Thursday, May 31, 2007

the trend has GOT to be over

While I *have* been saying I kind of want to try bacon lately (and, for me, that is like the moment in The Satanic Verses when Gibreel starts eating pork and goes off with the white mountaineering girl...well, it isn't culturally forbidden me, but it would mark the end of an era), bacon chocolate from Vosges isn't exactly what I had in mind. The bacon trend has got to be over. And for some reason, bacon with apple tarts, bacon in ice cream with breakfast-y desserts, all of that is at least something that makes sense conceptually. Salt and chocolate, yeah, I see, but bacon and chocolate?

Maybe it really is me.

I made triple chocolate cookies tonight. I'm not really a cookie person but I was in the mood for warm chocolate cookies. Of course, by the time I finished baking them I'd absorbed enough cookie smell to promptly not want any cookies. Sonsie also cookied me out, too. Double batch of chocolate cookies every day, and they were pretty good, but not good enough for me to not be thoroughly sick of them. I'd eat them, though, when I got hungry, which after ten hours and maybe a bagel at 10 am, would tend to happen. I'd also sneak extra salt in there, since I decided that's what they were missing, and I never told Michael I thought they were under-salted....

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

chez panisse, the update

Monday night dinner at Chez Panisse downstairs.

We started off with almonds and olives. As usual, my mother suggested I try olives. On my last SF vacation, I tried olives at least twice, and grimaced each time. Since then, I've tried other olives--and had tried them again twice this weekend--but these were olives I found myself unable to stop eating. They were slightly warm, slicked with oil and salt, and tasted like good olive oil had solidified and grown strangely shaped pits. We ate our way through the helping of olives and then we ate more. They brought bread (Acme, of course). First course was a warm onion tart with a little salad of microgreens and egg, pancetta for my mother's but not on mine, mild flavors but very fresh. I think you'd like the pancetta, she said.

I don't eat bacon. But I've been thinking about it, I replied. I remember enjoying bacon, especially dipped in maple syrup. It's been on my mind, lately, bacon, and it's one of the only meat products I actually have a taste memory of. Probably because I keep accidentally eating it.

The second course was chicken with morels and hand-cut pappardelle with peas and spinach. I'd like to hope they make their own pasta, rather than cut the pappardelle from strips as Sonsie used to do. Being Chez Panisse, I'm sure this is the case (although I was surprised to lean my lovely olives were sourced from Provence via NYC, rather than locally). They look like little brains,I said, and my mother warned me. I proceeded to eat every scrap on my plate, from the perfectly moist chicken (perfect chicken #3, and again something that inspired me to make perfect chicken, though of course I wouldn't know where to start). What I liked about the morels was that they lacked that slippery mushroom texture that gets gummy in my mouth. And then I began thinking of getting some ramps, peas or fiddleheads and morels from the mushroom store at the FB, and learning to cook.

Finally, (and thank heavens it wasn't plain fruit with dessert) bing cherries in syrup with toasted almond ice cream. An unsightly, not-great S shaped cookie garnished the dessert. But everything else was perfect. Down to the half bottle of A. Rafanelli Zin we shared in homage to last August's trip to Healdsburg (and SF, before it became my new home).

Monday, May 28, 2007

gastronomic weekend, part 2

Going up to Calistoga today to see Schramsberg and taste some bubbly. Bringing the dog along in the car, so that should be interesting.

A16 was so wonderful. I fell in love with the dimly lit interior and the tiny garden room in back, the ancient foosball table and the open kitchen where a dozen hands toiled away. We ordered big, full bodied Italian wines that tasted like dirt and earth and first sip and mellowed as they sat. Crusty bread and good dipping oil. Soon the fava beans came, and they were divine. They were perfectly seasoned. Every now and then I'd get a bite of crispy mint leaf or a lightly charred pod and shudder in delight. It made me want to go to market and buy a bunch of favas. My only prior experience with favas was disappointing, shucking large pods from the farm where I worked because in upstate New York June they were the only thing ready before I moved back to Boston.

I followed the excellent favas with a quattro formaggio pizza topped with arugula, my favorite bitter green. A little soggy in the middle from the weight of the cheese, and a little light on the arugula for my taste, but still amazing. I could only manage half a pizza, and now I've got leftovers sitting in the mini fridge in the hotel.

The dessert menu was entirely Italian inspired, and that sort of thing usually doesn't moved me. So we settled on the zabaglione with lemon granita and torrone, since I've been thinking of doing a sabayon w/ berries for Frog Hollow anyway. It was excellent as well. A perfectly composed dessert, which is hard, nice flavor balance of tart and sweet, and to discover the fluffy, icy granita lurking underneath creamy, aerated vanilla custard was an amazing sensory experience. For me it's all about taking something familiar and making it new, making it more. Every element of this dessert did that for me...the chopped, toasted buts on top, the really good cookie (and I'm not a cookie person).

