Tuesday, February 23, 2010

New Kicks & Camouflage

A good friend just told me that my last two posts have been on the wordy side, so I need to keep this brief. I would say that I was shocked, but I'm not. Just last week the same friend told me that I could stand to lose a few pounds. As I sat enjoying a bean burrito and mulling over her comments, it dawned on me that she may be onto something. If I get winded while walking to fetch a Coke refill, I may need to shed some weight. (If I weren't trying to keep this short, I'd discuss class being crazy busy and not getting a lunch break today. But I am so I won't.)

Sitting is not allowed in the kitchen. Barstools, though present, remain unused. We stand and move all day, so our footwear is very important. Uniform rules dictate that we wear black shoes of the kitchen variety. Since I worked in an office setting for ten years, I didn't own 'kitchen' shoes in black (or any other color for that matter). I wore my black dress shoes from the office to class for the first few weeks. This was fine until we made it to the kitchen and were forced to surrender our seats to the Nazis. With the increased standing came increased foot and back pain. I needed new shoes, but didn't know where to find them. I wanted something that would last, reduce pain and look stylish. Two out of three isn't bad. I ended up with durable and comfortable. The stylish part is up for debate. To me they're a blend of clown shoes, wooden Dutch shoes and ladies footwear (They're actually unisex). Back pain is almost nonexistent in them, but they make it difficult to bust a move in the kitchen. In spite of this I highly recommend them. If you are on your feet alot and need shoes that provide good support, visit Trippets and tell them that I sent you (I'm working on getting a discount for a second pair in a different color for the weekends).

Speaking of the weekends brings us to last weekend and the camouflage. No, I did not don some mossy oak and head for the club. The camouflage was referring to a birthday cake. This one was for a four year old boy who wanted an army cake. Since camo makes me think of the army and since I wanted to try painting with vodka again, I opted for a camo cake. It was a small single tier round cake with buttercream frosting under the painted fondant. After running short on time with the previous week's cake, one would think that I would learn from mistakes, plan ahead and start early. Not so. The party was set for 8:00 Saturday night, and I didn't start mixing the cake until 1:15 in the afternoon. Because of the time, I found that I was trying to get myself mentally psyched up. I caught myself playing upbeat music, trying to get jiggy in chunky shoes (this is nothing new other than the shoes) and chanting things like, "I will work hard, I will work fast, I will not sit, kneel or lie down." Then it hit me that I was basically reciting the rules from Laser Quest. Hours later when the stress got to me and I held my spatula in the air and cried, "Marshall!" nothing happened.

In the end the cake got finished, but I was late getting it to the party. Again I was fortunate, because this one was for family members who were too busy fighting the insane crowds and playing games to worry about the time. Unfortunately I was so rushed to get to the party that I was halfway across Tulsa before I realized that I had left the house wearing the hideous non outfit matching kitchen kicks, and there was no turning back (I'm going out with my clogs on...).

Okay. That's it. The two promised topics and no more. Short enough? (I hope you're happy. I hope you're happy now. I hope you're happy how you... )

Happy Grubbing.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Test Results, Hair Nets & Body Odor: Class Is In Session

With everything that happened, it's hard to believe that we were only in class for four days last week. In light of this and the fact that we start what promises to be the most intense week yet with a new instructor who may be the female version of a modern day Adolf Hitler tomorrow, I need to bring you up to date on a few things before I get overwhelmed. Get comfortable. This may be a long read.

Some faithful followers may remember that we were taking a certification exam last week. Because of computer complications, we weren't sure exactly when we would get to take it. You may also recall that a certain peer has become very interested in my scores, and I was worried that I'd struggle or be shown up. In the end the test wasn't bad. It included 80 multiple choice questions, and I passed with a 95%. This wasn't a perfect score, but it was enough to keep the challenger at bay for a little longer. She passed too, but there were seven students from our group of 12 who were not so lucky.

Aside from the exam, very little time was spent away from the kitchen. Since this was our first week in said kitchen, we started off with basic baking. Our first project was cookies. The recipe I used was a butter cinnamon that I didn't love. They were similar to snickerdoodles without cream of tartar. They were also a bit overcooked. The recipe said to bake them for 9 - 11 minutes, but I was left wishing we had disobeyed and pulled them out of the oven after 7 1/2 or 8.

