Trials of a Mussel Slut

Saturday, May 29, 2010

I refer to myself as a mussel slut. I'm one of two, actually. My friend, Kate, is just as slutty as I am when it comes to these precocious little bivalves. Every so often we'll hear of a delicious plate of mussels being served at a restaurant here in Sacramento and we immediately call a Mussel Slut Meeting in order to go and get our fingers wet in broth and ocean-brined sauce. Our commitment is inspiring and respectable, a dedication toward pleasure on behalf of these tasty critters.

Of course, it's more than just taste. Mussels are sustainable and usually farmed under small production conditions that don't have a lot of impact on the environment. Since they're farmed year round you can find them served at restaurants at any time, in fact more restaurants are generating their menus around them due to their impressive flavor and striking visual appearance (who isn't awed by a steamy plate of pasta pierced with the long obsidian peaks of fresh mussels?).

And the cost? Well that's one of the best parts. I cook mussels pretty often, usually as I attempt to recreate a dish I had at a restaurant once Kate and I have pumped the server for all the ingredients (see, slutty). A pound of mussels usually go about four or five dollars, which isn't bad. You do have to assume about a quarter of them are dead so you may usually want to buy a quarter-pound more mussels than you think you'll need but overall it's a fiscally sound dish when it comes to purchasing seafood.

Take them home, drop them in some water while you prep. A quick, though often tough, debearding - No gym needed on mussel days! Work your muscles on those mussels! - and another quick rinse, and you're ready to go. They cook up in a flash and always fill the house with that distinct sea smell. A quick rendezvous in the kitchen with stellar results across the board. Whether served in a Belgian beer broth, a classic white wine broth, tossed with tomatoes and cream, or perhaps in curry they're sure to be a winner.

Now, no relationship is perfect. Being slutty always has its risks and downfalls, especially when it comes to mussels. My relationship with mussels has been, at time, tumultuous. This is to be expected as accepted risk of being a mussel slut.

Of course, this doesn't always come in ways you might expect it. Going into the ocean and accidentally swimming across a shallow colony of mussels is a good way for these humble little bivalves to unintentionally exact their vengeance upon you for your voracious decimation of their brethren.

When I was on the island of Nevis my brother and I had swum out into the ocean to a giant floating trampoline (yes, just what I said, it is as awesome as it sounds). After a few hours of rambunctious play, bouncing, doing flips into the water, and overall being stupid, exuberant teenage boys with a newly discovered toy we decided to go underneath the trampoline. The way it was set up was that it was a well constructed inflatable ring buoy that suspended the net well above the water's surface and kept it taught. The buoy had anchor ropes at eight ends tying it tightly down to an anchor at the ocean floor. These eight ropes all converged together to a central anchor line about 5 1/2 feet below the surface of the water.

When my brother and I swam under it we were overjoyed, a sort of secret cove we had discovered where the strangely filtered light cast an odd fractured shimmer across the water. We sat around enjoying the scenery when, suddenly, I felt a knife slice through the bottom of my foot.

"Ow! Jesus! What the hell was that?!" I looked around and my brother seemed perplexed when suddenly he too was slashed across the top of his big toe.

We looked down to see that each rope was covered in mussels. Tiny narrow colonies built upon one another starting about four feet down. Their tips were razor sharp, and when a paddling foot keeping a heavy body afloat skims across their calcium carbonate shells, well, the flesh will loose.

"Oh crap!" my brother called, and he began to swim out from underneath the trampoline and I followed. However, in our initial kicks, the wind suddenly twisted the trampoline and with it the colony covered ropes and our feet were lacerated further. We looked down at the tiny trails of blood and, like any reasonable person who saw Jaws, realized we had three minutes before a shark swam in at sonic speed after smelling sweet, sweet blood to devour us in a grizzly manner. I don't think I ever swam that hard in my life.

Once we made it to the shallows we tried to float on our backs to the rest of the shore line as walking on the sand was too painful. Our exposed feet however were however suddenly swarmed by tiny salt water minnows who in great numbers circled our bleeding feet to snack on the bits of exposed skin and meat. While it technically tickled (as one can describe a tickling feeling while being utterly disgusted) I was horrified at the realization that I was, literally, being eaten alive.

Fucking mussels.

Now this isn't a common occurrence. This sort of body wrecking by a tiny bivalve is rare at best, often brought on by inexperience or lack of forethought. If you're a mussel slut you have to make good choices and use protection. Food poisoning, the STD of eating, is your real concern.

Mussels become quite toxic when they die and this toxicity grows shockingly fast. Generally this is easily avoided by tossing out any open or broken mussels before cooking and the unopened ones after cooking. Easy enough, right? Well not always. Sometimes one slips past. Like last night when we had mussels. And I had one that was funky. My guests were spared.

Now, there are few worse places to get food poisoning than in a movie theater, but then, sometimes, that's just what happens. Praying to God that it would be quick and I would only miss the opening credits before the movie started I sat in the Men's Room in sweat and fear. I did not want to be sick in public. Let alone trapped in a stall horfing up curry colored vomit. I actually hoped, hoped, for diarrhea rather than throwing up.

Later (I will spare you any details), I felt fine and dandy as if nothing had ever happened. Apparently it had simply been one rogue mussel, one that I assume simply died on the way home right before he was cooked. I went back to the movie, sucked down some water and then was gleefully watching Sex and the City 2 and wolfing down the candy I had smuggled in.

Yes, mussels are a trial and tribulation, one well worth the effort as any mussel slut will tell you. Just be sure to be cautious around them in the wild (wear your flip flops) and toss any and all dead ones out (though one may slip through). Whore it up for your favorite little bivalve; they're tasty and more likely than not you'll have a delicious dish. Serve with beer and crusty bread.

Walk That Walk

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

-Mom, dad, and my fancy, $10,000 velvet hood.-

Yes, it's good to walk that walk you walk so well.

After three years of going to school at night, spending my weekends cramming and studying, pouring over research, being mummified in yellow and red tape, tutoring, teaching, and writing thousands of pages in papers. Years of trying to cram it into my work life, blogging life, cooking life, writing career. 40+ hours a week of mind numbing study. I am finally approaching graduation.

Due to the fire I won't have my thesis finished and turned in until late August. Still, the major course work is done and a finished draft -so far a 100+ page document examining the exclusionary rhetoric of the Slow Food movement - is now in the hands of the noble, kind, sagacious, forgiving hands of my thesis advisers. Since all my friends were walking and I had the course work done and yes, I was supposed to have the thesis done originally by now (again, fire), I went and walked.

The degree is so close to being in my hands I can almost grab hold. By the end of summer I'll be able to update my facebook status and resume to read, MA graduate in English Composition from California State University, Sacramento. I'm looking forward to buying a neat little frame for the diploma.

My family came up to celebrate with me, which was wonderful as they live in Southern California and I so rarely get to see them except during Christmas. At first I was a little blase about the whole ordeal. Another walk. I did it before and this was more for my family than anything. However, once the robe was on with my fancy new velvet Master's hood I became a little excited. By the time they called my name and handed me my show-diploma (real ones get mailed) I was beaming, unable to even think straight. Holy crap. I was done. (Mostly.)

The pomp and circumstance was pompous and circumstantial, but beyond fun nonetheless. Afterwards, we all went to OneSpeed pizza, my usual restaurant hangout in Sac where the manager and my friend, Michael, had a bottle of Champagne waiting for us to toast. The whole day was exhausting and wonderful. All I could think was, "Done."

Now I realize that the end really is in sight. I almost have my Master's. What are my plans now once it's all done? To begin, no, I do not have plans to go back for a PhD. anytime soon. I would rather saw my fingers off with a rusty steak knife. At some point I plan to look for work teaching community college, or teaching ESL classes, or even perhaps working at a private school. Though before any of that I think I'll take some time outside of the classroom to do a bit of writing and explore some areas of interest. I want to pursue a few dreams and fancies before I nail myself down anywhere.

It's all very up in the air as, for the first time in years, I suddenly have time on my hands. I'm a little lost as to what to do with it all. Re-establishing my social life and having many dirty martinis and sidecars are at the top of my list. Probably a lot more cooking and blogging too.

Thank God.

Blogiversary: Four Years Later

Monday, May 24, 2010

-Born May 24, 2006.-

Happy Birthday, Vanilla Garlic.

I owe you so much. You have brought me friends, buddies, family, acquaintances, work, income, love, a career, passion, talent, persistence, joy, education, frustration, excitement, surprise, memories, travel, experience, direction, sadness, panic, wonder, burns, cuts, greenery, aches, pains, excitement, cupcakes, sun, wine, goats, roosters, elderberries, farming, kumquats, candy making, rhubarb, long days cooking, long nights writing, reading, connection, networking, confidence, sake, wine, beer, vacations, overnighters, dinners, lunches, breakfasts, brunches, snacks, butchery, cheesemongering, skills, talks with friends at midnight, coworkers, publishers, editors, insight, thought process, critique, tons of garlic, tons of vanilla, charity, volunteering, harassment, students, solicitation, pick-up lines, research, idiots, hunger, drive, intrigue, frosting, chocolate, cookbooks, photography, teaching, plenty of cheese, theft by cat, dates, foraging, jamming, stir-fry, drinks at five in the morning, and hope.

Dear blog, you gave me my life back when it was broken. You are one of my greatest accomplishments. Thank you for the most amazing four years of my life. Here is to many, many more.


