Saturday, October 27, 2012

poetry, prose, and the common oyster

In 1942, the French essayist Francis Ponge published a collection of writings - short pieces in a nebulous space between essay and prose poem - called Le Parti-Pris des Choses. He wrote of everyday objects: a loaf of bread, a candle, a bar of soap. He wrote, too, of the humble oyster.

The oyster, though the size of an average pebble, is of a rougher appearance, a less uniform color, brilliantly off-white. It is a world stubbornly closed. However it can be opened: it must be held in the folds of a dishtowel, and with a blunted and chipped knife, prised at again and again. Probing fingers cut themselves, nails tear: it is rough work. The blows inflicted envelop it with white circles, a halo of sorts.
Inside lies an entire world, both food and drink: underneath a firmament (strictly speaking) of nacre, the heavens above cling to the heavens below, forming nothing less than an ocean, a sac viscous and green-hued that ebbs and flows in scent and sight, fringed at the edges with blackish lace. 

Sometimes, though very rarely, a pearl forms in its nacreous throat, which is quickly used as ornament.

 Ponge's language is exquisite and precise, and it captures an oyster with beautiful clarity. However, to paraphrase Mark Twain, sometimes the difference between food preparation and food writing is like the difference between "lightning" and "lightning bug." Clearly, the sorry bastard never worked a day in food service in his life.

If he had, the poem might look something more like this:

Sunday lunch. We've already crossed the hundred pax mark, and it's not yet two pm. I have just sent the last of five pizzas up to the pass, and I am hoping for a few spare minutes in which I might tidy up my bench and perhaps run back to the coolroom for another container of tomato paste.

"New order, one dozen oysters!" calls the chef. I grit my teeth. The new order is my problem; due to a quirk in kitchen layout, the pizza station is also responsible for cold seafood.

"Oui, chef!" is my response, a shout projected over the exhaust fan and the whirr of the pastry section's Pacojet. Inside, I am thinking "Fuck." And probably whispering it under my breath, too. Take this for an absolute truth: there are no clean mouths in a commercial kitchen.

I go for the tray of oysters in my reach-in fridge. They arrived earlier this week from a tiny little coastal town in New South Wales, twenty dozen in a coffin of Styrofoam, sent by express air mail. I spent an afternoon scrubbing their purple-tinged shells of mud and sand and algae, stacking them with foil interleaved. Now I reach in and grab thirteen - just in case one is bad, or cracks, or proves truly impossible to open.

Over to the sink with my baker's dozen of oysters, teatowel in one hand, oyster blade in the other. The trick, I know, is to seek out the hinge, the weak point between the shells.

Ponge had one thing right: the oyster is a stubborn little bugger. The moment the hinge gives way is always one of triumph, followed by a moment of held breath as I confirm that I've neither stabbed the oyster nor left any traces of shell. Then a fresh wave of irritation, as I remember that there are another eleven to go - assuming there aren't any oysters that are bad or any brittle shells that splinter - and I can't help but wish a pox on the idiot who ordered a whole dozen.

Four, six, eight, nine... ten... eleven... twelve. Recheck to make sure I haven't miscounted.

When the full dozen are opened and ready, they are arranged on a platter in a bed of rock salt. Then it's a scramble to assemble all the accompaniments. Carefully spoon red wine vinegar mignonette into a dish. Add a lemon wedge carefully cleansed of all pips, long slivers of saucission, and dainty squares of grain bread generously spread with pale French butter. Confirm that plate is complete and clean. Over to the pass.  

"One dozen oysters. Service, please!"

I am always immensely, intensely relieved when the platter is whisked away.

Know this for a fact: if I opened an oyster in lunch service and found a pearl, I'd just be relieved to catch it before it could become a choking hazard.

Sauce Mignonette: An Exercise in Brunoise of Shallot

You'll see mignonette with all kinds of vinegars, but I like white wine vinegar because it shows off the purple-and-white of the shallots. (Believe me, if you're going to make yourself cross-eyed cutting brunoise of shallot, you'll want to show off your knifework, too.)

