I have a bad habit of getting really into a particular type of exercise for a few months, and then dropping it completely. 2009: AbCircle Pro. (Yes, from the infomercials. It was terrible.) 2010: Zumba. 2011: Kettlebells. 2012: Elliptical.
And 2013: Chopping chocolate. In class, like in most professional kitchens, we keep chocolate by the slab. So when we need it, we have to chop it. And when we need it for something smooth and creamy, like ganache (used for cake coatings, chocolate truffles, etc.), then we need to chop it fine. In solid form, chocolate is hard as a rock and can only really be chopped by someone using a serrated knife, on their tiptoes, really digging into it.
It’s a messy process, and afterwards you look like this. And while you might think this type of workout would leave you smelling better than the typical sweaty workout, think again; raw chocolate has a bit of a poop-like stink. Not very pleasant at all. (And, since you look like this after chopping so much of it, unknowing strangers would probably think you had a bit of an accident.)
Of course, it’s all worth it. My chocolate hazelnut mousse cake:
And finally, like any workout, the Chocolate Workout is not without its hazards. Sorry to end on this note, but it’s just too gory not to show. (This is, or was, Sweetie’s thumb (both halves of it). And about 10 minutes after this incident, Underachieving Asian did the exact same thing, but worse. Chef D nearly had a fit.) Again, the dangers of the serrated knife cannot be overstated.
Since this post, several people have asked for the recipe of this cake, as well as for the technique in making the fancy designs on top. So here it is. The mousse cake is a layer cake: (from the bottom up) Hazelnut japonais — and no, i have no idea why it’s called that, chocolate mousse, chocolate butter cake, chocolate mousse, chocolate butter cake, chocolate mousse, then covered with chocolate ganache. I’ll skip the mousse and the butter cake cuz those are totally standard (though i’d suggest using a mousse recipe that incorporates a bit of gelatin to ensure it sets sufficiently to support the weight of the various layers).
Hazelnut Japonais (makes a 9″ round)
Whip 3 oz. egg whites to soft peak. Add 3 oz. granulated sugar and whip to stiff peak. In separate bowl, combine 3 oz. powdered sugar and 3 oz. hazelnut flour, then FOLD this mixture into the egg white mixture. Pipe into a 9″ round shape (or just spread it with a spatula into a circle, roughly an inch thick) and bake at 250 for about 2 hours or until lightly browned. It’ll look like a giant meringue. You can store this at room temp for several days (which is how long it took to make this freaking cake).
Assembling the Cake
Make the butter cake first, using a standard recipe. When chilled, slice the cake cross-wise so you get two layers. Make the mousse. Once you’ve got your mousse, your butter cake, and your japonais all ready to go, get a cake pan and place a layer of parchment at the bottom. You’re going to build this cake from the top down (and ultimately flip it over). Thus, first slather a layer of mousse at the bottom of the cake pan, then top with a layer of butter cake. Brush the top of the layer of butter cake with some simple syrup + hazelnut liqueur if you can remember to do so — helps keep the mousse from sinking into the cake, but if you don’t, it doesn’t really matter. Add another layer of mousse, then another layer of cake, then another layer of mousse. Top it all off with your japonais (remember, the japonais is ultimately going to be the BOTTOM of the cake). FREEZE, don’t refrigerate, OVERNIGHT.
The next day, when you’re actually ready to finish assembling the cake, first make your ganache. (Rule of thumb with ganache: 1:1 cream to dark chocolate for liquidy ganache, like for this cake topping, 1:1.5 cream to dark chocolate for soft ganache, like for truffles, and 1:2 for hard. If using milk chocolate, start with 1:1.5, then 1:2, then 1:2.5. If using white chocolate, it’s 1:2, then 3:2.5, then 1:3.) Keep in mind that it’s super easy to burn ganache, so take it easy and always use a bain marie rather than direct heat. Once that’s done, set it aside. Fill one pipette with melted milk chocolate, and one with melted white chocolate. (Professional kitchens don’t really use pipettes, they just fold parchment paper into little cones with a teeny-tiny hole at the end for piping.)
