Archive for April, 2007

A tree grows in Santa Cruz

Saturday, April 21st, 2007

Growing up, I knew my Uncle Tom had a lemon tree. It was one of the few definitive facts about him in my childish head. As far as I knew, he lived in California and ate tabbouleh all the time, his hair stood strait up no matter what he did to it, his dog was named Fang and Fang was ugly, his wife was named Charyn and was Jewish, and he had a lemon tree in his back yard. That was all.

The lemon tree became an indelible mark in my young psyche, seemingly representing how far away my uncle’s life was from mine. As my mother’s younger brother, the two being the last in a long line of siblings, they were very close and I heard stories of their Trenton, NJ childhood together every day. But as close as they could be, their visits were rare, and the lemon tree was to me, a symbol of their distance. We had apple trees in our yard, our neighbors had pear trees. I knew people who’s trees had plums, cherries, apricots, peaches, and even nectarines fruiting from their branches, but no one had a lemon tree. To me, it was exotic and unreal, and kept the reality of his life as far away as a child can imagine.

It’s been a few years since my last visit to his home in Santa Cruz, California, but last weekend I flew down for my cousin Chloe’s Bat Mitzvah. When I arrived at Uncle Tom’s Victorian, just a block off Santa Cruz’s cute down town strip, the little girl in me went strait through the living room to look out the back door to check on the lemon tree. Sure enough, the squat tree was there, as gnarled as I remembered it, heavy with the yellow fruit. I smiled, remembering my first impression of it years ago, an underwhelming sense of it’s size, and an overwhelming desire to pick a lemon, just to hold.

The next morning I prepared to treat my two toe-headed Californian cousins, Heather and Chloe, to a morning cake in honor of their back to back birthdays. Greeted by my Aunt Charyn’s incredible kitchen, the walls laden with equipment, and heavy with 20 years of her amazing home cooking, I began. I measured the sugar and flour, found the butter, dug out some eggs from the refrigerator, and recruited help to locate vanilla extract. Saving the best for last, I walked out the back door and approached the tree preparing to choose a small fortune of the yellow gems. It took me a while to make my choice, relishing every second of the experience, sizing up the shape and color of the lemons, then choosing those that were plump and ripe, but also within reach.

As I rounded the tree, each lemon looking yellower than the last until they started looking a little orange. I stepped in, taking a orange tinted lemon in my hand, feeling the thin skin, and stopped short.

“This isn’t…..” I thought. “Oh my I think it is!”

I pressed the lemon to my face, inhaling the mandarin perfume I knew would be there. Ecstatic, my thoughts raced, grasping the reality that lay before me. My uncle doesn’t have a lemon tree in his back yard. He has a Meyer Lemon tree.

Meyer lemons, sometimes referred to as the “sweet” lemon, are thought to be a hybrid. The mandarin tones are unmistakable in this lemon, the best I have had tasted like a puckery tangerine. The citrus was brought to America from China by a United States department of agriculture employee, Frank Meyer, in 1908. The tree gained popularity until it was discovered to be a symptomless carrier of a virus that rendered much of the citrus producing trees dead or fruitless. The majority of the early Meyer Lemon trees were eliminated, and not seen again until the late 1950′s when a virus free tree was discovered.

The popularity of this lemon seemed limited until Alice Water’s resurrected it and shared with it the gaining momentum of her fresh new California cuisine. Years later, and a few states away, I began the momentum of my own career carrying the knowledge of this exotic specialty lemon. With a short season in our supermarkets, Meyer lemons are not only hard to get a hold of, but expensive! I have grown accustomed to treating the Meyer lemon as fruit royalty, coveting the few I do spend my hard earned money on, and using the juice wisely, and only in the dishes meant to highlight it’s flavor.

Last week I myself felt royal, sipping fresh Meyer lemonade while grating the zest of as many Meyer lemons as I liked into my cakes. I made a pair of cakes using a deceptively simple recipe dubbed “skillet cake” by my other half, Russell. Mixed with no more that a flick of the wrist, this cake is baked in the cast iron skillet used to melt the butter for the batter. From the oven the cake emerges golden with a thin crispy top, the sweet aroma of buttery lemon intoxicating you as you remove it.

