Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Underpants Gnomes

Lately I have begun to feel like the baking world is full of Underpants Gnomes; you know the ones, from South Park. Step one, steal underpants, step two..., step three PROFIT! Only in this case step one is open a bakery and step three is profit. Don't get me wrong profit is the purpose of business but none of these places seem to have a step two that I can get behind. Case in point, we are apparently the only bakery in all of Birmingham AL that doesn't use cake mix. We don't use ingredients we can't pronounce, so no soy-lethwasamarigger, or hyrdochemical oil, etc. Eggs, flour, butter...those are our base ingredients, we buy them every week.

We have been very busy with plans for a wedding show this weekend. I've been tackling brush embroidery which is so flipping easy it should be criminal J On top of that we have all our regular orders, and new orders coming it, but to be honest we aren't doing so well business wise. I am still working for free. Don't get me wrong, I love my boss, I love the shop, I am exhausted but happy, happier than I have ever been in my life. Every day is a new way to express my creativity and passion; I just wish it would pay the bills. I could see myself investing the next 25 years to this business, I could grow old and die happy with it. But that the age old dilemma isn't it? To get paid well for doing something we love.

In other news go here www.threadcakes.com . I'm entering this competition, or think I am, I'll keep you posted as to what design I pick.


 

And now, my sleepy butt is going to bed, because I am going in extra early tomorrow and sleepy chefs are accidents waiting to happen.


 

Much <3

Monday, June 14, 2010

Beginnings and Endings

Today is my exit interview at the college, I'm not sure what it entails but I do know that I never managed to get my paperwork back from the chef at the restaurant. I hope that doesn't jeopardize my GPA, I really want to graduate with my 4.0. (If you are reading this Kay then please give me at least a ninety!)

Things at the bakery are going really well, the chef/owner and I are two peas in a pod and so it is a really great environment to learn and grow in. She has offered to hire me when her revenue gets up and so I'm going to keep working there after my externship ends today. We have a TON of cakes due this week: two wedding cakes, three grooms cakes, a castle birthday cake, plus whatever orders we pick up this week, PLUS all our cupcakes! It's wonderful, I'm learning so much about cake.

We are toying with some different cupcakes ideas, right now we are perfecting a peach. This is my baby and I want it to taste like a ripe peach when you eat it, so far we've tried a peach cake (which was too nutmeg ridden) and a white cake with peach nectar and fresh peaches folded in. Neither gave me the peach flavor I wanted and so now I'm thinking maybe if we pureed the peaches and reduced them into a syrup maybe that would work. We have also been tossing around ideas for a line of Seven Deadly Cupcakes (ie/ cupcakes based on the seven deadly sins) and a line of Happy Hour Cupcakes based on cocktails. The latter has been done by a few places but to be honest I think we can do better. I mean that is the point right? To try and be better.

We are also working on marketing to try and bring in business because business means revenue and revenue means I get a paycheck. I'm thinking we take some cupcakes to the local bridal boutiques in an attempt to bribe the dress clerks, and also to the local FOX station to bribe the producers :) The more we get our name out the better our chances of success.

It has been a bumpy road from never been in a kitchen until here, and I hope that even though this blog isn't a requirement anymore you will continue to read it. I'm going to continue writing about my journey towards becoming a chef, I don't think I am there yet and to be honest I don't think I'll be there for at least nine more years. :) But it will be an interesting journey and who knows, maybe I won't be the only one to learn something along the way.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Look at the the time!

It has been a week or so since I've updated I know but I've been busy! I've been working you see, at the local cake shop and boy oh boy am I learning a lot! It is amazing how different things can be from one business to the other. At the restaurant we had a dishwasher and a dish-washing machine, here we have me and my dishrag. But I don't mind, because my boss is wonderful. She asks my opinion on thing, we even had an entire conversation about why I was in culinary school. It is fantastic to be so engaged, even her criticism isn't really criticism so much as a challenge to why I am doing something one way over another. And ya know what...I can darn well bake a cake so :P .

Can you tell I am happy? Is my joy infecting you over the internet? It should be...I practically float to work.

Today I went to a demonstration by Nicholas Lodge. It was pretty informative even if there were times I felt like he was reviewing things I learned at school. If only I had the cash to go to Atlanta and take classes at his school ~le sigh~

But that is where I am and what I'm doing. Aside from some minor home emergencies (grandfather having heart surgery, hot water heater exploding) everything is peachy keen. I found out I am on the Presidents List, which means I have a perfect 4.0 GPA.

Go me!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Pith and Vinegar

Like an orange or a lemon working in a restaurant kitchen is equal parts bitter and sweet. Bad days both demonstrate the sometimes seediness of it all and the acidity of tongues that are more often than not turned on each other ; good days are refreshing, they stand out crisp in the mind and light in the heart. But enough metaphor, time to get to the meat of things (okay maybe one more metaphor). Saturday was my last night at the restaurant, they've hired someone far more qualified to take the position left vacant on the line. I really wish them the best of luck; I think I learned a number of things about myself and about the industry while I was there.

