September 30, 2012

tarte tatin

One of the food blogs I follow, Gilt Taste, recently put out a recipe for Tarte Tatin. I'd never heard of it before, but it's like an upside down apple pie (and plus it's French) so I jumped at the chance to make it for a dinner party.

The hardest part was finding an oven-safe pan. There are hundreds of them at school, but at home all the pans had plastic handles. And the cast iron was too big, so I resorted to unscrewing the handle off of one of the existing pans.

oven-proofing pan

After that was the dilemma of making dough without a food processor (well, I have one but it's tiny). Thankfully, at one of my summer stages I'd learned to cut butter into dough by using a cheese grater, because they didn't have a food processor either.

cutting butter into flour

Between the cheese grater and breaking up the butter curls by hand, I got the butter mixed in pretty well.

hand-mixed flour

With some cold water and kneading, the dough was shaped into a round, wrapped in plastic and put in the fridge to chill.

crust dough

Next came the apples. Golden delicious from the farmer's market by work.

golden delicious apples

Once cut and quartered, I was able to fit five in the 9" pan.

apples, cut

Then I cooked the combination of butter, sugar and cinnamon stick.

butter, sugar, cinnamon

Took it off the heat once it started turning brown.

simmering to caramel

On top I repositioned the apple quarters, now cored (but not peeled, since I didn't have a good peeler at home).

cored apples, arranged

While the apples were cooking I took the dough out and rolled it to the dimensions of the pan. I don't own a rolling pin so I used a bottle of PAM. It works pretty well (although in my previous post you'll see PVC pipe, that works even better).

rolling out crust dough

The apples cooking in the cinnamon caramel is one of the best smells that can fill your kitchen. I turned rotated each slice 180º for even cooking, but you don't have to.

cooked apples

Once the apples were done I covered the pan and put it in the oven. When it finished baking I wrapped it in towels and took it to the dinner party.

tarte before baking

There, I had to pop the tarte back into the oven, so the caramel could soften a bit in order for the all-important flipping of the tarte to happen.

tarte after baking

I was nervous, but with the plate on the pan, I flipped in one motion and the tarte came out. It would probably have been prettier with the apples peeled, but it tasted pretty good (with vanilla ice cream!).

tarte tatin

Not a bad way to make use of some apples (or other fruit) you have lying around. Although I'd still prefer apple pie :)


In my culinary program, everyone has to do an 240-hour internship in their last (typically 4th) semester. I decided to do my internship in a hotel pastry department, since I've never had experience in a hotel environment.

So far it's been quite different from working at local or even chain bakeries. Although I've been making doughs, batters, shaping/piping product, occasionally I get to help out with sculptural pieces that a small bakery would simply not have the resources to do.

One piece I've been working on requires a lot of pastillage, which is similar to gum paste and fondant. Made out of sugar, gelatin, water and vinegar, it hardens as it dries, making it very useful for sculptural pieces.

pastillage dough

Before the dough can be used it has to be kneaded until smooth (on a cornstarch-covered surface) and then rolled out flat to the approximate size of the surface it is meant to cover. In this case, it's castle gates made of foam-core board that I had a great time cutting because it utilized some long-lost drafting skills.

pastillage kneaded & rolled

Once the pastillage has covered the piece and is trimmed to the exact dimensions, designs can be etched on it. In this case I used the triangle tool to indent parallel lines for bricks.

pastillage brick lines

Then I took this handy plastic tool and indented individual bricks. A very hands-on process. I think there are brick stencils/rollers made for this exact purpose, but Chef likes the inexactness of this.

pastillage bricks

To actually adhere the pastillage to the foam-core board, I used royal icing (meringue + powdered sugar). It's literally like edible glue.

royal icing "glue"

Then there's some more trimming and detail cut-outs like the crenellations and windows.

pastillage & foam board

After that Chef demonstrated using the airbrush machine to spray food-grade airbrush coloring onto the pieces.

airbrushing pieces

Here are all the pieces I cut, airbrushed with color.

airbrushing finished

Once the spray color has dried, we dabbed a side towel with water and wiped the surfaces, blending the colors together.

blending airbrush colors

I hope that these things I learned will one day come in handy, like the drafting skills I had from the one architecture studio class I took in college. I guess you just never know.

