Culinary Sagacity

~Thought for Food~

The Cathayans believed that the soul or mind is located not in the head but in the stomach.

Doubtless this explains why they fret so much about the preparation and serving of food.

It may also explain why their memories are so much better than ours.

Information is stored not in the finite head, but in the expandable stomach.

--Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal's Creation

Friday, February 25, 2011

Ewald Notter & The Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie

Since its inauguration in 1989, I've dreamed of attending the Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie in Lyon, France.  And even though I have yet to make it, I still follow it every two years when the best pastry chefs in the world gather to compete for the most prestigious pastry challenge in the world, what we English speakers call the Pastry World Cup.

The 2011 Coupe du Monde, sponsored by Chocolat Valrhona, wrapped up at the end of January.  Spain took the gold, Italy the silver (woo hoo), and Belgium took the bronze.  The US did win first place for its sugar showpiece, and the ever dominant team France didn't compete this year.  All gold medal winners are prohibited from participating in the following competition (France won in 2009).

Spain's winning showpiece.  Photo courtesy of Chocolat Valrhona.

USA's sugar showpiece.  Photo courtesy of Chocolat Valrhona.
Since I didn't make it again this year (sigh), I decided to do the next best thing, interview the captain from the only US team to ever win gold in Lyon.

At the 2001 Pastry World Cup, captain Ewald Notter and his team mates En-Ming Hsu and Michel Willaume made history, bringing home the first and only gold medal for team USA.  Ewald Notter, author of the newly released book The Art of The Chocolatier, master of chocolate and sugar art, and founder of the Notter School of Pastry Arts in Orlando, Florida, was a well seasoned competitor by the time he was selected for team USA.

Having won 15 gold medals at various pastry competitions across the globe before moving to America in 1992, he took up the US pastry competition scene and won gold two consecutive years at the World Pastry Team Championships in Beaver Creek, Colorado.  By the time he made team USA for the Coupe du Monde, he was ready to retire from the competition circuit.

Ewald Notter creating a sugar showpiece at his Notter School of Pastry Arts

When I asked Notter if he was nervous despite his formidable competition record, he replied, "Oh my god I was very nervous.  I knew it would be my last competition and there was a lot of pressure too, we wanted to make a good job.  And we took risks, if you want to win you always have to take risks. I don't think you win if you don't take risks.  You want to be better, everything should be a step up."

Notter and his team only had six months to prepare, unlike many teams who have up to a year and a half to prepare.  But in Notter's mind, this wasn't a disadvantage. 

"We all had the right motivation and the right mood.  It was very intense but having only six months is sometimes better than having a year or a year and a half to prepare.  You have to get it done so you concentrate and you start and you pull it through.  It worked for us very well."

All competitions are stressful, just watch an episode of Food Network Challenge and you'll see.  But the Pastry World Cup is hands down the biggest challenge of all.  It's prestige brings with it a lot of press, and a lot of stress.  And it's no exception to the general rule that if things can go wrong, they will go wrong.  But rising to the challenges that crop up during a competition sets the winners apart from the losers.

2001 was no exception for Notter and his team.

"Oh we had our challenges on that day.  The ice wasn't standing well, my sugar piece broke, and in the morning we had no power.  A lot of things happened, but in any competition things happen and I think you can only prepare so much.  But if your team worked and trained together a lot of times, well every time you train together things happen, and so it's never a total disaster if anything breaks on the day of the competition because you're used to fixing things.  You're used to working together and helping each other."

Notter's sugar showpiece for Team USA in 2001.
All of Notter's competition experience over the years helped him a lot when it came to the Pastry World Cup.  As he explained to me, to his mind, when things go wrong or showpieces break, it can be an opportunity instead of a setback.

"I tell you, in any competition I did, always something broke.  I honestly believe that because something broke and the judges can see how you can fix it again and you don't lose your mind, you just put your head down and redo it and put it up, this can be impressive too.  You have to learn to work with what you have.  It's what I like to teach my students as well, if something breaks you find another way to arrange it and find a way to still put something up.  It's the only way if you want to be successful."

Winning the 2001 Pastry World Cup was a fitting end to such a long and prestigious competition career.  Today Notter focuses on teaching at the Notter School of Pastry Arts, where he offers both a six month pastry arts course for beginners as well as continuing education for professionals.  And when he's not teaching, he's traveling the globe doing demonstrations, coaching competitors, and acting as a guest instructor at other schools.

