Sunday, December 30, 2007

Gluten-Free Brownie Goodness

I didn’t set out to make gluten-free brownies, or even brownies. I’m trying to pare down my pantry in anticipation of moving next month (where to, don’t ask... I have three possibilities pending, and each is in a different time zone. And there remains my fantasy of opening my own little bakery in Iceland. Or the Isle of Man. Or New Zealand. Some scenic island somewhere that has lots of sheep but no Fox News Channel).

Friday night I looked through the cupboards as I waited for a batch of mint granite to freeze (yum) and decided it was time to do something with the unsweetened chocolate I’ve had for an embarrassingly long time.

Brownies seemed the natural choice. Flipping through a couple cookbooks on my "use it or lose it" pile (books I plan to donate unless I find some need to keep), I found a recipe I hadn’t tried that had some interesting methods, both for the cooking and the baking.

I changed a couple things around to fit the ingredients I had on hand, and unintentionally made it gluten-free in the process. The results were delish for anyone who likes gooey, chewy brownies, and I like that you don’t need a mixer or any other special equipment. Since I fudged about, pun intended, with the recipe enough that I don’t think I’m violating any intellectual property laws or somesuch, I thought I’d post it:

Gluten-Free Brownies

4 oz. (one stick) unsalted butter, cut in chunks
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate, cut in chunks
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt (I used a generous 1/4 t of Kosher salt; use a little less if using regular table salt)
2 large eggs
1/3 cup almond meal (you can make your own by throwing almonds in a coffee grinder and grinding away to cornmeal texture)

Preheat oven to 400F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8x8 pan (not glass) with parchment paper or foil.

Melt butter and chocolate in double boiler over low simmer, stirring until smooth. Remove from heat and add sugar, vanilla and salt. Stir to combine. Add eggs one at a time, stirring to fully integrate. Add almond meal and stir until homogenous. Pour into prepared pan.

Bake 20-25 minutes until sides begin to pull away from pan. While it’s baking, clear a space in your freezer somewhat larger than the pan. Fill your sink with a couple inches of cold water and add ice, if desired. When brownies are done, remove from oven and place gently in sink. My pan floated, which I thought was really cool, but just in case yours doesn’t, hold onto it with oven mitts as you quick-cool it a couple minutes. Place in freezer until room temperature. Pop out of pan and cut into 16 squares.

What I really liked about the results were the chewy, crispy exterior and utterly goo-tastic interior. And yeah, I liked floating the pan in the ice water, a step not called for in the original recipe, which said to pop it right in the freezer.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007


Doing some research on a chef whom I was told to contact about a possible job, I stumbled on a series of hardcore foodie sites. And I don't just mean people who like food. I mean snootyfoodies. You know the type.

Anyway, after reading an exhaustive analysis of just what was in a braised short ribs plate and how expensive each ingredient simply must have been, I thought I'd share my latest and proudest creation. It has exactly five ingredients, and one is water. It took about three minutes to make, plus some additional hands-off time to steep and then freeze, with only occasional attention from me.

Of the four ingredients I have not yet mentioned, three are cheap pantry staples that I use for a multitude of things. The fourth was a pile of scraps. On Christmas Eve, my mom came over and I made a simple dinner: herring with paprika on poached eggs, seared scallops on sauteed fennel, oven-baked tilapia with roasted root vegetables, roasted grapes and the Pastry Pirate Family Christmas staple of (store-bought) pierogi with sauteed onions, an experimental cake of almond jaconde soaked in vin santo and Italian buttercream and, as a back-up in case the cake didn't work out, and also an experiment in itself, pomegranate souffle, which tasted way better than I anticipated. I would actually make it again.

Anyway, I had some fennel scraps left over, and yesterday morning, as I hate to throw any food out, I decided to make a fennel granita. And damn. It was good. I mean, really good. Like a rival to the mint granite at Gordon Ramsay's.

I was pleased it was good, but mostly I was happy because the chefs I really admire and respect are not the ones who order asparagus from Chile in the dead of winter because they can, or the ones who make a fuss about using the most prestigious salt or butter or whatever. It's the ones who take the simplest of ingredients and turn them into not one or two but three or more different things through ingenuity and a determination Not To Waste.

