Northern China

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

This week in Asian we "visited" Northern China. I came to class all excited to make fortune cookies since that was one of the recipes we had been told to make a recipe card for. I even made some awesome StoryPeople "fortunes" to put in the cookies. When I got to class, though, we were informed that we would NOT be making fortune cookies today because there wasn't going to be enough time. This made one sad Heather.

Natane and I ended up being on a table together today by luck of the draw. We were a member short so we really had to work to get all our mise en place gathered. I ended up being tasked with Mu Shu Pork and Egg Noodles. The Mu Shu Pork has MANY components to it that you have to prepare. One of these is Mandarin Pancakes. These were fairly straightforward. Mix, rest, roll, cook. Not too challenging. The egg noodles were pretty simple, too, although we didn't end up really using them for any dish. Oh well. At least I made them, and in the process learned how to (finally!) use my pasta machine.

Once everything was prepped and the whole class was ready, we began to work with the woks.

I hate them. I am much too anxious of a person to use woks on any kind of regular basis. I have always been terrified of fire. Always. When I was little, my mom would light the candles in the wall sconces and I would tiptoe around holding my very long hair tight against my head with my hands because I was afraid it would catch fire. I even was nicknamed "Sparky" for a bit in high school because I would dodge the sparks that flew out of our frequent bonfires with the terror of a small animal being chased by a Tyrannosaurus.

Once, in my first apartment ever, I was home alone and the oil in my pan caught fire. I had just moved in and didn't have baking soda OR baking powder. I KNEW that you aren't supposed to put water on a grease fire, but I didn't have anything else and figured it was better than nothing. WOOSH! I'm surprised I didn't burn the place down. I was absolutely terrified. Thankfully, after the initial WOOSH!, the fire went out, but I decided to go OUT to eat that night, instead.

Anyways, back to the main point, when cooking in a wok, there is extremely high heat and a high chance of flash fires. What made me even more panicked was that someone in the beginning DID have a LARGE fire so I had just witnessed it. The whole time, I grit my teeth, did what I had to do, and muttered, "I REALLY DON'T LIKE THIS AT ALL!" HOW many more weeks are we in China??

As an upside, though, the food tasted fantastic. I adored my Mu Shu Pork and the Pot Stickers some people made turned out well, too. You can see the steam still coming off the food in this picture.

Next week, I will take a Xanax before class and maybe the Woks won't freak me out so badly.

Chocolate Mousse and Plated Desserts

Friday, January 21, 2011

I am combining a post about Classical and Pastry for week 2 because they flow into each other. When I got the menu for Classical, I realized I would be making the Chocolate Mousse. I realized soon after that I could work this to my benefit and use the mousse for my plated desserts in Pastry which is directly after Classical. I also decided that if I am going to be the "dessert person" for my team for Classical, I was going to embrace it and go all out. I'm not just going to make Chocolate Mousse. I am going to make a fabulous dessert that happens to include Chocolate Mousse.

With this in mind, I began to construct sketches of possible plated desserts. I admit, I was a little obsessed. I googled different possible components of my plated desserts, I looked at photos, I looked at recipes, I looked at flavor combinations. I threw myself into it. Once I finished my sketches, I compiled a list of all the components I needed to make. The list was extensive. I knew I wouldn't have time to make everything I wanted to use on the plate during class. Chef had said it was fine to make things at home and bring them in if we needed. She trusts us not to go buy an element to use. We all care too much to try to pass a grocery store baked good off as our own. So I began baking Monday night.

I made profiteroles, devil's food cake, macaroons, strawberry buttercream, and strawberry coulis. I brought in champagne. I brought in a plate and my own glasses. I was prepared. Being prepared pays off. I was so thrilled with how all my food turned out Wednesday.

Once I created my plate for Classical, I decided I wanted to use it, with slight modifications, for one of my plated Pastry desserts. I knew it would save me some time and I really liked how it came out. This is the plate at the top of the post. I also create a second, smaller plate, because we had to have one plate on our table and one plate on the class's table.

In the glass is layered a Chocolate Custard, Champagne Sabayon, Chocolate Mousse, Chocolate Ganache, and topped with a Champagne Mousseline. Chocolate Curls are used as a garnish. Next to that are Profiteroles which are filled with the Champagne Sabayon Mousseline and dipped in Chocolate. We finish off the plate with a Chocolate Covered Strawberry and it is all served with a glass of well chilled Champagne garnished with a fresh strawberry.

