Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Christmas ... A Time To Give

In the last few days before the annual Christmas break we spent much time working with, and for, others. "Who are we working with today, Chef?", my students would ask me.

They never asked what they would get out of it.

Just two days before the holiday began we hosted some of our school's students from the Independent Living Program.
These students are simply wonderful for us and to us ... they willingly take all our laundry of tea-towels, chef hats and aprons and wash them and fold it all two or three times a week every week. Then they deliver it back to us, neatly stacked in a shabby old IKEA bag! This is part of their job-readiness preparation. We could never thank them enough for doing this every week for us, year after year, but as a small 'thank you' we welcomed these kids and their teaching aide (Karen Brant)
and teacher (Rachel Kaufman) and the co-op students who work with the class into the kitchen for a morning of cookie-making.

Cheerful chaos!
Too many people!

CHEF !!!
But, in the end everything worked out well. We all had a great time, the place was (mostly) cleaned up and cookies were made by the dozens.

That was Thursday before the holidays.


On the Friday my chef students came in and we just sat around and chatted and drank coffee ... they have worked hard every single day since September, and it was time to just 'chillax'. so we watched a few Jamie Oliver videos, an Epic Chef video and bade our farewells.

A few of them were asking me just before the class went out, "Chef, what do you think I can give people this year? I don't have much money."

Good question.

I said to my students "Look, most of you don't have much money. Some of you don't have a job yet. If you want to make your family and friends simply happy and delighted, offer them your time and talent. You are all good young cooks. Go and cook for your family and friends. Invite your friends over for a sit-down dinner party! Amaze them with your skills. It does not need to cost much, and your gift of time is more valuable than anything you can buy someone with money. Give your family and friends YOU! And you'll find you have a great appreciation of others, and the time that they have to give you. It will make you more human. The more you empty yourself out by giving, the less you will actually need to receive to feel filled-up and greatly appreciated. Give more, need less. Good luck. Happy Christmas. Away you go."

In about 3 minutes, and a few hugs later, the kitchen was quiet and the lights were all out except the little ones twinkling on our counter-top tree, reflected in the old stainless steel cupboards and countertops, bringing back memories of years of wonderful students. A little twinkle for each student, each memory, each hard-earned success.

Yes, dear friends, there IS a Santa Claus. You and me.
Thank you, parents, for always sending me only your very best kids. They are simply a delight to work with, and for.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to each of you.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Challah ... Or Else ... and a great bread-making tip.

A few days ago one of my excellent students came to me with a request. "Chef", my student said, "In my family we celebrate Hannukah. I'd really like to make challah bread for this holiday, but I don't know how. Can you teach me?"

No easier asked, gentle student, than done.

Let's start with a recipe. We searched the internet and books for a recipe that looked as though it would work right off, and that my student had the skills to make and do at home. Allrecipes, (a wonderful website for cooks ... so is Epicurious), came through perfectly. We took a look at the recipe and I adjusted it a little to make it more approachable for a beginner. We went over the recipe together and I clarified what techniques were needed, what mis-en-place would be required and what the time structure was. With all this in place, the process began.
The dough was made and risen, then punched down, divided and rolled into long cigars. These were braided three per loaf, and set onto baking sheets on silpats. They were covered correctly for a proof, then topped off with a quick egg-wash and one was top-garnished with sesame seeds. Care was taken to gently tuck the flattened ends under the larger mass of the braid at each end of the loaf, to give a neat appearance.

The ovens were pre-heated and settled and set up for steam (to ensure a delicious crust).

Then, after 45 minutes of proofing, into the ovens, a fast blast of heat and steam and the dough rose up like a great imagination and baked off perfectly!

The results spoke for themselves.

Congratulations, Chef Rebecca! You did it ... and now you can share this at home with your family over Hannukah. Thanks for asking.


Here is a wonderful baking tip I had shared with me by a woman who is a simply fabulous cook. I use it all the time when I make bread and it never fails.

For many years Monarch Park was blessed with wonderful Greek cafeteria Chefs. Koula, Yasmina, Angela and Maria were all from small Greek villages around or part of Sparta. Their traditions included an enormous amount of folk-knowledge about making food and using ingredients. Each of these wonderful women has been a mentor to my students, a wonderful example of excellence and an awfully nice person to work with in the kitchen. Thank you, Chefs!

Yasmina taught me, REALLY taught me, how to proof bread. She taught me that dough, when proofing, was usually trying to get the very best and last out of the yeast. What she taught me was to have my ovens ready and settled, and use steam for most breads. Then she would knock about 10 - 15 minutes off any proofing-time, and bake in a searing, steamy oven. Yasmina taught me that when she did this she was giving the yeast one great chance to show its stuff ... one last gasp, so to speak ... and the steamy heat would get the dough going all at once in a sort of yeasty "Hail Mary" final effort. I tried it on the day she taught me, and I have never looked back. This technique works beautifully on focaccia, ciabatta, challah, baguette, brioche. I can honestly say that I make wonderful bread, in part because of the skill I learnt from Yasmina and the other great Greek chefs we have been fortunate to have.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Christmas Fruitcake -- Or Else!

Christmas, it is said, comes but once a year. What's that, you say? Once a year? Why not more often? Because, my tinies, we would have to make more fruitcake!

Once a year, also, Chef Ann Aller joins the brigade at Monarch Park and helps us make her fabulous fruitcake. (She is Chef Aller-Stead's Mother-In-Law.) It is her recipe we use, and Chef Aller enjoys helping and guiding us all to make perfect, traditional fruitcake for our home enjoyment and for sales to the lucky staff who are connoisseurs of such delightful comestibles.

So ... to start with, here is the recipe Take a careful look at it ... there is a large amount of detail in here, both for the shopping as well as for the technique. Remember, as you read, you need to remember that the BEST fruitcake is old fruitcake. (OK, not as old as Chef, but at least 1 month old ... 3 months if you get organized sufficiently.) You will need to spend quite a bit of time doing the shopping to support this fruitcake-making, including getting some brandy and rum (speak to your parents).

Follow the recipe carefully and slowly. Here are a few shots of how we did it in class. We make TEN TIMES this recipe!

First, we mixed all the fruit, raisins and nuts together in our largest bowls.

Here is Chef Aller with Ciara and Rebecca, all hands into the gooey mess of fruit, pineapple juice and a bottle of brandy.

This was followed by making the dough ... here is Jack preparing butter for the largest stand-mixer, to be blended with butter to make a smooth beginning.
We 'encourage' this by using Chef's blowtorch. Doesn't every home kitchen have a blowtorch? No? OK, students, Christmas is coming, and they're $25 at Nella! Now Jack is getting the torch onto the bowl of the stand mixer to ensure the butter and sugars blend quickly and smoothly.
(Notice that no one looks nervous. We have done this before and know how ... Chef is a safety freak!)

Jack is very careful to have just the correct portion of the flame touch the bowl ... we are not welding, neither are we just lighting a candle. It is important to get this just right, and Jack knows how to be a perfectionist in this area. The heat will help the butter smooth out with the sugar. We remove the torch when the sugar does not feel granulated at all, and the mixture is silky-smooth. Then the eggs go in one at a time, then the extract. This will be followed by the huge amounts of dry ingredients (remember, we are making ten times the original recipe) and finally we have made a lovely, warm, light-brown almond batter. The batter is worked into the huge pans of marinated fruit and nuts by hand. Using our hands is very important, as our fingers will not cut up any fruit or damage any part of the filling we are so carefully preparing. It is very hard work, though, and takes a lot of patience.
We have produced about 90 pounds of fruitcake batter, all ready for the prepared pans. Pans are made ready with two layers each of parchment paper, with Crisco shortening thinly smeared on every surface.
Liia and Leshaunda took on the boring task of making the pan-liners for 30 fruitcake pans ... here they are making stripes of paper for the sides of the springforms, and the bottoms were covered with two circles of parchment.

After the springforms were prepared, we filled them up to within about 2 cm of the top of each. Prior to baking, the tops were decorated. Here is one being beautifully worked on by Glenn.

At this point all the cake needs is a top of parchment paper to gently rest on top of the batter (so the top of the cake does not form much of a crust or brown a lot).

We readied our ovens with steam, then baked for between 2.5 and 4.5 hours (depending on the thickness and diameter).

After the cakes came out of the ovens, we let them cool on the counters overnight on racks, then we doused them with a goodly shot of rum or brandy before tightly wrapping them up in two layers of waxed paper with an outside shell of tinfoil.

These are tightly closed, and the cakes are kept at cool room temperature for a fortnight. Next week we will bring them out and give them a second dose with brandy, then deliver them.

Interesting side-note to our cakes ... the evening they were cooling on the counter, Monarch Park held an open-house event for parents of prospective grade 9 students next September. Many, many parents came through the kitchen, drawn (no doubt) by the delicious smells and proud display of Chef's photos of his students all over the outside walls (and ceilings) of the Culinary Arts area. Several parents asked for the fruitcake recipe, and one offered to buy a small $20 cake on the spot (Chef sold it immediately).

