The Making of a Menu Tasting

 Saturday, October 27, 2012

For any of of you who noticed I haven't posted in a while, my apologies. It was a super busy week, and I'm really excited to share the details of it. My boss Mallory, the executive pastry chef, decided last week that she would not be returning to the restaurant after her maternity leave. I am really sad to see Mallory go - we had a lot of fun working together and she's the one who pulled me into this crazy restaurant opening. I'm so happy for her and her husband Joe though that they'll be welcoming baby Grace really shortly.

So many lists
6 new ice cream bases alone
I was planning on covering as pastry chef during Mal's maternity leave, but with the position now open, I was asked to put together a menu tasting for Chef Marc (as in, the Iron Chef ) in order to "try out" for the job. Menu tastings are standard in the industry, and I've done a couple before, but this one was way more intense. First of all, instead of just a couple items, I would be presenting an entire menu, and second, I only had a week to put it together. Pastry is complicated. For every dessert, there might be 5-8 components to the plate. Sauces, garnishes, ice creams, etc. For six desserts, I needed to make 30 different items. I made list upon list and was beyond organized and prepared. And then on last Monday, our corporate chef, Chris, called me to ask if it would be possible to do my tasting three days earlier than it was supposed to be... In New York. American Cut is down in Atlantic City, so this would entail packing up all my stuff and driving it up to the city (no joke, the driving was probably the most daunting aspect. I'm a city girl through and through and this is the first time in the past 10 years almost that I've had to have a car). Working in a kitchen, you learn to roll with the punches, so I said sure no prob and immediately reworked all my lists.

Candy Bar Cake
Caramel Apple Tarts & Chocolate Bread Pudding
The day before the tasting, I packed up all of my baking, put my ice creams on dry ice, and carefully loaded everything into my car.  I drove up to my parents house, spent the night there and finished some last minute baking the next morning. Everything got reloaded into my car, and I was NYC-bound. Driving into the city went smoothly, surprisingly, and I was at the restaurant in no time, unpacking car and setting up for the tasting. Presentation was supposed to start at 4:30 pm, and at 4:27 pm, I walked upstairs (the prep kitchen is in the basement) to find the restaurant filled with smoke. Turns out there was a little fire. It was quickly put out, but the restaurant definitely got a little chaotic for a while. The way I tell the story, Chef Marc pulled a pan of FIRE out of the oven with his bare hands. Okay, so maybe he used side towels, but still, impressive. A Kind of crazy. Tasting was pushed back, and I sort of just awkwardly and nervously waited in the basement kitchen. About an hour and a half later, we finally got started, and the presentation itself is sort of a blur. That's when I stopped taking pictures; you'll have to use your imagination.

Plating Diagrams
I presented one dish at a time, dropping one off and immediately starting to plate the next. Poor Chef Marc - this tasting contained probably a week's worth of sugar crammed into 40 minutes. Even I would have a hard time digesting that much dessert, and I eat cookie dough for breakfast. Like five times a week, at least. After what felt like the longest day ever, it was over, and I headed downstairs to clean up, get changed, and wait for feedback.

A quick note on Chef Marc... He is pretty much the nicest person I've ever worked for. I'm not just saying that because he's my boss and can potentially be reading this blog (if that's the case, Hey Chef!), but because it's genuinely true. He cares about people in a way that is rare in this industry, and is really invested in the people who work for him. Anyway, so he and I sit down to review the menu tasting, and he had really positive things to say and also some very helpful comments.

In the end, the tasting went really well, and I was offered the opportunity to try out the position. We're going to do a four week trial period, and assuming the transition goes smoothly, it will be made official after the month. I'm already a week into it, and everything's been great so far - new menu items debuting, smooth services, and a great exchange of ideas between me and my team.

Honestly, I probably can't even explain how excited and happy this all has made me. This is a goal I've worked extraordinarily hard for over the past few years, and it's incredibly rewarding to see all of that effort come to fruition. There were so many times over the course of this where I could have doubted why I was pursuing this career (and I believe many of my friends & family did after seeing me give up my nights, weekends, holidays, and comfortable paychecks, just to name a few things). Even when it was incredibly trying - working three side jobs just to supplement my measly cook's income in NYC - I remained focused and dedicated, and it feels so, so good to have that manifest into something great. I am so excited about what lies ahead.
Out celebrating with Marc's corporate chefs, Phet & Chris


This Week in Pictures

 Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The past two posts didn't have any pictures so I figured this post would be all photos from the past week. This week was jam-packed.

Giant Carrots
Caramel Popcorn
My workstation, a big mess

Baby Shower Cake

Not breakfast, just ingredients for new recipes
So many new ice cream recipes


A Pastry Career Lowlight

 Tuesday, October 9, 2012

So, this is going to be another post without pictures of things you can eat. I really apologize about that. But it's an important story (okay, maybe only to me), and I think a little enlightening to what life is like in a kitchen.

There's two components to working in pastry at a restaurant: production and service. Production is the actual baking, and generally the more fun part, while service is the actual plating of the desserts when customers order them. Any pastry chef who says working service doesn't suck sometimes is lying to you. It can be fun and a big adrenaline rush, but mostly it's taking you away from what you'd rather be doing, the actual baking and creating.

