Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Day 29: Ugly loaves. Bubbly sludges. Blank stares.

Yesterday was the oddest class so far, by a substantial margin. We began by making baguettes that only a mother could love. The dough, which we made last week, had been “retarding” in the refrigerator over the weekend. What this means is its literal translation: we slow down, or retard, the action of the yeast in the dough so it doesn’t overdevelop, while the bacteria continue to create lush flavors. This technique is absolutely used in all world-class bread, and it does tremendous things for it. We shaped our baguettes, and placed them on linen couches (pronounced koosh, in singular or plural, pictured at right below), and allowed them to proof. For just a little bit too long. When we started to remove them to peels, for loading into the ovens, the mayhem began – we realized that they had been proofing too long and most of them were very stuck to the linen. The result was a whole pile of terribly ugly loaves, loaves so ugly that if you made them at your bakery all you could do was sell them as “rustic baguettes” and charge people a dollar more. Just like so many mothers have told their children over countless centuries, though, true beauty lies on the inside. The flavor was deep and complex, with buttery overtones that lingered silkily on the palate. (So you see, you wouldn’t really be ripping people off.)

We also made some breadstick dough – which invariably led to a discussion about the very antithesis of good food, The Olive Garden. I hate to be slanderous in a public forum, but honestly, if I hear one more person going on and on about how great their breadsticks are, I’m going to need a padded room and a straightjacket. That’s not bread, people. If you don’t believe me, let’s try a little experiment. First, stop by a bakery – even an average one; I know we don’t all live in downtown Paris – and get a baguette or another long, narrow loaf. Then, that evening, go to The Olive Garden for dinner (or better yet, make someone else do it and ask them for a favor), saving a teeny little bit of room (which should be easy, since you really shouldn’t eat too much of that food). Make sure that your doggie bag includes a breadstick. Now, when you’re safely in the comfort of your own home and both breads are cool, cut each of them in half. What differences do you notice? Which one looks like it includes Elmer’s Paste as an ingredient? Which one crumbles apart from the motion of air or light particles around it? Now, grab a glass of water and get ready for one of those famous tastings I’m always talking about. Take a sip of water to cleanse your palate. Now, taste one of the two breads. Take another sip of water, and when you have no lingering flavor from the first bread, taste the other. Now that it’s cool, the “restaurant” breadstick is a little less convincing, isn’t it!? Which sample do you suppose contained only flour, water, salt, and yeast (and maybe some vitamin C)? And which do you suppose has things like high fructose corn syrup and modified food starch? Do you know what flour, water, salt, yeast, and vitamin C are? Do you know what modified food starch is? Have I made my point?

Fermentation; let’s talk about it. You sort of know what fermentation is, but let’s break it down so we’re all on the same page. Yeast eats sugar, and when it does, it excretes alcohol and carbon dioxide. And that’s it; that’s all fermentation is. When you have fermentation happening, you have bacteria colonizing as well. It happens in some of our favorite foods – cheese, yogurt, beer, wine, sausage, bread, for example – and it’s what gives these foods flavors that transcend the sum total of their simple ingredients. The sourdough starters we’re currently cultivating are just jars of goop made of flour and water. At least, that’s all we put in. Did you ever get a plum and see the white powdery stuff on it, especially in the crevices, that you thought was pesticide so you washed it off? That’s wild yeast. It’s drawn naturally to plants and other living things, and wheat is certainly included. There are also bacteria all over… well, everything… so the yeast and the bacteria present on the wheat start doing their little magic together, and form a symbiotic culture, which we call a sourdough starter. We fed our starters before leaving class, adding flour and water to them. It was particularly exciting when my classmate’s very hungry culture began expanding beyond the limits of its container during our commute, burping and spilling out all over the 125th St. subway station platform. And no one had any napkins.

There were bunnies in all kinds of headlights last night as new segments of culinary math were introduced. We began learning about dough hydration, both in terms of what it means mathematically and what it means aesthetically (we’ll get to that down the road). Chef also talked, at length, about the system of baker’s percentages, which is invaluable in scaling bread recipes up or down. We learned how to find the percentage of any ingredient against the percentage of flour, as well as how to find the quantity of any ingredient based on the percentage of what percentage of flour isn’t a percentage of the main amount of flour for each ingredient’s percentage.

Or something like that.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Days 27 and 28: The Cat Whisperer.

I realize that I tend to become somewhat impassioned with things, particularly food things, but seriously, bread is and will always be the song I sing most loudly. It’s a never ending source of fascination for me to gaze into a jar of my sourdough starter and watch my billion little pets eat slowly, teeny pockets of gas rising to the top like the primordial ooze of life that it actually is. So I hope you’ll forgive me as I systematically and unabashedly try to convert you into a bread maniac.

