Tuesday, February 28, 2012

An "exciting change". We charge, you leave.

Part of the culinary arts program is advertising and management. This is logical, since the goal is a Hospitality Management Certificate (or AA).

So, when I see something that's so obviously twisted, I laugh. Don't they know they're being twisted and insincere?

This wonderfully upbeat message is from a paper with a great culinary section to which I soon will no longer be a former subscriber. (Wow. Future anterior tense?). Un journal dont je n'aurai plus être abonné en très peu de temps, quoi. See? Everything does sound better in French.

I received this tidbit in an e-mail:
Dear Readers,
We are making an exciting change to [newspaper web site], and we want you to be the first to know how we're evolving.

On March 5, we're launching a membership program. If you're an avid [newspaper web site] reader, but not currently a home delivery customer, we hope you'll consider joining for a nominal fee to get:     
•     Unlimited digital access to all of the newspaper's award-winning news and information
•     Unique storytelling
•     Investigative reports
•     In-depth local news
•     Signature blogs
•     Compelling photo galleries
•     Original video content
•     Revealing data projects and analysis
Membership privileges also include:    
•     Special opportunities at select Newspaper events
•     Exclusive discounts and deals
•     Giveaways and contests
      If you are already a subscriber, you simply need to follow a few registration steps to
activate your membership at no additional cost. Non-members can continue to browse
The Newspaper online for limited reading and breaking news.
That's what the text was like, except that their real name was inserted all over the place instead of "newspaper".

Here is what I read:
Dear Readers,
      We are making an exciting change to [newspaper web site], where we'll charge you for everything you get free now, but we'll keep all the advertisements in place just to annoy you.


On March 5, we're launching a membership program. If you're an avid [newspaper web site] reader, but not currently a home delivery customer - even though there is no home delivery of our paper in your area - we hope you'll consider joining for a nominal fee that will never end, and be very difficult to cancel. You'll get pretty much exactly what you get now, except you'll have to pay for it and log in with yet another username and password:
•   Unlimited digital access to everything that you get for free now
•   Unique storytelling that you get free now
•   Investigative reports that you get free now
•   In-depth local news that you get free now
•   Signature blogs that you get free now
•   Compelling photo galleries that you get free now
•   Original video content that you get free now
•   Revealing data projects and analysis that you get free now
Membership privileges also include ways of marketing more stuff targeted using information we get from tracking everything you do on our web site and possibly others: 
Special opportunities at select Newspaper events where we will try to take even more of your money by selling tickets or selling goods and services.
  • Exclusive discounts and deals that we'll push on you even though we'll be making money whether you visit our site or not. These deals will be at least 400 miles from where you live, but don't worry. For the duration of the deal, it will be exclusive. After that, maybe not so much.
  • Giveaways and contests where we convince you it's in your best interest to give your e-mail to every company we do business with so we can collect more fees and you can collect more Spam.
  • If you are already a subscriber, you simply need to follow a few registration steps to activate your membership at no additional cost. Non-members can continue to browse The Newspaper online for limited reading and breaking news just so we can continue to get lots of hits and keep our advertising rates high.
They don't even mention what their "nominal fee" would be, typical of today's typical marketing effort. When I buy a toaster, I want to know the price - but for anything on the Net, especially intangibles like this, the price seems to be buried at least three pages down. Sometimes they won't even tell you until you give up your personal e-mail. That's when I leave their site, hoping that they're not tracking me.

I'm not going to sign up, and their hit count will go down. They won't get as much money for their advertisements. I won't read their stuff any more. So who wins? The guy in management who came up with this idea? Certainly not the readers, and probably not the advertisers.

Friday, February 24, 2012

No fame for dish washers

There are lots of celebrity chefs, stars, women with cleavage who make food, loud people with equally wild hair, fancy chefs and other glitterati of the foodie world. They're in the limelight, hamming it up for the camera, bestowing grins on their admirers and sometimes excoriating their detractors. In all those hours of watching these people perform on television, did you ever see the dishwasher?

Imagine these shining stars trying to impress with no clean dishes at hand. Ah, truffled venison with sauce grand veneur on an grimy plate coated with last night's bisque? Ick! Their Michelin stars would disappear like hot beurre blanc through their fingers.

There's no celebrity dishwasher. No televised dish washing competition.

I washed dishes this week, a zen experience of dishes in, dishes out. Everyone is chef on rotation, and one week's chef is always the next week's dishwasher.

Washing dishes at this level is quite different than the chore given by the typical parent to their children. Everything arrives: giant mixing bowls, full size baking sheets, tiny pastry tips, bowls coated in fluorescent buttercream, fondant, pastry bags, cutting boards and the occasional sharp object like a knife or a food processor blade.

It's kind of like playing Tetris. You have to try sorting everything so that you can create a smooth flow between the trash can, the counter on the left (dirty), the detergent sink, rinse sink, sanitizer sink and the counter on the right (clean). There's a bit of grouping for things stored together, too. Nest the bowls, place the measuring spoons inside, carry them to their rack. Back to the sink. Cutting boards next. Then baking sheets. On it goes.

The goal is to smoothly, dynamically and cleanly juggle everything so that you can create a smooth flow between the trash can, the counter on the left (dirty), the detergent sink, rinse sink, sanitizer sink and the counter on the right (clean).

There's a bit of grouping for things stored together, too. Nest the bowls, place the measuring spoons inside, carry them to their rack. Back to the sink. Cutting boards next. Then baking sheets. On it goes.

We're not even a restaurant. We're a classroom. Still, twenty people working frantically to create their masterpieces go through a lot of dishes. Since the number of dishes is limited, this means speed is of the essence. One huge mixer bowl came through the sink at least five times, along with its assorted paddle and dough hook, all covered in various species of sticky food. Someone is waiting for that mixer, you're holding them up! Bowl first, cutting boards later! Accelerate! Wash, scrub, rinse sanitize, dry - out go the mixer parts. The suds are gone! Refill the sink with clean detergent, check the sanitizer, warp speed!

