Archive for the ‘Zetired’ Category

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?

Obama Menu

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

Barack Obama, Joe Biden, their families, the supreme court, and members of the congressional leadership will eat lunch in Congress on the day of the inauguration. The menu is following a Lincoln theme:

“The luncheon’s appetizer will be seafood stew in puff pastry — scallops, shrimp, lobster — served as a nod to the 16th president’s love of stewed and scalloped oysters.

The main course — duck breast with sour-cherry chutney and herb-roasted pheasant served with molasses sweet potatoes and winter vegetables — is a nod to the root vegetables and wild game that Mr. Lincoln favored growing up on the frontier in Kentucky and Indiana.”


We usually don’t post links on this blog, but this just seems cool.

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.”


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.

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.

Asian Thanksgiving, Seattle, Washington

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

This year we had a totally Asian thanksgiving. No turkey… shocked???? Jealous?


Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

[Thanks Chris for the pic.]