I'm trying to keep my business, my triplets, and my waistline under control. I excel at one of those, fail at another one of those, and one is a work in progress. Which is which is day dependant.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

That's me in the spotlight, losing my religion

Next week - Tuesday at 1pm, on the first day of Passover to be precise - I am taking part in my first ever culinary competition. I originally entered the competition because I thought it would be fun. Hell, I even thought I might win, having seen the way some of my fellow students cook. The competition is a fairly serious one - it's the "Regional Final" for the Victorian Tafe "Chef of the Year" award. If you win or come in second place, you get to do it all over again in the State finals, held in September. Mind you, I don't think there are semi-finals or anything, so who knows why they call it a final in the first place. Any-hoo - I'm in.

I'm terrified.

Seriously.

Originally I just thought it would be fun, but now I know that my scary overachiever girl self will beat herself up for a loooonnnnngggg time if I don't at least place. So it's not really fun per se, now it's just sheer terror and torture and god knows what. I find myself doubting my abilities, doubting my sanity (what posessed me to enter this?!) and doubting, well, just everything. My ego is so bound up in this...on some level it's like if I don't do well in this, I somehow SUCK as a chef. Stupid, illogical, pointless, self-depracating ... yes, all of those plus more big vocabulary words. The thing is, the actual requirements are pretty easy.

Two servings of:
- chicken, with a sauce or jus
- a green vegetable
- a second, non-green vegetable
- a farinaceous (starch based) dish
...and you have to portion a whole raw chicken, cost out the menu to below a specified dollar value, and a bunch of other small things, plus all of this is timed. You get marked on four main areas:

25% methods, technique, level of dificulty
25% workflow, workplace organisation, finishing time
25% working in a clean, safe manner, personal hygiene (what a crock this is)
25% clean, contemporary presentation and taste

Originally I thought I'd cook what I know - namely Eastern European/Meditteranean influenced food. You know, the stuff I would have grown up with if my Mom bothered to cook traditional Israeli/Polish foods. So I had a bit of a menu planned - I was riding high on the wave of culinary clever-ness. Until - I discovered that there are at LEAST two Israeli students participating in the event, and they are planning on cooking classic Mediterranean.

Fuck.

Then I spoke to one of the coordinators, who said that level of difficulty and cutting techniques are going to be the main factors for that first 25%.

Double fuck.

So my really yummy and fab-o menu - which would be fairly simple to execute but divine to eat - has now gotten the ki-bosh on several levels. I am left feeling like I need to make a multi-coloured, multi-layered stuffed chicken breast, home-make some pasta on the day from some hay and a quail egg, and twirl around 17 times in a clockwise direction while serving it all 6.2 inches from the epicenter of the plate. With a swirl of foam, of course.

Triple fuck.

Dh says I should go for a triumph of taste rather than worry about being overly fussy. I say if I'm not at least somewhat fussy, I'll lose, primarily for lack of difficulty and skill. Ideally I need something in the middle, right? Easy enough for me to prepare in the time, difficult enough to have a bit of WOW factor, and it has to taste like the sun shines out of my chicken's ass. Plus it can't cost too much.

Between now and next Tuesday afternoon, I am working 3 shifts, having 25+ people over for Passover seder (and somehow DH and I just keep inviting people), go to the dentist, take my son out for a "DS and Mummy" Day, write the actual menu and workplan, test out all the recipes, decorate a massive Thomas the Tank Engine cake, get my son to a speech therapy appointment, drop off a cheque for the kids holiday camp....

I. Am. Totally. Fucked.

Help?! Ideas for sexy chicken dishes welcome. Hell, ANY ideas welcome at this point. COME ON, people. If you've NEVER commented on this blog before, NOW would be a REALLY, really, REALLY good time. I need you! (And if you can't cook for shit, at least leave a "go emzee go" post. Seriously, I'm feeling really stressed out about this stupid-slash-important comp.)

One wonders WHY I get myself into these fine messes.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Straw

A few weeks ago I blogged about a depressing situation at my culinary school. As it happens I not only wrote about it here, but I posted it on another forum I frequent, and spoke about it to several people in real life. Without fail, everyone who I spoke to or who commented said the same thing - that I had no hope of changing school policy, but that I should say something to the teacher about the thefts I witnessed.

I didn't take that advice. Not because I didn't want to - in fact I agreed with everyone who said I should report the thefts. In fact I actually felt (and do still feel) a moral obligation to say something, to be the whistle-blower, to stand up for what I believe is not acceptable. However I didn't feel as though I could say anything after the fact. I should have said something that very evening(s) - when I saw the event occur. Saying something a few days or a week later, while still valid and important, would somehow seem a bit...diluted. I kept my mouth shut (difficult for me) - even though it still bothered me.

