Dec 08 2010

Bread for Breakfast

Published by under Brunch,Cooking Classes,Dessert

Fact: Banana Nut Bread is a perfectly acceptable breakfast. So are muffins, Pumpkin Bread and scones; never mind that all of those things are basically cake, and that you’re eating them before 9 am.

Until recently at school, we’ve focused on yeast and steam as “raising agents,” or things that make food puff up in the oven (scientific, I know). But we since dove into the complex world of baking powder and baking soda, which are important ingredients that give us cookies, scones and cupcakes.

In sum, baking soda is an alkaline, and it has to be mixed with an acid for the rising to occur — usually in the form of buttermilk when you’re baking sweets. Baking powder, however, does the work for you. It’s baking soda plus tartaric acid, so you don’t have to worry about needing the extra acid in the buttermilk.

The recipes we worked on ranged from Cherry Scones to Pumpkin Squares to Gingerbread Cakes and Streusel.

Don’t worry, most of this went to charity. After a small feast, of course.

I made an Pernod-Scented Olive Oil Cake with Almonds. It was my first brush with the now-trendy olive oil cake, and I see why butter has generally prevailed in baking: The mild, slightly grassy flavor doesn’t love sugar the way other fats do. I’ll save my oil for salad dressings and sautéing, I think.

Most of our baked good were made by one of two methods: The creaming method, in which the butter and sugar are whipped together, and the cut-in method, in which cold butter is incorporated into the flour first. The latter makes for a flakier final product, and I highly recommend it, considering how these scones turned out. Which leads me to wonder…

… Why don’t I make scones more!?

2 responses so far

Nov 30 2010

Eggs and More Eggs

Published by under Brunch,Cooking Classes

In French cooking, as it turns out, you only really need three ingredients to get started: butter, flour and eggs. Sugar helps, too, as does a nice Swiss cheese. Everything else is just an accessory.

After our indulgent day of soufflé making a few weeks back, I didn’t think I’d be able to stomach another egg. Then there was the workshop in omelettes and frittatas, which I reluctantly joined in on, only to feel even more put off by the end of the day. And when it was time for an all-day lesson in quiches and savory soufflés (yes, more soufflés), I thought my body and taste buds might rebel.

That was until I tasted the Quiche Lorraine.

Of course, I’ve tasted many a Quiche Lorraine — made with leeks, Gruyère cheese and bacon — during my extensive brunch “research” over the years, but this one was quite special. I used a shallow tart pan instead of a deep pie dish, which I suspect was the key to success: Instead of an egg-y mixture dotted with the occasional lardon, the result was mostly cheese and smoky bacon, with the egg acting only to keep the whole thing together. In other words, the ratio of goodies to filler skyrocketed, making for a much richer quiche.

Speaking of richness. Egg yolks and cream makes for a very rich and pretty much entirely excessive quiche. A mixture of eggs and yolks and cream and milk will make a better-balanced (and delicious) one, and whole eggs and milk will be much milder altogether. And probably a little bland.

It’s also a good idea to include one egg in your pastry dough when making a quiche, because it will hold up better against the wet filling (on the contrary, sweet pie fillings with whole fruits and other solid ingredients don’t need an egg in the crust). Again, the take-away: flour + water + eggs = an infinite number of gastronomic possibilities.

And as for the savory soufflés? This Curried Cauliflower one might look pretty fancy, but there’s a reason we don’t see these popping up on brunch menus. The consistency of the soft, fluffy inside is just much more pleasant when it’s sweet — the savory version tends to take on a gross-out quality. Or maybe it’s just my egg overload.

In any case, I’m committed to perfecting a roasted garlic and cheese soufflé, a version of which we sampled several weeks ago. I’m hopeful that an individual size served in a ramekin with a light side salad could be a huge success.

One response so far

Nov 22 2010

Making Use of Leftovers

Published by under Dinner,Lunch

We’ve been cutting up chickens on a daily basis at Tante Marie’s over the past couple of weeks, so dinner this week was more practice: Roasted Chicken and an Arugula and Butternut Squash Salad with Pomegranate Seeds.

