A Most Proper English Guest

Orange flush of fruit, aromatic of pear or melon, alive in maritime, ye apple of my eye…

The fleeting ripeness of fruit at this time of the year feels like an undertow… subtly, yet unmistakably, at work in my subconscious. What brought it to the surface this weekend was one of the Hillsdale market vendors from Stephens Farm in Grand Island holding forth on his seemingly countless and somewhat odd-looking varieties of pears, strawberries, peaches and blueberries whose availability, I was told, could now be counted in days, not weeks.

These fruits have a subtle intoxication in appearance, a curious lure that casts a line into my insecurity.  I notice in myself a tendency to be attracted to that which I know and would like to know more about instead of automatically seeking the unknown. Not fond of writing that, but there it is.

When you’re selling things, salesmanship is in order. The farmer’s subtlety ended but his point was reinforced as he continuously handed me slices of pears, plums and apples, and one was more intriguing and delicious than another. Amazing layers of sweetness. The table grapes, some with tiny seeds, some seedless, were nectar.

One of the great things about the markets is that you never know where the experience will take you. And being pushed gently but steadily away from my storied comfort zone was another benefit.

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I’m told the apples I bought, Cox’s Orange Pippin, first grown in England in 1825, will elevate whatever I decide to make to an art form. So I’m now on the hunt for a venue that will perfectly showcase what, in a good year, could be the benchmark for flavor in apples. Brown Butter Apple Tart? Apple Tart with Caramel Sauce? Apple Frangipane Tart? The results in an upcoming post.

Here’s to pastry as art.

Tasting Restraint

Inside artistry there is craftmanship, inside the end, a beginning.

I enjoy the kind of happy ending where occasional personal restraint pays off in some unexpected and beneficial way. In the extreme, I think restraint is called denial. I’m not a proponent of denial.

In fact,  there are some categories of purchases that are exempt from restraint in my book. Shoes. I love a great pair of shoes. Like my courageous purchase of those little red patent Stuart Weitzman flats. Strangers (men, mostly) continue to compliment me on them. Make no mistake, these are not the Ruby Slippers, although in wearing them I know how [G]Linda, the Good Witch, must have felt in dreamily waving that magic wand. I call them my Ferrari’s. Capiche?

Restraint seemed prudent a year ago at a Retail Confectioners International (RCI) conference on what I would call a capital purchase for Essential Confection, my new confection business.

Nine hundred dollars is enough money to get my attention. A piece of equipment that would literally cut my caramel production time by fifty percent called my name.  The roller-cutter.  A pseudo-rolling pin with large wheels of customized size designed to cut pastry. Rollers… the highway to heaven.

Nine hundred dollars was a tough pill to swallow for a new business-hopeful and yet, I saw the payback in increased efficiency and standardization of product.  I didn’t act.  Restraint.

Fast forward to today. I have the great good fortune to have the input of the world’s top pastry chefs (largely through my willingness to purchase their books) and in perusing Thomas Keller’s Bouchon there was answered prayer. The bicycle.

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A bicycle is this adolescent version of its $900 big sister.  At one-tenth the price. Each of the five wheels can be adjusted to a cutting width of between a half-inch and five inches. Designed to cut pastry, I wrung my hands in the hope that it would be substantial enough to cut caramels, took a deep breath and immediately ordered one.

This is the happy ending part. Or, perhaps, I should call it a happy beginning because, yes, it’s officially a caramel cutter. A really well engineered piece of equipment. Gliding strokes resulting in gloriously plumb pieces, made no less handmade or succulent in their uniformity.

Beauty on the eye, delight on the tongue.

On Preference

A weightless voice hung in the room, roundly sweet in its silence…

Perhaps a consequence of having an interest in all things and being master of few, I recognized some years ago that I prefer to support what people do well and can’t seem to make time to critique that which falls short.

In the culinary blogosphere, authors’ interests attract me in different ways. Here’s a smidge of my go-to reads:

  • Language and imagery flourish on Hortus Cuisine. The author’s focus is simple, regional eating, the ingredients of which arise from a small farm between the Marche and Emilia-Romagna regions of Italy. Luscious photography.
  • Princess Tofu imbibes a lightness of humor with a love of tea in San Francisco’s minimalistic Meccas. It’s easy to sip with her at Samovar while musing over the site’s poetic intros.
  • The Pastry Department takes a pen and ink approach to professional pastry, the author the pastry chef at Chicago’s Blackbird and Avec restaurants. Yarns of story-telling infused with courage that an aspiring pastry cook may lean on in the hope of a future’s promise.
  • Dessert First, a self-proclaimed San Francisco pastry girl, casted about with its Roasted Fig Gelato with Balsamic Caramel recipe and reeled me in. Casual reading, a visual pleasure and fully fueled pastry creativity.

