Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Christmas Cake ... Make It Early!

Christmas cake .. loved or reviled, embraced as the classic it is or seen as a ghastly leftover from a distant relative's attic ... there is nothing like Christmas Cake.

Chef and his students make really good Christmas Cake. Yes, Virginia, there IS such a thing as 'good' Christmas Cake. :) So there!

We use a family recipe finally shared in detail with Chef by his wonderful mother-in-law, Chef Aller of Ottawa. It is ridiculously fruity, full of nuts, a bit of brandy and enough sugar to cause an entire small town to go into diabetic shock if anyone eats too much at one sitting. If any reader wants the recipe, just ask in the comments and I will be happy to share.

START by going out and spending well over $350 on ingredients!! (Remember, we're baking for many here ... not just the family table.)

Carefully set out the ingredients in bowls and on the frig. We took the recipe and multiplied by 6 to make the cakes this year ... it was arms into the mixture all the way! This makes about 60 pounds (over 25 kilos) of fruitcake. Oy Vey!

Start by mixing the dry fruits first (the raisins and nuts) and be sure to de-clump them (using a little flour and bare hands ... never a metal spoon!), and add the rest of the savoury ingredients going
from slightly wet and gooey to the cherries last, which make QUITE a mess. We mixed all this by hand in deep hotel pans, and added pineapple juice and brandy to let the fruit rest and soak overnight. (This step can actually be done a few days before baking ... it is up to you.)

On baking day, pre-heat the ovens and add lots of steam. If you don't have access to steam ovens, just put a glass or metal lasagne pan in the bottom of your oven and fill it up with hot water. Let it just sit there as the oven heats up AND while the baking is under way ... it will add lots of wonderful moisture!

We almost always work in teams.
Here is my wonderful assistant, Chef Tamara, leading one team in their tailgate meeting before launching into production.

Line the spring-form pans or loaf pans with double layers of buttered parchment paper. (Note to students reading this ... remember that waxed paper is not a substitute for parchment!
Who wants to eat a candle?)

Make the dough, starting off by mixing all your dry ingredients BUT remember that sugars don't count as 'dry'; they remain separate so they can be creamed with the butter.

Using your paddle in the stand mixer, whip the butter up well and add in the sugar a bit at a time to make a lovely smooth fluffed base to work with. Add the dry ingredients after the eggs and
almond flavouring have gone in a bit at a time. Then ... take the batter from out of the bowl and fold it into the fruit, using only a good rubber spatula and your hands.

Put the prepared batter into the spring-forms, taking care to knock the pans against the counters to ensure complete filling (because this dough is so thick and sticky it is easy to wind up with air pockets). Then ... using prepared cherries or nuts, carefully decorate the tops for formal presentation. Here is Chef Mystee doing a lovely job,
using small tweezers to position things. When the ovens have settled and are steamy,
get the cakes into them for a nice, long, restful bake.

When this is done the next order is simple ... clean the kitchen!

When done, remove from oven and let sit on a counter, covered and removed from pan, overnight. We just cover them with good tea towels.
Tomorrow the cakes will be given their wrapping (in waxed paper and tin foil) and will be gently 'dosed'. All the cakes will be individually dosed 3 times in total before delivery to our customers in the last week before the Christmas holidays.

Friends, students, parents, readers, you too can do this! Do it soon, do it every year, and make it into a family day in the kitchen.

Get ready for a merry, merry Christmas.

And for tomorrow, remember to celebrate Diwali with little candles and sweets shared with family and friends. In multi-cultural Canada what better way, after a solemn ceremony and true thanks-giving to our Veterans at Remembrance Day services, to celebrate just being here together?

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Pasta ... it seems so simple! {And it is!}

Pasta always seems to be so simple to make ... you go to the store and buy a box of the dry somewhat-broken stuff, come home, boil some water and dump the contents of the box into the water. After about 12 – 15 minutes you drain the water off and (shudder!) some people then rinse the pasta under cold water (DO NOT EVER DO THIS!!). Then a sauce of some sort is heated in a microwave oven and dumped onto the pasta and maybe some cheese (from a can, may contain non-cheese items too) is plonked onto the table and the hopeful Gordon Ramsey wannabe hollers “Dinner’s On”!

