let them eat cake

A common theme revolving around lessons in baking seemed to ring throughout our classes in both cuisine and pastry this week. Demonstration class on Monday brought us the flavors of Italy with a French twist. First up was fresh cannelloni filled with spinach, ricotta, and jambon (kinda like a French version of prosciutto). To accompany the cannelloni, Chef also made a tomato sauce from scratch and a fresh pistou to drizzle on top. Pistou is also a tasty addition for finishing soups… it’s simply olive oil blended with basil and garlic (imagine, if you will, a pesto minus the nuts).

Chef demonstrated two very different platings for the cannelloni… one plate was served family-style, and the other a deconstructed plate. My favorite component on the deconstructed plate was the single cherry tomato put off to the side like an outcast. Personally though, I prefer my comfort foods to be served family-style like at grandma’s house… seems a bit pretentious otherwise.

With plenty of time to spare before lunch, Chef showed us how to make a pissaladerie, which roughly translates to an onion tart but it was basically a pizza. All of us sat up straight in our chairs and started paying close attention to the minute details since we would have to make this in practical. The pizza dough was rolled out and topped with carmelized onions, anchovies, garlic, fresh tomatoes, and olives. The combination seemed a bit off-putting, especially with the whole anchovies and black olives, but the flavors all came together quite nicely.

I normally wouldn’t order a thick crust pizza, but I suppose the French can make anything taste good. The trick was to slowly melt the sweet onions so that it spread like marmalade and marinate the tomatoes (peeled and seeded) with thin slices of garlic in olive oil, salt, and pepper before baking. Chef also reminded us to remove the garlic germ in the middle of the clove, which I never knew actually causes indigestion and leaves a bitter aftertaste… learned something new everyday! The only time you don’t have to remove the germ is when you have fresh young garlic, but that’s not always easy to find.

The next day in cuisine class, we turned our attention to the classic French quiche. I’ve never been particularly fond of quiches…always thought of them as dense, eggy pies, but after tasting that day, I realized that my misconception of quiches was purely brought on by the fact that I had never had a proper quiche. Once again, the French have proven me wrong. Chef made two varieties of quiche that day… one with fresh wild mushrooms (black trumpet, chanterelle, and oyster mushrooms to be exact), which was absolutely exquisite, and the other a classic quiche Lorraine with smoked bacon and gruyere cheese. When properly made, the filling should be light and fluffy, and the crust, flaky and crisp to a fault.

When making a quiche Lorraine, it’s important to brown the bacon bits enough to enhance the flavor and texture, and also render out any excess fat so the quiche does not end up dripping in grease. I was supremely satisfied with my quiche Lorraine and looked forward to eating it for dinner the rest of the week.

Our journey into the French world of baking continued in pastry class. This week, we concentrated on creaming butter for our pound cakes and madeleines, beating pastry cream for our Gateau Basque (butter cake with a pastry cream filling… artery-clogging, indeed), and making pate a choux for our Saint Honore. The common ingredient that binds everything together? Butter, of course! Our butter comes individually wrapped in 250g blocks, which is more than two sticks of butter. A typical recipe usually requires this amount… sometimes even more. As an example, we used about two blocks of butter to make our three mini-pound cakes with candied fruit (definitely, not to be mistaken with the notorious fruitcake).

The two dozen madeleines we made that same day had about 200g, so by the end of the day, we had used up almost three blocks of butter… multiply that by the number of students in our class (9) and then account for the three different groups (A, B, and C)… and that’s only for students in basic pastry! I can’t imagine how much butter the entire school goes through each day… we must have a Costco-sized warehouse filled with blocks and blocks of butter down in the basement somewhere…

Feeling a little nauseous at the sight of butter, I was a bit relieved we turned our attention to pastry cream the next day. Creme patisserie is quite simply made with milk, egg yolks, sugar, starch, and vanilla power (ground whole vanilla beans, which are packed with intense vanilla essence). After letting it cool, we were able to pipe the filling into our Gateau Basque. We flavored our butter cakes with a bit of rum, which unfortunately made a second slice of the cake impossible to resist.

Along with the Gateau Basque, Chef also gave us a quick lesson in plating desserts… in this case, how to make an average bread pudding look extraordinary.

We were all impressed and couldn’t wait to see what other surprises he had in store for us the next day.

Pate a choux literally translates to ‘cabbage paste,’ because of the way it resembles a tiny cabbage when you pipe it into a little ball and bake it in the oven. The light pastry dough is actually formed on the stovetop and most commonly used for profiteroles and eclairs. (I looked ahead at our schedule, and eclairs are actually in store for us next week.) For now, we’d be piping mini choux pastry for our Saint Honore, which is basically a cake with a classic pate brisee (short pastry) crust with a ring of little choux pastries delicately held in place by caramelized sugar. The middle of the cake is filled with chantilly cream (whipped cream with powered sugar and vanilla). Chef also made a batch of pate a choux for his Paris-Brest, a delightful dessert made by piping the choux pastry dough into a large ring, sprinkling almond slices on top, and baking it to a nice, golden brown. After it cooled, the ring was split in half horizontally and filled with a velvety-smooth, praline buttercream.

My little pate a choux pastries dipped in caramelized sugar were so addicting, I couldn’t stop popping them into my mouth one by one … good thing it was mostly just air in the middle so I didn’t feel too guilty eating half a dozen before class was even over. I walked home with my Saint Honore in hand that day. Before I had a chance to even consider cutting up a slice, I wrapped up the entire cake and stuck it in the freezer to keep it out of sight and out of my stomach.

On Friday afternoon, right before our last practical of the week, we had the pleasure of attending a cake exhibition held by the students in Level IV Patisserie, which is the next level up after superior… it’s reserved for the real professionals.

The cakes on display looked too beautiful to eat, although I’m sure they tasted divine.

They were available for tasting at the end of the show, but unfortunately, we had a three-hour practical lined up. I suppose this was a good thing otherwise we would have stuffed our faces with cake and gone home with a stomachache.

Finally, after a long week, we get a full weekend of rest… a trip to Bon Marche for horse’s milk and roasted rabbit seems to be in order!

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