Perhaps someday there will be an Iron Dishwasher program, where we can watch the best of the best compete. I imagine it like watching a pit crew service a Formula 1 race car. Quick, coordinated movements that waste no effort, transforming grunge into shine faster than the eye can follow.

Big Cakes!

Aztec cake

Special occasion cake

Big. Like confection-covered ziggurats, they rise from the table, announcing that the Party is Here.

The special occasion cake is not edible, since it's finely crafted fondant wrapped around Styrofoam forms. Only the Styrofoam forms were given- all the shapes, colors glazes, flowers and piping were created in class. Veronica, our chef for the week, was in charge of designing the decoration and coordinating the teamwork needed to bring these fantasies to light.

The Aztec cake was baked last week, a mix of chocolate, roasted almonds and pepitas, a bit of cinnamon and some mild chili powder, kind of like Mexican hot chocolate turned into a cake. It was then frozen until this week's decorating work.

It took about five hours to color, shape, attach, pipe, adjust and finally present the cakes. Now we can admire one of them for weeks. The other will be sold and consumed somewhere. Hopefully we'll hear if they enjoyed the flavor.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Chili verdirojo burrito, old school tortillas

What do you call it when you replace the tomatillos in a chili verde with red tomatoes, but leave the green chilies? It's not really chili verde, since in addition to be sin tomatillos, the other spices are different - no cilantro, for example. Nor is it chili colorado since no dried peppers are used. Whatever it is, it tastes good.

My idea came from a restaurant that makes this stuff, but they call it chili verde. Theirs is more chili anaranjado than verde, thanks to the tomatoes. 

The nice thing is that I didn't have to sneak into their kitchen disguised as a giant piñata to pilfer their secret recipe. They pretty much gave away their process on a food show, right in front of the camera. Then I thought of some tweaks. Cook the meat differently. Use frozen Hatch chilis instead of canned, play with the seasonings...

Now, if I'm ever tempted to open a Mexican restaurant I've got a good, scalable recipe that will work for any color of chili.

Since I'd fussed around making the meat, I decided to go whole hog and make a burrito from scratch. That meant tortillas, too. Old school tortillas, the kind they used to make before people became more afraid of rendered fat than chemical additives*.

Yes, old school. Unbleached enriched wheat flour, salt, baking powder, pork fat.

I don't really get the hypocrisy about tortillas and pork fat. Somehow, it's healthy if there's no pork fat in the tortilla, even if it's wrapped around fatty morsels of carnitas. So, the pork fat is OK when it's in the meat, but put it in the tortilla and it's taboo?

These are my tortillas, from scratch, my way. No canola oil here! I just took the fat that rendered out of the meat during cooking and set it aside. When it was time to make the tortillas, it was cooled down and ready to go. Mix salt and baking powder with flour, cut in the fat, add enough water to create some non-sticky dough, give it a rest, and it's ready to go.

So, the verdict? Was there a flavor payoff? Yes. There really is nothing like slow-cooked pork wrapped in a porky tortilla accented with savory avocado slices. The white rice was there to soak up the sauce, and because I wanted to highlight the flavor of the meat with something neutral.

* commercial flour tortilla ingredient lists can be long and difficult to pronounce: enriched bleached wheat flour, water, salt, palm oil and fractions with BHT, BHA and TBHQ (preservatives), rice flour, mono & diglycerides, fumaric acid, calcium propionate, potassium sorbet (preservatives again), methyl and propyl paraben (preservatives again), sodium meta bisulfite. Oops, that's potassium sorbate. Good. That would have made a horrible dessert.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sourdough two ways

All of these started from the same dough. The two boules were steamed in a Dutch oven, then baked. The darker one was left in the Dutch oven, but with the lid removed during the last 20 minutes of baking. The other was removed after fifteen minutes of baking and finished on a pizza stone. I think the second method worked better. The two baguettes were done on a (what else?) baguette pan, with a bit of steam at the beginning of the baking process.

This dough uses unbleached white bread flour mixed with whole wheat flour and a bit of sprouted wheat flour - plus salt, sourdough starter and a bit of SAF yeast to give it a bit of a kick in the butt for a faster rise. Still, the sponge proofed for about five hours, the combined dough another three, and still more during benching and after shaping.

National Margarita Day

Somehow, people manage to make every day National [your thing here] Day. Like margaritas. If they're really ambitious, they'll make an entire month commemorate their cause. I would have loved a National Margarita Month, but I probably wouldn't get much done. I would use up all those bottles of not-so-great Tequila that are currently sitting on the back of the shelf, though.
As near as I could tell, it's only Margarita Day here in the USA. A quick search on the South of the Border Internet didn't turn up anything about a Mexican Margarita day (Día Nacional de la Margarita). One site did say that since we're celebrating Margarita Day here, there's no reason for Mexicans to miss out.

This margarita used lime, Meyer lemon, Citronge, Jose Cuervo Tradicional Reposado Tequila (100% agave), with agave sweetener and ice. That's it. It worked well, although the Meyer lemons have less of a citrus bite than pure limes.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Five star huevos rancheros

This was going to be normal huevos rancheros. But no tortillas in the freezer, no masa harina in the cupboard and no desire to go out just for some stinkin' tortillas led to this upscale version of the dish.

The cup is made from arepa flour - precooked corn meal - that's baked blind in the ramekin for about 20 minutes with a small pat of butter in the bottom. After that, simple. Just break an egg into the dish, add a dollop of ranchero sauce and some cream cheese (I was out of crema, too). Bake another 25 minutes or so, until the yolk just films over. Unmold (or not) and there it is. Fancy!

This could be made from masa harina, too. The flavor of the cup would be a bit stronger because there's lime left over from the nixtamalization of the corn. It would also be a bit more nutritious for the same reason - nixtamalization supposedly frees up more healthiness.

August, 2012. Zero reads. Looks like nobody gives a shit about transforming huevos rancheros into anything different. Until some asshole in a fancy restaurant comes up with something like this, and I'm sure it will be more popular than seamless underwear.

