Thursday, November 30, 2006

Day 3: Cones, again. More toys. Shears.

On just my third day, I successfully earned the distinction that was no doubt expected by anyone who has ever been in a kitchen with me, and not least of all by myself. I was the very first one in my whole class to achieve it! It was okay, not too deep, and the Band-Aids were close at hand. Chef did ask if I needed stitches but I'm sure my body has started producing hyperactive clotting agents out of a basic need for self-preservation. For those curious: I was slightly too vigorously drying my just-disassembled pair of (get this) extremely sharp kitchen shears.

Apart from that little spree, and of course more cornet production and chocolate practice (which went markedly better for me), it was Big Toy day. Chef actually instructed us to play around with the large equipment, my favorite piece of which is definitely the three-tiered deck oven, the lowest deck of which is near my thigh, the highest at eye level. Picture two fully assembled twin beds on top of one another, all resting on a three-foot high platform. Or a Subaru Forrester. One that bakes things. There were other footsoldiers of the machine infantry at the front of the pack though: the twenty-quart mixer, the induction burners, the dough proofer... it's a stainless steel wonderland in there.

A visitor came from the career placement department and posed the usual question of suchly employed individuals: What Do You Want To Do? While I won't admit to myself that I intend to be the star of the first baking-themed television program that doesn't suck, I somehow decided that admitting it to a dozen people - all of whom are one sliver of acquaintance above "familiar face" - was quite a simple undertaking. Voicing it, however, did aid me in at least considering it as a remote possibilty. It was amusing to introspect in light of the new information she gave us regarding the facets of the industry that actually exist, and employ people like us. She also spoke at length about volunteering and externships (a word that still makes me insane, and will continue to). The two of these events, incidentally, appear to be the same thing except for the fact that at one, they're happy to have you help in any way you can for whatever time you can give, and at the other, they're happy to use you in any way they can get away with any time you're there, which is "most of the."

We did not ingest any concentrated dairy products today, which was, of course, a great relief to everyone after yesterday's butter fiasco.

The homework is thirty minutes of chocolate writing per day until we reconvene next week. This will undoubtedly produce something thrilling about which to inform you, so I'll amend this post as necessary.

After I wash my hands.
Day 2: Cones. Weight. Butter(s).

After a brief repose on the hardest stools available in Manhattan (seriously, I almost opted to stand on the subway home), we created our first of what will undoubtedly be many of thousands small parchment cones called cornets (pronounced corNAY, in singular or plural). These are generally used for writing, particularly when the ink is made of chocolate. To see me make cornets, you'd think perhaps I'd done a few hundred of them in my day. It went well... quickly, efficiently, correctly. Oh, then we had to fill them halfway with chocolate, cut the barest slice off the tip, and proceed to practice writing and the generation of some basic designs. Here's where the illusion of experience I had presented fell away with little ceremony, leaving me fully exposed as the novice I actually am, rivulets of dark chocolate running up my sleeves, along my apron strings and towels, and on the side of my mouth (and the really screwed up part is I didn't even taste any, something I say not defensively but in complaint - if I had evidence of chocolate-tasting literally written on my face the very least I might have gotten out of it would have been actually tasting some). Only after a fair amount of correction and intense concentration was I able to get my "lines" of chocolate to appear in any way linear and my writing... well, in the Western alphabet if not exactly English.

The confidence of much of the class having suffered such a devastating blow right out of the gate, we undertook a small exercise in culinary math - how many teaspoons in a quart and so forth - which served to relax our nerves, at least for those of us for whom multiplying single digits by other single digits with the aid of a calculator proved a somewhat more accessible task than script in that least forgiving of all inks.

We then set about weighing various ingredients using different types of scales. I must say, getting flour on my hands for the first time in my new kitchen was exhilarating. Nearly as exhilarating as the monolithic fifteen-pound bag of pecans.

Subsequently, we came to the first segment of palate education: Dairy Identification. This wasn't a blindfolded test where we had to ingest something and then say what it was, but rather an open and conversational evaluation of differing dairy products that were passed around the table. We began with spoonfuls of milk of varying fat contents, cream both light and heavy, half and half, evaporated milk, and condensed milk. This sated our appetites for dairy almost as much as it called forth our pity for Heidi, the one lactose-intolerant girl in our class. (Am I the only one to whom the name "Heidi" implies a certain proclivity to dairy products!?)