Compared to the A16 experience, Jardiniere was disappointing. But that's another post.

Friday, May 25, 2007

gastronomic weekend

I'm glad I read this post on Eggbeater the night before I go to A16! My mother's coming into town this weekend and we're going to:

Chez Panisse

In return, I have to go shopping.
My cutie-pie gets here, too ;)

Tired baker tonight. Worked doubles, pulling shit together for the craziness of the weekend at both Frog Hollow and the cupcakery. Walking into messy sitations and cleaning them up get stiring. Time for dinner, beer, sleep, waking at 430.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

yes, those are checks!

Walking past this thrift store tonight on the neverending apartment hunt, I found a male mannequin dressed in a blue vest and the regulation houndstooth. When i saw the checks I thought a uniform store, maybe, so maybe I could get new duds, but it was no such thing. I would seriously love to see some dude sporting the checks as part of a fashionable ensemble. I do, weirdy enough though, see many uniformed chefs swarming around the Civic Center BART. 4 total in a week. What do they do there? Will they take me with them in my baker-regulation jeans and dirty black clogs?

Today at Frog Hollow we scooped free samples of cherry granita, and I told them I'd sell it at Market if they got me an ice cream cart. Actually, my first suggestion was that they approach Ciao Bella about carrying granita +/or sorbet under the Frog Hollow name. There isn't enough collaboration in the FB and I think it could do better that way. Of course, I did almost deck my supervisor when she suggested we serve ice cream every week, but before I had to grit my teeth and explain how I wasn't going to be able to bake if I was spending Saturdays scooping, she reassured me it wouldn't be my job.

I made custard for bread pudding today, and vanilla simple syrup to lighten it. I bought pan de mie from Acme

Amazing how much easier it is to make bread pudding when you're not dealing with a custard base of 8 quarts cream, 2 c. milk, 90 yolks plus chocolate, making 96 servings at a time. Considering a peach leaf bavarian with peach gelee and peach compote. But the goal for tomorrow is pared down, nothing to finish or Saturday. Simplicity. I am not going to worry about not having enough, because I really can't count on finishing things on Saturday anymore. I'm going minimal for a few weeks, at least to figure out the rhythm of market days now that there's actually fruit.

I'm nervous about the bread pudding. I want it to be creamy, vanilla-laden, tossed with cherries and manybe something else. But I so rarely like bread pudding. In fact there are two I like: the brown butter milk jam + mulberry concoction from Oleana, which should one day appear in a national foodie magazine or else Sara Moulton's cookbook, and the white chocolate challah from Figs, even though I'm not into Todd English. And I know that it will be fine--really good, in fact--whether or not I like it, but I so want to like it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

ice cream and a good book

I churned the Lemon Verbena ice cream tonight. There's something impish and wonderful about cleaning out the bowl and then licking the more-frozen bits that stick to the side off a wooden spoon. Ice cream is my weakness, what can I say? Today I suggested to the roommates that I get an ice cream cart and go peddling in the hood.

Tomorros is the cherry festival at Frog Hollow! We're giving out samples of cherry granita, and I think Farmer Al will be there. Not too sure what else is happening, but I'll be there at 11 in my cherry-red Sox t-shirt.

I'm reading Amanda Hesser's book right now, "Cooking for Mr. Latte." I wasn't initially interested; the watercolor on the front made it seem too chick-lit. But I like Hesser's articles, when I remember to read them. And the Oakland Library really doesn't have much interesting in the name of food writing. Also Reading Fran Gage's "A Sweet Quartet."

Trying to pare down the menu for Frog Hollow Saturdays. I think I'm going to keep it simple this week and do projects that don't involve much finish work, then on Saturday try to slip in a bread pudding (might be a challenge, though; it'd have to be baking by 11. We'll see...)

cake testing, yet another batch of ice cream

Today I went to the Berkeley Farmers Market. It was interesting. Someone gave me blueberries (I think it's the same people who do the Ferry Building market) and they were different. Which is to say, they weren't really like Maine blueberries, which is what the reference point should be. It's possible they just really weren't all that ready to be picked yet, because they weren't very sweet. They rolled around kind of funny in my mouth, more tart than sweet, less like something I think of as blueberry and more like something strange.

While buying up carrots and onion for my excellent dinner, I was persuaded to buy some lovely looking basil from Full Belly Farm, as well as a bunch of lemon verbena. And I noticed they're actually selling lamb's quarters. Making a profit off their weeds. Seeing that made me nostalgic for farm living, and coupled with the blueberry interaction I pouted for the East Coast for a little while.

