Friday, August 7, 2009

Fire Dancing and The Attack of Les Croquembouches

Chef Cotte stood before us in the demo, placing the last decorative touches on a massive croquembouche. The thing was half as tall as I was, and he’d only burned his fingers once on the hot caramel…using that moment as an invaluable instruction to us on what to do in case we personally experienced a sugar burn (wipe first, then go for the ice water!). So I was thoroughly impressed and fully engaged in the entire demonstration, at least until he served the champagne.

Croquembouche was to be the final lesson in Intermediate Patisserie – hence the celebratory champagne - yet the lesson would consist of many firsts. This classic cake of French patisserie would be our first effort in constructing a piece montee, also our first formal effort in working with confectionary. For all of its impressive posturing, croquembouche was basically a pile of crisp, caramel-coated cream puffs assembled on a crown of almond nougatine, decorated with almond dragees and royal icing. The final appearance was part igloo-like, part Statue of Liberty in appearance. Despite the high risk of personal injury from sugar burns, for the mere fact it didn’t just lie horizontally but had 3 dimensional shape, I knew I was going to love it. The drama that ensued was an unexpected treat as well – but more on that bit later.

Croquembouche is often served at French wedding ceremonies. The name literally means ‘to crunch in the mouth’ – which I imagine refers to the eating sensations and not any relationship unpleasantries that might follow the ceremony. If you go to Martha Stewart’s website, you can see a particularly beautiful version that also incorporates pulled sugar decorations as part of the finished result. Yet, as with most of our lessons, our version would be quite straightforward in terms of decoration, with the main focus of getting us firmly grounded in working with nougatine and achieving a clean assembly of the mounted piece. For sure, this would be enough of a challenge.

We would need two practical sessions to complete this project. In the first practical, we’d make our nougatine and construct the base and ornamentation for the finished cake. Nougatine is little more than sugar cooked to caramel stage, then sliced almonds are stirred in and the mixture is poured out onto a well oiled baking sheet that is kept in a temperate oven to keep the mixture at a workable temperature. Small amounts of the nougatine are rolled out and either molded around forms or cut into decorative shapes before the mixture sets hard. So you not only had to be fast, you had to be slightly crazy to convince yourself that picking up molten blobs of caramel in your bare hands was actually a logical idea. As well, you had to be accurate in choosing your working portions, taking only what you needed for each step to avoid overworking the nougatine and thus crushing the sliced almonds to a pulp. If the nougatine was overworked this way, it looked less translucent and appealing, and more like that ugly chipboard material you buy at Home Depot.

I got through the first practical with good results. Surprisingly my hands were not overly sensitive to the nougatine, so I was able to work quickly without a great deal of discomfort to myself. I made good time and accomplished all my steps, even creating some extra ornaments for the top of the cake. I figured this would be a good idea, since the risk of breakage between now and the next practical was actually quite high.

The second practical was the baking, filling and glazing of the choux puffs, plus the final assembly of the cake. That’s when the blisters arrived, as I started to dip my choux puffs into the hot caramel. We had done this before during the St. Honore practical in Basic, so I wasn’t a total newcomer to the process, yet still I managed to damage myself when a rivulet of caramel from one of the dipped puffs touched my finger tips. It was my only tribal outburst in the class, when I briefly hooted and jumped like a Comanche as the hot caramel seared the tender skin just beneath my fingernails. Recalling Chef Cotte’s advice, I wiped off the burning sugar from my skin as quickly as possible and spared myself a much worse injury. I spent the next few minutes soaking up to the wrist in a pan of ice water before I decided it was safe to play with fire again.

As each of us worked on the assembly of our cake, we had many ‘visitors’ passing through the lab area. This consisted mostly of chefs from other practical sessions, but also some of the other staff members – like marketing and admin people, many of whom I hadn’t seen since orientation day in September. Suddenly everyone and their dog was casually browsing through the lab on the premise of observing our amazing techniques and skills. Yeah right. From what I could see, everyone was scouting for any extra, freshly made choux puffs which were filled with pastry cream and dipped in caramel.

Chef Lesourd, who teaches in cuisine and who was amongst the many visiting snack-mongers that day, approached my work area. I don’t really know him well, but we chatted briefly about the cake and what it represented in French culture. We compared it with an American wedding cake, which is typically much more towering and elaborated, and almost always topped by a bride and groom figurine in lieu of a nougatine ornament. At this point, I offered him some of my leftover choux buns which he accepted without hesitation. For whatever crazy reason that possessed me, at that point I placed my kitchen towel on my head like a veil and took his arm playfully, and we proceeded to do a mock marriage procession around the work area - much to the amusement of Aurore, David, Alberto and Chef Tranchant. I’m about a foot taller than Chef Lesourd so I guess it must have looked even funnier than I expected it to.

