March 9, 2005
Here we are at the halfway point. I'm already lamenting the end of this class, thinking ahead to how I'd like to do some rearranging in my own kitchen, and where the hell I'm going to be able to fit a granite slab so that I can roll out puff pastry and do some of these chocolate tricks.
I selfishly slept 'til 6:15 this morning, skipping the Big Breakfast (too heavy for me, anyway) and going straight to lecture. As usual, we began by critiquing for Chef Eglinski our previous evening's meal. We also talked a lot about some of the techniques we'd been shown in yesterday's chocolate demonstration. In fact, we talked a little too much, because lecture time was slipping away. Chef filled us in on some of the goings-on behind the restaurants. Apparently, the misnamed St. Andrew's Cafe restaurant was conceived and opened at a time when healthy cooking was all the rage. The emphasis would be on fine cuisine that would also be lower in calories and fat. But at this point, the St. Andrew's Cafe is struggling to fill its tables and keep its students busy. There is talk that the restaurant may be closed&ldots;
&ldots;and more talk that the American Pie Bakery Café may be moved into its place. The Bakery is contained within Roth Hall, but does so much business that it could easily have a building of its own, more accessible to the general public. It was conceived as a place where students could come and get coffee and pastries, and they figured they'd serve 200-300 people a day. It's so popular, not just among students, but among the public, that they frequently serve more like 900 people a day. It's the CIA's third-largest moneymaker (after the evening meal at the American Bounty and the evening meal at the Caterina de Medici).
At this point, I'll pause and give some overall impressions. First and most important, this is a marvelous experience for any avid home baker. I know it will change the way I work and bake and THINK about what I'm doing. I think I'll finally feel free to improvise more because I'll know the reasons, the checks and balances, whether or not various mistakes are reparable and, if so, how to repair them. I'll be a less afraid person in the kitchen, basically.
And what's weird about this is that I've read so much of this material before, in cookbooks, but it's NOT THE SAME. Having someone with experience demonstrate it in front of your face, answer your questions about it, and then having to do it yourself, is like the difference between reading about skydiving and actually doing it. Reading all the cookbooks in the world hasn't given me a fraction of the confidence this class is giving me, DESPITE the fact that almost everything we're doing ends up flawed in some way.
It also helps to see that the chefs, themselves, frequently have problems.
I also have a criticism, however: there's a certain lack of organization with this program. For instance: all our dinner reservations were for 6:30 each night, in our schedules. But when we showed up for the first evening's meal (at the St. Andrew's Café), we were told our reservation was for 7. We called the American Bounty - last night's restaurant - and they ALSO told us our reservation was for 7:00. The group photograph we were supposed to have taken yesterday afternoon never happened (because of the snow, no doubt), but nobody ever addressed it or told us if/when it would be rescheduled until I went down to the Program Director's office - twice -- and pressed the issue. Today, there's an hour-and-a-half gap between the end of the hands-on work and the start of the Coffee & Tea Presentation, and more odd gaps in tomorrow's schedule as well. Reading assignments in the course syllabus refer to the Professional Chef textbook, but the textbook we received was "Baking and Pastry." (Very nice to have, but not very helpful for the homework&ldots;not that there is very much.) Heather's friend is joining her for dinner tonight (the Escoffier&ldots;the CIA's most upscale restaurant), but the friend's reservation was mysteriously lost, creating some last-minute problems.
So the experience is not wholly smooth sailing, and you'd think, as they offer these programs constantly throughout the year, that they'd have this all down by now.
To be fair, though, the staff is typically extremely responsive, and, most important, the quality of the instruction itself is superb. All the chefs and lecturers give us their email addresses and encourage us to contact them any time in the future with questions.
Okay, venting over. The lecture this morning covered the techniques for making Puff Pastry, which, as it turns out, is not all that difficult, but it IS very time-consuming and requires a lot of patience (partly because so much of the process is WAITING for the dough to chill after every time it's been rolled out and folded). You can create up to 1500 layers at the end, but I think the version we made today will end up being about 1100 layers. We learned that the most important thing when working with the dough - which actually consists of a dough portion and a butter portion - is that the two portions must be of the same CONSISTENCY. It doesn't matter so much what the consistency IS, so long as they match. We covered making the basic dough portion, the basic butter portion (which actually has some flour worked into it to make it more malleable), and the rolling and folding process. We learned the two different kinds of basic folds - four-fold (which looks, in cross section, like a palmier) and three-fold (which looks pretty much like the way you'd fold a business letter).
