A friend of mine, and fellow Blogger, has been intermittently teasing me for weeks with tales of her home made wines – dandelion, grapefruit – it seems that anything you can think to pluck from the earth, you can make into wine. Being a lover of both plucking and of wine, and getting a royal kick out of fermentation in the home (usually in bread, but I think I am ready to expand), I have set my sights on learning how to make wine. It being almost one in the morning, my desperate urge to run down to the kitchen and puree stuff and shove it into a bottle will have to wait. Also, I have no real idea how to do it. I’ve read her posts and clicked on some of the links, but I think I’ll end up buying the book she recommends before I start. In this season of introspection, I see that I have a tendency to rush into things I think I could be passionate about, often without a full investigation to ascertain whether or not I am, in fact, passionate about them. The list is too long and too embarrassing to recount here, but suffice it to say that I shall take a new approach this time around – I shall read and educate myself. I shall troubleshoot in my head before I even lift a finger or sterilize a jug. I shall exercise the patience in procuring the things that I need, instead of hurriedly making do with what is on hand. And I shall not, not, be devastated if the peaches are out of season by the time I am ready. There will be peaches next year, after all. And doesn’t cabbage wine sound just as good?
What follows may sound very silly.
After 50 weeks – or something near to that – at WCI, I enjoyed a mandatory six week internship before I was granted my freedom from the program and, I suppose, the tacit support of the school that I might be capable of holding my own in the world. Desperately homesick and lacking the creativity and/or inclination to seek out an unknown institution, I picked a well respected pastry shop back home.
It was coming up on the Christmas season and the bakery was in full pre-holiday swing when I arrived. I was nineteen, scared, and – honestly – over my head. The chef/owners threw me right into the mix, assigning me tasks difficult to screw up. They let me make mistakes. They corrected my bad form, confused ideas. They seemed horrified at what I had not been taught at school.
It’s a good story all on it’s own, but it’s not what I am trying to tell here. By the end of my six weeks there, I was an altogether different, confident, skilled little pastry cook. They gave me crash courses in puff pastry, all maners of chocolate, creams, potions, goos, fruits and nuts.
In a commercial kitchen, all things are done in batches. You don’t ever make one cake – you make fifteen of them. You don’t whip a little cream, you whip two gallons of it. So when we made cakes – it was an all-morning event, at certain stages involving four or five people to do the assemblage in a timely manner before the chantilly wept.
No matter the particular flavor profile, all cakes followed the same basic pattern – a sponge of some kind (the “cake” part), a liqueur-laced simple syrup (like frangelico or framboise), creams of some kind (pastry cream, jam, buttercream, etc.). It was not uncommon to have six or seven total layers. That, plus a thin layer of melted chocolate spread on the bottom of the cake – a moisture barrier, purely practical – and the eventual glaze and decoration. It was quite an affair and this manner of making layer cakes became my standard.
Until two days ago, I had not made a proper cake like the one described in at least three years, very possibly longer. Before I begin a project like this, it can seem pretty daunting. I don´t often work off of one recipe, so my first task is auditioning the pieces, finding their formulae, then making and sketch and a shopping list. Which filling did I like so much back in school? Did it have hazelnuts? Pecans? No, it was the bittersweet chocolate! Was it? This can go on for days. Once I have settled on an idea, I set about to finding the recipes, somewhere in my (disorganized) collection of class notes, work binders, cookbooks and scribbles on 3×5 notecards. If I am able to find what I am looking for, I shop.
Day one is making the sponge or biscuit. Day two – or the afternoon of the first day if you’re feelin’ productive – is generation of the rest of the components. Fruit fillings, pastry creams – often these things need a night in the fridge to reach their full glory and/or workability. And then put it all together.
This is what I made a few days ago:
Chocolate Chiffon Sponge
Simple Syrup w/ Framboise
Heavy Cream + Mascarpone
Blackberry and Raspberry Compote
Step by step:
Melt Scharffenberger 72%. Spread thin layer on the bottom of the bottom layer of chiffon sponge. Let chocolate set.
Apply boozey simple syrup.
Apply thin layer of berry compote.
Apply layer of mascarpone cream.
2nd layer of chiffon.
Finish w/Chantilly cream on top and sides. Garnish top with rosettes, fresh berries, shaved chocolate, and fresh flowers.
It actually goes pretty fast when you have everything ready at hand.
I cannot begin to explain how good this whole process felt a few days ago. Well, aside from the decoration. I’m too neurotic to enjoy decorating cakes. As I confidently wielded my offset spatula and masterfully put that darned chantilly in its place, I felt a bit like I was doing, mmm, what I am supposed to do. That last phrase is riddled with philosophical problems that I shall not address here – - but do you know what I mean? Have you ever felt at home doing something? It is as if these hands were built for puff pastry and poached fruit.
