Author Archive

Creating within a format

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Once upon a time, I was ambitious enough to teach a 3 part series on plated desserts to a group of enthusiastic amateur cooks. After all, it’s the heart of what I do, I should certainly be able to translate that into a class.

I believe I gave it a good go, discussing plating styles, trends, contrasts and compliments of texture and flavor, pastry chefs to know.  I taught the recipes as building blocks, breaking the recipes into 3 categories; main components; secondary components like sauces and compotes; and garnishes.  For the last hour of the last class, we laid everything out, and the students took plates constructed plated desserts from the building blocks we created.

During one lecture, we touched on the creative process by which a dish is brought to life.  Every dish has to have a starting point.  It can be a fruit in season, a particular flavor you want to work with.  But often, the dish is being worked within some kind of loose format.  There are many.  You can set your boundaries within classic dishes, a season, a holiday, a culture.   We focused on the format of nostalgia, discussing traditional desserts that have been turned into plated desserts in fancy restaurants.

The students each chose a dessert they craved as children, begged their grandma for, hoarded pocket change to purchase at the corner shop.  We discussed the rules of this dessert, physical and emotional, then broke each dessert down into little pieces.  Then with their new found knowledge of how to construct a plated dessert as if the components were lego’s, they build imaginary plated desserts from their favorite childhood treats.

The example I used to walk the students through the process was T.K’s coffee and donuts.  Today in the New York Times food section, this iconic dessert was used again as an example.  This time, however, the format it exemplified was that of turning breakfast into dessert, a trend seen on dessert menus of late.

Within this format, there is only one rule; you must create a dish that the diner will recognize in some manner as breakfast.  Depending on the cultural ties, this can vary.  At The Fat Duck, a dessert mimicked  a plate of full English, a breakfast of tomatoes, eggs, bacon, baked beans, and toast.  Using the locked format of breakfast, Heston was able to stretch elements in very creative directions, introducing the diner to bacon and egg ice cream.

Most desserts are either built to appear like a breakfast, with flavor and ingredients swapped, or build to look like familiar desserts, with ingredients most commonly found in breakfast.  An example given of the former, a toad-in-the-hole made with caramelized brioche, a ring of white pannacotta, and a spherical yellow mango center.  Where as the latter may be exemplified by a pannacotta infused with the flavor of a breakfast cereal, an oatmeal creme brulee, or one of my favorite textural components, caramelized rice crispies.

I believe that tightening your boundries often forces you to be more creative.  In order to keep the dish recognizable with in a format, you don’t have as many directions to take it.  You end up inverting in a way, finding the depth of the integral parts, focusing rather than expanding, pulling and pushing at the same time.

What part of your breakfast would you translate into a dessert?  And before you say “bacon” read the last part of the article calling bacon out as the skinny jean of the dessert world, super trendy, sexy when right, but oft ill applied.

VD

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

For 270 people, love will be on a Thali at Poppy tonight.

Last year I wrote quite frankly about some of the realities of St. Valenties Day, or VD as we refer to it in the industry.

Poppy is in a protective bubble of some sort right now. And by that I mean we are busy. Trust me, we know how lucky we are.

That said, we have been booked out for weeks. We have a set menu. Well, we always have a set menu. But tonight the set menu comes with a starter, and a dessert Thali for two.

You won’t find anything too cheeky coming from me tonight. I am serving a “hot date cake,” but then again, I always do. However it does seem more fitting today. I am also making a passion fruit sorbet, which will temporarily replace my current sorbet, chocolate tangerine. This was hard for me, as I am intensely attached to this chocolate tangerine sorbet. It tastes like a decadent tangerine perfumed fudgesicle, and each bite holds an intense amount of nostalgia for me.

Passion fruit sorbet was my compromise, however, as what was really desired of me was “love potion”.

I’m just not that girl.  Don’t even get me started on the whole chocolate sex orgasm thing.

Jokes in the kitchen have chruned out fake scenarios of me looking shocked when i find out that rohypnol isn’t an ingredient in love potion, and a line of edible underwear.  Banana flavored banana hammocks anyone? And of course, the I-really-love-your-peaches-wanna-eat-that-bra-right-off-of-you peach flavored bra.

I’ll spare you jokes of the VD chocolate and chile “it burns” variety.

