Sunday, September 20, 2009

Small change

Eating well is one of my greatest pleasures. Ironically, it also became much more of an effort once I started culinary school. Some days have been so busy, it is almost a bother. I ended up reconciling this by purchasing much more ready-made cuisine whilst in Paris. It’s not my top preference, but I was often short on time and was trying to manage my expenses by not eating in restaurants too often. But the irony of the situation was undeniable: Whilst I would be spending up to 3 hours making beautiful cakes during class, for meal times I did not really have the time or kitchen space at Isabelle’s flat to do more than microwaving or quick cooking on the stove top.

The marvelous thing about France is the enormous choice of products available in the supermarket. You can pretty much find any type of dish in a heat & eat format. Many of these are endorsed by chefs such as Paul Bocuse or with recipes adapted from well-regarded restaurants. Every ethnic dish can be found and of course all the old standbys of French cuisine are all available. And some of it gets quite inventive…snacks such as tangy Roquefort cheese wrapped in crispy crepes; or ready to eat individual polenta portions, done in an array of flavors and colors (yeah, try finding that either of those in a Geneva Migros!)

That first week of classes, I was food shopping in the Monoprix on rue Lecourbe, admiring the range of choice not to mention the alluring packaging. Of course, I ended up buying more than I expected, including different ready to eat exotic vegetable purees, multigrain crisp breads, fresh egg pastas and my beloved ravioles dauphinoises, steamed asian dumplings, wonderful looking soups and some delightful pots de crème for dessert. For just over 25 euros, I had a range of stuff to keep my tastebuds entertained for the rest of the week I was there. So much of the supermarket experience caters for the time poor, single person who lives in Paris with virtually no kitchen (and quite often no oven at all – shock and horror!). Packages are small but no effort is spared on providing an excellent array of variety and tempting choices.

As I stood there in the check-out queue, I happened to notice the man in front of me. He wasn’t especially distinctive in appearance, but compared to me and many others in the queue, his purchase was so small, not even requiring use of a shopping basket - a small can of bean cassoulet and a box of chocolate biscuits. I recall that he looked a bit agitated, as if he was really eager to get out of the queue and be on his way. But it was 9.30pm so even that wouldn’t be considered unusual I suppose – everyone in that queue (including me) was feeling that way. But for whatever reason, I noticed him. He reached the front of the queue and his purchases were rung up. The total was something small, like 2.55 euros. It was then that I noticed him carefully counting out the exact amount in euro pennies and pieces jaunes, a rather pained look on his face when he handed the clerk the last 5 cents in his palm. The clerk heaved a large sigh, counting all his coppery change as if it were a large chore. Then man quietly bagged his purchases, said thank you and left.

I completed my purchase and stepped out of the store, and spotted the same man again. Sitting quietly on the pavement with his knapsack, a plastic cup and the purchase he’d just made, it was now clear to me that he was homeless. Having watched what he purchased and all the small coins he’d used to buy those two humble items, I suddenly felt overwhelming sadness. I usually pass by these people without giving anything, often wondering what difference 5 cents could ever make …or just assuming that my donation will be used to pay for drugs or alcohol. But having seen what I’d just seen at the checkout, I’m guessing it probably took him most of the day to collect the small amount he’d just spent on beans and cookies. Meanwhile, I’d had the luxury of choice and abundance and was on my way to a comfortable place in which to enjoy it. I walked over to him, smiled and gave him all my change. “Merci beaucoup, madame” was all he said, his eyes meeting mine sincerely for only a moment then glancing down to his hands which were holding the cup of coins. There is definitely more I could do on this front, the first step being for me to gain a lot more sensitivity to the issue, but I felt I’d gained a valuable insight.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Screaming Red Baba

I was having trouble maintaining a straight face as I sat there in my first Superior Patisserie demonstration. It had to do with the fact that Chef Deguignet had hooked up a Wagner Power Painter and was spraying a rum baba with red tinted cocoa butter. More specifically, A LOT of red tinted cocoa butter. In the process, he was spraying the entire front row of students with the mixture as well.

As it was a warm Paris afternoon, I’d chosen my seat location in the middle of the demo room to stay comfortably close to the air conditioning vent. Yet I suddenly felt even more justified by my choice. I only had one (still white) uniform with me in Paris this week, and I was in no mood to spend an entire summer evening sponging off red dye – the weather outside was just too lovely to waste. Amazingly, through this whole spraying incident, the first row of students just sat there numbly, ineffectively shielding themselves behind their class binders as the power painter roared out a giant, red cloud of mist. Chef D then asked for volunteers to hold up the drop-cloth of plastic film whilst he continued spraying (what!?) and few punishment gluttons rose from the front row, putting them in even closer range to the spray nozzle. I just shook my head and smiled to myself. I was suddenly reminded of my first visit to Sea World and chuckled… at first I was really upset that I didn't get a tank-side seat; then the giant, jumping Shamu arrives on the scene and frankly I was oh so glad to be somewhere towards the back.

Funnier still was why Chef D had chosen to paint this otherwise traditional and attractive looking cake with so much red dye. I mean, the final garnish was going to be a series of fruits rouges, so it seemed to me that a natural toned cake would provide a better contrast for this. So I tried to sit there respectfully and observe as quietly as possible, when suddenly I was imagining hilarious punchlines to jokes not yet invented. All of these musings were about going off to Paris and coming home with a screaming red baba. It sounded like something that you’d never tell your mother and which might indeed require prescription medicine…certainly not something that would be eaten. When I was afraid the my convulsive giggling would risk my expulsion from class, I pretended to reach for something under my seat to conceal my emotions from Chef D.

Baba au Rhum is a mainstay of French patisserie, although according to Wikipedia the origins are from Eastern Europe. It is a light, yeast-leavened cake which is baked in a ring mold then heavily imbibed with sugar syrup and rum. The recipe’s arrival in France dates back to the 1700’s, when Marie Leczinska of Poland brought it with her to her royal post as Queen Consort to Louis XV. This adopted delice was therefore served up for a king who apparently had no teeth but liked his cakes nonetheless.

The cake preparation was simple enough. All the ingredients were mixed and placed into ring molds, the cake was left to rise in a slightly heated oven, and then it was baked. The baked cake ring is quite dry, and in this state can be preserved for several weeks before consuming. For serving, the baba is then plunged into a large bowl of sweetened rum syrup which softens the texture and makes it suitable to eat. For our babas, we infused the syrup with fresh grapefruit and orange segments which livened the taste of the rum and added a some flavor complexity. The baba was then filled with a crème diplomate, topped with assorted berries and garnished with powdered sugar if desired. Simple and quite attractive in its simplicity – apart from the red dye he’d sprayed all over it!

Then came the tasting session. The finished red baba just lay there looking like a giant inflamed blister alongside the natural colored babas. Chef D didn’t cut into it, and no one made a move for it. Rare indeed, as we are all generally fighting like schoolkids for any leftovers following a tasting session. I didn’t bother to take a picture of this red giant, but instead just share the photos of my own au naturel baba.

Funnily enough, I discovered the screaming red baba was still loitering on the school premises the following week. As class assistant, I’d gone downstairs to the kitchen pantry to retrieve ingredients for our practical. There, behind a bin of lemons, I spotted the red baba looking ever flushed if slightly withered, shoved almost to the back of the cooler. I guess maybe someone might eat it eventually…then again, it could be easily left there until next December to dry and be converted to a Christmas tree stand. Endless creative possibilities were emerging, but I was still happier to forego the dye job and serve it up for tea time.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Fire Dancing and The Attack of Les Croquembouches

Chef Cotte stood before us in the demo, placing the last decorative touches on a massive croquembouche. The thing was half as tall as I was, and he’d only burned his fingers once on the hot caramel…using that moment as an invaluable instruction to us on what to do in case we personally experienced a sugar burn (wipe first, then go for the ice water!). So I was thoroughly impressed and fully engaged in the entire demonstration, at least until he served the champagne.

Croquembouche was to be the final lesson in Intermediate Patisserie – hence the celebratory champagne - yet the lesson would consist of many firsts. This classic cake of French patisserie would be our first effort in constructing a piece montee, also our first formal effort in working with confectionary. For all of its impressive posturing, croquembouche was basically a pile of crisp, caramel-coated cream puffs assembled on a crown of almond nougatine, decorated with almond dragees and royal icing. The final appearance was part igloo-like, part Statue of Liberty in appearance. Despite the high risk of personal injury from sugar burns, for the mere fact it didn’t just lie horizontally but had 3 dimensional shape, I knew I was going to love it. The drama that ensued was an unexpected treat as well – but more on that bit later.

Croquembouche is often served at French wedding ceremonies. The name literally means ‘to crunch in the mouth’ – which I imagine refers to the eating sensations and not any relationship unpleasantries that might follow the ceremony. If you go to Martha Stewart’s website, you can see a particularly beautiful version that also incorporates pulled sugar decorations as part of the finished result. Yet, as with most of our lessons, our version would be quite straightforward in terms of decoration, with the main focus of getting us firmly grounded in working with nougatine and achieving a clean assembly of the mounted piece. For sure, this would be enough of a challenge.

We would need two practical sessions to complete this project. In the first practical, we’d make our nougatine and construct the base and ornamentation for the finished cake. Nougatine is little more than sugar cooked to caramel stage, then sliced almonds are stirred in and the mixture is poured out onto a well oiled baking sheet that is kept in a temperate oven to keep the mixture at a workable temperature. Small amounts of the nougatine are rolled out and either molded around forms or cut into decorative shapes before the mixture sets hard. So you not only had to be fast, you had to be slightly crazy to convince yourself that picking up molten blobs of caramel in your bare hands was actually a logical idea. As well, you had to be accurate in choosing your working portions, taking only what you needed for each step to avoid overworking the nougatine and thus crushing the sliced almonds to a pulp. If the nougatine was overworked this way, it looked less translucent and appealing, and more like that ugly chipboard material you buy at Home Depot.

I got through the first practical with good results. Surprisingly my hands were not overly sensitive to the nougatine, so I was able to work quickly without a great deal of discomfort to myself. I made good time and accomplished all my steps, even creating some extra ornaments for the top of the cake. I figured this would be a good idea, since the risk of breakage between now and the next practical was actually quite high.

The second practical was the baking, filling and glazing of the choux puffs, plus the final assembly of the cake. That’s when the blisters arrived, as I started to dip my choux puffs into the hot caramel. We had done this before during the St. Honore practical in Basic, so I wasn’t a total newcomer to the process, yet still I managed to damage myself when a rivulet of caramel from one of the dipped puffs touched my finger tips. It was my only tribal outburst in the class, when I briefly hooted and jumped like a Comanche as the hot caramel seared the tender skin just beneath my fingernails. Recalling Chef Cotte’s advice, I wiped off the burning sugar from my skin as quickly as possible and spared myself a much worse injury. I spent the next few minutes soaking up to the wrist in a pan of ice water before I decided it was safe to play with fire again.

As each of us worked on the assembly of our cake, we had many ‘visitors’ passing through the lab area. This consisted mostly of chefs from other practical sessions, but also some of the other staff members – like marketing and admin people, many of whom I hadn’t seen since orientation day in September. Suddenly everyone and their dog was casually browsing through the lab on the premise of observing our amazing techniques and skills. Yeah right. From what I could see, everyone was scouting for any extra, freshly made choux puffs which were filled with pastry cream and dipped in caramel.

Chef Lesourd, who teaches in cuisine and who was amongst the many visiting snack-mongers that day, approached my work area. I don’t really know him well, but we chatted briefly about the cake and what it represented in French culture. We compared it with an American wedding cake, which is typically much more towering and elaborated, and almost always topped by a bride and groom figurine in lieu of a nougatine ornament. At this point, I offered him some of my leftover choux buns which he accepted without hesitation. For whatever crazy reason that possessed me, at that point I placed my kitchen towel on my head like a veil and took his arm playfully, and we proceeded to do a mock marriage procession around the work area - much to the amusement of Aurore, David, Alberto and Chef Tranchant. I’m about a foot taller than Chef Lesourd so I guess it must have looked even funnier than I expected it to.

At the conclusion of the second practical, it was 9pm. Everyone was now heading downstairs to the winter garden with their croquembouche in tow. Alberto was going to take his home, as his son’s birthday was tomorrow and it would be eagerly devoured by a group of 10 year olds who could actually survive this much sucrose in one serving. The rest of us had varying plans with our cakes, some of which seemed particularly ambitious when the mode of transport was subway, not to mention the short shelf-life of the cake itself. Despite all these factors, as it had been such a fun lesson, and such a great group of people during the whole term, we decided we’d all go for one last drink before heading home.

The Val Girard is a plain little place that sits just near the Vaugirard metro station, just a short walk from the school’s entrance, and it has become an occasional hangout for LCB students. It kinda looks like the brasserie that time forgot, sporting a heavily worn interior decor from the late 70’s along with some random neon and quite a few strange pictures on the walls. Nothing really makes sense or makes the place seem inviting, except that the two brothers who run the place. They are quite young, extra friendly, always smiling and welcoming, and will even let the patisserie entourage store cakes in their bar fridge whilst we are on the premises. For these reasons, many of us will drop by for a coffee or a drink after class.

Despite the friendly ambiance, you can still imagine the startled reactions of the fraternal pair – not to mention the 10 or so well-imbibed patrons in the establishment - when 6 pastry students came strolling in just past 9pm, each one carrying a wedding cake and with 5 of us placing our creation carefully on the bar as our drinks were ordered, as if this were normal practice.

One of the older barflys sat there looking dumbfounded with a cigarette dangling loosely from his lips, assessing the total procession as he fumbled frantically for his lighter. The incendiary risk became suddenly apparent to me; between his flying shots of whisky and all that sucrose, one misdirected spark from his lighter might create a flambe of rather comic proportions. I smiled to myself as I shook off the thought, then sat down with my group to drink my Coke.

A middle-aged man and woman came over with their beer in hand to where we were all sitting and started talking to us. In addition to swapping stories about our pastry lessons and where we were all from, they complimented us on our cakes, turning their heads back towards the bar to admire the 5 golden towers of choux. I was leaving for Geneva at 7am the next morning, I had no intent of dragging it back on TGV, and no place to store the mammoth overnight. So I offered them to sample my cake. And of course, as with any food in my possession, I was sincere in my offer…but given the time of night and location I just didn’t expect them to say yes. Or that the other customers would partake as well.

It was at this moment that a feeding frenzy broke out. As if on cue, a butter knife was located from behind the bar and suddenly all the customers were digging in wholeheartedly, hacking off clumps of choux puffs and nougatine and passing them around on drink coasters, then wolfing down their serving between gulps of beer or cocktails. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Some were not even waiting for knife access, and began hacking at the beast with those plastic swizzle sticks that look like pirate swords. Who says peanuts are the bar snack of choice, especially when team Cordon Bleu are in the neighborhood? The only pause in this commotion around the croquembouche was all the smiling from the patrons, who were raising their drinks in appreciation towards our table or coming over to personally thank me for the treat.

I watched the older barfly – the one who’d observed us upon entering the premises – strike up a conversation with one of the other women who’d been sitting at the bar. All I really remember about the woman is that she had on some knitted beret that didn’t match the rest of her outfit. Based on the looks on each of their faces, I could only imagine that their conversation had something to do with marital themes. Either they were talking about marriages that no longer were, or he was proposing a less permanent type of engagement – needless to say, even Ray Charles could see that there was some definite chemistry going on (and I don’t mean the type that creates a sugar molecule).

Suddenly – loud music! Not just any music, but some twanging bluesy-honky tonk stuff that cranked up from a speaker behind the bar, the kind that gets toes tapping and hips swaying. I wouldn’t expect to hear this music in Paris, but here I was being once again surprised by the hidden secrets of this city. Barfly and his lady friend wasted no time in hopping off their stools in full eye-lock to begin gyrating in earnest next to the bar. Again I imagined the high incendiary risk of this activity – this time due to friction or just their intense laser-like gazes creating burn holes into each others torsos. Alberto, David and I shot each other quizzical looks and laughed quietly into our drinks. The gyrating continued at the bar entrance, which now included foot twisting action and some vertical descents – or at least serious attempts in that direction. After all, it was an older crowd. I wondered if the floor mat beneath these two would survive the tryst; even in this damp weather it might possibly catch on fire due to the heavy friction and sexual sparks that were flying.

The activity around the bar area was working wonders for attracting customers though. As people approached the stairway to the metro, they’d glance in curiously at the row of cakes and dancing; quite a few would walk in, especially if they happened to catch the welcoming face of one of the brothers. As new customers entered, a drink coaster full of croquembouche was offered up with the drink order – and surprisingly I didn’t see one person decline. Soon enough, there was nothing left of my cake but a couple of smashed puffs, so Diana - another student in my group - offered up her croquembouche to keep the generosity going.

Diana is an adorable, 19 year old girl from Venezuela. She smiled sweetly as she bobbed up to the bar to identify her cake to the brothers, looking a bit like a girl scout on a sales mission, her long ponytail swinging behind her. As Diana approached, I suddenly watched Barfly’s gaze shift away from the woman in the beret. Studying Diana’s cute profile, it was like he had never seen anyone so amazing in his life (or at least for the last 4 drinks). Diana chatted with the brothers, then briefly with the dancing couple, but with the music so loud there was no way I could hear their conversation. Based on the body language I could see however, I could already guess what Barfly was asking her. Diana smiled shyly, lowered her eyes and politely shook her head, but still Barfly took her by the hands and was pulling her into the makeshift dance floor that had once been the door mat. He kept a socially acceptable distance from her, but he was using every muscle in his lower extremities to lure her into his zone of seduction. Barfly’s woman, now feeling the competitive energy, whipped off her beret and neck scarf in one final attempt to redirect his attention her way, but for the moment it seemed to be in vain.

Back at the table, we were all nearly dying with laughter at the sight of this, and continued clapping along with the music which moved into a couple of Stevie Ray Vaughn tracks. With Diana now engulfed in the fray, even if involuntarily, all other repressed honky tonk dancers in the vicinity now felt liberated to enter the gyration zone that had once been the door mat. Diana looked a bit nervous about the increasing numbers around her, but smiled beautifully and kept giggling as she danced along. Jean-Marie, another girl from our group, got up to dance, possibly on a ‘Save Diana’ rescue mission. Whatever her motivations, I applauded her pro-activity with a thumbs up sign and as the familiar sounds of Vaughn’s “Cold Shot” twanged away, I briefly considered joining them myself.

The middle-aged couple got up from their table, ordered more beer and made their way to Diana’s croquembouche where they hacked off yet another serving and returned to their seats smiling. For all I knew, this could have been some badly planned wedding reception in downtown Memphis, with Uncle Louie feeling sexy after too many beers, a beautiful cake but ugly reception hall, and a number of unidentifiable distant cousins eating all available food in sight. The only thing that was missing now was a fist fight, the dispatching of police, and the need for a bail bond. I decided it would probably be better for everyone if we could avoid that ending.

Alberto caught my peripheral vision and pointed towards my watch as if to ask for the time, which was now well past 10pm. It seemed everyone still seated at our table took this a cue to pack up and leave. Alberto carefully lifted his croquembouche from the seat of the booth where it had been resting safely this past hour, and I saw the eyes of the middle-aged couple light up and track his every move, as if to say “oh yeah- we’ll be here as long as you’ve got cake.” We waved at them across the room and smiled good bye, as well as to Barfly and his newly rediscovered temptress who appeared to be rekindling their firemaking in light of Diana’s eminent departure.

We managed to squeeze through the caramel-fuelled mosh pit at the entrance, successfully shielding Alberto’s croquembouche from any final impassioned swipes, and pulling Diana and Jean-Marie to complete safety just before the door shut behind us. As I glanced over my shoulder one last time, I saw the two brothers waving at us happily as I glanced whilst the 3 remaining cakes sat glistening in their caramel glaze atop the bar. I gave them a nod and a smile. I hope their fire insurance policy was up to date...afterall, it was only 10:15pm and there were still 3 more croquembouche to go.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Triomphe of the Nerds

As a complete antithesis to the hip Passionata, the next cake we would make was to be much more conservative in appearance. During the final minutes of the demonstration, as I watched Chef Tranchant put the finishing touches on his work, I immediately thought about tweed blazers with suede elbow patches, cashmere turtlenecks, leather-bound reference books, and mahogany smoking pipes of the academic world. I guess it was the varying shades of beige and brown that led me there.

It had nothing to do with the taste, mind you. In many ways, Triomphe aux Noix was indeed a triumph on the taste front - a wonderful combination of caramel mousse and caramel glaze, sitting atop a base of caramel-imbibed sponge and topped with candied walnuts. The mousse was light and not too sweet, and the tantalizing flavor of the caramel was infused into each of the layers comprising the cake. The base of the cake was a walnut sponge, but made extra light through the use of potato starch in place of the flour. At the post-demonstration tasting, I imagined enjoying this cake with a hot cup of Earl Grey or a good espresso and felt my taste buds quiver in anticipation.

The practical was efficient and I was happy with my results. Once again, red food dye was part of the lesson – surprisingly to give a bit of color depth to the caramel glaze. I was lucky in my color application and ended up with a warm shade of brown, but a few people overshot the target and were living with a vermillion colored top on their cake.

I realized that I’d be traveling back to Geneva with both Passionata and Triomphe to share with friends. It would be a rather unlikely combination, given that usually I had only one cake at a time to carry back, also given that the two cakes were quite distinctive in appearance. I chuckled when I realized that, in combination, the two cakes where like the lead characters in that movie “Educating Rita” where an outspoken hairdresser comes to The Open University and strikes up an unlikely friendship with a rather crusty English professor.

That weekend in my tiny apartment I had several friends stop by to sample the gateaux (at staggered times of course, or I wouldn’t have had enough space to seat everyone). Both cakes were admired and enjoyed, but in terms of taste alone, surprisingly it was the Triomphe that seemed to be the bigger crowd pleaser between the two options. If people opted for a second serving, it was more likely the Triomphe that won out. Like fashion, sometimes it’s better to stick with the classics.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It's not the size of your pocket translator, it's what you do with it...!

Paris is a glamorous, vivacious and highly entertaining city...especially when you have time and money to spare. In my case, it seems my priorities are always directed elsewhere. I’m trying to keep to a fixed budget, and as I’ve opted to work part-time whilst going to school, when I’m not at school I am usually working. Hence, I keep a very low profile in all respects.

Working remotely from Paris offers many challenges, but somehow I always manage. Le Cordon Bleu and the room I rent from Isabelle are both located in a very quiet area to the south of the 15th arrondissement. Sadly, Isabelle's WiFi is inaccessible to me (some inexplicable technical glitch) Meanwhile, the Paris office of my employer is a 45-minute commute north by metro and RER to zone 3, which is outside the city. So unless I have at least a half day to devote to work responsibilities, I tend to work remotely. And I have come to rely on a few places in my neighborhood where I can access the WiFi and work for a couple hours without having to go all the way to the Paris office. My favorite haunts are the Novotel Vaugirard and the McDonald’s on Rue de la Convention.

The Novotel is closest to where I live and is moderately serene & beautiful; with a large, marbled atrium lobby filled with contemporain furnishings and large post-modernist sculptures. I can duck in virtually unnoticed by staff and I usually grab the corner table (complete with power outlet!) which is neatly tucked behind one of these sculptures. I’m virtually invisible to the reception desk and not officially in the restaurant area, so I tend to be left alone. The only details to manage in this location are acoustics and fragrance; when the lobby fills up with people the sound can be overwhelming, and then there is this spritzer lady who circulates every hour or so to re-apply aromatherapy scent to all the statues. No, I’m not joking – scent is evidently some equity element Novotel are trying to own. Anyway, to my credit on being unnoticed, one time the spritzer lady almost doused me as she made her way around the statue.

The McDo has an upstairs dining area which is typically not busy. There is no aromatherapy (apart from the smell of fries cooking downstairs) and the prevailing sound is the dull chatter of diners and the occasional beeping from a frying appliance. They advertise their free WiFi, so I don’t have to hide behind statues or order anything from the menu. For virtue of low traffic and lack of an extremely punctual spritzer lady, sometimes I actually prefer going here – but only when I don’t need to work an extended period since there is no power outlet.

Because I am constantly on the go in Paris, always changing in and out of a uniform and hat, my face breaking a sweat in the hot kitchens - I tend to go very low key on wardrobe and personal grooming. Don’t panic – I’ve not gone totally French so I am still showering everyday (tee hee!) But I’m just not making much effort beyond that with regard to hair or makeup. So you’ll usually find me in jeans and a simple top, one practical bag that holds all my gear for work and school, my hair scraped back into a bun or ponytail, with sensible shoes that allow me to run if necessary.

That particular day, I’d had 2 back-to-back classes in the afternoon, so I decided after dinner that I would go work at the Novotel. But that evening the Novotel appeared to be having some major convention – the lobby was packed with people wearing black and drinking wine and socializing. Clearly I would not blend in tonight! So I wandered further down Vaugirard to the McDo and spent the evening working upstairs until my battery died.

By that point it was around 11pm and I was on my way back to Isabelle’s, which is a 20 minute walk from the McDo. I was about halfway home when suddenly I had the sensation I was being followed. I turned my head slightly and my suspicions were confirmed when a flash of movement caught my peripheral vision. Relying on the self-defense training I’d been taught, I decided to turn around and face my follower – based on the premise that if they have bad intentions then taking a good look can prove discouraging (since you can identify them later on). So firmly clutching my notebook computer and the strap of my handbag on my shoulder, I spun around.

About 3 steps behind me was a teenage boy. Maybe he wasn’t actually a teenager – but he was certainly much younger than me and appeared to still have acne flare-ups. I’m not sure at what point he’d started following me or for how long – maybe he’d been at the McDo. So whilst I didn’t feel threatened, I looked at him as if to say, ‘and so, what do you want?’

“Bonsoir” he said then began to banter out a string of colloquial dialogue in very accelerated French. It was late, I was tired and his energetic canter was too quick for me to follow. All I could decipher was the first question he posed, which was asking me if I had a cigarette.

I replied in French that I did not smoke, and turned to keep walking. He must have heard my accent, because he began speaking much slower and mixing in some English words here and there. Eventually came the next question, in English this time: “do you want co-shun?” (I write it phonetically as it sounded to me). “I’m very sorry I don’t understand you” I answered extra slowly in my sturdiest Midwestern accent, hoping the guy would leave me alone. Meanwhile, the dialogue in my own head was rambling along at its own feverish pace… “hmm….cushion?? Did he say cushion? Or was it caution? The French often pronounce words with ‘au’ as ‘o’ instead of ‘ah’. So does he want to give me a pillow or is he trying to warn me of something? Hmm, in either case maybe I should be worried…when do I run away? Wait, I’m right in front of the police station…whew!”

It was at this stage, the persistent lad reached into his school bag and pulled out a small, white electronic gadget. As he flipped up the screen, I could see it was a pocket-sized language translator. Oh great, I thought. The kid was typing furiously into it, still eager to deliver his intended message to me. Each time he made an entry, I could hear by the dull bleeping noise from the gadget that he was not achieving a successful translation. But, to his credit and to my annoyance, he kept right on trying. Once again, I told him I was really sorry that I couldn’t help him, and then turned to keep walking.

“Wait, wait…” he said emphatically in French. Then in very broken English… “you know, when boy and girl get together and make co-shun. We go have drink and then have co-shun, yes?” He gave me a big and very cheesy smile.

Suddenly I had clarity - I guess the word of the month was ‘coition!’ I almost cracked up laughing. Where, apart from perhaps a medical journal and apparently in France, would the word coition be used in modern times? At that point I couldn’t decide what was infinitely weirder about this whole incident – was it his obscure word choice, the extreme age difference between us , or the fact I was being hustled with the use of an electronic translator?! Only in France, one might say. I turned and walked away. By the time I got to Isabelle’s I could barely stop laughing.

So I also take back everything I said about the streets of the 15th being sleepy. I guess maybe I have been the one sleeping all this time! :)

Feelin’ Groovy

If I were to personify the cake they call Passionata, she’d probably be a Twiggy or an Edie – looking groovy in a mod skirt of Joconde, filled with colorful layers of raspberry and passion fruit mousses and finished with a layer of glossy raspberry glaze. Admiring the finished cake, I was instantly reminded of colorful miniskirts, vinyl platform boots and those massive, candy-colored sunglasses they wore in the 60’s.