Chef Aller came in one more time the next day, to ensure that the topping-off of the cakes (their first dousing) and wrapping was done according to her high standard.
Now the cakes are nestled in their wrappings, swaddled against undue evaporation or drying, and after the next dousing will rest for another fortnight, then will be ready for proud display and delicious snacking over the Christmas holiday.

Thank you, Chef Aller, for all your time, patience and care! We couldn't do it as well without you. See you next year!

And that's a wrap.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Lambsickles (a.k.a.Lamb, Modena Style)

Lamb ... lamb ... what is not to love about lamb?

This delicious dish does not require huge amounts of lead time, but does take patience to be able to do well. Take heart, have fun and work carefully with the knives, especially when Frenching the bones!

To start ... go and buy a whole rack of lamb ... figure two or three bones per person, and racks come in at 8, sometimes 9, bones. (The racks available at Costco are a very good deal, and are worth buying one or two of. I always have a whole rack on hand in case someone shows up for dinner. They are halal as well, so go over very well in our kitchens at MPC!) Once you gain confidence working with lamb and racks, I encourage everyone to go to a local butcher and get fresh lamb from one of their local farmers. I buy my fresh Ontario lamb at either The Brickworks Farmers' market or at my favourite food store, Fiesta Farms.

Learn how to 'French' bones using the back of a knife, (not the working blade ... you'll wreck the edge), and patience. Be sure to cut the chops (we call them 'Lambsickles" because in class we eat them with our fingers) evenly thick so the cooking time is consistent.

Our 'dredge' (coating) is made with 'Italian' breadcrumbs, and we add the following: salt and pepper, a goodly amount of powdered parmegiano and make a chiffonade of fresh herbs (if we can get them) -- usually rosemary, thyme, oregano and basil (the Mediterranean Quadrivium). Others may prefer a sightly 'darker' mix, using sage, perhaps, and marjoram or tarragon.

Make your balsamic reduction from good product, not cheap stuff. You will always be able to taste the difference! Get good vinegar from Modena. Reduce, then let it thicken for you as it cools.

The final cooking is done quickly ... takes about 14 minutes from start to served. Our single biggest problem this semester was remembering to pre-heat the ovens beforehand AND pre-position the oven racks so the saute pans can fit in with their handles! (Note to the adventurous at home ... be sure your pans AND handles can go into the oven! Your sauté pan must go from stovetop to 375 degree oven in about 3 seconds.)

The photos presented are in order (top to bottom) of the lambsickles in the pan fresh from the oven, the preparation of the presentation plate and the final presented product of a pair of lambsickles and a pair of lamb poppers. The plates are prepared with balsamic reduction, and a little more is drizzled over the finished lambsickles. They were absolutely delicious!

Finally, we have VERY satisfied suctomers (so to speak). Today, we ate what we made. Congratulations, all!

(And just for the curious, this recipe is called 'Modena Style' because it uses a reduction of real Balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy!)

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Chef Herbst Comes To Visit: Profiteroles & Black Forest Cake!

Again this semester Chef Walter Herbst is spending almost a week with us in the Monarch Park Kitchens. Thank you, Chef Herbst!

Learning to make Choux Paste is ... unsettling. It has to be done precisely, and the half-way point of making it renders a MOST un-appetising mess rolling around in a pot. Eeeuch! Who wants THAT stuff?

Well, add a few eggs, fill a piping bag and ... PRESTO! SHAZAM! Something magical can happen ... all you need next is heat.

Turns out EVERYBODY wants 'that stuff'.

Chef Herbst demonstrated (perfectly, of course) how to make choux paste.
Then the students tried ... almost a first-time home-run for every group! Congratulations, students. You didn't lose your nerve, and the final results were simply delicious, visually decadent and smelled grand!

Here is Leshaunda showing how it is done.

Everyone needed to practice with a piping bag, and although final results varied slightly, every group, every student, did a wonderful job. And some student tried making swans!

Our biggest problem was with the Chantilly Cream ... everyone argued about how much should be put into each profiterole ... and a little nutella was added (just for medicinal purposes, as one student earnestly assured me ... medicinal purposes ONLY, Chef!)

Thank you for everything, Chef Herbst. Now students are saying that they can do this at home! See what you've started?

For tomorrow ... we begin Black Forest Cake!

