Culinarily Yours: All in a Day’s Work

I simply couldn’t believe it, it was exactly two weeks to the day. This last Thursday, Chef Husband and I were on our way to Fall River to cater a four-day weekend retreat for a small group, about an hour and a half away from Redding. As we drove along Hwy 299, nearing Fall River, we rounded a bend and up ahead we could see a billowing plume of white smoke in the forest. Is that? No. This is not happening.

With the events of the Carr Fire still extremely fresh in our minds, we were now driving toward another fire. Exactly two weeks earlier, Thursday July 26, 2018, friends and family were suddenly evacuating and none of us slept, not knowing the fate of our city. Now, as we passed by the smoke, just blooming on the horizon, we wondered what lie ahead of us. Within moments, emergency vehicles began passing us. OK. They’re on it.  And we kept on another 15 miles to our destination.

Immediately upon arriving, we stepped into our role of personal chefs and dove into prepping for the first night’s dinner. I was on task to make almond Florentines for the dessert, while Chef Husband went on an errand to fetch a couple locally sourced ingredients from the store (i.e. Fall River Wild Rice).

A very long hour later, he returned. Hwy 299 was now closed and the fire was growing. Nevertheless, we were most likely a safe distance and we pressed on, with hungry travelers arriving at their retreat. Things were finishing in the oven, all four burners of the stove were glowing and filled with hot sautée pans and sauce pots, the refrigerator was wide open as chilled items were being pulled for the dinner, the air fryer was heating up…and the power goes out.

My first thought, we popped a breaker. Nope. Breakers look good. Chef Husband goes to check the main house, where we will be serving. We further discover their power is out also. After experiencing the power outages from the Carr Fire, we can easily surmise it is fire related. The kicker is, now we have no power, no lights, no A/C, no water, no phone, no cell service, and no information.

We can still do this. The hot items have been started. Chef Husband has a tabletop butane burner and there is a propane BBQ available for finishing the hot items. I had just finished the last of the three dozen Florentines and have all of the rest of the ingredients pulled. It’s time to adapt to our new conditions.

We moved everything out onto the back deck for Chef Husband to work off the BBQ (that had a broken leg and kept tipping sideways). I set up in the main kitchen with candles, and a pen light shining on the cutting board, so I could start making the appetizers. And so we began our flurry of working in the dark with no appliances and no running water. Promptly the property manager arrives, as she has been officially evacuated from her lodge, back closer to the fire. She says we are a safe distance and she will return in the morning.

We proceed to line up the dishes on the deck benches and plate and serve the duck with raspberry sauce and wild blueberries. Inside, the guests are literally eating their courses by candlelight. Finally the French chocolate mousse is piped into the almond Florentine taco shells and topped with a fresh strawberry-mint salsa. We wrap up what we can, and bid a “good” evening.

That night, over in our guest house, in a complete blackout, we functioned by the flashlights on our cell phones. And we waited for daylight. Every noise, every creak, every car that passed, every barking dog echoed. How quickly could we evacuate if we needed too? What would tomorrow bring?

At daylight, after a scant three hours of sleep, Chef Husband ventured out to Burney in pursuit of ice to further keep the ice chests cold, only to find the outage had completely shut down gas stations and markets, everything for miles. As the smoke hung in the air, Chef Husband returned, gathered some ingredients and again headed to the BBQ to make scrambled eggs, pork belly, marinated chicken thighs and breakfast burritos for the guests.

The retreat came to an abrupt end with no indications of power returning, and the extent of the fire yet unknown. The property manager advised we all leave. The guests packed up and headed home. We cleaned up and left a couple hours later. Once we had access to cell service and information, we learned that the Hat Fire was 1,900 acres, and thankfully had not moved in our direction at all.

Almost to the minute, 24 harrowing hours later, we returned to our driveway back in Redding. We are grateful to have power. We are grateful to have our home. We are grateful for air conditioning. We are grateful for phones that work. We are grateful for all of the emergency responders that have put their lives on the line to protect our cities and towns.

Chef Husband has much experience in surviving chaos. This was my literal trial by fire. It was my personal catering boot camp. On the sweeter side of life, I did get to enjoy one of our chocolate mousse filled Florentine tacos, delicately served on a paper towel by twilight.

