Never Too Late for a Year-in-Review…

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

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

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

2) I went to Bartending School. Weird.

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

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

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

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

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Back in the Saddle, Part 1

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

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

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

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

Not bad for two days later!

Not bad for two days later!

Watching For Athena

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

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

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

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

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

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

My, my, what’s next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, my all-time favorite:

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

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

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

When I know, you’ll know.

Looking Back Moving Forward

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

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

I did finally try a Waffle House…

Waffle House, Toledo, Ohio

Waffle House, Toledo, Ohio

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

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

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

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

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

Baby, it’s cold out there.

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

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

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

Cold, indeed.

Well, these things take time.

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

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

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

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

Suggestions on where to start?

How Moosewood Was Lame While Niagara Falls Was Awesome

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

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

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

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

I was happy to find this little bugger.

I was happy to find this little bugger.

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

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

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

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

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

The fry at Doug's Fish Fry

The fry at Doug’s Fish Fry

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

Hmpf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niagara Falls Trip Sept2013 (5)

Things I Learned at the Grange Fair

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ouch!  But, you need to know, right?

Ouch! But, you need to know, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, snap. But pretty funny, right??

Oh, snap. But pretty funny, right??

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cro-Nots and What-Not

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

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

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

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

Now that’s fast.

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

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

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

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

That’s right: I’m a real Cro-Getter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready for the Big Reveal

Ready for the Big Reveal

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

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

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

First Up? London Broil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, easy enough, right?

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

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

London Broil marinating in a bag

London Broil marinating in a bag

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

Marinated London Broil coming to room temperature before broiling

Marinated London Broil coming to room temperature before broiling

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

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

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

Grade: A

On The Road Again. Kinda.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And suggestions are most welcome!

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

Oh, Finals, You Kill Me

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

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

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

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

Trying different bases and other combinations

Trying different bases and other combinations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sugar Showpiece, finished product

Sugar Showpiece, finished product

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the design:

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

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

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

Here I am prepping the marzipan ladybugs.

Marzipan Ladybugs

Marzipan Ladybugs

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

Cakes Pulled for Final

Cakes Pulled for Final

Great, right? Thanks to whomever baked this beauty.

Great, right? Thanks to whomever baked this beauty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staking the cake.

Staking the cake.

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

The ribbons went awry.

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

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

We all know that never works.

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

Which was actually pretty cool of her.

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

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

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

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

I guess it wasn’t even smoke, technically.

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

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

These things are important not because a
high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
unintelligible
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
Techno-cuisine
and,
Vanguard Cuisine (huh??)

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”

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)

Tax Refund Coming? Think “Pasta Maker”

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

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

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

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

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

Flour, flour, flour.

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

And flour, flour, flour.

Spinach Pasta

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

y= 1 1/2 lbs. dough

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

1 tbsp. water

4 large eggs (7/8 cup)

4 cups sifted all-purpose flour

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

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

Buon appetito!

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?

Build-A-Bread

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?

Ann’s Dari-Creme

Ann’s Dari-Creme, Glen Burnie, MD

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

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

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

“Everything?” she prodded.

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

I didn’t ask.

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

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

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

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

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

Fast forward to: Next Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a happy dog!

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.)

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.

What??

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!

Ask And Ye Shall Receive

Adding the hot grilled peach to the freshly minted soft serve blew the aesthetic, but since I like to slurp my ice cream anyway, I didn’t mind.

In my post “The Ice Cream Man Might Drive Me Crazy” I told you how much I’d love to make ice cream but just can’t cotton to having many quarts of ice cream in my freezer into perpetuity. Not only do I not have the freezer space (I still have cookies and rolls from last semester’s baking class and this semester’s baking class just started), it’s not good for you.

So full of excuses! Rationalizations! A true ice cream maker would buy a second freezer and churn away into the night like a mad creamery scientist, right? Well.

