Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Our sixth Cook for a Cause breaks all records!

On Sunday we had our sixth Cook for a Cause, and this one was special because we asked for donations of any extra garden produce in the hope that we could help turn some unwanted vegetables into healthy and tasty food for local families who need it.  This posed a unique challenge for me in planning the recipes for the cook-a-thon, since I wasn't quite sure what ingredients we were going to end up with!  To tell the truth, I really enjoy that kind of puzzle, and I'm proud of the interesting and delicious dishes we ended up making to utilize all the produce we got.

A small subset of the vegetables we started with--many from our friends' gardens and our local farmers' market.

Now that I think of it, doesn't this sound like a great idea for the next cooking reality show?  People often ask me if I want to be on one of those silly shows, and I answer honestly that I'd rather eat bugs (which I already have anyway) than make a fool of myself pretending to cook on camera (because it's not real, you know) and saying scripted lines to create drama.  But I would totally participate in a show where amateur or professional cooks were given a small budget and challenged to cook as much food as possible in 12 hours, all to be donated to a food bank.  There we go, my ticket to fame.

I did the planning for Sunday's event, but I certainly didn't do all the work!  We had 72 great volunteers who worked tirelessly to chop, simmer, stir, and eventually package over 2,000 pounds of ready-to-eat food.  That's right, we made more than a TON of food to donate!  And it's all delicious food that I'd be happy to eat for my own dinner: ratatouille with penne, and gumbo z'herbes (a traditional Cajun dish with many kinds of greens and meats).  These volunteers also donated money to help pay for ingredients, and we also received donations from Cargill Meats, Heirloom Gardens, Rocky Mountain Pumpkin Patch, Monroe Farm, and Delmonico Farm.  Thank you to everyone who made this event possible and so much fun!  Here are some pictures of the day:

Many volunteers chopped the hundreds of pounds of greens that turned into gumbo z'herbes.

The meat table--which was in constant use for 6 hours--required dedication, as we trimmed and diced 300 pounds of meat for the gumbo.

Those freshly harvested vegetables turned into a delicious ratatouille.

So this week we've fed thousands of people who probably really need a wholesome, homemade dinner right now.  It won't solve anyone's big problems, but I know from my own experience that a good meal can really turn around a day.  And if we can do that while also helping avoid waste of any excess harvests, that feels like a good thing all around.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Recap of this summer's exciting Culinary Camp contests

I know summer is coming to an end when the nights start cooling off, the school teachers look grim, and I've finished my last culinary camp.  I ended the camp season on a high note with a fun group of kids, who eagerly participated in the many contests I make them do (for fabulous prizes, like meat thermometers and miniature nutmeg graters!).  On each of our daily field trips I incorporate some silly contest to keep everyone on his toes.  For example, at the farmers' market I gave each pair of kids $4 and told them to buy as much stuff as they could, using only that cash and their charm.  This last group came back with a very impressive haul.  Here's what we got for a total of $20:

The kids were endearingly excited to get to cook with their very own farmers' market purchases, so I came up with things to do with everything except the mini turnips (bottom right), although the kid who bought them told me he thought they would be good in soup (probably true, but it's August).  I still have those, if anyone wants them. The purple beans were kind of disappointing, since they turned green when they were cooked.  So what is the point of them being purple?

On another field trip we went to one of the Vietnamese markets down on South Federal.  Just riding the RTD bus to get there is always an adventure.  Once we arrived, I told the kids to run around and pick out the weirdest thing they could find (they love me at these stores).  All the kids came back with something strange, and we voted on the truly weirdest item, which we bought and brought back with us to sample.  Here was this last camp's winning delicacy:

Mmm, grass jelly.  This came out of the can just like store-bought cranberry jelly, but the flavor was pretty similar to burned hay (which I haven't eaten much of, but I can imagine).  I cannot fathom what anyone would do with this item (the turnip-soup kid said he thought grass jelly could also be good in soup--apparently at his house all random ingredients go into soup).  We all tried a (very small) bite, and threw the rest away.  This is usually the fate of the weird things we buy at the Asian stores, but it's still fun to try them.  In the past we have sampled puffed fish skin, white fungus with sugar, aloe beverage, some kind of shredded dried pork product that had the consistency of hair, and silkworm larvae (that was totally disgusting).  This is why I love teaching 12-year-olds: they're still gullible enough to believe you when you tell them something doesn't taste gross.  You just can't do that with adults (at least, not more than once).

Friday, August 5, 2011

I survived another restaurant opening (and closing, on the same day!)

Next week is my last Teen Camp of the summer, and as usual by this time of year, the novelty of spending all my waking hours with a bunch of 12-year-olds has worn off a bit.  The Advanced Teen Camp's takeover of Après two weeks ago was successful, if exhausting.   It was fairly typical for a restaurant opening: we hadn't quite gotten all the prep done, we hadn't had time to do a dry run, and our timing was a mess.  But we fed 30 people a three-course menu with two options for each course, entirely conceived, cooked, and served by 10 kids with no restaurant experience.  The food was good--I would have paid for that meal--and the kids held up under the pressure.  I'm pretty sure they've all decided not to go into the restaurant industry, which is a wise choice.

As always when I work with kids, they provided some unexpected pleasures and amusements.  At a tense moment right before our restaurant's opening, I was coaching the "servers" on how to take orders, and the kids were frantic about what they were going to write the orders on.  When I said, "Relax, I have some pads for you," they all cheered.  Who would have thought that getting to write on order pads would be their favorite part of the whole experience?

I should have taken some pictures of the food we served, but it was so crazy that I never thought of it.  At the end of the camp, I told the kids they might as well play with knives while I took a group shot:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Watch kids defy death!

