Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Discovering Paris: Tips for the ‘outdoor’ foodie

Paris by foot, and b(u)y food!
It is said that you could explore Paris over several lifetimes and never experience all that this city has to offer.  While Paris remains faithful to the literature, songs and films it has inspired, the city is in a state of constant renewal, which makes rounding each street corner an exhilarating adventure yielding unexpected (and edible) discoveries!  I’ve been to Paris multiple times and am not ashamed to admit that a sparkling Eiffel tower under a clear night sky still gives me butterflies.  However, I now have the luxury of by-passing the tourist-infested monuments and museums to instead seek to unravel other dimensions of this iconic city.  Given that my current séjour in Paris is bathed in butter and sprinkled in sugar, I must balance consumption of my own pastries with finding Paris’ hidden culinary gems.  With my hectic school schedule and that of my partner, Nick (who’s studying French), we decided to maximize the spare time we had in our first couple of weeks by exploring some of Paris’ neighbourhoods by foot.  This meant lots of fantastic ‘outdoor’ food discoveries and less time in cafés and restaurants.  For the pocket-book conscious, this is also a great way to save a few euros in this expensive city.

The search for the perfect croissant
I challenge anyone reading this blog to think of a more delicious way to start your day in Paris than the perfect, flaky (on the outside), tender (on the inside), buttery (but not greasy), hot-out-of-the-oven croissant.  Now that I’ve described what you should be looking for, how do you find a delicious croissant in Paris?  Certainly, mediocre boulangeries and patisseries abound and stay in business because of unassuming tourists like you and me!

When we first arrived to Paris, my partner, Nick, consumed more croissants than either he or I will admit (okay, so did I!).  But at 1.00 euro a piece, it was not an overly expensive investment in order to find the best croissants in our neighbourhood.  If you don’t have the time or money to invest, however, here are a few tips on finding the perfect croissant in Paris:

1)     There are 2 types of regular croissants; those made with butter and those made with margarine.  If a croissant only costs 80 centimes, it was most likely made with margarine and won’t be as flavourful as those made with butter.  A butter croissant should usually cost around 1.00 – 1.20 euro and is darker/more golden brown.  If you aren’t sure which is which, ask the person behind the counter.
2)     If you see a line up outside a boulangerie/patisserie and fresh croissants emerging from the oven in a cloud of steam, you’ve probably hit the jackpot and will have a fabulous croissant experience.  Wait in line, it’ll be worth it!  Croissants should be eaten fresh out of the oven. 
3)     If you don’t have the time, appetite or metabolism to go from boulangerie to patisserie in search of the perfect croissant, and you happen to be near Pierre Hermé, Maison Kayser,  or Ladurée, then try their upscale delights.  I have yet to visit any of these personally (it’s on the list!), but these are names I hear thrown around the LCB hallways on a regular basis (either for their exquisite quality, or for being over-rated!).

Organic artichokes, Batignolle Market
Learn about a culture through its markets
My absolute favourite activity on any trip to any part of the world is a visit to a local market.  To me, markets represent the heartbeat of a city (and a community) transcending borders and time.  They are a feast for all of our bodily senses and flourish when diverse, colourful, and vibrant.  If you want to know a culture and eat the freshest products available, visit a local market.  Bustling markets can be found in every Parisian neighbourhood, which makes it challenging to decide which market to visit, as each has a distinctive flavour and appeal, and most compete for your business on week-end mornings. 

Nick and I visited the Batignolle market last weekend.  Batignolle (17th arrondissement) is a beautiful neighbourhood to wander through on its own with some great indoor eats, but a visit to its organic market will have you salivating.  The aroma of caramelized onion crêpes is followed by that of beautiful roasted chicken, which makes way for the pungent smell of dozens of different types of goat’s cheese.  Your eyes dart from left to right taking in the bright red of wild strawberries, the purple and green of fresh artichokes and figs, and the yellow of newly cut flowers.  The market dances and sings with vendors urging you to try their products.  What makes the Batignolle market exciting is that all of the products are locally produced and organic.  Organics are becoming increasingly trendy (and available) in Paris with bio shops popping up everywhere. 

Array of cheeses, Richard Lenoir market
Another fantastic market that’s worth a visit is the Richard Lenoir market off of the Place de la Bastille (11th arrondissement).  Triple the size of Batignolle, this market also includes stalls with kitchen equipment, wine (generally, the winemaker him/herself is selling!), award winning confit de canard (duck), and much more!