Begin by setting up your cutting board and readying a nice, sharp knife. Grab your shallots; allow one large shallot per dozen oysters. 

 Take your shallot, trim off the papery tip, and cut it in half lengthways.

Peel off the papery skin.

Remove the green germ from the center of each half.

Place one half cut side down, and cut it across horizontally, into thirds.

Like so:

Then make cuts along the length of the shallot, from root to tip.

Then cut across, to form dice.

Repeat the process with the other half, plus any remaining shallots. Place the brunoise in a small bowl. Pour over white wine vinegar, enough to cover:

Allow to rest for an hour or two, so that the vinegar can infuse. Transfer to a serving container.

Serve with freshly shucked oysters.

Also, for anyone who might be curious, Ponge's work in the original French:


L'huître, de la grosseur d'un galet moyen, est d'une apparence plus rugueuse, d'une couleur moins unie, brillamment blanchâtre. C'est un monde opiniâtrement clos. Pourtant on peut l'ouvrir : il faut alors la tenir au creux d'un torchon, se servir d'un couteau ébréché et peu franc, s'y reprendre à plusieurs fois. Les doigts curieux s'y coupent, s'y cassent les ongles : c'est un travail grossier. Les coups qu'on lui porte marquent son enveloppe de ronds blancs, d'une sorte de halos.

A l'intérieur l'on trouve tout un monde, à boire et à manger : sous un firmament (à proprement parler) de nacre, les cieux d'en dessus s'affaissent sur les cieux d'en dessous, pour ne plus former qu'une mare, un sachet visqueux et verdâtre, qui flue et reflue à l'odeur et à la vue, frangé d'une dentelle noirâtre sur les bords.

Parfois très rare une formule perle à leur gosier de nacre, d'où l'on trouve aussitôt à s'orner.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

a stubborn dream

A confession: I've been hiding from the internet, and ignoring my writing. (The latter is probably self-evident.) I didn't write much when I was working in an office because I didn't do enough cooking. And now I haven't been writing because I've been doing little else.

In the past three months, I have discovered that I am not a line cook by nature; though I might master it, I may never come to love it. I am more certain of my vocation, but less sure of my place in my current kitchen. I may want to work in a different sort of restaurant. I may want to move out of restaurant work and into catering. I may even want to go back to the labyrinthine kitchens of a big hotel.

There is a dream, however, that is proving to be remarkably stubborn.

We'll call it the Gingerbread House, because that was its name when I first mentioned it as nothing more than the idlest of idle fancies, a castle in the sky. I was still a recent law graduate, or perhaps an unhappy office minion, and I spent my free time plotting out recipes for baked goods.

The Gingerbread House would be a bakery-cafe, or a patisserie cafe - or something in between. There would be scones and muffins in mornings, and baguettes and ciabatte and focaccia in the afternoons. A quiche of the day for lunch. There would be brioche on weekends, and an espresso machine - one of those vintage Italian models - with a barista to make bone-dry cappuccino and ristretto strong enough to chase away even the worst case of morning sleepiness. There would be no table service, just a side counter with cutlery and napkins and water pitchers and water glasses. Customers would pay, collect their food, and sit at whichever table they liked.

On the last Saturday of each month, the cafe would close early. We'd pull all the tables together to form one long table, and serve up a communal high tea. A proper spread: egg salad sandwiches with the edges rolled in chopped parsley, avocado, tomato and ricotta bruschetta, chicken and leek pie with a golden crust, a fancifully tall chocolate torte garnished with crystallized violets, currant scones with jam and clotted cream, and all a manner of little tarts and buns and other sweet, sticky, delectable treats. The dainty and the hearty, in one fantastic jumble, with guests passing plates up and down the table and eating until they couldn't manage another bite. An afternoon tea of the best kind.

It's still too early to tell if the Gingerbread House is nothing more than an idle fancy. I don't know what the next three months (six months, twelve months) are going to bring, or how my next kitchen will shape me.

In the meantime, though, may I tempt you with some currant scones?

Currant Scones

(Makes a dozen or so.)