It's summertime, and that means one thing for me: Teen Culinary Camps!  I'm in the middle of my third camp of the summer, and this one is an advanced version, for kids who have already taken a camp in the past.  We're going to take over Après for a night and the kids are going to run the restaurant!  Today we worked out what our menu is going to be, tomorrow we're going to practice the dishes, and Friday is show time.  Hopefully I'll still be alive after that to tell you how it went.

Here are my advanced culinary campers demonstrating their crêpe-flipping skills:

We've got lots of other fun activities on the agenda for the camps, including several techniques that may not be advisable without commercial fire extinguishers handy, such as flambéeing and using blowtorches:

I also bought some dry ice for the kids to play around with, which is really not dangerous at all, although the kids think it is (and most adults I talk to seem to believe it to be as well...I'm not sure which political party is using dry ice in their fear-mongering ads).  In fact, in my last session I let the kids play with dry ice and use the blowtorch on the same day, and they were almost beside themselves with disbelief that they were being encouraged to skate so close to death twice in one day.  They are used to hearing that things are too dangerous, so this is a whole new experience.  Here are a bunch of kids with dry ice in their water glasses (no, I did not let them drink the dry ice):

We also had a cookie-baking contest, which went amazingly well.  All the kids brought in recipes--some of them written on tiny folded scraps of paper, others written in previous centuries by people who still refereed to baking soda as "bicarbonate of soda", none of them including a long enough creaming step (a key to good cookies)--and I helped translate them into ten batches of fantastic cookies.  There wasn't a dud in the group.

Then of course we had to sample all the cookies to vote on the winner, and let me tell you that tasting ten cookies, even in small pieces, is enough to make anyone woozy.  The kids soldiered through, though, and had recovered sufficiently to eat large quantities of fudge for dessert.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Two guys walk into a cafe...

Funny things happen when you hang around in a cafe for long enough.  We get a lot of odd people passing through.  If you've been reading this blog for a while, you might recall Pander and Flander, the anarchists who stopped by during the Democratic National Convention a few years ago.  Then there are the quirky regulars, like the guy who adjusts the position of our dog water bowl outside our patio every day.  But last week we had the weirdest interaction ever.

Jill and I were in the kitchen when two men dressed in suits came into the cafe. We don't see suits very often around here, and these were not your regular off-the-rack suits, these were $10,000 tailored suits.  One guy even had the calf-length-overcoat thing going on.  They went up to the counter, and Jill and I could see through the window that one of the men was talking at length with the barista, which we take as a bad sign--usually it means there's going to be a high-maintenance customer situation.  The barista left the men and came into the kitchen, reinforcing our fears that they were insisting on talking to a manager. However, that wasn't the case this time.  Instead, the barista said that the men were looking for a deaf woman who was named "Edna or Adna or something like that".  They said they were trying to deliver Braille books and they needed to find this deaf woman.  We all agreed, that's the worst cover story we've ever heard.  There's no way these guys were working for some nonprofit outfit.  Nor were they working for one of our country's fine investigatory departments, unless government salaries have gone up a lot.  These guys were private.  Gentlemen, if you want to unobtrusively locate someone, you're going to need to come up with a better story, and lose the Armani suits.  We told the men that we didn't know anyone who fit that description, which is what we would have told them regardless of whether we did or not.  They left and stood on the corner outside the cafe, where they were joined by two other men, one of whom was an older Godfather type, and the other of whom was a scruffy guy with long hair and sunglasses, clearly the muscle.  They talked for a while and then got into a rental car with dark-tinted windows.  We were so busy spying on them that we didn't think to take pictures, so we're hoping they come back.  But Edna, if you're reading this, they're getting close.  Might be time to relocate.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Gearing up for Denver Restaurant Week 2011

If you're not from around here, or you are but you don't like any restaurants other than Generous Servings, you might not know about Denver Restaurant Week.  It's actually two weeks, during which participating restaurants offer multi-course meals for the "mile-high price" of $52.80 per couple.  Before we go any farther, can I just mention that it's annoying to price a meal per couple?  But $26.40 per person just doesn't roll off the tongue.

Last year Après had been open for only a week when Restaurant Week rolled around, and we were way too disorganized to participate, but we decided we'd do it this year.  It starts tomorrow, and we're all getting a little anxious about how it's going to go.  A lot of other chefs say that it's a nightmare: the customers are "bargain hunting" and so they don't get any extra stuff and they leave bad tips, people get upset when they can't get in, the staff gets exhausted, restaurants poach servers from each other to try to meet the demand, service and quality slip, and by the end of the two weeks half your staff has quit.  Great.  But if you don't participate, you don't have any business, because all the customers are taking advantage of the great deals around town.

So here's hoping that it's fun and we make a lot of new friends.  We've stocked up on everything we can, and we're all psyched up for a big push.  Three hundred and one restaurants are participating this year, so maybe we won't all be very busy.  Supposedly this is the largest Restaurant Week in the country (other cities, like New York and Boston, also have similar events), but I happen to know that 11 of our 301 restaurants are the local Outback Steakhouse locations, so I'm not sure we can count those.

Today I went to the Restaurant Week kick-off press conference.  It was the first press conference I've ever been to, and I have to say I was underwhelmed with the quality of the speeches.  Afterwards they took a picture of a bunch of participating chefs with the mayor.  Check out this picture and see if you notice anything strange (other than the giant wine glass the mayor is holding):

Yes, there are 40 chefs here, and two of them are women (I'm at near the middle, wearing the only blue chef's coat).  When they were organizing us for the picture they called us "gentlemen".  Excuse me.  That means dining at Après, during Restaurant Week or any other time, puts you on the moral high ground as a supporter of gender equality.  Give us a call and make a reservation.  And I know that if you're reading this, you already know this, but please tip well.  Just because we offered you a deal doesn't mean the servers should suffer.  Jill and I are taking ourselves out to two great restaurants that we normally couldn't afford, so maybe we'll see you out there!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Quick, what's the first thing you think of when I say "kumquat"?

