Dessert #2
Mar 13th, 2012 by

Now this is a dessert I LOVE. The rest of my class agreed, though some people preferred the dessert in the next post more. I like it because it feels like a dessert, but it is still light and refreshing. My chef agrees that this is a tasty dish; however, he admonished those of us who liked it for having simple tastes, as it has basically three flavors that are repeated, and so there is little complexity or finesse to this dessert.

This dessert started with a great recipe for a sobao cake. Sobao is a cake produced in the Cantabria region of Spain. It’s basically a slightly dense, butter cake, but in this case they added extra salt and froze the cake so that it could be sliced very thinly. Using this cake as a focus, my chef wanted to come up with a dessert in which butter was a major flavor. In his opinion there are six main ways to add the flavor of butter to a dessert, they are: a shortbread cookie, a butter cream, sobao, toffee, brioche, and Filo dough. He chose to use the first four, by having four components with the same flavor, he really emphasizes the flavor on the plate. To this he added two classically refreshing flavors: lime and basil. The lime, because it is a citrus, brings a nice acidness to the plate that helps to balance some of the fattiness of the butter. Lime is a better choice than lemon because it has a little more character: more complexity of flavor and an earthiness. The basil was chosen because it is sweet and comfortable, but also because it has a strong mintiness and even a pepperiness when fresh. Together the two heighten and complement the different butter elements to form a dish that I found intensely satisfying.

This dish is difficult to describe because instead of having all of the components stacked on top of one another,  there are basically two distinct lines of food. I will try to explain the dish in a manner that makes sense but feel free to not completely understand the description, because not understanding it is actually one of the best parts about this dish. The flavors are repeated so carefully that is hard to find a bite without some of each flavor.

On the very bottom of this dish is a smear of very rich toffee which is topped with crumbled up shortbread cookie. This short bread cookie bisects both lines of the dessert and keeps the sorbet from moving around. The sorbet, which is on the left, is made from yogurt and is lime flavored. We would call this a sherbet, because it has milk product, but Spanish doesn’t have a word for a sherbet, so instead they call this sorbet with milk base. In the back (refer to the picture at the top) is a very thin slice of the sobao cake, which sits on top of the toffee and the crumble, and is topped with large piped line of lime-basil mousse. The mousse has white chocolate as its base, so it’s very creamy and rich. It is topped with another thinner line of a butter cream. This is simply browned butter or noisette that has been whipped with simple syrup. This is topped with three small cubes of super acidic lime gellies and micro basil. Returning to the front, on the right side are four cubes of golden apple that have been poached in a butter sauce and topped with a lime foam (easier to see on the bottom picture).  I really admire how each flavor is so effortlessly integrated, and how, even though there are only three flavors, each time a flavor appears it is different in a way that keeps the dish interesting.

Dessert #1
Mar 8th, 2012 by

Tasting menus are built to be a progression, so, for instance a dinner tasting menu would begin with lighter courses (fish or a soup) and then move to heavier courses (meat or pasta).  This is also true with dessert tastings, starting with something fresh, and refreshing, and ending with heavier, richer desserts. Therefore, when designing this first dessert my chef began with the idea that he needed a new, refreshing, palate-cleansing dessert to be the opening to one of his tasting menus. A palate cleanser is generally served between the entree and dessert to remove lingering flavors from the mouth so that the dessert may be enjoyed unhindered by garlic, onions or other pervasive spices.  It can be a sorbet, a light beverage, or a small bite that has cleansing properties. The most famous French palate cleanser is a shot of Calvados (an apple brandy), called  le trou Normand in French. It was with this Calvados in mind that my chef started designing this first dessert.

Being a liquid Calvados limits in some ways how it can be used in a dish. My chef began by pairing it with apple. This seems almost counter-intuitive because apple flavor already is in Calvados, but it actually works well because the fresh apple reinforces the apple-y-ness of the Calvados and it begins to bring this dish in a refreshing direction. Although Calvados is an excellent palette cleanser, it is not very refreshing.

So, what is refreshing? The first thing that I think of is toothpaste. Toothpaste is a great example of a product that makes your mouth feel cleaner (even without the brushing action). So mentholated things are refreshing as are acidic things, spicy flavors, fermented products like yogurt, and, not quite as pronouncedly, bitterness, saltiness, and alcohols.

The next flavors my chef chose to add were from the anise family: Green anise which is a seed similar to fennel but with stronger notes of licorice and fresh celery which actually has quite a bit of natural licorice flavor. Then for that toothpaste “ah” feeling  he utilized a Spanish cough drop. The brand they prefer is called Fisherman’s much like we like Ricola. I like the Fisherman’s flavor, it is very herbaceous and minty. This flavor he paired with some apple cider vinegar, which is fermented but once again reinforces the original apple. At this point we have Calvados, apple, green licorice, and minty flavors; the problem with this dish then is that all of these flavors are clean and water based, they would make a very good smoothie. There is no fat or creaminess, things that are frequently associated with dessert. The problem with most fat or creamy elements is that they are not refreshing and can in fact be heavy on the palate. Therefore, as a last flavor component my chef added kefir – a fermented milk drink – which is refreshing because of the fermentation flavor.

So, now that we have all of our flavors let’s put them together with techniques. Please, note that with all of his desserts, my chef layers the flavors in each component so that few components are only one flavor and few flavors are in only one place on the dish. So from bottom to top: There is a thin layer of kefir on the bottom which has been thickened to the consistency of cream cheese. The cubes are apple that have had Calvados forced into them. There are three on the left holding up the sorbet and then four more in the front. The sorbet is apple juice, Calvados and apple cider vinegar which is topped with a vinegar and Fishermans foam. To the right is a long rectangle of gelee flavored with juiced celery and green anise topped with small diced celery that has been scalded in sugar syrup to keep it from turning color and to give it some sweetness. (These are hard to see in the photo.) This is topped with long matchsticks of apple that have been flavored with the Fisherman liquid.

When describing this dish later to a friend, the only word that popped to mind was: Clean. The dish accomplished everything that it set out to do: it was a palate cleanser; it was a nice start to a menu, it wasn’t heavy or overwhelming but at the same time, while it tasted good, it didn’t really do anything for me. I liked it but I wouldn’t eat it again without a reason. Intellectually, I know that a dessert tasting menu needs dishes like this: clean, refreshing, with lots of different textures but somehow this one didn’t knock my socks off. There wasn’t enough of the kefir, celery is a strange flavor in desserts, and I didn’t feel like it was integrated enough to make it work for me. I also just wanted a little more content; there were a lot of components that sort of slid away in my mouth without requiring chewing or thought as to how the flavors were working together. However, I loved the licorice and vinegar foam. I actually didn’t expect to like it because it seems like a strange combination but it really worked: it was refreshing and bright and harmonious. Overall, this is a good starter course and I did enjoy it.

Dinner at Espai Sucre
Mar 4th, 2012 by

This past week, my class and I had the opportunity to eat at the school’s restaurant; our teacher suggested this as a way to illustrate how many of concepts we have been learning come together in a finished product. We ate at the restaurant in the evening, so during class on the appointed day, we went through the desserts that we were going to have. My teacher talked us through the steps he took in their development, explaining each decision that he made, so that when we got to the restaurant we knew what to expect with each dish and could more fully appreciate what we were eating. We had four dishes in total. I will break them down in separate postings as I suspect some people may also be interested in what I have been learning and  the process of creating restaurant style desserts.

Tales from a Spanish Kitchen
Nov 7th, 2011 by

I have been in Barcelona exactly 2 months and 2 days and I am happy to report that my Spanish has improved a lot; however, it is no where near perfect and, especially when I get flustered, barely even adequate. I thought perhaps my lovely readers would enjoy a series on hilarious instances of communication problems. I am sure there will be plenty to choose from as I just started an internship at the restaurant that is attached to the school.

I know that you are all far more intelligent than I am and in this story you have the advantage of being able to read the conversation, which would have helped me as well. So, for the reminder of this story try to suspend your puzzle solving abilities and try to feel the frustration of incomprehension that I felt. I’ve tried to make it a little harder for you by using pictures to keep it from being super obvious.

During my second day at the restaurant the first thing the chef asked me to do was (this was in Spanish except the word bag which he said in English because he is trying to practice English with me a little bit) “to go up into the attic and from the shelves on the right hand side bring him the big bag with the . I understood all of the directions except the last part and since it was my second day and  I was still trying to impress these people, I made the (wrong) decision to just go upstairs and see if I could figure it out. There was only one bag on the right hand side, it was a full fifty pound bag of sugar, I didn’t know why he would need it but that seemed to be what he asked for so I carried it downstairs.

When I got downstairs the chef looked at me and said “what is that?” (please assume in every sentence he says from here on out that there are swear words, choose whichever ones seem appropriate to you). The sous-chef (who speaks a little more English) looks ups and says “he meant box not bag.” At this point I’m feeling flustered and just want to fix this as fast as possible so I run back upstairs and again try to figure out what he could possibly want, the last two words just don’t make sense in Spanish or English. Then my eyes fall on a box filled with vacuum bags. Perfect! it’s a box of bags and its on the right hand side of attic on the shelves. So, I take that downstairs.

“What is that?!?”

“Um a box of bags, Chef”

“Taylor, this is the easy part!!!”

“Maybe for you, Chef,” I thought as I re-climbed the steps to the attic with the Chef on my heels. “Look here, the robot coupe.” he said grabbing a large box that some how I had never even looked at. Of course how could I have been so dense, here I was trying to translate words that I already knew but had never tried to pronounce using all of the letters or in a Spanish accent. We had always had a Cuisinart brand machine at home, I had worked in enough restaurants with the Robot Coupe brand that this should have been simple.

The moral of this story is always ask when you don’t understand. Pride doesn’t help the situation and frequently gets you in more trouble. Too bad this is an easier moral to preach than it is too live.

What is fudge?
Oct 26th, 2011 by

How do you describe fudge? Yes, I do mean the ultra-sweet confection that sometimes has chocolate in it or sometimes has nuts or marshmellows or maple syrup. What is the texture of fudge? Sort of grainy but also silky smooth, soft but not too soft. Should it be firm or chewy or crumbly? Why is fudge so different from fudge sauce? Shouldn’t they be similar? How do you explain fudge to somebody who has never had it? In a country where you haven’t seen anything similar? How do you describe food without reference points? It’s like describing a dish as tasting like chicken to somebody who has been vegetarian their whole life, something is lost in the translation.

This situation actually occurred in class the other day, during a conversation on caramels, my professor brought up fudge as an example of a crystallized confection, but then left the explanation of what fudge is to me as the token American. I was stumped. Not only was my vocabulary for the exercise lacking, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what makes fudge, fudge. It just is fudge. Of course this lack of words doesn’t mean that I don’t distinguish good from inferior fudge. Eventually it was decided that I should just make some over the weekend and bring it in so that I could stop rambling in broken Spanish and my follow students could decide for themselves what fudge means for themselves.

Life here isn’t really that hard: we eat many of the same foods and the kitchen staples are very similar; still regional specialties are very intriguing.  I find it fascinating, how even simple conversations with my German roommate about how we eat oatmeal or what our families eat at holidays can morph into larger discussions that show the disparities between our food traditions. Or for another example, in class the other day I was informed that one of the defining characteristics of brownies is the walnuts, and that blondies are brownies made with white chocolate instead of dark. As far as my sense of Americana goes these statements are factually untrue. I mean I know some Americans do like to ruin a perfectly good brownie with walnuts but the walnuts are not what makes it a brownie. I love American food and especially old-fashioned American desserts. These are the foods about which I am culturally aware, but there are so many amazing regional foods of which I know nothing, like my roommate’s beloved chocolate kuchen or Spanish paella. It is to expand my cultural horizons that I am in Spain. There is a whole world of old-fashioned European desserts to be explored and disseminated, and I am very excited to learn about them.

So what is fudge? I believe it is an American confection made with crystallized, cooked sugar and usually chocolate or some other thick substance that provides body and texture. However, when I brought my fudge to class the instructor commented that it was not grainy enough to be fudge. Why would I want grainy fudge?