Let me insert a side note here. I approached Chef Ridsdale and asked him if it was going to be ok if I was the "dessert person" on my team. I asked if I did the desserts all the way through the class, if it was going to negatively impact my grade. I have been thinking about it and since there is no doubt in my mind that PASTRY is what I want to do as a career, I really should be gaining whatever experience I can in that area while I am here. So every opportunity I have to make a dessert or pastry item, I am going to jump on it so I can expand my skills. Chef said that, especially since this is a competition class, he would expect nothing less. Every team is to put their best dishes forward. It makes sense for me to make the dessert dishes. Yay!

I was pushing the time envelope when I was taking photos of the plates in Pastry and I didn't have time to put them in the light box for photos. I'm regretting that immensely, even though I am extremely happy with how the desserts came out. I wish I had better (and more) photos to share.

We begin with the plate that I slightly modified from Classical. Basically, I just stacked some of my Macarons filled with Strawberry Buttercream to the plate for more texture and color contrast, as well as some Strawberry Coulis Sauce and a Chocolate Garnish on top of the Parfait.

My next plate took shape almost exactly as I had drawn it out in my sketch. Coming in with a plan makes plating SO much easier. Sometimes I am extremely thankful I am so organized. From the back working clockwise, we have a martini glass filled with tiny Macarons. I created a Chocolate Disk to fit perfectly on top of the glass which is then garnished with a Chocolate Covered Strawberry. Next is a pyramid of Almond Chocolate Ganache, followed by a Chocolate Pot de Creme in the middle with a Chocolate Covered Strawberry on top, and a molded Vanilla Bavarian Creme with Strawberry Coulis to the right. In the very front I have a Profiterole filled with Champagne Mousseline, and behind that are 3 half spheres of Almond Chocolate Ganache with a Chocolate Almond Biscotti on top. Lastly we have the Parfait topped with a paper thin wedge of chocolate garnish.

Lastly, I made a slightly more simple plate and I absolutely adore how it turned out. I used a ring mold to create a Devil's Food Cake layered with Strawberry Buttercream and Chocolate Mousse. I coated the whole thing in Coating Chocolate and masked the sides with Chocolate Curls so when you bite into it you have a nice crunch to contract with the texture of the cake. I topped the cake the Chocolate Covered Strawberries. Chocolate Covered Strawberries are one of my favorite treats so I was excited to plan them into my plates. Next to that are three of the Chocolate Almond Ganache half speres on which I rested a molded Vanilla Bavarian Creme. I leaned a Chocolate Heart in the divet in the cream and used Coulis to add some color. I used Chocolate and Coulis to give an artistic design to the front of the plate. I wouldn't change a thing about this plate.

On top of all this, Erika Davis, who competed in Top Chef Just Desserts, "liked" my album with these photos on Facebook! I was so excited!!! I am being encouraged by friends and Marc to approach her about an internship. I am strongly considering it. Oh my goodness, I cannot even begin to think about how beyond excited I would be if that came to fruition. She just became an ambassador for Callebaut Chocolate, so if I WERE to work with her, I know I would get a ton of experience in chocolate work. I'm not holding my breath, but oh my goodness. Phew. I'm learning that if you don't dream, you don't have anything to work for or reach for. If you aren't reaching for something, nothing big will ever happen. So work hard and ask! If you ask, you may receive!!

I am becoming more and more confident in my skills and I am thriving on the creative challenges so far this quarter. A feeling of pride and JOY wells up inside me at the end of Wednesdays. I love spending the day cooking and being proud of the food I put up. I love being able to look back and see the progression of my skills and plating techniques. I thank the Universe, Stars, or whatever you want to call it that I am getting to live my dream.

Week 2- Asian

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

We were still in Japan this week in Asian. Monday I actually volunteered with 2 other students from our class to help Chef Dawn give a presentation/tutorial to potential future students of AI. It was interesting to see students who are in the same place I was a year ago. I could see the same enthusiasm, hesitation, and anxiety on their faces. It feels good to be a year in and to be able to tell how much my confidence has grown.

We came in at 8 and began prepping. Then we got a much more in depth lesson on sushi making by Chef Dawn. I was so excited to be able to attend this event and help with it so I could gain more experience working with sushi. I can now create pretty sushi rolls with the seams on the bottom. Yay!

Today we worked, as teams, on presenting a meal Kaiseki style. I am finding Japanese culture and the rituals that are linked with the cuisine utterly fascinating. My husbands cousin (who is quickly becoming a close friend to me) is Japanese and learning more about her culture is bringing us closer. She has been following my culinary experiences, always anxious to learn more about what I am learning. Now it is my turn to learn more about HER. Any questions I have, she is quick to answer.

