Sometimes opportunities come along that make me so happy I started this blog about baking. Case in point: I got an invitation to meet Cookie Monster and interview him a couple of weeks ago! Cookie Monster in my town! How could I pass up an opportunity to meet my very favorite Sesame Street character? Cookie Monster is a perfect example of how a simple love of sweets can get you far in life. And now that I have a baby girl who is starting to understand Sesame Street, how could I not take her to meet him?(more…)
July 4th, 2011 · 16 Comments · Events, Fruit, Recipes, Tarts
Hello all, hope you had a great Fourth of July! Today is Pie Day in the blogosphere, if you didn’t get the announcement. Everyone has been invited to bake pie – any pie, and write/photograph/tweet/blog about it. So if you see a great deal of pie on the internet today, I hope it entices you to go out and have a slice of something sweet.
April 28th, 2011 · 2 Comments · Events, Giveaways
The winner of the $100 gift card to Williams-Sonoma, chosen entirely at random, is
reader 106, Mary S! Congratulations!
I was especially touched at her comment, which read, “I’ve been a reader for a long time and I’ve read about your baking (and baking related) adventures. It’s an inspiration and I’m very happy to see your blog blossom! Keep sharing delicious things with us.” I’ve been blogging for a while now, and though I like to say that having this creative outlet is its own reward, it’s always so gratifying to know someone else is enjoying your work. Thank you to all of you for your wonderful comments and your support of my new site. I really hope to keep things delicious here for a long while.
Don’t forget I still have my Pebble Beach apron + tote bag giveaway going on, if you’d like to enter. I’ll be at Pebble Beach this Friday and Saturday and am looking forward to reporting back. There are also more giveaways coming up (very soon!!), recipes, and reviews, so please keep checking back!
December 7th, 2010 · 11 Comments · Events
Last month I was lucky enough to attend the annual Worlds of Flavor Conference up at the CIA in Napa. This annual conference is one of the best professional forums on flavor trends, and has also been described to me as, "the best food you'll eat all year." Every year a different, current trend in world cuisine is selected, and chefs and other experts from around the world are flown in to present their techniques and philosophies; topics in the last few years have ranged from Spain to the Mediterranean to street food. This year the theme was Japan, one of my very favorite cuisines (as I'm sure it is for most of the Bay Area), so I was thrilled to go.
Above, the sprawling, handsome CIA complex. It was a particularly lovely weekend to be in Napa: the rolling vine-covered hills looked especially picturesque in the golden autumn sun, and many of the visiting chefs commented on how much they appreciated the terroir of Napa valley.
Note: All photos with the Chinese watermark are mine and copyright Dessert First. All other photos are by Terrence McCarthy, courtesy of the Culinary Institute of America.
Over 50 chefs from Japan, ranging from kaiseki masters to tempura specialists, flew in to participate in the conference. A huge number of these chefs are starred Michelin chefs from Tokyo and Kyoto, making this event a real once-in-a-lifetime assemblage of talent. From top left, clockwise, just a few of the chefs: Yoshihiro Takahashi, Yoshihiro Murata, Masahiro Kurisu, and Hiro Sone.
Japan is famed for its gorgeous, refined aesthetic, and its food is no exception. There's not much that needs to be said here, as the presentation says it all. Many of the demonstrations highlighted the importance of presentation in Japanese cuisine, how the selection and placement of the various components is as important as the taste of the final dish. Japan is such a visual culture.
Steady, unerring precision. I found it interesting that many "modern" food concepts here, such as using local, seasonal products and simple preparations, have been part of Japanese cuisine for decades. Although a small country, Japan boasts thousands of microregions that have their own climate and local edibles, and every region has its own specialties. You can only find some ingredients in certain areas – and only at certain times of year. In Japan, seasonality is practically built into the cuisine, and has never been discarded. Fascinating that in the US we lost this sensibility and are just now regaining it.
The list of guest speakers was equally impressive. From top left, clockwise: Harold McGee, Ruth Reichl, Thomas Keller, Elizabeth Andoh.
Chef Masaharu Morimoto, who clearly hasn't lost any of his flair for the dramatic from his Iron Chef days: he brought a smoker carved out of ice on stage (I think he was just showing off; I'm pretty sure this isn't found in his restaurant kitchens).