Since making puff pastry usually involves producing a lot of scraps - which, since they have to be re-rolled tend not to rise very much - I asked what the uses are for scrap puff pastry. Among them are: Palmiers, Voulavent, Papillion, Napoleons, and Cheese straws.
The lecture then moved on to meringues: the science behind the ingredients, and the three main types: French (or "common") meringue, Swiss meringue, and Italian meringue. Chef talked about how each kind of meringue, and your ingredients, are a balancing act between volume versus stability: older egg whites give more volume, fresh ones are more stable; room temperature whites give more volume, colder ones are more stable; sugar adds stability the more you use, but as you increase the amount of sugar, you decrease the potential volume. Salt adds volume; acids (like lemon juice or cream of tartar) add stability.
Incidentally, I asked what cream of tartar actually IS. According to Chef, it's essentially the refined scrapings of the insides of wine barrels. Tartaric acid is a purified form. It loses its acidity rapidly, he added, so if you have a tin of cream of tartar that you got from your parents, or has been in your cabinet for years, throw it out; it's probably pretty inactive by now. A little lemon juice does the same thing. Also, he said that if you use cream of tartar, mix it with a little sugar first. Like cornstarch, baking soda/powder, and other such ingredients, they tend to clump up and will do so if given half a chance.
We talked about the great Copper Mystery (why egg whites seem to gain more volume when whipped in copper pots), why you should never whip whites in plastic bowls (they collect greasy residue that will inhibit the meringue formation), and many other related topics.
Chef had planned to discuss assembling, frosting, and decorating cakes after the meringue discussion, but we were already 20 minutes past our 8:15 pastry break. He gave us our assignments for the rest of the day: break into our 3 teams of 2, mix up a batch of puff pastry components (the dough and the butter), and, while the puff pastry is undergoing its first resting/chilling period, make the frangipane, roll out the 1-2-3 tart dough we'd made the previous day, and assemble the tarts. We'd then assemble the puff pastry components and give it its first roll-out and folding. Time permitting, each team would then make a triple batch of buttercream , roll and turn the puff pastry again, and then assemble our cakes, and finish the day with one more roll and turn of the puff pastry dough.
That was the plan, anyway, but it didn't quite turn out that way because the lecture ran so late. We went on our pastry break, and I sampled a chocolate croissant since puff pastry was one of the main topics for the day. Incredibly flaky, but I think there were only 930 layers. Feh!
We returned to class and began immediately on the puff pastry components. I assembled the shaggy, sticky dough (cake flour, bread flour, very soft butter - "beurre pomade" as it's called, with the texture of hair pomade!), water, and salt. I pressed it out into a large square. I was concerned about its stickiness and moistness, but Chef explained that while it was resting in the fridge, the flour would continue to absorb the water, and it would be fine. Marie tackled the butter layer (butter and a mixture of cake and bread flour) and I whipped up the frangipane in anticipation of working on the tarts&ldots;easy as can be, except for when I started by combining the eggs and sugar instead of the butter and sugar, and had to start over.
Unfortunately, Marie stopped beating the butter and flour too soon, and the butter and flour were not completely incorporated. She didn't discover this until she pressed it out into a square to match my dough, there were large areas of pure butter. Chef suggested trying to press them out by hand, but Marie was a little tentative about that (I think she, like I, was a little intimidated by the concept of puff pastry!). The areas of pure butter would turn out to be an issue. Remember that bit about the dough and butter components being the same consistency? Well, after chilling in the fridge, the butter that had incorporated nicely with the flour would still be somewhat pliant, but the parts that were pure butter were going to be much harder. This could lead to trouble rolling and folding&ldots;
So the separate dough and butter layers went into the fridge, and we turned our attentions to the tarts. The tarts consisted of frangipane filling on the bottom and the fruit(s) of our choice on top (sour cherries, pineapple, and blueberries were at our disposal). Since each team made enough tart dough for two tarts, Marie and I were able to each make a tart completely solo. Both of us had a fairly easy time with the 1-2-3 dough, rolling it out into circles and fitting it into the fluted pans. We piped our frangipane into the shells. All very easy.
With her tart, Marie made concentric circles with the three fruits. I opted for a "theme" and produced a sort of American Flag effect, with blueberries in the upper left corner and rows of pineapple and cherries for the red-and-white stripes. Everyone kidded me; Chef said, "Ah, it's the patriotic Republican emerging," to which I replied, "HEY! I listen to public radio!" (It was the first time anybody had said ANYTHING political, and I think we'd all been scrupulously avoiding such talk up until Chef brought it up.)
After the tarts were assembled, we had time to put together the puff pastry components and give the dough its first roll-out and folding. So far, so good. Back into the fridge the puff pastry went, the tarts went into the oven, and we went to lunch.
The new theme at lunch was Americana: the Midwest. I went for the pan-fried trout, accompanied with a wild rice pilaf, some gorgeous fresh string beans, and glazed carrots. I can't imagine it having been done any better. I also got a cup of the Wisconsin Cheddar & Beer Soup, which was wonderful - I'll have it again tomorrow. But if I'd been thinking, I would've opted for less food, because tonight is the Escoffier&ldots;and little did I know there was more food to come later in the day.
Returning from lunch, we pulled our tarts out of the oven and gave our puff pastry another roll-and-fold. This time, given the longer chilling period, the problem with the areas of pure butter exhibited itself, and those areas - which had gotten much harder in the fridge than the rest of the dough - tore through the dough layers in a few places during the folding. Chef showed us how to create a sort of "mock" dough layer over the torn portions of butter by simply sprinkling some flour on the torn butter and patting it into place. Not an ideal solution, but whaddaya gonna do? In the final product, the tears would probably not affect much (or so I hope). And I found out, at dinner, that EVERY team had had the same problem - slight tearing.
Given that we'd had to skip the lecture on cake decorating, Chef Eglinski decided to spend the rest of the afternoon session giving us a demonstration on that material. He made a batch of Swiss meringue buttercream (the kind where the eggs and sugar are whisked gently over simmering water to raise the temperature to 140 degrees before being put in the mixer and whisked on high speed; this cooks the eggs enough to make them "safe" and adds volume). He took one of the sponge cake layers we'd made the previous day, and deftly sliced it into three layers. He also sheared off the browned top so that the cake would be flat. His technique for slicing was not difficult, and very much commonsense. He eschews almost all gadgetry in the kitchen, preferring basic tools and practice&ldots;in part because basic tools are usually at hand while gadgets are not; in part because gadgets usually require a lot of extras washing; and in part because I think he's simply a purist.
After splitting the layers, he demonstrated his technique for adhering the bottom layer to a cake circle. He brushed the top of the bottom layer with a simple syrup and rum mixture (he also recommended juice concentrates thinned with a little water for this purpose), then added a thin coating of thinned apricot glaze. He recommended any fruit jam for this purpose as long as it's not too assertive, preferring apricot or apple. He put on the second layer and repeated the brushing and glazing, then added the top layer and brushed it, but didn't glaze it.
Taking the Swiss meringue buttercream in hand, he did a remarkably swift job of frosting the assembled cake beautifully&ldots;the same results would've taken me a half-hour and wouldn't have looked half as good. Flat top and sides with a very crisp edge. His techniques, again, were not difficult. He asserted that it's much easier to take frosting away rather than to glop it on a little at a time, so he began the frosting by putting a rather enormous amount of buttercream on top, pushing it out to the edge (and allowing it to overhang like snow on a rooftop), then using an offset spatula to bring the overhang over and down the sides. He showed us how to use the decorating comb to add an even set of ridges to the sides, gave his theories on decoration (keeping it simple, dramatic, and uncrowded), and then made a few quick decorations with chocolate - cigarettes, curls, and cutout shapes. He made some simple buttercream rosettes and seashells on the perimeter and accented them with the curls and cutout shapes, and applied a few extra cutouts to the sides of the cake. Voila.
There was just enough time for us all to pull out our puff pastry and give it one last roll-and-fold for the day.
