Saturday, September 29, 2007

Out of the Dough Divider, Into the Deck Oven

I was trying to think of a geeky baker parallel to "out of the frying pan and into the fire," but the above is the best I could come up with given my 0300 wake-up time and a too-long production day where I feel like I learned absolutely nothing. But Specialty Breads is done.


The whole reason for the dough divider/deck oven title, however, is what I have to look forward to on Monday and Tuesday: my fifth term practical.

Last year, before externship, we had our second term practical, a two-day, timed exam where each of us was totally on our own and had to prepare several items to exact specifications, such as eclairs that were all three inches long.

It's the same idea this time around, only the items are different: three loaves of challah with braiding variations, 50 hand-dipped dark chocolate Grand Marnier truffles and two raspberry mousse cakes with tempered chocolate decorations.

Although I did well last year, scoring an 89.5 out of 100, part of it was luck and part of it was having it graded by an adorable French chef who, I think, went easy on us. We also practiced the items more in classes leading up to that practical.

This time round, we did the mousse cake once with Chef Tony Santa, the truffles once with Darth Chocolate and, well, we sorta did the challah a couple times in a half-assed way where some people made the dough, others pre-shaped it, some braided it and others egg washed it and still others baked it, so when they came out of the oven looking like crap, we had no idea whose was whose or why one had bubbles, one was half the size of another and so on.


So yeah, I'm a little, well, I wouldn't say nervous, but concerned about pulling this off. This weekend I'm going to work on timing, mise en place and exhaustively detailed checklists like the ones I made for last year's exam, which I took in the early evening.

I expect I'll need those lists that much more as I'll be starting the practical each morning before 0545.

Pray for me.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Almond Un-Joy

So I'm a little late to finding out about this, but the site says you can still get involved despite the September 1 deadline...

The government now wants to mess with almonds.

Yes, they now want to treat almonds with a possible carcinogen to "sterilize" them to "protect" us from the very, very small risk of salmonella exposure.

Oh, and by the way, the reason we in the U.S. have so much salmonella is our piss-poor industrial agriculture practices in which ridiculously large numbers of animals live too close together in unsanitary conditions. But I digress...

Here's where you can find more information and generate an "action letter" and all that ultimately meaningless and futile stuff that helps me get out of bed in the morning believing that I can somehow, in some small way, help to put the brakes on this handbasket to hell express that we're all riding... oops. Did I say that outloud? I mean, uhm, here's a way to make your voice heard on this important issue.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Good, The Bread and The Ugly

Well, it had to happen. After more than a year, I was bound to find a bakeshop class, and a chef, that I hated.

So here it is. Specialty Breads.

I am in the Perfect Storm of Suckiness.

The evidence:

The Schedule: it’s a 0500 start time to class, which means that’s the time I’m in class, unpacked, in full uniform and putting the first of my day’s doughs on the mixer. This means I have to leave the house by 0430, which means I have to be up by 0300 to stumble Ozzy Osbourne-like around the house getting ready and getting Wiley walked.

Plush Smalls (a new nickname, combining two previous ones, Plush Mammal and Small Mammal) hated getting up at 0500 and hates 0300 even more. I don’t blame him. It’s the witching hour, when medical studies have shown a critically ill person is most likely to "pass on" and that even the pulse of a healthy heart slows measurably, regardless of whether the person is asleep or working the graveyard shift. All I know is, out in the woods where we live, at walkies time it’s pitch black and creepy, and my flashlight catches the eyeshine of multiple creatures just off the road. Sure, they’re probably deer and racoons, but all you need is one flesh-eating zombie out there and I’m in for a very ugly morning.

The Topic: breads. My least favorite topic of the whole program. I like eating bread, but I have no feel for making it and little patience with my lack of improvement.

The Class Setup: it’s a high production class, with each team making three or four different recipes all at once, so there is no opportunity for what I’ve heard called "teachable moments." It’s more like everyone running around with their hair on fire and not doing their dishes (though a few of us do keep up with ours) so that we all get yelled at for having a messy bakeshop. Also, because five or six different people will be shaping baguettes that all get tossed into a bin after baking, it’s impossible to see how the baguette you shaped turned out... was it the one with the lousy, too-tight crumb? The one that shrank in the oven? Did I do it right? We have daily production quotas and deadlines, similar to a "real" bakery, which is fine for training us for the real world, but not great for educating us in any great depth on the topic.

The Chef: Das Brotmeisterchen is really not an appropriate nomme de Net for him because it implies some level of cutesy charm. Instead, I’m going to call him Chef Khoi. If you speak Russian, you will understand. If you don’t speak Russian, well, there are some things best left untranslated. Let’s just say he is the kind of guy who, if someone walking ahead of him tripped and fell, would laugh and say "walk much?" He can’t walk past Mandilicious and me without making some kind of stupid, sarcastic comment. Darth Chocolate was sarcastic, but he was also clever, so going from him to Chef Khoi is that much more painful.

On the rare occasion Chef Khoi tries to give an attaboy or attagirl, it comes off as condescending and insincere. His lectures are mind-numbingly dull and confusing - I understood baker’s percentage perfectly (a whacky way bakers calculate formulas) until he lectured about it, after which I felt I lost 20 IQ points. In his endless PowerPoint presentations, his grammar, punctuation and spelling are consistently poor. While I understand if one of the foreign chefs has some trouble with English, a guy born and raised in St. Louis has no excuse for thinking you make nouns (and sometimes verbs) plural by adding an apostrophe and an "s."

