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.

Meet Harry!

Harry Staging in Singapore

Harry Staging in Singapore

We have a new writer joining the community here at The Pastry Department! Harry Flager has just returned stateside after staging in various restaurants through out Asia. If you know Harry, you know that staging is the foundation of his self structured education, a practice I HIGHLY encourage all young cooks to consider. Heck, old cooks too, and chefs and sous chefs. Everyone go stage!

Harry passed up the opportunity to study in culinary school, instead choosing to study at Columbia University in New York during the day while gaining indispensable experience by staging in New Yorks finest kitchens in the evenings. His summers brought him home to Miami into the kitchen he worked at while in high school, Michaels Genuine. After spending one day with Michaels matchless pastry chef Hedy Goldsmith and Harry’s decision to transition into the pastry department was complete. With an abundance of curiosity and respect for the craft, Harry has made his way to San Fransisco to work for Emily Luchetti, to Chicago to work for me at Blackbird, to Australia to stage under Ben Shewery, to Asia to stage for Will Goldfarb, and now back again to Chicago awaiting a very exciting restaurant opening. To look at the world of pastry through the eyes of Harry Flager is a true privilege, and one day I believe Harry will be able to say “I’ve seen it all” and mean it literally. 

Without further Adieu, meet Harry. 

 

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

Harrison, technically, but I go by Harry. Harrison is too formal. Harry’s the kind of guy you take home to meet your parents. Harrison? Not so much. I’ve just returned from Asia where I was staging in various restaurants.

 

What was the first dessert you ever made?

9 years old. The chocolate chip cookie dough recipe off the back of the toll house bag. They were very flat, I remember that. I was 9, after all.

 

Did that inspire you to a life time of pastry?

No. I thought I was going to be all savory until I got in the kitchen. After 3 months, I thought, “you know what? I’m gonna try out this pastry thing.”

 

Did you go to school, and where?

I went to collumbia university in NYC.  I studied chemistry and Anthropology. After highschool I was planning on going to culinary school at the CIA, and then ended up getting a full ride to Columbia, and decided that turning that down would have been silly. The benefit of Columbia was that I was in NYC, so I could study and stage the entire time.

 

Where did you stage while you were in the city?

You want every place?! Haha.

 

Sure, why not.

Le Bernadin, Jean George, Nougatine, Bouchon Bakery, The Harrison, The red cat, Monument Lane, Craft, colochio and sons, Liddabit, which is a candy company. Oh! And Blue Bottle. I wanted to learn how to make coffee.

 

I had 4 years, that’s a long time.

 

What did you do after college?

Three days after graduating I packed my bags and moved to Sydney Australia. I went to work with a guy named Nick Waring, a pastry chef. The day after I got there he got in an argument with the owner of the restaurant and quit. The owner of the restaurant handed me the binder and said “you’re the pastry chef now. Go.” I stayed for 10 months, and I wanted to use the end of my Visa to stage in Melbourn at Aticca.

 

So you staged again?

Well I was already half way around the world, I didn’t want to waste the opportunity. In the same way Manresa can only exist in Los Gatos, Attica can only exist in Melbourn. All the food came from 30 miles around the restaurant, and I really wanted to experience what could only exist in that place. I’ve also never used as much vinegar in desserts in my life.

 

 

What has been the most pivitol job so far?

Blackbird. Because I got to fail every day.

 

Why is failure so important?

Because it allows you to learn. If you go to a restaurant where everything is always perfected and handed to you, you’ll only learn that one thing. IF you go to a restaurant where you are part of the failures you know going forward how to fix anything.

 

Do you have someone you consider a mentor?

Hedy Goldsmith, for sure. She showed me there is a most efficient way to do everything, if you’re juicing a case of lemons there is a most efficient way to process that. I worked for Hedy the first and second summers I was in college. She’s in Florida, where I grew up so I went home for the summer and worked for her. The second summer they brought me to the Cayman Islands.

 

Why did you choose this career path to begin with?

I think I fell into it. I knew I wanted to be involved in food, and I knew that started in a restaurant, but I was never dead set on pastry.

 

At what point did you know pastry was it for you?