Bread is something I’ve researched on an über-hobby level for several years at this point, and I’m continually telling people how simple it is to craft really good bread at home. I stand by that, always. You’d be hard pressed to find better bread that what you can make at home, unless you live near a really hot bakery. And I’m not talking about Plantera or whatever it’s called; not a large chain bakery. Operations like that can make palatable bread, for sure, but I promise, you can do better. And you can certainly outdo the supermarket (yes, even Wegmans, which is my favorite too).

That being said, there’s something of an elusive quality that bread has. Say you mix identical amounts of flour, water, yeast, and salt together on two different days, and treat them in what seems the same way. On the first day, you create a loaf of golden crusty wonderfulness, crying out to you to break it apart and let it warm you down to the roots of your very soul, and on the other day you end up with some horrific steaming mass that might have been found in the corner of a wet sauna somewhere in the unsavory part of town. This is what can happen if you’re not paying attention.

As I learn more about bread, I’m learning that it’s like cats. My major error with bread is that I’ve been trying all along to get it to cooperate with me. Have you ever had a cat that was willing to cooperate with you on any level? I’m zero for eighteen on that score. You have to meet the bread/cat on its own terms. What’s dawning on me now is not to force our bread into the package we need it to be, but to let it show us what it’s capable of. If we follow our dough, we learn from it. We let it take us down its own avenues, and it shows us into unknown and exciting quarters, as it’s been doing for breadmakers for millennia.

Our first bread projects were clearly aimed at lassoing in any nonbelievers. We began with a semolina loaf. Semolina is flour milled from durum wheat, which has an very high gluten content and therefore makes a very strong and forgiving bread dough for first-timers. The taste of it doesn’t imply that it’s so simple, though; it’s got a really deep, buttery, and almost corn-like flavor. The next two breads didn’t exactly turn people away, either. We made a rosemary and olive dough – our team crafted rolls from it, one of which gave me a pretty awesome sandwich the next day – and a Provençal bread called fougasse (foo-`gahss). I don’t know how I’ve managed to miss this one. It’s made like many other breads, only the water you add to the dough for fougasse has herbs soaked in it first. Oh, and then there’s the matter of several ounces of crumbled bacon and a few tablespoons of bacon grease which are kneaded into the dough. Yeah. Pretty much. We also crafted our first baguettes – I didn’t feel like I had inadvertently stepped into a Parisian bakery or anything, but, if you were asked to identify them, you would have said “baguette.” Pretty spiffy for the first time on the water in that particular boat.

There are certainly advantages that appear in the professional kitchen – fifty-thousand-dollar ovens with steam injectors; giant tubs of fresh, high-quality ingredients; electronic scales and rock solid gadgets; eighty-quart stand mixers that have wheeled carts and hydraulic lift systems for the bowls; a knowledgeable chef telling you what to do and how to do it. Yet all these advantages amount to nothing if the doughmaker isn’t listening to his dough, and you can certainly do that at home. Other than ingredients, all you need is one each of wooden spoon, bowl, counter, pan, and oven, and a dash of patience. If there’s anything further I can do to convince you to try this, let me know; even if it’s as simple as shutting up about it.

I fully intend to continue ranting either way.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Day 26: Fungus. Gas. Bacteria.

The debate I’ve been having with myself daily has just been rearranged. Since starting school, I’ve wondered constantly whether I should continue with my studies after my current program has ended. Baking is wonderful and warm, but cooking has always appealed to me in nearly equal measure – my treasured and rare free weekend, the one that just passed, was filled from 8:00am to 10:00pm with shopping, preparation, and cooking, as was most of Sunday. Not to discredit the art, but I’m beginning to think that I can be as competent a cook as I feel I need to become without formal training – I don’t wish to work as a professional culinary chef. In bread, though, pastry has a new opponent in the ring. It might not be so obvious a competitor for pastry as culinary arts are, but the people who excel at bread, like those who excel at pastry or chocolate or wine, are the ones who dedicate themselves squarely to that particular craft.

My most serious hobby over the last decade, bread is something I have come to love in a way that could only be the result of obsession and infatuation, to which I’ll readily admit. (The seven different lumps, sludges, or blobs of dough in various states of refrigeration around my apartment would give it away anyway.) When you manage to combine four or five common ingredients, let them react with each other for a while, and then heat them a bit, and you end up with fresh, hearty, wholesome, life-sustaining food, your mind spins with romance and pleasure. You’ve created. From your simple bowl has come a food that no country, no region is without in some form, a food that has sustained and fueled life and economy and religion and war for thousands of years. A history of bread is a history of the world around us and its constituent cultures. To make it in your own kitchen evokes this grand place in the scheme of things, and it’s spellbinding. I know I’m not crazy in feeling this way, because I’ve shown people how to make it, and it’s never failed to amaze them how simple it is. Somehow this oldest craft of the home kitchen has become very mysterious; people always say things like “Oh, I could never make bread, it’s too complicated.” Well congratulations, you have a shorter attention span than the gold miners who wore their yeast in little pouches they hung around their necks, or the Israelites who made it even as they fled Egypt with Moses. Alright, it takes a little more time and effort than, say, pulling the slick plastic skin off a Hungry Man prepackaged microwaveable dinner. But to be perfectly frank, there’s really nothing elusive about it, and each time you make it, you have a better understanding of it than you did the time before. For me and my fellow bread-nerds, it is impossible to break free of its grip.

