2013 Best Bite #23: Ham biscuit sandwich, Bang Bang Pie Shop

Each day in December, I’m celebrating the rest of the best bites (and sips) that I didn’t get to blog about in 2013, posted in chronological order. Browse all of this year’s Best Bites, or look back at 2012’s Best Bites.

Ham biscuit sandwich
Ham biscuit sandwich with grits, soft egg, pimento butter, and pepper jam

Why it’s another 2013 Best Bite: When Bang Bang debuted its expanded breakfast menu a few months ago, food media flocked to try the new offerings. Instead of just butters and jams, the dense beauties were now topped with meat, eggs, and other hearty sandwich fixings. This one impressed with thick-cut ham and grits underneath a picture-perfect, parsley-flecked egg, and I made use of all the pepper jam on the side to add in some sweet heat. As nicely as it was dressed, though, the biscuit itself still stole the show.

The details: Bang Bang Pie Shop, 2051 N. California Ave., Chicago.

2013 Best Bite #9: Soft-boiled egg biscuit sandwich, endgrain

Each day in December, I’m celebrating the rest of the best bites (and sips) that I didn’t get to blog about in 2013, posted in chronological order. Browse all of this year’s Best Bites, or look back at 2012’s Best Bites.

Soft-boiled egg biscuit sandwich with shaved vegetables, whipped herb butter, black garlic vinaigrette, chips, and pickles
Soft-boiled egg biscuit sandwich with shaved vegetables, whipped herb butter, black garlic vinaigrette, chips, and pickles

Why it’s another 2013 Best Bite: Opened earlier this year, endgrain is masterminded by Enoch Simpson, who spent time at Girl & the Goat and whose bacon-butterscotch doughnuts are still a menu mainstay at Nightwood. Food & Wine counted his biscuits among the best in the U.S., and called this particular sandwich “ethereal.” I would have to agree – it was a dreamy (and pretty!) intermingling of soft-boiled egg, crunchy shaved vegetables, and buttery biscuit. The aromatic duo of herb butter and garlic vinaigrette made the veggies pop even more.

The details: endgrain, 1851 W Addison St, Chicago.

Culinary school flashback: sweet memories of baking & pastry

Since I’m often asked about what culinary school was like, I’m periodically re-posting “flashbacks” from the blog I kept during my certificate program at Le Cordon Bleu (2009–10).

Piping cookies in baking & pastry class
Piping cookies in baking & pastry class (photo by Adriana Willsie)

Baking & Pastry ended up being my favorite class in culinary school. I really liked the chef, I was refreshed by the precision of the recipes, I got to partner up with my closest friend for most of the assignments, and it was just a lot of fun to learn to make more elaborate desserts. Here are a few snapshots from the six-week course, including the sugar-laden practical exams.

The first thing that’s very different about baking is scaling out ingredients instead of more roughly estimating. We measure everything in ounces using digital scales, so no more rough cups or pints or anything like that. We’ve learned that correct scaling is absolutely essential in order for a product to turn out right. Since we get all the formulae (bakers’ term for recipes) beforehand, we can start scaling before class, and there’s something oddly calming and fun about precisely measuring each ingredient and putting everything in its little container, grouped by product. Maybe this isn’t your idea of a good time, but I’m enjoying it.

The most eye-opening process so far has been making a croissant. Now, most people know that croissants are high in butter content, and know that because they’re so flaky and delectable, there has to be some kind of catch. Well, here’s how you start making croissants. Once you have a square of dough (about 12″ square and 3/4″ thick), you flatten out a pound of butter into a slightly smaller square, and set it in the middle of dough at a diagonal. Then you fold all four corners of the dough in so you have what looks like one of those paper fortune-teller things. So yes, you just wrapped up a nice package that hides a POUND of butter inside your dough. Then, you roll it out into a thinner rectangle, so that you can then fold it into thirds (like a letter) and turn it a quarter-turn…You do three turns total, letting the dough rest for 20 minutes between each one. By the time you’re done, you’ve folded tons of layers of dough and butter, so that once you cut/shape them and finally put them in the oven, the butter melts and the steam that’s created makes the layers puff up into the croissant we know and love. Fascinating, right?

