The word you’re looking for is “sear”

When you’re an expat and greatly outnumbered by the local populace, you learn pretty quickly that you’re very often going to be “wrong” about a lot of stuff. You begin to cultivate the requisite survival skills in taking abuse, biting your tongue, and rolling your eyes at the importance locals place on pointing out how their way is right and, you, the foreigner (especially if you’re an American) are ignorant, devoid of culture, and education, and just basic civilization.

I’m finally coming to grips with this state of existence; They say “Acceptance” is Step 5 and eventually leads to a happier life.

One thing I won’t concede, however, are the fundamentals of cooking. Science is science, facts are facts, and certain things just are right:

Cooking protein at high heat in a dry environment does not “seal” it.

A perfectly SEARED steak
A perfectly SEARED steak

When I first encountered this word, “seal”, I thought it was a simple mispronunciation, like how the English will say “bruvver” instead of “brother” or “bu-uh” instead of “butter” or “Ameriker” instead of “America”. (As an aside, and to quote Henry Higgins, “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?”) Anyway, since my colleagues and I were discussing cooking techniques for steaks and other meats, I was able to discern their accent/mispronunciation to understand these cooks meant “sear”. And life moved on.

But after a while, as I kept encountering this word “seal”, I started thinking it wasn’t about mispronunciation at all, but instead a legitimate difference in vocabulary. Kind of like how I say “cilantro” and they say “cori-AN-duh”. A vocabulary difference is a little less adorable than an quirky accent and a bit more annoying as it leads to the inevitable “eggplant/aubergine” debate. But, still, it’s something I could translate in my head and move past.

However, just recently, I got curious and dug further into this “seal” word with a fellow chef, only to find out to my shock and horror (and a little bit of sick fascination) that in fact, yes, the whole professional population here in England seems to think this is the actual real thing going on when you cook meat!

Holy shit. It’s like it’s still 1970 here.

A lot of people who are way smarter than me have proved what happens when you cook meat in a dry environment at high heat. The short version is that the proteins caramelize creating a delicious crust on the surface; this is called the Maillard Reaction. (Here, here, here, and here)

Under no circumstances, at all, ever, is this process “sealing in the juices” which is what APPARENTLY the cooks here think it does. This sort of institutional ignorance boggles the mind. It’s as if the Internet doesn’t exist, no one does any professional research, and we’ll all still mere unthinking apprentices of Escoffier.

So I utter my battle cry once again: We don’t have to live like this anymore!!

A wise person once asked me about one of my opinions, metaphorically of course, “Is this the hill you’re willing to die for?” It got me to thinking that I really need to evaluate what issues I’ll concede in the interest of not wasting my own time and energy. To that end, outside the privacy of my own home, I’ve given up on “cilantro”, “eggplant”, “zucchini”, “plastic wrap”, “paper towels”, “garbage”… But scientifically proven cooking techniques, hell no, I’m not giving an inch on that. I will die on that hill.

Science is science and hard facts far outweigh your own personal or cultural beliefs. Is “seal” still a thing here because of the British adherence to tradition and fear of change? Is it perhaps because they don’t have the same books we Americans have access to? Is it because of the entrenched European (French) kitchen brigade system that doesn’t encourage intellectual curiosity?

Lest you think I exaggerate regarding the pervasiveness of this ignorance, even the Oxford Fucking English Dictionary gets it wrong.

Sharing techniques and spreading knowledge is a huge part of being a chef. What I have here is what’s called a “teachable moment”. Whenever possible/reasonable/appropriate I will share with my colleagues just exactly what it means to “sear” and lovingly teach them to stop thinking of it as “sealing in the juices”. I definitely anticipate great frustration and disappointment in my quest, but I’m looking forward to making my own small contribution to the modernization of cooking here in London.

The final (?) piece of equipment

My new stand mixer
My new stand mixer
After getting along without one for nearly a year and a half, I finally got a stand mixer here in London. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to finally have one again. I’ve been using a small hand mixer for the last 18 months, like I’m living in 1954. With the stand mixer, no more switching hands to make meringues; no more wondering if the beaters will break while making cookie dough; no more mono-tasking while making a cake; and maybe now I can take on some bread projects I’ve been thinking about.

For those of you who don’t know, the UK is on a different electrical system than in the US. It’s half the voltage, which means it’s twice the amount of electricity, or something. I don’t know, I’m a chef, not an electrician. What I do know is that plugging a US appliance into the wall here in the UK will fry the shit out of it, as I found out when I plugged in my electronic drums. I wasn’t about the make the same mistake with my Kitchenaid mixer.

