Friday, April 30, 2010

last trip for a while

I'm sitting in the "Culinary Centre", at the General Mills headquarters, in Minneapolis. Once again, being treated like royalty. I'm here working with Jeremy Goduas. Jeremy is doing the viennoiserie portion of the next US baking team that will compete in Las Vegas in September. Currently, the bread guys, the sculptors, and the pastry guys are practicing separately, once the final three are chosen, they will begin choreographing their work together. I mentioned before that they need to share the equipment in a bake shop together and get their day done in eight hours. Lots of issues to get worked out.

Turns out Jeremy is the only viennoiserie candidate. left standing. The other two guys dropped out, not sure if permanently, or if they plan on coming back. Bottom line, they're not here now. We all arrived here yesterday. Peter Yuen and I drove up from Chicago. Jeremy, flew in from Seattle, and this afternoon, John Kraus and Philippe LeCorre will be here to critique Jeremy's work. We'll make some decisions and suggestions, and do it again tomorrow. Wednesday before we left, the US received the rules from France, regarding the upcoming LeSaffre Cup. No shocking changes, Jeremy wil have do a traditional croissant, chocolate croissant, traditional brioche in a fluted cup and braided brioche. Plus three other pastries of his choice, one being a "Variety from our country". They do that element every competition. Turns out you can justify anything, the US is a big place. We're making everything somewhere. They also have to down play this competition, because there are a lot of countries that compete, that aren't that familiar with an "Artisan" style of baking. There will be four of these LeSaffre Cup competitions, worldwide. They need to determine nine winners to round out the field to twelve teams for the World Cup in 2012. So many rice cultures and flat bread cultures, it's tough for them to compete in a "Long fermented" bakery world. We see it at every competition, the influence of "Flatter" breads done by the Moroccan team. The South American countries, always have very bland looking product, because that is in their "Culture". It goes back centuries, places that grow inferior wheat, are going to bake "Inferior" bread, by our standards.

Things at the bakery have been good. Burnin' thru macarons. The power of advertising is unmeasurable. Like my buddy John Roeser says "The more you make(of something) the better they will be, and the faster you be at makin' 'em". Sharp fellow, that Roeser guy. I'm very proud of our macarons and they way we get them done. I've been making all the shells, but preparing the fillings and putting them together has been a team effort. I think the biggest improvement has been in the caramel ones, really cool. Been makin' 'em everyday, couple mixes.

Joe has made huge strides in our pretzel production. We've been at it for a few months now, but now they are really spot-on. Near perfect. Next week, Matt plans on doing a page on our site about them. It is really an interesting process. Joe has determined that making them one day, and freezing them overnight is the ticket. It's all a balance between freezer temperature and percentage of prefermented flour. Very few items we do, are as consistent. After saying this, the next time I walk into the bakery, there will be a pile of lousy pretzels, but that is the chance I take.

First outdoor farmer's market tomorrow. Early in the week forecast wasn't very promising, but I guess that changed, supposed to be sunny and warm in the morning. That's good. we'll be ready. Next Saturday, we'll have both Wilmette and Evanston, here we go.

Monday, April 26, 2010

when ya hang with royalty.....

I’m currently in flight between Albany, New York and Chicago. I’ve spent the weekend as lead judge for a Master Baker practical exam. The exam was held at the Culinary Institute of America, down in Hyde Park. If you ever get a chance, and you are at all interested in food, ya gotta make a trip to see that place. I have been there several times, and every time I go, there is a new building to see. They graduate a culinary class and a baking and pastry class every three weeks. Consequently, they start a new two year program every three weeks. It is set on the bank of the Hudson river. A big river, creating the big Hudson Valley, surrounded by mountains, incredible. I guess in the scheme of the world, they are really big hills. Growin’ up in Chicago, the tallest thing we see besides skyscrapers is the hill over the railroad tracks on south Western Avenue. You step out of the front door of the school and you look out over the river, magnificent.

