After scaling, gutting, and prepping fish for a brief stint at a small Greek restaurant in Federal Hill, Baltimore, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do in the kitchen. And it wasn’t cleaning fish. It only took a couple of weeks to realize that I wanted to become a pastry chef. But seeing as the owner’s wife baked all the desserts for The Black Olive, I needed to look elsewhere for employment.
Thankfully, my culinary school had a sturdy relationship with a French place uptown by the name of Jeannier’s. Jeannier’s was a legendary restaurant owned and operated by the venerable Roland Jeannier, an ambitious Frenchman with a desire to bring great French food to the city. During the 80’s, when Roland was at the helm, Jeannier’s was a premier French establishment featuring some of the finest classic dishes including Boeuf bourguignon, and oefs a la neige. The former was a thoughtful, timely multi-step preparation which yielded tender, flavorful medallions of beef in a rich, succulent sauce. The latter was a simply prepared, but visually stunning interpretation of classic poached meringue–a cornerstone of the French dessert menu considered very haute at the time. But Jeannier’s star had risen and fallen by the time I entered the kitchen. After his wife passed, Roland lost the desire to cook and handed the title of chef de cuisine over to his sous chef, a powerhouse of a man I like to call The Bishop.
The Bishop was a solid, domineering man who controlled his staff with pure intimidation. He ran the kitchen the same way I imagine Clint Eastwood runs a set. While he originally wanted to be a man of the cloth, by his mid-fifties The Bishop was a regular Blackbeard, and he ran the kitchen like a pirate ship. He was that kind of man. By the time I arrived, The Bishop controlled nearly everything about Jeannier’s, including methods of communication. Every time an order was up, he rang an enormous bell that hung directly above the line. All day long, we heard that bell clanging. Order up! Bong! Order UP! Bong! If the waiters didn’t show, he’d clang it until they came running. ORDER UP! Bong! Bong! Bong!
It was shortly after I started that their one and only pastry chef walked out. She had had enough of The Bishop’s intimidation tactics. Apparently, that doesn’t work on everybody. While it was a sore loss for the kitchen (she was probably the only decent person working there), I wasted no time requesting to fill her vacancy. I remember the night I asked him…I stood there motionless as his bloodshot eyes scanned every detail of my face. It was like looking into the eyes of a gorilla. You know there’s something going on in there, but the face reveals nothing. After a minute or two, The Bishop’s head started bobbing up and down with affirmation. “Yeah. Yeah, buddy. Let’s give that a try.” Needless to say, I was elated. I thought, rather gullibly, that The Bishop could see something in me, something I couldn’t, some latent talent even I had not detected. Only now do I realize the smile on his face was not the byproduct of discovering new talent. The Bishop was pleased because he found himself a new pastry chef for a fraction of the price he’d been paying the old one. And by fraction, I mean a very small fraction…
Every day in that kitchen was like living the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan over and over and over. But in the midst of all that confusion, I’d found a hidden wellspring inside of myself. I’d go to sleep thinking of desserts I wanted to make, and I’d wake up thinking the exact same thing. Eventually, I decided to begin making frozen confections in that small pastry kitchen. Without an ice-cream maker, one is pretty limited. But limitations can play host to all kinds of discoveries. Those limitations led me to the wonderful world of shaved ice, and the ineffable (and revelatory) granita.
Now, granita is like ice cream in two ways. It shares similar ingredients, and it is frozen. But that is where the similarities end. Granita, unlike ice cream, is frozen without air being churned into it. It requires no special gadgetry or implements, save a container and a fork. What makes granita special is the presence of large detectable ice crystals. While ice cream should be smooth and creamy, granita is jagged and crystalline. It isn’t worn smooth by continuous movement as it freezes. Instead, it is agitated only slightly as it cools and produces a frozen concoction with tiny shards of ice. The whole experience of eating granita differs from ice cream. It melts more slowly on the tongue, and can be “chewed” with the teeth. And because of its inhomogeneous texture, a sort of drama plays out in the mouth as one transitions from bracing cold ice, to sweet flavorful liquid. It’s a quality I love about granita. Each time I make it, I inevitably find myself asking, “Why don’t I make this more often?”
This time of year, almost everyone wants to talk about Honeycrisp apples. And rightly so. Honeycrisp apples are something to talk about. Their lovely green, yellow, and pink skin yield a very sweet, slightly tart interior which is perfect for snacking. It isn’t really an apple worth spoiling by any method other than chewing. That said, it has been an unseasonably hot September. And since I’m always looking for a good reason to eat granita, I thought I’d try something different. Although the following recipe is usually made with tart green apples, the Honeycrisp holds up well here alongside the zesty sour lime.
Honeycrisp Apple Lime Granita
1 Honeycrisp Apple, cored and chopped
2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed Lime juice
1/2 tsp. finely minced Lime zest
Simple Syrup, to taste (for instructions, see Watermelon Martini post)
1. Combine all the ingredients
2. Pour into a shallow glass or ceramic pan and freeze for about 2 hours,
stirring to break up the crystals every 30 minutes.
It should be slushy and crunchy with ice crystals.
If the granita becomes too hard, pulse it (do not puree) in a food processor before serving.