This is ... disgusting.

This is not good food.

You can do better, I tell my class, and it will be a LOT cheaper and will make better pasta than you have ever eaten in your life. It will be simple, tasty and pretty quick. It does not contain any microwave anything and the cheese is made from the gift of real cows with nothing but a little salt and water used to make it. Here's how.

Make pasta ... remember the rule of 3s. 3 hundred grams of good hard flour, 3 eggs plus an extra yolk and 3 teaspoons of good olive oil. This takes technique and patience and a good strong pair of hands. Oh ... and a good story.

Clean your counter and dry it. Make a heap of all the flour on the counter and use a few fingers to make a well in the centre. In a bowl put the eggs and the oil. Gently pour the egg/oil mix into the well.
Stir with a fork until it starts to come together.

Work all the flour into the mushy mix in the middle. Start to knead. Clean the counter off with a bench scraper and start to knead strongly. Have someone tell the story to you, or you tell it between kneads. The time the cat climbed onto the ceiling fan and got dizzy and spectacularly ill after 9 turns. When you rode a bicycle into the back of a police car by mistake. Mowing the lawn for the first time on your own, not knowing a nervous parent was watching from behind a curtain. Knead and knead.

When the kneading is done and the pasta is a butter-smooth ball of beauty, wrap it in plastic and put it in the frig for a while to rest.

Take good olive oil and warm it up in a sauté pan. (Never call it a frying pan, always a sauté pan, says Chef. They’ll pay you more if you use the proper terms, and saying it right makes you sound well-trained and cultured. That’s got to be worth at last an extra 50 cents and hour!)

Infuse the oil with a bit of garlic (smashed, with the anima removed, of course) and some slivers of red onion. Gently infuse this for about 25 minutes. No colour on the garlic or onion ... just let these relax into a beautiful warm oil bath and give you all the flavour they have to give.

While this is being done, have a friend (the one who you shared the story with) grate fresh parmegiano into a bowl. Reserve this for use very soon!

While infusing the oil, take the pasta out of the frig and pass it through a pasta-roller machine and cutter. Have a BIG pot of boiling water going and, while rolling at the boil, salt it to the same salinity as blood, tears or sea-water. We all came from the sea, I tell them, eons ago, and the salinity we need in our bodies is a remnant of that part of our evolutionary voyage. (But don’t drink sea-water of course ... we have now evolved to be different!) Most people don’t put enough salt into the pasta water ... it makes a BIG difference getting this right! I show them with one sample, and the class is usually aghast at the amount until they try the result, and then they understand.

Just stick your finger quickly into the boiling water, then taste it, I teach them. You won’t get burnt and you’ll be able to accurately taste the salinity. Do NOT use any tool to do this other than your hand! First the brave try it, then most of the rest. A last couple hang on until the very end, then try to fake it. Then they realise this is not going to hurt them, and their bravery quotient increases dramatically!

Now that the infusing is done, take out the smashed garlic but leave the slivers of onion in the oil. Add a bit of fresh-cracked pepper to the oil and at the same time throw the fresh pasta into the boiling water. Cook for about 60 – 80 seconds and then get it out FAST and directly into the infused oil. It will sizzle a bit. Stir quickly with a pair of tongs or a wooden spoon. Serve immediately onto hot plates, and add freshly-grated parmegiano to taste.
If you have a few pieces of freshly-torn basil leaves, scatter them in as garnish.

Then eat.


First image is from foodirl.com

Aaaand ... Away We Go!

Well now ... a new semester, a new school year, new opportunities all ‘round. Hard to know where to start!

Our first day, by our tradition, is called “Make Me Cookies” day. Chef does a quick introduction to the kitchen and basic safety, then invites all the new students to just leave their backpacks, purses, everything in a heap on a far counter. Everyone is taught how to wash their hands properly ... the first of many, many detailed lessons.

Then ... the first recipe, the first chance!