I should insert here that we don't measure dry ingredients using measuring cups. We weigh everything... on non-digital scales. It's time consuming, because it's the type of scale that balances using counterweights. I'm told this process allows us to be more precise, and the school may just want us to learn the hard way, but I'd be willing to sacrifice some precision if it meant us having more time to get to more projects. Do working bakeries really use such scales? I would think they too would prefer to save time and labor costs, but what do I know?

We also started working on piping last week. Our instructor showed us how to use parchment paper to make small piping bags, and we were given time to practice making the bags and then writing with icing in the classroom. This is much more enjoyable than working with the balance scales. Playing with piping (even if the icing is a funky smelling cheap chocolate goo made strictly for waste) is almost therapeutic for me. It's like a new coloring book and a fresh 64 count box of Crayolas or a good Lortab.

While we're on the subject of funky smells, one of my classmates has a problem with body odor. This is not just another episode of me being hypercritical (hyper, high purr, above, more than normal [Dean Vaughn]) either. I've overheard more than one conversation involving students discussing their disgust with the situation. On Friday as we were leaving, I had to walk away as one student started making blunt comments directly to the offender. If the blunt comments didn't get the message across, I have a feeling that Ms. Hitler soon will.

After the cookies and the piping we worked on pie crusts. Up to that point I had never made one. Other than apple I'm not a big pie fan. I know it's hard to tell from looking at me, but it's the truth. I was surprised at how few ingredients are used in a crust. It was almost just flour and lots of butter - so much of it that I kept expecting Paula Dean to come through the door at any minute, y'all. My crust looked okay for a first try, but the lady who shares the table with me was much more adept and laughed at my work. She's an older lady who's been making pies for longer than I've been alive. She kindly gave pointers between the bouts of laughter. For starters I overworked my dough. It looked more like a sugar cookie dough than a flaky pie crust in the making. We baked the crusts but we didn't fill them to finish a pie. I broke off a piece to try it and tasted butter.

After the pie crusts we moved on to simple tarts. The dough for these included sugar, so they automatically tasted better than the pie crusts. The pans for the tarts were also cooler than the foil pie tins, and isn't it all about the presentation? The filling that we made for the tarts called for a vanilla bean, so I was intrigued. I had never seen a vanilla bean and was completely surprised by it (so surprised that I failed to snap a picture). I had always assumed that a vanilla bean was similar to a coffee bean. Maybe because of my beloved vanilla bean frappuccino at Starbucks. I was totally wrong. The vanilla bean that produces such a great flavor is really quite ugly to look at. It reminded me of a shriveled pepper or something you would see in a jar of formaldehyde. Our fruit options for the tarts were strawberries, blueberries and a few raspberries, but I would have preferred to include some kiwi (simply for the color as I'd never eat one). The glaze for the tarts was made with peach preserves and white wine. I'm not sure if the wine cooked completely out, because I could still smell it, but the tarts sure tasted good. Glazing the blueberries was difficult because they kept moving when the brush touched them, and I had a few moments of wanting to throw them but refrained from doing so. It's still too early for that.

I need to discuss the hair net. We don't actually wear them in class. We wear black skull caps. These are required components of our uniforms. When we made it to the kitchen for the first time, one student did not have his cap. He must have been too focused on getting his lip ring to remember the hat. The head chef (Hitler's boss) told him that he had to have a cap. The student stated that he didn't have the $8 to purchase a new cap from the supply closet, so the chef brought him a hair net to wear. The chef just dropped the hair net and kept walking. When the chef was gone, the student stated that he would not be wearing a hair net. He didn't see the need since he has short hair, and well, it was a hair net (expletive, expletive). He finally borrowed a cell phone to call and have someone find and deliver his (expletive) cap to him and was given permission to wait outside for the delivery. While outside he used his cigarette lighter to burn the hair net. Before the end of the day, the head chef had more words with him, and he did not return to class until the following morning when he arrived with his cap.

My short lived shuttle service has been closed. You may recall that I started picking up and driving home a fellow student last Tuesday. By Friday I had decided that it wasn't working. The drive time is when I make calls and put on concerts, and I can do neither with a passenger. If I wanted to lose sleep and cart someone around town, I'd get married. I woke up late Friday and was a nervous wreck trying to get ready in time to leave, pick up someone and still make it to class without getting a tardy. As much as I hate telling people no, I made the call this afternoon.

Since the morning jam sessions will be revived in just over five hours from now and since your eyes are starting to glaze over, I'll stop. Tune in tomorrow for kitchen kicks and camouflage cake.

Happy grubbing.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Train Wreck

Okay. So I lied. It wasn't intentional. It just sort of happened. I said on Tuesday that I'd post pics in 'a day or two', and this is something like day five. Oh well. The lying was to be expected, I suppose. I mean once you start buying vodka and making alcoholic desserts, it's only a matter of time until you land on that slippery downhill slope. Thankfully mom isn't a blog follower.

I'll get to the promised vodka painted cake in just a moment. Literally. In like lightning speed. And the reason for this is... I'm no longer blogging from a phone! I took the leap and bought a laptop. What this likely means for me is less sleep. What it means for you is more frequent blogs and more pictures. The laptop is of the Apple variety, but I made another one of those not as glamorous but more responsible decisions and opted for a 'gently used' computer. It saved a ton of money, and I can live with a few cosmetic imperfections if it is still highly functional. (Who is this mature and wise man typing about being okay without having new and shiny? It's the guy who is also finally okay with buying white T-shirts from Walmart [especially when it's midnight and all of the other white shirts in the house are forming a dirty mountain in floor of the closet], that's who.) But as I was saying, the laptop isn't beautiful... and this brings us back to painting with vodka and last weekend's cake.

The cake was for a very cool three year old who likes trains. For weeks the plan was to try to sculpt a train from rice cereal bars and use dry ice and a fan to serve as the steam from the engine. Just days before the start of the work, I saw a picture of a cake that looked like a classic pull toy sitting on a wood floor. The picture was nice and reminded me of an episode of Ace of Cakes where they painted woodgrain on a guitar cake. It looked simple enough, and in the end I decided that we would save the smoking engine for later and attempt the pull toy/wood floor/cake painting to go for a more classic look instead.

The results are shown below, but brace yourself. The finished cake had more issues than a hoarder's magazine rack (Remember I never claimed to be good - just an aspiring student).

First the woodgrain paint job:

Then the train:

And it's wreckage:

The first thing that stands out to me is the sad fondant job. Though I don't know how, I overlooked the crazy huge bulge on the side of the cake. (Maybe it was the vodka. Or maybe it was Memphis. Maybe it was southern summer nights... but I digress). By the time I noticed the problem, there was no fixing it. In addition to the bulge on the side, I tore the fondant when covering the cake, so the fondant became patchwork. This was the biggest cake that I've tried to cover (13x18 - making the fondant approximately 17 x 22), and a second set of hands or a larger rolling pin would have been helpful. The only saving grace was the fact that the cake was intended to look like planks of wood, so the patchwork didn't stand out immediately. What did stand out could almost be passed off as intentional flaws for a distressed look. The next time I do a hardwood cake, I may start by cutting individual wood planks. This would mean much smaller pieces and would greatly reduce the risk of tearing.

Another big thing that went wrong on this little engine that couldn't is the layer of fresh strawberries in the middle. Using a fruit filling was also a first. I tried to manually cut the top half of the cake off to add the center layer of frosting and berries. It worked fine for one end, but I accidentally cut at an angle and tore the top of the chocolate half of the cake. I managed to add the strawberries, piece together the cake and add the buttercream and fondant before the strawberries started weeping. Obviously my first attempt of piping a barrier of icing to stop the flow of juices had failed miserably. While I was applying the brown paint, the cake started applying a fresh coat of sticky sweetness to my counter. The cake had to be moved to a large pan for storage and transport. The clear seepage is visible in the picture.

The train was formed out of rice cereal bars and fondant. There was one toothpick involved. Otherwise everything on the cake board (which was a little too small) was edible. This was my first time to make a train or work with the cereal bars. The bars were easy to use, but they needed work. The biggest reason was that I waited too long to get started. The yellow layers of the wheels weren't uniform. I should have cut the circles for the wheels a few days earlier. This would have allowed ample drying time, and the small cuts would have been easier once the fondant circles dried. Actually the entire train should have been made a few days earlier. More attention could have been given to details. Lines could have been straighter. Additional train components could have been made. But starting earlier would make too much sense, and waiting until the last minute to begin a project and then running like mad is so much more enjoyable.

The piping on the cake should have been of a different font, and the cord of the train was too thick.

In general the cake looked homemade, and this is my biggest fear with everything I bake. The goal is always to make a professional looking dessert, but that seldom seems to happen. They typically look like any John or Jane Doe (or should I say 'dough') could recreate them.

I'll stop whining now. This caking is learning process, so I'll just plan to use the lessons learned on this project to make the next one better.

The last few days of school have been great! We've been in the kitchen, and I've taken multiple pictures. There was also another birthday cake project this weekend, so I've plenty more to ramble on about. Unfortunately it's 2 in the morning and my aged body has limits, so I'll try to visit again tomorrow.

Until then happy late night grubbing (I recommend cereal in a frosted bowl).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Vodka, Strawberry Wine & Another Week of Class

Between the homework, quizzes, cakes and alcohol, last week was a blur!  Wait a minute.  That sounds bad. I am not an alcoholic!  Breathe, Pento readers. The only alcohol I consumed last week was a bottle of NyQuil, and no, it wasn't all in one night.   It was spread over a few days of congested discomfort and crazy sleep patterns - thus the blur and lack of posts.  It's still a little foggy, but let me try to bring you up to speed.

Okay. Class first. The 'Controlling Foodservice Costs' course made me work harder mentally than I have in a long time. The classroom sessions are finally over and we finished that particular textbook, but we were unable to take the online exam for certification on Friday. Basically it was a computer glitch, and we will have to take the test when the issue is resolved - which hopefully won't be long.  I barely had a grasp of the information to begin with, and now we've already had a three-day weekend to forget the stuff (Happy Valentine's Day and Presidents Day by the way).

Also during the last week, it seems that I found myself in an unspoken competition in regards to scores.  One classmate in particular seems very interested in my progress and has gone so far as to pick up my face down paper to verify the score I had just told her (she asked). I was a little shocked. Don't get me wrong. I do enjoy a little competition, but I'm more concerned with learning all I can over the next eight months than with having the best scores in the class. Wait.  Who am I kidding? I love to win and plan to do so.  Bring it, sister. I'll know more of our placement after tomorrow when we should receive the scores for our projects. My next post will either be filled with masked gloating or sad rambling on the injustice of instructor favoritism and foul play.

And while we are discussing instructors, I need to say that I may have originally judged last week's chef/teacher too harshly.  Yes, he was strict, but it was appreciated in the end. He laid the smack down when necessary and verbalized some of my very thoughts concerning professionalism. At one point he actually suggested a student attempt to return to elementary school. He gave his rules and stuck to them. Multiple students were locked out of the room when they arrived late.   Thankfully I wasn't one of them. As far as his temper goes, we learned that he has a colicy four week old at home, so I completely sympathize with him. Nothing makes me go from Mr. Nice Guy to Mr. I Want To Hit Something faster than a screaming child.

Other notable events from school last week include tasting bread pudding for the first time and a Valentine's bake sale by the same group who gave us cake a few days earlier. The bread pudding was a chocolate cherry version and was pleasant.  I was only given one bite, but I would have accepted a second and third. The bake sale had some great looking desserts and some less than desirable looking 'savory' cheesecakes.  Ingredients for these included dried tomato and cayenne pepper among other things.  Needless to say they didn't get my money.  I'll change subjects now before my lack of culture shines through.

I went to a liquor store on Thursday evening.  This was a first for me, and I was clueless.  So much for hiding my lack of culture (does knowing your way around a liquor store prove culture or just that you may have a drinking problem?). I wasn't there for a drink.  I went to get some vodka, but it was for a birthday cake. I've been wanting to know how to paint on fondant, and the answer is vodka.   Mix the vodka with the food coloring gel to make a paint. The alcohol in the vodka evaporates very rapidly and leaves behind the color without hurting the fondant. I tried it (the painting - not the vodka) with not terrible results.  It was far from perfect, but I'll post a picture of the cake and an analysis in the next day or two.

Back to the liquor store.  It didn't smell as bad as I thought it would.  There were a number of vodkas to choose from after I asked the salesperson for assistance in finding them. In the end I went with a cheap 100 proof even though the more expensive brands had much better looking bottles.  This was difficult since I'm a sucker for presentation.  Buying the cheap one just seemed more responsible given my current employment situation.   I swiped my card, prayed that it would go through and made my way out the door with a brown paper bag in hand and a classic country song on my mind (she said I'm gonna hire a wino to decorate your cake...).

