Monday, January 26, 2009

Madame Butterfly

Sometimes a nice cake comes together without a lot of effort. It reminds me of those times when you can pull together a great outfit from bits and pieces lying around your wardrobe. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does it brings a smile to your face.

For this weekend’s metamorphosis in patisserie, all I had to do was make a fresh batch of crème mousseline. And the rest of the creation came together from bits and pieces I had stowed away in my pantry or freezer.

For technique, the composition of this cake took inspiration from the Fraisier, using an exposed border of fruit and crème mousseline between two layers of imbibed vanilla genoise. Since I had canned peaches and frozen raspberries available, and I love this taste combination, I decided to put them to use. I created a gellified raspberry coulis filling, topped it with drained peach halves, using some of the peach syrup to imbibe the cake layers.

The remaining peaches were sliced into wedges and used for the decorative border, along with some spiral cake slices. These fun little spirals were made from some leftover strips of Joconde sponge cake and chocolate ganache, rolled together and then sliced into decorative rounds. It would have been perfect if they’d been just a little bit larger in diameter; still I loved the fun, swirly effect it provided as a border element. I can totally imagine playing further with this idea in future!

The garnish used consisted of a couple of sliced & fanned peach halves and the dried vanilla pod (from making the crème patissiere). Since I am still attracted by acetylene but torchless in my home kitchen, I decided not to make any Italian meringue as I could not have burnished the edges unless I used my oven broiler (and this would have destroyed the rest of the cake). I found a box of mini meringues in the pantry and used one of these to provide a simulate a small white flower and give some differing proportion. Then I added one nice, pistachio macaron as the final touch of color. I’d been experimenting with my macaron making technique earlier in the week (and finally got the results I was after…yea!)

The cake was a small glimpse of summer in the middle of winter. Despite being an impromptu composition, it looked pretty good even upon slicing with the miscellaneous layers of color coming into view. Taste was great…using branded canned peaches made a noticeable difference in taste vs unbranded, and having real vanilla pod in the crème provided a much more authentic flavor to the mousseline than we’d achieved in the Fraisier practical. Of course, if I could have used fresh, in-season fruit this one would only taste better. Better hold that thought until July. Anyway, it delivered a small slice of sunshine that was well worth the practice session.

Les Petits Gestes

It seems since starting my patisserie classes, many people have been giving me little gifts in acknowledgement of my adventures. I never expected this but it is delighting me to no end.

I made off like a bandit when visiting family at Christmas, returning to Geneva with a suitcase bulging with kitchen loot. My siblings gave me all sorts of gadgets, some electrical, some gimmicky, and even a couple inexplicable ones - all of which are intended to recognize and enable my recent pursuits in the culinary world.

Some of these gifts included salt & pepper shakers, a kitchen rug and wall clock from Susan – all with the classic, fat & mustachoed chef theme. (I’m still working hard on my facial epilation, but otherwise these are a spitting image of me at school…tee hee)

Then from Jeanne, I got a round hatbox (again with the classic chef illustration) containing all sorts of kitchen doo-dads. This included, amongst other things, a one-handed chopping contraption, a mysterious battery-powered scrub brush, a zesting blade, and some wonderful oven mitts containing neoprene. The mitts are not technically professional kitchen gear, but they are meeting the requirement of handling super hot (and quite heavy) baking sheets at school. Plus they fit neatly into my cuisine kit without any added bulk. Excellent!

The stuffed toys looking like Ratatouille and the Pillsbury Dough Boy which I got from Debra are adorning my desk at work and bringing me smiles.

From work colleagues, there have been other acknowledgements. Nadia gave me lovely perfume with a Paris name. And the latest trinket from Design colleague Caroline is an adorable key chain which looks like a mini whisk! Apparently all my stories about the extreme sport of whisking in Paris were remembered during December’s Design presentation.

Each day that I see or use these items I remember you all. So thanks for thinking of me. You didn’t need to buy these gifts, but I am grateful and enjoying them.

Please, just don’t ask me to make an Italian Meringue with that keychain!!! :-)

Turd on a Doily: What would Le Notre say about this differentiation strategy??

In the world of fine patisserie, it seems no effort is spared on quality. Every item that is placed in that shop window looks as good as it possibly can, in the hopes that it will attract customers and build the longevity of the enterprise.

The finest grand patisseries in Paris such as Le Notre, Pierre Herme and Dalloyau have achieved legendary status only by focusing on excellence. In every imaginable detail. In my observation, none of these establishments would willingly make any one of their creations look less appealing in an attempt to make another of their products stand out. Each creation is different, and each appeals to different types of tastes and budgets, but everything must look (and of course taste) as good as possible.

Clearly this strategy makes sense. When everything in a shop window is as good as it can possibly be, the chef or the business ultimately gains more: more attention from passers-by, a stronger reputation, and of course more sales. Not everyone looking at the display will be attracted to buy the same things. But in applying a base strategy of excellence for all goods, the people who crave chocolate overload get their fix, whilst the others who want a bit more fruit & cream find something of interest. And the real beauty of this strategy is that even when a customer can’t decide between that éclair and the tartlette, he or she might just buy both… or return again tomorrow to further investigate whatever was beautiful enough to stick in their memory. The fact is, when the cakes always look and taste their best, people appreciate what the shop stands for and more importantly, they keep coming back.

It is this lesson in merchandising I would like to pass on to some of my marketing colleagues in my everyday world of fast moving consumer goods. As a Design Manager, I am being asked more frequently by my Marketing colleagues to make the appearance of some lower-tiered products look less attractive so that the other more expensive tiers of the same brand will thus look better and sell more. Hmmmm. Applying my patisserie logic, I just don’t get this…especially when all items are effectively part of the same ‘shop window’ (ie, the parent brand).

Oh I fully understand the need for differentiation between product lines. And it makes sense to make the expensive tiers look like they deserve the price premium. But apply the differentiation logic in reverse and you’ll just crash into a wall. How can you downgrade the appearance of one product line and still believe that all the other products from the same window will succeed? It is counterintuitive.

To make my point in a very extreme way, imagine if one of these big patisseries displayed a dog turd on a doily just to boost sales of the other items in that shop window. Undoubtedly, it would achieve differentiation (possibly also creating a riot)…but for obvious reasons it would defeat the entire display and kill the reputation of the shop!! When a differentiation strategy erodes the expectations or reputation of the brand (or the category), you risk sending the customer walking to another shop (or in this extreme example, RUNNING!).

It really doesn’t matter if you’re selling pastries or disposable diapers… there is only so far you can (and should) go with the brand reputation. Sometimes Marketers forget that low-tier does not mean cheap or low quality. Rather than looking visibly less good, differentiation choices should be based on providing what is essential to the consumer in that segment without the extras. For less premium products, this may mean using fewer embellishments and focusing on the core benefit desired (or expected) by the consumer. In a patisserie, this differentiation approach might require using less luxurious garnishes, but certainly the shop would never go to the extreme of omitting a key ingredient or making the decoration look so awful it wouldn’t meet base expectations. Doing so would irreparably damage the reputation of the whole enterprise.

