WEEK #2 Culinary School -- Principles of Baking

I never knew that salt is the most important ingredient in baking after the flour. It controls fermentation of the yeast and contributes to the quality and color of the crust. Proper proportion is essential to obtain the texture and flavor desired. I'm learning all the basics of baking in my spring semester class at the School of Culinary Arts at SBCC with Chef Sandra Allain.

I'm hoping to learn how to make top notch pie crusts, ciabatta, flaky croissants and more! The first two classes were spent going over the prelimary chapters in our textbook: Professional Baking by Wayne Gisslen. I can't wait for next week when we get into the kitchen to bake--plus my "baking buddy" lived in Florence, Italy for three years, so I hope to practice my rusty Italian!


Creamy Polenta Tamale Casserole

What do you make when you have homemade chile sauce already made and your heart set on enchiladas, but you open your frig and find you have no tortillas? I made this casserole with creamy polenta and it was delish. We had a couple of Napa wines to try: Rocca Family Vineyards 2007 Merlot and the 2008 Vespera. Both were good. I preferred the fruitiness of the Merlot with the spiciness of this dish, but the Vespera's chocolately smoothness would be my preferred sipping wine.

Creamy Polenta Tamale Casserole: 
Ingredients:4 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. flour
2 cup milk
1 cup cornmeal
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 shallot, minced about 1/2 cup
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 sausages, sliced--either vegetarian or pork sausage
1 cup corn kernels, fresh or canned
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
2 cups red chile sauce or red enchilada sauce
2 cups grated sharp cheddar
*optional: finely minced parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter, add flour and cook over low heat for a couple of minutes. Do not let it brown. Add the milk and cornmeal and cook until thickened, stirring occasionally. Set aside. Coat the bottom of a saucepan with oil and sweat (cook without browning) the shallot and garlic over low heat. Add the sausage, corn, celery, and bell pepper. Continue cooking for another five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the red chile sauce, stir, then pour into the bottom of an 8" round casserole. Using a spatula, spread the mixture evenly across the bottom of the dish. Stir the cornmeal, if it is not liquid enough to pour easily, add enough water, mixing thoroughly to make it pourable without being runny. Pour over the vegetable mixture and smooth with the spatula. Sprinkle with the cheese and bake for 40 minutes. Sprinkle each portion with parsley, if desired. Serves 4.


Smoking Your Own Fish And Smoked Whitefish Spread

The alluring aroma of hickory smoke curled around my neighborhood last week prompting my neighbors to track down the source and to let me know me that they LOVE smoked fish. Santa brought me a Brickman smoker/roaster/steamer/grill for Christmas and I had my first two forays into the world of smoking. The Brickman has a fire pan at the bottom for the coals and aromatic hardwood, a water pan in the middle that can be filled with beer or herb infused water, and two grills--one directly above the water pan for a steaming and one at the top for conventional smoking. Doesn't their description sound tempting? "Here's how it works: 
The liquid in the pan absorbs the heat from the firs pan. This keeps cooking heat low, moist and even. The water reaches simmering temperatures and steams slightly. The simmering water evaporates and combines with smoke from aromatic woods smoldering in the fire pan. This fragrant moisture condenses on the food, then drips into the liquid pan. As the cycle is repeated, the moisture becomes more deliciously flavored with wood tenderness." Yes, it does!

I found fatwood starters and oak charcoal at Ralph's without any chemicals (I hate the aroma of starter fluid) and used the hickory chunks that came with the smoker. I wrapped both the fire and water pans with aluminum foil and put a sheet under the smoker to catch any ash that came out of the vent hole on the bottom. Clean up was a snap. I tried different sizes of fish--the smallest ones (size of a kebob chunk) were nearly as dry as jerky and the larger fillet pieces had plenty of surface area to capture the smoky flavor, but enough thickness to be moist. I would say 2" would be the thinnest one would want a piece to be, unless you're looking for jerky.

The helpful seafood monger at Whole Foods sold me salmon and whitefish and recommended 1 cup rock salt: 1 cup brown sugar: 1 quart water as a 24 hour brine for the fish. Unfortunately, the first batch made this way way to salty, so I used the whitefish in the spread recipe below. The cream cheese and sour cream diluted the saltiness so the spread was delicious with a French baguette at a recent winetasting of Pinot Noir at work.

The second day, I made my own brine with 1/4 cup rock salt: 1/4 cup brown sugar: 1/4 cup maple syrup: 1 tsp. fresh thyme and brined the fish for about 2 hours. We tried it at the same Pinot Noir tasting--the fish was excellent, but perhaps the smoky flavor a bit overwhelming for the more delicate Pinots.

A note: marinated fish and meat need to sit out in the air after being removed from the brine or marinade. When the air can contact all sides, it dries out the surface and develops a pellicule which is a thin layer of tackiness that the smoke adheres to--I simply placed the fish on a rack for half an hour. In the same smoking, I smoked a pork loin marinaded in red chile sauce that was devoured by my carnivorous family. Next time: smoked oysters and smoked chuckwagon beans!

8 ounces whipped cream cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 pound. smoked whitefish, skinned, boned and flaked
1/4 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
2 tablespoons fresh dill
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon. horseradish

With a spatula, combine cream cheese and sour cream in a mixing bowl until well blended. Stir in the fish and favorings, then spoon into a serving dish. Refrigerate for an hour or longer, serve with sliced bread or crackers. Makes about 2 cups of spread. Pair with a strong Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay.