Dispatch from Superior Pastry (Apr. 28)
Hurry. That’s the word that best evokes my first few weeks of Superior Pastry at Le Cordon Bleu Paris.
After two terms of French pastry making, my classmates and I have finally made it to the last, highest level of the pastry diploma. Just a little over two more months, and we’ll be ready to join the ranks of restaurant kitchens and bakeries – or as in my case, tackle the food and sustainability world with a new practical tool in my toolbelt.
But we still have to get through this last, sugary mile. And Superior Pastry isn’t a cake walk. It’s the land of tempered chocolate molded into fantastic animal shapes, 3-D sugar sculptures that resemble blown glass, and mousse-enrobed entremets hiding kaleidoscopic layers of jellies and crémeux.
I’ll admit, I’ve been nervous about this term. But so far, the entremets and fanciful tarts we’ve started with have been going ok, largely thanks to the great people around me.
For one, I have a new partner this term, who’s a friend of mine. Most classes we tackle the recipe as a pair, alternating who makes the mousse, the coulis, the curd, the chantilly, the sponge, the dacquoise, the glaze, the décor, or whatever crazy mix of 7 or 8 things is on order that day. The rest of our classmates are great, too. They know how to laugh it off when, inevitably, two-thirds of us finish our creations late, despite moving faster than we’ve ever moved in our lives. (It’s the rare day that I don’t walk out of the Versailles or Marco Polo kitchen and realize I’m drenched in sweat.)
Our class has also been lucky to have lots of practicals with Chef Laurent Bichon, Le Cordon Bleu’s most talented – and kindest – pastry chef. The most gourmet and detail-oriented of the chefs, he is also the best-equipped for ushering students into the realities of the professional pastry world, teaching theory classes on price sheets and offering advice on how to adapt recipes for commercial scale.
Chef Bichon also knows how to command a room, running early-morning demonstrations like a pastry theater. After he’s whisked and baked at lightning speed for two hours while we scribble notes, he moves onto presenting the final creations. But he isn’t satisfied with a black marble backdrop for his cakes – no!
In mere seconds he transforms the marble worktop, in accord with the flavors and colors of the dessert he’s made. For a chocolate and passion fruit entremet, he rendered a chocolate desert out of thin air, scattering crushed cocoa nibs into makeshift dunes, and placing the entremet on abstract altars of tempered chocolate. For a pair of plated dessert recipes, he made blown-sugar bowls to serve them in, blowing air into a copper tube that inflated a delicate sugar balloon. The table looked like it was covered in glass bubbles.
Luckily, Chef Bichon’s exactitude is matched by his tolerance – one resource that’s often in scarce supply at an otherwise well-stocked school. Last Friday’s class we were all running late, trying to make and plate a tropical cheesecake composed of no less than eight recipes in 90 minutes. Most of us didn’t finish on time. But instead of raising his voice as some chefs do, as long as we were clearly trying, Chef Bichon just chuckled and dispensed tips for how to cut corners and speed up.
As our month of entremets and tarts winds down and we look ahead toward chocolate and sugar, we’re also preparing for one of our final exams, for which we have to create our own entremet. My approach is going to be decidedly Southern, and reflects my recent reading – Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene and John T. Edge’s Potlikker Papers. (If you’re interested in Southern food, you’d probably love these books. The Cooking Gene in particular traces the foods Southerners know best from West Africa all the way to modern fast-food counters, exploring the influence enslaved Americans had on shaping Southern cuisine. Really a must-read.)
My inspiration came from a scene in Michael Twitty’s book, where he describes his grandmother crumbling cornbread into a glass of buttermilk. It reminded me of my own childhood.
While cornbread was often on the table when I was growing up and is one of my favorite foods to this day, buttermilk wasn’t – and isn’t. In fact, my only memory of buttermilk is one time when a babysitter accidentally filled my little sister’s bottle with buttermilk instead of regular milk, and the puckered shock on my sister’s face when she tasted it.
But the flavor pairing started to make a sort of sense to me as I thought about it more. I love – nay, worship – the sacred combination that is a warm wedge of cornbread smeared with jam. But since culinary students are taught to worship at the altar Samin Nosrat so concisely described as salt, fat, acid, and heat, I’m now aware that cornbread and jam is missing something. It’s got salt, and it’s got a bit of fat already. But it’s missing acid. (OK yes, it’s also missing heat, but this is France, where heat doesn’t enter into the culinary lexicon.) Buttermilk would bring a complementary tang.
So anyway, that’s what I’m going for in my entremet creation. Essentially a moussey cake, it’ll feature a cornbread cake layer, a cornmeal crisp, a fresh blackberry compote, and it’ll be covered in a silky buttermilk mousse. A white chocolate mirror glaze, chantilly cream, fresh blackberries, and a paper-thin cornmeal tuile will make up the decoration.
To be honest, the buttermilk is a bold move to present to a jury of conservative French pastry chefs. But Chef Bichon told us that if we feel strongly about a flavor combination, we should go for it. So I’m giving it a shot. Pray for me!