Archive for the ‘Technique’ Category

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.

Bread Pudding

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008

I once read that concerning haute cuisine, texture is the final frontier. The showiest developments in cuisine lately have certainly been textural. While many of the new textures are coming from knowledge of hydrocolloids, old (like corn starch) and new, we can still be attentive and creative with our textures without specialty ingredients.

My latest favorite texture is bread pudding. Our chef de cuisine Johnny was introduced to it at Alinea, and shared it with me last fall, when I was looking for a way to incorporate gingerbread into a dish. A far cry from the rustic custard soaked bread cubes, these bread puddings resemble the texture of a stove top pudding. By pouring hot sweet cream over chopped breads and spinning for two minutes in a food processor, I can turn a loaf of brioche into a dense, savory sweet smear for my plates, thick or thin depending on the cream addition.

These puddings can have an unexpected “chew” to them if left thicker, or be as delicate as a dish of “jell-o” style pudding. Currently on my menu is a brioche pudding, which sits under a puddle of passion fruit yogurt sauce on my creamsicle plate. It adds a rich, salty, yeasty addition to the flavor profile, which is built around orange, vanilla, and passion fruit.

This winter I was producing a pudding from a dark spicy gingerbread, with a depth that came from molasses, cocoa powder, and espresso. This pudding first found a home under my treacle tart, which spun the classic British tart by incorporating gingersnap crumbs instead of bread, and a dark treacle syrup.

As dishes came and went the gingerbread pudding stayed, finding homes on a few plates. It grounded a chocolate terrine to it’s spicy garnishes, a cinnamon brown butter marshmallow, candied ginger, and vanilla shortbread.

The pudding even found a savory home, served with foie gras and preserved sour cherries.

The most addictive use of this pudding method came from an extra box of krispy kream donuts. After we had eaten ourselves sick, we placed the remaining donuts in the robot coupe, and made ourselves some pudding. We devoured the first batch, making ourselves quite sick. Since then, this puree has been put through development, borrowing from WD-50′s fried cubes of creaminess, i.e. mayonnaise, hollandaise, and butterscotch, to become, “donut holes”. Little fried cubes of donut pudding, with jam for dipping. It’s not quite there, but the gap between my reality and the perfection I know is out there is getting smaller.

This bread pudding method is highly versatile, with the texture range as dense or creamy as you make it. You could puree almost anything bread or cake like. I imagine a dark rye pudding, or sourdough pudding would be quite nice, or pumpernickel!

Here is my recipe for brioche pudding. It satisfies a need to be smeared on a plate cold in a silky manner, but offer enough “chew” to contrast the thinner passion fruit and greek yogurt sauce that pools inside the pudding.

Brioche Pudding

200 g. brioche, trimmed of crust and cut in one inch cubes

500 g. heavy cream

150 g. sugar

10 g. kosher salt

1. Place the cubes of brioche in the food processor.

2. Bring cream, sugar, and salt to a boil. Pour over brioche and let stand for one minute. Process the mixture for two minutes, until perfectly smooth.

3. Pass through a fine mesh strainer while still very warm.

Today’s Secret Ingredient…. Heat

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

I wish with everything in my little cooks heart that Harold McGee wrote for the NY Times every Wednesday.

This week we are treated to an introduction to an ingredient every cook uses every day with very little understanding. In this weeks article, he talks about heat.

Having been in the kitchens I have been in,  I have been exposed a bit to the thought of better using heat to cook foods.  Take sous vide, a word that we hear thrown around with trendy modern food is actually an exercise in the most efficient manner to apply heat to food.  Yes, the method of putting food in vacuum sealed bags and cooking it in water has been used for a few decades now.  However it’s the more recent study into how the energy of heat changes and effects the molecules in our food that resurrected this method from the depths of reheating catered dinners, introduced perfectly controlled thermobaths from laboratories, and brought it to the forefront of haute cuisine.

While much of the study of heats effects on food relate to meat cookery, where our use of the energy is at it’s most inefficient, the application I found most interesting was for potatoes.

Almost every restaurant has mashed potatoes on their menu.  It seems to be a game of chasing the white rabbit, that of making the perfect, fluffiest, creamiest, mashed potatoes.  We as cooks hear legend of different kitchens and their ethereal potatoes, like Joel Robechons, “passed through the tammis 5 times!  Mounted with twice their weight in butter!”  Every kitchen has their spin on making theirs better.

