Friday, December 30, 2005

Gone Banana's

Making my debut with a menu in the middle of summer was a blessing beyond anything I could see at the time. This blessing I speak of was fruit. I was blessed with fuzzy peaches from Yakima, plump little cherries, sugary strawberries from Carnation, blueberries, raspberries, apricots, blackberries, pumpkins, wild huckleberries, all of which needed little attention from me to shine on a plate. I was learning to manage a menu, draw from my creative pool, and research and develop recipes while these fruits did most of the work.

Now that winter has set in, the items on my menu are requiring much more from me. No longer can I slice a perfect peach, garnish it minimally and call it good. It is time for me to put my skills to work.

This week I put myself to the task of a banana desert. I chose a caramelized banana bavarian inspired by Gordon Ramsey. It is a lovely use of the bavarian method as the banana's texture add a luxurious mouth feel. The banana's are rolled in sugar and caramelized before being pureed, bringing out the fruits richness. It is set over the top of a very thin, rum soaked layer of geniose.

Aside this desert are some very playful flavors. A quenelle of rich milk chocolate mousse flanks the banana making for a classic flavor combination. Move over a little and you'll find a pool of malted cream remenecent of a vanilla malted milk shake. Finally for a little snap, crackle, and pop a line of caramelized rice crispies sweeps across the plate.

Creating a dramatic line with a loose garnish is not my idea, but an idea I love no less. My friend Anjana spoke of this design factor from her experience at Mary Elaine's, but I first saw it at The Fat Duck made with toasted coconut aside a rhubarb parfait. It slipped from my mind until a recent dinner at Seattle's Veil restaurant. After an absolutely exhilarating 5 courses, the desserts came out. Across a plate that featured a date ice cream was this exact sweeping line made with caramelized oats. It was the final touch I was looking for.

I underestimated the selling power of banana's until selling out of this desert two nights ago when a group of 8 people ordered 7 of this dessert for their table.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Study in Panna Cotta

My first encounter with panna cotta was savory. It was made from creme fraiche and parmesean and served with an asparagus veloute. The texture was dense and thick like a mousse, hardly needing gelatin for structure as the parmesan set it. So when I decided to venture into sweet panna cotta's for my menu at Eva, I came to a startling discovery. Panna cotta is milk jello!

I began my panna cotta exploration with a lean buttermilk pannacotta. The flavor was nice but as buttermilk is very lean, the texture was too similar to jello. This turned me off from imediately furthering my explorations.

I kept this method in the back of my mind until a dinnner at Cafe Juanita brought it back up. My friend squeeled that I held a job in the industry so the kitchen sent out a second desert course, a simple lemon panna cotta with raspberry sauce. It blew me away.

The texture was so light and delicate, the flavor a subtle creamy lemon. I began a journy to recreate this texture for my own portfolio, and since have had two successes.

For the market menu last week I took inspiration from Wylie Dufrane's Blasphemists christmas dinner and made my own fresh chevre pannacotta. Using the Port Madison Farms goat cheese it subtly sweet and recieved the compliment from Karina, "I dont even like goat cheese, but this is really good!" The garnishes were a turkish dessert of pumpkin (mascerated in sugar then oven roasted to be candied on the outside and pudding like on the inside), candied cashews, and a maple brown sugar drizzle.

On the current menu is a Citrus Pannacotta with candied lemon and orange ginger sauce. The panna cotta is infused with lemon and orange zest, lemon grass, and a little chamomile. The candied lemon is a section of the rind with much of the fruit left on that has let to confit in a syrup made with lemon juice, star anise, peppercorns, and vanilla bean. After a week in the syrup it is cut into strips and dried a bit in the oven. I like that the fruit left on the rind absorbs much of the syrup for a lot of added flavor in the final product. The orange ginger syrup is agressive and has a tiny bit of kick from fresh ginger. For the plate, the panna cotta is turned out on a sable cookie.

A standing dish on the menu is a take on the Lampreia parmasean panna cotta. Instead of parmesan I used an aged sardinian goat cheese called Panteleo. It has stood aside various garnishes and will be making it's last appearance soon.

Gordon Ramsey calls panna cotta a "chic blancmange" and says that every panna cotta should have a "sexy wobble" as the plate is carried to the dining room. He calls it the chi-chi-lina. Working with a higher fat content and less gelatin, I am seeing this sexy little shimmy in my pannacotta's. They can be a pain to unmold because of their delicate nature, but well worth the effort.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Commissioned work

Occasionally, the vast amount of creative freedom I have been given with Eva's desert menu wanes and I am assigned a commissioned piece. For a private lunch today James commissioned a desert with a brownie.

