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Archive for the ‘Culinary School’ Category

Right now I’d like to talk about something that is high on the minds of me and my fellow classmates at ICE; something those not familiar with the culinary world may have never even heard of. Stages.

No, not like the kind you danced on during you’re four-year-old ballet recital. Pronounced stah-jeh, a stage, or a trail, is essentially a day-long interview / try out that most culinary professionals must do before securing a job, or an externship in a kitchen. Right now, my classmates and I are getting into the full swing of stages as we visit various kitchens and try to determine where we’d fit the best for our externships, which will begin in January!

This week I had my very first stage in, not a restaurant, but a test kitchen for a food magazine here in New York City. Again, I won’t name it, but let’s just say this publication has been in print for over 50 years, publishes around 60 recipes in each issue, and inspires its readers to “enjoy their meal.” I was exceptionally lucky to get to spend the day learning about and helping out in their test kitchen, and can honestly say it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

So what exactly does a stage entail? Well, it really varies from kitchen to kitchen. Some places, you might just be shadowing a chef or cook, observing and learning about what they do. Other places, you might help with prep work, stocking the walk-in, or other low-level tasks. If you’re very lucky, you might get to actually cook a dish, though I hear this is rare. On my trail, I learned the ins-and-outs of the test kitchen, got to know the team, helped prepare for a tasting with the magazine’s editors, and did the “mise en place” for several recipes the kitchen was testing that day. It was a long, labor intensive day on my feet, but I loved every second of it, and the day truly reaffirmed that this is what I want to do with my life – s0mething I’ve never felt after any of my interviews in the marketing world! I mean, what could be better than spending the day in the kitchen, trouble-shooting fabulous recipes, tasting, analyzing and adjusting until you get them just right? I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but for me, it seems like a dream job!

After my trail, still riding high off of my experience, I headed straight to ICE for an amazing class –  cake decorating! On Monday night we had prepared lemon, sponge, and chocolate cakes, as well as plain, milk and semi-sweet chocolate whipped cream and swiss meringue – so many luscious sugary confections that we stored in the ICE walk in as the building blocks for Tuesday night’s class. Then, armed with our offset spatulas and piping bags, we set to work.

I’ve always loved to bake, but in all honestly, I’ve always stayed in my comfort zone – cookies, muffins, cupcakes, even pies. Something about cakes, especially ones made from scratch, seemed complex and intimidating to me – heck, even my cousin who sells her elaborate, beautifully decorated multi-tiered cakes for parties uses boxed cake mix because it just tastes so darn good! But after Monday and Tuesday night, cake-baking and decorating has been completely demystified for me, and I stand corrected at how easy it was. With Chef Sim doing his usual job of eloquently simplifying techniques that look complicated, cake decorating wound up being easily my best class of pastry, and here’s what we accomplished:

First up was the tender, moist lemon cakes from Monday. We each prepared a nine-inch cake, which we cut in half using a serrated knife. Then, we beat down some Swiss Meringue butter cream and flavored it – I chose lemon oil to flavor mine, because I’m pretty much a lemon junkie when it comes to dessert. We also set some raspberry jam to melt in a sauce pan to decorate the cake, rather than using chocolate like other classmates opted to.

The lemon cake layers were doused with a rum-simple-syrup to moisten them (a must for refrigerated cakes), and then in between the layers went a thick smear of lemon butter cream. Then, we frosted the sides and top of the cake with more butter cream, and pressed the sides into candied slivered almonds. The top was decorated with butter cream florets, raspberry dots, and macadamia nuts. I decided to dub this my “Sailor Moon Cake” (I date myself) because of its whimsical appearance. It’s super girly, and I’m super proud of it.

Next up was a Torta de Spana, or the Italian version “Spanish Bread” – a flavorful three-layer sponge cake filled with semi-sweet chocolate whipped cream, raspberries and strawberries. The sides of this towering confection were pressed with shredded coconut, and it was topped with candied almond slices and powdered sugar. Overkill? Perhaps, as my partner Leigh Ann dubbed this my “Yeti Cake.” Still, my roommate Cara brought it to work the next day and her coworkers went crazy for it, so appearance isn’t everything. And I still think it was cute, in a retro sort of way.

The grand finale was, most appropriately, a rich, dense low-laying chocolate cake with feathered chocolate ganache. Making this cake highlighted two pastry techniques that are much easier than they seem: a) making ganache, and b) feathering designs.

So… ganache is basically heavy cream and chocolate. That’s it. Really?! Seriously!?! The fact that I didn’t know this is sort of depressing, because knowing this means you can easily make some of the most impressive truffles, cakes, and chocolate desserts ever in record time. To make this very chic cake, we brought one pint of heavy cream to a boil, poured it over one pound of semi-sweet chocolate disks, and let it sit for a few minutes before whisking it smooth. Working quickly, with the cake on a cooling rack, we poured the ganache over the cake, a la Chocolat, and smoothed it with a small offset spatula. Before the ganache set, we streaked the cakes with white chocolate, and, using a paring knife, gently dragged the blade through the chocolate in opposite directions to create the signature swirls. The result was pretty fabulous.