Enter Fortune. I killed my oddly expensive Little Green carpet cleaner by letting my oh-so-natural vinegar-and-water solution (so superior to commercially scented products! so chemical free! so groovy!) sit in the tank. I had been vaguely wondering why my closet smelled like vinegar every time I went in there for something…it was because the vinegar — surprise! — had eaten away at all the rubber seals and gaskets and the bottom had basically fallen out of the contraption without my noticing. Don’t be surprised — this kind of thing is actually a routine occurrence for me. But, I’m trying to explain why I happened to alter my regular routine and found myself in a Super Goodwill looking for somebody else’s  discarded handheld carpet spot cleaner — the whole other-people’s-trash-is-my-treasure sort of thing. Naturally, I didn’t find one, but I did find a bitchin’ piece of vintage Tupperware (no, not the deviled egg keeper — La Fortune’s not THAT sweet) and this: the Hamilton Beach 1/2 pint ice cream maker. $3. Yippee! Imagine my delight. It’s on.

This one isn’t mine — mine is blue, is missing one bowl and the manual — but this is the Half Pint Ice Cream Maker in its Platonic form.

And, can I tell you that right after that, no less than four ice cream recipes came my way via other food blogs? Coupled with the other half dozen ice cream recipes roosting in my inbox right now, I figured it was time. Just in time for autumn, when people tend to want ice cream the most, yes.

First, I decided to make vanilla. Start at the beginning, right? Keep it simple?  But then I decided to grill some peaches to go with it…and doesn’t honey go well with peaches? And don’t I just happen to have a recipe for Honey Ice Cream culled from the food blog The Way The Cookie Crumbles? Well, yes. So it was Honey Ice Cream — with some vanilla bean paste thrown in for good measure because I CAN’T JUST LEAVE IT ALONE —  scaled down from y= 1 quart to y= 6 oz.

Prepping the little guy: cold ice cream base, frozen bowl. See how tiny he is?!

My Lil’ Mini is  ready to go.

Next, I decided on Lemon Buttermilk Sorbet. I came across this recipe in the comments section of a website when I was searching for advice on my new Lil’ Mini. Since I was sans instruction manual, I was boning up on soft-serve strategies using the glorious inter-web. If you find yourself in possession of a Hamilton Beach Half Pint Soft Serve Ice Cream Maker and want some advice, click here.  The recipe for Lemon Buttermilk Sorbet turns out to be from Epicurious.com (68 reviewers gave it an average of 4 forks). I had lemons and buttermilk on hand (doesn’t everyone?), so this recipe proved to be a snap. Plus, I felt very virtuous since there wasn’t any cream in it. And, I love lemons.

Buttermilk Sorbet

When I was feeling less virtuous, I decided to try Cooking Light’s version, which is, ironically, not as “light” as the recipe from Epicurious.com since it combines buttermilk with whole milk and half-and-half. Cream sure does make for the delicious, doesn’t it?

Buttermilk Sorbet, but with cream and milk. Does that mean it’s not sorbet?

For my next trick, I chose something a little more exotic: Coconut Red Bean Ice Cream. I found this recipe on a blog called Butter is Beautiful. If you read my post “Cuckoo For Coconut!”  you’ll remember I’m in a coconut phase, so you can see how coconut ice cream would intrigue me. This recipe also happens to be vegan, but shhhhh! or nobody will try it.

The making of the Coconut Red bean Ice Cream. I made the red bean paste, on the right, a day or two ahead. It’s no sweat.

This recipe involves coconut milk mixed together with red bean paste, which you can buy at an Asian market. Or, if you are already making red beans and rice since you have to use up the smoked pork you still have from your ham-buying frenzy earlier in the summer (see “The Aisle of Ham“), you can just set a portion of red beans aside after soaking and cook it off separately from the savory dish. Red bean paste is very easy to make.  You can see its appearance in the photo above.  Try it, except don’t put the red bean paste in the saucepan — that was a mistake — it actually gets stirred in after the concoction comes off the heat. It smelled extremely good in the making.

Coconut Red Bean Ice Cream. It was exceptionally creamy and delightful.

