29 April 2012

Day 92: Pastry Origami

We had a substitute chef-instructor one day who said baking was a more creative endeavor than the savory side of things, owing to the fact that almost all baked goods are essentially the same: flour, butter, sugar, and some liquid. And while I don't necessarily agree that baking is more creative, she certainly had a point. How could all these things spring from the same ingredients?

I'd counter that baking is more involved on a step-by-step basis. If I forget to season an omelet when it's in the pan, no big deal. In baking, if I mix in a key ingredient too early or too late, it's screwed before it's in the oven.

But of course there is creativity, as I saw when we made dough that can be baked into croissants, danishes, turnovers, whatever. The key was the painstaking (and, apparently, machine-accomplished in professional operations) process of turning dough, which creates alternating layers of flour and butter. When the butter melts, the water evaporates, which is how flaky and buttery goodness comes to be.

The basic idea is to wrap some dough around a big ass block of butter. If you took a cross-section of it, it'd be dough-butter-dough. We then rolled it out and did a tri-fold back in on itself and rolled it flat again – voila, triple the layers (that's dough-butter-dough-butter-dough-butter-dough). And again and again. The painstaking part? The dough fell apart at room temperature, and tore easily, and squirted butter all over the table, so it had to be chilled often before we could work with it again.

But then comes the fun part! We cut it down into 4-inch squares and go crazy. 

Roll them out thin, cut into triangles, and roll from the flat side toward the tip? Croissant!

Fill with almondy goodies, roll into a cylinder, score and bend? Bear claw!

Fill with chocolate, roll into a cylinder? Chocolate croissant!

Fill with jelly, crimp along the edges? Popover!

Cut in from the corners and fold? Pinwheel!

Probably the coolest one: fold into a triangle, score almost to the point, unfold, then cross the margins you've created to the other side and fill with jelly? "Window" or "frame" danish!

And one last thing: the stuff that makes pastries kinda shiny and pretty is called nappage. Basically, it's apricot jelly that's watered down and brushed on after the pastry is baked. Seriously, that's it.

31 March 2012

Day 91: Shortening

I'd occasionally wondered what shortening was, but never why it was called shortening. The reason is, on one hand, maddeningly simple, and on the other, really insightful into some basic baking concepts.

Shortening stops gluten from forming long, chewy gluten chains. In other words, it... wait for it... shortens gluten in baked goods, keeping them in crumbly territory.

As for what it is, it's basically any fat. Butter. Lard. Crisco's website says their all-vegetable shortening is made of soybean oil, fully hydrogenated palm oil, partially hydrogenated palm and soybean oils, and some chemistry-sounding stuff typical of mass produced food.

My chef-instructor pointed out that the frosting on supermarket cakes and cupcakes that leaves that weird film feeling in your mouth is made with shortening.

30 March 2012

Day 89: That New French Bread Smell

French baguettes and an epi ("wheat stalk").
One of the ways I've tried to improve my palate has been to smell everything, and connect ingredients and aromas. A few Christmases back, I made spiced cider for the first time, and it was then I realized that the smell I associated with a freshly baked apple pie was actually nutmeg and cinnamon. Which, of course, are standards on most apple pie recipes.

Our French bread recipe is simple. Five ingredients total: bread flour, water, salt, sugar, and yeast. Specifically, compressed yeast, also known as baker's, cake, or fresh yeast.

The stuff has that vaguely sour smell of feet. The stink wafted throughout our baking lab as we were measuring out ingredients, and went into overdrive when mixed with warm water and sugar to bloom. We'd already used other yeasts in class and, while they have a similar smell, you'd have to shove your nose into the mixing bowl to really get it. (This may be because you need less of the other stuff. The basic substitution is 1 part compressed = 1/2 active dry = 1/3 instant dry.)

And then the stank feet dough gets baked, and that smell transforms into that wonderful, warm, distinctive French bread smell. I turned down two offers on the train/bus ride home to buy my bread.

23 March 2012

Day 87: Beware of Flour

Flour. It gets everywhere.

Tabletops. Hands. Uniforms. Inside my bag. It's the culinary school equivalent of my labrador's fur. Which means the inside of my backpack and most of my jackets have both dog fur and flour all over them.

11 March 2012

Day 86: Attrition

My pastry and baking class began at what is roughly the midpoint of the year-long culinary diploma curriculum (factoring out the three months of externship at the tail end of the program). My group's P&B class fell neatly after Christmas break – new year, different discipline. Walking into our campus' dedicated baking lab brought with it more than a few mild shocks, chief among them: our class was down to twelve people. Three school terms previous, when we started in August, there were nineteen of us.

The number is a little misleading. Two students transferred out of my 2pm class, one into 10am and one into the 6pm slot, to accomodate work. But the others? One person left during Foundations II because of, from what I could tell, a combination of sickness and being in a band. One person, I later found out, decided the culinary program wasn't his cup of tea and didn't show up for the Foundations III finals (he later popped up in the P&B diploma program). Three people straight up did not pass Foundations III, with two deciding to retake the class.

So, here we are. Twelve culinary students in a baking class. Instead of stoves, we have long, metal work benches, a bank of ovens, and random pluggable gadgets scattered about. It was strongly suggested we each bring our own scale. The need for knives is unclear. As a burgeoning cook, I feel like the stove is my true North, so not having one fixed in place is a little strange.

Note: When this blog began, I was posting more or less evenly with my classes. However, at this point, I'm more than an entire term behind. Which means I get a wee bit of hindsight than previous posts may have had, but also, I'm way behind.

18 February 2012

Culinary Foundations III in Review: The Laws of Cooks?

Pancake-flipping robot. Not one of Asimov's.
Isaac Asimov's science-fiction work is famous for the Three Laws of Robotics, rules of behavior that the robot characters would inevitably interpret in different ways. After completing the third of Le Cordon Bleu's three "foundations" classes, it seems to me that cooks should have something similar in place to help us operate. (By the way, Asimov wrote the Foundation series. Coincidence? Er... yes.)

We actually already do. If you consume enough food media, you've probably heard a few operational bon mots from different chefs. One of my chef-instructors paraphrased an oft-held belief in restaurant kitchens: being fast is better than being good. He only had the caveat that a good cook should be both fast and good. A recent Top Chef episode featured one chef saying "fast is slow and slow is smooth" -- in other words, do it right the first time. (Hugh Acheson, however, thought this made zero sense whatsoever.)

I wrote briefly of kitchen multitasking when I was in Foundations II, but in hindsight, those were all simple items. By comparison, Foundations III was a decathlon. Production days typically featured dishes with multiple preparations and techniques. Some days had more than one dish. My most successful days were the ones where I was prepared and efficient. I eventually started timing elements of my chef-instructor's demos so I'd know that, for example, sauteeing mushrooms takes about four minutes, so I shouldn't step away from the stove for six minutes to mince some shallots. I did that. Burned the mushrooms. Had to redo them.

Which brings me back to the Laws of Cooks, which exist but not really. If I had to put them down in stone, they'd probably be something like...

Be Prepared. Know what you need to do before you have to do it. Know when to do it. If something takes 40 minutes to braise, do that first, then go on to chopping stuff. (Thanks, Boy Scouts of America!)

Be Clean. Because shit piles up real fast. I've had a few days where I had to stop and figure out which saute pan at my station was clean and which wasn't. Not a good idea.

Be Organized. I suppose this is the lovechild of being prepared and clean, but it's worth throwing out there. I've had to stop to dig a knife out of my kit because I didn't have them all out together. Not a good idea, though it might make a fun spectator sport.

Be Efficient. I learned real fast never to make one trip for one spice when I could grab all five I'd eventually use. By the same token, don't waste nice knife cuts on something that's going to be removed or strained. Wasted motion is a killer.

