Thursday, January 22, 2015

Danish pastries and palm trees

Working abroad was on my life bucket list ever since studying abroad in college, an experience that gave me just a little taste of everyday life in another country.  It was a first course that left me hungry for more.  When I had the opportunity to return to Northern Europe to work for a Danish company on an almost year and a half contract, I had to seize it.

Expat life is full of rewards as well as peppered with hurdles, from small to big, and from humorous to frustrating.  There were days I felt enormous pride when I could get through an entire grocery store transaction in Danish without someone realizing I was a big American impostor.  

I practiced this nearly every day, and was usually found out on the rare occasion that a Danish store clerk broke the typical pattern of the exchange and started making random small talk.  Cue my very confused expression and a moment of "what did they say?" terror and it was all over, after which they would always graciously and seamlessly switch to perfect english.  True, there is little risk of real disaster in this situation, as so many Danes speak such impressive english, and are so forgiving with those of us who speak bad Danish.  But living out of a suitcase for over a year and adjusting to a new set of cultural norms can be alienating at times, a feeling perhaps heightened by the very dark and cold Danish winter.  Silly as it may seem, even small successes in your grocery store interactions (or getting through an entire yoga class in Danish) can feel like victories that offer you a sense of belonging.

Beyond my own efforts to live life among the Danes, I was particularly lucky that my employer made a very intentional effort to foster a strong workplace community: there were bike to work contests, wine tastings, beer socials featuring an aggressive amount of potato chips and Carlsberg, and even a few bonding trips to Sweden.  

Despite our access to flashy travel excursions, one of my favorite workplace initiatives was the weekly Wednesday morning breakfast.  Each week, the entire company would gather together to break bread, specifically bread and buttery Danish pastries from Sankt Peders Bageri (one of the oldest bakeries in Denmark.)  

The bread selection was an assortment that always featured rugbrød (dark Danish rye bread), french-style bread with seeds, and various rolls. Liberal amounts of butter, jam, and cheese were available to top off bread slices and rolls, and coffee and tea flowed as the perfect pastry accompaniments.  For me, these moments are at the heart of the experience of living abroad-- the everyday interactions that define living in a community, and the new routines you learn to love.  Wednesday breakfast was a chance to learn which pastries your bosses favor, which of your coworkers like rejeost (spreadable "shrimp cheese"!) on their morning bun, a chance to share bike commuting in the rain woes or flat tire disaster stories.  Plus, what is more charming than waking up for work and knowing that a feast of pastries and freshly baked bread awaits you upon your arrival?  Since I no longer have Wednesday morning breakfasts to look forward to, I can take solace in Culver City's Copenhagen Pastry, a shop in west Los Angeles operated by actual Danes that uses the fitting motto "pastries bring people together."  

Here, you can have your Danish treats, and your palm trees and sunny weather too, without any fears of your pastry orders getting lost in translation.

Friday, January 09, 2015

true tales of a cooking hotline crisis manager

I once worked at a specialty cooking store, where they sold things like truffle salts, caviars, fine cooking oils, artisan cheeses, kitchen equipment, and more.

One of my favorite parts about working there was meeting fellow food lovers, and friendly folks from all walks of the food industry-- everyone from local chefs to food entrepreneurs who told me tales of inventing hot sauce concoctions, building barbecue empires, and launching cottage food operations.  As Julia Child said, "people who love to eat are always the best people."

I tried my best to gain a foundation of knowledge about all the products in the store, because we often received random cooking and baking questions in the rapid fire style of a cooking hotline.  It was at times terrifying, as I hated the feeling that I might disappoint a customer who needed my help.  However, fully mastering the nuances of each ingredient's savory and pastry applications could take three lifetimes (and then there was the cooking equipment to consider.)  To try to conquer the learning curve, I spent a lot of time on food company websites, trying to absorb the back story of what made each product special.  For the record (and just to nerd out about food branding for a moment), the Maldon salt company website is one of the most informative and engaging ones I have ever seen. (Did you know they are a 4th generation family business in Essex, England, a region which has been hand harvesting salt for over 2,000 years?)  I love food products that have a great story to tell.  But for every website like that one, I struggled with the companies that had a minimalist web presence, or those selling obscure imported ingredients that had no English translation (I know a freelance writer that can help you with that.)

I will not lie: not all of this was a selfless pursuit.  I was a glutton for the kind of instant hero status you would get when you helped someone find the missing ingredient they needed for their tasting menu event that night, their culinary school final the next morning, or their restaurant opening.  I loved the rush of tracking down those elusive ingredients.  If we didn't have the item, I would call up the Japanese market, send them to the Persian grocer, or suggest the Mexican meat counter nearby.  I once had a woman request to purchase exactly $48 in dark chocolate for a friend who had received a parking ticket in that amount, for which she wanted to pay her back in sweets instead of cash. All of the store's chocolate was pre-portioned in random weighed amounts, much like the containers you find at supermarket delis.  So I scanned and scanned until I found the exact right pieces to represent the value of her friend's parking citation woes, and this nice woman even wrote me a thank you note for doing so.  If you were ever wondering, these are the glory moments of a culinary retail worker.

Then there are the moments that leave you at a loss: a panicked customer calling in from home to explain, live as it is happening, a candy-making crisis where the sugar isn't doing what it's supposed to be doing and the chocolate step has gone seriously awry.  Or, the woman and her sister making an old 1970's family dinner recipe in honor of their mom, an annual tradition involving aspic and Easter ham.  With Easter fast approaching, they discovered that every single local store did not have the apricot jello they needed, and sadly I had to tell her we had none on our shelves either.  In these moments, often the only thing I could offer were words of encouragement.  If only I had known to refer them to this apricot aspic recipe using a base of orange jello and canned apricots, I could have saved Easter. Maybe one day, I will channel beloved radio host and cooking expert Lynne Rossetto Kasper and instinctively provide a graceful answer to each and every cooking crisis I encounter. (If you have not yet listened to her excellent podcast, you should start now.) Until then, I'll just ask myself: what would L.R.K. do?

free your dough

I discovered this salted-butter apple galette recipe around Thanksgiving, after seeing Bon Appetit post a link to the dessert.  While they surely posted it with the holiday in mind, I loved the recipe so much that I'm reserving it a spot on my year-round baking roster.  Galette is a much prettier (and more French) way to describe a freeform tart or pie. With a galette, instead of manipulating your dough to fit the confines of a pie pan, you can let it be free.

No fussing with the crust, fancy crimping, or fork marks necessary-- just fold over the dough to make a delicious, buttery perimeter that will hold your filling in place.  It is beautiful simplicity that tastes just as wonderful as any pie you'll ever make.  Another thing I love about this recipe is that it democratizes pastry.  You do not need to own a pie pan, nor do you need any previous pie experience.  You need little more equipment than a knife, a vegetable peeler, a sheet pan, and a sauce pan for melting the butter.  (A rolling pin is handy, but you can also use a wine bottle to roll out your dough.)  While I adore kitchen equipment, I firmly believe that you should not let a lack of equipment stand between you and a recipe.  In fact, my favorite cookbooks are the ones where authors suggest a thoughtful workaround if you don't have the right gadget for the job.

The times I attempted a recipe without all the proper equipment or ingredients are the experiences I learned the most from.  I seem to recall staying up late to attempt my first batch of yeast-risen cinnamon rolls during my senior year of college.  This was long before I owned multiple rolling pins in various models, or had even a basic knowledge of yeast, and I rolled out the dough on a dormitory desk I transformed into a baker's bench.  After college, there were many days of impulse buys at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, which I was lucky enough to work adjacent to for almost five years.

  On Wednesdays, I would walk down from my office building, buy an ingredient I'd never heard of, ask a few questions at the farm stand, and figure out the rest as I went (i.e. lots of googling topics like "how to cook sunchokes", "how to cook rainbow chard", and "what to do with your beet leaves?") Then there were the many months spent out of town for work, in a remote area outside of Los Angeles where the nearest grocery store was a good thirty minute drive away. During this time, I lived in a work provided apartment with a stove but no oven.  I quickly learned the art of toaster oven cookery and on my days off, sometimes created "gourmet" meals made only from the ingredients I could find at the local general store/ gas station. The urge to cook was too strong to let circumstance dictate my meal options!  Then, when I lived temporarily in Denmark, I shared a basic apartment kitchen with a local and learned to make hummus in her quirky old blender instead of a food processor.

 I used google translate to decipher, letter by letter, the ingredients and cooking directions on Danish food packages  (leading me to wonder, what did expats do before google translate?)  My twenties were a time of recipe hacking, ingredient impulse buying, foreign language cooking, and technique googling, and I would like to think I'm a better cook because of it.  If you're ever feeling like your equipment list or pantry is lacking, figure out a workaround and carry on-- the adventure will surely be worth it.  Or find an alternative recipe: after all, a galette is every bit as tasty as a pie.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

practice makes perfect

Around midnight, I parked my car in the driveway on my quiet street, with only the noise of the neighbor's sprinklers to keep me company.  I trudged towards the door with my flour-dusted work shoes, hoping that the charged adrenaline of restaurant work would fade and that my brain would quiet down.  But these days, I'm always reflecting on the huge volume of culinary skills I have been learning (and trying to perfect) within a relatively short amount of time.  And that leaves me thinking about what I can do better.  And when I think about this, I often have flashbacks of the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about a famed sushi master and his restaurant in Tokyo.  There is one part of the film that features a sushi chef who tells the story of how he made an egg sushi recipe 200 times in 4 months, presenting it to the head sushi chef.  Each and every one was rejected, until he finally built up the skill to create the egg sushi to the chef's standards.

For anyone learning the culinary trade, you're lucky if you only have as few as 200 humbling failed egg sushi moments, and you're in debt to the people who are patient enough to teach you how not to repeat them.  Tomorrow: wake up, drink coffee, repeat.  Practice makes perfect.

Reader's note: Jiro Dreams of Sushi is currently available to watch on Netflix, as of January 2015.