And then, I had three cakes to eat! With one that’s already been devoured by Cara’s hungry coworkers and two to go, I’m counting my blessings that I’ll have guests in town this weekend and an apartment full of hungry Halloween party-comers on Saturday. Happy Halloween!

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It’s been a while, which is usually what happens when I spend way more time cooking than having time to think about or write about it. Cooking, and attempting to get my future culinary career on course has been my primary concern the past couple of weeks, and for good reason. It’s hard to believe, but in just over two months ICE will be turning us loose on the culinary industry, and we’ll be fending for ourselves. Despite any fears of being a” little fish in a big pond” (sort of unavoidable in New York City, regardless of the industry) or extended “funemployment” while searching for a new job, I’m insanely excited for this next big step in my life. And although graduation is hell-bent on getting here before I have time to say “mise en place,” taking a step back and trying to enjoy the awesome experiences I’ve been having has been a priority. Here’s a quick recap of some of the awesome “Cheffy” things I’ve been doing over the past few weeks.

Wild Eggs Brunch at the James Beard House (photos from Joan Garvin Photography)

A few Sundays back, I signed up to volunteer at the James Beard House for a brunch event they were hosting for about eighty guests. I was pretty excited to get to explore and experience this historic culinary landmark and institution for myself – when you’re a culinary arts student in NYC, it’s pretty much “James Beard this” and “James Beard that” from the onset. Let’s just say a lot of famous (and infamous) chefs have walked through those doors.

I was lucky enough to have a really positive, awesome learning and cooking experience at JBF! The culinary team from Wild Eggs, a restaurant based out of Louisville, Kentucky, was in town and treating the guests of the Beard House to a multi-course, decadent brunch where the feature ingredient was –  you guessed it! – EGGS! Every dish had eggs incorporated in one way or another, but it was so interesting to see first hand the creative ways eggs were used beyond the traditional scrambled, or sunny side up. There were paper-thin omelets that were rolled into sushi, eggs that were poached fifty at a time, only to be topped with paper-thin shaved white truffle, and eggs whisked into crepes that were topped with an other-worldly bourbon-apple compote.

Another show stealer from this event? Everything Muffins. The idea behind this confection is genius – basically, it’s everything that would go on top of an everything bagel (my personal favorite), stirred into buttery muffin batter. It’s loaded with poppy seeds, sesame seeds, onion, and garlic, and with just a hint of sweetness, the contrast is dead on. I’ve definitely considered traveling down to Louisville just to snag a couple more of these muffins.

All in all, working at JBF was such a great experience. I felt like I was finally getting a real sense of the pace at which a restaurant kitchen operates, and got a sneak peek at how things that seemed impossible, like poaching fifty eggs at once, or plating hundreds of hor d’oeurves in a two-by-four space, actually gets done. The icing on the cake was how fun, welcoming, and professional the Wild Eggs team was to work with – I’m sure not all chefs are this down to earth and yet inspiring at once, but these guys definitely made the day a great one!

StarChefs International Chef Congress

The following sunday I was hitting the pavement bright and early once again, this time for the StarChefs International Chefs Congress, a culinary industry expo held once a year in NYC. I’d say StarChefs is a little bit more targeted to culinary professionals than the general public, like how the NY Food and Wine Festival might be, but I still think that any culinarian would enjoy this event. As an ICE student, I was impressed to see how many other students, as well as instructors, were at StarChefs, working hard along seasoned chefs to make the event a success.

I quickly realized that at a huge event like StarChefs, volunteering would become whatever it was I chose to make it; at an event so big, it was easy to get lost in a shuffle, and one could easily spend several hours just chopping lettuce in a back room. I was lucky enough to get introduced to some chefs from US Foods, a premium supplier to restaurants across the country, and got started helping them. Before long I was actually working the saute station at their booth, cooking up crispy soba noodle cakes and sautéed hoisen beef short ribs to hungry patrons. I felt as though I had been dropped into an episode of Top Chef, and the mix of cooking on the fly while talking to guests and the chefs all at the same time was one hell of a rush! I truly hope I get the chance to do that again in the future!

As awesome as that was though, what was the biggest highlight? Getting to work directly with TopChef pastry Chef Zac Young of Flex Mussels (one of my favorite Upper East Side restaurants), who was creating US Foods’ dessert that day! Chef Young and I actually worked together (I’m still in shock) prepping Finger Limes, a rare and expensive type of lime indigenous to New Zealand, by scraping out the flesh inside of the lime which looked like caviar. This “lime caviar” was then used to top Chef Young’s lemon curd dessert, which was absolutely delicious.  It’s worth mentioning, too, that Chef Young is an ICE graduate, and clearly a favorite among the staff, who kept coming up to him while we were working to say hello. He’s such a friendly and nice person, and among the myriad of ego-driven NYC chefs that us culinary students hear horror stories about, it was really great to work with one who was so kind and down to earth.

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Externship Exploration

Last but certainly not least, all this volunteering has been leading up to the grand finale, the last piece of the culinary school puzzle – my externship. This has been floating around in the back of my mind since I started school, as I tried to piece together how I would manage to pay rent and bills, do my externship, and keep myself with one foot in the job market. But all the pondering quickly became reality once StarChefs ended, and the time to start setting up interviews and trails had arrived!

Unlike many of my classmates, who want to do their externships in restaurant kitchens with the hopes of being a chef or owning their own restaurant someday, my interests align most strongly with food media. As anyone who reads this blog can probably tell, creating recipes, cooking them in my own kitchen, tweaking them and then sharing them with others is something I love to do and am so passionate about. And in fantasy land, my ideal job would be doing just that – but at a food magazine or media outlet where the recipes I work on can reach far greater numbers than they ever could on this little blog. So with this fantasy-notion in mind, I set out.

It was extremely lucky that I was able to get an interview at my top choice food magazine right off the bat. I won’t mention the name, though I can narrow it down significantly by saying that it has a top-notch reputation, glamorous NYC location, and puts out incredible, elegant food each month. To prep for my Q & A session with the head of the Test Kitchen, I spent the whole weekend in my own little test kitchen, cooking up dishes like red-wine braised beef short ribs, domino potatoes, and creamy chanterelle, oyster, and shiitake mushrooms. And for an amazing breakfast recipe that came out of my weekend of aggressive cooking, just keep reading ;-)

Needless to say, the preliminary interview was short and sweet, but went very well. I’m back in that test kitchen in a few weeks for an official “trail,” or “stage” (pronounced stah-jeh), which is essentially a day long “try-out” for a full-time externship. Fingers crossed, all will go well!

Til then, I’ll be cooking as much as I can to keep my skills (and knives) sharp, and hopefully documenting it as much as possible. Stay tuned….

In the meantime, please give these Roasted-Apple Wheat-Oat Pancakes a whirl! With apple season coming to a close, many of us have a fridge full of apples just begging to be cooked into these fluffy, hearty pancakes. This breakfast encompasses some of my favorite flavors of fall – sweet, crisp apples, hearty wheat, and spicy cinnamon and nutmeg. Plus, the whole wheat flour and oats add lots of filling fiber! These will keep you full and happy all morning long :)

Whole Wheat Oatmeal Pancakes (makes 9 4-inch pancakes)

Adapted from Gourmet

  • 2 small apples, peeled, cored, and chopped into 1/2″ cubes
  • 3/4 cup quick-cooking oats
  • 1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons vanilla soy milk (or buttermilk)
  • 3/4 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon packed brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350 F. On a greased baking sheet, spread out apple cubes and roast for about 15 minutes, or until tender.  Soak oats in 3/4 cup buttermilk 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in a large bowl. Stir egg, butter, brown sugar, remaining 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk, and oat mixture into dry ingredients until just combined. Fold in roasted apples.

Heat a griddle over medium heat until hot and lightly brush with oil. Working in batches, pour 1/4 cup batter per pancake onto griddle and cook until bubbles appear on surface and undersides are golden-brown, about 1 minute. Flip with a spatula and cook other side, about 1 minute more. (Lightly oil griddle between batches.)

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Queen of Tarts

This week, I made tarts. A lot of tarts. Eight of them, to be exact.

Our culinary class did a total one-eighty on Sunday night and dove straight into the wonderful world of Pastry – also known as the opposite end of the culinary spectrum from what we’d been doing for the past, oh, eight months. I think we all were a bit nervous; with school already more than two-thirds done, how would we fare taking two months off from aggressively cooking three nights a week to spend our nights dusted in flour? More than a few of us were unsure about this change in direction right when our culinary skills just starting to feel steady.

But then we made caramel-vanilla poached pears, and we sort of just gave in. Funny how sugar can do that willpower.

Pastry module is already so different from all of the culinary modules we’ve completed, in so many ways. For one, we’re no longer eating dinner. Months of culinary were partially characterized by hours of coaxing mouth-watering smells from ovens and saute pans and pots, only to be culminated by sampling all those delicious foods in a late evening dinner. Now, we pack quarts of frangipane, pate brisee, and pastry cream into plastic tubs, splay the date and contents across the top, and stack them in the reach-in. Our mouths water, but it’s not every night that they’re satisfied. We resist the succulent smells of vanilla-perfumed pineapple and candied pecans as we pack them away for another night’s class.

Another interesting change is the deviation from plowing through recipes and menus at a breakneck pace. By late in Module Two (a culinary, not pastry Mod), we knew technique well enough to create our assigned dishes with just a little direction. But now, our evenings are spent practicing the will-bending combination of patience and urgency, taking plenty of time to watch chef’s demos unfold, but hastening to complete the tasks ourselves within our allotted time frame.

