Making A Spectacle of Myself, Part Two

They say time flies when you’re having fun.  Guess what?  Time flies even faster when you’re trying to prep for a rapidly approaching cooking demo in front of an audience of 150 people.

I had reached the stage at the New York Botanical Garden with an hour and fifteen minutes before the start of my first demo at 1pm.  In order to pull off a successful show, I’d have to start the demonstration having already prepared batches of roasted garlic and caramelized onion, as well as a finished, or nearly finished, pan of caramelized onion bread pudding.  The roasted garlic component would require, at minimum, 45 minutes in the oven, while the onions would need a good 20 minutes on the stove.  The bread pudding needed to bake for 40 minutes, if not more.  With all of this in mind, the timing of the prep and assembly would be critical.

Here’s what I learned from doing this demo – the relative organization of the portion of the stage that is visible to the audience is not an indicator of what’s happening behind the scenes.  The New York Botanical Garden was nice enough to set up large fans to keep the air flowing under the tent, but every time I peeled a clove of garlic, the airflow would blow the loose skins up into the air like ticker tape.  I would take my knife, bash the clove, peel off the skin, and it would float onto the floor – but I was in too much of a hurry to stop.  Eventually, the carpeted floor behind the counter was filled with skins, swirling about as if I had stepped into a garlicky snowglobe.

The whirlwind of activity on the stage soon attracted curious onlookers, who filed into the seating area to watch.  Some of them even started taking photos and video. The New York Botanical Garden had provided me with an assistant, which was a total blessing – he assumed the task of peeling the garlic cloves while I separated them.  By noon, I had unpeeled cloves of garlic roasting in the oven, and five cups of onions sauteing on the stove.  By 12:30, I had assembled the bread pudding and put it into the oven.  I was in as good a shape as I had ever hoped to be.

I had just enough time to run to the restroom, returning to the stage with only a minute to spare.  In just that brief period, the number of occupied seats had ballooned – it wasn’t a full house, but the open-air environment allowed for a far greater number of audience members than an indoor stage in a department store.  The emcee announced my name, the name of my site, and I started my presentation.

The next 45 minutes flew by, thankfully with minimal hiccups.  I was able to demonstrate the use of a mandoline to breeze through the slicing of an onion in ten seconds, showed the audience the sauteing of the onions, followed by a quick cut to the pot of caramelized onions that were ready for their close-up.  I showed how to dress unpeeled garlic cloves for roasting (salt, pepper, olive oil) and popped those into the oven, whereupon I magically removed the packet of roasted garlic that I had strategically started cooking at noon.  The same process produced the reveal for the caramelized onion bread pudding, a proud moment that saw me lift a casserole high into the air, with the requisite oohs and ahhs from the crowd.

What was most surprising, though, was the level of interest and enthusiasm during the Q&A session that followed.  People were genuinely intrigued by the recipes, the same recipes that I had become almost numb to during recipe testing and evaluation.  I asked if there were any questions, and hands shot into the air.  Many of the inquiries focused on substitutions – whether you could replace the dairy entirely with low-fat milk, or if you could use a different kind of cheese.

My favorite exchange occurred when an audience member asked whether she could substitute egg whites for the whole eggs.  I told her that, considering the recipe calls for six eggs for the entire pan of bread pudding, which was large enough to feed a crowd as a side dish, an individual serving would probably contain fewer than half of an egg’s worth of cholesterol.  As I watched her ponder the math of it all, I added that, if she’s worried about fat and cholesterol, she ought to have been much more concerned with the two cups of Gruyere that get melted on top of the bread pudding.  Laughter ensues, end scene.

Get the Roasted Garlic Soup recipe!

Get the Caramelized Onion Bread Pudding recipe!