Nicole Croes is a member of Chef’s Training Program class 178, which began nearly 9 months ago. As CTP 178 approaches the end of their program, they are in the process of planning their 3-course Friday Night Dinner for 100 guests – the final project for every graduating class. Nicole has been blogging the entire Friday Night Dinner process in installments here on Blanched and Shocked. Here is Part V, chronicling the last practice before her group’s dinner on July 9th . . .
It was a stifling hot Wednesday evening, and my birthday to boot, but for me Friday Night Dinner Practice 2 was not to be missed. Due to a death in the family I missed Practice 1 and needed to get back in the loop. After the first practice, a panel of chef instructors, along with our group, determined which recipes were set and which required some tweaking for the big night. So in this class, we were to test or re-test any recipes that still needed work.
Chef Elliot gave us our marching orders at 6 on the dot and we got down to business. After a successful first practice, all we had to work on was our brandied cherry trifle, vegan bread sticks, braised artichokes and balsamic vinegar reduction. Compared to intense preparations in our recent Buffet Class, and nine hours of cookie conversions, our four recipes were a welcomed reprieve for a weeknight class.
I volunteered to make the almond pastry crème for the cherry trifle, while Noel pitted and simmered the cherries. Denise was in charge of the bread sticks and the balsamic vinegar reduction. Group Leader Abbey braised the artichokes and toasted the slivered almonds for the trifle, in addition to monitoring the measurements and portion sizes for each recipe. We all played our part.
While I reviewed my recipe, Chef Elliott forewarned me that the almond crème took some time to make and set up in the refrigerator – a gentle reminder that I needed to hustle. So I launched into prep mode and mise-en-placed the ingredients for the almond milk – an element of the crème I had to prepare from scratch.
Having missed Practice 1, I was a bit nervous as I’d never worked on these particular recipes before. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover making almond milk is a snap. I began by boiling 3 cups of water and placing 1½ cups of blanched almonds in a bowl. When the water boiled I poured the hot water over the almonds, covered the bowl and gave it about 20-30 minutes to soften. After the allotted time I blended the almonds, strained the mixture through a fine sieve and added vanilla extract for flavor. That was it! I swore that from then on I would never again buy almond milk. If you can boil water and blend, you too can make it at home.
With my milk at the ready, I proceeded with the almond pastry crème recipe, which was also fairly straightforward. It required that I mix a few ingredients, including the freshly made almond milk, agar flakes (a type of flavorless seaweed used as a vegan thickener), water, maple syrup, salt, brandy and almond extract, and simmer the mixture until the agar flakes dissolved. Then, I was to add a kuzu slurry (a root thickener) to finish.
I whipped up everything like a champ. After a mere 10 minutes of simmering, it looked as though I was almost done, so I waved over Chef Elliott for his final approval. “Are the agar flakes dissolved?” he asked, as he whirled the liquid around in the pot. “Yes,” I answered with certainty. I was on a roll!
Or maybe not. It looked to me like the agar flakes had dissolved in seconds, but Chef Elliott’s trained eye proved otherwise. He pointed out the agar militia holding its ground in the bottom of my pot. “See?” he asked, pointing at what looked to me like nothing more than some harmless bubbles. “They take awhile to dissolve,” he added, as he left me to my stirring post. I took his word on faith as I saw nothing and continued to swish the liquid with a wooden spoon. After a few more minutes I asked if the crème was ready and again Chef pointed to the pesky little agar flakes I couldn’t quite see. I felt like a kid sitting in the backseat of the car, asking over and over, “Are we there yet?”
This cycle continued for another round or two until I finally saw something! The pot tipped at just the right angle and cast light on the tiny black speckles Chef was talking about. It was like gazing at a painting that you can’t quite figure out, and then when you do, you wonder how you ever missed it before.
Now that I’d spotted the enemy, I was on a mission. I stirred and simmered and tipped the pot for a look-see, and stirred and simmered and checked again, while those stubborn flakes fought back with all their might. I had to give them credit; they were good. I wondered and worried if I’d done something wrong as each moment passed and each agar flake remained. But after some more movement, heat, time and gentle coaxing, I finally prevailed. Chef ordered a cease-fire and we took the well-thickened crème off the stove.
I poured the crème into a hotel pan and placed it into the refrigerator to cool. When the crème solidified, I blended it to creamy smoothness. Together, our group assembled the brandied cherry trifle, snacked on the delicious bread sticks that had just come out of the oven, and tasted the braised artichokes prepped earlier that evening. Perfection was achieved! Summoning our last bits of energy, we discussed our final plating concerns and how we wanted to use the balsamic vinegar reduction.
When we were officially done, the reality and scope of it all set in. I realized that the next time we prepare these recipes it will be for the public. This was it! I was immediately filled with pride, hope and excitement. My stomach flitted with butterflies, as visions of our impending Friday Night Dinner success filled my head.
As I slung my knife bag over my shoulder and grabbed a cab home, I thought back to the conversation I had with my dad early that morning. When he called to wish me a happy birthday, he asked if I felt any different. My answer was, No; I’d felt exactly the same. But as I rolled away from class on this particular evening, something had in fact changed. For whatever reason at that moment it hit me, I’m a chef – we’re all chefs. And it felt good!
My love and luck to Groups A and B! We’re almost there!
CTP 178’s menu for this Friday . . .
Tomato Tower with Sautéed Mushrooms, Zucchini, Braised Baby Artichoke, and Goat Cheese (optional) with Whole Wheat Breadstick
Chickpea Crepes with Broccoli Rabe and Gigante Bean Fillings, Leek Bechamel and Micro-Green Salad
Intermezzo: Cucumber Cups with Lavender Tea Sorbet
Cherry Tartlet, Brandied Cherry Trifle with Almond Crème, and Cherry Sorbet Bon Bon with Orange Coulis