Well.... if you consider a brief suggestion said in passing followed by a shrug that implies, "why not" a commission. I believe the words were, "it's just a lunch, you might as well do a brownie." The statement was meant to say it's lunch, don't go overboard. But it got me to thinking, I might as well do a brownie.

So I made a brownie. And then I "kicked it up a notch."

I took a chocolate brownie recipe from Michael Deselunier's Deserts to Die For, (the sequel to Death By Chocolate) that was created to be layers in a gooey chocolate peanut butter brownie cake. A cake my friend Amanda has received so many requests for she put it on "weddings and batmitzvah's only" status.

With a whopping 1 and a half pounds of melted chocolate and a texture that is delicate and chewy, this brownie is on par with many decadent chocolate cakes I have tried. The brownie was baked in two sheet pans thinner than usual to allow for it to be layered. Between the two brownies was a layer of chocolate ginger ganache. The ganache was flavored with a nice strong ginger syrup and studded with finely diced candied ginger.

The ginger had such a kick I was sure it would taste over powering in the chocolate, so I added it, well...... gingerly. But the aggressive chocolate stood up to everything the ginger could dish out, and I eventually had the entire batch of syrup mixed in.

The brownie was served with a warm chocolate sauce, a scoop of sour cream ice cream, and ribbons of crystallized ginger. I wouldn't make sour cream ice cream again. I wanted it to be just like the creme fraiche ice cream I fell in love with earlier this year. Why ever didn't I just make the creme fraiche ice cream? Or even a fresh ginger ice cream? Eh, live and learn.

If you haven't had chocolate and ginger together yet, do. It's an amazing flavor combination. I might find it so amazing because I didn't expect it to be. I intend to use this combination again for the new years eve menu, a decadent chocolate ginger cake with citrus confit and whipped creme fraiche.

So my "just a lunch" brownie was a bit over board. But even Pierre Herme features a recipe for a brownie in his collection with the warning that the brownie has crept it's way into French hearts, their children's back packs, and desert menu's across the country. So if it's good enough for the French, well..... who doesn't love a brownie?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A Farmers Market Farewell

The farmers markets around Seattle began to disappear as the summer faded to fall, but one lonely farmers weathered the autumn, and is running until winter sets in. The University farmers market will commence for the last time this coming weekend, just a small congregation of die hard purveyors remaining. Those that still have wares to sell will brave the 30 degree weather to sell the last of their honey, cheeses, hazelnuts, vegetables (just Chard, I am sure), and foraged mushrooms.

Fittingly so, the end of a long run has come for Eva's Market Menu. Each weekend the market is scoured for all things "showing well", inspiration is gathered, and a 3 course menu is created to showcase our findings. This past weekend was decidedly our last Market Menu.

For my finale I chose to make an understatement. With Holmquist Farms hazelnuts, I made a very rich hazelnut ice cream to sit aside a fallen chocolate cake. Served warm, the center of the cake was dense and moist, remniscent of a brownie but very delicate. The hazelnuts were toasted in the oven until deeply nutty before being broken to release the oils and infused into the cream.

The sweet duo said nothing more than they needed to, and ended the market menu with grace.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Lessons Learned

I spent the better part of my day teaching another class. The title of this class was "Miniature deserts for your holiday buffet. The photograph on the left shows 3 of the 4 deserts that were featured in the class. On the left is a small apple turnover, in the back is a cream puff filled with chocolate cream, and in the front is a bite sized lemon cheesecake on a shortbread cookie. Not pictured is my favorite, a spoon served creme brulee. These deserts are all great because the bulk of the work can be done ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator or freezer.

The turnover is made from a flaky cream cheese crust and a caramelized apple filling. To make the filling, I cooked the apples in butter over a medium flame. The apples are covered in sugar as soon as they are put in the pan so the sugar mixes with the butter and released juices, and slowly caramelizes while the apples cook. When the apples are very tender they are mashed in the pan, mixed with the caramely buttery goo that they cooked in, and doused with apple brandy for the last 2 minutes of cooking. The flaky cream cheese crust is my favorite pie crust, but any pie crust recipe will work. It is rolled in a square, egg washed (for glue), and the filling is dropped by tablespoon in a grid. A second layer of thin pastry is laid on top and pressed down. This is very much like making ravioli. The turnovers are cut with a fluted wheel, and baked for about 20 to 25 minutes. They make delicious little hand held apple pies.

