Monthly Archives: April 2004

Cooking School Journal: Puff Pastry the Magic Dragon


I can’t even remember where I left off. As most of you may know, I killed my computer. An entire glass of Jepson Sauvignon Blanc tipped over (that’s what I get for drinking sauv blanc) after my last journal and killed my computer.  Yes, I suck. Everything is gone. Joe’s not happy.

But, due to popular demand, I am writing the next cooking school journal from our ancient iMac in the upstairs “office”. Let’s see how far I get before the children find me.

Let me begin by saying that I have had two glorious weeks off from school. I didn’t miss it one friggin’ bit. I never knew how great Monday nights were until these last two weeks. Monday nights rock! As long as you’re not standing in a hot, crowded kitchen filled with people constantly judging every nuance of your existence, Monday nights are completely underrated.

As I last left you, it was time to break off into groups and I picked Lance. We would be making puff pastry. Everyone in the room agreed that almost all home chefs and many professional chefs go the Pepperidge Farm route. That is, instead of making puff from scratch, which is time-consuming, many buy frozen pre-made puff pastry like Pepperidge Farm. A better alternative is from a company in NY called Dufour. While Pepperidge is made with imageshortening, Dufour is all-butter making it a much superior product. (I’ve also heard, but not tried Trader Joe’s puff pastry, which is inexpensive and also uses all-butter).

However, we were told that we needed to know how to make it ourselves. It’s a basic, classic and essential culinary skill.

Chef gave us a step-by-step demo, and then it was our turn. It was cool really. You make a classic pastry dough and roll it out into a perfect rectangle. Then you plunk a “Butter Block” on the center. Puff Pastry is all about layers.

So basically you fold your dough over a block of butter and roll it out. Then you fold it again and again, turning it each time. You need to make sure that each fold is a perfect rectangle.

The big trick is that you have to fridge it after every two folds…otherwise the butter gets too warm and you screw it up.

It can take a day.

When you are done you have a 1/4 inch thick sheet of puff pastry. When baked, the water in the butter turns to steam causing the dough to rise and separate into layers.

Think about a croissant which is made from a similar pastry dough. Notice how the croissant separates into layers of flaky goodness? Well, that’s like puff pastry.

And that’s also why we’re all fat.


So, when the day was done…and literally done ( it was midnight when I drove home with my pear tart and creme brulee), I had survived the pastry course. Working with Lance was easy. He took charge of the initial rolling out so that I didn’t lose my mind with sticky dough stuck all over the board and pin. He was quite liberal with the flouring I must say, and he didn’t hesitate at all. I gotta learn that.

Rolling, blocking, folding, rolling, blocking, chilling. There was a method to the madness. And while the dough chilled, so did I. I got a chance to chat and began to feel more comfortable with my classmates (with a couple of exceptions).

I am not a pastry gal (or as Arthur pointed out my typo last round “a pasty” girl). I am a meat girl.

Luckily, the next two sessions are about meat. Wellington-done that. Filet-own it. Reduction-done it. Veal stock-yep. Sauce Bernaise-oh, yeah.

Bring it on.

The most important thing I’ve learned so far is “just do it”. No, I’m not sponsored by Nike (although open to any offers),  but I spend a lot of time in my small life worrying that I’m going to do it wrong. I have spent too much time in this class afraid to make a images2mistake. I apologize for errors I haven’t even made yet.

It’s time for me to let myself do it wrong and learn to do it better. Or maybe I’ll surprise myself and do it right.

Although I’ll miss my awesome Monday nights at home, I am, to be honest, looking forward to getting back in the kitchen next week.

Bring on the meat!

Cooking School Journal: Week Three, Still.

Last time I burdened you all with my Stepford woes. It’s so self-indulgent to pity myself, I know. Although writing long-winded e-mail updates about oneself is pretty self-indulgent, too. I hope I’m not annoying everybody. Although, I guess if I were, you wouldn’t be reading this. So who the hell am I talking to?

Some of you apparently are not annoyed because I’ve received a few inquiries asking:  How was Pastry?