At WD-50 I saw something done to the potatoes that makes a cook scream, “yes!” A method of cooking the potatoes with an explanation using true understanding of the molecules inside the potatoes and the effects of heat on them.

The potatoes are peeled, sliced, and cooked in a water bath at 65 degrees celsius for 30 minutes.  The potatoes are transferred to an ice bath to cool completely.  At this point the potatoes are still crisp, seemingly unchanged.  Once cooled, the potatoes are cooked just as you would have had you just peeled them.  If the potatoes are seemingly unchanged, you might ask what on earth did they just do?

Well, working with a method used by the commercial mashed-potatoes-in-a-box companies, they use just enough heat to cause the starch granules inside the potatoes to swell.  Think of these granules as little sacks of starch molecules.  They absorb water, and the starches inside grow.  If they are mishandled, or bounced around by too much energy, say that of boiling water, these little bags break open freeing all those starch molecules.  These rouge starches are now free to retrograde, recrystallize and cross-link forming long gummy chains.  This is not good.

So, after cooking the potatoes in gentle heat, just long enough to make these starch bags swell, the potatoes are then cooled in an ice bath.  The starch in the potatoes are allowed to recrystallize, or retrograde.

Wait, didn’t we just say that was bad?  Well, it’s bad when the starches aren’t contained.  Because of the gentle application of moderate heat those little starch sacks are intact with swollen starches inside.  The ice bath forces these starches to retrograde, gel, set, what every you may, inside their sack.  Retrograde is permanent.  The starches are now cemented into place safely inside their granules, and you can now cook the potatoes with a more aggressive heat, and break apart the starch sacks by mashing and passing through a tammis, processing the potato.  You can manipulate these particles into a nice smooth, even mashed potato with out risk of releasing the starches from their containment.  No gummy paste, no stringy gluey mashed potatoes.

And the best part?  You can cool the mashed potatoes, and reheat them for service with no change in texture.

Pretty cool, huh?

Farmers Market Finale #4; Butternut Cream Chiffon

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

I know there are many of you, like myself, who drag ourselves through the stalls of the farmers market rain or shine. As the season turns from summer to autumn and finally into winter, it takes a real effort to patronize the farmers markets this time of the year. Especially here in Seattle where the perpetual drizzle begins in September and ends in June.

The effort is needed not just in motivating yourself to get there and waltz around in the rain, but also in envisioning the dish hidden in the markets offerings. The produce available takes an additional effort once in your kitchen. No longer is the food ready to eat out of hand, rather we are seeing vegetables that need a lot of heat to be rendered edible, hearty greens, earthy potatoes, and plenty of root vegetables. This leaves a pastry chef with few choices.

Oh sure, there’s honey and hazelnuts, they’re always there, and the apples and pears we have been waiting for all year. But we are looking at a long stretch, and one can begin to tire of these things quickly. This leaves us to wonder, “what else can we make dessert with?” Pumpkin is nice, but what of the other squashes they tumble around the oversized bins with? Is the long necked butternut that much different than our pie pumpkins in flavor?

Not much, but just enough to make a classic thanksgiving pie better.

The flesh of the butternut is a little easier to deal with, and provides a creamier and more flavorful puree for pie. Now I doubt any who eat this pie will be able to differentiate between the squashes. Our palates are so accustomed to the trio of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove spicing pumpkin pie, that it is common to associate those flavors more with pumpkin that the flavor of pumpkin itself. Have you ever had a pumpkin pie latte? No pumpkin there, but it sure tastes like it.

I once read in a magazine that there is absolutely no reason to extract your own pumpkin rather than using canned squash. This statement, said with too much authority, really rubbed me the wrong way. Anyone who walks the farmers market can give you a reason for each beautiful squash spilling out of the cardboard bins. They were correct, however, in assessing the difficulty of making your own puree by comparison to opening a can.

However, roasting the squash makes this task a bit easier. Simply quarter your butternut, rub it with a little neutral flavored oil to prevent the skin from drying, and pop it in a 400 degree oven. Now, walk away for about an hour. When the squash is nice and tender, allow it to cool to a temperature your hands can tolerate, and scrape the flesh from the skin. If you have a food processor, puree the squash for a minute or two, or do your best job with a potato masher. Now, freeze the squash overnight.

