April 20, 2010

Where do we go from here?

"Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” Harriet van Horne

This is a quote on the wall of the restaurant of my school. If everyone who cooked or baked could feel this every time they went to produce something, I almost feel like there would never be any bad food. Eh, lofty thinking.

The last day of class was last Wednesday. We spent most of it cleaning. Not particularly the best part of being in the kitchen but a necessary part. The also decided to spring one last 'lesson' on us. A timed exercise in hand whipping and chocolate piping. Ha, my worst skills due to incredibly weak arms and an unnatural and totally noticeable inability to stop shaking. The minute they kicked us out of the kitchen, the air ran high with nervousness and it was like the people I had come to know that term changed. A class that is competitive and a little ruthless? Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me but I sensed it. I disliked some of the strange behaviors but mostly my own performance. No big shock there. I am sure you are all familiar with the frustrating moment of 'why can't I just do this?' Yep, the one that you have right before you just keep going because that is what you do. Keep trying. I will get it eventually. Kaizen, continuous improvement. Not insanity because I at least change my method every now and then...

The next day was our good-bye lunch. I almost didn't go. The last few days of class were like a continual good-bye. Everyone else isn't stopping. They get to go to their fancy externships or continued classes. I am going home to paint wooden signs and get married. Then what? They handed out awards at the lunch. We were all expecting the Spirit of OCI Award. This was the award the whole class voted on. We didn't know who would get it, odds were that it was going to be a three-way tie. It wasn't. The award went to the ever incredible piping master, Delicia, soon to be pastry phenom at Ten 01. Next up was the Chef Parks Award (you can read about Chef Parks here). At this point my attention was gone, lost somewhere in thoughts of how to improve the Italian buttercream recipe (maybe I should have figured out the crème anglaise addition) when I hear my name. I had no idea why and it took me a minute to figure it out. Apparently I called Chef Wilke's bluff or the staff/chefs got to talking and they think I am a good student. I am not sure exactly. Either way, I do not want to disappoint myself or those that recognized my hard work. I am honored to have my name even mentioned in the same sentence as Chef Parks, who patiently waited for a turtle that Saturday where my ability to temper chocolate was overshadowed by my inability to be patient and trust in myself that I could do just that. Oh how fast word can travel at that school...

My goal for school was to learn. I had no plans to do anything in particular with my schooling, I just wanted to understand the process of baking. From day one I felt completely lost. It seemed that everyone in my class had an idea of what they wanted to do and the place they wanted to go. Some of my classmates even had previous schooling and experience doing some of the things we did in class.

How do you work in that environment? Some folks cannot, we lost two of our classmates. One in the first section and one in the second.

I am a swirl of thoughts right now. I still do not have a plan. I do know that I have to get back to a kitchen. A real kitchen. I miss school so much. I had no idea the impact it would have. All the teachers were so great to put up with and answer my incessant questions. My classmates, never a more diverse and interesting crowd will I meet. I am amazed at their skills. I do hope that we all stay in touch.

April 19, 2010

Belly up to the buffet

The last section of class. A dessert buffet project with a showpiece. Actually, 3 showpieces. One made of pastillage, one made of chocolate, and one made of blown/cast/pulled sugar. One item must be 6"X10" and the other 2 items must be 3"X5". The buffet must have 9 different items, 3 of each item, for a total of at least 27 pieces. The categories for the items are pastry (a 3-6 bite item), petit four (a 2-3 bite item), and candy (a 1-2 bite item).

Ok, so I went with a theme. I was going to do a lighthouse/coast theme but couldn't get it all worked out in my head. Instead I went with a movie theme. Alice in Wonderland. We had seen the recent one in 3-D with some of my classmates and I really enjoyed the look of it.

My pieces, well the Mad Hatter hat for one, Cheshire for another, and a drink me bottle for the third. My buffet items included eccles cake, lemon tassies (Scottish for small cup), and lime friands for the pastry items. The eat me cake (petit fours glacé, a huge production like before), meringue cookies shaped like hearts, and candied violet French macaroons for the petit four items. For the candy items I made nougat, orange-ginger jellies, and salt caramel filled chocolates. I was going for the afternoon tea idea and I think it worked out ok.