Preheat the oven to 200C (400F.) Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Get out a mixing bowl and dump in two cups of self-raising flour (two-hundred and eighty grams). Stir in a heaped quarter-teaspoon of salt, and three tablespoons of white sugar (thirty grams).

Take one hundred and ten grams (three point eight ounces) of chilled butter, cut it into small cubes, and add them to the flour. Use your fingertips to rub the butter in until the largest pieces are no bigger than peas. Stir in half a cup (seventy grams) of dried currants.

Pour in half a cup of milk, and one well-beaten egg. Stick a hand in the mixture and stir until the mixture just comes together. Turn it out on a clean countertop.

Press the mixture out into a rough rectangle, and fold it over in thirds, like a letter. (Don't worry if it's shaggy and messy and falling apart.) Press it out again, and fold it over in thirds. Repeat again one final time.

Flour the dough lightly on both sides. Grab a rolling pin, and roll it out until it's a little less than an inch thick. Dip a scone cutter or a small drinking glass in flour and use it to cut out rounds. (You can gather up the scraps, squish them together, and roll them out a second time, but don't do it more than twice - overworked dough makes for tough scones.)

Arrange the rounds on the baking trays. Bake the scones for fifteen minutes or so, or until lightly browned on top. Transfer to wire racks to cool. Serve warm with jam and cream.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

the first day of the rest of your life

In the morning, you wake up early. You eat fruit and yogurt and drink a cup of tea while reading your e-mail, keeping an eye on the clock. Shoes on, keys in hand, you do a quick check: knife kit, jacket, apron. You pull the door behind you with a solid bang, and run your hand over the lavender bush by the door, filling the air with its warm scent.

You can walk to work. It's a long road, but straight and wide, and on a sunny morning, it's a good commute. When you arrive at the restaurant, the open kitchen is already bustling, filled with the sizzle and clatter of meals being readied, echoing with cries of "Behind you!" and "Order up!"

You pull on your jacket and apron, roll up your sleeves. Hands are washed, knives set up. You grate potatoes to pack into ramekins, the first stage of hash browns. You cut tomatoes and sweet red onion for bruschetta. You pick over basil and scrub zucchini. There is butter and sugar to cream together, an easy, familiar routine, for cookies filled with raisins and chocolate chunks.

In the lunch rush, you griddle buckwheat pancakes to layer with lemon curd, decorating the plate with powdered sugar and orange zest. You toss greens and tomato dice with red capsicum and cucumber as a base for a warm haloumi salad. You learn to keep an eye on the temperamental toaster, pulling slices of fruit loaf and sourdough before they char. Old habits merge with new lessons. In time, the rhythm of this kitchen will become second nature.

The hours vanish. Soon the dining room is quiet, just one or two guests relaxing with an afternoon espresso and the paper. You sit down to staff meal, eating pasta in red sauce with feta and rocket and olives, suddenly aware of the ache in your feet. After you've eaten, you begin closing down the kitchen, restocking ingredients and returning parchment and plastic to their places on the shelf. Sinks are scrubbed, floors are swept. The fryer is emptied of oil in a steady, reassuring gurgle.

This is the first day of the rest of your life. No more computer. No more office, no more suit. No more crying at your desk and fabricating allergies to explain away your red eyes. You've finally exchanged your mouse for a chef's knife, and now you can wear jeans to work.

Your new employer stands at the cake case, clearing desserts that are no longer in their prime. When he reaches the cake stand holding croissants, he asks if you'd like to take the old ones home. He wraps them neatly in greaseproof paper and tucks them into a paper bag that goes in your backpack, nestled on top of your apron and jacket. A gift, a welcome. A homecoming.


A croissant is pretty much a yeasted puff pastry. Baking your own is not as complicated as many cookbooks make it out to be, but it is a multi-step process with long stretches of waiting time, so patience is essential. Begin the recipe three days before you plan to eat them.

Note: I've given measurements in metric and imperial, but I recommend the metric.

(Inspired by this recipe. Makes a half-dozen regular-sized croissants, or a dozen mini-croissants. Recipe not for one unless you're trying to make stale croissants for bread pudding, or you really do want to eat half a dozen croissants in a single sitting.)

