Thursday, December 17, 2009

Chez Panisse Persimmon Pudding

I want to share my favorite dessert for the holidays. An early Christmas gift for everyone. At Chez they serve a cognac cream with the pudding which basically is just adding a splash of cognac to the whipped cream. I don't believe this recipe has ever been published.

Persimmon Pudding

For one 8-inch or 9-inch pudding: About 1½ pounds persimmons • 1¼ cups flour • 1/8 teaspoon salt • ¾ teaspoon baking soda • ¾ teaspoon baking powder • 1 teaspoon cinnamon • ¾ cup sugar • 3 eggs • 1 ½ cups milk • ¼ cup whipping cream • 1 tablespoon honey • 1 cup walnuts or mixed walnuts and black walnuts • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter

The persimmon should be completely soft when they are ripe, and the flesh should look translucent and a little like jelly. Scrape the pulp off the peel and put through a strainer, or puree in a blender or food processor. Mix the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl. Combine the persimmon pulp, sugar, eggs, milk, cream, and honey. Gradually stir the liquid mixture into the flour mixture. It will be thin at first but will thicken quickly. Let the batter stand to thicken.

Lightly toast the walnuts 5 to 6 minutes in a preheated 350° oven; then let them cool. Butter an 8-inch or 9-inch springform pan and line the bottom with baking parchment. Melt the butter, let it cool slightly while you chop the nuts coarse, then stir both butter and nuts into the batter. Pour into the prepared pan and bake in the 350° oven for 2 to 3 hours, or until the pudding is set. Remove from the pan while warm. The top will be a dark glossy brown and needs no embellishment other than a pretty plate or tray.

Serve warm with crème Chantilly.

Acme Bread

 The last stop on my trip through the world of great artisanal bread making was the first great benchmark of the movement—Acme Bakery. The story behind Acme began in 1979 when Steve Sullivan, then a bus boy at Chez Panisse, brought a loaf he had baked at home to show Alice Waters at the restaurant. Alice and her chef at the time, Jeremiah Tower, loved the bread and Steve began baking for the restaurant. A few years later, in 1983, he left to open Acme Bread with his wife Susan. They now have four bakeries including a wholesale operation that runs 24 hours a day and produces an average of  50 to 60 thousand loaves a week depending on the season.

Alice has been a big supporter of my plan to learn about bread and one day start a business of my own. She called Steve to ask if I could go to his bakery and watch the operation. Steve generously agreed and arranged for me to go to the wholesale bakery in Berkeley.

After observing the bakeries of Chad and Celine recently (see my previous blogs on Tartine and Brick Maiden), Acme came as something of a shock to me. My memories of it were of a small place on Fourth Street in Berkeley. We are a long way from that now but, unlike the story of La Brea bakery in LA where an increase in volume meant a decrease in quality, Steve has stayed with his mission to make great bread in large quantities. I met Arturo who manages the night shift at this branch of Acme. He along with other bakers were going to be spending most of their time shaping bread and prepping it before it gets baked off, while in another room bakers were making dough for the next day. I asked Arturo how many loaves of bread he was going to make that day and he replied that he didn’t want to know. I understand.

I loved this visit but it did confirm my sense that I am not meant to engage in a huge production of anything. I also know now that I don’t want to make every kind of bread in my bakery. I just want to perfect one or two loaves, a good pain levain and a good baguette. Perhaps I’ll do something else for various holidays but to perfect these two varieties is my dream. Yes, it is a dream but I am slowly taking the steps that make a dream come true.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Tartine Bakery & Cafe

The first time I tasted Chad Robertson’s bread I was blown away. Back then; I wasn’t experienced in bread baking or even bread tasting. Even so, there was no mistaking it—this was a perfect, handcrafted loaf of bread. The man is an artist!

That first experience was with a hunk of sourdough that had just the right amount of sour with a perfectly gorgeous crust and an amazingly moist texture. I’ve been Chad devotee ever since.
I first met him when he was at his Point Reyes bakery which is now run by Celine Underwood of Brick Maiden Breads. Chad and his wife Elizabeth have moved on and now own Tartine Bakery and Café, as well as Bar Tartine in San Francisco. Since the day Tartine opened people have been lining up outside the shop. Chad and Elizabeth sell an incredible array of baked goods, both savory and sweet, as well as their famous hot pressed sandwiches. One of these sandwiches, which are made with Tartine’s bread, of course, is big enough for two people. Their Three-Cheese Tasting sandwich made with Bellwether Farms Jersey Carmody, Strauss Cheddar, and Rocinante Idiazabal is the most decadent and the best-grilled cheese sandwich I have ever had.

Tartine’s charmed existence has not been without a drawback or two. They bake their bread in the afternoons, which means that if you want buy fresh bread in the morning or at lunchtime, you are out of luck. Then too, you need to be in line at Tartine by 5 pm if you want to snag a loaf. So if you live nearby, you are in luck.

Chad would love to be able to sell fresh bread throughout the day, but it just isn’t possible. Space is limited in the bakery and he can’t sustain the business on bread alone. Given all the other considerations that go into running a successful business, baking in the afternoon is the only feasible solution. (Although Tartine is demanding, Chad is determined to have a life outside of the bakery, so he always makes time to surf in the mornings.)

I joined Chad on a Saturday to observe his bread making process and to discover what it is about his method that makes his bread exceptional. Even though he no longer bakes in a wood oven as he did when he started, his bread remains exceptional. Chad now bakes in a gas deck oven, which has double steam generators, which are critical to his production. Just like Celine Underwood (see my previous blog) Chad uses a wet dough—something industrial machines cannot not handle. He also employs many a good many tricks that give his bread its unique qualities. For instance, he developed a special formula for his dough—a secret blend of flours all specifically hydrated. He also heats up his deck oven, then turns it off before putting the bread in so he is essentially baking with stored heat. This is the same technique he used when he was working with a wood fired oven. He simply translated the method to his gas deck oven.

Visiting Chad was one more lesson about the long, hard road I will have to travel to turn my dream of baking bread into a profitable business. But, as in my previous stops along the artisanal bread route, I also witnessed the thrill of turning out a perfect loaf. I will continue my journey until I find my place in the bread-baking world.

PS.  Chad's new bread book will be out next year.