When I got home, I stripped the verbena leaves and infused a milk-cream mixture for ice cream base, to be made and possibly churned tomorrow. I used the veggies for a really excellent dinner courtesy of one of Rick Bayless's cookbooks. Chicken thighs with pickled jalapenos, onions and carrots. The colors were kind of flat, adn it smelled rather strongly of vinegar, so I was unenthused, but the food turned out to be great. Not perfect chicken, but damn good chicken. The broth was all oily and fatty, the veggies were tender. I'd only used oregano, allspice, salt and pepper but with the jalapenos it was all very spicy and flavorful in a nice, organic way. I picked two thighs apart. They were really well with the crispy skillet-fried zaatar potatoes I made. I ate until I was stuffed and happy and then I set about cleaning my room.

I also whipped up a batch of the troublesome polenta cake, using half semolina and half polenta. This cake was on the menu twice at Sonsie during my tenure there and I'm not sure where my boss got it, only thatit always gave him--or me--a lot of trouble. In his blueberry version, we could never get it out of the pan. In the orange version, it also sucked getting it out of the pan, but the cakes were shriveled and anemic looking and generally ugly. Here is the 9 inch polenta-semolina cake, a hybrid. I spent so many days stirring that pot of milk over the tiny range in the prep kitchen, getting in everyone's way while I waited for the flour to thicken. Now I like my version better. It's grittier, and when unadorned almost breakfast-like. I'm serving it, currently, with anise cream and candied rhubarb but I can see re-introducing it with blackberries or stewed stone fruits. I like how it cracks in the center, how serious it looks while baking, big belly puffed up before falling. It's an eggy, light cake with an unexpected corn grit, and it isn't very sweet. It's a good basic for something a bit unexpected, a bit homey. It's incredibly moist and goes well with loads of things. For some reason Michael always paired it with panna cotta but I really don't think I'd do the same.

Semolina Cake, Revised
2 c. milk
1 vanilla bean
1/2 c. sugar
3 heaping T semolina
3 heaping T polenta
3 eggs, separated
2 oz. butter, soft

Bring milk + vanilla to boil. Stir in sugar, semolina and polenta and cook over high heat until mixture thickens considerably. Best if it pulls away from the side of the pan in a clean motion. Remove from heat and temper into egg yolks. Add butter. Cool over ice bath. When cool, whip the whites and fold these into the batter. Pour into 9 inch pan and bake at 350 for 45 minutes or until tester is clean.

Monday, May 21, 2007

perfection is so rare

...but it's really what we're all after, isn't it?

My pear sorbet turned out amazing! Tasting the syrup, I was really worried about the anise flavor. It smelled bad. It tasted bad-way too sweet. I didn't want to churn it. Then I cut away the cores, churned the pears in my new Vita Mix blender (so hardcore! thanks to the roommates), peered at the mixture that looked suspiciously like baby food, glopped it into my adored Cuisinart maker, and hoped for the best.

It tasted like cream. And, in the frozne mixture, the worrisome anise faded into the background, and the weird fruitiness of the wine from the poaching syrup went away. This was a sorbet with bite. A sorbet to whip your ass. No graininess, crunchiness, just a grit on your tongue from the pear, to remind you of what you're eating. The roommate and I were both astonished that no dairy products were used. I just went out to eat more of it, and I can't pick out the individual flavors. Just a honeyed, almost caramel note on my tongue. Perfection. My first reaction was to stash the syrup so I can acquire more pears and make more, as if I'd created something dificult and rare when after all it's just pears, vanilla, spices and sugar.

I'd put the anise in the syrup in the first place, because I'm trying to understand the flavor. When good friends of mine are fanatic about a flavor, I like to try to get what draws them to it. I find it difficult to think about and analyze taste. The words slip away--so maybe I am, in fact, a very BAD food writer--and I'm left with abstract like cold/warm/minty/bitter/hot. Do I understand anise better? No, not yet. Do I understand sorbet, my pastry nemesis better? Reluctantly, no. How does poaching the pears impart enough sugar to the mixture? Isn't it too thick? However this is a step in my becoming more knowledgeable, I think I'll just eat the sorbet first and ask my questions later. And, as for Thomas Keller, I'll let this make up for the horrible dehydrated pepper blinis I sufffered through for the sake of TFL and savory cooking.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

pear sorbet

Just prepped for a pear sorbet using the Bouchonrecipe, which is to cook 1 3/4 # red comice pears in a simple syrup/wine solution, flavored with I believe vanilla and lemon zest. Since I had some star anise in the spice tub I threw one in as well.

