After an easy first week, this one started with a bang and really tested our ability to take instruction and execute right from the get-go. It’s always tough working with others that may not have the same capacities that we do, but luckily my partner Florence and I have settled into a great rhythm and partnership and we made it work.
Monday morning we started with a quick lesson on culinary technology before heading into the kitchen that afternoon for two French classics: quiche Lorraine and blanquette de veau, slow cooked veal with a creamy sauce blanquette served with rice pilaf. It was an ambitious day because the veal needs at least 1 1/2 hours cooking time, even though 3 hours is ideal.
What amazed me the most were the little differences that meant we were cooking professionallu and not in a home kitchen. For the quiche, we began by cutting our lardons ourselves from a massive hunk of pork. This meant trimming the fat off and cutting them into small matchstick rectangles. We then blanched them (to reduce the saltiness and get rid of any impureties) and sautéed them before making the egg base for the quiches. This involved whisking 2 eggs and two egg yolks with milk and cream and a pinch of nutmeg. This mixture was strained and then seasoned. We made another quick pastry dough and lined tart rings before adding the lardons, gruyère cheese that we finely minced and then poured the egg mixture right up to the top of the crust. About 40 minutes later and we had beautifully golden, simple and delicious quiches!
The veal “stew” was even more impressive in technique. We learned all of what goes into a good sauce and also how to really give flavor to meat. We started by trimming the veal and cutting it into equal pieces that were right around 65 grams each. We prepared our garniture aromatique, a mix of different vegetables used to flavor a dish and that are discarded afterwards. We used carrots, onions and leeks. We blanched the veal first go get rid of any impureties and then brought it to a boil again before adding the veggies and our bouquet garni, a leek leave with thyme and laurel leaves inside that was tied closed. We cooked the veal for 90 minutes before checking to see if it was the right consistency and making our sauce.
The base of a great sauce is of course the juices that were used for cooking. In this case, what was left in our pots was filtered and became our “fond” or base (I think technically in English this is called a stock, but I’m not sure). Next we made a roux by melting butter d whisking in flour; this is what will thicken the sauce and hold it together, much like mustard holds oil and vinegar together in a vinaigrette. Once we add the roux to the fond, we have a velouté. Now we have our base and for our purposes, we added in crème fraîche to mane a sauce blanquette. Had we added shallots or butter or what have you, we could have made any other veal- based sauce using our velouté.
Next was the rice pilaf. It started like a risotto, meaning we “sweat” our onions in olive oil and then add the rice and cook until it’s translucent. Then you add 1 1/2 times the quantity of rice in water, salt, a bouquet garni and a nice piece of butter right in the middle. Cover with a piece of wax paper touching the rice and then a lid and cook for 20 minutes in the oven. Taste to make sure it’s cooked, then let it plump up in your dish, leaving the lid on, for five minutes longer. Finish by stirring in more butter, season and voilà!
The next day we were in for a real treat. Whole chickens were waiting for us, complete with lungs, heart, gizzards and all the other fun stuff inside. The chef gave a quick demo and then it was up to us to empty our poor birds, which is actually called dressing them up. We started by pulling and stretching the thighs to combat the rigor mortis effect, then by cutting off all but the middle claw from the feet, and removing the tip of the wings. We then held our birds over an open flame to get rid of any remaining feathers and also scorched the legs so we could remove the scales near the feet. Next came cutting the skin on the neck from the base of the head to the body. We pried the skin loose along with the respiratory and digestive tubes and then cut off the head. Next came the neck, near the spine, while leaving the skin in tact. Now for some real fun. With one finger inside the thoracic cavity, we had to dislodge the heart and lungs from the carcass. After that we went in from the other end and somehow managed to grab hold of the pouch containing the gizzards and like magic, everything came out in one piece.
Phew! After a very thorough hand washing, I began to prepare my chicken. I salted the inside and outside, tied the wings and thighs in place and heated some olive oil in a large lidded pot and seared the skin of my bird on all sides. I then added my “garniture aromatique,” carrots and onions, and my chicken was ready for the oven. We pierced the thigh to make sure it was cooked: if the liquid that comes out is bloody, it isn’t ready. Once it was cooked we removed the chicken and began working on our “base” for the sauce. We heated the pot over very high heat for about five minutes to transform the juices. The goal is to get the bits left in the pan really hot (it’s OK if they stick, we’ll deglaze later). Once the juices and bits were ready, we filtered the sauce to get rid of the excess fat and the vegetables then deglazed the sauce over medium heat with white wine and let it reduce until it was pure perfection. The chicken was served with turned potatoes that we blanched, sautéed and then finished in the oven.
After our fun with chickens, we quickly started making a puff pastry dough that we would finish and use on Friday. This is a time consuming process, but the result was so amazing, it’s definitely worth it. We started with a basic mix of flour and water that we kneaded slightly and then formed into a ball. We cut a large X into the ball of dough and refrigerated it for about 30 minutes. The next step involved rolling the dough out into a sort of cross shape using the X as a guideline, and leaving a hump in the middle. This is where we put our butter once it was softened and formed into a rectangle. Next, we folded the pieces of the cross over the butter dome one by one and then turned it over to begin the first (and second) of our six folds. Apparently you must always complete the folds by twos, or the dough won’t turn out right. Anyway, you roll the dough into a long rectangle, fold it into thirds, give it a quarter turn and that’s one fold. Roll it into another long rectangle, fold into thirds and then it’s time to refrigerate. That was day our morning. Wow!!
