Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Gaston Lenotre: Living Legacy

I have heard it said, “Do you consider the fact that your entire adult life is based on the decisions of a teenager?” Daunting to some, but I doubt many were as successful at what their teenage self chose to study as Gaston Lenotre, French pastry chef and innovator. He was not yet 15 years old when he passed his professional cooking exams, and was more than 70 years old when he finally retired from actively practicing his trade. His legacy left an indelible mark on modern French cuisine and on pastry production as a whole.

One could say that cooking was in Lenotre’s blood. He was, after all, born to two chefs – his parents met while both were working in Paris – so naturally he was involved in cuisine at a very early age. According to one source, he wavered between studying pastry and studying carpentry, but fortunately he chose the former. No doubt he was influenced by his parents’ love of the art.

Lenotre was merely 27 years old when he acquired his first shop in Normandy, and it was 10 years after that when he decided to open a shop in a very fashionable area of Paris, a decision that helped shoot him to fame. Lenotre’s innovations on traditional French desserts were a revelation – he took recipes that were heavy or outdated and reworked them using fresh ingredients and simple preparations, helping to usher in the “nouvelle cuisine” of the 1970’s.

After his success in his shop in Paris, Lenotre went on to open 60 boutiques in 12 countries. Of note was his attention to detail – even when catering events with thousands of guests, he prepared his items in modest batches to ensure that each item was of the utmost quality and was just as good as if he was preparing it for only a small dinner party. It was during this time as a successful caterer that he realized the importance of having a crew specially trained in his particular methods and vision. After all, he made so many changes and discoveries – for instance, using gelatin in buttercreams, or creative use of the freezer – that he needed a crew who knew what these applications entailed and enacted. He solved this problem by founding L’Ecole Lenotre.

The Lenotre School began not just as an institute for pastry chefs, but a re-training institute for people to work on his crews. He began by teaching already-knowledgeable chefs his new methods, but eventually the school opened to the public, expanding to teach both professionals and amateurs in the Lenotre style, from those under his employ and even those employed by his competitors. The school was yet another success in the Lenotre empire – one which remains as such today. Among the many notable students of Lenotre is Pierre Herme, who embraced Lenotre’s innovative style and has found success by not following the protocol of traditional flavors, inventing such unheard of treats as the ketchup macaroon, and earning himself the title of the Picasso of Pastry.

His impact on the world of pastry production is not the only legacy that Gaston Lenotre left behind. At the time of his death in 2009 at the age of 88, he had three children, eight grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren. And at least a few of them have followed the footsteps on Lenotre and his parents into the culinary world – one of his grandsons owns a successful restaurant in the south of France, and his son Alain used the legacy his father began with Ecole Lenotre and, with the help of his wife and siblings, founded a new school, the Culinary Institute. Between the school and the nine recipe books Lenotre wrote with his daughter Sylvie, which have been translated into multiple languages and have sold over a million copies, the traditions that Lenotre began in his modest restaurant in the 1950’s continue to be studied and shared today.

Katz, Basil. Gaston LenĂ´tre, Who Built a Culinary Brand, Is Dead at 88. The New York Times, January 9, 1999.

Lenotre, Alain. Lenotre Family History. Culinary Institute.

Miles, Alex. Gaston Lenotre, 1920-. On Baking: A Textbook of Baking & Pastry Fundamentals. Labensky, Martel and Damme. International Culinary Schools at the Art Institute; 2009.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Did cooking make us human?

BBC News -- Did the discovery of cooking make us human?

This is a really interesting article.  The idea that cooking, aside from being such a purposeful and creative art, physically helped us become what we are, helped our brains and bodies develop to humans from our lower ancestors.  I won't say a lot about it, because I think the article is really worth reading (and it isn't too long, either), and I definitely thought it was worth sharing.  Enjoy!

Fruitcake: Ancient Traditions

Another paper I wrote for class.  Both this and the cornbread paper got perfect grades!  Pretty exciting for me.

When most people nowadays hear the word “fruitcake”, an unfortunate warning image pops into their imagination: a heavy, bricklike loaf, sticky and sickly sweet, thickly dotted with unrecognizable, unnaturally brightly colored particles which the manufacturer insists are bits of fruit. This is an image not even necessarily that our frightened consumer has experienced firsthand, but more likely one that has been planted by comedians or perhaps an acquaintance who had one bad fruitcake experience and was scarred for life. How unfortunate that this is the case, as a properly made fruitcake is a treat well worth having: crumbly with dried fruit, filled with aromatic spices, soaked in spirits, and absolutely perfect when paired with clotted cream and hot coffee. Why should such a classic dessert be allowed to become so vilified? Especially one with such an ancient tradition: not many baked items play such an important part in so many different cultural celebrations. The fruitcake was a cultural icon long before becoming a joke.