There's something very reassuring about the familiarity of poaching fruit. It was something I had to do every now and then at Temple Bar with pears, and then at Sonsie we'd blanch citrus, mostly, and candy blood oranges at Oleana. (The bizarre thing about the Bouchon recipe is that the amount of liquid given is nothing near enough to cover three pears in any sort of pot, and there are no instructions given to dice the pears. Given the specificity of my dehydrated-pepper blini recipe, I would have expected more. ) I prepared my syrup, then peeled the pear, dropped them in, crumpled up some parchment to rest on top (it helps the entire pear to poach evenly rather than have a crusty, hard side sticking out.

I felt very connected to a history--to my own history and development as a pastry cook, and to the little sphere of people who make sorbets and poach fruit and cook. My first time ever poaching pears was for the midterm in culinary school, when I grabbed a pear frangipane tart and had to revisit the first week of class when we were all still befuddled, while everyone else was jamming on the more recent cakes and mousses. I didn't poach the pears long enough, pulling them out when they were still a little crunchy because I assumed they'd cook and soften in the oven (and my chef instructor said they would).

I really love sorbet when it's done right. Maybe I love it most when it's somewhat bitter--the green apple, or prickly pear.

I think my poaching syrup needs a touch of salt, and citrus zest, if I can find some lemons. And I think I need some sleep. 12 hour workday, it's fine, but I don't really feel like doing anything afterward.

It's rare that I feel connected to other chefs-in-general. Mostly when I'm taking to the guys about how we're all pulling doubles, or on our way to second jobs, or whatnot...Usually I feel that cooking is an act done alone, but done with great love and care.

I'm a little nervous, of course, because it's sorbet and sorbet's always so difficult for me...Maybe it's only ever perfect if it's churned fresh each day. If it comes out well I'll take it to work.

A friend of mine also had an interesting experience at boulette's. Which is all I'm going to say about that.

Friday, May 18, 2007

I can feel the weather changing but let's enjoy spring

cherry pitting time
Originally uploaded by the_jade_greene.
All of a sudden there are cherries everywhere. Last week brought the first flush of Al's cherries to market, and this week, as I was lazily thinking of ways to fix my polenta cake and wondering if I really wanted to do anything with cherries other than eat them raw, the cherries just started piling up. This morning, a 6 qt. pan slowly molding. By the end of the day, thirteen pounds more. I made a small batch of Cheffy's clafoutis base and used up scant handfuls making cherry financiers.

I have always though it funny when those big-shot savory chefs (like Tom Colicchio, in "think like a chef," among scores of others) discuss eating and cooking seasonally. Inevitably they mention the anticipation and excitement of spring's first blush(oh, ramps are coming! we've got the first snap peas!), which means something quite different on the east coast than in California no matter how locally you're sourcing your food. Maybe it was jealousy, or maybe just the pastry chef's suspicion of the ego of the rest of the kitchen world (so often it's their haughtiness that reconciles us to the background, and it's the rare chef who appreciates adequately her patissier). This Frog Hollow gig has always been intriguing because the one stated goal of the job was to use the fruit, and so I would be forced to rely on what the market brings in each week. With citrus and rhubarb there hasn't been much, but now we're talking maybe peaches next week and I'm already feeling the pressure of cherry season, the excitement of something new so tasty and the real urge to present it at its best.

My boss, Becky, came by today. She watched me scoop financiers and wash strawberries. According to my supervisor she was also going to work with me for a while, but this didn't happen. She seems content to let me do whatever, but I know she knows this fruit, as a baker, better than I ever will, and she used to work at Oliveto. She's got skills. When she tells me how to cook down the cherries in syrup to preserve them, I can sense the knowledge differential and I'd like to see sometime what she would teach me if she got into the kitchen.

This Thursday is the Cherry Festival! Free cherry granita at Frog Hollow and who knows what-all else. I really do love the Ferry Building.

Last night I had pasta with fiddleheads and garlic in a white wine butter reduction. It was good. Fiddleheads remind me of cold, almost wintry upstate New York weather, the day Jes and I went driving and got the maple syrup. I tried to epxlain fiddleheads to my french friend but apparently there's no translation. So I found pictures, which only left her completely flummoxed as to why I would eat plant buds, but not bacon.

Pigs are salty, I said, in reply. What I mean by that is that bacon is salty, but I have no memory of what pork as meat tastes like. I ate tuna tonight, for the first time. Shocking, I am.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

I feel like a person again now that I've got my zaatar

(it's true)

Today after apartment hunting I went to Samirami's, a Middle Eastern food store in the Mission. My supply of zaatar from Sevan had run out and I'd been without for weeks. At first I was doubtful...I'd found spices, but no zaatar. Then I spotted giant pound-sized bags of zaatar. Boulette's sells it for $2.25 per oz. but this was 5 bucks for a giant plastic tub of zaatar! And then, oh joy, I saw a bulk spice section with three kinds of zaatar (Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian)...this I hoped would be the freshest. So I filled two bags with some Palestinian and some Lebanese (I think the Sevan stuff was Jordanian). I did not let myself get sumac (it's trendy now though, I think) but I did ask the man behind the counter for mastic. And, to give him credit, he didn't seem surprised that a whitegirl wanted mastic. That sent me back over to the other side of the store for rosewater for Claudia Roden's gum mastic ice cream (I bet my new Vitamix blender can be used in lieu of robotcoupe). I looked for mulberries for ice cream, but no luck. My Persian supervisor at Frog Hollow *did* say she'd bring me a cup of mulberries (we had to negotiate the amount I wanted into a small enough amount she could spare it).

