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Sunday, October 28, 2007
by Laura Gilbreath
Hosted by Martini & Rossi
Guest Pastry Chef
Montage Resort and Spa
Laguna Beach, California
A Breakfast Assortment
Seasonal Sliced Fresh Fruits and Berries with Yogurt Dip
Grilled Vegetable Frittata
Country Ham and White Cheddar Frittata
Wood Smoked Bacon
Chicken Apple Sausage
Oven Browned Potatoes with Diced Peppers and Onions
Martini & Rossi Prosecco
Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante
Oatmeal Streusel Apple Crisp
Molten Chocolate Cake
We attended a session of Sweet Sundays two years ago and enjoyed it, and decided to give it a try this year, too. The event started at 10:30, and we managed to get there to check in about 15 minutes before, despite our late night at the Tower of Terror 13K the previous night.
When we checked in the Cast Members marked our names off and gave us two "tickets" that gave us our table seating assignment. I think that's an improvement, since it avoids the mad rush of everyone trying to find a table when they first get in the room. But people who arrived earliest got better tables - had I known that I would have checked in earlier!
We were seated at the "Vanilla" table, which was toward the back of the room, but really, every table in the place had a good view. Though the tables hold 10 they were set for 8, so no one had to sit with their back to the chef. There were also large video monitors set up on either side of the demo kitchen stage - sometimes they showed the chef, and sometimes an overhead view of what he was doing.
At each place setting was a printed program, which included the menu and the recipes, a small notebook and a wine bottle cap, both provided by Martini & Rossi, and a bagged pecan turtle made by the chef and his staff.
First order of business was to go through the yummy breakfast buffet they had set up. I was fascinated by the decorative carving of the fruits on the fruit tray, especially the flower-carved papaya. They call it a "Continental Breakfast Buffet", but I consider it a full-blown breakfast - in addition to fresh fruit there were two kinds of frittatas, bacon, chicken and apple sausage, roasted potatoes and breakfast breads.
Juice, coffee, and tea were available and there was also a station serving glasses of Martini & Rossi Prosecco, a lightly sweet, frizzante (lightly sparkling) white wine. We'd had this at Sweet Sundays two years ago, and it's very good. As the hostess for the event told us: "Wine by nine, the day is fine. Wine by 11, the day is heaven."
Our guest pastry chef was Richard Ruskell, from the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, CA. We had to laugh - we live in San Diego, and then we go all the way to Florida to see a chef from a resort that's just up the coast. At Montage he's responsible for everything from the desserts served in the restaurants to the chocolates left on guests' pillows each night.
Chef Ruskell was named one of the Top Ten Pastry Chefs in America by Chocolatier magazine, and has made multiple appearances on The Food Network and in magazines such as Bon Appetit and Gourmet. Before attending the French Culinary Institute in New York he studied to be an actor and he's obviously very comfortable in front of an audience - personable and well-spoken. While not a comedian, he was still very entertaining to listen to.
He made a point of presenting recipes to us that we could do at home, using ingredients that were readily available, and techniques that are not difficult. The recipes were also sized for home use (something that was not the case in the session we attended two years ago).
The first two desserts he demonstrated he called "comfort food". The first was S'mores Nouveau. Nothing too fancy about marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate bars, right? Well, except that he made his *own* marshmallow and graham crackers! I found the process of making the marshmallow very interesting. It's basically just sugar, water, and gelatin, cooked and then mixed with a heavy duty (Kitchen-Aid type) mixer. It's really sticky gooey stuff, but he showed us how cooking spray will keep it from being quite so messy (easier said than done, I think!). The syrup mixture is cooked to 251 degrees - firm ball stage on a candy thermometer - but he didn't use a thermometer - instead he dipped his fingers in some ice cold water and then scooped a little bit of the sryup mixture and tested it. That's common among pastry chefs, though he admitted that he was just showing off.
The "graham crackers" were really a nutty cookie made with crushed graham crackers and three kinds of finely ground nuts - almonds, hazelnuts, and pistachios. Not as crisp as a graham cracker, though.
To assemble the s'mores he used an oval cookie cutter to cut the cookies and marshmallows into the same shape, then placed a piece of marshmallow on top of a cookie, and used a propane torch to brown it. (And recommended getting the torch from a place like Home Depot, rather than a fancy cooking store!) After browning the marshmallow simply put a dollop of chocolate ganache (melted chocolate and cream) on top and top with another cookie.
