Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Music and Food


My first love. My first passion. My first career choice, before I eventually decided, instead of going to University of Memphis for a degree in sound engineering, I wanted to be a pastry chef instead.

I played sax for ten years, was an unashamed band geek in high school, playing in our concert, marching, and jazz band. Jazz band led me to a discovery that shaped me into who I am today: music of decades past. It started with Glen Miller and led to Harry Connick Jr., Frank Sinatra, B.B. King, Ray Charles, (old) Elvis of his most rockabilly days (that is to say, his first and third albums), and finally to the truly amazing blues/folk singing/field songs of Leadbelly, Big Boy Arthur Cruddup, and Lightnin' Hopkins.

I listen to stuff from today, too - various genres, and am continually trying to open my mind to music I wouldn't normally listen to. But there is nothing - nothing - that makes me feel as peaceful as putting on The Sensational Ray Charles, pulling the needle to the right, a sharp "click" as the record starts spinning, the slight scratch of the needle hitting the record, that muffled and soulful voice that emanates through the static and clicks of a vinyl record player, while I lay on my couch with eyes closed and let it wash over me.

Friends poke fun at me. I'm okay with this. When I got a new iPod a few weeks ago and told my sister what I had put on it so far she paused, thinking, and asked "what decade are you from?" I know I have the musical taste, generally speaking, of an 80 year old woman, and again, I'm okay with this. But what does this all have to do with food?

I'm presenting here, my top few favorite songs about food.

The Coffee Song by Frank Sinatra - I love coffee. I love Frank Sinatra. The theory of logic makes it so I have to love this song.

Everybody Eats When They Come to My House by Cab Calloway - oh Cab, you're so great. This song is catchy, funny, and represents a time when food was harder to come by; I imagine that's what inspired songs like this.

Rock 'n' Roll McDonald's by Wesley Willis - you mean to say you didn't know about schizophrenic musician Wesley Willis, that just sings absurd and bizarre lyrics over the same keyboard music? Well, this will be a good introduction for you. In case the song sounds familiar to you, it was in the film Super Size Me.

Rubber Biscuit by the Blues Brothers - originally done by The Chips, this song is weird and makes no sense as it's mostly scat singing. The Blues Brothers version is my preference. I wish I could scat.

All That Meat and No Potatoes by Fats Waller - Fats clearly has some strong opinions about what should be on his dinner plate.

Spam Song by Monty Python

They're Red Hot by Robert Johnson

Nutrition by Dead Milkmen - If you don't give a shit about anything else, care about your own nutrition. (If you're like me and don't listen to a lot of punk and can't tell what he's saying, lyrics are here.)

Eat Steak by Reverend Horton Heat - a damn good song about steak by a damn good rockabilly band.

Satan Gave Me a Taco by Beck - a warning against taking any food, especially tacos, from Satan. From a pre-"Loser" Beck album, containing mostly his own home recordings and random noises.

And finally, don't forget about Weird Al's entire Food Album.

Friday, April 23, 2010

I've been a bad blogger. This I know. Recently I took my first full time pastry gig, while attending school for my bachelor's degree, leading me to believe I'm either insane or slightly retarded. Bring on getting my ass kicked day after day. And because I no longer wish to have awkward moments at my place of work where other employees bring up my blog in conversation because somehow they've found it, I've chosen to no longer disclose wherever I'm working.

I'd like to write more, however, I won't be getting much free time for a while. Hopefully upcoming posts in the next couple weeks will include a gelato sandwich, a Sicilian specialty which I've never tried before, and a review of Parc.

Side note, I helped out last week at the Let Them Eat Cake competition at Loews Hotel. There were some amazingly beautiful cakes, and cakes that tasted like crap. And it's complete bullshit - maybe four of the fifteen judges had any idea what they were talking about, not to mention the whole idea of a cake competition is biased from the beginning because everyone looks for something different in a wedding cake depending on what they like. Let's just say I don't plan on participating in any cake competitions any time soon.

More soon...maybe.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Best Chocolate of My Life

I had the best chocolate of my life in Paris two weeks ago. Really, I did. It almost didn't happen – it was a favor for an acquaintance that I'd never met, a chocolatier in Maryland who just had to have some chocolates from Patrick Roger to get new ideas. As my only day in Paris, at first I thought there's no way I'm going to go out of my way to do a favor for someone I've never met, but for whatever reason I did and was able to convince the four friends I was with to put up with it. It was a rainy, gloomy day in Paris and we trudged on and on, desperate to get to our destination. Our pants were wet and soggy at the bottoms and our feet hurt, my friends kept shooting comments at me that this chocolate had better be made of clouds from heaven. And finally, somehow, we made it, and we were immediately silenced and forgot our qualms: we were standing in front of chocolate artistry unlike any other we'd seen before.