As stated earlier this was a three day weekend.  There was no class today, so I was able to go to lunch with some old friends from the corporate world.  It was great to see them again, but lunch felt hurried and left me missing them.  An hour isn't long enough to really catch up, and as much as we say we will keep in touch, the signs of separation are already visible. Two didnt show. On the way home I couldn't help but think of a line from another song.  Deana Carter sings Strawberry Wine, and it says 'a few cards and letters and one long distance call. We drifted away like the leaves in the fall'. It seemed fitting, so I bought the song on iTunes while driving and then came home and finished off that bottle of Vodka while Deana sang in the background. Not really, but it was a bit of a somber moment.  I'm holding out hope that our tentative plans to meet up again soon pan out. If not I guess there is always Facebook.

Before I close - some exciting news!   We finally get to leave the classroom and enter the kitchen this week!   I'm pumped and will provide pictures and commentary as frequently as possible.

Oh! One more thing. I may have created a slight problem for myself. A classmate asked if I could pick her up for school and drive her home afterward.  Each day. In my typical can't say no manner, I agreed.  The issue is that I'll have to leave early every morning.  I don't mind picking her up at all.   It's the earlier morning that may get me. We'll see how tomorrow goes, but we may have to rethink this.   Maybe I could drop her off after class if her husband takes her in the mornings, or I could just charge her a few burritos a week to compensate for the missed sleep.

Talk about some happy grubbing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Check Your Coke At The Door

This week we started a new mini-class with a new instructor who doesn't play. Soda has been banned, and tardiness isn't tolerated, but before I jump too far ahead, let me close out last week.

As mentioned in Thursday's post, we had a quiz on Friday morning. I was nervous about the quiz, but in the end it wasn't bad. The question that stumped me the most was a fill-in-the-blank question that dealt with sugar. I needed to write the type of sugar that's best suited for pastries and cakes. There are two acceptable names given to the sugar, but I could only think of the lesser professional sounding version. Superfine. This is easy to remember, because it triggers my mind to think of Superfly which leads to Pretty Fly - as in Pretty Fly For A White Guy (uh huh, uh huh). I know. Random. I wasn't sure if superfine was good enough, but I didn't have to wait and worry for long. I knew the other term started with a C, and when the guy behind me spoke out during the quiz and used the word 'castor', I was home free. Castor and superfine are the same! Normally folks don't talk about answers during quizzes. The thing is that the guy was mistaken. He thought the answer was turbinado sugar and therefore saw no issue with using castor aloud. Does the fact that I then wrote and used the word castor make me a cheater or does it mean I know how to make good use of opportunities? It was spoken for all to hear, and I already had superfine, which would have likely been graded as correct anyway. Am I right, or am I just rationalizing my bad behavior at this point?

For those who may be wondering, turbinado sugar (also called Demerara sugar) is basically the closest thing you will ever get to raw sugar without chomping down on sugar cane. Turbinado sugar is only partially refined, very coarse and caramel in flavor.

After the quiz I was a bad student and skipped the afternoon session to attend the wedding of some very good friends. It was a nice ceremony at a local historical mansion. Congratulations Phil and Sarah!

The weekend brought with it volunteer work at a large (100+) luncheon, a last minute boring but tasty banana cake with cream cheese frosting and sore feet.

School on Monday brought the aforementioned new subject matter and instructor. This week's topic is 'Controlling Foodservice Costs', but it could be called 'How to Scare Off Students in Four Days'. The class is intense to say the least. I went in thinking that we would discuss theft, waste, inventory and the cost of ingredients. In reality we are talking about each of these things and much more - the 'as purchased' weight compared to the 'edible portion' weight and how this affects cost which affects menu pricing and profits. There are numerous equations that come into play, and calculators are necessary.

On top of this we are also working to some extent on conversions. How many teaspoons are in a gallon? Better yet, if you purchase 400 ounces of a product with an 85% yield, how many tablespoons of the edible portion will you have to use in your recipe?

We're having daily quizzes and another large online test with a certification up for grabs on Friday. Today's quiz wasn't as bad as expected either. There were multiple perfect scores. Hopefully tomorrow will be the same, but this brings us to our new instructor.

