Bean Pie Goes Traveling: Repository of Good Eats

Barney’s Gourmet Burgers on Solano Avenue, Berkeley, CA

Left Coast, Best Coast, ‘Frisco, Bezerkely — whatever you call it, I’m a NorCal girl at heart. I’ve dropped the cats in the Philly ‘burbs for their summer vacay with The Fam (don’t feel bad for them, they’re living the high life complete with enclosed back yard and two bemused humans on door duty — thanks P and K!) and flown due west to chill Cali-style for a few weeks. Not surprisingly, I just may have time for a few good eats. You’ve missed out on the first week of good grub because I didn’t have my photog hat on properly, but I will try to catch you up.

Here’s what you missed. If you are in the area, check out the links and see for yourself:

Veggie Cheeseburger at Kwik-Way by Lake Merritt in Oakland. Doesn’t sound good, but it is. My favorite veggie burger, in fact, and I am not inclined to veggie burgers. Sort of a cross between a black bean burger and a falafel, it’s a mess of creamy, crunchy, cheesy goodness. Comes with bacon upon request! I hanker for hamburgers and it’s a blue moon that persuades me to deviate from beef; turkey, occasionally, chicken almost never, but this veggie burger came with a  referral, and I am mighty glad it did so I am referring it on to you. You’re welcome.

Carnitas Burrito at Gordo’s Taqueria on Solano Avenue, Albany. Carnitas is really all you need to know. I’ve been coming here since middle school just about and could count on one hand the number of times there HASN’T been a line out the door. People say it’s not the same since the new crew came on (“new” being relative since it’s been almost 10 years, prolly), but it’s still one of the first places I go when I hit town.

Midwestern Burger at Barney’s Gourmet Burgers on Solano Avenue (photo above). Cheese,Thousand Island sauce, and a flying saucer sized onion ring. ‘Nuff said. Well, that and a milkshake. I don’t believe this was part of their regular menu, but I bet you could sweet talk your way into special-ordering one if you had to.

Black and Gold Sundae with a side of coffee, San Francisco Creamery, Walnut Creek, CA

New try: Black and Gold Sundae with a cup of coffee on the side at San Francisco Creamery in Walnut Creek. It’s not Fentons, which actually has its own Wikipedia entry detailing its illustrious history, including an arson fire and its mention in the Pixar film, Up, but I had to give it a whirl.  Ever since Ortman’s Ice Cream Parlor closed (I, along with generations of other Albany High School students, did my time behind the counter there hawking sundaes and grilled sandwiches), Fentons has been the go-to for a seriously old-fashioned, genuine ice cream experience and it still delivers every time.

By the way, nobody calls it ‘Frisco so don’t be trying that noise if you visit. And, bring a decently heavy jacket. It’s Northern California, not Miami! Trust me.

For the Curious and the Stout-Hearted: Year One Reflections

Ever wondered what it’s like to put your life on hold and go back to school? Well, here you go. Here’s what I learned about myself and others:

It’s a huge sacrifice.  Going back to school sucks, and this is from someone who loves school. Putting aside the actual expense for now (see below) let’s just look at the psychic cost to you and your family: you are working all the time. All. The. Time. Think of everything you like to do, big and small, and put that in a mental basket, along with the friends you haven’t called in months and the family members who are sick of hearing your constant whine about homework, and call it Collateral Damage. This is where all the people who used to think you were fun to hang out with reside.

It’s expensive. There’s the tuition, fees, books, uniforms, knives — all calculable. But most (well, at least many — not mine, fortunately) culinary arts programs are designed for full-time students. You move through in core blocks, no substitutions. You may be able to work part-time (good luck with that), which means you will reduce your current income by at least half, but try not to think about that or you will never feel like you can actually afford to do it. Suffice it to say there is lots more money going out, lots less money coming in. So take all the things you used to like — like going out for coffee, or lunch — chuck them into the Collateral Damage basket, and get used to feeling like a broke loser when your friends’ birthdays roll around. This is serious business for career changers/re-entry students who may have any or all of the following: kids, mortgages (or serious rents not involving three other roommates), cars made after 2005, and previous student loans.   And while we are on the subject of students….

The Other Students. If you’re anything like me, you might think Other People are a huge pain to deal with, so try going back to school  with them. I’m going to sort students into two basic categories here: 18-22 year-olds, and Re-Entry students. Based on my six years of teaching English Composition at the community college where I am now a student, and five years working in Residential Life at the college where I earned my Masters degree, college freshman are a marvel. I really like them. I really do, and I’m not just saying that. They are like bright, shiny pennies with the world at their feet and even though they might not realize it, they’ve got that precious commodity that you don’t realize you’ve lost until you see it in them: idealism. They are also, by turns, confused, excitable, strident, and brash, with a bored affectation that is laughably, and falsely, world-weary. Top it off with a dose of know-it-all zest that borders on mouthy, put them in a room with twenty other students, and call it Freshman Comp. Or Cooking 121. Or any other survey class where nobody knows nothing from nothing yet. Then ask them to do a boatload of work, and watch one-third to one-half of them self-destruct.

Except that I don’t want to self-destruct. I’m a Re-Entry student, and I mean business. So get outta my way. Re-entry students are their own glorious category. They are back for a reason. They’re not just taking classes to stay on their parents’ health insurance. The stakes are generally pretty high for this group — clearly, something is not working out right in their current career and they want a change badly enough to sacrifice for it, big time (see above). As a career-changer, I’m in this group. We’re focused, and driven. We want to know exactly what, when, where, and how. If you want to be around some serious students, take a night class. Those people really want it. A lady in one of my classes this semester has triplet infants at home. TRIPLETS. She knows how to work hard. I’d take her on my team any day.

Career changers don’t mess around, and this can be very off-putting to the other kidlets. But, sorry Charlie: I can’t afford to take three hours to do something that should take one hour. I spent two entire 75 minute class periods this semester making a poster — a POSTER – as a group effort. A POSTER. Which, by the way, ended up having not one, but two hand-lettered (who hand-letters a poster past sixth grade, for heaven’s sake? It’s not a garage sale) spelling errors on it by the end of class, so I had to take it and re-do it after class, anyway, which cost me another 45 minutes. Which reminds me…

Group Work. I hate it. Which brings me to…

What I learned about myself. “Overachievers” are not good team players. We’re precise. We’re prepared. We’ve read all the readings. We’ve done our production sequences. We think everyone should be taking this assignment/project/class as seriously as we do, and when they don’t, it bugs us because its our grade on the line, and that ain’t cool. I’ve gotten the definite impression that other students think we are a drag.

I’ve been called an overachiever at least a dozen times this year, which is funny since I don’t recall being called that before — not in undergrad, not in grad. Control freak? Yes. Micro-manager? Uh huh. Type A? Ok, although I don’t actually agree with that one. But “over achiever”? That  didn’t come up until I hit community college…and something about it rubs me the wrong way. I take issue with the desire to do one’ s best being cast as a social or character flaw.  Wanting an “A” isn’t overachieving. It’s just achieving, and I think it’s a pretty worthy goal. I admire people who take themselves seriously as learners and push themselves to do as well as they can in whatever it is they undertake.  I respect that. So, big ups to overachievers!

I’m saying “overachiever” but I really don’t care for that term. It doesn’t sound nice, does it? Put “over” in front of anything and dollars to donuts it’s pejorative: over-dressed, over-done, over-the-hill, over-achiever. Its use implies there is something wrong with achievement and I think there’s something wrong with thinking there’ s something wrong with achievement.  But that’s probably just me being over-analytical.

Summary: It has been a heck of a year. I would try to cash in on the ol’  “I laughed, I cried..” bit, but I don’t remember laughing much. What I do remember are hours and hours and hours of difficult, confusing, unfamiliar work forcing me to bend my brain around subjects about which I knew very little. It has been a year of pure, hardcore skill acquisition.  Being out of my element, being back at the bottom, is extremely uncomfortable. Being wrong over and over again sucks — until the time you get it right; then you exhale and think to yourself, “Damn. Finally.” And that’s why you’re here, right? To do something new, and to get it right?

So, it’s worth it. If you are thinking about going back to school, think about all the things I’ve said. It’s quite a tally. Then, think about everything you would stand to gain. What will be your measure of success?  The long term success of this endeavor remains to be seen, but to measure my short-term success, I table all the hassle and heartache of those sixteen week blocks and think solely of the academic experience itself: the adrenaline, the satisfaction, the flush of pride from succeeding in something difficult. Definitely worth it.

Stay tuned for Year Two.

