Wednesday, July 15, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feelin’ Groovy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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