Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year

Today you begin to write a 365 page book. Make it a good one.

Happy New Year from Le Wannabe Gourmande! Have a picture of a Baked Alaska!


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A True Room 39 Post

Last time I was at Room 39, I was actually bumming their internet to finish up a few writing assignments, as well as some work stuff. This time, I'm here because they were just too gosh-darn accommodating and nice about the whole thing that I just had to come back. Their Foursquare hinted towards the Oven eggs, so I just had to give them a go. Plus, they have Harney  & Sons tea...and we all know I'm a sucker for Earl Gray.

Room 39 on UrbanspoonThe tea is served with steamed milk, which comes in a proper little stainless steel kettle. The tea cup is more of a mug, which is mismatched with the saucer, but only a really anal prick like me would ever truly notice. The tea is even served with an adorable little demitasse spoon, which is usually reserved for espresso and coffee drinks.  The tea already comes in the mug, however, with the tea bag, so you can't do the "proper English way" of scalding the milk with the hot tea, which changes the flavor...but one would argue that with steamed milk it doesn't matter. Which it kind of doesn't, really. But, hey, today you learned something about the 'proper English way of tea', didn't you? The thing that matters is that they know what they're doing.

Let's talk about the ambiance. We have "exposed brick" wall on the left, which appears to be genuine-ish, and we also have exposed vents, a historical-esque ceiling with chipping paint...and warm, European-style flooring and bistro tables and chairs. A few of the chairs are chipped on the backs or the leggs, but that only seems to add to everything. They were going for Euro-bistro, and they got it.

The entrance is a curtained-in area to brush away the bitter Kansas City cold, and lots of flyers from the local area are left there for comers or go-ers. On the walls are, what appear to be, vintage prints and paintings by a local artist, all priced accordingly. Many Westport/39th street area restaurants advertise with their local artists on consignment deals, which is mutually beneficial to both parties. (Not only do you get low-cost artwork for your walls, but you get to help the community out.

The servers I've had each time I come here are lovely pixies with black dresses, stockings, and one has tattoos. (The one with tattoos also has the most-adorable dimples I've ever seen.) They're knowledgeable, friendly, and casually well-mannered. They're relaxed; they don't hover over you, which is amazing. But they did remember me, so that's a good feeling.

The oven eggs were completely delicious, and super-filling. The fruit was fresh and melded well. The gruyere was cheesey, the salami was salty...an overall tasty dish, impressive in its simplicity. I can see how they would go well with truffle oil, but I honestly don't care for the stuff, myself. I know, I know, I should pass my Chef-card forward...but, darnit, I can't put truffle oil on eggs. Potatoes? Sure. Asparagus? Why not. Eggs? No, thanks. I'm a purist.

All in all? Not bad at all. I enjoyed the food, the wait staff was very friendly, the wifi is fast, and the atmosphere is pretty cool. I think it's the perfect 'dining alone' experience. I don't know if I'd want to come here with another person, necessarily, but I wouldn't not want to come with another person.

The place is satisfying in and of itself. It makes me feel like it could be a tiny little bistro somewhere in Marseille, or something. It's chill. And the food is good. It's a good, little bistro. So I'll be back. Maybe with another person. But I'm comfortable dining alone, here, so that will always be a good sign.

And someone should check out the Room 39 in Leawood, so I can know what it was like without taking the trek all the way down there. I mean, seriously, this is right down the street from my house.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Main Street Coffeehouse

Choco-vanilla soy mocha
For those of you who know me, know that I love coffee. This shouldn't come as a surprise, since (I think I can say with utter confidence) nearly every Chef on the planet has some kind of vice. Mine happens to be caffeine. This can come in the form of coffee, coca cola, and/or chocolate. Has it got caffeine? Give it to me. Ideally, in an IV that I can just wheel around the kitchen while I'm peeling peaches or kneading bread dough. I get major headaches if I don't get my caffeine, right behind my eye, so when my BFF JJ asked me to come down to the Main Street Coffee House, the coffee shop she's been working at and check it out, I was totally down.

JJ and I have been friends since the very beginning of Culinary school. She was, in fact, one of the very first friends I acquired three years ago when I first moved to Kansas City. We're tight. Plus, she's having a baby right now, so I have got to cram in all the time I can with her before the little one comes along.Not that we won't be tight after the baby, mind you...but I'm not the most maternal woman on the planet. I mean, no offense to babies, but it's awkward when we lock eye contact.

Main Street Coffee House on Urbanspoon Anyway, JJ is having a little girl come this spring, and she and I are getting our friendship on before her little bundle of joy comes. JJ has been a barista for over ten years now, so if she's making coffee, then I can say for certain that it is going to be good. She knows how to run every machine under the sun, perfectly tamp that tamper-thingy, and make the shot of espresso with that elusive crema on top that says: "Hey, you did this right." This woman knows coffee like the back of her hand, and she, like a well-trained sommelier, can tell you every note of every flavor in every kind of roast she might taste. She also has a hyper-developed sense of smell since her pregnancy, kind of like the little rat from Ratatouille, and it's the best she can do since no caffeine can come in contact with her for awhile.
It's an espresso. I don't have a giant hand.

Walking into the cafe, which(if you couldn't tell by the title of this blog) is called Main Street Coffeehouse, you get that immediate warmth that all coffeehouses should have. Nice red walls, a decently-sized wooden stage for performances, a big blackboard with a menu written out in colorful chalk...you know, the kind of coffeehouses you see in movies. It also has these really cool black wrought iron(or at least it looks like) chandeliers that give this oddly-cool Spanish feel.