Happy Owl is Extra Happy Today!

Today marks the official debut of Happy Owl’s Sweet Bean Pie, and it went swimmingly! Hosted by Victoria’s Fancy Foods in Severna Park, Happy Owl set up a sampling table amongst the salsas and rubs. Like at the Faux Trade Show, customer response was overwhelmingly positive. I do believe I made a few converts today. We had mini pies (pie-ettes? pie-inis?) for sale to stick our toes in the water, but 9″ pies are already on the books.

Here they are going into the convection oven. Aren’t they cute?

Sweet Bean Mini PiesAnd here is our sampling space; bean pies hobnobbing with spices and jams:

Serendipitously, I received a mystery package in the mail today. Waiting for me when I got home was something fabulous: this handmade home-crafted Happy Owl homage wall-hanging, courtesy of a friend and fan. Perfect timing!

Victoria’s will have a limited supply of bean pies on hand. Or, they may be special-ordered through Victoria’s Fancy Foods, or by contacting me directly here at Bean Pie and Baking.

Finals: The Glamorous Life

It’s Finals Week and just in case you are wondering what a cooking school Final Exam is like: it’s hard. It’s like every other 5.5 hour lab class — make a million things all at once with a partner who may or may not know what is going on — but you do it by yourself (hallelujah!) and there’s a lot more riding on it. And you take a written part, too. Between the two parts — written and practical — you’ve got 300 points out of a 1,000 point class on the line. So get ready.

Example of brunoise dice cut (not my photo). In fact, these carrots are rather uneven. Good thing they are not being graded!

While I spent an inordinate amount of my allotted time dicing brunoise (why are they so TINY? It’s like trying to pick up glitter.) the exam went rather smoothly. We had to take a whole chicken, truss it, then fabricate it into its various bits and pieces.

Looks pretty, right?

Trussed bird

Fabricated parts

Next, we took a whole fish, and filleted that. This task is actually quite empowering. There is something really cool about taking a fish off the bone. In order to practice this over the weekend, I had to call around to find a place that carries whole fish. I wanted several, so they had to be cheap since each one is several pounds and I don’t have a lot of cash right now. I was already on the hook for the seven whole chickens I had bought for practice over the last two weeks. Obviously, Whole Foods was out, and Safeway and Giant don’t carry whole fish. Fortunately, this is Maryland, so there are seafood stores around. Would you believe I have never been into one?

I’m not sure how to explain these Eastern Seaboard seafood stores. They are a world unto themselves. I’ve never been in anything like it in California. They can be intimidating to outsiders, like me, who don’t know how to order anything. Like crabs. I didn’t grow up cracking crabs so when it comes to ordering crabs I clearly don’t know what’s up. I’ve lived in Maryland for 9 years off-and-on and I still don’t know how to order crabs — male, female, medium, large, extra large, jumbo, swamp dogs, dozen, bushel…goodness gracious. I just tag along with people who do know what to do and watch them eat crabs while I sit there holding my mallet with Old Bay all over my cold, wet, cut-up hands and fantasize about ordering food that doesn’t involve so much hard work.


My practice fish from the seafood store.

But anyway, this seafood store I went to was packed with people waiting for crabs. They all had deli numbers and were mulling around waiting for their bushel of swamp dogs, or whatever. It was crazy in there. It was like being at an auction.  But as busy as it was, I got an appreciative glance when I told the fishmonger I wanted the fish whole.

Here’s how it went:

Me: “I would like three of those trout, please.”

Him: “Filleted?”

Me: “No.”

Him: “Gutted?”

Me: “Yes.”

Him: Heads on or off?”

Me: “On, please.”

Him (appreciatively): “Good for you.”

Me (like a dork): “Thanks! I’m practicing!”

So now that you know how the conversation goes, you can walk into a seafood store and order some whole, gutted, heads-on trout with confidence.

Here’s my little lovely, before and after.

Fish for the Practical — Before

I was so happy with my fillets that I patted them a few times before turning them in for inspection.

Fish for Practical — After

Finally, we subjected all these various cuts of chicken and fish to separate cooking methods. Here are the results:

Chicken and fish on the presenting grid.

Glamorous it ain’t, but it was interesting and satisfying to produce. I’m ready to fillet up a storm. And with my freezer stuffed full of various baked goods from my baking class, I’ve got a boatload of chicken to eat in the next week.