My hosts this past weekend were dean of the Baking Pastry school, Tom Vaccaro, CMB, and Chef Rich Coppedge, CMB. My fellow judges were Christophe Gaumet, CMB and Noble Masi, CMB. Noble is the godfather of the entire Baking & Pastry department there, he moved with ‘em from New Haven. He is also the figurehead of the whole RBA certification process. I took over as certification board chair, from Noble. He was a judge when I took my exam in 2001. Great guy, great, great story teller. Think of the experience he has had. Thousands of students he has taught. He has traveled the globe as ambassador of the school and the American baking community. Everywhere I go with Noble, he knows the chef. I’ve been to all three CIA campus’s with Noble. When he enters the school, trumpets sound. At the Hyde Park campus, they have several fine dining restaurants. As figured, a French one, Italian, Green, American, etc. Each one is a classroom. Working “The front of the house”, in one of these restaurants, is the swan song before graduation, for each student. This past exam, kinda got scheduled late. Part of the deal is, the judges have dinner together on the first night of the exam. Noble would’ve had to force the school to cancel a reservation, in one of the fine dining spots, to fit us in. He could have done it, one phone call, done, but he didn’t. Instead, the school opened the closed, Apple Pie café, for us. The Apple Pie café, is the “Front of the house” classroom for Baking and Pastry students. It is located right inside the front door of the school. They don’t serve students, they serve the tour buses that stop there on their way to the Vanderbilt Mansion or the FDR library. The café is open two hundred twenty days a year, they do over two million in sales. You wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it. Folks lined up down the hallway, out the school door. Typical day, they close at 5pm, unless Noble needs the place. They staffed it and each fine dining spot, sent over course after course of, Nobleworthy, food. Each if the chefs came over and apologized for forcing Nobleesque folks to eat in the café. Even the wine instructor came and asked Noble about the wine choices. Then each bowed, as they left, I didn’t catch any of them kissing his ring? Surprisingly.

The candidates did well, instructors Lee Ann Adams, Hans Welker, Staphane Weber, a cereal chemist from Cargill, Tim Christensen, and Jim Clohessy, who works for Wolfgang Puck in Atlanta. Peter Jacobs from the LeSaffre yeast company, in Montreal, came to make up one segment, that he failed at the test in Chicago, last August. The instructors had several students there watching. The labs were closed, but the students can watch thru the windows. The made posters for each of their instructors, and tapped them on the windows, cheering on their teachers. “Go chef Adams, Good Luck chef Welker, and Bon Chance chef Weber”. I would guess Stephane Weber is the favorite of the young girls. He is a very fit, bicycling Frenchman. They all did well, not sure yet if any passed. Noble doesn’t allow any discussion between the judges. Sure we make our comments, but no grades are discussed. We send the score sheets to RBA headquarters, and they are tallied there. We will know before the candidates, but we will hear the same way they do.

I’m leaving the exam weekend with a good feeling. Not sure who passed and who failed. I have my own ideas. One thing for sure, the baking world is better because of the process, because the exam exists. Each of the five candidates tried something they never tried before, baking in a different surrounding, working under close observation by their peers. Being graded on how much flour they get on the floor, or how heavy the string ice a breakfast pastry, how they score a baguette, or how long it takes to ice and decorate a sheet cake. Rest assured American pastry purchasing public, our offerings just got a little better.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I found the macaron article in the April issue of Chicago magazine. Matt has it on our website, as well as all over the bakery. Needless to say, macaron sales have gone thru the roof. It is a single page story, nice picture of macarons from Vanille, a pastry shop in Chicago. It also mentions the restaurants Ria and Nomi. It mentions Sarah's Candies, as well as Vanille. But it also says, "The best we've found so far, are at Bennison's, where they dissolve upon contact with your tounge". Ours was the only address given. Puts us in some pretty tall company. Not sure who is doing the work at either restaurant. But I know Dimitri at Vanille, very talented guy. He was a member of the United States team that won the world pastry championship in 2008. He also teaches at the French pastry School, here in Chicago. It was quite a feeling when I read that. Not quite winning the Coupe, but close.

This weekend I'm off to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. I'm the lead judge for a Master Baker exam weekend. I think we have five candidates for CMB and two for CB. Four of our production folks here, took their written test, last week. Zach, Jennifer and Joe tested for their Certified Journey Baker and Marc tested for Certified Baker. Marc already passed the practical exam last summer at Kendall College. I'm looking forward to returning to the school. Hyde Park is where I did, my practical exam. I've been there a handful of times since then. Rich Coppidge is the lead bread instructor there. I met Rich, my first trip to the National Baking Centre in 97'. We tried out for the baking team together. He has since written a book about gluten free baking. Heck of a nice guy, great instructor.I spoke with Tom Vocarro, the dean of the pastry school, last week. He told me they have an eighteen month waiting list. More impressive is the fact they graduate every three months. Not sure of the enrollment, I'll clarify that this weekend. It's really quite a place. It's also my favorite place to do an exam because of the food. We have some amazing dinners there.

