Rolling Pin and Flour

Rolling Pin and Flour

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Are you tough enough?

When we're healthy, we tend to take it for granted.  We forget all the moments we were sick or injured or depressed.  We get careless, we stop paying attention, we rush through a critical moment and our health is suddenly in jeopardy.  Our bodies are so complex that it doesn't take much to throw them off balance.  Our health, our livelihoods can change in a heartbeat.

You might not think of a chef or baker's job as being especially dangerous, I never really gave it much thought.  But once you're in a working kitchen, you realize that the smallest misstep could end in a serious injury.  You're surrounded by hot ovens, open flames, scalding hot fry oil, boiling water, sharp knives.  And you don't just have to worry about injuring yourself, you have to worry about your coworkers as well.  You have to respect the space that you work in, the tools that you work with and you have to continually be aware of your surroundings.

When Louie was working at the Farmhouse, he would make fart noises constantly.  Entertaining? Yes.  But the primary reason he did it was to let the other cooks know where he was.  On a small crowded line when you're working with hot pans and food, you have to coordinate your movements and be aware of the others around you. His 'farting' was like the horn of a car, letting his companions know he was behind them or next to them.

Since I had never worked in a professional kitchen before, I wasn't aware of this etiquette at first.  I'm sure I startled the line cooks on more than one occasion when I was attempting to get in and out of the ovens on the line.  Later, a fellow baker would explain to me, 'When you come around a corner or come up behind someone, you have to let everyone know.  The kitchen is loud, they might not hear you coming.  And you never know who will be around that corner with a pot of boiling water.  So you call out 'Corner!' or 'Behind!'  I was really uncomfortable with this practice at first.  I'm somewhat of an introvert, so for me to shout out anything is a bit of a stretch.  But over time, it became habit.  And I realized how much of a necessity it was.  It saved me from more than one close call.

Still, the possibility of injury was high.  I am not the most graceful person, and being clumsy in a kitchen is not ideal.  I also get careless when I move too quickly or get flustered.  This resulted in a number of burns to my hands and arms over time.  Javier started to joke that I needed oven mitts up to my armpits.  After a while, I learned to take pride in my battle scars.  Each one had a story to go along with it - a cautionary tale of sorts.  When I rode the train or bus I started recognizing fellow cooks by the similar scars on their arms.  It was like I was part of an elite club.

Til now, most of my burns had been minimal, healed over time and paled in comparison to other injuries I had seen and heard about.  Once Louie told me about a time he was interviewing for a chef job.  The prospects for hiring him didn't look good - they didn't seem to think he was the right fit. Then, in the middle of the interview, they heard screams coming from the line.  One of the cooks had cut off a finger while doing some prep work.  The executive chef motioned Louie over to the line, "Can you start now?"  And just like that, he had a job.  Another time, a cook at the Farmhouse was sauteeing some food.  He was tossing the food in the pan with the flick of the wrist technique that I've become so envious of, when he jerked his hand a little too hard.  Hot oil and food splashed onto his wrist.  It was one of the worst burns I'd seen up close, but he just wrapped it in a paper towel and went on cooking.

There is definitely a tough guy attitude in the industry.  Staffing is always tight, so when you're scheduled to work, you work.  There is no one to fill in for you and there is usually no paid time off.  Many times, this means working through illness and injury alike.  And if you do take time off for one or the other, it's likely your coworkers will mock you - either to your face, or behind your back.  A professional kitchen is not a place to be if you're feeling sorry for yourself and want others to do the same.  Sympathy runs short.

All the same, I couldn't deny that the kitchen was where I wanted to be.  Dessert baking at the Farmhouse was going well.  I was still baking apple pies on a regular basis and I had gotten used to working alone in the back prep kitchen.  I even grew to like it more than being in the main kitchen.  I wasn't battling for counter space or getting tangled up in the line cooks' feet, worrying they might drop a hot pan on my head as I worked with the ovens.  I learned to master the use of the new convection ovens - noting the temperatures needed to be significantly lower than conventional ones, cooking times were shorter, cheesecakes had to be covered so the tops wouldn't brown and dry out.  It was a process of trial and error, but I was starting to figure out the tricks.

Then one night, Michael approached me.  "Did you hear what happened to Pam?" I had not.  "She apparently burned her whole arm and had to be rushed to the hospital yesterday!"

After asking around for more details, I learned that she was working next to the fryer when it happened.  She had bent over toward the floor to do something and the handle of the fryer basket got caught in her shirt.  The basket, its contents and scalding hot oil flipped up out of the fryer and onto her.  She shielded her face with her hands and arms.  Her head and neck were spared, but her whole arm was severely burned. One cook who witnessed the accident described it as though her skin were melting away.  I shivered at the thought of it.  I could only imagine the shock and the pain she must have felt.  I had never really liked Pam - we had our differences.  But I would never have wished this on her.  And for a chef to lose the use of their arm? That was significant.

The burns were so severe that Pam was out of work for a while.  She would call in to talk things over with Julius, the sous chef or Tim, the owner, but her presence was missing.  All at once, Julius was assuming the chef position in Pam's absence and my position just sort of fell through the cracks.  No one was supervising me.  The possibilities were endless.  The dessert menu was mine to manage (or munge) as I saw fit.  I marveled at the thought.  Here I was, someone that had literally no experience seven months ago and now I was calling the shots.  I would need to remember though, not to take this for granted.  As Pam's accident had reminded me, nothing in a working kitchen is permanent - and moments like these are especially fleeting.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Twists of fate

Every day, life presents us with a multitude of choices, some small and some significant.  Our decisions in these moments send us down particular paths and build upon each other to create our lives as we know them.  Alter one or two of those choices and we might end up completely different individuals in entirely different places.

When I was a senior in high school, confused and frightened about what my future might hold, I had a chat with an army recruitment officer at my school.  He was an excellent salesman and he had an answer to all of my doubts; the army would give me money for a full college education, it would allow me to travel and see the world and explore careers.  It would give me the opportunity to challenge myself physically and provide guidance and discipline.  And as for war?  There was no chance anything like that would come up over the next four years (who knew that the World Trade Center attack would happen two years later?).  So I signed on the dotted line.  I took the oath to serve and protect my country.  It was then that I was told that I couldn't have the career I wanted in journalism.  Those jobs went to people with experience and education.  I also wouldn't get the full amount of money they had promised for college. And as for seeing the world?  My first stop would be Oklahoma.  

It was suddenly very apparent that I had made a mistake.  This path was not going to give me the life I had dreamed of.  I started to panic.  I had several months before my high school graduation and the day I would ship off to bootcamp, so I scrambled to find a way out.  After multiple failed attempts, the same weaselly recruitment officer told me to skip town on the day I was supposed to leave for Oklahoma.  

"Just disappear for a couple days, and things will eventually blow over," he told me.

It seemed too good to be true, but I was desperate.  So the day of my ship date, I drove to Canada and spent the night.  Things got a little scary after that.  Some senior officers contacted my mom, words like AWOL were thrown around.  They demanded I come back to town and explain myself.  I had visions of army helicopters swooping in, armed men seizing me and carrying me away.  Luckily, I never saw the interior of a Black Hawk helicopter.  Things eventually blew over, the blame fell on my recruiter and I went on with my life.  But even so, the damage was done.  By the time I realized I was a free woman, it was too late to enroll in my college of choice, the University of Washington, in the fall.  So instead, I found a private arts school in the Midwest that had open enrollment.  I got accepted, got a dorm room and a few months later was enrolled in classes.

Fast forward through a few more decisions after that including a partial move to Hawaii and back to the Midwest again, a career change from PR woman to web developer, the decision to end a six year relationship, a whim to post an ad for a tennis partner, choosing to marry that tennis partner, and poof!  I find myself baking desserts in the back kitchen of a homey little diner.  Alter any of those decisions, and I might be in Seattle working as a marine biologist or performing in a musical on Broadway.  But maybe, just maybe, this is where I was meant to end up all along. 

All of this history was weighing on my mind as I went in for my second shift in the back prep kitchen.  The first time I baked there had been an awful experience and I was not looking forward to it.  This day was already starting out a little differently since I would be working there during the day.  I had taken the day off of my regular job so I could see a concert later that night.  I decided to go in early to get my shift out of the way.  

When I arrived, I was greeted enthusiastically by one of my favorite daytime line cooks - he was surprised to see me since I usually worked nights and we rarely worked together.  When I stepped into the prep kitchen, Ronaldo and Julius were there.  Pam had brought them over from her previous kitchen job to take on some of the management duties and I had really come to like them.  They greeted me joyfully and cleared a space for me to work.  The kitchen was warm, smelled delicious, and reggae music was playing in the background.  The shelves were already looking more organized.  Four hours breezed by and I was almost sad to leave when everything was done baking.  After my last shift, I had seriously considered quitting.  Now I knew there was no way I was giving this up.  I wondered though, if I had come in to work my shift that night instead of choosing to come in that day, would things be different?