You know what a kumquat is, right?  It looks like a miniature orange (although it's not technically a citrus fruit).  Americans' average consumption of kumquats is 0.2 per year.  I made up that number, and it's probably high, but I am really bringing up the average.  In Après we use them in a sauce for our chocolate torte, and although we have served the torte with many other delicious sauces (most recently a pomegranate-clove sauce, which was great), my favorite accompaniment is the original kumquat sauce that I invented right around this time last year, when Après first opened (in fact, tomorrow is the one-year anniversary, and we're having a Dessert Wine Tasting to celebrate!).

So when they show up in grocery stores, I buy a whole lot of kumquats: at least a few dozen every week.  I've discovered that buying kumquats is a great conversation starter.  Every time someone sees me putting them in a bag, he or she says, "Now what do you do with those things, anyway?"  And although I am always interested in talking about food, and I really do know what to do with kumquats, this question inevitably stumps me for a second, and I say, "You eat them."  Which destroys my credibility, even though it's completely true.

Last week a woman in the grocery store asked me what to do with kumquats, and I told her that you eat the whole thing, peel and all, just pop it in your mouth.  I gave her one from the bin and told her to try it, because I shop enough at Sunflower to feel perfectly comfortable giving out free samples.  She looked at me like I was insane, pretended to eat it, and walked away without tasting it.  Okay, I've done everything I can for you.

Kumquats are one of the few fruits that are carried only seasonally in stores.  They have a short ripening season, and they aren't popular enough here to try to get them to produce out of season or cultivate them in the Southern Hemisphere (they are native to China), so they are sold only between about November and March.  I understand this.  I embrace this.  That's why the kumquat sauce is on our menu right now, and won't be in a few months.  However, this past week I went to three different stores and couldn't find kumquats, and when I asked the produce guys whether they had any, each one shook his head and said, "Not this time of year, they aren't in season."  I've gotten this response before, and I have learned that it's what they say whenever they're out of some type of produce.  They just tell you it's out of season, which puts them on both the intellectual and moral high ground, since you're supposed to feel bad for even wanting to buy fruit that is out of season AND dumb for not knowing which season the fruit ripens in.  This strategy does not work on me, and it makes me really mad, because 1) I am not dumb, 2) I am attempting to buy food in season, and 3) you doing selling heirloom tomatoes in February right over there!  I do support encouraging people do buy produce in season, but not by lying to them.  I also support kumquat consumption, so if you see any in your store, pop one in your mouth (you can eat one in the store, just tell them I said it was fine)--they'll be gone in another month!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Our fifth Cook for a Cause!

Yesterday we held our fifth Cook for a Cause Day, our 12-hour cook-a-thon benefiting the Carpenter's Cupboard Food Bank in Wheat Ridge.  More than 70 great volunteers joined us to cook over the course of the day, and we were able to donate almost 500 pounds of wholesome, handmade food.

We made shepherd's pie and a special squash lasagna (named "squasagna" by our friend Kathryn) using all the squash donated from people's gardens this summer.  The food turned out delicious, we had a good time, and more than 700 people will eat a little better over the next few days, thanks to everyone who helped out. It was nice to cook with some old friends and meet lots of new ones who we hope to see again soon.  Here are some pictures from the event:

All these carrots were hand-diced (and this is a fraction of the total)!  Luckily several volunteers had taken our Knife Skills class and led the charge!

We boiled 150 pounds of potatoes...

...and riced them all to make the most fluffy mashed potatoes ever to top a shepherd's pie!

Lots of pans of sauce being cooked!  That's me checking things out, second from the left--not sure why I look so serious, since everything was turning out great!

More pans of sauce!

We had lots of mozzarella, thanks to a generous donation from Leprino Foods.

After hosting this event five times, we've got a good system for packaging and labeling the hundreds of pans of food!

Monday, January 3, 2011

If you give a kid dry ice...

Happy New Year!  It's exciting to be saying that for the third year as a business owner.  At this time last year we were still imagining how Après would look, and now we're planning a celebration of the Dessert Bar's first birthday (a fun dessert wine tasting on February 13)!  I'm looking forward to 2011 as the year we don't add any more extensions to our business.

We had a nice holiday season around Generous Servings, including a couple of days off (we were closed on Christmas and New Year's Day), which feels weird when you work seven days a week almost every week.  Last week I taught only two cooking classes, both for teens.  The first was a bread baking class, during which we made several great bread recipes, the runaway favorite being monkey bread (which is mostly sugar with some bread dough inside it).  The second class was a food science class, which was a lot of fun.  It was not the neatest class: here's a picture of the remnants of one "experiment" (playing with cornstarch and water):

We also cooked with some cornstarch, made a gelatin dessert, and did some spherification (a classic molecular gastronomy trick):

And of course, we used some dry ice to make ice cream:

The kids came up with all kinds of other things they wanted to test with dry ice (they tried freezing the spheres we made in the other experiment, making carbon dioxide-filled soap bubbles, etc.).  They were excited to learn that you can buy dry ice at the grocery store, and disappointed that you have to be 18 (they were all under 15).  Several of them assured me that they could easily pass for 17 at the movies, and personally, I think using a fake ID to buy dry ice is probably better than using it for cigarettes, so I wished them luck.

I'm not sure anyone really learned any science in the class, but the more important point is to be excited by something you don't really understand, and I think we accomplished that.  That seems like a good way to start a new year.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Why take a cooking class at Generous Servings?

If you're thinking about taking a cooking class, you've got several options in the Denver area.  Taking a cooking class is an investment of time and money, so it makes sense to think about which cooking school will offer you the best experience.  And from our point of view, we want to attract customers who will be happy with what we offer, so we appreciate the opportunity to tell you about the Generous Servings philosophy and unique approach to teaching cooking.