Because these lemons deserve all the attention they can get, the cakes were served with a dusting of powdered sugar, a jar of Meyer lemon slices to squeeze over the cake, and a pitcher of fresh sour cream, sweetened and thinned with Meyer lemon juice. These cakes were meant to celebrate my cousin’s birthday’s, but became a celebration of the Meyer Lemons they are so lucky to have growing in their back yard.

Standard lemons will do fine in this cake if you find yourself without the Meyers, but as they are peaking in their comercial season, do try to find them. You will be amply rewarded. Californians, you have no excuse, the little girl in me still believes every california back yard has a Meyer Lemon Tree.

Meyer Lemon Skillet Cake

3/4 cups sugar

Zest of 2 Meyer lemons

juice of 1 Meyer lemon

1 tsp vanilla

2 eggs

1 cup flour

1/2 cup melted butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

1. Place an 8 inch cast iron skillet over low heat, and add the butter. Slowly let the butter melt while you mix the batter.

2. Place the sugar in a large bowl and add the lemon zest. Rub the zest and sugar between your fingers until the zest is evenly distributed through out the sugar.

3. Add the eggs to the lemon sugar and whisk until fully incorporated. Add the lemon juice and vanilla and mix again, until the liquid is distributed evenly.

4. Add the flour and stir with a spatula or wooden spoon until it is evenly distributed.

5. By this time, the butter should be melted. Remove the skillet from the heat and pour the butter into the batter. Set the skillet aside and mix the butter into the batter evenly.

6. Pour the batter back into the skillet, spreading it evenly across the pan. Transfer the skillet into the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes. The top should just be turning golden, and feel firm to the touch.

Porcella Urban Market, Bellevue, Washington

Friday, April 13th, 2007

It’s funny that after having finally escaped having to travel daily to the confines of the (culinarily) dreary eastside of the Seattle metro area that I should be writing about a little gem nestled firmly in eastside territory. But that’s what I’m doing. It’s all the more surprising given that the number of little urban markets, delis, and sandwich shops (and many times all of the above) that cater to a higher end clientele is growing like sexed up rabbits. These little shops are a dime a dozen. That’s why I didn’t have super high hopes when I was given a tip to check out Porcella Urban Market nestled in downtown Bellevue (across the lake from Seattle). When I saw they had a French bent to their offerings it only made me groan more – great! An even more pretentious little sandwich shop. But much to my pleasant surprise, what I found was something special and delicious.

It’s true that the Porcella Urban Market has a wide selection of fancy specialty items (the single serving beverages alone occupy an entire wall of fridge space). It’s also true that the meat and cheese counter serve all manner of delicious items including pork rillettes and the always hard to find guanciale. But neither of those interested me as much as lunch. And lunch there is. Soups, salads, baguette sandwiches, and various plates grace the menu.

The real problem with Porcella is that amid the very very good sandwiches, is a standout that is not just better, it’s singularly perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had the Warm Lamb with Nicoise Olive and Preserved Lemon Relish, Mizithra Cheese, and Shallot Confit. It’s quite delicious. So was the Pork Rillette with Shaved Red Onion, Wine Plumped Currants, and Dijon Mustard Sauce. But one sandwich in particular haunts my dreams. And even though we all ordered it for lunch on this day, we were adventurous enough to try a soup.

We had just finished chewing on the absolutely perfect mini-baguettes and butter whose short-lived existences on our table were due to their absolutely intoxicating and perfect french bread smell. Before we could shove them all down our throats, a bowl of Roasted Tomato with Ham and Cheese Flan soup came for us to try. With the first spoonful I was immediately struck by the tone of the flavor. This wasn’t a tomato soup with some roasted flavor. This was roasted tomato soup. A deep roasted tone permeated the liquid. The flan was relatively mild but made up for it by being dotted with chunks of ham.

Then it was on to the main event. The sandwich that puts all the other (quite good) sandwiches to shame is the Prosciutto di Parma with Warm Frisee, Lardonettes, Truffled Aioli and Fried Egg. This sandwich like some sort of crazy ass overboard super high-end Egg McMuffin. But way way better. (And I like Egg McMuffins so that’s high praise.) The large portion of Truffled Gaufrette Chips served with each sandwich doesn’t hurt either. There is so much going on in this sandwich it’s hard to know where to start. Each bite is filled with crusty, crunchy, crispy, hammy, salty, gooey, eggy excellence. The lardonettes are like little salty smokey landmines exploding wherever your mouth ventures. There are times when I’m eating this sandwich when I really just consider letting myself go entirely – Jabba the Hut style – just so I can eat these more than once every few weeks. I suppose it’s unfair to focus so much on this sandwich as there are many other lovely items on the menu. But I have to admit, the rules of engagement for eating at Porcella is that at least someone at the table must order this sandwich so that everyone can get at least one bite. Sharing does sometimes become a problem so consider yourself forwarned.

I guess the eastside of Seattle does have some food goodness. Just make sure to avoid the traffic!

Recipe: Dark Chocolate covered honey-rosemary cake

Monday, April 9th, 2007

For Erik, who is like me in noticing the nakedness of the post featuring a cake I made recently, here are the recipes I used to create the cake. And for Britt, the honey mousse recipe is included, however, you had mentioned dipping strawberries into them, really great idea! In that case, I would omit the gelatin and use it right away. It has a nice creamy structure on it’s own, and will actually keep that way for a day or two, but I added gelatin to give it the structure it needed to support the cake layers.

This cake is really a two day process. Not just this cake, all cakes. Professional cake makers always, always bake the cake at least a day before it is to be assembled, wrapping it and storing it in the refrigerator or freezer. This allows the cake to stale a bit, tightening the crumb, drying it a tiny bit. By doing this, the cake layers are ready for another professional touch, the soaking syrup.

A simple syrup is made with a complimentary flavor and brushed over the cake for lasting moisture. This gives the cakes a better texture, and allows for another flavor dynamic in the cake. We are soaking our cake in a rosemary syrup, which if made ahead of time and allowed to sit in the refrigerator overnight intensifies the rosemary flavor in the syrup.

Because the cake is filled with a mousse that must set for at least 4 hours before the cake is covered in chocolate glaze, the two day project truly requires a little planning. It also allows you to break up the work and fit into pockets of free time from various days. The cake and syrup can be made up to a week ahead of time, the mousse filled cake can wait for it’s glaze for 2 days. The mousse and glaze, however, must be applied to the cake immediately.

To assemble the cake, begin by cutting the top and bottom of the cakes off in a thin layer. Split the cake in half evenly. Place the bottom layer of the cake in the pan it was baked in, which has been cleaned and lined with a circle of parchment. Brush both cake with rosemary syrup.

Prepare the mousse according the the recipe, and immediately transfer into the cake pan lined with a single layer of cake. Spread the mousse evenly over the cake and cover with the second layer of rosemary cake. Gently press the cake layer with your hands to ensure it has adhered to mousse evenly, and there are no buckles in the cake. Wrap this in plastic and store in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours.

When the cake has set, run a hot paring knife between the edge of the cake and the pan. Place a cardboard cake circle exactly the same size as the cake over the top of the cake pan, and carefully flip the cake over. Set this on the counter and remove the cake pan from the cake by pulling strait up, shimmying the pan a little if necessary.

Brush any loose crumbs from the cake and place it on a wire rack set over a sheet pan. Place this in the refrigerator while you prepare the glaze. Once the glaze is ready to pour, bring the cake out. Begin pouring the glaze focusing the stream in the center of the cake, and extending the stream about 8 inches above the cake. When all the glaze is on the cake, take a long cake spatula and push the excess glaze from the center of the cake towards the outside in 3 or 4 decisive motions.

Place the cake in the refrigerator to set the glaze for 10 to 15 minutes. When the glaze is set, transfer the cake from the wire rack to a serving plate. Store the cake in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve it, wrapping it lightly, but completely in plastic wrap if storing the cake overnight.

