I am cooking like a mad-woman. And baking too! Now that I teach cooking classes (some at a nearby school, some private—in your home or mine!), I feel the need to ‘practice.’ What do I mean? I guess it means this teacher is always, always a student. Some love of learning thing…
If there is one thing I learned at culinary school, it is just like any niche profession, graduate school or obsession: you learn how much you have to learn. The sea of possibilities when it comes to cooking is mind-numbing; the vast reach of world cuisines, cooking methodologies and flavor profiles can be a bit overwhelming exciting. I went to culinary school since it was a long-time dream of mine, to round out my knowledge of cooking, to ‘divorce’ myself from recipes, and to make a broad-stroke push in the mastery of my kitchen.
And it worked. I handled duck and was exposed to beef cuts, learned that when you bake biscuits, the less you work the dough the better. I learned about roux and soup methodology and the success of first searing, then finishing proteins in the oven. Essentially, we went through methods and proteins, vegetables and baking, basics and food safety and everything else: ONCE.
Which means, the way to improve your knowledge and mastery is through practice, repetition, practice, culinary exploration, practice… and sheer kitchen bravery—all of which is best done with an attitude akin to Julia Child’s.
So I have been practicing. Perfecting a sear on scallops (just make sure it is DRY, DRY, DRY and the skillet only needs one scant brush wipe of oil or butter…), working with various cuts of beef, cutting up even more chicken—and actually using the livers. I have been making scads of caramel, emulsified dressings and pasta-from-scratch.
Puff pastry seems to be a useful go-to base for quick appetizers and desserts. And I have been wanting to learn to make those cool, caramel shapes that stand upright on any given dessert. Ever seen a caramel nest? But not just the firm kind; I love the type of caramel you can squirt all over the plate—for a fancy presentation. It’s just sugar and water, really, and a bit of know-how (practice!).
I recently made this Pear Upside Down Cake—my son Anthony (15 year old) loved it. A few wedges even made it into his lunch. I made this Banana Tart Tartin years ago and never forgot how yummy it was. So I made it again just a few days ago—and served it with rum whipped cream. This is a picture of an almond tart I made (actually, tiny muffin-tin tarts), with homemade vanilla ice cream and ‘squirted’ caramel sauce…
Caramel (for drizzling)
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 T water
1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 T unsalted butter
Stir sugar, water and lemon juice in small saucepan, just to blend. Heat over over high heat for 10 plus minutes. Don’t stir; Do brush down sides with ice-cold water (to keep sugar from crystallizing around edges). When it looks ‘caramel’ colored, add cream. Give it a good swirl, but don’t stir. Let bubble up, then back down. Pull from heat, stir in butter (or you can stir in no butter, and a tsp vanilla). Drizzle!
Keeps well in one of those infamous ‘squirt bottles.’ I always tell my class attendees: practice squirting on a plate or even the counter! Then go for it on the ‘final’ plate. Draw nests, circles, zig-zags, and my favorite: dime-size dots that you drag a toothpick through in one direction. It makes a heart!
- caramel that hardens to make designs
- caramel with cream, stays liquid and is great for squirting over a dessert or on a plate.
- caramel sauce from Martha
- caramel sauce from Ina Garten
- caramel sauce from Epicurious
- don’t stir it. when you are making caramel you mix the sugar and water just enough to blend them, then set on stove and let the water/sugar do its thing. You can occasionally ‘swirl’ it.
- while the caramel is bubbling, have a pastry brush in a cup of cold water nearby: and brush down the inside edge of the saucepan, so the bubbling doesn’t crystallize around the edges.
- when adding heavy cream, give it a good swirl, then let it bubble up and back down. It’s ready.
- As a general rule, when making caramel: swirl, don’t stir.
- Not all caramel is created equal. Many of the recipes have a little more of this, a little less of that. Once you have made it a few times, you will get the ‘hang of it’ and be able to experiment/get a feel for it.
- caramel sauce keeps well in your fridge; so all you need for a quick dessert is some ice cream!