It also has a REALLY cool area out back to sit in!

It was slow-ish when I came in, so JJ put me in an apron and took me behind the counter to show me how the machines worked, little tricks and tips about espressos and the new coffees from the Roastarie that they'd received. For those of you whom are unaware, The Roastarie is this big, wonderful local coffee roasting company that serves for Kansas City. Generally speaking, if you have a signature coffee blend from the Roastarie, you've gotten an immediate thumbs up from the KC public. Here in Kansas City, we fancy ourselves localvores, and a signature blend is a good thing.


She made me several things, such as mochas, lattees, drip coffees and French pressed coffees...all from varying roasts. To be honest, they were well-executed, but the roasts themselves were decent-to-fair at best. They were honestly just a little too acidic for my tastes, and one of them kind of reminded me of that weird, soapy mouth-feel you get when you drink water from a glass that your dishwasher didn't rinse properly. I truthfully didn't care for the coffees themselves, but the coffee drinks were pretty darn good. The lattes had a firm foam, the mochas and signature drinks were not only well-executed but had a really good balance of heat, body, acid, and sweetness...so I was happy. And then came the food.

Room 39 on Urbanspoon
Room 39 is gooood!
Many coffeeshops shouldn't be thought of as restaurants, and we should all just accept that. A coffee house should serve coffee and pastries, and just concentrate on that. Heck, I'm at Room 39 right now, and that's a cafe/restaurant that just happens to serve coffee and pastries, but they're still awesome and accomodating enough to let me type away at the end of the counter like a madwoman, using up their WiFi like any other coffeeshop would do. (Seriously, though, they're really cool there and I highly recommend them. All of the food that's gone out of the kitchen looks consistent and they make a pretty darn good soy mocha. Plus they let me plug in my laptop into the outlet behind the counter so that's a big thumbs up. Check them out if you're ever in the Westport area.) But Main Street Coffee House is just that: a coffeehouse. They make all of their pastries in an offsite location(technically, that may not be 'in-house', though it is claimed to be), and all from the same woman who makes pastries locally for the area. Here's where I'm going to get annoying and entitled and technical. Strap in.

Roast beef bagel sandwich
I was honestly starving when I got one of their bagel sandwiches(roast beef and horseradish), so it tasted amazing on the first bite. When hunger wore off, I began to see a few technical flaws. First off, it was just straight, raw horseradish spread on the bagel, so that was overwhelming to start with. The onions were unevenly cut white onions(whereas red would have been better), and the lettuce I got was pretty, but the storage of the lettuce and the quality I had seen of it was kind of sketchy, in my book. Granted, it was a teeny-tiny fridge under the counter, and I know it was probably just the best they could come up with, but I think one should strive for perfection if you're going to serve food.

The bagels were decently well-made, and consistent. The pastries were pretty-darn poorly displayed and tucked away behind a too-tall magazine, though, and mislabeled. I was able to sit down with one of the managers and asked about why they had labeled a muffin as a cupcake, and why--in Gods' name--was there misshapen pipette of frosting on a  pumpkin muffin with a random Brach's pumpkin candy on top. He had said that it was a combination of the pastry person's doing, and that people like cupcakes. Here's the thing, though:

A cupcake and a muffin are two entirely different things. A muffin is a quickbread. A cupcake is a cake. A freaking cake. HUGE difference! They're not only made differently, but the ratios of ingredients are totally not interchangeable. This is a huge annoyance with me, especially after spending so much time learning the differences while in school. One could argue: "Hey, the general public doesn't care." Well, they should care. They should care what they're putting into their body, and they should have the right to know that what they're eating isn't a cupcake, but a muffin with frosting(ugh) on top. It's a muffin, guys. Put some struesel on it and call it good.
Cafe! Ole! (Haha, no seriously, though, it's au lait.)

The cafe au laits(a coffee-free steamed milk drink) were super-tasty, and JJ (along with the other staff) like to make signature flavors. The one she had come up with on that particular day was called a Hayride. It was a pumpkin caramel-y cider-y tasty thing that was so good I asked for another one to go.

The menu on coffee was well-rounded, and had a really large variety of cleanly-presented flavors and syrups to choose from. The food menu was kind of jumbled together with a few mistakes that only working culinary professionals might notice, but I don't think that your average joe would really care about the menu size or weirdly inconsistent menu names. In the midst of the bagel sandwiches called "roast beef" and "hummus and cucumber" was randomly "the Da Vinci Code", and under the sandwich menu was a whole section of varying peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. One was called "The Elvis" which featured "peanut butter, banana, fluff(marshmallow?), bacon, and no jelly, and the Nutty Nutella was just peanut butter, peanuts, and Nutella, no jelly. It's really anal and kind of annoying, I realize, but why advertise a section of signature PB&Js if they're not going to have jelly on them?

Menu was okay, but could have been cleaner...
I couldn't speak for the customer service without being biased on that day, since I've known the acting barista for over three years now and she's one of my best friends. The other barista on duty(who, apparently, was a manager there, too) seemed like a nice enough guy, but I overheard a few things he was saying to the customers that honestly just sounded like he was pulling random answers out of his ass. There's no shame in saying 'I'm not sure, let me check,' and I just don't know if he seemed like 'manager material,' to me. I had since been back a few times to just kind of check in without JJ knowing, and the other employees were pretty nice, as people go, but as baristas? I could take them or leave them. Not horrible, not exceptional...normal, I guess.