The romance of this day has been bled out of us cooks with 14 hour days, struggling to find things in a walk in swollen with prep and product for the evening, the monotony of making 300 of one thing, and of course the tight feeling in your chest from the 6 hours of an insane serivce like this.

But this day isn’t about me. It’s about passion fruit sorbet, hot date cakes, hearts, and love.

And I always put love in my menu.

First Timer

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

I did something today that I have never done before. I made molten chocolate cake.

I don’t know that I ever really considered making a molten chocolate cake before. It’s not that I actively avoided it, sneered at it while calling it names like “cliche”, or “washed up” behind it’s back.  No, I harbor no resentment towards molten chocolate cake.  It just never entered my mind as an option.

In fact, I can’t really remember ever eating one. Which seems odd, because for a long while they were everywhere. And for a long while, I had an aching sweet tooth, which sat in the back of my mouth, next to an aching chocolate tooth. (Thanks to my daily intake of sugar, my sweet and chocolate tooths have been quieted and given way to a potato chip tooth, and a bacon tooth, but that’s a different story.)

But this dessert is sooo cliche, and sooo over it’s prime, that it’s not even everywhere anymore.

Despite all this, today I made molten chocolate cake. Actually, I made 9 of them, at the request of a very special birthday girl. And I have to say, I can see why these things were everywhere.

Warm, gooey chocolate inside warm soft dense cakey chocolate. What’s not to love. I even garnished it with raspberry coulis, in little tear drops, and a dollop of whipped cream. If I had it on hand, I would have done this dessert right by itself, propped a sprig of mint in the top, and dusted the entire thing with powdered sugar.

When I began looking into making this birthday wish come true, I consulted my research assistant, Google.  Google led me to the original recipe, from none other than Jean-George. This recipe turns out to be in the category of urban kitchen legend I call, “fortunate misfortunes.” In other words, a blunder that turned out to be better than the intention.

Legend tell us that Jean-George pulled the cake out of the oven too early. Upon unmolding it, and cutting into it, the unbaked center oozed chocolate goodness. And they all lived happily ever after.

That is to say, the American public and the molten chocolate cake have been in love ever since.

Like I said, I get it.  It’s pretty dang good. And not only is it good, it is not hard to make. Whip the eggs and sugar. Melt the chocolate and butter. Fold together. Fold in a little flour. Bake in ramekins for 10 minutes.  Unmold and voila! Since the batter can be preset in the ramekins and kept in the refrigerator until you want to bake them, they are a dream for service.

I believe it’s safe to say that the molten chocolate cake has joined the ranks of new American classic. Desserts, like the brownie sundae, that are well on their way to being classics, but without the tenure of strawberry shortcake, or creamsicles.

And of course, this dessert will start teasing me, making me wonder how I can make it mine. How can I translate it through my present state of experience, filter it through my personality, and what would come out the other end?

It may never see my menu, but then again, I doubt I’d have a hard time selling a modern twist on the new American classic, the molten chocolate cake.

Molten Chocolate Cake

1/2 cup unsalted butter
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons all purpose flour
1/4 tsp kosher salt
extra flour and butter for coating 4 – 4 ounce ramekins

1.  Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

2.  Use your fingers to smear some of the extra butter inside the ramekins, coating the entire inside evenly. Put a spoonful of the extra flour in each ramekin, and shake it around until all the butter is coated in flour. Pour the extra flour back out of the ramekin, tapping it on the bottom lightly to make sure anything that isn’t stuck to the butter comes out.

3.Melt the butter and chocolate together. To do this, make a double boiler by setting a large mixing bowl over a medium pot of simmering water. Put the chocolate and butter in the bowl and let it melt slowly, stirring a few times to mix it together.

4.  When the chocolate and butter have melted together, turn the heat off the double boiler, and use pot holders to take the bowl of chocolate off the pot of water. Be careful of the steam from under the bowl, it could be very hot.

5.  Place the eggs, yolks, and sugar in the bowl of a mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whip the eggs on a medium to high speed. Continue mixing until the eggs become pastel yellow, thick, and glossy.

2. Pour the melted chocolate and butter into the bowl with the eggs, using a rubber spatula to scrape all the chocolate from the sides of the bowl. Turn the mixer on the lowest speed, and carefully mix the chocolate with the eggs, until it is even.

