Sunday, January 11, 2009

Going Bake-About…and the Bree in Me

Whilst I love writing about food, falling off the ‘blog wagon’ these past two months has been a lot easier than I expected. While I was very active in the kitchen during this time, I have so few pictures to show for it!

Graduation from Basic Patisserie on 13th November marked the start of my hiatus from the keyboard. I finished in the top 5 (out of 60 students) and received an honorable mention at the ceremony. So I was really surprised & delighted. But was I gonna just plunk myself down and write about it?? Hell no! This was the last thing on my mind. Frankly all I wanted was to go shopping for kitchen gadgets & luxury ingredients to reward myself…then spend every possible moment of my 7 week break in feverish chef mode! I would abandon the TGV commutes for a while and this meant a re-allocation of the time spent writing to spending more time in my kitchen.

And that’s pretty much what I did! If I were Aboriginal, I think I could accurately describe this experience as going walk-about. Mind you, I never really left the kitchen during this ‘wandering’ period, yet I was symbollically abandoning some routines and venturing on a course of exploration and self-discovery, not really knowing where it would lead me. A bit like Nullah from the movie Australia...but wearing an apron and hovering over a KitchenAid.

Whilst it was so rewarding to have this time to explore, I didn’t venture as far into the culinary outback as I’d wanted. The reality is, I ended up forfeiting 3 of these precious weeks to travel. So for nearly half the time I unfortunately found myself being totally keen yet completely kitchenless! And it was torture, let me tell you! Still, with the remaining 4 weeks, I morphed into a total baking fiend and was quite prolific. Several celebrations were crammed into this short space of time: Thanksgiving, my birthday, friends' birthdays, a food-oriented presentation to colleagues and of course Christmas festivities. So it seems nearly every week (or weekend) there was at least one great event to justify more dessert production in my tiny kitchen!

For Thanksgiving I was invited to celebrate amongst friends and was asked to bring a selection of petit-fours to enjoy with coffee. I really tried to maintain a classic American theme by making mini apple turnovers, but I also felt there would be some expectations to offer up a couple of French-inspired treats. So I also made madeleines and got inventive and created something I was going to call bouchees du pistache. These were to be little round layer cakes of pistachio sponge cake and butterscotch ganache, covered in white chocolate. Unfortunately the layers of ganache did not solidify sufficiently, so these babies never left my kitchen (but hey, the pigeons on my window ledge ate really well that day – tee hee!). The mini madeleines were a success though. This time, I used a Jura sourced wildflower honey, which provided wonderful nuances to the final taste. The hostess dropped me an email the following day, telling me her youngest son was still happily savoring the remaining cakes that morning at breakfast, so I was delighted.

I was on a business trip on my birthday but enjoyed making some things during that first weekend of December. I whipped up several batches of cookie dough, yeast dough, muffins, sponge bases, tart crusts, mini quiches and experimented with different flavored mousses presented in small verrines. I did manage to get one photo of some of the verrine explorations, like this raspberry & chocolate creation shown here. The big a-ha in my verrine study was that mousse can be made ahead and frozen without any noticeable degradation in quality after thawing. A really worthwhile discovery! So still I have several glass goblets lined up in my freezer, and I’ll continue to test the lifespan on this idea until my need for freezer space (or willpower) runs out.

In mid December I gave a presentation to my design colleagues about my food-related interests, including my classes in Paris. For this presentation, I baked my first batch of Christmas cookies for 2008 and mailed them to colleagues in Brussels and London who would attend the presentation remotely. For my Geneva-based colleagues, I decided to go whole hog and chose to attempt the final dessert we’d studied but not actually practiced in Basic: a chocolate-bergamot mousse cake with orange crisp! (yeah no kidding - I shouted ‘whoa’ too when I first heard about this one!!)

In trying to impress my peers without first testing the waters, I inherently accepted all associated risks…but I honestly expected no major issues given my recent mousse successes. I didn’t buy bergamot essence (so pricey!) but substituted tangerine essence and figured this, if anything, might be the only downfall in preparing this dessert.

Oops, wrong answer! I had some major issues with the gelatin in the tangerine mousse; basically it didn’t set properly! Of course, this crucial detail didn’t present itself until I opened the refrigerator (the morning of my presentation mind you!!!) and found the cake slumped over and weeping, bulging through her girdle of chocolate ganache! I gasped audibly and I think I momentarily werewolfed into Bree Van de Kamp, trying to convince myself this wasn’t really happening to me and that I would somehow make another perfect cake in the 15 minutes I had left (as if!) In the end I accepted I was human and, loosening my inner ‘alice band’ just a notch, decided to patch up some of the bigger cracks, stick the whole thing atop a gold doily and just run with it. (Not literally of course…but ultimately the final serving appearance of the cake suggested otherwise ;-)).

