Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tarte aux Pommes, or How Pastry Wore Me Out

I left the apartment at 8 this morning, and came home at 9:30 at night. Baking is definitely no joke. Who thought three-hour baking lectures could be so draining? But I kid you not, by the third class of the day at 6:30 PM, I was falling asleep in my seat. Of course, it didn't help that I was running on near-starvation all day long. Breakfast consisted of three different types of apple tarts, and dinner was two different types of pound cake, and a quarter of an exquisite madeleine cookie (and no, sampling bits of pastry does not make you full).

The first demonstration of the day was all about pâte brisée, or butter shortcrust. For some reason they were all about apple tarts too - there was the classic French Tarte aux Pommes, a meltingly tender Tarte Tatin, and a rich Tarte Normande (apple custard tart).

From top to bottom: two Tarte Normande on the left, two Tarte Tatin on the right, three Tarte aux Pommes below.

The emphasis of the class was definitely on fitting the dough into the tart ring. Again, the meticulousness of the pastry profession definitely showed itself. After draping the dough over the tart ring and tucking it tight into the corners, we had to

1) Pinch in the dough along the upper edge of the ring
2) Roll the rolling pin over the tart to cut off excess dough
3) Push up the overhanging dough along the inner upper edge of the ring
4) Crimp the edges with a crimping tool
To show us what the border should look like, the chef demonstrated the crimping tool on a dough snake:

In the afternoon, we had a practical session where we made Tarte aux Pommes, the classic French apple tart covered with thin slices of apples. Unlike yesterday's leisurely cookie session, today's class moved at a much faster pace. It wasn't bad, except the thing with chefs is that they all want things done their way, which meant that the practical chef did things differently than the demonstration chef. So when we tried to do things the way we saw in demonstration, we were stopped and told to do things differently. I understand that in a restaurant, the chef is boss; it's just a little annoying to not know if at any moment you're doing something the current chef doesn't approve of.

Lessons learned from the practical:

1) Peeling apples is really difficult
2) Cutting uniform pieces is really important if you want to overlay the apple pieces evenly on top
3) Apple tarts need time to be properly baked
4) The apple compote on the bottom needs to be cooked long enough so the apples release their juice. Juicy apples on the bottom + not enough time in the oven to bake property = soggy crust on one side.

I took my sad apple tart home (I couldn't bear to give it away, I spent so much time layering the apples on top - it's a feat of engineering), and stuck it in my antiquated oven to finish baking. The resulting tart looked much better, and it tasted wonderful. I'll definitely be making it again in Seattle.

Right after the three hour practical, we had a demonstration on basic butter-based cakes. The chef made pound cake with candied fruit, lemon pound cake, and madeleines.

 Madeleines on the plate, four lemon pound cakes in the inner circle, five fruited pound cakes in the outer circle.

I was struggling to keep myself awake after the first hour, but managed to shake myself awake once the chef moved onto decorating the cakes.The chef put special emphasis on the appearance of the products because, after all, that's what catches a customer's eyes in a bakery.

The takeaway message was that
1) Create height
2) Avoid symmetry
3) Use glaze

I'm not a fan of using inedible decoration (cinnamon sticks, vanilla beans, large pieces of candied fruit), but I have to admit, the use of decoration really makes a big difference!

The most exciting part of the demonstration was the madeleines. I have been trying to find the perfect madeleine for ages - I've probably tried six different recipes so far - but I've never been really satisfied. Somehow, none of them came close to my vision of an ideal madeleine (Honoré Artisan Bakery in Wallingford gave it a good shot, but theirs is too dry and coarse for my taste).

That is, until I tried the madeleines the chef made.

Oh my god. They were slightly crusty and crunchy on the outside, but perfectly soft, fine-crumbed, and tender on the inside. They are exactly how I imagined madeleines to taste like, but have never actually experienced until now. The Le Cordon Bleu technique for baking madeleines is very interesting - I won't share that now, but I'll definitely be experimenting back in Seattle.

For me, Paris is like the light at the end of the tunnel. It's living proof that near-perfection (in pastry anyway) is in fact possible. Yes, there are moist madeleines. Yes, there are fluffy macaron shells. Maybe I'll even stumble upon a well-balanced, texturally interesting chocolate cake!

One can only hope.


  1. Oh, you're killing me here! Please keep the updates coming.

  2. Nice work on your Le Cordon Bleu adventure. I wish I had done basic patisserie...

  3. Thanks Kathleen, your book inspired me to look into Le Cordon Bleu! I love the patisserie program, wish I could do the entire diploma...