The first day I worked with Hedy. I don’t know what it was but something clicked and I knew “this is it.” I was 19. I’ve doubted the financial viability of this in later years in life, but never as a career choice. I mean, you never know, Danny Meyer’s got our backs!

 

Name one of your favorite cookbooks.

I like the cookbooks that are right between the crème anglaise/raspberry coulis/toothpick, and now. So Charlie Trotters desserts, or the last course by Claudia flemming, the books that are foundational to what is being done now. You realize when you’re doing something you think is new, someone was doing it in 1999.

 

What was the last dessert you ate?

Last week I went to Lula Café, and I want to shout out Kelly Hellegesen because she does not get enough attention for what she is doing. Her profiteroles with carrot sorbet and hazelnuts, it’s delicious, everyone should order it because she says she doesn’t sell a lot. When I see eater covering Baker Miller for making another donut I just wonder why no one writes about Kelly. She’s really amazing.

 

I completely agree. Everyone listen up! Kelly’s desserts at Lula are amazing and don’t get the attention they deserve! Chicago’s most underrated pastry chef.

 

Last and most important, do you have any pets and what are their names, tell us everything. 

No, but I want a Lab. I had one when I was young. I might name him Errol, I like that name. Harry and Errol.

 

 

 

A Recipe for Transperancy

It’s been a busy past few weeks….but isn’t it always.

Seven weeks ago I was happy to participate in the Valrhona C3 competition held at the StarChefs Congress in Brooklyn.
I'm No Gold
“caramel cremeux coated in speculoos cookie butter, dipped in chocolate, rolled in gold”

Four weeks ago I had a Chef de Cuisine from a Michelin 2 Star restaurant stage with me in pastry because he wanted to see how I work and create in my little restaurant-by-the-sea.

Two weeks ago our restaurant was happy to have our annual Rediscovering Coastal Cuisine dinner where we invite friends and Chefs to experience our area and create a one of a kind dining experience. Having guest Chefs from Oxheart in Houston, Birch in Rhode Island, Contra in New York, and Amass in far off Copenhagen was a dream for our kitchen and our dinner guests.

After another week of reflection on these past events, I was able to define what made these past weeks special:
COMMUNITY

When I first began cooking 15 years ago I had no idea what was happening in other kitchens. Recipes and techniques were secrets, hidden behind locked doors. Ideas lived and died with the Chef. Save those thoughts for the cookbook deal. I didn’t even think about traveling, I had to work to pay rent.
Then BAM! social media happened. But even more than that, Chefs knew that in order to grow they needed to open up. From what I know it was the brilliant Ferran Adria. His legacy of recipes will be greatly overshadowed by redefining what a restaurant is. Not just a place of sustenance. But an idea, a think tank, a movement, a creative entity that makes us reflect and view how we eat, live, share, grow, act, react, respond, and most importantly, how we communicate.
He opened his restaurant doors, let in 30 stages, finished every dining season with a cookbook. Giving everyone all the recipes, techniques, thought processes on how they work.

Now we have Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, blogs. We open our kitchen doors to anyone willing to sleep on floors, to work for free, to travel across the world.
It is no longer about a recipe. It is a shared idea on cooking.

I am the worst offender in regards to recipes. My assistant will back me up. I don’t really care where it comes from, they change constantly. Some are memorized, most are forgotten.
I live in the moment. What good is a recipe when you do nothing with it?
Give 10 Chefs a recipe for creme anglaise:
500g milk
500g cream
10 yolks
100 sugar

What are they going to do with it? Make ice cream? A sauce? Throw it in liquid nitrogen? Put it in an iSi canister? Make a cremeux? Add some starch to make pastry cream? Dehydrate it? Infuse?
It becomes overwhelming, the possibilities!

So now we as a community share. We have become transparent. The ultimate recipe for success.
Anyone can have any recipe I come across. Most likely I didn’t make it up? Who made up croissant dough? Can no one else use it? Wow, the world would be devastated. What matters is what you do with it. How do you envision it to be?

I learned to make hand pulled strudel from my first Pastry Chef. I made a lot of it. In various forms. Usually not the typical way. I have shown many others how to make it. So now I am working with my current assistant on utilizing this wonderful dough. Again, I don’t make something typical, though there is nothing wrong with typical, it’s just not me. It’s the process, the education, and oddly enough, when you make it correctly and thin, it’s the transparency! (oh, how life always comes full circle)
strudel of sunchoke, pear, and praline
Here is a hand pulled strudel, brushed with brown butter and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, cut, dried, baked until golden. A scoop of sunchoke ice cream sits inside, topped with a caramelized pear chip, lightly pickled pears, housemade praline cream, and finished with fried sunchokes.
It’s my version of something malty, earthy, lightly crunchy and crisp with just enough creaminess to enjoy the delicate flakes. I want it to look like a pile of dried leaves falling from a tree.
Strudel dough is that, the thinnest of leaves…..

Here is a recipe:
100g bread flour
100g all purpose flour
pinch of salt
1 egg
45g oil
60g water
knead for 10 minutes, rest cold 1 hour, stretch as thin as possible over linen.

What will you do with it?
As long as you make it transparent, make it your own, then share it, pass it forward, and open yourself up.

A Guide to Pie Crusts

pie-crust21My latest installment over at Lucky Peach is just in time for your holiday baking! A guide to pie crusts includes the in’s and outs of making pie crusts, or maybe it’s the why’s and how’s? I dare say, it’s quite explanatory, I’m not sure Ive ever written the word “fat” so much. Attached are my 4 go to recipes, a flaky butter crust perfect for double crust fruit pies, a tender lard crust that I love for blind baking single crusts , a sassy cream cheese crust that does a bang up job for decorative tops, and a enriched crust for savory pies, like the one you will want to make with all your thanksgiving leftovers! I’ll let the article do the rest of the talking, and leave you to your holiday baking!!!

 

Pie crust, fundamental and unique to American baking, is simultaneously one of the easiest and hardest recipes to master. The difficulty stems from the narrow boundaries within which flaky, tender, barely crispy pie crust exists. But once you understand those boundaries, pie crust becomes one of the simplest techniques in your repertoire.

At its most basic level, pie crust is made of very small pieces of fat, coated in flour, moistened with just enough water that the fat pieces stick together when pressed and rolled. It’s the treatment of these three ingredients that creates a range of textures, some more desirable than others.

THE PRIMER

Every pie begins with a bowl of flour. Fat is then “cut in,” or systematically broken up—and as each piece of fat is repeatedly divided into two smaller pieces, it gets coated with flour. As these chunks of fat get smaller and smaller—and their number grows exponentially—the surface area of the collective pieces of fat becomes large enough that most of the flour will be adhered to the fat. At this point, just enough water is added to moisten the flour into an adhesive that holds the fat bits into a single mass.

Simple enough, right? Cut fat into flour, add water and presto: pie crust! But…………….

Follow that thought here at Lucky Peach

and don’t forget to scroll down for the recipes! 

 

Up the Stairs and Around the Corner: A Day in the Blackbird Pastry Kitchen

nougat

This post is intended to summarize a typical shift as the morning pastry cook at Blackbird, in the case that more people outside of just my own parents might take interest! There’s a fair amount of battling the elements, routine tasks and running around, but everyone has the same goal in mind: make beautiful, delicious things.

Increasingly these days, when I walk into the kitchen in the morning, I can almost see my breath. I fire up all of the stovetop burners, switch on the oven, install the tiny countertop space heater on my station– preferably at face-level for optimal efficiency– and let myself adjust to the temperature drop. Chicago is known for its volatile weather patterns, and working in the pastry kitchen at Blackbird can sometimes feel like being in the eye of the storm.

Check the prep list. Check the lowboys. Make a split-second plan– do I have time to experiment with mignardises today? Can I make a fancy staff meal, perhaps try to improve my pie-making game or try out a different recipe for a favorite standby (donuts, anyone)? What do I have to hold off making before deliveries come in? How many ice cream bases do I need to spin? Organize the fridge, scrape the ice from the freezer. And the day hasn’t even truly begun yet.