This is my short list. I follow others for geographic or specific content reasons, or just for the sheer pleasure of reading the posts.

Noticing others’ design ethics and writing styles also helps me to refine my aesthetic voice.

The weightless voice that hangs in the room…

 

There is Definitely a Candy Goddess

I wish to taste the sweetness of life; I wish to have the sugar speak for me…

No historical recipe interests and challenges me more than Cream Candy.

In a previous post I alluded to its lure: provocative in texture with a fineness of interior.  What went unsaid is the utter madness I feel in trying to perfect it… hell, in just trying to execute it… without failure.

Not every failed recipe attempt is my fault, though it feels like it’s my fault. The cream candy recipe I first came in contact with was completely non-standardized. Three ingredients cooked to some nameless temperature, the successful texture of which could only be vaguely described as a blob sinking or swimming in a cup of cold water with some sort of visual appropriateness. No blame on my shoulders here; old recipes had no standardization, and I knew that going in.

It gets so much worse. When I then have the courage to pour the nameless, formless, colorless mass out onto a marble slab or a frozen sheet pan (did I mention without touching or stirring), I stare at it in guarded horror as if it might either take wing or eat a hole through the table. That’s because I know what’s next.

The candy-in-waiting must be pulled and pulled until one moment before my arms fall off. Preferably in cold weather. With zero humidity in the atmosphere. In Portland. There is definitely a Candy Goddess, and she’s laughing her ass off.

At this stage, one of two things happens. Either the pulled candy mixture seizes without the slightest warning which is my most common outcome, or it doesn’t which means I still have at least one more chance to ruin it.  In the confectioner’s playbook, I’m supposed to pull it into strings of similar circumference, then cut it into bite-sized pieces to “cream” overnight. Only once have I gotten that far. It was the time I had first degree burns on my fingertips from picking the hot mixture up too soon, so I was salving my fingers as I congratulated myself.

If the end product weren’t so damned good, so exceptional, so unlike anything else in the marketplace, I’d have long ago dropped it like a prom dress.

Anyway, simplicity does not equal success. Effort does not equal success.  I’ve also noticed that whining and swearing have not yet equaled success.

So, this is a great little recipe to chronicle. I can promise you (and myself) a roller coaster ride, but I’m determined to be crowned Cream Candy Lady. I guess aloe vera can be considered a business expense.

I wish to have the sugar speak for me…

Confection Contemplation

Mt Hood on the horizon wasn’t enough.  I demanded the moon be its companion of scale…

In creating the voice for this new blog, I first needed to convince myself the effort was necessary.  Creating the voice?  Blogging is conversation, yes?  How else would one be conversant if not with her own voice?

Ah, but what about tone, delivery, personality and humor? And how does each of these qualities impact the conversation with one’s chosen audience?

I truly don’t want to over-think this and, in fact I’m not certain I want to think about it at all.  But there is a driver here.  An important opportunity at the beginning of a project to create it in as much detail as I wish.

What else would I wish for?  Poetry.  As either a complement or a contrast to the content of the post .  Or perhaps with no relevance to the post whatsoever.  Weaving a line of story-telling into the growth of a professional skill set.   After all, it’s not an academic blog.  More creative form.  More ease in the writing. 

Well, now that was worthwhile, wasn’t it?

Confectionery Balance Brought Forward

Depositphotos_51227611_sKnowing my interest in quality confectionery of the past, a friend kindly let me page through two cookbooks from the early 20th century belonging to her grandmother.

Excusing the kid in the candy store metaphor, I found three recipes I can’t wait to work with.

Quality pics that truly represent these confections are rare.  Nonetheless, here’s a visual inDepositphotos_51227621_s narrative:

  • Cream Candy. Also, a family recipe of mine. The surprising juxtaposition of a cooked and pulled sugar-and-cream confection that melts in your mouth in a way no other candy does. Exacting to make. Provocative in texture; with a fineness of interior. Vanilla. Maple. Peppermint. Nothing like it in the marketplace.
  • Coconut Squares, Balls. The rich, chewy substance of coconut is refined with glucose and butter. Dipped in bittersweet chocolate. Delectable. The star of a dessert tray.
  • Opera Creams.  A Cincinnati influence is at work here. History says Cincinnati Opera patrons were treated to opera creams before performances. The velvety texture of soft vanilla cream is offset with dark chocolate of very high contrast and quality. It has no equal.

