Every year, in late September or early October, I am surprised by the arrival of a bulky, plain-wrapped package. Last year I found it, by lucky chance, on the doorstep of the house we had vacated a few weeks before. This year it showed up in my mailbox at work. It always arrives in the vicinity of my birthday, yet I never expect it, never assume it is a birthday gift, I don't know why. Before I look at the return address, though I can feel the heft of the package and I assume it is a book, I am stumped, not knowing, not anticipating. This year I figured it was marketing material for a support group, or maybe a Thank-You box of chocolates from a patient's family.
In the past the padded envelope has contained A Platter Of Figs by David Tanis, Once Upon a Tart by Frank Mentasana and Jerome Audureau, and Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. Wonderful books...books I return to for reminders and reference over and over again. On my loosely organized bookshelf, I group these with others I consider to be "new classics."
The source of these gifts? Well, she always signs the card (with the adorable drawing of the dog inside) Great Aunt Margaret, though she is not my aunt. But she is Margaret, my former boss, the owner (with Dennis) of Le Buzz. For a little more than two years, I baked alongside Margaret, sharing laughs, dog stories, frustrations, and the repetitive yet satisfying work of a successful cafe/bakeshop. She told me on my first day as a professional baker, "Don't worry about making mistakes, I've made every mistake possible." Calming yet ominous words for this career-changing-new-graduate-from-culinary-school.
Take custards, for example. No, not that super-eggy quivering mass that you once grabbed by mistake when your in-laws splurged and took everyone out to Furr's. No, not that...but custards, those rich, smooth amalgams of cream and egg and lusciousness. So easy...it's just a Liquid : Egg ratio. Works everytime. But try adding some sugar and vanilla, and heaven awaits your tongue, or how about cook it on the stove to make a sauce rather than baking it in the oven, or...oh oh oh, try this...add some extra cream, some mashed strawberries and churn it in an ice cream maker. HA! Ben and Jerry ain't got nothing on you! By messing around with the basic formula (and trying different cooking techniques) you end up with a completely different dessert. It might be delicious and make you moan in a really good way, or it might be that eggy-fright they served at Furr's.
Think for a moment, as I have done countless times, about the spectrum of custards that can appear after a (relatively) quick trip to the kitchen (i.e. creme anglaise, pastry cream, pot de creme, creme brulee, and flan, to name a few). Alter the ratio of ingredients (and a few other things) and the creaminess/richness changes, the savoriness/sweetness can vary, and the egginess can (sadly) vary. It's that ratio, Liquid : Egg, which will dictate whether the custard is a sauce, or a dish of soft, rich cream, or a fantasticly wicked little puck of delicious richness that can stand by itself on a plate. It's all about the ratio of one ingredient to the other.
Which brings me back to Margaret and Le Buzz. Before immersing myself in the stress and fatigue called culinary school, my good work : bad work ratio was tipping in the wrong direction. Burnout had definitely set in...big time. It was the world of healthcare and if your heart isn't in it, you shouldn't do it...period. I'd always said that but realized that I wasn't living it. The rest of the ratio of my life was pretty balanced (FUN : CREATIVITY : LOVE : MONEY : REST : WORK), but the thing with ratios is this...too much of one thing can turn custard into scrambled eggs. Having some background in the scientific method, I stood back, reassessed the formula to life as I was living it and realized that WORK needed to change. The out of kilter WORK component threw everything else out of whack. I came home from work everyday feeling like a big bowl of scrambled egg custard.
Nine months (and thousands of dollars) later, I was a diploma'd Cordon Bleu baker/patissier and was standing next to Margaret at Le Buzz. And it was just like you read about...long days, hot kitchen, fast pace (kinda - I was a baker not a cook afterall), sore feet, sore back...but happy happy happy. Okay sure, I was making less money than when I went home after sitting in an air conditioned office for 8 hours, but the other parts of the ratio were solid. Get this...Margaret and Dennis were giving me raises that I felt bad about accepting because I was having such a great time!
Yup, see how easy it is to forget the cardinal rule of ratios...all the parts have to work together. Long Story Short...two comments summarize my brief dash in/dash out of the world of professional baking. 1.) I ran into a former hospital colleague with whom I also had gone to graduate school. I was wearing my chocolate smeared chef's coat, was exhausted after a day next to the ovens, and was picking up something quick for dinner before collapsing at home. This friend had heard that I had changed careers and she said something to the effect of "You are our role model," referring to the desire of the burnout crowd to leave it all behind and satisfy the other parts of the ratio. 2.) Later, when the MONEY part of the ratio had been ignored for too long and something had to change to get my life's ratio back in working order, after I had reluctantly left Le Buzz and returned to hospital work, a colleague said something like "we'd all like to get paid to do what we are passionate about (ugh), but that just isn't realistic." I disagree with that sentiment wholeheartedly, but unfortunately, at the time, it was quite true.