"There's a time to compete and a time to help other people to compete.  I did a lot of competitions before I came to America and then did it all again.  I made a lot of friends and learned a lot, so it was time to give back."

Though not competing himself, Notter still goes to Lyon to watch the Coup du Monde de la Patisserie, where he has often coached members of other teams.  Here's hoping I see him there myself in 2013!

Special thanks the the sponsor of the Coupe du Monde de la Patisserie, Chocolat Valhrona, for the photos from this year's competition.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Wild Abundance: A Beautiful Cookbook for Carnivores and Hunters

I love books, so when I come across a beautiful new cookbook -- so lovely it doubles as a coffee table book -- I'm a happy camper. Recently I've been losing myself in Wild Abundance: Ritual, Revelry & Recipes of The South's Finest Hunting Clubs, gazing at the stunning photography of Lisa Buser, drooling over the delectable recipes of the chefs and cooks, and reading the warm tales about the people and places brought together by editor Susan Schadt.

Wild Abundance (courtesy ArtsMemphis)

Odd as it may seem for a girl who grew up in cities, my family actually did a fair bit of hunting when I was a kid. My father was a chef who loved to hunt, and my family would pile into our camper and drive all the way from California to Montana or Wyoming for weeks-long hunting, fishing and camping trips on horseback.

Perhaps because of this, I've always been skeptical of carnivores who shun hunting. I've just never understood why someone who is not a vegetarian could have anything against the hunt. Often when I speak of hunting, people gasp, You'd kill Bambi?! Yet these same people happily order venison in a restaurant and buy it from the market. I truly believe the modern mentality born of experiencing meat all cut up and sold in plastic wrapped packages at the grocery story is the very disconnect that has led to the horrible animal raising and slaughtering practices rampant in today's food industry. To hunt is to respect and appreciate the life of the animal with which you're nourishing yourself, as well as the land on which they nourish themselves.

 Chef Derek Emerson's Grilled Quail with Corn Salsa (courtest ArtsMemphis)

Chef Derek Emerson with NY Giants Quarterback 
Eli Manning at Fighting Bayou Hunt Club
(courtesy Arts Memphis)
Wild Abundance is enough to make this nature-loving, game-craving city girl want to run for the wilds of America, and never look back.
Read the full article and see more of the beautiful photos from this stunning cookbook at The Huffington Post.

Carl Warner's Cool Food Landscapes

For Carl Warner, it all started with Portobello mushrooms. Now the landscape photographer who has spent 25 years in the advertising industry is famous for his foodscapes, which you've probably seen in an email that went viral back in 2008. I caught up with Carl when he was in New York City to present his Chocolate Train at the NYC Chocolate Show, as well as to promote his new book, Food Landscapes.

"I came across these Portobello mushrooms and they were beautiful specimens," said Carl when we sat down for an interview at Barnes & Noble. "Then I looked at them from a low angle and thought, Wow, that kind of looks like a tree. I wonder if I could photograph these in a way that would really make them look like trees?"

So he brought the mushrooms back to his studio in London, bought some seeds, beans and rice for the ground cover, and started constructing a landscape, using mackerel for the sky. With his knowledge of lighting and his talent for photography, he got down to the photo shoot. The result was his first ever food landscape, which he calls Mushroom Savanna, "because it looks like an African Savanna on another planet."

Read the full article and watch a slide show of Carl's Food Landscapes on The Huffington Post.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fresh Cranberry Bread

Fresh cranberries aren't in season for a long time, but fortunately their bright red color makes them perfect for holiday baking.  This is my mom's recipe for quick cranberry bread and as kids my sisters and I would beg her to make it as long as fresh cranberries were around.  Over the years I've adjusted it and made it my own, but it will always take me back to childhood and that wonderful feeling of being a kid at Christmas time.

Fresh Cranberry Bread
Makes 2 loaves

114 g (1/2 cup = 1 stick) unsalted sweet cream butter, plus more for greasing pans
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups fresh orange juice (no pulp)
200 g (2  cups) walnut halves
440 g (about 4 cups) fresh  cranberries

Measure in the bowl of a stand mixer:
480 g (4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour (King Arthur or 365 brand)
400 g (2 cups) granulated sugar
1tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda

Heat oven to 350.

Grease 2 loaf pans with butter and set aside.

