Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Days 36, 37, 38, and 39: Pâtes and pans.

A flurry of activity took us through the week, the focus of which was crusts. We learned the classic pâte brisée (pot bree-zay), which essentially translates to “broken dough,” the sweetened pâte sucrée (soo-cray), in both the plain and chocolate versions, pasta frolla, a more mildly sweet Italian dough, galette dough, which I’ll explain later, and a gorgeous flaky pie dough made using sour cream.

The first dough, pâte brisée, is made by rubbing pieces of fat (butter, in our case) into flour with a nick of salt in it, and adding water until a dough is formed. The butter remains in those “pea-sized” chunks we’ve all read about in so many cookbooks (let me tell you, it’s an average you’re going for here, folks; don’t waste your life trying to get them all pea sized – it would be beyond annoying and the crust wouldn’t come out as nicely if they were all the same size). The purpose of this is that when they’re incorporated into the dough at that size, the butter’s moisture, which evaporates during baking, steams the layers of dough apart, resulting in a flaky texture. A good brisée, in my humble opinion, should end up exactly halfway between a shortbread cookie and a true American pie crust when it comes to being flaky. This crust is typically used for tarts. There’s no sugar in it, so it’s superb for savory tarts, but filling it with a mildly sweet pastry cream and a glazed fresh fruit topping allows it to bend the other way as well; this is what we did with ours. We were to make one large tart and two small ones. I went behind Chef’s back and made one large and seven small. (What can I say; I really like tarts, especially charming little ones.) We had a wide variety of fresh fruit available to us, which, being that it’s February, mostly tasted like cardboard from a Kool-Aid shipping box (remind me sometime to go on a rant about how Americans really aggravate me sometimes by demanding year-round availability of fruit and then convincing themselves that it tastes good when it’s out of season, or, for a less bitingly sarcastic version, visit my paper), but we carried on anyway. Eating quality of the fruit aside, the displays of color which resulted were about as fantastic as a flock of agitated macaws.

Pâte sucrée differs from brisée in that the fat is rubbed in much more thoroughly, so that the mixture, before adding water, resembles that stuff certain large food corporations sell in green cans and audaciously call “parmesan” “cheese.” Water is then mixed in, and the dough, as you might expect, has a notably smoother texture, which then bakes down to a shorter – more crumbly – texture than its flaky cousin. Pâte sucrée is used for sweet tarts, and our choice was the classic apricot cognac tart. What a marvel this confection is. We were fortunate to have high-quality apricots which were canned ripe. We rolled out a large rectangle of dough and used it to line an entire half-sheet pan (13 by 18 inches). We then filled it with lightly cognac-flavored pastry cream, topped it with apricot halves (face down), baked it, and then glazed it with melted apricot jelly which also had an insinuation of cognac. This is a surreal treat, as long as you use good apricots and good cognac. A very judicious sprinkling of crumbled toasted almonds elevates the taste and texture to a level that I, in my limited vocabulary, can only describe as transporting.

We used our chocolate sucrée to make tartlet shells which we filled with ganache (a mixture of chocolate and cream (basically)) and topped with hazelnuts. I never imagined a time in my life would come when I strongly preferred an apricot pastry to a chocolate one, but, against all odds, it’s happened. I don’t know if it was the recipe, the preparation, or something as simple as a lack of cognac, but our spiffy little chocolate tartlets, which make you melt just thinking about them, were pretty dull. I’ll have to tweak this one and get back to you. They were cute though.

The less edgy pasta frolla was another dough we rolled out into a half-sheet pan, but the filling here was vastly different than the apricot tart, and satisfying on a whole other level. We managed to lay down a solid inch-thick layer of a most decadent mixture: smooth ricotta, mozzarella, and Romano cheeses, shredded prosciutto, and diced sweet sausage. Just for looks (ok, and taste), we covered the whole shebang with a lattice of more pasta frolla. The slight sweetness of the crust perfectly offset the salt of the pigstuffs and the heat of the generously cracked black pepper. (Isn’t that the kind of qualification you look for in a perfect food?) This glorious invention bears the humble name pizza rustica. Oh, to be an Italian peasant.

