April 23, 2011


Sometime during breakfast station I found it very odd that we didn't make donuts - they're a pretty ubiquitous American pastry and breakfast food, after all. So I decided to make some, deviating from the station task list.

This was the first thing I made involving yeast - which meant that it had to proof (be in a warmer and moister situation than room temperature) so the yeast could grow and dough expand. So the dough was put into a oiled container and covered to rise overnight, and the next day I cut them using a donut cutter, and Sydney helped me fry them.

donuts frying

Then we glazed them (milk and powdered sugar again), both plain and chocolate.

glazing donuts

Some we added crushed almonds or chocolate sprinkles. And some unglazed ones we rolled in powdered sugar.

choosing donuts

Unfortunately we made them too late for them to be sold in the cafeteria, so everybody in the class got a chance to eat one. Apparently the last class had a "Bagel Friday" tradition going on. Maybe ours could be donuts? Heart Attack Fridays here we come!

dough and cinnamon rolls (breakfast station part 3)

Ever wonder how things like croissants and puff pastry got so puffy? I certainly did. With puff pastry especially, since the grocery store version comes as a flat sheet of dough and yet, when you throw it in the oven, it just expands and fills with air and layers of soft crispness that manifest themselves seemingly out of nowhere.

In breakfast station, I learned just how this phenomenon is brought about - through lamination of the dough. So after dough is made, it is run through the dough sheeter (which rolls out dough to a certain consistent thickness) and folded in half with butter sandwiched in between. Then it's run through again, folded in fours, left to sit for half an hour, run through and folded in threes, then left to sit again for half an hour, and run through and folded in threes. So now, even though the slab of dough has only three apparent folds, it secretly harbors 36 folds (4x3x3), butter between each, and the butter is what creates the layer. Butter, along with any other type of fat used in pastry, is a shortening - that is, it shortens gluten strands and prevents them from uniting the entire pastry into a chewy whole (which is desirable in things like bread, but not so much in things like croissants).

Using the dough sheeter is fun. (And a good thing I learned how to use it too, since we had a practical exam on it.) Unfortunately I don't have a picture of the sheeter, but I do have a picture of Sydney and I with our "dough babies", croissant and danish doughs we finished laminating one day.

dough babies

Aside from muffins, quick-breads, croissants and danishes, the last thing we make in breakfast station are cinnamon buns. They're made using the scrap dough left over from cutting croissants and danishes. It's funny they're made from scraps, because I like them best out of all the sweet pastries. (And it seems like many good things are created of scraps and leftovers, french toast and paella being two examples that come to mind.)

So first the scrap dough pieces are kneaded together, then run through the sheeter to 2.5mm thick. The dough is laid out on our floured marble table (the marble is so the dough can stay as cool as possible) and topped with copious amounts of brown sugar and cinnamon. Roughly an inch at the top is left untopped.

cinnamon bun dough

Starting from the bottom we roll up the dough so it becomes a long dough snake. We cut it into pieces about the width of four fingers (or a hand, if you have small hands like me). Each piece gets the un-sugared segment of the dough folded underneath (to form the bottom of the bun), then is smashed into a spot on an oiled muffin pan.

cinnamon bun prepped

After they puff up and brown in the oven, they're taken out and rolled around in cinnamon sugar.

cinnamon bun finished

And there you have it, a delicious treat that's crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, with layers of sugary cinnamon goodness.

croissants and danishes (breakfast station part 2)

Everyday we also baked off 3-4 dozen croissants and 4 dozen danishes. We were able to do this right at the beginning of the morning because the croissants/danishes were shaped and egg-washed the day before, so all we had to do was stick them in the oven.

This of course meant that after we baked everything off, we would get busy dough-rolling and croissant/danish-prepping for the next day. I'll talk about the dough process a little more in the next post, but basically the dough would be rolled out to be 4mm thick, then cut into triangles (croissant) or squares (danish). Besides the shapes, croissant and danish also differ in that croissant dough has less sugar and butter.

cutting danish dough

Also, croissant dough had to sit and relax for 5-10 minutes after it was cut - this was because we would stretch the triangle shape before rolling it into a croissant. Without letting it relax the dough would simply split when stretched, and that's because the two proteins in gluten result in dough being alternately extensible (stretchy) and elastic (bouncing back). (As a side note: learning things like this make me really excited to be in culinary school.)

relaxing croissants

So then croissants would be rolled.

