’ creation of lemon, rosemary and rice pudding (I loved the lemon and rosemary part). The cake in the foreground on the right was one of my favorites: Mandilicious’ butterscotch and Bailey’s extravaganza, though the cake everyone devoured was a Bailey’s, Kahlua, Guinness and coffee concoction that was hella strong and hella good. There was also a take on Pina Colada that was okay but sadly lacking in rum.

The purple cake in the foreground left was Zesty’s tapioca and taro root creation. Now, I like taro, but whatever she did to it, the mousse left a really unpleasant, astringent taste in my mouth, like biting into tinfoil or an unripe banana. Not good. Her tapioca pearls had a really weird mushy-yet-undercooked consistency, too. She was also the last to finish by more than an hour. I know, I know, I shouldn’t kick someone when they’re down, and there but for the grace of God go I, but... let’s just say that I rejoice our time together as a team is over.

Take Two, They're Small

Our class was responsible for making and serving the individual pastries and petit fours for this week’s pre-graduation hootenany buffet lunch. Each team had to do one of each, the petit fours being our interpretation of one of Chef’s recipes and the petit gateaux of our own (team) design.

Here’s a shot of the petit gateaux Zesty and I came up with, loosely inspired by the chocolate-ancho Volcano Cake I did for my final tasting on externship in Vegas:

The dome itself is three inches wide at the base, to give you a sense of scale. The garnish is chocolate cinnamon sticks (chocolate made to look like the spice and then rolled in cinnamon) and candied orange zest. Inside, under the dark chocolate glaze, is a cinnamon-pecan sable, layer of orange compote, layer of chocolate-ancho flourless sponge and a chocolate-cinnamon ganache, all surrounded in a caramel mousse.

I wasn’t thrilled with the overall taste (the ganache was too firm, the ancho too timid) though I did like the sable and sponge layers on their own. The photo above does not show the Issue Zesty and I faced.

For whatever reason, one of the two trays of domes we glazed began to melt during service, the glaze pooling at the foot of the dome and the caramel leaking through the top. I may have undercooked the glaze, or Zesty may have glazed that tray with the glaze too warm (the tray I glazed didn’t have as much of a melting problem), though I suspect the real culprit was that our gelatin in the caramel mousse overbloomed. Looking back, I remember that gelatin sitting there in water for more than an hour while Zesty had to make and remake the soft caramel because of an error in appropriate agitation. Our caramel mousse never really froze and was semi-liquid at room temperature.


In any case, it was a good learning experience that has given me ideas about what I would do if I had to use that flavor profile again.

Here’s a shot of a couple of the plates on our table for service, showing all five petit gateaux:

From left to right, a goat cheese cheesecake with raspberries (interesting but ultimately too goaty for me), our spicy chocolate caramel domes, pre-meltdown (we were still able to serve most of them), white chocolate mint, blood orange cheesecake that allegedly had cardamom in it, though I never tasted it, another row of white chocolate mint and a strawberry shortcake with honey balsamic that was tasty.

Each team also did one petit four; Chef assigned us the components and we were supposed to figure out how to assemble them. The photo below is of the neat little serving display Chef helped us make - it’s all chocolate, and went with the chocolate showpiece he whipped up in minutes.

The white oval is coconut, yuzu and lime, though all I could taste was coconut. The too-cute mini caramel apple is, in fact, a melon ball of apple dipped in caramel and garnished with a caramel stick. The mini-savarin (doughnut shape) is milk chocolate chai and the chocolate-glazed green thing is pistachio and orange. The chocolate pyramid with the banana chip on top (actually a plantain, deep-fried by yours truly) was the one Zesty and I did. On a chocolate base, it’s a layer of dark chocolate coffee mousse, sauteed bananas and ginger mousse. The whole thing is an inch and a half tall. I’m not a big cooked banana fan, but it tasted ok. Not something I’d make again, though.

And below is a class photo. I hesitated to post it, because I do want to keep some veil of plausible deniability about this blog, but then I decided heck, I’m puttin’ it up. I think it’s a flattering photo of all my classmates and me, and quite frankly I love Chef’s expression. It perfectly captures his personality.

That’s his showpiece in the center foreground, too. And yes, that’s everyone left in my class. Sort of like The Fellowship of the Nine. Only without the fellowship part.

Things That Are Good, Part One

A new series, part of my overall plan to be more succinct:

Limoncello (always a favorite) poured over Ithaca Brewing Company Ginger Beer or, in a pinch, Reed’s Ginger Beer.

Saranac Pomegranate Wheat Beer... I know, I know. It sounds disgusting. I was sure it would be disgusting but, in my continuing effort to find a local beer I like, I bought Saranac’s Summer Sampler 12-pack. And wow. Their Pomegranate Wheat is smooth, not too sweet and full-bodied without bitterness, and has none of that gag-inducing hoppiness that I find in most beers that snobs say are "good." I’m sure the snobs will laugh at this one and dismiss it as a girly beer, but that just leaves more for me.

The Delightful Death Throes of Summer

One of the churches I drive by twice a day on my commute to and from Cookin’ School has a sign that reads "A Life Without Love Is Like A Year Without Summer." Every time I pass it, ten times or more a week, I find myself thinking "well, that doesn’t sound so bad."

I meant to post this earlier in the week, but school and work robbed me of the time to do so. It was on Tuesday, taking Wiley for a free-range (illegally off-leash) sunset walkies in a park right on the Hudson, that I felt it. Subtle, but undeniable. The air, while still warm (it had reached the upper 80s at midday, a few hours earlier) had the slightest edge to it. Not even a chill, just a sharpness that only comes with the decline of summer.

I looked around and noticed, sure enough, the explosion of green vegetation of the last couple months had ended. Everything was drooping, and I was able to see a few feet into the woods that, just a week ago, were walled off by brush and leaf.


I don’t mind summer, in the same way I don’t mind preventive dental care. It has its purpose, and I can suffer through it without complaint. But I am delighted when it’s over.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Mornings and Mr. Kittenheads

Ok, I'll get to Wiley, aka Mr. Kittenheads, in a moment, but first I have to share the above photo, sent by L. The Barbie Pooper Scooper (yes, it's real) was apparently recently recalled. Due to safety concerns rather than questionable taste. You can read about the recall for the Barbie Pooper Scooper (yes, it's really real) here, or you can just study the above photo. Perhaps, like me, you will be disturbed that the plastic bits of poop being scooped and the plastic bits of food in the dog's bowl and mouth are identical.
And perhaps, like me, you're a dog owner and find this a reflection of your reality.
In any case, as hard a time I've been having waking up at 0353 (the time my first alarm clock goes off), Wiley is having an even harder time being a "morning person." He usually doesn't stir until I've had my quad shot nonfat latte, showered and dressed for school. Then I prod, poke and sometimes even stand him up as he grumbles and whines.
If I can keep him on his feet and get him down the stairs and get his leash on, we go for a morning drag. That's me, coaxing and gently tugging at his leash while Wiley faces the opposite direction and tries to pull me home.
Today, after allowing me to drag him about a quarter-mile, Wiley laid back down on the living room floor as soon as we returned and started gnawing on the enormous bone Dr. Virago and Bullock recently sent him. He went at it half-heartedly for about two seconds, then rolled onto his side with a sigh and covered his face with one paw, as if the labor of chewing beef-basted goodness was simply too much effort.
When I get home from school in the afternoon, he's a different dog, eager to go walkies and run and play and bark. Mornings are just bad for him.
Oh baby, I so understand.

Monday, August 13, 2007

I give you... Sqone!

So it was Sunday night, edging close to my rather sad bedtime (8 pm... the exact time my natural night owl body clock is limbering up to Jazzercise). I had some reduced fat buttermilk on the verge of expiring, and if you know me well you know I hate to throw out food.

I think it’s pretty obvious that I had to make scones.

I couldn’t find my base recipe, but I did find the savory Stilton and walnut variation I did for one of the tastings in Vegas, so I scaled it down based on how much butter and buttermilk I had and mixed it up quick enough, using cranberries and almonds, two things I had on hand. I also didn’t have my round cutters with me, and I just don’t like triangular scones, dammit, so I cut squares.

It was only after my sqones were in the oven that I thought "Mmm, cranberry and almond, with just a little sweetness... uh... wait a minute..." I had used the savory scone recipe. The one where I’d removed all the sugar. Derrrrrr... So here are some sugar-free sqones.

Yeah, they’re more biscuit than scone-like, but since scones don’t have that much sugar in them to begin with, I didn’t miss it. Especially not with a bit of sweet cream on the side (actually, the cream is for photo purposes only. After I baked them, I decided to take a photo using a sushi plate I bought on clearance at TJ Maxx recently, as I was obsessed with the color and pattern. I get that way about housewares.).

CineSuccinct, The Inaugural Edition

An off-pastry topic, just cuz. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve rented a few movies based either on the belief that I’d like them or the recommendations of people, particularly of the "you would so love that movie! It’s so you!" variety. My pal Shorewoodian also sent me a care package of DVDs, adding to the filmfest. And finally, while I was visiting Down South, L and I watched the lowest grossing Disney movie ever. I bear witness to it here so you don’t have to.

I wanted to pass along the thumbs-up (or thumbs-down) without yammering on too much, so I’m introducing a new feature: CineSuccinct. The challenge for me, Miss Six-Words-Are-Better-Than-One (or, dare I say, Miss Wordy... see what I mean?), is to sum up the movie in one word or phrase, capturing the overall feel of the film, and then provide a one-sentence opinion. Or, okay, maybe two sentences. Not more than three, for sure.

Here goes:

Apocalypto: bitchin’ outfits. Sumptuous visuals and an adequate chase-based plot, but I couldn’t help wondering if the Mayans would have been more laidback and eased up on all the human sacrifice if they’d been able to get cheap and trendy clothes/modular furniture at H&M and Ikea instead of having to constantly build ever-bigger pyramids and pierce, tattoo and otherwise ornament themselves (Or were they Aztecs? Crap, I must have missed that subtitle).

Hot Fuzz: Supercop as only the Brits can do. Even funnier than "Shaun of the Dead" (done by the same team) and, yeah, I’ll say it... on par with Python at its best. This is a movie you’ll love or hate, but just one incredulous look from Simon Pegg and I’m in.

300: Nipples. Ok, this was a movie several people said I would like, which leaves me to wonder what kind of messages I’m sending that anyone would think I’d want to sit through a slow, hyper-stylized, video gamey wallow that reduces an interesting historical event to a bunch of tiresome special effects. Not even Gerard Butler shirtless could keep me interested, though I did notice he, like everyone else in the movie, men and women alike, always had perfectly erect nipples. What’s up with that?

Pathfinder: Blasphemy. An action flick about the Vikings meeting up with Native Americans in the 10th century sounds too good to be true; alas it was too awful to be believed, with Vikings pimped out in black eyeliner and Skeletor helmets out of a bad Franzoni illustration and the Native Americans so stereotyped as noble savages that I wanted to take an atlatl to the skulls of the "creative team" behind this debacle. For shame!

Newsies: Singin’ Strikin’ Newsboys! Bill Pullman needed the money bad enough to do this?? (Yes, this is the aforementioned low-grossing Disney flick.)

Rick: Predictable indie that thinks it’s clever and noirish. Bill Pullman needed the money bad enough to do this??

The Tesseract: Stupid box. I guess I’m supposed to be impressed by the flashy visuals knocked off from a zillion other action movies, but I just wanted to know what was in the box and, when I found out, promptly fell asleep.

Kitchen Confidential: Hey, it was funny! As someone who didn’t like the book and would prefer it if Anthony Bourdain came with a mute button, I was really surprised that I found the tv series based on his escapades to be so damn entertaining. Shorewoodian sent me the first season on DVD and I thought "oh, I’ll just watch one episode... well, I might as well watch the second... ok, so the third one is already starting... well, if I’ve watched this many already..." I watched the whole thing straight through. Of course, the show was cancelled mid-season. So much for me finding a tv show I can be loyal to (on a related note, would somebody please hook me up with the last two episodes of Rome, season one, so I can be ready when season two turns up on Redbox?)

I’m easing up on the movies for now, having exhausted the local Redbox lineup. Instead I’m reading The Devil’s Picnic, about forbidden foods (not nearly as exciting as it sounds, alas) and The Beasts That Hide From Man: Seeking the World’s Last Undiscovered Animals. I haven’t gotten there yet, but it has a chapter on the dobhar-chu, "Ireland’s murderous master otter," and another on "the Mongolian death worm."