And then, there’s the end results. Unlike cooking savory dishes, where following a recipe to the tee might give you a mediocre, good, even very good (but rarely outstanding) result, in pastry, diligence and focus in constructing a confection based on definitive instructions will nearly always result in something beautiful and delicious. Your own attention to detail, rather than culinary intuition, will make it perfect.

And when so much of the action of pastry happens behind the closed door of an oven, or inside a refrigerator, it makes the alchemical process of creating pastries that much more magical. Hard, tart pears turned to soft, caramel bliss below the shield of a parchment paper; liquid milk and eggs turn to thick cream while your blinking; crusts become golden brown under the weight of beans in the dark depths of an oven. We learned to make sweet, flaky, crumbly, and savory crusts; we grilled, poached, candied, macerated fruit; we beat eggs and sugar and flour and milk into frangipane and custard and cream.

My favorite? These tarts.

Reminiscent of the tarte aux fruits that filled windows of patisseries I passed in Paris one winter many years ago, these tarts epitomize the beauty that is possible as a pastry chef. They also emphasize the importance of simplicity, comprised of just a basic pate brisee crust, traditional pastry cream filling, and topping of scattered fresh fruits. But in simplicity can come perfection, and when care is paid to each of these components, what emerges is the freshest, most delicious, light, sweet fresh fruit tart you’ve ever tasted. I ate one standing up at a prep table, powdered sugar dusting my chin, a late sugary dessert-for-dinner that took my breath away. That cream! It was smooth, refreshing, and light with just a hint of creamy vanilla. And fruit so fresh, it burst with tartness in my mouth, cutting the sweetness of the custard just right. The crumbly pie crust provided just the right amount of contrasting texture, and I realized, this was worth waiting three days to try.

Tarte Aux Fruits – Makes 8 small tarts

Ingredients for the crust

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 3/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
  • 1/4 cup lard, cold
  • Small (4″ – 5″) tart tins
Ingredients for pastry cream, adapted from Epicurious
  • 2 1/4 cups whole milk
  • 5 large egg yolks
  • 1 large egg, whole
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup cornstarch
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
Remaining Ingredients
  • Assorted fresh fruit: blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, bananas, kiwis
  • 1 cup of apricot nappage or jam
  • 1/2 cup of water

Method for the crust
 
Place  flour, sugar and salt into a large mixing bowl. Add the cubed butter and lard, and mix with a pastry blender or fork until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs (note, this can also be done in a KitchenAid mixer with the paddle attachment). Add 1/4-cup ice water in a stream, and work quickly to mix the dough together. On a clean floured surface, shape the dough into a flattened disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. (Pie crust can be kept in the refrigerator for a few days, or in the freezer for a few months).

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

Once the dough has chilled in the fridge, roll out the dough on a floured surface to about an eighth of an inch thickness. Using a round cutter or a small bowl as a guide, cut circles that are about three-quarters of an inch bigger than the tart tins. Lift the circles and press gently into the tart tins around the edges. There should be a slight overhang around the perimeter of the tins; press this between your fingers to extend it upwards from the edge of the tin, creating a rim.

Line each mini tart with a small round of tin foil, press it down, and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Place the tart pans on a sheet pan and bake the crusts for 15 to 20 minutes until the edges begin to turn golden. Remove the parchment and beans return the crusts to the oven to continue baking for about 5  more minutes until the bottom appears to be flaky and golden. Remove from oven and set the tart pans on a  table or a wire rack  to cool. Once cool, remove tart crusts from the tin and set aside.

Method for the pastry cream

In medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks, egg, 1/3 cup sugar, and cornstarch.

Transfer the milk to heavy medium saucepan. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean; add pod. Sprinkle remaining 1/3 cup sugar over, letting sugar sink undisturbed to bottom. Set pan over moderate heat and bring to simmer without stirring.

Once the milk mixture reaches a simmer, temper it into the egg mixture, and then gradually whisk the egg mixture back into saucepan. Return to saucepan over moderate heat and cook, whisking constantly, until pastry cream simmers and thickens, about 1 minute. Remove from heat, discard vanilla pod, and whisk cream until smooth. Transfer to bowl and press plastic wrap directly onto surface. Chill until cold, about 4 hours. (Pastry cream can be made ahead and refrigerated, wrapped well with plastic wrap on surface, up to 3 days.)

Method for assembling tarts

Prepare apricot glaze for tarts by adding one cup of apricot nappage or jam and half a cup of water to a small sauce pan. Heat, stirring, until the mixture has the thin consistency of a glaze.

To assemble tarts, fill each tart crust with pastry cream to the brim, using a spoon. Arrange the slices of fresh fruit or berries on top of the pastry cream as desired. Using a pastry brush, gently glaze the berries with a minimal amount of apricot glaze, being careful not to over do it (it will look gloopy). Serve immediately, or refrigerate for up to two days. Note that these are best when fresh.

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Learned: Never attempt a soufflé for your culinary school practical examination.

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Last night was our grand finale to Module 3 – a timed practical under which we had 90 minutes to prepare, plate and present a sautéed supreme of chicken, pan sauce, a potato dish of our choice, and a vegetable side. The catch? We’d be drawing one of six vegetables out of a hat at the very beginning of the practical, and would have to create our vegetable side on the fly.

Like a true type-A, I showed up for the practical armed with six different recipes – one for each of the six vegetables we could potentially be assigned. My recipes for a lemon-thyme pan sauce and Pommes Mousseline (a fluffy potato soufflé) were also on hand, but since I’d made several pan sauces and the soufflés before, I figured these were in the bag. The vegetable was the perceived wild card, as it was pretty impossible to plan out my use of those 90 minutes without knowing whether I’d be roasting, frying, or sauteing one veggie or another.

I, of course, drew the vegetable I dreaded the most: Broccoli. With zucchini, carrots, and the best – mixed mushrooms, all up for grabs, broccoli seemed like such a chore, a bitter green that has few redeeming preparations. I decided to keep it simple by blanching the broccoli to cook it halfway, and then sauteing it in a garlic-infused olive oil with red pepper flakes and sea salt, tossing with toasted pine nuts at the last-minute.

My goal for the practical was, aside from cooking everything well and putting up an attractive hot plate at the end of 90 minutes, to cook a meal that was true to my own style of cooking (and eating) – fresh, clean flavors that aren’t weighted down by too much grease or dairy, allowing the natural elements of the food to shine through. This dish, with just a touch of olive oil and the slightest richness from the pine nuts, happily accomplished this goal.

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Beyond that, though, broccoli proved to be a blessing in disguise when I needed it most. While I had loathed the thought of these tree-shaped greens in the mix for the practical, I had failed to foresee the benefits of broccoli – it’s incredibly sturdy, retains its color, and reheats well without overcooking. In the final few minutes of the practical, when life becomes a blur of screaming-hot sizzle plates, oozing pan sauces, speckled plate rims and burnt finger tips, having a vegetable that is sitting happily warm in a covered pan on the back burner, requiring no attention save a last sprinkle of salt, is a god-send. Such was the case last night.

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Because while I was feeling pleasantly surprised about the broccoli, secure in the citrusy tang to my pan sauce, and relieved that my chicken suprémes had achieved the ideal crispy exterior that ensures a moist inside, a growing part of my mind was locked in panic mode. The oven below my stove, labeled clearly with a large piece of masking tape that read “KEEP AT 300 F,” registered at barely the heat of a mid-August New York City heat wave… and my soufflé cups, bobbing slightly in a water-filled bain-marie, were pure liquid.

It was at this point that I felt as though I’d been transported into some alternate-Televised-Cooking-Competition-reality. There’s always that moment on, be it Top Chef, Chopped, Iron Chef America, where the cook realizes that the elaborate, sure-to-win dish he’d been betting it all on is flat-out failing. It might be burning, or have spilt, but more often than not in a timed competition, it just isn’t cooking fast enough. And here I was, experiencing this first hand.

My mind sprung into reaction mode, and I whipped the steaming bain-marie from the oven, running it across the kitchen to a much hotter 450 degree oven. I still had fifteen minutes on the clock, a pan sauce to make, chicken to rest, and broccoli to finish. On one hand, I said a prayer that the soufflés would finish in this time, and on the other, I knew my chances weren’t great. So I grabbed one of the four soufflé cups from the oven, a saute pan, and improvised.

My idea was to make a sort of pan-fried “potato crisp,” by sauteing a few thin layers of the soufflé mixture in hot oil. But my batter merely sputtered and burned in the oil, popping all over the pan and singing on the bottom while remaining liquid on the top. Dejected, I had no choice but to dump the pans burnt contents in the trash and press onward, mopping the sweat from my brow.

In the end, I set a beautiful plate with a swipe of honey-colored lemon-thyme sauce, topped with two golden-brown, crispy chicken breasts, and a small heap of jade-green broccoli florets studded with pearly pine nuts. But along the side, the goopy mess of the under cooked potato soufflé sucked the sauce off the plate like a sponge, and oozed its way through the broccoli like a volcanic flow.

Thankfully, chef saw in my dish what many of us see in the chefs who flounder in those television competitions – that attempting to make a potato soufflé in just 90 minutes (with three other components) was a huge risk, and just because these risks don’t always work out as planned doesn’t mean the vision and effort were for naught. Every failed attempt is a learning experience,  if you use it as one, and twenty minutes later, when I removed the two remaining, finally cooked soufflés from the oven, the lesson was complete. I plated on in the center of a large, white “ICE” emblazoned plate, garnished it with two sprigs of thyme, and marched it over to chef, though my time for presentation had passed, refusing to accept defeat. And when he smiled, and said, “Much, much better,” I knew the lesson had been learned: finish, not just for the grade or the accolades, but for yourself.