Thankfully, having had a few years away from the sad work, and having changed the context in which I am once again doing the first career, the WORK and the MONEY components are on an even keel once again. Of course, those of you who know me, or who have been able to read between the lines of this blog over the past year or so, are aware that some of the other parts of the friggin' ratio have been seriously off. These damned ratios are kinda like a canoe...once it starts to tip there's gotta be some fast fancy footwork to keep it from going under. (Okay, so I am mixing my scientific and nautical metaphors, but you get the idea). I am happy to report that most parts of the life ratio are now bobbing along on the surface of the stream, and no great bowls of Furr's Cafeteria Rubber-Egg Custard are awaiting us.
So I thank Great Aunt Margaret...for the books, the too-little-time next to the oven, and the boost of confidence that I still feel from her when those mystery packages arrive.
Creme Anglaise: 4 parts dairy : 1 part yolk : 1 part sugar + 1/2 vanilla bean
Creme Brulle: same as above, using whatever percentage of milk to cream that you care to indulge in.
Ice Cream: same as above, 1/2 milk and 1/2 cream, use the entire vanilla bean
Pots de Creme: 6 parts dairy : 1 part whole egg : 1/2 part egg yolk : 1/2 part sugar + 1/2 vanilla bean
Flan: 4 parts dairy : 2 parts whole egg : 1 part sugar + 1/2 vanilla bean + pinch salt
Basic Custard Method:
1. Combine the dairy and 1/2 the sugar in a saucepan and heat to a simmer.
2. With your fingers, combine the remaining sugar and the vanilla seeds.
3. Just prior to the dairy coming to a simmer, combine the eggs and the sugar in a mixing bowl.
4. Slowly whisk a small amount of the hot dairy into the eggs, gradually adding it all to the eggs.
For Creme Anglaise: Pour the sweetened dairy back into the saucepan over medium-low heat, and cook to desired consistency, stirring constantly. Do not let it boil. Strain through a fine strainer, chill thoroughly and quickly.
For Ice Cream: Cook as above for Creme Anglaise, chill thoroughly, then churn per your ice cream freezer instructions.
Monday, October 31, 2011
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Q is a problem, you have to admit.
Whether you are playing Scrabble, Bananagrams, Boggle, or any of the other generative naming games that we word-nerds enjoy, Q is a problem, eliciting moans and groans when that tile is pulled from the pile. Yes, it is unique, being the only letter in the alphabet that cannot go unescorted, but in spelling (as in many other realms) uniqueness does not always mean desired. (And what's up with that friggin' upper case Q we all had to learn in grade school...the one that looks like a fancy 2.) So it is not surprising that choosing the representative Q recipe for this occasional series on alphabetical baking was a bit of a stumper. Quince, Quenelle, Quiche, Queso - all potentially tasty choices, yes, but...well, I was uninspired.
So I thought, and read, and pondered, and actually did go ahead and make a darn good quiche but forgot to take pictures of it, so much for that, until one day, during an afternoon cup of coffee, I was craving those little spicy Mexican pig-shaped cookies, but they (Marranitos) don't start with the dreaded letter. Not one to quit, I did a little more research, combined a few ideas from an entirely different quisine, qulture, and quntry, and here we have it...a delicious crunchy cookie, whose name I cannot pronounce without sounding like Elmer Goes To Paris, perfect for dunking in your coffee or milk in the afternoon.
But Tom, you may ask...you haven't posted anything on this blog since March. Did it really take you 5 months to come up with a simple little cookie recipe? Sure, Q is a bitch, but 5 months? To which I reply...let's back up a few sentences to a q word I snuck into the previous paragraph, a little literary foreshadowing. The word...quit. A simple little word, quit. Play fast and loose with an e and you have quite and quiet. Stare at it long enough...q-u-i-t...and it looks misspelled or not even a word. But it's a word that has dominated life in this household for not just 5 months, but more like 5 years.
Stare at the word quit for 5 years, go ahead, you try it...it doesn't just look like a typo anymore, it looks impossible. It becomes huge and impenetrable and sneaky and humilitating. But for those of us on the outside, those of us who aren't staring at those 4 meaningless letters 24 hours a day, quit looks easy. But it isn't.
