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.


N said...

wow.. i like your writing about your experience. i want to study at le cordon bleu too (it's my dream after i watch julie & julia movie) but i think i will study after i graduate from hospitality college. actually i confused about choosing cuisine and pastry. i love both. how you made your decision?


Wild Serendipity Foods said...

Sorry for the LONG delay in replying!! I only just noticed your comment today :) I also have always been undecided about pastry or cuisine........I love, and do, both. It was my determination in succeeding with the macarons that made the choice obvious (whenever I do decide to go to get a certificate). Once I returned home, I struggled with getting consistent, perfect results. The ingredients/humidity is different here, etc. Looking back I can't believe I didn't give up, I wasted so much time on them when I should have been doing other work. Finally, I succeeded, and I realized that my obsession made it clear that it was pastry for me! :)