29 July 2009

Chocolate Candies Finale

We completed the Chocolate Candies portion of school today, with the exception of the exam, which is coming up in a couple of weeks - more on that later. I think everyone in my class would agree that this week was calm, collected, and enjoyable. We are finally clicking with each other in terms of planning, time management, and teamwork. We are forming personal bonds as well, and I am lucky to have been graced with a wonderful partner for these first few weeks in the kitchen. Tonja is such a kind soul, and is very patient with me when our plan isn't always executed as smoothly as we would prefer. Today we changed partners, and again I am lucky; Theodore is one of the brightest students in our class, and he is always willing to help anyone who might need it. Also - he's a big Dave Matthews fan, so there's some common ground. :)

I am impressed by how quickly we have transformed, and amazed by the amount of information we are being fed. Considering the fact that two weeks ago nobody had a clue how to create a chocolate or a caramel, I'd say Chef Sebastien has really gone above and beyond with us. I've had great teachers throughout my educational life, but I can't remember the last time one was so patient, helpful, easygoing, and interested in his students' success. He genuinely gets along with everyone, and has a sense of humor conducive to the kitchen environment.
After last week's technical jargon, I thought it might be more interesting to actually talk about the chocolates. I know you all really wanted to know the proper temperatures for tempering and making ganache (wink, wink), but it's time to move on...

This week we learned to use the enrobing machine, which makes dipping candies much easier and far more efficient than doing it by hand. The process is something of a car wash for chocolate: the candies are lined up at the entrance, moved through two "curtains" of chocolate to ensure an even coat, and cranked out on the other side (see photo above, left) to be labeled with a decal (see Earl Grey Tea Ganache Candies being detailed at left), used to determine which type of chocolate it is (i.e. coffee bean decals for Columbian chocolates).

We have made so many things, and my fridge is finally beginning to overflow with edible proof. The first ganache candy we produced is called Creamy from Normandy (at right, with the French Pastry School logo). It is made with milk chocolate and hazelnut paste (gianduja). The flavor is rich and - duh - creamy. Also made with milk chocolate, and cast in a similar manner, Columbian candies contain espresso powder which enhances the flavor of the chocolate. Peanut Butter Pave candies contain a ganache made of milk chocolate and peanut butter, and are enrobed in dark chocolate. The most interestingly-flavored ganache candy we made uses a combination of milk and dark chocolate mixed with cream steeped with earl grey tea leaves. The tea flavor is an acquired taste with the chocolate, but is extremely unique.

Besides basic ganache candies, we have also made Swiss Rochers (like the kind you buy at the store, only a lot better), Rum Truffles, Grand Marnier Caramels (at left), and Pistachio-Cinnamon Bonbons. The pistachio candies are the only ones made with white chocolate. They are definitely my favorite so far, along with the caramels.

Our first exam is the week of August 17. We will be required to present various chocolate candies to Chef Sebastien, as well as two showpieces - one of chocolate and one of sugar. Monday and Tuesday will be practice days where we will focus on our weakest points, be it making chocolate shells (see my first attempts at right - one good, one not so good), tempering, creating a ganache, et cetera. Wednesday through Friday are the actual exam days, where we will produce everything I mentioned above. Should be interesting...

Next week is going to be busy on many levels. We begin our chocolate showpieces on Monday, which happens to be my birthday. I bit the bullet and bought a ticket to see Tori Amos that night; for some reason I have a hard time saying no to her. I am doing my first stage (imagine how the French would pronounce the word 'stage') on Thursday at Custom House, a restaurant in the South Loop/Printer's Row neighborhood of downtown Chicago. The food is progressive American, and I enjoyed a delicious meal last February when I visited. Also, my friend Brian is coming to town for Lollapalooza, which begins Friday afternoon and ends Sunday evening. The weather here has been really fantastic, and I hope it holds out through all of the concerts.

Enjoy the weekend, everyone... I know I will!

26 July 2009

The Publican

The Publican: an homage to beer and pork. Owned and operated by Executive Chef Paul Kahan & Co. (of Blackbird and avec), the Publican was essentially the number one restaurant on my list of places to try. I decided to take an easy out this afternoon and head to the West Loop hot spot for brunch. I was not disappointed. Everything about this place is cool; the interior (which won a design award from the James Beard Foundation) is warm and inviting, and the walls are decorated with pictures of pigs. Maybe not the place for vegetarians, but perfect for me!

After ordering a pork shoulder sandwich and a glass of Goose Island Matilda, I was given a Bloody Mary and some slices of house-smoked salmon from a very friendly bartender. A Bloody Mary at the Publican is created with a housemade mix and is topped off with a mixture of finely diced celery, red pepper, and horseradish, and finished with a little balsamic and a wedge of both lemon and lime. The salmon was fantastic as well - soft and smooth with a beautiful color and a perfectly smoked taste.