Lately I've been working weeknight services by myself, and I've prided myself on setting up the station for a smooth service and having easy, stress-free nights. Last night was slower for pastry at the restaurant, and I mistakenly thought tonight was going to be the same. I intended to try out a couple new recipes during the dinner shift, and had three quarters of my workspace occupied with ingredients, equipment, and a general mess. All of a sudden, tickets started ringing in. I shoved everything to the side as best I could, and started making desserts. It was going alright until I reached up to grab a plate and knocked down a pint container of powdered gelatin. The gelatin spilled all over me, my station, and my mise en place (all of the things I needed to make the desserts). All the mise was garbage at that point, needing to hastily be replaced with what I had back up or what I needed to make on the fly (meaning, right NOW).

As tickets continued to ring in, I scrambled to scrape up all the gelatin, which stuck to the station almost immediately. My blood pressure started rising, and I started to sweat a little. The sweat "activated" the gelatin, causing it to stick to my skin and form a weird crust that was almost impossible to scrub off. The whole situation was comically frustrating. Who else does this happen to?? Not long ago, a non-food industry friend emailed me and said when discussing me and my job with her teacher friends, they were all "oohing and ahhing" and saying how glamorous it must be. She compared the reaction to as if she said her friend was Jennifer Lopez. Tonight was about as glamorous as it gets, covered in a caking of animal proteins. I bet J Lo does not have to deal with that.


Life of a Pastry Chef: Inside Look #1

 Tuesday, October 2, 2012

True fact: I had a milkshake for breakfast today. I tried to go the normal route and get coffee and a bagel from Dunkin' Donuts, but when I pulled in, every parking spot was filled, and I said f*** it, I'm having a McDonald's milkshake. I rarely eat fast food, but I do frequently eat dessert for breakfast. I'm living every kid's dream.

When most people hear I work at a restaurant, their first reaction is usually something along the lines of "Wow! You must eat so much good food!" While this is occasionally the case, mostly it's not. Don't get me wrong - if I wanted to eat, mostly I could. But I'm usually too busy, too tired, or too lazy to find something for myself to eat and get through the day on handfuls of chocolate chips, bites of cookies, and the odd potato chip (they're part of a raw fish dish we serve as an appetizer). Sugar is in abundance in my part of the kitchen, and it doesn't always lead to the healthiest diet. Did I mention the pastry kitchen is right next to the barista station? There was a day where all I ate was marshmallows and 4 shots of espresso. Definitely didn't sleep that night! On my days off, I make a concerted attempted to eat "real" foods and balance my sugar intake for the week.


Fall Baking & The Best Pie Crust

 Monday, October 1, 2012

For me, the ultimate baking season is Fall. I know a lot of people are awed by summer's bounty of fruits, and while I love fruit, I think most of them stand alone better than they do incorporated into a dessert. Fall fruits and flavors, however, beg to be made into a crisp, a cobbler, or pie. And that's just three of the very many options. There's also something about the cool Autumn air that makes me crave dessert. By December every year, I suffer from apple fatigue, but for the next couple of months, I'll be keeping my refrigerator stocked with cider and happily be churning out pumpkin cakes, apple crisp, and pear sorbet.

In order to lure me home a few days ago, my mom bought some different apple varieties and invited me up to bake something, have my laundry done, and eat some home-cooked food. Having subsisted on candy bars and accumulated a small mountain of laundry over the past week, I gladly took up the offer. When I got home, I found three different types of apples, including one I've never tried before, Calville Blanc d'Hiver, a French type of apples similar to a Granny Smith. There were also Empire (red, crunchy and sweet) and Honeycrisp (one of my favorites to eat). When I make apple pies or tarts, I like to use two to three different types of apples to give it a more depth and roundness of flavors. If you're stuck with the typical grocery store selection of apples, you can't go wrong with Granny Smiths, a solid choice for baking due to their firmness and tartness, and something sweeter like a Gala or Pink Lady.

I've been testing out fall menu items at the restaurant, but this was my first time this season baking at home, and I wanted to keep it simple to really showcase the flavors of the apples. I decided on a caramel apple tart. I threw together some pie dough, put it in the refrigerator to rest, and got to work peeling and cutting apples. Having a mandoline made slicing all the apples for the top of the tart super fast, and the rest of the apples I just cut into a small/medium dice. I made a quick caramel sauce (any recipe would work here) and tossed the diced apples into it. Once the dough chilled for about an hour, I rolled it out, lined my tart pan and placed it in the freezer to rest (chilling the dough after handling it allows for a more tender finished product). After about 20 minutes, I pulled it out, docked the dough, and blind baked it until it was a light golden color. Then I filled it with the caramel apples, and carefully layered the apple slices on top. The tart went back in the oven to finish baking until the crust was golden. Pretty simple, but really delicious.

The key to these simple tarts and pies is a really awesome pie crust. I don't know what it is about this dough, but it's so easy to end up with a dry, flavorless, or tough crust. Over the years, I've worked out what I think is the ultimate recipe and tricks to keep your crust tender, flaky, and full of flavor. The first key is to work with cold ingredients. Your butter, shortening and water should all be ice cold (but not frozen). You also don't want to handle the dough too much - it should come together quickly. I use a food processor, but you could also use a KitchenAid or do it by hand. And like I said earlier, you want to give the dough plenty of time to chill to relax the glutens (here comes my inner baking nerd...) that develop from mixing. So without further ado, here is my favorite recipe for pie crust.

Pie Crust
Makes enough for a double crust pie

2 1/2 c (11.25 oz) all purpose flour
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
3/4 c (6 oz) butter, cold, cut into pieces
4 Tbsp Crisco, cold
6-8 Tbsp ice water
  • Blend butter and shortening into the dry ingredients using a food processor, KitchenAid, or pastry blender until butter pieces are the size of a pea.
  • Add the water and mix just until dough comes together.
  • Wrap dough tightly in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour.