Sunday, November 6, 2011

Just Call Me Julia

Child, of course.  It is cliche, but since I'm living in France and all, I have to lay claim to this legacy at least once.  And wouldn't you feel like Julia Child if you spent a day learning how to make fresh pastries at Le Cordon Bleu?  That's what I thought.

I wasn't sure what to expect from the six-hour, one-time class. I knew it was for folks on vacation and wanna-be cooks, and I wasn't sure if we would really learn or do much.  Of course I was prepared to spin it as amazing either way, but I'm happy to report that it was just really, completely, totally great.

Le Cordon Bleu is located in an unassuming building deep in the 15th arrondissement, in a fairly middle-class neighborhood with no reason for tourists to come.  Upon arriving, I was handed an apron and shown into breakfast, where coffee and, duh, fresh pastries awaited.  I probably should have thought ahead to my total pastry consumption for the day when I dug into breakfast, but I did not.  Sorry waistline.

The class was taught by Chef Daniel Walter, who is absolutely everything a French pastry chef should be.  He's in his late 60s, with that French charm that surpasses any language barrier.  The class was translated into English by a vivacious woman who seemed to know a lot about pastry and had a warm, teasing relationship with the Chef that made for a very entertaining day.
The chef is the guy in the chef's hat. Tricky, I know.

Our first task was to roll out the croissant dough for the first turn.  The dough has to be made the day before, so that was the one piece we didn't do ourselves although they did teach us how to make the dough later in the afternoon.  So you roll out your croissant dough into a big circle.  Then take a giant slab of butter.  Give it a few good whacks with your rolling pin to soften it.
Me, whacking my butter
 Put the giant soft slab of butter in the middle of your dough circle, and fold the edges over to envelope the butter completely.  Roll it out.  Fold it (if you really want the details on how to fold, I'll tell you but it's not worth explaining right now).  Stick it in fridge to rest.

While the croissant dough was resting, we moved on to work with our brioche dough.  Which is similar to croissant dough, except it has eggs and more butter. Also croissant dough has a bit of milk in it.  Because of the high butter content, you have to avoid playing with the dough or it becomes gooey and really hard to work with.  We made a few different types of brioche - small brioche tete, large brioche tete, brioche nanterre (fancy name for "in a rectangular pan") and kugelhopf.

What the small ones were supposed to look like
What mine looked like

After forming the brioche, we set them aside in a special machine for them to rise in a controlled environment.  We pulled out the croissant dough, and moved on to the fun stuff - more turning (pastry code for "folding") and the actual formation of croissants and pain au chocolat.

You roll out the dough again - and it isn't supposed to thicker than 3mm when you're done rolling - and then you cut it into triangles. At the base of each triangle, cut a small vertical slit. Then roll from the base up, with your hands angled out.  Look, I drew a picture.

Forming the croissants was really fun, though more difficult than Chef made it look.  Also, the other side of the giant granite island seemed to be full of ringers whose croissants were looking eerily perfect. At one point I mustered the courage to ask one girl if she had any experience baking and she explained that she was here from the Czech Republic where her family owns and operates a bakery.  Ha! Ringer! I knew it.
These are Chef's croissants.

Lunch was none too shabby either.  It's a cold buffet, and based on reading other bloggers' Cordon Bleu experiences, they pretty much always serve the same thing. Which is smart, cuz its delicious. Here's my lunch plate.
Might have looked better if I ate the ham with cantaloupe, and the shrimp salad that goes inside the avocado.

After lunch, we worked as a group to make pain aux raisins and the Chef's favorite pastry, kouign-amann. Here's my glory shot spreading the pastry cream for the pain aux raisins.
I'm so intense!
Kouign-amann (or as I like to call it, "mmmmm....oh my god amazing.") is a speciality in Brittany. In a country that has an ongoing love affair with butter, this treat is considered by many Parisians and other French regions to have too much butter. Seriously.  So in Paris, they've reduced the amount of butter and sugar used. Essentially you take croissant dough, but when you roll it and turn it, you incorporate generous handfuls of sugar.  You end up with a long rectangular piece of dough glistening with sugar.  Lay one end on a baking sheet, and place thinly sliced apples in neat columns across the tray. Fold the dough over the apples so they are completely enclosed by dough. Bake. Eat. Love.

The finished product - warm, buttery, sweet with the warm apples....mmmm. I would add a little cinnamon. But it was pretty perfect.

By the end of the day, we had more pastries that any of us knew what to do with. The counters were simply lined with them and I can't begin to describe the smell in the room.

My finished product looked pretty awesome.
That's right. These are mine.

It took two full paper bags to bring home all the goods to Mr. Oil.  We promptly began fielding them out - first to friends J & M visiting from London, and then we brought some over to Mr and Mrs Magnum in return for them feeding us dinner.  Sadly I don't think we'll get to eat them all before staleness hits.  As for recreating this at home - I'm sure I will try when we're back in the US.  Because why would I spend hours and hours doing this in our tiny kitchen when I can walk two blocks and buy a fresh croissant!  I feel certain I will purchase a kugelhopf mold before we leave Paris.  And of course I will be searching out kouign-amman at every possible opportunity!  It was good to be Julia, even just for a day. 
My kugelhopf

Look how happy this made me