Coconut Haystacks

IMG_3725Sitting high above the countertops on a shelf many of can only reach on tip toes, we keep larger containers of dry goods we access on a near daily basis. Way up there was a relic of a dish past, dehydrated flakes of coconut, a byproduct of processing whole coconuts for our winter dessert of pumpkin, coconut, sage, and peanut.

Perhaps it was his large stature that kept Harry Flagers mind on the dried coconut, all 6 feet and 3 inches putting him at eye level with the stuff on a daily basis. He was the first to suggest using it when we discussed the mignardise for the evening, and it often made it’s way into the staff meals he prepared.

When he exhausted his own ideas, I passed him a recipe that has been with me since the beginning. This cookie, the coconut haystack is like a coconut macaroons older, sexier, naughtier sister, the one your friends parents mumble about with scorn and awe.

The coconut haystack came into my own life through the same path it arrived in Harry’s, via the tiny bites that finish a meal in a fine dining restaurant. At Lampreia, I would bring recipes in to test for our Petit Four plate, little cookies and candies. The coconut haystack came from one of my text books, citing it’s discovery to a time when war rationing was at an end and exotic flavors like coconut came back into daily life.

While we called them petit fours at Lampreia, as I’m sure many other establishments do, I more commonly hear them referred to as mignardise. Mignardise are simple confections, candies, cakes, cookies, and other minuscule sweets, small enough to be eaten in a single bite and presented after  a guest has signaled for their bill. Be it a green foil wrapped Andes mint sitting on the handwritten check in a diner, a fortune cookie with the bill at a chinese restaurant, or the hand made specialties of a fine dining restaurant set on white china aside the billfold, these are all one last interaction between the guest and the restaurant, a final moment of hospitality.

Here at Blackbird, we offer a pair of mignardise each evening. An ever changing rotation of sweets, it is the creative responsibility of our line cooks to conceive, develop, and execute them on a daily basis. Inspired by the projects at Noma, I heard Rene explain to his overwhelmed cooks buried under their daily prep lists that when it came time to being a chef, you couldn’t walk out into the dining room and say “oh I’m sorry I don’t have anything new for you, I didn’t have time.” His projects are not only a way for cooks to express themselves, but an obligation to exercise creativity. Building yourself as a creative being doesn’t happen by chance. It comes through practice, and is a hard skill to come by. Rene’s point was not to wait until you had your own menu to begin exercising your creative muscles, and now just as in the future, there were no excuses.

We don’t have weekly projects here at Blackbird, but every person in my department has a creative obligation to the menu, one that allows them to enter the creative process under the guidance of a chef. Our sous chef is responsible for creating the intermezzo, a smaller dessert presented before the dessert course on our tasting menu, something that changes once a month. Our AM cook is responsible for the prix fix lunch desserts, one of which is always an ice cream coupe. Finally, our two PM cooks are responsible for mignardise.

So as I tracked down this recipe for the petit four plate I participated in creatively 15 years ago, I handed it off to Harry, a budding creative mind searching for a way to utilize our exceptional house made dried coconut flakes in his own mignardise plate. You’ll find it addictive, if you like coconut. The batter is made on the stove, an emulsion of butter and sugar, mounted with whole egg, and cooked to a tight dough with dried coconut. Once cooled, the batter can be rolled and baked in many sizes, although I don’t recommend anything larger than a nilla wafer. Do give this recipe a shot, who knows, maybe it will find a place amongst your own final offerings to your guests.


Coconut Haystack Cookies 


An Amaretto Cake


Our pastry work at Blackbird has remained exploratory in nature. We rarely use a recipe twice. Instead of relying on something we’ve mastered, we push ourselves to ask, “what else can we do?” It does mean some of our favorite recipes retire, never to see another mouth again.

Avec, however, has become my refuge for some of these recipes. A place where I can use a single delicious recipe a few times over, bringing it back season after season with a new dressing.

One such cake, a gift from my dear bambi Jason Stratton, chef of Artusi, Spinasse, and now Aragona in Seattle, made it’s way into our kitchen at blackbird as part of a dessert featuring a cardamom danish. This amaretto cake, moist, soft, fragrant with the flavor of bitter almonds, and soaked in a syrup of amaretto was simply too good to retire to the pages of a binder.

Instead, we started baking it in rounds and slicing the downy white cake neatly in wedges for Avec’s dessert menu. We have dressed this tender cake in fresh strawberries, tossed with elderflower cordial for a light summery dessert. When the darker evenings of winter came, we covered the almond scented rounds in chocolate glaze and gave it a glimmer or jewel toned seville orange marmelade. We have warmed slices in the woodfire oven, a hint of texture toasted onto the outside, and served it with a burnt honey ice cream.

