Feb 16 2011

Piece of Cake

Published by under Cooking Classes,Dessert

Friends, I may have found my calling.

Friday was a workshop in Advanced Cake Decorating, meaning we all baked and embellished a miniature-sized wedding cake. It’s interesting how my class is divided into the pastry-loving folks and the pastry-phobic; some people were stressed out by the whole exercise and couldn’t wait for their cakes to be finished, while others loved every minute of it. Personally, I felt like I was at a middle school birthday party all day. That is a good thing.

Now, I don’t really want to be a cake decorator for a living, but if we are close friends and you’d like for me to make your cake one day, I’d be delighted. I had SO much fun with this.

We started out by baking a few layers of a traditional Genoise cake, which actually isn’t the best for decorating because it’s so light. I alternated each layer with white chocolate buttercream and lemon curd. Then we covered it with a crumb coat of buttercream to “seal in” the crumbs, and you refrigerate it so that it’s easier to work with.

Next, I rolled out a layer of fondant, the thick frosting with a consistency of playdough. After you roll it out into a thin sheet, you can literally pick it up and place it on the cake, then fit the fondant to the top and sides. The trick here is getting it smooth, which isn’t easy. See the puckering at the bottom of mine? Clearly I could use a little practice. In fact, most people opted to put additional bands of fondant around the bottom of their cakes to cover up the mistakes.

After the fondant came the fun part: piping decorations onto the cake. I piped some bows, curls and dots for a traditional look, and made a fondant rose to go on top.

My cake was frilly and traditional, which isn’t really my style. But I figured: When’s the next time I’ll have a chance to do this? Might as well go all out.

Other people kept it simple and sweet, and I was so impressed with how all the cakes came out.

Now I’m just crossing my fingers one of my friends will decide to get married soon on a VERY tight budget.

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Feb 13 2011

The Claws Come Out

Published by under Cooking Classes,Dinner,Lunch

I murdered a lobster in class this week. If it sounds dramatic, it was.

Most people take the easy way out when it comes to crustaceans — submerge them while they’re still alive in boiling water, and they die instantly. But according to my culinary instructor, there’s actually a more humane way to go about it, and it’s not pretty: Stab the lobster with a chef’s knife in the back of the “neck,” and they die instantly.

Unfortunately, that does not mean their body parts stop moving instantly.

After the dirty work was over, the lobster cooking was actually a joy. We made two dishes out of just one lobster, in the resourceful fashion of French housewives of the ages. Since traditionally Lobster Bisque is served without the meat and just flavored with the shells, we were able to cook an additional Lobster Citrus Salad with the meat.

Hilariously, this is how you present it:

Creepy, no?

The bisque took just over half an hour to cook, and if you don’t mind smelling like seafood all day (clearly, I don’t) it was a cinch.

I tend to think of Lobster Bisque as being thick and heavy, but this one is mostly broth finished with just a splash of heavy cream and a pinch of cayenne. A much more delicate experience than the flour-y ones you order at bad seafood restaurants.

And really, is there anything sweeter and more delicious than lobster meat? Please make a lobster salad with orange or grapefruit segments soon. If you decide to forgo the initial stabbing, I won’t tell.

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Feb 10 2011

Not-So-Unusual Breads

Published by under Cooking Classes

Our schedule for last week mentioned a work shop in “Unusual Breads,” which naturally set my mind reeling. No-knead bread? Rice flour? Croissants?

In the end, the breads we made were not so unusual at all, and in fact, the process was very eye-opening. I’ve personally found bread-making very intimidating in the past, and I was even hesitant when we started at school. Something about yeast with all its quirks and activity, the many rises, the exact temperatures — it honestly just sounds like a huge hassle.

That is, until you do it yourself. These days I’d never dream of NOT making my own pizza dough, and baguettes are pretty much a standard. Yes, you have to work with yeast, but it’s just another ingredient. Yes, you have to let the dough rise — but I’m happy to plan ahead when it comes to good food (in fact, I kind of can’t help it).

Our “unusual” breads were a step away from the regular French and sourdough bread we make at school, so it was a treat to try some ethnic favorites. Like lavosh:

And Whole Wheat Pita:

… and those New York-style bagels at the beginning of this post. Dense on the outside but soft on the inside, they were a huge hit. Did you know bagels are actually boiled before they were baked? Clearly, I didn’t.

Speaking of breakfast: These homemade English muffins were just OK. As the owner of my school pointed out, they only taste really good with a healthy dollop of butter and jam.

I contributed the Parker House Rolls, which I think are a Chicago tradition? Perfect rolls to serve with dinner, and you get to make fun shapes out of them.

And lastly, we prepared a selection of crackers.

These were the Gluten-Free Crackers, which had a good consistency (it’s hard without using wheat!) but came out way too spicy.