It occurred to me while I was helping out at garde manger that 'staging (pronounced stah-ging) is a lot like being a surgical nurse. You have to anticipate the moves of the person you are helping and be there utensil or ingredient in hand before they think to ask for it. It is an elaborate dance of movements and if you are good at your job the whole thing moves like a ballet. Unfortunately 'staging is always done for free, which is something about the industry I understand but don't really approve of for extended periods of time. With as much work as needs to be done in a kitchen, the long hours and hectic pace of things, the least you can do is pay someone a reasonable wage for the time they are there, even if it is only a night (to be honest I'm sure most onetime 'stages would settle for being paid in booze or food).

Lately I've been reading "Devil in the Kitchen" by Marco Pierre White. He is one of those chefs famous for being horrible to work for with a tendency for hurling things at his staff or yelling at his patrons. It really comes as little surprise that he trained Gordon Ramsey, but he also worked with Mario Battali and that chef is famous for his kindness in the kitchen. Reading his autobiography has given me some insight into the whole "I scream at my staff because I want them to be better" ideology practiced by pastry chef at the restaurant but I can't say I subscribe to it. It goes back to the old adage "is it better to be feared or loved". I've always been a proponent of love myself and I think the main reason that the pastry chef and I didn't click is simply because he failed to understand the one thing all my instructors at school learned very quickly; I am always and will always be my own worst critic.

It's a bit of famous fact amongst my friends that I am never happy with what I've made. I'll bake something and then pick it a part wondering how I could do it better. Last Christmas I baked four coconut cakes and discarded the first three because they didn't rise the way I wanted. The week we made petite fours in class mine weren't the perfectly coated and decorated morsels I had envisioned and so I came home, made them that weekend and took them to class to show chef that Monday. My last day of class I asked Chef Danks what piece of advice he would give me and he told me that I needed to stop doubting myself. It's been a hard piece of advice to follow but I'm trying the first step to overcoming is admitting and all.

Looking back at my eight weeks in the kitchen of the restaurant I gained quite a bit of knowledge. I learned to move more quickly than I had thought possible, how to juggle multiple plates and tickets at a time, how to make bread (though I'm still not great at it), the proper way to plate a salad, and most importantly how to work under great amounts of stress. I also learned that while some may view culinary school as a waste of time and money it in the end is worth it, especially if you are passionate about food and want to learn to do it well. There are things you learn as a pastry student that you won't learn in most restaurant kitchens, how to properly temper chocolate for instance, or why you meringue won't whip up when it appears you've done everything correctly. You'll learn the proper name for techniques that are used and the proper way to complete them. An example of this is Paté Bomb, which is how mousses can be stabilized without gelatine. The process is relatively simple, heat your sugar syrup to 248F and temper it into egg yolks that have been whipped until pale and frothy. You continue to whip the mixture until it is cool. At the restaurant when we made mousse I noticed that the pastry chef wasn't letting the mixture cool completely before adding it to the whipped cream. Even though I would never correct him that was why the mousse he made came out loose. When making the mousse became my task it was something I self corrected.

The remaining weeks of my externship (since I have to make it 11) will hopefully be spent at a cake bakery closer to home. I'll be 'staging but given that I have little to know knowledge in how to decorate a cake I don't mind working for free because it is a heck of a skill to have. There will also be no more forty-two hour weeks which doesn't hurt, and the hours will be more conducive to having a part time job somewhere to help with bills. I guess the most important piece of advice I can give to anyone it the one that has seen me through these past eight weeks, there is no crying in pastry.


 


 

Friday, May 21, 2010

Banana (not a)Pound Cake

This post has nothing to do with my internships but this cake is so good I just had to share the recipe. On a recent trip to an unnamed food warehouse (shameful on my part I know), I came across a southern dessert cookbook by the editors of Southern Living. I had tried so hard to get an internship with them despite their massive layoffs that I just couldn't resist picking it up and adding it to my cart. Last Sunday with it raining so hard and my banana's turning brown at a rapid rate I decided to try one of the recipes. Man oh man; I am so glad that I did. I've been nibbling on this delicious cake all week and it is still just as moist as it was Sunday night!

The recipe is posted below and although this cake is incredible tasty don't let the title fool you, it isn't a pound cake. A pound cake is so named because of its ingredient ratio, a 1:1:1:1 ratio of flour, butter, eggs, and sugar Traditionally this was a pound of each of those ingredients however as long as the ratio is preserved, the resulting cake will generally be very similar to that using the traditional quantities. My lack of a tube pan caused me to substitute a Bundt pan instead and the result was just as great. Don't worry if the batter takes up most of the pan, this cake doesn't rise very much.


 

Banana (not a) Pound Cake

(Courtesy of Classic Southern Desserts by the editors of Southern Living)

Makes 10 to 12 servings if you feel like sharing

Preheat your oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 10" tube pan or Bundt pan

In a mixing bowl cream 1 ½ cups of softened butter at a medium speed for 2 minutes or until creamy; gradually add 3cups of granulated sugar and continue beating for 5 to 7 minutes until light and fluffy. Add 5 eggs, one at a time, adding each egg after the yellow of the previous has just disappeared. Beat 2 minutes or until it looks like one mixture (not bits of fat mixed with egg), be careful not to over beat or you will have air pockets (tunnelling) in your finished cake.

In a second bowl combine 3 ripe bananas (mashed) with 3Tbsp of milk and 2tsp of vanilla, combining.

Sift together 3cups of all purpose flour, 1tsp baking powder, 1/2tsp salt in a third bowl.

