puff the magic pastry

If we were to take away one lesson from our first weeks at Le Cordon Bleu, that would be puff pastry 101. By the end of the third week, we’ve already made puff pastry to last us several months. I must say, we’ve all become pros at making this magic dough. The process is quite simple, but time-consuming. You start with a dough made from flour, water, melted butter, and a dash of salt and sugar. Knead the dough into a round disk and let it rest in the fridge. Puff pastry definitely requires a lot of resting time. Afterwards, you flatten the disk into a round and place softened beurre sec (’dry’ butter) inside, wrap it up and give it a few whacks with the rolling pin to seal the edges and start to form a rectangle. Roll it out to about a meter long and then fold into thirds. Turn the booklet of dough 90 degrees, roll it out again, and fold into thirds. After this second turn, you wrap up the dough and let it rest in the fridge. You indicate these two turns on the dough by making two indentations with the index and middle fingers. After a few minutes of resting, you repeat this process and by the end of the sixth turn, your puff pastry will be ready to use!

The concept of ‘dry’ butter was news to me, but I wasn’t too shocked to learn that we’d be introduced to more butter. ‘Dry’ butter has a slightly lower water content than regular unsalted butter, which also means it has a higher fat content (84% compared to 82% in ordinary butter). I supposed this extra percentage of fat is what gives puff pastry its magic.

The dough is actually used quite extensively in French cuisine… in both savory and sweet concoctions. On Monday, we made puff pastry shells to hold our poached eggs with melted leeks. The velvety texture of the leeks along with the ooey-gooey goodness of the poached egg yolk complemented the crispy, flaky crust perfectly! The veal stock reduction and white cream sauce further enhanced the flavors.

At the end of demonstration, Chef had extra time to make us dessert… two almond cream-filled fruit tarts!

One was baked with stone fruits and the other was seasonal, topped with fresh berries, including fraise gariguettes… an elongated variety of strawberries grown exclusively in the south of France. These strawberries are small but the flavor is super sweet and intense… definitely not to be missed during the early months of Spring.

The next day, Chef introduced us to the sweet side of puff pastry, revealing whole new world of palmiers and apple turnovers.

I’m not sure of its origin, but the French have definitely revolutionized the apple turnover. There’s nothing quite like the pleasure of indulging in a chausson aux pomme fresh out of the oven. Fortunately, chaussons aux pommes are as common in Parisian bakeries as pizza is in Naples. A good chausson aux pomme, however, is anything but ordinary. The puff pastry crust must be perfectly light and flaky, and the filling be made with crushed or diced apples flavored with vanilla powder and a splash of Calvados to make it extra special. You know you’re eating the perfect chausson aux pomme when you can’t help but get crumbs everywhere and apple marmalade all over your face. Definitely have a napkin ready to wipe your hands and face afterwards.

After two consecutive days of puff pastry, we finally got a break midweek. In cuisine class, we turned our attention to creamed soups (if it’s not butter, than it’s cream). Chef made three soups for us to taste Wednesday afternoon… cauliflower, crab bisque, and watercress soups.

Of course we were given the most difficult recipe to execute in practical early Thursday morning, that being the crab bisque. Butchering live baby crabs with a cleaver and dumping them into smoking hot oil wasn’t exactly my ideal way to start off the day at 8:30 in the morning. By the end of the massacre, all of us reeked of crab. I walked home that afternoon with crab bisque in hand and a dirty load of laundry.

That night we breezed through our pastry practical having gone through the whole crabby ordeal earlier. Choux pastry was on the menu, and we made luscious chocolate eclairs and chouxquettes, which looked as cute as they sound.

During demonstration, Chef also used choux pastry to make cream puffs filled with chantilly cream, glands (acorns), and salambos, which were pastries dipped in caramel and topped with candied violets.

The salambos by itself wasn’t anything spectacular, but the candied violet made it quite special.

On Friday, we returned to soups and puff pastry. For the first time, we actually got to cook without butter or cream. Consomme is a type of clear soup made from flavorful bouillon that undergoes a process of ingenious clarification. After the boullion comes to a boil, add a mixture of egg whites, ground beef, tomatoes and a mirepoix of carrots, leeks, and celery. Once the egg protein solidifies, the mixture will rise to the surface, bringing along with it all the impurities in the bouillon. The clear liquid underneath can then be carefully extracted and further strained through a fine chinois before it officially becomes consomme. Chef also demonstrated how to make an immensely satisfying fish stew similar to a bouillabaisse and a classic French onion soup using some of the leftover bouillon.

We served our consomme with a brunoise garnish of carrots, celery, daikon radish, and haricot vert. The rich flavors of the housemade bouillon shone in its purest form in our consomme. Of course, Chef wouldn’t let us go for the week without another round of puff pastry. A layer of egg wash, a sprinkle of Emmental cheese, and ten minutes in the oven were all that we needed to whip up a batch of crisp, buttery cheese straws to accompany our exceptionally light consomme and create a balanced meal of veggies, meats, dairy, grains, and of course, butter!

Before we headed home for our three-day weekend, we had the pleasure of attending Chef Jean-Francois Deguignet’s Chocolate & Confectionary module, where he showcased tempting sweets made by his professional students and his own chocolate masterpiece. It was quite a spectacle to see… only, unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to taste =/

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