The Cook-Off

September 19, 2012.

This has been the summer and early fall of firsts. First, the photo shoot, and now most recently, the farmers’ market annual cook-off. Ordinarily, I would have done my usual Saturday morning volunteering at the market – setting up, assisting as needed my friend Carol, who’s the market manager extraordinaire, cleaning up and so on – but Carol encouraged me to enter the competition this year. Sounds like fun, I thought. No problem, I thought. I just needed to figure out a sweet or savory recipe to enter.

Well, let me give you a few words of advice if you’re planning on entering a cook-off, or bake-off, anytime some (or ever). First, think carefully about the recipe you want to enter and make a firm decision well in advance. I advise not waiting until the day before the cook-off to decide between two recipes as said procrastination and hesitation will result in panic purchasing of ingredients for both recipes (doubled, by the way) only to allow more time for said procrastination and hesitation (and resulting possible waste of ingredients for the unchosen recipe). You see, choosing a recipe for a cook-off is tricky business with many factors to consider: ability to be made in advance or relatively short order right before the competition, ease of assembly and serving, visual appearance (we eat with our eyes, remember?), audience, judges, common allergy-inducing ingredients to be avoided, and expected weather at the time of competition, to name some of the most important ones. But, ultimately, the most important factor to consider is figuring out which recipe is simply tasty enough to stand the best chance of winning. This cook-off wasn’t divided into categories (all entries – sweet or savory – were going head-to-head…or mouth-to-mouth, as it were), and I had the newbie, first-time jitters, so it was an especially difficult decision to make. I debated between making an adapted version of this seasonal slaw recipe or an amalgamated version of this apple spice cake recipe and an apple cake recipe from the Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook. My sweet side won out, not to mention apples are in season, and really, who can resist cake? Wait, make that apple spice cake with caramel glaze served with homemade whipped cream and a sprinkling of pecans.

(Regrettably, in the crush of serving hungry tasters, I never had an opportunity to get a shot of a complete, beautifully plated serving. So, those pictures along with some imagination will just have to do.)

Now, once the decision has been made, I suggest that you don’t celebrate said decision by going out to dinner with friends until late in the evening as said celebration will result in cooking until the wee hours of the morning, which, when combined with a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call to finish entry for the cook-off and assist with set up, results in few hours of sleep (and grouchy husband). This leads me to my next point of advice.

Lack of sleep usually results in one not looking one’s best, so give a solid amount of effort to your appearance as chances are photos will be taken, and it really stinks to look at said photos and wish you would have done a little more with your hair. Trust me on this one.

So, despite not following my own advice and instead stumbling through my first attempt at entering a cook-off, I somehow managed to win (but, you should still follow my advice – seriously, your cook-off foray will be much less stressful and you will look really great in those pictures). And, I won…on my birthday. Go figure. Heck of a birthday present, right?

However, the whole cook-off experience isn’t only about winning. It’s about the fun and challenge of researching, picking and making just the right recipe. It’s about the camaraderie with your fellow competitors. It’s about following through on a commitment no matter how late it might be when you get started or how tired you might be when you’re finished. It’s about interacting with all the community members who came out to sample the entries and vote and support the cook-off. It’s about being proud that you took the chance to do something new.

And, alright, I’ll be honest, it also feels pretty neat if you’re recipe is chosen as the winner.

(Editor’s note: A special thanks to the blonde photographer for taking the wheel of my camera on photos not marked Sugar Talk Productions.)

In Season: Figs

August 29, 2012.

It’s true. I have a thing for figs. Fresh, just-picked-from-the-tree figs, that is, not those scary black dried things found in the bulk food section of the grocery store. So many varieties, so much versatility. Black Mission, Blue Celeste, Brown Turkish, Desert King, Naples White, Papa John, Tiger and the list goes on. I’m always amazed when I encounter people who either don’t like figs or, if you can believe this, have never tried a fig. How is that possible?

Over here at Sugar Talk I’m supposed to post only about all things pastry and sweets, but with figs I am going to break this rule. They can be enjoyed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner or as a snack or dessert. The fewest of accoutrements and there you go. Figs are also perfect just on their own. They don’t have to be gussied up to be eaten. I’m hard pressed to think of other fruits that may be used in so many ways. It’s little wonder that figs ran a close second to apples in the garden of Eden.

To make one of my favorite breakfasts during fig season, I take Greek yogurt and top it with Michele’s granola (handmade in small batches in nearby Baltimore), layer on a couple of cut figs and finish it with a drizzle of honey. Healthy and delicious.