At the conclusion of the second practical, it was 9pm. Everyone was now heading downstairs to the winter garden with their croquembouche in tow. Alberto was going to take his home, as his son’s birthday was tomorrow and it would be eagerly devoured by a group of 10 year olds who could actually survive this much sucrose in one serving. The rest of us had varying plans with our cakes, some of which seemed particularly ambitious when the mode of transport was subway, not to mention the short shelf-life of the cake itself. Despite all these factors, as it had been such a fun lesson, and such a great group of people during the whole term, we decided we’d all go for one last drink before heading home.

The Val Girard is a plain little place that sits just near the Vaugirard metro station, just a short walk from the school’s entrance, and it has become an occasional hangout for LCB students. It kinda looks like the brasserie that time forgot, sporting a heavily worn interior decor from the late 70’s along with some random neon and quite a few strange pictures on the walls. Nothing really makes sense or makes the place seem inviting, except that the two brothers who run the place. They are quite young, extra friendly, always smiling and welcoming, and will even let the patisserie entourage store cakes in their bar fridge whilst we are on the premises. For these reasons, many of us will drop by for a coffee or a drink after class.

Despite the friendly ambiance, you can still imagine the startled reactions of the fraternal pair – not to mention the 10 or so well-imbibed patrons in the establishment - when 6 pastry students came strolling in just past 9pm, each one carrying a wedding cake and with 5 of us placing our creation carefully on the bar as our drinks were ordered, as if this were normal practice.

One of the older barflys sat there looking dumbfounded with a cigarette dangling loosely from his lips, assessing the total procession as he fumbled frantically for his lighter. The incendiary risk became suddenly apparent to me; between his flying shots of whisky and all that sucrose, one misdirected spark from his lighter might create a flambe of rather comic proportions. I smiled to myself as I shook off the thought, then sat down with my group to drink my Coke.

A middle-aged man and woman came over with their beer in hand to where we were all sitting and started talking to us. In addition to swapping stories about our pastry lessons and where we were all from, they complimented us on our cakes, turning their heads back towards the bar to admire the 5 golden towers of choux. I was leaving for Geneva at 7am the next morning, I had no intent of dragging it back on TGV, and no place to store the mammoth overnight. So I offered them to sample my cake. And of course, as with any food in my possession, I was sincere in my offer…but given the time of night and location I just didn’t expect them to say yes. Or that the other customers would partake as well.

It was at this moment that a feeding frenzy broke out. As if on cue, a butter knife was located from behind the bar and suddenly all the customers were digging in wholeheartedly, hacking off clumps of choux puffs and nougatine and passing them around on drink coasters, then wolfing down their serving between gulps of beer or cocktails. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Some were not even waiting for knife access, and began hacking at the beast with those plastic swizzle sticks that look like pirate swords. Who says peanuts are the bar snack of choice, especially when team Cordon Bleu are in the neighborhood? The only pause in this commotion around the croquembouche was all the smiling from the patrons, who were raising their drinks in appreciation towards our table or coming over to personally thank me for the treat.

I watched the older barfly – the one who’d observed us upon entering the premises – strike up a conversation with one of the other women who’d been sitting at the bar. All I really remember about the woman is that she had on some knitted beret that didn’t match the rest of her outfit. Based on the looks on each of their faces, I could only imagine that their conversation had something to do with marital themes. Either they were talking about marriages that no longer were, or he was proposing a less permanent type of engagement – needless to say, even Ray Charles could see that there was some definite chemistry going on (and I don’t mean the type that creates a sugar molecule).

Suddenly – loud music! Not just any music, but some twanging bluesy-honky tonk stuff that cranked up from a speaker behind the bar, the kind that gets toes tapping and hips swaying. I wouldn’t expect to hear this music in Paris, but here I was being once again surprised by the hidden secrets of this city. Barfly and his lady friend wasted no time in hopping off their stools in full eye-lock to begin gyrating in earnest next to the bar. Again I imagined the high incendiary risk of this activity – this time due to friction or just their intense laser-like gazes creating burn holes into each others torsos. Alberto, David and I shot each other quizzical looks and laughed quietly into our drinks. The gyrating continued at the bar entrance, which now included foot twisting action and some vertical descents – or at least serious attempts in that direction. After all, it was an older crowd. I wondered if the floor mat beneath these two would survive the tryst; even in this damp weather it might possibly catch on fire due to the heavy friction and sexual sparks that were flying.

The activity around the bar area was working wonders for attracting customers though. As people approached the stairway to the metro, they’d glance in curiously at the row of cakes and dancing; quite a few would walk in, especially if they happened to catch the welcoming face of one of the brothers. As new customers entered, a drink coaster full of croquembouche was offered up with the drink order – and surprisingly I didn’t see one person decline. Soon enough, there was nothing left of my cake but a couple of smashed puffs, so Diana - another student in my group - offered up her croquembouche to keep the generosity going.

