Gubana

One of the most interesting parts of my job at Nico is the exploration of a different cultures’ food traditions. It’s Easter, so naturally there are multiple Italian traditions. What’s really interesting is how these traditions differ among not only regions, but among families. In Italy, Pasqua (Easter) celebrates not only the traditional religious aspects, but also the Spring harvest.

 

Introducing the Gubana! This traditional Easter bread comes from a region northeast of Venice near the Austrian and Croatian border. It’s not just for Easter, but is also used during Christmas as well as other celebrations. The easiest way to describe a Gubana is an Italian version of a babka. It’s a brioche-type egg dough with a filling of chocolate, dried fruits, and nuts. It’s usually formed into the shape of a snail.

This delicious bread has a rich history as well. The word Gubana comes from a Slavic word “guba”, that means to fold, which makes complete sense given how it’s made! It is said that it dates back as far as 1409 and was made for the Pope.

But let’s be honest about Easter: I’m in it for the bunnies and the food! So here it is: The Gubana!

 

First the dough. This dough is very similar to a brioche dough as it is enriched with eggs and butter. We adjusted the dough recipe because often times, Italian doughs are a little bit dense for my taste. The dough is then split into 2 portions.

 

The dough is then rolled out and hangs out in the cooler for a little bit before it gets filled. The filling I used is butter, cocoa powder, chocolate pieces and dried cherries rehydrated in Marsala wine.

 

It then gets rolled up like a cinnamon roll and goes back in the cooler for about an hour.  This particular recipe made 2 logs. The logs then get cut in half lengthwise and the two halves are twisted together. This is what creates that beautiful swirled effect.

 

Now it’s time to put the dough in a “snail” shape- but in reality, any shape is good. I used an 8” cake pan that was lined with parchment.

 

The “traditional” Italian recipe that I used did not call for this dough to proof, but since I wanted a little bit more air to it, it’s proofed for about 30-45 minutes before it goes in the oven.

And then here it is! This beauty is on our Easter brunch menu!

 

Happy Easter!!!

 

How to Make Meringue

 

My latest piece over at Lucky Peach is filled with very graphic information about making meringue. I feel like it should come with a warning label, since even I started to get cross eyed after writing the word “denatured protein” for the umteenthousandth time. 

My friend Marc Shermerhorn took one of my baking classes and chose the recipe with the fewest ingredients, thinking it would be the simplest. Instead, he discovered that the recipes with the fewest ingredients are often he most complicated, because they rely on the precise interaction of the few ingredients involved. Meringue is right up Marc’s alley, with little more than egg whites and sugar. However, the way we combine them dictates the ultimate texture, and I’ve got every detail covered for you guys. 

I’ve also written three recipes for you to apply your newfound knowledge of meringue, French meringue, Italian meringue, and Swiss meringue.

 

 

The kind of meringue you get from a bakery—the impossibly light cookie, so brittle that it crackles at first bite and dissolves immediately, leaving behind only an echo of flavor—is just one version of what “meringue” is. Meringue, whipped egg whites and sugar, is one of the most fundamental techniques in pastry. It’s the base for desserts like soufflés, mousses, semifreddos, marshmallows, chiffon cakes, and some cookies, to name just a few. As such, it is crucial for a pastry chef to master—and is a useful technique for every home cook to have in his or her arsenal.

First, some science. There are three generally observable states of matter in the physical world: liquids, solids, and gases. Meringue is a foam, which forms when a gas is suspended in a liquid or solid.

Combining states of matter is not particularly difficult, but encouraging them to stay combined is. When creating a stable foam, two things need to be present: a foaming agent, which traps the air, and a stabilizing agent, which keeps the air in place. In a meringue, albumen, the family of proteins in egg whites, acts as the foaming agent. Albumen has dual-action surfaces. Some elements are hydrophilic, meaning they love water, and others are hydrophobic, meaning they fear water and will grab onto anything else present to avoid coming in contact with it. When the egg whites are whipped, the hydrophobic parts of the proteins search for air, seeking refuge from water. When enough proteins cluster around an air bubble, hiding their hydrophobic parts inside it, the bubble will become completely surrounded by proteins, and in turn, trapped.

Though the hydrophobic parts of the albumen have trapped an air bubble, the hydrophilic parts are attracting water. The proteins themselves aren’t durable enough to hold the heavy water molecule steady and keep their hydrophobic parts inside an air bubble at the same time. Think of the proteins like little teeter-totters with a water balloon on one side, and a balloon filled with air on the other. If you’ve ever whipped plain egg whites, you’ll know that they will begin to deflate almost immediately after you stop the motion of the whisk.

This is why we need a stabilizing agent, and in meringue, we use sugar. The sucrose molecules act to stabilize the foam, bonding with the proteins and water, gluing everything in place and helping meringue holds it’s shape. If sugar is added incorrectly, however, it can act as a destabilizing agent, which brings us to the first tip to making a good meringue……

Head over to Lucky Peach to read the 8 tips for making meringue!

A Brief Introduction to Palm Sugar

 

What I’ll always remember about Singapore is the haze. Unbeknownst to me, my month of staging would directly coincide with the peak of Indonesia’s palm sugar harvest. As I stepped off the plane, directly across the Java Sea thousands of acres were being burned and the jet stream was dumping all of the residual smoke and ash down on Singapore. Consistently grey skies, headaches from spending more than a few hours outside—the price of keeping up with the demand for Southeast Asia’s primary sweetener.