Chef makes everyone into teams of four. The recipes are handed out. “I Am Hungry!” cries Chef. “Feed Me!!”


And away everyone is sent on a productive exploration. This event is designed to let all the new students get to know the kitchen, to find out what is kept where, and learn some of the most basic of things.

Chef refuses to answer most questions. “Go find it yourself” is the frequent reply, along with “Yes, we do have lots of that”.

The work is terribly loud, stunningly messy and mostly inedible. Surprising things are learnt (by Chef) ... baking powder is the same as baking soda, that measurement is a whimsical option, that quality is just a matter of opinion and it is OK to leave things for someone else to clean up.

Oy Vey!

This group of students actually surprised Chef ... the cookies were mostly edible and didn’t taste too frightening. Teeth were left intact. Digestive systems did not over-rev or rumble.

Compliments were offered.

Then everyone was told to just clean up. Here are sinks, here is dish soap, so go nuts and clean up. Put everything away where you found it. You walked into a perfectly clean kitchen ... you have to leave it that way.

After a few minutes the bell rang.

“Class ending Chef!” they cried. “Not so fast, my beauties. Your parents don’t work here. You do. This mess will be left for you to clean tomorrow BEFORE class, and it will have mostly hardened into food-grade cement. So no one leaves until this place is as spotless as when you walked in. Clean up and polish it now ... when I am satisfied, I will dismiss you. No moaning. Do it!”

It gets done. Chef is happy and drained.

Here endeth the First Day.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Final Exam and Final Comments

Every course requires an examination of some sort. Today (10 June 2015) was that final day for this group of budding chefs. They created this menu, they worked together in teams of two, three or four,
they researched the recipes, methods, ingredients required and they refined how to plate and present their work. Almost everyone showed up for three gruelling days of intense work and attention to tiny details. Today ... triumph!

There's nothing like a good meal with friends to slow the rushing world down for a while. In a good restaurant this is done with aplomb and attention to the smallest details. In the 'back-of-house' the crazy may be happening, but in the 'front-of-house' tranquility rules. Today, for the second time this semester, my students had a chance to really find out what it takes to be in this business.

Ruby, our incredible community volunteer, arrived at 09h00 with flowers for the tables and a big smile for everyone.
Then she started to work with the production teams, a willing resource of depth and reassurance for everyone.

Tamara had a badly-wrecked finger and I didn't want her to have her hands in food or water, so she set the tables up beautifully, with professional guidance from Ruby.
The results were ... well, look at the photo. Lovely! Then she pleaded with me to be allowed to cook ... get on the hot line with her friends ... and I just had to relent and said YES. You've never seen a happier girl. My confidence in her is fully justified.

All morning the teams of students ebbed and flowed, managing their time as well as they could. We had spent Monday of this week planning out time management sheets alongside recipes, and built in some extra time to allow for the inevitable hiccough.
Everyone worked hard and, amazingly, kept their tempers. This is a business where tempers famously flare under the pressure of the kitchen work, and I am SO proud of my students for managing themselves professionally. A couple of burns and nicks produced some swearing,
to be truthful, but then it was right back to the work, the sweat and the striving for perfection.

At about 11h00 I opened "Aller-Stead's Kinder, Gentler School of Hospitality and How To Wait At Table". Every student attended (but I don't offer any choice). How to wait at table, how to keep track of your orders, how to do basic service and answer questions and how to be polite and welcoming to everyone ... these are the Hospitality Arts. (I was channelling Dave Schwingenschlogel, the Master of all these arts, who is a Professor of Hospitality at George Brown Chef School's "The Chefs House" restaurant. Dave, I hope I channelled you well!) It was a crash course ... it took 15 minutes (well, 10, actually, with time for questions), then back to work.

At 11h45 our 26 guests (it had been 24, but then ballooned!) all arrived with appetites and high expectations.


The wait-students went out and collected orders, then came into the kitchen to the pass areas and picked up 2 at a time. The hot-line, garde-manger and cold-line all went into action, plating as fast as they could and making sure every plate sent out looked perfect.

