Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Fall Soiree - Man vs. the Wood Fire Beast

Fall Decor

We all have our fears, whether or not we're willing to admit them. But we're all human beings, and it's one of the many things that sets us apart. I've got a whole list of them. For example, I loathe the glaucoma machine at the optometrist's office. You know the one that blows AIR into your eye at like 528 mph. It takes me a good 4 minutes per eye and I wish I was a pirate or cyclops so I'd only have to endure the suffering for 4 minutes total. Another thing I fear is anything in tiny dot patterns. Blackheads, blueberry pies and bad 80s polka dot clothing. I'm not sure why but I think it might have to do with this cartoon I've watched before... where this character had 18 eyes on his face... all blinking at different times. Weird I know. And finally... my apparent condition of bakephobia. I've talked about it in my pizza posting a few weeks back and just can't get myself to appreciate baking because of the necessary precision and limitations set by recipes. I own about 30 cookbooks and because of my short attention span, rarely follow all the directions in them. I use cookbooks merely for the ingredient listing and I adjust accordingly to my own tastes. I also leave out measurements in my cooking posts because not everyone out there trying the recipe will like it. Some may want it spicier, sweeter or saltier. And you can't please everyone, especially when it comes to catering.

I baked a few weeks back, and I can honestly say that baking is an uncharted sea for me to navigate through. I want to learn how to bake. There is an inherent art and beauty behind the combination of eggs, flour, salt, sugar and yeast. Every country in the world has some sort of baked food, with bread being the most basic form of sustenance. In the wonderful book, Sauces, the author talks about the usage of bread as dinnerware. Wood and metal plates were just too expensive to mak during the 13th century in Europe, thus came the idea of bread bowls and flatbread. Not only would you not have to hold 300 degree stew in your own lap or hands, you could eat it afterwards! Genius. Imagine if we had to eat paper plates. This book by the way isn't entirely about making sauces, but explains how food has come to be over time. It's awesome. Did you know that Europeans actually used a form of fish sauce back then?

I started working with a group of nice people that run an event planning group called Fresh Events Company. Through a friend, we were brought together for this fall-themed party in Hollywood Hills. The client requested pizza made with their wood fire oven. It's tough enough dealing with an oven in a gig because you have to parcook food for holding, now I have to battle a monster: a wood fire oven.

Setting up a wood fire oven is similar to building a campfire. You set one large log in the oven as a 'backstop' and rest smaller pieces of wood on it, making sure that air is allowed to ventilate under the wood. You can't do more than two big pieces at a time otherwise the wood to fire ratio is knocked off balance and you're left with a slower temperature increase. It's hard to explain and I found myself scratching my head and swearing as I tried it out before the event. The client and I met again on another weekend before the event to practice the wood fire oven. In about four hours, we reached the temperature of 600 degrees. It's not the internal temperature of the oven that needs to be 600 degrees, it's the bricks that form the oven floor that need to be heated. I smiled when I saw the glowing embers of what was once wood. In the four hours it took, I had to come back every 15-20 minutes and feed it some more... much like a baby that wants to keep eating. Once you reach 600 degrees, the next goal is to make as much floor space as possible. Using a long metal spatula, we pushed all the coals to the left side, including the large backstop log. The client than grabbed a wet towel and wrapped it around the spatula and 'wiped' down the oven floor. It's ok if you get a little bit of ash on the bottom of the pizza, it only makes it look more rustic.

