Sunday, September 20, 2009

Small change

Eating well is one of my greatest pleasures. Ironically, it also became much more of an effort once I started culinary school. Some days have been so busy, it is almost a bother. I ended up reconciling this by purchasing much more ready-made cuisine whilst in Paris. It’s not my top preference, but I was often short on time and was trying to manage my expenses by not eating in restaurants too often. But the irony of the situation was undeniable: Whilst I would be spending up to 3 hours making beautiful cakes during class, for meal times I did not really have the time or kitchen space at Isabelle’s flat to do more than microwaving or quick cooking on the stove top.

The marvelous thing about France is the enormous choice of products available in the supermarket. You can pretty much find any type of dish in a heat & eat format. Many of these are endorsed by chefs such as Paul Bocuse or with recipes adapted from well-regarded restaurants. Every ethnic dish can be found and of course all the old standbys of French cuisine are all available. And some of it gets quite inventive…snacks such as tangy Roquefort cheese wrapped in crispy crepes; or ready to eat individual polenta portions, done in an array of flavors and colors (yeah, try finding that either of those in a Geneva Migros!)

That first week of classes, I was food shopping in the Monoprix on rue Lecourbe, admiring the range of choice not to mention the alluring packaging. Of course, I ended up buying more than I expected, including different ready to eat exotic vegetable purees, multigrain crisp breads, fresh egg pastas and my beloved ravioles dauphinoises, steamed asian dumplings, wonderful looking soups and some delightful pots de crème for dessert. For just over 25 euros, I had a range of stuff to keep my tastebuds entertained for the rest of the week I was there. So much of the supermarket experience caters for the time poor, single person who lives in Paris with virtually no kitchen (and quite often no oven at all – shock and horror!). Packages are small but no effort is spared on providing an excellent array of variety and tempting choices.

As I stood there in the check-out queue, I happened to notice the man in front of me. He wasn’t especially distinctive in appearance, but compared to me and many others in the queue, his purchase was so small, not even requiring use of a shopping basket - a small can of bean cassoulet and a box of chocolate biscuits. I recall that he looked a bit agitated, as if he was really eager to get out of the queue and be on his way. But it was 9.30pm so even that wouldn’t be considered unusual I suppose – everyone in that queue (including me) was feeling that way. But for whatever reason, I noticed him. He reached the front of the queue and his purchases were rung up. The total was something small, like 2.55 euros. It was then that I noticed him carefully counting out the exact amount in euro pennies and pieces jaunes, a rather pained look on his face when he handed the clerk the last 5 cents in his palm. The clerk heaved a large sigh, counting all his coppery change as if it were a large chore. Then man quietly bagged his purchases, said thank you and left.

I completed my purchase and stepped out of the store, and spotted the same man again. Sitting quietly on the pavement with his knapsack, a plastic cup and the purchase he’d just made, it was now clear to me that he was homeless. Having watched what he purchased and all the small coins he’d used to buy those two humble items, I suddenly felt overwhelming sadness. I usually pass by these people without giving anything, often wondering what difference 5 cents could ever make …or just assuming that my donation will be used to pay for drugs or alcohol. But having seen what I’d just seen at the checkout, I’m guessing it probably took him most of the day to collect the small amount he’d just spent on beans and cookies. Meanwhile, I’d had the luxury of choice and abundance and was on my way to a comfortable place in which to enjoy it. I walked over to him, smiled and gave him all my change. “Merci beaucoup, madame” was all he said, his eyes meeting mine sincerely for only a moment then glancing down to his hands which were holding the cup of coins. There is definitely more I could do on this front, the first step being for me to gain a lot more sensitivity to the issue, but I felt I’d gained a valuable insight.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Screaming Red Baba

I was having trouble maintaining a straight face as I sat there in my first Superior Patisserie demonstration. It had to do with the fact that Chef Deguignet had hooked up a Wagner Power Painter and was spraying a rum baba with red tinted cocoa butter. More specifically, A LOT of red tinted cocoa butter. In the process, he was spraying the entire front row of students with the mixture as well.

As it was a warm Paris afternoon, I’d chosen my seat location in the middle of the demo room to stay comfortably close to the air conditioning vent. Yet I suddenly felt even more justified by my choice. I only had one (still white) uniform with me in Paris this week, and I was in no mood to spend an entire summer evening sponging off red dye – the weather outside was just too lovely to waste. Amazingly, through this whole spraying incident, the first row of students just sat there numbly, ineffectively shielding themselves behind their class binders as the power painter roared out a giant, red cloud of mist. Chef D then asked for volunteers to hold up the drop-cloth of plastic film whilst he continued spraying (what!?) and few punishment gluttons rose from the front row, putting them in even closer range to the spray nozzle. I just shook my head and smiled to myself. I was suddenly reminded of my first visit to Sea World and chuckled… at first I was really upset that I didn't get a tank-side seat; then the giant, jumping Shamu arrives on the scene and frankly I was oh so glad to be somewhere towards the back.

Funnier still was why Chef D had chosen to paint this otherwise traditional and attractive looking cake with so much red dye. I mean, the final garnish was going to be a series of fruits rouges, so it seemed to me that a natural toned cake would provide a better contrast for this. So I tried to sit there respectfully and observe as quietly as possible, when suddenly I was imagining hilarious punchlines to jokes not yet invented. All of these musings were about going off to Paris and coming home with a screaming red baba. It sounded like something that you’d never tell your mother and which might indeed require prescription medicine…certainly not something that would be eaten. When I was afraid the my convulsive giggling would risk my expulsion from class, I pretended to reach for something under my seat to conceal my emotions from Chef D.

Baba au Rhum is a mainstay of French patisserie, although according to Wikipedia the origins are from Eastern Europe. It is a light, yeast-leavened cake which is baked in a ring mold then heavily imbibed with sugar syrup and rum. The recipe’s arrival in France dates back to the 1700’s, when Marie Leczinska of Poland brought it with her to her royal post as Queen Consort to Louis XV. This adopted delice was therefore served up for a king who apparently had no teeth but liked his cakes nonetheless.

The cake preparation was simple enough. All the ingredients were mixed and placed into ring molds, the cake was left to rise in a slightly heated oven, and then it was baked. The baked cake ring is quite dry, and in this state can be preserved for several weeks before consuming. For serving, the baba is then plunged into a large bowl of sweetened rum syrup which softens the texture and makes it suitable to eat. For our babas, we infused the syrup with fresh grapefruit and orange segments which livened the taste of the rum and added a some flavor complexity. The baba was then filled with a crème diplomate, topped with assorted berries and garnished with powdered sugar if desired. Simple and quite attractive in its simplicity – apart from the red dye he’d sprayed all over it!

Then came the tasting session. The finished red baba just lay there looking like a giant inflamed blister alongside the natural colored babas. Chef D didn’t cut into it, and no one made a move for it. Rare indeed, as we are all generally fighting like schoolkids for any leftovers following a tasting session. I didn’t bother to take a picture of this red giant, but instead just share the photos of my own au naturel baba.

Funnily enough, I discovered the screaming red baba was still loitering on the school premises the following week. As class assistant, I’d gone downstairs to the kitchen pantry to retrieve ingredients for our practical. There, behind a bin of lemons, I spotted the red baba looking ever flushed if slightly withered, shoved almost to the back of the cooler. I guess maybe someone might eat it eventually…then again, it could be easily left there until next December to dry and be converted to a Christmas tree stand. Endless creative possibilities were emerging, but I was still happier to forego the dye job and serve it up for tea time.