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)


  1. OMG, sounds like a cross between heaven & hell ! After your most delightful descriptions, I have decided to cross off attending the LCB from my bucket list and just wait to attend the LSGICBC (La Stephanie Garrett Institute of Cordon Bleu Cooking) :) See I am making progress on my list already thanks to you ;)

    1. I love it, Adaora, thank you for your kind words! I think it will be some time before I'm ever qualified to teach anyone but myself but you've inspired another item for my bucket list!

  2. p.s your pastries look soooo yummy!!

  3. Miss Stephanie - I love it. Keep it coming! xoxo

  4. Well, if the pastry chef thing doesn't work out, you can always moonlight as a food photographer. Those pictures are dee-lish!

  5. It all looks absolutely heavenly and I am sure it tastes that way, too, no matter what the chefs say :) Keep it up! Really enjoying the read and taking note of your tips - thank you :). Btw, vanilla powder can be found in any organic, so-called "bio" shops in Germany. Maybe it's the same in Canada? I always bring some back with me. It makes whipped cream taste absolutely delicious!

  6. I love this, and really well written!
    One question: How do you know how much fat is contained in the butter??? I looked on the packet I have here in the fridge, but they didn't say...

    If I may add an additional hint: salt is also another essential in making pastries. I recently made croissants (my very first attempt) and they turned out really well (for my first try), however I really realised that I even though I thought I had added enough salt, I could taste its absense. You do need to be careful to not add too much though....

    Hope to read more soon!!!

    1. Thank you for your valuable comment! In particular, any pastry recipe with butter generally includes salt (but should not be replaced by salted butter!).

      One tip that helps with ingredients that come in smaller amounts is trading in measuring cups and spoons for a digital/electronic scale. I'll be sharing more about this in a future blog, but since getting my scale, I'm a complete convert!

      Salt is also quite trendy now-a-days, in balancing sweet dishes - like salted caramel or salted nuts added to certain pastries (barquettes, molten chocolate cakes, etc.).

      Also, stay tuned as I'll be making croissants in a couple of weeks and will let you know if the recipe is worth sharing!

    2. In response to your question regarding the fat content in butter: Here in France, the packages of butter generally state the % of fat (I just checked on the organic butter I have in the fridge and it has 82%).

      I know that in Canada, most butters have 82% even if the package doesn't list the amount and so I can only assume it might be the same in other countries, however, you might want to ask at a larger grocery store, or, if you use a brand name of butter, to check online or with the manufacturer to confirm the fat content.

      If you are making puff pastry and need dry butter (ie. butter with 85% fat), you might need to visit a specialty shop or ask a local bakery to see where they source their butter. If your butter does not have enough fat content you can also purchase dry butter and mix it (50/50) with your butter to produce a higher fat butter for baking. I hope this helps!