day twenty-two - final challenge

Note: For six weeks, July 5 - August 11, I will be enrolled in the culinary arts cooking and pastry/baking certificate programs at Boston University. Cooking is Monday and Tuesday, baking is Wednesday and Thursday. We have to keep a daily journal of the experience, so I'll be blogging about the class every day.

Do you remember when Top Chef went to Las Vegas and there was that one challenge that was like, "Pull the handle on the slot machine and whatever ingredients pop up that's what you have to use in your dish!" Remember? I mean, that's pretty much how all of the challenges are. "We found these old sneakers at the bottom of a dumpster. Make an amuse bouche out of them!" "It was good, but too big for an amouse bouche." Shutup, Padma. (Just kidding, Padma!) But still, I remember that one in particular. And then all of the resulting dishes sound like they came out of the El Bulli dish name generator?

Well, that's kind of like how our final challenge was. Except instead of the slot machine coming up with deciduous tree roe, raptor steaks and a lime popsicle that has melted in the sun, we got shrimp, chicken and raspberries. Phew!

Kind of. On the one hand those things are very easy. "Oh, chicken. I've heard of that." But also, chicken is so boring. How do you make chicken interesting? Everything has been done. Simpsons did it. Oh, sorry, Simpsons already made mace-roasted chicken stuffed with kumquats and bay leaves and a cider vinegar reduction. 

Anyway, I decided I was going to do Eastern European food, because that's my background and it doesn't get a lot of respect. "Respect the kielbasa." - Tom Cruise in Magnolia. So when I got home from our sushi class, I got out all of my cookbooks that had anything remotely Eastern European to get inspired. I sat in bed until 1am brainstorming recipes until I thought I had a good menu.

So I woke up early the next day, planning to get my final paper for class finished and hopefully get to the store to get some plates and serving items (we were allowed to bring in anything we wanted for plating, but no outside ingredients). Unfortunately, the paper took forever. I had so much I wanted to write about and reflect on. In addition, I wanted to add information to my journal entries, write about the books and I had to summarize the video lectures we had to watch. It was 1pm by the time I finished the paper.

So then it was time to plan out the actual menu, writing down the recipes and putting together a sheet that had my mise en place, schedule and all of the tools I would need. That took forever too. And it didn't help I kept second-guessing everything. By the time I was finished with that it was 4pm. I still had to shower, print out the 60 or so pages and get to class. I was freaking out.

So I got on the bus at 5pm - I had to be in class at 5:30. Luckily the streets to BU were empty and the bus gave me time to look at my schedule and read over my recipes again. I looked at the schedule I had made and immediately realized it wasn't going to be possible. I had myself making pierogi dough, pate a choux and shrimp filling in 30 minutes. There was no way. And it didn't make any sense to push the schedule so hard. I had to worry about getting good food out there, not whether I would get food out at all. I decided right there that I would move one of the sides from the main course (the dumplings) to the appetizer and figure out some type of sauce for the shrimp to serve over the dumplings. So the shrimp pierogi on a bed of brown butter lettuce were out.

I made it to class, set my station up and waited for 5:30. Luckily, when the time hit, I went into a zone. I worked cleanly, for the most part, making up a new schedule as I went (I didn't even look at the old schedule). Our first course had to be out at 8, main course at 8:30 and dessert at 9. But, because you can't really cook anything in the 30 minutes between courses, most things had to be finished in that first 2.5 hours.

My first course became shrimp in a dill caraway sauce over mustard spaetzle in brown butter (seen above). We had a beautiful bag of dill in the kitchen and I had been planning to use the caraway since I had seen it in the pantry the night before. I had brought my spaetzle maker, so I made the mustard spaetzle and set them aside. The dill caraway sauce started with a roux, into which I added the dill, caraway, some shallot, a bit of garlic, cream and a tiny bit of vinegar. I cooked it down to just before it was at the thickness I wanted because it was going to cook further when I added the shrimp, which I added and cooked immediately before I was ready to serve it. To plate: I browned some butter in a small pan, filled the small bowl with the mustard spaetzle, poured a bit of the brown butter over, then plated three shrimp over the spaetzle, spooned a bit more of the dill caraway sauce over the top and added a tiny sprig of dill on top. I got it out right at 8pm.

Next was the chicken course. Chicken paprikash came to mind, as did making fried chicken because it looked like only one other person would be using the fryer for the main course and it would be quick. Plus, everyone likes fried chicken. So, with Thomas Keller's excellent buttermilk fried chicken recipe, I tweaked it a bit to make paprika-crusted fried chicken with a horseradish sauce. I broke down the chicken, using only the drummies and thighs, and put them in a brine of water, kosher salt, lime (the lemons had been used up) and various fresh herbs early in the class. Then, while I was finishing my shrimp and plating the first course, I did two dredges of a paprika-heavy flour mixture and buttermilk (I made buttermilk with whole milk and vinegar only to find we had some in the refrigerator) and put them in the fryer. Unfortunately, the fryer was way too hot. What should have taken 15-20 minutes to cook was a deep brown in 7. So I put them in the oven at 400. Earlier I had blanched some green beans and marinated them in a vinegar/sugar/parsley mixture to make sour green beans for the side. The horseradish sauce was horseradish, cream for thinning and salt and pepper. Out the plate went, again, right at 9pm.

Finally, dessert. I had planned on making cream puffs with vodka raspberry cream (because a shot of vodka or slivovitz would be more traditional) and roll them in butter and sugar, to emulate a paczki. So I had made the pate a choux earlier and baked the cream puffs off. Then it was time to make the pastry cream. I made the pastry cream, put the raspberries in the food processor, mixed it all together, sent it through the sieve and added some vodka. Unfortunately, to really taste the vodka I had to add a lot, which really thinned the pastry cream out. So when I filled the pastry cream in the bottom it didn't want to stay in. So I quickly melted some chocolate, with about 5 minutes to go, dipped the bottoms in the chocolate, drizzled some chocolate on parchment, added the puffs on top, drizzled raspberry sauce on top and served it with a shot of vodka. I think the chocolate was needed anyway and one classmate even said it was the best looking dessert of the night. I don't know about that, but at least it was done and plated.

And that was the end. We were done! I couldn't believe it. It seemed like that first day of class was a few days ago (cliche!). I remember getting the syllabus and reading about the final challenge and it seemed so far off and impossible. And just like that it was done. And it went fine! I was sure I would be late on my dishes, things would be missing, something would burn or not turn out. What if I don't have anything to plate? What if it just tastes horrible?

Luckily, the judges seemed to like it. We didn't get one-on-one feedback right then and there - they filled out judging sheets and we are supposed to pick them up this week. But they were very warm and encouraging, saying they were honestly surprised by what we had accomplished in six weeks. It was the first time the class was ever offered in the summer and they said it went exactly as hoped. They now plan on offering it next summer. And it was the first class of all students who were also in the gastronomy program.

Finally, we ended with gifts for those who made the program possible and our incredible culinary instructors, including a decanter for Chef Madden, who will be moving back to Minnesota - we were his last class. It was strange. After seeing this group of people and cooking an insane amount of food with them and having a meal with them four nights a week, sometimes well into the night, it was all done. I was feeling a little nostalgic already (I'm the most nostalgic person in the universe; I miss holidays before they are even done, and I even miss things I never experienced, like the night in Dazed and Confused, which I basically can't watch anymore). 

Anyways, it was over. Well, kind of. I had two more nights of baking to go!