Hospitality, New Mexico-style


These are beautiful ristras, but they are shiny from lacquer, so you can look but don’t eat!

Some say it with pineapples, some say it with horseshoes; New Mexico says it with ristras.

When I first moved to Santa Fe, NM for graduate school almost 15 years ago, I was dazzled by the open sky. The way the blue sky met the brown horizon with nothing but gradations of those two colors as far as the eye could see just blew my mind. Every time I looked up at the sky those first few weeks I got a mild case of the spins. Later I realized it was probably the high altitude scrambling my senses, but that first hot Southwestern summer I was soaking in cotton-tufted blue skies, afternoon rain storms, and ristras.

Ristras, dried chili pods strung into clusters, are New Mexico’s archetypal welcome mat. Traditionally, ristras were practical objects: stringing chili pepper pods into a ristra was a means of drying the pods while keeping them intact and ready for culinary use. They are still used this way today, but their iconography equals, if not exceeds, their practicality since it extends to New Mexicans and visitors alike. Chili ristras are an integral piece of New Mexico’s rhythm and personality.


A view from the peaceful Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary in Santa Fe, NM.

Chilis are life in New Mexico and my memories of New Mexico seem to sync up with chili cycles. Chilis are harvested in late summer, so beginning around late August chili roasting kettles are in front of most grocery stores, farmers markets, and roadside stands. Everything smells like pinon and roasting green chili into autumn. The idea is to roast enough green chilis (by the pound or by the bushel) to last through the rest of the year. For red chili, you’ve got the ever-functional ristra supplying your fix. Ristras also double as decoration because, come summer, when everything is baking under the hot, high desert sun, ristras lend their rich, red color to the brown landscape and adobe walls. To me, they are innately beautiful in their simplicity.


Old Town Albuquerque, NM

I hadn’t been back to New Mexico since I left in 2012 when a chance suddenly came together this summer to travel there for an alumni event. Suddenly, all I could think about were ristras. Chilis hanging from doorways of homes and businesses is a common sight in New Mexico. For some reason, I couldn’t wait to see them and photograph them and take a bunch home with me. I wanted ristras hanging from my porch and gracing my kitchen. I’m not sure why, but I needed them.

When we got to Santa Fe in June, I became virtually obsessed with photographing ristras. The funny thing is, once you’ve photographed one, you’ve kind of photographed them all — they all look the same. Still, I took dozens of stills and videos trying to capture the quiet profundity of the ristra welcome.

I don’t know why ristras were so inspiring to me this summer, but I spent an inordinate amount of time running around in my rental car trying to find ristras to take home to family and friends. Ironically, summer is not a great time to find ristras — or, at least it wasn’t this summer as my search turned up oddly short time and time again. Supplies were slim since the next harvest was only a few months away. Look for ristras in October and the state will be flush with dried chili pepper strands again.


I found this roadside stand on my way out of town after I had already scrounged up and packed my ristras into suitcases, but my friend bought some great ristras here to carry on to the plane with her.

I did finally manage to find a ristra source; some were a bit scraggly and I had to settle for a few lacquered ones to round out my collection (my preference was for natural, un-lacquered ristras so one could actually use them in cooking if one wanted), but it was the best I could do in my short time there and I was happy to have found them at all. I bought more ristras that trip than I did the whole time I lived in New Mexico all those years ago.

My friends and family were probably a little surprised and confused when they received ristras in the mail, but it helped quench my thirst for whatever it was ristras were working on my psyche at the time. I had enjoyed my time in New Mexico the first time around but hadn’t ever really looked back once I left. Somehow, this summer, traveling to Santa Fe for just those few days felt a little bit like going home.

Now that I am back in Sacramento, where the sun blazes hotly in its Californian way, I’ve got my “outside” ristra (the large one) hanging incongruously on my front porch. It doesn’t fit in here, but I like it. It’s a transplant — a New Mexican welcome in my new town. And my little guy is waiting for me by my kitchen sink — a little beat up from the airplane ride home, but ready for duty.

Never Too Late for a Year-in-Review…

2014 was a heck of a year for Bean Pie. 2014 was meant to be a sorting out and sorting through; a chance to settle into my new environment and see what’s what in this world of career changing. But, somehow, 2014 happened so fast that the write-up on the best veggie burger find to date closed up shop before I could rave about it!

So, it’s a little late for a year-in-review, but let’s just take stock of the who’s and what’s before the first quarter of 2015 ends:

1) I officially graduated with dual certificates in Culinary Entrepreneurship and Baking and Pastry. Exciting!

2) I went to Bartending School. Weird.

3) I took part in the Food Craft Institute‘s pilot intensive Chocolate course. Interesting! Check out the Food Craft Institute if you are in the San Francisco Bay Area and are contemplating food entrepreneurship. It’s a fantastic resource.

4) I bought a used mini Choco Vision tempering machine to inspire my future chocolate-making.

5) I determined, in a thoroughly hands-on way, who has the best burger in South Sacramento (Burger Junction), and the best fish tacos (surprisingly, Jackson Rancheria Casino).

2015 is about looking forward: how will I blend my existing teaching background with my new culinary and hospitality business training? Will I stay in Sacramento and watch its food scene grow, or will I head back to my first love, the San Francisco Bay Area, with all its vibrant, well-established culinary opportunity? And will I ever take a breath long enough to work on a perfect veggie burger of my own? Somehow I’ve got to get my cheesy black bean burger fix.

Back in the Saddle, Part 1


It has been awhile since I’ve been in the kitchen. After Final Exams last May I packed up my kit and have either been packing, traveling, or unpacking since then.

I’ve missed it. So, when I had a reason- a friend’s birthday – to decorate something I grabbed my kit from the garage and picked out some pastry tips. I was making a simple icebox cake — which doesn’t even need to be baked, just assembled — but I was still happy to be playing around.

This is a great little dessert for hot weather. It’s versatile, easy, and can be done the night before you need it. Icebox cakes are typically made from wafer cookies spread with fresh whipped cream and then stacked into a design. Because the wafer cookies absorb moisture from the whipped cream the layers soften into a “cake” and the whipped cream tightens into a frosting.  It’s perfect for a light, refreshing summer dessert.

Now I want one made out of vanilla wafers, whipped cream, and lemon curd. Or vanilla and cherry preserves. Or maybe I just need to make a trifle next…

Not bad for two days later!

Not bad for two days later!

Watching For Athena

After I posted last (“My, My, What’s Next?”) I began preparing for a hiring event I had committed to, and a job interview. I had managed to stack these events on the same day, which was very smart from a financial perspective (one day off instead of two), but very stressful for obvious reasons.

An unlikely set of circumstances led me, as unlikely circumstances generally do, to be reading the 2010 St. John’s College Commencement Address given by Stag’s Leap Cellars founder and St. John’s alum, Warren Winiarski. In the speech Winiarski spoke of his history with wine which led him to leave academia for wine-making. He spoke of the practical difficulties involved in this change, which were largely financial, as practical difficulties often are, but he also framed his speech in the context of seeing: what is it you look for, and what is it you expect to see?

Winiarski recounted a story told by Robert Fitzgerald, the famous translator of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (the merits and demerits of various translations of these two pivotal books is a perpetual Johnny icebreaker) where Fitzgerald describes an unexpected visit from a stranger named Athena. This Athena was from Ohio, but Winiarski suggests that Fitzgerald, and, by extension, those of us listening to or reading Winiarski’s speech, could think of this visit from “Athena” as a symbol of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and courage, and as an invitation to keep our eyes open to the possibilities around us.

Given my last post where the subtext was that possibilities are feeling in short supply around me, I found this quite fortifying. I also found the last paragraph of Winiarski’s speech so beautifully written that I was moved to share it. Leave it to a Johnny to inspire by talking of “habits of the soul” — credence to my belief that St. John’s students really are joined in spirit by a deep, abiding conviction that the principles of liberal education mean something more profound than any outcomes assessment, degree, or conventional benchmark of success can convey.

“Don’t worry too much.  Your education will be part of you.  You will have experienced the bright illuminations and the joy of learning and knowing. Remember these experiences and they will feed the desire for more of similar kind.  Do not forget the habits of the soul which brought you these illuminations and joys and ‘Keep your eyes open for Athena.’”  -Warren Winiarski

Click here for the full text of Warren Winiarski’s 2010 St. John’s College Commencement Address in Annapolis, MD.

My, my, what’s next?

I started this blog in 2012 to catalog the crazy adventures I was having in culinary school along with my food travels on the East Coast. The culinary program ended, I moved back to California, settled into my new digs in Sacramento, CA and have been trying, in various ways for the past few months, to answer the question “What’s next?”

What happens next when you try to switch careers? How do you break into a new industry? Clearly, I need a job, but what? And how?

Naturally, I had a plan. I always have a plan. Usually I have two plans, minimum. I can’t remember an instance where things ever actually went according to plan, which begs the question “Why bother having a plan?” but making a plan must be something like pregnancy; you forget the pain of having made the plan and having watched the plan disintegrate into a morass of Not-Planned-Things by the time it’s time to make another plan.

So, my plan was this: I thought it would make sense to keep plying my usual trade (teaching) while I worked part-time somewhere in the food industry (and I had plenty of ideas of ideal companies) to gain some relevant experience. I recognized that I would need to start on the front lines somewhere (and by this I mean retail) to make myself current. I didn’t mind this idea — in fact, I’ve always liked working with customers — since it was part of The Plan. This plan had a 6-8 month arc and by summer I would be ready to launch into my new full-time professional amazingness doing something behind the scenes concerning food products, product knowledge, promotions, training, special events, or programming.

So I made the substitute teaching happen, but I couldn’t make the part-time gig happen.Yet. (I’ve read that for every thing you haven’t been able to accomplish you’re supposed to add “yet” after the statement to keep metaphysical possibilities open). Could be the economy, could be the time of year, could be whatever planet is/has been/will be in retrograde, but ain’t no hiring happenin’ in these parts.

My plan has gone awry. The process has left me confused, confounded, alarmed, and sometimes abject. Add “Be Prepared To Feel Unqualified for Everything” to the list of Things I Wish I Had Known About Being A Career Changer.

Other useful things I wish I had known: every corporate job outside of IT or administrative seems to require either a sales or marketing degree.

Crazy things happen when things don’t go according to plan. You start wondering about definitional things: When does focus become limiting? When does being determined become stubbornness? When do admirable qualities become liabilities?

And the deeply uncomfortable question: am I the frog in the hot water? Or, when does faith become folly?

Here’s where I put in my favorite inspirational quotes. No, not the whole Helen Keller-one-door-closing-while-another-opens one, but others that I’ve always really liked:

“Success is the child of audacity.” – Benjamin Disraeli

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” –Chinese Proverb

And, my all-time favorite:

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” — Thomas Edison

I’m not any closer to knowing what comes next. I don’t know which moves are the right moves, which moves are stepping stones or just misfires, or where the boundaries between focus and folly are any more as I try to figure out who is next on my dance card.

I do believe it is possible to have a really cool, creative job in the food and hospitality industry suited to my particular brand of analytical and organizational skill sets. I just don’t know how to get from here to there.

When I know, you’ll know.

Looking Back Moving Forward

My WordPress year-end analytics tell me my most popular blog post continues to be my exploration of the Fluffernutter sandwich from 2012. I never would have guessed that, but I get it: people love a fluffernutter. Somehow, the Cro-Nut just couldn’t compete. But, what’s next?