This step will add another day to your pie making, but your pie will be better for it. Drawing from a previous post, this additional step is a perfect example of controlling water. When freezing, the water molecules expand, and loosen themselves from the starchy puree. As they thaw and contract, they seperate and bleed out of the puree. If thawed over a strainer, the liquid drips away, leaving us with a thicker, denser, richer puree.

A benefit to taking this extra step in a restaurant, is that I can process a large amount of squash at once, store the puree in the freezer, and take what I need out over the season, ready to thaw.

This puree is going to make our chiffon more intense. A classic American pie, the family of chiffon is lightened with an egg white meringue, giving it the delicate texture it takes it’s name for. While i love the delicate texture, the flavor of the egg white isn’t quite right for me, so I have exchanged the meringue for a light, whipped cream. A caloric increase to be sure, but this pie is a rare treat, coming to us in a season of celebration and reward buffets and gluttony.

A chocolate crumb crust laden with ground hazelnuts holds this chiffon in place, offering a deep, bittersweet balance to the richness of the pie. While on Veil’s menu the dish is accompanied by two sauces, a vanilla bean anglaise and a swipe of nutella sauce, along with hazelnut praline, pie spiced whipped cream, and nutella powder. However, when it makes it to my own thanksgiving table as it has for 3 years now, a simple vanilla whipped cream will be served aside the pie, along with dare I admit, coolwhip, a family favorite with my inlaws.

All in all, this pie should be started the two days before you want to eat it. I know it’s quite a time frame to ask of you, but most of it is wait time. It’s just that time of year, when an effort has to be made for everything from going outside to cooking the seasons offerings. I suppose this pie is a good excuse to stay in!

Butternut Chiffon Pie

One chocolate crumb crust, home made or purchased

One butternut squash, roasted, pureed, frozen, and thawed as described above

1 1/2 cups cream, kept cold to whip

2 cups butternut puree

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp clove

3/4 cup brown sugar

3 eggs

1 cup whole milk

1 tsp vanilla extract

5 sheets of gelatin, re-hydrated in ice water. (approximately 4 tsp granulated gelatin sprinkled over 1/2 cup water until hydrated, and melted over low heat.)

1. In a medium saucepan, cook the squash puree, brown sugar, and spices over low heat. Stir to avoid scorching for about 2 minutes, until the puree is glossy.

2. Transfer the puree to a food processor, and turn it on. Spin the puree for 2 minutes.

3. Add the milk and spin for 1 minute. Scrape the sides of the work bowl down and add the eggs. Pulse until the eggs are evenly distributed.

4. Transfer the pie filling back to a medium sauce pan, and cook over low heat, stirring constantly. Continue cooking until the mixture thickens a bit, as a custard would, about 3-5 minutes. Add the softened gelatin and cook until it is completely dissolved evenly distributed.

5. Transfer the squash filling to a bowl, and cool it on the counter until it is cool enough to fold in whipped cream without melting it, about room temperature.

6. When the squash filling is cool, whip the cream to soft peaks. Fold the whipped cream into the squash in 3 additions. Transfer the chiffon to the prepared pie crust and chill for 4 hours, or overnight.

Controlling Water

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

A little birdy once told me that all these modern techniques boil down to the simple act of controlling water molecules. Well, it wasn’t really a little birdy, it was Alex Stupak, but he dropped this bombshell in my ear with the casual effect of a little bird chirping their daily song.

With no prompt, he said simply, “You know, it’s really just about controlling water,” and walked away.

This simple phrase had the power of a plot changing hollywood one liner, too few words with more effect than realistically possible, delivered at a turning point at which you can see the characters shift indelibly. These words have shifted me.

These “magic white powders” that are given to modern technique, xanthan gum, gellan gum, agar agar, and various modified starches, are simply put, controlling water. And by controlling water, we are controlling texture.

While this fact was a revelation to me, what was even more thought provoking, was how much of my pastry work up to this point was based off controlling water. And it’s not just me folks, it’s you too.

Cornstarch, something familiar to every pantry is the modern staple in a long line of water controlling white powders used by home cooks for hundreds of years. Before that, home cooks were familiar with dry powdered potato starch and arrowroot starch as well. We use these starches to thicken things like gravy, and pudding. What we are doing is introducing little round starch molecules that when heated, absorb water and swell. These chubby little starches begin to crowd each other and move around lazily, much slower than the tiny swift water molecules. The end result is a thickening, or a specific change in texture do to the controlling of water molecules.

