Monday, October 29, 2007
He went on a bit, but I'll stop there, because basically, you know in the cartoons when, say, Pepe le Pew sees his lady friend for the first time and his eyes turn into hearts and he floats on a cloud while more hearts circle around him? Yeah, that was me. Sigh. I [heart] LeChef verry beeg time, guys. I may have to keednap him so I can keeeep him wit' me always, guys.
I'm sure I'll eventually burn something or chop off my finger or whatever and get that slightly bulgy-eyed "I want to keel her!" look from him, but for now, sigh, I have the urge to start singing "Deed you ever know that you're my heeerrro, you're everyt'ing I would like to beeeee..."
Fortunately, so far I've been able to restrain myself. Just.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
We had individual photos with the medals we’ll be given on graduation day, then the photographer, who had absolutely no sense of humor, took us outside for a formal group photo.
There we were, in our cleanest chef’s jackets with our Serious Chef black pants, all arranged standing or sitting, our best "this is for posterity" faces. Then the photographer said we needed to take a couple "candid" shots for our classbook.
My class is many things... dysfunctional within yet fiercely tribal when it comes to dealing with other classes (We Hate Every Other Class Ever), bitchy, catty, back-stabbing, united when it comes to crunch time but always ready to turn on each other the moment the rush is over... For all its faults, however, one thing my class has going for it is a screwball sense of humor.
So when our wooden photographer said it was time to take some candid shots, well, we got candid. For about five seconds, we listened to his instructions ("Everyone lean in and smile..."). Then we spontaneously flashed the peace sign that one classmate (Sunshine) is always giving in photos.
This seemed to annoy the photographer, which delighted us. We responded by starting to remove our clothing in an equally spontaneous fashion (below photo taken by my classmate Momma, who pronounced herself "too fat to be part of this nonsense").
From there, things degenerated quickly, in all senses of the word. The official photographer wandered off in disgust, we changed locations because we felt we’d have better lighting and, well, mugged for the camera. Which is probably what we do best as a class, anyway.
Oh yeah, we’re classy alright. It went downhill from there with my more exhibitionist classmates, but I’ll save those photos for blackmail purposes in years to come.
Some of you who’ve been following my Cookin’ School Saga may notice that one face from the last class photo is missing.
In any case, with her gone, class morale has improved. Somewhat. Class class, well, that’s another matter.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
The first week of class was spent doing all the desserts for all the lunches and dinners held in conjunction with the annual Cookin’ School board meeting. In other words: high stakes.
Fortunately, our current chef is probably the best person I can think of to be in charge. I love him. Holy crap, he is adorable in every sense. He’s this boyish French guy who’s crazytalented and, thank God, never loses his cool.
I encountered a couple French chefs working in Vegas. There was my brief time working under the crazy, paranoid screamer who would steal people’s recipes, promote them as his own and then, when the person protested, accuse that individual of being out to get him. Charming. There was M, the left-handed sous chef whose comically bad English ("how many time you touch? Me? Thousand times.") was equaled only by his appetite for vodka and apple juice, a favorite from his native Brittany (try it... you’ll like it. Way better than the usual vodka and OJ). And of course there was Chef Lumiere, the garrulous, flirty Frenchman who looked like a bouncer and drove his golf cart through the hotel’s back of house like a maniac. No, worse. Like a Russian.
In any case, my current chef (for now, for want of a more fitting description, I’ll simply call him LeChef) is an altogether different Frenchman. He is equal parts mischievious schoolboy, firm but gentle schoolmaster and artiste. He’s teaching not only contemporary pastry techniques, but neoclassical as well, in addition to what to do with all the scraps... and usually dispensing all of that knowledge in the same sentence. Every day I’ve felt as if my head gets cracked open at 7 am and learning just poured into it like molten gold. Exciting, yes, but also exhausting.
I kept forgetting my camera this week, but a few classmates promised to email me photos, which I’ll upload to give you a visual idea of what I’m talking about.
