Little sablés I made today!
I’ve disappeared, I know. It’s because I’m absolutely exhausted.
Wednesday night I didn’t sleep well in anticipation of the first day of school. Thursday morning at 9:30am, about 80 new pastry students, plus some 15 LCB staff members, gathered in the basement demonstration room for Orientation. We received a tour of the school…and I gazed in awe at the lovely marble worktops, piles of piles of stainless steel bowls, and a chocolate tempering machine that smelled delicious. The director of the school gave us a talk on uniforms and what we’re supposed to wear to demonstrations versus practicals, and a student chef even came in to show us how it was done. We did the awkward name + country introductions around the room. We picked up our uniforms – 3 chef jackets, 2 pairs of very long trousers, 3 neck-ties, 2 caps, 3 aprons, and 3 towels. I think. Best of all, we got a toolkit inside a very compact bag, and the kit contains 7 very sharp, very professional Wusthof knives! (I’m already dreaming of my next kitchen complete with these awesome knives. Sorry, Calphalon, you’ve been replaced.)
Some of the main topics for the first few days have been safety, punctuality, and uniforms.
- Every chef so far has given a talk about safety during a demonstration, and all of the talks end with an anecdote about some past student (different ones, I assume) rushed off to hospital with a bad burn/missing fingers/etc. Since I am naturally a klutz in the kitchen (especially when I’m tired), all these warnings that are meant to be nice have been slightly nightmarish for me. Literally. Nightmares!
- Punctuality is another big one: if you’re late, you are not admitted into the classroom. If you’re not admitted, you’re marked absent. If you’re absent from a demonstration, you cannot attend the practical, which then means 2 absences. You’re allowed 5 before getting disqualified/kicked out. I have started a new habit of staring at my alarm clock/iPhone every night with fear and crossed fingers, making sure that it will go off at the right hour.
- Lastly, uniforms have been interesting for me. I had brought kitchen shoes (non-slip, closed-toe, etc.) from Canada, and then received a paper from Cordon Bleu saying that steel toes are recommended but optional. I wore my shoes to my first day of actual class, complete with my uniform…and the director came up to me and squeezed the toe of my shoe and told me it was not acceptable. So I had to lug myself over to the kitchen uniform store here to buy a new pair that day – bah! I would’ve loved to spend those precious euros on something edible! Also, the very long trousers needed mending, and being watchful of our budget, Alex and I set to work Thursday afternoon and hand-sewed one pair already. We don’t sew. That was an interesting experience, complete with a lot of ironing. Now the sewing kit is sitting woefully on the coffee table, waiting for us to get up the crazy courage and patience to do the second pair. I have to laugh about what being on a budget has done to me ;)
Friday morning we had our first demonstration. Each demonstration is done for 3 “groups” of students, but practicals are done in individual groups. Friday’s demonstration came without a practical, though, to ease us into the process, I guess. I’m glad, because it was seriously diving head first into a lot of note-taking. The school gives you ingredient lists in the “Recipe Binder” for each session, and you’re supposed to take notes and make up the rest of the recipe – i.e. how it all comes together, the most important part! I haven’t taken written notes like that since second year university, in English classes. With my obsession to write down every single detail including how the chef’s hands move and if he’s turning the bowl gently or not, I was struggling to keep up sometimes and wished I had four pairs of eyes so I could watch the chef without disruption too! The chef made some basic pastry “pantry items” that are typically bought for pastry shops, but are easily made at home too – i.e. coffee extract, apricot glaze, fondant (pourable type, not wedding cake type), pralines (yummmmm), and almond paste + marzipan. We also got a briefing on how chocolate comes from cacao trees (which we saw in Indonesia this past summer!). It was a great session because it opened my eyes to how note-taking was going to work for me, and we also got to watch some pretty cool recipes take shape in front of us.
That said, I went out that same afternoon and bought a huge pack of paper (not cheap, even if it’s rentrée, it was 2 euros for a pack…I remember Hilroy papers being <$1/pack in Canada during back-to-school) and more pens. Saturday morning had us back at the school at 8:30am for a demonstration, after which my group, Groupe D, was going to be the first group to do a practical. Needless to say, I woke up every couple of hours the night before, and was pretty nervous/excited as the time drew closer. The demonstration was on sablés, or shortbreads. We watched the chef bake up a storm in front of us with traditional sablés (diamonds), Bretonne-style sablés, Nantais-style sablés, jam-filled sablés (lunettes) and chocolate sablés. ALL WITHOUT A KITCHENAID.
That’s when it dawned on me – there aren’t many of those machines up there in the practical classrooms!
The chef taught us a few neat tricks that will probably become pretty standard around here. First, to soften butter, he put the chunk of butter between a large sheet of parchment, and went to town on it with a large wooden rolling pin. Then, to cream the butter with sugar, it was hands and/or scraper, nothing else. We watched as he gathered the dough in a fraisage manner – pushing it onto the cooled marble surface, and gathering again. It was so interesting!! It was like watching the FoodNetwork, minus annoying hosts and pretend-party-guests, and with a lot more respect and seriousness for the art of patisserie. We got to taste a bit of everything at the end, which was helpful for the practical in the afternoon.
Part of the chef’s demo: Nantais sablés (biggest), Bretonne sablés (smaller round), lunettes (glasses)
After a short break where I did my notes carefully and extremely thoroughly for the diamonds we were going to make, we were invited into the practical classroom. There were some very serious people in my group who immediately began to set up their workstation like pros. I felt nauseous, hesitant, and totally unsure as I scrambled to put batteries in my scale, remembering the chef chastising us earlier in demonstration that we hadn’t been curious enough to check out our kits. I wondered what I was doing there.
But then I weighed my ingredients, beat the crap out of my cold butter, and began creaming. And a huge smile just lit up my face. It’s true, baking makes me so happy. I had a silly smile on most of the time, as I pretended (pretty well, I think) to use my scraper like a pro. The only slight setback was that I didn’t know how to use a zester for the orange peel. I’m used to awesome microplanes, and this was a little thing with loops on top. The chef quickly came to my aid, but at least he didn’t chastise me. Maybe it’s because he’s lived in North America before, he expected the idiocy. The final rolled logs of cookie dough were even, round, and just the right size – phew. Slicing them up evenly was slightly difficult as I pretended, again, to be great with my chef knife. I suck at cutting properly – I’ve cut my hand because I had it under a knife before – so this was nerve-wracking. We put the cookies in the oven, and the chef controlled the temperature and time this time around. I’m pretty pleased my final product – it needs a bit more salt and orange zest, I think, but the texture feels similar to the chef’s cookies both in looks and taste. The chef recommended developing the flavour in the fridge for 24 hours before baking, so I’ve taken a little bit of dough home to try that tomorrow.
I made cookies without a KitchenAid! (Alex has devoured at least 2 dozen today.)
All in all, I’m glad to have gotten it all over with – first demo, first practical. I now have a weekend ahead of me to relax and catch up on all the lost sleep, before another class on Tuesday. It’ll be apple tarts, which I think Alex is already dreaming about. Stay tuned!