Oh yeah.

More Mousse On the Loose

I’ve been having a busy time this class working a few extra tours and getting ready for the career fair on campus this Tuesday, hence the lack of updates. But I’m still alive, as is my teammate, though the less said of her the better.

I will say that Chef is paying ever closer attention to us, which is maddening. When I was tempering chocolate to do the little cups for our Mochaccinos, he just came over and stood there, watching. And let me just say that having a chef watch me temper chocolate is just slightly less harrowing than having a chef watch me swim laps, though at least this time I wasn’t in my bathing suit.

While I was tempering chocolate (and probably taking too long), my teammate was doing a mousse. Whatever she did, it was unusable. Grainy and runny and separated. Chef saw that, too, of course, and proceeded to tell me he would make the mousse again with us, as if I was the one who had screwed it up. It was humiliating, but I know he knew it wasn’t me actually doing the mousse... no, no, I was the one taking too long tempering chocolate when I should have been faster so I could help my teammate Zesty the Clueless. Ugh.

See what I mean? The less said of that side of class the better.

I still really like him and love a lot of the recipes and flavor profiles he’s given us. Here is a sampling of some of what Zesty and I have done over the past two weeks. All of the recipes are Chef’s, but we were given full license on how to assemble the different components:

Below is our first assignment, a terrine molded "Fig Newton" cake... the flavor profile and textures are evocative of the cookie, but taken to another level. Graham cookie base with a compote made of figs poached in port with orange zest and spices, plus mascarpone mousse. After cutting the slices (we did 24, saving these two for review), we realized it looked like an angry monster. Well it does, if you use your imagination.

Yeah, the layers are pretty rough, and the poached halved fig on top looks kinda icky, but the terrine mold turned out to be trickier than anticipated when it came time to unmold.

The one below was my favorite, aesthetically, of the things we’ve done so far. It’s a Strawberry Yogurt and Passionfruit Mousse. It was my idea to pipe passionfruit puree on acetate as we were building the cakes upside down so that when we flipped them, the bright orange puree design would stand out against the white yogurt mousse. I think that came out well, so yay me, goddammit. The taste was sour, but in a good way, at least as far as I was concerned.

And finally, while I think this was the best-tasting, it was one of the rougher "team experiences." This was our Mochaccino. I suggested making little chocolate cups and saucers to put the layers of chocolate sponge, dark coffee mousse and Italian cream in, and I was the one who got to do all the chocolate work, which I was happy about because I need the practice.

The chocolate cups and saucers turned out really well, I thought, as did the various stuff inside, but I can’t claim credit for the perfect Italian cream mousse on top, as all I did for that was stand there and watch as Chef redid it for us. Though Zesty and I did do the piping and the sprinkling of chocolate paillette feuillitine (sorry for the misspelled French... they’re just fancy-pantsed cripy bits, after all). To the left of ours, you can see another team’s version of the same components.

I’m looking forward to this week. We have petit fours due that are half done, one team project cake and two individual projects, one completely of our own creation, so if it’s screwed up I’ll have no one but myself to blame. Which pleases me.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Chefs and Why I Love Them

Ok, I could go on and on (and on) about my current teammate, but I’d rather keep things positive...

Oh, who am I kidding? Like I can stop myself from ranting. I’m a pirate, goddammit. She turned our creme anglaise into scrambled eggs twice today. She was about to go 0-for-3 when I just stopped what I was doing, walked over and took the spoon out of her hands and finished it. As Flirty Jesus is my witness. On Friday I learned that she didn’t know the difference between a French meringue and an Italian meringue. Maybe non-pastry folks are thinking "don’t be picky, meringue is meringue," but they have different preparations, ratios and uses. It’s like a geography student getting France confused with Italy.

Deep breath. Two more weeks. Not even. Nine more days. I can do this.

Always looking on the bright side of life (Pythons, cue whistle), I’m glad I’m paired with her this class, when we have Young Chef Santa at the helm and not one of the intensely scary, suffer-no-fools chefs I’ll be encountering in the coming months (my next chef has a reputation for making people cry, while two other chefs waiting for us regularly toss people out of their classes for the smallest infraction... granted, the people telling me it was for the smallest infraction tended to be the people who got thrown out, but still.) My current chef is still phenomenally laidback and jolly and doesn’t get stressed in the least. He’s sort of like, well, a young Santa, but with a strong north New Jersey accent that makes him sort of like... uhm... a cross between young Santa and Tony Soprano.

