Monday, August 16, 2010


I found myself watching Food Network the other day. The theme of the episode was “Dinner Date at Home,” and the hostess was making restaurant-style food for a hypothetical dinner date for half the cost of a night out. “The difference”, she was saying, “between a regular meal and one at a restaurant is the presentation. A sprinkle of powdered sugar and a sprig of mint can take your food from ordinary to extraordinary.” She then placed a pretty little mint top in the center of the cake and presented it to the camera.

The meal looked great, and probably tasted delicious, but that dessert—that sprig of mint—stuck out at me like a sore thumb. For so long in the restaurant world, every dish came with the ubiquitous parsley top, mint garnish, lemon wheel or dusting of chili powder. If you’ve ever made the mistake of eating one of these garnishes, you probably realized that they add nothing to the dish. In fact most of the time they are downright inedible. So why keep them?

In a sushi restaurant, sasa—bamboo leaf—is the equivalent of the mint top. Bamboo leafs, along with wasabi and pickled ginger, have some antiseptic properties, making them an antiquated way of fighting food-born illness. Of course, that was before refrigeration. So why do we sure them? Wasabi helps to cut the fattiness of certain fish, and pickled ginger is often used as a pallet cleanser. But sasa is completely inedible unless you’re a panda; its only purpose is to add a splash of green to the plate. Thus, I began my quest to find a better use for it.

The sushi chefs keep a container of sasa leaves submerged in water to keep the leaves from drying out and becoming brittle. I noticed one day while I was changing the water that the water had taken on a very sweet, almost vanilla smell to it. My first instinct was to treat it like tea, and steep it in cream to see if I could extract some flavor. I added 25g of leaves to 500g of cream and brought it to a simmer, and then hit it with an immersion blender. The cream tasted like something between a vanilla malt and green tea. It was delicious.

With my first attempt, I wanted to keep it simple, so I went with a panna cotta, which would highlight the flavor of the cream. I added a little sugar (about 50g) and just enough gelatin to barely set it. Paired with some fresh Colorado peaches and a little peach sake sorbet, it made for a killer special.

I will have to keep playing with this bamboo idea, but for now I can at least rest easily knowing that those pretty sasa leaves aren’t just for looks.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Restaurant food, like everything else, has its share of fads and trends. Beef Wellington, vichyssoise and chocolate soufflés are certainly delicious, but they don’t see much action these days, being relegated to that dusty shelf in the back, labeled “old school.”

I don’t know who was the first person to discover the secret to making faux caviar using alginate, but Ferran Adria of El Bulli is credited with being the first to serve it in a restaurant. He and others abandoned the cherished trends of the day and struck out using foams and powders and science to propel their food. Of course, this was more than a decade ago. What started with just a few restaurants has now propagated its way through the food world, changing how we look at what we eat.

My boss bought a caviar making “kit” a few months ago, on a whim. He played with it once or twice, without moderate results, and so soon we both forgot about it, going back to things we were more confident with. It wasn’t until recently that I got the motivation to play around with it again. During a lull in the dinner service, a co-worker and I decided to try making some spheres. I suggested espresso, seeing as I had a coffee-flavored dessert on the brain. In no time, we were brewing espresso, reading and re-reading the vague recipes and instructions, and assembling a caviar-making station.

Sodium alginate is a hydrocolloid; it’s similar to gelatin or agar agar in that it creates a molecular web that suspends water molecules. Unlike gelatin or agar agar, though, it does not need heat in order to be dissolved and dispersed. Instead, it will begin to set in the presence of calcium. To make the caviar, then, it is simply a matter of dripping small drops of a liquid containing the alginate (in my case, the coffee), into a water bath spiked with a little soluble calcium. On contact, the calcium begins to “cook” the coffee mixture, forming a skin around a liquid espresso center. The longer the caviar balls are left in the calcium bath, the thicker the skin will be. Once removed from the calcium bath, the balls get a quick dip in a regular water bath to wash off any calcium that may be hanging around before they are ready to serve.

The texture certainly added something to the final dessert; a Vietnamese Coffee Tart, with Condensed Milk Chantilly, Miso Caramel, and Espresso Caviar. They were like little tapioca pearls that added an extra kick of espresso flavor. It’s not a technique that I plan to use often, but certainly one to keep in the repertoire.

Monday, June 28, 2010

I Scream

I realize that, for the most part, this blog is aimed at people that who know a thing or two about pastry, or at least can afford to invest in cool pastry toys. To be sure, everyone can read and enjoy my literary genius (cough), but even the most avid cooks rarely have silicone baking mats, flexipans, and copious amounts of freezer space dedicated solely to the pursuit of large quantities of high-calorie sweets. I would like to think, though, that even to the uninitiated, there could be some benefit gained from my ramblings.

Given that I work in a restaurant, I think most people (including myself, not long ago) would assume that when, I make ice cream, I use a big, expensive batch freezer, which can churn gallons of the cold stuff at a time. You would be wrong. In fact, for the first year and a half that I spent at Jianken, we didn’t make our own ice creams or sorbets. We bought them.