Since my last post about Niagara Falls and the Moosewood Restaurant much has changed for Bean Pie. It was time for me to leave Maryland and go home. I drove cross country arcing through the northern part of the United States — no shortest-distance-between-two-points Interstate 80 for me this time — and was pleased to see, amongst other things, parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota (the unfortunate and extremely untimely National Park closures notwithstanding) and Utah, if only from behind the wheel (most of my camera roll for that trip was shot from inside the car with one hand on the steering wheel. Shhhhh.).

I did finally try a Waffle House…

Waffle House, Toledo, Ohio

Waffle House, Toledo, Ohio

…and stopped in Madison, WI and was impressed with what they had going on:

And who could forget the National Mustard Museum (home of “the Condimental Divide”)??? They had thousands of kinds of mustard, plus a mustard tasting bar and the tiniest little hot dog buns I’ve ever been privileged to see.

Oh, and the Corn Palace??? The Badlands? Mt. RushmoreSalt Lake?

There are so many amazing things to see on the road. But that journey ended and a new one has begun. My coordinates were set for Sacramento, CA and I made it safe and sound. After a whirlwind few months of half-unpacked boxes, hectic online classes, and substitute teaching, things are settling down a bit around here. Time to take stock and set my sights on the future.

Right now the near future involves more online classes, more substitute teaching, fewer unpacked boxes, and some job searching. Lots of job searching, in fact.

Baby, it’s cold out there.

My plan was to get some cool part-time gig — you know, catering prep or cake decorating (you’ll remember my huge success with piping buttercream under pressure) —  I could do in between subbing and classes to get some recent retail or other food industry related experience while I get my foot in the door on the way to my Future Fabulous Job somewhere involving training, buying, or coordinating.

Enter the reality of a post-recession world where even the person who hands out samples at grocery stores has to have an intensive marketing background and three years of previous experience putting cubes of toaster-ovened food into paper cups.

When I put in an application at Sur La Table for seasonal sales — a job I would find truly interesting and a company I sincerely like –  the salesperson smiled at me pleasantly (the way people who already have the job are wont to do) and told me that they receive over 150 applications per week for their store alone which was a pretty nice way of telling me not to hold my breath.

Cold, indeed.

Well, these things take time.

So what does a newly-transplanted foodie do once the kitchen is (somewhat) in order, the books are (somewhat) unpacked and life is on (somewhat) of a more even keel? She explores.

According to the Sacramento Bee, Sacramento declared itself “America’s Farm to Fork Capitol” in 2012 and the following year Sacramento’s mayor declared 2013 the “Year of Food.” Something is happening in Sacramento’s food scene, folks, and I aim to find out what it is.

So let’s you and I start scouting the scene, casing the joint, finding the pulse of this crazy hot state capitol that appears to be throwing off the heavy mantle of the Bay Area food scene which has hogged all the culinary oxygen for too long.

Sacramento has plenty of sun and it’s ready to shine. There’s got to be something in this town at least as interesting as the history of the Fluffernutter. Let’s see what we can find.

Suggestions on where to start?

How Moosewood Was Lame While Niagara Falls Was Awesome

Recently I went on a road trip to Niagara Falls, Canada. I’ve been wanting to go to Niagara Falls for a long, long time, but never seem to make it. Frequent readers know that I’ve been bouncing back and forth between the East and West coasts for most of my life, and every time I bounce East I dream of Niagara Falls. And every time I try to go, something goes awry. This time around, while I was packing up my Maryland apartment, I wistfully thought of Niagara Falls and, optimistically, pulled out the Toronto tour book I bought back in 2002 when I first tried to plan that trip. Maybe, just maybe this summer…

It wasn’t until weeks later when I was settled into temporary family digs in Pennsylvania, and it was clear I wasn’t going to be getting any temping work that I thought about Niagara. I hopped online, found a great deal, and realized in a crystalline moment that my passport was packed up tight in my file cabinet in the back of one of my three packed-to-the-gills moving-pod-container things resting comfortably in some warehouse 150 miles away. Sigh.

I wanted that passport. I was going to Niagara Falls, and it was going to be the Canadian side. I wasn’t driving all the way up north to stand on the boo-boo side of the Falls (sorry, USA, but you know it’s true).

So, after much hassle, expense and tapping of family goodwill (thanks Pam and Karen!), with passport in hand (and, believe me, that sucker could not have been packed any further from the door of the pod than it was unless it came out the other side), I was off to Niagara Falls.

I was happy to find this little bugger.

I was happy to find this little bugger.

And it was amazing. Here’s a slideshow. You should definitely go. It’s unbelievably beautiful. And, I have to give a shout-out to my new heroine, Annie Edson Taylor, a school teacher and the first person to go over the falls in a barrel. With her cat.

Plus, Niagara-on-the-Lake, about 20 minutes north, is known as a wine region in its own right, and I was there just before harvest.

Niagara Falls isn’t known for its food so I didn’t expect much by way of food tourism — although, I have to say, my hotel had a wicked seafood pasta —  and I’m not known for mapping my route much before I go on a trip, so I was surprised to see as I drove north that I was going pretty much almost right past Ithaca, New York. Of Moosewood Restaurant fame. Score! What a happy circumstance. I determined to stop there on my way home. Turns out I was also going right by Seneca Falls, of women’s rights fame, so that got added into the itinerary, too.

Plus, I ran into a couple other cool local delights. I got clued into a Binghamton, NY specialty by a Binghamton expat now in Maryland.   Spiedies, a local specialty of cubed, marinated meat in a soft sub roll, have their own Wikipedia entry, their own balloon festival in August, and were featured in an episode of The Food Network’s “Unwrapped” (if you find the episode, let me know — I lost an hour of my life browsing their labyrinth website looking for it).

I also found this delight of a local eatery, Doug’s Fish Fry, in beautiful Skaneateles, NY, which is part of the Finger Lakes region. Very charming place.

The fry at Doug's Fish Fry

The fry at Doug’s Fish Fry

Now, on to the bad news: Moosewood Restaurant. Sigh. What can I tell you? Bon Appetit magazine named Moosewood Restaurant as one of the most influential restaurants of the 20th century. Dog-eared copies of their numerous cookbooks can be found in every used bookstore in Berkeley, CA. When they opened in 1973 they were cool, they were alternative, they were a collective, for goodness sake — they helped bring vegetarian cuisine into the spotlight. So it should be amazing to pop in for lunch if I’m in the area, right? Check it out for myself?


The recent reviews didn’t bode well. People complained of poor service, bland food, mediocrity in general. Surprising, but yelpers can be obnoxious so I do not let grumbling reviews dissuade me from going somewhere.

3.5 out of 5 stars for one of the most influential restaurants of the 20th century?

3.5 out of 5 stars for one of the most influential restaurants of the 20th century?

Sadly, my experience was lacking. Moosewood and I got off on the wrong foot when I arrived, due to dilly-dallying on my ride down from Niagara Falls, at 3:00 in the afternoon. I was starving. They were closed.

What? What kind of groovy, college town restaurant closes between lunch and dinner? I didn’t see that coming, but that’s my fault. It’s weird, and kind of lame, but still ultimately my fault. The front door was open, though, and there were a few people inside, so I popped in to ask if they were open. The guy behind the bar stared at me for a long second and then said they were open for dessert and drinks only.

Ok, dessert it is. Anything is better than nothing.

It went downhill from there. The staff was exceedingly unwelcoming and I was the only customer in there. The place was quiet as a tomb, which made me feel very awkward, like I had just walked in on a staff meeting or something. I had read something about their vegan chocolate cake, so I ordered that, along with a side of the ice cream of the day, banana frozen yogurt. I wanted to order a coffee, but since the server had already turned his back to me before I even finished speaking, I didn’t bother. It was all too weird.

The cake arrived cold from the refrigerator. Yuck. I don’t like cold cake unless it’s meant to be cold, like a mousse or cheesecake. The plating was pedestrian and it had whipped cream on top. I thought that whipped cream was highly improbable on a vegan cake, so I tasted it. Tasted like whipped cream, but I couldn’t believe they would serve dairy on top of vegan cake without mentioning it, so I asked. My friend behind the bar stared at me doubly long this time like I was an idiot to ask if it was whipped cream when it was so obviously whipped cream, then asked me if that was all right.

Um, yeah, it’s fine, I guess. Just wondering…

Awkward, and awkward. Good thing I wasn’t vegan or I’d have been pretty bummed right about then. I probably also wouldn’t have ordered frozen yogurt, either.

I ate my cake, which was average, and my banana frozen yogurt, which was not bad, and beat it out of there. While I was paying the bill (I had to stand there for a few minutes while the bartender made himself a coffee), I snapped a quick picture of what looked to be a draft of the dinner menu.

Here’s what I would have had if things had gone better:

A server's draft of the dinner menu -- hard to read since I was snapping the picture quickly and furtively.

A server’s draft of the dinner menu — hard to read since I was snapping the picture quickly and furtively.

As nonplussed as I was about my Moosewood experience, I was amazed by the beauty of the region: farms, lakes, wineries — and I know I barely scratched the surface.

As for you, Moosewood: yikes. Sounds like you might need to get over yourselves. You might have had it going on at one time, but people don’t seem to be happy now. I compare this experience to a trip I made last year to Greens, in San Francisco, another vegetarian icon open since the 1970’s, and it’s like night and day: Greens was classy, the service was great, and the food was stellar. Way to keep it rocking, Greens! That’s how you stay on top.

And as for you, Niagara Falls: love you. You were worth every mile.

Niagara Falls Trip Sept2013 (5)

Things I Learned at the Grange Fair

These cows know things are about to get jiggy at the Grange Fair.

These cows know things are about to get jiggy at the Grange Fair.

I took a little trip to the 65th Annual Middletown Grange Fair in Wrightstown, PA. I’ve never been to a Grange Fair, but I figured it was probably a little like a County Fair, and I love a County Fair so I was sold. Plus, there was an article in the newspaper’s weekly food section about the baking contests at the fair, so naturally I was curious.

The baking entries were all lined up on tables and already under plastic covers.  They are kind of hard to see that way so it wasn’t super interesting at first — I was just kind of looking at the blue ribbons to see what won. Then I noticed that some of the entry cards had handwritten comments on them, so I started looking at them more closely. And then I just started laughing.

Now I had to read them all (as best as I could through the glare of that crazy plastic).

The handwritten comments — written in tidy print and cursive like a postcard from your Great-Aunt Agnes — were criticisms! The judges were taking shots at the competitors! Here’s the first one I noticed:

Ouch!  But, you need to know, right?

Ouch! But, you need to know, right?

Yikes. That’s embarrassing.  But, you need to know, right? I guess you also need to know that your bread was undercooked, your jams were under-filled and had a bad seal, and — one of my favorites — the cryptic and ominous, “Something went wrong in cooking.” (Click on photos for larger versions.)

By now I was incredulous, and laughing to myself regardless of who was around.  It was like watching tiny little baking train wrecks happen one by one and I was the prurient rubbernecker. Granted, the critiques all seemed valid; it was the baldness of the publicity that had me cracking up. You think being judged in person by your chef in culinary school is nerve-wracking? Try competing at the Grange Fair. You will need to have nerves of steel. Keep in mind that these entries had people’s names and hometowns printed on them (which I erased or otherwise obscured for this part). So, not only did they not win, but they had the pleasure of receiving their constructive feedback directly on their entry card for all their happy fair-going neighbors to see.

I was mesmerized. Let’s see some more! (Click on photos for larger versions.)

I was jolly well enjoying myself but the next few entries sent me over the edge. I actually thought for a second I might be being punked. Why on earth would people submit burned or under-baked goods for competition? Either bake another batch, or throw in the towel and wait for next year’s Grange to roll around.

I'm pretty sure the dill isn't the first thing I would notice about this entry.

I’m pretty sure the dill isn’t the first thing I would notice about this entry.

