The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin

The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin
The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin

A lifetime of learning, sharing and eating; now this is what cooking is all about! The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchenby Jacques Pépin is a fun and amazing autobiography that I simply couldn’t put down as I read it. A classically trained French Chef, Pépin, the well known and likable culinary personality, great friend of Julia Child and other notables, chronicles his life in this book filled with a mix of serious and funny memories and stories that provide a simple, yet profound perspective on cooking and life. The book conveys a love for family, tradition and cooking all with ease and feeling as if you were having a conversation with an old friend or even Jacques himself.

Born of modest beginnings, the book starts with Jacques recounting his life growing up in France during World War 2, and at a young age immediately discovering a love for food and cooking. Incorporating poingent stories of family history and learning, he describes his call to the stove to further his education in cooking by becoming an apprentice at a well respected hotel far from home at the young age of thirteen. Jacques Pépin moves through a life of culinary adventures, quickly rising the ranks to work for notable figures such as Charles de Galle and Howard Johnson. He then moves on to successful ventures such as a soup business in New York City, cooking demos and classes that are fully booked years in advance as well as a couple of television series. Through hard work, occaisional mishaps and sheer determination, his learning transforms him into a well respected man of great talent, aptitude and accomplishment.

Even through misadventures and misunderstandings Pépin is always likable, easily making friends and garnering support for his ideals.  As his success and lessons unfolded, I constantly found myself reflecting on my own training and learning, identifying with commonality of vision and enjoyment in cooking.

If one thing can be said about this book, it is that it demonstrates a pure love of cooking by its author and a desire to make people happy through it. Unpretentious, down-to-earth, warm and insightful, this writing is captivating from the very first chapter to the last. As I mentioned, I simply could not put this book down as I followed Jacques’ evolution into the culinary luminary he is today.

At his core, Jacque is a teacher keenly focused on the next generation of cooks. In an era where it was the norm, he honed his craft through hard work, creativity, rigorous training and time. The same is required today to be successful in any endeavor, though he takes it to the next level for this generation, understanding that time seems to be a luxury noone has anymore.

His mission to teach others was furthered by becoming a founding dean of the French Culinary Institute in New York, a top tier culinary institution in the Unite States and the world with its roots steeped in French tradition as well as a co-creator of the gastronomy program at Boston University. His love for teaching guides him to condense his lifetime of experience into a learning path fit for today’s “right now” society. While taking a steady path of learning over a lifetime does sound romantic I can also more clearly see the value in an accelerated learning program and in enrolling in culnary school. The idea of learning from others and their successes as well as their mistakes is something my father constantly tries to instill in me and is a valuable lesson in effeciency of time, something we are all limited in and is arguably our most valuable asset.

My only regret with this book was that it was not longer. A lifetime of culinary experience proved to be exciting and was probably nearly impossible to write without leaving out equally pivotal memories and captivating stories. I encourage anyone with an interest in cooking or a great true story to read this book and as Jacques is known for saying, “Happy Cooking”.

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Cooking Through Ratio: Doughs and Batters – More Bread

The bread bug has bitten me.  After experiencing my first loaf of yeast bread, I’m totally hooked. I even made the sweltering trip to Whole Foods yesterday to pick up some extra yeast in a jar this time so that I would no run out anytime soon. After making a fresh baked baguette, I wanted to employ the ratio to make something a bit different. Michael Ruhlman gives a few suggestions and so I settled on what he describes as a sandwich bread recipe which I could make in my bread loaf tin as a variation.

15 ounces of flour and 9 ounces of water are just the right amount to fill a 9 inch loaf pan while keeping true to the 5 parts flour, 3 parts water ratio. This variation also calls for the addition of 2 tablespoons of butter. I made the dough last night but ran out of time to bake it so it was left to rest and rise in the in the refrigerator over night. Tonight I took it out and let it reach room temperature before forcing out the built up carbon dioxide and redistributing the yeast. It was left to rise again for an hour as I made pasta for dinner.

Just before I filled the bread pan with dough, I removed a small portion to use as a started for a second loaf. Ruhlman asserts that yeast is not a key component of the ratio and that is why it is left out. Given enough time and the right conditions, it will do it’s leavening job, which I intended on experimenting with to find out what my results would be like.

With the oven set at 350 degrees, the bread was put into a greased loaf pan and then put into the oven. What kind of sandwich bread would this make I wondered? As I would soon find out, the answer is the most amazing sandwich bread ever enjoyed by me! Crispy, firm and slightly sweet. Absolutely delicious. The dough variation also calls for applying a light egg wash half way through baking which produced “an appealing crust” as promised. The book is exceeding my expectations already.

Sandwich Bread Loaf
Sandwich Bread Loaf

With my “starter” I worked on the sandwich bread variation again using all the same measurements and procedures. With a little extra coaxing and kneading the dough rose almost as much as the first batch. Not bad at all. For flavoring I opted to add a bit of cinnamon and sugar for a tasty breakfast bread.

After spending a few hours in the kitchen on this hot summer day, the heat was noticeable and yet strangely enjoyable. An hour after I put the second loaf it, it was ready with a crispy brown crust.

Cinnamon Bread Loaf
Cinnamon Bread Loaf

To my surprise, after baking, only the crust was darker with the inclusion of the cinnamon. The inside was unaffected and missing the swirls of cinnamon that I expected to see. Despite my visual disappointment, the taste was all there, not as pronounced as cinnamon loaves I have had in the past, but sweet, subtle and very yummy. I’m now suffering from carb overload. It’s a tough job, but someone must endure the pain.

As an aside, the recent pictures I have taken in my kitchen for this and previous posts are not dim for effect, they just are not working properly after the power company made some “repairs” which resulted in the baking in the dark experience on my birthday. My whole apartment now flickers like a ghetto rental in some old movie. Curse them should these electrical issues extend to affect my stove and/or oven.

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Cooking Through Ratio: Doughs and Batters – Pasta

Cooked Pasta
Cooked Pasta

Continuing my my series, Cooking Through Ratio, I have moved on to the next topic under Doughs and Batters which brings me to pasta.  Pasta usually comes in a box doesn’t it? Most of the pasta Americans are used to eating certainly does. The first time I had eaten handmade pasta was in the Back to Basics sauce class at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. It turned out great, although we used the a pasta cutting attachment, something I didn’t have which made me a bit nervous.

Pasta dough as it turns out is quite simple. 3 parts flour and 2 parts egg. Less variables are a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that there is less to think about and less to get wrong (perhaps this naive to think, experience will tell). The curse is that there is less to hide behind. Too much egg and my pasta probably would come out sticky. Too much flour and it would be dry and floury tasting and would not hold together. Reading over the basic ratio and instructions left me with these questions in mind. I also noted, that while the ratio was given, no indicators of “doneness” were provide nor was appropriate cooking time. Nevertheless, I charged forward with my dough.

According to the book, a large egg weighs about 2 ounces. I assumed that this was without the shell, and validated with my scaled. I used 2 eggs beaten lightly and then weighed out 6 ounces flour, all purpose this time and got to work. The flour was placed in a bowl as suggested for easy mixing and clean-up. I created a well in the flour and dumped the egg in the center and then combined it with the fork I used to beat the eggs. At this point, I became very aware experience is what determines success or failure. Unlike the bread dough I made previously, this dough required intimate tactile knowledge to know if enough flour had been incorporated. Experience through trial and error will have to be my teacher here especially since I don’t know anyone who makes their own dough. Once I incorporated all of the flour the egg would naturally absorb, I formed the dough into a disk and let it rest for 20 minutes as instructed.

While the dough was resting, I brought a heavily seasoned pot of water to a healthy boil. I had heard that freshly made pasta takes less time to cook than dry store bought pasta, so I figured less than 10 minutes would have to be my guide. Once the pasta had rested sufficiently, I rolled it out on wax paper then rolled it up and cut it ala the chiffonade method. Despite absorbing just about all of the weighed flour in the bowl, the I did experience problems with the dough sticking to the wax paper and rolling pin as I rolled it out even as I added more flour to the paper and dough.

Uncooked Pasta
Uncooked Pasta

I unraveled the dough and dumped it into the pot in what would become a cloudy mass of dough and boiling water. The water boiled on as I gently stirred the pasta with a wooden spoon to separate the strands. This stuff was not as easy to work with by any means; it was totally different than working with box pasta.

After about 5 minutes, the pasta was very limp and clumpy. I figured it would finish cooking through carry-over heat and dumped it out of the pot to strain in a colander. Not only did it look slimy, it was to the touch. It appeared that the outer coating of flour clumped up on the pasta immediately after I put it into the pot.

I plated the pasta and in a moment of purity I decided to only season it with salt and pepper so as to get an understanding of what it tastes like sans sauce. The taste overall was very good, different that what I was used to for sure, but that was to be expected.

Cooked Pasta Seasoned
Cooked Pasta Seasoned

This experience taught me that the method and experience are just as important as the ratio, and perhaps even more and the obvious knowledge that I did not make the best pasta in the world, I am left feeling accomplished by attempting something that so few people ever do. This ratio will require some more practice for sure.

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Food Source Paranoia

It has been a month since I saw Food Inc. in the theater. Now just about everywhere and everything I eat I analyze, wondering where it came from re-living the haunting images of unsanitary and inhumane conditions and burned into my memory along with thoughts of genetically modified “super food”. I suffer from food source paranoia.

Perhaps paranoia is a bit strong, but I am very conscious of where my food comes from and how the animals I eat was raised and cared for and how the fruits and vegetables I eat were grown and potentially modified from their humble beginnings. Are all who are made to think about their food sources for once affected the same way?

Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. I definitely have a deeper appreciation for what I eat, where it came from and how it came to be that grows each and every day and will along with learning cooking methods, commit to learning more about food sources and raw ingredients to gain a deeper understanding. A skilled cook can never truly perfect their craft without getting into the details and gaining a strong foundation not only in skill but in basic food knowledge.

“Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.”
– Will Durant
(US Historian, Writer, Philosopher)

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Cooking Through Ratio: Doughs and Batters – Bread

Sliced Baked Baguette
Sliced Baked Baguette

It’s the method that I’m after and so as I mentioned previously, I will be embarking on a journey and cooking my way through Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking in a series entitled Cooking Through Ratio. This post is my first installment in the series.

Bread is one of those things that seems so hard to make. My mother was always “scared” of making bread. She’s a great cook and so making it seemed difficult to me. It’s one of those things that only bakers seem to know how to do. Ruhlman’s  Ratio opens up with bread dough, an interesting challenge for the bread making averse. “Everyone should be able to make bread when they want to, but rarely do we because of the perceived effort involved. When you know the ratio for bread, bread is easy.” (p. 5) I was up for the challenge.

A key component of ratio based cooking is the scale. The reason for this is that it helps produce consistent and repeatable results. It takes the inconsistency out of cooking when dealing with volume based measurements which can vary greatly due to simple changes in aeration or humidity in dry ingredients for example.

The basic ratio for bread dough is 5 parts flour, 3 parts water, some yeast and a bit of salt. This produces a versatile lean dough that can be modified based on the cook’s will to produce many variations.

I had never worked with yeast or bread flour as the basic ratio calls for, and combined with a stand mixer equipped with a dough hook, this was going to going to be a unique experience for me in more ways than one.

Last night, ingredients and hardware ready, I measured out the flour and water inside of the mixing bowl, added yeast and salt and set the mixer on the correct speed (2 in my case) for mixing dough. The mixer went to work and a little over 10 minutes later my dough was mixed and ready to rise. After about an hour, I tended to the dough which had doubled in size, needed it a few times to rework the gluten and redistribute the yeast all inside the mixing bowl. I then covered the bowl with plastic wrap and placed it in the fridge to rest over night.

Tonight I took my dough out and made sure my oven was pre-heated to 450 degrees which was easy and quick to do after just having made stuffed green peppers. I wanted to make a baguette for my first attempt, so I rolled it out on the non-stick cookie sheet I planned to bake it on which was generously floured. I covered the bread with a moist towel and let it rest for 10 minutes while I placed a cast iron skillet into the oven on the lower rack to warm up. This would be used in the next step to create steam.

