Tuesday, September 28, 2010

-"Can I help you?"-

We all toss our old junk for various reasons (other than the fact that it's old junk). Spring cleaning usually gets a lot of us. Sometimes we're rummaging stuff out of the attic for our parents. Other times we're digging through boxes of our childhood belongings, turning over each gold starred assignment or beaten Christmas present from way-back-when to absorb and rekindle any old memories attached to it before sending it to the curb or to be dropped of for donation.

I mostly donate out of laziness and to pad my tax return a bit. Not the most philanthropic motivation but the good is done. I never donate clothes with holes in them and certainly never give them anything broken. I only donate what might actually make the Salvation Army a buck (a buck probably being on the high side). Still, whenever I donate I do hope that whoever ends up with it will find some use and pleasure in it.

Argue all you want that things don't bring happiness. They do. And since these things we part with often have offered some modicum of happiness in our lives it's reasonable enough to want them to do the same for others.

That's where I introduce this guy:

-"I bring good luck! Feed me a peanut!"-

BF and I spotted him sitting by the dumpster on top of an abandoned desk that would have looked pretty jaunty had it not been missing its middle drawer. A little, ceramic elephant statue about a foot and a half high. Ugly, but good lines and a certain charm. I stopped in my tracks to investigate it and, after a few oh-my-gods upon realizing he was in perfect condition, I decided to adopt him right then and there.

He's the perfect kind of ugly, like one of those pets you see at an adoption kennel that looks like it was run over by the Fugly Parade. You can't help but just fall in love with its lazy eye and freakish overbite. So it was with the statue. Kitschy. Awkward. An offense to good taste, but damn it if he wouldn't look perfect in my poorly kept excuse of a vegetable garden.

Cleaned up a bit and propped next to the screen door he's the new good luck charm of the garden. He's has Many Names: I call him Ganesh; BF named it Jubo; Roommate calls him an unfortunate decision, but what does he know?

As it is with horrid ceramics, so is it also with ingredients. Recently, a neighbor gave me a small basket of figs. They were almost overripe and she wasn't going to get around to them. Later, Roommate uncovered a forgotten bag of still-good hazelnuts - an impulse purchase - that he wanted to throw away as he doubted he would find a use for them.

Where they saw a burden I found opportunity! "No! Don't toss those! I can use them!" I cried. These are ingredients that just need a bit of love and attention. A bit of re-purposing to spruce them up a bit.

The resulting pasta is just such a thing. The hazelnuts are toasted and thrown into some brown butter along with figs and a quick chiffonde of basil. Tossed with spaghetti it becomes a modern, intriguing dish that utilizes the best of late summer produce. Toss with a bit of Parmesan (surely, most good food lovers have a block or an old rind with some meat still on it somewhere) and you have a meal that's guaranteed to impress. And, maybe, goad you into reassessing all that stuff you passed off as junk.

Spaghetti with Brown Butter, Figs, Hazelnuts, and Basil
Adapted from Pasta Sfoglia
Serves 2

1/2 lb. spaghetti
1/2 cup hazelnuts
8 oz unsalted butter
10 ripe figs, quartered
6 basil leaves
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
ground black pepper
1/2 cup pasta water
grated Parmesan for garnish (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350F and toast the hazelnuts for about 10-15 minutes or until fragrant. Use a tea towel and rub off their skins as they're a bit bitter. Roughly chop the hazelnuts and set aside.

2. Bring well salted water to a boil and stir in the spaghetti. In a 10-inch skillet over medium high heat place butter, hazelnuts, figs, basil, salt and pepper and leave undisturbed so the butter can brown and the figs can become tender.

3. When the spaghetti is almost done take it out of the water and place it in the skillet along with the 1/2 cup of pasta water. Cook for two more minutes. Serve immediately and garnish with freshly grated Parmesan.

Spirits and Sweets

Saturday, September 25, 2010

-A good spirit can compliment a good dessert.-

"Ooo, yeah, this might be difficult." Kara takes another bite carefully dissecting each component and processing it in her head. It seems that this dish has stumped her a bit. She quickly scoops up a bit of sauce with her spoon and pops it curved side up in her mouth in order to smear it across her tongue. She looks at us both, "We'll have to try a few different avenues."

