Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My Works of Art

Fresh Strawberry Topped Panna Cotta

There are a lot of Art Museums in the world. Almost every large city has one. Paris has several, including one of the most well known, the Louvre. I got lost in there when I visited in March, and will probably go back before I leave in September to see the things I might have missed. There was just so much. ART.

Last week I visited the Musee d'Orsay for the first time. I kicked myself for not visiting in March, but was glad I went this time. The collections were amazing. I found myself walking though the Art Noveau wing with my mouth dropped opened. The Musee only has artwork from a short period of time, but still it's collections are large. It is maybe, quite possibly now my favorite museum; but then again, there is the Pergamon museum in Berlin, which is quite impressive also.

A few weeks ago as I strolled through the Centre Pompidou's current exhibit of Wassily Kandinsky's work, I was struck by the thought of how many paintings, drawings, works, ect. he had created in his life. This exhibit surely wasn't even all of them. Looking at the description plaques below the photos, you could see the works in the exhibit came from all over; different foundations and museums had loaned their own personal "Kandinsky" for this exhibition.
Wow, I thought. He must have had to have been constantly working, painting everyday of his life to be able to create this many pieces to fill such a large exhibiton hall, and yet there is more still out there. But isn't that how it is with artists? Isn't that why they are artists? Nothing is as fulfilling for them as taking the brush, or pencil, or pastel to the paper or canvas and unleashing their creativity. Then it occurred to me. If I could collect every cake, tart, tiramisu, batch of cream puffs, cupcakes or cookies I had ever made and put them on display, you bet I could fill the Centre Pompidou for one tasty show. This is my art, my creative unleashing, my passion. Somedays I make my art and I'm amazed at what I can do, and other days I'm disappointed in myself, but vow to do better next time.

The challenge here in Paris is, I'm not just baking for myself or for the sake of art. I have an audience, a paying audience. And just like the Paris Salon disapproved of Manet's "Luncheon on the Grass" the year it was first exhibited; sometimes my creations are not well received by everyone. The French take their food seriously, and everyone, not just those with advanced culinary knowledge, have an opinion. I'm not letting this discourage me. Instead it has been a great learning experience for me and challenges me to think more before creating a dessert.

The critics so far have not said that anything I've made was terrible or inedible, just offering suggestions of how it can be made better. It is fair; my art is definitely in it's youth. Just like a painting, I have to think about color, contrast, texture and depth. All of these things need to play together just right, along with good taste to deliver the best effect on the palates of my audience.
I'm no longer just learning, I'm growing and practicing and it's a wonderful feeling. I must admit, at first I was afraid of the comments and suggestions, but now I look forward to them. I get excited when plate goes out for tasting, and I'm eager to hear the results. And some days, like today when the Pudding au Citron was tasted, there is nothing but rave reviews. It lets me know I'm moving in the right direction. These are just little exhibitions, working my way to the big one.

Check out my most recent works:

Pear Almond Tartlette

Pudding au Citron with Raspberry Coulis

The Test of Mango Tiramisu

Panna Cotta Ready for Service

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Living and Working in Paris

Cafe Menu for the Day

I recently got an email from a friend asking how I was doing in Paris. They said they envisioned me walking down the street with a baguette under my arm, strolling through museums and passing the afternoons at sidewalk cafes with friends. Ah, the idyllic Paris experience. Well I have to admit, I've have walked down the street with a baguette tucked under my arm (I've even taken to pulling the end off as I leave the boulangerie and snacking on it on my way home). I did make a visit to the Centre Pompidou to see the Kandinsky and Calder exhibits, and sometimes I do sit at a cafe and enjoy a coffee with Romain and friends. While my accounts of weekend activities have left many people envious, I have to admit that living in Paris can be just like living in any other city (except I can see the tip top of the Eiffel Tower as I go up the escalator into my local grocery store).