When referring to our scores from this morning's quiz, he said that he was surprised by them, that he didn't expect them to be that good. What? Did he think we were all just a bunch of pretty faces? Did he expect us to fail? Maybe he didn't mean it the way it sounded, but I dont know. He seems quite harsh at times. It may be the fact that we are his first class, or it may be the fact that we're in college and not elementary school. Regardless, the harshness isn't completely bad. It tends to lead to structure, and I like that in a classroom.

What I don't like is the fact that I'm not allowed to have pop in the room. Nothing but water. This is a major change for me. At ol' Blue I drank around the clock, a corporate lush with a cup always within reach. The only possible silver lining of this injustice is that I may end up losing weight and saving money.

Ringing cell phones are also not allowed, and I agree with this one. When the second cell phone rang in class today, the instructor became very passionate and responded in a manner that made me wonder if he has anger issues or if he beats his wife. Since it wasn't my phone, it was also rather amusing.

Our new instructor also locks the door when class starts. If you arrive late, you wait until the next break to enter the room. The jury is still out on this one. Given my history I tend to be sympathetic to those with punctuality issues. I do like my sleep and sometimes have a difficult time getting out of bed. Thankfully I'm still at one tardy - though yesterday was a very close call. I forgot my skull cap and had to whip a U-turn to fetch it. I ended up speeding across Tulsa in the rain and yelling at slower moving cars while Clint Brown lifted up the name of Jesus in the background. But I made it, and there are worse ways to start a day.

That brings us up to date on school. For the most part. For now.

Aside from the school matters, I'm finding that thoughts of the old stomping ground pop up at odd times. When the snow started falling yesterday, I missed the parking garage and the view of downtown from the 11th floor. When I hid the contraband Coke in the cabinet of the breakroom this morning, I longed for my desk where I could drink freely and where so many great conversations with team members took place. I miss the team, and getting home at 3:30 each afternoon still feels weird. On a more positive note, I think I finally got the unemployment benefits situation taken care of today.

When the checks start coming, grub is on me.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Cheap Candy Bars & Free Cake

Okay. So the last post was technically for Wednesday - even though it shows Thursday. This is the real Thursday blog - even though it will say Friday by the time it's uploaded. It's a long story, and I've vowed to keep it short tonight, so just know that someday soon I'll be a real blogger and move from thumbing it on an iPhone to actually typing on a MacBook (Yes, I've been converted). Maybe then I'll figure this all out.  Please don't think I'm slamming the phone though. It is still the most amazing little piece of heaven on earth.

Today school felt like school.  I took two pages of notes, wrote a paper, had homework and studied for a quiz tomorrow. The subject matter of flour and sugar may sound dry (no pun intended), but it's actually quite intriguing. Who knew that I should have been using a different flour for cakes all these years?

Today's session made me want to take my first post-RIF paycheck and split it between the folks at the Whole Foods Market and The Stock Pot for ingredients and supplies. There is a whole new world (shining, shimmering, splendid) of baking that I'm seeing for the first time, and we're only in the second week!

We actually studied flours, sugars, fats and eggs today. All of it was interesting, but I must admit that it made me feel both inferior and excited - inferior because I'm starting to question what I've called baking up to this point and excited because I'll soon be trying new things.

A highlight of today was tasting four cakes that the class ahead of us made. The cakes were attractive to look at on the table, but they became even more appealing when they were cut, and the various layers were visible. The cakes were French recipes, so they weren't overly sweet. As a result I only sort of liked one. Two were okay, and one made me want to race to the nearest garbage can (but I refrained for the sake of appearances). While the instructor expounded on the French and their opinions of excessive sugar and the food of American's, she bashed the beloved Twinkie. Call me trashy and low class, but I would have taken a Twinkie over any of the cakes sampled today.   They were pretty - just not my thing (this coming from a guy who seldom strays from vanilla, chocolate or sherbet at Braum's).

Another memorable moment of the day was when the new guy who just joined our group yesterday produced and offered us our choice of approximately five different candy bars for 50 cents each. When we asked where the candy came from, he told us "from my pocket. They're cheaper than the vending machine."  Apparently he makes extra cash by carrying candy and secretly stealing customers from the vending machine owners. On Fridays he wears a trench coat and offers a special - your choice of a Slim Jim or King Sized M&Ms and a Rolex for $10. I applaud his initiative and found the whole thing entertaining.

Tomorrow's quiz materials include some of the early pastry chefs, the ones with the weird names that most of us have never heard of. Unfortunately I don't feel very prepared for it and am a little worried.  We will see what happens.

