Sunday, 5 October 2014

Le Cordon Bleu Week 1 - Plop!

Plop! That is the sound of me being thrown in at the deep end (or the sound of me falling into the canal on my walk to school under the weight of my new course books - either one!)

What a roller coster of a week its been, beginning with the suspense and anticipation of my first technical class, followed by the excitement of receiving my class literature. This excitement was soon replaced with dread when I felt the weight of the collective group of books and saw how thick they are / how many pages there are to read! 

Our first technical class went over the basics such as the names of the Patisserie Chefs who'd be teaching us over the course of our time at Le Cordon Bleu, their backgrounds, what we will be learning over next 3 months (which in true GBBO style, I'm not going to be telling you until the week before - to build suspense obviously), how to read and navigate our student course manuals and basic kitchen rules. 

Our chefs, Chef Ian and Chef Mathew were a hoot - and there was me thinking that I'd left an office of 'lads' full to the brim with banter for a refined establishment. Simple kitchen rules such as making it known vocally if you are moving from your work station to the sink with sharp knifes or hot pans by calling out as such, were quickly altered to shouting out "hot pants" and various other whitty adaptions. 

The weeks excitement then continued into my first demo class on Thursday morning with the very entertaining duo Chef Ian and Chef Mathew. Lesson 1 - the humble fruit salad. 

"Fruit salad?!" I hear you scoff, but yes you read correctly. When learning the basics of French cooking, you really must 'master' the basics. This wasn't just any fruit salad, this was a fruit salad worthy of a place at a royals dining table. I watched Chef Mathew's every move intently, noting down both his actions and words. At the end of the demo session I had my 50 step plan to creating the worlds most delightful and delicious fruit salad. 50 STEPS!!! A week ago my fruit salad consisted of three simple steps: 

Step 1: collect or purchase fruit 
Step 2: wash fruit 
Step 3: cut up fruit 

Oh and then the all important step 4 - eat the fruit! 

Worried about the extensive nature of my notes (those who know me well won't be surprised to hear that my notes were extensive), I spent the three hour break before our first practical class buying hair nets and cutting back my 50 step plan to a more digestible 10. And then it was time to enter the kitchen - or in this case, the boulangerie. This was our first chance to shine at Le Cordon Bleu, to prove our capabilities to the chefs and to put all that we'd learnt during the day to practice, and I was pretty happy with my results! 

Chef Nicholas oversaw the practical, helping us to navigate the kitchen and our new knife set which in demo had been likened to Harry Potters wand due to its power for both good and bad. We were then asked to recreate the fruit salad we'd seen come to life before our eyes in demo, and prepare a tray showing the 5 stages of sugar cooking: 

Stage 1 - thread (105 degrees - 110)
Stage 2 - soft ball (116 degrees - 122)
Stage 3 - hard ball (126 degrees - 130)
Stage 4 - crack  (144 degrees - 150)
Stage 5 - caramel (150 degrees - 190)

It was requested that in order to demonstrate and present the results of these stages, that we boil our sugar and hold an ice cube at the same time. Then, when we thought the sugar was at the correct temperature and consistency, put our fingers into the hot pan (and when I say hot, boiling sugar can reach up to 190 degrees, water boils at 100), pinch the sugar and return it swiftly to the ice water to form a tread, hard or soft ball, cracked sugar or caramel. Don't even think about trying this at home. Luckily no burns for me.

Following this rather exciting and daredevil task, it was back to prepping the fruit salad and accompanying spiced sugar syrup. Working in pairs, we decided upon winter classic for our spice combination - cinnamon, cloves and vanilla. We could have added cardamon and star anise also as all 5 were available to us but we thought best to keep it simple and instead opted for adding orange and lemon peel. The room soon smelt like Christmas. 

An hour or so later and it was time to 'plate up'. Chef Mathew had done so in his own style during demo but had encouraged us to find our own creative style. Music to my ears!

I spent minutes polishing my bowl with white wine vinegar, ensuring not a finger or thumb print could be found. Then using my solid silver spoon, I carefully placed some of the fruit into the bowl, topping it with boiled and infused orange and lemon peel which I'd delicately sliced and curled, a fan of orange segments and a 1/4 vanilla pod, which was there to both add a polar opposite colour to the stark white bowl and show the decadence of the dish. Vanilla is up there amongst the most expensive of kitchen commodities so best to show the 'customer' it's been used so that they can associate the value of the dish with the ingredients used to create it. 

One by one, we were then asked to present our dish to Chef Nicholas. I went first as I was stationed at the front of the class. I'm a geek and I don't care who knows it. Chef turned my bowl this way, and then that making remarks such as "fantastic attention to detail", "wonderful fruit uniformity", "great cutting and lines", "excellent taste", and the remark most important to me as a wanna be food stylist..."fantastic presentation"! Yay! First practical and top marks for me. 