5.  Take the bowl away from the mixer, and add the flour and salt. Use a rubber spatula to carefully fold the flour into the chocolate, until it is very evenly mixed together.

6.  Divide the batter evenly between the four ramekins.

7.  Put the ramekins of chocolate batter on a baking sheet and bake them in the 450 degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes.  The outsides should start to set, but the center should feel soft when you press on it lightly.

8.  Let the cakes cool for about 1 to2 minutes, to cool just a touch.  Using a dry dish towl, hold the hot ramekin with one hand, and carefully turn the cake out into your other hand. Quickly set the hot ramekin down, and use both hands to gently place the tender cake onto a plate.

9.  Serve immediately, with raspberry sauce and whipped cream.

Raspberry Sauce

2 cups frozen raspberries
1/2 cup sugar
the zest of 1 lemon

1.  Put the frozen raspberries in a bowl. Sprinkle the top with the sugar, and grate the lemon zest over the top of the sugar.

2.  Toss the berries with the lemon zest and sugar until they are evenly coated.

3.  Put the berries in a small sauce pan, and put it over low heat. Cook the berries for about 5 minutes, until the berries release all of their juices.  You will notice the sauce start to bubble and thicken a bit.

4.  Take the pot away from the heat, and carefully transfer the berries and juices from the pot to the cup of a blender.  Put the lid on the blender tightly.  Turn the blender on the lowest speed first, just to get the berries moving around a little, then turn it up to a medium speed to puree the berries into a smooth sauce.  If you turn the blender on a high speed right away, the hot berries might splash out of the blender!

5.  Pour the raspberry sauce into a strainer set over a bowl to remove the seeds.  Let the sauce cool in the refrigerator.

6.  You can make this sauce up to 3 days ahead of time.

Diminished Aesthetics

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

The scene at Poppy is robust. As the dining room fills, it’s cavernous nature seems to amplify the energy of the 100 plus seats we fill every night. Large floor to 25 foot ceiling windows look out onto the bustle of the north tip of capitol hill’s main drag, Broadway, allowing the twinkle of lights, the passage of traffic, and the steady flow of passer-by’s to engage the diner. It’s less than intimate, speaking over the buzz of 40 other conversations, hearing laughter flow through your space, watching servers buzz food through the dining room at a dizzying rate. But feeling the room, the people, the life, is all part of being at Poppy.

The pace in the kitchen is much the same. Varying conversations cross the kitchen between the busy cooks, buzzing around each other, laughing, hustling. It’s an energizing to say the least.  Service is a rapid stream of orders flowing in and out, tickets lining the rail from 5 to 10, plates, and the large trays that are the Thali’s a constant cover on the pass.

With the speed and volume that it requires to keep up with this style of service, adjustments had to be made to the plating style.  In fact, coming from a girl who worked predominately the world of “large white plates, tiny tiny food,” I would say the visual aesthetic at poppy is virtually non existant. This, of course, is an over statement. However, the visual aesthetic of the dishes I plate at Poppy are completely and utterly at the opposite end of the spectrum.

The expansive canvas like plates we were used to working with have been replaced with diminutive Heath ceramic bowls, smaller than those I eat cereal out of at home. Rusty earth tones, oranges, browns, took the place of the high gloss white.  And the components are snuggled into their little bowls, or tiny plates, just big enough to comfortably hold them tight.

The modern plating styles I spent years developing, so exaggerated in the plates at Veil, are moot.  It was sad at first, not being able to stylize anything. But since then, it’s become a blessing of sorts.  With the dial turned so far down on the visual aesthetic, I have been able to concentrate on texture and flavor much more. If a component is no longer cut, shaped, made to look a certain way, the shape now primarily exists for it’s appeal in the mouth, and the way a spoon pressing into the bowl will pull at the component.

My little bowls of dessert have brought me quite a bit of joy, in fact. Take, for instance, my most popular dessert on the menu now, “Hot Date Cake”, a play on stick toffee pudding. A cake made of a copious amount of dates was designed to be very moist and sticky when cut in one inch cubes. Five of these sticky little cubes are warmed and nestled in the bottom of a little bowl, and soaked in a big one ounce ladle of warm butterscotch sauce. Scattered over this are pieces of medjool dates, and salty buttered pecans, cut to be just the right size to be spooned up, and feel big enough for textural appeal, but not too big that they need more attention from your mastisizing teeth than another component. A scoop of banana ice cream sits atop sized to melt just a little providing a sauce like layer and a nice firm cold portion of ice cream.  It nearly hides everything underneath from view.