That, of course, and never give up.

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Our time spent on Regional Italian Cuisine blew past before I had a chance to really let it all sink in; punctuated by a “Hurricane,” Labor Day, and a lot of soaking up the last moments of summer, we’ve already moved on in the kitchen to curries, noodles and sushi. But I’d feel amiss if I didn’t spend a bit of time talking about the cuisine of one of my favorite counties and sharing our culinary education through this great country with some photos and detail.

First of all, probably the coolest thing we covered in our Tour d’Italia at ICE (that I didn’t learn in my Italian Techniques recreational class last year) was how to make our own fresh mozzarella. I know, it seems too good to be true, right? How could this much beloved food, whose creation is a mystery to most of us, actually be easy enough to make in your own home / classroom? It blew my mind how simple it really was!

You start with a pot of super salty (as in saltier than the sea) water, and bring it to a boil. You’ll also need some cheese curds, two big bowls, a ladle and a wooden spoon, and a few pairs of latex gloves lest you burn your little fingers. Add the cheese curds to a bowl, and ladle some hot water over them, until they’re just covered. Don your gloves and man your spoon! Use the spoon to massage the curds until they start to form a large, soft mass. Eventually switch from the spoon to using your hands to massage the cheese, kneading it gently until it is just soft (be careful not to over work it). Switch out the cloudy, cooling water for fresh hot water frequently.

Once the cheese is soft, the fun part kicks in. Remove the mushy cheese mass from it’s salty brine, and begin to stretch it, as  perhaps you’ve seen on TV, or if you’re a New Yorker, in Eataly. Stretch and fold the mass a few times until you are back to having a small ball. Place it in your bowl, switch out the cooling brine for hot water, and repeat this process two more times. Once you’ve done that, you’re basically done! Just form your cheese into one, two, or three small balls, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate in a container of left-over brine until you’re ready to use. That took, what, five minutes? Sweet.

We used the fresh motz to make some truly delicious and super simple sandwiches, also known as Mozzarella en Carozza or “Mozzarella in a Carriage” (cute, eh?). It’s as simple as layering the cheese along with some fresh tomato and basil in between two slices of Italian bread, dipping in egg, then breadcrumb, and frying in hot olive oil until golden brown and crisp on both sides. Think of this as an upscale version of Mozzarella sticks!
Excellent dipped in marinara and enjoyed until a food coma sets in.

   

And then, of course, there was pasta. Everything from fresh, hand-rolled tortellini and ravioli stuffed with butternut squash and pine nuts, to stiff, hearty semolina bucatini tossed in a savory tomato-ricotta sauce was fair game. We kneaded, rolled, and sliced more fettucine than I care to recall, though it’s a source of personal pride to say I’ve now mastered both an old-school hand-cranked pasta machine, and the rolling-it-out by hand technique.

 

 

 

The resulting butternut squash ravioli in a sage-brown butter sauce (my cure for all life problems) was to-die-for. Simple, exquisite, delicioso!

And so, over the course of five days, we gave life to these indulgent plates of flour and egg, cheese and olive oil…

Warning: Do not proceed on an empty stomach. 

Hand-cut fettucini with pesto, green beans, potatoes and Parmigiano-Reggiano

Rigatoni with mini cauliflower florets and sweet Italian sausage 

Sicilian salad of slivered fennel, red onion and orange with olive oil and red wine vinegar

Eggplant and Pine nut Caponata with Bruschette

Potato Gnocchi with a Fresh Cherry Tomato and Thyme Sauce

Acqua Pazza – Also known as Red Snapper in “Crazy Water”

Crispy Eggplant Fritters with Parmigiano-Reggiano and a Zesty Yogurt Dipping Sauce

Hand-cut Fettuccine with a Sundried Tomato Pinenut Pesto, topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano

And, last but not least, hand-cut Pappardelle with a rich Wild Boar Ragu

Anyone who reads my blog regularly probably knows this already, but it’s worth mentioning again that I’m a huge fan of Italian cuisine. If anything, our few days spent exploring the varied and delicious cuisines of Italy only reaffirmed my love for this country’s food, while imparting in me a great knowledge for the lesser known specialties and regional dishes. While perhaps it wasn’t all new information, it was certainly one of the most enjoyable and fun-filled sections of culinary school to date – here’s hoping for more to come :-)

Keep an eye out for a recap of our Culinary Silk Road and see how ICE does Asian fare with dishes from India, Thailand, China and Japan – coming up soon!

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In the past few lessons we’ve wrapped up our “travels” through some of the most delicious regions in France, just in time to depart to the homeland of my heritage – Italy! But before we can dive headfirst into some fabulous Italiano cuisine, there were a few essential regional French dishes that deserve some accolades.

