Exciting Last Weeks in Atlantic City

 Monday, August 12, 2013

I know I mentioned it months ago, but it's finally time for me to be moving back to NYC this week! As with any NYC restaurant opening, it was pushed back from the original date. The team decided to do dining room and kitchen renovations, which I've heard look great and can't wait to see! This gave me the opportunity though to spend my summer by the beach and work with my AC team longer to get them ready for the transition.

European style loaves
Before I was ready to leave, we had some changes to make. I had been developing a new bread that we could use both in NYC and AC. At first, I was reluctant to tackle the bread program. I had little to no experience with bread baking and knew it is a huge undertaking. There are culinary programs solely devoted to bread, and people study for years to master it. As with most of my baking projects, I completely immersed myself in it. I got full use of my Amazon Prime membership and bought so many cookbooks on the topic. I read all I could, and then just jumped in and started baking loaf after loaf. It really shocked me how much I enjoyed the process of baking bread. It's so nuanced and hands on. Bread has long been one of my favorite things to eat, and now it's one of my favorite things to bake. I'm by no means a bread expert (yet), but I definitely have a deeper understanding of it and was able to create a product for American Cut that I'm happy with. If you have an interest in learning more about bread baking, I definitely recommend Flour Salt Water Yeast and Tartine Bread, both of which really helped me understand the process and make some really great loaves.

New American Cut Bread
I probably went through 15-20 recipe variations in the quest to make the ultimate product. The bread we are going with has a combination of commercial yeast (the standard stuff you buy at the store) and a natural yeast levain (also known as a starter). Having little to no nurturing instincts, I worried about my ability to keep anything, let alone a levain, alive. Levains need to be fed daily. Despite my worries, my team and I have kept Benji (our pet name for our levain) alive for well over two months now. I've even taken a piece of him to start our levain for NYC. In addition to the yeast selection, I opted for a longer fermentation process. The dough is made the night before it's baked and retarded in the refrigerator (retarding means chilling the dough to slow the fermentation and develop more characteristic flavor). This also helps from a production standpoint because as soon as the AM production person comes in, they can start shaping/proofing/baking the bread. It has an everything spice mix rolled into it and then is served with an vegetable cream cheese spread. In my opinion, it's a big improvement over our original bread, and the early opinions agree!

A couple weeks ago, my sous chef Kristen and I decided to turn the American Cut raw bar into a dessert bar. The bar was no longer being utilized as a raw bar and had been sitting empty since the end of last summer. The pastry kitchen is roughly the size of a shoe box, and with the new bread production, we were even more cramped. Moving the PM pastry service team out of the kitchen freed up kitchen space and gave us more dining room visibility. With the whole counter top open for display, we started making a "cake of the day" and "cookies of the day" and displaying them on pretty domed pedestals. Since its launch, the dessert bar has been a big hit, and dessert sales have even increased
. In addition to improved space functionality, we have had so much fun with the dessert bar. I got to make a lot of classic cakes--chocolate malt, grasshopper, peanut butter banana, s'mores--things that I don't ordinarily have a chance to do.

Dessert Bar Cakes
As a parting gift to my American Cut, I made a special double batch of doughssants (also known as cronuts, but that would be a trademarked term by the wonderfully talented Dominique Ansel-- seriously, try the DKA). They were such a hit the first time that I knew it would be a good way to show my appreciation for the people who have been with me through this whole crazy experience. Kristen surprised me with an ice cream cake (my favorite) and cookie cakes. As a treat to myself, I did a day at Bask Spa at Revel, the perfect ending to my time here. Now, time for NYC!


Happy Birthday, Kristen!

 Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My sous chef, Kristen, loves her birthday more than any person I've ever met. I quickly learned this last July after realizing that her birthday celebration went on for several weeks. We now jokingly (or not so jokingly...) say that she celebrates her birthday month.

Birthday Gifts: She's also a cat lady
Kristen also hates cake,  loves ice cream cake, and I happen to love making ice cream cakes. I first started making them when I was a cook at Maialino and was tasked with the job of making one of our favorite cook's going-away cake. The hardest part was figuring out what that Cool Whip-like frosting was, but once I cracked that mystery, it was no time before I was frosting the cake in the meat freezer, sprinkles flying everywhere, all over Lady Gaga's food (that's a story for another day).