While the environmental soundness and safety of intentionally setting a large part of a country ablaze is suspect, Indonesian farmers have found a variation of slash-and-burn agriculture the most efficient way of harvesting palm sugar. The fires burn away the tree’s leafy tops, which have no market value. The stalks, filled with water, don’t ignite and are later tapped to remove the palm sap. The rest of the process is similar to making maple syrup: the sap is cooked down to produce a thick liquid and impurities are skimmed away. This resulting syrup, called gula malaka, is jet black and tastes of smoke and burnt caramel, and is delicious over vanilla ice cream. Further refining leads to the product sold in most Asian markets across the U.S., which is palm sugar in the form of beige crystallized pucks. This type is much creamier, with a taste reminiscent of sweetened condensed milk, fresh coconut, and buttery caramel.

Solidified palm sugar can either be dissolved in water to make a syrup, or grated finely to be used in other pastry applications. Palm sugar has a few convenient properties, the first of which is its low glycemic index, which means spending an afternoon eating the various sweets sold at an Asian market doesn’t cause the kind of blood sugar spike/crash one would experience on a donut-crawl across New York City while eating an equivalent amount of refined white sugar.

One of the simplest and most delicious ways to enjoy palm sugar is in kaya, the national condiment of Singapore. A typical Singaporean breakfast consists of kopi (coffee with sweetened condensed milk), a soft boiled egg, and a thick slice of toast topped with butter and kaya, a coconut jam. I personally prefer nyonya kaya, which includes pandan (a green leaf, the juice or extract of which is used in Asia as Americans use vanilla and whose taste, just like vanilla, is impossible to articulate) and have included that recipe below.

            Nyonya Kaya

10 eggs

250 g thick coconut milk (often sold as coconut cream, but not Coco Lopez)

250 g palm sugar, grated on a microplane

200 g granulated sugar

1 teaspoon pandan extract (sold in Asian markets in a small green plastic bottle)

-Place all of the ingredients in a metal bowl, whisk to combine.

-Set over a pot of simmering water and whisk continuously until thickened (about 15 minutes). Strain through       chinois if you desire an entirely smooth product.

-Chill over an ice bath, then store in the fridge.

Palm sugar’s second convenient property is its extremely low pH, which the chef Will Goldfarb utilizes in making his Balinese meringue. While French, Italian, and Swiss meringues are all variations in technique but similar in their use of white sugar, Goldfarb developed a method for meringue that is 100% palm sugar. Acid, whether lemon juice, vinegar, or cream of tartar (a derivative of tartaric acid), is often used to stabilize meringues. Lower pHs create more stable meringues—the protein in egg whites coagulate more strongly to form a tight, glossy meringue, rather than a light, frothy one. So, Goldfarb was able to create a product using local palm sugar that had a much lower sugar concentration than typical meringues because of it’s acidic nature. The trick to the technique comes in briefly using an ice cream machine—the meringue needs to be very cold in order to whip properly.

            Will Goldfarb’s “Balinese” Meringue

210 g egg whites

178 g palm sugar, grated finely

212 g water

-Place all the ingredients in a blender and puree.

-Transfer to a bowl set over a pot of simmering water and whisk until the mixture reaches 84 degrees C.

-Transfer to an ice cream machine and spin/chill just until the mixture reaches -9 degrees C.

-Eject the mixture into a mixing bowl and whip on high speed to stiff peaks.

-Use as you would any other meringue (pipe and freeze, bake, dehydrate, torch, etc).

A final note: if you pick up some palm sugar from your nearest Asian market and start playing around with it in your existing recipes, be sure to substitute it for granulated or brown sugar at a 1:1 ratio by weight not volume! Depending on the fineness of the grater/microplane/grinder you use to break down the palm sugar, equivalent weights will yield differing volumetric measurements.

how i steal all the best ideas from those savory kids

The first 2 years of my cooking career was spent as a savory cook. I really liked it. The day after I graduated from culinary school was my first day on Garde Manger at Patina Restaurant. It was in my opinion the best and most creative fine dining restaurant in Los Angeles. The chef had just returned from a season at el bulli. Mind you, this was in 2000, before everyone was staging everywhere. We were doing tomato water noodles and frozen snow in the Pacojet. Things that have either become common, dated, or simply overused. The thing is, we were super progressive and the menu was highly creative.
I was more than happy to be in that environment. And that is where my path into the pastry world began.

Still to this day, I feel a connection to the savory world. I love to see how their plates come together. How they treat ingredients. New techniques the savory team uses. It is always a source of inspiration.

One such technique is lacto-fermentation. A seemingly simple process of placing fruits or vegetables in a cryovac bag, along with 2% salt by weight, compressing them, and letting them rest in a warm place (between 62F-75F) for an average of 5 days. During this time the natural sugars are converted into alcohol and you get a very rich, umami-like product. Think miso, kimchee, or saurkraut. Currently at Aubergine we treat lettuce this way and serve it with abalone. The savory funk of lettuce cuts through the rich meatiness of abalone.
So as I see them doing this, I think, how can I get in on the action!

Still in winter tree fruit season I try it with pears. After 5 days the pears are fermented, slightly salty, and bathed in an alcoholic funk. Way too strong to put directly on the plate….so I poach them, and then puree them and add a little creme fraiche. That fatty, lactic tang just brings it all together.
It tastes great but I want more. Not just a drip on the plate.

Let’s make ice cream!
Our restaurant is small, really small. We use a Pacojet. I have come to the conclusion that when I make ice cream I want an intense punch without much lingering fattiness. Mostly because the ice cream is just one component among many for the plated dessert. I like it lean and clean. Mostly milk, very little cream, low in sugar, no yolks.
Ok, so that’s sherbet…or is it gelato?
Yes. So many technicalities….

I figure this funky pear would make a great ice cream.
900g milk
200g cream
400g fermented pear
125g sugar
75g dextrose powder
40g trimolene
60g milk powder

The ice cream tastes like a rich Poire Williams ice cream. I am loving it. It tickles the palate, makes you salivate, and crave more.

So now we had to come up with a dish.
We’ve been making our own walnut praline paste. Caramelized walnuts blended to make a creamy paste. Unfortunately for our purveyor I have stopped buying praline paste and just make it in house.
Walnut praline is bitter and toasty and we figured we should make a standard feuillatine with this delicious goop.
Simply walnut praline, cooca butter, feuillatine, and salt. Like an adult Watchamacallit.
Finish this off with a chocolate cremeux and we have the last of three dessert courses.
Rich, bitter, and a bit funky. Sounds like a George Clinton album.

Let’s see how we can push pastry this week.

 

Thoughts; a post by Amanda Rockman of Pastrylandia

 

“So, I think I’m moving.”

 

“No way- you’ve said this before and you never do- you would never leave Chicago.”

 

“No, really. Leigh. I’m leaving Chicago.”

 

That is when I knew it was really happening- I said it out loud to another pastry chef AND was convincing her to take my position. Nico- my amazing kitchen with my own walk in and freezer, a staff that had stuck by me (some for years and through different restaurants), availability to any product I could imagine, awesome equipment, and a chef that really supported what I did. What the hell was I thinking?

 

Everyone talks about the physical changes that one goes through as they work their way through our industry- knees get sore, back isn’t the same, you can’t bounce back from a clopen (closing- then opening) as you used to do. However, no one really talks about the mental changes that occur 10-15-20 years in your career.

 

So what was I thinking? A few things really.

 

Thought #1:

I was about to get married. I was about to share my life with someone and build upon that life and had to realized that when I made decisions it wasn’t just about me it was about “us.” I also didn’t want to miss every birthday and holiday as I had before because I had someone I wanted to share them with. We talked about having a family in the future and did we really want to have our kids go to public school in Chicago? Could we afford a home in Chicago-proper? Did we enjoy digging our cars out the snow in May? Do we enjoy the state AND city taxes?
Answer: No.

 

Thought #2:

Over the 11 years I had resided in Chicago I had worked at TRU, Spring, L.2o (twice), The Peninsula Hotel, Bristol, Balena, and Nico. I had opened three of those seven restaurants and re-concepted another three.

I build programs- I reorganize kitchen systems, stream line ordering, make recipes consistent in how they are communicated, and train pastry cooks. My dear friend Dana once called me “The Opener”- a name I hold near and dear to my heart. I enjoy opening restaurants- it is a personal challenge to go into a bare bones kitchen with a loose mission statement of what owners want the restaurant to be and to create something from their vision. I was offered a new opening challenge in Austin, Texas for an entire property: two restaurants, a coffee-juice-pastry shop, event space, and ice cream truck. Things are bigger in Texas and this opportunity was the proof.

 

Thought #3:

As a pastry chef you are an extension of the chef. You follow their lead. They go ultra modern? You order the liquid nitrogen. Paying homage to their roots? You find your grandma’s recipe. You listen to their needs and wants to have this or that concept. You are there to support their vision and to come up with the ideas of their pastry/bread program. It is rarely asked what a pastry chef wants in the long term and I suppose it is not really the chef’s job to do so. But as a pastry chef manipulating my own personal style to fit with what the chef wants, I would like to think that my future plans are just as important. It became very clear to me that if I wanted to ever have my own place, I would have to put my plans first. Saying that to the best chef I have ever worked with, Erling Wu-Bower, was one of the hardest things I ever had to admit. I couldn’t focus on his wants- I wanted to focus on mine.

 

When you start out in a kitchen you get to concentrate on the food and the technique- how to improve your abilities to be quick and efficient. You strain over every item on the plate. I try to remind my staff to enjoy that time. You don’t have to worry about food or labor cost, your relationship with your boss(es), whether or not your staff will stay with you… Oh and by the way, did you nail the reviews? Have you proven your relevance to the industry? None of that matters when a young cook is starting out in the kitchen; they just get to worry about the food. Cherish the growth, no matter how many miles it takes you from your comfort zone. As you move along in your career and life, thoughts you had as a young cook begin to compound and layer as you become a chef- a wife- a friend- a human being.

 

Nothing is as flaky and layered than a perfect Kougin Amann- something I became obsessed with during my time in Chicago. The many folds of butter and dough hit with sugar is an amazing feat of pastry. That is, once you’ve taken the time to make the dough, butter block, laminate the dough, form the kougin amanns, proof them, and lastly, bake- enjoy the process.

 

 

I was fortunate to learn how to make the Kougin Amann from Chef Michael Laiskonis and then brought it to Nico where we affectionately called them “Queens.”

 

YIELD: 1 Book: 24 Queens

 

Dough:

997g APF

19g kosher salt

9g dry instant yeast

598g room temp water

37g plugra butter-melted

 

Method:

Place all dries in a bowl with a dough hook attachment

mix in melted butter on low speed

slowly add water allowing dough to hydrate

once dough is combined mix on medium speed

mix till dough is shiny and elastic (has good “window”)

spray bowl with pan spray and place dough inside

wrap top with plastic

chill overnight

 

Butter Block:

1650g plugra butter- on the warm side

 

Method:

On a piece of parchment slice butter into equal square butter blocks- make a rectangle the size of 11”X9” with that butter.

Place a piece of parchment on top the butter.

Using a wooden dowel and some of the day’s aggression- beat the butter so that the pieces start to come together- be sure to keep your rectangle shape.

You will need to use a bench scrapper to take pieces from the side and reintroduce them to the center.

Do this a few times and it will become a homogenous block of butter.

Clean up the sides and make sure that the butter is smooth top and bottom.

Place in a full sheet of parchment and wrap.

Chill overnight.

 

Lamination:

Take dough out and sheet to .5” thick- you want it to be a rectangle large enough that you can accommodate the block of butter being locked in between the dough.

Once you have that rectangle large enough place the butter block on the right side of the rectangle and fold over the dough. Be sure to seal the edges around the butter block.

Roll out the dough with the butter now inside the dough to a long rectangle (think 40”X15”: If you have a sheeter, CONGRATS- this will be a ton easier!)

You will then want to fold one end of your dough 1/4 th the way into the center and then fold the other end of the dough 3/4th the way matching the end pieces together.

Then fold the end of the dough to meet the other end as if it was a book.

Wrap and allow to rest for 1 hour.

After an hour take the dough out and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

Repeat the same fold you did before.

Rest another hour.

After an hour take the dough out and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

Be sure to have 320g of sugar weighed out.

Roll the dough out in a long rectangle (40”X15”) with sugar on the surface.

Sprinkle sugar on the dough rectangle and finish your book fold making sure to get sugar on all sides.

Roll dough out to ¼” thick.

Cut 4.5” squares of dough.

 

Forming: using your fingers place all the corners of the square into the center pressing down so they stay there.

The teardrop shape that is created from that fold you want to place your fingers in between the tear drop and press them in to make the shape of a heart

Place them inside a 4” ring mold and proof at 98F for 55 minutes. (spray molds with pan spray)

Bake them at 375F on high fan (if you have that availability)

When they come out of the oven allow them to cool for 8 minutes then carefully remove them from the molds and allow them to cool upside down.

ENJOY!

Meet Amanda!

I met Amanda Rockman over bowls of boiled chicken and rice, Hianese style, curled up on upholstered dining room chairs next to each other. It was an evening of the kind of laughter that contorts your face, cramps your stomach, and otherwise leaves you feeling drained in the best way possible. We might have left it at that, the occasional social gathering, but then she took the position as opening pastry chef for Nico Osteria in Chicago, a restaurant within the same group as Blackbird, where I was working at the time. Until her kitchen actually existed, she spent mornings in my little pastry department, trailing cooks, testing recipes, and making desserts for preview events. It was then that we bonded over our cats, Katy Perry, mutual respect for eachothers desserts, and general love of laughter.

Her career path has taken her from California, to Austin, to Chicago, and finally, back to Austin, with a trail of delicious desserts of her own making left behind. Her Basque cake has it’s own cult following, and her tiramisu broke every rule, and inspired a dessert of my own. She can run the heck out of a department, and has been a mentor the flock of pastry cooks that follow her from property to property.

She’s really an amazing woman my friends. She’s put as much attention into her desserts as she has her career path, which has been calculated to take her exactly where she wanted to go. I feel sometimes shame is cast on calculating chefs, the general opinion being that we must slave for the craft with no hope of anything in return except more opportunity to give everything and take nothing in a grander arena. This is just not true. Financial compensation can distract you from a true education if you make it your priority, so you must choose your positions with care, making sure they offer you the kind of education you can build upon. After years of building a foundation of true, working knowledge, if you’ve educated yourself correctly, you’re deserving of paycheck to match.

Apologies, for a short rant. It was all meant to bring me to one of my favorite Amanda Rockman moments, when she describes the invisible T-shirt she’s wearing. It says, “I am not a non-profit organization.” It makes me laugh every time, and Amanda is such a great example to young chefs, particularly women who can get unintentionally steamrolled by employers, event planners, the media, who are doing what we all do, looking out for their own interests. In fact, she’s an amazing example for me as well.

That is why I am beyond excited to begin reading the blog Amanda has started writing called Pastrialandia, so I can continue to be inspired by her amazing work, and look up to her for an example of the kind of chef I want to be.

Without further adieu, an interview with the amazing Amanda Rockman.

 

What is your name, and what is your current position?

Amanda Eve Rockman and I am the Executive Pastry Chef of The South Congress Hotel: Café No Se, Central Standard, Manana, Stephen F. Frostin Ice Cream.

 

What was the first dessert you ever made?

I’m fairly certain it was a brownie box mix when I was 11. I know, not all that compelling. However, I can mix up a brownie box mix in less than 5 minutes.

Come on, time me.

 

Did you go to school, and where?

I went to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

 

What was your first job in a pastry department?

My first real pastry job was at Farallon in San Francisco under Pastry Chef Emily Luchetti. I was incredibly lucky to have learned from her at such a young age- I constantly ask myself “What Would Emily Do” (WWED)

 

What has been the most pivitol job so far?

That may be impossible for my to answer- every job has left me with some lesson that it would be unfair to pick…but if I had to…..Nico. That was my first hotel opening and once I did that I felt I could do anything. (note to reader: in any opening you often times drink too much caffeine, eat too much sugar, don’t get enough or any sleep so often times you have feelings of grandeur that anything is possible. However- still feels great to successfully open a hotel.)

 

Why did you choose this career path to begin with?

I originally wanted to be a writer- a film writer. Then I realized I liked to write for fun and what I thought I did for fun I actually wanted to do for a living. Bake.

I was going to Emerson College for film and writing and on weekends working at Radius for free (a fine dining restaurant in Boston). I also went on bakery tours on my own in Boston on weekends when kids where going out to da club. The writing was pretty much on the wall.

 

What was the last dessert you ate?

A chocolate cream filled yeasted donut with candied cocoa rice krispies, glorious chocolate glaze that hugs the donut just right. My sous chef is R&Ding a new donut and I got to eat the fruits of her efforts. I know- my job is awful.

 

If you could teach young pastry cooks one lesson from your own time in the trenches, what would it be?

It takes time- the road to becoming a chef. Don’t rush it because you really do need that journey to learn new techniques, how to deal with others, different styles, etc. It will come- I promise.

 

Have you ever written a blog before?

Yes.

I had a blog with my sister called Bitter Chick Bakery. I was a lot younger and dealing with younger chef issues, traveling, and dating in Chicago. A strange fun mix….

 

What inspired you to write Pastrylandia?

I get so many questions as a chef- especially since I have such a large staff. How do I make this? How do I tell a fellow co-worker I don’t appreciate them not doing the freezer inventory correctly? What is food cost? Why do you have BEO meetings? Does lemon go with Devonshire cream and can it be heated? Are the only jobs out there hotel pastry cook jobs?

So. Many. Questions.

So, I wanted to start answering some of them and broadening the perspective of our industry. There is so much more than sugar, butter, flour.

Enter: Pastrylandia- a platform to write about anything in my world of pastry. Now- that means I can write about really anything since I live in this world- but most of it will be related to my profession.

And Beyonce, of course.

 

Who is your target audience and what do you hope they will get out of your posts?

I hope to reach out to professionals- newly minted cooks to individuals with 25 years in the field, to home cooks or someone who just enjoys good writing. I really hope they just enjoy the topics Pastrylandia covers- from organization, to recipes, guest posts from a badass chef becoming a mom, to a chef dealing with addiction. Individuals who are interested in not only how to become a chef but sometimes the hards truths of what it is like to be a chef.

 

When you are creating desserts, where do you look for inspiration?

I look to what is in season first. The availability of local product really helps me hone in on to what I’m feeling at the moment. I also go thru obsession points- its vinegar, then confitting EVERYTHING, then what can I put in the ISI container, to meringue- what can I possible add to it?? It’s always different- and always fun.

 

And most importantly, do you have any pets, and what are their names. Tell us everything.

Now to the GOOD part- yes. I am a mother of one cat, Charles. Also known as Sir Charles, The Devil, Nasty Man. I feel that there is a scientific reason 90% of the pastry chefs I know have cats. Looking to you scientists….

Discoveries in Thailand

This is the second installment in a series of posts I’m writing on my experience staging at a few restaurants in Southeast Asia. Last time, I talked about the technical similarities between French dough lamination and flaky Asian pastries. Below, I focus on a different doppelganger, this one embraced around the world.

The restaurants I chose to stage at in Asia were all cherry-picked off of the San Pellegrino 50 Best list. They were all modernist, tasting-menu only establishments with exorbitant food costs, expensive gadgets, and dewars upon dewars of liquid nitrogen. And while I learned quite a bit in those kitchens, the truly eye-opening moments came from walking around local markets and tasting foods from vendors for which I had absolutely no point of reference.

One of the dishes that appeared again and again in Thailand, at food carts and in restaurants, in shopping malls and served from disposable trays on the back of pickup trucks, was gluay cheum. Deceptively simple, the dessert is nothing more than cooked bananas served with salted coconut cream. The bananas, however, have a texture unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, completely firm on the outside but with a custardy interior. Achieving this result, it turns out, relies on an Aztec technique developed in 1200 BC.

Nixtamalization, which is the Nahuatl word for steeping field corn in alkaline water before cooking, is a process most cooks are marginally familiar with. Without it, they know that grinding corn into masa (which is then used to make tortillas and tamales) is backbreaking work, and they probably have eaten un-ground nixtamilized corn, known as hominy and a main ingredient in pozole. Less obvious is how the science behind nixtamalization has been applied to other foods around the world, everywhere from Brazil to Malaysia.

Warning: this post is going to get nerdy for a hot second. The technique behind making masa relies on calcium oxide that is mixed with water to make calcium hydroxide—Ca(OH)2—which is also commonly known as cal, quicklime, pickling lime, slaked lime, and red lime. A fine white powder, calcium oxide is made by heating limestone or seashells that contain calcium carbonate to extremely high temperatures (around 1520 degrees Fahrenheit). Dissolving the powder in water is referred to as “slaking.” With a saturation point of about 1.5 g per 1 L of water, most recipes call for 1 teaspoon of quicklime to be dissolved into 1 gallon of water. As long as one doesn’t go above the saturation point, the quicklime with stay suspended in the water, with the exception of Asian red lime. Throughout Southeast Asia it is common for the powder to be mixed with a little water and turmeric into a paste, solid in jars, and intended to diluted with more water and left to sit overnight before use, during which time some of the turmeric will settle out and color the liquid a bright pink. (There’s even a Thai expression “ขมิ้นกับปูน” that literally means “turmeric and lime,” but is used as slang for people that simply cannot get along or are incompatible, referring to the natural separation that occurs in water.)

Okay, science is out of the way. tl;dr – chemistry is fun!

In masa making, the corn is soaked in the alkaline (basic, pH above 7.0) water to dissolve the pericarp (really hard outer skin), which allows each grain to swell with water and grind more easily. As long as the soaked corn isn’t rinsed too much, the pericarp will remain in the mixture, and once ground forms a mass of gummy polysaccharides that acts like a hydrocolloid and binds the masa together. A convenient side effect of soaking the corn in CALCIUM hydroxide is that each kernel absorbs calcium from the solution, which enables products made with masa to act as the primary source of calcium in one’s diet. So the gist is: limestone à heat à alkaline water à corn à tortilla. A very useful and specific application of Ca(OH)2.

A few thousand years later and half a world away, Thais began using the same process on small burro bananas (about half the size of regular Cavendish bananas) that you’ve probably seen in Asian markets. Sliced and soaked in an identical quicklime solution, the intent here is not to break down the outside of the fruit (like the corn) but to strengthen it. Bananas naturally contain pectin, and the calcium in the water cross-links with the pectin (cross-link sounds technical, but you’re definitely familiar with it vis-à-vis glutenin and gliadin forming gluten, or sodium alginate and calcium chloride making neat spheres in fancy kitchens) to form a very thin “skin” around the banana. The Thais then lightly rinse the banana pieces and cook for two to three hours in a sugar syrup. Because of that “skin,” the outside of the banana remains firm, as if it were raw, while the inside is cooked in the hot liquid. Result shown below.

