As I prepare to leave for Paris it seems like the perfect time to tell this story. It's always fun remembering my days at Le Cordon Bleu. I hope you'll enjoy.
The March to the Poubelle
Our Basic Pastry Course was in the intensive format meaning that we took 3-4 classes each day instead of 1. It condensed 12-14 weeks of curriculum to just three. It truly was intense. We would be in the lecture room then immediately run downstairs to the kitchen to prepare at least one or all of the recipes the chef had just demonstrated, then back to the classroom. The days started at 8:00 am, and went until 8:00 pm. Some days included a free time block to run an errand, or in our case to do a little shopping and or eating. Both activities were highly encouraged. After all, how were we to learn what great pastries looked and tasted like?
The chefs in the school worked a French workweek (35 hours), so we had to have a combination of chefs to cover our long days. Our main chef instructor was off for the evening and bid us farewell. Another chef, who happened to be a Cuisine program chef, was going to oversee our kitchen preparations. All the chefs were very distinguished and impeccably neat. Our new babysitter chef was even more so. He exuded an air of confidence and importance that had us more nervous than usual. Add to this the fact that cuisine chefs have little time for pastry chefs, (too much weighing and measuring) let alone pastry students in their first course.
It was early in the course, and we had seen pastry cream prepared, and made it ...once. The chef suggested that we divide the main recipe and each make a component as if we were working together in a restaurant. One or two people would make a sponge cake, another the mousse, and another the crème pâtissière. This sounded very reasonable. We divided the duties between our small group, increasing the amounts so each of us would have the perfect amount for our dessert.
We carefully completed our mise en place (gathered our ingredients) and went to work. Our Chef walked about the room watching us, and helping with any questions and offering help with locations of ingredients. We had the feeling there were about a million other places he'd rather be, and he had more or less drawn the short straw to teach late that night. Every time he passed by my work station, I got a whiff of his amazing cologne and a stern glance that made me even more nervous. My French was caveman at best, so as he'd pass by, I'd muster a "bonjour Chef" and offer a nice Wisconsin smile. He smiled back, but looked like he had just tasted something sour.
My contribution to our group was the pastry cream. We needed 4 times the recipe for 4 students so I had to separate 16 eggs. It went fine. No broken yolks, and no spills. I gathered the milk, sugar, flour, cornstarch and eggs had headed over to the stove. I combined the ingredients in the order and technique from what my notes and memory offered. So I thought. I stood at the cooktop stirring and stirring, smiling away at the Chef as he approached. He stood beside me, and watched me stir. I had nothing to contribute to a conversation so I kept stirring and nervously smiling. Finally, he broke the silence with "Qu'est que sais?" I 'm sure I looked at him with a blank, panicked stare. "Qu'est-ce que tu fais?" (what are you making?), he asked. I thought to myself, what is wrong with him? Surely he's seen someone make pastry cream before. "Crème pâtissière, Chef", I said. Hoping that he'd move on. But no.
Then came the moment. The belly flop in front of your swimming class moment. In one motion, he flicked his head to the up and to the side, made THE tisk sound, and picked up my saucepan. "Suivez-moi", he said. I looked behind me where my classmates stood paralyzed watching and hoping one could translate. "He wants you to follow him", one piped up. So off we went from one end of the kitchen to the other. It felt like the distance of a football field, but it was really about 50 feet. I was about three steps behind, wondering where could we be going? We arrived at our destination, a gleaming stand holding a perfectly attached garbage bag. Why couldn't we just use the garbage can at our end of the room? He stepped on the foot pedal with his gorgeous French, perhaps Italian shoes and up went the lid. He stretched out his arms, and lifted the pan over his head and slowly dumped the gooey, wall paper paste mess from the pan into the garbage. My pastry cream was poubelle. Garbage.
"Répéter", he said as he put the pan in a nearby sink. I made the walk of shame back to my workstation. My friends were pale, very sympathetic and trying not to make eye contact. They had busied themselves with things to do that required crouching behind the workstation on the other side. I willed myself not cry. After all, he didn't yell and scream. But now what? I had no idea what I had done to cause the problem.
"Je vais vous aider à faire de la crème pâtissière", he said. I will help you make pastry cream. I gathered a new set on ingredients. He stood beside the entire time. Part of me wanted to crawl in a hole, and the part felt like I had a pro at my side who wasn't going to let me screw this up again.
We went to the stove together. I don't know what I did wrong the first time and never will. The second time required very little time at the stove. "Aller vite", go fast he said motioning with his arms so I knew just how fast to go. Our pastry cream was perfect. He held the plastic wrap lined pan as I plopped the rich, dreamy vanilla custard in to the pan. "Vous avez fait un bon travail ce moment", You did a good job that time. No hugs and back slaps, but a slight warmth in his eyes to let me know it was okay.
To this day, I think of him every time I make pastry cream. It's not good, it's great, and I have him to thank. Merci beaucoup, Chef.
I can't stand beside you, but I'll walk you through the steps of making crème pâtissière. Perfect pastry cream.
The ingredients are simple. Milk, sugar, flour, cornstarch and vanilla. I don't add other flavorings or steep fancy ingredients into the milk. I like to keep it pure and simple. If you don't have a vanilla bean, you can add vanilla extract at the end.