Curve in the road

September 29th, 2008, by Francesca

The last term at school gave me some time to reflect on what I've learned, what I want to learn, and how this culinary program fits me. You may be surprised to hear that this morning I handed in my letter of withdrawal from school. In retrospect, I think I took an academic term to give myself the time to think without the stress of a regular cooking term. Even though I was taking three classes, academics are a lot less demanding physically and psychologically.

Various reasons combined to convince me that continuing with this program would not be in my best interest. For one thing, the cost is excessive for someone who is not pursuing a restaurant career, and recent changes in the way the program is structured and managed have made the money/value ratio even less appealing to me. Classes are getting more and more crowded and even the best chefs cannot undo the damage caused by management. It's really a shame, because I loved my chefs and learned a lot from them, but how much can you get out of a class with more than 30 students competing for stove space and equipment or an academic class with 40+ students, half of which are either talking or eating or texting or taking and making phone calls?

The other big issue, and probably the most compelling, is that I have become interested in baking – and more specifically bread baking – and there is none of that left in the rest of the culinary program. I considered switching to the baking program, but only a small part of that is dedicated to bread; most of it is about cakes, pastries, chocolates, plated desserts and so on. In the end, if I really want to learn more about making bread, I'll have to do that somewhere else.

As a start, I signed up for a few workshops at the San Francisco Baking Institute and will be taking my first 5-day class in December. In the meantime, I'll practice as much as I can to make the most of my short stays up north.


September 26th, 2008, by Francesca

As part of my nutrition class I had a cooking project, the only one in the past six weeks given that I've been on an academic term. The project was to take a recipe and prepare two versions of it: a regular batch and one with either reduced fat+salt or reduced fat+sugar.

We worked in small groups and my team worked on two versions of biscotti alla nocciola. Our biscuits and this group's sherbet were the most successful projects. Too bad I forgot to take pictures until the last minute, when all our cookies had been wiped out.

The requirements were to reduce the overall fat and sugar content by at least 25% and make the items look and taste like the original recipe. Not an easy task, as we soon found out.

I took care of research and experimenting with the formula and made the first two batches at home. For the modified version, I switched from European to American butter (slightly less fat), reduced the amount of butter and added an egg white to help keep the dough together. The biscuits came out too hard and dry and I showed them to my math instructor, a French chef who is really into baking. He tried them and suggested using unsweetened apple sauce to the dough to add back some softness. This required some additional fudging with the ingredients' ratios because the apple sauce, though unsweetened, increased the sugar content. But it all worked out in the end.

My team members prepared the production batches for class using the apple sauce and no egg white. The trick worked beautifully and our class mates were divided almost exactly in half when they had to tell the cookies apart. I was really happy with the result because we met all the requirements of the project without resorting to artificial sweeteners, as other teams did. The savory projects were not very successful and it was really obvious which batches had reduced fat and salt. It was definitely an interesting assignment.

New plan

August 17th, 2008, by Francesca

Tomorrow my classmates will move on to Baking 2 while I start an academic term: Math 2, Nutrition, Culinary World History. That way I can take a bit of a break and then have only cooking classes to deal with for the subsequent three terms.

In the meantime, the Michael Phelps diet sans swimming has finally caught up with me and for the first time since starting school I am putting on weight. I guess I'd better cut on the carbs or take up competitive swimming. But not today. In fact I am heading to the kitchen to make some whole wheat dinner rolls.

And then I'll read about how to make home made ricotta on the September issue of Saveur. I've tried the lemon juice recipe but honestly that's fake ricotta, just as bad as the grainy stuff at the supermarket. The recipe on Saveur is still not the way ricotta is made in Italy, but it seems the best approximation you can do at home and I am going to give it a try. At least it calls for rennet and not lemon juice or vinegar.

Baking retrospective

August 15th, 2008, by Francesca

When I started this blog, I meant to document as much as possible of my experience in culinary school. This term, between the lab module, the math class, putting together a monster notebook – no longer required but what's the point of investing this kind of money and energy if I don't do my best to preserve what I'm learning? – I didn't post much about school. So, here is a six-week retrospective for your viewing pleasure.

Épi bread, baguettes, whole wheat dinner rolls, challah, pain de mie, brioche à tête, brioche Nanterre, pretzels, bagels, pizza, focaccia, whole wheat pita.

My favorite week.

Cinnamon rolls, rye bread, pumpernickel bread, beignets, doughnuts, sourdough bread, Danish turnovers, pinwheels, envelopes, bear claws and frames, croissants, and pains au chocolat.

My other favorite week, if it weren't for the unbearable heat in the lab and the butter oozing out every which way from my laminated doughs. Still, everyone in our household loves croissants, and I stocked the freezer with individually wrapped Danish and croissants for many breakfasts to come.

Crème pâtissière, crème diplomate, puff pastry, vol-au-vents, shrimp à l'Americaine, palmiers, Napoléon, pate à choux, cream puffs, swans, éclairs, caramel, nougatine, croquembouche.

Not a bad week, other than the whole day we dedicated to croquembouche. It was an exercise in frustration and for what? It's not like you can actually eat the damn thing; it's dry, sticky, unwieldy and I can see no purpose to it other than trying to impress someone with your pastry assembly skills. Not worth the effort; give me something I can sink my teeth into. The shrimp dish, on the other hand, was delicious, and the éclairs disappeared quicker than you can say "Pipie!" Choux pastry on its own is on the dry side, but fill it with cream and it's a whole 'nother story.

American pie dough, apple pie, berry pie, pâte brisée, quiche Lorraine, chicken pot pie, pâte sucrée, pound cake (a.k.a. quatres quarts), muffins, scones, biscuits, fresh fruit tart, ganache, raspberry chocolate tart, poached pears, pear frangipane tart, lemon meringue tart.

With the only caveat that all American desserts are way too sweet for an Italian palate, the pound cake, muffins and especially the fresh fruit tart were very satisfying.

Two ways to make sponge cake (cold separated method and warm method), Italian buttercream, Swiss buttercream, French buttercream, American buttercream (a.k.a. decorators' icing), piping roses, leaves and borders, buffet cake, celebration cake, cheese cake, meringue noisette and Marjolaine.

A week of sugar and butter excess and over the top decoration. Oh, and pastel colors don't do it for me either.

Baguettes, focaccia, épi, fougasse, laminated dough, croissants, pains au chocolat, bagels, challah, brioche Modane, fruit brioche (a.k.a. Swiss brioche), sausage in a brioche (no photo), and another kind of brioche I forgot the name of.

The best part of Baking 1 – aside from the first week – was been able to take a few Saturday bread baking workshops. Bread… can you tell I'm really getting into it?

For the most part, each workshop dealt with something we had already baked in our Baking 1 class, but using entirely different recipes, working with different chefs and in a different lab on the main campus, as opposed to our baking facilities in South Pasadena. Lab 5 is the production kitchen for the school café and has some pretty spiffy equipment such as a walk-in rotating oven and a sheeter for laminated dough.

The chefs in the regular courses have no latitude in terms of modifying recipes and the recipes themselves are picked for didactical purposes, how they related to each other in a sequence to build up skills, etc. rather than for their individual virtues. Because of that, we end up using recipes that are not always the best. The workshops, on the other hand, have no such restrictions and every single product that came out of those Saturday afternoons was much better than those baked in class. We also benefited from the chefs preparing preferments ahead of time, and yes, you can make bread without them, but everything tastes better with a preferment. Or maybe they put some recreational drug in the flour, who knows…

By the way, Ben has a theory that pasta from Italy is more popular than pasta made outside of Italy because wheat in Italy grows in fields sprinkled with poppies. We have collected no scientific proof of addiction to Italian pasta so far, but you never know. :)

And now, off to school for my last day of this term. The menu today is deep cleaning and exit interviews.

Baking 1 finals

August 13th, 2008, by Francesca

How do you like my telescopic fork?

It was a gift from a friend a while back (hey, Laura, where did you buy it? I'm getting requests) and I'd been waiting for the right occasion to use it. This is finals week for my Baking 1 class and today seemed just like the perfect time to do something silly; you know… stress and all that.

My menu for today was focaccia and cream puffs. I did good on the focaccia, at least from the locals' point of view. What they call focaccia here is similar to what we call spianata in Romagna, but our spianata is more flat. There is so much regional variation in Italian dishes that it's hard to tell what's what sometimes, and living in California doesn't really help straighten things out. The locals have funny ideas about what qualifies as Italian; don't even get me started.