Recipe: Rosemary Scented Cornmeal Cake

Monday, April 9th, 2007

Brown butter is an amazing flavor addition for this cake, adding a richness and depth to the cornmeal. However, you can replace the 1/2 cup of brown butter with 1/2 cup of clarified butter, or another cooking oil. You can not melt 1/2 cup of butter and add that. Butter is up 20 percent water by weight, so what you are really adding within the 1/2 cup of liquid is about 1/3 a cup of butter oil mixed with water and milk solids. So either take the time to clarify or brown the butter, or add another cooking oil like canola or olive oil.

When choosing the cornmeal, I look for a fine ground cornmeal that still has a little tooth to it, not a corn flour. You can use any grade cornmeal from the fine grain I choose to the coarse pollenta cut, depending on the amount of tooth you want in your cake.

Fresh rosemary is an essential addition to this cake, so do find some rather than using the dry rosemary in your spice collection. 5 people on my block alone have thriving rosemary bushes in their yards, and all have been happy to share a few sprigs with me when I need.

Rosemary Scented Cornmeal Cake

4 eggs

1 cup sugar

½ cup brown butter

1 cup finely ground cornmeal

1 cup cake flour

1 cup milk

2 tbsp finely chopped rosemary

1 tbsp paking powder

Preheat oven to 390 degrees farenheit, 200 degrees celcius

  1. Place the milk and rosemary in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, remove from heat, and allow to steep for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, place the cornmeal in a bowl with enough room to hold both the cornmeal and the milk. When 10 minutes have passed, bring the milk back to a simmer, and pour over the cornmeal, stirring to make a “mush”.
  2. Place the egg yolks and sugar in a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of a kitchenaid.. Using a whisk, whip the two ingredients until they pale in color, and thicken enough to form a ribbon when let to drip from the whisk. While whisking continuously, begin adding the brown butter in a slow stream until it is entirely incorporated.
  3. Scrape the sides of the bowl clean, and add the cornmeal mush to the bowl. Stir with a spatua until the mixture is an even consistancy.
  4. Sift the flour and baking powder, and carefully fold this into the cornmeal batter. Set aside for a moment.
  5. With a very clean whisk and large bowl with enough room to hold both the whites and cornmeal batter, whisk the egg whites and salt until they hold soft peaks. Transfer the cornmeal batter from the mixing bowl to the bowl with the egg whites. Using a large spatula, carefully fold the egg whites into the batter just until they dissapear.
  6. Transfer the batter to a 9 inch round cake pan that has been greased and lined with parchment. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the cake springs back when pressed in the center. Allow to cool before removing the cake from the pan.
  7. When the cake is cool, wrap it in plastic wrap well, and chill it in the refrigerator overnight. This process tightens the crumb, and stales the cake a tiny bit, which allows us to brush it with a rosemary syrup before layering it.

Recipe: Rosemary syrup

Monday, April 9th, 2007

Rosemary Syrup

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

3 medium sprigs of rosemary, needles cleaned from the stem
1. Place the water in a small pot and bring to a boil. When the water starts boiling, remove from heat and stir in the sugar until it completely dissolves and the syrup is translucent.

2. Add the rosemary, and return the syrup to a low heat. Allow this mixture to cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and transfer the syrup to a container, allowing it to cool completely before brushing it on the cake.

Recipe: Honey Mousse

Monday, April 9th, 2007

Choosing a high quality honey from a small bee keeper rather than the honey bear from the grocery store makes all the difference in the world. I am not a food snob, so when standard grocery store ingredients are a fair substitute, I’ll say so. But here, because this mousse was developed to highlight the singular flavor of honey, every flaw in the honey will show.

I taught this honey mousse recipe a class last summer, and the two men who chose this recipe as thier project ended up making it 3 times. They admited later that they saw the sparse ingredient list and thought it would be the easiest recipe. They learned that the list of ingredients was intentionally simple to allow focus on the methods. On their 3rd try, they prepared themselves properly, paid attention to each ingredient and the temperatures at which they were worked with, and had everything prepared in advance before they started making anything. They were amply rewarded with a beautiful mousse, and learned a great lesson about sucessfully aproaching a recipe.
The recipe seems wordy, but it includes tips on treatment of the ingredients that will help you take the simple list and turn them into something much larger that the sum of thier parts.

