Sunday, September 20, 2009

Small change

Eating well is one of my greatest pleasures. Ironically, it also became much more of an effort once I started culinary school. Some days have been so busy, it is almost a bother. I ended up reconciling this by purchasing much more ready-made cuisine whilst in Paris. It’s not my top preference, but I was often short on time and was trying to manage my expenses by not eating in restaurants too often. But the irony of the situation was undeniable: Whilst I would be spending up to 3 hours making beautiful cakes during class, for meal times I did not really have the time or kitchen space at Isabelle’s flat to do more than microwaving or quick cooking on the stove top.

The marvelous thing about France is the enormous choice of products available in the supermarket. You can pretty much find any type of dish in a heat & eat format. Many of these are endorsed by chefs such as Paul Bocuse or with recipes adapted from well-regarded restaurants. Every ethnic dish can be found and of course all the old standbys of French cuisine are all available. And some of it gets quite inventive…snacks such as tangy Roquefort cheese wrapped in crispy crepes; or ready to eat individual polenta portions, done in an array of flavors and colors (yeah, try finding that either of those in a Geneva Migros!)

That first week of classes, I was food shopping in the Monoprix on rue Lecourbe, admiring the range of choice not to mention the alluring packaging. Of course, I ended up buying more than I expected, including different ready to eat exotic vegetable purees, multigrain crisp breads, fresh egg pastas and my beloved ravioles dauphinoises, steamed asian dumplings, wonderful looking soups and some delightful pots de crème for dessert. For just over 25 euros, I had a range of stuff to keep my tastebuds entertained for the rest of the week I was there. So much of the supermarket experience caters for the time poor, single person who lives in Paris with virtually no kitchen (and quite often no oven at all – shock and horror!). Packages are small but no effort is spared on providing an excellent array of variety and tempting choices.

As I stood there in the check-out queue, I happened to notice the man in front of me. He wasn’t especially distinctive in appearance, but compared to me and many others in the queue, his purchase was so small, not even requiring use of a shopping basket - a small can of bean cassoulet and a box of chocolate biscuits. I recall that he looked a bit agitated, as if he was really eager to get out of the queue and be on his way. But it was 9.30pm so even that wouldn’t be considered unusual I suppose – everyone in that queue (including me) was feeling that way. But for whatever reason, I noticed him. He reached the front of the queue and his purchases were rung up. The total was something small, like 2.55 euros. It was then that I noticed him carefully counting out the exact amount in euro pennies and pieces jaunes, a rather pained look on his face when he handed the clerk the last 5 cents in his palm. The clerk heaved a large sigh, counting all his coppery change as if it were a large chore. Then man quietly bagged his purchases, said thank you and left.

I completed my purchase and stepped out of the store, and spotted the same man again. Sitting quietly on the pavement with his knapsack, a plastic cup and the purchase he’d just made, it was now clear to me that he was homeless. Having watched what he purchased and all the small coins he’d used to buy those two humble items, I suddenly felt overwhelming sadness. I usually pass by these people without giving anything, often wondering what difference 5 cents could ever make …or just assuming that my donation will be used to pay for drugs or alcohol. But having seen what I’d just seen at the checkout, I’m guessing it probably took him most of the day to collect the small amount he’d just spent on beans and cookies. Meanwhile, I’d had the luxury of choice and abundance and was on my way to a comfortable place in which to enjoy it. I walked over to him, smiled and gave him all my change. “Merci beaucoup, madame” was all he said, his eyes meeting mine sincerely for only a moment then glancing down to his hands which were holding the cup of coins. There is definitely more I could do on this front, the first step being for me to gain a lot more sensitivity to the issue, but I felt I’d gained a valuable insight.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Screaming Red Baba

I was having trouble maintaining a straight face as I sat there in my first Superior Patisserie demonstration. It had to do with the fact that Chef Deguignet had hooked up a Wagner Power Painter and was spraying a rum baba with red tinted cocoa butter. More specifically, A LOT of red tinted cocoa butter. In the process, he was spraying the entire front row of students with the mixture as well.

