Tuesday, November 27, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm going to miss these guys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know where this is going...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 3, 2007

November Is A Monster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now to the bad news.

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

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

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

This is going to suck.

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 2, 2007

Sometimes A Cup of Coffee Is Just a Cup of Coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, honestly.

Mon Cheri

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