Category Archives: Inspiration

Smile

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A warm smile is the universal language of kindness.
William Arthur Ward

I’m not much of a person for social media; it takes me forever to post anything on here, and I use this blog to express my passion.  I guess life can get really busy when you’re out there living it.

A few days ago, however, I started posting on my Instagram like a fiend.  I was posting photos of things that made me smile. Now, I thought I should explain why, because everyone goes through ups and downs in their lives and I am no different.

I recently left a few very challenging relationships in my life, including my job and personal relationships alike.  I had found myself in a place where I wasn’t answering my true calling in my heart, and was suffering myself and making those around me suffer as well. Being honest with myself was as fruitful as it was difficult; I have found a way to change my life and put it on a path where I feel like I will be happier.  But at a cost.

Losing close relationships with people I love, and accepting and understanding that not every person I meet is meant to stay is one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn in life– a lesson I am sure I will revisit– has been the hardest part of the transition.

My friends tell me that time heals all wounds, but a broken heart somehow always stays with you in some way– almost like a phantom limb.

But that is why I cook.  I love the tranquility that the actions give my mind, I love the inspiration I can achieve, and the endless learning of the art.  I also cook because cooking is love, and love is a beautiful thing; its selfless; you cook and give your heart on a plate, and sometimes don’t even know if the person you gave it to enjoys it, but you love it all the same. It’s uncompromising.

So, back to Instagram.  In the depths of my sadness, my insecurity on starting a new chapter in my life after leaving something comfortable, my despair over a close relationship having falling out, and my anguish of doubt, I decided I would do something about it.  I wanted a reminder of why I knew, even in my lowest moment, that I still had hope for myself and my future. I wanted to smile.

So I reminded myself of things that made me smile.  Photos I can always come back to and share with others of happy, uncompromising things.  Cooking. Family. Nature. It’s so easy to come back from sadness for me when I remind myself why I am here.  To give to others, to give love, and that made me smile.

I hope that my photos made people smile, but mostly, I hope that they made people ask themselves what made them smile.  What makes you smile? I hope you smile everyday. I hope that you can laugh, even.  This world can be harsh, but there is always something out there to make most smile– and I hope, in the lowest moments, that it’s remembered.

 

Adventures in Breadbaking

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Adventures in Breadbaking

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For the holidays, I have been given the best gift ever, and have a full week off from work. That’s right.  Monday to Sunday.  After years of going and going in this industry, a little time to rest is an amazing thing. Since I get bored easily, though, I decided to cook up a storm, try harder home cooking methods, and finally try tackling a project that has intimidated me as a cook: home sourdough bread baking. Using natural yeasts, of course.  I gave it my best efforts this week, and here are some things I learned:

For even more bread baking,  here is a great article from Bon Appetit on the subject.

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Tools of the trade

A good starter takes time and good ingredients:

One of my closest friends is a baker, so I am already at a huge advantage here.  Her pastries are divine, especially for someone that was trained classically savory (we studied together at culinary school).

“Always start your sour the night before, Lana, ” she pretty much yelled at me on Monday. “Don’t worry, we’ll make it together.”

Starters, or pre-ferments, are essential here.  A mix of flour and water that pulls yeast from the air, that lets the bread rise when baking.  A starter can be kept and maintained for years, as long as it is fed consistently.

She gave me the formula that I would be using this week for my starter:

12 oz water (by weight)

6 oz rye flour (organic)

6 oz bread flour

Apparently rye flour is very good at pulling yeast microbes from the air, even better than bread flour.  My friend found this information out by staging with one of the best bakers I know personally, so I think that’s an incredibly useful factoid.

She mixed it together and told me to add 6 oz each water and bread flour every 12 hours.  Further investigation on my part made me want to make this a full sour starter, so I adapted the recipe.

12 hours after the initial starter, I added 6 oz each of water and bread flour, then let the starter sit in a warm spot with a paper towel between the container and lid, for about 18 hours.

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Little bubbles of activity in the initial sour

On Day 3, I experimented using some of the sour (more on that later) for making bread. I took 8 oz each of the initial sour, bread flour, and water by weight, and mixed it together.  I tossed the rest.  At this point, it should smell like alcohol and fermentation; this is a good sign that the right bacteria has begun to eat the natural sugars in the flour.

On Day 4, feed your starter 8 oz each of water and flour, and let sit.