September 23, 2012

sous vide: short ribs

For our last Sous Vide class we did short ribs. 48 hours at 139F! Each team prepared their short ribs a different way before they went in to cook. We did a barbecue-style dry rub, other teams did different flavored marinades. I really liked the team that used coffee and the team that used Guinness.

Anyway, while the short ribs were cooking we got to making side dishes. I had recently this recipe for Baked Ricotta, Mushrooms & Balsamic Brown Butter and I really wanted to try it so I thought this was the perfect opportunity, even though it's not a traditional barbecue side dish.

Also I made some modifications to the recipe. Sometimes I just can't help myself.

So I made the brown butter first. And then instead of sauteeing with olive oil, I reused the brown butter pan for sauteeing the garlic and red pepper flakes, to which I added onion to because I thought the onions would go really well with the mushrooms.

sauteed onions

After the onions were almost caramelized I added mushrooms (brown and white) and white wine, sauteeing until the wine had evaporated and the mushrooms were almost dry.

white wine & mushroom

I couldn't find any ricotta cheese, so I crumbled goat cheese over and broiled everything until the cheese developed toasted spots.

broiled goat cheese

Lastly, I poured the balsamic brown butter over (balsamic vinegar, brown butter, salt and pepper), which really took things to the next level.

balsamic brown butter

The great thing about this mushroom side dish is you can use it for so many things - to mix with pasta, to top pizza, to sautee with additional vegetables, as a side with steak, as a stuffing for veggie tacos, etc. etc. It's creamy and tangy and spicy and mushroom-meaty and just delicious.

As a plus the short ribs came out amazing as well. Sous vide made the meat so tender and juicy, like brisket cooked really well. Besides the mushrooms we also had roasted baby brussel sprouts and mashed potatoes. Can't go wrong with all that.

beef short rib

September 22, 2012

mama tran's beef noodle soup

It's funny, the things one does not know how to cook. For me, it was the food I grew up with, that I took for granted. When I started to cook I turned to pasta and italian seasonings. Even now, Asian ingredients still aren't familiar.

But so many years living away from home means I don't take the food I grew up with for granted. Living in the Bay Area again has meant that last year and this year, I was able to request my mom's beef noodle soup for my birthday. And this time I finally captured the process in photo so now I can make it for myself.

(As a side note, my mom wasn't always Mama Tran. For years my friends didn't have anything to call her. Mrs didn't accurately reflect her marital status, Ms made her seem like a stranger, and using her first name wasn't respectful enough. My sister Iris coined the term last summer and it stuck - very ingenious.)

Here's what you would need to recreate the dish for yourself (serves 4):

1 lb boneless beef shank
4 cloves garlic, minced
the equivalent amount of ginger, minced
9 cups water
2 star anise
1.5 tablespoons Por Kwan beef base
1 small daikon
2 large carrots
1/2 lb chinese wheat noodle
handful of cilantro, scallion & jalapeño for garnish

beef shank usa

First sautee the beef shank (USA!) with garlic and ginger until the outside is brown.

searing beef shank

Then add water, star anise and beef base (stir to dissolve). Turn the heat up until the broth is almost boiling, then turn the heat down to simmer.

beef broth

In the meantime, cut the daikon and carrot into chunks. Usually we do roll cut, but my mom bought this handy tool in Vietnam that imparts wave patterned cuts, so we did that.

cutting daikon & carrots

Also cook the dry noodle in boiling water. You want them a little softer than al dente, but be careful because they cook faster than Italian hard pasta. Once they're done, drain and set aside in a covered bowl.


