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!