Last year for her birthday, I quickly threw together an octopus ice cream cake, but this year I had time to plan. Because Kristen loves owls, I decided to make an owl-shaped cake. You need to work very quickly when it comes to ice cream cake (especially in the month of July!) and my decorating options were kind of limited. On top of that, a major project popped up this week (more on that in the future) and I had limited spare time. She had made me an amazing Wall-E cake for my birthday this year, so I made sure to make the time to get her cake completed...especially since she had been dropping hints to everyone that she wanted a cake for weeks prior.

I stashed the cake in the far depths of the walk-in freezer, hoping that she wouldn't snoop. Saturday was finally the big day, and we gave her the cake during our pre-shift meal. I wouldn't say she was surprised (...Kristen, were you snooping?), but she was definitely really happy. Cutting the monster was a challenge. The cake was 4 inches tall and a solid ice cream brick. We have a huge staff, and it was a huge cake!

After a long night at work, pickleback shots


Summer Menu Changes!

 Monday, June 24, 2013

Blondie with fresh berries we ran as a special
I always proclaim that I prefer fall baking to summer baking. It's not that I don't like summer's bounty of fruit, per se, but to me, better baking occurs when that's stripped. With fruit, you don't want to get in the way of the fruit. Good fruit can be a dessert in and of itself (although I'm having a hard time convincing myself of that right now...stuck in my apartment with no chocolate and only grapes) and you need to be delicate to not mask or overpower the fruit.

Original strawberry dessert

Sometimes I start out with what I think is a good idea, to only realize it is in fact not a great idea, and go on to formulate an even better one. This was the case with my strawberry dessert for this season. Chef Marc was down and we had been playing around with fried doughs. I initially had the thought to do a play on a strawberry shortcake, made with a zeppole and served with a basil gel and olive oil ice cream. I made all the components, and well, wasn't really excited by it. I've historically been opposed to fried desserts at a restaurant. It's partially because I think frying is a cop-out (who doesn't love anything fried) and partially because the bad memories I have from when I was a cook in a small, enclosed pastry kitchen that had a table top fryer. I'd leave every night reeking of fryer oil (perhaps why I had no luck meeting guys...) and vowing never to do that to my cooks once I was a chef. Additionally, I felt like this dessert was just too heavy. The thing about being a pastry chef at a steakhouse is you need to be prepared to follow up a 40 oz Tomahawk ribeye. With three potato side dishes. Most people who visit American Cut do not adhere to the warning to save room for dessert. With that in mind, I try to keep my desserts on the lighter side (not all of them, but most of them) and a fried piece of bread dough with an oil-based ice cream just didn't fit the bill.

Strawberry Ice Cream Cake
Back to the drawing board, I almost immediately thought of doing a strawberry and olive oil ice cream cake. I am obsessed with frozen desserts. Probably unhealthily so. I love the textures and temperature differences they add to a dessert. As a kid, the only birthday cake I ever wanted was an ice cream cake from Carvel, with those giant gel-blob balloons on it. I set out to make a lighter, grown-up version of the cake I loved so much as a child. I used strawberry and olive oil semifreddos (Italian for semi-frozen, essentially a frozen mousse) to give the cake a lighter feel. I guess that makes the term "ice cream cake" a misnomer, but it's easier for guests to visualize that than "semifreddo cake." I added layers of basil-soaked sponge cake and homemade Nilla wafers mixed with dehydrated strawberries. This gets molded into a giant cake and sliced for individual portions. Completed, it's 9 layers of semifreddos, cookie crumbs, and cake served with strawberries tossed with a little sugar, basil and mint and garnished with tiny mint and vanilla meringues. It is quite possibly one of my favorite desserts I've ever made. As I was cutting the cake Saturday night, I felt compelled to eat every piece of scrap. Maybe not the best decision I've made for my body all week, but delicious.

When I came up with my mascarpone cheesecake recipe back in the winter, it took somewhere between 25 and 30 attempts to perfect it. It was only supposed to be on for that season, but then Chef Marc declared it the best cheesecake he ever had, and it hasn't budged from the menu since. The components change seasonally, with its current iteration being cherry. Initially, I wanted to do sour cherries, but they proved to be impossible to find in South Jersey, so I went with sweet, dark cherries. It seemed natural to have the crust be a chocolate graham and to pair it with a cherry sorbet, made with fresh puree. Our corporate chef, Chris, had seen this idea to make a chocolate sauce out of equal parts sugar, cocoa, and water, making it like a light caramel and then deglazing with the cocoa and water. It tastes exactly like a liquid Oreo. The dish, overall, is super sexy with the contrast of colors: a deep blood red gelee on top of the pale cheesecake.

