Thanks to Alton Brown, Iron Chef America can be quite an educational tool. Things learned during Chef Todd English's pizza dough battle with Iron Chef Mario Batali:
Zatar is a Middle Eastern aromatic spice mixture containing toasted white sesame seeds, ground sumac, thyme and salt. Chef English tossed liberal amounts of zatar and fresh herbs on a rack of lamb he was pan-frying. Between Alton's description of the herb smell and the stunning shot of the lamb in the pan - I've got to try it!
Ramps - aka the Wild Leeks of Appalachia - are a springtime vegetable and a member of the onion family. They apparently have a strong garlic-like aroma. Never heard of these in my life. Again - got to try this!
Pork butts come from the shoulder of a pig, not the rump. Who knew?
Just a quote I ran across that y'all might find amusing:
"If life gives you lemons, why not prepare Smoked Salmon Served on Crisp Cheese Biscuits with Chive and Lemon Cream, followed by Coconut and Lemon Risotto with Mushroom Duxelles and Spinach with a side of Grilled Asparagus with Lemon Butter, and finish with Lemon Pudding Souffle with Champagne Sabayon? At least, that's what they did on Iron Chef." — R.M. Weiner
Ending with a bang, a whimper, a near-scorching, and a cornucopia of bread.
Our final day of class began like a world tour, or at least like viewing pictures from somebody else's world tour. Somebody with a serious obsession for flatbreads, that is. Naan coming out of a tandoori, tortillas coming off a stove, and even a North African flatbread that's traditionally cooked by dropping it straight on top of hot coals. I wound up trying this direct approach myself, as it turns out, but more on that later.
The flatbreads we made today sampled some of the world's oldest recipes. From India we made naan and paratha, lavash from the Middle East, pita from the Mediterranean coastal areas, and foccacia from Italy.
We also continued yesterday's breads, not only baking the sourdoughs but also beginning recipes for dinner rolls and pretzels. With the class ending, we of course needed to make sure we finished anything we started today.
It all looked doable on paper. As it happened, there was too much to juggle at one time, and today we didn't get the chance to follow the other teams as much as we would have liked. The recipes were simple enough, as flatbreads tend to be, but there just wasn't enough time to really learn the techniques.
For one example, I had hoped to work on my dough-rolling skills. When I roll out dough I usually get something that might be construed as a geometric shape, if you stood ten feet away and squinted your eyes. Oh, and if you lived in a non-Euclidean universe. In a professional bakeshop like that, though, most serious dough-flattening was done with a machine designed for the purpose, and that was what we used today.
Still, the basic principles were easy enough to grasp. Lavash is simply a yeast-risen mixed-grain bread that's rolled very, very flat, sweetened a little with honey, coated with seeds, and baked to a near-crisp. In ye olden days of the Middle East you could take months-old lavash, drizzle water on it, leave it in a towel for a bit, and produce a tasty staple. However, I don't have a saddlebag to pack lavash in (or a camel to hang the saddlebag on) so I'll have to take their word on it. Fresh from the oven our recipe came out crispy and marvelous.
Paratha represents the most simple variety of flatbread: whole wheat flour, salt, water, and ghee, baked to a soft flat disk. Naan uses white flour and is often leavened with yeast, though some versions use only baking soda and yogurt. Tiff & I were handling the naan, and wound up letting it rest while we worked on the bagels we formed yesterday.
we cooked the bagels in classic fashion, boiling them for about a minute before dipping them in toppings and baking them. We had fun devising topping mixtures, including a sunflower seed / black sesame seed / salt / red pepper flake mixture that we really should have named on the spot, because it rocked. However, it's imperative to get the bagels in the oven immediately at this step, rather than waiting until the whole batch gets dipped. We failed to do this, and the bagels came out a little flat and tough.
Meanwhile, another team made pretzels, which start as a bagel-like dough but are dipped in lye prior to baking. The lye not only gives the pretzels their dark brown color, but also adds extra salty flavor. I knew of this step in the back of my mind, but there's nothing like the sight of someone in gloves and goggles dipping the raw pretzels into a caustic chemical to really drive the point home. I still find the two images (soft and innocuous pretzels vs. skin-dissolving sodium hydroxide) incongruous, but I can at least appreciate the necessity of it.
