Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Christmas ... A Time To Give

In the last few days before the annual Christmas break we spent much time working with, and for, others. "Who are we working with today, Chef?", my students would ask me.

They never asked what they would get out of it.

Just two days before the holiday began we hosted some of our school's students from the Independent Living Program.
These students are simply wonderful for us and to us ... they willingly take all our laundry of tea-towels, chef hats and aprons and wash them and fold it all two or three times a week every week. Then they deliver it back to us, neatly stacked in a shabby old IKEA bag! This is part of their job-readiness preparation. We could never thank them enough for doing this every week for us, year after year, but as a small 'thank you' we welcomed these kids and their teaching aide (Karen Brant)
and teacher (Rachel Kaufman) and the co-op students who work with the class into the kitchen for a morning of cookie-making.

Cheerful chaos!
Too many people!

CHEF !!!
But, in the end everything worked out well. We all had a great time, the place was (mostly) cleaned up and cookies were made by the dozens.

That was Thursday before the holidays.


On the Friday my chef students came in and we just sat around and chatted and drank coffee ... they have worked hard every single day since September, and it was time to just 'chillax'. so we watched a few Jamie Oliver videos, an Epic Chef video and bade our farewells.

A few of them were asking me just before the class went out, "Chef, what do you think I can give people this year? I don't have much money."

Good question.

I said to my students "Look, most of you don't have much money. Some of you don't have a job yet. If you want to make your family and friends simply happy and delighted, offer them your time and talent. You are all good young cooks. Go and cook for your family and friends. Invite your friends over for a sit-down dinner party! Amaze them with your skills. It does not need to cost much, and your gift of time is more valuable than anything you can buy someone with money. Give your family and friends YOU! And you'll find you have a great appreciation of others, and the time that they have to give you. It will make you more human. The more you empty yourself out by giving, the less you will actually need to receive to feel filled-up and greatly appreciated. Give more, need less. Good luck. Happy Christmas. Away you go."

In about 3 minutes, and a few hugs later, the kitchen was quiet and the lights were all out except the little ones twinkling on our counter-top tree, reflected in the old stainless steel cupboards and countertops, bringing back memories of years of wonderful students. A little twinkle for each student, each memory, each hard-earned success.

Yes, dear friends, there IS a Santa Claus. You and me.
Thank you, parents, for always sending me only your very best kids. They are simply a delight to work with, and for.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to each of you.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Challah ... Or Else ... and a great bread-making tip.

A few days ago one of my excellent students came to me with a request. "Chef", my student said, "In my family we celebrate Hannukah. I'd really like to make challah bread for this holiday, but I don't know how. Can you teach me?"

No easier asked, gentle student, than done.

Let's start with a recipe. We searched the internet and books for a recipe that looked as though it would work right off, and that my student had the skills to make and do at home. Allrecipes, (a wonderful website for cooks ... so is Epicurious), came through perfectly. We took a look at the recipe and I adjusted it a little to make it more approachable for a beginner. We went over the recipe together and I clarified what techniques were needed, what mis-en-place would be required and what the time structure was. With all this in place, the process began.
The dough was made and risen, then punched down, divided and rolled into long cigars. These were braided three per loaf, and set onto baking sheets on silpats. They were covered correctly for a proof, then topped off with a quick egg-wash and one was top-garnished with sesame seeds. Care was taken to gently tuck the flattened ends under the larger mass of the braid at each end of the loaf, to give a neat appearance.

The ovens were pre-heated and settled and set up for steam (to ensure a delicious crust).

Then, after 45 minutes of proofing, into the ovens, a fast blast of heat and steam and the dough rose up like a great imagination and baked off perfectly!

The results spoke for themselves.

Congratulations, Chef Rebecca! You did it ... and now you can share this at home with your family over Hannukah. Thanks for asking.


Here is a wonderful baking tip I had shared with me by a woman who is a simply fabulous cook. I use it all the time when I make bread and it never fails.

For many years Monarch Park was blessed with wonderful Greek cafeteria Chefs. Koula, Yasmina, Angela and Maria were all from small Greek villages around or part of Sparta. Their traditions included an enormous amount of folk-knowledge about making food and using ingredients. Each of these wonderful women has been a mentor to my students, a wonderful example of excellence and an awfully nice person to work with in the kitchen. Thank you, Chefs!

Yasmina taught me, REALLY taught me, how to proof bread. She taught me that dough, when proofing, was usually trying to get the very best and last out of the yeast. What she taught me was to have my ovens ready and settled, and use steam for most breads. Then she would knock about 10 - 15 minutes off any proofing-time, and bake in a searing, steamy oven. Yasmina taught me that when she did this she was giving the yeast one great chance to show its stuff ... one last gasp, so to speak ... and the steamy heat would get the dough going all at once in a sort of yeasty "Hail Mary" final effort. I tried it on the day she taught me, and I have never looked back. This technique works beautifully on focaccia, ciabatta, challah, baguette, brioche. I can honestly say that I make wonderful bread, in part because of the skill I learnt from Yasmina and the other great Greek chefs we have been fortunate to have.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Christmas Fruitcake -- Or Else!