I’m pleased to report that with regional French cooking demystified and behind us, I can reflect that cooking authentic French food is not particularly complex or difficult – rather, it’s just plain time-consuming, and it may require you to Google the names of some lesser known ingredients. But I feel pretty confident in saying that thorough organizational and time management skills might actually trump culinary prowess when it comes to cooking French food.

When I last checked in, we were dousing our bubbling pots with heavy cream and calvados as we explored the cuisine of Normandy and Brittany – the wet, coastal regions of Northern France. In the past few lessons, we’ve taken a turn south and mastered dishes that most Americans more readily associate with French cuisine: classics like Cassoulet, Duck Confit, Salade Lyonnaisse and Boeuf Bourguignon (Happy 99th Birthday, Julia Child!). These are the dishes that prove that the French have known for some time what they’re doing; each one was full of complex flavor, moist and succulent, and capitalized on fresh ingredients local to its region of origin.

We started in the Midi region of France. Years ago, before modernizations in food transport and storage made fresh ingredients readily available in many areas, the harsh winters of the Midi region led its inhabitants to create dishes that capitalized on non-perishable ingredients that could be prepared during the more bountiful months and stored through the winter. Ingredients like duck confit, which was (and still can be) stored in the fat it’s cooked in for weeks; garlic sausage; navy beans; salt-cured ham hocks. Enter, Cassoulet.

Before last week, the extent of my knowledge on Cassoulet centered on hearing about Anthony Bourdain’s obsession and my own father rave about how delicious the one he enjoyed on his trip to France was. I’d heard whisperings that it was extremely complex, and yet we were going to make it in a day! Nay, four hours! Thanks to Chef, who cooked our duck confit ahead of time for us, we were  able to pull it off. Since cassoulet was such a mystery to me, here’s a bit of an explanation. The building blocks for a cassoulet are as follows: navy beans, simmered until tender in a broth of water, ham hock and onion; lamb seared and stewed in wine, veal stock and tomato concasse; duck confit; garlic sausage; and sautéed pork tenderloin. The beans are layered with the meat (three layers of beans, two of meat), and the whole thing is doused with the stewing liquid, topped with duck fat, breadcrumbs and parsley, and baked in the oven until crispy and bubbling. The resulting casserole is full of rich, warm layers of flavors that have melded together and enhanced each other, diversity of textures, and earthy undertones from the garlic, onion and beans. For someone who rarely eats food this heavy, I have no problem admitting that this was flat-out one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted.

While we used some of the duck confit for the Cassoulet, we reserved a few legs and crisped them up in a hot sauté pan full of duck fat to top this salad of Watercress, Red Cabbage and Candied Walnuts. The biggest lesson we learned from this dish? Always make hundreds of some extra candied walnuts. Or hide them. ‘Cause man, do those things disappear in a busy kitchen.

One of the coolest dishes from the Midi region we learned to make was Pommes a la Sarladaise. “Sarladaise” technically translates to “Duck Fat,” but we cooked these potatoes in clarified butter because, well, there was definitely enough duck fat going on elsewhere (re: confit, cassoulet). It still came out delicious, crisp and caramelized – not to mention, beautiful. Check out the flower petal-like pattern!

But what exactly is going on here? Well, after you wash and peel your potatoes, slice them very thinly on a mandolin. Also, peel and slice some truffles. Yep, black truffles. No big deal. (Seriously, it’s very cool that we get to work with truffles. And now we know where that tuition money is going :) ) Then, in a hot saute pan with some warmed clarified butter, begin to layer the potatoes, starting in the center and layering outwards. For every two layers of potato, you add a layer of truffles and some salt and pepper until you have a mound that peeks over the rim of the pan. Pop it in the oven, baked it for 20-25 minutes, flip it once, and as soon as it’s golden brown and cooked through, it’s ready.

As one of my classmates put it, this dish is pretty sexy. The slivers of black truffle take what would be a fairly basic potato dish, and kick it up a notch!

In the last night of French cooking, we took on some more classics – dishes you are likely to see in any bistro, like Salade Lyonnaisse and Boeuf Bourguignon. The Salade Lyonnaise, a frisee salad topped with lardons, handmade croutons and poached egg, tossed in a warm red wine vinaigrette, was a personal favorite. Call me crazy, but egg yolk to me is the perfect creamy pairing for greens – it’s like nature’s salad dressing! How beautiful is that?

Alongside the salad we served a dish whose French name translates to “Brains of the Silk Weaver.” Um, what? This name sort of stopped me dead in my tracks. I immediately assumed we were going to be dealing with some sort of obscure organ meat or, dare I say, brains?

Maybe admitting this removes all my credibility as a foodie, but I really don’t like offal. I just like to stick with what works, like the tenderloin, for example. Luckily, this dish’s name was based solely on the visual description of the farmer’s cheese that was the central ingredient of this dish. We whipped the cheese up with some minced shallots, herbs, salt and pepper, and were left with a spread that I’d liken to Boursin – but better. We schmeared it on some olive-oil toasted crostini and chowed down – these were a huge crowd pleaser, and there were barely any left by the end of class.