I quickly ran into the kitchen and pulled out my pizza dough from the fridge. Threw some flour on the counter top, rubbed my hands together like a gymnast, without the tights of course, and started massaging the ball of dough. After making a disc shape, I did a few rotations using my knuckles to stretch it. This takes skill because if you pull too hard, you'll tear the dough. No no no. For rookies, the rolling pin is still the best. I used my asian style rolling pin, which is smaller than the standard rolling pin, but without the handles. The smaller ones are used for making dumpling skins. Once the dough was as thin as it could be, I carefully laid the dough on a wooden pizza paddle with some flour beneath it. Flour works better than cornmeal in the case of the wood fire oven because it has a higher cooking temperature. If you're making pizza in a conventional oven, cornmeal on a pizza stone will be fine. I then added olive oil (vs. using tomato sauce), two kinds of cheese (a container of four cheese and mozzarella) and the appropriate accoutrements – the client requested portobello mushroom, white truffle oil and thyme. I carefully held the paddle and handed it to the client. He carefully guided the paddle into the oven mouth as if he was feeding a big monster. As soon as he pulled the paddle from beneath the pizza, I heard the most beautiful sound ever: the searing of fresh dough on hot oven bricks. 30 seconds later, the left hemisphere of the pizza was already bubbling... as high as 1.5 inches. The edge of the crust slowly blistering with dark spots. Another 30 seconds later, we used the spatula to rotate the pizza so that we could cook the other side. For a total of 2 minutes in the oven, something extraordinary comes out of the oven. He pulled out the pizza and set it on a table. I almost shed a tear because it was so beautiful. The cheese was bubbling quietly and the crust so fluffy and 'pillowy'. We all took a slice of pizza and sank our teeths in for that familiar and nostalgic food we've all grown up with. As I ate, I watched for the client's reaction and they loved it. I felt so much better doing a practice run and knew things would work out nicely on the day of the event.

Fall Decor

This catering event was very different than many others I've worked. For the first time, I was working with an event planning group. Not only did it mean that there would be decorations and invitations being taken care of, I had people to take care of the front of the house, meaning the wait/bar staff. It is HARD working the kitchen AND front of the house. I could focus more on cooking the food vs. running around like a lunatic.

Although it rained the night before, the dampness had evaporated and left a nice waft of cold air. I couldn't imagine cooking during the heatwave we had two months ago. Many of the decorations used by Fresh Events had orange, brown and yellow leaves, which were really nice.

Fall Decor

Woodfire Oven

And there she is, the wood fire beast. Inside the cavity, there's about 3 sq. feet of space, not very big. That's why it's important to slowly burn wood vs. stuffing it. Four hours to get it going, 2-3 minutes to cook your food. As it sounds, it's a lot of work, but the results do not lie.

Woodfire Oven

A close-up of the wood fire oven. Here, it's at about 425 degrees. By the time you're ready to cook, you shouldn't have any flames at all.

Wood Fire Oven

I gave this thing more attention on that day than I do with J. She wasn't happy with me, but she was very happy about the pizza.

Scallop, Shrimp & Avocado Ceviche

Scallop, Shrimp & Avocado Ceviche
I love love love ceviche and was dying to serve some food on white spoons. Whenever you can get the client to interact with the food, versus picking it up with greasy fingers and napkin, you whet their appetite. I "cooked" 32-40 size shrimp with baby scallops in lime juice for about 4 hours. Any longer, you may risk the chance of having no taste whatsoever. I added tiny-brunoised cuts of red bell pepper for color, green jalapenos for spice and put a small wedge of avocado and cilantro leaf on top. For some additional flavor, I added one of my favorite ingredients, smoked paprika. Client loved this.

Bacon Wrapped Dates with Parmesan & Goat Cheese

Bacon-Wrapped Dates with Parmesan/Goat Cheese
AOC and my friend Immaeatchu have made me love this appetizer more and more. The combination of sweet dates, goat/Parmesan cheese and salinity from the crispy bacon make it one hot kid on the block. There are two main types of dates out there: medjools and deglet noors. If you're going to use medjools, you might want to cut them in half lengthwise because they are huge. Dates may not appeal to everyone because they've got that sticky chew. I prefer deglet noors because you can pop them in one bite and are actually very easy to work with. There are recipes that call for goat cheese or Parmesan, why not bring the best of both worlds and do a 50/50 ratio? You can use a toothpick or skewer (put 7-8 of them on one stick) to secure the bacon if you're worried about them falling apart. Bake for 5 mins on one side at 400, then flip over and bake for another 7-10 mins until bacon is somewhat crispy... just don't burn the bacon. I saw guests take 2-3 at a time, popping them like they were tater-tots.

