Culinary Bootcamp, Week 12: Spices, Bread, and Bolillo BLOB!

Before the week even began, last week finished with a little baking party at my brother Tarek’s house. I had baked a batarde-shaped loaf (bastard football, as I call it) for his friends not too long ago and we all talked about getting together so everyone could learn about bread-making and how surprisingly easy it is.

There is something romantically nostalgic about baking bread from scratch at home. I can imagine myself in the summer, with the kitchen full of sunshine, tinkling pianos and oldies French music playing in the background, with my hair all tousled and beads of sweat forming on my eyebrow as I knead and work the dough on the wooden counter top. My flowery, frilly half- apron (and probably face, too) would be covered in light dustings of flour and I’d think about how wonderful life is, with flowers in bloom outside my open window, and dough about to turn into something beautiful once in my oven. I would look forward to breaking open a piece of crusty, steaming-hot, pillowy-interior’ed bread, and sprinkling it generously with olive oil and some lovely fresh herbs… then the hyperactive smoke alarm would turn on, repeatedly, and ruin my little daydream. Curses!

Anyway, I really enjoyed teaching about basic formulas for non-enriched breads and basically, the how and why of bread-baking, which is my favorite part of learning about food, after eating it, of course. The science intrigues me, and allows you to play with ideas! Everyone jumped in and got involved with kneading and shaping. It’s not hard to motivate people when the reward for a few minutes of actual work is fresh, piping-hot bread that cost less than $2 to make. Bread takes time, but a good loaf is worth the wait!

Tarek and Maria kneading dough.

Our whole wheat-lemon zest-rosemary flax buns. "Can I make mine look like a butt?" "Mine is a double butt!"

Baguettes. These turned out pretty nicely but I slashed one too diagonally (instead of more vertically) and it resulted in some bulging. Sigh! The good thing about being a perfectionist in culinary school is that you want to do everything well. It takes a lot of practice and you just have to enjoy the learning process without being too hard on yourself.

I smooshed some cloves of roasted garlic into the dough of one of them before rolling it out into a cylinder.

Sun-dried tomato, rosemary, caper and parmesan foccaccia.

If you have bread, there has to be stuff on it, unless you're me because in Point Grey I'm That Girl From Changes Who Eats The Giant Sheets of Foccaccia From Mix Bakery Right Out Of The Bag While Walking Down The Street. Clockwise from top left: Balsamic vinegar with extra-virgin olive oil, roasted garlic, cognac pate from The Butcher, paprika and cayenne cream cheese, and garlic butter.Too much garlic? Nope!

The week began with Middle Eastern cooking. One of our classmates spent a lot of time in Istanbul and Dubai, I have Tunisian background (hey whatever, we’re neighbors of the area), and one of our chefs married into Middle Eastern culture, so we were all excited, like kids on Eid ul-Fitr!

Chef Tony is a history and geography buff. This map was so accurately drawn by hand! he talks with such passion about the history and origins of food, which is fascinating.

I love Middle Eastern, Thai and Indian food because all of them have so many complex flavours. A single bite of a dish can be like a fireworks show. I’m used to cooking with explosive levels of flavour and school has taught me how to walk a tightrope and find great balances between salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and bitter, and has also gotten me to tone down my cooking as well. Not in the way where I would feed some bland, grey-looking mush to someone, but in the way that delicate flavours need slight nuances and subtleties to be appreciated, without being overpowered by another dish component. At home, though, this one goes up to 11.

Zaatar is a flatbread, similar to a pita, that is spread with a paste made from olive oil and zataar spice mix, sprinkled with sumac, that pink stuff, and then baked. This was pleasant! It had some complex flavours working together, and a little grit from the spices, with a musky taste, and a slightly sour aftertaste. It was meant to be pliable, so we could tear it and pick up hummus and baba ghanoush with it.

Taboulleh salad, one of my favorites. Soaked bulghur wheat tossed with green onions, diced tomato, mint, an olive oil- lemon vinaigrette, and 500 bunches of parsley. This is so simple and healthy, I love it! The first time I had it, Mom (my Chinese parent!) made it. She has always tried hard to learn to make food from different cultures, like cous cous, creme caramel, cheesecakes, tzatziki sauce, spanakopitas, and a lot more. She's also a kick-ass baker!