First, the dough: In a bowl, combine two hundred and fifty grams of flour, three tablespoons of sugar, one-and-three-quarters of a teaspoon of yeast, and three quarters of teaspoon of salt. Rub in one tablespoon of butter. Stir in one hundred and seventy mililitres (half a cup, plus two tablespoons) of cold milk. Stick a hand in the bowl, and stir until the mixture comes together. Knead until a smooth dough forms. Pop it on a plate, cover with plastic, and chill in the fridge overnight.

The next day, begin by prepping the butter: Lay out a sheet of parchment paper, and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Take one hundred and fifty grams (five ounces) of chilled butter and cut it into slices. Arrange them in a square on the floured parchment. Sprinkle with flour, and top with another sheet of parchment. Using a rolling pin, thump and/or squish the butter until the pieces join together. You'll have a rough square; trim it to five-by-five inches (it will be about a quarter-inch thick), and place the trimmings on top. Use the rolling pin to press them in. The butter square should be on the pliable side; if it's very stiff, give it another thumping with the rolling pin.

Wrap the butter in the parchment paper, and place it back in the fridge.

Pull your dough from the fridge. Shape it into a rough square, and roll it, from the center out, so that it's large enough to fit the butter square diagonally (the corners of the butter square should touch the mid-points of the dough square.)

Fold the dough over the butter, and pinch the edges to seal.

Grab your rolling pin. Placing gentle pressure on the dough, roll until you have a rectangle that measures roughly seven by twelve inches.

7 x 12inch - 3x turns.

Gently fold the dough into thirds, like a letter. Wrap in plastic and chill for twenty minutes in the freezer.

When the twenty minutes are up, pull out the dough and place it so that the long side is perpendicular to your counter. Roll it out again into a rectangle that measures roughly seven by twelve inches, and fold it into thirds again. (Every fold is called a turn.) Rewrap the dough and return it to the freezer for another twenty minutes.

Roll and fold the dough one more time, so that you've given it three turns in total. Wrap well in plastic, and place in the fridge to chill overnight.

The next day, pull the dough from the fridge and place it on the countertop. Working slowly, roll it out so that it's eight inches wide by about thirty inches long (or for mini-croissants, about five inches wide by about forty-two inches long.) The dough will become resistant as you roll; pull it up from the counter gently to let it shrink back fully. When you reach the desired length, take a ruler or measuring tape and trim the excess dough so that you have a neat, long rectangle.

Mark the dough at five-inch intervals along one of the long sides (three-and-a-half inch for mini-croissants.) On the other long side, mark one interval at two-and-a-half inches (one-and-a-quarter inches) and then mark the rest at five (three-and-a-half.) With a small sharp knife, using these intervals as starting points, cut the dough into triangles.

Use your knife to cut a small notch, about half an inch long, in the wide end of each triangle. (This helps the croissants hold their shape once they're rolled.)

Take one of the triangles between two hands, and pulling very gently, stretch until it becomes about ten inches long (six and a half for mini-croissants.) Try not to compress the dough.

Place the triangle on the counter with the point facing upwards. Starting from the wide end, roll the dough away from you. Be firm, but gentle. You want enough pressure to get the dough to stay, but not so much that the layers become squished.

Roll until the very point of the dough is tucked under the body of the croissant. Turn it around, so that the point faces towards you.

Take hold of each end gently, and bend them inwards to form a crescent shape.

Shape the remaining dough in the same fashion, and arrange the shaped croissants on two parchment-lined baking sheets. The croissants will expand as they proof, so leave plenty of room in between.

Make up an egg wash by beating together one egg with a teaspoon of cold water until very smooth. Brush the croissants with egg wash (hang on to it, you'll need it again later) and place them in a warmish, draft-free place to proof. (Someplace not too chilly, but not so warm that the butter in the croissants melts out.) Leave them, and go do something else for about two hours.

The croissants are fully proofed when you can see the layers of dough if you look at the croissants from the side. Also, if you shake the tray, the croissants will jiggle.