As I delved into the ritual of Kaiseki, I once again was emotionally drawn to the respect that is given to the food and the ingredients. The peace. I can imagine myself in a calm room with quiet lighting and begin to feel serene. Perhaps I am romanticizing, but in every article that I read about Kaiseki, this is the overall picture that seems to be painted. I love how seasons are the primary driving force behind the menu. Only the freshest seasonal ingredients are used. I love that items from nature adorn the food and the table. I love how much thought and care is taken in every aspect of the dining experience. The table is set with the utmost of care and even the dishes that are used to serve the food on have been carefully chosen to work in harmony with the food that is on them. The food is served immediately upon completion. All of this...for up to FIFTEEN tiny DISHES!

One line from an article struck me especially. "Kaiseki is the anti-sushi." This statement was made in reference to the fact that you will never have a TRUE kaiseki experience in the United States unless you are visiting a true Japanese family. No, and I mean NO, restaurant here will be able or willing to provide this experience. The timing is too critical and too much care and work is put into it. America is in too much of a hurry and much too worried about the bottom line to take on the challenge of Kaiseki.

These were the things that most impressed me about Kaiseki. I contacted my cousin in law to discuss the idea of traveling with her to Japan at some point. At $1400 for just the plane ticket and $150 for a Kaiseki meal combined with the fact that I have two small children at home means it will be at least 15 years before I get the TRUE experience. Some things in life are worth the wait, though.

So, in class today we had several dishes that we HAD to make and then we got to use the ingredients to create additional plates on our own. Each plate was to be one to two bites and artfully designed. I made the fotomaki since I had learned how on Monday. With fotomaki, you can have items sticking out of the ends so that when you turn them on their sides, it gives some height. I had fun plating this and playing with garnishes.

I then decided to make a "dessert" sushi when I saw the pickled beets that a tablemate had made. I got the idea to use the beet juice to color the sushi rice pink and then used fruit inside instead of vegetables.

Let me stop here. I had never eaten an Asian pear before today. If you are in the same boat, you MUST go try one. It was absolutely heavenly and it is definitely my new favorite fruit. It was a perfectly crisp crunch like the perfect apple and the flavor was amazing. It was sweet but not overly so and juicy without dripping like normal pears do sometimes. Delightful.

I decided to name this roll "Twinklethink" and am dedicating it to Harmony. It just looks like something a little girl would like. I plated it on top of a starfruit and used my aspic cutters I got for Christmas to make the teardrop garnishes.

I also plated one of the Twinklethinks with a Japanese Dumpling that is made with Azuki- a sweet bean paste. This was delicious, which surprised me. Sweet beans. Who knew?

It was a very good class today and I can't wait to see what we are working on next week when we change our focus to China!

Advanced Patisserie and Display Cakes- Week 1

Thursday, January 13, 2011

At long last I am taking Advanced Patisserie and Display Cakes. Because it is a relatively new class, I wanted to wait a couple of quarters for it to get any kinks worked out before I took it. I decided to take it this quarter, and it's a good thing I did as Chef CJ is pregnant and will not be able to put in a full quarter next quarter. I wouldn't want to take this class from anyone else. Chef CJ is awesome. She's talented, professional, and yet has an incredible sense of humor and makes learning fun. She understands the passion firsthand and is so incredibly helpful to her students in every possible way. I must admit that she is my favorite teacher. Possibly ever.

There are only 6 of us in this class. Five women and one "boy." He wasn't there for the first day of class, however. I kind of feel bad for him once he does show up. We all decided to push the tables together to form a communal table so we could talk more easily while we worked. We each had our own table, speed rack, and mixer. CJ was able to go through the syllabus quickly since we have all had her before. Then she began telling us what we were doing the first weeks. I looked around at the women in the kitchen with me and felt a swelling begin in my chest. Because this is an elective class, all of us in there WANT to be there. We all have passion for this and I could see it on their faces and in their eyes, and I knew it mirrored my own. We are to create (I love that word) three plated 5-diamond desserts. She showed us an example (I found the picture online but it is a TERRIBLE picture and it's all fuzzy) and it contained 12+ components! She gave us a couple of recipes to prepare so we would have some base components to work from and this week we are supposed to decide what else we are going to create and we have to put it all together next week.

Then came the amazing part. She went to the storeroom and brought back scads, oodles, heaps, and every other fun word that implies mass quantities of molds and ingredients and tools for us to work with. She opened the fridge and freezer and begin listing what we had access to. You know that look of excitement and wonder I was telling you about earlier that was on all of our faces? Yeah. That doesn't even begin to compare to the sheer giddiness that was coursing through that group when our bounty was revealed. If you can imagine it, we have access to it. If there, for some bizarre reason, is not an ingredient in the storeroom that we would like to use, all we have to do is let her know and she will do her best to have it available for us the next week. If you recall my post Make Up Lab, you will remember that one of the reasons I was so excited about that lab was because we had access to whatever we wanted and we got to just...go. That is a large part of this class. She trusts all of us to not abuse the materials or equipment. She is giving us loose guidelines for the assignment but we get to be as creative as we want within those guidelines. HOW DID I GET SO LUCKY????

So as we all stood there, staring open mouthed at all of our choices, we were like kids in a candy store. "There are too many choices!" We made our selections and headed to our stations to begin work. We had four recipes we needed to get knocked out. CJ didn't tell us what order to make them in, yet all of us made them in the same order, because we all looked at the time things took and knew what needed to be made first. Even more amazing, we all took almost the exact same amount of time to make everything. As I looked around at these women surrounding me, I had a sudden realization.

"I have to tell you ladies, I know I don't know you guys all that well, but it's so awesome to be with other people who are as OCD as I am." It was true. Everyone was working just as clean as I was. Everyone was working with the same precise movements that I was. We all were stressing about the same things. A woman responded, much as I would, with a slightly paranoid tone, "I really TRY not to be!!!" Oh sweetie. I know. More than you know. That of course was in my head. Out loud I replied with, "I know! I'm on meds for it!" Her response, "Me too!" CJ's response, "I'm pretty sure we all are." Yup. If there are that many of us, though, we can't all be "wrong" though, right? We just have to take meds to get along in a world that isn't compelled to make sure things are precise and accurate and clean and perfect. Maybe those who are messy and disorganized should be the ones on medication to be more like US. Maybe not, but it's a nice thought. In any case, it makes me almost giddy to be surrounded by people like me and to have one place where I don't feel like I have to partially suppress that side.

Back to the food! We each made biscotti (mine is chocolate with almonds and chocolate chips), pots de creme, chocolate ganache (mine has a hint of almond and rum), and bavarian cream. We put everything but the biscotti in molds to use for these amazing plates next week. My head is spinning with ideas and flavor combinations. I went and used the gift card for Kohl's I got from my parents for Christmas and got a plate, a set of interesting glasses, and a set of ramekins. The ramekins are for home use since we have plenty at school, but the plate and glasses are to use for these presentations next week. I also needed a plain white plate to use at home when I photograph my own food here. I would like to begin to build a collection of various plates for that purpose, and I guess I just got my first piece to build off of!

I can't wait to show you all the pictures of what I end up creating, and I'm sure some pictures of my classmate's food, too! I'm sure they will create fabulous items, as well!

Classical- Week 1

Wednesday morning begins for me with Classical European with a new twist- Competition Style! We will not be competing in "real" competitions since they cannot require us to attend events outside of our scheduled class time. We will be competing against each other occasionally, however, and more emphasis will be placed on adhering to timelines, making sure our cuts are precise, and our plating is spectacular and clean. When Chef Ridsdale critiques our plates, he will be judging them based on competition guidelines. I think this will be a fun twist and I am really looking forward to this class. I am in a team with Natane and Ian (who were my tablemates from Garde Manger, if you remember) and a "new" member, Matt. We picked a prime table (next to the stoves, sink, and handsink, and very close to the pots and pot sink. Hopefully this will shave off some time. We are also going to be required to have a timeline up every week, as well as sketches of how we plan to plate our dishes. A class where we HAVE to be organized. This couldn't get any better!

I had emailed Chef ahead of time and asked for the menu for this week so I could have recipe cards done. I always hate scrambling on the first day of class to scribble out recipe cards. Since I had them done, our team was able to relax a little and focus on other things. The menu this week consisted of "simple" items that required attention to development of flavors rather than a large quantity of complicated steps. We began with a very simple salad (Bibb lettuce, vinegar, and sugar), followed by French Onion Soup, Chicken Merango, Potatoes Parameter, Braised Endive with Almond Cream, and finished off with Creme Brulee for dessert.

I, of course, chose the Creme Brulee and Natane was given French Onion Soup. Natane doesn't care for French Onion Soup so Ian and myself kept tasting it and giving her input on what was missing. The end product came out phenomenal. It's amazing that someone who hates French Onion Soup can make it so well!