Columbus Day
Oct 16th, 2011 by

For reasons I have yet to fully comprehend Barcelona loves Christopher Columbus. We even have our own monument that was erected to commemorate the spot where Columbus reported to Queen Isabella after his first trip to the Americas. While no doubt a feat, I’m just not sure why this deserves a two hundred foot monument of Columbus pointing west instead of east. (It does make more practical sense though as he is pointing at the water.)

(Picture stolen without permission from Wikipedia because my pictures didn’t come out as nicely)

This past Wednesday was Columbus Day here just as it was in the States, except here everything closes. It’s a complete national holiday and apparently most people go to the beach. Therefore, I was also looking forward to some beach time after a productive and virtuous morning of studying; however,  as I was getting ready for bed Tuesday night my roommate, Carolin, asked me if I wanted to accompany her and some of her German friends on a morning walk to Montjuic which is a lovely park near our house with amazing views of the ocean and the city. That sounded really nice especially since I’ve been trying to find more ways to meet people here who aren’t in class with me. So, I agreed and was ready to go at 9 the next morning. I was a little confused when Carolin asked me if I had my metro card, but I figured the plans had changed and we were going to Tibidabo which is a lovely place for a stroll and is a short metro ride away. I guess I should have maybe asked Carolin where we were going, but I just wasn’t quite ready to handle Spanish that morning. Therefore, I was again surprised when we got out of the subway and were picked up by her friends in a rental car. At this point I gave up on my virtuous plans of studying and decided to enjoy the day. It was, however, not the peaceful park stroll I was expecting as we were actually bound for Montserrat, a beautiful mountain formation that translates to “serrated mountain.” Which is exactly what it looks like.

We parked at the base, near from where the Funicular leaves, and walked to the highest point called Saint Jeroni. We spent an hour at the top eating a much deserved lunch. photo courtesy of Carolin

Glistening on the top of Sant Jeroni.

Beautiful view

We took the longer panoramic way down and stopped briefly to check out the Benedictine Abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat.

photo courtesy of Carolin

Seven hours later we made it back to the car, exhausted and exhilarated. We may not have “discovered” a new world but we certainly enjoyed this one. Happy Columbus Day!!

My new apartment
Oct 7th, 2011 by

After much angst and heartache, I managed to secure a very nice room in an apartment with two Argentinean guys and the German girlfriend of one of them. The process of finding a room in somebody else’s apartment is much like getting a job; there are interviews and résumé tweakings.  There are exaggerations and the nervous waiting period before you find out if your application will be accepted. In my case there was also a number of disappointments when deals were cancelled at the last minute and things didn’t go according to plan. It all took weeks longer than I thought it should have, but it all worked out very well. I really like my new roommates and the room is far more lovely than many I viewed. I only wish it were a little closer to my school, but that will be solved very shortly when I acquire a bicycle.

My apartment building is marked by the the red arrow  with some of Barcelona behind it. The population of Barcelona (1.6 million) is about the same as Manhattan’s but spread out over 1.5 times the land (39 square miles). However, the suburbs of Barcelona spread out to the size of all of New York City (310  sq miles) and contain 5 million people to NYC”s 8 million.

This is the living room with a small balcony off the end. The closed door leads to my bedroom and behind me is a small hallway that leads to the kitchen and the apartment door.

This is the kitchen. It is pretty small but functional except that the sink in the corner underneath cabinets is not ideal for somebody my height.

My room with my lovely huge window. Luckily for me pretty much every room in Barcelona comes prefurnished.

The view from my window. Last weekend there was a concert and skateboard competition in the square below.

If you stick your head out the window and zoom out all the way with your fancy new camera you sort of see the ocean from my window.