More food porn. Most of these dishes were prepared before our eyes on the demonstration stage – truly mesmerizing art. Many of the dishes shown here are prepared kaiseki style – kaiseki is the Japanese version of haute cuisine, the ultimate in showcasing ingredients of the season. Every element of the dish, from the garnish to the serving platter, are all chosen to convey a certain message – the beginning of fall, for example, or the harvest moon. It's like eating poetry.
Chef Yatsunori Yashima, famous yakitori master and owner of three yakitori restaurants inTokyo and Fukuoka, demonstrating the cooking technique over bincho-tan, or charcoal. You must fan the meat constantly to keep the heat high and cook the meat evenly. As his fan stayed a constant blur over the skewers, chef mentioned that the temperature could reach up to 900 degrees. We ate some really good yakitori for lunch that day.
I have to mention, that of all the sessions I saw during the conference, the one standout that blew everyone away was a soba-making demonstration by Yoshinori Horii, an eighth-generation soba maker from Tokyo. I wish there were a video I could put up, because watching him turn flour and water into a perfect dough was like watching a dance – effortlessly graceful.
The speed with which he rolled and stretched out the dough into a flawless sheet, and then folded and cut it into noodles, was spellbinding. The only demo that received a standing ovation. For anyone who's ever made pasta, or any pastry dough, it was so amazing to watch a master in action.
The tasting hall, where all the conference attendees congregated at dinner to taste dishes prepared by the visiting chefs. Obviously everyone was looking forward to this! Listing all the wonderful things I tasted would take another post in itself – just look at the food porn photos at the top of this one for an idea!
We also were served lunch from the chefs as well: I had more finely prepared sushi, meat, and noodles than I'd probably eaten in the last couple of months. Unexpectedly, I ate more pork belly in those two days than the entire rest of the year. One standout pork belly dish: Chef Ivan Orkin's ago dashi shoyu ramen. So. Good.
Chefs and culinary students of the CIA helping out during the lunch and dinner hours.
The CIA looks like a really fab place to learn how to cook!
So obviously I could go on and on about all the fabulous sushi and ramen, etc, but since this is a pastry blog (no booing, please!) I'll wrap up with a summary of the two pastry-oriented sessions I attended. Three pastry chefs from Japan, along with three American pastry chefs, demonstrated classic Japanese desserts as well as Western takes on Japanese flavors.
Chef Mitsuharu Kurokawa was one of the visiting pastry chefs and another person I was extremely impressed with. He is an eighteenth-generation confectionery maker and his family owns Toraya Confectionery, one of the oldest confection makers in Japan. Kurokawa heads up the Japanese branch of this shop in Paris. Not only was he extraordinarily skilled, but he also spoke English, and as the other two pastry chefs from Japan did not speak English, he also acted as their interpreter, describing their techniques as they demonstrated their craft. A very humble and talented young man.
This is one example of what Chef Kurokawa's family company makes: oshimono, or sugar colored and pressed into wooden molds to form intricately detailed candies. A mixture of sugar, potato starch, and mochi powder is combined with a little water and the combination quickly pressed into a mold before it dries. You must work quickly to pack in the sugar evenly. Otherwise, it'll fall apart when you unmold it.
Chef Akihiko Saka is the Japanese equivalent of a pastry career changer: he worked for a mayonnaise company for years before deciding he wanted to go into confectionery. Today he owns his own pastry shop in Tokyo. Here he is shaping his own version of mochi into seasonal forms.
Here, Saka's creations: a cherry blossom for spring, a peach for summer, a chrysanthemum for fall, and a santa hat for winter. Japanese sweets, or wagashi, are strongly tied to the passing of the seasons, and different flavors and shapes of these sweets appear at different times of the year. The skill required to make these is impressive – Chef Saka made these in minutes, and Chef Durfee mentioned that he had trouble forming a chestnut, supposedly the simplest of shapes to make.
Chef Hirofumi Ohta, a second generation confectionery chef, works on carving his nerikiri, soft mochi-like sweets made of a sweet dough covering a red bean filling, into delicate flowers. You can see chefs Bill Yosses and Stephen Durfee watching from behind.
