Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Failure and the Chocolate Chip Cookie

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Today I read an intriguing article from last week’s NY Times magazine called, “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” It features my alma mater, Riverdale Country School, and our headmaster Dominic Randolph in his quest to help develop students with character. Not just moral character, but grit and determination. I happen to agree with the philosophy that sheltered success is NOT the key to being truly successful. A little failure goes a long way. And it’s best to learn to be comfortable with being a little uncomfortable. I learned that lesson many times, most especially in the kitchen.

And I’m not the only one. Believe it or not, our beloved American chocolate chip cookie is the result of a happy accident at a small country inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. In 1930, Ruth and Kenneth Wakefield bought the Toll House Inn where Ruth prepared freshly baked treats for guests. One fateful day, Ruth ran out of baker’s chocolate for her chocolate cookies. She decided to replace the ingredient with broken pieces from a Nestle semi-sweet bar. She figured that the chocolate would melt and blend with the dough. Much to her surprise and to a nation’s gratitude, the chocolate pieces held their shape and were not absorbed by the dough. Thus, the Toll House cookie was born. The chocolate chip cookie grew popular over the years, so Nestle responded by producing chocolate bars the way Ruth had broken them – scored in small chunks. Eventually Nestle created semi-sweet chocolate morsels called chocolate chips.

Others have triumphed from failure in the kitchen, most notably, Stephanie Tatin in France in 1889. She left her apples cooking in butter and sugar for too long and risked drying or even burning them. She rescued the dish by covering the apples with pastry to protect them as they finished in the oven, then turning the dish upside down, with its apple base now on top. The result became a classic: tarte Tatin.

As I urge in “Notes on Cooking,”Preside happily over accidents. Get in the habit of celebrating errors and seeking lessons. The unrisen souffle, the broken sauce, the tough sirloin, the curdled creme anglaise–every mistake is a chance to turn misfortune to education and, in some cases, discovery.”

It’s more than ok to fail. In fact, it’s really the only way to succeed. The true benchmark for success and achievement should be self-reflected so that we really live the standards we set for ourselves.

The Egg Came First

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Well, it did in a kitchen anyway. No one, I don’t care who they are, can claim genuine culinary competence if they cannot properly scramble an egg or prepare an omelet (the former is a precursor to the latter, by the way). Roasting a chicken is also an essential skill, but I would argue that since breakfast comes first and an egg cooks in a matter of seconds or minutes, making eggs is the very first step on the road to cooking well.

I learned this many years ago in school at The French Culinary Institute from Chef Henri Viain who told me that when he was a boy in France and he went on an interview for a stage (an internship), he would be asked to prepare scrambled eggs or roast a chicken. After all, if you cannot do that, what can you do? Exotic ingredients and offbeat combinations do not a competent cook make. It’s the foundations and clean execution of timeless technique that makes a real cook.

Watch master chef Andre Soltner make an omelet and then go make one yourself. Refer to my recipe below for step-by-step instructions. You’ll be on your way to competent cooking!

The ultimate omelet is French: rolled, as opposed to flat, and generally with a completely smooth, unbrowned surface, and slightly runny in the middle. Taste and preference prevail, of course, but this is the classic preparation. The key to making a superb omelet is scrambling the eggs first, then setting the omelet. Never overstuff it, or you’ll have a hard time rolling it. If egg white omelets are more your speed, try making the following recipe with 3 large egg whites and just one yolk. You’ll never go back to just egg whites again!

Essential equipment: small mixing bowl; fork; nonstick 8-inch sauté pan, flat wooden spoon
Essential technique: mise en place; sauté

for the omelet:
3 large eggs (ideally, room temperature)
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
salt and pepper to taste

for the filling, choose one of the following per omelet:
¼ cup grated cheese
3 tablespoons caramelized onions
¼ cup chopped tomatoes
2 button mushrooms, sliced

Break eggs into a bowl and mix well with a fork. Heat a nonstick 8-inch skillet over medium heat and add 2 teaspoons butter. When the butter foams, add the eggs and let them be, just until they start to set along the edge. Stir continuously with the back of a fork or wooden spoon until they are at a runny scramble stage. Spread them evenly in the pan. When the omelet is lightly set, stop stirring and remove the omelet from the heat. (The point at which you stop stirring is the key to having a smooth omelet.)

Place the filling in the middle of the omelet. Fold the edge of the omelet over onto itself, tilt the pan from the handle and lightly tap the pan so that the omelet moves down to the edge of the pan. Form the omelet with a wooden spoon.

Roll the omelet onto a warm plate seam-side down. Adjust the form if necessary by shaping with a clean towel. Serve immediately.

Makes 1 omelet.