Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Jessica has moved.

Hello readers,
I have a new writing gig and will be do all of my writing/blogging from there. Please go to:



Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Chocolate Trend

A chocolate bar isn't just chocolate anymore. A recent trend is the pairing of chocolate with another ingredient. I remember when I first realized this: I was in Fog City News in San Francisco, on my way to work at Bong Su. My eyes widened at the rows and rows of chocolate bars. My head was in a tizzy trying to decide between a the brands: Vosges, El Rey, E. Guittard... I grabbed a handful of Dolfin squares, each paired with earl grey, cumin, or cardamom. Mmmm. Something for the Bart ride home later.

Some chocolate makers focus primary on these pairing. Dagoba is one, pairing chai with milk chocolate or lemon ginger with dark. My sister loves their Roseberry, a dark chocolate with dried raspberries and rose hips. Not a bad experience for $3 a bar. (Yes, it is expensive, but where are you going to get flavors like that?) If you are into putting some heat into your chocolate, I recommend Xocolatl, a 74 % chocolate with chili powder.

Vosges is one of the companies that have paired chocolate bars. I mentioned them because of a recent culinary adventure with my mom: Mo's Bacon Bar. Yes, it is a combination of milk chocolate, smoked salt, and bits of bacon in it. $7 a bar, even at Cost Plus. My mom loves bacon, so we decided to try it. Well, salt and chocolate work for me, but the bacon didn't. They have a flying chocolate pig available on their website.

Another flavor that doesn't work for me is lavender. I feel like I am getting a mouthful if potpourri. (Sorry, Dagoba, the lavender and blueberry was too much.)

A few other companies of paired chocolate bars worth a try: Dolfin, Green and Black's Organic Chocolate, and Lindt. What do you like paired with chocolate?

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Last Day

Today is the last day of the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Factory. It is a sad day in so many ways. The tours have been long gone, leaving the tour room empty. No longer will the intoxicating smell of chocolate swarm the brick building.

Production moves to Illinois where Scharrffen Berger products will still be made. But will it be the same? I went into the store and picked up a few of my favorites: the milk chocolate with the sea salted almonds and the 70% bittersweet. The retail store in the Ferry Building and Joseph Schmidt's will stay open for a while longer. But, girls in the retail store at the factory all decided to wear their "(extra) bitter" shirts today, a final statement on the situation.

The cafe has an event in a couple of weeks as John Scharrfenberger will host a dinner for all those who have helped along the way. I plan to make desserts from "The Essence of Chocolate" cookbook as a tribute, especially Robert Steinberg's brownies since he past away last year.

Monday, March 23, 2009

All Quiet on the Western Front


That's how I would explain the mood at work today. There was no Spanish music blaring out of the radio. Everyone seemed have their minds elsewhere, the monologue in their minds keeping them occupied.

It took a while for some people to really feel the magnitude of the ruptured economy. For the cafe, there was a whirlwind of holidays and special events that distracted us. With every large reservation and restaurant buyout, a constant hope lingered that money would keep coming in to keep us afloat.

But after a while, after all the dust has settled and the calender starts to look empty, reality creeps its way into the restaurant. It starts with the weekday lunches as less and less people come in. Local business around us in West Berkeley have layoffs, bringing in less traffic.

How does a small business survive during these times?

Well, items on the menu need to be cut, judging by the amount of labor and by popularity. The dishes that take more time to prepare or are low sellers would be on the chopping block. After that the staff is cut, which is perhaps the most painful part. Good, hardworking servers have to be let go and the kitchen staff is also reduced. Instead of two cooks on the line and a dishwasher, there are only two guys in the kitchen.

Then there is pastry. Yes, my hours have been reduced as well. However, the morning pastries are still selling very well, much better than this time last year. But I have to cut out some cakes and some of the cookies.

I do miss those time when the cafe would be packed and there would be a short wait outside the door. The kitchen would be rocking and rolling, making omlettes, French toast, and paninis. Servers would skillfully weave their way around the restaurant with plates and trays with drinks... Hopefully, we will make it through.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Regarding Top Chef (and Other Cooking Competitions)

So Top Chef, Season 5 is over; weeks of grueling (and crazy) challenges all for this one episode. I actually really enjoy watching cooking competitions. I like seeing how people's creative minds work as they think on their feet. I like to watch and learn the different techniques. And, yes, I enjoy cheering for my favorites.

But there is something that I've noticed about the show, and it is not only in Top Chef, but in other cooking competitions as well. In culinary school, one of the first things that you learn is safety and sanitation when working in a kitchen. There have been some behaviors that I've noticed in these shows that go against these basics in common sense of cleanliness. It usually occurs when chefs taste their food. Example: a tasting spoon that has gone into a mouth and then is tapped onto the rim of the pot, tapping off extra drops of food into the pot. You might as well be spitting in the food that you are preparing.