Whatever name I could give her, Passionata was a fun and visually impressive cake to make. Clearly, the most exciting part was going to be making the Joconde, since this would require finger painting with tinted cigarette batter. (As you might have started to notice, any chance for me to unite my two creative worlds – design and patisserie – always fills my heart with joy. Or in this case, passion! Hee hee…)

Cigarette batter has nothing to do with smoking or nicotine, but refers to the shape of the cookies that come from this batter (and quite possibly for the fact the cookies are equally addictive). If you don’t recognize the name, I’m sure you’ve seen these cookies on a platter for high tea. These are thin, crisp, cylindrically-shaped cookies - sort of like a brandy snap, but less caramelized and with a texture closer to shortbread. They are made by shaping the baked rounds of batter around the handle of a wooden spoon whilst the cookies are still hot from the oven. Sometimes the finished cookies are filled with whipped cream or ganache…mmm, too good!

So making the cigarette batter was a bit like mixing paint. Eggs, melted butter, sugar and flour were combined to make a thick, smooth paste; this was divided into two portions and each portion was tinted red or yellow. Then these tinted batters were applied to the parchment-lined baking sheet in decorative strokes to create a colorful underlay for the Joconde sponge, which is spread atop the cigarette layer. As the Joconde bakes, it absorbs the tinted batter underneath to create the slightly psychedelic patterns in the finished cake. The colorful sponge is then cut into a strip to line a ring shaped mold, and the mold is filled with the fruit mousses.

The real trick was not to overthink the application of the cigarette batter. A few well-intentioned classmates got a bit too creative in trying to create complex patterns, or just overworked the two colors. This resulted either in odd, blotchy effects for some and for others a truly weird orange color that looked less tie-dyed and more like Thousand Island dressing….eeew!

Chef Hottie was attending the practical for my group. When we entered the lab, he greeted us with a smile over the roar of a food processor. And quel surprise…there were to be a few modifications to the recipe we’d been shown in the demo. It seems someone had forgotten to order the frozen raspberry puree, so we’d be substituting fresh strawberries instead. February isn’t the season for strawberries, so the color of the puree looked quite pale and would probably need a dye-job – at least for the amount going into the fruit glaze on top. After all, a fashionista cake like this would need color coordination – bien sur!

In previous tales from practical land, I’ve mentioned the peril of using the school’s food coloring. They put these colorings into those big, squeezy plastic condiment bottles. Those who aren’t aware that only a slight tipping of the bottle, versus a full squeeze, are in for a big surprise. A gushing fluvial of intense red color emerges, destroying all hopes for a petal pink buttercream and possibly leaving a botched-surgery type signature on your uniform. Worse yet, the crusty dried particles from someone else’s dyeing effort can tumble from the sides or rim of the bottle and further complicate the process. The safest bet is to dispense color into a separate bowl, then take what is needed from there – sans particules and sans stress!

Whilst there were a few overly intense red glazes, for the most part everyone’s Passionata went more or less according to plan. The fantastic four were working together again – and with excellent results. Aurore and Alberto mastered the joconde; meanwhile David and I measured the ingredients and whipped the cream for the whole group. The pairing up amongst the four of us across the different tasks really helped speed the process along – which wasn’t overly complicated but composed of many small steps and quite temperature sensitive regarding the mousse fillings.

In the end I had great results with my glaze – the color and the application earned positive comments from the chef. With a few powdered sugar raspberries and a sprinkle of chopped pistachios, I was pleased to take this one back to share with my Geneva mod squad.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

C’est Marron, non?

Okay, okay…so once again I have jumped to conclusions…thus, I take back everything I said about Tresor being the oddest cake we made.

Dome aux Marrons was also a ridiculous looking cake. A large hemisphere of chesnut mousse interleaved with graduated layers of hazelnut dacquoise, then topped with chestnut cream and a lot of cheesy looking marzipan decors. The only thing that was missing, in my humble opinion, was the upper half of a Barbie torso.

It was hard to stay focused during the demo. It was late afternoon and late in the week, the room was so stuffy, the row of Latino students were chattering endlessly and everyone’s mind seemed to be elsewhere. Chef Tranchant began to assemble the cake into the dome shape and apply the chestnut cream. The translator was droning on about the spatula movements of the chef when a simple mistranslation saved the day. Instead of describing the chef’s method of applying the chestnut cream as ‘spackling’, her translation came out as ‘spanking’.

Suddenly the room sprang back to life, people were laughing and making innuendos about spanking the dome and other funny comments. Even the Asian students were nudging each other, giggling and making jokes. The row of Latino males had completely stopped their chattering and their attention was now riveted on the chef.

Chef Tranchant just smiled and used the renewed level of energy as a segway for his next installment: spraying the dome with chocolate! We watched in awe as plastic trash bags were laid across the workbench and hung from the ceiling to protect all surfaces from overspray. Then an electric power painter was plugged in, filled with a 50/50 mixture of chocolate & cocoa butter, and used to spray the dome with a light coating. The spray gun made a lot of noise while coating the dome with chocolate, which seemed to further impress everyone and hold their attention (or maybe jolt them awake if they’d totally missed the spanking translation).

Despite all the fun we had in the demo and practical, this is probably a recipe I’d only make once. I found the overall taste and texture quite heavy and sweet, begging for more texture and contrast. It was a lot of work to build the cake up and get an even dome shape. And, with all due respect to any future daughters who are yet to be born not to mention Barbie herself, there is no time in the foreseeable future when I’ll be feeling energized to clean power-sprayed chocolate off my kitchen walls. Some things are best left to professionals.

Gateau Bozo

Based solely on appearance, Tresor Vanille-Fraises des Bois was quite possibly the oddest looking cake we’d made all term. I now really regret that I didn’t take a photo but the practical ran way over time and I was in a rush to catch the TGV. Truthfully, the finished cake looked like some sort of clown hat, with a decorative almond dacquoise base topped with a conical mound of wild strawberry mousse and finished with caramelized vanilla chiboust cream.

The dacquoise base was made by piping out into mounds around the edge of a vacherin mold. This created the scalloped edge of the cake when baked (or effectively the rippled brim of the clown hat!). The name of Tresor did not pop to mind when I looked at the finished result…I could only think of Bozo the Clown and this did not inspire images of luxury. I am guessing that the name of the cake was derived from the ‘treasure’ of fresh wild strawberries which were hidden in the center of the mousse cone.

I had great results with the dacquoise and the strawberry mousse. I achieved an even and smooth cone shape, which earned praise from Chef Deguignet. I discovered the technique to this smoothness was to hold the metal spatula in place against the surface of the mousse and spin the cake. The other students were doing the inverse, which was holding the cake still and trying to smooth the surface by moving the spatula around the surface.

It was our first experience in creating a crème chiboust. Crème Chiboust (named after its inventor, Chef Chiboust) is most often used in a traditional St. Honore. This is basically a crème patissiere that is mixed whilst hot with meringue to create a lighter, somewhat spongy textured mixture. The hot crème patissiere slightly cooks the meringue and helps it to trap the airiness. The heat also helps to sterilize the meringue.

As we were using a French meringue, the Crème Chiboust was less stable and despite the caramelized surface it had nearly disintegrated by the time I’d gotten back to Geneva. In addition to the disheveled appearance after a couple hours, it was also a very strange cake to cut and serve…having this huge pink mound of mousse at the tapered end of each slice. But the taste of the wild strawberry mousse was a real treat. With a bit of reshaping, this would be well worth making again.

Pleasure in angles

For whatever reason, Plaisir the gateau would be a square shaped cake. I found it an odd thing for a cake with a name as provocative as Pleasure, since all of my mental images of this word would involve more rounded shapes. Oh well, another one of those inexplicable French things I suppose (by this point I was keeping a list...)

Despite being angular, the taste lived up to the name. It was a combination of two cream layers – vanilla supreme and chocolate mousse – topped with a thin layer of biscuit joconde and finished with a croquant caramel. The techniques and recipes for each layer were very similar to things we’d already learned, with some notable differences.

The mousse was made with a milk-based ganache – the first I’d ever worked with. All the chocolate mousse we’d made so far was using a cream ganache. I couldn’t taste any difference in the finished gateau, but mixing this ganache was a touch more onerous. It was much more challenging to get a smooth ganache base, but I managed.

The vanilla supreme was very similar to a bavarois – consisting of cream, eggs, milk & gelatin but less gelatin than a bavarois. I guess for this fact they had to give it a different name.

By the time we were assembling the cake, I decided that I really liked the taste of biscuit joconde. It is a delicious sponge consisting of eggs, ground almonds, butter and powdered sugar to provide richness of taste, tempered with a French meringue to give the light & flexible texture. We’d first made it for the Opera gateau, and so the ingredients and technique were already familiar to me. Joconde is one of those sponge cakes which you can eat just as is, without any imbibing or additional toppings. I saved all my trimmings and wrapped them in foil to give to Isabelle.

The caramel layer was basically a mixture of beaten egg yolks sterilized with sugar syrup. So it was slightly airy in texture, the outer edge covered with cassonade sugar and then caramelized with a blowtorch to create a crisp shell.

We tempered dark chocolate and made decors to place atop the finished cake. I tried to create some complex and rather lengthy pieces to give more height to the finished cake. Unfortunately most of these broke and I ended up with a bunch of fragments. I put together what I had, and actually the result wasn’t bad. As I looked down the lens of my camera in taking the picture, I was suddenly reminded of a pirate ship…the chocolate decors sitting atop the golden caramel layer looked a bit like wreckage on a sandy beach.

