Saturday, June 30, 2007


Last night in Oakland. Moving to SF tomorrow. Life=going to be easier except for the barrage of visitors in and out of my house. Three Weeks Straight of company. How is a cook to make some money, nevermind show up at work, especially at 5 am?

I will admit to no longer having any sympathy when friends who don't work in the industry talk about their work and how they can't really take time off/call in sick, etc. I tend to ask them if they really, truly *can't* or if they just don't think the boss would approve, don't really have the status quo there to vacation, have already called in sick that month, and so on. Because try being the only one who can do that job, whether or not you want to, whether or not you're sick, hungover, food-poisoned (well in that case you are supposed to stay home, but who does? who does?), having company, didn't sleep the night before, were up all night cleaning up after your dog, had too much fun at the black tie party, it was New Year's Eve, and so on. When I take next Friday off from work so I can lollygag in hot n sultry wine country, it means there just won't be any special pastries for market on Saturday.

Special pastries, what a black market item. All made with love, or else humor, possibly experimentation, and sometimes bearing a strange resemblance to UFOs.

More lemon verbena love today. I made candied lemon verbena with some of the preciousness, and the mananger got carried away and asked me pretty please to put it on the lemon tarts. She tends to want me to do decorating things I'm not into (dousing things with lavender or other herbs) but sometimes I humor her. So we had lemon curd tarts with chopped verbena and little tails in the meringue stars in the middle of the large lemon meringue tarts, thyme and raspberries on the chocolate souffle tarts. Lemon verbena's my new drug of choice. Except, I just learned (and why do people not tell me these things?) that we actually have some rose geranium growing in the flowerpot right outside our store.

So I'm thinking, something with the following: graham crackers, breton dough, plums, ganache, rose geranium cream. That is really two desserts and I'm going to have a pick a course and stay my hands. What goes with plums? Damned if I know. I've only ever made plum soup from that first menu at Sonsie and that was served with lemon yogurt and some kind of tuile, and didn't go over well at all. Also thinking of making a dessert in homage to the famous plum poem. But how would I illustrate the icebox, the implied company, the requisite formica counter, the man with the neat part in his hair [for these are all things i think about when i think about plums], the sadness within that knowledge? Rose geranium cream over ganache, but from there, where? I'm not much of a poet. Brevity is not my thing and I tend to stick to the details too much, the intricacies of a lived life and worries of an anxious mind.

Avoiding packing. Not quite sure how it got to be ten o'clock. Getting better at decorating the cupcakes, according to the boss. I'm not one of those pretty,prissy girls, but damn, I always wanna try.

Oh! + shortcakes. Biscuits almost there. The cream scones I tried out today had a really nice mouthfeel, great crumb, crunchy on the outside. This recipe was from Cook's Illustrated, quite possibly the most boring if earnest food magazine ever, modified by me to include 1/3 part cake flour. Still missing the cornmeal crunch and fantastic rise of the preferred biscuits, but it's been really great to take a recipe apart and learn bit by bit why I like what I like. i also sort of want to make the biscuits but with maple syrup instead of sugar but 1)they're barely very sweet anyway, 2)there's no maple syrup here and it's not local OR seasonal, and 3)not ideal for strawberry shortcakes.

Goal for next week: to not make my shortcakes look like pac-man style monsters. I just get really excited and earnest. I want to give people LOTS of berries and LOTS of cream. Like Bakesale Betty's does. So i toss some verbena-kissed berries on the biscuit, pack a punch of whipped cream, mound more berries on top and doff the biscuit-top hat at a lovely angle. My strawberry shortcakes are the summer you wish this was. They're Nantasket beach or Crane's beach, soft serve dipped in chocolate, skinny teenaged girls with eyeliner and cigarettes hanging from their lips. My shortcakes stay out too late, soak up the heat, burn their fair Irish skin and then peel, have sand stuck between their toes. My shortcakes ain't exactly pretty but they've been around some and they think they know a thing or two but they've got another think coming. They need to be a little more contained. Or, they *should*. I'll pretend I'm making shortcakes for the Jefa. After all, they're not just going on any dough anymore.

Friday, June 29, 2007

heft and weight of it

In the past two days I have made, more or less chronologically, the following:

6 vanilla cake batters
1 batch lemon curd
1 batch passionfruit curd
1 batch each of vanilla buttercream, chocolate buttercream, lemon buttercream, raspberry buttercream
1 batch cream cheese frosting
2 batches chocolate frosting
2 9" upside down cakes with mixed stone fruit
15(?) individual-sized upside down cakes with mixed stone fruit
10 servings peach leaf panna cotta with [leftover] peach caramel
vanilla syrup
lavender syrup
peach leaf syrup
20 servings shortcake/biscuits [up this week: cream scone dough modified with cake flour. what's missing: the cornmeal I left in my freezer.]
1 qt. pastry cream
7 roasted apricots
14 servings vanilla cake, soaked in vanilla syrup
2 chocolate cake batters
2 batches caramel
2 batches lemon curd

On the bus tonight I noticed Laiola for the first time, though of course I'd been expecting it. Interested in checking it out, though Spanish food is really not my thing and the menu on their site really doesn't interest me much...the entrees seem random, California cuisine, the dessert sounds downright horrible (which is sad, because the dessert I've had at Frisson--and the other food items also--have all been nothing short of wonderful. Except that grainy coconut sorbet and entirely uninteresting orange sorbet, which was more than made up for by that sublime green apple sorbet and the perfectly textured mango. Sorbet, it's a killer. Laiola seems like a good fit for the neighborhood, but what I'd really like to see is the architecture of the place. If it's anything like the over-designed funkiness of Frisson. And there is actually (can this really be true?) nothing on Chowhound about Laiola, so I cast the first stone, a question. Are they even open yet and if so what's the buzz? I do have to say, really not impressed with their website. It mentions the chef and then goes on to discuss the value of Spanish wine and the price point of carafes, costs of cocktails, how to get your drink on. From the main page you would have no clue they focus on house-made charcuterie. I don't even eat meat, for the most part, and even I know this is something there'd be a reasonable hope of making a selling point.

Tangentially, I would really like to eat a meal at a table. With knife, if necessary, and fork! From an actual plate. As opposed to a meal standing up, a meal consumed while walking, a meal taken squatting outside the FB where all the bums pass out. A meal that I made or that someone I know made me. A meal not composed of pastry goods. Tonight's meal, eaten out of styrofoam container with plastic fork: white rice, green beans, orange or lemon chicken from the Gourmet China Express place. Next week though it's Chez Panisse and the fine dining options of Healdsburg.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

beginnings, endings

I have reconciled with the chocolate cherry cake. It has been much maligned in these pages of late, and so I'm glad that we have come to terms, because people really do like chocolate and cherries and flourless chocolate cake substances, even if they're not especially captivating to me.

When I originally made the cake I used David Lebovitz's recipe from Ripe for Dessert, substituting cherry conserve for the candied cherries, and I think this was actually my favorite version, but it didn't sell well at all. Next step, once cherries arrived of course, was cherries cooked in syrup with David's cake...too moist, and too dominated by chocolate.

The next step was to find a basic flourless chocolate cake recipe and add in the cherries. The chocolate was less dominant (actually only used cocoa powder), but it was too challenging to handle.

For the birthday cake it was requested I use up some of the ancient, pre-divorce Guittard semisweet from the Berkeley Bowl (there's a Bay area mouthful). I took (if you love me, buy me a digital scale) approx. 2/3 cup of the Guittard chips and approx. 3/4 of the bar of Scharffen Berger 70%. The blend of chocolates worked really well, ad the Guittard tamed down the winey intensity of the Scharffen Berger and allowed the cherries to really come through. A much better balance of flavors. It was really appreciated by the party guests. Which was nice, yknow, cause it didn't really look like much. Flourless cake or any souffle like cake tends to look like crap. I left it unadorned. We ate it with chocolate mousse and ice cream. It's been a very, very long times since I had a non-Sonsie chocolate mousse.

However, it is still too moist. There really isn't any liquid, aside from what little the cherries ooze out...maybe if I make it again I shall drain them well...Not really sure how to correct that otherwise. Cake being too moist, what an odd problem.