Day 5: your sour should be fully developed and fermenty and lovely.  Mix 8 oz of sour (discard the rest) with 16 oz of water and 24 oz of flour (rye or bread). Let sit one more day at room temperature, then you can add to the fridge; slow down process and feed 8 and 8 oz flour and water every three weeks to maintain.  You can use part of the starter at any point to make more sourdough at this point.

At this point I am still in the baby stages of my own starter, so I can only guess if I can maintain mine for some time.  Only time will tell. My friend warned me, “It’s like having a child!” and I’m inclined to take her seriously.

Now on to the main event: The Breadbaking process 

I woke up relatively early to a starter that had doubled in size, smelled like ferment and alcohol, and was bubbling happily.  So I was excited to try using it in making delicious, homemade bread.  Here’s how my day went:

I scaled down my recipe a bit, since I was only tying to make one boule (round loaf).

I added about 2 lb of bread flour to 1/2 lb of the pre-ferment, and about 1 lb 9 oz water. Mix with a stand mixer with the dough attachment for about 3 minutes on medium speed, then rest. Add salt and a tablespoon of water and mix until dough is smooth, about 2 minutes.  Then let rest at room temperature for about an hour.

After this point, it all gets very formulaic.  You want to slap your dough, and fold it in on itself so the gluten develops properly, and then let it rest for about an hour, and then do it again, but only letting the dough rest for 20 minutes the second time.

Basically, you cannot stress out the dough.  That’s the important thing here.

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I really hope he’s not panicking

Once the dough has rested for the second time, you want to pre shape and proof.  To make it easier on myself, I decided to do a boule shape; it’s large, round,  doesn’t require as much shaping practice as a skilled baker, and fits in a dutch oven beautifully.  Amazing.

One last thing I learned: Don’t have the tools? Get creative.

Who has a proofer in home nowadays (or ever)? Hardly any young cook, especially those that I know.  But the want to learn is out there, believe me.  So the only thing we can do is get creative.  Proofing bread is essential to the process; a humid environment is key to this.  So I like to shower with my food.  That’s right.  I set the bowl in the bathroom while showering; the steam released by my shower proofs the bread and helps it expand and become light and airy.

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Proofing near the shower–notice the toothpaste in the background

In that same vein, I don’t have a steamer in my traditional oven. But steaming bread is also essential to creating that light, airy texture. There are two ways to beat this: Use a stone, either fireplace or pizza, in a preheated oven.  When you add the bread, throw ice on the stone to release steam for the baking process. Open oven in last 15 minutes to create golden crust.

Also don’t forget to score your bread–helps release any pent-up steam.  I clearly need to practice my designs. Less is more.

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“artistic” slashes

Or you can use a dutch oven, covered, in the oven, to bake bread.  Uncover bread for last 15 minutes to create golden crust.

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Yay.

Final Results 

In the end, I had a pretty flat loaf.  I think I tripped up a bit with adding salt too early, and proofing a bit too soon as well.  It still tasted good, and my family was impressed with my efforts. I was too.  I t was a full day event, including resting times, proofing times, and my time spent studying up on the subject. So much was learned, most so that bread baking can elude even the best of us, so I shouldn’t feel bad that I at least produced something I can be proud of.

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…Maybe too proud of.

I also saved some starter, so ill be trying to make another loaf probably in the next couple of days, especially since I still have some time off and now I’m kinda (dough) hooked (sorry for the dad jokes, I can’t help myself sometimes). I’m definitely inspired to continue exploring this incredibly interesting niche in the cooking world.

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-L

 

 

Ending One Chapter, Starting Another

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Recently (finally), I graduated from culinary school.  It’s amazing! My love of cooking has definitely taken me down a path I could not have predicted.  Of course the obvious (and often asked) question is: “what’s next?”

In short, to cook. As much as possible and as for as many people as possible.  I’m not a simple girl by any means, but my desires are pretty straightforward.

