Tuesday, Oct 6th, 2015 by Dana Cree
I’m never surprised to hear that home cooks are intimidated by puff pastry. With 729 layers—yes, really—puff pastry can make you feel like you have 729 opportunities to mess up. But it isn’t only amateurs who shy away from the extravagantly layered pastry—puff pastry strikes fear into the heart of professional cooks as well. And with mechanically perfected puff pastry available from the freezer section of most grocery stores (or one from a trusted purveyor, if you’re a professional), it’s easy to avoid ever using the technique yourself.
Classically, puff pastry is made by “laminating” dough. Used to make croissants, Danish, and any other flaky, buttery pastry, laminating dough involves wrapping a block of butter in a lean dough made of water and flour. The layers are created by a series of “turns,” wherein the dough is rolled thin and folded over itself. This process stretches and stacks the butter and dough until there are 729 paper-thin layers.
There are two types of turns performed when laminating dough: a book turn and a letter turn. The book turn requires you to fold the wide edges inward to meet at the center, then fold the dough again over the center line, as if closing a thick book. A letter turn asks that you fold the dough over itself in thirds, much like you would fold a sheet of letter paper to fit in an envelope. The choice between book or letter folds depends on the pastry: croissants, for example, are letter-folded, while Danish are typically book-folded.
I first “learned” how to make laminated dough in baking and pastry school, where I made puff pastry a grand total of two times. Early professional attempts were disastrous, leaving me with greasy, butter leaking, flat, crackery results. These malformed pastries told me my efforts were so far away from a perfect result it would take months, maybe years to get it right. So I let months, maybe years go by before I attempted to laminate a dough again.
This is puff pastry’s greatest lie. While first attempts may produce such poor results it seems a hopeless cause, subsequent attempts will achieve a better product, quickly.
Classically, puff pastry is made by wrapping a block of butter in an enriched dough. The layers are created by a series of “turns”, where-in the dough is rolled thin and folded over itself. This process stretches and stacks the butter and dough until there are seven hundred and twenty seven paper thin layers. There are two types of turns performed when laminating dough, a book turn and a letter turn. The book turn requries you to fold the wide edges inward to meet at the center, then fold the dough again over the center line as if closing a thick book. This creates 4 layers. A letter turn asks that you fold the dough over itself in thirds, much like you would fold a sheet of letter paper to fit in an envelope.
The family of laminated doughs also includes croissants and danish pastries, and each has a unique perscription of turns to give it a specific amount of layers. The seven hundred and twenty seven layers in puff pastry are achieved by performing 6 letter turns. Professionally, this is often done with the assistance of a machine called a sheeter. This large contraption moves the dough back and forth across two belted wings, passing it through a pair of rollers in the center. With each pass, the rollers are moved closer together, and the dough becomes thinner. I learned to laminate doughs on a sheeter in school, a fact that I can only assume led to the failure of my early attempts.
While the sheeter makes quick work of the lamination process, it left me without much feel for the dough itself. When I began to make puff pastry with a rolling pin instead, the lenghth of time I kept the dough on the counter caused the butter to soften and squish around, and my arms struggled to roll the dough correctly.
My true education in laminated doughs came 10 years into my career, under the care of Sherry Yard’s pastry department at Spago. I used a sheeter to produce the puff pastry we baked to make strawberry mille feuille desserts and pretzel crusted vol-au-vents. This time I paid attention to the look and feel of the dough as the machine did the work. When I took the helm at Blackbird and decided to add puff pastry to our own menu, the rolling pin no longer reduced my chance for success.
At spago I learned to make inverse puff pastry. Developed by an icon of french pastry, Pierre Herme, inverse puff pastry requires the dough to be wrapped in butter instead of the classic butter wrapped dough. When I came to blackbird, I decided to employ not the classic puff pastry technique, nor the inverse method. Rather, we make something called “rough puff”. With this method the butter is cut into 1 inch cubes, and added to the flour before the dough is made. Water is added and tossed evenly, until a dough wiht big chunks of butter suspended within it forms. We also made the decision to employ 4 book folds instead of 6 letter folds, reducing the amount of times the dough is brought out and stressed.
With an equivelent amount of layers, our quick enrobing of the butter and expedient turning process has brought fantastic results to our kitchen, while increasing the success rate and shortening the learning curve.
There are a few things that will make or break your puff pastry. If the dough isn’t rolled out far enough between each turn, the layers never gets thin enough. Second, if the doughy half of the puff pastry contains too much moisture, it will be crackery and tough, and the layers will stick together as it bakes.
Most importantly however, the butter has to stay cold, cold, cold. If the butter warms up, the fat will begin to smear with the flour. Imagine the dough that makes a butter cookie, the fat and flour combined to a paste. This paste bakes into a beautiful, flat, crumbly delight, not something you want in puff pastry. The engine that drives puff pastry upwards is the steam released from the butter, which is by weight about 20% water. f the flour smears with the butter, that water is absorbed by the flour, locking it away and never letting it fulfill it’s puffy destiny.
Protecting the butter’s temperature is quite possibly the most difficult part of making a laminated dough. The warmer your kitchen, the more the butter wants to melt. You can use a sheet pan of ice water to ice down the counter you are using, or freeze the flour you use to dust the counter and dough with while rolling. If you have an ellegant marble rolling pin, you can chill that too. Every little bit helps. Finally, take the time to clear out a dedicated space in your refrigerator, and jocky the dough in and out as necessary.
