Tag Archives: Cooking courses

International Culinary Center – I Passed My Final Exam!

Packed up for one last night at school

It’s been such a sad, disheartening few days in the media.  When I arrived on Monday evening at the International Culinary Center for my last class in Level 6, I found out about the bombings in Boston as I was in the locker room changing for class.  My heart dropped.  My mind went immediately to the friends who live there, hoping that they were all safe (at this point, I think that none of them were even there at the race).  So, I did want to send out some positive news to counterbalance all the bad stuff that has been happening.

DiplomaYes, it is real!  Grande Diplôme in Classic Culinary Arts with Distinction (Honors Class)

On Wednesday evening, I passed my final exams for culinary school!  My fellow classmates did as well, too, which was fabulous, as we’d all been working so hard these past nine months, including taking extra shifts in the kitchen to gain more proficiency with the recipes on which we’d be tested.  Of course, we went out and celebrated, although we’ll also be celebrating again in a couple of weekends at our official graduation ceremony at Carnegie Hall, along with several other classes of graduates from 2012-2013 in the Culinary, Pastry, and Wine programs.  I have so much more to write and to share about my experiences in this program, but for now, I just wanted to post about some good news.

Buon appetito!

International Culinary Center – Finishing up

How many do I have to wash to get through my exams?

It’s looming large now, my final exam in culinary school at the International Culinary Center.  It’s so close, that I can count down towards it in terms of loads of laundry that I need to do in order to have at least one clean uniform available for exam day.  I’ve strategized just how much more industrial-strength stain remover I need to have on hand to wash everything and how much money to put on my laundry card to carry me through to the big day.

All this material is in my head someplace

Since taking the Culinary Techniques course there last summer and then making the decision to take the placement exam to pursue the professional Classic Culinary Arts program, it has been a wild ride.  Some of it has been great – like the thrill at passing my mid-term examination with high marks – and some of it has been frustrating – constantly being told I’m too slow by my chefs.  In some ways, it has been more challenging than all of my previous educational endeavors combined.  That includes getting my Master’s Degree from the top school in my field and having to take oral examinations in order to get my M.A. (twenty minutes being quizzed by two examiners to determine passing or failing at the end of two years of study, oh, and a separate language proficiency exam on top of that to boot).

Will I make it through to earn this?

On Wednesday night last week, before we hit the kitchen at L’Ecole for class session, our group assembled with our chef instructors for our official class photo.  It will hang someplace on a wall along with the photos of countless other classes of shiny, new ambitious culinary school graduates from our program.  In touring the school, you can still see pictures of the first graduating class, which included Bobby Flay.  How cool is that?  Who will be the next Bobby Flay, Christina Tosi, Wylie Dufresne, David Chang, or Lee Anne Wong among us?  There’s some pretty serious talent among my classmates so I’ll be curious to see how our careers evolve.

This one was kind of a big boo-boo

I have in mind to write a few other posts about what it is like to be in culinary school, really.  It’s complicated, and I have such mixed emotions being almost at the end of it all.  There’s so much to say good, bad, ugly (some of that in the dishes that I plated), happy, sad, really a bit of everything.  Along the way, there have been cuts, burns, mystery scrapes, stained uniforms (how am I going to get that out of my jacket?), and lots and lots of food.  Three evenings a week for five hours each class night plus lots of volunteering and taking on extra kitchen shifts for practice and to refine my skills (and to work on that little timing/speed problem that still haunts me) have meant lots of missed drinks dates, uncelebrated birthdays, canceled plans, and late nights / early mornings.  Would I change it?  Would I do it again?   I’ll let you know when I pass my final exam.

Buon appetito!

International Culinary Center – Level 6 Working at L’Ecole

Chocolate-Pear Cake with Bourbon Ice CreamPatissier – Chocolate-Pear Cake with Bourbon Ice Cream, Bourbon Jelly, and Cocoa Meringue

There’s just a little bit over a week left in Level 6 at the International Culinary Center.  Actually, I have just two more classes, and then the last day is when we take our final exam.  In Level 5, we started working in the kitchen at L’Ecole, the restaurant run by the school, preparing meals paid for and eaten by the general public.  I’ve fumbled quite a bit in both of these levels, but I’ve also learned a tremendous amount, and not just about restaurant cooking.

