(Sorry for the lull in the posts, life has been pretty crazy since the middle of last week, with the final exam, graduation, and a quick trip to my beloved Edinburgh before rushing back to Seattle and going back to work. I'll try to keep the posts in chronological order for the sake of completeness)
In the last week of class I started getting a little, well, rebellious. I made changes to the recipes to suit my tastes, like adding cinnamon to the pastry cream for the pithivier and increasing the ratio of pistachio to almond paste in the chocolate pistachio log above. I also became more creative in my decorations, abandoning the more classical styles for my own designs. I'm not sure if the chefs entirely approved of my decorations, but at least no one yelled at me for it (then again, maybe it was because chef Nicolas had already gone on holiday...).
Speaking of my designs, I think I've been on a nature kick. There's the flowering branch on the pistachio log above, and I turned my truffles into acorns for the Alhambra cake below.
We had another puff pastry class on Tuesday. This time, we made Pithiviers (puff pastry cake with almond cream) and Sacristains (puff pastry twists). Pithiviers are really like the Galette des Rois (kings' cake) that one eats during Epiphany, except without the ceramic baby jesus inside.
Pithiviers have a special place in my heart because that was the first "hardcore" French recipe I tried when I started this blog. Here's a picture from my first attempt at handmade puff pastry.
(My second pithivier is a lot more presentable, no?)
We made the Mogador cake on Monday. Apparently it's one of the classic French cakes, although I've yet to find where the name comes from... As far as I know, Mogador the place is a city in Morocco, and Mogador the dessert is a cake flavored with chocolate genoise, raspberry jam, and chocolate mousse.
I'm proud of my marzipan rose for this cake (it looks like a rose!), although the leaves turned out a little funky. Marzipan is a lot stickier and softer than plastic chocolate, so the leaves wilted in the heat. The star design might look familiar since I used the same tip for the Moka cake, I think I just like the whimsical look on cakes. (Update: after having made a pistachio chocolate log with flowering branches and a chocolate hazelnut cake with acorn-shaped truffles, I can definitely say that I'm a fan of whimsical designs).
On Friday, we actually made a dessert that doesn't contain butter! The pear charlotte contains a shell of pipped lady finger sponge, filled with diced pears and pear mousse.
It's certainly one of the prettiest desserts we've made so far. The pear decoration on top is quite clever. A pear is thinly sliced, then scorched with a blowtorch so the slices become clearly delineated. The leaves are made from plastic chocolate (cocoa butter, sugar, and glucose). I have to say, making leaves is a lot easier than making roses, although my marzipan roses are getting better. They look less like cabbages now!
During the pear charlotte demonstration, the chef showed several different ways of decorating the cake. The traditional way (which is what we did in practical) involves putting a lid of pipped lady fingers on top of the cake. The more modern way does away with the lid and just has pears on top. I prefer the cleaner look.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, we covered the subjects I was most looking forward to learning about - croissant and brioche. I've never worked with either dough due to my crippling fear of yeast. After having made croissants and brioche bread, I think my attitude has changed a little; I'll still pray to the wild yeast gods every time I make bread, but at least I know that sometimes yeast can be my friend. The brioche worked out fantastically, the croissants, er, not so much.
The croissant demonstration on Tuesday was really interesting for me because it allowed ample opportunity for illustration. I haven't mentioned this before, but as a visual thinker, I have a thing for making illustrations and diagrams. Fortunately, the croissant demonstration was, well, exceedingly technical.
It's like origami, except with dough.
Pain au Chocolat:
The chef made a dazzling array of croissant dough-based pastries. The best one, though, was the pistachio-cherry rolls made from leftover dough scraps. Cinnamon rolls don't even come close.
The demonstration last Saturday was on Moka cake. The cake itself is quite simple - a genoise sponge soaked with coffee syrup and topped with coffee buttercream. The interesting aspect was in decorating the cake, both in getting a perfect mirror-smooth finish on top, and in pipping the buttercream decorations. Of course, hand-whipping the eggs in the cake batter and the beating the butter into the buttercream took plenty of elbow grease, but we're used to hard work by now.
Here are the cakes the chef prepared for the demonstration:
This was my favorite one, I'm a fan of whimsical design (if you couldn't tell by the cover picture already...).
The demonstration and practical class on Friday was all about sweet tart dough. The chef made a variety of tartlets in the demonstration. I love the four inch tart rings; they're adorable and we don't have to painstakingly shape and crimp the dough once it's in the ring.
For the practical, we had to make orange tartlets and chocolate tartlets. With the petit four experience from the day before fresh in my head, I was skeptical if these dainty tartlets would be any good. The chocolate was, not surprisingly, boring. The chef had overcooked the tart crust with the soft chocolate cake layer, so the bottom of the tart was quite dry. The tartlet was saved by the creamy chocolate ganache layer on top, but I would have preferred if the ganache had a more pronounced chocolate flavor.
The orange tartlet was surprisingly delicious. The chef had brushed the blind-baked tart shells with eggwash and baked them a second time so they don't turn soggy against the lemon curd, and it really worked! The crisp dough was great against the soft, creamy orange curd within. The caramelized sugar trick on top was neat, although it didn't really add any flavor
The practical was a little bit of a disaster (well, maybe it was a good thing)
There's a heat wave in Paris, and even nights are becoming unbearable. What's worse is that the air conditioning in the school has been spotty. The normally cool demonstration room has been uncomfortably warm for the past few days, which makes it easier than usual to doze off. The locker room is toasty as always (maybe hellish would be a better description, after all it is in the basement). What really hit a nerve, though, was that the practical kitchen we were working in yesterday had absolutely no air conditioning. Even the refrigerators were not working.
Working with pastry in a stifling hot kitchen while in full uniform is no fun for anyone. Especially when the only thing you've eaten that day are pastries.
We only had two classes yesterday, a demonstration of petit fours followed immediately by a practical session. I thought it would be a quick day, but the heat and sugar-overdose made it seem much, much longer.
We had another 9 hour day yesterday - two practicals and a demonstration. The first practical (at 8:30 in the morning, no less) was on the basque cake the chef had demonstrated the previous night. We all thought it'd be a cinch, just roll out the dough and put some pastry cream inside, right?
Wrong. Basque cake "dough" was designed to make baking apprentices cry, I'm sure. It's not a dough, it's a cake batter that we're supposed to roll out as if it were dough. It's soft, sticky, and very difficult to handle. On top of that, the practical room we were in had almost no AC, so the dough softened at an alarming rate. After much cursing and swearing all around, we finally got the dough into the ring mold. I had to patch my upper crust because it fell apart when I was draping it over the ring - hence the crack you see down the middle of the cake. The dough is supposed to be worked super cold, so you can display a clear, pretty pattern on top. My talented neighbor had better luck : )
(Seriously, isn't it supposed to be hot in Basque country? How did they ever come up such a warm-weather-averse recipe?)
Today was the only 12 hour day in the entire term - two demonstrations, a practical, and a pastry shop visit. It was a long day, but I think I'm getting used to the rhythm of things - I made sure to eat throughout the day, and I didn't fall asleep in class!
The first demonstration was on meringues. It was definitely the prettiest demonstration so far, the chef made praline dacquoise cake and meringue-sorbet-whipped cream cake (there's a French term for it, but google came up empty).
The three brown cakes are the dacquoise cakes. A dacquoise is a French meringue with almond powder and flour mixed in. I expected something crisp and hard, but it actually makes a fairly fluffy cake. Here's what a slice looks like:
I absolutely love the praline-flavored buttercream filling. The rich, nutty, caramel flavor is just perfect with the light cake.