Cheese Profile: Green Peppercorn Goat Capricho

Saturday, May 22, 2010

-Capricho is one of the cheeses that's all the sudden becoming hip and cool. You want to be cool, right?-

"Ooh, I'm going to pick this one! It kinda matches the colors of the walls in the living room."

BF looked at me, smiled and shrugged, "Guess it's as good a reason as any."

Yes, I chose this cheese because of its grassy, pea green color. And it does match my lemongrass painted walls. It might be one of the sillier reasons to select a cheese. Heck, I didn't even try it first, it was totally impulsive, but lucky for me this Scovillesque cheese is delightful, both as a snack or on any cheese plate. It was a reason that ended up being appropriate enough to acquire a winning cheese.

-Yes, do serve it with pistachios and a dry white wine. You'll thank me later.-

Capricho usually refers to a type of Spanish cheese, most often made from goat milk, that's been cured into snow white logs of silky cheese that's only slightly more solid than chevre. This particular one, imported by the European fine produce company, Mitica, is growing in popularity and has become one of the more fashionable cheeses due to its cool pistachio color and wide appealing palatability.

While most Capricho is plain this one's verdant hue is attributed to crushed green peppercorns. Green peppercorns are immature berries of black pepper that have been picked early and cured so they can retain their flavor and color. Often used for fish and poultry green peppercorns give this cheese a piquant, almost arugula-like aroma that swirls in with the faint, goaty musk creating an overall bright and green scent. It's astonishingly addictive and you may easily find yourself sniffing thus cheese for a good ten minutes as I did.

-Crushed green peppercorn crust.-

Green pepper is a bit hotter than black pepper so the cheese takes on a peppery fresh taste. The milk itself during its curing and acidification has become slightly salty, quite fatty (resulting in a dreamy mouthfeel), and soft in texture. I find it best to take a knife and blend and swirl the rind and body together in a bowl creating an appearance that reminds me of grass covered cliffs running through snowy peaks. This way when you spread it over bread or crackers you get the full taste of the cheese and peppercorns together for a burst of effervescent flavor. Wine wise, it works well with anything dry, though I find whites to be better over reds in this case.

If anything, it's a cheese that teaches you that impulse can be a good thing when it comes to food. It makes eating adventurous and you may well find yourself pleasantly surprised.

-I also pick my wines to match my throw pillows.-

The Lessons Found in Exploding Churros

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I know, another post from the archives. Forgive me. I have my graduation walk tomorrow (just the walk, the actual walk and graduation is in late August, it's the only thing marring the event) for my Master's in English Composition and it's been a crazy week. Family is coming up and I've started teaching a cooking class at a local youth center. Stay with me, I promise some new posts soon. ~Garrett

So what started as what I thought was a brilliant idea to make churros turned into a science lesson / scarring session in the kitchen.

It was, in essence, a spectacular disaster. Rare form really. A bit of culinary destruction that you would applaud. Sure some people start grease fires or cut themselves, but few can cause a full on explosion with 400 degree oil and napalm Mexican sweet dough.

You see churros, while delicious, are apparently an epitome of various forms of science. Temperature gradients, surface area to volume ratios, heat exchange, and expanding mass. It's all very in depth. Sadly, Elise and I didn't know shit about any of it. Quite unfortunate, really.

So we set upon making our dough. The dough consists of basically salt water and flour which is then flash fried and rolled in sugar. Now, here's the thing about churros, they needs to have maximum surface area and minimum volume, this was the entire treat is crunchy and sweet and allows even heat distribution. In order to facilitate this, churros are piped from a pastry bag using an extreme star-tip, usually 3/8''. It allows for the most dough to come into contact with the oil.

Now, we had no star-tip and were unaware of it's vital importance. Instead we decided to simple use a large round tip for the pastry and start piping them out. No muss, no fuss.

Not so. This simple substitution would end up causing caustic consequences for us all.

The first batch of churros went fine, though the end product was a bit off. The outside of the churros had hardened into lightly browned, crisp shells of dough while the inside remained blazing hot, doughy, and steam filled. It took forever to cool as none of the heat trapped inside could escape through the hardened exterior.

As Elise's father scooped out the second batch to cool, we were all rocked by a sudden CRACK. We all jumped back and went silent. We looked at the plate of cooling churros. The air was still as we noticed the broken churro, it's contents now all over the counter.

Then the other churros exploded, we all took cover from the machine gun fire of steaming dough. It was like a scene from The Untouchables, I was Elliot Ness of the kitchen dodging whizzing bullets, ducking and covering my face and head, hearing only the rat-a-tat-tat of churro makings and fizzling pops of oil.

