Sunday, 19 October 2014

Le Cordon Bleu Week 3 - I heart lemon tart.

If there's one thing I believe in when it comes to approaching a new project or task, it's full project engrossment. A term I may have made up, but essentially it means living and breathing the challenge as much as possible, in every way possible in order for the result to be a success. 

A little daunted by the week ahead of me (following Chef Nicholas's less than inspiring pep talk), I thought it best to leap into tarte week with both feet, first by sampling the tarte causing so much concern - the tarte au citron (perk of the job ;o). And who better to accompany me in my quest to learn more about this delectable patisserie treat than my Dad. Who just to happened to be in London! 

I met with Dad at a patisserie just off Covent Garden. It's been our meeting point for many years now and a number of years ago it was 'the' patisserie to be seen in. Now part of a much larger chain the standards are beginning to waver but the tarte au citron was delicious. It was sharp and tart in all the right places, there was no soggy bottom and the pastry was crisp to perfection and not crumby as often pate brisee (short crust pastry) can be (apologies, I have to refer to everything in French now because we have to learn everything in French. I learn, you learn). Now in my third week training to become a patissiere, I did however feel that it was lacking a little in decoration and skilful presentation. Although it could be argued that simplicity is best due to the tarte's gorgeous yellow tones.  

Regardless, after sampling the tarte au citron, next I wanted to find out more about it. It's origins, who had 'invented' the recipe that we, as a nation have come to love and where the popularity stemmed from. I did my research and was delighted to discover that the tartes popularity is largely thanks to the Roux brothers, who, in the 1980s, served up what Lindsey Bareham, well renowned British food writer, described as a "lemon tart like no other" at The Waterside Inn and Le Gavroche. "It was shockingly good," she remembered in an interview with the Guardian, "a dish to linger over, the pale yellow cream set to just within a wobble of collapse...beautifully complemented by a thin sweet pastry case."

The reason for my delight and excitement is that I've had the pleasure of eating at The Waterside Inn, and not only that, I was lucky enough to spend the day with man responsible for the tarte au citron's superior status himself, Michel Roux senior...albeit some 14 years ago! I remember the experience as though it were yesterday and feel that my memory of the day contributed towards my desire to train as a patissiere. 

The opportunity came about whilst I was studying for my A-Levels at The Princess Helena Collage. Michel Roux was, at the time, on the schools board of governors (I believe) and so invited students with an interest in the catering and hospitality industry to spend a day with him. I'll admit that at the time I hadn't heard of The Waterside Inn but I did love my Saturday cookery classes so I jumped at the chance of a day out of school spent at a fine dining restaurant. Who wouldn't!?? 

We knew we were somewhere special when we were shown to a private dining room situated at the back of the restaurant. The room featured an incredibly large, highly polished, mahogany dining table which we took a seat around. Sitting elegantly in the centre of the table was a rather large pair of Lalique swans. Yes, at 16 I knew Lalique. Growing up with a father who's passion is antiques you pick up a thing or two. (I've just googled the swans - a steal at €4,950. Each! And that's new - these fellas are at least 15 years old, if not older. Goodness only knows how expensive they were or their value today!) 

First we were treated to the ultimate continental French breakfast - tea, coffee, juice, fruit salad, croissant and a selection of French butters and jams, pain au chocolat, pain au raisin, brioche and many more fine breakfast pastries. With our bellies full, to our delight we were then joined by Chef Michel who welcomed us and took us on a tour of the kitchens and the boutique hotel. The pastry kitchen was buzzing - the staff were happy, smiling, chattering away in soft French tones. Some were deep in concentration piping elegant swirls of creme, others were tempering chocolate and adding the finishing touches to petit fours and the like. The fragrances surrounding us were incredible. 

Tour complete, we were then invited to sit in the main dining room, right next to the window overlooking the Thames, to enjoy a four course lunch and I still have the menu! 

We talked at length about Chef Michel's life and his experiences within the kitchen - I remember feeling energised and motivated by his passion and enthusiasm to find something that I could talk about with the same amount of love. He spoke of his dishes as though they were works of art and when lunch was served, it was easy to see why. Each dish was a piece of art! Chef Michel told us of his love for desserts and patisserie and although I don't remember all that he said, I have his autobiography and in this he refers to both as "an affair of the heart". He goes on to say that "they should be the apotheosis of the meal, the last, lingering taste that defines the final impression." WOW patissieres' hold a heavy burden on their shoulders! What an incredibly lucky girl I am to be learning this fine art. 