Happy Owl Baking’s Sweet Bean Pie makes its official debut!

I am happy to announce that Happy Owl Baking will make its official debut on Saturday, May 12, 2012 as part of Victoria’s Fancy Foods Saturday Tastings Series.

Victoria’s Fancy Foods is a cool little shop that sells meats, cheeses, and lots of gourmet products that you’ve probably been wondering where on earth you could find without driving to…well, honestly, who knows where else you could find this kind of stuff around here. We’re in the ‘burbs, baby, so it’s a good thing Victoria’s has done all the legwork for you. She, Victoria herself, has also hand-picked a very accessible selection of domestic and international wines.  She’s a Certified Wine Specialist, so trust her. And if you’re a suspicious son of a gun and don’t want to trust her, then come to the free wine tastings. She has them, and a whole bunch of other stuff, on her calendar —  including my bean pie on Saturday, May 12, so check out her website for more info.

What I dig about this shop is her emphasis on  “clean food” — food that has been “produced, grown or raised completely naturally.” Click here to see her discussion of clean food on her blog  She does a lot of local sourcing and she also happens to be the pick-up point for several CSA’s — makes it all super easy.

So come out and say hi on Saturday, May 12 from 1:00-4:00. Victoria’s is tucked into a shopping center on Ritchie Highway in Severna Park, MD, so if you haven’t been there before, keep your eyes peeled! It’s in the same shopping strip that has Poor Boy’s Steakhouse.

The deets: Victoria’s Fancy Foods, 350 Ritchie Highway, Severna Park, MD (410) 384-9463

Wascally Wabbits!

Pear Frangipane Tart

HRM 124 Practical Final Exam: Pear Frangipane Tart

I believe the last thing I thought as I headed out the door to my HRM 124 Practical Final Exam was, ” I hope it doesn’t involve piping…” The exam was supposed to be three hours long and could be on anything we had made this semester. In fact, someone specifically asked Chef if it would be a recipe we had already worked in class. Answer: yes. Reality: no.

This kind of final exam was new to me. It was a tiered Final, meaning that we would have three choices of production: one worth 100 points (hardest), one worth 90 points (intermediate), and one worth 80 points (easiest, obviously). Here’s the kicker: the final is worth 100 points regardless of which level you choose, so if you choose the 80 point production and ace it you’re still only going to get 80% — a low B. Um, what’s that now?? Who would choose this, you ask? Many people, it turns out. Maybe this kind of exam is common in culinary, but I found it quite odd for several different reasons which I won’t go into because it would be boringly pedagogical. Let’s suffice it to say that I was aiming for the regular ol’ 100 point choice. I mean, I’d have to screw up a decent amount to drop myself to an 80 so let’s hedge those bets and start higher, right? Hence, my desire as I left the house for the Final to NOT involve piping.

I was pretty sure chocolate souffle would find its way onto the hard list — pastry cream, chocolate, and meringue in one dish? That screams Final Exam. But, there isn’t anything in the lab manual I couldn’t produce in three hours. There are, however, plenty of things in the lab manual that I wouldn’t want to produce in 90 minutes, which is what The Powers That Be decided to give us — “More of a challenge,” they giggled. Add a Creme Anglaise side to that Chocolate Souffle and you are looking at a girl who swiftly recalculated the eggs in her basket and decided to point her arrow firmly at the middle. So, it was Pear Frangipane Tart for 90 pts. –and, as it turns out, 90 minutes —  thank you very much. Here’s the fun(ny) part: we’d never done a Pear Frangipane Tart in class. Hmmmm. A recipe we hadn’t seen before? Dee-lightful. And typical. And I was off to the races.

The tart actually turned out fine. Since everyone else in my time slot chose the 80-pointer (biscuits and lemon tea bread? Seriously? Come on, people) and were done rather quickly, I had the convection oven all to myself and I got to see the convection oven actually act like a convection oven for the first time all semester and bake something faster than a conventional oven. I would rather have had the deck oven since I really prefer the way it bakes, but it was tied up doing biscuits.  So, even though your bottom crust was a little pale while your top crust flirted with burning, Pear Frangipane Tart, you and I rubbed along alright tonight.

And the good news? No piping.

Pear Frangipane Tart

HRM 124 Practical Final Exam: Pear Frangipane Tart