Almond Poundcake
I also worked on an almond poundcake with a stone fruit compote (I used peaches and nectarines) paired with a bourbon sweet tea ice cream that I think will appear later in the summer. These three desserts really made me rethink my stance on summer fruit desserts and got me excited about the possibilities. Now I think the problem is there are so many fruits available in such a limited amount of time and only 7 desserts on my menu!
Current pastry menu at American Cut


Cronut Mania

 Monday, June 3, 2013

Anyone who follows the food scene in NYC knows that in the past couple weeks the city has been gripped by a fever for...cronuts. Wait, what? Cronuts? At first mention, this does not sound like an appetizing, delicate pastry...much less something for which I would wait in line at 8 am. Nothing to me is worth being up before 11 am. Very few things are worth being up before noon.

Basically, a cronut is croissant dough fried in the shape of a doughnut. While Dominique Ansel has put the "cronut" on the map and internationally trademarked it, I first came across the idea on Francisco Migoya's amazing pastry blog, The Quenelle. It had been on my "to-bake" list for a while, and then cronut mania pushed it to the top.

Because, like I said, I will not get up before 8 am for anything, it was easier for me to make these than to wait on line for them. Croissant dough is a yeast-risen laminated dough, and if you've never had a traditional fresh-baked croissant, you are missing out. These were a revelation to me during my time at The French Culinary Institute. Growing up, I was familiar with both American and traditional Italian-American baking, but the closest thing I had ever had to a real croissant was the Costco variety (sad, I know). I hadn't made croissant dough since I graduated from culinary school. They don't make frequent appearances on restaurant dessert menus, and the dough is rather tedious and time consuming to make. The skill proved to be like riding a bike though, and my croissant dough came out beautifully. When it was finished, I rolled it out and cut doughnut shapes.

First thing on Friday, I set about to fry the cronuts. My AM production cook had pulled them from the refrigerator when he got in, so they were proofed and ready to go. I was surprised at how quickly they fried, just a couple minutes. I glazed them with wild strawberry and passion fruit glazes and let them cool. Within an hour, all 30 "doughssants," as we were calling them (not looking for a trademark infringement lawsuit from Dominique Ansel!), were gone. My verdict? Definitely delicious, but probably not worth waiting in a 30 minute line to pay $5 each. I feel like my coworkers are going to be haunting me, however, to make doughssants for every family meal from now on. They might be more convincing though if they form a line, $5 in hand!


Photos & Stories from Macy's DeGustibus Event

 Monday, May 20, 2013

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a cooking demo at the Macy's De Gustibus school with Chef Marc. Because he's pretty much a "celebrity" chef, Marc gets invited to do a lot of various events, appearances, and classes. The event was an American Cut preview event because....we're opening an American Cut in NYC!!! This is GIANT news that I could not be more excited to share, especially since I will be moving back to be the pastry chef! More about that later!

Paramount Hotel
I got up to NYC the day before the event and checked in at The Paramount Hotel, a hotel owned by American Cut's parent company, LDV. Beautiful hotel, wish I could have spent more time there, but we were super busy with prepping for the next day. I headed downtown to Chef's restaurant, Marc Forgione, to begin preparing for the De Gustibus event. We did 5 courses in total, with dessert being the last. For dessert, we made my mascarpone cheesecake with a tangerine gelee. This cheesecake has been on the menu at Cut in various forms since the winter; currently it's paired weth a rhubarb Campari gelee and rhubarb fennel sorbet.

Here's the deal about the Forge kitchen... It is really tiny. And not so well-equipped. With low ceilings, a lot of humidity, and a walk-in refrigerator that feels like a cave. It's really incredible how they manage to turn out consistently incredible food with the resources they have. Kudos to the staff who works there on a daily basis. They managed to clear off a good amount of space for me, so my prep was no problem...Until I had to bake the cheesecakes in what appeared to be a large toaster oven. Unaccustomed to the way that oven worked, my cheesecakes swelled, and I had to perform some "surgery" on them the next day to give me enough room to put the gelee on top. A small problem that cost me at least an hour of sleep because I like to over stress about everything.