It's practically the weekend.  Do you have plans for grub yet?  If not I know where you can get a cheap candy bar.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

I hit the jackpot today!

Today was the best day of class so far! It was like Christmas!

Since the food safety sessions and test ended yesterday, we were given our real textbooks! The books are filled with hundreds of recipes and how-tos and color photos and baking history and famous bakers and... I wanted to skip class to just sit and read through it. And that's not all. The publishers use some type of scented magic on the cover of the book so that it smells. It's like a scratch and sniff book from the children's section, which is totally appropriate because I was smiling like a kid - the kid in the candy store and the kid on Christmas all in one. (Sybil?)

But there's more! We also got our pastry kits today! It's a little like a soft toolbox, only it looks more like a laptop bag from back when laptops were thick and heavy. It's big and full of all sorts of shiny new kitchen tools. It also has a calculator which I didn't expect.

The books and kits are great, and I don't think we could have been any happier if Oprah herself had been in the room screaming, "You get a car, and you get a car, and..." Today the knives, icing tips and thermometers were like gold and all we needed for contentment. We still have at least another week before we hit the bake shop and use the stuff, but excitement is already building. We have our bowl scrapers. We're official. Bring it!

The final reason that today was so good is because we (the class) seemed to relax and come out of our shells more. It could just be that I'm relaxing and getting over my own introvertedness (is that a word?), but I thoroughly enjoyed the day. Each of my classmates brings something different to the table, and many of them are straight up hilarious. I was also introduced to a catchy little number instructing me to 'blame it on the alcohol'. For one who prides himself on his knowledge of lyrics (I knew 'Blame It On Texas' and 'Blame It On the Rain'), I knew nothing of blaming it on the al al al al al alcohol. Hours later my head still bobs just thinking about it.

Finally the cake balls. For those who may be wondering, making a cake ball is not as simple as using a melon baller to scoop out a baked cake. I must admit that I tried this months ago before doing any research on the matter and failed miserably. Since then I've done some reading and experimenting and know that I've still a ways to go, but here is some information on how to get started.

Bake a cake, any cake, and let it cool. Prepare the frosting for said cake, but don't frost it. Instead break the cake into pieces and put it in the mixer. Add the frosting to the cake and blend well. Scoop this cake/frosting mixture into balls and freeze. When the balls are frozen, dip them in your choice of chocolate or almond bark. Pretty simple in theory.

One of my struggles is determining how much frosting to add. Some cake recipes seem to produce bigger cakes than others. A YouTube video instructed to use two cups of frosting. When I used two cups, it didn't work. The ratio of cake to frosting was too low, and the balls wouldn't retain their shape because of all the frosting. This time I started with 3/4 a cup of frosting and slowly went up from there until it looked right. It varied based on the cake, but I don't think I used more than a cup and a half in any of the five cakes that I tried. Still the chocolate was too mushy and the banana too dry in my opinion.

Another issue for me is the dipping. How do you completely dip something without making a huge mess? A few weeks ago I tried using toothpicks, and they worked okay until it came time to remove them. It then became a disaster involving a second toothpick to hold the ball in place while the original pick was removed. Between the two picks, the just dipped and still warm chocolate coating was damaged. This time I tried using skewers and letting the chocolate/bark coating dry before removing them, and it was much better. Yes, the skewers leave bigger holes in the top of the balls, but they also provide better leverage which comes in handy when trying to cover the top of the ball in shallow melted chocolate. The holes can be hidden with drizzle or piping. Not a perfect plan but one that works for an amateur like me. I'm open for suggestions. Anyone?

One more thing about the balls. Remove the skewers after the chocolate/bark covering has dried and only when the balls are at or close to room temperature. Removing the skewers from refrigerated balls caused cracking in the chocolate coating.

All in all the cake balls aren't too bad - time consuming, but not difficult.

The pictures are playing hard to upload, and I'm ignorant of such things, so they'll have to wait until tomorrow. There will be two pictures. One shows the cake balls from last night's bridal shower before they were plated. Left to right, top to bottom: Red Velvet, Banana, Chocolate and Cinnamon with Pecan. The fifth (not pictured) kind was Wedding Cake.

The other picture shows the very first cake ball attempt from a few weeks ago, another take on Red Velvet.

So... Check your recipes, head to the nearest grocery store for ingredients, hit Bueno's drive thru on the way home and have a ball making cake balls.