That night I went to see the lead singer for the Decemberists perform.  A fellow Montanan, I marveled that two people from the same place could have such different lives and yet still cross paths.  I never would have expected that I would become a dessert baker back when I was eighteen and the experience of army boot camp loomed ahead of me.  But now I know that I wouldn't change any of the decisions I made to get here - I honestly wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The lonely hearts club

When Pam started as the head chef at the Farmhouse, she promised big things; more organized storage, better food, a cleaner kitchen and best of all, a new prep kitchen with new ovens.  When I heard all of this, I couldn't help but think, "Yeah, we'll see about that."  I've seen people start things with the best of intentions, only to be met with the cruel reality of it all.  Change is not easy - especially in an establishment like the Farmhouse. But over the course of several weeks, I watched as the back of the restaurant was gutted and baking as I knew it was thrown into complete disarray.  

First, everything that was in the dry storage area was moved into the corridor between the front of the restaurant and the back offices.  This included freezers, shelving, food, cookware, buckets, old newspapers, toilets and such, until there was a narrow little path between giant piles of precarious stuff.  At night the space was very poorly lit, which made searching for things even more frustrating than it already was.  I feared that the bases of the springform pans were lost and gone forever.

Next, all of the food in the giant walk-in refrigerator was moved into the tiny walk-in at the front of the restaurant.  It was so full, you couldn't even get to the back shelf without moving and stacking boxes, crates or buckets.  It was like a game of Jenga with much less stable blocks.  Once the big walk-in was cleared out, it was leveled, the debris removed (after sitting in a pile on the floor for nearly a week), and finally, a new walk-in freezer and refrigerator were erected.  Progress?

Little by little things changed.  A sink was installed in back, then the new ovens were delivered.  And then one night I walked in to find all of my baking equipment gone from the main kitchen.

Jesse, one of the new line cooks greeted me, "Hey, we just got all of your stuff moved back to the prep kitchen today."

I should have been thrilled.  There would be more space for me to work.  No more fighting for a few inches of counter space.  No more working with the ovens at the feet of the cooks on the line.  No more blazing hot, fire of hell oven.  No more oven that barely heated enough to melt a stick of butter.  No more listening to the terrible open mic performances or the Spanish radio station.  But instead of being overjoyed, I felt like a sad, wet blanket.  It felt like I was being banished.  As insane as it was, I had really loved working in that kitchen.  It was my dysfunctional home and I had made it work.  

Since there were no other prep cooks working that night, I was completely on my own in the new kitchen space.  It was quiet, dimly lit, and still completely disorganized.  The dishwasher didn't know where to take things yet, so most of my baking tools ended up at the front kitchen again.  I had to make numerous trips back and forth.  I was missing an open flame for boiling water for my cheesecake's water bath and I couldn't boil down the syrup for the apple pie unless I wanted to make the trip through the labyrinth of the back of the restaurant (where random people popped out of doors every now and then) with boiling hot liquid in a scalding hot pan.  And I couldn't figure out the ovens.  Since they were convection, they were highly more efficient than what I was used to.  I couldn't get the temperature right - everything was cooking way too fast.  My cheesecake browned in a matter of minutes.  My apple pie crust browned, but the filling didn't bubble.  I had no idea if my final products were going to be cooked through or raw in the middle.

There seemed to be one bright spot in the new space - I could listen to whatever music I wanted to.  I had spent countless nights next to a boombox playing a radio station that repeated the same ten Spanish songs over and over again.  I didn't know what they were singing about, but I sure as heck had the words memorized.  So many nights I went home with a song stuck in my head in a language I didn't comprehend.  Tonight would be different!  I pulled up my Pandora account excited to listen to my choice of tunes.  But every artist I chose gave me a mix of utterly dark and depressing music. 

I languished.  I felt displaced and alone.  I missed being in the warm, brightly lit kitchen with my co-workers. I missed hearing the commotion of the dining room and the sizzle of food on the line.  I missed the chatter of the servers and the jingle of the dishwasher.  All of the things that had felt like sensory overload when I first started at the cafe had become second nature for me.   The silence of this new kitchen was more than I could take.   I also missed getting fed at the end of my shift that night.  I had been forgotten. I couldn't wait to get out of there.

That weekend, I found myself dwelling on my new working space.  Wasn't the whole point of me getting a job in a kitchen to actually spend time in one?  Observing and experiencing and interacting?  In this new prep kitchen, all I could observe and experience was myself, my desserts and my shortcomings.  And that terrified me a little.  I could take Pam's judgement or anyone else's for that matter, but my own?  Four to five hours alone with my fears and doubts and criticisms might be more than I could handle.  It was ironic.  After everything I'd been through in that restaurant; the dysfunctional ovens, the missing and inadequate equipment, the endless renovations and reorganizations, the changes in chefs, the changes in job duties, could this really be the last straw? So I made up my mind.  I would give it one more chance.  If I left feeling lonely and dejected again, I would call it quits. But if I survived this lonely prep kitchen and my inner critic, then there would be no stopping me.

Monday, November 4, 2013

ISO: My happy place

You could say that I'm a little bit of a dreamer.  Like most human beings, I am never satisfied, constantly in search of greener pastures; daydreaming of that happy place where there is no stress, no struggle, just bliss. This search is what eventually led me to the Farmhouse.  And while the job definitely had moments of hair tearing frustration, it was truly a happy place for me.  It was a place where I could wind down from the day, surrounded by my fellow kitchen staff, working with simple ingredients in the hopes that the end result would be something beautiful and delicious. But as more and more shifts passed, inevitably the question of the future began to nibble at the back of my mind. I found myself frequently asking what the purpose of all of this was.  Where was this going? What was it leading up to? Or, worst of all, was it just a dead end?  Simply a hobby and a source for entertaining stories?

Originally, the main purpose of my Farmhouse experiment had been to find out if I did, in fact, enjoy working in the restaurant industry. If my time at the cafe was any indication, my hypothesis had been proven correct. I loved it.  But I was fully aware that I had eons more to learn.  When I had first taken the job, I had hoped to find a mentor in Louie and I think he had truly wanted to be one.  In the beginning, he brought me a collection of cookbooks to leaf through in my spare time and tried to share industry tips and tricks every now and then.  But it turned out that the Farmhouse had other plans for him.  His chefly duties consumed all of his spare time until he finally said enough was enough and got out while he still had some sanity.

When Pam took over she had shown me a few things, but that quickly dwindled.  She was an eight hour shift kind of gal - she put in her time in the morning and got out.  She was rarely around when I was there at night. If our paths did happen to cross, she showed little interest in spending any time working with me.  So I was on my own trying to make the most of it. After more than six months however, I was starting to realize that I couldn't possibly continue learning from my mistakes or research on the internet.  It was taking too much time and wasting too much product.  I needed some guidance.

The thought of culinary classes was increasingly on my mind.  I wanted to learn about ingredients and how they worked together, influenced one another.  I wanted to learn about ratios and techniques, mass production, supply ordering and menu writing.  In terms of schooling, there were plenty of options to choose from in the city, but most were pricey.  I'd also heard that many of them gave a lot of empty promises to their hopeful young chefs - leading them to believe they'd get all of the tools they needed to be successful in the industry, only to graduate without a clue where to begin.  I was wary.  Plus, that nest egg I had been saving up was really meant to go toward a first home or better yet a business - not another education. 

I could also take a leap and get a full-time job baking somewhere if anyone would have me, but the thought of this was more than a little terrifying.  It was a well known fact that you wouldn't get rich baking for someone else.  The money was crap.  Leaving a job where I had good benefits and a nice paycheck for a job with no benefits and a very tiny paycheck seemed more than a little nuts.

But I was getting restless and I needed something to happen.  I felt less and less confident and fulfilled in my work in web development.  The industry was constantly changing and I was struggling to keep up with it. Most days left me feeling empty, dissatisfied and insufficient.  Recently, the company I worked for had taken on a project for a huge pharmaceutical company that required me to spend hours of my life tweaking code to match a design specification that asked for pixel perfection.  I would get vague bug reports from someone in their QA department in China requesting that I move a logo up two pixels and a navigation bar to the left by one pixel, decrease a font size by a point, darken a horizontal rule by one shade.  I couldn't make myself believe that this work mattered.  How did this make the world a better place?  At least with baking I was fulfilling one of the most basic human needs.  The result was tangible, something I could touch and feel and taste, something that I knew other people would get enjoyment from.

As much as I thought things over, I couldn't reach a conclusion. I desperately wanted someone to tell me the answer.  Discussions with my husband only led to frustration.  He works on something we like to call 'Brian' time.  He talks a good game, but when it comes to execution, it takes him a while.  It took him four years to propose.  It takes him a year to make a dentist appointment, days to take out the garbage, you get the point. I work on Ceth time, which usually equals immediate results.  Being stuck in limbo drove me crazy.  Brian was also not much of a risk taker.  I found that when I would dream out loud to him, I'd be confronted by a dear in headlights look. Something that said, 'I didn't sign on for this.'  And it's true, he didn't.  When we met I was just a boring corporate girl that wanted to play tennis.  Now I was an unstable woman that wanted to throw her professional life down the toilet.  This was all my crazy dream, not his. I couldn't expect him to help me find the solution.  I would have to do it on my own.

