So you wanna be a Test Kitchen intern.... Meet Joe Moon
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It’s been a busy week in the Test Kitchen, and today is no different. We’re just wrapping up another video shoot for KTLA’s afternoon news ‘Eat Beat’ segments, taping ‘how-tos’ for recipes on whole wheat pancakes, a Dutch apple walnut loaf, fragrant nectarine jam and braised Romano beans. And we just finished testing some Culinary SOS requests we hope to run in the next few weeks.
While we’re happy it’s Friday, this is also a bittersweet day. Our intern Joe is leaving to finish his schooling at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Today is his last day.
In addition to our full-time staff, we host interns from culinary schools all over the United States, including international students. These students receive hands-on training as they learn the finer points of recipe testing and development (recipe reading, wording, problem solving, adapting for the home kitchen and testing for consistent results). The students also learn tips for food styling and interact with chefs, writers and food professionals of all kinds.
And as much as they may learn from us, we also learn a lot from them. Hailing from various regions and with diverse ethnic backgrounds, our interns bring unique perspectives and passions to our kitchen, whether it’s discussing the secret intricacies of a Texas-style ‘bowl o’ red’ or sharing a mother’s technique for making Chinese bao. What we all share is a deep love of food.
Both Michael and Leo have since returned to the Culinary Institute of America (or CIA) to resume studies, Tara has gone to gain more experience in the kitchens of New York City, and Kat is here for another week before her own internship is completed.
Here, I introduce Joe Moon.
-- Noelle Carter
When I was about 10 years old, I attempted to make a grilled cheese sandwich for the first time. I put a slice of American cheese between two slices of wheat bread and popped it in the toaster. I was only going to leave the kitchen for a few minutes to watch TV, but when I saw that my favorite cartoon was on, I was glued to the television and completely forgot about the sandwich.
After about half an hour, I ran into the kitchen. It was filled with smoke....
My sandwich had turned to charcoal. I don’t know why, but I took a bite of the burnt sandwich and it was absolutely disgusting. I was so upset I began to cry. That’s when the cooking bug bit me, and I made myself two promises: I vowed to never burn anything again, and to strive to make delicious food. Always. I’ve been cooking for years now, but until recently it was only a hobby. About two years ago, I thought about making this a profession. I began doing research on culinary schools and, after weighing my options, decided to attend the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York. After an intense first year, I have learned many of the basic fundamentals of cooking.
My internship falls in the middle of my schooling, and I’m now here at the L.A. Times Test Kitchen. In the kitchen, I’ve found I’m both using and enriching my education and experiences as I tackle the various recipes we test for the Food section. Recipe testing is something I had never done before, and while I’m still in a kitchen, the Test Kitchen is also a classroom for me. I learn something new every day, often creating many dishes I may have never seen, and using techniques that are totally new to me.
Over the last few weeks, it seems we’ve spent countless hours testing recipes for sweets, from pies to donuts to cookies. One recipe that caught my eye was a possible Culinary SOS for a strawberry coconut cake. I was excited and really wanted to make this recipe -- it was an opportunity for me to make and assemble a whole cake from scratch, for the very first time in my life.
On my first try, I had no issues with making the actual layers of the cake, the strawberry filling or the cream cheese frosting. But when it was time to assemble the cake, disaster struck. There was so much filling between the two layers of the cake that it started pouring out from the sides, making a complete mess. Soon, the top layer of the cake cracked, continuing to expand because the filling was uneven. I tried pushing the sides of the cake together to close the crack, but that only made things worse. I had no idea cakes were this fragile -- they make it look so easy on ‘Ace of Cakes.’ I thought the frosting would hide the crack, but I was wrong. Even the toasted coconut flakes that covered every inch of the cake didn’t help. It was too late. The crack was so big it looked like there was a slice missing.
This was a valuable learning experience. Noelle and I went over the cake, and she explained how cakes are assembled and the science (and engineering) behind it. I learned about cooling the cakes before frosting, leveling each layer, piping a barrier before filling the layers (and how much filling to use) and making a crumb coat to keep cake crumbs from messing up the final frosting.
On my next attempt, I found redemption. I was extremely careful with every step, and had much more confidence. Using what I learned, I prevented the cake from cracking by gently adding a thin, flat layer of filling between the two cake layers. I added my crumb coat, and then refrigerated the cake until it became firm. Then I applied the final frosting and added the toasted coconut flakes. The finished cake was beautiful. And the flavor? It was absolutely delicious. The cake was moist and had the perfect level of sweetness. The toasted coconut also added a nice crunch.
I would definitely say that after this experience I have a newfound respect for baking. Unlike savory cooking, which can be improvised and altered on the spot, baking requires a lot of detail, focus and patience. It can be very challenging, but also rewarding. Soon after I head back to the CIA, we’ll begin our baking classes, and I’m excited to use the lessons and skills I learned from that cake and other Test Kitchen recipes in my schooling.
It’s been years since I made that first grilled cheese sandwich, but every time I think about it, I think how far I’ve come and it gives me great motivation.
-- Joe Moon
**NOTE: The Culinary SOS for strawberry coconut cake is scheduled to run in the next few weeks.**
Top photo, from left: Maria Sulprizio, Mary Pat Kuppig, Joe Moon and Kat Nitsou. Photos by Noelle Carter.