As it was a warm Paris afternoon, I’d chosen my seat location in the middle of the demo room to stay comfortably close to the air conditioning vent. Yet I suddenly felt even more justified by my choice. I only had one (still white) uniform with me in Paris this week, and I was in no mood to spend an entire summer evening sponging off red dye – the weather outside was just too lovely to waste. Amazingly, through this whole spraying incident, the first row of students just sat there numbly, ineffectively shielding themselves behind their class binders as the power painter roared out a giant, red cloud of mist. Chef D then asked for volunteers to hold up the drop-cloth of plastic film whilst he continued spraying (what!?) and few punishment gluttons rose from the front row, putting them in even closer range to the spray nozzle. I just shook my head and smiled to myself. I was suddenly reminded of my first visit to Sea World and chuckled… at first I was really upset that I didn't get a tank-side seat; then the giant, jumping Shamu arrives on the scene and frankly I was oh so glad to be somewhere towards the back.

Funnier still was why Chef D had chosen to paint this otherwise traditional and attractive looking cake with so much red dye. I mean, the final garnish was going to be a series of fruits rouges, so it seemed to me that a natural toned cake would provide a better contrast for this. So I tried to sit there respectfully and observe as quietly as possible, when suddenly I was imagining hilarious punchlines to jokes not yet invented. All of these musings were about going off to Paris and coming home with a screaming red baba. It sounded like something that you’d never tell your mother and which might indeed require prescription medicine…certainly not something that would be eaten. When I was afraid the my convulsive giggling would risk my expulsion from class, I pretended to reach for something under my seat to conceal my emotions from Chef D.

Baba au Rhum is a mainstay of French patisserie, although according to Wikipedia the origins are from Eastern Europe. It is a light, yeast-leavened cake which is baked in a ring mold then heavily imbibed with sugar syrup and rum. The recipe’s arrival in France dates back to the 1700’s, when Marie Leczinska of Poland brought it with her to her royal post as Queen Consort to Louis XV. This adopted delice was therefore served up for a king who apparently had no teeth but liked his cakes nonetheless.

The cake preparation was simple enough. All the ingredients were mixed and placed into ring molds, the cake was left to rise in a slightly heated oven, and then it was baked. The baked cake ring is quite dry, and in this state can be preserved for several weeks before consuming. For serving, the baba is then plunged into a large bowl of sweetened rum syrup which softens the texture and makes it suitable to eat. For our babas, we infused the syrup with fresh grapefruit and orange segments which livened the taste of the rum and added a some flavor complexity. The baba was then filled with a crème diplomate, topped with assorted berries and garnished with powdered sugar if desired. Simple and quite attractive in its simplicity – apart from the red dye he’d sprayed all over it!

Then came the tasting session. The finished red baba just lay there looking like a giant inflamed blister alongside the natural colored babas. Chef D didn’t cut into it, and no one made a move for it. Rare indeed, as we are all generally fighting like schoolkids for any leftovers following a tasting session. I didn’t bother to take a picture of this red giant, but instead just share the photos of my own au naturel baba.

Funnily enough, I discovered the screaming red baba was still loitering on the school premises the following week. As class assistant, I’d gone downstairs to the kitchen pantry to retrieve ingredients for our practical. There, behind a bin of lemons, I spotted the red baba looking ever flushed if slightly withered, shoved almost to the back of the cooler. I guess maybe someone might eat it eventually…then again, it could be easily left there until next December to dry and be converted to a Christmas tree stand. Endless creative possibilities were emerging, but I was still happier to forego the dye job and serve it up for tea time.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Fire Dancing and The Attack of Les Croquembouches

Chef Cotte stood before us in the demo, placing the last decorative touches on a massive croquembouche. The thing was half as tall as I was, and he’d only burned his fingers once on the hot caramel…using that moment as an invaluable instruction to us on what to do in case we personally experienced a sugar burn (wipe first, then go for the ice water!). So I was thoroughly impressed and fully engaged in the entire demonstration, at least until he served the champagne.

Croquembouche was to be the final lesson in Intermediate Patisserie – hence the celebratory champagne - yet the lesson would consist of many firsts. This classic cake of French patisserie would be our first effort in constructing a piece montee, also our first formal effort in working with confectionary. For all of its impressive posturing, croquembouche was basically a pile of crisp, caramel-coated cream puffs assembled on a crown of almond nougatine, decorated with almond dragees and royal icing. The final appearance was part igloo-like, part Statue of Liberty in appearance. Despite the high risk of personal injury from sugar burns, for the mere fact it didn’t just lie horizontally but had 3 dimensional shape, I knew I was going to love it. The drama that ensued was an unexpected treat as well – but more on that bit later.