So, making a hat out of pastillage is hard. Originally I was trying to make the hat my large item, just the hat. Well, it didn't work out. I had to scale it down 4 times just so I could get it to a workable size. The pastillage just kept getting too hard to work with too fast. The one time I got a large piece shaped, it fell to the floor and broke into pieces. So, I taped some of the hard plastic sheets I had into the shape I wanted and let the pastillage dry on that. It did work and I only needed a small piece to fill the seam in the back. The top and bottom of the hat were much easier than the body. I don't know if you can see it in the pictures but I did use a texture sheet to get the paisley pattern just like the hat in the movie.

Now that the hat pieces were done, I needed to come up with a way to get the height back from the massive scale down. I made a red heart and a pile of cards. I scratched the suites and an 'A' into the cards. I glued the cards together, put them on top of the heart, and the hat on top of all of that and got the height I needed. I had to hide the entire piece in a closet at school for over a week. I was terrified that I would get broken before I could show it and get it checked off. Phew, it made it.

Next up was the chocolate piece. I went the route of a inlay piece. I found a cool picture of Cheshire Cat and colored some coating chocolate. I then painted it onto acetate using a blown up picture. I even wrote the words 'I really do like that hat...' I let it dry, put candy bars up around it, and then covered it with grey chocolate to get a solid slab out of it. I even made angled pieces so I could melt them on and it would stand up. This piece did not turn out like I wanted it to, not at all. The painted on pieces stuck to the acetate and I had to paint a lot of it back in the indents left by the painted chocolate. While trying to get the chocolate to come off the acetate, I smeared the words. It was so frustrating. I finally got it all done, cut off the words, glued on the angled pieces and had Chef Hall check it off. Then I chucked it. I disliked it so much I tossed it. I took a picture to remind myself of the work, the process, and what not to do in the future.

Next up was the sugar piece. I had to rework my plan for my sugar pieces a couple of times because I confused myself with the instructions about what it had to be for checkoff. I needed 1 flower, 3 leaves, 1 pulled/blown piece, and 1 cast piece all together. I decided to make a chessboard as my cast piece, a blue flower like in the movie, 1 red rose, and 1 white rose, all with leaves, and a bottle as my blown piece. This is not easy. This work requires patience and time. Expect that you will get blisters and burns. Expect that you will break pieces and have to do them over. I finally got everything made and pieced together but it took several days and 5 blisters. The chessboard turned out to be so fun that I decided to use it and a couple of my cake stands as the platters in my buffet.

In the end, I stayed in Portland and worked on the buffet items for that last couple of weekends. I worked 3 weeks straight in the kitchen on the menu items and the buffet items. And just like that, class was over. I ended up not doing as well as I would have liked over all with my buffet but it was a good experience. Less salt in the caramels, more lemon in the tassies, puff dough for the eccles, well, it did not go as planned and I did not have a plan b.

Being my own worst critic, I could go on and on with what I perceive as things that went wrong. All in all, I cannot really remember what happened. You are so focused on just getting it all done that you cannot comprehend what to do when you are done. I had fun, I challenged myself, and it all worked out.

April 7, 2010

Just four items

The next section of class put us in charge of our own items. We had to come up with four items. One each that fit the category of chocolate, pastry, fruit, and custard. We picked the four items, cost out how much it costs to make them, design a plate and draw it, and then make the items. In each group, our group also has to have a four item menu, items from our individual menus. Those items were the items that went out for service on our service night in the school's restuarant. So, we needed at least 16 of our service menu item, and 1 of the other 3 items.

I spent a lot of time pouring over my cookbooks, online food blogs, and my school recipes. Everything that I made was new to me. I wanted to challenge myself and do something new, or at least, a twist on something I already knew.

The other part of this project was that we were timed. We were allowed prep time but the day of, we couldn't get into the service kitchen for plating until 6:30. We had to present 2 plates at 6:45 (one was the item for service), 2 plates at 7:00 (the service item to be sent back to our classmates for critique), and 1 item at 7:15. My group of course had Friday, the last service day but the busiest. Getting the plates ready on time was grueling. I made it on time for all 4 but it was really hard.