Starting with the dry, add 1/3 of dry mix into the butter/egg mixture and combine, then 1/2 of your wet mixture. Repeat ending with the last third of flour and mix well between additions; do this at low speed as you just want things to get combined.

Pour the batter into your pan and sprinkle the top with 1/4cup of chopped pecans. Bake for 1hour and 20 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Let it cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes before removing it and finish cooling on a wire rack. (It takes about one hour to cool completely)


 

Bon Appetite!


 

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Winner Is...

The test results are in, I have a B12 deficiency. The Dr isn't sure if it is because I just haven't been eating enough foods that contain B12 (meat, dairy, eggs) or if something is stopping my body for absorbing the B12 I do eat but either way I'm on a super supplement for 30 days and blood work for the next three months. Of course this also means I have to eat more animal products, to make up for the B12 my body may not being absorbing, but at this point I'll do anything not to feel so dang tired, absentminded and achy all the time.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Well this kind of bites.

I'm home sick, second day in a row, and feeling horribly guilty. Yesterday I went to work and managed to screw up the bread TWICE before excusing myself to go to the Dr. I'm really lightheaded, and sore, and horribly forgetful. I went to the fridge last night to get something and couldn't remember what it was by the time I arrived. The Dr. I saw is checking my thyroid, my B12 and some other things but to be honest I have this feeling that all my symptoms are actually the work of an old friend.

Oh Lyme Disease, Virginia's parting gift to me before I moved and started school. I was on my but for six weeks with it last fall and was sincerely hoping that the antibiotics had killed it completely, I'll know in a few days either way I suppose but in the meantime the Dr recommended I stay at home and not do anything involving knives, fire, or driving. Yah me!(not)

I wish I had more exciting things to report, when I do I assure you I will. In the mean time this is going to be it for me today, I foresee another nap in my future.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Karma Pie.

Aside from my four devote followers *waves*, I'm not sure who reads this blog and to be honest I don't really mind. This is my space to be honest about the kitchen and my experiences in it be they good or bad. I realize that lately it may seem that there is a lot of bad, it is amazing however how one bit of good will go so far to erase all of that.

Today was hangover day in the kitchen, apparently everyone stayed after close yesterday to drink and celebrate getting through 200+ patrons. Everyone was quiet, even the dicing was done at a whisper. Since we had made so many desserts in anticipation of Mother's Day we had enough to carry us through today and tomorrow and so I only had to make muffin batter and bread. Yes you read that right, I made bread!

As I was saying, I'm not sure who reads this blog maybe two angels appeared to him in a dream and said he had been acting like a jerk, or he had an out of body moment and saw it for himself. Maybe it was the after effects of too much beer...again I don't know but the pastry chef was a human being today. Not only did he show me the legendary second "no intern has been able to do this ever" step to making bread, but he talked to me as if I weren't something at the bottom of the cooler. Between my shock and the suspicion I had actually ventured into some Bizzaro universe he apologized if he had been an arse and said I was doing a good job. TWICE. That's right...he said I wasn't a total failure at this chef thing TWICE.

You could have knocked me over with a feather, the rest of the day flew by in almost an LSD-esque trip. It is amazing how after five weeks of thinking I was making the wrong choice that two little " You are doing a good job"'s renewed my spirit so effectively. He even demonstrated some dishes on the savory side of things to me.

So to whatever kismit that caused today I offer my sincere and heartfelt thanks. It was just icing on the cupcake that in one of the line guys departures I've been hired as a temp to fill in.

Mothers Day Merry Go Round

Mother's Day, Valentine's Day and New Years Eve are the three holidays that every restaurant chef should never expect to have off. So I drug my sleepy, caffiene deprived self out of bed yesterday and went in to help the guys at the restaurant; not because I ever want to be a restaurant chef but because I knew they would be swamped and I wanted to help out. It almost didn't happen, I walked into the kitchen to over hear the pastry chef talking smack about me to the Sous Chef and the little line cook and almost walked back out. I wasn't on the schedule and I was half an hour early so I imagine he thought it would be safe to trash talk. Whatever I have one more week of him and then I don't have to deal with him again.

One valuable lesson I have learned over the course of these five weeks is that you should always have a back up. If you know that you have one third pan of sauteed apples containing about thirty servings and you only have 18 people with reservations you should make more apples. If nothing else you won't have to make them tomorrow. Yesterday I made more apples, I also made more pears, more chocolate sauce, more mousse cakes. I pulled extra ice cream and sorbet from the freezer, and even with all that I wasn't completely ready for the onslaught of 200+ people that walked through the door at noon.

Everyone was in a bad mood before opening. There were a ton of things to do and the grill cook had called chef that morning and said he quit. Chef was rather stoic about it, but then he is rather stoic about most things, the pastry chef on the other hand would just not let it go (big surprise). Between threatening to hunt the guy down and feed him a knuckle sandwich and going on about what a crappy cook he was to begin with there wasn't a moment of silence in the kitchen until we opened. It was reminiscent of a Chihuahua that sees a squirrel outside and insists on barking long after it is gone.