And while a timeline of when certain cultures adopted this practice isn’t traceable, the same technique is used throughout South America on pieces of pumpkin and squash. It has even made its way stateside, employed at Cosme in New York City on papaya for a dessert.

Another common sight across Thailand is street vendors selling chunks of fried banana and taro. Slightly bumpy from the inclusion of sesame seeds and grated coconut, the batter is a combination of water, rice flour, sugar, and quicklime. Here, the alkalinity does two things: first, it creates a deep golden brown exterior by speeding up the Maillard reaction in the oil, and second, it utilizes that calcium/pectin cross-link to adhere the batter to the banana. Unlike a tempura or fritter batter that might contain baking powder or soda and puffs away from the product when fried, this alkaline kluay khaek batter bonds to its subject. The result is a product that can be fried in the morning and remain crispy for hours, even when held outside in the sweltering 100% humidity found throughout Thailand.

 

Whether used commercially for turning cucumbers into pickles that stay crunchy on store shelves, making Chinese century eggs, or crafting the ideal tender-yet-chewy ramen noodle, alkaline water made with calcium oxide is an endlessly versatile tool. To bring my experience in Asia full circle, I recently workshopped a fine-dining example of quicklime in action, using it to tenderize bananas before dipping them in Valrhona’s dulcey chocolate. Yay, science!

Sweet on Mathew

 Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 9.54.08 PMMathew Rice, the pastry chef at The Publican restaurant in Chicago, sat down for a lovely chat about his recent experience on the first all dessert episode of the Food Network’s cooking competition, Chopped. Spoiler alert! He was crowned victorious, and with his winnings he is investing in his own exciting website, called Spilled Milk Project. We at The Pastry Department are excited to follow along as he unveils the gems of his mother’s own recipe box, the recipes and the woman that inspired his career. And we are excited to have had the opportunity to share an afternoon with him as he told stories in his warm southern drawl, laughed constantly, and answered a few questions. Read on! 

 

 

First and foremost, tell us: How did you get to be the pastry chef of The Publican?

What I consider to be my first real pastry chef job was at Niche in St. Louis. I moved there to help Gerard Craft open Niche. Just this year they celebrated 10 years, and I was with them first four. I felt like I had outgrown the city, and moved to Chicago on a whim, I only knew a handful of people. I only interviewed for one job and I got it, at Nightwood. I was there for a year and a half and loved it, and wasn’t ready to leave. But I always wanted to work for Stephanie Izard, our styles seemed to match so well, so when she was ready to hire a pastry chef I applied, and got it. I really loved her and had a great time working there, but after a few years the pastry chef position opened up at The Publican. It’s really a perfect fit for my style, which is a little more southern and based on the food I grew up with in a small town outside of Asheville, North Carolina.

 

So you were recently on TV?

Yes! It was the first time they decided to do an all pastry chef, all dessert episode of Chopped, which hopefully is going to turn into it’s own series. They reached out to Girl and The Goat, to see if I was interested. I was a little hesitant, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to find out if I liked to be on TV, it’s something I’ve always wanted to try.

 

Did you like being on TV?

I did. There are parts of it that are nerve wracking, and there are all the parts you have to think about. You don’t want to look back and have people see you being messy or a slob. But I’m happy with the way it turned out, I only cringed a few times when I watched the episode.

 

When can we see the show?

The show aired last Monday, but it wasn’t scheduled to be on until December 3rd. So it’s available now on Xfinity on demand, and will have it’s official premier on The Food Network, December 3rd.

 

So what did they have you make on the show?

The first round had to be a chocolate dessert, and we had to use a store bought Mississippi mud pie, maraschino cherries, a can of pringles, and a wheel of brie. Aside from the brie, which was the only thing I had to think about, in the end, the dessert I made I felt like I could stand behind it. It would be worthy of being on a dessert menu, it had all the ellements I look for. Something frozen, something creamy, something crunchy. Aside from the sorbet being a little soft, and the plating being rushed, it was a dessert I stand behind.

 

Was there a lot of drama?

The only real drama, was they wanted to see is if Sarah Mispagle and I had any rivalry since we had held the same position. She replaced me at Nightwood. But we both went into it with the same goal, which was to represent Chicago and not represernt cattiness or drama that’s good for TV. We just went to show our talents.

 

Who else was on the show?

A girl named Jasmine, shes a pastry chef in Seattle at a little bakery café called La Reve. Her background is in art, and she builds beautiful cakes and croquembouche, and is really good at sculpting things and working with fondant and gum paste. So all the things I don’t do! We really hit it off, and watching the show I’ve never seen people hug as much as we did.

There was a guy from Miami, he was a corporate pastry chef for a restaurant group. Anthony Hunt. He really knew how to play the camera, you could tell he likes being on TV.

And then Sarah, who I mentioned before. She got the pastry chef job at Nightwood after I left, and she did great stuff for the restaurant. Our styles were interchangeable at nightwood, and we played well together on the show. She moved to St. Louis shortly after filming, and she took a job at a new restaurant called 801 Fish. She sent me a message after the show and told me I have a really good rep in St. Louis, and people think she’s cool because she had the same job as me! I thought that was really nice of her to tell me.

 

What was the final challenge on the show like?

You had to make a cake, and we were given an hour. Anyone who bakes knows that building a cake is a multi-step process that takes hours and hours. But all this had to take place in one hour with four required ingredients. The ingredients were avocado, hazelnut flour, rangpur limes, and they called it Persian rice, basically it was saffron rice pilaf.

 

So what did you do?

