November 7, 2007

Joanie's Pastry Adventure: the beginning

For those of you who don't know, I recently moved to New York - not only to get away from my dull corporate job, but to finally realize my dream of going to pastry school and becoming a real pastry chef! (cue triumphant music) And because I know all of you are checking this blog not just because you love food, but in order to procrastinate from working for the man or studying, I'm going to blog about my experience as a pastry student!

I have a full-time job working as an administrator/office manager at a small artisanal bakery in SoHo. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings I hop on over to the French Culinary Institute for 5 hours of class. The FCI is an intense program aimed mainly at those who do not have a lot of restaurant experience. Most people in my class have worked in bakeries or in food service and are avid home bakers, which is my experience as well.

Wednesday my classmates and I all arrived super-early to get our ID cards & get dressed. Our uniforms consist of houndstooth MC Hammer pants (complete with elastic waistband...tres chic) a neckerchief, chef's jacket, long apron, and side towel. Class starts quickly, with Chef Rebecca & Chef Kir introducing themselves and all of us eager students doing the same.

Day 1 is apple tart day, so appropriately, we start off with apples for an apple compote. Chef Rebecca does a quick demo and then we're off! The demo is informative, but very basic - she doesn't spend time going over every minute detail. My table partner and I grab some apples, get our mis en place ready, and start peeling. The peeler we are given is abominable, so I resort the ubersharp paring knife. Unfortunately, I don't peel apples that often - I'm lazy and like peels - so I was rather slow and ugly in my peeling. My knife skills also left much to be desired, but that could have been the slightly squishy Golden Delicious apples I had to work with. Then again, it wasn't like my entire class was schooling me in perfect dicing - you just feel pressure to be totally awesome in a class environment where there's a professional chef eyeing your knife technique.

After the dicing part, we concocted a simple apple compote with our diced apples, sugar, lemon juice, & vanilla paste (more concentrated than vanilla extract, not quite as good - or as expensive - as vanilla beans). It cooked til it was a chunky applesaucey consistency and then was spread out on a sheet pan to cool.

Next was pate sucree. Francophiles and foodies will know that this means "sugared pastry" and is a very simple dough to make. We creamed butter & powdered sugar together and gradually added eggs to make an emulsification. Then cake flour was slowly added to make the dough. Pate sucree is similar to a shortbread dough, and not nearly as temperamental as pate brisee or a traditional pie crust.

For our own tart shells, we used pate sucree made by a previous class, because dough needs time to chill and rest before shaping. We started by hammering out our dough circles with rolling pins. With 18 students on stainless steel tables, it was a bit loud. We brushed off all the extra flour from the crust (more flour = more gluten = tough dough) and rolled it into a prepared tart ring.

Post-dinner, the tart shells came back out and were filled with the cooled apple compote - which looked kind of like canned crushed pineapple, oddly enough. We had to peel more apples and slice them ever-so-thinly to spiral around the top. Never have I appreciated granny smith apples more - they are so nice and firm, so perfect for cutting into thin fancy slices! Golden delicious apples, not so much. Many of my thin little apple slices came apart, but I managed to salvage enough so that they appeared pretty. I spiraled my apples and then we sprinkled them with vanilla sugar, then into the ovens!

While we were finishing our tarts, Chef Rebecca told us a little about the philosophy of French pastry. For apple tarts, cinnamon is a major faux-pas. The French believe that the pastry to be about showcasing the fruit, with only a limited number of other ingredients just added to enhance the natural flavor. So for the apple tart, only some lemon juice, vanilla & sugar, et voila! another class.

One apple tart may not sound like a huge undertaking for a 4-hour class, but it went quickly and we were rushing around using every moment. Even having made pies and tarts before, it was a bit stressful. None of us quite know where everything is yet, but are all trying to impress and make our tarts as beautiful and as tasty as possible.

Once I stumbled home late at night, my roommates peeped out of their rooms for some apple tart enjoyment. It was still warm and quite tasty, with a thick crispy crust and sweet filling.

Stay tuned for more adventures in tart-making....

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