Day 5 – Cookies

Today was just sheer delight.

I arrived to class exhausted as I had not slept well the night before. However, as soon as I walked into the kitchen and saw my classmate’s bright faces, my tiredness, my worry melted away like butter over a hot flame.

Today was COOKIE DAY.

I just could not wait to get started.

Baker Janine Sciarappa, our head baking instructor, owner of Sweet Lessons, and also a graduate of our program (she had the opportunity to take the program when it was being taught by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin!) was here to take us on a sweet adventure.

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Baker Janine

Baker Janine was awesome, attentive, very clear, and very detailed. She spent the beginning of class going through each important ingredient of baking – flours, nut flours, sugars, fats, dairy, eggs, leavening agents, and so much more. I appreciated these in-depth explanations because she helped me understand the role that each ingredient played in the recipe. She also created pictures of the concepts she was introducing. For instance, to describe gluten, she gave the comical example of rolling a pizza dough that kept springing back together, as if it were held by rubber bands – gluten in action.

She also discussed how to measure ingredients in weight and provided us with common conversions from cups/tbsp/tsp to grams and ounces. My goal for this semester is to master these conversions as soon as possible – they really do change the recipe for the better. Yes, it is math time!

Baker Janine ran a clean, precise, and fast-paced kitchen. Yet despite the speed and precision, today, I felt so much more relaxed. I was in my comfort zone, with my homies.

Good old brown sugah, b-powda, AP flour, and of course butter-the-man.

Cookie making brings me back to happy childhood days. After school, I would whip up a batch of Ultimate Chocolate Chip cookies from the Crisco shortening label. My brothers and their video gaming friends would drop their Nintendo controllers for once and swarm towards the kitchen as I took them out of the oven. What fun.

I had completely forgotten how powerful cookie-making could be – it is something that really cheers me up. As the day progressed on, my smile became wider and I was singing to myself in the stockroom about cookies and such.

Our tasks were to create four different cookies:

  • Cantucci (bar cookie) – A classic almond biscotti, or twice baked cookie. These are a favorite in my family and I’ve made them about a hundred times, so today, this was quite a familiar bake for me. Slicing them with a serrated knife on the bias was key.
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Examining the biscotti.
  • Diamond Sable Cookies (icebox cookie) – A new cookie that I have never tried! These were so much fun to make as they did not require a bowl. We had to work the batter on the counter-top by sliding the dough forward with the heel of our hand. This is what created the sable, which is French for “sandy” texture of the cookie.
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Diamond Sable Cookies
  • Graham Crackers (rolled cookie) – It was exciting to make this iconic favorite from scratch. These were rich in flavor, with cinnamon, honey, and a generous sprinkling of cinnamon sugar. We tasted them in comparison to store bought graham crackers – how can you ever turn back?

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  • Chocolate Macadamia Nut (drop cookies) – These are your classic, super fudgy, chocolaty, and nutty drop cookie. They took about five minutes to whip up, once the chocolate was melted.

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    Chocolate Macadamia Drop Cookies

Baker Janine also whipped up some Viennese Sable Cookies (piped cookies) – light and sandy chocolate cookies which you must pipe onto your baking sheet. We all got to take turns piping the traditional W shape. These were my favorite in flavor.

Some things I learned today:

  • The harder the wheat, higher the protein content – this is good for breads and pastas. The softer the wheat, lower the protein – this is good for cakes.
  • Gluten provides structure. Baker Janine came up with a great formula to understand gluten: Flour + water (or any liquid) + mechanical action (kneading, rolling) = gluten. Now that is math I understand.
  • Brown sugar is a combination of molasses and white sugar. This makes sense but I never thought about it before.
  • Whole milk is 3% fat. It doesn’t write on the carton.
  • Whipping cream is 30-40% fat, and you get more volume from less pasteurized versions.
  • Eggs are porous and will take on flavors that surround them. It can be a good thing.
  • Acidic ingredients in baking include coffee, cocoa, chocolate, molasses, and buttermilk.
  • Always taste your chocolate before baking. You don’t want to accidentally use unsweetened baking chocolate in the place of semi-sweetened or vice versa. (I have no problem with following this suggestion!)

At the end of class, we plated our cookies and enjoyed tasting the different textures and flavors of each others’ bakes.

Post-clean up, armed with a sack of cookies slung over my shoulders, I found it hard to part with my new friends. I have a strong feeling that these people are soon to become my family.

sonia

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Day 4 – Sauce

“We’re saucin and saucin and saucin.” – Our theme song that we played today while doing dishes.

Today was about technique. Today was about retaining information. Today was about lots of butter.

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Let’s rewind.

While walking into our demo classroom, I was hit with a shock of toasty butter, bubbling on the test stove, alongside many mis en place items. It surely looked as if some exciting demos were to come.