Croquembouche is often served at French wedding ceremonies. The name literally means ‘to crunch in the mouth’ – which I imagine refers to the eating sensations and not any relationship unpleasantries that might follow the ceremony. If you go to Martha Stewart’s website, you can see a particularly beautiful version that also incorporates pulled sugar decorations as part of the finished result. Yet, as with most of our lessons, our version would be quite straightforward in terms of decoration, with the main focus of getting us firmly grounded in working with nougatine and achieving a clean assembly of the mounted piece. For sure, this would be enough of a challenge.

We would need two practical sessions to complete this project. In the first practical, we’d make our nougatine and construct the base and ornamentation for the finished cake. Nougatine is little more than sugar cooked to caramel stage, then sliced almonds are stirred in and the mixture is poured out onto a well oiled baking sheet that is kept in a temperate oven to keep the mixture at a workable temperature. Small amounts of the nougatine are rolled out and either molded around forms or cut into decorative shapes before the mixture sets hard. So you not only had to be fast, you had to be slightly crazy to convince yourself that picking up molten blobs of caramel in your bare hands was actually a logical idea. As well, you had to be accurate in choosing your working portions, taking only what you needed for each step to avoid overworking the nougatine and thus crushing the sliced almonds to a pulp. If the nougatine was overworked this way, it looked less translucent and appealing, and more like that ugly chipboard material you buy at Home Depot.

I got through the first practical with good results. Surprisingly my hands were not overly sensitive to the nougatine, so I was able to work quickly without a great deal of discomfort to myself. I made good time and accomplished all my steps, even creating some extra ornaments for the top of the cake. I figured this would be a good idea, since the risk of breakage between now and the next practical was actually quite high.

The second practical was the baking, filling and glazing of the choux puffs, plus the final assembly of the cake. That’s when the blisters arrived, as I started to dip my choux puffs into the hot caramel. We had done this before during the St. Honore practical in Basic, so I wasn’t a total newcomer to the process, yet still I managed to damage myself when a rivulet of caramel from one of the dipped puffs touched my finger tips. It was my only tribal outburst in the class, when I briefly hooted and jumped like a Comanche as the hot caramel seared the tender skin just beneath my fingernails. Recalling Chef Cotte’s advice, I wiped off the burning sugar from my skin as quickly as possible and spared myself a much worse injury. I spent the next few minutes soaking up to the wrist in a pan of ice water before I decided it was safe to play with fire again.

As each of us worked on the assembly of our cake, we had many ‘visitors’ passing through the lab area. This consisted mostly of chefs from other practical sessions, but also some of the other staff members – like marketing and admin people, many of whom I hadn’t seen since orientation day in September. Suddenly everyone and their dog was casually browsing through the lab on the premise of observing our amazing techniques and skills. Yeah right. From what I could see, everyone was scouting for any extra, freshly made choux puffs which were filled with pastry cream and dipped in caramel.

Chef Lesourd, who teaches in cuisine and who was amongst the many visiting snack-mongers that day, approached my work area. I don’t really know him well, but we chatted briefly about the cake and what it represented in French culture. We compared it with an American wedding cake, which is typically much more towering and elaborated, and almost always topped by a bride and groom figurine in lieu of a nougatine ornament. At this point, I offered him some of my leftover choux buns which he accepted without hesitation. For whatever crazy reason that possessed me, at that point I placed my kitchen towel on my head like a veil and took his arm playfully, and we proceeded to do a mock marriage procession around the work area - much to the amusement of Aurore, David, Alberto and Chef Tranchant. I’m about a foot taller than Chef Lesourd so I guess it must have looked even funnier than I expected it to.

At the conclusion of the second practical, it was 9pm. Everyone was now heading downstairs to the winter garden with their croquembouche in tow. Alberto was going to take his home, as his son’s birthday was tomorrow and it would be eagerly devoured by a group of 10 year olds who could actually survive this much sucrose in one serving. The rest of us had varying plans with our cakes, some of which seemed particularly ambitious when the mode of transport was subway, not to mention the short shelf-life of the cake itself. Despite all these factors, as it had been such a fun lesson, and such a great group of people during the whole term, we decided we’d all go for one last drink before heading home.

