Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Little Behind on the Blogging

It's been pretty busy lately so I've gotten a little behind on the blogging. Sorry about that! So here's the scoop from the past week or so:

All is Quiet on the Exam Front
We've had to take one big exam and a quiz recently and I've passed both of those. Hooray! I wish I did a little better on the exam though. Also, we finally received our results from the ServSafe certification exam that we took the second week of school. Everyone in the class passed and received their certificates, so that is very good news for all. We have one more quiz on Monday (after Thanksgiving) and things will start to get cookin' — literally. Unfortunately, the quiz will be covering measurements and formula cost equations. Math. Goody. I just barely have a grip on the concept, so hopefully Monday's quiz won't have any unpleasant surprises that will lead my mathematically-challenged mind to a failing grade.

Written Reports and Pathetic Presentations
This week our class had to turn in a paper and give a ten-minute presentation on important figures in the culinary world. Our subjects were chosen by drawing and included such notable figures as Escoffier, Le Nôtre and Ewald Notter.

I drew Antoine Carême, the oldest of our research subjects and the first celebrity chef. I actually enjoyed researching Carême because he was such a fascinating person and he made such a huge impact on the culinary world. He was known as the "Chef of Kings and the King of Chefs" because of his many years of service to royalty (he baked Napoleon's wedding cake!) and his extraordinary ability to create elaborate art pieces from sugar. He is also credited for writing the first cookbook, creating haute cuisine and inventing the chef hat. Interesting, huh?

I really enjoyed writing the paper, but presenting it is another story. I am TERRIBLE at giving presentations. I am definitely not skilled at spontaneously forming concise, well-structured sentences in a timed, formal presentation with just some notes. Add a sprinkle of nervousness and the whole report feels like organized chaos in my head that comes out of mouth as random facts. Put me in a casual setting and I can prattle on about Carême easily, but trying to recite the majority of my paper without reading from it is just stressful. Plus, I tend to talk fast as it is and I talk even faster when I'm nervous. I swear I did my 10-minutes in about 5. I just hope the whole thing didn't look as awkward as I felt it did. I'm pretty confident that I wrote a strong, solid paper and my celebrity tabloid-style handout on Carême was fun. Hopefully that will compensate for my pathetic presentation skills!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Exam Time, Ganache and Piping

Is That Your Final Answer?
Today we had an exam on some of the topics that we've covered over the past week. This includes everything from the science behind baking, the anatomy of wheat, a gluttony of gluten facts and lots on leavening. It covered a pretty broad spectrum, but I think I did okay. We'll find out tomorrow.

Devil's Food Dipping and Piping
Today we took our tea-infused Devil's Food Cupcakes and dipped them in ganache made from scratch (high quality chocolate heated with cream). We each got to dip two cupcakes, which was a lot of fun and everyone seemed to do a great job with it. Because chocolate-dipped cupcakes look tasty but boring, Chef Todd gave us a chance to test our piping skills by letting us decorate the cakes. First he showed us how to make a piping cone out of triangles of parchment paper. Luckily, I learned this skill at the bakery (thanks Paige for the head-start!) so I was able to help others a bit. Then chef took a piping cone and filled it with heated white chocolate and showed us how to make rough horizontal lines and spirals. I was pretty happy with the way mine came out, but I have had a bit more practice. STILL need much more practice though.

A Tasty Save
Remember the disgusting tea that I mentioned in the previous post, the one that we were to infuse in a pound cake? Well, that pound cake got a reprieve! Chef Todd decided against it and found some wonderful-smelling Chai tea to use instead. The result was a fluffy and unique-tasting pound cake that we each got to try and take a bit home. Nice save chef!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pizza Heaven, Devil's Food & Tea That Tastes Like Hell

A Slice of Heaven
We learned to make fresh pizza dough based on a recipe by Wolfgang Puck. We each got to make individual pizzas using 7 ounces of the dough that we made (and proofed) the day before. We were shown how to roll the dough into a ball and let it rest in order for the dough to rise for a little while. Then we rolled it out and some of us docked (perforate with a spiked roller) the dough, but chef said it wasn't required for the small pizzas. Then we got to top them with sauce, cheese and a small selection of toppings, including fresh basil, zucchini, onion and pepperoni. We were all thrilled that we got to eat a real lunch today and didn't have to survive on snacks until after class.