She quickly pulls down three bottles from the glass shelves in the mirrored liquor cabinets standing tall behind her. She asks one of the bartenders to pull some scotch glasses over. Lots of them. Enough for each person: Elaine, the pastry chef; Kara, the restaurant and bar manager; a waiter, the bartender, and myself. We have a lot of drinking to do.

It's about two in the afternoon and while most might consider this a bit too early to be taking nips from the bar without paying for them we do this for work. It's a good day at work when you're sipping 10-year old brandy while nibbling a piece of warmed chocolate upside down pear cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and drizzled with a bit of pear sauce lightly spiced with green cardamom. I love this job.

Dessert pairing is the last crucial step in the development of a pastry menu. After the dessert in question has been developed, tested, and tasted (repeat ad nauseam until reaching a state of perfection) it's taken upstairs to meet the lead bartender and the restaurant manager. Everyone gathers around and we break down the core flavors. In this case we're focusing on chocolate, pear, and cardamom. (For the most part we ignore the vanilla ice cream as it generally pairs well with nearly everything and it isn't the focus flavor so its consideration is minimal.)

This particular dessert has been proving to be somewhat difficult. Each prime flavor generally speaks towards a wholly different kind of liquor. Chocolate prefers a dark beer or near ebony-hued port. Pears go with champagne and Eau de Vie. Cardamom's earthy coolness generally lends itself well to a spicy scotch and most amber rums. Since this particular dessert seems to go in every which way pairing-wise the group is at a slight loss.

"With the butterscotch pudding we went through about fourteen different pairings before we settled on a basic champagne cocktail," Kara notes. The champagne cocktail, champagne poured over a raw sugar cube soaked in bitters, was able to cut through the brown butter flavor of the pudding and highlight the brown sugar flavors making them sharper and more intense.

Kara pulls the cork on the first bottle, an Armagnac de Montal. It's a spirit whose flavor profile lends itself well to sweeter fruits. Kara pours a little in each glass and everyone in attendance takes another bite of the cake followed by a slow and careful sip.


"I like it." I do. I'm a sucker for a good Armagnac, but this is outstanding. The flavor is light and has a sweetness that pairs well with the natural sugar in the pears and the golden, saccharine flavor of the caramel that covers them and that has soaked into the chocolate cake. Furthermore, it cuts through the richness of the cake.

Elaine and the others all concur. This is a winner. However, we soldier on, dedicated to our mission of finding an even more perfect pairing. A tough job, and all.

-The dessert list (as it was last week) with pairings noted.-

"Ron Matusalem. It's a spicy rum," the old-tyme paisley-inspired label looks promising as it fronts the dark liquid inside. Kara pours. Another bite and another sip. Another bite. Another sip.

The bartender, a slight girl who looks like a twenty-something Wednesday Adams speaks up first, "The cake likes the rum, but the rum doesn't like the cake."

"I agree," notes Elaine.

"What they said." I concur with not at all forced gravity.

After a drink of the rum the cake's cocoa flavors glow. However, take another sip after the cake and all the sugar makes the rum bitter and peppery, like liquid ash coating your mouth.

Like any pairing you learn not only from the good ones but from the bad. A cheesemonger friend once told me that you actually learn more from a bad pairing than a good one. The bad ones stay in your head and with that information you can generate a more concrete rule set for future pairings, whereas a good pairing generally only exalts that one particular match. Like hunting for a date online finding a good match takes time. Plus, food and drink are finicky with each other. There are many bad couplings and some just simply don't click right. It takes a few gos before you find and hit it off with the right one.

We all lift another glass, one filled with Germain-Robin, a fine alambic brandy. The flavor is strong and burns in retaliation to the softer pear flavors, and annihilates any hint of cardamom with its overly scotch-y flavor. While it might be delightful with a caramel cake or a plain chocolate cake it has no place with this dish.

"Hmm... I have an idea. I want to order in a black rum. It'll take a few days and I've been looking for an excuse to get some. I think that with this cake it'll fly off the shelves," Kara states enthusiastically. "I want more options to try with this," she nods at the dessert now destroyed by our many forks.

"Do a lot of people actually order the dessert pairings?" I ask.