In my case, I advised the brand manager that we could cut back on a few color embellishments in the printing of the product graphics, but we would certainly not eliminate this printing all together (which was his request). I tried to explain to him that totally eliminating all printing may leave a consumer to be tempted by a better looking competitor brand in the same segment (a competitor which is undoubtedly trying to look at least as good as our brand). But more importantly, it would jeopardize consumers’ correct usage of the product, ultimately disappointing them and eroding their trust. So for me there was no further need to discuss this. While he didn’t offer a better argument and eventually relented, he was not happy with my resistance to his request. But since I consider myself a shop owner, not just a window dresser, it was as far as I was prepared to let him tamper with the display.

Gaston Le Notre, one of the world’s most legendary chefs who passed away earlier this month, summed it up well. "French pastry-making taught me to be precise, to have discipline, and that my name goes on every product," Le Notre once said in an interview. "If I see that things are sloppily done, I lose it."

Gaston, I totally appreciate what you mean. Surely in this quote you were referring to your temper, but oddly enough it could mean losing something even harder to regain …consumer trust!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Conductor of the Opera

Even if you don’t like Opera music, you’ll still probably feel like singing a happy tune when you taste the cake bearing this name. Combining the perfectly harmonized flavors of coffee and chocolate, Opera is an opus magnum of French patisserie.

The first origins of this amazingly flavored cake identify a man named Louis Clichy who apparently invented it in 1903 for his own patisserie. Louis, obviously the marketing visionary of his generation, decided to name this stunning masterpiece… Clichy.” (whooaaa dude, slow down! Like my imagination – not to mention tastebuds – can't keep up with you…zzzzzz). Mispronounce this name and you end up with cliché, which may inspire significantly fewer tasters reading the dessert menu. While poor Louis didn’t seem to understand the staying power of a name (or imaginative storytelling that can sell an idea) I’ll give him credit for the root idea.

More popular histoires associate the cake with the famous Parisian patisserie Dalloyau. And certainly it is these folks who have given the cake its legendary status in worldwide culinary circles. Apparently Dalloyau have updated this classic with a variation they call Opera Rock, which is apparently hot pink and tastes of raspberry & chocolate. Bravo! Now when I imagine that one, I realize TGV may not be fast enough to race me back to Paris to try it! (final note to Monsieur Clichy: If left to your inventive brain, we might all be buying something called a Rock Cliché right now…featuring some has-been musical performer in the ad campaign...zzzzzz).

Despite a fairly straightforward ‘layer-cake’ appearance and well-known reputation, Opera proved to be a relatively challenging gateau to make. It consists of three fine strata of Joconde sponge, which are heavily soaked with coffee-flavored syrup, then layered alternately with chocolate ganache and coffee buttercream. It is then finished with a ultrafine coating of dark chocolate glaze, which sets to a glossy and croquant finish. Then the cake is cut down for final presentation, typically into approximately 20cm squares or individual oblong portions. And as the final crescendo for the square cakes, the name and final decorative embellishments were carefully piped in chocolate onto the top surface of the cake using a paper cornet. (Usually a small amount of gold leaf is applied for final *bling* effect but we didn't get quite this far with our ingredient list...)

During the demo, Chef Tranchant's ample experience made our future preparation look too easy. Still I managed and was more or less happy with the look of my finished cakes. The technical trick is mastering use of the angled spatula, essential for nearly every step of the preparation and finition. By the end of the class, I finally felt like I was just starting to get the hang of this important instrument.

Chef Deguignet was attending us in our practical. I know him by sight but had not yet had the chance to work with him until today. He comes from a long line of well-regarded patissiers and is reknowned for his chocolate mastery – a skill which has earned him many awards and distinctions.

As I discovered today, Chef D is a bit bossy and an absolute stickler for details (not really a surprising personality type around this place). But he pushed the bossiness nuance to a level I hadn’t yet experienced before. This all began the minute he stepped into the lab, expressing extreme dissatisfaction with the class for not preheating the ovens. Personally I'm not a master of clairvoyance, but if this had actually been mentioned in the demo then I'm sure someone in my group might have picked up this task...but anyway we know what to do next time.

He then sauntered over to a workbench in the far corner and staked claim on this entire area, thereby displacing about 4 of us who had stored our surplus equipment there. He basically told us this was 'his area' and demanded that these things be moved somewhere else. (What was particularly funny to me was that for having all this precious real estate at his disposal, the only item of residence during the entire practical was a wad of keys.)

During the rest of the session, Chef D kept the pace accelerated by repeatedly asking us if we were sleeping. He was constantly pointing something out that we’d failed to do as well as he’d hoped, but to his credit at least he’d take the time to show you what he meant. As annoying as it might be, in expressing all these instructions he remained very even tempered, never once raising his voice. So it gave the class a clear set of expectations and in the end was less stressful than having someone act like a clown then moments later unexpectedly start yelling like a drill sergeant.

At one point I asked Chef D what he wanted us (as a class) to do regarding a step in the procedure. He looked me in the eye and responded, with a slightly exasperated tone, “Oh, just go home…I’d really like everyone to just go home.”

“Hey!!” I retorted instantly, throwing in a couple of disappointing tsk, tsk sounds and reminding him that this remark was pas tres gentil . I’m pretty sure he was joking but who can tell with these guys sometimes. I was glad I said something…at the very least my remark seemed to relax him a bit; but I also wanted to communicate some expectations back to him. Frankly I’m prepared to give these guys all the respect they deserve, but then again I’m paying a lot to be here so I’m not going to just stand there like some quiet violet when I hear something I don’t agree with. Mama didn’t raise no fool…:-)

Alberto, Aurore, David and I banded together in our usual corner of the workbench, the happy quartet performing with our usual harmony: passing each other ingredients at just the needed moment, lending each other utensils, advising each other on poorly defined ingredient quantities (like coffee extract); watching each others’ boiling pots of syrup and assisting each other with the pouring phase, and of course sharing a few knowing glances during the ongoing commentary from our conducteur du jour. At one point when Chef D momentarily left the lab, just as we were beating our egg whites, I took a moment to make the 3 of them laugh when I started singing “we’re whiskin’…whiskin’…whiskin’ the night away” to the tune of “Twistin’ the Night Away” (complete with a bit of appropriate hip twisting movements).

Poor David had a pretty tough session…and I know from experience it can happen to anyone when least expected. He had an unfortunate dispensing incident (involving an over-eager squirt bottle of extract), and this had seemingly caused some problems with his buttercream mixture taking correct volume. This unfortunately only became apparent after he’d been whisking in the butter already for several minutes. Chef D came over and told him that this mixture looked “trop bizarre” and that he would have to start over. This meant re-measuring everything, cooking a new pot of syrup and then whisking with the fury of a Tasmanian devil to ensure the butter was smoothly incorporated. I felt bad and offered to cube his butter for him and kept an eye on the syrup pot whilst he was trying to make up lost time.

An area I really focused on during this practical was extreme organization. Before Chef D had even entered the lab, I had done some important yet small steps such as measuring all my ingredients in advance and placing these in orderly groupings on small sheets of parchment. It was time well spent and I’ll endeavor to continue working this way since it meant a lot less stress (plus it just looks more convincing to someone like Chef D). Generally I more or less fly by the seat of my pants, but even a spontaneity freak like myself can break with tradition and benefit from more structure.

I got favorable remarks from Chef D as he passed by to grade each of us. He appreciated my scripted chocolate, praised my glazing technique and relatively even application of ganache & buttercream layers. During the cutting of the cakes into squares, I didn’t crack my glaze and this is one of the more difficult parts of the process, since the chocolate becomes as brittle as Magic Shell and tends to crack and shatter very easily. To avoid this, the knife blade must be carefully heated but of course not become too hot (or the chocolate melts too much).