Monday, 3 November 2014

Cheese ... Cheese ... Cheese ... at The Cheese Boutique in Swansea

The Cheese Boutique in Swansea is not particularly easy to get to. For our MPC Culinary Arts students it meant either a train ride out to Runnymeade and a bus trip south, or a streetcar ride out along The Queensway to South Kingsway and a walk up. Either way, the destination is just SO worth the effort!

Afrim Pristine, like his Dad before him, is a member of the Cheese Knights: Order of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Taste Fromage de France. This may sound utterly weird and foreign to most people in north america ... but keep reading and learn. You, too, may choose to learn and learn enough to be welcomed into this particular Honourable Order. For details, read more here. Afrim is an 'affineur' of cheese ... a keeper, ager, ripener and cheese guide. He is a 'Cheese Sommelier'. The Cheese Boutique offers over 1,100 kinds of cheese for sale, along with a huge range of other products, from the mundane-but-necessary to the wildly-exotic.

Afrim and the Cheese Boutique staff welcomed us at about 09h30, and each student received a scavenger hunt sheet, and was given 30 minutes to go and explore, observe, ask questions and learn. The staff were fore-warned, and made our students very welcome indeed! Everyone was offered a morning tea and croissant, just to welcome them into the atmosphere of one of Toronto's most sophisticated food shops. Throughout the course our students will be introduced to several of these destinations, and offered the chance to try and develop a palate of exceptional quality, discernment and refinement (which does NOT have to cost a large amount!).

After discovering the warmer parts of the store, our MPC Culinary Arts students were welcomed into one of the three cheese caves of the Boutique, and with Afrim as our guide were introduced to the work of the affineur.
There is nothing else like what Afrim does, anywhere. He spends about 1/3 of his working day making sure the caves are working correctly, and ripening, ageing and preparing his cheeses for final presentation to clients, or looking after cheese which has already been sold to clients and is being held for them under ideal conditions. We saw an enormous cheese, one of the largest in the world, owned by MLSE, which is being held for the company (they have already bought it) until they have something decent to celebrate (like make it past the quarter-finals of the play-offs).

Finally, our students had a chance to step up and buy a bit of cheese for themselves, and Chef bought some for a tasting which will take place on Tuesday in class, with fresh baguettes.

The cheeses we will be enjoying during our formal, guided tasting are: Vento D'Estate, Comfort Cream, Picobello, Chevre Noir, Gruyere, Valencay, Taleggio, Niagara Gold, Morbier, Epoisses, Blue Juliette and Tiger Blue.
These have all been personally selected and cut for us by Afrim and his staff of cheese specialists.

And ... one extra, EXTRA-special treat ...

Just before leaving, Afrim took a whole small triple-cream Brie and split it sideways (into two thin wheels). Then, after explaining what a truffle is, he shaved two whole white truffles into the open top of the split cheese. The top was then repositioned, making a 'truffle sandwich' of the Brie. This beauty is sealed and locked up in Chef's frig, and we will enjoy it tomorrow at the end of our class.

For anyone in Toronto who does not know The Cheese Boutique, please find their website here.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Our 50th Anniversary Sell-Out. Hail ! Monarch Park


Wasn't THAT a party?!

Yesterday almost 800 of Monarch Park alumni and former staff visited their school again ... Michelle Duncan did a wonderful job of organization ... and every face had delight written all over it. Mary Card, who taught math (and other subjects) at Monarch for 40 years, returned and thrilled many people. Former and present staff gathered at the "North Staff Room" (a.k.a. Sarah's) for a pint and sharing of favourite stories about teaching, students and administration.

Monarch Park Collegiate ... home of simply fabulous students and teachers.

Somehow, in all this, our wonderful MPC Culinary Arts students managed to feed almost 170 people with our special lunch offerings and through our cappuccino bar service. We offered a special plate of our home-made coq-au-vin, freshly-roasted sweet potatoes and Wala Wala onions with a rosemary dressing, and fresh, steamed asparagus. We have a few left-overs, but mainly great memories. Our alumni were VERY generous, and all the Culinary Arts students each took home almost $5 in tips!

Kareem, one of our extra-special Culinary Arts alumni, returned to both help out in the kitchen with preparation AND do tours of the entire Culinary Arts program and process. His pride showed through with every group he spoke to. Thanks, Kareem!

So, for Auld Lang Syne, here is the crew who came in on Saturday at 08h00 to prepare, cook, set-up, present and knock down for the 50th Anniversary of Monarch Park Collegiate.

Thanks, Team!

Hail! Monarch Park (our school song)

Hail! Monarch Park
Where victory shall resound;

Green, White and Gold
With honour ever found.