All in all, the Main Street Coffee House rates as "Not bad at all." I wouldn't go out of my way for it, but I certainly wouldn't call it anything dreadfully special. I give it a 7 out of 10. It marks fairly high on decor, pretty darn well on coffee drinks, medium-ish marks on coffee choices itself, and not-so-hot on food and pastries...mediocre, I would say. So just go for the coffee. The espresso is good, the mixed drinks are good, and all the menu really needs are a few tweaks here and there to turn mediocrity into something better: good food. There's nothing stopping this place from becoming something amazing. Change the menu, tighten some things up, get a better roast blend...little things.

Will I go again? Sure, to see JJ and maybe pick up another mocha. But I won't be back for any food.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Cocktails(a Commentary)(and a re-post)

This blog is going to be a little different from my other ones, and will be because it is at the behest of my most fabulous editor, Marie Bargas, of StyleCoven.com, who also is a TV producer, has worked in many film studios...and is just an all-around fabulous woman. I received the assignment of something to do with cocktails a few days ago, and it went(sort of) by Facebook posts.
I also don't like people that use cocktails as a substitute for fruit...

Long story short, I kind of got bored and asked if she'd had anymore assignments for me. Since the website was going through a bit of a makeover, she said she wasn't sure...but told me to write about cocktails.

Cocktails? Are you kidding me? The one woman she knows that barely drinks, ever?

But I am not a quitter, nor am I ever afraid of a challenge. Thusly, I consulted various books on the subject, at the Kansas City Public Library. Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis was a fun one, all about prose and hilarity with quite a bit of knowledge to back it up. I also quite enjoyed Boozehound by Jason Wilson, mostly because it was both informative and fun, much like Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte. (All of these books are excellent, so give them a read if you feel like it.)
Rather than recanting to you the entire contents of the book, I'll give my food-loving brain's opinion on the subject of cocktails themselves:

I'm honestly not a fan.

Cocktails, in my mind, are things that you sip at parties and toast with and are kind of little drinkable meals in and of themselves. Why do I think of them like that? Because they have their own flavor profiles, their own colors, compositions, and sometimes even their own structure. A meal should have all of those things, in my mind, as well as texture...which, if you think about it, can be added to certain drinks, if you're a skilled-enough mixologist. But whatever. If I'm going to drink something, it's going to be wine with my roast beef.

When I was 21, I drank cocktails at bars to make men think I could drink with them. Why was that important to me? I will tell you, Audience.

Drinking socially was important to me because it seemed to make other people uncomfortable when I said I wasn't drinking. Think about how awkward that is sometimes, especially at parties:

"Hey, can I mix you a drink?"

"Oh, no thanks, I don't drink."

Awkward pause. "Why?"

Insert nonchalant shrug. "I just don't see the point, I guess. I like my brain. You can't get brain cells back."

"You need to let loose."

"Uh..."

"Imagine how much fun you could be having if you were drunk!"

"What? Who says I can't have fun sober? I just like having all of my faculties around so I don't make poor decisions."

"Babe, just relax...enjoy the party."

"Uh... I am?"

"You don't look like it."

"Why, because I'm not falling all over myself? Because I'm not smoking the wrong end of a cigarette? You must be kinda stupid..."

And then they usually leave. So I started drinking to fit in. And I never really enjoyed anything other than wine or champagne, but I drank things like Cosmopolitans and Rubies just to look like I was doing something and people would talk to me without judging me. I began to see a weird pattern in men, who (sorry to all you decent fellows out there) would only pay attention to the women with drinks in their hands. And it occurred to me that we live in this bizarre society where a woman has to be not fully aware of herself or her faculties to be able to be approachable. We have become so oddly intimidating that we have to be drunk enough to even consider talking to you.

Honestly, guys. We appreciate men who are man enough to talk to us when we're sober. If you can get our numbers sober, you are worthy. What are you if you land us when we're drunk? You're honestly not that awesome. Whenever I would end up sleeping with a guy drunk, that I might not otherwise sleep with sober, it was kind of like I was raping myself using his penis. Icky, right? Right.
You should Google "Drunk Girls Stock Photos" sometime...

So that's why I don't really like cocktails. I associate them with bad decisions, chauvinist idiots, and drunk girls.
 ...Even though they do sometimes taste like candy. And the idea of doing signature cocktails at weddings is honestly a pretty cool one. I love the idea of doing signature cocktails as part of a meal, a party...it gives that one extra element to event planning that makes you think that the person doing it cares.

But I have never been a real drinker. I drink to sate thirst, or to accompany a meal. I really like tannic red wines to go with steaks, and I love a good Chablis with cheese. So what cocktail do you look to when your sole purpose in life is to highlight food?

Well, let's look at what you're having for dinner.

Let's start with something easy, like oysters. Briny, slippery, fantastic...the sea's finest, if you get them right! What goes with oysters? Why, champagne, of course! Even better, you can use champagne as the base of your cocktail. Try a Flirtini, which is a great champagne cocktail, with a bit if pineapple juice and a twist of lime. Citrusy. Light. Goes with oysters. Plus, they're the ultimate "girl" cocktail, even though I hate assigning genders to inanimate objects of sorts.
Google "Old Gregg for a laugh."

Flirtini
Makes 1 drink

  • 1 slice fresh pineapple
  • 1/2 oz Cointreau
  • 1/2 oz vodka
  • 1 oz pineapple juice
  • 3 oz Champagne(or any sparkling wine you have)
  • Maraschino cherry for garnish

Grab your cocktail shaker and toss in the pineapple. Muddle the fruit with the liquors in the bottom, and stir in the pineapple juice. Strain well into a chilled cocktail glass, and add the champagne. Garnish with the cherry, and enjoy.

