October 31st, 2007

Happy Halloween 2007!

Jack O' Lantern by Coco&Me

This year, what with our son old enough to notice the Halloween mood in the air, I bought a medium size pumpkin at my new local grocery shop, & we carved a Jack O’ Lantern for our very first time!

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It was totally great fun, easier to cut than what we’d imagined. We love our ikkle Jack so much, … watching the warm coloured candle flame & the whole pumpkin glowing, it’s rather soulful. – - It’s shame to think he’s gonna rot away eventually… But then again, that’s the way nature intended, innit… Just expect about 10 Jack O’ Lanterns next year. Coz I’m totally hooked!

October 27th, 2007

Crème patissière (pastry cream) recipe

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I’m pretty certain you’ve all come across Crème patissière before. Pronounced “Krehm pah-tee-see-ehr”, it is also known as pastry cream, & confectioners’ custard. It’s that flour-based custard cream that’s used to fill desserts such as eclairs, tarts, & mille-feuille.

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It is the basic of crèmes, & is the most widely used cream type when it comes to pastry making as it is used as a base foundation to make other types of creams such as Crème diplomate, Crème mousseline, Crème chiboust & Crème frangipane.

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I make between 650g to just over 1kg of Crème patissière every week to fill the inside layer of ‘Gateaux Basque with prunes’, & also to mix some with Crème d’amandes (almond cream) to end up with Crème frangipane, which, once baked in the tart case becomes the foundation for my fresh fruit tarts.

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So here’s the recipe below. Sorry if the recipe reads long – I tried to explain why every step is done in that way, … because, knowing the ‘whys’ of how things work, is one step closer to getting a good result!
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x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

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Crème patissière (pastry cream) recipe:
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Ingredients (to make 650g):

500ml fresh milk (full fat)
1 x vanilla pod
6 egg yolks (free-range or organic)
150g sugar (castor or granulated)
50g plain flour (sifted)

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… ice cubes
… cling-filmed tray/ vat (cling-film the bottom & the sides with one sheet). Keep it cool in the fridge until needed.

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… stainless steel mixing bowl
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  • 1. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolk. (Refer to paragraph at the end about what to do with the left-over egg whites)
  • 2. Add the sugar in one go. Whisk straight-away & thoroughly until the sugar dissolves. The golden rule here is to never leave a mound of sugar lying around in the egg yolk. Sugar has the same tendency as salt, it absorbs moisture, so if you don’t whisk it together at first instance, it’ll suck moisture from the yolk. Bits of yolk would dry, & leave orange ‘granules’ in your crème.
  • 3. Sift the flour in, & fold it in until the flour just disappears. Never over-mix the flour, as it will produce gluten, which will give your crème a tough texture. (If you want to read more about flour & gluten, click here.) – - – - – - – - Here, flour also acts as a heat-shield to protect your eggs from cooking like omelette when you add the hot milk later on. – - – - – - – - Some Crème patissière recipes call for cornstarch instead of flour, or sometimes ask you to use both. It produces slight difference. Cornstarch gives you a ‘clearer’ crème, whilst flour results in a more ‘milky’ look. The texture is also slightly different too – cornstarch one is a little ‘jelly-like’ & ‘bouncy-er’. If you are using your Crème patissière as a base to create other crèmes, then it is best to stick to just flour.
  • 4. Flatten the vanilla pod with the side of your knife (so that it is easier to cut), & cut it in half, lengthways. De-seed. The use of vanilla in Crème patissière is important as it keeps the ‘eggy’ smell down. If you are using vanilla essence instead of pod, add the essence right at the end, after the Crème patissière has cooled down.
  • 5. Place the seeds & the pod-skin in the cold milk. … Boiling milk with the vanilla is the best way to enhance the vanilla flavour to its fullest.
  • 6. Heat the milk in a pan over the hob (the size of the pan must be big enough to be used to cook the crème at a later stage).
  • 7. Let it reach just before the boiling stage.
  • 8. Pour small amount of the hot milk (roughly 1/4) in to the egg mixture in the mixing bowl. Whisk & mix. Pour the rest in. Whisk & mix. … It is best to start off mixing with small amount of hot milk, because you’d have better control over the mixture & make sure you won’t be left with lumps.
  • 9. Sieve all of it back to the pan. … Sieving gets rid of the vanilla pod-skin.
  • 10. Put it over high-heat, & whisk ‘all the time’. … The key word here is high-heat. Cooking over weak heat takes too long, & it’ll produce gluten that would toughen your crème, as opposed to the smooth texture you are after. So, always whisk, energetically, to ensure that the crème doesn’t get burnt on the bottom & sides of the pot.
  • 11. After it reaches boiling point (bubbling on the surface), keep cooking for another 2 minutes. You want to cook the flour thoroughly.
  • 12. Pour the hot mixture in to the cold cling-filmed tray. And use the the ice & water method, called an ‘ice bath’, whereby you place your tray in a bigger tray that is filled with ice & water. … Ideally, it shouldn’t be over 1cm deep, so that it cools quickly. – - – - – Not only is this important so as to stop its cooking process, it is vital to cool it ’til below the ‘temperature danger zone’ (between 5 degrees and 60 degrees) where most bacteria grow most rapidly to dangerous levels, some doubling in number within twenty minutes. – - – - If you don’t have a tray & using a bowl instead, use stainless-steel. And use the ‘ice bath’ method with another larger bowl.
  • 13. Cling-film the top surface. The film should lie right on the surface. This is to stop the top surface from forming a skin.
  • 14. Once mostly cool, place the crème in the fridge until needed. Make sure your fridge is set below 5 degrees. If not sure, best to buy a fridge thermometer.
  • 15. Blend well with spatula before using.

