Saturday, July 3, 2010

Saint-Honoré, Puff Pastry, and My First Le Cordon Bleu Injury

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.

We had to rush to the next demonstration class, which was on puff pastry. For once I had no trouble staying awake in an afternoon class - a quarter-sized blister on your thumb will do that. The instructions required careful attention, since he used one batch of dough for three products, and you had to pay attention to which one he was working on and how many turns he has given the dough and whether he was coating the dough with flour or sugar.

From top to bottom: Palmiers, two plates of raspberry straw mats on right, apple croustade on left, apple turnovers on the bottom. 

The chef made the apple croustade for us as a treat. As a specialty of southwest France, apple croustade consists of two disks of puff pastry sandwiching apple slices, with biscuit crumbs to soak up the juices. There's usually a healthy dose of armagnac sprinkled in as well.

By the time we rushed to our next practical, we were about ready to collapse. Thankfully, our practical chef was a kindly old gentleman (instead of the dashing but strict chef Nicolas) who wanted us to relax and enjoy making pastry. For once, the practical didn't feel like a fire drill. Everything was calm, no one got yelled at, and everything went pretty smoothly. I was pretty proud of my handmade puff pastry, the palmiers puffed up nicely in the oven.

My apple turnovers were smaller than the ones chef made in demonstration - I should have relaxed the dough before cutting out circles with the mold - but the double egg wash and syrup glaze made it look appetizing nonetheless.

I finally stumbled home a little after ten at night, tired but still high from the adrenaline rush of the last practical session. I felt like I had accomplished something, looking at all the pastries I had made by hand, without the help of store-bought dough or electric appliances. I even felt some sort of connection to the generations of bakers before me - surely that's the way they made their Gâteaux Saint-Honoré and apple turnovers (see, I was clearly high from all the butter fumes). I even forgot about the ominous-looking blister on my thumb.

I hope it heals soon, I'd like to regain the use of my opposable thumb one of these days...


  1. the blister looks often is it that people get hurt in class?

  2. Hi Cindy, people don't get hurt all that much in class, it's usually the first few days that the most accidents happen. Besides, don't chefs treat scars like badges of honor? (just kidding...kind of)