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....

A salad course: Hazelnut Goat-cheese Endives
makes about 12 endive leaves

about 1/2 cup hazelnuts (with skins), toasted and roughly chopped
2-3 endives
hazelnut oil
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.)


  1. This is so exceptionally awesome I have no words. Only that I am honestly sad I was not there :)

  2. You are the best!

    & love the little mention of Oxford!

  3. congratulations :) and off course beautiful pictures too ...

  4. I am BLOWN away!
    Congratulations..You are so pretty we should see you more often..What a feast and so creative.
    Bravo bravo bravo!

  5. You are a creative genius! Each of those courses (ha - courses!) sounds more exquisite than the last. Wow. I LOVE the sketches. Is there anything you can't do?! Many congratulations on getting your PhD!!

  6. holy cow! That sounds, looks, and was most certainly fabulous! You are extremely creative and I congratulate you on everything!

  7. My warmest congratulations on the PhD! What a beautiful follow-up feast you shared with your friends and us :) Have a very, very awesome 2015 when it comes knocking on your door ;)

  8. Congratulations on your PhD and a fabulous dinner! I'm currently working towards my own PhD in communication and this post has me dreaming of a final celebration. I think I will have to make mine a much less sophisticated menu, as I do not have your molecularly-fantastic skills, but I'm inspired by your witty storytelling via the courses. Love the blog, and thanks for letting us readers in to your celebration!

  9. Congrats on your PhD. What a big deal that is. I just discovered your blog and am enjoying reading your recipes and your food photography.


I love hearing from you and reading your comments! Thanks so much for stopping by the blog. Happy feasting!