Despite having added about 70ml of coffee extract to my imbibing syrup (eek - my liver is still quivering), and mopping my layers heavily with the syrup, Chef D cautioned me that I still should add even more next time…which in our case might be during the final exam! Hmm… adding even more extract was not necessarily music to my ears but the test mention I noted with interest.

I was in such a rush to get to my train that I only got a quick photo of one cake (and two of the small but prettier off-cuts) after I'd already packed it into Tupperware. Probably not the most elegant backdrop for such a gorgeous cake, but hopefully you get the idea.

As a final footnote, I had briefly considered scripting Obama instead of Opera on the cake (giving a post-inaugural nod of appreciation to the new US President). Another variation idea for Dalloyau, but given the serious mood of the practical it was probably better that I didn't break with tradition.

Berry Lovely

They call this one Fraisier. If you don’t understand French, you might be wondering why they would name such an elegant cake after a Seattle-based sitcom.

If you do understand French, then your mouth will be watering when you imagine all the fresh, juicy STRAWBERRIES that would entitle a cake to such a name.

This is definitely one of those cakes that can make even the most dessert-jaded individual take a second look. She’s a stunner. Beneath a glossy chapeau of lightly seared Italian meringue, the waist of vanilla crème patissiere is accented by a sash of cut strawberries atop a layer of kirsch-imbibed genoise sponge. Upon slicing, each piece of cake reveals even more fresh strawberries which are cleverly concealed at the center. It’s a simple but clever trick that further delights the eye and the palette when serving.

I really loved this cake. It was a little bit of Americana mixed with the classiness of French patisserie. A kind of citified version of strawberry shortcake. A familiar wardrobe of flavors, but pulled together in a way that was unexpected and classy.

Chef Cotte was with us that afternoon during the practical. We were all just starting to weigh our ingredients at the start of the class when he sauntered energetically into the lab with a big cheesy grin, asking us all if we’d forgotten him already. “Jamais!” I responded loudly in French. “We could never forget you, chef!” This earned laughs from everyone, including him. He came over to where I was standing and playfully shook me by the shoulders, and we chatted for a bit.

I was glad to see him in such a good mood. He circulated the workbench cracking jokes and interjecting additional comments and tips that hadn’t been mentioned in the demo with Chef Tranchant. While sometimes Cotte can be an unpredictable and complex character, I’ve never left one of his classes feeling like I didn't learn something really useful.

The first 2 hours passed quickly, and in the final 30 minutes we got into the garnishing stage. Using the edge of my serrated knife, I scored the top surface of the Italian meringue using a waving motion. Then using my St. Honore nozzle I piped out some flourishes of meringue and seared all these surfaces very lightly with the blowtorch. I finished with some sliced strawberries and a few pistachio halves for a touch of color. It earned a high five and a smile from Chef Cotte, so I was happy.

I saved the trimmings from my vanilla genoise, wrapping them tightly in foil and freezing when I got back to Geneva. With a fresh batch of crème patissiere , I’ll either make an inspired trifle or some mini fraisier cakes with those remaining bits of sponge. Lovely memories linger on…

C'mon and stir it up, little darlin'....

A cake named Jamaica inspires all sorts of imagery. I immediately thought about tropical stuff, also Bob Marley's reggae music (which inspired using some of his lyrics for the title of this entry :-)). And of course, beach holidays and hurricanes.

I wasn't sure how these random thoughts would play out during the practical session. But soon enough, I started imagining a hurricane instead of an afternoon in the hammock. This was largely due to the ingredient sheet. Or shall I say sheets. Two pages in total, listing what seemed to be a heck of a lot of competing flavor combinations and textures. This, combined with two additional pages of my class notes, meant I would be walking into the lab with a lot more paper than usual.

The cake is built up in a tall, stainless steel ring mold to support its vast array of different colors and textures. It starts with a shell of imbibed chocolate joconde sponge around the inside perimeter and base of the mold. This is then filled with coconut mousse, a layer of poached pineapple pieces, a layer of mango mousse, then topped with fruit glaze, a poached pineapple ring and finally garnished with a mixed crown of decoratively cut fresh fruit. Quick… someone throw me a lifejacket! I'm drowning in ingredients!!!

So with all this stuff, frankly I kept worrying that it would be too overwhelming on the eyes as well as the palette…like some kind of loud-mouthed Hawaiian shirt of the patisserie world, tanked up on too many pina coladas and packing around a bulging suitcase of unnecessary stuff.

But in the end, the finished result was quite stunning. Indeed the map of steps leading to the treasure nearly buried everyone though. Lots of running around the lab and piles of pans and bowls virtually sandbagging each student at their work area, as different steps of the recipe stormed away in each container. Cream that was being whipped in one bowl…eggs that where being whisked in another…racks of cooling sponge cake stealing half the work space… gelatine that was softening in water…scalded coconut milk that was cooling…pineapple that was soaking up the poaching syrup…frozen mango pulp melting. I literally had to start stacking up the bowls & trays of different waiting ingredients to keep some space free. But then the storm passed.

Once again we were fiddling with yellow pastry glaze to provide the final glossy effect. It got tinted a bit yellower this time, which was fine since there was such an array of mixed fruit to support a more intense hue.

My favorite part was preparing the fruit garnishes for the crown. We had a wide range of choice to work with, not all of it tropically sourced but all of it colorful. I managed to channel my kiwis before slicing them into rounds, creating something that looked slightly floral and a bit more interesting than a plain round circle. The cheek of mango was really hard to skin, but I managed to do this without slicing myself in the process.

Despite all the efforts, the cake was an excellent traveling companion and suffered no visible jetlag (so to speak) on TGV to Geneva. When I got home that evening, I put it in the fridge and then served it the next morning at the office. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, and while the flavors had mingled very nicely during refrigeration & tempering at room temperature, the taste was still a bit too fussy for my liking.

Reflecting on the whole experience, I can't say I’d do anything differently with this one, I just wouldn’t choose to make it too often. If everyday becomes a vacation, then what’s there to look forward to, right? ;-)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Earning my Calories and Spending my Luck – Part Dieu

The day’s race was not yet over. With my practical finishing at 6pm, I knew I would not have much time to get myself changed, packed and transported to Gare de Lyon for my return train to Geneva, which was departing just past 7pm.

Given my inability to return to Isabel’s before class to retrieve my suitcase and cake container, I did not have these items with me. So I was still debating whether I should make the trip back to the flat to get these items before leaving for TGV, or just to go directly to the station and leave everything at Isabel’s over the weekend.

I still had no cuisine shoes, and this was the point in the lesson when I especially needed them…as I would actually be in a potentially slippery kitchen lab vs. just sitting in a classroom. Carey had kindly promised to lend me his pair again, but I could not locate him before my practical started (I later learned that he’d been detained in his class but looked for me...and we’d missed each other by only a matter of minutes).

Thankfully that day I was wearing low-heeled, simple brown riding boots; the kind which (much to my astonishment) when worn with checkered trousers and observed from a front angle, could easily pass for cuisine shoes!! I consoled myself for the heinous fashion crime I’d been unwittingly committing; then I debated if I should volunteer information concerning my footwear situation to the chef. I decided I’d suffered enough and that if this detail were observed, I would come clean with a confession and reassure him it would never happen again. Otherwise, I would resort to cheesy tactics like trying to minimize my walking during the practical and keeping eye lock at all times with the attending chef (so he would hopefully be unable to look down and notice my shoes.)

