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.

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