Fourth Week: Chicken and Pastry Review
September 30th, 2002

This is NOT the Colonel's Secret Recipe!

Gah. I'm in a rotten mood. I don't know if it's because I studied incredibly hard for my Food Basics test but still couldn't list all the things that can affect egg coagulation, remember at what point you're supposed to add mirepoix to a fond brun or fond blond, or state what size a brunoise dice has to be, and yet knew so much more about so many other things the test didn't even cover. Or maybe it's just because it's Monday.

We got into poultry today. And I mean we REALLY got into it. After Chef Directrix lectured us about the evil and disgusting conditions at poultry farms and processing plants -- which means we should suspect all poultry is diseased and covered in its own feces when it reaches us -- we got to prepare and eat that poultry. Did you know that the USDA passes a fowl as fit for consumption if it has only two abscesses? Now, if it has three, forget it -- it's pig feed, but two? Yeah, that's okay for a fricassee. Also, the USDA doesn't consider a chicken carrying around cancerous tumors like a rope of pearls reason enough to throw the carcass out. Apparently, no research has ever proved that eating cancer begets cancer. And if you buy poultry in pieces -- rather than the whole bird -- you run the risk of getting pieces that were once attached to tumorific or abscessing parts prior to the supermarket baptism of plastic wrap. Yum. Let's cook!

This was the first week we were to present a full meal -- complete with soup, salad, appetizer, vegetables, dessert and three mains based around one meat. I've never been wild about touching raw chicken, and I felt that way even before I sat through the above lecture. My chicken phobia is also completely separate from the fact that salmonella entriditis has been rampantly on the rise since 1985. There's just something about its yellowy-whitish bumpiness that sets my skin crawling into my clothes for shelter. However, I do not have this problem with fish, lamb, pork or beef, so I'm not thinking I need to throw in my apron yet. Anyway, we have chicken fairly infrequently around our house because I really only like it two ways. What we usually get are Bell and Evans boneless breasts, and Mathra's the one to slime himself, dealing with the excess fat and tendon removal. Every once in a while, I will roast a whole chicken, stuffed with lemons and sage, but that's only about twice a year when I get a hankering. All this is why I wasn't first with my hand in the air to volunteer for one of the three main dish recipes. I got stuck with the Gratin Dauphinoise -- one of the starches. I've never made potatoes au gratin ("gratin" means "with crust" -- not, as some think, "with cheese"), so I was fine with my assignment. I also got to work alone, which rarely happens, so I didn't feel as scattered as I normally would. The big deal from here on out with doing these "full course meals" is that we all have to coordinate our stuff. The starch/vegetables have to be served warm (and not overcooked) but they have to be ready at the exact same time as the main dishes; the dessert has to come last; the soup and appetizer first, and so on and so forth. After a few minutes of simmering in heavy cream, my potatoes were only going to take thirty minutes in the oven. Therefore, I aligned them with the lemon and garlic braised chicken thighs, which was the main dish that would take the longest amount of time.

I had to get my potato slices to the regulation thickness of 1/16 of an inch, so I embarked on my maiden voyage with the mandoline. And hated it. It really hacked up the edges of my potato slices -- not smooth at all -- and it was just awkward. I'd much rather use my super-sharp 10-inch chef's blade than that contraption. Mathra will be happy, since I have been bugging him to get me one for Christmas. But now? I am very anti-mandoline. All the more so since our Assistant Chef, Madeira, told me that she yearned after one, finally forked over the $100+ for it, and sliced off the tip of her finger the night she had to cater for sixty. She hasn't used hers since. After slices simmered, I seasoned them with salt, pepper, and nutmeg arranged them in an au gratin dish, and poured the hot cream over them. All I had to do was wait until the chicken was on its final braise. Finally, I got the go ahead from the Braiser Team, and in went my potatoes.

Thirty minutes later. The garlic butter I used to grease the dish was bubbling up through a very nice golden top crust, the cream had thickened, and they smelt to heaven, but, to my chagrin, the Braiser Team wasn't as ready as they thought. Nor was their chicken. So, my potatoes sweated it out a bit on top of the salamander -- covered and keeping warm. The moment of truth came when the mains were served along with a vegetable and my starch. "These potatoes are overcooked!" pronounced Chef Directrix. "The dish used was way too large for this amount of potatoes and they were too spread out." Funny thing that, since she had seen the dish I was using BEFORE THE DAMN THINGS WERE COOKED AND YET DID NOT SEE FIT TO CORRECT MY MISTAKE. I guess following a recipe means you also have to be prescient, since the recipe never advised me what size dish I should use. By the way, all recipes used at school are copyrighted by Chef Directrix. Also? "These potatoes are too bland," Chef Directrix told all my classmates, who later assured me they thought the potatoes were seasoned just enough. But what else is new? Almost everything of ours that she tastes, she pronounces not seasoned enough. During soup-making, I made a Papa al Pomodoro (tomato bread soup), and I seasoned the hell out of it. I dumped in so much salt, I thought for sure I would get her to say, "Too salty! TOO SALTY!" But no. She liked it! She actually thought it was seasoned perfectly, although she thought we had too much bread in it. Other people in the class thought it was salty beyond belief and really didn't like it. I've decided that Chef Directrix is actually Nancy Crater by day and Salt Monster by night.

So, that Potato-Ponoto pretty much pissed me off for the rest of the day. Not to mention the fact that when we all gave our weekly report of what new things we practiced over the weekend and I told her I toasted the pine nuts that I'd used to make pesto, Chef Directrix bellowed, "What?! You NEVER toast your pine nuts. Not EVER!" I weakly protested that Chef Passion had instructed us to do that in baking the previous week, and her response was, "Chef Passion doesn't know -- she hasn't LIVED in the REGION! She's putting her own twist on it! That is not the way the make it in The Region! Don't do it again!" and so on and so forth until I was reduced to a grease stain on the floor.

October 2, 2002

Napoleon wasn't just a short, stubby, smelly despot with a hottie for a wife

My week was salvaged by the fact that Chef Passion hand-picked me to make Napoleons on Pastry Review Day. Instead of letting us volunteer for assignments, as per usual, Chef Passion paired us up with other students and assigned us pastries -- all according to what she had observed in our work. Napoleons are the hardest thing I've made yet, and if anybody has ever eaten one, they'll understand what I'm talking about.

Instead of using a full puff pastry recipe, we had to use semi-puff, glaze them with fondant and chocolate, and stack the delicate, flaky layers on top of gelatin-stabilized pastry cream. When our sheet of semi-puff was golden brown and ready to be sliced for the layers, Chef Passion ran over to tell us how impressed she was by our pastry. She said she hadn't seen one like it in a very long time. She even grabbed my cheeks later as she re-exclaimed how thoroughly impressed she was by our work.

Chef Directrix came down to take a look at our stuff and poked her finger into my Napoleon pastry cream. "Don't tell me it needs more salt," I warned her. "It's bland," she said. And it was. I suppose it could have done with additional almond or vanilla extract, but I am surprisingly sanguine about it. I conquered that Napoleon pastry -- I have all the time in the world to over-season and over-flavor.

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