Monday, November 29, 2010

Le Cordon Bleu Experience (finally)

Well, thank god for journals!! I can't believe it's been nearly two months since I took the class at Cordon Bleu, and I'm just now beginning to blog about it!

For the original Paris trip in the Spring (postponed due to the Iceland volcano) I was booked in the French Pastry class. For this trip, a Sweet & Savoury Macaron class was offered. I've been rather intrigued by these little beauties - they really are quite adorable. I thought this might be the 'new' product I've been looking to add to my Market repertoire. So, sign myself up I did.

Taking a class at Le Cordon Bleu started out being a surprise 'add on' to the Paris trip. In the months leading up to the trip, it somehow (not surprisingly, in hindsight) became the pinnacle of the entire purpose in going! The thought of walking those halls, where so many of great culinary significance have also walked, made me heart flutter.

The evening before the class I quadruple-checked my alarm setting. Having barely slept through the night due to the constant checking of the alarm clock (damn these OCD tendencies!!! ), I was a little worse for wear the morning of the class. We'd mapped out the subway trip the night before, so we knew (roughly) where we were headed. Once we found the street, I was surprised at what a quiet little area the school was located in. I'm not sure what I expected, but it really is a little gem, hidden on a tiny residential street. I arrived just past 8:30. The class was set to start at 9, with a light breakfast available before that. Once I checked in, I was presented with a package containing a Cordon Blue-emblazed apron and dishtowel, and a class package. Very excited about the apron!! The dining area was already buzzing with students for the Saturday classes, as wells as some of the full-time culinary students. When 9:00 approached, we were led up the stairs to the pastry kitchen on the 4eme floor (ie. 5th floor), we walked by a display of Julia Child memorabilia, which also included a photo of Meryl Streep taken at the school during the filming of Julie & Julia. This really was it - walking in the footsteps of culinary giants.

Once upstairs, we sorted ourselves out around the huge granite worktable (it housed 18 of us, plus the instructor and translator); a rough estimate of its size would be 20 ft x 5 ft. We were introduced to our instructor, Chef Daniel Walter. Immediately you felt at ease with this man, he has such a warm, pleasant way about him. Reading through his bio, he has been a consultant chef with Le Cordon Bleu since 2005. Prior to that, one of his significant career highlights was having his business awarded "Best Pastry Shop in Paris" in 1999 (in Paris!). Talk about learning from the best! How humbling.... He did not speak English - everything he said was translated directly by a lovely woman who stood at his side throughout the class. I was surprised at how much I understood, given my less than stellar accomplishments in Paris thus far (how silly I had been to think that 'it would all come back'!) Likely my comprehension was aided by the fact that he was talking about what I do/know/care! ;)

We were to do three Macaron recipes - chocolate, raspberry and a savoury one - olive tapenade (blechh!). He demonstrated the basic macaron recipe, comprised of just five ingredients: egg whites, almond flour, icing sugar, white sugar and creme of tartar. The basic recipe looked simple enough - it is all in the technique. If you are unfamiliar with macarons, you probably won't be for long, they've been sweeping our nation of late. Macarons, which look a little like a pastel hamburger, consist of two cookies, sandwiched together with buttercream/ganache/curd/jam. The cookie is an almond meringue, with a crisp, thin top layer, and airy middle, and a soft, chewy base. The base has a 'foot', a frilly edge, that should not extend past the edge of the round part of the cookie.

As with an Artisan bread class I took at Dubrulle in Vancouver, everything was already mise en place for us, so all we had to do was the actual making of the recipe. The recipe starts off with whisking egg whites until they're frothy, then adding the white sugar and creme of tartar in three additions. The whites are then beaten until thick & glossy. Did I mention we were whisking by hand? I laughed to myself at this, since I get the participants in my class to whisk whites or cream by hand, and now here I was! I was able to get my whites done first, thanks to my popeye forearms (kneading out all those thousands of batches of scones has finally paid off!!!). Chef Walter came by during the process to add some brown colouring. He took this moment to talk about the relatively recent increase in the intensity of the macaron colours. Although food colouring is not the most "traditional" of ingredients, macarons in all colours under the rainbow have become fashionable, and anything pale would be, well....pale. Apparently chocolate macarons with cocoa powder are the trickiest to prepare.

Once the whites were beaten to stiff peaks, the almond flour/icing sugar mixture was added, also in three additions. After mixing in the dry ingredients, the most important step, the 'macaronage' is done - this is the mixing/folding motion done until the batter is of the correct "flowing like lava" consistency. The batter is then piped out onto parchment-lined baking sheets. Being the mecca of macarons, the parchment paper they had was marked with a grid, just for making them! We made very tiny macarons, piping out maybe a teaspoon and a half of batter each. Once piped out, the batter settled out into a relatively flat pool. We finished the tops with a few flakes of Fleurs de Sel. At this point, the batter is left to rest to allow a crust to form on top. This, apparently, aids in forming the 'foot', the cute little frill you see on the bottom of the cookie.

While the chocolate batter was setting up, we started on the second recipe, raspberry. The basic recipe was the same. The forearms were a little fatigued the second time around. For this recipe, we were also doing a couple large macarons, along with the tiny ones. During this time, our first batch of macarons were out of the oven. I was both thrilled and relieved to see that mine looked pretty darned perfect - relieved because I have to say, I put a lot of pressure on myself for this class, since part of my living is made teaching people cooking classes! After peeling them off the parchment and placing them on a cooling rack, they were ready to be assembled with the chocolate ganache that Chef Walter had prepared for us. Looking at my completed macarons, I was so happy with how they turned out, looking just as they should. I was, however, about to discover the meaning of the term "don't rest on your laurels".

At this point, we took a break for lunch. There was an assortment of breads, shrimp salad, pates and crudites. Along with wine, of course - which I did not partake in, as this class is serious business! After chatting amongst ourselves once we were done with lunch, we were led back to the pastry kitchen. Our raspberry macarons had already been pulled from the oven. I took one look at my sheet and knew something had gone amiss - my large macarons had definitely not cooked long enough (they were cooking all the trays at once, so most were going to be either over- or under-baked). I'd have preferred over-baked, because under-baked, they're quite the disaster. The large ones were a write-off - there was simply no saving them. Again, my small ones looked perfect, just as they should. And thus began my macaron mystery obsession.......much more on that later.

As we started the third, savoury batch, I was trying to go over in my head what I did differently between the first and second batch. I just carried on, hoping that I'd figure it out somewhere along the way. The forearms were definitely feeling it at this point, I don't think I could have whipped them as stiff as the first time without the assistance of my old friend, Sir Kitchen Aid. For the savoury macaron, Chef Walter was quick to point out that the only reason we were doing this recipe was that it was listed on the class description; he didn't like the recent trend in making macarons savoury. When he prepared the olive tapenade, he made the most sour of faces, and then gave a half-smile and proclaimed, 'ah, c'est bon!'. He explained that he's a pastry chef, and savoury (esp tart, vinegary) is just not his thing. I mentioned that I had done a fig and olive tapenade in my classes and everyone seemed quite intrigued by that - sweetening the mixture does make it more palatable to some (like me).

We then began the assembly of the raspberry macarons. It turns out that the macaron we were preparing was inspired by the one made famous by Pierre Herme, the Rose Lychee Raspberry Macaron. Chef Walter made a white chocolate raspberry (chambord) ganache, and then a rose-flavoured french buttercream. We used both to fill the raspberry macarons, along with a canned lychee and fresh raspberries. Because my large macarons were a complete washout, I made a couple of the smaller ones into a lychee-free version (there was not enough room for one). They were still pretty cute.

Chef Walter then prepared a second filling for the savoury macaron - he decided to do a foie gras mousse. Foie gras is also not one of my favourite things. I have issues with organ meats in general, whether or not they are coveted in the culinary world (I've studied biology - given the processes that these things are designed to do......they're not particularly appetizing to, I don't care for the organ-meat taste). By this time our savoury macarons were out of the oven - these were definitely the best batch yet. Not really caring to use either of the two savoury fillings, I used both. Of course, these macarons turned out the best out of the three, and I knew they were pretty much going to go to waste!

And that concluded my Cordon Bleu culinary experience! We were all presented with certificates of completion (which they had pre-printed with our names on them - nice touch!) and Chef Walter was available for photo ops. We were provided with Cordon Bleu cake boxes to pack up our little beauties. I purchased an insulated bag (with the Cordon Bleu logo, of course) to carry the boxes in - figured that would make for easier transport on the subway. As much as I was thrilled to take this one class, talking to those around me during the day, found out that most of the people there had/were taking several classes. The classes were basically the reason they came to Paris. The next time I take classes at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, it will be for a one month intensive course. I'd always struggled with choosing between cuisine and patisserie. After the Macaron class, and the obsession that ensued, my decision has been made.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

La Grande Epicerie (oh how grande it was............)

After the Eiffel Tower visit, we were off to the next destination, La Grande Epicerie, located on the ground level of the Bon Marche.