And just like that it was over. We all stared at each other. I chuckled a bit. Elise laughed. Her father roared. We began to crack jokes. I guess we now saw the importance of the star-tip. Ha ha! Such fun!

And then we remembered there was a third batch still in the oil.

We backed up. Not a moment later a large bang echoed through the kitchen. Hot dough and 400 degree oil screamed across the room.

Someone ducked in and threw the pot off the heat and removed the churros. Like before, just as suddenly as it occurred it finished.

We stood in shock for a minute. And we laughed. For 10 minutes we laughed. Elise escaped injury. I had ice on my face to cool the hot oil that had found my cheek. Her father, closest to the explosion, now has a nice scar on his arm. Still, we laughed. We joked. We ate what churros had successfully run the gambit. We nibbled the spent churro casings - spent shells whose innards were now plastered on all surfaces of the kitchen.

In the end it was educational and tasty. A good reminder of just how dangerous cooking can be. I myself have started many small fires before. Elise once melted her fridge due to one. And every home cook has a good scar from a knife or hot pan. Precautions must be taken. The science understood. The recipes clear. The substitutions safe.

We decided to abandon the churro recipe. It seems just so much safer and cheaper to buy them in the end. The entire kitchen had to be washed down with soapy water as oil slicked every square inch of surface. There was churro on the walls and ceiling for days, and from what I understand they keep finding bits of it adhered to various nooks and crannies that had been missed in the initial cleaning.

Advanced Pastry Revisited

Sunday, May 16, 2010

-Plated dessert group's lemon desserts.-

"We'll have you work with the candy group today, they're short a person," Teresa pointed me to one of the tables. I had returned to the Advance Pastry class for one more quick run before the semester ended to pick up a few more things. Particularly how to temper chocolate, to hone my caramel skills, and to pick up a few pointers on genoise cakes in order to eliminate any errors which, from time to time, still plagued me.

-Shi guiding the group.-

I was assigned to work under Shi, a tall, ebony woman who was the only pastry person I'd ever met who was able to delegate and work in a kitchen for hours with furious efficiency without a single run in her makeup. I was extremely happy to work under Shi as we had hit off well the last time. She had an indomitable will, a good sense of humor, and a transparent no-nonsense presence which anyone could relate to. In under an hour she could be anyone's best friend, swapping stories and hopes over a furtive bitch session.

The day before she had laid out plans and timetables for what our group were to begin working on and today was planning to put it all into action. The list included lemon filled truffles, tropical bars (a toasted cashew and macadamia nut studded caramel bar that was dipped in chocolate), and marshmallows. A simple, tasty selection that would rely on a variety of confectionery skills.

-Spinning sugar.-

Shi put me to work making a lemon ganache filling for the candy. A white chocolate based ganache. It was a task I wasn't too keen on as white chocolate had always been my Achilles heel. In ganache it often broke and separated on me leaving me to find ways of repairing it on the fly, often with ridiculous amounts of powdered sugar or cream cheese.

I broke out the scale and began measuring my chocolate, sugar, corn syrup, cream and lemon juice all while letting my inner timer (as one student called it) and nose keep tabs on the four pounds of nuts I had toasting in the oven. The nuts posed a worry for me, partially because my multi-tasking abilities in the kitchen weren't all that keen. Having more than one dish going often sent me into a dizzy spiral at whose center burned and ruined food could easily pile up. "It's your first time, trust us. We've all ruined plenty of dishes in here," noted Shi. If I burned the nuts or ruined the ganache then I would start again and make another batch.

-Broken and crystallized sugar. I was struck at how artistic it looked.-

Soon I got into my swing. I pulled the nuts, now golden toasty and shimmering from their effusing oils, and brought the cream, syrup, sugar, and lemon juice to under a boil. As I poured the cream mixture over the chocolate I noticed one of my teammates working on the marshmallow. As I looked into the mixer I could tell it wasn't right. My recent marshmallow craze, where I had made many, many, many batches of marshmallows had left me an expert. The batter, while glossy and white, had no stick. Instead it pooled and flowed like a marble-colored ooze working towards sentience, not at all the sticky stringed web of sugary doom that defined the proper marshmallow batters I knew. I realized that they had forgotten the gelatin.

-Lemon white chocolate ganache.-

I said nothing because who was I, the visiting teacher's friend, to correct the advanced pastry student? Later the error was noticed as a pan of standing sheet gelatin sat in a lonely corner. As I wrapped my mixed ganache - a success - I tasted the batter. It was set. A little floofy, it almost melted on your tongue, but not the puffy, slightly chewy texture a marshmallow should be. The taste however was dead on: sugar and vanilla.