Aside from being a passionate teacher and creative pastry chef (mini-bombolini - think Italian doughnut - flavored with anise and stuffed with ricotta and candied fennel, garnished with a fennel chip... Concorde grape sorbet with goat cheese dressing and dried grapes rehydrated in wine... deconstructed pine nut creme brulee... coffee savarin with sabayon made a la minute and chocolate twisty garnish... and that was just on one plate, for a dessert sampler), he has the cutest personality.
After my teammate and I cored, peeled, sliced and tourneed a few dozen apples (tournee is trimming each apple segment so there are no straight lines at all, only rounded edges), poached them in cider and Calvados and then dried them slightly on a rack, representing several hours of work, LeChef looked at them for a long time and then said "It eez nothing personal, but these apples, ah, zay are not to my heart. We will do again, okay?"
When a couple other classmates tried and failed to cook a sugar and glucose mix to soft ball stage a few times, he was on the edge of exasperation. Just the edge, though. He never stepped over the line. Mandilicious thought to test the different thermometers they were using and found each had a different reading, varying by as much as fifteen degrees Celsius. When she told this to LeChef, he gave this "mon dieux!" smile and started laughing in that distinctly French way, then added "that eez verrry funny, no?"
Instead of yelling at us to go faster, he’ll say "okay, guys, accelerate, okay?" When one of us does something particularly boneheaded, his eyes bulge a little and you can see he just wants to throw that person out the window, but then he swallows it down and chuckles, or makes a joke, sighs, smiles and says "Okay, guys, zees is what we do..." and then plunges ahead with Plan B.
He’s a big Plan B guy... several times this week, as we prepped and then plated various desserts for campus functions, he would look around, see that our skills didn’t quite equal his vision, and announce "Okay guys, we go now with Plan B," without missing a beat. I’m guessing he’s already got plans C, D and E figured out as well, just in case.
The closest he’s gotten to yelling came when a few of us, taking a rest between plating up lunch and preparing for dinner, were sitting on the floor outside the classroom. He came around the corner, saw us and said "Ah! Come on, guys! Zees is so unprofessionale, eh! Get up!"
I know several other chefs, including some of my other favorites, who would have laid the smack down on us and even written us up.
He does have his quirks, of course. We don't just sweep or mop the bakeshop at the end of each class. We sweep, scrub with soap and hot water, mop and then squeegee the floors... after getting on our hands and knees to scrub every above-floor nook-and-cranny. But then, there are worse things to be than a clean freak.
In between the lectures and the prepping and the plating and the putting out of fires, sometimes literally, LeChef finds the time to dispense wisdom gleaned from years of working in some big name kitchens here and in Europe.
"Before you take a job, eh? You go look in zee kitchen," he said one day while demonstrating proper flambe technique. "If you see a lot of dent in zee refrigerator doors, don’ go work there, okay? It means ze chef, he has a verrry bad temper and heet zee doors a lot wit’ eez hands, or he throw things a lot, okay, guys? You remember zees, eh?"
I’m guessing, just from his unflappably upbeat demeanor, that he’s never dented any fridge doors.
Monday, October 22, 2007
My last class (the R&D-ish one with all the gluten-free, sugar-free and vegan, etc., experiments) ended on Friday on a high note. My project, modifying Devil's Food Cake for various dietary needs, came out really well and I got a crazyhigh grade from Chef for both that and the entire class. My highest grade so far, I believe, except for Culinary Math, in which my overall grade was a 104 out of 100 (I got all the bonus points...). I really enjoyed it and loved having Chef AbeLincoln who by the way is a part-time lumberjack. No, really. I told you. Chefs are all characters in one way or another.
On Saturday I went to the local Sheep and Wool Expo to watch the sheepdog trials, and yesterday we had a party for Mandilicious, who got engaged last week. I think we (meaning my classmates) are all sensing that this is the eye of the hurricane. Tomorrow we plunge back into the fray with a new class, Restaurant Plating, our final class before we move to the bakery/cafe that's open to the public. From tomorrow until graduation in less than two months (!) the intensity, our hours and the chefs' expectations are all going to be kicked up a notch or two or ten. In addition, we're starting to have graduation meetings, portraits and so on.
Our next chef is the adorable Frenchman who proctored my practical exam last year. He's cute, yes, but also tough, and his class is about speed as much as precision, artistry, yadda yadda yah. It's essentially recreating the experience of working the pastry station at a busy super upscale restaurant.
