Good evening, friends and neighbors!
I was standing at the range in the cafe the other day. On Wednesdays, Victoria and I work together, and she tends to have me do the day-to-day production while she does macarons, special orders, and R+D's new recipes. One of my duties, therefore, is to make the savory galette for morning bake to finish.
Galettes are a rustic tart- essentially a disc of pie dough piled with fillings, the edge folded up to contain them, and then baked flat. For Victoria and I, galettes are one of the things we get free reign on- whatever tastes good, and can go with an insane amount of cheese, can go in a galette. That day, I decided on Italian sausage, sautéed mushrooms with herbs, braised kale, and manchego and Feta cheese.
I work out of one large skillet, my mise lined up on a cutting board behind me. I'm cooking the parts of the filling in a certain order- something experience has taught me will work quickly and allow the different parts of the galette to allude to each other:
- The sausage goes in first. It's already full-flavored, and it has fat the other things will need to cook.
- Cremini mushrooms next, with a small amount of garlic and fresh herbs. As the mushrooms cook, they release liquid- pulling all the crusty bits left by the sausage up from the pan. This and the liquified fat from the sausage work their way into the earthy mushrooms.
- Finally, the sautéed kale. I use the method Emily and I use at home- a little supplemental olive oil in the pan, garlic, dried pepper. In goes the kale with a loud sizzle, and finally the broth with a loud hiss and a gout of steam. I slam the lid on the pan and let it braise. The broth deglazes the pan as it steams the kale- uniting its bitter green with the unctuous sausage and sweet mushrooms.
Valerie is next to me at the range, watching all this with interest. She's asking questions here and there as she eyes the cream she's heating up for ganache. So much of baking is waiting for the time to be right.
"Hey Matt- have you ever worked on a line before?"
I'm keeping my eyes on the pan, making sure the kale gets coated in garlic and pepper. "Only briefly on a dessert line, never hot."
"Huh... you'd be good at it, I think. You're a good cook, and really organized."
I chuckle a bit, "Nah... I could maybe be good once I was used to it, but that'd take a while. I'd frazzle and burn out a bit first- probably wreck some shit in a panic. Nah, I like being a baker. Less of a rush, more of a logistics puzzle."
"Ahh, gotcha... well, I can see why you like teaching people. You have a real soothing voice."
I smile and tip the kale out on to a half-sheet, where the sausage and mushrooms are warm and waiting. "Well, thank you."
I scatter shredded manchego on the dough disc. Pile on the warm filling, and more manchego on top, with some cubed feta. The feta won't melt- it's too dry- but it will provide visual texture and some nice cheesy funk to each slice.
I'm smart enough to know what I'm good at, and what I need to work on.
I'm a good cook.
A good enough cook for me.
A good enough cook for me, for right now.
I can also tell a great story, teach people a thing or two- and make a MEAN galette.
I'm not allowed to give out the cafe's gallete dough recipe, and the fillings are really up to you- but here are some tips for when you decide to make one at home.
1. Balance your ingredients and flavors. "Meat Lovers" sounds great on pizza, but it can be a bit much. Work in veggies!
2. Meat in a galette should be fully cooked, but remember that once the galette is ready, it goes in an oven. Remember that some things (not covered by crust or cheese) may overcook- especially eggs! Consider a soft scramble for egg galettes.
3. If you want your galette to look really great, egg wash the sides after you fold them up. That'll make a great golden brown gloss- and you can dust the edges with spices or seeds too.
Good evening, friends and neighbors.
Joe is about my age, but he's been cooking for way longer than me- he's a locally respected chef, running one of the best bistros in South Jersey. It's easy to see why- watching Joe move through service, he seems to crackle with energy. He yells, swears, barks, laughs- never still for more than a moment.
I'm helping him out for a couple nights on his dessert line- towards the end of the day, he comes running up to me and drops a crate of tomatoes on the bench.
"Matt! Dude, you need to smell these!"
I take a quick whiff- smells like good tomatoes, fresh and red. I say so.
Joe looks at me like I just farted in church. "Matt, no! SMELL THEM." I think he may have grabbed my head and practically smashed it into the crate of lumpy red fruit. The smell of tomatoes filled my nose- not fresh and red, but GREEN. Green leaves, freshly tilled soil, warm air and cool rain on their skins.