If you are wondering, I take a good three hours a week hand cutting every buttered pecan exactly in half, and the dates in exactly twelve pieces. Sure, it would be easier to just run my knife through a pile of the pecans, breaking them up into approximate sized pieces, but that’s just not quite right. Some pieces would be too big, many about the right size, and then this layer of small pecan crumbs would stick to everything else in the bowl. And honestly, with such a humble presentation, the textures and flavors have to be even more correct.

Which brings us to the flavors. Rather than stretching them out over the expanse of a 10 inch plate, where they sit aside each other, the flavors in the bowl are compacted, right on top of each other, existing nearly with in each other. That means that if every single flavor added to a dish doesn’t taste perfect together, it won’t work.  It sounds like a big “duh”. Of course everything should taste good together. But when you are stretching flavors out over a plate, you don’t always get every single flavor on a spoonful, particularly not in the exact same ratios every time. It’s not that those large plated dishes shouldn’t make an effort to taste perfect together. Instead, it’s that in these little bowls of dessert, any subtle flaw or weakness in the flavor profile has no room to hide.

What I love about these tiny dishes I work with is that they exude comfort. It’s much like you would share a dessert at a friends house, at home cuddled up in the corner of your couch, around a pick nick table. And they are just so easy to pick up and share. And with the large, communal nature of the dining room at Poppy, the casual dining style, I feel these small layered dishes are the culmination of the experience.

It has brought to mind the question to me, how well would all of my stylized desserts have fared stacked in a bowl? Were the choices I made strong enough to stand up to such close quarters or did they favor a visual aesthetic that withdrew from the flavor pairings.

Michael Laiskonis wrote recently, referencing this same subject but on the flip side of it. He wondered if some of the stylistic choices he made added anything more than a visual aesthetic, and if not, did it belong.  He argued, and I agreed, that to a point, yes.  Components that add to the visual are appropriate, when used appropriately. When working in a restaurant which does use elegant plating styles to exemplify the experience in said restaurant, then a graphic line of sauce, a few dots, a sprinkle, used in moderation, absolutely belongs.

There are times when increasing the visual aesthetic is appropriate, and indeed increases the diners enjoyment of the dish. And to deny the importance of the visual aesthetic is to do a disservice to your customers experiences, and your desserts. Of course, the flavors must belong together. But drawing a line of sauce across the plate may not add flavor to every bite of your experience, the way a covering of the same sauce infuses every bite of my little bowls, it still belongs.

Desserts plated so stylistically are eaten differently as well, tentatively, with more awareness and caution, tasting a bit here, a bit there, not wanting to destroy the visual aesthetic more than necessary. So a line or dot of sauce offers the chance to dip the tip of your spoon in that flavor alone, taking it in, building the experience of taste as carefully as the dessert itself was constructed.

Of course, this is within reason.  I am sure most of us are quite glad to see the era of the sugar cage and bland white tuilles fading.  And can we also hope for the death of the duo of a mint sprig and dusting of powdered sugar????

I am a firm believer in loving everything for being what it is. A desert at Poppy, layered, snugly in it’s tiny earth toned bowl is Poppy, and is beautiful for existing there. The large expansive graphically presented plates from high end restaurants are equal, no better, no worse, but beautiful for being what they are and existing where they belong. One is not better than the other. You might prefer one to the other.  You might have had a higher percentage of good experiences in one format or another. But when done correctly, with respect to letting each be what they are, they are both beautiful.

Creme Brulee preferences, your thoughts needed

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

I have admitted here before that I don’t really have a sweet tooth.  As the years pass, the process of tasting and tasting and tasting my desserts as I make them every day has put me in a state of sugar overload.  So not only do I not have a sweet tooth, I have somewhat of a repulsion to sweet.

This overexposure, I believe, keeps me honest.  It keeps my desserts balanced in a way that the sweet is tolerable to me.  Not only that, but my distaste for just-plain-sweet helps remind me that my job is to create the culmination to your experience in a restaurant, which just happens to be the time you are most welcome to sweet flavors, rather than to just put something sweet on a plate.