Douceurs for Deux Soeurs

The week following the dark chocolate practical was filled with experiences involving (surprise, surprise!) more chocolate. The next practical was something called Douceur.

The name sounded promising indeed. I discovered this lovely entremet consisted of thin discs of milk chocolate, layered with milk chocolate mousse and dark chocolate-praline croquant, atop a base of hazelnut dacquoise. The finished taste combined the richness of nuts, the texture of a chocolate crunch bar and the smooth creaminess of rich mousse. It was indeed heavenly in the mouth, with the varied textures and flavours. And of course, it was once of those ‘ooh-ahh’ desserts which really excite people just by appearance alone.

I did well in tempering my milk chocolate and preparing the discs and forms of chocolate. I used the pot tempering method Chef Walther had shown us and avoided all the mess and hassle of cooling the chocolate atop the marble workbench. Anticipating an ample amount of leftover dacquoise mixture, I made several extra smaller discs and forms so I could construct some miniature Douceurs with the extra ingredients.

The milk chocolate mousse was very temperamental – both in the mixing stage and also during the decorating stage. Temperatures were critical at the mixing stage, when the thermal contrast between ingredients of different temperatures such as melted chocolate and whipped cream could easily cause the mixture to seize up or become grainy in texture. I managed to avoid any problems at the mixing stage, but by the time I was piping out the final garnishes of mousse atop the larger Douceur, the mixture was separating (just from the warmth of my hands – which by the way, are not very warm at all!).

The mini Douceurs were my favorites. They were very cute and could be savored in about 4 bites, and their appearance remained more or less intact during this process. The large Douceur was good looking until the first slice was removed….then it looked very disheveled very quickly. That said, there was a lot more of the delectable crunch layer to enjoy on the large Douceur.

I arrived at Isabelle’s to discover her sister was visiting – good thing I had multiples to share!!

Back to it

At some point in March, I fell off the blog wagon once again. Sorry for disappearing. It was a combination of workload and school I guess. Quite a few stories from Intermediate Pastry are yet to be told. So whilst I have now already moved into Superior Patisserie and new stories are beginning, I still have some catching up to do. So I am back to the keyboard - clackety-clack - keep checking back.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Chocolats Part Deux: truffles of mass destruction

On the whole, things kept getting better on the chocolate making front. First, discovering how much easier it is to work with dark vs. milk chocolate, and also having Chef Walther attend the dark chocolate practical. His calming nature always makes any practical better, but I was especially happy as I knew we would undoubtedly pick up some of his wonderful expertise in chocolate-making during the process.

Indeed this was the case. In this lesson we were scheduled to make 2 types of dipped chocolates: truffles & coffee chocolates. After taking us through a much simplified tempering process, he gave us some useful advice on achieving a smooth ganache. He also let us deviate from the filling recipe for coffee chocolates (which is basically a mixture of marzipan and coffee extract), allowing us to substitute Cointreau for that nasty coffee extract. It had been my idea and when Chelf Walther agreed, it quickly proved popular with my fellow classmates and I soon saw the Cointreau bottle being passed around the workbench. I think all of us were relieved to avoid using that suspicious brown liquid that most certainly must kill small laboratory mammals. (Seriously though, slap a Kiwi brand label on that extract bottle and the shoe shine guy would never be the wiser!!)

The marzipan filling tasted great with the Cointreau, but without the color of the coffee extract I quickly realized it would all look a bit anemic against the color of the chocolate. Still, I was glad I could direct my own choice and create something which met the more important criteria (at least for me) which was taste. I suppose I could have asked to tint it some other more descriptive color (like orange) but let’s face it… one artificial ingredient saved was probably adding to my longevity and that of my loved ones. So with the option of being dull or potentially damned, I opted for dull.

Once again, Chef Walther encouraged us to go larger on the size of the truffles to accelerate the dipping process. Recalling his legendary comments during the Petit-Fours practical in Basic about ‘small being best’ (for both the taster and the shop owner), I felt a twinge of disappointment because I was hoping this would be his mantra today as well. I tried to play the deaf rebel as long as I could, exercising quiet resistance against largeness by quickly piping out as many small ganache balls as possible before he got to my end of the workbench…but then at his gentle insistence, I enlarged the remaining portions of ganache to his specifications (which were much more than a mouthful). So rather than smallish marbles, these would be like eating a golf ball…definitely a two-mouthful effort, possibly requiring hot beverages on standby in case of involuntary gagging (unless of course you have jaws like a python...frankly even if you can open this wide, you probably shouldn’t as it isn’t the comfy default mode for mandibles. How many pythons do you see slithering around in ‘full gaping jaw’ mode on a daily basis?).

But in the end, everything came out well enough. I had evenly shaped truffles and Cointreau squares, and each morsel offered that delightful snapping sensation when the chocolate was bitten into, which is good evidence of correct tempering. Chef Walther praised me on the shape, ganache consistency and tempering result I’d achieved for my truffles, offering only some pointers for the Cointreau squares. While I’d successfully avoided over-coating these with powdered sugar (which is needed for the rolling/shaping process but, in excess, can inhibit the dipping process) it seems I’d been just a bit too Spartan on my dipping. I explained this had been to avoid the dreaded ‘puddling’ effect of excess chocolate around each square, and he nodded in full comprehension, kindly suggesting that it would just require a second dipping to get these in an optimal state. If only we’d had more time…oh well!

At that point, I rushed off to Gare de Lyon so as not to miss my train…so unfortunately there are no pictures of this work. If I could have photographed them, I suppose it would have been helpful to place a penny (ok, half dollar) in the photo to communicate the size context…not unlike those NASA meteorite photos from the 1960’s, or Associated Press photos reporting massive hail damage in Texas. Reflecting on the portion sizes, there was a certain similitude with this type of footage. Just one size larger and falling from space might catalyse the start of the next ice age…ha ha!

Still, I was proud to share them. When I got home, I packed up an assortment of the various milk & dark chocolates I’d made into Valentine-themed goodie bags and gave them out to some of my favorite people. I learned about 1 week later that one of these portions traveled all the way to Africa before being eaten. This little bit of trivia tickled me, not only to admire the willpower of the recipient but also that the chocolate itself had effectively returned to its continent of origin. As far as I know, no pythons were inured in the degustation process…but my friend is happily undergoing treatment for TMJ while she awaits a goodie bag refill. Ohhh, life is bittersweet indeed!! :-)

Lyrical Expressions and Sasquatch Sightings

The husky sighs of a young woman enjoying herself was not quite the wake up call I was expecting. It was the middle of the afternoon on Sunday and I had been taking a nap. Apart from Isabelle and myself, I thought there was no other female in the apartment. This was certainly not Isabelle and I was certainly not dreaming.

I was lying there on my little bed in the darkened room, trying to assess the source of this overture, meanwhile keeping silent. For being in Paris, ze city of lurrrve, I was actually more surprised that I’d not heard such sounds earlier during my stay. The walls in this apartment building are as thin as crepes, and so I’d certainly detected the presence of neighbors well before today (incidentally, the best one so far had been listening to someone in the upstairs apartment playing the ‘witch doctor’ song over and over while singing along!!). But due to the unmuffled clarity of these noises, I was fairly certain it wasn’t emanating through the wall of an adjacent apartment. And it was too natural and non-repetitive to be a porno flick…of course, not that I have much personal expertise in this area (apart from what I’ve observed on German TV when travelling).

Then I chuckled quietly as I remembered the plate of my handmade chocolates I’d left in Isabelle’s kitchen that morning for sampling. These were the ones I’d made the day before in my milk chocolate practical. While these did provoke a certain pleasurable response, this Harry Meets Sally rendition was far too flattering for my budding confectionary skills. (Maybe in the distant future, when I live up to my fullest expectations as a pleasure merchant, I’ll hope to hear such things when people eat my chocolates!)

Anyway, this left only one plausible conclusion for the carnal duet I was hearing: Isabelle’s son must have invited someone over, forgetting (or possibly not caring) that I was in the apartment that afternoon.

Normally on a weekend, I wouldn’t even be in Paris, so I’d say that forgetting was the more likely explanation. Earlier that day, her son and I had a comical chance meeting in the apartment. A case of two people realizing with some surprise (and in my case extreme humour) that they were not the only occupant in the apartment. As this was the first time since September that I’d ever stayed over the weekend in Paris, it is understandable that my presence would not be expected on a Sunday morning.

I’ll explain that chance meeting further if you allow me a momentary digression to provide some contextual details. There are 3 bedrooms in Isabelle’s apartment, all of which intersect with a small corridor. One room is Isabelle’s, one is rented by me and the other is a guest room which sits at the opposite end of the corridor from mine, with roughly 2 meters distance between the doors. The door to this third room is typically always shut and the room is almost always vacant unless Isabelle’s family or friends are visiting. Also intersecting with this corridor are the central bathroom and WC; the WC being just next to my bedroom door.

Isabelle has two sons who are in their twenties. I have been introduced to one, Charles, who I believe is the older of the two. He was visiting last autumn, shortly after I began my studies in Paris. At that time, I recall he was home to visit Isabelle after some language excursion in Mexico. He was cordial and when I happened to cross paths with him in the apartment, he was usually in front of Isabelle’s computer. After a couple days, Charles was off to travel some more and I don’t know if he’s been back since.

The other son I think is named Arnaud. He visits more frequently but ironically I’ve never been formally introduced. Still, I can usually tell whenever he has been in the apartment, because lights will be left on, the bathroom will be a mess and dirty dishes will be piled in the sink. Or sometimes, I’ll just hear the TV in the guest room (he seems to like TV and doesn’t come out much). So until this weekend, his presence was a bit like the Sasquatch legend…tangible signs of existence, but as yet, no actual sightings.

I suppose Arnaud must have arrived on the Saturday night when I was out having dinner with a fellow student. So I arrived home late after my dinner, completely unaware he was there. Either that, or he arrived to the apartment even later than me, but I don’t recall hearing anyone come into the apartment after I’d gone to bed.

Anyway, that Sunday morning, I’d slept until about 9am. I remember waking up when I heard Isabelle leave the apartment. Isabelle is Catholic and I assume she’d left early to go to church. At that stage, feeling very rested and upon seeing some promising sunlight peeking through the roller blind, I felt motivated to get up and seize the day. I retracted the roller blind and smiled. While the day outside looked cold and windy, the weather was clear so I decided I would walk from Isabelle’s to Montmartre to enjoy the views over Paris.

I honestly thought I was alone in the apartment, so I opened the door to my room and cranked up the iTunes on my laptop so I could hear it whilst I showered and got ready. I have earned some credo as a decent singer, yet music is a personal expression and I accept that not everyone will dig what I have to offer. Still, it is a small activity that makes me happy and so when I am alone I don’t hold back. I put on a funky collection that includes some old faves like “Lady Marmalade” and naturally I sang along confidently to the “voulez-vous coucher” part using my best Patti LaBelle voice.

I’d just finished my shower and fortunately had gotten dressed. The playlist had migrated into some Tom Jones' favorites. I was standing in my open doorway, a few steps inside my room with my back to the entry, belting out “Sex Bomb” and putting my hips and feet to some good use too. That’s when I heard the guest room door open.

I spun around quickly on my heels, simultaneously hitting the mute button on my laptop. There was a young man in the corridor with the most amazing case of bed head wearing a wrinkled and rather gaping pair of boxer shorts. He sort of self adjusted his boxers and then stumbled towards the WC.

It was a pure Bridget Jones moment, where I felt positively mortified with embarrassment but tried to salvage myself graciously. “Bonjour” I stammered quickly, followed by my quickest apologetic explanation for not realizing he was there.

He half smiled and grunted something which sounded pleasant enough, then disappeared into the WC and shut the door. I retreated from my doorway and recoiled in front of my closet, with my face grimaced in embarrassment. Just imagine having your Sunday sleep-in spoiled by some Tom Jones/voulez-vous wannabe who is not even a family member…ooops…maybe not the best climate for a first time meeting. I decided to end my little 'top of the pops' show and leave him in peace as quickly as possible. I laced up my sneakers and departed, still laughing to myself at this embarrassing faux-pas as I walked up Rue Lecourbe.

I traversed the 7eme arrondissement, then crossed the Seine near La Place de la Concorde and found myself near La Madeleine and the St. Honore/Faubourg district. I know the area pretty well, and it is one of my favorite districts in the city because of all the great boutiques. So I spent some time gazing in more than a few shop windows, of course stopping at La Duree and Fauchon where the patisserie and food displays are truly stunning. From there, I continued walking north towards the butte of Montmartre and the Deux Abbesses. The views from the butte are always worthwhile, especially on a clear day like today. There, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable day being just another tourist. I had my portrait sketched, bought some souvenirs for my little cousins, ate brioche from every patisserie along the way that looked good, and on my descent finally treated myself to coffee in a local café around Clichy. By 3pm after all the walking in the wind, I was feeling a little tired and wanting to be indoors. So I debated between an afternoon matinee or lunch and a siesta and decided ultimately on the latter option.

When I arrived back at Isabelle’s I found her in the kitchen, in the final stages of cooking a meal of turkey cutlets and gratin potatoes. We chatted briefly while I made myself a hot cup of tea and microwaved my leftover spaghetti bolognaise. As the kitchen was kinda busy, I took my spaghetti and ate in my room while perusing a map of Paris and the route I had taken. Sitting at my desk, I could hear the TV going in the guest bedroom and I heard Isabelle bring food to Arnaud. Shortly after that, I heard her leave the apartment.

It was at that point I felt quite sleepy, so I shut the roller blind and climbed into bed for a nap. The last thing I recall, before I dozed off, was putting my mobile phone on silent (so I wouldn't be awoken unexpectedly) then setting the alarm so I wouldn’t oversleep. Ha – little did I know at that point there’d be zero chance of that!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Sweet Saturday

If you must be indoors on a sunny Saturday in Paris, I suppose one of the best reasons would involve chocolate. Close in ranking, if not tied for first place, would be spending time with people you enjoy and who make you laugh.

Fortunately, that last Saturday in January, I was lucky to do both. So even though it had already been a long week, with an unexpected transport strike thrown in to the mix, finding myself in Paris was still filling my heart with prospects.

I awoke early, delighted to see a clear sunny day ahead of me. I ate a quick breakfast and hopped on the Metro, making my way to Les Halles where I spent the rest of the morning lingering in a few of the cooking stores. (Actually I spent a bit more than just time, departing Mora with a not too cheap bundle of gadgetry that was too interesting to pass up.)

While at Mora, I became so totally engrossed in the range of stainless steel moulds that I hadn’t noticed my watch had actually stopped at 11am until I went to the cashier. The sales lady handed me the receipt, which was stamped with the current time. WTF - 11:45am?! I felt my heart jump, because my practical was starting at 12:30pm and I was a good 20 stops away. I was determined to not let this glorious morning end with more involuntary marathon training. I left the store quickly and made tracks to the Metro station, walking very fast but not running this time.

The Metro connections were kind and I made it to school about 12:15pm. I changed quickly into my uniform and scooted quickly up to Level 3, half expecting to find a semi-grumpy Chef Deguignet who is the school’s leading meistro of chocolate.

But there was Chef Tranchant, darting quickly and silently around the lab area. He greeted me as I entered the class and got myself organized. He’s always good natured, yet I’ve noticed that he never really says much, even when standing in front of a class teaching a demonstration. He’s a bit like a mime…lots of elaborated gestures and exaggerated facial expressions, but a man of few words. Still, at just the right moment, he’ll offer up a subtle joke or observation and this always leaves me with a positive thought about him. I like him as he seems the most human of them all, someone who aims high but can still accept imperfection with a smile (and seems to evaluate students on the effort that was made, not necessarily just the final result). I made my way toward the far end of the work bench, where the 3 Musketeers (David, Alberto and Aurore) were getting set up. We began chatting and laughing like we normally do. Everyone’s white uniform looked clean…I wondered how long that would last given the theme of this practical.

Since I had completely lost track of time, there had been no chance to return to Isabelle’s on the way to school and pick up my cooking thermometer. I keep all my reserve gear at Isabelle’s place…the boning knife, melon baller, meat skewers and other implements that have been issued by the school but are not often (or never) used for Patisserie making. In this case, the thermometer had never made it into the daily-use kit which I keep in my school locker. Chef Cotte had encouraged us in Basic to use a digital method for measuring the temperature of boiling syrups (by digital I mean literally OUR FINGERS not a type of display!!) So while my fingers were grateful for a thermometer, I had still come up short-handed on the planning front. Fortunately, David offered to lend me his thermometer. We were swapping back and forth during most of the practical, but thankfully it didn’t slow either of us down.

We would be making 2 types of hand-dipped milk chocolates this practical: Pralines & Muscadine. Now almost any American can truly dig Pralines. If you are from the South, don’t let the name fool you. In terms of taste, these are less like a pecan/caramel Turtle, and more like an awesome peanut butter cup. The filling is made with melted milk chocolate, praline paste (basically ground hazelnuts) and gavotte fragments. Gavottes are a thin, lacy crepe-like cookie…so imagine the crisp texture of a extra thin, crumbled waffle cone mixed in with the taste of creamy nut paste and chocolate. This decadent filling is then formed into crescent shapes and dipped in chocolate. When Pralines are freshly made, they can transform your opinion about milk chocolate. The texture of the filling was like pure velvet, much more appealing than the industrialized versions of Pralines you can buy nearly everywhere in Belgium and France.

The praline paste is chilled until it is the texture of a firm cookie dough, then it is rolled out between measuring bars and cut by hand into the crescent shapes. Chef Tranchant was encouraging everyone to make these crescents as big as possible, to yield only 12-15 pieces, as the dipping process would then take less time. Okay…it’s Saturday afternoon so I partially appreciate the logic to get out of the kitchen, but what about portion control!?! Looking at the mound of filling in front of me, I decided to disobey his request as it would result in chocolates the size of boomerangs…potentially flatlining even the most die-hard chocolate fan due to the overkill portions. In my opinion, chocolates are meant to be sampled in small pieces, so a variety of pieces can be enjoyed. So I exercised more sensible portion control and made mine much smaller. As a result, I ended up with about 30 pieces, more than double what the rest of the class had made, but at least my pieces could be eaten in more or less two bites.

As for the dipping, Chef Tranchant was absolutely right…the process for Pralines did take me much longer, but it provided me with a lot more practice (and I did not hesitate to kindly remind him that is why I am here :-)). My dipped crescents were evenly coated but not to excess, so I had no big ‘puddles’ forming around my dipped pieces when placed onto the parchment to solidify. So I was feeling happy that the technique came pretty easily to me.