I think another lovely combination could involve cooked steel-cut oatmeal, a bit of warm milk or cream, figs and honey. Or maybe I will finally try my hand at making preserves – I’m thinking warm toast with homemade fig jam. People with fig trees are usually always willing to unload their surplus, and this drunken fig jam recipe sounds delightful. Just the thing to do with an extra supply of figs. And really, who doesn’t like a little kick of Cognac in the morning with his or her toast?  I can also envision giving adorable half-pint jars of this jam as a gift, or serving it along side a cheese plate.

At lunch time, figs seem to easily find their way into salads. This salad recipe that includes figs stuffed with goat cheese and wrapped in bacon certainly sounds decadent. Or how about a salad that includes flash-pickled figs? Decisions, decisions.

Moving around the clock into the afternoon snack territory, I’ve partaken in more than a few figs that I’ve quartered and then topped with a dollop of mascarpone or crème fraîche and drizzled with honey. If the clock has moved a little farther along, try goat cheese or blue cheese instead, add a few dashes of freshly ground pepper, and now you have a quick and easy, yet sophisticated, snack to enjoy with cocktails.

Time for dinner? Figs are in season in the summer and summer means grilling. So, how about grilled pork chops served with pickled figs in balsamic vinegar? (I’m really into pickling right now, in case you’re noticing a theme here.) Or hey, this is different – fish grilled in fig leaves. You could also add some figs to your favorite type of skewer (I’m thinking lamb and fig would be a dynamite combination and this kebab recipe from The New York Times should convince you that I’m right) or just grill some and have them as a side dish. With a little imagination or a quick search of your favorite food web sites, you might be surprised by how figs can make your dinner meal more interesting.

And now, let’s face it, what you’ve been waiting for…dessert! I think figs get overlooked when it comes to summer desserts, or any desserts for that matter. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are maligned, but they seem to be ignored, at best. Think about a time recently when you were at a restaurant and figs were included on the dessert menu. Or have you seen lately any fig dessert recipes in any of the popular food magazines? Me either. I don’t understand why this is because the semi-sweet, somewhat juicy, somewhat syrupy nature of figs make them a perfect ingredient. In fact, this perfection means it doesn’t take much to create a winsome dessert to share with friends after an evening meal al fresco, which I did here. There are many ways that figs may be used in dessert (I’m talking to you, fancy restaurant pastry chefs), but I’ve found that putting them in a crostata is one of the best ways. The crostata dough serves, really, as just a vessel for the figs. In this honeyed-thyme figs version, the figs get to do their thing. They aren’t overlooked, people aren’t ignoring them. They finally get to be the star of the show. Finally.

The Hors D’Oeuvres Buffet (or, The End Is Here)

Week 20.

I won’t wax nostalgic or make some trite comment about how quickly time goes by. Yet, twenty weeks ago, the day I hoped I would make it to, and now the day I was regretting, was upon me. The last class of Pastry Techniques 101. No more fighting traffic on Tuesday evenings to meet up with my new friends to explore the world of pastry. No more doggie bags of pastry treats to bring home to Todd. The end was here.

Instead of letting us feel blue about the course being over (although maybe some people were glad, but I don’t think so), Chef made sure the last class would be one of celebration. And what better way to celebrate than with an hors d’oeuvres buffet? He put us to work one last time, and then we savored the tartlettes of our labor. We made salambos filled with egg salad, croissant jambon (which means ham croissant in French), miniature quiches, sausage en croute (basically brioche wrapped around sausage), sliders with brioche buns, blue cheese tartlettes, pissaladière (a tart with caramelized onions, olives and anchovies), cheese straws and more.

While the buffet focused mostly on using doughs to create hors d’oeuvres, how to properly plate hors d’oeuvres (stacking, for most hors d’oeuvres, is a big no-no, by the way) and stage an hors d’oeuvres table (variety is key – we eat with our eyes, remember?), it was also an opportunity to reflect on what we had learned and all we had accomplished, the new friendships made and what the future might bring. It was the culmination of twenty weeks of learning, practicing, and remaining dedicated to one subject.

When I signed up for Pastry Techniques 101, I had only one goal: to get over my fear of baking, particularly baking pastry. The course helped me accomplish that goal, yet provided much more. I met delightful people, some of whom I now consider good friends, I learned from a remarkable master pastry chef, and I gained a renewed appreciation for pastry chefs’ hard work and creativity. Most of all, though, PT101 has opened my mind to the idea that I could have a new career or business in this field. I don’t know what that means right now or how this idea might develop, but I’m excited to see what the future brings. And even though Pastry Techniques 101 is over, Sugar Talk will live on. So, if nothing else, look for future posts about my continued exploration of all things pastry and baking.

Of course, the final PT101 class post would be incomplete if I didn’t thank Nina, class assistant extraordinaire, and all the other assistants – Lauren, Erin, Jackie and Cynthia – for their knowledge, patience and hand holding.

But most of all, thank you Chef Mark. It’s been a sweet ride!