Once my apron is on and I feel a little bit of warmth beginning to stir in the tips of my fingers, I get to work. This past week, leading up to Halloween, our chef encouraged us to play around with Halloween-themed mignardises: our takes on classic candy bars, inserting pumpkin spice flavors, or even just strategic use of orange food coloring. My coworker Jane made “witches’ hats,” plump dollops of piped marshmallow atop small round sable cookies and dipped in dark chocolate. A visiting stage made snowy-colored cinnamon macarons filled with a silky pumpkin butter (thanks to my failed attempt at making a pumpkin pate de fruit that just never quite set up. When in doubt, stick it in a blender!). I, in turn, decided to try my hand at making homemade candy corn. Armed only with a recipe from the Internet, the only options are sigh-of-relief success or abject, messy, embarrassing failure– which can be a bit of a problem when your entire day is measured by the amount of minutes it takes you to complete an item on your prep list. Nevertheless, I press on.

Amazingly, the candy corn comes together without protest and I let myself relax a little as I knead food coloring into the warm fondant and then roll each section out into long, parallel strips. These are the moments I live for in the kitchen: experiments gone right. For a moment, I have time to just enjoy the process at hand, as I sink a knife through the candy to shape them into triangles and marvel at the bizarre science of cooking sugar. After three years of working in pastry, I’ve only scratched the surface of confectionery work. Caramels, marshmallows, meringue, pate de fruit– these are the go-tos. Next, I resolve to finally try making salt-water taffy, a treat I remember from childhood visits to my grandparents on Cape Cod. Someday.

By 10 am, the restaurant is no longer quiet. Lunch starts at 11:30, and is always a whirlwind of a service. Restaurants are constantly in flux, transitioning from the pre-service tension to the slow trickle of tickets to the rhythmic flow of service– then the comedown, and the subsequent anticipation of doing it all over again, sometimes in only a matter of hours. There is always a reason to be moving as fast as you possibly can. Pastry is the somewhat counter-intuitive balancing act between outsmarting time and cultivating patience– measuring the the gram, watching the rise and fall of numbers on a thermometer.

After lunch service, the bulk of my day is done. I spend the remainder of my shift helping the PM team prepare for dinner service: inflating a whipped cheesecake in an ISI canister, paddling velvety caramelized milk into salted butter. Our chef is working on a new donut-based dessert and everyone pauses their tasks to taste: what shape of donut works best? Should it be filled? Are the cranberries necessary? What do we think of the miso ice cream? As much as I relish my hours in the kitchen by myself each morning, these collaborative moments are what I find truly exciting– standing around with my pastry team, each with a spoon in hand, taking careful bites and sharing insights. Write the beginnings of a prep list for the next day, store my kitchen shoes up in the kitchen attic. As I walk out the front door of Blackbird, the dining room lights dim behind me, music starts, and another service begins again.

pastry cream; our very own mother sauce

pastry cream

If you read my last column for Lucky Peach, you should be ready to make proud, hollow cream puff shells. But what of their filling! Worry no more, the follow up to that piece discusses pastry cream, the classic companion for pate a choux. You may have seen pastry cream in a fruit tart, or hiding inside a boston cream pie. But left to set, pastry cream becomes our very own mother sauce! And a myriad of things can be folded into this stable, rich custard. Read on! 

 

As its name suggests, pastry cream is the cream in the pastry world—and that’s saying something for a world so heavily populated with creamy things. But you’d be forgiven for not knowing about it: classic American desserts—cookies, brownies, fruit pies—are largely pastry-cream free.

At its most basic level, pastry cream is a boiled custard similar to vanilla pudding. The custard itself contains egg yolks, milk and/or cream, and sugar, and is often finished by whisking in butter. This mixture is stabilized by the inclusion of flour and starch, which makes it thick and malleable, and prevents the egg from curdling during the cooking process.

To begin making pastry cream, the milk and cream are heated to a boil along with any inclusion meant to perfume the cream. (Vanilla is most common, but teas, spices, and fresh herbs are also popular.) The hot cream is then poured gently into a mixture of whipped egg, sugar, and starch. Transferred back to a pot on the stove, pastry cream is cooked to a boil. The key: whisking constantly to ensure a smooth custard. After a two-minute boil, butter is whisked in and the pastry cream is ready for its destiny.

