Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Afternoon of Desserts

By Alexa Magarian

To finally have the opportunity to apply the skills learned in class and present your very own creation to the public is just one more stepping stone towards a rewarding career in the pastry arts. A level 3 pastry class invited guests on a recent afternoon to a special tasting where students designed a menu featuring an array of plated desserts. With the rainy weather, it was the sweetest mid-day break.

The tasting began with an amuse bouche as a way to prepare the palate and introduce the desserts. Guests had a choice of a plum brandy cider or spiced apple cider-both drinks were a huge hit. The whimsical sugar-rimmed glasses opened conversation among guests and perhaps gave them a glimpse of what was to follow.

I saw so many great things on the menu, but unfortunately could only pick one so I went with the white chocolate hazelnut semifreddo. It was everything I want in a dessert: smooth, creamy, and refreshing. I adored the way the raspberry and chocolate sauce was incorporated: perfectly-sized dots in a row, from small to large. This technique seemed to give the whole plate more depth but it was just enough to keep the main dessert in the spotlight.

If I had known that extra desserts would be brought out for guests to share towards the end of the tasting, I wouldn’t have finished my entire plate down to the last crumb! I also sampled the Tiramisu, a favorite of mine, but the espresso granite made it so much more appealing. It was the perfect accompaniment to a traditional dessert, especially when served in the mini chocolate box. The hazelnut crisp cookie, shaped like a spoon, was another charming touch that the guests seemed to enjoy.

The Petite Bomboloni Trio was another popular choice among guests. Brioche doughnuts filled with spiced pumpkin, candied bacon, and chocolate cream, served with a harvest apple butter and caramel sauce-what a perfect treat on a cold and rainy day.

Seeing what the students in level 3 have accomplished makes me excited for the challenges that lay ahead for my class. The desserts they created truly impressed me-each item was so well done and professional. I came to FCI because I love to make pastries, and even though some days are long and hard, I know that bringing people together for dessert and making someone’s day that much sweeter is totally worth it.

Alexa Magarian is a student in the Classic Pastry Arts program. Originally from Boston, she hopes to combine her background in public relations and writing with her love for cooking and baking. Her greatest joy in life is spending time with her family around the kitchen table, eating dinner together. When she is not tempering chocolate and creating desserts in class, she enjoys traveling for inspiration, and meeting people who are just as passionate about food as she is.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Dessert Critique

By Alexa Magarian

Dessert is the culminating point of a meal-it really does make or break an entire experience of dining out. Imagine finishing a mediocre meal: you may throw down your napkin, ask for the check, and run home to vent on Yelp. Or, you reluctantly order dessert and soon find yourself with a smile on your face, sitting in front of a beautiful presentation of something sweet, something perfect to end your day.

In my Pastry Level 2 course we are close to finishing the first unit of plated desserts. We had covered a range of plating techniques, crème brulees, and ice creams, and know that a well-plated dessert always has some kind of sauce and a decorative cookie, like a tuille. My personal favorite was the banana macadamia nut financier. For a recent class assignment, our chef instructor asked us to visit a restaurant of our choice, order a dessert, and critique it.

I went to a popular Japanese dessert bar. The dining area was small and cozy, seating about 30. You can even catch a glimpse of the pastry kitchen in action through a large glass window. Sharing with customers how the food is created always makes the restaurant feel more inviting and intimate.

Tired of ordering something I already know, I picked the most unusual-sounding item from the seasonal menu: pear and cranberry hibiscus agar, yude azuki, matcha shiratama, and kuromitsu ice cream.

The Autumn Anmitsu came in a simple bowl filled with ice cream covered in a red bean paste. The pear and hibiscus agar, in the shapes of tiny cubes, sat along the edge of the ice cream. What initially caught my eye was something small and bright green nestled under the ice cream and agar, which I later learned was a green tea dumpling. A caramel decoration (which we learned to make in class just days before) topped off the dessert. The ice cream had a sort of grainy texture and earthy flavor. Everything else was just very chewy and gelatinous. I personally dislike that kind of texture, especially in desserts, but it’s still important to try something in order to understand it and appreciate how it is incorporated in a unique dish like this. It certainly was not the most mouth-watering dessert I’ve ever had. The presentation was not very enticing for me. But what definitely worked was the color combination: light caramel, maroon, and bright green, colors that certainly highlight autumn, just in a new and unusual way. I can certainly appreciate the unique ingredients and the thought that went into pairing them together. I would love to try this restaurant again, especially for dinner, and perhaps a different dessert.

Alexa Magarian is a student in the Classic Pastry Arts program. Originally from Boston, she hopes to combine her background in public relations and writing with her love for cooking and baking. Her greatest joy in life is spending time with her family around the kitchen table, eating dinner together. When she is not tempering chocolate and creating desserts in class, she enjoys traveling for inspiration, and meeting people who are just as passionate about food as she is.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Hungry & the Hungrier

By Emma DeSantis

3pm sharp: I reach the entrance of the Metropolitan Pavilion for a volunteer opportunity – The City Harvest “Bid Against Hunger” event. I found this volunteer opportunity on the school's student intranet, where there are loads of interesting culinary events to sign up for. Guests have brought tickets for an evening of fine food, drinks, and the opportunity to spend outrageous amounts of money towards items in which proceeds go to help New York City’s hungry.

I approach one of the organizers of the event, tell her my name and she lets me know that I will be helping Sushi Samba for the evening.

“If they’re not there yet you can leave your things by their table and help out in the loading area,” she informs me.

They were not there, which didn’t surprise me as the event wasn’t starting until 5:30pm, when the VIP guests arrived.