The less said of him, the better.

Trying to focus on the positive, I’m teammates with Mandilicious again, which is terrific, because she’s a hard worker who handles stress well, but also because she is great at breads. And as luck would have it, the only two things she’s not great at, running the rack oven and scoring, happen to be the only two things I do well.

Also, we have an awesome teaching assistant named Lauren. I would work for her in a heartbeat, and that’s not something I say often. She’s calm and knowledgeable and never loses her patience. Without her, I’m pretty sure Mandilicious and I would be hiding in the proofer by now.

The best bit of all, however, was that Chef Khoi had to miss class yesterday and today to go to some family wedding back in Missouri, so we had a substitute teacher... der Brotmeister! He walked in, gave Mandilicious and me a hug and said "Ah! My favorite students!"

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

So the past two days were great, with der Brotmeister at the helm and Lauren backing him up. Mandilicious and I were in such a better mood that waking up at the height of night didn’t seem like that much of a pain (well...). Der Brotmeister was also much more laidback than he is in his class... he came over to poke our suspiciously wet and lumpy focaccia dough as we were folding it yesterday, made a face and said "vat dough is dat?" We told him and he raised an eyebrow, then smiled and said "Ah, I don’t care. It’s not my bakeshop."

Supervising us making croissants and then brioche, he rolled his eyes and complained about the way Chef Khoi has us do things. We offered to do it his way, and our croissants were noticeably flakier with better rise than those of any other team on previous days. Oh yeah.

Alas, the holiday is over. Monday, der Brotmeister goes back to working afternoons only. Chef Khoi and his dumbass frat boy idea of humor return. Or should I say, return’s.

So don’t expect funny stories or interesting photos until Breads is over. Specialty Breads is not to be enjoyed, it is to be endured.

Titty Cancer Tirade

I’m going off-topic here, but consider this my contribution to "breast cancer awareness month," which I’m already weary of even though it’s still more than a week away.

Earlier this week, they had a "Wellness Expo" for us here at Cookin’ School, where area merchants and health practitioners set up tables to hand out free stuff and talk about the usual college concerns: drunk driving, drugs, unprotected sex and lower back pain.

Okay, maybe lower back pain is not a big deal on most campuses, but of 25 or so groups participating, about a quarter of them were chiropractors, massage therapists or reflexologists. For Cookin’ School, where people are on their feet twelve hours or more, lugging 50-lb bags of flour or sides of beef, it made perfect sense to have those folks in attendance.

Mandilicious and I stopped by during lunch, had our spine alignment checked, our cholesterol counted and knowledge of "signs your friend may be drinking too much" tested. We talked one of our chefs into taking a neck stress test with us, the results of which qualified all three of us for a free first appointment with a local chiropractor (hmmm....).

Then we passed a table for a local low-cost healthcare clinic. I had a thought, so I went over and explained I had a history of breast cancer but had been without comprehensive health insurance for more than a year. Did they offer lower cost mammograms if I wanted to get one?

The guy I asked shrugged and told me to talk to one of the two women sitting beside him. Fine. I repeated my question. Neither woman knew the answer, but one handed me a pamphlet (not nearly as cool as the free snap-together highlighters the Mental Health Service lady gave us) and suggested a few places I could call.

At this point, the guy I’d first asked interrupted her and said "Yeah, hurry up and get that test before you die."

I gave him the look of laser death and calmly said "That’s not a cool thing to say to someone who’s had cancer."

He shrugged and said "Come on, it was just a joke."

Oh. No.

Now, everyone says something stupid and unintentionally offensive once in a while. Hell, I stick my foot in my mouth on a daily basis. It happens, and one should apologize and move on. But trying to shirk responsibility for an assinine comment by implying it’s my lack of sense of humor, not his inappropriate remark, that’s the problem? Them’s fightin’ words.

My first thought was to punch him in the face and then go "oh, hee hee! Just kidding!"

My second and slightly more civilized thought was to verbally bitch-slap him. I went with that one, noting that if a table didn’t stand between us, I would give his ass the kicking it so richly deserved and break him into tiny pieces.

Then I walked away. Mandilicious, on my heels, said the women just stared at the ground and the guy mumbled "guess I shouldn’t have said that, huh?"

Guess not, jackass.

Moments later, a guy at another table offered us free bottled water and power bar samples - and PostIts in cute star shapes! - so I quickly got over the comment, but later that night, trying to fall asleep before my alarm clocks went off, I got pissed all over again.

Yeah, I have a sense of humor about my cancer, but the guy’s comment wasn’t clever. It was just stupid, and outrageously inappropriate for the representative of a healthcare service in reply to a legitimate inquiry about services offered.

The next day I wrote a letter to the service complaining about the incident. I doubt anything will happen, but it made me feel better.

On a related note, as I mentioned earlier, October is fast approaching and, while I think of it as time to celebrate Leif Eriksen Day (October 5! Don’t forget!) and Halloween, The Media thinks of it as time to trot out pink ribbons and reminders to feel your boobs on a regular basis.