I used avocado as half of the fat in my cake ratio, and the hazelnut as ¼ of the flour. I made lime flavored condensed milk curd, and then pureed the rice in a vita prep, thinned it out with a little milk, added cinnamon, lime zest, and vanilla and turned it into rice pudding frosting.

 

Rice pudding frosting! That’s very clever! 

Right?! I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, no one wants to chew on old rice, you know what I mean? I had recently been to husk where I had the rice pudding so it was fresh in my mind to do something with the flavors of rice pudding. I had to add a little milk when I blended it in the vitaprep and then added it as the liquid in my American style buttercream. It totally worked, and then I built a cake.

It was pretty, I also made hazelnut brittle to garnish it with and baked some of the cake batter as a thin tuille as well. It ended up being 3 layers, and somehow when they cut into it, the layers stayed perfect. I was actually shocked that it worked so well. You know, when you stack a warm cake things get funny. But when they cut the cake they got perfectly layered sliced out of it and I was totally shocked.

 

Did you know you were going to win before the judges announced it?

I had a good feeling, but the fact that the girl I went up against had a lot more skill at decorating made me nervous. Her cake was a legit cake with gum paste flowers and a chocolate plaque on top, it was decorated really nicely. Our cakes were totally different, hers looked like classic French bakery and mine looked like something you’re mom would make for a church dinner. I’m really into iconic American cakes, so usually they just two layers, like this tattoo, it’a a diagram.

 

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 10.02.52 PM

 

 

What are you going to do with the prize money?

I’m going to fund my cookbook project, that I’m writing to honor the memory of my mom. I talked a lot about htat on the show, how everything in my career is to pay tribute because she didn’t get to see me have any success before she passed. That was my story line, no one knew but the show filmed on her birthday, which was also 10 years and two weeks after her death.

 

She taught you how to cook?

Yeah, she taught me how to do everything she did. She baked a lot of classic southern cakes, like pound cakes.

 

What kind of birthday cake did she make you every year?

My first cake that she made, I have to look at pictures I was too young to remember. It was a vanilla cake with buttercream, but she took a cake decorating class and could make the prettiest buttercream roses. I remember watching her and hoping one day I could do it.

 

How are you rbuttercream roses?

I don’t make them! I kind of adopted a more rustic approach to decorating cakes, I use the flavors and ingredietns that are already in the cakes as the decorations.

 

Tell us more about your project!

It’s called The Spilled Milk Project. As soon as the show filmed and I knew I won but had to keep it a secret, I started creating content for a book with a writer friend and photographer friend. I’ve set up a blog to start posting some of the content, posting recipes and photos of what will hopefully become a book soon.

 

What kind of stuff are you posting about?

Everything has some kind of connection to me growing up. At it’s core are my mom’s recipes that I inherited. Some are the way they are, and I wouldn’t changed a thing. Others I call “remixed” where I incorporate a little more of myself into them. But I’m taking her recipes and turning them into something a little more me, it’s like we are baking together. It’s important because that’s something we are no longer able to do.

By starting it as a blog, hopefully people will connect with it more in terms of what I want it to be. I”ve already have a couple of people find me on twitter and tell me how much they connected with my story on the show. How they had also lost their mom and stay connected to her by using her recipes. That makes me happy. For me the whole project is about being able to share what my mom did for me through baking. It’s more about getting her message out for other people to experience, for the most part, they were all really special.

 

What’s your favorite recipe you inherited from her? 

Probably the red velvet cake. It’s so southern, and we were making red velvet cake in the 80s before it was a bakery staple. It’s the recipe she got from her Aunt who got it from someone else. There’s something sacred about it.

 

Are there any recipes you’d never make?

Threa re some recipes I found that I don’t remember her making, but I thought if I made them it would spark a memory. But there was one I made, I don’t hate it, but it’s so classic 80’s I had to try it out. It’s a fruit cocktail cake. It’s a basic cake, but the liquid is a can of fruit cocktail with the chunks and everything. After you bake it you put a milk glaze on it. It’s not aweful but no one uses fruit cocktail anymore.

 

 

 

 

A chef on “vacation”

 

my latest contribution to Chefs Feed delves into what it’s like for a chef to vacation. I struggled to write this piece, as I had only vacationed as a chef. But after a few months away from the grind of restaurants I took a trip to Mexico for a friends wedding. Two days after I arrived, thoroughly relaxed, toes covered in sand and a beach chair pointed at the ocean, my friend who is working as a chef arrived on a flight after sneaking out of the kitchen just hours before. It didn’t take long before I realized what a chef on “vacation” looks like from the outside, and how different I felt this trip with no kitchen pulling at my heart strings. She sat with a double espresso in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, and I finally felt like I had an idea how unique we chefs are to vacation with! 

 

Nobody does vacation quite as poorly as chefs.

Just ask those few people closest to us who occasionally attempt to pry us from our kitchens, poor souls. We don’t separate from our restaurants easily, no matter how much we bemoan the demanding hours or dream about all the places we would rather be at that exact moment.

However difficult it is, we do leave. Sometimes. Those of us that work in restaurants that close for a week or two during slow seasons have it easiest. Without an operating restaurant to worry about, we really have no choice but to go out and enjoy the world. For the rest of us, we double our hours in the days preceding our time off, scrambling to make sure everything is in place before we vacate the premises.

We work until we leave for the airport, or drive through the night after completing dinner service, and arrive at our destination as the sun is coming up. Our luggage is haphazardly packed, often crammed with what ever we can grab in five minutes—which is why my family will never let me forget the time I arrived with a suitcase full of dirty laundry, as I didn’t have a spare moment to wash my clothes before I packed.

If we make it out the door, we insist that our cooks email us after each of their shifts with updates, and beg them to text us if anything comes up. And we worry. Boy, do we worry. We worry about the order from the farm coming that week, the private party that might need finessing, the new dish that was put on a few days before we left. God forbid a refrigerator goes down while we are gone, or worse, someone quits. How’s that Mai Tai taste now?!

It usually takes a few days before we are able to unwind enough to really enjoy ourselves. Thoughts of our cooks fade when the emergency phone calls we are dreading don’t come, and the rich meals start to make us appropriately lazy. Then, and only then, does our mental pace slow down enough to resemble anything like a traditional vacation.

You’ll most likely find a chef using their vacation time to their loved ones, often the unwilling victims of our flip-flopped schedules. You know the drill: while our family celebrates birthdays or holiday gatherings on evenings and weekends, we work. Because of this, the few days we can pry ourselves away from the restaurant often find us rushing back to family, capturing as much of them as we can before we jump in the trenches, never to be heard from again.

When we do use our vacation to visit other cities, the deciding factor is almost always the restaurants. These culinary destinations will find us scheduling four meals a day, plus snacks, in an attempt to cram in as many new experiences as possible. Breakfast at a notable bakery, coffee at that place that’s roasting their own beans, lunch at a temple of fine dining, snacks at the bar of the hottest new opening, dinner at that restaurant that’s been on your list for years, and cocktails at the chic cocktail lounge with an ironic name. Wake up and do it all over again tomorrow, but let’s throw ice cream in there as well.

If our travel companions are a little on the unlucky side………….

head over to Chefs Feed to read the rest of the article! 

Staging

mise en place. (not pictured: impossibly fluffy shaved ice made using a wooden device that appeared to be held together with string, rubber bands, and a prayer)

mise en place. (not pictured: impossibly fluffy shaved ice made using a wooden device that appeared to be held together with string, rubber bands, and a prayer)

The internet is a wonderful thing. Art forms that were once inaccessible to most people have become readily available. Interested in listening to an obscure Italian opera? That’ll be twelve bucks in iTunes. Need to scroll through the entirety of Monet’s impressionist collection? Google Images has you covered. Food, however, remains inconveniently tangible and requires one’s presence. We can’t eat online.

While much praise has been given to Instagram and Facebook and Twitter for disseminating plating styles and techniques, none of these services replaces the transfer of knowledge that occurs in a kitchen. Cooking is, and always will be, a craft, and just as a woodworker can spend hours watching someone turn a few lumps of pine into a rocking chair on YouTube, I’m sure there are many cooks whose first tutorial in rough puff, cold oil agar pearls or nitrogen muddled herbs was via a screen. And as a primer, that’s great. But no video is a proper substitute for the physical cues inherent in almost every recipe, for the nuanced motions only noticeable when standing shoulder to shoulder. And so, cooks stage.

Often that means Europe. Whether France or England, Spain or Denmark, it has become common for young cooks to pack a bag and head abroad to work for free for a week, a month or a year. In the world of pastry, the draw is likely “heading to the source.” It’s 2015 and pastry chefs in this country utilize all manner of modernist tricks, be they fluid gels or methylcellulose meringues, but at the heart of almost every cake, cookie, ice cream and dough is a European technique. So stages travel across the Atlantic, mastering macarons at Pierre Herme and assembling dozens of Sacher Tortes at the iconic hotel.

When planning my international sojourn, though, I looked the other way and began contacting restaurants in Asia. I expected and anticipated new techniques, new ingredients, new ways of organizing and operating a kitchen. Rest assured, I found all of these things in ample measure. I was not prepared, though, to be taught so many things that I quickly realized had an exact equivalent within the French canon.

An example. Croissants, pain au chocolat, kouigh amann—all built off of a yeast-laden detremp laminated with a slab of butter. Hong Kong style egg tarts, Vietnamese mooncakes, Filipino hopia—all products that utilize a similarly flaky, golden pastry. Developed in a part of the world during a time of low reliance on cow milk (and therefore butter), the Asian lamination consists of layering an “oil dough” (flour, lard) inside of a “water dough” (the detremp). During baking, the same general principal applies to both the Asian and European methods: steam, expansion, flakes.

These doppelgangers popped up all over the place. Jasmine “pate de fruit” are set with kudzu (arrowroot) starch instead of pectin. The stuffed log of bamboo sitting near the embers of a charcoal grill is Thailand’s ingenious method of making rice pudding. Even cupcakes, the bastardized love child of French technique and American convenience, have a rice-flour-based, steam-baked cousin.

And just as one can argue that food itself can intersect all demographics and classes—a good barbecue restaurant or taqueria will attract as many suits as construction workers—staging highlights the global commonalities of kitchen work. You can travel thousands of miles and be the only cook whose native language is English and instantly discern that the G.M.’s rapid-fire Thai is complaining about the two-top at table 7 who have traveled to one of the world’s best Asian restaurants and have requested “nothing spicy.” You can always bond, wherever you are, over purveyors showing up late, Pacojets suddenly sounding like someone threw a wrench underneath a lawnmower, and the near impossibility of getting staff meal ready between lunch and dinner service on Friday. And whether you’re in Bali, Brussels, or Boston, cracking open a can of cheap beer at the end of a 15-hour day for your coworker is a worldwide sign of hospitality.

Cooks are a restless bunch, always pushing against the required daily repetition of restaurant work and seeking the new, the unfamiliar. Staging is our way of recharging creative batteries. And for a westerner, no less, staging in Asia is like attaching jumper cables to a 9-volt. I have nowhere felt more ignorant of pastry techniques than walking around markets in Indonesia, or more uncertain of my ability to work a station than in Singapore, but it precisely this level of discomfort that inspired me, pushed me, and brought me back to Chicago with an entirely new box of crayons to color with. Now, excuse me, but I really need to go find a sheet of paper.