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Adventures at the French Culinary Institute


manton
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Most cookbooks assume size extra large, so if you use those you will be fine.

Hmph. I always thought that if the recipe didn't specify the size, you should assume large eggs, not extra large.

I'm loving the posts, btw. Please keep writing.

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I don't think it's possible for a fried egg to be too brown. For me, the browner and crispier, the better.

I'm really lovin' these reports on your cooking class -- your reports are so good I feel I'm vicariously taking the class along with you.

A little OT, I'm the opposite re brown eggs -- I've tried for years to make and pan flip without a spatula (diner style) a two egg over medium with a firm white but little or no brown, of course without breaking the yolks....

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Thanks, mnanton, for your writing. This is very enjoyable.

I once saw Gordon Ramsey telling someone the the proper, and only, way to make scrambled eggs and omlets. Well, maybe the French like there's made in such-and-such way, but that hardly makes it the only way! I mean, for pete's sake, I can't stand eggs and omlets made the French way!

Thanks much,

Starkman

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"Well, maybe the French like there's made in such-and-such way, but that hardly makes it the only way! I mean, for pete's sake, I can't stand eggs and omlets made the French way!"

I tried the French method the other day which turned out like the scrambled eggs shown. I used half and half because that's what was in the reefer and perhaps too much. The eggs tasted more like a custard than what we are accustomed to. My method is to let the egg mixture start to firm up and use a spatuala to heap the firming eggs while tilting the pan to run the loose mixture into the cleared part of the pan. The result is large folded curds which are plated while wet and there is a pleasing eggy taste in the result. Both styles are very good but I was struck by the difference in taste of the two methods.

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Day 7: Pastries, pt. 1

Pastries. I was not looking forward to this. I have never made any before, unless you count shortcuts like buying pre-made dough. I hardly ever bake. I have no real interest in it either. I am in this class to learn to cook dinner, better. That’s the main thing. I really don’t eat much dessert, and don’t intend to start. But I am also here to learn technique and to improve my own (to the extent that I have any). And the fact is, learning technique means you have to learn pastry. You have to learn the rudiments of everything, even things you don’t ever plan to spend a lot of time on. If you are going to be a pro, you will inevitably specialize, but you will be a better specialist if you understand the basics of everything. Also, you make have to run a kitchen (or more) some day, and even if you don’t make the pastries, you had better have some idea how they are made. That’s the theory, anyway. I suppose I agree with it. But it didn’t make me look forward to this day any more.

This is supposed to be the part where I say, “And to my surprise, I loved it!” Well, I am not going to say that. I didn’t exactly hate it, and that was a surprise. But I didn’t love it, either. I don’t expect to be making pastries any time soon. Though if I do a main course that calls for a pastry dough, I may try to make my own now rather than cheat.

I have two rather banal observations that I have been meaning to make, but that really need to be made now. The first is how tiring this is. We literally do not sit down, even once, for something like 6 ½ hours. Some of that time is spent standing still, maybe leaning against a counter for succor, listening. But most of it we are working. I am well aware that 6 hours is not even a full restaurant shift, and that many line cooks work much harder, much longer than we do. That only goes to show what a grueling business this is. For the pastry class, I was coming off very little sleep, having been stuck in airports the day before on a business trip. I really felt it.

Second banal observation: I don’t mean this as a criticism of the school in any way, but classes like this show the limits of culinary education. We are trying to learn many things, very quickly. But all of them are things that require lots of practice to truly learn, and learn to do well. Repetition. Muscle memory. And not just that, but learning to judge doneness, seasoning, etc. You can’t really accomplish that without a ton of practice, which means a ton of time, and burning through lots of ingredients, over and over. This is why restaurant experience is so essential, and why the best chefs – even the ones with CIA educations – are willing to work for peanuts (or nothing) to get an old-fashioned apprenticeship education after culinary school. There is no other way to learn. Or, maybe you can LEARN to cook in the sense of KNOW all the recipes and basic techniques, but you will not be any good.

Anyway, back to pastries.

Pastry is just a vessel. It can be used for a multitude of things. We are only spending two days on it, and the first is devoted to dessert. To say that we made “pastries” is really incorrect, because we also made two types of filling, one custard, and one pudding. Indeed. We really only made one batch of pastry dough at all. And yet in our books the day was said to be devoted to pastries.

I might also say, as an aside, that Chef was in a prickly mood this time. He was a little harder edged than usual. I think it is possible that we tried his patience, seeing as we knew nothing of this technique and made a ton of mistakes. He got easily frustrated and was rather prone to snap. Not to yell, exactly, but to get exasperated. There were several times when he would explain something and then get asked a question that he had preemptively answered moments before. This is not the way to impress Chef X.

He also had all of us work alone, which made everything go slower and put everyone a bit more on edge.

The lecture was devoted to a brief run-down of the many different kinds of pastries. I caught little of it, to be honest, I was so groggy. And I knew it was all in my text binder anyway. I can say this, however, that I understand why pastry making is a totally separate discipline that people spend years learning. There is just that much to learn, and it is that complicated.

The first thing we made was pâte a choux. This should not be confused with pâté, the forcemeat. This is puff pastry, a twice cooked dough that is used to make éclairs and other desserts. You start this with water and butter over very low heat. You want to melt the butter without evaporating any water. This is important because the water is what makes it puff.

Now, during lecture Chef rather sternly said, “Guys, you see those ingredients?” meaning the ones on the dry erase board. “They have to be followed exactly. This is not like cooking on the stove, where you throw in a little pinch of this, taste, and season again. That’s not gonna work. This is pastry. You have to be precise, every time.”

So the first 30 minutes at least of class was us measuring out all those ingredients like chemistry experiments. But as soon as we started cooking, Chef pulled the rug out from under that notion. Pâte a choux is made by mixing flour and a little sugar and salt – these could be mere unmeasured pinches – in a Russ until the flour is cooked, but not brown, and dried out, what the French call dessécher. But it’s not really dry; it is just dry enough to take the eggs. You have to really stir it like crazy to make sure that the flour is never in contact with the pot surface long enough to brown or burn. It is extremely tiring on the arm.

Eggs for our recipe (140 g of flour) totaled 3-5. How do you know? Well, according to our text, “unlike many other pastries where the proportion and measurements of ingredients is precise and constant, the proportion of ingredients in pâte a choux will change on any given day. The number of eggs too be added to the flour and butter paste will vary according to the size of the eggs, the amount of moisture in the air, and the amount of moisture extracted from the paste during the stovetop cooking.” Hence, 3-5 eggs.

When Chef demonstrated, he said the proper consistency can be told through two methods. First, if your wooden spoon can “part the dough liken in the movie Ten Commandments, so you see the bottom of the bowl for a second, and then it comes right back together, it is correct. Second, if it makes a hook” – he took a glob on his spoon and held it up. The dough hung down but did not fall off.

“Tell me when you get to three eggs. I want to see your dough before you put in more eggs.”

“Chef, I have three.”

“That is too liquidy. You sure you used only three?”

“Yes.”

“Not good.”

Off to a great start. But Restaurant Guy, next to me, was already on his fourth egg and his dough was still dry. Chef made an executive decision, combined our dough, pronounced the consistency perfect, then divided it, giving us each half. Here is the remant after it was all used; you can see the consistency and color, though:

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Next job was to get a pastry bag. This is a conical shaped plastic bag. You cut off the tip and insert a metal end with the desired opening (round or star, small medium or large). We used medium round. Then you fold the top of the bag over your right hand to open the cone, and spoon in the dough. Unfortunately, I forgot that part and made a huge mess. It really does matter. Don’t try this without folding down the top.

Then you get a piece of parchment paper and anchor it to a baking sheet with a few little spots of dough. Then squeeze out dough onto the sheet with one hand, while twisting the bag to take up the slack space with the other hand. “You want half dollar sized balls.” Silly me, I wondered why anyone would know how big a half dollar is, since they have been out of circulation so long. These little balls would be profiteroles. The proper way to do it is to squeeze out the right amount, then stop, then pull up the bag, leaving a little point, like a Hershey’s kiss. We were also supposed to make several long lines, or bars, for éclairs. “Usually for éclairs you use the tip with the bigger opening, but we don’t have time to change. You can make a wider bar by just going slowly.”

Chef of course got his onto the sheet evenly and quickly, as did restaurant guy. Mine were not so even, and my éclairs were too narrow.

Then you paint each one with an egg wash to give the pastry some color, taking care to tamp down the little point with your brush. An egg wash, by the way, is just a well beaten egg. But nearly everyone got that wrong. Some used whites, some yolks, some half-beaten eggs, some even used butter. Chef got really annoyed about that. “What are you doing? Why are you using that? Is anyone listening to me today? Guys, and egg wash is well beaten egg, like you use for an omelet, that is all!” At least I got that right.

Then into the oven they go at 400 until they are browned. I believe this took about 30 minutes. They really do puff up nicely. Then they go into a 300 oven to dessécher. This is supposed to be quick, but for me it took a while. There is no danger, as they will not burn or even color more at that temp and you want them to get all dry and crispy.

How do you know when they are done? By feel, mostly. The outer shell should be hard all over. They should feel almost as light as air. Any weight and that means there is water inside. Not good. You want all that water gone. If in doubt, break one open and feel. If you feel moisture, put the rest back in the oven.

Chef's were a light golden:

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Mine were quite a bit darker, but he said he though their color was good. Note the uneven size, however:

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In the meantime, we made a custard. You beat egg yolks with sugar until they turn pale yellow. This is called blanchir. “In French, blanche means ‘white’ so blanchir means to whiten or lighten.” Meanwhile, have some milk on the heat with a vanilla bean, split in half and scraped, inside. When it boils, off heat and tamper with the eggs. I can’t remember if explained tamper before, but it is to mix a bit of hot liquid with something else, to even out the temperature rather than the whole batch all at once, which can spoil whatever you are making (in this case, by cooking the eggs). The hot milk is strained into the bowl (you don’t want the big pieces of vanilla bean in there, but little powdery specs are good) a bit at a time.

Ok, the other part of this is caramel. This is sugar moistened with a little water – just enough to give it the consistency of packed wet sand at room temperature. You put it on high heat. The water will boil fast and the sugar will start to melt and dissolve. You really do not want to let any of this touch your skin as it is an excellent way to burn yourself badly. Chef demonstrated a method French chefs use. Get a bowl with ice and water, dip your fingers in it and then into the pan to feel the consistency of the sugar. Thankfully, we did not have to do that because we were going for color. Once you start to see color, swirl the pan to make it even. When the pan is golden, off heat and pour a layer of caramel into ramekins, coating the bottom. Then spoon the custard mix into the ramekins. Be sure to fill them all the way.

Then you get a sautoir or hotel pan – something with moderately high, straight sides that can hold water – line with parchment, place the ramekins in, and fill with water 2/3s up the sides of the ramekins. The paper, Chef said, would prevent the water from splashing. I didn’t get why, but he was right.

This part was sort of neat. The custard mix had a bubbly surface in the ramekins. You need to get rid of that, or it will form a crust and burn. You can either spoon it off, or do what we did – hit it with a propane torch. That gets rid of the bubbles right fast.

Then put on the stove until the water starts to boil. When it does, into a 325 oven for 45 minutes or so. I’ll get back to that.

We next made pots de crème, which is essentially the same thing, only flavored with some sort of flavoring of your choice. Coffee and chocolate are popular. We had some cocoa powder in the spice cabinet so I used that. You whip it into the egg milk mixture, and then put it in the ramekins just like with the custard, only no caramel sheet on the bottom and you cover with a metal lid in the oven.

When our puffs were done, we took them out to let them cool and made the fillings. The first was crème patissière. This was more egg yolks blanchir, with some flour and corn starch, then hot milk flavored with vanilla bean, all of this cooked on the flame until the flour is cooked. You will know because as it starts to cook it curdles on your spoon. When that happens, take if off the heat and whisk hard. It will blend together again. Then when it is done, put it on an ice bath and tamponer with plastic wrap.

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The second filling was crème chantilly. This is whipped heavy cream flavored with sugar and vanilla extract. This was another recipe that you did the non-precise way. Flavor, taste, repeat until correct. Whipping cream by hand is a pain, I can tell you. Very tough on the arm. And it is tricky. It takes a long time to thicken the cream, but once it thickens it takes just a few seconds to over-thicken into a whipped butter consistency with too much air. Many people blew that. I didn’t, thank God.

But let’s talk about some of the things I did blow. For instance, my éclairs. They were unusable. To small, too uneven, impossible to fill. Not even very nice to look at.

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Also, many of my profiteroles looked bad: from an uneven dough blob rises a misshapen profiterole. I selected the best four and got to work. You use a serrated knife to cut the tops off. The inside is hollow. Get a pastry bag and fill with crème chantilly. Use the medium star tip.

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Swirl in some crème to fill the pastry up, about 2/3 beyond the rim of the bottom part. Then put the “hat” – the cut off piece – on top. Sprinkle with something. We used confectioner’s sugar.

As aside, note the highly sophisticated device we use to sprinkle powdered suger and cocoa:

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That's right: a paper cup with the goods, with a cheesecloth on top, secured by a rubber band.

Anyway, here are Chef's profiteroles:

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Here are mine:

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Note the correct height:

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Next up was a filled puff pastry. For this we needed another pastry bag and the small round tip. You cut a tiny hole in the pastry with the tip of your paring knife, insert the pastry bag tip and fill. “Slowly guys, eh, or else the pastry will explode.”

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Then wipe away the excess, and dip the tops in fondant, making sure to cover the hole through which it was filled. “This is important, you want the customer not to see that. He should wonder how you did it.” Fondant, by the way, is whipped syrup. We dissolved sugar in water, brought to a boil, let cook and then whipped like mad. It looks sticky-white.

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Finally, the custard and the pots de crème were ready. You know they are when they are totally solid. If they surface jiggles when you shake one of the ramekins, you need more time. Once out of the oven, they all cool in the same water they cooked in.

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When the water is cool to the touch, the pots de crème are ready to serve.

The crème caramel need to be chilled in the fridge.

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When they are, you take a paring knife and loosen them around the edge of the ramekin. Flip over and tap the thing out onto the plate. There should be a layer of liquid caramel on the top t form a sauce, and a hard disk at the bottom that gets discarded.

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I probably should have wiped up the excess sausce a bit.

To be sure the thing is cooked, cut with a paring knife. (Obviously, you can’t serve that one.) If you see air bubbles, it was overcooked. They should never be undercooked, as you should not take them out of the oven until the tops solidify. Correctly cooked!

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Finally, my chocolate post de crème looked fine top but were runny and coagulated inside – not smooth. “Oh, you cooked that too long. You scrambled the eggs, eh? As soon as the top is solid and it stops jiggling, take it out.”

Live and learn. No photo of that mini fiasco.

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Day 8: Tarts

Tarts. More pastries. More pain.

This was, for me, the toughest day yet. Partly it was because I have a cold; not terrible, but enough to slow me down. Partly it was my utter unfamiliarity with the subject matter. As I noted last week, the class moves very fast. Something is explained and demoed, and then you do it, immediately, whether you have ever done it before or not. True, you should have read your text before hand, and that helps, a little, but not enough. You can know the recipe by heart, but technique is all about the senses, particularly the hands. You need to know how something is supposed to look and smell and feel, and you need to know how to make it so. Reading all the books in the world won’t teach your hands how to accomplish that.

I did reasonably well up until pastries because I knew something – even it if was only a little – about all the things we were covering. Pastries was totally knew to me, and I struggled.

For this class, we made only three things, all tarts: an onion tart, a quiche Lorraine, and an apple tart. The definition of tart is essentially any open-faced pastry pie. If there is crust on the bottom (and possibly the sides, but this is not required) but not on the top, then it is a tart. It doesn’t matter what you fill it with. Tarts are most commonly thought of as desserts, but they can be anything.

I was excited to make the onion tart. There used to be a restaurant near me – not very good and always empty – that served a great onion tart. It was the only truly good thing they had. It took forever for them to make. Now I know why. Anyway, the place closed.

We learned three kinds of dough, or really two, but one with two variations. The first was pâte brisee. This is a plain dough that can be made with or without eggs. Chef was not terribly clear on what the difference was, and said they were basically interchangeable. I found the version with egg easier to roll out, but that could be because I just screwed it up less in the making. Pâte sucrée is almost the same, except it has a lot of sugar. This is a dessert crust.

The first thing we did is make the three kinds of dough. We got the admonition again about measuring out everything carefully. No margin for error or correction in pastries. The basic ratio for all these pastries is 2 parts flour one part butter. No matter what, that always holds. Then you add a tiny amount of salt and some liquid. The liquid can either be water or egg. Add sugar, and you have a sucrée.

Take your flour and sift it onto a large table. Sifting is important, Chef insisted, because there is no other way to be certain that you catch any little chunks. Those chucks will not incorporate smoothly into dough. They will stay as lumps. Bad.

Then you dump in your butter. It MUST be cold. Soft or melted butter won’t incorporate with the flour properly. Then you sort of whack at the butter and flour with a mixer, essentially a flat blade-life thingy. The one in our kit is plastic. Chef’s was metal and had a wood handle. It worked a lot better. You can also do this step with your hands, but you have to be careful, because body heat will melt the butter. The danger is that the dough will become “overworked”: hard, inelastic, and too small. You are going for the consistency of wet sand.

Once you have that you arrange the dough in a circle with an empty space or “well” in the center. That’s where you add your water and/or egg (beaten). Then slowly swirl the liquid in with a finger. Then mold the dough into a ball. It will stick like crazy to your hands, especially if you used egg. You need to have a bowl of flour handy to coat your hands. This will make everything stick a bit less. Also, if you rub your hands together with the flour, most of the dough will come off.

Once you have a ball, you use that to pick up every stray bit of flour that you can, just by mashing the ball down onto them. Then you do something called fraiser. Take a small piece and mash it with your palm, spreading it out across the surface of the table like a streaky smudge. This is to make sure you have smashed out all globs and have dough of even consistency. Then scrape it up with your flat blade thingy, and set aside. DO NOT make into a ball yet. Keep doing that until you have worked through all the dough, then form the dough into a flat disk.

Flour and little flecks of dough, and God knows what else, tend to get everywhere during this process. Chef kept admonishing us to keep our stations clean, but I found it to be a real pain. At one point he even brought up the floors, to make sure we didn’t let anything fall at our feet. I looked at the stations around me, and everybody else’s floor space was clean. Mine was a mess. I actually stopped to clean up the floor with a wet towel. I had to do it more than once.

Chef gave us barely 30 minutes to make three doughs. Nobody finished in time. A couple of people had to start over on some of theirs. I didn’t, but Chef said that one of mine – the brisee, no egg, was too soft and would need some extra flour when I rolled it out.

Dough has to be refrigerated before it can be rolled out. This helps the butter re-harden, among other things. While we waited, we prepped the fillings.

For the onion tart, it’s just a lot of onion emancer and some bacon. For the quiche, it’s bacon and grated gruyere. For both of these, there is also a custard: One whole egg, one yolk, milk, and cream whipped together and seasoned with salt, pepper & nutmeg. Chef later said that the classic way to make onion tart has no custard. But custard is essential for quiche. For the apple tart, you need apple compote.

The onions were easy. Brown some bacon, the remove. Caramelize the onions. They were probably in the pan for a good 20 minutes. Once cooked, set on an ice bath and set aside.

For the quiche, the bacon is blanched three times. The other ingredients are added raw.

The apple compote is four peeled apples, either cut into quarters or small chunks, and then sweated with butter, water, sugar and a cartouche until mushy soft. If you leave the apples in large pieces, you have to put the compost through a food mill later. I did this and wish I had not. It did not go through the mill easily, and most had to be scooped out with a spoon. If you cut the apples into small chunks before you cook them, they will be easy enough to mash into paste with a fork.