Monday, January 05, 2015

the art of the holiday cookie exchange

It is rare to think of the holiday season without thinking of a cookie exchange.  Looking back on the past few years, I've been a part of some grand ones.  I'm always impressed by friends and relatives who find new recipes and apply a level of artistic skill to cookies that I never thought possible.  As for me, my recipe choices tend to be classic and favor lots of butter.  So I was right at home one year when I took part in an office cookie exchange at my job in Denmark, where butter is an ingredient embraced by just about everyone.  Cookies, of course, are a universal language.  But compare this buttery approach to office baking in California, where at least a few of your coworkers are guaranteed to replace the butter with applesauce or greek yogurt.  Although I keep an open mind about trying new things, for me nothing says the holidays like a good butter cookie.  
To add some charm to the typical holiday ritual, most of my Copenhagen coworkers biked their treats into work as a part of their daily commute.  Delivering baked goods into the city intact and unscathed by the hazards of commuting is an art, one which I tried my hardest to master on several occasions.  One must not only account for securing the precious desserts, but also for the very unpredictable Danish weather (think bucketfuls of rain falling down on your bike at any moment.) With all the labor I put into those cookies, I seem to recall wimping out and taking the metro to work that day.

Biking to the December cookie exchange, I decided, was for only the elite citizens who had a lifetime's Danish biking experience delivering baked goods to their profession each year.  Or at the very least, for people who had a cargo bike or bike basket large enough to accommodate dozens and dozens of Christmas cookies.

 Now that the holidays are over, we're free to shift our focus from Christmas cookie exchanges to less fussy baking projects.  It's a relief: all that assembly, specifications of how many dozen you must bring, transport and presentation strategy?  It's a lot to think about.  Here's to the New Year, new recipes, and a year full of baking whatever strikes your fancy.

a look back on life abroad: quesadilla confessions

In the somewhat recent past, I called Copenhagen, Denmark my temporary home.  I still remember the excitement of accepting a contract position at a study abroad company overseas. I had always romanticized the life of an expat, and even after living the reality, I still romanticize it to some extent.  It is an undeniably lucky scenario when you have the opportunity to live and work in an international setting, and when locals generously let you into their routines and traditions. And for a food enthusiast, each daily trip to the grocery store is an adventure. 
Despite my affection for southern California food culture, I had always longed to live among the traditional butchers, bakeries, and specialty cheese shops of Europe.  
And they saw plenty of me, as I made it my mission to sample their work as much as my budget would allow (too meager for a Noma visit, but big enough to invest in some modest hunks of artisan cheese now and then if I kept my priorities straight.)  

But the dirty secret of expat life is that for every 10 life-changing, mouth-watering experiences in food culture you take advantage of while abroad (like this), you have one moment of a hometown food craving that threatens to defeat the very purpose of your journey (like this.)  The roller coaster might start when the Danish government tells you they are experiencing backlogs processing international work visas, and your first day of work is scheduled for the next day.  Or maybe it's the day when the local police pull you over in the bike lane on your commute home because you forgot to turn your bike lights on, threatening a fine that would equal all the kroner you budgeted for groceries that month (don't worry, I talked my way out of that one.)  Or the day the internet is on the fritz and you have to cancel a Skype call home.  Daily events and frustrations seem just a little bit more dramatic when you're far far away from everything familiar.

I suspect all expats have their moments of weakness, when they crave the comfort food of home.  When you're serious about exploring food, you land in the airport like a tough guy and take the culinary-driven expat vows: Every meal shall be different.  I will not go to Americanized chain restaurants. I will not eat at tourist traps where every flag of every nation in the world is advertised on the menu (with each dish translated into your home language.) I will not eat at the same restaurant twice.  I will be an expert in menu Danish, if not in Danish itself (a very hard language to master.) And so on, and so on.  But then reality sinks in.  You miss your loved ones, you're in the cold of the Scandinavian winter, and it happens: you buy some tortillas and cheese, melt yourself a quesadilla right there on the stove, and dip it into a pool of the generic, not-at-all-spicy Danish supermarket salsa.  What you wouldn't give for some Tapatio or Cholula at that moment.  Every expat has their moment of quesadilla shame-- the dish might change, but the emotion is the same.  

Some ingredients do not have an equivalent overseas, and for me this was the case with California Haas avocados.  The avocados in my neighborhood market were so disappointing, I stopped buying them (which led to a good 6 month long guacamole-only bender upon returning stateside.)  It may seem obvious that not every day can be a postcard worthy adventure when you're living a semi-normal life in a new country and just trying your best not to piss people off in the bike lane during your commute to and from work.  That being said, I tried my best to make an exceptional effort to explore. 

I ate at most of the buttery Danish dough-driven bakeries in the city, noshed on smørrebrød (open faced sandwiches) with knife and fork in hand (the Danish method of sandwich consumption), visited old school butchers and tried to translate animal body part names from English to Danish, and had many many adventures in between.  And on some of the brutally rainy days?  I confess, I threw in the occasional grilled cheese and tomato soup.  Despite my expat food vows, I'm only human.