The recipe for that is still in the works, but even more interesting was what I decided to do with all the chicken my assistant and I didn’t eat. Shredding the meat off the bone to make chicken salad was an obvious choice, but I wanted to give this dish a seasonal, holiday twist (I’m in pumpkin, gingerbread and hot chocolate mode already, clearly).

Using my leftover pomegranate seeds and arugula gave the salad a beautiful color scheme, and I added some chopped walnuts for crunch. Spiced with a hint of cinnamon and maple syrup, the sweet and tangy flavors balance each other out very well.

And those of you cooking the bigger bird this Thanksgiving, take note: This salad would be an elegant way to make use of those leftovers, too. Though my mother’s turkey and cheddar melt — a foolproof hangover cure, according to my sister — is hard to top.

Roasted Chicken Salad with Arugula, Pomegranate Seeds and Walnuts

Ingredients (Makes about 5 cups):

2 pounds roasted chicken, on the bone (I used thighs, breasts and drumsticks)

2 tbsp. plus 2 tsp. white wine vinegar

2 tbsp. mayonnaise

2 tbsp. Dijon mustard

1/4 tsp. maple syrup

Pinch of cinnamon

2/3 cup pomegranate seeds

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

2/3 cup packed arugula

Salt and pepper

Shred the chicken off the bone into bite-sized pieces in a large bowl. In a separate, smaller bowl, whisk together the vinegar, mayonnaise, mustard, maple syrup and cinnamon.

Add the vinegar mixture to the shredded chicken and stir well so that the chicken pieces are completely and evenly coated. Stir in the pomegranate seeds, walnuts, and arugula. Add salt and pepper to taste.

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Nov 18 2010

Reflections from a Culinary Student…

Published by under Uncategorized

There are about 4,000 ways to cook an artichoke, and trimming those prickly leaves never gets any faster.

Make your own pasta…

… It’s simple, you can freeze it, and you won’t regret it.

Some things are best eaten raw.

Never discard stale bread. Give croutons, bread crumbs and bread pudding a chance (particularly the latter).

If hazelnuts are on the menu, order them. Someone spent an excruciating amount of time toasting and peeling them — you can never quite get all the skins off.

It is possible to have too many soufflés in one day, but I’d still recommend it.

Even if you can’t eat shellfish, you can still appreciate a beautiful plate of oysters.

Chocolate melts at room temperature, is incredibly difficult to work with, and will stain all your clothes…

… And it’s always worth the effort.

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Nov 16 2010

The Sweet Stuff

Published by under Cooking Classes,Dessert

I hate it when bloggers apologize for being MIA, so I’m not even going there. Suffice it to say that last week, culinary school became, well, school. I was faced with a practical exam (read: cooking a three-course meal under a deadline for my instructor to critique) and a written exam, rounding out the week with an oral presentation about a famous chef.

On the plus side, I now know the entire life story and philosophy of Zuni Cafe’s Judy Rodgers, which I’d be happy to relay if anyone’s interested. Bottom line: She’d advise you to go for the full brine this Thanksgiving.

In lieu of a play-by-play of my past week, I’ll just fill you in on the sweet stuff. We recently participated in an all-day workshop on making meringues, as you can see in the photo above. And though completely unseasonal, the Raspberry Almond Dacquoise made a very pretty picture.

A dacquoise is a meringue (egg whites beaten with sugar) baked with ground nuts, and usually layered with some kind of filling in between. In this case, the filling was simply whipped cream and fresh raspberries, with a mint garnish for color.

Another example is this Hazelnut Dacquoise, which is filled with an espresso-flavored buttercream and garnished with chopped hazelnuts. As you can see, you can make them in either large or individual sizes.

The secret to baking meringues is beating the egg whites and sugar for longer than you think is probably necessary, then baking them in a very low heat in the oven. It’s about drying the whites out, not actually cooking them — hence the low heat.