Working in a restaurant in Paris, once you get past the language barrier, and coffee has been replaced by espresso, can be much like working in any other restaurant. It all translates. My days are pretty regular. I arrive at the cafe at 9am, pass through the kitchen saying Bonjour to everyone I pass. I climb the stairs to the second floor and quickly change into my chefs uniform. If I'm not already sweating from my brisk 5 min walk to work, the stifled air of the changing room usually brings an instant glisten to my face. I then climb the stairs to the 3rd floor to the pastry kitchen. It's a small and narrow kitchen, used for making pastries during the morning, and dinner service to the 3rd floor during the evening.

Quentin usually arrives before me and will have the oven already going, baking the chouquettes for the profiteroles. We then discuss what needs to be made that day, plan dessert du jour for the upcoming days, and then prep any of the already prepared desserts for service. During the week, I make regular batches of Creme Brulee, chocolate Pot de Cremes, chocolate sauce for the profiteroles, and rum syrup for soaking the Baba au Rhum. I have no doubt the smell of Rum, going forward, will no remind me of these days at the cafe, and I almost know the Creme Brulee recipe by heart. It's not glamorous work. By the time I leave, I am usually soaked in sweat and stained with chocolate and rum. However, it is satisfying work. I like the routine, I love seeing the trays of Creme Brulee coming out of the oven, looking all yellow and firm. All they need now is a sprinkling of sucre and a touch of the torch.

I especially enjoy coming up with the dessert du jour, this helps keep the routine of working in a restaurant, not too routine. It also allows me to unleash my creativity. This week Quentin wanted to make the Moelleux au Chocolat. After I made it the over the 4th of July weekend, I took some to the cafe with me and shared it with my coworkers. They loved it and I got several request for the recipe. Yesterday we made the Moelleux and they turned our lovely. I didn't get a chance to take a photo, but they were served in a pool of Creme Anglaise that I made, and then lightly dusted with powdered sugar. Our "regular" couple, cleaned their plates once again after having chosen the Moelleux for their dessert. Such a simple dessert, but simply amazing.
Tomorrow I am making Pear Tartlettes and for Friday we are re-introducing the lovely Panna Cotta with a dressing of Mango coulis.
Moelleux ready for the Oven

The "Test" Moelleux
(if you haven't tried this recipe yet, what are you waiting for???)

When I finish for the day, I descend the stairs to the second floor and change back into my regular attire. I continue to the first floor, saying Au revoir to everyone I pass. Sometimes chatting with a few coworkers, and making a few jokes. Then I pass through the front doors of the cafe and head to my temporary home.

I walk home and I start to consider what I should do with the rest of my day.....because who am I kidding? It may be like living and working in any other city, but I'm only in Paris for 2 months and there is a lot to see and do. Hmmm, which museum should I visit today? What boulangerie or Patisserie should I check out? Or do I just want to find another cafe and sit and have a coffee and people watch for a while?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

German Wedding, Ice Cream and Beer

Luther Kirche, Kรคndler, Germany

First off, I want to say congratulations and best wishes to my dear friends Carolin and Michael. I was very fortunate to attend their beautiful wedding celebration this past weekend in Germany. It was a wonderful reception filled with fun and memorable antics, new and old friends, good food and drink, and lots of dancing. I hope they will come to visit me in Paris before I have to return to the US later this summer.

The Little Red Car

On Sunday, after a lazy morning of sleeping in and having breakfast with the remainder of the wedding attendees, it was off to Berlin for sightseeing and discovering. This was my second visit to Germany. I did a 5 week summer study abroad program at the University of Leipzig n 2oo2 while I was a student at Ohio University. The last weekend of my study program was spent in Berlin. It was a fast paced 2 days of Museum visits and walking tours of the city, and then a long flight back to the US. I have always wanted to return to Berlin and spend a little more time there; but more on my own pace.

Romain and I didn't allow ourselves much more time in Berlin, but we made the most of it. We walked from our hotel in Alexandersplatz down Under der Linden, across the museum sinsel, and continued all the way to the Brandenburg Gate. This was actually the first time I had seen it. On my last trip it was undergoing some renovations and was covered in a drape with a photo of it printed onto the drape superimposed with the Deutsche Telekom logo. We saw the Reichstage, and found out the dome was closed for rennovations during the time we would be there......you win some, you loose some. So no visit to the top for this visit.