The only cracker I’d consider making at home are these Parmesan Crackers, because they were cheesy-delicious and very adaptable. For a more rustic look, you can even roll them through a pasta machine into thin sheets and break them apart by hand — definitely the way I’d go about it.

The problem with making crackers at home is that because they’re made with normal, non-industrial ingredients, they don’t keep for very long, and they don’t hold up quite as well as the store-bought varieties. It’s hard to imagine going through the trouble of rolling out the dough thin, cutting out perfect rounds, and baking a whole batch of them when you probably won’t be able to finish them all.

That is, unless they were REALLY heavy on the Parmesan and included a little rosemary and sea salt. Mmm.

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Jan 31 2011

Say Cheese

Published by under Cooking Classes,Entertaining

Luckily for me, part of being a food expert is developing a keen sense of taste. That means my culinary education has included several tasting sessions so far, including but not limited to: wine, caviar, champagne, smoked fish and coffee. Life is hard, no?

Most recent was perhaps the most exciting spread of all: cheese! We tasted semi-soft, semi-hard and hard cheeses, dry and stinky ones, cow, goat and sheep. The structured layout of this plate was no accident.

Starting at six o’clock and moving right, the first three are bloomy rind cheeses — single cream, double cream and triple cream, indicating the fat content of each. They are generally mild with a smooth rind and tend to be a bit sweet.

The next couple are natural rind and washed rind cheeses (the outside looks kind of like a wrinkly brain). They are earthier and smellier — the word “barnyard” was actually brought up in conversation to describe them. No thanks.

The next four, the semi-hard cheeses, are denser and more aged, with a nutty taste and oily consistency. The third one of those (around eleven o’clock) was actually a genuine cheddar — apparently it’s one of those things like Champagne, which should only be called cheddar if it comes from the Cheddar Gorge region. Who knew? I can confirm that it tastes nothing like the waxy blocks you pick up at the grocery store.

Finally, the last two were the hard cheeses, which don’t melt at all and are added to dishes for the umami effect. We also tasted a couple of blue cheeses.

So, here’s what my plate looked like after the tasting:

I nibbled on everything, but there were some clear winners!

At twelve o’clock, the aged Berkswell cheese was the nuttiest one of all. Apparently that dry, slightly sweet and toasty flavor is right up my alley.

Then at ten o’clock, the Ewephoria gouda barely stood a chance against my taste buds. It’s cooked after the curds are extracted, which gives it a deep caramel flavor. The name does not mislead.

And lastly, over at seven o’clock, there’s the memory of plain old Parmigiano Regiano. We use this one almost every day in class, but it still hasn’t gotten old.

Fortunately, we brought the remains of the cheese tasting along on a picnic the following day. I’d be surprised if any of my classmates had a chance to revisit the Ewephoria after my planned attack.

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Jan 26 2011

I Want Candy

Published by under Dessert

I truthfully cannot say enough good things about my instructor at cooking school. I’ve never met someone quite so approachable, yet whose approval I seek beyond all else. When Christmas rolled around, she reinforced just how amazing she is by giving each and every one of us students a hand-written card  and a bag of homemade sweets — truffles, gelées, and marshmallows. Positively adorable.

That’s why I was so excited to try out the treats myself during our recent workshop in confections. Candy-making is all about temperature; it’s extremely precise with very little room for error, and only the most meticulous cooks out there will want to devote their energies to it. As much as I’ve loved the pastry component of my course, staring at a thermometer submerged in boiling sugar doesn’t quite have the appeal I thought it would.

Equally disturbing are the ingredients in many of these confections. Obviously the sugar content is obscene, but cornstarch, gelatin and glue-like pure glucose syrup look much less appetizing in their raw forms.

That said, we made some truly delicious candies. Check it out: Homemade Marshmallows — something worth making yourself if you’re a big fan, because they’re so much fluffier and pillowy than the store-bought kind.

Toasted Coconut Marshmallows. Enough said.

Nougat, made with melted chocolate, chopped almonds and dried apricots

Blood Orange Gelées coated in sanding sugar. May cause diabetes in mass consumption.

And my project, Caramels topped with sea salt. YUM.

Unless there were a special request, the Caramels are probably the only ones I’d consider making again. They’re very easy, use no questionable ingredients, taste deliciously rich, and look precious when wrapped in wax paper. Bonus: Since they’re pure sugar, they’ll keep pretty much indefinitely.

I’ve already promised my sister a batch, but I’m holding out until my sweet tooth returns.

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Jan 20 2011

A Regular Sausage Factory

When it comes to food, my assistant and I agree on most things. He’s turned me on to his loves like olives and peppers, and I introduced him to the wonderful world of Greek yogurt. But there is nothing he loves more than meat — especially sausage. It constantly impresses me how he can sneak sausage into almost any meal I’m making (on his plate, not mine). And when we’re eating meals separately, I can safely assume grilled sausages were on his plate.

