The Home Stretch…

March 8, 2010

Well folks, believe it or not, I only have four more days until I leave.  Seven days until the exam starts.  Am I panicked?  No.  Am I ready?  Not really.  Will I be ready?  I believe so.  Will I be panicked?  Most likely.

Here’s the scoop:

Last Wednesday I was assigned my final menus.  For baking, I will be doing two 10″ sponge cakes.  For Mediterranean, I was assigned Southern France and must complete the following:

Onion Tart with Salad

Baked or Grilled Sea Bass

Braised Rabbit

For Nutritional Cooking, I was assigned a whole chicken, which I will not be using.  For Garde Manger, I was assigned a whole chicken, bone-in pork butt, two flounders.

Let’s start with baking:

On Saturday, I did my final run through and actually feel quite confident with the outcome.  Everything was a lot better than the last time, and I feel that I can pass without doing another full run through again.  The only thing I do need to work on is a sponge cake, but that’s simple enough.

Nutrition:

I have done all the nutritional analysis for the menu, and everything works.  However, I do believe I am going to switch from couscous to quinoa to up the protein level just a tad, and make sure I have an actual whole grain on the menu.

Med.:

This is when the fun begins.  I live in Montana.  We are land-locked.  Fresh seafood is few-and-far-between, not to mention expensive.  So…when I’m told I have some sort of weird Mediterranean Sea Bass, I started to freak-out just a bit.  But! as luck would have it, I found some, in Seattle.  Now, I was so excited at my find, I didn’t bother to ask how much it would cost.  And low and behold, it wasn’t cheap.  In fact, the whole caboodle of fish was a whopping $500.  Yeah.  That didn’t make my Chef too happy, especially since I charged it to his account.

That aside, I have become pretty darn good at fabricating the suckers.  That’s what I did  today and my fingers hurt  from getting poked over and over again from their spiny fins.  But I prevailed and the final dish (Citrus and Fennel Grilled Sea Bass with Braised Fennel and Sauteed Spinach) turned out pretty darn good.

The actual menu is:

Pissaladire with Frisee Salad

Loup au Fenouil

Braised Lapin with Polenta and Tomato Provencial (I don’t know all of those French terms yet)

Garde Manger:

Note the fish excitement above and turn that into flounder.  Tomorrow, over-priced flounder will be arriving for me to butcher the hell out of and then transform into a soft and fluffy mousse.

The menu:

Chicken Galantine with Cumberland Sauce

Pate Campange with Swedish Mustard Sauce

Cured Flounder stuffed with Smoked Flounder Mousse on Herbed Cracker with Pickled Shallots and Cucumbers

Potato and Apple Salad

Yeah.  The next thing: figuring out the ingredient list by Wednesday.  Then?  Not freaking-out until next Monday.

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It’s now less than a month until the exam, and I am in full practice mode.  This past week, I practiced four days, completing my Nutritional Cooking exam as well as the Garde Manger exam.  Let’s just say that once Saturday rolled around, I was exhausted.

I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not to wake-up every morning at 3:30 now and think if I’m practicing today.  It’s obviously become second nature for my body clock to think that I should be in the kitchen cooking elaborate three course menus.  And I would be lying to say that I didn’t think about my next practice every minute of everyday.  It’s slowly becoming obsession.

I honestly don’t remember which day I did my Nutritional Cooking exam, since everything is a blur anymore.  I do know that it was the best practice to date.  I was mellow.  I was prepared.  I had time to stop and do dishes, to help students, to bullshit.  And I finished early.  But the best part was the food.  It was amazing (and healthy).  My menu:

Walnut, Cucumber and Yogurt Soup

Couscous and Red Lentils with Moroccan Roasted Vegetables, Pearl Onion and Raisin Confit and a Saffron Broth

Orange and Tarragon Sorbet, Honey Tuille, Dried Fruit Compote and Blood Orange Salad

The entire menu didn’t have more than a teaspoon of salt in it and no more than two tablespoons of oil.  If it weren’t for the yogurt in the soup, the entire menu would have been vegan.  The food, for the most part, was extremely flavorful (the couscous needed some more oomph) and beautiful.  The portion sizes were spot on and presentation was thoughtful and modern.  After this exam, I had restored my confidence.

