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.
Hold the vanilla bean with one hand, and with the other slice the bean open. Using the back side of the paring knife, gently slide down the length of the bean gathering the tiny vanilla seeds/paste. Put all the seeds and the pod into a saucepan with the milk and 1/2 of the sugar. Stir briefly, then bring to milk to a simmer over medium heat.
Now, in a bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Now while whisking the yolks, add the sugar. Keep whisking. There’s a chemical reaction of heat that occurs when yolks meet sugar. This cooks the yolks, and can make microscopic scrambled eggs in the cream making the texture less than perfect. Once you have the eggs and sugar mixed, add the flour and cornstarch and mix well. The mixture will be thick.
Now comes the fancy part. Once the milk is at a gentle boil/simmer. Pour about 1/3-1/2 of the milk in the bowl with the eggs. This is called tempering and lets the eggs know that they’re about to get cooked. It keeps them from scrambling later and making lumpy cream. Mix the milk and eggs with a whisk until the mixture is smooth.
Now, bring the milk in the pan back to a rolling gentle simmer. Have your pan ready near by, lined with plastic wrap. Start whisking the milk and pour the eggs mixture into the milk whisking quickly. Pay careful attention to the corners of the pan. Stir quickly until you see the cream “burp” a bubble from the middle. This lets you know that the cream is heated through and can go into the pan. Don’t overmix. The cream should be thick and glossy. This whole process will take seconds, not minutes.
Now pour/spread the cream into the pan, and tuck the extra wrap around and over the cream to prevent and skin from forming on the cream as it cools. Look at this tiny little flecks of vanilla in the pastry cream!
Be sure the cream is less than 2 inches thick and is cooling in a layer rather than in a bowl. It’s much safer from a food safely standpoint. Allow the cream to chill about 2 hours or until cool in the center.
When the cream is cool. Transfer to a bowl and whisk to loosen and smooth the cream. Add about 1 T of Grand Marnier or a favorite liqueur adding a beautiful aroma and hint of flavor. You don’t need to add the liqueur if you don’t want to. This is point where you would add vanilla extract if you didn’t use a vanilla bean.
Use the pastry cream to fill eclairs, layer between sheets of puff pastry, or use it to fill a pretty cake.
I hope you’ll give this a try. It’s delicious and a classic building block of all French pastry.
Pastry Creme (Crème Pâtissière)
500 ml milk
4 yolks from large eggs
125 gm sugar
30 gm cornstarch
30 gm flour
1 vanilla bean
1 T Grand Marnier or to taste (optional)
1. Line a shallow baking pan with plastic wrap.
2. Using a paring knife, slice the vanilla bean lengthwise through one side as if slicing a tube. Using the back side of the knife, slide it down the length of the exposed bean to scrape out the seeds. Remove seeds from vanilla bean.
3. In a saucepan, add the milk, vanilla seeds, the bean pod and 1/2 of the sugar.
4. Heat to a simmer.
5. While the milk is heating, whisk the egg yolks with the remaining sugar in a large heat proof bowl. Then add the cornstarch and flour. Mixing completely.
6. Remove the vanilla bean pod from the milk. Pour 1/2 or less of the warm milk into the bowl over the egg mixture and whisk until smooth. Increase the heat under the milk to a very slow boil.
6. Pour the egg mixture back into the pan, whisking quickly and constantly until the mixture forms a smooth, glossy cream and the cream “burps” a bubble in the pan.
7. Pour cream into the lined pan, folding the wrap and pressing on to the hot cream. Be careful, it’s hot!
8. Chill until completely cool.
9. Remove plastic wrap and put the cream in a bowl. Whisk until smooth, then add Grand Marnier or other liqueur. This is the time to add vanilla extract if you did not use a vanilla bean.
10. Your pastry cream is ready for your favorite pastry! It will keep for about 2 days and must be refrigerated.