Decorating the Cake
After that’s all ready to go, you gotta move quick (or else your ganache and your two melted chocolates will start to solidify). Remove your cake from the freezer, warm up the sides of the cake pan a bit over a low flame, and you should then be able to turn the cake pan upside down and dump the thing out in one piece. The mousse layer at the top of the cake should be frozen solid. Pour your ganache all over the cake, letting it drip down the sides completely. Then, before the ganache has a chance to set and become its own separate layer, very quickly drizzle horizontal lines of milk chocolate across the cake, about two inches apart. Immediately do the same with the white chocolate, also about two inches apart but alternating from the milk chocolate. (In other words, you should end up with a line of milk, a line of white, a line of milk, a line of white, etc., all running parallel to each other on the top of the cake.) Then, to make the design, use a toothpick or the back of a knife and run it vertically across the cake 3 times, perpendicular to the chocolate lines, and then run it vertically across the cake in the other direction (still perpendicular to the chocolate lines, but if you were going top to bottom the first time, do it bottom to top the second time).
You should end up with the design depicted above. And if not, I’m really sorry. This was way harder to describe in words than I expected!
This is the chiffon cake that I made. (For food history buffs, or shmucks like myself who like to learn arcane facts about food so they can impress their friends, chiffon cake is a distinctly American, not French, cake, invited by some insurance salesman in the 1920s. Its name is derived from the similarly light and airy fabric most often seen in wedding dresses.) Chiffon cake is typically defined by its use of fluffy beaten egg whites — as opposed to butter — that is folded into the flour mixture before baking. If you do everything properly, you should get a nice even cake similar to an angel food. I did not do everything properly, so it seems.
Buttercream to the rescue. There are many different types of buttercream; in this instance, we used Italian meringue buttercream, which is basically Italian meringue (where the egg whites are beaten with a cooked sugar/glucose/water mixture) whipped into very soft butter. The resulting fluffy white buttercream masks every flaw you can think of, as you can see from the finished result. Coat the uneven outsides with almond slivers, pipe out a decorative buttercream border, drizzle on some black current coulis, and ta-da!
In baking, they call that “performing plastic surgery” on the cake, and indeed it is.
12:00 noon. I walk through the doors of Luce. Chef Corey greets me with a frozen-solid pint of gnocchi, frowning. Turns out I was only supposed to fill the pint containers up halfway; since I packed them to the top, however, the gnocchi are now all clumped together and no longer usable. That’s right, all 1,076 of them need to be remade.
We hadn’t allotted for the extra time that would take, but thankfully we were ahead of schedule on other prep. We immediately get to roasting potatoes all over again (good thing Yukon Golds are a staple item in Luce’s kitchen). In the meantime, I work on making the blood orange gastrique — sugar, sherry wine vinegar, blood orange juice, and the now reduced squab stock. Sculptor works on making the mushroom parmesan emulsion: Saute-ing the mushroom stems with a bit of onion and fresh thyme, adding in the parmesan rind, covering with water, and simmering for 2 hours at super low heat. Add half-and-half and a bunch more dried mushrooms (to get an intense-r mushroom flavor) and reduce down further. We additionally saute off all of the mushrooms for service; first the royal trumpets, then the hon shimeji, then the velvet pioppinis, each with a bit of white wine and shallots. (Since each type of mushroom requires different cooking times, we have to cook them separately.) I continue working on the blood orange gastrique, ladling in stock as needed while the rest of the staff laughs at how I have no muscles and have to lift the full ladle (it’s a quart-sized ladle) with both hands. The kitchen is painfully hot, and I begin seriously regretting having shaded in my eyebrows that morning since I know one inexact swipe of my hand will turn my 2 eyebrows into 4.