-Tempering chocolate the easy way.-

We soon got to work tempering chocolate. I had become entranced at the method the class used, a technique that Teresa had learned from the Guittard kitchens. The process consisted of warming up chopped chocolate in the microwave until it hit about 115F then throwing in tons of seed (extra chopped chocolate) in large doses and processing the whole thing with an immersion blender until it hit 88F. By then the crystal structure was set and it could be used for candy making without the chocolate blooming, melting, or cracking. (I promise to give a more specific recipe later in a future post dedicated to the topic. It really is a method that demands its own post.)

-Bagels cooling on the racks.-

As we candied on the room became flowery with the scent of the plated group's lemon souffles which had, sadly, deflated like into somewhat rubbery bits of cake. The confidence of the plating team seemed only as high as each of the flat little failed cakes, but what these souffles lacked in stature they made up for in taste. Tart and bright, made light with a lemon sabayon and adorned with a lemon shortbread cookie it was a citrusy plate that any lemon lover would adore. (My only complaint was the snowcap of powdered sugar on each one which, should you accidentally inhale as your brought a bite to your mouth, sent you into a confectioner sugar coughing fit).

Hours wore on and our candy was all successful. The marshmallows, though a bit too soft, were delicious. (Even more so when they were dipped in chocolate and dredged in chopped toffee and nuts.) I was proud of my ganache and chocolate making and had even picked up a few handy pointers on genoise cake.

-Bagel making.-

The night was capped off when the bread group sent me home with a bag of freshly made bagels and pretzels, each perfectly sour and chewy as good bagels and pretzels are. The bagels, birthmarked with generous amounts of poppy seeds and Maldon salt, were stunning to look at and extremely flavorful. Toasted then slathered with butter and jam, they became as decadent as one can rightfully call a homemade bagel.

Overall, it was another epic night of amazing candy, cakes, and breads. I can now say I am determined to get an education in pastry. Maybe not so much formal in a classroom - at this point I've had enough of tests and tuitions - but maybe in a kitchen...

-Chocolate being chopped for the seed.-

Chocolate Sorbet

Thursday, May 13, 2010

-Yes, it is as rich as it looks.-

I like homemade ice cream. I enjoy creating and trying out new flavors that you might not otherwise be able to find at the store. However, I find them often to be too rich, or a bit to hectic to produce sometimes. It's why I prefer sorbet. Sorbet is easier to produce and takes so much less time. Heat up some water and sugar, add the flavor and chill. Pop in the ice cream machine and boom, 'yer done. No tempering eggs, and no trying to figure out what to do with all those egg whites. Furthermore, I find that I generally prefer the lighter and clearer taste of the ingredients you use in sorbet.

Normally, I make sorbet when I have an overabundance of fruit during the summer when turning on the stove sounds too heroic an effort for me to accomplish in my lazy summer sloth. Puree the fruit, pass it through a sieve, add a splash of brandy or vodka and add to the warmed sugar-water. Ta-da! Easy.

However, in early spring, when I eat fruit far too quickly to be able to produce a practical sorbet, I like to rely on this little chocolate sorbet recipe. I actually prefer this over chocolate ice cream as I find the chocolate is much more intense when it doesn't have to compete with yolks and cream for flavor. It utilizes ingredients I - and I assume every avid home baker - has on hand, meaning it's a simple, practical frozen treat. Furthermore, this sorbet never gives me texture problems; it never crystallizes into a rock, even after a week in the freezer as most homemade ice creams and sorbets have a tendency to do. Complimented with some chopped mint and strawberries it's a perfect sorbet for the hotter days ahead.

-If you don't have an ice cream maker, then just toss it into a shallow tray, freeze and stir up the crystals every so often until you reach a good consistency.-

Chocolate Sorbet
Adapted from Jaime Oliver

75g cocoa powder
300g sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
45g of peanut butter (organic works best)
300g chocolate (60%-70% cacao), broken into pieces

Pour 750ml water into a small saucepan with cocoa, sugar, vanilla extract and peanut butter. Bring to a boil while whisking then remove from heat. Add chocolate and a pinch of salt and leave for a minute, then stir until chocolate has melted and you have a glossy mixture. Cool in the fridge for four hours or overnight and then transfer to an ice-cream mixture per the manufacturer's instructions.

-A slight bit of peanut butter is what gives this chocolate sorbet such a creamy texture.-

My Confidence, Like My Puff Pastry, Has Risen

Monday, May 10, 2010

-Flakey, buttery, and delicious. Pepperidge Farms has nothing on this.-

"Oh my God, it's rising!" I called over BF and Roommate to peek through the oven window. There, with butter bubbling sides, rose my first ever homemade puff pastry that I had crafted earlier in the week at the Advanced Pastry class. As steam was released from the heated bits of butter that had been folded and folded and folded in with flour the puff pastry rose from a cold 1/8 of an inch thickness to over an inch in flaky height. Proof that I had not screwed up my first attempt at puff pastry but, surprisingly, succeeded in every way.