We had a new chef attending the practical – I forget his name at the moment - and he was young, fun and relaxed. Cute too! (Albeit a bit too relaxed and a bit too cute for the type of day I was having).

The class progressed along and I’d been having a great chat to the chef throughout the lab and was enjoying his sense of humor. It was not even remotely difficult to maintain eye contact and I hoped my cheesy plan was working. Nothing was ever mentioned, so I don’t know if my footwear was noticed or not. I certainly did not get kicked out and I was grateful since I would not normally forego this important step of school protocol in any other situation.

Aurore leaned over with a wink and a sly smile, likewise affirming her approval of le chef du jour, whispering hoarsely in accented English over the loud clatter of whisks: "Mmm, he izz not bad, no? Quite cuuute!” I smiled at her in acknowledgment but decided I’d better not tempt fate any further by audibly reaffirming an opinion.

At one stage I caught a glimpse of the clock whilst we were about to start the final glazing/decorating step and it was already 5:55pm. Egad, how time flies with eye-lock on full blast! I blanched a bit paler than the cream we’d been beating for half the afternoon and started to worry about time again. Had it been Chef Cotte, my group would have started receiving marching orders about 30 minutes earlier, followed by a swift discharge from the practical lab by 6:05pm latest. So I was suddenly missing Cotte’s extreme punctuality and discipline…especially since my day had been especially challenged on this front when left in my own hands.

After de-gooking the glaze from my utensils, farewelling Chef Hottie and packing up, it was already about 6:15pm before I actually left the lab. I flew down the stairs into the basement vestiaire and changed out of my uniform (the third fastest change of my life). Although I had no Tupperware with me, I decided the tart I’d made was my one accomplishment that day (and much too nice to leave behind for mass consumption). So despite my timing crunch, I decided I'd take it anyway. I was feeling more or less confident I could get myself back to Isabel’s, retrieve my cake transporter and still get myself to TGV on time.

Julie, a kind receptionist at the school, saw me leaving with an unprotected tart. “Now Lisa… where is your nice cake box today??” she enquired with genuine concern (my extensive Tupperware collection being widely appreciated at the school…;-)) When I told her I didn’t have it and was planning to carry my tart only a few blocks home, she still insisted on giving me a plastic bag to cover it. I guess it made total sense with all the sneezing citoyens, doggie landmines and incidents involving rollerblading youth which could potentially enter my path.

The next part of our little interaction was pretty funny. I was standing before her with the tart in one hand and my arm elevated to just above my waist. (sort of like a Big Boy restaurant sign, just not as fat since it seems I have to RUN EVERYWHERE lately). I expected her to just hand me the bag. Instead, she just proceeded to tie the plastic bag over my hand and the tart I was holding, creating a kind of oxygen tent contraption from the wrist downwards.

With my right hand held completely hostage by plastic, I wasn’t sure whether to revel in the act of kindness, ponder the sheer oddity of my situation or reconfirm the precise location of the apartment keys (which I'd soon be hunting for one-handed). The whole day suddenly took on a Mr Bean quality. But I surely had no time to think of a better solution - and she was so sweet to care about my situation - so I bid her a kind farewell and happy weekend.

And then once again, there I was hauling you-know-what down rue de Vaugirard…this time with a makeshift tart cocoon billowing softly in the breeze on the end of one arm, and my laptop gripped tightly in the other! At this point, I really began to wonder if there is some kind of bad karma that I am working off…I just cannot identify the point at which I fell into disfavor. Had I been a mean, cake-eating sloth in a previous life? Or did I offend my guardian angel and his retribution is to secretly document these incidents for big laughs on heaven’s version of You Tube? Really, if anyone has more logical explanations to my recent plentitude of pay-back experiences I’d love to hear them.

Anyway, I reached Isabel’s a few minutes later, and decided sans hesitation that I would be taking my Tupperware but abandoning my suitcase. The full-on hammam effects of the plastic bag over my hand had made the decision pretty simple. I hadn’t thought about this side effect when Julie was wrapping me up (plus it still was minus something outside) but I had nearly lost my grip from perspiration when opening the apartment door. Spa benefits aside, I didn’t foresee this as an ongoing solution for the remaining journey, which at this hour would surely involve standing travel on crowded metro lines.

Of course, the metro lines (not to mention platforms) were totally sardined with passengers and so in addition to my contentment over abandoning the plastic bag, I was equally happy with my decision to leave the suitcase. But it proved to be another major jogstacle course through the underground corridors to make all my connections. Still, I kept pace, my legs undoubtedly powered by positive thoughts (since those calories from breakfast were LONG gone). The remaining minutes ticked away like a NASA countdown, and I was creatively dodging all the usual meandering commuter satellites who seemed compelled to interfere with all my hyperspace attempts. But I was smiling…sometimes laughing to myself at how silly I must indeed look. Oh la la… quel stress mes amis!!

I reached Gare de Lyon about 7:01pm and in the final stretch of involuntary marathon training for the day, managed to reach my train carriage at 7:05pm. Apart from a displaced passion fruit half, miraculously the tart still looked good… and I’d gotten some exercise, spent part of the day with a hottie and was enjoying exciting international travel…heck, what more could a girl ask for on a Thursday! We departed promptly at 7:07pm and I migrated to the cafeteria car…if still annoyed by TGV dining at least grateful that I had any opportunity whatsoever to buy a little something to eat and drink...even if it was nearly out of date and definitely overpriced.

So in summary, certainly not an Olympic medal performance, probably not even a Corporate Athlete performance…but still a performance. And some days that's all you get. I'm grateful. As usual, no applause was heard although I’ll go on believing the neon signs were flashing above the studio audience as a friendly reminder...for all I knew, karma had probably activated a mute button somewhere.

Meanwhile, I gulped my Orangina and greedily ate what I suspect had once been a ham baguette before passing out in my seat.

(One final prayer as I gnawed the last bite of that dreadful rawhide bread: Dear God: Please, please, please make next week be better! You know I don’t mind exercising one bit, especially with all these sinful cakes I am tasting…but I just prefer to do it without carrying my laptop and cake box…and ideally not while wearing leather riding boots. Amen.)

More ‘light’ recipes from Paris…(as in fat filled and blinding!)

Tarte Passion-Framboise was our second practical and delivered a striking layered combination of passion fruit mousse and jellified raspberry coulis in a crisp tart shell. Upon serving, the stratified appearance of each slice was very appealing, showing varying shades of yellow and bright red,along with the fresh fruit garnishes. Still there were a couple of points where ‘striking’ bordered a bit more on ‘shocking’.

The first point was in the area of butter quantity for a fruit based recipe. I rarely spend time worrying about this when I am making patisserie. After all, butter is an essential and rarely substitutable ingredient in almost every creation. My motto is: If you want fat free/cholesterol free, then go eat a piece of fruit or just skip dessert…but don’t torture the recipe.

Still, I must acknowledge that this recipe is mega rich & buttery despite being fruit-based. A fellow student during the post-demonstration tasting described it comically: “well now…that was like gnawing on a stick of butter!”

