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Delicious Lamb Smiles

When people visited me in Paris I often found myself going through entire menus in restaurants, translating each dish and description. While my French is far from fluent, luckily my time in the kitchen greatly improved my culinary vocabulary and I found that I could usually competently translate a menu; however, with such an extensive cuisine as French I did come across very specific regional terms, or cuts of meat that I did not know how to translate. In which case I would usually ask the waiter, if it sounded intriguing. While my brother Brett was visiting we encountered this issue when we were at dinner one night. I was painstakingly translating the particularly long menu when I came across a dish called Souris d’Agneau. I had to pause. He asked me what it was and I very hesitantly, with a huge smile on my face, said, “lamb smiles.” I knew agneau was lamb, and I was pretty sure souris meant smile, so I put two and two together. Of course this doesn’t make any sense, I haven’t spent much time around lambs, but from what I do know, they do not have very prominent lips. We started trying to guess what it really could be. I thought perhaps it could be lamb cheeks, in which case if they tasted anything like beef cheeks I knew they would be ridiculously tasty. But he was hungry and I didn’t want to risk it in case it was in fact lamb lips or lamb tongue or some other organ so we stayed away and ordered something else.

Naturally, it turns out I was way off. A few weeks later, one of our recipes in class was Souris d’Agneau. So I got to find out firsthand what this mysterious dish consisted of. First of all, the word for smile is sourire not souris. Souris translates to mouse, which I know doesn’t get us much farther, because what in the world is the mouse of a lamb. No, this dish is not a preparation of a freakish French hybrid animal called a lamb-mouse, it’s merely lamb shanks. The chefs had no idea where the name came from and I did some research on my own and did not come up with anything either. Though, I can tell you what a shank is, it is the top portion of a leg bone, below the knee. Regardless of the ridiculous name, lamb shanks are quite delicious, especially served the way we made in class.

It was by far one of my favorite recipes in all of Superior Cuisine, Mitonnée de Souris d’Agneau aux Epices Douces, Siflets de Salsifis et Gnocchis de Pomme de Terre aux Herbes (Lamb Shank Slowly Cooked with Spices, Roll-Cut Salsify and Potato Gnocchi with Herbs). The lamb shanks are braised in a delicious Morocan-ish spiced sauce and the resulting meat is truly fall-off-the-bone-tender and is served with bright green, pillowey-soft gnocchi. Since I’ve been back in the states, I have recreated this dish a few times with some slight modifications, below is my resulting recipe.

Spiced Lamb Shanks / Short Ribs

serves 4

3 cups      beef or veal stock
4 T            vegetable oil
4 lbs         lamb shanks or beef short ribs
1                large yellow onion, diced
3               shallots, minced
8               garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
2 T           tomato paste
1               tomato diced or half a can of peeled, diced tomatoes
1 T            Szechuan pepper corns
3               star anise
1 T            cumin seed, preferably whole, for ground only use 1 heaping teaspoon
5               whole cloves
4               cinnamon sticks
1 T            whole coriander seeds
4 T           honey
4 T           balsamic vinegar
1 cup        red wine
1 tsp         salt, and more to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Warm the stock in a medium saucepan. In a large oven safe dutch oven or cocotte heat the vegetable oil over high heat, then add shanks or short ribs to sear on all sides, depending on the size of your pan, you may need to do this in stages. Once browned, set the meat aside and drain the fat from the pan. Add the onions to the pan and saute, scraping up brown bits on the bottom. When onions are almost translucent, add the garlic and shallots, cook for two more minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook for three minutes to cook out some of the acidity. Reduce the heat to medium and add diced tomato, all the spices, the honey and the balsamic vinegar, cook for three minutes to allow flavors to develop. Then add wine and allow to reduce to cook out alcohol. Put the meat back in the pan, top with warm stock and stir in 1 teaspoon of salt (you will add more after cooking). Cover with a tight fitting lid and put in oven for 2 and a half hours. (a secret from one of the LCB chefs- braising the meat for more than two and a half hours will not make it better, but cooking it the day before or earlier in the day will make a difference in the flavor and tenderness)

Decant the meat from the pan, if planning to serve right away keep them covered with foil, if not making ahead of time (which I strongly recommend) don’t worry about keeping them warm. Strain the sauce through a fine mesh sieve, pressing on the solids to get every last bit of flavor. Bring the sauce to a simmer and reduce until desired thickness, spooning any fat that comes to the surface and adjusting the seasoning. If making ahead of time, remove from heat, add the meat back to the pan, cover and cool to room temperature. Then refrigerate until 45 minutes before serving.

