Archive for March, 2009

Follow Through

Monday, March 30th, 2009

In my previous life, the one I lived before I became an adult, I played softball. “Played” isn’t really the right word, though. I lived softball. Fast pitch softball, not the slow underhanded game old men play. I was on a very competitive regional team. I spend every day at 2 practices, at the least. I tournament every weekend. I went home at night and watched training videos on throwing technique, or batting stances, or how to increase sprinting speed within the first 5 steps. I went to every “clinic” within reasonable parental driving distance. Then I grew up, and went to cooking school.

While I make every attempt to subdue the sports analogies in the kitchen, it’s very hard for me to divorce myself from the similarities.

At the moment, a batters box philosophy has been replaying in my head as I collect my thoughts on serving desserts to a diner. This concept is follow through.

Baseball is the great American pastime, so I can make a safe bet that you know the drill. A person with a bat stands in a little box next to home plate, preparing themselves, completing their tiny ritual, and waiting for a ball to be thrown towards them. This is the most exciting part of the game, really, especially for the spectator. The point of contact. When the ball reaches home plate, the bat strikes it, and the game springs into motion. And that point of contact is what the whole game is built around.

However, the fraction of a second that the bat strikes the ball is such a small part of what makes successful contact. You are taught very early on as a batter, that if you only think about the bat hitting the ball, you will fail. You think very little about the point of contact. Rather you train yourself to think of the followthrough.  That is, for you, the bat swings from your back shoulder, past your front shoulder.  That is your main consideration, using a complete motion that strikes through the point of contact, landing the bat firmly on your back, your body twisted forward.

If done correctly, the point of contact is inevitable. But it’s the entire process that achieves it, not the idea of hitting the ball with the bat.

In desserts, I think about this a lot. The point of contact is that of the dessert being set on the table in front of the diner. And if we stop our thought process there, I believe we fail.

Because once the dessert is on the table, just like the ball being struck with the bat, the infinate variables begin. Where the ball goes, who fields it, the errors and brilliance that the other players inflect, this is where the game gets exciting.

But rather than players reacting a ball, we have people reacting to a dessert. When the dessert is set on the table before them, the diner is beginning a very complex process of flavor perception.

To make this long and perhaps cumbersome analogy complete, we have to understand that flavor is a mental construct that does not exist outside the brain. This mental construct is built with the information we recieve from our 5 senses while dining, first sight, then smell, taste, touch and sound. Once the information is provided from our 5 senses, it mingles with mood, memories, and anything else floating around in the diners head.

And what’s in your head, those are the exciting variables. Those are the things I have no control over. Once my dessert, which I have used my hands to physically create perfectly, consistently, day after day, is set on the table, I have absolutely no more control over what happens. I am out there running the bases, and the diner has the ball. Your mood is in the outfield, your memories are fielding 3rd base, and I have just hit the ball somewhere out there. A very good batter has some control over where the ball goes, but still, no control over what happens to the ball once it’s on the field.

So, if I, the pastry chef, only ever think the process through to the point of contact, the moment at which the dessert hits the table, or worse, the point at which the dessert leaves my kitchen, I fail. It’s up to me to understand where the dessert is going, how perception is created, and what, if anything, I can do to encourage that perception to be pleasant.

Lets just forget about the physical dessert itself, the ingredients I have manipulated and put on a plate. The dessert has been built for maximum success, texture spot on, flavors matched perfectly, plated beautifully. Now it’s on the table, the point of contact has been made.

Lets consider follow through, and consider the perception that is beginning, and what’s already floating around in the diners head.

First and foremost is the mood they are in, which is very effected by the service, and the atmosphere of the dining room. This, a restaurant has the power to influence. But what if they have suffered loss within the past week, a pet being sick, a broken relationship, a fight with a sibling, trouble at work. This portion of their mood I have absolutely no control over, yet it still mingles with perception.

And what of the memories of food already implanted in the diner. How can I tap into these, making a dessert they’ve never seen before feel familiar? I can make safe guesses working within the framework of american nostalgia. I grew up eating American food, and so did you, so I bet we share some of the same memories. But what of the diner that grew up in Germany?

The follow through, the consideration of the perception of my desserts is the most fascinating part to me. Maybe because it’s the truly challenging part, the part I could spend a lifetime attempting to effect, yet would be different every day, every year, every city, every restaurant, and especially every person.

I can take the same amount of flour, sugar, butter, chocolate, and eggs, and make the same brownie every day, for 50 years. But it becomes something unique, and individual every time I put it in a different pair of hands, and that to me is amazing.

I once read that in cuisine texture is the final frontier. But for me, the final frontier is perception. The frontier of texture is that of the American west, wild for quite some time, but eventually just part of our country. For me, it seems the frontier of perception is that of outer space. Infinite and ever changing, and there whether you look up to see it or not.

Rest In Peace

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

This is the sad state of the first scale to be brought into the poppy kitchen.  It was part of the opening team, and it’s faithfully helped us measure every batch of naan, every dessert that’s made it to the tables in the short 6 months we’ve been open.

As you can see, it’s on it’s very last leg, but still pulling us through.  New scales come tomorow, and this little helper will finally be laid to rest.

Iron Works BBQ, Austin, Texas

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

I recently got to spend a few days in Austin, Texas. Frankly, Texas scares me a little. I know it’s an unfair generalization but I just worry they don’t get “my kind”. Everyone assures me that Austin is different. The conference was a bust (SXSWi) but we made the best of it. Not only did I try an conquer my fear of Texas (everyone was very nice, even to me) but no pig was safe — the order of the week was BBQ, lots and lots of BBQ.

We didn’t try every BBQ place there was but we did go to several, and one of the standouts was Iron Works BBQ in Austin proper. When you talk about BBQ in Texas you’re not just talking about ribs of course, there’s also brisket, beef ribs, turkey, chicken, etc. And this doesn’t even count all the sauce variations and sides. But for me, to give you full disclosure on my bias here it’s about the pork ribs. And I don’t want them doused in sauce. I want them dry, and then I’ll do my own saucing thank you.

Speaking of sauce, a lot of bbq joints insist on accompanying your food with a piece of wonder bread. To mop up the sauce? To fill up your belly? To use as a napkin? Mine fell on the floor on the way to the cash register. A fellow diner told me I could ask for a replacement. I demurred figuring that every available piece of real estate in my belly is reserved for meat. That’s actually a rule I apply often even beyond those times when I’m hunting for good BBQ. And while I should have tried some sides, this was my first BBQ of the week so I kind of went crazy with the meat.

I sampled the turkey first. Not as juicy as I would have liked but definitely not dry. The pepper rub on the outside was intense though it started out slow. One of my dining companions, Adrian, felt that by the end the pepper had kind of taken over his mouth. The turkey was decent but the ribs were very very good. The flavor was not over the top but it was definitely solid. If you wanted “bold” that’s what the sauce was for. But the flavor, while not in your face was definitely present, savory, smokey, and combined with the texture, the best way I can describe these ribs is “buttery”. I think I could have eaten a hundred of them. If ribs like this existed nearby in Seattle I would eat them once or twice a week.

I guess if there’s one key indicator of how good the ribs were, it was when I reached over to Jenny’s plate (my other dining companion for the week) to inspect some of her eaten bones hoping that she (like many people I know) was careless and left lots of meat in the nooks and crannies. No luck. She’s an expert. And yes, at the end I was dipping the bones in the sauce and sucking it off as if there was still meat on them. There wasn’t. But I hoped nobody would notice.

The Sweet Chemist

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

Amidst the avalanche of press that my co-blogger is getting you might have missed the latest from Seattle Magazine calling her “The Sweet Chemist” and a “Rebel Chef”. I though she just liked trying to make excellent desserts, I didn’t realize she was rebelling. ;)

Check it out.