Okay, so we've covered cocktail hour... How about a nice steak dinner, with buttered beets, asparagus, and a potato puree? Something heavy-ish, with a bit of a surprise? Why not a whiskey sour? Or a Manhattan? Or even a Rob Roy? Those could work, too, couldn't they?

When selecting a cocktail to go with your meal, think about the notes in the drink and how they will go with the flavor profiles of what you're eating. I once had a grapefruit Margarita with the charcuterie plate at Urban Table, and it went shockingly well. Cheese, meat, bread...something acidic was really great to break it all up.

If you're not following me on Twitter, yet, do it!
I actually really liked Urban Table, when I went. The decor was really awesome, and I thought their Happy Hour menu was pretty well done. The bartender that served us was polite, smiled a lot, and was fastidiously groomed. I looked up their regular menu online later that evening, and vowed to go back. Work has been kind of hectic lately, so I haven't been able to. But I swear I will! In the mean time, you guys should check it out. It's got mixed reviews on UrbanSpoon.com, but we all know that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So eat there and then tweet me  @WannaBGourmande to tell me how it was!


Urban Table on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Olive Oil Cake, Orange Creme Chiboust, Plum Jam

This blog is a love-letter to two of my favorite Chefs, the kind of upstanding fellas I aspire to be like, Thomas Keller and Joel Robuchon. One would think that, as a budding young Chef, myself, I would have grown up with these names in mind, studied from them, learned from their cookbooks, had posters of their food hanging up on my wall...but I had never even heard of either of them until I got to Culinary school, embarrassingly. Well, that's not entirely true...

Thomas Keller, I had only sort of heard of before through his restaurant, Per Se. When I was attending FIDM to become a Fashion Designer, a friend of mine said that he had spent a summer in NYC, and he was afforded the great pleasure to attend a gathering there with his internship group, where his boss was schmoozing with the NYC Powerhouses of the Fashion Industry. That was years ago, of course, and yet I still remember it. I remember thinking "Well, sure, food is fashion, too." And that was that.

Fast-forward to nearly three years later and I hear about Thomas Keller in the library at the Art Institute of Tucson, in my hometown, where I had just begun my culinary career, where I overheard a group of 4th Years going over their Finals before graduation, and talking all about Thomas Keller. I was still learning about the differences between a hollandaise and a bernaise sauce(which is basically chervil, peppercorns, and tarragon), so I figured I had better concentrate on learning the basics before getting too deep into studying for my new culinary Idols. I was happy with Julia Child as my culinary Idol for the time being, and I would stick with her for another year or so before abandoning her for other ventures. Honestly, with how often I used that copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking next to a pot of boiling stew, I'm shocked that the book is still in tact...

Master Chef Bill Sy was my real ideal of what a real Chef was at that point in my life. The Art Institutes of Tucson was freshly built at that point, but it had still snagged the absolute miracle of having a Master Chef as the Head of the department. I mean, seriously, it's a miracle. You guys get that, right? A Master Chef? They're like Unicorns - there are only, like, sixty of them in the whole wide world! (I don't know the actual number, sorry.)

Chef Sy scared the bejeezus out of me. I knew what a big deal it was to be a Master Chef at that point in my ever-so-tiny school career, and so did all of my classmates. I know we all girded our loins if he was even mentioned, and when he walked by our classes(which were open classes, with glass walls so you could see how clean/dirty the kitchens were), we all made sure we were either working or cleaning like mad. I'll never forget the first time he spoke to me.

It was in American Regional Cuisine, and we were all making chicken wings as our Daily Drill(a thing we did after the lecture and before the practical part of the class), where we were allowed to sort of go our own way for a little, and then kind of show what we were learning. In my group were my two friends Vanessa and Marco(with whom I am still friends to this day), and, as we were plating up, Chef Sy came in. I was so nervous, I thought I was going to throw up, especially because our wings weren't done, so I had thrown them(glazed and pre-baked in the oven and all) in the deep-fryer in a desperate attempt to get them finished in time. I mean desperate, too. I was panicking. I thought I was going to scream when Chef Sy walked by when we plated up. And I thought I was going to have a full-blown heart attack when, as he left, Chef Sy grabbed a wing from each group, including ours.

He had already taken a few bites of the other wings. I then saw him take my wing, my glazed, deep-fried wing, in his Master Chef hands and take a bite. He took three steps(I COUNTED) and then turned around to look at the groups.

"Who made this?" he asked, his voice accented with Mandarin Chinese and authority.

Everyone in the class went silent. My group members(who knew I had been struggling with the doneness of my wings) both looked at me with ghost-white faces. I thought I was going to die. I raised my hand and squeaked "I did, Chef."

He looked at me. He pointed at the group's plate-up that was next to ours. "That one is like 'wing.' This one--" he held up the half-eaten wing "--is like 'wing-wing-wing!'" And he did a little dance when he said it. And he left. I thought I was going to faint, and I might have had Marco not started laughing at me the second Chef Sy left, shaking me by the shoulders from behind.

I told you that story because I want you to understand the reverence I have for Chefs of a certain standing, as well most of us should. There are very few people in this world that can do what they do, and that's why they're so amazing. Chefs like Thomas Keller and Joel Robuchon are two Chefs I hold with that kind of reverence, and not without good reason.