Patissier – Pumpkin Soufflé with Eggnog Sauce

Before the beginning of this level (as with Level 5) we were given pages of recipes that we’d be making during the class.  We were also given photos of what each of the completed dishes should look like before they are delivered to the tables.  As I mentioned in my previous post, each plate is given a once-over by our supervising chef before it leaves the kitchen.  The expediting chef (who relays orders from the waitstaff to the cooks) also double-checks them and wipes them clean of any stray sauce stains before they head out to the dining room.  To say there’s a little bit of pressure, even for us a students, to get it exactly perfect would be understating it just a little.

Poissonier – Scallops stuffed with Crayfish-Shrimp Mousseline on a bed of Sautéed Leeks and Sunchoke Purée

There’s the additional component for us in Level 6, as we rotate through the different stations as part of our lessons, that these recipes are the ones that we’ll be called upon to reproduce in our final exam at the end of the level.  Next week, we’ll be drawing slips of paper to see which two of the eight dishes that we’ve been making these past few weeks will be the ones that we have to prepare as we’ve been taught to do and to present before a panel of judges, who are chefs and will be our new peers in the culinary industry.  So the learning process at this stage is even more intense.  It is about honing technique and really absorbing all the information from our previous classes as well as the tips the instructors have been trying to instill in us as a culinary second nature.

Poissonier – Grilled Swordfish with Stir-fried Vegetables, Coconut Risotto Cake, and Ginger Beurre Blanc

This course level, I started off in Garde Manager (appetizers) and worked my way around through Poissonier (fish), Saucier (meat), and am finishing up in Patissier (pastry), which was were I started out in Level 5.  At each stage I feel like I’m really getting better with some aspects of this work, but I’m definitely still messing up on others.  Getting my speed up in this environment is still difficult for me.  I feel like (and I’m sure my instructors would concur) that I still second-guess my abilities and over-think the process.  I’ve been told that with time and with more experience working in kitchens this gets better.

Garde Manger – Fettuccine with Arugula Pesto, Shrimp, and Preserved Lemon

I’m still in awe of how much goes into working in a restaurant kitchen: the drive, the stamina, the reflexes, the massive expenditure of energy.  I keep being reminded of how everyone who has been in the industry for a while talks about how this work is “really a young person’s job.”  Seeing my much-younger classmates (truly, as most were born after I’d finished college) seemingly breeze through prep tasks and service without so much as breaking a sweat or becoming flustered, ever, I can’t help but agree with that assessment.  I watch our chef-instructors who just seem to handle pulling these dishes together as though it was just like breathing.  Sometimes, I feel more like a guppy gasping for air, as I work alongside them and some of my more talented classmates.

Garde Manger – Porcini Consommé with Butternut Squash, Seared Squab Breast, and Sage

At the same time, this experience, as part of the structure of a larger culinary education program, does help to tie together a lot of the various aspects of what we’ve been doing these past few months.  The dishes that we’ve been making build upon lessons that we had as far back as the beginning of the program.  The overall concepts and techniques and standards are reinforced every night we are in the kitchen.  My hope, now, is that I can remember all of what I’ve learned and reproduce these dishes to the standard to pass my final exam.

Buon appetito!

St. Patrick’s Day Menu Ideas – Colcannon Cakes with Fried Quail’s Egg & Irish Bacon Crisp

Colcannon Cake w Back Bacon & Quail EggColcannon Cakes with Fried Quail’s Egg & Irish Bacon Crisp

With the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations kicking off this weekend, I wanted to share this recipe that I created for my culinary school menu project.  When we were assigned this task to design a dinner party, of no fewer than four courses to serve eight guests, I decided to explore the culinary traditions of the Emerald Isle.  You see, unlike other folks, I don’t have any traditional, cultural family recipes handed down through the generations that tug at the ethnic heartstrings.  This project gave me a chance to research the cuisine of Ireland and to pair it with some of the beverages for which that country is perhaps better known.

Colcannon cakes cooling on a rack

No menu featuring Irish cooking would be complete without at least one potato dish like this one. Colcannon, meaning “white-headed cabbage” in Gaelic, is a mix of mashed up potatoes (sometimes leftover from a previous meal) combined with cabbage, kale, leeks, and/or scallions. I found several different versions of this recipe in my menu research and was told about others from friends and contacts of mine, all of which included potatoes mixed with one or several of those vegetables. The main differences in these recipes tend to be regional or familial and dependent upon individual taste preferences.

Irish back bacon

Traditionally, this dish is served for Halloween, originally celebrated as the Celtic feast of Samhain (then it was co-opted by Christianity as were many previously pagan celebrations), which signaled the end of the Celtic year and of the harvest season. According to superstition, a young, single woman who found a ring hidden in the dish could expect to be married before springtime while the young, single woman who found the thimble faced spinsterhood.  (I’m not necessarily recommending that you continue that tradition!)  Colcannon is also considered to be a quintessential Irish comfort food.  For my menu project, I paired this with Harp Lager, but you could serve it with the beverage of your choice.