This ice cream may have been my favorite of the three only because it is a bit exotic. The coconut milk gives it a unique creaminess, and the red bean paste, while sweet, has an almost savory aspect to it. It’s a nice contrast. Plus, I liked the texture.

Overall, I’m very pleased with my newest uni-tasker. I believe the Goodwill did me right. It’s nice to be able to run up some ice cream in a jiff, and since I actually prefer soft-serve to hardened ice cream, I’m happy as a clam. Its half pint status suits my lifestyle and I can see myself using it enough to cover its $3 price tag. I’ll wager I will use it a lot more often than the mini pie maker I bought in a moment of holiday shopping weakness last December…although there’s still time to redeem myself on that one since pie season is a’comin’…But, before that, there are ice cream recipes galore to explore. Why, not three days ago another tasty recipe dropped into my inbox. It’s Ezra Pound Cake’s Maple Gelato, and goodness knows I enjoy a maple ice cream…

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.

When Life Gives You A CSA Box, Make Hash.

Plated Potato and Sweet Potato Hash with Fried Egg Over Easy

A CSA box dropped into my lap yesterday. I’ve never had one before, so I got busy thinking about how I’m going to hustle through my surprise bounty of green beans, cherry tomatoes, baby beets, new potatoes, watermelons (2!) and a handful of little banana peppers. I already had some beets and baby sweet potatoes from my visit to the produce stand en route to the shore last week (see “Of Shore Food, Which is Good Fun, And Hermit Crabs”), so a green bean/roasted beet/cherry tomato salad with sun-dried tomatoes, feta and pine nuts was a given, but what to do with some of the other goodness? Someone suggested Sweet Potato Hash. This sounded suspect to me, so I looked it up on the internet (wait, I get my legitimacy from the internet?) and, indeed, there it was: scads of recipes for sweet potato hash. When I saw the second ingredient was bacon, I jumped in.

I happen to love hash of all sorts and got busy with some Red Flannel Hash when I was in a beet phase last Spring (remember Beet Carpaccio? From Easter?). What I didn’t know until today is that it is common for Red Flannel Hash to include sweet potatoes. Ahhh. Full circle.  Let’s do them all!

First, the bacon, then the onions, then some yellow peppers that have been waiting to make themselves useful. It was lacking some green color, so I threw in a jalapeno. Next, the sweet potatoes and the new potatoes, and 1/4 red onion I found in the fridge.

Cooked bacon, and onions cooking in bacon fat

Add the white potatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, etc.

You could stop there and plate it up for a regular hash, but…

Potato and sweet potato hash with bacon, jalapeno, crushed thyme and chives.

Then I added some of the beets I roasted last night. Oh, and a few yellow squash currently lacking a purpose. You could stop there, but…

Add the beets for a Red Flannel Hash

Then the piece de resistance, the jewel, the kapow: yes, of course I mean a fried egg! And some chives since it’s still lacking some color but I suppose people who cook kitchen-sink style can’t be too picky.

Plated Red Flannel Hash, sans egg

Red Flannel Hash with Fried Egg Sunny Side Up

Needless to say, it was grub.

In looking all this up afterwards, I found a recipe for Red Flannel Hash on epicurious.com which happens to be from Rick and Ann’s, in Berkeley, CA, which is my home stomping grounds. It’s tucked up alongside the dowager of resorts, The Claremont Hotel, so if you are staying there, pop in for breakfast at this little joint. Actually, if you are staying at the Claremont, you probably have your breakfast delivered to you and your cat, Mr. Whiskers, in bed on silver platters, so congratulations on that.

Now I need to get creative with some watermelon.

Of Shore Food, Which Is Great Fun, And Hermit Crabs

I went to the shore again. Last time, in my post “Of The Shore, Which Is A Weird Place” I found some strange and tantalizing road-trip goodies, like the funny-but-possibly-ominous chicken farm sign (click here if you’d like to revisit that trip), but I never got to salt water taffy or hermit crabs, so let’s start there.  Or, rather, let’s start on the way there.

