Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Dessertation, and on giving thanks

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.)

(Above: place cards were a print out of an article by each guest, which alarmed me as to how erudite the crowd was!)

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
For the amuse, I wanted to start on a really optimistic note, a snapshot of the sort of euphoria one experiences at the moment of graduation and achievement. Hendrick's gin is something that I learned to love in grad school, from my various travels to Scotland. And with its fresh, floral undertones, I felt like it was the perfect way to kick off the night. The gin and tonic jello shot was lightly flavored with a dash of rosewater, served on a slice of English cucumber, and topped with a delicately crunchy sugared rose petal that my dad picked from his garden at my childhood home. Also, jello shots were a great vehicle for the aperitif component, because who doesn't want to see a bunch of prominent academics take jello shots?

Below: sugared rose petals drying; plating of the gin & tonic shots, with cucumber slices.

Second course
The second course represented "grad school," generally. It was super dark, with dark chocolate and dabs of espresso reduction. It was bitter, with concentrated fresh grapefruit flavoring the dark chocolate truffle. It was tart, with a dab of plain yoghurt at the bottom. But despite all of that, it was surprisingly good for you, with a candied purple carrot curl on top.

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
In my book, everyone is allowed at least one vice during their dissertation days. For some, that's coffee, or binge-watching Netflix, or extreme (lack of) exercise. For me, I took up a soda habit, which I hadn't done since before college. But given that I didn't drink coffee much, Coca-cola became my go-to, desperate-for-fast-caffeine-and-sugar fix. So, the third course is inspired by all things Coke: cherries and vanilla. This was a fun dessert to design architecturally, since it featured a block of dark cherry ice cream frozen within a shell of Coke. Then, it was topped with some vanilla-almond milk "air", which froze upon contact with the frozen Coke shell to become sort of a stable foam that you'd find on a glass of ice cold soda. Yay, molecular gastronomy!

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 cleanser
For a palate cleanser, I wanted to incorporate an element of savory, so I turned to a beetroot-cranberry sorbet. The rest of the dessert is inspired by summertime and the time I spent in 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 - Main
The main course comes from my pièce de résistance dessert--that is, the best dessert that I have ever made during my grad school years, called the "Random Forest Cake." The Random Forest Cake came to being during my third year of grad school, when we were in the midst of hosting a workshop on quantitative linguistics at Stanford. One of the honored guest speakers was from the Black Forest in Germany, and so there was a plan to make a black forest cake for the conference dinner dessert. At the same time, however, I was in the middle of writing (i.e., scrambling to write) my own talk for the workshop, and our analysis that I was supposed to present had just been, at the last minute, totally ripped to shreds in the practice rounds. To save our work, our lab director suggested I investigate a recently introduced method of data mining called "Random 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 - Dessert
One faculty member once told me that I am one of the incredibly rare few who have done all their schooling (college, grad school) and then gotten a faculty position, all within a sixty-mile radius. I am so lucky to be in such a situation, and so thankful, too, since I feel like a good lot of my identity is ingrained with a deep love for California. For the dessert course, I wanted to make an homage to California, so I knew it had to be a blue and gold cake: homemade tayberry and olallieberry jam filling with a lemon-thyme cake base. On top, I painted the cake in the style of Diebenkorn'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
I liked the idea of bringing the evening to a slow close with a very simple, straightforward dessert, because sometimes in the complexity and stressfulness of life, simplicity is comfort. For the mignardises, I made whole wheat chocolate chip cookies that were studded with toasted wheat germ, and milk and dark Tcho chocolates. It's a chocolate chip cookie recipe I've been working on perfecting for the last three years of grad school, slowly upping and lowering flour and sugar contents, changing butter ratios, tweaking chocolate ratios, swapping out different types of flour. The cookies were served with a small shot of really good fresh whole milk. Because even big whig academics need comfort food sometimes.

Tenth course - Nuts & Fruit
For the final course of the evening, I wanted to leave off with a dessert inspired by lessons I had learned in grad school. Before grad school, I had never made pecan pie before, so finally our grad advisor took it upon herself to teach me how to make this staple pie of American celebrations. We also had a lot of discussions over the years of how I didn't like plums, and each plum season, she would bring to me a new variety of plum from the farmers' market until I learned to appreciate the fruits' unique blend of sweet, clear flesh and tart seed and skin. This dessert was a sort of nod to all of my teachers over the years, as a way of demonstrating that I'd taken their lessons, however small, to heart.

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....

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Postcards from Belgium

I'm writing most of this post at 2:39 am. Because... jetlag. Because... Belgium!

Land of the EU, and waffles, and Tin Tin, and curious, cone-shaped sugar candies called cuberdons or 'little noses'. I just got back from a week-long trip to Belgium--primarily for work at the university in Leuven, but my collaborator made sure that I did get a little bit of sight-seeing in towards the end. So here are photos from my quick, 48-hour whirl around the Flemish region of Belgium.

Pictured above: central Brussels train station entrance. I'm obsessed with the font, mainly! Perhaps I've watched too much of Agatha Christie's Poirot in my life, but I loved the art deco-y and art nouveau-y architectural details endemic to the region.

Most of the photos below come from a day in Ghent, a picturesque city about an hour-ish train ride west of Brussels. Apparently, Ghent is particularly pretty because it was restored and cleaned up for 1913 World's Fair. The canals do make it quite charming to stroll around and get lost in, with plenty of fun little shops (a mustard shop, for instance?!) to peek into and cafés to leisurely people-watch from while sipping on hot chocolate.

And of course, no proper Western European old city would be complete without the requisite grand churches, a castle, and canals. Pictured below: Saint Nicholas' Church, Gravensteen Castle (which made me crave apples), building façades along one of the canals.

In our wanderings, we stumbled upon one of the graffiti alleyways in Ghent, where one is allowed to freely paint on the walls! The artwork ranged from your regular tagging to beautiful, floor-to-top paintings--all temporary and ever-changing. And, I got to do something I've always wanted to: leave a little DfB mark of approval (hey, sometimes it pays to be a packrat and carry around Sharpies everywhere).

And street snacks! They have these cone-shaped sugar candies called cuberdons, which have this thin sugary shell on the outside and are liquid sugar syrup on the inside. Texturally, the cuberdons reminded me of those giant jelly beans that one can get around Easter, except more liquidy inside. Traditionally, they're raspberry? flavored and colored purple (meaning, they may be raspberry flavored in theory, but they just taste purple), but we managed to stumble across anise-flavored black ones too which were a bit like eating liquid licorice.

The waffles, I have to say, were ah-mazing. I so wish I were capable of replicating them at home! They are a wee bit caramelized and crunchy with sugar on the outside, but inside, they are hot and custardy. I also made sure to pick up plenty of fries and chocolate and marzipan petits fours during the trip--all delicious. For the fries, there were a bajillion different sauce flavors to dip the fries in, like andalouse sauce, which is this tasty amalgamation of ketchup, mayo, and spicy almost-cajun-ness. So perfect for my would-you-like-fries-with-your-sauce tendencies! (Although, I have to admit, I'm still partial to German curry ketchup. :))

On my last day, we had a quick hour or two to stroll around the city center of Brussels, which is filled with endless dessert and chocolate shops. Ah, be still, my heart! It was like being dropped into sweets heaven. The royal galleries, for instance, were lined with chocolatier after chocolatier after chocolatier, and punctuated in between with pâtisseries of all different cultures galore. .. for example, a pastry shop specializing in nut-filled and brightly-colored Middle Eastern desserts! -- second photo below.

We also happened upon one of the best French shops for perhaps the next big dessert craze after macarons: merveilleux! I actually didn't know what these were at all, but there were these brilliant little domes piled high with shaved chocolate calling out to me from a window display, so naturally, I had to go in and investigate. Turns out, these are little dessert domes made up of fluffy and crunchy and creamy layers of meringue, flavored creams, and chocolate--in a variety of flavors ranging from cherry to chocolate to coffee to speculoos. They melt like luscious air into your mouth when you take a bite. It's sort of like a pavlova or an Eton mess in handheld form. So worth the investigating.

On the plane ride back, I realized that I am so thankful that my job allows me to travel so much and to see and experience new adventures. It's wonderful that I get to do that and, at the same time, spend the time exchanging intellectual ideas with fellow scholars at other unis. Yes, I realize that this is a highly romanticized view of academic life, but at times--especially when filled with meringues and chocolates and art deco architecture and engaging discussions--it is just that good.