I've got lots of odd problems right now. Lots of things on the brain. I took a long bike ride tonight through Fruitvale and again was reminded of Poughkeepsie. There's even a building on International that looks just like the old mental health hospital on Route 9 right across from the CIA. Poughkeepsie, maybe I will see you in the fall? When there's not much growing on the farm except for bitter greens and my farmer friend is tired. But nevermind that. I'll never get to Poughkeepsie without a car. So it will be my last meal was here, and my last adventure was the chocolatier. Poughkeepsie. I've got to get back. Maybe the farmer will fetch me? Bus to New York and the the familiar train ride from platform 36? The places we love aren't always pretty and who can possibly understand my deepest love for Poughkeepsie, New York?

The east is coming to me, in packages and in persons, all month next month. I want to smell the salt on the water; I want to feel the heat heavy in the air.

Lately I've been thinking about intentionality and cooking. What we are cooking out of. What is on our minds during the actual act. I'm trying to cook only from positive places. It's a struggle to always hold on to that love and compassion for strangers. Cooking is giving away the best parts of yourself. So is writing, but you can't see words or their effect on people, and so it's almost still your guarded secret. In cooking the things you make are real, tangible, and to the outside eye not defined by or created by anything per se. But it really should come from the best place, because otherwise there's just so much heartache in the business, why bother?

Cooking. Making me a nicer person? I dunno, you tell me.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

moving to the leeward side

Change is always hard. There are the inevitable recriminations; you think it's not that bad it was never that bad.

You remember all the good times. And the bad ones. You begin to notice everything, reading fortunes in patters and adding up things that go down.

Yesterday was homey. Today was like this:

And things have been stressful at home. Your roommate comes into your room and asks if there is anything she can do. She has clearly seen the birthday cake, baked.

There is nothing she can do. The birthday party is tomorrow, and your boxes will be gone by then. All of the really fun stuff is packed. The books, the cooking things. The useful drawers all gone empty.

Or nearly so. (lemon verbena ice cream, cantaloupe sorbet, pear sorbet, pear ginger scones for Sunday, rose petals, lemon verbena, coffee, frozen chicken broth, frozen enchilada sauce, pistachios, more coffee)

You are quiet while she stands in the doorway. You know you will remain friends but that things are weird right now. You are not sure how the information current works in this house. You cook the birthday cake and then to use the half and half that is two days passed and the eggs you had to buy for the cake you make butterscotch pudding. The flavor is complicated in your mouth. You like the distraction from packing up, but then you have to pack up your kitchen things, most of them. Food is something level to hold on to, but it is also emotional currency. Food is something concrete, food means you are still here, cooking is a thing you can do where the rules are always the same (and always clear). And you don't like the way your body feels when you eat out every night, or at least the kind of meals that are readily available to you where you live now.

You take the dog out. You know the Fruitvale house was only a temporary option. It's hard to believe you've been here four months already. When you moved to Oakland, you had three boxes and a station wagon. You had nothing, but now you have so much more. You can't move across the Bay Bridge in one trip, this time.

If you had stuck to the original plan, this is about the time you would have been heading back to Boston. Your internship would have been over and you would have maybe been kicking around for one more month or so. If you hadn't like it here, finally, that is. And now you've been in California for double the amount of time you previously had (always in the East Bay, though). You got fired from the internship. You got a job at a cute bakery, which uses locally sourced products and makes cupcakes that taste good. You think about the internship, turning it over in your mind. You would be done by now. You wonder what happened with the other interns, if things were different for them. You avoid the Food Mill because you don't want to run into Miette people but sometimes you do and stories trickle down to you. You think about all the reasons this move is right for you. You think too much. A woman steps out of a car in a marijuana haze and starts talking to you or mostly to the dog. In between coos she chats you up I like your belt, ooh, I like your shorts and you try to have a reaction other than ...... She wants to see you around again and you nod like this is normal, shake your head at Oakland as you walk down the street, walk slowly home. You let yourself have some of that butterscotch pudding you made earlier. Your dog passes out at the other end of the bed. All around you the emptinesses glare out. You are trying just to be a little still, in the middle of the craziness around you, but you wonder if you've taken advantage of every opportunity. If you've had all your last looks. You know you'll come back at least occasionally, after all it isn't that far and you have actual friends in the East Bay but still you return like a lover to your favorite spots. As you walk, you never fail to be surprised by seeing something, or someone, differently, even as everything else changes shape.

Monday, June 25, 2007

mucho mas mantecadas hoy

It's nice to be working in a supportive environment. Cupcakery gets minute we'll have a rack FULL of cupcakes decorated nicely, and production will be winding down but not over, and we'll all be going home in a couple hours. So we bake more to satisfy the evening rush, and then while those are nicely cooling the shop will get slammed, the stock will move and those nice end-of-the-day cupcakes will become the right now cupcakes...which means more end-of-the-day cupcakes, which means more baking, which means more work usually seven or seven point five hours into an eight hour shift. Last week I was about to get slammed this way, and it was Friday so I'd been working since five anyway and was hoping to make it to the Trans March in far-away Dolores Park or if things ran too late over to Mamasita's to have some sangria with my coworkers...All of a sudden there were no decorated cupcakes and I wasn't going anywhere anytime soon, until I finished production and frosted lots of cupcakes. My coworkers signed out changed into shimmery, tight, girly shirts and took their hair out of pigtails. They put on makeup. Then they frosted cupcakes for me.

It's been a long time since I dressed up nicely to go out. It's been a longer time since nicely dressed women helped me out of a jam.

Today (just like last Monday...) was slow to start off and then rushed and crazy toward the end. And I had an appointment at 3:30/4 but we didn't want to leave our coworkers with buttercreams to finish and six trays of cupcakes to bake, so we took inventory, finished baking the cupcakes, got them de-panned and ready for frosting, dealt with the plumbing emergency. I could have gone home earlier. I probably should have gone home what with the overtime and all. But I just couldn't do that to my lil punk baker.

Inspired by this post I think I'm going to go back to Bakesale Betty tomorrow and get some delicious scones to share with my coworkers on Sunday. And a little something for me. Also for Sunday: homemade pizza dough (not by me) with a surprise on top. Wild mushrooms? Bitter greens? Lil tomatoes? We're on such a bread kick. Even though our sourdough starter c o m b u s t e d.

Seriously. One morning we all came in and the yeasty living thing smelled like nailpolish remover. Was it the cake flour? Was the raisin water not providing enough natural yeast? Every time I fed it I'd look at it later and see how it had changed from a sad mixture to a bubbling living thing. I guess when you decide to wing breadmaking without knowing the intricacies (and we actually never made our own sourdough starter back in school in Boston) you're bound to run into some rough patches. So. Research. The breadmaking will not be stopped.

Thinking over what I want to do about something. Not sure yet.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

notes on the market

The FB was crazy on Saturday! Crazy with crying babies, crazy with too many people shuffling through the halls, crazy, just...crazy.

The smiling woman from Knoll Farms hurries over and hands me top-secret a large plastic bagged brimming with my lemon verbena. I don't know what you guys are going to do with it she said. But it just starts to go after you cut it
Not ten minutes later she came by to make sure it was all right and since I'd only chucked it into the fridge without looking I went to go verify that it was perfect and it was.

In the morning I went with my manager to get eggs and berries. Standing in my still-spotless chef's coat in the calm between 7 and 8, getting eggs from the guys at Petaluma and raspberries from Yerena's, blackberries from someone else because they're neighbors of our farmers. All of us hunkered down and shooting furtive, smiling glances, having ingested one cup at least of coffee and risen in the darkness in Brentwood or Watsonville or Winters or plain old Oakland. Walking down the aisle toward the safety of the buildings (lemon meringue tarts half-=decorated and un-torched inside) a woman calls out to me, to us What are you going to do with all those eggs?

What indeed? "Raspberries: would have seemed a more logical choices. Lots of things I told her. But right them my manager wanted to throw them at people and so did I. People who don't understand that half a case of eggs is kinda heavy and definitely fragile especially when resting on half a flat of berries, and when you're just a girl who's got no muscles even though she throws her weight around a kitchen, well...dios mio.

Inside toss berries in fridge, go back to work. Work like a maniac, like a dog, work in a trance. Finish up one item (lemon tartlettes with raspberries on top, lemon meringue, chocolate souffle, linzer cookies, peach leaf panna cotta) and move the next thing one step along. It helps to see the big picture, to think if I chop all the strawberries now I can let some macerate in the lavender cream and some macerate with the lovely lemon verbena and then I'll be done with strawberries and can move on to filling the fresh fruit tarts, get those out, bake lavender tarts, whip cream for shortcakes.

