Wednesday, August 29, 2007

16 People and a Chocolate Egg

We started working with chocolate this week, and after the second day, we were given a project to do. We were to pour out half of a chocolate egg and use it to make some sort of chocolate design that would showcase some of the techniques we have learned along the way. It's weird how 16 people working in such close quarters with the same materials can end up with such different designs. Here are a few of the more photogenic ones. There are others that are just as interesting, but didn't come out very well. The boring little duo of chocolate ladybugs is my attempt. I got to temper both white and dark chocolate, learned how to pour a thin mold, handle the shape so there were as few fingerprints as possible, and glue up tiny shapes using heat (the side of a hot pot) and a parchment cone. The leaf is an imprint of a real leaf using decor chocolate, which is melted chocolate and karo syup. To give you an idea, it has the taste and consistency of a tootsie roll.

This one is my's an avocado with a chick hatching out of an egg in the middle, and a chocolate feather left behind by the hen. She made the dome, then glued a flat chocolate base on the bottom. She rolled out yellow and green marzipan and stuck that to the flat surface, then glued a molded chocolate hemisphere on top, and finished with the little marzipan feet. It's quite difficult to glue chocolate and marzipan together, especially with the humidity we have here in the summer. The marzipan tends to shrink and slide off as it gets moist. The feather was amazing. She traced the outline of a real feather and cut it out on a flat sheet of chocolate. Before the chocolate had set fully, she took a dollmaking tool composed of thin wire bristles to literally feather the edges. Cool, huh?

The frame for this cameo was made by pressing a real frame into a bed of cocoa powder, then filling it with tempered chocolate. Once it set, she simply lifted the tablet out of the cocoa powder and was left with this textured finish. The silhouette is cut out of marzipan, and is the result of several different attempts to achieve the proper effect. She had intended to pipe details in with white chocolate, but ran out of time. I think it looks fantastic the way it is...although maybe it would've been more striking if the cameo had been made of white chocolate.

And finally, I had to include this picture even though it's kind of blurry. His spines are made of cut shards of chocolate glued to the egg body, and the head and feet are molded from marzipan. The movement created by all those jagged edges make this design really eyecatching from clear across the room, and once up close, he looks quite lifelike, don't you think?
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Let's call it a new bread shape

My poor bread...this is how it turned out. Instead of a nice, straight loaf, it looks rather like a boxing glove. Oh well, maybe I can pass it off as a new bread form and stick it into the window of my bakery someday, like the French and Italians do. Remember, you saw it here first!At least it tastes good, albeit a little dense and salty...I always forget that Edward Brown (of the Tassajara Bread Book) is a man who likes his salt.

The other good news is that my SO lived up to his word. He had hacked into it before I even arrived home and had already dreamed up grilled cheese sandwiches and PB&Js. I wasn't far behind! With all that density, I'm thinking of warm toast and drizzled honey, or perhaps bruschetta with some of those heirloom tomatoes I saw this weekend.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bits and pieces

Here's a bunch of things I made a while back but forgot blog about. Call it retroactive documentation. Let's see:

That's my maroon dress. It's so simple, I didn't even need a pattern and I was able to hand-sew it. It's made out of some stretchy maroon t-shirt material I got from one of my mom's friends, who owns a factory in Shenzhen. I asked him if I could have some leftover scrap, and he gave me about 10 pounds of it. So far, I've turned it into a halter top, a skirt, some pillow covers, a muu-muu, and this dress. I've still got half of it in my closet. The straps are made from some scraps left over from one of my mother's dress projects.

There's the green hat with some vaguely lacy pattern at the edge. It's a Silk Garden hat from Mimoknits, without the Silk Garden. Kinda looks like a 1920s flapper hat, eh?

Some mittens with removable tops I made for Lana. I heavily modified the fetching fingerless gloves from for Upstate New York. It didn't seem so much like knitting as architecture, trying to figure out how to knit removable tops where you can't see the seam.

And finally, some black fingerless seed stitch gloves I made for myself. I made the pattern up as I went along.

I can post the patterns for the gloves, if anyone's interested.

Seafood Pasta

Now here's something that actually turned out well. Seafood pasta. I'm a bit squeamish about buying seafood at the wet market, so I was happy to find frozen packages of assorted seafood (mostly tentacles) at the local supermarket. This gave me a chance to use some fresh leaves from the basil and thyme plants on my front porch that have so far miraculously survived in spite of my abuse.

Basil, thyme, parsley, garlic, and shallots, fried in lots of olive oil. Add the seafood, some mushrooms, and then some diced tomatoes (you don't want these to get too cooked), and you get a lovely broth to toss with your pasta. Add salt and pepper, a dash of maggi sauce (really!), and a heavy sprinkling of parmesan cheese.

This has turned out to be one of my best dishes. It's kind of hard to find a good pasta in Hong Kong restaurants at a reasonable price. It's either some sugary mush topped with mashed potatoes, bland, or slathered in something strange like XO sauce and cornstarch. And at unreasonable prices you generally get a little mound of pasta in the middle of a very big and empty plate. So now I've figured out how to make this at home, and in large quantities, I'm very happy.

Lump of Chocolate Goo

This lump of chocolate goo was Boyfriend's birthday cake. After all those pictures of MooCow's amazing baked goods, I'm almost embarrassed to put this picture up. (Not embarrassed enough, you're thinking.) But for a lump of chocolate goo, I'd have to say it tasted pretty good.

It was my first attempt at chocolate cake. Unfortunately, though the recipe said to grease the baking tin, the slightly crumbly cake got stuck anyway and fell apart when I tried to pry it out. Maybe I should've put baking paper in the bottom. I stacked it up anyway and drenched (splattered?) it with chocolate sauce made by melting chocolate chips into some whipping cream. My attempts to stick the parts that fell off back on were unsuccessful. As you can very well see.

I took all the leftover crumbs and bits that fell off, dumped them into a tupperware, poured the leftover chocolate sauce on it, left it in the fridge overnight. By morning it had turned to the consistency of fudge brownie. Which we then ate with a spoon. Boyfriend said he liked the crumb-goop better than the actual cake.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Commiting a Bread Sin

It is 10.01 and I am consumed by guilt because I just stuck a loaf of underproofed bread into the oven. Granted, it's only a leeetle underproofed, but the little hole I poked into the dough with my pinky filled in... slowly, surely, stubbornly. The bread will probably come out rather heavy, but my SO said he'd like a heavier bread. I'm not sure he knows what he's getting into.

Why would I commit such an egregious, obvious no-no? Because 10pm is my bedtime now that the alarm goes off at 5am every morning. Last night we had a friend over for dinner, and tonight we went out to dinner with that same friend, who is visiting from out of town. It was a pleasant evening, but unfortunate for my bread. It had been started yesterday and retarded in the fridge for a full 24 hours already, so it couldn't wait another 24 until I got back from school - the yeast would probably have exhausted itself and starved. Such are the realities of working with a living organism. May the bread fairies forgive me and grant me an edible loaf. And may Sandman grant me a good night's sleep.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Moment of Truth

My cake exam was today, and it appears that all the practice paid off. I cut a reasonably even cake layer, although, as you can see, the top was thicker than the bottom.

Looking at the top, the cake was nicely iced with buttercream and evenly hot-knifed so that you can't really see where the knife touched the surface of the cake. The cake is also nice and flat on the top, with straight sides all around, another plus. Points were docked for an uneven buttercream border at the edge, for some mottling of the buttercream on the side of the cake (which you can't see here), for the unambitious lay-on decor (the white cluster of DOES look rather puny, but I had dish duty all this week and it crowded out my regular practice/project time), and for thick chocolate piping. I was aware of that last issue, although with 10 minutes to the buzzer, I decided it would be a better strategy to accept that 1 point loss instead of chancing an overtime penalty. I was 8 minutes late for my first exam and it cost me 8 points off the final grade. At least the cake tasted good though. I got points for that, too.