Joe looked at me like a Zen master seeing the light of enlightenment in a pupils eye- the big smile reserved for a kindred spirit that just "got it."
"You smell that? Find the good ones and dice them." It was going to be for gazpacho, and it took me forever. I couldn't stop smelling the tomatoes. His wife Jennifer, another chef, came over with a cutting board and kept me on task.
A year later, I'm standing over the floor mixer of the cafe I work in now. I'm making pie crust using a method I had learned there. A method meant to produce a dough of velvet smoothness, yet tissue-thin flaky layers when baked. Where every "perfect" pie crust I had ever learned or made called for slow, careful hand-mixing, this NEEDED to be done in a machine with a creaming paddle- and there was little room for error.
Everything must be perfect- the butter must be frozen. The water must be ice cold. The butter must be mixed in to EXACTLY the right point, and the water added at EXACTLY the right time to make the difference between perfect dough, and a bowlful of greasy mush.
I've squeezed the dry ingredients and butter. They crack under my thumb, after some pressure. As the paddle moves, the contents start "cliffing" - the early stages of clumping, where ingredients against the bowl stick just enough to make cliffs of flour to look like Dover in Great Britain. I add the water.
As the dough forms, I pull a clump out and slowly pull it apart in my hands.
There are layers. Layers like the strata of rock in the Grand Canyon. A thrill of joy and beauty shoots down my spine. I let out a whoop of joy as I examined my pefect crust, and hoisted the 55 lbs. kettle from floor to bench- easy as breathing.
Victoria, the pastry chef at the cafe (and the one who actually has to use the dough once it's portioned and formed) comes over to see what I'm so happy about. I feel that same crazed thrill up my spine as I describe the process- each detail- and show her the flaky layers her pies demand. With a nodding head and smile, she gets it.
Of course, I've seen her rhapsodize over the arrival of fresh chantrell mushrooms and perfectly sweet summer berries- and my old friend Kevin croon over elegantly handled cuts of meat.
For people who love art and craft, people who can't help but experience the world viscerally- the strangest things excite and thrill us.
Perfect pie dough.
A magnificently built violin.
A piano tuned to perfection by someone blessed with perfect pitch.
A certain shade of blue.
The smell of fresh chanterelle mushrooms (to my mind, kind of like flowers and apricots.)
The flavor of a perfect bowl of lentils.
Perhaps it's because of that viscerality- we feel and experience everything about what we do very deeply, to a physical level- where something like a perfect slice of pie can move us to tears.
It might also be the exacting nature of our work, and the pressure we put on ourselves and those around us. When the difference between success and failure means EVERYTHING has to be "just so" (and rarely ever is,) seeing a glimmer of perfection- whether it's a product of your labor or a contributor toward it, can sometimes feel like a ray of sunshine on a gloomy day- a moment of bliss amid madness, release among constant tension.
I think, perhaps, it's something much simpler. When your life, work, and self-worth are all invested in creating things of beauty and moments of bliss for others, finding ones for yourself can feel difficult. You take time to appreciate the beauty of what you do and what makes it possible- even if it may weird out people who aren't "in the know."
"Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
We all find beauty where we can. Artists and culinarians find it easier than others.
Good evening, friends and neighbors.
When I was 13, my family would spend the evenings watching the original Iron Chef on TV. I was mesmerized watching the cooks and chefs fling food, whip and wheel around each other- a ballet of orchestrated chaos that I'd learn to call "the dance" 15 years later. In the center, like a stationary whirlwind, would sometimes stand my favorite Iron Chef- Masaharu Morimoto. Barely looking up, but barking instructions in Japanese to his cooks- and simply KNOWING they would be done. He called the dance, and controlled the storm from its eye.
About the Author
The Black Hat Baker, a.k.a. Matt Strenger, lives in SE Portland, Oregon as a professional baker. Here, Matt bakes, cooks, exercises, and explores, returning to his wife and their hobbit hole up Mt. Tabor to write about all of it.
Email the BHB at blackhatbakery(at)gmail(dot)com
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