I hope any early trouble puff pastry gives you doesn’t deter you from trying your hand again. You’ll get the knack sooner than later. And I’ve found there is hardly a flaw in puff pastry a little whipped cream and fruit won’t make completely servicable.
Monday, Oct 5th, 2015 by Dana Cree
Jose M. Osorio, Chicago Tribune
Leigh Omilinsky has been haunting the pastry departments of Chicago for the past decade, a city not far from where she grew up. From the fine dining kitchen of Tru, to the immaculate halls of Laurant Gras once great L20, Leigh is well versed in avant garde desserts. She climbed the ranks of the boutique hotel, The Sofitel, here in Chicago, masterminding not only the typical hotel amenities like private dining, banquets, in room dining, and catering to every special request that came in, but she created the desserts for their tasting menu restaurant, Cafe Des Architects. Last year, she built an in-house cheesemaking program under the moniker “Chestnut Provisions”, which included bloomy triple creams, washed rind taleggios, harder aged cheeses like gouda, and everything in between. As of this summer, she was nabbed by One Off Hospitality to run Nico, the Italian seafood restaurant inside the Thompson Hotel in chicago, a move that allows her to build on her previous experience, marrying her love for both restaurants and hotels.
I first met Leigh in a pastry chef’s kitchen, but not the kind of kitchen you’re thinking of. We were both invited to share a meal at fellow pastry chef Thomas Raquel’s home, an evening that quickly devolved into roiling laughter, and the birth of the Chicago Pastry Mafia. Amanda Rockman made the fourth that evening, and while not a single one of us holds the title we did so long ago, we have followed and shared in each others pastry lives since.
I’m very excited Leigh has agreed to share the work she is doing with us here. Aside from an unhealthy obsession with macarons, (I mean, she made pink ones with colored sprinkles that look just like circus animal cookies) Leigh has a deep knowledge and broad view of desserts to share with us.
With out further adieu, meet Leigh!
What is your name, and what is your current position?
Leigh Omilinsky, it’s spelled like a sky, but pronounced like a ski. I’m the pastry chef at the Nico Osteria in Chicago.
What was the very first dessert you ever made?
Oh God. We didn’t really grow up eating desserts much, but I remember making my grandma’s yeast raised coffee cake with her. My mom would also make these things we called fruit crunch, thinner and flatter than a crumble, it was fruit with equal parts sugar butter and flour. In an attempt to be healthy, my mom would sneak cereal into her baking, like shredded wheat into our cookies. There was a certain “charm” but finding half a cheerio in your cookies? My mom says now, “I thought I was doing the right thing!”
Did you go to pastry school, and where?
I went to Johnson and Wales in Denver. I was on a search to, I don’t want to say be different, but I wanted out of Chicago at the time. It was far, there were mountians, and it kinda felt right when I visited it.
I knew since I was 15 that I wanted to be a pastry chef. I would make cookies and play with pie doughs to decompress after high school. My mom sent me to summer pastry classes at Kendal College, and told me, “you know you can do this for a living.” After that I just said to myself, “Yup”
I also thought I wanted to be a jazz pianist, but I hate performing on stage. And yes I still play piano. I inherited my grandmas baby grand which is living at Greg Biggers house for his son to play. I prefer to play in the practice rooms at the Harold Washington Library, they have all the sheet music you could possibly imagine. So I go there.
What was the worst thing you made in pastry school, or are there any other hilarious disasters we can laugh about?
I remember a purple wedding cake from school, like Barney colored. It was aweful. At Tru, I tried to make milk chocolate-sage ice cream and it was like Breakfast Sausage. There are a lot, but those are the two that stand out.
What was your first pastry job?
I worked at the Skokie bakery in Skokie Illinois when I was 14, and I would decorate the cakes and work in the front selling stuff. It was 2 blocks from my house and was owned by a german couple. We also made novelty cakes, like for bachelorette parties and I’d have to ask the fun questions like “do you want coconut shavings or chocolate shavings?”
What has been your favorite job so far?
Is this when I say Nico? Ha. I really got some strenghth at Tru, and I refined myself at L20. When L20 was good, it was the best. I love Laurent, he taught me discipline and to have a critical eye, and to keep mystandards high.
I was at Sofitel for 5 years, so that was pretty good. It was liked working with my best friends, but it really taught me management. That place was a Beast. I knew there was always more to learn there, always something going on, and they were very good to me. I mean, they sent me to France for a month!
Do you have someone you consider a mentor?
Absolutely. 3. I’m lucky.
Meg Galus- It’s interesting watching our relationship morph. She was my boss, but the relationship has grown and she’s become my colleague. We can discuss recipes, and email each other back and forth a lot.
Laurent Gras- I consider him a mentor. He taught me how to keep my standards high and showed me a work ethic I didn’t know was possible.
Greg Biggers- he taught me how to manage, to see the big picture in things, and run multiple things while still appropriately dealing with people.
All three are the voice in my head. It’s like a female Greg Biggers with a French accent!
Why did you choose this career path to begin with?
It chose me. Is that cliché? That’s cliché. I don’t care. It did. It just got me.
Have you done any stages? Where? What did you learn there?
Yeah! Pierre Herme Paris. I learned that I don’t speak French! They could speak English, but didn’t like to. But seriously, It was life changing and amazing. On the technical side, I learned that in reality, I was doing ok.
What I really loved there was beauty of everything, from the product to the packaging, to the display. The beauty was a complete entity.
I spen1 one day in Pierre’s Research and Development kitchen, which was in a loft in the 18th district. It was an amazing day. I sat down for a tasting, with Pierre Herme and his team, while they were delveloping their new line of products. After that, I was done. I could die happy.
Name one of your favorite cookbooks.
Mastering the Art of French cooking. By Julia. I love it because the recipes all work, are classic, and are really approachable. All of them. And it’s broken down in a way that everyone can understand. I mean, that’s why we are all in this. It’s food. We are in it to enjoy every part of it.
If you wrote a cookbook, what would it be about?
Crazy Cat Lady Daily! Not really. Probably something about macarons! Haha. I would like to think if I wrote a book it would be something that would be accessable to everyone, professionals and home cooks. But I don’t know, I don’t really think about it.
If you had any advice to the younger version of yourself, what would it be?
Slow. Down. Take it in, and take care of yourself. Just generally, relax. I’m a pretty anxious person to begin with. If I know what I know now, it’s that things will work out. I know my work ethic, and if I just ride it out, it’s going to be fine. The little things I would get upset about! It’s so stupid, it’s just cake!
And definatley self care. The days you don’t eat. The days you eat like a Frat Boy. The days you don’t sleep and decide to go out and drink instead. It’s such a consuming and isolating industry, I just generally wished I had taken better care of myself in my 20’s.
Back then, I was only responsible for a station. Looking back, It was cute. At the time, I was so concerned about how other people were doing their jobs, if they weren’t doing it the way I thought they should be. Now it actually is my job to worry about how other people are doing their job, and I’m much more relaxed about it.
Restaurant, hotel, bakery, or beyond? What’s your niche?
Restaurant! Although, I do also love hotels. I love the energy of restaurants. I’ve always liked plated desserts. I don’t love only doing cakes. Because Nico Osteria also provides the food and beverage for the Thompson hotel, it’s a pretty cool fit, I can do some cakes, and we do our own breads, and croissants. And of course the plated desserts.
What was the last dessert you ate?
I went to Gather, and they sent me out apple fritters for my birthday. Maybe it was Avec. No, it was Gather. Definitely Gather. Those things are glutunous and disgusting and amazing. So good!
And most importantly, do you have any pets, what are their names, and can I play with them?
Yes. Yes. Yes. I have 2 cats, they are my little Boo’s. One is named Bella but her full name is Isabella Ninja Escape Artist Omilinsky. She was my roommates cat in Denver, but when we moved in together, the cat picked me. This cat has seen it all. My other cat is Matilda, and she eats with her feet. It’s magic. She has a wet paw and a dry paw. She picks up food with her right paw, the dry one, and drops it in the water bowl, then scoops it up with her left paw, the wet one. Seriously, it’s magical to watch.
Saturday, Oct 3rd, 2015 by Dana Cree
The window I’ve opened here into my own kitchen experiences no longer looks into a pastry department. Instead, it looks into a fledgeling dairy, a pasture in Wisconsin with a growing herd of 36 grass munching cows, and a LOT of milk.
But since we aren’t changing the name of this blog to “The Dairy Department”, I have decided to open this website up to other voices, allowing other amazing pastry people to open windows into their pastry departments. Not just pastry chefs, but pastry cooks too, sharing the wide eyed discoveries they are making as they jump through their early positions and stages. I am excited to see this site grow into a larger conversation that the one I started, and watch it evolve as the voice of many.
As I invite people to participate, I’ll introduce them to you with an interview and a short biography. Then I’m going to sit back, let them do what it is they do best and tell us all about it. I’ll be eagerly awaiting each post with all of the readers here. There are so many wonderful things happening in the pastry departments around the country, and I am excited to follow along.
Monday, Sep 28th, 2015 by Dana Cree
I’ve recently let go of my position in the pastry department at Blackbird and Avec. No easy decision, these two restaurants have been my home away from home for the last 3 and a half years, and the people inside like family. It’s the best way to leave a restaurant, still loving and longing for my team, my menu, and my mentors. Outside the walls of Blackbird, I’d still do anything for them.
I’ve taken a position with a growing grass based Chicago dairy, called 1871 Dairy. If you’ve spent much time around me, you’ve likely heard me talk about ice cream, my one true love, and my desire to spend all day every day making it. Beyond that, though, is a deep fascination with the transformation of milk into the vast array of dairy products that span the globe. In becoming part of the team at 1871 Dairy, I will help shape the line of dairy products created with the deeply good dairy the herd produces.
The privilege of creating with this exceptional milk just scratches the surface of my decision, all topics for a later date. In the mean time, I wanted to introduce you to the columns I’m now writing. On the west coast, I’m writing a column for Chefs Feed, a biographical journey from my dream job as the pastry chef of Blackbird, to the world of food outside restaurants.
The next instillation will be coming soon! I discuss what happens to the cooks left behind, those that hold a department together through the transition between chefs.
Over on the east coast, I’ve been contributing to one of my favorite publications, Lucky Peach! My column is called Pastry School! In it, I get to talk about the fundamental techniques in the discipline of pastry, and their introduction into my own repertoire, which wasn’t necessarily early in my career. Hopefully you too can discover these core techniques along with me, and introduce them into your life as well.