Ingredients for Colcannon cakes with Fried Quail’s Egg & Irish Bacon Crisp

Prep Time: about 1 1/2 hours

Serving Size: 8 portions (1 Colcannon cake, 1 slice back bacon, 1 quail’s egg per person)

Ingredients:

For the Colcannon Cakes:
3 large Russet or Idaho Potatoes
4 large Kale leaves
4 large White Cabbage leaves
4 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter, plus 3 Tablespoons to cook the Colcannon cakes (I used Kerrygold.*)
3/4 cup Whole Milk
2 teaspoons Salt
1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper, freshly ground
1/4 cup Flour

To serve:
8 slices of thick-cut Irish back bacon
2 Tablespoons Unsalted Butter for frying eggs (I used Kerrygold.*)
8 Quail Eggs
1 Tablespoon Scallions, finely minced, for garnish

Assembly:

Steaming hot potatoes

To prepare the Colcannon Cakes, first cook the potatoes in their skins. Place the potatoes in a large saucepan or pot filled with cold water that just covers the potatoes. Bring the water up to a boil, turn down the heat and let the water simmer. The potatoes are finished when a knife can be easily inserted into the thickest point. Set aside to cool for a moment. (If you have leftover mashed potatoes, you can re-purposed those instead for this recipe.)

Steamed kale

Clean kale leaves of any dirt or grit and strip the leaves from the tough stems. Chop up the kale into thin strips. In a pan of boiling water fitted with a steamer basket. Steam the kale for about four minutes until just tender. Remove the steamer basket from the pan and let the kale drain in a colander.

Cooked cabbage

Peel off ragged, damaged outer leaves of the cabbage to get at the more tender inner ones. Clean cabbage leaves of any dirt or grit. Chop the cabbage up up into small chunks. Melt one tablespoon of the butter in saucepan. Put cabbage in pan and cover with a lid. Cook the cabbage until it becomes tender and translucent. Take the pan off the heat and allow the cabbage to cool down a bit.

Fluffy mashed potatoes

By this time, the potatoes will have cooled off enough to be handled. Peel the potatoes by using a paring knife to remove the skins gently. The skins should come off easily. Mash up potatoes using a fork or a potato ricer. Heat the milk until it just reaches the boiling point. Pour the milk into the potatoes and stir it into the potatoes together with the remaining three tablespoons of the butter, salt, and pepper. Mix together until the potato mixture is smooth. It can still contain some lumps, but it should be mostly smooth and fluffy. Add the steamed kale and cooked cabbage to the potatoes.

Colcannon mixed together

Mix together the kale and cabbage with the mashed potatoes. Taste the mixture and adjust it for seasoning, as necessary. Form potato-kale-cabbage mixture (Colcannon) into eight rounds. Pour flour onto plate. Dust Colcannon cakes with a little bit of flour to aid them developing a brown crust when cooked.  While Colcannon cakes are cooking, finely mince scallions. Set aside to be used when assembling the final dish.

Frying up Colcannon cakes

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Melt two teaspoons of butter in a large skillet.  Place four of the Colcannon cakes in the pan and cook on one side until golden brown and crispy.  Flip over and cook them on the second side in the same manner, adding extra butter, if needed.  Remove the Colcannon cakes from the pan after they have become brown and crispy on both sides. Place on a rack until ready to serve.

To serve:

Reheating Colcannon cakes and bacon

Heat an oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Wipe the skillet clean after cooking the Colcannon cakes. Place the bacon in the skillet. Cook bacon on both sides until the edges become slightly crisp. It will not become completely crunchy-chewy like American-style bacon, as it has less fat overall. Remove the bacon from the pan and place on a rack.  Place the Colcannon cakes and the bacon on a baking sheet to keep warm while preparing the quail’s eggs. You could also make the Colcannon cakes in advance, refrigerate them, and then reheat them in the oven prior to serving them.

Frying up quail eggs

Melt two tablespoons of butter in a large skillet. Crack three to four of the quail’s eggs in the skillet (depending upon the size of the skillet), taking care not to let their whites overlap. Cook until the white is firmly set, the edges are a bit crispy, and the yolk is still mostly runny. Set aside on a warm plate. Repeat with the additional eggs, adding more butter as necessary.

Colcannon Cake with Quail’s Egg & Irish Bacon Crisp paired with Harp Lager

Place one of the warmed Colcannon cakes on each of eight plates. Top each with a fried quail’s egg. Place one piece of the bacon alongside the Colcannon cake. Sprinkle with a bit of the chopped scallion. Serve while everything is still warm, alongside a beverage of your choice.

Buon appetito!

*A few months back, Kerrygold invited me to be a part of their blogger network.  As a long-time fan of cooking and baking with their butters for its taste and texture and ability to deliver consistent results, I accepted their offer.  I had designed and tested these recipes (as well as many others on this website) using Kerrygold well before they reached out to me.  You can use whatever butter you wish.

St. Patrick’s Day Menu Ideas – Smoked Trout-Horseradish Pâté on Irish Brown Bread

Smoked Trout-Horseradish Pâté on Irish Brown Bread

In my last post with the giveaway for “Clodagh’s Kitchen Diaries,” I mentioned that for my culinary school menu project that was due last month I had created a menu for a St. Patrick’s Day dinner party.  My family emigrated from Ireland on both sides, but long enough ago that there’s no culinary heritage that has been passed down to my generation, unless you count a fondness for potatoes and pork products.  My goal was to explore the tastes and dishes usually associated with this country and to create an alterna-dinner party for this holiday: one that does not revolve around Corned Beef and Cabbage, which is not the Irish national dish.

Irish Brown Bread

Fortunately, I have many friends who were willing to come over during the recent showing of Downton Abbey‘s third season here in the U.S. to sample my recipe experiments so that I could get my project done.  This is an appetizer that I created that seemed to be a huge hit with everyone.  Hearty, nutty Irish Brown Bread is a staple in many household kitchens. Here, it is served with a smoky, creamy trout pâté, a nod to the resources of Ireland’s rivers, with a bite from the heat of the horseradish and lift of freshness from the lemon zest and the parsley.  It’s the perfect nibble to go with a glass of good cheer!

Smoked Trout-Horseradish Pâté

Smoked Trout-Horseradish Pâté on Irish Brown Bread

Prep Time: 1 1/2 hours, including baking time for bread

Serving Size: Makes approximately 24 portions (3 pieces per person for 8 people)

Ingredients:

For the Irish Brown Bread:
(Recipe adapted from http://kissmyspatula.com/2010/03/17/irish-brown-bread/)
1 3/4 cups Whole Wheat Flour, preferably stone ground (the coarser, the better – I used Bob’s Red Mill)
1 1/4 teaspoons Kosher Salt
1/2 teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda
2 tablespoons cold Unsalted Butter, cut into small cubes
1/4 cup Old Fashioned Oats, finely ground
3/4 cup Buttermilk

For the Smoked Trout-Horseradish Pâté:
4 ounces Cream Cheese, softened
2 Tablespoons Crème Fraîche
4 teaspoons prepared Horseradish
2 teaspoons Fresh Parsley, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon Salt
1/8 teaspoon Black Pepper, freshly ground
Grated zest of one Lemon
1/4-1/3 pound Smoked Trout

Assembly:

Irish Brown Bread:

To make the Irish Brown Bread, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter bottom and sides of a mini loaf pan (5 1/2 x 3 inches).  Mix together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a bowl.  Add the butter into the flour mixture by using a fork or a pastry cutter until the mixture resembles small pebbles, and the butter is blended in thoroughly.  Add the ground oatmeal and toss to combine completely. Stir in the buttermilk. The mixture will be sticky but all the dry ingredients should come together.

Dough mixed together

Turn dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and knead it several times. Shape dough into a small loaf and place in the loaf pan. Bake bread for about 30 minutes, until knife inserted in the center of the bread comes out cleanly. Cool on a wire rack. (The bread can be made a day ahead, but should be toasted the day it is being served.)

Bread baked and cooling

About 30 minutes prior to serving the appetizers, preheat the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut the loaf of bread into 12 slices. Then, cut those slices in half diagonally to make triangle-shaped pieces.  Place bread triangles on an ungreased baking sheet on parchment paper and put them in the oven to toast. Do not allow the bread to take on any color. When the first side is lightly toasted, turn over and toast the second side. Remove toasted bread triangles from the oven when done and allow them to cool while making the Smoked Trout-Horseradish Pâté.

Toasted Irish Brown Bread

Smoked Trout-Horseradish Pâté:

To make the Smoked Trout-Horseradish Pâté, mix together the cream cheese, crème fraîche, and prepared horseradish until smooth with no lumps of cream cheese. Fold in parsley, salt, pepper, and lemon zest. Hold back about 1/2 teaspoon of lemon zest and 1/2 teaspoon of parsley for garnish.

Mixing in everything but the trout

Break the smoked trout into pieces, some large and some smaller. Go through the trout to make sure that there are no bones.  Gently fold in the smoked trout. There should still be some small and large pieces of fish visible in the mixture. This is a rough, chunky spread rather than a smooth one.

Break up Smoked Trout into pieces

To serve:

Place toasted bread pieces on a serving platter. Top each triangle with a spoonful of the smoked trout mixture. Sprinkle each piece with a little bit of chopped parsley and the reserved lemon zest. Serve immediately.

Smoked Trout-Horseradish Pâté on Irish Brown Bread

Sláinte!

International Culinary Center – Level 5 Working at L’Ecole

GM - Pork Belly dishGarde Manger – Braised Pork Belly with Prune Glaze, Bulgur & Tomatillo Vinaigrette

It looks like it’s been a bit quiet around this website, I know, but the reality is that I hit a really busy patch with classes, volunteering at events, and developing and executing the menu for a major project that we had due in class last week.  About a month ago, my group changed over to the next level in the programme at the International Culinary Center to working at L’Ecole, the restaurant that is affiliated with the school.  This step is to prepare us for the reality of working cooking on the line, a job many students take as their first step in their cooking careers.

Portioning out the pork belly to serve it

In this level, we rotate through the various stations in the restaurant, preparing the dishes that are on the menu that is served to the public.  I don’t have any restaurant experience, so for me, this level has been an interesting almost “baptism of fire” into this realm of cooking.  I’ve helped out at culinary demonstrations, chopped vegetables for a food distribution organization, and worked catered events, but I haven’t worked on the line doing an actual service at a restaurant until now.  It’s definitely a different from my other cooking experiences where we just prep and prepare the dishes, plate everything, and then serve it all at once to everyone at the same time.

Patissier – Cranberry Linzer Torte with Chestnut Ice Cream

The first part of the lesson each evening consists of restocking the mise en place for that day’s service.  Then, when the menu changes over from the professional chefs fixing the meals to the time when we, the students, take over the stoves, with the supervision of our instructors, we put together the plates and give them to the waitstaff to be served, just as in any other restaurant.  Given how hard we all work, and how much experience some of the students already have, it was a bit distressing to me to find out that at least one website has advised possible patrons not to come to the restaurant during the time the students are working their shifts.

Poppy Seed Cake with Lemon Curd and Baked Apple

My first station in the kitchen rotation was in Pastry (Pâtissièr).  So our assignment was to figure out what we need to plate each dish when the orders come in and then make the amount we think we need to fill the orders that night.  With the guidance of the instructors, we make all the individual recipes, like the lemon curd, cake, and baked apple in the photo above, and then organize our stations so that we can respond quickly when the tickets arrive.  The chefs call out the orders and then we plate the dishes per the sample plates that they’ve shown to us.

Gooey French Onion Soup – tried to get to it before my classmate ate it

As the clock starts to tick towards 8:00 p.m., when the student part of the service starts, the chef instructors push us to get everything together and our stations cleaned up and everything in place so that we can work efficiently and quickly when the orders start being called.  From Pastry, I moved over to Garde Manger, where we prepare the appetizers on the menu.  There are two other students in my class with whom I rotate through the stations.  There’s also several other students from the class level above ours who have their own separate recipes to prepare, plate, and serve.

Cooked pork belly

One of our dishes, the braised pork belly, actually takes a few days to prepare.  We start a couple of days earlier by trimming a piece of belly of its tough, exterior skin and rubbing a cure of spices, sugar, and salt on each side of the belly.  This then gets covered with heavy cans and weighed down for about 24-hours.  Then, it is cooked and pressed again at least overnight.  After that, we cut it into serving portions and set it aside until it is glazed with a plum sauce and cooked again right before it is served.  It’s probably my favorite of the dishes I’ve worked on in the restaurant so far.

Seared Scallops with Squid Ink Risotto

After Garde Manger, I moved over to work the Fish Station (Poissonier), which I’ll be doing again tomorrow night.  Here the system works the same way: we arrive in class, do the prep work, and wait for the orders to come in to fill them.  The scallop dish is very popular at the moment, and we seem to fill lots of orders for it every evening, keeping our station pretty busy.  My next turn will be at the Sauce Station (Saucier) where we have a rabbit dish and a pork dish on the menu.  With each rotation, I hope I’m getting better at improving my speed at working in the kitchen.  That’s the goal for this level, as well as having us get used to the pressure and flow of restaurant service.

Buon appetito!