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A dish or menu is like a story to a chef. It’s consumed and enjoyed, or not, and probably misunderstood, but as people who spend more time with organic matter and misfits, its a better story than the one about the rude customer or the fake allergy.

The nice thing about these stories is that over the years the bits and pieces accumulate and the task of telling something fresh and new becomes easier because we have a rolodex of plot elements.

I used to forget the stories I wrote, and in re-reading them would often surprise myself. When I started this blog I began documenting the food I made, photographing everything in stages and final presentation, every dish a potential post. Not everything made it, most didn’t because I would be too busy and move on to something else, thinking that my own boredom with that story meant it wasn’t useful to anyone else. Scrolling through the photos I never got around to writing about is like revisiting old stories, a reminder of the experiences I’ve had, the stories I was telling through food.

Given that the call for pastry chefs around here is nil, no beating about the bush, I’m pretty bummed about my ho-hum job, I suppose it can’t all be kitchen fires, cranky Yelpers, and after service beers, this is the first of several archival posts, until I figure out my next tale.

Chocolate, Ginger, Chili

In Calgary I noticed a lot of menus had chocolate and chili. A popular combo, an automatic hit, it made sense. The West happens to have a high percentage of Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. Also, I imagine, the Wild West was all about the chili and cornbread. And flapjacks.

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My first Chef had given me Wild Sweets, a book by a Vancouver couple, trendsetters when it came to unlikely food pairing and use of molecular techniques in the Great White North. I decided to test their candied red pepper and dark chocolate macaron mignardise on a quite Monday and my gears started moving.

Chocolate desserts are an exciting challenge to me, but as a customer I loath them. They can be heavy, rich, overly sweet, and just plain boring. I can’t think of a chocolate dessert I’ve ever ordered that I’ve not regretted. No one challenges chocolate. Chocolate sells, they make something with it, and slap it on a plate.

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This dish was the gateway to my no longer working dinner service. I’d put my foot down to 90hr weeks, 12hr days were plenty for me, so Chef hired a girl to help Garde Manger and plate my desserts a few days a week. I had to design something basic, something no experience could handle, but that was still stunning and utterly delightful to the palate.

The chocolate mousse is easy, I lightened it by swapping a whole egg in the mousse and adding more water. This made it more cost effective, every cent counts in a kitchen.

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Having a few spare yolks around because of my daily macaron production, I made a ginger-infused bombe mixture for the drippy centre, then popped in a layer of chocolate bark softened with a bit of oil so as to deliver a fudgier texture at once heavily textured with cookie chunks and cocoa nibs, Maldon salt and chili flakes. A simple chocolate sponge gave it something to sit on without overwhelming the other elements.

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The plating was reletively easy, the liquid bombe centre provided the adequate sauce (above photo was taken still frozen), so just a sprinkling of cookie crumbs, chocolate curl, and pickled ginger (which I honestly just nicked off garde) was enough.

Chocolate Mousse – makes 4 servings.

2 Yolks, 1 Egg

75g Water

40g Sugar

200g Chocolate, melted and warm

225g Cream, whipped soft and reserved in fridge

Have 4 molds ready, half spheres, rectangles or rounds.

Set a sauce pot on to heat, plop your egg and yolks, sugar and water, into the bowl of a stand mixer, then whisk the mixture to hot, ribbony foam (60C) over the boiling water. Whip with your mixer until cool.

Fold melted chocolate in (should be around 40C at this point), then fold your cream in. This mousse is very soft, so carefully pipe or ladle into your molds. Use a piping bag to fill with a bombe mixture, then press in chocolate bark and a sponge. Freeze fully before unmolding. Glaze and serve room temp.

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Taking steps is easy, standing still is hard.

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Returning to Ottawa a 5 months ago had me initially feeling pretty shitty.

The restaurant scene here changed dramatically in the years I was gone, and frankly I haven’t the money or the interest to try more than a couple. My priorities have changed, we have a german car as expensive as a child, and we want a dog and a place of our own. I’m out of the loop and my focus is now more about bread.

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My rule has always been to work minimum one year. After 3 months you get into your groove but it’s still a good challenge, after 7 months you have the routine down, past that you can take anything thrown at you (for the most part). Past a year it can get too comfortable verging on boring.

Working in four different restaurants/hotels in England was a circumstantial blip, but my I learned more in that time than any other. I became a professional once I left. 

