Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Intermediate Week Ten, Exams, and Normalcy

My apologies to anyone who was still following  my blog and wondering what happened after Intermediate week nine and didn't have the personal or social media connections to keep in the know--I could offer a hundred excuses as to why it took me over two months to write my next post but they're all pretty lame because in truth, I did have plenty of time but very little motivation once I returned home for vacation. My cuisine final exam was a disaster and I spent several weeks wondering if I had even passed the course because I didn't hang around town long enough to get my certificate. In short, I just didn't want to talk about it. We'll come back to that in a bit.

Intermediate week ten was really nothing to write home about. All cuisine practicums were finished and only one pastry practicum remained. Monday's pastry demonstration focused on the delightful world of bread-making--baguettes, French white bread, and fogaccia--and on Tuesday we made the baguettes and white bread in practicum. Rumor has it that Le Cordon Bleu has been tossing around the idea of starting a boulangerie program for several years now but they can't make it happen until they have a larger facility with a dedicated bread-making kitchen (we have only one dedicated pastry kitchen and one that is shared with cuisine... Don't get me started on the hygiene problems with the latter). It did turn out to be one of my favorite practicums, though, and the class was in a festive ready-to-be-finished mood.
White bread (bottom); Fogaccia (middle);
Baguettes (top left); ?? (top right)

White bread and baguettes galore--I still have some in my freezer;
It's hard to look fierce in the pastry kitchen but I tried

Tuesday also included the final cuisine demonstration, better known as the demonstration where students with enough absences remaining skip class because it wouldn't have an associated practicum. Although I was there I remember very little about it--the photos are my only record of what happened, and I can't even remember how to label them. Wednesday contained only the final pastry demonstration on the Napoleon or mille-feuille (literally, "a thousand leaves") dessert. At the end of class we had almost 48 hours to prepare for our final exam in pastry, and I dutifully holed myself up in my studio until Friday morning studying recipes and drawing chocolate borders and the word Opéra

Last cuisine demonstration--shellfish, some sort of beef,
and a blackberry dessert is my best guess

Mille-feuille, so named because of the three layers of puff pastry

Friday's final pastry exam began promptly at 8:30 AM. As with the basic exam, the chef had selected two of the ten recipes from the final exam list for our class, and we drew a green or yellow chip from a cup that would determine which of the two recipes we would be making. My favorite pastry chef, Chef Tranchant, met us at the door which almost made me collapse with relief and joy. Things only got better when I drew a green chip which corresponded to the Fraisier, the strawberry layer cake that was probably one of the easiest of the ten--certainly easier than the dreaded Opéra or Bavarois that I had spent much of the past 48 hours praying that I would not get. Although it wasn't my best performance ever, I finished in good time without any catastrophic errors and walked/skipped away feeling entirely confident that I had passed.

A good three days remained to study for the cuisine final exam, but I had also made plans to sneak back to Greenville the morning after and surprise my parents by arriving a week earlier than they expected. Even with some last-minute souvenir shopping and packing I was able to give myself ample study time, though, and by Monday morning my confidence was high. Only one recipe, the stuffed rabbit legs, gave me cause for concern because I knew the difficulty of finishing in under two-and-a-half hours, but I felt up the challenge. Unlike pastry, none of the cuisine chefs gave me cause for concern either.

The Intermediate cuisine exams were different from the basic in that we were divided into groups of two and each group would enter the exam at ten-minute intervals rather than all at once. A classmate Paul and I were in the second group scheduled for 8:40 AM, but I still arrived at school around 8:00 AM where some other classmates greeted me with, "We've got Chef Bogen." My initial response was to laugh--another student had told me that Bogen was dismissed two months ago after a "sick leave" that we all suspected was actually rehab, Surely they were pulling my leg... because that would be a really good gag. Nobody else was laughing, though, and someone explained that the school had a shortage of chefs for the exams. Nonetheless, I kept telling myself that they must be mistaken as I walked to the door of the exam kitchen . We stood outside mumbling things like, "Please give me the lamb" (the easiest dish by far) until none other than Chef Bogen poked his head out of the door and summoned the first two students.

From the hallway I could hear the coveted lamb recipe going to one student the duck going to another. Our chant quickly changed to, "Not the rabbit. Not the rabbit," until our summons came. Much to my relief Paul drew the rabbit (he's one of the best students in the class so I didn't feel too sorry for him) and I drew the stuffed red mullet with parsley sauce and a sweet onion flan. While not my first choice it was probably in the top five for me, and Bogen seemed to be in a mellow mood as far as I could tell. Checking my basket of ingredients and noting down anything that was missing (I needed chicken stock and ramekins for the flan), I went straight to work.

Everything seemed to be going well for the first almost two hours--I had developed good rhythm, I felt organized, and my time looked okay. My recipe required the use of both the food processor and the blender which meant that I had to time myself in such a way that I wasn't running into the couple of other students who also needed them for their recipes, but even that felt coordinated. The first issue arose when it came time to prepare the fish for baking. Up to this point Bogen had been fairly unobtrusive as the exam chefs are supposed to be--unlike in our practicums their role is simply to observe our performance, stepping in only if we're causing a catastrophe. As in the demonstration and practicum, I arranged parchment paper in a pan, stuffed my fish and set them on top, and then wrapped them in oiled tinfoil.

Bogen suddenly appeared at my side and began a lengthy demonstration of how each fish should be on his own piece of paper for easier movement in and out of the pan without damage. I could move the fish fine with a wide spatula, but rather than argue the point I did as he said. Then he told me to unwrap my fish from the foil and add a strip of oiled parchment paper first to prevent sticking. I knew that it wouldn't stick because it worked fine in class, but he was insistent. I began to feel myself tensing up but again did as he said. Then, before I could put the fish in the oven he told me to bake them on a flat surface rather than in my prepared pan so that I could slide them off easily. I stared at him a moment before calmly asking through clenched teeth, "What flat surface?" He said, "A baking sheet!" The only problem was that we didn't have any baking sheets in the classroom that fit into the individual ovens--they were all too large--so he instructed me to go to the classroom next door and find one.

The fish finally went into the oven and I had about 17 minutes to tidy up and make my Hollandaise sauce for the technical portion of the exam. The tapenade for the stuffing came out really nicely but the recipe made more than I needed, so rather than throwing the excess in the trash I made the mistake of asking Bogen if he wanted me to keep it for anything. He replied, "Weigh out how much extra you made, write it on the recipe, then throw the rest away." Confused, I repeated it back to him just to make sure that I understood, wondering if he was going to take points off for waste. It was unprecedented--students all around me were throwing out food if it exceeded the minimum that they needed for the presentation. I did it as quickly as possible and moved onto the sauce. (Incidentally, he never remembered that he asked me to do that and I threw the recipe out after the exam.)

The night before the exam I had practiced making the Hollandaise sauce at home but my limited facilities and equipment didn't give me the best results. This time, however, it turned out beautifully. The finishing herbs were already chopped and set aside, ready to go in, and all I had left to do was strain the sauce. In the middle of straining it, though, Bogen again appeared beside me and said, "I need you to stop what you're doing and plate your presentation or you're going to be late." Holding the strainer I asked, "Stop right now?" "Yes, put that down and plate your dish!" I set the strainer handle down which in turn caused thee bowl beneath it to flip on its side, sending my beautiful Hollandaise sauce down the front of my jacket and apron and onto my shoes and the floor. Throwing his hands in the air, Bogen shouted, "Look what you did now! You need to calm down--you're getting nervous and making mistakes! Clean that up." He handed me paper towels as I got down and quickly mopped up the floor. Fortunately, about half of the sauce still remained in the bowl--enough for the tasting, at least.

By now I had only about four minutes remaining, so pulled out the presentation platter and prepared to arrange the fish and flans on it. A piece of paper with the number four on it was taped to the platter and I unthinkingly pulled it off and tossed it into my scrap bowl as I wiped the platter surface clean. Bogen had earlier mentioned sliding the fish directly from the baking tray onto the platter, but I knew that couldn't be right--we were never to plate directly because the juices from the fish would create puddles. I moved the first fish onto a paper towel to drain and had it positioned just above the tray when Bogen popped up once more, yelling, "What did I tell you to do? You're going to break the fish! Move it directly to the platter! Set it down!" Another rule of fish is that it always should be served with the head to the left, but as I began to rotate it into position he again yelled, "Set it down now!" It went down at an awkward angle, the tail becoming detached, and Bogen said, "See, what did I tell you? And what happened to your number?"