They’re also incredible delicate, so frosting and garnishing (and generally moving) these guys is no small task. I tended to feel like the proverbial bull in a china shop all day. But they do look pretty, right?

As adorable as these little basket-shaped meringues would be to bring for a baby shower, I have to admit the flavor disappoints. That is, unless you love the taste of pure sugar without any added flavoring, because that’s essentially what it tastes like: sweet. Nothing more, nothing less.

And for the health-conscious, my instructor also appropriately called them “sugar bombs.”

But not all was lost on the dessert front of late…

That’s a fairly basic chocolate cake, dubbed a Queen of California Cake by its creator, Alice Medrich. It’s filled with dried apricots and brandy and topped with a chocolate glaze and candied walnuts — and it’s every bit as rich as it looks.

My classmates and I each made one of these as part of an introduction to cakes, though our studies are ongoing. This Friday, in fact, I’m (0bviously) looking quite forward to a workshop in cake decorating. Good thing I spent all those years in middle school practicing my penmanship.

7 responses so far

Nov 08 2010

The Other Market

Published by under Uncategorized

See this guy?

He’s at work at 2:00 every morning, and he can filet a fish in under 10 seconds.

He’s an employee at Monterey Fish Market, a company that supplies seafood to some of the best restaurants in the Bay Area — and to Tante Marie’s Cooking School.

I set my alarm for 4:30 am last Tuesday, and I was standing at Pier 33 at 5:15. It was pitch black out.

I was one of the first of my classmates to arrive for a tour of the Monterey Fish Market facilities, which, as you can see, is basically a big, cold warehouse holding more seafood than you’ve ever laid eyes on. Along with a bunch of guys wasting no time in scaling, slicing, weighing and packing fish. Here the orders are ready to be picked up by the shops and restaurants:

I was very tired, but Tom, our tour guide, kept all of our attention. He came into our class a couple of weeks ago to discuss the finer points of selling seafood, and the man knows enough about fish to fill an encyclopedia. Monterey is passionate about local, sustainable fishing, and they do everything they can to keep their processes humane.

Tom, in particular, heats up when he talks about farmed salmon, any Chilean seabass and even dungeness crab. Crab season is just around the corner, but he mentioned that smaller producers may find themselves in a tough position this year.

The season should last about eight months, he said, but big companies from out of town tend to come in and snap up all the crabs over the course of just two weeks. Then they freeze them and ship them out all over the world. The way he described it, that means a big loss for small-time fisheries and for the people of California.

By 6:15 am, I was very, very tired. And ready for a nap. But at least I didn’t have it as bad as this sword-less swordfish:

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Nov 06 2010

Mmm… Cheese

Published by under Cooking Classes

I vow never, ever to buy ricotta cheese in the supermarket again.

This week we made fresh cheeses at school — as opposed to aged, hard cheeses like cheddar — and my mind was blown by how incredibly simple the whole process is. Okay, I had it easy, being assigned the ricotta cheese, which takes about 20 minutes to make, start to finish.

There are two ingredients in ricotta: one part buttermilk to four parts milk. Pour them in a big pot, heat it up on the stove, and within minutes the mixture will be forming curds you can scoop out with a slotted spoon or sieve. After a few minutes of draining to get rid of the moisture, you’re ready to season with salt and serve.

And serve it, we did — as part of a Warm Salad of Sautéed Black Olives and Fresh Ricotta, which also featured braised leeks and roasted peppers, as you can see above. Drizzled with a little bit of olive oil and served with a couple of crostini, the result was quite the crowd-pleasing appetizer.

Other cheeses my classmates worked on took a bit more work. The fresh mozzarella was made on Monday, but we had to let it drain and stretch and form it on Wednesday. The crème fraiche was left in a warm place for 14 hours before it was ready, and the goat cheese had to incubate and stand for a couple of days. We also made fresh cheese (Queso Blanco), cottage cheese, cream cheese, Indian panir and Mascarpone — which went into a truly epic tiramisu we slaved over later in the week.

