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 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'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.

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


  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. 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 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.