Tiff & I then completed some dinner rolls flavored with chopped rosemary. At this point Chef Robert showed us a genuinely useful technique for rolling dough into balls. You cup your hands and roll the dough in a downward-cupped hand, pinching some of the dough between your outside fingers and the table. For the first time I felt like I'd actually learned something about manually shaping dough. I don't think Chef had many more tricks to show, though ... the dough he handled seemed to willingly and happily take whatever shape he desired. He could lightly press dough with the heel of his hand, and any seams would simply vanish, like Dr. Crusher could always do with skin cuts on Star Trek. Perhaps his skill comes mostly from his subconcious. Perhaps he has some kind of psychic dough-bond. Perhaps he's from the future and is hiding a Star Trek gizmo in his palm. Perhaps he's just that good.
With everything coming to a head, it was time to try and bake the naan. The school actually had a tandoori, of the top-loading style. It was shaped like a bell, with a hole at the top for loading food. To cook the naan, you reach through the top opening and slap it on the upper inside surface, retrieving it with a hook. You must keep the sides very hot to allow the naan to stick, though, and rain earlier in the week meant that the tandoori took its time to warm up. We gave it a shot anyway.
Whether or not the sides were hot enough, the air coming out of the top hole certainly was. Slapping in that naan was probably the toughest thing I've had to do all week. My first piece of flat, garlic-encrusted naan stuck properly, but in my haste I managed to slap it with the topping side against the clay. My second piece dropped right off into the fire, North-African style. By this time, though, Chef decided that the tandoori just wasn't hot enough, so we completed the rest in the oven. By that time the naan had just been resting too long, and the texture came out less than ideal.
So, sadly, I didn't learn to make a really great piece of naan as I had wished to. But then, I'm not ready to build a tandoori in the backyard, so perhaps this was inevitable.
With a flurry of activity, everything came out of the oven all at once. pretzels came out pleasantly pretzel-like, the bagels came out a bit flat (as I mentioned earlier), and the dinner rolls came out very nicely indeed.
we also finally got to try the different sourdoughs. As I said yesterday, we prepared both traditional sourdough (flour, water, salt, and starter) and a contemporary sourdough that added some whole wheat flour and wheat germ, plus some malt to aid fermentation. The traditional sourdough had a nice and simple characteristic flavor, but the contemporary version mellowed out the sour bite with a smooth tang of lactic acid. The difference wasn't so stark that I could identify one or the other in a blind taste test, but side-by-side the difference was apparent.
The final day was the busiest by far, and it took some time to recuperate, but the experiences of the whole week are starting to sort themselves out in my head. I'll post a wrap-up of the week soon, and then I'll post some of the key recipes we worked with.
Man cannot live by bread alone, unless perhaps it's really good bread.
Let me get something out of the way first. Our instructor today was definitely bread for success. We made some good dough; it was a license fer menting money. We kneaded nothing else to be happy. We took the time to stop and smell the flours.
Now that that's out of my system, you can probably guess what we focused on for Day 4. I have no objection to cakes and other sweet treats, but more than anything else I wanted to leave this week with a more solid feeling for the process of making good bread. Store-bought bread rarely satisfies in the way home-baked bread can. Bread machines can cover some of the gap, but their loaves still feel soulless in a way I can't quite describe.
Enter my new savior, Chef Robert Jorin, who spent today taking us on a whirlwind tour of some basic breads. Contrary to some very small fears, Chef Robert taught us patiently and comfortably, with none of the feeling of impatience one might expect from one of the world's top breadmakers when dealing with complete bread newbies. He began with a quick rundown of the breadmaking basics, covering not just the actions of yeast, but the myriad ways of letting yeast go about their job. Today's first bullet point describes the different ways of setting up fermentation:
1) In "simple mixing," the baker mixes all of the ingredients at the same time. The yeast begin their fermentation at this point, and within hours the bread may be baked. Such breads have a very simple taste, not bad but not interesting on their own.
2) In the "sponge method," the baker mixes a portion of the flour with some of the liquid and all of the yeast, allowing it to ferment overnight. The next day, this sponge joins the remainder of the ingredients, and the bread is made normally. The longer fermentation allows more complex flavors to develop. Sponges vary in density, from the more watery "Poolish" sponge to the stiff "Biga" sponge to a generic sponge somewhere in between. In softer sponges, yeast produce more lactic acid, leading to a yogurty flavor. Harder sponges produce more ascetic acid, for a vinegary flavor.
3) Sourdoughs, in which one maintains a culture of natural yeast on a daily diet of flour & water, simply using it in place of dried yeast in the recipe. This produces the complex flavor associated with the eponymous bread.