Tart a l'orange, Chocolate Sauce
In Art Culinaire, week 2, we studied Joel Robuchon. I devoted myself to the pastry of the menu that week, his Orange Tart. I fell in love with that custard-y filling, and the thing I loved the most about it was how light it was, compared to the creme patisserie I had been horking down in Baking & Pastry. It was too rich, and I hadn't touched a custard-y dessert since. (Which is sort of funny, because I now keep a stash of the stuff in my fridge, where I dip shortbread cookies into it and watch Netflix.) I loved this dessert, and it gave me a great chance to practice my orange supremes...so it was a win-win! This wasn't the reason I fell in love with Chef Robuchon, though...

The real reason was his sweetbreads dish, with the pan-seared polenta. The polenta was thickened with a liason, which is a mixture of milk/cream and eggs, giving it a fantastic, creamy texture in combination with that glorious pan-sear. And sweetbreads? Get out of here! To this day, sweetbreads are still my favorite food because of that dish.


Group shot of the sweetbread/polenta dish...LIFE-CHANGING STUFF
The thing I loved the most about Joel Robuchon's sweetbreads was the devotion, the love, the attention to detail. Perhaps that's why I loved everything that Thomas Keller did, too, when I learned more in-depth about him, five weeks later.

Keller's philosophy was basically perfect execution/technique + exceptional ingredients = great food. I loved everything we did. I love-love-looooooved all of the dishes, both in concept and in production. It would be another year or two before I actually went out and bought one of his cookbooks for my own, and I honestly have little clue as to why it took me so long. Then again, if I think about it...I think it took so long because I was intimidated.

I would never have dreamt of trying anything Chef Bill Sy did, because I was intimidated, because I knew I bwasn't at that level, yet, and I felt that me trying anything they did would be insulting. I purchased a copy of Thomas Keller's Buchon off of Amazon some months ago, and I only got around to actually trying anything in that book a month and a half ago. Why was this? Because I was afraid. I felt like even touching the book was doing so me kind of wrong thing to a holy relic. But I bit the bullet when my boyfriend told me: "He's(Chef Keller) not here. Bake a damn cake, already."

Ugh. Fine.

Turns out it wasn't scary at all. Most novice cooks and/or home cooks are intimidated by baking because of how precise it has to be when executed correctly. Baking is all about precision, chemistry...you must be exact with your measurements, and measure by weight, please, in order to get the right ratios for everything. Thomas Keller puts exact grams for his recipes, and tells you, in detail, how and what to do everything in that book, right in the front.

In my spare time, I teach privately to home cooks that want to better their diet, their kids' diet, etc, and they're always terrified of cooking and baking because it's so intimidating. I realized, in the moment I opened my copy of Buchon to the Olive Oil Cake recipe, that I was no different from them. But then I remembered that I'm always telling my students: "when you're in the kitchen by yourself, who cares?" The fear of them messing up is only topped with the fear of: 'what if my family/husband/kids doesn't like it?' To that, I tell them: "If they want to cook and see if they can do better, let them fend for themselves." Generally, if you put something in front of someone, they'll eat it, especially if they're hungry. If they don't like it, they can get themselves something else, which is a general rule in my house.

So I made the olive oil cake, precisely following directions, and it turned out(surprise!) exactly how it should have in the book! That light, subtle fruitiness of the olive oil, the delicate crumb and spongey texture... I didn't want to ruin this with a heavy buttercream. In the book, it's presented as a component to the strawberry parfait, which has a filling of pastry cream folded together with an italian meringue buttercream. And then I remembered, I had a few oranges in my fridge...

The finished product.
Well, what else could I do but make that filling, again? What else could I do but bust out my old notebook from Art Culinaire and turn to Week 2, Joel Robuchon, and make my own orange custard filling for that cake? Why couldn't I turn the egg whites I had into a mousse-like Italian meringue by boiling gelatin in with the simple syrup(I didn't have room-temperature butter enough at the time, so I did that instead)? This is America, dag nabbit, and a light creme chiboust was a perfect little filling for that cake! (And for those of you whom are unfamiliar, a creme chiboust is basically a pastry cream lightened with a meringue folded in.) So I made that fantastic orange custard pastry cream, lightened with that mousse-y meringue. And I brushed the bottom layer with a red plum jam I had in my pantry, that was bright and tart and perfect. And dear Goddess it was bliss. My boyfriend even loved it, and he's seldom a cake person.

Alright, alright...here's the recipe for the cake. Just follow the directions!

Olive Oil Cake, a la Thomas Keller
1 cup plus 1 tsp. (145g.) all-purpose flour½ tsp. plus 1/8 tsp. (3g.) baking powder½ tsp. plus 1/8 tsp. (2g.) Kosher salt3 Tbsp. (50g.) eggs¾ cup plus 2 tsp. (158g.) sugar¼ cup plus 3 Tbsp. (113g.) whole milk¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp. (79g.) extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F., and prep your pan. The book says to use a sheet pan, but I used a 9" round cake pan, and it turned out fine.

Whisk your eggs and put them through a sieve in order to get the right texture/consistency/best way to measure your amount. Then whip the eggs and sugar in a standing mixer, on low, for one minute. Then turn your speed to high and whip for FIVE minutes. Stop, scrape down your bowl, bottom included, and then whip on medium-high for another five. 

Meanwhile, sift together your dry ingredients, and combine the whole milk and olive oil in a bowl and whisk together. Once your second five-minute whip-session is up, alternate the inclusion of wet and dry ingredients, half at a time, on medium-low. Pour your batter into your pan and spread it evenly, making sure you get it to all the corners, if you decided to use a sheet pan. 