Yesterday we started working on mousses and bavarians, which are very similar. After a basic introduction and a demonstration of a mousse and a bavarian, we were split into groups and each given a cake to work on. My partner Kell and I got a joconde dot with coffee and hazelnut bavarian in a half-pipe. Translation? A lot of work and careful organization. To start, a joconde is a cake with a pattern baked right into it. A different-colored batter that's about the consistency of brownie batter is laid down first using a stencil, and the contrasting cake batter is gently smoothed out on top in a thin layer. As you can imagine, Silpats are essential here. The example here is what Chef made using a Chinese Basket stencil. "Coincidentally," Kell and I had made an oval-dot joconde the day before, and this was what we had to use it for the walls of our cake. The cake would be constructed inside a metal half-pipe tube, so in order to cut a wall and a base that would fit precisely and not leak bavarian, we had to measure out the circumference and length. We also had to check the volume of the mold so we could guage whether our bavarian recipes would yield enough to fill it. After that, we were given leeway in deciding how to add some crunch, color, etc, to our cake...the little je ne sais quoi that would make it a truly great eating experience. Kell and I decided on crumbled japonaise (almond meringue). That only gives a somewhat chewy crunch, however, and halfway through we decided to toast and finely chop some hazelnuts to mix in with the japonaise layer and give a boost to the hazelnut bavarian at the same time. Our careful measurements paid off - that's me in the picture fitting the sponge cake base onto the finished cake, and it fit perfectly. Even with the joconde already prepared, it took the two of us two hours to get the two bavarians cooked and the cake measured out and assembled; it was truly a project that required careful planning and organization, and we were lucky to work well together. The cake is in the freezer at school and will be unmolded next week, so I'll post pictures of it when we do so. It should be a real sight, what with its black and white polka dot jacket! You can already see a sliver of it there in the foreground.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Wonderful Wide World of Cakes?

We've spent the last two weeks learning how to make and decorate cakes, from the key to making a tall genoise, to a buttercream icing smoothed to an airbrush finish, and perfect chocolate piping.

In the course of these exercises, I have learned something important about myself: I cannot slice in a straight line. Doesn't matter if the occasion calls for a vertical cut (such as a loaf of bread) or a horizontal one (such as a cake layer) - I have no ability to keep my knife at a consistent straight angle. Since we have a cake exam coming up on Thursday, I have been anxiously slicing everything that I can apply my serrated knife to - loaves of bread, eggplants, a savoie sponge cake, boiled eggs, even. Alas, it has been to no avail. I suck.

On the plus side, I'm pretty good at reassembling my butchered cakes so that they are somewhat level, and all my chocolate piping practice has begun to pay off...The words came out pretty well, but the decorative edge is still a little thick.
In an effort get some practice in before the big test day, and in order to make a cake for couple of very special guests this weekend, I decided kill birds with one stone and make a Zugerkirschtorte. What, you may well ask, is a Zugerkirschtorte? It's composed of a sponge soaked in brandy, sandwiched between crunchy almond meringue disks, and the cake is glued together by cherry brandy-flavored (aka kirsch) buttercream. And this is not just any buttercream - this is the real deal, ladies and gentlemen. It's the type made by combining Italian meringue (sugar cooked to softball consistency dribbled into softly beaten eggs) with twice its weight in butter. It's so light and silky, it's like eating a cloud. The cake is decorated with sliced toasted almonds on the sides, and dusted with two layers of confectioner's sugar on top and finished with pistachios and a glaceed cherry. As you'll see I have a plain old cherry on my cake because didn't want to buy a whole bottle glacees, which I detest. Luckily, I managed to cajole the staff at the local health food store to give me two perfect cherries, "Just slip 'em into your bag, quick!" It's amazing what a full shopping basket and blinking eyelashes will do for you!
It may not look like much, but this cake took a week of planning, four trips to the grocery store and about 6 hours of active time total. I had something to do after school every day. The meringue was made on Monday, the sponge cake on Tuesday, the buttercream on Wednesday, the syrup on Thursday, and everything was assembled on Friday. Of course, the cake is lopsided because I couldn't cut the darned sponge straight.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Laminated Doughs

What are they, you ask? It is a family of doughs that include puff pastry, croissants, and danishes (above) - basically the yummy, flaky, buttery marvels that make waking up early in the morning a good thing (good bakeries sell out of these by 10am). While cookbooks make it seem really complicated to make laminated doughs, it's really not. You just need to understand the technique and be patient. There isn't a lot of hands-on time involved, but because the dough needs resting and a thorough chilling between each "turn," (when it's rolled out and folded up), making laminated doughs can take a whole day. That's not too difficult if you're putzing about the house on the weekend anyways, or if you're in a pastry shop - just take out the dough every hour or so, roll it out, fold it back up, wrap it again, and back into the fridge. Easy, right?

Well, take a look at how 14 different people made their puff pastries from the same recipe, using the same 5x5 inch square of dough. This picture was taken two weeks ago, and this week we had to do the same pastry again for our exam. The exact same thing happened - some peoples rose taller, wider, just more jubilantly than others. I guess it's like breadmaking...some people just have the touch.