Eats: Lock, stock and cheescake

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Austin J. Perreault came to Central Maine Community College as the pastry chef instructor in 2009. He assumed the position of department chair in 2012, replacing his well-known predecessor, Don Rossignol, who retired after a 28-year career at CMCC.

Perreault said he acquired the love of cooking at a young age from two family members: his mother and grandmother. Starting off with a degree from Le Cordon Bleu at the Atlantic Culinary Academy in Dover, N.H., he went on to work in several restaurants in southern Maine. He later acquired a specialty in baking and patisserie (the French word meaning “pastry”) from Le Cordon Bleu, as well as a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management just last year.

When it comes to either learning or teaching the skills of all things culinary, Perreault said he tackles baking as you would a science — because of the necessary preciseness of measuring, and the proper ratios and chemical interactions of ingredients — while the cooking piece is “more of an art.” As he points out, unlike with cakes or other pastries (if they’re ruined, they’re ruined), the art of fixing your botched cooking is one of the most important talents a student can gain.

For today’s story Perreault addressed both skills. He took time with us to share his advice and experience on a critical skill in cooking basics: How to make a great stock. (Because, as he reminded us, “so many sauces, soups and other dishes are first started with a great stock.”) And then he offered a dessert — a recipe and tips for making cheesecake — to follow up whatever meal you create with your great stock.

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The ins and outs of chicken stock

“Stock is a flavorful liquid that comes from simmering aromatic vegetables, seasonings and a flavoring agent like chicken or beef bones,” said Perreault. In the culinary world, he noted, chicken stock is considered a natural and basically neutral flavor. “Chicken stock is a great way to turn any dish from good to great.”

Among his tips (see his recipes for more details):

— Cut veggies the same size to ensure even cooking, preventing the situation of very soft carrots but rock-hard turnips.

— It can be difficult to store leftover soups made with noodles or rice, Perreault said, because they absorb all the liquid in the soup and create a thick mushy mess. An alternative is to cook your noodles or rice separately, “then add just enough to each serving bowl to fill the soup out.”

— The best chicken stocks start with raw bones, he said, but they can be difficult to acquire unless you do a lot of breaking down of chickens or you know a good butcher. “In the absence of raw chicken bones,” he said, “the cooked bones of a holiday bird can be just the thing to make a better stock.”

— Three important vegetables — carrots, celery and onion — will add a lot more flavor than just simmering the bones in water.

— Best seasonings: peppercorns, bay leaves and parsley stems. “While small in size, they will help impart another layer of flavor.”

— Simmering is very important. If it boils for too long, he said, your stock will be very cloudy and may have a burnt taste if the veggies or bones stick to the bottom of the pot. How long a stock simmers will dictate how good your finished stock will be. General advice: For a small batch of 2 to 3 gallons — such as the recipe Perreault offers — simmer approximately 6 to 8 hours.

— No lumps, please. When the stock is done cooking, strain though a fine sieve to remove any particles that could cause lumps in your sauce or gravy. If desired, you can return the broth to the stove and simmer for another couple of hours to intensify flavors.

Thicken your chicken (broth)

The most common way to thicken your chicken broth is to use a “roux” — equal parts butter and flour. Perreault recommends 1 cup butter and 1 cup flour. “Making more than is needed is usually a good idea because you don’t want to make more on the spot.” Make your roux a few minutes in advance by melting the butter in a small saucepan. Add in the flour and “stir until it looks like wet sand. You will want to let this cook a little to help get rid of some of the flour taste,” he said.

Roux will only work with a boiling liquid, so make sure before adding additional roux that the liquid you’re adding it to is back up to a full boil. Other thickeners, such as flour and water or cornstarch and water, can be used instead of a roux — but they require a little more cooking to prevent a shiny gravy, which can be off-putting to some diners.

Rock your stock

One great use for your stock is to make gravy (see recipes). “The hardest thing to make might be a good gravy or sauce,” Perreault said, “mainly because it takes a good eye and a good sense of seasoning. If you over-thicken a gravy, you have wallpaper paste; and if it isn’t thickened enough, you just have a very thin gravy.”

Using your gravy, you can easily make a pot pie by adding in cooked veggies, potatoes and diced turkey or chicken. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let this cool and you have a great filling for your favorite pie crust. Or put the mixture into a casserole dish and cover with a layer of your favorite biscuits for a great casserole.

Pan sauce

To get away from sauces that are thickened, Perreault suggested you make a pan sauce. This sauce is used in restaurants to accompany a dish that has been sauteed. Add some white wine to your pan drippings and reduce this by half; then add your chicken stock and again reduce by half. Remove from heat and add about one tablespoon of softened butter. Adjust the seasoning last, just before topping your dish and sending it out to your guest.