There are two main ways to get to Rehoboth Beach, DE from Maryland. Last time I went one way. This time, I went the other.  The way I went this time is actually the way I am used to going (the way I went last time was kind of an accident. Any who know me will not be surprised) and I was looking forward to stopping by my “favorite” farm stand. I’ve only been there twice so I guess the criteria for “favorite” isn’t very high but the two times I went there they had a most prodigious collection of local honeys so I wanted to see what was going on with all that.

So I’m driving along, minding my business, if you will, and I begin to see the  “chicken bbq” signs I was telling you about last time and I thought to myself, “Oh, here we go again” and then a sign that said “pit beef” which, if you read my post on Maryland Pit Beef where I started out cautious but ended up in fandom, you’ll know that kind of sign would catch my eye. Then I see the pit beef cart, all locked up (bummer!) and in the next breath I see a storefront (sweet!) so I pull over rather dangerously and careen into the parking lot which was, fortunately for all involved, rather empty. And there, in all it’s glory, is Hot Off The Coals. They don’t have a website (although, it looks like one is in the works), but they do have a Facebook page, which you can see here.

Hot Off The Coals, MD Rt. 404 & Rt. 309, Queen Anne, MD

You’ve got to love a place where the pit is in the front parking lot and it’s guarded by a kicking bull with flaming red eyes. Better still, this pit beef shack is annexed to a gas station — win win!

Guess you don’t want to mess with the bull!

The pitmaster happened to be tending the pit at the very moment I approached and he very obligingly opened the pit for me to photograph. Sadly, the flames were kind of off the hook and he had to close it again rather quickly, but the smell was phenomenal.

What good timing! Thank you, Pitmaster.

I only had a second before the lid had to come down again…

I had a good feeling about this place. And I was right. The pit beef was delicious. Signage states they use apple and hickory wood, and it was a smoky delight. Done up with some sauce, horseradish and onions sliced so thin they were actually dainty, the sandwich had me humming. Or maybe that was partly the ringing in my ears from the horseradish, with which I was a little too enthusiastic (you can see it in the photo, below). For a few seconds I was actually crying a little, which seemed to faze my neighbor a bit. He was from Pennsylvania and wasn’t real sure what to expect.

Horseradish sure can surprise you…Stacked Pit Beef on a Kaiser roll

I liked this place so much that they got me coming, and then when it came time to drive home 9 hours later, they got me going, as well. That time I got the Stacked “Slaughterhouse” Beef Brisket on a Kaiser roll, and it was actually amazing. I highly recommend it.

Brisket on a Kaiser roll. Fantastic!

So, that was Hot Off the Coals. What a lucky find. Check ’em out. Now, on to the produce stand! While they seem to have scaled back their local honey collection (only 1 kind to be found), they had some very lovely produce and a basket I could buy to put it in to make me feel very Nantucket. And an elixir I wasn’t quite brave enough to try.

Peppers

Tiniest little sweet potatoes! Aren’t they adorable?

Like Little Red Riding Hood!

Some of my finds. I bought some clearance basil plants — did you know there is a bush basil, too? — to try to plant them and get one more flush out of them before the weather cools.

You are probably wondering if I am ever going to get to Rehoboth and if you are, then you and I are on the same wavelength. But, as I like to remind myself, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” right? Right. So now that I am all kitted up, I can roll into town and catch a few rays. I came prepared this time with my backpack lounge chair and a fresh new roll of quarters.

And the beach was delightful and the water was cold. You should try it. And when it comes time to stock up on souvenirs, here’s what should be on your shortlist: salt water taffy, Fisher’s popcorn, and hermit crabs (although some may not appreciate the last one as much as the first two).

Dolle’s rules the roost on salt water taffy in the DelMarVa area.