The Val Girard is a plain little place that sits just near the Vaugirard metro station, just a short walk from the school’s entrance, and it has become an occasional hangout for LCB students. It kinda looks like the brasserie that time forgot, sporting a heavily worn interior decor from the late 70’s along with some random neon and quite a few strange pictures on the walls. Nothing really makes sense or makes the place seem inviting, except that the two brothers who run the place. They are quite young, extra friendly, always smiling and welcoming, and will even let the patisserie entourage store cakes in their bar fridge whilst we are on the premises. For these reasons, many of us will drop by for a coffee or a drink after class.

Despite the friendly ambiance, you can still imagine the startled reactions of the fraternal pair – not to mention the 10 or so well-imbibed patrons in the establishment - when 6 pastry students came strolling in just past 9pm, each one carrying a wedding cake and with 5 of us placing our creation carefully on the bar as our drinks were ordered, as if this were normal practice.

One of the older barflys sat there looking dumbfounded with a cigarette dangling loosely from his lips, assessing the total procession as he fumbled frantically for his lighter. The incendiary risk became suddenly apparent to me; between his flying shots of whisky and all that sucrose, one misdirected spark from his lighter might create a flambe of rather comic proportions. I smiled to myself as I shook off the thought, then sat down with my group to drink my Coke.

A middle-aged man and woman came over with their beer in hand to where we were all sitting and started talking to us. In addition to swapping stories about our pastry lessons and where we were all from, they complimented us on our cakes, turning their heads back towards the bar to admire the 5 golden towers of choux. I was leaving for Geneva at 7am the next morning, I had no intent of dragging it back on TGV, and no place to store the mammoth overnight. So I offered them to sample my cake. And of course, as with any food in my possession, I was sincere in my offer…but given the time of night and location I just didn’t expect them to say yes. Or that the other customers would partake as well.

It was at this moment that a feeding frenzy broke out. As if on cue, a butter knife was located from behind the bar and suddenly all the customers were digging in wholeheartedly, hacking off clumps of choux puffs and nougatine and passing them around on drink coasters, then wolfing down their serving between gulps of beer or cocktails. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Some were not even waiting for knife access, and began hacking at the beast with those plastic swizzle sticks that look like pirate swords. Who says peanuts are the bar snack of choice, especially when team Cordon Bleu are in the neighborhood? The only pause in this commotion around the croquembouche was all the smiling from the patrons, who were raising their drinks in appreciation towards our table or coming over to personally thank me for the treat.

I watched the older barfly – the one who’d observed us upon entering the premises – strike up a conversation with one of the other women who’d been sitting at the bar. All I really remember about the woman is that she had on some knitted beret that didn’t match the rest of her outfit. Based on the looks on each of their faces, I could only imagine that their conversation had something to do with marital themes. Either they were talking about marriages that no longer were, or he was proposing a less permanent type of engagement – needless to say, even Ray Charles could see that there was some definite chemistry going on (and I don’t mean the type that creates a sugar molecule).

Suddenly – loud music! Not just any music, but some twanging bluesy-honky tonk stuff that cranked up from a speaker behind the bar, the kind that gets toes tapping and hips swaying. I wouldn’t expect to hear this music in Paris, but here I was being once again surprised by the hidden secrets of this city. Barfly and his lady friend wasted no time in hopping off their stools in full eye-lock to begin gyrating in earnest next to the bar. Again I imagined the high incendiary risk of this activity – this time due to friction or just their intense laser-like gazes creating burn holes into each others torsos. Alberto, David and I shot each other quizzical looks and laughed quietly into our drinks. The gyrating continued at the bar entrance, which now included foot twisting action and some vertical descents – or at least serious attempts in that direction. After all, it was an older crowd. I wondered if the floor mat beneath these two would survive the tryst; even in this damp weather it might possibly catch on fire due to the heavy friction and sexual sparks that were flying.

The activity around the bar area was working wonders for attracting customers though. As people approached the stairway to the metro, they’d glance in curiously at the row of cakes and dancing; quite a few would walk in, especially if they happened to catch the welcoming face of one of the brothers. As new customers entered, a drink coaster full of croquembouche was offered up with the drink order – and surprisingly I didn’t see one person decline. Soon enough, there was nothing left of my cake but a couple of smashed puffs, so Diana - another student in my group - offered up her croquembouche to keep the generosity going.

