Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Springtime in a Jar

Yes, it's that time of year again - violet season!

My friend with the large and violet filled yard went the extra mile this year and brought me 2 cups of violets last week. Knowing I didn't have time to make the jelly, I steeped them in 2 cups of boiling water and then kept the whole concoction in the fridge. That was six days ago and today I was able to make them into jelly.

I strained the violets, topped off the liquid with water to 4 cups, and then added 1/2 cup of lemon juice. This and a package of Sure-Jell pectin was brought to boiling and then I added 5 cups of sugar. When the jelly was done I had about 8 cups, which is two more than last year. Not sure what was different but sometimes that happens. I am canning 13 4-ounce jars and have the rest in a small container in the fridge for us. The 11 year old loves this jelly.

And, with that, I have started the gift stash for this season.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Days 31 and 32: Final Practicum

Yesterday and today were spent in a stressed out haze. At least until I completed my dessert and turned it in.

This morning was our practicum exam. Each of us were to draw a card and then make what it said. As this was technically the mid term we were given the ingredient list and had to write out the method. Once Chef corrected it, we were to go into the kitchen and make it for presentation to the two tasters. There were eight cards and we knew what they were but we selected our actual card at random. Ahead of time, in addition to studying the methods, I thought about how I would plate each one.

On a whim, I bought stainless steel martini glasses. Just in case I drew the macaron card.

I drew the macaron card.

Yay! The card stated that in addition to making three different flavors of macarons - coffee, lemon, and raspberry - we were to make an ice cream of our choice. Planning ahead again, I decided that a pear cardamom ice cream would go well with each flavor. That had to be made first. I made an ice cream base with pear purée, cardamom, and some pear brandy. While that chilled, I worked on the macarons and sautéed pears in butter, sugar, and more brandy. When it was time to put the ice cream in the maker, at the very end I churned in the cooked pears. It was lovely.

The macarons came out better than they had any right to as we had some oven issues (the opposite problem compared to home, the ovens were too hot. Even though we set them 25˚ lower than usual). The tasters noted they were a little dry. I guess they crumble too quickly. Each one had a matching ganache.

For plating, I chilled the martini glasses and put a scoop of ice cream in each. I had made mini macarons and stuck them on the ice cream. I made sure each macaron was between mini macarons of different colors - pink between yellow and brown, yellow between brown and pink, and so on.

Ultimately, I did well on the kitchen part and I don't have the tasting grade yet but the comments were mostly positive. Now we only have the final written exam left!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Birthday Chimeras

This year's birthday theme for the (now) 11 year old was mythical beasts. Dragons, Gryphons, and Unicorns.

Demonstration cupcakes
I dutifully made cupcakes with different color paper cups, different frostings and, with gum paste, various add ons. Wings, horns, beaks, tails.

Sadly, my buttercream wasn't as smooth as I wanted it to be, but the kids did not care. However, despite the absolute cuteness of my demo-cupcakes, they refused to be constrained by tradition and created a variety of chimeras. Gryphicorns. Draggryphs. Unigons. Whatever.
Then they unleashed the sprinkles.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Day 30: More Classics

Yesterday we finished the other three classic cakes we'd started the day before. First, however, we trashed all the meringue flowers and mushrooms because the oven was too hot and they didn't look right. I was encouraged to make amanita mushrooms (fly agaric) instead. I made those, but I also had yellow and white meringue and cocoa powder so I made some yellow and brown mushrooms too. I also made white mushrooms, a la Destroying Angels (another amanita).

After that cuteness was in the oven, we started the assembly of the black forest cake. First the vanilla and chocolate mousses were finished and the cake was built upside down. The top layer had the red pâte decor on it so it was soaked from underneath with cherry kirsch syrup and then the vanilla mousse was spread in a thin layer. Then there was a layer of cherries and a layer of chocolate mousse. Lastly, the other layer of cake was put in place and soaked with syrup. This went in the freezer to set up.

By this time, the meringues were ready and we could get the rest of our Buche de Printemps decorated. A thick meringue was applied to the logs and torched. Coffee macarons were made to simulate polypore mushrooms. "Plastic chocolate," aka chocolate for molding, was made in green and leaves were prepared for everyone. After a bit, we had all our decorations in place and we each assembled a log. At this point we were all overwhelmed by whimsy.
Throughout the day we also made things like caramelized hazelnuts and clear glaze and chocolate decorations and fondant into which cherries were dipped and subsequently those cherries were dipped in chocolate. Time flew.

Black Forest Cake
The Alhambra cake was cut into 12 pieces and then each was decorated with piped ganache, caramelized hazelnuts, and chocolate curls. The black forest cake was, by that time, ready to flip. Then came the really hard part, removing the silpat and leaving the red pâte decor in place. I realized after a while that it was a lot like dissecting so I ended up taking over and very slowly doing what I could to keep it neat. It was not easy and didn't come out as pretty as maybe it could have. We were able to cover a lot of it with the clear glaze and decorations.

This is the last of the formal classes. Next week we have a review day and then the practicum. The final written exam is in 10 days. I'm amazed at how quickly the time went by and how natural it feels to be there in the kitchen. I feel very close to my classmates and I'm sad to think I won't be seeing them every week. I have laughed quite a lot in the last four months. Mostly at myself, which is healthy, but also with my new friends, and for the sheer fun and joy of it all.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Day 29: European Classic Cakes

Today and tomorrow are devoted to the European classic cakes. We've already tackled Tiramisu but this week it's the Opera cake, the Sacher Torte, the Alhambra cake, Black Forest Cake and a "Yule Log" of sorts: a spring log.