Fried Chicken. International Bird of Mystery

Sometimes checkout lines are a great source of inspiration. I'll see something interesting on the cover of a food magazine, then rush through to find the article. Often they're more a couple of paragraphs, so really not worth coughing up my hard-earned valuta. So I scan the ingredients and techniques then run home to use them in a recipe.

This time, it was an alternate way to make fried chicken. The pieces are salted and seasoned, but not brined. No buttermilk touches them until it's time to dredge them in flour. The result of salting instead of brining is crispier skin, a frequent casualty of soaking bird parts in salty water for long periods of time.

Not long after, the supermarket ran a great special on whole chickens. Suddenly I had motive and opportunity for a bit of experimenting.

My spices were black pepper, cumin, coriander, Aleppo pepper, pimentón, allspice and a bit of nutmeg - along with some smoked sea salt for extra depth. I salted down the parts and let them alone for a few hours in the refrigerator to introduce spice to bird.

When it was frying time, I quickly dredged the parts in cream, then in flour seasoned with garlic powder, black pepper and a bit of salt - then into a nice 350°F oil bath for 25 minutes to cook up golden brown and crispy.

The skin was crispy, but the most important thing was the spices. They came through wonderfully, my measly nine spices easily creating more flavor than that guy's eleven.

But... what if I were to get really creative? These were more or less in the Dead Colonel's flavor palette. Chicken is really versatile, so no reason it couldn't take other spice blends, like...

Mexican: annatto, chilis, cumin, allspice, Mexican oregano...

Mole: cocoa powder, guajillo chili, cumin, cinnamon, black pepper...

Paella: pimentón, saffron, cumin,  oregano...

Asian: five spice.

Indian: pick a spice blend and run with it!

French 1: herbes de provence. French 2: paté spices.

Other: nigella seeds, cumin, black cumin...

Golden: turmeric, ginger, garlic powder, dried shrimp powder.

Black: oven-dried ground olives, oregano, cumin.


Here I am, looking through the hit counter. It's August, 2012, and this post gets no love at all. Not even a peck. Is fried chicken à la colonel mort truly so sacred a recipe that none dare tweak its rosy red nose, twirl its bow tie or yank on its goatee? Alas, it would seem so.


Sometimes inspiration comes from several places, all hitting you within the space of a few short days. The Oak Cafe at school is doing a Mexican street food menu this week. I've been sort of craving tortas. I was curious about making a version of bolillos, the rolls used for this sandwich. Then, a Mexican friend tried some bread that I'd made and said it tasted like the bolillos she had as a child in Mexico.

My bread was sourdough, so I started thinking. Maybe bolillos, like most food in Mexico, taste different than our version. Maybe they've got more flavor, more complexity. So, why not use a light sourdough formula from a poolish and see what happens?

The other ingredients - carnitas and chile colorado - are simple enough to make if you have time.

For the carnitas, I cut some pork shoulder into 2" cubes, added a quartered lime, some salt and some garlic and braised it for about three hours. The fat slowly renders out as the water evaporates, so in the end the meat can fry a bit and brown in its own fat. You can also take the meat out, increase the heat to high and boil away the water. When you're down to the fat, reduce the heat and brown the meat. Done.

The chili colorado was a bit different. I thought I had a great stash of chilis, but only had cascabels, moritas and some hot New Mexico Hatch peppers I'd dried last summer. Chiles negros, anchos and guajillos are now on my shopping list, so I can get more chili flavor without the heat. I had all the other ingredients: brown stock, fresh garlic, a bit of ripe canned tomatoes, salt, black pepper, onion, celery, carrot, cumin and coriander seeds.

The chilis get seeded, then sautéed in a bit of vegetable oil after the spices, onions, carrots and celery. The trick is to heat them up without scorching them, to release their flavor. Then the chopped garlic, and finally the stock and tomato to cool things down. After that, a bit of simmering and into the blender for a quick purée. The sauce gets returned to the pan, and dosed with red wine vinegar according to how tart you like things. Finally, adjust the salt and everything is ready to go. One local restaurant goes fairly heavy on the vinegar, but it's safer to add in increments while tasting to find the level you prefer.

When everything's ready, cut a bolillo in half, toast it lightly, add a layer of salsa, some carnitas, some more salsa or cilantro and sliced avocado. I never get enough avocado in restaurants, so this transforms the torta into a real luxury.

You can serve tortas open faced, covered or wet. If you like them wet, completely drowned in salsa, make the salsa more liquid, almost soupy, by adding more stock.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Black swans

I made these almost a year ago, as an experiment. We had to invent a pâte à choux variation, or maybe it was just a dessert formula... I forgot. It's not important, though. I do remember thinking, "but what if this doesn't work?".

So, chocolate pâte à choux, chocolate pastry cream, and there they are - a fancy version of éclairs. They look good swimming across a blue plate.

Pipe some pâte à choux into "S" shapes, pipe some more with a star tip, just like a normal éclair. Slice in half horizontally, then slice the top piece vertically to make the wings. Pipe in some chocolate pastry cream, place the head and neck (the "S" curve) and press the wings into the pastry cream.

Voilá! Black swans. Maybe if I were a virtuoso pastry bag artiste, I could have somehow given the bird a beak. There has to be a way! Maybe with a mold and some tempered chocolate... but then might as well cast the bird in two pieces and assemble - chocolate would hold really fine detail, right down to feathers.

Now I'm wondering... what about making white swans with meringue, then alternating the black and white swans on a blue platter...

Friday, February 17, 2012

Baba Cakes

The blue flame glows in the dark room, swirling inside the funnel-shaped tuille for a few seconds until it fades.

Damn, that's impressive. Especially for a cupcake. But this isn't any ordinary cupcake. This is not something you give to your underage children. It's more of a dessert and cocktail blended into a single decadent entity.

It's more dynamic than a cupcake, too. Normally, you buy a cupcake, eat it and throw away the paper. These have a bit of showmanship. They get plated, someone pours hot rum into the cup, you pick it up and blow out the flame or wait for it to diminish. The rum sinks into the cake.

