Riding the Tide of the Season

A green brush stroke at its base the last remnant of the life force that thrust into being its violaceous stalk, each tip pricked a muted gold…

The idea of local-seasonal food choices as a component of food ethics has been under my skin since it was first discussed in a food ethics class at the Oregon Culinary Institute.

Now that the seasonal tide has turned in favor of the freshest, most beautiful and most flavorful produce, the choices become easier.

Hoods!
Hoods!

Each week for the past month I’ve bought flats of tiny, early berries for strawberry-rhubarb compote, fresh strawberry sauce for strawberry-Moscato torte and as garnish for strawberry

Baba au Rhum
Baba au Rhum

shortcake and Baba au Rhum.

If I back this season up up by 45-60 days, my fruit choices are limited to Central Valley California, Mexico and Chile, a completely different depth of flavor and tenderness, and a whole lot of food miles.

I look at the issue professionally and personally. While baking and pastry is my profession, the Nicoletta’s Table pastry department also IMAG1059bakes daily savory tarts for the customer. Easy access to out-of-season zucchini, IMAG1054asparagus and onions, although convenient, does not equate to the baby zucchini, lithe IMAG1055asparagus and spring onions (particularly cipollini) currently in the market.

 

To me, choosing fruit and vegetables in season means not choosing them when they’re out of season.

Asparagus-Chevre Tart
Asparagus-Chevre Tart

If I’ve made a personal commitment to eat seasonally, I then must extend that commitment to my profession.

Let the sweetness of the season begin…

 

 

Autumnal Pastry Wedding

Fleeting ripeness portends kisses of chewy, jammy wine… 

A year, a seeming heartbeat, has passed since Oregon’s plum and grape bounty first revealed its intensely sweet succulence to me.

Now, with a Baking & Pastry Management degree from the Oregon Culinary Institute in my back pocket and as pastry chef at Nicoletta’s Table in Lake Oswego, I’m interested in ways the local bounty can be translated into fall desserts.

Enter Spiced Plum and Grape Tart. I felt the puritanical feature of IMAG0277my personality that surfaces as a love of intensely singular flavors falling away as I considered how best to enhance plums and grapes. The barest pinch of cloves, a few grindings of nutmeg, orange zest and a blush of cardamom. Vanilla bean-seeded sugar… just enough to support the flavor profile.

The Santa Rosa plum, Damson, the culinary plum, and Jupiter IMAG0279seedless Muscat grapes with a mildly tart skin. Amazing natural sweetness and depth of flavor.

As a new pastry chef, learning the keys to successful pastry feel linear and are, hopefully, cumulative. Use ingredients of similar temperature. Aerate the butter for crustier tart dough. Don’t overwork the dough after the flour is added.  

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The finished tart, teased quickly to room temperature in the blast chiller. Thin, tender, flavorful crust juxtaposed wit the rich, married flavors of plums and grapes. Cream whipped to soft peaks adorned with gems of candied orange.

A happy marriage, indeed.

 

There’s an Endorphin in that Cloud of Meringue

Inner foliage, the jeweled fruit of panettone, a sup of bourbon and Marsala…

St Helens floats on the skyline with the look of a cake whose meringue has slipped off into billowy piles around its base. Hummingbirds dot the inner distance – playful-aggressive specks on the outer magnificence.

Sliding meringue. A disparaging experience, eliciting feelings of helplessness and disbelief, par for the course for a new pastry chef, I suppose. There’s no shoring it up when it has insufficient structure. Had forgotten to use a hard meringue (with a larger ratio of sugar to egg whites) to frost the Salted Caramel Chocolate Torte.  The oversight was a Baking 101 moment.

I used a soft meringue, of course, as the foundation for the Italian buttercream flavored with salted caramel sauce that graces the three chocolate layers. Fluffy, elegant, a thing of beauty.

salted caramel torteCarbon-torched peaks and edges, a wickedly fun finishing technique. Drizzles and puddles of salted caramel sauce and crushed toasted hazelnuts tossed with abandon on the snow-capped torte.

Dessert creation isn’t about perfection, although that quality is certainly inherent in a pastry chef’s personality. It’s not about speed, but speed arises naturally through rote… developing a feel for the product, its behavior, its viability. But, hit the sweet spot of knowledge and technique, and an endorphin kicks in that can only be likened to that delicious reaction to a beautiful landscape.

Even if the clouds have slid off the mountain.

The Alchemist’s Hand Pipes Buttercream

Specters of pastry kings flaunt towers of pate a choux, buttressed of European-style butter, fondant and cream…

IMG_6430French almond macarons, Paris-Brest and petits fours are three seductive pleasures I’ve always associated with the best European bakeries. Macarons,IMG_6431 the most-royal orbs of tender flavor and color, occupy three dimensions in a pastry shop window like no other confection. Paris-Brest, the French IMG_6436idolator of Italy’s mascarpone, never excuses itself as the best breakfast companion. Petits fours were the visual emblem of my childhood, each the perfect little package of intense, jammy sweetness. Et voila!