“So how was culinary school?” Well, that’s the question I get second–most often, tied with “what do you like to cook?” Just to get the latter out of the way, I like to cook anything and everything.  Explaining school is a little more lengthy of an answer.

my first day of culinary school

The first year seemed long, with classes covering the basics and lots of academic classes.  Everyone was feeling each other out and sizing up the competition; cooking will always be known as a competitive field, but some are comparing themselves to others while others only compete with themselves.  It can be an interesting mental game; definitely easy to get caught up in everything or anything that is going on around you.  It was here I learned my first lesson: the only person I should be worrying about doing better than is the person I was yesterday.  Cooking is self improvement; there is nothing more satisfying than creating something beautiful that you can eat.  I learned that it is so important not to lose sight of why I cook: to bring others joy, and hopefully (in the words of Daenerys Targaryen) “to leave the world better than when we found it. ”

I’m with her.

Things really changed for me during my summer externship. I was working in fine dining, and really learning how far I could push myself.  I learned how to taste for specific flavors and find balance in food; I was also exposed to new restaurants and the lifestyle of a cook in the big city. I learned my second lesson during this time: No cook was made in a day. Every day I tried to perfect my knife cuts, to work faster, season better, to anticipate what was needed of me. I couldn’t see much change on the day-to-day basis, but when it was all over, I couldn’t believe how much I had learned and grew in such a short period.  While I was exhausted at the end of it, I was more dedicated than ever to learning as much as I could about my craft.

Then our second year started, and I swear, I blinked my eyes and graduation time was almost upon me. Classes changed every three weeks, the academic classes dried up, and all of a sudden it was game time: cooking every day, cooking in the restaurants on campus for the public, and learning the more advanced principals the school had to offer.  I was working two jobs, going to school, and visiting my friends almost every weekend in Boston.  It all moved by so quickly, and I wish I could have paused it, especially at certain moments, to examine each second of my life with more understanding.  But that’s impossible, so I still had to learn the hardest lesson of all; one I am still struggling with  and I think most people do: Life moves by fast.  Focus on what is important to you and try not to let the rest enter your mind.  Stress is the most common emotion that eats at  me, and I had a lot of it during school.  It wasn’t always pretty, but I got through it all, with jobs intact, all my fingers, and friends that would still talk to me.  Best of all I got another diploma to hang on my wall, a psyical product of my achievement, to give me strength when mine own is faltering.

Graduation day- feeling very accompllished

Graduation day- feeling very accomplished

I left my life in Boston to come home to New York and pursue a dream of mine– a hobby that developed into a passion with became my life’s work, and I never looked back.  I was inspired along the way– by friends and family who supported me, my teachers and chefs who guided me, my fellow culinary students that worked with me, fought with me, and ultimately made me stronger– thank you all. My future scares me, but in a good way.  I hope those around me are hungry– I know I sure am.

-L

 

End of Semester Round Up

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Somehow, the end of my first semester at Culinary School is upon me, and I don’t even know how it happened so quickly. I’ve gone from just understanding consomme to pulling together more composed dishes:

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My life, similarly, has become more composed as well.  I’ve somehow learned to balance school, three jobs, and a (somewhat sad or somewhat very exclusive, depending on how you look at it) social and familial life. You know what? It’s not bad. Sure, busy doesn’t come close to describing my life on some weeks, but I’ve learned to at least give myself a day off a week, allowing myself to recharge from what can be a very demanding schedule.

So what’s next? More school, of course.  I start my second semester next month, and with it, I get to learn fish and meat butchery, courses I have been very excited to learn. Then I start to work in production kitchens, which I’m sure will feel like home to me.  I cannot wait to be back in a kitchen setting this summer, where I will go on externship and have a chance to gain some more experience and save a little cash.

Hopefully I’ll have some time this summer to still do some exploring between school and work, as I plan on hitting a festival or two and traveling to some new states (looking at you, Colorado…).  Then it’s back to school to finish up before graduation.

After all that? Who knows. The sky is the limit after I graduate, though I expect I will want to move out of New York as soon as I can. Or at least that’s the plan for now.  My life is so fluid, I might end up staying in New York for a little.  All I know is, I would like to live out west for at least a little part of my life.  Colorado or California, maybe Arizona or even Oregon if the conditions are right.  I don’t plan on spending my whole life in one place. There are so many exciting things happening in food nowadays I don’t have to limit myself to a specific region.  People gotta eat.

All those are just dreams though.  I have no idea where my life is going to take me, and if I’ve learned anything in the past year, it is the life has it’s own plan, and sometimes, there is no use fighting it.  So I just plan the day to day, at least til I have the time to figure out the rest.  Luckily, I’ll always have my friends and family to guide me through the somewhat treacherous seas of life, those who support me and who put up with me when I’m not on my best behavior; it’s those people who I owe a great deal of thanks.