Take a bite. Raisin, rum, buttercream, dark sugar will unite to proclaim to your senses that this is far from your typical sugar bomb cupcake. It's more like an exotic visitor from Europe, a bit risque, even perhaps dangerous. There's rum in there! An alcoholic cupcake? Yes! Your visitor may be unusual, but he certainly knows how to entertain!

In fact, the cake is too rich for mass consumption that could lead to drunkenness. You won't wake up in bed with someone you hardly know who speaks with an accent. There could be a moment of rum-induced change of consciousness, but only a moment. There is also a built-in warning. If the tuille melts, you've added too much rum. Normally, this would only happen if you filled it twice. Not recommended, since you've exceeded the design parameters by 200%.

The rum soaks into the cake from the bottom of the tuille funnel, so you're not supposed to get a shot of pure rum. The rum melds with the raisin, sugar and baba dough, accented by the raisins in the buttercream. It's still a cupcake, not a shot glass after all. You could also heat a rum-sugar-water syrup and use that, for a reduced alcohol version.

Remember that this formula comes from an advanced baking class, so there's a lot going on. We had a team of four people doing things at the same time, so you can get together with friends to make these.

Baba Cakes

This is enough for about 30 rather large cupcakes or even more small ones.

Rum syrup
You can prepare this in advance.
yield 2 lb 3 oz

 6 oz    Brown sugar
    14 oz oz    Granulated sugar
    1 oz    Lemon juice
    6 oz    Water
    8 oz Dark rum
    0.1 oz    Vanilla extract

  1. Place the sugar, lemon juice and water in a small saucepan and cook over high heat until the sugar dissolves. 
  2. Pour into a 4-cup heatproof stainless steel or other non-reactive pan and allow to cool. 
  3. Add the rum and vanilla and set aside. Alternatively, you can heat the rum with the other ingredients in the first step to vaporize some of the alcohol.
Chocolate tuiles
yield: 14 oz

Prepare these in advance so they’re ready to go when the cakes are baked.

2. 4 oz    Cake flour
1. 3 oz    Dutch-processed cocoa powder
4.5 oz    Confectioner’s sugar
2.3 oz    butter, unsalted
3.5 oz    egg whites, room temperature
0.1 oz    vanilla extract

  1. Line sheet pan(s) with silicone baking mats. Cut out 3” to 4” diameter circles from a manilla file folder.
  2. Mise en place: have shaping and cutting instruments ready: tapered dowels, round cutters.
  3. Sift together the cake flour and cocoa powder
  4. Cream together the butter and sugar with the paddle attachment, starting on low speed and increasing to medium speed until smooth, 5 minutes. Scrape down the bowl as needed.
  5. Add the egg whites and vanilla and mix on medium speed until fully incorporated. Scrape down the bowl as needed.
  6. Turn off the mixer and add the dry ingredients. Mix on low speed until incorporated. Do not overmix.
  7. Use an offset spatula to spread a very thin layer of tuile into the circular openings in the modified folder. Do not place more than four openings on a pan, since they will set up quickly and be difficult to form.
  8. Bake at 325°F until golden brown but still soft, 8-10 minutes. Watch carefully - the convection oven may be too hot and can overcook things!
  9. Remove the cutout template from the silicon mat.
  10. Using a cone-shaped item, form the tuiles into cone shapes. Reheat as necessary to shape (try to avoid this if you can).
  11. Reserve for later.

French raisin buttercream
This can be made while during the first proofing (bulk fermentation).

yield: 3 lbs 9 oz

6.2 oz    raisins
2.3 oz    rum
0.3 oz    vanilla extract
6.2 oz    eggs, whole, grade AA
6.2 oz    egg yolks
14 oz    granulated sugar
3.1 oz    water
1 lb 2.7 oz    butter, unsalted

  1. Place the raisins in just enough rum to completely cover them, and purée until smooth. Add the vanilla extract and set aside. If you gently heat this mixture, you can reduce the alcohol content.
  2. Whip eggs in mixer fitted with a whip attachment on high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
  3. Combine sugar and water in heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar, then stop stirring. Heat until the mixture reaches 240°F (soft-ball stage).
  4. Slowly pour the hot sugar syrup into the eggs while whipping on medium speed. Continue to whip until cool.
  5. Gradually add the butter, beating until incorporated after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
  6. Blend in rum/vanila/raisin mixture.
  7. Store covered under refrigeration until needed.

Baba Cake
Yield: 2 lb 14.5 oz (46.5 oz)

1 oz     lemon zest (about 1 oz per lemon)
1oz    dark rum
13 oz     Milk, whole (1/2 gallon)
0.9 oz    Brown sugar
0.9 oz    Granulated sugar
1.2 oz    SAF yeast
8 oz    Eggs, grade AA
1 lb 3 oz    A.P. Flour
0.1 oz    Kosher salt
6 oz    Unsalted butter

  1. Pre heat proofer. Line pans with paper inserts. Pre heat oven to 375° when dough is put into pans.
  2. Instructions
  3. Combine the lemon zest and rum in a small bowl, bring just to a simmer and set aside.
  4. Heat the milk to 115°F (46°C) and then pour it into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Stir in the yeast and sugars.
  5. With the mixer on low speed, first add the eggs, then the flour, salt, and butter. Raise the speed to medium-high and beat for 5 minutes.
  6. Scrape down the bowl and beater to form the dough into a loose ball. It will be very soft.
  7. Cover the bowl with a damp towel and allow it to proof until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
  8. Drain the zest (empty the rum remaining into the prepared syrup), fold into the dough with a spatula.
  9. Place the cupcake paper on a scale and add 1-½ ounces of dough to each cake, then place the cups into a cupcake pan.
  10. Cover the pan with a damp towel, and proof until the dough reaches halfway to the top of of the pan, 30 minutes in a proofer. You want to leave room at the top for the buttercream, and the cakes will rise during baking.
  11. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Bake the cakes for 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Start checking them after 12 minutes, in case your oven runs hot.
  12. Remove cakes from cake pan and place on a cooling rack (keep the paper wrappers on them). Allow to cool a bit so they’ll be easier to cut.
 Cupcake assembly
  1. Cut out a conical shape in the center of each cake with a paring knife, and insert a tuile into each cake.
  2. Pour the rum syrup very slowly onto the slightly warm cakes, allowing it all to soak in thoroughly. Amazingly, the liquid will be absorbed into the cake, and will take more syrup than you would think. If you want drier cakes, cut the syrup recipe down by half.
  3. Pipe buttercream around each tuile with a star tip, covering any ragged edges created when cutting into the cake.