When ready to serve, slowly reheat on the stove until hot. I recommend serving with soft polenta, mashed potatoes or even couscous so you have something to soak up the excess sauce. There is nothing worse than having delicious sauce on your plate and no vehicle to soak it up. I also always like to serve braised meat with a side of fresh watercress or arugula, lightly dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and salt. The fresh greens help balance the richness of the meat and it also adds some nice color.

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What Comes Next…

Well a lot has happened since my last posting. I graduated school and had to bid adieu to my beloved Paris. Then I came home to the Bay Area for the holidays and was lucky enough to obtain an externship at Frances in San Francisco. For those of you who have been living under that proverbial rock, Frances is one of the most popular new restaurants in San Francisco. It has been open for barely over a year, but has already received a Michelin star and has been named one of the top new restaurants in the country by numerous publications. Yes, I know, quite impressive accolades and they chose me to be their extern. Though to be frank, being an extern is really a nice way of saying free labor; but as they say, you gotta start somewhere and that somewhere usually means the bottom.

I peeled, chopped, diced, sorted, carried, cleaned, and did whatever was on my daily to do list. It was by no means glamorous, but it was real. And it was nice knowing that no matter how mundane a task seemed, at the end of the day the ingredients would be brought together (by someone closer to the top of the kitchen food chain) with other ingredients to make a dish that a diner would eat and it would make them truly happy. The simplicity of that chain was remarkably satisfying. In my corporate job, I knew that I was good at my job, and I knew that in some very small way I was contributing to my company’s success, but I cannot say whether I ever felt true satisfaction. Wow, just writing that is fairly shocking, but it’s true. And I can say with complete confidence that I was not making people “happy” on a daily basis; certainly not the kind of unadulterated happiness that comes from food.

Being such a foodie city it takes something particularly special to make it to the top of the San Francisco restaurant scene. I do not know if I can pin point exactly what makes Frances so special; but as Elgin, the Sous Chef I assisted, would say, the food has soul; and in my opinion not just a dash of soul, but gallons of soul. I think that soul starts with the ridiculously beautiful produce. Every day countless local purveyors would drop off their goodies. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays the mushroom guy, with the accent that somehow swayed between Irish and Australian, would deliver pounds of wild mushrooms that had been foraged from Northern California. I discovered how intoxicating the odor of fresh maitake mushrooms could be and the meditating calm that comes from trimming and cleaning mushrooms for two hours.

I learned a tremendous amount in the Frances kitchen and truly enjoyed the experience; however, spending time in a restaurant kitchen reinforced my original desire to find a role outside of a restaurant kitchen that combines my passion for food, my love of writing, and also the intellectual challenges I enjoyed in my corporate job. Yes, I know that sounds like lofty requirements, but I’m willing to be flexible in the meantime, I just want to have an ideal in mind for the end of the road. I realize the road to a dream job is not going to be easy, but I’m up for the challenge. Which brings me to my first or many challenges: moving to New York City.

This past Friday, March 4th, marked my three week anniversary of being in NYC and drum roll please…I am still job-less and apartment-less. Though no pity party needed here, my glass remains half-full. (By apartment-less, I mean, not paying rent and living in my own apartment not home-less. You can stop picturing me living on a bench in Central Park, surrounded by my huge duffel bags of clothes, shoes and cooking utensils. I have been fortunate enough to stay with my boyfriend and his very kind roommate, until I can stand on my own two feet. Which for the sake of all of our relationships/friendships will be sooner than later, because even a baking-and-cleaning-free-loader is a free-loader at the end of the day).  So to end this post, I raise that metaphoric half-full glass in a toast to myself, here’s to another week of countless cover letters and applications, maybe the fourth week’s a charm.