The next instillation will be about the dough I consider “the little engine that could”. It just keeps chugging along, making everything from cream puffs to gougers to gnocchi to crullers. Yes, it’s pate de choux!
Take a gander at these columns, I’m beyond excited to contribute to two such amazing online magazines. In the mean time, the window to my own pastry department has closed, but I’m working on finding a few open windows for you to look through!
Monday, Jul 20th, 2015 by Dana Cree
We are in the process of rehiring for two positions between Blackbird and Avec. Part of the interview process for a cooks position is a trail, which is kind of a trial of sorts, often called a stage. This is a physical interview, in which the team hiring has a chance to see if the candidate is a fit, and the candidate has a chance to see if the kitchen is the kind of place they would like to dedicate themselves.
We often have cooks passing through our pastry department, staging for educational purposes rather than trying out for a position. It can become a little confusing for my team, a warm and inviting group of pastry cooks that are invested in perpetuating the educational structure they too are learning in. Why is it confusing? My cooks instinct is to pause and teach when a question is asked. It’s our way. However, when a cook is trailing for a position, we need to see them for what they already have, and I coach my cooks to take a hands off approach with potential candidates. There is no right or wrong level of experience, I always say we can take anyone and move them forward. But depending on the needs of the position, I need to see exactly what we are starting with.
It’s more important to watch a candidate make a mistake than to see them constantly succeed. I need to know how they respond to a kitchen failure, what their problem solving skills are like, and how their attitude shifts when they don’t succeed. Also important, is how they respond to instruction and criticism.
I tell my cooks to guide a candidate verbally when they ask a question- don’t walk them over to the pantry to find something, or take a project out of their hands to show them. We need to understand how they respond to verbal guidance, and asses their level of self-reliance. Do they attempt to find an ingredient before they ask where it is? Can they translate words into actions?
We always write them their own prep list and see how they organize it. Do they ask for information on how to organize a list as a whole, do they understand how a production schedule is prioritized? We will put a few technique-testers on the list even if we don’t need them. An ice cream, a cookie, tempering chocolate, scaling and mixing a dough, cutting and portioning a mingardise, for example. We want to see where their skill level is at with basic techniques. A lack of technique isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. Technique is taught, ability is innate. We can add technique to an able cook, but again, we need to know what they come into our kitchen with. Depending on the position, we might need to build on a certain level of technique rather than implant it, and an able cook will always be kept in mind as various future opportunities arise.
We don’t put anything on the candidates list that is crucial for the days success. You don’t want their potential failures to throw your own success away. However, we do add smaller, easy-to-redo tasks necessary for the line to their list, to see if they understand the urgency of setting up for service. Also, we pay attention to whether they ask the team if their work is correct, or just store the project away. This shows us if they consider a task complete when the work is done, or when it is confirmed as correct.
I tell my cooks not to socialize, but do use conversation to feel them out. Have they worked with ice cream before? Where? What was that like? I often ask a candidate to describe their previous position, to walk me through a typical day there. Do they speak positively or negatively? (you’d be surprised at what comes out!) What is their favorite part of their job? What was their favorite dessert on the menu? You can get a strong feeling for a persons commitment and passion with simple questions. I always ask what the last dessert they ate was. Watching their eyes light up tells me if they really love desserts, or, if they can’t remember, then they may not be particularly passionate about desserts. All these questions help me paint a picture of a cooks motivation for walking this restaurant pastry path.
Now, we also watch to see how they are interviewing us. What kinds of questions do they ask about the kitchen? Are they asking questions that would help guide them towards an informed interest in what we are doing at Blackbird or Avec in particular? Do they ask the cooks what the schedules are typically like, what a busy service feels like, how many covers we do? Are they curious about our plating, how the kitchen is structured, how cooks move up? Are they probing to see where they would fit, and how the kitchen could help them grow? Are they asking questions at all?
I let my team interact with candidates through out the trail, taking a back seat where I can observe. In the end, the candidate is trying out for a position as part of a team, not as my cook. Do they respect the team dynamic we have worked so hard to build? Or do they avoid the team asking the sous chef or chef questions instead of the cook who’s assigning them the tasks? Do they shrink from the team preferring to work in quiet isolation?
All of this is simply a framework for productive interaction. It will help us assess the candidates in a way that allows us to open up a mutually beneficial opportunity. We promise an educational experience that will equal the amount of dedication and labor a cook gives to our pastry department, and that education is tailored to each individual that comes through our door. I always say we would rather hold the position open and work harder for a short period of time, ensuring that the position is used as it was designed to. As we all labor for our own educations, we want to help propel a new cook towards their goals, and to provide a safe place for them to pour their attention and passion into.
Sunday, Jun 14th, 2015 by Dana Cree
Most home cooks, even those that collect the cookbooks of restaurant pastry chefs, will be unfamiliar with the kinds of purees stocked in the pastry kitchen. Recipes, when translated for home use, call for the whole fruit and instruct you to give it a whir yourself in a blender, perhaps simmering a fruit first, but likely not. It’s a simple act, really. Just put the fruit in a blender, hit the highest speed, and voila! Liquid fruit.
However, a pastry kitchen, built on production cycles, would be slowed greatly if processing fruit was required every time you make a recipe. Instead, we keep fruit purees around. They are an ingredient, not a process, called for in our recipes in exacting grams rather than estimated pints of berries. To make this even easier for us, there are companies that purchase fields of berries at a time, process it in season, and tuck it away in a sub zero freezer to sell to us year round. Some are better than others, but adding fruit to a recipe in a professional pastry kitchen doesn’t always mean the whole fruit passes through our hands.