I subscribe to a couple women’s magazines, and read several more left in the laundromat where I do my uniform every weekend, and I feel compelled to comment on a disturbing trend I’ve noticed. I guess some celebrity wrote a book about it or something, but it seems every mag is running articles on "how to be a friend to a friend with breast cancer."

Every version I’ve read of this story cites the same examples (which makes me think this is all coming from one author making herself extra-available for interviews on her book tour or something).

And the examples read something like variations on visions of hell.

"Your friend will be afraid to ask for help when she needs it, so just show up at her door and make her an offer she can’t refuse! Tell her you’re not going to leave until you cheer her up!" (Had anyone pulled this one on me, they would be dead now.)

"She’ll neglect her housekeeping, so turn up one day with a mop and bucket and insist on getting her home spic ‘n’ span!" (Yes, that’s what I want, when I’m too tired to get off the couch... someone to bustle about making me feel like even more of a lameass.)

"Leave a bag of groceries or a week of home-cooked meals outside her door!" (Presumably these people live in climate-controlled areas that are free of bears, raccoons and vagrants. If I were to open my door and find a black bear or pack of coyotes chowing down on cavatappi with pesto, my first reaction would not be "oh, how thoughtful.")

"When my friend had cancer, we snuck over to her house one night and decorated it for the holidays! In the morning she was so surprised! She loved it!" (If I wake to bumps in the night and shadows outside my window, I will saber-slash first and ask questions later, whether or not the potential home invader is dressed like Santa Claus.)

"Saying ‘I’m thinking of you’ is always more sincere than ‘let me know if there’s anything I can do.’" (I love that the magazine claimed to know which cliche was more "sincere" for universal usage.)

And on and on. Good God. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t people out there who wouldn’t enjoy this kind of domineering "friendship" and enforced cheer. I’m sure there are. After all, there are people who think wearing lowriders that accentuate their love handles and butt crack make them somehow cooler.

All I ask is this... if you do know someone with cancer, or any serious illness, don’t get your advice from some $3 magazine that also promises to reveal the TEN BEST DIET TRICKS EVER and the CELEBRITY HAIRCUT THAT’S RIGHT FOR YOUR FACE! Hell, don’t even get your advice from some nut who blogs about going to cooking school and threatening to kick the ass of random healthcare practitioners. If you want to know what to do for someone who’s ill, get your advice from the person who is ill.

Some people want to be cheered (I guess). Some people want someone to listen to them whine. Some people want someone to go with them to the doctor. Whatever it is, as I mentioned in my rant about Elizabeth Edwards a few months back, please remember that the person with cancer is an individual and should be treated as such. Don’t intrude on their personal space unless they’ve made it clear that they’re into that sort of thing.

When I had cancer, I had a great support network of people near and far, from The Dread Pirate Iron Bluebird, who was game to help me paint my newly-purchased home halfway through chemo, to The Queen, whose thoughtful care packages kept me amused and entertained. But not one of my friends ever pushed themselves or their attitude on me (probably because they all knew I could kill them with my thumbs, but I digress...) and for that I have always been grateful.

This message brought to you by CHAOS (Cancer Haters Against Over-Simplification).

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

My New Toy

I bought a swiss peeler with julienne feature about a month ago thinking I might be able to use it to make nice little orange zest strips ready to be candied without the need to slice. Alas, an orange is too round to do the job as intended, but I can’t buy something and then not think of a way to use it, so...

My original plan was to recreate a yummy Moroccan carrot salad with cumin that L and I made when I was Down South in July, this time with noodle-like carrot strips using the new peeler (back in July, we just sliced the carrots on my cheapo mandoline). Alas, I came home from class famished one day last week and took the carrots I was planning to use and made a quick carrot-ginger soup with them.

Then I thought... of course. Cucumber!

The first time I tried it, I did a quick cucumber "noodle" with pickled ginger salad that was wonderfully refreshing on an Indian Global Warming Summer day when the temperature was above 90F with humidity to match.

On Sunday I noodled my cucumber (ooh, that sounds naughty!) using the julienne peeler to do a variation on one of my favorite guilty pleasures: cold sesame noodles. And hey, celiac kids (you know who you are!), this version is gluten-free, if you use a gluten-free soy sauce (I didn’t).

It’s easy, it’s quick, it’s perfect on a hot day (ugh... where is winter??) and I think I may prefer my healthier version to the cold sesame noodles from the local Chinese take-out.

The peeler, by the way, was about $5 from Bed Bath and Bupkis, though I also had a 20% coupon. It’s not a big investment and I’m guessing it would also make awesome hash browns (by the way, I don’t claim to be the first to think of doing this, but since I haven’t seen it anywhere else, not that I’ve looked, I’m going to proceed as if I am sharing something new).
Oh yeah... you do need a seedless cucumber (aka hothouse or English). Trim the ends. Then, using firm and steady pressure, start at one end and pull peeler down the length of the vegetable, following its curvature. Separate the "noodles":

I left my cucumber unpeeled because hey, that’s why I paid extra for a thin-skinned hothouse variety (that and the higher yield and better flavor). I also think it looks more attractive.

Once you get down to the innards, flip the cucumber over and repeat on that side until once again you are down to the innards. At that point, I kept noodling but picked out the middle pieces which were too watery to hold together well.