I had heard tales of wonder and amazement.............and oh, the rumours were true! Truly, I was nearly rendered speechless as I walked into the store. I was expecting something smaller, I guess - the space was massive, the size of a good-sized grocery store. Wall to wall shelves of beautiful, high-end, eye the form of food and food items. It was difficult to know where to start. We made our way towards the back of the store, the dairy section. The selection, the interesting products and packaging............amazing. Grabbed a container of banoffee pie, for starters. Saw egg cartons in easter colours, a section of baby vegetables, edible flowers, and stir fry veg kits that looked like works of art. And, Jones soda!!

The clientele of La Grande Epicerie are clearly foodies - this is no run-of-the-mill corner grocery store. Picture an olive display the size of entire deli section in one of our grocery stores - just olives! The ready-to-heat deli display was huge, with an amazing assortment of tantalizing dishes ready to take home and eat. Food from all over the world was represented - Asian potstickers, tandoori chicken, Turkish eggplant, honey-drenched Kataifi just never ended. We picked a container of eggplant caviar, a red pepper feta dip and a cous cous salad with yoghurt and chicken (so good!). We were given a sample of proscuitto that melted in your mouth......of course, we bought some.

There was a fabulous spice section, with many spices offered in bulk. One, of note, was mustard seeds for $25/kg. This is a crazy high price, for those not from the prairies where the seed is grown. For that price, the mustard wasn't even cleaned, as there were visible bits of debris.

The candy section was, not surprisingly, displayed elaborately. The cheese section contained so many treats for the eye, not just for the cheeses themselves, but for the packaging and decoration (I chose two goat cheeses). The produce displays looked like they came to life from a food photography shoot. A mushroom section to die for - with a massive section of beautiful chanterelles. We picked up some fresh figs and strawberries to go with the rest of our 'picnic' supper. I also snagged a container of marzipan cherries - complete with stems :)

For gifts, I picked up a couple jars of two-toned jam, raspberry on the bottom and peach on top. There were several items created just for picnics - a condiment set (which I bought) that had a tiny olive oil, balsamic, ketchup, mustard, salt & pepper. I also picked up a couple dozen tiny vinaigrettes, also for picnics. Too cute to pass up. Bought some crazy bowtie pasta, all from natural dyes (squid ink, tomato, turmeric, spinach), one that looked like licorice all sorts and one with pastel stripes. Knowing, full well, they were going to be a nightmare to transport back home. But, I could not resist.

I stopped by the patisserie section - the cakes (in small portion sizes) were works of art, everything looked absolutely perfect, many adorned with elaborate garnishes. I chose a mini Opera cake, a fruit/mousse cake that had a baby persimmon on top, and a chocolate cake for Dana. Macarons (lots, of course) and cupcakes were also there. Nearby the patisserie is the bakery - a myriad of artisan breads, baguettes, croissants.........

I picked up (had to, of course) yet another reusable shopping bag - it was only 15euros, I had to! In total we spent 142 memories of La Grande Epicerie........priceless. This was my favourite experience of the trip (pre Le Cordon Bleu).

Mango Buffalo Chicken Wings as seen on SHAW

Mango Buffalo Chicken Wings with Mango Lime Dipping Sauce

The drummettes could be replaced with boneless, skinless chicken thighs, or chicken breast strips; cooking time will be approximately half.

If the eastern spices don't appeal to you, leave them out - the wings will still be amazing!

1 large package chicken drummettes (~30)
1 cup flour
1/2 TSP garlic powder
1/2 TSP garam masala
1/4 TSP ground cardamom
1/4 TSP cumin
1/2 cup plus 2 TBSP mango puree (comes in 32oz can, middle eastern section of grocery)
1/2 cup plus 2 TBSP hot sauce (I use Frank's)
1/4 cup melted butter

In a large Ziploc bag, combine the flour and dry spices. Add the chicken, a few pieces at a time, tossing to coat with flour. Shake off excess flour from each piece. Place the pieces on a baking sheet and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400F.

In a small pot (or microwave) melt the butter, mango puree and hot sauce.

Dip each chicken piece in the sauce, turning to coat, tapping off excess sauce. Place on a parchment or foil-line baking sheet(s). Bake for ~40 minutes, turning halfway. If you would like a crisper coating, broil for a few minutes at the end of the cooking time. If possible, allow to cool on a cooling rack to keep the chicken crispy. Serve hot with the mango lime dipping sauce.

Mango Lime Dipping Sauce:

1/4 cup mango puree
1 cup sour cream (can subst. yoghurt)
zest of one lime
juice of half a lime
2 TSP honey
1/4 TSP ground cardamom
Mix the sauce ingredients together until combined.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Paris' Most Identifiable Landmark

This was supposed to be just part of a blog post, but it turned out to be a big 'aside' post. I really do love the thing, as cliche as many think of it. Of course, I'm referring to the Eiffel Tower.

