Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Nate Update: Classic Pastry Arts: Week Six

I'm an evening student in the Classic Pastry Arts program here at FCI. Food and writing are two of my passions in life, and I'm excited to bring you The Nate Update, snapshots from my life in and out of class.

Scalding my new partner’s fingers wasn’t exactly part of my plan as I tackled unit two’s pate a choux theme with a wee bit of gained confidence that was quickly foiled by fumbling hands (mine) dipping choux into superheated caramel that spilled unexpectedly onto a squealing Deborah Valentine. No, that’s not her porn name—she’s an award-winning radio anchor and news director at WGHT Radio in New Jersey who goes by Deborah Schachtel when not hosting her early morning show. She’s also a great class partner with lots of new blisters. Well, for what it’s worth, at least she’s doing radio instead of modeling cheap rings to bored housewives on QVC, so nobody has to look at her bandaged digits.

Before tragedy struck, we were making a St. Honoré cake, hich is named after the patron saint of... pastry! Yes, there’s a patron saint of pastry, one who’s altar is filled with the most fantastically fatty snacks imaginable, or at least it should be. I’m guessing he also possesses such a rotund physique and beefy belly that would make Buddha look like an emaciated Fashion Week model. The completed cake, while quite rich, was divine in small doses.

We made several things with pate a choux dough this week, including éclairs, profiteroles, swans, and dramatic towers of decorated choux called croquembouche (pictured). The choux are held together by dipping them in more hot caramel (what goes around, comes around: I was burned this time!) and placing them on a base that is traditionally a circle of baked pâte brisée.

Pate a choux dough is made by combining bread flour, water, butter, salt, and sugar in a saucepan and cooking it until it becomes quite thick and most of the moisture is removed. The dough is then placed in a mixer and loaded with eggs until a batter is formed that can be easily piped onto baking sheets, yet still maintain its shape. The batter more than doubles in size in hot ovens using the power of steam given off from the moisture in the eggs, remaining water, and butter. The baked shapes, depending on what is being made with them, are often filled with various fillings such as pastry or whipped cream.

Saturday morning marked the end of the pate a choux unit, and that also meant another written and practical exam was waiting for the class when we groggily shuffled in. We all made éclairs as part of the practical portion, filling and coating them with chocolate, coffee and vanilla flavored pastry cream and frosting. Paris Brest was our other assignment for the test. It’s a circular dessert that is named after the bicycle race between Paris and Brest and is supposed to resemble a bicycle tire, with the praline cream filling piped in such a way to look vaguely like spokes. Things are really coming together in class and we all seem to be in a good working rhythm—it was much less nerve-jangling than the first exam, to be sure!

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Nate Update: Classic Pastry Arts: Week Five

I'm an evening student in the Classic Pastry Arts program here at FCI. Food and writing are two of my passions in life, and I'm excited to bring you The Nate Update, snapshots from my life in and out of class.

Nobody knew what to expect out of the first major written and practical exam covering all of the recipes and techniques from the tarts and cookies unit, and so we all spent most of the weekend studying everything that we’ve learned to date in order to prepare for just about any question that might be thrown at us. The written exam turned out to be fairly straightforward in the end, with lots of essay questions on how to make certain staples in pastry such as pastry cream and pate brisée. There were also the standard multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions that dealt with a wide range of techniques, terms and specific recipes.

There was a number written on each test that corresponded to what each student would be baking for the practical exam. I had number four and made a caramel nut tart, quiche Lorraine, and vanilla crescent cookies. There were a total of four different recipe combinations assigned to various students at random and I was certain this would result in a chaotic clamoring about the classroom as we all ran for various ingredients and tools in order to complete the assignment and show it to Chef Cynthia by the end of class for evaluation. And it did... but overall, it went a lot smoother than I thought. Joseph Sardini, my partner for the entire first unit and a father of three boys who lives in New Jersey, made an apple tart, spritz cookies and blueberry clafoutis as part of his practical exam. The evaluation by the chef, which she did individually, was helpful in that she gave constructive tips on things each student could do to improve their baking skills. As soon as she was finished with the last person, it was onto a brand new unit... pâte à choux!