It wasn’t until I hi-jacked my mom’s machine from their home that I made my first dessert special featuring an ice cream. I did eventually give it back, after having convinced my boss that it was a worthwhile investment. So what did we buy as its replacement?

A Cuisinart IEC-30BC, on sale for $50. That’s pretty cheap, even for a home ice cream maker. The sad and amazing thing is how well it works. Granted, the new ice cream maker can only produce 2 quarts of ice cream at a time, and it takes time to re-freeze the bowl before I can churn another batch. But it works. And, hey, how much ice cream can one sushi bar sell anyway?

The deal with home ice cream makers is that every one is different; whichever you decide to buy, you should follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for the best results. I recommend one like the one that I use. It disassembles easily, which makes it easy to clean, and it is smaller and less expensive than the ones that contain their own freezing unit. I would stay away from the ones that use ice cubes and rock salt as the freezing agent; they just don’t get cold enough.

Point is, even a home cook can afford to make great frozen desserts.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


My girlfriend’s birthday has come and gone. It’s one of the great ironies of our relationship that in the five years that we have been together, I’ve only made dessert for her a handful of times. So this year, I decided that I would actually make her a cake for once.

Inspired by Fransisco Migoya’s The Modern Café, I wanted to try my hand at another entremet. For those who don’t know, an entremet is a cake… sort of. It can really be made of anything, but it serves the same purpose. Commonly, an entremet will consist of layers of some sort of cake, and typically a mousse of some sort. The idea is to have flavors and textures that complement and contrast each other in one bite. It is like an entire dessert in cake form.

The first thing I did was to decide some flavors I wanted to pair together: Crème fraiche, chocolate, nuts. Chocolate is a great ingredient to use for entremet, because cocoa butter will help stabilize the chocolate components of the cake without having to add a ton of gelatin, which can ruin the texture. I chose to add the crème fraiche because, along with being incredibly delicious on its own, I think it is chocolate’s best friend, and the tanginess helps to cut the richness of the chocolate. The nuts I chose because they are just plain tasty.

What I came up with was a Milk Chocolate Chantilly Cake, Chocolate Jaconde—a thin almond sponge cake, Krispy Chocolate, and Crème Fraiche Crème Brulée.

Building it was relatively easy. I made all the individual components ahead of time, and had them stored in the freezer, ready to go. Assembly was nothing more than piping the mousse into the bottom (which became the top) and sides of the mold, and then stacking the pre-made rings of crème brulée, jaconde, and Krispy chocolate, making sure to add more mousse where needed. After all that was finished, it took another trip to the freezer to get rock hard.

After that came glazing. In retrospect, I think I need a new glaze recipe, because it is too viscous, even at the correct temperature. I ended up with lumps and streaks where it should have been completely smooth. That was ok though, because the chocolate décor covered most of it up.

The most stressful part of the whole process is thawing the cake. After glazing, the cake is pulled out of the freezer and left to thaw overnight. If there wasn’t enough gelatin in the mousse, or if it was over-whipped, or if the crème brulée layer was too soft, the whole thing could collapse in on itself and be just a big pile of stuff in the morning. Luckily the gods were with me, and it stayed stable.

I would call that a success!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Shiso Tasty

Shiso—like basil, mint, thyme, oregano and sage—belongs to the mint family; and, like all the herbs listed above, it has its own unique flavor. Some people that I work with describe it as being “like mint.” It’s not. It tastes like shiso: a strong, slightly bitter flavor with a little fruitiness at the end. Chances are, if you have ever eaten at a sushi bar, you have probably come across it at some point.

I don’t really like it. It has its place, certainly, with good Uni, or paired with pickled plum, but it isn’t something that I seek out. Other people I know will eat it like it’s popcorn. I suppose my taste buds just aren’t as mature.

It is a hard ingredient to incorporate into a dessert, which is why I havn’t used it thus far. While shopping around the other day, I found strawberries for $1.50 per pound, and knew that it was time to bring strawberries back to the specials menu. It has been a long winter, using the tart, flavorless off-season berries, so I was excited to be able to feature them at the forefront of a dessert. I also knew I had a place to use shiso.

I think people often pair strawberries with basil because they are both in peak season around the same time, and basil is a delicious complement to strawberries. The basil brings a certain spiciness to the party that balances out the strawberries, while it is sweet enough to still feel like a dessert item. Basil, however, doesn’t have much to do with sushi. I wanted to marry the shiso flavor with the strawberries in such a way that it was a major flavor, without masking or over-powering the other components.

Of course, the first thing that jumped to mind was a Strawberry-shiso sorbet. The idea seemed promising enough that I came up with what seemed to be a decent recipe, and tried it out. It was too sweet and the shiso flavor didn’t really come through, but it was worth a second try. After some trial and error, I ended up with a Strawberry, Shiso and Buttermilk Sherbet:

Strawberry+Shiso+Buttermilk Sherbet

Yield: ~ 2 liters

750g Strawberry puree

360g Sugar

400g Buttermilk

50g Water

5-6ea Shiso Leaves, washed and picked

1) Warm buttermilk just enough to completely dissolve the sugar

2) Combine all ingredients, thoroughly blend, and pass through a fine mesh sieve

3) Allow to chill in the refrigerator until it reaches 40°F or below

4) Process in an ice cream machine and allow to harden in the freezer for at least 2 hours

That was a good start. By this point, I had most of my dessert worked out. I was going to do a play on strawberry shortcake, with the sherbet, some macerated strawberries, and buttermilk biscuits, but it needed something more.

It was the perfect time for me to use another ingredient that I have been waiting for the opportunity to use. Soy lecithin, among other things, is really good at making foams. It can simply be added to a liquid and then frothed with an immersion blender or other frothing device, and you have foam. The beauty of the foams are that they can add a lot of flavor without adding a lot more “stuff” to eat. At the end of a meal, you should still be able to finish your dessert without feeling like you’re going to explode. Foams can pack a lot of flavor into literally no bites. As an added bonus, the shiso and buttermilk foam added a nice splash of green and an extra hit of shiso to the plate.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Not just for breakfast anymore...

Waffles. Of all the breakfast foods—other than Dutch Babies, which hold a special and artery-clogging place in my heart—waffles would be my favorite. Sure, I eat more French toast, but that’s because I always have stale bread lying around, and its quick to make, but waffles; waffles are king.

In America, we treat them as a breakfast-only item, but other places in the world sees it differently. In Belgium, one can find waffles in little street carts, with pearl sugar added to the batter so that it caramelizes as the waffle cooks. A similar sweet street food can be found in Hong Kong, topped with sweetened condensed milk. What makes waffles so good? I have no idea. What makes a good waffle? That is a different question entirely.

The first secret to making a good waffle is in the waffle iron. The whole idea behind a waffle iron is that the checkerboard pattern greatly increases the surface-area that is in contact with the hot metal. The result is something that cooks much more quickly, and a finished product that is crispy. If you are using an American waffle iron (the kind with the really small squares), you can make a half-decent waffle, but the deep Belgian style waffle iron is really the only way to go if you want a great waffle.

The next point, as important as the first, is that waffles are not pancakes, they are waffles. It sounds simple, but more than once, I have run into people who think that a waffle is nothing more than a square pancake. Its not. Pancakes are, well, cakes: soft, moist, and spongy. Waffles should be crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside—almost more like toast. Waffle batter is much stiffer than pancake. It can be leavened with baking soda, like a pancake, but most good recipes use other means to make the batter rise.

My method is one that uses yeast. The yeast gives a very distinct flavor, and also a… well… yeastiness.. I’ve had good luck with this recipe. They are good as sweet waffles, but you could just as easily top them with some fried chicken. I found that they even freeze better than other recipes that I’ve tried.

Yeasted Waffles

Yield: ~15 Belgian style waffles

12oz Milk

4oz Butter

2.5oz Sugar

3/4t. Salt

2ea eggs, separated

2c flour

1½t. instant dry yeast

1) Combine milk and butter and microwave until hot (Not boiling. Like 150°ish)

2) Combine dry ingredients except for sugar and sift

3) Add milk/butter mixture to dry, followed by egg yolks.

4) In a separate bowl, wisk egg whites, slowly incorporating the sugar, until they reach soft peaks

5) Fold egg whites into batter.

6) Pour into a large bowl or other container (batter will expand substantially).

7) Allow to rise for an hour at room temperature. At this point they can be cooked, or placed in the fridge for up to another 24 hrs.

8) Add roughly a 1/3 cup scoop to hot waffle iron and cook until golden

I made the waffles chocolate simply by substituting about ¼ cup of flour for an equal amount of cocoa powder. In truth, even with all the cocoa powder, the waffles didn’t taste that chocolaty, but it was enough.

The inspiration behind the dessert was bananas, chocolate, and peanut. I decided to top the waffle with some bruléed bananas (by far my favorite way to treat a banana), and peanut butter ice cream and a little chocolate lace (not pictured), to add crunch and that extra chocolatiness. People liked it so much I ended up running it two weekends in a row!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Work in Progress

So this is my first attempt at “Entremets.” I’m not necessarily posting this as something to strive towards, but as a starting point.

One could think of an entremet as a cake, and they would be sort of right. I think of it more as a dessert that you eat by the slice. The shape can be similar (in this case, a standard, 10” round), but what it is made of can be very different. A good entremet should be many layers of contrasting textures and/or flavors that complement each other; sort of like getting a little bit of everything in a single spoonful.

For this attempt, my flavors were a little on the tropical side: banana, coconut, caramel. Layers of banana bread and caramel sauce, suspended in coconut bavaroise (mousse). It was then covered in a white chocolate glaze and colored white chocolate décor.

If I were to give it a rating, I would give it a 6/10. Not bad for a first attempt, but could use some improvement. Among other things, it needed some crunch and was a little too sweet. I also wish that the layers were a little more visibly distinct. But it was good, and the other people that ate it had great thing to say about it.

As I said, it’s a work in progress.