Tonight we had a function on, so we were cooking in a different kitchen. A few minutes before we were due to go home, one of the students (a local student, for what it's worth), bragged to me that she and another (international) student had each stolen an entire bottle of rum. You can imagine the look on my face, can't you? When I asked the international student what the @#%^ she was thinking, she replied that she hadn't stolen anything, that she was merely asked if she would carry it out of the kitchen, and she had agreed. I have no idea if she was lying or not.

Needless to say, I encouraged the international girl to return the bottle she had, and tried to nicely tell her she had no need to be dragged into anyone else's mud. I then approached the teacher (privately, with nobody else there) and told him what I had heard and seen - mentioning the other things I had seen but also explaining why I had not said anything until now. You can imagine the look on HIS face. Not happy.

There is, for me, a certain HONOUR in being a chef. I chose this profession, and in so choosing have dedicated myself to it. People don't become chefs for the money, let me tell you. There are only a select few (the Jamies, Gordons, and Julias of the world) who make a stack of cash. The rest of us, we do it for the love. Truly. It sickens me to think that this girl - whatever her motivations - somehow thinks it's okay to drag the rest of us down with her. Last week she was thrown out of class for, among other things, saying she didn't give a shit what the food tasted like since she didn't have to eat it. Week after week I spend my time cooking alongside people who just don't want to be there - and act like it. This week, enough was enough. If my biggest crime thus far is actually giving a shit about my career and my reputation, so be it. I'm willing to pay the price of being branded a 'bitch' and a 'dobber' and whatever else that girl (and others) are likely to throw at me. At the end of the day I know that I did the right thing, and I am upholding the honour of my profession.

I'll keep you posted.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Good Mom, Bad Mom

In a lot of the crime fiction novels I read, the people questioning the suspects will often employ the "good cop, bad cop" technique. Basically two people 'gang up' on the third, with one acting nice and the other acting not-so -nice. I think the basic point of it is that human nature causes us to shy away from the bad cop, and spill our guts out to the good cop. Both people are getting at the same goal of getting you to confess to the crime - but they way they approach it is different. It's all about perspective, you know?

I was trying to think about a blog topic today which wasn't a complaint about the Food & Wine Fest events I went to (don't get me started), or my job ending soon (don't get me started), or DH traveling in one of my busiest weeks ever (don't get me started). The topic I came up with was sort of in the same vein as a meme - "5 Good Mommy Things" I've done today. Then when I thought about it, I realised that everything I've done today, parenting-wise, was more deserving of a Bad Mommy award. Hmmm. Small problem there - can't really praise oneself when one is totally devoid of praise-worthy activities. So in the spirit of playing my OWN bad cop, good cop, here are five Good Mom/Bad Mom things I've done recently:

1. Good Mom: My kids ate a low calorie, low GI dinner. Bad Mom: I had such a long day, and such a niggling back ache, that I introduced them to the joy of Nutella on white bread as a dinner menu item. It WAS low GI white bread though. Chef, shmef. Sometimes even we can't be fucked (to cook anything). For what it's worth my own dinner was along the same lines.

2. Good Mom: In the morning my kids will enjoy a high-protein breakfast which will probably involve eggs, toast, yogurt and oatmeal. Bad Mom: I forgot to buy milk, so in the morning they will be annoyed that they won't get to have cereal, or milk to drink. Know what I say to that? Tough shit.

3. Good Mom: It's bath night! They all had a bath which involved water and soap. Bad Mom: I filled up the bath, dumped a bunch of bubble bath into it, swirled the water around, chucked the kids in, said, "Don't forget to wash 'yer bits" and walked away (yes, I could still hear and see them from where I was. What do you think I am?). Cleanliness is overrated anyway.

4. Good Mom: I made sure my kids got a good, full night's sleep. Bad Mom: I told them it was "very, very late" because it was so dark outside, and I hustled them off to bed quick-smart as a result. The reality of it is, at the time it was a full hour before they normally go to bed. Silly me! I "forgot" to mention that Daylight Savings ended on the weekend! Ha! (Damn kids were very ratty today - a result of waking at the crack of dawn the last two days.) So I sent them off to bed early. So sue me. I would like to point out, though, that 30 seconds after I turned the lights off, all three of them were sleeping like the proverbial logs.

5. Good Mom: I limit my kids television watching time, to ensure they don't become couch potatoes. Bad Mom: In response to my limiting their TV time, they complained. Loudly. So I told them that too much TV will make their eyes turn square....and they believe me! I also told them that the only way to cure square eyes was to go to the doctor, and you might end up needing an injection. I have no intention of telling them the truth anytime soon. Maybe when they turn 18.

So there you have it. In the past day alone I've lied to my children, fed them junk food disguised as decent food, purposely fooled their body clocks, failed to wash them properly, and denied them the joys of breakfast cereal. I've not exactly been a paragon of good parenting.

