Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On Turning 24 and the ensuing chaos

Last Christmas, I turned 24.

Yes, you read right. My birthday falls on the most joyful day of the year. But I do not know if receiving only one present per year instead of two is so joyful after all. J is the only one who gives me a mid-year present to compensate for it. (Does it take that many guesses to find out why I stay with him?)

But seriously. Because I had more than my fair share of baking to do this Christmas---mostly for the party at J's parents house on Boxing Day---I decided that the French buche de noel, the December Challenge for Daring Bakers, can multi-task as my birthday cake.

I was really looking forward to this challenge, and decided on the following component to complement the warm Australian Christmas:

-Coconut dacquoise
-Mango mousse
-Cinnamon and vanilla creme brulee
-Coconut crisp insert
-Cinnamon-milk ganache insert
-White chocolate icing

Everything went well until the day I took the log out of the mold to glaze. First, the icing quantity specified in the recipe proved too little to sufficiently cover the log. So, being a smartass, I made another batch and though: It should be fine if I cover it with another layer. Well, guess not.

My icing got too heavy and slipped down the sides of the cake. So in the end I had to trim off the icing on the sides with a palette knife and cover the whole thing in dessicated coconut to mask its ugliness. Oh, but wait, there's more.

While I was defrosting my log, I noticed that the mango mousse started to resemble a very runny mango custard, and was behaving in the same way. When I lifted it up, the upper half started to slide around a bit, and right then I knew that I should have gone out to buy some gold-strength gelatin leaves instead of being so cocksure that titanium-strength ones would do the same job. So, long story short: I ended up serving mango goo to people at Christmas. Thank God family (and boyfriend) do not judge.

This month's challenge is brought to us by the adventurous Hilda from Saffron and Blueberry and Marion from Il en Faut Peu Pour Etre Heureux.
They have chosen a French Yule Log by Flore from Florilege Gourmand

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A late pre-Christmas Caramel Cake and some thoughts

So it's finally over...my two years of studies culminated in a presentation and a final hand-in earlier today. And I am free. But what awaits ahead, I wonder? I don't know. No clear path seems to be presented to me. It is definitely time to look for a full-time career, but am I, with my bird bones and 5 foot 1 frame, cut out for the long hours, physical strain and stress that working in a kitchen presents? But if not, what career path do I pursue? I cannot imagine myself working too far away from food---I love it so much, too much to stay away from it.

Pondering the fore-mentioned thoughts lead to another. During my spare time (which recently has been, well, spare), I ponder about the people, food, and places. More specifically, about why people get so emotional when it comes to food. How many times have you been upset when your dessert came out not less stellar than its description on the menu? And how many more when you were made to wait a little longer than expected for your meal?

I had the fortunate experience of tasting fresh walnuts at the market yesterday. J insists that I pair it with some gorgeous, plump raisins that we bought at the same stall. The first bite, and I knew I found a new addiction. The walnuts were unlike the anything I have ever tasted. I popped one into my mouth, instinctively waiting for that bitterness that was always present in all that I have tasted thus far. But nothing came. Just the smooth, subtle taste of the nut.

Why am I suddenly talking about things that has nothing to do with my Caramel Cake post, you ask? Because working in the industry has led to an observation that people get very personal when it comes to food. I have the fortune of not having to work Christmas this year or last year. But considering how many restaurants are open, I can't help but wonder: How much thought do people give to the food that is served to them at a restaurant/hotel/cafe? How much thought do they give into the preparation that took hours to complete, the hours of labour, the injuries and physical and mental stress that take place in a commercial kitchen? How much thought do they give to the people who will cook and serve them, and probably hundreds other, their food on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? Do they ever think, if even for the slightest moment, that some people had to sacrifice being with their families on that one special day just so they could eat out? I am aware that there is a whole other side to it: people who would say that eating out at a certain restaurant on Christmas Day has been a ritual for the family for 30 years, and that I have no right to judge, etc. etc. But please, I am not looking for a fight. Merely a discussion, and a sanctuary where I can let my thoughts loose. I am by no means condemning you for eating out on Christmas Day, gee, I personally have done that so many times.

Being a chef is, in a way, a thankless job. We slave away days and hours making food for people we do not know and do not meet. (Unless you are the owner or head chef of a restaurant, in which case you probably no longer cook as much.) Your sighs of appreciation and moans of pleasure do not reach our ears unless you send your compliments by virtue of a front of house staff. And that is rare. They usually never leave your table, and are reserved for the ears of friends and acquaintances.

So what pleasures does being a chef brings? Certainly not the long hours, low pay or lack of recognition. I suppose the feeling that you have given a part of yourself to create something that you can share with others. And to work so closely with all the things that you are passionate about---the best fresh ingredients, the merging of flavours, the beautiful art that lies on a plate....I think that personal gratification is as important, if not more so, than recognition and acknowlegdement.

So, if you are still with me, I will finally resume normal mode and actually write about the November Daring Bakers' Caramel Cake. The cake, I think, was amazing, even though I made my caramel syrup lighter than suggested. The frosting, though, was so tooth-achingly sweet I cringed at the first bite. Yes, a sugar fiend like me. Can you imagine? Though to its credit (and Shuna's), it was one of the best frostings I have ever worked with. I spread it, chill it for a couple of minutes, and smooth it---and I get the perfect, smooth frosting! I had to discard some of the frosting because one layer of cake broke on me and I was adamant that I have the perfect cake this time. So I ended up with less and had to compromise on using whipped cream for the side. I also added some red currants to introduce some tartness to the cake. I only noticed how Christmas-sy the whole cake looked after I was done, so I decided that I would call this my pre-Christmas Caramel Cake.

Thank you Shuna of Eggbeater for the caramel cake recipe, and Alex, Dolores and Jenny for hosting this month's challenge. And if any of your are interested in making the cake, you can find the recipe here.