The Garde Manger exam is run a little different.  Garde Manger, or Cold Food in the modern kitchen, is designed for me to do a platter presentation showcasing a variety of techniques when it comes to preservation and forcemeats.  I’m required to do a forcemeat terrine, a canape, plated appetizer and a salad with appropriate accompaniments and sauces.  These need to be presented artfully on a platter as well as show plates for the judges.

A while ago, I decided I wanted to try the St. Andrew’s Vegetable Terrine, which is a chicken mousseline style forcemeat with an array of vegetables folded in to it.  For my canape, I needed to show a smoking technique, so I opted to do a smoked trout mousse on a herb cracker with lemon butter and pickled cucumbers and shallots.  For my salad, I didn’t want to overdo the vegetables, so I opted for a pear and apple-centric salad with a simple mayonnaise based dressing.  My sauce, just a simple balsamic vinaigrette.

I am given two, two-hour prep days and four hours for the actual exam.  During my designated prep times, I made my terrine, smoked my trout, made my mousses, confited some duck (the confit was excellent, but I didn’t end up using it on my display), made cracker dough, etc.  Everything was on track at this point too, which made me feel on top of things and ready to go.

The day of the practice exam, I was on time and in charge.  My platter, considering it was the first time, was beautiful and colorful.  The only real criticism I got was that my platter was too small, my salad needs to be presented differently (I’m actually going to change it up entirely), my crackers need to be thinner, and my sauce got lost with all the other flavors on the plate.  This made me extremely happy since it’s been a while since I’ve done a platter complete with aspic glazing.  Now, I just hope I get a chicken and some trout.  The chances of that happening though, are probably pretty thin.

So this week?  Tomorrow morning I’m hitting the Greek region.  After that, I have no other plans for practicing.  Since I’ve now done all of the exams in their entirety, I think I may just focus on nailing down recipes and waiting for the fateful day that I find out exactly what I’ll be getting.

Soon.  Soon.

I’m starting to feel the pressure.  I’m not as bad today as I was yesterday, but the nerves are starting to build up and give me the twinges of anxiety I grew so fond of years ago.  I need to figure out how to mellow them out.

On Friday, I did another Mediterranean practice, this time focusing on Southern Italy.  Ah…this practice sucked.  Okay, I take that back, it didn’t all suck, in fact, the first two and a half hours were really great.  I was on task, I was flying through the kitchen.  I managed to bake a cake, make pasta, roll out pasta, grind sausage, stuff sausage, fabricate trout, fabricate artichokes, and a bunch of other stuff, and I was feeling fantastic.  And then it seemed to all fall apart…

Here was my menu:

Antipasta, featuring Panzanella Bruschetta, Braised Artichokes with Anchovies and Citrus, Trout, Grapefruit and Fennel Civeche

Paparadelle with Fresh Tomato Sauce and House-made Italian Sausage

Olive Oil Cake with Marscapone Gelato, Cherry Compote and Balsamic Reduction

So if I was so on task, why did this fall apart?

Simple, I didn’t think of how I was actually going to execute service.  I had run over and over again in my mind just how I was going to produce the sausage, make the pasta, etc., but all planning went out the window when it actually came time for service.

Here’s the truth: I haven’t cooked or made fresh pasta in a long time.  The pasta itself was too soft, which caused it to stick together.  I thought my sauce was going to be too flavorless, and wasn’t too sure how I was going to plate the dish.  Not to mention I had an audience watching me the entire time too (something I need to get used to, because I will have the chefs watching me at the CIA).  My cool was starting to heat up, and I was starting to get lost in a fog of being unorganized and not on top of things.

Good thing it was only practice.

Here were the downfalls of the menu:

My panzanella was a great idea, but the onions were too strong.  I only had two artichokes, and they were pathetic, which yielded not so much of a really nice dish.  My trout was under marinated, and I probably should have added more acid.  But it tasted good and the colors were beautiful.

The pasta.  Oh the pasta.  I need to work on the pasta.