During our pre-class meeting on Friday, he noted: "I'm nice guy, but I am demanding, too. If something needs to be squeezed, I squeeze it."
After him, we get a Spanish chef that everyone is terrified of, due to his fondness for making people cry, kicking people out of his kitchen and criticizing every last detail. I'm not scared. Because on my tours he sometimes waves to me with this adorable little boy wave (unless he's yelling at someone as we pass). And because another student a bit ahead in the program has told me about his great sense of humor, including his fondness for the Survivor song "Eye of the Tiger."
It's going to be an interesting last nine weeks...
Monday, October 15, 2007
Above is a shot of a display case in the gift shop of Reykjavik 871 +/-2. A local pastry chef designed chocolates in the shapes of four of Iceland’s most famous volcanoes, each filled with a variety of gooey, sweet "magma" and "lava."
My kind of pastry chef.
The town of Heimaey viewed through an arch of volcanic ash on the summit of Eldfell. Because you didn’t think I could take 100 photos in a weekend and not find at least one archway, did you?
Helgafell as viewed from the summit of Eldfell, with some of Vestmannaeyjar’s other islands, islets and skerries in the distance.
Late afternoon on Sunday, I took a final hike along the western coast of the island. With twilight gathering, I spotted this Icelandic horse, an ancient and genetically pure breed more closely related to the Shetland pony than the Norwegian fjord horse. Hey, you get to know this stuff if you spend too much time with interactive displays in museums. In any case, I like the light in this photo.
A shot of Heimaey’s harbor Monday morning as the ferry put to sea with Eldfell in the background... the island catches more fish per capita than any other spot on Iceland, but I never saw the boats bustling, even though it’s Iceland’s largest fishing port.
A shot of the same island I’m so enamored with, but on the ferry back to the mainland and from a slightly different angle, just because I love the oddness of Icelandic rock shapes. Such a strange place. No wonder Bjork is from there.
A fishing vessel heads out on Sunday morning.
Before climbing Eldfell, I saw its destructive power. This was the town’s water tank prior to the 1973 eruption. It got a little damaged.
The town’s cemetery gates flanked by Heimaey’s two volcanoes: the younger and more active Eldfell ("Fire Mountain") on the left and the more sedate Helgafell on the right.
The view northeast from the summit of the volcano Eldfell, which erupted in 1973 and gave the residents of Heimaey a whole lot of trouble. The glacier-capped volcano on the Icelandic mainland is Katla. She’s due to blow any day now, geologically speaking, and the pyroclastic flow likely will trigger a tsunami that they expect to boomerang off Vestmannaeyjar and wallop the same coastal lowlands devastated in the initial explosion. It is for this reason, and this reason only, that I am not moving to Vestmannaeyjar.
So yeah, I went to Iceland for our three-day Leifur Eriksen Weekend, aka Columbus Day Weekend (the Vikings were first! The Vikings were first! Okay, maybe Irish monks were actually first, but we have proof at least that the Vikings got to the New World half a millennium before Columbus!).
I was watching airfares in my obsessive way and, after weeks of prices near a thousand bucks, one day, I found the flights I wanted for less than $500. Way less.
I took it as a sign that Baby Jesus, or perhaps Baby Odin, wanted me to go to Iceland. It took me exactly 53 seconds to book my ticket.
I knew just where I wanted to go: Vestmannaeyjar, a handful of rocky islands off Iceland’s south coast. I’ve been hungering to go there for years, but never was able to fit it in to earlier visits.
I flew from JFK on Friday, after Mandilicious gave me a ride straight from class to the train station (from Grand Central I took a bus right to JFK... it couldn’t have been easier). I arrived at Leifur Eriksen International Airport (hell yeah!) in Keflavik at about 0600 Saturday, took the bus into Reykjavik, grabbed some supplies from the grocery store and caught another bus to Thorlakshofn. From there I boarded the ferry to Heimaey, the only inhabited island of the Vestmannaeyjar chain.