Did you know that there is a “correct” way to peel an apple? There is! Chef showed us, and then went around rebuking us for doing it wrong. You take your peeler and remove a circle around the stem, then go down the side of the apple, then remove another circle at the base. All in one motion, by the way. Then rotate the apple in your hand, removing the sides one strip at a time. “I don’t wanna see this” – Chef made a bunch of frantic gestures with the peeler – “that is incorrect!” I wondered what it mattered. I suppose doing it his way is faster and more efficient if you can do it well, but does it affect the product? In any case, I did it his way.

The apples to be cut up and made into compote you just core with a paring knife. Once it’s quartered, that’s easy. If you are not going to cook the apple right away, take a lemon, roll it on a hard surface, cut it in half, and rub lemon juice in the apple. This prevents oxidization and gives a hint of acidity to the tart.

The custards, I have described. Very simple.

Next, Chef demoed how to roll the dough. First, take it out of the fridge and let it rest at room temp for at least 15 minutes. Straight out of the fridge it will be too hard. Then dust your work area with flour. Spread some flour on the top of your dough. Then uses a rolling pin to gently roll it out. You want to roll, not push. The rolling pins at the FCI, by the way, did not have handles joined by an axle. They were just plain wood cylinders. Anyway, the flour on the surface prevents sticking. But even with it, if you press too hard, the dough will stick anyway.

Chef rolled his dough into a perfect circle, 1/8” thick. Easy. Right?

Not for me. My first dough cracked at the edges. I am not sure what did it. Chef said I pressed with the pin too hard. Or maybe the dough did not have enough liquid in it. Whatever the cause, it made the next steps harder.

The tarts were to be baked in a flan ring and steel pan. The ring is just that: a ring, that sets the side of the tart. You butter the surface of the pan and the inside of the ring – any surface that will touch dough. The ring goes on the pan and does not quite reach the pan’s outer edge. When your dough is rolled out, you lay it flat on top of the ring. Then take a piece of excess dough, squish it into ball, and use that to press the dough inside the ring down into the corner where the ring meets the plate. That sets your edge. DON’T touch the tart dough with your fingers.

When that is done, then you take some of the excess hanging out over the sides and hike it up and toward the inside. It is important to do this delicately and evenly. If you tear, break, or smush the dough too thin, you will weaken the sides to the point that they may not hold. Basically, if at any point you can see black (or whatever is the color of the metal of the pan and ring) the dough is too thin. Evenly is also important. You want about a half inch overlap inside the ring.

When that is done, take the roller and roll it across the top of the ring in two directions, like a cross. That should shear off the outer, excess dough neatly. Discard that.

Now, for the apple tart we made a decoration. You take that excess above and inside the ring, and fold it up, making little dimples with your fingers. It sort of looks like a sprocket, only prettier. Chef said to do this only for the apple tart, but I don’t see why it could not be done for all of them. I suppose it is not traditional for savory tarts.

Poke the bottom of the dough with a fork all over. For a pâte sucrée, you have to refrigerate the dough before you bake it. For the others, you don’t.

But I don’t think Chef made that exactly clear. He certainly thought he had. He got his most exasperated ever at us yesterday. He felt that he had explained very clearly which steps had to be done to which dough, and yet we kept doing the wrong steps for the wrong dough and – worse – asking a lot of stupid question. He really did yell at one point, not at anyone in particular, but at all of us collectively. I think what confused us is that he demoed certain steps using the sucrée that were not necessary for that dough.

Anyway, for the brisee, we had to do what’s called blind baking. Once the shell is made (and it does not need to be refrigerated, I learned the hard way!), you cover the inside with plastic wrap, then fill the entire tart with dried beans. These provide weight to keep the dough flush against the metal, without bubbling and standing off. Close up the plastic wrap and bake at 400 for about ten minutes. Amazingly, the plastic does not melt. You just lift the whole bag of beans out, and then cook the dough for another few minutes empty. Doing this dries it out thoroughly. This is essential for any tart that will have liquid inside. If you don’t do this, the liquid will get into the dough and make it soggy. But if the dough is cooked first, it will resist the liquid and just act as a shell, as it should.

The first one I made was the apple. You spread the cooked compote evenly in the tart. It should not full up the entire thing; there needs to be room up top for a layer of apple slices. Then you take two apples and peel them and core them with a corer (Chef had one of these, thankfully; our kits don’t). Then half them, and use your paring knife to slice into thin, even slices. Arrange those in a circle, with lots of overlap per slice, all the way around. Then repeat in the center. Or better yet, make a flower design. Brush the apple slices with melted butter, sprinkle with sugar and bake at 400 for about one hour.

It’s important to keep an eye on the tart and move it around. Chef suggested that we start by pushing it way in the back of the oven where it’s hottest, then turn it every 5-10 minutes to make it brown evenly, then when it was browned all the way, move it to the front of the oven to cook the rest of the way, also turning frequently.

When the apple tart is done, you paint the top with an apricot glaze.

For the onion tart, you just spoon in the onions and the bacon and then fill with custard. Be careful not to overflow – which I did. Cook it the same way, but it only takes 10-15 minutes total. When the liquid is solidified and the filling jiggles but is not runny, the tart is cooked.

For the quiche, you drop in the blanched bacon, then spread around the cheese, then fill in with custard. Cook the same way as the onion tart.

Here they all are:

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Here is Chef's apple tart. Look how much browner it is.

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But he told me mine was done, and to take it out. I asked how he knew and why two fully cooked tarts could be such different colors, and I did not get an answer that I fully understood. Basically, he said that a tart is cooked when the apples were cooked, and that the apple is cooked when a paring knife slides in easily and does not press down. But how he could tell that by sight I have no idea.

Sorry I did not take more pics as class went on. At first, I just forgot as the crush of work got to me. Chef kept barking over and over that we were way behind, and all I could think about was catching up. Then by the time I realized that I had so few pictures, my hands were such a mess that I feared I would mess up the camera, getting flour into its guts, if I handled it. And I didn’t think I had time to wash my hands at every stage. So I just gave up and waited to take pics of the finished products.

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My method is to let the egg mixture start to firm up and use a spatuala to heap the firming eggs while tilting the pan to run the loose mixture into the cleared part of the pan.  The result is large folded curds which are plated while wet and there is a pleasing eggy taste in the result.

There you go! That's how I make them.

Starkman

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I see your points about the limits of culinary education for this kind of thing. But on the other hand, just having someone show you stuff like "this is the correct texture" is invaluable. I had to learn that on my own, and it took forever.

As you said, you have to practice a lot to get good at it, but now you KNOW what you're striving for. Priceless.

All the little details and dictums he threw at you will either show their importance (or irrelevence!) if you decide to practice more.

One dictum that falls by the wayside is that pastry must precise and there's no room for improvisation. In fact, most pastry recipes are incredibly malleable. Even if consistency is your goal, it's more important to judge texture and correct things on the fly than to stick to recipes. Your chef seemed to demonstrate this even without acknowledging it!

Other things, like cakes, are more like lab work.

Notes from the underbelly

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Not being a pastry chef myself, I'd say that the answer to the different brownings of your apple tarts might be in the slicing. Your tart has some apple edges that look in danger of burning, while the rest looks reasonably well done. Your chef's tart looks more done overall, but with no burned spots, so I'd say that his apple slices were more even than yours, allowing him to get the tart browner without burning any bits.

But for a person who never does pastry, I'd say your tarts look pretty darn good. How did they taste?

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Sorry, there are no photos. Egullet does not allow outside hosted photos anymore, and that is the only way I know how to do it. Hosting them here was too complicated for me to figure out. If you are interested in the pics, they are on my blog, or else here: http://www.styleforum.net/newreply.php?do=postreply&t=96016

Yesterday was potato day, and who doesn’t love potatoes? Nobody. They may have a bad reputation because of Atkins and Taubes but that doesn’t make them any less delicious.

But first we had a quiz. No joke. We had to make an onion tart, from scratch, without referring to the recipe. Thankfully, I had studied it and written it out on an index card. But I didn’t need to refer to the card. The very process of writing everything out made me remember.

Chef took the idea of “quiz” seriously. At one point, Manager Guy was helping a woman who had been absent for part of the prior class. “Hey!” Chef barked. “What are you doing there? Get back to your station. This is a quiz. No help.” Right.

I did a much better job on the dough this time, and a much better job of rolling it out and shaping into the tart mold. I did a decent, but not great, job of making the little ridge decorations which, in any case, an onion tart does not need to have. The recipe calls for 400g of onion. I selected an onion that was 500g, figuring that by the time it was peeled at the root parts trimmed, it would be closer to 400 and if it was a little over, that would be OK. But somehow the onion didn’t fill the tart all the way. Against Chef’s advice, I cooked more onion while the tart crust – having already been blind baked – rested on the counter. “It’s not going to cook right if you do that. The dough is getting soft and it will be soggy.” But he didn’t really care, the point of the quiz was to get the dough right initially, and I had done that. And, for the record, the finished tart tasted great, better than last week’s.

We had our first really serious accident. Very early in the class, someone cut himself bad enough that he had to go to the emergency room. Chef grumbled about paperwork, as he had mentioned on the very first day, but the miracle was that the guy got three stitches and was back in class before an hour had passed. I have been to the emergency room twice in the past five years (once for a kitchen cut) and both times it took hours. An acquaintance of mine once told a story about how he cut himself and went to an e-room on the Upper East Side and had to wait five hours for treatment. By the time he got stitched up, he had lost sensation in part of his hand. The doctor, adding insult to injury, said to him “I wish you had seen me earlier, I could have saved your sensation!” Ah, New York … life in what John Lindsay liked to call “Fun City.” The lesson to draw from this is, if you cut yourself in Manhattan, go to an emergency room downtown.

It was, I should add, an accident prone day. It seemed like everyone cut or otherwise wounded himself in some degree. I was no exception. I think only one out of eight of us escaped without a bandaid.