Today, as the cherries are starting to mingle with produce stand stalwarts like oranges, apples, and pears, we brought this work horse of a cake back. Red-hearted Bing cherries are poached in spiced black cherry juice before covering a wedge of Amaretto Cake, a quick dollop of whipped goat cheese on top.

There is really not much more needed to perfect this formula; amaretto cake + tasty fruit + creamy something, and you have yourself a darling friend, welcome at any occasion inside and outside a restaurant setting.

However, don’t be afraid to put this recipe to work inside your pastry department. Bake it in thin layers for a classic poured fondant petit four or a twist on opera cake. Bake it in rounds and stack it tall in layer cakes. Pile the soft white crumbs on contemporary composed desserts, or decorate the top of glazed donuts with a scattering. Replace lady fingers with disks of amaretto cake in tirimisu, or bury them in a proud Verine. Bake in sheets, and cut precise shapes from the cake, piping mousses and stacking things on top of it for a classic plated dessert. Trifles! Bombes! Ice cream cakes! I could go on all day!

Perhaps I’m lobbying a bit hard for this cake, a proud mama who just wants this cake to find someone nice and settle down. Or, perhaps I know this cake can offer a long happily-ever-after for you and your pastry department.

Amaretto Cake

Cherry Poached Cherries

Whipped Goat Cheese




scatterI am a tiramisu purist. To me this means the quintessential Italian dessert is made with aged ladyfingers dipped in espresso, softened between layers of mascarpone that has been lightened with a Marsala sabayon. A proper tiramisu should contain nothing more, save a light dusting of bitter cocoa powder to finish. If I’m feeling really frisky, I’ll add a dash of the anise flavored Sambuca to the espresso before each lady finger is baptized in the bitter liquid, or swap the Marsala for Madeira depending on what’s around, but even those simple variations are stretching it.

I was shocked, upon a recent trip to Nico to taste Amanda Rockman’s desserts, that her tiramisu broke every one of these rules. Even more surprising to me was how much I loved it.

“Loved it” isn’t quite the right turn of phrase. If I’m being honest, obsessed better describes the amount of time I thought about her tiramisu in the days after eating my first one. I pondered what the crispy element was, hidden from sight between layers of Valrhona Caramelia mousse and mascarpone. The cake layer mystified me, soft with a bitter whisper from what I envisioned to be an ever so brief encounter with espresso, yet it was clearly added a la minute. Floating over the top of the variegated dessert was an unearthly light whipped cream, pure white yet scented like coffee. Or was it whipped mascarpone? And seriously, what on earth is that crispy crunchy layer?!

I bombarded Amanda with so many questions via text messages, she finally stopped answering and just snapped a picture of a recipe.

So naturally, I put her tiramisu on my menu.

Well, not quite. Rather, we set ourselves to task creating a dish that embodied all the components of Amanda’s gripping tiramisu. To hear Amanda put it, she adores this kind of “collective collaboration”, an incubated creative process fueled by open sharing between like minds, much like the ghost stories written in closed competition by Mary Shelley and her contemporaries that begat Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The most gripping part of the tiramisu Amanda created for the dessert menu at Nico, the Italian seafood restaurant recently opened in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, is the inclusion of crispy textures. After being questioned for what seemed like hours, she admitted the crispy layers included crushed aged lady fingers. These cookies, called Savoiardi, are found in every tiramisu. They are hard through and through, and are made soft with a short dunk in espresso, quick enough to soak just the surface of the cookie, and a long period of time absorbing the moisture from the layers of mascarpone mousse they sit between. The fate of these cookies changes drastically in Amandas hands.

Nico is the third Italian restaurant on Amanda’s resume, so tiramisu has long been a cornerstone of her dessert menus.  In Austin, Texas at a restaurant called Asti, genesis came in classic form, as Amanda produced a tiramisu per her bosses instruction, daily for the dessert menu. Years later, and over 1000 miles north, Amanda set up shop at Balena here in chicago with this recipe in tow. She tweaked it here and there, included more mascarpone, and layered her tiramisu in a narrow pulman pan. Once unmolded, Balena’s tirimisu was sliced like a terrine, the distinct layers laid flat, running across the plate over a streak of dark chocolate sauce. Here, an evolutionary leap was made; a crispy espresso streusel was sprinkled atop, and a petite coffee roasted pear flanked the reinvented classic Italian dessert.

When Amanda was tapped to open Nico last fall, it was made clear to her she needed to put a tiramisu on the menu, and it needed to be the best in the city. No small task, but one gladly accepted by a girl so admittedly in love with tiramisu she would gladly eat one found in the rear of a 7-11 freezer 2 years after it was stocked.