Remembering the number taped to the platter, I pulled it out of the scrap bowl and taped it back to the side, apologizing that I didn't realize it needed to stay on. "Oh great," Bogen said, "Now you tape trash to your platter. Calm down because you keep making mistakes! And why are you plating on a cold surface?" It was another curve-ball--we would plate on hot dishes but always on the counter, yet he apparently wanted me to plate near the stove. The platter appeared to be made of plastic and the only available space near my stove was directly on still-hot burners because the class assistant had already taken over half of my stove to begin preparations for the next exam. The baking tray with the fish was sitting on the space between me and my neighbor's stove, so putting down some bowls over the burners I precariously balanced the platter on top. The assistant, Bogen, and I squeezed around my stove as I plated the second fish, this time sliding it directly from the baking tray to the platter as he directed. He pointed to the puddle of juices that it created, saying, "You need to clean that up." As I took a paper towel and began dabbing at the puddle he hollered, "Stop touching the fish! You're breaking it more! Calm down!"

After more chaotic plating with Bogen yelling over my shoulder the whole time, I mercifully got everything on the platter. Pen poised over his grading pad, Bogen said, "If you're finished I'll put you down as being only six minutes late. If you want me to taste your Hollandaise sauce I'll restart the clock and you'll be more late." I stammered in confusion, "You mean you're not going to grade my sauce? Which is a better option?" Angrily, he said, "Are you finished plating?" "Yes," I replied. "Then you get a zero on the sauce. You're finished." My mind still not registering, I held up the sauce and said, "So you don't want to taste it?" "Throw it away! We're done!" he yelled. And just like that I received a zero on the technical portion of my exam which, as I would later discover, was 10% of the grade along with a deduction of 12 percentage points for being late. I didn't even want to know what the judges would think about my mangled presentation platter or how Bogen would mark my organization. My only consolation was that I knew that the food tasted good.

Marching to the other end of the kitchen, I poured my sauce into the trash can and put the bowl into the dishwashing sink, not realizing that there was a "clean" and "dirty" side and inadvertently choosing the clean side. The dishwasher gave a, "Hey!" and I quickly apologized and pulled the bowl out, moving it over to the dirty side. Bogen, like some magical apparition, once more stood in front of me and said, "Now you're messing up the dishwashers. Why don't you go out in the hall for five or ten  minutes and just breathe." I'm not a violent person--I may talk big but I've never physically injured anyone (all childhood incidences between me and my siblings expunged)--but that was probably the closest that I ever came to wanting to punch somebody in the face. Given Bogen's height and my lackluster punching skills I was sure that it would not be very effective, so instead I moved to the hallway and considered items that I might be able to throw. After about 30 seconds, though, I got bored and reentered the classroom to clean up my work area.

Bogen was occupied with tormenting a student from the last group who was making the Provençal fish bouillabaisse and had reached her final ten minutes. He was hollering, "Bouille... base! Bouille... base!" while making a downward pressing motion motion with his hand each time he said, "base." The poor student (who wasn't normally in our group and who, from that day forward, would simply be referred to by the rest of us as "Bouillabaisse Girl") had a stupefied look on her face as the chef turned to the class and yelled, "Somebody explain to her what I'm trying to say." The rest of us only stared in awkward silence before going back to our cleaning.

Two students proceeded directly to student services to file a complaint against the chef while I trudged to my locker amid a flurry of classmates exclaiming varying forms of "What just happened?" Aside from Bouillabaisse Girl, my only knowledge of what happened to other students during the exam came from their heated murmurings down the staircase. I was fairly certain that I would be retaking Intermediate Cuisine but still felt more angry than concerned. Emptying out my locker and heading for the door, one of the two students passed by me, whispering, "We complained on your behalf, too." Oh great--now Bogen would think that I had made the complaint and haunt me all through my second run of Intermediate. When I got back to my studio I threw myself on the couch and spent a good half-hour or so just staring in silence at the ceiling, trying mentally to process the last three hours.

The morning's events had somewhat dampened my excitement over the prospect of going home, but eventually I was up and packing and soon my spirits began to revive. My flight was scheduled for 9:25 AM Tuesday morning and my plan was to head out the door and get onto the metro no later than 6:30 AM. My bags would be fully loaded--in September United had reduced the number of free check-in bags from two to one and the maximum weight from 70 to 50 pounds for buddy-pass fliers, plus I had accumulated a number of items from school, meaning that in the spring or summer when I made my final trip home, if I wanted to take back everything then I would have to take back as much as I could get rid of now. Loading two checked bags up to 50 pounds, a backpack to about 25 pounds, and a shoulder bag with anything else that would fit, I finally went to bed sometime after midnight only to awake two hours later with the pre-flight/rough prior day jitters. Getting up, I cleaned the studio and piddled around the apartment until about 6:20. Remembering to take the trash out before I went, I pulled the bag from the kitchen container and discovered a small leak that had left a giant pool of clarified butter (from my futile Hollandaise sauce practice) in the bottom of the trash can and all over the kitchen floor.

After the cleanup of that mess I had considerably less time remaining to get to the airport than originally intended, and in my calculations I did not properly factor in how much extra time hauling some 125+ pounds of luggage through three metro changes would take, either. For one thing, metro turnstiles are about half-an-inch smaller than the standard suitcase width, and one click of the turnstile will get one human with one bag through if carefully planned with little hope for the other suitcase. Nobody was working at the window that time of morning, either, so in a rare moment of forward-thinking I went down on all fours and managed to shove both suitcases ahead of me underneath the turnstile and out the other side. Managing stairs was also a challenge as was pulling both suitcases into the train doors, but the most terrifying moment came at the final RER train station where I had to get on a long, narrow escalator going up. I made about three attempts, backing out at the last second each time and allowing other passengers to go ahead of me until a kindly woman offered to take one of the suitcases up for me, possibly saving my life and the lives of anyone riding behind me.

Actually, there were several acts of kindness that morning that warmed my heart a bit towards these crazy Parisians (although they might all have been tourists) and showed me that God was still keeping an eye on me even when I was being a stubborn cheapskate who refused simply to hire a cab. On my first train when I struggled aboard looking a good bit bedraggled, a group of young men were casting glances my way and apparently talking about me. When they got up to leave one stop before mine, one of them said (in French), "You look very tired. Have a good day," and gave me a pat on the arm. At the next stop when I got off and attempted my first haul up a large set of stairs, a man behind me picked up the bottoms of my suitcases and helped me carry them to the top. On the second turnstile attempt at the RER station, a man that had already gone through handed his things to his wife and came back to pull my suitcases through for me just as I was ready to attempt the shove technique again. And at the top of the escalator between the two train platforms as I looked at the signs to see which one I needed, a man pointed to my right and said, "Charles de Gaulle is that one." Both the flight to Newark and the flight to Greenville were only about half full, too, ensuring me a seat and a little extra space.

Standing in the customs line in Newark, tears welled up in my eyes as I saw the little American flags strapped to the top of each booth, and again as I sat at my departure gate for GSP and heard the southern accents all around me. The realization that these were "my people" became even stronger as a couple of Clemson frat boys sat opposite me in their bright orange shirts with the white tiger paw and matching duffle bags. Arriving at GSP a few minutes earlier than scheduled around 4:00 PM, I stood outside the baggage claim, soaking in the afternoon sun surrounded by grass and maple trees and noticing that the fall colors decided to hang around a little longer just for me. My sister soon drove up with all six of her kids in the car and I got seven of the best hugs I had had in over five months. We went straight to Mutt's BBQ where I successfully surprised both my mom and dad and reunited with my brother and his wife and four kids. Hugging isn't as overrated as I used to think. Southern barbecue is also something that one should never take for granted.

The next few days were filled with seeing friends and family, driving to the mountains, filling up on fall, and seeing my church family. One of the greatest blessings of this vacation, though, was that my old boss graciously agreed to let me return to work for six weeks, actually putting me back on my previous salary. One of my concerns while in Paris as my bank account quickly dwindled was that a trip home would be more expensive than just staying put--not just the cost of the flight, but eating out, gas money, and dozens of other little extras along the way unless I planned on mooching off of friends and family for the next two months. Then just like that I once again had a good, steady paycheck--something I hadn't planned on getting until at least this spring or summer.