Gelatin, another ingredient familiar to professionals and home cooks alike is a simple act of controlling water. A vast web of gelatin protiens traps water, thus stiffening it. Pectin again is used to jell fruit juices to make jelly, a process that encourages the sugar chains to fold and entrap water. Even without additional pectin, we have learned to take fruits naturally high in the substance and cook them until jellied. From french cooking we have learned to cook butter and flour together to make roux, a thickening substance we rely on for so many traditional sauces. We even control water by simply eliminating it through reduction.

Most recognizable is controlling water by freezing it. Every home has a freezer, and we use it extensively for preservation. But countless times have I seen cooks throw something in the freezer before they cut it, a simple act of hardening the water making it more manageable. The entire process of ice cream, gelato, sorbet and granita is attributed to slowly creating ice crystals while agitating them, gaining a specific texture. Popsicles, even simpler, are a favorite treat made by temporarily solidifying the water in a fruit juice through freezing.

Where would our thanksgiving table be without jellied cranberries and gravy? Who hasn’t curbed their hunger with a little snack of jell-o or pudding? What freezer has never seen ice cream?

It’s clear our desire to control the water in our foods runs deep through professional and home kitchens, and back through time. Thus it’s easy to see that this fundamental fact of modern cuisine, controlling water and texture, is a core fact in all cooking. Whether you are using new white powders unfamiliar to most outside the commercial food industry, or old ones that you first saw in your grandma’s pantry, it’s a fact of the kitchen. As long as there is water to control, we will do just that.

Perfecting Panna Cotta

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

Panna Cotta is one of those desserts that can be spotted on almost every dessert menu, in every city. After a surge of recent popularity, this once “it” girl has proved her staying power. A chic custard with a little shimmy Gordon Ramsey calls the “chi-chi-lina”, the panna cotta won hearts in the dining room with the simplicity of a comfort food, and has made friends in the kitchen with deceptive ease in preparation. A simple combination of cream, sugar, a little flavor, and some gelatin, and like magic you have a sophisticated dessert on your hands.

It is with the simplest preparations that the most care must be taken, and I have adopted various extra steps to ensure the simple preparation of panna cotta, often a casualty of mediocrity, carries not just a memorable flavor, but a perfect texture. With a simple flavor so easy to achieve, it is in refining the texture that panna cotta becomes a great challenge. Just throwing in the recommended dose of gelatin, throwing the mixture in the fridge to set will get you so-so results, most of the time. However, armed with a little information you can ensure your dessert will stand out each time.

Gelatin itself, we know, comes from animals. Thus it is easy to conceive that gelatin is a protein. Rendered most often from the collegen in the hide of four legged animals, this protein behaves much differently than most we are used to working with in the kitchen. Where as the protein in an egg will respond to heat by unfolding and bonding permanently to neighboring proteins (aka coagulating), the proteins in gelatin respond to heat by releasing their bonds to each other. The unusually long protein chains in gelatin, when cold, bind to each other into a triple helix, which cross link with others to form a web. This web interferes with the movement of the water the gelatin is dispersed in, thus gelling it into a solid.

Many things effect the final texture of a gelatin gelled liquid, particularly the manner in which it is cooled. The warmed liquid, necessary to release the proteins from their initial web and disperse them, is most often immediately placed in the refrigerator and cooled quickly. In doing this, the protein chains bond to each other immediately, and randomly, causing bulky and weak cross sections. By cooling the gelatin slowly, at room temperature, the proteins are allowed to mingle with each other, forming a tighter, more structured web. Thus, if you are creating weaker bonds, you would need more gelatin to set an immediate structure. This gelatin will progressively continue to firm over a period of time, thus the texture you gained the first day will be softer than the texture you have in 4 days. In my restaurant, I want the textures to be the same each day I serve the dish.

The way I have interpreted this information has led to this method. I heat a small amount of milk to dissolved the gelatin in. This sits on the counter until it is at room temperature, which takes about an hour or two, a time that is well within the limits of food safety. It is stirred occasionally, and once it is cool, the remainder of the cream is added.

I never heat the entire amount of the liquid used to make a panna cotta. I have found that in heating the cream, or particularly buttermilk, the texture of the liquid changes, and feels thin on the tongue. This fact I haven’t been able to fully support with reading. Everything I find suggests that the fat globules are encased in a membrane that is strengthened by heating. So I am not sure what about the heating process changes the texture of the cream within the gelled panna cotta. My only guess so far is that the heat will cause the protein clusters bound by caseins which float freely around the fat globules (think of a tiny tiny dust bunnies) to stick to the membrane of the fat globule (like a little dust bunny protective shield), perhaps leaving room for the water molecules to become more active in the cream. And perhaps this increased activity in the water molecules creates the feeling of thinness?

