Archive for November, 2007

November 29, 2007

The Busy Life of a Culinary School Student

I really should be working on catching up in my reflective journal for school, but I feel more of a pull to my blog at the moment. If any of the BU gastronomy professors are reading this sentence, please don’t read that last sentence. I know I haven’t been the most prolific writer this fall, and for that I apologize to you my readers. While I am worried that people will forget about my blog, you dedicated readers are the ones who suffer. You know who you are: the ones who check every couple of days to answer the eternal question: “Has she updated yet?” The more I worry about losing readers, the more I hear “Why haven’t you updated?” “When’s your next post?” and even “Is there someplace on the internet we can report a missing blogger?” Thank you so much for your questions, your nagging, and overall your support. I cannot make excuses about why I’m not posting as much, other than to say that I miss the days of being paid full-time for a job I only worked at for about ten or fifteen hours a week.

This semester looks very different from the last year I spent luxuriously studying up on and writing about gastronomic issues. Whereas I used to sit down every morning with a pot of Teekampagne tea (now also available in the US!) and read and write about food, today is the first time since I’ve moved to Boston that I’ve had the time to finish a pot of tea in one sitting. Of course, perhaps that’s partially due to the fact that I just got my teapot last weekend.

My daily routine starts out luxuriously late compared to most people. As I’ve mentioned, class usually starts at 10:30am. I don’t understand why a good third of my class still comes late – it’s ten thirty! The few days I worked last year I often had to be at school by seven thirty in the morning. Now, even with an hour-long commute, I can get up at eight with plenty of time to spare.

Classes have evolved since I first posted on it. They still involve a morning lecture or demonstration, but now they are by an invited chef, who explains to us his or her philosophy, ingredients, and dishes. These are very interesting, and it’s fun to sit and watch as delicious food unfolds before our eyes. However, the afternoon demonstrations offer the most practical learning for me. This is where we apply the things we’ve learned; it’s when chefs come in and teach us their set of recipes. All come in with an agenda (whether it be to teach us about their cuisine, to get through the day’s recipes, or even to find employees) and some execute their plan with more precision and organization than others. Many ask us what our plans are for the future, and it’s been fun to hear the subtle changes in everyone’s description of themselves. Depending on the day, and the chef, I will change my description to emphasize writing, learning, or cooking.

We often don’t get out until five or six in the evening after finishing the dishes (it’s amazing how many dishes twelve culinary students can make!). There’s often some errand to do after school, and lately I’ve been lucky if I’m home before eight in the evening. I have just enough time to eat a very small dinner (we usually eat what we’ve cooked around four-thirty), catch up with David, check my email, and then it’s time to think about going to sleep to start over again the next day. Weekends aren’t less busy. The only difference is I often get up much earlier for work.

Thanksgiving was a very welcome change. David and I luckily got a ride down to Philadelphia with some friends of his, and we spent three wonderful days with my sister and her husband. The first day, Thanksgiving itself, we made the menu I posted about. Everything was delicious*. Specifically the custard, the stuffing (if you use this recipe, make sure though to chop the mushrooms small and add a bit of extra bread), the endives, and the sweet potatoes. I must say, I have never really liked sweet potatoes. I’ve been able to tolerate them with lots of sugar or maple syrup, but never plain. This year, though, Sarah made them from the Julia Child recipe, and added a bit of grated ginger and butter. It was amazing. None of us could believe how something so simple was so delicious.

If anything this fall, I’ve learned to value that simplicity even more than I have in the past. The time I get to spend with David, the moments in class when I make a dish I’m really proud of, and even the time I spend at work, fixing the cookies in the display or making sandwiches on the line and joking with my coworkers. I’ve told many people that this semester I haven’t dreaded going to school once. Although some days I come home happier than others, I’ve always learned something and look forward to doing it again the next day. In the meantime, I need to take advantage of this moment, and get caught up on that journal…

*With the exception of the turkey, which was a bit of a flop due to the fact that I misread my thermometer. It was good for leftovers though!