Our Batobus tickets were going to expire that day, so we took one last trip on it to the Eiffel Tower. The sky was clear blue and quite warm (~24 deg C), so a little smoggy, as well. The entrance line was quite small, actually. Once inside, however, the line to take the elevator up was LONG. Eventually, we landed on the 2nd level (128 metres) and there seemed to be confusion as to where to go the wait for the 2nd level elevator. Then, sirens went off and red lights were flashing, accompanied by an announcement saying (one the English translation could be heard) "we are evacuating the tower, we apologize for the inconvenience" (inconvenience!!??)

Anyone reading this around the time we went would know that, over the month leading up to our trip there had been several evacuations of the tower due to terror threats. Several arrests were made the week we were there during the raid of a suspected terror cell (with evidence of planned attacks) so the threat really was, real. The 'chatter' that security dept's were hearing is that a bombing was not being planned, but a shooting massacre (comforting, no?). Hence, the high security at all the tourist spots. I didn't mention it previously, but everywhere you went there were soldiers with machine guns mulling about.

Anyway, back to the story at hand, we waited with all the other people (by this time, a line had formed) while the people from the upper level were evacuated, probably 15 min or so. Then, the red lights and siren shut off - apparently the threat had been cleared, so we were able to go up. The line was LONG at it was hot, standing in the direct sun. But, eventually, we made it up to the summit and took in all the amazing views of Paris at 276 metres.

After descending the tower, we took a stroll through the Champs de Mars, one of the larger greenspaces in Paris, adjacent to the Eiffel Tower. While sitting on a bench, we noticed something that looked like a bright green ball, but then realized they were all over the place. They were some sort of tree fruit, but neither of us had a clue what they were. They were about the size of a grapefruit and smelled faintly of an orange/frankincence sort of odour. Upon returning home, I found out that they were osage oranges (but not for eating) - you can reat more about them on wiki.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Sights (well, two), at Night

Post-Fauchon, we had a quick dinner at the apartment, scavenging from our previous purchases (plus a cured sausage and a goat milk brie filled with chevre and figs from a cheese shop near Le Marche des Enfants Rouge). Dana bought a bottle of Riesling from the little confectionary across the stree for 4 euro - no wonder they drink so much wine here!!

After dinner we took a stroll up the Champs d'Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. It was a warm, clear evening and the Arc truly was a sight to behold. All the postcard pics that you see of it at night are exactly what it looks like - just like this photo we took, it's not a postcard :) We sat and watched the traffic manoeuvering around it, including two pedestrians, a couple (not young!) who suddenly darted out across the circle to go right up to it. Crazy tourists.

We kept walking south towards the Seine, not really with a destination in mind, but as we neared the river, the Eiffel tower, lit up in all its glory, appeared. Again, truly a sight to see. There is a blue beacon light and the tower, itself, is lit up. This was imressive enough, until the entire tower suddenly became a shimmering jewel. Unbeknownst to us, every hour the tower shimmers like this for ten minutes, some 20,000 bulbs creating the show. I found a video on youtube that gives you a good idea of what it was like.

That evening in Paris was the kind I think many people envision when they imagine what it would be like there - truly memorable.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


At 24-26 Place de la Madeleine lies Fauchon, a culinary merchant of historical significance in Paris, known for upscale fine food items. How to describe it as you walk through the doors..........this is a food store with bling!, a sumptuous feast for the eyes, causing an immediate increase in heart rate (really). Everything, from the packaging to the store decor and displays was pure eye candy. I calmed myself down and began exploring.

I did a prelimary 'sweep' of the store to get the lay of the land, so to speak.

At the front of the store lies a sweeter portion of the epicerie section (exotic jams, honeys); further towads the back of the store is the tea and coffee section. It should be noted that Fauchon opened Paris' first Salon de The in 1898 (!). Tea is the obvious star in this section. We were taken in by the Fall seasonal tea (one new one for each season), an amazing spiced rooibis, with a strong scent of orange. We scooped up several tins for our tea lovers back home.

The other part of the back portion contained a myriad of spices, salts, peppercorns, a HUGE selection of foie gras, pasta, oils, cheese, goes on & on. Returning to the front of the store, you find the patisserie section, with a large glass display of fine chocolates, plus numerous assortments of packaged chocolates.

We came away with this lovely assortment of chocolates (the middle row has Fauchon emblazened in gold), the many tins of tea and a sampler set of exotic honeys. Oh, and a black & white vinyl Fauchon shopping bag!
Downstairs houses the wine store, with a huge bar table with seating for wine tasting classes. How fun would that be?!

Upstairs houses their Salon de The - sadly, I have to report that I did not venture upstairs (this, of course, means that I must return immediately!).