My confidence grew more than the puff did. I felt like a competent baker. That baking was something I might not only have potential for, but might actually even be good at, made me beam. All cupcake recipes aside this was a major milestone for me as I had always held puff pastry to be one of those quintessential recipes that separated the home baker from the professional baker. Given, I was far from a professional, but this was a step in the direction I wanted to go. I had made puff!

Oh, and the smell. Readers, store bought puff pastry does not smell like this when baking. The stuff you make yourself is richer and sweeter. The smell of cooking butter was one more aroma that interlaced the others already wafting in the perfumed apartment. Earlier, I had been reducing onions in olive oil and, yes, a bit more butter, and had tossed in some fresh thyme and minced garlic. Those were set on scored bits of rolled out puff, then topped with slices of fresh tomato that were brushed with olive oil. Some crumbled goat cheese for tang and a few bits of shaved Parmesan finished it appropriately. The scent of all this melding together in the oven was intoxicating and so heavy with butter you almost became drunk on it.

-Puff pastry about to be rolled. Getting to this point takes a lot of patience and even more butter.-

After 25 minutes at 425F I took them out of the oven and placed a chiffonade of basil on each one. Striking is the best way to describe their visual appeal, though rustic would work equally well.

They looked small and dainty, but the amount of fat and goodness in each one made them a full meal. None of us talked as we ate. We just sat in silence determined to enjoy the flavor of the cheese, and the flaky, crumbly texture of the golden puff pastry. Only the occasional smacking of lips or "Mmmm" escaped us.

And it's true, so true: homemade puff pastry can't be beat. The frozen stuff has its place; homemade is a real time sucker and requires a lot of attention, but the task itself is easy-peasy. You just have to have patience, a few pounds of butter (yes, pounds), some spare hours, and a heavy hand on your rolling pin.

I cannot wait to put together the mille feuilles next weekend.

-The perfect weekend brunch.-

Lessons in Advanced Pastry

Friday, May 7, 2010

-ARC Advanced Pastry class waiting for bread to rise and cakes to bake.-

I was sorely out of place, but then again that was pretty obvious. I was the only one not wearing chef's whites and checkered pants. My messenger bag was obviously too small to carry the necessary and required tools like knives or kitchen scales leaving everyone else to question my presence. Most of the students simply assumed I had forgotten my equipment and probably had a damn good reason not to have it, and was probably a student making up a missed class.

The reality was that my friend, Teresa, one of the baking instructors at American River College, had invited me over to crash her class so I could learn a few things. Particularly, Swiss meringue buttercream and puff pastry, plus learn whatever else I could glean from observing her advanced baking class students.

As I sat down in awkward silence waiting for things to get started I was jostled by the sound of opening oven doors and a blast of hot air that curled across my back causing me to release a small gasp as it engulfed me.

-Mise en place for buttercrunch toffee.-

"Hey, can you help me with these?" said a voice. I turned to face a large student with a horsehair goatee pulling out sheets of cookies the size of clay pigeons. I got up and grabbed a pair of mitts and slowly began to move in tandem with him, pulling out sheet after sheet of cookies. Many of them were misshapen and merged together into chocolate chip amoebas. After racking them up he grabbed two and handed me one. Misshapen, maybe, but delicious and full of caramel flavor from the slightly burnt sugar.

Teresa arrived and welcomed me and the students went about their business without prompting, splitting into four groups - plated desserts, bread, candy, and cakes - and leading each other in teams as they worked on their assignments which ranged from toffee to sourdough bread.

-Puff terminology. All three terms in each box mean the same thing.-

In moments I had measured the butter and flour for my butter block, the first of two components for my puff pastry, and was mashing together the ingredients with my bare hands. I quickly fell in love with the feeling of mashing soft-cold butter; its oozing between the fingers is not at all unpleasant. It's unctuous and yielding which makes the task all the more endearing to the point that Teresa had to remind me to not overwork the butter block which, admittedly, isn't easy to do.

The butter block is shaped into a perfect block (hence the name) and Teresa and I throw together the dough which I am taught how to shape and "orb up" so it will be easy to cut into a basic square. The way this works is that the orb of dough is given two serrated cuts across each other, like this:(+), and then the four created peaks are pulled outward creating a perfect square. As we go along Teresa shows me these little tricks of the pastry world such as knuckling the dough to show how many turns you've made, and how to patch the puff pastry with flour in case of butter leaks.

As I roll out my third turn, attempting to, "Show it who's boss," according to Teresa, a task I find difficult as I'm not a bossy person and my rolling is dainty and polite, a student eventually comes up to take the rolling pin from me. She deftly demonstrates how to kick its ass, working out her frustrating at the fact that her chocolate won't seem to temper correctly. I take her advice, yell to the dough that it needs to keep its goddamn kids from throwing their toys into my garden (seriously, neighbors, stop it), and work the fold in under 30 seconds.