Our introduction to bread began with a simple semolina loaf, which we constructed today but won’t bake until tomorrow. We did, however, go thoroughly over the process. Here it is, in a great big nutshell.

To make something that can be called bread, you really need flour, liquid, and salt. Yeast, too, if you want a leavened bread, which is what we’ll concentrate on since that’s the kind most of us eat regularly. Adding water to wheat flour, and then mixing it around, causes all the protein molecules in the flour to stick together, forming an elastic network that we call gluten. This gluten network is capable of being inflated, much like a balloon, and this is exactly what we want to happen; we want the bread to rise. The way we get air into those little balloon-like pockets is yeast. Yeast is a tiny fungus that eats sugar. Starch, when it breaks down, is sugar, so in a bread dough, yeast has plenty of food. The waste product of the yeast during all this sugar bingeing is gas – carbon dioxide. This gas inflates all the little (and sometimes not-so-little) pockets of gluten, resulting in rising, and, eventually, the network of holes throughout the bread which give it its texture. This whole process is due to fermentation – the other byproduct is indeed alcohol, which doesn’t concern the breadmaker so much since it evaporates from the loaf during baking. Now, add to that the working of different varieties of bacteria, and we have a little flavor factory going on. Yes, bacteria. It’s like an advertisement for rinsing all the soap off your clean dishes. America’s current phobia with bacteria is far too broad in scope; there are some really good ones out there, the kinds that give us not only bread but cheese, yogurt, vinegar, and sausage, and a host of other products. Give that flavor a little time to develop, and you’re making serious bread.

The really cool thing about all this chemistry is that it happens without you interfering. Once you put all these things in touch, as long as you meet their very basic environmental requirements, they just do what they’re supposed to do. And that’s it. You bake it. That’s the simple part: put it in a hot oven. My usual challenge for nonbelievers stands for this as well: if you don’t believe me, go try it. Now, it’s going to take a little effort on your part to throw it together properly, and a little patience to let it do its thing. But what in the world beats making something at home that’s better on your third or fourth attempt than any you could go buy? That’s the really cool thing about bread these days. As restaurant food becomes more and more removed from what we can accomplish in our own kitchens, bakers the world over strive to make bread as rustically as they can. It adheres more to tradition and history as it becomes more popular.

Well, maybe that and origami. But bread tastes better.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Intermission: Produce.

My regular posting will resume this evening or tomorrow, and you’ll find out all about our new chef, new students (!), and new projects.

Meanwhile, I’ve gone ahead and created a space for my first quarter final paper, right here. It’s all about fruit. It should give you some insight into selecting and storing several fruits that you should be able to find locally. It’ll also give you an introduction to exactly how much I’m into using local, seasonal produce. You can take the boy off the farm…

I hope you enjoy it if you have a moment to take a gander. Otherwise, I’ll see you back here soon!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Days 23, 24, and 25: Filling. Foiling. Failing?

First and foremost, thanks, readers, for your patience with me this week as I prepared for my first-quarter (“Module I”) final and practical exams, which were yesterday. If you’d forgive the lack of my usual diligence in posting regularly, and continue reading, I’d be ever so grateful. Picture it… Tuesday… New York City…

Those French. The really amusing thing about French pastry isn’t that they’ve thought of every imaginable combination of things; it’s more the fact that they have names for any and all imaginable variations of a product, distinct names, which don’t translate. This only adds to the esoteric nature that’s inherent to things French to begin with. Nowhere does their thinly veiled ploy to maintain the vastest repertoire of desserts and amuses bouches become more apparent than with cream puff pastry, or pâte à choux (pot-ah-shoe – please don’t say pot-AY or I may have to spank you).

Made by boiling water with butter and salt, stirring in flour, and then beating in eggs one by one, choux pastry is one of the more versatile ingredients in the baker’s kitchen. It’s piped onto sheets and when baked, it puffs right up, and the center (ideally) becomes a hollow. A classic accompaniment to baked choux pastry is pastry cream, which is made by boiling milk and sugar, adding some form of starch, and then drizzling a bit of this hot liquid into some eggs while whisking. Several more eggs are then gingerly incorporated, and the whole mess is returned to the boil. (Yes, the boil. You can do that without making scrambled eggs here since the starch molecules insulate the proteins from one another and prevent them from coagulating… but that’s another blog.) Stir in a bit of vanilla for flavor, and butter for general goodness, and you’re ready to go.

