With a full week of school under my, uh, apron, I’ve started to get the hang of navigating a professional kitchen. Every Monday, we pick up our new set of clean, pressed aprons and jackets, our recipe assignments, and our new partners for the week. We nervously wait as our names are pulled: this will determine our fates for the next five days. It feels a bit like Harry Potter when Professor McGonagall determines housing assignments by pulling names from the sorting hat. Gryffindor! Hufflepuff!
We all hope for partners who are good but not too good. If your partner’s experience and skill are below yours, you spend a lot of time fielding questions and solving kitchen woes solo, but if their skill surpasses yours, it’s tough to keep up.
When your name is called, you smile or nod at your partner, then quickly stake out your table for the week. Everybody knows which tables are prime real estate – the ones directly across from Chef’s table. I get lucky with a good American friend as my Pastry partner, and a worktable just to the left of Chef’s.
The bell rings and Pastry class begins with Chef sketching a complex diagram on a whiteboard. We students huddle around, scrambling to get a peek and diligently taking notes. He’s like our coach, drawing out the next pick-and-roll so our point guard has a free layup, but Chef is actually detailing our two entremets, or cakes, for the week: a Saint Honoré crème puff cake, and a chocolate raspberry mousse cake.
Our Saint Honoré cake resembles a little castle made entirely of sugar – every princess’s dream. It’s sculpted with layers of puff pastry, strawberry and lemon creams, and mascarpone Chantilly, flanked with rows of strawberry-filled choux topped with crunchy caramel, and then bejeweled with roasted candied hazelnuts, lime zest, broken chocolate, tiny puffs of cotton candy, and gold flecks.
The trick is to nail the puff pastry and choux. If the base isn’t solid, the cake will crumble under the layers of sweet cream, and if the choux don’t puff in the oven and aren’t perfectly uniform, the cake will quickly become a petit désastre.
We get to work making the choux, then slip them into the oven and wait. Ten minutes later, Chef pulls out one tray of hot choux. They’re gorgeous – elegantly puffed, golden brown with a shiny top, and all the same shape and size. Students scurry to see whose name is on the tray. It doesn’t say "Lindsay," but I’m relatively pleased with the tray that does.
The first layer of puff pastry must be cut into a small rectangle. Halfway through cutting, I realize I’m holding my breath. The pastry is brittle and delicate. If it cracks: game over. Luckily, I saw out the rectangle, and my partner and I exhale with relief. We top it with the strawberry and lemon pastry creams, and top that with another layer of cake. The choux are filled with strawberry cream, dipped in a caramel glaze, then delicately lined up across the top. The cake is texture heaven, exuding an exquisite fusion of flaky, crunchy, chewy, creamy, and smooth. All in one bite.
Our chocolate raspberry mousse cake is less of an architectural miracle, but just as beautiful and certainly as delicious. Chef demonstrates the cake batter technique, and our eyes light up as he dumps in a generous heap of cocoa powder. I know I’m not the only one dying to lick the bowl.
Next, Chef pulls out a KitchenAid to beat his egg whites into fluffy clouds, and after he folds them into the chocolaty batter, we’re released to our tables. But before we can plug in our own KitchenAids, Chef stops us. Avec tes mains. With your hands. Oui, Chef. As my egg whites reach the glorified stiff-peak stage, my right bicep reaches its own stiff stage.
Before we fold the hand-beaten egg whites into our own chocolate batter, my partner and I have to taste-test. It’s perfect. But we test it again, and one more time to make sure, hoping Chef doesn’t catch us with the evidence on our faces. Then we layer the cake with raspberry jam and raspberry pastry cream, and top it with decorative dollops of chocolate mousse. We finish by spraying the cake with a “chocolate gun,” which covers it like a spray tan; but instead of a sun-kissed Cabo-ready bronze, the gun coats the cake in perfectly even chocolate.
For the grande finale we use chopsticks to artfully place delicate chocolate curls and individually sugared raspberries. It’s almost too pretty to eat – almost.