So read through the recipe, be prepared by having every thing measured, and all your equipment gathered before you begin.

If you are using this recipe to fill a cake, then you will need to have the cake layers trimmed, brushed in their syrup, the bottom layer sitting in the cake pan you baked it in as a mold. Have these on the counter ready to go, so when the mousse is completed, it can be used to fill the cake imediately, before the gelatin begins to set.

Honey Mousse

Prepare a double boiler using a pot with a wide enough mouth to fit a large bowl.

4 egg yolks

4 oz. honey (just over 1/3 a cup)

half a vanilla bean, seeded, or 1 tsp extract in a pinch

2 tbsp water
1 tsp gelatin

2 cups cream

1. Prepare the cream to whip by placing it in the bowl you intend to whip it in, and placing that in the refrigerator along with the whisk you intend to use.
2. Sprinkle the gelatin in the bottom of the smallest pot you own. (I use my stainless steel 1/2 cup measuring cup, which holds up to the low heat the gelatin is later melted over) Cover the gelatin with the 2 tbsp of water, making sure every granual is covered and can absorb water, using a little more water if needed. Set aside.

2. Making the honey sabayon: Place the yolks, honey, and vanilla in a large stainless steel or glass bowl, and place it over the pot of simmering water you have prepared as your double boiler. With the water simmering, but not boiling rapidly, start cooking the honey mixture while calmly whisking constantly. Continue whisking the honey and eggs over heat until they start to thicken, and lighten in color. This can take as little as 3 minutes, and as long as 10, depending on how much heat is transfering to the bowl from the simmering water in the pot. It is best to cook this slower as you will have a more stable base for your mousse.

3 . When the honey sabayon is finished, a little mound will appear on the surface when a small amount is drizzled from the whisk back into the bowl. At this point, remove the bowl from the double boiler and set aside.

4. Place the tiny pot of bloomed gelatin over low heat, and cook until it melts, stirring as needed. Transfer the gelatin to the warm honey sabayon and whisk it until the gelatin is evenly distributed. Set aside and allow the sabayon to come down in temperature. In preparing the sabayon for the incorporation of the whipped cream, it needs to be cool enough that it doesn’t melt the cream when it is folded in, but not so cool that the gelatin sets.

5. While the sabayon is cooling, remove the bowl of cream and whisk from the refrigerator and begin whisking. Whisk the cream to soft, thick, billowy peaks, by hand if possible. If using a kitchenaid mixer, turn the mixer on to speed 6, but no higher. The slower incorporation of air into very cold cream creates a denser whipped product, which adds structure to the delicate mousse, and creates a more luxurious mouthfeel. The more structure we can add from the correct cooking of the sabayon, and whipping of the cream, the less gummy gelatin we need to add making a delicately ballanced mousse.

6. When the cream has been whipped and the sabayon is at room temperature, begin incorporating the two. Place 1/3 of the cream into the sabayon, and whisk to incorporate. Place another 1/3 of the cream into the sabayon, and fold in carefully with a large rubber spatula. Finally, add the remaining 1/3 of cream to the sabayon and again, fold in carefully.

Recipe: Bittersweet Chocolate Glaze

Monday, April 9th, 2007

The glaze I chose for this cake is a recipe I adopted from Alice Medrich’s book, Bittersweet. It is designed as a pouring glaze for desserts that are stored in the refrigerator, which is where your mousse cake will sit while waiting for it’s grand appearance. Medrich suggests pouring this glaze at 90 degrees for optimal results. This can be gauged with an instant read thermometer, or by taking a small dab of the glaze and touching it to your lip. It should feel to be the same temperature as your lip, so if it’s warm to the lip, wait another minute.

