Sunday, September 28, 2008

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.

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