Archive for the ‘My Travels’ Category

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King Arthur Flour

May 25, 2011

Last weekend I taught a hands-on baking class at King Arthur Baking Company in Vermont.

Over two days I had 12 students for 10 hours and we had a baking marathon. They learned how to make double strawberry cream tart; white layer cake with chocolate frosting; coffee orange angel food cake; cornmeal thumbprint cookies with raspberry jam; oatmeal almond cookies; brown butter crepes with pears and caramel; lemon pound cake; caramel sauce; a pie crust; and chocolate pudding.

I demonstrated how to make each one, and then they made them on their own; they worked hard but had a blast. When they left with carefully packed bags of their sweet accomplishments we laughed and said they were all going to have bake sales outside their houses the next day.

I enjoy giving hands on classes. People learn more when they do something themselves rather than watch someone else. When you try to repeat it at home it’s hard to remember everything. Demo classes are informative but nothing beats learning by doing.

You have probably seen King Arthur flour in the baking aisle of the grocery store. But it is so much more than that. It’s a Mecca for professional and amateur baking enthusiasts.

Located in Norwich, a quintessential New England town, they have a baking classroom and a bakery with delicious pastries and breads, and a store that sells baking mixes and all the equipment you could ever need or want for baking.

They have a cake flour called Queen Guinevere.  I was glad I traveled with only a carry on suitcase or I would have loaded up a cart and left with much more than I needed.

King Arthur’s goals are to educate, inspire, and to be a baking resource for bakers worldwide. They have written award winning cookbooks, a catalog, blog, and a customer service hot line. The company is 100% employee owned and you can sense it.

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On The Road with Food

January 13, 2011

I am better at packing food than clothes when going on a trip. I have more success getting chocolate sauce safely to a location than a shirt wrinkle free.

For charity events, to publicize my books, or to promote Waterbar or Farallon I frequently cook at out of town events. Food is the priority over clothes as the former makes life easier when I get to my destination. Whatever dish I am cooking on location I try to take some of the ingredients or mise en place with me.  My chef coats and work pants are rolled and stuffed in between food and equipment.

Ziploc bags and vacuum sealers are part of every traveling chef’s kitchen. Tripled sealed apple marmalade or cold caramel sauce will arrive in one piece. The plastic bags take up less room than containers and also keep the weight down. It is easy to get a small suitcase, cooler or Styrofoam lined boxed over the FAA weight limit.

It helps that the air cargo hold is very cold as you can’t use dry ice to protect your stuff. A few cold packs keep everything at the proper temperature. Frozen raspberry sauce doubles as a cold pack and a needed ingredient.

Any container gets over zealously wrapped in duct tape. Once you arrive it is frustrating wrestling it off but it makes you feel better when you are in route that you have taken every precaution that your candied almonds have not sprung loose. Aprons or towels on top of the cooler or box act as buffer. Plus you can use them once to get there. In some kitchens these can be hard to come by.

For knives I take a paring knife, a chef’s knife and a serrated knife. Of course bringing knives means you have to check your bag. No getting through security if you have knives even if you have your chef coat on.

Some kitchens are well equipped and others not so much. Even if you ask ahead you never really know until you get there. I have to be prepared for Plan B and go with what they have for equipment and ingredients. That’s part of the challenge and the fun. In my knife roll I always take an ice cream scoop, a rubber spatula, a whisk, measuring spoons and a set of collapsible measuring cups.

Anything delicate is put in a box and hand carried. I have gotten bewildered stares from TSA agents as they see me with 500 cookies or 350 chocolate truffles. Luckily it can all go through the X-ray machine and they don’t have to clumsily search the boxes with their rubber gloves.

Once I get to a location if I can’t get to the kitchen right away I have been known to empty out the mini bar and fill it full of Meyer lemon curd. If I am in a humid location I crank up the air conditioning so my tuiles stay crisp.

Once you get through the packing part its fun to cook in other kitchens. I always pick up a tip about technique, equipment or a source for an ingredient. On a recent trip I discovered a stronger and cheaper plastic piping bag. On another trip I discovered that pasteurized egg whites in the carton don’t make as stiff meringue as fresh egg whites. I get to meet other cooks, see the desserts they have on their menus and how they have laid out their pastry kitchens.