Good Mom: Keeping it real, parenting-wise.

Bad Mom: No such thing as long as you love them and look after them.
___________________________________________________________________
Note: It should be obvious from this post that DH is out of town. As we all know by now, the minute the man hops in the cab to go to the airport I turn into Slacker Mom. Course if he even TRIED this, I'd kill him. Doncha love double standards?!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Baking for Dummies

A recent order for an un-iced cake from a client who says she is the world's most crap baker has me thinking about people who say that they cannot bake. Now I am willing to believe that some of the skill in baking is just innate - just like some people are naturally better athletes, and some are better artists - I really think there is some gene or something for successful bakers. However, I also am of the firm belief that one can learn to be a competent baker. Not everyone chooses to, but I think everyone is at least capable of baking a decent loaf of bread and a decent chocolate cake. Given that this is a skill which seems to be shrouded in mystery and confusion, I'm offering the following tips to becoming a better baker:

  1. The first time you make a recipe, READ IT ALL THE WAY TO THE END. All the way. Nothing worse than finding out, 6 hours later, that you need yet another spoonful of this and half cup of that. Or realising you've allowed 2 hours to make it and it needs overnight rising time. Reading the recipe all the way through lets you know what you're in for time and ingredient wise, and also helps you know what to expect, skills-wise, further down the line.
  2. Once you've read it, gather all the ingredients and check that you actually have these things in the right quantities, PLUS some. Especially true for bread products, you will always need more flour than the recipe requires. I am including equipment here, too - if it says you need a piping bag, don't start the recipe until you've got one.
  3. Remember that baking is a science. Literally. It's just not like normal cooking where a pinch of this and a pinch of that will get you through. Cake, cookie and bread recipes are actually formulas. It's very hard (especially for a beginning baker) to just add and remove stuff without significantly changing the final result. There are molecular reactions happening with that sugar - which is why swapping all the sugar for Splenda will never, ever work. Swapping wholemeal flour for white flour will also not work unless you adjust the formula, as wholemeal flour requires more liquid to be added.
  4. Know your ingredients. Yes, there is a difference between baking soda and baking powder. Just because they have the word 'baking' in them does not mean you can interchange them. Couveture and cooking chocolate are not the same. Yeast has an expiry date for a reason. All purpose flour and self raising flour are not the same.
  5. If you are icing a cake, the easiest way to make it look more professional is to cut the top off so it's level (eat that dome part or make cake balls out of it). Then flip it over and ice the flat bottom. Remember: housewives decorate the tops of cakes, and pastry chefs the bottom. Seriously. Your cake will instantly look better. (No insult meant to housewives, many of whom are fantastic bakers.)
  6. If you take cookies out of the oven when they are dark brown, that counts (and tastes) as burned. Take them out when golden, not brown.
  7. Know your oven and never trust the cooking time in a recipe. All ovens are different. Even if someone calibrated them all on the same day at the same time, they would have variations. Some have hot spots. Some just seem 'hotter' than others, and some cook slower. So if a recipe calls for 60 minutes baking time, set your timer for 45 and then check. Don't assume 60 minutes means 60 minutes for all ovens. For yours it might only be 45, for mine it might be 70+ minutes.
  8. Own decent baking equipment. At bare minimum I think a home baker should own: a plastic spatula or scraper, a roll of silicon paper, a good quality pastry brush, a small selection of good quality baking tins (2-3 round of different sizes, loaf shape, muffin), a decent whisk, a set of measuring cups or a measuring jug, a digital scale which measures to the smallest weight possible and if you can afford it, a good mixer like a Kenwood or Kitchen Aid.
  9. Ask friends and relatives for no-fail recipes. Don't start our trying to make multi-layered gateaux. You'll make one, it'll take forever, it will turn you off baking. Grab a hold of the scone recipe your Nana has made for ages, or your Mom's choc chip cookies, and bake them. You know what the outcome should be, you know the recipe's formula works, and you are halfway there. You can also call the author and ask for advice if need be.
  10. Remember that those of us who do it for a living bugger it up, too. (Check out my babka post if you don't believe me.) You can hide a myriad of cosmetic baking sins with some artfully placed icing, some fresh fruit, or a nice bow. You can't, however, hide cajun-blackened butter cake, so don't try. Accept that some things just didn't work and try again.
  11. You are in control of the process, especially when it comes to an oven. If you find your cake is burning on the top, but liquidy at the bottom, DO something about it. Don't just keep everything going and hope it will somehow fix itself. Take the cake out and lower the oven shelf it's on. Put a piece of foil over the top to prevent more burning - whatever, just don't stand there.
  12. Practice, practice, practice. Substitutions are possible in baking, but what can be substituted can only be learned after you've been doing this for a while. Practicing also helps you to know your oven better, get more familiar with your equipment, and feel more comfortable with the whole process in the first place.
  13. Measure everything - remember? It's a science, these are formulas, and if you bugger it up you'll get a lab full of purple smoke rather than a dense, fudge-y brownie. Too much flour in a cookie will keep it from spreading. Too little and it will spread to far. See what I mean? Measure. It's time consuming, but it's worth it.
  14. Clean up as you go. If you've got some 'hands free' time in a recipe, use it to wash and put away what you're done with, or put away ingredients you no longer need. One of the worst parts about baking is being faced with a filthy kitchen when you're done. Do it as you go and then when the cake is ready, you have more time to enjoy it and less time spent in front of the sink.
  15. Keep a well-stocked pantry, so that not every baking experience must start with a trip to the supermarket. Flour, unsalted butter, baking soda, sugar, vanilla...you'll come up with your own list of 'always haves' but make sure you stick to it. Mine always includes my favourite flavours - like cinnamon.
That's it - baking, for many people, is a scary prospect - but a skill well worth having. However, if you're happy staying in the dark on this one - keep it that way. Not all of us can channel Betty Crocker. Even those who do channel her actually BUY cakes and things from stores - basically, we know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. If you do choose to buy pastries and baked goods, then at least PLEASE buy them from somewhere decent ...and decent does not always mean expensive! Shop around for good quality, well presented products - if you're going to blow the diet, make it worth it.