Rosewater/mastic ice cream...a taste memory. I am sure there's an Oleana-ish restaurant here in SF, and sometimes it's the memory of taste (the warm not cool mint flavor, the everpresent rose slightly oily in aftertaste, the milkiness), and sometimes it's in the memory of small and deliberate perfection. Here, I'm not in a community of people who serve food made with love on plates shipped from Turkey in suitcases. Here I'm in a community of baker-girls with boyfriends, career-change chefs whose restaurant experience is much more limited than mine. I bruise my hips on walk-in doors, decorate cupcakes, daydream about clafoutis and brunoised rhubarb and baby fennel. I feel like a person now I've got my zaatar, and I will let you know which kind I prefer. But I would like some people to talk about food with, for real,and I've been nostalgic for restaurants lately. Even for the gloomy darkness of Sonsie upstairs, getting coffee and looking out the windows on Newbury Street too early in the morning for foot traffic, whittling away time making 40 shots of espresso for ice cream and dreaming of California. Although there was no conversation at Sonsie, no dialogue about production and menu change and how to be better at what we do.

I'm not frustrated with work (really I'm just overworked, and pulling doubles the next two days). Just lonely for someone who can help me fix my polenta cakes, and who understands my zaatar longing, and whose taste buds are more refined than mine. Which is nothing new.

Monday, May 14, 2007

the plated dessert game

butterscotch pdc with pecan shortbread, fleur de sel, chantilly

carnaroli with cherries, cherry vinegar, vanilla shortbread

veloute with malt ic, dacquoise, graham

ricotta cheesecake with rose geranium, mesquite flour, rhubarb

pate a choux with choco sauce, vanilla egg cream, nibs

lemon sherbet with bay gelee, candied zest, meringue

t i r e d baker

Sunday, May 13, 2007

know your grains

Well, it's a start.

Polenta is ground corn. Semolina comes from durum flour. Semolina and polenta can be prepared similarly; both can be cooked down with liquids into a polenta-like mush.

At sonsie, the sous chefs always made polenta with semolina flour. And I'm pretty sure it was only semolina flour they used.

It doesn't surprise me that my school textbook has no entry in the index for either semolina or polenta. Poliane, Fernand Point, poly-whatever compounds. The learning curve continues, but now it really is time for bed, and some Rodney Strong wine I scored from the function last night. And well-needed sleep.

don't fuck with my mise!

strawberry shortcakes
Originally uploaded by the_jade_greene.
I should be going to sleep soon, but it's really nice to have energy. Especially since I almost fell asleep this evening when I got home from work, and almost burned my teriyaki chicken (rescued just in time to still be tender, mostly, and have REALLY crispy skin). I've been working like a dog since Friday.

I used to not really understand very well the teamwork aspect of professional kitchens, because where I've been the pastry person is always alone and usually taking up someone else's counter or oven space
(insert memories of Sonsie brunches and fighting over the oven for bacon versus focaccia).

During the Saturday market the girls would get low on pastries and forget to ask me to bake more, then come to me as I was cutting fruit for fruit tarts, whipping vanilla cream for shortcakes, etc. and demand seventy pastries be egg washed and baked. I'd do it immediately, push my project to the side, get my table dirty, clean, go back to my mise, be interrupted again, and not be able to bake off the new pastries because there was no oven space. It could all be avoided by proper planning. But please, don't fuck with my mise. It makes for a very long day.

However, it's very nice to be able to pop some shortcake in your mouth in the middle of a long day. I was feeling very frustrated on Saturday that it's my job to make yummy things for other people but not part of my job description to eat them. I was feeling like I needed food=love to get some energy to wash away the frustration, and get back to busting out pastries. It worked very well. It's hard to take a moment to eat or take a real break when you have enough work to keep you occupied. It saddens me that food workers don't get to feed themselves properly, but I go all day without eating too.