Needless to say, he was beyond excited when I came over to his apartment last week with a bag of school-made Garlic Sausages.

I had no idea what to expect from our workshop in sausage-making, but here were the major takeaways:

  • Sausage-making is very messy. I don’t know if I’ll ever look at raw pork — or yes, raw pork back fat — the same way.
  • It’s an ordeal. If you’re going to go for it, go ahead and make pounds upon pounds of sausage, because you can always freeze them.
  • You will smell like pork all day. Two showers are better than one.
  • It’s really, really fun!

My father very generously surprised me with a KitchenAid stand mixer as a Christmas gift (thank you!), so imagine my shock to see that we were using the very same machines in class, with a special attachment, to make our sausages. In other words, for the nominal price of around $50, I could be making my own sausage at home.

Visions of a sausage-making party — not for the faint of heart — have begun floating around in my mind.

I was saddened to see that I didn’t snap any pictures of the raw sausages, but you’ve seen them all before. We used them to make a couple of different dishes, including:

Sausage Bruschetta with Roasted Peppers and Herbs

And a Warm Sausage Potato Salad with Wilted Arugula

In cooking school we always take the long way when making everything, and I’ve come to realize that not everything is worth it. Making your own sausages definitely is. Not only do you not have to worry about additives and nitrates and such, you also control the quality of the meat that goes in, as well as the seasonings. So take my advice and throw in another clove of garlic.

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Jan 17 2011

Antipasti & Primi

Published by under Cooking Classes,Dinner,Starters

My cooking course is as traditionally French as it gets, so I have to admit I feel a little thrill when we make something that’s not covered in cream and cheese. Last week’s workshop was a truly special treat: Antipasti and Stuffed Pasta, two of my favorite foods to eat with a big glass of red at a cozy restaurant.

In general, Antipasti includes cooked vegetables that are dressed or marinated and served at room temperature at the beginning of a meal. Here’s a quick sampling of some of the dishes we made — none of which took more than around half an hour, by the way, and all of which would make excellent side dishes as well.

Marinated and Grilled Portabello Mushrooms

Grilled Asparagus in a Tangy Vinaigrette (my contribution!)

Whole Roasted Sweet Onions

Steamed Cauliflower with Herb Salsa (admittedly not the biggest winner of the day)

Eggplant and Zucchini Sauté

And then it was onto the Stuffed Pastas, which I’m dying to master. I think what people don’t realize is how easy it really is to make pasta by hand, and these are especially easy because they don’t require a pasta machine.

If you have some eggs, oil and flour in your pantry and a rolling pin (or empty bottle of wine?) you can whip up pasta in no time. Just make the dough, roll it out as thin as you can, cut it into squares, and stuff it with some ricotta or goat cheese and herbs. After that, the pasta takes literally 3 minutes to cook in boiling water. It is the definition of easy entertaining.

Here are the ones we made:

Cappellaci with Sweet Potatoes and a Sage Brown Butter Sauce

Tortellini with Prosciutto in a Cream Sauce

Spinach Ravioli with Marinara Sauce

Honestly, these were all good, but the sweet potatoes in brown butter were hard to beat. An extra bonus: all of them freeze really well, so they’re perfect to make ahead and have on hand… as soon as I have a free afternoon one of these days.

One of the questions people always ask me about being in school is whether I still like to cook when I get home. It may come as a surprise, but the answer is definitely YES! I look forward to it, and it relaxes me. And it’s at home where I can make all the stuff I really want to eat — wheatberries and squash and anything healthy, these days — without having to stick to the school program.

So basically, I cook all day, everyday. And when I’m not cooking, I’m thinking about all of the many restaurants I want to try.

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Jan 04 2011

My Favorite Meal of the Year

Published by under Brunch

Every year on Christmas day, my sister and I wake up early in the same bed (it’s a Christmas Eve tradition). We still hobble downstairs in our pajamas, drink a cup of coffee and giddily open the presents that have been sitting under the tree with our names on them. Then my mom fixes us a Bloody Mary.

And around noon, my aunt, uncle and cousin come over for Christmas Brunch, the biggest, most Southern eating extravaganza you could dream of, complete with an excess of carbs, grits, meat, quiche and mimosas for dessert. And that’s the way we’ve celebrated Christmas for as long as I can remember.

This year was a little special, though, since my mother finally trusts me in the kitchen (I am a chef-to-be, after all). We made her Quiche Lorraine, but I caramelized the onions MY way. Taste them, and you’ll never go back. Instead of preparing her usual salad, I made one of my standbys, a baked goat cheese salad with croutons. We made Bloody Marys, but I accented them with a dramatic skewer of blue cheese olives, pickled okra, gouda cheese and spicy pickled green beans.