We went in search of Potsdamer Platz and a small brauhaus a friend had recommeded under the Sony center. Not sure if we found the right one; but we did find one that offered a meter of beer featuring 8 glasses of 4 different beers. Then it was back towards Alexandersplatz to find some good German food for our dinner, and of course some more beer.

My first trip to Germany started my love of German beer. I hadn't forgotten about how good the beer was. The one thing I had forgotten about was the Eis Cafes. I confess, German pastries are not on the same level as France's. They do have wonderful breads, wurst and of course, Apfel Strudel. However, the thing that Germany does better than anyone else when it comes to desserts is the ice cream sundae, or as they call it: The Eis Becher. As soon as Romain and I sat down at a cafe to have a light lunch and coffee and we started pouring through the 10+ page of splendid ice cream creations, it all came back to me.

There was an Eis Cafe just outside of the University in Leipzig. I remember seeing couples, friends, old ladies, all sitting at the cafe tables enjoying enourmous and decadent ice cream creations. Fruits, sauces, mounds of whipped cream, sprinkles, candies, you name it, they had it all. And it was all artfully and deliciously arranged in a large martini or sundae glass, whichever fit the creation best.

We skipped the ice cream that morning and opted for coffee and light sandwiches, but the ice cream stuck in our heads. After an afternoon of walking and exploring more of Berlin, we began our search for another Eis Cafe for our ice cream indulgence. We didn't have to look for long before we came across a nice cafe in Wittenbergplatz, just near the KaDeWe. Romain selected an extravagant concoction of vanilla, hazelnut, and chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce and hazelnut rocher candies. I went a simpler route and took a vanilla and strawberry ice cream, loaded with fresh strawberries and whipped cream. Some how we managed to eat both, and then we needed to walk some more.
My Strawberry Eis Becher

Of course, no trip to Germany is complete without a visit to a bier garten. I love the cafe culture of Paris, sitting with friends crowded around little tables street side, enjoying a coffee or a beer. It's relaxing, and great for people watching. Germany has done it one better with the bier gartens. Tables for sharing with friends, good bier and usually good food too, all in the middle of a lovely park. After hiking through the Volkspark Friedrichshain in search of a hill overlooking Berlin (must have been in another park, we didn't find it) we were ready to sit and enjoy some bier and food. Unfortunately, the grill had stopped service by the time we decided to order. So I only had beer and apfel strudel, but who needs food when you have beer and apfel strudel?

Erdinger Hefewiessen

Tuesday night we returned to Paris just in time to catch the Bastille Day and 200 year anniversary of the Eiffel Tower Fireworks. It was definitely the best and most fantastic fireworks display I have seen in my entire life (sorry Boston, you're going to have to do better). I returned to work at the cafe Wednesday, and am now working through a short week; to be followed by a trip to Lyon this weekend.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

How to Celebrate the 4th of July in Paris

Jardin du Luxembourg on July 4th

1. Plan a picnic
2. Call some friends
3. Buy food, ie bread, meat, cheese, wine, chips
4. Meet at planned location ie Jardin du Luxembourg
5. Pick a nice spot on the grass and enjoy

The Remains of Our Picnic Lunch

There may not have been fireworks, hotdogs or potato salad, but my 4th was very enjoyable. I was even serenaded by my French friends with their version of "God Bless the US", on several occassions. As if the day couldn't get any better, we came across a small version of Lady Liberty in the west side of the park. (There are actually two small versions of our beloved Statue of Liberty in Paris, one in the Jardin du Luxembourg and one on an island in the Siene, close to the Tour de Eiffel). It was insisted that I stop and have my photo taken with her, since it was "my" Independence Day.

Lady Liberty et Moi

The best part of my July 4th was food related, big surprise. Since I have arrived in Paris, I have been hearing about a dessert called, "Moelleux au Chocolat". It looks a lot like what us American's know as a "Molten Chocolate Cake". Are they similar? I could not tell you, I've never really been a fan of the Molten cake. Romain's brother was visting for the weekend and when I asked him what his favorite dessert was, he said, "Moelleux" and asked if I knew how to make it. No, but I had heard of it and was willing to give it a try.