If you were around in the sixties and early seventies, or if you are into the Discovery Channel, you may recall footage of a couple volcanoes going nuts off the Icelandic coast. In 1963, Icelandic fishermen noticed the sea was bubbling and steaming so, in true Viking spirit, they got closer, and were the first to see what would become the island of Surtsey in the throes of its volcanic birth. Surtsey is part of the Vestmannaeyjar chain.
In 1973, you may recall footage of another Icelandic volcano belching fire and ash into the sky and burying half a village. That would be Eldfell, one of two volcanoes on the island of Heimaey.
Heimaey has a couple other claims to fame... It was first inhabited by Irish slaves ("Vestmann") who ran away from their Icelandic masters. They were promptly recaptured and killed, but the islands still bear their name.
Back in the 17th century, Heimaey was also raided by pirates (you knew there would be a pirate connection, didn’t you?). Historical accounts differ on the ethnicity of the pirates... most put them as "Turkish," but they were most likely Moroccan or Tunisian. In any case, they kidnapped more than half of the island’s population and tried to kill the rest who were hiding in caves used to dry fish.
What’s not to love?
Did I mention the hiking opportunities? Two words: active volcano. Three more words: sea cliff precipice.
The nearly three-hour ferry crossing on Saturday morning was surprisingly calm, despite all the warnings I’d read in Lonely Planet and on various websites. After docking in Heimaey, I checked in at the guesthouse I’d booked online. Funny enough, I’d tried to book it in my baby Icelandic. I received a reply from the German woman who runs the place, in perfect English.
Speaking of Icelandic... I had a lot of fun trying out the three things I can say with confidence on the locals. The people at Icelandair smiled as if they’ve heard everything (I’m sure they have), but other Icelanders simply gawked. Jaws dropped. Eyes bugged. People stared at me like I’d grown an extra limb... coming out of my forehead.
The first couple times, I thought my accent must be so bad that I’d accidentally offended them. So I said, in English, "oh, I’m sorry... my Icelandic must be bad." And every time, the person I was talking to shook his head slowly, still staring at that extra limb coming out of my forehead, and said (in English) "No. I... understand... you."
They were simply shocked that a foreigner would speak, or try to speak, their language.
My favorite reaction was one guy taking tickets as I boarded the ferry... I said "Hi, how are you?" in Icelandic. He dropped his tickets and stuttered, in English, "But... you’re Italian!"
(As an aside, I’m always amused by people guessing my nationality when I travel in non-English-speaking countries. South of the Alps, even in Africa and South America, people always think I’m German. North of the Alps, people always think I’m Italian. Except in Finland, where everyone thought I was Finnish. Go figure. I’m just grateful that apparently no one ever thinks I’m an Ugly American.)
Okay, okay... so, besides having fun with my ridiculously limited Iceland, I hiked. That was pretty much all I did the day and a half I was on Heimaey, before boarding the ferry Monday morning back to Thorlakshofn to catch the bus back to Reykjavik to catch another bus back to the airport to catch my plane to JFK to catch the bus to Grand Central Station to catch the train back to Cookin’ School Environs to get a cab back to campus where I’d left my car and then drive the ten miles back to my apartment.
The one detour I made was in Reykjavik. I had exactly enough time between buses to haul ass past the Tjornin, their impossibly cute city pond, and visit Reykjavik 871 +/-2.
The last two times I was in Reykjavik, I remember having to go around this big construction site. I thought they were widening the road or repairing a water main or something, but it turns out that, while renovating a 19th century building, they found the remains of the oldest known settlement in the city. The 10th century farmstead and 9th century wall may be the remains of the nation’s very first settlers.
They preserved the site and built a subterranean museum called Reykjavik 871 +/-2. In addition to sounding cool in that effortlessly Scandinavian way, the name refers to the dating of the oldest part of the remains, within a four-year range. The museum itself, while small, was brilliantly done and had so much information and cool interactive displays that I nearly missed my bus to the airport to the plane to the bus to the train to the cab to... oh, you get it.
If you visit Reykjavik anytime soon, don’t miss it. And don’t miss the special interactive map on Icelandic DNA... two in every 1,000 Icelanders have DNA that links them to a specific population that exists only on the Kamchatka peninsula of Russia and the Bering Strait! Freaky!
So, that was my weekend. Ridiculously extravagant carbon footprint-wise? Yeah, but I don’t care. I spend enough of my time conserving electricity and recycling. Sadly, the polar bears are going to be extinct whether or not I jaunt halfway across the Atlantic for a weekend Icelandic hike.
Plus Baby Jesus/Baby Odin really did want me to go. As proof, there’s the weather. In addition to the crazycalm ferry crossings to and from Vestmannaeyjar, the weather while I was there was brilliant sunshine after days of muck and rain.
As Conan the Barbarian once said: Enough talk! Here are the first batch of photos, displayed in whichever way I can convince Blogger to do so:
I am irresistibly drawn to Vestmannaeyjar, the Westfiords of Iceland and the Faroe Islands because of scenes like this: improbably shaped chunks of rock and sea cliffs that look like shark fins in profile. I don’t know why, I just really dig it. This is one of the uninhabited islands that make up the Vestmannaeyjar chain (Eidey, I believe), photographed from the ferry.
This is a shot of the display case of the only bakery on Heimaey. Wow. I don’t know what the hell it is, either. Part of me thought "I could make a killing here just doing simple baguettes and cakes that didn’t look like they’d been run over by a truck." Another part of me thought "the locals probably like this kind of stuff and would reject a foreigner, especially an Italian, with her fancy straight-sided cakes and frou-frou French breads."
And of course, a third part of me reminded the other two parts about my whole issue regarding living in seismically active places. Ix-nay on the Vestmann bakery start-up.
After checking out the town on Saturday afternoon when I arrived, I got an early start Sunday and headed for Herjolfsdalur, the site of the first Icelandic settler of Vestmannaeyjar, as opposed to the first Irish settlers, who didn’t live long enough to build a home. The longhouse is a reconstruction based on the foundations of the actual archeological excavation site, a few meters off to the side. I took the photo mostly for the shot Eggjar in the background.
"Eggjar" is Icelandic, I believe, for "feel the burn." I’ve climbed up ladders that were less steep. It was one relentless haul upward, with the peril of strong winds, a narrow ridge and a sea cliff as the reward.
Above is a view of Blatindur, the highest point on Heimaey, taken after my climb up the side of Eggjar and Haha (really, that’s its name). All three peaks are sides of the same extinct volcano.
The trail from Eggjar to Haha (I swear that’s what they call it, probably as in "Haha, we got another stupid tourist to climb that cliff!") Yes, the trail, as shown in the photo, goes along the cliff edge to the ladder over a fence. The fence is there to protect sheep from going over the cliff and smashing on the rocks below. The tourists, eh, they don’t care about. (That’s another thing I love about Iceland... no warning signs or fenced-off areas or any of the other overprotective biddiness you find in the States. It’s like they figure "okay, dumbass... you wanna climb that cliff in strong winds? Go ahead. Just don’t come crying to us when you break every bone in your body and are eaten by sharks." My kinda place.)
Wait, I need to explain something. I have purposely placed myself in a pop culture vacuum since leaving my previous career. I have no idea if Britney and Fiddy are still alive and/or married (hey, it could happen), and I like it that way. I actively avoid Rolling Stone and the Billboard charts and anything remotely connected to Jennifer Lopez or Radio Disney.
So, Saturday I was at Target to pick up Drano, because yes, that is the exciting life I lead, and walking past the music department I saw that Kid Rock had a new album, on sale for $7.98. I bought it without hesitation, even though I haven’t heard a single track, or a single review (thank God).
It. Is. Awesome.
It is the perfect synthesis of AC/DC muscle, Lynryrd Skynyrd melodic drawl and old school rap, three things for which I have a deep and unapologetic fondness.
I love every damn song on the album, which made me reflect (probably not the typical reaction to a Kid Rock album) on our long relationship.
An advance copy of his breakthrough album "Devil Without A Cause" was one of the first CDs I got as a music reporter. I gave it one listen and, even though there was no buzz about him at the time, I told my editor we had to do something with it. She happened to have an inexplicable crush on him, by her own admission, so she agreed.
Since he hadn’t hit the big time or schtupped either Pam Anderson or Sheryl Crow yet, I, as a mere reporter from a smallish Midwestern daily, was able to land an interview with him.
We went way past the 15-minute time slot. About 45 minutes, if memory serves.
It was one of my favorite interviews. He wasn’t a delightfully brainy smartass like Dave Wyndorf of Monster Magnet (probably my favorite interview ever) or a thoughtful, somewhat droll professional like Rob Zombie. He was more of an Everyman, who gave honest, unrehearsed answers and was most passionate about the side of his music that people never seemed to acknowledge (we spent a lot of our time talking about his kid and race relations in America as well as his love of Lynyrd Skynyrd, back at a time when any press about him lumped him into the "white rapper from Detroit" category).
I met him at his show in town a couple weeks later. He shook my hand and thanked me for my support in an earnest kinda way.
I don’t know if fame changed him from the easygoing guy I talked to twice, but I think not. I can remember years later hearing grumbling from industry people that he refused to fire his drummer because she was a longtime friend, even though she was judged by the suits as "too fat" and "really unattractive."
Over the years, as his fame exploded and he circled back through town, first playing clubs, then arenas and finally amphitheaters, I dreaded having to write a negative review of him. After all, I liked the guy, and his music.
I had no cause for agitas. While I’m sure he had a bad night here or there, I’ve never seen it. Every show was pure power and energy and excitement, with turn-on-a-dime precision. He’s one of the few showmen I’ve seen that threw every ounce of himself into every moment of the performance.
I took a lot of crap for my support of Kid Rock. I got it from all sides.
Angry parents would send me emails along the lines of "You and that filthy-mouthed redneck are responsible for corrupting the morality of America! I took my five-year-old to the show!! You never warned me there would be strippers and expletives!!" Uh... have you listened to a Kid Rock song? Seen a video? Looked at an album cover? And what the hell are you doing taking a five-year-old to any rock concert, jackass?!
The hip-hop crowd called me a racist for liking "only" white rappers and suggesting that 50 Cent was cliche (nevermind that I gave some of my best reviews ever to Common and early Kanye West and pre-sell-out Black Eyed Peas... because I was white and a girl and happened to like Kid Rock, I was a no-good hata’).
At the same time, those insufferable hipsters would tell me what a moron I was for being able to appreciate only the common plebe noise of Kid Rock, while failing to grasp the musical brilliance of, say, The White Stripes or whatever pathetically overrated band was currently the darling of the black-rimmed glasses and ironic t-shirt crowd.
Now that I am a mere citizen again, with no ostensible power or responsibility, I say: I love me some Kid Rock. Kid Rock Kicks Ass. Every Freakin’ Song on "Rock and Roll Jesus" Is Freakin’ Awesome. Kid Rock for President.
(Hey, come on. It couldn’t possibly be worse than what we’ve had the last seven or so years... and wouldn’t you love to see Putin’s face when President Rock brings out the stripper poles at the G8 summit?)
Friday, October 12, 2007
I just found out I got another $1000 scholarship, on top of the $1000 scholarship I got a couple weeks ago and on top of the big pile of money the school gave me in the first place. Yesssss... the unexpected money will help me to be fiscally responsible and manage both my immediate financial planning and long-term goals-
Oh, who am I kidding? It will free up more cash for my next trip to Iceland!!
Also, I love my current class and chef. I've been looking forward to the class itself for sometime, but wasn't sure about the chef. He's this very tall, very lanky guy with a dour expression (think Abraham Lincoln) who strikes fear into the hearts of many students (Legolas was terrified of him).
We've heard stories (of course) about him reducing students to tears, giving horrifically tough exams or being overcritical. I wasn't dreading him mainly because he has his cabinet covered with pictures of animals, including his dogs, and a dog lover can't be that evil, right?
Of course, Hitler was a devoted dog lover, but let's not think about that.
Well, as with Darth Chocolate, it's all just a facade. Chef AbeLincoln has a sense of humor dry as the Karakorum Desert, but he's extremely nice and interested in teaching (and interesting... the man is a part-time lumberjack). He was intimidating during our practical, but now that we're in his class he's like the uncle you wish was your dad. At one point he somehow got Daria's shoe off her foot and walked around with it, refusing to return it until she answered his question.
The class itself is one big delightful geek-out. We're doing gluten-free, vegan, reduced-calorie, low-fat, no sugar added, etc., baking, and after following chef's directions for the first half of class, we're now on our own, developing versions of products by baking small "control" batches using the original recipe and then tweaking it this way and that to make it gluten-free, vegan, etc.
I'll share more about class, and about Vestmannaeyjar, but right now I'm headed home to let Plush Smalls show off his bandana at the local park. He's still quite pleased with himself. There'll be no living with him now.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
I got an 82, which for me is horrific, but Legolas, who is faster and more talented than I am, got an 80, so I’m not going to stress too much about the numbers. The important thing is the P on my transcript, and the fact, the joyous fact, that I don’t have to take it over again.
I knew Day One, Monday, would be stressful and tight schedule-wise, but I wasn’t expecting mousse cake issues. Going in, I felt the mousse cake was my strongest area. We build them upside down in a cake ring on plexiglass and acetate for a straight top. I had my cake layers cut and trimmed perfectly. I had the requisite 8 ounces of mousse per layer per cake portioned out and ready to pipe. It came time to put in the top cake layer (which would be the bottom of the cake) and, when I pressed down to ensure it was even, gobs of bright pink raspberry mousse erupted like Vesuvius.
It didn’t all fit in the cake ring. It was all over the place, though thankfully not on me, and Chef chose that moment to do a spot station inspection and snap "Make sure you clean that up." As if I’d leave my station covered in what looked like a Hello Kitty explosion.
It took a while to clean up the cake rings, get the cake layers settled as much as possible and clean up my station, so I was really rushed precoating my truffles. The truffles were already suffering: I weighed them out to be 5-6 grams each, as required, but when I finished the whole sheet tray of them, I thought "hey, wait... they look like they’re all different sizes." I went back and weighed a few and they ranged from four to ten grams. Whoa. Automatic failure. I didn’t have time to redo them, so I guesstimated and started ripping off bits of big ones as I was shaping them for the precoat.
That’s sort of like plucking the feathers as you’re breading the chicken for the fryer.
(In retrospect, I think something must have been touching the scale and throwing off the weight... five grams isn’t that much, after all... unless it’s the weight difference of your truffle.)
Because of all the mousse cake and truffle drama, I didn’t have time to scale out my challah and sponge for Tuesday. I decided to scale out at least the sponge and then hauled ass for precoating the truffles... I’ve never tempered chocolate so quickly. I set up my precoating station and just started cranking them out as the seconds ticked down on time. I figured I would just do as many as I could and that would be that. When Chef called time, I counted how many I did. 52. I needed 50. Whew.
Tuesday, I was able to get my challah sponge in the bowl and then into the proofer by 0600, which was my goal. While it proofed, I scaled out the rest of the challah recipe and got ready to temper chocolate for the mousse cake decor and the final truffle coat. While my precoat looked great temper-wise, the shape and size of my truffles was horrible due to the time crunch... I was sure that I was going to fail at least that portion. My goal was to do well enough with the cake and the challah that maybe I’d have a high enough overall score so I would just have to retake the truffle portion.
I was extremely worried about the mousse cake after the little eruption, but when I unmolded it, to my surprise, it looked great. Later, when I cut the sample slice to expose the interior, I saw my layers were straight and even. Who knows what the mousse burping issue was about.
I set up for dividing, shaping and braiding the challah dough and told myself that, no matter what state the challah was in, I was eggwashing it and putting it in the proofer no later than 0740. I made it, right on time.
While the challah was proofing, I did my tempered chocolate decor and finished the mousse cake presentation, cleaned my station and got ready for the truffle coating. Time was running out, and I was sure I was going to fail the truffle portion anyway, so I didn’t even check the temper of my chocolate with a thermometer or offset test. I just thought "it looks tempered, so screw it."
In the end, I finished about two minutes before time. I got a 28 out of 30 on my challah, a 26 out of 30 on my mousse cake, and a 21 out of 30 on the truffles... you need 20 to pass each portion.
Der Erlkonig, who graded the truffles, took off maximum points (and rightly so) for size and shape, but I scraped by because... my chocolate was in perfect temper.
I got 8 out of 10 bakeshop points to finish with that 82. Again, I’ll take it. And yes, I too am amused that my highest score was for the bread, my weakest area.
I celebrated by driving an extra ten miles to the nearest Blockbuster to rent the last disc of season one of Rome. Worth it.
Monday, October 1, 2007
In addition to the sourdoughs we made that were served on campus, we had our own sour-from-scratch project. Mandilicious and I used a 75% bread flour, 25% durum blend and started with nothing but flour and water, feeding it over more than a week before using that as our sour.
We shaped it and allowed it to retard overnight before baking it off on Friday, the last day of class.
Here’s one of the loaves that resulted:
No, it’s not burned... color is flavor, after all. Look at that rise! Look at that ear! (The ridge that results from scoring)
Here’s a shot of the crumb (the interior), which I thought was decent. Not as open as a ciabatta or focaccia, but not as tight as commercially made bread:
Thanks to the inherent sweetness of the durum, the taste was complex and damn delicious, but the best part to me was being able to say I made bread the old-school way, using only wild yeast captured from my environment and carefully nurtured over time. In an era where we use technology as a crutch and expect instant gratification, I think that’s pretty damn cool.
Yeah, that’s right. I went in on my own time for nearly seven hours on Saturday, one of my few precious days off.
Why? Because I found I have a weird obsession. You know how some people fixate on one small piece of their world, whether it’s the placement of the stapler in their office cubicle or getting the cheapest price for gasoline, which will send them 20 miles out of their way to save a penny per gallon?
Well, I am, to my amazement, kind of obsessed with French regional bread shaping.
Now, there is nothing I like better in breads than scoring, slashing that soft dough with a lame (pronounced "lahm"), a fancy French bread-slashing razor. But close behind scoring is shaping dough into the traditional forms which, back in the day, indicated the town of origin. Bakers’ apprentices had to master the form for their town as part of their training.
Earlier last week, I asked Chef* if I could come in on a Saturday (yes, it was my idea) to do the shapes I didn’t get to try in class, as well as repeat ones I had done. He said it was okay, because the teaching assistant is in Saturday mornings baking bread for the restaurants anyway.
So I showed up at just after 0500 (slacker) and helped Lauren (the TA) and a couple student workers shape brioche and prep couches and divide rolls until my dough was ready. It was a regular lean dough recipe, the same we use every day for baguettes and the rolls served at the French restaurant on campus.
I did a few 1.25 pound rounds in various traditional shapes:
The one on the left is not a traditional shape, but a supercool variation Lauren showed me, where you work a mixture of olive oil, lemon zest, rosemary and thyme into the dough while shaping.
I also did some larger shapes, including my biggest (and most inexplicable) obsession, the crowns... In front and on the left are Couronne Bordelaise, from Bordeaux, and in back and on the right are Couronne Lyonnaise, from the Rhone Valley:
I also did the uber-classic Pain des Vendage, traditionally made to symbolize the harvesting of grapes, though I didn’t dust it with flour, which would be truly traditional:
Part of me wished I slept in (a big part of me), but the weirdly obsessive part of me hasn’t had this much fun since reading up on the discovery of colossal squid. I can’t explain it, but I really, really dig the regional shaping. I’m guessing because it’s a little piece of history that has survived into the Post-Industrial Age of Global Sameness.
There was a last minute bread order for 40 people, so the bread I made was actually served, except for the more photogenic of the Couronne Bordelaise I made. It’s sitting double-wrapped in my freezer right now, waiting for an occasion worthy of it.
*as a postscript of sorts, Chef Khoi was really nice to me the last week or so, leading me to assume that either he is reading the blog or der Brotmeister had a word with him. Or perhaps, as Mandilicious put it, "either the Yankees won or he got some from his wife," because he was noticeably less obnoxious to us both. Perhaps it was just that all his frustration was directed at Zesty, who left the salt out of the bagel recipe, put her croissants in the proofer instead of the refrigerator and spent about half an hour looking for raisins one day.
And yeah, I corrected his grammar mistakes on the final.