So what have I learned in my first semester at school? That, when put to the test, I still want to live my life with food.  School has tested my resolve, and I think it’s only made me want to push harder.  Having people to watch your back definitely instils a greater sense of confidence; I know I can take the dive cause I have a good net to catch me just in case I miss.  There’s no point in not going for my goals.

-L

Seven Days in Sydney

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A few weeks ago, I landed from a week long trip in Sydney, Australia.  I’ve been peeling from the intense sun and desperate to go back ever since.  It was a whirlwind trip, one that included all the major sights of the city, plus some underground spots and local watering holes introduced to me by those living in Sydney. Classic combo.

So where do I begin? I guess at day one…

I landed in Sydney on Christmas morning.  A lovely and new way to spend the holiday. Christmas can make me a bit awkward, as I’m not always sure (or financially stable enough) about giving the best gifts.  I decided to avoid all that this year.  As soon as I got to Sydney, my friend, whom I was visiting and staying with, wanted to start the day by heading to the beach.  I was not opposed, especially coming from the frigid tundra that is New York right now into mid–summer a world away.

Kinda Hard to say no to this.

Kinda hard to say no to this.

After I was sufficiently thawed out, we headed to dinner at the home of another expat, a coworker of my friend Sierra (of Magic Bar fame), who now lives and works in Sydney. There was quite a spread at dinner, so much food we stuffed ourselves and barely scratched the surface of the amount of food. The most memorable was the cheese plate by far, however. There was baked Camembert, a veiny blue, a sharp cheddar, Brie, and all the fixings. I have never seen a cheese plate this intense outside of a restaurant.

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After rolling ourselves to bed, Sierra and I spent my second day in another beach in Darling Harbour, a quaint and lovely beachside part of Sydney.

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That evening I tried a duck taco with hoisin sauce and a scallion pancake in place of a traditional taco shell. I had come to Sydney with no expectations of food, but after only a few days of sampling the local fare I knew I would have no problem exploring the local food scene.

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On the third day we ate at a small cafe called Ampersand, which was a bookstore and library in addition to being a cafe. I had an incredibly filling breakfast wrap with poached eggs, thick cut bacon, and arugula (or rocket, as it’s called in Oz).

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We walked along the beaches in the afternoon, covering about five miles, with beautiful views of various beaches along the coast and beautiful cliffs where you can see how the sea has beat away at the rock over the course of time.

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That night, I spent a few hours in the kitchen at Gazebo, a Mod Oz cuisine restaurant in the Kings Cross neighborhood of Sydney. The opportunity was favor to me by my host, who is a bartender at the same establishment. After learning a few things about gastronomy, we had a chance to sample the food. I thought I was full the first night I got to Australia. I didn’t know what full was. Each dish was beautiful, well executed, and the flavors were thoughtful and complex. It was inspiring, and reaffirmed my love for gorgeous fine dining food.

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I explored the city the next day, hitting all the touristy spots, and of course, the beautiful opera house and harbor.

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My final days in Australia were spent seeing some things native to Australia. We headed to the Sydney Zoo where we saw koalas and kangaroos hanging out like it was no big thing.

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I also got very close to a giraffe and giggled like a schoolgirl. Generally we monkeyed around the zoo for a few hours (dad jokes are my specialty ).

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After we saw all the animals, we hung out at a small little cove beach that Sierra knew about. It was quiet and the water was clear, so I was happy.

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On my penultimate day, we headed to the Blue Mountains of Australia. This was probably my favorite day in Australia. A two hour drive outside the city took us to paradise in the mountains. Gorgeous views, waterfalls, and a blue haze over the mountains as far as the eye can see. Apparently the blue haze is from evaporating eucalyptus oil. Hiking the area was a nice escape from the city, and the view was far from boring.

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When we got back into the city that night, Sierra took me to Eau De Vie, and incredible cocktail bar in the city. I’ve never seen a place like this. They were using liquid nitrogen to freeze the whip cream that topped their espresso martinis:

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Then there was this. This cocktail had a portion that was cooled with liquid nitrogen and placed on a wooden board. The board, which was quite long, was lit on the other side to burning, and the glass was turned upside down over the smoke to capture the aroma and flavor of the cool liquid on the other side of the board. If you’re ever in Sydney, go here. It was an experience just to watch them make the drinks.