I have been asked a few times, and I have asked myself at least a thousand times...so when do I quit. But that isn't easy either. Because what is the question...quit hoping?, quit helping?, quit loving?, quit trying?, quit caring? And the only answer I can come up with, after 5 months, after 5 years, is not yet. Quit is a big word.
I spend hours reading cookbooks, researching recipes, finding out how to make things and make things better. Recipes are lists of ingredients and techniques, which you hope all come together to make someting good. But once the cookie has been made, if it isn't good, there aren't instructions for unmaking it, for taking it apart. Instead, you have to look at what happened, look at what went into it, change something, and start all over again. Make it again but do it differently. Don't quit.
It is so very French to give a name, and a nobel sounding name at that, to a seemingly simple combination of 4 spices. Cinnamon, Cloves, Nutmeg...and Black Pepper. But it's a combination of flavors that works on more than one level. It's a situation where the personalities of each part, each spice, are present, individually, but they also work together to create something altogether unique...the flavor of Quatre Epices.
It doesn't happen very often...why give it up.
Quit - Stop - End.... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...Start - Begin - ContinueCroquet Bordelais
Ground Almonds 3 cups
AP Flour 1 1/2 cups
Baking Powder 2 tsp
Salt 1 tsp
Quatre Epices 4 tsp (see below)
Butter, room temp 4 1/4 oz
Sugar 1 2/3 cups
Orange Zest from 1 orange
Eggs 2 (+1 for egg wash)
Black Pepper 2 tsp
Ground Cinnamon 2/3 tsp
Ground Cloves 2/3 tsp
Ground Nutmeg 2/3 tsp
1. Mix together the ground almonds, flour, baking powder, salt, and spices.
2. With mixer, cream the butter and sugar until smooth. Add the orange zest and mix briefly. Add the eggs, one at a time - mixing thoroughly after each addition.
3. With mixer on low speed, add the almond mixture from Step 1, scraping the bowl as necessary.
4. Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a pice of plastic wrap. Pat the dough into a rectangle, 9 x 6 inches. Wrap in the plastic, smoothing the edges of the dough after it si wrapped in the plastic. Freeze overnight.
5. Preheat the oven to 375.
6. Cut the dough into thirds (along the 9-inch side). Return two of the pieces two the freezer.
7. Cut each piece into 13 pieces (they will be 3 x .5 inch cookies). Place them on parchment (or Silpat) lined sheet pans. Repeat with the 2 remaining pieces of dough.
8. Brush with egg wash and bake for 18-20 minutes, until golden brown.
9. They will firm up into a delicious crunchy cookie - perfect for dunking - as they cool.
Sunday, March 6, 2011
Math? Really? That answer has always frustrated me. Firstly, because math has been a lifelong nemesis. Numbers, no matter if they are in dollar form, ratios, percentages, sale prices, or weights and measures, apparently are processed in a part of my brain that is lacking in dendritic density. No matter how simple the calculation, I have to write it down, study it, do it wrong a few times, get frustrated, do it again, and then it all makes sense...maybe. (F'rinstance, yesterday Nik was explaining the cell phone plan options that he was considering...a $129 cancellation fee with a 10% monthly discount versus the new plan which was cheaper monthly but required an activiation fee of blah blah blah. It was like he was speaking some illogical foreign tongue. I felt like my brain actually turned off after about 30 seconds of listening to him.)
But the math conundrum is not the most irritating part of the chemistry=math answer. Maybe I am naive, but I thought that chemistry was learning about the elemental components of everything. For a fact freak like me, what could be more interesting than that? To learn how a relative handful of stuff can be combined to create everything in the world...well that pretty much sounds like the key to all knowledge, doesn't it? I admit that the numbers and letters on the Periodic Table of Elements are quite meaningless to me...but I do understand the basic concept behind it and that excites me. It's a Table of What Could Be. (So you can see my disappointment when someone throws cold H2O on this excitement by reducing it all to dreaded Math.) I keep threatening to take a Chemistry 101 class at the local community college...just to prove to these Math Terrorists, and myself, that there is more to Creation than math, hopefully.
Take pastry cream, for example...it's all about chemistry. Pastry cream is 1) a stirred custard and 2) one of a baker's multi-use items. Peek down to the recipe below, step #5, and you will see that it instructs you to let this mixture of eggs and milk bubble and cook for a minute. WHAT? Anyone who has ever made breakfast knows that cooking eggs till they bubble will create scrambled eggs and not a luscious creamy custard. Enter Chemistry.