Anyway, being that I had to follow the school's recipe for focaccia, I had to make it quite poofy and fluffy. Check.

My version is less rich than others I've seen in class (olives, caramelized onions…), and I like it that way: just sea salt crystals and fresh rosemary.

With the cream puffs, I didn't use enough cream. I hadn't realized that they needed to be filled more and on top of that, once we set things out for the chefs to grade and left the lab, the heat deflated the cream and the tops ended up sitting on the puff bases. Oh, well…

But my boys always like what I bring home. The focaccia was partly eaten at dinner and partly frozen. We'll see how the freezing part works out. So far, it's been a mixed bag. Some baked items freeze wonderfully; others not so well. It's all a big experiment.

I know I've been silent for a while. Things have just been hectic and having both a lab class and an academic class this term has sucked up all my time. Next term I'm going to take only academic classes which means losing the group I've been with for the past three months, but I need to take a breather.

The new schedule should also mean that I'll be able to blog more regularly.

Things I learned in culinary school

July 23rd, 2008, by Francesca

Time to start distilling some culinary wisdom from my first three months in school. Here I pass onto you a few of my discoveries.

  • Whole wheat dinner rolls freeze and reheat extremely well.
  • So do Danish and croissants.
  • I can freeze food even after it's been licked by Pipie. If I don't have antibodies by now, I shouldn't be living with cats anyway.
  • Beignets are not bignè.


  • I hate the American measuring system even more than I thought I did. If NASA scientits couldn't get conversions right, why should I bother? BTW, may I interest Mr. Gore to propose a 6-month conversion-to-metric plan in addition to his other inconvenient proposal?
  • Laminated dough does not, repeat NOT, like LA summer weather in a baking kitchen with 32 people, several deck ovens, convection ovens, stoves and proofing boxes, and broken air conditioning.
  • You can go in the walk-in refrigerator and scream without anyone in class hearing you.
  • After a few hours in a hot kitchen trying to roll laminated dough while your butter is oozing every which way, screaming in the walk-in can be a Very Good Thing (TM).
  • I don't like rye bread.
  • There are always at least three ways to do anything.
  • There are three ways to incorporate a butter block into a dough (or a beurrage into a détrempe). En pointe and clover leaf work best if you are in a hurry, but if you need to relieve tension, go for the rolling pin method (the proper term escapes me) and whack the hell out of your butter block.

whacking butter into submission

  • Some people have never heard of Battlestar Galactica.
  • Most students and many instructors smoke.
  • Half the people at school have visible tattoos.
  • Dental floss is your friend. My non-cinnamon rolls had the best cuts in class, cuz everyone else used butcher's twine to cut theirs. I knew all the flossing would do me good in the end.
  • Read the recipe.
  • Read the recipe again.
  • Read the "3oz eggs" does not mean 3 eggs.

Pizza, pita, focaccia e gelato

July 11th, 2008, by Francesca

Not perfectly round, but I rather like the rugged look of my very first pizza.

My focaccia dough trying to explode after I left it too long in the proofing box.

I am happy to report that there were no casualties. In fact the focaccia turned out okay, a bit too poofy but crusty on the outside, moist on the inside, and with good flavor.

The whole wheat pitas are thicker than I am used to and different in texture because of the whole wheat flour in the mix. Tomorrow we'll try them with the hummus made by chef in class today. After eating pizza, focaccia and gelato tonight, we didn't have any room for more bread.

We made gelato alla crema from yet another recipe. I think this is our fourth batch, every time from a different recipe. Our excuse this time was that tomorrow is Ben's birthday and we had no ice-cream left in the freezer and clearly you can't have a birthday without gelato. This is our most successful batch so far, from an Italian book that my mother mailed us a few days ago. The next thing from that book – Ice Dream – will be sorbetto al vino rosso e fragole (red wine and strawberry sorbet). Doesn't that sound divine?

More than half of the focaccia ended up at our next-door neighbors' house, because willpower alone is not enough to fit more food in the fridge.
The leftover focaccia is now in the microwave oven, where it should be safe from you-know-who until tomorrow.