Nostalgia decrees one eats certain foods while in certain places. At the carnival, it’s cotton candy. At the fair, it’s funnel cake. And at the beach, it’s salt water taffy. In Rehoboth, Dolle’s rules the roost in salt water taffy, but I grew up going to the Jersey shore, so for me it’s Fralingers. Fralingers and Atlantic City go hand in hand. Sometimes I’d ride along with my grandmother, Nona, on chartered bus trips to Atlantic City where you’d buy your bus ticket and they’d give you a voucher for  X amount of “casino quarters” back to cash in at the Taj Mahal, or Harrah’s, or whatever casino was booked for that day. Nona and I would play our $10 in quarters, then walk through the casino to get to the boardwalk and spend the day making our way up and then back down the boardwalk poking around in all the bizarre, cheesy knick-knack stores which constitute boardwalk shopping. We always came back with a box or two of taffy from Fralingers. You had to, really.

Fralingers Salt Water Taffy, Atlantic City, NJ

There were two salt water taffy shops on the Atlantic City boardwalk: James, and Fralingers.  When I was reading up on Fralingers, I learned that one family bought and now owns Fralingers, James, and a boardwalk chocolate shop called Bayards. There is actually an interesting video on the history of the three stores on jamescandy.com. You can also find it here, on YouTube. Fralingers also has a Wikipedia entry. If you’ve never had salt water taffy, try to imagine a candy with the chewy texture of caramels but with the fake fruity flavors of jelly beans. Kids love it, of course, and if you go on vacation a box of salt water taffy better show up in the office break room when you get back. It’s that kind of thing.

Rehoboth also boasts a rather tasty caramel corn from Fishers Popcorn. It’s made fresh on site and dumped hot into the front window case of the stores. Hot sugar is an interesting thing to me, so I always pay special attention when they are scooping it up to order. When it’s hot, it’s very malleable — think Rice Krispy Treats before they harden — but it firms up in no time flat so by the time they pack it and seal it the container, it’s on its way to a solid mass. Anyone who has made popcorn balls at Christmas knows what I am talking about. But, before that happens, there are those few glorious minutes where it’s soft and chewy at the same time. If you like buttery caramel, that 5-7 minute window is definitely worth trying for.

Two Delaware Beach favorites, side by side.

My affection for soft-serve was probably pretty evident in my first shore post, but here’s one shot just to show you how pretty it is:

It was plenty hot that day, so this didn’t stay upright for long.

Some say a trip to the shore wouldn’t be complete without boardwalk fries. Again, boardwalk fries, like caramel corn, wasn’t something I was particularly dialed into until I met Delaware beaches. But, people love them! And I can see why. Malt vinegar shaken down into the cup cuts the salty goodness.

Boardwalk Fries

Thrasher’s take the cake for boardwalk fries at the DE and MD beaches. There’s usually a line. For french fries.

If, at long last, you’ve sunned yourself and eaten your fill, consider a final parting gift: the hermit crab. Hermit crabs are a beach staple, and whether you think they are a good idea or not, hermit crabs happen. They practically fly off the shelves. Half these hermit crabs probably don’t even survive the car ride home, which is a shame because they are very interesting little creatures.

Hermit crabs are crustaceans with soft bodies that need to be protected by shells which they do by inhabiting the discarded shells of other creatures! Sea snails, for example. That’s right, they don’t come into this world with shells of their own and yet they need shells to protect themselves. Isn’t that odd? And, when hermit crabs outgrow their current shell, they step into the next size up so they’re always on what I like to call the shell hustle.  Also, since they effectively scavenge their shells from other creatures, if there are not many creatures available to “donate” their shells…well, you can imagine what happens if push comes to shove.

Hermit crab. Hello, buddy!

Hermit crab accessories, Rehoboth Beach, DE

Wikipedia describes what happens when a bunch of crabs living together decide it’s time to change shells: “Several hermit crab species, both terrestrial and marine, use “vacancy chains” to find new shells: when a new, bigger shell becomes available, hermit crabs gather around it and form a kind of queue from largest to smallest. When the largest crab moves into the new shell, the second biggest crab moves into the newly vacated shell, thereby making its previous shell available to the third crab, and so on.”