Dont’ freak out. It’s not the processed food monsters taking over our local foods movement. Often times, the fruits the puree companies are able to buy, in bulk, in season, at the source, is a much higher quality than what we can purchase whole. I’ve yet to taste a mango in chicago that can hold a candle to the alfonso mango puree I purchase. Strawberries have a short season, one that can be greatly effected by the summer storms here in chicago. The mara du boise berries that cap fruit puree company buys by the fieldfull can, at times, outshine my local offerings, if the local offerings are even available. I am in great support of purchasing local fruits from the brave farmers in this region. But it’s not an option to walk into my dining room and say, this strawberry ice cream isn’t really very flavorful this week, but hey, it’s local. And if the local option isn’t available? Pureeing a clear plastic container of white centered strawberries? Forget about it.
So, we do at times order from the catalog of fruit purees, which come to us in 1 kilo containers, locked in icy preservation. We thaw them moments before they are used, and the resulting desserts are fruit forward, and above all, consistent.
However, at blackbird, we have started our own puree program. Its a money saving venture, if you look at the dollars and cents. The time it takes to process the fruit is lengthy, but makes use of pockets of down time in our cooks days, and gives our externs a chance to busy their hands while they make conversation with our cooks. The freezer space is often difficult to allocate, and managing the inventory over the course of the year takes effort. But it’s a worthwhile venture, and one I modeled after Sherry Yard’s similar program in LA. She took it one step further, securing freezer space in a produce merchants freezer, having them deliver her house made purees to all the pastry kitchens she managed when orders were placed for their produce.
Here at Blackbird, We bring in fruits from midwestern farms and orchards when the sun has ripened them, often working with the farmers to take over-ripe or seconds off their hands, and we process it ourselves. We spend the time to bring out the best of each fruit, simmering apricots and peaches until velvety, poaching cherries, letting black raspberries bubble until their musky scent is strong. Sometimes we roast stonefruits in the woodfire oven at Avec where juices evaporate as the fire embues the fruit with woodfire flavor. And the grapes, oh the grapes! They swell and burst on the stovetop with bright flavors before quietly simmering into luxurious submission. We leave the skins on our fruits, whick break down and add thick pectins to the purees, a time saving step that will prove doubly useful in sorbets giving them a softer, creamier texture. The cooked fruits are then sent for a ride in our super powered vita prep blender before we strain any pulp, skin, or seed from the liquid fruit. Packed into vacuum sealed bags, 1 kilo each, our purees stay frozen for use through out the year.
There are exceptions to every rule, and my strawberry and raspberry purees are just that. While they require no cooking, the berries themselves are by no means the least challenging of all our purees to produce. We put our berries through a freeze-thaw cycle before we take the time to puree them. It’s a process I’ve been using for years, and one I’ve written about before…….
“Why does freezing my berries make such a huge impact on the resulting thickness, color, and flavor?” The answer is simpler than I thought. Ice.
The information I found in On Food and Cooking discussed the damages ice crystals cause on vegetable matter when frozen, and how to avoid this. Because I am not avoiding this process, rather using it to my advantage, I went to Chris Young.
Anyone who has placed liquid in the freezer is aware that it expands. Thus, when we freeze our berries, the water molecules inside the cells expand. The sharp crystals of ice damage the cell walls of the fruit, causing for a better extraction of liquid, carrying both pigment and aroma molecules (Remember that flavor is made of 5 tastes on our tongue, and about a billion aromas in our nasal receptors).
So freezing makes for more release of liquid. Logically, more liquid would seem to make a runnier, thinner puree. But not so. What this process also does is break down the cell walls themselves. When the blade of the blender tears apart the cells, breaking them open to extract the liquid, it also breaks some of the cell wall down into particles small enough to remain in the puree. The damage from the ice allows for more of the cell wall to break down and become part of the puree and act to thicken it.
Finally, the freezing temperatures slow the enzymes that naturally deteriorate the bright hues of berries. Pureeing the fruit while still icy cold slows these enzymes from discoloring your fruit while the pigments are released.
If Dana circa 2006 doesn’t sound convincing, try it for yourself. The better your fruit, the better your puree, and those tender, sun-kissed strawberries flushed bright red are upon us! It does seem an outlandish step if you’re only pureeing 2 cups of strawberries once this year to flavor a home made ice cream. The benefit when you use puree every day is evident, but even for home cooks, the result is well worth the effort. You’ll be surprised how many uses you’ll find for bits of extra fruit purees if you have them lying around.
Thursday, May 28th, 2015 by Dana Cree
I’m doing something really mean to my staff this week. I’m taking away all their mingardise recipes. Not to test their memorization skills, or make their jobs unduly difficult. I’m forcing creativity.
One of the tenants of my department is creative obligation. I’ve noticed that when creative participation is a privilege, an option, it’s often prioritized beneath all the crushing elements of a cooks daily task list. But, when it’s no longer a choice, but an obligation, the game changes. Once you step into your first chefs role, it’s no longer an option to participate creatively in the menu. It’s your job. But the skill of translating intangible ideas that live within your thoughts into a tangible item that exists in the physical world is no natural gift. It’s HARD.