One final piece of advice: Life is way to short to eat crappy cake.

Monday, March 19, 2007

RAS Recipe of the Week - Cinnabuns

Sadly, job woes for a different friend meant that I needed to come up with something totally gorgeous and mood-enhancing for a Sunday afternoon tea. Any excuse for a RAS is a good enough one for me, although at the moment I find myself wishing I was committing RAS for more positive reasons! I wish I could credit this recipe but I can't remember where I got it - it was the result of random click-throughs from foodie blog to foodie blog! In any case, here's the picture to keep you reading this post:
....yes. That IS a picture of sticky, sweet, luscious, warm, pull-apart and lick off your fingers, yeast-risen cinnamon buns. You KNOW you want to make them ... stare at them any longer and they will virtually CALL to you, in their cinnamon-laden sing-song voices....

Cinnabuns
(Yield: 12-18)
Note: Method changed slightly, as per usual emzee lazy chef behaviour

Rolls:
1 packet (1/4 oz) active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (105-110F)
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup butter, melted
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
4 cups plain flour

Filling:
1 cup packed brown sugar
3 TB cinnamon
1/3 cup butter, softened

Icing: The original recipe has a very cake-like, thick cream cheese icing. Seemed like overkill to me (even with my disproportionately sweet taste buds). I just used a simple glaze of confectioners sugar mixed with scant amount of milk to get it runny. Presto - shine and sugar all in one.

Method:
Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and set aside. Mix together the sugar, butter, salt and eggs. Add flour and then the yeast mixture and mix until it comes together (I did this with the dough hook in my Kitchen Aid). Knead via mixer or by hand for about 4-5 minutes. Place dough in a greased bowl, cover and allow to rise for an hour or until doubled in size. Make the filling my mixing the cinnamon and sugar and setting aside.

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface. Roll to a rectangle shape, about 21" long and 16" wide, and about 1/4" thick. Spread the softened butter evenly all over the rectangle (I used my fingers to squoosh it about) , then evenly spread the cinnamon/sugar mixture over it, all the way to the edges. Use your rolling pin to gently press the mixture onto the dough.

Carefully roll the dough down from the top to the bottom edge. Move the log around so that the seam is at the bottom. Using a sharp serrated knife, cut the dough into even slices, about 1 3/4" thick. Pick up each roll and take the 'unraveling' end. Pull it gently and stretch it so it's tucked under the roll, then place the roll on a greased baking pan. This is to keep the roll from unraveling.
Cover the trays and place in a warm place to rise gently until doubled in size. At this point you could put these in the fridge - they will slowly rise and then you can bake them in the morning. In my case I left them out for several hours in a not-so-warm place and they were fine.
Bake at 400F (200C) for about 10 minutes or until lightly browned on top - watch them as they can burn quickly due to the high sugar content. While warm, drizzle with copious amounts of glaze and enjoy with a tall glass of milk. If you have some left over, they are great for breakfast - just zap for about 15-20 seconds in the microwave and away you go. You can also freeze these (uniced). Enjoy!