After the broth has been simmering for about 45 minutes, add the daikon and carrots. Keep simmering for another 15 minutes or until the vegetables are soft.

beef broth, simmered

Chop up the garnishes. Besides cilantro/scallion and jalapeño, we also had Chinese fermented mustard greens (sour and crunchy) as well as toasted peanuts.


Portion the noodles into bowls and ladle broth over it. Then top with beef, daikon and carrot pieces. Lastly, garnish to your heart's content!

beef noodle

Hopefully, eating this will be as satisfying for you as it is for me. Thank you Mama Tran!

September 21, 2012

lunch for 1, dinner for 2

I think I've talked about how I don't really cook for myself.

Sometimes, though, I'll buy something on a whim (like berries at the Civic Center farmer's market), or somebody will give me something (Iris and heirloom tomato) or leave behind something (former roommate Molly and yellow lentils) and I'll be prompted to make something of it.

For the heirloom tomato, I actually waited until I could get to the East Bay and go shopping at Berkeley Bowl (think Whole Foods but local and cheaper). They have the best mozzarella. So good I took a picture in case you ever see it and feel like having some good cheese.

tomato mozzarella basil

I've been making this salad since I started cooking for myself. It's a summer classic - tomato, mozzarella, basil. And it looks beautiful when you take some time to assemble. The dressing is just olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.

tomato mozzarella basil assembled

The lentils I cooked with mirepoix and chicken broth. Spices: cumin, oregano, cayenne, bay leaf. I could've put some meat in but didn't.

lentils & rice

This was my first time with yellow lentils. They taste kind of meal-y, like garbanzo bean-ish. I didn't like them the way I do brown lentils.

And it was way too much food. For all the effort put into cooking and plating, I only ate about half.

In contrast, my old roommate Tram came back to visit for the weekend and cooked up a storm for her brother - vegetable, fish, meat soup, rice, the works.

dinner with tram

I was invited to share the food for dinner, and it was just like family meals growing up. I even ate more than I normally do. No photos to show for it, just a full belly and happy heart. The way meals are supposed to be.

September 15, 2012

accidental s'mores

If my blog had a "mistakes" category, this would go there.

So I wanted to make rice krispies. But I didn't have any rice krispies. I had cornflakes. So I thought it would be a good idea to substitute, except it wasn't. Because the cornflakes got soggy in the marshmallow mixture I made.

Maybe it would have been better if I had upped the cornflake to marshmallow ratio. But anyway, I ended up with a pan of marshmallow that tasted like it had wet cardboard bits in it.

But I didn't want to throw it in the trashcan. After all, I had used my last gelatin sheets making the marshmallows, and I wanted to serve it at my birthday board game night. So then I thought about hiding the marshmallows, in a sandwich, like with graham crackers.

The graham crackers really distracted from the soggy cornflake bits. But just for good measure, I crushed and toasted some smoked almonds and coated the remaining marshmallow sides. The almonds stuck really well to the marshmallow, and provided further distraction with their salty smoky crunch.

s'mores remake

At the party I melted some chocolate chips with some vegetable oil in the microwave, so the marshmallow sandwiches were could be dipped and eaten. And it was kind of like a s'more, if you think about it. But next time I will omit the cornflakes for sure.

birthday biscuits

In honor of my birthday, Cris and I cooked together like old times. It started out with leftover biscuit dough. And the green beans/mushrooms/onion I'd purchased at a little store down the street.

We needed something to tie everything together. I thought about sliced turkey, my preferred deli meat. And then it came together - gravy, cranberry sauce. Champagne too, since we were celebrating. Did you know that organic Korbel tastes different/better than the conventional kind?

birthday biscuits

The biscuits he baked, the green beans I sauteed. The gravy was made from defrosted chicken stock, cooked with mirepoix and thickened with roux. Cranberry sauce was from a can! And thinned with some gravy. And there was sliced deli turkey. It doesn't have to be complicated (or even made from scratch) to be good!

birthday biscuit dinner

September 10, 2012

sous vide: fennel (and banana!)

