Thursday, Apr 2nd, 2015 by Dana Cree
I’ve been receiving a lot of media attention lately. You see, I’ve been nominated for a James Beard award in the outstanding pastry chef category. It’s an incredible honor, and one that has brought a lot of attention to my department at Blackbird, and me as a chef. More specifically, it’s brought a lot of attention to me as a female chef.
I’ve eschewed the topic of being a female chef in a male dominated profession, women’s chef organizations, and generally anything that projected my gender above the work I do. I’ve never wanted to be a female chef. Just a chef.
However, there seems to be a lot of interest currently by the media on the lack of recognition for female chefs by the james beard awards, which I’m gauging by the amount of questions I’m being asked on the topic by the media. I haven’t answered any of them. At first, I was a grump. My stance was that I have never felt held back by the fact that I am a female, so I wasn’t sure there was the roadblock to the top being described. Maybe the industry is changing, and we should look at the rising star category, not the outstanding chef category to find the gender balance our industry currently reflects.
I am nominated along with 4 other women in the outstanding pastry chef category, which makes it hard to see any gender inequality for women. And the company I work for is filled with female employees at every level, including our director of operations, sous chefs, pastry chefs, dining room managers, accounting teams, private dining coordinators, and media directors. So from my position, things looked just peachy, what was the problem?
But something about that didn’t sit right with me. And I knew that I wasn’t answering anyones questions because I didn’t actually understand the topic in general. So I sat down with a few different women I know better educated than me in the subject of feminism and asked them to show me what the diminished presence of female chefs in the james beard awards looked like through their eyes.
And here’s the deal. I still don’t want to open my mouth on the subject. It’s a grey zone, a big, murky grey zone filled with view points, opinions, and subtleties, and I’m a black and white kinda gal. I stick to things that either are, or aren’t, a quality that flourishes in the exacting world of pastry. But the more I listened to these women talk, thinking I’d never experienced any different treatment because I was a women, the more I realized I had.
In Seattle, a magazine was sent to photograph me for the Pastry chef of the year award they were bestowing on me. The photographer came in, and his first directive was to ask me to lick something off a spoon, or frosting off a whisk. I said no. He pushed the subject, saying it was a direct request by his art director. And again, I said no. I asked him if he would ever ask a man to lick something off a spoon. He kind of chuckled, and said, no, no he wouldn’t, and the topic was dropped. I have no idea if the art director was a man or a woman, but the idea that because I was a woman, my sexuality was available to use along with my professional identity is not something I was comfortable with.
Last year, I was nominated for the same award I am up for this year. As soon as the nominations were announced, I started discussing the most important topic with my coworkers and friends; what should I wear? I made a decision quickly to wear a tuxedo. I mean, when else would I get the chance to tux it up? I started looking at pictures of Janelle Monet, Bianca Jagger, Le Smoking by Eves St. Laurent, and all the pictures i could find of women looking amazing in tuxedos. As I sat looking at the photographs online, the general manager of the restaurant piped in and asked, “don’t you think a gown is more appropriate?” He pushed the envelope, reminding me that I was representing the company, and people like Janelle Monet could get away with it because they looked more feminine than me. Needless to say, I wore a tux, patched together by pieces I found in vintage shops, and a pair of turquoise italian loafers, no socks, in the style of my boss, the boss, Donnie Madia. And I loved every minute of it.
I realized, looking back, that it’s not the moments like these, glaringly obvious in their intent to force me into a gender role thought appropriate by someone else, easy to push through, that cause problems. It’s a story like this one.
At staff meal, a male server told another male server, “don’t be a woman about it.” And I didn’t think a thing of it. Infact, it went completely unnoticed by me, and if I had any reaction to it, I probably laughed.
It’s an insult I’ve heard a million times, and one I’ve thrown around with abandon. Don’t be a Pussy. Woman. Giant gaping vagina. Little girl. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. I’ve seen people give tampons or women’s underwear as gag gifts to a man they consider sensitive. Or stick maxi pads all over their locker. And I probably laughed each time.
The comment above would have gone unnoticed by myself if another girl hadn’t spoken up and said, “don’t say that. that’s not ok” The conversation between the two continued, with the male telling the female that no one was a bigger feminist than he was, and that if she wanted to stay in this industry she better get used to things like that. He accused her of picking on him.
I realized, if we really want to be able to say that the ratio of women to men being given James Beard awards is an accurate representation of the quality of work being done, not the trickle down effect of a misogynistic male favored industry, it starts in our kitchens, on our floors, by making sure everyone knows it’s not ok to use the word woman as an insult, or anything like it. The tone has to be set by us, the men and women who manage the restaurants, every day. And the questions have to be asked to men too. It’s not just important for people to hear what I, a woman, thinks about underrepresentation of women in the awards and how to remove that road block, but to ask the male chefs what they think can be done to reduce overrepresentation of men, and how does that translate into the tone they set in their own restaurants.
I don’t think the James Beard Awards are the cause of the difference between men and women being awarded. I think it’s an accurate representation of who is left standing after 20 years of laughing at your own gender, and diminishing the qualities associated with it to adapt and survive the early years like I did, and those women braver than I was, who stood up and said “don’t say that. that’s not ok.” and pushed to the top despite the laughter.
Friday, Mar 6th, 2015 by Dana Cree
I have been the pastry chef of Blackbird restaurant for almost 3 years now. A respectable tenure by all means, but one that comes at the end of a long line of pastry chefs. It’s an interesting roll to take on, a custodial position in an established restaurant that hasn’t always belonged to you, one that will likely be passed down to another person.
I didn’t help open blackbird, or help mold the style of the restaurant. Rather, I am part of it’s evolution, and am entrusted with representing it’s current core values while upholding the standards that carried the restaurant through 17 years of business. I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me, and I’m grateful for the sweat and tears of my predecessors and the nationally recognized pastry department they all helped to build.