New kitchens take you out of your box and comfort zone. Just before I leave home I say a prayer to the chef traveling god and bring my recipes in case I need to make anything over when I get there.

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Hot Chocolate European Style

December 10, 2010

I was in Barcelona for a few days and it was chilly so I had ample opportunity to try the hot chocolate. All over Europe hot chocolate is really good but I think the Spaniards make it the best. Perhaps it because I was in Spain but the balance seems just right.

French hot chocolate, of which Angelina’s in Paris is the gold standard from which all others are compared, is like chocolate ganache with just enough milk to make it slide out of a cup without a spoon.  It’s served in small demitasse cups. It does taste amazing but after you have licked the cup clean, you get a huge chocolate rush and you wish you left a little bit in the bottom of the cup. If you are having it first thing in the morning it pushes you over the edge and you need a croissant or a croquet monsieur to counteract the chocolate high. Hard to believe but it can be too much of a good thing.

Most Italian hot chocolate is made with cocoa powder, sugar, and a thickener like cornstarch. The bitter edge of the cocoa powder doesn’t make it too rich and the cornstarch makes it thick like French hot chocolate. Although it may sound strange you can’t taste the cornstarch. Think drinkable chocolate pudding. It is delicious but I want a little more depth of flavor.

Le Pain Quotidien in Belgium serves their hot chocolate in a unique way. When you order a hot chocolate, there or at their locations around the world, you get a small metal pitcher of warm chocolate ganache and a bigger pitcher of steamed milk. You get to mix it to the strength you like it.

Spanish hot chocolate takes ingredients from both French and Italian versions. It uses chocolate like the French but also relies on cornstarch as a thickener like the Italians.

I had hot chocolate at several places. In Barcelona, hot chocolate is served in a machine that keeps it warm and constantly moving so it doesn’t separate. My top three favorites are: La Granja, in the old town section of town on Carrer del Banys Nous; Mauri, the well known pastry shop on La Rambla de Catalyuna; and Cacao Sampaka, owned by Pastry chef Albert Adrià.

Cacao Sampaka, located on Carrer del Consell de Sent, offers two hot chocolates- one with 70% cacao and cinnamon and another 80% with spices. These are sophisticated tastes, great for a mid afternoon snack but the spices were hard to detect. They also have an amazing array of different kinds of chocolate. It is Mecca for chocoholics.

Hot chocolate from Europe could easily pass as a liquid dessert. Unlike the watered down overly sweet American version, you don’t even want the marshmallows or the whipped cream.

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Dulce De Leche

September 9, 2010

I just got back from the source of dulce de leche: Argentina. They serve it everywhere and in everything. On breakfast buffets in the hotels it is translated as “milk candy.” A little much for me in the morning, but if a little spread on your toast gets your day going-why not? 

If a country had a national cookie it would be the alfajor. LAN Airlines offers alfajores on their flights, and they sure beat  peanuts. The alfajor consists of two light shortbread like cookies (but a bit lighter and made with cornstarch) sandwiched together with a dulce de leche filling. There are different flavors of cookies. Some alfajores are rolled in coconut, others dipped in chocolate. You can also find them with a lemon filling instead of dulce de leche. 

At candy kiosks you’ll find at least 12 different brands of alfajores. Oreo even has one but I couldn’t bring myself to try it. Brands vary in taste and quality. Havana has alfajore stores throughout the country, more than 10 in Buenos Aires, and they are the ones you find at the Duty Free Shops when you are trying to spend your last pesos. My favorites are made by the company Cachafaz. 

Dulce de Leche also finds its way into layered cakes (see picture above). The one I tried is actually not really a cake as we know it. It had the flavor of a thin cake and the appearance of a tortilla. The cake is made with egg yolks and flour, no sugar. At bakeries and restaurants I saw anywhere from 5 to 12 layers, each spread with a thin swipe of dulce de leche, and then topped with meringue. When I first saw it I thought it would be too sweet, but it was delicious. 