Pastry, in fact, was really hard for me, not only because I had those two lovely glasses of wine before class, but also because pastry sucks.

“Pastry takes a lot of patience,”  Layla the TA told me.

I’ve learned some patience from my kids. Never before did I think it would take twenty minutes to get from the car to the front door. Never before did I think that I could handle that. But I do. Several times each day.

My dad is img_0602a great baker. He learned from my great-grandmother. He comes over to my house with the most beautiful and delicious pies I have ever seen or enjoyed. Watching him make them is just as wonderful as eating them. He cuts the butter into the flour with unknowingly perfect finesse. It’s an art. Truly.

My attempts at making pie crust have been disheartening. Either you have it or you don’t.  I don’t have it.

It’s really hard to roll out dough. It sticks to the rolling pin. The remedy is to coat the pin with flour, but purists will wag their finger: Don’t add too much flour. You’re tampering with the chemistry of the dough. But if you don’t add enough, the dough sticks and that makes me insane. I guess I actually have no patience.

We were going to make a  pear tart with creme au beurre noisette.

Beurre noisette ( buhr nwahz-et) is browned butter. It’s the sauce for Julia’s Sole Meuniere. Once, my best friend Sara and I noisette-d the beurre so well after two bottles of La Crema, that it took me two weeks to clean the kitchen.

So the tart will be pear halves baked in a pastry shell filled with a browned butter custard. Sounds good!

Chef did her demo on making the perfect custard and poured the results into ramekins that we all brought from home.  Little doggie bags are one of the best parts of cooking school. “Great!” she said, ” You all brought several ramekins. Jules? You only brought two? Well, okay.”

I looked at my notes: bring two ramekins.

The Chef made one last announcement before we split into groups. “There will be no class next week. It’s Spring Break.”

The latest newbie to our group is an Italian woman personal chef. She has no name that I know of and apparently speaks almost  no English.

It took Chef ten minutes to explain to her that we have no class next week.

“”Ohh? I no understand.”

“You will not come next week.”italian1


“Next week there is no class.”

“Umm, I come Wednesday?”

“No. There is no class next week.”

“I sorry. Ummm, next week there is class?”

“No. Next week there is no class.”

“Should I come next week?”


“So, maybe then I will come next week?”

“No. Next week there is no class.”

Like a divine intervention, Lance jumped up. He ripped the calendar from the back of his syllabus, lunged forward and said, “There is no class next week. See? (pointing to the calendar). Don’t come. Okay?”

“Oh. Okay.”

I decided to be in Lance’s group.

Cooking School Journal: Week Three

I had a full plate this week.

Tuesday was the first meeting of my new Daisy girl scout troop for Lilly. I’ve volunteered to be the leader. A lot of work?  Maybe. But, I never want my middle kid to tell Oprah that I was a lousy mom.

Wednesday I had Lucy’s Brownie Troop here at the house for a “cooking class” to earn their ‘Make it, Eat it’ (hold all jokes) badge for their brownie vests.

Thursday is the Kindergarten Carnival where I am in charge of the tattoo booth.

It sounds trivial, but trust me, in suburbia this is all a huge deal.desperate-housewivesjpg

Luckily, on Friday I get to blow off some steam with a rousing game of Bunko with the other Stepford wives.  I will sip a glass of domestic mineral water and try and stave off the D. T. ‘s  while I gossip about the goings-on at Stepford Elementary.

So, with all of that ahead of me, and last week’s chicken debacle still leaving a nasty taste in my mouth, I didn’t want to go to school on Monday.

After serving mom, the girls and the doggies dinner, I stood in the kitchen detailing how the Home-Schooler has completely sabotaged my entire culinary career, while repeating my new, new mantra: “I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go.”

Joe came home just then. “Go! It’s late!”

It was only 5:49. Class didn’t start until six.

I poured myself a glass of wine.


“I don’t really feel like going”, I said, gnawing on Hannah’s hamburger.

“Why?” Mom asked in her best therapist voice.