rolling croissants

And egg-washed (seals the pastry and gives it a sheen when baked).

eggwashing croissants

Meanwhile, danish dough would be cut and/or folded into different shapes. And egg-washed too.

danish shapes

The next day we would add different fillings (raspberry jam, apricot jam, cheese and cinnamon apple) before baking them off.

filling danishes

After baking we would glaze the danishes with simple syrup (but not the croissants).

glazing danishes

Occasionally we would do something special. Like frost the danishes. Frosting was surprisingly easy to make, just milk and powdered sugar.

frosting danishes

And one day we made chocolate croissants - rectangle instead of triangle shapes, with the addition of a bar of chocolate inside.

rolling chocolate croissants

Oh and chocolate-glazed them of course.

glazing chocolate croissants

muffins and quick-breads (breakfast station part 1)

After I left Cakes and Tarts, I went to Breakfast Station, which was fun because it was less ambiguous. Not that freedom/ambiguity isn't fun, but being a pastry beginner, it's more important/enjoyable to me to master a set of tasks before I think up things on my own. Breakfast Station was definitely a task list type of station. Everyday there was a set amount of items (and quantities) we had to turn out.

We had to do three batches of muffins: bran, lemon poppyseed, and another one of our choice (often blueberry because that was what customers requested). Here was a cranberry white chocolate one I did:

cranberry white chocolate muffin mix

Then we had to slice one loaf each of pumpkin raisin bread and banana bread (usually made in a big batch once a week and frozen, then put into the walk-in to thaw the day before).

pumpkin bread prep

Something about using gigantic utensils makes everything feel so hard-core.

pumpkin bread mix

April 17, 2011

cake on me

Over the course of my time in Cakes and Tarts, we got better at making and decorating cakes.

devils food cake

This was a devil's food cake Sydney put together.

chocolate caramel cake

This was a chocolate caramel cake slice I decorated - I really love the saucing part, it's almost like painting.

carrot cake

These were mini carrot cakes I put together, with cream cheese frosting and candied carrot shreds on top. (Candy-ing was quite an easy process, just simple syrup and the carrot shreds in a pan over heat!)

crumb topping

Once in a while though, Chef would still come by and show us a trick or two on how to disguise one of our "homelier" cakes. Here he is coating the cake sides with chocolate crumbs.

mirror glazing mousse cake

And here he is showing us how to mirror glaze the mousse cake that was my crowning achievement, made on my last day in Cakes and Tarts.

cutting mousse cake

It practically took the entire team to cut the darn thing, it had just come out of the freezer (required for the mousse to set, another reason why mousse is so effort-intensive!). There was so much mousse I made three cakes, which the team was able to use after I left.

Yay cake!

the unbearable lightness of meringue

On an earlier post I mentioned whipping heavy cream in order to make whipped cream. Heavy cream, as you may know, is liquid. Whipped cream, on the other hand, is very much not. The difference between the two is all in the whipping, or the incorporation of air, something I still can't think of as anything but a miracle.

making meringue

Meringue is another one of these miracles. Whipped egg whites and sugar, basically. My first experience was on Pi Day, when I made lemon meringue pie at the behest of my roommate Daniel. I was so enthused at this first encounter that I literally whipped the egg whites and powdered sugar into meringue with my bare hands, which was a great arm-workout. (Turns out this type of meringue is French meringue.)

lemon meringue pie

Luckily I haven't tried this in the bake shop. With the sizes of the batches we do, my arm would just as well fall off.

As it turns out, I've made Italian meringue (for Italian buttercream) when I poured sugar syrup (boiled to 240F, or the softball stage, more on that eventually) into the whipping egg whites.

pouring sugar into meringue
(It being buttercream, butter was later added, then whipped cream - who would've thought?!)

And as it turns out, I've also made Swiss meringue (for mousse cake, my crowning achievement in Cakes and Tarts because it's complicated and requires the use of gelatin and Chef said I wouldn't have time to make it but I did anyway). The sugar is incorporated into the egg whites with the use of a double boiler/bain marie (so basically they were mixed in a bowl that was being heated by the steam from boiling water). And then whipped by a KitchenAid mixer until they achieved stiff peaks (the longer you whip, the stiffer the peaks, although I think it's possible to overwhip).

swiss meringue

Such a beautiful miracle. Because just think, that was once just egg whites and sugar.

crème, cream, and everything in between

Also on our first day we made vanilla cream pie. Sydney made the crust while I made the cream - which involved using an actual vanilla bean (so much nicer than the extract stuff!). The recipe came straight out of our pastry textbook, which is literally our bible, since we need it for everything we do.

vanilla cream sieving

After I made the vanilla cream I had to comb it through a sieve, which was challenging because the cream was thick and didn't want to go through. Despite the difficulty I was extremely excited about the task because it was something I had never done before or imagined doing.