La Merce 2011
Sep 28th, 2011 by

La Merce is a large festival that marks the end of summer and the beginning of fall, and this year was held over the four day weekend that just passed. I, personally, had a great time this weekend wandering from event to event but before I get into what I did, here is a short history from the official Barcelona website:

La Mercè, patron saint of Barcelona

The legend goes that on the night of 24 September 1218, the Virgin appeared simultaneously to King Jaume I, Saint Pere Nolasc and Saint Ramón de Penyafort. She asked all three to create an order of monks dedicated to saving Christians imprisoned by the Saracens. It was the time of the wars of religion.

Centuries later in 1687, Barcelona suffered a plague of locusts, and placed itself in the hands of the Virgin of La Mercè. Once the plague had been overcome, the Council of the City named her patron saint of Barcelona. The Pope did not ratify this decision until two centuries later, however, in 1868.

The origins of the Annual Festival

After Pope Pius IX declared the Virgin of La Mercè the patron saint of the city, Barcelona began to celebrate a festival in the month of September. La Mercè really took off in 1902, when under the leadership of Francesc Cambó, the festival became the model for those that are currently held all over Catalonia. However, La Mercè would continue to suffer advances and setbacks extending throughout the Spanish Civil War and the years of Franco.

The Festival today

With the arrival of democracy, La Mercè became a truly popular celebration thanks to the participation of organizations from all over the city. Today it is a festival held in a large number of public places with a program centered on Mediterranean culture. In less than a week, Barcelona brings together a huge variety of events among which one must choose: street art displays, processions, concerts, traditional dances … -

So, basically to me La Merce means lots of music and some pretty cool cultural events. There were 6+ outdoor music stages spread around the city, some in large plazas or parks and some wedged more intimately in small spaces between buildings. I really enjoyed walking between the concerts and catching a little bit of a bunch of different bands. It was especially enjoyable because most of the bands I had never heard of and when walking to a concert I didn’t always know what to expect. I think my favorites were a Japanese Jazz ensemble called Pe’z and a Canadian rock band called the Little Scream (the singer wore bright orange high tops. how could it be bad?).

One of the other highlights was a light show projected onto the city hall. None of my pictures do it justice but it’s pretty self-explanatory and worth watching the video.

Another thing that I absolutely loved and at the same time terrified me was a Catalan tradition called castell. It’s a competition between teams from different towns, the goal is to make the highest or most complex human tower. This wikipedia article gives a better idea of the rules and history than I could and is actually very interesting but basically the point is to as seamlessly and quickly as possible raise a tower and then break it down with as few missteps as possible. The tower is completed when the smallest child has reached the top and holds up four fingers. She then climbs down the opposite side of the formation with the rest of the team following her. The towers are built on top of much larger group of people with essentially support beams pushing in to disperse the weight and stabilize the core. The actual tower contains either 1, 2, 3, or 4 people per level depending on the tower being attempted. The world record tower is 10 levels (but the top three little girls count as three levels) and reach over three stories high.

Now, if you want to be really terrified watch the video below:

(Sorry, it’s actually my video and I couldn’t load it on this site and I also couldn’t turn it right-side up)

So, the video depicts the end of a tower as the smallest child holds up her four fingers, then as the tower begins to breaks apart, the second smallest girl becomes the top of a second tower within the first tower. It is one of the hardest formations and we actually saw this team try this formation twice, the first time they fell a little. Consequently and much to the annoyance of the people I was with I spent most of this two hour event whispering over and over again, “No child of mine. No child of mine.” As a person from the most litigious country in the world I could not grasp allowing your five year old to climb four stories of people without any protective gear and the very real possibility of falling (though I am told that it is very rare that anybody gets seriously injured). However, as much as each tower terrified me, it was also thrilling and a thoroughly enjoyable event to see.

Viva La Merce 2011

Sep 19th, 2011 by

It has been a long time since I have traveled to a country where English isn’t the predominant language. The last major trip I took to a non-English speaking country was Costa Rica ten years ago, where Spanish was the only other language spoken. Barcelona, however, is fascinating because it is so diverse that one can not assume that the person next  to you speaks Spanish. They certainly might, but they also might only speak the native language of the province, Catalan, or perhaps they are German, or Swiss, or  French. It continually amazes me walking down the street how little of the overheard conversations I can understand. I think this is one of the things that makes the city so exciting to me and gives it depth of character.

