the end of the beginning

It seems like just yesterday it was orientation day and we were gathering up our kitchen gear and scrambling to find a vacant locker to use for the rest of the term.  Now, ten weeks have passed and we’ve all made it through to our last lessons in basic cuisine and pastry.

After a couple month of endless baked goods involving only butter, flour, and sugar, this week in pastry we finally got to work with chocolate!   A chocolate-pistachio log cake (imagine an un-Christmas-y version of a Buche de Noel), and a chocolate-hazelnut cake named Alhambra.   Chef also made a separate almond cake in demo, which would have been the perfect accompaniment to a cafe au lait, cafe creme, cappuccino, or what have you =P

The chocolate-pistachio log cake turned out to be one of my favorite cake recipes from the entire term.   The genoise sponge cake, flavored with ground almonds and pistachio paste, was incredibly light and airy, and perfectly delicious just by itself.   We brushed the cake with imbibing syrup, flavored with a splash of Kirsch liquor, and then piped chocolate ganache in between each layer.  I’d totally make this cake again for the holidays, but first I have to find a gourmet food store in LA that actually carries pistachio paste … I’m sure one must exist ;)

The sweet, subtle flavors of the almond-pistachio sponge cake definitely helped offset the rich, dark chocolate ganache to create quite a perfect balance for my taste buds, unlike the Alhambra, which was just way too overpowering with chocolate ganache and layers of chocolate-hazelnut cake drenched in a coffee-rum imbibing syrup.   Ugh… talk about chocolate overload =P   Not to mention we also had to cover every inch of the loaf with an extra coating of chocolate, which was much easier said than done =P

Getting chocolate to cooperate in the kitchen is definitely no walk in the park, and neither were our last days in the kitchen for cuisine.   Chef Bruno had us stuffing chicken legs and wrapping them in caul fat (the lace-like membrane encasing the internal organs of animals, usually pigs or cows) before roasting them in the oven.

Caul fat by itself really doesn’t sound that appetizing, but it’s definitely a well-kept chef’s secret to keeping meats tender and juicy.   When you wrap a piece of meat in caul fat and then cook it, the caul fat prevents the meat from drying out and helps maintain its shape.   When the meat is done cooking, the caul fat will have melted and you’ll be left with a perfectly juicy, flavorful piece of meat and people will be none the wiser ;)

Now, of course we couldn’t end our basic lessons in French cuisine without escargot, duck alla orange, or ratatouille on the menu =P  Chef Bruno made all three for us the next day.

Unfortunately, two were misses for me.   I realized that day that I’m not really a fan of snails (but perhaps I shouldn’t judge too early since we only had canned snails >< ) and duck alla orange is way overrated.

We made the dish with Magret duck breasts, which are ducks specially raised for producing foie gras, which means the ducks have been force fed.  Ben, our English translator, explained that ducks in nature normally eat more before the winter months to store fat in their liver to keep them warm during the cold.   Farmers now force feed the ducks all year long so much so that they can no longer digest the fats, which continues to store in the liver.   As a result, the ducks become grossly overweight and their livers expand up to ten times their normal size ><  Now, I’m not putting anyone down for liking the taste of foie gras, but after learning about the origin of this French delicacy, I have no desire to eat it again… to each his (or her) own I guess.

For our very last cuisine demo, Chef Bruno prepared a gala menu for us… rack of lamb with an herbed crust, potato gratin, and baked alaska for dessert!

The rack of lamb was cooked so perfectly, pink in the middle and ever so tender, I’m getting hungry just thinking about it now days later =P  I so badly wanted a second helping since there were leftovers, but alas, I wasn’t quick enough… by the time I got up to the front, the lamb chops had disappeared =(

To toast the end of an incredible ten weeks of learning the basics of French cooking, Ben brought out the bubbly and poured glasses for each of us.

For half of the class, it was a farewell toast to lessons at Le Cordon Bleu… for the rest of us, it was merely a toast to the end of our beginning.   But for everyone, it was now time to start studying our recipes and prepare for our final practical exams.  Graduation will be just around the corner!

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