Not only did the work cover the expenses of going home, but it filled up my bank account with enough money to ensure that I will have plenty to live on should I get one or both internships. God had once again worked everything out perfectly beyond my limited scheming--the idea only took root in my brain after a former coworker emailed me on my birthday and I joked that maybe the office would need me over vacation--up to that point I was only hoping that maybe I could at best find some part-time work somewhere for minimum wage. His response was, "Seriously--you should ask." People offered me sympathy because I would be would be working over vacation, but it was one of the best things that could have happened. As an extra bonus, we had several days of amazing weather and I spent many a lunch hour just  meandering through our beautiful downtown.

Probably the most photographed location on Main Street, Greenville

Falls Park in Greenville, a favorite lunch spot

Panoramic from the center of Liberty Bridge in Falls Park

Of course, I still found time to hit all of my favorite nearby locations such as Dollywood in Pigeon Forge and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, and I bought season passes to both places with the full confidence that I would be returning many times within the next year. Having the season passes is sort of like a security blanket--a little reminder that when this semester has its challenges (because it will) or I'm feeling particularly homesick (because I will) that I can say, "This too shall pass."

What's a trip home without a selfie with Yukon Cornelius?

Returning to Paris was actually a little harder this time around. The honeymoon phase ended long ago and we had quickly become something of a bickering married couple, so that initial excitement with all of its romantic notions wasn't traveling with me this time. I could even feel myself getting testier in the days before my departure (I'm sure those around me felt it even more), and when my sister's family drove up to the house to say their goodbyes just as we were loading up to the head to the airport, I began to feel almost despondent. I couldn't even attempt to speak as we unloaded the car in front of the airport and I gave my parents one last hug.

At this point you're probably wondering if I regret my decision to pursue this path in life. It was a question I asked myself many times over the last couple of months as well as I would stealthily drive by my old house or spend time with the people that I love or see that deposit in my bank account every two weeks or look at photos of my dog romping around in Indiana. But another blessing of returning to my old job was that it reminded me that although it's a great place to work, it's not what I want to do for the rest of my life. Things may be forever changed and this may be the hardest next few months of my life, but it's all for a purpose--for something better. Jeremiah 29:11 says, "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.'" It's that promise of a "future and a hope" to which I'm clinging, and there's nobody better to be in control of it than the Lord.

Getting back to school also helped reinforce my motivation to finish. Written confirmation that I passed both Intermediate Pastry and Cuisine was a definite boost to my spirits, even though the latter I achieved by less than seven points on my exam (I needed 50% to pass and squeaked by with 56.5%, but I did make 77.2% on the pastry exam--much better than the 52.7% last semester). Some of the old excitement is building back up as I leaf through the Superior recipe books and peruse the schedule, and being the equivalent of the "Senior class" at school is a pretty special feeling. I've refreshed my goal once again to "be the best" rather than "just survive and pass," a short-lived idea no doubt but always a good way to start the semester.

Intermediate certificates, scribbles and all

Intermediate Cuisine class

Intermediate Pastry class

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Intermediate Week Nine

I've mentioned my obsession with spreadsheets, and my class schedule is no exception. Not very long ago I was looking at the new Intermediate schedule and feeling like an eternity stretched before me, but looking back over it again at the end of week nine makes me wonder if I went through some sort of time warp. This bird's-eye view is my favorite--it reminds me that while things might seem a bit daunting or even impossible at the beginning, the day will come when those sometimes enjoyable, sometimes trying days will be behind me and I'll be one step closer to my goal. It's a good reminder, too, because I'll be back at week one again in January. For several months before I made the decision to come to Le Cordon Bleu and completely dismantle my life, I anticipated these moments, reasoning with people that while it seemed late in life to be making such a big change--that getting where I want to be was going to be a long, tough row to hoe--time would continue on regardless of my decision. Every year that passed of doing nothing I would keep looking back and thinking, "If I had just started at such-and-such a time I would have finished by now." Sure, the hardest days may still lie ahead, but each day of success makes the end more palpable and real--not some distant, fuzzy dream.

Monday through Saturday with classrooms down the left side; three-hour class buckets across the top
Green = Cuisine; Orange = Pastry

Monday

Classes were squeezed into four days this week giving us a free day on Monday. It was providential timing because John and Suzie Lehman from my church back home were returning from Lebanon with a 20-hour layover in Paris. At 2:00 PM I met them at the airport to help them find their hotel and give them the whirlwind-version tour of Paris. The weather couldn't have been more beautiful which made the eight or so miles that we walked all the more enjoyable. Starting from Notre Dame Cathedral we made our way down to the Louvre, through the Tuileries Garden, past the Place de la Concorde (where I was very excited to recognize the fountain from one of my favorite paintings that my pastor did), and all the way down Avenue Champs-Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe (the Lehman's are cycling fans--it was kind of a mecca for them). We completed our tour with an obligatory stop by the Eiffel Tower in time to catch the sparkly light show before heading to dinner. We rounded out the evening with gelato at Amorino's before the Lehmans braved their first trip on the Metro back to the hotel.

John and Suzie Lehman at the Place de la Concorde fountain

As impressive as Paris is, my favorite part of the day was just being with this couple. While smiling at strangers in this city may be, well, frowned upon, I don't think that the two of them ever stopped, and observing John was particularly enjoyable--every runner that passed us got a wave and shout of, "Good job!" causing some of them to almost stumble with surprise, at least half a dozen people received assistance in getting group shots, and the waiter at the restaurant got more compliments on the food and service than he probably ever heard or deserved. The whole time I was thinking, "Whom does John remind me of?" until it finally hit me later that evening: Buddy the Elf (the less goofy and better dressed version, of course). Those of you who know me well know that I mean that as only the highest form of compliment because I would totally want to hang out with Buddy if he ever came to Paris. That would make a great sequel, as a matter of fact: Elf in Paris (I'm going to call copyright on that idea... if that's how one copyrights ideas). Afterwards I thought, "I should be more like that with people!" but my resolve quickly died by probably my next visit to the grocery store.


Tuesday

Like the croissant pastry lesson in basic, Croquembouche needed two entire pastry classes in a row. The Croquembouche is a traditional French wedding cake composed of a caramel nougatine base--a sort of almond brittle-- topped with cream-filled choux pastries and decorated with more nougatine and white frosting similar to what one might use in decorating a gingerbread house. Pastry classes tend to be a little more slow-paced than cuisine classes, but this one was tortuous. Watching the chef make a couple of choux pastries is one thing, but watching him make about 100 and then observing him dipping each one into caramel and arranging them into two towers was really, really... long. Things got interesting again around hour four when he showed us pulled sugar, a sort of bonus and a task with which we'll become more familiar in superior pastry, but even that became painful to watch after an hour or so. I spent much of the six hours thinking of ways that I could sneak coffee into class in the future.

The result of 6 hours' work: Croquembouche and pulled sugar designs

At 3:30 we joined Chef Poupard for a cuisine demonstration on "fantasy" of smoked and fresh salmon (no, I don't know why it's called that, but it was pretty good), sea bass in a salt crust served with a vegetable tart puff pastry (because the French can't leave perfectly good and healthy zucchini, eggplant, and tomato alone), and chestnut cake with caramel ice cream. While the pace was much faster than in the pastry demonstration, I decided that I never want nine hours of demonstrations in one day again. I also discovered that if one hangs around class a little while after it's finished, a lot of dessert is left over because a good number of students leave before we even reach the dessert tasting. I won't say how many unclaimed dishes of caramel ice cream I rescued, but it was so good.

Sea bass baked in a salt crust; Vegetable tarts,
Salmon rillettes; Chestnut cake with caramel ice cream

Wednesday

Despite a week of classes squeezed into four days, our only class Wednesday was our cuisine practicum at 3:30 to make the sea bass and vegetable tart. It was my week to be the assistant again and Caals wanted us to make the salt crust for everyone (or at least weigh out the ingredients in the mixer for him). My fellow assistant showed up only after I got all of our food from the basement, so I suggested that he measure out the salt crust ingredients while I retrieved the puff pastry sheets from the third floor kitchen. When I came back he was at his station sharpening his utensils and the bowl for the salt crust was still empty. Asking him again if he could take care of it while I went next door to get flour, I came back and he was chopping his vegetables for his sauce. Seeing this was a battle that I would not win, I finally did it myself.

Of course I was the last person to finish our dish, and I had to keep my facial expression in check when chef came to my station asking me why my fish was the only one not yet in the oven. Caals also assigns us stations in the classroom and two burners didn't work on my stove nor did my oven function properly--the tarts that were supposed to bake in 20 minutes were not even brown after 40 minutes. Caals finally gave everything a cursory check without bothering to taste anything (except the sauce) or waiting for me to plate before he took off. It worked somewhat in my favor, though--only after enveloping the sea bass in the salt crust did I realize that I had forgotten to add any seasoning or herbs into its stomach cavity.