After plopping the dough to rest in the fridge I am given a crash course on the difference in meringue types and taught the basic ratio for Swiss meringue, which is 150% ounces of granulated sugar to egg whites by weight, then as much softened butter and vanilla extract until it tastes right (who says pastry is always so precise?).

-Frosting worth suffering for.-

"Okay," Teresa says as I follow her to the gas stove burners whose use is clearly obvious in their charred metal, "you're going to heat this meringue over a water bath to 140F. You're going to lightly whisk it. Don't worry about getting air in as right now you just want to keep the egg whites from cooking and get the sugar melted."

"All right. Gotcha." I smile. I go about the task swearing at the soupy mix as the heating seems to take forever. I carefully hold the bowl by the rim at a side that seems to avoid the excess heat blasting from the gas flame. I feel confident and competent, just as if I were an actual pastry student. "Yes," I think to myself, "I know what I am doing. I belong here!" Finally, a forever later, the thermometer reads 140. "Got it!" I yell.

"Bring it over here," says Teresa, motioning to my work station.

I turn off the heat and grab the handle of the mixing bowl. Pain screams through my fingers as the handle, having sat over the broiling plume of air has now raised the handle to searing temperatures of around 375 degrees Fahrenheit or more. A handle I have just wrapped my fingers, palm, and thumb around.

I quickly whip my hand back and wordlessly, quickly, as if my feet suddenly knew how to skip across air, make my way to the sink and jam on the cold water as far as it will go. Teresa, luckily, knows to save the meringue. I'm surprised how professional I'm being what without breaking into swearing and crying, but it's partly because my brain is to preoccupied with the fact that I can feel my flesh literally burning and bubbling. It is also focused on the pain that's slowly clawing through every single nerve of my body, digging up the flesh in my hand like some razor taloned creature out of a horror movie.

-Sourdough making; weighing each ball of dough for even baking.-

After enough cold water I break out the aloe vera and slathered so much over my hand it looked like I had dipped it in mucus. Relief, but not much. I am acutely aware that the only one seriously hurt today is the only one not dressed as a pastry student. Two others later burn themselves as well, but not nearly as badly. Each student, however, does their best to comfort me and show off their own injuries, some much worse than mine, that they have accumulated over their education. My injury is no longer embarressing, but rather a proud badge on initiation.

Still, injury or no, that puff pastry has to be turned. I went to the fridge and with one hand pulled it out, floured it and the butcher block I was working on, and rolled away while my other hand sat in a piece of Tupperware gripping a handful of ice. The turn was done and I went about observing the other students as my hand gnarled itself into a blistered claw packed in ice. I picked up how to temper chocolate with an immersion blender (very handy trick), learned the best way to prep upside-down cakes, and watched as the plating group made maple bacon ice cream with almond bacon cake shaped as cute little piggies with pink frosting to boot.

-Leetle piglet cakes from the plated dessert group.-

By the end, I had learned a lot and made many friends with the students. I also realized just how happy I was, burns and all, working in a kitchen. It was visceral, creative, exact, and forgiving. I enjoyed working with my hands. I realized that this is an education I want to pursue. Not to work in a pastry department or for catering; no, this was something I realized I wanted to do for me. For my own growth and education and for my writing. Yes, pastry is where I need to be.

Soon, at least. Once the thesis is done and I have my Master's. Then I'll be ready to bake pretty, pretty cakes.

-The recipe for awesome. Though I still can't believe I injured myself making frosting of all things.-

My palm survived for the most part but my fingers are toast at the moment and I'm pretty sure I no longer have a print on my thumb (as of this post I think I will get to keep 75% of it, the rest is scar tissue). The puff pastry will be used for some goat cheese tarts and mille feuilles, and the finished Swiss buttercream apparently lasts for months in the fridge so it awaits a cake in the near future.

I go back to visit the class next week. To learn what? Not sure yet, but it'll be sweet.

Soft Cheese Knife Winner

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

-Perfect for clean slices of Brie.-

The winner of the Crate and Barrel soft cheese knife is commenter number 50, Kelly! She wrote that she would use the knife for, "Brie cheese. Oh God. So delicious!"

I can't agree with you more, Kelly. A lot of you love Brie apparently, and it's driven me to go back to the store so I can rediscover just how awesome it is. I recently discovered Cambozola, a blue Brie that's worth trying if you haven't already. What other Brie cheeses are out there, I wonder?

Kelly, be sure to e-mail me so I can send the knife on its way. Congrats!