He has a really jovial sense of humor, but he’s still Chef and misses nothing. Another team had a quiet tiff and he pulled them aside and suggested some anger management in his jolly "I’m laughing, but not really" way. I know he’s paying a lot of unobtrusive attention to our team, which is the only reason I have not yet hauled my teammate into the pot room and clobbered her with a sautier. Instead, I’m trying to take the lead and show initiative and hold her freakin’ hand as we redo our bavarian yet again, because yelling at her would lose me almost as many points as the aforementioned aggravated assault with sautier option.

And, despite his jovial demeanor, Chef is amazingly fast and talented. He whipped out about ten different chocolate decorations in a 15 minute demo this afternoon... and that includes the tempering. I think he may be the most natural teacher of the chefs I’ve had so far, which is saying something.

I was thinking Friday in fact, after a series of incidents, about how I really love every chef I’ve had as an instructor here. Why is that? I thought a lot about it and decided they’ve all got very different personalities, but they’re all intense, in their own way, and every one of them is engaged in what he or she is doing. Not one of them phones it in, you know? And they know what they’re talking about and can demonstrate it. No offense to Dr. Virago and my other academic friends who work extremely hard and are as dedicated, but I’ve met too many teachers and professors who just yammer on about the theoretical without ever having to prove they had a skill other than being fluent in pretentious b.s., or who act like teaching is such a chore.

The series of Friday Incidents include Young Chef Santa taking that other team aside and handling the situation without drama, without fuss - and without any question that he was the guy in charge and expected a little attitude adjustment. I really respect that kind of leadership.

He also made us fresh mozzarella with sun-dried tomato pesto with a balsamic dressing on baguette slices, giving us a make-your-own-mozzarella demo. "It’s got nothin’ to do with cakes, but how can we have fresh basil and not make mozzarella, right?" he explained (we had basil for our lemon, raspberry and basil mousse cakes, which were themselves delish).

It was the most fabulous mozzarella I’ve ever had. Yum. I respect that kind of leadership, too.

Later that afternoon, on my way home after a 12-hour day of food stewarding, class and back-to-back tours, I was enroute to talk to der Brotmeister during his dinner break about The Job Hunt. More on that in a bit... but first, I ran into der Erlkonig, my most beloved chef, who wanted to know what I had for dinner. As I wasn’t hungry, I said a banana and a diet Coke.

"No, no, that’s not enough, hyaaaaah," he said in his endearing German-Swedish accent. "You come here, young lady."

He then dragged me into his kitchen, back to his coolers and loaded me up with fruit, telling me to go across the hall to der Brotmeister for some dough so I could make myself a nice tart. I asked him what he thought of some of my job options and he dismissed several as not creative enough, boring, and so forth. When I told him I really wanted to work overseas but worried it wasn’t as easy to do as it used to be, he said "Hyaaa, bloody September 11th changed everything. But there’s a lot of business in Europe, it’s just no one wants to come here anymore and wait in line at the airport."

He suggested I buy a ticket to Iceland or Norway or wherever I want to go and just go. "You find a job in seven days, no problem."

Hmmm. Visas be damned! Who needs the legal right to work, anyway? I asked der Erlkonig that and he gave a dismissive wave.

Across the hall, when I and my fruit-laden bag finally arrived at the door of der Brotmeister, he gave me some great insights into a company I was seriously interested in, where he worked for some time before coming to Cookin’ School. The summary, in his clipped north German accent: "Ya, it’s a lot of bullshit, and I sink you are too smart for it."

As we were talking, by the way, all his Germanic chef buddies were coming in to filch bread for the weekend off him. Maybe you have to be there, but there is something both sweet and funny about a parade of baguette-jonesing Germans trooping through, each one making a furtive nod toward the racks, like guys sidling up to their favorite corner seller for a dimebag.

As for The Job Hunt, Company A is off my wishlist after hearing what der Brotmeister and der Erlkonig had to say about it, as well as some rotten press it’s been getting. I’m still thinking about a standing offer I have from a Major Resort Empire, as well as just driving to Alaska and seeing what the market is there.

Today, however - and you can blame der Erlkonig for this - I ordered "Teach Yourself Icelandic" from Amazon. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Mousse on the Loose

So, enough about triathlons (until next year, or until they post the 2008 Danskin dates and I can start badgering some of you to do one with me). Let’s get back to pastry.

I started Contemporary Cakes yesterday here at Cookin’ School. Contemporary Cakes is just what the name implies, learning how to use recently developed techniques, post-modern visual aesthetics and newer flavor profiles to create things that, at least in some sense, can be considered cakes.

The funny thing is, every single person who’s taken the course says, when I ask what it’s like, "oh, it’s mousse cakes."

Tuesday, in his opening remarks, my newest chef sighed and said, with just a hint of whine, "everyone says all we do is mousse in this class, but really, not everything is mousse. Really. We do other stuff. Honest."

Whether it’s mousse or chiboust or whatever, all the cakes we’re making could be called Weird Floppy Cakes with Neat-O Cross Sections, though that’s not as catchy a name as Contemporary Cakes. We’ll do a lot of inserts, and lot of "textured" finishes to our mousse and, essentially, create a lot of fancy-schmancy cake-like objects that will be generally prettier to look at but less satisfying to eat than, say, a hunk of booze-soaked sponge cake slathered in Italian buttercream.

But that’s just my opinion.

Actually, I’m looking forward to this class because these kinds of cakes are crucial to know how to do, and because I think they’re visually interesting and challenging to assemble creatively. Just don’t ask me to eat one.

So far, I really like Chef, too. As one classmate remarked: "he is by far the most laid-back chef we’ve had." He’s funny and self-deprecating and stressed that he is extremely patient and doesn’t expect everything we do to turn out perfect, because hey, we’re learning, after all.

Contrast that with The Penguin last year, who used to make us call-and-answer "Are we allowed to make a mistake?" "No!"

He’s also allowing us a lot of leeway in terms of how we finish our entremet and petit gateaux (aka big cakes and little cakes), expecting us to choose the garnish, decide how to arrange the components and so on. We also have two projects where we get to develop our own recipes and then make it for Grand Buffet (the pre-graduation hootenany).

On the first day alone, he showed us how to do a bunch of easy prep items, including a delicious flourless chocolate sponge that is so easy to make I can’t believe we struggled with fussier sponge recipes for months on end last year (as a bonus, for VirgoSis and others with a Need to Know, said cake is totally gluten-free... Let me know when you’re in the area and I’ll make one for you).

My only quibble so far with him is that he, like many a more modern-leaning chef I’ve met, really likes passion fruit. A lot. My chef in Vegas was like that, too, as was my Individual Pastry chef last year. Let it go, boys. It’s just a fruit. You don’t have to put it in every goddamn recipe (in Vegas, we even made Passion Fruit Tiramisu and Passion Fruit Bread Pudding. No! Stop! Step away from the passion fruit, Chef!).

My only true concern right now is my teammate. Luck of the draw, I got the omega dog of the pack. She’s a nice person, but she just has zero kitchen sense. I don’t claim to be perfect by any stretch, but when Chef says "zest an orange" to add to poaching liquid, I grab an orange and my microplaner and go to town. I do not cut the orange in half, toss the innards (yes, as in the fruit part!) and put a whole half of defruited orange in the pot, bitter pith and all!

And when we measure dacquoise to fit in a mold and decide it needs to be 2.5" wide, I get out my ruler and measure it carefully so that it is, in fact, 2.5" wide. I don’t know how the hell she did it (I was busy doing other stuff), but our strip varied from 2 3/4" to 3" wide. That may not sound like a big deal, but when you have 2.5" of space, yeah, it’s an issue. I hate that I have to check everything she does, because she works slow to begin with and doesn’t leave time to redo things, which we usually have to do. Ugh. There, I’ve vented. It’s three weeks and then I’m done with her.

Anyway, I don’t think the work we do in this class will be as visually stunning as last class, but I’ll take pictures of anything interesting. As long as there’s no passion fruit involved. I refuse to feed the frenzy.