About an hour later – with her appearance further weakened by stop & go traffic and fatally timed with the exact start of my presentation — you might say that the clock struck midnight and Cinderella finally lost her slipper. The cake's remaining bodice of chocolate blew its final stitch and the beautiful illusion I had for this dessert entirely collapsed. Whilst she was finally free from the oppressor, she was standing in front of everyone looking completely disheveled – more like ‘stepped on’ vs ‘Stepford Wife’. I chuckled to myself when I realized the gold doily just served to mirror her flawed figure all the more. But I decided to be a friend to myself and embrace the imperfection, make some jokes and just serve it. In the end, the taste was great and I was grateful for the compliments from colleagues. Frankly even if I could do this one all over again, I don’t think I’d change the situation…the story would be so less interesting to tell!

Apart from the learning opportunity of this exercise, the other positive thing was the orange crisp. I made several more batches of this to present on various Christmas treat platters, and even experimented with different flavors such as raspberry. The flavor and texture of this crisp is similar to an almond tuile, being ultra thin and as delicate as glass with a orangey-caramel flavor. I’ll write about this separately sometime soon and share the recipe. It requires so few ingredients, takes little effort yet looks pretty and is really a crowd pleaser…either on its own or served with ice cream, mousse, etc.

Anyway, after the Cinderella moment, I enjoyed two Christmas dinners amongst friends in Geneva and successfully re-explored a couple more recipes from my Basic lessons. First I created a simplified Charlotte, using some of the leftover biscuit sponge mixture (from the Chocolate-Tangerine Mousse cake). I piped out the remaining mixture to create a small diameter base and a dozen or so lady fingers for the perimeter garnish. Using my Mexican flan mold and experimenting with a peach mousse (which thankfully had no gelatine-setting issues), I achieved a small but pretty dessert that was garnished with sliced, fanned peaches, raspberries and chopped pistachios. Delicious! Next time I think I’ll use pureed frozen peaches vs. canned peach halves as the flavor should only improve.

For the last of these Geneva-based Christmas dinners, I chose to play with some ideas I had for the Mogador and I was much happier with the taste and appearance vs. the one I’d made in school. I substituted some of the raspberry jam with fresh raspberry coulis which eliminated some of the cloying sweetness from the original recipe and ultimately delivered better flavor contrast to the chocolate mousse. I garnished the cake with chocolate ganache and fresh raspberries, letting myself go a bit wild with swirl patterns. The whole pattern and color combination was vaguely reminiscent of a matador’s bolero. I did manage to get a photo of this one before we cut it to bits…unfortunately the vibrancy of the raspberry glaze is a bit undermined in the photo but it otherwise met most of my expectations on taste.

And then in the final days of December there were more Christmas cookies!!! My god, I must have made about 15 dozen in total to share with colleagues, family and friends (and my inner Bree was seriously worried I hadn’t made enough! :-)) My weekend production efforts cranked out gingerbread men, butterscotch bells, rich chocolate stars and sugar cookie trees. The ginger men were born from a 50:50 combination of treacle and chesnut-tree honey for robust flavor yet lighter complexion vs using 100% treacle. I garnished these with metallic cachous for faces and clothing features which gave them a smart yet unfussy appearance. The bells were decorated with butterscotch ganache, giving them a beautiful golden-beige color and a more refined flavor than sugar icing. For the star cookies, I used some of my rare Venezuelan bitter chocolate; hence they were quite potently flavored but reserved in appearance and seemed to please all the chocoholics in my wider circle.

My favorite though was making the Christmas tree cookies. I love a good sugar cookie and the decorating effort brings out my artistic side. For these I created a fantastic decorating icing for these by adding some egg white to my normal butter frosting mixture (and of course the beautiful apple green food coloring I found in Paris). This simple modification to the frosting mixture gave it a good, smooth texture whilst enabling sufficient solidification. It fixed the rainbow sprinkles firmly in place and allowed the cookies to be stacked for efficient transport, yet the frosting remained gentle to the teeth upon eating. I packed a large tin of these with me when I visited family in the US.

Whew! Now the holidays are over and I’m back to my ‘normal’ routines. My bake-about tendencies will have to convert back to writing, and I guess this transformation is already underway since I have managed to sit still tonight and hammer out this first blog entry for 2009. Until some technical genius can help me rig-up a portable kitchen on TGV, I’ll be spending a few more of my evenings writing about baking. And of course, as I start Intermediate Level, I’ll be looking forward to exploring (and sometimes squelching) my inner Bree amidst the numerous new recipe opportunities in the weeks ahead. So hold onto your alice band…I think it’s going to be a fun ride!

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