Around 4 in the afternoon, when I hit my 8 hour mark in the kitchen, my fingers start to creep into the cooks prep work, snagging a piece of spice coated cauliflower waiting to be roasted, or a spoon of cooked chard waiting to become a gratin.  And the cooks laugh as I mumble the words, “mmmmm, not sweet.”

By that time in the day, the sweet part of my palate has been “rode hard and put away wet” so to speak.

But in no way should anyone ever think I don’t love dessert.  I do.  In particular, I love the act of finalizing a meal.  I love extending a social situation.  Sitting around a table with friends old and new,  leaning back in my chair, hunger satiated, but desiring to prolong the time, continue the conversations and laughter.  The time is coming to a close, but not until you have nibbled a little more, one last time, as you bring your conversations to their end.  Or if it’s just two of us, splitting a dessert, leaning in closer, talking about the flavors, creating a shared experience.

For me, this can happen with a few pieces of cheese, adorned with fruits, nuts, and honey, or a glass of sherry.  A satsuma, perfect in season, or slices of peach dipped in fresh yogurt.  At a friends house, I swooned over ripe strawberries dipped in lime curd.  One of my favorite recent experiences was a plate of bitter, nearly burnt almonds, and shards of dark, dark, dark chocolate.  At home a small square of nice chocolate is often the end of my dinner, as short and sweet as saying, “the end” after telling a story.  And in restaurants that hire pastry talent, I love seeing and appreciating another pastry chefs expression.

As for the desserts I make?  Enjoyment is somewhat lost in analysis.  It’s near impossible for me to eat them without completely dissecting them, looking for flaws to perfect.  And trust me, there are always things to improve.

But of the desserts I just flat out don’t like?  Those I would never order at a restaurant?  There is really just one.

Creme Brulee.

I really don’t like eating creme brulee.  It’s so rich.  And creamy, and custardy.  And that shattering layer of caramelized sugar?  Meh.

I get why people like it.  It’s rich, and creamy, and custardy, and there is this thin layer of shattering caramelized sugar on top.  It’s just not my thing.

It doesn’t help that every restaurant without a pastry chef has their nubile pantry cook, or worse, dishwasher throw creme brulees together.  So the percentage of mediocre brulee’s is out there, or worse, trio’s of mediocre brulees!

So when I make creme brulee for my menu, It’s not that I struggle, it’s just that it doesn’t mean anything to me.  I can’t internalize it, relish the simplicity of the contrasting textures.  Aside from the sand-castle-smashing little kid in me that loves cracking the sugary top, I don’t feel any emotion when I imagine sitting with a creme brulee in front of me.

I make it the way I think is best.  The custard set a hint firmer, certainly not loose in the center at all.  The base is all cream, baked in shallow dishes for maximum surface area, and infused with an interesting flavor, kaffir-lime leaf and lemongrass under-toned with chamomile at the moment.  I pull back on the sugar quite a bit, so the custard is never too sweet.  On top I melt the first layer of sugar with the torch, leaving it colorless and clear.  A second layer of sugar is bruleed, caramelizing the sugar according to the flavor of the custard.  A light amber for delicate aromatic brulees like the kaffir-lemongrass, dark, bitter notes for flavors like butterscotch, or vanilla.

I demand that the cooks let it sit for a full 2 minutes after torching the top before the servers are even aware it is ready.  If the sugar is at all warm and flexible, it won’t shatter when you tap it with a spoon.  And in a dessert with only 2 textural elements, this cracking of the sugary top is the only interactive part the dessert plays wiht the diner.  If it is not perfect, that’s 33 percent of the experience botched.

But honestly, it’s kind of a guess.  I do my best, but the dessert doesn’t hold a special place in my heart.  After making it the way I see fit, I still have no desire to eat it.  Ever.

So I ask of you out there, creme brulee fanatics, those that hold this dessert above all.  What are your preferences?  What does this dessert mean to you?  What constituted the best and worst creme brulee you have ever tasted?