The thing about moving around so much, while still clearly being an employee who can commit, you tend to…always start back in the same income bracket. The money you make as a commis, for example, to a chef de partie isn’t much of a leap. And unless you work in a hotel or golf course, the pasty sous chef position isn’t available until you’ve worked somewhere long enough to prove yourself and they give you the title to justify a raise. Most of the time, you’re just tossed the Pastry Chef title, even when all you do is cut pre-fab cake and scoop ice cream, and you make what the CdPs make.

Having always focused on becoming the best pastry whatever I can be, I have moved around to have a thorough background, catering, fine dining, hotels, garde mange, hot line, tasting menus, bread, ice cream, pies and muffins, cakes. Through the years I have had to work mostly alone, relying on my own instincts, heavy reasoning, and research, grasping at what I could learn from other cooks and chefs where possible.

So when I come back here and see so many chefs in this city who have stayed in one restaurant for 6+ years, moving up the chain, maybe hanging out at sous for 4 years then grabbing Chef de Cuisine finally when the owners open a new place or if the previous chef moves on…I was bummed mostly because they can afford their hydro bill and feel comfortable in their place of employment and people talk about how great the food is on the internet. I’m the same age, but due to my desire to not stagnate I chose to galavant instead and I don’t have a locally beloved restaurant to unlock every morning.

I work with a baker who used to pastry chef, he worked for some amazing places over the years, then switched over to baking, probably for the same reason I bake more bread these days than make mousse — because it’s just so laid back (and better for me). We chat as often as our busy days can accommodate, and one day he asked if I was a collector of great recipes.

“Absolutely. I like to find the best, then adapt them to suit my style.”

“I’ll send you some of my recipes then.”

The next day he’d hand scrawled two pages of recipes from a place he worked at in the 90’s, a restaurant in Montreal that had been opened by a Chef now best known for being a Master Bread Maker (Jeffery Hamelman of King Arthur Flour has described him as the King) but who also studied classic Pastry and Cuisine intensely. His restaurant was considered one of the best in North America, and they served classic French food, but the real classics, not the Julia Child classics.

My heart fluttered because I was so excited to try them out, and I hoped I could do them justice. It was less about having the recipes and more about having the chance to step back in time.

Since my down time has been more about being a person and baking bread than sugar, I decided to give the honey-rich lemon curd, which my Calgary chef raves about, a go in a dessert for the Canadian’s birthday.

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I love the Tarta de Santiago, a Galician almond-meal cake, sometimes baked in a crust, sometimes not, flavoured with cinnamon and lemon as a simple but very delicious treat.

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Too simple for a birthday, but the flavour triad of bitter almond, lemon and cinnamon is one of my favourites, so I  bulked up a dacquoise recipe with spice and extract (used sparingly I find it divine), layered it with the curd, a mead chiboost, and raspberries, and finished it with lemon and raspberry flowers.

Not especially seasonal, but it seemed a fitting ode to tradition while being inspired by my good luck in having the opportunity to work with someone who shares my passion for pastry.

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Raspberry, Lemon, Cinnamon.

Cinnamon Dacquoise

makes 3 6” discs

190g Almond flour

190g Icing Sugar

pinch salt

6 Egg Whites

75g Sugar

5g Cinnamon

2 drops natural almond extract

Preheat your oven to 350F

Prepare a sheet of parchment paper by outlining three 6” circles on the underside of the parchment. Have a piping bag and 10mm piping tip ready.

Sift or blitz your almonds, cinnamon, salt, and icing sugar.

Whip your egg whites on medium-high, gradually adding the sugar after they begin to foam. Once medium-stiff, fold your dry into the egg whites in three batches carefully without deflating the whites. Upon your last couple of strokes, add your extract.

Using a bit of the batter, stick the corners of your parchment to your cookie sheet.

Starting in the centre, pipe batter in circular motion, finishing by neatly dragging the tail into the previous circle.

Dust with icing sugar. Bake for 15 minutes, the top should look a touch crusty and firm but still soft and yielding to the touch, the outside ring should turn to a pinkish beige.

After they are baked, remove from tray while hot, transfer to a cooling rack and pop back into the oven for 5 minutes to help dry them. This will keep them from becoming soggy.