I chuckled at her comments at the time, but she wasn’t far off…at least technically speaking. Of course the pastry recipe contains about 100g of butter, but the passion fruit filling was the real surprise…containing about 160g of butter plus the fat from the eggs. (Now before you have a heart attack or start avoiding my baking, keep in mind these are the quantities for the total recipe and there was plenty of leftover crust & filling that did not get made into the tart. Still, it was a lot more than I would have imagined.)

This buttery taste & texture becomes even more apparent after the tart sits a couple days in the refrigerator, with the passion fruit mousse losing some of its aerated volume and the butter solidifying a bit more. Still, the texture was very pleasing atop the crisp crust and the mousse layers were thin enough so it was not an overpowering experience by the mouthful. With a hot cup of tea, the flavor meltdown and lingering effect on the palette was quite delightful actually.

A few tasters asked if it contained cream cheese, and it did resemble a cheesecake layer quite a bit. While I am not a fat-free fanatic, the comments about cream cheese got me thinking and I wonder if this could substitute this for some of the butter in the filling. The tang of the cream cheese would not overpower the passion fruit or raspberry. And I suppose it is dense enough to still achieve the correct beaten volume. Plus, gram for gram, cream cheese has a bit less fat vs butter, even further reduced if using lighter versions. It is a possibility I’ll consider and explore sometime in my own kitchen.

The second shocking point was in the use of colorings. The decoration of this tart involves topping the passion fruit cream with a layer of tinted neutral glaze (neutral glaze consisting essentially of glucose and pectin, so does not have any color of its own). Prior to watching the demonstration, I had naively assumed this shiny top on the tart (which is infused with passion fruit pulp) was just passion fruit…however, I suppose this would be rather limiting to shelf life and commercially unviable for patisseries.

The neutral glaze does have some other advantages as well: namely, it provides much more impressive shine and helps seal the moisture in the tart. On the less positive side, I found it to be a dreadfully messy ingredient to work with…like some kind of edible plasma gook that just seems to slide EVERYWHERE except where your palette knife intends it to be! (It reminded me vaguely of that Mogador practical when even the soles of my feet were sticky from jam glaze by the end of the class...eew!)

So following the instruction of our chef, a few drops of food coloring (and passion fruit seeds) were added to our glaze mixtures to help enrich the appearance of the passion fruit cream (from a quite pale to a rather nuclear yellow in some cases). The jury of my classmates was undecided whether adding coloring actually helped improve or impede the visual appeal of the tart. I was very light-handed in adding coloring, so I suffered no corneal impairment in finalizing my tart, but a couple people achieved rather blinding tones of yellow when the squirt bottle leaked just a tad too much! Nonetheless, the resulting jokes and alien-inspired commentary heard round the workbench was memorable and made the evening really fun. If we at all failed in attracting anyone to eat it, some of us could probably still land an Airbus at CDG, just by flashing the glazed surface at the pilot! :-)

Despite all the new adventures in mousse and working with potentially blinding fruit glazes, the best part of this practical was learning to achieve a crisp, blind-baked tart shell. The technique involves brushing beaten egg onto the half-baked, empty crust and then completing the baking process. The technique delivers incredible shine and seals the crust surface, preventing the sogginess which typically sets in after the shell is filled. A worthwhile tip that can be applied to a thousand other recipes requiring this step.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Earning my Calories and Spending my Luck

Paris has an annual city marathon scheduled for April this year. Involuntarily, I started training for it the first week of January, as I ran through her streets chasing after my own absentmindedness. Forgetting my cuisine shoes was just one fun experience in my return to classes; misreading my new class schedule was the other.

I left Isabel’s at 8:30 am last Friday with my agenda committed to memory: first, walk to Montparnasse-Bienvenue station and pick up my TGV tickets, then find a free WiFi café or friendly hotel lobby where I could work for a few hours. I would return to Isabel’s flat about 1:00pm to recharge my laptop battery, eat lunch and pick up my suitcase & Tupperware. I would then go to the demo & practical beginning at 3:30 that afternoon. And finally I would leave directly for Gare de Lyon to catch the 7:10 pm train back to Geneva. It all sounded like a fine plan…at least in my own head.

In reality, the schedule I should have been following was to be at a demo planned for 12:30pm that afternoon. For whatever reason, my brain had failed to synchronize with the actual schedule. To my credit, I had taken the time to note all of my class times into my MS Outlook calendar, but for whatever reason inside my head I thought the class was starting later.

So you can imagine my surprise (and in some ways gratitude) when at 12:15pm a bothersome reminder message from Outlook appeared on my screen, calmly advising me that my next demo would be starting in 15 minutes. I think I must have levitated in panic, right there in the food court of Galleries Lafayette. I don’t recall having said anything audibly, but a couple other patrons looked over in surprise. I tried to stay calm and think clearly.

Beyond the fact that I had two colleagues on instant messaging and was in the midst of downloading a whopping file from the design agency, it was the realization that I was 3 metro stops away from where I needed to be at that very moment that really made things complicated. If there was any remaining hope of getting to school within a reasonable time, I would need to run back to Montparnasse-Bienvenue station through meandering lunchtime pedestrians. For sure I would be late, but there was no way I would let myself be marked absent so early in the term (and for such poor planning on my part). I quickly ended my Communicator chats, aborted the download, closed my laptop and made my way towards the stairs leading out of the shopping centre.

Just the day before, all students had been advised of the school’s new policies on absences and tardiness. I felt so disappointed with myself that I was testing my luck so soon on this front. Then I realized this thinking wasn’t going to help me and decided to let go of the negative energy and start thinking about what I could do to fix this.

And so once again, I found myself running a small & intense obstacle course through the streets of Paris, laptop in my arms. It was a cold but sunny day and I reminded myself how much I love what I am doing and how much further the lesson would energize me. Of course, the surge of adrenaline was working its wonders, too.

I don’t know how - maybe the wing of the Pave aux Amandes had reciprocated and gave me some extra lift - but I arrived at the school just past 12:30pm, sweaty as hell despite freezing outside temperatures. Then, performing the second quickest clothing change of my life, I arrived at the class door about 7 minutes after roll call. The door is always locked once roll call begins, so you have to knock to be let in.

In these situations, one’s fate is determined by the mood of the chef and how late one actually is. Chef Tranchant appeared at the door, raising his eyebrows over his small round glasses and giving me a wry smile. Then he stepped back and let me pass. The lesson would be tarts that day, and he’d just finished mixing the crust (so thankfully I hadn’t missed anything I hadn’t already learned).

Whew! I think I have 7 lives left…okay, maybe 7 ½ if I factor in the benefits of exercise.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Paving the Way

The thing I loved most about the first lesson of Intermediate on 7 January was the fact it delivered simple and satisfying recipes with copious yields…and no heavy whisking required!

Whoever organizes the school's curriculum must have understood that even the most keen of returning students would appreciate a manageable start to Intermediate Level. Despite ending the Basic session with biceps rivaling Popeye, I had not so much whisked myself into a sweat since the week before graduation. And frankly, I was grateful to not have to do so on that first day back.

Chef Cotte turned up to instruct us at the first demo. He looked rested and was jovial, delivering all the slapstick humor we’d come to expect on his good days. For a moment I wondered if he’d succeeded Chef Tranchant as leader of Intermediate Level, but it was soon revealed that he was only filling in for this lesson. I saw a number of visibly relieved faces…but who’s counting.