Diana is an adorable, 19 year old girl from Venezuela. She smiled sweetly as she bobbed up to the bar to identify her cake to the brothers, looking a bit like a girl scout on a sales mission, her long ponytail swinging behind her. As Diana approached, I suddenly watched Barfly’s gaze shift away from the woman in the beret. Studying Diana’s cute profile, it was like he had never seen anyone so amazing in his life (or at least for the last 4 drinks). Diana chatted with the brothers, then briefly with the dancing couple, but with the music so loud there was no way I could hear their conversation. Based on the body language I could see however, I could already guess what Barfly was asking her. Diana smiled shyly, lowered her eyes and politely shook her head, but still Barfly took her by the hands and was pulling her into the makeshift dance floor that had once been the door mat. He kept a socially acceptable distance from her, but he was using every muscle in his lower extremities to lure her into his zone of seduction. Barfly’s woman, now feeling the competitive energy, whipped off her beret and neck scarf in one final attempt to redirect his attention her way, but for the moment it seemed to be in vain.

Back at the table, we were all nearly dying with laughter at the sight of this, and continued clapping along with the music which moved into a couple of Stevie Ray Vaughn tracks. With Diana now engulfed in the fray, even if involuntarily, all other repressed honky tonk dancers in the vicinity now felt liberated to enter the gyration zone that had once been the door mat. Diana looked a bit nervous about the increasing numbers around her, but smiled beautifully and kept giggling as she danced along. Jean-Marie, another girl from our group, got up to dance, possibly on a ‘Save Diana’ rescue mission. Whatever her motivations, I applauded her pro-activity with a thumbs up sign and as the familiar sounds of Vaughn’s “Cold Shot” twanged away, I briefly considered joining them myself.

The middle-aged couple got up from their table, ordered more beer and made their way to Diana’s croquembouche where they hacked off yet another serving and returned to their seats smiling. For all I knew, this could have been some badly planned wedding reception in downtown Memphis, with Uncle Louie feeling sexy after too many beers, a beautiful cake but ugly reception hall, and a number of unidentifiable distant cousins eating all available food in sight. The only thing that was missing now was a fist fight, the dispatching of police, and the need for a bail bond. I decided it would probably be better for everyone if we could avoid that ending.

Alberto caught my peripheral vision and pointed towards my watch as if to ask for the time, which was now well past 10pm. It seemed everyone still seated at our table took this a cue to pack up and leave. Alberto carefully lifted his croquembouche from the seat of the booth where it had been resting safely this past hour, and I saw the eyes of the middle-aged couple light up and track his every move, as if to say “oh yeah- we’ll be here as long as you’ve got cake.” We waved at them across the room and smiled good bye, as well as to Barfly and his newly rediscovered temptress who appeared to be rekindling their firemaking in light of Diana’s eminent departure.

We managed to squeeze through the caramel-fuelled mosh pit at the entrance, successfully shielding Alberto’s croquembouche from any final impassioned swipes, and pulling Diana and Jean-Marie to complete safety just before the door shut behind us. As I glanced over my shoulder one last time, I saw the two brothers waving at us happily as I glanced whilst the 3 remaining cakes sat glistening in their caramel glaze atop the bar. I gave them a nod and a smile. I hope their fire insurance policy was up to date...afterall, it was only 10:15pm and there were still 3 more croquembouche to go.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Triomphe of the Nerds

As a complete antithesis to the hip Passionata, the next cake we would make was to be much more conservative in appearance. During the final minutes of the demonstration, as I watched Chef Tranchant put the finishing touches on his work, I immediately thought about tweed blazers with suede elbow patches, cashmere turtlenecks, leather-bound reference books, and mahogany smoking pipes of the academic world. I guess it was the varying shades of beige and brown that led me there.

It had nothing to do with the taste, mind you. In many ways, Triomphe aux Noix was indeed a triumph on the taste front - a wonderful combination of caramel mousse and caramel glaze, sitting atop a base of caramel-imbibed sponge and topped with candied walnuts. The mousse was light and not too sweet, and the tantalizing flavor of the caramel was infused into each of the layers comprising the cake. The base of the cake was a walnut sponge, but made extra light through the use of potato starch in place of the flour. At the post-demonstration tasting, I imagined enjoying this cake with a hot cup of Earl Grey or a good espresso and felt my taste buds quiver in anticipation.

The practical was efficient and I was happy with my results. Once again, red food dye was part of the lesson – surprisingly to give a bit of color depth to the caramel glaze. I was lucky in my color application and ended up with a warm shade of brown, but a few people overshot the target and were living with a vermillion colored top on their cake.