The cheesecake is a great idea I found in Gale Gand's "Just a bite" book. She suggests lining mini muffin pans with plastic wrap and filling them with cheesecake batter. They bake at 300 for 20 minutes, and no the plastic wrap doesn't catch on fire. These can be made days ahead of time wrapped well and refrigerated, then assembled last minute on a cookie of your choice. I chose to make a lemon cheesecake on a lemon shortbread cookie, but any cheesecake recipe should do fine. The great thing about this method is the crust is a crisp cookie rather than the crumb crust that can get so soggy, and because they are made in mini muffin tins, you can make quite a few of them with minimal effort. Dusted with a little powdered sugar, it's quite a gem and can be finished in two bites.

The chocolate filled cream puff is a lighter version of the pastry case delights. Instead of making pastry cream, I filled them with a rich chocolate whipped cream. The cream is made with semisweet chocolate melted into sweet scalded cream which is chilled before whipping. It whips up very thick and dense, more like a mousse than a whipped cream. The cream puff is made from Pate a choux, which takes its name from the French word for cabbage. Indeed, they do look like little cabbage heads. I enjoy their rugged exterior because they always hide something luxurious inside, a diamond in the rough so to speak. The nice thing about pate a choux is it's ability to be frozen. The little mounds of batter can be piped and frozen, then baked off at a later date. This means you can do all the (messy) work on a Wednesday night, and bake them just an hour before you want to serve them on a Saturday. A piping bag fitted with a small tip inserted into the bottom of each puff fills each "cabbage" discretely, and they require minimalistic garnishes like a quick dip in melted chocolate or a dusting of powdered sugar.

Finally, my favorite of the class, creme brulee served on a spoon. No picture exists because they were gobbled up before I could get my camera out. The method is very simple and can be applied to any recipe. Instead of breaking the custard up and baking it in individual molds, a shallow layer is baked in a large casserole dish. After the custard has chilled in the refrigerator, it is scooped onto a serving spoon. The rough scoop of custard is smoothed with a hot dry palette knife (or butter knife). This is dusted with sugar and brulee'd just as usual, and because the spoon has a long handle, you can use your gas oven's broiler if you don't own a torch. The custard can be baked days ahead of time, stored with plastic wrap on the surface in the refrigerator, and scooped just before serving. It's nice for the buffet because it has all power to impress that creme brulee does and the guests can enjoy it with out much commitment. There is no ramekin to hold onto, it can be eaten with one hand and a drink in the other, and is over in just a few bites.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Student and Teacher

While I toil away daily in the kitchen at Eva exactly as I have done in other kitchens, stress about prep as service nears just like before, work in a nearly indistinguishable manner from all other jobs I have had, my current job comes with a label I have never had before, "Chef."

The label is in place to demonstrate that I have the creative control over the dessert menu. It is, however, often mistaken for another label, "Expert on all things in a pastry kitchen." The second title, I am not. Not even close.

I shy away from using the title "pastry chef" as much as possible. In many ways, it's a title I dont feel I have earned fully, sounds a little self important, and negates the student I still feel I am. While I am a far cry from the culinary school student I once was, I am in every way a student, and in this case, my own teacher. Every day is a journey in discovery. Each menu change is a chance to explore an aspect of the sweet kitchen I haven't mastered yet. Ok, sometimes things I haven't even tried yet.

To mend the "issues" I have had with bread making, I put a bread pudding on the menu and set myself to the task of Brioche. It began with reading countless Brioche recipes. Each was decidedly varied, Fanny Farmer even asked you to put the dough in a large container of hot water to proof. I tried 3 different recipes (avoiding the large bucket of hot water), and came out with a recipe I liked, and a good sense of what brioche is.

October was a lesson in pumpkin. I used different varieties of pumpkins, and tested different methods of extracting the flesh. I Peeled the pumpkins, didn't peel them, cut them small, quartered them, blanched them, steamed them, roasted them, salted the water, and didn't, put them through the food mill, put them in the robot coup, strained it, and finally froze it. I came up with a useful method. It became obvious that you want to invest as little time and labor into the laborious process as possible. Peeling was an unnecessary waste of 30 minutes when you could remove the cooked flesh from the peel in a matter of minutes. Blanching took half the time of roasting and cooked twice the amount of pumpkin as steaming. And finally, freezing. The freezing seperates the pumpkin from much of the water that it holds. Upon thawing, up to 20 percent water by volume was extracted. It made it very creamy.

This month I am delving into Choux pastry. It's a fascinating little dough that I am saving for an upcoming post.

My fascination with each daily discovery often reminds me of how much I don't know. But it's also a glimpse of how much is out there for me to learn. Safely said, I am at the begining of a life time of discovery that is in store for me. And I have a blog to share my discoveries with the world. (Or at least my sister.)