Thursday

We began our day with Caals doing a demonstration on marinated sea bass and shellfish with aromatic vegetables, roasted veal tenderloin cooked pink with creamy risotto, asparagus coulis, and mushroom duxelles in Mornay sauce, and mango poached in vanilla-passion fruit syrup with strawberry granita and meringue fingers. The veal was our last dish on the final exam list--an unusual but desirable choice because while it has several components, it requires very little technique. I should probably not get my hopes up about pulling that one from the hat...

Seas bass and shellfish; Poached mango with strawberry granita and meringue fingers;
Veal tenderloin with creamy risotto, mushroom Mornay sauce, and asparagus coulis 

After lunch we again met up with Caals in our practicum for the veal tenderloin. Once more I had to play the sole assistant only this time it was because the other assistant was late to the previous demonstration which meant that he was marked absent and not allowed to attend the practicum. The problem was that he had already hit his maximum six absences, meaning that he was automatically disqualified from graduating. He wasn't going down without a fight, though, so while student services, the executive chef, and our chef were off somewhere having a little meeting with him I was trying to hunt down chicken stock. In the end, they gave him a reprieve and he joined the rest of our class looking relieved and a little embarrassed, although probably not as much as he should have. Honestly, I like the kid (he's actually 22), but I have very little pity for a student who uses up every absence because he overslept... sometimes through classes that started 12:30, 3:30, or even 6:30 in the afternoon or evening. It's also fairly easy to identify which students have sacrificed everything to come to school here and which ones are being supported financially by their parents or a scholarship. These are the thoughts that I pondered while running down to the basement for the third time to get missing ingredients.

My performance seems to vary with the chef--with some chefs I do consistently well and with others I screw up a lot of things. Caals has experienced more of my screw-ups than anyone, but despite the delays this dish actually turned out really well. His only complaint was that my meat wasn't pink enough, but my jus, asparagus, asparagus coulis, risotto, and mornay and mushroom duxelles sauce were all quite nice. We finished about an hour early, too--I really, really want to pull this dish on the exam.

The next class didn't begin for over three hours, so after returning to the studio I spent the rest of my free time catching up on some recipes that I had not yet typed up. That evening we had Caals for the third time that day, this time doing a demonstration on the Flanders region of France: warm skate and leek salad, pan-fried cod steak with Flemish-style red cabbage (cabbage cooked with onions, apples, and red wine) and fried onion rings, and a rhubarb tart. Rhubarb pie is one of my favorite desserts, and even though it would've been better with vanilla ice cream, I stuck around after class to help "clean up" some of the extra tart.

Skate and leek salad; Cod steak with Flemish-style
red cabbage and onion rings; Rhubarb tart

Friday

The Croquembouche began promptly at 8:30 in the morning. By now we were all old pros with choux pastries and caramel was becoming more familiar, so the basic techniques weren't difficult. The issue came from working with food that was approximately the same consistency as napalm. We had to roll out, line a cake mold with, and cut shapes in the nougatine while it was hot because it would break as soon as it cooled, which it did very quickly once it was taken out of the pot. To solve this problem we spread the nougatine on baking trays that we would pop in and out of the oven between shapes. Even that didn't make it simple--the trips to the oven were frequent and the nougatine grew darker with each reheating, so speed in working with it was essential.

Filling the choux pastries with pastry cream was easier but time-consuming--one of those tasks where every time I would look down at the pile of unfilled pastries I could swear that they were multiplying. The next step was to dip each pastry into boiling caramel--the hotter the better so that the little balls wouldn't stick in the saucepan. The only way to do it was by hand--pinching with two fingers the hole where we had piped in the cream, dipping the top in the caramel, and flipping it onto parchment paper. We quickly learned the necessity of having a bowl of ice water close by for when our fingers inevitably would make contact with the caramel, but after a few cautious dunks I got into a quick rhythm, still getting a little burn here and there but quickly taking care of it before any fingers caramelized.

Chef forced us out the room for our lunch break (given a vote we would have all stayed to finish), but we managed to come back early for the last major step: re-dipping each pastry in the caramel and arranging them into the cone-shaped tower. I was again making good time and perhaps getting careless, because I did finally manage to stick enough of my finger in the caramel that even the immediate ice bath wasn't sufficient to stop a large blister from forming (apparently the amount of hot caramel covering your skin is a factor in how quickly you can stop the burning). Overestimating how many pastries I would need to complete the tower, I made it smaller than necessary and it ended up at an awkward angle, but I was mostly pleased with the final result and Tranchant seemed happy with everyone's work.

Class Croquembouches

Because the second part of the Croquembouche took less than two hours, I was again afforded a nice long afternoon break before returning for the evening practicum on the cod steak, red cabbage, and onion rings. Miraculously the second assistant arrived at school before me and sent all of the food up in the dumb waiter by the time that I got there. Because it was the last practical of Intermediate and not one of the exam dishes, three of the eight students in our class simply decided not to come, figuring that their grades were safe enough by this point. It was, as one student put it, the most "chill" class that we've ever had--almost like making dinner in my own home. Nobody was rushing around because the dish was so simple and there was little to do while waiting for the cabbage to cook, we were experimenting with onion ring batter, the kid that asks too many questions was deep-frying his extra fish just because he had the time (and we had a lot of extra fish), and our chef was out of the room for extended periods of time while we were singing "Fly Me to the Moon" (that did bring the chef next door over to ask jokingly, I think, if we thought we were in singing school or cooking school). My fish ended up slightly overcooked and the cabbage, though quite tasty, wasn't sliced thinly enough, but the onion rings were great (I curdled the milk for the batter with vinegar to make "buttermilk" and added a little cayenne pepper to the flour to American-ize them a bit).

Saturday

One habit that I've had since I got here is to check the local weather forecast each morning on my phone as soon as I wake up, and I always check the forecast for Greenville as well. Imagine my surprise when I saw that back home it was... snowing. Now those of you from places such as, say, Wisconsin might wonder why that's such a big deal (I saw my first snow while living in the UP in October), but when you live in a land where the average number of snow days per year is 0.5, it's significant. Instead of doing anything productive I spent most of my day monitoring the weather app and looking for new snow photos on Facebook, living vicariously through the people back home.

The Twilight Zone

Not that I could complain about the weather in Paris, mind you--it was a gorgeous day--although I am a bit cranky about the shared heat in my building that first came on a couple of weeks ago. Back home in my drafty old house I would set my thermostat to 58 degrees at night and sleep in flannel or fleece pajamas under flannel sheets, a down comforter, and another blanket or two. I love sleeping like that. Now I have no thermostat and the indoor temperature has been perpetually around 75 degrees since the heat came on--I haven't even been able to use my winter pajamas or the blanket that I bought back in August when it was so cold at night. Leaving the terrace doors open cools it down only a little because I still keep the shade down for privacy, but it also invites in a host of fruit flies and mosquitoes. I could try covering the vents, but I think that most of the heat is radiating up from the two floors below me.

Taking advantage of the lovely day, however, I finally decided to pull myself away from the computer and take a stroll down to Marks & Spencer to replenish my bacon supply and grab a few ingredients in order to practice making a Béarnaise sauce for the technical portion of the final exam. It's nothing terribly complicated, but the last time that we made it was in basic cuisine and I figured I could use any practice that I can get. Back at the studio I did my hair and makeup for an astonishing third time that week because Gretchen had an extra ticket to see the famous opera singer Cecilia Bartoli performing at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. The performance was fabulous, of course--probably the best voice that I had ever heard live. I mean, my dad has a good voice and I've heard him sing a LOT, but this experience was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things that you don't soon forget.

