Sunday, November 16, 2008

Electrical, emotional and ethical

TGV has recently been in the local news, the target of an unidentified group of individuals who are sabotaging electrical power on some of its train lines. So recalling my harrowing TGV journey in September, I wasn’t going to take any chances in getting to my final practical exam on time. So on Monday 10th November, I boarded the 5:35am train to Paris. Even though I didn’t need to be at the school until midday, this preventive step would give me plenty of time to manage potential issues, even if the train were delayed by an hour.

Fortunately, the train arrived on time at Gare de Lyon and I was not rushed. With the extra time (not to mention the fact I was starving!!), I decided to recharge my own reserves and stopped off at Le Notre where I treated myself to a couple brioche a tete, followed by a cappuccino at a local café. I rarely have time to do this, so I was feeling refreshed and awake when I arrived at the school about 10:45am. I would avoid the mad rush in the vestiaire, be able to have a final review of my class notes, and then could go off to the test feeling more or less relaxed. I was standing there in front of my locker, putting on my uniform thinking positive thoughts. Suddenly, the sound of sobbing crumbled my optimism.

There had been an exam session starting at 8:30 am and students from this session began filing into the vestiaire. It was a mix of cuisine and pastry students, many of whom were expressing some type of dissatisfaction about their exam. I was overhearing disheartening comments about chocolate spilled on uniforms, curdled sauces, fish filets dropped on the floor (whoops!), tumbling utensils and the like. But the sobbing is what really made me feel awful. For all I knew, this could be me or anyone in my group in a matter of hours. Other students were gathering around her in comfort. The student in question is a pastry and cuisine student, and so at first I wasn’t sure which test she’d just taken.

She was gulping and her jaw was quivering...her eyes were puffy & red from crying. It was pretty bad. I tried to look sympathetic while trying not to stare. “He’s such an ***! Oh why does he have to be like this on test day! He hated my final decoration, and then he wouldn’t even let me re-do it…!” She continued with her recounting of the events that led to her emotional state. Unfortunately, it seemed to just make her more emotional.

Another girl chimed in for support. “Yeah, well don't feel bad! I had to tell him to stop hovering over me, because it was making me too nervous. Still, I didn’t get that stupid rose right on my cake…”

Suddenly I knew these ladies had just finished the basic pastry exam and exactly who had proctored it. While we all continued offering words of comfort and reassurance to her, I was feeling the hair on my arms stand up. A certain impatient chef was still in one of his moods. Oh great. I’d have him next.

Meanwhile, everyone from the morning test was revealing the recipes that had been drawn: Mogador, Dacquoise and Tarte aux Pommes. So the list of 10 options had been narrowed to 3. So based on probability, it had been a good thing that I practiced the marzipan roses on the weekend, as this was part of the Dacquoise presentation. And apart from lots of whisking, Dacquoise was not too challenging a recipe. Tarte aux Pommes would be a gift, if I was indeed lucky enough in the lottery system, as it required no whisking. Meanwhile the Mogador, with the imbibing of the cake layer, temperature-related mousse challenges and (worst of all) drippy raspberry jam, was my least favorite option…at least for a test day. I’d better focus my last bit of available time on reviewing my notes for this one, particularly thinking through how to organize myself effectively.

Test time arrived and the 12 members of Group E assembled on time at the door of the practical lab to draw from a cup which contained the colored game chips. By now, everyone had heard what were the possible recipes. Most people were giggling and chatting, looking energized and eager to draw from the cup. I was one of the last people in my group to draw out a chip. I wasn’t sure if this would be a good thing or not.

I drew a yellow chip. This corresponded to…ta dah…Tarte aux Pommes! I felt a gush of relief, then a slight pang of guilt. I decided to shake it off immediately and embrace the good karma. I could have benefitted from the challenge of the Mogador and the Dacquoise, but let’s face it…this was test day and I was being graded on so many facets. So while the Tarte did not offer the same amount of elaborated decoration or preparation challenges, I decided to stop feeling guilty and enjoy the fact that it would give me the best chance to test on all aspects well – namely zero risk of finishing late, plus easier organization and cleanliness of my work area.

The technical dish was preparing & correctly lining a tarte circle. It’s the same pastry as for the finished tarte, so I would double the pastry recipe and make both crusts at once. Then I could choose which crust looked best for technical presentation vs being hidden with apple filling. So that’s what I did. It worked a treat!

I saved the biggest and prettiest shaped apples for the finishing garnish. I was extra careful in peeling them, and used my melon baller to core them neatly. Then I peeled and chopped the remaining apples to make the apple marmalade filling, sautéing these in sugar, butter, cinnamon & vanilla powder before finishing with a splash of Calvados and setting it in the fridge to cool thoroughly. It smelled really good going into the fridge. Then I cut the prettiest apples into the thinnest and most even slices I could. With the marmalade filling now cool enough, I moved ahead to filling my tarte shell and garnishing it neatly with the sliced apples, creating as even and clean crown as I could. Thankfully I had just finished and ready to go when Chef Cotte started asking for the tartes to be put into the oven.

Chef Cotte was mostly hands-off with the group and his mood seemed good. He’d given clear instructions on what to do at the start, then left us alone. Most of the time he was down at one end of the lab near the sink with a mixer running on turbo speed, fully engrossed in blowtorching the outside of a steel bowl that contained a white, nougatine looking substance. Hmm…I could only imagine it must be something for the graduation reception; but what, I had no idea. And given my newfound appreciation for blowtorches, I especially wanted to ask what on earth he was making, but I thought it best to lie low and not ask any unneeded questions. I snuck past him and did a quick wash-up of my utensils. I then returned to my work station and proceeded to clean and organize it as I was instructed while waiting for my tarte to finish baking.

Everyone appeared to be doing well. As I packed away my utensils and started to clean my work area, I took a moment to observe the others and sense their energy. The cheerful & efficient spirit of my group was still felt, even during this stressful time. People were occasionally chatting quietly and smiling, sharing utensils amongst themselves and even helping each other (for example, taking enough pastry bags back to the workstation for everyone). There would be no issue I could see with everyone not completing on time, and this made me happy, because we were effectively all ‘competing’ but doing it with such grace and dignity. And I finally fully appreciated why Group E really is ‘le meilleur groupe’ in basic pastry, and it wasn’t just because of aptitude but attitude as well. I’ll never forget that moment and I was happy to be a part of it. Whenever I have to compete in future, I hope I can always do it with such behaviour and team spirit.

My tarte finished baking, and all I had to do was brush on the apricot glaze, place my assigned testing number next to it, then leave the lab. So with that now finished, I was the first person to finish. At this point, Chef Cotte was starting to move around the room, encouraging some people to step up the pace a bit and reminding us of how to tidy our work area. He stopped at my workstation, touched me gently on the arm, smiled and praised me for the appearance of my items as well as my organization & cleanliness. I breathed a sigh of relief.

“Merci, Chef” was all I could manage to say. I think I was still reeling with a range of emotions, most of them good though.

Before I departed the lab, I managed to sneak a photo of my finished tarte. I wouldn’t get to taste this one or take it home with me, so it will be my only tangible memento of the day. Still, I left with a sweet taste in my mouth.

Sanctuary of comfort (& quiche!)

Walking in the door last Friday night filled me with joy. I actually did a little jig as soon as I walked across the threshold. It had been the very busy final week of classes for Basic level, and I was feeling accomplished and ready to rest a bit, then to prepare for my final practical exam the following Monday.

My flat in Geneva is situated above a pizzeria in a street without trees. The place is clean, comfortable, relatively quiet and modern but otherwise nothing special – I don’t even have a balcony much less a view. However since starting my course this place has become like a shrine to me. To come home after a week such as this, to have my own bed and kitchen at my disposal really makes me feel good. To think that before starting this course, I’d considered subletting the place to save a bit of money now seems so absurd to me. I doubt I would have persevered the past 2+ months without my retreat each weekend in Geneva.

So it was time to shower and let my hair down…to review my class notes on the comfort of my own sofa, with my music playing softly and the candles lit. And it was of course time to experiment with recipes. The practical exam scheduled for Monday 10th November would consist of a technical recipe as well as preparation of one entremet (from a possible list of 10). The technical recipe would be correctly preparing and lining a tart base. As for the entremet, I wouldn’t know what I’d be preparing until Monday when I walked into the lab and drew my selection from a cup. Then I would have to prepare it, whatever it would be, within a 2 hour time limit and without the aid of class notes. And in addition to finished appearance, I would be also graded on taste, organization & cleanliness of my work area and of course on-time completion. For each minute of lateness, my score would be reduced by 2%.

All the entremets I had made at least once, so in theory there was really not much to worry about since I didn’t have too many difficulties with any of them the first time around. I just needed to review my class notes to make sure I wouldn’t have missed any steps from some of the earlier recipes, such as Dacquoise, or some of the more recent recipes such as Mogador which had a broader range of techniques required in the preparation. So getting ready for this exam would consist of reading my notes, preparing a tart base and practicing a bit of piping and decoration.

Decoration for two of the possible entremets could require the making of a rose garnish, so I dug out some marzipan from my pantry and practiced making a couple of these. I like sculpting anyway, so this was no issue and I was pretty happy with the final results. Of course, at this point I had no cake to affix them to, but that could come later. I put them into a covered dish for use at a later date.

Then I sketched some quick ideas out for piping decoration for the different possible cakes, considering what would look pretty and would be most manageable as a last step in a fairly compressed preparation timing. Using some leftover ganache, I piped out a couple of designs onto parchment paper to practice my ideas. Then I worked on the tart base. I’ve already made pate brisee a couple of times since the tarte aux pommes practical, so I wasn’t really worried. But I was hungry and I figured I would experiment in adapting the tart base to use for quiche. After all, I was pretty hungry and a girl cannot live on dessert alone! So this led to the creation of a Seared Tomato and Caramelized Bacon Quiche with Roasted Almond Crust. The quiche was pure inspiration, using only the ingredients I had at my disposal. I used fresh tomatoes heavily infused with garlic powder; chopped & sautéed bacon caramelized with maple syrup, a blend of fontal and gruyere cheeses, and chopped chives blended with cream & eggs to fuse it all together. For the crust, I adapted the school recipe, reducing most of the sugar and adding some roasted & pulverized almonds for added character. I was curious how the effect of sweetening the bacon would be in contrast to the slightly tangy & pungent flavor of the tomatoes, with all that offset by the slightly nutty crust. The result was surprisingly delicious, pretty to look at, and I’d make it again.