Oh yeah... I know fennel isn't in season, but I got it for cheap.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Mostly Ex-STRAW-dinry

The day after graduation, after Dr. Virago left to head home for the holidays, Shorewoodian and I went into The City. She had never been there, so we hit several of the big To-Dos, the Guggenheim (covered in scaffolding! D’oh!), the Met (actually, just the Met’s gift shop, though I did talk the guard into letting me into the museum proper without admission just so I could pee in the Roman period. Uhm, in the bathroom located in the Roman period hall, to be more exact. What can I say? It was a long train ride. Nature called.), Empire State Building, Herald Square, Times Square, past some of the Broadway theaters and of course Rockefeller Center and the tree.

It’s funny, but when I lived in New York, I never went to Times Square and never ventured into Midtown during the Christmas season because of, you know, all the tourists, so most of our route was as new to me as it was to Shorewoodian.

We also ducked into St. Patrick’s Cathedral before heading to dinner at Gordon Ramsay at The London. I’d made the reservation weeks earlier, because when I got the crazy idea to do this whole career change, I was partly inspired by Ramsay as a chef. I say "as a chef" because I do think he’s talented, based on his cookbooks and his columns in Olive and other British food mags that I read regularly. Let me state that my appreciation for Ramsay predates all the Hell’s Kitchen foolishness and overexposure that he’s had in the last few years.

Anyway, we went to GR@tL, where I decided hell, this is the only time I’ll eat here, or in any such ridiculously posh restaurant, so I’m going for the five-course tasting menu. That’s what credit cards are for, right?

Here’s my review, not as a professional restaurant critic, because I’m not and never want to be one, but as, well, just me, The Pastry Pirate:

The dining room was small and done mostly in silvers and grays... I think. It’s hard to say for sure, because it was so damn dark. That would be my only major complaint about the setting. It was hard to see a lot of details in the food, even. I felt a lot of the other people there were there because they are Ramsay groupies... I heard two different tables giddily ask if he was in the kitchen. Puh-leez... I’m sure he helped develop the recipes, but he’s never in the kitchen (one of his proteges is the head chef). As if.

The waitstaff was younger and less stuffy than I’d expected. Our back server in particular was pretty funny and laidback. Most seemed to be European, particularly French, but not the fussy nose-in-the-air sorts.

First they brought out two tiny pre-amuse bouche croquette-like things apiece with mushrooms and cheese. Okay, but not earth-shaking. The actual amuse bouche came after that: butternut squash veloute with parmesan foam and fresh thyme. Now that was something. The flavor was so intense but the texture was weightless. I’m not a fan of the whole foam trend, but I thought it was used judiciously. Scrumptious.

They gave us two breads: an Italian fluta, which was excellent, rich and flavorful with good crumb, and a multigrain which, I’m sorry, sucked monkey butt. I guess I just got used to the bold, hearty multigrain we make at school. This one was weak in flavor, with a tight crumb and dense crust that suggested overbaking and poor shaping. So sayeth The Laminator.

The first course was little discs of free range chicken, each topped differently: poached quail egg and chive, truffle and frisee and confit foie gras with pear chutney. Normally I am not a fan of foie gras, but here it was light and subtle and meltingly good without overwhelming the chicken, which was moist and intensely flavorful. The chutney also helped to cut what I think of as the globby mouthfeel of foie gras. My favorite of the three was the one with quail egg, as I am a fan of perfectly poached eggs, and this one was splendid.

The second course was tiger prawn ravioli with fennel cream, chervil veloute and shellfish vinaigrette. The ravioli skin was tender and super-thin, but the filling, while tasty, seemed a bit chunky and just a little salty. I like salt, so I loved it, but I was surprised to taste it so obviously in a place so inspired by classical French cooking, which I think of as "tournee everytheeng, but skeep the salt... it is for, how you say, the peasants, no?". The cream, veloute and vinaigrette just sort of became one creamy, vaguely herbaceous presence on the plate, which is not a bad thing, but it didn’t have quite the distinctive character suggested by the froufy description.

