Screw You Bourdain; I’m Going To Culinary School!

I had envisioned this post taking an entirely different direction, but last September I read an excerpt of Anthony Bourdain’s newest book Medium Raw on Michael Ruhlman’s blog post “So You Wanna Be a Chef“. The excerpt basically says if you are 32 (actually, I am 31) and think you are too old to become a chef; Yes! You are too old! Bourdain then goes on to list numerous and I am sure valid reasons why someone in their thirties shouldn’t follow their dreams because well, they are just dreams. No one is going to hire the “elderly” and even if they do, your tired an aching bones won’t be able to handle the stress like those 18 year old whippersnappers!  Plus, for me, I have that personal baggage i.e husband and kids… geez, I am fucked! 

When I graduated from college in 2003, did I envision my life leading me to culinary school 10 years later?  No, but I have no other choice, I know that this is the next step that I have to take.  As it is when anyone embarks on a life changing adventure there are always doubts about whether or not you are making the right choice.  For some reason, I couldn’t get Bourdain’s words out of my head.  They kept surfacing, in the dark of the night as I lay staring at the ceiling, while my mind raced about all the possible implications of my decision.

The idea of attending culinary school emerged about 2 years ago. I was disheartened with the direction and career options that were available in the Bulgarian film industry.  I had been messing around in the kitchen and garden, since I moved to Bulgaria in 2006, but that was all I was doing. Then I started the blog in 2008, but at the time I wasn’t sure exactly what roll I wanted EGL to play.  Slowly but surely things started to come together and then I thought… culinary school!  The proceeding thought was “crap”, how is this even a possibility?  How can I move from Bulgaria to go to culinary school?  What will my husband and kids do?  How will I pay for it?  These were just some of the questions!

I started reading books for some preliminary research about people who had, at various periods of their lives attended culinary school or culinary programs.  I found an article that listed quite a few title to start my search..  Initially, since I am based in Europe, I thought about Le Cordon Bleu and that led me to Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife the Less You Cry, which drove me insane.  Aside from the fact that I am a Francophile and have a desire to attend culinary school, this book was something that I couldn’t relate to, as I am not the recipient of a fat severance package from an IT company. While her story sounded great, it is not a realistic option, plus her description of the school itself was not the serious institution I was looking for.  The next book was The Saucier’s Apprentice by Bob Spitz, which was a thrilling vagabond tale about a writer traipsing through Europe and using his connections to have fabulous cooking adventures and maybe one day fortune will smile on me and I will have a publisher who affords me such luxury, but currently that is not my lot! Then I came to The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman‘s book which made me fall in love with The Culinary Institute of America.  I knew after reading his book that if I was ever going to attend culinary school, this would be where I would go… if they would have me!

I did some research and decided to apply to the CIA for shits and giggles!  Just to see if I would even get in.  I marked off the latest possible enrollment date, for the off chance I manage to get accepted and some financial aid.  Then six weeks later, I got an acceptance letter!  This was amazing and awful simultaneously because I know I couldn’t actually go, but I now knew that this other possibility existed for me and I was stuck wandering about aimlessly in Bulgaria.  Then I got my financial aid letter, and as luck would have it I got a fair amount of scholarships and grants from the school, plus some New York State aid, so my coffers were filling up, but then the larger question of how to incorporate my husband and kids into this equation.

My husband and kids couldn’t follow me back to the US for 22 months.  Our lives are established in Bulgaria, but I could never get the training and education I was looking for in Bulgaria. Yes, maybe I could apprentice in France (since I speak some French), but logistically that would require more capital to accomplish, so if I was going to do this than the CIA was it.  Finally, after long hours of conversations and arguing, my husband and I came up with a plan.  I would move to Hyde Park in the spring to start my freshman term of the AOS program in Culinary Arts and they would follow behind me in May after the girls finished school in Bulgaria.  The plan would only keep me away from my family for a total of 12 weeks, 6 at the beginning and 6 at the end.  I would fly back to Bulgaria after the completion of my Freshman term. Then came one final twist, I received a Winter Advantage grant from the school that was too good to resist, so I changed my start date to January 4th, 3 weeks away!  As it stands now, I leave Bulgaria on New Year’s Eve and will move into my dorm on January 3rd.  The fact that I am going to be living in a dorm is well, a whole blog unto itself!  Stay tuned! The family will join me for 2 weeks in March, then again in May and remain in the US for the whole summer and we will all fly back to Bulgaria together in September. While, not the ideal situation, this was our best option, unless we come into some financial windfall.