“It’s pastry. I hate baking.”

“Why?” Therapy-ish voice again.

“There are two types of cooks. People who like to bake, and everyone else.” I replied, gulping down the last 2 oz. of wine.

“Oh. Just go. Show the home-schooler who’s the boss,” Mom replied, therapist voice now glaringly absent.

5:54 pm.

I poured myself a second glass.

“Blah, blah, don’t want to go, blah, blah, blah.”

Gulped down the wine.

Began collecting my things: two ramekins, tart pan, knife set, text book, notebook…

“Blah, blah, waste of time, blah, blah, too tired, blah, blah, blah.”

I wolfed down the burger, popped an Altoid, grabbed my knife case and hit the road.

Cooking School Journal: Chicken


Our menu: Chicken stock, Brunoise-stuffed Chicken Legs with Sauce Supreme, Chicken Cordon Bleu, Panko-crusted Chicken Nuggets, Chicken Lollipops (chicken wings in which you scrape all of the meat to one end making it resemble a lollipop), and the Gravy to Chef’s roasted chicken that she perfectly trussed.

A lot for two ladies to prepare in one hour for sure.

Home-Schooler Sabrina and I began with the stock. I cleaned and handed her chopped veggies as she dumped carcasses into giant stock pots and covered them with water. Then they sat on the back burners as we began to brunoise.

Basically we had to julienne then dice carrots, celery, onion, leek and ham into cute little cubes and saute them in oil. That was going to be our stuffing. We were really solidly focusing on that until Chef sauntered up to our cooking station.

“This would be a great recipe to add some of your own personal flair…add some cheese and herbs or whatever you think would be good.”

Then she was gone as soon as she came.

Bewildered, I offered up the idea of breadcrumbs and parmesan, cheating from a Bruce Aidells recipe of chicken legs stuffed with his sausage and the aforementioned. A delicious recipe! My potluck go-to dish. (To be honest, though, after sitting next to him at Chez Panisse, where he really could have used two chairs instead of one, I take his recipes and file them in the once-a-year category.)

Home Schooler Sabrina was hell bent on goat cheese. More power to her. You could spread goat cheese on just about anything, and I would eat it.

I offered up, “Do you want me to mix up the goat cheese with the brunoise?”

“No. I’m just going to lay it on top of the stuffing.”

Hmm. Okay.

The first dish we plated were those legs…and the big critique was that the goat cheese sat in the middle like a giant bog… and again there was no color. White chicken + white cheese = No fun.

Chef would have put some gorgeous and colorful herb with that making the presentation almost orgasmic.


It went downhill from there.

I added all the butter to the Sauce Supreme in one fell swoop, forgetting the 2 tablespoons that were to be reserved for the glistening swirl at the end. Crap!

Sabrina was about to speed-dial her attorney to file a case against me.


I baked the “lollipops” instead of deep-frying them, the way Chef had implied but never instructed.

(However, that’s the way Julia does them.)

5 points off!

Everything else ended up being a disaster.

We forgot the bouquet garni in the stock.

I used a prepared sauce from the school fridge to dip the lollipops.I think at least one TA shuddered in disgust. I also think Chef was about to cry.

On top of all of that…

There were too many times when Sabrina would yell over the crowd…”JULES?Are you interested in helping with this, or should I do it?” Just passive-aggressively loud enough to be heard by everyone.


There is nothing worse than a martyr. And she was a great one.


It was a tough night.

I totally screwed every dish up.

How could that be?  I have spent five days trying to sort all of it out in my mind.

It was a whole different thing to be the 20 year-old junior in college, trying to impress your college professor, in an environment where you just want to be the smartest in the room (except for that Asian girl).

This is different. I’m paying a lot of money for this course. Not to simply be the smartest or most popular, but to really learn. I need this knowledge. Otherwise, what’s the point? Even if I’m not the most-liked,  I want to be a cook.

Maybe my job is to be wrong.

A lot of the time.

So they can teach me how to do it right.

And make it worth my while.

And worth every dollar.

Cooking School Journal: Week Two Continued

I guess you know how successful your day is going to be when your horoscope reads: “You will be completely lacking in social skills today, but those that matter will overlook your bad behavior.”

I fell asleep on the couch Monday afternoon studying  chicken. The art of trussing a dead bird does not make compelling reading.

But I did complete my other assignment, buying a boning knife (insert boning jokes here…except for Joe who has already exhausted all possibilities).

I ended up with the Whustof non-professional model. It had good hand-feel (alright, already) and was not 8 million dollars. Plus it was well-balanced and the steel ran from tip to end (yeah, I got it).

So I came to class completely a-social and only partially prepared.


Today there were two newbies. One was a guy named John. Boy, was not-gay-Lance stoked.He wasn’t going to be the only dude anymore.  Also there was a very tall woman in her late thirties (in my chair) who looked like she was crazy.

And, lucky for all of us, she was.

Her name is Linda, and she took this class sixteen years ago but didn’t finish. Yes, sixteen. For some lucky reason, every Monday night for the next nine months now works for her and she is going to finish in my class. Woo hoo.

Linda talks at odd times and often says very inappropriate things. Let’s sum it up by saying that she lives in Manhattan Beach.

Chef arrived 30 minutes late.

After a brief oral quiz…

“How many cups in a pint? Jules?”





“How cold should your refrigerator be? John?”

“41 degrees” (Sh*t! I knew that one.)

“How many pints in a quart? Jules?”




“No. Lance?”



Men 3 – Women 0.

“How many quarts in a gallon? Sabrina?”


“Are you sure?”




“Very good!”

Great start.

Then she showed us how to truss a whole chicken and bone it (I still get it).  Then she reviewed the basics of making a stock:

Chicken bones, all leftover parts into the pot (except the liver which is too bitter when boiled. She recommends frying it up and having it as a snack while the stock boils. I’m beginning to think she is a bit Hannibal Lechter-esque).  Add 50% onion (or 25% onion and 25% green parts of leek) 25% carrots 25% celery, cover completely with water and simmer for at least two hours, constantly skimming off the raft– the funky foam stuff. And don’t forget your bouquet garni: bundled herbs (your choice but generally thyme, parsley, bay leaves and marjoram tied together with twine and then tied to the stock pot handle for easy removal). Never add salt or pepper. That would make it a seasoned stock otherwise known as broth, which is a whole different ball game.

Then we all grabbed our new knives as the TA’s passed out a cutting board and whole chicken to each of us. It was now time to dismantle the bird. I slyly moved myself from my current position next to Crazy Linda and tucked myself next to Not Gay Lance. He has a lot of knives.

We started by cutting the legs off, then the wings and then the breasts. We went back and carefully dug out the oyster or nugget of prime meat which is located next to the thigh joint.

When it was time to hack off the tip of the drumstick bone, I turned to Lance and asked if I could borrow his cleaver.horror_showjpg I don’t have one nor have ever owned one. My mother has a distinct aversion to large knives (ask her one day and she’ll tell you why. It’s an inspired story that I have heard on average about two times per month for the last 30 years). The sharpest knife in my house as a kid was the butter knife.

He handed me his clever, and as I gripped the end of the chicken leg with one hand and raised the clever into the air with the other, everyone in the room screamed, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

I guess that wasn’t the safest way to do it. So then I became so nervous that I gingerly tapped at the end of the chicken bone with this giant blade doing absolutely no hacking but completely splintering the bone. Lance grabbed the knife, pushed me aside and hacked off the bone in one deft motion.

“Oh. Thanks.” I said.

It was time to go into groups. Sign-ups were on the fridge.

Lance’s group was full. Crazy Linda already had two partners (people who were seated very far away from her and did not yet know she was crazy).

I signed up with Sabrina who had the most recipes to cook… again the challenging menu.

Within the first two minutes I learned from Sabrina, whom already had everything mise en place, that she has devoted the last 18 years of her life to home-schooling her 8 children.