Saturday night was a catered wedding at Tilden, with a Masse's wedding cake. Two layers of chocolate raspberry and one of passionfruit. I demanded and got some of each. The passionfruit one was good, better than I was expecting. Better than the Tartine passionfruit coconut cake I got to try today since one of the girls at the cupcakery bought one for us all to try (must be nice to be rich, eh?)Tartine's was all about the overly large shredded coconut on the outside, and not skinning the underside of the cake, which is something that bothers me if you're going to be presenting cakes. Masse's was nicely trimmed. From the texture of the cake I was afraid it was going to be dry, but it wasn't. There was passionfruit bavarian and curd, or curd lightened mousse, or something. The caterer wasn't quite sure. There was also wine and Hennessey's cognac to take home, and quite drunken bridesmaids.

Then up this morning to get to the cupcakery by 8 (tomorrow as well). It was a big production day and I didn't leave the back room at all. Just busted through batches of chocolate and vanilla frosting, chocolate batter, cream cheese frosting. The funny thing about being the new girl is you do things like made a 4x batch of frosting and put it all in the large Hobart and then when your butter's good and creamed and you're adding the sugar (my first experience with American buttercream) the other bakers get around to telling you no one's ever done a batch that large in that mixer before. It's not cockiness when I pull it off and it's fine, and I get to cross it off the production list, and everyone's stoked that we saved some time, but rather a quiet happiness for something done efficiently.

The Sonsie days really are behind me. They've been on my mind lately, possibly because I know that for right now I'm not going to be working in any restaurant kitchens. Lifting large Hobart bowls that I'm not strong enough to maneuver (but trying to do it anyway) recalls the daily battle with the pizza dough, or the vanilla pound cake. It's interesting now that I'm also in a creative position. I'm on a big herbal kick right now. Scented creams, infusions, berries and spice. I get tired of making things week after week and have considered doing away with the strawberry lavender tart (just after it's developed a following, ah!). it's my duty now to think about flavors and components. When making the polenta cake, I found myself thinking of texture/crunch/creamy/sweet, which was a nice step from "I miss that semolina cake, maybe I'll make one with blackberries since we have them on hand." But there's still so much more I need to understand.

Friday, May 11, 2007

the learning curve gets rough

Today, while making rhubarb-blood orange upside down cakes and brown butter financiers--I've finally worked out how much sugar I like in them, and they're just so cute I really want everyone to eat them, oh, financier, I used to think you were boring! for shame--I tried to figure out my semolina cake.

The semolina cake was about the only thing I really liked on the Sonsie menu (grand marnier mousse cake and mocha ice cream aside). The semolina cake was on the summer menu when I came to Sonsie, with blueberries and buttermilk panna cotta and blueberry coulis. It was a nicely plated dessert (plating wasn't my boss's strong suit, and his plates most often resembled strange lunar landscapes with holes, and I'm nor sure what that says about his pastry process in general). It made sense. But cooking the cake in 9" pans led, most of the time that I was present, to a mushy mess on a cake circle. I ruined multiple semolina cakes. Michael ruined a few as well, or at least tore out the middle or the side. No matter how hard we sprayed the pan, semolina guts everywhere. The semolina cake re-appaeared on the winter menu with tangerine panna cotta, blood orange sorbet and orange slices on top. The citrusy mess that didn't plate well, with an always-grainy sorbet, soft cake, and hard, unpleasant supremes of orange on top. I enjoyed the cake, but not that way.

I thought of it again yesterday while puzzling over what to make now at Frog Hollow while I wait for the produce to kick in. What to do with my strawberries, blood oranges and rhubarb besides the things I've been doing, and how to use off the rest of the tub of blackberries? (Forgot to make muffins again, damn!). I thought semolina cake with blackberries. But then this morning, I was washing off the rhubarb and cutting it, and I thought I'd rather make a rhubarb sauce, but I didn't really know how to do that, and in the back of my mind I'd been thinking over the crunchy, sweet rhubarb I'd had with my mango sorbet at Frisson, and how that had been the chance illustration of Maura's comments on how rhubarb and mango suit each other well. So I thought I'd candy my own rhubarb, and looking out the window at the spot where Capay usually sets up their stand I thought of Mariana and the baby fennel, and I wanted fennel whose texture was so similar to rhubarb, but I had to settle for anise seeds. Anise-infused cream, to be whipped and set on top of semolina cakes, garnished with candied rhubarb.

But then...I dig out the tub labeled polenta and spices. I've maybe made polenta once, from a log bought in the grocery store. I've seen the Sonsie crew make polenta a bunch with my semolina flour. I dug out a bag of what looked like cracked corn, and neither semolina flour nor the polenta I'd seen in stores. It very well may have been cornmeal or some sort. It came in a bag, tied with a grocery store twist tie. I was stuck; I'd mised everything else and I didn't want my very carefully brunoised, then candied rhubarb to go to waste. So I dug in, boiled the milk and vanilla, added the sugar and polenta, and stirred, and stirred, and thought of the polenta musing in Bill Bryson's Heat. It thickened, but not enough. Not as much as the semolina cake batter I'd whisk like I was teaching it a goddammed lesson, until the thing trembled away from the sides of the pan in a neat, uniform flutter. Not like I knew it needed to if I wanted to avoid the explosion in the pan. But I also had to get to job #2. So I boiled it away for a while, shocked it in the fridge (bad chef, no ice bath), got my whites sort-of-stiff-peak, and went with it. In the oven, when it's black it's done.