Our guests were blown away, frankly, by both the food and the wonderful attitudes of honest pride and confidence my students have developed throughout the semester. At the end of the luncheon a group of our guests barged into the kitchen and applauded my students (who were too pooped to do much more than smile wanly and wave).

The kitchen looks (early evening) like part of the Titanic disaster. There are dishes piled up to heaven, pots and pans and roasting trays and cutlery and glassware EVERYWHERE. Tomorrow, we clean up. All students had to head off to their afternoon classes immediately after lunch today (although there was SOME tardiness, I am sure).

I am VERY PROUD of my chef students this semester. Well done! You've completed the course and, as I promised you, at the end all I would do really is wash dishes because you don't need me any more. Today you proved that I was right.

You've come a long, long way from 'Make Me Cookies'. Congratulations.

Tyler, you have been my wonderful second set of arms and legs this semester as my co-oop student.
Many, many thanks. You're an Award-winner in every way. Congratulations!


Now, go and enjoy a wonderful summertime. Use your planning and execution skills at home for your families, and at school to build success in other courses.

In the autumn, when school re-opens, come and say hello then go on to other things. You don't really need me or Chef Ruby and Chef Plummer any more, most of you. I have given you the things you really needed for school success by helping you find them within yourselves ... but drop in once in a while to cadge an espresso or just say a cheery hello. I'll be here for new students: It will be their turn. You can visit, but you can't stay. In real life, you can't go back again. This course has been real life.

Leave the kitchen remembering three important lessons: Respect yourself and your talents and ability to share, look after your family and community, and always look for ways to build, to give back, to make the world a little better because you were there and made good choices. You will be hugely respected for these values. They are very old, very deep and not particularly sexy, but if you live by them you will be the most lovely people on this old earth, and the community and your family will cherish you every day of your life because you are decent, honest, reliable and caring.

Now go, and be well. Live long, as Spock said, and prosper. Keep in touch.

Bon voyage!

-- Chef

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Giving Back ... Sharing Skills ... Building Community

In Toronto the Assaulted Women's HelpLine has an annual fund-raiser to keep the service going for the thousands of women who, sad to say, still need the help and connections offered. This year Monarch Park Culinary Arts young chefs did the cooking!

Our indomitable Honourary Lifetime member of the Monarch Park Collegiate Culinary Arts Brigade, Ruby Trostin,
retired a few years ago from the HelpLine. She still assists the HelpLine in many ways, and when the suggestion for this year's Gala was that they'd like to consider something new, Ruby spoke up and volunteered her culinary students!

Chef was contacted by Jenn and Huong from the HelpLine, and after a few meetings and a load of email, the ideas were set and the die was cast. This was going to be a stand-up banquet to remember!
The location was to be The Burroughe's Building Event Floor.

It took four days of preparation to bring the whole event together.
This photo shows the military-style planning of who does what when: There is no room for error, no time for excuses. Non parlaro ... lavoro! one of my Italian chefs used to say ... don't talk ... work!

Chef Susan Plummer, a great supporter of our MPC program (and mother of MPC graduates!) came in and organized students and kept Chef's head from exploding at times. She is a dietician and fabulous chef, and the students just love working with her. Thanks, Chef!

And THIS photo shows "The Lamb Line"
... preparation of 200 lambsickles.

We made roux,
we peeled asparagus, we reduced balsamic vinegar, we made coq-au-vin for 200,
we ran our tempers short and finally we ran out of pots and pans and had to clean up! We prepared for 120 people, and on Wednesday of the service week learnt that the expected number had risen to 150. What to do?! Cook more!
Stuff more salmon into the dishwasher! Prepare another 100 lambsickles! Make more tapenade! Fold another 100 spanikopita pillows!

Then ... Friday morning ... the time came (to use the vernacular) to put up or shut up. Time to load everything into Chef's Subaru, (Chef Geraldine supervising!)
fold all the whites for public service work and head down to the Burroughes' Building Event Floor (a gorgeous venue!) and spend 4 hours setting up and getting everything ready. One of our culinary graduates, Chef Kareem Mahfoudh,
joined us to supervise the hot line and be a valuable 'extra pair of hands'. Thank you Chef Kareem!