The third course, wow. Fluke fillet with almond bread, Concord grapes, celery hearts and champagne veloute. The fish was meltingly good, delicate and cooked to perfection, the thin layer of almond bread on top too soft to be considered a crust, but with excellent contrast in texture and flavor. The grapes were a succulent surprise. I was getting a little velouted-out at this point, but here it was so light and complimented the fish so well that I’m not going to complain too much.

My main course was medallions of venison with red cabbage, quark dumplings and cocoa sauce. The venison was perfectly medium rare and, while I’ve had venison before, the flavor was so intense it knocked me back. I realized it was the bitter cocoa (bitter in a good way) that was really bringing out the meatiness of the deer. It reminded me more of the one time I had wild boar than any other venison I’d had. It was excellently prepared, though based purely on personal taste preference I’d have to say the fluke was my favorite.

The "pre-dessert", pseudo-intermezzo was an adorable rounded shot glass layered with passion fruit curd (at least that’s what it tasted like), mint granite and coconut cream. I have stated my position on passion fruit before (enough already!), and am not a huge fan of coconut, but both were so subtly flavored and perfect in texture that I really enjoyed them. The mint granite was ex-STRAW-dinry (for non-Ramsay fans, he has a habit of pronouncing anything he likes as "extraordinary" in a rather declarative way), though. Real, fresh mint, herbaceous rather than sweet. Huzzah.

Shorewoodian and I got different desserts: she went with a chocolate savarin that came with mandarin oranges and bay sorbet, while I had a cinnamon and raspberry sable with lemongrass foam and raspberry cremeux. I thought mine was okay; I liked the pairing of lemongrass and raspberry with cinnamon, but I’ve had much better sable. Hell, I’ve made better sable, and the caramelized phyllo decor on mine tasted slightly stale. Shorewoodian’s bay sorbet was excellent, but her mandarin orange segments came with membrane and all. That really surprised us both. I know doing citrus supreme on a mandarin is a pain, but it’s not that big a deal – I did my share on externship – and honestly, it ought to have been done.

They brought over the "bon-bon cart," which is apparently what they decided to call their mignardise. We picked an assortment of treats, including all the molded chocolates, which I cut in half and inspected, as much as I could in the dungeon-like lighting, before sharing with Shorewoodian. The chocolates were fairly well done, capped a little thickly here and there, but one of the macaroons was stale (mon dieux!) and flavorless. Of course I was being very nitpicky, in part because it was so expensive but also because I can remember long hours spend julienning individual pistachios when I worked at the fancy-pantsiesed of the fancy-pantsed restaurants I was at during externship, or the way LeChef had us re-do our apples over and over just to get them absolutely to his standards.

So, while I found the desserts and sweets somewhat wanting and the lighting too dim, I will say the savory courses were fabulous, especially the butternut veloute and fluke. I also liked that the service, and the menu itself, was not pretentious. No one came around with a capsule of essence that I was supposed to sniff before tucking into the first course to enhance my dining experience, you know? And the food was all recognizable as food, not some strange post-modern sculpture on a plate, which I was pleased to see. But the mandarin oranges and multigrain bread, and the lighting or lack thereof, will not be forgotten, or forgiven. Not quite fully ex-STRAW-dinry, Gordon.

I Done Been Graduated

Well, it’s over. On Thursday I became an official alumna of Cookin’ School.

The school did a really nice job with the ceremony, and as we were lining up as a class to go in, I felt a bit like this was my first real graduation. I never graduated from high school (true... I am technically a high school dropout), and for my college graduation I was one in a sea of anonymous robed people, our class just one of many classes graduating together from the university that day. Because my closest friends were either a year ahead or behind me, I was with only one friend, my suitemate Jim, and we sort of just stood there surrounded by people we didn’t know and straining to hear a series of speakers whose names I can’t recall.

For my master’s degree (jeez, am I overeducated or what?), there was no ceremony whatsoever. Just hand in a final paper, shake hands with a couple professors I liked and then pack and hit the road.

So anyway, I found the ceremony on Thursday more meaningful and momentous than I’d expected. Aside from this being my first real graduation event, I have to say this degree was also the one I worked hardest for. I mean, I woke up early in the morning, sometimes ridiculously early, every day of my second year. I stuck my fingers in beyond-boiling sugar for this! (Uhm, okay, that last part was just for fun, but still...)