This next dish is what my classmates and I would refer to as “Wow-zah!” Since I can’t technically tell you exactly what’s in that (proprietary curriculum knowledge, etc.), I will give you a brief overview of all that goes into this little gratin dish of seafood paradise. Whole shrimp (head on, if you like), sautéed and then added to a creamy garlicky mushroom sauce. Once that is laid down in the gratin dish, a glaze is made by combining a seafood velouté (one of the mother sauces, this time made with a shrimp stock), whipped heavy cream and hollandaise sauce (FYI – a sauce made from hollandaise and whipped cream is called a Chantilly sauce). The glaze is poured over the shrimp…

And the whole thing goes under the broiler for a couple of minutes. The result?

A gorgeous shrimp gratin! I thought it was amazing how the top looked like a bubbling layer of cheese, and yet there was no cheese anywhere in the topping at all! Cooking really is such an interesting science.

Finally, the grand finale of the evening and our journey into regional French cooking, the very appropriate Boeuf Bourguignon. Every time I hear this dish mentioned, I remember that scene from Julia and Juliet where Amy Adams’ character struggles to recreate one of Julia Child’s most revered dishes. But honestly? Boeuf Bourguignon epitomizes my claim from earlier – a dish that, if you prioritize and plan properly, is fairly straightforward to make and really shouldn’t scare you! Just keep your eyes on the prize – that amazingly luscious and tangy burgundy wine sauce – which makes the entire dish worth it. Did I mention it’s topped with bacon, caramelized mushrooms and glazed onions? Mmmmhmmm.  Bon Appetit!

And so, with that, we bid France Adeiu! It’s been a wonderful couple of weeks through the countryside, and though we’ve enjoyed the pork, the duck, the bacon, and the cream, we’re moving along to Italia for some fresh pasta, light, fresh sauces, and a taste of the Mediterranean.  Until then, arrivederci!

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I just got back from seeing El Bulli, the raved about (both positively and negatively) documentary on what is arguably the world’s best restaurant. My thoughts on the film were mixed (clearly my feelings about food and cooking diverge far and wide from those of Ferran Adria), but my mind is still stuck in a world of beautiful plates and artistic food design. Whoever said you can’t play with your food clearly has never seen what they come up with at El Bulli.

Our last days of “Restaurant Cooking,” or the very intense menu-style of cooking we’d been practicing at ICE, came to an end last week, and I took the opportunity to play with some different varieties of plating of my own.

Timbale of Roasted Vegetables and Goat Cheese with Micro Greens, Parmesan Tuile, and Beet Juice Vinaigrette.

I had fun with this one.

We also made a simple dish: Magret stuffed with Fois Gras and Spinach, with Polenta Cakes and Cipollini Onions.

Finally, a Torneado of Beef over Bean Saute and Potato-Garlic Cakes. Very simple and completely delicious.

The next night, Chef Robert was away for a family reunion, so he found us a substitute teacher, and man did he do right by us. Tuesday night was our first night in regional cooking, and we started in the north of France with the cuisine of Normandy and Brittany. Chef R recruited a personal friend of his – a chef – who was actually born, raised, and trained in classical technique in Brittany!! No one could have been more equipped to teach us this class, and with a jovial and entertaining personality to boot, our evening in Northern France was lovely and delicious.

The two stand out dishes of the evening were very rich; Northern France is notorious for producing tons of butter and heavy cream, and the cuisine reflects it. We started with a Homard a l’Americaine with Riz en Couronne. Translation? A rich, saffron-perfumed Lobster stew served in a ring of rice pilaf. I literally could not stop eating this soup – and definitely recommend looking into this recipe for a great winter dish.

Not to mention, it’s sort of show stopper:

I had the pleasure of making a sumptuous pork dish that I will surely be recreating come fall: Cotes de Porc Normande. Northern France may not produce a lot of wine, but they are famous for their apple orchards, and subsequently, their production of Calvados – French Apple Brandy. Calvados is the secret ingredient in this insane meal – well, that and a ton of heavy cream. I can’t keep it all to myself, so essentially here’s how it works:

Get some pork chops. Sear them up until well browned on both sides in some oil in a hot pan. Remove them, and add some butter to the pan. When the butter is just starting to brown, toss in rings of apple and saute them until they’re golden brown and caramelized on both sides. Then, lay the seared chops in a casserole, sprinkle with bread crumbs and layer with the apples. Back at your pan, deglaze with calvados and reduce until nearly dry, then add heavy cream. As soon as the cream starts to boil, pour it over the pork chops and throw the whole thing in the oven. Bake for about 15 minutes, and then proceed to dive headfirst into one of the most autumnal, earthy, satisfying meals you’ve ever had.

It may not be El Bulli, but it works for me :) 

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