Florentine Tacos

If you’re not afraid of butter and sugar…this recipe is for you.

I have recently added to my skill set the ability to make and mold Florentines (almond lace cookies). On our most recent adventure, Chef Husband had the idea to take Florentines, mold them into the shape of a taco shell, fill them with chocolate mousse (using a pastry bag with a small tip) and then garnish them with a raspberry “salsa”. The salsa was simply comprised of broken up fresh raspberries, tossed with a bit of chopped fresh mint and a splash of Grand Marnier. You gotta love it when his creative juices have kicked into high gear and something new is created!

Florentines are actually quite easy to make; however, you have to move in a timely fashion. They need to be pulled from the oven at the right time, being lightly browned all the way across each cookie. Then they must be allowed to cool on the pan to where they are just firm enough to handle, yet still pliable for bending and molding.

Here are a few tricks I learned along the way.

Usually we would use a level 1/2 oz. scoop of the batter for larger Florentines; however, in this application, we were going for a smaller size, and I used a paring knife to divide each scoop of measured batter in half before rolling.

The rolled mounds can be pressed out with the heel of your hand, but tools lend to consistency. I used the bottom of a Pyrex measuring cup, with a piece of parchment in between, to press them. The glass allowed me to see through and observe if I was applying even pressure.

If they have melted together, they can be separated with the back edge of paring knife or a small offset spatula, while they are still hot. Once they have set for just a bit, and are ready to lift from the pan, a small offset spatula or palette knife is a very valuable tool to have.

To shape the tacos, I used a simple wood dowel. My first attempts at shaping them were by hanging them over the dowel, but they kept slipping off. I then moved onto a procedure of laying just a  few at a time, top side down, on a paper towel and setting the dowel across them. Then I used the paper towel to pull the rounds up and over the dowel, shaping them and holding them until they were set.

If the Florentines have stiffened to where they can no longer be shaped, they can be put back into the oven for just about a minute and they will be pliable again. However, this can usually only be done once because they will overcook.

One last tip… they are HOT when taking them off the pan and shaping. Wearing nitrile gloves will help reduce the heat transfer to your fingers. Chef Husband says rubbing a bit of butter on your fingers also will provide a protective coating, but I haven’t been brave enough to try that…yet. 😉

FLORENTINES (Almond Lace Cookies)

11 wt. oz. Butter, softened
3 wt. oz. Light Corn Syrup
11 wt. oz. Powdered Sugar
6 wt. oz. All Purpose Flour
2 cups Almonds, coarse chop

Using an ounce scale, measure all of the ingredients. Combine all of the dry ingredients and mix together with the butter and corn syrup. Seal in an airtight container and allow mixture to chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour, up to a day ahead. Preheat the oven to 375°. Line a sheet pan with a Silpat. Pull chilled batter from the fridge and portion with a 1/2 oz disher scoop. Very quickly and lightly roll into a ball, taking care to not warm them. Gently press them out into circles. For pressing the circles, place a piece of parchment atop one ball at a time and press out using the bottom of a flat bottomed glass or can. Leave a couple of inches in between each circle as they will spread. Bake in the oven for 4 minutes, turn the pan and bake for approximately 3 more minutes. Pull when they have just turned a light golden brown across the entire cookie. Allow to remain on pan, just until set, and remove to shape and cool.

Note, this is a high volume recipe and can be cut in half. Also, for smaller Florentines, you may cut each scoop of mixture in half before rolling and pressing.

Until next time…

Culinarily Yours,
Mrs. Chef (Christa)

Christa DeMercurio

Instead of a New Year’s resolution, Christa DeMercurio asked her chef husband to be her tutor/mentor/sage (not the herb) for the 2018 year, teaching her his tips, tricks and wisdom in the culinary department. She figured that after over a decade together, their bakers dozen year should be a fun journey of cooking. Her husband, Cal DeMercurio, has been in the food service business since, well, forever (40-ish years). When it comes to the restaurant life, she's been more comfortable in the Back Office and sometimes Front of the House, but never really ventured into the professional kitchen. She's obtained a few skills by observing her husband over the years and then experimenting here and there at home. Now she's ready to take her apprenticeship to the next level. You can read her blog, Culinarily Yours, here.

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