The cooks that come through the pastry department at blackbird are all well on their way to running kitchens of their own one day, and I’d hate to see that day be the first that they start to apply regular excursive to that part of their brain.
While I was staging at Noma, the legendary Saturday Night Projects were in full effect, and one day Rene gathered the entire staff and gave an impassioned speech. The previous saturday had not produced many presented projects and Rene told his staff this. “When you are the chef you can’t go into the dining room and say, I’m sorry I don’t have a dish for you I was too busy to come up with something new.” He continued to talk, telling his staff that it’s never going to get easier to create dishes, you’re only going to have more to do each day as a chef. The projects aren’t just a privilege. Finding time between 2 services a day on top of finishing your miss en place and working service can prove nearly impossible. But its a priority, and you can find the time if you treat it as such.
In turn, every member of my staff has a creative obligation to our menu, in an environment where a chef is there to mentor them through the process and gently edit their results.
My cook at Avec is required to conceive and execute our rotating gelato and sorbet menu.
My a.m. lead cook at Blackbird is required to put together a daily changing coupe for our lunch menu, and when that challenge has been mastered, we add on a lunch special with the framework that it creatively uses our left over table bread.
My sous chef is required to create a monthly rotating pre dessert for our tasting menu, a process that mirrors our drafted and revised plated desserts. This process, when applied to simpler pre desserts in rapid succession will lead them into creating desserts for the menu itself.
And finally, the junior most staff members, my PM cooks are responsible for the two mingardise we serve to our guests every night. This to me is creativity 101.
The first step in creatively applying yourself to the craft of pastry is to flavor exchange, or use a proven recipe and swap flavors. For the last 3 years we have produced many of our mingardise with our fake book of textures; pate de fruit, caramels, rolled truffles, caramel truffles, bon bons, macarons, financiers, marshmallows, nougats, brittles, toffees, and meringues.
With these sweet little bodies, my cooks change the flavors daily, discovering which flavors play well with others along the way. It seems like the easiest task, simply swap a flavor in a recipe you know works. But every idea sparks a series of questions that are simple to answer now, but will be asked again and again, every time you want to alter textures for a more composed dish.
More important than discovering the world of flavor pairing, these mingardise teach cooks how to correctly insert flavor into a texture.
Lets say, a cook wants to add lavender to a mingardise. First we must determine how to insert this flavor into a textural construct by looking for our opportunities to do so. Lavender is a purple bud, highly aromatic but not edible on it’s own. The flavor of an herb can be transferred by a hot or cold infusion, both of which offer different intensities and nuances, and depending on the liquid chosen to be infused, the flavor will transfer differently. A whole herb can also be dried, ground, and sifted, and added directly to a recipe. We also have lavender extract, and lavender honey. Once we understand the various ways to transfer the flavor of lavender, we look at which of these will be successful in the recipe.
Lavender infused cream can flavor a truffle or a caramel, but a marshmallow or meringue won’t endure the fat. We would have to look at creating a lavender infused syrup, or adding an extract. A marshmallow will collapse with lavender infused butter, but the financier requires the liquid fat and would work well. But couldn’t we also grind and sift dried lavender into the financier? Yes, then lets make it both ways so we can taste the difference!
By the time a cook is a chef, creating full scale plated compositions, understanding how to insert flavor into textures will be an essential skill. This will open up creative opportunities on the plate, and directly contribute to your ability to execute your vision.
I’ve got to say, I’ve seen this process work. I’ve watched our junior pm cook master the textures with simple flavors, then start to come up with really amazing flavors as the senior pm cook and then begin to bring in recipes they want to try. The senior pm cook has grown into our lead line, a morning position, and apply their flavor exchange skills to a composed Coupe, or sundae, and then start to dabble in full dish conception with chef feed back and edits as the lunch special. I’ll never forget Molly’s concord grape summer pudding. Kara was famous for hiding small scoops of tart sorbet inside larger scoops of rich ice cream for her coupes, and ben’s maple banana bread pudding was as comforting as it was inspired. It really brings tears of joy to watch our cooks blossoming, glimpsing the chefs they will become.
And because of this, next week, I’m taking away their recipes.
We will have a brainstorming meeting, in which they will suggest new textural constructs that build off of the recipes and skills we have. I will write them a new fake book, and stand side by side with them discussing how they can start to flavor exchange in these new tiny little homes. They have dubbed it the “mingardise revolution.”
Then, with a new arsenal of recipes, they will continue to exercise their flavor exchanging muscles and create these sweet little building blocks for our guests, just as always.
Thursday, May 7th, 2015 by Dana Cree
I share recipes. All of them. It’s one of the deepest arteries of our pastry kitchen at Blackbird, pumping fiercely through our body of work. It started the day Heston Blumenthal opened his recipe book to me as a young stage, a stark contrast to the restaurant I had come from, one that wrote recipes in code just in case the formula slipped from it’s grasp.
I have many oft spoken sound bites to support this practice.
“If you don’t pass a recipe along it dies the moment you take it off your menu, and who wants to see their work die?”
“It’s hard enough for me to get highly trained professional cooks to achieve the exact intended result with my recipes, in my kitchen, under my watch. There is no risk of loosing our identity by giving our recipes away.”
“Everything I have, I have because someone else gave it to me in one form or another. It’s important to give what we take.”
“It’s nearly impossible to follow a recipe without inflecting part of yourself into it, my recipes will become something else every time someone else makes them, just as everyone else’s recipes become something different when I make them.”