Now, to the galette. These rustic pastries are made using a dough that is prepared in the same technique as a pâte sucrée, but which isn’t sweetened. The dough is rolled out into circles, filling is placed on top, and the edges are folded over it but not completely into the center, so the filling in the center is left exposed. They’re baked directly on the deck of the oven, which develops a crisp bottom crust, heightening appeal in terms of appearance, texture, and flavor, as well as adding stability. We made two varieties, both using roasted fruits: plum-ginger, and pear-fig. The roasted pear and fig filling was especially terrific – not only did I receive my first badge of honor (a.k.a. large second-degree burn) pulling it from the oven, but its flavor was downright ethereal (this usually happens when you add rum, vanilla, sugar, lemon zest, and a pinch of salt to something and bake it). You should really consider making a galette. They’re easier than pies; you only have to roll one crust, you don’t have to fuss with a pan, and if it looks uneven or boils over or cracks somewhere, it only adds to the inherent rustic appeal – a margin any baker can appreciate.

Finally, we come to the pie. This iconic American pastry, which so many things are as-easy-as, has been the source of a number of frustrating kitchen ventures for me, as I know it has for many others. (Even if they didn’t know it, it’s happened to them; let’s admit it: we’ve all eaten some pretty awful pie at one pot-luck or another.) The recipe we used for the dough, as mentioned, had a contingent of sour cream, which is beneficial in a number of ways. First, the acidity in the sour cream inhibits the development of gluten, so there’s less worry about overmixing, a common issue with pie dough. Second, it gives the dough a rich, smooth flavor, just as you might expect it would. Third… well, who needs a third when you have those two? This dough rolled out very easily and smoothly, which is about seventy-five per cent of the real battle with pie. I decided to continue with the theme “iconic” and filled it with sour cherries and topped it with a lattice crust. It was flawless. (I blame the recipe.)

The common denominator here is mixing. Crusts are sometimes flaky, sometimes short, and sometimes somewhere in between. They shouldn’t ever be chewy or tough, though, which are the results of overmixing. When you consider that some of the greatest pastry doughs in the world are some of the most quickly mixed and least fussed-over, you start to understand why things could ever be called easy as pie. Want to make your pie as easily as… well… pie? Simple: introduce all your ingredients to one another, allow them to become acquainted, and then do what any gracious host or hostess would.

Walk away!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Days 33, 34, and 35: Doughs. Nuts. Finally, some pork.

[To my reader or readers: I hope it’s okay that I’m compiling posts like this. Tell me.]

Last week’s three sessions went by in a sort of dreamlike haze, and not just because there was far-flung flour covering every surface in the room. (Although, admittedly, that was probably a large part of it.) The correct planets must have come into alignment (I’m still researching this), or some unseen but ill-humored force must have been hard at work in our kitchen. Whatever the cause, fate conspired against us.

Now, let’s level the playing field a bit. I have a lot of favorite foods, we all know it, but let’s ignore that for a moment as we bring our little discussion to the topic of donuts. I get pretty serious about my donuts. There’s little to make me proud of my Dutch heritage when it comes to food; mostly they just boil the dickens out of things, or eat Indonesian. Donuts, however, are my one straw to grasp; that one, perfect food, comfortably unchallengeable in their ivory tower of comestible excellence, that is credited (by people who have the story right) to the Dutchman. Those noble people of Holland, who most of us know so little about, were the first to take globs of sweetened dough and drop them in giant vats of melted pork fat. The momentousness of this discovery is never lost on me. These days, of course, you can only get donuts fried in much healthier fats (especially now that trans-fats are going bye-bye), but my sincere appreciation of them is undiminished. I love donuts. I had been aware that Lesson 33 had been approaching for quite some time, the three-hour segment apportioned to donuts lingering deliciously on the horizon. When finally the day came, my enthusiasm was almost palpable. Lesson 33 began with a demonstration by Chef of his grandmother’s buttermilk donut recipe; not bad, not bad at all. We were then each assigned, in teams, a particular donut recipe. My team was to prepare the sour cream chocolate variety. The first hint of foreshadowing in this novella was when a student who had taken the donut segment in another class before (long story) said how awfully they had come out. My excitement, however, remained. We went on to prepare them precisely according to the recipe supplied in our texts, and every thing seemed in place; the batter tasted right, the oil was hovering steadily at three-seventy-five. When they had been frying happily away for quite some time, it dawned on us that they should be done, although they remained somewhat soft. We removed them; they’re done, Chef said. Fine. We fried the remainder. I noticed next that our first round of three donuts had managed to entirely saturate six paper towels with oil. I have no illusions about how fatty donuts are, but this seemed a bit extreme. Other people’s donuts were shedding a bit of oil, but these were like sponges drying out. Which is what they did. When cool, they were hard and heavy. When pressed hard enough, they would give way and crumble into nothingness, leaving only oil on the finger and a scowl on the brow. The taste? Sort of like nothing, actually, which I can find elsewhere for far fewer calories. Not happy. You know by now that I consider slander to be unseemly, but I can’t help myself tonight. Shame on the person who wrote this recipe; it really sucks.