Shortcakes. Still working on the recipe. Saturday I used the Frog Hollow cream scones since I'd run out of time Friday to make the biscuit recipe I'd planned on trying, and though I'd liked them before with cream scones this time I was not enthused. Last week's David Lebovitz biscuits would have been perfect with BBQ, but were too crisp and savory and just wrong. Settling on the mix of flours: AP, cake, cornmeal. Still like my totally all-wrong attempt at theeggbeater biscuits best so far, but at least I'm starting to understand why.

But in the middle of all this normal sounding plating and making and baking frozen ham n cheese turnovers is the market, the market. Lines out the door and there may be a breeze out there but it's getting kinda hot in the kitchen. I'd get more coffee but I can't get through and when I go out to bring a plate of something just finished and survey the damage I'm drawn to the breeze outside, the market. People are selling things I want and I'm stuck in here and it's hard to hold on to perspective when you're sweating and you haven't had a proper meal in a couple days, you only got four hours of sleep in the first place, and the caffeine you jacked yourself up with for the morning bake is wearing off plus you have to pee. Only you can't leave.

It was early in the market by the time we got both ovens cranked up to 400 spitting out frozen pastries. The asst. manager came over apologetic and sleepy with a list of new things to bake and I was mincing something for shortcakes. The girl bent to sniff my cutting board-apricot pits, strawberry tops and scone crumbs--to ask what IS that?

l e m o n v e r b e n a , clearly. Or should I say my new favorite thing? I only used a tiny sprig but it made the shortcakes taste so so good. And I got the lemon verbena bag out and made the girl sniff it. Cmon just stick your head in the bag. Heaven, Heaven in a bag. Knoll Farms should visit me every week.

Finally escaped to pee for just a minute, tripping down the hallways slightly dirty from roughing up blackberries, up the steps, through the people, back downstairs to negotiate the complications of buying things from the FB market or who gives you discounts and who does not, tried to find out how much a former friend's mission figs were, was treated rudely, back into the building in time to flip the pastries over, back to the grind. Turn, switch, repeat, try to ignore callings of food, hunger, down some water even though caffeine is wanted but it's too hot. Cranky people trying to take away our only chair. So they can sit in it. In the crowded hallway outside Boulette's don't I pleaded. We'll never get it back Eggs we whisper, eggs, and we get the asst. manager on our side, who can we egg and when? where? within reason? are we too mean? can we get fired, well what are we doing wrong we're just talking? but would you want your friendly farm market people to be like us whispering eggs eggs while whipping your cream, mauling stone fruit with dull dull knives that have never been kissed by a sharpening stone, carrying out pastries that make you speak in a hushed voice WHAT is THAT. you need to know yes you do. Sweet upside down cakes glistening like stained glass windows. And of course the babycakes made their debut--I never thought I'd be the kind of person making something called a babycake but I am and it's so cute and so what I want to do and I need to tell all about it but first I want the picture to show it off properly

. Enough to say it's vanilla with roasted apricot and the vanilla cake is Hi Rise Renee's which means the best damn teacake/pound cake you ever tasted so good you'd beat up schoolkids waiting for the bus just to use their lunch money for a piece from the end with the crust and all the syrup soaked in. So good you'd turn shifts in someone's kitchen just for a chance to steal that recipe, only you don't have to because the best chef you know up and gives it to you, she's so generous. So all that with roasted apricots (which need to be darker. earthier. winier. sexier. ) and a crunchy caramel glaze that shines and beckons you all sweet and monochromatic and makes your mouth wonder what is under there and how is it going to feel, yes all that in the size of a cupcake now we're talking hot DAMN why are there only ten of them really nine. Not quite perfect. But the way the apricot slides under the caramel buoyed by the cake, well, it's worth it.

But the market all the while children screaming now and you're tired, still hungry, realize you did not make custard base yesterday and you have to make it bake the bread pudding and you've still got four hours worth of work across town plus you'd really like some food and then there's a last round of pastries for the oven. Remember the bag of Knoll farms lemon verbena when your manager gets loopy and take it out. Make her hold her head in the bag. Sniff. Breathe deeply. This really works. The lemon verbena is magic and you remember to put it in the freezer because it's all you've got time to do but really you're thinking now what else can I do with this magic? Pastries in the oven. Bread pudding in the oven. Meanwhile you forget, you all forget, that you're in an open kitchen and all those people can see you. S l a p the counter with your wet rag cause the child's been crying fifteen minutes, go in the back and eat a snack, whatever you can find. Girls approach you and point to peaches asking if they're your nectarines and you correct them, hustle out to see what's needed, what is done, and then somehow it's all over again.

The logistics of flan, better apricots, making it through another weekend of doubles and falling asleep at 8 pm dreaming of morels and other mushrooms for a past a dinner and going to a party at the house of one of your crushes, having a very intense phone conversation with a friend when the crush stepped into the room. When you wake try to remember what really happened (none of it), where you have to be and when, resolve tonight to make your bed because you haven't put the clean sheets on it in almost a week and you're getting cold sleeping on the comforter.

As you are between places, remember how alive you feel doing this work and being here and how hard you worked to come here and how you are doing exactly what you hoped beyond hope would be your most longed-for job situation, and how the craziness of it all is always okay and the products make it through. Feel more alive that you have in a really long time (is it the writers group, the weather, the crushes, the fact you're moving to SF very very soon, what is it, if is it at all important to know?)

And Happy Pride. My coworker recalls his first pride parade in the late seventies in St. Louis MO. Some of the marchers, and some of the participants, were wearing paper bags over their head. To let their bodies count but to not be seen. And while I and my queer colleagues were working all weekend long, I'm so thankful for the now (we *did* get to educate our colleague on the symbolism of the pink triangle so some pro-pride work was accomplished at the cupcakery today). Of course there's still some uphill fighting left to do, but I"m always spoiling for a fight. Wouldn't be a lil punk baker otherwise.

Friday, June 22, 2007

what I'm thinking about these days

projects in the works, desserts appearing soon perhaps, etc.

sweetness: am I supposed to bake a variety of products with different sweetness levels to please different people?

do I overuse vanilla?

I always imagined heaven was made from buttercream one of the writers said to me just the other day.

who tags cake, and why?

flan for the FB: how am I supposed to make flan without ramekins? Manager suggested making it in disposable molds but custard needs something firm so as not to be damaged. Flan in muffin tins? Flan in silpat? How to get ramekins from the farm?

herbs: I'm getting half a pound of lemon verbena tomorrow at the market. Current plan is to macerate some strawberries in it for the shortcakes but what else am I going to do with the bundle of lemon verbena that is left?

politics of FB: Manager said nobody carried organic lemon verbena except for one vendor who tended not to bring it to the saturday market as the was no market for it. But this is just not true...who gets to decide who we buy things from because is doesn't seem to be me.

New berries: ollalieberries, huckleberries, fraises des bois, tayberries, boysenberries, want to try in raw form if possible.

new project: why are the cable stitches so much harder to knit after I slip them back onto the needle?

mushrooms: how no one ever told me that if you cook them long enough you cook out the water and they smell deliciously like teriyaki, or char from the grill. how if someone had told me long ago that mushrooms taste like lapsang souchong, like teriyaki, like crunchy caramelization, like earthy woodsy slightly buttery vegetation I would have been much more prone to eating them. how they possibly tried to tell me that but I would not listen.

how i can remember bacon, but not pork.

how goodreads has made so many people feel better including me.

gelatin: totally gross, but really amazing at the same time.

potato bread with a pesto swirl.

retro kick: interested in making bubble gum ice cream, and actually I bought some today at Mitchell's. I remember it being bright pink and with bright gum that was really chewy when you ate it, but one of the cupcake girls thought it was bright blue. The Mitchell's stuff was bright blue with this disappointing gum that was more like jawbreakers. Quite expensive for a scoop of extremely aerated ice cream. what does it it taste like after all? cotton candy, sort of, but what does cotton candy taste like?

today our sourdough starter began smelling like nailpolish remover. was it the cake flour? the raisin water?

how to be better, faster, more productive.

how plums are really something special...and the santa rosas, they're decent but they're not my plum. how I really like the Jade nectarines...but we only had them for a week.

how the other day one of my crushes told me she could tell i was from the east coast.

how i cross the streets when i shouldn't.

how i left virtually everything back east, and when will i get it, and how?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

notes on eggs

How do you crack your eggs? Do you think about it? Do you notice when the yolk is whole or runny, if it is yellow like marigolds or buttercups, yellow like Easter dresses, if it is golden? Do you feel when the white is thicker close to the yolk? Do you know what that means? Do you know all of the names of the parts of an egg? Are you especially good at cooking eggs? When you separate eggs, do you do it like your mother first showed you, back when you were just a girl who still wore dresses, and if it wasn't your mother who showed you, then who?

What does it say about you, how you crack your eggs?

In school we separated our eggs slowly into plastic measuring cups, not having been taught any tricks. In school we talked, worked sometimes in pairs, marveled at double yolks. We were not taught to be good egg cooks.

On my first job I cracked flats of eggs into large metal pitchers eighty or ninety at a time. The grumpy baker told me to take one in each hand and smash them together lightly, letting the egg crack the egg. He was always sighing as he pulled out eggshells, but then again, he was always sighing over something.

At Temple Bar I cracked my eggs slowly, slowly, and always before I ran upstairs to the stove to boil cream for custard bases or ice cream. I was a ghost in a grey basement, just passing through.

At Sonsie however I cracked my eggs it wasn't good enough. When separating I was supposed to crack them open with one hand, letting the egg fall into my other hand and gently hold the yolk. This was hard for me to manage and my hands did a one-two waltz as the left never trusted the right to do anything properly.

At Oleana, I cracked eggs rarely, but always composted the shells.

At Miette we were taught to lay the eggs in dozen boxes twelve or so at a time with flaps interlocking. We broke eggs six at a time into a bowl and scooped out the yolks with one hand, sliding the yolks on our palms. The whites we dumped into buckets for someone to make something out of, most likely buttercream.

Now I crack my eggs with parchment underneath the flat and one egg in each hand. A sharp rap and then I pull it open. Deposit the shell back in the flat, trade the free egg into the left hand, reach underneath for another egg, and in between find the space to rap, crack, slip. I am light on my feet and sway, letting my hands lead my body where it falls best as I get through the eggs, doing a little egg dance unobserved in my cramped kitchens.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

apples, big and otherwise

Did you listen to Fresh Air on NPR today? Russ Parsons was on and it was all about seasonal fruit! I learned that Red Delicious apples are made so red by the very thing that makes them taste bitter and not at all how an apple should taste. And new apple breeds (heirlooms or hybrids?) started coming into popularity--beginning with the Fuji, bred in Japan and then trans-atlanticized to our shores so we could grow them and sell them to Asians, in the day before anyone cared about local food--and people could really begin to taste apples again. Apples that tasted like apples.

I think my first trip back east will be in time for apple picking. But my cute new dogwalker just sent me this article which made me want a different sort of apple. New York New York, the bitter apple. My love-hate relationship's been turning sweet lately as I miss the idiosyncrasies of that city.

This morning my friend Dale invited me to join Because I am a sucker for books and literature, I did, and invited many of my friends to join, thinking it would be really sweet if they did but believing none of them would. Over half of them did! And many sent me emails or called me. One even accused me of writing about all of these incomprehensible things here--blah blah blah buttercream, blah blah blah chef-name-drop, blah blah blah pate sucree. But then we talked about maybe meeting New York.

Today I connected with my friends through literature. Wouldn't it be wonderful if that happened every day?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

what is a chef?

What do chefs look like? What do they do?

Today in Sur La Table I presented my fancy dish towels and OXO cherry pitter to the cashier and asked for the professional discount. Yes, certainly, he replied, asking for my name and punching away loudly at the computer. Then he asked me if I could verify where I was working, because they had me in the computer but not as professional level. Hmmm, I said. I had business cards in my wallet with proof of Boston-area pastry professionalism, but nothing out here. I work in the Ferry Building and they know me so they just give me the discount I said. I didn't add that I'm usually wearing whites at the time, so (clearly) a chef. I flashed him my business card and he upgraded me in the computer.

Then I went across the street to Stonehouse to get some fancy olive oil and balsamic vinegar for my mother's birthday, because their dark balsamic is so good it's going to make me have to stop pretending I don't like balsamic vinegars (well okay I like them reduced down, with cream, such a baker, sheesh). And the cute fag behind the counter tells me he thought I was here for the bike shop and not the Stonehouse products. I tell him about Sur La Table.

While at Ici having lovely ice cream--chicory chocolate chip and gingersnap which was lemony and bright if a touch too grainy on the mouth--I thought about my day. (And it's a good thing I'm moving to SF soon or I'd go to Ici every day. I LOVED it.)

When I was a kid I fell in love with a profession with no money, vague hints of success, and no clear career path. I was going to be a writer! It was marginally better than what I'd hit on before, an actress. As I finished high school and put myself through the best college I could get into, I still thought I'd be a writer. I thought it would happen if I read the right books, if I made friends and mentors of my teachers. One day it's just happen and then there I'd be, a writer. If I worked on lit mags, if I tried to get published, if I stayed up till three a.m. writing a story. All of these more benchmarks on the way to writer-dom. But if I went ahead and got my MFA, then I'd be one leap closer to the real thing. If I got a job as an editorial assistant and lived in Brooklyn or Queens, commuted to Simon and Schuster or Scholastic or Penguin Putnam or, my favorite, Vintage Contemporaries (division of Random House), I'd also be on my way. I collected books and authors, kept (and still keep) annual reading lists. I read the writing guides. I sought out queer writers and invited one of them to read at my college. Then I got out of college. I lived in New York. I worked a desk job, 9-5 and struggled severely with all of those questions you have when you're 22. I wanted all these things in life, but how was I supposed to get them doing this? Here? No one I knew in New York was really happy...or doing anything we wanted to be doing...we were all just sort of hanging on and trying to get ahead.

I was accepted into the MFA program at Emerson College and moved back to Boston.

I learned a few things at Emerson, but one of the main ideals that became my practice during my time there was this: claim yourself. Claim yourself as a writer because the world isn't going to do you any favors. All hundred-plus of us at Emerson were geeks, nerds, budding poets or screenplay writers, essayists or novelists. Most of us worked full or part time. Most of us were female, and white, and though this has changed since I began, only a handful of us were queer. It was challenging enough to write stories with a different voice and from a different place than my peers, but while living out the MFA dream I realized it wasn't going to get me where I wanted to go. It might land me an editorial assistant gig, if I took some publishing classes. It would let me teach as soon as I published something hot and earned a reputation. But the MFA wouldn't make me a writer. It gave me time, and a room full of peers. But I was still going to have to make my way as a writer alone.

Halfway through my MFA I decided to go to culinary school, because I was getting old enough to realize I wanted a real, steady career and I didn't want to graduate and sit behind another desk. A couple weeks later there I was, in my first professional kitchen. In school, the pastry girls didn't really understand what I was doing, dashing from cooking class in Cambridge across the river to writing class in Boston. At Sonsie, during my last semester of grad school, no one got it either. I handed in my thesis, I'd say. I'm finished. I have my masters. I'd only get stares. They didn't have to ask me why I was getting my masters if I was a pastry cook...or why I was being a pastry cook if what I wanted was to write books. The duality was outside their comprehension or realm interest. In every kitchen I entered, I had to make the same claim: I'm a writer. And, yes, a baker. A chef.

Claim yourself. No one else is going to do it for you.

The expectations are similar for chefs. What does a chef look like? Not like this.

What does a chef do? What does a chef wear? Are bakers really chefs anyway? I call myself a baker and I don't think it's a pejorative word. But some people do. At work sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking that my experience is more valid or more strong than other people's experience because I've worked in restaurants. This is egotistical whether or not it's true. My industry is pretty hot right now, and the restaurant scene is the scene. Those of us who work at tiny, independent bakeries, or for caterers, or for bread-makers, or for farmers, or for ourselves...well, we're somehow less than. Other than.

We are taught that restaurants are sexy, if a little scary. Chefs are (usually)Male. Older. White. Straight. Cooks are younger version of Chefs. There is a mystique and culture to being a chef that gets represented to the general public by Anthony Bourdain, Jamie Oliver, Tom Colicchio. Being queer in the kitchen is hard and it's something I haven't always been forthright about. Being a women in the kitchen, also tough sometimes. Being in the kitchen and having claim to a life outside the kitchen--being a writer in the kitchen--well, it makes you a little untrustworthy. A little suspect.