  1. If the guest is a minor, give him a Newman O. These tricks aren’t for kids.
  2. Place the baba cakes on plates.
  3. Heat a small quantity of dark rum (like Zara) in a pan with a pouring spout. Don’t get it hot - you just need it warm enough to volatilize the alcohol. It could ignite if you get it too hot, and that would be bad. Throw a wet towel over it to extinguish and set it aside to cool.
  4. Holding it away from your body, light the warm rum. For better effect, do this tableside.
  5. Carefully pour the flaming rum into the tuiles, not too much. This is more for the flame effect than anything, and remember that there’s already rum syrup in the cakes. If you pour too much rum, the tuilles will collapse due to the moisture - consider it a built-in warning.
Consume in moderation (these things are rich, so I can’t eat more than one). Do not drive or operate machinery after eating. If you work in a sawmill, save these for after your shift when you're safely home.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Soup and Salad

After the carnivore's menu, we needed something greener, healthier and most importantly lighter.

Soup and salad, with leftover whole wheat baguettes and water seemed like a great after the pig-out meal.

The Soup
Roasted Carnival Squash, Garlic & Arugula Soup
Cut up the squash, add a bit of beef stock and roast at 350° F until fork tender. Set aside.
Mince some garlic and quickly sauté it in some hot oil. Just as it starts to get a bit of color, add the squash and some beef stock. Let simmer a bit, then blend to a smooth consistency. Add cream to taste, salt, black pepper and chili flakes. Garnish with arugula.

The Salad
Raddichio & Arugula with Meyer Lemon Dressing
Wash the arugula, spin dry and set aside.
Quickly blanch asparagus spears, set aside. When cool, cut in half lengthwise.
Wash the radiccio, then slice from top to bottom into quarter to half-inch thick sections. Set aside.
Make the dressing with fresh-squeezed Meyer lemon juice, a bit of fresh lime juice and enough white wine vinegar to bring up the acidity. Add a pinch of salt and some black pepper and some new crop olive oil.
Place the arugula in the plates, then top with the radicchio. Add the asparagus spears as a garnish.
Drizzle with unfiltered, unrefined new crop olive oil.
Beat the dressing to temporarily emulsify it and drizzle it over the salad.

The acid in the dressing tones down any bitterness in the greens, and the asparagus adds a note of richness. Overall, it's still light and fresh, since the only fat in the dressing is itself a fresh-tasting olive oil.

A valentine's menu for carnivores

Some might think guys are the real carnivores, but sometimes this isn't the case. Although I enjoy a nice piece of beef from time to time, this meal was inspired by a woman. A woman who was craving red meat. Not only red meat, but marrow bones, cooked slowly in a court bouillon flavored with mirepox. Then a pan-seared steak served rare, with a side of cipollini onions and baby potatoes braised in beef stock. A bit of marrow-infused Bordelaise sauce and the second course was done. Dessert was an upside-down lime-apple crumble, sort of a Franco-American take on the classic tarte tatin.

I think she got enough marrow bones to satisfy her craving, and then some. There really are things that should be consumed in moderation. So, the dinner that followed was much lighter - too tasty to qualify as atonement and not quite healthy enough to qualify as totally restorative.

I was in class on Valentine's Day this year, in case you were wondering why this menu appeared the day before V-day for a meal that happened two days before Eros came to town.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Eat here. Get on TV.

The restaurant posted on their Facebook page, inviting friends and family to come in for the taping, perhaps get interviewed (perhaps not, too - but most people are optimists). In a new restaurant, getting friends and family in to pack the tables was a great idea. The last thing you want is to tape a segment of a tomb-like space with one couple munching away in a corner. You want a full house, maybe even seat people all on one side of the dining area so it would look more full when filmed (they didn't do this).

We showed up at after eleven, when the TV Diva was supposed to arrive. She was late. TV Divas are always late. They're Divas, after all. Accountable to nobody, not even themselves. Divas are freer than the wind. A Diva, a cameraman, cruising through the Sacramento landscape in a plain, unmarked car, with only a production schedule to guide them. This segment would not air for weeks, so no rush.

This Diva seemed to have a kind of negative energy aura around her that discouraged anyone from approaching her. You don't approach the Diva. She approaches you. Or not. There's no warm fuzzy feeling here. All cold-eyed business. Get the segment on tape and move on. I don't think she smiled even once during the few times I managed to see her face.

It was a typical experience with TV people. They have this way of looking right through you as though you aren't there. Their eyes track across you, seeming to focus on some infinite point behind your head. Eerie and a bit creepy. Do they do this in their private lives, too? Like with their son's or daughter's new boyfriends or girlfriends?

We decided to order something, since waiting in a restaurant for a TV Diva to show up is not much fun unless the house makes it into an event. They didn't. There were no hors 'œuvre, no little plates, nothing that would have made waiting forty-five minutes for a Diva more fun, nothing to get food in people's stomachs so they'd look happy and well-fed for the Diva's grande arrivée.

So, instead of nibbling on a (nonexistent) free appetizer, we sat. We pondered who else they invited. Were any of them planted there, setup in advance for interviews? Celebrities in the making? People connected to the television station? Some were from a local chamber of commerce. A table of six women, a skinny blonde who looked like a model and was constantly fondled (in appropriate areas) by her companion. A man in a suit. A woman with a plastic badge, a couple of random diners, perhaps some friends of the owners.