The first recipe we made was potatoes gratin Dauphinois. This is similar to something my mother makes and calls potatoes Savoyard. I asked Chef about that, and he said the difference was in the cheese, but her recipe uses Gruyere, as did ours, so I don’t know about that. The other main difference is that she uses chicken stock rather than cream, which makes the dish a lot lighter.

Anyway, we used a mandolin to slice to potatoes. I have a V slicer at home, which is similar, but the one they have in school is the Real Thing. It is all stainless, as opposed to the plastic V slicer, it has many more features, and it is more adjustable. But it is also harder – and more dangerous – to use. The V slicer has a little hand guard shuttle thingy that protects your fingers, but the mandolin doesn’t. You are on your own. The advantage of the latter, however, is that you can adjust the thinness of the slices you want minutely. The V slicer just has two settings, thin and thick (not really all that thick, however. But if you want paper thin slices, the V slicer won’t cut it.

For Dauphinois, however, we wanted a moderate slice. This was not so hard. You protect yourself by pressing the potato flat with your palm and extending your fingers. Don’t let fingertips get anywhere near the blade, and certainly don’t use them to hold the spud.

Then you take a baking dish (though we used a sautoir, because that is what we had in the kitchen) and rub butter on the bottom and sides. Add some minced garlic evenly to the bottom of the pan. Lay the potatoes out in a circular pattern to cover the bottom. Sprinkle in a layer of grated gruyere. Add some cream, seasoned with salt, pepper & nutmeg. Then repeat. You can do many layers. We did three. Cover with foil and bake for about 30 minutes, then without foil for another 30 minutes. You know it’s done when a paring knife slides easily into the potatoes. I must say, this was a decadently rich dish. Delicious, but it can’t be good for you.

Then we did darphin. (I think that was the word.) This is a potato pancake. For this, you use the shred setting on the mandolin (something the V slicer does not have) and shred a bunch of potatoes onto a dry towel. Then you wrap them in the towel and squeeze out as much water as you can. Then they go into a bowl, where they are seasoned and tossed, and then into a small sautuese with clarified butter. It’s VERY important that they be as dry as possible at this stage, or they will stick. When they hit the pan, you shape them with a spatula to make the cake as round and even as possible. Check for a golden color on the bottom and then flip. Cook for a few minutes more, then into the oven. Same drill, a few minutes on each side to cook the interior. Then dry it on a rack.

Next was Pommes Anna. I have made this many times, using different methods. Chef’s way was the “classic” way, no surprise there. We used the mandolin to make thin slices – thinner than the thin setting on the V slicer. Then we made the dish in a sautuese. The truly classic way to do it, however, is to use a specialized pan called (appropriately enough) a Pommes Anna pan. But we didn’t have one. Another recipe I have uses a non-stick pan, but Chef scoffed at that. “If you cook it properly, it won’t stick,” he insisted.

The key is to get the pan very hot, then add clarified butter, let it get hot but not smoking, then take the pan off heat when you start to lay out the potato slices. They will cook as soon as they touch the pan, but not burn. You arrange them in as tight a circular pattern as you can. You can make this recipe with one layer or more. One, and you just cook it on the stove top. Two or more, and it needs to go in the oven. The other key is to dry the potato slices thoroughly (so they don’t stick) but NOT rub off the starch (so they stick together). Just pat dry. You need that starch to make the cake hold.

Let the cake cook for a while on medium low heat. Shake the pan very slightly to make sure the cake is not sticking, but don’t go nuts, otherwise it won’t brown. When the slices are stuck together, flip the cake. Flipping an Anna cake must be done very gingerly. One of the recipes that I have does not call for flipping until the end, when you can just flip it onto a plate. We used our flexible fish spatula. You have to sort of toss the pan underneath to move it with the motion of the flipping cake. Mine was two layers, so it had to go into the oven.

For lunch, we were not given any starch; we ate our potatoes. They were all pretty good, though Chef’s were better. Then after lunch, it was time to deep fry. This is fun to do, but not so useful to learn, because it is so rare to do it at home. At least, I never do. It’s too much trouble, it takes too much oil, and it’s too hard to clean up.

The first thing we did was watch Chef demonstrate Pommes soufflé. I had never seen this before. He didn’t want us to do it because you have to shake a pot with hot oil and he thought we would burn the place down. He took several very thin slices of potato (sliced the long way) and fried them at 275 for a long time, shaking the pot the entire time. We all stood back because oil was splashing everywhere. After 5 minutes or so, the surfaces of the slices started to bubble. Then they went into a second pot of 400 degree oil, where they immediate puff up like eggs. It was amazing. Then he took them out after a second or two (literally) and rested them on parchment paper. They deflated pretty quickly. They can be stored in this state frozen for a long time. When you are ready to serve them, dump them again in 400 oil and they will re-inflate. Stir them around in the oil until they are crisp and golden. You can then fill them if you like, or serve them as is.

We students fried four things: two different cuts of French fries, and two kinds of chips. Pommes frites are small cut fries. Pommes Pont Neuf are large. We hand cut them all. Consistency is not so easy, but I did OK. It’s similar to doing any battonet. First trim the potato into a rectangular shape, then cut planks, then evenly sized sticks.