Paris Breast, profiteroles, and éclairs all are made with pâte à choux dough, which consists of bread flour, water, butter, salt, and sugar that is cooked on the stove and then mixed with as many eggs as possible, without becoming runny, before being placed in a piping bag and squeezed into various shapes. The dough more than doubles in size in a hot oven using the power of steam that is derived from the moisture of the eggs, butter, and water. We’ll be spending the next week baking many recipes that use pâte à choux dough, as well as a few other related recipes that rise using similar principles, such as popovers. I'm looking forward to it!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Nate Update: Jerome Chang's Dessert Truck

I'm an evening student in the Classic Pastry Arts program here at FCI. Food and writing are two of my passions in life, and I'm excited to bring you The Nate Update, snapshots from my life in and out of class.

Traffic in midtown can be brutal at any time of day, let alone during lunch or rush hour, and nobody knows this better than Jerome Chang, a 2004 grad from The FCI who started Dessert Truck in late October of 2007. Operating out of a converted delivery truck that’s been pimped out with modern restaurant equipment and repainted with a funky logo, he makes his way through car and people-jumbled streets day after day in search of Manhattan’s version of El Dorado: a legal street parking spot. Even in the most compact of vehicles, it can be a hair-pulling task, but Jerome says that securing a spot with his behemoth-sized hunk of metal and tires is often his most challenging moment of each day, one that often entails circling and waiting for over an hour for a spot to open up, and sometimes giving up altogether.

The Parking Gods were with us the day I rode along with Jerome earlier this week, as we swiftly made our way from the preparation space he rents out in Hell’s Kitchen to his daytime location on 55th and Lexington. I climbed out of the truck to help guide him as he parallel parked with surprising ease into an open spot while lunchtime customers already lined up to load up on sweets.

Parking is just one of the many obstacles Jerome has encountered since starting his successful mobile venture of serving decadent restaurant-style desserts in an unexpected, ice cream truck-like setting. Foul weather and mechanical failures are an unfortunate pair of business-closing obstacles that, while stressful to contend with, at least give him a cherished day off once in a great while that Jerome uses not for rest, but to conjure up sweet new creations, such as the meringue, mousseline, red fruit gelée, and yogurt ice cream that will debut on the menu soon. His popular goat cheesecake with rosemary caramel and fresh blackberries is also making a return to the menu this week.

Even with a slew of good press that came his way shortly after opening up Dessert Truck, past experience as a pastry cook at the famed Le Cirque, and mentoring from Chef Michael Zebrowski, a fellow FCI grad and the Executive Pastry Chef at the Westin Governor Morris in New Jersey, it hasn’t been an easy task for Jerome to introduce high end desserts to the public in this decidedly laid back format. “I think we're just a small part of a movement in this country where people are basically learning to expect more from their food. The whole idea behind our truck and many of the newer gourmet trucks is to make thoughtfully made food more accessible. It seems that in this country, industrially produced food is much too available and fine handmade food much too hard to get.” Jerome went on to comment on the plethora of cupcake establishments saturating the baking industry and how that has altered people’s concepts about American desserts in a potentially negative way and added, “I think that is reflected in what people expect from desserts. For many of them desserts are either pre-packaged cookies and pound cakes, cheap sundaes and Danishes or really fancy plated compositions in high end restaurants. Hopefully, Dessert Truck is helping to bridge the gap between those two extremes.”

From the looks of the consistently long lines that form outside of Dessert Truck’s evening location on 3rd Avenue and St. Mark’s Place, I would have never guessed that the issue of high end dessert acceptance ever existed. I got in line late last night and witnessed a slew of young East Village hipsters eagerly snatching up order after order of molten chocolate cake with olive oil, sea salt, and vanilla ice cream and bread pudding with a choice of vanilla or bacon custard sauce, Jerome’s two best-sellers and staples that remain on the menu year round. But Jerome insists that New York is possibly the only city that could have supported his business model from the outset, yet in that same breath excitedly adds that expansion to other cities is something that he’s frequently weighing and considering, although he remains mum on precisely which cities he's contemplating expanding to.