Opening came quickly with waves upon waves of families descending on our normally reserved space with the normal kid noise. There wasn't time to think, there wasn't time to blink or pee or do anything other than cook and plate. Between flipping pancakes and dropping biengnets, running to the cooler for mousse cakes and scooping sorbet I was swamped. I'm kind of impressed with myself though. I didn't need anyone to come to my station and help, in fact I helped with the kids menu with the pancakes. I did manage to break an ice cream scoop (I have no clue how)but I also avoided generally injuring myself in the process of running about like a madwoman. For one of the first times in a long time I didn't feel overwhelmed by the kitchen, this weird sense of calm just came over me and I was the eye of my own pastry hurricane.

In other news, this is my last week at the restaurant, not only will have completed my 180 hours as of today but I found a nice little bakery close to the house and they seem interested in letting me finish my internship there. I'll be doing a lot of cake decorating, which is something I definitely need to learn, and it will be mostly days, something that will allow me to work at night or go to school and get my BA. The chef at the restaurant has asked me to work the same hours as last week since they are now a man down, he's a nice guy despite the general idiocy of his pastry chef and so I'll help him out.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Doubt

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Why do I want to be a chef? I've been asking myself that a lot lately and the answer is getting harder and harder to find. It used to be that I loved to cook because I felt like it was the only place in the world where I felt at ease, where I was in control and successful. That rush you get when someone eats something you make and experiences pleasure can only be beaten by the look that they get when you have shown them how to make it. Maybe all chefs are emotion junkies, I mean the kitchen is rife with its drama's and adrenaline as well as ego. I don't know...I'm beginning to think I made the wrong decision pursuing this dream.

I did good in school, honest I did. I was on the President's list all four semesters, carried an average that didn't dip below ninety percent. I asked questions, took notes, but now I feel like that was all for nothing. The pastry chef at the restaurant disdains those who go to culinary school rather than work in a kitchen. He sarcastically poo poo's the things I've learned as being wrong, or time consuming. Why do you need that thermometer to take the temp of your sugar? Why are your knife skills so horrible? Why are you so slow? You'll never get hired at a restaurant if you keep doing it that way.

But I've never wanted to be a restaurant chef, I want to reply. My dreams don't lay in serving people awesome food; I want to show them how to make it. I want to give them the ability to go out and create these things they pay us $200 a two top for. Once they see how easy it is, how rewarding it is to make things instead of heading to the drive thru they will care what goes into their mouths and we'll be giving them something more valuable than a full stomach. But I don't say that, because in five weeks he has managed to pretty much kill my culinary spirit.

I feel powerless in the kitchen now, whatever I do is almost doomed to fail. He was off yesterday but called the line cook (who is 18, has never been to school and admits to now knowing jack about pastry and not caring to learn really) to bake a birthday cake that was ordered for tonight. He gave him instructions that I wasn't to bake it, because he has never had a pastry student who could bake a cake correctly from the school. But the intern had to work the line right? And I know how to bake a cake, so I made it, and sure enough, even though I baked it for an hour the middle fell, more than likely because everyone in the kitchen including me kept opening the oven to see how it was coming. They don't want me to be yelled at anymore then I want to get yelled at. I suppose yelling is the wrong word, it's not yelling. It is talking in a condescending manner that makes you feel like an ant, or worse, like a failure. It's the way my ex-husband talked to me when he wanted to put me in my place, a slap to the face without raising your hand. The bruise is verbal not physical but it still hurts.

And then he (the line cook) said that the night before, my night off, the pastry chef had spent pretty much the entire night harping on the failures of culinary students, myself included. Some part of me knows that it is jealousy that he couldn't hack it in school or was afraid to try and that is his problem. Part of me knows that this guy is a shitty pastry chef himself. Mario Battali said in an interview that a chef who yells at his staff, belittles them, does so because he is filled with self loathing. That he yells because he realizes he didn't do a good enough job training them how to do their job. The great Battali is probably right, I mean the man owns 14 restaurants and has countless cookbooks, TV shows, etc. Emotion however, often over rules logic.

I come home depressed every night now, my wonderful and supportive boyfriend makes me tea and tells me that I am a wonderful cook as I remind myself that there is no crying in culinary; that every Napoleon has a Waterloo. The sadness leads to anger, because essentially this guy is making me dread the thing I love, food.

I need to leave this internship, immediately. I just don't know what to do.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Monday Morning Math.

I know I've talked about this several times here, especially at the beginning, but I just wanted to take a moment to write a short post to show you all the math and economics of what unpaid internship really is.

So by the syllabus I have to work 18 hours a week for 11 weeks for a total of 180 hours ( know...it doesn't add up).  This kind of matches what I did when I was actually in class, I went to school 20 hours a week and each  semester was about 6 weeks long.

 My hours at the restaurant have been as follows:
Week 1 : 32 hours (14 hours over)
Week 2: 34 hours (16 hours over)
Week 3: 28 hours (10 hours over)
Week 4: 28 hours (10 hours over)

So in total I have worked 50 hours over what I am supposed to have. Now the school says if you work over then the employer should pay you the difference in hours, my employer has chosen not to pay me, they claim this is just school. The average Pastry assistant or sous gets paid $9/hour if we only calculate the overages in what I have worked compared to what I am supposed to work then that is a gross total of $450 of work I have done for free ( I'm sure it would be significantly less after taxes). 

In DC $450 would have been half of my monthly rent, here in Alabama it is that following things: my car payment, my cell phone bill, my credit card bill, a tank of gas, a week of groceries.Because I have worked all these extra free hours I have been unable to find a job that will pay me to work, and yes I know that it is all about the "experience" but to be honest I'm not sure I want to put the restaurant on my resume. Not that it isn't a great place but I'm hesitant to list them when the pastry chef spends more time telling me how I'm doing things wrong then how I'm doing them right.

This week I am scheduled to work 36 hours, which will put me at 156 hours completed of an 180 hour internship that was supposed to take me 11 weeks and instead will take me six. Which is five weeks of absolutely free labor that the restaurant will gaining (since I have to work the remaining 5 weeks to make 11). Five weeks of labor, at about 28 hours a week (which is the minimum they will work me) is another 140 hours, so basically I will have completed almost two internships in the time I was supposed to complete one.  For those hours at a paying job I could expect to be paid $1260 gross, roughly one third of my five thousand dollars tuition for this semester.

So lets add it up. By the end of this I will have paid $5000 plus $1710 in lost gross wages for the privilege of working for free so that I can graduate with a diploma, not an associates, not a bachelor's but a diploma.

How is that for math?

Friday, April 30, 2010

Brain Freeze

Ice cream, good ice cream, is probably one of the easiest things in the world to make. Trust me, I make a lot of it. Cream and milk are heated with vanilla bean on a stove in equal amounts (say 3 cups and 3 cups) until they are just below boiling and then tempered into egg yolks that have been whipped with sugar. The mixture is then returned to the stove just until it coats the back of a spoon and when blown on creates a "rose". Then it shocked in ice water, cooled and churned in an ice cream maker Et voila...vanilla ice cream.

At the restaurant we make vanilla ice cream to serve on top of our biengnets. The base is 3 quarts of cream to 3 quarts of milk, to eight vanilla beans; heated and then tempered into 60 egg yolks and 10 cups of sugar. We churn it in Cuisinart ICE-20 Automatic 1-1/2-Quart Ice-Cream Maker, White (three of them). It's a pretty nifty little machine, so nifty in fact that I just bought one the other weekend. So far I've used it to make strawberry ice cream, but I think today I'm going to try sorbet with some frozen fruit we have laying about in the freezer.

Given how easy it is to make ice cream I was really surprised to find that Flip, a Richard Blais restaurant here in town, doesn't make it's own. Flip is one of these trendy burger joints that is known for things like it's ossobucco burger and Foie Gras milkshake. A milkshake that is made with Blue Bonnet Ice Cream, it seems a bit criminal doesn't it? I know I shouldn't judge, I mean I'm just a culinary student. It just seems that if you are going to charge $10 for a milkshake, and go through the creative process of doing flavors like White Truffle and Pistachio, or Foie Gras then you should use an ice cream base that doesn't come from a commercial factory...or at least something I can't buy at the local Walmart.

I suppose though, most people don't care if their overpriced milkshake contains Blue Bonnet or not. Flip is the sort of place where it seems people aren't going for the food, but merely because it is the hip place to be seen eating. It is just a tad disheartening is all, to someone who wants to be a pastry chef. Restaurants that use commercially produced crappy ice cream, bakery's like Edgar's or Olexa's that use cake mix instead of baking their own, and a convention center that doesn't employ a pastry chef at all, but rather buys it's desserts frozen from the local restaurant supplier.

When did we become so complacent about the food when put into our mouths? About the food we serve other people? If someone is paying upwards of five dollars a slice for a wedding cake then don't they deserve to be wow'ed by something made from scratch?  I know, I know overhead is expensive and this is done to keep costs low. The restaurant business is just that...a business. *sigh*


Maybe one of these days I'll have the same outlook, maybe one day I won't, only time will tell. In the mean time I won't be going back to Flip for a milkshake, and I will be making my ice cream at home.

Friday, April 23, 2010

In case of Zombie Apocalypse.

I know, I know, the probability of an ACTUAL zombie apocalypse is slim to none but it never hurts to be prepared. That is why this post is about making bread, you didn't think that Wonderbread was still going to be in business did you? No no no my gentle reader, in case of zombie apocalypse you should be prepared to make your own bread or else the other survivors at the mall may decide to oust you from the compound!

They say the first step to getting over a problem is to admit that you have it, I have bread issues. Serious bread issues. It can't be genetic, my mother makes wonderful bread, she was a baker even! Her mother made good bread, and her mother before her, all the way back to when they kicked my ancestors out of Scotland for stealing horses (popular family rumor has it that way anyways). I however, cannot make bread. I have bad bread hands, they are cold and that lowers the internal temperature of the dough meaning that it doesn't raise as well as it should. We did a week of bread at school, and I took a separate weekend bread class with Chef Corey in March but alas while I can braid the heck of out of loaf of challah I still can't make a good loaf of white bread unless I soak my hands in hot water before I start. Laugh all you want, but this is an issue! We make bread three days a week at the restaurant and bake it every day. Chef Corey once claimed that the dough knows I'm afraid of it and thus mocks me. Stupid dough and it's stupid mocking, like the Coyote I refuse to let this road runner defeat me.

To make good bread at the restaurant we need a starter, one we make after every batch at the restaurant so that we have it ready when we make bread again. 5, 3, 1.5. Five pounds of bread flour to 3 pounds of tepid water to 1.5 pounds of starter. This makes a heck of a lot of bread. Now I realize that most people don't have a thing of starter in their fridge, so there is a basic recipe you can follow.