She ended the show in this outfit--I admire her ability
not to sweat almost as much as I admire her voice.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Intermediate Week Eight

This week was one of many happy events, some related to my birthday and some just coinciding with my birthday week. My spirits were at an all-time high, broken only temporarily upon discovering that the locker thief struck again, but I digress. Some events I'll address in my summary of the week, but here are a few highlights:
  • Marks & Spencer. A classmate from the UK told me on several occasions during my bacon rants that I could probably find real bacon at this British-based store, but I was skeptical and not willing to go out of my way to test her theory until a special gift arrived that made me have to have bacon. After a quick search online for the closest one, I discovered that one was only a 15-minute walk from my studio. It still wasn't on par with Publix or even Bi-Lo, but it did indeed carry bacon--super-salty bacon, but definitely bacon. It also carried prawn cocktail chips (or crisps, I should say)--a flavor that I've been missing since 1997 when I was in Cyprus. As if my joy wasn't complete enough, they bagged my groceries.
  • Chipotle. Yes, it exists in Paris and one sits in the mall right outside of Marks & Spencer. I'm not a die-hard Chipotle fan, but it's Mexican food, they have black beans, and as far as I can tell they aren't "Frenchifying" the ingredients--the menu was noticeably lacking eggs. The prices are a good bit higher (e.g., 9,30 for a burrito bowl vs. $7.20, which at the current exchange rate is about $4.50 more), they don't list white rice as an option, and I'm not sure what they use for sour cream, but it's kind of nice just knowing that it will be there when I need it.
  • Coffee Percolator. I have one. In my studio. It's been there since before I moved in back in July. When I came to Paris the only coffee that I could find was the strong stuff served in tiny little cups for a whole lot of money--and without cream, or you can have cream but it costs extra. My first studio had a coffee maker but it didn't look like something that I would want to touch, much less drink from, and not having my favorite Dunkin Donuts coffee anyhow caused me to give up entirely. I used to drink coffee--needed coffee--every morning before work, but life became so crazy in France that the habit disappeared easily; however, the arrival of a sentimental mug this week made me decide to take up the habit again. After searching my cabinets and finding the percolator, watching a few online videos on how to use it, and purchasing a rather nice Christmas blend coffee from M&S, I can't remember how I survived before now. Actually, the habit has gotten worse--I'm making it sometimes twice a day (limited only by the time it takes) and I often find myself daydreaming about my next fix (usually in the middle of class demonstrations).


  • G. Detou. I wanted to make something that called for cream of tartar but finding the stuff in Paris is like looking for a needle in a haystack. A Google search clued me into G. Detou (in French it sounds like the expression for "I have everything"). They did indeed have cream of tartar, and although the smallest size was over seven ounces, it was relatively inexpensive--only about six euros. They also carried a huge assortment of nuts and dried fruits, spices, oils, and more specialty items than I had time to take in.
These happy events were only the tip of the iceberg, though...

Monday

This week didn't start out as one to which I was looking forward--the prospect of celebrating my birthday all alone so far away from home felt somewhat akin to The Worst Birthday Ever back in 2005 when all of my family were scattered far and wide, my friends were tied up in the Sunday routine, and my trip to church in the evening was cut short by a fender bender and traffic ticket.

My first class of the day wasn't until 3:30, so I slept in a bit before getting up and puttering around the studio in my pajamas. At 10:00 AM my phone rang, and after some confusing gibberish back and forth in English and French, I figured out that it was the postman with a package. He wanted to know on which floor I was located and when I said, "The second," I heard his footsteps working their way up the stairs. Laying the phone on the table while shouting into it, "Hold on... Attendez!" I quickly changed clothes and abandoned the idea of finding my glasses to answer the door. Squinting curiously at the large box after I signed for it, I ducked back into the apartment and grabbed some scissors.

The first cut released an aroma that can best be described as... fall. More excited now, I tore into the box to find Pumpkin Spice and Harvest-scented Yankee Candles, Cracker Barrel sweet potato pancake mix and apple butter, a giant mug, Burt's Bees hand cream and lip balm, a cute door-hanging pillow, birthday party regalia, a card, and dozens of inspirational quotes and verses hand-written by  two incredible friends. Happy tears sprang into my eyes as I continued sniffing the aromatic candles, their scents all the stronger because their jars had shattered (but they were still perfectly functional). 


The afternoon's pastry practical was to make the chestnut mousse cake from Friday's demonstration. The only challenging part was piping the approximately 3,000 spikes all over the cake surface before spraying it with chocolate, but in the end mine didn't look half bad--as a matter of fact, the chef strongly applauded it. The taste, however, was terrible (because it was a terrible recipe), so I was more than happy to leave it sitting in the winter garden for other students to consume. Upon arriving home a half-hour later and opening the front door, those joyous smells of fall hit me head-on, sending me into another giddy spin.

Chestnut mousse cakes
Practice making chocolate cigarettes while waiting for our cakes to freeze



Tuesday

Although classes didn't begin until 12:30, I woke up rather early and quite excited to begin the day or, more specifically, to eat breakfast. My sweet potato pancake with a dollop of apple butter turned out perfectly as did the scrambled eggs that I threw in for a boost of protein, but something was missing, namely grits, bacon, sawmill gravy, and a good, steaming cup of coffee. The grits and gravy I could do without (not that I don't love grits, mind you), but my new mission became one to acquire the bacon and coffee. The coffee urge was also rooted in the new mug from my care package--I grow sentimental attachments to mugs, like the blue and white one that my parents sent to me in Wisconsin on my birthday, or the one from Alaska that a friend in grad school gave me, or the half-dozen or so mugs from our Swihart family reunions--and I was already attached to this one. I recalled seeing a strange contraption in the cabinet above the stove when I first moved in, so climbing up on a chair I pulled it down and disassembled it, thinking that it was some sort of teapot. The word "percolator" came into my head like some weird suppressed memory, and a few Google images later I knew that I was holding something life-changing, or at least morning-changing. Alas, I had not yet purchased coffee grounds so I proceeded on to school.

Our first class was a cuisine demonstration on the Périgord region, famous for its foie gras and truffles. The new chef, Mr. Touchy-Feely from our practicum last week, was struggling a bit with his first demonstration so Chef Lesourd, who was teaching next door, would duck in and out to assist. Things were a bit of a mess (not that I'm criticizing--for a first demonstration it wasn't as bad as say, I would do), but he managed to crank out pan-fried duck foie gras with roasted apples and a cider and walnut sauce for the starter, pan-fried steak with celery flan, Madeira and diced truffle sauce, and potatoes cooked in goose fat for the main course, and a caramelized walnut and pine nut galette for dessert. Because we ended so late and a pastry demonstration followed, I couldn't stay for the entire tasting and managed only to grab a bite of foie gras on my way out.

Duck foie gras with apples; Steak, celery flan, and potatoes;
Walnut and pine nut galette

Chef Tranchant led the next demonstration on Entremets Passionata, a raspberry and passion fruit cream cake. It started with a "cigarette" batter which gets its name from being used most commonly to make crisp, thin cookies rolled into the shape of a cigarette. In this recipe, though, Tranchant thinly spread out the batter in red and yellow stripes on a baking sheet before covering it in a biscuit sponge batter. Once baked, he used the striped cake to line a ring mold, placing a coconut dacquoise cake bottom in its center. A passion fruit cream center followed, and the cake was finished with a raspberry mousse layer and raspberry glaze over wild strawberries. In addition to the cakes, Tranchant made shaped pear jellies. Although I wasn't a fan of these candies, I do love orange slice candy and wondered if I had just figured out a way to make them from scratch (if successful I may be elevated to Favorite Child status because my dad is an even bigger fan).

Entremets Passionata; Shaped pear jelly

Wednesday

The morning began with a cuisine practicum to make the steak, flan, and potatoes. The fact that we were going to be making steaks had everyone pretty excited--beef had noticeably been lacking from the practicums in Intermediate. Some annoying mental block caused me once again to forget to degrease the bones before making the stock, and I spent much of the class trying various creative ways to get rid of the grease. In the end my meat was bleu instead of rare as the chef requested, my potatoes,though cooked well, were not uniformly turned, and my flan was okay although not very attractive. The sauce was actually the only perfect part of the dish.

We finished class before 11:00 AM and I set out on my quest for all items needed for a perfect Thursday morning birthday breakfast. Somewhere along the way I decided that I also needed no-bake cookies--cream and mousse cake on my birthday just wasn't appropriate--and I added oats and peanut butter to my shopping list of elusive grocery items in France. Between Marks & Spencer and Monoprix I found everything that I needed (I had to settle on a little box of Quaker oats and a tiny jar of something called Sun-Pat peanut butter that was priced about three times more than Nutella per gram). The last item on the list was half-and-half for my coffee. When you look for milk or creamers in France, don't go to the refrigerated section--these dairy products are contained in Tetra Paks and don't need refrigeration until they're opened.

When I got back to school that evening the locker room was slammed--some classes had just gotten out and others were getting ready to start--and I practically had to crawl over the two girls with lockers below mine to get my uniform and knife kit. Hurrying to get out I noticed that my tennis shoes were still lying on the ground, so I dug the key from my pocket and shoved the shoes into my locker before running off to class.