Julia Child’s Sweet Potato Purée
adapted from “The Way to Cook”

4 large sweet potatoes
1 medium Yukon gold potato
4-6 Tbsp butter
½ tsp ginger (or just to taste)
salt and pepper to taste

Peel and boil all the potatoes until tender. If you have time and space in your oven, you may bake them as well (this will take at least an hour, and doesn’t require peeling beforehand). Over low heat beat in the butter, ginger, and seasoning, mashing the potatoes with a masher or mixer. You can make this ahead of time, but make sure you don’t cool off the potatoes. Put only half the butter in and keep warm in a water bath on the stove. When you are ready to serve them, beat in the rest of the butter and season. They must be served hot!

November 20, 2007

How I Wrote a Thanksgiving Menu

This Wednesday David and I will be traveling down the Eastern seaboard with the Greyhound to Pennsylvania to visit my sister and her husband.Bus travel is by no means as first-class as planes, as classic as cars, or as classy as private car service; nevertheless I hope it will get us there for the best holiday of the year anyway.

In the last couple of weeks David, Sarah, Nathan, and I have been brainstorming about what we want to eat this Thursday. It’s not easy putting together a menu, and I’ve found it really interesting and helpful to listen to everybody’s ideas. In class on the day we talked about writing menus I felt mine was the least inspired, most traditional menu of the group. This disappointed me until David pointed out that my passion lies precisely in traditional foods, not foams and chemicals*. So, a Thanksgiving dinner shouldn’t be too difficult for me, right? Here are some of my suggestions:

My first thought was to take the squash from the middle of the dinner and bring it to the forefront in an appetizer. I’ve always wanted to have appetizers at Thanksgiving, I think it makes it fancier. Next is the turkey, what to stuff it with, and how to prepare it. Roasted, brined, basted, injected with sauce under the skin, in the oven, on the grill, on a spit? The options are endless, but eventually the line must be drawn. I like in the oven, stuffed, and basted every thirty minutes to one hour: this gives me plenty of time to handle all the other details that need to be dealt with.

Sides with the turkey are often more important than the turkey itself: traditional bean casseroles, corn casseroles, mashed potatoes, extra stuffing (careful not to dry it out!), and plenty of fresh vegetables (even salad if you like). Some suggestions are creamed corn (or leeks), braised endives, peas with pearl onions – again, many options. It’s important to have a balance: too many starches, or even too many vegetables, can make the meal lean too heavily on one side. Not only do you want a balance in types of vegetables, but you also want a balance in flavor – if you have cream in one dish already, try having another dish flavored with onions or peppers. Choose dishes with ingredients that compliment each other – not only within the dish but across the dishes as well (yes, that’s hard, and I will always be learning what goes well together).

Dessert has always been one of my favorite parts of Thanksgiving. Focus on what you like, and don’t get too carried away with making too many pies (especially if you feel more obligated than excited about them). This year I’ve omitted a crust entirely, and I’m only having a custard. Of course I know it’s hard to give up the classics, and Thanksgiving is by no means a time to hold back. If you like key lime pie, make it and love it. Try it with some coconut shavings, or in bar form layered with your own graham cracker crust.

Making twists on old themes can be fun and produce excellent results. Keep an eye out for what other people are talking about for their dinners, and don’t be afraid to ask for recipe recommendations. You never know what kind of ideas you can get in the wildest of places!

Pictured above are the cookbooks I’ll be sourcing this year for Thanksgiving. In addition my sister and I have tapped Yahoo and Epicurious for recipes, and I’ve thrown in a soup and a dessert I’ve learned at school. Together, they will hopefully prove to be a delicious meal.