Just another (rather slow) day at the restaurant, business as usual. Except for the Diva thing that would happen unannounced to surprise anyone who happened to walk in. Imagine you were an innocent, unknowing diner who came in, ordered, got food. Suddenly and without warning, the room would be crowded with a cameraman and a Diva, interviewing people at other tables, filming the hostess, interfering with your service and making you hesitate before taking a big bite lest the camera swoop down on you in mid-chomp, your cheeks bulging hamsterlike, perhaps a bit of sauce dribbling down your chin.

Finally the Diva arrived. She interviewed a table of six. Then, of course she interviewed the blonde. They always seem to interview blondes. It's TV. She interviewed the owners. They went in the kitchen. I don't know what she did next because after being there over an hour, it was time to leave.

I wondered about people whose orders weren't up, and wouldn't be until after the interview finished. Without free appetizers, the unlucky few would just have to go hungry. Divas don't wait for chefs!

Luckily, our food arrived before the Diva. We ate.

They interviewed someone behind us, so we might have been background extras. Is that camera pointing at us? Look natural! We talked. I took really small bites and smiled a lot. We paid the bill. We left, uninterviewed but yet possibly captured as fodder for the media.


This brings me to the main point of this blog. Getting a certificate in Culinary Arts, in the Hospitality Management program means taking advertising and management courses along with all that cooking. The point is that running a restaurant is a lot more than knowing how to cook. Conveying the right message is critical. Make enough mistakes - or one big goof - and your guests will flee, never to return.

I think the restaurant missed a lot of opportunities with the Diva thing. Free appetizers would have looked normal enough, but turned this into an event and turned hungry people into appreciative people who would probably smile more. They would have put more food on the tables, so nobody would be filmed without food. There were no table toppers, those triangular cardboard announcements that highlight favorite items - that would have added a bit of advertising to the video. There was no menu board on the wall, so the crew could not film anything with menu information. The check presenter (little book with the bill) arrived with nothing inside but the bill. No thank you / sorry for the inconvenience card, perhaps with a free soft drink at the next visit. It could have had a database trap (a database trap is the little card they ask you to fill out to give feedback and incidentally sign up for e-mail postings or join the house's Facebook page). There could have been a QR code link to the restaurant's web site and/or Facebook page somewhere, too.

The key is that you always have to be aware how your words and actions will be interpreted by your guests. Restaurants survive on more than just food; hospitality is key to making guests feel welcome, wanted and valued. It's also a large part of the dining experience, as important as the food. Sometimes even more so.

The waitress who walks by the table, mumbling, "Everythingfinehere?". Normal, right? It's happens almost every time we dine out. Wrong. We're taught that for people to think you care, you need to be more specific. "I'm just checking in. How is your Duck Fat Foccacia Bacon Burger, sir?".

Guests are not supposed to wait more than two fleeting minutes from when their food arrives on the table for a check-in, either. If the food isn't to their liking and they have to sit around for ten minutes to say so, your guests won't consider that a quality experience.

Several people probably went to the restaurant, following the siren songs of television and helping a restaurant in need. Some of these people probably would not have gone otherwise, the Facebook announcement worked and in they came.

So they went, they ate, some were interviewed while the rest were ignored by the television people who turned out to be quite dull. No introduction of the television people, no instructions. Do you act natural, wave to the camera, start a food fight (that would get some ratings!). Hard to enjoy your lunch when there's a guy with a giant camera attached to his shoulder, following a Diva who is interviewing the people who are supposed to be taking care of you while you eat.

After all that, all many guests did was eat in a strange situation. They weren't picked for an interview. Nobody autographed their menu. No event happened, not even a free mini-cup of the Super Sauce to go with their meals. They didn't get to shake the Diva's hand, ask who does her hair, get a recommendation for a plastic surgeon. They ate. They paid. They left. No thank you message from the restaurant awaiting them on Facebook. The "thank you to the people who were interviewed" message was not directed at them.

What kind of appreciation did that convey, to someone who might have driven twenty miles round trip out of their way that day to help fill a restaurant? Yeah, they might feel like the Chopped Liver special.

Did the restaurant ever even realize that they could have done better? I doubt it.

A chef instructor once said that the problem with Sacramento restaurants isn't their food. It's their management. Nobody trained the waitress to greet people with a smile, check on their food quickly to see that it was to their liking, and probably other things that I haven't even learned yet. In this case, the management neglected to thank all the people who came - thus missing a great advertising opportunity and a way to firm up their relationship with their guests.

A simple message, four little lines, and everyone would have felt appreciated. Something like this:

We would like to thank all of our fans who made a special trip to support us during the shooting of DivaDoesFood. We'd also like to congratulate those lucky few who were chosen by the production crew for an interview. I would have put you all on the show, but that's completely up to the crew. The episode will air on [date and time], so please tune in to see if you've gained a few seconds of fame.

That's it. Everyone thanked, people interviewed recognized, the restaurant's lack of control in this clarified. Something to take the sting out of being snobbed by some makeup-covered diva while eating in a strange situation.

If you want to really appreciate restaurants, culinary arts and hospitality management training is probably not a good idea. First, you become critical of the food, with the dreaded "I could have done this better at home!" syndrome infiltrating itself into your appreciation of the food. Then management training begins, and you notice a frequent lack of training. It's everywhere. Small places, large chains, upscale establishments - all have gaps. Some have chasms.

I'm only two weeks into the semester and I'm noticing faults that I always assumed were normal. Lack of a friendly greeting by wait staff, messages sent that do as much harm as good, total lack of organization or routines for handling things when the wait time is thirty minutes over what was quoted, coupled with total indifference... Where was management?

At another restaurant, after a forty-five minute wait - already fifteen minutes over the estimated time - nonchalantly informed us that there would be at least another half hour of standing outside the restaurant. In the cold. The chain was too cheap to build a waiting area large enough to contain everyone trying to get in. We left, dropping off our buzzer at the hostess station, staffed by three bubble-headed staffers who never made any effort to welcome us. Naturally, they had no reaction when we left. We went down the street to a wonderful little Thai restaurant that was more than happy to have our business. Rescued from the Outback.