I realized that I’d be traveling back to Geneva with both Passionata and Triomphe to share with friends. It would be a rather unlikely combination, given that usually I had only one cake at a time to carry back, also given that the two cakes were quite distinctive in appearance. I chuckled when I realized that, in combination, the two cakes where like the lead characters in that movie “Educating Rita” where an outspoken hairdresser comes to The Open University and strikes up an unlikely friendship with a rather crusty English professor.

That weekend in my tiny apartment I had several friends stop by to sample the gateaux (at staggered times of course, or I wouldn’t have had enough space to seat everyone). Both cakes were admired and enjoyed, but in terms of taste alone, surprisingly it was the Triomphe that seemed to be the bigger crowd pleaser between the two options. If people opted for a second serving, it was more likely the Triomphe that won out. Like fashion, sometimes it’s better to stick with the classics.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It's not the size of your pocket translator, it's what you do with it...!

Paris is a glamorous, vivacious and highly entertaining city...especially when you have time and money to spare. In my case, it seems my priorities are always directed elsewhere. I’m trying to keep to a fixed budget, and as I’ve opted to work part-time whilst going to school, when I’m not at school I am usually working. Hence, I keep a very low profile in all respects.

Working remotely from Paris offers many challenges, but somehow I always manage. Le Cordon Bleu and the room I rent from Isabelle are both located in a very quiet area to the south of the 15th arrondissement. Sadly, Isabelle's WiFi is inaccessible to me (some inexplicable technical glitch) Meanwhile, the Paris office of my employer is a 45-minute commute north by metro and RER to zone 3, which is outside the city. So unless I have at least a half day to devote to work responsibilities, I tend to work remotely. And I have come to rely on a few places in my neighborhood where I can access the WiFi and work for a couple hours without having to go all the way to the Paris office. My favorite haunts are the Novotel Vaugirard and the McDonald’s on Rue de la Convention.

The Novotel is closest to where I live and is moderately serene & beautiful; with a large, marbled atrium lobby filled with contemporain furnishings and large post-modernist sculptures. I can duck in virtually unnoticed by staff and I usually grab the corner table (complete with power outlet!) which is neatly tucked behind one of these sculptures. I’m virtually invisible to the reception desk and not officially in the restaurant area, so I tend to be left alone. The only details to manage in this location are acoustics and fragrance; when the lobby fills up with people the sound can be overwhelming, and then there is this spritzer lady who circulates every hour or so to re-apply aromatherapy scent to all the statues. No, I’m not joking – scent is evidently some equity element Novotel are trying to own. Anyway, to my credit on being unnoticed, one time the spritzer lady almost doused me as she made her way around the statue.

The McDo has an upstairs dining area which is typically not busy. There is no aromatherapy (apart from the smell of fries cooking downstairs) and the prevailing sound is the dull chatter of diners and the occasional beeping from a frying appliance. They advertise their free WiFi, so I don’t have to hide behind statues or order anything from the menu. For virtue of low traffic and lack of an extremely punctual spritzer lady, sometimes I actually prefer going here – but only when I don’t need to work an extended period since there is no power outlet.

Because I am constantly on the go in Paris, always changing in and out of a uniform and hat, my face breaking a sweat in the hot kitchens - I tend to go very low key on wardrobe and personal grooming. Don’t panic – I’ve not gone totally French so I am still showering everyday (tee hee!) But I’m just not making much effort beyond that with regard to hair or makeup. So you’ll usually find me in jeans and a simple top, one practical bag that holds all my gear for work and school, my hair scraped back into a bun or ponytail, with sensible shoes that allow me to run if necessary.

That particular day, I’d had 2 back-to-back classes in the afternoon, so I decided after dinner that I would go work at the Novotel. But that evening the Novotel appeared to be having some major convention – the lobby was packed with people wearing black and drinking wine and socializing. Clearly I would not blend in tonight! So I wandered further down Vaugirard to the McDo and spent the evening working upstairs until my battery died.

By that point it was around 11pm and I was on my way back to Isabelle’s, which is a 20 minute walk from the McDo. I was about halfway home when suddenly I had the sensation I was being followed. I turned my head slightly and my suspicions were confirmed when a flash of movement caught my peripheral vision. Relying on the self-defense training I’d been taught, I decided to turn around and face my follower – based on the premise that if they have bad intentions then taking a good look can prove discouraging (since you can identify them later on). So firmly clutching my notebook computer and the strap of my handbag on my shoulder, I spun around.