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Atelier Number 2

This atelier was the same format as the first: a list of required ingredients; a compulsory entrée with cold sauce, and plat principal with a warm sauce (including three garnitures, one being a flan) and at least one protein had to be stuffed. The required ingredients were veal tenderloin, sea bream, veal sweetbreads, caul fat, beets, spinach, artichoke, new onions, asparagus, and cauliflower.

For my entrée I made: Daurade en Croûte d’Épices, Sauce de Betteraves Rôtie, Épinards de Gingembre et Carottes Croustillantes (Spice Crusted Sea Bream with Beet Sauce, Gingered Sautéed Spinach and Shoestring Carrots). I encrusted the sea bream with salt, fennel and coriander seeds and then quickly pan-fried it in 50/50 butter/oil. The beets for the sauce were roasted and puréed, then flavored with honey, cider vinegar and soy sauce. For the shoestring carrots, I simply cut them into a fine julienne, dusted with flour to absorb any excess moisture and then fried and seasoned. The spinach was sautéed with ginger and garlic, then deglazed with soy sauce.

I was happy with the resulting color combination and the taste was also nice, but I wished the beets could have been roasted a little longer to have a smoother texture. I also don’t think the skin got crispy enough for my liking, even though the fish looks better with the skin on, if I make it again, I may remove the skin or crust only the flesh side with spices in order to get a crisper skin and not have to worry about burning he spices.

For the plat principle I made: Filet de Veau Farcie, Flan d’Asperges, Purée d’Oignons Nouveau et Chou Fleur, et Salade d’Artichauts Frits (Roasted and Stuffed Veal Tenderloin, Asparagus Flan, Cauliflower and New Onion Purée, and Fried Artichoke Heart Salad). Using my filet knife I poked a hole through the interior of my veal tenderloin and using a pipping bag stuffed it with a mixture of sautéed veal sweetbreads, pancetta, onions, bell pepper, carrots and celery. I then wrapped it all in one of my favorite things, caul fat. The caul fat served three purposes 1) helped to keep the shape of the loin, 2) basted the meat throughout roasting, and 3) kept the stuffing from creeping out. Caul fat is really an amazing cooking ingredient, it’s like a hair-net that can keep anything in place, but it dissolves during cooking. When the meat is done you forget that it was ever there, but are happily surprised that your meat is the same shape as when you began.

The asparagus flan also included spinach for color and tarragon for added flavor. For one preparation, I lined the bottom of the ramekin with small discs of asparagus stems before cooking; for the other, I topped the finished flan with a salad of steamed asparagus tips and arugula.  Cauliflower purée is a staple from my years in San Francisco, when I on an almost weekly basis. It is super quick, easy, healthy and tasty; if you haven’t made it yourself you should. Simply steam cauliflower florets in chicken broth, when soft, purée or mash with an immersion blender, standing blender or just a potato masher, then season with any combination of pepper, salt, butter, milk, cream and/or cheese.  I promise you’ll think twice about making mashed potatoes ever again. On this day, I puréed the cauliflower with spring onions that I had boiled in chicken stock until tender, and because the French don’t seem to think dairy fat exists, I finished the purée with the works: lots of butter, cream, grated gruyère, salt, pepper and for a bit of that je ne sais quoi, a pinch of nutmeg.

The fried artichoke heart was just as it sounds, I trimmed down an artichoke to the heart, removed the choke and then fried it twice; first at a low temperature to make sure it was fully cooked and then at high temperature to get crispy. I have to say that I stole the cooking temperatures from a Martha Stewart fried artichoke recipe and unfortunately Martha let me down*. I think next time I would just roast or grill the hearts, or if I did fry them I would steam them first, pat them dry and then just quickly fry at the very end. Of course the error could have been mine and not a flaw in Martha’s recipe, but I found the heart to be tough. Even though it was tender in the center, the lengthy frying times created a dense outer layer that just wasn’t that pleasant.