Even thought dulce de leche is a part of South America’s heritage, my Argentinean friend told me that it didn’t take off in the United States until recently because during World War II  there was a shortage of fresh milk so many Americans had to drink sweetened condensed milk with their coffee. It didn’t catch on until the next generation grew up and  lost the negative association with that flavor. 

Other countries make their own versions of dulce de leche. In Mexico, it is primarily made with goat’s milk and called Cajeta. The French make confiture de lait (milk jam) to spread on  day old baguettes. 

In the United States imported dulce de leche is expensive. It is made by combining and slowly reducing,either in the oven or on top of the stove, sweetened condensed milk or by putting an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk in a pot of simmering water for several hours.  Food scientists frown upon this latter method since the can may explode it if it is not covered properly with water. 

But now that I have tasted the real stuff I won’t be making it much anymore. It isn’t worth my efforts because what I get there is so much better. The flavor is less sweet and more intense with  a beautiful golden brown caramel color. On my next trip I will take an extra suitcase.

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Breakfast Food?

August 5, 2010

I was getting off a plane last week and I could smell the Cinnabons before I got off the gateway and into the terminal. (No, it wasn’t SFO.) Maybe it was the jet fumes wrecking havoc with my brain but they smelled good. It was kind of scary but I had to try one. I knew I would be disappointed but it’s been a couple of decades since I had one and my curiosity got the better of me.  Could that warm cinnamon sugar aroma taste that bad?

My excitement ended quickly. It did taste pretty awful. It was way too sweet and at the same time bland. I got a sugar rush and my teeth hurt after the first bite. It was so big I almost offered to share it with the man and woman in line behind me.

When I got home I looked up the calorie count online and it weighs in at 730 calories. Thank goodness I didn’t finish it. It got me to thinking about what many Americans eat for breakfast. Lots of white flour.

Yes, my world is made of sugar and fat and my desserts are not for the calorie shy. I am not a fat free gal. But my portion sizes aren’t as big and I don’t serve the stuff for breakfast. With a normal amount of daily calories if you eat a Cinnabon for breakfast your fat allotment for the rest of the day is miniscule. 

Perhaps it is not fair of me to pick on the Cinnabon but it is the quintessential example of what is bad about breakfast food. Many people think they are eating healthy if they have a fresh baked pastry or a bowl of low fat but high sugar cereal.  Even if it is made with good organic ingredients and no preservatives a muffin or a scone is still up there calorically. You might as well have a piece of cake for breakfast but that would seem crazy and indulgent.

I am not saying we should never eat blueberry muffins or buttery scones but like all desserts they should be in moderation. Several times a week have whole wheat toast or a multigrain cereal with yogurt.  I am much more apt to stick to better eating habits if I start the day without having too much flour and sugar. Also if breakfast is going to sustain me until lunch I need to add some protein to those carbs. Other cultures eat smoked or pickled fish. As long as you don’t try to pair it with coffee it’s good.

Anything is better than a cinnamon roll that’s practically the size of your head.

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New England Ice Cream

July 9, 2010

I’ve been in New England the last few days and it has been really hot and humid. To compensate I have been eating ice cream every day.

Better yet I haven’t even been making it. I did start to make some to go with the cake I made my nephew for his birthday but the motor blew out on my White Mountain ice cream machine. My husband tried to keep it going with an electric drill but the canister wouldn’t turn fast enough. Fortunately within 5 miles of where I am staying there are 4 old fashioned ice creameries. After dinner we quickly clean the dishes and away we go.

In the Bay Area we are happily spoiled by artisan ice cream shops. They make delicious and interesting ice cream. Each is distinct in its own way. I have my favorite flavors at Birite, Humphrey Slocombe and Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous.

But city ice cream is different from east coast creameries. The flavors aren’t as sophisticated but they are institutions. Many creameries have been around for decades and haven’t changed much. Traditionally they were located at the dairy where the cows were milked. Open only in the warmer months some offer only so-so ice cream but some rank up there with the best. Near me one is designed as the shape of a bucket of ice cream, another like an old fashioned milk can. A third has a piano in the back of a pick-up truck in the parking lot for entertainment while you are waiting in line.