Before the guests arrived we had to prepare and set out all dishes, cook or finish off all the morrocan lamb to be served on the cheese loonies,
prepare all the lambsickles with dredge and saute then roast every one of them, and Real had to learn how to run and time a blast oven. Chef Real spent the entire event standing guard on the blast oven, cranking out hundreds of excellent servings of spanikopita, lamb, crab torta,
Gorgonzola Mac-And-Cheese and anything else that needed a shot of heat. He coordinated well with Chef Kareem.

Chef Ruann carefully prepared her station.

We forgot to put out the delicious tzatziki for the spanikopita. Darn! It is like finding the cranberries in the frig on December 27th ... still delicious but 2 days late. Rats! Sorry, Jenn & Huong.

Salads were prepared, and the most popular one was a
fig-and-ricotta salad with a dressing made with balsamic reduction.

As this was to be a stand-up banquet, we served things in small portions ... little porcelain spoons of fruit, small bamboo spoons of coq-au-vin, desserts on skewers ... small pillows of spanikopita ... and individual lambsickles and finger-sized slices of a delicious crab and leek torta that is a specialty and favourite of Ruby.

Every young Chef was trained how to serve in a press of people, how to balance a tray on one hand and dish out napkins with the other
everyone practiced a bit and the results went off perfectly! Nothing was dropped and there was no one who got too frightened to try. Good work!

Finally it was showtime ... to work! To work! And there was no time for photos from this old Chef ... the guests started to roll in and we served straight from 5:15 until 9:15, then a discrete pack-up and gently down the stairs. Jenn, from the HelpLine, had made sure that every one of our young chefs received a gift-card to thank them for their efforts, and the host for the evening event thanked them all by name as well.

And the results? The clients speak:

Dear Martin and Ruby,

Thank you so so much for the great experience last night. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing two salt-and-pepper hair people among the group of 15 year-olds, teaching, encouraging and inspiring these young people to take pride in their work and to do their best. You are simply the best people and I am truly blessed to know you.

Martin, you are an inspiration. Your love of culinary shines through. I am in awe with your love of teaching, your commitment to instil hard work, creativity and team spirit in our youth. These young people are very lucky to have you as their teacher and mentor.

Ruby, you are my "Ruby" for almost two decades now. You have been my sounding board, a mentor, an aunt, a dear dear friend and I am so lucky to have you in my life. You and Martin have my deepest gratitude.


And Jenn writes:

Dear Martin and Ruby,

I can only echo Huong's sentiments here as I am truly grateful for your incredible efforts last night.

We have heard resounding comments about the food being wonderful and we are so proud to have had the opportunity to work with you both on this fundraiser event.

This was a very different year making a departure from the traditional, but with both of you at the helm, we knew we were in good hands.

Thank you both for a spectacular event and for a truly unique experience for our guests. What a wonderful way to bring two small (but mighty) groups together to inspire and create change.

With gratitude,


And from Ruby, at nearly midnight:

Hi Martin:

You must be incredibly tired and extremely proud. {I am!}

The programme, you and the students earned the respect of everyone at the
Helpline fundraiser last evening. The kudos just kept coming as people spoke
of the food being offered and the students. Everything was as good as it could
be. Some items went faster than others, some more preferred. But that is
personal taste. Over all it was an amazing success. I hope you get to rest
this weekend. You have more than earned some "time off".

See you Wednesday.



It is the 'see you Wednesday' that left this old chef gobsmacked. Ruby, you're an absolute peach and a winner in every way. Many thanks for making this both possible AND the huge success it became. Huong, as I said in my few words, it is a pleasure to serve and be useful. It was our complete pleasure to serve you and the guests at your AWHL Gala.

To all my Chef students, and particularly Chef Kareem, many, many thanks for a job well done. I take my toque off to you, and hope you have enjoyed a good week-end.

Tomorrow ... dishes! They are piled up to heaven.