The desserts have evolved a great deal over time, as has the entire restaurant. Recently, when the partners chose Perry Hendrix as our chef de cuisine, Paul saw a glimmer of his original cuisine in the work of Perry. We started to hear tales of the early years of Blackbird, what brought them their original success, and how we could recapture and reintegrate those qualities into the mature restaurant blackbird has grown into.
When Paul invited me to create a dessert for a special dinner in which he was cooking some of his original dishes, I knew I wanted to rework a dessert from Blackbirds early years. I wanted to understand the foundation my dessert program was built on. It didn’t take much asking before it was clear Blackbird had a signature dessert from the first day.
This dessert was mentioned by every one of the the partners, the big guys who now manage an award winning restaurant group, grown up from the self-proclaimed knuckleheads that once hustled the floors of blackbird every night. Each of these people immediately told me about the crepes.
These crepes were made out of a chocolate batter, and folded into triangles to encase a rich coffee flavored mascarpone cream, stacked and served with crushed hazelnut brittle, and a drizzle of chocolate sauce. Today, this dessert would likely be more at home at Avec, as Blackbird has followed the trajectory of contemporary cuisine and the desserts are no exception.
I set to the task with kid gloves. I wanted to give my bosses their dessert once more, one that captured the heart of the restaurant that still beats today. While Paul told me to “Cree it up”, I wanted to add as little of myself as necessary, just enough to indicate the time and place this dessert is being served, a thin veneer allowing the original dessert to shine through.
We looked at the core of the dessert, and decided to start with the creamy center of the crepes. I tried everything I could think of to replicate the coffee mascarpone. We moussed it, whipped it, melted it, and even tried hand making the mascarpone itself. Finally I reached out to one of Blackbirds early pastry chefs and admitted my dilemma. Elissa Narrow is now the pastry chef for Paul Virants handful of restaurants in the Chicago area, a working relationship that began in the walls of blackbird itself. The dessert wasn’t hers, rather born of Sheira Harris, the original pastry chef of Blackbird. Elissa kept the dish on the menu after she took the reigns, knowing it was something unique to the restaurant and a crowd favorite. She divulged the secret of the mascarpone and I balked.
No, I thought. Not trablit. I hate trablit.
Trablit has been available to the public as a concentrated extract of coffee since the mid 1800’s, an invention of a french pharmicist eager to provide a product to his customers that allowed them to enjoy a high quality cup of coffee where ever they were. However, my only experience with the inky brown potion has been in a professional setting. Most pastry centric purveyors will carry it, and I have seen it added to chocolate cookies, butter creams, ice creams, and all manner of chocolate confections.
The first time I tasted it, I flipped. What was this magic elixer that made everything taste like the best coffee ever?! Then, after years of over consumption, I cracked. One day, it no longer tasted good. It tasted too much like coffee. It became too intense.
When I inherited blackbirds pastry department I came across a bottle of trablit and attempted to discard it. My cooks rioted, begging me to keep it. I gave them the green light, with the caveat that it only be used in staff meal, and I would not eat anything made with it. They agreed, and the trablit disappeared from sight.
When Elissa illuminated the addition of trablit in the original coffee mascarpone, I hesitated. I didn’t want to order a bottle just to see what the original tasted like, I wasn’t going to use it anyways. Gross. But a little hunch sent me to our pantry, and sure enough, hidden high on a shelf tucked behind some tall bags of tea, I found the trablit. My team was keeping it tucked out of sight, and it’s clearly not the bottle I tried to banish 3 years ago. They have been secretly reordering it.
So I mixed a few drops of my coffee flavored nemesis into sweetened mascarpone, swallowed my pride, and tasted. And gosh darn it, don’t ya know. It was delicious. So delicious, that it became evident that this coffee mascarpone was the heart of the dish. Flavors and textures quickly fell into place around it, and the dessert was ready for the menu within days.
A dome of coffee mascarpone is piped onto the base of a large bowl, and is covered in a riot of crepes, cut into ribbons and brushed with cocoa nib infused brown butter. To replace the chocolate sauce, we nestle little dots of a deep chocolate cremeux along the twists and turns of the crepes. The nooks and crannies formed by the tangled crepes are filled with cubes of coffee gelee, crispy bits of chicory streusel, enrobed hazelnuts, and crunchy bits of burnt sugar that catch the light in the dining room, glimmering like gems.
It may not look anything like the dish served all those years ago, but the flavors will bring anyone back to the day the restaurant was born. In our way, we have worked to honor and elevate this dish, bringing this blackbird relic to the forefront of our menu again. Whether you’ve eaten this dessert in it’s original incarnation, or are tasting it for the first time today, I hope it captures the heart of blackbird for you.
Thursday, Feb 12th, 2015 by Dana Cree
The pastry department at Blackbird, with all it’s nuances and challenges is structurally straightforward. Our menu invites guests to dine with an appetizer, entree, and dessert, and our pastry kitchen is staffed with a traditional chef, sous chef, and line cooks who both create and plate our desserts, controlling the experience from start to finish. It’s challenging in and of itself but the structure of the department is ordinary, and with it we can accomplish most that we set out to do.
Avec, on the other hand, has proven to be a fickle beast, and creating desserts to fit the structure of Avec’s kitchen and dining experience has never stopped being a challenge. Creating the appropriate culmination for the dining experience has at times proved elusive. The menu is Mediterranean, but authentic Mediterranean and Italian desserts have rarely sold well. Save a tirimisu, desserts from warmer regions like those inspiring the cuisine at Avec are often fruit, or a little granita and some cream. We have offered these, but inevitably, it’s the cobblers, bread puddings, and cheesecakes that people order instead. So we have come to adopt american desserts and twist them with Mediteranean flavor. We always make sure to call our pudding “budino”. After all, while Avec takes it’s cues from another culture, the restaurant exists in the midwest and serves people with midwestern desires and appetites.