Tarted Up A Bit - Strawberry and Rhubarb Tart

Sunday, May 2, 2010

-A perfect tarty treat after tarting up your garden.-

The garden was a bit of a slag when we put it together. Plants placed haphazardly with little forethought, tomatoes here and tomatoes there rather than them being grouped together, the whole thing was as well laid out as the streets of Boston. Which is to say, poorly. Many of the plants that needed sun sat in the chilling shade, their growth noticeably stunted. Other plants were taking in too much water and root rot began the slow decomposition within the stalks.

With the exception of our strawberries, mints, blackberry plant, and our dwarf citrus trees the rest of our prolific garden was on the verge of ruin. The garden wasn't simply suffering, it was cluttered, unplanned, and somewhat slovenly. The garden was like a guy I used to see at my local gym, he had the body of a god, but he had the face to guard it. This garden was his equivalent; it possessed striking potential and had the ability to produce, but unless something was done to clean it up a bit it would be remain a secret garden defined by ugly struggle.

Roommate, BF, and I undertook the day long trial of reviving and turning this garden around. We picked up a few sacks of steer manure, plenty of dirt, a few new plants, and borrowed some shovels from BF's family. Toiling, slathered in sweat and sun screen, we carefully dug up every eggplant, every pepper, every everything and gingerly laying them in misted shade so the roots wouldn't wither and dry. We quickly turned the first 10 inches of soil with manure before laying the plants back in the ground in ordered rows. Each row was so clearly defined and categorized that any real farmer or librarian would be proud.

-A happy, well organized, slightly chic vegetable and fruit garden.-

All decked out the garden is vogue, Cover Girl. She's strutting her stuff. Bedazzled with berries, parading with peppers, and a few good pots of basil (which never go out of style). She's all tarted up in the most fashionable ways.

Afterwards, covered in mud and a bit tousled, we tarted ourselves, albeit in a different way. We sat down to the remnants of a made yesterday strawberry and poached rhubarb tart. The recipe came from Chez Panisse Desserts, authored by Lindsey Shere, a cookbook I had purchase but then expressed disappointment at as I had been expecting something ill-defined and vague I called "more." A few people chastised me, nudging me on in their motherly way to give the book a go.

I did and, I admit, I was wrong. The book did me well though a few more notes about the cooking process would have been appreciated. Particularly the base recipes such as the shortbread crust and pastry cream; both simple and reliable, little black dresses of the pastry world.

The tart is spectacular and always in style come Spring. The perfect accessory to hold in your dirt stained knuckles as you revel in your made-over garden.

Short Crust Pastry
(For 9-inch pastry shell)
adapted from Chez Panisse Desserts

1 cup of flour
1 tablespoon of sugar
pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon of grated lime peel
1/2 cup unsalted butter, not too cold
1 tablespoon of water
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract

1. Mix flour, sugar, salt, peel and butter and cut with your hands or a pastry knife until it resembles cornmeal sized pieces. Add water and vanilla and combine into flour-butter mixture until the pastry will hold together when you press it. Pat into a ball and wrap it with plastic wrap and pop it in the fridge for 30 minutes.

2. Press into a 9-inch tart pan, making sure you keep it even. It should be somewhat thin, but don't worry as it will puff a bit when baking and become thicker. Wrap the pan in foil and freeze for 30 minutes.

3. Preheat oven to 375F. Remove the foil and bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown. The dough will puff up a lot during the baking process. Don't worry as it will sink back down. Cool on a wire rack. When cool fill with pastry cream and top with fruit.

Pastry Cream
adapted from Chez Panisse Desserts

2 cups of milk
1/3 cup of flour
6 tablespoons of sugar
6 egg yolks
2 tablespoons of butter
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract

1. Heat the milk until small bubbles appear around the side on the pot, signaling it is just about to boil. Mix the flour and sugar in a heavy saucepan. Beat egg yolks in a bowl until thick and light colored. Whisk the hot milk into the flour mixture and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture has boiled for a minute or two.

2. Whisk some of the milk mixture into the egg mixture to temper them and then stir the egg mixture back into the rest of the milk mixture. Mix well. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the pastry cream begins to hold a slight shape, about 170F. Do not boil.

3. Remove from heat and stir in butter. Allow to cool, then whisk in the vanilla and smooth out the pastry cream. Do not overmix cooled pastry cream.

Poached Rhubarb with Strawberries

2 pints of strawberries
1 cup of chopped rhubarb
1 cup of sugar

1. Core and slice strawberries. Set aside.

2. Place sugar and 2 cups of water in saucepan. Bring to a simmer. Add poache rhubarb and simmer on low for 8 minutes. Take off heat and allow to cool for an hour.

3. Drain rhubarb (the cooking liquid is wonderful in cocktails, so save it) and carefully toss them with strawberries.

-Yes, I worked a Madonna song into my post. It would have been wrong not to.-

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