My research into the tarte au citron didn't end there. I wanted to know where the tarte came from, and after a bit of digging I found out that like many of our patisserie favourites, we have the French to thank for this beauty. And to be more specific, the residence of a small town called Menton (which rhymes with Fenton and Denton so I'm never going to forget it) which is situated in the picturesque French Rivera. 

As you'll have probably guessed, Menton is famous for growing the best tasting lemons and citrus fruit. Although during the reign of Queen Victoria, Menton was known as the only town in France able to grow lemons! I suppose they had to find something to do with their tasty crop and once you've made lemon curd and decided it's not great on toast - the natural progression is to stick the curd in a tarte! The town of Menton is still well know for its lemon trees and successful crops, but now the focus of the residents excitement leans towards the fetes du citron. Which you simply must Google. The town holds a carnival each year to celebrate the crop and they make floats entirely out of oranges and lemons! Honestly, the things that they have achieved with only citrus fruits is incredible. 

Following my extensive lemon tarte research I felt ready to take it on, Le Cordon Bleu style. But not before my first cheese lecture! Yes, a cheese lecture. What a pleasant surprise. Now, I enjoyed this lecture so much that I dedicated a special mid week blog post to it. If you love cheese then I suggest that you hop over here and have a read but make sure to come back! We have tarte practicals to discuss! 

And so it was time, after the cheese, to take on the tartes. The first being tarte au citron and the second, tarte aux pommes. In our first demo the news was broken to us that the tarte au citron had been selected as one of our three exam dishes. The recipe was selected by the school as the tarte in question requires a multitude of skills in order to come to life, skills such as: pastry making, lemon curd creation, the whipping up of an Italian meringue (the one made with soft ball sugar), even and delicate use of a blow torch, cutting lemon peel Julienne style (even strips approx 2mm x 50mm) and fancy piping. St Honore piping to be exact. And yes, I did say meringue and yes, this is actually a lemon meringue pie we were making NOT a lemon tarte as I'd been lead to believe. I felt that all my tarte au citron research had gone to waste but chef reassured me that it was all still worth while and good knowledge to have. 

Now about St Honore. He's a pretty important fella in the baking and patisserie world as he holds the title of Patron Saint of Bakers and Pastry Chefs. He's so well regarded by the patisserie world that he has a piping nozzle and a dessert named after him. Fancy hey! The piping nozzle and technique used to achieve his name sake style is actually incredibly hard. This is Chef Ian's example...

Sadly, this week, the spirit of Saint Honore was not with me. Both demo chefs made the making of the tartes look incredibly easy, giving me false hope. I'm not sure if it was the fancy V shaped piping that terrified me or the fact that I have freshers flu (that right, I'm 31 and I have freshers flu - it's ridiculous and I feel horrible), but I couldn't sleep a wink before my first practical. My only saving grace was that our tarte au citron practical session was being overseen by Chef Javier, who I find to be calming and the added bonus is that he doesn't hate me. 

On the whole, the creation of my tarte went well. My pastry was good, although a little overworked and a tad undercooked (I was 1 minute away from perfection), my curd was sharp and the perfect consistency and my Italian meringue was slightly on the stiff side but still manageable. All perfectly normal imperfections for a pastry chef three weeks into training. My biggest issue was the Saint Honore piping...Sadly, practical sessions are not seen as an opportunity to practice so you have two options, the first is to freak out and refuse point blank to pipe or you have a go, commit, roll with it and do your very best. One or two of my fellow students went for option 1, sneakily asking those more skilful than themselves to help them out, I on the other hand went for option 2 and the results wasn't fantastic. 

As required at each session, I presented my tarte to Chef Javier and he marked me fairly. He told me to rest assured that although my piping on this occasion wasn't the greatest (due to my slightly stiff meringue which I should have beaten back), I had a great deal of time to practise and as it was, my tarte would have passed in my final exam. Fantastic news! I left practical happy with a handbag bag full of lemon tarte. 

The second and last practical of the week was yesterday, at 8am. Yes, 8am on a Saturday morning which meant getting up at 5:45am in order to be at school by 7:15am to get changed and prepare. Changing and preparing for class takes longer than you'd expected. We, as chefs, have a lot of layers to put on including baggy trousers, neck ties, aprons, jacket, hair nets and air hostess style hats and theres always the issue of space in the ladies locker room. Not to mention the temperature - it's like trying to put on a ski suit in the desert with people standing inches away from you attempting to do the same. It's a hoot.