"They do. More than you would think. In fact, if we have a rather unpopular liquor on the shelf and we pair it with something, we almost have to order more by the end of the week."

Like anything else, a good pairing sells itself. However, when it comes to dessert, pairings are often relegated by customers and simply being excessive and by restaurant owners as being a step too much and who are often content with simply offering a list of dessert wines and spirits (read: port and scotch).

In the end, we're in accordance. The Armagnac is the winner. Hands down. The new menu will be typed up shortly with the new dessert item and its decided pairing. In a week, once the rum arrives, we'll go through this process all over again.

-Blue cheesecake made with Point Reyes. On the side are heirloom grapes served in a Concord grape and Port reduction. It's all topped with whipped cream and a piece of hazelnut brittle. We serve it with Port. It is transcendent,-

Truer with Age

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A vintage table piece of my family's. I believe my grandmother picked this up on one of her travels through Europe. Even when I finally translated it I never really got it. Now, with age, it makes a lot more sense.

-"A meal without wine is like a day without the sun."-

Dessert Development

Sunday, September 19, 2010

-What?! We have some frozen cranberries in the freezer? Who ordered those?! Quick, send them into a tart!-

"We just got handed a flat of figs."

My neck hurts as I lift my head up. It always gets sore after one of these chop-fests when I mise everything out for a recipe. I've just spent 10 minute de-stemming and dicing four pounds of figs for the muffins that'll be plated for breakfast and weekend brunch services. More figs means more repetition. The only possible plus side to this news is that I might be able to beat my personal fig dicing record of 5 seconds.

"What? More? Since when?" I ask before quickly snapping my neck around making it pop a few times. Elaine, my pastry chef, doesn't wince. She hates when I crack my knuckles or pop my bones and often yells at me to stop, but it's my bad habit. However, fig trauma seems to have caused her to go spontaneously deaf to it as she fails to chastise me.

"Well, we have a flat in the back that seems to have gone unnoticed and it needs to be used. It's been tossed our direction, as usual." Processing the problem Elaine begins to quietly talk to herself at a frenetic pace. A sort of prayer to the Baker Gods who usually send her an answer in the form of a cake or tart.

When she says "as usual," it's true. The pastry department is sort of the neglected youngest child of the kitchen, and as such we get the hand-me-downs from savory and banquet departments. Fruit in particular is often tossed at us with unrelenting and unsympathetic regularity. Baskets of soft berries, rock hard pears, ancient apples, and butternuts that are withered and aged like a village elder all eventually make way to us. We're the River Styx of produce, ferrying fruits and vegetables to their final destination.

Still, we make it work somehow. I've learned that nearly all fruit, no matter how bad it may seem, is redeemable. We toss the truly funky stuff: anything fuzzy, moldy, or with odd cultures that seem to show signs of intelligent life go to the garbage. Everything else is simply very, extremely ripe and ready to be used immediately. The whole process is reminiscent of cleaning out your attic: we trash the junk and see what can be re-purposed into something useful.

"We'll do a fig crostata. Easy, fast, and it'll be well received. We'll brush on a layer of fig jam first, place on quartered figs, wrap it up and cover the whole thing with a egg wash before sprinkling a bit of pearl sugar." The decision is made. Screw you, figs and time. You've been bested again.

-These tarts, created for a special event tasting, are an example of some of the more rigorously tested recipes we do.-

Recipe development is always in motion.

Of course, it isn't always this way. Not every dessert we run is decided based on slighted produce. We work seasonally and change out something on the dessert menu at least once a week to keep it shifting and new. Chocolate decadence came off today and chocolate upside-down pear cake is now on. Tonight we're also putting on a chocolate cherry bread pudding dessert special, a carryover from a banquet that ran yesterday. The bread pudding is luxurious, addicting, and we have a ton of it. Warmed in the oven and served with a cherry cause and freshly whipped cream any customer would slap their own mother for a piece after just one bite.

Our desserts are usually a lot more thoroughly planned. We test and re-test, taste and re-taste, and pair with liquors and spirits. We plan our little hearts out to make a varied, engaging dessert menu that diners will fall in love with. Our fondest hope is that you'll be wracked with frustration and indecision over our dessert menu because every item looks so good.

