(continue from previous installment)
During my 10-day stay in Paris back in October 2004, I took a couple of baking class for homecooks at Ecole Lenôtre. I was very excited about going to these pastry classes offered by the famous Lenotre at their Pavillon Elysee branch. With my very limited French vocabulary, I managed to register for both the pain d’epice and the opera cake class by email correspondence with the helpful staff. The classes are hands-on and are taught in French with a maximum of 8 students per class. Before I left for the trip, I was a little worry that I would not understand the instructions given in class. Our instructor chef Francois Schmitt was very patient with my limited understanding of the language. The course was represented in a very clear manner that was easy to understand. Not only did I survived the course, I found the classes to be extremely beneficial.
The pain d’epice class included five different recipes: ice-cream, crème brulee, pain d’epice, spiced hot chocolate, and a pistachio petit-fours that was scheduled in at the last minute. We began with making the ice-cream since it requires the longest chilling time. The ice-cream was an egg-less mixture containing pureed pain d’epice and candied orange peel. The mixture was fragrant with the four spices. I was surprised to find how rich the mixture was even without the eggs. Next, we began to scale for the pain d’epice. It was a simple cake that didn’t require much skill to make but I did learn the importance of using a flavourful honey such as pine (sapin) or chestnut (chaitagne) honey. The creme brulee was an easy mixture of uncook custard with a slice of pain d'epice in each dish. The custard was baked in a bain maire until it was set but still jiggly in the center. Don't let the simplicity foold you, this recipe yielded very amazing result. The pain d'epice was soaked with silky custard which made it very delicious. The spiced hot chocolate was a classic european chocolat chaud recipe made with dark chocolate, milk, cream, and sugar but infused with pain d'epice spices. I have yet to come across a cup of chocolat chaud that I didn't like in Paris so I was more than happy to have a recipe from Lenotre. The spices made the rich warm chocolate a bit exotic and it cut the richness well. We enjoyed both the ice-cream and the chocolat chaud at the end of the class while chatting with chef.
Since we had all those egg whites left over from making the ice-cream, chef decided to add another recipe to the class at last minute. We used the eggs whites and pistachio paste to make a pistachier, similar in texture to a financier. We baked the petit-fours in a star-shape flexipan which gave them a rather whimsical appearance.
The next morning, I returned to Pavillon Elysee for my second pastry class. Unlike the day before, I arrived with time to spare. The topic was Opera cake. One of my main reasons for choosing this class was the variety of different skills this cake involves. Little did I know that I would pick up some many useful tips by the end of the class! Here is a brief summary:
- How to make a pliable jaconde: do not overbake. It should only take a little colour. Before the batter goes into the oven, remember to run your thumb against all sides of the pan. This prevents overbaking along the edges.
- How to peel the parchment paper from a sheet of jaconde: turn the jaconde upside-down so that the parchment paper faces the ceiling. Put a cooling rack on top of the jaconde and start peeling. As you pull, the cooling rack is slowly moved away by the parchment as well. The weight of the cooling rack is helpful in keeping the jaconde down and prevents tearing.
- How to slide a cake layer from the cooling rack to the mould/cake ring.
- How to prevent the assembled cake from sticking to the bottom of the mould: paint the bottom of the cake layer with melted chocolate and dust the bottom of the mould with cocoa for good measure.
- How to adhere the assembled cake to the cake board: a tiny dab of glucose
In addition, it was also good to observe the techniques that chef Francois Schmitt used such as glazing, brushing syrup onto the jaconde using cross strokes, cutting & trimming of the cake, whipping egg whites, and most interesting of all, making a crème anglaise-based buttercream. I was surprised to find how easy it was to make this rich buttercream without the hazzle of cooking a sugar syrup. A crème anglaise was made on the stovetop and whipped until cooled to room temperature. By the time it was cooled, the crème anglaise increased in volume by quite a lot. Simply beat in softened butter and the buttercream would be ready for flavouring. Chef also showed us a trick to soften butter using the microwave. Just simply wrap cold butter in clingfilm, heat in microwave briefly, punch & flatten with hand, and heat more as required. This is a very convenient trick indeed that I've been using to this day.
Chef cut the sheet cake into smaller portions so that each student had their own cake to decorate. We each got to pipe on the signature script "Opera" onto the cake along with decorative borders using warm chocolate compound in a parchment cone. As a finishing touch, we dotted some obligatory gold leaf onto the cake as well. I got to take this cake home with me and I must say, having opera cake for breakfast with my best friend S in an apartment by the Eiffel Tower was quite a memorable experience!