The kicker of it is that I don’t think I’ll go back to the professional kitchen any time soon. When I lived there the first time, I felt my brain going to goo. Maybe it was because I was young and inassertive, but I didn’t often feel very respected. I found it pretty hard to get people to listen to me and, so often, *though not at aforementioned French Temple of Flour and Sugar, corners were cut and quality and crafstpersonship was sacrificed for time and for profit. Plus, I think I am showing signes of the beginning of CTS.
I have long posited that I shall not define my life in terms of a career. The jobs I will hold as an adult (and soon!) are important to me already, to be sure, but I refuse to let them make me who I am. I am a maker of things, a singer of song, a lover of living things and of knowledge. Add to the list, maker of cakes, nourisher of the celebrants… that’s OK, I can do all that…..
While I am reserving judgment on formal culinary education as a means of career improvement, my fifty weeks in a cravat and starched hat were, if nothing else, a hoot. I got to hang out with all varieties of the food-obsessed – I made friends with young men who had been working on hot lines for years, seeking their degree only as a means to a pay raise. I met sweet older folks, looking to break out of their midlife crises, former big rig truck drivers and housewives in need of a change. Some of us had big, crazy dreams of owning a restaurant, a place with some kind of nutty theme. Like Star Wars. And of course there were those just like me: kids, not quire sure of what to do in life, but certainly fond of the kitchen. That year, I figured out how to deal with people just as much as I learned the trick to de-boning a chicken. I got comfortable laughing with just about anyone who had something funny to say. I figured out that it’s OK if people don’t like me (though they’re clearly insane). It’s nice to know that I can make a demi glace in a 102º kitchen while a six foot plus chef is yelling at the side of my face that I’m just not moving fast enough. I can’t imagine a world in which I’ll ever have occasion to use that skill again, but it’s in there. And thinking about it makes me smile. So does recalling the day I was tapped to cook the grains for the Flavors of the World tasting. While my Storeroom classmates sorted dried chilies and filled orders for the nighttime classes, I was alone in the a la carte kitchen, commander of 20 gas burners, and 20 grains and legumes in 50 minutes. Maybe it’s a silly thing to be proud of.
On the other side of that year, I know that whatever skills I honed back there, most have gone soft. I couldn’t make consommé tomorrow, but I doubt I’ll ever want to. I have since learned how to break the rules. I realized this last night as I tried to explain to E how to make granola. When pressed about how much all I could say was enough. And as for how long, all I know is ‘til it’s done. I think I do that a lot. I’m pretty sure it drives my friends a little closer to crazy. After my 3 am mornings with the Frenchman (to whom I owe more than I would ever, ever publicly give him credit for…but I’ll admit this: I learned more in six weeks in that kitchen than I did in a year at school), food doesn’t scare me nearly as much as it used to. Chef Jasso taught me how to read a pastry recipe: how to apply just a little bit of food chemistry to see the finished product – its crumb, texture, thickness – while its still just abstracted on the page. Eggs are binders, thickeners, and a useful source of fat; did you know that? And when I left for my internship, I learned speed, fearlessness, and a whole lotta shortcuts. I learned how to use better ingredients in the most effective way. I learned how to bake in bulk – 15 pounds of butter at each go, ten sheet pans of tiramisu instead of one.
When I tell people I’m into food, many immediately back down. Oh, I can’t follow a recipe to save my life. Good! Recipes are totally useful guidelines, but they are not commandments. If you really understand pastry cream, for example, either because you have made it a hundred (or six) times, or because you have read Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, then you know how to make it so it turns out the way you want it to. You don’t need a recipe to tell you what tastes good – you already know what tastes good!! At best, recipes are just an offering of someone else’s idea, of the way it’s worked for them.
It’s a huge, embarrassing cliché, but the greatest thing I’ve figured out in the kitchen is that it just won’t do to fear it. (Just like it just won’t do to cry over my piecrusts, though occasionally I still do.) One bad batch of muffins won’t ruin my life or drive me to drink; neither will a tough breast of chicken, or a loose pastry cream. You don’t learn anything by getting it right the first time. And it’s way more fun when you figure it out – the interplay between your chosen flavors, how to get the texture you want (not too creamy and not too crunchy, mind you!) and, of course, how to make it look sexy…
So there. Now there’s nothing (important) I know that you don’t. Just mix it ‘til it looks right and then cook it ‘til it’s done.