I even made the Walnut Bread we’ve practiced in class, adding in a few dried cranberries for a Christmas-y effect. It was second in beauty only to the Challah, and it lay in a basket directly next to my mom’s whole wheat banana nut bread.

And all the traditional favorites were left untouched. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Like her famous (within the family, at least) Gruyère grits.

Served topped with a healthy scoop of Grillades, a classic Southern stew of slow-cooked beef with vegetables that melts in your mouth.

I may be the one who’s in culinary school, but I still have a lot to learn from this lady.

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Jan 02 2011

Happy Challah-Days

Published by under Cooking Classes

Jim Dodge, an acclaimed Bay Area baker, came into class before our winter break to teach us all how to make holiday breads. I had been looking forward to it all week, since bread-making has been one of my most favorite subjects we’ve focused on in school. And what happened during our holiday bread workshop was nothing short of a Christmas miracle.

In the spirit of the holidays, my instructor invited us all to choose which bread we wanted to make: Challah, Panettone or Stollen (she usually assigns recipes to us). After watching Mr. Dodge carefully braid his Challah in our demonstration, I knew I had to try it myself. Truthfully, I felt quite confident; I’d been to enough middle school sleepovers to know my braiding skills were above average.

I happily proofed my yeast, broke a few eggs into a bowl and let the machine do the kneading until my dough looked solid. A couple of hours later it had risen and was ready to shape.

It was then that my instructor called out, “Isn’t anyone going to try the six-pleat braid?”

In his demonstration, Mr. Dodge had shown us a three-pleat braid, a simplified version of the traditional bread. All of my classmates who were steps ahead of me had followed suit. But I, being the overly-confident wannabe hairstylist, realized this was a big opportunity.

“I’ll do it,” I said, and seconds later I was staring at a multi-step diagram of complicated twists and turns. No matter; I jumped right in.

That is, until I got to the third step and could no longer tell if I was holding the third rope or the fifth; did it tuck under or over #2? Hm. I cheerfully untangled the strands and started back at square one with a clean slate.

Then at step 4, I faltered again. All around me, students were putting their bread in the oven to bake. I broke out into a sweat and untangled my bread quickly, knowing I needed to pick up the pace. Then I stared at step 1 for a third time, my eyes glazing over and all the pleats beginning to run together. I was officially panicking.

One classmate walked over to check on my progress, which was clearly minimal. She studied the diagram curiously, then looked at me and said, “We need labels.” We hurriedly stuck pieces of tape — labeled one through six — at the end of each strand, moving the numbers every time we lifted a strand. She coached me patiently (possibly fearful of a full-on panic outburst), and what seemed like seven hours later, we were finished.

“You did it!” my classmates said, and I pointed to my heroine: “It was all her.”

And half an hour later, against all odds, I was looking at the most beautiful loaf of bread I have ever created.

See? An egg-washed, poppyseed-topped Christmas miracle.

And I think the Panettone loaves and the sugar-dusted Stollen deserve special recognition, too.

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Dec 13 2010

A Few of My Favorite Things

Published by under Cooking Classes,Dinner

Not every dish we make at school is one I’m rushing home to recreate. Culinary school teaches you all the basic, French techniques that made food taste good back when ingredients weren’t so ripe — meaning they usually benefited from a good smothering of cream, cheese and breadcrumbs. And more cream, apparently.

These days, of course, things are different. I’m lucky enough to live in Northern California, practically a stone’s throw from where some of the best produce in the world is grown, so eating local and organic means your food pretty much tastes good as is. That’s why covering a delicate white fish in a thick, white floury concoction grosses me out, and so does eating veal with a Bordelaise sauce and a side of Broccoli Gratin in the middle of the day.

But that’s what we’re learning to make, so that’s what we’re eating half the time. And the other half the time… I’m absolutely in heaven incredible recipes that I am rushing home to make. Like one particular one from this week, Black Cod with Sweet and Sour Onions.

This meal had essentially all of my favorite things on one perfect plate. Let me break it down.

First, we marinated filets of Black Cod in olive oil and Sherry, and then seared it on the stove with the skin on. Use a non-stick pan, and that translates to a pleasantly crispy skin and a flaky inside (just trust me and don’t try it without the non-stick pan).

Next, we caramelized red onions until they were completely soft and melt-in-your-mouth buttery, then tossed in a little sugar and vinegar. To finish the onions, we mixed them with toasted pine nuts and currants. Swoon.

After that, we toasted some farro with lemon and parsley to serve alongside the fish. I had never tried farro until recently, but now it’s my absolute favorite grain, making me forget about wild rice, Israeli couscous, and even quinoa (for the moment). It’s deliciously chewy and has a nutty flavor that I go crazy for.

And finally, sautéed kale to provide the leafy green component.

And did I mention that the cod was topped off with a lemon garlic butter sauce spiked with smoked paprika.

Yeah, I feel pretty lucky.

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