What you can make by marrying these two ingredients is limited only to the shapes your mind can devise, but don’t worry: when you’ve found a unique shape or vehicle of presentation, just ask someone in the know and they’ll tell you what it’s called in French. If you fill small puffs with cream, they’re called petit choux. If you fill big ones with it, they’re called choux à la crème. Long ones, éclairs. Round ones, Paris-Brest. If you fill big ones with pastry cream and then a few mixed berries, they’re probably called boîte à bijoux (jewel box) or something (and if they’re not, that name is copyrighted, by me, just now). Dip them in caramel, fill them with cream, and make a giant cone out of them, like they used to do at French weddings, and you have the inimitable croquembouche. And when I say “doesn’t translate,” I’m referring to terms just like this one – the English word for croquembouche is simply croquembouche, since if you tried to translate the word it would boil down to something like “crustymouth.” I can’t imagine a wedding where that would go over well. (Although for all the caramel left on my face after I was done assembling mine, the French seem to have a point.) These confections are all rather simple – a bland shell filled with lightly flavored cream – but they do not disappoint, as the thirty or so of them which are currently floating in my stomach could tell you.

Choux pastry is where texture starts to assert itself as an enormously important aspect of dessert making. Given that the flavors involved can be somewhat plain (which is not to say at all unpleasant), texture steps forward and shares the spotlight for a moment. The coalescence of a light, crisp shell with velvet pastry cream is the truly addicting aspect of choux. When even as simple a textural experience as this can be so deeply satisfying, you begin to realize that you’ve only begun to explore the avenues of texture. And it only adds to the fun that, simply by virtue of physical laws, when you bite into a choux, you get pastry cream all over yourself.

The freezer saga continues. On Wednesday, I noted that the onetime broken freezer in our classroom was, and had been for some time, at around thirty degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The one next door, where we had put our ice creams and sorbets, to “firm up,” was at a balmy seventeen. I promptly moved my containers to the now arctic unit closer at hand, hoping to get their contents to solidify enough to survive my 42- to 62-minute commute. They well may, the only problem being that during their time in warmer climes, the actual brittle in the cashew brittle ice cream dissolved, and is now a puddle of caramel at the bottom (which maybe I can sell as cashew caramel ice cream), and the port wine reduction that so gorgeously marbled my tangerine sorbet is in a similar state (which, if I mix it together, I might be able to market as blood orange sorbet… maybe). All of this may be inconsequential in any case; I have my doubts as to the length of time the freezer in our classroom can maintain its Rochesterian chill.

So, finally, the exam. After days, nay, weeks, of suspense, it is finally over. Go ahead, ask me the necessary temperature of sugar syrup for use in a nougat recipe. Or to identify semolina, define nappage, or recalculate yield on a marshmallow recipe. I’m there. The written part, unsurprisingly, I wasn’t worried about – you’ve watched me write my own Cliffs Notes. No, the real test for me was the practical, which consisted of three parts: slicing an apple in a specific way in a perfectly uniform fashion (as for a French apple tart, etc.); crafting a soufflé that is properly and evenly risen, uniform in texture, and superlative in taste; and, finally, piping just one consistent border in chocolate (the pattern our choice), using that old favorite device of mine, the cornet. In a flashback to my music-major days of yore, a solid case of performance anxiety set in. So badly were my hands shaking after completing my soufflé, in fact, that the only thing I could to do relax sufficiently for the cornet work was three sinks full of dishes. (Please don’t tell anyone I’m actually capable of this; I have reputations to uphold.) Apparently, dishes and practice are the successful recipe for cornet work. Suffice it to say that I did better than I imagined I would.

And with that, our first module has drawn to a close. It’s sad, in a number of ways… our kindergarten time, that taking of the first step onto the mountaintop, which allowed us to get a real view of the world we’re in and see the horizons we hadn’t yet imagined, has drawn to a close. Also, Chef, as you know him so far from my various postings, will be leaving us. This is not uncommon at my school, but sad for all of us nonetheless. His sure guidance of us, and in particular his patience with us and all our bright-eyed questions, are not something we’ll likely encounter again, in school or after. But there are brighter sides, too. Now that we’ve had a survey of the surrounding land, we can take a step off that peak and actually begin our long march toward one of those points on the horizon. There’s a large forest still to cross, and we’ll encounter footpaths yet unimagined. But now we have a compass.

Not to mention, next week, we start BREAD! (And you thought I was writing before…)

Friday, January 12, 2007

Day 22: Ice. Cream.