Getting a locally compatible stand mixer has been high on my list ever since moving to the UK, but this being London I wasn’t about to drop $900 on a new mixer. Yes, that’s $900. The same machine that costs not more than $275 (on sale at Macy’s) costs the equivalent of $900 here; there are no sales here in London on these things. So I figured I’d have to live with the little hand mixer I got in my first month. The little mixer is good, it’s just not what I’m used to, and yes, when you’re a pastry chef a stand mixer is just about a basic necessity.

But wait long enough and you can find anything in London. So I did, and then I did. This week I came across a Kenwood mixer (which is the more popular brand here in the UK, over Kitchenaid) for £100 on Gumtree. With all the cool attachments,too . I couldn’t believe it, talk about the pastry unicorn! I had no intention of letting this mixer get away. Espcially considering the current exchange rate made it (relatively) 20% cheaper!

So now my little London kitchen is complete. filled up with baking equipment and pastry tools!

Hazel Grace
My pastry apprentice only cares about the mixer’s packing box. Silly kitty!

Thank you Mr Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Just in time for Independence Day…

It always stings a little to learn that one of your historical heroes is actually just a flawed human being. Examining faults and balancing successes in someone you want to lionize can be challenging, but I guess that’s what we call maturity. I went through this process recently regarding Thomas Jefferson, who I consider to be one of the best presidents the US has ever had.

I recently finished reading a Jefferson biography called The Art of Power by Jon Meacham that chronicles Jefferson’s life from birth to death in a very balanced and honest way. Of course most of what people focus on today about Jefferson is his unequal and likely emotionally abusive relationship with Sally Hemmings. I was already aware of that very significant problem, but this biography really expanded on a situation that has been reduced to a sound bite and a way to dismiss Jefferson. In fact, this bio exposed that it was probably a worse relationship than people are commonly aware of, compounded by denial and massive cognitive dissonance by all those involved, including the rest of the (white) family.

But it’s Jefferson’s ideals and his political philosophy that I really learned more about and what humanized him for me. As anyone who knows me, I generally have no patience for conservatives or Republicans with their fear of “the other” or “get the gummint outta my life” or the fact that they generally always end up being wrong about human rights and liberties (slavery, segregation, women’s suffrage, LGTBQ rights, etc).

So it’s actually a little self-contradictory for me to be such a fan of Jefferson, considering he is the original Republican. He, along with James Madison founded the Democratic-Republican party for the election in 1800. A constant theme throughout his life was that Jefferson was a small-government, states-rights supporter, which today would make him a pretty staunch member of the GOP.

However, upon closer analysis, I realized the truth: Jefferson wasn’t a modern-day, “drown it in a bath tub” limited-government Republican. He was a small “r” republican, the opposite of a royalist; Jefferson was anti-monarchy to his core, always suspicious of anything even remotely tainted by the crown or tyrannical abuses of executive power, often to the emotional extreme. It was this tendency towards extreme anti-federalism that eventually led his to falling out with Washington and Adams.

SIDE NOTE: Contrary to what other historians or very popular Broadway shows may or may not say, Jefferson really didn’t spend a lot of energy on Hamilton, any more than you would, perhaps, spend on your average office twit: Better to avoid and marginalize than to engage. Hamilton was completely the opposite of Jefferson with regard to the crown; he was such a Tory it was nearly treasonous.

And today? If Hamilton were alive in 2016, he’d be a combination between the CEO of Blackwater and some banker-executive at Goldmann-Sachs: Building a private army and using nearly illegal hedge funds to do it. Put another way, if Hamilton lived in our times, it wouldn’t be Aaron Burr he’d be dueling against, it would be Elizabeth Warren. And like Burr, Warren probably would win.

The US really dodged a historical bullet when Hamilton failed to dodge a literal one!

Which brings us to one of the most profound and dramatically far-reaching rivalries I think this country has known, that between John Adams and Jefferson.