Pinning down the creative framework we would work within is not the biggest challenge.. Instead, the kitchen itself is our most limiting factor. If you’ve ever dined at Avec, andlaid eyes on the glowing embers in our woodfire oven, or the 6 overworked gas burners next to it, you’ve seen the entirety of the kitchen. While we slice, dice, chop, and mix on counters in the basement prep kitchen, nothing can be cooked outside the 6 square feet surrounding the stone oven. Desserts themselves are stored in a small refrigerator under the espresso machine and plated on any scrap of the 2 foot counter left available after coffee is made. This is done not by cooks, but by the people who bus tables and run food. The desserts require absolute simplicity to achieve a high quality result in such cramped quarters. And that woodfire oven? Well it just loves to burn things.
We have held on to desserts that work well within these limits, bread puddings baked and reassembled in oven proof terracotta casuelas, needing nothing more than a little heat from the wood fire oven to be prepared; budinos and pannacottas, preset in little cups ready to grab and serve aside simple cookies; and cakes, slices of cakes of all sorts that can be plated with a little sauce or whipped cream.
While we know what works, occasionally we still try to put something new on the menu, push our boundaries and see what we can achieve. Most recently, we attempted to wrap a molten chocolate batter in brick pastry before being baked, a crispy pouch of a shell with a frilly top. This chocolate purse was on the menu at Spago frequently, and something I’d wanted to adapt for Avec for some time. We plated our warm chocolate covered with puffed rice tossed with sesame and urfa pepper, a scoop of spiced date ice cream nestled into the frilly crown. It was perfect.
Perfect when baked in the controlled convection ovens at Blackbird.
Not so perfect when transferred to the 900 degrees of the wood fire oven at avec. Before the batter had a chance to souffle and warm inside the pastry, the frill was a charred mess.
We began tinkering with the way we wrapped the chocolate, trying different shapes that would decrease the char of the brick pastry by manipulating surface area. Each shape we tried decreased the frill, finally eliminating it, increasing the crispy shell around the chocolate in an unfortunate manner. In the end we simply piped the batter into a casuela, and baked it to order in the wood fire oven, no pastry to risk burning at all. It’s delicious, no doubt. But it’s no different than the variation we served last year other than the spiced date ice cream scooped over the top and the puffed rice.
If you have a kitchen in which you can bake things to order, then by all means, try this dessert. The presentation is striking, and the contrast between the crispy pastry and the warm gooey chocolate cake inside is unparalleled. Add a scoop of ice cream and this dessert won’t fail to impress. I’m glad we tried to expand ourselves, even if the end result was the same dessert we served last year. We can continue to ask the question of Avec, “how far can we go” and we might continue to get the same answer year after year. But complacency is a risk when the limitations are so binding, and I’d rather try and fail than never ask Avec how much more we can do.
Monday, Jan 26th, 2015 by Dana Cree
A rolled sugar cookie can give even the most seasoned cookie baker a headache. The dough needs to be durable enough to withstand rolling and cutting before it’s baked. The problem: cookies durable enough to withstand this manipulation can be hard and unpleasant to eat. Likewise, dough that produces a tender cookie is often too tender when rolled, sticking to the counter and cutters, and stretching when moved to the cookie sheet.
To start, a rolled sugar cookie should be made with cold butter. I’ve found nothing increases durability on the counter than mixing your dough with cold butter. It adds a clay-like flexibility when working with the dough, and increases your chances of transferring the cut cookie to the sheet pan without warping. A bonus, the cold-butter dough will remain tender when scraps are gathered and rerolled, making the last cookie you bake as tender as the first.
As for the air in the cookie, we need some, but not a lot. More than that, we need the air added to the dough, but left un-inflated when baked in the oven.
To start, we will mix ultra-fine bakers sugar with the cold butter for only 2 minutes. The finer grains of sugar will carve miniscule air pockets into the butter, creating finer network of petite air bubbles, and ultimately a delicately porous cookie.
We will also eliminate the chemical leavening all together. This leaves only steam to inflate the tiny bubbles once they are in the oven.
To help manage the steam, we will eliminate the water-filled egg whites and add only the protein and fat rich egg yolks. We will also add a small amount of starch to the flour to help absorb a little more water.
We will sift the starch with the flour, only once, adding a little air to the cookie dough with this addition. We will also include more flour in this recipe. The rolled sugar cookie dough needs a little more bulk than a drop cookie to help it stay put in the oven.
Extra flour means extra protein, which bring us to the the last and most crucial step for this cookie: the order in which we mix the ingredients. After the butter and sugar have been mixed, we will add the flour. This allows the fat to coat some of the flour before we add the moisture in the egg yolks. When the moisture does make it’s way into the fat coated flour bitsies, they can swell, but they can’t join forces, they slip right past one another. It is this particular interaction between fat and flour that gave rise to the term “shortening” as the fat shortens the gluten chains.
The results are a tender cookie that holds any intricate shape you can give it. The arms of gingerbread men don’t droop, and the delicate edges of snowflakes hold their shape. These cookies were invented to be decorated! My grandmother used to color evaporated milk and give us paintbrushes to decorate the cookies before they went into the oven. They can be smeared with frosting and covered in sprinkles. And the most common topping for rolled sugar cookies is royal icing, dyed in bright colors, piped on, and left to dry.
250g butter, straight from the refrigerator
280g sugar, ultrafine bakers sugar
7g kosher salt
80g egg yolk
10g vanilla extract
- Place the flour and cornstarch in a bowl and mix them together until even. Sift the flour mixture through a fine mesh strainer once, then gently set aside.