I'm outside the culture, but where am I? Do I call myself a baker, and with pride? I don't call myself a pastry chef, not comfortably. That would imply some amount of knowledge, skill, status, power, and income I just do not have right now. The girls at Frog Hollow want to call me "pastry chef extraordinaire." Especially when I purposefully drop things so they can try them. But I don't want that title. I'm not just a baker, not just a cook, although I do those things. I'm the girl running around with cherry juice stains on her hand, the girl the guys at the Berkeley farm market ask about the burns on her arms. I'm a writer, and a cook, but what to call myself, how to claim it? Short of wearing whites at all times, I can't dress the part. I'm a chef I tell them. I'm a professional but I don't look the part, whatever that might mean to whoever. Maybe I'll self-identify as a pastry sous chef. Almost a big name, covering the chef's ass at all times, powerful in her own right but without the pressure to prove an identification.

I'm going to go work on a story now, about someone who covets being a baker. It's hard to write about bakers from around the shadow of Raymond Carver's A Small, Good Thing. Because the last things I want to be is a bad imitation of Raymond Carver.

Monday, June 18, 2007

the joys of home baking

Are there better things to do than come home from your 48 hour work week, take your dog grocery shopping, and pick blackberries from your backyard? I think not. I've got perhaps 2 cups of ripe berries, which means tomorrow I get to make cornmeal dough from the Chez Panisse Fruit book and do tartlettes. I'll even give them to the writers on Wednesday if they turn out well...I've still got last week's pie kicking around and that Clover half and half the fridge is really just an excuse to make more custards since the peach leaf custards from last week didn't turn out so well. I took the proportions and infusion instructions from the peach leaf parfait and used them for creme brulees and the resulting custard is so bitter only my Persian mananger at Frog Hollow would like it :( (but the panna cottas and peach leaf syrup were flavored perfectly. hmph.)

The peach leaf custard itself, though (courtesy of David Lebovitz rather than Cheffy for the small batch size), is so smooth and sexy and eggy-perfect despite only needing 20 minutes in a 350 degree oven and not the 50 minutes the recipe suggests.

My old boss would be nodding gruffly and pleased to see me covering my custards tightly with foil and making sure they don't curdle. I'm pleased, but I want edible, sweet custard...ginger-lemon, perhaps, or plain vanilla bean with blackberries?

The roommate requested the chocolate cherry tart I was never than pleased with for her birthday present. She said she tried to think of all the things she'd had she'd liked the best recently and came up with that. I shrugged and asked pastry chef questions pertaining to which version she liked best, how she felt about the winey taste of Scharffen Berger 70% (she wants me to mix some with the E. Guittard 62% kicking around the house), discussed how I have to candy my sale bin cherries from last week's Berkeley Bowl trip. Still got my Blenheims which ideally I'll roast and think about how I want to roast my apricots for the vanilla babycakes (butter, pepper, honey, nada mas?). I'm very VERY happy I'm making vanilla cakes because I adore that recipe. And look forward to snacking. I'm happy to make her the chocolate cherry cake...but I wish I liked it better.

Cupcake craziness over for another week. Sometimes it gets daunting, looking at all those cupcakes. Thinking about all those cupcakes. I'll make 30 L of batter, or bake two Cambros and frantically make more. De-pan in quick 2x2 succession. The boss liked my piping technique this morning--I'm happy.

Dinner now. Mushrooms, zucchini, onion and roma tomatoes sauteed with pasta. Got them all at Mi Ranchito for a dollar. Soon, I'll get to go to the Thursday night FB market...but no mas Mi Ranchito. Add it to the things to miss about the East Bay.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

nuts and bolts, and yeast

(I used to live on a farm).
I say that I don't like fruit, but this is not the case. For years I've naturally gravitated toward a locally-grown fruit policy: I don't eat much fruit because most fruit, when you live in the Northeast, tastes like crap most of the time. I have always adored a few things: cherries, Maine blueberries, raspberries and apples. Apples I'm very particular about. They're more of a memory-fruit, a ritual. My mother always made apple pie (and she still does, but she does not make her crust). Every year we'd go picking, which when you're little is an excuse to climb apple trees and when you're big is an excuse to act little. It was only in college when I worked at an orchard that I really got to figure out what kind of apples I prefer, and now I'm loyal to a fault. I'll make do with Cortlands for eating or baking but it's Northern Spy that I prefer, both for the poetics of its name and for the reserved beauty of its delicate colors. Pale pink meets spring green. Winesaps are a different breed, small and dark and painful to the teeth on first crunch.

The other thing my fruit farmers taught me well were plums. They'd been a confusing fruit, sometimes bitter and sometimes sweet, and I think I feel about the plum how most people feel about the peach. There's something deliciously sexy about its juiciness, its softness and its earnest nature. I tried long ones and skinny ones, small ones and red ones and blue ones, and I never learned the name of the plum I liked best, but they're small, blue-ish and matte.

While plucking peach leaves at work this weekend I made a resolution to go deep with stone fruit this summer. I'm going to try everything Farmer Al puts out until I understand peaches, nectarines and pears the way I understand apples. I'm going to go slow, and I'm going to be thorough. It may require lots more trips to the Berkeley Bowl (currently I've got Santa Rosa plums and Blenheim apricots in house). I'm going to take fruit apart. Give me a hammer and I'll crack open pits, make noyau ice cream. The peach leaves are frozen, cooked down into simple syrup, infused for custard, but what else? What next?

The knowledge I want may not come this summer, and that is okay. But it's going to start and it's an education that's long overdue. I don't really know fruit. While I follow the incorrect crisp recipes at work and come out with watery, weird cherry crisp, the guys eyeball tapioca flour by the handful and get rock-hard crisp. It's all ratios, baking. AP or cornstarch or tapioca. I asked my boss what to read, because she'd know. She makes jams and crisps and puff-pastry-filled concoctions, and she was vague. How do you transfer a lifetime of knowledge? How do you give someone what your hands have learned? How can you teach them to go by sight, instinct, educated guess? She suggested I read the pie bible. So yes, we'll hit up the library this week and take a walk around Lake Merritt (hit up bakesale betty's or ici or cafe fanny while we're running around, perhaps).

There are cultures and yeasty concoctions brewing around the cupcakery this week. Lavash ferment for crackers I'm baking tomorrow. I started the ferment Friday with some bread flour and water, today we added honey and prepared the dough, and after a long slow rise in the walk-in tonight she should be good to bake tomorrow with some malden salt and pepper. There's also a sourdough starter we're working on with raisin water, and cake flour (for now, till we get something with more gluten).
Michael Ruhlman has some great things to say about bread in "The Making of a Chef." I miss bread. Most of my fellow bakers at the cupcakery are disinterested. They'd rather decorate cake. Bread is so calming. Reliable. Sexy, if you know what you're doing. Bread responds to the weather, the air, the hiss of steam or water in a hot oven. Bread is about controlling your variables and adjusting for time. I love the ritual of kneading, waiting for first rise, shaping. Patience. I miss the sour smell of yeast and the feel of risen dough, the way it turns under your hands as you ball it. I love how the dough responds to my bread knife (I love that knife) when it's scored. I may be in the pleasure business but bread's practical, economic, never expensive.

I wrote a story about bread as ritual. It's in need of a redraft, but as it stands:

Eleven o’clock that night Leti banged on the door to my room. She showed me her bread, which was lumpy, misshapen and rock hard. I rapped it with my finger, and the crust tore into my skin. "Um, nice," I said. "I’ve got to get up early, though, just make sure you clean the kitchen before you go to bed, si?"
"It’s awful," Leti said. "I followed everything Henry told me. This looks like shit." Leti’s eyes threatened to overflow with tears. She wanted my friends to like her, she said.
"I want to have something for the party, you know, something nice. Everything’s so nice up here." She gestured with her hands at the air around us. "Your apartment, she added, your job, your friends, you have such a nice life, Junior," she continued. "Dios mio, be happy with it!"
"I see how you look at him," she said. "Your Will. I know how you feel, baby, I’m sorry."
I told her I’d need to take some of her sourdough starter. Will was not fair game for conversation. "I’ll take it to Stephanie." Stephanie was Abeille’s patissier and her breads were legendary. "Let me take the bread, too. I’ll help you fix it."
I didn’t want to help Leti, not at all. I wanted my house back and I wanted my friend back and I wanted a man in my bed.
"There’s something I want to tell you, about Ramon," Leti said. The no-good.
My capacity for compassion was exhausted, and I told Leti to save it. I shut the door on Leti and tossed her ugly bread on my dresser.

Friday, June 15, 2007

I really shouldn't stress so much about making Jello

...but trying to make gelee is just too funny...