It was quickly decided that Nico’s tiramisu would be constructed individually as a Verine, layered to order in a tall glass. Amanda wanted the dessert to look deceptively simple, holding all of it’s textural secrets out of sight, a surprise in each spoonful. A cremeux made from Valrhona’s , Caramelia, a caramel-y milk chocolate, is cast in the base of a rocks glass. Left to settle into it’s pudding like texture over night, the cremeux is the only pre-set component in this dessert. Upon order, the cremeux is scattered with a combination of crushed lady fingers and espresso streusel. The mascarpone mousse, in it’s 3rd variation from it’s Texan origins, is piped into the glass. A piece of moist, vanilla scented olive oil cake is dipped quickly in espresso, then inserted deep into the billowy mousse.  Crackly praline crunch, made with fuilletine and praline grains bound by praline paste is nestled on top of the cake before the glass is filled to the brim with a cold infused coffee cream lightened with the charge of an ISI cannister. To finish this contemporary tiramisu, Amanda opted to dust the top with atomized chocolate rather than cocoa powder.

After I sampled this dessert for the first time, I came into work and told tale of the deceptive layers, of the tiramisu that broke all the rules. The team at blackbird discussed what a tiramisu would look like in our dining room, reconceived in the modern, minimal style we work in. It was quickly decided that however it was created, it was to be constructed directly on our large flat plates. We made cakes, butter creams, chocolate mousses aerated in the vacuum chamber, the mascarpone layer from both Avec’s recipe book and Amanda’s. Crumbles, crunches, chocolates, and nuts were broken apart, mixed together, and tasted.

We began editing the dish, talking about the dessert as a haiku, including as few components as we get away with. Harry suggested that just a dollop of mascarpone misted with madiera and a bitter espresso streusel would exemplify the core of the dish. We tried it, making our own mascarpone from kilgus cream and tartaric acid, and agreed that yes, it possessed the core values of tiramisu, and yes, we could add a couple more things for the dining room at blackbird.

What finally came of our Amanda Rockman inspired wanderings through flavors and textures of tiramisu is a dish simply titled Chocolate Pudding, which does indeed describe the main component on the plate. The chocolate pudding, made in classic american stovetop style is deepened with espresso and a dose of sambuca. Piped in a large disk, the chocolate pudding obscures a smaller dome of mascarpone cream, lightly sweetened with madiera. Dropped from a 12 inch distance, 5 textures rain over the pudding, clinging to it’s surface and scattering towards the edge of the plate. First falls a texture directly lifted from the aforementioned tiramisu, a crispy streusel with freshly ground espresso folded in with the flour. Next, salty butter roasted hickory nut pieces are scattered, followed by flecks of coffee toffee, and paper thin shavings of morello cherry flavored chocolate. In finale, the dark powdery dusting on our tirimisu inspired dish comes in the form of a chocolate cookie, ground fine enough to resemble the espresso responsible for the core flavor in the namesake dessert.

On more than one occasion, I’ve delivered this dessert to a table and shared the story of our inspiration only to hear that the guests had enjoyed Amanda’s tiramisu recently as well. I hope they too can see her brilliance shining through the dessert she inspired here at Blackbird.


 Sambuca Pudding

Madiera Mascarpone

Espresso Streusel

Buttered Hickory Nuts

Morello Chocolate Shavings

Coffee Toffee

Chocolate Rock







Culinary Schools

culinary schoolThe topic of culinary school has come up lately here in Blackbirds pastry department as we get to know the newer members of our team, Krystle and Harry. Through conversation, it’s clear we all have a lot in common. However, it’s interesting how divergent our paths into this kitchen are.

Jane currently attends the french pastry school and spends the few hours she has before an overnight baking shift on the weekends learning with us as an extern. Harry opted for a degree in food science while staging under an enviable list of pastry chefs before he took his first paid position in our kitchen. Krystle went to a Jr. college in California as her father urged her not to take out loans, landing at Bernardus for 5 years before signing on as our Sous chef. Kara took her courses at the CIA, passing through Cafe Boulud and The Peninsula before I found her in our dining room eating the entire dessert menu and hinted that we had a job opening up. Both Molly and Amy went to JJC here in chicago, and between the two of them have seen the inside of pie shops, chocolate shops, large scale bakeries, and Bouchon in New York before they joined the team and showed their dedication to craftsmanship.

Me? I dropped out of the Art Institute of Seattle.

Yet here we all are, standing in the same kitchen, sharing the same experience, the same hours, and the same wages.

While all our paths converge here, some of us carry with us the burden of student loans left over from our choices in educational experiences.

Student loans are extremely hard to pay off on a cooks wage. In order to pay student loans, I see passionate cooks take jobs that don’t necessarily further their eduation or satisfy them in order to repay loans, or take second jobs with their minimal free time in order to make ends meet. It’s a challenge enough to live on a cooks wage, and the monthly obligation to repay a loan can be crippling.