Tea with the Devil's Food
Wednesday night, CAA is hosting a seminar about tea and coffee, so we planned to make some tea-infused desserts. The first dessert was Devil's Food Cupcakes infused with very fragrant loose-leaf Vanilla Ceylon tea. The tea was infused by heating it with the milk that is part of the cake recipe (or formula, as chefs call it). If you do this, you must re-measure the infused milk after you strain and press it from the raw tea leaves because you will lose some of the liquid to the leaves. If you don't do this, your cake might end up a bit dry so be sure to add back the missing milk. The final result was a subtle hint of tea that adds a nice twist to traditional Devil's Food.

Hell has a Flavor
Next, we set up for the second tea-infused dessert — a Pound Cake — that we will make tomorrow. For this cake, we decided to use Lung Ching Dragonwell Green Tea to infuse with the milk. I've never tried this particular kind of green tea, but it's safe to say that I'm not a fan. From what I've read about it online, it's supposed to be a mellow, earthy, mildly sweet tea. Perhaps we had a rancid batch or something, but ours had a horribly bitter, spinach-like taste. We are going to go ahead and use it in the Pound Cake, but we will cut it in half and maybe add some honey to mask the bitterness. Hopefully, it will blend in with the other cake ingredients and take it down to a more palatable flavor that won't result in people making faces and desperately trying to wash out the lingering bitter taste. I guess we'll find out tomorrow!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A New Face at Paige's Place

I've invited my culinary classmate Margaret to also earn her externship hours at Paige's Bakehouse. She lives in Round Rock and had heard me talking about working at a bakery there. Working with Paige has been a huge blessing for me and I believe that you should always try to share a good thing. This way, Paige gets free extra help for the busy holiday season, Margaret gets a great place to hone her baking experience and we all make a new friend. Win-win-win! I also think it will be great to have another classmate to share the externship with because we can bounce ideas off of each other and compare notes and experiences from class.

Who Says Three is a Crowd?
Margaret stopped by Paige's on Friday to check the place out and see if she would like to complete her externship there. I'd told Paige that Margaret was coming by and was interested in externing there too. I also let her know that I didn't mind sharing with another classmate, so long as it didn't affect my externship hours. I think Margaret will fit in just fine to the wacky fun that is Paige's Bakehouse.

So when Margaret dropped by, Paige invited her into the kitchen with us to observe and help out a bit. Paige had given me the duty of making the batter for a yellow, white and chocolate cake (for three different customer orders) from scratch on my own. Since this is now officially for the externship, she is allowing me to do even more than before, so that I gain experience...hooray! All three actually came out pretty good with only one minor hiccup on the chocolate cake. We doubled the recipe, but I must have forgotten to double the flour because the batter was watery. Paige added more flour to it though and it came out great!

Jack Daniel's Apple Pie and Yeasty Ciabatta Bread
Once that was finished, she asked Margaret if there was anything she would like to make. She chose to make a pie to take home to her husband and Paige suggested making her very popular Jack Daniel's Apple Pie. Ryan ordered one recently for his potluck lunch and it was a huge hit. I've never tried it, but I've helped her make it and it smells fantastic! Plus, it's the biggest pie I've ever seen — it's tall and very heavy. I helped prep the apples for the pie while Margaret observed the process since this was her first day.

I told Paige that Margaret was interested in baking breads, so Paige suggested we make ciabatta bread. The day before, Paige had made some yeast starter, which is live yeast that is grown with warm water and flour (and you can add yeast to boost it but that is optional). Live yeast starter can last forever so long as you keep it fed (remove half and add fresh flour and warm water), keep it warm (but not hot) and store it correctly. The older the starter, the better. She told us that some people have starter that had been made centuries ago and has been passed on since then! Paiges' starter batch was only a few days old though.