Buttered Pecans

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

A component in a dessert at poppy, I have been keeping my pantry well stocked with buttered pecans.  It’s harder than one would think, what with the dessert they accompany being ridiculously popular.  The dessert is a play on sticky toffee pudding. Cubes of warmed date cake are drenched in hot butterscotch sauce, covered with pieces of medjool dates and the buttered pecans in question.  This warm concoction is crowned with a scoop of banana ice cream.

I can say with confidence, this is the first time, on any menu I have ever created, that a non chocolate dessert is the top seller.

So with the popularity of this dessert, playfully dubbed “hot date cake”, I am churning these buttered pecans out like there is no tomorow.  I realized today, after leaving the salty buttery nuts on the cooling rack too long, that it’s not just the high sales that are diminishing my stores.

Every cook that passed by nicked a few, popping them in their mouths before I noticed.  When I realized that 1/3 of the tray of pecans had gone missing, I confronted the scavengers.

It seems that I have created a few buttered pecan addicts.  I couldn’t blame them, I am one of them.

They get their flavor from being roasted in a coating of melted butter and salt.  As the pecans toast, the milk solids in the butter caramelize, giving these pecans a remarkable depth of richness.  As the pecans cool, the butter oil is absorbed by the pecan, leaving the salt clinging to the nut.  They are tender and crisp, melt in your mouth, salty, buttery, mapley, and completely addictive.

I highly recomend everyone treats pecans in this manner. While you can do healthy things with them, like put them in oatmeal or scatter over a wintery squash soup, I would highly recomend making a sundae.  Maybe with caramel sauce, over chocoalte ice cream, like those tasty little turtle candies.

Just don’t eat them all first.

Buttered pecans

150g pecans (about 1 cup)

25g butter (about 2 tbsp)

5g kosher salt (about 1 tsp)

1.  Melt the butter, and toss with the pecans and salt.

2.  Toast in a 350 degree oven for 5 to 10 minutes, until the nuts deepen in color, become fragrant, and you can see that the butter has started to caramelize.

3.  Let them cool and sit for 2 hours before eating, so the butter soaks in.

Oh Yeah… My Co-Blogger is Famous and Stuff

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Generally we try not to toot our own horn here on Tastingmenu. And besides, what purpose would it serve, you wouldn’t believe us anyway. You’ll notice I haven’t reviewed Poppy (where Dana is the pastry chef). And believe me, it’s not cause I don’t enjoy eating her desserts. That said, once in awhile we do have to point you to some accolades. And since Dana would never link to it, I will! :)

I’ll quote the relevant parts from the article in today’s Seattle PI:

“Dana Cree, pastry chef at Poppy, made Bruno’s radar on her 2005 Seattle trip, when Cree was working at Veil. But Cree got this StarChefs’ call when she had been at Poppy just four days, with none of her creations on the menu.

She pulled mental ideas out of a hat. She prepared a talk on the Concord grape-rosemary sorbet that reflected some of her talents and interests. But she still didn’t feel prepared — and then, 90 minutes before she was scheduled to start plating her dishes, she began feeling nauseated and dizzy.

It turned out to be the start of the worst case of food poisoning she has had — and, she said, the luckiest. When she made her way down to the tasting team, they told her “we’ll come back in six weeks.”

When they did, judges wrote that Cree “impressed the hell out of us” with a bittersweet chocolate terrine paired with five garnishes, her “little black dress” of desserts that she makes to show that chocolate can go with anything, and an herbed-cider sorbet with pine nut “Crackerjacks”.

“She blew me away. This girl is one of the top five pastry chefs in the country right now, ” Bruno said.

The “Rising Star” recognition is meant for chefs who are 40 and younger and are “really making a difference in their culinary community,” Bruno said.”

Uh… kick ass! Yay Dana.

As the cookie crumbles

Monday, January 5th, 2009

I smiled to myself as I flipped through the 5 recipes contained in the first chapter of Elizabeth Falkner’s Demolition Desserts, taking delight in her notation that her “favorite” recipe for chocolate chip cookies strait-up was temporary.   It’s a life long obsession for many pastry chefs, that of chasing the perfect chocolate chip cookie, one I like Falkner have been pursuing for years.

While I don’t make chocolate chip cookies with the once-a-week frequency Falkner admits to, I have been remaking these ubiquitous treats since I was but a  wee thing.  For many of us with a passion for baking, chocolate chip cookies are the first recipe we mastered.  I remember at the tender age of 12, beaming with pride as a batch of cookies was in the oven.  Not at the dough on the worn sheetpans in the oven, successfully melting into golden disks, the aroma teasing my little sisters as they licked the beaters clean of raw dough.  I was looking at the dirty dishes in the sink.   I had honed my process to dirty the absolute minimal amount of dishes; the two beaters and bowl of my mom’s aging sunbeam mixmaster, the white sifter with a red triggered handle and daisy decal chipping from the side, a bowl to sift the flour into, a rubber spatula, 2 measuring cups, a teaspoon, and a spoon from the silverware drawer for dropping.  And if my sisters did their jobs well, the beaters would be clean before they hit the suds!

Perhaps a glimpse at the pastry chef I was to become, I was as interested in the entire process as I was the results, which I watched carefully.

My recipe at the time was taken from the back of the tollhouse package, which I learned to tear carefully lest I rip important information from sight as I snuck a few chips from the bag.  It served me, and millions of other cookie baking Americans, well.  However, as soon as I began pursuing my career in desserts seriously, I began to stray.  I have tried more recipes than I can remember, resulting in good, bad, and ugly.  However, the most important result I have experienced is finding my preferences.

Preferred by myself is a cookie thick with chips, half milk, half very dark.  At home this means Ghiridelli, in the restaurant it’s chunks from what ever I have on hand, Valrhona at the moment, Cacao Barry and Callabeaut at other times.  I enjoy a flatter cookie, with a crackly crisp shell, that yields between the teeth easily to a dense chewy center.  My cookies have a smidge of extra salt, the zest of an orange, or if I am feeling frisky, lemon, and I love the flavor of brown sugar, as dark as I can find.  If there are to be nuts, I like them to be toasted cashews.  Good vanilla extract, real vanilla extract, is a must, and I have long since allowed gold medal brand flour near my baked goods, trading that bitter flour for the better tasting King Arthur.

But like Falkner said, her favorite chocolate chip cookie is a transient friend, and my current favorite is just that, current.  Two years ago I couldn’t be bothered to make anything but the recipe I pulled from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course, scented with orange zest and rich with ground cashew flour.  Chewy, yes.  Double chips, absolutely.  A little salty, check.  And it introduced me to the addition of orange zest.

This year, however, my favorite is a recipe found online, from one of those homey recipe sharing sites, titled simply “bakery style chocolate chip cookies.”  What caught my eye was the small amount of butter used in the recipe.  Melted butter.  What the heck I thought, I’ll give it a shot.  I haven’t looked back.

This recipe uses the concept that liquid fat coats the flour molecules much more efficiently, making for a more tender product.  And because the fat isn’t aerated by creaming the granulated sugar with it, there are very few air pockets for the chemical leavener to expand during the baking process, leaving a denser cookie.  I also use granulated sugar with larger crystals, not that superfine bakers stuff, which dissolves at a slower rate and migrates to the surface of the cookie during the baking process for that crackly crisp shell I love so much.

I simply added the orange zest and double chocolate I love so much, cashews if they are around, and presto a new favorite was born.  I have to say, with the ease of melting the butter rather than tempering and creaming it to a specific stage, this recipe might just stick around for a while.

As for you, are you the cakey cookie type?  Do you like them tall and fluffy?  Under baked and raw in the center?  Baked firm and crunchy?  Milk chocolate?  Semisweet?  Dark?  Peanut butter chocolate chip, or perhaps oatmeal chocolate chip?  Maybe you even like the variations with the box of vanilla pudding in them, or from a tub of premade dough!  (No judgement from me!!)  Does anyone else miss the mint chocolate chips they used to sell?

Here’s my current favorite recipe, for you to try along your own quest for your perfect chocolate chip cookie.  Current, fleeting, and sitting on my counter cooling while I write and ponder what the addition of ground oats might do to them.  You know what the kids are saying these days, best friends forever for now!

For the best results, use a scale and use my gram measurements.  I will provide approximate cup/spoon measurements, but it won’t be exactly the same.