This most delicious class began with the preparation of additional frozen desserts. In our texts, these products were referred to rather unromantically as simply “frozen dessert” of various flavors; they’re the things on menus that usually end up with names like Pineapple Paradise or Strawberries and Dream. They’re somewhat mousse-like in texture, being creamy and whipped. We poured our coffee flavored dessert into pyramid-shaped molds, and our banana flavor went into molds shaped like straight-sided eggs. I don’t know if I have my partner’s approval on this one or not, but I think “Espresso at Giza” and “Gorilla Eggs” might have been my choices for more inventive menu-naming. These molds went into the freezer (next door, of course) for the weekend.

We followed this by a lengthy group discussion of material for our Module I final and practical examinations, which are coming up next week, believe it or not. We also practiced slicing apples. It’s a fairly simple concept, but executing it in a very consistent manner is actually rather challenging. In addition to more apple-slicing, this weekend will find me making soufflés and folding, filling, and using cornets – these three activities comprise the practical portion of the exam.

At the end of this practice, with fully two hours of class remaining, we retrieved our ice creams and sorbets from the freezer. We then proceeded to plate them, using our pizzelles and tulipes from earlier in the week as well as our sauces. We were instructed to eat as much of them as we wanted to, which for some of us, such as me, was a lot. (A disturbing trend I'm noticing lately is that it amuses people when I gorge myself.) As we began plating them, we were informed that a pork class was in the mood for ice cream, so we sent a couple dozen plates up their way. Their pork wasn’t finished by the time we were done for the evening, allegedly. I take it as a given that we have advance credit in the pork department for one night next week.

Now, back to the books!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Day 21: Ribbons. Cups. Liver.

The ire of yesterday’s crème disposal was mitigated as soon as we had finished churning our second ice cream flavor, which we performed at the very beginning of class. We crushed the cashew brittle, our secret weapon, into tiny chunks, and folded it into our vanilla ice cream. The class did not hesitate in showing its appreciation, immediately setting upon it.

We then hastily proceeded to the logical next chapter in frozen desserts: sorbet. Sometimes referred to by the far less attractive name “water ices,” sorbets, it turns out, contain gelatine, a great surprise to me personally, and a problem for our few vegetarian students. A small amount of gelatine does, however, add inimitable smoothness to the texture of a sorbet. So if, like me, you’ve made sorbet successfully at home, and been pleased but not overwhelmed by the texture, try throwing in the tiniest bit of gelatine. It allows the consistency to far more closely mimic that of its dairy-laden cousin. The flavor which jumped out from our texts, to both my partner and to me, was tangerine. At the end of churning, we folded in a port wine syrup. This gave the pale orange sorbet a deep maroon marbling, and the sultry ribbons of deep and gracefully lingering flavor were a perfect complement to the brightness of the citrus. Chef winked when he tasted it, so I took that as a good sign. If you would like to make a port wine syrup at some point, please take the following under advisement. Bring the port gently to a boil, and then reduce it to a mere simmer. After a while, this simmer devolves, and you’ll have nothing more than a static pot of hot wine. Increase the heat only slightly at this point, and stay handy, because the simmer returns shortly and, the moment it seems stable and you walk away, a furious boil ensues. I couldn’t decide to be proud or embarrassed when the smell of our burning wine drew people in from other classrooms, to see what was the matter.

During the previous class, we had made pizzelle, those round, flat, ridged Italian cookies. This seemed like a non sequitur until we shaped them into cones – a fun exercise in burning one’s fingertips. We continued on the theme of manually molding very hot things yesterday, with what are called tulipes. These very thin, moldable cookies will presumably be used at some point as containers for our sorbet. They’re very annoying to make, which you do by spreading the rather thick batter over plastic templates. You then remove the templates, and decorate and bake the cookies. When they’re just out of a hot oven, you remove them from their sheet and shape them. Naturally, when they’re cool enough to handle comfortably, they are too hard to mold without breaking – an experience similar to the one we had making pizzelle. I feel that my fingers have started to build up some resistance, but clearly there’s a long way to go.

There was a graduation ceremony during our class last night, in the wine room next door. The previous evening, we had used our cheesecake as a bartering tool with the culinary classes. This might be the second-best way to use cheesecake, as it led to fish and chips – and humongous fried oysters – for everyone. In stark contrast to that, we were treated last night to pâtés of chicken liver and duck liver, wedges of tortillas laden with fresh chorizo, cold asparagus soup, and slices of foie gras with green tomato sauce. It was naughty, and delightful.

If not so sweet as usual.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Day 20: Solid cream. Frozen cream. Bad cream.

The wait from the projects we began yesterday was quite worth it, and even all the built-up anticipation couldn’t dampen my spirits when we continued and finished them. The first was cheesecake, which we had baked yesterday and cooled overnight.

The three styles of cheesecake which various teams assembled were mascarpone, sour cream, and basic. Mascarpone cheesecake is rich and exotically smooth, and it is superlatively creamy. If you want a cheesecake that you can put into a tuxedo and take with you to the opera or the floor level seats at the Westminster Dog Show, this is probably the one. The sour cream version is what I’ve experienced most often labeled as a “French cream cheesecake,” or some such nonsense, in many a dinner spot across the country. It’s the kind that’s slightly soft in texture, very creamy and dreamy, and a bit lighter in color. The basic, simple cheesecake is the one I’d refer to as “New York” – marginally sturdier that the others, with a straightforward but immensely pleasing flavor. Most of the New York cheesecake which you have consumed has been horribly overbaked, trust me. It would usually have an almost mealy appearance, and it is creamy in the same way that peanut butter is – thickly creamy and dry, requiring coffee or milk on the side. This is actually a good thing, however, because when you find a good basic cheesecake, which has not had all the moisture baked out of it, it is a real challenge to stop eating it. (Which I exhibited, thoroughly, to the entire class. Someone has to teach them these things.)

My partner and I had been assigned basic cheesecake. We mixed and baked them yesterday, and the first thing that I noticed, after they had been cooling for a good while, was that all four of ours lacked even a single crack. The old classic crack-prevention trick is probably the cool-it-in-the-oven method. Like many other methods which you’ll find hopping around from cookbook to cookbook, misinforming all of us, this is simply wrong. It fails to address the reason that there would be cracks in the first place, and it also does nothing to help prevent them. Avoiding cracks is a remarkably simple task. First, don’t overbake. Your cheesecake should still be slightly wobbly in the very center. If you wait until there is no jiggle anywhere, make sure you have something to dump on top, to hide the small ravines which will develop. Second, run a knife-tip around the top, along the side of the pan, to make sure the batter isn’t stuck to it. Things contract when they cool. (Gentlemen?) Even though it’s the Number One Selling Dessert in the United States of America, cheesecake has still not managed to outdo this cardinal law of physics. So, given that shrinkage will occur, which do you think will give way first? The still wobbly-center of a warm pool of molten cream cheese? Or the rolled-up, aluminized-steel rim of your baking pan? Release your cake. (Don’t worry, if it was meant to be, it will come back to you.) This style of cheesecake, having come out perfectly, gets to be my preferred variety, for its simplicity, its dynamite flavor, and its dense, velvet texture.

The second item we had begun is a frequent guest on my palate, and on all of America’s: Ice cream. Brief lesson: After you make a custard, if you let it rest for a while – say, overnight – the protein molecules gradually attach to some of the water molecules. Then, when you freeze this “aged” custard in an ice cream maker, there aren’t as many free-floating water molecules, so they can’t come together in big globs and form ice chunks as the temperature drops. Pretty neat stuff! This translates to the smoothest, creamiest ice cream you can imagine. Our first of two flavors was Coconut Rum. In the end, we had to change the name to Rum Coconut, because when it first hits your tongue, the alcohol – which was not cooked off – evaporates and carries the rum’s flavor to every corner of your mouth. Immediately afterward, this strong (but far from unpleasant) sensation is gently snuffed by a soft blanket of coconut. We were quite pleased with ourselves, a feeling which seemed to grow the more of it we ate, for whatever reason. The completion of our second flavor, and therefore my description of it, must wait until tomorrow.

After dealing with cheesecake and churning ice cream, we made one more item, a sauce of puréed pineapple, which we made and immediately set in storage (guess what we’re pouring that on tomorrow). We then received the results of our second quiz. I am in no way ashamed to say that I aced it.

That happy conclusion was clouded only by the task of cleaning out thirty-five untouched ramekins of would-be crème brûlée, which, sadly but somehow appropriately, fell to me.
Days 18 and 19: The Pauper and the Prince, or, A Foul Wind.

On Thursday, our final day of class last week, we took our second quiz, this one involving the anatomies of both an egg and a wheat kernel, as well as some general questions about sugar chemistry and other matters.

We then proceeded directly across the border from serious quiz land into that sunny realm, that great beyond, that Eden which is custard. Most simply put, a custard is egg and sugar in a liquid medium. The liquid, usually milk or cream or a mixture of both, is heated with the sugar to boiling. It is then added very gingerly to beaten egg yolk, while whisking constantly. When fully combined, it is poured into ramekins or other molds, and baked in a soothing water bath. (A lengthy but hopefully enjoyable digression: I was immediately aggravated by this, because of something that happened long before class ever started. In several cookbooks on my shelves – including an encyclopedic, professional-level pastry reference book – all the recipes for custard of any kind begin by boiling the milk alone, and thoroughly beating the egg yolks with the sugar. This reversal of ingredients, adding sugar to the yolks instead of to the milk, seems rather benign, doesn’t it? Allow me to explain why “benign” is not the word you’re looking for. As those who know me would willingly testify, I am not a small person, nor am I a weak one. However, whisking egg yolks and sugar together, “until light and fluffy, with a canary yellow color,” reduces my strength to that of an anemic lamb, and quickly. The arm is fatigued by literally the tenth whisk-stroke, and it takes approximately three thousand five hundred whisk-strokes to bring the mixture to the consistency described. Please, by all means, say I’m exaggerating; say, “No, Julian, it really cannot be that bad.” And then go, please, go, and whisk eight egg yolks together with a cup of sugar, until the texture is as I quoted above, then gradually whisk in a quart of boiling milk. Seriously, do it. The whole project will cost you four bucks, tops. Did you try it? It’s unbelievable, isn’t it!? Now that you’ve experienced this ridiculousness, imagine finding out that it would have made no difference to the product in any way, if you had simply beaten the egg yolks alone, and dissolved the sugar in the milk. Seriously. Cookbook authors: Fix this. It’s ridiculous.