As for Bourdain, I harbor no ill will against him, I’ve found some of his books enjoyable.  All his words have done was to highlight the uphill battle that I am facing, but I am the type of person doesn’t like to be told that I can’t do something.  I will graduate from The Culinary Institute of America at the top of my class, land an amazing externship and become successful in whatever direction my culinary career takes me, despite my culinary AARP membership!
The journey of a thirty-something braving culinary school to become a professional chef.

So, here it is, as of January 1st 2011, my blog is going to undergo a significant transformation.  I will no longer be document the trial and error process of learning to cook, grow and live and Bulgaria, I will now be chronically the journey of a thirty-something, against the odds, battling her way through culinary school to become a professional chef. I will however still be Eating, Gardening & Living, but now in Hyde Park!

If you are interested in purchasing any of the books I mentioned in this post please consider buying them from my Amazon store… I have an expensive culinary bill to foot… every cent counts!
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Part 2: Wetter bread dough… Less kneading

This post is the continuation of Wetter bread dough… Less Kneading!

If you take a moment to read McGee’s article Better Bread with Less Kneading, you will see he suggest to use a recipe that is under 75% hydration (weight of the water less the weight of the flour), but if you calculate the quantities of water and flour associated with the Golden Whole Wheat Loaf recipe from the New York times, which accompanied McGee’s article, you can see that they require 11 oz whole wheat flour + 7.75 oz bread flour + .75 oz wheat bran = 18.5 ounces of dry ingredients and 2 oz water for yeast mixture + 16 oz =18 ounces of wet ingredients.  Using McGee’s formula to calculate dough hydration divide total liquid with by total flour weight you will get a dough with 1.02% hydration.  I am not sure if this is a error, but why link his article, with a recipe that was way over the recommended hydration percentage?
Today, I attempted this recipe again, which was where I noticed the supposed discrepancy.  I decided to adjust the weight of the flour, so that dough hydration would be exactly .75%. I bolded and italicized my changes.

Adapted Whole Wheat Golden Loaf recipe:

1 teaspoon dry active yeast
14 oz (about 2 1/2 cups) whole wheat flour
9 oz (about 1 1/2 cups) bread flour
1 oz (about 1/2 cup) wheat bran
1 tablespoon kosher salt
Olive oil cooking spray
Cornmeal, for sprinkling

In a small bowl combine yeast with 2 oz warm water (105 to 115 degrees) and stir to dissolve. In a medium bowl combine whole wheat flour, bread flour, bran and salt.  Add yeast mixture and 2 cups cool water (75 to 78 degrees) to dry ingredients; mix by hand to make a granular mass.

Knead about 2 minutes; dough should be very loose and sticky. If necessary add 1 – 2 tablespoons cool water.

Oil a large mixing bowl and a sheet of plastic wrap; set aside.  Transfer dough to a very lightly floured work surface and knead until somewhat cohesive, 3 to 4 minutes, using as little flour as possible and a scraper to lift and turn dough.  Return dough to bowl and place oiled plastic wrap over surface.  Allow to rest for 20 minutes.

Return dough to work surface and knead again 6 to 7 minutes: dough should be soft and loose.

Return to oiled bowl and cover again with oiled plastic wrap. Allow to rise at room temperature for one hour.

Knead dough while still in bowl, gently deflation with your fingertips.  Fold in thirds like a letter, then bring ends in and turn over so seam is underneath.  Let rise again for one hour.

Repeat folding and turning process, and let rise again until doubled in volume, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.  When dough is fully risen, an indentation made by poking your finger deep into the dough will not spring back.
Sprinkle a large baking peel generously with cornmeal, or a lined sheet pan with parchment paper.  Divide dough into two equal pieces, shaming each into a tight boule (slightly flattened ball).  Place loaves on peel or pan, leaving about 4 inches between them to allow for rising.  
Cover with oiled plastic wrap and allow to rise again until nearly doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.  If loaves begin to grow together, put in oven before they touch.

Thirty minutes before baking, heat oven to 450 degrees.  Place a small cast-iron skillet on floor of a gas oven or lowest rack of an electric oven.  Place oven rack two rungs above pan. If using a baking stone, place it on the rack.  Fill a plastic spray bottle with water.

Score a tic-tac-toe pattern with a sharp knife or razor blade on top of each loaf.  Slide loaves into oven. Mist loaves 6 to 8 times, pour 1 cup hot water into skillet and quickly close oven door.  After 1 minute, mist again with water, and close oven door.

Bake 15 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees. Continue to bake until loaves are golden brown and sound hollow when tapped on bottom, another 13 – 18 minutes.  Place on a rack to cool.

2nd Attempt .75%

1st Attempt 1.02%

As you can see by the two photos above the second attempt is more visually appealing and had a more loaf like shape, where as the first was flatter.  The most important aspect… taste, well the first was quite moist, but I like a nice crust, so my adapted recipe will be the one that I stick with.  According to my family, there really couldn’t tell the difference as they were hacking off multiple slices…

If you are a bread maker, I am eager for your thoughts on dough hydration.  I had lots of great feedback on my first post about other impacting factors such as the difference in flours from the United States to Bulgaria and humidity.  Looking forward to your comments!

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Wetter bread dough… Less kneading!

I love reading the Dining and Wine section of the New York Times.  I recently came across and an article by Harold McGee called Better Bread with Less Kneading.  Since Angel and I have started LCD, I have been making fresh, healthy, whole-wheat bread every few days.  My bread making skills are still inconsistent.  One day I will have a gorgeous loaf and the next day something that could pass for a weapon.
The article was accompanied by a recipe for Golden Whole Wheat Bread, which I tried the other night.  This bread was less labor intensive, but more time consuming than other recipes that I’ve tried because of the multiple rises.

I think I definitely did something wrong with my proportions of water to dry ingredients although I followed the recipe to the letter, even using a scale to weigh my dry ingredients and a digital thermometer to ensure my water temperature was spot on!

18.5 ounces of flour and wheat bran
Dissolving the yeast in 115F water
Adding the salt to the dry mixture
Adding the water to the dry ingredients
Kneading/Scraping the dough to activate the gluten
20 minute rest (Почивка)
At this stage in the game, as you can see from the instructions, there are numerous rises and folds, so you can imagine what they look like.
Final rise of my bread dough glop
Fresh out of the oven
I am going to give this bread another try because it was tasty, but I didn’t like just how wet it actually was.  I will need to re-examine my moisture content!  To be continued…

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Lavender Crème Brûlé

Lavender infused crème brûlée is my absolute favorite dessert.  I first discovered it in a restaurant in Astoria, New York called “La Sans Souci”, which was also one of my favorite restaurants in New York. Six months after being in Bulgaria, I returned to New York and was dying to visit La Sans Souci, to my disappointment it was gone.  I was crushed, not just because it had closed, but because so much had changed in my six month absence.  
I was not going to take this news lying down.  How could a popular restaurant just close down?  Turns out the head chef Eric Le Dily had decided to open his own place in Port Washington, New York, the Bistro du Village, leaving the owner of La Sans Souci high and dry… I actually do not know the story, but can assume.  The new restaurant has been open about as long as I have been in Bulgaria.  My next trip back to the states, I am going to make a pilgrimage and pray that lavender infused crème brûlée is on the menu!