The chocolate glaze was made with a bittersweet chocolate containing 64 percent cocoa solids. Look for a chocolate of similar bitterness, but nothing higher. The acidity of extra bittersweet chocolate does not balance well with the sweet subtlety of the honey mousse, and the essence of the rosemary gets lost. If you can’t find anything at 64 percent, choose a semi sweet chocolate instead. For those who don’t live near a metropolitan area that provides many choices in chocolate, Nestle, the maker of toll house chips, has come out with a chocolatier line that is sold in large chain grocery stores like Safeway. If I even hear that you tried to make this with Bakkers chocolate, I will come find you, and slap your hand. Repeatedly. That stuff is not chocolate.

Bittersweet chocolate glaze

8 oz dark chocolate chopped finely

6 oz butter, (1 1/2 sticks)

1 tbsp light corn syrup

2 tbsp water

1. Place all the ingredients in a small heatproof bowl and set over a wide mouthed pot of simmering water.

2. Allow the chocolate and butter to melt, stirring occasionally. Remove the bowl from the double boiler when it is almost, but not quite, melted. Set the glaze aside to finish melting, stirring once or twice until perfectly smooth.

3. Place the filled cake on a wire rack set over a sheet pan. When the glaze is smooth and shiny, pour it over the cake to cover it completely. Chill the cake in the fridge for 10 minutes to set the glaze before removing it from the rack.

4. Transfer the cake from the rack to a serving plate and keep in the refrigerator until ready to serve. If the cake is to be kept overnight, wrap the cake lightly, but completely to avoid condensation forming on the glaze.

Club Holidays

Saturday, April 7th, 2007

Holidays at the club put a bit of my life into perspective. No longer does worry of making a couple of pies for thanksgiving seem valid. Even a few days of cooking, preparing for a large family of 15 or 20 pales in comparison, especially when the family holiday ends in my sitting to enjoy the meal. No, Holidays at the club are a week long event.

Lets take Easter, which technically is on Sunday, but the Rainier Clubs’ Easter brunch takes place on the preceding Saturday. The menu, this time a banquet for 300, is planned weeks in advance. Meetings involving the Exec. Chef, Bill Morris and his team of 3 sous chefs began 2 weeks prior to break the menu into it’s working parts. I am guessing at the order here, but this is roughly how it’s done.

First, the menu is broken down into each ingredient, and the estimated quantity needed to make the dishes. This is where experience and focus play a trump hand. Not only do you need to know roughly how much will be eaten, but you have to calculate in overages to ensure nothing runs out. Then, you have to adjust recipes to fit the quantity needed, and come to a figure estimating the amount of each individual ingredient needed. Not every ingredient is strait forward either. 12 dozen eggs, sure that’s a snap. But 250 portions of ham, at 4 ounces a portion, doesn’t add up. You need to factor in that the ham will loose weight during the cooking process. How much weight, you ask? It would take the experience I mentioned before to really know. Once the menu becomes a sum of it’s parts, it turns into a super-mega-shopping list.

The shopping list has to then be broken down between the many, many purveyors used to stock the Rainier Clubs stores. I was told that we have 3 different sources for fish, and 4 for meat. Add to that the various produce vendors and farms that deliver, the dry goods suppliers, pastry companies, dairy suppliers, and companies that specialize in various ingredients, like Ritrovo, or cheesemongers. Now it’s time to order. But wait, there’s more. Each purveyor has different delivery days, so you have to take into account when they can have the product to you, close enough to the date of the party to be fresh and tasty, but giving enough time for it to comply with the preparation schedule. Your master list becomes a time sheet as well.

Which brings us to the prep list. The menu is broken apart yet again to assess what needs to be prepped. Each dish is dissected, listing each individual task it will take to complete the dish. Simple sounding, but when you consider that each dish must feed the 300 members and their families, the concept grows. Now add to that the 40 or more various dishes made, (18 in pastry alone) to give the members the kind of variety that a special holiday at the club warrants. Needless to say, the list is very long. The list is also turned into a schedule, taking into account when you can get product in, how far ahead (or not) you can complete the task while keeping quality at it’s peak, and in what logical order tasks must be completed.

It takes a kitchen of 17 working cooks, 4 dishwashers, and 3 very hardworking interns a full week to complete a holiday menu. All the while, the kitchen is running it’s usual regime of breakfast, lunch, banquets, dinner, tasting menu’s, bar menu, and pastry.