Picking ourselves up from the dirt, we created our brioche dough, which we retarded overnight. Brioche is a fantastic dough; it’s very rich and buttery, but perfectly neutral at the same time. It bakes up very soft, and lends itself very well to both savory preparations – pigs in a blanket, for example – and sweet ones, like cinnamon rolls. It’s also pretty fun to work with, being firm and elastic and fairly forgiving. The following evening, we removed our dough from its refrigerated environment and shaped it into the classic brioche shape, which is called brioche à tête, the last word meaning “head.” Round little mounds of dough are placed in fluted tins, and a small piece of dough, called a topknot, is placed in the center. We placed our filled molds on a sheet pan and slid the whole getup into the proofbox. Again with the slander, but whoever designed this model should’ve gone to a better school. The racks inside are just one millimeter too wide, so large sheet pans full of probably heavy things can sometimes fall directly downward, onto whatever happens to be beneath them. You already know what got smushed on that fateful night. Some theorize that when Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake!” what she actually said was “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!” which means, “Let them eat brioche!” Whether she said it or not, my brioche-with-heads ended up quite like she did: without one.

After that little disaster, we went from a beautiful, soft French dough to a couple very hard and intractable Italian ones. We crafted dough for both cannolis and for sfogliatelle (don’t worry about how to pronounce it; if you ever see one, just point at it, and smile and nod excitedly at the person on the other side of the display case). These doughs are similar in that they’re both extremely dry, and therefore must be kneaded using a pasta machine. A chunk of rough dough is passed through the pasta machine on the widest setting, and the strip of dough that results is then folded up and passed through once more. This is done again and again, while the distance between the rollers is gradually reduced. This dough eventually becomes smooth, perfectly uniform in texture, and ludicrously thin. We had begun with cannoli dough, and when it was fully kneaded, we stored it in the fridge overnight, a procedure we then repeated for our sfogliatelle. Returning to our doughs the next day, we rolled them out again. First, for cannolis, paper-thin rounds are wrapped around metal tubes, and then, with the tube still in the middle, dropped into hot oil. The fun part here is that you have to take these fragile things off the tubes while they’re still hot. Whatever, it helps build chef hands. While they were cooling, we prepared our sfogliatelle. (Alright, it’s sfoal-yuh-`tell-ay.) This is done by rolling all the dough out into one long strip – I think ours ended up at about ten feet – and then painting the whole strip with a softened, fifty-fifty mixture of butter and lard. (Yes, I was excited too.) It’s then rolled up and, once chilled, cut into half-inch slices. These slices – looking somewhat like unbaked cinnamon rolls only with thousands more layers – are then pressed out from the center into cones, using the thumbs. These beautiful pig-laden cones are then filled with a very smooth, sweet ricotta and orange mixture, and baked on their sides. They’re better than they sound, and I think they sound pretty good. We filled our cannolis as well, with the smoothest cannoli cream I have yet experienced, and gorged on them.

For a change.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Days 30, 31, and 32: Pride. Prejudice. Proofboxes.

