Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Pissy Puffs o' Pastry

Today we had yet another pastry class--we've had at least four so far this semester. Pastry is a complex and venerable branch of cookery, so of course it deserves a chunk of any culinary student's time. However, I have to confess I am not so hot on some of it. Well, okay, a lot of it. Pastry, what Anthony Bourdain calls "all that sweet, sticky, messy, goopy delicate stuff," is very exacting to prepare. Not TOTALLY anal, mind you--it seems to me, in my limited experience, that there's some room for improvisation and fluidity IF you understand the principles and chemistry behind these illustrious and celebrated combinations of eggs, sugar, milk and flour. But not to the degree that one finds in other types of cooking. Pate brisee, pate a choux, pastry cream, custards, St. Honore cream, 1-2-3 dough (or is it 1-2-3 batter?), tortes, tart dough, pie all sort of blurs for me into, well, chef Tony up there said it best. Sweet, sticky, messy, goopy...stuff. Most of it, to be sure, is straight outta the classical French patisserie.

I do love a good butter cake and a fruit crisp or ten, but I could honestly care less about turning out a perfect looking tart shell or piece of puff pastry. (Although I DO see how the ability to whip up cream puffs and eclairs from scratch, as I now can, is a social skill to be wielded like a sharp weapon when necessary. It seems to impress.)

At any rate, I do want to learn pie crust and a classic chocolate cake on which I can spread ganache, the easiest and most divine expression of bittersweet chocolate I know. Maybe we'll learn a cake tomorrow.

So. Working in a kitchen with ten other people and new instructors every day, tackling new recipes calling for at times unfamiliar techniques means that confusion and miscommunication can spring up like mold spores on a piece of cheese. Today was one of those days when nothing seems to go right and your brain synapses refuse to fire off properly.

My intrepid teammate Heidi and I made raspberry creme brulee, vanilla ice cream, the base for a ginger ice cream which we'll churn up tomorrow, and a frozen Grand Marnier souffle. The process of making these confections was sort of irritating, compounded by the less-than-stellar organizational abilities of the visiting chef. I've decided that I loathe souffles and won't waste my time on them in my own kitchen. Nasty, silly, eggy, puffy, prissy little bitches. If I'm going to whip something in the Kitchen Aid for thirty minutes and cook it over the stove for twenty I'd prefer the end product not to be mostly air and eggs that collapses if you look at it wrong or the oven was a tenth of a degree too hot. This particular Grand Marnier souffle was a whipped and frozen, not baked, souffle, so we didn't have to rush it into an oven and a water bath, but no matter. No thanks.

Happily ice creams were made next. Lemon, mint, ginger, chili-lime, and Grand Marnier ice creams will be gobbled up tomorrow, all almost guaranteed to be delicious by virtue of fresh eggs, nice cream, sugar, and intense but simple flavorings. As for raspberry creme brulee, well...meh. I do love puddingy things and caramel, and this is both and has raspberries to boot, but...yawnnn.

I should emphasize that I understand that all of these techniques and basic recipes are absolutely necessary to master if you're an aspiring professional baker or pastry chef, and my program is designed to introduce students to the world of professional cooking, of which baking is a part. But when it comes to the sweet stuff, ultimately what I'm interested in is gaining a solid understanding of the principles behind some very basic desserts that I can make for the people I love. That's just me--I'm not in it for a potential profession. There is something about a frosted butter cake (NOT genoise, don't get me started on that loathesome spongy substance) or a juicy pie that embodies love and care itself. A croquembouche? It's pretty, sure, and impressive looking. But does it have soul?

Probably it does for some. But this American girl'll take a little old loaf of banana bread any old day.

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