I know this photo, below, has a lot of glare on it and isn’t easy to read, but might the judges be sounding a bit exasperated at this point?

A brownie you can barely cut through? Now that's a serious burn.

A brownie you can barely cut through? Now that’s a serious burn.

But it’s the next photo that really, ahem, takes the cake. This one, below, was my favorite comment of the night.

Oh, snap. But pretty funny, right??

Oh, snap. But pretty funny, right??

When I saw this one I knew I was done because it couldn’t get any better than this — such wit! Such audacity! Scratch that — there is one thing that could make it better: if the judges’ notes were in the forms of a limericks.  But, that wasn’t likely to happen so I left the baking section and moved on to other exhibits — things like afghans, and sheared wool, and vegetables. Here are some of the best (click for slideshow):

What I learned at the Grange Fair is that beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.  I also learned that if you want to compete at the Grange Fair, you need to be prepared to take your lumps. I applaud everyone for entering regardless of the outcome but I admit to being flummoxed by some of what I saw. Perhaps I need some of their moxie.

And the judges. Oh, the judges! To be a fly on the wall of that sampling circuit!  Perhaps I need more of THAT moxie! I thank them heartily for providing me much merriment as I made my way down the exhibit hall.

Oh, wait, there is one more photo: a picture of a winning cupcake. After all this hoopla you’re thinking it must be pretty special, right? Well, the judges certainly thought so. This time you be the judge.

This cupcake won a blue ribbon for its taste and appearance. Appearance? Really?

This cupcake won a blue ribbon for its taste and appearance. I’m sure it tastes divine but I confess I was a little surprised by the high marks for appearance.

Cro-Nots and What-Not

Cro, No-Cro or Faux Cro - -whatever you want to call it, it's a fried croissant

Cro, No-Cro or Faux Cro  — whatever you want to call it, it’s a fried croissant

The air has been rife lately with talk about the Cro-Nut, the Cro-Not, and the myriad of imitators and imposters — what I’ll call the Faux Cro’s.

The Cronut, a cross between a croissant and a donut, was started in New York City by former Daniel pastry chef Dominique Ansel at his bakery, Dominique Ansel Bakery. In May, they trademarked the name and officially added the cronut to the regular menu. What started in New York City in May quickly spread to faux cro’s in  Philly, Baltimore, and all points west with Eater SF covering the San Francisco versions by the first week of August.

Now that’s fast.

I like an adventure and I don’t mind following a gimmick trail as long as it doesn’t entail me standing outside in line for five hours (two hours, yes — love you Totto Ramen! – but five hours for a cross between a donut –which I adore — and a croissant — which I could take or leave? Nah.), so when I read that the knock-off had come to Philly in the form of a Swiss Cro-Creme, I decided to jump on the bandwagon.

The Eater Philadelphia article describing the Swiss Cro-Creme from Swiss Haus Bakery suggested reserving my Cro-Creme up to two days in advance, which I shrugged off. I was just going to mosey on down to Center City Philadelphia (the bakery is by Rittenhouse Square) and pick one up. No big deal. Like picking milk up from the store, right?

But, cronut hysteria seemed to be growing and my aunt, who is a prudent, cautious gal, kept encouraging me to call the bakery first, so to humor her I called the bakery to inquire about Cro-Creme reservations the afternoon before I planned to go down there. And they were full up. Yup. Completely sold out. No more pre-orders. But, I was invited to go stand in line at the bakery on the morning of the day in which I desired my Cro-Creme. Cro-Cremes are ready by 10:00 AM and the bakery reserves a handful for the poor jerks who didn’t make a reservation.

What? Really? But, I didn’t have anything better to do, so I resolved to get up early for the trek.

That’s right: I’m a real Cro-Getter.

So I hoofed it down there at the cracka cracka dawn (9:00 a.m.) from the wilds of Bucks County and found a parking spot smack dab in front of — where else — the Shake Shack! Fate? Probably. I had a good feeling about this. Then, I get to Swiss Haus and NO LINE! Not a soul standing out front. Hurrah! The  faux-cro fates are with me.

The place was so calm and quiet inside that I almost felt foolish. Then, I saw them on the counter looking all sugary and humble as you please. One tray.

What appears to be the only tray of non-reserved Cro-Cremes

What appears to be the only tray of non-reserved Cro-Cremes

As I order, I am told that the maximum is five (five? Who would want five of these? Especially at $5.00 a piece?). The man behind me, also hot on the Cro-Creme trail, asks if he can have the rest of my unused allotment.

Goodness, people, it’s a fried croissant, not the keys to the kingdom.

I took my two boxed up Cro-Cremes and beat it out of there.

Ready for the Big Reveal

Ready for the Big Reveal

Well, so here it is in all it’s glory. I have to say, it was tasty, but very, very rich. It took me three separate sittings to finish mine. Pairing it with a hot coffee would cut the richness and bring a nice balance to it. (Click on photos for close-ups.)

I can see why people are going Cro-Nuts: fried dough and sugar is a tried and true crowd-pleaser however it comes down the pike. This is like fair food for grown-ups. Look for it soon at a Renn Fest near you.

Have you tried it? Liked it? How far would you go for a cronut? Let’s see what the people say (poll below).

First Up? London Broil

IMG_1272Some people like to cook, and some people don’t. If you like to cook, hurrah! because you’re probably going to spend a fair amount of time in your life doing it and it’s better to enjoy what you are doing than to not.

If you don’t like to cook then I feel for you because cooking, and all its attendant parts (planning, shopping,  prepping, cleaning) must seem like a pretty big hassle. And nobody likes to be hassled. Heck, I genuinely enjoy cooking but I’d be crazy to play it like it’s not a lot of work. Thank goodness that for me it’s a labor of love.

For my aunt, it’s just labor. Even so, she decided that she wanted to broaden her culinary horizons. The challenge? Develop a clutch of favorites she can pin down over the summer while she is on summer break (she’s a teacher) so she can have a reliable rotation during the school year.

Her first choice? London Broil. (Well, actually, her first choice was Beer Can Chicken, but when we did that we caused a gas fire in the grill the likes of which I’ve never even seen in culinary school, so I’m just going to forget that ever happened and we’ll move on to London Broil.)

The other challenge? She only likes about five foods excluding pretty much every spice or seasoning other than salt. Yes, she is a Picky Nibbler. But we got this.

So, London Broil it is. First, we had to find out what it was and why it was called London Broil. I thought I knew what it was – a cut of beef –  but when I went to the grocery store there were no less than three different choices, so I knew I’d have to get all Nancy Drew about it.  Next, my sources (random internet searches) seem to agree that this originated as a North American dish with no specific British roots, so the mystery remains about what put the London in the London Broil. Readers?

As for the “what,” it turns out that London Broil is a method of preparation, not a specific cut of meat. (Thanks, Wikipedia! One of these days I will actually send you that $3.00 donation you want so badly.) Traditionally, the London Broil was done to flank steak, but these days you’ll  commonly find top round and sirloin labelled suitable for a London Broil. Basically, it seems London Broil is the catch-all term for a category of inexpensive cuts of beef which lend themselves to marinating and then flash cooking to no warmer than medium (medium rare –about 135 degrees — would be even better), then slicing across the grain to further break the long connective tissues (read: tough) of the meat.

Ok, easy enough, right?

We had several choices for a London Broil on the day we went to the grocery store: top round, and chuck shoulder.  We picked the beef chuck shoulder (the photo on the left) because I liked the look of it.

We choose a prepackaged marinade (know your customer!) and set it to marinate overnight.

London Broil marinating in a bag

London Broil marinating in a bag

We remembered to let the marinated meat come to room temperature for a good 30  minutes before we wanted to cook it, threw it on a broiler pan lined with aluminum foil, and broiled it for about 5 minutes each side. Medium rare (130-135 degrees) is the advised temperature for a London Broil since further cooking reportedly produces a very tough meat regardless of how long it marinates, but not everyone appreciates a medium rare (including my aunt), so we cooked some of the meat further just to see how big a difference it makes in terms of tenderness. (Turns out that even the meat we cooked to medium well was tender enough to pass muster.)

Marinated London Broil coming to room temperature before broiling

Marinated London Broil coming to room temperature before broiling

After we broiled it, we were good girls and let the meat rest for 5-10 minutes so the juices had a chance to reabsorb back into the meat before cutting it. Then we sliced it across the grain and on the bias — both strategies for shortening the connective tissue for maximum tenderness.

The result? Very tasty.  And how does the budding cook feel about it? She was pleased with the overall ease of preparation (but maybe not so pleased with how challenging it can be to clean teriyaki sauce off of a broiler pan). Her biggest piece of advice to budding meat cooks? Get a digital instant-read thermometer so you don’t have to wonder or worry about whether or not the meat is cooked to your liking.

As a core dish, this works well. As long as you have the wherewithal to marinate the meat the night before, you could easily come home and throw this meal together on a busy weeknight with a minimum of fuss and muss.

Grade: A

On The Road Again. Kinda.

After two seriously hectic weeks I closed up shop on my apartment in Maryland and decamped to Pennsylvania for the summer. Time to work on my tan. And my resume. And my interviewing skills. And, oh yeah, that independent study class I should be a quarter of the way through by now, so I should get on that. Manana. (That word would make more sense if I knew how to put the tilde over the “n.”)

I’ve been so busy processing and reflecting on the semester which just transpired that I haven’t had a chance to look to the immediate food future but in my present digs I am now a short drive from Philly and a fairly easy day-trip train ride from Manhattan. The food future looks bright!

So, what is on my Summer 2013 Good Eats Bucket List? I have some ideas, but nothing conclusive yet. I’ll throw some NYC stuff out there to start the idea ball rolling, and rely on my Philly peeps to give me the inside track on good eats in their neck of the woods:

1.) Baohaus. I’ve wanted to check this place out ever since Rolling Stone magazine called chef Eddie Huang “The Bad Boy of Pork Buns.”

2.) Definitely some ramen in Manhattan. I have to see if anything can beat Totto Ramen. Remember how I was so happy there that I practically marched in place?

3.) A friend and I have been talking about going to Prune for a while now — ever since we both read Gabrielle Hamilton’s autobiographical book, Blood, Bones and Butter. Maybe we’ll make that happen.

4.) A visit to Shake Shack and Zabar’s for obvious reasons (nostalgia, in case it’s not so obvious).

5.) I’m curious about Milk Bar,even though baking-wise it’s really not my jam, and I’d like to go back to Momofuku Noodle (both of David Chang’s mini-empire) because it was so tasty delicious.

6.) A deli. Katz? Carnegie? Some other deli gem?  I have no idea, but I want to feel the fever of pastrami on rye.

I’d look for a pizza place, but my aunt has long maintained that DeLorenzo’s in New Jersey has the best tomato pies hands-down, and this claim has been corroborated by other avid fans, so maybe it does. Note that their customer base is so intense that even though their website lists two locations which no longer exist, DeLorenzo’s is still packed full like sardines at every turn. They are doing something Jersey folks like.

Basically, if it noodles, slurps, or gets dipped in sauce, I’m in. If it’s crowded with locals, only seats 30 people, and I can’t really read the menu, I’m in. If it’s fresh, authentic, and basically pretty cheap, I’m in.

And suggestions are most welcome!

Take this poll to chime in on my #1 Summer 2013 Good Eats destination:

Oh, Finals, You Kill Me

Coconut Rum Mousse with Roasted Pineapple, Apricot Sauce, and Coconut Macaroon Barquettes

Coconut Rum Mousse with Roasted Pineapple, Apricot Sauce, and Coconut Macaroon Barquettes

With my new mantra (“Don’t tank!”) firmly in mind, I headed into my next two final exams: Advanced Pastry, and Chocolates and Showpieces. The projects for both classes had been in design for several weeks, but the run-throughs I’d done at home weren’t going smoothly.