- Cut the butter into half inch slices, and place in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the ultrafine bakers sugar and salt, and paddle on a medium speed for 1 minute. After 1 minute, scrape the sides of the bowl and the paddle down. Mix the butter and sugar for 1 more minute at medium speed.
- Scrape the sides of the bowl and the paddle down again, it shouldn’t be easy, the butter should still be cold and resistant to movement. Use your strongest spatula.
- Add the reserved flour mixture and paddle the dough on the lowest speed, turning the mixer on and off at the beginning to discourage the flour from jumping out of the bowl.
- Mix for 20-30 seconds, just until the dough forms a homogenous mass. Add the egg yolks and vanilla extract, and continue mixing on low speed until the dough is smooth and even. This could take up to 1 minute, don’t fear. The fat has coated the flour nicely and we are not at risk for overworking the dough.
- Remove the dough from the bowl, and transfer it to a lightly floured countertop. While we need the dough to rest in the refrigerator for an hour to allow the water to It is going to be a lot easier to roll your dough to the appropriate ¼ inch thickness right now, while it’s most malleable. Once rolled, we will need to transfer the dough to the refrigerator to rest for an hour and firm back up. I’ve found the easiest way to do this is to roll the dough out on a piece of parchment paper, then use the parchement paper to lift the delicate dough onto the sheet pan. So you know, this recipe makes enough dough for two sheets of dough. You can stack one on top of the other, provided there is a piece of parchment between them.
- Once your rolled sugar cookie dough has rested for an hour and firmed up, transfer the dough to the counter and preheat your oven to 300 degrees. Lightly dip your favorite cookie cutter in flour, tap any excess off, and stamp your cookies.
- Gather up the scraps of the dough, and on a lightly floured surface, knead them until they form a smooth dough. Roll the dough back out to ¼ inch thickess, and cut more cookies. Continue one or two more times until the scrap is too small to cut any more cookies.
- Transfer the cookies to a sheet pan lined with parchment paper, and if you have enough pans, place the cookie-lined sheet pan over another empty sheet pan, “double panning” them. This insulates surface of the sheet pan, reducing surface heat and liminiting the amount of browning on the bottom of the cookies. Bake the cookies at 300 degrees for 6 minutes. Rotate the pan front to back to promote even baking, then bake your cookies for 6-8 more minutes, until cooked through.
- Once the cookie is baked transfer the sheet pan to a wire cooling rack and allow the cookies to cool on the pan.
Tuesday, Dec 30th, 2014 by Dana Cree
When our paths crossed, I was at a point in my career where leadership was becoming a skill I wanted to cultivate in myself. When I looked at the people in leadership positions through out my time in kitchens, many of them dominated kitchens in ways I did not believe would be successful for myself, in large part due to our difference in gender.
I was looking for someone with a leadership style I could successfully integrate, one that would help me to bring the team I led to their best every day, and help me navigate my own career growth. I knew a large part of this was how my cooks and bosses perceived me, and how differently behaviors are perceived coming from a man versus a woman. I needed to experience a leadership style that would help me take advantage of my personal strengths, and being a woman, those that grew from my female nature. The men I had worked for provided qualities that I admire and have assimilated into my role as a chef, but there were as many traits I had to leave behind.
Long story short, I needed to work for a girl.
Lucky for me, the call to do just that came quickly. An LA area code popped up on my cell phone while shopping one summer day in Seattle, and within 48 hours I was on a plane down to meet the woman who would do more to shape me as a leader in the restaurant world than she could know.
Little did I know, she would also do more to reshape the way I created desserts than I could have imagined.
I’m going to have to make an embarrassing confession, one that makes me a little ashamed of myself. I took a job as Sherry Yard’s sous chef thinking there wasn’t much she would teach me creatively. I was coming back from the edge of cuisine, Alinea, Noma, Kadeau, Denmark! I’d seen the gods on their olympic mountains and watched infinity grow. I understood foraging, cultural reclamation, textural manipulation, and how to impeccably recreate impossible cuisine every night for those who came, like me, to worship at these temples.
The menu at Spago held desserts that I’d seen all over the country. Classics like soufflés , apple vol au vents, cobblers bubbling in copper pots. Then there were the signatures, like the Kaiser Schmaren, an Austrian classic transformed by Sherry years before, souffléd to order and served with warm berry sauce. Pineapple and Banana wrapped in rugelach dough, a unique and comforting turn over. Liquid centered warm chocolate cakes wrapped in crispy pastry, and a cookie plate centered with favorites like chocolate chip and italian rainbow cookies.
My deepest gratuity is that I came crashing to reality within the first two days of being at Spago, hitting the ground to see Sherry in her pink coat laughing down at me. It occurred to me, after tasting the desserts, and seeing the immense effort and technique that went into the uber efficient department, that the reason I felt like I’d seen all her desserts before was that her style, defined almost 20 years earlier, was so striking and so successful it had been appropriated by the masses, and facsimiles were now spread across the country. She wasn’t part of the masses, she had inspired the masses.
The bigger lesson I needed was to stay humble, and remember that there is much to learn in every kitchen if you are looking for it. I could have missed the opportunity that lay before me had I let ego blur my vision, and I learned more in my time with Sherry about pastry than every other job I’d had combined.
The first task Sherry put on my prep list was puff pastry. And gosh darn it, I had to admit didn’t know how to make this most classic of pastry techniques.
I’ll bet Sherry knew that.
I could make you a liquid custard that when poured on your table transformed into semi solid creme brûlée in front of your eyes, but I hadn’t laminated dough since pastry school. I understood how to use a pacojet and could work the anti griddle, but I hadn’t touched a sheeter for 15 years. It was clear I was here to learn much more than just how a dynamic woman is a leader in a male dominated profession. I still needed to learn how to be a pastry chef.
My time at Spago was eye opening, the most pivotal experience I’ve ever had in a kitchen. Yes, I saw everything I wanted in Sherry as a leader, learned simple things about body language, and sat wide eyed as she told me stories about her own growth as a pastry chef. I am constantly telling my cooks, “I can tell you what Sherry Yard told me” the same way a mother might tell her children, “your grandmother always said…” Spago was my last stop before blackbird, and the classics I relearned became crucial for my ability to intertwine the progressive ideas and techniques I’d experienced with sellable a la carte desserts. Not desserts sold as part of a tasting menu, but desserts chosen after bellies had been filled with bottles of wine, appetizers, and entrees. It’s not a stretch to say Sherry Yard put the dessert back in my desserts.
I took another cue from her this month, when a photograph of a monolithic cream puff with the hilt of a steak knife protruding from its crown it made it’s way to me, a Sherry Yard twist on a classic dessert, presented for the restaurant she created in DC, City Perch. At that moment, we were working on a dessert with heat stable chocolate pudding served warm against frozen avocado ice cream, and were deliberating as how to present these two divergent temperatures in an elegant way.
When the simple dome of baked choux pastry wrapping Sherry’s cream puff came into sight, I was reminded again to stop overthinking it and put a little dessert in it.
Our chocolate flavored shells, baked from pate de choux with a simple cocoa craqueline over the top, are split half an inch from the base and hollowed out with a spoon. The base is filled with heat stable milk chocolate pudding made with the butterscotchy Tanariva from Valrhona. Chopped roasted macadamia nuts are pressed over the puddings surface before the shell is toasted in the oven. The dome is removed from the oven early, and once cool to the touch, packed with avocado ice cream. Reassembled last minute, a bit of roasted macadamia butter anchors this hot-and-cold profiterole to the plate in a nest of red pumello and chewy jewels of candied grapefruit. Stars of fruity avocado puree radiate out from the center, and macadamia nut is grated with a microplane over the top to finish.
I’m now comfortably settling into the leadership aspect of my position, during a time when our creative style at blackbird is maturing. And with something as simple as a cream puff, I am grateful to be continuously humbled and reminded by the woman who helped bring me here, to keep putting the dessert in our desserts.
Additional Components: pomelo cells, roasted macadamia grated on microplane
Tuesday, Dec 9th, 2014 by Dana Cree
One of the most striking desserts I’ve had this year came from a place I had only considered for their decadent burger, a good beer and a bourbon, or if it’s late enough the over sized platter of chilequilles. This restaurant, a poorly lit dive with reel to reel music is commonly full of chefs and line cooks in the hours after their own restaurants shut for the evening, utilizing it for just this reason.
It’s rare to find me there during day light hours, but late last summer I received a text from an visiting friend that read “Lets eat cheeseburgers and ice cream.” This is hardly an invitation I’d pass up, and we ended up meeting at Au Cheval mid afternoon.
We hunkered down in a booth, the unfamiliar haze of sunlight spilling in the windows. Burgers turned into beers and beers turned into bourbon, and the idea of leaving for ice cream turned into staying for Au Cheval’s mille feuille.
I’ll admit, I was judgmental. This isn’t the kind of joint you go to for dessert. I mean, they didn’t even have a pastry chef. But the company was good and I was game for anything. We ordered, my own judgement silent behind my bourbon smiles. The dessert that came out was a stately affair, tall proud layers of caramelized puff pastry with ruffled layers of light custard piped between. With all the pomp of an ocean liner, the dessert was set before us. A quick snap of the servers wrist and a knife was plunged through the center, splitting the mille feuille in two.
The layers were light as air, deep, creamy, soft, crispy, cool, and warm, all at the same time. It was a dessert through and through, nothing more, nothing less.
As I went back for four, five, and six more bites, I remembered why we eat desserts. They are delicious and fun.
It’s easy to forget that, and I am as guilty as anyone else of this fact. I believe it’s vital to keep the connection between why I create desserts and why our guests eat desserts in tact. Sometimes it takes a subtle reminder from Dana-the-diner to keep Dana-the-chef from creating desserts out of self interest.
So Dana-the-diner told Dana-the-chef to start working on something that captured the satisfaction she felt eating that mille feuille. We are calling it just that on the menu, a french word that translates to “a thousand leaves”, a reference to the numerous whisper thin layers in puff pastry. The conventional mille feuille was updated to it’s current form by Antoine Careme, one of those old French dudes we hear a lot about in culinary school, and who is quoted a lot in contemporary food writing. It contains but two components, layers of puff pastry baked under a rack to contain the growth of the pastry, and layers of pastry cream, a tight custard thickened stove-top with flour, that upon cooling is lightened with a fold or two of soft whipped cream.
As we all know, winter is coming, and with that comes one of my favorite seasons of the year, that of citrus. Nothing delights me more than the bright sunny orbs in the dead of winter, a season when nothing feels bright and sunny what so ever. It seemed a natural fit to use the simple construct of a mille feuille to house the mandarins, satsumas, kumquats, and oranges that would make their way to us from sunnier places. We have been working directly with a ranch called Mud Creek, and the growers, Steve and Robin are exactly the kind of people you want growing things for you. Placing an order can be a 10 minute process at times, as Steve educates you on the migration of mandarins into Tangiers, thus creating the family of tangerines we know and love, or captures you with an in depth conversation about the citrus blight Florida is struggling with. The fruit that makes its way from their trees to our menu at Blackbird has made me feel like I’d never actually had an orange before. It’s a true gift and one we are honored to share with our guests every year.
This year we started peeling each individual segment of our mandarin oranges. The texture of the fruit is quite unexpected, and as the delicate citrus passes through your mouth you fight to remember where you’ve had it before. As you swallow, you remember it’s the same texture as the little canned mandarins popular with my mother and jello molds everywhere. To achieve this, the segments are peeled using an enzyme bath. This corrosive solution is made with a 1% concentration of Pectinex, a food safe enzyme available from Modernist Pantry. It’s not as scary as it sounds, and we too made the obligatory jokes about our tongues dissolving in the kitchen the first day we tried this technique.
To capture the textural pleasure of the classic mille feuille, we kept both of the original components intact. The pastry cream is flavored with a quick infusion of dried marigold and Tahitian vanilla, and folded with whipped cream before being piped into a small dome on the plate. A ring of citrus surrounds the cream; segments of charred navel oranges, candied kumquats, and our naked mandarin oranges. Passion fruit caramel is dripped over before the cream disappears under a pile of petite cubes of puff pastry, baked without restraint, the layers left to grow up and out and in any direction they choose. Curious little bits of freeze dried satsuma and candied orange peel mingle with the pastry before bright yellow and orange marigold petals dance across the dessert.
The mille feuille’s brief pause on the menu at blackbird is surely but a moment in it’s long life as a classic dessert. Perhaps it will find it’s way through your menu as well, the simple textures so compatible with personalization and variation. Keep sight of why this dessert is a delight to eat, and let the diner in you take the lead on this one.
Diced candied orange, freeze dried satsumas, marigold petals
Thursday, Dec 4th, 2014 by Dana Cree
I believe with the high quantity of volatile aroma compounds present in chocolate it can be tied to any flavor, much like game of 7 degrees of Kevin Bacon. At blackbird we have exercised this belief to pair chocolate with a variety of unexpected flavors.
To successfully incorporate chocolate into unusual places, we have devised a fairly effective system. Once the flavor we intend to pair with chocolate is decided, we start a three phase approach. First, taste all the chocolates that are available to us to find one that speaks to the flavor we are trying to pair. Second, explore the documented world of cuisine for instances of similar flavor pairings. And third, find flavors that both ingredients pair with individually and use them as a bridge between the two. With this approach, we have paired chocolate with concord grape, watermelon, all manner of citrus and fruit, avocado, carrot, parsnip, cumin, and Parmesan cheese, just to name a few.
This year, as autumn rolled around again and I was looking for an unexpected way to feature apples on the menu, chocolate came to mind. In following with the aforementioned approach, we first looked around for the chocolate that spoke to the flavor of apples.
We tasted through the collection of chocolates we have on hand finally landing on the cidery, fruity Manjari from Valrhona.
Second, we looked for examples of chocolate and apple that already existed. Internet searches turned up chocolate covered caramel apples, and chocolate chip apple pies. This did not produce a result we were happy with, so we began combing through our book collection. A book on chocolates and confections provided us with a chocolate bon bon scented with calvados. The thought of the apple brandy and chocolate together struck a chord, and we held on to this idea.
Finally, we began to list flavors that bridged the gap between the two flavors. Caramel, walnut, ginger, fig, rosemary, honey, cinamon, hazelnuts, shortbread, and so on, and so on. The flavors added up fast! It seems these two had a lot more in common than we thought. After a little testing we settled on the mutual flavors of black walnut, figs, and roasted cassia bud.
Roasted cassia bud sounds exotic, but it’s a flavor that all will recognize immediately upon consumption. Cassia is a close cousin to cinnamon. So close, in fact, that most cinnamon sold in the united states is in fact the bark of the cassia tree. Imagine the difference between the cinnamon flavor of a red hot, or a stick of big red gum, and the cinnamon from the little spice jar that we put in apple pie or over cinnamon toast. I assumed for most of my years that the first flavor was fake, a manufactured misrepresentation of what “real” cinnamon tastes like and inserted in red flavored candies. Surprise surprise, it’s indeed true cinnamon that flavors those candies, and cassia, a different plant altogether that I gleefully ate rolled up in cinnamon rolls or sprinkled in my oatmeal.
The cassia tree not only shares it’s bark with our kitchens, but also produces a second spice, the cassia bud. This small clove shaped spice is the unopened flour, harvested just before it blooms to be dried in the sun. The harvest has to be carefully timed making the crop available on a limited basis. The flavor is distinctly that of cassia, but also quite floral. The buds also posses the ability to be roasted, much like a nut. A little time in the oven, and these buds deepen in flavor and color, and take on chocolate notes. Once cooled, a spice grinder does quick work of powdering the roasted cassia buds, something nearly impossible to achieve with the dried bark.
Armed with information from all three of our exploratory pathways, we set to creating a dessert of chocolate and apples. I had my heart set on including a classic french chocolate mousse for our next chocolate dessert. We had perfected the texture for Avec’s menu first, flavoring the mousse with greek wild mint, and casting it into little cups, covered with a peppermint fudge sauce my cook Amy lovingly calls “liquid girlscout thin mints.” A little whipped cream, and a couple chocolate cookies, and Avec’s mousse is a lovely expression of the classic texture.
At Blackbird, the mousse is scented with calvados, and sweetened not just with sugar, but with apple saba, a unique concentrated apple syrup from the collection at Rare Tea Cellar. We pile the chocolate calvados mousse on the plate over dots of a cassia flavored fig jam, and crumble a butter rich black walnut daquoise over. Black walnuts sanded with roasted cassia scatter across the plate, as tiny chewy shreds of dried apple follow behind. Bits of a broken chocolate plaque find refuge amongst the cake crumbs, and flakes of crunchy seasalt rest atop the mousse. Finally, a scoop of ice cream flavored with fig leaves nestles into a comfortable spot near some crumbs of cake and a few nuts.
The dish was intriguing, and thoughtful, but it was fig leaf ice cream that truly surprised me. There was no way for me to prepare how elegant and distinct a flavor was locked away inside these biblical loin cloths. We procured leaves from anyone we knew with fig trees and infused them into ice cream. The smell was intoxicating, like a musky sweet bubble bath I remembered from childhood, and upon final tastings, the earthy flavor of black walnut fluttered about as intense coconut notes popped through. If you find yourself with a fig tree, even one that only produces nothing more than a few fruits for the birds, take note. There is more culinary potential in your tree than you think!
