Monday, October 31, 2011

R Is For Ratios

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. 

This year's package contained two books.  The unusual and quirky Eat Me (The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin) by Kenny Shopsin and Carolynn Carreno...the cookbook with some of the most unappetizing photos of comfort food ever published.  Margaret wrote in her note that I could exchange it if it was just too odd.  Yeah, a cookbook?  Not likely!  Besides, it contains a very common sense approach to the kitchen, f'rinstance consider this bon mot from the book, "If you like your eggs more cooked, cook them more."  How can you argue with that?  This book is a keeper.  

The second book was Ratio by Michael Ruhlman.  This little book contains some of the gems that I failed to learn in culinary school (shame on me, shame on Cordon Bleu).   You see, with the possible exception of molecular gastronomy (e.g. liquified olives, parmesan air,  potato foam, and the like), most kitchen work is not rocket science...though it is a practical application of that most basic scientific principal:  find a formula that works, change a variable and observe (or eat) what happens.  Ruhlman's Ratio offers simple, easy-to-remember ratios for doughs, batters, sauces, custards, and more...with the idea that if you know the ratio of ingredients in a successful recipe (and understand a little of the science behind it), you can alter the ratio slightly to create dozens of other tasty goodies.  In other words, the trip from crepe to muffin is not that far.

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'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. 

Custard Ratios

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.
For Creme Brulee & Pots De Creme: Prepare steps 1-4.  Pour into ramkins.  Bake in a water bath at 325 degrees, 30 minutes or until barely set. For Creme Brulee, sift a fine layer of sugar on top of the finished and chilled custards, then caramelize it with a blow torch just prior to serving.
For Flan: Prepare the custard through step 4.  Cook sugar until it turns amber.  Quickly pour the caramel into the ramekins, swirl to coat the bottom of each ramekin.  Then pour the custard mixture in the ramekins and bake at 325 degrees in a water bath, 45 minutes, or until barely set.  Chill, then turn out onto plate upside down.  The caramel will have created a delicious sauce that drizzles down the sides of the custard. 

1 comment:

The A Team said...

Love it!
I need some ratio work myself. ;)