Pastry cream contains eggs, sugar, milk, and cornstarch. While the temperature in the saucepan is rising, the egg proteins are unravelling from compact little pearls of albumin into long graceful strands that sweep and swirl around in the liquid surrounding them. In a concentrated mixture, just a bowl of eggs say, these unravelled proteins would bond (a chemistry term) with each other quickly, firmy, and efficiently (think scrambled eggs). But the milk in the pastry cream formula dilutes the mixture, putting more space and stuff between the egg-protein molecules (Molecules? Chemistry again). Think of it like this...10 kids playing Marco Polo in a kiddie pool are bound to find each other quickly...Game Over. Put those same 10 kids in an Olympic sized swmming pool and that game could go on all day (ugh). But there's more chemistry here...the sugar in the mixture coats the proteins (there are several thousand sugar molecules for each lonely protein molecule) making bonding less likely when the proteins do get close to each other.
Of course, ultimately the proteins will bond (because that's the whole point in cooking them) BUT, just like those kids in the pool, there is alot of liquid slopping around in the spaces between the proteins. And that's why we add cornstarch to pastry cream. As the mixture is heating and the proteins are unravelling and shouting out "Marco" and "Polo" to each other, the cornstarch is likewise getting hot and it starts to sweat its guts out. Cornstarch sweats a thickening agent that floats through the pastry cream mixture and via "hydrogen bonding" (Chemisty!) it captures water molecules. And the hotter it gets (until around 200 degrees) the more it sweats and the more water it traps. The mixture thickens as the water is trapped and the proteins bond, and that's when you turn the heat off and chill those hard working, exhausted molecules. Ahh yes, just as I thought...Chemistry is possible without Math, but Cooking is all about Chemistry.
Salt 1/4 tsp
Vanilla 1 1/2 tsp
Butter 2 oz
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Look through most any cookbook and you will see numerous references such as "a dessert I had on my first trip to Paris" or "my mother's never fail pie crust" or "the pot roast from countless Sunday dinners." Food is a multisensory reminder of times past. And not only when you eat it, but also when making it. Hold a heavy wooden rolling pin in your hand and generations of bakers are lined up behind you. The next time you make whipped cream, imagine how many times your mother or father, or grandmother, or greatgrandmother lifted the whisk to check the consistency of the cream before serving it on the pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving.
The French have a reputation for being all this-and-that about their cuisine, in part because they were the first culture to document their culinary techniques and traditions. Sure, the Bedouins may have been stewing goat heads for thousands of years before the first puff pasty was made, but they never wrote it down...they are a nomadic culture, so no doubt toting boxes of goat recipes was not a first priority on their limited camel space. With only recall to go on, little Mohammed can't be sure that the goat head he is eating in his tent is exactly like the goat head that his greatgrandfather stewed up. But when little Pierre climbs up on the kitchen stepstool to make his first Tarte Tatin, he can follow the directions exactly and be confindent that it will taste just like Grandmama's.
But I don't mean to minimize the oral tradition of the kitchen (or the tent). We can probably all remember some tidbit of food knowledge that we heard from our mothers (don't cut lettuce with a knife; chill the bowl and beaters before you whip the cream; an open can of kidney beans is the most dangerous food there is), but these are generally technique remarks rather than specific recipes. For recipes I turn to my trusty stack of index cards with Grandma's recipes on them (Sour Cream Coffee Cake, Baking Powder Biscuits, Rolled Molasses Cookies) or to one of my many treasured cookbooks.
Though these are called "Grandmother's Oatmeal Cookies," they aren't from my Grandmother. But that doesn't matter because I've tweaked the recipe a little bit anyway, and that's not a sacrilege, that's how cuisine evolves. But with the cookbook in hand, we can always return to the orginal, to Grandma's way, when the newer version turn out like hockey pucks...or fossils (which these didn't - they are delicious).
Grandmother's Oatmeal Cookies
Yield: 30 cookies
Eggs, well beaten 3
Vanilla 1 tsp
Raisins 1 cup
Butter, room temp 8 oz
White Sugar 1 cup
Brown Sugar 1 cup
AP Flour 2 1/2 cups
Salt 3/4 tsp
Baking Soda 2 tsp
Oats 2 cups
Saturday, February 5, 2011
On more than a few occasions have I referred to my obsession/love/passion/craving for yeast...odd though that may seem to those who don't worship at the Church Of The Preheated Oven. I recently read this about yeast..."Yeast fungus (Saccharomyces) exists everywhere in nature, and natural yeast consists of microorganisms reproducing and eliminating waste." Ok, sure, not exactly a scenario that makes a guy run to the kitchen. But wait, it gets better...these tiny little buggers (there are about 10 billion of 'em per gram) are hungry and horny (interested yet?). Give them a few shots of glucose and they get wacky! And these creative, single-cell dudes are a clever, partying bunch - if you don't feed them straight shots of glucose but instead water down their drinks with other sugars, or starches or alcohol - they whip out an enzyme to match whatever you are serving and convert it to a deelish aphrodisiac buffet. So...give them a little food (flour, f'rinstance), and a little warm water (100 degrees ideally, mmm) to swim around in - and the party is on! Before you know it, that intimate party with your closest 10 billion friends has turned into a veritable dough-orgy of eating, hydrating, passing gas, and making babies. Give them enough time, food and drink and they can make even the stiffest dough rise.