A “vacancy chain”?? How cool is that? Just picture all the crabs lined up in descending order by size waiting to step into their new shells while their current shell gets handed down to the little guy.  Like the Jeffersons, they’re moving on up. This image makes me laugh.

The social hermit crab. At the height of the season, these cage walls would literally be covered with hermit crabs waiting to go home with you.

Hermit crabs are social and it’s really cool to see them all bunched up together happy as…well, clams, I guess. While these “beach vacation” hermit crabs probably don’t live too long — they do require more effort to keep alive than the average 8 year old would probably be interested in providing — some species of hermit crabs can live in the ballpark of 23 years! Plus, hermit crabs are just cool. It’s fun to watch them scrabble around in their cages, and in your hand if you can handle it. You have to watch them a bit since they will latch on to you with their big claw, which can surprise you, and nip you enough that you could drop them if you’re not expecting it.

Most of these shells have hermit crabs living in them.

Hermit crab getting ready to change his shell.

Seeing a hermit crab change his shell is like waiting for paint to dry — good luck. This little fella kept doing the shell-change fake-out — he’d lift himself out, then slide back in.  You can see the new shell is much bigger than he needs — a real hermit crab McMansion — so maybe that is the reason he never quite made the jump. Or, maybe he is just a ham — he had several of us dancing on a string waiting for him to change. He was really working us. I had to give up after a while.

Yes, the shore is indeed a weird place. Then again, what place isn’t weird? But, any day where you can find pit beef, baby sweet potatoes, sand, sun, and salt water taffy is a good day in my book.

The Ice Cream Man Might Drive Me Crazy

There is an ice cream man who drives his truck around my area every afternoon around the same time. He plays all the standards — “Happy Birthday”, “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” —  but he adds in some some new stuff, like “Guantanamera” for ethnic flair. I thought this was charming the first few times, like the folks who play the Peruvian pan flutes to Simon and Garfunkel songs in the subway station. Now I just want those kids to get their ice cream and move along.

Because of this, apart from distracting me from Very Important Things, like checking Facebook, I find I think about ice cream much more often than before. I like ice cream, so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And, I have dabbled in making ice cream in the past, but I’ve never thought it prudent to consume a high enough volume of ice cream that I could justify making it more than once every other month or so and by the time that time rolls around I’ve usually impulse bought some Ben and Jerry’s or Haagen Daz on sale and the space in my freezer reserved for ice cream is full up.

But ice cream has been on my mind again since Maryland rolled out an official Ice Cream Trail map a month or two ago. As reported in an article by NPR’s food blog, The Salt, it seems there are a handful of local creameries who have turned to small batch ice cream making. Yum. This is the kind of trail I can get behind.

Also on my radar is something new Mount Vernon is trying out. Mount Vernon, for those who don’t fancy the historic homes of the Founding Fathers like I do, is George Washington’s estate. It’s located outside of Alexandria, VA, and is just a hop, skip and a jump (and about an hour via the D.C. beltway) from where I live in Maryland. I like to go there, and I insist that every out-of-towner who falls into my grip go there, too.  I’ve been a few times. But, I hadn’t been to Mount Vernon since I returned East-side last summer, so when I saw they were doing a Colonial Ice Cream Making demonstration, I knew it was time. So, I bought my annual pass (oh, yes I did!) and off I went.

One of the cool things about Mount Vernon is that it receives no state or federal funds. According to Wikipedia, Mount Vernon  “is owned and maintained in trust by The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.”  The name alone kills me — The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association — what spunk! I could go on and on about Mount Vernon, but for now I’ll just stick to ice cream…

So, from August 4th-September 1, 2012 from 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 noon visitors can watch as costumed staff members recreate the 18th century ice cream making process on reproduction pieces. I arrived at 11:30 (naturally!) and they were on their last go-’round. They seemed vaguely surprised at the turnout. They had a table set up with a brazier for roasting cocoa beans, a metate for grinding the shelled nibs into a paste, various spices, etc., for flavoring, and the ice cream making device — a bucket tucked into another bucket — itself. You can click on the photos below to see them larger, and in slideshow format.

