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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The American Pastry Chef

So yesterday in class was pretty awesome. (Sorry I haven't been blogging as extensively as I should, by the way, as finals are coming up so I must concentrate!) Chef Rush's colleague Nick Wesemann of The American restaurant in Kansas City came to show us plated desserts. It was pretty awesome, since this opportunity doesn't come often to most, especially for such a kickass Chef. You would be hard-pressed to find this good of a Pastry Chef anywhere in the Kansas City area, if not the state.

Smoked Strawberry Pie(deconstructed, obviously)
We knew a few weeks in advance, and I think that I was the most-excited out of my group. Savory chefs and Pastry chefs are an entirely different animal, in case you didn't know. There is a mutual respect between the two classes, one would say, as well as a slight confusion and disdain for the other.

A pastry chef I know once said "Everybody likes pastry, and it's science and art that should be respected."

A savory chef I know once said "Those pastry guys wouldn't know a good steak if it hit them in the face."

While I will not name names, I will tell you that both of the chefs said the respective things are both awesome at what they do. With pastry you can take your time(time is actually something needed for a LOT of things like dough proofing, baking, custards setting, chocolate tempering, etc) and with savory there is often a big rush of adrenaline going on all the time. If I'm wrong, please correct me - I'm just making observations that I've seen so far.
another plating example of Smoked Strawberry Pie

I love pastry. My grandfather was actually a baker for a very long time. He ran a bakery for a very long time in Lake Arrowhead, CA, and the family joke is that his Cinnamon Rolls(which you could smell baking ALL over the tiny mountain town) were the clincher that made grandma fall in love with him. It makes sense, since my grandma had been a widow for a long time before she and grandpa met. I think I was three or four when they did meet.

So pastry has always been near and dear to my heart. From Grandpa's bakery to Mom's gourmet cupcake business(one of the biggest reasons I came to Kansas City), I will probably always love it. Come to think of it, when it comes time to take things home from school, I almost always make a dash for the sweets first. I guess it's lucky that nobody in my group really 'likes sweets that much.'

Anyway, Chef Rush sent us all of the recipes we would need for the plated desserts. They were the Iced Mango Lassi, the Smoked Strawberry Pie, and Black Forest Cake. We have three groups and each group picked from those which they wanted to do. I was immediately excited for the smoked strawberry pie, so we got that one. We actually were lucky enough to get a big Doc file of ALL the recipes.

I was super-excited to have all of them, and when I sat down to copy them on notecards for school, I noticed something odd:

No bake times. No temperatures. Simple directions such as "Creaming method" or "Combine all and cook". Most pastry chefs I've learned from have been extremely meticulous and OCD about directions. They usually will walk a person step-by-step through each recipe, because baking and pastry is a science. The next day when Nick came in, total beanpole, all arms and legs(and really hot), I found out:

"I actually started out as a Line cook. I'm not a classically trained pastry chef. I don't bake breads at all, it's just not my thing."

Wait, what?

Iced Mango Lassi(inspired by India!)
Well that explained it. It's actually brilliant if you think about it - savory chefs notoriously write their recipes in weird ways(at least the smart ones do) for one basic reason: Job Security. If someone can't understand your recipes, then that means YOU have to stick around to make delicious food! Makes sense, no?

So we got started doing our desserts. Each plated dessert had, like, eight different components on each plate, but here's the fun thing:

"Instead of doing ten different flavors and confusing your diners, pick, like, three or four main flavors and think to yourself: "Okay, so how many different ways can I showcase these?""

So, for ours, the components were:

Smoked Strawberry Pie
  • ·         Compressed Strawberries
  • ·         Smoked Vanilla Gel
  • ·         Strawberry Fluid Gel
  • ·         Instant Angel Food Cake
  • ·         Honey Crème Brulée
  • ·         Pie Crust
  • ·         Aerated Honey
  • ·         Burnt Milk Gelato

That's cake. From a microwave.
Sure, it's a lot for ONE plate,  but remember that The American is mostly prix fixe(which means fixed price, coursed-out menus that come in six or seven different courses) that has smaller portions.  Our basic flavors, as you can see, were strawberry, vanilla, and honey. The neat thing about all of Nick's recipes is that they are easy and fun things to do. The Instant Angel Food Cake, for example, is baked in a microwave. A MICROWAVE!

It's not what you think. You basically take the batter and put it in something called an isi canister, which you charge with N2O(the same stuff whipped cream cans have) and it instantly "whips" it. You do get super-big bubbles if you don't let it sit for awhile in the fridge, so it's best to let it hang out for awhile for a finer cake result. Once it's ready to use, you pop it in a plastic cup(he likes it because you can just tear away the cup and not worry about the cake too much) and microwave it for about 25 seconds.  It comes out, amazingly cooked, and the neat thing about it is that it doesn't stale as fast, nor does it get that weird pellicle that some things get when cooked in a microwave.