Either way, I can use the tried and true method used by chef’s for centuries, to assume facts by observation. I know because I can see it and feel it with my mouth that heating the entire amount of cream for a panna cotta feels thinner in the final product. And the thinner feel makes the panna cotta feel more like milk jell-o than a chic custard.

Recently, I have been withholding a portion of the cream, and very very carefully whipping it just enough to thicken it. To do this, the cream must be very cold, and have been very cold for a continuous period of time. When you whip cream, you are using the shear force of the whisk to strip parts of each fat globules protective membrane. The exposed fat is now sticky, and will adhere to two things; other naked patches of fat globules, and air bubbles. Thus, the air bubbles introduced by the whisk become encased in damaged globules and are trapped in place. When warm, the fat which is no longer encased in it’s protective membrane, is now capable of leaking out and collapsing the air bubbles. Thus the importance of the cream not only staying cold, but having been cold for quite some time.

What we are trying to do is not add too many of these air bubbles, and definitely not large ones created by pounding a whip into the cream. Rather, I whisk slowly back and forth by hand, standing in my walk in refrigerator if possible. I am encouraging the fat globules to stick to each other rather than encase brittle air bubbles.

To steep flavor into your product, I either employ a cold infusion over a period of 24 to 48 hours often with fresh mint, tea leaves, coffee and whole spices, use a liquid addition to the panna cotta like a pulled shot of espresso, orange flower water, and liquors, or steep the flavor into the small amount of liquid heated to melt the gelatin.

And finally, I always use sheet gelatin. Those of my readers that work in professional kitchens will know this product well. Granulated gelatin is second rate. The amount of gelatin and the quality of the gelatin within the granulated form varies. The powder can contain a high amount of broken protein that will never re-bond into the triple helix’s that create the web like junctions. It can contain more or less of viable proteins from batch to batch, creating stronger and weaker gels than you expect. Plain and simple, it’s inconsistent. Unfortunately, it’s the only gelatin readily available to the average cook. I highly recommend finding a source for sheet gelatin if you plan to use much of it at home.

So after a long winded post, I will provide a step by step recipe for a panna cotta perfect for the fruitless season arriving soon.

Kaffir-Lemongrass Panna Cotta

1 cup whole milk

1/2 cup sugar

zest of one lemon, and one lime

10 kaffir lime leaves

1 stalk lemongrass, bruised and chopped fine

1 tbsp chamomile buds

3 cups cream, 1/2 cup held very cold

4 sheets gelatin

Preparing;

Place 1/2 cup of cream in the bowl you intend to whip it in, and place it in the refrigerator along with the whisk you intend to whisk it with.

Gather six 6-oz serving dishes or desired molds

1. Steep the milk with the sugar and flavors. Place the milk, sugar, lemon and lime zest, kaffir leaves, lemongrass, and chamomile in a small sauce pan and heat just below boiling, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat and steep for half an hour. During the last 5 minutes, soak the gelatin sheets in ice water.

2. Add the gelatin. Strain the milk, and return to a sauce pan, rewarming the milk. Remove the softened gelatin sheets from the ice water, squeezing to remove as much of the water as possible. Add the gelatin to the warm milk, and stir until completely dissolved and evenly dispersed. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool on the counter at room temperature for 1 hour.

3. Whip the cream. When the milk is cooled, begin whipping the 1/2 cup of very cold cream. Do this with gentle back and forth motions of the whisk, avoiding beating much air into the cream. You should see the cream begin to thicken in a minute or two, once the fat globules are damaged enough to adhere to each other. Continue gently agitating the cream with the whisk, stopping when the cream is thick enough to hold itself, but doesn’t quite hold peaks.

4. Add the cream to the cooled milk/gelatin. Add the unwhipped cream to the milk/gelatin mixture that has cooled on the counter with a whisk. Carefully now, add the whisk thickened cream and fold with a spatula until the two are evenly combined.

5. Fill the molds or serving dishes. Pour the panna cotta into the dishes or molds quickly, as the cold from the cream will now begin to fully set the gelatin. You will see the mixture is thick, and may need to tap the glasses a bit to obtain a flat top, or use an offset spatula to smooth the top of the molds.