Yield: 4 flatbreads
Active Dry Yeast 1 tsp
Sugar 1/2 tsp
Onion, minced 1/3 cup
Egg, lightly beaten 1
Mixed Seeds 1 1/2 Tbl
1. Combine the water, sugar and yeast. Let proof.
Saturday, January 29, 2011
Those of you who know me well may be surprised at this next statement, but food was not important to me during much of last year. Or more accurately, food gradually lost some of its importance. Birthdays came and went without cakes. Anniversary celebrations weren't. Pizza Night became an obligation, and cooking became a chore. Puff pastry, creme brulee, and meringue don't stand a chance against heavy-weights like Foreclosure, Bankrupcy, and Booze. Or, to get even more graphic and metaphorical, how can you eat brioche when Reality is being crammed down your throat?
Monday, September 6, 2010
Quite some time has passed since I last added my two scents (lemon and vanilla, in this instance) to the blog-o-sphere. I would like to report that the absence of hypertext was because we have been sunning ourselves on the rocky shores of Greek isles, or that we have been so busy eating chocolate and trekking through the Swiss Alps that I didn't have time to bake or write, or even that we have been busy digging and planting and turning the arid backyard into a lush "at-home" resort...but those would just be bold faced lies. No, we have been quietly living on the edge of the desert, desperately trying to tape together the pieces of our once placid existence. Yes, yes, yes, I know that sounds incredibly melodramatic, but without going into horrendous detail, let it just be said that the economy (and other action packed facts of life) have made big peepee all over the pastoral scene that was once life on Chuckwalla Place.
But I assure you, this is not a pity post. That is not my style. Yes, sure, if you asked me to sit and have a beer or two with you, and around the 30th (or so) ounce of ale you tilted your head a little to one side and asked, yet again, "how was I doing"...okay fine, then you would probably get a 5 minute egocentric monologue decorated with sardonic wit and quick/fake smiles, after which I would finish my pint, order another, and then promptly change the subject to something much more interesting. But I don't need to spill my guts. I really don't, nor do I want to. Saying it all out loud does not work for me. I prefer to let my mixed-dominance cerebral hemispheres percolate and chug and grind and fester, activating my emotion-controlling limbic system when necessary, but otherwise letting it all flit and flash around inside my cortex, looking for synaptic harmony, trying to make sense of it all. Sure, perhaps that all sounds very cold and clinical, but it's what I think I need to do right now.
Which is unusual, because I am a talker. In fact, Nik has told me countless dozens of times over the past 2 decades, "Okay, it's time to be quiet now." But making conversation, and imitating voices, and telling stories, and making up adventures featuring the fictional lives of our dogs is creative and fun. Those kinds of ideas and stories and characters live and grow when let out into the open air. The last thing I want to grow and become even more alive is the reality of 2010, so it is my current preference to keep it crowded and cramped inside my airless cranium.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Well, I beg to differ. Certainly it is hard to predict how you are going to handle difficult times until you are faced with them. This time, to be honest, I've surprised myself. What I have learned is that I don't want metaphorical lemonade. I'm not looking to "make the best of it." My preference is to ackowledge the fact that, yes, it seems that somehow a truckload of rotten lemons was dumped on the front yard, and many of them are bruised and broken, and alot of them are moldy, and clouds of those annoying little fruit gnats are starting to gather. I've learned that rather than sorting through the acidic citrus mess to find the good lemons, I would rather just shovel it all into the dumpster, try to remember how those lemons ended up on the front yard in the first place, do what I can to avoid rotten fruit the next time, and move on. I know what a lemon looks like, so hopefully next time I can avoid it, rather than ending up with a bathtub full of sticky lemonade.
The fact that I have written these sour paragraphs is, hopefully, an indication that the crap is starting to clear. Let's hope so. I've lost the recipe for this lemon cake, so just enjoy the pictures. It was good but now it's gone. But, of course, that doesn't mean that there won't be other lemon cakes in the future.