They're almost ready for the oven! Get the oven preheated to 425F. Brush the croissants with egg wash again. Slide the trays into the oven. Bake for ten minutes, then rotate and swap the trays. Bake for another eight to ten minutes, or until the croissants are a deep, rich brown all over. (If they're browning very quickly, lower the temperature by ten degrees or so.) When the croissants are fully baked, pull them from the oven. Transfer to cooling racks.

Allow the croissants to cool until just warm. Serve with jam or Nutella.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

not just for the birds

Of all the many exciting things about relocating to Melbourne, one of the most exciting might be having a garden again.

It's a small backyard - more of a courtyard, really - but there's a little square of garden, just enough for herbs and a few plants. I've planted basil and mint, and we'll see if my minimal experience with gardening is enough to keep them alive.

There's also an apricot tree. Technically, it's the neighbors' tree, but several boughs protrude over the fence, and as far as I can see, only the birds have shown any interest in the fruit on their side.

Unfortunately for the birds on this side of the fence, I've been up early since the apricots began to ripen, and I've collected what fruit I can every morning. Even at a rate of just four or five apricots a day, the fruit bowl has been getting full, and there's only so much of a dent I can put in the pile by adding apricots to my morning yogurt. I decided it was time to do some baking.

Apricots are stone fruit, of the same family as peaches and plums, and like peaches and plums, are well-suited to desserts such as crumble and tart. I didn't have quite enough apricots for a crumble, however, and I baked a tart the last time I encountered fresh apricots, so I turned my thoughts to cake instead.

As I was considering flavorings, the sage bush in the garden caught my eye, and I decided that a pound cake flavored with brown butter and sage might make for an interesting contrast to the tart-sweet quality of the apricots. I hit a slight snag after gathering all my ingredients, however - I was a little short on butter, and reluctant to make a trip to the grocery store.

Instead, I decided to bake muffins rather than pound cake, using a mixture of butter and olive oil and adding a generous amount of finely chopped fruit. The apricots turned soft and jammy and kept the muffins nicely moist, and the sage aroma came through well, just as I'd hoped.

I sat outside for afternoon tea. It only seemed fair to leave any stray crumbs for the birds.

Apricot Sage Brown Butter Muffins

These muffins are modified from classic pound cake proportions, so they're still quite sweet and rich, and best baked as small muffins, rather than large ones.

(Makes one dozen small muffins, which may be frozen.)

In a small saucepan over low heat, melt seventy grams of unsalted butter (about two ounces) and add eight to ten large sage leaves. Cook, stirring occasionally, until butter foams and turns golden in color, and the sage leaves darken and crisp up. Remove from heat, and transfer to a mixing bowl. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, break up the sage leaves into small pieces. Set aside to cool.

Take five or six small ripe apricots (about a hundred and fifty to two hundred grams; five to seven ounces) and cut an X in the bottom of each. Place in a colander and pour boiling water over, then rinse under cold water. Using a paring knife, peel away the skin of each apricot. Cut each apricot in half and discard the pits. Cut the apricots into small dice and transfer to a small bowl. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 165C (325F.) Grease and flour a quarter-cup muffin tin.

Take the mixing bowl with the sage brown butter, and add thirty mililiters of olive oil (two tablespoons), followed by a hundred and ten grams (half a cup) of white sugar. Add a quarter-teaspoon of salt, and an eighth of a teaspoon (just a few drops) of vanilla extract. Stir well.

Crack in one egg, and using a fork or a whisk, beat the mixture until the egg is well-incorporated. Crack in a second egg, and beat the mixture again. It will be quite thick and smooth.

Fold in one hundred and forty grams (one cup) of self-raising flour, little by little, until you have a smooth batter.

Spoon a little batter into the bottom of each muffin cup, add a sprinkling of apricot dice, then spoon over more batter. The muffin cups should not be completely full - you'll have a little space at the top. Once the muffin cups have all been filled, sprinkle them with the remaining apricot dice. Transfer the muffin tin to the oven.

Bake for forty to forty-five minutes, or until muffins are golden and a skewer or fork stuck into the center comes out cleanly. Allow the muffins to cool in the tin for ten minutes, then turn out on a rack.

Serve warm for afternoon tea or breakfast.