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Mead Chiboost

This is simply a pastry cream with italian meringue and gelatin. I chose this over whipped cream mainly because whipped cream is airy but heavy (fatty), and while I don’t strive to make diet desserts, I focus on achieving the textures and flavours with less fat and sugar than normal. It’s easy to whip cream or make a ganache and call it done, making a dessert that is cheaper, less fatty, and less sugary without anyone noticing is not.

Though there is little mead in this, it had a surprisingly prominent flavour without fighting with the lemon or raspberry. Bang-on.

Honey Wine Pastry Cream

50ml Mead

200ml 3.25% milk

75g sugar

2 yolks

18g Cornstarch or Flour

3g Vanilla bean paste, or 1/4 bean

Combine mead, milk,vanilla, and half the sugar in a small sauce pot.

Whisk the cornstarch or flour with remaining sugar. While the milk heats on medium, whisk the cornstarch/sugar into the yolks, whisking until light.

When the milk begins to simmer, pour a small amount over your yolks and whisk quickly. Once incorporated add a bit more. When the eggs feel quite warm, whisk them into the sauce pot and whisk vigorously while the mixture cooks until it begins to boil. Take care not to over cook, it only needs about 20 seconds at a boil.

Pour onto a cookie sheet (or a pie pan), cover with plastic wrap or parchment and place in the fridge or on your porch until cool.

Honey Meringue

This is a very small batch because it is a small cake, so watch the honey it will cook very quickly. When heated, honey will boil over easily, so don’t cook this in a shallow pan.

3 Egg whites

150g wildflower honey

20g sugar

1g sheet gelatin, bloomed in cold water

Heat your honey on medium.

Whip your whites on medium-high. Add sugar when foamy.

When your honey reaches 120C, remove from heat and slowly pour it down the side of the bowl while your whites whip. Squeeze the water out of the gelatin and add. Turn to high and whisk until just warm to the touch.

Soften your pastry cream by transferring to a bowl and whapping with a spatula until smooth. Fold in your meringue in three stages, then transfer to a piping bag with a fancy tip.

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Serve the (public) servants… a lesson in Freshness *

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*it’s a rant.

“So what’s fresh today?”

Truth be told I’ve, as I chuckle half-heartedly about it, sold my soul in some vein. I can’t conjure romantic images of a cutesy corner bakeshop when recanting the daily trials to people who ask “how’s work going?”

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But the health benefits outweigh the untrained, let’s ruin everything hahaha staff, and then the no staff to the new, getting-there I can breathe now staff.

The exchange, though not what was originally promised, has allowed me to do one thing: not think about work on my day off. Magically, as though it doesn’t even exist, or rather that it will most certainly continue to exist even if I didn’t, my worry that things will go to hell as soon as I exit the building has disappeared.

Maybe this is because I know things will go awry but that for today that’s none of my business, as my contract states that I must maintain a proper work-life balance, until I have to fix, whatever I must fix, tomorrow. I’m curiously okay with this.

What is another all too challenging issue is how closely I am to customers. I don’t often talk to them, not because I don’t want to, but things being as they are, I just don’t have the time. But on the rare occasion a dialogue begins, it’s often with the same opening.

What is freshly made today?

Can I be honest? Between you and me?

Probably nothing.

Then again, how do you gauge freshness? What are the requirements? On days when we have fresh fruit tarts, I mean sure the fruit is fresh because it hasn’t been dried, but let’s not kid ourselves here, there’s no strawberry patch upstairs. These strawbs are from Peru. They travelled here by train or boat, do you know how long that takes? Does that qualify as fresh? If it does than your concept of fresh should have some flexibility.

So I assembled the tart today, but let’s be reasonable here, tart shells are a pain to make. I have always made them in-house in the past, but this is a different beast, these are not house-made, they can’t be. They travel in boats from France. Fresh? Still crisp, still fresh.

Considering I don’t arrive at work until 7 and it takes an hour and a bit just to put finishings on and tag the product and get it into the display case, I absolutely did not make the pastry cream this morning. Consider this:

Pastry cream, made en-masse quantity needed in a place like this is like 7 litres at a time. You must cook pastry cream, per-litre, one minute for it to be considered safe. Seven minutes boiling time, not to mention the 20 minutes it took for it to get to that temperature in the first place (nor the scaling of ingredients), then it must cool down (at least 45 minutes in the fridge on a sheet tray) and congeal, then be whipped again for nice smooth consistency before going into the shell (fresh from France) then garnished with the (fresh from Peru) fruits, which takes like 30 minutes to prepare.