Then came the butters. Let me tell you about butter. I enjoy butter. I like to use butter in, on, and around things that I eat. I feel that it enhances the quality of just about any food to the point that the very soul-satisfying nature of it counteracts any negative health effects (just let me be delusional and keep reading). Nor have my friends known me to be stingy with it. I have come to realize in a very brief span of time, however, that even I have some level of tolerance for it. Tonight we did some butter tasting. We tasted five unsalted butters including a special one from Denmark that was a first for me and quite remarkable. Then a number of salted butters - and let me tell you, when you've tasted five unsalted butters in a row and then moved on to one even lightly salted one, you will notice the salt. The salt in the first salted butter we tasted was at once repellent, because it seemed so strong, and a boon, because it was any flavor other than unmitigated milk fat. There were an equal number of salted butters passed around before the margarine was introduced. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I take no pains to mask my distaste for this product to begin with, but tasting it after such an inrush of The Real Thing served only to unveil its phony aspects all the more. I really did take a moment to thank God when Chef decided only at the very last second that we didn't have to go through tasting the Country Crock. Seriously. At least all was not in vain; I managed to name a favorite of all these butters - Plugra, the French-style extra-fat butter (surprised, friends?), whose name when properly pronounced is a homonym for plus gras, which translates quite unabashedly to "more fat." It's really, really good. If there were silkcows in the manner that there are silkworms, this would be their product.

To make sure we had enough substance in us, we topped off this light little parade of sixteen products (only two of which were composed of less than 20% fat, and only five under 40%) with some crème fraîche, mascarpone, and cream cheese. A large sundae; a planetary cherry. In all we tasted nineteen dairy products. One very queasy subway ride later, this particular chef-in-training is going to go lay down now.

And dream of unsalted crackers.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Day 1: Policy. Safety. Brie. Oh, and toys.

I realized that I was at last in long-imagined company when I saw that I was not the only bulb that shone more brightly on the tree when our kits arrived. (Quite sadistically, our registrar-orienter had pointed out the boxes and hinted at what was in them some hours before receipt of same.) Each of us beamed more and more brightly as we all inventoried our brand new toys in concert, to the point that sunglasses may have been an advisable inclusion. It was so enthralling that I found myself ridiculously pitying the few people who had already received their kits - those participating in another program, etc. - because they were unable to join in the exquisite ritual of tearing off the wrapping paper. A surprisingly accurate replication of the most useful fraction of my home kitchen's equipment, the kit was comprised of the tools one would expect, and some really nice knives from that town in Germany. Even managing the crate's bulk on the subway did very little to dull my enthusiasm for its contents, to the point that I emptied it onto the dining room table as soon as I arrived home, determined to find ANY Dremel tool bit that would allow me to monogram the costlier portions. (Which I did.)

Policy was read. Common-sense was dispensed, with a side of brie, chèvre, peanuts (and how refreshing it was to see genuine peanuts; I was beginning to be convinced that the airline people had taken ALL of them away), dried cranberries, baguette, old coffee, and attention-gettingly-lemony water. I felt better, actually, after it was announced with utmost seriousness that knives were never to be left in the sink. Granted, it seems like everyone in the class is perfectly sensible, but I'd just as soon not have to worry about reaching into a sudsy murk and paying the ultimate price.

Our Chef delivered a particularly poignant number on uniforms, noting that as soon as they were donned, the donner was a culinary professional; that to wear the clean, bright uniform evinces the respect for and devotion to the craft borne by the wearer. This immediately instilled in me sparkling but surprisingly solemn pride, and, in so doing, tacked my confidence in my new instructor firmly up onto the corkboard. The lockers suck; they're dishearteningly small, yet we're expected to have "clean and wrinkle free" uniforms. I think culinary-student-clean-and-wrinkle-free means something different than the non-prefixed term. I hope it does, in any case.

It always seems that the sense of possibility one has about a desire, long-awaited or not, tends to deflate somewhat on arrival at the actual threshold of that possibility: The hotel room isn't precisely the right temperature, the fuzzy kitten is a real moron, the car really only gets twenty-six miles to the gallon on a good day instead of the advertised thirty-five. Fortunately and to my great excitement, it seems that any prior sense of possibility I had about the culinary field was much narrower than I would have let myself admit.

Things are going to be happening.