Monday, August 27, 2007

Getting over humps

Madeleines are hard to resist. These shell-shaped cakey cookies are best enjoyed with a cup of tea, as Marcel Proust did, and if possible, in Paris. The next best thing is baking them yourself and trying not to eat them all before your husband comes home. Although traditionalists may cringe, I used my silicone molds with no complaints. My only disappointment was that I could not achieve the distinctive hump which protrudes from the non-shell madeleine underside. In my post-baking research, I discovered that Alain Ducasse bakes his madeleines first at 410 degrees Fahrenheit until the edges have risen but the centre remains sunken, at which time the oven is shut off as the hump forms over 2-3 minutes. The oven is then reset to 375 degrees Fahrenheit until the madeleines are done. Let the experimentation begin.

Meanwhile, September is frighteningly close and will mark one year since I officially entered the pastry domain. Over the past year, I have learned the meaning of wanting to go to work in the morning and loving what I do. It was always this elusive feeling which I never understood but intensely craved. I have also slowly learned not to be defined by my work, which was a trap I fell into many years ago. Although I still have mild intermittent angst surrounding my decision to leave ophthalmology (especially when my medical and pastry worlds collide), there is no question that I am a more well-adjusted person today than I have ever been.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The meaning of field to plate: three experiences

Chefs to the Field, Terra Nova Rural Park, Richmond BC. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Richmond, is Terra Nova Rural Park, home to wildlife areas, trails, heritage buildings, and a very beautifully cared for community garden which was the site of this year's Chefs to the Field event. Although the food was my first motivation to attend, the most enjoyable aspect of my visit was wandering through the expansive vegetable patches and flower beds with fork and plate in hand. My favourite food item was a succulent pseudo-pulled pork sandwich (which was not pork but instead vegetarian) offered by the charismatic Chef Tony Minichiello from NWCAV.

This celebration of local organic cuisine also included a black-box competition involving the harvest of ingredients directly from the community garden. To see twenty chefs in their white jackets picking the freshest possible greens and vegetables was a tangible expression of the seed to table philosophy which fuels organizations like the Terra Nova Schoolyard Project, run by the equally charismatic Chef Ian Lai.

My dad's garden. Although my thumbs are only a pale shade of green, my dad has always been the most prolific and attentive amateur vegetable farmer I know. My earliest memories involve summer afternoons picking cherry tomatoes, digging up potatoes, giggling at odd shaped carrots, and wondering how compost was magically made. Because of age, he has slowed down in recent years but his crops still include asparagus, beans, beets, blueberries, carrots, chives, corn, cucumbers, gai-lan plus other chinese greens, green onion, numerous varieties of lettuce, peas, potatoes, radishes, several varieties of squash, many varieties of tomatoes, watercress, and zucchini. The most unusual item he attempted to grow one year was cantaloupe; needless to say, the climate here is not ideal for cantaloupe and only one golfball sized melon was harvested!

Westham Island Herb Farm, Ladner BC. Today, my friend Michelle and I shared a lovely afternoon exploring this quaint local farm located on Westham Island which sits at the mouth of the Fraser River. I bought a bag of potatoes, green beans, onion, garlic, and blueberries. Buying produce direct from the farmer is a unique experience and as an urban dweller, a somewhat rare opportunity. Undoubtedly, it is easier (but not necessarily cheaper) to stop by your neighbourhood supermarket to pick up produce which was grown on a different continent. Making the effort to seek out local producers is the challenge and luckily, it is becoming not only more available, but also more appealing to do so, especially when the local summer harvest is so abundant and irresistible!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Churn baby churn

Even though I recently discovered that I was lactose-intolerant, ice cream is and always will be one of my favourite foods. Having 300 ml of leftover cream and an unsightly mass of untempered dark chocolate remaining from last weekend's entremet project, chocolate ice cream was the obvious final destination for these ingredients.

Given a choice, however, my frozen churned dessert preference would definitely be a fruity sorbetto. I do tend to be a creature of habit and throughout our trip to Italy in 2006, my recitation of "fragola, limone, caffe" as my standard trio of gelato flavours did become a little tiresome for my more adventurous husband.

Also, for all the food lovers in and around Vancouver, I hope to see you at the Chefs to the Field event this Sunday, August 19th from 11 am to 4 pm. This charity event will benefit a very deserving organization, the Terra Nova Schoolyard Society, which is headed by Chef Ian Lai who I know from NWCAV.

Monday, August 6, 2007

A tale of two entremets

This week, I produced two entremets as a favour for my mom's friend who was hosting a dinner party. It was a chance to test my new KitchenAid stand mixer as well as to exercise my creativity muscle. The experience made me recognize how little space I have in my freezer and how important it is to taste everything that you make.

The first entremet was a repeat of one I created for my plated dessert assignment during my Pan Pacific practicum, except a strawberry gelée was used instead of raspberry. This gave me an opportunity to use a beautifully simple row of strawberries to garnish this entremet, with a touch of chocolate for movement.

The second entremet was composed of mango passionfruit mousse, pistachio coconut joconde sponge, some fresh mango, and coconut basil bavaroise. Having an abundance of basil currently in my patio herb garden, I was very excited about combining coconut with basil. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to underestimate the intensity of herbs and decided to add 5 grams of basil instead of 2 grams, resulting in overpowering basil flavour. The same thing happened during my pastry school final black-box exam when I underestimated the power of thyme in an apple-cranberry compote. When will I ever learn my lesson?

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Countertop eye candy

I did it. I splurged. After over a decade of coveting KitchenAid stand mixers, I finally invested in this Professional 600 series 6-quart stand mixer (pearl metallic finish). My perspective on these countertop appliances has changed over the years. Initially, as an amateur baking enthusiast, my motivation to own one was purely based on glossy photo spreads featuring modern kitchen decor which always included a stand mixer atop a spotless countertop. The frugal shopper in me, however, could never justify the expense and plus, I could never decide on a colour.

Later, as a pastry student, my teacher Chef Marco was a purist, rarely allowing the use of stand mixers in class unless absolutely necessary. My right bicep became fairly toned from repeated whisking of all meringues and whip cream during school. I was convinced that I would refrain from ever owning a stand mixer because I wanted to be true to the techniques I learned at school. Yet, after working in real pastry kitchens, the invaluable role of the stand mixer is clear to me. Not only does it allow one to multi-task, but also, it allows the safe execution of italian meringues and other techniques which require pouring very hot cooked sugar into whipping egg components.

And so, the newest member of my home kitchen sits proudly on my countertop, already baptized by helping produce pistachio-coconut joconde sponge and mango-passionfruit mousse. Even though I use one almost every day at work, I still can not stop staring at my shiny new stand mixer, knowing it will be part of many future pastry adventures to come!