The Advanced Pastry practical had been particularly rocky. I knew the flavor scheme I’d put together was solid, but I had tinkered with my main recipe (of course!) to the point where I wasn’t sure it would still hold together and it continued to have some kinks that needed to be worked out. I also changed all the surrounding elements numerous times, which is crazy-making. The pineapple garnish alone I tried five different ways before settling on roasting it. Five different ways. For a tiny garnish. Painstaking.

Trying different bases and other combinations

Trying different bases and other combinations

For Chocolates, I was doing a sugar showpiece to present molded chocolates filled with spiced rum buttercream. Casting sugar is super cool (see “Rolling the Dice With Sugar”) but it is rather unpredictable — and isn’t lack of predictability always a blast in a final exam? (Rhetorical.)

We had only spent a class or two on molded chocolates at the beginning of the semester so my actual hands-on time was limited to one try — and chocolate can be a harsh mistress. To that effect, the trial run crashed and burned, which is always a bit unnerving. Hmpf. It seems none of my lists and copious amounts of notes helped me out when the chocolate chips were down.

I re-did my game plan for the final since I was determined to turn out twelve perfectly formed, glossy, gorgeous molded chocolates come hell or high water.  And it worked. The chocolates turned out beautifully.

And, the sugar showpiece wasn’t bad, considering. The core pieces, by necessity, were made in Week 1, so they had lost a lot of their luster from sitting and had developed a kind of dull bloom. You can try to shine these up with careful application of a torch, but this is risky since it basically heats the sugar to melting again to get it to re-set with shine. The risk is that warming the piece up in this way will deform it. Which it did, when I tried it. Because you know I tried it. Even after the buttercream life lesson in my last post I still couldn’t keep from messing with the pieces to try to “fix them” (make them a little shinier).

There were various other bumps in the sugar showpiece road — particularly the pulled sugar elements, for which my design was far too ambitious. I guess I thought I could pull off lovely, delicate, multi-colored flowers with nothing between my tender hands and that beyond-boiling sugar but a pair of disposable latex gloves — after having tried pulling sugar just two or three times prior.  That was deluded of me. I can barely fold a piece of paper into an envelope without practice let alone construct tropical flower petals from hot sugar. I pulled a vaguely tropical looking water flower and watched all but a few of the petals shatter on assembly.  C’est la vie.

But, all is well that ends well. The Coconut Rum Mousse with Apricot Sauce, Roasted Pineapple, and Coconut Macaroon Barquettes came in on time, the mousse didn’t collapse on its way to presentation, and it all went over well with my chef (at last! Various other incarnations of this dessert got panned repeatedly by various chefs along the way — all of which kept me working away at a combination that would hit all the right technical notes while still satisfying my vision of a fresh, light, fruit-centric summertime plated dessert).

It was an extremely gratifying moment for me when Chef told me he didn’t have a single piece of critical feedback for me. I consider that a parting gift from him since I am sure the dessert wasn’t perfect. In any case, staying on top in that class had been my biggest challenge of the semester and that score is definitely how I wanted to ride out into the Advanced Pastry sunset.

Sugar Showpiece, finished product

Sugar Showpiece, finished product

And the sugar showpiece? It also pulled out a score I was happy with. I took one last look at it, wistfully, as I slid it into the garbage can on my way out of the door. I wasn’t even going to try loading it into my car. There is no way it would have made it home without shattering, and shattered sugar shards in my trunk is the last thing I wanted to deal with. But the chocolates? They came home with me.

On Final Exams: My Advice? Don’t Tank the Buttercream

You may be wondering what on earth happened to those three baking and pastry lab classes I’ve been blogging about all semester since I dropped off the blogosphere several weeks ago.

Well, Finals happened. And, Final Exams are such a weird, stressful time that once they were done I pretty much parachuted onto the couch to lay around with my cats and watch back episodes of The Daily Show and 30 Rock re-runs. (Not really; I’ve actually been quite busy, but that’s what I would have liked to do. Or, go to Miami to lay on the beach and watch for dolphins.)

Final Exams are stressful, and even more so when they span several weeks. And, lately, they always seem to span several weeks.

The first Final Exam scheduled was the Intermediate Cakes Wedding Cake design project. I had been working on the design for a while. I was trying to keep it as clean and simple as possible, since that’s my jam, while incorporating all the necessary requirements. The project had to have combinations of certain elements in it: we had to work with several different paste mediums and showcase certain kinds of decoration techniques, etc., etc.

Here is the design:

This is the design draft for my Intermediate Cakes project. Theme: May Wedding.

This is the design draft for my Intermediate Cakes project. Theme: May Wedding.

That was the plan, anyway. And, it went pretty well, even in spite of all the ridiculous mishaps. Until I got to the buttercream. But, let’s back up to the beginning.

Here I am prepping the marzipan ladybugs.

Marzipan Ladybugs

Marzipan Ladybugs

Cute, right?? Next, when it comes to cakes, we get previously baked  (random) cakes. Here I am getting somebody else’s jenky falling apart cakes while somebody got my lovely and lovingly baked ones.

Cakes Pulled for Final

Cakes Pulled for Final

Great, right? Thanks to whomever baked this beauty.

Great, right? Thanks to whomever baked this beauty.

Trimming and torting these took a bit of time and care since they either had huge chunks missing which drastically reduced the size of my layer — or, like the bottom layer, it broke apart completely just by looking at it sideways and needed to be glued together with frosting. It was generally agreed upon that I had pulled the short straw in the cake lottery since all three of my layers were jacked in some way.

Sigh. Come on people who can’t even bake a cake in one piece, how did you make it this far???

I eventually got all those situations worked out, got the cakes prettied up, smoothed their final coat and had them ready for stacking when THIS piece of luck came my way:

Seriously? Some mystery bakers dinged my cake and didn't say a word.

Seriously? Some mystery bakers dinged my cake and didn’t say a word.

Yes, as the caption states, some mystery baker took a big chunk out of my cake and didn’t ‘fess up so when I went to pull my layers to stack them, that is what I found. So, it was back to the frosting, patching, and smoothing drawing board for me. I do believe my chef, who was shaking her head and kind of laughing while she said encouraging things like, “No problem, just patch it up — I’ve seen worse” was beginning to feel sorry for me at this point. I certainly wasn’t ahead of the game time-wise.

Staking the cake.

Staking the cake.

I finally got the cakes stacked and staked and could move on to decorating. The problem? I had less than 30 minutes to do it. That’s not good. Not good at all. And it was warm. Very warm. And the frosting was soft and getting softer by the second. And I was piping ribbons. And I had a baaaaaaaad feeling about this. Which, it turns out, was completely justified.

The ribbons went awry.

They were too soft, wouldn’t hold their shape, and kept drooping down or dropping off completely. The ribbons, layered, were supposed to cover the whole second tier, but they couldn’t even hold the weight of two rounds. That’s bad. There’s only so many royal icing butterflies one can stick on a cake to cover up seams and whatnot.

My brain was racing through all of the coping strategies I could employ for this situation, and none of them would work; there wasn’t time. The bad piping would have to stay. And, since I had three minutes left, I made it worse by trying to “fix it.”

We all know that never works.

My chef just looked at it and said, “If buttercream ribbons were so easy, everyone would be doing them.”

Which was actually pretty cool of her.

You can imagine my chagrin that I pulled off all the other aspects of this exam with aplomb only to tank on buttercream piping. So aggravating. And funny, I guess, if you think about it. Still, I wince when I look at it.

And the lesson I took with me into my next two finals is to know when to leave well enough alone. Sometimes, by “fixing” things, you make them worse. Or, at least, not better.

But, if you know me at all, you’ll know that leaving well enough alone is not in my nature so you won’t be surprised to hear that this will come up again during my Chocolates and Showpieces final.

Of Smoke And Mirrors. Or, Just Smoke, Really.

I guess it wasn’t even smoke, technically.

The lab dedicated to molecular gastronomy  — like the lab on Illusionism — made me want to roll my eyes when I saw it on the syllabus. Molecular gastronomy. It just sounds annoying, right? It reeks of the rarefied air of artistry which necessarily keeps the masses outside of its vision, which is anathema to me. Food is about community, shared resources, shared pleasure; that which seeks to exclude by the complexity of its vision raises my egalitarian NorCal hackles.

Or, to quote one of my favorite poems about the value and nature of poetry:

These things are important not because a
high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand…
(Marianne Moore, “Poetry”)

That’s how I feel about poetry. And food. And most things, probably: things are important because they are useful, and we tend not to admire that which we cannot understand.

People look for connections in life. Connecting with people can be hard. Connecting with food should be simple. The job of the chef is to make that connection as clear and evident as possible. That is not to say that the food itself should be simple. It is like good writing, or good teaching — or good anything: it takes a lot of hard work to make something look easy. It is my job to make sure that the product is not so derivative as to become unintelligible. This was my concern with molecular gastronomy.

As usual, I was being silly. The class was just an exercise in freezing things with liquid nitrogen.

Molecular Gastronomy
has a very detailed entry on Wikipedia. I would paraphrase some of it, except I found it extremely boring (sorry, molecular gastronomists). So, I will boil it down (ha ha, get it?) to this extremely unsophisticated and completely inadequate description: think foams, sous-vide, and freezing things with the aforementioned liquid nitrogen.

Washington D.C.’s own Jose Andres seems to be linked with the movement, along with other interesting things like the small plates movement and his support of Slow Food, so DC peeps can go check him out. It seems he may be teaching a class at George Washington University.

Also interesting? The list of synonyms for molecular gastronomy. I can’t decide if these make it sound more or less pretentious than the original name itself. You be the judge:

Avant-Garde Cuisine
Culinary Constructivism
Experimental Cuisine
Forward-Thinking Movement
Emotional Cuisine (I definitely don’t get this one)
Technologically Forward Cuisine
Vanguard Cuisine (huh??)

Some Pretty Pretties

The presentation tray. The Salt and Pepper bars I made are the unmarked squares on the left, but it's the "Twix" bars in the middle which stole the show -- they were amazing! I wish I had some of those right now, actually...

The presentation tray. The Salt and Pepper bars I made are the unmarked squares on the left, but it’s the “Twix” bars in the middle which stole the show — they were amazing! I wish I had some of those right now, actually…

I thought it might be time for a little photo slideshow — especially since we just did another confections lab  in Chocolates and Showpieces last week and ended up with trays of lovely chocolates.

In Intermediate Cakes, we played around with pastillage as a medium since we have to use several different pastes in our Wedding Cake design project, and we did a buttercream frosting tasting. Very interesting to have so many different buttercream styles side by side. When it comes to frosting, it is definitely different strokes for different folks.

Right now I am prepping for my final projects. Today is the first of a two day Wedding Cake design project, so I’ll get back to you about that. In the meantime, you can see my design draft in the slideshow, along with my design model for a different design project: my Sugar Centerpiece. Yes, I assemble models like a third grader. What can I say? The cutting and the pasting are not my thang.

On Illusionism, the Cheeseburger Fake-out, And Making Things Looks Like Other Things

"Cheeseburger and Fries" Dessert

“Cheeseburger and Fries” Dessert

I have to admit I rolled my eyes when I saw this section on Illusionism coming up in class. I never really understood taking a thing that is a thing in itself and trying to make it look like an entirely other thing. I feel impatient just thinking about it — just get the thing itself, not the imposter. Why make a brownie look like a hamburger patty? Let the brownie be a brownie! It makes me want to jump into a discussion of Platonic forms.

