Back at Le Cordon Bleu, it's Tart Week!
We’re back, bébé! Le Cordon Bleu classes started up again last week in a windy, rainy, and cold start to the new year. I flew in on Tuesday on a bumpy transatlantic redeye and started classes Wednesday morning, so the first couple days were a jetlagged blur. But topsy-turvy Circadian rhythms couldn’t keep me down. I was still riding the high of having successfully acquired a French student visa over my brief holidays in the States, despite Le Cordon Bleu’s insistence it wouldn’t be possible. That showed them and their very French Non, non, non!
I was also thrilled to be living somewhere far better than last semester. Those of you who read my posts in the fall (hello again, dear friends) will remember the stingy landlord, the 2-gallon purple bucket that passed for a septic system, and the centime-saboteur downstairs neighbors. I now spend most of my days trying not to remember it.
For January and February, I’m living in Boulogne-Billancourt, the first suburb outside of Paris to the southwest, renting a light-filled room with a working water line (!) from an American pastry chef who does events and food tours in Paris. It’s a great setup for a pastry student like me, comes with a talkative cat named Maizie, a peekaboo view of the Eiffel Tower, and is saving me enough money so I can afford my own place in the spring.
I spent most of this first week locking my next apartment in, taking the metro all over Paris (Line 9! Line 12! Line 4! Line 11! Line 10! Line 9 again!) to scope out possible places. I settled on a lofted studio in Montmartre with 11-foot ceilings, an exposed brick wall, and 300 square feet of floor space, not counting the slightly precarious-looking “loft” that holds a mattress, accessible at a low crouch. (Building codes seem to be treated as a suggestion in Paris.)
I’ll move into the new place in March. What it lacks in the way of a real oven and a washing machine, it makes up for with a toaster oven and natural light beyond my wildest Parisian dreams. Plus, its street name – Rue du Baigneur, or Road of the Bather, named for the baths housed on the street from the Belle Epoque to the 1960s – seems to promise a reliable supply of running water. But I’m not holding my breath. I’ve learned not to count mes oeufs before they hatch.
Meanwhile, Intermediate Pastry started at a frightening but scrumptious clip. On our first day, we were in the Le Cordon Bleu kitchens pressing all our body weight onto a zester poised against a chocolate-covered frozen sheet pan, yanking off chocolate curls to top a caramel-filled and macaron-bedecked maple cake. The second day kicked off what on GBBO would definitely be called Tart Week. In the past two classes we’ve made a chocolate and orange tart, a pineapple-coconut and Malibu tart (with a cake inside the tart!); and tomorrow we make a chocolate and hazelnut choux tart.
The tart extravaganza is training for our Intermediate final exam at the end of March, during which we’ll have 4.5 hours to produce our own original tart creation. It has to have a pastry base, a glaze on top, and 3 or 4 elements we pick from among the following: mousse; biscuit sponge of several varieties like dacquoise or gâteau de savoie or a joconde; or custard, curd, coulis, jam, and meringue.
For some reason, we have to have a nearly-baked (lol) concept for our final tart creation ready to go in about two weeks. Deadlines already looming, Le Cordon Bleu students can be seen during lectures sketching cross-sections of possible tarts in the margins of their notes, and heard in corridors muttering about flavor combinations they might try at home.
Our final tart is supposed to be inspired by home. But I’ve lived so many places in the United States that when people here ask where I’m from, it’s hard for me to know what to say. But what points me toward my geography of home is flavors.
When I think of the flavors that make me me, I think of kumquats and pecans and caramel. All flavors of the Florida panhandle – a place I never lived but visited all the time because my Grandmother lived there. She died last January, hours before Biden took the oath of office. She had been telling us for four years she wanted to live long enough to see “that orange jackass out of there.” And she basically did it.
So this morning I thought of my Grandmother’s kumquat tree that sat on her screen porch for the 26 years I knew her, and I tried my first experimental tart element: a Kumquat curd. Luckily, it’s high kumquat season, so I was able to find a kilo of the small orange fruit at the local Carrefour in Billancourt. I blitzed them – skin, seeds, and all – in a food processor, and used the extremely bitter pulp to make a simple curd. After straining it, the bitterness was gone, leaving a tangy cream suggesting something zingier and more mysterious than lemon.
I’m not sure if I’ll use kumquat curd in my final tart creation, because it may be harder to find kumquats in Paris in March. But I think I’m onto something with the citrus theme. Maybe with a pecan crust. Perhaps even a swirl of milky caramel somewhere in all those layers? We’ll see. More experiments to come.