Thursday, October 24, 2013

Playing with Plates

This past week in patisserie, we worked on plated desserts.  I was super excited since this is the main reason I wanted to get into pastry in the first place.  Putting elements together on a plate that may seem odd at first, making the plate look like a work of modern art and presenting something absolutely delightful.  Chef is always telling us to “give your best to the guest”.  And this week, even more than before, I was ready. 

 First up…Moelleux Noix de Coco, Coeur Coulant Mangue et Glace Gingembre

Beautiful and oh so scrumptious!  So what you have there in the glass is a coconut biscuit.  Before cooking, we hid a frozen sphere of mango sorbet in the middle of the batter, so when you bite into it you get a gooey mango surprise.  Surprises in the middle of desserts is my new found obsession since reading the book Spiced in which the pastry chef who wrote the book loves to hide little bits of heaven for her guests to discover.  I will definitely be playing with that soon!  We also placed small edible flowers on the top to give the cake a pop of color.

That gorgeous honey colored swirl coming off the cake and down to the plate is a coconut thin.  For those in the culinary world, it’s really nothing more than a tuile cookie made with coconut.  But it will make you look at tuiles in a completely different light and have you flavoring yours from now on!

Underneath the thin is a perfect cornelle of ginger ice cream.  I wish I could take credit for the immaculate shaping of this ice cream, but to save time, Chef did all of our ice cream scoops for the week.  He does it with one large spoon off the side of the container.  I must practice that!  Those of you who know me and my love for all flavors Asian, know this ice cream was right up my alley.  Perfect compliment to the cake and mango.  I will be making this again!  Also, hidden underneath the ice cream is a small and simple sable cookie topped with peanuts.  We used these cookies in all our desserts to keep the ice cream from melting into a puddle on the plate.  I was surprised at how long the ice cream actually stayed solid.

The garnishes on the plate consist of artistic swoops and dots of mango coulis, a small dusting of cocoa powder and a thin line of coconut flakes on the edge of the plate.  I wish I could find the words to describe the taste of this dish, but none seem to do it justice.  This would be my favorite dessert of the week.

Dessert #2…Mariage Carotte et Manque, un Soupcon de Noisette

I have to admit, I was very skeptical about this dessert when first discussed.  After all, pairing carrot and mango weren’t exactly two flavors I ever thought would go together.  However, I was presently surprised by the combination.

The squares on the plate are made of hazelnut daiquoise, an air leavened light cake.  On top of the cake is piped lines of sweet carrot cream.  Alternating circles of candied carrot and mango top the cream and a small square of carrot thin is placed in the corners.  I found that the carrot thin was a bit too sticky and got stuck in your teeth easily, so perhaps it stayed out at room temperature too long and took on too much humidity before plating.

The large circles on the plate are a reduction of carrot juice and sugar, while the small circles are mango coulis we had left over from the previous dessert.  The sorbet for this dish was mango carrot.  This made the dish for me.  I could have eaten a whole bowl of just the sorbet.  The sweetness of the mango paired with just a hint of carrot was an amazingly refreshing combination.  And, of course, our sable cookie kept it from melting into a pile of goo.

Last plated dessert…Arlettes aux Poires, Crème Brulee Vanille Bourbon, Eclats de Marrons Confit et Glace a L’Huile D’Olive du Domaine Lagarance

Aesthetically speaking, I thought this was the most interesting looking dessert of the week.  However, I found the syrupiness a little overwhelming for me, and I couldn’t finish it.  The juice of the pears seemed to dominate the rest of the elements.  Still, the half that I was able to eat was yummy.

The main part of the dessert is layer upon layer of all kinds of goodness.  The base is an arlette, or a piece of puff pastry rolled very thin, dredged in powdered sugar and baked until crunchy.  These were divine even on their own.  The outer edges of the base arlette were lined with pear rounds which had been caramelized in brown sugar.  In the middle of the pears was placed a thin line of frozen crème brulee.  A confit of chopped chestnuts was placed on either side of the crème brulee and then a layer of sweet vanilla cream was piped to fill in all the gaps.  This was topped with another arlette and the same layering as the base, but without the crème brulee this time.  Finally, the dessert was topped with a final arlette, a thin line of powdered sugar, dollop of sweet vanilla cream and a half a chestnut.