Gotta get upstairs. Got a lot of macrons to get ready for this weekend. Bat 17 also has us working nights. They have a huge party Friday. No wonder, if you've ever tasted their sandwiches.

Just got an email from my buddy Laurent le Daniel, in Rennes, France. He sent me his vanilla macoron filling recipe. The ones I had this past trip to France were better than what we have been making. I just wanna keep makin' things taste better.

Friday, April 16, 2010


Our second find during last Saturday's Green City Market was a pastry idea I saw in Nice. Very simple, sixty grams of brioche dough, rounded up and elongated, placed in the fridge overnite. Saturday morning we took it out and "Creased" it pretty deep with a dowel rod. So the two outside edges were very thick and the middle was paper thin. We egg washed 'em and placed twelve on a sheet pan. We used our pastry creme, flavoured with a little orange flower water, and piped quite a bit down the center of the crease. We proofed 'em and baked 'em. Once they cooled a little we brushed 'em with melted butter and dipped 'em in vanilla sugar. Done. As Kim Montello would say "Deeeeelicious". We only sent twenty three to the market, so it was the first thing we ran out of. We baked our second run of sweet city loaf, carrots, onions, flax & honey. Really, really nice.

I also mentioned about cocoa powders, natural or dutch. Dutch cocoa is treated with alkaline, to neutralize some of the natural acids in the cocoa. In doing so the colour changes as well as the flavour. Ice cream manufacturers use natural cocoa in ice cream, because it imparts better chocolate flavour. It is also the choice of powdered hot cocoa mix producers. As bakers, typical devil's food cake is made with buttermilk. Not because of flavour profile, but because it is rather acidic. We also add a high percentage of baking soda. The soda reacts with already alkalized cocoa and produces richer colour, by enhancing the Maillard reaction. The acidic buttermilk is needed to counteract the excess baking soda, otherwise the cake would taste very "Soapy". It's all cause and effect. Kinda like the song "I know an old woman, who swallowed a spider, she swallowed the spider to catch the fly.........".

Thursday morning I woke up at 2:30am. Within a minute, I had an idea for a new macaroon flavour, red velvet. I had to be thinking about it while I was asleep. Yesterday, I tried it, very cool. I filled them with a cream cheese ganache, made with white chocolate. I'm told there is an article about our macaroons in Chicago magazine, but I haven't found it yet. We are really burning thru macaroons lately, so it must be true. Macaroons and sandwiches. We've sold out of sandwiches three days in a row. I guess it makes sense, nice days, folks can sit outside and eat lunch.

Yesterday we made a pastry that we haven't made in years. "Eierschecke", is an old German pastry, that we haven't made in twenty years. There's a fellow that works down the street at the locksmith shop. I don't see him very often, but every time I see him in the store, he asks me about it. We start with a thin layer of yeast dough. We make cheese filling, not to sweet, spread that on and sprinkle on raisins, toasted, sliced almonds and streussel. We then make a topping that starts with pastry creme, we lighten it by adding soft butter and egg yolks. We whip the egg whites with sugar and make a soft meringue, and fold in the custard part. We spread that mixture on the sheet and bake it. We're gonna cut it to today, it's Friday. We have enough folks cross our threshold on Fridays, we'll sell the whole sheet today. Less the piece that my dad eats, two or three the store folks will eat, can't ask them to sell it until they taste it. I gotta take a few down the street to the locksmith shop.

Anybody been shoppin' here as long as he has, deserves it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

natural cocoa

Interesting end to the week, last week. The first two days after Easter weren't much. But the end of the week was very good. We had that huge order for chocolate brioche and "Beer bread", as we called it. The market went well Saturday, sold out by 11:45. Market was open until 1pm. The theme was cheese. They had six or eight small, artisan cheese makers there, drew quite crowd.

We made this "Beer bread", for the Sheraton hotel. It was pretty nice. We started with the formula that Craig Ponsford used in 1996, for the Coupe, in Paris. He used spent grains,from a brewery, that he ground thru a meat grinder and roasted. We were given some dry, malty, grain blend that was rather sweet. It was obviously hops and malt, blended with some other grains, maybe barley? The bread had better aromas than flavour. They were using the bread for the charcuterie course, so I'm comfortable it worked out fine.