A couple nights before this class, I was watching "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" on the Food Network. The theme was Appetizers and the menu for this week popped into my head when one of the dishes came on. French Onion Soup Dumplings are these little pouches filled with French Onion Soup and places in an escargot dish. They are topped with gruyere cheese and broiled, then skewered with a crouton containing skewer. When they were showing the woman eating it, it looked delectable. When I realized I had ONE dish to complete, I decided to try to make these little dumplings, or something similar. I remembered that we had leftover wonton wrappers from the day before in Asian and Kandice was SOOOOO kind and helped me find them in the walk-in buried deep in the Asian box. Natane and Chef gave me input and Natane helped me with technical points (such as making sure I steamed the dumplings before I sauteed them) while messing around with how to make it work. I ended up making the square pouches, although next time I would research a different way to form the dumplings so they were an actual sphere. We tried a couple ways, but they all looked messy and I wasn't a fan of them. I filled the pouched with just the onions from the soup, no broth, and a little gruyere cheese. Them I steamed them and sauteed them (I would have preferred frying them but the fryer in that lab was out of oil). Then I tried a couple different ways of plating and ended up melting a little more gruyere on top of each dumpling, then putting three in a bowl with strained broth from the soup. I put a skewer with a crouton in each dumpling and there you have it! Everyone agreed they tasted amazing, partially due to Natane's spectacular soup, and partially because the crunch of the sauteed dumpling added a whole other dimension to the dish.

I also, as should be no surprise, made the Creme Brulee. The actual making of the dish was no problem, but when it came time to caramelize the sugar, I had a little trouble. I just need a little more practice with the torch on that one. I burned the sugar pretty badly on one plate and just a smidgen on the other. We had to create two plates for each dish, so I made one "classical" Creme Brulee by leaving it in the ramekin it was baked in and one the other plate I inverted it and unmolded it before sprinkling on the sugar and caramelizing it. The texture of the actual Brulee was perfect and all of them got gobbled up.

As far as the other dishes go, I really loved the Braised Endive with Almond Cream. I had never eaten endive before and I really enjoyed the flavor. I was disappointed there wasn't more of this dish! Here is a picture of the complete dish.

Next week we are making Consomme, Pear Salad, Stuffed Pork Tenderloin, Ratatouille, Tourne Yukon Potatoes, and Chocolate Mousse!

Week 1- Asian

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Alrighty, folks!

It's so hard to believe that only a year ago I was a nervous wreck standing in front of Chef CJ and asking her how to tie my neckerchief. Today was my first day of Quarter FIVE. I have three lab classes this quarter so you are in for a real treat because three lab classes means three new blog entries every week! Tuesdays I have Asian Cuisine and Wednesdays I have Classical European and Advanced Patisserie and Display Cakes.

Today in Asian we were in Japan. I read the chapter last night to prepare for the class and I was intrigued by the few pages of information they provided. I am interested in the ritualistic aspects of such a simple act such as tea. For next week we are supposed to research kaiseki which is a Japanese dinner of tiny plates. So basically it is the tapas of Japan. Everything is very precise, though, from the timing of each dish to the serviceware it is presented on.

We had an extensive collection of products to learn about today. Many kinds of seaweed, tofu, fish, sauces, and rice were shown. I took video but my memory card got full towards the end of the presentation. One of the things I learned today is that soy sauce as we know it (as in, the kikkoman version) is actually made from wheat, not soy. The REAL soy sauce is known as Tamari and is actually made from soy. The Japanese refer to this by name and not as soy sauce.

I also experienced Edamame (ed-ah-mah-may) for the first time. These are immature soybeans still in the pod. They were frozen in the bag and we simply poured boiling water over them and let them set until cooked. They were not quite as soft as peas but were surprisingly delicious. I think this is a new veggie that I will be adding at home. They were then taken out of the pod and tossed with a little kosher salt. Delicious.

Another dish we made was Japanese Pot Stickers or Dumplings. We combined ground pork and Japanese cabbage with other seasonings and then placed them in wonton wrappers. Thankfully we used premade wrappers. That shaved alot of time off the process. Then we steamed and sauteed those formed into half circles and deep fried the ones we made into the little square packages. Oh my goodness. I really loved these. Not healthy, but so good.

Of course I saved the best for last. We made sushi. Lots of sushi. We made rolls, inside out rolls and hand rolls. My first roll was a little messy but they progressively got better. I'm going to be a pro by the end of this course! No more going out for sushi for me once that happens! I did learn that you need to freeze the raw fish for two days before using for sushi.

I cannot even begin to tell you all the things I learned today. I know that there are a million things she said that I cannot remember at this point and there is SO much to learn. This is going to be such an interesting class and I cannot wait to dive into the information full force.

Tomorrow: Classical European and Advanced Patisserie and Display Cakes!
I contacted my Classical teacher and already have my recipe cards for tomorrow knocked out so I feel prepared. Creme Brulee, here I come! Again! I <3 Creme Brulee!!

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