I will start with my service item. I called it Lemon Kissed Cheesecake. For the group and my individual menu, it was the custard item. I follow a blog called Tartelette. She makes the most amazing looking macaroons. I ended up looking through her list of recipes and came across the lemon goat cheese cheesecake with blood orange sauce and knew immediately that I had to make it. I made some minor adjustments to the recipe and made it on Monday. I made it in a muffin tin so they were mini round cheesecakes. It made 24 and I was able to make them and freeze them. Being able to do things a head of time made my life so much easier. I am so glad that I didn't have a lot to do the day before or the day of, I might have gone crazy.

With the cheesecake I made a blood orange sauce. Alan, a trooper, drove all over the place looking for juice for me so I could make it without having to juice all those oranges (for the amount I needed it would have taken more than 45 oranges). He found some and I made it! I added some sugar and reduced it in 4 pots on the stoves at school. It was pretty hilarious to see all that orangey-red stuff boiling away at the stove.

For the plate design, I decided to use a bowl. I placed the cheesecake dead center and put a swirl of sauce on top and a dallop on the side. I then added a candied pistachio and a sugar garnish, the color of lemon yellow. I am glad I made extra because we sold out of it in the restaurant, well, except for a test one, and 3 that I gave away. Everyone who tried it said it was good. I liked how it turned out and I plan on making it again. The recipe is a definite keeper! My costing estimate, the final suggested menu price to break even, was $5.03 for one serving, the goat cheese makes this a spendy one. My score on this plate was an 18/20.

My second item of the night was my pastry. I really like cream puffs. I could eat a million of them. I came across a apple inspired one in a cookbook and went with it. I called it Apple Stack. I made pâte à choux and made 2" rounds. They turned out to be closer to 4". The puffed up in the oven more than I could have expected. It was good but bad. It was the one thing I waited to make because I wanted it super fresh. I didn't have time to make it again so I used it too large. To accompany the puff, I made a pastry cream and flavored it with Applejack. Then I made a layer of spiced, caramelized apples. Then a touch more of the pastry cream. I dusted the top with powdered sugar and then set it against the stack in a bit of caramel for an anchor. I liked the taste of it a lot but the size was way out of hand. It took up so much of the plate. I also spent a couple of days figuring out a garnish of thin apple rings, I wanted to get some height on my plate. I finally got it to work and so my garnish was apple rings. I liked my garnish but disliked the size, as did Chef Hall. My score was my lowest one, 17/20. Bummer. My costing estimate, the final suggested menu price to break even, was $3.76 for one serving.

For my chocolate item I went with a full on chocolate s'more. I called it S'more in the City. I followed the school's recipe for a cheesecake crust and hand crushed my favorite cookies, Jules Destrooper Ginger Thins, and added a bit of cocoa powder and flour to it to make it pliable. Next I made chocolate marshmallows. It was a 10"X8" block. It was so fun! Then I made chocolate ganache and caramel sauce to top it. To plate it, I dusted the plate with cocoa powder, anchored the bottom crust with caramel sauce, crust, ganache, toasted marshmallow, ganache, crust, and caramel sauce. I also added a small tempered chocolate piece as my garnish. The only scary part of this was I couldn't test the marshmallow until right before I served it. It starts to get weird and hard the minute you cut into it, air just kills it. So I waited and it was scary but it turned out ok. It was fun to torch it too. I used a wooden skewer and our giant torch. Heehee. Score was 18/20. My costing estimate, the final suggested menu price to break even, was $4.82 for one serving, the cookies I used made this expensive.

My final item was my fruit. I have always wanted to make an ice bowl and serve something cold in it. I came up with this idea to make a granite, poach some fruit, and serve it in the ice bowl. I called this one Spring Thaw. I started the bowls on Monday. I took one bowl, placed some edible flower in to it, place another bowl on top of the flowers, one that was barely smaller, and weighed it down and taped it so there was no movement. Then I filled in between the bowls with water. I carefully stored it in the freezer and walked away. The next day, I check on it and it had frozen properly! I was able to get both bowls seperated and was left with the most beautiful bowls. :) Yippee!!! The next trick was to somehow attach them to a plate. I knew I didn't want to use a sauce because you would be able to see it. I wondered if I could just freeze it to a plate. I tried it that day, and the next day, it was frozen to the plate. It was so cool.