“No one can steal what is being given away.”
I’ve disallowed cooks from bringing in “secret recipes” to use for mingardise, or staff meal. If it’s in our kitchen, it belongs to everyone.
But underneath it all, I’ve been hoarding one recipe. It’s called a nutterbutter, and it’s a salty-crispy-peanut-butter-milk-chocolate-cocoa-nib-fuelletine concoction pressed into a bar, and covered in tahitian vanilla infused caramel. It’s absolutely addicting. I should know, I’ve been supporting a 3-ounce-a-day nutterbutter scrap habit since 2007. This unique confection was created to fill one of 4 small dishes flanking a plated dessert and a composed ice cream on Poppy restaurants dessert Thali. If I’m not mistaken, it’s still there. When I moved to Chicago, I started making them for Avec, served in sets of 4 on little wooden boards. Later in my time with One Off Hospitality, when I started packing ice cream in pints with the Hello My Name Is stickers for Publican Quality Meats, I folded nutterbutters into vanilla ice cream, and when we have a few spare minutes, we tuck that ice cream between two peanut butter cookies.
I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this confection, and I’ve watched people fall in nuttery-buttery love, all the while knowing it was mine mine mine. My precious.
But how much does the nutterbutter really belong to me?
The inspiration? Taken from a component on a dessert I inherited when I took over the menu at Veil restaurant in Seattle. The dessert itself, a salted peanut butter ice cream with milk chocolate anglaise, set over a crunchy mess of peanut butter coated crispiness, was taken by the chef of Veil from his pastry chef at a previous restaurant. I don’t know this pastry chefs first name, only that his last name was Harvey, a fact cemented by my early desire to call these little peanut buttery squares “Harvey Bars”, a nod towards the inspiring chef. Even the name, nutterbutter, taken, and very very trademarked.
So how could I preach GIVE and then keep something created from so much TAKE to myself? What can I say. I’m human, it’s beautiful, and I wanted it to be mine.
Well, now it’s yours.
A jolly fellow named Tim approached me to contribute to his wonderfully blog Lottie & Doof, and I saw it as my opportunity to right my selfish wrong. The recipe is posted here, right here!
For those nutterbutter lovers that have asked me for the recipe for so many years, I am sorry it took me so long to give up this recipe. Please take it and remake it a million times over. Put it on your menus. Make if for your mingardise plates. Make it for potlucks and holiday cookie tins. Fold it into ice creams like I do. But most importantly, if someone asks, give them the recipe.
Now, in the spirit of give and take, I’m going to ask you for something. A name. While no cease and desist order has come from the corporation that rightfully owns the name of this peanut buttery square, it’s not for us to keep.
So as this recipe passes from my hands to yours, lets join forces and rename it something that truly belongs to us.
Saturday, Apr 25th, 2015 by Dana Cree
There are very few moments when I will sit down and eat dessert just for the sake of it. It seems counter intuitive, a pastry chef who doesn’t eat dessert. It’s not that I don’t like desserts, I do! But day after day after day of mixing, tasting, baking, tasting, freezing, tasting, blending, tasting, testing, tasting, and more tasting, desserts aren’t always very appealing. My body practically begs me to avoid sugar, wincing at cookies and cakes at parties, cringing when the dessert menu comes and I know I will order something to support the cause.
And I will order dessert, every time. Yes, to support the pastry chef in house. And yes, to satisfy my professional curiosity. But mostly, I order desserts because it’s my job to eat them.
When younger cooks ask for advice, one of the little tidbits I like to give is “stick it in your mouth.” It always gets a few laughs, and when the chuckles fade, I explain further.
The only way you will build a good palate is to taste things. Over and over and over. Taste good desserts, bad desserts, mediocre desserts. Taste strawberries in season, out of season, in jams, in ice creams. Taste everything, all day, every day. You might have noticed some of the older chefs in the kitchen snacking. You see them taking three peas from your mise en place, swiping a quick spoon in your deli of ice cream, or dropping a dot of sauce on the back of your hand to accompany a few candied hazelnuts they quickly shoved in their mouth. It might even annoy you.
It’s not snacking. It’s also not greedy, or gluttonous, or self satisfying. It’s tasting. And after years it becomes habitual, without thought, to reach for what is in front of you and stick it in your mouth. This is a good thing. These chefs are on palate building autopilot.
The thing is, you don’t know what something tastes like unless you’ve tasted it. And every time you do taste something, a new little beacon of light flashes in that little corner of your brain that stores flavor information. I can remember the first times I tasted things like papaya, or foie gras, the little lights beginning to illuminate the dim corner of my brain filled with childhood flavors. I imagine the greatest chefs brains are blinding inside.
When it’s your turn to develop dishes, the more those flickering lights in your brain brighten your palate, the more nuance you can build into your dessert, the more you’ll be able to pair unexpected flavors. You’ll taste things that remind you of other things, that you tasted with another thing way back when. Cheese will remind you of passion fruit. Passion fruit will remind you of brioche. Brioche will remind you of the time when you couldn’t taste the difference between an over yeasted loaf and one delicately left to rise with just the right amount, and gosh darn it this loaf tastes like it wasn’t stored properly, lets get another round going.
But this essential ability only happens one way. by tasting.