The chips were cut with the mandolin. The plain chips had to be paper thin, something the V slicer cannot accomplish. The other chips were gaufrettes, basically waffle cut. This was the only thing that gave me genuine trouble all day. Using that setting on the mandolin was a pain, and took a lot of practice. If too thin, you shred the potato. If set to thick, there is no lattice work, no holes. The most important trick was to alternate the orientation of the potato with each pass over the mandolin. Think of the long axis of the potato like one line in an X. You need to alternate the orientation of that axis every time. If you don’t, you get a ridged chip, like Ruffles. Also, the potato does not pass through this setting easily, as it does through the straight blade. I found it hard to press through, and kept inadvertently holding the potato with my fingertips – a mandolin no-no if ever there were one. I got my (minor) wound on this exercise.

The fryers were nothing fancy, just pots of oil on the burner with a basket inside and a candy thermometer clipped to the side. Chef admonished us over and over 1) not to let any water hit the oil, and 2) not to let any oil touch the flame. Either could cause a lot of trouble. No one started a fire, thank God, but one person did forget to pat dry her fries, and when the wet potato hit the oil, it crackled and sizzled like a volcano. Chef, naturally, was not amused, and said so.

The chips get cooked once in 300 degree oil. The fried get cooked twice. First you blanche them, then drain them. They should be white and soggy at this point. Then you wait for the oil to heat back up and cook again. This time they should turn golden. The purpose of the double cooking is to create a crunchy exterior but maintain a soft exterior. The frites and the Pont Neuf are cooked the same way, but the latter take longer.

For all of the above, Chef stressed the importance of seasoning as soon as they came out of the fat. Hit them with salt while the fat was still wet, and the taste would be exponentially better. I think he was right.

Chef plated the Pommes Pont Neuf in a rather clever way. I tried to emulate, but mine were too short, so I did something similar, but a little different. It looked like Lincoln logs.

Chef’s fries were all cooked less than mine, less color, less crispy. I liked them, but I preferred my own a tad. Chef liked them a lot, too. The only thing he faulted me on was the lattice chips, which he said were overcooked.

Edited by manton (log)
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Thanks for the report as usual, manton. Let me know if you'd like help on adding photos through eG. It's complicated, but once you get it, it's not hard, and the pictures really add a lot to your story.

I'm kind of surprised that the gratin dauphinois didn't have you simmer the potatoes in milk before putting them in the oven. That seems to be a pretty usual technique here.

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Manton, sorry it's taken me this long to reply, but you should know that I really appreciate this thread. In a way that makes me insanely jealous of you! I don't know how many weeks are left on your class, but I am eager to see you through the end!

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Manton, thanks for this thread, it is a really great read.

It's also brought up a couple of interesting points for me, a UK reader. Namely the 'who gets to call themselves a chef' thing! There seems to be a wide variation between the US and UK, in that over here 'chef' seems to used much more, a cook being (usually) someone who works privately or in an institution (school or hospital for instance). As far as I can tell we don't seem to have line cooks over here, we'd call the commis chefs. One of my daughters is a commis, she did a year at college (technical college, I suppose, as opposed to university type college), was headhunted from her work experience (externing?) and her job title was instantly 'commis chef'. Or, as we used to call them when the family owned a hotel 'baby commis'! as in "Oh God, there's a bunch of baby commis coming to try out this week. Batten down the hatches and go to deffcon 7" :biggrin: . When she gets promoted she will be a chef de partie and then sous chef. All the chefs in her brigade are referred to as "Chef" by the waitstaff etc.

The other thing that interested me was the reference to women-as-chefs, attitudes etc. She sems to be seen as very much one of the boys which is fine, but the (female) pastry chef is seen as a sort of fluffy pet by the others, which really annoys my daughter!

Thanks again for all your posts, can't wait for the next one.

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i sure don't miss tourne. fun to see your knifework, though. thanks for posting.

I loathe doing torne's...but I'm a member of our Culinary Competition team and we're gearing up for regionals in Seattle first weekend of April. And part of the skills salon is Torne veg. I'm school every morning just after 5a with the rest of the team, torneing the crap out of potatoes until it's time for class at 7.

When we won state, the worst portion of the competition was in the skills salon. We were fine with processing our proteins, but the knife skills part killed us. The guy who drew the veg, was way nervous and took waaaay to much time to tourne and that squashed the rest of the time (we still had the pastry portion to go).

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manton--did anyone ask about the value (or lack of value) of triple cooking fries? Boil, fry at 300-325F, then second fry at a higher heat? In my experiments, I've liked triple cooked fries better than double cooked fries.

chips get cooked once in 300 degree oil. The fried get cooked twice. First you blanche them, then drain them. They should be white and soggy at this point. Then you wait for the oil to heat back up and cook again. This time they should turn golden. The purpose of the double cooking is to create a crunchy exterior but maintain a soft exterior. The frites and the Pont Neuf are cooked the same way, but the latter take longer.

Just to make sure, were the fries cooked twice at 300F? I'm trying to figure out how they would turn golden and crispy when cooked at 300F.

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