Out teams will fight to crush our foes
And always will we reach our goals;

We strive, Monarch Park
Your glory to secure

Friday, 17 October 2014

Coq-Au-Vin and flavour-layering skills

Well, 200 or so of our closest friends are coming for lunch on Saturday to celebrate Monarch Park Collegiate's 50th Anniversary. What to do? What to do? Pizza? K-fry?


We will make and offer one of the great classical dishes of French cuisine: Coq-Au-Vin (translated, roughly, as chicken in wine). It is simply delicious ... the tasting I did with you in class 2 days ago was sensational ... you all loved it ... and now I am teaching you to make this wonderful dish that can be one of your go-tos if someone asks you to make a good meal.

Coq-Au-Vin can be made on the day of service, or the day before and just refrigerated. You can even freeze it! Here are a few hints so you can do it well.

First, make sure you have all the necessary ingredients ... the main ones are the chicken, the thick bacon or pancetta for lardons, the pearl onions and the mushrooms. As well, try to use the most lovely fresh Thyme you can find ... it is best to grow your own ... and fresh, whole Bay Laurel leaves.

Second, the way I have taught you is to do all your mis-en-place and reserve everything in small bowls so all ingredients are at hand as you work your magic with the heat and your hands.

Third, use a good, deep pan and don't try to cook too fast ... remember the two words you never want to hear from anyone who is cooking, so SLOW DOWN and cook carefully.

Fourth, as soon as you have finished prepping your chicken, clean, clean, clean your equipment with lots of soap and hot water, then rinse well. You do not ever want to cross-contaminate, particularly with poultry. Slow and safe is good.

Last, measure your wine and stock so you have a pretty close 50/50 split. It tastes better that way. IF you have to add a little more later on, make a little more of the mix.

A couple of comments, then a warning:

If you can make your own stock, do so and freeze it. You will always enjoy working with ingredients you have made with your own hands and skills, and your guests will be VERY impressed with your breadth of skills and knowledge. Remember, most people run out of cooking imagination at the end of an egg or two. Don't be that person!

My other comment is about taking time to layer your flavours carefully ... rub the thyme, don't be afraid to use good pepper and salt ... and don't use cheap or 'off' wine. If you aren't much of a wine person (and why should you be as high school students?), ask a knowledgeable parent or parental friend for good advice and then follow it.

A little warning ... practice your flambe skills where you won't start a fire ... do it outside (in good weather) and practice, practice, practice. There is no substitute for developed skill, and none of it comes from luck.

So, go and be not afraid! Offer to make this for your family, practice on people who will be supportive and gently forgiving. If you have problems or questions, speak with me in class or write a comment below. You too can end up looking like these happy young chefs!

Good luck!


Thursday, 9 October 2014

Thanksgiving Pumpkin Pie -- The Winning Combination!

Here we are ... early October ... and Thanksgiving is upon us. You are all budding young cooks ... what will you make to impress your family, friends and the crankypants next door?

I'll tell you what ... you make THIS fabulous pumpkin pie and they'll be pounding your door off its hinges, and the orders will flood in. No fooling!

We have run these recipes in class ... I have demonstrated, and today you have followed along well. We made litres of filling and kilos of pastry and the results are cooling now as I write this blogpost for you.

Here is what you have made:

Nothing finer than a whole counter lined with your hard work on proud display, eh?

The recipes we have used are at the end of this post. Remember three important things that will help a lot with the pastry; cube the butter and shortening FIRST then re-freeze for at least 30 minutes; have the ice water and vinegar ready immediately, and work quickly with as little hand-touch as possible.
last tip ... use the food processor as little as you can, because if the fats in the butter and shortening heat up, they will start to build the glutens in the flour, and that is exactly what you do NOT want! You want your pastry to be as short (i.e., flaky) as possible. Here is the pastry recipe:

For the filling,
roast the pumpkin with a smear of maple syrup (as the recipe states) and be sure to let the pumpkin cool for a good, long time (I prefer overnight) or else the egg will cook from the heat retained in the pumpkin pulp. (This would NOT be good!) Prepare the filling per; the instructions, and be sure to combine all the dries (the sugars, the spices, the salt), in one large bowl to make the addition simpler. If you do not have a stand-mixer at home, the recipe can simply be donE with a friend (if you have one!) stirring a large bowl with all the stuff going in in proper order, and them stirring with a large French whip.

So go and have fun on our holiday week-end, make some fabulous pie for your family and friends, share the recipes around and to each of you and your supportive families,