Chicken stock

Yield: 1 gallon

Ingredients:

4 pounds chicken carcasses, including necks and backs

1 large onion, quartered

4 carrots, peeled and cut in half

4 celery ribs, cut in half

1 leek, white part only, cut in half lengthwise

10 sprigs fresh thyme

10 sprigs fresh parsley with stems

2 bay leaves

8 to 10 peppercorns

2 each whole cloves garlic, peeled

2 gallons cold water

Instructions:

Place chicken, vegetables, herbs and spices in 12-quart stockpot. Set an opened steamer basket directly on top of the ingredients in pot and pour water over. (The steamer will keep the ingredients from floating to the top and make skimming easier.) Cook on high heat until you begin to see bubbles break through the surface of the liquid. Turn heat down to medium low so that stock maintains low, gentle simmer. Skim the scum from the stock with a spoon or fine mesh strainer every 10 to 15 minutes for the first hour of cooking and twice each hour for the next two hours. Add hot water as needed to keep bones and vegetables submerged. Simmer uncovered for 6 to 8 hours.

Strain stock through a fine mesh strainer into another large stockpot or heatproof container, discarding the solids. Cool immediately in large cooler of ice or a sink full of ice water to below 40 degrees. Place in refrigerator overnight. Remove solidified fat from surface of liquid and store in container with lid in refrigerator for 2 to 3 days or in freezer for up to 3 months. Prior to use, bring to boil for 2 minutes. Use as a base for soups and sauces.

Chicken gravy

Yield: 1 quart

Ingredients:

1 quart prepared chicken stock

1 cup flour

1 cup butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

You will want to make your roux before you get all this started, Chef Austin Perreault said, and allow it to cook 4 to 5 minutes before making your gravy — this will prevent a gummy flour taste in your gravy.

For the roux, melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add in the flour and “stir until it looks like wet sand. You will want to let this cook a little to help get rid of some of the flour taste,” says Perreault.

Then bring 1 quart of chicken stock and pan drippings (if you have any) to a boil. Add in hot roux, as need, to thicken the mixture, until the gravy coats the back of a spoon. Make sure before adding the roux that the stock is at a boil. Allow this to simmer for approximately 10 minutes and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. You can also add other herbs such as thyme, sage or oregano to provide a different flavor. “Amounts will vary,” he said, “depending on how ‘herby’ you want your gravy.”

Chicken and vegetable noodle soup

Yield: 15  8-ounce servings

Ingredients:

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 medium onion, 1/4-inch dice

4 stocks of celery, 1/4-inch dice

3 medium carrots, 1/4-inch dice

2 medium green peppers, 1/4-inch dice

1 small turnip, 1/4-inch dice

1 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary, minced

1 1/4 gallon chicken stock

2 (14.5-ounce) cans diced tomatoes

1 pound chicken, cooked and cubed

1 1/2 cups egg noodles

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions:

In a large stock pot saute garlic in a little oil, until fragrant and light brown. When garlic is cooked, add in the turnip and let cook for about 5 minutes. This will help keep everything cooking the same. After 5 minutes add in the rest of the vegetables and herbs, allow this to cook for another 5 minutes or until carrots start to get softer. Carefully add in tomatoes and some of the stock, just enough to cover the vegetables. This will boil sooner and allow the vegetables to cook faster. Cook this for 10 to 15 minutes at a simmer; we don’t want to evaporate all the liquid. After the vegetables are just about soft, add remaining stock and bring back to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and allow to cook for 20 to 30 minutes covered. Add noodles; cook approximately 10 minutes or until noodles have softened. Just before serving, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

The Ultimate Cheesecake

Use your choice of either a 10-inch-by-2-inch or 9-inch-by-3-inch round spring-form pan. Another, larger pan will also be needed.

Ingredients:

Crust:

1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup butter, melted

Filling:

5 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened to room temperature

1 1/3 cup sugar

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 large eggs, at room temperature

1/2 cup sour cream

2 teaspoons lemon zest

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

To prepare the crust: Combine crumbs, sugar and butter. Press crumb into pan lined with parchment paper and chill until filling is made.

To make filling: Combine sugar and lemon zest. Then, using gloved hands, run sugar and zest in hands until sugar turns yellow. In large bowl, mix cream cheese until smooth, then add sugar and mix until no sugar is visible and mixture is smooth again. Mix in flour until incorporated and smooth. Beat in room-temperature eggs: do this one egg at a time, mixing each until no egg is visible and mixture is smooth before adding the next egg. (If you add all at once the mixture will be lumpy and the finished product will have noticeable lumps.) Stir in sour cream and vanilla. Pour into the previously chilled crust.

Create water bath: Wrap the bottom of your spring form pan first in aluminum foil — to prevent water from entering the bottom of the pan. Put your cheesecake pan into a larger, second pan and make sure that second pan is big enough to hold enough water to go at least halfway up the outside of your cheesecake pan. Place everything into a preheated 325-degree oven and pour boiling water into the larger pan, enough to come halfway up the outside of the inner pan holding the cheesecake. The cheesecake will bake for anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Tips:

— A 10-inch-by-2-inch pan will cook in a shorter amount of time then a 9-inch-by-3-inch pan. The cheesecake is done when the entire cake moves as one (like Jell-O) when moved.

— Remove the cheesecake pan from the water bath and run a butter knife around the outer edge between the cheesecake and the pan. This allows the top to release and shrink without cracking. Allow to cool completely in the pan before removing.

— Low-fat or fat-free cream cheese can be used, but expect a different taste and texture.

— Cheesecakes should be made the day before or at least the night before serving, for best results. Top with anything, from fresh fruit and canned pie filling to chocolate sauce or caramel dessert topping.

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