Saturday, November 8, 2008

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.

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