The yeast gave the uncooked ciabatta dough an almost gelatinous consistency that felt like a wobbly water balloon — or as the three of us giggled — a silicone implant. See, I told you the bakery is wacky fun. Paige then formed the dough into a loaf shape, sprinkled the top with flour, covered with a clean towel to protect it and put it in to bake. The end result was a very soft and tasty, loose-crumbed bread.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Exams, Biscotti and Fondant Made From Scratch

Whip Out That #2 Pencil
Our class is FINALLY finished going over the ServSafe book and completed the exam this morning. It was about 80 questions long, all multiple choice and not too difficult. According to those who have taken the SafeServ exam before for previous food service jobs, the questions were a bit harder than they had been in the past. Hopefully everyone passed, but we won't know for a few weeks. Cross your fingers!

Biscotti Break
Chef Todd made a batch of almond biscotti which we got to sample today. It's surprisingly simple to make considering how much your local coffee shop charges for them. Plus, the scratch batch was MUCH softer and tastier than what you normally find in a cafe. If you are a fan of biscotti, consider making your own. Just be sure to bake it twice — the first time as a solid log-shaped roll, then slice up the roll and bake a second time at a low temperature to get the crunch by drying it out.

Is Anyone Fond of Fondant?

The evening pastry class (they are further along in the curriculum) is working on wedding cakes as a final exam. So Chef Todd decided to make a large batch of fondant made from scratch so that the class will have it to use in lieu of frosting. Fondant can be purchased pre-made but it is VERY expensive for a small amount and it really isn't hard to make it yourself.

Most people that I know don't like the taste of fondant and often wonder why it is used at all. While it's true that fondant pales in comparison to buttercream frosting in terms of taste, it is great for achieving the clean, polished look that is often desired for wedding cakes. Buttercream can be smoothed out as well, but it would take a lot more time to perfect it and that could impact the cost of your cake. Also, Buttercream doesn't hold up as well as fondant when placed outdoors or in heat. Because the consistency of fondant is comparable to modeling clay, you also have more flexibility in design and for creating figures and other decorative pieces. So basically, it all comes down to aesthetics.

To make fondant yourself, you just need gelatin (for consistency, the gelatin that comes in plastic-looking sheet form is preferred over powdered), lots of powdered sugar, corn syrup and water. That's it! First, you'll want to melt the gelatin down into a liquid. Place the gelatin sheets in a container with a bit of cold water. If you dump the gelatin sheets in all at once, they tend to clump together and end up with a gelatin mass. So instead, place the gelatin sheets in the container individually to avoid that. The sheets will break down into a malleable goop which you should place in a strainer and squeeze to remove excess water. Then you will place this glob of gelatin in a container that will sit inside a pot of simmering — not boiling — water. Heat until the gelatin is liquified.

Then you will sift a LOT of powdered sugar to make sure that there aren't any clumps that might make your fondant lumpy. Then mix the powdered sugar, corn syrup and gelatin in a large mixer until it turns into a modeling clay-like consistency. Water can be added if it's a bit dry. Now you have fondant for your cakes, cupcakes or other baked goods. Fondant dries out very easily, so be sure to wrap it in plastic and store in an air-tight container. If stored properly, fondant can last a very long time.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Creme Anglaise and "The Surgeon"

After spending the first half of class finishing the last three chapters of our giant food safety book (the exam is on Tuesday), the class headed to the kitchen to observe Chef Todd's culinary skills.

Creme Anglaise (pictured)

Chef began by showing us how to make a Creme Anglaise (French for English cream), which is a vanilla sauce that you can use as a base or pour on top of pastry or fruit (pictured). The ingredient list — eggs, milk, sugar and vanilla beans — makes the recipe seem deceivingly simple, but it is extremely temperature sensitive. If you overheat the mixture or lapse in stirring then it is very easy to end up with scrambled eggs instead of a creamy souffle topping. The final product looks a bit like eggnog and has a similar consistency to it as well. Chef Todd ended up with a little bit of scrambled egg when he got carried away explaining the procedure and forgot to stir for a moment. It was just a small amount though, so he strained it and still had plenty of tasty sauce to use. Sauce Anglaise is often called the "mother sauce" because it is the base of many recipes such as creme brulee and ice cream.

Candied Orange Rind and My Mad Surgery Skills

The next thing that Chef wanted to show us was how to make candied orange rind. You can use any citrus fruit such as lemon or lime (grapefruit isn't recommended because of bitterness), but orange is what we had on hand. He had each of us take a turn in prepping the rind by taking a paring knife and removing the bitter white part of the rind.