Elaine whips out the sugar while I continue chopping so I can get to sorting out the next box of figs. I ignore the crick in my neck and focus on the fluid motions of my pairing knife. As it laces its way through the fruit I realize that it, and I, are getting more used to the ebb and flow of this kitchen.

This'll be easy. You should have seen us last week with the bushel of blueberries.

Armenian Preserved Walnuts

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

-An Armenian treat that pairs perfectly with earthy cheeses or your favorite blue.-

Some of the fun in putting together a cheese plate is designing the pairings. Sometimes it's easy to do as any cheese book will tell you what wines to use, and will likely offer the tired old suggestion of putting out dried fruit or nuts. These cheese accouterments are overused and stagnant, like boxes of old clothes in the attic your parents used to wear thirty years ago. Yes, it was cool back then and might be nifty for a party, but lets just retire them. And not to knock the honey-blue cheese pairing but, God, can we find something else? Can we? (I did. Try sprinkling a bit of saba - a syrup created from grape must - over it. Outrageously good.)

Recently, I was turned onto something delightfully new by my friend Kirsten over at the blog, It's Not You, It's Brie: preserved walnuts.

Preserved walnuts are an Armenian delicacy that are just now making their way to the U.S. hardcore foodie mainstream (it's a very small stream, more like a maincreek behind your aunt's house in the country). The walnuts are picked young, very young. Younger than when you would pick them for Nocino. They're picked when the shells are still quite soft and have the texture mature walnut, and baby walnut inside is soft and mellow. They're then packed in sugar, water, and lemon juice and set to preserve for a very long time.

-Hmm, a new home preserving project? I think so.-

The result are small, ebony spheres of intrigue. They have the taste of a walnut, but softer, sweeter, and more velvety. Not nearly as earthy but with a flavor that can only be described as woodsy. It's the sort of dessert you might picture out of a fairy tale. While it looks like a dessert of the evil stepmother, it's a delicacy fit for a fairy godmother.

The preserving syrup is epic on it's own merits. My future plans involve dripping some over a blue cheesecake or a walnut tart. I can only imagine what a skilled mixologist would do with it; I imagine a dash of the syrup with some chocolate liquor would be phenomenal.

I plan to serve these delightful little walnuts with some aged Dry Jack cheese, a cheese known for its walnut profile; and alongside some Oregonzola, in lieu of honey. The sweet and nutty flavors should shine well against the sting of a blue cheese and snuggle up nicely to any nutty cheeses, like Comté or Jack.

White Chocolate Caramel Sauce

Sunday, September 12, 2010

-Pictured: Crazy Tastiness.-

I have a weird thing about baking that I've learned is actually pretty common. After you spend an hour or so getting your ingredients together and you've move on to the mixing, baking, dredging, ganaching, torching, freezing and so on you get a little tired of your project. By the time you finally have the final product, you're kinda done with it. For the moment, at least.

I know when I bake a huge batch of cookies I usually eat half of one and then box the rest up for later. Make no mistake, I will go back and demolish those cookies so fast you'd think the last one would grant a wish. Seriously, baked goods are not safe in my house. However, at the moment of completion all I want is a taste to ensure that everything went well.

This experience is compounded ten-fold over at my externship. In one day I'll whip up a batch of flatbread, 200 peanut butter cookies for the cookie plate, a few dozen butterscotch puddings, dice up a billion or so figs, and whip up four flats of individual cheesecakes. That's nothing to say of what the other two people I'm working with are cranking out as well. We keep busy with our baking projects and, as responsible bakers, we taste as we go. We taste a lot. So much so that you get just sick of it all.

Honestly, my consumption of sweets has plummeted since I started this internship.

One of the few exceptions to this rule is our recipe for white chocolate caramel sauce. There's not much to describe as it's exactly what it sounds like: caramel poured over and mixed with white chocolate. It is outstanding. Make it thin for a super syrupy sauce or cook the sugar down to achieve a more spreading consistency. If this sauce were a slutty friend I would totally sneak out of work and have sex with it in my car. Seriously. It is awesome.

White Chocolate Caramel Sauce
Makes 1 pint

100 grams sugar
200 grams cream
2.5 grams kosher salt
250 grams white chocolate (buy the good stuff)
25 grams unsalted butter, diced and room temperature

1. Place the chocolate and butter in a bowl and place a strainer over it. Set it aside. Warm the cream and salt in a pot over medium heat making sure not to scald it. In another pot set over medium-high heat place the sugar and begin to whisk it. Eventually the sugar will begin to crystalize, then melt before turning an amber color (this is called a dry caramel).

2. Add some of the cream to the sugar. It will froth and bubble violently. Continue to stir constantly while adding the cream. Once it subsides a bit add the rest of the cream. Let it cook for about 30 seconds more.

3. Once the froth has simmered down a bit pour through the strainer (to catch any sugar crystals) over the white chocolate and butter. Whisk together until smooth. Pour into a jar and cover. Serve over cookies, ice cream, or what have you. It should keep for a few weeks. Should you get a super thick sauce, just pop it in the microwave for a bit to soften it up before serving.

This is My God Now

Friday, September 10, 2010

-"Each piece of flatbread dough will be exactly three ounces. So sayeth your God."-

You may think I'm joking. But if you've worked in a professional baking kitchen then you know the truth. This is your source of focus and the Truthsayer of the kitchen. Only the scale can be trusted.

Just a heads-up on the internship: I'm doing a bit more blogging on the subject in a few other places. Check out my ongoing mini-series over at the local Sacramento blog, Eat & Drink. I was also recently profiled in the Sacramento Bee. Furthermore, you can find one of the most popular recipes from the pastry department I work in over at Simply Recipes. It's for butterscotch cookies. They are crazy good. As in, screw your significant other/best friend/child/parents I want the whole batch for myself good.

Picture by Ashlee Gadd.

Cheese Profile: Barely Buzzed

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

-Maybe it's time to do a coffee and cheese pairing post?-

Every once in a while you encounter one of those foods that sounds so bizarre that you just have to try it. When my cheesemonger friend, Felicia, told me about Barely Buzzed that was my reaction. A Cheddar-like cheese rubbed with coffee and lavender? How intriguing! How odd! I knew I had to get my hands on some.

Barely Buzzed is produced by the Beehive Cheese Company, a group of artisan cheesemakers in Utah who left the corporate world in order to make radical new cheeses. Barely Buzzed, one of their signature cheeses, owes its unique flavor profile to its one of a kind rub which is composed of South American, Central American, and Indonesian beans roasted to different styles and then ground up with French lavender buds creating a powerful and international spice blend. This blend is mixed with a bit of oil and then hard-rubbed into the cheese wheels, which are then aged on planks of Utah Blue Spruce. (In the end, you're eating a piece of cheese that's been seemingly influenced by various culinary traditions and ingredients worldwide.)

The resulting flavor delicately permeates the cheese making it nutty and floral. Closer to the rind notes of butterscotch and caramel become more intense. The overall flavor is somewhat like a Cheddar, but more reserved and not quite the umami bomb you expect from a well-aged Cheddar.

Personally, I find that the best cuts of this cheese are the ones that pick up small flecks of the rind's rub. Only then can you really appreciate the thought that goes into the development of this cheese. It becomes savory, deep, and mouthwatering like biting into a piece of beef that's been sitting in a slow cooker for the last ten hours.

In addition, this is one of those rare cheeses that actually pairs well with dark roasted coffee; simply eat it with a fork on maybe on some toasts of rye or dark wheat. The cream and caramel flavors of the cheese compliment the bold roasted taste of coffee resulting in a perfect breakfast cheese outside the general cream cheese rotation.

I encourage you to find a wedge of this for snacking or as a wild card curd for your next cheese plate. You'll find it quite addictive, though that might partially be the coffee-rind talking.

-Coffee and lavender. Who ever would have guessed?-

I Swear

Sunday, September 5, 2010

"Listen, you neglected prom night dumpster-baby..."

"Gosh, Garrett, don't mention your mom's sex life like that," replied Jackie in a dramatized huff.

"Oh please, she's a saint compared to your street walking mom. How is work in the skankiest alleys of Sacramento?" I shot back.

"Let's not confuse my mom with what you do on your own time off of work."

"Kids, don't make me come back there!" Elaine called out. She shook her head and didn't bother to look up from epic pile of figs she was slicing.