I put the noodles in a container with two ice cubes on top, covered it and put it in the fridge since I wouldn’t be using them for several hours. Why the ice cubes? I think it keeps them hydrated in a drip irrigation kinda way without getting waterlogged, but that’s just my crazy idea.

As for the innards that were too watery or the bits that couldn’t be noodled, I ate them, then and there, with a little pickled ginger. Yum.

Later that night, I whisked up a very quick sauce of organic peanut butter, tamari (which you’d have to nix to keep the whole dish gluten-free if that was your goal), chilli oil, chopped scallions and just a touch of sesame oil. I drained the noodles, poured the sauce over them and tossed. And as one cannot live by cucumber noodles alone, I added a couple Trader Joe’s Salmon Patties and a short grain Korean brown rice that I sprinkled with fukikake, just ‘cause I like it. Don’t ask me for more info about the rice. I bought it at a Korean grocery store and there’s no English on the packaging.

Et voila:

I was pleased (and sated) by the results, but of course one’s cooking can only really be judged by a truly objective individual:

Yes, my fuzzy sous-chef ate the scraps and cried until I gave him a little more, salmon being his absolute favorite thing to eat. Next to deer poop, of course.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

A Farewell To Chocolates

As promised, here are a couple shots of chocolates Mandilicious and I did in the last half of class.

Above, on the right, the crescent moons are Port Wine Marzipan (yum) enrobed in dark chocolate with white chocolate piping. I gotta say, our marzipan was phenomenally smooth and oh so almondy, much less sweet than the crap that passes for 99% of what’s sold out there.

On the far left is a naked version of the two finished square chocolates. It’s a layer of peanut butter and milk chocolate gianduja (essentially, a nut-flavored chocolate) and a layer of raspberry jelly. Mandilicious did a terrific job on the raspberry jelly. As for me, I made the gianduja, which came out okay in the end, even if she and I wound up eating too much of it to make an even layer. Oops.

After the gianduja, spread on top of the jelly, set, we flipped over the whole piece, cut it into squares and then enrobed it in dark chocolate, made three diagonal waves on the top and sprinkled the pieces with toasted chopped peanuts, as you see in the two finished pieces in the photo. Personally, I liked just the naked ones, without the chocolate coating and peanuts, but that’s just me.

Below is a shot of two of our last assignments. The finger of Nougat Montelimar was from Thursday. It was a little soft, but tasted great.

The other crazy pieces are molded chocolates. On Friday we had free reign to create a molded chocolate of our own choice of flavor, color and shape. We did a white chocolate Limoncello with colored cocoa butter accents (yellow and green). Both shapes are the same flavor, which I thought turned out very well, and better than the version I did back in Vegas.

Adirondacks, Schmadirondacks

The Sunday before Labor Day, Wiley and I took a road trip up to Lake Placid (above, viewed from the observation point on Mount Whiteface). I hadn’t been there since I was a child, when my family went to the 1980 Winter Olympics.

The funny thing is, I have a lot of vivid memories of seeing the Olympics, including watching Eric Heiden win a couple of his gold medals on the skating oval and of one unlucky ice dancing couple wipe out, the man’s skate catching the woman’s right on the knee and leaving blood all over the ice.

But I also have a memory of Lake Placid circa 1980 that Sunday I learned does not exist. In my head, the Adirondacks surrounding Lake Placid were like the Alps or the Rockies, monstrous, imposing mountains capped in ice and snow, looming over the small town.

As you can see from the photo above, not quite. The Adirondacks, mountainly speaking, are pretty puny, only a skooch taller than the Catskills I see every day. Good God, they’re virtually hills. Unless there has been unprecedented, massive erosion in the 27 years since I last visited (I think not), the Adirondacks were never the enormous peaks I have firmly filed in my head.

What was especially interesting to me about this experience was that I happen to be reading a great book that I highly recommend: Deep Survival, Who Lives, Who Dies and Why (by a guy named Gonzales if you’re interested in checking it out). The author looks at a number of case studies, mostly of hikers, snowmobilers and white water rafters, but also of people who died in the World Trade Center and his own experiences as an adventurer, as well as scientific studies about how the brain remembers, makes decisions and most importantly builds mental models, outlines of how we perceive reality to be versus what it is.

He also gets into chaos theory and complexity theory, which is on the verge of overgeeking for me, but all of his case studies are based on what happens when people who’ve built mental models face events that don’t fit into their perception of reality.

Gonzales points out, for example, that many times it’s the more experienced rafter or climber that dies when the weather turns or there’s an avalanche, partly because of arrogance (sometimes) but mostly because that person’s mental model over time has become more rigid than someone with less experience who has no idea what to expect and therefore notices more details or proceeds more cautiously, double-checking the weather at the ranger station, for example, rather than just plowing ahead.

Anyway, back to the Adirondacks. I hadn’t started Deep Survival at the time Wiley and I drove up there, but looking back I can see the ideas Gonzales wrote about at work. When I arrived to the area, I figured the mountains must be there, I just couldn’t see them because of the angle and elevation where I was. Not even after driving nearly to the top of Mt. Whiteface, with a 360 degree view, was I prepared to accept that my memory was faulty. I kept thinking "where the hell are the mountains? Why can’t I see them?"

Fortunately, I have since revised my mental model of the Lake Placid environs.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Going To Hell With A Handbucket

Well, my days with Darth Chocolate are over, alas. (I'll post those final pictures as soon as I have the chance.)

I never thought I would say I enjoyed working with chocolates and confections, but I really did, and feel much more confident in both areas. Darth Chocolate himself was both a terror and a treat as a chef, though fortunately for Mandilicious and me his arctic wrath was usually directed elsewhere.

Of course, I now stand on a new precipice.

Specialty Breads.

I've already been yelled at by my new bread chef (alas, not der Brotmeister, but his younger counterpart, whom I'll call das Brotmeisterchen, partly because it means "the little bread master," partly because it sounds funny and partly because it's mildly insulting).

I was one of the lucky people picked to have a baby this weekend. Specifically, to babysit a starter or other product that needs to be fed before class starts on Tuesday. Our group leader told us to show up at the breads bakeshop at 11:50 this morning, so we did, at which point Chef began yelling at us for showing up ten minutes early. Uhm, okay.

In any case, I was lucky in that, when he finally deigned to speak with us, I got one of the easier assignments: a big bucket of grains and seeds that I need to presoak for use in a batch of multigrain bread on Tuesday.

From there it all goes downhill, though.

We have to wear hairnets under our toques (it's been optional in all but one other class). Not a big thing, except that my hairnets never stay on and, since I always wind up bending over to get something or reach into a mixer, invariably they fall off through the open top of my toque and into the product. Great.

Also, bread is what I am the worst at (even worse than I ever was with chocolate!) and have the least interest in, unless it's eating it. I have no feel for kneading or proofing, and can remember many a day when der Brotmeister just shook his head as he stood watching me.

I just downloaded all das Brotmeisterchen's course information, which is taking up about 1GB on my computer thanks to his addiction to PowerPoint. Among the gobs of files I just dumped into my laptop is a "Pre Day One Quiz." Yeah, we have to take a quiz before the damn class even starts.

Speaking of the class starting, it's at five freakin' a.m. every morning, which means leaving my apartment no later than 0415 most mornings, and at 0345 on the mornings Mandilicious and I are food stewards.

Yes, I know, boo hoo, my life is so hard, and while I'm just doing this for three weeks, das Brotmeisterchen does it day in day out the whole year. But still. As someone who is a morning person in the same way Paris Hilton is a rocket scientist (in other words, not at all), I can't even fathom how I'm going to get through this.

And poor Wiley. He's already balking at going walkies in the predawn because he's afraid of the dark. I can't imagine how he'll feel about having to pee in the witching hour.

Pray for us both to the deity(ies) of your choosing.

Say No To Freak Food!

My pal T-dude over at Macerating Shallots posted about this and I'm spreading the word. The USDA is tinkering with its already lax "three heads are better than one" policy about genetically modified crops.

Public comment is only open till September 11th, but I suggest you go here for a good summary about proposals and how they may affect your world. You'll also have the option to sign an online petition registering your concerns.

Personally, I think Pandora's box has been opened, letting the genie out of the bottle and the horses out of the barn and every other tortured metaphor you can think of regarding GMOs. When you start reading about the cross-contamination that's already occured, it makes you feel like that only thing that's safe to eat is some spiked Kool-Aid to end it all.

Yeah, I know, GMOs have not been proven to be dangerous, much in the same way that it's not proven that wearing a swimsuit made of bacon while swimming in shark-infested waters is unwise but... do we really want to take that chance?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Beginning of the End

I just paid my last bill here at Cookin' School.

My final term starts on Tuesday, and everyone in my class had to clear their bills up with the Bursar by today to get the little piece of paper that we must present to chef when our next class (Specialty Breads) starts.

I only had to pay a couple hundred bucks (I'm here mostly by the grace of grants and scholarships and a few modest loans), but handing that check over felt more momentous than I'd expected. I guess because I feel like I just got here, and that despite all I've learned, I've just now started to feel like maybe I know what I'm doing (a little, and only on certain topics).

I guess it's also A Big Deal because in three months and fifteen days, when I graduate, I have no idea where I'll go or what I'll do, where I'll live and, quite frankly, whether I'll be any good at this new career.

Yeah, I like it, I love it, but will I really be able to make a living as a pastry chef? I mean, I don't even like passion fruit, which seems to be a job requirement. Although I do have that Sharpies fetish, which certainly is part of the pastry chef's personality.

As one of my favorite classmates (a single woman from Korea who turns 36 tomorrow and came to the US for school because she's considered "too old" to go to pastry school in her country) said yesterday, "I'm sad because school is ending. I'm scared because school is ending. I don't want to go back out there."

I wouldn't say I'm scared, but the looming uncertainties, brought home to me today when I paid the Bursar, are unsettling, mostly because I'm not sure yet what I want to do "out there." I have a lot of ideas, but mostly for things five or more years down the road. The immediate post-graduation future is what gives me pause.

But not to leave you with a heavy post... yesterday was marzipan day in Chocolates class, and no, I did not eat my weight in the stuff, though I was very very happy. Mandilicious and I made port wine marzipans that I thought were fabulous, but then, that's pretty much how I feel about anything that involves marzipan. Good marzipan at least, not that waxy, grainy, excessively sweet crap that's marketed as such, especially in this country.