Chef Daniel, one of the newer chefs, was supervising our Entremets Passionata. We made the cigarette and biscuit sponge batters together in groups of four because we needed only one strip per person, so the cake was moving along quickly. Both the passion fruit cream and raspberry mousse contained whipped cream, and Chef Tranchant had suggested that we whip all of our cream at once to save time. Making my passion fruit cream base first, I pulled out the 240 ml of  cream that I had whipped and, in case you haven't already guessed, I used all of it rather than the 65 ml that the recipe called for. It wasn't until I was making my raspberry mousse that I realized my error, though, because the chef had checked my passion fruit cream and said that it was perfect (I did briefly wonder why it was so much more lightly colored and thicker than my classmates'). In order to make the mousse I needed to whip up more cream but I was afraid that in doing so I would clue the chef in to my mistake. Stealthily whipping cream in a metal bowl with a metal whisk is no easy task, but if chef figured it out he never let on--his final evaluation was that my cake was very nice. There are occasionally advantages to the chefs not cutting into or tasting our cakes.

Entremets passionata, heavy on the cream

When I got back to my locker my heart sank when I noticed that the lock wasn't on it. I exclaimed, "Oh no! I forgot to lock my locker!" to which a classmate a few lockers down from me replied, "So did I but there's nothing in there worth stealing." Opening the door I saw my lock lying inside with the key still in it, something that I may have done, and although nothing looked unusual I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. One quick look confirmed my fears: my cash had been reduced from 80 euros down to 60. My pre-birthday high hit an all-time low--was this locker thief checking my locker during every class? In a world of women who forget to lock up was I the only one getting robbed?

My thoughts during the disgruntled walk home that night swirled around plans for entrapment. Throughout this ordeal I've kicked myself many times for making stupid mistakes, but the money getting stolen is not my fault--the only person to blame is the thief and she needs to be stopped. Yes, putting on my lock correctly and actually locking it would be wise, but it doesn't solve the problem because there will probably be more times that I forget or someone else will become a victim. It's possible that I've been watching too many British crime dramas, but if Lewis, Hathaway, and Morse can solve the daily murders at Oxford then I certainly should be able to catch a locker thief. As with the other thefts, though, the Lord took care of this one with a special birthday gift that evening. Actually, these thefts have just about turned a profit for me from some philanthropic friends and family (but I still want to catch the crook).

Thursday

With my first and only class of the day not starting until 12:30 I had plenty of time to prepare my birthday breakfast (I also woke up early--couldn't sleep well with my brain scheming). The afternoon before I had done a test run on the percolator with great success, but when I opened up the cabinet to get out the coffee I saw my little box of cream as well--I had absentmindedly stuck it back in the cabinet on Wednesday after using it. While I can drink coffee black in an emergency, I was not about to be so easily defeated. Quickly changing out of my pajamas, donning my glasses, and giving the mirror a quick check to make sure that I didn't have anything like streaks of drool on my face, I ran to the little store down the street and found just what I needed. Rounding out my meal with a bit of ambiance thanks to the cigarette lighter that I had purchased the day before, I was finally able to sit down to the best breakfast--the first real breakfast--that I've had in almost five months.

Just waiting for the waitress to come refill my coffee

It was still early by the time that I finished and I decided to make my birthday cookies right then. Back in the olden' days when I had a real job at an office, birthdays were synonymous with office treats. It would be the first time in twelve years that coworkers wouldn't be bringing me goodies, so my only option was to turn the tables. Not having any measuring cups or scales, I used the studio's whiskey glasses and made rough approximations. The no-bakes turned out quite nicely in the end--a little flat, but every bit as tasty as I remembered them. Reserving only four to keep at home (not counting the one or two that I had already eaten), I bagged up the rest to share among my classmates.


Once at school I began freely passing out cookies, even giving one to a French visitor who was curiously eyeing my bag while waiting to go into our cuisine demonstration. She seemed to enjoy the cookies but puzzled over them, unable to identify the "secret" ingredients of oats and peanut butter, two totally foreign concepts in French desserts. I couldn't remember the French word for either one so I was never sure if she managed to figure out the mystery.

The new chef had his act together a little more for this demonstration although it was still slightly convoluted (though not much worse than what we used to get from Bogen whom, I recently found out, was given the boot). This preparation was focused on Lyon which is well-known for its cuisine, so it was a little surprising that the meal was completely the opposite of extraordinary. The starter was Lyon-style sausage with potatoes, but the sausage casing burst while it was poaching, creating a rather unattractive presentation. I really liked the potatoes, though--they were covered in a vinaigrette that was heavy on the vinegar just the way that I like it. The main course was pike perch dumplings--pike perch mousseline combined with a choux pastry batter and then poached--covered in crayfish (or crawdad for y'all back home) sauce. The crayfish were unfortunately alive prior to cooking them--something to look forward to in practicum. For dessert he made Mardi-Gras fritters, little fried pastries reminiscent of sopapillas only denser and without the accompaniment of honey and cliff divers (Casa Bonita fans--anyone?).

Sausage and potatoes; Pike perch dumplings with crayfish sauce;
Mardi-Gras fritters

Friday was going to be a full day of classes and I really wanted my cream of tartar--I was attempting to make a substitute for corn syrup so that I could make peanut brittle because 1) corn syrup is hard to find over here and 2) it's supposed to be really bad for you. As it turns out, you still need it to make really good microwave peanut brittle... Anyhow, a chef advised me to try Bon Marché which was indeed a really huge, fabulous store--almost more like a mall--but they didn't sell cream of tartar. They did, however, have three sections labelled as "USA" containing all foods that France equates with Americans for about three times the price: Cheez Whiz, Heinz hot dog relish, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Grandma's Molasses, and yes, even Karo corn syrup (I didn't buy any since my mind was set on making the substitution). I did manage to score some Arm & Hammer baking soda at least.

Friday

Our pastry written exam began at 8:30 AM. I spent an hour or two studying for it the night before, but my motivation was low--as we learned from basic, the written exam counts for only 10% of the overall grade, but the overall grade is meaningless--the only way to pass intermediate is to get over 50% on both the practicums and the final exam. As we also knew from basic, many questions would border on ridiculous--passing remarks that chefs might have made in demonstrations. No, I didn't know the name of the man who first made Baba au Rhum nor did I know what the other ingredient (besides sodium bicarbonate) in baking soda was... or that there even was another ingredient. My confidence was pretty good for probably over half of the questions, though, and within 30 minutes I was back to running around Paris looking for cream of tartar, this time heading straight for G. Detou. Because most of the pastry and cooking stores are located in the same neighborhood, I took the opportunity to stop in at at Bovida and buy a piping tip to replenish one that I had lost.

After taking an early lunch back at the studio, I joined my classmates to make the pike perch dumplings. Our fist task was to prepare the crayfish by first grasping the middle fan on their tails and pulling out their intestines. Unfortunately that was only enough to torture them but not to kill them, and they would become extremely agitated, flapping their tails and grabbing at us with their claws. To finish them off we threw them into a pan of hot oil where they took approximately five minute to finish dying. If you ever want to witness something unusual, walk into a classroom of eight students all apologizing or sadly yelling, "Hurry up and die!" to large pans of crayfish.

Once the crayfish finally finished cooking to death, we twisted the tails off from the torso, throwing the latter back into the pan for the sauce where we proceeded to smash them to bits with a rolling pin. After peeling the tails to get out the rather paltry amount of meat that remained, we moved on to the pike perch mousseline. Someone had already filleted the fish for us and we needed to remove only the pin bones and skin. Going back to my knife kit to get my fish tweezers, I discovered that not only were they missing, but so was my pastry crimper that had been nested inside of the fish tweezers. That was the last proverbial straw--invading my wallet to get out money was one thing, but pulling out my knife kit and selecting utensils was somehow in my mind far worse. The school doesn't provide fish tweezers in our knife kit, but the chefs do expect us to have a pair and I made a special trip out to Dehillerin in basic to get some--they were a lifesaver when I pulled the sea bream fillets on my final exam.

My dish turned out mediocre--the dumplings were cooked well but my sauce was too bland--but I hardly cared. Sitting in the next cuisine demonstration class my mind mulled over more schemes about how to catch the thief. We had a guest chef to start the class--an MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France or Best Craftsman in France) butcher was there to demonstrate how to cut up a lamb. He was the most interesting-looking man--almost cartoonish or how one might draw a caricature of a stereotypical Frenchman--but he was an amazing craftsman, making the process look incredibly easy and completing it in about 90 minutes. He also had beautiful hands and manicured nails, a feature that struck me as odd because I was actually checking to see if he was missing any fingertips.