But I digress.) When the custard is done baking, one of several things can happen. For instance: if you prepared the ramekin by adding a small amount of caramel to it before adding the custard and baking, you could easily have made crème caramel. Simply chill it after baking, and then invert it onto a plate. Just run a paring knife around edges and be patient. Voilà, your waiter might say. These are the projects we unmolded and sampled today. They’re remarkably good, and not overly sweet.

Another lodging for custard is humble, homely bread pudding. Even Tiny Tim got to enjoy this ageless classic, which is simply custard mixed with cubes of bread and baked in a dish. It can be quite fine, though, if it’s made with a smooth, vanilla-infused custard, and bread of bakery-quality. Also, it helps when you take a bit of candied ginger and some golden raisins, pour rum over them, and flambé them, and then add them into the mix, as my partner and I did on Day 18, last Thursday. It was the one project we were able to take home at the end of the week, and it tastes even better than it sounds. With a steaming cup of dark coffee next to a small plate of this hot, simple, peasant dish, I did manage to have one of the loveliest Sunday mornings on record.

On a much higher hill in the kingdom sits the indomitable Crème Brûlée. I realize that I am developing a reputation for having too many favorite things, but truly, this is the one. Crème Brûlée is my perfect dessert. Its brittle, almost imperceptibly bitter crust, combines in sweet, tiny shards with the supple, velvet custard beneath it. I am certainly not alone in my love of Crème Brûlée; it shows up on dessert menus everywhere. This massive demand has led to a lot of people making it who can’t do it too well. Finding a perfectly harmonious one can be somewhat difficult, depending on your access to good restaurants, or the right kind of friends. But the quest is worth it, for when you find a good one, it is a religious experience. The one my partner and I created Thursday, the crown jewel of our reign together, was still too warm to finish at the end of class. We put it in the freezer for the weekend, and had something to look forward to for Monday, which was today. When we opened the freezer, our custards were there, still loosely covered with parchment paper. The new thing in the freezer, however, was an aroma such as you might expect in the processing area of a sneaker-recycling factory. I had been looking forward to it – my first professional-level Crème Brûlée. I guess I’ll just have to wait. I think mine are pretty good anyway.

We now seem to have one wheel off the rails. As of this evening, we’ve managed to finish two out of three projects from last Thursday’s class. We began two more as well, which we’ll hopefully finish tomorrow. These projects are also high on the list of Things People Like, but I’ll wait to see how they come out before I describe them to you. I’ll have a more complete perspective.

Besides, I can’t go giving everything away.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Day 17: Hydration.

Continuing yesterday’s sugar-cooking theme, we explored several additional sugar products this evening. The first was the old classic, divinity. A marshmallowy candy with nuts and candied fruit or ginger folded in, divinity begins in very much the same way as an Italian meringue, only with a hotter syrup. We used pistachios and ginger in ours, and by the time it was cool enough to ingest, I was having away at it like it was going out of style (which, to be fair, it pretty much has). I stand by the decision to eat so much of it upfront, though, because once it cooled it became apparent that we had slightly overcooked our sugar syrup – the candy ended up a bit on the dry side. Yet again, my impulsiveness has paid off.

As I returned from the water cooler gulping down my second quart, we continued on with torrone, which appears to be much the same as nougat. This lovely, chewy candy, also studded with pistachios, was topped and bottomed with a layer of edible paper wafer. Maybe this one should have been called divinity since you get a bit of Eucharist with it. (Chef ignored our request for wine.) Whether it was the similarity to all those communions I so fondly remember, or the sublimely chewy texture of it, I’m unsure, but I did truly enjoy this one. Indeed, I continued eating it even when I arrived home.

