Thursday, February 10, 2011

First week of school

Wow.  It's only day 4 of classes and I have already learned a TON.  I absolutely love the school.  I am part of the Ecole Superieure de Cuisine Francaise--Ferrandi (a part of the larger school, Ecole Gregoire Ferrandi).  The program is extremely professional, and the pedagogy is set up exactly the way I prefer to learn.  The first day, we got fitted for our uniforms, the second day we were in the kitchen, the third day, we started making and working with dough, and today we made tarte aux pommes (apple tart), poached pears, and flan.  I have been waking up at 6am the past 2 days, and will again tomorrow morning.  But I think I'm suited for that sort of schedule, as I have much more energy and many more smiles than the majority of my classmates--although everyone is very excited about it all.

On day 3, we had fascinating lecture time as well as practical work in the kitchen.  I learned that there is more than one type of butter.  The special butter we use for pastry doughs is harder than normal butter.  A different ratio of fat to water, you may wonder?  No.  The main reason for the difference between butters is based on the diet of the cow.  For regular butter (here in France, I can't vouch for American butter-makers), the cows are fed green grass, and the butter is softer.  The special pastry butter is harder because the cows have been fed hay or straw, which allows for a different ratio of oleic and steric acids in the butter.  This makes for a much more pleasant pastry.  I found that fascinating.  I am a bit surprised, and pleasantly satisfied about the amount of food science we are learning.  It keeps me stimulated anyway, beyond learning the tasks of making certain recipes.  

My chef/professor, Chef Didier Averty, is fabulous.  You can just see the passion for what he does ooze out of him--he is just so happy while he gives demos even though he could obviously do it all with his eyes closed.  I can tell he's the perfect type of instructor for me because he teaches not only the scientific aspect of what we're doing, but since there are only 9 people in my class, I can get very specific instruction about every step of everything I'm doing.  He also is stern enough to push my ambition to a higher level, and yet funny enough to temper any hard-feelings that could come from that.  At one point, I had rolled out my dough into a square...somehow...and he just laughed and said I was cute and came over with his "magic wand" (the rolling pin) and made my square into a circle just by rolling it.  Amazing.  Then he proceeded to take me to the white-board to explain and diagram WHY it works to roll it in a certain way when you have anything other than a circle on your board.  

On day 3 (the first day we worked in the kitchen), we learned how to make pâte à foncer (a dough).  Making the dough is the first very important step--there are 6 simple ingredients:  flour, butter (the special straw-fed-cow butter), salt, sugar, egg yolk, and water.  And I have now memorized the ratio, as we have made it a couple times now.  There is such a rigid way that it has to be made, small particular steps that are so important in order to have the dough come out the right way.  The flour and butter are combined until they become crumbly and sand-like, spread out in a circle with a large empty hole in the middle.  In this hole, the egg, water, sugar, and salt are stirred up by the fingers until the crystals are about dissolved, then the flour-butter sand is carefully spread over the egg mixture (Chef Averty showed us this part during the demo, working his spread out fingers through the "sand" to incorporate the egg mixture like a cat in a litter box--very gently and careful and thorough).  The dough ball is then smeared against the granite slab to incorporate the ingredients and to oxygenate the dough (you can actually see the dough change slightly in color as the oxygen is incorporated).  I love food science!

Anyway, after the dough is made, it's chilled for a while.  Then it has to be rolled out into an exact circle, and placed correctly into the tart ring.  Tarts are the closest thing you can find to a pie here.  But, they're not cooked in a pie plate.  There's just a metal ring--with nothing at all on the bottom.  So, lining the ring is a real art.  You don't want the dough to slip out of the ring, so you line it with butter and can't have too much flour on top of the rolled out dough.  You also have to make sure it makes an exact 90 degree angle between the counter-top and the tart ring.  And then there's the whole process of pinching the edges.  Each time I rolled out the dough, lined the ring, and pinched the edges, he would come inspect it, compliment it, and dump it back out on the table and tell me to do it again.  Repetition is my favorite way to learn, so I really learned a lot from this exercise.  And it's a good thing I like repetition because we were in the kitchen from 7:45am until 1:00pm, just making these shells over and over.

Then we threw away all our practice dough, and made a whole new recipe.  Today (day 4), we used that recipe of dough and made 2 shells right off the bat.  Here are mine:

Close-up on my pâte à foncer shell

Some of my classmates working on their shells

This is chef demonstrating how to peel and core apples the right way.  You can see the large mirror above the table, so it's easy to observe what he's doing no matter where you are in the kitchen.

We lined the tart shells with apple sauce.  This is Chef Averty arranging his apple slices around the tart.

The outer-ring of apples goes in one direction, while the inner ring is arranged in the opposite direction

Chef's final product (before baking)

Then it was our turn.  We peeled, cored, and sliced the apples, and then arranged them into our own tarts.  This is my final product.  You can see there are some broken apple slices and it's not perfectly even, but I'm still proud of my first tarte aux pommes.
My final product (before baking)

Then we spread melted butter on the top to preserve the apples:
My tarte aux pommes with butter glaze

Martin (San Diego) and Marina (Serbia) displaying a tarte aux pommes

Tartes pre-oven

Chef putting the tartes into the oven

Tartes baking

Tartes after baking.  Mmmmm!
 After we made the tartes, we poached pears in a syrup that we made with fresh vanilla bean (we'll do something with them tomorrow), and then we made flan.  But it's not the flan you might be familiar with (the wiggly jello-mold-like dessert).  No, this is a custard baked in a sweet dough crust.  Mmmmm!  We're doing something with that tomorrow too.

But class went from 8am to 1:25pm today, and I had to RUN out of school (with my tarte aux pommes in a little box), because I had an appointment to visit an apartment on the other side of town (and I got it! And it's  so cute!).  But it really has been difficult to find an apartment, much more difficult than I had anticipated before coming here.  Example of this:  Ben called one listing for me, and the man said he already had 200 people call and try to visit the place.  200!  And this was true of most of the ads.  One apartment I visited was absolutely disgusting--I walked in and the lady was smoking a cigarette and she spoke French with an Arabic accent, so it was really difficult to understand her, but she took me to the kitchen and was explaining how the stove doesn't work at all, and there was just a dingy futon in the living room that is also the bed/bedroom.  Also, it was on the ground floor and the windows are right on the street, so it didn't feel like a very safe place.  But, all that aside, I'm happy to have a cute little place now.  I'll probably move in sometime in the next couple weeks.  Here's a view from my balcony into a pretty courtyard:

And after the apartment appointment, I had to go all the way back across town to set up a local bank account (I'm REALLY glad that I took some French in school, because all of this would be nearly impossible without it).  I ran so many errands today that I was rendered completely exhausted when I got home to the Garmons.  But I feel I was rewarded by my productivity, as we got to sample my tarte aux pommes after dinner!

It was really nice, not bad for a first try!  There was a really nice strong apple flavor (unlike many apple pies in the US), and the crust was so buttery and delicious!  A very good day :)


  1. I'm so sad that I didn't get to taste it after witnessing the entire creation process! I loved the instructions and the food science information. And I am very relieved that you have found such a great place to live and won't be on the streets at the end of February:)
    I love you,

  2. I am loving reading about your adventures and seeing your wonderful creations.

  3. WOW that crust is amazing. What a fantastic way to learn--repetition. That is awesome!

    Loving all your updates!!