We watched Chef Cotte prepare 3 recipes that day, all of which relied on ground almonds as a unifying theme: Pave aux Amandes, Ecossais and Streusel. I’ve listed them in order of difficulty, but really none of the recipes was too challenging to prepare.

The Pave aux Amandes translates into English as …almond paving stone??!. Mmm, makes my mouth water (ha ha!) Apart from the name, as I read through the list of ingredients I still wondered just how digestible it might be. Basically it’s just almonds, sugar, butter and eggs…optional splash of rum, garnished with powdered sugar. To say the least, the prospects didn’t really light my fire until I tasted it! It came out super moist, dense and with an intense, slightly toasty almond flavor. On top of that, the recipe also had the surprising aspect of being wheat-free. I thought about my sister (and several of my friends) who have a wheat intolerance and was delighted to have another good allergy sensitive option to share with them and add to my repertoire. Beyond that, it has a good shelf life and is essentially classified as a traveling cake because of its good transportability. I could certainly imagine eating hunks of it during a long hike in the alps!

The Ecossais is baked in a buche (ie log) pan and combined chocolate-almond cake layer with a plain almond layer that was similar to the Pave (but contained flour). I thought it was also brilliant, particularly because of the chocolate layer and the fact it was served warm and fragrant from the oven during the tasting. Although we wouldn’t be making this one in the practical, I’ll gladly explore it sometime in my own kitchen. I’ll have to experiment with some substitute pan(s) for this effort since I am trying to avoid buying a buche pan until I decide it is absolutely just the one kitchen item I cannot live without. My list here is very long, so I am confident I can discipline myself for at least a while… :-)

The Streusel was the most complicated, being composed of a puff pastry base, then topped with a thin layer of fromage blanc, apricot halves and covered with an almond-crumble topping. Delightful to eat…tasting sort of like a fruit crumble and turnover combined into one. The only thing missing was a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

I realized as we finished the demo that in foresaking the whisking, the challenge of this practical would be practicing our rolling and turning technique during the making of the pastry. Which would be fine with me actually. The rhythm of rolling and folding the dough for puff pastry is quite a satisfying process, and the biggest challenge is keeping precision to the thickness and edges of the folded dough.

I learned I would now be in Group D for the practical sessions, and my session would be immediately following the first demo. The only glitch with my rentree scolaire thus far had been with my packing efforts. I had been so worried about forgetting to pack the essential tools for class, I had totally forgotten to pack my cuisine shoes! Doh! Upon realizing this important detail, I had already arrived in Paris and there was nothing I could do about it now but beg & bribe…since buying another pair was hors de question based on available time not to mention principle (having silently sworn NOT to become the Imelda Marcos of industrial footwear, I was determined to take a stand!)

Of course, by this point I shoeless and clueless since I had class in like 10 minutes!! I spotted a cuisine student I’d gotten to know last term and he is about my height, so I thought what the hell, I’ll give it my best shot. While it proved to be an accelerated conversation, I tried not to be insensitive, the conversation unfolding something like..... “Hey Carey!!! How are you? Yeah, nice to see you too!! Nice holiday? Oh yeah me too. Oh totally. Yeah, exactly. Ah that’s really cool! Excellent! No kidding? Yeah I just got back from there too. Really? Wow...Listen, do you have a practical now? Can I borrow your shoes? Really?? Oh super! You are a gem! (Mwah)See ya!!!” I promised him Swiss chocolate, a safe return of his shoes in 2.5 hours, and for reasons still unclear to me I felt compelled to reassure him I had no tinea… all this before snatching them out of his hands in utter relief and running up to Level 3 where my practical was starting. The baking angels were smiling on me on this first day, thank goodness!

As I entered the practical lab, I saw familiar faces to me, but no one I recognized from my previous Group E in Basic. Some folks I’d gotten to know well from Group E had done the Intensive session before Christmas, so had already progressed on to Superior level. Others had decided not to return or had been placed in other groups. Still I spotted at least 3 people I recognized from last term and they motioned me to come join them. I migrated towards that end of the workbench.

Meanwhile, all the Asian students were hovering together like bees: small and energetic, bobbing rapidly around the workbench and bantering amongst themselves with a loud buzz I could not interpret yet could somehow understand. They seem to really stick together and help each other in all the classes. I guess it is due to the language barriers but visibly it can seem to create a divided appearance to the classes. One girl seems to be the queen of this hive; her generous physical proportions are matched with equally ample gesturing, animated facial expressions and a slightly boisterous voice. I liked her already for being so comfortable in her own skin and we exchanged a nod & smile.

In the cluster at my end of the workbench, there is a girl named Aurore and two guys: David and Alberto. David is a quiet one, but funny and kind hearted once you start talking to him. Alberto and Aurore I remembered well, having chatted a lot with them during the student dinner last term. I knew it would be fun at this end of the table since they like to clown around a bit and are not too competitive. This behavior is refreshing to see, especially since Aurore finished at the top of our class in Basic. So dynamics could very well be different if personalities were different as well. I was grateful that things could be this way and looked forward to the fun classes ahead.

Chef Tranchant was circling the lab, helping where needed. Most of us cruised along unaided, only floundering a bit when making the pastry border on the Streusel. This consisted of a kind of ropey looking border achieved by folding the edges of the dough circle over the tip of your index finger. It looked deceptively simple during demonstration, but man it was tough to do! Nearly everyone lost their perfectly circular shape, or their edge just became totally unraveled during baking! And a few of us got a bit too puffy during baking, but otherwise all the Streusels came out of the oven looking just beautiful.

The Paves were garnished with powdered sugar and we were encouraged to cut decorative stencils into cardboard to create a pattern for the sugar application. I so wished I had my X-Acto knife set that night to cut a more intricate pattern!! Still, with scissors meant for dismembering a raw chicken, I managed to come up with a decently cut pattern. I decided to play with irony and gave my Pave a wing-like pattern. We all have aspirations I suppose…perhaps this cake sees itself floating along more like Pegasus rather than being a mere stepping stone for other travelers. Aurore loved the idea and laughed at my story. She asked for the cut-out wing from my stencil and made a sister cake to match mine…

“Oh les artistes!” was Chef Tranchant’s comment that night as he passed around the workbench to grade us, throwing his hands up in the air for dramatic effect. Nearly everyone had done something different, using this small opportunity to explore their creative side. The stencil making took various permutations down the other end of the table, including complex star patterns, lion heads…even a giraffe! While a few people felt obliged to do the simple diagonal lines that had been taught at the demo, most of us stepped forward with a bit more drama.

I could barely fit the Streusel into my cake transporter it was so big! About 28 cm in diameter!! I had to ditch the golden cardboard disc to make it fit in the carrier. Then I wrapped the winged pave into a couple pieces of baking parchment since I had no additional containers with me.

My arms were about to fall off by the time I hauled everything back to Isabel’s. That evening I shared a couple slices of the Streusel with her. When I’d arrived the night before, Isabel & I had been talking about Galette du Rois (since it was Epiphany) and which patisseries make good versions of this. Since the Streusel used two of her favorites, puff pastry and fromage blanc, I knew she’d enjoy it. So we sat down over tea and caught up that evening, talking and laughing for about an hour. I went to bed feeling happy and a bit surprised that I could speak French with her for that long.