After proteins we switched to cooking vegetables and fruits. My group did fennel, artichoke, strawberries and bananas.

For fennel, I cut the bulb into sections and vacuum packed them with some herbs/seasonings: tarragon, thyme, bay leaf, star anise, caraway seeds.

herbs for fennel

The herbs were wrapped in plastic before being vacuum-packed, otherwise they would flavor the fennel too strongly. The package was cooked at 185F for 40 minutes.

fennel, vacuum-packed

After the fennel was cooked, I seared it with some butter, salt and pepper. It still tasted bland so I squeezed some lemon juice on it and sprinkled some cayenne pepper and then it tasted amazing. I could barely get a picture before all of the fennel disappeared.

seared fennel

After that we did bananas, and I cooked the caramel because I want to keep getting better at pastry things such as caramel. This was sugar and glucose syrup, with the addition of lemon and orange zest after the heat was turned off.

caramel for bananas

The zests were picked out before the caramel was added to the bananas. It was funny, the zests became like candied lemon and orange, tasty but a little bitter. Also funny was that the caramel cooled and hardened after they were poured on the bananas, and I was actually able to slide the banana logs out from the caramel, resulting in the caramel being one hard mass full of banana log-shaped curves. I guess this is the beginning to making caramel sculpture pieces...?

caramel & bananas

The caramel-covered bananas were cooked at 149F for 20 minutes. When they came out they were really soft, and the caramel had liquified. I think the next step would be to soak them in alcohol and set them on fire, or to cover them in sugar and brulee them. We just ate them.

sous vide bananas

food & fitness: quickbreads

Besides Sous Vide Cooking (and later on in the semester, Modern Sauces), the other cooking-related class I'm taking is called Food & Fitness. I was hoping to learn more about culinary nutrition than I did in the required nutrition class (that turned out much more science-y than I'd hoped). And so far, I have learned a lot about healthful cooking and what not to eat.

Sadly, I'm not big on avoidance. I'd rather eat less and exercise more than keep a list of what I shouldn't be eating and filter all of my available food options through that no-no list. Because that method requires more work/thinking, and because I believe that it also wears down your available willpower, which could be used to do other things.

Anyway! We alternate between lecture classes and lab classes. Our first lab class involved baked goods, mostly muffins/quickbreads. And the fat in those baked goods were substituted with applesauce and prune puree, which works to some degree because those ingredients provide moisture, which is a big part of what fat does for baked goods.

prune puree in batter

Our group of seven (almost all non-culinary students) tackled prune buttermilk bread and raisin bran muffins. The prune buttermilk bread used some margarine but also chopped prunes. The raisin bran muffins used a tiny amount of oil but also applesauce.

raisin bran muffins & prune buttermilk bread

Another group did banana pecan muffins, which had also a tiny amount of oil but prune puree and nonfat yogurt.

banana pecan muffins

Another group did lowfat fudgy brownies, which only had prune puree.

low-fat fudgy brownies

Everything tasted okay in terms of moistness and sweetness, but the missing fat took away from the savoriness. The substitutions are interesting to me, not because I want to be more healthy, but because it's always interesting to know what different ingredients do for a particular product. I tend to substitute greek yogurt for sour cream, because I think the tastes are similar enough (for a baked good or for a dip), but also because I'm more likely to buy greek yogurt because I can eat it with fruit and honey. I think applesauce and prune puree are ingredients I would add in addition to fat instead of to replace fat. It reminds me of the carrot cake I once made with canned pineapples - the carrot cake came out so moist because of that addition.

I think the star of the session was the apricot blackberry cornmeal kuchen, which had an interesting textural grittiness because of the cornmeal. It was almost like gritty cornbread but very airy, and the apricot & blackberries were delicious. I've never thought of those two fruits as a combination, but I'm definitely going to use it from now on.

apricot blackberry cornmeal kuchen