My marscapone gelato turned to butter.  Don’t ask me how, because I don’t know.  All I know was that it seized as soon as I put it in the ice cream machine.  It did taste good though.  The balsamic reduction magically turned into a hard ball consistency, making it perfect for pulling, but not-so-perfect for saucing.  If I had known prior to plating that had happened, I could have made it into a cage, which could have been awesome.

The upsides to my menu:

The artichokes were amazing, I guess.  According to my tasters, the play on sweet, salty, fishy and briny really worked well together.  Plus, my artichokes were nicely cooked and well trimmed.

My sausage knocked it out of the park.  I am really, really, really happy about this.  I haven’t made sausage in a long time, and I just winged the recipe.  I stuffed them into sheep casings, which made them skinnier and a little more dainty, but the flavor is what really made them.  According the my tasters, they were perfect.  They were also quite impressed that I made them in that little time.  The sausage also made the simple sauce phenomenal.  Actually, if it wasn’t for the pathetic pasta, that dish would have been perfect.

My cake was pretty darn good.  Nice crumb, nice crust, nice citrus flavor.

All that said and done, that practice knocked my confidence down a few notches.  I know exactly why I was late, and it all comes down to being unorganized and not taking the time to really prepare.  Also, I was doing some research on the practical exams through the American Culinary Federation and was blown away by the plates they had as examples on their site.  My food does not look like this.  I’m not one for fancy, over-the-top plating.  I like to keep it simple.  If they want fancy plates, they’re not going to get it.

And then, to top my stress off, I looked at the requirements for the Certified Master Chef exam, and realized that the majority of their test is exactly what I’m doing, just on a different level.

I need to start pushing now.  The test is exactly one month from today.  This said, I’m upping my practices from one to two a week, to a mandatory three.  I had planned on doing a baking exam today since I have the day off, but I decided to 86 that idea and work on getting some things caught up from school and working on really solidifying a Nutritional menu and start working on a Garde Manger menu.  Sometimes you need a break from the kitchen.  Although I am planning on baking a few cakes today just to make sure the recipes are on track.

The agenda for this week:

Nutrition Practice (hopefully tomorrow)

Either Greece or Southern France

Garde Manger

Wish me luck!

I’m getting excited.  After doing another Mediterranean practice today, I forgot how much I loved to cook under pressure.  As sick as it may sound, it a rush for me, and when I’m prepared for it, it’s even better.  I had a few of my students ask me if I’m nervous to take the exam, and of course I am, but really, I’m finally becoming stoked to be having this experience.  I guess looking back on it, I have realized that a. I’m one of the lucky ones to be taking this exam considering the pressure, cost and extent of the exams and b. the amount that I have learned in the last few months preparing for this will far exceed any certification I receive.  I’m also getting excited to go to New York, to see a place I have never been to, to have time to explore, to travel by myself, to meet the chefs at the CIA, to be in the CMC test kitchens, to cook in the CMC test kitchens.  Everything seems like it’s going to be surreal and, honestly, this may be one of the best experiences I’ll have during the course of my career, regardless of how it turns out.

That said, my practice today turned out really well.  I was given the Mediterranean region of Spain, a paella pan, mussels, clams, and squid, a variety of produce, and a chicken.  Of course I had to do paella.  I’m not a big fan of paella, well, I’m not a big fan of saffron, so I have never actually made paella before.  What I learned about paella is this:

It originates from the Valencia region of Spain.  Traditional paella is just a rice dish that was sometimes adorned with rabbit and snails.  Now, it is commonly seen with such garnishes as shellfish, chicken and sausage.  The dish was named after the pan it is cooked in–the paella pan–and has many tales surrounding it.  For instance, the supposed name of the pan, the paellera has been thrown back-and-forth being the correct name for the pan, but in recent years, it’s been admonished for the common paella pan.  The pan itself is a shallow metal pan with two handles.  Traditionally, paella is cooked outside over a fire fueled by grape leaves and fruit wood, and is served in the pan as a beautiful presentation.

Due to the nature of the dish, the rice is the stand-out ingredient.  You always use a short-grain rice (using a Asian style rice will not work), and the most common type of rice we can get is arborrio.  The Spaniards have a variety of rices they can use, and we could possibly find different varieties in specialty stores, but arborrio will work just fine.  In some cases, just the rice is served without any garnishes, so the highest quality will yield you the finest product.  A high-quality paella will have a creamy, firm final grain with a nice crust, or socarrot, holding the kernels from the bottom of the pan together.  It is said that the socarrot is was used to act as kind of a tortilla while eating with your hands.

When I was researching which type of paella I wanted to do, I decided to do a basic seafood paella instead of garnishing with different types of meat.  It is said that Spaniards would travel to the ocean during the summer and it was traditional to serve their paella with their fresh catches.  I chose just to use my three seafood choices–squid, clams, mussels–and make my own shellfish stock for the cooking liquid steeped with saffron. This would be my second course.

My first course was a variety of tapas.  To show-off a little of everything, I decided to do a Pepper and Tomato Salad with Grilled Chicken, Twin Tortillas, and Manchego Cheese, Quince, Caramelized Shallots, and Fried Almonds.  Although I didn’t necessarily want to do a dessert for my third course, I ended up doing an Orange and Yogurt Cake with Yogurt Mousse and Orange Sauce.

So…how did this all turn out?

Firstly, I was on time.  The flow was perfect and I felt organized and on-task throughout the duration of the three hours.  Second, my first course was pretty spot-on.  One of my chefs actually finished not only his plate, but another too.  The salad, I felt, was the standout element of the dish, combining the tang from Sherry Vinegar with the spice of Pimento Paprika and Cumin. 

The Paella was beautiful, although some opinions felt it was too saffrony.  The major problem with the paella was that half of the kernels of rice were cooked perfectly (the center of the pan), while the other half were still a tad al dente.  The chefs felt that since it was my first time cooking the dish, that I could chalk that up to experience and next time, just use a little more water and perhaps cover the paella with a damp cloth during the last ten minutes of cooking.  But, it had the right flavors, and it looked spectacular.

My cake, initially, was a mountain.  It was either too much baking powder, or folding the meringue caused it to rise to a lovely little peak.  However, the crumb was nice and flavor was mild and delicate.  The only criticism I had regarding that dish was to put more sauce on the plate, because the tang really helped bring out the sweetness.  I felt, however, that the dish was boring and needed something else.  Oh well.

So what’s next?  Friday I’ll be going east to Southern Italy.  I’m not sure what I’ll be getting ingredient wise, but I do know I’ll be making fresh pasta!

Until then,

Bon Appetit

Writing a nutritionally sound menu is harder than you’d think.

In the case of the exam, I have a lot of parameters I have to follow through a three course meal, which one of the course must be a dessert course.  I have to option of doing a vegetarian menu, which saves the trouble of having mystery proteins that I quickly have to work in and have to make sure fit into the nutritional guidelines.  I decided to go with this option and run with it!  Luckily, my initial menu fits everything have to do:

Calories: must be 1200 or under

Protein: 10-35% of calories must come from protein

Carbohydrates: 45-65% of calories must come from carbs

Fat: 10-35% of calories must come from fat

Vegetables: must have at least 1 1/2 cups veggies

Fruit: must contain at least 1/2 cup of fruit

Whole Grain: must contain at least one cup of whole grain

Fiber: must have at least 12 grams of fiber

Sodium: must fall below 1500 mg of sodium

These parameters are not easy to meet, especially when you’re doing a vegetarian menu and you don’t want to stick a giant block of tofu on the plate and call it good.  I was having a hard time becoming inspired to devise a menu that would be exciting, different and seasonally appropriate while still providing enough protein without putting a meat substitute on the plate.  Luckily, I actually paid attention to my newest issue of Bon Appetite and became inspired by a Barley Soup recipe that would knock out a few requirements (veggies and grains).  The rest of the menu followed pretty easily.

First Course:

Barley Soup with Greens, Dill, Lemon and Fennel

Entree:

Caramelized Onion Tart with Tomato Coulie accompanied by an Arugula Salad dressed with a Ratatouille Vinaigrette

Dessert:

Warm Shortcake with Fruit Compote and Vegan Vanilla Sauce

I just did the nutritional information and this is what I came up with: calories, 1159; protein, 11%; carbs, 51%; fat, 35%

I haven’t calculated the sodium or fiber, but I’m almost positive that they will be within the required guidelines.  This excites me tremendously.  Now I just need to cook it.  I believe I’m going to do the soup for dinner tonight!