The next day, I shared the rest of the Streusel and the Pave with my Paris colleagues. Everyone was so polite as usual, making friendly conversation and acknowledging the effort so graciously. I had omitted the splash of rum in the Pave and this made the cake more accessible to all. I had assumed the post-Christmas dieting trend which seems to sweep France every year would mean I’d have leftovers…surprisingly, not a crumb left standing that evening when I headed for the train. So my heart was smiling and frankly my arms were grateful!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Beauty in the Yeast

Since learning brioche and croissants during Basic, I have been using some of my new knowledge and rekindling my efforts of making yeast breads at home. The results have been very satisfying and I’ve been enjoying more of the desired results that have eluded me during previous attempts.

I was once taught in my teens that when making yeast bread, it was virtually impossible to overknead the dough. Basically, I'd been taught to handle the dough rigorously otherwise the dough would ‘break’ during the rising process (because of insufficient gluten development) and all the precious gas would escape (thus causing the final results to be flat and tough).

So all these years I’ve been believing (wrongly) that more was better when it came to kneading. But it always seemed my softer breads (ie, homemade dinner rolls, cinnamon rolls and hamburger buns) were too tough and chewy, and I’d just assumed this was because of the recipe (and not the technique).

When making croissants last term, we were cautioned by Chef Walther to NOT overknead the dough prior to adding the butter during the turning process. He then explained, in his wonderful fatherly way, the differences to me between the mixing process between croissants and brioche and why this was so important. It was like a light turned on and I finally understood all my previous mistakes!

Since this wonderful moment of enlightenment, I’ve trusted Chef Walther’s insights and I’ve had excellent results with every yeast bread making session thereafter. So I’ve practiced some of the school recipes, experimenting with ingredient substitution. As well, I’ve pulled out a bunch of old recipes, putting my newly gained knowledge on technique to good use.

The past two weekends I’ve made a delicious, old fashioned white bread recipe. Mind you, this is a recipe I’ve had for years in one of my favorite cookbooks, but never made it before. The reason why I previously avoided it? Because it requires virtually NO KNEADING and I simply believed that it wouldn’t turn out!! Isn’t that hilarious! It's a bit of a Dorothy dilemma...having the very answer at your feet and not even realising it!!

So, in my spirit to still keep my baking REAL & easy too, I share the recipe with you here. It’s winter and nothing is more satisfying than a hot loaf of bread with dinner. If you like a fairly dense, old fashioned tin loaf, this will make you happy. And you don’t need any special machines or a marathon baking session to achieve it…just a big mixing bowl and a sturdy wooden spoon! The loaves I pictured here were mixed easily as a dough about 1pm this afternoon and gave me plenty of leisurely breaks in between steps to enjoy a big breakfast, a return to bed for a couple hours, and a stroll late this afternoon before I had to pop them in the oven. By 6pm tonight I was enjoying the smell and taste of hot bread in my little kitchen...mmmm!

Snowy White Bread (The recipe is from Mrs. Chard’s Almanac Cookbook – Hollyhocks & Radishes)
Yield: 2 loaves

1 pkg dry yeast (or half a cube of fresh yeast)
1 tablespoon sugar
¼ cup lukewarm water
½ cup nonfat powdered milk
2 cups unbleached flour
2 cups lukewarm water
¼ cup sugar
3 tablespoons melted butter (or substitute vegetable oil)
2 ½ teaspoons salt
4 cups unbleached flour

Egg glaze
1 beaten egg

In a small bowl, combine the yeast, 1 tablespoon sugar and ¼ cup lukewarm water. Leave this to sit about 10 mins, until it dissolves starts to foam.

In a large bowl, place the powdered milk, 2 cups flour and 2 cups lukewarm water. Add the yeast mixture and stir with a sturdy wooden spoon until well mixed. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and allow the mixture to sit in a warm place for about 1 hour. (The mixture will look puffy)

Stir in the remaining ingredients until blended. When the flour was mostly blended in, I turned the bowl out onto a clean work surface and gently incorporated the remaining flour with my hands, kneading only lightly to remove the dry bits. The mixture should not show any unblended flour, but don’t worry if it doesn’t look totally smooth. Place the dough back in the bowl (which you have washed and dried). Cover bowl with a towel and let it rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours. (Or cover bowl with plastic wrap and place in fridge overnight.)

Turn the risen dough out onto a floured work surface and divide into half. Shape into loaves (or individual rolls if preferred). Place into buttered loaf pans, covered with a towel, until doubled (about 1 hour).

For glossy finish and rich golden color, brush beaten egg carefully over the tops of the risen loaves (this isn’t part of the original recipe, but from my school technique!) Bake at 180 degrees C (375 degrees F) for the loaves to take some color (about 10 minutes). Then reduce heat to 160 degrees until golden and baked through. Remove from pans and cool on a baking rack. Serve warm or wrap tightly in foil when cool and freeze for later use.

Celebration to remember!

My company's year-end party in December was an AMAZING evening. The venue, the decorations, the dancing and of course the food was incredible and I had such a wonderful time. To the kitchen and serving crews at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, I was very impressed at your skills and extend my heartiest thanks for making it so wonderful for us.

Of course I have to show a picture of the dessert!! It was a vanilla macaron, filled with cream and fresh raspberries, and accompanied by a serving of vanilla nougat ice cream and fresh raspberry coulis. The whole combination was served atop a piece of slate and looked (& tasted) absolutely stunning.

So, if you find yourself in Geneva and invited to an event at the Intercontinental, make an effort to turn up! You won't be disappointed.

Happy New Year!

Going Bake-About…and the Bree in Me

Whilst I love writing about food, falling off the ‘blog wagon’ these past two months has been a lot easier than I expected. While I was very active in the kitchen during this time, I have so few pictures to show for it!

Graduation from Basic Patisserie on 13th November marked the start of my hiatus from the keyboard. I finished in the top 5 (out of 60 students) and received an honorable mention at the ceremony. So I was really surprised & delighted. But was I gonna just plunk myself down and write about it?? Hell no! This was the last thing on my mind. Frankly all I wanted was to go shopping for kitchen gadgets & luxury ingredients to reward myself…then spend every possible moment of my 7 week break in feverish chef mode! I would abandon the TGV commutes for a while and this meant a re-allocation of the time spent writing to spending more time in my kitchen.

And that’s pretty much what I did! If I were Aboriginal, I think I could accurately describe this experience as going walk-about. Mind you, I never really left the kitchen during this ‘wandering’ period, yet I was symbollically abandoning some routines and venturing on a course of exploration and self-discovery, not really knowing where it would lead me. A bit like Nullah from the movie Australia...but wearing an apron and hovering over a KitchenAid.

Whilst it was so rewarding to have this time to explore, I didn’t venture as far into the culinary outback as I’d wanted. The reality is, I ended up forfeiting 3 of these precious weeks to travel. So for nearly half the time I unfortunately found myself being totally keen yet completely kitchenless! And it was torture, let me tell you! Still, with the remaining 4 weeks, I morphed into a total baking fiend and was quite prolific. Several celebrations were crammed into this short space of time: Thanksgiving, my birthday, friends' birthdays, a food-oriented presentation to colleagues and of course Christmas festivities. So it seems nearly every week (or weekend) there was at least one great event to justify more dessert production in my tiny kitchen!