Or perhaps the finger taste test. That is gross, too. With only 15 minutes to make a dish, do you think anyone will take the time to properly wash their hands? But I think the one of the most disgusting things that I've seen is a chef drinking out of a liquid measuring cup. Jessica, what's wrong with that? It gets sanitized. Maybe I get really picky at this point, but I believe that there are certain tools to do certain things and drinking out of a tool that is used to cook isn't right. Do you really want to measure milk in a cup that someone drank out of?

Being a real top chef isn't just about cooking good food; it is about work ethic, attitude, and consistency. A tip for anyone who want become a chef: work cleanly and be sanitary. If you don't have a conviction about cleanliness, than you are missing a block in your foundation to being good at what you do.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Crème brûlée, The Right Way

So, last Monday, Brian and I went to Straits in San Francisco with our friends Dave and Nancy. Dave really wanted to take his girlfriend to an Asian fusion restaurant since it's her favorite type of food.

We had a wonderful meal: lemongrass beef, calamari with kaffir lime aioli, vermicelli noodles with prawns, to name a few dishes. And we had to save room for dessert, that was Nancy's call. Unfortunately, I didn't see anything that interested me on the dessert menu. Perhaps, on another night I may have felt different.

But Nancy saw the crème brûlée and had to go for it. The first thing that I noticed about the dessert was the unevenly melted sugar on top, as I looked closer through the dim lighting, I noticed that they were granules of turbinado sugar.

A cardinal rule of crème brûlée had been broken: It is not a brûlée unless there is caramelized sugar on top, and that means all the sugar. Dave had attempted to tap at the sugar to break it and his spoon went right into the custard.

With that in mind, a few tips about making that nice caramelized sugar topping.

1) The only way to do it is with a blow torch; you can do it with a broiler, but I find that using the blow torch gives you more control.

2) What sugar do you use? It depends on what works best for you. I prefer turbinado sugar only because I feel comfortable working with it. (Make sure that the sugar is melted. Since the granules are larger than other sugars, it will take a little longer to to melt down,) Some people use granulated sugar which is fine, but you make have to sprinkle on an extra layer to get a nice think caramelized top. (I've read of one technique where you use strained golden brown sugar.)

3) Applying sugar. With the blow torch, quickly torch the top of the crème brûlée not enough to burn it, but just enough to get it "wet." (It is a reaction when heat is applied to chilled custards.) Then with a spoon coat sugar onto the custard. Use the back of the spoon to help make the layer of sugar even.

4) Make sure the surface is covered well with sugar or the custard will burn. But do not coat too generously, or you will spend too much time melting the sugar and it ruins the chilled custard.

5) For safety, keep anything flameable away from the crème brûléee. (This includes your free hand that might be tempted to hang onto the ramekin.)

6) Torch it, but keep the torch moving so that you melt the sugar evenly.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Valentine's Day

Sigh. Valentine's Day.

The only time of year that the cafe is open for dinner. Being right by the chocolate factory gave us a great excuse to host dinner since chocolate pairs so well with Valentine's Day.

I began my day, a bit bleary eyed, not quite awakened by my morning cup of coffee. But I was not the only one who felt that way. Edwin, the dishwasher, was already there. While one of the cooks, the barista, and I arrived at the same time at 8 am.

Because Valentine's Day landed on a Saturday this year, my boss decided to take advantage of the weekend and open both Friday and Saturday.With a 10-15 hour work day om Friday, we were preparing for another long day, except this one would be much busier.

Pastries and cookies were prepared and baked off for our brunch service. And after thinking through what the course of the day and the evening would be like, I decided to bake and cook off a few more items for our Valentine's Day menu: a few more servings of pain au chocolat bread pudding, two more quarts of coconut anglaise, and an extra chocolate decadence.

And brunch was busy, as our reservation sheet was packed with names. I took a short break for lunch and was expecting to get a chance to take another break before dinner service. But, for some reason, like with most big nights, time just slipped away. Before I knew it, brunch was over and I had to prepare some pastries for the next day, while setting myself up to plate desserts.

I had only three items on the dessert menu: the bread pudding came with stout anglaise, chocolate sauce, and cherry syrup; the decadence had brûléed banana slices, coconut anglaise with passionfruit coulis; and the chocolate pot de creme with cinnamom palmiers.All chocolate themed of course.

My evening consisted of the sounds of the live band, the radio in the kitchen, and my oven. And since we had no ticketing machine in the pastry kitchen, I relied on hand-written post it notes. Servers and bussers were running in and out of the kitchen, picking up plates and grabbing clean silverware. Near the end of the evening, I saw poor Edwin leaning against a reach in refrigerator, taking a breather.

But at the end of the night was family meal, a chance for us to grab some food, to taste the Cowgirl Creamery cheese plate or the filet mignon: A chance to recooperate after a very long day. But it was 11pm when I had finished wrapping up my products and cleaning my station. And I just wanted to go home and see my husband, who had been so thoughtful to buy me flowers from my favorite floral shop, The Meadow. So, I boxed up some portions and headed out, leaving the control chaos behind, and into the quiet night.