2:00 pm. Gnocchi dough is ready. All hands on deck; Chef Corey pulls in a bunch of other chefs in the kitchen to help roll those suckers out. This photo above is, in fact, a fake — taken the day before when we made the first round and were all smiles, joking about snowboarders and my questionable math skills. On this second attempt, making all 1,076 of the gnocchi all over again just hours before the dining room is about to fill up, the atmosphere has completely changed. Total silence; you could hear a pin drop in there. I, of course, feel like crap, having put everyone through this a second time because of a dumb mistake. But I quickly get over it because there simply isn’t time to worry about that anymore. Between every 50 gnocchi or so, I run up to the 4th floor pastry kitchen to bake off another set of parsnip cakes — the molds fit only 24 at a time, and we need 110 — and stir the polenta, which I now have bubbling on the stove and, as with any polenta, can easily clump up if not closely watched. Somehow I also spin through 5 pints of the Guinness chocolate ice cream so that they have sufficient whipped air to fluff up and also harden in time to be quenelle-able.
4:00 pm. Gnocchi are getting blanched, stations are getting set up. Chef Corey and I finalize the menu one last time and it gets sent off for printing. Sommelier comes in to verify the wine pairings. Sculptor starts slicing the spring onions and petal-ing the pearl onions; squab breasts are being cooked sous vide at 58 degrees Celsius (needs only 40 minutes; afterwards we can just hot-hold them in 52 degree water. So long as the temperature of the water is lower than the sous vide temperature, they won’t overcook). I start picking through chickweed sprouts — we use only the most perfect and beautiful blossoms — while other kitchen staff starts picking through spring pea shoots for the same purpose. Management comes in to have me double-check the printed menu, and I all of a sudden feel back in my element; we lawyers are good for nothing if not checking typos. (I find a big one immediately.) Pastry chef starts cutting out tiny little circles from the melogold gelee, as well as slicing off the tops of the parsnip cakes so they look more elegant on the plate.
5:00 pm. Finish off the mushroom parmesan emulsion; another chef adds a couple drops of white truffle essence to finish it off. I meet with all servers and runners to go over the menu so that no one dies from an overlooked nut allergy, and also so that no vegan treehugger yells at us for giving them gnocchi with parmesan in it. Also need to inform them on where the various ingredients come from, e.g., blood oranges from Antioch, spring onions from Petaluma, etc. We all re-try the wine, and I’m super-psyched that I fought to use the Siduri Ewald Pinot Noir for the second course, since it’s still as amazing as I remember. (The Siduri is a far pricier wine than any of the others we’d tasted on the Sonoma tour; in order to get it, I offered to skip a wine pairing for the dessert course. Wine doesn’t go well with beer anyway.) I take a look around the restaurant — tables look beautiful, wine glasses are sparkling, my face is plastered everywhere. Sweet.
5:30 pm. Service begins. PR person hooks me up with a microphone; I struggle not to curse each time I burn my fingers or screw something up. Ticket machine starts spewing out orders, and we’re off. Everyone starts moving super fast, and almost all friendly conversation ceases. Last minute additions to plating include pale lavender chive blossoms on the gnocchi dish, pickled orange zest on the main course, and lemon balm and fennel fronds on the dessert course.
Gnocchi starts getting fried up, multiple chefs (including myself) are standing by with kitchen tweezers, or, in my case, chopsticks, to begin plating exactly 6 gnocchi, 3 trumpets, 4-5 peas, an even mixture of other mushrooms, 4 pea shoots, and 5 blobs of mushroom parmesan foam on each plate. The foam — which I’ve vowed never to make again — requires someone to stick an immersion blender in the mixture and buzz it for a full 30 seconds or so before you get enough foam to do 3, maybe 4, plates. The foam starts dissipating almost immediately, so runners are standing by as the plates go up the table to Chef, who’s expediting and examining each plate.
Tickets continue, and now squab service begins. Oil start splattering over everyone as the breasts go on the roaster and the legs go on the hotter flat-grill looking thing whose name I can never remember. The team plates up the first 6 plates; Chef Corey takes a look, doesn’t like the angle of the legs, and has them take everything off the plates, refire the meat, and start over. 8 elements per plate: Dab of polenta, squab breast, squab leg, blood orange sauce, spring onions, pearl onion petals, chickweed blossoms, orange zest. We form an assembly line, left to right, with each person doing one element and then circling back to take the next (there isn’t exactly 1 person per element, and the kitchen is pretty crowded to begin with).