Chef Chris Douglass, a self-taught chef since 1978, and current restaurant owner of both Ashmont Grill and Tavolo in Dorchester, MA did not disappoint. He created a spectacular show of five diverse sauces. The way he cooked with such humble ease made it look like magic. We were soon to find out for ourselves what challenges were in store…

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Chef’s sauces.

Chef Douglass carried a completely different energy from the previous chefs we had met. He was kind, much softer in speech, and had twinkling eyes. For some reason, with his grey tapered beard, I expected him to have a French accent and was surprised when he spoke with an American one.

The first thing he said to us was, “Don’t worry about what you don’t know.”

Today for the first time, I thought about SAUCE independently. While tasting Chef’s different sauces, I was transported immediately to different dishes. The hollandaise took me to an eggs benedict. The chicken veloute reminded me of a chicken pot pie. The bechamel brought me to a mac and cheese.

It was time for us to try on our own. We each were responsible for making Aoli, Hollandaise, Bechamel, Veloute, and Beurre Blanc .

Despite his gentle demeanor, Chef Douglass ran the kitchen at a rapid pace, giving us a multitude of important technical details. As he walked by, he picked up on every little nuance of where our sauces were going right or wrong.

Sauces are quite delicate and must be handled with care. Speed of whisking, amount of heat, when to stir, when to add liquid, all require specific attention to details. Too much heat and your eggs curdle. Too little heat and you don’t cook the flour in the rue properly. Sometimes you want color. Sometimes you don’t. Clarified butter. Cold butter. Lots of butter! As I said, so many details, and so. much. butter.

I almost wrecked my aoli by adding the initial oil too generously, but luckily it was saved in time by Chef. My first hollandaise fell apart and I had to re-start, as did almost everyone in our class. The veloute, made with mushroom stock, tasted somewhat like a gravy. The creamy bechamel was made from milk that we had flavored with onion and clove. And my beurre blanc “broke.” 3 out of 10 of us managed to produce a decent beurre blanc.

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Broken Beurre Blanc

Goodness! Today was definitely a challenge. I am still learning the ropes. Remembering the steps and procedures, combined with finding things in the kitchen, combined with being brave enough to take initiative to act, all added up to quite a plateful. Amidst the chaos, I dropped my glass water bottle on the floor, causing it to shatter into a million pieces. (Luckily, I improvised with a plastic quart cup serving as my water-bottle for the remainder of class.)

Not to mention, today we had to present our sauces in front of each other, which for me was rather intimidating. After every sauce, we would gather together and Chef would taste and critique them, as well as share with us his own amazing sauce creations. However, after the first presentation, I relaxed and realized, this was a loving environment, a place to laugh and learn from our mistakes.

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Chef Douglass – bring the sauces up!

Some things to note:

  • Sauces enhance the dish. Appearance, flavor, and texture are the three most important factors to consider for your sauce.
  • Don’t blame the pan or the timer or the oven. Be the master of your heat, of your tools.
  • Never add black pepper to hollandaise, as it ruins its pale yellow appearance. For heat, add cayenne pepper.
  • Emulsion means to hold things in a solution.
  • One egg yolk can hold approximately one cup of fat.
  • About saffron: Toast over heat and bloom in water before adding it to a sauce to bring out the essential oils. It is an expensive ingredient, so a little goes a long way.
  • Cross-contamination is not only dangerous for transferring harmful pathogens, but can also transfer unwanted flavors. Make sure you clean your board of any onion/garlic/etc. flavors before using it to make a new dish.
  • Always add thinner ingredients to thicker ingredients. Ex) Add milk/stock to rue, not vice versa.

I have so many more details, but I think this is sufficient for now. Chef promised that we would make some of these again, to review.

Today was a full day and we did not leave until 45 minutes after our scheduled 6pm departure. So many saucy dishes to clean.

On the flip side, buttery sauces make great hand moisturizers for this dry winter weather.

sonia

Day 3 – Soups

Our first cooking day had arrived. Today Chef Jeremy came back again to teach us how to turn our various stocks from yesterday into delicious soups.

We drew spoons to pick our teams and then headed into the classroom to discuss the game plan.

Our first task was to make consomme – something I had never heard of until this week. Our textbook spoke of it so…loftily. However, to me it just sounded like a plain old chicken broth? Well let’s see what this would be like.IMG_3613

We blended raw chicken and egg whites together, along with some mirepoix. I have never worked with chicken before so this was rather exciting. Then, into the stockpot, we dumped our mixture in with 3 quarts of chicken stock. My team was special and got to use the roasted chicken stock, while the other teams worked with the blonde stock.