If I had an army of little pastry peeps whisking away back here, we could, if we started at 2am every morning, fill the case with fresh product every day. Let’s be serious guys, this is not a boutique. 

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Do you know how much that would cost? I mean, pastry is a skill. Technically a trade. You are buying pastries from the shop because you don’t know how to make them, yes? That is a skill you must pay money for, a service if you will. Maybe you do know how to do this but you are all “I don’t have time for all that!” Okay, I understand this but we run off the same clock. We have time to do the work we do because we are paid for it. But considering I can’t employ twenty people to make fresh pastries all day long, I can’t think of anyone who can save for Domenique Ansel who will be opening an 80% made to order bakery, but lets be honest Chef, don’t you mean assembled to order?

Someone is spreading a rumour that mousse cakes need to be fresh… I’m sorry to say, they cannot stand on their own if they are to be as fresh as you want them to be, so no that wasn’t made this morning either. Not real mousse, like what we make with fruit puree, egg white, sugar, and cream, nor this horrendous thing a lot of other places call mousse:

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How long does it take you to make a cake at home? 4 hours start to finish? Longer? In pastry, sometimes we have expensive things like blast chillers which cool things in minutes, these cost $20,000 and are $$$ to run, but they save hours, which translates to money. Few places can afford things like blast chillers to save them a few hours.

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People who are professionals in the pastry world are not magicians. We don’t conjure up anything, we actually work within the same time frame you do at home when you bake a cake. We are just more efficient and more confident. Oh yes, and skilled.

Fact: We don’t have ovens that bake cakes in 5 minutes. That doesn’t exist. It takes the same amount of time to bake a cake in a bakery as it does for you at home. That’s not lame, or lack of technology, it’s called science.

How can we make… 30 cakes in a day when you struggle to make one? We don’t. We likely baked the cakes one day, freeze them. Then we make the frosting or the mousse or whatever and assemble another day. Or several days after that. Then we freeze the whole thing. The process takes several days. I can assemble and finish a cake in 6 minutes, but that’s about as quick as it gets. Everything else takes the same amount of time.

Fact: The freezer keeps things fresh. Not indefinitely, there is certainly a finite lifespan of a frozen product, but it’s 1-3 months if stored properly. My preference, as is the preference of most proper pastry peeps, is to keep it frozen for as short a time as possible, and always practice proper rotation (first in, first out).

Fact: Pastry products, like wine, actually improve with age. I don’t mean months, unless it’s a soaked cake like fruit cake, but a day or two does wonders for flavour. Ice cream makers tend to allow the base mixture to sit at least a day to allow the flavours to mature, before churning. Custards develop their proper texture and full flavour, cake has a different structure from fresh out of the oven to the next day when it has fully baked.

A croissant will not taste better the next day. It will be dry. You eat croissants the morning they are made, please don’t hang on to them “for later” unless…

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You turn them into almond croissants. Almond croissants exist to add longevity to a delicious, highly laborious and costly product that has an extremely short shelf life. A dunk in some syrup (to eliminate the dryness), filling and topping of a soft, almond and butter-full sponge (frangipane) and a re-bake to refresh and cook the eggs — please keep in mind that re-baking will literally refresh or even improve a two day old loaf of bread, that is both science and magic — and voila! You have a new product, totally delicious in every way, and it is shelf-stable for more than a measly day, you could have that in several days and it would have better flavour than the day they were baked.

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So here is my plea, remember dear shoppers: Bread is for today, always buy your bread today, it will keep for the days you want to eat it, but don’t buy bread from yesterday, or as is the case of baggy bread, months ago (sorry, that Wonder Bread probably sat in a freezer for up to 6 months! Fresh??)

Cake is full of sugar and maybe chocolate and fats of all kinds, creams and soft things. Cake does not have to be from today. It lasts a week or more, if properly stored. And as with most things, as soon as it is sliced the shelf-life declines (think of ganache and buttercream as a kind of tin can, heck pie dough was the original tin can).

A cake I made 5 days ago but that sat in the freezer until yesterday? It’s still fresh. It will be tomorrow and the next day, the day after that. No worries.

It’s the cellophane straight-jacketed chocolate cake with the star-tube frosting in the freezer isle you should be concerned about.