Mini muffins puffed up with the pride of having risen, with a nice resilient golden crackle in top greeted me in fifteen minutes. Not like the wilted, shameful semolina texture. I tested them, called them done, watched them fall a little. And then the test. I prayed for them to be good, and they indeed were. Whatever was in the bag. The Frog Hollow manager, who'd been eyeing me all suspiciously while I puttered while beseeching me to make candied lemon peel dipped in chocolate, came to appraise them. ("Chocolate and lemon's in right now," I told her. "I KNOW!" she sniffled. "It's not new, it's always been in in my culture." "Well YOUR CULTURE's in right now," I replied. We both rolled our eyes)

What's thaaat? she asked.
I told her they were okay, I'd been nervous, try a piece. She popped it in her mouth.
She liked it.
I told her what I was going to serve it with, and how they weren't quite how I wanted them, but it was nice to pass the test and go on with my day to work at the cupcake place. I would like to eat polenta/semolina cake with anise cream and candied rhubarb. Maybe next week if I do it again. But more than that, I'd like to understand how to get what I want from the polenta, or the semolina, or the cornmeal. How to react to the unexpected. And what do I do, do I ask my baker friends? The girls at the cupcakery had no experience cooking with semolina. Do I ask the pastry girls? It's possible Chelsea or Kimberly would know. Ask Cheffy, who'd probably ask me what I wanted mussing with semolina anyway? Call Maura, one early Cambridge morning? Puzzling my way out of the box, I think, starts with understanding my original recipe, and how the semolina adds texture and structure. But possibly it doesn't start there at all.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

all the kids these days...

Am I just lucky? Everyone wants to be a chef these days, and this is not the first article I've seen this year on how the industry's flooded. That's why I left Boston...Cheffy's enrollment was up 300% and I knew twice a year a crop of new kids was going to graduate and suck up the available pastry assistant jobs, which would make it that much more competitive to find jobs, and would mean we'd only be circulating the same ideas around. Cheffy was a lot of great things, but tolerance for others' ideas, not so much. My way is the best way, he would say, and it was true, his recipes had been tested and proven. They always work. I will take them out, when I'm doing a classic like puff or I want a good brown butter financier or a custard base.

Boston wasn't fun anymore. Sonsie wasn't fun anymore. I was working all weekend long for a boss who left me out of all decision-making processes and staging with a woman who asked me what I wanted to make and how I'd want to serve this flavor. I wasn't going to get where I wanted to go in Boston anytime soon, but we were all doing well and good. We were all working within the pay grade of our positions (are pastry assistants just paid significantly more that line cooks, and our $10-12/hour salary expectation therefore something good?). We all had secure jobs at restaurants most Bostonians would know. We were pretty much in the elite establishments in town. We never had too much trouble finding other positions.

I understand how there's too many cooks in the kitchen, too many with unrealistic expectations. I don't expect to be famous for cooking at least, so I'm not suffering. But I don't see it personally, really. I can't help but feel that these cooks who can't find jobs are just lazy or ill-prepared or expecting to land good jobs right away. It's a hard industry. But I would say one with plenty of positions for the willing.

Monday, May 07, 2007

ninety degrees in oakland

It's too hot. Too hot for eating, too hot for sleeping. I'm making canteloupe sorbet tonight because that's all I really feel like eating. I polished off the grapefruit-rosemary and I've been avoiding the ice cream, not wanting eggs and cream bouncing about in my stomach. Sorbet feels nice. I've got pears for pear sorbet, too. Pears poached in wine with anise and vanilla beans, churned into sorbet.

At the Goodwill in Oakland today I bought restaurant-grade pots, ramekins, and a springform pan. They gave me a discount on the pots because they were a little banged-up, and I just played dumb like I was a sucker buying beat up pans and not some intrepid little baker.

I watched my sorbet spin, adding sugar syrup until the consistency smoothed out, tasting it, and trying to figure out how it would taste when it froze and how it looked and to get it right.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

I have a new job

...So why is it that everyone in SF starts looking for pastry people now?

I've never been solicited for a job before, but today I got the following email from the folks over at the Slanted Door:

Hi. I received your resume a while ago and I am looking for a pastry cook again. I belive you already have a job but If you are interested, please contact me.

Thank you.

_____ ________

And, not so very long ago when I was in the height of my then-fruitless desire to come out to San Francisco, I posted here about my longing, and how Slanted Door was hiring and I'd sent them my resume...and about three weeks before that I was all atwitter becase Boulette's and Frog Hollow were hiring, and wrote the following:

anyway, not only is Frog Hollow hiring right now, but Boulettes Larder is hiring a pastry chef as well, and though I am no doubt both too poor to get out there and unqualified for the second position, I am jealous. To work in the Fery Building adn spend every afternoon in the shadow of the Bay Bridge, reminiscing about the Berkeley days and who I used to be...and to write...and to eat, and be in such bounty.

And now here I am. On the day I got my new job, I also got chased out of Boulette's Larder by Lori Regis. Hounded from the second I walked in the door. The question is why...I have a few guesses but I'm not going to post them here yet. I'm going to go back another time, in my Boston hat (so she knows the Regis I know better is Susan), and see what happens.

Work was intense today. If I don't get to mise properly on Friday, Saturdays are always crazy, and if they run out of everything and I have to bake off five items at once nevermind that I'm in the middle of slicing fruit for fruit tarts and I've got shortbread to assemble, it's very challenging to not get in the weeds. And I feel pressured to get my nice things out there early, so they can sell.

My new job is at Kara's Cupcakes, an all cupcake bakery in the Marina. The'yre opening a second location next week at Gihrardelli Square so they just basically doubled their baking staff. The kitchen is small, and the walls are pink, but they've got this cute map showing where their lcoally-sourced products come from, and they've got the best cream cheese frosting I've tasted here in SF, a city obsessed with cream cheese frosting, and I'm looking forward to being chill and piping icing, mixing batter, having the sort of experience I was cheated out of having to have at Miette.

I have to stop and remind myself that not very long ago, I ached to be out here doing what I'm doing, and now I'm doing it. And writing a lot. And getting my first experience being creatively in charge. When people tell me (without knowing I make them, per se) how they LOVE the strawberry lavender tarts, it's such a nice feeling. Food is love. And you have to be generous; you have to give it away. So when it upsets me to be treated roughly, I know there are so many crazies and egos in this business, and I know where I stand and where I come from. I've paid a lot of dues and I'll pay them still, but I'm going to be generous in this business and I'm going to one day do things perfectly.

Tomorrow's Day #1 at Kara's.

Friday, May 04, 2007

comfort food

coconut cake
Originally uploaded by the_jade_greene.
french fries n honey
mac n cheese
eggplant parmesan
teriyaki tofu
ice cream, any kind
coconut cake
warm chocolate chip cookies
hot chocolate
redbones bbq
mashed potatoes
crusty bread n butter
really good pizza
bread pudding, done right
leftover pastry cream
anything flaky and buttery
zaatar cheese toast
tapioca pudding
butterscotch pudding
chocolate pudding
honey mustard chicken
carrot cake
ice cream sundaes

I think I'm going to have to re-think the phrase "I don't like cheese." I also might have compose some some of french fry-honey dessert. Maybe I can start a veggie version of the bacon-in-dessert/breakfast-for-dessert trend. Cause who wants french toast (scuse me, pain perdu when you can have mapley, honeyed, crunchy, salty potatoes?

I also think it might be time to get some good cake...where to go? I've been meaning to try so many places. Maybe if I don't have to work tomorrow I'll pop off somewhere and get cake. This afternoon I bought a fileld churros from the lady on International. Somehow the vanilla custard filling when eaten with the churros dough tasted like butterscotch. It was good. Just what I needed before a post-work. three hours of sleep last night nap. But I almost liked the flavor of the churros they sell outside the Ferry Building better. This one, however, was freshly piped, freshly fried, tossed in cinnamon sugar and filled right before my eyes.

Every interaction in Oakland is some sort of cultural exchange. The shopkeepers switch to English for me. The thuggy guys keep their eyes on me, the white girl. In the Asian markets, I try to sound out the Vietnamese words. I wonder if I'll miss that, living in SF.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

bakesale betty's

bakesale betty's
Originally uploaded by the_jade_greene.
I stopped off at Bakesale Betty's today, on my way home from a lovely walk along the Albany shoreline where I (possibly illegally) picked rose petals to make rose petal jam. I got the ginger cookie, pear ginger scone and a slice of banana bread, all that for under five bucks. Wow. They had a bunch of yummy looking cookies, and some strawberry rhubarb pie, the banana bread and scones. Not a lot for sale.

The banana bread I had this afternoon with coffee. I liked the cinnamon sugar crunch topping, and how moist it was. But there weren't enough bananas! No nuts, either, and I'm a not person. The ginger-y things smell quite good though, and I'm sure when I do get to eat them I'll be more excited that I was about the banana bread.

They seem to do a good business, though. Things were pretty hectic in there. They were serving up some fried chicken, too...