Right as we were lining up, I found out that, due to the order in which we were entering (reverse alphabetical), I would be carrying the flag for the baking and pastry class. Cool! I felt so like Arwen at the coronation, or one of the Rohirrim (yes, I’ve been watching the Lord of the Rings DVDs as a stress management technique the past few weeks).

Here’s a shot of me walking in, totally amused by the whole flag thing:

The photo was taken by Dr. Virago, who attended my graduation along with Shorewoodian. They’ve been so supportive of me to do this, even from my first inkling of changing careers and flinging myself into the unknown, that I was really happy to have them there.

Another thing about graduation: the culinary and baking students elected me to be the student representative speaker. I never ran for the position, and was kind of dreading Making a Speech, but it went well. People laughed when they were supposed to laugh, I didn’t stutter and my pants didn’t split, which is really all one can ask for when making a public presentation.

The bakers as a class first picked LeChef to be our faculty speaker, but sadly he was unavailable (he took a few weeks off to work in some restaurants and update his techniques), so we asked Der Erlkonig to do it. He’s said no to several classes recently because everyone wants him to speak (it’s his supernatural hold over us all), but he agreed to do ours. His speech was like his lectures, funny, slightly rambling, sweet and sometimes indecipherable.

Our guest speaker was Chef Irvine, whom most people know from his show on the Food Network, though the thing that impressed me most about him was that he was the head chef for the HMS Britannia for several years. My favorite thing about his speech was how he ended it: "enjoy this Christmas... it’s the last one you’ll have off."

The president of Cookin’ School spoke as well. He’s usually a very by-the-book kinda guy, so I was surprised and highly amused by his long tangent about the secret passion shared by all chefs: fire. "We are all enlightened pyromaniacs," he said of the profession.

Well, uh, yeah.

They gave out class awards (not to brag, but I got two of the three awards doled out to the bakers... after Der Erlkonig presented me with the first, he said "now, you stay heeere, don’t seeet down, hyahhhh," and promptly called my name for the next award, too. Below is a photo of him presenting one of them to me) and then our graduation medals, there was a final round of applause and all that and then we filed out.

The bakers walked out first, and Der Erlkoing was there at the exit to give us each a hug. This ended up holding the line and causing several culinary kids to grumble, but hell, it’s Der Erlkonig. He can do as he likes.

Immediately outside of the hall, we broke apart and went our separate ways. Sunshine, Mandilicious and I had a final photo op (below) before they left. Note my armful of bling (the awards I won), which I’m proud to say I did not drop at any point.

After the ceremony came a luncheon, a final round of good-byes to my chefs and well wishes from people I passed in the hall, some of whom I knew and others recognized only by sight. Then it was over. I felt a bit like Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry, sitting in The Green Dragon after the Ring has been destroyed and thinking well, now what? (Note to self: get some new DVDs.)

Actually, I am not, of course, without a plan. I will be spending the next few days doing nothing, or at least nothing of consequence, before going out to a couple places interested in hiring me. They want me to work a couple days in the kitchen to see if I’m a good fit, which is fine, because I want to go out there and see if that’s where I want to be. Chef Wednesday* also gave me the name and email of a friend of his who is opening a new place and looking for a head baker, so I’m going to contact him and see where that goes.

*I decided to call the chef for whom I laminated Chef Wednesday due to the similarity in speech pattern, intensity and skin pallor to Wednesday Addams. It just seems right.

Now that my formal bakin’ education is over, I’m not sure what direction I’ll take with this blog, but until I sort that out... have you seen my lamination?

Friday, December 14, 2007


I mentioned in my last post how I get to come up with granita flavors. My first, a Mint but Rum-less Mojito, was a failure. I thought it tasted good, but the teaching assistant in the morning (I work the second shift) declared that it tasted like toothpaste and threw it all out before we opened the day it was supposed to be served.

My second attempt was a Chocolate Toffee that everyone loved and all the teaching assistants, student workers and hangers-on kept drinking as free "samples," which meant I had to make more and more. Ugh.

Wednesday, I got my revenge. And it was delicious in every sense. I made a gingersnap-flavored granita that was Extremely Gingertudinous. I started calling it Gingerslap, though my classmate Sunshine observed GingerSpank might have been more on target. A lot of people were spitting it out. Except the gingerphiles. A handful of us who adore ginger were sucking it down all day. One of my chefs tried it too and said he really liked it. He finished the whole cup, so I'm thinking he was being honest.