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The drinks, of course, were divine. Sierra had a dark rum drink topped with a sugar cone, and I had a strawberry gin concoction that I had to pace myself to enjoy. It was incredible.

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My final full day in Sydney was spent where I began: the beach. I enjoyed a kangaroo burger overlooking Bondi beach and strolled in the city in the afternoon. That night, we watched the fireworks to celebrate the new year off the harbor and toasted to a week well spent.

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This trip was lovely. Some warmth and time spent with a very close friend in a world away is another experience to check off my bucket list. While I’ll be living extra frugally to counter my lavish trip, it was worth it. Adventure and memories trump saving a few dollars every time.
-L

Frugal Foodie in the Land Down Unda

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It’s about that time again, when people start to go home and bundle up for the holidays. Not me.
I hate the cold. Hate it. I can deal with cold weather for a little, after I first step outside, but as soon as that cold wind slaps me in the face, I’m done. There’s little else in this world I complain more about that being cold.
So I decided to change things up a bit and head to Australia to visit my friend for Christmas. Did I mention how little I like the cold? It’s summer in Sydney right now.

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Needless to say, I’m excited. Sydney is known for being a must see food destination as well, since it is so close to Asia but Australia also has a cuisine all it’s own. I don’t know too much about what to expect to be honest, so I am excited to see what’s out there. There will be plenty of exploring and reporting on my part. It has been a while since I’ve had a really big adventure, and I’m itching to see somewhere new.
Tomorrow I board a plane, and I land Christmas Day (Christmas Eve to us stateside) and take it from there. More to come.
-L

Life in the Land of Consommé

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The past few weeks have been such a whirlwind. Being back in school, and a technical school at that, is overwhelming and fun and scary and inspiring all at once. Does that even make sense?
So I started culinary school at the CIA. What can I even say? It’s awesome.
First of all, my lunches look something like this :

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All students are required to have a meal plan, which I complained about at first but now am realizing that it is a gift to have two meals a day at school and one at home. I’m a happy (and probably soon to be chubby) girl, even more so because I get to dress like this every day:

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Probably one of the more comfortable outfits I’ve ever had to wear. While it’s not incredibly flattering, I wasn’t really going for prom queen anyways.

Classes are pretty fascinating as well. At least, it’s nice to take classes that are all giving me skills I will need to use if I ever take the plunge and own my own business one day (fingers crossed). My math class, for example, teaches students to understand how to calculate how much product is being used and wasted, and how to cost dishes so the business can turn a profit. The class on food safety helps students get ServSafe certified at the end of the course.
Now I’m not going to say that these classes have me on the edge of my seat or anything, but I am still pretty eager to go to class. Each different class is like a cog in a machine, a building block to get to my ultimate goal of working for myself one day.

All that is an appetizer, though. The real meat of culinary school isn’t the class time, it’s the time in the kitchens. That is everyone’s favorite time, of course, and I am no different.
I have a class that teaches the fundamentals of Classic French cooking in a kitchen lab twice a week from 6:30 in the morning til about 1:30 in the afternoon or so. While the class starts at an ungodly hour, especially considering I live about 30 minutes away from school, I’m actually getting used to waking up before the sun. It’s doing nothing for my social life, but who am I kidding, I wasn’t going to be a social butterfly anyways. I gave up a lot to come to the CIA, and I don’t plan on wasting the experience by partying when I should be studying.
…when did I start sounding like my mother?
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Ahem, about this class…it’s exactly what I came to school for.
We are leaning how to cut uniformly and consistently, and the basics of French cooking. I wanted to come to school to learn skills I can build upon, and I this class cements that I am doing just that.
So far, I’ve learned how to make French onion soup (the tomato at the top left is filled with a mushroom-shallot mixture called a duxelle and topped with breadcrumbs):

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I’ve also made beef and vegetable soup:

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What I have been most excited to learn was consommé. We made it last week, and I was so happy when my broth was free of impurities and totally clear, but still managed to have flavor.

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I have plans to share the recipe I’ve learned soon, however I don’t want to blab for too long.
For now, I am a very happy albeit exhausted individual. I have to be up in a few hours to start my day with cutting potatoes and garlic, and I couldn’t be more excited.
-L