By OWEN MORRIS
You may be disappointed that this week's Culinary Diary is so brief and contains very little new information but the fact is, so am I. Last night's class revolved around setting up a breakfast buffet. Besides learning some facts about buffets (food costs for buffets are higher, not lower, because people gorge themselves) I learned next-to-nothing in the actual cooking department.
The class made pancakes, scrambled eggs, eggs Benedict, biscuits, bacon and sausage. It was easy and fun to eat but as for actual learning, there was not much of it. "I feel like we're cooking for a summer camp," one of my partners said. "Next week they're going to have us making Lil' Smokies and roasted marshmallows."
The problem is that the class was based on a hypothetical. In past weeks, when we've learned how to make a soup or a sauce, we would use whatever method we learned to make the dish -- be it for four or 400 people. With buffets, the size of the group you're feeding plays a much larger role in determining how you prepare certain dishes.
Take bacon. During the lecture the teacher talked at length about preparing it for large groups. At his old job, the oven was set up to handle 50 trays of sheeted bacon. (Professional bacon comes pre-layed-out on sheets of butcher paper.) He would often see an inexperienced cook put in all 50 trays at one time. "When the bacon got done, it was like the Sorcerer's Apprentice -- you couldn't get it out all in time and a lot of it would burn and be wasted," he told us. When we went to cook our bacon though, we only had to plate two trays of bacon and even the most inexperienced chef can watch two pans of bacon.
Sausage is the same way, always cooked in ovens in professional kitchens and not a challenge if you're only making a couple of pans. As for foods I struggle with at home like pancakes — well there's a kitchen tool called a pancake dispenser that takes the guess work out of the size and shape.
Where I did learn something was in making the hollandaise sauce. It's basically just melted butter and egg yolks. It's traditionally made by beating the egg yolks in a bowl, then putting the bowl over a pan of simmering water. You beat the egg yolks until they mousse, then add the melted butter slowly. That's eggs Benedict. The two tricks my teacher taught us: First, beat the egg yolks good and hard before putting them near the water. Getting a lot of air into them will double their size and make them creamy. The second trick is that once the egg yolks are well-beaten and ready to be heated, take the water off of the stove and only dip the bowl in the water periodically. "The bowl should never be hot enough that I can't place my hand on the bottom. Otherwise they'll start to scramble on you," my teacher told the class.
All the students had stations like biscuit station, bacon station and mine was the hollandaise station. With those helpful hints and a lot of whisking, I was able to make a very smooth and creamy (if slightly thin because of too much butter) hollandaise sauce. It took about 30 minutes to do and the rest of time I had nothing to do. "I'm bored," I confessed to one classmate. "Me too," he answered back.
After an hour and half, the class each set up our respective dishes into the chafing dishes and proceeded to eat. It was fun, the coffee was good and I got to hear stories about the school's trip to Paris next year. (Any chance of The Pitch expensing that?) Yet, it was not really learning. It was the culinary equivalent of movie day from grade school.