Ohta's chrysanthemums. The roses in the background are made from long ribbons of the same dough.
Local pastry chef Elizabeth Falkner also participated in the pastry workshop. Falkner has long been a champion for molecular gastromony and unusual flavors, so not surprising that her dessert, a sundae of red bean and genmaicha ice creams, yuzu fudge and soy caramel sauces, and frozen red bean "rain" was a perfect encapsulation of Japanese flavors meet American pastry.
Chef Durfee of the CIA did his own tribute to Japanese pastry with a melon parfait: a melon formed out of melon puree to echo the Japanese tradition of modeling sweets in the forms of fruits and flowers; atop an almond cake with royal icing cookie with melon balls.
All in all, these were three of the best food days I've enjoyed all year and I'm humbled by the opportunity to have seen so many masters of the craft up close and in action. And itching to get over to Japan so I can have some more of their food. I'll end with a recipe for passionfruit mochi, by pastry chef Bill Yosses – just a tiny little taste of Japan.
adapted from recipe by Bill Yosses
340 Mochiko sweet rice flour
400 Passion fruit puree
320 grams sugar
40 grams glucose or corn syrup
Adzuki (red bean) filling
Combine all ingredients together in a microwaveable bowl.
Cover tightly with plastic wrap and microwave for about 5 to 6 minutes.
Scrape mochi onto a cutting board dusted with cornstarch.
DIvide into about 32 pieces. Roll each piece flat. Use a cookie cutter to cut round discs from each piece.
Place a small scoop of adzuki bean filling in the center of each disc. Pull dough around the filling and pinch to seal, forming a ball.
Freeze until ready to serve.
October 14th, 2010 · 8 Comments · Events, San Francisco, SF Events
Act I. “Pour Yourself a Stiff Drink, There’s a Lot More to Come.”
The kickoff party for Scharffen Berger’s annual Chocolate Adventure Contest has become an Orson tradition. Exotic drinks, whimsical nibbles, and a whole lot of chocolate cupcakes. The theme this year for the Chocolate Adventure Contest is cupcakes – devise a cupcake made with one or as many of the 14 “adventure ingredients”, including beets, adzuki beans, stout beer, and bee pollen. Elizabeth Falkner, one of the judges, led the way with a bartop full of cupcakes.
September 9th, 2010 · 18 Comments · Events, San Francisco, SF Events, Sweet Spots
A week ago I got the opportunity to attend a most intriguing presentation and I'm eager to share the experience with you! The event was a Soy and Chocolate pairing, part of Michael Recchiuti's Taste Project where he combines his renowned chocolate with another unexpected ingredient, such as cheese, beer, or salt. As Michael explained to us, he loves learning about other food artisans and he enjoys the challenge of turning his master chocolatier's skills to a new and unknown product.
His latest discovery was Hodo Soy Beanery, an Oakland-based company dedicated to making fresh tofu. This tofu is completely different from the chalky white slabs you see in stores – its shelf life is only days long, and it tastes astonishingly rich and fresh. I've grown up eating tofu, but even I was surprised at how much of a difference there was in the flavor of fresh tofu, and how little I actually knew about the making of tofu! The founder of Hodo Soy, Minh Tsai, was also on hand at the the tasting to talk about his product.
We arrived at the Recchiuti kitchens in San Francisco to a candlelit table scattered with soybeans – elegant but whimsical, the tone of the whole event. As the guests chatted, a steady drumming we initially took to be background music grew louder and louder until we realized it was live drumming – by Michael! Michael Recchiuti is a drummer! With a guitarist husband and drummer brother-in-law, I could totally appreciate this!
I think everyone at the tasting was curious to see what Michael and Minh would do with soy and chocolate. Tofu is not an easy product to pair with chocolate, because of its high water content. Tofu will shed water as you work with it, and of course water is the natural enemy of chocolate. Michael admitted he did a lot of experimenting to discover how best to use all of Hodo Soy's soy products – tofu, soy milk, and even the rarer side products like okara and yuba (which I'll discuss below). The following is the tasting menu we experienced that day:
Soy beans given the Michael Recchiuti treatment: lightly caramelized, then dusted with wasabi and matcha. Devilishly poppable.