Following that was peanut brittle, accompanied by a third quart of water. It seems like a fairly straightforward idea, tried-and-true, and all that. However, it hadn’t dawned on me ever to use honey-roasted peanuts in brittle, and, boy, do I feel stupid. Such an obvious little thing made such a tremendous difference. So tremendous, in fact, that it was my snack of choice on the subway platform on the way home. If you ever do feel like making peanut brittle (that is to say, heating up sugar and some other sweet things in a pot with a little butter until it’s nearly hot enough to ignite paper and then adding nuts and pouring it out onto something you own that can stand that kind of heat), please, use honey-roasted nuts.

Directly down the path from peanut brittle is nougatine. This appears to be much like a brittle, but it’s made with only sugar and sliced almonds. Additionally, the applications for it are far less constrained. It can be molded into whatever shape you’d like, as long as you can manage to comfortably handle a sticky substance that’s around two hundred fifty degrees. Practically limitless! Once it cools, it’s highly edible, as anyone in my vicinity this evening could tell you. My behavior tonight, in eating more than should be eaten of not just one, but of four different confections, prohibits me from further denying the existence of my sweet tooth. When people have told me that it makes their teeth hurt just thinking of something sweet, I have guffawed and rolled my eyes in that snobbish way I have. I stand humbly corrected; I finally get it.

We concluded this evening’s lesson with that old uplifting standby, cornet work. I was astonished when another student told me that by watching me and listening to what I said, he was able to finally figure out how to do this correctly. I have no idea what state of affairs his cornet work had been in before, but for him to have elevated his ability by following my example, something must have been going horribly, horribly wrong. This has left me in a state of emotional disarray, especially with our first-quarter final and practical exam a mere eight lessons away.

Now, for a glass of water. I’m parched.
Day 16: Sugar and friends.

Well, patient readers, ours was no slow reentry into the world of learning; we began the moment we walked in with an exercise in cooking sugar. Sugar goes through stages as it’s cooked (with water, usually), named for the way the sugar behaves when cooled… thread, soft and hard ball, soft and hard crack, and finally caramel. We were all thoroughly impressed when Chef got the boiling sugar (yes, boiling) into the bowl of ice water by means of his fingertips. Certainly chilling his hand in the ice water beforehand helped, but they’re undoubtedly made of brass anyway.

We then went on to learn two different methods of making fudge. The first, which I will wholeheartedly recommend to almost everyone from now on, would be to head down to your local Price Chopper and see what you can dig up. You’ll find this first route easier by a considerable margin. Alternatively, for those people I wish to see become extremely fatigued and frustrated, I would recommend that they make their own. You begin by boiling sugar syrup, enriched with dairy, to the proper temperature – no stirring, as that would encourage the sugar to recrystallize, and we’re looking for smooth here. When that’s finished, you stir in chocolate (ours was Valrhona; apparently it’s still Christmas), and then heat the whole mess back up to two hundred forty degrees or so, again without stirring. This step only takes about sixty or seventy minutes, during which you can do whatever you want, as long as you stay right by the mixture, to make sure it doesn’t boil too violently or get agitated by a rogue stirrer who may be lurking around your kitchen. (If you can come up with a list of things to do while meeting that requirement, let’s hear it.) It’s surprisingly difficult to fight the urge to stir while you stand by watching something boil happily away. That hour or so spent, you pour the mixture slowly onto a giant marble slab, dot it with butter and whatever flavoring you’re using, and then, using a scraper, you fold the edges of it into the center over and over again. (Think of that I Love Lucy episode where she and Ethel spend the day working at the candy factory. Yeah, that one.) Here’s where all that time you were enjoying not stirring is paid back. You fold the mixture continuously for maybe thirty or so more minutes. The really fun part of this stage is that as time goes by and your arm becomes more and more tired, the mixture gradually becomes much more difficult to work with. Then, just as you reach the limit of what you’re willing to go through to make food, you add nuts, which immediately cools the mixture and makes it stiffer. This would be fine if you were done mixing, which you aren’t. After about fifteen more minutes of slapping this stuff around you are allowed to put it into a buttered dish so it can finally actually turn into fudge. How people ever had the stamina to figure out that you could do this is beyond my understanding.

It was really good fudge, though, I have to say.

Next, we moved on to the last country whose meringue we will be investigating: Italy. In contrast to the French method, where sugar is added directly, or the Swiss, where sugar is heated with the egg whites, the Italian meringue is made by adding blisteringly hot sugar syrup to whipping egg whites. This meringue has the same proportion of ingredients as the others, but is significantly more stable. The drawback is that it’s pretty elaborate. The egg whites and the syrup both have to be at the correct stages at the exact same moment before they can be combined, and then the syrup must be drizzled in at the right speed while a giant beater is revolving around the mixing bowl, trying to flick it everywhere but where it’s supposed to go. There were hardened globs of sugar syrup pretty much everywhere. I think I’ll stick with the Swiss method. As in a previous lesson, we went on to saturate our meringue with butter, tint it, and then pipe it out into cockle shells, fine as fivepence.

And they looked better this time.