The first known item resembling a fruitcake came about in ancient Roman times, making its appearance as an item much more closely resembling modern granola bars than what we now call fruitcake. The structure of this early “fruitcake” was especially practical for long journeys into battle or crusades, as its lack of moisture yet high protein meant the item would keep for long periods of time while being a nutritious, portable snack. It was not until the Middle Ages that the fruitcake began to evolve into our modern version; the addition of sweeteners, preserved fruits and spices also elevated the cake to an expensive, special-occasion treat. (Wikipedia, Dorfman)

Since its inception, this confection has evolved into many incarnations – sweet and savory, meal accompaniment and dessert – and is a star player in native dishes of many different cultures, in Europe, the Caribbean and, of course, the United States. In Italy, panettone and panforte remain as very popular fruitcake variations. One cannot venture to the Caribbean without seeing fruit and rum cakes at any grocery or souvenir shop. It was only in the early part of the 20th century in America when a manufacturer chose to add crystallized fruits and candies to their recipe, establishing what most people now think of when they hear the word “fruitcake”. (Wikipedia, Dorfman)

Even more interesting than the evolution of this confection through the centuries is its cultural use in rituals and celebrations. Of course, the use of the fruits and spices in ancient periods made fruitcake too expensive for use as an everyday table item, and that alone could be enough to have it set aside as a “special occasion” treat. That helped make fruitcake the perfect candidate for use as a wedding cake; it remains a traditional wedding cake in some parts of the world. It often serves as the top tier on a stacked cake, as it keeps well and is therefore perfect to be saved until the couple’s first anniversary. Alternately, it has another traditional use as the groom’s cake. Unmarried wedding guests were encouraged to take home a slice of the cake; it was said that if they placed the cake underneath their pillow before going to bed that night, they would dream of the person that they would eventually marry.

But of course, the celebration fruitcake is most associated with is the winter holiday that we now refer to as Christmas. The ancient traditions held deeply to the idea of using symbolism in not just their celebrations, but their everyday life, and the fruitcake is no different. Aside from the aforementioned expense making this confection best saved for such an important holiday, the use of out-of-season fruits symbolizes the promise of the eventual return to spring, an important feature in the original celebration of the winter solstice. The solstice eventually birthed the holidays of Sacaea, Saturnalia, and Yule, which were eventually overshadowed by Christmas once the Christians reached England. The cakes are traditionally make weeks in advance and allowed to age, which adds to their flavor, but also makes for a more convenient preparation as there is less last-minute work. (Candlegrove)

The fruitcake method is also interesting when looked at from a cultural and historical perspective. This cake is generally very dense, thick with preserved fruit and liberally coated in alcohol; none of this happened by chance. The dense structure of the fruitcake is a product of baking for a very long time at a low temperature, which is tailored to the method of baking at the time it was created: very rarely did families have access to anything resembling our modern ovens, instead needing to create a product that could be baked on a hearth next to a fire. The lengthy baking time helps to make the cake into a heavy, solid mass, and leaves it without an excess of moisture present after baking while also ensuring that the fruits and sugars caramelize but do not burn. The lack of moisture is also important to the integrity of the cake: as mentioned in the previous section, a fruitcake should traditionally be aged a minimum of one week to reach its full flavor potential. It is even rumored that Queen Victoria waited an entire year before eating a fruitcake because she believed it “showed restraint” (Dorfman). The density and dryness of the cake, the high presence of sweetener, and the frequent basting with a strong liquor such as brandy, rum or whiskey means that the fruitcake will not spoil or mold during the ageing process. Modern methods such as artificial preservatives and airtight packaging allow for commercially manufactured cakes to last longer on the shelf without close monitoring of these factors or even omissions and substitutions, such as no liquor or the use of less or artificial sweeteners.

The journey of fruitcake is truly a fascinating one. Studying it, unfortunately, does nothing to alter the current societal prejudice against this treat. Even I, when I bake my Christmas fruitcakes, make them in cupcake pans and refer to them as “fruity, nutty muffins”, which manages to convince people to try them, after which they at least somewhat understand the appeal. The fruitcake is a tradition that should not be forgotten.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cornbread: A Brief History

Wrote this paper for my Artisan Breads class.  We had to pick any bread we weren't discussing in class... so I picked my favorite!