(Note for Seattle Magazine: how about posting the picture of the rebel chefs on your website so it’s bigger than a thumbnail. I promise it won’t cost you extra money, and it might actually make the picture informative cause you’d be able to see the people in it. OK. Sorry. Done ranting.)

taking back the slight…..

Friday, March 13th, 2009

Under no circumstances will I open the number 10 can of worms that is all that we in the industry think of Yelp.

However, nearly every establishment has received reviews that are unnecessarily negative/rude/absurd. No matter how unreal untrue unbelievable they are, they eat at us. So we do the only thing we really can. We take them back, turn them into jokes, and quote them to each other in our daily routine of kitchen jokes.

A pizza joint in the bay area has done us one more. They have printed these outrageous statements on T-Shirts. At Poppy we too have joked about having T-Shirts made with our own yelp slights.

On the list…

“Poppy hates children, and Poppy hates cake.”

“I would never classify the menu as New American………EVER!”

“If Ikea and a Tootsie pop had a baby it would be Poppy”

“Poppy isn’t even seasonal (oranges in winter!)”

“FAIL”

And on the list for Veil…..

“This is the worst asian fusion restaurant I’ve ever been to.”

“Veil is, umm, skanky.”

In my head

Thursday, March 12th, 2009

Wanna get inside my head?  Tune into the steady stream of constant thoughts of food that flood my world each day?

Then follow me on twitter!  @Deensie

I can’t promise it’s all food.  But since i think about food 90 percent of the time, it’s a good bet it’s mostly about food.  And a small taste of the life I lead outside the kitchen!

Smoked Fish, My People’s Cured Pork

Monday, March 9th, 2009

I won’t go into why it does or doesn’t make sense to follow dietary restrictions created by some dudes thousands of years ago. And even if God created them, I can’t explain why he would care if we ate bacon. (In fact, I might say that a loving and compassionate god would want his children to experience the joys of bacon on a regular basis.) Suffice it to say though, that for whatever reason, there are at least a couple of million people in the world who choose to keep kosher. And there are many millions more who observe Muslim dietary restrictions which also mean pork is out.

For the Jews, the joy of curing and salting meat is not foreign to us. If you’re confused, go have a real pastrami sandwich and see what I’m talking about. We’re not fucking around. That said, because of additional dietary restrictions, (the prohibition on mixing milk with meat) having cured meat, even of a kosher variety, for breakfast, is just not quite right. You need butter, you need cheese, maybe some yogurt, etc. It just doesn’t work. Enter smoked and cured fish.

My grandmother use to make carp for us. My dad (and I’m sure his father) eat/ate lots of pickled herring. My grandparents (and before them my great grandparents) ran a friggin’ fish market. (And they actually sold fish and not software.) And it took me trying sushi to finally realize the joys of smoked salmon and lox specifically. I was so thrilled to realize that this wonderfulness came from my peeps. And as much as I love lox (my fave is gravlax), and a nice smoked whitefish salad, I can’t help but miss bacon.

What is salmon bacon you ask? Oh, you didn’t ask. That’s ok, I’m gonna tell you anyway.

Salmon bacon is:

  • my people’s attempt at having a bacon substitute?
  • an attempt to create a new revenue stream by a kosher fish company in Massachusetts?
  • a delicious salty component in my breakfast bagel?

Before I answer, I should offer full disclosure. I’m told that some people mistake blogging for journalism and that being honest about your influences, biases, and sources, is key to being taken credibly. More importantly I’m told that some people mistake food journalism for actual journalism — and that’s just silly. (Although in many cases over the last decade I think people have mistaken the “news” we see on TV and in newspapers for actual journalism. So who even knows what’s what anymore.) But enough of that. I was trying to come clean.