Showing how to mix the cheesecake
Mascarpone Cheesecake
Chef Marc in action
Wednesday was the day of the event and we met at Forge to do some last minute preparations and pack up to drive over to Macy's Herald Square. When we finally beat the traffic and got there, Chef Marc attempted to give me the keys to his brand new SUV to park it. Here's all you need to know about my driving skills: They are not good. I quickly handed them off to our chef de cuisine, Quincy, and assumed navigation responsibilities.

When we got in the DeGustibus kitchen, our hosts Sal (the owner/director of De Gustibus) and Emeril (the kitchen's lead chef) could not have been nicer or more accommodating. I'd seriously like to go back every week just to hang out with them. We unloaded all of our mise en place and got ready for guests to arrive. The first four courses were a blur with Chef showing the attendees how to prepare some of Cut's signature dishes: everything bagel gourgeres, shrimp cocktail, the OG caesar salad, and Tomahawk/chili lobster surf & turf. Before I knew it, it was time for me to hit the stage to assist Chef Marc with the dessert course. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous. I'm used to being behind the scenes making the desserts, not on stage in front of an audience.

Fire power, unmolding cheesecakes

As soon as the lady in the front row yelled out "You're so pretty!" (did I mention there were wine pairings with each of the courses...?), I felt calmer, and Sal, Chef, and myself began to converse about the desserts at American Cut, our process, and the cheesecake we were preparing (which the audience got to eat while we were demoing). We told the story of how it took over 20 attempts to perfect the recipe.

Overall, the event was a big success. I personally had so much fun, and I hope that I get to do another event at De Gustibus in the future. So onto my bigger news... I will be moving back to NYC in a couple of months to open our second location of American Cut! The restaurant will be located on Greenwich St. in Tribeca (only a block away from where I got my restaurant start at Locanda Verde!) and will be opening sometime in late summer. As much as I've enjoyed my time in Atlantic City, I am anxious to get back to NYC which feels like "home." I have a couple more months though to soak up all the UV rays I can.
Group Shot


Blue Chicken Eggs & The Best Vanilla Ice Cream

 Friday, March 1, 2013

A little while ago, I bought the cookbook Frozen Desserts by Francisco Migoya. I had received Migoya's other book, The Elements of Dessert for my birthday this year and loved the way the books are written pretty exclusively for pastry professionals. I have an extensive cookbook collection, and I am frequently frustrated how a lot of recipes are beyond basic and often don't even work. Migoya's cookbooks are the real deal: ingredients in metric weights, precise instructions, complex techniques, and beautiful pictures. I can't believe it took me so long to discover these books.

Baby Araucana Chick. I need one!!
I also can't believe it took me so long to discover there are chickens that lay pastel blue and green eggs. In Frozen Desserts, there is a sidebar dedicated to Araucana chickens. These chickens lay blue eggs (which is awesome in and of itself) as well as brown eggs, and apparently the eggs produced by these chickens have a superior taste. I became obsessed with finding these chickens, and found myself talking about them quite frequently. One day at work, I was talking with a server and he mentioned he and his wife own chickens. It turns out that the chickens he has are the same ones I've been searching for. I must have come off as very enthused because the next day he brought in a dozen eggs for me from his chickens, including several blue eggs which are more rare than the brown. It probably didn't hurt that I promised him homemade ice cream...

My assortment of eggs
I wanted to make an ice cream with them that would really let the egg yolk flavor shine and decided to go with vanilla. Let me take this opportunity to protest that there is nothing boring about vanilla. Vanilla is one of the world's most exotic spices, with a flavor that can be incredibly complex depending on the quality of beans you have. I've never been much of a chocolate fiend, preferring vanilla in almost every circumstance.

Finished product

I love all ice cream, but the quality of this one was amazing. It was so silky and rich. I gave a quart of it to my parents, and my dad declared it the best ice cream he ever tasted. In exchange for the eggs, I gave Jeremy, the server with the Araucanas, a pint, which he dug into halfway through his drive home.

I'd really love to get some of these chickens for myself, but alas, I live in an apartment and I don't think my landlord would appreciate it.