One often hears the phrase “as American as apple pie” – quite an ironic statement, as apple pies are actually a European dish using a fruit with Asian origins and not remotely American. Why should apple pie hold the baked-good-banner of American culture, when there are other dishes far more worthy of national recognition? One might consider the pumpkin pie, or peanut butter cookies – both of which feature main ingredients that originated in the Americas. Even the tomato, which features heavily in the traditional dishes of Italy, was only acquired by that nation in the 1500s after discovering it upon their explorations of South America. It strikes me, however, that there is another dish truly unique to the Americas, both through birthright and development, which still plays a leading part in the everyday meals of many American people – cornbread.

Cornbread is a quick bread, leavened with baking soda and\or baking powder. Ingredients generally include eggs, milk or buttermilk, flour, and of course, cornmeal, but variations are available to suit most palates, sweet or savory, mild or spicy, and can be prepared in a large dish or as individual muffins. Cornbread is generally regarded as a Southern food, but was once popular throughout the country – now, it can be hard even to locate simple cornmeal in non-Southern areas. But cornbread in its many incarnations remains very popular in the American South.

Archeological and social studies research has shown that corn became widely domesticated by the Mesoamerican people around 1100-1500 BCE, but could have been used as a food as early as 12,000 years ago. It was not until corn began to be domesticated that it began to resemble the corn we know today: it had previously had a much smaller amount of edible material, a form which is still apparent in wild varieties of corn. A staple in the diet of the early Americans, it was generally either popped or ground into meal. The earliest version of cornbread is thought to be a mixture of cornmeal, salt and water, shaped and baked on a stone next to a fire, also similar to the corn pone. It was not until the Europeans arrived to colonize the New World that the rest of the world was introduced to corn, and America was poised to create cornbread as we know it today.

When the Europeans settled in the Americas, they brought with them their own cooking traditions and ingredients. When trying to use cornmeal by itself in place of flour, it was discovered that it creates a much heavier, denser bread than when used in conjunction with flour – a blend commercially available today as self-rising cornmeal mix. Cornbread recipes were evolved that did not call for flour, important mostly in the early days of America when flour was expensive or unavailable. The product they sought that resembled their traditional breads, however, needed flour for a lighter structure – in addition to having a grittier texture, cornmeal alone is nonreactive to yeasts.

An economical answer to the high cost of flour in the early United States, cornbread became very popular as a meal accompaniment. Perhaps the height of its fame came during the American Civil War, when the destitute nation used cornmeal in abundance – the South favoring a savory cornbread made with a white cornmeal, the North a sweeter bread made with yellow meal. But more than just using it for cornbread, by this point the versatility of the meal had been discovered – it could be pan-fried into pancakes or “Johnny-cakes”, deep-fried into hush puppies, boiled into hasty pudding (also known as “Indian pudding” or “cornmeal mush”), or baked as cornbread or spoonbread. Not actually a bread, spoonbread resembles a baked pudding or soufflĂ©, and while not a widely utilized recipe, remains exceedingly popular in certain areas of Kentucky. Following the end of the Civil War, the widespread use of cornmeal remained popular in the South, as the people struggled to rebuild their broken society.

Today, one can still find cornbread on the everyday menus in many traditional Southern homes and restaurants, usually baked in cast iron skillets. It may be eaten as-is, or crumbled with pinto beans for a protein-rich dish, or into buttermilk and eaten with a spoon like cereal – in my personal opinion, a sweeter cornbread works best, or add a little honey to the dish, as it has a nice juxtaposition with the tartness of the buttermilk. However, some homes use plain milk for this dish instead of buttermilk, achieving a much different flavor and texture, and in that case a more savory cornbread is suitable.

Perhaps if the person who first said “as American as…” could have looked back at the history of this dish, they would have finished with “cornbread” instead of “apple pie”. Could they have known how deeply rooted this dish has been in our country’s traditions? Boasting a unique texture, versatility to adapt to countless flavor variations, and a long and fascinating history, perhaps the best part about cornbread is that I currently have all the ingredients for it in my kitchen.

Camp Silos. “The Story of Corn.” History Detective.

Olver, Lynne. The Food Timeline.

Rattray, Diana. “Cornbread: Learn how to make real Southern cornbread.” Articles on Corn, Cornbread, and Cornmeal.