This post should help guide you through your own chocolate pairings. Perhaps I can even enlist you in my mission to prove to the world that chocolate goes with everything.
Additional Components: tempered chocoalte plaques broken, flaky sea salt
Friday, Nov 21st, 2014 by Dana Cree
Blackbird went through a big transition recently. We bid goodbye and good luck to David Posey, the Chef de cuisine I’ve worked with for the past 2 years as he stepped away to start the process of opening his own restaurant. His large shoes are being filled by Perry Hendrix, a chef who I have had the pleasure of working with at Avec for the past year. Just like me, he is now responsible for menus at both Blackbird and Avec. When the announcement was made publicly, Perry was quoted as saying he envisioned style for blackbird as “modern Midwestern.”
It wasn’t but moments after the words left his lips that a devilish little laugh passed through mine. I’m going to put gooey butter cake on the menu, I thought as I snickered.
Gooey butter cake wasn’t anything I’d heard of growing up on the west coast, for that I’m certain. I’d remember a cake who’s name included gooey and butter. This cake was a St. Louis bakers mistake during the 1930’s, and quickly became a regional favorite. It’s not pretty. Much like it’s name would suggest, it’s kind of a flat gooey buttery mess. But Midwestern it is, and this unsightly heap of a sticky cake was surely something we could modernize and bring into the world of composed desserts to support our new chef’s vision. After all, the gooey butter cake has one redeeming quality; it’s undeniably delicious.
Recipe testing began with the gooey butter cake most Midwestern children grew up with, one made of a box of yellow cake mix and a pound of Philadelphia cream cheese. Texturally rewarding, this gooey butter cake was oh so very sweet, tooth-achingly sweet, almost inedible it was so sweet. We set to the task of recreating the cake with scratch ingredients, and found ways to cut the saccharine quality.
We employed one of the gooiest products we have in our employ, liquid glucose. Handling this dense syrup is sticky to the point of difficulty, but glucose has a sweetness that falls far below that of table sugar. It was just the thing, and the glucose replaced 33 percent of the sugar in the recipe, bringing the cake back to digestible levels.
And it was good.
Not Great. Not show stopping, grand finale great.
So we began to tinker with the flavors involved. Being as this is fall, we instantly stuck some pumpkin and some spices in it. Not quite.
Then, while mulling over how to lift our gooey butter cake to the next level, an email arrived announcing the beginning of another season, that of Kentucky small batch Sorghum syrup, and in one click of the mouse our questions were answered.
The deep malty, molasses-y flavor of sorghum syrup, thick and viscous like the glucose in our employ, added intrigue and depth to our sticky friend. And because I can hardly think of products of the south without thinking of Bourbon, what the heck we threw some of that in there too. Thus bourbon gooey butter cake entered our lives, and I do believe it’s here to stay.
Tis the season, as they say, and being that thanksgiving is right around the corner, our gooey butter cake became the cornerstone for components reminiscent of holiday pies. A streak of pumpkin puree, flavored with evaporated milk and pie spices smears the plate before the gooey butter cake sets anchor. Pecans drenched in sorghum butterscotch are cast over the top before a big dollop of whipped goat cheese is nestled over. Ground sorghum-pecan cracker jack is sprinkled over the plate before little bits of candied lemon are strewn about willy nilly. Finally, sheets of sugared strudel dough lean over the dessert, the thinnest version of a pie crust imaginable.
This variation on gooey butter cake should be replicated by anyone who likes things gooey, bourbon-y, and buttery. It should also open doors to variances of your own on this unassuming Midwestern cake of textural brilliance. I believe it’s time for gooey butter cake’s day in the sun.
Bourbon Gooey Butter Cake
Additional Components: diced candied lemon
Friday, Nov 14th, 2014 by Dana Cree
I’d firmly say I’m the type of gal that doesn’t stray, but when it comes to cuisine I am often tempted to wander. Last September, a dish belonging to another caught my eye. The object of my affections, a sourdough crumpet golden from the griddle peeked at me from under small bits of salmon roe and creme fraiche. This dish, created by Jamie Malone to honor Jeremiah Tower was gone in a few memorable bites, and like any good fling haunted my thoughts for weeks. Those dimples, so numerous and flooded with melted butter! And that mischievous tang of the sourdough. Crispy golden butter toasted joy, I was in full swoon. As preoccupied as a young lady of Austen, I could think of little else.
Luckily for me, I have control of a menu that allows me to curate my obsessions, and the team at Blackbird quickly set to the task of creating a sourdough crumpet that would satisfy my pining heart.
Before we could lift and scent a crumpet with the unmistakable quality of natural yeasts we needed to invite a sourdough starter into our lives. We have kept starters in the past when recipes have required them, and like all good parents named each. We had Rara, named by Janet, the mother that fed her nightly, after one of her heros, Shakira. Shortly there after Rara was used to start a rye flour starter, and begat a little brother dubbed Rye Rye. As the menu progressed, Rye Rye matured into Lil’ Ry, then Ry Guy, and finally just Ryan, before he graduated from our menu and exited our lives.
As our current team paused to consider the name of our fledgeling sourdough, we considered the final product. A crumpet, British by origin surely deserved a starter named in the spirit of that great nation. Not a moment passed before all three ladies of pastry looked at each other and uttered the name, “Mr. Darcy.”
Thus, Mr. Darcy entered our lives, and the helpful chap he is, he worked with us daily to recreate the crumpet that so stole my heart.
It was an easy path to wander down, no more daunting than a stroll through the garden, all the twists and turns delightfully devoured beneath a variety of jams and butters. Despite it’s ease, time it did take, and when we finally mastered Mr. Darcy’s crumpet, we owed our new friend permanent residence on the menu.