Editor's Note - if you read these recipes and actually make them, PLEASE either leave a comment or email me to let me know how it went. I'd also love to know how the recipient of your RAS enjoyed it (even if that recipient was yourself, nothing wrong with a bit of self-love.) Any pictures of the final product, I'd be happy to post here, or link to from your own site.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A long overdue RAS

It has been far, far too long since I have either committed or posted about a RAS (Random Act of Sweetness). As I am now back in the cooking and baking swing of things, I decided it was time for a (non-babka) chocolate cake to give to a friend. I actually baked this cake in anticipation of a friend's DH landing a new job. Sadly, that didn't happen - but the love and affection behind this one was there anyway! I spied this easy-peasy recipe in a magazine some months ago - and forgot about it until they recently reprinted it as a 'best of' recipe. It's so easy and yummy that non-bakers could easily manage it on their own (if they don't lick all the batter first.) So without further ado, the RAS of a Melt-and-Mix Chocolate Chunk Mud Cake (recipe to follow):

Step One: Melt all the scrummy stuff till it goes gooshy gooshy

Step Two: Chuck in some more chocolate chocolate-ness

Step Three: Take a photo of your preferred vanilla to share with your blog readers. This giant one litre bottle was a gift from my parents - it comes from Mexico and is FAB-U-LOUS. Sometimes I open the bottle just to sniff it. I'm weird like that.

Step Four: Fold through some flour. Note the action shot, can you see the drippy chocolate from my spatula on the right side? This cake was already looking good.


Step Five: Pour in half the batter, sprinkle over some chocolate boulders, and pour over some more batter.


Step Six: Chuck some more chocolate boulders on top. Resist the urge to pull off a boulder, which would then be dripping with sweet, glorious, fudgy cake batter and pop it into your mouth, then swoon dangerously as you head to the oven. Fail spectacularly. Resistance is futile. Lick your fingers.

Now at this point I baked the cake, cooled the cake, and put it aside for the good news I thought I'd get the next day. I figured I'd quickly pipe a "yay you" plaque, and invite them over for after-dinner celebratory cake. Sadly, the job was not to be had and I had a spare chocolate cake on hand. In retrospect I should have delivered it to them anyway, but as I had a crowd coming to dinner I decided to serve it as dessert. I made a mental note to take a final photo of it, with a wedge cut out, artfully food designed to make an amazing, mouth watering final blog photo.

I failed to hit 'save' on my mental note. If this photo is anything to go by, I'd say this cake is worth making for a friend, as an RAS:


...and no, we didn't throw out that last nugget sitting there. It's just that THAT was when I remembered to take the damn artful last photo.

Melt and Mix Chocolate Chunk Mud Cake
(originally from Super Food Ideas Magazine, April 2007)
300g dark chocolate
200g butter, chopped
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup caster sugar
3 eggs
3/4 cup self raising flour

Note: I have altered the method on this cake, to make it easier and quicker - if you want the original version, email me (emzeegee [at] hotmail [dot] com)

Preheat oven to 160C. Grease a 6cm deep, 20cm based round or square tin. Garb your packet of chocolate and take a rolling pin or meat tenderiser to it. Yes, while it's in the packet. Hammer the shit outta it and try not to rip the packet. In a medium sized saucepan, melt 200g of your pulverised chocolate, butter and water until melted and smooth. Remove from the heat. Add the cocoa and stir until it dissolves. Stir in the vanilla, sugar and eggs. Mix very well (pierce the egg yolks if they just run around and around). Chuck in the flour and fold in gently. Pour half the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle with gay abandon half of whatever chocolate you haven't eaten yet. Pour in the rest of the batter and then sprinkle the rest of the chocolate. Bake for about 55-60 minutes or until a skewer has moist crumbs clinging to it. Allow to cool in tin.

...you can serve this with cream, ice cream, or slathered in ganache. We had it au natural and it rocked as is.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Damn Shame

Last night I went to dinner with a bunch of people and this topic came up. It irritates me so much that I've decided to blog about it.

First, the background info. In Australia, local students pay for university/training college via a scheme called HECS. Basically, it's a cheap(ish) to get tertiary education. International students pay full-fees, or in other words, a hell of a lot of money to attend the very same school/classes that the local students do. It should also be noted that getting Permanent Residency in Australia is a) highly desirable and b) highly difficult to obtain. Ergo, there are loads of international students who come to Australia to complete higher education, in the (often valid, sometimes vain) hope that this new qualification will increase their chances of achieving PR. It should also be noted that there are several professions for which Australia has a skills shortage (cookery being one of them). Therefore if you complete a course in one of these 'in demand' areas, your chances of getting your PR are increased. The other thing to note is that international students are far more desirable, because they pay an enormous amount of money for the same product. So potentially, they are providing already underfunded institutions with a much needed cash injection.

