Sunday, February 28, 2010

Winning the Honey Competition: Pain Perdu

Shock.  That's what I'm still feeling.  I knew I'd be writing a post about this recipe and about the contest..... But I honestly didn't imagine that I'd write about winning!  

When I first found out about this competition, sponsored by the National Honey Board, I wasn't even sure I'd enter.  It's been a busy semester plus I've never competed in a competition like this one.  Plus, I'd have to miss class to participate in the competition......  But, I asked my chef from the class I'd be missing and he told me, "Don't let the fact that you have class that day keep you from entering the competition."  So, I didn't.  And now I'm so glad I entered!  Thank you, Chef!

Then came the process of figuring out what to make.  I had a whole list of ideas, however, I discovered some key elements of the contest (i.e. the time limit) and I determined simple was the way to go.  Simple is not always easy for me....I like elaborate.  I kept reminding myself that I needed to do something I'm really comfortable with, especially since I hadn't done a competition before.  But, I needed to make simple spectacular.  So here's what I came up with:

Pain Perdu with Creme Fraiche Pastry Cream, Honeyed Oranges & Orange Blossom Honey Syrup (with pistachio garnish)

Pain Perdu is just a fancy name for plain old french toast.  Only, there's nothing plain about this french toast: it's made with rich brioche bread and flavored with vanilla bean paste (my favorite alternative to vanilla extract) & Grand Marnier Liqueur.  Pastry Cream is virtually homemade vanilla pudding, only this one is finished with rich and tangy creme fraiche.

Adding the star ingredient to  the Orange Blossom Honey Syrup (as shot by my dad)

The honeyed oranges are nothing more than orange slices  which I embelished by slightly "caramelizing" (aka blackening) them with my nifty kitchen torch before they were tossed with a drizzle of fragrant, locally made Orange Blossom honey.  And the syrup is two very simple, yet always tasty ingredients: Butter and Honey (Orange Blossom Honey to be exact).

Three plated portions to mimic the three portions as they were presented to the three judges

So, why would I specifically choose to make Pain Perdu/French Toast?  Let me quote the "inspiration" section I included with my recipes......

Pain perdu (or as it is more commonly known: French Toast)  is prevalent in many of my childhood food memories.  I remember my father making french toast for my family on special occasions when I was young.  But then I learned to make french toast myself, with the help of my father and an American Girl Doll cookbook.  In fact, I do believe french toast is one of the first recipes I could make all by myself.   Fast forward a few years and many many batches of french toast, happily consumed by my family who often request it when I am home, and french toast still remains one of my favorite items to make.  Though it comes from humble beginnings (just stale bread, eggs, milk, a little sugar, and spices/extracts), french toast can have spectacular results.    
Versitility is a gem of both this dish and of Pain Perdu in general.  Small portions could be served in a formal plated design for an unexpected dessert.  Or larger, more informal portions could be served family style for a breakfast feast.  Either way, it is a delight to the palate.  Flavors can also be interchanged.  No Brioche available?  Use another eggy, sweet bread like Challah, or even just a good French bread (although the results will not be as rich).  No Grand  Marnier around?  Use orange extract or some orange zest or another flavoring of your choice.  No pistachios on hand?  Use another nut, such as almonds or pecans.....  The possibilities are endless!  
I truly believe in using local, in season ingredients whenever possible, and also I believe in wasting as little as possible.  This time of year (February) the grocery stores are full of many delicious citrus fruits... Oranges just happen to be one of many varieties of citrus available.  The Orange Blossom Honey chosen in this recipe not only compliments the flavor of the oranges but also was produced locally in Omega Georgia.  Additionally, this recipe allows for the use of a nearly unusable product: stale bread.  In fact, it is best made with old bread that is able to easily absorb rich eggy custard before it it fried to golden deliciousness.   

In true Laura form, I decided to design a booklet to showcase my recipes and their costs, as well as to talk about my inspiration behind the dish.  After all, I rarely do things half way :)  Here's the cover, complete with the honeycomb background and hand-drawn honey bees.

Another unexpected blessing about this competition is that it occurred right smack dab during my parents' visit!  So they were able to taste test one of my practice runs (and my dad took some pictures), help calm my nerves, assist me with my mis-en-place, wash my dishes, cheer me on, and celebrate my win!  

I was extremely nervous, though very thankful that I had the experience of teaching classes at the UND Wellness Center Culinary Corner to draw upon.  I'll never watch culinary competitions on TV again without thinking about how fast the time goes during competition..... I've got a whole new respect for "Iron Chef."

An of a practice batch shot by my dad with his super awesome lens

Ironically, the most difficult part of this competition was executing the Pain Perdu--I believe it's probably the most difficult batch of french toast I've ever made.  I've never cooked french toast on a gas stove, nor do I really have much of any experience with gas stoves, except the few things we've done in my classes this past year......  I totally and completely burned the first couple pieces I fried.  Not only did I completely burn the french toast, I also filled the competition space with a nice fog of smoke. haha!  Thank goodness for having a backup loaf of brioche and for my classmate Irma, who was assisting another contestant (and friend).  Irma washed my badly scorched pan while I tried to get my wits and confidence back.......

But despite the trials, which also included a miscommunication about my time slot for presenting to the judges (I had to wait over 10 minutes with my completed, rapidly cooling, plates before I presented), I finished!  And then was the waiting part.....

My fourth portion on display with some of the other entries.  

Waiting is unbelievably difficult.  Waiting with 23 other participants who have also produced amazing dishes is even more difficult.   I'm not sure how the judges made their final decisions! 

Judges deliberating, as shot by my dad. 

We were all just on pins and needles waiting for everyone to finish and for the judges to make their final decisions.....  Though the judges had seemed to enjoy my dish when I presented, I didn't really think I had a chance at winning.  I was just thankful I had the opportunity to compete and learn from the experience......

waiting, waiting, waiting (as shot by my dad)

My hopes were intrigued a bit when a classmate, who entered the kitchen to return some dishes, heard one of the judges say something positive and then point to my dish..... And then another classmate thought they saw my name on a piece of paper when one of the judges exited.....  oooooooooo!

Finally, we contestants were all moved to the dining room for the final announcement.....   

.....and then they announced ME as the first place winner!  What?!?!    

It felt very dream-like as I moved to the front of the room to accept my award from the National Honey Board Spokesperson!  I don't even remember what was said.... I just know I couldn't stop smiling!

Then, they announced the other winners, and they ALL happened to be friends/acquaintances of mine.....  I was so proud of us all!

winners!  (as shot by my dad)

A HUGE thank you goes out to my fellow participants.  EVERYONE did such a great job! 

So, should I go to Europe with my winnings?

So, I believe my winning recipe will eventually be on the National Honey Board Website, but I'll post it here as well.  Honestly, try it!   I'm sure you'll love it!  :)

8 thick slices of day-old Brioche or Challah Bread, cut into triangles 
3 large Eggs
74 g Milk (approximately 1/3 cup)
30 g Granulated Sugar (1/8 cup plus 1 tsp) 
3/4 tsp Ground Cinnamon
1/2 tsp Vanilla Bean Paste (or substitute Vanilla Extract)
1 tsp Grand Marnier 
Pinch of Salt
Vegetable Oil for coating skillet during frying
1.  Whisk the eggs, milk, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla bean paste, Grand Marnier, and salt together until well combined.  
2.  Heat vegetable oil in the bottom of a large skillet.  
3.  Dip the bread triangles into the egg mixture and drain.  Fry until golden on both sides.  
4.  Hold in a 300° F oven until ready to serve. 

192 g Milk (approximately ¾ cup) 
46 g Granulated Sugar (approximately ¼ cup)
19 g Corn Starch (approximately 2 tbl plus 2 tsp) 
56 g Creme Fraiche (approximately ¼ cup) 
4 g Grand Marnier (2½tsp) 
4 g Vanilla Bean Paste (or substitute Vanilla Extract) (1 ½ tsp) 
1.  Heat 100 g milk & 23 g sugar in a sauce pan until just boiling.
2. Meanwhile, make a slurry with the remaining 92 g of milk and the corn starch.  Mix the slurry with the remaining 23 g  of sugar & the egg yolks.  
3. Temper the hot milk & sugar into the egg mixture and return to the sauce pan.  Bring to a second boil, whisking constantly.
4.  Remove from the heat & mix in Creme Fraiche.  Allow to cool slightly & add Grand Marnier and Vanilla Bean Paste. 
5.  Cover & chill several hours.  

1 large orange
1.  Use a pairing knife or vegetable peeler to shave several strips of orange zest.  Save these strips for garnish.  Peel the rest 
of  the zest & pith off the orange flesh & discard.  Slice the orange flesh into rounds & cut each round in half.  Pat dry  with paper towel.
2.  With a blow torch, caramelize the dried orange flesh on both sides.  (optional )
3.  Warm the orange blossom honey slightly and drizzle over the caramelized slices. 

66 g unsalted butter (approximately 5 tbl)
140 g Orange Blossom Honey (approximately 1/3 cup)
pinch of salt
1.  Heat  the unsalted butter and orange blossom honey until it comes to a boil.
2.  Cool slightly and pour into shot glasses. 

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  1. Congratulations, Chef Vagasky

  2. Congratulations, Chef Vagasky

  3. COME TO EUROPE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    VIENS-TU A FRANCE!!!!!!!! :D :D :D

    Also, when you are rich and famous, May I write your biography? Please?

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