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!

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