Dessert tickets start coming in; we jump on the dessert plating line. Luce’s traditional dessert plates are black slate; with my dessert being brown, brown, and more brown, we decide to go with the black plates (because we have almost enough of those) but to go with white plates for the Judges’ Table. I learn that “dead items” (items that don’t melt or wilt) get plated first — ganache, cake, hazelnuts. Non-dead items get plated last, in reverse order of shelf-life — gelee, edible flowers, ice cream last. Runners are standing by to whisk the plates out to the dining room the second the ice cream quenelles hit the plate. I curse the fact that our towels leave lint on the black slate plates, many of which are still wet since they’re being recycled through the dishwasher as fast as the dish crew can run them.
In the middle of the chaos, tickets for Tables 21 and 23 come in — the Judges. Everyone takes a little extra care (though honestly I’m not sure how that’s possible), and I accompany the runners out to the dining room to greet the judges, tell them about my menu, and generally kiss their asses. It’s awkward because as soon as I walk out I recognize a ton of other people I’d much rather be talking to, including A, my co-clerk, my cousins and their baby, my godmother and godsister, current and ex-colleagues, business partners, people from all walks of life. Pretty surreal. I stumble over my words and waltz back into the kitchen while the videographer follows me around and I try to wipe my forehead without wiping off my eyebrows.
The rest of the night pretty much continues this way; I get to take a few trips out to the dining room to greet people for 5 seconds each. Feedback seems quite good if I do say so myself. Around 8pm start feeling like crap because I haven’t eaten or drank anything all day; quite stupid and I’m now kicking myself. Sadly end up not being able to celebrate at the end of the night because I feel so horrible that I just want to crawl into bed. But all in all, the night went off without a hitch.
I’d rate this as one of the most memorable and amazing things I’ve ever done. And I’ve done some cool shit. To all of you who have encouraged me along the way, thank you.
Vegetable prep goes just fine. We’ve got three types of mushrooms, all gorgeous: (clockwise from upper left) royal trumpets, hon shimeji, and velvet pioppini. Sculptor spends 2 hours using a pair of super-sharp kitchen shears to snip off only the most beautiful mushrooms for use in the First Course. The scraps go into a separate bin to be used later to create the mushroom parmesan foam. I start shelling English spring peas — which makes me feel like a little kid who’s been bad and has been banished to the front porch to shell peas while I reflect upon my misbehavior — and then roasting a dozen and a half Yukon Gold potatoes and grating a giant wheel of Grana Padano for the gnocchi. At this point, Chef Corey works with us to discuss plating design for the First Course; using the unpeeled pearl onions as stand-ins for gnocchi, we decide on 6 per person, like so. We then spend the next couple of hours peeling the pearl onions as well as the giant spring onions, which make me cry and hate onions. Once the potatoes are done roasting and quickly peeled while piping hot, we assemble the gnocchi team.
First comes the gnocchi dough. For one portion (we made 4): 1000 grams roasted potatoes, 350 grams all-purpose flour, 1 whole egg, and 1/2 cup of a parmesan. That’s it. (Roasting the potatoes, as opposed to boiling them, prevents any extraneous liquid from getting into the dough, which makes for a fluffier gnocchi.) Then comes the quick kneading (overworking the dough will make the gnocchi tough), rolling, and cutting. (Note the layers in the gnocchi dough — yum.) We get a team of 5 together to make the stuff, and it happily takes us only a little over an hour to make 1,076 gnocchi. It gets blanched, shocked in an ice bath, and then I’m instructed to put them in pint containers and freeze them. Our plan is to defrost them the next morning and have them ready to fry off in butter when service begins.