Today was Jelly day, and while other teams got to make gummi bears and fruit slices and such, we made PBJs, a layer of raspberry jelly with a milk chocolate peanut butter gianduja (nut-flavored chocolate) enrobed in dark chocolate, essentially another little chocolate. Hey, I'm not complaining. They came out well and we finished on time despite one problem... after I spread the gianduja in the frame, we tried it. It was so delicious we wound up eating all the extra in the bowl. Only a couple tablespoons, but... Darth Chocolate came over, tested the layer and said it wasn't even, we needed to fill it out with the extra gianduja... oops. burp... Note to self: do not eat product until you are sure you don't need it.

I took pictures, which I will post once I upload 'em, by the weekend at the latest.

Two more days of Chocolates class... I'm sad, because I've enjoyed it way more than I thought I would, and even at times harbor the notion of going into chocolates as a career (yes, I know, HA! Hey, just because I don't like chocolate doesn't mean I can't build a career on it). Specialty Breads class is not something I'm looking forward to either. Three words: 3:30am start time.


Sunday, September 2, 2007

Temper Mental

Yes, it’s been a while since my last update, but no, it’s not because I’ve been traumatized by Darth Chocolate. Yet. On the contrary, aside from the occasional razor-sharp sarcastic sneer or withering stare, he has been great fun.

For one thing, he is a master of truly awful puns. I mean, astoundingly, spleen-quiveringly bad puns.

Introducing his lecture on fudge, including how it differed from the more tempermental ganache, he deadpanned, "In the words of Tina Turner, what’s fudge got to do with it? Who needs ganache when ganache can be broken?"

Maybe you have to be a kitchen geek to get it, but trust me, if you didn’t groan in legitimate pain from that one, consider yourself blessed.

I respect him because he suffers no fools - even as I dread doing something foolish in his presence.

"That’s not nearly good enough," he said to one classmate who had labeled her chocolates less than perfectly.

"Is that the best temper you can manage?" he asked Zesty of her not-quite-tempered chocolate.

And to her teammate: "Why are you carrying the sheet pan that way? Why do you want to hurt yourself or one of your colleagues?"

You have to understand that when he speaks, it’s in that quiet, even, slightly over-enunciated but arctic-cold and just a tad bored voice the supergenius villians always use in the movies.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, think back to "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die," or anything Grand Moff Tarkin said in "Star Wars," and you’ll have Darth Chocolate.

He is also, fortunately, an excellent teacher. I understand chocolate and sugar so much better now, not just the what and how but the why, that I’m starting to feel as comfortable with both as I do with Italian buttercream and jocunde.

I have even mastered... heheheh... the death-defying trick of testing sugar by sticking your fingers in it while it’s bubbling away on the flame at temperatures approaching 311 degrees.

"You have to learn to overcome your self-preservation instinct to work with sugar," Darth Chocolate noted drolly on the day we started cooking sugar.

He showed us how to stick our fingers into the crazyhot cooking sugar, right into the pot, without suffering terrible burns (the thing about sugar is, unlike boiling oil or water, which roll off you, it adheres to wherever it lands and merrily burns right through to the bone if you let it). No one in my class was willing to try it, though. Except me.

You’re shocked, I’m sure.

And I have to admit, it was really, really hard to stick my bare fingers into the sugar, knowing how much sugar burns hurt, even though I knew I wouldn’t get burned (because I did the secret cheffy trick to protect myself, which I’m not sharing here lest someone read this, attempt it in some half-assed manner, burn themselves horribly and launch legal action against me... plus it’s a hella cool party trick that I want to own without sharing).

The funny thing is, after that first attempt, when I actually did an embarrassingly girly squeak as my fingers descended into the bubbling, cooking, searing hot sugar, I got addicted to it. Mandilicious kept yelling at me to get my fingers out of our sugar, but it was a thrill to do it, especially in front of my more squeamish classmates who would run away shrieking.

And no, I did not burn myself. Not one bit.

To recap, this past week we did hard candies, caramels, brittle, taffy, gianduja (nut-flavored chocolate) and confectionary fondant (Mandilicious and I made the artisan equivalent of Peppermint Patties with fresh mint, for example), but the memory card on my camera was full so I didn’t take it to class. I do, however, have some shots of our handiwork from the first week, when chocolates and truffles were on the agenda.

Here’s a shot of a couple pieces each of what we made in week one:

The white truffles in the center are white chocolate raspberry (close-up below).

The rest, clockwise from the bottom of the group photo, are:

Rainiers: a brandied cherry and cherry ganache filling, enrobed in dark chocolate and capped with white chocolate to evoke the snowy shoulders of Mount Rainier... when giving us the formula, Darth Chocolate noted they were named for "the still seismically-active volcano in Washington State... the cherry represents the molten lava that will one day burst forth in a long overdue eruption. Or perhaps I watch too much Discovery Channel." I couldn’t resist asking what we should add to evoke the pyroclastic flow sure to follow. An approving but reptilian smile spread across his face. "I suppose we could add some shards of glass," he said wickedly.

Anise Sticks: milk chocolate flavored with Pernod. I’m not a huge Pernod fan (if I’m going to set my throat on fire, I want it to be with absinthe), but these were quite yummy.