Happy grubbing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Few Firsts

The First Day of Class... can be summed up in two words: culture shock. Before I go any further I need to put forth a disclaimer. I am not a mean person. Remember that.

Okay. The first day. Maybe I was pampered at the cross (ooh, could that preach?) or maybe I'm just too critical, but I wasn't mentally prepared for what I beheld as the room began to fill. The business casual attire was scarce. Whatever happened to the importance of a first impression? After the third sighting of exposed flesh, I began to wonder where some of their parents were - and then it hit me that they were the parents. Judging by appearances (yes, I know that's wrong) some were even grandparents or great-grandparents, and the span of ages puzzled me. Were the older ones there for a hobby? Did they have money to burn or did they really think they would be able to hang? My thought is that, if you announce that you need to utilize handicap parking to keep from walking long distances, a job on your feet in the kitchen may not be the best career choice. (Remember the disclaimer.)

Concerning the exposed flesh... If you raise your arm and your belly falls from beneath your shirt, you have a problem. If you lean forward to sign paperwork and display flesh of the plumber variety, you have a problem. If you do either of these things while I stand in line behind you, I have a problem.

And what's with sharing your personal information so freely with strangers? Is it necessary to include the fact that you're bipolar and on medication during your initial self introduction to the 40 other people in the room? I don't get it. I needed Miss Dorsey there so that we could give our running commentary on the session. It would have been like the glory days of old at the cross, and she would have deemed it a shebacle (That's urban for debacle.) for sure.

Don't get me wrong. Not everyone in attendance fit the above descriptions. There were normal folks too. It's just that the special ones stood out.

Later that afternoon the large group was divided based on programs of study, and the pastry arts group ended up with a total enrollment of 12 very normal people - including yours truly.

The First Test... was today. It was your typical food safety test involving FAT TOM, cooking temperatures and the like. We answered the 90 multiple choice questions online and received a pass/fail grade immediately thereafter. I passed with a 96, and that's pretty typical. My crazy eavesdropping skills tell me that only one person from our group had failed by the time I left. I think it must have been the lip ring that caused it.

The Worst First... was my first tardy which also took place today. Big surprise, right? I guess that's what happens when you blog in the middle of the night.

This brings me to the last first to discuss tonight - the first semi right cake balls. The balls, such as they were, were finished and served at a bridal shower earlier this evening. I'll post more information and pictures soon, but first some sleep. Class starts in less than eight hours.

Happy grubbing.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

And so it begins...

On Friday I left corporate America - another casualty of what HR people refer to as a reduction in force.  I didn't get fired. I was basically replaced by someone who will work for less money in another state. While I've known about it for months and actually understand and agree with the business decision, it didn't make relinquishing my badge after ten years, five months and 16 days any easier.

As I left behind the comfort and shelter of the parking garage and headed out into the winter storm, I couldn't help but wonder if the weather was some sort of omen.  Visibility was low. With the heavy snow hitting the windshield, it was difficult to see very far down the road.  Where was I headed anyway?  Would I make it or would I end up in a ditch and be forced to sit and watch as others drove by and got on with their lives?  Would I stay on course but end up spinning my wheels without really getting anywhere?  What if I got moving and then lost control?  Would I end up injured or broken, a pile of scrap, leftovers, a has been? What if I did make it home only to find the house dark and cold with no electricity?  These were the thoughts that filled my head on Friday. It was indeed an ugly day.

But enough with the melodrama. In the end I made it home, the house was warm and bright and, in spite of everything, the sun (and my outlook) rose on Saturday.

Once I shielded my eyes from the glare, I couldn't help but admire the splendor of God's handiwork. The world was covered in pure white snow.  It was calm and peaceful, a picture perfect blank canvas...

Which brings me to the rest of my life. It may not end up picture perfect, but it is a blank canvas for me to fill.   For starters I've enrolled in a pastry arts program at a local trade school.  Since I no longer have a captive audience of associates to send rambling daily emails to, I've also started this blog.

The plan is to chronicle the journey from baking mediocrity to wherever it is that I'm headed and share some tips and ideas along the way.  I won't always be this wordy (pinky swear), and I won't have perfect grammar or spelling. Be patient. Like each of us, the blog is a work in progress (and I'm typing on a phone).  

Later this week:  The first class, the first test and my first semi-right cake balls.

Until then happy grubbing.