And that's where it all becomes a mess. The end result is that you often end up with a huge demand for places in the 'hot' courses. The places in those courses get taken up with full-fee paying students - who are doing it for the PR, not for the love of the subjects - and at the end of the day they don't stay in the profession for which they are trained. The people who would truly undertake the training for career purposes have a difficult time getting into the courses. The increased demand on the teaching staff and resources means an increase in cost to run the actual course, which in turn means a need to recruit more full-fee paying students. It's a vicious, hideous cycle - and one of the unfortunate side effects of this is that the in-demand careers do not get filled by the people trained to fill them, and the attitude of the people doing these courses is often pretty terrible.

Let me give you an example. In my current culinary group (note, at my level there is something like 15 groups, in which there are 15 people, in which the ratio is a maximum of 3 locals to 12 internationals) there are only 2 international students who have any intention of working as chefs. The remaining 11 are doing it for the PR. Seriously. It's not something they hide - it's openly talked about. This sucks for a number of reasons. Firstly, several of them would really make good chefs...but that's not going to happen. Secondly, the skills shortage in Australia will just stay as it is. Thirdly, as these students (all nice people) are not really there for the training, they are just going through the motions and it SHOWS in the way they behave. Care factor, shall we say, is not really there. Last week I saw several of them filling water bottles from the white wine cask in the kitchen. As in, the COOKING wine. When I expressed some shock, I was laughed at and told it was going on for weeks and that several people were "in on it." Then one of them asked me if I knew where the school laundry was - so that he could steal some chef coats. Then someone else told me that in the clean-up area there were a bunch of tools (wooden spoons, whisks, etc) that were "for the taking."

This makes me sick. Is it the attitude of everyone? Of course not. Is it just an international student issue? Of course not - where you come from has nothing to do with whether you steal or not. At the end of the day, though, we are filling the halls of Australia's higher education institutions with a bunch of people who don't want to be there. This is coming at a huge cost - to the quality of the education, the reputation of the school and the resources available to the people who DO want to be there. As someone who CHOSE this profession - at great personal and financial risk and sacrifice - I find myself mouth agape at some of the above actions, and frankly also somewhat offended that they are ruining the "honour" (as trite as that sounds) of the profession.

So if you were me - what would you do? Simply ignore their behaviour and concentrate on my own goals? Report them to the instructors? I must admit that I am at a loss. I have no long term solution for the situation of the college in general, and no short term solution for the continued thieving and inappropriate behaviour I witness nearly every time I go to school. Both situations anger me and sadden me in equal measures.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Babka That Went Bad-ka

Babka is one of my favourite things to eat - it's a Eastern European bread-like cake which is often sold in Jewish bakeries. The Jewish version is usually chocolate, in a kugelhoph shape, with a crumble topping. What makes them so amazing is that they are a yeast-risen dough, and they are rolled, so when you cut or break off a piece it's a pully, stretchy, chocolatey amazingness. So last Thursday when I was so sick I thought death was coming a' knockin', I was watching Great Food Live, a somewhat annoying but occasionally entertaining cooking show from the UKTV Food channel. The snippet I saw involved a chocolate-cherry babka with a crumble topping, which the chef (Silvana Rowe) seemed to make in ten seconds flat. I had to make that babka. More importantly, I HAD to eat that babka. It was calling my name. It seemed too good to be true...and it was.

So yesterday was a bit of a do-nothing day (other than clean the house, teach Concrete Head (DS) how to ride a bike, and other sundry overcast Sunday activities.) A perfect babka-making day, and a perfect start to my recipe photo blogging. I eagerly had the recipe, the requisite couveture (Wiki: Couverture is a term used for chocolates rich in cocoa butter. Popular brands of couverture used by professional pastry chefs and often sold in gourmet and specialty food stores include: Valrhona, Felchlin, Lindt & Spr√ľngli, Scharffen Berger, Cacao Barry, Callebaut, and Guittard. These chocolates contain a high percentage of cocoa (sometimes 70% or more) and have a total fat content of 30-40%.) More importantly, I radiated good intention.

I was ready.

I'm not reprinting the recipe, as it is easily found here. Suffice it to say, I think the recipe needs some tweaking (more flour!) and it didn't take 10 seconds. I was lacking the "here's one I made earlier" TV magic, obviously.