The flavor of horseradish and cheddar had been floating around in our minds, and it seemed a fit to house Mr. Darcy’s crumpet in a composed cheese dish.
We griddle the crumpets in the early hours of the workday, and toast them individually as each cheese plate is ordered. The crumpet is popped in the oven until the exterior starts to crisp before the pockets that riddle the surface are flooded with melted butter. Autumn quince, preserved in season and cooked to a ruby red membrillo anchors the crumpet to the plate. Fresh horseradish root is infused into cream and broken it into pearls of butter before being scattered over the crumpet in tandem with crumbled white cheddar. Asian pears are shaved and compressed with quince vinegar, and crown our darling Darcy. Red rimmed disks of breakfast radish dot the plate before petite beet-like amaranth leaves float over the top. Finally, fresh horseradish is grated over the entire plate, a fragrant but mild addition of the assertive flavor.
These crumpets will surely become a regular occurrence for us at any point in time we keep a sourdough. The batter requires a large portion of sourdough starter that would otherwise be discarded in the feeding cycle and a small addition of flour, buttermilk, and baking soda. You too can enjoy these crumpets without creating a composed cheese course, and any that can’t be consumed in a couple days can be tucked into your freezer for future toasting. It takes a little practice to get the bubbles to create pockets. Too thick and they can’t rise through the batter to the surface, too thin and they bubble away before the batter sets. If your crumpet rings are filled too full the bubbles get trapped under the weight of the batter, not enough and they look like little pocked pancakes. The temperature of the griddle is crucial to set the dough at just the right time, trapping the pockets left behind as the bubbles pass through to escape. Too hot and they burn, too cold and the bubbles don’t quite escape.
If you keep a sourdough starter, you’ll find you have a chance each day to master this recipe. I doubt you’ll have trouble finding hungry mouths to take your trials off your hands. Holes or no holes, there’s hardly a crumpet that isn’t made suitable toasted with a little butter and jam. If you don’t keep a starter, this recipe is a great excuse to invite one into your kitchen. Just remember to feed it daily, and to give it a right good name.
Crumbled Milton Creamery “prarie breeze” white cheddar, Fresh Horseradish, Radishes shaved into ice water, Amaranth
Monday, Nov 3rd, 2014 by Dana Cree
Inspiration most often comes in the least likely packages. Our most recent dessert, a Parmesan cruller glazed in white chocolate, and served with basil and blackberries, was born of an orange box of Stouffer’s mac and cheese.
Nestle contacted me and put me to the task of hacking one of their products, which basically means turning it into something else. I said yes, absolutely, thinking in the back of my mind that Nestle = chocolate. Turns out, Nestle = many many other things I was not aware of, and rather than toll house morsels, or even cocoa mix with mini marshmallows, they shipped me 4 boxes of Stouffer’s mac and cheese.
It arrived while I was out of town, and my sous chef Krystle was even more confused than I was. I received a call, “Uh chef? are you expecting a bunch of frozen mac and cheese?” I laughed out loud. It seemed the pastry gods were playing a prank on me.
“yes, I guess I am” I responded.
I began to dig up any memory of cheddar cheese in a dessert, passed over apples and cheddar, landing on a flavor combination I’ve been itching to use since my first moments in Chicago; cheddar and caramel.
Chicago is blessed with numerous gourmet popcorn shops, and in each you will find something called the Chicago Mix. It’s deceivingly simple, caramel corn tossed with cheddar popcorn in equal amounts. It is also and highly addictive. I personally prefer a ratio of two cheddar popcorns for ever one caramel corn, eaten in one bite.
Once in front of a box of mac and cheese, I did the first thing that came to mind. I blended it beyond recognition into a smooth paste. We kicked around ideas for how to utilize our mac and cheese puree, and somewhere along the way, it was folded into pate de choux and piped into the fryer.
A couple tries later, the churros were being dusted with the ubiquitous orange cheddar powder, and being dunked in caramel sauce.
It was a small victory, mac and cheese- 0, blackbird pastry- 1. But the cheesy churros were too good to let slip out of our grip.
I was hesitant to put a churro on our menu. We already had a concha, a Mexican sweet bun, and our recent cheese plate was covered with elotes, fried hominy, and poblano jelly. And with the flan nestled under our peach dessert, I was afraid if my bosses saw one more Mexican inspired dish I’d be accused of trying to turn us into a Mexican restaurant.
A little research into churros turned up a recipe titled “Mexican crullers”, which let me to the reality that a churro piped in a circle becomes a cruller.
It took a little doing, a month of doing to be exact, to get the cruller to embody a crispy exterior and moist but not gummy interior that I had in my head. We saw crullers that blew up in the fryer to look like malformed old fashioned doughnuts, and some that held their shape beautifully, but were like eggy sponges inside. We would nail the interior texture, only to have a cruller with a papery flexible shell. I watched batters disintegrate in the fryer, and some that barely rose to the top. Long story short, I failed in every way a cruller could fail.
But goonies never say die, and we finally landed on a twice fried cruller. The cruller is flavored with Parmesan like a gougere, and served with a roasted Parmesan fondue, a texture we lovingly call “parm whiz”. Crispy bits of oven baked Parmesan behave much like a sprinkle, adding a little crunch to the top of the white chocolate glazed cruller. The warm glazed doughnut is nestled a basil infused custard, a nod towards the kind of cream you’d find inside a Berliner, and a black raspberry jam is dripped across the plate, another doughnut-filling-inspired component. Bulbous blackberries lean against the plated cruller obscuring the custard from view, and bitty basil leaves are scattered across the dessert.
I’d be hard pressed to say this dish would have found it’s way to us had I been correct in my simple assumption about the breadth of Nestle’s product line. I can say with pride, we are all smiling at what became of the pastry god’s prank on our department.
Additional components: micro basil