The chef made a marzipan rose demonstration as well. I'm not a fan of the unnatural colors and the concept of inedible decorations, but I guess it looks impressive (technically you can eat marzipan, but it's like play-doh). The chef's pipping job is top-notch, though. Look at those perfect round teardrops!
Back to class after a relaxing weekend of touristy activities! On Saturday we had the choux pastry demo (thank god, only one class). There were five different recipes for small choux paste pastries, with variations on shape, size, filling, and topping.
From the top in clockwise order:
1) chouquettes (choux pastry puffs rolled in pearl sugar)
2) acorns (teardrop shaped choux pastry with cognac-flavored pastry cream, green fondant on top)
3) eclairs (chocolate pastry cream filling, chocolate fondant on top)
4) cream puffs (with ridiculous amounts of chantilly cream)
5) salambos (oblong shaped pastry filled with cointreau-flavored pastry cream, topped with caramel and sliced almonds)
My favorites were the salambos, because the caramel and sliced almonds provided a nice crunchy contrast to the soft citrus-flavored cream and tender pastry. Chouquettes were a close second though - I can't believe I've never seen them in the states! I guess the problem with chouquettes is that they need to be eaten fresh, while they are warm and tender on the inside and slightly crunchy on the outside. That said, I could totally make a killing operating chouquette carts at farmer's markets (like mini-donuts, but healthier!)
Yesterday was the toughest day we've had yet - three hours of practical followed by three hours of demonstration followed by another three hours of practical, all in a row with almost no breaks in between. On top of that, we're not allowed to leave the room during the demonstration (in case you're wondering, no one would dream of leaving the room during a practical). In some ways, the cooking profession reminds me of the military. There's a clear hierarchical system and a major emphasis on discipline (and sharp, deadly tools). Imagine if a university professor said students weren't allowed to take bathroom breaks during a three hour lecture because if he couldn't leave during lecture, then no one could.
For the first practical we made Gâteaux Saint-Honoré, which consists of a shortcrust base with choux pastry pipped on top, topped with caramel-dipped choux pastry puffs (think cream puffs without the cream filling) and filled with chantilly cream (vanilla flavored whipped cream).
Everything started off well. I made my shortcrust pipped my choux pastry without major incident, and I felt such a sense of accomplishment when I made whipped cream by hand. In fact, I was so excited I over-whipped the cream a little and got yelled at for it later. Well, at least now I know what properly whipped cream is supposed to look like.
And then, we had to dip our choux puffs in caramel. I've done it before for the croquembouche without incident, but I also didn't have a chef breathing down my neck. Long story short, I dropped a puff in the caramel and instinctively tried to pick it up without thinking. At least I had the presence of mind to wipe the sugar off on my apron, like we were told in class, instead of putting it in my mouth (which would have burned my mouth as well). It didn't really hurt much in the rush of things, so I carried on - without the use of my right thumb - and finished my cake. I thought my cake looked pretty good, but the only thing chef Nicolas said was "your cream is overwhipped". So much for my hard work.
Paris is getting pretty hot these days. Having lived in Southern California and Texas, I don't really mind the heat because one can always seek the refuge of air-conditioned rooms. Well, let's just say that AC isn't so prevalent here in Paris. Thankfully, the pastry kitchens at Le Cordon Bleu are nicely air-conditioned (think of the precious pastries!). Unfortunately, places like the demonstration and locker rooms, and the subway and certain nice restaurants - more on that later - aren't so accomodating.
In the morning practical yesterday we made madeleines and fruited pound cake with rum syrup. The batters were pretty straight-forward. The cool trick chef showed up for softening butter was to spread it on parchment paper and beat it mercilessly with a rolling pin. Although...I think the chef was afraid I'll smash my thumb with the way I was going at it, because he took my butter aside and stuck it in the microwave. The wonders of technology!
My madeleine batter didn't get chilled enough in the fridge so it was a mess trying to pipe it out into the molds, but it baked up well in the oven. They were moist, tender, and delicious. Aren't they cute?