After 10 minutes, I poured a cup of water into the skillet to create the steam which as the book instructed would help produce a nice crispy, crunchy crust. The sound and amount of steam created was much more than I expected. The kitchen always has its surprises.

For 10 minutes, the bread baked at 450 degrees before lowering the heat to 375 degrees for the remaining 50 minutes. I took the bread out of the oven and knocked on it a few times listening for a hollow sound. The bread delivered.

Baked Baguette
Baked Baguette

Set to cool on my counter a few minutes, I sliced it open and tasted it. This is heaven. The warm slice was so delicious I was actually upset that I did not make more dough for bread later on in the week. Overall I was surprised that something that seemed so hard was actually so simple to make. For a collective 15 minutes of actual work I was able to enjoy fresh bread at home, a pleasure all should experience.

Cooking through this series is going to be a fun endeavor, one which I am glad I took upon myself.

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Cassie’s Stuffed Green Peppers

Baked Stuffed Peppers
Baked Stuffed Peppers

Cassie was gracious enough to pass along another family recipe for stuffed green peppers. This favorite recipe of hers that conjures up family memories was one she was eager to share to impart part of her upbringing with me. As I mentioned in my last post, recipes allow you with a degree of accuracy reproduce a dish over and over again and are a like passing along recorded history from one to another. Interestingly enough sometimes recipes aren’t repeatable due to unforeseen circumstances. In my case, finding good green peppers was just not possible right now. At best the grocery had beat up and bruised green peppers, some with black stems, others with noticable gashes or cracks from drying up. It was a sad state of affairs. Orange and Yellow peppers were in abundance and in great shape, so they dominated my pepper pickings. The recipe for stuff peppers takes some effort but is well worth the effort put into them.

Ingredients:
6 green peppers
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 c chopped onion
1/2 c chopped celery
1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes
1 can (8 oz) tomato sauce
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp basil
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1/2 tsp ground black pepper, divided
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 lbs ground beef
1 1/2 cups cooked long grain rice
3/4 c shredded cheddar cheese

Hardware:
1 pot, big enough to fit the peppers
1 pot, big enough to cook the rice
1 12″ skillet or larger
1 baking dish, big enough to fit the peppers
1 mixing bowl

Directions:
Cut the tops off peppers; remove the seeds and membranes. Chop the edible part of tops and set aside. Rinse the peppers under cold water and then place them in large pot covered with salted water. Bring everything to a boil and then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for about 5 minutes or until the peppers are tender. Drain the peppers and set aside.

Cook the rice in a separate pot until it is fully cooked through.

Heat the olive oil and butter in the skillet over medium heat until hot. Sauté the chopped green pepper (from tops), chopped onion, and chopped celery for about 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Add tomatoes, tomato sauce, crushed garlic, oregano, basil, 1 teaspoon of salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of the ground black pepper. Simmer the ingredients for about 10 minutes.

In a bowl, combine the egg with the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of ground black pepper, and Worcestershire sauce. Gently stir the mixture to blend; add the ground beef, cooked rice, and 1 cup of the tomato mixture. Mix everything well together.

Stuff the peppers with the meat mixture and place in the baking dish. Pour the remaining tomato mixture over the stuffed peppers.

Bake the peppers at 350° for 55 to 65 minutes. Top the stuffed peppers with cheddar cheese just before they are done and then bake until the cheese is melted.

Baked Stuffed Peppers
Baked Stuffed Peppers

Enjoy.

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Cooking Methods and Understanding

Do chefs use recipes? I am willing to bet the answer to that question is “no” or “rarely”. This isn’t because recipes are bad or because they aren’t useful. They are and they have their place for sure. Recipes are a great way to pass on a dish and methods to someone else so that they can replicate something of yours. They are like a recorded history passed from person to person. They also ensure consistency which is key in the world of cooking? So if recipes are good for all these things, why aren’t they used by Chefs? The reason can be generally summed up that Chefs have an intuitive sense of cooking and more importantly method. Method and experience combined with creativity allow a chef to free themselves from recipes and cook.