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x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

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Suggestions for left-over egg whites:

make meringues, macarons, add one whole egg to make fried egg (or indeed what about a yolk-less fried egg?), or you can freeze it until you need it! To freeze, spoon egg whites in each section of a ice cube tray & pop it in the freezer. Then remove the egg white cubes in a freezer zip-lock bag, label it with the date & store.

October 12th, 2007

The customers that visit my stall

Coco&Me picture from the stall

(Last month, my customers Joel & Bec took the photograph above. Then came back last week to give me the print-out! How sweet of you guys! You’ve made me happy. Thank you!)

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This week, I want to tell you about some of the nice customers that I often encounter at my stall. I thought it important to let you know that the ‘not-so-wonderful customer’ I told you about from last week really was a rare case!

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These lovely customers & many others are the very reason why I don’t get a part-timer to man my stall – ‘market-life’ is too fun to miss! ;-) I love meeting them, & when a regular face doesn’t show up, I would be thinking of them.

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In no particular order;

  • There is the charming lady pensioner who every week pops-by around mid-morning to buy a slice of ‘flourless chocolate cake’ (her husband is always standing 2 steps away from the table). She is the very cause of why I have kept the price of it still at £1.80-a-slice, when all the other cake slices have gone up by 20 pence to £2.00… because I’m scared the change might dishearten her & put her off.
  • Then there’s a man who also visits every week, similar to my Dad’s age, who buys a ‘fruit-heart-tart’ for himself. If I don’t have any customers waiting to be served, we chat all sorts across the table. ‘What’s your favourite fruit?’ ‘How was your week?’ to even ‘Do you believe in spirits?’ He says ‘toodle-pips for now!’ when saying bye. I think we have introduced our names before, but I’m the crappiest when it comes to remembering names, so for me he is called ‘The Toodle Pip Man’. – On that note about introducing – I’ve had loads of customers who’ve told me their names. I must start a little book to note them down…
  • A while ago, there was a young vegan man who can not buy anything from my stall (as everything I make has butter). He pleasantly suggested I make vegan stuff to sell (it should be popular because it is untapped market), & came back the following week with a print-out of a vegan cake recipe for me (with some notes scribbled on the side explaining some of the unusual ingredients that it were listing)! So sweet of him…
  • ‘Fruit-heart-tart’ is also popular with the fabulously dressed young lady. When I see her, I smile & say: ‘the usual right?’ & it’s a quick 1-2-3 step process. Although, last week, she surprised me a bit by ordering the ‘lemon-heart-tart’ instead!
  • Every other week, I get a visit from the French jewellery stylist (who always has a natural & happy smile on her). Her choice is always the medium chocolate tart. The other week, I used more milk chocolate than dark (as I didn’t have much dark chocolate left) – the following week she told me she had noticed. Goes to show I mustn’t tamper around with the regular items…!
  • Old man who I think looks like a thin version of Einstein, likes my lemon tart – & buys the large one almost every week for his family.
  • Once, another regular-face bought the ‘fruit-heart-tart’ to take all the way to his friend in Brussels!
  • Last two Winters, my stall always had a visit from a guy who bought a dozen or so of the truffles & mendiants. He is a silent type, never ever chats or smile. Such a comparison to the others who visit the market, that are ultra-sociable. The guy is mysterious to me (I wonder what he does for living?), but I like him – his presence is definitely part of my market-life. I wonder if he’ll be back this Winter? I hope so.
  • I have been doing special-orders now & again for people looking for wedding cakes. I think they are all locals who know my stuff well. What’s charming is that these people are super-super-appreciative that I make them, I mean, they’re paying proper fees but nevertheless! I’m so happy my cake is part of someone’s special day.
  • There is an elderly lady who visits every week that buys just one item for herself. We comment on how we look each week & we share lots of personal news – happy & sad. Some time ago she was so sad that her friend died (of old age). Anything I said to comfort her was probably going from one ear to the other… but maybe she wanted someone totally unrelated like me to just tell, as part of healing process. – It reminds me of a girl who I barely knew who asked me to accompany her to the abortion clinic (I did), & another who told me about her husband’s affair. You realize people just need someone to dump their pain on a bit.