In fact, on Friday all the cheese were finished, and the class was able to taste the tiramisu (all made by hand) in addition to a cheesecake composed of all the cheeses we made in house, and even homemade graham crackers. There is something extremely satisfying about knowing you constructed every single component of a dish, from start to finish.

After all, that’s why I’m here, right?

A few notes about cheese:

  • Most cheese are made from heated milk, to which an acid is added. That can mean vinegar, lemon juice, buttermilk, etc. depending on the cheese you’re making.
  • Most milk sold commercially these days is both pasteurized (fine) and homogenized, meaning the fat particles in the milk are dispersed and evenly distributed, so that a layer of cream does not form on the surface. If you’re making cheese, seek out an un-homogenized milk, because the homogenized ones often won’t work. We used a homogenized variety for the ricotta, and it worked just fine, but a cheese like mozzarella won’t be as lucky.
  • Besides the acid method, other cheeses (like mozzarella and goat cheese) are made with warm milk and rennet, which coagulates the proteins. A starter culture with bacteria can also be used to curdle the milk.

As fascinating as it was to learn how cheese is made, I’ll continue to buy my Parmesan at the store. Those hard, aged cheeses take, well, ages to mature, and you usually can’t find the equipment to make it at the supermarket. It’s a long process that’s best left to artisans.

There’s a good reason we shell out $25 on a wedge of high-quality cheese, and personally, I feel much better now about doing so.

3 responses so far

Nov 03 2010

One for the Weeknights

Published by under Dinner

I discussed last week’s fish workshop in plenty of detail, but I couldn’t wait to try baking the filets in parchment paper at home. Thus, it’s recipe time!

It’s been a while since I posted a recipe on the blog, mostly because I’m focusing on taking everything in rather than producing something new. But I can already feel how well an understanding of classic dishes will help me develop recipes of my own down the road.

I consider this Fish in Parchment Paper the perfect weeknight meal, because it’s relatively cheap, fast and nutritious — and it’s a great way to use up odds and ends of veggies you have in the fridge. The version I made is detailed below, but there are a myriad of possibilities; in fact, my instructor mentioned a particularly delicious-sounding take with Asian flavors, using shiitake mushrooms, green onions and a little sake. Mm.

The dish pictured before it goes into the oven.

Fish in Parchment Paper

Ingredients (Serves 4):


4 filets of delicate, white fish, such as tilapia, sole or halibut (I used tilapia to be economical)

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

I and 1/2 cups purple, yellow and orange carrots, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 cup peeled pearl onions

1 cup brown mushrooms, sliced

2 shallots, minced

4 sprigs of fresh thyme

1/3 cup dry white wine

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Fold four sheets of parchment paper in half, and butter one side of each. Place one filet on each buttered paper, and top each with 1/4th of the tomatoes, carrots, onions, mushrooms and shallots, distributing evenly over the fish. Lay the thyme over the fish and vegetables, and season well with salt and pepper.

Fold the other side of the parchment paper on top of the fish, and make a small 90-degree fold in one corner. Continue to fold the paper around the edges, forming a “seal” around the fish. When most of the paper is folded, pour a splash of the white wine into the paper pocket. Seal the edge and place on a baking sheet. Complete the same process for the rest of the fish.

Bake the fish and vegetable pockets in the oven for about 25 minutes, until the fish is flaky and cooked through.

To serve, present the pockets on a plate and let each person tear the parchment paper themselves, releasing the fragrant steam of the dish.

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Nov 02 2010

My First Pie

Published by under Cooking Classes,Dessert

Confession: Before last week, I had never really made a pie. Okay, there was this chocolate one and these mini tarts, but in terms of an old-fashioned, crusty, fruit-filled pie, I admit I’m fully intimidated.

Until Friday, that is, when our school day consisted of a workshop in basic pastry dough — that buttery, flaky, crumbly mixture that lines many a tart and pie pan. Everyone made either a Fresh Fruit Tart or a Tarte Tatin. Everyone except me, who was the lone soldier assigned to my instructor’s own Pear and Ginger Pie (finished product above).