Vegetarian Butternut Squash


Roast Turkey
Hazelnut, Sage, and Mushroom Stuffing
Cranberry Preserves
Green Beans with Crimini Mushroom Sauce
Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Sweet Potato Purée
Endive and Walnut Salad with Gorgonzola Cheese


Pumpkin Custard with Pecan Praline
Vanilla Ice Cream

I haven’t made most of these dishes before – I’ll be tweaking my traditional Julia Child garlic mashed potatoes to make a low-fat version (thanks to Moosewood), and the green beans Sarah found here at Yahoo.The stuffing we got off Epicurious, which also has some interesting menu ideas of their own.The Endive and Walnut Salad comes from the Joy of Cooking, and the sweet potatoes are Julia’s (in “The Way to Cook”).As I said, the soup I got from instructor John Vyhnanek and the dessert is a take on Cindy Salvato’s pumpkin pie, which we’ll be making in ramekins.

If you’re still finalizing your menu and are looking for a soup, the butternut squash is incredible.Vegetarians will love you for it, but if you don’t have to contend with any then you can add chicken stock to create a soup that is even richer.It was one of the first things we made in class this fall, and it was surprisingly simple for the flavor that we got out of it.Try serving it with some toasted or candied pumpkin seeds, homemade croutons, or just a sprinkling of chives.

*Having played around with molecular gastronomy recipes today, I can honestly say I will stick to my mangoes in their natural state or in puree form, but not in a spherical orb suspended with alginate and calcium chloride to make it look like an egg yolk.

Vegetarian Butternut Squash Soup
adapted from Chef John Vyhnanek

2 Tbsp white wine
1 tsp garlic, finely minced
½ cup celery, finely diced
½ cup onion, finely diced
½ cup leeks, finely diced (use mostly the white part but add some of the lighter green parts too)
2 lbs butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into ½” cubes
4 cups water
½ stick cinnamon (or 1 tsp cinnamon powder)
2 oz maple syrup (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

Sweat the garlic and wine with some canola or vegetable oil over low heat until they are clear.Add the celery, onions, and leeks and cook slowly until they are clear.Put the squash, cinnamon, and water into the pot and bring to a boil.Then reduce the heat and let simmer about 30 minutes, or until tender.

Remove the cinnamon stick, if using.Purée the soup with an immersion blender (or let cool and use a regular blender or food processor).If you want a really smooth soup, strain through a cheese cloth-lined strainer or a chinoise.Add the nutmeg, maple syrup, and seasoning and bring the soup back to a low boil.Serve warm garnished with whipped cream, pumpkin seeds, chives, and/or croutons.

Note: To make your own croutons, cut the crust off soft bread using a round fluted cookie cutter to make half-moon shapes, or cut triangles with a knife (you can get as creative as you like!).Sauté on medium heat in a pan with butter until crispy and lightly browned.For added flavor, you can put garlic and/or herbs in the butter, but be careful not to burn them.

November 13, 2007

The Butter Bonanza

You all are probably groaning at the sight of the picture on the right. After one month all she could come up with was a post about butter? Well call me uncreative but yes. My defense: butter is probably one of the most important ingredients to most Western and even some non-Western cuisines (think India’s ghee, a very popular version of clarified butter). Although many Americans have been trained by our neurotic society to cringe when they read a recipe that states to sauté mushrooms in butter, Julia Child had the right idea when she said something like: if you don’t want to use butter, use cream. In other words, there’s nothing to replace the flavor of fats, and if you use them within reason they can do wonders to your food.

It’s around this time of year when people begin to think about cooking (if they manage not to think about it any other time of year). Thanksgiving is not too far off, and aside from finding the right turkey, you have to think: how much butter am I going to put into my mashed potatoes this year? Furthermore, with the arrival of Thanksgiving, the baking season is officially open. For me, this means I get to try out new recipes I’ve learned in pastry classes recently, such as Sable cookies. This translates to “Sand Cookies” from the French, and they are incredibly crumbly and scrumptious sugar cookies, perfect for a cup of tea or coffee on a cold afternoon (or accompanying a batch of other holiday cookies).

Clockwise from top left: Key lime bar, chocolate macaroon, lime pistachio shortbread, sable cookie

I digress. Back to the butter: One important thing to do when wanting to use butter is to buy the right kind. Each brand will be different. Butter is typically made up of 80% butterfat, 15% milk solids, and 5% water. Clarified butter is made when melting butter to separate out the milk solids and water, leaving pure butterfat. Many restaurants use this when cooking (which is one reason why eating out tastes so good!). There is one brand of butter, though, that is expensive but delicious called Plugrá Butter*, which has 82% butterfat. Apparently Cabbot has a higher water content, and one of my pastry chef instructors told me that she prefers Land o Lakes butter as a cheaper and more available alternative to Plugrá.

When buying butter to cook with, make sure to buy unsalted butter. This is vital, because every brand uses a different amount of salt and we consumers have no idea how much is in any of it. This can mess up salt measurements in both baking and cooking. Salt originally was put into butter as a preservative, and since the invention of refrigerators we can now eat butter faster than it goes rancid, making salted butter obsolete (except on toast). Butter can also be frozen indefinitely without sacrificing flavor or composition, which is great when butter goes on sale and you want to stock up. One tip: butter usually becomes expensive right around the holidays, so you can buy your butter in the summer when it’s cheap, and freeze it until winter when you want to bake warm cookies to stave off the cold.

This is precisely what I tried to do the other day when I was at the grocery store. I saw that Cabbot was on sale, and although I know it has a higher water content, I like the flavor of it. I read the tag: $1.88 unsalted butter. I looked: only three pounds left! I grabbed them, threw them in my basket, and rushed home to prepare dinner. Only as I was unpacking did I read the label on the butter closely: it was salted. Upon returning to the store the next day, the clerk informed me that due to the sale they had run out of unsalted butter. As she gave me a refund, she also asked me to fill out a form “So I can give you a rain check.” I got very excited. My first, very own rain check! I’d always heard that grocery stores hand them out, but I’d never experienced it myself. And now I have a precious rain check I can use in the next 60 days to buy my coveted unsalted butter.

* Plugrá Butter is available at Trader Joe’s and other specialty stores. Plugrá is apparently a play on the French words plus gras meaning “fattier.”

Sable Cookies
adapted from The French Cookie Book by Bruce Healy and Paul Bugat

4 ¾ ounces (or ½ cup plus 1 ½ tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
2 ounces confectioner’s sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract (or ½ a vanilla bean or any other extract you fancy)
6 ounces all-purpose flour (measured out by weight!)
1 egg, lightly beaten
¼ cup crystal sugar (this is sugar with larger crystals)

Put the butter on a clean counter and sift the confectioner’s sugar over it. Cream the two together by smearing it away from you with the heel of your hand, then scraping it back with a bench scraper. Once it’s smooth quickly add the vanilla so you don’t melt all the butter. Sift the flour over the dough and cut it with the bench scraper or tossing it with your fingertips until you it becomes crumbly. Finish mixing it by smearing it in small portions across the counter again with the heel of your hand. Form the dough in a ball and roll it into a cylinder about ten inches long. Cut this in half and form each half into 8” long cylinders. Refrigerate for two hours or overnight.*

Preheat your oven to 375F.

Brush each cylinder with egg wash and roll in crystal sugar. Cut the dough into ¼” thick slices with a sharp knife and place them carefully on cookie sheets (lined with parchment to prevent sticking and for easy cleanup). Press down on each cookie lightly with your thumb to make a small impression and so the cookies stick to the sheet (pressing too hard though will cause the cookie to crack, you don’t want this!).

Bake until bottoms and edges are browned but the centers are still pale. Depending on your oven this can be anywhere from 14 to 16 minutes. Remove the cookies from the sheet carefully and let cool on a cookie rack.

*Note: whenever the dough becomes too difficult to handle, this probably means the butter has become too warm. Stick it back in the fridge to solidify the butter, then take it back out and try again.