Utter destruction! We were all starving like feral dogs. I thought I had a pic of the hummus and baba ghanoush before we demolished it. Whoops! Hummus is a dip made from chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, tahini, and spices, while BG is a dip made from roasted (to death!) eggplants in place of the chick peas. I made ridiculous amounts of hummus last summer because I had a friend from Lebanon who gave me tips, and a really nice boyfriend who was addicted to the stuff, so there was the opportunity to perfect my consistency and flavours. We followed a recipe in class, but every batch turns out different and we're supposed to adjust, so I just started throwing things in until it felt right. "I hope you guys don't mind if I start freestyling!" This day we learned that cooking the chickpeas yourself and skinning them makes a huge difference!

Next came manti, a dish with tiny, open-faced beef dumplings that were baked in a skillet until crunchy, then covered in chicken stock. When cooked, these are good enough on their own! I could sit on a couch and eat them all day if that wouldn't drive me stir-crazy.

Manti, topped with yogurt-garlic sauce, parsley, and Alleppo pepper, just like most of our other dishes. It tastes good, why mess with it?

Finely mincing lamb for kofte meatballs. I don't remember who started, but someone was chopping with 2 chef's knives, a la Morimoto (and the rest of Japan's top chefs), then everyone else started too, for fun, until you could hear nothing but chopping and laughter. It was like being rock star drummers in the kitchen. I love moments like these.

Baked lamb kofte on pebble bread with sweet and sour tomato confit and yogurt sauce.

"You guys are soft pinchers!" Syrian pancakes, which are tiny ones stuffed with a sweetened ricotta and walnut mixture...

...then dipped in rosewater syrup and rolled in chopped pistachios. I got to make the syrup for everyone, which was fun because it's one of my favorite things to do at home. I'm probably the biggest sugar junkie of this class (who is slowly kicking the habit!), in addition to being the one with crazy hair and the jokes that nobody laughs at.

Preserved pumpkin from Chef Tony and his family. He tells a lot of family food stories and they're very endearing. I love squash and was never a pumpkin person, but this here started to change my mind. The smell of jack-o-lanterns will no longer be a deterrent!

Everyone looking at a posted schedule of the remaining class days. A heaviness permeated the air and still refuses to leave.

I tried to volunteer with the school as much as possible because I know it'll be a heartbreaking transition when it's over. Former students come back to visit often and help out or speak with the class, because it's such a friendly, happy environment to be in. I stuck around for the last Serious Foodies class for the Monday group. It was great!

The Foodies got to take off and fly like little baby birds, too, having a day where they could play with some tapas menu development. They shared a lot of them with us and we called it the Tapa Tornado!

There were extra ingredients, so I got to play with some canapes, too! This is my Mediterranean/Middle Eastern/vegetarian take on bacon-wrapped asparagus: Roasted and pickled red pepper with date-honey-mint-chili-cream cheese, wrapped around grilled asparagus, on top of a grilled baguette with dill mayo, topped off with toasted sesame seeds and pistachio nuts.

"Can I have one yet?" "Wait, I need a photo!" Siavash, a former Foodie and current volunteer, closes in for an inspection.

There was extra cream cheese mix, so I put it into Belgian endive leaves with oven-roasted grape tomatoes and ginger threads.

A pickled salad that I made out of leftover endive and other veggies/herbs, for everyone to have afterward.

Siavash generously and traditionally makes a giant Iranian dinner for the volunteers and teachers on the last day of Foodies. Braised lamb shanks with pickled veg and dill rice with saffron and fava beans. So good!

Simon and Ella, my classmates, made chocolate-passion fruit truffles along with everyone else that night. They were silkily delicious! The next morning I woke up craving one. Or ten.

Middle Eastern cooking continued the next day with Chi kofte, beef and bulgur meatballs that are filled (with fried meat and nuts!) and shaped into an eye, then deep-fried. The key to this dish is to fit as much stuffing into the meatball as possible. Heart-attack and-a-half! FYI, belly-dancing is good for exercise.

Chi kofte in a chicken-rice-yogurt bisque.

Persian date and almond pilaf. There are crunchy sticks of rice vermicelli noodles inside! This is often specially prepared for weddings by grandmas.

Moroccan chicken. The crunchy, spice-rubbed skin was my favourite part. I believe that this was the last cooking demo that Chef Tony gave us. It was bittersweet because we are having a lot of "lasts" at school now!

Quail bestilla, which is braised, shredded quail meat, nut paste, and scrambled eggs folded into phyllo pastry. This is supposed to be breakfast and definitely beats 7-11 burritos!

This week a lot of recipes were made per stove (4 students) instead of per team (2 students), which was so fun! I was happily working alongside 2 former partners, and the classmate who I was meant to be paired with in the first week of class. We had a menu development project to work on for the quail breasts, so we made little appetizers out of them because they’re so tiny. The birds just look so funny and cute, I love making them tap-dance across the cutting board. Yah-ta-ta-TAH!

Pan-seared quail breast with a warm wheat berry salad, hummus, and glazed, roasted beet. I love making sauces and the glaze/basting liquid for this probably had about 15 ingredients.

Chef Christophe owns a catering company named Le Zeste, and sometimes we have the opportunity to volunteer for it. I helped out with serving appetizers and building a cheese plate. We had a lot to fit onto three platters, and if I have a chance to do another one freestyled one day, I'm going to build some funky towers and castles, but noticed while looking at this photo that my cheese was shaped like a heart. Ha ha! Completely subconsciously and unintentionally.

Venison steak with garlic flan, turned potato and carrot, and parsnip chip. Venison is supposed to be served quite rare, but my partner and I were happy that it was a little overdone instead of bleeding everywhere.

This was also the day that I shaved off a tiny chunk of my left index finger and its nail. Our group was making the moules et frites (mussels and fries) that I mentioned in the salad post, and I was hurriedly chopping parsley and obviously didn’t curl my fingers under enough. Parsley is annoying because it boings! out all over the place unless you really reign it in and tuck it in tight, which is where accidents can happen.

This was another autopilot moment where I instantly grabbed paper towels (after half-whispering an irritated F-bomb), and glided over to the chef’s station where band-aids and finger cots were, using the free hand to pick some out and unwrap them. I’m very grateful to have this strange instinct/reaction.

My stovemates were all so sweet and concerned that I actually found it to be comical: We had a sauce on the go with mussels about to go in and I didn’t want them to overcook, or for us to finish late, so I kept saying that I was all right and told them to bring on the fries, so I could at least contribute. I wrapped up the finger but the finger cot started filling up with blood, so there I was, clenching an elevated fist full of paper towels on top of my head, and stirring fries in hot oil and seasoning them with my other hand, while gently batting away calls of “Are you okay? Are you sure? Can I help?” I have to say, it doesn’t feel bad to be fawned over by such lovely people.

I ate a mussel from our giant bowl and didn’t gag or spit it out (victory!), and we didn’t find a teensy piece of my finger lying around anywhere but we did find little crabs inside two mussels and started laughing! I said that maybe the crab wanted to eat the mussel and became trapped, or they were boyfriend and girlfriend who just moved in together with disastrous results.

“I knew we should have picked your place!”

Restaurant day! Another class where we prep mise en place for hours and hustle, hustle, hustle to complete dishes that get called out.

Duxelle (sauteed, chopped mushroom)-filled crepe with a light mornay (cheese) sauce.

Potatoes Anna (giant flowery chip!) with sweetbread and bearnaise sauce. The first time I had sweetbreads was right after watching Zombieland, because I was jokingly in the mood for something that looked like brains. They were all right! If they were next to a great burger on the menu, though, I'm going for the burger. A lot of people didn't like them.

De-boned, stuffed quail in cherry sauce, with snow peas and yam quenelles.We had to roast these by tucking them into little cribs made out of foil. I only ate the breast half, then gave the rest to the Pastry class, sitting up on the plate. It looked like a chubby stick person jumping for joy with its arms in the air.

Chocolate mousse quenelles with toasted almond on an almond lace-orange cookie. We were allowed to make up our own presentation for this dessert, so I picked up the cookies while they were still pliable (like tuiles) and let them harden over 2 rolling pins to have scoops for the mousse to sit in.

I like lace cookies in theory. In theory! They can be beautiful, crunchy, delicate, and light. On the same note, these were a huge pain to deal with because they were sticking to the baking sheet for dear life, and when finally liftable, they would tear apart and separate into tiny, greasy blobs. Even the instructor had a tough time with his. He handed me a silicone baking sheet and our second try went better, as in they didn’t explode upon contact.