About 3 steps behind me was a teenage boy. Maybe he wasn’t actually a teenager – but he was certainly much younger than me and appeared to still have acne flare-ups. I’m not sure at what point he’d started following me or for how long – maybe he’d been at the McDo. So whilst I didn’t feel threatened, I looked at him as if to say, ‘and so, what do you want?’

“Bonsoir” he said then began to banter out a string of colloquial dialogue in very accelerated French. It was late, I was tired and his energetic canter was too quick for me to follow. All I could decipher was the first question he posed, which was asking me if I had a cigarette.

I replied in French that I did not smoke, and turned to keep walking. He must have heard my accent, because he began speaking much slower and mixing in some English words here and there. Eventually came the next question, in English this time: “do you want co-shun?” (I write it phonetically as it sounded to me). “I’m very sorry I don’t understand you” I answered extra slowly in my sturdiest Midwestern accent, hoping the guy would leave me alone. Meanwhile, the dialogue in my own head was rambling along at its own feverish pace… “hmm….cushion?? Did he say cushion? Or was it caution? The French often pronounce words with ‘au’ as ‘o’ instead of ‘ah’. So does he want to give me a pillow or is he trying to warn me of something? Hmm, in either case maybe I should be worried…when do I run away? Wait, I’m right in front of the police station…whew!”

It was at this stage, the persistent lad reached into his school bag and pulled out a small, white electronic gadget. As he flipped up the screen, I could see it was a pocket-sized language translator. Oh great, I thought. The kid was typing furiously into it, still eager to deliver his intended message to me. Each time he made an entry, I could hear by the dull bleeping noise from the gadget that he was not achieving a successful translation. But, to his credit and to my annoyance, he kept right on trying. Once again, I told him I was really sorry that I couldn’t help him, and then turned to keep walking.

“Wait, wait…” he said emphatically in French. Then in very broken English… “you know, when boy and girl get together and make co-shun. We go have drink and then have co-shun, yes?” He gave me a big and very cheesy smile.

Suddenly I had clarity - I guess the word of the month was ‘coition!’ I almost cracked up laughing. Where, apart from perhaps a medical journal and apparently in France, would the word coition be used in modern times? At that point I couldn’t decide what was infinitely weirder about this whole incident – was it his obscure word choice, the extreme age difference between us , or the fact I was being hustled with the use of an electronic translator?! Only in France, one might say. I turned and walked away. By the time I got to Isabelle’s I could barely stop laughing.

So I also take back everything I said about the streets of the 15th being sleepy. I guess maybe I have been the one sleeping all this time! :)

Feelin’ Groovy

If I were to personify the cake they call Passionata, she’d probably be a Twiggy or an Edie – looking groovy in a mod skirt of Joconde, filled with colorful layers of raspberry and passion fruit mousses and finished with a layer of glossy raspberry glaze. Admiring the finished cake, I was instantly reminded of colorful miniskirts, vinyl platform boots and those massive, candy-colored sunglasses they wore in the 60’s.

Whatever name I could give her, Passionata was a fun and visually impressive cake to make. Clearly, the most exciting part was going to be making the Joconde, since this would require finger painting with tinted cigarette batter. (As you might have started to notice, any chance for me to unite my two creative worlds – design and patisserie – always fills my heart with joy. Or in this case, passion! Hee hee…)

Cigarette batter has nothing to do with smoking or nicotine, but refers to the shape of the cookies that come from this batter (and quite possibly for the fact the cookies are equally addictive). If you don’t recognize the name, I’m sure you’ve seen these cookies on a platter for high tea. These are thin, crisp, cylindrically-shaped cookies - sort of like a brandy snap, but less caramelized and with a texture closer to shortbread. They are made by shaping the baked rounds of batter around the handle of a wooden spoon whilst the cookies are still hot from the oven. Sometimes the finished cookies are filled with whipped cream or ganache…mmm, too good!

So making the cigarette batter was a bit like mixing paint. Eggs, melted butter, sugar and flour were combined to make a thick, smooth paste; this was divided into two portions and each portion was tinted red or yellow. Then these tinted batters were applied to the parchment-lined baking sheet in decorative strokes to create a colorful underlay for the Joconde sponge, which is spread atop the cigarette layer. As the Joconde bakes, it absorbs the tinted batter underneath to create the slightly psychedelic patterns in the finished cake. The colorful sponge is then cut into a strip to line a ring shaped mold, and the mold is filled with the fruit mousses.