Growing up in Prairie Village, Kansas (a suburb of Kansas City), Jerome didn’t have many obvious foodie influences to build from in his own immediate family. “I always loved food, but maybe never fully acknowledged my passion for it. It was like something one grows up with but never really notices until they've come back home after a few years in college.” Jerome thinks that, no matter how successful any business becomes, it’s all about teamwork and approaching each new assignment with humility and respect, values he projects regularly upon himself and his current staff of eight employees.

When I asked Jerome where he sees himself in five years, he laughed and replied playfully, “Sitting on a beach somewhere in Mexico, with a small kitchen set up somewhere for creating new recipes.” And with his talent, diligence, and determination, I’m betting he’ll be soaking in the rays there sooner than he thinks. My guess is, though, that he wouldn’t stay there for long—he loves his job too much. And that’s a good thing for fans of Dessert Truck such as myself, who can’t go more than a few days without a shot of the super rich hot chocolate.

Dessert Truck operates Monday - Friday from noon – 3PM on 55th and Lexington Avenue, and daily from 6PM – midnight on St. Mark’s Place and 3rd Avenue. For more information, including what’s currently on the Dessert Truck menu, visit DessertTruck.com.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Nate Update: It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green

I'm an evening student in the Classic Pastry Arts program here at FCI. Food and writing are two of my passions in life, and I'm excited to bring you The Nate Update, snapshots from my life in and out of class.

Each year as Earth Day approaches, I can’t help but think about Joe Raposo’s old song “Bein’ Green,” sung woefully by an identity-challenged Kermit the Frog on Sesame Street in the 1970s, and how modern environmental challenges have morphed the tune into a whole new meaning for me. As I sit here looking at all the stuff surrounding me in my apartment, it’s crazy to think that most of it—the television, computer, movies, my cell phone, and probably even the couch I’m sitting on—will one day find their way into a landfill. Then I think about all of the non-recyclables I regularly toss into the garbage that add up to at least a couple trash bags a week destined for the city dump, and I’m reminded time and time again how very hard it is to be green on even a basic level.

The FCI deals with their recycling and waste materials on a much more environmentally friendly level than many businesses and residences in NYC. It starts by having students and staff separate the materials into their appropriate bins as they’re created in the classroom, and one of the larger receptacles is for compost. A lot of the waste FCI creates is in the form of compostable matter that could include any number of different food scraps such as old pastry dough, egg shells, coffee grounds, banana peels, etc. While my apartment building isn’t currently set up to process compost, which means I have to throw it out, The FCI has enlisted an environmental services company called Action Carting to collect the compost daily. According to Matt Randall, FCI’s Director of Facilities, the school produces over a ton of compost each day, making FCI one of the top composters in NYC! The compost materials are then taken to Action Carting’s facility and allowed to decompose in a controlled environment, eventually producing a high quality topsoil that is sold to farmers, starting the cycle all over again.

Some other green things going on around The FCI campus include the use of water filters as opposed to electric coolers that require energy-sapping cooling tanks, a ‘No Styrofoam’ policy to ensure the almost impossible to break down polystyrene substance is eliminated from the trash bins entirely, and the use of energy-saving compact fluorescent lighting. I was surprised to learn that FCI even recycles its grease! J&R Rendering Company collects used grease from animal and vegetable fat and turns it into biodiesel, a much cleaner burning fuel that can be used in most modern diesel engines.

All of this has me wondering if there’s anything I can do to convince the agency that governs not only my apartment building, but dozens of others around the city, to enlist more earth-friendly waste management companies that could put literally tons of waste each year to much better use? One of the hardest parts of being green is gently trying to persuade others to join in the cause of helping to sustain the delicate balance of our planet, but this Earth Day I’m certainly going to try!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Nate Update: Classic Pastry Arts: Week Four

I'm an evening student in the Classic Pastry Arts program here at FCI. Food and writing are two of my passions in life, and I'm excited to bring you The Nate Update, snapshots from my life in and out of class.