For now I would just have to be satisfied with dreaming and have faith that eventually something would happen to take me down the right path.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Apple pie up the ying yang

I like a good challenge.  They say nothing worthwhile in life comes easy, and I am a firm believer in that. You have to fight for happiness and success.  And if you don't have to?  It's probably only temporary, or you're just a really freaking lucky person and you should be extremely thankful for it.  For all the rest of us, life is challenging. But I'm not complaining. I don't want anything handed to me.  I want to earn it. Because there is nothing like struggling and falling and getting back up and then finally succeeding.  The pure joy of accomplishing what you've set out to do with your own brains and bodily strength is so incredibly satisfying.

A short while after I had started baking apple pies at the Farmhouse, I got wind of a pie baking contest in one of the city's neighborhoods.  It was a fundraiser for one of the local parks and anyone and everyone was welcome to participate.  I knew I had a long way to go before my pie was award-winning, but I really wanted to give it a shot anyway.  If I could get an honorable mention?  Now that would really be something.  It would be a start to making a name for myself in the baking community, affirm that I was on the right path and get me one step closer to having my own bakery or cafe.

The contest was for apple pies only and had very strict guidelines - no other fruit allowed, double crust only! There were also very specific tasting notes; the pie should have eye appeal, filling consistency, a nice color, definition, spice balance, crust that was flaky, but not too flaky, with uniform thickness completely sealed with no leaking and a flavor that was complimentary to the filling.
Jesus, these people weren't messing around!  I seriously doubted I could meet all the rigorous requirements, but I was damned if I wouldn't try.  I completed my application and set to work developing the perfect pie recipe.

Over the next few weeks, I made pies several times a week with various alterations to the recipe, trying to get the spice, sweetness and consistency of the apples to the right place.  I started by tinkering with different kinds of apples.  Tim, the owner of the Farmhouse had given me lectures regarding the types of apples I was using for pies and how I should taste them to determine the appropriate sugar level, and not overpower it with additional flavors like lemon juice, and what thickeners were best and so on.  He had a secret mix of apples that he always used for pie that consisted of Jonathan, Golden Delicious and a couple other varieties.  I personally hate Golden Delicious, so I stayed far away from those and searched for ones with a nice round flavor and tartness.  I settled on a mix of Jonathan and Empire.  The Empires were tart almost like a Macintosh, but had a firmer texture that would hold up in baking.  The Jonathan had great flavor and would break down a little more, resulting in a pie that was neither crunchy nor mush.

Once the apples were chosen, I played around with crust recipes, working with varying amounts of sugar, butter, shortening and even one that used hard cider instead of water.  I also experimented with chilling times and oven temperatures.  Sometimes my crust drooped in the oven, sometimes the filling was too tart, most times the crust was not flaky enough.  But I kept at it, buying up all the apples I could at local farmer's markets.  I even went apple picking in Michigan one weekend.

Somewhere in the midst of all of this, I was working a normal Thursday shift at the cafe when I got a call from Pam.

"Tim's harvest party at the apple orchard is this weekend and he wants you to make the pies for it."

I felt a knot form in my throat and I hesitated to ask the next question, fearing the answer.  "How many pies does he need?"

"As many as you can possibly make."

Awesome.  While I was honored that he thought my pies were good enough for his party guests, I had no idea how many I could possibly bake in the next two days.  I decided to whip up crusts for eight pies that night and let them chill until the next day.  Then I would come in and power through the peeling, coring and slicing.  Up until now, I had been doing all of the apple prep with a small apple corer, a vegetable peeler and a chef's knife.  It was tedious.  Apples for two pies took me 30-45 minutes.  This was not gonna fly if I needed to make more than two pies tomorrow.  As if reading my mind, that night my husband surprised me with a combination apple peeler, corer, slicer.  It was a brilliant device and cut the prep time down significantly.  Not to mention, it saved my hands from hours of pain!

Apparently Pam had been thinking the same thing.  When I walked into the Farmhouse kitchen the next night, there sat the same peeler, slicer, corer my husband had brought me the night before.

"Have you used one of these things before?  It's a life saver!"

Indeed it was.  That night could have been a nightmare, but with that device, it went by without a hitch.  Now if I could just get my pies for the contest to come out right...

The night before the contest, I started my prep for the pies.  I had planned everything out.  The crust had been made earlier in the day and was thoroughly chilled.  I would fill the crust, chill the pie overnight and then bake it off in the morning.  I got the filling ready to go, lined a pie plate with crust, filled it and started to seal it.  But something was wrong.  Juice started oozing all over the place.  A quick check of the bottom crust found a gigantic, gaping hole in it.  Panic set in.  It was already 11 pm.  I was going to get up at 6 am the next morning to bake the pies before the contest.  I needed to make another crust and it would have to chill at least 1 hour before I could roll it.  Looked like it was going to be a long night.  I took a deep breath and worked through it.  Why on earth had I thought this contest was a good idea?

The next morning, I baked the pies, but didn't check on them until they were almost done.  Apparently my oven was not wide enough to bake two pies on one shelf - the edges of one of the pies nearest to the side had almost burned.  It looked like one of the crusts had leaked too.  Disaster.  But I swallowed my pride and delivered the pies anyway.  If nothing else, maybe they could sell them and make some money for the park.

Several days went by with me obsessively checking the contest's website for the results to be posted.  I already knew I hadn't won, but I wasn't giving up hope that maybe I had gotten an honorable mention.  On my way to a shift at the Farmhouse, I checked one more time.  The results were posted, but my name wasn't on the list.  After all of the mishaps I wasn't really surprised, but that didn't mean it didn't hurt anyway.  The number of apples I had gone through, the pounds my husband and I gained doing taste tests, the hours of effort I spent.  It hurt.  With tears in my eyes, I entered the cafe to be greeted by my favorite server, Michael.

"Ceth!" He exclaimed. "I served some of your pie to this older gentleman today and he said it was the best pie he'd ever had!"

I wanted to kiss him.  After feeling like an utter failure, he had managed to turn my world around.  I had lost sight of what was important.  All along I thought it was that stupid contest, but it wasn't. It was the people that were eating my desserts on a regular basis at the cafe. They already approved of my work, they didn't need my name on a list to validate it.  I hadn't needed the contest to win.  I had won months ago when I had accepted the challenge of baking at the Farmhouse.  And that was a prize most amateur bakers couldn't add to their list of awards.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The magic of pie

I have a slight obsession with pie. There is almost nothing better than a slice of pie still warm from the oven with just the right amount of sweet, just the right amount of spice, and those glorious seasonal ingredients cloaked by a rich and flaky crust. Maybe what I love about pie is that it is so incredibly versatile and seasonal. I mean, you wrap something in buttery pastry crust and it's got to be good right? How could you possibly go wrong? Apple pie in the fall, pumpkin at Thanksgiving, pecan in winter, strawberry rhubarb in spring, cherry in summer, key lime, lemon meringue and french silk in all spots in between - just to name a few. Pure. Heaven.

Before my husband and I started dating, I was trying to convince him of the glory of rhubarb. This was something I grew up on and my mom and grandmother always made beautiful things with it. Its sharp tang mixed with something sweet and juicy like strawberries is one of the ultimate flavor combinations in my opinion. I couldn't fathom that someone wouldn't like it. So I decided I needed to win him over. And I would do it with the ultimate dessert, pie.

So I located the rhubarb, I found the perfect strawberries, and when all was said and done, I had made one damn good pie. Now I won't lie, I'm not great at making crusts. They always come out a bit dry and chewy no matter how hard I try. But not this one. This one was flaky, melt in your mouth delicious. There was no way he couldn't like rhubarb after he tasted this. So I sent him a text message, invited him over for a slice of pie. In his version of the story, as soon as he got my text, he biked from downtown up to my neighborhood (a good eight or nine miles) in record time to eat a pie that contained the devil's fruit. He ate the entire slice of pie.

"Well?" I asked when he finished. I was dying to know what he thought.

He looked at me, hesitating slightly. I could tell he was trying to choose his words carefully. "It's the best rhubarb pie I've ever had."

I laughed, understanding completely. "You still hate it don't you?"

He hung his head and nodded. So I accepted defeat. Some people hate rhubarb because they've never had it prepared correctly. But some people just plain hate it. There would be no convincing him on this one. That night was not a complete failure, however. I learned that this man would bike clear across the city to eat something he hated just to spend some time with me. I call that a pie win!

Since I had started at the Farmhouse, I had yet to see a pie on the dessert menu even though this seemed like the type of place where you should find one. Pam had told me to make apple crisp a regular dessert item, but I couldn't help but feel that this was a cop out. Apple crisp was what people made when they didn't have the time or kahunas to make a pie. Besides, I was tired of Pam giving me things to do, and then never being around to give me recipes or constructive feedback. So I took matters into my own hands. I decided I was going to put apple pie on the dessert menu.

Armed with a recipe and an idiot's fearlessness, I went in for my Thursday shift and departed several hours later leaving two warm pies sitting on the counter. Even though my apple crisp the week before had been an epic fail, I felt good about this.