When it was my turn with the knife, my OCD kicked in and I became very intently focused on meticulously removing every inch of the white of the rind. I hadn't realized that a group of my classmates were watching my overly-precise handiwork until one commented, "She's so intense when she does it. It's like watching a surgery". I can't help it! I tend to be slow in a kitchen because I'm not a sloppy chopper and I like things to be balanced, clean and even. I told her that's why I want to be a cake decorator, because I can easily direct all of my focus into perfecting small details. With more knife practice, I can eventually get the same result but much faster. All in due time!

Once the rinds were ready, we put them in a boiling salt water to simmer and soften. Then you put in water with corn syrup and a bit of sugar and boil it again. Once that is done, we have to let them dry overnight. On Monday, we will dip the dried candied rinds into chocolate and our treat will be complete.

Caramel and Cleaning
With the remaining time, Chef Todd made a caramel sauce using heavy whipping cream, sugar, a splash of corn syrup and a squeeze of lemon juice to prevent crystallization. He even let us take some home! We ended the day with our first kitchen clean-up. We divided into teams and were shown how to clean everything from wiping down the tables to sanitizing and towel-drying the mop bucket. The chefs like things cleaned and put away with military precision. Not my favorite activity, but it all gets done in about 15 minutes with teams (30 minutes for a deep clean).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Culinary tool kits, creme brulee & poached pears

It was like Christmas morning when all of the students received their culinary tool kits — a small (quite heavy) suitcase with three sections stuffed full of all sorts of fun kitchen utensils and doodads. Unfortunately, the only thing we could use from the kit was the thermometer which we learned to calibrate in ice water. Not nearly as fun as baking, but it was a nice break from the hours of monotonous classroom lecture on food safety. While that information is important, it's extremely dull in the early morning.

Today was the first day to observe the chef in the kitchen. First, we got to snack on some pumpkin creme brulee, cake, eclairs and mousse made by the evening pastry class (they started school months ago and are further along in the curriculum). Delicious! After our snack break, Chef Tony showed us how to make poached pears in Cabernet Sauvignon. He basically brought wine, oranges, lemon and vanilla bean to a boil and then put in the pears until they were soft enough to easily put a toothpick through them. The kitchen smelled lovely, like mulled wine. We'll get to try the pears tomorrow after they soak in the wine mixture overnight. Can't wait!

Monday, November 2, 2009

First day of school!

Today was the first day of class at the Culinary Academy of Austin. Not a whole lot to report since the first few weeks primarily cover safety and cleanliness. I did get my uniform though! I really like the white chef's jacket (though it's just a tad big on me) and neckerchief (MUST learn to tie a Windsor knot!), but the baggy, houndstooth-patterned pants and chunky shoes are far from flattering. Oh well, I'll just try to look in the mirror from the waist up only.

The photo below shows the pastry kitchen where the pastry arts students learn to bake tasty treats (there is a larger kitchen in the adjacent room for the culinary classes). This photo was taken during the CAA Halloween open house, so no, it doesn't normally have balloons and silly ghosts hanging about. This is where I'll be spending most of the next six months with ten other future bakers. So far all of the other students seem really nice and vary in age and experience. It's a good, diverse mix of ladies, yes, all ladies.

But before we hit the kitchen, we have to hit the books for about 2-3 weeks. We have a food safety exam next Tuesday. It's been a while since I've had to study for an exam, so it's a little strange trying to get back into study mode post-college. Most of the information is pretty common sense , but it's the numerical information like time/temperatures/measurements that I have trouble retaining. Stupid number-resistant brain! It sounds like most of the math that I'll be involved with will be relatively basic so I should be okay. Also, reading about all of the foodborne pathogens —while interesting —kind of makes me nervous about eating anything that I didn't see prepared.

I'm still helping out at Paige's Bakehouse on Fridays since I don't have class those days. It will be great to have a place to apply my new knowledge and maybe learn more about those subjects from her. I'm forever grateful that Paige was nice enough to mentor me through my career change. I can't wait to see how this evolves over the next few months. I'll be sure to keep my readers posted though!

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