Perhaps I lack imagination, or whimsy. I can be very literal sometimes.

For this week’s Advanced Baking and Pastry Lab, our task was to create a dessert cheeseburger and fries. “How?” you might ask. Well, you use a brownie for the burger patty, you make mini doughnuts with sesame seeds on top for buns, you use a little tempered white chocolate for the cheese, sliced mango for the fries, sliced grapes for the pickles, and raspberry and mango sauces for the ketchup and mustard. Add a mini malted milkshake and viola — a cheeseburger dessert.

That’s a lot of effort to go through to make a dessert look like a main meal, right? I agree. But, I have to say, the result was more than the sum of its parts. There was a moment of minor surrealism to bite into a “cheeseburger” and taste a brownie.  I didn’t hate it.

If I sound begrudging it’s because I am resistant to this type of tomfoolery. This is Illusionism. I am a Minimalist. When I design a dessert I seem to always be striving to simplify it. I want to strip it down to its elemental parts so that those parts can shine cleanly and without confusion.

One of the biggest challenges for me this semester has been to design desserts for my practical exams which meet all the requirements — must be hot, must be cold, must be soft, must be crunchy, must be garnished, must be sauced (and some decor would be nice, if you can…) — and make the whole dessert able to be consumed in twelve bites or less, please, because this is fine dining.

Oh, and don’t forget the cake. Whatever I am making, Chef always seems to ask me to add some cake somewhere.

It’s a Minimalist’s vexation, but it is satisfying when it gets worked out.

As for the “cheeseburger,” I will admit it had a certain charm when it was done.  Still, I have to say my favorite parts were the mango fries — just plain fresh mango  sprinkled with sanding sugar “salt” and dipped in raspberry “ketchup,” and the milkshake — which was an actual milkshake.  What can I say? I like to keep it real.

Seeding the glazed doughnut "buns"

Seeding the glazed doughnut “buns”

Rolling the Dice with Sugar

Sugar Amenity Project -- Oops, forgot to elevate the clear ring so I had to go back in with a torch real quick...

Sugar Amenity Project — Oops, forgot to elevate the clear ring so I had to go back in with a torch real quick…

Sugar has been getting a bad rap lately for not doing a body good, but I’ve found an unexpected way to enjoy it: sugar centerpieces. Off all the mediums I’ve worked with this semester in my Chocolate and Showpieces class, sugar is by far the coolest. Remember the chocolate heron amenity (it alternately cracked and melted)? Remember the dead dough Happy Owl Baking centerpiece (too many things went wrong with that to bother mentioning)? Well, I can Dear John both of those mediums now because I found Sugar.

Sure, sugar is dangerous (boil to 340 degrees), fickle (you don’t even have to be touching it and it could decide to shatter), and it’s a little clingy (it’s sticky and can pull a stray shard or sugar crumb to it from across the room), but it’s also mysterious (what color will it be? I have no idea, just pour in a little dye and see), versatile, and very beautiful.

Sugar is a fascinating mix of fragility and strength. It could crack on you if you look at it wrong, but the sugar bond itself is also so strong that you can solder seemingly incompatible pieces together into acrobatic positions you can’t believe would hold,  but they do. That, coupled with sugar’s ability to take almost any color from clear to brilliant jewel tones, gives it a design versatility that is, so far, unparalleled.

If you want to see tension, watch a sugar showpiece competition and know that the sugar artist is probably holding his or her breath since all the careful planning, design, execution, skill, and focus still can’t overcome the element of chance present in sugar. The assembly could go like clockwork, or the breeze could blow, or someone could slam a door, or — well, you get the idea; it’s a gamble. You just take a deep breath and go for it.

So, if you can stand the heat, sugar might be your jam.

Click for sugar slideshow.

A Dash To The Finish Line

You know what they say about time flying…it’s mid-April which means I’m just about one month out from Final Exams for the Spring semester. It also means that my time in Maryland is coming to an end; I am measuring in weeks now instead of months. Granted, there are enough weeks left that “months” is still plural, but barely.

I’ve been thinking about the things that I haven’t done: I should have gone to Washington, D.C. more often, I should have gone to Manhattan more often. I never went back to Mount Vernon (George Washington’s house) even though I bought the annual pass and pledged in an earlier blog post to recreate the menu from the “Hoecakes and Hospitality” exhibit…and Monticello still calls to me. So does Charleston, Savannah, and Miami.

Ah, well. There are the things I should have done, and then there are the things that I actually still have to do and I can sum those things up with two words: study, and pack. I’m past critical mass and into the downward swing of this adventure. Soon it will be time to wrap up one phase of my life and drive due west from where the sun rises to where the sun sets: back to Northern California.

But, before I change frequencies, I have things to do and people to see.

I’m in the throes of designing all three of my final exam projects: a 3-tier wedding cake, a tropical themed plated dessert, and a sugar showpiece with confection. These last three classes are very different from my other baking classes. Those classes were all about production, organization, and time management. We made what the chefs told us to make.

In comparison, these classes are design classes. I have to actually produce the designs, of course, but it turns out that the design component itself takes about a million hours more than you would imagine — certainly I spend exponentially more time designing the piece than I would ever spend making it. For every timed practical that I have 3 hours to produce I’ve probably spent at least 15 hours designing it, scaling it and testing it — probably more since I over-think everything which means my research is exhaustive. And, I mean that in the truest sense: I am exhausted by the time it’s done. So, these last three projects will be very much on my mind from here on out.

It will be a dash to the finish line.

Fondant Easter Egg (1)

The Big Five-O

I just passed my one-year anniversary with WordPress (they sent a card) and I realized that this post is my fiftieth.  Fifty sounds huge, right? What to say? How to commemorate? How’s ’bout with some photos?

I’ve been a busy little bee with these final three baking lab courses. We’ve been buckled down for winter over here in Maryland (which is pretty much like a mild Spring to most other states in the Northeast and New England, but Marylanders take the threat of snow verrrrrrrry seriously…) and it’s been nose to the grindstone for me, so I haven’t done much running around discovering local eats BUT there are a few things I need to do before I split this joint: I need to find a Berger cookie (people love them and tears were flowing last month when the shop closed down for a few weeks), eat at a decent restaurant, and experience the Southern Maryland Stuffed Ham I mentioned last year when I was on that quest for fresh ham. So stay tuned for all that fun.

In the meantime, I’ve got pictures (click on them for the slideshow).  And reservations tonight at Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, the chef of which is a finalist for the 2013 James Beard Best Chef Mid-Atlantic.

Buttercrunch Toffee

Half Batch of Pecan Buttercrunch

Half Batch of Pecan Buttercrunch

I’ve always been a fan of toffee — one Christmas I received a big can of Almond Roca in my stocking and thought I had hit the jackpot — but never considered making it at home. Candy thermometer? Tempering chocolate? Forget it. But, we are in the Confections section of my Chocolate and Showpiece class and toffee was on the docket.

It turns out it’s not so hard. To eliminate any stress, though, I do recommend a candy thermometer. They’re fairly inexpensive and sugar is extremely temperature sensitive — a few degrees difference in heat makes an enormous difference in the outcome of your confection.

As for the tempering, you can sidestep any of the rigamarole associated with large-batch tempering, which can be very touchy for even a moderately experienced baker, by using a shortcut. Here’s the thing about the shortcut, though — you have to do it as described. Don’t shortcut the shortcut.

This recipe is adapted from Chocolates and Confections by Peter P. Greweling, CMB. Chef Greweling, an instructor at The Culinary Institute of America, is quite precise in his discussions about chocolates and confections. The depth with which he discusses the topics might seem intimidating but the photographs, which are gorgeous, are inspiring.

The recipe is written to yield 60 oz., which is quite a bit of toffee for an average person. We made a half-batch in class, split it between two people, and both had a decent amount to take home with us.

We also only coated one side of the toffee in chocolate — easier, faster, and quite sufficient — which means that if you only want to coat one side with chocolate you would want to cut the amount of chocolate, nuts, and the salt for the nuts (not the salt for the toffee mixture) in half for a whole batch, or quarter it for a half-batch.

Pecan Buttercrunch

Yield: 60 oz.

16 oz. butter, melted
16 oz. sugar
3 oz. water
1 tbsp. vanilla

24 oz. dark chocolate, tempered (see below), for coating — use bars, not chips
16 oz. pecans, or other nut, toasted, chopped and salted
2 tsp. salt

Note: Have a silicone baking mat and an off-set spatula or rubber spatula laid out and ready for the hot toffee when it comes off the stove. You will need to work very quickly to get it out of the pan and spread smoothly on the mat before it cools.

Combine the butter, sugar, water, and salt in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly.

Once it comes to a boil, continue cooking over moderate heat to 298 degrees Farenheit while stirring constantly. Do not be concerned if the sugar seems to sit at a certain temperature without budging for awhile. Just keep stirring and watching — the temperature will shoot up suddenly.

When the mixture reaches 298 degrees, take it off heat and add the vanilla extract. Stir well. Pour quickly onto the silicone baking mat and spread to desired thickness before the toffee sets. Allow to cool completely. I suggest not working the toffee too much once you pour it out — just smooth it quickly to the thickness you want. You will be breaking it into irregular pieces, anyway, so you don’t need to fuss with it too much at this point.

While the toffee is cooling, temper your chocolate.

Tempering Chocolate by the Direct Method

This shortcut is good for relatively small amounts of chocolate. You want to use bar chocolate, not chips, because chips generally have vegetable oil or other emulsifiers in them — they won’t harden back up the way you want.

Chop the chocolate into small, even pieces and place in a microwave-safe bowl. The goal is to heat the chocolate very, very slowly. Do not rush this. Microwaves, and the amount of chocolate you are using, vary so it’s not possible to give precise times for this but start slowly. Microwave for about 30 seconds — you can even reduce the power on your microwave to 50% if you know how — and stir it well. It should have melted a little. Microwave it again and stir it. Keep doing this, stirring well each time you take it out. When the chocolate is about 85% melted but still a little chunky, just stir it until the chunks melt and the chocolate is smooth. Expect this process to take about 6 turns (or more depending on how much chocolate you are tempering) in the microwave.

The most important part of this process is to not overheat the chocolate in any way. It’s easy to burn chocolate, which would be a bummer, but even more importantly, chocolate that is heated too high, even if it doesn’t burn, may not set properly. You are only heating the chocolate enough to get it melted and smooth.

Now the chocolate is ready to pour over the toffee.

Once the toffee is cool, blot it with a clean towel to remove any excess oil from the surface which would prevent the chocolate from adhering. Coat one side of the toffee with half of the chocolate (or, all of the chocolate if you are only coating one side) by pouring it on and smoothing it out with a spatula. Immediately sprinkle the toasted, salted nuts onto the chocolate. Allow the chocolate to set. How long it takes chocolate to set depends on how thick you poured the chocolate, etc., but I’d say give it a good 20 minutes to start. Turn and repeat on the other side of the toffee if you are coating both sides. Break into desired-sized pieces. Store protected from heat and humidity.

When fresh, the toffee should be crisp and crunchy to the bite. As the toffee picks up moisture from the air, it will become softer to the bite and stickier to chew.

Tax Refund Coming? Think “Pasta Maker”

I love my KitchenAid Stand Mixer.  I still remember the day I brought it home, so proud and excited…I had dedicated my whole tax refund to it that year and I couldn’t be more pleased for having it. I felt like I’d hit the Big Time. It’s still my favorite appliance.

One of the perks of having a KitchenAid is that the mixers have the benefit of accepting attachments and KitchenAid makes sure there are plenty of tantalizing — and expensive — attachments from which to choose. One year, for Christmas, Santa brought me the highly coveted Pasta Maker attachment. I was SUPER excited. And then I waited almost a year to try it because I was intimidated by it. I’m not sure why.