Diana is an adorable, 19 year old girl from Venezuela. She smiled sweetly as she bobbed up to the bar to identify her cake to the brothers, looking a bit like a girl scout on a sales mission, her long ponytail swinging behind her. As Diana approached, I suddenly watched Barfly’s gaze shift away from the woman in the beret. Studying Diana’s cute profile, it was like he had never seen anyone so amazing in his life (or at least for the last 4 drinks). Diana chatted with the brothers, then briefly with the dancing couple, but with the music so loud there was no way I could hear their conversation. Based on the body language I could see however, I could already guess what Barfly was asking her. Diana smiled shyly, lowered her eyes and politely shook her head, but still Barfly took her by the hands and was pulling her into the makeshift dance floor that had once been the door mat. He kept a socially acceptable distance from her, but he was using every muscle in his lower extremities to lure her into his zone of seduction. Barfly’s woman, now feeling the competitive energy, whipped off her beret and neck scarf in one final attempt to redirect his attention her way, but for the moment it seemed to be in vain.

Back at the table, we were all nearly dying with laughter at the sight of this, and continued clapping along with the music which moved into a couple of Stevie Ray Vaughn tracks. With Diana now engulfed in the fray, even if involuntarily, all other repressed honky tonk dancers in the vicinity now felt liberated to enter the gyration zone that had once been the door mat. Diana looked a bit nervous about the increasing numbers around her, but smiled beautifully and kept giggling as she danced along. Jean-Marie, another girl from our group, got up to dance, possibly on a ‘Save Diana’ rescue mission. Whatever her motivations, I applauded her pro-activity with a thumbs up sign and as the familiar sounds of Vaughn’s “Cold Shot” twanged away, I briefly considered joining them myself.

The middle-aged couple got up from their table, ordered more beer and made their way to Diana’s croquembouche where they hacked off yet another serving and returned to their seats smiling. For all I knew, this could have been some badly planned wedding reception in downtown Memphis, with Uncle Louie feeling sexy after too many beers, a beautiful cake but ugly reception hall, and a number of unidentifiable distant cousins eating all available food in sight. The only thing that was missing now was a fist fight, the dispatching of police, and the need for a bail bond. I decided it would probably be better for everyone if we could avoid that ending.

Alberto caught my peripheral vision and pointed towards my watch as if to ask for the time, which was now well past 10pm. It seemed everyone still seated at our table took this a cue to pack up and leave. Alberto carefully lifted his croquembouche from the seat of the booth where it had been resting safely this past hour, and I saw the eyes of the middle-aged couple light up and track his every move, as if to say “oh yeah- we’ll be here as long as you’ve got cake.” We waved at them across the room and smiled good bye, as well as to Barfly and his newly rediscovered temptress who appeared to be rekindling their firemaking in light of Diana’s eminent departure.

We managed to squeeze through the caramel-fuelled mosh pit at the entrance, successfully shielding Alberto’s croquembouche from any final impassioned swipes, and pulling Diana and Jean-Marie to complete safety just before the door shut behind us. As I glanced over my shoulder one last time, I saw the two brothers waving at us happily as I glanced whilst the 3 remaining cakes sat glistening in their caramel glaze atop the bar. I gave them a nod and a smile. I hope their fire insurance policy was up to date...afterall, it was only 10:15pm and there were still 3 more croquembouche to go.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Triomphe of the Nerds

As a complete antithesis to the hip Passionata, the next cake we would make was to be much more conservative in appearance. During the final minutes of the demonstration, as I watched Chef Tranchant put the finishing touches on his work, I immediately thought about tweed blazers with suede elbow patches, cashmere turtlenecks, leather-bound reference books, and mahogany smoking pipes of the academic world. I guess it was the varying shades of beige and brown that led me there.

It had nothing to do with the taste, mind you. In many ways, Triomphe aux Noix was indeed a triumph on the taste front - a wonderful combination of caramel mousse and caramel glaze, sitting atop a base of caramel-imbibed sponge and topped with candied walnuts. The mousse was light and not too sweet, and the tantalizing flavor of the caramel was infused into each of the layers comprising the cake. The base of the cake was a walnut sponge, but made extra light through the use of potato starch in place of the flour. At the post-demonstration tasting, I imagined enjoying this cake with a hot cup of Earl Grey or a good espresso and felt my taste buds quiver in anticipation.

The practical was efficient and I was happy with my results. Once again, red food dye was part of the lesson – surprisingly to give a bit of color depth to the caramel glaze. I was lucky in my color application and ended up with a warm shade of brown, but a few people overshot the target and were living with a vermillion colored top on their cake.

I realized that I’d be traveling back to Geneva with both Passionata and Triomphe to share with friends. It would be a rather unlikely combination, given that usually I had only one cake at a time to carry back, also given that the two cakes were quite distinctive in appearance. I chuckled when I realized that, in combination, the two cakes where like the lead characters in that movie “Educating Rita” where an outspoken hairdresser comes to The Open University and strikes up an unlikely friendship with a rather crusty English professor.

That weekend in my tiny apartment I had several friends stop by to sample the gateaux (at staggered times of course, or I wouldn’t have had enough space to seat everyone). Both cakes were admired and enjoyed, but in terms of taste alone, surprisingly it was the Triomphe that seemed to be the bigger crowd pleaser between the two options. If people opted for a second serving, it was more likely the Triomphe that won out. Like fashion, sometimes it’s better to stick with the classics.