Take a glass or plastic jar with a tight fitting lid, avoid metal at all costs. Into it place one cup of flour (bread flour preferable) and one cup of tepid (70-80 degrees F) water. Mix, cover, sit on your cupboard. In twenty four hours, throw half of it away and add another half cup of flour, half cup of tepid water. Wash, Rinse, Repeat until your starter has lots of bubbles and smells vaguely like beer. You can just set it on the counter while it does this, your starter needs to stay warm, but not to warm (nothing over 90 degrees F) or you will kill it. I encourage you to talk to it if you want, I have taken to saying " IT'S ALIVE!" a lot and generally cackling at mine. Once it reaches the bubble stage you can safely refrigerate it until you need it. It will have grown to fill pretty much the entire container is another way you can tell it is done...it might even have erupted over the sides.

At the restaurant our bread making recipe goes like this:
20 pounds of bread flour
10 pounds of tepid water
2 tbsp yeast
5 ounces salt
7.5 pounds of starter

Mix this at low speed in the big mixer for ten minutes, then at a medium speed a bit longer. Empty half of it into a hotel pain, that is the white bread. To the remaining half add three boxes of raisins and one half bag of walnuts. Mix till combined This makes out other bread...the walnut raisin loaf. Empty that into a hotel pain and stick both hotel pans in a proofing oven (basically turn on your oven light, stick your dough in and shut the door) until it has almost overgrown it's container. Take it out and weigh it into 1.65 pound loaves, then get ready for the hard part.

You have to shape it for proofing, I will be honest, this is where it falls a part for me. Basically you have to hold the dough in both hands, keeping them close together and not stretching the dought too much. You want to form it into a sphere, but by stretching the dough on itself, not digging your fingers into it but not letting it flop all over the space. I swear I am two steps away from making a video of the restaurants chef doing this and putting it up on YouTube because I suck at it. It makes me want to cry and as you know...there is no crying in pastry!

Once you prayed to every God in the pantheon that you don't destroy the bread doing this, you place it on floured cookie sheets andcover it (we use large plastic bags) so it doesn't form a skin. Let it sit at room temp for an hour or so, basically until it has grown, then we shape it again. Place it on cookie sheets lined with cornmeal and bag it again, letting it sit for about hour or so. You should have 9 loaves of white bread, and 9 loaves of the raisin walnut. Two sheet pans of this ( one of each kind) we put in the cooler and bake the next day, the rest gets baked in a 450 degree F oven for 22 minutes after we slit the top with a razor blade.

And voila...bread, or in my case you get to the first shaping, the chef gets upset because you suck at bread and doesn't let you go anything after that except pull it out of the oven. Which is fine...bread may have won this battle but I will win the war!

In the meantime, hopefully my many other useful skills will keep me alive when the zombies come. Bread is over rated right?

The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry

Back before I started culinary school, when I was reading a ton of books all written by people who like me had a passion for food and facing a crossroads in their life; I read a book which had the same title as today's post. It was a really good book, one that I would definitely recommend, and the title is definitely true. I know because I slit my index finger open on my just sharpened paring knife the other day, and had no idea until the acid from the oranges I was supreming got into it. Think salt on an open wound is bad, trust me...citric acid makes salt look like a sissy.

Which brought me back to " there is no crying in pastry". Work in a kitchen long enough and you are going to cut yourself, or burn yourself, or drop something on your head/foot. Things move so quickly that it injury can't be avoided and no one has any sympathy for you so it is best to just suck it up and pretend it didn't happen. Last night my foot slipped into the drainage hole for the dishwasher and scalding hot water immediately went all over it. Whipping off my shoe then my sock I bit my lip long enough to ask if there was burn spray, at which the Sous looked at me like I was crazy. " I never want to hear you ask for burn spray again...it's a kitchen, you are going to get burned." Little solace to my blistered tootsie but I nodded, shoved my foot back in my shoe and hobbled through the rest of break down then drove home barefoot, I didn't need that first two layers of skin anyways.

The last three weeks have been a never ending roller coaster of activity. The restaurant has had engagement parties, bar parties, and one wine dinner on top of at least one party of twelve per night. I've learned to move quickly, though probably not as quickly as I need to, and I've learned general lingo. " Walking in" means a ticket is printing. "In hand" means that it is about to be done. "86" means that something is being omitted from the dish IE. " One hydro walking in 86 the cheese" When I'm not plating desserts I'm helping with the appetizer station, which is completely out of my league as I have no idea when a quail is done, or how long it takes the risotto to cook.

With spring our menu has changed a bit, we have discontinued the Upside Down Mango Frangipane ( to be honest I could never figure out what about it was upside down) and replaced it with a deconstructed strawberry parfait. I'm a fan of strawberries so this is all the better for me though I might change a few things about the dish, namely the whipped cream garnish. The Pastry chef adds sherry vinegar to it, which gives it a bit of a twang, and stabilizes it with gelatin which is a rather European thing to do. For the benefit of you all, and because it is rather easy to replicate, I've included the recipe below so you can try assembling it at home.