Scouring the web to try and recreate his magic I stumbled upon a few recipes. This one is adapted from Rocco DiSpirito.

1 cup (236ml) whole milk

1 cup (236ml) cream  (I use President’s whipping cream because it is available in Bulgaria)
2 – 4 (30 – 60ml) tablespoons of dried lavender (depending on how strong you want the lavender flavor)
6 egg yolks
1/3 cup (79ml) granulated sugar
plus brown sugar/ raw sugar for the brûlée

Preheat the oven to 275F (135C) Boil milk and cream together in a saucepan, don’t let it boil over.  

Remove from the heat and add the lavender. Let it seep for at least one hour.
Strain the mixture and gently press the to get the remaining liquid.
Transfer to a clean saucepan (or wash the first one) Boil again, remove from heat.
Whisk together yolks and sugar till combined, don’t over mix.
Very slowly incorporate the lavender cream into the egg mixture.
Place ramekins into a baking dish. Divide custard evenly into ramekins.  
I usually get 6, into my oblong ones about 2 – 3 ounces each, but this time I did about 4 oz into 4.
  Add water to the baking dish till the ramekins are covered halfway.
Bake for 25 – 35 minutes.

 During the last 10 minutes, check frequently for doneness.  They should have a little jiggle.
Remove from water, cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours.

Before serving, sprinkle about 1 tablespoon (15ml) of brown sugar on top of the custard and swirl it around till evenly coated.
Using a kitchen torch, move the slowly till you have a nice brown crust. Enjoy!
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Liu’s Chinese goods in Sofia!!!!

Being from New York you grow accustomed to having every imaginable type of cuisine available to you and in most cases, delivered to your door in about 30 minutes. Moving to Bulgaria 3 years ago (yes, it has been that long) has made me realized that those services being offered by such establishments as Golden Kitchen, JJ’s Fusion Kitchen and Sushi Bar and Thai Angel should have been cherished and not merely a menu shoved in a drawer.

As most expats in Sofia know or are oblivious to is the quality of the Asian food. It… well… sucks! The sushi is usually pre-made and you are served 2 lumps of rice, fish and veg for about 5 leva. The chinese food is made with spaghetti! Plus the items are “bulgar-ized” to suit the tastes of the Bulgarians.
While I am not quite a master or even consistently competent in cooking asian cuisne, I do try to achieve maximum results, which is why I have sought out the reluctant Asian food store in Sofia. After my triumphant sushi experience, Lyubov from the Hilton, was able to provide me with the approximate location of this magical store after I complained about stuffing my luggage with mirin, hoisin sauce and star anise.
So here it is… Liu’s – Shop for Chinese Goods Pirotska Street No. 18 (Tzar Samuel Str.) Tel: 02 981 53 29
I am making some kampyo sushi this weekend thanks to Liu’s. Enjoy!
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I need Pad Thai.

During my last job in NY, I developed a serious love for Thai food.  I was a Thai virgin about 3 years ago, until some co-workers got me turned on to the goodness that is Thai…  They started me off with Chicken Pad Thai and I was hooked. So then, I ordered Pad Thai from every Thai place that would deliver to our SOHO office and narrowed my choice to Thai Angel. I ordered from there sometimes twice a week. When I went back to NY, I couldn’t wait to eat Thai. In June, Angel and I even went back to Thai Angel (purely coincidental!).

I have been back in Bulgaria for over 6 weeks since my last trip and with all the cooking I have been doing, why not try to make Pad Thai.  So here is my challenge.  I found this great blog Chez Pim, which had an post about Pad Thai for Beginners.  It really explained things and offered great advice and tips, but some of the ingredients were tricky i.e tamarind paste, palm sugar, garlic chives, even tofu etc… I have to admit, the thought of driving through Sofia for a few hours to hunt down a handful of products was not really appealing, but today I figured why not!  I had my expectations low since my friend Vanessa had already done some pre-gaming at one of my go to options Hit in Maldost 4 (Младост 4) and came up dry, but I decided to try it anyway.  As luck would have it I found Tamarind Paste and Tofu. Things in the store aren’t actually arranged logically.  Tofu with butter and dairy, but not near the soy milk? 