Once in my whites, I made my way to the boulangerie where I was greeted by Chef Rosette. That's not his real name but that's what we like to call him. The reason being the last time we worked with him was during the last practical of our first week. He hated our group, and me in particular. We named him Chef Rosette, because that's the word he kept shouting at us - we didn't understand what he meant until he spelt it out for us. He meant re set but said in a French accent it sounded like rosette! And by re set he meant for us to prepare the room for the next class. We just stood their looking at him blankly. And so the nickname Chef Rosette was born. Simply really. 

Joy! I thought to myself. It's 8am on a Saturday morning, I have freshers flu and Chef Rosette is at the helm. What could possibly go right?! Well, it turns out that not much could go right. I wouldn't go as far as saying that I lived down to his expectation but the first thing I did when making the pastry for my tarte aux pomme was to forget to add the sugar, leaving only the taste of salt to sing through my incredibly dry dough. Urgh. What a numpty. Thankfully Chef Rosette took pity and allowed me to re make my dough on the premiss that I was quick about it. And quick I was.

I remade the pastry and left it to chill in the fridge whilst I tackled the compote filling. A delicious concoction of caramelised apple, vanilla and cinnamon - which thankfully didn't burn this time. With the filling made, it was time to roll out the pastry and line the tarte tin. I did this well and without issue. The pastry was then blind baked for twenty minutes and baked without beans for 7. The filling went in and then came the decoration. 

Trying to be cleaver, I decided to follow the pattern requested by chef (two layers of thinly sliced apple laid in a circular pattern) but instead of just finishing it with an apple ring, to finish it off with an apple peel rose. Something which I've made in the past. I thought I could win him over with a little creativity and originality - no. No I could not. When I presented my tarte to Chef Rosette the first thing he said was "your rose. It's dying". He was referring to it's slightly charred appearance...if I'd only gotten my tarte out of the oven 30 seconds before! 

He commented that my tarte wasn't bad but never to leave out or mix up the salt and sugar again. I mean, it had to happen once didn't it! And someone had to do it. It just so happens that it was me and better it happened in week 3 than at the end of the term. It's a lesson learnt for my entire group. Chef also mentioned that my compote should have been a little drier but on the whole, it wasn't bad. Which is pretty positive from Chef Rosette! 

Given that I felt horribly full of cold I'm not going to be too hard on myself. I am however going to re do my lemon tarte tomorrow, just so that I could give the piping another whirl and try to save the recipe to memory. Being one of our three exam dishes I need to memorise the entire recipe word for word and gram for gram - we have 15 minutes at the beginning of the exam to write out the ingredients list and method, this is then taken away for marking and we're given a very basic version to follow in order to make the selected dish. Very GBBO tech challenge esq! Oh and did I mention we have to draw a top down and cross section picture of our exam dish as well! I just about have the ingredients list memorised already - only the method to go and I'll be ready to start learning the next - coffee eclairs! 

So here they are, my rather sad and disappointing looking tartes...

Chef Rosette loved my tarte aux pomme so much that he suggested I gave it to the homeless on my walk home. Charming (I think it was banter...although I can't be sure). Instead I gave some to my former housemate Mike, he'll eat anything and I divided the rest between myself and the ducks. Thankfully I have the next two days to practise, practise and practise some more! I'm even hosting a piping practise party for some of my patisserie buddies! Just part of my being a total nerd. We shall pipe until my local shop runs out of whipping cream and we shall nail the rosette, the shell and the Saint Horone techniques learnt over the past three weeks. I will report back our progress next Sunday. We'll show Chef Rosette!  

As for this weeks homework, tuiles and I have become friends after our little falling out last week. Should they come up again, I'll be ready for 'em!  

Next week on my path to patissiere it's all about pate feuilletee (puff pastry). We'll be making puff pastry slices smothered in creme patissiere and topped with delicately chopped fruits, palmiers (dainty puff pastry biscuits with some connection to palm trees it would appear - I shall investigate) and pear and almond puff pastry slices with a lattice top! It is going to be a much better week than this as I'm not going to have a cold and I'm going to make the lightest, most delicate puff pastry the patisserie world has even seen. Ever.

I hope. 

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

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