Butcher Thierry Michaud (the striped collar is reserved only for MOF recipients)

Chef Poupard took over the last half of the class to make the main course of lamb fillet stuffed with dates, apricots, and rosemary and couscous with golden raisins, currants, pistachios, and hazelnuts. For dessert he whipped up a frozen catalan cream that I never had the opportunity to taste because our pastry demonstration was beginning. I was, however, quite excited at the prospect of making this delicious meal.

Stuffed lamb fillet & couscous; Catalan cream

The walnut cake was the last recipe on our final exam list. The bottom consisted of a biscuit sponge cake with chopped walnuts--a nice change from the usual almonds, hazelnuts, and pistachios. The main focus of the demonstration, though, was on making caramel. The mousse, imbibing syrup, and glaze for the cake had a caramel base and Cotte was making soft caramel candies as well. Having inherited whatever gene that my mom possesses that craves caramel, I loved this demonstration (the decorative macarons didn't hurt, either). I'm actually a little worried about the consequences of knowing how to make caramel from scratch now.

Walnut mousse cakes; Salted butter and chocolate caramels

Saturday

We began the morning by making the walnut cakes in our practicum. My caramel base came out perfectly on the first attempt and the mousse whipped up beautifully. I didn't have to make the macarons because we were sharing three batches between the entire class, but my cake came together without a hitch and for once I was even pleased with my decorations. At the end as Chef Daniel evaluated it he said, "Good mousse, nice glaze, simple but attractive decoration... Very good work today." Three for three in pastry practicums in one week was some kind of new record for me (even if one of the three was secretly messed up) and for the first time this semester I felt a little optimistic about the final exam in two weeks.

My Walnut cake

The written exam for cuisine was scheduled for 12:30. If my motivation for studying for the pastry exam was low, it was almost non-existent for cuisine. Chef Poupard, a.k.a., Map Chef, had written the exam and we knew that the questions would be almost entirely about the different regions of France. I used the hour-and-a-half between the practicum and the exam to look over my notes, but it felt more like studying for a geography test--I wasn't sure if we should know the capitals of each region, if we should be able to locate them on the map, or if we should study only the foods associated with each one. The last option made the most sense but seemed impossible--the 19 regions covered had scores of meats, produce, principal dishes, desserts, wines, and cheeses listed, many of them overlapping from one region to the next. I tried to pick out what might be the most specialized foods from each region but even that was hard to determine. The test did not disappoint my expectations, either--on the matching sections in particular I was making my selections based primarily on what sounded like a good ordering of the letters A through E. Statistically speaking, though, I figured that I should get at least a 25% (more True/False would have brought that up).

The last order of the day was to make the lamb fillets in our cuisine practicum. A new chef--one who shadowed our practicum class a couple of weeks ago--was in charge and when I asked for some help on how to trim my fillet he ended up doing almost the entire thing for me. That allowed me to get a considerable lead for once to the point that my classmates were asking with a little too much shock in their voice when I began to plate, "You're already finished?" As a matter of fact, I was one of the first to finish and had only to wait for the chef to evaluate the two students who got his attention first before he tested mine. His only critique was that in the presentation I should cut the meat into smaller slices, but he said that it was cooked well, all of the seasoning was good, and my jus was perfect, and he finished with a, "Very good work today." As if the day couldn't get any more bizarre, his final remark as he was evaluating the last student's plate was, "Everyone today made a sauce instead of a jus... every person but one," while pointing to me. Perhaps the collective gasp in the room should have been insulting, but I was quite pleased.

Sunday

Although I think the whole "spring forward, fall back" time change is completely ludicrous, I woke up early feeling quite refreshed and even made myself another "American" breakfast. At church I met the Nutzes who had come to Paris with the rest of the retirees from last weekend but had stayed over longer to visit with their daughter. Mrs. Nutz handed me a bag from Jean Martin explaining that it was a "little" something from both the travel group and my Hampton Park Life Group back home. Jean had told me that some of the retirees wanted to give me their extra unspent euros before they left so I was expecting a few coins, but inside the bag were 240 euros--one person alone that I had only met last Saturday evening had put in 100 euros. I was overwhelmed with gratitude, wondering how I could possibly thank all of these people for their kindness and generosity. The pièce de résistance, though, was the little plate that some of the ladies had found in a gift shop and that automatically achieved the sentimental status usually reserved only for my mugs. I'm not really sure how they even knew what it said:

"I never put my elbows on the table"

Monday, October 20, 2014

Intermediate Week Seven

A few times this week I had to answer the question, "How do you feel that you're doing in school?" Usually my verbal reply is something like, "Getting by," or "Not too badly, I hope" while the first phrases in my head are things like, "In over my head," or "Out of my league." I never expected to be the best and a while ago I abandoned the idea of "really good"--right now I'm hanging my hopes on "good enough to pass" or "finish without being the person about whom the chefs will tell threatening stories to their students for years to come," but after this week I wondered if even that was aiming too high.

Monday

Such plans I had for my Monday off--maybe a day trip to Strasbourg to see if I could find any fall color or a visit to Normandy to visit Omaha Beach finally--but a late night of FaceTime with a friend coupled with the perpetual feeling of being too exhausted to have fun kept me holed up in my studio all day. The only thing that inspired me to change out of my pajamas was a minor emergency: my newest favorite meal is fried eggs served over baguette slices soaked and fried in salted butter (French culture has grown me to love runny egg yolks spilling all over my food--pizzas, sandwiches, toast, etc.), so when I realized that I wouldn't have a baguette for breakfast the next morning I threw on my "workout" clothes and  hightailed it across the street to Eric Kayser.

Tuesday

After waking up blissfully late and leisurely enjoying my fried eggs and baguette breakfast, I headed to school to make the Mediterranean Scorpion fish and John Dory fillet Provençal stew (bouillabaisse) from Saturday's demonstration. For 16 weeks I have managed to keep my uniform jackets and aprons stain-free--everything has washed out of them--but apparently the black filth contained inside of a scorpion fish is impenetrable... and it splatters a lot. This fish also had sharp fins--after class I counted about seven puncture wounds (some may have been attributable to my fillet knife). The John Dory, however, though kind of large and unattractive, was probably the easiest fish that I've prepared so far--it practically divides itself into 6 beautiful fillets. Chef thought that my soup lacked enough saffron and she was worried about my timing (I barely finished on time and this dish is in our final exam list), but I wasn't too concerned--I figured out where I could rearrange my order of preparation and buy myself several more minutes. As a matter of fact, this is one dish that I hope to get in the exam.

Changing into a clean jacket, I joined the pastry students for our demonstration with Chef Tranchant on wild strawberry and vanilla treasure and pistachio dacquoise. It followed the stereotypical French pastry formula: sponge cake + mousse + pastry cream. The strawberry mousse was quite nice, though, and possibly for the first time I actually liked the taste of the cake by itself (and it wasn't even imbibed with syrup!). The pistachio dacquoise was under-impressive--just a cake covered in, naturally, pistachio cream.

Wild strawberry vanilla "treasure"; Pistachio dacquoise

Wednesday

Our only class of the day was a morning practicum to make the wild strawberry cake. It started off with a hiccup--we ran out of ground almonds just as I was ready to use them and I had to wait about five minutes for the class assistant to bring more (he was busy finishing his dacquoise)--but I managed to catch up by the time that we were ready to add the mousse and I was actually one of the first people to finish my cream layer. For the decoration we had to sprinkle the cakes with sugar and then caramelize it with a blow torch. If I had looked back at the picture from the demonstration I would have remembered that the chef's cake was hardly colored, but instead I attacked my cream with vigor, nearly blackening half of it and almost catching the cake on fire. A little glaze and several berries later it looked almost decent, and the chef didn't act as if it were too bad. My mound also appeared a bit lopsided and wider than the other cakes, but even that didn't seem to phase him (although Tranchant tends to be secretive with his evaluation marks).

My slightly-blackened, giant-mounded cake

Thursday

The morning demonstration was one that I had been excitedly anticipating--Toulouse cassoulet, a sort of white bean stew with tomatoes, lamb, duck, and sausages. For one thing, we had never done anything with beans before and I absolutely love beans (especially black beans, but I can probably abandon any hope of finding them on a French menu). Cassoulets also have the reputation as being a fabulous dish, and I liked the idea of making something that didn't require cleaning fish or birds. Chef was focusing on the southern coastal Languedoc region of France, so the starter was a salted cod purée with garlic and parsley cream and tapenade gressini. This was one fish purée that I actually enjoyed--it sort of had a creamy tuna salad feel. For dessert he made a tasty apricot and fig gratin. Another food that I've come to appreciate since coming to France is the fig, particularly fig preserves with whatever baguette slices aren't covered in egg yolk.