Then because all meat is better with a jus (well and because I was required to do a warm sauce), I made a veal jus from the trimmings, mirepoix, herbs and white wine. In addition to those main items, I also created some extra garnishes: a phyllo round decoration for one plate to mirror the circles on the flan and for the other plate, sweet and sour, pickled new onion rings that I slowly cooked in a combination of vinegar and honey. The finished dish was pretty tasty. As I mentioned, I felt the artichokes were lacking and the meat could have been slightly more rosé (for my chef’s liking), but all in all I was content. Next big thing in cuisine, drum roll please…the final exam!

 

* I was disappointed in this one Martha recipe, but my love for Martha is unconditional and she can still do no wrong in my book. Oh yes, I know there was that itsy-bitsy matter concerning insider trading, but I forgot about that one a long time ago.

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My First Nigerian Independence Day

One of the things that has surprised me most about my experience at LCB is the exposure to other cultures. I moved to France fully expecting to be immersed in French culture, but I never even stopped to think about how all the unique cultures of my fellow students would also shape my experience. One of my friends, Gbube (pronounced, boo-bay, silent G), is from Nigeria and a few weeks ago, Nigeria celebrated 50 years of independence and I had the pleasure of joining in on the festivities.

Being that the Fourth of July is my favorite holiday (it combines all the best things in life: BBQing, fireworks and beer) I was pretty stoked to help another country celebrate. Nigerian Independence day marked my third independence day celebration of the year, the first two being 1)Fourth of July (yes I still celebrated while I was here, you can take the girl out of the USA but you can’t take the red, white and blue out of the girl), and 2)Bastille Day.

Since the majority of guests were culinary students the party was really all about the food and Gbube did not disappoint. He promised heat and boy was there heat, but I loved every burning moment of it. The French do not appreciate or enjoy spicy food, so anytime I can get a little spice I am a happy girl.

Before dinner, while Gbube was finishing up the main dishes, we snacked on yam fries and some gizzards that had been sautéed with what I think were scotch bonnet peppers. Then came the buffet of traditional Nigerian food.

Stewed Goat: I know I will have consistent cravings for this goat throughout my life. I can’t recall if I had ever tasted goat before this day, so I don’t have anything to compare it to, but this particular preparation was OH SO GOOD. I know it’s quite American of me to compare the taste of all meats to either chicken or beef, but the goat itself did honestly taste a whole lot like braised beef short ribs with a slight lamb aftertaste. For the overall flavor of the dish, it’s hard to explain a unique ethnic dish, if you’ve never tasted that type of cuisine, but for my palate, it reminded me a lot of Jamaican food, though with more dimension to the spicyness. The heat was the same level, but there were other spices too that backed up the heat.

To make it, if I remember the process correctly, Gbube started by sweating onions and a mix of hot peppers, including habaneros, then he added the lamb with some tomatoes and spices (I know he said oregano but can’t remember the others), next he added a lot of chicken stock and stewed the whole mix for a few hours until the meat was fall-off-the-bone/could-eat with-a-spoon-tender. Then came am ingenious step that I will definitely be stealing: he decanted the excess goat-infused liquid to cook the other dishes. Isn’t that such a great idea? Instead of wasting all of that lovely cooked-for-hours flavor, he spread the love.

Jollof Rice: And this is where a good portion of the love jus went. I have to admit that the texture of the rice was too al dente for my taste, but the flavor was spot on. You would think that it would taste just like the stewed goat, but somehow the flavors morphed when cooked with the rice. The result was similar to really good “spanish” rice, but with more depth of flavor due to the hint of goaty meatiness.

Dodo (plantains): J’adore plantains. Ever since a family trip to Costa Rica when we were served plantains morning, noon and night, I have been a plantain lover. These were just as a plantain should be…simple. Plantain + hot oil = GOOD.

Stewed chicken: In addition to the goat, Gbube also stewed chicken thighs which were tasty, but not as unique as the goat meat.