Be Fast. It's a carrot, just fucking chop it already.

Food is Done When It's Done. A lot of the chef-instructors love saying this in reply to students asking, "Chef, how long do we cook it?" Mostly because it's true. You can crank up the heat or chop things smaller or whatever, but water boils when it boils, steak sears when it sears, and polenta finishes when it finishes (or doesn't).

Okay, that's a lot of stuff, and not nearly as elegantly tied together as Asimov. Organization is inferred, and efficiency and speed go hand-in-hand, so how about...

Be Prepared.
Work Clean.
Work Smart.
It's Done When It's Done.

I guess I'll see if those work for me moving forward.

Here's a selection of dishes we made in class.

Pan-roasted duck with turnips
Tea-smoked duck breast with ginger-carrot puree (I seared the skin a little much)
Salmon steak with beurre blanc, plus fennel mousseline
Veal blanquette with rice pilaf
Breaded veal escalope (aka veal scallopini)
Sweetbread fritters with tomato sauce, fried parsley

08 February 2012

Day 81: Silly Rabbit

We all have comfort foods. Sometimes its a nostalgia thing, and sometimes it's straight up goodness we're looking for, but either way, it's a combination of flavors that are reliable. As a home cook, I have a subset of comfort foods that are reliable in a slightly different way: they're easy to make. Obviously, I like the way they taste, too, but there are days where I just want to throw something on rice (actually, that's most days) or boil pasta and dump some sauce and cheese on it. It's the doing that puts me at ease.

After my maddening lamb failure, our next dish was lapine a la graine de moutarde (rabbit in whole-grain mustard sauce). We'd be making fresh pasta for it, a task I'd always wanted to attempt but shied away from because it seemed difficult.

It's not difficult. It's super easy. And it's exactly what I needed at that moment in time.

The dish as a whole was also easy. When I read or hear "sauce" in conjunction with a pasta dish, I imagine an old Italian grandmother stirring a slow-bubbling pot of red stuff for hours on end while her plumber son Mario is off saving princesses (apologies to people of Italian descent, but your biggest export to my generation of Americans came from Japan). This sauce was not that.

We slathered the rabbit in yellow and dijon mustard to marinate. We seared it off and braised it. Then we reduced the cooking liquid, added some cream and more mustard to our liking.

Oh, and the pasta. It's also one of those just-that-easy type of things. We made a well in some flour (we used half a cup each of semolina and AP), dropped in an egg and a pinch of salt and scrambled it. Then we started incorporating the flour and eventually kneaded the shit out of it -- it doubled as a decent stress reliever. Then we let it rest (like any other dough, the gluten needs to relax). The hardest part was the amount of water to use. We kneaded until it was smooth, not sticky (too wet) or crumbly (too dry).

We actually did the pasta dough the day prior and kept it wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator. On cooking day, we rolled it into simple tagliatelle-like ribbons cut by hand. If I were a chef, I'd market them as hand-crafted artisan pasta and charge $20 for it, but for a single batch it's actually less fussy doing it that way. We then boiled it in salted water for a few minutes. I used my tongs to grab it, let the ribbons hang over the pot to drain the excess water, then dumped them into the mustard sauce to finish.

My chef-instructor had nothing negative to say about my execution of the dish.


31 January 2012

Bread & Beer

All Le Cordon Bleu culinary students (as opposed to the pastry and baking students) are required to take one pastry and baking class, which I'm in now. My chef-instructor introduced bread making to us by pointing out an interesting fact.

Bread is grain and liquid, and (typically) involves fermentation.
Beer is grain and liquid, and involves fermentation.

So they are, one could poetically/romantically/pseudo-scientifically say, the same thing. They're also two of the oldest foodstuffs in the history of man. Pretty much every culture has their version of each.

Brioche in two shapes: a tete ("head") and couronne ("crown")