As you can see, the key behind this endeavor is organization. And I’ll say again, the Rainier Club is the most functionally organized kitchen I have ever been a part of. They really have this down to an art. So much so, that when the events do finally come around, the kitchen hardly breaks a sweat. The sous chefs might, but only in their efforts to keep the well oiled machine rolling.

Easter is a buffet, which means that quite a bit of the food can be plattered ahead of time, salads are held in large bowls, and the desserts are all set up ahead of time. Come time for the guests to start moving through the buffet line, all the kitchen has left to do is slice the roasted meats, cook a few hot dishes like pasta in quantities to feed 30 at a time, and run food in and out of the kitchen.

However, not all holidays are buffets. Valentines day, my first holiday at the RC was a 5 course sit down dinner. The dining room was set with tables for 150, a dance floor in the middle, and a full service staff. Each cook was teamed up and became responsible for a single dish.

While the kitchen isn’t pumping out food in volume, each dish involves so many high maintenance components, that it takes two cooks just to put out a single dish all night. Food is cooked to order rather than in batches, and the focus is on perfection.

To have to say that perfection isn’t the focus of every last thing that comes out of the kitchen may sound lazy. But don’t scoff, every thing done in the kitchen sits somewhere balanced between speed and perfection. The faster you need to go means the less attention to detail you are capable of. The more you focus on details, perfecting everything, the more time you need. So everything we do must consider both speed and quantity vs. quality and strike the right balance for the dish at hand. It’s hard to keep the balance leaning towards quality when you are pushed for quantity and speed, which is easy to see in so much food that is sold in the industry. Too often the easy road is taken.

Never the less, on Valentines Day the balance is tipped as far as possible towards perfection and refinement. The menu takes as much time to prep, but by cutting the quantity and speed at which the dishes must fly out the kitchen doors, the dishes are inspired.

Below is a slide show of Valentine’s day, including all the plates that were designed for the menu. For a more detailed description, the menu is posted here, on Ex. Chef Bill Morris’s own blog, which is a small peek into the artistry he brings into the kitchen each day.

Baking Chocolate Covered Honey-Rosemary Cake

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

With my days now full of savory banquets rather than the pastries I had grown so accustom to in the 2 years past, I come home with a craving. Not a sweet tooth, per se, rather an overwhelming urge to bake. Cookies, brownies, cakes, you name it, I have been a home baking fool.

However, just picking up a recipe and making a few cookies isn’t the kind of satisfaction I come home burning for. No no no. My urges stem from my years developing recipes in a business setting, creating conceptual desserts. Thus, rather than making a few cookies from a recipe I have been looking to try, I have redefined my banana bread. But that wasn’t enough.

I started building a custom cake business. I couldn’t help it, really. It just happened! It’s been two months without a pastry outlet, and I have managed to come up with DC Customs. I even have business cards!

The concept is that I take on very few customers, making it possible to consult with each individually, and create a cake unique and individual based on the event and the person the cake is to please most. Starting from the inside out, I talk about flavors the client likes best, their favorite food as a kid, the bakery they trekked across town weekly to, just for their monkey bread, the cherry lime-aid from sonic that they guzzled in college. I have been building the cakes from the inside-out, choosing flavors and textures first. Then, we can decide how the cake is to look later, based on the limitations and allowances of the flavors, and the emotions you’d like the cake to elicit.

It’s taste I want to inspire each unique creation, not a picture seen in a recent wedding magazine.

To make my image reflect my mission, I have chosen to model it after a custom auto body shop. I am meeting with a tattoo artist soon to design the logo, and have chosen the simplistic name DC Customs to let everyone know, I’m not Martha.

Looking back, it’s almost silly. 2 months without a menu, without flour in my hair and chocolate under my nails and I have come up with a business.

Last weekend I developed a cake for a simple Sunday evening dinner party. Tim the cook, a friend and cohort at the Rainer Club, created his menu using the first of springs ingredients. The cake was to reflect the shifting season, to be elegant, sophisticated, yet humble enough for the intimacy of eight.