Efo-Riro: (unfortunately I didn’t take a picture) This is what Nigerians call a vegetable “sauce,” but I would describe it as a vegetable stew. It was finely chopped greens, stewed with a type of smoked meat. I’m not a fan of stewed greens, so this wasn’t for me, but I did enjoy the iyan (pounded yam, pictured above) that accompanied it. Traditionally Nigerian food is eaten with one’s hands and you use iyan as a utensil of sorts. I’ve always had a bad habit of eating with my hands anyways, so I loved having an open invitation to dive right in. The iyan really didn’t taste like much, but the texture was chewy and dense, almost elastic.

All in all, it was a great day and I really loved learning more about Gbube’s food culture. And I now realize that it was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity. A few of Gbube’s Nigerian friends were at the party and they informed me that even if I visited Nigeria, I most likely wouldn’t be able to try such authentic food, as this type of food can only be found in someone’s home and is not sold at restaurants. What a lucky girl I am!

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Atelier Number 1

In Superior the course has changed slightly. Superior Patisserie is divided into three sections: restaurant style, plated deserts; chocolate sculpture; and sugar sculpture. Superior Cuisine isn’t divided into sections, but the overall theme is modern cuisine and throughout the course we have three ateliers to prepare us for our final exam.

An atelier is n practical where we are allowed to create our own dishes with a set list of ingredients and requirements; this past Wednesday was our first one. A few weeks ago we were given a page long list of ingredients, of which some we were required to use (marked by an asterisks). With the provided ingredients we had to create an entrée (first course) and a plat principal (main course), with two servings each and “respecting the techniques” we had learned thus far. There had to be a cold sauce for the entrée and a warm sauce for the plat principal. The plat principal had to include at least three garnitures (side dishes), at least one being composed (including more than one main ingredient). We also were required to make a farce (stuffing), which then obviously had to be stuffed into something else. Oh, the last requirement: we weren’t allowed to use any balsamic vinegar! Yes, I know at first this seemed like a very odd requirement, but it turns out that once balsamic reductions became fashionable most students began using them as a plate decorations. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but the school can be a bit stingy and obviously the cost of a bottle of balsamic vinegar per student per atelier would add up after a while; thus no balsamic vinegar in any way.  The required ingredients were: 1 squab, salmon, 4 prawns, 1 red bell pepper, fingerling potatoes, spinach, pearl onions and white cultivated mushrooms. The remaining ingredients were nothing spectacular, fish stock and veal stock, cooking alcohols, basic vegetables and pantry staples.

Since it was our first atelier I kept it simple, despite the very long time allotment of seven hours I wanted to make sure I created recipes 1) that I enjoyed, 2) that didn’t stray to far from my true style of cooking and most importantly 3) that I knew I could execute cleanly. For the entrée I made salmon and prawn croquettes with a sherry vinegar and roasted red pepper vinaigrette and a garlic herb cream. For the plat principal I made pan roasted squab breast served with braised squab thighs stuffed with squab liver and mushroom mousse, sautéed spinach, crispy spinach chips, sweet and sour glazed pearl onions, and caramelized shallot pomme purée (mashed potatoes).

Overall, I was satisfied with the outcome. I felt that with the entrée, in terms of the atelier, I probably played it a little too safe and I think I’ll try to challenge myself more next time, but in general I am really happy with the recipe I created and I know I’ll be making them again just for fun. For the plat principal it wasn’t perfect by any means, but it worked for the requirements. Below is my recipe for the salmon and prawn croquettes if any of you want to try them.

Salmon and Prawn Croquettes with Sherry Vinegar and Roasted Red Pepper Vinaigrette and Garlic Herb Cream

serves 2 (can easily be multiplied)