Today we explored all three varieties, using a Poolish sponge to make ciabatta, simple mixing to make baguettes, and two varieties of sourdough. The sourdoughs represent two different approaches to the same bread: the traditional sort composed only of flour, water, salt, and starter, and the contemporary "basic" sort which added milk and some other minor ingredients to spiffy up the product. We didn't bake these today, so I'll have to describe them tomorrow.
After bringing the first round of breads into the fermentation phase, we started another, this time exploring more involved recipes. Tiff and I tackled bagels, while other teams made rosemary & olive bread, whole wheat sunflower bread, and challah.
Then came shaping, the tricky art of subdividing your dough and preparing it for baking. I had great fun braiding a 4-strand loaf of challah. Indeed, I had fun with all of it, though it's quite challenging to turn out seamless bread.
Finally, we were ready for baking. Chef Robert showed us the art & science of slicing the top of the loaf just before oven insertion, and how to use steam at the start of the baking process to give bread a proper crust. Ever wonder why bread from a bread machine often develops cracks in the side? It turns out that when you bake bread in unmoistened air, the crust forms too quickly and any weak spots will give later. To delay the process and ensure a beautiful crust, give the loaves a last-minute spritz of water.
Before I knew it, finished loaves popped out onto the cooling rack, looking as appealing as any food I've ever seen. The baguettes, as expected, lacked the deeper flavor that comes with pre-fermentation but were excellent nonetheless. The challah came out moist and pretty, though the loaf that I braided developed a tumorous bulge right in the middle. The ciabatta, which had been pre-fermented, garnered the most acclaim; it was as close as I've seen to perfect bread. When we served it to the entire school at lunch, once of the long-term baking students walked up and complimented us on turning out a better ciabatta than they had earlier in the week.
Unfortunately, there was no time to bake the sourdoughs, so we left them to finish rising overnight in a "retarder" that keeps conditions optimum for just such a procedure. I'm more than a little intrigued by the difference between our two sourdoughs. The bagels and rosemary bread will also be finished tomorrow. And for one last final project, we made the dough for naan! If I can learn to make a good naan, you can expect Indian food to overrun my kitchen.
One more day left. Tomorrow's update may take some time to get written, because I've got to drive straight home from the school tomorrow, but it will show up soon.
Today's random factoid: someone asked Chef Robert about bromated flour, which I've never seen in any store. This flour contains potassium bromide, which has the twin effects of maturing wheat more rapidly and allowing it to absorb more water. Both represent cost efficiencies when running a large-scale operation, so some commercial bakers rely on it. However, both California and New York have banned it for reasons unknown to Chef.
We started Day 3 by eating the scones we made yesterday. I expected them to be good, but after eating them I can declare them the best scones of my life. They possessed that distinctive scone crumbliness, yet were moist enough to eat without washing them down. The crust, specked with large-grain sugar, shined in particular.
And then came the chocolate, today's sole focus. We began with a brief discussion of making a ganache. A ganache is pretty much any preparation in which chocolate is melted and then emulsified in a liquid, often cream. We made a variety of these today, each with different concentrations of chocolate and for a different purpose. The first baking session of the day produced:
1) A simple chocolate tart. We poured a simple ganache of dark chocolate into a pre-baked pie crust and chilled it. It came out quite good, though if I were making it I would pour in less chocolate and add a layer of fruit to the tart.
2) A flourless chocolate cake. I prefer to think of flourless cakes as "egg cakes," because that's why they get to be flourless. We whipped eggs to a thick froth, mixed in another simple ganache of melted chocolate and butter, and baked it. Since flourless cakes remain liquefied at high temperatures, you have to use a thermometer to gauge doneness rather than any kind of sampling. I enjoyed the eventual results, though I would like it better as a complement to other dessert components rather than a base component itself.
3) A mint chocolate torte. If (like me) you weren't sure of the difference between a tart and a torte: a tart is a filling poured into an open pie-like shell, while a torte is actually a variety of cake that's usually thin, dense, and often containing ground nuts (in this case almonds). We used a ganache containing crushed mint to flavor the cake batter, and carefully mixed chocolate with water & mint liquer as an icing. Chocolate and water, of course, don't always get along, but with careful mixing and proper temperatures you can get them to mix quite happily. This icing stunned me with its lightness and taste, though the cake itself proved a little boring.
