Don't be fooled by that pool of stagnant water -- I'm still here.
July 7, 2003

Man, has it been awhile or what? Nearly three months? How embarrassing. Well, my only defense is that it's been a hoppin' two months: exams, Harvard graduation, win a site award, exams, get an apartment in San Francisco, CSCA graduation, Certified Culinary Professional Exam, wedding, total and utter collapse. I joked with all my school chums that in July I would sleep. Dude, I've been catching up on sleep for the past two weeks and I'm still in a deficit! It's like Dubya is controlling my REM cycle or something.

Where to start?

I'm All Out of May Puns

I don't remember May -- I think it was all recaps and studying for unit exams in Asian/Fusion, Intensive French, and American cuisines. The end of that month saw me working all night to get my portfolio finished, prepare my creative practicum, and study for my written final and my final practicum. For those of you who are steady readers of this site, you'll recall that my last exam, the midterm, entailed "only" memorizing the procedures of over one hundred master recipes. The final expected us to know all the procedures AND the precise ingredients AND the measurements of all those ingredients for each recipe.

Hey, June, Don't Be Afraid. Take a Pie Crust and Bake it Better!

We had a week-long celebration for Mathra's doctoral graduation from Harvard. He deserved every minute of it and much, much more. Both sets of parents came in for the event and it was all champagne, tears, pride, amazing meals out, crimson robes, and pomp and circumstance. Not the musical piece, actual pomp and circumstance. Compared to Harvard, the University of Michigan's got the lamest and most impersonal graduation ceremony ever. First of all, there was actual grass present in Tercentenary Theatre in Harvard Yard, whereas my overcast memory of Michigan's graduation was one of looking down on a football field that had been raped of its turf and covered with wet sand. Harvard had a Latin address that was amusing as well as dramatic. Michigan...didn't. Well, our fight song's still better.

At the opening, the sheriff of Middlesex County actually got himself up in cutaway and top hat, climbed the stage in front of Memorial Church, and banged this immensely "large metal staff-baton-type thing" and called out, "I hereby call this meeting to oooooorder!" The ball on the "large metal staff-baton-type thing" fell off after the second bang and he yelled "Made in Connecticut!" Heh, nice recovery, Mr. Sheriff. From his superior vantage point with the rest of the GSAS grads, Mathra reported spying Mitt Romney somewhere on stage, but luckily he stayed out of my evil eyesight.

Two days after Mathra's commencement, I went to school to turn in my completed (and oh, so pretty) portfolio and take the twenty-page exam. Now look, I was in the I.B. Program at Southwest High School, I went to the University of Michigan where, as a lit major, I took plenty of blue books, and -- if you don't mind me being so immodest on my own website -- I don't consider myself exactly challenged in the little grey cells department, but this exam at CSCA was the most intense exam I have ever taken. I crawled home from that exam convinced I had barely pulled off a passing grade. In fact, I would have been thrilled beyond belief if I had been told that I got an eighty on it. There were questions on that exam that, when I wailed about it later, I was convinced I didn't even fully answer. Imagine my immense surprise when I got my grades a week after graduation and discovered I landed myself a ninety-four!

My family scoffed of course, "You always think you do worse than you ever do!" But people, you gotta believe me, I was so astounded by that grade that I nearly stopped in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue (the street I deemed appropriate to be crossing when I opened my mail) because I thought I was coming down with dyslexia.

The practicum was fish of a different bone structure. My chums told me I was as white as a sheet when I walked up to pull my slip of paper. I'm not surprised. I was palpitating -- which may have had something to do with the Albuterol hit I had just taken in the street because anxiety combined with heat and humidity in a polluted skyline like Boston doesn't exactly play ring-around-the-posies with my asthma -- and so scared that I would pull the four to five recipes I kept blanking on when Mathra gave me a final drill that morning. But Apicius smiled on me that morning and I pulled: "Create a Nouvelle dessert using pâte brisée and choux paste. Fill with a chocolate pastry cream. Complete with caramel."


Yet, even today I can't type the word "caramel" without trembling and it will be a long time before I eat Butter Brickle or Pecan Praline ice cream again. Anyway, my recipe pulled, I sat back perfectly satisfied. I knew every single recipe on there by heart.

Pâte Brisée
1 1/2 C. flour
9 tbs. butter
4-5 tbs. ice water

Choux Paste
1 C. flour
1 C. water
4 oz. butter
4 eggs

Pastry Cream
4 yolks
1/2 C. sugar
1/4 C. flour
1 1/2 milk, half-and-half, or heavy cream
1 tsp. vanilla
pinch salt
4 oz. shaved bittersweet chocolate

6 tbs. water
1 C. sugar
drop of lemon juice

The one thing that gave me pause was how to do it "Nouvelle." We had just finished studying Nouvelle Cuisine a bare month ago, but as I slowly and carefully wrote out the recipes and procedures, all I could think of was "In Nouvelle, the sauce always goes on the bottom but how the hell can I work green peppercorns into a dessert?" Suddenly, it all came to me. I recalled that the use of passionfruit in savory dishes was nouvelle, so I extrapolated a bit and determined that I could use mangoes. And what did mangoes remind me of? Shish kabobs, of course! (Um, I really don't know why they reminded me of shish kabobs and, frankly, it's still something I haven't figured out.) I grabbed a piece of scratch paper and -- just like Chef Passion always advised -- I drew out what I wanted to do. I would take the choux paste and make cream puffs filled with the chocolate pastry cream. The cream puffs would get threaded onto skewers and interspersed would be mangoes. Dipped in chocolate! Yes! Mangoes half dipped in chocolate and half still flame-colored and succulent. Now, some more color would be needed because the tan of cream puffs would match the orange of the mangoes too well and everything would end up looking brownish. Strawberries! Also half dipped in chocolate! I thought kiwis dipped in chocolate were a possibility since I knew kiwis were also big in the Nouvelle movement. Unfortunately, I think there are very strong feelings out there about kiwis slipping a shawl of bittersweet chocolate over their tart shoulders -- I'm not saying I share them, I'm just saying that I wasn't going to be the one judging my dish.

So, I had captured the essence of the Nouvelle with the mangoes and the look of the skewers and it would be further cemented by putting the entire confection on a ridiculously oversized plate. What do to with the pâte brisée and the caramel. I wasn't going to make a pie crust -- how would that fit with my skewers? No. I decided to roll out the dough and use my pastry wheel to cut it into geometric shapes, then bake those off and incorporate them as a sort of Mondrian accent to the dish. Running wild with the modern art theme, I figured I could Jackson Pollock the shapes with melted chocolate so they didn't just taste like pie crust -- which I personally adore but, again, the tasters might not -- and also would take on a bit of depth. The caramel, I thought, could also purely decorative. I would make it up, pour it on my Silpat and twist it into shapes as it hardened. Since the day was hot and humid and the kitchen would be hotter and humid-er, I knew that the caramel would be hydroscopic enough for me to Play-Doh it as much as I liked.

I was confident. I knew the recipes. I had a plan. I could do it. But there were still several hours of work ahead of me, and miles to bake, temper, melt, and fold before I sleep.

Next time: The Straw that Broke the Caramel's Back.

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