The ice cream on this plate was an olive oil ice cream.  This was my favorite part of the dessert.  The olive oil gave the ice cream a dimension I’d never really experienced before.  It really got me excited about experimenting with ice creams when I get back home.  

Also on the plate were thin lines of pear coulis outlining the dessert, a small dab of cocoa powder and (of course) our sable cookie resting under the ice cream.

One more thing…The Game

So by Thursday, we had completed all the desserts above.  This gave us Friday with an “open day”.  Chef told us on Thursday that he was planning a game for us on Friday, so I went into class with much anticipation about what he had in store.

When we arrived in class on Friday, chef told us we would be crafting our own mini dessert, which had to be plated.  He wanted the dessert itself inside a small glass but presented on a plate.  This is the type of dessert that is commonly served before the actual dessert in a gastronomic restaurant in France.  Yes, they have two…well rather almost three…desserts.  But more on the “full course meal of the French” later.

His only requirement other than the size of the dish is that we utilized left over poached pears we had in the kitchen.  That was to be the fruit and focus of the dessert, but other than that we had free reign.  Awesome!  I spent the first bit of time exploring the kitchen to find things I thought would work well with the pears, but still things I could play with.  I didn’t want to try any new techniques, but I did want to experiment with flavors we hadn’t done already that week.  After all, here was a golden opportunity to play.  I took full advantage and came up with this beauty…


In the glass, you have layers of pistachio biscuit, chopped poached pears mixed with peanut and pecan brittle and coffee cream.  A thin strip of chocolate garnishes the top of the glass.  Peanut and pecan brittle lines the plate where alternating squares of poached pear and chocolate discs serve as the garnish.

Chef thought the design of my plate was good, although it lacked sauce which he didn’t like.  He also applauded my efforts to try new flavors, but thought I had incorporated one too many ingredients.  His suggestion was to get rid of the addition of coffee and flavor the cream with a spice that was found in the poaching liquid.  Strangely enough, I had thought of doing that, but thought it would done by others and I wanted to be different.  Overall I was pleased with how my mini dessert came out and look forward to being able to play this game again!

Of course Chef whipped up a mini dessert of his own, utilizing only about a fourth of the time we had and came up with this little masterpiece.

Ok, so I admit I asked for him to do it, but I’m glad I got to see what a really pastry chef can come up with…and in only 40 minutes.  One day, I will get there!!

Can you believe we’ve been here a month???

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Hidden Beauty of Beziers

This past weekend, we took a brief overnight trip to the nearby town of Beziers.  The hubs stumbled upon this town when he went to return our rental car at the beginning of our trip and thought it would be a nice town to come back to.  So we did.  It was only a 10 minute train ride from Agde, perfect for a night away.

True to fashion, we turned the wrong way coming out of the train station.  We found out later that the way we thought we should go was, in fact, the right way.  However, the step incline of the very narrow street led us to following a larger road to an even larger shopping center called the Polygone.  Not where we were supposed to be, but interesting none the less.  We started walking toward signs for other hotels, and I ended up having the brilliant idea to stop into a flower shop to ask directions.  They must know the city, right?  They deliver flowers.  Thankfully, the woman working at the shop knew just enough English and I, just enough French, for her to make me a map to our hotel.  I was grateful and soon enough, we came upon the Hotel de France.

The woman at the counter was nice enough to let us into our room early so that we didn’t have to carry our backpacks while exploring the city.  We found a quick lunch at a nearby restaurant and began to plan our day.  On the way to the hotel, we saw that there was some sort of chocolate exhibition in town, so we decided to see what it was all about.

It was called the Feria du Chocolat, and it was wonderful!  Imagine about 50 different chocolate shops all in one place displaying things for sale along with show pieces they had made.  Having just come off chocolate week in pastry class, I was pretty excited.  We shared different flavored macaroons, the little one enjoyed a chocolate lollipop and I indulged in the free tastings each booth was giving out.  Check out some of these cool exhibits!  I was in chocolate heaven!


Soon afterwards, it was time to hunt down a place for dinner.  We went back to the hotel and put our faith in trip advisor to give us some pointers.  We had found some interesting options for dinner, but since it was still too early to eat, we decided to have a drink at La Charniere which directly translated stands for “the hinge”.  This ended up being the best choice we’ve made since we arrived in France.

The man who owns this place is an ex-rugby player named Johnny from Oxford, England.  He had a magnificent English accent and the type of blue eyes any girls can fall in love with.  The hubs even fell for him a little…haha.  But sorry to the single ladies out there, he’s married with a young son and one of the way.  But I digress.  His place was wonderful.  Johnny was extremely friendly with everyone, even sitting down to watch a bit of rugby with those having a few drinks.  The hubs went gaga when he found out they served Guiness and had his first proper pint since we left the states.  The little one made a friend with another three year old girl whose parents were enjoying the game.  It was fun to see them running around, playing and talking to each other even though the other little girl only spoke French.  The hubs and I communicated with the locals as best we could, calling Johnny for help whenever we got really stuck.  Some of the best people I’ve met so far!

Interesting art work on the walls...Bread Pitt

  ...Paris Stilton...

  ...and Cake Winslett, among others

It was so good, in fact, we stayed for dinner.  Leaving our menu in the hand of our gracious host, we were served duck and monkfish that literally melted in your mouth.  He was even so kind as to have the chef prepare the little one some freshly friend chicken tenders, something that wasn’t on the menu.  As the night went on, the restaurant got crowded.  We said goodnight to our new friends and headed back to the hotel.

The next morning, we headed back to our new favorite place to enjoy a full English breakfast.  Since eggs are not something you see often on a breakfast menu in France, we were happy to not stray from our new find in order to get a wholesome breakfast.  Everything was fantastic, down to the milk.  This guy really knows his stuff.

After breakfast, we walked up to Cathedral Saint Nazarie, a suggestions from Johnny.  Beziers is one of the oldest cities in France, and this cathedral dates back almost as far as the city itself.  It is still a functioning Roman Catholic church and we arrived just as Sunday service was dismissing.  The Cathedral was originally built in the thirteenth century.  Some of the original parts remain, though most had to be rebuilt after most of the structure was destroyed during the massacre at Beziers as part of the Albigensian Crusade.  The outside of the cathedral was pretty, however, I was disappointed that we didn’t get to go inside.  However, the most special part of this was the view we got from outside the cathedral.  It’s the highest point in the city, and the sky was so clear you could see all the way to Spain.  Absolutely beautiful.

Next we walked through the Le Plateau des Poetes, a park across from the train station.  The sites were quite lovely.  The little one enjoyed playing on the playground with some other children and talking to the duck in the pond.  An unfriendly goose hissed at me just for trying to scoot a piece of bread closer to her, but I didn't take it personally.  In fact, she was the first unfriendly sole we encountered in the whole town.  It is definitely a place we will have to come back to, if time allows.  With time to spare, we headed back to the train station where our little social butterfly made friends with an elderly couple before we boarded the train back to Agde. 

What’s on the plate for next week?

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Wonderful World of Chocolate

Early last week my little one had a very big milestone in her life.  She watched, and instantly became hooked on, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  I’m talking about the original…the one with Gene Wilder where the screen play was actually written by the same man who wrote the book…not the other one.  She loved it!  Why wouldn’t she?  And it totally got me in the mood for chocolate week in class!

From the first time I tempered chocolate in culinary school, chocolate quickly became one of my favorite things to work with.  I think it’s because you really have to know what you’re doing to work with it successfully.  Not just anyone can melt down chocolate and turn it into something beautiful.  It was a challenge for me.  And I fell in love. 