And the thing about the pastry side is that it's a bastion of specialized knowledge, and part of why I came to culinary school was to be privy to that. Most everybody will cook at one point or another, or bake cookies, but pastry is a whole other realm. And even though I don't particularly like pastries or sweets, I am really taking to the process of making them because of the structure and its built-in perfectionism. In pastry there is a right way to go about things - from measuring the ingredients, to the order you incorporate them, to the temperatures they need to be at (and for how long), and it's quite evident from the final product when you have done everything correctly (and thus succeeded). Savory, on the other hand, is composed of a lot of open-endedness and improv, since one can arrive at "delicious" in ten thousand ways, all in varying degrees of taste and texture.

(And getting personal: even though my life goes the way of savory and my personality has evolved to accommodate that, the inner overachieving perfectionist in me really takes to and finds expression in pastry.)

Anyway, after the cream was poured into the pie and allowed to chill, it settled into a firm jigglyness - the "just right" consistency between solidity and liquidity. We topped it with streusel and piped some whipped cream (basically whipped heavy cream, no Reddi-whip here!) on the edge.

vanilla cream plating

The dot of vanilla sauce on the plate was to anchor the pie slice, so that in case the plates were being moved around, the slices would not slide.

And there you have it, just another drop of knowledge in that vast bastion-pool known as pastry.

let us make cake!

The first station I was assigned to on the pastry side was Cakes and Tarts. For those of us on the station, our daily task was to come up with 48-60 plates of dessert. Which sounded impossible until I learned that each cake yielded 10 slices (or 10 plates), and each pie/tart 8 slices. So each day we made some combination of cakes (including cheesecake or moussecake), pies/tarts, and tartlets.

Being that the previous pastry people had left us with a surplus of cake rounds (chocolate, vanilla, devils food, carrot, etc.), all we really needed to do was assemble them. So we got a crash course in cake-decorating.

First we defrosted the cake rounds (generally two for each cake we built), filed off the tops and basted the exposed cake-ness in simple syrup. Then we frosted them with buttercream. For the first one we made, we decided also to add strawberry slices (being that the cake was vanilla).

strawberry cake arranging

We quickly learned that buttercream frosting needs to be at the right temperature (and thus consistency) for it to frost nicely. If you look closely at the picture you'll see the unevenness and the crumbly edges that were the result of dragging too-congealed buttercream across the cake surface.

strawberry cake crumb coat

Once the upper layer was added, we frosted it all over the first time, which is known as the crumb coat. This is because the crumb (general term for the innards of any pastry) is still exposed and crumbs (haha) generally come off with the excess buttercream that is scraped off to make the layer smooth. After this first layer of frosting the cake is then put in the walk-in refrigerator for a bit so the buttercream can solidify, yielding a smooth layer for the final frosting.

strawberry cake decorating

Being that this was our first attempt at cake-assembly, the cake was still bumpy-looking after the final frosting (or, as Chef Mark put it, "homely-looking"). As an improvement, Chef demonstrated using the triangle-teethy tool (one of the many specialty tools I know not the name of) to create wavy lines of distraction all over the cake.

strawberry cake slicing

And voila! First cake assembled.

April 7, 2011

front, back, or... outside of the house?

It's almost been two weeks since I switched from savory to pastry and I have yet to put up a pastry post because I've been so busy.

I recently took a hostessing job at a popular, upscale kind of place, and it took took 7 out of my 10 spring break days, long continuous hours of being up on my feet, seating people, setting and resetting silverware, bussing tables, rearranging seats, fetching menus, wiping counters, taking calls, making reservations, checking statuses, quoting wait times, etc. etc. etc.

It's an interaction type of job, where people flow past you, an endless stream one hour and a trickle the next, but you're lucky if you can steal a moment to yourself. It's strange because in culinary school we're well-acquainted with the intensity of the "back of the house", in the kitchen where everything is time-sensitive and the interchange of ingredients and hands and heat oil and fire occur simultaneously and in a perilous blur. You can burn out easily working in such conditions, in the restaurant business, but I've found the "front of the house" no different, so far.

