Monday, October 15, 2007

Cambodian Power Brunch

Today was a weird food day, because as much as I love all Asian cuisine, I don't know how many times in life I can really handle fish sauce first thing in the morning. Obviously it wasn't actually first thing in the morning, but given how late I wake up these days, it might as well have been.

We started with a Cambodian food demo with one of the owners of the Elephant Walk, Nadsa de Monteiro. I like the Elephant Walk and have been there a few times before. I think in general, I'm a big fan of the flavor profile found in most South East Asian foods. I loved hearing more about Cambodian food in particular though. I think there's far too much attention paid to Thai food and not enough to the surrounding cultures. My personal love is really Vietnamese food, but I'm always open to hearing more about other cultures. She explained how Cambodian food wasn't as sweet at Thai food (which I didn't really understand, because she seemed to put A LOT of sugar into the dishes she made) and generally not as spicy.

She made a a pork soup, chicken dish and beef dish. All of them, I think, were pretty fabulous, but I was a particularly big fan of the soup. It had great depth of flavor and variety of textures which I think are two of the most important aspects of food and cookery that really separate Asian cuisine and Western cuisine. I'm glad others in the class were able to see another aspect of southeast Asian food.

We were also introduced to some cuisine specific ingredients, some I knew others I didn't. I'd never been very familiar with tumeric, but I'd never seen galangal before. It was ginger-y in smell and taste, but was more peppery than normal root ginger. It was a really interesting taste. In the finished dishes it tasted like a combination between ginger and garlic (kind of like a different version of shallots tasting like a combination between garlic and onion). I'd had Thai cooking classes before and so was otherwise familiar with kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. The chef also explained to us the way Cambodians combine the ingredients into a base paste to flavor the eventual dish, using the fresh ingredients above and adding things like cardamom, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc. She used the paste as the start to both the soup and the chicken dish, but both tasted very different. Another paste we learnt about was prahok, similar to the well-known fish sauce, but is actually a paste.

The most interesting part of the morning, I think, was hearing about the chef's life as the wife of an ambassador. She lived all over and learnt to the various cuisines of different cultures. She studied Chinese cookery in Taiwan, and said that French techniques and Chinese techniques are really all you need in life. As a francophile and Chinese girl, I'm probably very bias, but I think that she is mostly correct in that opinion.

What a great lunch that day!


Today was our first pastry day with Cindy Salvato. I used to want to be a pastry chef and spent most of time baking goods. I eventually gave up when I realized how much storage space I'd need for the all the equipment needed for baking. Anyway, I was excited to learn a bit more about pastries. I feel like it can be hard to learn more about baking because so much of it is conjecture and a matter of opinion, but at the same time so many people say how precise you must be when measuring out ingredients. I feel like it's hard to find a book that can provide a solid overview of different pastries and baked goods (not including bread).

Today we were in 'production' mode for this evening's seminar on tea. We made lemon meringue tarts, fruit puffs, éclairs, gingerbread cakes with lemon glaze and cranberry scones. We broke into groups and we worked on the lemon meringue tarts; I was in charge of the dough, while Catherine and Stephany worked on the lemon curd. The crust for the mini tarts was made with crushed pistachios that I had to first blend in the robot coupe so that the nuts could evenly distribute in the dough. Using the large Hobart mixer, I threw together the ingredients for the dough, flour, butter, sugar, salt, etc., and blended it until it just came together. Once it was formed into a large square, I wrapped it in cling film and let it rest in the fridge.

After the dough had rested for a while, we took it out and rolled it out into 1/4 inch thick sheets and then cut to fit into metal mini tart shells. As soon as we took the dough out, it was nearly frozen and we were worried that we'd left the dough in for too long. However, as soon as we'd started rolling out the dough, it started to warm up so quickly that the too cold temperature of the dough actually helped us keep the dough workable for a longer period of time. As soon as we'd filled the nearly 100 tartlet shells we needed to put in some weights and blind bake them. Unfortunately, when we took the out of the oven, we realized that the kitchen's pie weights included grains of rice that really work their way into the pastry. We spent a lot of time looking at each tart shell and scraping out rice grains embedded into the shells before we could pour in the lemon curd (normally, you'd just let the shells cool a bit before pouring in the curd - I think it's to keep the shell as crisp as possible even after the addition of the curd).

We baked them again to let the curd set, even though it was mostly safe at this point. There had been a lot of egg yolks in the curd, but Catherine and Stephany had whisked them with the lemon zest and juice over a double boiler 'cooking' the eggs yolks enough that they should have reached a safe temperature. After the curd set, we had to wait a little for them to cool again before we could place meringue on top, or else they'd just melt away.

We had to put the tarts back in the oven so that the meringues could toast/cook up. At this point I was a little worried that the shells of the tartlets would be completely overcooked and end up dry and crumbly, but they didn't. They turned out nicely, helped along by the copious amounts of butter, I'm sure. I personally thought the tartlets looked and tasted better without the meringue, but I think Cindy was going for a mini-lemon meringue pie look.

Although we didn't work on each of the recipes, at important points, gathered to watch the demo part. We saw the cake get glazed right out of the oven so that it could be absorbed into the cake. We also saw two groups make pastry cream for éclairs and fruit puffs. The pastry cream made by the éclair group wouldn't come together properly, so Cindy helped them turn it into diplomat cream, nearly the same thing at pastry cream really.

I've made éclairs and cream puffs a million times before and even though I thought that I'd made the wrong dough the first time I made pate a choux, I quickly realized I'd done it right. I think with baking, because it is so final (no tweaking after the point like in cooking), a lot of people are nervous when making things, always second guessing the results. I think it has a lot to do with confidence.

I wasn't a big fan of the scones, I was a little confused why the cranberries turned out so hard. I would have thought they'd be fine, perhaps they needed to reconstituted a little bit in warm water before they were added into the batter? I also didn't really understand why the scones were so dry and mealy, I think maybe the group doing it overworked the dough a little? I know that the gluten level and affect the way baked goods like this can come out. I think I'd like to try this again in my own but changing the recipe a little by working the dough less and reconstituting the cranberries before adding them in.

The best, however, were the fruit puffs. I've never made fruit puffs before, so it was interesting to see that group pull them together. They turned out beautifully, and I think tasted the best of all the desserts we made today. We didn't have enough time to make puff paste from scratch, so we used pre-made puff pastry (Pepperidge Farm, I think), cutting strips to provide boarders, then baked them off. Once those were done, they piped in pastry cream onto the raft-like puff shells and then carefully layered fresh fruit over the cream.

Unfortunately, by this point I was on such a huge sugar rush, I wasn't able to eat any more sugar. I was going to crash and burn from all the sugar pretty quickly, I figured anymore I'd pass out. :(

I'm definitely going to make the fruit puffs next summer, when all the lovely berries are back in season, especially now that I know taking a shortcut from Pepperidge Farm is acceptable!