Hello! We're happy to have you!

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


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.


  • 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

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.