After reading this, you might surmise that I view television personalities, and to some extent their entire industry as a parade of puffed-up poseurs, searchers of sound bites who shun substance in favor of frivolity. That would be quite accurate. It's an industry that seems to fear truth, controversy, hard questions and presenting reality. They rush everywhere they go, never slowing enough to find what's important and present it to the world. Too much work. They'll often interview a restaurant but fail to really describe the food and how it came about - and why you might want to go there - in favor of a personal interest story.

As a potential diner, do I really care that the restaurant's name came from a drunken Scrabble game gone wrong, that the owner met his wife in a rest stop, that the waitress has twelve cats, all black and white, or that the owner's favorite colors are green and magenta because they remind him of Hawaii? No. Did I want to see some typical plates, learn what's in them, learn about the thought that went into their preparation? Yes. Will I see that? Probably not. Hard to show the food when you're doing head shots and sound bites.

The show title is fictitious, of course. The real title includes the Diva's name.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


My assignment: cupcakes. Forty-eight of them, all identical. This, my first task as chef for advanced baking, lands me with something I almost never eat. Cupcakes. Often sugar bombs, rarely containing enough chocolate, these things were inflicted on me as a child, to the point where I developed a real aversion to the things. So, my mission impossible is to take something I've eaten only rarely and transform it into something I will love, that people will rave about, that perhaps other cupcake agnostics such as myself will find good enough to redeem these things in their eyes.

So, I started with an idea. Not so sweet. It can't be savory because then it falls into the black hole of biscuitry, never to escape. But what if it were more European than American. Based on something un-cupcake like. Baba au rhum, for example.

Baba au rhum, first of all, is yeasted. That makes it similar to kugelhopf or any other rich bread. More in my territory that sweet cakes. Then the cooked bread gets dosed with rum syrup. If we were in Europe instead of a community college still firmly under the yoke of prohibition, it would get a final dousing of pure rum.  So, a bit of raisin frosting, a cup to hold some form of liquid, probably rum syrup that's been simmered to evaporate its alcohol. Of course, if some of these things did manage to escape the bounds of ARC, someone could conceivably heat a bit of rum, flame it, pour it in the cup, blow out the flame, drink, then devour the rum-soaked cake. Sounds good to me.

The firs' thing to do was test the recipe. Then put abitta rum in there. Taste. Needa bit more. Not sweet enuf. Make rum syrup. Too sweet. Slosh a bitta rum on. Yeah, that's tasty. Wait til the real thing is made with the raisin frosting and cup thing. For now, not a bad thing at all. Adultz only cuz thazalotta rum. Juzza itty bitty cakcup s'all I ate. S'all offizer, I dina drink a drop!

I think overall the dough formula works. With the sweeter frosting and syrup, this will take cupcakes into new territory. Not just for kids any more, silly rabbit!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Garlic & Brandy Sausages

The best thing about making your own sausages is that you can do what you want, add what you want and create something that you either couldn't find or would cost you five times more than the ingredients.
These were the result of looking at pre-made sausages, checking the price and saying "wait!". About $4.00 worth of pork shoulder, some spices, some herbs (mostly from the garden) and a generous dash of brandy: something good, cheap and unique.

This is what went into them:
  • Pork shoulder
  • Salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper
  • Fresh garlic, fine mince. Be generous.
  • Fresh thyme, from the garden
  • Fresh sage, also from the garden
  • Dried oregano, harvested in the garden last summer and left to dry in the garage
  • Pâté spices, also known as four spice: cinnamon, powdered ginger, nutmeg and cloves. Mixed at home because I don't like buying blends - buying individual spices lets you create your own blends as needed for greater flexiblity
  • Urfa chili- a dark, almost coffee-like dried chili.
  • Roasted cumin seeds, whole. Just a few, so every so often the flavor profile will change.
  • Brandy (Cognac or Armagnac would work, too). This was cheaper.
  • Dried milk powder - this is a kind of protein binder.
  • Pork sausage casings, soaked and rinsed. Don't get the foolish type with plastic thingies inside the casings. Just simple casings packed in salt will do fine.
These could have had more pork fat added, but I decided to keep them lean.

Just grind everything up, fry a patty to taste, adjust the seasonings and stuff some hog casings with the forcemeat. 

Let them dry in the fridge for a day or so, then grill. Don't overcook or they'll be dry, since the extra fat was omitted.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

El Tepeyac Cafe arrives in Northern California!

El Tepeyac's logo, enjoying a burrito

I've been going to El Tepeyac Cafe since 1978 (more here), when I started college and was introduced to the place by a burrito-crazed friend. I try to eat there at least once every time I go to Los Angeles, 400 miles away. This was a good, safe distance since eating burritos that weigh almost as much as the typical house cat does not qualify as dieting. More like a burrito binge. Safe, if only done a few times per year.

The owner, Manuel, did mention something about an El Tepeyac opening in Northern California somewhere around Sacramento, but that was probably a year ago, and since the place didn't exist I figured that they'd changed their mind. Until last week. There is was, in letters big as the Internet: Panchito's El Tepeyac Cafe now open in Rocklin.

Rocklin? OhmyGodImgoingtobloatuplikeawhale! Three hundred eighty miles closer. A mere 25 minutes. A granny on a bicycle could go there and back in a day. Jump in the car, five stomach growls and I'm there, ordering a Hollenbeck or a Machaca burrito or taquitos or...

Saturday arrived, and I couldn't restrain myself any longer. As the lunch hour arrived, we sped to Rocklin, anticipating a significant wait. I thought we'd hang out in line with other fans, swapping burrito stories (...Remember the time you dropped the tray and scattered exploded burrito bits all over the patio..."). We arrived. Empty. The open sign glowed in the window. We approached the door. Unlocked. We entered. "Sit wherever you like," said Amanda, the waitress. One table was occupied by a couple. Everything else was a surreal emptiness.