Christmas, it is said, comes but once a year. What's that, you say? Once a year? Why not more often? Because, my tinies, we would have to make more fruitcake!

Once a year, also, Chef Ann Aller joins the brigade at Monarch Park and helps us make her fabulous fruitcake. (She is Chef Aller-Stead's Mother-In-Law.) It is her recipe we use, and Chef Aller enjoys helping and guiding us all to make perfect, traditional fruitcake for our home enjoyment and for sales to the lucky staff who are connoisseurs of such delightful comestibles.

So ... to start with, here is the recipe Take a careful look at it ... there is a large amount of detail in here, both for the shopping as well as for the technique. Remember, as you read, you need to remember that the BEST fruitcake is old fruitcake. (OK, not as old as Chef, but at least 1 month old ... 3 months if you get organized sufficiently.) You will need to spend quite a bit of time doing the shopping to support this fruitcake-making, including getting some brandy and rum (speak to your parents).

Follow the recipe carefully and slowly. Here are a few shots of how we did it in class. We make TEN TIMES this recipe!

First, we mixed all the fruit, raisins and nuts together in our largest bowls.

Here is Chef Aller with Ciara and Rebecca, all hands into the gooey mess of fruit, pineapple juice and a bottle of brandy.

This was followed by making the dough ... here is Jack preparing butter for the largest stand-mixer, to be blended with butter to make a smooth beginning.
We 'encourage' this by using Chef's blowtorch. Doesn't every home kitchen have a blowtorch? No? OK, students, Christmas is coming, and they're $25 at Nella! Now Jack is getting the torch onto the bowl of the stand mixer to ensure the butter and sugars blend quickly and smoothly.
(Notice that no one looks nervous. We have done this before and know how ... Chef is a safety freak!)

Jack is very careful to have just the correct portion of the flame touch the bowl ... we are not welding, neither are we just lighting a candle. It is important to get this just right, and Jack knows how to be a perfectionist in this area. The heat will help the butter smooth out with the sugar. We remove the torch when the sugar does not feel granulated at all, and the mixture is silky-smooth. Then the eggs go in one at a time, then the extract. This will be followed by the huge amounts of dry ingredients (remember, we are making ten times the original recipe) and finally we have made a lovely, warm, light-brown almond batter. The batter is worked into the huge pans of marinated fruit and nuts by hand. Using our hands is very important, as our fingers will not cut up any fruit or damage any part of the filling we are so carefully preparing. It is very hard work, though, and takes a lot of patience.
We have produced about 90 pounds of fruitcake batter, all ready for the prepared pans. Pans are made ready with two layers each of parchment paper, with Crisco shortening thinly smeared on every surface.
Liia and Leshaunda took on the boring task of making the pan-liners for 30 fruitcake pans ... here they are making stripes of paper for the sides of the springforms, and the bottoms were covered with two circles of parchment.

After the springforms were prepared, we filled them up to within about 2 cm of the top of each. Prior to baking, the tops were decorated. Here is one being beautifully worked on by Glenn.

At this point all the cake needs is a top of parchment paper to gently rest on top of the batter (so the top of the cake does not form much of a crust or brown a lot).

We readied our ovens with steam, then baked for between 2.5 and 4.5 hours (depending on the thickness and diameter).

After the cakes came out of the ovens, we let them cool on the counters overnight on racks, then we doused them with a goodly shot of rum or brandy before tightly wrapping them up in two layers of waxed paper with an outside shell of tinfoil.

These are tightly closed, and the cakes are kept at cool room temperature for a fortnight. Next week we will bring them out and give them a second dose with brandy, then deliver them.

Interesting side-note to our cakes ... the evening they were cooling on the counter, Monarch Park held an open-house event for parents of prospective grade 9 students next September. Many, many parents came through the kitchen, drawn (no doubt) by the delicious smells and proud display of Chef's photos of his students all over the outside walls (and ceilings) of the Culinary Arts area. Several parents asked for the fruitcake recipe, and one offered to buy a small $20 cake on the spot (Chef sold it immediately).

Chef Aller came in one more time the next day, to ensure that the topping-off of the cakes (their first dousing) and wrapping was done according to her high standard.
Now the cakes are nestled in their wrappings, swaddled against undue evaporation or drying, and after the next dousing will rest for another fortnight, then will be ready for proud display and delicious snacking over the Christmas holiday.

Thank you, Chef Aller, for all your time, patience and care! We couldn't do it as well without you. See you next year!

And that's a wrap.