I test a pint of the Guinness chocolate ice cream, and it’s super soft, so I know I’ll need to leave extra time for it to re-harden before service, meaning each pint needs to be churned into ice cream no later than 2pm Sunday. Sculptor boils up a soaking mixture to pickle the pearl onions (the flavor comes out more if pickling is done at room temp, fyi), while I bag up the spring onions and inject them with a bit of olive oil and acidic water. (To my law firm friends, the maker of the cryovac company — Koch — is particularly notable and I had to chuckle to myself when I noticed it. Just can’t get away from that company no matter what field I’m in.)
I leave Saturday evening feeling pretty good about myself, and psyched to watch George St. Pierre pummel Nick Diaz in UFC 158 (and yes, that happened). At night I dream happily of my 1000+ gnocchi, sleeping snugly in their pints.
Friday, T-2. We’ve got only two goals today: 1) Finish off each and every element of dessert; and 2) Break down each and every squab so the meat is ready and the bones can be roasted off and made into stock (to form the eventual base for the blood orange gastrique). My sous chef, Sculptor, has the knife skills of a samurai, and like any good hot-line chef utterly despises making desserts, so I take Task 1 while he takes Task 2.
Luce’s pastry kitchen is on the 4th floor of the giant hotel; nicely air-conditioned and away from the chaos of the kitchen. My Friday is therefore rather peaceful. (And, for the first time working in a kitchen, I went unhungry. Apparently all major hotels have a free cafeteria for the staff tucked away somewhere, I had sweet and sour pork belly with rice for dinner. I actually needed to go down there anyway; the only 100% flat trays (to be used for making the gelee) were the blue plastic trays available in the cafeteria. That’s right, every single other sheet tray you would probably ever find in any professional kitchen is irreparably dented.) I spend most of the day roasting off parsnips and making cake batter for 120 (we were expecting 107 guests and always want some cushion), which I had to partially redo because the oven was way more powerful than I expected and half my first batch of parsnips became way too crispy for a cake batter. Thank goodness for steamer ovens (which softened a lot of the parsnips up to at least the point where they were usable) and food mills, which pureed everything down to the point where I could rest assured that no guest would bite into an unpleasant hunk of raw parsnip in the otherwise light spongy cake.
Lesson No. 1: Cake batter can be refrigerated and just baked off on the day of service. So I poured my huge tubs of batter into various pastry bags, to be ready for piping on Sunday. I additionally boiled down 6 bottles of Guinness to about one cup of syrupy beer, then mixed that into Luce’s standard chocolate ice cream base (we used 64% Valrhona chocolate, a little sweeter than the 75% they usually use, in the hopes that this would allow the Guinness flavor to shine through a bit more). Those were pinted up, to be whipped into ice cream, also on the Day Of. I go downstairs and observe Luce’s master queneller (quenelles are those football shaped things that everyone seems so fond of these days when plating ice creams and sorbets for desserts) to determine precisely how worried I need to be about the ice cream not being “set” enough to quenelle, given I’ve added the extra Guinness liquid to the standard ice cream base. The master queneller shows me his technique: Use a cold spoon to scrape the edges of the ice cream into a perfect quenelle shape, then, while holding the spoon with the quenelle in his right hand, running his left hand under hot water and then immediately placing his hot hand underneath the spoon to warm it just enough to release the quenelle directly onto the plate, in perfect form. He moved so fast that these photos were the best I could do.
Chef Corey couldn’t get oroblancos or pommelos, so we used melogolds instead — a hybrid between pommelos (acid-less grapefruit) and marsh grapefruit cultivated in the University of California Riverside labs back in the 1970s. (“Melo,” because the flavor is more mellow than grapefruit, and “Gold,” because it’s more golden-colored than its hybrid sibling, oroblanco.)
In the meantime, Sculptor broke down 50+ squabs into 100+ breasts and 100+ legs. (As expected, Chef Corey later told me that Sculptor butchered those squabs like nobody’s business; to use his words, “that guy is like a machine.”) The breasts were bagged up (in English, cryovac’d/vacuum sealed) in preparation for cooking sous vide, while the legs were bagged up with injections of duck fat in preparation for confit. The leftover squab carcasses — mostly bones — were then roasted at high temp along with leftover guinea hen bones and chicken bones, added to a standard mirepoix (2:1:1: onion, carrot, celery), and then boiled in a giant stockpot overnight to create a rich stock.
