I recently attended a 3 day conference sponsored by the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council which took place at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in St. Helena, CA—in the beautiful Napa Valley wine country. The CIA is housed in what used to be Christian Brothers winery—a huge old stone complex that has been turned into a culinary school, a store and a restaurant. The conference was to educate us on the culinary and nutritional benefits of using dry peas, lentils and chickpeas (or their flours) in our products. I think I was invited because we already use yellow split pea flour in our cookies. There were representatives from General Mills, Frito-Lay, Archer Daniels Midland, Mars Foodservice as well as product developers and researchers from smaller companies and ingredient suppliers. We saw well known chefs cook and bake with these pulses and their flours and then we also had lots of hands-on experiences in the amazing kitchens. And of course, we ate a lot!
We all had to wear chef toques and white coats in the kitchens. My first assignment was to make gluten free crackers (I’m not kidding! No one knew who I was) using corn flour and starch, lentil flour and various seeds and seasonings. Everything was pre-weighed and measured for us so it was just a matter of mixing and rolling, cutting and baking. It was a lot of fun to be in these huge institutional kitchens with every possible tool available to us. For instance, these crackers were supposed to be rolled to a millimeter thick so one of the chefs took our dough that we had rolled between two sheets of parchment paper and put it in the “sheeter” which was like a giant pasta machine. It was bigger than a large dining room table and took the dough, paper and all, and rolled it to the thickness that you set it on. Since the seeds were thicker than a millimeter, we couldn’t get it down that low, but almost. Once they were rolled out I pulled off the top piece of paper and cut them with a pizza cutter, put them on a pan and in the oven. They turned out pretty good—the texture was nice but I would have added more flavoring.
Another of my tasks later on was to bake a gluten free pound cake that had pea flour as well as the typical rice, tapioca, and potato flours. Everything again was weighed and measured and marked ahead of time. Luckily, my partner and I were both familiar with making cakes and when we noticed a BOWL of baking powder we knew something was wrong. Somehow a tablespoon had turned into a couple of cups!! The cakes turned out really well, but then when you use a ton of butter, eggs and sugar you really can’t go wrong no matter what flours you use.
It was interesting to see very formally trained chefs and Master Bakers try to make gluten free baked goods. We made gluten free biscuits, cake donuts, cookies, crackers, cakes and bread. The flour bases they used were various configurations of white rice, brown rice, tapioca, potato starch and then soy, lentil, pea or chickpea flour. Texturally the products turned out well (except the bread) but there was very little flavor. I was so excited to see one group making the gluten free donuts. They looked good but I thought they were very bland. It makes me want to take their recipe and work on it to get it to taste better. There are so many healthful and flavorful ingredients that they could have used to give everything more nutrition and more flavor. It seems that when you are more formally trained, it’s harder to think outside the box. They are used to using all-purpose flour for their baking so they turn to very white, refined gluten free ingredients to replace that.
I learned the most from a couple of the famous TV and restaurant chefs who love food, flavors and textures and know how to talk about it in poetic ways. It’s one thing to be expert in food preparation but it takes a whole other skill to be able to talk about it all in an entertaining (and sometimes hysterically funny) way while demonstrating your cooking skills. On a foundation of discipline and experience, play, experimentation and pleasure were what made them excel and I identified with that philosophy the most. I hope that comes through in our food and in our company!