…And that brings me to last night’s first round of exams! For our practical, we each had to make buttermilk biscuits, tea cookies and baguettes. The first two I felt fairly confident about, but our whole class is still having trouble getting the hang of the baguettes, especially when it comes to shaping and proofing and slashing them correctly. So my biscuits were going along fine, and I was all ready to pipe my tea cookie dough using my new pastry bag…until I realized that the tip I had was too small. I had a decision to make: Try to pull out that tip through all the dough and put in a new one, or move the dough into someone else’s pastry bag with the correct tip already intact. I chose the latter, but ended up losing enough dough in the process that I barely had enough to pipe the required 12 cookies. And let’s just say a few of them were less than perfect, so I was pretty disappointed that I didn’t have enough for extras. Alas, I just had to go with it. And then, to the baguettes. Oh, the baguettes. I thought I had shaped them just fine and had loaded them onto the long pizza peel to put them in the oven. There were a lot of other people waiting to put in their baguettes as well, so they were gathered on either side, watching as I was about to slide them in. For some reason, I started pulling out the peel way before I was supposed to, so the baguettes were only half in, and then when I tried to push them in, they basically became S-shaped. I was mortified. Chef was also standing there, and of course jumped in to tell me how to fix them. I tried to tap them back into place myself, but I was so flustered that it wasn’t working. Thankfully, Chef came to my rescue and took matters into his own hands to get them mostly straight again. But I knew my grade would suffer for my misshapen baguettes, and I was not feeling too good about myself. Once I had everything ready for grading, Chef didn’t go too hard on me, and said he could tell there were a lot of perfectionists in this class. I told him I learned all about that at Northwestern 🙂 But his advice to relax and not be so hard on myself was much needed.

…Behold, my final platter:

My final practical exam for baking & pastry
My final practical exam for baking & pastry

In case you can’t read my scrawled pink captions, that’s nine each of chocolate brownies, tea cookies, chocolate-raspberry tarts, vanilla cheesecake, carrot cake and macarons (French spelling) with raspberry filling — all in petit four size. I was pretty proud of putting this together over our 2-day practical, and though Chef wasn’t a fan of the whipped cream garnish shapes on my cheesecake, or of my over-mixed macarons, everything else was to his liking. But rest assured, I did NOT eat all those treats! Instead, since we were all on sugar overload and couldn’t bear eating any more sweets, a group of us took three big trays of desserts to a favorite bar, and let all the other patrons feast on our final product.

Travel Eats: Portland coffee, donuts, and other indulgences

This is part of a series of posts about my vacation to Portland, Oregon, in late February 2013.

Latte at Sterling Coffee Roasters
Latte at Sterling Coffee Roasters

As is probably evident, my roommate/travel partner and I did a lot of research on the Portland food and drinks scene in preparation for our trip. Among the themes that quickly emerged: coffee and donuts, plus other artisanal sweets and breakfast items. With a little planning, we managed to hit most of the major places on our list. I knew we’d cover the classics – I’d heard about Voodoo Doughnut for years, and Stumptown is a well-known roaster whose brews I love when I can get them here in Chicago. But I didn’t expect another donut shop (Blue Star) to win me over with its brioche-like dough and bold-flavored glazes, or to taste such an outstanding bagel-and-cream-cheese combination at Bowery Bagels that I thought it could only exist in Sriracha-spiked dreams, or to have the best French macarons either of us had ever tasted at Ken’s. And as someone who loves spending time in coffee shops, I was thrilled by Stumptown’s wall of magazines to go with its impeccable cups (I paged through Barista and Imbibe) and the vastly different but equally enjoyable atmospheres at Extracto and Sterling. I could go on, but just see for yourself in the photos below.

Oreo-peanut butter doughnut and apple fritter, Voodoo Doughnut
Oreo-peanut butter “ODB” doughnut and apple fritter, Voodoo Doughnut
Blueberry-bourbon-basil donut (and dulce de leche-hazelnut donut, not pictured), Blue Star Donuts
Blueberry-bourbon-basil donut (and dulce de leche-hazelnut donut, not pictured), Blue Star Donuts
Thai chili peanut bagel with lemongrass cream cheese, Bowery Bagels
Thai chili peanut bagel with lemongrass cream cheese, Bowery Bagels
Biscuit with pimento cheese, Pine State Biscuts
Biscuit with pimento cheese, Pine State Biscuts
Almond brittle with salted ganache and Happy Birthday Elvis with malted banana, peanut butter, and marionberry jam, Salt & Straw
Almond brittle with salted ganache and Happy Birthday Elvis with malted banana, peanut butter, and marionberry jam, Salt & Straw
Macarons in chocolate-mint, orange-ginger-chevre, and salted caramel-coffee, Ken's Artisan Bakery
Macarons in chocolate-mint, orange-ginger-chevre, and salted caramel-coffee, Ken’s Artisan Bakery
Chai latte, Extracto Coffeehouse & Roastery
Chai latte, Extracto Coffeehouse & Roastery
Cappuccino, Stumptown Coffee
Cappuccino, Stumptown Coffee

The details: Voodoo Doughnut, 22 SW 3rd Ave.; Blue Star Donuts, 1237 SW Washington St.; Bowery Bagels, 310 NW Broadway; Pine State Biscuits, 2204 NE Alberta St.; Salt & Straw, 2035 NE Alberta St.; Ken’s Artisan Bakery, 338 NW 21st Ave.; Stumptown Coffee, 128 SW 3rd Ave. and 1026 SW Stark St.; Extracto Coffeehouse & Roastery, 2921 NE Killingsworth St.; Sterling Coffee Roasters, 417 NW 21st Ave.