This week was like a little piece of home invaded school in France.  I thought back to the first time I worked with chocolate and how I got it in places that didn’t even make since.  I thought of my favorite pastry teacher from AICH telling us that chocolate wasn’t messy, we were.  I thought of the countless hours I spent practicing truffles for competition.  I thought of the extreme relaxation that come over me whenever I stand in front of a marble slab covered in melted chocolate and mold it into something wonderful.  I thought of all the smiles those little pieces of heaven have brought to people.  This was going to be a good week.   

Now, I may have been slightly spoiled for the week when it comes to working with chocolate.  You see, my chosen area of the kitchen is to work in the back corner on top of a marble covered refrigerator.  That’s right; my table of choice is made out of cooled marble.  What a perfect spot for tempering chocolate.  My colleagues often joke that I’m the only one in the class that hasn’t moved or changed spots in our three weeks.  But if you know me, you know I’m a creature of habit.  And when I find something good, I stay put.  My new partners can come to me.  Check out the marvelous creations I made this week.

1848 – A chocolate bar found in France.  Our pastry chef told us it was one of his favorites, so he figured out how to make it on his own.  It’s a combination of milk chocolate flavored with peanut praline (also made fresh) and then coated in gold luster dust to give it an appearance of being a gold block.  Oh yes!

Après Saison – This green striped chocolate actually has two layers on the inside.  The bottom layer is a raspberry pate de fruit (a candy with a jelly like consistency) and the top is a white chocolate verbena ganache.  Verbena is an herb that I learned about this week.  Slightly citrus, slightly herbaceous, altogether fabulous!

Ardechois – Roasted chestnut and rum ganache coated with dark chocolate.  A small milk chocolate line serves as garnish.  Yum!

And last but certainly not least…

Sucette Cachuete et Caramel au Beurre Sale – In other words, the best Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup you’ve ever had…one a stick!  These lollipops of wonderfulness are filled with a salted caramel and peanut butter ganache with a few caramelized peanuts in there for surprise.  No surprise these were my favorites.  You can’t beat chocolate and peanut butter. 
This weekend we explore a nearby town.  So how was it...

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Weekend Away in Montpellier

This past weekend was the first weekend we decided to venture outside our little home of Le Cap d’Agde and explore the nearby city of Montpellier.  Several of my colleagues were going as well and we had heard it was a beautiful town.  As it is only a 30 minute train ride away, we figured this would perfect for our first get away.
Thankfully, our experience on the train was much better than our attempt in Paris.  We actually made it on the train and to Montpellier…yeah!  However, we did get a bit lost on the way to finding our hotel and ended up walking the last part of the way in the pouring rain.  We’ve decided that I am in charge of getting directions when we need them since I’ve been pretty successful at being able to communicate basic things in French, but the hubs is in charge of reading and navigating the map and streets.  Yes, it was me that got us lost this time.  The streets here are tricky for me.  So I have no problem letting him take the reigns here.  At least I can get us help when we need it which makes us a really good team.
When we finally arrived at the Hotel Ibis Center, soaking wet and hungry, we were happy to find that the room had a much more comfortable bed and pillows than those is our apartment and there was a restaurant that was still open…and serving food! 

After filling our bellies with food and drink, we turned in for a good night’s rest to prepare for a day of exploring.  Well, as good a night’s rest as you can get with a toddler kicking you in the face off and on throughout the night.
We woke up Saturday to a beautiful sunny day.  Thank goodness!  We really do need to invest in an umbrella, but I would have been pretty bummed if it had rained the whole weekend.  Although the hotel offered a breakfast buffet, we decided to venture out in search of a true French breakfast.
It’s odd to say after being in France for two weeks that I haven’t felt like I’ve been in France, but I haven’t.  The town we live in is so small, and there really are no signs of “typical French life”.  Montpellier was just what I needed to give me the French feel.  We took a short walk to an area of town called the Comedie.  It’s basically the city center and filled with shops, restaurants and cafes.  We chose Le Café Riche as our breakfast spot and sat down listening to the children street performers playing the accordion.  We shared a classic French breakfast of baguette, croissant, jams and crepe sucre as we sipped our café and the little one drank milk.  This is what I had been missing all along.  Finally, I felt like I was in France! 
After breakfast, we strolled through the streets window shopping and admiring the work of local artisans who had set up tables in the streets as a kind of outdoor market.  We found a wonderful culinary shop with all kind of goodies for sale.  The shop keeper let us sample some jelly, which was almost as good as my mom’s, and explained a package of thinly sliced tuna which was smoked in the same manner you would think of smoking salmon.  Unfortunately, it had to be kept refrigerated, so we couldn’t get any.  I could have looked around this small shop for hours.  What wonderful things they had!

