Culinary Bootcamp, Week 4: High Cakes and Low Points

Right before school started, I comically kissed my hands goodbye, knowing that they would either freak out from chemicals/drying out, get covered in burns, blisters, cuts, scrapes, or all of the above. I finally have a few cuts, including shaving off a tiny chunk of my left index fingernail (demonstrating the importance of curling your fingers under when cutting stuff!) from slicing up a sage leaf, nicking open my left-middle-finger’s top knuckle on my toolbox when trying to take it out of my locker, and my hands basically drying up and cracking open. I better moisturize at night.

After Foodsafe last week, a few of the pastry students were trying to give us pies to take home. They actually had trouble giving them away. What about a bake sale? They could clean up nicely. I didn’t end up taking any, but thought one was particularly cool…

It looks like I'm not the only geek in school...Pac-Man pie is hilarious and I have no idea whose this is! Wish I'd thought of that sooner!

This week we used piping bags to make profiteroles and eventually some mashed potatoes. One of the chefs said that it’s pretty shocking how many people (everywhere, I suppose) have no idea how to use them. I love using one at home for all kinds of wacky things, and love playing with soft-serve ice cream machines to make swirly pretty things, so this was pretty easy peasy.

This is definitely not a phone ad, because I hate my phone. The little profiteroles that we made, sitting in crème anglaise, on the day that the camera was forgotten at home.

I have a habit of wandering up to things in school and leaning in to take a giant sniff of whatever is in a weird container or giant pot. It's the only way you'll familiarize! I'm quite familiar with poached pears already, but wanted to say hello.

I like to stick my head into giant pots or strange containers and take a big sniff to get familiar. I know poached pears very well, but wanted to say hello.

Turning the crème anglaise into ice cream...the little vanilla seed dots everywhere are my favorite part!

My station partner and I were finishing up cleaning duties and came back to complete an elaborate dessert, to find our counters cleared off, with a bowl of creamy goo sitting in it next to our desserts, so we rushed to fill little puff-pastry bowls with what we thought was pastry cream (crème patissière), only to realize after that it was, in fact, raw tuile cookie batter (our stove partners accidentally left out the wrong bowl for us). I was really choked about it, because even after scraping it out, there was raw egg in my dessert, so I couldn’t eat it (I get ill at the drop of a hat), and 2 days of work was pretty much ruined.

I was angry at myself for not checking what was in the bowl first and trusting my instincts: When I picked up the spoon, I thought “That’s a little runny…weird…” but continued anyway. The teachers were nice about it and said that mistakes happen when we’re here to learn (and added that I am too hard on myself), but I felt that if this were a catering function and we made 500 of these things without checking first, we would have had to trash them all, or would have risked poisoning a lot of people before actually finding out what the bleep happened. Of all the freaking bowls that I didn’t smell! Hopefully that’s one experience that we’ll all learn enough from so that it’ll never happen again.

Red wine poached pear with hazelnut tuile, crème patissière, puff pastry vol au vent, vanilla ice cream, and crème anglaise. At least it looks great!

Ashley saw that I was pretty upset (almost in tears!) and gave me a piece of gluten-free chocolate banana bread. She is such a darling. I felt a lot better when I got home and ate it.


Pastry, baking, and sugary carb-iness continued for another day. Butter and flour are YUM, but we’ve been using a lot of it for a month now and I’m feeling kind of sluggish! We had to pack a lunch for 2 of these pastry days and I was excited to bring on the vegetables and whole grains. I have been known to shove an entire slice of cake into my mouth, though. Chocolate doesn’t count.

Some ridiculously good, silky, truffle-like chocolate cake from the pastry class, and my morning glory muffins, blueberry-lemon-basil scones, and chocolate chip-oat-peanut butter cookies.

The next day we made a genoise sponge that took almost the entire day. I love baking so this was a pretty easy process for me. Some of my favorite days are when we make something that has to have a “ready…GO!!” like stir-frying, arranging canapés, or in this case, whipping eggs with Kitchen-Aid stand mixers that we stole from the pastry department.

"Have you had one of these before?" "I don't know...I eat a lot of cake..." It turns out that I actually HAVE had this cake, or something similar before, many times, when I pick up a "sponge cake" or "cup cake" in a paper wrapper from T&T Supermarket/some random Chinese bakery. Mmmm!

Our goal was to get this delicate, eggy-foamy cake to climb climb climb and become nice and tall. I grew up drooling over dessert recipe books and today love to decorate luscious cakes, doodle on food with goofy writing, make things look fluffy and pillowy, just generally create treats that look cozy and inviting that you would want to take a nap on if they were life-sized.

The first of what is hopefully many cakes on this blog. They don't all have to say the name on it, though!

We learned about chocolate afterward, watching a video with the lights dimmed, and sat down with our crème brulées. That was kind of a bad idea because we were all sugared-out and it looked like many of us were about to take a nap. The only person who looked excited for dessert was Ashley, because she couldn’t touch any of the ones we had been making! This sugar tasted like a hint of irony.

I have a rule about crème brulée: Eat it whenever it's on a menu! This was the most I could get get down, which was too bad because we managed to make ours smooth and creamy.

Yesterday we tackled both lamb and oysters. Not in the physical sense; that would be weird. I was actually dreading oyster day. I don’t like smelly things, sea-watery things, goopy things, squishy things, slurping things down, or killing things, and this involves all of the above. I committed to at least trying them, at least knowing that they would be prepared deliciously.

The music from JAWS plays in my head when I look at these.

