Saturday, September 27, 2008
Lofty Cooking with Alex Guarnaschelli
The Cooking Loft with Alex Guarnaschelli
Break the Rules Breakfast
Date Compote with Fresh Pears
I wonder if this is what Ina would be like as a teacher in an actual class. Alex Guarnaschelli, who is also the chef of Butter, is very skillful and knowledgeable, just like our Barefoot friend. And she has the same easy way about her that makes her very watchable. Today she's cooking breakfast and the recipes sound fantastic.
Alex starts with sourdough pancakes. She opens 2 packets of yeast and pours them into a bowl. She measures out 2½ teaspoons of yeast and explains how the water should be warm in order to “wake up” the yeast. If it’s too hot, it will kill it; too cool and it won’t do its job. It should feel warm to your hand, but not hot.
I like her method here. I learned a long time ago that NO MATTER what the recipe says, you should always “proof” the yeast, which just means doing exactly what Chef Alex is doing – adding the warm water (and often sugar, but not today) to the yeast and letting it sit to make sure it’s working. If after 10 minutes you have a bowl of scummy looking water and no bubbles, throw it out and start again with new yeast.
Alex doesn’t tell us this, but if you are new to this, use a thermometer for the liquid the first few times, so you can get a sense of the correct temperature – 110°F for active dry yeast or 120°F for Rapid Rise Yeast. (Some folks believe you have to make other adjustments when substituting Rapid Raise for the regular stuff. My yeast baking isn’t so precise that I worry about it.)
There ARE a few things that I could do without in this half hour cooking show. Do we really need to be introduced to each of the students? Do we really care that Brian “loves one-pot meals” and “wants to refine his palate a little more”?
They all seem perfectly nice, but, to be honest, they’re just taking face time away from Alex.* It reminds me of Back-to-School night when, instead of your kid's teachers telling you why they give 3 hours of homework a night and why they don’t teach spelling anymore, they go around the room and have each person say what his or her favorite color is. Waste of time and useless.
Chef Alex pours 3½ cups milk into a saucepan, remarking that you should really measure it. It never occurred to me NOT to. She adds 3 tablespoons of butter to the heating-up milk. She shows the yeast again, which has started to “bloom”.
Let me repeat, even if your recipe says to throw the dry yeast into a bowl with the flour and salt and then mix in the liquid, don’t do it! Take some of the warm liquid (1/4 cup for every envelope of yeast) and proof it. Don’t waste all the other ingredients and your precious time trying to rise dough that has dead yeast in it...although, here's an interesting way to deal with unrisen dough.
Alex measures 2¼ cups of flour and whisks that into her yeast mixture with 2 tablespoons sugar. Why didn’t she add part of that to her yeast while it was proofing? THIS is where those students could come in handy…to ask questions, but none of them asks anything particularly intelligent.
The butter is completely melted in the milk and Chef Alex tests the heat. She whisks half of the milk into the batter and then the other half. She covers the bowl with plastic wrap and leaves it to the side.
She moves on to the crustless quiche. I’m not sure if I agree with her point that it’s hard to make a quiche crust, but I like the idea of the quiche without the extra calories of the crust.
Alex takes out beautiful leeks. Let’s see how SHE cleans them. She cuts off the root and most of the dark green part. She splits them down the middle and cuts straight across in 1½ inch lengths. Okay, NO, that still leaves on much of the dark green, tough outer leaves at the top.
I learned to cut the tops off leeks as if you were sharpening an old fashioned wooden pencil with a knife. You cut in sharp angles, leaving a pointed top to the leek. That gets rid of the tough outer leaves and keeps the tender light green ones. You cut them in half lengthwise and rinse them really well. Then you chop them as desired.
Chef Alex takes her pieces of leeks and submerges them in a bowl of cold water and stirs them around. That STILL leaves a lot of the dark green pieces that will NEVER soften, no matter how long you cook them.
The leeks are dried off in a tea towel and they go into a skillet with melted butter, salt and pepper. She cooks them for a minute of two.
She cracks her eggs on the edge of the cutting board. Sorry, I hate that, I don’t want egg stuff lying on my cutting board even for a minute. (I use a table knife to make a single decisive strike in the center of the shell on the equator and that does the trick.)
Chef Alex assigns different tasks to her students. They crack 8 eggs, grease a tart pan and deal with the different cheeses for the quiche. (I have mistyped this word EVERY single time. The last time was “quickie”.)
Alex continues cooking the leeks and then spreads them out on a baking sheet to cool them. They go into the fridge for awhile, so their heat won’t scramble the eggs.
She adds 2 cups of milk and one cup of cream to the eggs with goat cheese. That gets whisked together with a little Worcestershire and hot sauce. She spoons the leeks onto the bottom of the baking dish and pours over the egg mixture. The quiche goes into a 400°F oven for 20 to 25 minutes. Halfway through it gets topped with sliced brie.
Chef Alex uses Ina’s trick of cooking her bacon in the oven (not on a rack, though), but she takes it one step further. She sprinkles over black pepper and light brown sugar, which produces a candied effect. (Maple syrup would be good too.) She covers it with parchment paper and then places another baking sheet right on top, so the bacon comes out flat. She cooks it at 350°F for 15 to 20 minutes.
Trivia Question: Who can tell me which Top Chef contestant won a challenge with a maple bacon garnish?**
Alex takes out the quiche and tops it with the brie slices. I’m not sure I like the way that looks. It goes back into the oven.
She places the pancake batter on the counter. It’s bubbled and is all fluffy. She whisks in two additional eggs with 1½ teaspoons salt. Why is she adding those now? She doesn’t add the salt early on, she says, because she doesn’t want to impede the yeast rising. And the eggs? (You add the eggs into a brioche dough before it rises.) The eggs give the batter more body, which doesn't really answer the question.
Alex starts by making the test pancake. She ladles a spoonful into the center of a cast iron skillet. The class makes a compote of sliced pears (with the skin) and dates. They flip the pancakes. Those don’t look like “test” pancakes, they look perfect.
She adds the pears and dates to a pan with butter and a little honey and cinnamon.
She removes the quiche. I definitely do not the look of the brie on top.
I would prefer shredded gruyère, maybe sprinkled over in straight lines to make a few stripes on the top.
The pears and dates have cooked down magnificently.
I have never had that combination and I think it would work beautifully. Alex adds lemon zest at the very end and a squeeze of lemon for freshness. Great ideas.
Chef Alex plates the pancakes with a dollop of the pears and dates and a touch of sour cream.
She removes the bacon from the oven. Wow, that “bacon candy” looks fantastic.
They serve themselves and sit down to eat. Alex cuts the quiche. She says she doesn’t miss the crust. I have a much better idea for the top - sliced tomatoes. Arranged on the top, they would give a gorgeous color.
I don’t love the concept of this show, but I think that Alex has a lot to teach us. Her recipes are wonderful (except for that homely brie on top) and would be very tasty additions to any cook’s repertoire.
*There are some shows that would be vastly improved with this technique. If Sem-EYE Homemade could be all introductions of random people, we’d have much less muck being made and that would be all good.
** It happened on The Elements episode. Lisa was the winner, as part of Team Fire, and was responsible for the bacon in Grilled Shrimp with Pickled Chili Salad, Deviled Aioli and Miso Smoked Bacon. Padma and Ming agreed the dish was “amazing”.