Getting my fix

Old fashioned doughtnus
Get in my belly!

For me, being a pastry chef is a little like being a drug dealer, a crack addict, and a walking meth lab all in one: I get paid selling things people profess not to want want but always really do; I can barely say no to even the lowest-quality product; and I can make all this stuff at home.

I’m the pastry version of Jesse Pinkman.

Which brings me to my latest craving. One of the things I miss most about Seattle is the easy access to my favorite doughnut in the whole wide world: the Top Pot Old Fashioned glazed doughnut.

Fortunately for me and my craving addiction, I have Pastry Kung Fu, and, having wisely purchased Top Pot’s cookbook before I moved, I can get my fix whenever I want. The result wasn’t exactly the same as Top Pot’s (my tiny London flat’s stovetop’s ability to hold fry oil at the right temperature leaves A LOT to be desired), but I’m decently satisfied with the results (Julia Child said to never apologize for something you’ve made!).

My doughnut needs have been temporarily sated, but I’m really looking forward to the day when I can visit Seattle again and drop in on Top Pot for the real thing.

Sacher vs Sacher

While I was in Vienna for the weekend recently (God, I just love saying that. One of the best things about living in London!) I decided to do a taste-test comparison of the two most famous versions of the sachertorte.

The torte
The history of the sachertorte can be easily found online, including the famous fight between Café Demel and the Sacher Hotel. Simply put, Franz Sacher developed the recipe for the prince in 1832. Franz’s son, Eduard, perfected the recipe at Café Demel and then took the recipe with him when he founded the Hotel Sacher in 1876. When the hotel went bankrupt in 1934, Franz’s grandson, Eduard Jr went to work for Café Demel and brought the recipe back again. When Hotel Sacher reopened under new management, they started selling the torte too, and that’s when the lawyers got involved in 1954. The suit was settled out of court in 1963 (seemingly in favor of the hotel) with the hotel allowed to sell “The Original Sacher Torte” and Café Demel being allowed to call theirs the “Eduard Sacher Torte”.

Many people have done a back-to-back taste test comparison before, including myself back in 2004. But the last time I did this, I wasn’t a pastry chef and I didn’t write down my thoughts and observations. So this taste-test is now official.

The verdict
I believe the Hotel Sacher’s version of the torte to be better than Café Demel’s. In fact, the torte I had at Demel wasn’t actually all that great, sadly. While the serving size at each place was practically the same, they were smaller than I remember. While it doesn’t really have a tangible effect on the torte itself, I enjoyed the atmosphere of the hotel over the café. The hotel felt elegant and old-world, the café felt old world, but cramped and not terribly luxurious or well-maintained.

Cafe Demel's Eduard Sacher Torte
Second best torte

Café Demel – 4.10 Euro

  • Cake: One layer; Drier, denser crumb, more bread-like. Not as chocolatey as expected.
  • Jam: Thin layer covering the entire cake underneath the icing.
  • Icing: Matte and dry to the touch, thick coverage, a bit grainy and crystallized.

Hotel Sacher's The Original Sacher Torte
Clearly the winner

Hotel Sacher – 5.60 Euro

  • Cake: Two half-layers; Just a touch moister, but not a moist cake to be sure. Texture was lighter and more cake-like, mildly chocolatey
  • Jam: Thin layer covering the entire cake underneath the icing and one layer between each of the cake layers.
  • Icing: Matte and dry to the touch, thick coverage, fairly smooth, but still clearly a bit crystallized.

The recipe
There are recipes for this cake all over the internet and most of them don’t result in a cake even close to the actual thing. I’ve made several versions myself and am pretty happy with the cake part of the torte, but I have yet to perfect the icing. The apricot jam is a non-issue, as it is most likely the commercial apricot jam easily found in any patisserie around the world.

The icing, having just sampled the two definitive versions, is clearly NOT a ganache as many, many recipes purport (1, 2, 3). There may be a ganache component to the icing, but there is very little fat in the final product; Any icing recipe that calls for a high ratio of cream is going to be wildly wrong.

The icing on the two authentic sachertortes is not shiny, not gooey, not soft, not sticky. It is completely dry to the touch, a little crusty, and fairly thick, and not at all shiny (my pic above is a little misleading). It actually resembles a very thick chocolate version of the icing found on many donughts; it’s probably got a strong powdered sugar component. Although, knowing that it’s a European dessert (not an American one) the icing is probably a basic chocolate poured fondant, which would explain the slightly grainy texture.

I picked up a recipe while I was in Vienna from one of the cook books I found and I intend on practicing this iconic cake. Once I get a recipe I’m happy with, I’ll post it.

Crumble topping

CRUMBLE TOPPING

RATIOS – BY WEIGHT
1 part Sugar
2 parts Flour
1 part Butter

METHOD
1. Combine sugar and flour.

2. Mix in butter, in chunks.

Movie review – Big Night – 3 out of 3 stars

Big Night – 3 stars

My system, inspired by the Michelin ratings

  • 0 stars: That’s two hours I’m never getting back – Establishments deemed unworthy of a visit
  • 1 star: An ok movie; something to watch if you’re out of other movie options – “A very good restaurant in its category”
  • 2 stars: A good movie, worth a watch especially if you’re a fan of food movies – “Excellent cooking, worth a detour”
  • 3 stars: One of the best food movies ever, and a damn fine movie in any category – “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”

Appetizer – A short summary
Two brothers, immigrants from Italy, run a struggling restaurant. Primo, the older brother is the extremely talented and uncompromising chef, and Secundo, the younger brother is the maître d’ and business manager. In a last-ditch effort to make the restaurant take off, they invite Louis Prima to a huge dinner party.

Main course – The review and commentary
Big Night has everything you could ever hope for in a food movie. Great characters, a true understanding of and empathy for the industry, inspiring food sequences, some really good cinematography, and a touching story.

I was a chef’s apprentice when I was first introduced to this movie although I didn’t really care for it at the time. It wasn’t until I had my own food establishment that I began to understand through first-hand experience the true passion, agony, fear, and drive that was motivating Primo and Secundo. There’s a scene early in the movie when Secundo walks through the dining room, assessing everything, making micro-adjustments, displaying all the love and attention to detail that goes into getting prepared for the evening service. I completely understand that sentiment and there are no words for how much I miss it.

Another bit from the movie to which I can totally relate is the advice given to Secundo: “Give to people what they want and then later you can give them what you want.” This wisdom calls for a balancing act that few chefs can achieve or maintain, with most chefs falling into either Primo’s camp of believing you’re an artiste and diners should conform to your vision, or you’re a sell-out like Pascal, just doing whatever sells without any creativity or individuality. A balance between both extremes is critical when running a restaurant, but in all honesty, I believe Pascal’s just a little closer to the truth than Primo.

The soundtrack of the movie is completely appropriate, considering the characters (Italian) and the era (1950’s). If what’s pictured in the movie is at all accurate, I can see why non-Italians in that America sucked up this culture and never let it go.

Intermezzo – Food porn
Yes, there’s plenty of it here. Italian food isn’t really my thing, but even now, after more than a decade in the business, I still love watching other people cook. The bit when the whole team is making pasta from scratch is a pretty typical, but enjoyable, food montage. The kitchen itself also gets plenty of screen time; it’s a wonderfully rustic kitchen and very spacious considering how small the adjoining dining room is.

The best food scene, though, is one that I find to also be the most accurate in capturing an aspect of what it’s like to be a chef: the stress and anxiety in the moment of culinary truth. Here, it’s the emotional tension on display as the Timpano is released from its baking dish… I feel this way every day when I bake something; the ecstasy and relief of seeing perfection emerge from your hard work is one of the greatest feelings you can have in the kitchen.

Dessert – The finishing thought
My favorite scene of the movie is the last one, the morning after the Big Night, where Secundo makes a very simple breakfast for Primo and their waiter/sous, Cristiano. In one long single take, this scene fully captures the satisfaction, exhaustion, and just a little depression and sadness to be found in the memory of a perfect dinner service. It’s a perfectly balanced bittersweet ending to a fantastic movie.

Food movies

I was warned that January and February would be slow months for being a freelance chef here in London. The warnings seem to be bearing out quite accurately so far. I only have two bookings ahead of me for January, two cooking classes at SL*: One is a tapas menu and the other is teaching kids how to cook healthy food. I’m looking forward to both classes, even though neither topic is in my Top 5 preferred classes to teach. But I need to get out of the house and earn, so I’ll take what’s out there!

In the meantime, to stave off boredom and stay in the food mindset, I’m queueing up some food movies. To make it to my list, the movie must feature a chef, food establishment, or other industry topic; and the plot should revolve around said chef or establishment instead of being just a cheap plot device. Some movies on the list below I’ve seen many times and rank among my favorite, others I’m not super-thrilled about watching again and may just skip, and there are actually a few on the list I’ve never seen.

On the viewing menu:

  • Big Night
  • Ratatouille
  • Today’s Special
  • Bottleshock
  • Sideways
  • Tampopo
  • Mostly Martha
  • Spanglish
  • Like Water for Chocolate
  • Chef
  • Burnt
  • Chocolat
  • Babette’s Feast
  • Waitress
  • Julie & Julia
  • Romantics Anonymous
  • Haute Cuisine
  • Le Chef

Off the menu:

  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi – I’m skipping documentaries this time around.
  • Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory – Neither version is really about food.
  • The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover – Just because it takes place in a restaurant doesn’t mean it’s a food movie. Although I may reconsider, given how fantastic Dame Helen Mirren is.
  • Sweeny Todd – Not actually a food movie; and how many food movies can Johnny Depp star in?
  • Soylent Green – Features “food”, sick as it may be, but isn’t ultimately a food movie.
  • Etc…

Reviews and commentary on each are forthcoming as I watch them.