300 grams King Arthur all purpose flour (2 cups plus 2 tablespoons)

3 grams baking soda (1/2 teaspoon)

7 grams kosher salt (1 1/3 tsp)

170 grams melted butter, cooled (3/4 cup)

225 grams dark brown sugar ( 1 cup)

100 grams larger crystal white sugar (1/2 cup)

1 egg

1 yolk

5 grams neilsen massey Madagascar vanilla extract (1 tsp)

1 orange

200 grams dark chocolate chips (1 1/2 cup)

200 grams milk chocolate chips (1 1/2 cup)

( optional 100 grams chopped toasted cashews) (3/4 cup)

1.  Place the flour and baking powder in a bowl and whisk together until even.  Do not sift through a sifter as it will aerate the flour too much.  Set aside.

2.  Place the sugars in the bowl of a kitchen aid mixer (or prepare to use a large work bowl, a firm spoon, and your arm muscles).  Using a microplane zester, grate the zest from the orange directly over the sugars, which will collect every last drop of orange oil that is released.  Use your fingers to mix the sugars and orange zest, making sure to break up any lumps of brown sugar.

3.  Add the egg,  yolk, melted butter, salt, and vanilla and paddle until smooth and even.

4.  Scrape the sides of the bowl well, working any uneven bits back into the mixture until even.

5.  Add the flour and mix on low until the dough comes together.  Add the chips and optional nuts and mix until even.

6.  Drop cookies onto cookie sheets and bake at 325 until done.  I use a  portion scoop with an ejection button found at kitchen supply shops or on amazon, often used as ice cream scoops or sometimes conveniently labeled as cookie scoops.  This will not only provide equally sized cookies which will bake evenly, but it will make perfectly round cookies as well.  Scoop 12 balls of cookie dough onto your sheet pan, which I always line with parchment, and press them down with your hand to a thickness just under half an inch.  This promotes the cookie to spread and be flat and even on top, just like you see in bakeries.

7.  Bake for 6 minutes, turn the pan around front to back and rotate it from the top of the oven to the bottom, or vice versa, and bake for 3 to 6 more minutes.  The top will crackle and will start to hint at golden brown when they are done.  Let the cookies cool on the cookie sheet until they are firm enough to transfer without breaking, then transfer them to a cooling rack.

Assumed Origins

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009

A discussion was had yesterday about how the restaurant would present creme brulee.  A dish as classic as they come, and one I have yet to serve on my 4 month young menu, we debated the need for a nibble on the side of the ramekin, a cookie most likely.

“Classicists would argue that the dish stands alone, and needs no adornment,” I brought to point.  “But they would also argue that it should never be flavored with anything but vanilla bean.”

Then someone said something that stunned me.

“Well, I don’t know who these “classicists” are, the dish was invented in the 1970′s by Le Cirque.”

Huh?

I realized then and there that I had been functioning on the assumption that this dish, the noble creme brulee, was as old as France.  I had no factual basis for this assumption.  I just chalked it up to classic cuisine, taught early in my formal training at a learning institute based heavily on Escoffier.

But still, that couldn’t be right could it?

So I picked up Escoffier, and no dice.  No recipe for creme brulee is contained in the monolithic tome.  “Holy crap” I thought, could this possibly be?

Breath abated, I typed, “Creme brulee origin” into the google tool bar and waited for the results.

“It’s old!” I sighed.

Because google is arguably not a food historian, it gave me conflicting information as to the facts behind this dish’s origin.  But one thing remains true, records of an egg and cream custard with burnt sugar on top date back to the 17th century.  So my foundation remains stable.

It was just a little surprise to remember that I do function on assumptions every day.  My brain fills in the blanks so to speak, making little guesses, hypothesis, connections between the things I do know to create a whole picture for me.  It’s a good lesson to remember that those assumptions I haven’t solidified with fact are just that, and to speak of them as such, lest I unwittingly turn my assumptions into another young cooks facts!

And to all you creme brulee classicists who scoff at my brulee’s flavored with more than vanilla, you should know that the original creme brulee’s were most likely flavored with cinnamon, orange blossom and rose waters, bay leaf, or the peel of citrus.  And you might want to sit down for this…… they were also likely were studded with candied fruits and nuts.

Line Cook Pastry Days

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

I came across a post on the blog line cook, an incredibly well worded, to the point piece about a young line cooks short, very short time as the pastry cook.

Every line cook should read this.  No, strike that.  Every line cook should work pastry production for a part of their life.  But I know that just flat out won’t happen.  So in consolation, every line cook should read this post.