I have to say it was so yummy, but it was even more wonderful to hear all the Chocolate Toffee trolls whine and complain about how disgusting it was.

Thursday was supposed to be GingerSlap Day Two, but the morning TA, who is your typical arrogant Cookin' School grad (I am humble compared to most of the people around here), said he couldn't find the batch I made (despite it being labeled, clearly, and on the front of the shelf in the cooler), so he made a flavor he liked.

Whatever. That left me a lot of Gingerslap to sip on my own the whole dang day today (I never got to class yesterday because they declared a snow day before noon... whoo hoo!).

In any case, I win.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

All I Want for Christmas is a Refractometer

My current class is front-of-house for the bakery and cafe open to the public on campus (though a lot of students eat there, too). It's not rocket science, and I've had worse jobs, and when it gets stressful because everyone is ordering at once and I'm out of granita mix and someone drops a glass that smashes all over my station, it's still, well, not hard. I mean, no one is going to send me to a gulag if the milk-to-base ratio on my iced chai latte isn't perfect.

My station, as you might surmise from the preceding paragraph, is cold beverage. Iced espresso drinks, made-to-order Italian style sodas, frozen slushie-type products that for some reason they call granitas, iced teas, juices, the odd glass of milk here and there. I don't love it, but I don't hate it. It is what it is.

The high point of the class for me has been the tastings and my daily refractometerizing. For the first seven days of class, we had tastings and pairings in lectures before class itself... coffee, teas and tisanes, beers, wines and dessert wines. It was interesting to learn the difference between ales and lagers, how to tell wines by the bottles (the shape, not the label) and so on. I will never be one of those people who swirls a glass, sniffs and declares "I'm getting slate on the south side of a roof, primrose, tobacco and apricots," but I do enjoy understanding more about the basics.

As for my daily refractometerizations.... because I make the "granita" bases, sometimes following recipes and sometimes creating my own flavors, I have to check the Brix of each batch. Basically, I check the percentage of sugar to be able to judge whether it will freeze and have proper texture and so on. For that you need a refractometer, which looks like a chunky pen. You drip some of the liquid onto the lens, close the cover and then hold it up to light and look through the opposite end to see where it falls on the Brix chart. It's just "Blinded Me With Science" enough to amuse me.

Anyway, I have checked the Brix of sorbets and spumas and ice creams a lot, especially in my second year of school. And every time I did, the chef whose refractometer I was borrowing made a fuss about it being an expensive and fragile piece of equipment, costing hundreds of dollars.

Yesterday, out of curiosity, I went online and found the model I've been using, the one all the chefs have. $46. Yeah, new, from the supplier, not even on Ebay or something.

Damn chefs.

But, uh, Santa? If you decide to slip a refractometer into my stocking because I've been such a good little pastry pirate all year, please note: there are two identical-looking models. One measures Brix in sugary things. The other measures the specific gravity of urine. Please be attentive to detail when ordering. Just sayin'.

Friday, December 7, 2007

I Laminate, Therefore I Am

The teaching assistant in my last class, when I was The Laminator, finally e-mailed the photo he took of my laminated danish, which made the "Top Ten" Wall of Fame in the bakeshop.
The very last day of class, Chef, who has a way with words (among other things, he told me I had to be food steward and take out trash every day "so you get to practice and eventually get good at it." Thanks, Chef.), said "Hopefully you took notes so that you'll remember how to laminate, because now you have a skill. Now you have value."

Again, thanks, Chef. At last I have value. Anyone hears of an opening for an ace food steward/trash collector/laminator, hook me up.

Here is proof of my value:
For baking folks looking at the photo, you'll get it, and maybe even give me kudos (you think this is awesome?? You should see me take out the trash!).
For non-bakers, to get this kind of even honeycomb, you have to keep the dough and the butter layers at the right temperatures, relax them a certain way at certain times, remember to remove excess flour and fold properly and yadda yadda yah. It's complicated. But if Chef was happy, I'm happy.
Funny thing is, I may have nailed lamination, but my dinner rolls still suck.