Check back tomorrow with a post all on my second Mediterranean practice.  This time Spain!

Well hello everyone, it’s been a while.  Let me just fill you in on the hectic life I’ve been leading:

School’s back in session and the first week is officially over (thank god) which means the students don’t need constant supervision and I don’t have to continue running the marathon I’ve been running the last week.  Because of school, I had to put off major studying/practicing for the exam to make sure everything was ready to go for school itself.  Honestly, it was the best thing I could have done because I have never felt so prepared as I do this semester.

That said, let’s get on to the test.  During the last week, I’ve had to lecture on Garde Manger so that’s help brush me up on my forcemeat, terrine, appetizer knowledge for the exam.  Yay, but still no actual practice…until today.

I’m extremely lucky to have the coworkers I have.  Both Tom’s support me 100% and have helped me out tremendously, but the biggest help are the baskets they’re putting together to help me get ready for the Mediterranean Practical.  Because I don’t know what region, proteins, produce, cooking technique, or piece of equipment I’ll be getting, the only way to practice is to just dive on in.  So, today I was delighted to have a North African, or the Maghreb Region, basket waiting for me on my station.  Truth be told, I knew what I was getting on Friday, so I had time to prepare a menu and write recipes before this morning (did I mention I started at 5am).  I chose to do the exam at 5am because by the time I’m done with class, I’m exhausted and the last thing I want to do is cook.  This was actually the best decision I could have made.  Even though it was 5am, I was pumped and ready to go (save one minor flaw–my back–but I’ll get into that later).

Here was my menu:

Rice and Herb Stuffed Squid with Braised Artichoke Hearts

Lamb Stew and Couscous prepared in a traditional couscousiere

Yogurt Mousse with Pomegranate Sauce, Date Stuffed Semolina Cakes, Honeyed Orange and Almond Salad

I devised this menu after reading some of Clifford Wright’s Mediterranean Feast (which is an awesome book, by the way) and tried to stick to traditional Maghreb food.  I would say that I was the most excited for, and dreaded, the squid the most.  I’ve only ever had squid fried calamari style (which I hate) or over rubberized (which I hate), so I really had no hope for the dish.  Also, living in a land-locked state, I knew that my squid was going to be frozen in a ten pound block that I would have to chisel my poor little squidies out and hope for the best.

The lamb dish I knew would most likely be superb.  I love lamb, and I’m sorry to say that I really don’t care that it’s a baby.  They rock my animal-eating world.  But I was a little hesitant on the whole couscousiere and how my couscous would actually turn out.  Here’s the scoop on couscous: it’s their legacy.  They take such pride in it, I was terrified that I wouldn’t do it justice.  See, I’ve only ever made couscous by boiling some flavorful liquid, turning it off, dumping in X amount of couscous, covering it and calling it good.  Yeah…I found out that that’s completely wrong.  According to Wright, you NEVER submerge your couscous, you ALWAYS steam it, and you steam it in a couscousiere.  What is this fancy-sounding contraption?  Technically it’s a double boiler with a colander on the top.  You put a broth, or your items to be stewed, in the bottom part, and while that’s cooking, cover it with the colander filled with couscous which allows the couscous to steam.

That sounds simple enough, but the steps to get the couscous to even be in the colander is a bit time consuming, if not daunting.  First, you need to wet your couscous with salted water and olive oil, gently massaging the grains (couscous isn’t a pasta, by the way, because it contains no paste; technically it is a grain) to coat them evenly.  Then you let them sit for an hour or two.  Then you place them in some cheesecloth, put them in your couscousiere, cover, and let steam.  However! one or two times (at least 5o minutes apart), you are supposed to remove your couscous (what the cheesecloth is for) and rehydrate with the salt water and oil and then continue steaming it.  A lot of work for such a simple item.

The dessert was kind of a last minute thing.  The Maghreb don’t really have full-blown desserts like we do.  Instead they eat a variety of “sweets” or candies.  I knew I wanted to try the date stuffed semolina cakes, but I also knew they weren’t going to be enough to follow-up two substantial courses.  The last week, my Pantry students made this yogurt mousse that we paired with orange sauce.  It was awesome and something I knew that would be appropriate to the region.  The orange salad was basically an after thought because I didn’t have any place to use the oranges and almonds and wanted something fast and simple.

So how did it all go?

At 4:30am, I strolled into the kitchen ridiculously unprepared.  I didn’t have any of my recipes written out, no menu, no production schedule, pretty much nothing but my books and my will.  I actually started at 5:30am once I gathered all of my product and got my mind straight.  Surprisingly, I was very awake and ready to role.  There was, however, one major downfall that I believe caused a lot of difficulty: I hurt my back on Saturday at the gym and could hardly move, let alone, bend over.  But injury aside, I pushed through.

I started with the stew first.  It actually took me a while to fabricate the meat off the bone and then prep all the vegetables, etc.  But once I got it started, I pretty much could forget about it until it was time for service.  The couscous was simple enough to get ready.  I did the whole wetting and drying technique (although, I believe I only let it dry for about half an hour), but I didn’t use the cheesecloth for transferring.  Instead, I just dumped the couscous in the top and hoped for the best.

On to the squid.  To my surprise, my squids were thawed and still in tact.  This means I got to clean them.  Now, cleaning squid at 6:30am isn’t what I call fun, especially when you’re a little queasy.  Removing the ink sacks, eggs, guts, eyes, and beaks were simple enough, but not very texturally pleasing.  I really don’t know what I did between 6:30 and 7:30 because it seemed like time literally disappeared and all of a sudden I was in the weeds.  It was at this point I kind of started freaking out because I knew I was going to be late (remember I only had three hours to complete this) and I needed to hurry so the students could work on their stations.  If I have had an actual production schedule, that may have helped me, but it was too late for that.

So I just pushed through it.  I decided to 86 the date cakes and opted to put the dates in the orange salad instead.  I fabricated the artichokes, which surprisingly, was the easiest of the tasks even though I had never done it for real (I say this because I’ve kind of done them in other settings, but have never done them correctly, or at least, never thought I’ve done them correctly), and started those for the hour long cooking they needed.  They were pretty simply done, just some water, olive oil and aromatics.

I was supposed to start plating at 8:30, but that’s when I started cooking my squid.  I had stuffed them with a combination of rice, herbs, preserved lemons, tomatoes and their tentacles, which looked and smelled delicious.  Then, I seared them and did a quick 15-minute braise just to tenderize the squid and bring the flavors together.  The stew was perfectly done at this point, but the couscous still looked a little dry.  My mousse was done, the pomegranate sauce was reducing and the orange salad was prepped.  Time to plate!

Surprisingly (I’ve been saying that a lot, I realize) the squid turned out excellent.  I plated it very simply–just cut on a bias–with three pieces of artichoke hearts and a little sauce.  This was my favorite dish of all of them.  The squid was tender, had depth of flavor with the citrus and the spices, was a perfect size, and the artichokes were cooked perfectly.  The lamb stew was also fantastic.  The couscous turned out to be done and had absorbed the stew liquid to create a bold flavor that had combined with the butter and cinnamon I finished the couscous with.   The yogurt mousse and pomegranate sauce worked very well: the tarts of the yogurt and fruit really played off of each other and the creamy mellowed it out.  The salad was simple and refreshing, especially after a spicy meal.

So all in all, it went very well.  I did end up finishing about fifteen minutes late, but I attribute that to poor planning and my injured back.  It was also the first time I did any of the recipes, so figuring out the logistics is always fun.  One of my chefs did tell me that I would have passed with the quality, authenticity, and flavors of the dishes, plus the students that tried it, said they really enjoyed it too.

I guess I can safely say that that practice was a success.  Tomorrow, I’m going to start some recipes for the nutritional exam.  You can expect practices every M, W, F at 5am from here until the test.  Awesome.

Oh, and I wish I had photos, but I forgot my camera.  Next time!

Until then,

Bon Apetite!

At this time last year, I was jumping at the bit waiting to get back to work at school.  This year, however, the last six weeks have literally flown by, and besides a few days off for myself, I don’t recall having a vacation.  (Last year I got very familiar with day-time television, I guess having no time off, is better than that.) The last few days have been spent preparing for the next semester updating syllabi, creating menus, and generally boring things like that.  However, I have found that in preparing myself for school, I can prepare myself for the test as well.

