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.