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!

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