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.

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?

Wye Mill? Wye Not!

Flour bags

Every now and then I feel the need to go see a historic mill in action. You know I have a thing for colonial things. Doesn’t everyone? Fortunately, I live just about an hour away from historic Wye Mill. Wye Grist Mill, located in Wye, Maryland, borders Talbot and Queen Anne’s counties on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It’s the oldest working mill in Maryland (1682) and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The mill is open from April to November and they mill flour about two weekends a month. I had tried going to Wye Mill once before many years ago but, of course, I arrived on a non-grinding day. Now my baking class was scheduled to go on a field trip in a few weeks to see the milling but I had a prior commitment. So, I resolved to check it out on my own. Wye Mill visit, Take II.

I had heard great things about fresh flour. I wanted some freshly milled flour ground before my very own eyes. The excitement! The very earthiness of it all! I would buy buckwheat and corn and wheat and make wholesome grainy treats. It would be my own personal Little House on the Prairie tableau. Like the food nerd I am, I was actually looking forward to this. So, naturally, something went wrong.

It was a fine Indian Summer kind of day, perfect for motoring around looking at historic sites (and stopping at the outlet malls, but that’s an aside). Blue skies, puffy clouds, the air redolent with rusticity and rural-ness — imagine birds chirping on gentle breezes and you’ve got your vibe. I roll into the mill on this cloud of contentment and anticipation to claim my grains. And sitting before me is one grand but silent grinder. No water wheel turning. No grinding stones a’grindin’…roto. Broken. It seems the mill broke down pretty much as I walked in. I believe I saw the last motes of flour dust settling into place as somewhere the mill gods laughed — foiled again!

Goodbye buckwheat pancakes and hush puppies! Never mind that I can make these anytime I want since I live in America, the land of year-round food opportunity. I did buy some flour milled on the previous grinding day — two weeks old, bah! — still probably the freshest flour I’ve ever had, but that’s not the point.

It seems that whatever stopped the grinder has laid it low for the rest of the season. There will be no more milling at Wye Mill this year. I guess I’ll have to give it a go next April.

(Click on photos for slideshow.)

Flatbreads: Griddle Me This

Brushing the naan with garlic butter

There must be something in the air about flatbreads because right after I mentioned them in “ A Month of Bread Making” a blog post byThe Way The Cookie Crumbles titled “Flatbreads With Honey, Sea Salt and Thyme” fell into my inbox. The photos are lovely and the flatbread looks very delicious.

Flatbreads are some of the oldest types of bread in the world. They can be made from almost any type of grain, tubers, or even pulses like lentils and chickpeas. They can be leavened or unleavened, griddled, baked, fried — you name it. Flatbreads are very accommodating. And very easy! Naan, tortillas, crepes, paratha, lavash, pita, matzoh, injera — all flatbreads.

Here’s how we did it — with an order of bagels thrown in for kicks (click for slideshow).

Every Baby Is A Cute Baby

This isn’t mine. Swearsies.

If you’ve been following, you know that I’m busy shaping and scoring bread. Bread dough is an ornery thing, and shaping it without deflating it entirely (bad) or overworking it so that it gets cranky, resists your every effort and needs to be put down for a nap (time delay) is most complex. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

At this stage in the game we pretty much all suck, but the pastry students like to look at the culinary students and laugh at the way they shape bread because while nobody really knows yet who has The Touch, it’s pretty darn clear Who Doesn’t — and they’re generally Culinary. I only know this because they’re usually grumbling about how they hate baking while they run their blades through the dough in the same spot over and over (a no-no. If you don’t get the score right the first time, walk away; it’s dead to you. It makes it ten times worse to try to saw the blade through again).

So this lovely loaf in the photo, above, turned up at the table next to mine. We were all ogling it for the train wreck it was, but were trying not to be gauche about it.

I happened to have my phone out snapping pictures of my own loaves and I couldn’t resist trying to cop a feel on this beauty.

I sidled over all nonchalant and went in for a shot but the owner turned around right as I framed up and said, “Are you taking a picture of my loaf??”

And I said, “Nope, I’m texting” and pretended I was texting. When I obviously wasn’t texting.

So busted. And since my table partner couldn’t stop laughing, I sighed and said, “Yes.” And then took the shot.

Think I might say something smooth after that? Something consoling and appropriately optimistic?

I shrugged and said, “Every baby is a cute baby.” And then I beat it out of there.

Every baby is a cute baby.


Sorry, I’m still kinda laughing, actually.

Maybe you had to be there.

Let this be a cautionary tale to you.  If you’re going to laugh at other people’s messed up loaves — which you should, because it’s funny — have the decency to do it from your own lab table using the zoom lens.

A Month of Bread Making

The little darlins coming out.

You might wonder what I’ve been up to since the whole “preferments and degas” tomfoolery. Well, more pre-ferments and de-gassing. We in HRM-201 Intermediate Breads have spent our first month of Wednesday labs making biga, then pate fermentee, then biga, then pate fermentee…then biga… well, you catch my drift. This might lead you to think making biga and pate fermentee are hard. Au contraire; they’re not so hard. It’s everything that comes after that’s the trick: the shaping, the scoring, the steam injection.

Well, the steam injection is no big deal. It’s really the shaping and the scoring. That’s hard. So we did that a few times and while you think that would make me better at it, it didn’t. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

We ended with a look-see at baguette just to make us feel even lamer about our shaping skills. But, as the French say, c’est la vie!

Here’s my first month of bread making in review.

Week one: Meet my new friends biga and pate fermentee. Weeks Two and Three had nothing much of note, except a little shout-out to the Kitchen Aid we killed (RIP, mon frere), and some fancy shaping. But Week Four! The shaping! The flouring! The bannetons! The mess!

And, for the finale, le baguette. Just click on a photo if you want le slide show.

Next week, Soakers and Flatbreads!

Year Two Begins: Of Preferments and Degas.

School started two weeks ago. I’m taking three classes and teaching two. Of the classes that I need and am taking right now for my Culinary Arts Entrepreneurship Certificate, two are business related (Small Business Accounting, and Legal Issues for Small Businesses), and one is culinary: Intermediate Breads. One of the textbooks we are using for this breads class is Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and, so far, it is fantastic. In preparation of the first day of class, I downloaded and printed all the syllabus material so I could read through it and set up my binder with all the necessary tabs and sections. Yes, I am that kind of student.

People close to me have often wondered aloud how I make it through life in one piece. It’s true I’m kind of clumsy, but that’s not what I mean. Bizarre stuff happens to me constantly, some of it random, some of it self-induced through — well, I don’t know through what — absentmindedness? Friendly recklessness? Who knows, but it happens. It’s widely understood by my nearest and dearest that I have the dumbest luck possible. My aunts won’t let me touch their lottery tickets — they don’t want the juju on them. And I totally agree with them. I have a whole list of stories I could tell — funny, ones, too! — but I won’t because they make me look like an idiot. But I will tell you this one since it has to do with school:

So, I’m making my HRM -124 Intermediate Breads binder and as I skim around the assignments and such I keep seeing this word “preferment” as in, “add your preferment.”  The first time I saw it, I noted it as curious – a preferment. Hmm. Then I saw it again: “preferment” and again I wondered about it in my mind, “Hmmm,that’s interesting. A preferment. Something which you prefer. I wonder what that means — nuts? poppy seeds? baker’s choice? Hmm. ” I like words and I think about words a lot — I am an English teacher, after all —  so let’s just say I gave it some idle thought as I got my materials ready. Preferment.

Day One arrives. We start going over the syllabus. Chef begins talking about yeast, and the fermenting process. Reading this, you’ve probably already figured it out, but not me, not yet. It took several more minutes of class lecture for it to finally — finally — dawn on me: it wasn’t “preferment,” it was “pre-ferment” – something you use to improve the fermenting process. Ugh. I actually started laughing in class and told my neighbors, who looked at me strangely (already marking me as weirdo, I’m sure. Sigh). To be fair, the word as written in the materials lacked hyphenation, and its un-hyphenated form  is a word in its own right, so I kept reading it literally and thinking it must be some kind of baking lingo.

The funky spelling of this threw me off the scent for years.

It was years — years, and I’m not kidding — before I realized the Chick-Fila, the fast food chicken restaurant — was pronounced “Chick Fillet.” Every time I saw the sign I read it just as written, which sounds, to me, like “Chick Feel-a.” And I never understood why they would name it Chick Feel-a. No kidding. But I don’t feel bad about this because I think intentionally misspelling words for effect is dumb — you, too, Krispy Kreme, no matter how good your donuts are.

Would it have killed you to spell it correctly, Krispy Kreme?

Fast forward to Week Two.  Of course I’ve read over all the recipes before class noticing that in one of the recipes (or, “formulas” if you want to be cool) you are meant to “degas it as little as possible.” Hmm. Degas. What style is that? Some French technique we haven’t learned yet, I guess, but I don’t take the time to look it up in the glossary since I am in a hurry.

I’m totally serious.

To “degas” is not what you think it is…
(Edgar Degas, Dance Class at the Opera)

It wasn’t until I was IN LAB ACTUALLY MAKING THE DOUGH that I put it together. Like an actual lightbulb going on overhead. I told my lab partner, who was a cool enough chick to think it was funny, too, and we had a good laugh. Ah, baking lab. What a kick.

For those of you other super-literalists out there like me, if there are any, to “degas” is to de-gas. Not French at all.

“Like” Us on Facebook!

Sweet Bean Mini PiesBean Pie And Baking now has its own Facebook page separate from Happy Owl Baking and all of my blog posts will publicize there, so  “Like” us on Facebook or sign up to have this blog delivered via email if you want to stay abreast of East Coast Food Finds, Good Eats, and year two of cooking school.

Thanks, y’all!

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.

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.

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

Pate a Choux? Shooo’… (or, the post that was almost called “Piping: Not My Bag, Baby”)

Eclairs and Cream Puffs

On the presenting grid. My team is the back, middle square.

It’s close to the end of the semester, so it was time to tackle Pate a Choux (aka Eclair Paste, Choux Paste, or Cream Puff Paste, as was heavily stressed by Chef D., so I am guessing this bit of name trivia will be on the Final Exam. I can also think of several different names for creme anglaise, so just ask if you’re very curious). Not being a particular fan of the eclair or the cream puff, I was indifferent coming into this exercise. It also involved piping, of which I am particularly clumsy. This is, of course, quite vexing to me as I prefer to be smooth, precise and fluid in all my tasks. Well. Anyway, I was going to do a post just on the trials of piping, and call it “Piping: Not My Bag, Baby”  complete with photos of various mangled piping bags and wobbly, uneven eclairs, but quickly realized that would be super dorky, and I just don’t know y’all well enough for that yet. Yeah, I know, I tried this one earlier in my creme brulee post, but it hadn’t found its feet yet. I’ll keep at it.

So, instead of pastry bag detritus, I present to you the eclairs. And, I have to say, while they didn’t win me all the way over — I still don’t very much like the textures of pate a choux or pastry cream — they are indeed much nicer when they are freshly made and not cold from the refrigerator case. Plus, you get to dip them into chocolate glaze and watch the chocolate smooth out, shiny and perfect and calm like an untroubled brow. That is a peaceful proposition.

Pate a Choux, nude

Eclair and Cream Puff, pre-pastry cream injection and chocolate bath

Class Grid: Finished product

Momma Needs A Blowtorch

Creme BruleeIt was Custards night in Baking 124: pastry cream, crème anglais, crème brulee, and chocolate soufflé. I have always been a fan of pudding – I looked for a ginger cat specifically so I could name him Puddin’  — and I have fantasized many times about bringing puddings back big time, but flan has never found favor with me, and pastry cream just isn’t my bag, either. (Bag! Ha!).  So, I was prepared to be indifferent to custards. HOWEVER, that was before I torched my own crackly sugar crust on a freshly chilled crème brulee. The photo isn’t mine – I was too enamored with torching the tray of ramekin soldiers to get a good shot before the rest of the class descended upon them – -but it’s pretty much the same idea. The chocolate soufflé pictures are mine, though, as is probably obvious by the obnoxious glare from the camera through the oven window.

Chocolate Souffle in oven

Chocolate Souffle in oven

Chocolate Souffle, finished

Chocolate Souffle, finished

I’ve come to the preliminary conclusion that when leavening goods with egg whites (merengues) there is not enough juice to the squeeze. And by that I mean they are a hassle. Merengues are very temperamental and I think they’re just a little too big for their britches. I could just as easily – more easily, actually – have made a warm chocolate cake tonight and I wouldn’t have had to fold a thing. But, that’s neither here nor there. Back to the blowtorch: for all my family and friends who thought that I have everything necessary for the kitchen, I’m here to tell you I don’t have a blowtorch and I think it has just become an imperative. Or, at least a fun new toy. And all of you who know me I’m sure would agree that my having a blowtorch is an excellent idea! So, look for the post where I tell you I burned down my kitchen. It wouldn’t be the first time, but that wasn’t technically my fault. Well, maybe technically it was.

Survey says…

The trades show was crowded, a veritable crush at its zenith. As such, I consider it a success. The Happy Owl table had a good turnout and I had the chance to really talk about how my bakery concept and the products I was sampling that day were connected. I believe I used the phrase “heart health” at least 100 times.

Here’s the interesting part: People like bean pie.

Well, duh. I knew they would.

Of the people surveyed, 100% were trying bean pie for the first time, and 100% reported they liked it. And to hear how surprised they were when they said it — they seemed mildly startled, actually — was funny to watch, and also very satisfying to me because I have believed in bean pie from the start.

So without further ado, here are the Trade Show pictures for which you have been clamoring: