This past spring, I received my Ph.D. Here's the victory photo with one of my dissertation advisors, from graduation in June: (and you'd better appreciate this, because I hate being in photographs!)
It's taken me a long time to write about my PhD celebrations because, quite frankly, the experience of grad school and (more crucially) the ensuing academic job market is a bit traumatic -- even if everything turns out okay in the end, and you find yourself with one of those elusive and coveted tenure-track faculty positions in an amazing R1 department and location. Anyways.
One does not achieve a PhD and job-hood alone. It took at least two freakin' villages, if not more, to rear me into the academic that I turned out to be. So, as an expression of gratitude to those who helped me through the process, I threw what I am not-so-humbly going to call a grand party. To be exact: a ten course, tasting menu-style dinner, entirely of desserts, inspired by the past seven years. A dinner worthy of being the capstone to an entire chapter of life. In short: epicness.
(Most photographs in this post are courtesy of Toni Bird Photography. With exception of the phone photos.)
My friend Rob kindly let me host the dinner--aka: "the Dessertation" (because we linguists love our puns)--at his beautiful home in San Francisco. I don't think he knew what he was signing himself and his kitchen up for! Because to do a French Laundry-type dinner at home requires... well, let's just say that his kitchen (and dishwasher) got quite the workout.
I continually planned and revised the menu for months and months beforehand, and did serious detailed prep for about a week leading up to the event: menu planning, dishware and cutlery sourcing (12 times 10 courses worth of dishware!--thank goodness for my prop closet), ingredient buying, menu print design, food prep. Then we basically hunkered down and cooked for 48 hours straight. On the day of, Rob's talented friend took us, bleary-eyed at 5am, to the San Francisco Flower Market, and then preceded to put together the most breathtaking flower arrangements for the event, based on my favorite flowers (tuberose, peonies) and my requested colors (dark blue for Berkeley, white for Stanford, dark green for myself). The guy is a serious flower whisperer.
Each course in the menu was designed as part of a narrative of my grad school time, and each was carefully balanced such that there would be no sugar or carb overload. Not an easy feat, I tell you! (I also prepped some savory finger food and soups on the side for people to snack on.) I was so busy plating and hosting that I didn't take a single photograph of the food at all! So I hope you don't mind that what I'm sharing here today are some of my friend Toni's photos, and then my planning sketches--how I diagrammed every component of every dish while designing the menu.
Without further ado, may I present, the Dessertation: in defense of desserts for dinner.
First course - Aperitif/Amuse Bouche
Below: sugared rose petals drying; plating of the gin & tonic shots, with cucumber slices.
Below: purple carrot; the final dish. Also, little known fact: candying a purple carrot slice makes it sort of look like bacon. Now you know!
Third course - Appetizer
Fourth course - Entrée
A stress-relief outlet throughout grad school was playing in classical music trios. In my current trio group made up of linguists, we've been playing a lot of Hungarian, folksy-inspired music, including Dvořák's Dumky Trio. This recurring theme made me think of the Austrian dessert dumplings germknödel that I had once with Emma when I visited her in Oxford during grad school. These are soft, fluffy, steamed dumplings that are served in a poppyseed-butter sauce, with apricot jam. In my version, the germknödel dumplings were miniaturized, and served with a lavender-poached, in-season Blenheim apricot with a poppyseed and vanilla bean crème anglaise. (Also, sorry about the horrible pun.)
Fifth course - Palate cleanserin Hawai'i, which of course is sort of like a palate cleanser reprieve for each school year: guava, toasted coconut, and tranluscent candied lime.
Sixth course - MainRandom Forests," which I proceeded to teach myself and learn faster than I had ever learned anything in my life before. (It paid off, and the paper (together with my coauthor) went on to win a national presentation award.) Anyways, suffice it to say that the night before the conference rolled around, I was in no state to make a black forest cake, so I opened my pantry and refrigerator and grabbed the first ingredients that I saw. And so, the "Random" Forest Cake was born, made of dense dark chocolate flourless cake, atop a tart sauce of passionfruit, topped with barely whipped crème fraîche cream (because I was too exhausted to whip it good :)), and a sprinkling of smoked sea salt. Perhaps it was exhaustion or perhaps it was a triumph, but the cake was so good that everyone at the conference dinner ate it in complete and total silence--something that never happens at academic conferences!
So, for my Dessertation dinner, the Random Forest Cake of course had to make an encore apperance as the main course. I kicked it up here one more notch by adding a dash of popping crystals in with the smoked sea salt--gotta keep it random and continuously surprising!
Seventh course - "Salad & Cheese"
This seventh course, titled "Thanksgiving," turned out to be my favorite course of the night. On paper, the dish sounds totally insane--salad and dessert?!--but let me tell you, I swear on my PhD that this "salad" is utterly sublime. In a single bite, there is creamy and crunchy and toasted and sweet and savory and fresh. The "salad" was inspired by my grad school tradition of cooking Thanksgiving dinners in Los Angeles, which started out simple but year after year became more and more elaborate. One thing that my best friend always requested for Thanksgivings was goat cheese mixed with garlic and chives, and each year, I would think up a new way to serve it. We moved from simple bread and crackers to--in the final Thanksgiving--a spoonful of garlic-chive goat cheese in a small boat of Belgian endive, topped with Buddha's hand-yuzu marmalade. In this dessert-inspired version for the dessertation, I took out the garlic/chives and added a trio of hazelnut tones: a brush of hazelnut oil, a crunch of toasted hazelnuts, and an airy creaminess of Nutella "dust". I've made this "salad" again and again since as an appetizer course for dinner parties, and it's always a hit! The recipe is included for you below.... for Thanksgiving? :)
Eighth course - DessertDiebenkorn's Ocean Park series, which are sort of these amazing colour distillations of the essence of California scapes. I'm also quite fond of the Ocean Park series because one of my advisors had a print of #54 in her office, which I spent lots of time staring at while trying to avoid awkward grad student eye contact when I felt like I wasn't measuring up!
Ninth course - Mignardises
Tenth course - Nuts & Fruit
Acknowledgements are always my favorite part of dissertations to read, but it was even better that I was able to bring mine to edible life through a meal for those I wanted to thank!
Read on for recipe....
A salad course: Hazelnut Goat-cheese Endives
makes about 12 endive leaves
about 1/2 cup hazelnuts (with skins), toasted and roughly chopped
3 oz goat cheese
seville orange marmalade (or another bitter citrus marmalade), preferrably with lots of zest
hzelnut-chocolate dust, recipe as follows
Using a pastry brush, brush a drop or two of hazelnut oil on the inside surface of each individual endive leaf. Fill the leaf with a small spoonful of goat cheese, then top with a drop of marmalade, a few chopped hazelnuts, and sprinkle with hazelnut-chocolate dust.
For Hazelnut-chocolate dust:
1/3 cup hazelnut-chocolate spread (e.g., Nutella)
1/2 cup maltodextrin powder
In a small food processor, combine the hazelnut-chocolate spread and the maltodextrin powder. Pulse until it forms a fluffy powder. Do not pulse too long, otherwise clumps will form. Keeps in an airtight container for a few days. Sprinkle over everything! I find, in particular, that it nicely solves the problem of how to have a clump of Nutella spread in your morning yoghurt--in dust form, the Nutella stirs easily into the yoghurt!
(Maltodextrin powder is available on amazon, for example.)