Each is more than worth the time, effort and patience required to refine and perfect. Experimentation in itself is pleasureful… shepherding ingredients into that which they can become.

Opera Creams

(reprinted as written from Lee’s Priceless Recipes, 1895)

Two pounds white sugar, 3/4 pint cow’s cream, boil to a soft ball; set off; add 2 ounces glucose; set on. Stir easy until it commences to boil, then pour out; let get 3/4 cold and stir it until it turns into a cream; then work into it 2 tablespoons vanilla; line a pan with waxed paper, flatten the batch in it, and mark it in squares. Set aside 2 hours to harden.

The [Re] Coronation of the Turtle

Chocolate, caramel, pecans.

The memory of my first chocolate Turtle lingers long.  I was a teenager in an era where neighborhood confectioners were common.  Ice cream parlors of this ilk were confectionery companies, as well.  Often family-owned, multi-generational businesses of quality and longevity.  Marble floors, mirrored walls, two-seat wrought-iron chairs and tables.  To this day, I have the memory of walking past the glass case and spotting those soft, deceivingly nondescript beauties, and can remember clearly the sensuous feel of the candy in my mouth.

Now, the Turtle has high order on the Essential Confection table of re-creation. Essential Confection models and honors great confectioners of the past.

As a new confectionery business owner, I’m attempting to understand the universe into which I’m stepping.  In so doing, I feel a little like the person who stroked the elephant while blind-folded.  Arms outstretched, flailing in the dark, trying to determine what’s in front of me and what it is I’m feeling.  The exercise causes me to recognize 1. how little I know and; 2. that feeling one part of the animal cannot a determination make.

Yet, steps must be taken.  Skills must be refined and perfected.  Courage to tackle the perils must be mustered.

IMG_5989Wearing the hat of the technician, the hat that likely got me headed toward the confectionery business abyss in the first place, I refine recipes until I have products I can confidently present to the world.  The Essential Confection sugar & cream Caramel, the EC salted chocolate, anise, orange, chocolate espresso and cinnamon caramels. Creamy, dreamy and voluptuous. Done.

My desire to inaugurate recipes of the past with a contemporary crown is a core theme of the business.  Helping people restore the memories of that which they loved, and reintegrating those memories into this moment.  The Turtle Trio, chocolate, caramel and pecans, still wins.

Through much experimentation, I’ve discovered techniques to enhance the depth of flavor and texture of each component.  A little chocolate tempering guidance from my Oregon Culinary Institute (OCI) pastry instructor, and confidence in my product is percolating.

What memory do you have that’s tied to a confection of your youth?  Were there chocolate or fruit or citrus candy recipes in your family or neighborhood confectioner, the memory of which still seeds your awareness?  Was the confection attached to holiday celebration? What was most memorable?

Quality.  Simplicity.  Intensity of flavor.  Today’s Essential Cinnamon Turtle can again be restored to its rightful place of sovereignty.

 

 

A Personal Pastry Hierarchy

In my own personal pastry hierarchy one category actually ranks higher than chocolate. Berries.  In-season, eyes closed, hands stained, stuff-them-in-your-mouth berries.

I’d only punish myself if I tried to rank my faves so I won’t, because dessert is the opposite of punishment.  I will say that blueberry pie is one of the grand dames for me, a pie so full of itself in flavor and voluptuousness, that I would fight for the last piece of it.  Cold.  Right out of the refrigerator.  Eaten from the pie plate.  Without a fork.

I mastered the minor art of pie dough many years ago when Martha told me I could do it. Actually, my grandmother influenced this process at a somewhat earlier time as I stood in the kitchen watching her literally sling pie dough around without fear.  A German lady with an unacknowledged French gene, she dominated the Crisco dough as she flipped it into the pie pan, slid in the fruit and sugar and willed it into the oven.  The way I knew she was German was that she always gathered the dough scraps and threw them together to make a little pie she called a Dutcher.  No one else in her family knew that.

Martha held dough court using butter as did Julia before her and, to be honest, her basic pie crust recipe never failed.  As a result, my Pie Lady confidence rose like a buoy.  Deep dish pies. Jam tarts.  I searched out any opportunity to find subtle ways to enhance the single berry flavors I loved.