Deconstructed Strawberry Parfait: (the dani version)

You will need:
1 loaf of banana bread (recipe below)
1 pint of strawberry's
1 cup of simple syrup (recipe below)
2 cups of creme chantilly. (recipe below)
granola of choice ( I recommend Bear Naked)
balsamic vinegar ( a good quality does wonders here, don't skimp for sake of frugality)

For the banana bread:
I'm a big fan of Cook's Illustrated recipes for home use, as I have never had one that failed me. This is there recipe, I always omit the nuts and then brush the top of the loaf with honey while it is still warm.
Ingredients:

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 1/4 cups toasted walnuts , chopped coarse (about 1 cup)
3 very ripe bananas , soft, darkly speckled, mashed well (about 1 1/2 cups)
1/4 cup plain yogurt
2 large eggs , beaten lightly
6 tablespoons unsalted butter , melted and cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Instructions

  1. 1. Adjust oven rack to lower middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease bottom only of regular loaf pan, or grease and flour bottom and sides of nonstick 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pan; set aside. Combine first five ingredients together in large bowl; set aside.

  2. 2. Mix mashed bananas, yogurt, eggs, butter, and vanilla with wooden spoon in medium bowl. Lightly fold banana mixture into dry ingredients with rubber spatula until just combined and batter looks thick and chunky. Scrape batter into prepared loaf pan; bake until loaf is golden brown and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Cool in pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

For the Strawberries:

Never wash your strawberries until you are ready to eat them. This prevents them from getting mushy. Just lay them out on a clean towel placed on a cookie sheet in your fridge and they will stay fresh and juicy until you need them. For this dessert I'd do the strawberries as late in the game as possible, just give them a quick wash in cold water about twenty minutes before you are ready to plate and gently dry. Slice the top off of each berry and cut it in half lengthwise, then slice each half into 1/4" thick pieces. Place them in a metal bowl and gentle toss just until just moistened with the simple syrup. You probably won't need all of it to do the job.

For the Simple Syrup:

Combine two cups of sugar with two cups of water and bring to a boil. When the entire surface of the pot is covered with large bubbles then the majority of water has left the mixture and you can remove it from the heat and let it cool. Don't stir it while it is cooking, the sugar crystals will stick to the sides of the pot making it harder to clean!

For the Creme Chantilly:

Creme Chantilly sounds harder to make then it is. Empty a quart of whipped cream to the bowl of your mixer and add 1/4 cup of confectioners sugar (more to taste if you like it sweeter). At the restaurant we also scrap in the caviar from one vanilla bean. Whip it until you have whipped cream...ta da...Creme Chantilly. This is much much easier than adding gelatin to stabilize it, and works just as well.

To assemble each plate:

Cut yourself a piece of banana bread about 1/2" thick, then slice that piece horizontally so that you have two banana bread 'logs'. Place the logs in the center of your plate spacing them about two inches apart. Add three tablespoons of your moistened berries to the space in between your logs , then a tablespoon of granola on top of that. Using two tablespoons or server spoons, spoon your creme chantilly into a cornelle and place that on top of your granola. To finish it dribble a tiny bit of balsamic around the outskirt of the plate. Voila...you have a deconstructed parfait(I'd eat it for breakfast if I could!)

Making a cornelle is the hardest part of this, trust me. The trick is to scrap your tablespoon across the top of the creme chantilly, then use the other spoon to help get the football shape. Just keep moving it from spoon to spoon until you get it the way you like. Resist the urge to curse and hurl your spoons across the kitchen...they make a satisfying crash but clean up is messy.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Daily Routines

It is hard to explain what a restaurant kitchen is at various stages, especially when being in one is a brand new experience but I'm going to give it try so bare with me.

In the morning, before things open and the line guys come into the kitchen to prep for dinner it is super quiet. Just us pastry people ( Me and the Pastry Chef) and our scales weighing out various things and preparing desserts for the night while the dishwasher goes about his business. Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays we make bread, Thursdays usually is the laminated dough for the beginets and then we make sorbet's, cakes, cookies and sauces as needed. I could wax poetic about the feel of a whisk in my hand as I make Creme Anglaise, how the stress seems to melt away but I won't.

As we are only open for dinner the rest of the crew comes in around two, trickling through the doors with lewd jokes about each others sexuality and of course the obligatory Canadian jokes. (which of course I take in good humor because we Canadians are like that) As they begin getting things ready for the savory side I usually find myself helping by peeling, brunoising, or running to the walk-in for what they need. I'm trying to get faster with my knife and I've got the blisters to prove it, knock on wood that I have yet to cut myself. The mood is generally lighthearted and fun, it certainly wouldn't live up to any expectation one might have from watching Gordon Ramsey on TV.

Closer to service you can find the waitstaff polishing silverware and getting the bread ready for service. Everyone puts on their jackets and we start getting orders from the bar. As the tickets get entered they print back and chef's station and at the garde mange station where I work beside the Garde Mange guy putting together cheese plates and sometimes salads. I really know nothing about savory food preparation so most times I just try to stay out of his way. We are the only two yankee's (that word is used for anyone born above the Mason Dixon line) in the kitchen so we have to stick together.