I surprised myself by eating only about half of my sandwich (the other half is in the fridge). Aside from the pork being tender and delicious (especially with a fried egg on top), it needs to be said: the Publican serves my favorite french fries in Chicago (so far). Fried in a combination of animal fat and vegetable oil, these spuds are perfectly crispy and salted.

I finished my meal with a piece of moist coffee cake, homemade with nuts and in-season berries. Then the aforementioned friendly bartender asked if I'd like to see the kitchen and meet their pastry chef, Becky. Talk about a great meal and overall experience. I'm sure I'll be back many times, both to eat and (hopefully) to stage, which is a fancy way of saying "job shadow."

22 July 2009

Week Three: Chocolate Candies

As predicted, the chocolate candies portion of school is - literally - a mess. I can't remember the last time I did laundry four days in a row. In any event, it has been (and I'm sure will continue to be) very insightful, and I'm looking forward to learning more over the next week and a half.

Ganache has been the most tackled product so far. Ganache is any combination of chocolate + dairy. It is made either by pouring a simmering dairy product (typically cream) over mostly melted chocolate and whisking by hand to create an emulsion, or by whipping butter in a standing mixer and adding the melted chocolate. Sometimes alcohol is added to create different flavors (i.e. Grand Marnier). Each ingredient needs to be at the proper temperature to prevent the emulsion from breaking; shine and elasticity are the keys to a successful emulsion.

Once properly emulsified, the ganache can either be cast or piped. If cast (see photo at right), it sets up in the "chocolate room" at 17 degrees Celsius / 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit, with 60% humidity, for 24-48 hours. It is then cut into squares with the guitar, and dipped in tempered chocolate.

If piped (like Chef Sebastien is doing in the photo at left), the ganache is left to set in the same way as when cast. Next, each piece is shaped and rolled in tempered chocolate. For candies such as truffles, butter masses, and chocolate-covered almonds, the pieces are also coated lightly with cocoa powder.

The tempering process is a high priority for us. It's tricky to learn, but extremely important. Cocoa butter contains 6-10 different fat particles, and tempering is the perfect crystallization of those particles with the cocoa paste and sugar. Temperature is the most vital tool for successful tempering. The chocolate has to be melted, cooled off, and slightly reheated, all to specific temperature points. Successful tempering will yield chocolate that is shiny and has a definite "snap" when broken. If the temperatures are even a degree or two off, the chocolate will bloom, set incorrectly, and/or develop improper color.

Tomorrow we will continue cutting and dipping ganaches we have already made, and begin making Swiss Rochers and peanut butter chocolates...

14 July 2009

In the Beginning...

My class and I began working in the kitchen on Monday! We're all now in the process of adjusting to our new way of life, some more drastically than others. I consider myself lucky in that my commute is only 30 minutes or so, including walking time. Many students travel well over an hour to make it downtown by 6:30am! Knowing this, I now feel lucky i get to sleep until 5:30 every morning. (I never thought I'd say such a thing, and I'm fairly certain several of you never thought I would, either!)

It's been a pretty basic couple of days: learning our way around (without constantly bumping into one another), figuring out where ingredients are kept, and - most importantly - discovering the most efficient ways to work together to make the kitchen sparkle before the afternoon class arrives. According to a recent graduate (who now works at the French Laundry), our cleaning ability will be one of our most marketable and most appreciated skills when we graduate.

The food side of things is beginning to pick up the pace. After turning apples into large dice, small dice, and julienne-sized pieces on Monday (knife skills are important!), we spent today initiating some semblance of piping skills, and creating pate sucree (sweet dough), streusel, and almond cream. Tomorrow we will make pastry cream and both Italian and French meringues before moving onto chocolate candies for the remainder of this week and all of next week. I am very excited for this portion of class, and am curious to see how well my classmates and I work together in an extremely time-sensitive environment. I'm sure in a few weeks we'll be a fine-tuned, well-oiled machine...

08 July 2009

My New, Sugar-Filled World

I have to admit, I have something of a smirk on my face as I write this. I don't want to be one of those people who thinks she's entertaining and witty and a great writer... but really isn't. I'm certainly no Calvin Trillin, Ruth Reichl, or even Molly Wizenberg. My goal for this blog is to keep friends and family in the loop as to what I'm learning along my journey, officially known as L'Art de la Patisserie at Chicago's French Pastry School. I'll post pictures of things I create in my classes as well as details pertaining to how said creation was made. My hope is that writing and photographing will encourage me to always give my best effort - there's no better critic than your friends, right? So, if you're interested, please feel free to follow, bookmark, etc. I think this will be a great outlet to document my new skills and create a dialogue among the important people in my life.

Also, I'll more than likely throw some restaurant-related posts into the mix as well. I'm on a complete foodie adventure here in Chicago, and there's nothing I love more than sharing my restaurant experiences with others. If you have any suggestions as to places I should check out, please let me know. And before any of you suggest Alinea, just know that's my planned reward for myself when I graduate from this 24-week roller coaster!