It turns out, the customers felt good about it too. When I came in for my shift the following Monday, there was one piece of pie left.

Up to that point, staff at the cafe had more or less left me alone. I was only there two nights a week and when I was, I was working pretty steadily. There was no time to chat or get to know anyone. But something changed when those pies came out of the oven. Suddenly people wanted to talk to me and know my story. One server told me the smell of the pies brought a tear of nostalgia to his eyes. A bartender was shocked when I told her this was my first baking job.

When I told Michael, another server, about being in the kitchen with my grandma when I was little, he said, "She'd be proud of you if she could see you right now."

Moments like these made me realize that there was something truly magical about pie. It had the capability to bring people closer together, to help a budding romance, to make the worst day a little brighter. Our memories with pie are always good and for some reason we choose to hold onto them and share them with others. I was honored to be creating more of those moments for anyone that visited that cafe. Because let's face it, life is just generally better when there is pie.

The recipe that was the inspiration for my apple pie at the Farmhouse can be found here.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The apple crisp dilemma

Failure is a scary concept for most of us.  We all set out to succeed at things in life.  We set goals, we compare outcomes, we learn from other's mistakes, we adjust our strategy and we strive to be the best at something.  But failure always lingers in the background - it's always a possibility.  Many times it even becomes a reality.  In fact, I believe it's inevitable - nothing worthwhile in life is easy.  We have to fight for it and fall along the way.  It's how we react to those falls that defines us and sets us apart.  Do we get back up, brush ourselves off and try again?  Or do we give up?  Do we accept defeat and succumb to the belief that that thing we really wanted is always going to be out of reach?

For me, being an amateur baker trying to make it the restaurant industry, that fear of failure was always there.  I couldn't shake it.  I hadn't been baking long enough to know all the tricks and secrets of the trade, all of the dos and do nots.  So many times, I had to fail in order to learn.  It was really frustrating and extremely humbling.  But I had no alternative.  There was no one to guide me or teach me at the Farmhouse. It was just me, the dysfunctional kitchen and the hope that I could make something delicious out of a few basic ingredients.

The summer was coming to a close, there was a chill in the air at night, the days were getting shorter, the kitchen wasn't as unbearably hot anymore and cases of apples started to appear in the walk-in cooler.  The owner of the Farmhouse was also the owner of an organic apple orchard in Michigan.  And since farm to table was all the rage, apples were definitely going to be a big deal at the cafe that fall.

Pam approached me one night and informed me that apple crisp was going to be the star of the dessert menu for a while.

"Also, there's a festival coming up next week that we might be baking crisps for.  We're probably going to need 25 pans of it, so whenever you want to get started on those, feel free.  I'll get you a recipe for it."

A recipe never came and neither did any other instructions or guidelines.  So on my next shift, I decided to test out a gluten free crisp recipe I had found.  The Farmhouse had always been a vegetarian friendly establishment and tried very hard to cater to people with dietary restrictions.  I thought this would be the perfect opportunity.  I'd seen a box of almond flour in storage and contemplated using it many times.  Now seemed as good a time as any!

I was lugging a case of apples up to the kitchen when I ran into Tim, the owner.  Since I had started working there, he'd hardly spoken two whole sentences to me.  But when he saw me with the apples, his face lit up.

"Oh, here we go!"  He said, rubbing his hands together excitedly.  "What're you making with the apples tonight, Ceth?"

I was a little caught off guard.  I honestly didn't think he even knew my name.  Stammering a bit, I told him about Pam's plan for the apple crisp and the approaching festival.  He had me walk him through everything, including the pans I was going to use.  I pointed out the giant sheet cake pans.  I'd been using those for cake up til now, so I hadn't assumed it would be any different with the crisps.

"That's going to take a lot of apples," he said earnestly.  He grabbed a couple apples out of the crate, rinsed them lightly and brought them over to my cutting board.  "I'm trying to think about how many it takes to make a pie.  But this will take considerably more.  Do you have an apple peeler?"

I shook my head and showed him the dull and decrepit vegetable peeler I had planned to use.

"Well, that's going to take you all night.  Don't we have a paring knife you could use here somewhere?"

He rummaged around the kitchen in search of one.

"There's got to be a paring knife here.  How do we have a kitchen without a paring knife?"

I stood by and chuckled silently.  He apparently knew nothing of the sad state of this kitchen.  If only he knew of all the challenges I had faced over the last couple months.  But maybe there was hope?  Maybe he would see the work that was needed and do something about it.

He came back to the cutting board with a small chefs knife and started to peel some apples.  "Was Pam going to have some of the prep guys help you out with this?"

I shrugged, "I assumed I might have to come in for a couple extra shifts."

"Yeah, it shouldn't be taking me this long to peel these.  There's no way you're going to be able to make all of that on your own, I don't think.  I have an apple peeler at home. I'll bring it in for you the next time I'm here. Have you ever used one of those?  They're great.  They peel, slice and core all at once."

He said his goodbyes and left me with a pile of apples and an uneasiness in my stomach.  I hadn't really had too many doubts about my process before talking to him.  But now I was worried.  And as I started to peel the apples, I got even more worried.  My hand started to cramp three fourths of the way through.  This was not going to be an easy or quick task.

I eventually managed to fill the pan though and coated the apples with sugar and cinnamon, dotted them with butter and then topped them with my almond flour mixture.

The smell of apples and spice wafted through the kitchen as it baked.  It smelled like fall.  As much as I hated the dark cold days that came with winter, I loved the foods it brought.  Hot chocolate and pumpkin pie.  Roast turkey dinners, hearty soups and stews.  And of course, apple desserts of all shapes and sizes.

As I pulled the pan out of the oven, I knew with certainty I was going to have to make apple crisp at home this weekend.  I was dying for a bite.  I had had my doubts about the recipe as I was making it - being gluten free, it was definitely a healthy rendition.  And the fact that I had to multiply it by about 10 didn't help matters.  Would it be what Pam had been looking for?  She hadn't given me a recipe, so honestly, what could she expect?  The delightful smell was reassuring though, and I tried not to think about it too much.

To my dismay, my next shift found the apple crisp sitting where I had left it, a few scoops missing.  In the walk-in, I found a deep, steam tray pan filled with another apple crisp.  My heart sank.

I garnered the courage to talk to Pam.  "So was that crisp I made any good?"

"I couldn't serve it," she said flatly.  "What recipe did you use?"

"It was a healthier, low sugar, gluten free one I found on the internet."

"Yeah, it was too healthy."

Well, that was that.  My confidence was shot.  Crisps were some of the easiest desserts to make and I had failed.  I was ashamed.  I could only assume what Pam thought of me.  Luckily, the night was not all bad news.  It turned out that we hadn't gotten approved for the festival, so I was off the hook for 25 pans of crisp.

Still, unable to bear the burden of defeat, I went home and made an apple crisp that weekend.  I had to prove to myself that I was capable of doing this, even if Pam would never know.  I didn't follow a recipe, I just went with my gut.  It came out beautifully.  If only I had trusted myself when I had made that crisp at the Farmhouse.  But there was no going back, I would just have to learn to trust my instincts next time.  And though the failure had been painful, I knew it was going to take a lot more than a pan of bad apple crisp to keep me down.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Differences of Opinion

I've always struggled with authority.  It's not so much that I don't like being told what to do, I'm perfectly fine with taking orders and following directions.  I think it might have something to do with my desire to control certain situations.  And I'll admit, I have a bit of a stubborn streak.  I'm pretty easy going and not overly opinionated most of the time, but when I do have an opinion, it's tough to convince me otherwise.  If there isn't a logical reason for doing something a certain way, I don't like being forced to do it.

For instance, when I was the dishwasher and kitchen assistant at a cafeteria in high school, I was told I couldn't wear jeans, I had to wear dressier pants.  I balked at the idea of it.  First of all, I was tucked away in the kitchen where I was rarely seen by the public.  Second of all, it wasn't like my jeans were ragged or indecent.  They didn't have holes, weren't sagging below my butt and weren't so tight they left nothing to the imagination.  Lastly, I was a dishwasher.  I was working with dirty dishes, and sloppy water.  I was going to get dirty and wet. Why would I want to wear nice pants that would probably get stained and ruined?  I defied the dress code on multiple occasions.  And every single time I was reprimanded.

In Pam's kitchen, my bullheadedness was going to be a problem. She was new to the kitchen and she wanted everyone to know she was there and she was calling the shots.  She was making this cafe her own and every aspect of it would be controlled by her.

On busy nights, she would stand at the head of the line and bark commands.  Every time an order came in, she would call out the dishes.  She would yell for the status of things, holler when something was running out, send fries back when they were overdone or under-fried, reprimand the cooks when something looked sloppy. I wasn't working the line and it stressed me out.  I could only imagine how the cooks felt.  But I had to give her some credit.  Being the female head chef in a kitchen of men was no easy task.  She had to assert herself, or risk not being taken seriously.  If she ruled with fear, no one would question her authority.  Except maybe me.

After my unsuccessful attempt to become a French pastry assistant, I had settled into my role as the dessert baker at the Farmhouse.  I still wasn't completely sold on the idea, but I couldn't deny that I was comfortable there.  I loved my coworkers and I really enjoyed being in that kitchen, even as dysfunctional as it was.  It was a place I could go to recharge after a day at the office.  Some girls went for spa treatments and pedicures. Me, I baked.  The idea that Pam might change all that made me bristle.

Her first order of business was to get some new things on the dessert menu.  The carrot cake wasn't selling as well as it used to, so she had me start making key lime pies.  Then she moved on to the cheesecake.  Here I immediately took personal insult.  I had been making the cheesecakes for a couple months now without any complaints.  In fact, quite a few compliments were passed back to me from the servers and there never seemed to be a problem selling it.  But Pam wanted to experiment with recipes and find the cheesecake she liked best.

First she complained that my crusts were too thick and the servers couldn't get it out of the pan.  I wanted to suggest that maybe the servers shouldn't be responsible for plating desserts, and that maybe we should get some new nonstick springforms (to replace the rusted misshapen ones I had been using), but I held my tongue and decreased the crust recipe.  Then she gave me some completely new recipes to try. Begrudgingly, I tested one out that had a weird pastry-like crust, and wasn't baked in a water bath.  It came out cracked, heavy and misshapen.  She moved on to Martha Stewart.  Now, I have no problems with Ms. Stewart.  She's made a name for herself in the culinary and homemaker world and she definitely has some good ideas.  But I was damned if I thought her cheesecake was better than mine.  I faked the recipe and made my own instead.  When I came into the cafe for my next shift, Pam was full of compliments.

"That cheesecake recipe has always been a favorite of mine," she gloated.

I chuckled inwardly with the knowledge that it had been my recipe that made her gush.  Satisfied with this victory, I accepted her authority and dutifully followed her orders for everything else.

My next challenge was hot fudge sauce.

"It's so easy and the taste is to die for," Pam explained to me.  "You just add all of the ingredients except the butter and you don't even have to stir it.  Then after 18 minutes, when it gets to softball stage, you remove it from the heat and add the butter and you're done!"

She explained that when it was at softball stage, if you took a glob of it and dropped it into a glass of water, it would form a ball before it hit the bottom of the glass.  Sounded easy enough.  I saved the recipe for the end of the night, thinking it would only take me 20 minutes to complete and I'd be out of there and headed home early.

My first concern came when I realized there was milk in the recipe and she had told me not to stir it. Wouldn't it scald the milk if it was just left to boil without stirring?  I decided to trust her and give it a shot. Since the recipe was multiplied by 10, it took the full 18 minutes just to bring it to a boil.  Then once it was finally boiling it became quickly apparent that it needed to be stirred.  It was thickening on the edges and not incorporating into the middle.

After over 45 minutes of  stirring, and not noticing a change to the consistency, a frightening thought occurred to me.  If the recipe was multiplied by 10, did that mean the cooking time should be multiplied by 10 too?  If that was the case, it would take 180 minutes to finish. Three hours!  Horrified, I racked my brain for ideas and decided to move a smaller portion of the sauce to a smaller pot.  Even with this method, every time I attempted to put a dollop of the sauce in a glass of water, it dispersed, looking like watery chocolate milk, and in no way formed a ball.  I decided it was impossible.  So I worked through several smaller batches, thickening it to the best of my ability and called it a night.  From start to finish, I had spent over an hour and a half working on the sauce.  With much guilt, I delivered the pan to the dishwasher with half an inch of scalded chocolate sauce caked to it.

"Just let it soak for ages Manuel.  I'm so sorry," I hung my head and slunk away.

When I came in for my next shift, to no surprise, Pam informed me that the sauce hadn't been quite thick enough and that it definitely needed to be stirred the next time I made it to get it to a better consistency.  A ball of frustration formed in my throat, but I swallowed, nodded and told her I looked forward to trying it again.

As the weeks went on, Pam became less and less involved in the details of my dessert baking.  Most nights she was gone by the time I got to the kitchen and she stopped leaving things for me to do.  At first it was a little terrifying, not having any direct orders.  I didn't want to let her down and make too much of something or not enough of another.  Then it hit me.  She must have seen that I was perfectly capable and had faith that I could work things out.  I had proven that there was no need for her to exert her control over me.  And so, with a newly discovered confidence I seized the challenge of becoming the owner of the dessert menu at the Farmhouse, answering to no one's authority but my own.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Stage Part Deux

I've always been a big fan of comfort food.  Maybe I'm old fashioned, or maybe it's just nostalgia for my childhood.  Growing up in small town Montana, comfort food was the main attraction in the kitchens of my mom and grandmother.  There were dishes like pan fried pork chops, or Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes, homemade turkey soup or stuffed peppers.  Nice Sunday dinners were pot roasts or roast Cornish game hens, weeknight meals were casseroles, or meatloaf or mac and cheese.  These were meals that weren't pretentious or overly inventive.  They were meals that made you feel warm and happy inside.  When you sat down to eat them, you knew you were home and that someone cared about you.

I think this love of comfort has found its way into my baking.  I love a thick slice of creamy cheesecake, or a gooey piece of chocolate cake, warm pie out of the oven or smooth silky custard.  I have never been one for dainty desserts with more frill than substance.  I want something that feeds my body as well as my soul.  Yes, presentation is a necessary part of any type of cooking, but if there is more decoration on my plate than actual food, I'm going to feel seriously misled.  Dessert is about indulging.  It's about giving in to that craving and satisfying a need that goes beyond hunger.  This is not something that can be fulfilled with presentation alone.

Since Louie had left, I had decided to tough it out at the Farmhouse and give dessert baking a shot.  But that didn't mean I wasn't keeping my options open.  I wasn't completely sold on the idea of working for Pam just yet as I was still feeling pangs of betrayal after she had nixed my bread baking.  I had started sending my resume out for various bakery positions and amazingly enough, I was actually getting some responses.  There were apparently more people out there that were willing to take chances on amateur cooks with dreams.

One response was particularly exciting.  The position was for a full-time pastry assistant at a French bakery. When I visited their website to learn more, I was greeted by glorious photos of artisan bread, croissants and other beautiful pastries.  Here was my chance to really immerse myself in the baking world!  

Before I knew it, I had scheduled a stage with one of the pastry chefs.  Then the reality of it all started to sink in.  I had done something like this only once before when I had gone to the Farmhouse to audition for the role of the bread baker position.  Then it had been simple enough; come armed with a recipe and execute it.  This time around, I had no idea what they were going to ask me to do.  And I had very little experience with pastries.  I had never made a croissant before in my life.  What would I do if they asked me to make some?  I reassured myself that this was an 'assistant' position and they couldn't possibly expect me to be an expert.  With the interview less than a week away, there wasn't any way for me to really prepare after all.  I couldn't possibly learn to make every pastry under the sun in a few days.   So, armed with my hapless enthusiasm, I arrived at my stage, ready for whatever challenges they might throw at me.  The worst thing that could happen was that I would fail miserably.  Embarrassing as that was to think about, I would still have a job at the Farmhouse to fall back on.

I was welcomed to the kitchen by two pastry cooks that were at least five to ten years younger than me.  They were friendly enough, but it was obvious right away that they had formed a close sisterly bond working together.  I felt out of place almost immediately.  For my first task, they had me work on some trays of macaroons.  The cookies had already been shaped, they just needed to be removed from their sheets and paired up prior to being filled.  This task sounded simple enough, but if you've ever eaten a macaroon, you know they are light and delicate as air.  It requires a very gentle touch.  And these freaking things were sticking to their sheets like nobody's business.  I broke a few.  Finally one of the girls gave me a dough scraper that helped immensely.  I was quietly grateful for her generosity.  By the time I got through all the sheets of macaroons, they were too warm to be filled, so we carried them back to the cooler for a brief chill.  

On to the next task.  Pastry cream.  I definitely had some confidence here.  I had made it only once before, but I was pretty familiar with the process.  And there was a recipe with basic instructions to follow.  There was just one problem.  The recipe had been multiplied by at least 10 which meant there were about 50 egg yolks in it.  Cracking that many eggs and separating the yolk from the white was going to take me some time.  Not to mention, the whites could not be contaminated with yolk since they used these to make the meringue for the macaroons and other desserts.  It was delicate, tedious work.  I set about separating the eggs the only way I knew how; tossing the yolk back and forth between two halves of shell.  After a few of these, one of the chefs stepped in to assist.

"There's actually an easier and faster way to do that."  Demonstrating, she cracked an egg, dumped its contents into her hand and let the whites stream out through her fingers.  Brilliant!

"That's awesome.  I appreciate any tips you can give me," I thanked her and went on with my separating.  

A short while later a yolk broke on my hand and some of it got into the whites below.  Again the chef was at my side.

"Here, we can't have any yolk in the whites or it won't whip to stiff peaks for the meringue.  Go wash your hands," she guided me to the hand wash station while she dumped out the egg whites.  She seemed understanding enough about everything, but I couldn't help feeling like I was failing on all fronts.

Finally all the yolks had been separated and it was time to move on to the next step of heating the milk, vanilla and sugar.  Once that was brought to a simmer, the next step was to temper the eggs.  I fumbled for a moment with the bowl of yolks in my hand.  I couldn't remember how tempering worked.  Did I add some of the yolks to the milk?

"You know that you have to add some of the milk mixture to the egg to temper it, right?" The chef interjected.

"Oh yeah, of course," I lied unconvincingly, feeling heat rush into my face.

"Ok, good.  You'd be surprised how many people come in for stages and don't know that."

Ugh.  This was really not going well.  But, she had saved me from ruining the entire effort.  And in the end the cream actually turned out beautifully.  You couldn't say this was a complete disaster.

As I had been diligently separating eggs, some other employees had made their way through the space to get supplies or stop and chat.  I was dismayed to learn that there were different departments for the different types of food the cafe offered.  There was a sweet pastry department and a savory pastry department.  And somewhere in the depths of the building, there was a separate bread department.  My dreams of getting my hands back into bread dough were quickly fading.  

When the pastry cream was finished, the chef that had been guiding me thus far asked if I had ever made some kind of French sounding something-er-other.  I had to ask her to repeat herself.  But it turned out that all the pans were dirty or in use anyway so I was assigned to make some banana muffins instead.  I was relieved.  Muffins sounded much easier than whatever it was she had wanted me to make.

As I was working my way through a giant bundle of brown bananas, an order came in for some kind of special event and the head chef decided she would make a cake for it.

"God, it's been ages since I made a cake.  This is kind of nice," she commented.

I suddenly found myself pitying her.  Here was a young and talented pastry chef who never got to bake cake.  Instead she was surrounded by peaks of egg white and pastry creams.  It was immediately clear that this was not where I was meant to be.  Besides, I hated macaroons.

As I wrapped things up and prepared to leave, they told me they were interviewing a few others and that they would have a final decision soon since they wanted the new person to start within a week.

"I guess we should first ask you if this is somewhere you would want to work."

I forced an affirmative answer, but my gut was telling a different story.  These were not the desserts I wanted to make.  I had nothing against French pastry.  They were absolutely beautiful and brilliant.  But they weren't for me. They simply wouldn't bring me the satisfaction that baking a good old fashioned cake would.  There was no comfort in French pastries for me, only presentation.  Even though I knew I hadn't passed the stage with flying colors and I doubted they would offer me the job, I really hoped I would never hear from them again.

I headed home smelling of vanilla pastry cream and bananas.  I couldn't wait to get back to the kitchen at the Farmhouse where instead I would smell of second hand fry grease.  I chuckled to myself, a little surprised at the thought.  If someone had told me I would feel this way a week ago, I would never have believed them.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Baking Limbo

It probably goes without stating that I'm a little bit of a control freak. My husband will be happy to vouch for that statement.  I just generally like to be in control of my life and the situations I take part in.  Before I go out to dinner at a new restaurant, I like to look up the menu online.  When the weekend or a vacation is approaching, I put together a very careful plan about all of the activities that need to take place over that period of time.  I have two sponges for washing the dishes, one for the first round of scrubbing and another for the actual cleaning part.  There is also a very specific way that dishes should be placed in the dishwasher to maximize the space and resulting cleanliness of them.

While this annoying habit of mine drives many people crazy, I believe that the desire to control goes hand in hand with being a good baker.  Let's test this theory by making a comparison between baking and cooking.  In cooking, you can take a dollop of that, a pinch of this, a splash of that, never follow a recipe and come up with an amazing dish.  It's all about going with what you're feeling.  However, if you do that with baking, more often than not, you're going to have a flop on your hands.  Baking is a science.  It's all about leaveners and how they react with acids and starches and fats.  I wish I could be the carefree person that just throws some stuff in a pot and ends up with a miracle.  But I am not one of those people.  I like to measure and weigh things and follow instructions.  I like to have control over the end result.

This is all great and grand, but at some point, you have to realize that you cannot control everything.  If you live life assuming you can alter the outcome of every situation to your liking, sooner or later, you're going to end up with some pretty major disappointments.  This is why, when Pam transitioned to head cook at the Farmhouse and I lost my bread baking duties, I had to tell myself to let go a little.  This was not my decision to make and nothing I could do would change it.  This was not an easy realization for me.

The day before I left for my vacation, I went back to the Farmhouse to finish the carrot cake I had started on my previous shift.  Luckily there was a bag of flour there to greet me.  Three hours later, I had made a cheesecake and a couple carrot cakes, hoping that would be sufficient while I was away.  I headed home wondering if that had been my last shift.

I tried my best not to think about the Farmhouse for the next six days while I was on vacation, but it couldn't be helped.  When I baked bread and cheesecake for my mom, I was reminded of all of the times I had gone through the same motions at the cafe.  When we went out for burgers one night, I couldn't help but think of all the times Javier had made me a burger and been sure to add avocado to it. I couldn't help but think about the staff in the kitchen and wonder if they had the same faulty ovens that I had to work with.

There was also the question about what to tell my father.  I had been working at the cafe for five months and had managed not to speak a word about it to him yet.  My parents had been divorced since I was very young, and though we spoke at regular intervals, the conversations between he and I only scratched the surface of deeper topics.  Like many dads, he had very high expectations of me.  I knew he just wanted the best for me, but I always felt that I let him down somehow.

When I got my job in web development, we actually had something we could talk and relate about - he had done programming work in the past.  It was a good stable job with decent pay and I worked on some projects for clients with national and international reach.  There was nothing disappointing about it.  But how would my job at the cafe look to him?  Would he think I was running away from responsibility?  Giving up on a good opportunity?  Throwing a good life away?  All of these thoughts had built up over time and made it feel impossible to bring up in conversation.  But I had resolved to tell him about it on this trip.  He deserved to know about my life and the things that I had found to make it worthwhile.

Unfortunately, the opportunity never presented itself, or maybe it did and I was just a coward.  Because I couldn't control the outcome of the conversation, I was reluctant to start it.  I took the easy way out and sent him an email when I was safely on my way back to Chicago.

A couple weeks later, a cookbook arrived at my doorstep without a recognizable return address and no note.  It was written by a chef in San Francisco that had started out in the industry with only a love for good food and no culinary education.  She landed a job as a lunch chef when someone took a chance on her.  Our stories were so similar!  Where had this book come from?

A call with my dad later revealed that he had sent it.  "Her story reminded me of you," he told me.  I was touched, humbled and ashamed.  All this time I had kept my baking adventures a secret from him, and here he was being so thoughtful and accepting of it!

Armed with the support of my family and the idea that you shouldn't assume the outcome of any situation, I endured the changes at the Farmhouse; inspired to make the best of the situation, regardless of my lack of control over it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A bread baker no more

You could say that I had a love-hate relationship with baking bread at the Farmhouse.  There were days that were completely frustrating - when the bread wouldn't rise or it rose too quickly, when it browned too much or had holes in it.  There were summer days when the air conditioning didn't work and the sweat beaded on my forehead and the blasts of heat from the ovens almost knocked me over.  There were many days that I was so exhausted I could barely make the trip home from the cafe at the end of the night.  And there were days when I just wanted to give it all up and quit.  But on the other hand, there were moments when I couldn't imagine doing anything else.  Feeling the dough in my hands, smelling the loaves when they came hot out of the oven, eating sandwiches made with it, joking around with the line cooks and feeling like part of the team, hearing compliments from the other cafe staff and customers.  These were the things that made it all worthwhile and helped me to forget all of the times I had almost given it up.

The week after Pam took over the head chef job at the Farmhouse, I had planned to take a week-long vacation back home.  It was horrible timing, but I had been planning this trip for months - way before I knew Louie would no longer be my boss.  I hadn't been home in two years and I was incredibly homesick.  There was no way I was calling it off.  So I had to suck it up, be brave and tell Pam about it.

I approached her at the end of my shift one night and filled her in on the situation.

"I'll be more than happy to work some extra shifts.  If there's room in the freezers, I can make a couple big batches and you could store it."

"Let me think about it," she said brusquely.  "I'm cleaning out the freezers right now and I don't know what we have room for.  Come in on your next regular shift this week and we'll talk then."

My next regular shift was a Friday, three days before I was supposed to leave.  I didn't see how that could possibly be enough time (unless I worked all weekend), but I had no other choice.  I had to trust that she'd have a plan and I'd get through it.

When I showed up for my next shift, the kitchen was in its usual disarray as they prepped for the dinner theater that night.

Pam greeted me when I walked in, "Ceth, I need to talk to you.  We're not going to bake bread here any more."

It was funny how easily she said it, how simply it rolled off her tongue without pause - it clearly meant nothing to her.  I tried to hide my dismay, for it meant everything to me. 

"The ovens here are complete shit," she continued.  "I don't know how you worked with them at all.  If we ever get a prep kitchen built in the back with decent ovens, maybe we'll think about baking our own bread again.  But for now, we're just going to order the bread from somewhere else."

I wanted to disagree with her.  Tell her that I had been baking decent bread for months in those shit ovens.  Tell her she was making the wrong decision.  Tell her that store-bought, mass-produced bread was just not the same as homemade.  But I held my tongue.  She could have fired me on the spot, but she hadn't. She apparently had other things in mind for me.

"So for today, can you make three or four cheesecakes, a bunch of carrot cake and then there is a puff pastry dessert I want to show you.  Sound good?"  She dismissed me with a quick nod of her head and went back to her prep work.  I was going to have to adjust quickly to her style.  Louie had never been around much for guidance, but I always felt like I could lean on him if I needed to and he always treated me like a human being.  Pam made me feel like I was just a tool at her disposal.

I stood there dumbly for a moment, still in shock, taking things in.  There was a repair guy on the main prep station working on the meat slicer.  My typical work station was in disarray and there was another girl working there making chocolate cake.  What the hell?  Pam had literally just taken over a few days ago and already she had found someone else to make desserts?  I looked around for the small mixing bowls that I used for making the cheesecake batter and found none.

"Hey Pam, have you seen the mixing bowls for the mixer?"

"You mean that one?"  She pointed behind me with a condescending smirk.  It was the industrial sized one I had used for bread baking- currently splattered with chocolate cake batter.  Yes, I knew where that one was, thank you.  Geez.

"No, I'm talking about the small ones."

"Oh, I think they're over at the dinner theater filled with ganache."

I may have rolled my eyes.  Not only was there another girl there baking desserts in my ovens, but all of my equipment was gone or in use too?  What exactly did she expect me to accomplish here?

I gave up the thought of cheesecake for the moment and  decided to start on the carrot cake. There were no grated carrots in stock, so I set about grating them by hand on a flimsy box grater.  As I begrudgingly grated, I watched the other girl as she helped Pam.  She pulled some roasted potatoes out of the middle oven, found that they were not roasting fast enough and plopped them into the raging hot oven on the end.  A short while later, she pulled them out overdone.

"You have GOT to get these ovens calibrated." she protested.  I chuckled inwardly, selfishly enjoying her struggles.  It was like I had time traveled backwards and was watching my failed attempts with the first batches of bread I had made.

After the potato fiasco, she pulled some of my bread pans out and looked at them disgustedly.  To be honest, they weren't the most attractive things to look at.  Louie didn't believe in washing them after the bread baking - it was kind of like seasoning a cast iron pan.  You never used soap and water on one so that the flavors were preserved and then added to the next dish you made in it.  She flung a pan into the sink, doused it with hot water, scrubbed furiously to get some of the grease off and failed.  I hid behind my box grater diligently grating, trying to be as unassuming as possible.

A sore arm and some orange fingers later, the carrots were grated and I was ready to get the batter going.  But when I searched around there was no all purpose flour to be found.  I also noted an empty spot on the shelf where my poolish used to live.  The smelly, wild apple yeast that had been the pride of Louie and the added flavor for the bread was gone.

I felt utterly defeated.  I was running into dead ends everywhere I went.  The joy of bread baking had been taken away from me.  The remnants of Louie had been purged.  My replacement was apparently already in training.

Disheartened, I threw together some lumpy cheesecake in the giant Hobart mixer and tossed the cake batter into the cooler.  It would have to wait until some flour was delivered.  There was nothing left for me to do and there was no way for me to tell Pam since she was in the midst of the dinner theater rush.  I couldn't finish the carrot cake, there were no puff pastry instructions, and we needed to order flour.  What exactly was I supposed to do?  On my way out, I asked Javier to have her call me and left the cafe feeling like a sad dog with its tail between its legs.

I awaited her call which never came.  Maybe she would fire me.  Or maybe I would just quit.  At this point, I honestly felt like I didn't care anymore.  If there was no bread baking and no Louie, there just didn't seem to be any point to working at the Farmhouse any longer.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

So long Louie

Goodbyes are never easy. They're also never very convenient.  They never come at times when you're ready for them.  You can prepare all you want for it, but inevitably there will be some heartache, some inconvenience and probably some tears involved.  I had prepared myself as much as possible for Louie's departure from the Farmhouse, but of course I was not ready to say goodbye.  And unfortunately for Louie, his last week at the Farmhouse was not a smooth one.

During the summer months, the Farmhouse ran food booths at many of the festivals throughout the city.  This meant that a TON of food had to be prepped for these weekend events.  Many Fridays I would arrive at the kitchen to find all of the counter space consumed by prep for these events.  One weekend it was vegetable lasagna made with eggplant instead of noodles.  Another weekend it was fajitas, another it was tamales. During Louie's last week, it happened to be doughnuts.

Now, the making of doughnuts is simple enough if you have the right equipment and a good chunk of time.  Unfortunately for Louie, he had neither.  Consumed with the daily tasks at the Farmhouse, he had little extra time.  He also had little support from the existing staff - we were shorthanded.  He had been trying to hire additional line cooks for the Farmhouse for several months with no luck.  And since the fryers were under steady use for the cafe, the doughnuts had to be fried after hours.  That meant a late night with some dough, hot oil and Louie's vitality.

When I saw him the next day, a frazzled Louie informed me that he had spent most of the night in the kitchen, finally worked out a system of shaping, cutting, frying, repeat and then gone to sleep for a couple hours on one of the cold, dirty cement floors in the back office before starting his shift the next morning.  I knew doctors pulled those kind of shifts, but chefs?

Then there were the food deliveries.  I had experienced on several occasions, a shortage of something-er-other.  Butter, eggs, molasses, carrots...  I had learned to make substitutions and work around these things.  But unfortunately for the cooks, if we were out of buffalo burger, there was really no substitute for that.

The last Friday shift I worked with Louie, an important food delivery didn't happen.  They were supposed to come before five but their other deliveries ran long.  And because of union rules, they would not deliver after 5 o'clock.  That meant no food delivery until sometime the next day.  No food delivery for the Friday dinner rush and no food delivery for the Saturday brunch rush.  We were out of everything from burger, to cucumbers, to tuna.  The '86' board was filled with items on the menu that we didn't have.  Servers would come in with an order, only to be told, 'We don't have that'.  It was chaos.

And there was Louie, furiously working the line through all of this.  I had never seen him so angry.  I can only imagine how frustrating it was.  He had been the chef there for over a year.  And no matter how fed up with everything he was, how ready he was to leave, I know there was still a part of him that was attached to the place.  He had been there through the renovation, through the improvements to the space and to the food.  It was his baby.  In every chef there is a strong desire to excel and make good food.  It is fundamentally why we choose this line of work.  We want to make people happy through their full bellies.  Unfortunately, without the ingredients, that is nearly impossible to achieve.

Fortunately for Louie, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.  In a few days, he was on to a job at a high-class restaurant with better pay, better support, more time off and health insurance.  He just had to jump this one last hurdle to get there.

At the end of the night we said our goodbyes and I thanked him for this incredible opportunity he had given me.  Despite my doubts, he assured me that Pam would keep me on board.

"I told her you're like a sponge and you'll take on anything.  She told me she figured she'd keep you on and see how things go.  But if anything happens, let me know.  I know people in the industry and I'll do what I can to help you find something else.  And if an opening ever comes up where I am, I will let you know."

I wasn't exactly comforted by Pam's idea of 'seeing how things go'.  But I was honored that Louie had my back.  This may have been goodbye, but a small part of me believed that it wasn't permanent.  Maybe our paths would cross again somewhere down the line.  One thing was for sure though.  I would never forget that he had taken a chance on me and forever changed my life.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A hot, muggy kitchen equals funky bread

One should never get too confident about things.  Inevitably it will bite you in the ass.  For instance, if you're in the playoffs for the World Series, it's game six and you're up 3-0.  Don't get cocky!  Some poor fan may just reach out of the stands and grab a fly ball that an outfielder could have caught, one mistake will lead to another and you'll end up kissing the chances of a trip to the World Series goodbye.

Ok, so maybe baseball is not the best analogy here.  I certainly wasn't baking bread for any sort of world championship of dough.  But things had gotten comfortable for me at the Farmhouse.  I had fallen into a groove.  I was working two to three shifts a week and my bread was coming out fairly consistent.  I hadn't had any complaints of holes in it in quite a while.  Once, a customer even asked one of the servers where we bought our bread because they liked it so much.  There were regular customers that would come in every week to buy one or two loaves to take home with them.  Louie said the bread was the best it had been since he started working at the Farmhouse.  Things were going along swimmingly. Then summer hit.

Summers in the Midwest can be muggy and very warm.  We're talking days of 90 degree temperatures with humidity levels at 70% or higher.  These conditions wreak havoc on bread making. I've always heard about adjusting recipes based on climate and altitude, but had never really experienced it first-hand.  I had changed almost nothing in my tactics and suddenly my bread was rupturing while it proofed and baked.  I was getting loaves that were split down the top and others with a rough craggy look.

First I assumed it was the rolling pin I was using.  The wooden French roller I'd been using had mysteriously disappeared from the kitchen so I was stuck using a huge metal pin that clanged every time I applied pressure to the dough.  It sounded like I was a body builder lifting weights. The pin also had rough abrupt edges instead of the smooth tapered ones on the French pin.  I had an inkling that this was tearing the dough in places and causing weakened areas that later ruptured.

Being the over-achiever that I was, I went out and bought my own French rolling pin and began carrying it to and from the cafe on the days that I worked.  It stuck out of the canvas tote I used, at the ready to either defend me against a mugger or roll some rogue dough.  But alas, my dear rolling pin did not do the trick. The bread was still rupturing.

My next assumption was that the kitchen was too hot and too muggy for bread baking.  There were days when the a/c didn't even work. I had to admit to myself that the recipe would need to be adjusted.  But there were so many variables.  Less sugar?  Less water?  Less yeast and/or poolish? More flour?

As I was struggling through these modifications one night, I noticed a letter to the employees posted on the menu board.  I scanned the first paragraph quickly out of curiosity.  Suddenly it was hard to swallow.  This casually posted letter was to inform us that Louie was leaving!  They were hiring someone for his replacement.  I stopped reading feeling a panic rush through me.  Louie was the whole reason I was here. He had been brave enough to take a chance on me and then let me figure things out on my own through trial and error.  A new chef could come in, take one look at me and my (lack of) qualifications and send me on my way.  Now was the worst possible time with my bread looking like craters of the moon!

Earlier that week, I had met with a former colleague of mine from the web development agency where I worked full-time.  He was one of the few people from that part of my life that knew about my baking.  We got to talking about my experiences at the cafe and he said to me, "It's funny, I don't even know that Ceth. You have this whole other part of your life that I don't know."

As I thought about what he said, I realized that I loved the idea.  It was almost like I was leading a secret life. There was the boring Ceth that sat in front of a computer screen for eight hours a day staring at lines of code. Then there was the Ceth that baked bread and desserts at night in a crazy dysfunctional kitchen.  The Ceth that carried a rolling pin around with her, drawing curious looks from passersby.  The Ceth that went home smelling of French fries, a grease stain on her right knee. When a coworker asked if she did anything interesting the night before, she would have visions of loaves upon loaves of bread and cheesecake and cream cheese frosting and then she would casually shake her head, smiling inwardly and say, "no, not really."

I didn't want to give up that secret life and go back to being just plain old programmer Ceth.  I tried to reassure myself.  Change could be good.  Maybe a new chef would come in that would take me under their wing and teach me some things - be a mentor of sorts.

As my bread was in the last stage of baking, curiosity got the best of me and I went back to read the rest of the letter.  The lump in my throat started to return.  The new head chef was going to be... Pam.  She had been the FOH manager until now and I'd only really worked with her peripherally. From what I had seen, she was a perfectionist and a control freak. I didn't see how this could end well. I needed to step up my game.

Over the next few weeks, I worked diligently to get my bread back in shape.  What I found was that I was rolling the dough too much and too tightly.  With minor adjustments to the recipe and a different loaf forming technique, it started to look normal again.  I also started baking muffins and scones for the weekends. I was trying to justify my existence and prove that I was capable of more that just bread and cheesecake.  I held onto those last few shifts with Louie, knowing that the end might be in sight and I started browsing help wanted ads again just in case Pam decided I was no longer necessary.

No matter what happened, I knew I couldn't return to the old status quo of a 9-5 desk job and give up on this passion.  I had thrown my life a curve ball when I had taken the job at the Farmhouse and there was no turning back.  The secret identity of Ceth Jordan would go on one way or another.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The challenge of cheesecake

After offering to make carrot cake that one fateful spring day, I suddenly became the keeper of the cake.  Nothing was ever explicitly said, Louie just stopped making it so I stepped in to try to fill his shoes.  It worked out pretty well.  Those hated moments of twiddling my thumbs while the bread rose could now be spent mixing, baking and frosting carrot cake.  I was still trying to figure out the best way to bake it though.  Most times it pooched oddly on one side and many times it seemed to dark around the bottom and edges of the pan.  Much like the bread, it needed a vigilant hand to turn it every so often.  And voila!  It started to look pretty darn good.

As I was going through this process one night, Louie says to me, "I was thinking about making a cheesecake."

"I bet that would sell really well here actually," I agreed.

"What's the most interesting cheesecake recipe you've ever made?"

I didn't really even have to think about it.  Over Christmas, one of our Chinese friends had invited us over for a potluck dinner.  He was making curry beef and stir fried kale with mushrooms, so I opted to stick with his theme and make wonton soup.  I also wanted to bring dessert.  But what sort of dessert was special enough for Christmas dinner and still paired well with Asian food?  After some thought, I decided upon mango cheesecake.  It was made with a mango puree that was cooked and thickened slightly and then served with a mango sauce.  To my delight, it was a big hit at the dinner party.

"I made a mango cheesecake over Christmas once," I volunteered.

"Very cool.  I have some mango in the freezer in back.  How do you feel about coming in an extra day this week to make one?"

I stopped short.  I had barely taken on the duties of carrot cake and suddenly here I was making cheesecakes too?  Besides, did Louie even think about how difficult it would be to pull off a beautiful, smooth, creamy cheesecake in this kitchen?  With those temperamental ovens?  But being the dutiful student that I was, I of course agreed.

So there it was.  I was going to make a mango cheesecake for the Farmhouse.  That night I went back to review the recipe and tried to come up with my plan of attack over the next few days.  It would involve first baking the crust and letting that cool.  Next up, I would have to make the mango puree, cook it down and let it cool before it was added to the filling.  I would need to mix the filling and boil water so that the cheesecake could be baked in a water bath.  This ensured that it cooked evenly and didn't crack.  In those ovens, this step would be essential.  Otherwise there was no way I could get it to come out right.

The big night came and I tried to be confident about the whole thing.  I even brought a quick-read thermometer from home so I could make sure the cheesecake was the right temperature when I pulled it out of the oven.  There would be no cheesecake soup on my watch!

Aside from consulting the printout of the recipe about a thousand times during the process, the whole thing went off surprisingly well. 

The moment of truth came the following night.  As the Friday dinner rush was getting started, Louie pulled my cheesecake out of the dessert cooler.  With a quick slip of a knife around the edges, he popped off the springform and swiped his finger around the edge of the pan to get a taste.

"It's perfect," he said.  "You're lucky you're married, or you'd have to deal with me harassing you all the time."

I felt heat rush into my cheeks.  If ever there had been a time I'd wanted to say 'Aw, shucks', now was it.  I had always heard that the way to a man's heart was through his stomach.  My husband could probably vouch for that.  He had put on a fair amount of weight (would you believe 50 pounds?) since we'd met five years ago.  The poor guy didn't stand a chance with my weekend baking fests with no shortage of heavy cream and butter.

When I came in for my shift on Monday, there was no cheesecake to be found.  We had a hit on our hands!  And so the tradition of two cheesecakes a week began.  That's not to say it wasn't without its own challenges.  One week there was no mango, so I made peach instead.  One week there was no butter, so I had to use oil in the crust.  One week there was no aluminum foil to wrap the pan, so I had to do without the water bath (it cracked of course).  Once I forgot to butter the sides of the pan, so it stuck a little more than it should have.  Sometimes I forgot to tap the pan on the counter to release the air bubbles and it ended up looking like an acne plagued teenager with tiny pockmarks all over the top of it.  One very special time, I left out an important ingredient.  Nevertheless, customers kept on ordering it and eventually I memorized the recipe, streamlined the process and started making a berry swirl version that became a staple at the cafe throughout the summer months.

What I was beginning to realize was that nothing was impossible.  And in order to make anything worthwhile, you had to take some risks.  Against all better judgement, even when your entire being was telling you no, you just had to say yes.  Besides, isn't that how I got into this whole crazy, fun mess to begin with?

Mango Cheesecake

1 1/2 c graham cracker crumbs
3 T sugar
7 T melted butter

24 oz cream cheese (room temperature)
1 c sugar
1 t salt
1 T vanilla
1 T lime juice
14 oz mango puree
5 eggs (room temperature)
1 c heavy cream

Preheat oven to 325ยบ.

Combine the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and melted butter.  Press firmly and evenly into the bottom of a springform pan and bake for 10-15 minutes until starting to brown and fragrant.  Remove and allow to cool to room temperature.

Cook the mango puree until slightly reduced and thickened.  Allow to cool to room temperature.

Before starting on the filling, fill a pan with water and place on the stove to bring to a boil.

Beat the cream cheese until smooth.  Add the sugar in three or four batches, incorporating thoroughly each time.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl.  Add salt, vanilla and lime juice and beat until smooth.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating only until incorporated.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl again. Add mango puree followed by cream and mix just until blended.

Rub the sides of the springform pan with melted butter.  Wrap with two sheets of heavy duty aluminum foil.  Pour the batter into the pan and tap on the counter to release any air bubbles.  Place pan in a larger deep roasting pan.  Carefully poor the boiling water into the pan until it reaches about halfway up the side of the springform.

Bake until the cake reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees - cake will still jiggle slightly in the middle.  Remove from oven and allow to cool in the water bath for an additional 45 minutes.  Remove from water bath and allow to come to room temperature.  Place in the refrigerator and allow to chill at least 2-3 hours before serving. Before serving, run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen.  Serve with mango puree.