In the restaurant where I work, the front of the house is defined by a near constant + necessary vigilance in maintaining oneself presentable and courteous to all, whereas the back of the house is busy but there is music and conversation and food and camaraderie! And perhaps best of all, no interactions with customers ever.

Don't get me wrong, I do love connecting with people, and I do want a people-centered job, but the type of interaction matters completely. At my last job it was hard too, alternating between self-directed office tasks (mental freedom!) and brief but charged interchanges with (or should I say, disturbances from) the formerly homeless tenants I served. But looking back I would prefer that, if only just to be able to sit.

Ideally I would like a job where I am afforded mental freedom, stretches of productive time to myself, but also focused periods of meaningful exchange with people. So I know what I want, but I don't know where to find it. Story of my life, maybe. I just have to keep looking - front, back, inside, around, everywhere.

April 4, 2011

food for fifty!

On one of the free days I had during my spring break last week, I made a dinner for 50, the largest group I ever cooked for. So the reason this happened was because when I first moved (back) to California, I went to visit my sister Iris at UC Davis and experienced one of her multi-faith community's Wednesday Night Dinners. I enjoyed it so much that I offered to cook one of the dinners in the future, and my spring break was the first opportunity to do so.

I decided on a Thai-themed dinner because: 1) Thai is my favorite cuisine and yet I don't know how to make any of the dishes, so this was a good chance to try, and 2) Thai cuisine has many vegetarian options, which was one of the requirements of the dinner since the menu had to accommodate everyone's religious dietary restrictions.

To make it easier for me (since I only had a few hours to cook so much for so many people), for appetizer I simply did store-bought salad mix (with some carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes thrown in) with peanut dressing, and for dessert I simply did fruit cocktail with almond jello. (There was some anxiety over the kosher-ness of the jello, but thankfully I found that it was made from agar-agar, which is derived from seaweed, thereby kosher and vegan to boot.)

So the actual day-of involved me taking a train (almost two hours) to get to my dad's house to use his car, grocery shopping (almost two hours, despite using allrecipes.com to adjust the recipe to 50 servings, then the handy "add to shopping list" function), driving to Davis (two hours), prepping and cooking (four hours), etc. etc. Thank goodness Iris was able to find me two helpers (thanks Rose and Ashley!) to help me cut vegetables.

vegetables prepped

Although I planned on using this coconut curry tofu recipe, I found Thai curry packets in 99 Ranch (Asian grocery), so I ended up following the directions on there. It involved sauteeing the curry paste in some oil, then adding coconut milk and brown sugar to taste. Really easy considering the amount of flavor it yields, so it's surprising I've never tried to do it before.

At some point I figured out that all of the ingredients were not going to fit in the same pot, so I divided everything into two pots. From my experience in cooking I've found that it's really important what order you cook things in, even if they all end up together. In this case, the tofu and carrots went in first, because they would take the longest to get tender and absorb the curry flavor. Then I sauteed the mushrooms with onions and basil and scallions on the side (to soften them and develop their own flavors) and added those in. Then went the yellow bell peppers and snow peas and baby bok choy. And then I let everything just stew together.

curry being stewed

Sadly, my one regret with the curry was that I stewed everything for so long. More specifically, I wish I had added the snow peas and bok choy last, because of the color element (stewing = loss of green color), and also because the snow peas could have retained their crunch and made the curry more palatable. Oh well! I'm just glad everything was done on time (ahead of time even) and was edible :)

me and the spread

And Iris was happy :)

iris and her plate

And people got fed :)

people getting fed

My favorite part of the meal was actually dessert. Not only was it the easiest to make, I also thought it was the most delicious. The almond jello came powdered in packets (one brand looks like this) that I simply stirred into boiling water, then let cool and set in shallow pans, then cut into cubes. And then I opened some cans of fruit cocktail (and some cans of lychee, to stay Thai/Asian) and combined everything. So good. I ate two bowls myself and promptly passed out due to food coma and general exhaustion.


I think the best part of all this is that the experience has enabled me to cook more Asian in general, using ingredients like soy sauce and cornstarch and ginger and scallions (instead of my usual defaults of garlic and onion and Italians herbs). Finally I am living up to my heritage!

asian food

And I made curry again, this time with the snow peas crunchy.