The wait staff brought our samples at this point. The marshmallow was slightly caramelized on the outside and nice and gooey on the inside. The cookies had a nice texture - between crisp and crumbly - and a good toasted nutty flavor.
Next up was the Oatmeal Streusel Apple Crisp. This was something his mother used to make that he still loves. It can be made with lots of different fruits - berries, peaches, apricots or other stone fruits - but he used apples. He recommended Fuji, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious or Honey Crisp apples, but not Red Delicious. He also gave us recommendations on sweetening the fruit - with apples, what you taste is what you'll get in the final product, but stone fruit gets a bit sour when it cooks, and needs extra sugar. The recipe calls for cornstarch as a thickener - he cautioned us that when using berries, which have a high water content, more thickener is required.
The streusel topping was quite simple - just brown sugar, cinnamon, flour, oatmeal and butter - but he told us you can add different ingredients like chopped nuts or coconut - whatever you happen to like.
Our servings were quite generous - it was really a full serving, and I couldn't eat it all. It was good, but apple crisp is not really all that novel. The Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante was served with it. I think the wine was my favorite part of this particular dessert combination.
The final dessert was Molten Chocolate Cake. According to Chef Ruskell, there are two favorite desserts among restaurant-goers: Creme Brulee and Molten Chocolate Cake. And pastry chefs are sick to death of both of them, but have to keep them on the menu because they are so popular. He at least likes Molten Chocolate Cake, though, so that's what he chose to demonstrate.
I've made a couple versions of this myself recently, so I wanted to see how his version compares to mine. And really, they are very similar - molten chocolate cake is essentially a flourless chocolate cake made with chocolate, butter, eggs, and sugar. And a little bit of thickener - he used cornstarch, the recipes I've tried use a little bit of flour. The "molten" part comes from not cooking it all the way, so that it's still a bit gooey in the middle. His cake was not the type that gushes chocolate when you break into it, but he told us how to do that - make 1/2" - 1" balls out of the chocolate ganache we used in the S'mores recipe, and when the cakes are within about 5 minutes of being done, pull them out of the oven and poke one of the ganache balls into the center, then continue baking.
These were quite wonderful - definitely my favorite of the three desserts (no surprise to anyone who knows me, I'm sure!). Even though he hadn't done the "ganache" trick, these were still nice and gooey and oozy in the middle. It was served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and drizzled with caramel sauce.
Another of his "things you have at home" tips - rather than buying expensive ring molds at a cooking store to bake the cakes in, he recommended using tuna fish cans - well washed, of course! Cut out both ends and set them on a cookie sheet and pour the batter in.
While we were enjoying our cakes, he talked about chocolate - one of his favorite subjects. He pointed out the cocoa nibs that were on our plates - these are little bits roasted cocoa beans that can be used as garnish, or in cookies, ice cream, or just eaten as snacks. In its simplest form, the chocolate that we eat has just three ingredients: cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sugar. The percentage of cocoa (cocoa solids and cocoa butter combined) determines whether it is sweet, semi-sweet, bittersweet, or unsweetened chocolate. Milk chocolate is 30-40% cocoa and of course has milk added. He recommended that we look at the ingredient list on the back of a chocolate bar and only eat those with 5 ingredients or less - while the 5 ingredient bar might cost 4 times as much, we'll be much more satisfied with less of it. I've definitely found this to be true in my experience - life is too short to eat bad chocolate.
He gave us another tip - his favorite candy bar is a Twix bar (mine, too), and eating a Twix bar on an airplane guarantees that the plane won't crash. Lee and I tried that on the way home, and it worked. :-)
I think we could have continued asking questions for a while longer, but at 12:30 the presentation was over since they needed to set up for the next demonstration. We both thought it was excellent - Lee hadn't been too enthused about going, but he really enjoyed it, especially Chef Ruskell's presentation. If you like to bake, or make sweets, I think the Sweet Sundays demonstrations are a good way to pick up some tips from the experts - I know I've learned something that I've been able to use at home in each session that I've attended.
Sweet Sundays is presented each Sunday during the Food and Wine Festival. The sessions run from 10:30am - 12:30pm and are $65.00 per person, plus tax (includes gratuity). Breakfast buffet and wine are included.