Culinary school, week three (cream puffs, split pea soup, chicken ballotines and more!)

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Last week, my third and final before our first week of internships, was relatively calm. The Friday before we barely made it to class through a relatively minor snow storm that really messed with the public transportation system. On Monday, I wasn’t so lucky and classes were cancelled. Even though Monday’s menu was relatively simple, Eggs Florentine, I’m sure we would’ve been able to get to a few other things as well, and I wasn’t a happy camper. On the bright side, I can always practice making eggs “mollet” at home. It’s basically a very softly boiled egg, resulting in a just-firm exterior and a nice, creamy yolk. The spinach that we were supposed to make was made on Wednesday, and I already know how to make a bechamel sauce, called Mornay once you add grated cheese and egg yolks, so I suppose I’ll get over it ;) I also had quite a weekend of cooking, with a hazelnut Pithiviers, roasted chicken thighs with real, fancy, professional pan sauce, tournéed turnips and some delicious rice pilaf. Recipes will be up soon!

Even with only two sessions in the kitchen, I feel like I learned quite a bit and continued to perfect a lot of techniques that we’d seen in the two previous weeks. On Tuesday we started the week off with an ambitious menu of Potage St. Germain (a split pea and leek soup), Ballotines de poulet à l’estragon (poached chicken breasts stuffed with tarragon), fried pork chops with Sauce Piquant (translates to spicy, but it was more of a tart sauce made from vinegar and wine) and twice-baked potatoes. We had a Chef that we’d never had in class before, and he was clearly passionate about his work. He stopped between exercises to tell us an anecdote, or give us his personal take on a recipe, or explain his philosophy on cooking. It was a nice laid-back class, even though the rhythm was turned up so we could manage to get everything done.

The first thing I did, after a quick refresher course, was dice some onions and leeks. I’m very proud of the way my knife skills have evolved since the first week and I got the Chef’s OK before adding my leeks to a huge pot with some butter to sweat them out before we added the rest of our ingredients for the soup, split peas and water. We let the soup cook for about 45 minutes before seasoning and puréeing. The soup on its own was pretty boring, albeit tasty, but the finishing touch came in the ballotines.

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We began by opening up our chicken breasts simply by careful making incisions starting from the middle of the breast toward the exterior to flatten them out and make them easier to stuff and roll up. We seasoned the inside of our breasts with salt and pepper, placed a few tarragon and parsley leaves on the inside, rolled them up as best we could and then finished them with saran wrap. The trick is to roll them nice and tight and to really seal the edges and the result is something that looks like a giant sausage. These were cooked in a vapor oven for about 10-12 minutes until they were perfectly tender and juicy, something I rarely think of when dealing with chicken breasts. We then sliced them diagonally and topped our soup with the poached chicken. It was all very tasty, and pretty, as you’ll see by one of the rare plated photos I was able to take.

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The next phase was the pork chops and baked potatoes. We first baked potatoes in tin foil and blanched some lardons. We cut off the tiniest little bit of potato and carefully removed what was inside with a spoon, setting it aside. The lardons were then sautéed in a bit of oil, drained, and mixed with potato, a bit of butter, salt and pepper. This all went back into the potato and then the whole thing was heated under the salamander (a broiler) for about five more minutes until it was nice and brown and just a little crusty. The pork chops were sautéed in oil and simply seasoned, then served with our Sauce Piquant, which was made by reducing a mixture of finely diced shallots, white wine and white wine vinegar until it was the right consistency.

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Of course, before we knew it our time was almost up and we had to hurry about finishing things up and cleaning the kitchen before we went off to eat. And speaking of eating… I finally got a chance to eat in the school’s restaurant where the students actually get to serve real, paying customers. This is something my group’s not quite ready for yet, but apparently we’ll be on the chopping block in the coming weeks. It’s really an awesome concept and a great way to learn, and it was fun to be on the other side, not only tasting the food prepared by fellow students but also be served by young, nervous waiters-in-training. I highly recommend any of you lucky enough to live near a school offering a restaurant like this to try it, it’s a cheap way to get a great meal! Other than the vegetables (turnips, carrots and green beans) being slightly under-cooked, it was a lovely meal and a great break from the frenzied pace of school.

Wednesday’s class was just as jam-packed as we’ve come to expect and combined very simple but important techniques with more complicated (and tiring!) ones. We made sautéed steaks with a Bercy sauce (steak pan juices, shallots, butter, white wine and veal stock), Pommes Pont Neuf (basically steak fries) and Choux Chantilly (cream puffs filled with heavily whipped cream). I’ve had a fair amount of experience with cream puffs, so I wasn’t too worried about making them but still felt the excitement of seeing them develop from an odd little dough to a perfect, crisp and moist puffy pastry. I was also very happy to be making Chantilly by hand, something I’d never been able to do before (lack of muscle? Wrong cream? Probably both).