Habanos: mango and habanero ganaches enrobed in dark chocolate and sprinkled with Maldon sea salt. I like mango well enough, but not with chocolate, and count me out on habaneros. I like heat, and I love some chiles (particularly ancho), but habaneros to me just taste metallic, like a cruel joke by God on humans who want to hurt themselves. Here’s a close-up of what the Habanos looked like on the inside:

Grand Marnier Truffles: not very exciting, either to make or to eat, or to photograph, for that matter, but they will be part of our fifth term practical next month, so I consider them a necessary evil.

Dark and Stormies: Darth Chocolate just happened to develop a formula based on my favorite drink (a long time before I ended up in his class, of course) and just happened to assign it to my team to make it. Sadly, the school does not stock the right rum (Gosling’s Black Seal Black Rum, the only rum to ruin your liver with, as far as I’m concerned), so we had to make do with Myer’s dark rum (yuck) and a ginger ganache. It was okay, though my favorite part was getting to make the three little waves on the top. 180 times. (Yes, most of our formulas yielded 160-190 pieces.)

The upcoming days will be spent on gummies and jellies and, be still my heart, marzipan (mmmm... marzipan), but I am dreading Tuesday. Every team has different duties around the bakeshop, and Mandilicious and I have to inventory Darth Chocolate’s tool cabinets and lock them at the end of the day. Only he has the key to unlock them, and Thursday, by chance, we locked the cabinets prematurely and had to ask him not once, not twice, but three times for the keys to open them to put away a stray piece of equipment (not to shirk responsibility, but I was only at fault for the first time... Mandilicious was to blame for the other two). We received a deserved but still painful tongue-lashing for that.

On Friday, eager to avoid a repeat, we decided to leave the cabinets open until the very end of class in case any tools not explicitly counted in the daily inventory showed up.

Oh, we left the cabinets open alright.

I was walking Wiley Friday night when all of a sudden my mind registered the horrible realization: Shit! We left without ever locking the cabinets!

It was too late to go back, of course, and I’m sure Darth Chocolate noted their open, unlocked state, in the same omniscient way he can tell from across the room when someone’s chocolate is out of temper or two teammates are arguing in whispers and angry glares. I’m sure he locked them, and that none of his precious, zealously guarded tools will go missing (I think if he could have Cerberus on watch over his cabinets without violating sanitation codes against live beasts in the kitchen, he would).

And I am sure, so sure, so terribly sure, Mandilicious and I will suffer his wrath about our negligence on Tuesday.

Yes, we will deserve it, having neglected our duties. But ouch. It’s gonna hurt.


Icelandic is hard! Damn!

Yes, another reason I haven’t had time to post many updates, in addition to baking bacon cakes and visiting Brooklyn, is that my "Teach Yourself Icelandic" kit finally arrived, and I’ve been trying to do just that on my lunch breaks.

Now, I don’t claim to be a linguist or to have a good ear, but I can make myself understood fairly well in a couple languages, and have always been able to pick up a phrase here and there when I travel even to places as linguistically distant as Turkey and Egypt.

But by Thor’s hammer, Icelandic is a different kettle of herring altogether.

It’s considered a "conservative" language because it hasn’t changed much for centuries. Only Faroese, an even more conservative language, is considered closer to Old Norse, for example, and modern Icelanders can read medieval sagas without difficulty.

The grammar strikes me as a simplified version of German, which is good, but the pronunciation reminds me of, uhm, drunk Vikings. Nothing is pronounced as it’s written, nothing has the clear, crisp delineation of syllables that I love about German, or at least Hochdeutsch, everything gets sort of slurred together and there are all kinds of gutteral, back of the throat sounds which have no English (or German, or Russian, or Spanish) equivalent.

Needless to say, I’m hooked. The very challenge of it intrigues me, even though you may wonder, as Mandilicious put it when she saw me with my book and CD one day, "why the hell do you want to learn that?"

I dunno. It’s difficult. It’s very Vikingy. And... it will help me rationalize another trip to Iceland. To you know... practice.

Please Enable Me

I need your help. But first, let me explain.

After my al-Kenefeh cake for my last class, I was really jonesing for the real thing. Chef Tony Santa even tried to find the cheese for me so I could make it, but wasn’t able to. I tried all the "ethnic" grocery stores in the county, which admittedly were not many, but none of them had anything even close to the cheese used.

As usual with me, the harder something is to achieve, the more I want to.

I had no choice. I had to go to Brooklyn.

Well, I could have gone to Paterson, NJ, which also has a large Middle Eastern community, but have you been to Paterson? Yeah. Didn’t think so. Trust me. Brooklyn was preferable.

So last weekend I took the train in to the City, stopped at Lush to stock up on pricey skin care that I covet unabashedly, and then plunged into the Atlantic Avenue landmark of Sahadi. It bills itself as a Middle Eastern grocery store, but it’s really half that, half gourmet shop for gentrified Brooklynites who want their shortbread from Scotland, their anchos from Mexico and their kosher cheddar from England (yes, Sahadi had a kosher cheese section, though I also noticed they called the larger pearl couscous they sold by the pound "Lebanese couscous" instead of the more common "Israeli couscous").

I couldn’t find the cheese until I asked one of the Lebanese ladies working there if they had it.

"You want make k’nafe? You know?" she asked, intrigued.

I nodded. She smiled, apparently impressed, and showed me to the bottom shelf of the freezer, where they kept big pound-plus blocks of unlabeled white stuff.

