Sunday, November 16, 2008

Electrical, emotional and ethical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanctuary of comfort (& quiche!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Devil Eats Alhambra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buche...what a feeling!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twelfth Night in the Eleventh Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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