I’ve been watching a lot of Chef Todd Mohr’s videos on YouTube about cooking method. He is keenly focused on the method so that one does not have to worry about recipes and can cook freely. I’ve enjoyed the many videos I have seen so far along with his quirky and enthusiastic explanations of key cooking methods with the aim of demystifying what humans have been doing since the dawn of time. His lessons are many and cover the broad range of topics on cooking and made me think even more about the learning process I am going through.

I recently purchased Michael Ruhlman’s latest book Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking which focuses on a key tool in the chef’s arsenal, the ratios of cooking. The premise is that by knowing key ratios instead of recipes you open up yourself to countless possibilities instead of a finite few. I plan to work my way through the book which will allow me to take the next step in what Chef Mohr advocates with learning method while also proving a great opportunity to use my new KitchenAid mixer, a definite bonus. I hope to gain a deeper understanding of culinary fundamentals that will help me become more comfortable and creative in the kitchen.

I still plan on following recipes as they will allow me to reproduce the dishes they outline. A key benefit of this is that after the dish is created I can use the methods I have learned to provide my own interpretation of the dish and make it my own if I choose. I’ll also be able to better understand the whys of problems I encounter when a dish doesn’t turn out as expected.

Taking blog readers along for the ride seems to be the popular trend these days with blogs like Alinea at Home, 101 Cookbooks and The Julie/Julia Project which has become a published book will make a debut as a major film in August. Following suit, I plan to take you all through Ratio in a blogging series I plan on calling Cooking Through Ratio. Who knows, maybe you’ll see my story in the theaters in a few years. Wish me luck and Bon Appétit!

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Food Critique: Knowledge, Confidence & Food Snobbery

Eating used to be something I just did, one of those necessary things in life that at times had highlights, but usually consisted of monotony. Eating was an act, not necessarily a pleasure. Breakfast was usually non-existent or store bought hastily on the way to work. Lunch was always purchased during the work week or a form of eggs or cereal on weekends. Dinner consisted of a random cut of meat from the supermarket cooked rare or burnt beyond recognition. Although making trips home to visit my family while also getting to enjoy a wonderful home-cooked meal are just as special, one thing has changed; the contrast between meals at home and meals made in my apartment is not as jarring as it once was.

When acquiring a new skill, vocabulary and technique are picked up along the way. With cooking this is certainly true as is a deeper appreciation for the time and effort involved in making a meal and a new perspective on the food to be enjoyed. One thing is also true of acquiring a new skill, being that a little knowledge can be a little dangerous so to speak and new found confidence can come across as snobbery.

As a culinary neophyte voraciously reading biogrpahies, cookbooks, and many other food related texts I have obtained quite a bit of knowledge and more importantly confidence in the kitchen as well as confidence about what I like and don’t like. I’ve opened up my palatte to try many new things to gain experience and in doing so am at a point where I have my likes and dislikes, views on personalities in the food world, views on food and how it should be prepared and what makes good food, and with this confidence feel more free to voice my opinion.

I’ve been thinking about my views, the knowledge I have obtained and my experiences in this short amount of time. One could ask, “Who is Eric to be making comments about food at this point in his journey? What does he know? What qualifies him?”.  I wonder to myself if my assertions and views are turning me in to a food snob or worse yet, an uniformed amateur snob, a person who thinks the know what they are talking about but really don’t know how little they know.

What it comes down to is this. Generally speaking chefs and cooks alike often prepare food as a labor of love. They enjoy cooking because they know that their meals make people happy. Wonderful textures, flavors, presentation and the culture diversity of food add to the experience of life. When I am expressing my opinion, I am doing so based on what I know I enjoy and what makes me happy. Each day I learn more about this. Bright colors, salt over sweet, simple and delicious dishes are what I enjoy. My evaluations are different than those say of a food critic evaluating a cook or chef on the merits of their skill and against those of other professionals. That is of little interest to me. My views are mere projections of my observations and my preferences.

Life is too short to continually experience meals that are not satisifying. This of course is not limited to the food or setting but is equally affected by the company one is with of course. Expensive food does not necessarily mean great food and a great meal. Sometimes the simple pleasures of home are simply unmatched. Each passing day usually imparts additional knowledge or in some way refines what I have learned up to this point. Learning is also a never-ending process filled with suspense and surprise.  This perhaps is the best part of experience of all and appreciate each new bit of knowledge I am able to acquire as well as a deeper understanding of what I like and dislike. I know that there is so much to learn and embrace the challenges that lay ahead.