Feel free to ignore my recommendations because:

  • I am always on the lookout for new kosher products that expand the selection that kosher kitchens can choose from when trying to create really good meals
  • Because the selection kosher food (especially cured meat) is so poor, I’m likely to like just about anything that comes my way in this category
  • The nice people at the Springfield Smoked Fish Company fedexed me some free lox. I asked them for it when i read that they were trying to make a new product called Salmon Bacon and they generously complied.

This new product is called “Brekfish“. OK. The name is wacky. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Or does it. Actually, I think this name doesn’t matter that much. But the tagline of the product is “Salmon Bacon”. And I think that does matter. For some insane reason, I thought there would be some baconesque quality to the “bacon” and even though it was made of salmon, I couldn’t get the expectation of bacon out of my head. Salmon bacon does not in fact taste like bacon. However, once I got past my expectations I was free to enjoy it for what it was — a fryable, crispy, super salty, perfect addition to my bagel and cream cheese or bagel and egg sandwich. (In the faux Judaism that is Noah’s bagels – not good bagels – you would call that ‘bagel mit egg’.)

At first I was surprised at how salty the Brekfish was. Because I grabbed some of it almost straight from the frying pan and chomped on it. But in fact, I think it was not much saltier than some cuts of bacon I’ve had with nothing else. But it’s when the Brekfish is put in the sandwich that the magic happens. The couple of slices I fried brought my sandwich to life. The saltiness was muted and replaced with a smokey sharp counterpart to the smooth bagel flavor and eggy goodness. My bagel was some crap from the supermarket, but the salmon bacon made it delicious. Imagine what it could do with a good bagel. I dare to dream!

Along with the salmon bacon, I got a couple of its cousins. The whitefish spread was super oily in a good way. It especially worked spread generously on my toasted bagel. But the lox they sent was superlative. Normally I’m not a huge fan of mild flavors, but this lox had a slightly thicker cut, and the best way to describe the slices on my tongue is ‘creamy’. Just lovely.

The number of food producers trying to innovate in the kosher food space is tiny. There are many cool products that could easily be kosher, but the producers don’t take the time. The market isn’t big enough, or at least they think this. And frankly, the folks who validate food as kosher are often perceived as not much better than an extortion racket to keep certain sects of orthodox Jews in the money. A local example to Seattle:

In February, Leah’s Bakery and Café, the only kosher retail bakery in Seattle, closed its doors. Leah’s had been providing the local community with freshly prepared challahs, knishes and kugels, as well as making sandwiches and soups, for 10 years. Owner Leah Jaffee sited chronic financial concerns as the primary reason for the bakery’s closure.
“We liked making those things, but it was sort of a community service, as far as profit margins went,” Jaffee said.
The bakery had always been a money-loser, according to Jaffee. But she said that the additional costs associated with new policies recently adopted by the Va’ad concerning fruits and vegetables pushed the enterprise beyond financial feasibility.
“I just couldn’t justify having someone come in and wash one head of lettuce for $20 if I was only making six box lunches,” Jaffee said. “That’s more than $3 per sandwich just for your lettuce.” — JT News, July 2008

That said, the folks at Springfield Smoked Fish are trying. And for that, I salute them. And for the fact that they’re succeeding, I thank them and recommend that you buy some of their fish. These small specialty producers need all the help they can get and should be rewarded with your patronage. I think that once you try their products you’ll keep coming back simply because they’re excellent.

p.s. Anyone who wants to open up a company that does nothing but try to emulate fantastic pork products and create gorgeous cured meats and sausages out of kosher ingredients (I think turkey comes the closest to pork in many cases) will get my undying love and numerous biased posts recommending their products on this website.

Yes or No?

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Last night I ate dinner at one of Seattle’s newest restaurants. After the meal ended, it came time to make one last decision.  To dessert, or not to dessert?

Now, I know this is hardly an original thought. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that nearly every diner in almost every restaurant ends their meal with this thought passing through their conversations. Perhaps the answer defaults to no, or better yet, yes! Perhaps you never speak of it. Maybe you don’t have the choice. But the questions lingers, and must be answered.

