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.

Chaussons & Palmiers

Before starting my next lesson, the thought of making my own pate feuilletage, or puff pastry, was deflating my confidence. Feuilletage was definitely something I'd never made from scratch before, but always purchased as a 'ready-made' item when a recipe required it.

I've worked successfully with ready-made feuilletage since the early 90's when I was living in Houston. The first time was a batch of millefeuille, better known to me as Napoleons at that time, which I brought to a company Christmas party. For these I'd received rave feedback from colleagues and I knew there was further inspiration to explore with this cooking medium. I progressed into making a Gallette du Rois that January, at the time to please my French fiance and his parents who loved the tradition of 12th night but who at the time could not find a local bakery that was making these cakes. There was no Internet at that time, so I went to the local library, researched a Gallette recipe, translated the measurements back from metric to imperial, and pulled it together using commercially manufactured puff pastry and some homemade frangipane. It worked really well. Since then, I've progressed with a number of other recipes using commercially made puff pastry to make numerous sweet and savory items....but to make the pastry myself??! After the brilliant results on my St. Honore, frankly I was worried.

Watching the demo with Chef Cotte made the process seem much easier, and I regained some hope. But then again...demos can be deceptive as it is easy to forget that the chef has years of experience behind him. Basically he started by making a pate detrempe, which was basically flour, melted butter, a pinch each of sugar & salt, and water. All combined, this mixture looked a bit like pizza dough and was quite different in terms of mixing technique versus shortcrust pastry! After balling it up and chilling it slightly, he rolled it to about 25cm circle, then added a 400g (!!!) square of pounded beurre sec to the centre, folding the ends of the dough inward like an envelope to cover over & seal the butter, then rolled some more. I discovered that one trick to achieving really good pate feuilletage is in using a good quality dry butter, and by using the correct technique of rolling, folding and turning, which you are supposed to do 6 times. He'd roll the dough out to the length of the rolling pin + his fist, then fold the ends towards the centre in 3-ply fashion, then make a one-quarter turn with the dough, then repeat the process.

I'd never heard of dry butter before, and so I asked in the demo and learned that this is specifically prepared for the culinary industry for making pastry. In the churning process, the petit lait or buttermilk is separated from the butterfat and this is what makes the butter. For domestic use, some of the buttermilk is returned to the butter to make it more spreadable (also a bit cheaper, since there is a higher ratio of liquid to solids). Apparently one couldn't find beurre sec at a supermarket, but we were advised to use the highest priced or 'choice' butter when making feuilletage at home and we would achieve good results. The 'choice' butter generally has higher proportion of solids to liquids and is therefore the closest substitute to beurre sec.

When I got to the practical I felt at least the 'mystery' of this pastry technique had been eroded, but I still had to work through the steps myself. I worked my detrempe successfully and started with the rolling/turning process. After the 4th turn, our instructions were to divide the recipe of dough into 2 portions (as we were going to make chaussons and palmiers from one batch of dough). I was having such a good time and my dough was very yielding and rolling evenly, so I kind of overlooked this point until I'd actually arrived at the 6th turn. Oops I thought...however no one seemed to notice and I prayed that a few extra turns would just add a few extra this can't be a bad thing.

I made my apple filling, which smelled just amazing simmering away with the butter, cinnamon, vanilla & Calvados added, then finished cutting & filling the dough for my chaussons (or turnovers as we'd call them in the US) and making the palmiers. As instructed, I brushed each chausson with egg wash, then used my paring knife to cut a leaf-like pattern into each. I was pleased...lying there on the baking sheet they looked even, not too big and the pattern was clear and distinct. But I kept wondering about those extra turns, and whether it would affect my results. My familiarity with shortcrust pastry is that basically any extra handling of the pastry is a big no-no for good results.

For the palmiers, we were instructed to add granulated sugar (lots of it!) to the final turns of the dough. At the halfway point of my sugar application, I felt like I'd achieved sucrose overdose and so I stopped short of adding the full amount. I mean, my dough was literally scintillating with sugar granules already and I decided in such instances that extreme accuracy probably wasn't worth a dental visit. So I finished with the final shaping of the dough and announced to the chef that mine were ready for the oven.