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Visiting the New England Culinary Institute

NECI, Main Street Grill & Bar
NECI, Main Street Grill & Bar

This weekend I took an extended three day weekend trip with my family to Vermont. We haven’t had the opportunity to take our usual week or longer family trip this year so going up north to visit Burlington, Vermont and the surrounding towns looked like a fun way to kick back and relax before summer’s end.

Forty years ago, my mother came from Honduras to study on an academic scholarship to Vermont College, located in Montpelier. While a student, she met my father a professor at Norwich University and the rest as they say is history. My sister and I of course are evidence of that.

Since we were going to be passing by Montpelier on our way up to Burlington I thought it would be fun to combine a visit to the New England Culinary Institute, also known as NECI for short, while also visiting what was the campus of her college which no longer exists, and how now become part of NECI and other institutions such as the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Both of my parents were eager to visit the small town to relive old memories and retell old stories that are part of our family’s history. While touring the Institute we could also eat at the school run restaurant in town and the one on Church Street in Burlington. She was really excited by this and so I called the number on the NECI web site to get information about tours, the school and the restaurant and also to do some research to see if her dorm was still there.

When I called the number I asked the woman on the phone about tours. She politely informed me that there weren’t tours of the school available and that it would best to seek out students on campus to talk to them about their experience. This didn’t seem right to me. What kind of sales pitch was this? I didn’t want to spend a lot of our vacation time on a treasure hunt for buildings and students. She also was unfamiliar with the specific dorm I was looking for, which as it turns out was part of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, 100 yards from the New England Culinary Institute admission building. I began to wonder where the call center for the toll free number I had called was located. The school wasn’t that big was it? She also corrected me when I mentioned my intention of wanting to eat at the Institute’s restaurant in Burlington. Apparently that had closed down a couple of years ago too, but she was eager to point out the truly fabulous food at the Main Street Bar & Grill, the restaurant run by the Institute and its students. The loss of their flagship restaurant was not a good sign especially in the fast growing city.

Saturday we arrived and within a few minutes of driving around we found my mother’s old dorm and her room. That was easy. We walked around campus and viewed some of the buildings owned by NECI while also viewing some of the buildings that belonged to other institutions. My mother was excited and happy and we were all getting hungry. It was time to eat.

Mom's College Dorm
Mom's College Dorm

We made the short drive down the hill to the Main Street Bar & Grill. We had been here before many years before to eat and had a pleasurable experience although on that trip we didn’t actually drive around Montpelier as we had this time.

After a short wait for an outside patio seat we sat down and ordered our meal. Our waiter, Joshua, a student was friendly and welcoming and overall did a great job especially given the fact that he was a culinary student and only serving as part of the curriculum rotation. This is pretty much where my praise ends. Overall everyone felt that the food was pretty good but really under-seasoned. I had flashbacks to the basics cooking class I took at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts where Chef Angie told us that new cooks generally are afraid of using too much salt and usually under-season their food. Was this day one of the rotation I wondered? The dressing on my salad lacked taste as did the other components of my dishes. The dessert was in fact the best part of the meal which is fortunate because it is the last impression a restaurant gets to make on a customer, but also unfortunate as my aspirations involve the culinary program and not the baking and pastry program.

Appetizer: Asparagus, Salmon & Poached Egg Salad
Appetizer: Asparagus, Salmon & Poached Egg Salad
Main Dish: Gnocchi
Main Dish: Gnocchi
Dessert: Salted Caramel Ice Cream
Dessert: Salted Caramel Ice Cream

Plating was another thing I noted. While we were only eating lunch, I was expecting more for presentation. My appetizer and main dish appeared as two distinct dishes while the dessert was already melted and lacked color. While not at the heart of culinary training, this is something that is important to me; a well plated dish evokes emotion and clues you into what you are about to taste. As far as showing off technique and skill, this just wasn’t doing it for me.

