The End of Intermediate Pastry (And the Key Lime Story)
I can’t believe it, but somehow I just finished Intermediate Pastry at Le Cordon Bleu Paris! I’m about to be a Superior student, one of those white-clad people roaming the institute cradling 2-foot-tall sugar sculptures and 3D chocolate masterpieces they’ve just made in class. (Me? How? What? The girl who likes making coffee cakes?! Idk, stay tuned. We’ll see what happens.)
I haven’t written much lately because I was basically sick for all of February and the first half of March (not COVID!), but I had to write the final installment of my Key Lime Pie story, since this three-months-in-the-making tart finally got to shine for the chefs in our five-hour final exam yesterday.
As you know if you read my previous posts (here, and later here) on my Frenchified Key Lime Pie, when we were told at the beginning of Intermediate that our final exam was to bake an original modern tart, I knew what I wanted to do. I had to represent the American South!
So in January I began asking myself, how could you recreate the flavor of Key Lime Pie without sweetened condensed milk, and without any pie filling, for that matter? In other words, what would the French do?
Over the past few months, I brainstormed, baked, and tinkered my way toward an answer that elicited a reaction from one of our chefs I may never forget.
It was two weeks ago during our mock exam, held in the school kitchens. I’d finished my tart, and had joined the line of students in my class who were waiting to have their tart assessed and tasted by the chef (in front of everyone else. No pressure!).
I brought my Key Lime Pie à la Française up for inspection by a chef my classmates had nicknamed Dracula, thanks to his height, heavy eyebrows, and penchant for hovering ominously at your shoulder.
He cut a small slice of my tart (which was looking a lot more alien-green than usual, since I had underestimated the power of the school’s green food dye). Holding the slice in his hand, he took a big bite, chewed for a few moments with his brow furrowed, and then issued a short, surprised laugh. He said in French, “that’s so good.”
As I was leaving the classroom later after packing up my knife kit, he called another chef over, and made him try my tart.
He said to the chef, “It’s great, isn’t it? It doesn’t need much. Just a little less meringue, and less green.” I think I bounced all the way home to Boulogne-Billancourt.
So in the two weeks leading up to our final yesterday, I heeded Dracula’s words and tried the tart again – now with no food dye, and with a different piping design that would cut the amount of meringue on the edges in half, plus give a more sophisticated look.
I liked my adjustments. I was feeling mostly ok going into the final, but nervous about one thing: the glazing.
The glaze is one of the mandatory parts of a modern tart, and is typically poured over the top of a frozen insert, creating a super fancy, shiny-smooth effect. The challenge is that you typically pour a glaze on hot, at about 170 degrees Fahrenheit. So God help you if your frozen mousse isn’t cold enough, and the hot glaze melts the whole thing down to soup. I literally had nightmares about my Key Lime Tart turning into Key Lime Île Flottante.
The morning of the exam came, and I leapt out of bed on the first ring of my alarm when it went off at 5:20 am. By 6:30 I was out the door, booking it to the metro.
By 7:30 we were being called into the classroom named Eiffel one at the time, and we were off. I first juiced a bunch of limes, my filet knife slicing through them as if they were nothing but warm butter (a very satisfying sensation even when you’re under pressure).
I then cooked a lime coulis to a smooth, spreadable jelly on the stovetop. I piped a decorative crescent of coulis drops in the bottom of a silicone mold like I’d practiced, froze that; and then I whipped together a salted honey mousse. After freezing that, the rest of the lime coulis was spread on the mousse in a thin, in-your-face layer that makes you go (“KEY LIME!”) when you bite into it. Then I baked the world’s smallest and thinnest serving of a Savoie cake, and brushed it with honey syrup – the structural support that would hold up the coulis and mousse.
Then it was onto rolling out an exactly 2-millimeters thick pastry dough; and finally, melting together a white chocolate ganache made with cream infused with lime zest, which would fill the pastry shell.
After the mold of coulis and mousse had been in the -40 degree Celsius blast freezer for two whole hours, I dared to take it out for glazing.
But there was a twist: the glaze on offer from the trolley of pre-made ingredients that day was meant to be applied cold, not hot. It was different than the one I’d been practicing with for months.
According to the French instructions on the tub of wobbly pectin-and-glucose jelly – as well as the chef overseeing our exam when I asked him – you needed only to heat it to a warm 30-40C.
One hundred percent of the elegance of my tart was riding on those stupid little drops of lime coulis looking crisp and undisturbed, a goal which could only be achieved if the glaze went on perfectly. Too gloppy, too thick, too hot, too cold, and the tart would be ruined.
I surreptitiously re-checked the trolley of wet ingredients to be sure there wasn’t the other kind of glaze I was more used to. (The chef raised his eyebrows when he saw me poking around.)
I stood still for a few moments in front of my work station, heart galloping, unsure what to do. So I did the only thing that made sense: I waited for someone else to glaze their frozen insert first. Let them be the guinea pig! I stared unblinkingly across the marble worktops to see what would happen, as another student completed the fateful pour over a domed mousse. It worked!
So then I prayed to Saint Honoré, the patron saint of French pastries, and glazed mine. And by god, it was stunning. My best glaze ever.
Now all that remained to do was make the Italian meringue and pipe it.
I may not be the fastest in my pastry class, or the most experienced, or have any instinctive understanding of what a crème anglaise is, but I can pipe frosting like nobody’s business.
So then, in what always feels more like a game of Operation than actual pastry work, I piped a ring of identical meringue ridges around the edge of the tart, insetting each new teardrop against the previous. I passed a blowtorch ever so carefully around the edges, torching the meringue in true Key Lime Pie style. And then, it was done. Somehow, it was my best work.
I don’t have a picture (because we were basically threatened with death if we took photos during the final), but I’ll post one as soon as I remake it!
Now, we have a two-week-plus break before Superior starts. I’m excited to see what that will bring.
But for now, I’m looking forward to this break. A friend and I are going to London next week to visit a student who switched from the Paris Le Cordon Bleu Campus to the UK one. And hopefully after that, I’ll be WWOOFing somewhere in the French countryside, learning more French food traditions.
But you know what I think I won’t do for the next two weeks? Bake a tart.