I made my way to the loading area and started helping chefs from various restaurants around the city carry their boxes or load them on carts and escort them to their chefs’ tables – back and forth and back again.

I thought to myself how great it is to be surrounded by chefs from incredible New York City restaurants who are so highly regarded and well-established in the industry. Restaurants participating included the likes of Porter House New York, Tribeca Grill, Le Bernardin, Magnolia Bakery, Murray’s Cheese, and The Darby.

It was just less then half an hour until the event and the rush of incoming chefs started dying down. I was starting to wonder if I would have a chef's table to assist.

“Well,” said one of the event coordinators. “If you end up not having someone to volunteer for, you can be a floater.”

“A floater?” I asked.

“Yes, you can just go around offering help to different chefs’ tables. But we also need to make sure you can actually help with something and avoid getting in the way.”

Over two hours of carrying boxes and pushing carts and it looks like all I’m going to be for the evening is an inconvenient floater. Splendid!
Five minutes before the start of the event, Sushi Samba arrived and I was excited and relieved that I had a secure spot for the evening. Setting up took no time at all and the first round of food was ready within 5 minutes, just as the initial guests started trickling in. They served glazed pork belly on a bed of lettuce, topped with frisée salad and hearts of palm, then finished with an olive oil and vinegar mixture and a sprinkling of sea salt. The head chef insisted I try one. Well, twist my arm! The sweetness of the glaze, saltiness of the pork, and tanginess of the toppings worked perfectly together.

I looked around for a mere moment. Is that Eric Ripert and Cesare Casella having a good old chin-wag? Yes, yes, it is! My first ever celebrity chef sighting, yet it’s surprising how non-celebrity and very down-to-earth these guys appear. Just another reason why I love this industry.

We continue the plating—lettuce, pork, frisée, hearts of palm, dressing, salt and so this pattern continued. The bidding begins, with guests paying in the thousands for various food experiences such as cooking classes. The final bid of the evening was a dinner with Le Bernardin executive chef, Eric Ripert, which went for $40,000!

The chef’s table next to us was serving tuna belly tacos with sweet onion salsa, and they were kind enough to give us some to try. This was one of my favorite foods of the night. Throughout the course of the evening I also got to try fluke crudo and some of the best foie gras I have ever had. I would carry a thousand boxes for food this fantastic.

With the bidding completed and the food running low, the evening came to a close.

It was wonderful assisting such a great restaurant that is dedicated to providing fine food, as are all the restaurants and chefs that took part. But more importantly, every person at the Metropolitan Pavilion that evening was not there just for the exquisite foods or their chance to outbid another, but to help feed the hungry of New York City.

Emma is originally from New Zealand and is a Classic Culinary Arts student at The French Culinary Institute. She is inspired by cuisines of different cultures and loves to cook for anyone willing to eat her food.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Change in Food Perception

By Ron Yan

Before coming to culinary school, I considered myself to be an "experienced" foodie, to the point of becoming snobbish, among my circle of friends. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, right? I just have higher expectations to how my food should come out of the kitchen and served in front of me. Aren’t all foodies a little snobbish? I know how most dishes were supposed to taste, to look, to smell, to feel, and to sound by appealing to our five senses. You’re probably wondering about the "sound" sense—have you had Chinese sizzling platters (铁板烧) or teppanyaki? They are supposed to be sizzling when served to you; that same sound you hear every time Hell's Kitchen goes to commercial break.

I've been in school for a month and I noticed that my food perceptions have changed whenever I dine in. I really nitpick at everything on my plate—from the presentation to all the elements on the plate or bowl. Does everything on the plate have a purpose? Do all the ingredients complement each other? My instructor, Chef Phil, says the way to really test a restaurant’s chefs is to order a salad dish and a fish entrée.

For salads, we learned that there are three types—simple, mixed, and composed. A Caesar Salad is a simple salad—one main ingredient that is dressed simply in a dressing. A mixed salad has several ingredients and they are seasoned together, e.g. macédoine de légumes (cooked vegetable salad). A composed salad has a mixture of several ingredients seasoned separately and then presented together on one plate. The classical French salade Niçoise is such an example of a composed salad. When preparing the salad, the salad greens should be healthy, dry, and not be bruised. For the dressing, too many elements can cause it to become overpowering and it may cancel out flavors in the salad. It is important to select ingredients in the salad greens and in the dressing to complement each other. The flavor of the main salad ingredient should be enhanced by the salad dressing, not masked by the dressing.

I had lunch at a well-known hotel in Midtown last week and I had a Manhattan clam chowder soup, a beet and goat cheese salad, and a ham and Swiss sandwich on ciabatta bread. I ordered the beet and goat cheese salad because we had already made it in class so I knew how it was supposed to taste/look/smell/feel. If I had made the salad, I wouldn’t have drowned it in dressing. In school, we learned to take a spoonful and slide it around the edge of a stainless mixing bowl and then toss it with the salad greens. The beets were not tender in the center so that told me that they should have been cooked in the oven a little longer. Also, I would have liked the vinaigrette to be a little less acidic. The sharp tang wasn’t too pleasing. However, I did enjoy the clam chowder and sandwich.

Ron has lived in Beijing, Toronto, Hong Kong, and the state of Texas (Plano and Austin) before coming to The International Culinary Center to study in The French Culinary Institute's Classic Culinary Arts program. He is inspired by the cuisines from different cultures and loves to travel. When Ron is not Yelping or passionately learning new skills and techniques in class, he is updating his food blog, Cooking with Strawberry Tsunami.