It was a pleasant, short (about 20 minutes) demonstration that made me marvel at the amount of muscle power cooking and baking — and everything, really — took back then. It made the sheer volume of entertaining the Washingtons did that much more impressive, especially after seeing the kitchen, which is relatively small. It definitely made me want to go back and take the Dinner for the Washingtons Walking Tour, a special tour of the estate from a culinary angle which includes a trip to the basement (NOT part of the regular mansion tour!) and concludes with a tasting in the greenhouse. I was so busy with the regular mansion tour, and the gift shops, and having lunch at the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant, that by the end of the afternoon I hadn’t finished touring to my satisfaction and will need to return. Thank goodness I got that Annual Pass!

They also have an exhibit running through August 2013 called “Hoecakes and Hospitality: Cooking with Martha Washington” which walks you through some of the recipes, instruments, tableware, etc. that the Washingtons used for entertaining. Also available are a handful of recipe cards of favorite dishes and drinks of which I have a mind to recreate at some point in the near future (I’m still pondering whether or not to tackle sturgeon). For now, I’ll keep my eye on the ice cream prize: touring it via creamery, making it, eating it and, if it’s any good, sharing it, so stay tuned.

Cuckoo For Coconut! And Quick Pickled Cucumbers. And Thai Melon Salad.

Here’s what happened: global warming. It has been hot hot hot all over the nation and Maryland is right smack dab in the middle of it. (The heat, not the nation. Unclear pronoun reference. Deduct 5 points.) It has been so hot here (“HOW HOT IS IT??”  — I don’t have a punchline for this) but more oppressive than the heat is the humidity. I walked to the car at 10 AM last week and as long as it took me to get my keys ready my hands were moist like I was about to go on stage. Humid. Your-lungs-feel-wet humid. Mercy.

Anyway, it’s not really cooking weather except for some quick grilling, so I pulled out a recipe I found awhile back for Sichuan (Szechuan) Cucumber Pickles and now I can’t stop nomming on them. Pair this dish with a Thai Melon Salad from my cooking school textbook and a recipe for rice cooker coconut rice I am seriously bananas for right now, and you’ve got some goodness happening. Throw some lightly marinated chicken breast tenders on the grill the last 5 minutes of prep and you are set. Nutritious, cooling, and a crazy amount of texture. Pan-Asian delight.

Both of these salads should be made a few hours before serving leaving you plenty of time to put your feet up and drink some sweet tea before dinner.

First up, Sichuan (or Szechuan) Pickled Cucumbers.

Sichuan Pickled Cucumbers
The Gourmet Cookbook

Sichuan (Szechuan) Pickled Cucumbers

2 lbs.  small Kirby (pickling) cucumbers or 1-2 seedless English cucumbers
4 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. rice vinegar (not seasoned)
1/3 c. Asian sesame oil
1 (1-inch) piece peeled fresh ginger, finely grated
8 (1-inch-long) dried hot chiles, seeded if desired
1 tsp. Sichuan peppercorns (optional)

First of all, I love sesame oil and its distinctive flavor makes this dish, so I can’t imagine subbing it out for any other oil, so don’t you try it, either. Well, I mean, you can if you want to, but… Next, a neat trick for “peeling” fresh ginger is to actually scrape the peel off with a spoon. Works like a charm and is not nearly so wasteful as peeling it with a knife or traditional peeler. While we’re on the subject, a spoon is just the ticket for scraping the seeds out of the cucumber wedges, too. And while the Szechuan peppercorns are optional, I’ve tried it with and without and although I love the tongue-numbing taste of Szechuan peppercorns, I would grind them first since they are a bit distracting if left whole.

Halved, quartered, seeds removed, and diced.