So is school worth it? Yes. A culinary school will give you a broad scope survey of the wide world of culinary arts. It is not training ground for working in restaurants. It is not a degree that will allow you to step into a management level position without first climbing the ranks and starting at 10 dollars an hour. You will learn to make a million different things, once, and you will get a taste for the varied nooks and crannies of our culinary profession, of which restaurants are a small but highly visible part.

Culinary school will help you stick your foot in the door, and present yourself as career minded candidate for jobs in the field without any previous experience. Studying formally will also give you an idea of what part of the industry you might like to narrow your career into before you start applying for jobs.

Based on what I have seen passing through kitchens over the last 10 years, most culinary school will do this. Those with prestige and expensive tuition and those housed in junior colleges or trade schools will all send you into the work force with a similar level of experience. Your degree will open a door. But once that door is open, it’s your passion and drive that keeps it from shutting. In my experience, there is no educational marker for the cook that keeps the door open for themselves. They come from every walk of life, and all have two things in common, drive and passion.

I feel lucky. The universe took care of me. I was 19 when I wanted to enter the industry, and I saw culinary school as my way of presenting myself to the profession. I toured the community colleges in Seattle, put off by the job posting board’s inclusion of grocery store bakeries (what a snob!). I was captured by the Art Institutes schmancy kitchens, views of the water, and the promises of an elite education, all of which came with a forty thousand dollar price tag. I wanted to emulate the chefs I held on high like Thomas Keller and Jacques Torres, and believed the path began with a fancier education.

So I enrolled in The Art Institute and agreed to exchange 40 k for my chance to walk down the road to chefdom. I paid my tuition each quarter in 20 dollar bills that I collected, 2 or 3 dollars at a time from the breakfast tables of a family friends Diner where I waited tables full time in the mornings before I went to school. The tips I earned were enough to pay my tuition outright and support a meager life, and saved me from a 20 year relationship with a lender.

I say I feel lucky because its likely I would have taken student loans to pay my tuition had my employment been different. Had I done this, I would never have been able to travel and stage like I have, or take jobs solely for their educational value instead of their wage. Or, knowing me, I would have gone gallivanting around the globe anyways, let my loans default, and worried about it later.

I feel eternally grateful to the universe for giving me the ability to pay my expensive tuition outright. As someone who is now asked frequently for advice by young cooks (or more often their parents) about whether to go to school or not, I can say this.

If you know you want to cook, but don’t know where to start, go to school. Be wary of assuming debt to do it, keeping in mind you will get from any school what you put into it. You will meet working chefs and see various styles of cuisine by volunteering at large events. You’ll spend every day along side people who will enter the workforce with you and remain friends and colleagues for years. You’ll tip toe into the industry through mandatory externships, and when you leave school, you’ll start your career with a budding knowledge of cuisine, ready to begin your career by starting at the bottom and paying your dues just like everyone else.

If you know where or what you want to cook, just go do it. Get yourself in a kitchen, and work your ass off learning things as simple as how to hold a knife. You’ll have to open doors for yourself, but someone will take you. Cast a wide net and start building experience. Actively educate yourself while earning money instead of spending it. In a year or two, when the culinary students are graduating, they will be taking the same job you had a year ago, at the same entry level wages. You will be ready to take a step into your second or third cooking position and can be hired on as a dependable member of a kitchen at an elevated wage. While at The Fat Duck I met a cook who took his college fund and spent it staging in Europe for 18 months. The Fat Duck itself is helmed by Heston Blumenthal, who had never studied formally yet managed to earn 3 michelin stars and the title of #1 restaurant in the world, twice.

I’m glad I went to school. My own desires upon entry straddled the world of savory and sweet, and by the end of studying in both programs, I finally saw  my own trailhead existed in restaurants. This wasn’t clear to me when I started, and my education built confidence in me that I was of some value to a restaurant when I finally asked for the door to open. I left school behind, deciding instead to take a mentored position under Scott Carsberg at Lampreia in Seattle. Without looking back, I walked away from the study of sugar and chocolate sculpture, the final class sitting between me and a degree. The 35,000 I had invested in my education up to that point was forgotten and I moved forward without a degree to show for it, investing solely in my skills and abilities by learning on the job from a master.

I can’t tell you which path to take for yourself. I guess you could say I took both paths, abandoning one when the second became clear. My only endorsement for any other individual is that you follow your own path, understanding value in yourself and the direction you take. And by all means, consider your options thoroughly before you take out a large student loan.






Italian Jam Tart

italian jam tart

Last summer I consulted a pastry chef with much more experience in the world of Italian desserts than I. I was in need of some suggestions for traditional desserts to inform my menu at Avec, and he has managed the sweet side of Del Posto in New York for long enough to make him an expert in my eyes. It was my good fortune that he happened to be in Italy during our exchange of texts, and the flow of ideas was strong.