I really enjoyed eating a slice of this while planning for my test…good comfort food to enjoy in my own little sanctuary. Email me at if you'd like a recipe sheet.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Devil Eats Alhambra

Alhambra has a wicked chocolate flavor that will bring you to your knees. One bite and you know whether you kneel voluntarily in awe or fall over in shock for being whomped in the mouth with a brick! It has an intense chocolate taste that you may very well not appreciate...but no denying that it will get your attention and elicit an opinion. The flavor packs a triple punch of dark chocolate-hazelnut sponge, dark chocolate ganache and dark chocolate glaze. After one bite if you are still uncertain of the flavor, then go see a specialist because your tastebuds are malfunctioning.

I have no clue as to the name origins of this cake, but the Alhambra’s character is very similar to the Buche …a separated-egg sponge, cut into layers, soaked with syrup, assembled with ganache and coated with glaze. The absence of pistachio, change of shape and decoration were the only major differences between the two cakes; the Alhambra being way more intense and singularly flavored, whereas the Buche had a bit more color and flavor diversity working in its favor. But I still enjoyed the Alhambra practical very much indeed. Even despite the punchy mood of the chef.

Chef Cotte was back from holiday and barking at everyone. While I never take the comments too personally, it seems we are not ever fast enough, tidy enough, organized enough...whatever. I sometimes feel like saying, enough already! At one point after he’d barked out a stream of rather punctuated orders, eliciting startled glances from many of my Asian classmates, I could no longer resist asking him if he'd had a bonne vacance (since normally you’d expect the post-holiday afterglow to affect moods in positive way). His face softened and he generally seemed to reflect happily for that split second…whatever it was or wherever it had been, I guess it was good. Then moments later he started barking orders again. Well so much for that idea…the vacation was clearly over now.

As shown in the demo with Chef Deguignet, once the cakes were setting in the freezer and we’d tidied up the work area, we should begin making roses out of modeling chocolate. So that’s what we did. Suddenly there was more barking… “Why do you do that? No! No roses today!” Well okay then…nip it in the bud then, monsieur. All the students were shooting glances at each other, a bit surprised since this had been our instruction at the demo. “You may only make two leaves if you want” he said to us. Clearly there are different points of view amongst our chefs on whether to rose up this cake or not. Frankly I was never very keen on cluttering it with a cheesy pink rose anyway; worse yet sticking 2 bright green leaves atop the cake without floral accompaniment, so I gladly abandoned the sculpting plans. Then I chuckled to myself when I saw Chef Cotte grab a hunk of the pink modeling chocolate and proceed to make his own rose. I guess roses are only for the chefs today. I walked to the other side of the lab and busied myself in stirring the pot of warming glaze to hide my amusement.

Just before we started the glazing step, Chef Cotte sent me up to level 3 to retrieve the white rectangular bases for the cakes. Mind you, this is not my week to be an assistant and I'd already manned the oven and had been stirring glaze, but hey...more than happy to oblige if it kept things calm and fluid in the lab area. Of course, after sprinting up there and spending a few minutes searching high and low, I could safely conclude that the white carton rectangles were nowhere to be found (at least nowhere logically near the other types of cardboard bases which I found without issues). So I came back downstairs with round bases, then stepped up to do my glazing as had been instructed by Chef Deguignet during the demo. Suddenly I was being barked at… ‘But what are you doing? I just said you are not supposed to do it that way, weren’t you listening??” Of course, I reminded him that perhaps I had been in the storage room when this instruction was given and that anyway during the demo we’d been advised glaze our cakes atop the angled spatula. I mean, what’s with the raised voice? With all due respect, I am an adult and there is probably a very valid reason why I had been following different instructions….like being physically absent from the room when they were given or in following the method of another person of authority. I shook it off; no use getting upset because it wouldn’t help.

I continued glazing as I’d observed in the demo, quickly discovering that it was indeed more challenging than the Buche, given the trapezoid angularity of the Alhambra vs the Buche's rounded shape. So it was much harder to get a smooth wash of glaze down the sides. Still, I managed a good result using the spatula method that Chef Deguignet had proposed in the demo. I only wished we had the blowtorches tonight, to help smooth a few of the unavoidable rivulets of glaze (another fun trick we’d learned from Chef Tranchant when making buche). Unfortunately, no Flashdance feelings for me today…

After my glaze set, I started on my decoration and a couple of my classmates started to compliment me. Then suddenly I was being barked at again, this time from behind as Chef Cotte re-entered the lab. “Mais non! Zis is gud” he said in broken English (pointing to the cornice of ganache and candied violets I’d arranged on the top), “zis is no gud!” (pointing to the corner flourishes I’d added in ganache). Clearly it is a matter of opinion, but okay point taken. Still, I proceeded with what I’d begun and garnished these flourishes with some smaller pieces of candied violets. Then I added some mixed flourishes to skirt the base of the cake (also to hide a couple spots that had not been well glazed. With the violets and the flourishes, it suddenly made me reflect about the early 1900's, a time when a touch of gaudy was good and silence was golden. My how times have changed!

After all that I thankfully managed to get a photo of my cake before Chef Cotte came along, cut it open with my paring knife and ate a piece! Normally this doesn’t happen during our practicals, but next Monday at the exam we’ll be graded on taste as well as appearance. He then proceeded to poke the cake layers with the knife tip and held it up closely inspect the ganache application. At that point, I half expected him to bark at me, but instead he looked me in the eye, smiled slyly, asked for a high-five and praised me for doing well.

Say what? Did I miss something along the way...?

Buche...what a feeling!

I find getting familiar with new recipes is a bit like getting to know a person. Sometimes you click right from the start, and other times you have to work a bit harder to understand one another and get along. There may be an unresolved prejudice which may prevent the relationship from fully developing. Or worse yet, you absolutely clash with the person and fight like hell.

Prior to this class, I guess my view on buche (or log cake), was steeped in a few prejudices. I immediately think of a roulade-style sponge cake when hearing the name. My earliest memory of log cakes are Hostess Ho-Ho’s, those highly industrial cream-filled cakes that have a shelf life of several decades yet still drop all of their waxy chocolate coating down the front of your shirt when you bite into them. (bib please!). Beyond that, log cakes were always of the Yule variety served only at Christmas time. These typically took roulade one notch higher on the presentation scale…with a final appearance that very closely resembled (surprise, surprise!) a real log….complete with chocolate ‘bark’, meringue mushrooms and even plastic woodland creatures (just in case there was any lingering doubt on the theme objective). So for me, all my memories of this cake lean heavily into kitsch … almost a pink flamingo/garden gnome genre of patisserie. Not necessarily unpleasant to eat, just well…a bit imposed, artificial and contrived.

In my travels I have since seen several other interpretations on the buche concept, the oddest of which has been in Switzerland. A patisserie near Geneva sells a variety each December consisting of a semicircular log of fruit mousse, usually with a contrasting fruit mousse filling in the center; all of this is then placed atop a layer of sponge cake. Mind you, neither the cake, glaze nor mousses never coordinate in color, and so it becomes a visual shouting match between kiwi green, purple cassis and maraschino pink, often topped with some screaming orange fruit garnish and chocolate decors just in case your corneas had not fully melted by this stage. This Genevois type buche has definitely departed the plastic woodland forest, yet the color eccentricity (not to mention the prices) always make me cringe. But evidently the patisserie accepts advance orders, so I guess quite some people are enjoying to eat the rainbow.

So based on my assorted histoires, all in all I was feeling blasé about buche. But during the demo I already started to shed my prejudices as I watched Chef Tranchant prepare a gorgeous combination of pistachio sponge cake layered with dark chocolate ganache. And it is right to say layered…because this buche wasn’t rolled at all! It was baked in a semi-circular log shaped mold, then sliced horizontally into thin layers, which were then well-imbibed with a kirsch infused syrup. Re-using the same pan as for baking, the cake is reassembled using alternating layers of ganache and imbibed sponge. This is then placed in the freezer to solidify the form, it is then unmolded and covered with a couple ladles of dark chocolate glaze. Small flourishes of ganache are piped out to skirt the base of the log and decorate the top, and pistachios are used for the finising touch.

But the real beauty of this cake comes in the cutting. Indeed, the buche reveals its inner personality during the final presentation, when the ends of the cake are removed to expose the beautiful layered effect inside before it is placed on the golden cardboard.

By the time I got to the practical, my mind had been opened and I found working with this recipe to be a very enjoyable experience with fewer challenges than I expected. Slicing the freshly baked sponge into thin layers with that wicked, serrated Wustof was indeed the most worrisome aspect, but we all came through the process unscathed and with properly sliced layers. Building up the cake in the pan was the messiest part; between applying the syrup, piping out the still runny ganache between layers, applying gentle pressure to each layer to ensure properly distributed ganache, and of course the final glazing led many of us to stained uniforms and sticky hands. But it was all worth it when the glossy cakes sat before us and Chef Tranchant re-entered the lab carrying blowtorches! These were used to heat the blades of our serrated knives, to ensure a super clean cut when the ends of the buche are sliced away. Yea! A small Flashdance-inspired moment in the middle of a Paris afternoon to reward us for all the heavy whisking! What a feeling indeed…I was giggling happily by this point.

We all proceeded with our decoration, some people getting quite elaborate in using their remaining ganache and pistachios. I should have taken photos of my classmates’ work as some of the decoration efforts for this were really beautiful. A few folks got quite clever with finely chopped pistachios, which provided an electrifying effect atop the dark chocolate. I chose to keep my presentation a bit more muted, piping out a delicate cornice pattern in ganache on the top and keeping my pistachio accents contained to this area only.

So in terms of personal enjoyment, this practical didn’t turn out to be ‘wrestling with Hulk’ but more like an afternoon of watching Shrek. I enjoyed myself and the company of my classmates, we learned a lot of new techniques, and we all left with a beautiful cake. I really want to continue experimenting with this pistachio cake…it indeed provides an unusual but not unnatural color and has a really nice flavor, even without the syrup and ganache. I’d like to socialize this cake with some new flavor partners like white chocolate and lemon to complement the slight fruitiness of the soaking syrup. Whilst the dark chocolate ganache was a good accompaniment that gives beautiful color contrast, it can be an overpowering flavor for some. So maybe it's time to turn the flavor volume down a notch.

Meanwhile I can't stop wondering, at what point will I invest in a blowtorch for my home kitchen...?

Twelfth Night in the Eleventh Month

Pithiviers is one of my favorite treats, consisting of golden puff pastry with rich almond cream filling lightly flavored with rum. When well prepared, it is a real joy to eat…especially served fresh on the day and slightly warm to fully appreciate the flavor aspects of the almond filling.

This genre of patisserie is more commonly known as Galette du Rois, (Three King’s Cake) and can be found everywhere in France during the December-January timeframe. It is traditionally eaten on Twelfth Night (January 6) as part of an ancient tradition to celebrate the birth of Christ. A small porcelain trinket, or feve, is hidden inside the galette and whoever receives it in their portion of cake (and hopefully not in their teeth as well) becomes the King or Queen for the day and is given a paper crown to wear (and/or chauffered to the dentist free of charge…just kidding of course).

So my group were back to working on pate feuilletage during the practical. Okay, it’s official…I really enjoy making feuilletage because it is really not difficult (certainly much less fragile & temperamental in handling than an American pie crust!). That said, it does require more accuracy in the handling to get optimal results. Having made feuilletage well in the chaussons/palmiers practical, I remembered again to keep everything as uniform as possible...maintaining even thickness and good length to my dough, ensuring to remove of all excess flour before folding & turning, then folding neatly and trying to keep by corners of dough as squared and aligned as possible. I am realizing more and more that nearly everything in patisserie, feuilletage and otherwise, favors extreme accuracy and uniformity to achieve the best results. Obsessive compulsive types, take note…

The real fun of this practical was learning to decorate using our paring knife. The classic scalloped edge that you see was cut by hand, using a ring mold as a guide and then cutting tight, even semi-circles into the dough using the point of the blade. After applying the egg wash, we then cut the swirling vortex design of the Pithiviers into the top crust. For this step, we held the knife by the back of the blade and not the handle, carefully scoring the dough deep enough to leave a mark, yet without exposing the almond cream. The pastry was then baked in a hot oven to start, to ensure maximum loftiness & color to the feuilletage, then reduced slightly for finalizing the baking process to avoid the crust becoming too brown. Immediately as the pastry is removed from the oven, sugar syrup is brushed on to provide a light touch of flavor and beautiful glossiness. The sugar sizzles and sets instantly against the hot pastry to seal and protect it, without causing sogginess. Magic!

Chef Tranchant walked around the practical lab looking really pleased with everyone’s work, telling us that we were ‘le meilleur groupe’ (the best group). So either the compliments flow very freely with some chefs, or those of us in Group E really out to be proud because we hear it often enough.

With the Pithiviers finished, we made a simple treat with the leftover dough called Sacristains. Re-rolling the scraps, we brushed these with the remaining egg wash and covered the surface with nibbed sugar, cinnamon and chopped almonds. The dough is then cut into strips, twisted tightly and baked until brown and slightly carmelized.

I brought my Pithiviers and Sacristains to the Paris office, since it had been a couple weeks since I was able to work from there. Folks looked happy to see me again and everyone loved the treats, especially the Pithiviers with its hypnotic pattern and glossy finish. I received quite a few emails from people who had tasted the goodies and passed along their compliments. My French colleagues are especially thoughtful and polite about this; they seem to take nothing for granted and make a conscientious effort to express themselves, so I really appreciate that.

I saved some Sacristains for my logeuse Isabelle, who was delighted as she really loves this genre of pastry. She asked for the recipe and chuckled when I told her the name. I should mention that Isabelle is very well versed in theology, namely Catholicism. She brought out her dictionary and showed me that a sacristain is apparently the sexton or caretaker of a church, who looks after the maintenance and upkeep, along with other duties such as bell ringing, etc. Well there you go! I’d been making broom handles of God and I would have never otherwise known.

So once again patisserie reveals origins which are steeped in old celebrations and often religious (or even pagan) rites. I guess I need to read a bit further on this aspect as I suspect that many more recipes may have a long and interesting story to reveal. Guess it’s time again to wipe the syrup off my fingers and start Googling.


Last Friday one of my Geneva colleagues, Nadia, moved to a new job assignment. The starting date for her new assignment had been advanced and I only found out on Thursday morning, the day before she was due to officially leave us. Of course she would still be in transition with our team until her replacement could be found, so fortunately not the very last chance to say good-bye

As I have worked closely with her for the last 2 years, I decided I would make a cake and quickly organize an informal coffee-break in the office to acknowledge her departure. I opted for a St. Honore since it would be elegant, refreshing and light to eat after lunch and striking to look at. For whatever reason, I decided that making a giant-sized cake would be a good idea. Actually it was not.

I always thought French cakes were small because the French might prefer to eat small portions of sweet desserts to maintain their svelte ligne. This is partly the case. But in attempting to make a giant St. Honore, I realized that size also has to do with ease of preparation, transportability, baking time and serving. For big eaters and big festivals they just buy multiple cakes; the chef would not necessarily be asked to make one twice or three times as big.

But of course I didn’t even think about this at the time, and so I doubled my recipe and decided I would make the cake to more or less fit the size of the rectangular serving tray, but with scalloped corners to look more decorative. Rolling the pate sucree into a rectangle proved much more difficult than I expected, but I managed. I even got the decorative edges cut evenly. But the trickier bit was then getting the base onto the baking sheet. I suppose I could have planned better and done my roll-out onto a sheet of parchment, then lifted this into the pan. But I really didn’t expect it to be so challenging to lift. Sadly it was.

Pate sucree is very fragile stuff, and of course this tore in half when I attempted to lift it. ..even with the aid of the rolling pin. Not what I wanted but still not totally irreparable since the base is anyway covered in a coil of choux pastry and topped with whipped cream. So I patched it together on the baking sheet and kept on trucking. No time to lose now I thought.

I finished with piping the choux pastry atop the base, as well as two pans of choux buns for the final decoration. I popped it all into the oven, propping a fork in the door to allow steam to escape. It seemed to take forever! Much much longer than the St. Honore I’d made for Laura’s birthday. I logged in from home and got stuck into some emails to pass the time. After about 20 minutes, I got up to check. It was making decent progress but still not nearly ready. And the oven was very hot, so that really wasn’t my issue. It really had to do with the size…maybe also the shape.

Finally the massive slab was baked and set out to finish glazing the choux buns with caramel as well as making some decorative flourishes for the top of the cake. Thankfully no seriously burned fingers this time but it was a lengthy process. On the longer sides of the base, I placed about 6 choux buns, then about 4 on the short sides. Then I decided to run a strip of 5 choux buns lengthwise across the middle of the cake because the center plaine otherwise looked just too empty. And would be pretty boring to eat without adequate choux pastry to complement the whipped cream.

After that I piped out my whipped cream to fill the space between the perimeter and median borders of choux buns. A good chance to practice a long coiling technique using the star tip; anyway I didn’t have a choice to use the traditional V-tip since it was with my school supplies back in Paris. But I managed very well and the cake looked more or less how I wanted it to. Breaking with tradition but understanding the tastes of my colleagues, I added some thin shards of shaved chocolate to the top to give it some Stracciatella appeal. Then I placed my caramel flourishes atop the whipped cream and set out for the office with the whole thing loosely wrapped in a huge sheet of cellophane.

Man, it was unwieldly to even walk the 100m to my car, partly because it was a rainy day but more importantly because the cake was just too big! Balancing the big tray on my hip, I managed to get the trunk of my car open and got the giant creamy mammoth loaded inside without incident and drove to the office. At that point I realized I now needed to get this massive slab of cream and caramel through the security doors. Hmm...another detail to consider. I decided to play it safe and call for backup. With a smaller cake I can transport it in one hand using my domed cake carrier, but now I needed someone to swipe the security door and open it for me.

But despite the extra effort needed to bake, construct and transport, this cake was otherwise a success. And we all farewelled Nadia chatting and laughing, enjoying the cake and being together. So for all the challenges in production, in the end it was worth it.

That weekend I planned a different type of farewell, which was to utilize all the different types of patisserie remnants collecting in my fridge!! There was leftover mousse and some sponge base from the Mogador practical, vanilla and orange buttercream, the remaining whipped cream and some unglazed choux buns, and the dough scraps from the St. Honore base. So I constructed an array of different treats, the most elaborate of which was a mousse filled cake, using the layers of leftover chocolate sponge soaked in an orange syrup, and a light touch of apricot jam, finished with a dark chocolate glaze. It tasted kind of like a Sacher torte but much moister because of the syrup and much richer because of the mousse.

The choux buns, whipped cream and remaining chocolate glaze became a batch of profiterole inspired treats. They were pretty to look at, especially on my coiled serving plate, and were greatly enjoyed by Ard (along with the mousse cake).

I just baked the dough scraps as is, since they’d already dried out considerably by this point and could not be salvaged into anything more interesting. The pigeons and crows who visit my window ledge seemed to appreciate those....probably not the people who park their cars under my window ledge though.

Sadly I was so engrossed in creation that virtually forgot about documentation, so I failed to take a photo of anything but the profiteroles! And I ran out of time to use the bright orange buttercream, so that will need to find its own farewell solution. But thanks to high amounts of sugar syrup and the aseptic properties it provides, it need not be a hasty good-bye except where color is concerned. In that case, Halloween weekend might have been my best chance!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Mogador, j'adore!

In contrast to the Charlotte, the Mogador practical delivered a more masculine aspect to my patisserie lessons. At least in visual presentation. It was a bit like James Bond on a plate! Whereas Charlotte was undoubtedly feminine in appearance, the Mogador came out looking dark & handsome...cutting a simple, dashing figure in a red smoking jacket.

The cake consists of rich chocolate mousse atop a raspberry-imbibed chocolate sponge layer, garnished with raspberry jam and minimal flourish. So the complementary flavors and colors are beautiful to look at and to taste, especially with a cup of black coffee.

I've made chocolate mousse before, albeit using a different technique than I learned last night. This mousse involved making a bombe, which is essentially whipped egg yolks that are sterilized with a cooked sugar syrup, then combined with the chocolate and whipping cream to make the finished mousse. Temperatures are imperative to achieving a finished result that is smooth and airy. If the bombe that is combined with the whipped cream is too hot, then the mixture will deplete in volume. If the chocolate is too cold, then the mixture will become grainy.

It had been a long day at school, including a written exam, so I was tired but I managed to get through the class without too many issues. Thankfully my mousse did not come out grainy, which was my biggest concern since it was a cold evening in Paris and the chocolate was setting quickly during our practical. However I had some issues with the jam! My goodness, all of my utensils, work surface, etc seemed to feel so sticky by the end of the class from the raspberry jam that was used to fill and glaze the cake. Even surfaces that showed no jam traces still felt sticky...yuck!

I vowed to myself that when making this cake at home I would use fresh raspberries or a tangy raspberry coulis for the interior, and keep the jam just for the finishing glaze. Otherwise it gets just a bit too sweet, not to mention a bit messy to deal with during the preparation phases.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Charlotte, you're such a flirt...!

Walking around Paris with a lovely Charlotte in tow proved to be an interesting observation in human behavior. Like a pretty girl, a playful puppy, or a cute baby, a cake in a plastic vitrine has the power to attract the attention & curiosity of others. People want to approach; they are eager to peek in the dome and make comments or even strike up a conversation. What I find amazing is that this could still happen in a place like Paris, where at the very least I’d expect people to be blasé at the sight of beautiful edibles, as these exist almost everywhere.

Charlotte is a veritable belle-dame of patisserie, a classic French entremet traditionally consisting of crème bavarois & fruit, encased in a skirt & crown of lady finger sponge biscuit which is lightly imbibed with syrup & fruit liqueur. Charlotte was apparently created in the mid 1700's and origins of the name are varied…some sources cite Queen Charlotte, wife of George III; other sources claim the name is a mistranslation of an old word charlyt, meaning custard. But having made one on Monday, I could only possibly think of this dessert as feminine. Charlotte is cool and elegant, delicate and soft …a well dressed courtesan in fine millinery, lightly coiffed and powdered, and most capable of casting a flirtatious glance when the occasion warrants it. She mesmerized me instantly and despite her elegant posture what a gracious collaboratrice she was as I dressed her for tea time.

So as you might have guessed already, this was an amazing practical for me in every way I can think of: we were attended by Chef Walther, I had zero preparation issues with the meringue sponge or bavarois, and was given full opportunity to let my sense of food fashion run wild. With some of the leftover sponge batter, I piped out small heart shapes, at first just for additional practice with the piping bag, then kept at it once I realized that I could potentially use these for final decoration. As the sponge cakes went into the oven, Chef Walther unexpectedly brought out several punnets of mixed berries for garniture, and I felt my spirits go even higher. I began imagining how I could combine these baked heart shapes with the fruit and the vanilla pods to create my final presentation.

At the decoration stage we even got to play with small blow-torches, to lightly sear the sliced & fanned pear halves to create contrasted edges. From there I just let my intuition take over, adding a graceful sprig of glossy red cassis, a few raspberries and the sponge hearts – both lightly dusted in powdered sugar. And the vanilla…all the leftover pods we’d used for making the bavarois had been dried in the oven for our final presentation. I found pieces of varying flexibility and proceeded to form some hooped shapes to complement the hearts, as well as a drier piece that I cut into multiple fronds to give her some height at the crown.

I’m happy for my work in this class. Charlotte, all I can say is our paths will definitely cross again…meanwhile, behave yourself!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Celebration of a Brand

My normal day job has me looking after the visual identity of a global fast moving consumer goods brand. I really love what I do, and although my job requires a slightly different set of creative skills than I use in the kitchen, I find there are also a lot of similarities. The emphasis on color, shape, proportion, presentation and stand-out are as critical to patisserie as they are to brand identity…not to mention the power of heritage and the consistent application of product formulation. It is how a consumer can identify what you are, and how they choose if they like you or not….or whether or not to buy you for the first time.

Like many FMCG products, patisserie is very often an impulse purchase…people are passing by the display, see the products on offer, feel the temptation and go for it. Temptation is often based on what is being presented in terms of color, proportion, shape, etc. They may be just passing by, not expecting to buy anything…or they may be on a routine trip and then decide to try something new just for the heck of it. So in terms of being fast moving, a freshly made cake certainly can move even faster than laundry powder, toothpaste or cosmetics!

So with these similarities in mind, when I was asked to create the refreshments for the celebration of one of our brands, I was all too happy to say YES! A chance to practice my visual presentation skills, deliver a new expression of brand identity and observe ‘consumer’ behavior…three activities which are important to my job.

The event in question was the 3-year anniversary of the launch of one of our strongest regional brands…a real powerhouse that had been born in my region, now expanded globally, and had exceeded profit targets since launch. We were hosting this at our Geneva offices, all of the regional brand teams were visiting that week, and the Brand Manager left me to decide what to make. So in reflecting on my past weeks of lessons, not to mention the brand character and my available time, I came up with a suitable theme and compatible repertoire.

I can’t reveal the brand character here, as it is confidential information. But leveraging some of the cheerful brand colors, the desire to innovate with new ideas, and meanwhile deliver something people would recognize I organized myself with a recipe theme.

The most involved recipe was a Genoise a l’Orange. The principle brand color is orange, so I made this a focal point for the cake and garnished it with a lightly tinted, orange flavored buttercream. The sponge cake layers were imbibed with a caramel-rum syrup, and then the outside edges were coated with toasted pecan pieces and praline powder. I topped it with a candle in the shape of a 3, and made this my centerpiece creation....the real celebration cake!

To add some authenticity to the mix, I decided I made my favorite batch of chocolate chip cookies. Bite into one of these and there are no hidden mysteries…you see and taste each chunky ingredient, it is so satisfying and it is something that people recognize as ‘American’ patisserie the world over. So I had to bring this into the menu as we are essentially an American company in heritage. Also I figured that people who don't like a lot of rich ingredients like buttercream would gravitate to this choice.

For some innovation, also to bring the secondary brand color into the range, I made a batch of lemon macarons, lightly tinted in yellow. Folks were delighted…there is a real trend at the moment with people enjoying macarons in Geneva due to the arrival of La Duree. Mind you, I am just learning this recipe and technique, so I am nowhere near La Duree in terms of results, but still the taste and appearance came out well. They were light, crisp and simultaneously decadent due to the buttery filling. Easy to devour in one bite...and folks were doing just that!

So, it was a happy day….after the business presentations were done, we all gathered in a meeting room, lit the candle, and sang happy birthday to a brand that is paying our salaries, then devoured the cakes! In observing consumer behaviour, I noticed that the genoise and the chocolate chip cookies got eaten first, which is in some way a testament to people’s behavior to reach for something they recognize as well as something that looks eye-catching & decorative. So in the end, I am glad I was asked to share my abilities this way with my colleagues…some of whom I’d only met in person for the first time that day. It was delightful and I hope we continue to find ongoing celebration in our daily work as this year continues.

Banana Nirvana Muffins

There is something about learning all these new patisserie techniques which often makes me yearn for simple things. Mind you, I love broadening my repertoire, but after several weeks of mad meringue whisking, extensive use of piping bags, precarious slicing of cake layers, burning my fingers with sugar syrups, and then the stress of transporting such fragile creations around the metro & TGV, I am so happy to make something simple. In my opinion, banana muffins are all of that…simple, tasty, portable and stockable. Throw a couple in your handbag, or store them for a few months in the freezer, they are always delicious and really go the distance for just a small investment of time and ingredients.

It has been a particularly tiring week, one in which I have run around too much, not eaten nor slept properly nor really looked after myself. As I stumbled into my kitchen this Sunday morning in search of caffeinated enlightenment before dealing with the brioche dough, I was confronted by three freckled and slightly geriatric bananas - which I probably should have eaten for breakfast throughout the past week. Instead, they are still lying there in the fruit bowl looking pathetic, as if to say, “Hey, what gives?! Aren’t we good enough for you now, miss hoity-toity pastry princess??!!”

So while the brioche was rising, I decide to whip up my favorite banana nut muffins. It is always a treat and one recipe that never fails me. I love it because it humbly re-purposes these has-been bananas into a really comforting treat and requires no other special ingredients from the pantry. With my own subtle blend of spices and the light crunch of toasted pecans, the recipe transforms itself into a real nirvana comfort food, especially when served warm from the oven with a hot cup of coffee or tea. Ahh, it all just makes me want to curl up on a daybed in the sun with a good book!

So I started this batch by grinding up fresh cardamom pods. Normally I have used the pre-ground cardamom I buy in jars at the supermarket. But last night while looking for my dough hook attachment in the basement, I also found the spice grinder that I’d bought in Australia and basically forgotten about. So I put this newly re-discovered gadget to use and pulverized a handful of cardamom pods which I’d bought in Zanzibar a couple years ago. I wasn’t entirely sure if they’d still have any flavor left after 2 years, but my uncertainty subsided when I lifted the lid of the grinder. Wow…what a fragrance! My nose was tickled by an aromatic, sweet and slightly piney fragrance…much stronger than I ever smelt coming out of the McCormick jar!

Then I mashed the bananas into a fine pulp, just placing the peeled pieces on a dinner plate and using the back of a fork to create the pulp. I left them on the plate for a few minutes to liquefy further while I measured the remaining ingredients. Three bananas means I can triple the recipe (!!!), which means I will have plenty to share as well as stock the freezer.

I measured out my flour and baking soda in a bowl and stirred these with a whisk to combine and remove any lumps. Then I beat the butter and sugar with the spices until light and fluffy, added my eggs and beat until smooth. Then in multiple alternating rounds, I folded in the flour mix, the banana pulp and the milk – about 2 rounds for each ingredient and starting & ending with the flour. Finally, I fold in the chopped pecans then filled the paper-lined muffin pans and baked in a hot oven, about 190 degrees C.

Today since I had some praline powder in my pantry, I topped each muffin before baking with a sprinkling of the powder. This gave them a beautiful, slightly caramelized touch once they were baked. Gorgeous!

So if, like me, you find yourself with even 1 has-been banana, don't throw it away....try making these muffins. If it is two or three bananas, then just double or triple the remaining ingredients so that you don’t end up with a mixture that is too stodgy and doesn’t bake well. You can eat the muffins all on the day, share with friends, or place them in freezer bags and freeze for use within 3 months. They are a perfect treat for a hike or beach outing, or for breakfast on the go when you are rushing to catch EasyJet or TGV.

And if you don’t have a muffin pan, don't stress...just bake all the batter in a well buttered and floured loaf pan. It works just as well and will freeze beautifully too.

So..happy Sunday and remember to love your leftover bananas!

Lisa’s Banana Nirvana Muffins with Pecan Praline & Mixed Spice
(1 recipe yields about 12 average muffins)

115g unsalted butter (about 1/2 cup)
½ cup sugar (I used part brown sugar and part granulated sugar)
2 teaspoons ground spice mix (about 1 tsp cardamom, 1/2 tsp each cinnamon and nutmeg)
2 eggs
1 banana, slightly freckled to nearly black, mashed to a fine pulp
1 ¼ cups plain flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup buttermilk or plain milk, at room temperature
Praline topping or additional chopped pecans (optional garnish...they taste good without it too)

Prepare and mix as noted in my histoire above. Bake in paper-lined muffin pan, filling cups about 2/3 full, until the muffins look golden and are springy to the touch. Remove from pan immediately after they are taken from oven and cool on a wire rack to avoid soggy bottoms. If freezing for later use, allow muffins to cool thoroughly then place 3-4 in zippered freezer bags and store in freezer up to three months. Thaw muffins ideally in a lightly warm oven, to allow them to awaken their flavors and textures and to avoid sogginess from any ice crystals which may have formed in the bag during freezing.

Nice buns, hun! :-)

This weekend I got totally immersed in my kitchen and began experimenting with brioche technique. The mad kitchen scientist that lurks within was feeling curious and this included ingredient experimentation….using different choices as well as different proportions vs the class recipe I’d received.

The great news is, I had amazing results. Well, at least I think so! I finally am on track to a good base for hamburger buns, something which has eluded me in previous home baking attempts; mine always come out quite tough and slightly rubbery, with large porous holes and a slightly granular texture...instead of a fine smooth interior. However, the brioche technique provides the tender, fine grained texture and golden appearance I think a good hamburger deserves. I probably just need one more round of experimentation and I will have cracked a good recipe….for whilst these ones were totally amazing to eat, they may still be a bit to delicate to support the weight of a burger patty (not to mention the grease!).

I mixed up ½ of the brioche recipe we’d received in our class booklet, as I thought it would be an easier load on my KitchenAid (not to mention pocketbook should the results fail). For the 250 g of flour required, I replaced about 50g with cornmeal. This gives a slightly crackly, gritty texture when the buns are baked which is a nice contrast to the other textures on a burger.

I made most of the dough into buns, achieving 6 generous sized portions using about a 70g dough portion per bun. I had excellent results in shaping the buns, something which I had trouble with at the practical. I realized that some of my success at home was owing to my kitchen countertops! Yes, can you believe it? At school we have granite work surfaces (which I generally prefer as well); at home I have plastic laminate counters. But to my surprise these laminate counters allowed me to get a bit more traction for the rolling, whereas the granite I found to be too slick. So I finally achieved bun shapes that looked like the ones Chef Walther had demonstrated in class. Happy days!

After proofing the buns, I brushed them with egg wash. I topped a couple of them with poppy seeds and snipped an X in the tops; this to see if it better enabled baking (it didn’t seem to make a difference though). The rest I left ungarnished since I didn’t have any sesame seeds available.

The remaining quantity of dough I made into a couple of cheese brioche. Since I don’t have individual brioche molds, I dug out a muffin tin and used that. I shaped the pieces into balls, then allowed them to proof until almost doubled in size. I then pushed a 15g cube of Fontal cheese into the center of each, pushing it down as far as I could towards the bottom of the pan. After brushing with egg wash, I popped both pans of buns into the oven, starting at nearly 200 degrees C and then finishing about 160 degrees C.

The buns came out of the oven looking divinely brown, with glossy tops and a nice shape. The addition of cornmeal gave a nice crackly effect when you bite into them, but otherwise the texture was tender grained and smooth. The cheese buns were a real winner; the top had almost perfectly resealed itself after my adding the cheese cubes. So it was nicely domed and there was a lovely melty cheese center perfectly encased in buttery brioche. I think with perhaps the addition of herbs with the cheese this would make a nice savory treat or accompaniment to tomato soup!

Anyway, I'll continue to play with this one...meanwhile here is a recipe report of what I accomplished with this first attempt...

Lisa’s Cornmeal Brioche Burger Buns


200 g flour
50g cornmeal
6g salt
30g sugar
12ml milk
12g fresh yeast
125g butter
Egg wash (1 beaten egg)

You’ll need a KitchenAid or heavy-duty stand mixer with paddle and dough hook attachments to make this work! Starting with the paddle attachment, basically you mix the first 5 ingredients until they are quite elastic and will make a snap into a balled mass when you scrape the sides of the bowl (give it a good 15 mins at maximum speed and scrape bowl often). Then add your yeast, which is crumbled into small pieces. Mix this for several minutes, scraping the bowl from time to time so that all parts of the dough are worked well. Then I reduced the speed a notch and let the machine run about 20 mins; you might feel like dancing at this point because the mixer will be pounding out a bongo-like rhythm which is most infectious (just be sure keep an eye on it the mixer because it may likely shimmy its way off your counter because the mixture is so dense!!). Once the mixture is no longer feeling sticky, switch to the dough hook and then add the butter which is cut into small cubes and continue beating until the butter is incorporated. By this stage you should have a smooth looking dough.

I placed this dough into a clean stainless steel bowl, covered it with plastic film (down to the dough itself, not just the top of the bowl!!) and placed it in the fridge overnight to proof. The following morning, remove the dough from the fridge and let it rest about 20 mins on the counter. Then measure out even quantities (about 70g per bun) then shape and place on baking sheet that has been lined with aluminium foil and generously greased with softened butter. Allow the buns to rise until about doubled in size. Then brush with egg wash using a pastry brush. Let the egg wash set on each bun, then apply another coat. Sprinkle with seeds or herbs if the feeling strikes you. Place in hot oven to bake, about 200 degrees C to start then reduce to about 160 degrees once the buns have taken some color and additional size.

Once baked, remove from pan and immediately peel away the aluminium foil, then cool buns completely on a wire rack (otherwise the bottoms will get soggy…and nobody likes a soggy bottom! ;-)). Before using for hamburgers, split the buns in half and lightly toast. Makes about 8 buns.

Tarte Meringuee aux Poires Caramelisees

Yikes....I guess I have been busy but I can’t believe I overlooked my lesson for Tarte Meringuee aux Poires Caramelisees! Said another way, Meringue Tart of Caramelized Pears. This was a fabulous practical, tasting like something between a dacquoise and a tarte tatin and the results were absolutely delicious!

Since I am already so late with this one, I’ll be brief. The recipe consists of a sweet pastry shell which is filled with chunks of pears and topped with an almond meringue finish. Before adding to the shell, the pears are sautéed in butter, sugar and a touch of pear eau de vie until they are beautifully caramelized. So when all the different textures and flavours are combined, you get a caramelly, meringuey center on a tender base that tastes a bit like fine shortbread.

The most challenging part of this recipe is managing the meringue. Simply stated, once you begin to add the flour and almonds to it, the volume depletes very quickly. By the time I finished piping out the top of the tart, the foamy mass had almost totally liquefied. So this one relies on accurate handling (and speed!!) to make sure it isn’t totally deflated by the time you reach the baking process.

But wow…what a taste! Everyone at work loved it! Once baked, the tart was surprisingly totable and travelled the distance on TGV without any visible loss of quality. It will be one I try at home, maybe with a change of fruit such as mangoes or peaches. If I could offer one critique it was that the contents looked a bit monotone when the tart was sliced, everything looking a bit beige, so I am thinking that a brighter choice of fruit would improve this. Watch this space…

Saturday, October 25, 2008

My Croissance with Croissants

Viennoiserie, or the classification given to the wider array of embellished yeast breads such as croissants and brioche, is one of my favorite aspects of patisserie. It’s quite challenging as it is very technical yet so rewarding as it relies on fairly simple ingredients. The regular appearance of Viennoiserie as a breakfast item, its general unpretentiousness and availability in most of the world give this aspect of patisserie an almost commonplace air. Yet who do you know who doesn’t absolutely collapse in temptation when passing a patisserie as the Viennoiserie is coming out of the oven? It is one of life’s simple but rewarding pleasures…eating warm, delicate yeast bread that is embellished with butter.

Viennoiserie wasn’t always available to the masses on every street corner. Once upon a time, it was the treat of nobility and as the name classification suggests, had its origins in Austria not France. Apparently we can thank the Austrian born Marie-Antoinette for introducing the croissant to the French nobles; and before her we can point its origins to a conquerance between kingdoms. Apparently when the Turks were driven out of Vienna way back when, the small crescent shaped breads were created as a symbolic reminder of the defeat... since the shape of the breads was based on the crescent of the Turkish flag. Quite an interesting way to farewell your enemy, to not only send them running but then take a bite out of their national symbol at every subsequent breakfast or tea time!

The process of making the croissant dough was quite similar to pate feuilletage. In this case, a detrempe dough containing yeast is made and allowed to proof, then the butter is pounded into a flattened tile shape and is then incorporated through multiple rolls, folds and turns of the dough. It is easy to fail with this step of incorporating the butter, but the number of folds and turns is really not as much as I was expecting.

Brioche also begins with a yeast-based dough, although it contains eggs as well as butter. And the butter is not incorporated in the same way, so the dough and eventually the baked breads have a rich buttery-sweet flavour yet entirely different texture from croissants – more soft overall and almost cake-like vs layered & flaky.

As much as I enjoy croissant-based Viennoiserie, my real soft spot has always been for brioche. So learning to make this myself was really a delight….also an insight into how much work it requires and why the prices reflect this when bought from a patisserie. When made entirely by hand, the amount of kneading required is absolutely exhaustive! Even when made with a powerful industrial mixer the brioche process is very long and difficult. And this kneading process is critical in adequately developing the gluten of the flour, as the dough must be completely elastic and unsticky before the softened butter can be incorporated into the dough. And then it still doesn’t get easier! Even once you’ve reached the right stage for incorporating the butter, you must handle the dough even more deftly to avoid having all of it melting out from the warmth of your hands. And the irony is that you must handle the dough quite a lot, just to achieve a smooth, even finish when shaping the dough into balls. So I once again thought lovingly about my KitchenAid with dough hook attachment, and will consider keeping chilled cans of Coke handy to keep my hand temperature in check. When I get around to making this at home the kneading will most certainly not be done by hand.

We made the croissants & pains au chocolat at the first of the two Viennoiserie practicals. I failed to take a picture of my croissants as the class was so rushed, but I managed to do well enough. Apart from some size inconsistency, each croissant rose to an impressive flaky finish and golden color. Still, they were a bit doughy on the inside, especially once they cooled down, so I think that they weren’t baked long enough (everyone in class complained of this, so it wasn’t just me making excuses ;-))

The brioche practical had its challenges but overall the results were better…largely because all we had to worry about was the shaping and finishing of the dough. Chef Cotte did not have the patience to have us making the dough by hand, so he had whipped up a big batch using the industrial mixer and then portioned out dough to all of us. Still the shaping of the individual brioche a tete as well as the loaf brioche was very challenging. Making the pains aux raisins from the remaining dough was somewhat less complex, reminiscent of making cinnamon rolls. And I managed to get an even shape to these, even though the dough was by this time getting quite warm and becoming harder to manipulate.

So it’s time to venture into my kitchen and practice what I’ve learned. I think I’ll start with brioche as I can contain the mixing to the maddening whirl of my KitchenAid. I’m thinking that with a bit less butter and eggs incorporated, I may finally have a perfect base for making buns for hamburgers and sloppy joes. So the next experiment will be feeding my intuitions (and eventually some friends) with brioche that steps out of the breakfast arena and into casual dining. Wish me (and especially my KitchenAid) all the strength we can muster! :-o

The Forgotten Moka

Preparing a Gateau Moka, or coffee genoise, was an unexpected pleasure in the end. I emphasize the ‘in the end’ part as the demo and practical did not leave me feeling very positive at the start.

I found the Gateau Moka we’d tasted in Chef Cotte’s demonstration to be quite sweet and a bit monotone in both texture and appearance. It is no discredit to the chef, but rather endemic with the recipe I suppose. It’s not that I don’t like coffee flavor, but that’s really all there was to this cake. Genoise really has no flavor of its own and is quite dry, so you are really obliged to soak it with syrup to give it flavor and keep it moist. The syrup in this case was coffee flavored and it was then frosted with coffee buttercream and garnished with some toasted almonds and chocolate coffee beans. So it was quite sweet and really soft - the texture of the cake on the day been very similar to a tiramisu layer, except it lacked the contrast of complementary flavors like mascarpone cream and chocolate. So I was left feeling slightly disappointed. And I found it a bit soggy too…the layers having become very soaked with the imbibing syrup and not having time to rest before we were asked to taste it.

Still I was intrigued enough by the mixing technique which was like an embellished meringue using the whole eggs vs. just the whites. I could envisage a number of different possibilities unfolding for my home kitchen using the genoise technique but with different flavor combinations. So I decided I would dream of my own inspiring recipes for the future trials in my home kitchen and basically get through this exactly as instructed. Well, almost…

The genoise mixing technique is unique in that the eggs & sugar are beaten over a pan of hot water. This helps the eggs to achieve better beaten volume, and allows the sugar molecules to be better incorporated. So yet again there was a lot of manual whisking, not to the level of a daquoise or meringue, but still a fairly intense workout for the arms. A few of my classmates by this point were showing me the blisters and calluses they have on their palms from all this whisking. So that should give you an idea of how intense the in-class preparations can become!

In the practical I managed to successfully reach a voluminous state with my eggs atop the steaming pan of water. Then I missed a small but important detail from my class notes….which was to continue whisking this mixture off the heat before adding the flour & butter. I was in a bit of a hurry and my flour went in a bit too quickly. I could see the mistake almost immediately and I watched all the glorious volume deplete quickly before my eyes. Chef Walther was attending the class and in his usual calm & patient way advised me that I needed to start again. So there I was, back at the stove whisking feverishly to redo this step quickly. Meanwhile, everyone else was finishing…so I felt some pressure already!

The second time I achieved great results and of course did not repeat my previous mistake. Only to make another…which was omitting the melted butter after stirring in the flour. Doh! By the time I realized what I’d done, the batter was already in my cake mold and I was rushing off to the oven to avoid being the last one not finished. As the amount of butter is really negligible in the recipe (15g), and knowing that we’d be soaking the layers with imbibing syrup and then slathering on mounds of buttercream, I decided I would not worry about this step and see what happened.

My cake baked really beautifully…I had an even shape and quite a flat top. The color was very even and it unmolded effortlessly from the pan. Not everyone was so lucky. I saw a few bloated looking cakes resulting from overfilled molds and some people had issues with unmolding, with the bottoms of the cakes getting stuck in places. So I was lucky so far. But I kept wondering how it would taste without the butter, and worried it might have a texture like sawdust!

The time came for us to slice the cake round into two layers. Tricky indeed, especially since the cakes were delicately fresh from the oven, the serrated knives are razor sharp & unforgiving, and Chef Walther had just advised us about a girl the practical the day before who had totally cut her hand open during this step. Having had serious cuts on my hand before, I paled at the thought of ever having stitches again. Fortunately I managed to slice the round into two very even layers but not any parts of my hands. This gave me a better chance to look at the quality of the cake composition. It all looked good from what I could see - even tone and crumb, no visible dryness - so I kept wondering when the overlooked butter would become my foe.

I continued to the next step which was soaking the layers with the coffee & rum flavored imbibing syrup. This is done with a pastry brush, and even if you don’t omit the butter you really have to soak the layers well. So this step takes quite some time do evenly. It reminded me of staining untreated wood decking, when the planks literally soak up the varnish as quickly as you apply it. Chef Walther passed by my workstation at this stage and gave an approving nod, encouraging me to apply even more syrup, particularly if I was going to save the cake until tomorrow before serving (which I was).

We then proceeded with the montage, which started with the application of buttercream to the inner layer, sides and top of the gateau. I smiled nostalgically to myself as it reminded me of making a Betty Crocker layer cake when I was a kid….with all that thick, canned frosting to weld the cake layers together. We all spent a fair amount of time smoothing the sides and top with a palette knife, which I must say is much easier using real buttercream than the tubs of commercially manufactured frosting used in the US. After this was smooth, we learned a great finishing technique using the edge of the serrated knife and a zigzagging movement. The top became a beautiful herringbone pattern which was particularly striking with the beige tone of the buttercream.

I finished with the decoration, piping an even layer of shells around the perimeter of the top layer, followed by a couple of flourished garlands running across the top. The last step was applying the toasted chopped almonds. I discovered by doing that the best technique here was to bring a handful of the almond pieces right up to the shell perimeter, then let them fall along the sides and back into the receptacle pan. The cake was quickly garnished and it only took a minute to do well.

I was happy with the result of my cake appearance and decoration. I stored it overnight in Isabelle’s fridge and toted it on the metro my Paris colleagues the following morning. I couldn’t stop thinking about the forgotten butter and I wondered if the taste would suffer. About mid morning, I sent out an email inviting people to come for a degustation and soon there were smiling faces appearing around my desk. “Mmm, c’est bon, Lisa” I kept hearing. As the cake was sliced open, I could see that I really had done a good job soaking the layers and applying the buttercream evenly. The cake was disappearing fast…I decided to take a slice to check for myself. It really tasted good and I found the cake did not miss the butter I’d omitted. The cake was moist but not too soggy and it looked quite delicate and pretty on the small paper plates.

I’ve been asked to make a themed cake for a work event this week. One of my company’s brands is celebrating its third anniversary in market. As the brand color is orange and it is all about babies, I think I’ll go ahead and make a genoise again. I had been debating some other recipes, but I’m thinking with an orange buttercream, caramel-rum soaking liquid and toasted pecans I will have a fitting solution….and I’ll get to experiment with something more creative than just coffee.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Mellow and Moelleux

I was so delighted to have Chef Daniel Walther attending the practical today. Oddly ironic that as we were about to make petit-fours moelleux, we had the most mellow chef at the school there to observe and guide us.

Chef Walther had taught me for at least two of the inspiring Saturday workshops I’d done at Le Cordon Bleu, prior to enrolling in this basic pastry certificate program. By my definition, he has an ideal teaching style… a calm and patient disposition which puts everyone at ease, yet his mastery commands respect of everyone in the room. When he steps up to help you at your work station, he does this in a way demonstrates his competence yet doesn’t erode your self-confidence. And he explains everything…not just on technique but regarding ingredients, not only to answer the questions you asked but to offer information on the questions you might not even know to ask. For example, today I learned even more about egg white properties that I never knew before, and it is these details which I feel really help me understand the why as much as the how. And this all happened as easily as having a conversation with a trusted friend. Fantastic!

So even though the class was having another early morning of frantic whisking, the room was filled with smiling faces and happy chatter as Chef Walther circulated the room and attended to each of us. From just one recipe of almond meringue, we prepared batons de marechaux, miroirs and eponges and the yields for each were very generous. The final results for everyone looked beautiful.

It is hard to say which of these three biscuits would be my favorite. The batons are covered with chopped almonds and finished with a super thin covering of dark chocolate, so based on this finition alone it has a strong vote from me. The miroirs contain a touch of almond frangipane and are glazed with a mixture of rum icing and nappage d’abricot. These were pretty to look at, although for my taste these were a bit too heavy on the rum and a bit too light on the frangipane so were less appealing. The eponges are ball shapes which are covered in sliced almonds before baking; to finish they are sandwiched together with a thin layer of raspberry jam and garnished with a light dusting of confectioner’s sugar. The eponges had the most mouth appeal as almond and raspberry are excellent fraternal flavors; coupled with the compact shape and light airiness of the cookie they were easy to savor in one mouthful.

I would like to try the batons again in future…I think I found these the most challenging in terms of piping out neat shapes and particularly in achieving an even finition of chocolate. Certainly learning more about the versatility of the almond meringue recipe was inspiring and will leave me pondering a few variations for future.

Tuile of Fortune

The Petit-Fours Secs practical on Oct 1st proved to be a satisfying and high yield practical class….with no extreme whisking required! I am sure I was not the only one who cheered silently for that small yet important detail!

During the demo, we observed Chef Cotte making a range of fairly simple, classic dry biscuits, which included Cigarettes, Palets aux Raisins, Tuiles aux Amandes and Duchess. My favorite from the demo was undoubtedly the Cigarettes. These are those gorgeously thin wafers that are rolled into a cylindrical shape whilst still hot from the oven. I had only ever tried the commercially prepared versions, but Chef Cotte’s were truly delicious. I love the fact that they can be filled with cream or dipped in chocolate, and because of their elongated shape they create some elegance on the biscuit platter or when served with ice cream.

During the practical, the roster of choice was simplified and we proceeded to make only the Palets aux Raisins and the Tuiles aux Amandes.

The Palets are a small, delicate biscuit garnished with golden raisins, nappage d’abricot and a rum glaze. Using a pastry bag & round tip, the dough is piped out into small balls onto a parchment lined baking sheet. The baking sheet is then tapped on the counter a couple of times to help flatten the balls slightly. As we were only making one sheet of these, Chef Cotte instructed us to place a trefle pattern of golden raisins atop each biscuit before baking. Normally when making large volumes, the raisins would be chopped and stirred into the dough before piping out. Once baked and cooled, the palets are brushed with the apricot glaze and finished with a covering of sugar glaze. Whilst it sounded like a lot of extra sugar to add, the cookies themselves are not that sweet. So the unglazed cookies were, well…just a bit bland and actually a bit ugly too!

The Tuiles aux Amandes are more to my taste preference…these are thin cookies filled with slivered almonds and baked on a heavily buttered baking sheet. As they are removed from the oven, these are then shaped while still warm into a slightly curved shape, then allowed to cool. I’ve made these once in the past, draping the hot cookies over a wine bottle or rolling pin to obtain a pleasing curvature. In the practical, Chef Cotte asked us to use a goutiere, which was a sort of baking sheet with a fairly steep corrugated grooves. It reminded me a bit of corrugated sheet metal, however the grooves were even deeper.

When making the palets, I was quite proud of my piping skills that evening, and I achieved smooth, round & even extrusions of dough onto the baking sheet. Once topped with the raisins, which I had selected carefully for each cookie to ensure a balanced appearance, mine looked very delicate and even. A few of the students noticed this detail and gave positive feedback…unfortunately Chef Cotte did not mention it when assessing my final presentation.

The tuiles I found more challenging. Whilst I followed the required measurements exactly, I felt I had way too many sliced almonds in the batter. So they were difficult to shape into the goutiere when coming from the oven…I am guessing because the ratio of less flexible nuts to more flexible egg-based batter was out of sync. So mine emerged from the goutiere looking a bit more tented rather than domed. But I reckon that mankind lived in tents before they began living in domed palaces…so I cut myself some slack. Anyway, their color looked good and the flavor was amazing… filling my mouth with the roasted and slightly buttery richness of all those almonds.

As my group had demo & practical all in the one day, it was fairly late once we had finished and cleaned up. I ended up sharing my yield with my logeuse Isabelle that evening and the rest with my Paris colleagues the following day. The tuiles seemed to be the stronger favorite of the two choices, and folks appreciated that mine were crisp and nutty. By the end of the afternoon, everything was eaten…even the ungarnished palets!

A few of my classmates told me that they had given their yield away to their host families…or even to street people on the way home from school. The latter comment really made me think. How many hungry people in the world would love to have all these tuiles and palets we’d made that evening…whether tented, dented, broken or unglazed. I found it to be a wonderful gesture and demonstrates the very philanthropic nature of many of the younger students, who are ready to share generously with others less fortunate.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Dacquoiser-size: the new upper body workout!

I must admit that learning to bake in a professional kitchen has a few less creature comforts than I expected. Baking in my own home tends to be much more comfortable…not only because I’m usually doing it in my tracksuit or pajamas but also also because of all of the convenient electrical gadgets I have. The best of these being my KitchenAid stand mixer.

At Le Cordon Bleu there are industrial mixers in the practical rooms, but we students are required to learn the methods without relying on machines. It reminded me of elementary school arithmetic classes, when my teachers would insist we learn to do the sums in our head…even when relying on a calculator might be easier. So I fully appreciate why…I guess I have just gotten used to the convenience!

On Monday this week, we made a lovely Dacquoise. Another stunning cake that looked beautiful enough to be classified as French patisserie. It is made from meringue cake layers flavored with ground almonds, assembled with satiny, golden praline buttercream and garnished with a marzipan rose. The texture of the cake layers was slightly reminiscent of angelfood, albeit much thinner & slightly denser, with much more robust flavor because of the ground almonds. It is a cake I have so often read about and always wanted to try at home but never did….even with a KitchenAid at my disposal! So with all those missed opportunities mounting around me, I decided to just roll up my sleeves and be whisked away by it all.

A slight understatement indeed. Both the cake and the butter cream require a huge amount of whisking. First to get the meringue into a stiffly beaten & glossy mass….later to get the huge amount of butter in the dense buttercream to achieve silky smoothness when combined with the egg yolks and sugar syrup. So all through the practical, the happy clatter of 12 eager whisks in Inox bowls filled the air, all of the students including myself taking turns mixing with each arm. Who needs a personal trainer to help get rid of those bingo wings? Dacquoiser-size and go for the burn!! Your triceps will be calling you tomorrow, threatening to go on strike unless you agree to go back to just doing pushups.

Of course, I exaggerate a bit, but not much. Meanwhile, I would say everyone in my group achieved great success with their dacquoise. I saw nothing but smooth, even cake layers and evenly piped praline buttercream, with folks exploring different ideas on the cream application to achieve different looks. There was lots of creativity in the rose preparations, too. I wasn’t overly impressed with my results that day with sculpting the perfect rose, yet it was still fun…taking me back to those carefree, Plasticene days.

Certainly the dacquoise proved itself more durable than I was expecting. Apart from the marzipan rose, the cake transported very well back to Geneva, stored beautifully in the fridge overnight and delighted numerous colleagues on Tuesday. If ever making it again at home, I will pull out my KitchenAid and try exercising ingredient variations instead…such as experimenting with hazelnut and orange flavor combination, or perhaps something with pistachio and chocolate. It seems the choices might be endless...and I am considering to make this for an upcoming work event (where I've been asked to bake the celebration cake!)

Eclairs – Super-size me!

Last Friday's éclair making practical did not bring me to the same euphoric results as the chaussons. The stars were misaligned or I was half asleep…..or whatever.

My pate a choux was particularly wet that day. The recipe was slightly altered vs the St. Honore, using all water for the éclairs instead of half milk and half water quantities as we’d done for the St. Honore. More importantly, I don’t think I’d dried the liquid-flour mixture enough on the stove top before adding the eggs, so that when I got to the piping stage for forming the éclairs I had dough oozing rather than being pushed out the tip of my pastry bag. As a result, I couldn’t pipe out neat lengths of the paste for the éclairs. Mine got quite fat in diameter, or in a couple of regrettable instances, resulted in having bulbous ends. I recalled the Chef Cotte’s commentary on this from the demo…but there was really nothing I could do about it now.

The saving grace was that my chocolate crème patissiere was divine. The last time we’d made crème patissiere was for the gateau basque, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with the results of that effort – the crème was too thick and starchy for my liking. This time however, the crème was very unctuous and smooth, I am sure this was partially enabled by the addition of couverture chocolate…also because Chef Cotte revealed a secret that stirring through a small touch of full cream to the mixture before covering with plastic film and letting it cool. In any case, it was perfect!

My éclairs emerged from the oven looking like small logs, so I ended up using the entire recipe of crème patissiere to fill them. Despite their large diameter, they were quite perfectly cavernous & hollow inside. So the edges of the pastry were super thin, allowing more of the delicious crème flavor to come through when tasting them.

Applying the fondant to the tops as the final garnish further re-enforced the fact that less is more when it comes to éclairs. Basically you dip the top of the éclair down into the pot of warm fondant, then run your index finger over the top surface to smooth away the excess, then your middle finger around the perimeter of the fondant to make a smooth & clean edge. Longer & fatter éclairs are much harder to lift out of the gluey fondant, and have a tendency to try to break somewhere in the middle. Fortunately I avoided breaking my éclairs in the fondant pot, but I could feel the vortex strength of its grip and realized how easily this could happen.

Everyone back in Geneva was impressed and the éclairs didn’t survive past 9pm. Enjoying them as dessert for a casual dinner with friends, atleast the taste was perfect and no one seemed to complain about the large size….more to love I suppose.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Believe it and make it happen

This past Thursday started out pretty much as planned. I'd arisen on time and was feeling so energized as it was a 'school' day. I quickly showered and dressed in my jeans and sneakers, and arrived at Gare de Cornavin with ample time to catch the 7:17 am TGV to Paris. No sweat I thought...I am loving this! Little did I know, the sweat part would come later that morning!

We'd left Geneva on time and reached our first stop....Bellegarde. Just over the French border from Geneva and normally a 2 minute stop to allow boarding passengers. At the point we'd left Geneva, I'd eaten the fruit & yogurt I'd packed for breakfast, then became pretty engrossed in some work I'd brought briefs and style guides that I was working on, reviewing some packaging layouts as well. I was busy reading these and feverishly making some notes when I suddenly had the sense that something was different. We weren't actually moving. I looked at my was nearly 8am and we'd been standing still at the platform for some time now. Not good I thought...we should have left about 15 minutes ago. Something's wrong...

The voice of the conductrice crackled over the speaker. "Mesdames et Messieurs," she began. "Oh boy, here it comes" I thought. "I am sorry to announce we have an electrical failure on the train lines this morning between Clusoz & Macon. This means we have lost power and will have to re-route the train via Chambery. We expect, at minimum, a 1 hour and a quarter delay for our arrival into Paris. First class passengers are invited to book their taxis now for Gare de Lyon." She repeated the message, evidently for some half-asleep passengers or those like me who may not have even noticed that we'd been stopped for quite some time.

On these last words, I could feel myself getting stressed. I was trying to get to the Eclairs demo starting at 12:30pm in Paris. Normally the 7:17 am train is ample time, since it arrives at Gare de Lyon at 10:49am, and I can reach the school by 11:45am to noon at the latest. This gives me a comfortable amount of time to change into my uniform, gather my notes and get a good seat in the demo room. With the forecasted delay, I'd only be arriving at Gare de Lyon around noon, then I would only have 30 minutes to transfer through 15 metro stops and 3 train changes to reach the school. And then I would still have to change into my uniform and find a seat...aaargh! It felt like failure was eminent.

My mind continued racing into the negative spiral of emotions and the domino-effect this little incident could have on my plans. If I'm more than 10 minutes late, I won't be admitted to the demo. If I don't get in the demo, then I cannot participate in the practical on Friday. And if I can't do either, then this whole round trip to Paris this week will be a waste of time and money...and I will have accrued 2 of the 5 allowed absences as a result. Any way I looked at it, it just seemed bad.

Of course, none of this was in my scope of control...nor was it even my fault. Which made it seem even more frustrating. I got up from my seat and took a walk towards the cafeteria car. Maybe a coffee would clear my head...or at least distract me for a moment.

I've been sporadically reading a spiritual book called "The Miracle of Change" by Marianne Williamson and for some reason it came to mind as I lumbered down the corridor. Some of this book's best teaching advises about the power of positive thinking and how this attracts the positive into your life. Also to avoid letting your ego get in the way of your own happiness. Simply put, the human ego prevents us from loving fully and achieving greatness in our lives because it imposes conditions, or in some cases barriers, to defining our own happiness and sense of fulfillment. I realized that this is what was happening right now...and I could either succumb to the negativity of the situation or rise above it. And if I couldn't rise above it, maybe I could at least learn from it.

I sipped the coffee that was served to me. It was dreadful...but in swallowing a burning mouthful I was jolted to the realization that this situation would be what I chose to make of it. I asked myself, "How bad do you want to be here?" (here of course being Le Cordon Bleu Paris, not on this bloody re-routed TGV drinking bad coffee.) "Right now, I want it more than anything else, "I said to myself. "I really need this, this is something that makes me feel so happy. " My dialogue continued, "So are you gonna let something as superficial as a late train prevent you from enjoying that??!" Without hesitation I thought, "HELL NO!!" Then I settled back on my bar stool, feeling somehow better even while sipping the rest of the toxic coffee. I decided that if I held out for the positive, the positive would happen. And with nothing short of a miracle, maybe even the TGV coffee would improve!

Positive re-enforcement to my choice arrived almost immediately. The speaker overhead crackled and the conductrice was announcing that our arrival in Paris would only be a 1hour and 5 minute delay. So I just gained 10 minutes of valuable time. "YES!!" I cheered to myself.

I knew I would make the most of the situation at hand. I sat in the cafeteria car for a while, looking at the reversed landscapes reflecting in the mirrors and also reflecting about all the things I needed to do to rescue this situation. About40 minutes before the scheduled arrival, I went back to my seat which was way towards the back of the train, far from the engine and the cafeteria. I gathered my belongings. I realized that I would stand the best chance of making up for lost time if I got as close to the front of the train as possible. Fortunately not much luggage today...just the cake box in an ugly Champion supermarket bag made of some Tyvek type material, my jacket & handbag, and my laptop. I wished my co-passenger a good day, then walked back towards the cafeteria. There were some unoccupied seats in the connecting section between the rail cars, so I took a folding seat and sat down.

I don't ever carry a laptop bag. Draping one of these over my shoulder tends to put my whole body out of joint, and I find it easier to carry the laptop when its weight is close to my chest...the same way a school girl might carry her text books. But today I decided it might be easiest if I had just one item in my hands for the race I was starting. That would give me one extra arm or hand to balance myself for stairs, etc. So I put the laptop in its neoprene case at the bottom of the Champion bag, then the cake box, then my jacket on the top.

I mentally retraced the metro connections I learned so far, and where to position myself at each metro platform so I could optimize my connection times. For Lines 1 & 4, sticking to the middle or back of the plaform would be best. For the last connection, Line 12 toward Mairie d'Issey, I remembered that it would be fastest to be at the front of the train if possible, as this was nearest to the station exit.

The train was slowing towards arrival into Gare de Lyon, true to the 1hour 5minute delay, and I noticed a few (but not many) other passengers who like me had made their way to the front of the train for arrival. We reached a full stop, and I was second person off the train (the first was some Army guy and I sensed his penalties for tardiness might be stricter than mine). The shopping bag was so heavy due to the laptop, and I noticed the scratchy woven handles were cutting into my hands a bit, but I sprinted down the TGV platform towards the exit.

The taxi drivers who were awaiting their first class patrons watched from the end of the platform. As I neared, one of them sniggered as I ran in a ungaitely manner. "Bonne chance," he remarked as I passed. As if to say, 'good luck're never gonna make it." "Oh yeah," I thought defiantly...'you just watch me!"

The metro was surprisingly uncrowded and I made it to Line 1 La Defense just before the doors slammed shut. It was only 12 pm and I was already underway with my first connection. "YES!" I cheered to myself again.

I proceeded to connect to Line 4 at Chatelet, although running a bit of an obstacle course as the station was crowded with plenty of folks moving much slower than me. My arms and shoulders ached and I was breaking a good sweat now...I kept running. "You won't miss this class...remember how bad you want this!" I told myself over and over.

For the last metro connection at Montparnasse-Bienvenue to Line 12, I couldn't reach the front of the train. No matter, I hopped on the last car of the train serendipitously awaiting at the platform just before the doors slammed shut. I wiped my brow. It was about 12:15pm by this point, and I was on the final metro connection to my destination. Very few passengers embarking or disembarking at stops Pasteur, Falguiere or Volontaires. Next stop, stop.

It was now nearly 12:20pm. I was 2 1/2 blocks away from the school. I bolted up the stairs of the station, the last gust of caffeine fueling me. I smiled like a loon. I could practically taste my own arrival and it was delicious. Or maybe the loss of circulation in my arms and hands was causing a nirvana-like state in my brain! Pedestrians approaching me on the street literally parted as if they were the Red Sea and I was Moses...or maybe they just thought I was some deranged woman who was fleeing after just robbing the local Champion. It didn't matter. I could see the school entrance. It was the last bit of reassurance I needed.

I entered and raced past the reception desk looking flushed and smiling "bon jour". Fortunately, the vestiare was empty...this is rarely the case. It was the fastest clothing change of my life. Not even Chippendale dancers earning big tips could have done a faster disrobing. I wadded my street clothes into a big ball and crammed them in the locker. "Not the day to worry about ironing," I thought. I more or less had my uniform & shoes on but was still in various stages of fastening up...buttoning, zipping and tying laces as I made my way to the demo room. As I did, I could see the door was still open...good sign! This meant that roll call had not begun and that I was still officially not late.

I stepped into the demo room. Only two seats left, both of them way over against the wall with an obstructed view. It didn't matter; we'd learned choux technique last week and this was just a different form of the same dough. I scurried down the long aisle, avoiding the toes of those already seated and greeting folks I recognized. I settled into my seat and began blotting my brow and fanning myself with the recipe sheets. At that point, the door shut and roll call began. I couldn't erase the smile from my face. Against the odds, I had triumphed. It felt great! Positive thinking and some extra planning had paid least to get me to class. Looking down at my uniform halfway through the demo, I realized the snap of my jacket which sits just below my breasts was undone! Discreetly I fixed this. Besides, no one but the wall to peek in the gap this time.