I’ve known about Adams for some time, having read his bio by David McCullough. Adams was a piece of work and was probably one of the most dangerous presidents we’ve had. I’ll grant that being the second President probably wasn’t easy, following Washington (against whom nothing bad is ever said, of course), but Adams seemed to willfully do his best to cock it all up. The biggest issue was the Alien and Sedition Act that really drove a wedge between Adams and Jefferson. Adams was completely off his rocker with this one, a piece of legislation that even George Bush wouldn’t have tried to pass on September 12. Jefferson never forgave him for this move, and rightly so. The Act (for those of us like me who have forgotten their American History) basically prevented immigrants from voting and preventing anyone from making fun of Adams (that sound you hear is the First Amendment getting ripped up). This Act is the sort of thing that would give Donald Trump a woody, and in fact, part of Adams’ scary legislation is actually still on the books today.

Jefferson, who really did love and trust the common (white) man, campaigned against Adams, his legislation, and his philosophies, handing Adams a defeat in 1800, making Adams the first single-term president. As vindication of his ideals, Jefferson went on to serve two terms, his protégé (Madison) also served two terms, followed by a close ally of Jefferson (Monroe) serving two terms as well. That’s a very long American dynasty.

Jefferson did have his faults: Sally Hemmings being the most publicized today (he also had at least two emotional affairs with married women), his Virginia governorship wasn’t what you’d expect from a Founding Father (he ostensibly “retreated” from the invading British in 1781), he acted just outside the letter of the law as President (Barbary pirates and the Louisiana Purchase), and his treatment of the Native Americans was pretty terrible (not Jacksonian, but in the same ballpark).

All of those very significant negatives contribute to the humanizing of Jefferson for me. I continue to realize that the people who created this country and the leaders we have today are far from perfect and clean, even the ones we think are the best or most respectable (Obama and Guantanamo, anyone?). But now that I’ve learned even more about him, I find that I still greatly admire Jefferson and the man he was and tried to be.

  • I love his liberalism and belief that people hold their own power, that rulers are there at the will of the people and the rule of law, not divine right or hereditary.
  • I am inspired by his intellectualism and quest for knowledge both breadth and depth (It was his huge collection of books that became the foundation for the Library of Congress after President Madison let the British burn down The People’s House in 1814).
  • I aspire to his example regarding his highly principled approach to dealing with his political opponents.
  • I think it’s really cool that he was the original foodie.
  • I admire that, as a man of his time, he was capable of seeing that slavery was an abomination against humanity (even if he did shamefully kick
    that can down the road).
  • I am inspired by the fact that he was incredibly disciplined with his exercise and personal health.
  • I’m thrilled that he was a secularist and was not particularly religious, although he did consider himself spiritual. He looked to certain religious ideals for inspiration, but truly believed that religion shouldn’t be anywhere near government.
  • And finally, I’m extremely proud of the fact that it was Jefferson’s work that kicked off this whole great American “experiment”. I believe the Declaration of Independence to be one of the greatest political documents in human history and I’m glad Jefferson gets the bulk of the credit for its creation.

So while Jefferson was far from perfect, and I definitely have a more well-rounded understanding of him, I still revere him as one of the greatest US presidents and leaders this country has ever had.

Thank you Mr Jefferson, and Happy Birthday USA!

Mmmm, duck

Five-spice duck confit pizza
My first pizza in London.

Random ingredients from other projects included bread flour, yeast, shallots, and five-spice duck confit. So of course I made a pizza.

Architectural inspiration

The steeple of St Bride's church
The steeple of St Bride’s church

It’s undeniable that London is steeped in history. But what’s particularly cool about this city is that much of its history is still relevant today. London’s certainly got its fair share of gravesites of old obscure kings and buildings that matter only because they’re old and survived the blitz, but it’s also got lots of theater pubs still putting on stage productions today, nursery rhymes that get stuck in your head that refer to actual places still standing (or reconstructed), and ancient landmarks of worldwide significance.

Case in point is St Bride’s church, specifically the steeple (whose current iteration was created by none other than the famous architect Christoper Wren). Apparently, in about 1776, a young pastry chef named William Rich wanted to impress his bride-to-be (as if being a pastry chef wasn’t enough already!) with a spectacular dessert at their wedding. The tradition at the time was simply to pile up a bunch of scones and little cakes, and Rich wanted something more for his bride. So he took inspiration from Wren’s creation and designed the first stacked tier wedding cake.

Unfortunately no drawings of Rich’s cake exist so I suppose we can’t truly verify the story, but there is one bit of irony I find amusing. We don’t know if Rich’s creation was stable enough to endure a full day on display before collapsing (as wedding cakes are occasionally wont to do!), but it’s definitely a fact that his source of inspiration certainly shrunk some. Wren’s own tower was originally 234 feet, but collapsed 20 226 feet in 1764 due to a lightning strike.