I asked our server about touring the facilities. He kindly informed us that we could walk to the back of the restaurant and through the back door to view classrooms and the rest of the facility. Once we were back there I was let down again, looking at the small drab classrooms. They just didn’t look inviting, and in contrast to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts they were completely removed from the cooking setting entirely. While having an on site restaurant is a plus for any culinary school the complete separation from the classroom and kitchen didn’t feel appropriate. I also wondered where the rest of the school was. Was that the wrong question to be asking? Was this all there was?

After finishing our meal, we left to walk down the street and get a sense of the town. My parents walked and noted how much things had changed and how the area had grown and modernized. I saw a town only slightly more populated than where I grew up, a stark contrast from living in Boston, a world class city with neighborhoods and numerous cultural culinary influences and establishments. We visited the student run baker, La Brioche and sampled some of their baked goods and pastries. Delicious. Another home run for the baking and pastry program.

NECI, La Brioche
NECI, La Brioche

The New England Culinary Institute was the school were famed Alton Brown matriculated. I had high expectations of what the school had to offer after reading it’s web site contents and given the aptitude and success Alton Brown has attained. I left the school feeling disappointed and yet I don’t think my high expectations were misplaced especially since I have fond memories of eating at NECI restaurants in the past. I wonder what had changed, but left clearly feeling that if I did decide to pursue culinary school, this place wasn’t for me.

I may not have seen all of the buildings, fancy kitchens and labs the school had to offer, but as a someone interested in the school it just seems like I could have gotten more out of my visit with a little friendly guidance and key points of differentiation to focus on. I know when I have guests I do my best to make them feel welcomed and answer all of the questions they have. A school where I could potentially spend a large amount of my hard earned money would do well to have a similar philosophy.

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Present to Myself: My New KitchenAid Stand Mixer

KitchenAid Professional 600
KitchenAid Professional 600

I finally bit the bullet and purchased a KitchenAid Stand Mixer, The KitchenAid Professional 600 Series 6-Quart Stand Mixer to be precise. I have been agonizing over buying the mixer for months and figured that since I knew I was going to buy it anyway I might as well start enjoying it now. Besides the price dropped a bit so I decided to swoop in and buy it fast as a present to myself full well knowing that I’ll have to tighten the purse strings in the months to come.

It was delivered to my office to ensure that I received it without incident since sometimes missed deliveries get returned when I am not at my apartment, and despite the commentary from a few co-workers and jabs to my manliness, I proudly carried the mixer out of the office to my car and happily into my home. This bad boy/girl (it hasn’t been named yet) is big! I’ve oood and awed at it many times in various stores to get a sense of it’s size. I had read countless reviews and specs online, and even measured my counter and storage spaces, but all that did not prepare me for the actual machine out of the box gleaming in all it’s glory. I felt like a kid on Christmas filled with excitement and then for a moment, I stood staring at it blankly, paralyzed. I had this big piece of culinary machinery in my kitchen and I hadn’t the first clue of what I was going to do with it.

My options were plentiful making my problem even harder. The only logical kid-like thing to do was to make cookies. That choice became easy. The most popular type of cookie is chocolate chip, and so I resolved to make a batch. Coincidentally, I had purchased Michael Ruhlman’s latest book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking and to christen my newest cooking tool decided to try out a new chocolate chip cookie recipe, which he’s mentioned in his blog. I only had one stick of unsalted butter left and this seemed like a timely and appropriate occasion to cut the recipe in half based on the principle of ratios. Who knew that Walgreen’s and 7/11 only sell salted butter. Mise en place rears its knowing self again.

I followed the recipe as directed and was rewarded with several crispy delicious chocolate chip cookies. They weren’t perfect, took longer than expected to bake and came out with slightly burnt and jagged edges, but it’s the taste that really matters right?

Chocolate Chip Cookies: Cooling
Chocolate Chip Cookies: Cooling

This little guy was best of breed in this batch. I can’t wait to take a bite.

Chocolate Chip Cookie: Cooling
Chocolate Chip Cookie: Cooling

As much as I’d like to eat them all in one sitting, these guys are going with me on a road trip to Vermont with my family this weekend.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
Chocolate Chip Cookies

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