Amongst the desserts we talked about, he suggested a fruit dessert that I quickly tucked into my piggy bank of possibilities, safe and sound, waiting for the darkest, coldest, most barren part of winter. This dessert, the Italian Jam Tart, holds the Brooks Headley seal of Awesomness, and will forever hold a place on my roster.

Why? Well, it’s damn tasty, for one. Also, it’s damn easy. Not the kind of “easy” that we can get away with in a professional kitchen filled with appliances, big ovens, ice machines, and hired dishwashers. This dessert is the kind of easy I can make at home. For all my drive and skill at work, I am a lazy home baker. My house is my sanctuary, the place I use to separate myself from what I spend 12 hours a day doing. I despise making anything complicated in my home kitchen, where my counters are small, the equipment minimal, and all dishes are washed by hand.

However, it is not my minimalistic approach to home baking that will keep this dessert in my life year after year. It is the chance to highlight fruit in the dead of winter. Not citrus from distant states, or apples that have been housed in cool places since september. This tart is a vessel for all of summers bounty, preserved as jams, brought out in a time when it’s easy to forget what a real berry tastes like.

At the time this conversation took place, summer was slipping into Autumn, but not before we were able to preserve some of the late season berries as jam. The jars lay in wait for months, biding their time while peaches were tucked under flaky crostada doughs. They kept to themselves while the apples were shaved paper thin and layered in galettes. They didn’t make a peep as pumpkins were roasted and folded into spiced pumpkin budinos, or blood oranges topped light ricotta cheesecakes.

But as the shortest day of the year passed and fresh fruit was a fleeting memory, our jars of jam were carried up from the basement, ready for their day in the sun. A little research was done on these traditional tarts, and we happily ate them for a week at staff meal while we refined our dough and made a crust worthy of our mixed summer berry jam.

What came of this venture is a buckwheat crust flavored with a whisper of bitter almond. The dough is divided, the bulk pressed into a tart pan. jam is generously spread over, and the remaining dough is scattered on top with a handful of shaved almonds. Once baked and sliced, the tart is served with a little pitcher of cultured cream, just thick enough to cling to the tart when poured on top.

As we open the last few jars of our mixed berry jam, we are already day dreaming of the jams we will make this summer as chase the seasons fruits through their rapid shuffle.

 Italian Jam Tart

culture club


Spring has yet to spring here in Chicago. Temperatures still hover around freezing, and snow flurries obscured my vision as I walked home from work earlier this week. This hasn’t stopped my internal clock from sounding the bells of seasons change with no regard for the wintery climate outside. Without even a suggestion of the seasons first fruits and vegetables my own internal spring is growing restless and deeply unsatisfied.

To distract us from the doldrums of this long winter, we purchased Kilgus cream and milk and a handful of dairy cultures, and have been experimenting with the subtle changes we can occur in cows milk with a variety of bacteria.

Our little excalibur dehydrator is filled with various yogurts and keifers, all hoping for a spot on Avec’s brunch menu.

My oven spent the night on low, clotting cream for me, which came out nubbly and thick, and somewhere between velvet and butter.

Cream has been thickened at room temperature with the help of a sour cream culture, making me ask why we’ve ever purchased the stuff.

But the real excitement came from a half gallon of creme fraiche. I’ve fraiched many a cream in kitchens spanning the country, adding buttermilk and a little lemon to heavy whipping cream, and setting it in a warm place in the kitchen to perform it’s magic trick. 48 hours later a rich and tangy dairy product could be harvested and chilled to thicken. It was for all practical purposes a hack, and at the time it was all I cared to know about creme fraiche.  With my heavy handed introduction of acid, my creme fraiche was much more like sour cream than the expensive and seemingly bland creme fraiche I purchased for 9 dollars a pint at a fancy grocery store.

This time, however, armed with a little pouch of live culture, we made a legit creme fraiche. I was quite impressed with the end result. It was richer, more nuanced, and possessed a pleasant acidity that didn’t hover as close to sour cream as my previous attempts.

Also excited by this batch of creme fraiche was my Pastry Cook Molly Svec. This batch was promised to Molly, who promptly bludgeoned it in a Hobart mixer until it broke completely. She patiently hand massaged the buttermilk from the fat, and shaped the newly formed cultured butter into a beurrage for the croissant on our menu.

We have been purchasing a european butter and pounding it into a malleable submission with a french rolling pin, a noisy endeavor to say the least. Molly promised she could do better.