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Other’s I want to quickly mention before this list gets any longer are those who come back to the stall just to say ‘Hi’, & those others who come to give me a nice feedback: ‘The tart last week was great!’, & those who bring their visitors to me & say ‘This is the stall & the lady I was telling you about!’
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Last week at the market:

Hooray, it’s that time of the year again – as I finally started making chocolates! The weather is unmistakably cool enough for me to start selling without risk of them melting. What with not making them for
a while, I totally got the quantity of cream & chocolate wrong, & made 70 classic vanilla truffles instead of making 30 that I’d planned… Damn… But I had friends around the next day, so I thought I could just stuff these girls with the left-overs. – To my delight, I still managed to sell out on them! Yay! I’m gonna try make more varieties for next time…

October 2nd, 2007

Customer Service – handling complaints

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So, after my two week absence from the market (been away because of the house-move), I’m officially back as “business-as-usual” with lots of happy baking.

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I’ve been back at the market for two weeks since then, & almost selling out on both, so I’m chirpy enough. The new kitchen is actually not-so-bad as I’d nightmared about either. The electric hob manages to make great Tarte Tatins, & the oven doesn’t have heat-spots. I don’t even mind crouching for that oven that’s underneath the hob. – Although…, I guess the only qualm is that the new oven is 1/3 smaller (I can only make 4 cakes at one time, whereas before I could bung in 6), hence I can only produce 2/3 the amount normally, despite that it’s still the same amount of stirring & whisking involved. And crucially, I have noticed this difference when I count my sales at the end of the day…
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But that doesn’t faze me too much – I can tell myself that it’s “okay” y’know, it could’ve been a lot worse, & I just have to devise a better working plan. However, what did faze me last week was when a lady customer said a small but rather unnecessary bitter comment upon purchasing a medium pear tarte that she felt was too expensive (it was £5.50). She surely could have then not bought the damn tarte right?, but instead buys it & says: “I should remember never to buy cakes from you.” It shocked me & I immediately apologized. All I could do was put on a slight weary smile & wait for response. The customer then just left (with the cake). – I don’t know how I let it, but it was a real ‘pull-me-down’. I guess it was because it was the end of the day, I was tired. I knew I hadn’t made as much sales that day & I was weak. What could have been just an insignificant comment turned significant in my heart, & at that point, for a moment or two, I toyed with the idea of quitting. – I certainly didn’t handle this well…
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Sure, I could have said something bitter back to her I guess, like “You do HAVE the option of NOT buying, woman! Go buy cheapo factory-made ones with God-knows-what’s-in-it from the supermarket!” but I’m never the type to come up with clever lines quickly enough. I’m always the type that goes over what to say ‘after’ the event. Like, I should’ve said this & that…, looping the scenario over in my head. Besides, I try to stick to my belief system that talking back is not considered good customer service, however unjustified it may have been. Maybe that’s the Japanese in me – ‘the customer is always right’.
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Later, this incident reminded me of Marco Pierre White, the 3 Michelin starred English chef & restaurateur, on ITV’s Hell’s Kitchen television show. The first show was on the 4th of September, the day I moved, & I pleaded my brother to set-up our TV straight away so as not to miss the show. I had never been rich enough to go to his restaurant, but having heard his reputation as a great chef, I wanted to see the show & be inspired.
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But, instead of admirative ‘ooh-ing’ & ‘aah-ing’, I finished watching the show with disgust, & vowed never to watch the rest of the series. What I saw was a man with too much ego for his own good. – A customer had complained, & the chef took it bad, & told his staff to tell the customer to leave…!! When the gentleman-ly customer decided to go up to the chef to talk direct (in my opinion, it should’ve been the chef going to the table instead), the chef then seethes “You have two choices – apologize or leave” & shouted after the man leaving: “It will be the longest walk in history, boy. But you are taking it, aren’t you? Nice shirt by the way. Good evening.” O.m.g., this kind of customer treatment is really uncalled for. I tell you, even if somebody payed me, I wouldn’t go eat that man’s food. For me, dining out should be an experience of good vibes. That’s what makes a good night out. Not sitting in a stuck-up establishment, too scared to disagree. – I wouldn’t want to eat any food that’s been cooked with heartless & bad chi, in-case it rubs off!
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On the other hand, I came across a good example of customer service just last weekend, when my family dined out at Matsuri restaurant to celebrate my mother’s birthday. The mini-cab they had organized for us for the journey home ripped us off – big time – & when my brother called up the restaurant to complain, Matsuri immediately phoned the cab-firm, & then phoned us back straight away, acknowledged the fault, apologized & would be sending us a cheque to pay for the difference of what should have been the right fare. – Now THAT gets gold for customer service!

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To sum up, I think the key points that scored high was:

  • The restaurant had listened carefully to my brother’s complaint
  • Graciously accepted the criticism
  • Apologized & expressed regrets – did not try to make excuses
  • Resolved the situation immediately – offered satisfactory amends

Their response was proper & text-book worthy. We felt we were taken seriously, & our custom is not lost – we will go back to that restaurant again!