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|
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|
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."
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.|
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!