The real trick was not to overthink the application of the cigarette batter. A few well-intentioned classmates got a bit too creative in trying to create complex patterns, or just overworked the two colors. This resulted either in odd, blotchy effects for some and for others a truly weird orange color that looked less tie-dyed and more like Thousand Island dressing….eeew!

Chef Hottie was attending the practical for my group. When we entered the lab, he greeted us with a smile over the roar of a food processor. And quel surprise…there were to be a few modifications to the recipe we’d been shown in the demo. It seems someone had forgotten to order the frozen raspberry puree, so we’d be substituting fresh strawberries instead. February isn’t the season for strawberries, so the color of the puree looked quite pale and would probably need a dye-job – at least for the amount going into the fruit glaze on top. After all, a fashionista cake like this would need color coordination – bien sur!

In previous tales from practical land, I’ve mentioned the peril of using the school’s food coloring. They put these colorings into those big, squeezy plastic condiment bottles. Those who aren’t aware that only a slight tipping of the bottle, versus a full squeeze, are in for a big surprise. A gushing fluvial of intense red color emerges, destroying all hopes for a petal pink buttercream and possibly leaving a botched-surgery type signature on your uniform. Worse yet, the crusty dried particles from someone else’s dyeing effort can tumble from the sides or rim of the bottle and further complicate the process. The safest bet is to dispense color into a separate bowl, then take what is needed from there – sans particules and sans stress!

Whilst there were a few overly intense red glazes, for the most part everyone’s Passionata went more or less according to plan. The fantastic four were working together again – and with excellent results. Aurore and Alberto mastered the joconde; meanwhile David and I measured the ingredients and whipped the cream for the whole group. The pairing up amongst the four of us across the different tasks really helped speed the process along – which wasn’t overly complicated but composed of many small steps and quite temperature sensitive regarding the mousse fillings.

In the end I had great results with my glaze – the color and the application earned positive comments from the chef. With a few powdered sugar raspberries and a sprinkle of chopped pistachios, I was pleased to take this one back to share with my Geneva mod squad.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

C’est Marron, non?

Okay, okay…so once again I have jumped to conclusions…thus, I take back everything I said about Tresor being the oddest cake we made.

Dome aux Marrons was also a ridiculous looking cake. A large hemisphere of chesnut mousse interleaved with graduated layers of hazelnut dacquoise, then topped with chestnut cream and a lot of cheesy looking marzipan decors. The only thing that was missing, in my humble opinion, was the upper half of a Barbie torso.

It was hard to stay focused during the demo. It was late afternoon and late in the week, the room was so stuffy, the row of Latino students were chattering endlessly and everyone’s mind seemed to be elsewhere. Chef Tranchant began to assemble the cake into the dome shape and apply the chestnut cream. The translator was droning on about the spatula movements of the chef when a simple mistranslation saved the day. Instead of describing the chef’s method of applying the chestnut cream as ‘spackling’, her translation came out as ‘spanking’.

Suddenly the room sprang back to life, people were laughing and making innuendos about spanking the dome and other funny comments. Even the Asian students were nudging each other, giggling and making jokes. The row of Latino males had completely stopped their chattering and their attention was now riveted on the chef.

Chef Tranchant just smiled and used the renewed level of energy as a segway for his next installment: spraying the dome with chocolate! We watched in awe as plastic trash bags were laid across the workbench and hung from the ceiling to protect all surfaces from overspray. Then an electric power painter was plugged in, filled with a 50/50 mixture of chocolate & cocoa butter, and used to spray the dome with a light coating. The spray gun made a lot of noise while coating the dome with chocolate, which seemed to further impress everyone and hold their attention (or maybe jolt them awake if they’d totally missed the spanking translation).

Despite all the fun we had in the demo and practical, this is probably a recipe I’d only make once. I found the overall taste and texture quite heavy and sweet, begging for more texture and contrast. It was a lot of work to build the cake up and get an even dome shape. And, with all due respect to any future daughters who are yet to be born not to mention Barbie herself, there is no time in the foreseeable future when I’ll be feeling energized to clean power-sprayed chocolate off my kitchen walls. Some things are best left to professionals.