Sculptor then joined me in the pastry kitchen, making candied hazelnuts (eliminating 1/3 of the sugar per both our Asian dessert palates) and squeezing melogold juice by hand (surprising that a juicer — a rather typical tool found in most home kitchens — is almost always missing in a professional kitchen). Generally uneventful day.
Wednesday began the first serious day of prep for my Sunday showcase at the Michelin-starred Luce restaurant (in which I am one of four finalists competing for a chance to go to the 2013 Aspen Food & Wine Festival).
I’d stopped into the dinner done the previous Sunday by a fellow competitor, which was terrific, but I was dismayed to see Meyer Lemon on her dessert menu, which the competitor prior to her had also done, and which I had also planned for my dessert. (Part of the competition is using “seasonal” California ingredients; since we’re right on the cusp of Winter and Spring, there aren’t many options and Meyer Lemon seemed a natural choice for almost all of us.) Given that, I decided on a whim to swap out my original dessert with something reflective of the particular Sunday that I would be cooking: St. Patrick’s Day. Ireland’s greatest contribution to the culinary world? Guinness Stout. (Photo courtesy of http://www.guinness.com.)
So beginning that Monday, my sous chef and I started testing various Guinness dessert recipes (during class time, which understandably intrigued but also annoyed Chef D), without too much luck. Guinness’s flavor so naturally exhibits chocolate and coffee undertones that pairing it with, say, chocolate makes its flavor utterly disappear. After multiple attempts with Guinness straight from the can, Guinness straight from the bottle, half-reduced Guinness w/ sugar, fully reduced Guinness w/out sugar, we settled on a dark chocolate Guinness stout mixture that we’d either turn into an ice cream or a mousse.
Since parsnips (depicted above, photo courtesy of http://www.mastergardenerssandiego.com) are also very much in season, and make a nice moist cake similar to a carrot cake (but spicier), I thought that would be a nice addition. To round out the sweet, and inject a little Chinese into the mix, I added a pommelo gelee.
On Wednesday, I met with Executive Chef Corey at Luce to discuss my proposed menu, which he liked a lot but nonetheless suggested several additions to complex-ify the flavors. To the First Course (originally, crispy potato gnocchi with morels and spring pea shoots), he suggested an addition of a foam made from mushroom stems and the rinds of the parmesan that we’d be grating into the gnocchi. Morels (depicted left, photo courtesy of http://www.fireroastedcatering.com), while technically seasonal for Spring, were a little slow coming in due to the recent cold weather, and, as Chef Corey explained, the first few batches are inevitably sandy. We thus replaced them with an assortment of hon shimeji, royal trumpets, and velvet pioppinis.
To the Second Course (originally, roast squab with blood orange gastrique, polenta, and wild ramps), Chef Corey suggested adding the squab leg as well as the breast. I’d had a lot of trouble grilling the leg previously, at least without turning it into an icky crisp since there’s little to no meat on it, but he suggested confit-ing it in duck fat so “it’d taste like a crispy fried chicken wing.” What’s not to like? He suggested I sous vide the breast before roasting it, which of course I thought sounded awesome since, duh, it’s sous vide. Blood orange gastrique would stay as is, and ramps (also not quite in season yet) would be replaced with spring onions and pickled pearl onions. Chef Corey had access to Red Flint Corn polenta, which is a gorgeous breed of polenta with red flecks that had previously been thought extinct, until some guy re-discovered a few plants of the stuff near Trento, Italy. Happily, we’d be using that for the second course.
To the revised Third Course (now, Guinness Stout dark chocolate mousse, parsnip cake, pommelo gelee, and crushed hazelnuts), Chef Corey didn’t say much other than that he liked the idea. He suggested a different recipe for gelee involving agar-agar + gelatin instead of just plain gelatin (more stable, and won’t melt so easily if placed on a hot plate), and also suggested we turn the mousse into a gelee or ice cream.
Prep would begin on Friday.