I had brought an insulated lunchbox with me (yes, I am that much of a dork), so despite the 90 degree-plus heat that day, I was able to transport my block o’ cheese home, where it waits for me to have time to make the damn dessert.

Enroute to the subway station, I stopped at Damascus Bakery, which advertised K’nafeh (everywhere I go, I see it spelled differently).

And this is where I need your help.

I’ve been researching this dessert ever since experiencing it back in January at Ali Baba, an awesome Lebanese restaurant in Vegas. And it seems to me that there are two variations of dough and of filling, and everyone not only has their preference, but declares the alternate to be an imposter.

The first kenafeh I had, at Ali Baba, involved a gooey, slightly sweet, mozzarella-like cheese filling and a semolina-based dough similar to what pasta would be if you baked instead of boiled it.

The version I bought at Damascus Bakery (above) used shredded phyllo dough wrapped around either nuts (the oblong pieces are walnut and pistachio variations) or a filling I’ve read about, made of boiling down condensed milk until it had the consistency of cheese (below).

When I found a place to buy the right cheese in Vegas, the woman who owned the little shop insisted it had to be made with gooey cheese but also with the shredded phyllo dough. When I asked the owner of Damascus Bakery, he insisted it had to be made with the phyllo shreds, but also with the condensed milk filling.

When I tried to ferret the recipe out of the guys at Ali Baba in Vegas, they insisted the semolina dough and gooey cheese was the only way to go.

Online, I’ve found combinations of both, though it seems to me most bakeries sell the version with phyllo shreds and condensed milk filling, I suspect because both hold up better on the shelf and served at room temperature.

Personally, I much prefer the semolina dough and gooey cheese version. The phyllo dough was messy and the condensed milk filling of the one pictured above was just disgustingly sweet with no cheesy goodness.

So here’s where I want your help. Are you or someone you know of Middle Eastern/Eastern Mediterranean background? Have you been to Lebanon? Do you frequent Lebanese restaurants and/or bakeries? Most references to the dessert come from Lebanon, though I’ve also found variations in Syrian, Iraqi and Turkish cuisine. Have you had what phonetically could be called kuh-NAH-feh? What was it like, who made it and in what context was it served (warm at a homestyle meal, room temperature from a street vendor or bakery, etc)?

Yeah, I’m a little obsessed with this. I think it’s mostly because of the paucity of information on its origins and "authentic" components. And also because it’s so damn good. At least it is when served warm with gooey cheese. My advice is to stay away from the condensed milk version.


What dog doesn’t like bacon? And what dog, by golly, doesn’t deserve bacon on his (or her) birthday?

My boss in the Hospitality Office at Cookin’ School mentioned earlier this week that her dog, Munch, was turning 15 this weekend. Fifteen!! That’s like, I dunno, Yoda in dog years. Munch, whom Wiley and I met at a party earlier this summer, is a very sweet dog, and pretty spry for 15 years. I felt she was deserving of a birthday cake.

Behold, the Munch Cake:

It’s a layer cake loosely based on a few different doggy cake recipes I found online. The cake itself I made using a blend of all-purpose and cake flours, plus butter, vegetable oil, eggs, shredded carrots, chicken baby food and low sodium chicken broth. The "frosting" is neufchatel, plain nonfat yogurt (so Munch can watch her girlish figure) and more low sodium chicken broth.

The piping is peanut butter... not just any peanut butter, but organic creamy peanut butter (hey, it’s what I had on hand).

The garnish is, yes, bacon! It’s bacon! Baconbaconbacon!! (Yes, I’m channeling that awesome Beggin’ Strips commercial where the dog desperately tries to figure out what’s in the bag his owner has brought home, at one point looking at the bag on the counter and anxiously exclaiming "what does it say? I CAN’T READ!!" That is my all-time favorite commercial moment.)

I have to say I am pretty damn proud of my bacon roses (close-up above). The whole cake was so much giggly fun to make (and Wiley enjoyed being my taste tester/bacon rose reject disposer) that I didn’t mind staying up past midnight on a school night to finish it.

My boss loved the cake and said Munch absolutely inhaled her first test bite. She promised to take pictures, so I may be posting an update soon. Meanwhile, I’m already working on a Beefcake for Wiley. His 13th birthday isn’t until February, but I’m sure I can find something to celebrate with him before then. Leif Eriksen Day... Halloween... the Autumn Equinox... surely one of those holidays is bacon-appropriate.

Though in Wiley’s mind, Saturday is a bacon-appropriate holiday, as is Sunday, Monday, Tuesday...

Love in The Wee Wee Hours of the Morning

Earlier this week as I was putting my stuff in the car for that morning’s class, Wiley and his interspecies pal Dash shared a special moment that I’d like to share with you:

Not quite dawn, with the camera flash off so as not to disturb their tender time together, I saw them doing a bit of cross-species grooming.

A couple minutes later, after Wiley had wandered off to do what dogs do, he came trotting back to the apartment door... not knowing Dash was lying in wait for a little love-ambush. The photo of Dash actually jumping up in Wiley’s face and then running away didn’t come out, but here’s the one (above) I took a moment before the kissy-kiss attack.

Wherever Wiley and I head in January, I may have to take Dash with us.