6. Chill the Panna Cotta. Place the panna cotta in the refrigerator and allow to set overnight. It will take a full day of setting to achieve the propper texture.

Behind the scenes of a newspaper article

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

Earlier this year, a couple of friends and I gathered to make soup. Not just any soup, but “smoking soup”.

You see, while my friends are varied and many, these two friends are a chef and a food writer. This soup was an early summer version of a dish my friend Becky Selengut collaborated on for an underground dinner. The theme for the dinner was, “Autumn Smoke”, each course featuring an element of this late season quality. The soup was rich creamy parsnip served with apple butter and crisp parsnip ribbons. The “smoke” in this dish was really a fog, rolling from under the soup itself, and carrying with it the aroma of cinnamon.

The soup bowl was set inside a larger bowl that was partially filled with a warm cinnamon “tea”, and just before serving, dry ice was dropped in. The steam, or fog, caused by the ultra cold frozen carbon dioxide boiling rapidly in the warm cinnamon tea enveloped you with the spicy scent while you ate the soup. A dramatic presentation with a functional role that impressed a friend dining with us, Matthew.

Matthew, a food writer, was so impressed not only with the dish, but with the complete accessibility of the reactionary ingredient. Dry ice is available readily at any grocery store fish counter, for a minimal cost.

The article here, Aroma Therapy, hit the stands this past Sunday, prompting me to share my own side of the creative process.

It was a day like most spent with friends. I was detained by Matthew’s darling daughter Iris, who introduced me to all her toy figures, many of whom live aboard a pirate ship. I spent time catching up with Laurie, Matthew’s wife. I joked with Becky, who’s pace quickens in the kitchen, along with her wit. And we sat at the table together, sharing the same meal, and chatting until we had polished off the block of cheese bought for the garnish.

The article features a spring adapted recipe including peas and panchetta, and envelopes you in the fresh aroma of mint. I urge everyone to use this impressive technique, and be creative. The liquid underneath can carry any water soluble aroma, corresponding with the soup, which can be chilled or hot.

Strawberry Buttermilk Pie

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

I spent a bit of time in the bay area in the middle of April, and was treated to strawberries. Not the kind of California berries we think of up here in Seattle. Not those hard puckery strawberries white in the middle from being shipped half ripe. No, these were the beginning of the local soft varietal that ripens in the sun and is too soft to ship. Two weeks ago I was visiting Russell’s family on the east side of the Willamette valley in Oregon, and was again treated to the first of the season local berries. Being just 5 hours north, Seattle will be expecting the first of the ripe local strawberries, slowly crawling their way north, within the next two weeks.

To welcome the berries this far north, I have been working on a recipe for a Strawberry Buttermilk Pie. I tested it on the Oregon berries two weeks ago, the results so delicious it is making the weeks until our own berries ripen seem like months.

You’ll need a baked pie crust to fill. I’d give you a recipe, but to be quite honest, it’s not the recipe that makes a pie crust, rather your handling of it. Any crust you are comfortable making will do. If pie crust isn’t your thing, then simply fill pretty little dishes and serve it sans crust, perhaps with a little shortbread cookie on the side.

The recipe calls for gelatin, which is simple enough. The only crucial part to making the texture of this pie light is the temperature at which you fold the cream into the strawberry buttermilk base. The gelatin must be close to setting which makes the strawberry base thicker, or the whipped cream will loose volume when folded in, seeming to melt. To help I keep the strawberry and buttermilk in the refrigerator, well chilled, while I am preparing the rest of the recipe. When it comes time to add the gelatin, the cold temperature of the strawberries and buttermilk begin to set the gelatin with in just a few minutes. It seems tedious, but other than this critical step, this recipe is easy as, well, pie!

Strawberry Buttermilk Pie

1 prebaked pie shell, able to hold 5 cups of filling

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup strawberry puree, strained of seeds

1/2 cup cream

zest of 1 lemon

1/2 cup sugar

2 tsp gelatin

1/4 cup water

1 1/2 cups cream, whipped to soft peaks

1. Whisk together the strawberry puree and buttermilk and keep cold in the refrigerator.

2. Place the water in a small saucepan (I use my stainless steel 1 cup measuring cup) and sprinkle the gelatin over. Let the gelatin sit to absorb the water, or “bloom”.

