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.

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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.

The Sophistication of Goo

 A dispassionate tear of glucose, the refugee of macaroon mischief…

Six months of management classes at the Oregon Culinary Institute are successfully completed at a GPA I must admit I’m pretty happy with. I have a set of core business courses under my belt that will serve Essential Confection well.

The hammer is down. I’m now immersed in what I came here for, management classes notwithstanding. Baking and pastry, the creative love of my life for more than 40 years, is under way. Immersion, indeed.

Two to three recipes per day, ingredients scaled a day ahead. I’ve elected to come in an hour early each day to work ahead.

Macaroons, a super-slight crunch sheltering the sweet succulence of coconut. The texture of a great macaroon is a viscid al dente goo offset by the shimmer of a crunch.

Macaroons have an elegance undoubtedly arising from their French, Italian and Belgian origins where ground almonds were, and are, commonly used in place of coconut.

Instead of glucose, heavy, dense and very tacky, our formula called for corn syrup which has glucose as an ingredient but is lighter and a bit easier to handle. A simple recipe and technique that yields a brilliant result.

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Coconut Macaroons

6 oz sugar

6 oz macaroon coconut

1 oz corn syrup

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

2 tsp pastry flour

1 pinch salt

3 egg whites (1 oz per egg white)

Combine all ingredients and warm over simmering water to 120 degrees F. Allow mixture to cool. Stir before use. Scoop portions onto parchment-lined sheet pans. Bake for 12 min at 350 degrees F. Piping the dough into beautiful little pointed stacks is an option.

Opera to Aria, the Sweet Song of Cream

A constellation of cocoa, a meteoric flash of vanilla…

The Candy Book, referenced in a previous post, holds several of the confection  secrets I’m interested in unlocking. As for the book itself, the binding’s a bit tattered, and the fragile pages  are supple and soft from many years of wear.  I love scouting out the old and imagining it in the present, in books and in confection.

I can’t remember the first time I had Putnam’s Opera Creams as a child in Cincinnati; however, the luscious texture of the silky vanilla cream center as it oozed out against the bite, juxtaposed with its dark chocolate exterior has lingered indelibly in my memory as a seductive pleasure. I can still see the shimmery silver box.

Simple ingredients in alchemy. Sugar, cream, glucose, vanilla extract. What will they bring? I decided not to commit chocolate to the process until I knew the center was stable.

At least the recipe was standardized, the mixture cooked to 240 degrees. Vigorous beating and kneading alternated with active waiting and watching. The cooked mixture rolled successfully on a confectioner’s-covered surface. It scored. We, the opera cream and I, waited the requisite 24 hours for it to set.

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Enter the worst knife skill I’ve exercised in 30 years. Certain the proclivity for safety in knife handling was long ago put in place, I
IMG_6167took my eye off the ball [blade]. In trimming the scored mixture, I did the unthinkable… I motioned the knife toward me instead of away.

I had just had my knives professionally sharpened. The result was a slice (not an edge tap of the blade) out of the little figure on my left hand, which bled profusely.

The balance of the evening was spent in the ER. Three stitches. Big lesson.

So… the opera cream. Not quite as gooey as the opera cream of my youth, but equally tender and delicious. I believe the intention of the recipe was for the product to be cut and served individually. What I made makes a great center, but its delicate texture as a stand-alone confection is still a question mark.

An education on all fronts.

The Plum of My Eye

Glorious fall fruit soldiers, attendant of the inalterably communal market…

Like a middle-aged adult, my fall market bag has steadily gained weight through spring and summer. Bags of Crimson Red potatoes tasting of chestnut, huge celeriac and fennel bulbs, enormous Italian kale and the perkiest, most vivid Dancing Chicken eggs, their color and firmness a result of the chickens foraging for food.

Among the fall bounty are plums… an amazing variety in size, shape and color. I love the education the market brings, and this weekend the teaching was from one of my favorite market vendors on type and growth and taste. Taste before you purchase, he says…

I had more of a rustic, free-form tart in mind when I left market, then one of Joel Robuchon’s recipes caught my eye. Pate brisee with a pastry cream of ground almonds, butter, sugar and egg. I used three types of plums: German/Croatian, Coe’s Golden and little orbed Mirabelle. The Jupiter celebate grapes were so sweet I couldn’t resist adding them.

I also noticed a suggestion in Wayne Gisslen’s Professional Baking that made sense. Gisslen suggested sprinkling a thin layer of cake crumbs, cookie crumbs or bread crumbs in the unbaked shell before adding the filling and fruit. The benefit is absorption of the inevitable juices produced by seasonal fruit such as plums, apricots, cherries or peaches. I had two great slices of cinnamon-raisin bread that I toasted and ground. The cinnamon in the bread and the touch I added in the crust were a nice complement to the plums.

This is simple luxury, a seductive pleasure.

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If you have wonderful plums in your local market, I encourage you. Their flavor is brought fully forward in this recipe. Whipped cream would be an intoxicant but, what the hell…

Fresh Plum Tart with Fragrant Almond Cream

(from Simply French, Patricia Wells presents the cuisine of Joel Robuchon)  [my editing in brackets]

Almond Cream

Scant 1/2 C whole blanched almonds

4 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened

1/3 C granulated sugar

1 large egg, at room temperature

1 large egg white, at room temperature

One 9″ partially baked puff pastry, shortbread pastry, or sweet pastry shell

About 20 purple plums (1-3/4 pounds), cut in half, seeded

[If you’re adding small, purple grapes with tiny seeds, they need not be seeded.]

Confectioners’ sugar, for garnish

[Whipped cream, optional]

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare the almond cream: In a food processor, process the almonds to a fine powder. Add the butter and sugar, and process until blended. Add the egg and egg white, and process until blended. [Note: I used an 11″ tart pan; it required  a second recipe of almond cream.]

[Sprinkle the layer of crumbs in the partially baked shell at this point.] Pour the almond cream into the prepared shell. Arrange the fruit, cut side up, on top of the cream.

Place the tart in the center of the oven, and bake until the almond cream is golden brown and mounds up around the fruit, about 30 minutes.

Transfer to a rack to cool. When cool, sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar. Serve at room temperature.

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