One day I was visiting my friend and her mother-in-law decided to make pasta like it was no big deal. So, I watched her. And, it’s no big deal. Of course, she has been doing it for years, so it looked even easier and smoother than it actually is the first few times but, with a little practice you’ll see there’s nothing to fear.

So, if you have that pasta attachment — or, you’re expecting your tax refund and want to invest a chunk of it in either a KitchenAid or the pasta attachment —  I say go for it! (You could also make the dough by hand — very easy — and crank it through a much less expensive tabletop pasta roller for a lot less $$ investment and a tiny bit more time and muscle investment. )

I decided to try making some Spinach pasta the other day. I had the last of my summer pesto to use and a handful of pine nuts looking for a place to land so I gave it a whirl. Spinach has quite a bit of moisture in it, so it requires a little extra handling when you are sheeting it (putting it through the rollers). I learned this after the fact.

Flour, flour, flour.

Other advice? Don’t fall so in love with the way your pasta looks that you set it down to take pictures of it because what used to be an ethereal delicacy of thinness is now a hot mess of clumpy fresh pasta. Have the back of a chair at the ready for draping.

And flour, flour, flour.

Spinach Pasta

(from the KitchenAid Pasta Sheet Roller and Cutter Set instructions, slightly modified):

y= 1 1/2 lbs. dough

1 package (10 oz) frozen, chopped spinach, thawed

1 tbsp. water

4 large eggs (7/8 cup)

4 cups sifted all-purpose flour

Place spinach in a towel and wring out all the water until the spinach feels very dry. (I didn’t do this — I just squeezed it — so that might have contributed to my moisture situation). Finely chop spinach using a food grinder attachment, food processor, or blender. (Hmm. I didn’t do this either, but I don’t think it matters. It’s “possible” I didn’t read this part of the directions and just went at it…)

Place chopped spinach, water, eggs, and flour into mixer bowl. Use beater paddle to mix 30 seconds on Speed 2 (low). Exchange paddle for dough hook. Knead 2 minutes on Speed 2. Remove dough from bowl and hand knead for 1-2 minutes. Divide dough into 8 pieces and process with roller attachment.  Cook as you would dry pasta, but adjust cooking times down. Fresh pasta takes considerably less time to cook than dry pasta. Check after 4 minutes.

Buon appetito!

Try This At Home, Kids!

There are lots of baking and pastry photos I take in my labs which don’t necessarily make it into a specific blog post. You can see these photos, and other interests, on Facebook on my Bean Pie And Baking page, so “Like” us on The Book! You can do that by clicking the link, or by finding the “Like” button on the right-hand side of this blog post.  And this semester, especially in my Advanced Pastry class where we sometimes divide up to produce a dozen different items, I’m coming across a lot of really good recipes. So, if you see a photo which interests you and are thinking you might want to try it at home, let me know. It’s highly likely that I could share the recipe.

Here’s a recipe we tried out last week in class. Pretty tasty, and fairly straightforward. The recipe calls for fresh figs, but we used dried figs in class and it was very nice. My only advice if you are using dried figs might be to consider the size of the serving pieces relative to the size of the sliced figs. These figs look gorgeous, but they were a bit of a mouthful. Dried figs are sticky and don’t bite cleanly — you need to take the whole piece in one bite, and half a fig can be a bit much for one bite. It can also push the goat cheese-to-fig balance a bit out of whack.

Fig and Goat Cheese Tart

Fig and Goat Cheese Galette before the edges are turned up and the galette is baked.

Candied Fig and Goat Cheese Galette

Yield = 8 –  four inch tarts

2 each Puff Pastry, pre-made sheets

1 1/2 lb. figs, fresh (can use dried, but slice into bite-sized pieces)

8 oz. goat cheese

1/2 oz. star anise

3 cups sugar

1/2 cup water

1 cup Brandy

1/2 cup honey

Combine the water, brandy, sugar and star anise into a sauce pot and bring to a boil. Cut the figs into halves or quarters (stay on the smaller side if using dried figs). Lower the heat on the poaching liquid to a simmer and add the figs. Mind you don’t boil them — keep them at a gentle simmer — you don’t want them banging around the pot getting disfigured. Poach the figs until the skin is tender, but before the meat begins to break down. Remove the star anise.

Cut the puff pastry into 5″ circles (or 4 1/2″x4 1/2″ squares) and place onto a sheet pan lined with a silpat (or parchment paper). Evenly distribute the goat cheese on each of the circles, and spread it leaving a 3/4″ rim without cheese. Arrange the poached figs decoratively onto the cheese. Fold the edges of the galette up and over toward the goat cheese to form a crust. Bake at 375 degrees F until the pastry is golden brown. Cool the galettes, then drizzle a small amount of honey onto each one.


The Chocolate Zone

The finished tray of filled chocolates

The finished tray of filled chocolates

Chocolate. When she is good she is very, very good, but when she is bad, she is horrid.

Working with chocolate is a trip. It’s simple and complicated at the same time. If you get it right, you can turn out these amazing creations in a fairly straightforward manner. But get it wrong? Well, be prepared to chuck it and start over.

Maybe chocolate is like any other artistic medium: you have to get to know it if you want it to respond to you. And it is very responsive. The chocolate has to be just right, and you have to be just right. Too much caffeine today? Good luck piping that heron with the thin beak. The chocolate is ready for piping but you need some for spackling? Prepare to cool your heels while you wait and watch the chocolate cool down to what you need second by second. Let it go 30 seconds too long and you’ll be starting over so take a deep breath and focus.

I suppose that is what I am saying: chocolate requires focus. If you can prepare yourself to be highly focused and calmly relaxed at the same time, if you can get in that zone? Chocolate can be very, very good.

(Click on the photos to see them fully.)

On Being A Prepper

It turns out I was right to be nervous in “And It’s Off to the Races!,” but not quite for the reasons I thought. I was worried that the classes would be hard — which they are — and that I would be slammed for time — which I am — but I didn’t expect to be so thoroughly flummoxed by the material. I also didn’t know I was skipping ahead three classes.

You might remember that I’m back in school as a career-changer pursuing a Culinary Arts Entrepreneurship certificate. I thought that the combination of business and culinary classes sequenced in the certificate would give me great flexibility when I re-enter the job market. Then sometime around the middle of last semester — with just one semester and three classes left to go, mind you  — I decided that it didn’t offer me quite as much marketability as I wanted, so I made an eleventh-hour decision to add a second certificate — Baking and Pastry — to my load. The problem was, I didn’t want to extend my completion date, so I had to cram the additional two lab classes of my second certificate into my last semester along with the units I was already scheduled to finish. This resulted in my having to take three pastry labs simultaneously. That’s a lot. Not a lot of people sign onto that plan. I knew this would make me crazy, but I decided it was necessary. I consulted my advisor, explained my time constraints, was approved, and set everything in motion.

It turns out that the reason people generally don’t take three labs at a time is because not only does it make you mean as heck but it places you in the very vulnerable and delicate position of concurrent learning. That is to say that tasks in one class are largely dependent on skills learned in one or all of the other classes. Which, if you took those classes last semester, is fabulous. If, like me, you are taking them all RIGHT NOW you just cross your fingers that the skill you are going to need in class “C” on Friday is one you’ll learn in classes “A” or “B” on Monday (because, naturally, two of my labs have to be back-to-back gracing me with a 12-hour stint on Mondays). Otherwise, you’re screwed.  To make things even more delicious, one of the courses I’m in is largely premised on two classes not required for my certificates so when I had the feeling that first day of class that everybody knew what was going on but me…well, I was right.

And anyone who knows me knows I hate not knowing what’s going on. I self-identified as an over-achiever in “For the Curious and the Stout-Hearted: Year One Reflections”  (which I continue to believe is an asset, not a liability). I take school very seriously — way too seriously, actually — and I try to prepare and prepare until not one thing is left to chance.  I’m an academic prepper. And, usually, this pays off. But I might have met my match. Because no amount of normal — or even my customary brand of way overboard — preparation can make up for what I don’t know. Still I tried. I spent the last two weeks (which has actually felt like an eternity) in mental overdrive trying to figure out how to get this situation back under control. I ordered three of the extra “Recommended” texts. I spent hours watching pastry videos on the internet.  I even asked if I could have all the Power Point slides from the other classes I didn’t have to take so I could read them to try to catch up. That’s how badly I wanted to be prepared. (That request was denied, by the way.)

What a nut, right? And that’s when I knew I had to let it go.

Socrates placed great value on knowing that you don’t know something. He thought that true learning could happen best when you proceed from the acknowledged place of not knowing because when you are aware you do not know something you are then glad for the chance to learn the thing you don’t know.**

I don’t have a problem admitting what I don’t know, but I learned that I might have a problem with allowing myself to be in that state for very long. I’ll struggle to get out of it as quickly as possible even if it makes me (and the people who have to listen to me) frantic. I’m results-driven, not process oriented. I always think things could be happening faster which is why I am usually looking at you like I want you to hurry up when you are explaining something. (You only need to say it once, friend.) But, sometimes, it seems, when you are rather thoroughly out of your element, you actually have to go through the process in the ordinary way complete with all its slow, messy, uncertain parts. And I am going to try to not let that drive me crazy.

So maybe they did me a favor by not letting me have those notes. I might not get an “A” in this class as a result — and I’ll have to figure out how to let that go — but I’m pretty sure I’m going to learn a lot because I clearly have a lot to learn.

Stay tuned for some really cool pictures.

**(You can read this very interesting argument in full for yourself if you care to work your way through Plato’s “Meno.”)

And It’s Off To The Races!

Spring semester's textbook line-up.

Spring semester’s textbook line-up.

It’s a new semester here in Maryland and we like to do things right so the first day of Tuesday/Thursday classes started with a two-hour snow delay. This didn’t impact me since the English Composition class I am teaching doesn’t run until later in the afternoon so it was business as usual for me. I dusted off that scant inch of fluffy white snow and carried on organizing myself for another 4 1/2 months of being a teacher and a student.

I’ve been teaching for a long time but I still get nervous on the first day of class. There’s all sorts of tricks of the trade for creating a classroom culture from scratch but teaching is still part alchemy: will they like me enough to buy into what I’m selling? Can I turn this group of strangers into a cohesive, communicative band of critical thinkers? Is Mercury in retrograde? Because I have 15 weeks to get them from Point A to Point B and I gotta tell you it’s always a crapshoot.

So, that was on my mind, but even more on my mind are the classes I am going to be taking: my final semester of Baking and Pastry. My capstone courses. The litmus test courses: Advanced Pastry, Intermediate Cakes, and Specialties, Showpiece and Chocolate. The syllabi are longer; the bar is higher. Or, maybe I am being over-dramatic, as usual, but I don’t think so. I can tell just by the way the Course Outlines are laid out that we’re meant to be firing on all cylinders (Mmmm hmmm, I’ve read all the Course Outlines already even though our classes haven’t met yet. If you’ve been reading this blog you can’t possibly be surprised by that.).

Pretty, no?

Pretty, no?

Inside front cover of "Chocolates and Confections"

Inside front cover of “Chocolates and Confections”

The books are gorgeous. And I’ve actually been waiting to take Chocolate and Showpiece since I got here, so I’m really looking forward to that. Although I’ve never cared much for eating chocolate myself, I fell in love with the idea of opening a hot chocolate bar almost fifteen years ago — so much so that I bought books devoted to hot chocolate recipes and drafted plans and menus in my Planning Notebook after the section on crepes and before the section on humble cakes.  (I’ve been planning baking businesses for a very long time.) I even made a point in my younger days of going to Cadbury World when I was in England, the chocolate shops when I was in Belgium, and Hershey’s Chocolate World in Hershey, PA to see this industry that is chocolate.