For a sheet pan, it shouldn't take more than 10-12 minutes before it's done. I used a round pan, and in my oven, it took about 19 minutes before it was done. My nonstick pan is pretty awesome, so I was able to pop the cake out safely in ten minutes of in-pan cooling, and another 30 minutes of out-of-pan, on-the-rack cooling before wrapping it and popping it in the freezer. You should also do this if you have a sheet pan cake, and use large rings to cut out your rounds when you're ready to use them. 

Fill with filling if your choice, but try looking up your favorite pastry cream filling recipe and folding in a stabilized Italian meringue! I'll leave it to you. 

What's the lesson to take away from this? Cooking is easy, if you can follow directions. Which I can!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Canapes and H'ors D'oeuvres

canapes  

Web definitions
A canapé is a small, prepared and usually decorative food, held in the fingers and often eaten in one bite..

Thanks, Martha Stewart!
Deviled Quail Eggs w/ dill & Caviar
Don't you like how I'm starting off my blogs lately with definitions? Because I do. I think it gives a wonderful, scientific note to begin on. Food is science, after all, and since smart/nerdy girls are becoming more and more acceptable in the mainstream(and I'm not talking about hot girls that put on thick glasses for Facebook profiles and caption themselves "nerd lol"), I'm going to stretch my nerd wings and fly by making this a running theme. Hooray!

So! A canape! It sounds a LOT like h'ors doeuvres, doesn't it? (You know, those fancy little snacks that you get at weddings during their cocktail hour? Or at a buffet for a friend's little cousin's Bar Mitzvah?) Well, that's because a canape is just a certain kind of h'ors doeuvres. Nowadays, however, it seems that both terms are mostly interchangeable, and that's okay. If you want the actual, specific definition, then check out how FreeDictionary.com defines the term: 

can•a•pé (ˈkæn ə pi, -ˌpeɪ) 

n., pl. -pés.
a cracker or piece of bread topped with cheese, caviar, or other savory food.
[1885–90; < French: literally, a covering or netting, orig. for a bed (see canopy)]

See, this makes sense. Canape? Canopy? Something covering a cracker, like the canopy of the trees covering the brush with shadows? Doesn't that sound just lovely? H'ors d'oeuvres can be just bout anything you want them to be, so long as you can eat them in one bite, and a canape is an h'ors d'oeuvres that's got a crakcer/berad base. At work, however, our canapes are just about anything we want them to be, all served while our guests cocktail before their decadent, three-course meal. 

The idea of h'ors d'oeurvres/canapes is to keep them uniform, keep them small(one bite only, please), and keep them light. We don't necessarily want our guests filling up too much on these babies, do we? But we want them to be sated enough to wait for the meal we serve them. More often than not, if you invite a guest or two over for dinner, they come hungry. Don't make them wait if you have a whole big meal planned; throw them a few canapes to tide them over while you work your magic.

Why am I blogging about this now? Well, it's summer, and summer is quickly fading into autumn, which means the autumnal season will turn into a holiday season, and that means entertaining. Entertain your relatives, your friends, your neighbors, or yourself(I won't judge) with fun canapes, which(by the way) are excellent ways to show-up people at your neighborhood pot-lucks, if done correctly. A well-made h'ors d'oeuvres can be a veritable secret weapon at a neighborhood block party, leaving you, dear reader, the talk of the town.

Toasted wheat bread, mustard aioli, smoked ham, cornichons
From my culinary school days...our take on a "ham sandwich canape"
Now, then, according to my old notes from Garde Manger, a h'ors d'oeuvre(generally) needs a base, a spread, a body, and a garnish. With those four things in mind, you can come up with tons of combinations for very elegant h'ors d'oeuvres that are shockingly easy. I like canapes, however, because they specifically come with some kind of bread/cracker base, and I'm lazy when I entertain! (Seriously, who doesn't have crackers at any moment's notice?)

I love canapes because they are so fast. They immediately give you a base, so the other three are quick to come up with on a moment's notice. Canapes can be made using any kind of bread base, be they the heels on your bread loaves that you never eat, the crackers in your cabinet, or even the pita or tortillas you keep on top of your fridge, grilled off quickly. You can grill, fry, broil, dry toast, or even saute your bases for your canapes. Got white bread? Cut them into squares or use a round cookie cutter to make uniform shapes and toast them in the oven or saute them in butter. Pita? Tortillas? Wedges, man. Wedges, grilled. Crackers? They're already in that perfect uniform shape!

Now for your spread and body. 

Buckwheat blinis by Monica Shaw
Buckwheat blinis with varying toppings
What's in your fridge? No, seriously, what's in there? Go look? Got a bit of leftover roast beef? Shave it super-thin to create your body, layering artfully on your base with a bit of horseradish sauce/wasabi mayonnaise. Do you have cucumbers? Shave strips of the skin off and slice in rings as thick as your bread, maybe a bit thicker, and cut your bread the same circumference as the cucumber, and spread an herbed cream cheese between so the bread doesn't get soggy; top that with some smoked salmon and you have yourself a fancy canape, indeed. Tomatoes that aren't SO pretty but still good? Toast bread and rub it with fresh tomato. Seriously. It's a Spanish tapa thing called Pan Tomate, and you can drizzle with olive oil, a fried garlic chip, top with some serrano ham... You would be shocked at how much flavor it has. You can even use leftover shrimp by using your bread circles(toasted, please) some mashed avocado with lime juice, a shrimp, halved lengthwise, and a few cilantro leaves. And you can half these lengthwise because you a.) want to stretch it out so you can have twice as many, and b.) you don't want to fill your guests up before the meal.