It took about, oh, a day before I was able to get myself comfortable in the kitchen and start bantering with the rest of the kitchen staff. The delay attributed to my having just started and I had to feel everyone out. Mainly, though, because my job working with children and families all day had finally trained me to zip up my sailor's mouth. Years of teaching my tongue to have a filter and all it took was twenty-four hours of flour, sugar, and backsass.

Elaine and Jackie, the pastry assistant, were more than encouraging in my blooming swearing streak. "In fact, you probably should be swearing more, otherwise you won't keep up with the rest of the kitchen," noted Elaine.

I had anticipated that I would have to enter the kitchen strong and stake out my place against the hazing. Enough reading of kitchen memoirs and hearing from occupational kitchen friends of mine who regaled me with epic stories of lewd conversations, immature practical jokes, and rampant harassment had given me enough time to mentally prepare myself. Still, I was surprised that pastry has the same sort of dialogue. To be honest, I imagined that the world of crostatas and cheesecake would be, well, sweeter. Something more filled with dainty rhetoric and innocent laughter. Not a world where the girl to my left is insinuating that I probably kept dead bodies in the trunk of my car with plans to sexually violate them.

However, the rest of the kitchen staff hasn't disappointed and my expectation have been fulfilled. Indeed, on day one another staff from the savory kitchen side, Dennis, slipped in behind me to whisper in my ear, "I fucking hate interns."

I smiled and didn't even both to look away from the pile of flatbread I was rolling. I let out a laugh that sounded more confident then I probably was, "Oh? And why is that?"

"They're fuckin' idiots man. What school did you come from anyways?"

"Social work," I stated as plainly as possible.

"What?" he was obviously not expecting this answer. Most interns probably said Le Cordon Bleu, or the local community college cooking program.

"I didn't come from a school. I work in social work, work as a food writer, and am currently finishing up my Master's," I huffed out. Probably a bit much, but the point was made: I was not your average intern and I want you to know it.

"Oh, man, you're the worst kind," he grumbled, but I could hear him suppress a smile without seeing it.

"That's what your mom said she thought about you at first. Sad thing she was right, isn't it?"

He pushed me on the shoulder, mumbling about the fucking interns while the rest of the pastry crew, and a few kitchen crew who overheard laughed. I mentioned something about finding out where he lived and murdering him in his sleep before getting back to work. Same old, same old.

It's a lot of fun actually, being able to verbally let lose like this. It's far more therapeutic than yoga, glasses of wine, or afternoon naps have ever been. The only thing I'm worried about now is eventually going back to the work place and bottling up again.

...Ah, fuck it. I'll worry about that bridge when I cross it.

Vanilla Garlic Gets Experience

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

-Elaine and I plating dessert for a special event lunch.-

If you've been following the updates on my Facebook or Twitter then you're probably aware of what the above picture is about. I'm taking five weeks away form work to do an internship at Grange Restaurant, one of the premier restaurants in Sacramento. I'll be working in the pastry department under the guidance of pastry chef, Elaine Baker.

-The to-do list on my first day. We almost got it all done. (They did have to take some time to show me around after all.)-

Doing this is something that's been on my to-do list for a long time. For the past few years I've been getting along just fine teaching myself how to do pastry. However, that only goes so far and I've been wanting to get some real training and experience under a talented instructor. I didn't want to go to cooking school as I heard that the experience wasn't quite worth it, and, to be honest, I'm still wrapping up my MA. I'm all burnt out school-wise. Instead, I wanted to learn on the job. Finally, I get the chance.

I'll be blogging about my experience here and writing a few other pieces about it over at Sacramento Magazine's blog. Expect a few recipes from the kitchen to pop up in various places (I'll let you know where once they're up) as I find time to sit down and compose them.

If you happen to be in the area come by for lunch or dinner. If you want to try and catch me to say hello make a reservation for Saturday night as I'll be working the line. Hope to see you there!

-Fromage blanc on tomato jam with honey roasted tomatoes and bacon phyllo. Served alongside is some lemon basil sorbet served on crumbled corn cake. The little black things are some candied olives (seriously tasty things, those) that were used in a dessert the night before.-

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