For Thanksgiving I was invited to celebrate amongst friends and was asked to bring a selection of petit-fours to enjoy with coffee. I really tried to maintain a classic American theme by making mini apple turnovers, but I also felt there would be some expectations to offer up a couple of French-inspired treats. So I also made madeleines and got inventive and created something I was going to call bouchees du pistache. These were to be little round layer cakes of pistachio sponge cake and butterscotch ganache, covered in white chocolate. Unfortunately the layers of ganache did not solidify sufficiently, so these babies never left my kitchen (but hey, the pigeons on my window ledge ate really well that day – tee hee!). The mini madeleines were a success though. This time, I used a Jura sourced wildflower honey, which provided wonderful nuances to the final taste. The hostess dropped me an email the following day, telling me her youngest son was still happily savoring the remaining cakes that morning at breakfast, so I was delighted.

I was on a business trip on my birthday but enjoyed making some things during that first weekend of December. I whipped up several batches of cookie dough, yeast dough, muffins, sponge bases, tart crusts, mini quiches and experimented with different flavored mousses presented in small verrines. I did manage to get one photo of some of the verrine explorations, like this raspberry & chocolate creation shown here. The big a-ha in my verrine study was that mousse can be made ahead and frozen without any noticeable degradation in quality after thawing. A really worthwhile discovery! So still I have several glass goblets lined up in my freezer, and I’ll continue to test the lifespan on this idea until my need for freezer space (or willpower) runs out.

In mid December I gave a presentation to my design colleagues about my food-related interests, including my classes in Paris. For this presentation, I baked my first batch of Christmas cookies for 2008 and mailed them to colleagues in Brussels and London who would attend the presentation remotely. For my Geneva-based colleagues, I decided to go whole hog and chose to attempt the final dessert we’d studied but not actually practiced in Basic: a chocolate-bergamot mousse cake with orange crisp! (yeah no kidding - I shouted ‘whoa’ too when I first heard about this one!!)

In trying to impress my peers without first testing the waters, I inherently accepted all associated risks…but I honestly expected no major issues given my recent mousse successes. I didn’t buy bergamot essence (so pricey!) but substituted tangerine essence and figured this, if anything, might be the only downfall in preparing this dessert.

Oops, wrong answer! I had some major issues with the gelatin in the tangerine mousse; basically it didn’t set properly! Of course, this crucial detail didn’t present itself until I opened the refrigerator (the morning of my presentation mind you!!!) and found the cake slumped over and weeping, bulging through her girdle of chocolate ganache! I gasped audibly and I think I momentarily werewolfed into Bree Van de Kamp, trying to convince myself this wasn’t really happening to me and that I would somehow make another perfect cake in the 15 minutes I had left (as if!) In the end I accepted I was human and, loosening my inner ‘alice band’ just a notch, decided to patch up some of the bigger cracks, stick the whole thing atop a gold doily and just run with it. (Not literally of course…but ultimately the final serving appearance of the cake suggested otherwise ;-)).

About an hour later – with her appearance further weakened by stop & go traffic and fatally timed with the exact start of my presentation — you might say that the clock struck midnight and Cinderella finally lost her slipper. The cake's remaining bodice of chocolate blew its final stitch and the beautiful illusion I had for this dessert entirely collapsed. Whilst she was finally free from the oppressor, she was standing in front of everyone looking completely disheveled – more like ‘stepped on’ vs ‘Stepford Wife’. I chuckled to myself when I realized the gold doily just served to mirror her flawed figure all the more. But I decided to be a friend to myself and embrace the imperfection, make some jokes and just serve it. In the end, the taste was great and I was grateful for the compliments from colleagues. Frankly even if I could do this one all over again, I don’t think I’d change the situation…the story would be so less interesting to tell!

Apart from the learning opportunity of this exercise, the other positive thing was the orange crisp. I made several more batches of this to present on various Christmas treat platters, and even experimented with different flavors such as raspberry. The flavor and texture of this crisp is similar to an almond tuile, being ultra thin and as delicate as glass with a orangey-caramel flavor. I’ll write about this separately sometime soon and share the recipe. It requires so few ingredients, takes little effort yet looks pretty and is really a crowd pleaser…either on its own or served with ice cream, mousse, etc.

Anyway, after the Cinderella moment, I enjoyed two Christmas dinners amongst friends in Geneva and successfully re-explored a couple more recipes from my Basic lessons. First I created a simplified Charlotte, using some of the leftover biscuit sponge mixture (from the Chocolate-Tangerine Mousse cake). I piped out the remaining mixture to create a small diameter base and a dozen or so lady fingers for the perimeter garnish. Using my Mexican flan mold and experimenting with a peach mousse (which thankfully had no gelatine-setting issues), I achieved a small but pretty dessert that was garnished with sliced, fanned peaches, raspberries and chopped pistachios. Delicious! Next time I think I’ll use pureed frozen peaches vs. canned peach halves as the flavor should only improve.

For the last of these Geneva-based Christmas dinners, I chose to play with some ideas I had for the Mogador and I was much happier with the taste and appearance vs. the one I’d made in school. I substituted some of the raspberry jam with fresh raspberry coulis which eliminated some of the cloying sweetness from the original recipe and ultimately delivered better flavor contrast to the chocolate mousse. I garnished the cake with chocolate ganache and fresh raspberries, letting myself go a bit wild with swirl patterns. The whole pattern and color combination was vaguely reminiscent of a matador’s bolero. I did manage to get a photo of this one before we cut it to bits…unfortunately the vibrancy of the raspberry glaze is a bit undermined in the photo but it otherwise met most of my expectations on taste.

And then in the final days of December there were more Christmas cookies!!! My god, I must have made about 15 dozen in total to share with colleagues, family and friends (and my inner Bree was seriously worried I hadn’t made enough! :-)) My weekend production efforts cranked out gingerbread men, butterscotch bells, rich chocolate stars and sugar cookie trees. The ginger men were born from a 50:50 combination of treacle and chesnut-tree honey for robust flavor yet lighter complexion vs using 100% treacle. I garnished these with metallic cachous for faces and clothing features which gave them a smart yet unfussy appearance. The bells were decorated with butterscotch ganache, giving them a beautiful golden-beige color and a more refined flavor than sugar icing. For the star cookies, I used some of my rare Venezuelan bitter chocolate; hence they were quite potently flavored but reserved in appearance and seemed to please all the chocoholics in my wider circle.

My favorite though was making the Christmas tree cookies. I love a good sugar cookie and the decorating effort brings out my artistic side. For these I created a fantastic decorating icing for these by adding some egg white to my normal butter frosting mixture (and of course the beautiful apple green food coloring I found in Paris). This simple modification to the frosting mixture gave it a good, smooth texture whilst enabling sufficient solidification. It fixed the rainbow sprinkles firmly in place and allowed the cookies to be stacked for efficient transport, yet the frosting remained gentle to the teeth upon eating. I packed a large tin of these with me when I visited family in the US.

Whew! Now the holidays are over and I’m back to my ‘normal’ routines. My bake-about tendencies will have to convert back to writing, and I guess this transformation is already underway since I have managed to sit still tonight and hammer out this first blog entry for 2009. Until some technical genius can help me rig-up a portable kitchen on TGV, I’ll be spending a few more of my evenings writing about baking. And of course, as I start Intermediate Level, I’ll be looking forward to exploring (and sometimes squelching) my inner Bree amidst the numerous new recipe opportunities in the weeks ahead. So hold onto your alice band…I think it’s going to be a fun ride!