Molly had spent some of her formative years as a bakers assistant to a passionate baker who makes some of the most fantastic croissants I’ve had.  His company, aptly named Beurrage sells their outstanding wares at the farmers market in Pilsen, the previously Polish, now predominately Hispanic neighborhood just southwest of the Chicago city center (and also where I call home!). Each beurrage folded into Beurrage’s dough is shaped from hand made cultured butter. It seems like a daunting task, hand making the butter for croissants. Don’t be put off, however. It’s a labor of love, for sure, but in a way as streamlined and time consuming as pounding and pounding and pounding cold butter into submission.

Culturing the cream is as easy as heating cream to 86 degrees, stirring in a packet of culture, setting it on a counter for 12 hours, then transferring it to the refrigerator for 12 hours. The cold creme fraiche is made easy work of a hobart mixer, and the only real hands on task in this process is kneading the buttermilk from the butter. Once the buttermilk has been pressed out, the soft butter is immediately shaped as a beurrage and chilled. It sets into the correct shape, and multiples can be made at a time. Because the burrage is given it’s shape before the butter sets up, it retains a flexibility that can’t be found again by manipulating butter from a block, and the risk of the fat leaking from the dough when baked is drastically reduced.

Ok, so you need to get a 2 day jump on this. But once built into a production cycle in your kitchen, it’s quite easy to manage.

The end result? Less greasy, crisper, and more flavorful croissants. In a world where the laminated doughs used by restaurants and hotels are so easily purchased in a frozen case, a croissant laminated in house with handmade cultured butter will truly stand out.

If you never laminate a croissant with handmade butter, take one thing from this post. Embrace the discovery brought into our kitchen by a few boring weeks, that the many of the dairy products we are using can be created in our own kitchens with ease, and the results alone are as worthy of a place on our plates as the recipes that call for them. The craftsmanship of culturing an outstanding dairy outshines many recipes that manipulate the same purchased products.


Croissant dough with cultured butter





wide waffle sketchIt took a brunch baby shower at Avec and the guests request for an off-menu item to be served for me to see it. As I rounded up the requisite iron and discussed recipes, a hidden passion in my pastry cook came bubbling to the surface. Turns out, Amy McCudden loves making waffles.

It may come from her boyfriends love of eating waffles, but where ever this devotion stems from, I found as enthusiastic a waffle maker as I have ever seen standing in front of me last weekend, thrilled at the prospect of landing a new recipe.

To accommodate our guests request, I had flipped through the many and varied recipes that exist to make waffles, comparing leavening agents, regional styles, flours, sweeteners, and textures, settling on my personal favorite, the liege style waffle. This waffle is a yeasted dough, sweetened not with sugar in the batter, but chunks of pearl sugar folded into the dough that caramelize against the hot surface of the waffle iron.

I first encountered liege waffles when a lovely woman named Adrien emailed me one day, asking to discuss my availability as a consultant. I was flattered to say the least. I was still a fairly young pastry chef, and she was the first person to ask me to consult. I pretended like I had some experience with it, arranged a meeting, and went about the business of being a consultant employing the fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality. We met at a coffee shop, and she shared her business with me, a liege waffle shop, for which she needed help designing the toppings.

Luckily, it was a simple enough job. Since she was as inexperienced with opening a restaurant as I was at consulting my cluelessness either didn’t show through, or didn’t dissuade her from hiring me. We met at her house, and tested and tasted my recipes on top of the waffle recipe she herself had already developed. I was instantly captivated by these waffles. They were light, crispy, and the depth of flavor of the caramelized pockets of sugar were mind blowing. (If you live in Seattle or find yourself passing through, you can find these waffles at Sweet Iron)

For our brunch party, we used the liege waffle recipe I developed for the waring company, featured here (disclosure, I am not exactly a firecracker on camera). It’s a fine example of the style, and our bellies were happily stuffed with more test runs than we realistically needed to make this weekend.

Amy was excited to find a recipe to bring home and make for her guy, and I am excited to discover this passion in my cook. I look forward to harnessing her desire for making waffles, and opening up our pastry menu at Avec to a waffle based dessert.


Liege Waffles

Craftsman and Cooks

craftsman 2With the flow of younger cooks in and out of the restaurants I work at, I hear snippets of conversations here and there often describing dreams for the future, and the chefs they want to be. Not in a lofty sense, actual names of the chefs they admire most and hope to grow into.

These cooks pour over menus, stare into pictures on the computer, and gather pieces of information through conversation, building a picture of their favorite chefs in their young minds. Sometimes it’s gossipy, someone used to work with someone who worked there and they said once the chef was a dick. Or my roommate worked there and said he kicked all the cooks out and ran service with just his sous chefs. I’ve heard outlandish tales, that one pastry chef was so organized he wrote “go to the bathroom” on his prep list.

But mostly they talk about the food. How creative it is. How different it is. How they want to be able to do that some day too.