With an alchemist’s hand, Advanced Baking at OCI came to a close, the execution of these gems the act preceding intermission.

The second act, Intermediate Pastry Arts, has as its entre a fantastic carrot cake with coconut, crushed pineapple and walnuts, a silky IMG_6440marbled cheesecake, a goddess-like tiramisu, Charlotte Royale and lemon buttercream roll cake.

Buttercream… The memory of the first Viennese Dobos torte I made 30 years ago is etched indelibly in myIMG_6451 psyche. The day I made it was one of those turning points that sneaks up and screws itself into your consciousness in a way that can never be undone. The shape of the traditional torte is round, and I remember spreading the batter thinly on the back of a 9″ pan. Seven times. Thin layers of chocolate buttercream inside and out. A beautiful layer of deep golden caramel as the crown.

These desserts are not naive. They reverberate the names of their creators and those courageous enough to be their current standard-bearers.

Each day a new skill or technique or solution is carved out of rigorous practice. The lineage of great pastry chefs of the past lives on in the next scored torte, the next filigree, the next perfect rosette.

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

Sugar and cinnamon, no unwillingness to taste the sweet spice…

Act II is underway as the OCI Advanced Baking sugar bakers gathered again for next-level training after a 2+ week break.

IMG_6394Notwithstanding 9-11 hours of sleep per day, a break of such length is fertile ground for deepening of focus, sharpening of technique and business planning for the new year. Focus: What products truly qualify as Essential Confection contemporized classics? Technique: reinforcing muscle memory of basic skills such as rolling and cutting, piping Chantilly rosettes and decorative chocolate filigree. Planning: Who is the Essential Confection guest and how do we voice the business model of supporting food organizations through guest partnership?IMG_6401

Big plans require small and consistent execution.  I practice a constant distillation of the excitement I feel in the creation of Essential Confection, with the balance of honing the number and type of products we offer.

And the search that helps our customer find us is on.

So, sugar and delectable new horizons once again hang in the air. Last night, both had the essence of spicy cinnamon. What do they have in common?

I can’t wait for the next bite.

I Can Wear Nail Polish for Two Weeks

Tintinnabulation of bells in the perfumed halo of the fir trees; ’tis the season...

Odd, the little trade-offs that go with professional baking. There’s a clear standard of professionalism that, the truth be known, all bakers subscribe to whether they admit it or not. The individual features of the code aren’t really important; however, in scheduling a manicure today… today being two days into a two-week winter break at OCI… I humored myself at the thought that a specter of my past was once again a possibility, if only for the duration of the vaca: a French manicure with polish.

IMG_6331I guess there’s other humor in baking. Naively assuming one has the physical stamina to haul 50-pound bags of flour. Acknowledging that the product the baker is producing has virtually no shelf life. And, oh, yes, remembering that offering fresh bread at retail each morning requires getting up in the middle of the night. Only bakers can see humor in these things. Devotion to the craft is a great companion to humor.

I’m unsure if there’s a baking mantra, but there certainly is a logo, nail polish or not.

Thank You for Wearing My Dress

Caramelized sugar wafting through the air, a melody simply written…

In reading the Dec issue of Vogue I was struck by the simple homage Anna Wintour paid to the life of Oscar de la Renta who died this fall after an illustrious 50+year design career.

What most impressed me was the gracious form Mr. de la Renta always used in thanking the very fortunate people to wear his elegant clothing. He always said, “Thank you for wearing my dress.”

Grace as an aspect of business feels rare to me, and I believe it should be more common. After all, each purchase a customer or client or guest makes implicitly conveys a measure of trust in the service or product of the business person. Reason enough to be thankful and to say so.

The simple act of doing well what one loves doing and then being gracious enough to thank the person receiving it speaks to an internal and self-sustained honor.

These recent weeks in the kitchen at OCI have been full to the brim of hard and tiring work. New skills sets, new energies, new creations. The work could also be described as joyful.

Pastry cream fruit tarts, berry and fruit pies, Frangipane tarts, cannoli, brownies, baguette, butter braids, corn muffins, hazelnut biscotti, lemon pound cake, bagels, pretzels, pizza, beignets, chocolate cookies, coconut macaroons, crepes, cream pies, focaccia, caramel nut tarts, artisan breads, quiche, shortbread and strudel.

It all came home, and I realized quickly that there was an opportunity to share the joy I experienced in creating it. So, pies went to the staff of Neighborhood House in Multnomah Village and tarts went to the staff of a senior living center and to the baristas at my local Starbucks. Treats of every variety went to my son in Montana.

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The pleasure in giving is made all the more concrete by thanking the person to whom the gift is given.

“Thank you for wearing my dress.” That’s a legacy I’d like to honor in this and every season.

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