At one point, the baking class in the other side of the room burst into applause after a demonstration by their instructor. Our instructor, Chef Stephen, said half-jokingly that he felt a bit outshined because we had yet to spontaneously burst into applause. I wouldn't expect much in the way of spontaneity or excitement from our class, which is composed of 5 older women, 2 mid-twenties tech professionals (Tiff & I), and a fresh graduate of Chico State who's planning on entering culinary school and is in this class for a head start. A pleasant crew, but completely unmemorable (as I'm sure I am to them). If Chef Stephen feels a little underwhelmed by the group, he hides it well.
Tomorrow we begin the 2 days of bread baking, under a different chef with intimidating credentials. Eight years ago an organization in France launched Le Coupe de Monde de la Boulangerie, a prestigious baking competition between 3-man teams from each competing country. Last year the Americans won it for the first time, and our instructor for tomorrow, Robert Joren, was one of them. I feel more than a little honored, and only a teensy bit intimidated.
But back to today. After the cakes, We returned to the classroom to discuss chocolate in all its varieties. Today's keywords are "courveture" and "compound" chocolates. Both contain chocolate enhanced with extra fat; in the former extra cocoa butter is added, while the ladder merely gets vegetable shortening. Think "premium baking chocolate" vs. "Hershey."
For our other key technique of the day, we learned to temper chocolate. To temper chocolate, you melt it, then add in some blocks of solid chocolate and melt them while keeping the temperature within a narrow range. The resulting product contains microscopic crystals organized into long chains, and when dried has that crisp, snappable property that you want in chocolate that's going to coat or decorate something else. It's one of those techniques that I'm sure goes back centuries, but which can only be explained by 20th century science.
We put this technique to use to make truffles. We prepared various ganaches, one of milk chocolate, one of dark chocolate, and one of white chocolate. We formed each into balls (hard to do right) and dipped those in tempered chocolate (even harder). As I was trying to clean some dried chocolate off the workspace, Chef showed me a shortcut: run a torch over the chocolate to quickly melt it! Using a torch for cleaning! I'm having fun already. The truffles came out lovely, thank you very much.
Lastly we tasted some of yesterday's projects. The chiffon cake was even better than before, after being flavored with syrup. The Genoise cake was moister at least, but the syrup's flavor wasn't well distributed. Neither could hold a candle to the tiramisu, which I'll have to re-evaluate as a "boring" dessert choice in the light of the mind-bendingly good Mascarpone sauce.
Though it's been wonderful, I'm definitely ready to leave desserts behind and start tackling the more substantial breads. I may be ready to eat dessert again some time next week, but for now bring on the starch!
In which our hero does battle with delicate cakes and a fearsome tabletop burner.
Day 2 found us spending much more time in the kitchen, focusing on the trickier baking technique of whipping eggs until they foam up and trap air. The basic idea wasn't new to me (as it probably isn't to you), but the intricacies of the process were. We made three different such cakes today:
Sponge Cake (Genoise): For this cake, the eggs are first mixed whole, with some sugar added, until they form a foamy liquid. The resulting cake has a light texture, but by itself is dry and not really worthwhile by itself. We slathered it with a soaking syrup* flavored with Framboise, and will check it out tomorrow.
Sponge Cake (Chiffon): Chiffon cakes get their texture by utilizing only egg whites for aeration. Egg whites trap air more efficiently by themselves, and since the yolks don't need to be whipped they can be used to help form the batter before the whites get mixed in. This means the whites are subject to a minimum of mixing, and the trapped air stays embedded in the cake.
Lady Fingers: Lady Fingers, the small little cake tunnels that usually get made into tiramisu, are even more aerated. The yolks and whites are separated, but then individually whipped to maximize the amount of air. They're baked into small, very soft tubes that you squirt out with a pastry bag.
My friend Tiff, who's taking the class with me, worked with me on the Genoise cake, and I fear to say I overmixed it. It came out a little denser than is ideal.
That was nothing, however, compared to my disaster with our second project of the day, a chocolate cream pie. We're working in a baking-specific area of the kitchen that lacks built-in burners, so when we need one we bring out appliances that provide a single burner. Unlike normal individual burners, though, these feature induction, which means they use some kind of magnetic trick to directly heat the pot. These burners are approximately 6.1 bajillion times powerful than any burner I've ever used.