The fledgling cooks admire these chefs for their brains, the creativity they bring to our profession, and they too wish to be as inventive as them, making their own mark on the world one day.

My advice to young hungry cooks who want to become chefs one day is this. Be a craftsman first. The artistry will come. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself, and let the chef you are working for be your creative guide while you focus on making yourself the best craftsman in their kitchen.

You’re time will come. And once you get there the most empowering thing you’ll find in your arsenal is your ability to craft the food to fit your creative vision. The most interesting flavor profiles will fall flat if you don’t understand how to shape the products you’re working with in the first place. How to store and protect your vegetables, how to fabricate your meats and fish, how to boil pasta, how to apply heat to different products correctly to consistently transform them into something of quality.

The stronger your craftsmanship is, the more you will be able to execute your creative vision one day, and the better you will be able to teach your cooks to craft your cuisine when you turn them over to your line. Until then, while you have the benefit of repetition, practice with someone elses menu. Craft each component on each dish better than the day before. Pick one thing each day to actively improve. Don’t let the repetition of your station hypnotize you, instead let it offer another chance to improve every time you make it, plate it, taste it. Do this for your chef because one day you want your cooks to do it for you. But mostly do it for the chef you hope to become.

The chefs you admire did this. I guarantee it. No one climbs to the top of their field creatively without having the craftsmanship to back it up.

So you want to be like the chef you admire most? Then tomorrow, when you go in your kitchen, consider yourself a craftsman instead of a cook. One day, when you are creating for your own menu, borrowing inspiration from your favorite chefs career, you’ll look back on this mental transition as a turning point that allowed you to be the kind of chef they are.


Found In Translation

ricotta cheesecakeThe only thing constant about Blackbird is that it is in constant flux. The restaurant, founded to house the cuisine of Paul Kahan 16 years ago, was eventually released from his tenure as chef de cuisine, and transformed into a guided creative platform for younger talent. The reigns were first handed to Mike Sheerin who was launched into notoriety before opening his own Trencherman and now Chiccetti, bringing with him the playful manipulation marked by his time at WD-50. Amongst Sheerins ranks grew a young and passionate David Posey, who was handed the torch and has transformed the menu at Blackbird into a blend of Nordic influences, techniques and whimsy from his time under Grant Achatz at both Trio and Alinea, and the grounded, flavor focused philosophies garnered from his time with Paul Kahan.

Blackbird has no signature dishes. It doesn’t repeat history, or circle back and cover it’s own tracks. It’s not the groundbreaking think tank that Noma’s food lab is, or the progressive restaurant that Alinea is. However, the beauty of this restaurant is in it’s ability to constantly evolve and redefine itself.

It’s a pleasure creating the endings for this menu. A challenge at times, but nothing short of the best job I could want for.

However, it’s not my whole job. I also have under my wing the dessert menu across the alley at Avec. And Avec is everything Blackbird is not. It’s menu is static. It has served dates wrapped in chorizo, and a truffle cheese filled foccacia every night since it’s doors opened. It’s menu is deeply tied to the traditions and flavors of the wine growing regions of the Mediterranean. While much of the menu does change, you can come in expecting to see many of the dishes you remember.

The desserts at Avec are rooted in tradition and quite simple. This should not be mistaken for the word “easy”. It’s easier to impress with 10 components than it is with 2. And tradition can be limiting and binding.

I often find myself staring at a traditional Italian dessert, pondering it’s relevance on a contemporary menu in Chicago. This most recently came up when testing Ricotta Cheesecake recipes to pair with winter blood oranges.

Traditional ricotta cheesecakes  showcase the best qualities of the fresh cheese they are made from; a subtle sweetness, a soft curd, a pleasant blandness. They are crumbly, and feel a little dry compared to their thick creamy American counterparts.

How does one tie a traditional dessert to a menu so distant from it’s original context? Often I find myself deep in thought asking myself why this dish was made the way it was, what it embodies, and how similar expressions are made in our culture. While regional dishes differ drastically across the globe, the sentiment behind cuisine on every continent is created with the same human intention and most often resonance can be found.

Why did a person in Italy 100 years ago make a cheesecake, and how does that mirror a person in America making a cheesecake today? This dessert can be traced back to roman times, utilizing products that were available in the days before spring form pans and philledelphia cream cheese factories. A crust of nuts held the ricotta cake in place, and a few eggs were used to bind the batter. A light hand in mixing was used, and the texture and flavor were left to highlight the beautifully bland quality of the fresh cheese. Sweetness came from a drizzle of honey after the cake was sliced and the addition of sweeter fruits like dates and figs. It was a lovely expression of regional available product, and a true luxury when eaten.