I am also continually impressed by the number of languages spoken by the people I meet. For instance, there are six people who reside in my current apartment of which an Australian girl and I only speak English but between the rest of them they speak: English, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, French, Russian and German. They claim this has more to do with the proximity of countries and that many of the European languages have similar roots rather than an overarching interest in language. This makes sense, but makes me wonder if perhaps Americans are missing out by being so insular and allowing ourselves to be so comfortable with our one language.

However, I love little moments when some understanding of  a language runs into the wall of fluency and the whole conversation gets stuck. That’s a vague statement, let me give you another example: On Friday night I was out at a club, and a German guy started to talk to me but he only knew a little English so, at some point in our discussion of (I wish I were joking) the ethical ramifications of America’s deficit structure remodeling on German ecotourism, he couldn’t remember a certain word in English so he had to have a short whispered conversation with his friend who was sitting next to him who didn’t know the right word. So, that friend had to ask his Italian girlfriend who speaks better English but instead of having her just say the word to me it got passed back down the line like the game of telephone. These sorts of round-robin conversations happen fairly frequently when speaking to multiple people from different places. I find them highly edifying and maybe a little entertaining.

Another example of mixed-up conversations occur frequently in my class because of the cultural make-up of my class: half the class is from Spain though most of them from other parts of Spain;we also have three people from Mexico, one from Brasil, one from Portugal and me. Which makes me the only native English speaker, but the girls from Portugal and Brasil speak Portuguese as their native language. So, the Mexicans have trouble because a lot of the phrasing and words are a little different. Occasionally, there is mass confusion during discussions when some word means different things to the different parties, but generally this goes over my head. The Portuguese girls are also having trouble because neither of them is truly fluent but the languages are very similar; although, I think they are getting along better than I am. However, luckily for me, one of the Mexicans has recently spent a lot of time is San Diego and speaks fluent English so he can help me with concepts of words I do not understand. We have developed a system where I sit next to Jose and the Portuguese girl with the better English sits on the other side of me and when a problem occurs in class,  Jose will whisper a translation of what just happened to me and I’ll tell Anna who will than pass it on to the Brazilian girl across the way. It is certainly not a perfect system,  but for now it is keeping everybody on the same page until we can overcome our language barriers.

A sunset out my window!

First Day of School!
Sep 16th, 2011 by

Yesterday was my first day of school, I was very nervous walking up to the school, but by that time there was no turning back. I had already obsessed about everything obsessable and changed my clothes eight times. I should not have been worried with 18 years of school under my belt, school should be pretty second nature to me, but every first day is all new and exciting. However, when I walked up and saw the other people milling around the front door, it became clear this school will be only slightly different from every other school, there will be lectures, there will be tests, there will be cliques and fights and new best friends.

We were eventually let into the building exactly on time but after the bomb squad had paid a visit (I don’t know why they were there and nothing appeared to be wrong). The students all took seats around a big dining room sized table and class began with introductions. We were to state our name, where we are from and our pastry background. I had three people before me which is plenty of time to freak out, especially as the teacher only allowed the first guy two sentences before he started grilling him on specifics. I don’t know if it’s because I have clearly second-rate Spanish or because I have a strong pastry background, but when my turn came he only asked for clarification on places I have worked and how I heard of the school. The people who really got questioned were those with little or no pastry background of which there are quite a few.

The rest of the class was something of a blur. I’ve had classes in all Spanish  before, but never at quite such a fast speed. I found I could understand most of what was going on as it was happening, but then I couldn’t remember the conversation 5 minutes later. This necessitated note taking, but I couldn’t take notes and listen at the same time. It was a bit of a conundrum, but luckily most of the day’s information was general knowledge about the class, the school’s purpose, and things we need to buy much of which I knew already. My teacher is very nice, he stopped at one point to make sure I knew that, if I didn’t understand something, I would ask. The other students are also very helpful.Only two of them speak any English, but I walked one of them home and he made sure I hadn’t missed anything of immediate relevance. I think this is going to be an excellent class, and I’m really looking forward to learning as much as I can.

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