Of course I am the low (wo)man on the totem pole, but oddly enough I don't mind that. What I do mind is the long periods of time where the pastry chef disappears leaving me with no instruction and little idea of if I am doing something correctly. I also mind the being scheduled for 36 hours a week when I am only supposed to be working 18, and the " well if you can't work when we want you to then we will let you go and find a new pastry intern." Being the bottom of the barrel doesn't mean that you should be treated like that. There is such a thing as common decency, and courtesy in the kitchen that goes beyond "yes chef, no chef." What is worse is that everyone is acting like I am in the wrong for even questioning it. I'm sorry but I have to support myself and that means finding a job where the pay is currency not "educational experience."

I digress though. All in all being in a kitchen is pretty awesome, and chef had no complaints about my work the first week though he did say I needed to work on a sense of urgency. (which I agree with) We shall see if this continues another ten weeks or if the Pastry Chef makes good on his threat to find another intern...in the mean time I need to amp up my job search.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Slave Labor

The title of this post is rather provocative I will admit, but that is because it is designed to shake off some of the complacency that everyone seems to have about internships. My friends, most of them who interned befittingly at law firms or NPO's but who are none the less American, can't seem to understand why my Canadian sensibilities are so offended at the prospect of ten hour work days without so much as a break to pee. I suppose that is the difference between our cultures, but I digress.

There is no crying in pastry, however there is also no letting yourself be a doormat. Restaurant kitchens are mostly (and sadly) the domain of men and if you want to survive you have to be tough. For people like myself, who have no restaurant experience and are coming straight out of a classroom this is exceptionally difficult, no one wants to upset the status quo because the restaurant world is small and word of mouth travels quickly amongst chefs. Interns are at the bottom of the totem pole, even the dishwashers have more experience and are therefore treated with more respect. Interns are going to be doing the stuff no one else in the kitchen wants to do, sweeping, cleaning the walk in's, insane amounts of prep work, and the entire time you are going to be told you are to slow, you are doing it wrong, and there will be numerous jokes about your sexual orientation, your mother, your race, etc. But believe it or not, the taunts and the shit work will roll off your back if you let it, and that isn't the thing that is going to irritate you (or it least that is not the stuff that is irritating me) Nope, what has succeeded in pushing my big red button is the fact that schools and the employers that they send you to will nine times out of ten exploit you like so much slave labor in direct violation of the law.

But internships are unpaid in nature, correct? Well it depends. The U.S. Department of Labor has outlined a list of criteria that ALL must be met in order for an internship to be unpaid.

1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;
2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee;
3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;
5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training

Of special note to culinary or pastry students such as myself is number four. " The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded" Culinary and Pastry interns routinely do prep work, work the line, plate and garnish food and otherwise provide services from which the employer derives immediate advantage. Which means, by the letter of the law, that they do not qualify as unpaid internships and thus must be paid the minimum wage set by state.

On top of this, most culinary internships will schedule you for more than the required hours per week. My internship location scheduled me for 36 hours this week, double the 18 I am required. Will those extra hours count as credit completed and shorten the period of my stay? Nope. Do those extra hours, which are unpaid, prevent me from seeking paying employment? Definitely. Try finding a part time job that pays and will schedule your hours around when you aren't working full time at a place where you are free. Most times you won't even get an interview, especially in this economy.

But yet these practices continue, and to be honest one of my instructors put it to me best. For generations you became a chef if you either couldn't afford or couldn't make it in university. Parent's didn't dream that little Johnny or Susie would grow up to don a white coat and tall paper hat, they wanted their kids to be doctors, teachers, and lawyers. Therefore, the people who became line cooks or pastry people were (with some notable exceptions) those who were economically disadvantaged and therefore more prone to be taken advantage of. These people were not going to protest mistreatment, and to some extent that remains.

So what is an intern such as myself do to? You can talk to your employeer with the risk of your already craptastic list of duties becoming more so. You can talk to your school's representative and get the distinct impression that they really have better things to do than listen to you complain. You can contact the Dept of Labor and crash and burn any hope you have for a career in the future. But most of us will just quietly vow that when we have our own place we will never treat our interns thusly and suffer it out like our predecessors.

Me? I'm still weighing my options. But this is just another one of those instances where I am glad that I didn't give up my citizenship when I came to the US five years ago. I will gladly suffer higher taxes to live under the rule of a Government where my rights are not taken advantage of. And I am definitely not going another ten and a half hour day without taking a pee or lunch break.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Where in expectations are set

A long time ago, when I was a young 28, I thought to myself how wonderful it would be to go to Culinary School, to pursue my passion for food and to share that passion with others. I would have liked to believe that I researched that thought almost to death before moving to a strange state, putting myself into horrendous amounts of debt and otherwise uprooting a rather enjoyable existence in the nation's capital. I read tons of books by chefs, talked to friends in the field, and scoured various programs across the country before choosing the one I did. For two years I hemmed and hawed before finally, in October just past I took the plunge.

Here I am now, at the beginning of my eleven week internship finally putting things down in words. This blog is a requirement of my course but more than that it is my digital record to anyone else thinking of pursuing a career in the culinary world. At times what I write won't be pretty, but it will always be honest. If it disheartens the reader rather than uplifts then that is because the reality of the situation is at times quite disheartening. Don't get me wrong, I still have a passion for cooking, it just periodically collides with a reality even Anthony Bourdain with all his straight talk and swagger couldn't adequately describe.

The motto here, often repeated I assure you, is thus. There is no crying in Pastry.