Oh, I tried sea breams today from the exotic mushroom store in the FB. Salty and strange, though perhaps I might enjoy them in salad. Dinner, and sleep, and continued research into process of gelatinization, proper ratios of such to be put off until tomorrow.

notes from the kitchen sink

Information is the currency of every kitchen.

Apparently I understand enough Spanish to be drafted to help the dishwasher ask a question about his schedule to the boss (but really, I don't).

There's always a secret code of glances, a reason behind the style of walk or tone of voice or measured pace of work. I get in trouble in these kinds of systems because I don't like to play the game. Information=currency (but food=love, right?). I try hard. I voice concerns. Even if they're not always welcome. Today someone tried to convince me my concerns weren't welcome but then apparently that wasn't the case, but check back with me next week because I might have a different opinion about the matter then.

It's just food, people. Some famous chef or other once discussed never sending out a plate you weren't 100% satisfied with, that didn't represent your best. No half-assed adequate food, nothing you weren't proud to put your name behind. If it wasn't good enough fix it. Replate it. If it's too salty bake another batch. If it isn't right, don't bother. I'm trying to work up to that standard. I'd love to one day be there. Sometimes I am. Go have some bread pudding. Or cupcakes. Do it right, and quickly. In the workplace, I require two things above all: discipline and communication. And the secrets (the secrets of bakers, the secrets of managers, the secrets only the Mexican guys know, the secrets that don't translate from English to Spanish or back around) just fuck with my mental mise.

I'm doing lots of cleanup duty at the cupcakery, being the last baker there. I'm cleaning out the dishwasher, organizing the walk-in, writing the inventory count. I'm learning the nuts and bolts of its daily grind, the kind of things you only assimilate by doing over and over, thinking each one is beneath you. Until it hits you how they accumulate. How you know things that others probably don't simply by being aware and by cleaning up every day. If you want to know the politics of a kitchen, ask its dishwasher. So every task is education, if you approach it the right way.

I'm getting all sorts of crushes lately. Inappropriate and silly crushes. Perhaps because it's warm and the fruits are crashing into each other, peaches old news by now since plums and nectarines are sighted (but the new peaches are better, and I grin slyly while I eat small bites but save my enthusiasm for the Jade nectarine, so juicy I thought it was a plum). Maybe it's the bounty of the earth. Maybe it's having a home in the city at long last. Likely it's a phase, but I avert my eyes lest I blush. Too many crushes. It makes me giddy. I want to bake them all cupcakes. I want to make them all pie. I want to keep wearing a stupid smile while I work twelve hour days and figure out how to keep my mouth shut, how to make less of a mess of the powdered sugar, how to make a peach gelee, how to end a story so it resonates in the white space of the page.

Think about fiction with me. Eat plums with me. Recite Wallace Stevens though and I'll bake you anything you might ask for. The weather is bounty and I want to get out and play in it. Go camping. Biking. Hiking. Sit around and eat lots of ice cream, with or without cupcakes or pie.

(These, apparently, are the best cupcakes I ever made. I made them last 4th of July for a BBQ. Coconut buttercream (one of Cheffy's perfect recipes). Dyed-pink cake from some crap Nigella Lawson recipe. Decorations. These cupcakes were gone in under five minutes and some folks were two-fisting them. I'd like to think I could do better now...)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

taste, memory

It's hot out tonight in a sticky, East-coast kind of way, and I miss New York. Tonight while I walked the dog, I pretended I was in Poughkeepsie. It isn't hard. The streets of my neighborhood are alive in the same way the streets of Po-town are alive. The only stores open are places you don't really want to go in, places that hold weird hours. Dudes sit on the street corners and call out to you in a friendly sort of way. You overhear all sorts of sounds--music from the cars or houses, kids you feel like might have better places to be. There are too many liquor stores. There aren't enough places to get fresh produce. Where I am is mostly Mexican, and in Poughkeepsie the dominant culture is an uneasy blend of Italian and West Indian (mostly Jamaican) in the city, and white folks in the town. At the farm market across form Vassar I'd sell tomatoes to old Italian mamas and to the lady who ran the Vietnamese restaurant, and to young families with food stamps, my teachers, my friends.

But if I were in Poughkeepsie right now I'd find a way to get across my favorite bridge

and steal my favorite adventure buddy

away from her job as farmer this farm.

We'd take the train down to the city, and does it ever need another name or an introduction, that city? Then we'd be in my favorite place, Grand Central, and we'd run downstairs and hop one of the express trains downtown to Union Square where we'd wander the Greenmarket and I'd probably still be able to get some of my favorite apples from someone's cold cellar. I'd buy nuts from one of the street vendors. We'd go to Dean and Deluca's (again), because it's my New York ritual and I have to. I mean (of course) the one on Price Street, so that afterward we could go to HousingWorks bookstore and Kate's Paperie, and of course we would not have wandered to Dean and Deluca's without stopping at my other New York ritual, The Strand where with any luck I could finally buy myself a used copy of Claudia Fleming's cookbook and if my Hamptons-house-having friends could host actually eat some Claudia Fleming dessert. Right now. But in New York I'd cut across the Village to the Haagen Daaz by Carmine street and begin wandering the West Village looking for McNulty's. I'd go to Brooklyn. Walk through Prospect Park with my friends. Eat at Sea, and go to the bar with the really good burlesque, and order a pint of Yuengling and then a pint of Lager and drink them slowly. I'd actually visit the Doughnut Plant. I'd go to Fabiane's for some chocolate mousse. I'd remember how the streets smell and how they feel. How it feels to go rushing around like there's always someplace better you have to be, how it feels to put on that stone mask a simple act like getting to work requires, how it feels to be on the train clacketying through the center platform, on your way somewhere, now. How it feels to want so badly to be on your way somewhere. How it feels to be stuck.

I would ride the yellow trains all the way out to Coney Island and stand in that sand ditch, right at the point where the people are hidden and when you look straight ahead all you can see is sand and then ocean. The East Coast.

Maybe it's okay if someone else is doing these things right now. If some other girl is buying roasted nuts on her way home from work. If someone is having a pint with his buddy at Enid's or that black and red bar down by the L train. Some other cute baker is eating at North Fork tonight, or at Sea, or is just walking around listening to the crazy rush of New York and daydreaming of how the fog looks when it hangs low over the Golden Gate Bridge and it feels so good to be in the bright blue air and walking down Marina Blvd after a day of making cupcakes.

I've been doing lots of fiction-writing and it makes me introspective. But maybe it's just the heat, the way tonight feels like a thousand nights spent on the other side of the country.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

peach pie and cutie pie

Now that I'm truly officially moving to SF and quite soon, I've got to get around to all the little easy bay things I have yet to do, or the things I love. So today I went to the Albany shoreline trail and walked lil cutie pie around, then stopped by Berkeley bowl to get stuff for dinner and pastry testing (chicken with ras el hanout, smoky eggplant puree with homemade tortilla chips, salad greens, peach leaf custards). I can't quite decide...peach leaf Bavarian or peach leaf panna cotta. I don't like panna cotta, but people do and they're certainly more trendy than the Bavarian, plus I've worked with them and there's no muss and it'd be easy to bang out and pour on top of peach caramel or peach gelee (want to do gelee...don't quite know how and fear it'd be the same cloudy consistency and pukey-orange color as the peach juice they sell at Frog Hollow). At any rate I figure I should at least know what peach leaves taste like before I muck around with them at work.

After Berkeley bowl I stopped by Sweet Adeline for the most adult chocolate chip cookie experience I've had in a long time. It was a chocolate oatmeal cookie and it was nice and gritty from the oatmeal, chewy in the middle and crispy toward the outside and I kept getting chocolate smeared all over my fingers while I drove, but it was really good. Callebaut, maybe? Not Scharffen Berger 70%, which I do enjoy.

It's too hot for eating. Even if the food is going to be really good. I get this way in the summer, all whiny and wilted.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

biscuits n bernal heights

I'm moving to Bernal Heights!!

I'm going to be a stone's throw away from Tartine n BiRite n Ritual n Dolores Park n spunky hipster kids n cute ladies n punk boys. In just two weeks. In a house with a yard with avocado trees, baseball fans, lots of little dogs and a sunlit front room with my name on it. FINALLY, finally I can do other things with my free time than look for apartments. Finally I can get all the pieces of my west coast life together.

