Sunday, August 30, 2009

Success, Failure, Disaster

Successes: My first day at the pastry shop was great! We made tiramisu from start to finish, chocolate mousse cakes wrapped in a stenciled chocolate sheath, and mini fruit tarts. The chef is all about spending time imparting her knowledge to me, which is definitely not something I'm used to from my job as line cook.

Failures: Dinner last night was a bit of a nightmare. I spent a lot of time on it, got tired and hungry and frustrated near the end of the process, and wasn't too happy with the final results. The dish was baked cod with a lobster-broth sauce and purple potato and chive croquettes. I ate at the restaurant where Di works a while ago, and was very impressed by the sauce served with their pastry-wrapped fish (Cod? Haddock? can't quite remember). The menu called it a bouillabaisse, but it was refined and subtle and perfect with the mild fish. My idea was to make a tomato-heavy lobster broth some shells left over from the lobster dinner, then finish it with a bit of cream. As usual with stocks, I used too much vegetable, and the flavor ended up sweeter and less lobster-centered than I wanted, but it worked alright when finished with cream. The purple potato croquettes looked really beautiful before frying and actually ended up tasting just fine as mashed potatoes, but my plan for frying them in a tempura batter (I had no bread crumbs) failed miserably because the batter didn't stick to the potatoes. To top things off, I also let the cod overcook a bit. Oh well, lessons learned and a decent recipe idea stored away.

Disaster: Last week I cracked the inner glass panel on my oven while trying to create steam for baking baguettes. A bit of hot water splashed onto the panel and the glass cracked immediately. I'm still not sure what I'm going to do about it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I Suck At Baking Cakes, Part II

Yep, I suck at that, so today I got an internship at a pastry shop in the same town as my line cook job. I'm really excited to start learning a lot of new skills again!

In other news, finished the Peach-Whiskey Ice Cream. Tons of peach flavor, not so much whiskey except for a subtle dark sweetness. Another struggle with the ice cream maker inconclusively completed.

Monday, August 24, 2009


I've gotten a lot of cooking (and thus learning) done recently. Yesterday I made three separate batches of tortilla-like flatbreads using different techniques and flours. I've decided to go back to my old technique of starting the dough with 50% hydration by volume and then adding flour until the mix is workable. I feel that less mixing (and thus hopefully less toughening) happens this way, and I tend to be happier with the final dough. Also, sandwiching the dough between two Silpats helps make wet doughs less problematic to roll. Resting has a definite positive effect on the rolling process, and rested doughs can probably be rolled thinner. I am still uncertain, however, whether there is any effect on the texture or taste of the cooked dough. Baking on a pizza stone works fine, but it may not be any more effective than cooking in a pan, which is somewhat easier. Finally, I am starting to wonder if what I used to think of as an uncooked flour flavor in my flatbreads may in fact be simply a young dough flavor, and adding flavor, perhaps through a sweetener, might be a good solution.

Today I made a new batch of yogurt, mixed up a Roasted Peach and Whiskey Ice Cream, and baked the three baguettes pictured above. Di got me The Bread Baker's Apprentice for my birthday, and I finally made the defining recipe, Pain a l'Ancienne, starting the dough yesterday and baking today. The baguettes look quite pretty to the untrained eye, but I believe the way the dough split on the slash marks betrays their disappointing crumb, which had much smaller holes than I was hoping for. I think my actual hydration was somewhat lower than what Reinhart called for, or maybe I moved too slowly in getting the dough into the oven, or perhaps it was my failed steam method (following Bittman's advice, a cast-iron pot with rocks in it, pre-heated), or maybe even that my stone (a very thick slab of slate I used for the first time today) was not hot enough yet. Having so many variables is one of the most frustrating parts about bread baking. Anyway, the bread was still very tasty, so I'm still excited to try again soon.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Need A Good Head Shop

This post on Ideas In Food about roasting dry pasta (and also about hydrating same in cold water) mentioned a smoke gun, which led me to this awesome post on Chadzilla about making your own smoke gun. I wonder how hot the smoke comes out. If it's too hot, I suppose passing it through some underwater hosing might solve that problem. Also, a story on mentions using a vaporizer to create aroma instead of smoke. Finally, I can cold-smoke liquor like I've wanted to do for a while now!

I need a pipe bowl and filters, so it's too bad the Dancing Bear shop in Brunswick closed.

Lobster Dinner

This was a meal Di and I improvised for two visiting friends. Boiled lobster, roasted sweet potatoes with rosemary, and brown butter polenta with corn and shallots. I used Cooks Illustrated's fast microwave method for the polenta.

And yeah, this stuff probably wanted white wine rather than red, but whatever.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Roasted Sweet Potato and Black Bean Soup with Purple Rice

I made this dish for lunch a few months ago, before it got too warm and humid for hot soups. I roasted sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, and scallions (but mostly sweet potatoes), then pureed them and thinned with water until I got a nicely rich, rustic soup.

For the other components, I started by simmering some canned black beans in a bit of water to soften them (I like to cook canned beans - I feel it softens them a bit and exorcises most off flavors), then drained them and added the beans to the soup and used their cooking water to cook some jasmine rice, which turned the rice a light purple that contrasted nicely with the orange of the soup and the green of the roasted scallions I saved to use as a garnish. Cooking the beans in a small amount of water maintained the intensity of color I needed for the rice, but I think I could have done a better job and ended up with darker rice.

Simple, satisfying, visually appealing. Not bad for an off-the-cuff lunch!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Upcoming Projects

  • "Old Empire" Gin - British gin (Bombay?) infused with spices. How do you make something taste dusty?
  • Agar-filtered melon consomme
  • Sourdough, again

Monday, August 17, 2009

I Suck At Baking Cakes

I need to get better at that.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Around and around: Centrifuges and Rotary Evaporators

'Cooking Issues' has two great articles on how and why to use two pieces of chemist's equipment in the the kitchen: centrifuges and rotovaps. Both separate a substance into its component parts: centrifuges by density and rotovaps by volatility. Cooks can use them to separate flavors into purer essences. Thinking about capturing the pure 'truth' of an ingredient led me to think also about the sous-vide technique, often used to cook meat while altering its flavor and texture minimally. Protecting the integrity of the ingredient seems to be the common theme, but what about other goals a cook can pursue? Does using a traditional process lend value to the final dish? I indeed find myself thinking in circles when I try to assign value to tradition, novelty, 'soul,' purity.

Sous-vide filet, rotovap'd red wine syrup, and root vegetable emulsion, or pot roast?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Brown Butter Consomme?

I started Harold McGee's Savory Brown Butter Consomme today, and I'm not sure how it's going. The pre-clarification broth seems to have been taken over by the soy sauce and lemon juice, so I'm a bit worried that's how the clarified broth is going to taste as well. Also I used a measuring cup for blooming the gelatin, when maybe I should have used a much wider vessel for more surface area to sprinkle the powder on. I'll have to wait and see. The butter fat that I skimmed off the broth, on the other hand, smells and tastes like the most beautiful, full-bodied, sweetest brown butter I've ever tasted (not that I've tasted that many). To skim the fat, I used a skimmer that I picked up in Hong Kong whose power I didn't grasp until today; its very fine mesh makes it really easy to separate fat and water, probably because fat droplets are much larger than water droplets. It's just like this one, except it cost me maybe a dollar, instead of $24.00, and presumably I still got ripped off.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Chard with Mixed Summer Veg in Brown Butter Balsamic Emulsion

Got rainbow chard and summer squash from the Brunswick farmers market last saturday. First time having rainbow chard - greens were very similar to beet greens, stems were beautifully colored raw, slightly less so cooked, but with a nicely robust texture. Sauce was delicious, though not well emulsified (problem: lack of effort); rich nutty butter + sharp balsamic (unaged, cheap) + mustard + sweet honey. Mixed vegetables were diced and effectively steamed in their own water. They lacked individual character, but were a serviceable bed for the chard. Dianne roasted some small red potatoes we also got at the market; delicious as always, with a perfectly fluffy texture inside.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

On the Cutting (Weeping) Edge

I've been fascinated by gelatin clarification, a relatively new 'molecular gastronomy' technique for a while, though I'm only now gearing up to try it. The method attracts me because it's not part of classical technique, works very well, and is totally accessible to the home cook. Gel clarification is at least 4 or 5 years old, which seemed new (and it is, relative to techniques in the classical repertoire) until last night, when I discovered another clarification technique that makes gel clarification look like a dinosaur: agar clarification.

Agar clarification was first written about on Ideas in Food less than a month ago and then explained and simplified on Cooking Issues and later applied there to alcohol. This method uses the same syneresis effect as the older gel clarification technique, but it works much faster because you don't need to freeze the gel; agar gels apparently do not 'melt' at room temperature.

It's really exciting to see these techniques being invented and refined in real time.