Muscadine features a filling of milk chocolate, fresh cream, praline paste, fresh vanilla seeds & Cointreau. The fragrant & creamy mixture is piped out into long, straight ropes onto parchment, then cut into 2cm lengths once the filling is slightly solidified. These lengths are then dipped in milk chocolate, then rolled in a oblong baking dish of powdered sugar.

In terms of flavor, Muscadine is a wonderfully creamy and very more-ish taste delight, and the fact they are rolled in sugar after dipping takes the edge off the perfectionist aspects of presentation. Visually though, making them reminded me of cleaning a litter box!! All those little pieces of chocolate being rolled around in a pan of white powder…I kept chuckling quietly to myself during the process and eventually was called out by Aurore and Alberto to verbalize my thoughts. When I told them, they roared with laughter. Chef Tranchant came to investigate the commotion, and shared in the laughter when Aurore explained the litter box observation.

So despite my elaborated Praline quantities, by 3:15 pm I had pretty much finished and cleaned-up. I had filled about 2 small carton trays with chocolate, and I was really happy as it meant that I’d have plenty to share with friends and colleagues. Chef Tranchant gave me some positive comments about the evenness of my dipping and tempering results…not hesitating to laugh one last time about my litter box comment as he farewelled the class. Despite having revealed my observation, at least it seems that I hadn’t grossed him out. Then again, I didn’t see his grade markings for my work so maybe my surprise will come later!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Be a Pleasure Merchant: more parallels to FMCG

During his fascinating and highly entertaining presentation on pulled sugar and sugar formations, visiting Chef Christian Faure from Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa reminded everyone in the audience that while we must follow the laws of divine proportion (and ultimately the universe), primarily patissiers are merchants of pleasure.

A merchant of pleasure!! It was something I never thought I’d hear during a patisserie presentation, but the truth of it completely resonated with me. I was already standing in the back row of the demonstration room, completely rapt by the piece montee he was creating and straining to get as good of a look as possible. His presentation style drifted from French to English to Fringlish, was sprinkled with crazy innuendos and a repetitive ‘boomdelaboom’ phrase, so needless to say his sense of humor had already engaged me. But when he framed the objective at hand as being a pleasure merchant, I smiled even more broadly and felt like cheering. What a great concept, not just for patisserie but for anyone involved in making consumer goods.

In speaking of divine proportion, he referred to the numbers displayed in nature as well as the laws of the universe. So respecting the number of leaves, petals, seeds, appendages, etc. that exist in nature, but also the color, harmony & symmetry of the respective elements. He said jokingly, “That simply means, you don’t put your fish in the sky, and your doves in the ocean and you try to follow the numbers 3, 5 and 7 when designing your work.” He reminded us how many items in nature follow these numbers, including the human body with its 5 ‘branches’ and preference towards symmetry. And it is instinctual that we are attracted to things that follow these laws in their design.

In calling us pleasure merchants he elaborated further, explaining that a person who comes to buy a piece montee wants to be delighted, to be fascinated, to have their eyes rest upon something that is designed to look good and attract attention. They also want the experience to be personal, displaying a photo or emblem or motif that means something to them. Then they will want to eat…probably not the piece montee itself, but something sweet since the sight of such a beautiful creation will stimulate more than just people’s eyes. “So always offer something tasty within their reach, to ensure they are not disappointed.”

He was quick to remind us, however, that simply being good in piece montee was probably not going to pay the bills. “In running a patisserie business, what makes money is being good at really basic stuff, the stuff people buy everyday: Bread, croissants, simple but well prepared cakes. These things must taste good and look good. This is how people come to recognize you, what builds their trust in your products, and what will keep you working.”

The inverse message of this was obvious, but he spelled it out clearly anyway: “You might never become good at piece montee, and still be a very successful patissier,” he advised. “But, you can probably never be a successful patissier – at least financially – unless you can offer people the basic items they’re after, as good as these items can possibly be.”

It is so true. I thought about my design work in FMCG. One the one hand, the total commonality of it; on the other, the beautiful convenience (bordering on necessity) that these products afford to consumers everyday. What makes my brand different vs a competitor is not just how it performs but also finding some new way to incorporate the delight factor…somehow to make it a bit more special, surprising or more personalized even though it is a mass produced product.

And so I left this presentation realizing that my job objective as both a design manager and a patisserie student is to be a pleasure merchant. What a wonderful and inspiring task! I want to change the title on my business cards!

Monday, February 2, 2009

French Nouvelle Cuisine by a Japanese Chef

One of my greve-related joys of staying in Paris was being able to attend two demonstrations by visiting guest chefs. Normally, I am in transit between Geneva & Paris and miss out on these extra events that happen on school premises. I decided I would take advantage of the opportunity of being in Paris a couple of extra days and attend a couple events.

The first of these was on Thursday evening. I attended a cooking demonstration by Chef Tsukasa Fukuyama, Chef de Cuisine of the A&M Bistrot in Paris. Based on his name, I was expecting Japanese or possibly fusion cuisine. But instead he prepared an inspired 3-course offering in nouvelle cuisine consisting of roasted foie gras with 4-spice, a wonderful pork tenderloin served with a galette made of pig trotter, and an iced mousse made with candied fennel and served with a cardamom infused pineapple coulis.

I’ve had foie gras served lightly grilled before, but the quality of his sourcing this ingredient was evident in how little it rendered down during the cooking process. The addition of 4 spice gave the final flavor a unique twist. Accompanied by caramelized apples, batonnets of cooked beet root and a reduced balsamic vinegar, it was a stunning presentation. All I was longing for was a cold glass of Sauternes!

I’m not a huge fan of pork dishes, but this tenderloin was certainly some of the best I have ever eaten. And the wonderfully easy cooking method made me feel confident I could try it at home. The tenderloin was carefully trimmed of all visible fat yet with the cooking method of searing and slow roasting, it remained so tender & moist. It was flavored beautifully with fresh rosemary and served with wilted spinach.

The galette was similar to a seared terrine or aspic. It is made of seasoned pork trotter and ear, gellified in a loaf pan, then cut into cubes and lightly seared on each side in a super hot skillet; then served with a delicately oiled herb salad as accompaniment. It came out golden brown and lightly crisp on the sides, retaining a slightly gelatinous but pleasing aspect at the centre. This combined with the textural aspects of the ear cartilage vaguely reminded me of a dish called “thousand layered wind” that I was once served for dim sum.

The most inventive course was undoubtedly the dessert. I love fennel, but I’ve never had it served in a dessert. He showed us how to candy the fennel pieces; then he covered these with a cream mousse containing Ricard, finishing it with a brulee-style top of caramelized sugar. It was quite simple but the most inventive dessert I’ve had in quite some time. My only critique was the coulis, which did not offer much in the way of infused cardamom flavor (the pineapple seeming to overdominate the flavor). Still, seeing how easily it came together, and my love of things with aniseed flavor, I am keen to try it again at home.

Chocolate Goose and La Greve for Debutantes

The Tuesday evening following my practical on Bavarois au Trois Chocolats concluded with Isabelle and me sitting at her kitchen table, re-hashing our day’s events in earnest while eating our microwave dinners. About 9pm, having finally convinced her to indulge in dessert with me, we were giggling like a couple of sneaky teenagers as we cut into this glossy & creamy chocolate creation and wolfed it down shamelessly. The day wasn’t supposed to end this way, but lately my life has a funny way of serving up opportunities and challenges in even portions. I’m learning to not ask so many questions and just savor the taste of it all.

Oddly enough, the wonderful evening that unfolded between us was not even scheduled to be. I would have normally been returning to Geneva on the 6pm TGV that evening, with the Bavarois in tow. I would have then spent an intense Wednesday in back to back meetings in Geneva, before squeezing in a couple of social activities that evening (involving Bavarois degustation), repacking my suitcase with a fresh change of everything and returning to Paris early on Thursday morning to attend my next class demonstration.

Then news of a planned transport strike for Thursday changed all that. It was announced that the strike (or greve as I learned it was called in French) would affect underground, RER, buses and even some TGV connections (Geneva routes being identified on the list). As it was only Tuesday, I wasn’t worried about getting home to Geneva; rather it was the getting back into Paris on Thursday in time for my next demo. Frankly I couldn’t afford any further attendance issues this term, so I decided I’d better not risk it and remained in Paris (Actually, the mental math came out something more simplistic like: I’m female + next lesson = chocolate. Conclusion: I’m staying!). So, expecting cataclysmic hardening of the city’s transport arteries, I made my way to Montparnasse station and changed my TGV tickets, then rang friends back in Geneva to advise them neither I nor the Bavarois would be joining them on Wednesday.

I realized as I walked home from Montparnasse that it was to be my very first transport greve. Oh la la! Another small milestone. A notch on my wooden spoon of Parisian experiences. I figured something like this would happen eventually; these things usually do have a certain timing to them. Then in dismay, I wondered if it could drag out for weeks rather than just one day. I quickly realized that this would probably never happen. My theory was founded as such: the Parisians organizing the strike are just bored. As it was, Christmas was now over, the final days of Galette des Rois drawing nigh, the January sales/shopping period also nearly done, the weather quite gray for weeks on end, and the Easter and May bank holidays were still a few months away. The sum of this would certainly warrant an expression of distaste from a Parisian. But prolonging this distasteful expression into the weekend? Jamais! Frankly the strikers would probably prefer to be doing something else more enjoyable on their own time. They’d rather go sit in a café than spend these precious hours trying to make a point about working conditions. I could easily imagine some Union leader sitting at his desk, ringing his collaborateurs and proposing the idea: “Eet weel be gret, non?! Un petit greve…just to get zer attention. And we are done by Friday, so we have ze weekend to enjoy!! C’est parfait, non??!”