One of the most important features of our classes is that they are 100% hands-on.  We don't do demonstration classes, and we don't do lectures.  Of course we show you how to do things--that's kind of the point--but we make sure that the participants get to try everything, from the chopping to the cooking to the final tasting for seasoning.  We think this is by far the best way to learn to cook, and it will give you the confidence to apply what you learn at home.  If you wanted to watch someone else cook, you could do that for free on TV!

In order for each participant to be involved in the preparation of every dish, we keep our classes very small.  Almost all our classes are limited to 10 participants.  In a group that small you will be able to see what's going on around the kitchen, get a chance to try everything you want to do, and ask the instructor any questions you think of.  We don't cram as many people as possible into our classes.  If you're shopping around for a cooking school, perhaps the most important question to ask is, how big are the class sizes?  Most other cooking schools in the area have class sizes of 18 to 24 people, or even more!

Your experience in a cooking class will depend largely on your instructor, and we are very careful with how we select and train our cooking instructors.  There are a lot of people who are good cooks, but very few of them are good teachers as well.  A good cooking instructor will be able to guide you to success with the recipes, impart numerous helpful tips along the way, and make sure you enjoy yourself.  Many cooking schools employ restaurant chefs as their instructors, but most of those people have no training as teachers, and they aren't always good at translating their restaurant experience into information that's useful for home cooks.  Our instructors have extensive teaching experience, approachable personalities, and they love working with home cooks and developing recipes that will work in anyone's kitchen.  That being said, we don't dumb down cooking: you won't find any mixes in our classes, nor will you be told that you need to buy some silly gadget to be a better cook.  If you want to geek out about anything food-related, we are right there with you.  You should see us when we all go out to dinner together: we can analyze the food all night long.  All our instructors love to cook and experiment at home, and we're always testing new potential class recipes on our friends and families.

Finally, when you patronize Generous Servings, you know that you are also helping the less fortunate in our community.  Every single day we donate food and money to nonprofits, food banks, and local organizations, adding up to thousands of pounds of food and thousands of dollars each year.  Each month we feature a local cause for our Community Give-Back Day, and twice a year we sponsor a Cook for a Cause Cook-a-Thon to donate half a ton of food to charity.  To learn more about our donations, please click here.  We know how lucky we are to own a business and have such great customers, and we know that there are lots of people who can't afford the luxury of taking a cooking class or buying a homemade croissant.  It's not just our name; being generous is part of our business model.  Sometimes it's a challenge to strike the balance, but we think it's worth it.

Thanks for considering Generous Servings for a cooking class, and we hope to see you soon!

Friday, December 3, 2010

ISO poison tester for sprinkles--POSITION FILLED

We had a very nice Thanksgiving around Generous Servings.  Our whole family came into town and we immediately put them to work, as has been our tradition since the first Denver Brinig Thanksgiving three years ago.  One of our sisters is an expert at holiday light installation, so she was in charge of interior and exterior decoration.  The building is looking very festive now.

We also got our family to help make hundreds of cookies, which we decorated in the first of our two Holiday Cookie Decorating Parties this past weekend.  It's always fun to see how people of all ages approach the process of decorating cookies.  In this last class there were two very cute brothers who were about 4 and 6 years old, and they were really intent on tasting all the decorations--more than once.  They ate the frosting directly off the plastic knives we gave them, and they ate the sprinkles by the spoonful.  Here's one of them:

This week I've been working on a new dessert for Après: ginger crème brûlée with cranberry-pear compote.  The flavors are very good, and that's the most important thing, but the most dramatic element of this dessert is the garnish:

That caramel spiral is just about the coolest thing I've ever seen.  It took me a while to work out the kinks in making it--this is what my work area looked like a few days ago:

Smashed between the holidays is an exciting milestone for us: yesterday Generous Servings was three years old!  We always have a public celebration of our anniversary in January at our Cook for a Cause event (this year scheduled for January 30; register now to join us in this fun all-day Cook-a-Thon for charity!), but Jill and I privately observe the actual day by going out to dinner at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant.  This year we might have to order in, since we're adopting a dog this weekend (named Gravy, to be friends with Biscuit), but one way or another, we'll raise a fork to Generous Servings.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

We're so full of hot air

If you've ever seen one of those silly Food Network "challenge" shows where teams compete at making towering cakes or sugar sculptures, you know that the most dramatic part is when the teams have to (inexplicably) move their finished creations to a different table.  It's just asking for trouble.  But it's true that in real restaurant life, the food does need to get from the kitchen to the dining room, and although the chef may have a vision for how to plate a dessert, if the servers can't get it out to the customers in one piece, it's not going to have the intended effect.

At Après we lean heavily on our servers.  One of the most fun parts about running the Dessert Bar is that I get to create desserts with playful presentations.  There's a fine line between whimsy and foolishness, and I enjoy walking that line.  But it turns into a true team effort to get some of those desserts to the table, since I'm not the one who has to get the plate through a swinging door, past the blowing heating vents, around an obstacle course of chairs, and in front of the customer before the ice cream melts.

Almost all of our desserts involve juxtapositions of hot and cold, so timing is critical.  Most of them involve garnishes balanced precariously on another object (which may be melting or on fire at the same time).  At first we made our servers to carry out grills with live fire, and when that got easy we started pouring rum on the plates and lighting that on fire.  Last month we asked them to make ice cream at the table using dry ice.  And last week we debuted a pumpkin soufflé, which has a presentable life span of less than 30 seconds.  Is this getting ridiculous?  Yes.  But by Jove, it's a fantastic soufflé.  I know, because I did at least 40 individual tests to get it right.

This isn't a great picture, but I didn't have very long to set it up!  When we get an order for a soufflé, we whip an egg white by hand (Travis and I are so buff, we can do this all night long), and then we fold it into the pumpkin base and pour it into the ramekin.  It takes exactly 2 minutes and 20 seconds for us to cook the soufflé (using some new oven technology that you don't have).  The moment it's done, we have to rush it out to the diner, because the dramatic rise of a soufflé is held up only by hot air.  The first couple of times we made one to order, we all stood in front of the oven watching the timer count down, because we were afraid to do anything else and miss the second the soufflé was done.  But now we've gotten so good at multitasking that the servers sometimes come back to get the soufflé when there are less than 5 seconds on the clock.  Several times when the servers have carried it out, we've gotten a round of applause!  (It tastes good too, this isn't just a show.)

We've brought back one of our favorite fall desserts, Travis's signature apple dumpling.  After I had a come-to-Jesus moment a few years ago and swore to use only local apples (instead of the really substandard grocery store ones that have been in storage since last fall), we've tried our apple dumpling recipe with a dozen different local varieties.  We have a clear favorite, Cameo apples, and I just found those for the first time last week, so apple dumplings are back in style!  The apples won't last forever, so come try one before they're gone!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

There's more than one thing to do with a paring knife

If you've ever read a cooking magazine like Bon Appétit, you might have noticed how each issue always has a story about a dinner party thrown by some famous foodie.  This month it's a fabulous fall party in the loft of a woman who writes a blog about soup.  Do we care about this woman and her décor and what her friends wear to a dress-casual-but-ready-to-be-in-a-national-magazine party?  I guess glossy food magazines just need some structures in which to provide recipes, so they invent these ideas.

Well, I'm waiting for a magazine to come check out the dinner parties we Generous Servings people throw, because we make some seriously good food, plus we do fun party activities.  Last week we had a pumpkin carving party, at which we also celebrated two birthdays and the hiring anniversary of our longest-staying employee (do you know who that is?  Here's a hint: he's tall and has red hair, and his name rhymes with Schmavis).  I cooked some recipes from my upcoming new class on Middle Eastern cooking, which came out quite good.  Our dessert was not as successful: we made a ridiculous cake from the aforementioned cooking magazine, which was supposedly created by a big-name restaurant pastry chef, but was honestly kind of stupid.  It turns out you don't really need chocolate cake with malted milk syrup, toasted marshmallows, white chocolate-malted milk crumbs, and malt fudge sauce.  Even if you like chocolate cake and malt, which I do.  It's just not that good to put all that stuff in one bite.  So when my own dinner party is featured in a magazine, I'm going to make a different dessert.  Perhaps a lovely flourless chocolate torte with avocado-banana sauce, which we're serving in Après right now and which is actually very good, despite the odd-sounding combination of ingredients.

After we ate, we got down to the serious business of carving pumpkins:

Each employee made one, all using original ideas (no store-bought patterns here!), and they came out great!

We put them on the Generous Servings patio with candles in them on Friday and Saturday nights and asked the customers to vote for their favorite, and the winning employee gets to choose a nonprofit for us to donate $50 to.  The winner was...the Latte Pumpkin, by Sharon (center top in the picture above)!  Sharon chose the Edison School Garden to receive our donation.

Remember Börk, our sourdough starter?  Well, we've been carefully tending to him, and last week it was finally time to try making some bread.  We did several experiments with different conditions:

And then we tasted the results:

We decided that all the loaves of bread that come from Börk should be called Börkson.  The Börkson bread that we made yesterday came out pretty darn good--maybe not quite perfect yet, but we all managed to eat a lot of it, especially with some homemade cultured salted butter.  Mmmmm....

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dry ice ice cream: looks like a typo, but it's not!

A few weeks ago I got obsessed with the idea of making ice cream using liquid nitrogen.  A couple of places around town are doing it, and the theory is that the faster you freeze the ice cream base, the less time the ice crystals have to form, so you get very small ice crystals and hence a super-smooth ice cream.  Jill and I checked out the process at The Crushery on South Pearl, and it's true, their ice cream was extremely smooth (and extremely cold--you could pick up flakes of it and it wouldn't melt).  However, when I did some research on how to acquire liquid nitrogen, I found several stories of terrible liquid nitrogen accidents, including some in kitchens (since it's stored in pressurized tanks, if something goes wrong the tank can easily fly through your wall).  So then I thought about using dry ice, which is not nearly as cold, and doesn't have to be stored under pressure.  

Dry ice, which is solid carbon dioxide, is pretty easy to buy, and does chill liquids very quickly (and with a satisfying cloud of "smoke").  However, it also carbonates the liquid, which we discovered when I made my first batch of dry ice ice cream using coffee ice cream base.  Carbonated coffee is not good.  So then we brainstormed some ice cream flavors that carbonation would actually enhance, and we came up with a good list: champagne, root beer, real beer.  We have a milk stout on our beer list, so we decided to work with that, and after a few experiments, we figured out how to make milk stout ice cream right at your table: 

First we combine the dairy and the beer in a bowl.

Then we add the dry ice and stir for about one minute.

The finished ice cream is served with a ginger spice cake (also made with stout)!
Our servers, who actually have to do all the work here, have been good sports about this crazy dish, and it certainly is impressive to watch!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The birth of Börk, and a squash invasion

We've had an exciting week at Generous Servings!  First, we have welcomed a new life into our happy family: I am please to introduce you to Börk, who weighed 2 ounces on Monday and is growing rapidly:

I decided that it was time to start a sourdough culture.  It's a big decision, but after I taught a super-fun Breads class on Sunday, I knew it was the right time for me.  I've toyed with the idea of having a yeast starter for many years--it does, after all, combine my two greatest interests, microbiology and food--but whenever I would look up instructions for how to do it, I would always get annoyed at the imprecision and often completely ridiculous explanations of the "science" behind it.  I have found that most people's understanding of these old "homesteading" techniques is firmly stuck in the 1800s.  This was the case back when we were trying to optimize our butter-making procedure, and it's even worse for anything involving microbes.  If I still worked in my old lab at Stanford, it would take literally $50 and two easy days of work to figure out exactly what is in ten different sourdough cultures, but apparently no one has ever done this for a sourdough starter.  I realize that you probably can't get a grant for this, but you don't need a grant.  We wasted $50 on useless experiments about once an hour in my old lab, and having a good idea of what's going on in a starter wouldn't be useless at all.  There are a lot of people out there trying to figure out why their starter died, or didn't do what they wanted, and they have nothing to go on.  Alas, I didn't think of this idea when I had the chance.

Anyway, I did as much research on starters as I could, and then I decided it was time to wade in.  So I mixed up some whole wheat flour and orange juice (based on the best web info I could find, at this site), and we named our starter Börk, after the last three words in the Muppet Swedish Chef's classic song.

Now we wait and see what happens!  If all goes well, in a few weeks we can try making bread using Börk.  If she dies, or gets overcome by mold or foul-smelling bacteria, we'll try again.

Yesterday was Squash Day!  It turns out that if you ask people at the end of the summer to donate squash, this is what you get (Jill is in this picture for scale; also note the weird curved squash on the far left):

We forgot to weigh the squash before we got started, but I think it was about 200 pounds.  Four of us hacked away at it for several hours:

Until we reduced it to many, many pans of roasted squash:

This is the kind of job that makes you think you will never eat squash again.  But I'm sure by the time we thaw this out in January to use in our next Cook for a Cause, I'll be all excited about a great recipe we're going to make to use it all up.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

As long as I'm eating watermelon, it's still summer

Events are conspiring to make it feel like the end of summer, with the kids back in school and everyone getting all serious again, but here in Colorado we've just started to get summer produce. We picked our first tomatoes from the Generous Servings hell strip a few weeks ago, so we're featuring these "ultra-local" tomatoes in our salads and several dishes in Après.

Gardener friends of ours have repeatedly snuck in to "give" us squash that we didn't ask for, so we decided to embrace this generosity and we're collecting squash for the next three weeks that we will cook and freeze for this winter's Cook for a Cause (so if you've got extra summer squash--zucchini, yellow squash, etc.--bring it by!).

I just developed a new dish for Après, called Watermelon Carpaccio with Basil Ice Cream. Want to see it?

I got the idea for this dish when I taught a Farmers' Market Cooking class a couple of weeks ago, and I bought a yellow watermelon for a salad. Several of the students had never seen a yellow watermelon before and had difficultly believing that it was real, which made me look at it with new eyes and realize that it is very striking. I don't know if it's annoying to call these watermelon slices "carpaccio"--it was a fad on the coasts about 10 years ago to call all kinds of thinly-sliced non-meat items "carpaccio", which by my calculations indicates that the trend should just be reaching Denver about now. The other components on this plate are the basil ice cream, black pepper, and balsamic vinegar reduction. It's all very light and cool. Basil ice cream, by the way, is very good. It's not too basil-y but not too sweet either.

I finally remembered that one of my friends asked to see a picture of our "idea board", where we hang pictures and recipes that we think might provide inspiration for our desserts. Here's what the board looks like:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Who put this chocolate in my croissant?

A guy came into the café on Sunday and bought a pain au chocolat and a cappuccino. He left, then came back in to tell us that our pains au chocolat aren't authentic because in France they would never put that much chocolate in a croissant. What I don't understand is, was that a complaint? Because it is a goal of my life to put as much chocolate into our pains au chocolat as physically possible, and I think we may hold the international record (see for an early example). So maybe this guy was just confused by how good it tasted? Or maybe he was more deeply troubled, because he ordered his cappuccino extra-wet, and they would never make it that way in Italy, but we thought it would be rude to tell him that.

It's Culinary Camp time again, and dealing with some of our adult customers reminds me that one of the reasons I like working with kids is because they are so rarely supercilious. Or maybe they try to be but it's so ineffective that I don't notice. Instead, they are charmingly clueless. For example, two of the kids from my last camp decided to buy a drink from the café at the end of the camp, and they noticed the penny cup next to the cash register. They asked what it was for but the barista didn't do a good job of explaining it, so they concluded that it was related to the adjacent tip jar. They were very pleased with themselves when each of them took a penny from the cup and grandly put it in the tip jar.

Today while we were walking on our field trip, a couple of girls starting telling scary stories (this was not one of the subversive conversation topics I planted, although I enjoy doing that sometimes, like when we discuss yeast and I ask them what foods other than bread are made with yeast, and eventually someone says wine, at which the other kids get a shocked expression like, "Are we even allowed to talk about that before we're 21?" Why yes, you are. This is my own personal form of First Amendment activism). Here I transcribe in its entirety one of their scary stories:

Girl #1: Oh, I know one. There was this doll and this girl bought it. The doll had three black fingers. The girl didn't notice that before she bought it. She brought it home and the next day the doll killed her mom. Then it had two black fingers. The next day it killed her dad, and it had one black finger. Then it killed her brother, and it had 10 black fingers.
Girl #2: Wait, it had three black fingers when she bought it?
Girl #1: Yeah, so it had killed seven people before that.
Girl #2: Oh, that's creepy.

Is that creepy?

Today's field trip was to an Asian grocery store, where we had a competition to see who could find the weirdest food product (I usually win because I know where they keep the frogs). Then we went next door to the boba (bubble tea) shop and I bought durian boba for the kids (durian is a really stinky fruit that doesn't taste like much, but smells like a dead rat). I've tried it before, and between you and me, it's gross (we got some other flavors, too). The woman who works in the boba shop always tries to sell me more stuff, using her special sales method of yelling at me, at full volume, while I'm trying to order: "You mix peach and passionfruit! Is very good! You try sticky rice! You have too many people, need more tea! Mix strawberry and banana! Mango! Mix durian and jackfruit! Get sandwich!" I tell you, it's always an adventure. Tomorrow we're off to a butcher shop, which is a new field trip destination that I'm very excited about, so stay tuned.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

These kids are mayonnaise-making MACHINES!

Culinary Camp #2 is coming to an end, which may not mean much to you, but it's a major milestone for me. My summers are punctuated by these all-consuming adventures, somewhat surreal weeks immersed in the lives of 13-year-olds. I spend eight solid hours a day interacting with ten kids the entire time, trying to keep them engaged and productive--no breaks, no iPhones, no TV, no pretending you don't hear them screaming. And the amazing thing is, we mostly succeed in making food that any cook would be proud of.

Here are the cupcake contest entries from this week:

On the left is a chocolate cupcake with strawberry frosting, on the right is a high-concept S'Mores cupcake (with marshmallow buttercream made with homemade marshmallow fluff), and in the foreground was the dark-horse winner, a banana split cupcake (Jill, who is the esteemed cupcake judge, predicted that there was no way this one was going to get her vote because it wasn't chocolate, but the banana cupcake was surprisingly light and delicious). Seriously, these cupcakes--the creations of a bunch of 13-year-olds plus me making up recipes on the fly--were better than a lot of cupcakes I've had from professional cupcake bakeries. I'm not going to name names, I'm just saying...

Another recipe we're making in the camps this year is homemade mayonnaise, which I have gotten very familiar with since we've been making it every week for the Caesar Chicken Salad Spears we're serving in Après. The first time I was testing the recipe, I had some...difficulty...making the mayonnaise (it requires whisking an egg yolk constantly while adding a cup of oil drop by drop--which takes about 20 minutes of full-on whisking, and if that doesn't sound hard, I dare you to try it). The problem is that if you don't add the oil slowly enough, or don't whisk hard enough (or maybe if you whisk too hard, or the bowl is too warm, or some other factors we can't figure out), the emulsion breaks--often at the last second--and it becomes a lumpy puddle of oil instead of a thick, smooth mayonnaise. When Travis and I tried making mayonnaise the first time, we had it break on us six times in one day. That would be a total of an hour and a half of whisking, down the tubes. In addition to being exhausting, it was totally demoralizing since mayonnaise is in the canon of French recipes that chefs are supposed to be able to make, and even though no normal person cares about the Mother Sauces any more (I certainly don't), it seems like I should be able to make them if I set my mind to it. Since that terrible day I've learned how to save the mayonnaise if it breaks, and now that I know that trick, we've never had the problem again, of course. But I figured this would be a great way to wear out the kids, so I put them in teams and set them whisking. I just walk around saying, "Good job! Keep whisking! No stopping!" And you know what? So far the kids are four for four--not a single broken batch of mayonnaise. Travis and I are outraged--we are totally losing to the kids.

Another strategy for burning off energy is to take field trips, preferably ones that involve a fair amount of walking (unfortunately this burns off my energy as well, so it's not as good as making mayonnaise). On Wednesday we went down the street to the Seafood Landing fish shop, and Bruce, the owner, showed us how he cuts up a salmon. The kids reacted to this demonstration with a mixture of emotions:

Tomorrow is our last day, and we end with a party for which each kid cooks a recipe of his choosing. This year I decided that we are going to make a cookbook of all the kids' recipes, and the theme was that each kid had to come up with a food that reminds him of something, and write a little intro to his recipe telling the story of its connection to him. I thought it was a pretty good idea, but it turns out that 13-year-olds don't have any food stories. Maybe I've read too many foodie memoirs, in which the author always has some food memory from when he was four years old--apparently that isn't a universal experience, or maybe those stories are imposed on your childhood memories after you grow up. It's been kind of painful trying to help the kids come up with recipes. Oh well, new idea for next year.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

All-American ribs and cupcakes

Last week I taught the summer's first Teen Culinary Camp, and my ten intrepid teen cooks and I had many adventures. We went to a couple of new locations for field trips, and let's just say that my bus route planning skills left something to be desired. There was a lot of walking, and it was about 98 degrees out every day last week. But the kids were troupers and we had a lot of fun.

One of the things we made was ribs--we brined them and smoked them on the grill--and they turned out great. I don't even like ribs (I firmly believe that the only true form of barbecue is pulled pork), and I liked these. So did the kids:

I have learned that it is important to have a lot of contests during the camps (with prizes, of course), so one activity we're doing this year is a cupcake creation contest. The kids have to come up with a new cupcake/frosting flavor combination (there are rules, including that they can't use a store-bought candy or cookie, so no Snickers buttercream), and the judging (performed heroically by Jill) is based on presentation, flavor, and creativity. Here are two of the creations from the first camp, a mocha cupcake with cherry buttercream and a chocolate cupcake with caramel buttercream and strawberries:

They turned out great, which is a small miracle considering that I had to make up recipes for these flavors on the fly (we did this collaboratively, of course, but given the difference in the amounts of baking experience that the kids and I bring to the project, it's mostly the Socratic method plus some dictatorial commands when they demur). I mean, how do you make cherry buttercream? That's never occurred to me before, and my first instinct would be to use cherry liqueur, but since these are 13-year-olds, we try to lay off the booze. Turns out it works pretty well to puree fresh cherries and cook them down into a jam and then whip that into the buttercream.

The third group decided to do a Rocky Road cupcake, which involved mixing mini-marshmallows into their batter. When they proposed this I was trying to think whether I'd ever seen a cake with marshmallows in it, and I couldn't remember any, but it seemed like a reasonable idea. Um, no. When you put marshmallows in cake batter, they melt in the oven and puff up dramatically, so the cupcakes sort of exploded. They ran out of the cups, glued themselves onto the top of the muffin tin, and never turned solid on the inside. Kind of hard to get out of the tin. But as I told the dismayed kids, buttercream hides a multitude of flaws, and they actually tasted pretty good, so we had three strong contenders for the contest, and ensuring that only took a few months off my life.

