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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

It's All In the Wrist

Not another day goes by that one doesn’t read or hear about the importance of provenance when it comes to food: Is it organic? Is it sustainable? Is it locally sourced? But what you don’t hear about too much is technique—also known as the actual mechanics of cooking. But during a recent trip to France, I discovered that technique is alive and well when my son Forrest and I took a pastry class at Le Cordon Bleu, the 150-year-old French cooking school in Paris. (The same one that helped launch Julia Child’s career in 1949.)

©2015 Chris Terrell
Our Mise en Place
At precisely 12:30PM, Forrest and I, along with 12 other students, were escorted into the kitchen and took our places around a long work table with Chef Olivier Boudot at the head. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I’ve never attended a cooking class. I figured it would be more of a demonstration for tourists, and not very sophisticated. Boy, was I wrong! This turned out to be a very intense, hands-on class. At one point, it felt like I was on Top Chef because Chef Boudot was maniacal about staying on schedule. 

©2015 Chris Terrell
Chef Boudot
A few words about Chef Boudot.  If you were going to make a movie with a scene in a French restaurant kitchen, and you needed a French pastry chef,  the actor you would get from central casting would look like Chef Boudot. Chef Boudot was big and imposing, made more so by his toque. He was serious and intense, but had a good, dry sense of humor, punctuated by that infamous Gallic shrug.    

At each of our stations, we were given an apron and towel (both of which we were allowed to keep), a rolling pin, butter, yeast, and a dough scraper. Through a translator, Chef gave us the day’s scheduled, precisely laid out in 20-30 minute increments.

Our goal that day was to make croissants, pain au chocolat, and brioche.

©2015 Chris Terrell
Forrest Gets Started
We learned to roll the dough in a precise manner and at a precise thickness, and to fold the dough in  a certain way, as well as the proper time and temperature for proofing the dough. (At least when it comes to cooking, the French are very, very precise.) At one point, Chef Boudot even used a ruler to measure out the pieces of dough for the croissants! The last thing we learned that day was to make our own dough, which we took home with us.

©2015 Chris Terrell
The class lasted almost six hours, with a brief 20-25 min coffee break around 3:00PM. So needless to say, Forrest and I were exhausted by the time we left, but we had six boxes of fresh pastries that we proudly shared with the family. As we walked out with our day’s work, we passed a class of advance students waiting outside the kitchen. They seemed pretty proud too, though I detected a slight trace of dread on their young faces. Perhaps, Chef Boudot was more gentle with us tourists than with his students.

©2015 Chris Terrell
A few days later, in our little gite in Normandy, I realized that I had forgotten to pick up a baguette for dinner—obviously not something any respectable Frenchman would have done. We also had finished all those pastries we had made back in Paris. Thankfully I had the dough from the Codon Bleu class! 

It was 7:30pm and obviously I had no time to proof the dough for two hours, thinking that this proofing thing was overrated, right? I rolled the dough out, shaped the croissants and threw them in the oven.  (I did manage to get an egg wash on them.) What came out of the oven bore no resemblance to those delicate, flakey croissants we had made at Le Cordon Bleu. Rather, what came out of the oven were these smallish, somewhat dense rolls, like Pillsbury crescent rolls. I guess all that precision about timing and temperature for proofing made all the difference in the world.
©2015 Chris Terrell
The Finished Product (At Le Cordon Bleu)

But as we sat there with our bowls of potato, leek, and mushroom soup that I had made from scratch, listening to the Norman wind rattle the windows, I realized that learning to cook and do it right is hard and takes effort. In other words, there’s a reason that people go to schools like Le Cordon Bleu and then open great restaurants. However, I also learned that there is a certain margin of error that allows us amateurs to make pretty good bread. After all a homemade crescent roll is still better than loaf of Wonder Bread, and even Wonder Bread is better than no bread at all!

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