Courtesy of MarthaStewartWeddings.com
Wonton napoleon with ricotta, tomato, basil

A good canape can not only say a lot about your party, and what your guests can expect in the coming meal, but they can also say a lot about you. Are you sophisticated yet down-to-earth? Do roasted mushrooms with a spread of Robiola cheese(courtesy of this beautiful recipe from Martha Stewart). Or perhaps you're a dare-devil and want to try these deep-fried wontons-turned-napoleon-layers with seasoned ricotta, fresh tomato and basil for a real wow-factor. You could be like me and just want to Old School with blinis, pictured above.

I love blinis. They're basically mini pancakes dressed with traditional Russian/eastern European toppings of smoked salmon, sour cream, pickled beets, caviar, and chopped herbs. (Maybe not always all at once, though.) I love them because you can make a ton of them all at once and then freeze what you don't use in plastic bags, to stow and keep for your next party. Plus, they are just elegant enough to make your guests/neighbors go: "Wait, you can't just buy those mini buckwheat pancakes at the grocery store...she must have made them from scratch! Just to entertain us! What a fancy lady! I shall go and tell the neighborhood and the rest of the HOMA to stop harassing her about eating ice cream from the carton with her shades open so everyone can see her shamefully stuffing-face in her underwear! I mean, this is America, after all, isn't it? She should have the freedom to do that without being judged! Anyone who makes such fancy blinis should!" Or something.

And, for the record, you can buy blinis in the store...I just haven't cared enough to look, yet, since it's so easy to make them myself. For your next party, if you feel like planning ahead, make this blini recipe, which is NOT from my texbooks from Culinary School(although that's a good recipe). This one is from Ina Garten. These puppies can sit for up to 6 months in the freezer, but I wouldn't actually know because they never last that long in my house.

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup buckwheat flour
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 extra-large egg
  • 1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, clarified, divided
  • 1/2 pound smoked salmon, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
  • Fresh dill sprig, for garnish

Directions
Combine both flours, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the milk, egg, and 1 tablespoon of the clarified butter, then whisk into the flour mixture. Heat 1 tablespoon of the clarified butter in a medium saute pan and drop the batter into the hot skillet, 1 tablespoon at a time. Cook over medium-low heat until bubbles form on the top side of the blini, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook for 1 more minute, or until brown. Repeat with the remaining batter. (I clean the hot pan with a dry paper towel between batches.) Set aside.
To serve, top the blini with a piece of smoked salmon. Add a dollop of creme fraiche and a sprig of dill.

PhotoLike I said, stored in a gallon plastic bag, these babies KEEP.  And, remember, just because you're entertaining, doesn't mean you can't use things you already have lying around the house. Just remember to keep them uniform, consistent, and plentiful, and you'll be the toast of the town(no pun intended).  
Now, go on. Have fun entertaining. And enjoy this picture of Bruschetta I did with Jani Bryson some years ago. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Look at Soups...(Cauliflower Soup)


soup  

/so͞op/

Noun
  1. A liquid dish, typically made by boiling meat, fish, or vegetables, etc., in stock or water.
  2. A substance or mixture perceived to resemble soup in appearance or consistency.
Synonyms
broth - bouillon - pottage

Don't you just love how the definition includes the word you're trying to define? Merriam-Webster online should really look into that.

When you think of soup, many things might conjure in your mind. You might think of the Campbell's tomato soup you'd have for lunch with a grilled cheese sandwich, or a bowl of Top Ramen, enjoyed in your college dorm room during the 'brokest of the broke' years of your life. I don't think of soup in the same way anymore. Working in private clubs tend to make you re-evaluate your thinking quite a bit. 

Soups are a thing that are usually overlooked. When it comes to eating out, do you go out for soup? Do you, really? Or do you, in the back of your mind, think that the soup they serve either comes in a can, or is just all the random crap that the other customers don't eat, so you throw it all in a giant stock pot and let simmer? (You probably don't but I used to think that.)  I love soups. I really do! I make many of the soups at work, and they're not only fun to make, but fun to eat. How can a soup be fun, you ask? Oh, I will tell you, audience. 

Think of a dish you like, a classic dish. How about Chicken Kiev, for an example? 

For those of you whom are unfamiliar with this delight, Chicken Kiev is a wonderful chicken dish of Ukranian/Russian origin, featuring a chicken breast that has been pounded, and rolled around a compound butter of garlic, herbs(such as tarragon and/or parsley), and then breaded and either fried or baked. Doesn't that sound just lovely? Like some kind of lighter version of Chicken Cordon Bleu. Now, take those flavors, the chicken, succulent and moist, the garlic, roasted and deep, the herbs, fresh and with a beautiful aromatic depth that can only be achieved when enjoyed warmed. Say that it's not ingredients, but instruments in an arrangement. Garlic can be the brass, since it's a strong flavor, while the herbs can be the stringed instruments. Let's give butter the woodwinds, because it's smooth, and you always know that they are there, and are sorely missing when they're not. Chicken is the percussion, the backbone, the strength, the tempo. Bread crumbs? The thing that holds it all together, and yet it somehow key? Let's say that it's the conductor, even though one might argue that it's the Chef that conducts... 