Chef instructed us when to stir and exactly how to stir. He emphasized that patience and proper technique was key to making a successful consomme. Not too much later, the proteins from the egg whites coagulated and started to rise to the surface, creating what is called “a raft”. Beneath the raft simmered the most delicate, clear, and beautiful broth I have ever seen.

After straining, we brought our broths up to compare and taste. Anthony and I double strained ours because we wanted it to be perfectly clear (and because we accidentally dropped the strainer into the bucket. Twice. Oops).FullSizeRender-14

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Consomme comparison

Wow. What a delicious, heart warming soup. Now I understand why it gains so much respect. I could drink this every night before bed.

Next, we got to diversify our stations.

Team 1 on Onion Soup and Minestrone.

Team 2 on Mushroom Soup and Beef Stew

Team 3 (me!) on Carrot Soup and Vichyssoise (Potato Leek Soup)

Team 4 on Soupe de Poisson (fish soup)

Hours sped by like seconds as we all got busy, following Chef’s orders and creating our first real dishes. Some groups were using saffron. Others were using Pernod, a cooking liquor. Anthony and I chopped the veggies, sweated them a bit in the pan, added stocks, herbs, and lots of cream (more than I would have liked to use, but we had to listen to Chef’s orders to “dump the whole thing in!”). The carrot soup bubbled pale orange and smelled divine. The potato soup was nice and dense. When they had cooked for long enough, we popped them into Vitamix’s and pureed them nicely.

Seasoning came at the end and I found this to be very fun. It was hard to tell whether to add more salt or more pepper, and just as we pondered over what to do, Chef came to our table with a secret ingredient: lemon. Lemon hit the spot, providing just enough acid to cut through the creamy, sweet carrot soup.

Tasting time! We all came together to present our soups and eat together. I tasted every one of them, even the ones that I normally would not eat, like the mushroom soup (Not a fan) and the ones cooked with meat. It was fascinating to see how our simple, salt-less stocks from yesterday could transform into such diverse and delicious dishes. My winning favorites were the Soup de Poisson, the Minestrone, and my very own, Carrot Soup.

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French Onion Soup
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Minestrone

 

A few things I learned:

  • Soups are all about building flavors.
  • Sweating vegetables is where you heat them in oil just until they begin to wilt and shrivel, but do not take on any color. Caramelizing is where you brown them and cook them well, bringing out sweetness.
  • Season soups at the very end, right before serving. You can always add more seasoning. You can’t take back over seasoning though.
  • Add alcohol to enhance the other flavors of the dish, but don’t add too much so that it is all you taste. You want to add Madeira to mushroom soup to bring out the mushroom flavors, rather than make Madeira soup.
  • Rue is often added to thicken soups. It is equal flour and fat.

What a fun day.

I am covered in orange carrot soup splatters.

I will have to pick up some Oxyclean on my way home.
sonia

Day 2 – Stocks

My heart was racing, my stomach flip-flopping up and down and all around, I kept reaching my hand in to give it a try and then withdrawing quickly as if I had touched a hot tea kettle. It was the big, white, glassy eyes staring back that kept discouraging me from the task at hand.

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COME ON! I encouraged myself loudly inside. It was only Day Two and I did not want to be the weak one in the group. But didn’t anyone understand my deeply ingrained fear from childhood? I found these creatures so gross that growing up, my spot at the dinner table was always with my back facing our goldfish tank, so that I did not have to see them swimming while I ate my dinner.

“Just close your eyes, you can do it,” gently chided my partner. FINALLY, I stuck my hand in, pulled out the slippery fish, and ripped its head to the right, exposing the bloody guts into the sink. My table cheered.

Hmm, now with the haddock’s head gone, my fear was gone. Very interesting. I rinsed that long silvery guy and dropped him into the stock pot. Wow.

If you haven’t guessed yet, my group had been assigned to make “Fish Stock.”

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Our lovely fish stock.

Today Chef Jeremy Sewall, owner of Boston’s highly esteemed restaurants, Lineage and Island Creek Oyster Bar, as well as in collaboration with restaurants, Eastern Standard and Row 34, treated us like professional chefs in the kitchen. He ordered clear instructions and gave direct, simple commands, such as “Rip 10 fish heads off, rinse them, and toss them in the pot.”

“YES CHEF!” we replied.

Unlike our last lesson, the focus was not on our chopping precision. “Chef, how would you like these onions chopped?”

“I don’t know, how would you like to chop them?? Doesn’t matter really,” he replied.

Chef Jeremy came down to our amateur level, often asking us questions. After just a few minutes, I was not afraid to ask him questions in return, even those that I thought might be simple, silly ones. Chef was with us every step of the way, never letting us stand idly by the pot.

Each team made a different stock and throughout the day we were often instructed by Chef to drop everything and “COME OVER HERE AND WATCH.” I understood how to de-glaze the roasted veal pan for the veal stock and how to simmer the blonde chicken stock with a sachet of herbs tied together to bring the flavors out. I also learned how to caramelize the carrots with onions, garlic, and tomato paste for the “brown” stocks, or the ones with roasted meat. And the mushroom stock was just beautiful – a clear brilliant toasted brown. I don’t even like mushrooms but I will say, this was something special.

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Chef Jeremy Sewall showing us the roasted veal and chicken.

Some things I took note of:

  • Chef emphasized that stocks were not a garbage pan. Definitely not. Rather, they were the start of the end product. Chef stressed the importance of using good quality ingredients in the stock.
  • Stocks require lots of patience – that is how they become wonderful.
  • Never add salt to a stock. It ruins it’s purpose.
  • Stocks are supposed to be clear. No fat, no clouds, no sediment.
  • The more fat on the chicken, the more you have to skim off as it cooks. You do not want a fatty cloudy stock.
  • The size that you chop your veggies is important – too small and they will crumble, creating cloudiness in your stock. (Our team won the most beautiful, clear stock award).
  • Mirepoix – the super important foundation for stock, which is traditionally: 50% onion, 25% celery, 25% carrot.
  • Fish stock is delicate and can taste awful if not made thoughtfully. Use white fish, fresh ingredients, and light floral flavors.
  • Veal stock has to cook for a long time. We are leaving ours on overnight.
  • Chicken stock can be blonde, with regular chicken. Or brown, with roasted chicken.

Day 2. I am definitely not as exhausted as Day 1.

Soups tomorrow.
sonia

Day 1 – Knife Skills

Today was our first day in the kitchen! Jittery and excited, we fumbled to button our chef coats, put on our non-slip shoes, tied aprons around our waists, slung a towel to on our side, and entered the new playground with wide eyes. We drew spoons to choose our work space for the day, opened up our freshly minted knives, and the day’s chopping lesson began!

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Chef Barry Maidan

Chef Barry Maidan, James Beard award winning New England restaurateur as well as humorous, knowledgeable, and down-to-earth human, showed us the ropes on how to julienne carrots, small dice butternut squash, large dice onions, brunoise shallots, create potato rondelles and so much more…

When demonstrating, his knives moved like butter through the vegetables, with a well-known rhythm and familiarity. He chopped and peeled without any fear. It was incredible and captivating to watch.

While highly skilled and full of experience, I appreciated Chef Barry’s humility, honesty, and encouragement, even when I completely butchered my celery root. “Whoa, what’s going on here?” he exclaimed, as he took over and showed me where I was going wrong. He admitted to us that he did not know everything and that he was showing us “what works for him” which may or may not work for others. He emphasized that it is always important to keep an open mind. Chef also said to never get comfortable in the kitchen, to always to keep that sense of urgency and fire within.

In all honesty, chopping is the task in the kitchen that I am always ready to delegate to someone else. I have never enjoyed it and always found it difficult and awkward. Yet, today, three hours of chopping carrots, butternut squash, onions, garlic (my fingers STILL smell of garlic), celery, basil, chives, fennel…the list goes on…went by in a flash! Unbelievable. I was so engrossed and interested in getting my pieces to be even.

At the end of class, we learned how to sharpen and refine our knives. I felt like a blacksmith, brandishing my 6 inch chef’s knife on my sharpening steel, the sound of metal zinging all over the kitchen.

Clean up was fun. Dish-washing, lots of teamwork, end of the day meeting – we had survived Day 1.

Some interesting notes that I took away from today:

  • Be gentle with your herbs. They bruise easily and you don’t want to let their chlorophyll leak out all over your chopping board.
  • Choke up on the knife. It gives you better control. I got this piece of advice twice from two different teachers, so I must remember it!
  • Work in small manageable pieces.
  • Don’t waste anything! All pieces can be used in some way, even if they aren’t the highlight of the dish and just thrown into a soup stock.
  • Sharp, good knives make a huge difference. No wonder I have never liked chopping – I have always used dull knives.

Just got home to write this. I am still shaking a bit from excitement, overwhelm-edness, and of course, Boston’s ice cold winter weather. I am happy that the extra hour I saved this morning for some quick asana practice really carried me through the day with full energy – no need for coffee! However, now I am exhausted for sure and I realize by the seized feeling in my back that posture will be essential to remember when standing all day in a kitchen.

Now warming up with light, milky lemongrass chai before I do some restorative inversions to cool my legs and mind.

6 hours later: I get hungry in the middle of the night and definitely fine-diced myself some fresh apple with a generous drizzle of almond butter. My fingers are craving the chopping board. That’s a first.

sonia