The first step in chocolate cream pie is to prepare a custard, and the first step in custard preparation is boiling milk. Our milk was just about to start simmering when I turned around to wash off a scraper. Maybe 15 seconds later, I turn around just as the milk begins to boil over. This was no mild splash, though ... in a span of about 5 seconds I saw what turned out to be a pint of milk geyser over the sides and onto the table!
Fortunately, I had just learned what will turn out to be a very useful fact. One of the chief problems of preparing custards is that the milk must not be heavily boiled lest it start caramelizing on the bottom and become "scalded." This requires careful attention. But when you add some sugar to the milk beforehand, the milk stands up to the heat much better. So in this case we could still use what milk we had.
The other 3 teams (there are 8 people total in the class, in 4 teams) prepared coconut cream, lemon meringue, and buttermilk pies, all without incident. All products were judged excellent, including even our pie. I especially enjoyed the decoration process, and will soon be adding a set of pastry bag nozzles to my kitchen.
As a final project we made scones. This recipe bound the dry ingredients together with only cream, a variation I'd never heard of. I'll report on the results when we eat them for breakfast tomorrow.
* A "simple syrup," as you may know, contains equal parts water & sugar. A "soaking syrup" has half as much sugar, for use in larger quantities.
For a Christmas & Birthday present this year, my
sweetie enrolled me in a Baking & Pastry class at the
CIA's Greystone campus, located in Napa Valley.
Herein is my journal for the week.
I admit, I was a little scared at first.The CIA normally teaches at the professional level, and my view of the professional cooking world has been colored more by _Kitchen Confidential_ than anything else. This is another campus of the same school, after all, that Anthony Bourdain himself told stories about. Nor was their introductory letter very reassuring. It suggested that I shouldn't show up at all without a full chef's uniform and a suite of my own kitchen tools. Sure, I could bring my own spatulas, but a "bench scraper?"
And worst of all, I feared I'd be cooking on an empty stomach. I can't eat much very early in the morning, and class was scheduled to run from 7 am to 1:30 pm. Sure, we would get to eat what we baked, but how much pastry could I eat? And how could I make it that far on little food.
Pshaw - my worrying was for naught. The atmosphere turned out to be just what you'd expect for a campus in the laid-back Napa Valley. My day started with a very pleasant breakfast, served in the huge communal kitchen / dining room that all classes share. After a bit of orientation, we met our teacher for the first three days, Stephen Durfee. Chef Stephen's credentials are impeccable; he's worked as a pastry chef at the French Laundy (in Napa) and at Charles Nob Hill (in San Francisco). He's also an extremely personable and patient guy.
Oh, and for lunch, every active class contributes their makings to the general potluck, along with some extra dishes from the teaching assistants. This means we get a wide variety of dishes at every lunch, all of them cooked either by (or under the supervision of) experts. Five days worth of fabulous food practically makes the entire trip worthwhile.
Let me get back to the class, though. The first two days are all about baking things that are leavened by whipping air into the ingredients before baking. Today we focus on the "Creaming Method," in which the first step is mixing butter & sugar in a mixer until the sugar forms a lattice that traps air. This is the foundation of Pound Cake, of which we make two varieties today. It's also a great way to make cookies, which we also make.
The key nuggets of knowledge for today are:
1) The proper way to "cream" together butter & sugar. For cookies this means minimal mixing, but for cakes you want to fully aerate the mixture to lighten the final product.
2) The proper way to emulsify eggs into this mixture before adding flour. Done right, you can form a batter without the overmixing that can make a cake tough.
3) The different types of flour. Cake flour, bread flour, and pastry flour all have distinct properties, and sometimes you really want to avoid "All-Purpose" flour.
4) Biscotti is resilient stuff. We made a batch and got through the initial baking fine, but ran out of time to do the second baking, where you lay the slices out flat and toast them for an hour. Chef Stephen said he'd take them out in an hour since we was going to be around anyway. Then he forgot, and left them in for 8 hours! And they still came out excellent! Turns out the toasting process mainly dries the biscotti, and once dry it's pretty impervious to further heat.
A tasty lunch followed, with the more advanced cooking class working elsewhere in the room turning out tasty versions of various Chinese dishes. There's another baking & pastry class going on at the same time, a serious 30-week one, and they're producing lots of amazing little delicate cookies. Still, our classes chocolate chip cookies and white chocolate macadamia nut cookies disappeared plenty fast, so we got that warm glow of satisfaction.
Tomorrow: more egg-whipping than you can crack a whip at!