Melt the stick of butter and remove from heat to cool.

Toast walnut halves on a baking sheet for about 5-8 minutes, shaking the sheet pan a couple of times for even toasting.  When you begin to smell the scent of toasted walnuts in your kitchen, they're usually ready to come out of the oven.  Set aside to cool.

Rinse the cranberries in a colander under cold running water.  Remove any bits of stem and discard any cranberries that are mushy.  If you have to throw out too many mushy berries, you may want to add some more from another bag.  Dry the berries in a clean kitchen towel by rubbing them inside a folded towel with your palms flat, in circular motions.  This will also help you find any mushy berries you may have missed during rinsing.

In a food processor, pulse the cranberries to roughly chop them.  Do this in two batches.  You don't want them finely chopped, so if you have some whole berries this is fine.  Put the chopped cranberries in a bowl.

Next, roughly chop the cooled walnuts using the same machine, no need to rinse it before adding the walnuts.  As with the cranberries, you don't want them finely chopped.  Add the chopped walnuts to the bowl with the berries and set aside.

Crack the two eggs into the orange juice and whisk by hand until blended.  Set aside.

Whisk by hand all of the dry ingredients you've measured in the bowl of a stand mixer.

Using the paddle attachment, run the stand mixer on low and drizzle all the melted butter into the bowl in a steady stream.  Continue to mix on med-low speed until the dough becomes crumbly.  Add the orange juice / egg mixture all at once and beat on medium speed until the dough is evenly moist, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.  The batter will have lumps in it, this is fine, you'd don't actually want a completely smooth batter.  Fold in the cranberries and walnuts by hand using a large rubber spatula.

Divide the batter evenly between the two loaf pans and level it with the spatula.  Bake for about 1 hour and 10 minutes turning the loaves halfway through baking.  If you have a convection oven, the bread will take less time to bake, and you won't need to turn the loaves.  The bread should be golden brown and firm to the touch, and a tester inserted in the center should show no wet batter—a few crumbs stuck to the tester are fine.

Cool the loaves on a cooling rack for about 2 hours.  After about one hour, you can slide a small metal spatula or paring knife around the edges to loosen the bread from the sides of the pan.

The bread keeps in the loaf pan, covered in aluminum foil (or out of the pan and wrapped entirely in foil), for up to one week, at room temperature.  To remove the bread from the pan when it's completely cooled, slide a knife or small metal spatula around the edges again and turn it upside down on a cutting board.  Tap the pan against the cutting board until the bread slides out (you may need to give it a firm whack, but it'll hold together fine).

The best way to eat this bread is to cut it into ½ inch thick slices, using a serrated bread knife, and toast it in a toaster oven or broiler.  It's a very crumbly bread, so you don't want to slice it thin or put it into a normal toaster, it has to lay flat and be turned with a metal spatula.  If you use a broiler as I do, then place the slices on a metal cooling rack over a jellyroll pan.  With this bread, you actually want to broil it until the corners get slightly charred.  For some mysterious reason, this tiny bit of char on the edges of the bread make it super yummy.  Butter the slices of bread and gobble it up while it's warm!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Gordon Ramsay Wants YOU!

Are you a talented home cook with nerves of steel?  Or, like me, can you injure and burn yourself while preparing dinner for guests and just keep on cooking as if nothing happened?  Then maybe you should try out for Season Two of MasterChef on FOX, and put your skills (and nerves) to the test under the eagle (or is it evil?) eye of Gordon Ramsay.

The casting scouts of MasterChef are making their way across America on cattle calls for contestants.  But before you show up, be sure to visit the website to complete the application. You don't want to get yelled at when you arrive unprepared, do you?

Here's the list of cities and dates, for exact times and locations, follow the links provided below.

Los Angeles - Saturday, November 6
New York - Saturday, November 13 & Sunday, November 14
Boston - Saturday, November 13
New Orleans - Saturday, November20
Orlando - Saturday, November 20 
Chicago - Saturday, December 4 & Sunday, December 5 
Dallas - Saturday, December 4 & Sunday, December 5
Denver - Saturday, December 11
Portland - Saturday, December 11

If you can't make it to one of the open calls, then you can still apply by sending in a video submission.  Since there's plenty—if not more—fabulous home cooks who don't live in a big city, just follow this link to instructions on how to submit your video!

Good luck!