I according the Chez Pim, I needed to prep all the ingredients and set aside and make the sauce and set aside.  I followed all of the directions to the tee.  But, I missed a few beats.  The directions said to soak the noodles instead of boiling them, so I did just that.  On my first attempt.  I tossed the noodles with the tofu and garlic with a little sauce, but the noodles were not soft enough.  I figured I would toss that batch and start again, but Angel was really hungry and said he would eat the mistake.  I was eager to hear his opinion and he described the noodles like “pad-thai jerky”.  Needless to day, he couldn’t finish with out chipping a few teeth.

After that things went really well, but the proportions of the sauce were off.  It only yielded 1 cup of sauce and the dish could have used about double.  I would have used 3/4 cup – 1 cup of the tamarind paste & fish sauce and 1/2 cup of brown cane sugar, so you don’t have to skimp.  

All in all.  This Pad Thai was a keeper!!!!

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The Hunt for Ingredients

When we first arrived in Bulgaria, our house wasn’t ready yet, so we lived in an apartment in Sofia, which is the capital for those of you who don’t know.

I had gotten my hands on a english language ex-pat guide to Sofia called the Sofia Insider’s Guide .  It was really useful because it listed all the grocery stores in Sofia and where to find stuff.  The problem was there was not one good grocery store.  Each had something good to offer, but to get all your shopping done, you needed to go to 3 – 5 different stores all in different parts of town.  For example; HIT in Mladost 4 (Младост 4) a really good produce section.  You can find shallots, different lettuces, avocado, ginger, star fruit, mango, passion fruit, etc…  Elemag in Lozentez (Лозенец) had Argentinean beef and cooking wines (Marsala, Madeira, Sherry) Picadilly had a variety of international ingredients, such as Mexican & Thai. 

Besides the driving there was another problem the price.  A bunch of old asparagus was close to $7.00 USD (10 BGN). Beef, well that was truly a bank breaker, when you could actually find it.  My grocery bills were astronomical especially compared to Bulgarian standards.

I try to go back to the States every 6 months and during my time home it is usually spent at the grocery store.  The things that I bring home in my luggage is astounding.  Here is a brief list:  Annie’s Deluxe Macaroni and Cheese, JIF Peanut Butter, Vanilla Extract, Hoisin Sauce, Organic Maple Syrup, Aunt Jemima’s Butter Lite Syrup, Molasses, Crystal Light Decaffeinated Ice Tea, Echinacea Immune Boosting Tea, Quaker Instant Oatmeal….

Besides the ease of shopping and finding ingredients for recipes, I missed TAKE OUT!!!  I loved having any food I desired delivered to me in under 30 minutes.  Wow!  With my husband and I both working while we lived in New York, dinner mostly consisted of something delivered.  Right before we left, we were addicted to Papa John’s Hawaiian BBQ Chicken pizza.  Now “Papa” can’t hold a candle to good NY pizza, but this specialty pie was heaven.

So, tonight I am going to attempt to make a Hawaiian BBQ Chicken Pizza.  I found an italian recipe for pizza dough.  I am a little “yeast-tarded”, but things seem to be going good so far.  The dough has doubled already.  Then I have the BBQ sauce, chicken, pineapple, onion and pancetta (there is no good bacon in Bulgaria or maybe I haven’t found it yet).  My standards are set high, I will report any success.

I have been back in the States four times since moving here and each time I miss the food less and less.  When I go home now, I end up going to a TGI Friday’s. AppleBee’s or Ruby Tuesday’s with my family.  I realize now that that stuff is crap, well, I do love the Jack Daniel’s Sauce at TGI Friday’s.  I am usually so busy visiting family and friends, I don’t have time to just roam around New York City eating at my old haunts! I will have to make a point to do that the next time I am back.

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