My sous chef Janet Tong used to give me nibbles, something we called her daily bites. These were random combinations of mise en place from the line, assembled out of curiosity. Sometimes they weren’t great. In fact, sometimes there were so bad they made us laugh out loud. But sometimes they were amazing, like the pickled apple with a little spoonful of milk tea ice cream. She did this every day without fail. It became a fun game for our cooks and helped us light up little beacons of light in our flavor brain that I never would have come across otherwise.
Now here’s the kicker. Sometimes tasting sucks. It’s tiring and unpleasant. Especially if you aren’t hungry. There are times when I feel like I would rather stab myself in the leg with a fork than eat a piece of cake. Other times I know the rough draft of a dessert I put up isn’t going to be delicious and I practically have to plug my nose and force it down just so I know how to start adjusting it. And boy are there a lot of times, particularly right after staff meal, when I absolutely do not want to taste the mise en place on the line to check for quality.
But, there are no buts. It’s our job. Just stick it in your mouth. It will pay out over the long run, more than you can imagine.
Wednesday, Apr 8th, 2015 by Dana Cree
A rhubarb sorbet made today took my thoughts back 10 years to the first menu I had creative control over. I had just started my tenure as pastry chef at a wine bar named Eva, a small farm-to-table restaurant in a tiny seattle neighborhood called Tangletown. I’d grown up visiting the little pocket of dead-ending streets near Greenlake as a child, a ritual outing with my grandmother that always resulted in story time at the childrens bookstore and cinnamon rolls from the long gone Honey Bear Bakery. Her name too was Eva, a fact that immediately endeared me to the restaurant, built in the shadows of our memories.
I interviewed for the job over the phone with the owner Amy, sitting on the edge of my single bed in a rented room in Bray, England. It was a characteristically cloudy march day, and I had a month remaining of a 3 month stage at The Fat Duck. Knowing only that I wanted to redirect my cooking career away from the savory path I was on and into pastry, I responded to an ad on craigslist for an entry level pastry chef. By the time I said my goodbyes to the cast and crew of the michelin 3 star restaurant, I had accepted the position.
My arrival home to Seattle and into my first pastry chef role was smack dab in the middle of rhubarb season. I was unfamiliar with the long fibrous stalk, almost as unfamiliar as I was with making sorbet.
At the time, I did the only thing I knew how to do. I rooted through the large cookbook collection I was amassing and found a recipe for rhubarb sorbet. I copied it onto a yellow legal pad, and followed the instructions to a tee. The recipe involved a sorbet syrup made by boiling granulated sugar and water with lemon juice, a step I followed blindly but now know breaks the bond between the glucose and fructose that bind together to make sucrose. This inverted sugar syrup was blended with cooked rhubarb and a little lemon juice. Once cooled, the sorbet was placed in the pre-frozen canister of my counter top cuisinart ice cream machine, and as it began its 30 minute churn, an eggwhite was dropped in.
Old fashioned and very straightforward in flavor, the sorbet was rhubarb, plain and simple.
The memory of this rhubarb sorbet reminded me of the way I conceptualized flavor in those days. I liked big, bold, singluar flavors. I placed them next to each other, strikingly individual in character, in no more than twos and threes. This rhubarb sorbet was paired with lime whipped cream and coconut cake. There were no subtle nuances interlaced in the components, and the flavors never crossed. There was no lime zest infused into the sorbet to tie it into the whipped cream, or any subtle nuances shading the dish. The menus I wrote held no secrets, nothing left unmentioned in the descriptions, undertones that whispered to the flavors described. I was painting with bright primary colors. Building with big Duplo blocks. Rhubarb, coconut, lime.
The rhubarb sorbet I made today included multiple sugars, used to control water activity and augment percieved sweetness, and included both cooked rhubarb puree and fresh juiced rhubarb. Vermouth was added, the botanical flavors intertwining with the vegetal quality of the fresh juice in an incredible manner. Additional acidity was added with malic acid, an ingredient that allows us to brighten dishes without adding lemon flavor. Finally, the sorbet was finished with Verjus, another tart nuanced flavor that deepens the quality of fruit sorbets. The ratios were carefully calculated, and the brix were tested and confirmed to be 28, just where we like our sorbets.
The sorbet we made today is advanced in it’s technical quality. The botanicals in vermouth intertwine the cold scoop with a complex plated dessert including Japanese knotweed, hibiscus, toasted almond, and yogurt. It’s quite grown up from that first sorbet, much like I am from the girl who made it. But I look back at the big bold flavors I played with then with a great deal of fondness. The desserts were clean, simple, and easy for both myself and the guests to understand.
By committing myself to these simple expressions of flavor, I was able to present desserts that weren’t muddied by my own gaps in knowledge or misunderstandings of the craft I was just beginning to delve into. The complexity came, with time, as my knowledge and ability increased with experience.
I urge younger cooks and pastry chefs to consider this tactic. We now have an onslaught of media available to us every day, a din of flavors and techniques slipping under our fingers as we swipe the screens of our smart phones. The temptation to tinker with complex and abstract pairings is strong, and the noise of information we are inundated with daily can be hard to see past.
But trust me when I suggest this. It might read better on a menu description,but it will taste better if you keep it simple. Just for now. Consider your early dance with flavors a waltz . One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three. As your technique improves, as your palate grows deeper, so too can the complexity of the dishes you create. But for now, just for now! Paint with a few strokes of clean, bold flavors, and I promise, with time, your masterpieces will come.