Ramblings

Cheese School

I love giving gifts that are unusual and completely unexpected.  I also love giving gifts I can reap the benefits from.  For Christmas I got John a gift certificate for a class at The Cheese School of San Francisco.  I had stumbled upon the school randomly online one day while googling away my afternoon, hoping that the internet would have the answer to all my problems of how to trade in the day job so that I can pursue my real passions.  Daydreaming of writing cook books and going to culinary school to get that street-cred I've always wanted.  Well my problems weren't solved, (dammit Google DO BETTER!), but I did find The Cheese School and that was definitely something.  

So a few months after Christmas we finally got around to signing up for a class.  Turns out there are a lot of food nerds in San Francisco, because almost all of their classes were full, but we managed to squeeze into "Fundamentals of Flavor: How to Taste Cheese".  Stop right there.  I know exactly what you're thinking.  Step 1: open mouth.  Step 2: insert cheese.  Step 3: chew.  Step 4: swallow.  Repeat.  Believe it or not, there is a lot involved in tasting cheese.  And I mean really tasting cheese- the kind of tasting you do with your eyes closed so you can experience every nuance the gooey morsel has to offer.  Basically eating cheese while looking like a complete asshat, poking, prodding, sniffing, and examining each wedge like a lab rat.    

The Cheese School is absolutely adorable,  located in North Beach- the Disneyland version of Little Italy, in an old Victorian house.  We were greeted with sparkling wine and perused the numerous books on cheese while we waited for class to start.  Daphne Zepos was our teacher for the evening and the classroom was set up with tables in a large u-shape where each student had an assigned seat, a giant sheet pan filled with cheese, and accoutrement of strawberries, sliced baguette, and salted marcona almonds.  If only college had been like this, I would have gone to class more.  Mom, Dad- you didn't read that.  

Cheese School2

We would be tasting 12 cheeses that evening, tasting in pairs, going from mildest to most pungent in flavor. But before we could get to eating there was that whole class thing, you know, instructions and information for your brain before the pig-out fest.  I learned that tasting cheese can be broken down into 6 steps:

1. Know/prepare

Create the right environment for tasting

2. Look

Inspect both the outside and inside of the cheese for indications of what the texture and taste of the cheese might be like.  If the rind has a bit of a bulge, the cheese is probably gooey, and the color of a cut piece of cheese can indicate freshness.

3. Smell

Sniff until you can sniff no more.  A piece of cheese doesn't just smell like feet, it smells like feet that have just waded through a pile of salted cashews and then jumped around in a bale of hay.  The point is, don't be general about the way you describe the scent.  The more descriptive the better.  It was also interesting to find out that the outside of a cut piece of cheese can smell very different from the inside of the same piece of cheese that is broken in half.    

4. Touch

Squeeze it.  Smoosh it.  Does it leave a residue on your fingers?  Is it oily, wet, buttery, or does it crumble into pieces.  These are all indicators of what the cheese might taste like.

5. Taste

Finally, the moment we've all been waiting for.  When eating cheese, take note of the "first bite" impression. Then, assess the texture of the cheese.  And then keep chewing, and then chew some more. The flavor of a piece of cheese develops as you chew, so don't just hoover the thing, take your time and really taste all of the flavor notes that the cheese has to offer.  Also, cheese ripens from the outside in so you should taste the most unripe part first, working your way to the ripest bits, noticing how the flavor changes and intensifies.  Then taste the cheese as a whole.   

6. Aftertaste

Wait for the aftertaste by exhaling.  This will activate the aromas from the nose and mouth, leaving you with a finish that you might not have noticed while tasting, and allows you to refine your original assessment of the cheese.

Now with all that newfound knowledge I could get to the main event! Here is a list of the cheeses we got to taste.

1. Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.,

Foggy Morning

 Vs.   

 2. Cowgirl Creamery,

Clabbard Cottage Cheese

3. Cypress Grove Chevre,

Purple Haze

 Vs.   

 4. Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery,

Bijou

5.

Abbaye de Belloc

 Vs.   

 6.

Pecorino Fogile di Noce

7.

Old Amsterdam

 Vs.   

 8. L'Amuse,

Aged Gouda

9. Cowgirl Creamery,

Red Hawk

 Vs.   

 10.

Epoisses

11. Jasper Hill Farm,

Bayley Hazen Blue

 Vs.   

 12. Colston Bassett,

Stilton

Cheese School

Every cheese had its own unique flavor, even though each cheese within a pairing was similar in age, texture, and milk content.  My personal favorites were the Purple Haze goat cheese and the the Old Amsterdam gouda, although they were all pretty amazing.  I left the class feeling like a cheese connoisseur and really glad that I wasn't lactose intolerant.  

Cheese School end of night

Gold Dust Woman

No, this is not a post about blow.  Or Stevie Nicks, or how I wish I could wear gold spandex pants as fiercely as Karen O., or my secret life as a glitterati.  Ok so maybe I'm not an undercover glitterati, but I was covered in glitter today.  That part is true, Girl Scout's honor.

Today I took a little drive to the East Bay in search of some more supplies for my upcoming project for The Armada of Golden Dreams.  My friend, Leah- master cake decorator, artist, and all-around awesome lady, recommended that I check out Spun Sugar in Berkeley for some candy making goodies.  I promise, no hippies were hurt in the making of this blog post.  Really, I promise.  I have to say my visit was well worth having to cross that death trap they call the Bay Bridge and pay the $5 toll to boot.  Spun Sugar had everything!  I was literally a kid in a candy store, or candy making store, if you want to get technical.  If you ever need to make something sweet, definitely check this place out.  The staff was super helpful and I left with every kind of edible gold product they had (including spray on edible gold which is basically spray paint for your food, and this stuff called DISCO DUST!), 1 lb. each of dark and white chocolate, some gold colored sugar, clear vanilla extract, and two gold cake bases.  I took my loot home and and hoped that my experiments today would go better than they had last week.  