When it’s still hot, pastry cream takes to a variety of mix-ins: chocolate, coffee, and rum are all popular. Or, you can pour it into tart shells immediately after boiling, let it cool, and then top it with fruit for a classic fruit tart.

Pastry cream’s greatest trick, however, is when it is left to cool in a pan. From there, it becomes the mother sauce to an endless variety of desserts……..

To continue reading, head on over to Lucky Peach! Find out what you can transform pastry cream into! Click the link here. 

the one spoon quenelle and how to hide it

sweet potato

sweet potato

hide and seek

hide and seek

i work in Carmel, CA. a place most people don’t go. one of the most beautiful places in the world. Big Sur to the south and Pebble Beach to the north, a relaxing 1 hour drive to Santa Cruz where Keefer Sutherland heads a vampire clan (maybe he’s moved on) and another hour into San Francisco where Michelin stars can be found like Hollywood stars.
i used to work in big cities and big restaurants. from Los Angeles to the French Laundry. now i work in a restaurant with 1 pastry assistant, 5 other cooks, 9 tables, and an average of 20 covers a night.
i moved here 8 years ago. surrounded by pine and eucalyptus and no one to talk pastry with. so i started a blog back then.

one spoon quenelle.

i wanted to reach out, just as the brilliant Dana Cree has done and continues doing. then my blog was taken over by twitter and instagram and the immediacy of just posting a picture and a title and having some kind of recognition. sometimes a red heart. sometimes a witty comment or even more alluring…an emoji.
but the conversation is lost.
so with The Pastry Department’s help, i hope to bring back some discussion.

the “one spoon quenelle” was referred to in the strikingly visual French Laundry cookbook. it symbolized elegance, refinement, skill, technique, aesthetic, and most importantly it epitomized
pastry in a fine dining setting. you didn’t do a quenelle in a bistro, cafe, pizza joint, or top a brownie sundae with a perfect one spoon quenelle. it had to be placed on white Limoges atop white linen. so perfect, so pure, so smooth….can you see it? better yet, can you taste it?
oooh…. it improves the flavor of anything you scoop.
so i learned to do it like every other pastry cook trying to elevate their game.
with Ben and Jerry’s, with whipped cream, with butter…..
and then I had it.
got it, done.
collect special spoons, antique shops, stolen from other restaurants, now i have a bain marie of varied spoons from various places for all sorts of shapes and sizes. I even worked at the French Laundry as pastry sous Chef and did about 80 quenelles a night for the pre-dessert.
80 covers, 5 nights a week, 16 months.

then the one spoon quenelle became redundant and lost it’s meaning (to me at least)
and then i moved to Carmel. and i began rethinking what i did and retrained myself.
i did and still do quenelles….sometimes.
but they aren’t that important anymore. they mean very little. what matters is what flavor ice cream i make, the texture, the components of the dish, the story. the image of the dish as a whole.
i’m tired of spooning non-comital crumbs on a plate to place a perfect quenelle down to show that I have 15 years of pastry experience. i know i can make one. i can stack about 6 quenelles and swirl 3 flavors into 1 quenelle.
so now i place a perfect quenelle in a dish and cover it up with shards of meringue or crispy milk. i roll ice cream in puffed grains and shape it into an organic form reminiscent of the sandstones that wash ashore on the beach 4 streets down from the kitchen. or best yet, spread just churned ice cream onto a frozen plate in a wonderful slab and top it with so many good things. this way you force the diner to eat that ice cream with what you place on top. flowers, herbs, ground honeycomb….my Cold Stone.

so what does it mean?
what i think about is what does fine dining mean? what makes a Michelin 3 star dessert?
can there still be attention to detail in other forms?
can i translate emotion, feelings, seasons, flavors and textures in other ways?
can it still be aesthetically pleasing, beautiful even, without falling into perfect shaped trappings?

i am not saying by any means not to learn it. i want to bring up the question of why do we do it?
how do we move beyond the recognizable and be transported by what we cannot easily understand?

and this is how i begin the conversation….again.