Culinary school, week six (apple fritters, braised fennel, apricot almond tarts and more!)

Another week of culinary school has flown by. One more week and I’ll be doing my second internship, this time at a large catering company about 5 minutes from my house. They also have a very nice restaurant offering lots of interesting and innovative dishes, so I’m definitely very excited to discover the inner-workings of such a large business.

This week at the CFA, we worked on techniques that we’d already learned and got to spend one class with the resident pastry chef! Day one was spent making a delicious and easy cauliflower soup that consisted of leeks, butter, stock and cauliflower. We cooked the leeks down first, then added our roux to help thicken our soup, added the stock and cauliflower, seasoned. Once the cauliflower was cooked, we blended the soup and added some just-cooked cauliflower florets as garnish. The finished product was called Potage du Barry, named after some French royalty who the dish was created for. Although very simple, I was able to practice mincing leeks, making a roux, blanching cauliflower, etc. It’s so great to see my progression week after week, and making dishes like this one is a good way to evaluate it.

Next up was our apple fritters. We started by macerating the apples that we cored and sliced thinly. The marinade was made up of Calvados (apple brandy), sugar and cinnamon! While the apples absorbed all of this loveliness, we made the batter. We used beer in the batter, which I thought was reserved for savory dishes like fish and chips or onion rings, but it turns out that the beer leaves none of its flavor and is simply used as a leavening agent, replacing yeast! Once the batter was nice and thick and sticky, we whisked up some egg whites until soft peaks formed and folded them in. We then fried the fritters in hot oil, dipping the apple slices in the batter. Once they were cooked, we dusted them with powdered sugar and placed them under the salamander broiler for about 30 seconds to glaze them. They were absolutely delicious.

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The next day we were in the pastry lab, which was a bit different than what we’re used to. The stainless steel countertops were replaced with marble and much higher and larger than ours. Gigantic stand mixers were placed at each station and we scooped flour and sugar from enormous bins. I was a little disappointed with our pastry class because we only had three hours, and that is very little time when we’re talking actually making a pastry from scratch. We were split up into three groups, each group making something different from products that had been made the day before. My group got the entremets, which is basically a fancy word for any kind of dessert made up of several different components. In our particular case, it was a base of cuillière cake, which is like a genoise in that it’s very light and made with whipped egg whites, and a mango mousse. The result was gorgeous and tasty, but we didn’t do much in terms of actual creation.

We started by trimming the cuillère (spoon) cake and lining the bottom and sides our molds with them. We then softened some gelatin and added it to our pre-made mango purée and heated it until the gelatin was completely dissolved. Next, we whipped some cream until it had the consistency of yogurt (whipped but still slightly compact) and incorporated the two together. We put a layer of this mousse into the molds, placed another round of cuillère cake on top and finished with more mousse, smoothing it perfectly with a spatula. The cake would normally be finished off with fresh fruit, but we didn’t have time.

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The other groups made apple turnovers using puff pastry dough and apple compote, and a yummy apricot tart, made of bands of puff pastry dough, piped almond cream (like the one we made for our Pithiviers, or King’s cake: almond meal, butter, sugar and eggs) and layers of apricots poached in simple syrup. We got to taste everything, and the tart was by far my favorite. I’m pretty sure I’ll be making one at home in the coming weeks!

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We finished off the class by learning how to make cutesy decorations with almond paste. The chef showed us how to make roses, rabbits and elephants and we got to try our hand at it. Pastry is all about decoration, so this was a fun and interesting task. I thought mine turned out pretty well for my first time, but I would love to experiment with other shapes.

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Our last day was a bit hectic, because the trout we were supposed to be using was accidentally sent back to the fishmongers and we had to wait for new fish to be delivered. They showed up when we were halfway through our day and it kind of threw a wrench in things. We started by making a simple julienne of leeks and carrots. More practice for our knife skills! For the carrots, they were sliced thinly using a mandolin and then layered, overlapping, on our cutting boards and sliced as thinly as possible. The leeks were a bit more complicated, because we had to separate the layers of leek and try to flatten them out so we could cut them. They were moving all over the place and I almost had my first kitchen accident; luckily my fingernail stopped the knife before it could slice off a hefty part of my finger!! We cooked the julienne in butter, then covered and let it simmer for about 10 minutes.

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We also cooked fennel in the same fashion, but adding olive oil, garlic and thyme to give the dish a hint of the South of France. We sweat the fennel in the olive oil, then added some fish stock along with the herbs and garlic and covered it and let it cook down into perfection. We removed the thyme sprigs and chunks of smashed garlic before serving. The fish stock gave a lovely salty flavor to the anis-heavy fennel, and it was melt-in-your-mouth, perfectly cooked, without a lot of effort.

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Somewhere in between cooking our veggies and frying the apple fritters that we made the day before, the fish arrived. The chef just asked for fish without specifying what kind, and we ended up with fresh plaice, which we’d already worked with a couple of weeks earlier. I was excited because plaice have four filets instead of the more standard two, and are a bit more complicated to filet. The filets on the stomach side of the fish also happen to be connected to the vital organs and sometimes even a pouch full of fish eggs, making them that much harder to fillet without making a mess of things. We had lots of fish to fillet and lots of students running late, so I grabbed two fish and set out to prepare them.

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I got to skip the phase of cutting of the fins because we were running short on time, so I started filleting immediately. I made an incision on one side of the spinal column all the way to the bones. Next, I cut down from the spinal column to the belly near the tail, and cut around the cheeks on the head end. After that comes the hard part. Angling a long, thin knife, I cut the flesh away from the bones, scraping against the bones in one single motion (from the spinal column to the fins) so as not to leave any flesh. The other side is a bit more complicated as the fillets don’t go all the way to the fins, but meet up with the vital organs about halfway there. Once the filleting was done, I trimmed off any odd bits, then placed them skin-side down on my cutting board. By angling the knife toward the cutting board and pulling on the skin, I was able to cut the skin off of the fillets without leaving any flesh behind. We were supposed to learn to pan-fry our fish fillets but ended up running out of time. We already had some fish stock from our braised fennel, so we poached the fillets in the oven and called it a day.

All in all, it was a pretty easy week. Of course, that’s very relative and a testament to the fact that we’re all continuing to get better and better at what we’re doing, and are also generally more comfortable in our professional kitchen environment. Next week were doing an actual service for the school’s restaurant, which means we’ll be cooking and plating dishes to order. I’m slightly nervous because I still don’t know what the menu will be but mostly I’m super excited to be thrown into a real-life situation that will test my skills and calm in the kitchen. Wish me luck!

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One thought on “Culinary school, week six (apple fritters, braised fennel, apricot almond tarts and more!)

  1. good luck,tho i don’t think you need it-your enthusiasm & thirst for learning will probably suffice.glad it’s going so well thus far..your next internship sounds rather exciting!!!!!

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