Most offer a wide choice, between 15 and 20 different flavors, some of which are special to the New England area. Besides the basic vanilla, strawberry, coffee, and chocolate you see Black Raspberry (often with chocolate chips), Frozen Pudding (vanilla with candied cherries, candied pineapple and yellow raisins), Grape Nut (yes, it is what you think it is), Mocha Chip, Peppermint, Blueberry, Moose Tracks (Vanilla Ice Cream with Peanut Butter Cups), Ginger and Maple Walnut.

There is some jargon to be aware of when ordering. If you order a milk shake you will get flavored cold milk- no ice cream. You need to order a frappe if you want a thick mixture of ice cream and milk made in a blender. To further add to the confusion a frappe is called a cabinet in Rhode Island.

Scoops are double the size of California. My brother asked how much ice cream was in a double scoop of a waffle cone. The response- “The first is soft ball size, the second tennis ball size.” A small in New England is a medium or large in San Francisco. That’s a lot of ice cream but when its 95 degrees I certainly don’t mind.

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Something About Paris

January 29, 2010

Last week I went to Paris with a friend to celebrate her cancer remission. Not surprisingly we had a fabulous time, tasting, walking, eating, using the Metro, shopping (everything is on sale in January) and tasting some more. We even managed to find time for a couple of museums. January is a super time to go as the city has few tourists and it is easy to get into restaurants and museums. I almost didn’t write about my trip in this blog because there are countless internet posts about Paris.  I am not providing any new information by telling you not to miss Pierre Herme’s macaroons, Patrick Chapon’s Chocolates or Ladurée’s croissants. (Don’t worry I had my share of all these things).

But then I started thinking about the underlying factors in the French culture that make Paris so incredible from my vantage point as an American pastry chef. Parisians have a deep appreciation for the quality of food. They take it seriously but also get an immense amount of pleasure from it. They expect good quality but do not take it for granted. The food is displayed attractively. Shopping is a visual experience. Even in grocery stores it’s not wrapped in plastic wrap with a bar code slapped on top.

The French have a healthy perspective on eating and indulging. The answer isn’t in low fat and/or over doing it. They have dessert and are in shape. They eat small portions. Pastries are expensive in Paris (as is everything) but the expense helps them keep them special.  Like other expensive things they are treasured and savored.  Each sweet is not wolfed down like the bag of cookies you get on sale at the supermarket for $3.99. They make a smaller amount last longer. This trait is commented on and agreed with here in the United States but not many people follow it.

There are an amazingly large number of excellent quality pastry shops. Every neighborhood has at least a couple of good boulangeries and pastry shops. A sizeable population and a dedicated clientele allow French pastry chefs to specialize in a smaller number of items. Many of their selections vary and they do not feel compelled to make everything all year long. At home we are lucky to have several great bakeries in an entire city.

My pastry style is classics with a twist. When I walk the streets of Paris and window shop in the patisseries I get inspired. I don’t even have to eat anything. France has always and continues to do an amazing job at French classic desserts. While French savory food has evolved and changed the basic fundamentals of French pastry are consistently alive and well.  Seeing the Mona Lisa a couple of times is enough for me but I can never get enough of displays of freshly made baba rhums, financiers or apple chaussons. I see these and it gets my mind turning on how I can twist them so they are still recognizable but have just a little bit more. French pastry chefs make twists on the classics but the original is always recognizable. Fauchon’s éclairs and Le Ble Sucre’s apple tarte tatin show how well French pastry chefs combine the new with the old. They are wildly creative but rarely go too far. Everything works.

When I got home there was a phone message from my credit card company asking me to call their automated number to verify some charges. The system was efficient. The “guy” on the phone stated the amount spent and then said if it was a restaurant, bakery, or clothing store. I pressed “1” if it was a legitimate charge and “2” if I wanted more information. I easily verified three charges. On the 4th, it said at a “fast food place”.  I pressed 2 for more information and the voice said “Pierre Herme”. I guess it was fast food as they were efficient and I wasn’t in the shop very long but his work is a long way from American fast food. I will take  French fast food over a McSundae any day.