So tomorrow I'm making pie. Peach ginger pie with Frog Hollow peaches and Maura's buttery, flaky unbelievably textural dough. The dough is chilling right now.

But, biscuits. I've been trying new recipes all the time. The Frog Hollow default recipe calls for hard-cooked egg yolks sieved then added to the dough. And I don't understand what the yolks are there for...texture? Certainly not flavor profile.

So I tried Shuna's recipe at home, and they're pictured above. Because I don't have a scale here I had to convert all the measurements to cups and measuring spoons, and something was not right. When I added the cream (or crema, since the stores here have no real cream and I was too lazy to get to Albertson's) the dough got VERY liquidy. oops. So I kept adding alternating spoonfuls of AP and cornmeal and prayed...and they came out buttery-rich and perfect! I intended to make shortcakes, but really I just kept eating them warm with butter. Yum. They set the standard for biscuit improvement.

Those strawberries I'd bought just went to top my lemon verbena ice cream after macerating a while in some crushed lemon verbena leaves and sugar. Yum.

Then for work purposes I tried Emily Luchetti's shortcakes from "A Passion for Dessert." I doubled the recipe which maybe was a bad idea considering the leavening but they came out monstrously. Seriously, it was bad. Like, I cooked them for 20 minutes or so until they were brown and they'd sprung like wild. Then I took them out, cut into them when they were cool...totally raw inside. I cut them all, put them back in the oven, cooked them until they were cooked enough to be okay for consumption, and felt like a failed baker. The taste? They were okay, lemony, a little sweet. Not what I wanted. What I want is a texture-rich, buttery, slightly gritty biscuit that isn't too sweet. Kind of like those really great biscuits from Grandma Max's on the road in Kansas, which were possibly microwaved and from a mix, but were damn fine especially after a dozen hours of driving. Oh, I miss driving. And Boston, and decent summer weather.

Here are the bad Luchetti biscuits.

This week I'm giving David Lebovitz's another try for cornmeal biscuits.

I've put out a call for biscuit recipes to my coworkers. Keeping up the hard work, earning my scars.

Monday, June 11, 2007

notes from a bilingual kitchen

At the cupcakery, my fellow bakers and I are always trying to teach more English to the Mexican guys who work with us, and trying to pick up more Spanish from them. We've got the basics down, enough to say "mas zanahoria" and "dos bolsas chocolate." This morning found me trying to explain the concept of bragging to our 19 year old OCD dishwasher/prep guy who lines up all our cambros with the handles stacked in a perfect line. "Yo soy Miguel, rawr," posing with big muscles like a strongman. Then: "yo habla espanol, solo!" He laughs, but it's hard to know sometimes. What gets through? We thought we learned the word for mixer today but it was only sound, "sonido." In the kitchen we joke, we listen to energy or my ipod, we learn to force the overworked Mexicans to take a break. "Ahora," we say, "no mas trabajo. We'll do the dishes."

Bruce made crackers today with leftover flour tortillas and salt, and we had them with hummus. There's always snacks at the cupcakery, bagels or boxes of fruit picked up at Costco, cookies someone's made at home as if cupcakes aren't enough sweetness. With half a watermelon we made smoothies" watermelon, banana, lime juice, ice, some salt. Not great smoothies. Could have used some mint, some hot pepper. But nice to break up the day.

What I get from working at a bakery, what I haven't gotten in the restaurant scene, is bakers to talk about ideas with. Always the pastry person's alone, and at Sonsie every now and then Chef Bill and I would discuss things like making better muffins or how we could convince Michael to do a cupcake for the next menu, but this is different. I get to ask about things like if anyone has a good biscuit recipe. I get to share my idea for the roasted-apricot vanilla babycake with someone who won't just say "yum" but who will ask how much caramel, hard crack or soft. Someone for whom what I do is not just a component, so much less sexy than the crush of Saturday night service.

We want to make bread now, and crackers. I'm going to dig out some of Monte's recipes and Bruce is going to bring some in inspired by his Threestone internship. We've talked about starting a sourdough starter. I got Michelle into the idea of ice cream-injected cupcakes, so next batch, here we go. We feed off each other, on the good days. On the bad days we just bang stuff out in a flurry of decorating and scooping. But today was a good day, slow enough for cleaning and for talking. A nice way to end my new extra-long work week.

I've got some puttering to do at home,some peaches to make into pie and the bread recipes to search through, etc. I'm getting a reputation at the cupcakery apparently. Not at decorating (still can't pipe my way out of a room but I'm getting closer to the door). But for being good, for being fast.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

more stories from the kitchen

(just when i thought i'd worked that one out, sheesh, after six months of writing about my so-called profession, which is one third of the time i've actually been a cook, damn, which makes this about as long as i've stuck with anything professionally, excepting writing of course, which never goes away).

The line cook started to tell me her tale this afternoon, while I swept counters and creamed butter. How she isn't like the others at Abeille, how she doesn't do drugs or drink way too much, how she's nervous and new and tough but not cocky. How she's friends with the patissier because they work days. How she will have sex with the Chef in the walk in while the Chef's brokenhearted, hand still maimed, barely working, how it will be a secret from Anna, how this will mean that she, Angie, the line cook, is cheating on her girlfriend whom she loves, LOVES. How devastation wrecks a career/a restaurant, how we try to dis-place our love when someone doesn't want it anymore, and how we step up to help others we admire even if it means that our actions are suddenly strange to us, that we are no longer who we thought we were. Angie, the newest line cook, watching Chef, the one that everybody wants too much from.

Two more days of work and then a day off. We're prepared for biblical cupcake floods tomorrow. Probably we overcompensated and mised way too much, but it was nice to go in this afternoon and not urgently need anything. The FB market was slammed today, too. Some customer jerked his roller skates into our table and took out three full sheet trays of pastries. Barely apologized. Thank god it was toward the end of the market, and not anything I'd toiled over all day. I'm getting the hang of preparing for Saturdays there. Last week was slow, so I had lots of free time but today I barely got Sunday's bread pudding into the oven and had to rely on Juan to take it out because I had to leave! All my baked goods were done or mised, so the physicaly labor of it today was just traying, restocking, baking off and decorating.

Friday, June 08, 2007

thoughts after 12 hour day

incongruous is

Chefs in their pristine whites hustling through the financial district on a clear, sunny June day, chefs mostly men but then there's me, a baker, trying to get some air while walking toward the bus on Kearny? Geary? Whatever street is it I get the 30 Stockton on, only today I get the 45 and then walk down down down Divisadero staring at the green bay and trying to meet with more chefs before work. Chefs striding across busy streets, one carrying a brown paper bag, and without my uniform I'm just a girl in an ARMY shirt and suspicious clogs. Around us, suits talk about what they drank with their lunch at the Slanted Door the day before and if they can get away with a two hour lunch today, and when I reach the front of the line at Out the Door they give me a discount and heaps of smiles and before I can even put my change away my food's done, there's some times when a uniform is just a code and you fall down the rabbit hole, and if we give each other special treatment it's because, well, we know the price of daylight and the true cost of a working lunch. Fall into the bakery at 230 in time to sift most of a sack of powdered sugar and make frostings, fall out onto the 30 once more and s l o w l y this time eke downtown, too late for chef-sighting now even though there's still a couple conversations to be had.

And what is it about bakers (or, what is it about me, or both) that we covet the camaraderie of the brigade, that somewhere in our heart of hearts while we bent over Hobarts in the space between creaming and beating and secretly wish we were butchering or working the line, just on the other side. There are many things in cake and ice cream, but they lack the glamour, the edge, the brute strength and discipline and all those other masculine adjectives hurled about by the real food writers (which is to say the chef-writers and not the food media). We feel like the geek in the corner; Anthony Bourdain calls us out as neuroscientists, Molly O'Neill rues the way we will never be rock stars in our own right, just sugar-coated early risers alone in a dark kitchen. We/I miss the company of restaurant kitchens even if we've no one to talk to who speaks our languages, even if we're out the door into the still-light evening while our rockstar coworkers mise for dinner service. We invent fake blogs and write fiction and write ourselves out of the story, even as we keep real blogs to tell the story of what we strive to do, our endless testing, our love of the pleasure business.

I once told a talented chef that bakers are underpaid and get no respect and she laughed in my face and told me she did her pastry chef's inventory and plated dessert s when her pastry chef got slammed, and the shock on my face must not have conveyed my regard for her attention, even if it is only getting done what needs to get done.