Croquettes
1                medium salmon filet
4               prawns
–                white wine
2 T            olive oil
1/2            red bell pepper (the other half will be used in the vinaigrette)
1                celery stalk
1/2            yellow onion
2 T            mayonnaise (I made it from scratch, but use store bought if you have it available, since you won’t be able to taste the difference in the end)
1/2 cup    fresh or panko bread crumbs
1                lime (zest and juice)
a pinch    ground espelette pepper (could sub. cayenne or a dash of hot sauce)
a few        sprigs of chervil, finely chopped (could sub. parsley or tarragon or some other green herb that you like)
a pinch    sea salt
1                egg yolk
–                additional bread crumbs
–                fat for frying
Place salmon and prawns (de-shelled and de-veined) in a roasting pan, lined with parchment, sprinkle generously with white wine and place in a 150°F oven. It should take around 10 minutes, but take a peak periodically; you want them to be pink and almost completely cooked, if it’s a little less or a little more it shouldn’t matter too much, but underdone is the goal. Remove and chill.
Meanwhile, chop the red pepper, onion and celery into a small brunoise (a very fine dice, preferably in perfectly square cubes, but since you won’t have a French chef hovering over you, I’m sure it will be okay if some of the squares look more like parallelograms or triangle-ish shapes. If you really wanted to, you could throw it all in a mini-cuisinart and pulse it) and sautée in olive oil season with a bit of salt. Remove from heat and chill (tip: stick a metal bowl in the fridge beforehand and once you add the vegetables they will cool faster).
Remove cooled fish from the fridge; flake the salmon and finely chop the prawns, remove the vegetables and mix together. Add the mayonnaise, lime zest and juice (start with half of the juice), espelette pepper, and chopped chervil; mix and taste for seasoning, add more lime juice if desired. Then mix in the egg yolk. (Based on all of the raw cookie dough I have consumed in my lifetime, I shouldn’t be too concerned with eating raw eggs, but I still waited to add the yolk until after I had tasted for seasoning). If your mixture looks too liquidy and isn’t sticking together you can add some more break crumbs, but it should be soft as it will make for a better end result. Chill to firm up, I stuck it in a freezer for a few minutes to make sure it would hold together well.
Turn oven on a low heat to keep the finished croquettes warm. In a non-stick or dark pan heat whatever type of fat you will be using for pan frying. I used clarified butter, which is the tastiest, but any type of fat will work: olive oil, vegetable oil, peanut oil, lard, bacon fat (regular butter on its own will burn, so only use with the addition of oil). Remove the croquette mixture from the fridge and shape into small balls/disks. I used metal molds to keep a particular shape, but you could fry them free form or use a round cookie cutter to help hold the shape in the pan. Pan fry the croquettes until nicely browned on each side, drain any excess fat on a paper towel and place in the oven to stay warm until serving. Plate individual servings with a decorative drizzle of each sauce and a small herb salad, or serve on a platter with the sauces on the side.
Sherry Vinegar and Roasted Red Pepper Vinaigrette
1/2            red bell pepper
1-3 tsp      sherry vinegar
a pinch    ground espelette pepper
a drizzle  honey
a pinch    sea salt
Turn you broiler on and put a rack to the very top. Take the remaining half of red pepper (seeds removed) and place in the oven skin side up on a piece of foil. You want the skin to be charred. When it reaches the desired burnt to a crisp exterior, remove from the oven and wrap the foil around it, forming a packet, set aside to cool. The steam will release the skin. When you can touch it without burning yourself, peel off the skin and discard. Roughly chop the pepper and put in a blender with a few teaspoons of sherry vinegar; the amount will depend on the size of your pepper, you want it to be a loose consistency but not watery. Season with some honey, espelette pepper and salt; just start adding a little of each until you have a balance of flavor you enjoy. Depending on the sweetness of your red bell pepper you may not even need the honey, the seasoning should just enhance the natural flavors of the pepper. If your blender left some chunks, strain through a sieve.
Garlic Herb Cream
6               blanched cloves of garlic
1/2 cup    cream
1 cup        mixed herbs (chervil, parsley, cilantro, tarragon, basil)
a pinch    sea salt
To blanch the garlic, place peeled garlic cloves in a small pot with cold water, bring to a boil, strain and replace with cold water; repeat for a total of three times. After you strain the water the final time add cream to the pan, bring to a simmer until garlic is soft and cream has reduced down. Puree mixture in a blender with herbs, adding an ice cube to cool it down and keep the herbs green. Strain through a fine sieve and season.
I split up the individual recipes, but to do it all simultaneously:
1. Begin blanching the garlic, switching out the water as needed
2. Cook salmon and prawns
3. Sautée veggies
4. Remove salmon and prawns, turn on broiler and put in red bell pepper
5. Finish croquette mixture, chill to firm up
6. Purée both sauces, strain, chill
7. Cook croquettes
8. Plate

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My First Croquembouche

I love food. I love to eat food, I love to talk about food, I love to write about food, I love to make food, I love to take pictures of food…okay I think you get the picture, but before I was old enough to do any of those things (well obviously everything but the first one), I loved to watch other people make food.