Chef: "Do you have plates like that at your restaurant?" Nick: "No, I just like this plate."
A lot of the things in the desserts are sort of unexpected. Smoked sugar, agar agar, burnt milk... It's a deconstructed strawberry pie with flavors and textures to really give you an experience. It wasn't just our dessert that had all the fun components, either. The Black Forest Cake had chocolate cake, milk chocolate cream, sour berry jam, vanilla sauce, cocoa nib streusel, blueberry whip, iced sweet cream(an ice cream!), torched cherries...

It's all sorts of delicious fun. It's like all the awesome things that a black forest cake should have with a new look. Revamped. Deconstructed. WOOT!

Anyway, what I really want to say about this blog is that pastry is an exciting and accessible thing. It can be beautiful and fun, and have a bit of a sense of humor. I think that pastry can  be exciting and you don't always have to plate compact and high.

Notice the platings on the desserts. Notice that they're sparse and kind of not so 'perfectly' placed. Ever hear of wabi-sabi? It's about finding beauty and harmony and perfection in things that are imperfect and natural. Everything that Nick plated that day was just on the fly. He just kind of picked things up and put them where they went. And that's okay! Not EVERY space has to be filled(something that 1st year culinary students often freak out at) because negative space provides an extra element. It's that extra want of something more.

Did I get a chance to plate something fancy with this? I SURE DID! And here's my attempt:

 I've never actually plated anything like this before. All the components are on the plate and kind of sparsely strung and flung about. I used to think this kind of plating was pretentious. But now I get it! It's just...fun. It's rule-breaking fun! It's about joy and giving your guests a bit of a 'wow' factor in an unexpected way. And isn't being American just that? Not playing by the rules and forging our own way? Sure, while it would be SERIOUSLY awesome to go to France and become a Pastry Chef there, if I end up as an American Pastry Chef someday, I think I'll be cool with it.

Friday, May 4, 2012

First Review for Pancho's Villa! (Familiar restaurant names and faces take residency in Parkville

Familiar restaurant names and faces take residency in Parkville

...is the title of the article "The Pitch" wrote that featured us in it! I'm very excited. Even if he did say our salsa was boring, it's still good to get press.

Heh. Shortest blog post EVER.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Sugar Mamma's at Briarcliff

Okay, so let me reiterate - I really don't give a crap about cupcakes. I'm freakin' sick of them. Wondery why? I've explained it all here(GO #TeamSavarin!!!). That being said, I actually like Sugar Mamma's bakery. I like them for various reasons, and also dislike them for a few, too. But I will go on to explain that later on.

First off, their location is nice - right in the hills of Briarcliff off of Mulberry Drive. This is a fun area because it's like Beverly Hills meets The Wild and Wonderful Whites of the Midwest - on the hill is Chanel, where down the hill is patchouli imitation. I love it, to be honest. I love the juxtaposition of Riverside with Red X and the classy Briarcliff Village. I'm probably going to get crap from my boyfriend about what a snob I am for saying such things, but I don't really care because he can be a butthead too. Anyway.

You walk in to the bakery and it's got a GORGEOUS robin's egg blue/black accented decor. Like the kind you'd find in a fancy jacquard fabric. It's like what you imagine a Cupcake Bar should be in a fancy area like that, and it always smells good. It somehow seems to me like it's a perfect setting for "The Real Housewives of Kansas City." Truth be told, there are lots of good cupcakeries in KC. (Is that a word?)

Stole this from their website
So the decor is great, and the staff - at least in my experience - have always been friendly. It's a family-run business, and the people there seem to take it seriously enough, but with that same fun tongue-in-cheek humor that cupcakes have to have. The one thing I love about them is that they have both the regular flavors and their fun off-the-cuff flavors that change. Today, they had a "Taste the Rainbow" cupcake which was vanilla with skittles mixed in. I didn't get that one, but it was extremely tempting. They have everything from a classic Red Velvet to a fun Raspberry Merlot, German Chocolate, or Vanilla Chai. Best part about their cupcake menu is that it is updated just about every day(at least that I've seen) on their website, Sugar Mamma's Bakery.com. Seems like Butterlicious is the favorite flavor of most reviewers I've seen so far on them! (Still haven't tried it yet, though.) In fact, a solid 90% of the people reviewing Sugar Mamma's (both on Urbanspoon and Yelp) seem to love them.

Another awesome thing I like about them is that they serve coffee from The Roasterie, which is a wonderful specialty coffee company that's based here in Kansas City. I love it when local things are supported, and you should, too! Read all about them on their website here. Oh, and another cool thing? They have really great ice cream! I even asked where they sourced it - it was a local-ish place, I remember - but I forgot. Either way, they have good selections, and are also open much later than other bakeries normally are.

I've been there twice, actually - once alone, once with my boyfriend - and haven't necessarily been disappointed, but not yet been wowed, if you know what I mean. And keep in mind, this is probably just because Culinary School has made me such a jaded bitch that only professionals like me would notice the tiny errors or little things they do that keep it from being that extra-wow-over-the-edge kind of thing. Even things like spelling errors or bad kerning or poor grammar on their website irks me. (Truth be told, though, I don't think I'm jaded or a "Grammar Nazi" because I'm bothered by that - I just think that language has rules for a reason, and "daily" is a word that most third-graders should be able to spell... Sadly, nobody noticed.)

For one, some of their decorating techniques are good, and some are kind of haphazardly done; it's usually a small thing that's easy to do, like an not-so-well-tempered chocolate ganache, or a not-so-great piping job on their frosting. Oh, and speaking of frosting? WAY sweet. I mean, diabetically sweet. But let me tell you why that's a good and bad thing:

When it comes to buttercreams, there are generally four types: American/Common, Italian, French, and Swiss. Swiss, Italian, and French buttercreams are very different from the American buttercream that we are all used to, which is that sickeningly-sweet stuff that we sometimes end up pushing off to the side.With our American buttercream, it's just a crapton of butter and sugar with a pinch of salt and a little flavoring in it. Sometimes you can add an egg yolk for color, or egg whites to 'soften' the buttercream's texture. Most people are super-freaked about the health risks of raw egg product with the FDA and othersuch health departments...but we in the Culinary Field know that things will be refrigerated or sugared and any bacteria will probably be killed in the process. So we're not freaked.

Swiss, French, and Italian buttercreams are essentially meringues with butter in it. They take a bit of skill to create properly, and are oftentimes not appreciated here in America, which is sad for many reasons:

Although American buttercreams are fine, they're usually HOLY CRAP sweet. Swiss, French, and Italian buttercreams are sweet but not in an overpowering way. They usually make a textural difference and flavor difference, versus another element of sweet-sweet-sweetie-times. They are buttercreams that are dimensional and interesting, but we Americans like our sweets, for better or worse, so many places just like to stick with the usual Common/American buttercream.

So. What does this mean? It means that the frosting is WAY freakin' sweet at Sugar Mamma's, and it's also a bit heavy and thick...but then again, it's an American buttercream. Kind of just the nature of the beast.

The flavors of the cupcakes themselves are kind of hit and miss. Sometimes they're really fantastic, and sometimes they're a bit subtle. The raspberry merlot cupcake I had was a bit tough and the ganache was average at best - and they did kind of a poor job coating it, to be honest. Their lemon cupcake with lemon curd was tasty, but the texture of the cake itself left a bit to be desired, as it was a bit inconsistent from top to bottom. The frosting was way too thick and sweet for me, and didn't really taste like lemon at all...just was colored bright yellow. The lemon curd they used was actually fairly good, but tasted kind of pre-made versus a fresh curd.
Cake balls and truffles are also on their menu

I have had their coffee in both House brew form and Iced Mocha form, and they were both good. The Mocha was like chocolate milk with coffee and chocolate syrup in it, and that was actually kind of cool...but it wasn't quite strong enough for my tastes. Their chocolate chip cookies are stupid good. Choc-full of good dark chocolate chunks and really chewy and tasty. Nice and tender, and big-sized. I will say, though, that their chocolates look gorgeous in the case - and I can't wait to go back to try them! That, and the lemon bars - which are apparently amazing. (They must be, since I've been in the store twice now and they're always out.)

Sugar Mamma's on UrbanspoonI wouldn't say I like or love Sugar Mamma's bakery, but I definitely don't dislike them.

I can tell you, though, that I like that they're a family business, and I like that they've got a nice big handful of imagination when it comes to their flavors. I mean, who knows? I could just be jaded because I've taken so many pastry classes and my grandfather was a professional baker for years and years and years. The little mistakes I've seen at the shop are probably only things that someone like me would notice. So what am I saying? I'm saying I'm indifferent towards it. I probably won't ever go out of my way for them, but I do like what they do and I like what they have to offer. Either way...

Go check it out for yourself! At very least, go for the coffee - because you know I love coffee.