But, no, the Chef is the composer, the mastermind behind this madness of an analogy. Now, imagine all of that, hitting you, in a single, creamy, confusing, confuddling liquid that gives you all of those wonderful notes, without a single change in texture. Mind-boggling, isn't it?

Mind you, I'm talking about pureed soups, which are highly underrated, if you ask me. I think it's years and years of awful cafeteria lunches that have turned us off to mystery purees that we haven't seen made ourselves, and we Americans need to realize how amazingly beautiful a pureed soup can be! Sure, there's something beautiful about a nice chicken noodle soup, but what's elegant about that? Really?

So, a chicken soup, pureed into a wonderful, velvety texture with fresh herbs, and a garlic compound butter as a garnish? Doesn't that sound like a wonderful, elegant appetizer? Or even a main course with a nice crostini for a light lunch indoors when the wind is cold outside? Want to elevate the soup further? Do a crouton. Do a deep-fried herb, like a parsley leaf. It takes zero talent to garnish something, so why not do it? Even if it's just for yourself, alone, without pants on, you owe it to your life to have a garnished soup. Life is too short.

I have found that the simplest soups are the most amazing. When I worked at this wonderful little French bistro in Kansas, my favorite was a pureed soup of cauliflower. 

I'll never forget it. The fantastic French chef with the hipster glasses, let's call him Pierre, came in from smoking his last cigarette, washed his hands, and set the soup pot on my station. It was the Pantry station in the back, so the customers couldn't hear the whirring roar of the Vita-Prep blender, which was an absolutely indispensable tool in the kitchen. (You don't have to buy a Vita-Prep to make good pureed soups, by the way, it just helps. A standard blender works just fine in my kitchen in my tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Northland.) Sometimes, he would use chicken base in the soups, as he was blending, which is like a paste-equivalent of chicken bouillon cubes, but not this time. This time he just added salt and a few knobs of butter into the blender here and there. Then he left halfway through and asked me to finish blending, and put it downstairs. I shrugged and said okay, asking what it was as he left. 

It kind of does look like brains, doesn't it?
"Chou-fleur," he said.

Cauliflower? That...weird, brain-lobe-y looking thing? The white thing that you steam with broccoli, and leave it on the table at Thanksgiving? 

Yes! Yes, that! I took one of my tasting spoons, which I kept in a bain-marie on my station for just such an occasion, and sipped. It was like I had discovered a new continent, that had figuratively been sitting in front of my face my whole life. No wonder I hated cauliflower as a child! Steaming it to oblivion at Thanksgiving ruined the depth, the lightness, the wonderfully subtle 'umami' that it had. Although I could never truly replicate Chef Pierre's masterpiece, here's my own little concerto, that's similar, and good, although I'm sure that the French Chef would hate me for this method...but it's really his fault, for not showing me how to do it the right way:

A French Cauliflower Soup

  • 2 lbs. cauliflower florets
  • 1 medium white onion, diced
  • 5 cloves garlic, de-nibbed[that means cut off the tiny brown 'root/nibs'(trust me on this one)] and crushed with the side of your knife
  • A generous knob of butter
  • One fat pinch ground white pepper
  • 3 healthy sprigs of fresh Thyme
  • 2 cups chicken stock, plus water to cover, if needed
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • Kosher salt to taste

  • In a large, thick-bottomed soup pot, melt the butter and brown the cauliflower florets, lightly roasting them. You can also roast them in a 400 degree oven, if you like, but I find I like this better, since you catch all the goodies on the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and garlic, and sweat everything together until quite soft, on a medium heat. Introduce your thyme sprigs now, and season. Add in the chicken stock and water(if needed to cover it), and bring it up to a boil. Simply bring it up, and don't worry so much about boiling for too long. Simmering lightly will only be needed until the cauliflower is soft, and then remove from heat. 

    Break out your favorite ladle, and your blender. Remove the plastic cap thingy from the middle of your blender top. I cannot stress that enough. Trust me. You only want the steaming, boiling-hot, screaming liquid to splash all over your body and face once. Not even once. So just do yourself a favor and remove that plastic cap thingy and get yourself that dishtowel you don't mind running through the wash on your next load of laundry. Or that janky-yet-clean potholder you have in the catch-all drawer in your kitchen; you all know the one. 

    Soup kettle and brightly-printed napkins are optional.
    Blending in batches is simple. Make sure you have equal parts solids and liquid, and just start off at a low speed, working up to the highest you can get. Blend until smooth and velvety. Take your time with this step, as it's totally worth it. A naughty little Chef's trick? With each blended batch, drop in a small knob of butter as you blend...it will be that extra little step that will make your guests(or just you, who cares) go "ooh, what's this?"

    As for the heavy cream? Whisk it in until you get the desired consistency. It's honestly entirely optional, but I like to put in about a cup of the stuff at the end. If you're saving this in the freezer(like I sometimes do) for later, don't add the cream until you heat it up. The cream should be a finisher, the icing on the cake, the last drumming beat to a well-timed song. The symbol crash, if you will! But make sure it's cream, for goodness' sake, not milk. Cream. 

    I made this soup as a Thanksgiving offering the first year I was out of Culinary School, and my great-grandmother T-Lo loved it so much, she had me portion it out in coffee mugs for her so she could take them home and freeze them as she wanted to heat it up. Huge kudos to me!

    As far as a garnish? Deep-fried parsley leaves have always been my favorite. Or just a crouton with a sprinkling of asiago(I know, I know! It should be gruyere!) cheese. Or nutmeg, if you're feeling fancy.