In the L.A. restaurant, the wait is part of the ritual. Nobody just walks into an empty El Tepeyac Cafe and sits down. You stand in line, maybe say, "hello" to Manuel, chat.

Yet, here we were, in a booth,with menus in our hands, Panchito's El Tepeyac Cafe written on them. We were indeed in the right place.

I managed to avoid saying, "I don't need no stinkin' menu". Good thing, because Pancho added a burrito! Aptly named Pancho's Nightmare, it's picante. Five chili variety picante. I didn't order it, though. I wanted to compare So Cal to Nor Cal, so Hollenbeck it was.

When the luscious, steaming mound arrived, dripping with chili verde sauce, its tortilla bulging to the point of bursting, it was instant flashback to L.A. This is indeed a Hollenbeck! I sliced through the tortilla, its thin flesh yielding to the knife, exposing the first layers of flavor. Subsequent bites reached the bright green guacamole, the ingredient that really makes these things blast off. I popped a morsel of tender pork into my mouth. Heat. This burrito has a bit of chili in it. Could it be?

Thirty years ago, one friend would eat about a third of his burrito and begin to sweat. As he ate, his forehead transformed into a shower head as the chilis affected his metabolism. He hasn't sweated like that in years, and I found the East L.A. Hollenbecks tamer, too.

Now, here I was feeling the old bite like the Hollenbeck of the seventies, the once familiar tang of capsaicin-infused peppers returning like a long-lost friend. This was more like the burrito of my youth, a bit fiery yet balanced by cool guacamole and other ingredients into a whole that more than equaled the sum of its parts. This was the burrito I dreamed of while living in France, savory spicy cool and rich all bound together by a thin membrane of tortilla.

When I was twentysomething, I found that eating at Manuel's more than once per week leads to a noticeable increase in mass. I suppose I could have ordered lighter things than massive burritos, but I didn't. They were my first love, more faithful than that girl with the long hair who drove a two-tone Datsun 510. I probably went there with her, though. I probably went there with just about everyone I know in L.A.

Most of those people are forgotten, but Hollenbecks are eternal. They're not Mexico authentic, since they were invented in Los Angeles by a true master of the burrito craft. Authenticity? Who cares? I can get tacos al pastor, carnitas, buche, carne asada, chili verde and the usual gang of suspects just about anywhere nowadays. What I can't get is a Hollenbeck, unless I go to El Tepeyac. Only one restaurant on the entire planet where I can eat this. That's special.

It's funny though. Every Mexican restaurant has a combination burrito. Many have rice, beans, meat, and even guacamole, yet none come close to the flavor of a Hollenbeck. Maybe it's the sour cream, that Hollenbecks don't have. It's not something I generally want in my burrito anyway. It's cold. It takes up space better reserved for a big ladle of guacamole. Yeah, the guac is also cold, but it adds a lot more flavor and has a better mouthfeel than sour cream. There's also the chili blend, another unique to El Tepeyac flavor profile that happens to marry incredibly well with the avocado.

Don't get me wrong - I like sour cream. I just don't want it in my burrito, competing with an excellent dose of guacamole. It's fine on nachos, whatever. Just spare me the creamy stuff in my burrito.

Time will tell if Northern California, or more specifically Rocklin, will embrace this food as their new icon of delicious. They should, but then we're a long way from East L.A. If good food is indeed universal, they should be full in a month or two and packed soon thereafter. I certainly hope so, because I really don't want to drive 400 miles every time I'm jonesin' for a burrito.

Panchito's El Tepeyac Cafe. 6835 Five Star Blvd, Rocklin, CA 95677
(916) 625-0165

You can visit their web site here.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Bagels, Mark II

They're back. Chewier, seedier and shinier than before. They've got poppy, sesame, kala jeera, cumin, nigella, garlic, and fennel pollen. Not all on the same bagel, though. That would be overkill.

This time, more proofing, more gluten, less water for better chew. Not so much gluten that it's like chewing on a rubber band, but enough to know that these are bagels, not dinner rolls.

The stiffer, higher gluten formula also allows rolling longer spindles which in turn make bigger holes. Unlike donuts, bagels are rolled then joined, so they never had anything in the center. Just air.

This time, the formula went like this:

SAF yeast: 0.6%
Water: 55%
Kosher or sea salt: 1.9%
Vegetable oil: 3.8%
Dry malt: 2.5%
Bread flour: 100%
Vita-wheat gluten flour 5%

This is a baker's formula, where the flour is always 100% and the other ingredients are in relation to it. In other words, if you had 1 lb (or 500 g) of flour you would just do the math to figure out the other ingredients based on their ratio to the flour. Yeah, that can sound a bit like rocket science, but it's not. Just a day in the life of a baker, actually.

Adding more of the gluten flour will increase chewiness, but reduce workability. Use this flour pure and you'll have something very similar to a ball of rubber that will probably end up in the trash. The idea is to find the perfect level of chewiness. These bagels could be a bit more chewy, so maybe 8% next time?

Once you have the dough, let it proof for at least an hour. This batch proofed around five hours at 65°F - but 18 hours at 50° would probably work, too.

Once proofed, the dough gets cut into 3 - 1/2 ounce portions, then rolled into spindle shapes. Cross the ends over each other and roll to seal using three fingers.

The now-bagel shaped objects proof another 15-20 minutes, while you put some baking soda into a large quantity of water and bring it to a boil. This is also a good time to heat your oven to 425°F.

The bagels go in the boiling water. This time, they sank and then rose to the surface. Too dense and they'll stay on the bottom; less dense and they'll float from the beginning. They just stay there long enough to puff up a bit, then out to drain.

Once boiled, they're placed on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and dusted with whatever kinds of seeds or toppings you like, then off to the oven. In about 15-20 minutes, they'll be browned and ready to come out.

The nice thing is that, despite the seemingly complicated steps, bagels aren't that hard to make, and they're a lot quicker to produce than artisan bread... unless you want to mix techniques. But that will be another subject entirely.