I researched recipes online; there were quite a few, but I liked this one best because it has a video. Warning if you want to make this recipe for yourself, make 1/4 the recipe, the whole recipe makes enough for at least 20 people. The results is an incredibly moist chocolate cake with an oozing chocolate center. Try it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, but I'm warning you- it is super addictive. I took some of the leftover batter to work with me on Monday and made a few little cakes for the staff lunch. I'm still getting requests for the recipe.

Le Moelleux au Chocolate
The photo doesn't do it justice

Work is still going well. This week in an effort to not let a large batch of cherries go to waste, I decided to make a Black Forest Cake. Yesterday was spent making the Vanilla Supreme (mousse) filling, stirring in the cherries and then spreading it over the Kirsch syrup soaked Chocolate Genoise, and then topping it with another lovely layer of Chocolate Genoise with a Red Pate Decor design. My mousse turned out a little soft, so I put it in the fridge and told Quentin we might need to freeze it before we cut it, or the mousse might leak out. I motioned with my fingers. He nodded in agreement. Then I left for the day.

Today when I arrived to the kitchen, I went directly to the fridge to check on the cake, crossing my fingers that the mousse had set up more overnight. I opened the fridge to find it completely empty. I turned to look at Quentin; he shrugged his shoulders.
"Ou a le gateau?" I asked. He pointed to the poubelle (trash can).
"What???" I couldn't even think of the French words to ask questions. Thinking of all that work and the waste of ingredients, why on earth would it have gone into the trash? Who, what, why?
Before I got too worked up, Quentin grinned, shook his head and said, "No, no, no, I put in freezer downstairs". I laughed. Yes, it was funny. Whereas some people would be really pissed about having someone play their feelings like that, I loved it. We can barely speak each others language, but jokes are universal; and I saw it as a sign that we are commrades.

Unfortunately I forgot my camera today, so no photos of the Foret Noire (Black Forest Cake). And if the elderly lady practically licking her plate is any indication of how well the customers liked it, there won't be any left for photos tomorrow. So here is photo of the one I made in school.
Foret Noire

I'm off to buy a map of Berlin. I'm taking my first mini holiday this weekend and going to a friend's wedding in Chemnitz, Germany (south east) and then spending a few days with Romain in Berlin. Don't worry, we'll be returning to Paris just in time for the Bastille Day fireworks.

Friday, July 3, 2009

DMCV, or Dieu Merci C'est Vendredi

Vanilla Panna Cotta with Cherries

In my previous career, TGIF was a constant phrase on Fridays. I lived for the weekends and my escape from my not so loved job. It really wasn't a great feeling, since the weekend was so short and once Monday came around, I'd have to drag myself off to work again. Today I'm thankful it's Friday, but only because it means I get to escape the heat of the kitchen for a few days. By Monday, I'll be more than ready to go back and get busy making pastries for the cafe again. It is an amazing feeling to love your job.

Today I think both Quentin and I were a little tired. Maybe the heat of the kitchen got to both our brains this week. He asked me why the Baba was hot when he cut it; the syrup was cold when he soaked it. I pointed to the hot apricot glaze he had just drizzled over top and said, "Le sirop de abricot est chaud". He forgot that he had just put the hot glaze on the Baba. We had a good laugh. Then I reminded him that I had also forgot about the induction cooktop again today and boiled some syrup over. (This thing is going to be the ruin of me). As we laughed again, I said, Dieu merci c'est vendredi. He gave me a puzzled look. Then I explained to him TGIF and told him it was his American lesson for the day. DMCV doesn't quite have the same ring to it as TGIF, but I'm sure the sentiment is common here too.

Yesterday, I made Panna Cotta for the first time. Quentin decided we should make a cherry topping for it. My fingers are still a little red tinged around the nails from all the cherries I cut and pitted yesterday. I then followed Mme. Guerraud's simple recipe for Panna Cotta. The milky mixture was poured into glasses and after cooling, went into the fridge to set up for today. Quentin showed me the glasses this morning. They had just a slight jiggle to them and looked perfect.