I had some trouble shucking the oysters. Many of them had really thick shells with a lot of awkward calcification mass around the hinge you’re supposed to crack open. The fact that I didn’t want to kill them because I didn’t even really want to eat them probably didn’t help. Once you start trying to crack open the shell, the oysters clamp shut even tighter, and then you have to work harder if you’re not already in, and then slice off their muscle that helps them keep shut. To me, that’s like trying to kick someone’s door in, while they’re trying to barricade it from the inside, and then cutting their arm off. They don’t actually die until you cook them (we boiled them to death in hot oil after breading them) or eat them, in which case, I don’t know, maybe your stomach acid kills them because you don’t chew. For some reason this is supposed to be sexy and resemble a vajay. To me, it looks wiggly and grey-white-speckly, like Predator. This aphrodisiac is totally lost on me.

Breaded oysters with carrot brunoise, beet emulsion, radish-cucumber-cilantro salad, and green onion curls.

I did try a bite of one, to see what all the hubbub is all about, because at least it would be prepared in a high-quality and safe way. It tasted like a chicken nugget that was made with all dark meat. My station partner found a blob of khaki green paste inside of the piece he bit.

“Is this poop?” he asked, showing it to the rest of us at the table.
“Oh, definitely.” replied our stove partner.

That was it! I tried something that was outside of my comfort zone but for sure draw the line at poop. I let everyone at the table have the rest of mine, and went to go swish my mouth out with some water. I tried lobster and foie gras last December and didn’t like them either. Maybe I have an aversion to shi-shi foods.

“How can you not like lobster?!” one of my classmates asked.

I just don’t. Some people don’t like chocolate, and it’s one of my favorites. There are people who eat bees and glass and rocks, so not everyone has to like the same things. My friend Chris told me that he thinks oysters lack pain receptors, so I don’t have to feel bad about shucking them, but I jokingly suspect that he’s trying to get me to practice so he can chow down. I did offer to cook anytime…

Provençal-crusted lamb chops with potatoes duchesse, ratatouille rilette, and vinaigrette with feta cheese, kalamata olives, lemon juice, and fresh herbs.

We moved on to working with lamb, which I loved. Mediterranean flavours are comforting to me because I grew up with it, plus they’re so bold and fresh. Ka-POW!!

Later I met up with my friends/family Jackie Sunshine (not her real name) and Betty Gunn (yes, her real name, and I’m so jealous) to cook a fabulous dinner for them, and try to get them to eat the genoise cake. I live alone and we had been choking down bakeshop goodies all week in class. Jackie is part Italian and hated polenta, so I was set on making a dish that would change her mind, and threw everything from the pantry into it: Capers, sun dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, onions, garlic, red peppers, parmigiano, lemon zest and juice, the list goes on. Success!

I was roasting a chicken that had garlic stuffed under the skin, and was rubbed with oil and herbs, but the damn thing wouldn’t cook through, even though proper cooking times/temps were followed! Checking repeatedly made my glasses fog up every time. At least we got a laugh out of it!

Steamed-up glasses are for sassy women.

The chicken that wouldn't cook!!

I ended up getting some more practice at cutting the chicken into pieces, to get it heated through evenly. Grr!! I was so worried about drying the bird up, but it turned out moist and tender because we basted it.

Today the meat and fat trimmings from our lamb cuts yesterday, were ground up and turned into merguez sausage filling. Chef Tony made a Tunisian spice rub and let it sit on the meat overnight. My dad is Tunisian, and I always get a little excited whenever someone mentions it, because nobody ever knows anything about the country unless they’re a huge fan of soccer or Star Wars. It’s like when Jon Stewart makes fun of Canada on The Daily Show: “Oooh, yay, someone’s talking about us!”

The meat was stuffed into calamari (not the rings, the actual squid) and braised. We were all standing close to the demo station to see how to take the squid apart, and I got to fill a couple of them, which was fun. I love to jump in and work or figure out/practice things that intimidate me. It’s the only way you can vary your skills. Raw squid are goopy and slimy and grey and speckle-y and nasty and look even more like Predator than oysters do, but for some reason I wasn’t squeamish about them at all. Just carried them back to the cutting board and pulled, sliced and peeled away.

Merguez-stuffed calamari with tomatoes in a lamb stock reduction.

We had to be careful not to stuff the calamari too full or else the steam inside would make them explode. I’m down with regular squid. Exploding squid or giant squid wrapped around submarines (à la 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea), though, not so much.

Yup, that worked. I love tentacles because they fan out and make jazz hands.

We hadn’t done any rolling-type buns or cakes (like jelly rolls) and so today we also made pecan sticky buns. The process was really fun, because it was pretty much like making cinnamon buns that you get to flip over, sort of like how crème caramel is a reversed crème brulée.

Just when we thought we were safe...

Next week is charcuterie. By no means am I a vegetarian, but I do get kind of squeamish sometimes when dealing with raw meat. It’s something that I knew would have to be dealt with, and so far I’ve been pretty gung-ho and have actually been doing a good job.

When Betty and I went to pick up the chicken, she was asking about how to pick good quality cuts of meat, so I showed her good and less-than-good examples of what to look for. The amount of knowledge that I’m actually retaining surprises me any time somebody asks me a food-related question. Volunteering to coach some Serious Foodies was a lot of fun. At work, it’s our job to host the party and make people feel welcome as we teach them, whether it’s about their body shape, clothing resale value, or wardrobe building, so this was a walk in the park, and an enjoyable one at that. Chris and his girlfriend happened to be passing by the school for some reason that night and saw me in the kitchen. They even banged on the windows (hah!) but we didn’t hear.

Looking forward to another week of challenges and learning! And if you’re one of my classmates who is now a reader, thanks for popping in!

Eat well!


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