Here’s the deal, the first week back in the saddle, the kid’s are doing Spanish cuisine.  Great!  That’s one of the regions I may get thrown into for my Mediterranean exam, and really, I know very little about.  So…what have I learned about Spain in the last two days:

Tapas, literally meaning lid, is thought to have come about from food that was invented in a bar to cover the patron’s glass from insects, etc.  However, upon further research, it is hard to find any actual evidence suggesting this is true, and can be considered an lovely little myth about the lovely little bits of food.  It is true that the tapa is commonly eaten in bars or gatherings where alcohol is served.  The tapa, or in most cases, tapas are served on the bar itself acting as appetizers while socialization and good ol’ fashion drinking is happening.  Like the amuse busche, the tapa is full of flavor and texture and excites the palate.  It is also customary to have tapas that proceed a meal.

Some may feel that tapas and the middle eastern mezze are the same thing, when in fact they are completely different.  The mezze, literally meaning “no beginning and no end” is a feast, or an assortment of foods, served at one time.  In middle eastern culture, they do not eat in courses, whereas the Spanish (and other European cultures) do.  The mezze are similar to tapas, in that they are served on platters and are commonly small one bite creations, dips, breads, soups, etc.  It is also very different in the situation in which they are served, since Muslim culture does not drink (whereas the Spanish tapas are centralized around drinking).

I also discovered that the Spanish do not have a culture built around salads.  This I found very interesting, since the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Don’t get me wrong, they do eat salads, but the salads they eat are last minute, thrown together concoctions that utilize the freshest ingredients for a satisfying meal or snack.  Unlike us, the French or Italian, the Spanish rarely have fancy composed salads on their restaurant menus and find salads an impromptu feast instead of something well planned out.

Because of this, I don’t plan on having a salad on any of the menus I may do for Spain.  A soup or tapas instead.

Just minutes ago, I finished my first full baking practice.  Let me recap everything I had to do, just incase you forgot…

I have five hours to make:

5 lbs soft roll dough, made up in three different shapes and need to present 36 pieces

3 lbs pate a choux dough made into at least one dozen eclairs–filled with vanilla pastry cream and glazed with ganache–and one dozen other make up of my choosing.  I did profiteroles.

3 lbs pie crust rolled out to two 10″ shells, blind baked

2 2lb pound cakes

When I woke up the morning I fell into my same old routine of being scared, therefore putting it off.  I took a nice long shower, ate a leisurely breakfast, watched some tv, and then finally came to school where I ironed my uniform and checked my email before I finally decided to saunter into the kitchen.  However, once in the kitchen, I was all business.  It’s funny how it turns out that way, but that’s how it’s always been.

I will admit that I was a little all over the place when I first started.  I thought I killed my yeast, then I added too much liquid to my dough, the mixer was walking all over the counter, I had to watch it constantly to make sure I wasn’t over mixing it, which kind of screwed up my initial production schedule.  However, once the dough was done and on its first ferment, I felt like I was on target.

The first real pangs of panic came around 1pm when I thought I only had one hour left (I started at 10:30am, so I was done at 3:30pm).  I started freaking out because at that point, I still had my pate a choux to bake, had to make my ganache, finish the make up and final proof plus bake my rolls,  and roll out and bake my pie crusts.  I almost started to give up when I realized that I did, infact, still have two and a half hours left, not one and a half.  Time to move.  I guess I moved a little too quickly because I ended up finishing a good half hour early and the last hour I was really dilly-dallying. 

That said, here were the issues:

My roll dough was too small.  I wanted to try a scaled down recipe first to test the amount of liquid.  This original recipe would have yielded enough 1 oz rolls, but I decided to up the ante and made my rolls 1.5 oz.  This caused there to be roughly 30 pieces, not 42 like there should have been.  The next time, I plan on just doubling the recipe and it should be perfect (with the extra dough I’m also required to make for evaluation).  Also by adding more dough, it will add on a few minutes to the roll time, which will give me more to do.  Yay.