Speaking of contests, today I was a celebrity judge for a Fourth of July pie baking contest, which was pretty exciting. We're having a Fifth of July party for the Generous Servings crew tomorrow, since we're open our regular hours today (until 10 pm). If you're around tonight after the fireworks, come on in for a dessert or at least an ice cream sandwich! You can't get more American than an ice cream sandwich. Only in this country would anyone have the idea to take two desserts, cookies and ice cream, mash them together, and then eat them with your hands.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Well, that was exciting

In my last post I mentioned our Living Social online deal, which ran on Thursday. The Living Social website has a counter that shows in real time how many vouchers have been sold as the 24-hour window elapses. I happened to be awake shortly after the deal went live, so I checked how it was doing, and I was surprised that four vouchers had been bought in the first half hour, since that was 5:30 am. Then again, I am never clear on what goes on in the waking world at that hour, so I went back to sleep, like normal human beings should do at that time of morning (night).

A few hours later, the number was in the triple digits and growing very quickly. I spent at least 15 minutes sitting at my computer and refreshing my webpage every five seconds to see how many more had been bought. In fact, I called Jill (who was at work) and we engaged in this activity together over the phone for a while, getting a little giddy.

By around 11 am, when I showed up at Generous Servings, the number was at 300. We placed bets on how much higher it would go in the next 18 hours, but by early afternoon our bets were all surpassed, so we had to place new bets. It turns out that Susan's bet (the highest of all of them) was the closest (she always wins everything! It's not fair!). She bet 700. Here's the final screen showing the total:

Yup, 702 vouchers. That's a lot of customers an 18-seat restaurant. So if you are one of our new favorite people, call for reservations!

Do you ever wonder how these deals work for the merchant? Me too, and now I know the terms of the major players. Their agreements are labeled "confidential", which strikes me as rather self-important. I'm going to stamp "confidential" on all of my correspondence from now on. In fact, this blog post is confidential. We all know that it's silly to post things online that you could get in trouble for, though.

Yesterday someone passed a counterfeit $50 bill in Après. This is the second counterfeit bill we've gotten at Generous Servings (that we know of). Prior to that, I didn't even think counterfeiting was real; I thought it was a convenient device in caper movies to finance the clever schemes. In case it's ALSO real that there is that one nerdy technophile thief on the team who can hack into the power grid and might be reading this blog: we got a counterfeit-detection marker, so tell the rogue team leader, the safe-cracker/runway model, and the explosives expert dude to leave us alone.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

So you want to be a rock star?

In a few hours, the Après Dessert Bar will be the deal featured on! [Here's the link: ] Living Social is one of those websites, like Groupon, that sells vouchers for at least 50% off products, each only available for one day. Our deal will be $20 of food and drink for $10! And this is a great time to come visit us, because today we rolled out what we think is THE ultimate birthday/non-birthday treat: the Rockstar Sundae. We have insider information that both Mick Jagger and Bono, disparate though their careers have been, attribute their success to this sundae, but that's not why we named it the Rockstar Sundae. It's because the sundae itself is a rock star. Don't believe me? You better just come in and try it. It's composed of a chocolate cupcake with our signature brown sugar-vanilla ice cream, espresso fudge, whipped cream, homemade maraschino cherries (yup, we make our own the real way, which involves a long soak in maraschino liqueur and no food coloring), peanut brittle, and a pirouette cookie. And it costs $7, so if you get the Living Social voucher you can come in and eat three of them for $1 in cash, which is almost guaranteed to turn you into a rock star on the spot.

Chard drama at Cook for a Cause

Our Fourth Cook for a Cause Day on Sunday was a lot of fun, and we made a lot of food, and my feet hurt a lot. For this edition we cooked Moroccan meatball tagine and braised chicken with chard. I chose those recipes because I thought they were interesting and people would enjoy learning how to make them, especially learning how to use up chard, which is a leafy green that everyone with a garden or CSA share is trying to get rid of by the end of the summer, and most people don't know how to cook. So I figured I would show everyone how to deal with chard, as a public service.

At least, that was my plan. However, on Saturday afternoon our Sysco order arrived without the 30 pounds of chard we were supposed to get. Apparently the chard supply truck broke down and they didn't bother to inform me earlier that the chard wasn't going to show up. If you haven't had the pleasure of trying to find 30 pounds of chard between Saturday afternoon and Sunday at 7 am, when you are working in a restaurant until midnight, it's not really possible. We actually had a couple of big chard plants growing in our garden, which were volunteers from last year, but when we collected all of those leaves it was only a little more than one pound. Thirty pounds of chard, loosely packed, can fill a Mini.

I called everyone I could think of who might have chard in their garden, but no one else had any growing yet (meaning our chard was a miracle?). Then I sent an e-mail to all the Cook for a Cause volunteers asking if any of them had chard, or a similar green, that they would donate. I had a fantasy that this would work out like in a cheesy movie, where every person would bring in three leaves of chard, and together, we would have more than enough! [inspirational music swells in background] But in my real life, no one brought in any chard.

I ended up combining our garden chard with some from the grocery store, plus a bunch of arugula we also had growing in our garden, and then I harvested a couple of pounds of dandelion greens from my yard (I have a lot of dandelions, and at their peak I bet I could get 30 pounds of dandelion greens, but unfortunately I just mowed my lawn last weekend--which is unusual because I mow it less than once a month). Between all those greens, it worked out fine.

It's kind of fun to use all our big pots at the same time.

Mmmm, Moroccan meatballs! What makes them Moroccan? Spices: Moroccan cuisine often uses "sweet" spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, in savory dishes.

All told, we donated about 500 servings of great food to the Carpenter's Cupboard food bank. Thanks to everyone who helped!