Making the items to fill the bowl was next. I have never made granite, actually, I don't think I have ever eaten it. I think it is like a slushy but with bigger ice chunks. I was bent on reusing and not wasting during this project so I used the mixture that I poached my nectarines in to make the granite. It turned out pretty well. I wanted to ensure that it would freeze so I used baumé scale at school to measure the sugar density. I am glad I checked because it wasn't dense enough, it wouldn't have frozen. I adjusted the mixture and froze it. Then, I stirred it every now and then to get the big crystals. I really was surprised by the fruit. The nectarines we got in tasted terrible but once poached, were flavorful and tender. Poaching is genius!

I served the granite and poached nectarines in the ice bowl, with a drizzle of cremé anglaise. On the frozen plate I put a sprig of mint and a fresh edible flower for garnish. My costing estimate, the final suggested menu price to break even, was $4.90 for one serving. My score for this one still makes me tear up. I got a perfect 20/20.

My group mates had amazing items too. For our group menu Delicia made a chocolate frozen zabaglione, Katie made a poached pear that she stuffed with brie, and baked it surrounded by a sweet dough, similar to pie dough, and Rita made individual fruit tarts brimming with fresh fruit. I am sorry to say I cannot remember what all the rest of their items were.

Last week was unbelievably hard and I worked my butt off. I didn't sleep well at all. That 20/20 really made it worth it. The bowls I used to make the ice bowl, well, Ubi shoved them off the counter. They shattered into a million pieces. I am glad he did it after I used them.

We are in the final stretch. There are 2 1/2 weeks left. I am working on some exciting show pieces and a buffet of desserts. I will post about them soon.

April 3, 2010

Designing plates

The third section with Chef Hall was all about individual plating. We still had to make items. We had a list of items, garnishes, and sauces. We make the items, plate the items, and Chef scores the items.

A note about the plates, portion size, texture, flavor, composition, presentation, color, and difficulty are important. Portion size is between 3-8 oz, less ounces for richer, more for lighter. Texture is about product consistency, the thickness of sauce, and the balance of texture on the plate (crunchy, creamy, etc). Flavor is a given. Composition is about the shape, elevation (higher is better), balance of items (odd numbers are better than even) or symmetry, and placement on the plate. Presentation is about the plate being clean, no smudges, and about the lines/piping on the plate. Color is presented in harmony or contrast, natural colors only. Difficulty is the kicker. You want to include multiple techniques, close timing, and advanced garnishing. So I present to you my plates...

First up was a crème caramel, otherwise known as flan. It is not difficult to make but it is impossible to get out of our ramekins. It took me 6 to get one out that wasn't all messed up. It is a layer of caramel that you pour into the ramekin. Once set, you pour over the prepared filling. You bake it in a water bath. Once out and cool, you run a wet (it has to be wet) knife blade along the edge, turn it over on to a plate, and hopefully it will slide out onto the plate. When it slides out, some of the caramel has broken down into a sauce and it comes with it. It makes a lovely and tasty puddle all around the creamy filling. I decorated it with 3 blackberries and a sugar garnish. The sugar garnish and berries were both checkoff.

The next items was bread pudding. I have made this before with stale, scrap bread, cinnamon and raisins. I then serve it warm with a Chambord sauce. Here in class, it is pretty plain. It is also served cold. No hard sauce either. So I slide it out of the ramekin. Decorate with caramel sauce and raisins. The caramel sauce was a checkoff. I think the recipe is good but I would serve it warm. With a spicy, cinnamon sauce.

After the simple bread pudding and crème caramel, we move on to the more difficult souffles. We get to make a cream based souffle and a flourless one. My group is awesome! We got both right and when we took them out of the oven they were a good 2 inches above the ramekin. The problem is that they immediately start sinking. I decided to plate my cream based chocolate souffle 'broken' with a pool of crème anglaise (a checkoff) in the middle. mmmm.... The flourless souffle I served just plated with a dusting of powdered sugar. Alan didn't get to try these because the just deflate and get cold to fast. These must be eaten warm from the oven.

After the fun of souffle we moved on to chocolate mousse. Here we bring back our tempering chocolate skills for our garnish, or more, for the plate itself. I made a cup on a balloon. It is fun to inflate them, dip them, and then when the chocolate sets, slowly deflate it. You are left with a perfect little cup. And, if you do it right, you can make it a cool, rounded edge cup by dipping straight down then move left, right, up, down, and pull straight out. I filled my cup with the smooth chocolate mouse, topped it with a golden, sugar star, a thin chocolate arc, and a line of raspberry and mango coulis. Coulis is a sauce made from a fruit or vegetable puree. We made mango, raspberry, and eventually a kiwi one but I never actually used it.

Following mousse, we made panna cotta. Wow tasty. We have these silicon molds that make the shapes, round, square, pyramids. Our group used the rounds for panna cotta. I plated it with the raspberry and mango coulis. I went for a sun set in the water, using blueberries as the 'water.' I also feathered the mango and coulis together so it looked like flames. I really liked this dish. It was pretty, fun, and tasted so lovely.

Still in the cold items, we worked on a fruit mousse. I made a kiwi mousse with a mango glacé. We use a round, roll cake piece as a base. We then wrap a piece of acetate around the base and pipe in the mousse. Once the mousse has chilled, we make the glacé and pipe it very thin on top. We chill that until set. Then we remove the acetate band and plate it. I plated it with a couple of drops of raspberry coulis and a tower of raspberries up the side. It was pretty good, very light, smooth, and creamy.

Next up, frozen chocolate marquise. Alan and his dad Ken got to taste this, although it wasn't frozen by the time we got to it. I liked using the pyramid molds for this one. The shape is so funny and you can do so much with it. I did alternating bands of mango and raspberry coulis. Then I curled a bit of the red in to the corner of each mango line for a pretty red curl. Then I added my tempered chocolate decoration in the shape of a fan. I wanted to put the raspberry in the circle of the chocolate decoration but I was afraid of breaking it.

So here is where I forget to take a picture. We poached pears and I forgot to take a picture of the plate before Chef evaluated and tasted it. I devoured it. Without a tought. Duh. Katie, a group mate, was kind enough to let me snap a picture of her lovely plate before Chef Hall evaluated and tasted it. She decorated with blueberries on tiny piles of creme chantilly, the pear atop a mint pile, all surrounded by a cage of sugar. Good job Katie! Anyway, the pear was super delicious. I toasted the spices before adding the liquid, sweet spices, like cinnamon, cloves, anise, and a chunk of dried apricot. The pear was a really pretty red/purple color when it was done.

The day of poached pears was a bit about forgetting. Forgetting pictures and just not being with it. I volunteered to make the group ice cream. No one cared what kind so I made a orange ginger ice cream. I like the combo, I made jellies of the same flavor. It is all about getting the right amount of ginger. Orange with milky is just awesome and when you add a bite of ginger, well, nothing better. So I get the base ready and ask Chef something and I thought he said it was ready to go, I took it to the fancy ice cream machine and turned it on. It takes 6 minutes. I decided to run back and do my dishes really quick and then come back for it. I get back to class and notice another group has their base... in an ice bath. Oh man. I just put hot cream base in a really expensive school machine. Chef Hall was very kind, I could have broken the machine by overworking it. It worked out ok, my ice cream just took 7 minutes longer than normal. Jeesh. 

Anyway, I got the idea to make ice cream cones out of my caramel cookie batter (a checkoff). I made them and dipped the end in chocolate and rolled it in pistachios. The colors were just beautiful. I put a cone on the plate and I made a quenelle shape out of the ice cream and place it in front of the cone. Chef Hall said the ice cream was good. I was glad that I didn't screw up for the whole group. Yikes. On top of that, I forgot my picture on this one too. The picture of the ice cream cones is my group mate Delicia's. She also made cones. She just didn't dip them in chocolate or roll them in nuts.

Next up, sorbet. Katie had a bad day and a pink explosion for the first try at group sorbet so Rita, another mate, took a whack at try number two. It worked. Strawberry sorbet done in 6 minutes. That machine is awesome. I decide to plate it with blood orange segments, chocolate sauce, and a bit of fresh mint. The dark lines of chocolate were a nice contrast to the orange-red and pink.

Whoosh, another section complete. Next up is all about designing our own 4 item dessert menu. Then costing it out and implementing it. One item, has to go to the restaurant for service. I am still alive and will tell about it in my next post, coming soon...