Because the world of desserts spends early spring in limbo, this was a challenge. The rich, comforting flavors of winter are no longer desired, yet the bright, acid pop of citrus didn’t fit the relaxed setting of the dinner. Rhubarb, the first hint that fruit is coming, is not quite here.

I chose to use Rosemary, and to scent a Brazilian cornmeal cake with it’s distinct flavor. The cake was split in two layers, soaked in a sweet rosemary syrup, and filled with honey mousse. To bring elegance to this rustic cake, I covered it in dark chocolate glaze. A crown of candied pine-nuts, which share the essence of rosemary, garnished the cake. I don’t often use inedible garnishes, but the petite lavender flowers blooming on rosemary bushes right now were to much to resist.

Thus, Tim’s cake was born.

You can see from the pictures, I had an expert taste tester. Bianka liked the cake so much she had to be sent to “time out” in the bathroom until the cake was safely on it’s way to it’s destiny.

Big task, bigger lesson

Sunday, April 1st, 2007

I have had a hard time translating my days in the kitchen into words to share with you. It’s not that I don’t like my work, or am feeling uninspired. It’s, well, I have had a hard time making it feel exciting.  My work is challenging in it’s own right, but it’s the large scale that makes it difficult, not the individual steps.

For instance, last Wednesday I made potato salad. For 6 hours. Save the half an hour I used to plate up a banquet with the rest of the team, and the hour I rolled 50 dozen spring rolls with Ellpedio and Tom, the morning banquet guys who couldn’t leave until the spring rolls were finished, my day was devoted to prepping potato salad. This enormous amount of potato salad was part of a banquet for last Friday that was to feed 500 people attending the Single Malt Scotch regional tasting.

The hours added up like this. Quarter 150 pounds of baby red potatoes; 2 1/2 hours. Boil and peel 50 eggs; half an hour. Pickle 10 pounds of tiny tiny radishes after cutting each into eight tiny wedges; 3 hours. 10 pounds doesn’t seem like much, but when you start taking the time to cut each grape sized radish into little wedges, the uncut pile looks bigger and bigger each time you look at it.

Large tasks like this also have a hypnotizing effect. Like staring at the road for too long, repeating the same motion and staring into the abyss of what seemes to be an endless task sends you into a coma.

Working with a partner is valuable not only in cutting the task in half, but in keeping your mind from entering this hypnotic state. A little conversation keeps your mind in the present. And lets face it, a little competition keeps your speed and efficiency up. It’s not that you are racing them, but the competitive drive that brings most cooks into the kitchen keeps us acutely aware how many potatoes we have cut compared to the guy standing next to us, if our potatoes look better or worse, and if our particular method is more efficient.

Large banquettes like these don’t come every day. Last week was unique in that we held a plattered hours d’ourve reception for 500 on Thursday. The event was the wake for Mr. Diamond, who’s name has been seen for half a century across Seattle above the parking lots he owned. This banquet was back to back with the Single Malt Scotch dinner, making it a very full week.

The full buffet style dinner featured 24 roasted turkeys, 150 pounds of tri-tip beef, roasted, sliced, and covered with bourdelaise sauce and crumble blue cheese.  150 pounds of potato salad.  50 pounds of Greek salad with house prepared artichokes.  100 pounds of penne pasta with red sauce.  50 pounds of orrichette in pesto cream sauce.  Endless bowls of caesar salad.  6 different breads.  And endless platters of desserts featuring lemon bars, chocolate raspberry bars, rhubarb bavarians, hazelnut financiers, spicy molasses cookies, and itty bitty trifles of poppy seed cake, blueberries, and mascarpone mousse.

My head is spinning just rattling this off. But that was not the case in the kitchen that day. The kitchen at the Rainier Club is beyond organized, and so prepared for the task, that big evenings go off without a hitch.

I suppose this is the real lesson in all this. Spending an entire day prepping potato salad is less than glamorous, and when I return to pastry, I may never make potato salad again. But learning how to prepare for events like this in such an organized manner is a lesson I’ll draw from every single day in my career to come, sweet or savory.