Just before lunch, we found the Jardin du Champ de Mars, a lovely park with large fountains and a playground.  The little one was thrilled.  She told us we could leave, that she was going to work and had a blast climbing the ladders, sliding and running around with the other children there. 

We stopped for lunch at a place called Tomate Vert just on the edge of the park.  I ordered the most wonderful salad I’ve ever had, and kicked myself later for eating practically all of it before I realized I forgot to take a picture.  It was a wonderful bowl of greens, thinly sliced prosciutto, fresh mozzarella balls, shaved parmesan and topped with sesame fried mozzarella cheese sticks.  Amazing is an understatement!  I could have eaten two of them.  As a treat after lunch, we took the little one in a candy shop and let her pick out some treats.  It looked like a typical shop you would find in America, choosing the sweets of your choice from plastic bins and filling up your bag to be weighed by the cashier.  However, the treats themselves looked much different.  It was quite a sight to see gummy candy in the shape of a toothbrush and another in the shape of a sunny side up egg.  Inventive!
We then decided to head back to the hotel for a brief rest before dinner.  We knew we would be out late so the little one needed a break, as did we.  Since we didn’t bring her stroller with us this time, the hubs and I mostly took turns carrying her through the streets.  We were tired.  We found a channel similar to the Cartoon Network and snuggled up in bed watching cartoon sushi battle the bad guys in a quest to…do something…still working on my French here.  I was just so fascinated that the characters were actually different types of sushi that it really didn’t matter to me what they were talking about or doing.
Before dinner we went for drinks in an area of town called Plaza Jean Jaures.  This area has many different bars and is the most popular place in the city to have a pre-dinner or post-dinner drink.  It also made for some great people watching. 

For dinner we chose a place called Saveurs & Sems.  It was recommended in an online article I had read about 36 hours in Montpellier.  The food was very good, although more upscale than I would have chosen to take a toddler to.  However, the little one was a great sport, snaking on bits of frois gras, cheese, fruit, bread and duck from our plates.  After dinner, we stopped for a drink back at the Comedie and the little one entertained a group of people by dancing to the music of the accordion street performers.  I think more people were watching her than listening to the music, and the hubs joked that we should put out a cup and collect tips.

Sunday morning after testing out the hotel breakfast, we strolled through the park again allowing the little one some more play time.  This time it was much less crowded so I didn’t worry so much about her be trampled by the kids much too big to be playing in there in the first place.  She befriended a little French girl who couldn’t have been much over a year old.  Although the little girl only spoke French and my little one only speaks English, they seemed to have an interesting conversation about their parents before going on to play around the slides.  The hubs and I both thought it was precious.   
We spent some time exploring some of the architecture around the park before heading back to the hotel to collect our things.

There was also a lot of graffiti around the city.  This, by far, was our favorite...even if it was painted right next to a small playground in the park.
We ate a quick lunch of pizza and mozzarella salad at another restaurant on the Comedie before heading to the station to catch our train home.  I’ve been quite surprised by the amount of pizza here in France.  I’m hoping that by the time we get to Italy, I’m not completely pizza-ed out.  The waitress at lunch was the nicest and best we’ve had so far.  She even gave Lila a little box of toys, which kept her entertained for the brief train ride back home.
All in all, a very successful first weekend away.  This coming weekend, we are planning on staying a little closer to home, either taking a day trip on Saturday into Beziers or Agde.
Coming up this week in pastry...chocolate!