Chef Tranchant was again attending our practical session and I decided that I liked him as much as Chef Cotte. He is indeed a very different personality to Chef Cotte, much more reserved and with a dry sense of humor...whereas Chef Cotte is much more outwardly playful and prone to slapstick humor & jokes. Chef Tranchant and I shared a laugh earlier when adding the Calvados to my apple filling, him making an inebriated facial expression as I accidentally sloshed a bit too much liquor into the simmering pan. Despite a lack of verbal discussion between us, his point got across and it made him seem much more personable. Anyway, we both knew that the alcohol evaporates in the cooking process ...or atleast that's the story I'm sticking with! :-)

The baking was done and all of the goods were emerging from the oven. My palmiers looked ok, the heart-shapes were mostly even however mine were a little less caramelized than some other classmates. This contributed to them being slightly softer in texture, also being less golden. Still, served with a cup of hot tea, I knew they'd make a few folks happy back in Geneva.

The chaussons emerged next and I stared in awe at the ones which bore my name on the parchment and were placed before me on the cooling rack. They were beautiful indeed...much, much better than I could have hoped! They had risen evenly to be slightly larger than my fist, and the leaf pattern was really visible & distinctive. I quickly brushed them with the sugar syrup as we were instructed, and they sizzled slightly then looked glossy and finished.

Chef Tranchant appeared at my side and pushed my rack of chaussons into the centre of the workbench. "Class," he announced authoritatively while pointing to my work, "These are excellent! These are what chaussons should look like!" I felt proud, slightly flushing with embarrassment though. He then leaned towards me and whispered coarsely, "Frankly they are even better looking than Chef Cotte's!"

I smiled to myself, realizing that the extra folds & turns hadn't hurt me...but then wondering, based on the final comment, if Chef Cotte might! "Nah", I thought dismissively. I'm sure no one heard that comment but me.

Honored Memories

It is amazing how a cake can make you feel good. Case in point was the St. Honore I made on Thursday Sept 18th.

Sept 18th is my eldest sister Jeanne’s birthday and she must have been with me in the kitchen in spirit because it was one of those mornings where the stars aligned in the universe and everything went better than planned in preparing this gateau. My pastry base of pate sucree was tender, my choux buns were evenly shaped (and we secretly all want that!! ;-)), my crème Chantilly achieved the correct herringbone pattern, and Chef Tranchant even allowed us to let our inspiration take over in garnishing the cake with the leftover caramel. I poured this out in wild, intersecting circular shapes onto the baking parchment; once it hardened I chose the most interesting ‘mesh’ patterns and mounted the two best intersecting arches in the centre of my gateau. I got praised by Chef Tranchant for my piping skills with the crème and for the finished presentation with the caramel flourishes. Net, it was the first class so far where I felt like I left with a really stunning result, and something I had never attempted before in my home kitchen… but could and definitely would!

That afternoon I was scheduled to return to Geneva and this really made me happy as I had a lovely cake to share with friends and I knew I’d be experimenting further with this recipe on the weekend. I left Le Cordon Bleu with my St. Honore and returned to my Paris domicile with plans to eat a quick lunch & pick up my personal items before heading for Gare de Lyon. Given the vestiares at the school are so cramped and I am lucky to be staying close by, I try to bring as little as possible with me to the school. So that morning when leaving for class, I’d left pretty much everything of value in the apartment… passport, watch, wallet, car keys, TGV tickets, laptop, etc. I went to put my key in the lock…it wouldn’t open. I jiggled, retracted, re-inserted, repeated…it wasn’t budging! I started to panic. Here I am standing at the doorway of the apartment with a beautiful cake, my mobile but nothing else…with the minutes ticking away steadily towards my departure. I recalled that my logeuse, Isabelle, had mentioned she’d be going away for a long weekend and this made me panic further…what if she’d already left and, knowing of my plans to return to Geneva that afternoon, put an extra security lock on the door thinking that I wouldn’t be around! Normally I only see her in the early morning & late evening, so I expected that she must still be at work. I tried phoning her office number and mobile…no answer. By now my heart was racing. I started ringing the doorbell and then I just pounded on the door, partly in sheer frustration that this was happening to me. Finally as a last ditch effort, I rang the home number. To my surprise, she answered!