We had two real "Finds" last week. The chocolate brioche is really cool. We made our typical brioche dough, took out part of the butter and added our own "Fudge base", along with semi-sweet chocolate chips. This summer we are gonna bake it for our markets, in a round "Crimp" pan. The end result will be a round slice of brioche. Will make the most bad ass French toast. "Fudge base", is something we make in house, for two reasons. Of course us bakers can buy it, from our suppliers. The problem is, when you read their label, it has everything but chocolate. It has soybean oil, cocoa and lecithin. So, it makes things a nice chocolate colour, but no flavour. There isn't any cocoa butter. You can't capture true chocolate flavour, unless there is cocoa butter present. When we make our chocolate base, we use natural process cocoa, vegetable shortening, melted chocolate liquor and vegetable oil. It's so much better than anything we can purchase, because it has real chocolate in it. The chocolate liquor, bitter chocolate, is a blend of cocoa butter and cocoa, and it has incredible flavour. It is also very expensive. So few bakers use it anymore, that you can't even get it from the local supply houses. We buy all of our everyday chocolate from Blommer chocolate, here in Chicago. By everyday chocolate, I mean chips, cocoa, liquor and pokies(easily mistaken for M&M's). They sell semi sweet slabs, which we use for mousse, but I'm not a fan. I prefer imported chocolate for mousse. The second reason we make this stuff in house, is the cost. In 1970, my dad figured every time we made fudge base, we saved a $100. Forty years ago, $100, can't imagine the difference these days.

The down side is, it's kind of a pain to do. When little Arturo is done, he looks like a coal miner, or like he's been workin' on an oil rig. We make it in large batches, in a 140qt mixer. It's almost like we have to take turns holdin' his ankles when he scrapes to the bottom of the mixing bowl.

But our customers are worth it. Tomorrow I'll tell ya 'bout our second find last week and give ya the poop on "Natural" cocoa.

Oh, we use melted chocolate liquor to chocolatize our brownies. No cocoa powder here. Go ahead mention that to the girl behind the counter of your local grocery store bakery. Our brownie formula is one of four that we haven't changed since my dad bought the bakery in '67.

Stupid us, we even put honey in our brownies. Yeah, real honey.

Another one of those ridiculous Downer beliefs.

Friday, April 9, 2010

aville market, you're in for a treat

Just ate a plain cake donut, a fresh one. Spectacular. We routinely filter the oil, in our donut fryer, three times a week. A few years ago, we bought a new fryer. Our old one was old, a long time ago. It was also way oversized, so we didn't get the proper turnover of frying oil. For all practical purposes, donut fryers come in three sizes, small, medium or large. The larger the fryer the more oil it will hold. The more oil, the larger the filtering unit one needs. A pretty simple process, hot oil is drained into the filter tank, that is fitted with a paper filter. The hot oil is then drawn thru the filter paper, via a pump, that pumps the oil back into the fryer tank. Once the oil is drained into the tank, diamatcious(not sure of spelling, neither is Bill Gates apparently, I'm still getting that red line)(ed. note - Diatomaceous, thanks for the emails everyone) earth, is added to the oil. This fluffy powdery substance, I'm told, is ground up seashells. Don't know if it's true, if I can't get the proper spelling, I certainly can't look it up on Google. Anyway, this magical powder draws all the discoloration and strong donuty smells out of the oil. Since our old fryer was so big, we had a big, big filter. Very difficult to manipulate thru our crowded bakery. Consequently, we didn't filter as often as we should have. When we bought the new fryer, a more proper size to our production, I demanded a fryer with a built in filter system. The thing works great, no more rolling around a picnic table size filter, just open the drain and start pumping. It made an incredible difference in our donuts. The week before Easter, the switch on the pump went out. Matt, our in house I.T. department, can fix anything, website host, network guy, had time to fix it, but we couldn't find the room for him to work. During the day we push racks/mixing bowls, in front of the fryer. So for him to work on the fryer we would have to find a place for whatever we bury it with, during the day. We had to wait until after Easter to repair the pump switch. So Monday, he changed into his mechanics clothes, brought up the tool bag, drop light and air hose. Everything in the bakery has flour on it, so the first thing any repair guy needs to do is blow the flour out of the way. He found a "Soft" breaker, in the fryer. A small circuit breaker that he couldn't get to stay in the "On" position. It kept springing back to the "Off" position. The pump switch seemed fine. He started blowing flour of the pipes and burners, opened up a few small panels and started checking continuity, etc. Turns out, enough flour had worked it's way down into that small circuit breaker, that it wouldn't allow the arm to go far enough into the on position, for it to stay there. How do those things happen? How can a few grains of flour work their way down into a switch, to the point that it is inoperable?

We've filtered the oil, twice since Matt fixed the pump. Donuts are much better. No greasiness whatsoever. They don't have that strong "Fried" taste, either. A few years back, we would filter once a month. Never bothered me, until I learned what a difference it makes. Same thing with our neon sign, on the corner of the building. It has two rows of vertical, chasing lights, like an old movie theater. For thirty years it didn't light. Didn't even have power to it. It has "Bennison's" horizontal, across the top. "Bakeries", vertical, down the middle, and a double row of chasing bulbs on each side of the "Bakeries". Once we got it fixed, I realized what an incredibly beautiful, valuable piece of our advertising it is. When we first got it working, I used to circle the block, at night, just to look at it. So now I keep count, when there are five or six bulbs burned out, in the chasers, I dash for the ladder. When a section of one the words, is out, I don't sleep.

Moral of the story, things that gradually deteriorate, are un-noticeable, until you realize how good they can really be.

Gotta get upstairs. There's a few hundred pounds of chocolate brioche screamin' to get in the oven. By the way, the idea of chocolate brioche worked out really well. You folks that shop at the Aville market are in for a real treat. We are gonna bake chocolate brioche in a round crimp pan. You all can slice it real thick, make the most bad-ass French toast on the planet. June 23rd, gotta wait until then.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

chocolate brioche

Well the Easter/Passover dust has settled. I've taken it kinda easy the last two days. The Sox opener, NCAA final game, the Cubs gettin' shelled, it was all part of the crazy holiday weekend.

Got our pan washer motor back on Friday. mid-day. Works great, much quieter than the old motor. we had stuff piled up all over waitin' to get washed. Don't tell the health department. We had stacks of lamb molds, but they got soaked over the weekend and now they look great. We never did find our large egg cake molds. We had to run over to Tag's bakery and borrow theirs. I'm figurin' ours got buried in the basement, last fall, behind stacks of farmer's market tents/tables. We'll find 'em just in time for Mother's Day.

Markets start May 8th, Evanston. May 12th, Green City, and others, mid June. The gang is gettin' stoked, to start workin' like men again. They have lots of plans,i.e. new bread and pastry varieties they want to try out. I have one new idea I saw in France, a very simple brioche pastry filled with pastry creme. They made a chocolate brioche yesterday. Looks really cool, it's proofing as I type. Actually got a call yesterday from a French chef friend of mine, turns out there is some huge beer/brewers party at the Sheraton Chicago this weekend. He wanted this chocolate brioche. They are making some type of bread pudding with chocolate brioche and caramelized brewers malt? It's apparently a really big deal, they have flown the kitchen staff here from Belgium to prepare this meal. They need to do a hundred twenty five hotel pans of this bread pudding. They also have some guarded bread formula, they managed to smuggle out of Belgium. I'm supposed to hear about that today. Made with some special malted hops or somethin'.

So we unloaded our holiday goods very well. We had one or two large egg cakes, one or two lamb cakes, five or six pans of chic/bunny cookies and maybe twenty four loaves of our coloured Easter bread. Based on all we sold, that ain't much. Sold all our Passover stuff. Tossed one sponge ring, and two macaroon sponge cakes. Business overall, was very good. Our traffic was up, I look at the holiday as a whole. I checked Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Yes, we're open Easter Sunday. We were up about sixty customer's for the three days. Sales dollars were up, proportionally more. We didn't raise any holiday prices, they were the same as 2009. Tells me that folks ate closer to home this Easter. Although the few country clubs we deal with ordered the same as last Easter.

Tables went out on the sidewalk last Thursday. Funny thing, I know of four phone calls for sure, that inquired about seating in the bakery, in the last week. On nice days, the tables are full, 'specially around lunch. I guess we need to start takin' notice if our sandwich sales are stronger on nicer days.

Gotta run, head upstairs, check on the chocolate brioche