Cassoulet; Salted cod purée; Apricot and fig gratin

During the three-hour break between the demonstration and our practical, I went home and dutifully typed up my recipe before going back to school. We had one of the newer chefs for the second time--he doesn't speak any English but he's quite helpful... maybe a little too much. While I was sharpening my knife on the steel rod he said, "No, no, no!" and proceeded to stand behind me and take both of my hands in his as we awkwardly sharpened my knife together. Four months ago I might have found it surprising and slightly more embarrassing, but I've learned that it's just the French way--he had an arm around every woman in the class before it was over. Being a fan of classic movies and TV shows, I often mentally place the French male in the 1945 office atmosphere where a man would casually refer to a female secretary as "doll" or "sweetheart" and nobody would blink an eye.

The cassoulet wasn't supposed to be a difficult dish but it's also not something that should be prepared in two-and-a-half hours--the beans should cook slowly for a long time to absorb the flavors and the lamb should cook for hours until it's fall-off-the-bone tender--so we already knew that we weren't making the best cassoulets ever. This chef also wanted us to do things completely differently than the chef in demonstration, causing all of my pre-class organization to fly out the window in a manner of speaking. To make matters worse, I burned my pan of diced tomatoes and onions and could use only about half of them, which weakened the flavor in the already flavorless soup. Instead of plating our cassoulets we were putting them in foil pans so that we could sprinkle the finished product with breadcrumbs and give them a final bake in the pastry oven. After placing down the first layer of beans I turned to retrieve my lamb meat from the stove only to discover that a classmate had thrown it away. It was my fault--she wanted the strainer that I was using and I told her I was through with it, not remembering that the lamb was still inside--but I managed to scrounge a couple of pieces from some classmates. My evaluation, though disappointing, was hardly surprising.

Somewhat bland cassoulet

Friday

Because it was only a four-day class week, Friday was jammed with four back-to-back classes. Chef Poupard started off the morning with a chestnut mousse cake and chestnut barquettes demonstration. The cake was composed of three layers of hazelnut dacquoise cake, chestnut mousse, and candied chestnut pieces. Chef then covered the outside in chestnut cream "spikes" which reminded him of a girl he saw with spiked hair which segued into a talk about the cause and necessity of teenage rebellion (pastry chefs usually have a lot of time to kill when they're doing things like piping a million spikes on four identical cakes). It led me to think that he chose the right profession as opposed to say, psychology. The barquettes were simply sweet pastry dough baked with almond cream and covered in the same chestnut cream. The final step for both pastries (and something that should make Monday's practicum interesting) was spraying them with chocolate using an actual Wagner paint sprayer.

Chestnut mousse cake; Chestnut barquettes

After lunch we joined Chef Vaca in a cuisine demonstration on the region of Brittany. He made roasted langoustines and Brittany artichoke salad for the starter before moving on to the main course of Monkfish wrapped in bacon with braised artichokes and broccoli and cauliflower pannequets (a sort of pancake made with yeast)--naturally the one time that we use broccoli we bury it in batter. For dessert he made prune flans that were actually more similar to souffles and quite delicious. 

Roasted langoustines and artichoke salad; Monkfish wrapped in
bacon served over  pannequets with braised artichokes; Prune flan

At 3:30 we had our pastry theory class on ice creams. After already sitting through six hours of classes that day I was hoping for something that would keep me awake, but the chef spent two hours reading internet printouts on the history and types of ice, ice creams, and sorbets. While I love ice cream, listening to someone lecture on it for that long without so much as a sample felt like some kind of horrible torture. I did learn a few interesting facts, though. For example, did you know that Americans consume 23 gallons of ice cream per year on average? Yes, the French chefs enjoy pointing out our bad eating habits (I may be closer to 50 gallons).

Our first practical of the day finally came at 6:30. Although it had a lot of components, it was a straightforward recipe that shouldn't take too long... which should have been my first warning. We were in the nicest and largest practicum room, too--fitted with 14 oven/stove units, it provided plenty of room for the eight of us. Someone had already removed the head and intestines from the monkfish so we had only to remove the central bone and the skin. My problems began with the jus--it required that we brown the fish trimmings with chicken wings but chef said mine weren't caramelized enough, then I forgot to degrease the pan before deglazing and it ended up too greasy. The artichokes would have been okay except that chef pointed out some tough bits of stem still attached. Only two of my four pannequets survived being flipped over in the skillet (fortunately, I needed only one to plate).

The monkfish appeared to be my last hope, but when chef cut into the medallion it was uncooked in the middle. That was a surprise--after searing the fillets I intentionally left them in the oven longer than the demonstration chef recommended just to be on the safe side. Turning with a sigh to turn off my oven I was even more surprised to see that it wasn't on. The problem wasn't that I had forgotten to turn it on; the problem was that I had turned on the oven next to it. What's more amazing is the fact that the two times I opened the oven door--once to put in the fish and once to pull it out--I didn't wonder why the usual blast of heat didn't hit me in the face. My non-functioning brain went one step further by telling me to explain to the chef why my fish was uncooked... as if that made me seem any less incompetent (the look on her face led me to believe that it did not). The whole thing might have been excusable if I hadn't done something similarly idiotic several weeks ago when I plated the uncooked salmon-stuffed cabbage for Chef Caals instead of the one that I had cooked.

Saturday

Having a free Saturday following my rather stellar performance the day before was an incredible relief. A group of retirees, some who attend my church in Greenville, were visiting Paris and wanted to treat me to dinner and a Seine boat cruise, so after doing laundry, cleaning the studio, and typing up the recipes from Friday's demonstrations, I joined three of the ladies near Pont Saint-Michel. Two of them I had never met before, but I knew Jean Martin well from our Life Group and was absolutely overjoyed to see a familiar face from back home.

Mrs. Martin had to knock a few kids out of the way to get this shot

After an early dinner at a small pizza place we still had over an hour to spare, so we strolled a little farther down the street to find coffee and possibly dessert at some place with the ever-elusive public restroom. Everything was crowded but La Gentilhommière looked like it had some available seating inside. One downside of not having access to cellular data on my phone is that I can't use TripAdvisor--seeing the reviews and 1.5-star rating might have changed our minds. Our waiter was acting overtly annoyed from the beginning although we weren't doing or ordering anything unusual, but I shrugged it off--I had probably experienced worse. Normally servers visit your table only three times in Paris--to take an order, to deliver the order, and to get your payment--so I was surprised to see him approaching our table after we all had our orders. He muttered something in French while pointing down in the direction of the table in front of me. I had my coffee cup cradled in both hands, so I lifted up my arms to look down where he was pointing. He said, "Oui," with a nod and marched off. Right then it hit me--he was telling me to take my elbows off the table.

Now I may not be the leading expert on table etiquette, but I never chew loudly or with my mouth open, I hold my fork and knife correctly, and I never eat with my elbows on the table. This was just casual conversation and coffee in the late afternoon before Paris dinnertime at a mediocre café that was missing the seat on the toilet in the women's restroom. Still, when in Rome... But as I began looking at the tables around us I saw that they were covered in elbows--a girl at the table across from us was laying her head on her elbow on the table. The ladies with me were bordering on livid, brazenly putting their elbows on the table before quickly removing them, and one in particular was rehearsing the piece of her mind that she was going to give the waiter whenever he came back, but I decided to take the initiative instead. After he took our check I asked him in French (he also pretended off and on not to understand English) if putting elbows on the table was bad. He tentatively nodded yes but then looked at me with a stupid "Huh?" expression on his face so I repeated myself, pointing to all of the tables around me saying, "Like that, and that, and that? Is that against the restaurant rules?" He held up his hand and said, "No, it's not serious," as he turned and left right in the middle of my interrogation.

We joined about 15 other people by the Pont Neuf to board our evening boat cruise. There I saw some more familiar faces including the Stevesons who usually sit behind me at Hampton Park and who assured me that they were faithfully saving my pew for me. The evening was beautiful and after some final hugs I strolled the 2.5 miles home with a full heart, reflecting on the blessings and encouragement that God brings into my life and looking forward to my quickly approaching return home.

Cruising down the Seine