Step One, almond topping (simple crumble, no biggie):


Step Two, make the dough...:








(and then wait for hours and hours)
Step Three: Stretch the dough out, chuck a whole lotta chocolate on top, do some fancy secret-pastry business twirling, throw more chocolate and crumble mix on top:






...and then wait another hour....then throw it in the oven...and wait some more. At this point I suggest you throw a massive tantrum at your family and start screaming and demanding that they clean up their (constant) messes. All the while the whole house is smelling so good, you are trying to keep yourself from melting onto the floor in a warm chocolate induced stupor. Eventually the damn thing comes out of the oven, you let it cool only minimally, and you start to cut out giant pieces of babka for everyone to enjoy (a reward for their cleaning up the freakin' mess):


End result: Looks like a babka, smells like a babka, tastes like crap and is burned on the bottom. I'm not entirely sure where this recipe went wrong - although I can make an educated guess. It needed more flour than originally called for, I should have crumbled the chocolate a lot finer, the cooking time needed to be drastically reduced, and the rising time should have been increased as it was not nearly as tall as it should have been. It was completely lacking in the gorgeous doughy texture and light 'layers' of chocolate and dough. I know it was kneaded enough, and I followed the measurements...so either this recipe sucks or my baking skills took a holiday. Either way it took 0.674 seconds for the entire thing to be eaten (and 6+ hours to make) by DH and the kidlets. So while my damn fine pastry chef self is disappointed, it's nice to know the outcome was still positive.

Methinks this is a recipe to try again when I have another do-nothing Sunday on my hands.

(For those with eagle eyes, no, there are no cherries. Out of season here in Melbourne.) (For those with eagle eyes for more detail, DS still can't ride a two-wheeler, but he's trying.)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

With Friends Like These

Adult friendships are way, way harder than 7th grade friendships. Socially speaking, 7th grade is the most hideous time in one's life - you're awkward, kinda ugly, you think everyone hates you, girls are at their peak of mean-ness and evil gossip is the norm. Compared to that, though, adult friendships are worse. They're just so damn complicated.

Most adults I know make their new friends (as in, friends who are not from high school, college, or their stint working at Subway) via work. However, the friends you make at work often stay at work - and it can be hard to get them to the status of real friends. If you do manage to elevate them to outside-of-work friend, then you have potential problems: a) outside of work you find out they're really clingy annoying weirdo freakazoids, b) work issues become enmeshed in friend issues and then it's a mess when you claim credit for their work or c) in a moment of drunken weakness, you're forced to admit that you earn more than they do and then they give you the evil eye at work ever after. See? Complicated.

Once you have kids, there is a whole new social set of people who can become potential friends. These are the parents of your kids' friends - so in effect you are just piggy backing on your kids' social graces. Dangerous move, that. Piggyback friends are all good and well until either a) your kid now hates that kid, b) you want your kid to hate that kid, because that kid is an ill-behaved mongrel, or c) your kid loves that kid but the mom/parents are total clingy annoying weirdo freakazoids. See? Complicated.

See the problem? Making new, normal adult friends is hard. There is also the issue of the friend you don't want. The person who really puts themselves out there. Extends the hand of friendship. Passes the olive branch. Buys you a latte and a muffin. Calls you just to see what your weekend plans are. Says a lot of "Call me!" or "Yeah, we should totally do that!" It's nice, right? To be, well, pursued in that manner. Nice until you realise that you have less than nothing in common and conversation is a painful, painful affair. More painful than a crusty ear and a alcohol swab (and I would know). Still, they doggedly pursue you, and you're not really sure why. So you're left with the friend you really don't want to have, but out of mercy or boredom or god-knows-what, you're stuck with 'em. An added complication in your life.

Sometimes you get lucky. I met XABF at work, and until it all went horribly, horribly wrong, we had 7 brilliant years. I met Poppet's Mum via our kids (and our mutual laughter at their attempts to dance) and that's a lovely friendship. I've recently met The Baker's Wife at work, and she's so damn fab I'd date her if she or I was single, not married, and either of us were into that. I could go on. Suffice it to say I've been lucky, but plenty of times in life I've found myself lonely and wondering if it's because I smell.

In the end I came to the very emzee conclusion that I don't smell. It's just that adult friendships seem a lot harder than the ones I made in seventh grade, when I really DID smell, and had bad hair. Anyway, in honour of my lack of smell and my lack of bad hair, I'm encouraging you all to make a new friend today. Pass the branch, pay for the latte (and muffin, ya cheapskate), whatever - let's just be a bit nicer to someone today. Who knows? You might have the same clingy annoying weirdo freakazoid habits in common.

Friday, March 9, 2007

A Friday Funny

Green Eggs & Ham, the Jewish Way

Will you never see?
They are not kosher, so let me be!
I will not eat green eggs and ham.
I will not eat them, Sam I am.
But I'll eat green eggs with a biscuit!
Or I will try them with some brisket.
I'll eat green eggs in a box.
If you serve them with some lox.
And those gren eggs are worth a try,
Scrambled up in matzo brie!
And in a boat upon the river,
I'll eat green eggs with chopped liver!
So if you're a Jewish Dr. Seuss fan,
But troubled by green eggs and ham,
Let your friends in on the scoop:
Green eggs taste best with chicken soup!

(courtesy of a Jewish Day School who was celebrating Dr Seuss Day)

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Space Waster

Here are five more interesting, amusing, or just plain fill-in-the-blog lines things about emzee you might not know (and don't want to know, but this is me putting it out there, okay?)

1. Who says Australia is a cultural wasteland? Up on our pin board are tickets to these events: Miss Saigon (which I've seen 3 times previously), Walking with Dinosaurs (which I bought tickets to only because I got one for free, and because I am claiming it's for DS but it's really me who wants to go) and 'Out of the Frying Pan', a Melbourne Food & Wine conference all about the future of food and the media (hey, I might meet someone fab who says, YEAH! The emzee show sounds like a GREAT idea).

2. I announce my bathroom visits. ALL the time. I had no idea I had this habit until DH pointed it out, and now he pretends to 'sound an alarm' every time I make my announcement. I do this at work, too. There is no earthly reason why I need to do this, and I don't know why I do. Maybe it's because I think people will miss me when I'm gone? Am I that self-centered? Who knows? *announcement* I'M GOING TO GO PEE!

3. I recently answered this question: "What do you think is your best parenting skill/strength?" with this answer: "Basically I think I do a good job at raising happy, healthy kids. The rest, frankly, is just gravy. But, DANG, I make a good cake."

4. I once rented a car (at the airport in Boston) on a fake ID. The car was a HUGE mini van, brand-spanking new, with 12 miles on it. I drove said car through the night (with a friend) trying to get to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We had only the rental car company map (of the greater Boston area), and despite repeated attempts to purchase one, we still had no map. We had nothing except ourselves, some clothes, and a rented minivan rented under false pretenses. Plus we had a lot less money because of those damn tollways. We finally gave up at Allentown, PA - where we spent the night and then drove back to Boston, only to discover that a return flight from Boston to Pittsburgh was CHEAPER than renting the stupid car.

5. I'm home from work today with a helluva head cold...so I did what any self-respecting woman would do. I baked a giant white chocolate mud cake (for a client, and no I didn't sneeze on it), asked DH to make some chicken soup (from my sister's recipe, which she learned from our Guatemalan maid - go figure) and complained a lot that "by doze iz ztuffy." Oh, and I watched some crappy daytime TV. Know what? It was bliss.

Okay, so this isn't the best post ever - but my brain is full of boogers and that's my excuse.

Friday, March 2, 2007

A Foodie Confession

I like McDonald's food.

Really.

I do. In fact I *heart* McDonald's.

Especially the McNuggets, in all their sponge-like, cookie-cutter-shaped, dripping in sweet & sour plastic tasting sauce selves.

But, Michelle! (I hear you say incredulously) - you're a Chef with a capital C! You will easily spent $50 on lunch by yourself, you think children should learn to eat decent food and you KNOW what is in those little nuggets can't be good for you. You, who could and has (on a number of occasions) driven, trained, sailed and walked several thousand kilometers just for a MEAL - YOU like McDonald's?! For shame, Chef emzee, for SHAME.

I'll just say this loud and proud: it's all true, dear readers, all true. I am a foodie.

But dang, those little spongies are good (you ever bitten into one? I swear you could mop up spills with those things).

Tonight as a special treat I took the trio to the Golden Arches. For Sabbath dinner. Seriously. What kind of fucked up message is that giving them? Tonight of all nights, the family night, the holy night of the week, I took my kids to the Scottish restaurant down the road. We didn't do candles, wine, challah, prayers, nuttin'. We just took our Jew selves down to the Mickey D's and dined in style with the rest of the Melbourne parents who couldn't be assed to cook tonight. (To be fair I had a good excuse: DH was at some religo-thing, IL's and BIL#2 were out of town, SIL and her kids had plans,I threw my back out yesterday afternoon, and I'd been promising the kids a dinner at McD's for a few weeks now...plus I had a hankering for some spongey goodness.)

Anyway, so there we are....and while I love 'da house of fries and grease', I don't love the 12 year old kid behind the counter who took (no shit), over 20 minutes to fill our order. This is after I'd waited 14 minutes to get to the front of the line (no I'm not kidding.) It actually took him so long to get it organised (and this was not a complex order) - that ALL the fries morphed into stale cold sticks of grease and had to be replaced with fresh hot sticks of grease - adding a further 6 minutes to my waiting time. I *know* how long it took because I was standing within eyeball distance of the screen which tells the 12 year olds just how far behind they are in their serving time goals. All I have to say is, 12 year old heads are gonna roll tonight!

It took a superhuman amount of effort not to jump that counter, shout, "Gimme my fuckin' sponges already!" and then threaten to start poking everyone in the eye with the spoons off the McFlurry machine.

So you can imagine my mood when the twelve year old tells me they've run out of the totally wicked alien toys and they only have TOTALLY LAME Frisbees left.

He's lucky he's not a McNugget. I'd have bitten his head off, right then and there.