When I write about restaurants, my characters are rockstar chefs and tough sous chefs, neurotic managers and angelic line cooks, and wherever my fiction pastry chef is hiding she has not seen fit to make an appearance, for my stories begin too late at night and continue into dawn. Too soon, work.

Every kitchen has drama...and gossip is currency, but I would rather be doing.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

boston bites

What?!? Susan Regis left Pava? In these parts if she's known at all, it's only as sister of Lori Regis, the front-house person at Boulette's and ex-Stars. But on the East Coast Susan Regis has done Biba's, worked at Upstairs on the Square, and Pava, which was briefly mentioned a few issues of Gourmet back. Now she's gone, doesn't know where she's going. I did mean to try Pava before I left town.

The Beehive opened. Wish wish wish I could go. Also to the outdoor patio at Oleana. Hell if I could just have some zaatar flatbread, Chef Ana's falafel and some excellent dessert Fed-exed to me right now I might not be so sad about commuting away the best hours of my life across the Bay Bridge.

Somehow I've got to get to Boston for a few days while it's still humid and I can go swimming at Nantasket, eat some Redbones, and gleefully complain about it being so hot my clothes are sticking to my body nevermind trying to bake in this sort of weather.

You'd think bribing people with cupcakes would lead to a nice apartment for you, but nooo, not in this town. I will find one, yet, I will!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

slightly off topic...

...But in what other city in this country can you go to a literary reading and get homemade cookies? Baked by the hostess who happens to be an author you really like? Tonight I went to the Radar reading at the SF public library, featuring comix artists Ariel Schrag and Alison Bechdel as well as a novelist and spoken word artist. The icing on the evening, as it were...Michelle Tea's homemade sugar cookies with rose sugar, extra sugar-y icing. I did not get a cookie, but I *did* snag one of the last copies of Stuck in the Middle, practically causing a little fistfight (really I just waited in line and beat out these other girls who had snatched em up...hahah)

Nice to remind myself of things I like about this city when I'm having such an impossible time finding housing in it...And now I'm working 5 days a week and not 4, which means more commuting headaches.

authors + cookies, what could be better?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Craziness this weekend. The cupcakery was slammed with work--part of it was due to not enough staff scheduled. We had two people for production (and I think we're the fastest at production, of the bakers there), and Sunday we were running out of things and frantically busting through as much as we could so that we had enough of everything to be able to bake today. So today of course is evaluation day, about why yesterday was teh way it was and how we can prepare better in the future, and so on. It's stressful, sometimes fun. More often a game. How can we do things better. How can we get ahead.

There isn't any getting ahead there (well, maybe with batter). There's only having enough on hand for the immediate future. But I think the mentality's going to have to shift. It's interesting, working at a business going through it's first year. They've never experience summer before. They don't know what it will be like, how the new store will take off depending on the influx of tourists from week to week, the crazy SF weather, and so on. We have to adapt, but we're not really sure what we're adapting to or how. Because of my restaurant background I see things differently, I think, than some of the other bakers who have only done culinary school to the cupcakery.

I told my boss about Frog Hollow, how I'm going through the same thing there but going it alone. I'm not saying I have the answers, or others don't, but...getting slammed one day when you're expecting it to be slow is one thing. Being in the weeds half the week is another. We've all got to figure out how to be prepared as best we can all the time, and it's nice to be invited inside that decision process. I do wonder though if there are too many cooks in the kitchen, to use the old metaphor. Of course, we do need another baker, and I suggested a culinary student might not mind working just part time, but I guess there's been bad experiences before.

Everybody's got to learn. At my first job, I called in "sick" several Saturdays because after a busy work of culinary school and graduate school, getting up at 6 to be at work by 7, just to bake off frozen cookies and roll put pie dough was not something I really had the energy or wherewithal to do.

I've been introspective a lot lately, writing a bunch. Cooking as always though. I made some triple chocolate cookies from an epicurious recipe that went over pretty well at the cupcakery. Tonight for dinner is mushroom-zucchini-onion enchiladas with tomatillo sauce, with zucchini from Full Belly Farm. While cooking this dinner tonight I realized how much time I spend cooking and how much more time I'd have in my life if I didn't cook. I had to go to Mi Ranchito tonight to buy veggies to cook with because I have no food (seriously, just rice and ice cream and salad stuff). I am not the sort of girl to eat fast food or eat out every day. I learned this when we lost use of all kitchen equipment save the microwave and toaster oven. I need to eat well. I get cranky when I don't. I wish all of America had this feeling. At Mi Ranchito tonight I saw all these Mexican laborers still in their work clothes (postal workers, electricians, painters) and buying food for dinner. I identify with that; it's my life too. Being too poor to afford nice meals whenever I want them. Cooking because it really is cheaper. Tonight I got two pounds of tomatillos, two avocadoes, 50 corn tortillas, two hot peppers, and several white mushrooms for only five dollars.

Tomorrow night I'm going to the Sox game (the A's game, but...really...the Sox game).

Friday, June 01, 2007

Sometimes the recipe finds you and sometimes you find it...

I never liked bread pudding except for the Figs' version, until I tried the brown butter bread pudding at Oleana, because Maura made me. She always persisted in asking me how I knew I didn't like something, and most of the time she succeeded in changing my mind.

She gave me that recipe and any other I cared to take, and I took many. And now that I know how it works, and why I like it, I've brought it here in adapted form. Vanilla custard bread pudding with cherries and peaches. The Acme pain de mie performs well. It's got the lightness characteristic of Maura's BP, but a summery taste. It's mellow but addictive, and if you don't like bread pudding, well, you should come try it.

I used to know the Sonsie recipe for chocolate bread pudding. Their hallmark. You'd see ads for Sonsie in the local papers and they'd feature the bread pudding with chocolate drizzle. Whose recipe was that? Chef Bill's? Not Michael's. The bread was Biba's biga. I once knew how many quarts of cream and cups of milk to how much chocolate. I finally mastered that recipe, but I never liked it, so I didn't try to take it with me. I knew it wouldn't have meant anything.

I made shortcakes today. Emily Luchetti's recipe. I don't like the farm's version, which uses hard-cooked egg yolks (just for texture? or is there some other purpose), and yields grainy, crumbly biscuits short on taste. I do enjoy using the farm's cream scones as shortcake biscuits, however. Tomorrow I'll bake them, and evaluate.

I'm on a quest now with the chocolate cherry cake. When I first started this job, I was working with a lot of David Lebovitz recipes, because he was someone my boss and I both admired, and because I wanted to start out small. Figure out what stock we had, what had been done before, ease into the role of being in charge so if things didn't go well, it wasn't entirely my idea (yeah, that's why I'm reluctant to actually call myself the pastry chef, see. And what I discovered in working with a bunch of recipes from Ripe For Dessertand a couple from Room For Dessert was that I found David's ideas to be really inspiring and accessible. It's sort of like reading an author's oeuvre. As I recently discovered, though Mary Gaitskill has some devastatingly brilliant short stories, she can't sustain a novel-length narrative and the two I've read seem to have the same plot (codependent relationship between two women, one ugly and one sexy)... But I was never satisfied with the results of my recipes...Bread Pudding with Pears, Cherries and Chocolate (custard too watery). Orange Poppyseed Cookies (good but got tired of them). Orbit Cake. (that was good). Chocolate Cherry Cakes (Pack a punch, too dense, fudgy, liquidy, but tasty). Finanicers (not as good as Cheffy's). Upside Down Cakes (strange texture). So today I went off-roading, freestyling on the cherry cakes that sold so well last week and that I do like, in principle. I took a basic flourless chocolate cake recipe from epicurious (if I remember the Sonsie proportions I would've done that, but oh well) and folded in some candied cherries and cherry syrup. The end result is, after banging around SF in my bag all day and making it home to Fruitvale, we got a crumbly cake that tasted good, though the cherries were more tough to chew this time around). Better, yes. My recipe, not yet.

Sometimes it finds you. The bread pudding from Oleana. If you ask me to, I'll make you another sort of bread pudding, but it won't be what I want to do at all. My manager told me the other day I could make bread pudding but I'd have to make a fruit sauce to go with it. ?That was how the farm served theirs. I'm not doing thatI said. I'm very particular about my bread pudding.

Learning from others, and learning from myself. It's always o much easier when someone else can show you the way. Let you in on their way, their secrets. But unless you've tried what you can find out there, unless you've gone to the sources you know and trust, how do you really know what you like, and how can you effect change when it is required?