I had (and took) the opportunity the other night to display my gluttony more overtly than ever before. Using the dough we had created on Day 30 and retarded overnight, we each created a number of pizzas. Pizza carbonara was the one I ate most fervently, but then anything combining bacon and cream usually would be. Ranking closely behind that sublime, rich combination were large bites of my own and other students’ creations, including but certainly not limited to four cheese; three cheese and pepperoni; prosciutto with garlic, sage and goat cheese; puttanesca (anchovy, caper, and olive); and good old Margherita. This was real pizza, too – thin, crisp-crusted “New York” pizza, which is to say, Italian pizza. The brick pizza ovens used in Italy (and New York, for that matter) reach about eight hundred degrees Fahrenheit. We had to settle for a mere five hundred fifty, but our crusts firmed to a state of delightful crunchiness even so. Oven temperatures aside, I’m slightly disturbed at my own lack of shame (nay, pride) in the amount I’m willing to eat while others egg me on. I remember days when I would sneak off for this sort of thing, so the opportunities were rarer. Now, I’m on a low-dignity diet. I’m enjoying it thoroughly but I’m not sure it’s working.

Using a very similar, if slightly wetter dough, we also crafted a bit of focaccia. I used fresh oregano and parmesan cheese on mine, seasoning it with salt and pepper, and a bit of minced anchovy. You’ll see now that I’ve brought up anchovy a couple times. Most people say “ill” because they saw someone say that in a movie at some point. Let’s move past this phobia. Anchovies, good ones, are nothing to say “ill” about. They have a delightful saltiness and a thrilling, slightly meaty texture. The “fishy” flavor you’re so worried about won’t be a problem if you’ve gotten some good ones. Let’s talk about how they make the sausage you’re so happy to throw on your pizza, then we’ll see what’s ill-worthy.

I was surprised, when I pulled my bagels out of the oven last night, that they actually looked like real bagels. (Well, I guess they were real bagels, but still.) Bagels are an interesting case because they’re so often made in shops that only do bagels. This adds an air of mystery to them; they must be so complicated to make properly that an entire store’s worth of employees have to dedicate their lives to them. Not really. Make some fairly dry bread dough, poke a hole through a small piece of it, dip it in some boiling water, put stuff on it, and bake it. You have a bagel. Pretzels, now, are another story. Made from a similar dough, shaping them is an exercise in futility so thorough that frustration never even breaks past the wall of amusement. Depending on whose tray you happened by, you might have wondered if a seagull, a Chihuahua, or a golden retriever had passed by at some point. I guess I like big soft pretzels just enough that one a year from the pretzel cart man on Forty-Second Street does the job quite nicely.

Meanwhile, that fermentation thing I’ve been ranting about all this time actually pays off. I created my sourdough last night using my bubbly little starter, let it sit around for a while in the temperature- and humidity-regulated proofbox, and then shaped it into a loaf. I originally intended to form a classic boule (a round loaf, said “bool”), but as I was rounding it, the dough mysteriously formed a large hole through the entire center. Yes, it looked like a giant bagel, as if somehow keeping with an inadvertently established theme. All was not lost, however. Remember my little exposé on the French, how they have a word for everything? This loaf shape, a giant bagel, is called a couronne, and that’s what I “decided” to settle on for my loaf. (When life gives you lemons…) The bread itself had a beautiful, open “crumb” (the actual flesh of the bread) and a deep, complex flavor that spoke of long development. I was foiled in my other attempt at bread with a pre-fermented component, however. Chef had created, at least a week ago, a mixture of huge amounts of both water and flour (twenty-two pounds of each, specifically), with a comparatively tiny amount of yeast (one tablespoon) thrown in. This combination, called a poolish, bubbles up into an amazing blob-like mass of foaming wonderfulness. I used a great big cascade of it to build an amazing dough by adding simply flour and salt, and formed it into perky little rolls which bespoke the very nature of their creator. Little did they know, though, that their doom was upon them. As soon as they were slid into the oven, which was at five hundred fifty degrees, I watched the temperature plummet, inexplicably, by nearly three hundred degrees. What happens to dough when baked at two-hundred-something I will have to research in order to explain scientifically, but for now suffice it to say that the interior moisture most definitely does not evaporate, the dough does not spring up in the oven, and then you get very emotional, helplessly watching about nine days worth of meticulously monitored preparation amount to lumps of gluey insipidness not worthy of ingestion.

But I ate them anyway.