Cadbury World, England, 1997. My host was puzzled by my request to go here.

Cadbury World, England, 1997. My host was puzzled by my request to go here.

Clearly, I never opened that hot chocolate bar. I went to graduate school and started teaching instead. Then, about five years ago, I again became very intrigued with chocolate as a medium — so much so this time that I actively went out and tried to cultivate my chocolate palate. Yes, I tried to teach myself to like chocolate. And I did, to an extent. The whole world likes chocolate so I figured it behooved me to figure out what the deal was so that I could trust my judgment when making chocolate things.  It was working with chocolate the last time that got me into home coffee roasting, as a matter of fact, including the hunt for the elusive Poppery II Popcorn Popper, the vintage home popcorn popper which doubles as the coveted home coffee roaster, but that’s a story for another day.

The goal for beginning home coffee roasters: Poppery II

The goal for beginning home coffee roasters: Poppery II

The elusive vintage Poppery II. I found this one in a thrift store along the coast in Northern California.

The elusive vintage Poppery II. I found this one in a thrift store along the coast in Northern California.

Sweet Maria's sells all kinds of "green beans" through mail order. Or, you can walk into their warehouse and buy them off the floor like I did, but that was a little awkward.

Sweet Maria’s sells all kinds of “green beans” through mail order. Or, you can walk into their warehouse in West Oakland and buy them off the floor like I did, but that was a little awkward.

In any case, it turns out that chocolate is kind of a trip, so this class — and the other classes, too — should be pretty cool. Stay tuned to see what we make.

Will it be Buttercrunch?

Will it be Pecan Buttercrunch?

Or perhaps Sleeping Beauties?

Or perhaps Sleeping Beauties…???

The Apples Don’t Fall Far From The Tree

I’m on semester break from culinary school unwinding from Fall semester (crazy town) and gearing up for Spring semester (prediction: even crazier). This will be my fourth, and final, semester of my program, and it’s going to be a biggie complete with 12 hour baking lab days (Advanced Pastry! Intermediate Cakes! Showpiece and Chocolate!) and long, long nights compliments of the two English composition sections I will be teaching again, and a bit of work I do for a local environmental nonprofit. So, my breaks are spent revising my syllabus and pulling materials — all the things that teachers do between sessions when others are imagining them sitting around eating bon bons and watching daytime television.

Even so, between semesters, I make a point of traveling home to California for a week or so. It’s good for me to see my friends, work a little bit if I can (I’m a state credentialed substitute teacher), and, perhaps most importantly, I get to reconnect, albeit briefly, with the Northern California food scene. This energizes me like nothing else. Being back in the thick of Where Food Is Happening is like a psychic caffeine transfusion. I soak it in and feel the light energy buzz tingle down to my fingertips when I see all the new places that have opened since I’ve been gone and read about what’s coming next. A week in the San Francisco Bay Area is like a Foodie boilermaker.

Energy buzz notwithstanding,  it’s always a little surreal being home. You know how it is; you’ve been gone but when you come back it feels like you never left except for the fact that you did, in fact, leave and life here has been going on without you. And, in 7, or 4, or 2 more days you’ll leave again and in the space of a 6 hour flight you’ll be back in a whole different piece of your life that none of those other people you just spent time with know about because they live 3,000 miles away and are busy leading the life you just kissed goodbye.

You, know, the usual.

On the other hand, coming home is super great. Every time I come back to California from somewhere else I recommit to it. It’s always a welcome sight; it’s always the right place to be. There is something about this place that relaxes me. The view panning out across the hills? The way the roses bloom, hardy, against the bright, cold winter sun? The thick, gray blanket of fog in the summer?  The Campanile? The mudflats? San Francisco sitting across the bridge like a fable? Or maybe it’s the people: a strange, certain, passionate, particular people, Californians. I don’t know. All I know is that it works for me.  I can’t imagine ever being bored here in landscape or endeavor.

This is all a long way of saying I dig it.  I just think California is tops. And as beautiful as other states can be and as important as it is to be close to family, there’s something to be said for being home.

But, for now, while I am here in California as visitor,  my two cats, Puddin’ and Sox, have to hold down the fort back in Maryland. I’ve always wondered what they do while I’m away. Previously I have assumed they run around like maniacs scrambling throw rugs and pulling each other’s fur out if the state of the house upon my return is my deductive guide. Turns out, as this photo, snapped by my fabulous cat-sitter who dotes on them without reserve, shows they lead a sedate, philosophical, culinary lifestyle when forced to fend for themselves. Sometimes a book title or two will be pulled forward a bit, suggestively. Every once in a while a book will be flat out sprawled on the floor when I return although I confess I’ve never taken the hint.

Here they are this time, passing the time of day: Sox consults the cookbook bookcase while Puddin’ relaxes next to his cardboard lounger.

They get that from me.

I wonder what he'll make?

I wonder what he’ll make?

It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Christmas? No, laminated doughs!

We of HRM 201 Intermediate Breads spent the last four weeks on laminated doughs, a.k.a. croissants and danish. It was a sea of Vienoisserie. While the term “laminated doughs” isn’t very musical the products themselves make most people feel like humming. Or marching, if they’re really good.

Imagine a sheet of dough that has a sheet of butter laid on top of it. That’s trippy, right? Then imagine folding that package up like a letter into an envelope, then rolling it out again, then folding it again, then rolling, then folding (chilling the dough along the way so it doesn’t get too warm)…You do this several times for danish dough, several more times for croissant dough, and still more times for puff pastry. Then you get to roll it one last time, shape it, proof it, and bake it. And, viola, many hours later, or probably the next day, actually, croissants! Or danish. Or vol au vents. Or, if you are extremely decadent, laminated brioche. Yes, brioche, which already has a block of butter beaten into the dough to make it glossy and rich, then gets laminated with another block of butter. It boggles the mind. (Click on any image for detail.)

Now I have a brand spankin’ new appreciation for these kinds of doughs. I’ve never actually been much for this kind of pastry, but now that I’ve seen what goes into the production I’m seeing things in a whole new light. Still, my personal favorites are the mini brioche balls, the brioche a tete, and, unsurprisingly, the sticky buns. These were, by far, the best sticky buns I’ve had, so this recipe is definitely a keeper.

Mini Brioche Balls

Butter Heaven

Butter Heaven

Hands down the best sticky bun recipe ever.

Hands down the best sticky bun recipe ever.

We finished off the the last class before the Bread Project with a quick nod at variety breads. Here I discovered Portuguese Sweet Bread, which was a nice little surprise. I expect it will turn up again, too.

Variety breads to close out the semester

Variety breads to close out the semester

All in all, we covered quite a bit of ground in this class. Part of me — a small part, the part that is not totally exhausted — wishes I could do it again. Instead, I’ll move on to three new classes next semester: Intermediate Cakes, Advanced Pastry, and Showpiece and Chocolate Work. I suppose that will be quite enough.

Happy Holidays!


Sliced ( a little squooshed since it wasn't completely cool).

Sliced ( a little squooshed since it wasn’t completely cool).

The weeks, they’ve been a flyin’ and I’ve been a busy little bee. Laminated doughs, viennoiserie, more laminated doughs: croissants, brioche, laminated brioche (definitely a sin). I will be posting pictures of all those because they are delectable.

But right now I am working on my bread project. Part of the requirement for HRM 201 Intermediate Breads is to design your own bread formula for production on the last day of lab. It is, for all intents and purposes, our practical exam. So, I gave it some thought. And I decided I wanted to build a pretzel bread with the crust of a Philly style soft pretzel, but a modern interior. That’s Philly-style now, not mall-style pretzel, so I waded through sample recipes using egg washes and butter washes and cinnamon sugar toppings to get to the hardcore old school style pretzel recipes. I found a few versions of something that looked reasonable and started tweaking them.

Hmmm, got to get that braiding worked out.

Hmmm, got to get that braiding thing worked out.

If you know baking at all you know it’s a series of moves and counter-moves. It’s like a chess game: every move you make has repercussions all the way down the line. Change the flour, add some sugar, leave out an egg and the whole thing could go haywire. It’s a very delicate chemical balance and my rule of thumb is to never make more than one change at a time or you might never know what action caused what reaction. So, I was in for a long development phase. I thought about flours and read about flours and thought about flours and read about flours…then I threw in dark rye, and some ground flax, and some white whole wheat. Then I ditched the white whole wheat and upped the flax and subbed out some of the rye, then went back to my original combo and stayed there. Then, I started shaping my little heart out doing rolls with snipped tops, and twists and knots and logs before settling on the most problematic shape of all for a pretzel: the braided loaf.

Pretzels are meant to be bathed in a caustic solution to give it that distinctive and desirable crust. Lye is used commercially, but I settled for a water bath with a high concentration of baking soda. And I got a little chemistry lesson for my efforts.

Getting schooled about the properties of sodium bicarbonate.

Getting schooled about the properties of sodium bicarbonate.

Another challenge of the bath is that, unlike a roll or a twist, a braided loaf is large and fragile and not at all easy to bathe without marring it or having it fall apart going in or coming out of its bath. So, I made a lot of loaves of flax pretzel bread to try to get it right. Let’s try this again, but without the surprises.

Now that's better.

Now that’s better.

Working on building that particular pretzel crust.

Working on building that particular pretzel crust.

The final run-through before the practical exam itself.

The final run-through before the practical exam itself.

The day of the practical felt more like a treat than an exam. All we had to do was produce two loaves of the bread recipe we had developed. No teamwork — yay! While I’ve had much better luck this semester in terms of lab partners, it was going to be mighty fine to just be able to handle my own business. All I had to do was make sure I worked the dough enough to develop the gluten, but not too much since it has rye flour in it, hope that it rises in good time, get the braid shaped properly without it looking distorted or uneven, boil the long loaves without marring them or having them split apart, and then get the baked loaves off of the parchment before they stick since the water bath actually turns the wet dough into a kind of floury glue to whatever surface it is touching as it bakes. Piece of cake.

Well, four out of six ain’t bad.

The dough turned our gorgeous but it took forever to rise — 2 full hours in the proof box, which is bizarre. It rose faster at home without a proof box! A few of us had trouble with our rises in last week’s lab (totally different dough), and another gal at the final…well, her dough didn’t rise at all and she had turned her formula out perfectly at home the night before so I’m going to chalk that up to some kind of classroom yeast anomaly. Nevertheless, it finally proofed, was shaped, and made it through the rest of the process. There were a few other glitches, but nothing major, and I’m happy to report that the Flax Pretzel Braid did indeed have a pretzel crust (it should have — I dumped double the baking soda into the water bath at the last minute just to see what would happen…) and while it wasn’t Philly-style in the strictest sense, one could definitely see its Philadelphia roots.

Getting ready for its bath.

Getting ready for its bath.

The bath! Don't ask me why those bubbles are so large -- they never were in the test runs -- and I have a theory but would rather not discuss it...

The bath! Don’t ask me why those bubbles are so large — they never were in the test runs — and I have a theory but would rather not discuss it…

Fresh out of the oven.

Fresh out of the oven. Topped with black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, brown mustard sees, and lots of coarse salt.

As for the others, there were a few really interesting and inspiring creations, two of which I liked so much I’m actually going to try to recreate them at home.

But, they can’t all be tens, right? And the project by the gal across from me? Well, my goodness, see for yourself. Let’s just say I’m not sure she thought hers through that well. Or practiced. Or appeared to ever have worked with, seen or even eaten laminated dough before in her life when, in fact, we spent four weeks on laminated doughs, three of them on croissant dough specifically. Behold the horror.

