Friday, April 08, 2005

Memories of the CIA

No, dear readers, I'm not referring to my former life as a spy (which was strictly fictional anyway). Remember, we're talking food here, and the CIA refers to the crown jewel of American culinary schools, the Culinary Institute of America.

But first, a brief introduction to the topic:

After meeting up with the incomparable Spicyflower last weekend, I agreed to send her my unused baby cake decorating kit, assembled for me by the Chef Mother when she broke up her substantial kit after calling it quits on decorating cakes. Earlier this week, I packed up the kit with a box of disposable pastry bags as well as some of the delectable chocolate-hazelnut zebras that were threatening to fill up my stomach if I didn't get them out of the house.

Upon receiving said box, Spicyflower's response was this:

"Oh, I was wondering though, you said the box contained incentive, now was the intended incentive those wonderful chocolate cookies of yours, or the $.50 in the box with the decorating tips?? Just curious :)"

What can I say? I never opened that kit, and hey, I'm not above bribing friends who are equally fabulous bakers for some of their home-baked goodies.

But in the course of our recent exchange, I also mentioned that I had been recalling memories from my first trip to the CIA in a conversation with a mutual acquaintance, and Spicyflower asked for the details. So now I share them, my friends, with you.

When I was in 8th grade, the Chef Mother took four of her students and me on a road trip over spring break: since all of her students were interested in attending culinary school, we checked out both Johnson and Wales in Rhode Island and the CIA in Hyde Park, NY.

One of the Chef Mother's former students (from the mid-70s) was an ex-Marine (or was it Navy?) who had worked in the White House kitchens on at least one occasion and was then a student at the CIA. The Military Chef arranged for us to get a tour of the place, and he arranged for dinner in the Escoffier Room (the only restaurant they had at the time, aside from the St. Andrews' Cafe). I had had a crush on The Military Chef when I was a girl, so you can imagine the thrill I had when he treated me like a lady for the dinner... holding open the car door for me (with an umbrella over my head) and taking my arm to lead me in. (Swoon!) Ahem.

I honestly don't remember what all I had for dinner other than the coquilles St. Jacques for an appetizer (I remember one of the students had escargot)... and glorious croissants. Flaky, buttery... divine! I was so in love (The Military Chef was totally forgotten) that I knew I had to learn how to make them myself.

At the time, I was in 4-H, and the Chef Mother always insisted that I take at least one sewing project and one cooking project each year. After that trip to the CIA, I took the bread project two years running... the first year to make basic loaves of bread (white, wheat, maybe pumpernickel), and the second year I learned more yeast dough variations (including pretzels, pita, and croissants). I was so
proud of my croissants, and I ended up making those for my judging. I impressed the judge so much that I ended up going to the State Fair with my project... and impressed the judge there so much that I won a big fat purple rosette ribbon for "Outstanding of the Day." Yeah, I totally rocked out. (And yes, I am still inordinately proud of that.)

And the best part? Even though the Chef Mother had more experience at baking, she couldn't make croissants as light and as flaky as I could. ;)

I don't make croissants too much any more... maybe once a year... but when I do, I ration out the dough and keep some back in the freezer. They make a lovely French-style weekend breakfast... with sweet butter, fresh homemade fruit jam (raspberry!), and strong rich coffee, and the sunshine streaming through the windows. What bliss! It takes me back to visits to France and breakfast in small pensions (since my host mother never made croissants for breakfast), as well as to that dark and stormy night at the CIA and one of the most fabulous dinners I have ever experienced.

I have other memories from the CIA, such as poking my head into classrooms and being astonished by the vast number of enormous kitchens... and then there's the second visit to the CIA just a couple of years ago, when I took my Granola Girl there for a very decadent lunch experience. I'll save those for another time as I suspect this post has gotten way too long.

And really, you need to wipe the drool off your keyboard.


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