Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Pastry chef Mark Okumura's Poppy Seed Macadamia Nut Dacquoise resembles a sushi roll when sliced. He's topping it with lilikoi sorbet and serving it in New York next week.

Sweet reward

Poppy seeds provide chef with
a chance to shine at the
James Beard Awards

By Betty Shimabukuro

You've been selected to be a guest chef at the James Beard Foundation awards night gala (cheers; what an honor). You get to go to New York and cook alongside some real big shots (Ming Tsai, for example). Great chefs from all over the world will taste your creation (more cheers; what an opportunity).

The theme of the dinner is "Spice Connection," and your assigned spice is -- poppy seed! (Oh dear.)

Mark Okumura, pastry chef for Alan Wong's Restaurant, recalls taking the news, well, not too calmly. "Oh my God, poppy seed? What is that? All I could think of was bundt cake or muffins."

And you don't take bundt cake to the James Beard Awards.

The culinary world's Big Night is Monday, when the James Beard Foundation recognizes the top chefs of the year. Two Hawaii chefs -- George Mavrothalassitis of Chef Mavro in Honolulu and Edwin Goto of the Maunalani Bay Hotel and Bungalows on the Big Island -- are up for the regional title Chef of the Northwest/Hawaii. If one of them wins, he'll be only the third from Hawaii to claim the honor, after Roy Yamaguchi and Okumura's boss, Wong.

Mark Okumura sliced his pastry roll during a sampling at Alan Wong's Restaurant last week.

The awards presentation draws an international collection of industry professionals, not to mention media. They come to meet and mingle, and a whirl of parties keeps them stylishly entertained in the nights leading up to the event. The awards gala itself is expected to draw 1,800 guests, at $250 per ticket.

An invitation to be among the 36 chefs serving at the gala is a rare opportunity. "I was shocked, actually, that I was asked to do it," Okumura says.

It's such an honor that the chefs willingly donate their time, their food and cover most of their own expenses. The foundation allows just $300 to subsidize plane fare and two nights in a hotel. The glamour is short-lived, Okumura says. "I fly in (May) fourth, I have the fifth to prep, the sixth is the event and I'm back on the seventh."

The pressure is on. His dessert must be Beard-worthy, able to withstand the world's most critical taste buds. And he has to do it with poppy seed.

Why couldn't it be chocolate? "Exactly," he says. "Or vanilla, or anything like that."

The only time he worked with the spice before was one Halloween, when he made pumpkin andagi and used poppy seeds to add a sprinkling of black to the orange doughnuts. Again, not something you can take to the James Beard Awards.

AND NOW for a quick lesson on the poppy plant: When the pods are immature, they ooze opium, a black sludge that gives us morphine, codeine and heroin. Let them mature, though, and you have harmless poppyseeds. The seeds are nutty in flavor, but mild, and are considered a good pairing with lemony flavors, thus the lemon-poppy-seed muffin.

Norman Van Aken, coordinating chef for the awards gala, selected Okumura, gave him his assignment and believes him to be up to it, based on having worked with the pastry chef several years ago during a visit to Hawaii. More importantly, Van Aken says, "I've tasted his food. That was No. 1."

He insists that a million things can be done with poppy seeds, but not by him. "Besides eating a bagel with them, I don't know." Actually, they're not a part of his New World cuisine, founded on the flavors of his Florida home and its Caribbean neighbors.

In the larger world of spices, though, Van Aken moves with ease. The one-time James Beard winner based his cuisine on foods that the new world gave to the old once Columbus passed through.

For the gala, Van Aken has also assigned chefs to cumin, ginseng, star anise, mustard seed, saffron, licorice and more.

Back to Okumura's dilemma. Eventually he settled on a poppyseed dacquoise, a French pastry made of meringue and ground nuts, macadamia nuts in this case. The pastry is baked into sheets, which are rolled up, sushi-style, with a filling of lilikoi curd, a sweet spread made with butter and eggs. He'll also be freezing up a lilikoi sorbet.

The poppy seeds will be baked into the pastry, so he'll have fulfilled his mission, and included flavors of Hawaii.

Getting all of this to New York, though, is another challenge. He'll make the pastry rolls here, then pack up 50 of them for the flight. He'll also pack his sorbet mix into a cooler, to be frozen in New York, where he'll be prepared to serve up to 1,000 portions.

It's daunting, Okumura admits. "At first it was, 'All right, I'm invited to the event!' But as it gets closer ... it's scary."

Okumura's dessert has four parts -- the pastry, the lilikoi curd filling, sorbet and vanilla sauce. To complete all those elements is too complicated a project for most home kitchens, but Okumura says the pastry itself isn't that difficult and forms the basis of a dessert that's bound to impress.

If you picked up a homemade jar of lilikoi curd at a recent school fair or church bazaar, this is a great way to use it. Otherwise, unless you can find a jar at a craft fair or food specialty shop, substitute lemon or orange curd and a matching sorbet. For lilikoi sorbet, you'll have to go to an ice cream shop such as Tropilicious.

The dacquoise can also be used with a chocolate filling, or even with a fruit jam. If rolling the pastry is too complicated, you can cut it into small shapes and layer it. Also, the macadamia nuts can be swapped for almonds or hazel nuts.

Poppy Seed Macadamia Nut Dacquoise

2-1/3 cups egg whites
1 cup plus 1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1-2/3 cup finely ground macadamia nuts
3 tablespoons poppy seeds
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons sugar
1 ounce (1/4 cup minus 1 teaspoon) flour
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 cup prepared lilikoi curd
Lilikoi sorbet
>> Hawaiian Vanilla Anglaise:
1 cup milk
3 ounces (6 tablespoons) sugar
1/4 vanilla bean, split
4 egg yolks, beaten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two half-sheet jelly roll pans with parchment.

Whip egg whites and first portion of sugar into a meringue. Mixture should form firm peaks (do not whip until dry). Combine ground nuts, poppy seeds, remaining sugar and flour; fold into meringue. Fold butter into meringue. Pour evenly into the prepared pans.

Bake 20 to 30 minutes, until golden. Cool in refrigerator.

Lift parchment to remove pastry from pan; peel off parchment and place pastry on a fresh sheet (or reuse old parchment if it's not torn). Spread filling evenly over pastry and, using parchment in the manner of a sushi mat, roll pastry lengthwise. Slice each roll into 10 1-inch pieces. Or, cut the pastry into uniform pieces and layer them with filling.

To make anglaise: Combine milk, sugar and vanilla in a pot and bring to a boil. Temper egg yolks by adding a small amount of the milk mixture to them, stir to warm the eggs, then add eggs to the pot. Remove from heat, then stir a few times, just until thickened. Strain over an ice-water bath (strain through a fine sieve into a bowl placed over another bowl of ice water) and stir to cool.

To serve: Place a pastry slice on a plate; top with sorbet. Pour sauce around.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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