A few tips for your next market day in Paris:

1)     If you want to beat the crowds and get the freshest food available, go early (I never seem to make this happen on a weekend!).
2)     Don’t visit a Parisian market if you are in a rush.  Many elderly Parisians and other social individuals use market day as an opportunity to share conversations about food and life with local vendors they have known, often for years.  Take the time to practice your French, listen in on interesting and lively conversations about how to prepare this legume or that cut of meat, and enjoy the atmosphere.
3)     Do a quick, initial tour of the market to check out prices, what’s available, and where the line ups are before you purchase anything.  Generally, those market stalls that are the busiest with locals are the best.
4)     Try new things!  Often, vendors are happy to provide you a sample of a product before you buy.  Be respectful of their generosity, but also, don’t be afraid to try new things as you’ll regret going home with an empty bag and an empty stomach!

Discovering the perfect ice cream and gelato
A croissant for breakfast, a picnic feast of fresh market finds in one of Paris’ many beautiful parks and you’re ready for an afternoon pick-me-up in the form of a cold taste-explosion!  Last Sunday it was sunny in Paris and I set out on a mission to find the best gelato/ice cream in the city.  After a bit of online research, I found two options that sounded like winners.  Berthillon is very well known as the best ice cream in Paris – at least that’s what all the guidebooks say.  By the length of the line ups (a block long, all foreign tourists), I assume the ice cream is heavenly, however I wouldn’t be able to place my seal of approval yet as each time I’ve passed Bertillhon, the crowds of people have been enough to keep me walking.  Instead, Nick and I ended up in Le Marais at Pozzetto for some Italian gelato.  I barely have words to describe how stunning my gelato experience was.  Flavours include the classic cream, pistachio, and fruits such as lemon, and melon.  But if you are a fan of strawberries, you must absolutely make a special trip to taste their wild strawberry gelato.  Simply divine and the perfect end to a perfect day as an outdoor foodie!

Stay tuned for part 2 of my Cordon Bleu bootcamp and more Paris food discoveries!

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Le Cordon Bleu Boot Camp Part 1: a mix of brutal truths and sweet discoveries

When Reality Sets In…
You’ve started your list-of-things-to-do-before-you-die, you’ve set some realistic timelines and goals related to your top bucket list item, and you’ve invested time and money to make it happen.  In the blink of an eye, your moment of glory has arrived…

My walk to Le Cordon Bleu (LCB) on the first day of my intensive basic pastry course was not only not glorious, it was rather reminiscent of the first day of school as a child.  My stomach was churning, I was overwhelmed by nerves and nausea, and suddenly feeling completely unprepared (and not properly dressed!) for the task at hand. In classic French pedagogical form, we were shuffled into a “demonstration” room – where the LCB chefs display their culinary gifts – and provided 3 hours worth of rules and regulations on what not to do, and how not to pass the course.  I quickly realized that: a) I hadn’t been in school in years as was feeling rather academically rusty; b) I would be baking under serious time constraints in a high-stress, crowded environment; c) I had to figure out a very complicated uniform which, if not worn correctly would get me booted out of class; and d) I was receiving a more expensive kit of equipment than the worth of my entire home kitchen.  These realizations combined with the LCB orientation were extremely helpful in calming my nerves…  Alas, I may not know how to make the perfect croissant, but at least I can sweet-talk the chefs with my French, oui? Non?

Le Cordon Bleu Boot Camp
After a week of classes I can now confidently say that reality has set in.  I thought I would be learning pastry from the best, and I am, but I didn’t count on how the best treat the lowly beginner students.  Some preparatory military training would have been extremely useful.  The chefs of Le Cordon Bleu reign and must be treated accordingly.  I have no doubt they have certainly earned this high degree of respect to be where they are today in this complex French system (don’t even get me started on the French system).  Therefore, if they ask a question (even if rhetorical), it must be responded to with a loud and precise, “OUI CHEF”.  If a chef tells you to decorate your cake a certain and you think it would look nicer another way, follow their instructions, because You.Know.Nothing.  If you happen to like your cookies a little less baked/brown than the chef, don’t say a word because You.Know.Nothing.  If you are more of an artisan baker (a.k.a unconventional and creative like me!), you had better clean up your act and learn to follow the recipes to the letter because you are graded on presentation, and not on taste (at least that seems to be the case thus far). 

So now that we have established that We.Know.Nothing and are merely inferior, lay pastry chefs this side of the Seine, we are ready to begin.  Like a lovely alcohol-drenched sponge cake, I have been soaking up every ounce of wisdom I can absorb (and drinking a lot of wine after class).  Within only a week, an entire delicious, vanilla-scented world has opened up to me.  If you are experienced in pastry, then forgive the naivety of the following list, but if you are not, I hope you will marvel in the same way I have at a few  simple tips that can change the way you think about pastry. 

These 10 sweet discoveries have made all of the past week’s culinary mishaps worthwhile:

1)     Vanilla powder (not extract, not sugar, but pure, ground vanilla seeds) is the most heavenly ingredient you can add to just about any dessert, if you don’t have the means or the patience for fresh vanilla from the pod.  I had never seen vanilla powder before attending LCB and am not even certain of its availability outside of France, but it is the black gold of my pastry world.  Find it, add a pinch to your pâte sucrée (sweet pastry dough), to your crème Chantilly (whipped cream), or to your apple compôte
2)     Citrus zest (lemon, lime, orange, etc.) is a marvelous thing that can add zing to many cookies and cakes.
3)     Butter (nearly always unsalted in the pastry world) should have at least 82% fat content.  If it’s less, don’t use it for baking as your pastries will simply not turn out the same; the water content is too high.  Dry butter has an even higher fat content and is used for making puff pastry.
4)     Powdered/confectioners/icing sugar is useful for more than just icing.  For any mixture or dough you don’t want to overwork, add powdered sugar instead, it incorporates and dissolves much faster.
5)     As much as you might want to, never never NEVER touch caramel while it’s cooking.  Water and sugar need time to get to know one another and interference is just a bad thing.  Place a lid on your saucepan from the start, until the sugar boils and it will create enough vapour around the sides of the pan to help reduce or avoid crystallization.  As an aside, I was over-zealous with my vanilla powder this week and it accidentally ended up in my caramel, which didn’t work out very well (but thankfully, vinegar saved the day).  A complete rookie error, I know.  I won’t bore you with the chemistry of it all, but don’t add anything but sugar and water when making caramel or you’ll have a big French pastry problem on your hands (add a big French chef yelling at you if you’re at the LCB)…
6)     Most doughs people buy at the supermarket are surprisingly simple to make.  I promise (unless it’s an emergency of course), you’ll probably never buy puff pastry or pie shells again if you learn to make them properly from scratch.  And while we’re on the topic of dough, know how dough (any dough for any recipe you make regularly) tastes raw.  That way, if one day, you happen to forget an ingredient, you will know before your pastry goes in the oven.
7)     Learn about sablage (rubbing dry ingredients and butter between your hands to make a sand) and fraisage (crushing dough with your palm in a forward motion) including the proper associated techniques.  These are the two golden-dough-terms I wish I had known about years ago.  They help to solve the over- vs. under-mixing dilemma that often plagues me. That said, know when to be gentle and when to be assertive with your ingredients and mixtures before you begin your recipe. 
8)     Never put a wooden rolling pin in water (or wash it, for that matter), the wood warps.  All you need to clean a rolling pin is a pastry scraper.  In fact, a pastry scraper (plastic, round on one end and straight on the other) has become my new best friend, definitely the most useful and versatile tool you can have in your pastry kitchen.
9)     Never rely on the baking time or temperature of a recipe.  LCB chefs never provide baking times (and often reduce baking temperatures as soon as a pastry enters the oven) because everything depends on your environment and your oven.  Your pastry will not adapt to your schedule so you must adapt to your pastry (much like a relationship!).  This is probably the most frustrating thing I’ve learned all week.  So much for multi-tasking while the pastry is in the oven.
10)   Making mistakes is the best way to learn, and can sometimes yield very tasty results.  We often learn more from what we do incorrectly, than from what turns out perfectly.  I have to remind myself of that on a daily basis here in Paris as Parisians are delighted to remind me of my many imperfections.

The following are a few photos from some of the desserts I’ve baked so far.  For specific recipes, check out the “Recipe” tab.  And stayed tuned, as my upcoming blog will reveal insights into Parisian Outdoor Foodie-ism!

Classic French Apple Tart

Classic French Apple Tart - sliced
St. Honoré

Chausson aux Pommes (Apple Turnover)

Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Bucket List: how to make your (culinary) dreams a reality

The Bucket List and The Blog
I’m not sure which is more daunting – crossing the top item off of my “list-of-things-to-do-before-I-die” (a.k.a. my “bucket list”) or posting my first-ever blog.  I am fortunate to be surrounded by some wonderfully adventurous people along with a few very talented writers, so it’s clear that if I am going to make good on my bucket list and write about it, this exercise had better be interesting or crazy enough to produce a few smiles.  I therefore invite you to join me as I eat, bake, and travel my way through my bucket list. 

Bucket List Item #1: Learn to make beautiful, rich, delicious, buttery pastries from those who know pastry  best (i.e. study the foundations of patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris while discovering the best pastries to be found in the city of love)!

Thank you, Julia Child
Ironically, some of the courage it took to write this first blog, and to tackle this very-import-thing-to-do-before-I-die comes from Julia Child.  For those of you who are not familiar with Julia Child, look her up.  If you watch any North American cooking show on television or read any North American cookbook that makes deliciously complex food approachable, it was probably inspired by Julia Child.  I’m fascinated by Julia because she discovered food at 32 and coincidentally, at 32 I find myself in Paris as a new pastry student at Le Cordon Bleu – the very culinary institute she made famous.  I also love the fact that at 91, Julia didn’t think it was too late to write her memoirs.  This leads me to believe that even though there are a million blogs out there, perhaps I too might have something interesting to say. 

What it takes to cross an item off your bucket list
Getting started with a bucket list can be as scary as it was for me to post this first blog.  We all have ideas about what we would like to achieve in our lifetime, but how do we make those dreams a reality?  I don’t claim to have all (or even most!) of the answers, but here are a few ideas that worked for me:

1. Dream big enough to get butterflies in your stomach, but realistic enough to make it happen in this lifetime.  Then, stop talking about what you want to do and… MAKE. IT. HAPPEN!
 A few years ago, a fellow 'big dreamer' friend and I started signing off each of our emails to one another with a list of 3 things we wanted to do before we die.  Some of our 'bucket list' items are crazy (like becoming international spies of mystery), but most are actually doable.  Over the years I started archiving these emails only to realize I wasn’t crossing many off my list.  In the meantime, in just one year, my friend had learned to sail in the British Virgin Islands, roamed the Serengeti in Africa and played a polo match in Argentina.  Now it was my turn.

I started by asking myself, in my most challenging moments in life, what made me happiest?  My answer happened to be baking.  As with all things that make us happy, I started to wonder if baking could be something that I wanted to do all the time (i.e. professionally), or if it was just a personal love affair.  The only way I was going to find out was to formalize my skills.  Without delving into the details, it took a little online research, some practical planning and some serious financial investment.  Ironically, investing ourselves financially in our dreams can often be the biggest barrier to achieving them, and yet it can also be the most liberating thing we do.  I’m not a professional coach, but I suspect they would say that when you invest financially in realizing your dreams, you commit in a way you might not otherwise.  This has certainly been the case for me.  And to be honest, at the end of my days I would much rather have the experience (good or bad!) of having done something I’d always dreamed of, than financial stability with many regrets. 

2.     Suspend belief, disbelief and all expectations about the outcome of your adventure
Bucket lists are all about the unknown.  If you are uncomfortable with the unknown, great.  Push yourself.  I stress to no end when I don’t know what I don’t know.  I regularly experience existential meltdowns, but what would life be without unpredictable, new experiences?  When I started letting friends and family know that I was taking some time away from my ‘day job’ to try my hand at patisserie in France, I received a lot of curious looks and the question, “are you changing careers?”.  The truth is, as with fulfilling any life-long dream, I suppose we don’t ever know what the outcome might be.  All we can do is suspend, to the best of our ability, all expectations we might have about the outcome of our journey and focus on learning more about ourselves along the way.  More than becoming skilled at pastries (and ingesting way too much butter and sugar this month), my goal is to be okay with whatever may be.  To launch myself into the unknown and love it.

3.     Bucket List Ingredient List
And the rest of what it takes to cross an item off your bucket list?  Well, I’m hoping to figure this out through this experience and to share what I discover with all of you (and encourage you to share your ideas with me as well!).  At the risk of being a complete cliché, I’ll end this blog with a recipe – the only one you’ll find in the coming weeks that doesn’t include butter and sugar:

First, get yourself a good glass of wine to get the creative juices flowing!  Then take a healthy dose of inspiration, add some serious courage and a pinch of planning.  Mix together and bake for long enough to make sure it’s right for you, but not so long as to burn the opportunity.  Then savour … every … moment because, like a good pastry, a bucket list experience doesn’t last forever!  And as every good pastry chef knows, don’t overwork the dough (or the thought-process).  It’ll turn out better if you just go with your heart.

*Although not traditional to write a ‘dedication’ in a blog, I really want to dedicate this experience to the following people: Nick – for believing in me 200% of the time and reminding me of this everyday.  George – for amazing bucket list inspiration and motivation.  Mom, Dad and Jill – for a lifetime of support through all of my wild adventures.