Not bad for a first pie, right? And no, that’s not a fish cut out on top, it’s an acorn. And it’s probably not a shape I’d use again, considering the confusion that ensued.

I’m sure most readers aren’t as wimpy as I am when it comes to cooking traditional dishes, but if you do find yourself pie-phobic, please reconsider. A good basic pastry dough recipe, when executed correctly, will hold up to all kinds of shaping, crimping, cutting and general handling. But here are a few tips anyway.

Always use cold butter in the dough, and make sure to keep the dough as chilled as possible. That means chilling it in the fridge after every time you handle it, in addition to being careful not to work it much with the palms of your hands. Your body heat will warm it up faster than you realize, and your crust won’t be as flaky when it’s baked.

Chill the dough in the general shape you want to use it later. If you’re making a pie, you want it to be in a small, flat circle shape so that it’s easy to roll out later. One need only make this mistake once for it to set in.

Hold back on the water in your original recipe. You can always add more, but you can’t take it away, and you want your dough to be able to just barely form a ball for maximum crumbly goodness.

I sincerely wish I could share the recipe I used here, but I’m unfortunately not allowed to! Look for one that calls for flour, cold butter, a pinch of salt and water, and you should be fine.

My pie was filled with apples, pears, golden raisins and crystallized ginger, so it was very seasonal. Perfect for a Thanksgiving meal, come to think of it. But enough about me.

Here are a few of the Fresh Fruit Tarts made by my classmates, which all turned out beautifully. It’s just a basic crust covered with pastry cream and topped with layers of berries and kiwi. Even more gorgeous close up:

I’m on a mission to make one before all the summer berries are used up. But once they are, there are always these Tarte Tatins.

It’s a layer of caramel, cooked apples and a pastry crust all baked together, and I quite literally order it every time I see it on a dessert menu. Each student used a different type of apple — Braeburn, Granny Smith, etc. — to demonstrate how each variety cooks down differently. Braeburn was one of the best ones, for the record.

You can also see the wide range of caramel colors, some very dark and some just golden. Personally, I love the slight bitterness of dark caramel.

As much as I’ve enjoyed filleting fish and making pizzas, I find that I’m always most excited when pastry day comes around. There is something soothing about making desserts — and I LOVE decorating them. I’m happy to report that my piping skills are improving by the day.

5 responses so far

Oct 31 2010

Filet O’ Fish

Published by under Cooking Classes

I now know the anatomy of a fish more intimately than I ever thought I would. This week at school we had a workshop in all things fish — cleaning, scaling, fileting and finally, of course, cooking. This is where those knife skills we’re supposed to be mastering really come in handy.

We each practiced by fileting one fish, and in all honesty, I wish I could do a hundred more. It’s kind of fun! Should I be worried about myself that I can look a dead fish in the eye and cut straight into it? I’ll save that question for later soul-searching.

In sum, you cut into the fish right behind the fin until you feel the bones below, and then you drag your knife to the back of its head. Then you follow the lines of bones all the way down his back to his tail, and then make a slice back to where you started. Flip it over and do the same thing on the other side, and voilà! Two fish filets, just for you.

The first way we prepared the filets was very elegant, and very French. Behold the Fish with Scales:

Covering the presentation side of the fish are layers upon layers of very thinly sliced red potatoes (using a mandoline). You sauté the fish, potato side down in a frying pan with plenty of butter and serve it with a beurre blanc sauce on the side. Mm.

Next we steamed the fish in parchment paper, one of my favorite preparations:

Basically you wrap the filet up with any of your favorite delicate veggies and herbs — we used cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini, shallots and tarragon — and drizzle in a little white wine. Then seal it up and bake it in the oven until the pocket is filled with steam. This method may also be the ONLY healthy recipe we’ve followed at school so far.

And besides that, it’s gorgeous, and you have your whole meal in one pouch. My instructor noted that we should use our most attractive filet for the first preparation and save the one we botched for this one, because you can hardly tell what’s going on under all the veggies.

That’s a low-maintenance meal I can appreciate, and I think it’s on the menu for tonight.

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