Archive for the ‘Dessert’ Category

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Snowed In

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Those of you staring into computer screen in the Pacific Northwest are well aware of the snow that has bound us to our homes.  Those outside this region, possibly from area’s accustomed to regular snowfall, might scoff at the mere 9 inches that has kept me behind my front door for most of the past week.

You have to understand, we just don’t get much snow here.  So when we do, we let the soft blanket slow our lives to a calm pace, tuck ourselves indoors, and enjoy the few days in which we just couldn’t possibly be accountable for the daily fuss that is city life.

Some of us are going stir crazy.  I am not one of those people.  It’s been nothing short of a lovely vacation here in my little apartment, with nothing to deal with outside my doors.  I don’t have to go to the grocery store, I dont’ have to run any errands, I don’t have to bother.  Instead I have caught up on those rainy day things that not even a rainy day in Seattle can prompt me to do.

In particular, I have caught up on the stack of cookbooks that I have accumulated over the last 6 months, finding the most inspiration from Elizabeth Faulkner’s Demolition Desserts.  It’s an interesting process for me, that of reading cookbooks by other chefs.  It’s not just a look at the pretty pictures, or a few post-its flagging recipes I might try if I ever get around to it.  I have to find their frame of reference in order to process what they have put forth.

While this is hard to do without tasting anything, without the visual clues given by plating and the restaurant itself, the dialogue written in a book is often more revealing than the actual experience.   Every dish in a restaurant is the culmination of  personal internalization and interpretation.  Thus, a chef takes in inspiration from common sources, sources we are all familiar with; flavor (cherry), texture (cakey), shared cultural food memories (fluffernutter, pumpkin pie) , the work of other chefs (Pierre Herme), color (bright orange), mood (serene), season (winter).  These all whirl around in a chefs mind, where they are filtered through their own personal life experiences, knowledge base, persona, and are interpreted, internalized, and eventually spit back out into a dish.

You should immediately recognize the original inspiration.  Simply put, if the inspiration for the dessert was meyer lemon, you should darn well recognize meyer lemon.  More complex, if the chef is inspired by fall, the dessert should invoke the season.  On top of that you can hopefully recognize the personality that has been infused into the dish.  In other words, set side by side, a meyer lemon dessert made by my process should be recognizable against one of Faulkner’s making.

We all know this is not always the case.  It is a rare tallent that can imbibe their dishes with their true spirit.  Hokey, I know.  But after flipping through the pages of Demolition Desserts, it is clear that Faulkner has managed to know herself through her desserts.  She has been able to present the information to us in a way that lets us in, lets us crawl through her psyche and see the world of sweet things as she does.

This point is not easy to reach as a chef.  It is the mark of experience, maturity, mixed with a spark not everyone is lucky enough to have.  It’s a rare teenager that knows who they are, just as it is a rare fledgeling chef that has come to this point of self awareness.  It comes with time, takes it’s sweet time, demands more time, but comes, provided this crazy industry doesn’t break you first.

How do these demolition desserts taste?  I have no idea.  I can make assumptions based on the pictures, the way the flavors sound together, the way the recipe appears to put things together.  But that’s never really the point with cookbooks for me.

Instead, it’s the chance to climb inside someone elses head for an hour or two.  A chance to find their point of reference, and look at the same things I see every day from their view, to see things I have never seen before in things I see every day.

I would be foolish to say I have come close to finding this in myself.  It’s budding, I can see that.  I can see a few of the same things coming back to menu after menu.  I have begun to be able to say things like, “no this is how I do it.”  Or, “That’s just not my style.”

I have found a creative process that works for me, and have put it to practice a few times in a row now.  I choose simple flavors, clean, stripped down to their core being then magnified, pair them with other flavors I believe they taste good with, and build a structure of texture around these flavor profiles.  I take successful dishes rooted in tradition, strip them down to thier essence, their base identity, and use those building blocks to create something new and old at the same time.

I can see traces of those chefs I have been influenced by shining through the fabric of my desserts.  I can see thick ribbons of Scott Carsberg’s minimalism, isolating and heightening flavors and letting them speak for themselves.  I can Heston’s philosophy hemming my work, framing the bigger picture that is the entire process of the human interpretation of physical stimulus into flavor.  I can see Stupak’s deep knowlege of texture and control threading it’s way through what I do, the same thirst for deeper understanding fueled by Chris Young, weaving the fabric tigher every month.  Sequins of Shannon Galusha’s playful love of americana scatter, a pattern of Jerry Traunfields deep and lenghty bond with herbs and spices is begining to show through.

I have beliefs about what my desserts are and aren’t.  I take in the entire experience the restaurant I work at offers, what it feels like to be in the dining room, what the diner feels like after their meal, what the decor says to them, the neighborhood, the chef’s work, how hard was it to park, wether or not they dress up or down for this experience.  I build the desserts to be the culmination of this experience, not just a sweet nothing to say goodbye with, an afterthought.

Thus, the dessert built of the flavor profile inspired by the nostalgic american treat, the creamsicle, vanilla, citrus, creamy, tangy, will be very different when built for a diner who has just spent three hours in a Phillip Stark plastic chair in the near steril, white, closely veiled dining room at Veil, than for a diner that has spent one and a half hours on the woven seat of the danish modern chairs hand crafted by a local cabinet maker in the booming, cavernous, racous dining room at Poppy.

I can see all this showing, I do hope, that above all, a small glimpse of myself is becoming present in the desserts too.  Hopefully those of you who have had desserts at all the restaurants I have worked at can recognize a twinkle of Dana coming through someday too.  But I am a patient girl, and this is something only time will show.