Sweet baby jesus. And we couldn't say a word to her about it.

Sweet baby jesus. And we couldn’t say a word to her about it.

It’s gratuitous, I know, and a little catty, but I really couldn’t take my eyes off of it. A few of us did actually try to give her some subtle pointers (“um, perhaps a few more folds?”) but to no avail. Here’s another one just because it’s so startling.

I'm sorry, I'm just fascinated by this. It's egregious.

I’m sorry, I’m just fascinated by this. It’s egregious.

Ok, sorry, I’ll stop culinary rubbernecking.

The gal who made these knew they weren’t great but she didn’t seem too fazed by it. Even so, I managed to not get busted taking this picture like I did last time (yes, same girl!) in “Every Baby Is A Cute Baby.” And Chef? Well, he just shook his head as he made rounds. Really, what could he say?

The Great Cookie Puzzle

Cowboy Cookies

Victoria, of Victoria’s Fancy Foods, in Severna Park, MD told me she wanted to start up a cookie case for the holiday season; was I interested? I was. The question was when? I have about five spare minutes a day, and that’s being generous. But, if I saved them up over the course of a week, that’s enough for a batch of cookies, right? Peter, whom I’ve been robbing to pay Paul, will not be happy with my new time management arrangement. He’ll find it even less accommodating than my previous schedule. In fact, if he ever meets up with Paul for a drink they’re going to be super steamed when they realize I’m robbing them both blind. Hmpf. Best not to think about that. I turned my mind to cookies.

The criteria was tight. They had to be simple because they’re being made on-site in the store, which is not a bakery. It’s Health Board certified, of course, but not kitted out like a Cake Boss kitchen with deck ovens. Next, they have to either be drop cookies, or relatively fast to shape because with small-batch production my time is my biggest expense. They have to be chewy, because that’s the kind I like.

And, I wanted them to have something wholesome about them. Maybe even…no dairy no eggs? A.k.a., “vegan”? Vegan whaaaaaat??? What a challenge!

Well, why not? Vegan cookies are not that hard to make, it’s just a question of how easy or cost effective it is to find a quality vegan chocolate. Remember folks, I’m in Maryland, and while we have Whole Foods and Wegman’s here, I wouldn’t say buying vegan chocolate chips at specialty retail prices is the best way for a cottager such as myself to turn a profit. Most high percentage chocolate is practically vegan by nature, except that it may be processed on the same equipment with other lower percentage chocolates, like milk chocolate which keeps it, in the strictest sense, outside the definition. Ah, technicalities.

So, I thought about it. Lots. And lots. I like a puzzle. Well, I don’t like actual puzzles — how maddening! So many tiny pieces! Who has time for that? Those kinds of puzzles stress me out. But this kind of puzzle I like.

Here’s how I worked it out:
1.) Flax is my friend.
2.) Pastry flour is oddly expensive & hard to find. Whole wheat pastry flour even more so.
3.) Applesauce cookies sound warm like Grandma but can go really wrong when you swap out three ingredients at a time (rookie move), so ditch ’em if you’re smart. But, I’m stubborn, so I will keep working on them until I get one I like. Which I did.

Apple Spice Cookies

This whole process reminded me of waaaaay back when when I (briefly) went to University of California, Santa Barbara and was knocking around that town for a bit. I found this cookie that I really dug — this was way back in’89 now, so keep that in mind — that I think might be influencing me to this day. I think it was called the “No” cookie, so I looked it up. And it is called the “No” cookie  (even then I wondered at that marketing strategy)– as in, no dairy, no eggs, no wheat, no refined sugar, and so on and so forth — and it’s made right in my hometown of Oakland, CA. How funny that I traveled 325 miles south on Hwy. 101 before I met them.

These “No” cookies, along with another cookie brick made of oats and stuff that kicked off a big oat cake phase for me, were expensive ($3 was expensive for a cookie for a college freshman in 1989) so I only had them a couple of times, but the idea fit so well with what I thought a baked good could be via my bean pie experience that it lodged in my brain and has been percolating ever since.

Now whole grains have come a long way since then and people’s tastes have evolved (devolved, since unrefined baked goods came way before refined baked goods?) to the point that goodies made with what I consider to be very interesting ingredients like whole wheat, oats, flax, etc. are practically passe. Which is good, because I want more people to like this kind of thing, for less refined baked goods to be as common and enjoyed as all other kinds of baked goods, and not for their health benefits, which are undeniable, and not for their smaller global footprint or any other sociopolitical attachment, but because they’re good. They taste good. They’re appealing. They have texture and interest on their own. They don’t need to try to imitate their more worldly, refined cousins. I like them for who they are; I’m not worried about what they are not.

I think these cookies that I’m making for Victoria’s are good. In fact, one of them is my all-time cookie favorite, my go-to cookie, the one I look for if I’m playing dilettante at a cafe. The label will let you know the ones without dairy, without eggs, but only because some people might want or need to know, not because the cookies are trying to make a statement.

In the end, for my Double Chocolate Cherry cookies, I decided to stick with Ghirardelli chocolate chips because I wanted to use a bittersweet chocolate — 60% cacao instead of the lower percentages usually used for semisweet. Bittersweet chocolate has less sugar and more overall health benefits than semisweet. Plus, I like it better. Yay! And I did finally get an applesauce cookie the way I wanted it, so that’s in place. And my favorite? The Cowboy Cookie. You’ll just have to try it for yourself.

We’re going to roll them out fresh in the store on certain days and they can always be special-ordered.

Ann’s Dari-Creme

Ann’s Dari-Creme, Glen Burnie, MD

I was joking around about local hot dog spots (see “What’s So Great About Ben’s Chili Bowl?“) and mentioned I might check out Ann’s Dari-Creme in Glen Burnie, MD — a tiny little place which looks even tinier since a shopping mall sprang up behind it. I had heard about it years ago when I first moved to the Annapolis, MD area from a friend who had grown up in that area, but I never bothered to check it out. I wasn’t inclined to go out of my way for a hot dog.  But, after I mentioned it in my other post I had to look it up to create the website link (they don’t have their own website, but I linked to the section about them) and I discovered that it’s considered quite the little local gem. There’s an article in the Washington Post that I never could get to load, and allegedly an article in the Washingtonian that I couldn’t actually read because I refused to sign up and make an account just to read about hot dogs. (Clearly my research strategies are rather lazy on this topic). I can provide, however, the link to the reviews, the format of which I used to be very fond of back before I consigned myself to the endless grind of student-dom and signed away any possibility of having the time or money to do anything fun or actually travel somewhere more than 25 miles away.

I heard it can get nutso in there so I went to check them out on a quiet Wednesday night. The sign outside declares they’ve been there for over 62 years. It’s a small place, very intimate, and I had to step right up to the counter without preamble. There were people waiting for their food all quiet as could be. I was not prepared. I got flustered.

This is how confident Ann’s Dari-Creme is: there are only three mains on the menu – six, if you count ordering something with or without cheese as a separate choice – no descriptions, no elaborations. I ordered the Famous Foot-Long and when she asked me what I wanted on it, I blanked.

“Everything?” she prodded.

Ummmm. I looked at the sign. No clues. Onions? Relish? Ketchup? What’s “Everything”?

I didn’t ask.

Seconds ticked by as I imagined how you could put ketchup on a dog and then fry it. I pictured them dressing the dog and then putting the whole thing in the fryer, like a deep fried Twinkie. Impossible. I couldn’t make it add up, and she was waiting. I blurted out “relish and mustard” which is weird since I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a hot dog without ketchup before, and then I wondered if I was sweating. And why was it so infernally quiet in there? I also ordered, for market research purposes, a half a cheesesteak — another oddity since I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve deigned to order a cheesesteak outside of the Philadelphia area. There must’ve been a funny moon out that night.

I sat at the counter waiting for my order and listened to everyone else who came in. They all knew what was up. They sounded like they had been ordering the same thing for 30 years. I quickly realized I had made a mistake — I should’ve gotten “Everything” since “Everything” meant chili. Rats! Now I was just getting a stupid old dog. Without ketchup, no less. Lame.

My dog came and it looked mighty lonely wrapped up in that big bun without any chili on it. A foot-long sounds big, right? They’re actually not very big. They are about the diameter of my index finger, max, not like the hot dogs you get at a ballgame or picnic. And I have a thing about excess bun on things, so I cropped all the excess bun off my dog and thought about how to get my order right next time. My new plan: The Double Dog, Half Order. Yes. Think about that for a second. But, a half a double dog is like just getting a single dog, right? Right. Same amount of dog, half the bun. It’s genius! Now, on to the cheesesteak.

I can be real snotty about my cheesesteaks, but I have to tell you something about this one hit me the right way. The bread wasn’t Amoroso’s, of course, but they used thin minute steaks, so that worked for me. You know how some places try to jazz it up by using thinly sliced ribeye or some such nonsense? Nope, give me that shaved beef, preferably pressed into an unnatural sheet of meat so that when you throw it on the flattop you have to chop it up again with your grill spatula. Then give me those fried onions that still have some bite to them and shove it in a soft hoagie roll…That’s the business. It was tasty.

After I got home I revisited the reviews on TripAdvisor and realized everything I had needed to know had been there all along: order an “Everything” or an “Everything, no onions” or everyone will know you are a loser. Sigh. Next time.

Fast forward to: Next Time

This time I’m sure I’ll get it right. It’s daytime, so I can see they have a sign outside — a newbie cheatsheet- that breaks it down for you about how to order (so that’s how those TripAdvisor reviewers had it together so fast!). I discover you can request your hot dog onions grilled, so I do this, but it appears I used too many words for that request because the counter gal looked at me very tiredly and shorthanded it back to me. I was so consumed with getting the fried onion lingo down that I forgot my clever trick of ordering the Half Double. Sigh. Oh well. Next time. Practice makes perfect.

Foot-Long with Everything, Fried. Next time I’ll get the Half Double with Everything, Fried, which will put the whole hot dog in just half the bun. Perfect!

Ann’s was crowded this time and I sat at the counter waiting for my dog watching the ladies sling hot dogs. These gals are serious. Nobody writes anything down. The one taking the orders, Lady A, tells the one working the grill, Lady B, as she puts out the right numbers of rolls for her. Everything (that I saw ordered each time I was there, anyway) goes on the same roll, a sub roll, so that certainly doesn’t help them keep it straight. At one point the lady at the grill, Lady B, had fifteen — yes, I counted them — identical rolls laid out in front of her and she just kept on keeping on. Over the next five minutes she filled every one of those rolls without saying a word. Then Lady A takes them back, bags them up — I have no idea how she knows which thing goes with which order since they are all wrapped in the same white paper — calls them out, the people pay and everyone is happy. It was fascinating to watch.

I learned a lot sitting there. For instance, I learned that you can get a gigantic soft serve cone with rainbow sprinkles (“jimmies”) for $2.45. I learned that people in Glen Burnie love their Double Dogs with Everything. And I learned I would never be able to work there since I can’t remember any order for more than 5 seconds. Those ladies must have photographic memories. Like I said, practice makes perfect.

Just so you know, Ann’s also serves french fries in a cup (“boardwalk”-style), shakes and those soft-serve cones I mentioned. They also have soft-serve sundaes and one of the toppings is wet walnut, which you don’t see much these days. That might be a trip all its own.

Would I trek to Ann’s from afar? No. Would I go back if I was cruising by and got a bee in my bonnet for a hot dog or (kinda) cheesesteak? Totally. And next time I’ll slide in and out like a Dari Creme pro.

Cash only. Or, you can use the ATM inside.

What a happy dog!