Also, my pie crust was too thick.  I need to roll it much thinner next time.  However, it was really nice and flaky, probably even a little too flaky.  I froze all of my ingredients prior to mixing them, which made life a little difficult with the butter be SOLID.  So next time I plan on just sticking everything in the cooler and that should be adequate.

The pound cake didn’t turn out exactly right.  Now, this was the first time I did the pound cake, and actually for the first try, it wasn’t bad.  I think the mixing was a little off because I should have used a larger mixer, but the paddle was missing.  I think I’m going to try a smaller batch and see how it works out.  Also, not to blame the ovens, but the ovens here are complete crap.  Even worse than my oven at home (if that’s possible).

The eclairs and cream puffs turned out wonderful.  The pastry cream was a little cornstarch-y, but I know that’s because I was being too cautious and didn’t take it to a complete boil.

The ganache was fine.

All of this said and done, I feel really good about the practice today.  The simple fact that I managed to get everything done with time to spare gives me hope.  A lot will be different during the actual exam.  For instance, I don’t know the kitchen at all.  This will take some time getting used to.  I don’t know how the ovens work (although I can assume they work better then ours, at least I hope so).  All of the little things will take more time, so having a few extra minutes to spare isn’t a bad thing right now.

So what’s next?  Well, I’m going to give baking a rest for the time being and start on the Nutritional Cooking section.  I’ve been thinking about some menu ideas, and they seem like they could be really nice.

Quick Update

January 12, 2010

Unable to practice today due to huge ice problem this morning.  Plan on practicing tomorrow.

However!  I have finally gotten in touch with a new adviser with the CIA, Chef Bruno who has answered all of my questions and had taken over as my new adviser.  I feel 100% relieved now that I have my questions answered.  He also said that I sound like I’m on the right track, which makes me feel a ton better too.

Fantastic!

What is mise en place?  If you enjoy cooking, and follow any professional cooking shows or chefs around, you’re bound to hear the term mise en place.  The literal translation of mise en place is french for everything in its place.  In the cooking world, it means not only everything in its place, but being 100% ready to go for service with all ingredients, equipment, serving utensils, etc ready at arms reach.  Basically, if you weren’t mise en placed, you will be far less efficient, basically screwing yourself for whatever service your doing.

I just finished mise en placing for my first full practice on baking tomorrow.  Normally, I would have scaled all ingredients as well as gathering all equipment needed, but for the CIA exams, they do not designate time prior to the exam to gather mise en place (as far as I know; I have a few emails out to my adviser who doesn’t want to email me back).  This kind of sucks since scaling ingredients takes a good half hour out of my time.  I could scale the ingredients as I go, however!  without a good mise en place to begin with, you won’t be organized throughout the entire exam.

So…what have I done, exactly.  Well, I set-up a speed rack with all of my equipment needed.  This includes sheet pans, plastic wrap, sauce pans, whisks, spatulas, etc. as well as incidentals like paper towels and sanitation solution.  I have typed out pages of what equipment I need, the exact measurements of the ingredients, and a production schedule.  Aside from the obvious ingredients, the Baking Production Schedule Jan 12 is by far the most important tool I have tomorrow.  It’s pretty bare bones right now, but essentially it’s a time-line of everything you have to do during your given amount of time.  You always start  from the longest and work your way down.  I have thought about this schedule and looked at this schedule for the last week, so I know it pretty well, but having it typed is more of a comfort thing than anything.  As one of my chef’s told me, if you start stressing out and freaking out about time, just look at your production schedule and you’ll see where you need to be.  It really does work.

As far as everything else, I’m actually starting to feel the stress.  After discussing pound cakes with my chef, I realized that the CIA has given obscene amounts of product to make with only a few pieces being presented to the judges.  Okay, no big deal except for the fact that we are graded on utilization of product.  What the hell am I going to do with 6 dozen EXTRA rolls?  Come on!  So, I emailed my adviser again, and pleaded with him to email me back soon.  See, the problem is, he just had surgery and has  been out of the office.  I’m trying to be polite, but it’s getting to the point where I need my questions answered.  The only solution I have is to wait until tomorrow and then call the CIA and demand another adviser who is going to be there for me.  Is this too much to ask?

So the plan?  8am tomorrow, start baking to be done at 12pm.