Today in America, land of abundance, this cheesecake would not feel luxurious, rather it appears light and simple, if not even a little clumsy. Cheesecake, however, is still seen as luxurious, and we often hear this dessert associated with words like “sinful” or “decadent”. Our cheesecakes rely on a highly stabilized cream cheese and are dense, silky, and quite sweet. They are baked over buttery crusts of crushed graham crackers, and often strongly flavored with things like coffee, chocolate, pumpkin, lemon, or rum. A far cry from the cheesecakes across the ocean.

This time around, I didn’t look to resurrect the tradition literally. I took my cues from Italian cheesecakes in flavor, and put my efforts in capturing the light subtle quality of fresh ricotta. However, I quickly divorced this updated ricotta cheesecake from the crumbly nature of the cheese. Because we love a thick dense creamy cheesecake these days, I pureed the ricotta until smooth, and added a touch of cream cheese to the mascarpone laced batter. The crust was made with both ground nuts and crushed cookies. The resulting cake is light and sweet like ricotta, flavored subtly with a hint of blood orange, but embodying the smooth silky texture we have come to expect of contemporary cheesecakes. A kaleidoscope of fresh and candied blood oranges sit in tandem over the cheesecake, offering additional sweet and sour counterparts to the rich dairy, and pine nuts coated in caramel sauce finish the dish.

Sometimes a tradition can be resurrected, and we can favor authenticity. Other times we use modern desserts and only include the flavors of the region. This time it’s a hybrid. Two traditions melded into one. A cake all it’s own, found in translation.


Ricotta Cheesecake

Caramel Pine Nuts

Candied Blood Oranges


Molten Chocolate Cake

On the occasion I leave my restaurant for the night, or have entire days off, I can occasionally be tempted to join the greater part of society and attend a party. Years ago, on one of these such occasions, I found myself in a small circle of adults, foodies if you will, discussing my favorite topic; dessert.

The conversation shifted towards a modern classic dessert, one everyone in the room was familiar with. This discussion of molten chocolate cake was focused on it’s “pedestrian” status, from every mid range fine dining restaurant in the suburbs to it’s signature status on Chili’s menu.

While I sipped my glass of wine, I heard some chuckles as all faces turned to me. “Not that you’d ever have a molten chocolate cake on your menu!”

Laughter ensued.

I smiled, and chuckled with the crowd, thinking to myself, “oh I wouldn’t? Watch me.”

I set myself to the task the next day, and the dish that came from a momentary desire to be contrary has followed me from Poppy in Seattle, to Spago in Beverly Hills, and has finally landed itself a spot on my menu at Avec.

You might not realize it’s that molten chocolate cake when you order it, and I’ve taken some liberties with the recipe, swapping the butter for a fruity olive oil, and serving it contained in it’s baking vessel rather than turning it out onto a plate. But make no mistake, my “Warm Chocolate-Olive Oil Cocotte” takes it’s cues directly from the same molten chocolate cake that has permeated every inch of American dining.

A few years ago, I found myself with the good fortune of being in Denmark over the summer. As if summering in Denmark isn’t fortune enough, I was one of the lucky attendees of the first MAD festival. This may not be the place you’d expect a discussion to turn to molten chocolate cake, and I was surprised and delighted when it did. Upon introducing Michelle Bras to the stage, Rene Redzepi took a minute to speak on the breadth of a chefs influence.

To prove that we as chefs have more influence than we think, he brought up a photograph of a dessert created for the menu at Michelle Bras eponymous restaurant in the early 1980’s, the Chocolate Coulant. You might not recognize it by name, as Bras patented it there-by limiting it’s use to one menu. The dish, however, could not be contained to the country of france let alone one restaurant, and imitators were forced to come up with titles of their own. Over 20 years later, if you’re unfamiliar with the Coulant, you’ll most certainly have seen a Chocolate Lava Cake, or a Molten Chocolate Cake.

I write this post now, because Avec’s Warm Chocolate-Olive Oil Cocotte has made it’s annual appearance on the menu, just in time for some mighty cold weather. The batter is cast into a casuela, the flat terracotta baking vessels used through out Mediterranean countries, and baked in our woodfire oven. At a whopping 800 degrees, this cake barely hovers inside the door as it bakes to order, just long enough to set the outside and leave the inside as ooey and gooey as any one of this cake’s alias’s would suggest. Upon removal from the oven, a sprinkling of buttery hazelnut crunch and a scoop of coffee ice cream are placed on top, and a quick drizzle of black olive oil finishes the dish.

If a trip to Avec isn’t in your future, these cakes are packaged in little jars and sold in the refrigerated case at Publican Quality Meats. One simply needs to unscrew the cap and place it in a 350 degree oven and molten chocolate cakes, I mean Warm Chocolate-Olive Oil Cocottes can be enjoyed at any moment you find suitable.

Best chocolate cakes in the U.S.- Food and Wine Magazine