We were in the kitchen again that same afternoon after a quick thirty minute break for lunch, and with another very ambitious menu. Fresh, whole plaice eyed us from the chef’s counter as he explained our tasks for the day. We were going to filet our plaice, use the carcass to make fish stock, cook mussels marinière (white wine and shallot sauce), make a sauce for the fish using the stock, heavy cream, the juice from the mussels and the juices from the fish that cooked in butter and shallots in the oven, make crêpe batter, caramelize and flambée apples in Calvados (apple liqueur) and make pastry cream. Oof!
We started by fileting our plaice, which was new because plaice is a flat fish and has four filets instead of just two! I got along just fine, and then moved on to removing the skin from the filet, and very difficult task that demands a lot of finesse… I then wiped the filets off, tenderized them and seasoned my fish before folding it in half and placing it in a large baking dish that was wiped with melted butter and shallots. I used the carcass to start my fish stock. I sweat my onions in some olive oil, added some leeks and carrots. After a couple of minutes I added some water and the fish carcass and let it slowly boil down until I had stock! Meanwhile, I sweated some shallots in olive oil and then added my mussels, a hefty dose of white wine and a pinch of parsley. Once the mussels opened, they were ready and I poured the cooking juices over the fish and popped them in the oven for a few minutes. Once the stock was cooked it was filtered and added to a large pot. We mixed the cooking juices with the stock and let it reduce before adding in the mussels, some shrimp, mushrooms that we cooked earlier, fresh parsley and some heavy cream to make our wonderfully complex “Diéppoise” sauce (so-called because it is a speciality of the French city Dieppe).
The rest of class was pretty hectic because for the crêpes and pastry cream we needed whisks, and we only had about three for our class of 15. Florence handled the crêpe batter like a champ and I worked on the pastry cream. I blanched egg yolks and sugar (which means whisking them until they become light and pale). I then added in a little bit of flour, mixed until it was just combined, and then slowly whisked in my milk that had just finished coming to a boil. Then it was back to the stovetop to whisk, whisk, whisk until my arm almost fell off, taking the pot off the heat every time it started smoking. The goal was that the cream would thicken and eventually start to boil, meaning it was ready.
The apples, which were meant to be mixed with the pastry cream and stuffed into hot crêpes, were sautéed in butter with a little sugar and caramelized. I guess the key here is not to touch them at all until they started to brown, and then flip them over and let them be a little longer. We finished them by flambéeing them with Calvados and it was both delicious and scary! Big, uncontrollable open flames! Luckily no one got burned and our day was a success. I went home that night feeling exhausted but exhilarated at all that we managed to do and all that I learned.
Our last day in the kitchen was Friday. There were only four of us because of an impending snow storm, and it was a fabulously relaxed day of learning and doing. We made a yummy side dish of Greek vegetables (zucchini, bell peppers, mushrooms and cauliflower) that basically cooked in olive oil, white wine and lemon juice which ended up reducing and become the vinaigrette for the dish, which is served cold. We finished our puff pastry dough and cut it in two to make a Pithiviers tart, which is basically like the French “galette des rois” or King’s cake that is traditionally eaten in January and contains lots of delicious frangipane. I learned that frangipane is actually almond cream mixed with pastry cream, and since our tart was made using only almond cream, it’s technically called a Pithiviers.
The almond cream came together easily. I mixed beurre pommade (very soft butter, made so by whisking it over low heat for a few minutes) with sugar. The recipe is easy to remember because all of the ingredients are used in equal quantities, come the famous “quatre quarts.” After blanching the butter and sugar I added my almond meal, mixed, then added the eggs one by one. The finishing touch? A bit of vanilla extract and some rum.
The assembly of the cake was a bit more difficult as you’ll see in the photos of the finished product. I cut my dough into two equal parts and rolled them out into circles. The first circle received egg wash around the edges and I piped my almond cream into the middle. The second disk was pressed firmly on top of the first (mine clearly wasn’t firm enough because it fell apart in the oven, but I blame the excess of pastry cream!). I crimped the edges of the tart and then egg-washed the top before using the back of my knife to make a cut little design in the top of my pastry. 20 minutes later we took the tarts out of the oven (and for some of us, cleaned up the mess of escaped and burnt almond cream!) and brushed to top with a simple syrup before baking them about five minutes longer. Even though my tart wasn’t perfect to the trained eye, it was absolutely delicious and so worth the time and effort that I put into it.
So that was my week! In between all of these amazing moments in the kitchen, I had classes on converting grams to kilograms and the geography of Normandy, learned more about culinary technology and how to present myself to my potential employers in a job interview. I think I’m finally starting to get used to the rhythm of this program but I still feel the mental and physical fatigue each day when I get home from class. It’s that good kind of fatigue though, and I can’t wait to see what next week holds for us. I’ve got five more days to go before I start my first one-week internship, so I’d better make them count!