Directions:
Halve each cucumber lengthwise, then halve again to end up with long quarters.  Scrape the seeds out, then chop. The recipe calls for 2-inch pieces, but I dice to medium. Toss cucumbers with salt in a bowl and let stand 20 minutes.

Stir-frying the ginger and chiles in sesame oil.

While the cucumbers are salting, heat sesame oil in a wok or small deep skillet over moderately high heat until just smoking. Stir-fry the chiles and peppercorns for about 30 seconds or so, until the peppers turn dark. Add the ginger and stir-fry, being careful not to burn the ginger – it can happen quickly. Remove from heat and cool completely.

Cucumbers salted, rinsed, and patted dry.

Rinse cucumbers well, drain in a colander, and pat dry. Stir together the rice vinegar and sugar in a medium bowl until sugar dissolves. Add cucumbers, tossing to coat. Pour spiced oil over cucumbers and toss well. Marinate at room temperature for 3 hours before serving. The cucumbers can marinate, covered and refrigerated, for up to 4 days; stir occasionally. The longer the cucumbers marinate, the spicier they will be. Note: Leaving the seeds in the chile peppers will make a considerable difference in their heat level. Adjust accordingly.  Makes about 6 cups.

Next up, Thai Melon Salad (my textbook calls it a salsa, but I prefer to use it as a salad).

Thai Melon Salad
On Cooking, 5th ed.

Thai Melon Salad picture snaked from my textbook. Super low-tech photo, but you do get to see my advanced recipe ranking system.

 2 assorted melons (honeydew, cantaloupe. Crenshaw, etc.), peeled & diced
1 tsp. chopped garlic
2 tbsp. brown sugar
2 tbsp. fish sauce
1 tbsp. minced Serrano chile
2 fl ounce lime juice
4 tbsp. unsalted peanuts, roasted, chopped fine
4 tbsp. chopped mint

Cut the melons into small dice, or shape into small balls using a parisienne scoop. Combine the remaining ingredients and toss with melon pieces. Chill thoroughly. Garnish with more mint before serving, if desired. Serve with fish, shellfish, or chicken. Yields 1 quart.

And then there’s the rice.

Rice Cooker Coconut Rice
(this was scribbled on an index card, so not sure to whom to give credit but I modified it a bit so that makes it mine, right?)

Don’t let the exceedingly dark photo fool you — this stuff smells so amazing cooking that you’ll want to clap your hands.

Rice Cookers…I know, I know. I used to be against rice cookers — uni-taskers, and all, blah blah– but now I’m converted since it babysits its own self and leaves all my stove burners free — can’t argue with that!

I have unintentionally left out the salt on two occasions and the rice tastes just dandy to me, so you may want to try it, too.

2 c. jasmine rice
1 c. coconut milk (not light)
2 c. water
½ tsp. salt
3 tbsp. shredded coconut , plus more for garnish, see note

Combine all ingredients in the rice cooker. Stir to combine. Activate the rice cooker and let it do its thing. Allow to sit 10 minutes after it finishes cooking. Fluff with a fork before garnishing (see below) and serving. Serves 4.

Note: I highly recommend taking another 3-4 tbsp. shredded coconut and toasting it lightly in a pan over med.-high heat until the coconut begins to release its oils and browns. This can be done while the rice is bubbling away in its cozy coconut milk bath. Crumble toasted coconut over rice before serving.

And the chicken? Well, y’all know how to cook chicken, so I won’t bother with that. But, I will say that I came late to the party when it comes to chicken breast tenders. And now I’ve fallen hard. Sauteing or grilling them literally take about 3-4 minutes per side (if that).  There’s not even time to walk away so it’s easy to avoid overcooking them and drying them out. Just remember to cut out that tendon at the tip, because it’s super annoying to chew on that. Really harshes the chicken tender mellow. I chucked mine in a quick marinade of soy sauce, mirin, ginger and oil as I put the rice on, and 25 minutes in the bag was just about right to keep them juicy on the grill without overpowering their mild meat.

And that’s it. That’s the hot weather dinner du jour. So grab some sweet tea and enjoy!