Things started out with a bang in Week 4 as we hailed the arrival of Chocolate Week…which, sadly, turned out to be merely Chocolate Day (I misread the syllabus. But we'll return to chocolate again at several points in the curriculum). One class was more than enough chocolate for me in the end, however, as I wound up devouring an entire chocolate ganache tart by myself while watching American Idol’s “Songs From the Year You Were Born” week late Tuesday evening on a self-pity-soaked couch. One of the contestants popped into this world way, way back in…1992. 1992!! The thought was all too much for me to take, as she warbled Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me Anymore,” that I could have been her daddy. And so I kept eating. We also made a Bavarian chocolate tart in class that, thankfully, didn’t suffer the same gluttonous fate and was instead enjoyed by friends in a (presumably) much more civilized fashion.

Thursday’s caramel theme found us concocting delicious caramel nuts tarts and mini tarte tatin, with pecan bourbon cookies thrown in for good measure. Chef Kir Rodriguez, a former Franciscan monk-turned high school teacher-turned pastry chef (!!), stepped in for Chef Cynthia, who was out in observance of Passover. We had a lot of fun with him, and it was interesting seeing the difference in teaching styles between him and Chef Cynthia and how it changed the rhythm of class. Not surprisingly, Chef Kir gave off oodles of calm energy that must have been leftover from his time at the monastery and helped to balance the nervousness that sometimes pokes through when I’m tackling new recipes.

Linzer tortes and quiche Lorraine were the star subjects in Saturday morning’s class. Chef Cynthia returned and taught us how to make a lattice weave on our tortes. We spent the last hour of class reviewing for our first practical and written exams. Our last test on sanitation (which I ended up passing, by the way!) is regulated by the state and doesn’t affect my overall grade in class, while the practical and written pastry exams do. I’ve been studying for it since the end of class on Saturday and feel okay about the written portion, yet mostly uncertain about the practical exam, which entails making three recipes of Chef Cynthia’s choosing from the repertoire of tarts and cookies we’ve made to date and presenting them for judging by the end of class. It will be interesting to see how it all pans out, and I’m sure I’ll have a lot to report on next week. And not just on the test, as week five also marks the beginning of a new unit—Pâte à Choux, where we’ll dive into making éclairs and profiteroles, among lots of other yummy things. I’m looking forward to it, but first I’ll concentrate on getting through this exam…think good thoughts!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Baking with the Queen of Sheba

We’re getting ready for the April 14 start of Pastry Techniques, the 100-hour intensive class that puts amateur bakers into The FCI’s kitchens. The class covers the essential French pastry doughs that form the basis of so many desserts, plus tarts, custards, mousse, cakes, cookies, sauces, and soufflés (and more). In short, it’s the perfect class for anyone who wants to develop a thorough foundation of pastry techniques and to get hands-on guidance from experienced instructors.

One of our favorite recipes from Pastry Techniques is the Reine de Saba or Queen of Sheba. It’s a decadent cake with an evocative name, first brought to America's culinary consciousness with the publication of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

The Reine de Saba contains good quality chocolate, almonds, and only a little bit of flour, giving it that rich, creamy consistency that makes a chocolate addict’s heart flutter. The FCI’s version is made more decadent and complex with the addition of brandy and amaretto and a simple chocolate glaze.

Please enjoy the following recipe, courtesy of The FCI’s Pastry Arts Department. Visit our web site to learn more about Pastry Techniques.

REINE DE SABA

Ingredients (for two 6-inch cakes)
170 grams bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
170 grams butter
4 egg yolks
150 grams granulated sugar
45 milliliters brandy
15 milliliters amaretto
50 grams almond flour
4 egg whites
30 grams cake flour

Glaze
225 grams semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
165 grams butter
1 tablespoon light corn syrup

Procedure for the Cake:
Butter and flour two 6-inch cake pans and set aside. Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Melt the chocolate and butter in a clean, dry bowl over simmering water. When the chocolate is half-melted, turn off the heat and stir to finish the melting. This prevents the chocolate mixture from being too hot.

Whip the egg yolks and 75 grams of sugar until light and pale (blanchir). Add the liquors slowly, whisking until the mixture to become homogeneous before adding more. Stir in the almond flour.

Prepare a French meringue with the egg whites and the remaining sugar.Fold the chocolate and butter into the egg yolk mixture. Fold the meringue into the chocolate mixture leaving the meringue slightly streaky and start adding the cake flour to prevent overworking the batter.

Fold the batter into a buttered and floured cake pan and bake at 325F for 30 to 40 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean but moist—a few small crumbs may stick to the skewer but it should not be covered with batter.

When the cake comes out of the oven, it is too fragile to be unmolded and should be allowed to cool completely in the refrigerator before removing from the pan. Unmold the cooled cake. If it does not come out of the pan easily, warm it slightly over an open burner and then turn it out onto a cardboard disc.

Procedure for the Glaze:
Combine ingredients for the glaze in a bowl over a bain-marie. Melt and use at body temperature.

Place the cake on a cooling rack and pour the glaze on, starting with the sides and finishing in the middle. The cake should be tilted to let the excess run off quickly—one pass can be made with an offset spatula.

This cake should always be served at room temperature, but stored in the refrigerator or frozen.

The Nate Update: Classic Pastry Arts: Week Three

I'm an evening student in the Classic Pastry Arts program here at FCI. Food and writing are two of my passions in life, and I'm excited to bring you The Nate Update, snapshots from my life in and out of class.

Lemon tarts are one of my all-time favorite desserts in the world. I like them best when they come loaded with a big, puckery punch of lemon curd and not too much sugar to dampen the zing. As luck would have it, this week we made the zippiest and most potent lemon tartlets I’ve ever had, and they were divine! We finished the tartlets with piped meringue in seashell patterns that I’m still getting the hang of piping correctly, and then fired them with pastry torches. I felt my tartlets looked a little too much like the ones I see spinning around in the rotating dessert display at the diner next to my apartment. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

This week we also made an onion tart laced with tomato and Roquefort that was so good it didn’t last 15 minutes at my house and was ravenously devoured by visiting friends. And it was so easy to make that I’ll be adding it into the mix of things I regularly bake around the house. Little jam-filled spritz cookies (pictured at right), French nut tarts and blueberry clafoutis were also on the class baking schedule, making me officially overloaded with treats and the most popular guy amongst my friends since starting school. I’ve already developed delivery routes of eager friends’ abodes where I can chuck the goodies on my way home so that I don’t end up eating them all myself.

It wasn’t all baking this week, as things started out with one final sanitation lecture by Chef Tim that served as a review of all the germs we could possibly pass onto the general public if proper food storage and preparation procedures aren’t followed. This lead to our first big test the following class, which we won’t know the results of for a couple of weeks, unfortunately. While I’m comfortable that I passed the exam (fingers crossed), the 90-question multiple choice test was a real wakeup call that reminded me how very, very long it had been since I’ve been tested on, well, anything. I kind of shudder to admit that my last real exam might have been 15 or more years ago, and that perhaps my attention span can no longer stretch much beyond the 140-character limitations that Twitter has since clawed into my brain. How else to explain that all the little bubbles in the number two pencil-driven test all started to look the same by around question 10 and I had the odd urge to toss the booklet of questions aside and fill in pretty patterns on the scan sheet instead? I didn’t, of course, and I’m sure I passed. I think. (I’ll keep you posted.)

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Nate Update: The Beef About Roquefort

I'm an evening student in the Classic Pastry Arts program here at FCI. Food and writing are two of my passions in life, and I'm excited to bring you The Nate Update, snapshots from my life in and out of class.

In case you haven’t heard by now, there’s a feud that has been brewing for a decade regarding the banned importation of hormone-treated beef into the European Union and Roquefort, the much loved French-made blue cheese that has become the subject of a 300% US tariff set to go into effect on April 23. This sharp increase from the already hefty 100% tariff imposed by the Clinton administration in 1999 will lead to eye-popping prices on some brands of Roquefort that could rise to over $100 a pound and will likely result in a sharp decline in both importation and consumption of the sheep’s milk cheese.

The loss of revenue to the US beef market because of the EU ban totaled an estimated $116.8 million annually, and to make up for the loss the US trade office revised the list of taxed EU goods. Yet strangely, the only thing that was altered was the import tax on Roquefort, which according to the trade office was singled out amongst a host of other imported foods because of its consistently high sales despite the 1999 increase.

The April 23 deadline is actually an extension of the original date of March 23, which was set just days before Bush left office in January. According to the Obama administration, this added 30-day grace period will allow one last chance to open up talks and to hopefully resolve this long-stewing situation before the tripled tariff is officially imposed.

I asked several people, including a few French chefs around The FCI campus, to give their thoughts on the situation, and here’s what they had to say:

Henry Pillsbury, an American expatriate living in Paris for over forty years, thinks there is more to it than just retaliation by the US and suspects that, “America has moral / hygiene problems with the non-pasteurization of French cheeses (Roquefort is notably not pasteurized). So, the 300% levy on Roquefort probably strikes some of our lawmakers as a moral, healthy punch in the right snoot.”

This morning I made my way through hectic FCI kitchens filled with students busily preparing for the lunch rush to get brief impressions from a trio of chefs at FCI:

Chef Henri Viain: “I have a feeling that the EU will just end up taxing or banning something else in retaliation once it passes.”

Chef Pascal Béric: “I think the entire thing is ridiculous, particularly with the economic climate being in such a depressed state.”

Chef Hervé Malivert: “Perhaps the EU should consider banning only hormone-treated beef and accept beef that is organically produced in order to reach a compromise. My thought on the increased import tax is that the US should ban the cheese altogether instead of collecting a profit from the Roquefort that comes into the country.”

I had an exchange this morning on the Roquefort matter with Liz Thorpe, Vice President of Murray’s Cheese, New York’s oldest and most famous cheese shop, who said, "In general we think the imposition of a 300% tariff on some of Europe's most traditional foods is a grave setback for anyone in the US who wants to eat real food. That our government is suggesting this because the EU rejects our beef cattle, with their antibiotics and hormones, makes it that much worse. For us at Murray's Cheese, as an importer, retailer and wholesaler, such a tax necessitates a prohibitively expensive retail price (around $60/pound) if we want to preserve realistic margins. So, with great regret, we will cease importing Roquefort on April 23 should the tariff be official. In the meantime, we've gotten a big order for the week of April 14 and hope it will tide our customers over for a few weeks, at the very least!" Ms. Thorpe has a candid and informative take on the issue that you can read on Murray’s Blog.

Now it’s your turn: What are your thoughts on the unfolding Roquefort drama?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Spring Cooking with Lee Anne Wong


It’s official: Spring is here. And you can feel it in the air in New York City. For a little while at least, the city feels (almost) fresh. Here at The FCI the chefs seem to have an extra bounce in their step—no doubt they’ve got visions of asparagus and strawberries dancing in their heads.

Our own Lee Anne Wong is gearing up for a little spring celebration of her own. On Monday, April 6 she’ll be teaching a Recreational Division class at The International Culinary Center. Click here to sign up.

We spoke to her earlier for a sneak preview.


Tell us more about what you have planned for Monday night.

It’s going to be a small class, an intimate evening of cooking and eating together. It’ll be fun and delicious and focused on spring flavors and vegetables. What I really like about the menu is that it’s healthy. It’s fresh food cooked with very little fat. With the exception of the goat cheese and rhubarb crêpes—we’re not going that healthy. [laughter]

You teach regularly here and design your own classes. What’s the inspiration behind this one?
I just love this time of year. It’s been a long, hard winter, and now we get to see everything turn green. I love chili and short ribs and all of those slow-cooked winter dishes. But there’s nothing like peas and fava beans and rhubarb—those fresh flavors you can only get during spring.

What else are you excited about?

I’m going to show everyone a handy short cut for making ravioli. You’ll be able to cook up a quick and easy vegetable pasta dish at home.

So back to those crepes...

People are often intimidated by crêpes, but they really are easy and versatile. I’m going to show the class how to make a basic batter and how to properly cook and form them. We’ll talk about different ways to use them in other recipes, too. But for this class, we’ll fill them with sweetened goat cheese and serve them with a rhubarb vanilla sauce.

Cooking with Lee Anne Wong runs on April 6 from 6-10pm at The International Culinary Center. After three hours of hands-on instruction and cooking, the class will sit down together to enjoy a meal of vegetable ravioli, fish en papillote, and goat cheese and rhubarb crêpes with wine - $195.