Prosciutto Wrapped Asparagus

Prosciutto-Wrapped Asparagus Bundles
Everyone loves bacon and everyone loves prosciutto. For this dish, I cut the asparagus into 7" lengths and bundles of three using the prosciutto as 'tape'. Lightly spray some olive oil on the bundles and add a TINY bit of salt only on the asparagus. Fresh black pepper and lemon juice for a kick. These were very fun to eat.

Portobello & White Truffle Oil Pizza

Portobello & White Truffle Oil Pizza
And finally, the product of four hours of constant nurturing, arguing and making up: the portobello mushroom, white truffle oil and thyme pizza. These came out beautiully and guests kept requesting more and more truffle oil. Whoa, too rich.

By the end of the night, everyone had so much to eat, including my staff. It's too easy to get pizza'd out, but it was the crust that we kept coming back to. So soft and pillowy.

Great clients, excited guests, wonderful event planning group, loving gf and sister, loyal friends and one angry, tempermental 600 degree oven. That's the best way to sum up one of the smoothest events I've ever worked. Thank you to the McK's, Fresh Events, staff and to you for reading.

13 comments:

purple goddess said...

You've inspired me!! I am so doing the asparagus and prosciutto in our wood-fired oven.

How long did you leave it in?

Grant said...

This event sounds fantastic! I love bacon wrapped dates and your pizza sounds spectacular. I recently helped with a little pizza party for a friends house warming but we just did them in the oven. I'm so jealous of that wood pizza oven.

JadedOne said...

Very cool ED&BM! I'm always hunting for new appetizers to make since don't really have any in my repertoire currently. The ceviche just looks so elegant in the chinese soup spoons.

And the pizza? Damn, I wish I had a fire breathing monster like that in my patio just so I can try out your recipe. Maybe I'll have to go out and get a pizza stone. :P

H. C. said...

As a fellow bakephobic (and glaucoma-tester-phobic), mad props to you for tackling this event.

The Mozza crew better watch their backs ;)

Jeni said...

Congratulations on another successful event D. I'm so proud of you, especially conquering your fear of baking. Wendy and I had a great time prepping and cooking...and booty dancing. Good times mang!

eatdrinknbmerry said...

Goddess of Purple, thank you. I didn't cook those in the WFO, but i'm guessing it'll be done in about 30 seconds. I would also do a quick blanch in hot water with the asparagus before wrapping them w/ prosciutto. That way you're only using the oven to sear the outsides of the bundles. In a conventional oven, use the prosciutto as your thermometer. once it starts crisping up, take one out and try it. I like my asp crunchy.

Grant, thank you. Bacon wrap anything and you're bound to make people smile. I've been on your site before and your food looks really warm/homey. Thanks for stopping by.

JadedOne, hola! Email me if you would like the recipes. When i was getting the oven going, i was like "this is such a waste of time!" Things changed once the food came out. It looked like restaurant quality.

H.C., haha, I wonder how many other people share our phobias. I actually have Nancy Silverton's La Brea Bakery cookbook, so i'll be trying those soon.

J, thanks again for your loyalty and diligence. I always enjoy working w/ you.

Chubbypanda said...

I hate that glaucoma test too. Just thinking about it makes me flinch.

I wish I had the space for a wood-fired oven on my patio. Those treats look delectable. The closest I've managed to get to wood-fired temps is by using terra cotta planters in my oven to create a smaller, enclosed baking area a la Alton Brown. Even then, I can't get the internal temp much beyond 600F.

elmomonster said...

Damn dude. I'm always in awe of your mad mad skilz. I agree about the baking though. I have no patience for it. Which is why I have my Big Kahuna. Instant Gratification!

Yuzu said...

The glaucoma test at the optometrist is like the easiest thing ever! A few seconds in the chair, and I am done. :) Overcome the fear, man...just like you overcame the baking fear.

What's next? I say you try some fancy baking like cream puffs or macarons. ;P

SteamyKitchen said...

i have oven envy.

Tokyoastrogirl said...

I think I aged 10 years waiting for this freakin' post! It was well worth it...those spoons look so lovely. The pizza, of course, looks stunning as well and it's great that you had accesst to that oven. The only question I have is, where's my pizza?

joanh said...

wow! must wipe drool from my chin. :) i wonder how often your clients actually used their ovens.

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