Earlier that Tuesday afternoon, I’d had my Bavarois practical and had achieved very good results with my dessert. Bavarois is basically a mousse-style dessert that is set with gelatin, allowing for some elaborate molded shapes to be achieved in the final presentation. You can imagine in the 1800's (when it was apparently invented) that it would have made quite an impression on dinner guests; the mixture not only being formed by elaborate copper molds but for being served cold (when refrigeration was a rather a novel concept, not just an everyday appliance). Like its sister dessert, the Charlotte, you can somehow imagine this creation being placed under a sterling silver dome and then served to an emperor and his court, the stunning finale to a grande banquet.

I think the most difficult aspect of this whole lesson was pronouncing the name correctly. It rolls off my American tongue a lot closer to the French words ‘bavard’ and ‘oie’ (which translates into something like overly talkative goose!). So whilst my pronunciation techniques often fail me, at least I know how to make Francophones smile. Observing an American woman offer up a ‘chocolate goose’ is not something Parisians would hear every day…at least not in the quiet streets of the 15th arrondissement.

Apart from the challenging linguistics, the only other thing that didn’t rock my world about the Bavarois was the glaze. This final couche of gelatinous mass ended up looking suspiciously close to Neoprene: being dark, quite shiny and kinda spongy. At first glance, it more or less could have passed for pure dark chocolate; yet for all of its brilliance and intensity it lacked profound flavor and unctuous texture. So during the demonstration tasting I quietly detached this layer from my portion and discarded it when Chef Cotte wasn’t looking. As the quivering sliver of darkness hit the trash, I was suddenly reminded of those Dr Scholl’s gel insoles and wondered if the two might be formulaically related. Hmmmm. It goes without saying that I prefer my insoles under my feet not atop my cake. (Still, if my riding boots wear out from all the running to class, I have a good backup plan.)

Chef Deguignet had attended my group again at the practical. Fortunately, some blessed but unidentified person in Group D had remembered to start the lab oven before he walked in, as we would need a super hot oven for our ladyfinger sponge base. So Chef D was all smiles when he arrived at the class door and spied the oven already humming and ramping up quickly to 220 degrees C. He greeted us warmly and we responded with an equally hearty “Bonjour Chef!” (almost in unison, which seemed to please him even more). From that point, things just continued to get better.

The fantastic four (ie Alberto, Aurore, David and I) were working again like clockwork, our personality cogs just meshing perfectly without any prior discussion. Everyone just seemed to be aware of what needed to be done and was offering up a task in benefit to the group at just the right time. This synchronized behavior by my subgroup would mean less running around for each individual and this in turn would enable our subgroup to get our biscuit quickly into the oven. The chefs are always reminding us to work systematically, particularly with the freezers and ovens, since it is not efficient to throw open the door of either appliance repeatedly for each individual. It wastes time and energy, both of which are paramount to running an efficient kitchen. So we often group ourselves into pairs or fours for steps involving oven and freezer.

Timing was important in this practical. While the Bavarois is not especially difficult to make, adequate freezing of the final assembled dessert is critical and would take as much time as we could allow during the 2.5 hour class.

I prepared the baking plaque for the four of us, anchoring the parchment with industrial magnets; then tracing circles using Alberto’s marker and writing each person’s name next to a circle (these would be our guidelines for piping out the round ladyfinger bases). Alberto organized a set of mixing bowls and balloon whisks for each of us and David gathered various missing ingredients, finding the ever-illusive gelatin sheets and then hauling the massive bucket of egg whites out of the fridge. Aurore distributed the disposable pastry bags to each of us. The team efforts paid off. We were the first subgroup to have our tray of biscuit ready and into the oven, and this was at least 10 minutes before any other group.

Chef D put me in charge of the oven. I don’t know why, but I am often assigned to monitor the oven. I guess it is because I am tall and can more easily monitor the progress of the top racks during baking. I am also pretty adept at quickly turning the heavy baking sheets during the baking process. It is not unpleasant work, but the trick is not getting distracted (and hence ruining someone else’s work) while still remaining focused on completing your remaining tasks.

I had followed on with the good habit learned in my last practical, which included organizing all my needed equipment into an aluminium baking pan, then measuring all my ingredients onto parchment squares. So before lifting a whisk to make the sponge biscuit, I was ready to move forward with the remaining steps of the recipe. So being assigned to oven monitor was not distracting to the other tasks I had to do for myself, and I could easily vascillate between ovening and my mixing, syruping and trimming. The difference in my speed of assembly was remarkably improved and it was really easy to keep my work area cleaner and organized. I can’t go back to my old ways now!

The only preparation challenges I encountered were (once again) primarily based on teaching differences between chefs. And it’s not just me, everyone who is a student comments on this. You are told by one chef to do something a certain way during the demo, then at the practical you are questioned for following these very instructions since it is often a different chef with a different point of view. It always leads to some funny interaction; the discussions always have a certain pattern to them, only the specific details or tonality of the conversation changes depending on the recipe we are making and which chef is asking. For example:

Chef: “Why on earth are you __________??!”
Student (surprised): “Uh…but during the demo Chef ______told us to _____ for this step.”
Chef (irritated): “Quoi??! Mais non, that’s totally ______! You should never _________. You should always _____.” (This is sometimes followed with some snide comment about the other chef, par exemple, “Well, of course he’d tell you to do it that way…you’ve seen his hands haven’t you?? More like two feet!”)

Thus, just when you think you might’ve learned the correct technique in the demo, some other authority steps your space in practical and really teaches you. It is pointless to offer up class notes, eye witnesses or sworn testimonials as rationale to your argument. In fact, don’t even try to argue; it will be of little interest to the chef in your practical. The unspoken rule is just respond to this interaction with a hearty “Oui, chef!” and do exactly whatever you’re being told at that moment, even if it no longer coincides with the rest of your class notes or leaves you in total confusion about what to do next. Then, when the chef walks away, you are free to roll your eyes & shake your head at your neighbor across the way (who, by the way, will be equally dumbfounded in overhearing this discussion and is now nervously awaiting their serving of verbal flogging when the chef reaches his or her side of the table).

Fortunately with Chef D, this interaction doesn’t involve any yelling or surprise attacks, so it doesn’t cause tension. Still, I chuckle to myself every time because with the exuding of different authoritarian personalities and apparent lack of calibration on methods within the school it just seems so very…French! (funnier still, maybe the chefs are calibrating their teaching differences ahead of the classes: ‘Ho, ho, wot eef you says zis and I says zat, it weel really make zem crazy, non?!”;-)

The other important lesson with this recipe is to never, ever start moussing until you have imbibed (which, come to think of it, probably gives a certain strange wisdom to life outside the classroom as well). Actually I made this mistake; although the finished dessert did not show the error of my ways, I just had a slightly harder time with the glazing process. Basically, you should prepare each of the different chocolate bavarois layers only right before you fill the ring mold with that mixture. Egad! I hadn’t even imbibed my sponge layer and had dived headlong into moussing! (Ok, speaking in my defense: I am female. Chocolate is a reflex. There are three chocolate layers, I had no choice but to take action. It was instinct! I rest my case, your honor.)

The practical ended with application of that rubbery chocolate glaze to the top of the Bavarois. Not an easy task. At the point you are ready to start glazing, the Bavarois has been frozen once (after creating the first dark chocolate layer) then refrigerated after each subsequent chocolate layer is added to the stainless steel mold, so it goes without saying that your base for applying the glaze is very cold. And the glaze contains a substantial amount of gelatin, which gives it some shine and allows it to set. So when the warm gelatinous glaze comes in contact with the nearly frozen Bavarois, you have to move fast because of the thermic shock between the glaze and the mousse beneath it. The glaze sets to the texture of a dental dam almost instantaneously, so you have to use precise & decisive movements to achieve a good finish. It was a lot tougher than it looked in the practical but I managed.

David had the best result out of the 4 of us. I complimented him, telling him that he got the look of Chinese lacquerwood with his finish…it was like a disk of pure, flawless ebony. He looked pleased. (in fact, if you very look closely at the photo of my cake, just atop the glazed surface you can see his reflection grinning in the background!! I’m not kidding! What a great moment unexpectedly captured on a cake top! I circled it in red so you can see...:-))

My glazing came out well, but a drop of water came in contact with the surface of my glaze (I was using a wet rag trying to clean up some of the overrun of glaze that was messing up my gold cardboard disk). Using a paper cornet filled with melted white chocolate, I applied a decorative band of thin drizzle, then put one of the ladyfinger hearts over the offending spot to mask the spot and saved the day! Despite having expressed dissatisfaction with my rambunctious moussing, Chef D still seemed pleased with my overall appearance of my Bavarois.

I walked back to Isabelle’s with the Bavarois, looking at my reflection on the glossy surface and wondering if the transport strike on Thursday would be like that chocolate glaze…setting in quickly and rendering everyone immobile. Again, the whole incident was just so French! As long as I stayed close to Isabelle’s, the strike would not affect me much…so I’d work from internet cafes these remaining week days and walk to school as I normally do. In my wider circle of contacts within Paris, no one seemed remotely worried about it, except maybe a couple of people who live outside the city and have no option but to commute by RER and metro to get to school. Everyone else cast a gallic shrug as if they were all a bit blasé about the whole thing, kind of a ‘been there, done that’ attitude that suggested that a day of working from home (or in some cases not working at all) would not even come close to shattering their world. And in seeing all those shrugs, I realized my theory about weekend strikers was probably spot on.