Fast forward to today.  A pastry cook’s interests merge with her training and the guidance she receives in the professional world, which then evolves into her style as a chef. Promoting simple, deep flavor in every dessert is a driver for me.

So, pies are a simple category of desserts.  They actually require little technical skill to do well, and certainly not the skill set a trained pastry cook possesses.  Yet, pies represent what fundamentally attracts us to dessert: a satisfying taste and a connection to that which sustains us.

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Simply, fruit flavors pop when sweetened and when complemented by certain other flavors.  Raspberry with almond.  Black raspberry with anise.  Blueberry with lemon.

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This is all to say I feel a grounding in the quality of flavors which I wish to communicate to readers and, in the future, guests or customers.

Enough said.

Deep Dish Blueberry Pie (from Martha Stewart’s Pies & Tarts) [my editing]

Pate Brisee for an 11″ double-crusted pie, chilled

3 pints fresh blueberries, washed, drained, sorted [I’ve used 7 cups successfully]

Finely grated zest of 1 large lemon [my addition]

1/3 to 1/2 C sifted AP flour

1 C plus 1 Tbsp granulated sugar

1 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Glaze: 1 egg beaten with 1/2 C heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Roll out half the pastry dough into a circle large enough to fit a 2″ deep 11″ tart pan or deep dish glass pie plate. Line and refrigerate.

Roll out remaining dough to a thickness of 1/8″ and cut out leave shapes using a sharp knife. Make the veins of the leaves by pressing the back of the knife into the leaf. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Mix the blueberries and lemon zest in a large mixing bowl and sprinkle with the flour, 1 C sugar and the butter. Gently toss berries to cover.

Brush the entire pastry crust (edges and bottom) with the egg glaze and pour the blueberries into the shell. Dot the berries with small butter pieces. Decoratively arrange the leaves on top of the fruit [or roll to lattice-work, if you prefer] , covering it almost completely. Brush the leaves with the egg glaze and sprinkle with 1 Tbsp sugar. Bake for 50 min or until the blueberry juices have bubbled and thickened in the middle of the pie. Cool completely on a wire rack.

Pate Brisee

2-1/2 C AP flour

1 tsp salt

1 tsp granulated sugar (optional)

1 C (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1/4 – 1/2 C ice water

Combine flour, salt and sugar in processor. Add butter and process for 10 seconds or until mixture resembles coarse meal.

Add ice water a few drops at a time through the feed tube with machine running just until the dough holds together in a ball, about 30 seconds.

Turn the dough onto a large sheet of plastic wrap, and press the dough into a flat disk. Chill for an hour before rolling.

 

 

Never Miss a Moment of Baking (or Life)

A post on The Vanilla Bean blog reminded me how easy it is to let the mind wander into territory of comfort and repetition, falling away for only a few moments from the project at hand.  Consequences inevitably arise.

The VB author posted about losing momentary focus when baking Chocolate Pots de Creme with Lavender & Sea Salt earlier this month.  It was a recipe she had made many times before and became lax when distracted by other activity.  We’ve all been there.

In a post a few months ago on The Essential Garden blog, I did a best-guess estimate on cooking time for Chocolate Souffle as I only had 3 oz ramekins and not the 8 oz souffle dishes called for in Robert Parks’ recipe that was posted on the Food Network blog.  Although experimentation is frequently necessary, it’s always a roll of the dice to alter cooking time.  The end result was a bit of “fall” when the souffles cooled.  Perhaps a few extra moments of attention in each stage of the recipe (including the baking) might have provided a different result.  The truth is that I know instinctively when I’ve glossed over a step in favor of speed or distraction.

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What I’ve come to realize is that mise en place isn’t just about assembling the requisite utensils and ingredients before starting to cook.  It’s really dedication to a lifestyle that gives weight to being fully present for each activity in our lives, including the prep, execution and completion of cooking.

I wouldn’t want to miss a moment of it.

Never Qualify a Superlative

chocolate chip cookie cartoon

Chocolate isn’t the only thing in the world, but it was already present when the only thing in the world was discovered and it must have overseen the event.

I have the simplicity and intensity genes and they grow in magnitude when I bake.  So many times I wanted a cookie that would astound, delight and cause the recipient of the cookie to fall back into her childhood without knowing why.  Just as this cookie recipe of my dreams likely had its origin in my own past life, I knew there must be some contemporary expression of it.

Continue reading Never Qualify a Superlative

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