3. In a small saucepan, combine the cream, lemon zest, and sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to distribute the sugar, then remove from heat. Over low heat, carefully melt the bloomed gelatin until it is completely liquid. Add the melted gelatin to the lemon cream, and strain. Let the mixture cool to room temperature on the counter for about an hour.

4. When the lemon cream has come down in temperature, whisk it into the strawberry buttermilk. Let the mixture sit for a minute or two, stirring to check the density of the buttermilk base. When it starts to thicken, much like a custard would, then it is time to fold in your whipped cream. If it is not thickening, place it in the refrigerator until you see it starting to thicken.

5. Take one third of your soft peak whipped cream, and fold it into the strawberry buttermilk, your main concern being to incorporate the two. Working in two more additions, carefully this time, fold in the whipped cream preserving volume and texture.

6. When the whipped cream is incorporated, transfer the strawberry buttermilk filling to the prebake pie shell or desired dishes. Let this set for 4 hours in the refrigerator.

I suggest serving this with sliced fresh strawberries and whipped creme fraiche.

Salty Lass

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

If I haven’t mentioned it yet, I am back working in pastry. Actually, for about a month and a half now, since Easter really. I had been working in Banquets, exposing myself to parts of the kitchen I never seen, making soups and stocks, butchering, and working with copius amount of salt.

A lot of what a cook does is tasting and adjusting the salt levels of the food they are serving, using the seasoning to bring out the flavors of the food without adding a salty quality. I spent years cooking before I took the plunge into the pastry department of the restaurant to follow my heart, and salting became ingrained in my inner chef.

“Dana! You need to salt and pepper your pillow before you go to sleep at night,” a chef early in my career told me to emphasize the importance of this.

So now that I am in the pastry department, why, oh why, is the salt missing? Hardly a recipe I come across calls for salt, hardly a pastry cook I see reaches for the small, tightly lidded container almost forgotton high on a shelf. Does salt loose it’s magic when sugar is involved?

NO!

Of course not.

Salt has the same value in sweets as it does on the savory line. A little hit of salt makes chocolate taste exceptional, a little in your caramel makes it memorable. While I don’t use nearly the amounts the savory cooks go through each day, I do apply salt to many, many, many of my recipes.

It makes such a remarkable difference in even the simplest of tart doughs, cookies, truffles, even rhubarb compote. I can’t help but wonder why the time honored tradition of using salt to bring out flavors is lost to the pastry department. We know never to buy salted butter, but seem to forget to add the salt back.

Don’t believe me? Try it! But please, use kosher or sea salt, and use it sparingly. You can always add a little more, but you can’t take it out. And remember, because there are no written rules, like “When adding salt to Rhubarb, use a diluted quantity blah blah blah” so it’s going to be trial and error on your part. Start with chocolate and caramel, move on to apple sauce and rhubarb compote, advance to buttercreams, custards, and ice creams, and always use a light hand.

Skinning Hazelnuts

Monday, February 19th, 2007

An announcement of one’s profession often comes with a predictable series of questions. A mechanic in given various vocal interpretations of engine noises. A doctor is flushed with descriptions of odd body functions. And I, upon announcement of working as a pastry chef, was most commonly asked how to peel hazelnuts.

No joke.

A common task that seems to stump nearly everyone who tries to detach the papery skin from the nut, I was specifically asked how to complete the task without it being so difficult. My answer always started with confirmation that while yes, I was a pastry chef, and yes, I do work with hazelnuts often, and in large quantities, they are always a pain in the ass.

I have come up with a few steps to make it less so, but I’ll say it again, it’s an obnoxious task.

Toast the nuts at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. During this time, the nut swells. The brittle, papery skin will not stretch with the swollen nut and cracks under the pressure of the swelling. When the nut meats have toasted properly, turning a nice golden color and started to offer an obvious aroma, remove them from the oven.

Now walk away. This is the point I find most crucial to the entire process. The nut should be allowed to cool for at least half an hour before attempting to remove skin. In this time, the swollen nut meat will return to it’s original size, and the oils will cool. If you attempt to remove the skin soon after the nuts have been pulled from the oven, the oils will adhere the skin to the nut, making it nearly impossible to remove.

When the nuts are cooled, they can be rubbed together like ball bearings in your hands, or in a dish towel, and the skins should flake away. Some skin will remain, but don’t fret. Instead of seeing what you failed to remove, remember that the flecks of skin in any hazelnut dessert are a recognizable visual clue to the amazing flavor imparted to the dish by this particular nut.