We started with our little puffs. I felt the apprehension around the room from some of my colleagues who had tried and failed to make them before. Here are a few things I learned: use your eggs sparingly. Only add as much as you need even if you have to use 1/2 or 1/3 of an egg white. The only way to know when to stop adding eggs is when you reach the “parrot beak” stage (yes, very technical, I know) which just means that when you slide your wooden spoon into the dough and lift, the dough should fall from the spoon and look like a bird’s beak, hanging down from both sides. Difficult to imagine if you’ve never tried it, I know. Another rule is to keep a stern eye on the dough while it’s “cooking.” Actually, you don’t want to cook it at all, just warm it enough so that the excess water evaporates and the dough pulls away from the sides of the pot. Don’t use a pot that is too large or too small. And don’t open the oven door once the puffs are inside.

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Now that you know the golden rules, making cream puffs, or choux, should be an easy and fun activity. I know I’ll never forget my awesome cream puff class at La Cuisine Paris with Mardi from eat.live.travel.write. We were testing recipes about to be published in a cook book for the school and had an amazing time working on our biceps, I mean making chouquettes (choux with sugar on the outside), éclairs (long choux with pastry cream) and even super-fancy choux swans! It’s great to have memories attached to food experiences, and this is just one of many for me.

Back to class! Choux dough is made from a few simple ingredients: water or a combination of water and milk, butter, flour, sugar, salt and eggs. Start by heating the water, pinch of salt, pinch of sugar and butter over medium heat. Once it starts boiling and the butter is completely melted, add your flour, all at once, and stir, stir, stir! You probably shouldn’t ever stop stirring, so make sure your arms are ready for the task! You don’t want to cook the dough and certainly not brown it, so it’s better to keep a good eye on it and pull it off the stovetop if it starts acting up. Once the dough pulls away from the pot and looks all nice and compact, you can toss it into a bowl and move on to step two.

Step two is where the eggs come in, and this can make or break your choux dough. For the quantities we made, we used two eggs. You have to stir them in one at a time, but you should go the extra mile and do what we were taught to do: Start with one egg. Once you start to incorporate it the dough will break and look weird and you’ll think that you’ve failed. You haven’t. Keep stirring away and eventually, like magic, it’ll come back together. Now is when you’ve got to be careful. We separated the white from the yolk and stirred in just the yolk, following the same steps as before. Then we tested for the parrot’s beak. Not quite there yet? Stir in half of an egg white. Incorporate. Test for the parrot’s beak. Still a no? Stir in 1/4 of your remaining egg white, and so on and so forth until the dough is just right. Now you’re ready to pipe your choux dough into whatever form you choose and pop those little guys in the oven!

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The Chantilly, although not complicated, was a real workout. Instead of putting our bowls in the fridge or freezer, we filled pots with ice water and placed the bowl on top, whisking away. Apparently it’s easier to thicken the cream without sugar, so we started out doing just that. After about five minutes of constant whisking, the cream was almost thick enough, and we added the powdered sugar. As a rule, a chantilly is about 10% sugar, but we added ours without measuring and tasted, then adjusted. A minute or two longer and we had Chantilly!

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Once the puffs were cooked, we let them cool, cut the tops off and used a star tip to pipe a generous amount of Chantilly into the puffs, then carefully placed the tops back on. We dusted them with powdered sugar and voilà! The were both light and rich, if that makes sense ;)

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In between all of our sweets, we managed to make Pommes Pont Neuf, big, thick, twice-fried fries. The trick is to thoroughly rince the cut potatoes in several water baths to get rid of the excess starch. Then dry them before cooking them at a low temperature in oil until they’re just starting to get soft. Take them out, let them rest for a few minutes, or until whenever you’re ready to eat them, then fry at a high temperature for a few minutes longer until they’re golden and crisp!

Next, the steaks. We seasoned them and then sautéed them in olive oil, taking care to sear the meat but not burn the pan juices. Once all the steaks were cooked, we added minced shallots to the pan juices and let them sweat for a few minutes before deglazing with white wine to get all the little brown bits in our sauce. A little veal stock, more reduction, then topped off with a couple tablespoons of butter to bring the sauce together!

Our very last task was some very simple sautéed spinach. A very generous dose of butter was added to a large pot with a lid. Once it was nice and hot, we added the fresh spinach, covered it and let it cook down for about ten minutes. We’d lost about 80% of its volume by now, and we finished it off with a bit of salt, cooking uncovered until almost all of the water was evaporated and the spinach was ultra tender. You could add some heavy cream to this dish, but we left ours plain in order to showcase the flavor of the spinach.

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I start my first internship today in a restaurant here in Normandy. I’ve already learned so much, and yet not nearly enough at the same time. I don’t feel nervous, mostly just excited about putting all of these new techniques to the test in a real, professional environment. Above all I hope I can have fun while I’m working, enjoy what I’m doing and not just go through the motions for that all-important paycheck. I’m pretty sure this is everyone’s dream, it’s certainly what I’ve been looking forward to ever since I decided to go down this path and turn my life upside-down. News to come, and wish me luck!

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