For most of these cakes we made the cake a long time ago. We only had to make the cake for the Black Forest cake. While my classmates made the red pâte decor and the chocolate almond genoise cake, I made ganache with 10 pounds (yes, TEN) of chocolate. In that crazy huge bowl we almost never use. Other things got made today. Lime mousse and raspberry syrup for the Spring log (Buche de Printemps). Chocolate glaze. Coffee syrup and coffee buttercream for the Opera cake.

We were down a few students today so we had to stop a lot more often to clean up since there was the same level of mess and fewer hands to clean it. But ultimately we assembled the Opera cake and the Sacher Torte. The Alhambra is mostly assembled as well and the Buche de Printemps is rolled and waiting to be cut. Oh, and I made meringue mushrooms.

Meringue was made so we could have flowers for our Buche de Printemps but I also wanted to learn how to make mushrooms. After Chef taught me the basics I went a little crazy and decided to make morels. They're spring mushrooms, so why not? I grabbed a star tip and more meringue and piped taller, twisty peaks. After they dried a bit, I dusted them with cocoa powder and painted the edges with concentrated coffee. Unfortunately the oven was a little too warm so they split a little but they are adorable. At least, I think so!
The Opera cake is seven layers: Joconde cake, coffee buttercream, cake, ganache, cake, buttercream and a chocolate glaze. It's the size of a sheet pan and then we each got a rectangle (nine cakes in total). Decorating is always a challenge for me and today was no exception.

The Sacher Torte has ganache on the sides of the rings and then two layers of Sacher chocolate cake separated by apricot jam and ganache. It is topped with ganache and then with the chocolate glaze and finished with chocolate slivers.

The rest of the ganache went to assemble the Alhambra cake which we will finish tomorrow.

Friday, April 15, 2016


This is what I've been (not so) patiently waiting for: springtime, and the chance to check on the bees. And maybe even get some honey. I wasn't sure, you know, that there would be any for me to harvest. But the weather has been consistently good, the dandelions are blooming, and it seemed like time to remove the insulation panels and take a peek inside.

After I got home from work yesterday I went out (gearless, mind you, although I wondered if I should suit up) with my tools and removed the insulation. Next I had to attach the hardware to put the window cover back. I hadn't been planning on getting in to check on the bees but my curiosity got the better of me and I opened up the hive. First I removed the fondant boards. They'd eaten through about half of one and almost none of the next. I set those aside and started looking at the combs. The first one I pulled out had a little honey but was mostly empty comb. The second was mostly capped honey cells. The third was the one in the photo - almost entirely capped honey cells and very heavy. I set them aside and peeked at a fourth comb. This one was also mostly capped on the back but open on the front. Figuring that was where the bees were feeding most recently I left that one alone. I moved the false back all the way to the back and moved an empty comb forward. Then I closed up the hive and took these combs, surprisingly bee-free, into the house.

Did I mention I hadn't been planning on doing this? 

I took a big pot and cut the combs off the bars and into the pot. (The bars were later returned to the hive because they had comb remnants on them and it seemed a better place for the bees to start another comb.) Then I broke the combs into smaller pieces so I could crush them up. I felt like a bear, breaking combs apart with my paws, stopping every once in a while to lick a finger or chew on a little comb. (Don't worry, I washed my hands often!) After a few attempts at filtering I settled on a wire mesh strainer over a large sturdy plastic pitcher. It's been a day and the last of it is still straining but, here:
is the first jar of honey I've ever harvested.

And without my gear! I'm so proud of myself for being brave/stupid enough to do that.

All told, I have 7 cups of honey and might get another half a cup before all this is over. It's denser that other local honeys I've bought, likely because it spent the winter getting thicker. It's not as sweet; we did a taste test today. But it does have a floral taste. Sometime in the next day or so I'll take the wax, melt it down, and give it to my friend who is starting to make soap. For those of you who were hoping to join me when I did this, sorry, it sort of happened, but I still will have to do a bar by bar inspection in about a month so we'll plan on that...

Today the bees were very active, bringing in every color of pollen imaginable. Even that pretty blue. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Day 28: Return of the Croissants

On Tuesday we made a whole lot of croissants. An insane number. We made two batches each of plain and chocolate and one batch of almond. And we had three other batches of croissant dough to play with. Three of us made cherry croissants, orange-apricot braids, and apple-brown sugar pinwheels. (I made the pinwheels which involved cooking apples in butter and cinnamon, piping some remonce mixed with pastry cream on the dough and topping with the apples.)

From the brioche dough we made purple spiral buns. The purple filling was almond cream mixed with black currant purée and they were divine! We also made peaches. This is a specialty of one of the Chefs and involves brioche buns, peach pastry cream, and sugar. The buns are made to look like fuzzy peaches and they are adorable and taste terrific, too.

Lastly, we tackled the puff pastry. Here we were allowed to experiment even further. I played it a little safe by making palmiers (elephant ears) again but I put cardamom in the sugar for rolling and folding and, for some, sprinkled almond flour in between the layers of the final shape. I wanted to see if I could approximate baklava. Not really, but the palmiers were fragrant and lovely nonetheless.

Chicken salad vols-au-vent
Others used the puff pastry to make dartois, mostly with savory fillings, and vols-au-vent, which were baked empty and then some were filled with lemon curd and others left empty. (I used some of the empty ones to send the elderchild to school with chicken salad and arugula puffs for lunch.)

There was a daring experiment with pistachios and a large twist of puff pastry that I suppose was meant to look more like a birdcage or something but didn't rise so much as spread. Lastly, some of the scraps of puff pastry were used by one of our classmates to make these beauties:
We each got some puff pastry dough to take home. Mine is in the freezer and hopefully I can play with it soon.