I loved to sit at my grandma Rose’s big oak kitchen table and watch her make apricot horns; I loved to sit cross-legged on the counter in my parent’s old galley style kitchen and watch my mom make dinner every night and I especially loved to watch television shows about food. I know this comment will someday date me quite a bit (like when you hear someone tell you they remember what they were doing when JFK was shot) but I remember when we didn’t have the Food Network! I know it now seems impossible, but I do. I remember when I couldn’t turn on the TV twenty-four hours a day, 356 days a year and watch someone cooking. This was also before we had digital cable and we actually had to flip through the channels to see what was on; I know, it was practically the stone age. Nine times out of ten I would flip through the channels and wouldn’t find any cooking shows, but sometimes I’d get lucky. Sometimes on especially lucky days I’d flip to a channel and Yan Can Cook would be on or Julia Child or Jacques Pepin; other days I would also settle for another show called Great Chefs of the World. It went into the kitchens of fine-dining, fussy looking restaurants all over the world and a chef, usually French who had to be dubbed in English, would prepare something grand and confusing. It was on one of those episodes that I learned about the croquembouche.

A croquembouche (which loosely translates to ‘crunch in the mouth’) is the traditional French wedding cake, but it is now also found at Christenings, birthdays, and graduations, pretty much at any large party when people want to show off. It’s a hollow pyramid of profiteroles (cream puffs) filled with pastry cream and held together with caramel. It often has a nougatine base or sub-structures and is decorated with a combination of dragées (Jordan almonds), royal icing, threads of caramel and sugar sculptures. AND, I’m sure you saw this one coming, I got to make one!

A part of me, ever since I first heard of it, has always aspired to make a croquembouche. I know aspire is a strong word, but there is something daunting about it. The structure practically defies gravity and really, when is a good time to attempt such an audacious dessert. I mean, I would feel a little foolish showing up to a bbq with a homemade croquembouche in tow. So imagine my surprise, no elation, when in Basic section I saw some of the Intermediate students carrying their croquembouches down the stairs from the third floor pastry kitchen. I think I actually did a little happy dance, a little jig right then and there. I was going to get to make a croquembouche. Unfortunately, it’s made during the second to last week of Intermediate so I had to wait, but I loved the anticipation. I mean, I had been waiting to make one since I was around eight years old; it was like a prize for me waiting at the end.

As I mentioned, it’s shaped like a pyramid, so like all good contractors preparing to build a structure, we had to plan it out, take our time, and put everything in order. Unlike most of our patisserie creations this one couldn’t be completed in just one practical, rather it was made over two days. On the first day, we made nougatine: we heated sugar and water until it reached a light amber color, then added sliced almonds, then we poured and molded it like concrete to create the foundation for the pyramid. It’s not completely clear in the picture of my croquembouche below, but the profiteroles are resting on a four-inch high round base of nougatine. Then we decorated the base with additional nougatine that we had rolled out and cut into triangles, attaching with caramel and made a topper out of other shapes, and then decorated all of those with royal icing that we piped in drop lace (a technique where we suspended threads of royal icing from one point to another, dangling freely until they dried).  On the second day, we made the profiteroles, made the pastry cream, filled the profiteroles with the pastry cream and started putting all the pieces together with molten caramel, one layer at a time. And voila we had our croquembouches.

(Here are some other pictures of things I made in the second part of Intermediate Cuisine and Patisserie)

sea bass baked in a salt crust fruit stuffed lamb loin with couscous pike dumplings in crawfish sauce Cod wrapped in bacon with pancakes and braised artichokes bouilibase cassoulet rabbit saddle with twice baked potatoes stuffed trout

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