One of our classmates gave us her extra cookie dough for it and whew, it worked. I noticed this week that people were working a lot differently. In the beginning, everyone was so concerned with getting things right and making sure that they actually had the stuff that they needed, that a person who was missing something or needed something might not hear a response if they shouted out “does anybody have extra (insert ingredient)?”

Now is very different. There is less waste, and more communication. Often, students offer extra ingredients or arrange to split ingredients ahead of time, or after prepping something, ask if anyone needs it, and shares. This cooperation and progress in the atmosphere is encouraging to be around!

After school, I was called for a baking/movie night. My friend Maria is from Mexico and I enjoy learning about her culture’s food. One thing that she hasn’t been able to find in town are some decent bolillos (boh-LEE-yos), or torta buns. She hunted down a recipe and away we went!

The recipe was huge and challenging, in a funny way! It was supposed to make 20 buns and we didn’t think it was a lot at the time, but really, anything that asks for 7 cups of flour is going to be a hassle if you don’t have a giant mixer. It started off by making a sponge, combining sugar, water, and yeast, then gradually adding a little flour and letting it proof. Tarek didn’t have saran wrap for us to cover it with, so we used a giant metal mixing bowl and I covered it with a damp tea towel. It looked a small and harmless amount, but we were wrong!

An hour later, the sponge had risen to gigantic, jiggly proportions, had stuck to the towel, and was threatening to puff even more and spill out of the bowl! We scraped the towel off, stirred the sponge, and added the rest of the flour gradually, until it formed a stiffer dough that became almost un-stirrable, which is when the recipe instructed to switch to a hand mixer. So we did, but it almost ate the mixer! Back to the wooden spoon we went, taking turns and switching arms, then kneading.

After that, it was left to rise again, and then I was able to split it into 17 even-ish buns, shape them, and then we had to let them rise again! This was a labourious recipe and I’ve never worked with one that used a sponge or had 3 rises.

In my head, the noise that dough makes when rising is a slow "foooooooooooooopf!" I brushed them with egg, sprinkled parmigiano on top of half, then in the oven they went...

...and we thought we finally had everything under control...

…until I smelled something burning and noticed smoke coming out of the oven!

The lower rack of buns was scorching and had to be taken out right away. The rack wasn’t close to the heating elements on the bottom, but I guess they were close enough! We managed to save them, and the top batch turned out picture-perfect, as you can see above. So I spent an evening teaching about bread, and then bread spent an evening schooling me! Ouch!

“Making this bread is like getting attacked by The Blob!” I commented.

At least the tops and interiors of the “less good” ones tasted great. They were dense, yet delicate and spongy inside, and smelled terrific! We all burned our fingers while ripping and eating them with butter and sugar, like Maria did as a child. In my heart, I believe that the best hot foods are the ones you’re willing to get singed by. In the end, Maria brought some home to her parents, who loved them. We were so proud, and I was happy to get their approval for an authentic Mexican food. We should open a bolillo bakery. And have lots of saran wrap and a giant Hobart mixer.

Next at school was another restaurant day! We were allowed to make canapes out of leftovers, so my partner made these focaccia rounds with pepper-jack cheese, roasted red pepper salad, and cilantro. I rolled crepes with duxelle, sour cream, mint, honey, and pepper, then tied them each with a chive.

Salmon rillette with sturgeon caviar, sour cream, avocado, pickled cucumber slices, and sour cream with lobster oil. While hurrying, I thought that it was centered on the plate, but it was actually a little to the left. One of the chefs joked, "Do you shoot a rifle?"

Halibut almandine with turned potatoes, julienned carrot and snow peas.

Crepes suzette. Orangey and syrupy sweet! I was a little disappointed that my alcohol didn't flambée. The flames don't scare me but they're fun to clamp a lid on.

On Saturday, one of our store's clients/adopted family members invited us over for dinner and said I wasn't allowed to bring or cook anything because I work and do too much!

It was nice, but strangely foreign to spend an evening surrounded by food and not get to play with it! This evening was like an early birthday gift from her, in addition to some adorable heart-shaped gifts. I am so lucky to have wonderful people like "Aunt Betty" in my life!

We had cupcakes by candlelight for Earth Hour!

The past week was jam-packed with activity. We’re now in the middle of a week that is about to ramp up with a lot of excellent stuff coming up, so I’m really pumped for the next post. Normally I would type something witty and/or poignant here, but there’s a giant quiz tomorrow that could easily roll me out flat like pastry dough, so it’s time to study.

Eat well!


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