This was my favorite of the tasting: a custard made with soy milk, topped with a financier and fresh cherries. The financier was actually created with a "flour" of the dried pulp from pureed soybeans, called okara. It had a nutty flavor and lovely pillowy texture – all in all a really tasty combination. The custard was so silky too – reminded me a little of Japanese chawanmushi.
This appears to be a shot glass of chocolate milk, but in fact is a more complicated concoction – a mixture of hot soy milk and chilled chocolate milk swirled with caramel. The soy milk was poured over the chocolate milk right before it was served to us, resulting in an interesting ever-evolving layering of flavors. Very fun.
We then got to visit the room where Michael's chocolates are created. The majority of the space is occupied by the enrobing machine: you can see Michael and the rest of us gathered around it and a portion of the conveyor belt. A veritable yellow brick road, upon which chocolates travel, to be covered in chocolate and blow-dried to a perfect shiny finish.
Squares of tofu topped with a marzipan made from okara (who knew it was so versatile?) and ground almonds, ready to be enrobed. I think this is so emblematic of Michael's approach: he doesn't just dip tofu in chocolate, he thought of a multi-component concept that used several soy products. The soft, mild tofu against the richer, denser marizpan. Reminiscent of the chocolates with pate de fruit on top of ganache – a nice play of textures and flavors.
The tofu squares, now covered in dark chocolate and topped with a nougatine disk. Gilding the lily indeed.
This is Minh Tsai, founder of Hodo Soy Beanery, talking about the process of making tofu. He then proceeded to demonstrate how to make tofu, an eye opening process that took just minutes.
He combined a coagulant (calcium sulfate) with water and then carefully poured hot soymilk over the mix. Tsai likened the process to pouring tea – you need to pour the milk from the proper height so the force of the milk hitting the water will properly disperse the coagulant.
The mixture is stirred for a while until it begins to clump up.
The mixture is poured into a box lined with cheesecloth and covered. Then Minh pressed down on top to push out the excess water and get the tofu to consolidate. Here's the excess water coming out of the box.
In a few more minutes, a b lock of still-warm, very fresh tofu is unwrapped from the cheesecloth. Minh cut it up and we all got to have a piece – an experience very similar to eating freshly made mozzarella. I had never seen tofu made before so this was a really fascinating demonstration.
Back in the dining room, Michael enlisted the help of pastry chef William Werner to make his next dish, a take on crepes Suzette with sheets of yuba standing in for the crepes. Yuba, or tofu skin, is a soft, pliable skin that forms on top of steaming soymilk – I know it may sound strange to the Western palate but it's a delicacy – soft and richly creamy. It can be eaten fresh, as is, or cooked – often it's used as a meat substitute just like regular tofu.
Here is the yuba "crepe" wrapped around late summer peaches with a scoop of soy milk ice cream – yum! MIchael admitted this was one of his favorite dishes of the day.
I guess this tasting truly had a "Dessert First" philosophy since the savory course was served last! I really loved it though – a slice of fresh Purple Cherokee tomato topped with some silken tofu and drizzled with balsamic vinegar and sprinkled with cacao nibs. Very fresh and summery.
We were also sent home with some of Michael Recchiuti's burnt caramel hazelnuts and Hodo Soy's tofu as treats; so generous!
It was a thoroughly fascinating and enjoyable afternoon. I just really loved being able to hear two food enthusiasts talk about the passions that move them – the depth of their dedication and mastery of their craft was evident in every bite we took of their creations. My next post will be about my visit to the Hodo Soy Beanery, so I want to mention how amazing I think Michael Recchiuti is for creating these Taste Projects; they are truly wonderful experiences. If you get a chance to attend one, I highly recommend it – Michael is a great guy with so much knowledge to share. Another reason to go is that all of these dishes are one-offs for the tasting and you can't get them at his retail store – although I'm hoping for a reappearance of those wasabi-and-matcha soybeans in the future!
If you're looking to try some of Michael's Recchiuti's chocolates, I highly recommend anything with burnt caramel – one of his signature flavors, or one his takes on classic favorites, like his whoopie pies or peanut butter pucks. San Francisco is a great place for the chocolate lover!