We set about trying to communicate how to prepare the cherries. Gestures, and lots of mixed English and French words ensued. The cherries were cooked in a simple syrup, strained and the remaining juice/syrup mixture was reduced, and Quentin added some Kirsch. The cherries and syrup were cooled and then spooned over the little Panna Cottas. They sure looked lovely. I noticed one of the glasses had a crack in it, so it was removed and designated as our test subject. Quentin grabbed 2 spoons and motioned for me to take the first bite. Heaven! The Panna Cotta was so light, silky and milky flavored. The cherries had just enough sweet and sour to balance with the Panna Cotta. After Quentin had a few bites too, he motioned for me to finish the last spoonful. "Pas du problem". A sweet finish to a sweet week.
The "Test" Subject

This weekend I'm hoping to visit the Musee d'Orsay. I heard admission is free on the first Sunday of the month, will have to check the website to be sure. No fireworks for my 4th of July. But a nice dinner with Romain and some visitors, and a walk around Paris will suffice for me.

Hope everyone has a safe and happy Independence Day.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bird's Eye View

Berries and Apples Ready for Crumble Topping

It's only my 3rd day of work at Le Cafe du Commerce, and I am in Love. The staff is friendly and welcoming. I'm amazed at what I can say in French, already learning a lot. The pastry kitchen is starting to become familiar to me. I've even learned how to properly use an induction cook top (when they say they can boil water in 90 seconds, they mean it!).

I am working alongside a young French culinary student named, Quentin. On my first day, we did not talk much. He said he knew little English, and I probably know just as much French. But between our collective knowledge, a French-English dictionary and a lot of gestures, facial expressions and noises, I think we are getting along great. He has told me that he prefers savory cooking over pastry, but likes working at the Cafe. (He seems to be quite popular with the staff.) Since he has filled-in in the pastry kitchen before, he is showing me the ropes, and I in return am showing him a few pastry tricks. We are having a lot of laughs in between.

For the summer, Mme. Guerraud has added a "dessert du jour" to the lunch menu. Each day we are to feature a new dessert item that is not offered on the regular menu. On Monday we served Flan Parisienne. (something I have not tried yet, but will put on my list of desserts to taste) Tuesday we served a berry and apple crumble. I got to take charge of using the "robot" (food processor) and mixing the butter, flour and sugar together for the topping. I was told today that many customers said they enjoyed the crumble. It appeared to be quite popular from my observations of the service.

With the layout of the Cafe, I can exit the pastry kitchen on the 3rd floor and peer over the railing down to the 2nd and 1st floors for a glimpse of the busy lunch time service. It's quite the unique perspective.

View from the third floor of the lunch time service

Desserts Ready to Go To the Tables

Finished Berry and Apple Crumble

Today's dessert du jour was an Apricot Tart. Very similar to the Tart Catalan we made in school, except this recipe's filling uses plain butter instead of browned butter. I did not get to taste it, but it looked fantastic. As I took my peek over the railing to the floors below, I could see it was being served in slices with some powdered sugar sprinkled on top. I looked as if it were just as popular as yesterday's crumble.

Apricot Tart

There were some slices of Apricot leftover from making the Tarts, so I cooked them in some simple syrup and made a tasty coulis. I spooned some over a scoop of Vanilla ice cream and sprinkled a few chopped pistachios on top. Then Quentin and I tried it out. It might be an idea for a future dessert du jour. Simple, but good; and a nice cool treat in a hot pastry kitchen.

Vanilla Ice Cream with Apricot Coulis and Pistachios

And now I'm off to make an Gateau du Fromage Blanc, or a French style cheesecake. It is a recipe I am practicing as an idea for the dessert du jour, since I have been asked to come up with some ideas. Once it is done, I will take some to work tomorrow for Quentin and Mme. Guerraud to try. Maybe spoon some of the Apricot Coulis over it.