In the windows of the shop is what immediately captivates us: there are chocolate butts in front of us. It resembles the lawn ornaments you see sometimes of a pudgy woman bent over, bloomers hanging out, except that it's made of chocolate. And it's much more detailed than those lawn ornaments; it's obvious that Patrick Roger has an eye for detail that is uncanny. Inside, chic brownish black counters curve around the walls, with a curved center counter as well. Lined along all the walls are various products: chocolates and candies, cocoa powders, caramels, even glittery brightly colored marzipan animals, all in beautiful bright teal packaging. Hanging from the ceiling are huge modern light fixtures: a few feet across, they vaguely resemble white Christmas ornaments but are wiry instead of solid.

Once we make it inside we're able to explore all that it has to offer: individually wrapped bars of chocolate in flavors traditional and eclectic alike. Boxes of assorted chocolates and caramels line the counters neatly, on one wall they even sell the chocolate that they use to make them in different cocoa percentages. The caramels are encased in bright green glossy half-domes. On another wall, there are small, beautifully made marzipan animals, vividly colored ducks and elephants, coated in glitter. An almond makes up the beak for the ducks – attention to detail is pronounced. We made our way around the store, snapping photos constantly, the two girls that work there looking at us as though we were insane. Finally I settle on a purchase: the praline chocolate bar. Only a couple inches long, it's three Euros – the most expensive chocolate I've ever had. Once outside, we stand in a little circle to share our tasting. The smooth praline filling is enrobed with dark chocolate, a common flavor combination. A friend just had a bite of her lemon basil chocolate, and when I glance over I see her staring at it, in complete awe, at a loss for words. It's as though the chocolate has her hypnotized. Eventually I'm able to have a piece of it myself and can understand what she's going through.

This was perfection in the form of chocolate – and I don't even believe in perfection. It was nirvana. It was a deep, moving, religious experience. The flavors were in perfect balance: perfect amount of chocolate, perfect amount of lemon, perfect amount of basil. I wasn't standing on the street in Paris on a cold rainy day anymore – I was transported to a warm grassy field, sun shining, nothing but the field surrounding me. I had reached enlightenment. There was no strange or metallic aftertaste, no extract had been used, only pure natural flavor: essence of lemon and basil with chocolate. And it's not even a flavor combination I'd expect to enjoy – herbs and chocolate make sense together, as do lemon and basil, but I'd never imagined lemon, basil, and chocolate to be so harmonious.

Patrick Roger won “Best French Chocolatier” in 2000 for creating a life sized cocoa farmer named Harold. The chocolate farmer is based on a real farmer he met in Colombia in 1999, and was later sculpted into bronze. His other chocolate sculptures include seals, giant pencils, teddy bears, and hedgehogs – all that take an extraordinary amount of time, effort, and attention to detail. Chocolate is something I really enjoy working with, and I know I'll carry the lemon basil chocolate experience with me the rest of my pastry career. All I can do is hope I don't become too obsessed in trying to recreate it that I forget all other flavor combinations.

Photos snagged from

Friday, January 22, 2010

Espresso Caviar: Experimenting with Hydrocolloids

Hydrocolloids are defined as ingredients that interact with and control water. For example, xanthan gum, which you've probably most seen at the bottom of ingredient labels of packaged foods. Most come from natural sources like seaweed (carrageenan, agar agar, alginate), seeds (locust bean gum, guar gum), tree sap (gum arabic), and fruit (pectin). Some, like methylcellulose, don't occur naturally. Chefs over the past years have become entranced with taking these substances and using them to manipulate ingredients. Some of the most famous for doing this well are Ferran Adria of El Bulli, Grant Achatz of Alinea, and Wylie Dufresne of WD-50.

An article out of Food Arts gives a compelling argument: "Hydrocolloids allow chefs to take any pure flavor and, by adding a small amount [typically less than 1 percent] of a tasteless hydrocolloid, achieve any texture or consistency desired. Take a sauce. Thickening it by reduction alters its taste; thickening it with cornstarch or flour masks flavor, alters appearance, and requires heat. By adding a very small amount of xanthan gum instead the sauce gains the desired body with no effects on flavor or look and without any heat, a much more precise way to thicken it." It makes sense in a way. On the other hand, is playing around with white powders cooking? Isn't there an art to reducing a sauce the perfect amount?

I'd seen Tony Bourdain eating at El Bulli for his show, I'd read about Grant Achatz in Michael Ruhlman's writings. But I just pushed it to the back of my mind, after all - the only way I could judge such things was to eat it myself. It wasn't until I saw a video of Sam Mason (former pastry chef of WD-50) making beet caviar and applying it to a pastry dish that I actually realized I might, too, be able to do that. Combined with the fact that I've been, well, bored for lack of a better word with the things I usually make. Not that I don't enjoy eating creme brulee or fruit tarts or cookies or cakes, but I already know how to make them well - this gave me a chance to try something new and exciting; a whole new world of possibilities, even if it does feel wrong on some level.

I used a recipe for "tea raviolis" and changed it to espresso. It involves an algin espresso base, dropped by a squirt bottle into a calcium bath. Once it's in for 30 seconds it beads, you strain it, rinse it and voila - espresso "caviar." The texture was nice but there was a strange thickness to it towards the end - I'm not sure if this was from the size of beads I made or from leaving it in the calcium bath for too long.

Either way, I'm glad it came out as it did, and for now my creative boredom is satisfied.