At a table nearby, someone knew my friend. They stopped by our table, conversed briefly about this and that, then brought us into their own finalizing decision. Should they or shouldn’t they?

It’s only natural that in asking a pastry chef if you should have dessert, you will hear a resounding “yes.” If said question was asked within walking distance to the desserts I myself create, it’s a safe bet that I’m going to attempt to steer you towards them. So off the decided party went, suggestions made, towards their desserts at Poppy.

But the question still remained for myself and my friend. Should we or shouldn’t we?

We discussed our options. Cheese at the restaurant we were at, or did they even have desserts? Where else near by would we find tasty sweets? We even briefly discussed McFlurries and Shamrock Shakes retrieved on the car ride home, or ice cream from the store.

In the end, I made the decision I almost always make. I chose no.

It seems contradictory, for me to focus most of my time and energy providing a part of your meal that I myself don’t choose to experience. Don’t think for a second this slips my notice. Instead, I grill myself, examine the series of thoughts, feelings, emotions that lead to my own constant “no.”

It is this constant resistance to the kind of closing experience restaurant offer than helps shape my own creations. In looking deeper into my own decisions, I look for qualities my desserts need to posses to entice the diner back into the meal. When the physical hunger stops encouraging fork-fulls of food into your mouth, what other part of the psyche can I tempt?

Perhaps I can play on your curiosity, or a sense of nostalgia. Maybe I can give you another experience to share with your companion, a reason to prolong the time with friends, or even just give you a worthwhile treat for your sweet tooth.

What ever it is, examining my own motivations as a diner helps me ensure my desserts are worthy of your “yes.”

Brioche

Friday, March 6th, 2009

Despite my title, I am not well versed in bread baking. It might even surprise you to hear that two days ago I baked my first brioche.

In working on a dessert based on the established combination “bread and chocolate,” I found myself in need of a loaf or two of brioche. At Veil, I used brioche often. However, when I needed a loaf or two to appear in my pantry, I made a call to Columbia City Bakery and had them deliver a few of their outstanding loaves with our daily bread order. When Veil started serving brunch on the weekends, I didn’t even need to do that, I just opened the freezer and pulled a loaf.

Ok, I was spoiled. With wholesale prices and the attitude, “they can make it better than I can and don’t my customers deserve the best,” I hid behind the fact that I had never tried my hand at the buttery bread. Or any bread, really.

You see, in Baking and Pastry School our instructor drove into our heads that there were two kinds of people in the pastry world; bread people and dessert people. There were 12 bread people in my class of 13. Can you guess who the lone dessert person was?

It’s not that I have anything against bread. Well, not any more at least. I suppose for some reason I held fast to my status earned alone in school. I was NOT a bread person. I even made ridiculous statements like, “bread and I have issues.”

And maybe we did. Maybe I lacked a certain patience that came with age. Maybe I had other things to master first. After all, you can only fit so many things in your head at once.

Last weekend, with bread and chocolate on the brain, and knowing that Jerry, having invested in hobarts, pullman pans, ovens, and a well stocked pantry would never let me buy brioche, I searched for brioche recipes. I consulted with Google, picked a recipe with pedigree, and turned all systems to “bread”.

I first set to the task of destroying the Berlin wall, tearing down the concrete barrier I had built so many years ago, wondering what I was trying to keep out in the first place. I measured, weighed, concentrated, gauged, and did a lot of guessing. And when I laid eyes on my first loaf of brioche, I beamed like a new mother, gently touching the golden glossy crown with my fingers, pressing it to my nose and inhaling deeply. Pride swelled inside me as I thought, “I made this!”

That was Tuesday.

Today I examined brioche 3.0, critical, concerned. Now that I know I can make it work, I won’t be able to stop until I know why it’s working, and how to make it to the best of my ability. This could be a very long winding journey, but I can say with confidence the trip will be filled with golden, yeasty rewards. And who knows what else I’ll unearth along the way. Maybe there is a bit of a bread baker inside me after all.

The recipe