We then got a one-and-a-half hour break, and met again at 3:00 for the Coffee and Tea Presentation. We were afraid this would be a lesson in serving High Tea, but it was nothing like that. Instead, Jennifer Purcell, instructor from the Apple Pie Bakery Café, gave us a 45-minute lecture on the history, types, and brewing methods for tea and coffee. We then went down to the Café where she treated us to any pastries we wanted while we had a tasting: 14 types of tea (green teas, black teas, chai, and "tisanes" - herbal teas) and 6 kinds of coffee - regular and decaf, three different brewing methods (automatic drip, press pot, and espresso).
I'm an infrequent tea drinker and not a coffee drinker by any means, but even I found this lecture and tasting fascinating. I reaffirmed my dislike of coffee (especially espresso, which, I had to say, reminded me of "ashtray"), but I know a lot more now about the various types and what qualities one looks for.
We had such a great time in this presentation that it went nearly an hour longer than it was scheduled to go. Part of that was Jennifer's gracious invitation to tour the Apple Pie Bakery Café's kitchen and have a one-on-one with the head pastry chef. She imparted a couple of her recipes (white and dark modeling chocolate) and told us the story and secret behind the incredibly popular, mysterious "Monkey Danish":
Apparently, the Baking and Pastry School was looking for a way to dispose of its scraps while making croissants and Danishes. This was their solution: take a mixture of cubed scraps of the puff pastry dough and Danish dough, mix them, put them in rings, squirt in a healthy dollop of cream cheese filling, top with streusel, and bake until golden brown. That's it. There's no set recipe, and the amount that the Café receives and sells each day depends completely on how much scrap croissant and Danish dough they have on hand. Some days, they only get a dozen, and they sell out within a couple of minutes. Some days, they get many times that, but they still often sell out of Monkey Danishes in less than an hour. They get mail about Monkey Danishes, they get people getting very upset to find that they missed the Monkey Danishes&ldots;they're one of the most popular items on the Café's menu.
This took us to 5:45 (the Coffee & Tea Presentation was supposed to be over at 4:30). We contacted the Escoffier and asked them to move our 6:30 reservations to 7:00 to give us time to change into our fancy duds. I ran back to the hotel, started this log, and went back for dinner at the Escoffier.
The Escoffier's menus and info can be found here: http://www.ciachef.edu/restaurants/escoffier/index.html.
Despite its reputation, we did not find it a stuffy experience at all. One of the signatures of the restaurant is Synchronized Service. That is, the dishes for each course all emerge from the kitchen at the same time, each is held by a different waitperson, and they surround the table. The dishes are all set down in front of each of the table's guests at the exact same time. A very interesting way to heighten the drama of the reveal as the silver covers are lifted away simultaneously. Our first course, an unexpected bonus, was a lovely slice of seafood mousseline. I chose the Lobster Salad appetizer (spectacular; a bed of avocado, crab, fingerling potatoes, and mango sauce) and, as an entrée, the Seared Duck Breast with Caramelized Turnips and Cranberries. Excellent! We all ordered different desserts so that we could each sample as many as possible. I ordered the Caramelized Profiteroles with fresh Pastry Cream because we'd made such a similar dish the previous day (the pastry cream, the éclairs, etc.). Beautifully done; in fact, for the first time, there was not a single clunker in the dessert list.
The Maitre d' came out and chatted with us for almost a half-hour, telling us about the restaurant's history, his history with the restaurant, the way the restaurant works with the students, the plans for the restaurant: "We're due for an update," he said, "and I'll dance when they put this carpet in the dumpster&ldots;it looks like Martha Stewart threw up." He was very forthcoming, and when we told him about the only real peculiarity with the meal - the serving staff kept giving Jeff iced-tea spoons for his hot tea - he was responsive and took our criticism in the constructive manner it was intended. "They're sometimes confused when they get here," he explained. "This is their third day in the restaurant, and suddenly they have 15 different kinds of silverware thrown at them." Ouch!
Tomorrow I'm expecting we'll make Napoleons out of our puff pastry, sample our tarts, decorate and fill our cakes, and we're also supposed to tackle crepes. Yikes!