Thursday saw a repeat of Wednesdays schedule, a demo in the morning and practical in the evening. Demo 2 - meringues. Italian, French and Swiss OH MY! And more types of creme patisserie than I even knew existed! 

The demo was confusing to say the least. Chef talked us through each of the steps for the three different types of meringue and the cremes:

Creme patissiere (a starch thicken vanilla custard)
Creme Diplomat (a creme patissiere base with the addition of an orange liqueur)
Creme Mousseline (a creme patissiere base with the addition of butter. And lots of it)
Creme Chibouste (a creme patissiere base with the addition of Italian meringue)
Creme Chantilly (a creme patissiere base with the addition of whipped creme)

Yup - bet you didn't know you could have your creme 5 ways! My group spent a couple of hours following the demo re writing our jumbled methods and then came the practical. This session was very very different to the first. Firstly the Chef took an instant dislike to me. I'm not sure why - I was wearing my uniform correctly, I was on time, I had my knife set, I had my equipment out and ready to go...perhaps it was because I was being annoyingly keen, who knows, all I know is that every question I asked seemed to be wrong and every attempt I made to stand out for the right reasons ended in disaster. 

The pace of this demo was different also. More frantic and chaotic. I could see that this was the main source of Chefs frustration so Natalie and I did our best to stay ahead of our work plan in order to create our practical plate on time. The plate needed to consist of mini meringues piped 4 ways (a shell and rosette being compulsory), Chantilly cream piped two ways (shell and rosette) and a bowl of Creme Diplomat. This is where, in Chefs eyes, I made my biggest error. When it came to plating up for presentation, which if you imagine, is just like the bit on GBBO where each baker has to take their bakes to be judged by Paul and Mary at the front of the tent. It's just like that except Chef was much taller than Mary, French and angry. 

Unlike Chef Nicholas, this Chef, who's name escapes me, took one look at my plate and asked (yelled in a Gordon Ramsey style) "what have you done to the creme!???" Now, I don't have a picture of my Creme Diplomat, but what I'd done was to polish a serving bowl and pipe the creme neatly in waved lines, it basically looked like the top of a fancy fish or cottage pie. Not wanting to sound rude, I asked Chef if there was problem. He yelled that I'd wasted precious time piping when all he asked was that the creme was served in a bowl. BUT the saving grace here was that my Creme Diplomat was bloody perfect. He couldn't fault it, not even a little bit. It was the right consistency, it held its shape and it tasted fantastic. Top marks for the Diplomat, not top marks for my meringue piping. This he referred to as hideous and inconsistent. So I have piping homework to do over the course of the next few days so as not to disappoint when our paths next cross. 

My first week at school ended with a 6 hour lecture starting at 8am on Saturday morning, followed by an exam. The exam was to assess my knowledge of health and hygiene in the kitchen in order to be issued with a health and hygiene certificate. The exam lasted about 15 minutes and was quite possibly the most common sense filled exam I've ever sat. I won't get my results back for 2 weeks but I'll be very surprised if I've failed. 

Finally, my homework has been an adventure in itself. An adventure deep into the history of the subject that is so close to my heart and it would seem that we have an Italian lady to thank for the patisserie we know and love today. 

When Catherine De Medici of Italy married Henri II of France in 1533, she brought with her her cooks, patissiers and ice cream makers... not to mention forks and high heels! And there was me thinking that it was the French we had to thank for such things. Catherine De Medici, not willing to leave her sweet treats behind her in Italy, introduced her staff and cane sugar (which wasn't cultivated in France at the time) to the French court and as a result, the food in France fell under the influence of the Italians. 

This Italian / French patisserie battle is still present on the streets of Paris today. Now half way through Patisseries of Paris by Jamie Cahill, a book gifted to me a few weeks ago by a friend, I've read extensively of the glace vs. gelato battles and the delicacies on sale in the French capital heavily influenced by the Italians. My advise to both nations is battle on - this is a war that can only end in sweet success and culinary delights for all! 

Next week on my Path to Patissiere: baked and stirred custards 1 (there can't possibly be any more cremes in my life) and what's that??? Baked and stirred custards lesson 2. I really must introduce them to Bird's ;o)

*Please note that the views I express are mine alone and do not reflect the views of my place of study* 

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting first week.
    I'm interested in knowing the amount of Creme Patisseries as I've been making the basic one quite recently. Creme Legere is one to add to your list, although I think this is similar to the Creme Chantilly. Once you begin to make your own, there is no going back to the artificial stuff.

    Keeping a chronicle of your weeks' events and lessons will help with your homework come exam time.