Chocolate Supplies
Chocolate molds close up

It had come to my attention that the reason I failed so hard at molding chocolate last week was because I didn't temper my chocolate first.  Who knew that chocolate was so finicky?  Tempering basically re-establishes the cocoa butter crystals that are found in chocolate and this process aids in keeping the chocolate in its best form, giving it a sheen, and the hardness you need for it to be released from the mold.  With a little research I learned that tempering was not so easy and I probably wanted to avoid it at all costs, considering the amount of chocolate I was going to be molding.  I happened to find some chocolate at Spun Sugar that didn't require any tempering.  All I had to do was pop it in the microwave and pour it into the molds.  And I did just that.  The chocolate melted beautifully and it had to harden the same, it just had to, otherwise I was going to lose my temper.  Ba dum CHING!

Melted Chocolate molds
Hardened Chocolate Molds
Chocolate Gems
Chocolate Gems close up

I squeeled and clapped like a three year old girl watching Barney when the chocolate came out of the molds with ease.  Total sucess!  The theme to Rocky was rolling through my head.  My friends, today I was a champion.  I kicked that chocolate's ass and showed it who's boss.  Now all the little guys needed were a paint job.

Gilded Gems close up parchment

I had a ton of fun playing around with all the different forms of edible gold luster I bought.  The spray on worked really well and gave the chocolate a glossy, even coat of gold paint.  It was thick, and getting the spray control right was a bit tricky, but I was really happy with the results.  Next, I tried the Disco Dust.  This stuff looked just like craft glitter and stuck to the surface of the chocolate as if it were glue.  A few coats later and I had some really shiny gems on my hands.  You could literally hang them from the ceiling in place of a disco ball, they were THAT shiny.  The last technique I tried was brushing on the luster dust.  I got 3 different shades of gold, and found that using the dust in its powder form to brush it on the chocolate was much easier than mixing it with clear vanilla extract and painting it on wet.  It was like painting watercolor on plastic, and nothing stuck.  The dry brush method worked like a charm and went really quickly without using a lot of luster dust to coat each piece.  I could finally start to see my vision coming to life.  Now I just need to make about 8 million more of these things.  

Gilded Gems close up

Zilla Dogs and Macarons

Just another typical Saturday morning:  up at 7:30 am, surfed the internet while drinking coffee in bed, hoping I'd muster up enough energy to not be just another lump in the mattress and take a shower. Luckily I had some motivation.  I was going to the farmer's market today.  And not just any farmer's market, but THE farmer's market, the epitome of all things food, the Saturday farmer's market at the Ferry Building.  If food was recognized as a religion this would be my Mecca, the holiest of the holies, and has become my sacred Saturday ritual.  My ritual, however, has taken a bit of a back seat to the craziness of life, and I haven't been in over a month.  I almost always walk there, breathing in the smells of dim sum as I walk past China Town and checking out all of the new restaurants popping up in the Financial District that I hope to someday go to.

Today the sun was shining and pleasantly warm.  Spring was finally here, well at least for today.  My trip to the market today actually had a purpose, not the usual meandering around each booth tasting the days tantalizing treats and eyeing all of the cute little puppies that I longed to have for my own.  I needed to make a visit to the Sur la Table to get some baking supplies for a project that I'm going to be working on.  But before I made my purchases I needed some food porn, and I needed some food porn fast!

I had gotten pretty hungry on the walk over, as I hadn't had any breakfast other than my cup o' joe, and the alien in my stomach was telling me to feed it.  Onne of the things I love the most about the Saturday farmer's market is all of the amazing food vendors selling freshly prepared food for you to buy.  For about $10 you can get a hefty plate of grub and the possibilities are endless.  Roasted chickens turning on the rotisserie spit, oysters, authentic Mexican creations, Korean California fusion, and just about any form of pork product imaginable.  Today I opted for a hot dog from 4505 Meats, which has become one of my favorite food tents at the market.  This was no ordinary hot dog, it was a bacon studded hot dog zilla style.  As if a bacon studded hot dog wasn't decadent enough, they top it with kimchi and their famous chicharrones.  It sounds so wrong, but tastes oh so right.

4505 Meats Bacon Studded Hot Dog served Zilla Style

Now before you call me a fat ass, I was really only interested in the kimchi topping.  The chicharrones were just an added bonus, and as sinfully good as they are, I could only eat two of them because they are just that rich.  But throwing out perfectly good pork rinds would be an even bigger sin, so I packed them into a plastic bag to bring home for John who was missing out on this lovely Saturday morning.  The hot dog was plump and juicy, nestled in a toasty artisan bun.  You could hear the skin snap with every bite, the smokiness of the bacon mixed with the spicy crunch of kimchi, and made my taste buds explode with happiness.

I finally had the fuel I needed to go shopping.  Sur la Table came and went, and I left a happy customer with a few things to get me started with my project.  (More about this project to come soon).  After all the salty goodness of my Zilla dog I needed a little something sweet to round out the meal.  I headed down to Miette for a light and airy macaron.  I decided on pistachio, my personal favorite, and rose geranium.  Unfortunately I scarfed them down before I could take a photo, but they were lovely, I promise.