New Winter Desserts

 Thursday, January 10, 2013

I know this is very cliche to say, but I feel like the past year has been passing by so fast. I got caught up in the holidays, and before long, I realized pumpkin cheesecake had a spot on our menu way past it's "seasonal expiration date." Coming up with a new dessert idea and testing recipes during the Christmas-New Year's push proved to be challenging. I knew I wanted to do a mascarpone cheesecake and had to test so many variations of it in order to get the recipe perfect. Because mascarpone has less structure than the typical cream cheese found in cheesecake, it was tricky to figure out a balance so that it would not  collapse, but also still taste like the mascarpone. Once that was done, I played around with a few uses of tangerine before settling on a tangerine gelee made with marmalade and a tangerine sorbet. I was originally thinking of a mulled wine sorbet, which tasted great on its own but really, really did not work with the dish (my sous chef Kristen declared it tasted "like someone spilled their glass of wine on their dessert plate"). I reduced that sorbet into a sauce, and the full dessert finally came together.

Chef Marc was also interested in using meyer lemons in a dessert. Meyer lemons are a cross between lemons and mandarins and are sweeter and more fragrant that common lemons. I love using citrus like blood oranges and meyer lemons in winter because they really brighten up a dessert menu. I didn't want to do something as straight-forward as a classic lemon meringue because the idea wasn't interesting to me. I opted instead to make a sesame sucree (sucree is a sweet tart dough) and line the tarts with those and paired it with honey tahini ice cream. Everyone's first reaction to the sesame/tahini was that it sounded weird, but I think I won most people over when they tasted it. The tart filling is lemon curd, one of my absolute favorite things to eat. The word "curd" is weird and scares a lot of people off from how delicious it really is. Curd is basically just a fruit pudding made with a lot of butter. Ok, that description probably doesn't sound much better, but it really is amazing. The tart is topped with a little dehydrated lemon zest and served with a huckleberry sauce. For a bit of "wow" factor, I made a sesame "glass" which is just sugar that's cooked to a high temperature, poured out onto black and white sesame seeds, and pulled super thin while it's still hot. Both desserts start on the menu tomorrow, just in time for the weekend.


Holiday Recap

 Monday, January 7, 2013

Me & My Siblings, Christmas Eve Eve
I'm a little late on this one, but it was an extraordinarily busy holiday season. For a restaurant, the holidays are always on the hectic side, but this one felt even more so. This was my first holiday season in charge of a pastry department, and I wanted everything to run smoothly. Like I said in my Thanksgiving post, working on the holidays isn't the best part of this job, but it's one I've gotten kind of used to over the years. This year I was fortunate to have off on Christmas Eve, my favorite holiday. As bonus excitement this year, my brother Eric got engaged to his longtime girlfriend Meghann, and we were able to celebrate with her family the day before Christmas Eve at Chef Marc's Tribeca restaurant, Marc Forgione. The meal was amazing, and we were all so overjoyed with Eric & Meghann's big news.

Eggnog Parfait
Peppermint Ice Cream Cake
Holiday Cookie Tins
For Christmas Eve & Christmas Day at American Cut, we featured a dessert menu with some special holiday desserts including a peppermint ice cream cake and an eggnog mousse parfait. For Christmas Eve at my house, I threw together a couple of desserts for my family, including a mascarpone cheesecake with a mixed berry compote and a candy bar cake. Not as impressive as the year I made 8 different desserts for the two days, but at least I came up with something.

NYE Desserts
As soon as Christmas was over, we switched into a heavy prep mode for New Year's Eve. NYE at a restaurant is one of the busiest days, and this year was no exception. A lot of people spend their NYE in Atlantic City, and the restaurant was packed for the night. That night, we ran three desserts to accommodate the pre fixe menu and other diners. Chef Marc wanted a "large chocolate cake," so I took that idea and made giant black and white ice cream cakes with chocolate cake and white espresso ice cream. We finished those off with edible silver balls and glitter. We also ran our Crackerjack Sundae, but added a significant amount of gold leaf to it for a "bling" factor. Gold leaf is a very thin sheet of real gold that you can eat. Our new vanilla bean mascarpone cheesecake also debuted that night, with a honey tangerine sorbet and mulled wine reduction. Dessert service wrapped up shortly after midnight, but we made it up to the front of the bar to watch the ball drop and toast with a glass of champagne.

Kristen & I, pre-ball drop

Now that the holidays are over, I've been able to concentrate more on developing new desserts and working on some interesting projects. Winter is a challenging time for any pastry chef, as the fruit supply dwindles to basically just citrus. Despite this, I have some new desserts coming up that I'm very excited about.