September 20, 2009

Belief

When I graduated from the Professional Cooking program at UCLA, I was thrilled to consider applying my refined, as well as newly found, culinary skills. I'd mastered duck and dacquoise. I'd also had a brilliant pistol of a teacher, Cecilia d'Castro. Cecilia worked with Wolfgang Puck in his Ma Maison days and taught us from a "new from old" perspective. Everything comes from French Cooking. And new ideas come brilliantly by relying on old methods but certainly not being bound by them.
Shortly after that graduation, my mom mentioned to a friend (who happened to be the wife of a fabulous chef with his own restaurant) that I'd graduated. No one could have been more happy for and excited about this accomplishment. Mom never really mustered too much exuberance for the kitchen. She loved the idea that I'd connected to this aspect of family history. So on the day she mentioned my accomplishment to Amy, Amy mentioned right back that her husband, Steve, needed a pastry chef and quickly. They were about to open their second restaurant. 
A minor crunch presented: In my romantic mind, I was ready to leave the world of clients and strategies and commercial shoots and trips to New York behind, for the world of batter and finish. Playing in the kitchen sounded a thousand times more wonderful than anything I could imagine. Even First Class on American Airlines with make-your-own-sundaes, silverware and mimosas. I ran into reality though, when I ran the numbers. A pastry chef, especially the I-just-graduated-from-culinary-school type only makes single-digit-an-hour numbers. This is quite different than Advertising Executive money. You can live on Ad Exec money. You can even shop when in New York and drive a late model car. But pastry chef money barely pays the rent, even if you live in a rent-controlled apartment. I ran the numbers over and over and found out that it doesn't really matter how many times you run numbers. Numbers are true to themselves and their order. I fretted. A romantic and perfect dream was about to be pulverized by reality. And then a week or two went by and I struggled with another reality. I loved my strategy, client, collaborate, go-get-‘em world. In the midst, the best reality presented. The chef didn't really need a full-time pastry chef for the new restaurant. He just needed one on Friday and Saturday nights. Really? Really? I could just add this fabulous, wonderful, thing that I loved into my life and stay up 'til way past midnight in the kitchen? I was in. In and ready. I trained with the full-time pastry chef for a month one night a week and picked up her methods for the chocolate ganache, the deep dish chocolate pecan pie, the souffl├ęs. It was more than exciting. I loved the mix of precision and flourish. And I loved, loved, loved being one of the kitchen staff. They were incredible. Individual, hard working and officially chefs. Every last one of them.
As time went on I proved my capacity to follow and perform. The chef sent me off to work for his wonderful younger brother, the Sous Chef who became the Chef de Cuisine at the new restaurant. Life was grand. I worked all week at my agency job and then on the occasional Friday and every Saturday, donned my chef whites and went off to do the joyful work.
In early fall, Chef Steven White, having been acknowledged by the California Restaurant Writers Association, was asked to cook at the James Beard Foundation in New York City. He planned a beautiful dinner with a nod to the essence of French creation including the Beggars Purse and meringues with strawberry coulis. He was taking his brother, Carlos, to assist him and when I noticed I, too, had to join a client in New York that very week, I offered my services. The week, the experience, the picture of cooking with these two talented men in James Beard's kitchen (and Dean and Deluca's basement) is the stuff I dream about. Before, during and after. I stood next to both Steven and Carlos as they were being congratulated for the beautiful dinner and delicious dessert. And I contributed. Prepping and cooking fruit, baking meringues and plating a Pavlova-like dish that was completely beautiful.
The inspiration, that day, was in the Chef's belief in me as a member of his team. He left me for hours in that basement kitchen, prepping. And he coughed out orders to me, just as he did his very experienced brother, as we prepared each plate for the invitees. It didn't really dawn on me that I might be a liability to this man until we were in the crunch of finishing plates. A moment when the best chef can be filled with self-doubt. Rather than wonder if I could cook, I looked into this Chef's face and saw that I was his pastry chef. An assistant of value with work to do. A contributor.
I learned a valuable truth that summer's night: There is great encouragement in belief.


Check out Cecilia's cooking school:

www.academyofculinaryeducation.com

Meringues

I start with this fact. Meringues can be difficult. But, if you know the rules going in, they are can be a simple pleasure.
2 parts sugar (granulated or 1/2 granulated & 1/2 confectioners)
1 part egg white (only egg whites and if this means pressing the whites through a CLEAN fine sieve, do it)
A bit of lemon juice (You can rub this in a bowl. I work in CLEAN glass, it provides the most promise.)

Start with the whites on low with a hand mixer. When the whites are fairly frothy, mix in 1/4 of the sugar, mix to a stiffer state and add the rest of the sugar a little at a time. You'll want to  mix these until they're very stiff. When you think they're ready, test a small amount between your fingers for smoothness. If they aren't smooth, keep beating. When you have smooth, stiff peaks, pipe out the size you wish onto a lined baking sheet. Bake at 225 degrees F for about 30 minutes. If, at that time they are stiff but a bit sticky, turn the oven down to 175 degrees for another 30 minutes and let them finish drying. Humidity in your home will determine drying time. Meringues may be kept, air tight for a couple of weeks.

I love to plate them over a raspberry or strawberry coulis. Made small, they can be cookies. There are many other inspiring methods for serving. Pavlova style. With shaved chocolate and on a plate decorated with syrup. Under or over ice cream. With a flourish of fresh seasonal fruits.

The most important things to remember about meringues are: CLEAN bowl and utensils, you need a little ACID (cream of tartar or lemon juice unless you work in a copper bowl), NOT a speck of egg yolk or any other fat, cook to done and then dry at a low temp.

Here I'll share that practice is the best teacher. I also love consulting the experts like: COOKS ILLUSTRATED - America's Test Kitchen, Julia Child (cream of tartar) or Alton Brown or any of the myriad internet options at your hand.

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