Indeed, she had come home early to prepare for her trip and had inadvertently set a second lock which can only be activated from the inside. The doorbell ringer is tucked away in a hall closet filled with winter coats, and she was 3 rooms away packing for her trip, so had neither heard me at the door nor on her mobile. For whatever combination of reasons that had caused this drama, I heaved a huge sigh of relief…she let me into the apartment with profuse apologies that she’d kept me waiting. I just felt so relieved to be on the other side of that door, I pretty much didn’t hear anything she was saying!

Isabelle seemed stressed…very unlike her normal relaxed behavior. There was paperwork spread out all over the kitchen table. She proceeded to tell me about the dreadful morning she’d had. An ATM had swallowed her Carte Bleu, there was an error with her train ticket….and she was supposed to leave that afternoon. She’d been on the phone all morning trying to sort out both issues, and whilst I couldn’t quite follow all of the conversation regarding the credit card, it seemed that this would not be sorted out prior to her leaving on vacation. She was pretty worked up about the prospect of going away without having her credit card with her. It was at that moment I decided she needed a smile and it might be good to distract her…if only for a moment.

That’s when I lifted the cake out of my carry bag and invited her to have a look, better yet a taste of what I’d made that morning. Her face lit up instantly and she proceeded to tell me that the St. Honore had been her father’s very favorite gateau…and how as a girl it had always been a treat to go to the patisserie with him to have one…and how difficult it was these days to find patisseries that still sell them since the cakes deteriorate so quickly once prepared. Hands clasped before her and with a large smile on her face, she proceeded to admire all the detail of the herringbone patterned crème and the caramel flourish. Despite insisting several times, I couldn’t convince her to cut into it and taste it as she wanted me to show off such ‘bon travaille’ to friends in Geneva…but she did sample some of the extra choux buns that I had filled with crème Chantilly and topped with caramel.

Isabelle remained quite calm after that (I think I even heard her humming to herself!) and finished her packing, then left the apartment with a cheery “tres bon week-end, Lisa!” I know it sounds weird, but I truly believe almost every cake or dessert offers us a memory and can transport us back to a place when we felt cherished, safe and happy. I bake a lot and I observe this often in people’s behavior, especially when I make colorful cupcakes or cut-out cookies. Cakes traditionally signal joyful celebrations and we somehow become children again when looking at them, or at least younger versions of ourselves, dancing on our tiptoes with an indulgent ‘me-first’ smile at the promise of tasting something so special and fun.

My work colleagues enjoyed this St Honore on Friday, and on Saturday I proceeded to make a few more….one for my friend Laura’s birthday and some mini St. Honores that I shared with Stormy & Nicolas and Ard. I felt even more happy and inspired with these, experimenting with the application of whipped cream and addition of Mara strawberries for extra color. This is definitely a recipe I’ll make again, for its simple elegance, delightful contrasting textures and happy memories …specifically those spent with friends and family who enjoyed these first attempts with me.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Best of the Brest

Wow…I can certainly feel another wave of inspiration coming over me after this morning’s demonstration!

Despite my fatigue from the TGV, I watched in awe as Chef Cotte created two masterful creations from choux pastry: the Paris-Brest and the St. Honore. It was like a giant cream puff fantasy come to life!! I kept thinking to myself...why haven’t I ever tried this before?!

Actually I have tried it before....yet for whatever reason choux just has not become part of my regular baking repertoire. Mom & I used to make cream puffs when I was a kid…and I’ve had the random encounter with cheese gougere and profiteroles for dinner parties over the past 10 years…not to mention a near-miss with a mini croquembouche in Melbourne!! Yet, it just isn’t a type of pastry I do often. Having seen today’s demo, I think that is about to change!!

Whilst I am not a huge fan of whipped cream, the finished cakes were stunning and very flavorful, with a simple but elegant presentation. The St. Honore, with its domes of choux pastry enrobed in a light caramel glaze and filled with beautifully piped crème Chantilly and scattered almonds was particularly breathtaking. Vaguely like the Kremlin on a plate....he he!

The Paris-Brest was a bit more rustic in appearance but had amazing qualities on the palette. Chef Cotte's was a giant ring of light choux pastry, filled with a satiny crème pralinee and smothered in sliced almonds. The lack of caramel glaze made it appear somewhat less regal, but the flavor was even more complex & satisfying than the St. Honore. A touch of shaved chocolate or crushed toffee on this one would have certainly defied pastry traditions but made it taste even more amazing! An equally inspired class mate was bold enough to ask the chef about using Nutella...a man after my own heart!! :-)

In ‘honor’ of two birthdays this week I’ll make the St. Honore on Thursday morning as part of my practical class….and will attempt a second, more creative interpretation of this on Saturday when I am back in Geneva. I can see so much potential in playing more creatively with the caramel presentation on this cake…something to give it even more height and a bit more texture for the degustation experience. And strawberries....I think this creation needs strawberries!

Of course, my inspiration doesn't end with the garnishing but extends to working with the choux pastry!! The fact that I can pipe this choux dough into virtually any shape, then build these shapes up using hard caramel & whipped cream is very inspiring. It's like edible building material...I can construct all sorts of wild cakes!! And of course all sorts of presentation ideas come to mind…sorry it’s my design background starting to kick in!

I leave you with perfect photos from today’s Chef demo until I can share some of my own…have pastry bag, will travel! ;-)

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Basque-ing in the fun all weekend!

Okay…I’ll admit that watching Gateau Basque being made was much more fun than making one. But the lesson led me to great inspiration at the weekend back in Geneva.

For those who don’t know it, Gateau Basque (pictured above) is a golden butter cake flavored with lemon zest and vanilla, then filled with rum infused crème patissiere and fruits. The origins of the cake are as obscure as the Basque civilization itself, but the recipes I’ve found all use the crème filling and presence of fruit. Le Cordon Bleu recipe uses dried apricots and prunes, however the traditional recipe calls for black cherry jam in lieu of the dried fruits. During the demo, Chef Cotte made several variations including some with fresh berries.

During my practical lesson, I had good results with the Gateau Basque. I noticed my batter and my crème were both much thicker and denser than what Chef Cotte had prepared in the demo. Still, my cake emerged from the oven looking good…smooth, even top, golden colour and it had retained the decorative patterns in the egg wash. It also transported very well in a plastic cake box on the Paris Metro & TGV back to Geneva. Still, when I went to dinner with friends on Friday evening, I decided to serve the cake with some crème anglaise since it otherwise seemed a bit plain in appearance. I’m glad I did! It would have otherwise been a bit too dry. Either there was some error in my measurements, or the cakes were baked too long in the class oven, or both! In any event, the crème anglaise made the serving presentation & degustation of this cake much more appealing.

On Saturday morning, I awoke feeling inspired to work further on my Madeleine technique. The biggest challenge was going to be finding the pans in the Geneva region. I started to realize that I’d never actually seen Madeleines ever served or for sale anywhere in Geneva region. Come to think of it, I’d never actually seen any culinary supply stores in this area. So where to look? My instincts led me to Manor in Chavannes Centre, which has one of the larger collections of cookware & gadgets in the area. I was happy to find some pans there. However these were small shell forms, done up in non-stick finish…not exactly the same kind we’d used in our practical class. Still, I figured it was as good as I’d get in this pretty much bought out Manor’s stock of pans!

The fun part of the Madeleine recipe was experienced in working with the new pans. In the practical class, we’d had to diligently butter & flour our pans to ensure the delicate cakes would not stick. Now I had these Teflon coated ones…so do I butter & flour or trust the technology?

I decided to experiment on this front for 3 madeleines…one mold traditionally buttered & floured, one sprayed with commercial butter/flour spray, and one with the bare Teflon. The good news was that none of the 3 test cakes actually stuck to the pan, but I found the one with the commercial spray had the least attractive appearance - it seemed to make an unusually dark edge on the madeleine. Since the bare Teflon was working, I went ahead and baked the rest of them without putting butter & flour in the pans. If only the chef could see me, defying the strict orders in class to diligently butter & flour each mold carefully!! :-)

Of course, not buttering the pans made the baking process go much quicker (and my heart also cheered for the slight reduction of fat). So I continued piping in the rest of the batter to each ungarnished shell, finally getting a feel for just the right amount of batter that would result in the desired appearance when coming out of the oven. Despite all my success with this, I did notice that the shell pattern on the baked madeleines wasn’t as pronounced as those I’d made in class. I’m not sure if this was because of the Teflon coating or just because the molds themselves were quite shallow and not as detailed as the ones we’d used in class. Nonetheless, the results tasted great!

I felt so good about this exercise with the madeleines, I was inspired to practice my technique with pate brise and crème patisserie. Initially I’d envisaged practicing something again with apples, but then I found some gorgeous late summer pruneaux at Chavannes Centre. So I came up with a plum tarte, using the pate brise base baked blind, then filled with a frangipane style filling and topped with plums. My frangipane was made with crème patissiere (made with brown sugar as an experiment and half of the requested thickener vs the Cordon Bleu recipe) mixed with about 100 grams of pate d’amandes cru. I finished this about 20 minutes at 180 degrees C to set the tarte. It looks pretty good…I’ll let my Geneva colleagues put it to the taste test tomorrow!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

So who was Madeleine...and why did Proust shudder?

11 September
I am into my second week of the Basic Patisserie program at Le Cordon Bleu Paris. Those of you who know me well will understand how elated I am to be here. How elated? As if written in melted chocolate script and topped with a dash of sprinkles...that's how elated!! There is probably no activity I enjoy more than baking...and possibly no time more important in my life than now to do this for myself.

Whilst I'm staying in Paris part of each week I am here, I do not have a French those of you who are exacting about diacritic marks will just have to tolerate my au naturel typing. Who needs accent cedilles....somehow the word facade has made its way to English without the use of a coat hook on the c...

Anyway, I am quickly noticing the classes so far have a cumulative theme, in which each lesson builds on the previous. Hence it is important to get techniques right as they will inevitably come up later on. Last week we started with pate sable, effectively short crust pastry. The shortbread we made in our first lesson were amazing. Unfortunately the photos are currently trapped on my camera since I left my USB cable in Geneva, but I'll get them posted eventually. It was a good yield and I came home at the weekend with several dozen Sable Nantais which were a big hit with everyone who got to try them.

On Monday this week we made a classic tarte aux pommes. I enjoyed this very much as there was precision in managing the apple slices for presentation. I managed to cut my thumb in paring one of the apples. It was a very shallow cut fortunately. I was afraid to get kicked out of the class (which I had seen happen to a class mate on the first lesson). As I was already halfway through the lesson and had a totally beautiful result in working my crust I was not about to give up just then! So I hid my injury in a massive wad of paper toweling and kept on working. After apply strong pressure, the bleeding subsided and as I kept my thumb wrapped in paper and tucked into my palm, I had no contamination of the ingredients. I felt kinda guilty doing this...but looking at the result I am glad I persevered.

On Wednesday we made Madeleines and Cake aux Fruits. The latter name being absolutely the best way to describe what is otherwise known as 'fruit cake' in every other country I've ever lived. I really don't like fruit cake, but this was a good recipe and it didn't end up like those fruit-speckled doorstops that circulate at Christmas time. Chef Cotte decorated the loaves with beautiful glace fruit, pods of vanilla, star anise and something called Angelica. Green paste that you can cut into all sorts of wild real explanation on what it was made of, other than a perennial herb that is boiled with sugar, with coloring added (lots of that I might add). It's on my 'to-google' list this weekend.

Anyway, the best recipe this my opinion...was the Madeleines. The beautifully simple, shell-shaped cakes that are often served with tea. Ours emerged from the oven smelling so fresh & buttery, with a slightly crisp edge and a soft tender crumb lightly perfumed with lemon zest and vanilla. Those plasticky industrial versions you buy in supermarkets are no match for a hot, homemade one. It was mid afternoon by the time we finished and I quickly wolfed down three of them before I could stop myself. Bliss...

What I lacked in my tasting experience was more about where Madeleines got their name. I assumed Mary Magdalene...some sort of temptress, quicky cake. There is some dispute on the origins based on Larousse Gastonomic Index as well as Wikipedia. It seems they were named after Madeleine Paulmier, but it is unclear whether she lived in the 18th or 19th century. If the former, then she was apparently the cook for Stanisław Leszczyński, whose son-in-law was Louis XV. But the best reference to Madeleines comes in relation to Marcel Proust, who describes tasting one soaked in tea as an exquisite pleasure invading his senses, causing a shudder to run through his whole body. Well Marcel, having scarfed 3 without blinking, I know EXACTLY what you mean...!

Tomorrow...gateau basque. I'm already basking in it...yea! :-)