Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving and a glorified cream of pumpkin recipe

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love that it's about being grateful, and boy, do I have things to be grateful for this year. I cherish the lovely aspects of Thanksgiving that are about being with family, enjoying the beauty of autumn, and feasting on delicious food. Turkey, sweet potatoes, corn bread, cranberry sauce, green beans, and pumpkin pie. YUM.

As Colombians who have been living in the US for a while, my family adopted this holiday into its annual repertoire. It's become an almost sacred family tradition. We respect the usual suspects like turkey and stuffing, but we've also added our own twist to them. Coconut rice is a must, and the turkey stuffing is quite different from the breadcrumb-heavy variety found on most US Thanksgiving tables. 

I'd like to share one of my recipes that was part of our Thanksgiving meal this year. It's a great idea for an autumn appetizer or amuse bouche. It was also the verrine appetizer that I presented for my cuisine final exam, and the chefs liked. And guess what? It's super easy. The important thing to keep in mind are the flavors, and to know how to balance them so that the end result is a layer of subtle flavors that enhance one another. 

Also, have fun with the presentation of a soup like this. Use a shot glass, a small square vase, or whatever you find in your cupboard that could be a nice container for it. I used limoncello glasses on Thanksgiving, and they looked lovely. 

Cream of pumpkin soup with caramelized apples and walnuts 
our thanksgiving amuse bouche - glorified cream of pumpkin 
Roast 300g red kuri (pumpkin) in the oven at 200 degrees for 30 minutes. Once roasted, remove puree from skin and discard seeds.

Sweat 50g carrot, 100g parsnip (optional), 1/2 onion, and 50g leek mirepoix in butter and add 1 lemon grass stick, freshly grated ginger, 2 cloves of garlic, 1 cinnamon stick, pumpkin puree. Season with salt, fresh ground pepper, and add chicken stock to help sweat the vegetables. Blend and strain. 

Apple walnut brunoise
Cut 1 Rubinette or Golden Delicious apple into brunoise and chop 100g fresh walnuts and caramelize in a sauce pan with butter, 1 tbsp maple syrup, and 1 tbsp honey.

Candy thin slices of Rubinette apples in 50ml water and 50g sugar and dry in the oven at 90 degrees for 2 hours.


Place a layer of caramelized apples and walnuts on the bottom of a verrine or serving glass, then fill 3/4 of the verrine with soup.
Whip 100ml cream and top verrines with a dollop of cream and a small basil leaf.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Victory: Tooting my own horn

winged victory of samothrace at the louvre, 2nd century BC
At the risk of sounding pompous and arrogant in this entry...I DID IT! I WAS VICTORIOUS! I earned the Grand Diplome in cuisine and pastry from Le Cordon Bleu Paris. Please excuse the tacky reference to the winged victory of samothrace pictured above, but I recently  went to the Louvre, and was inspired. In fact, this inspiration came at a perfect moment because it was a few days before my final cuisine exam. 

This is a sculpture of the Greek goddess Nike (Victory). Ok, now I'm totally pushing it, but I can't resist telling you that my name, Veronica, is a hybrid of Greek and Latin. The first part of my name is derived from the Latin word "veritas", whick means truth. The second part of the name is derived from (you guessed it) the Greek word "nike", which means victory, or victorious. Therefore, I was truly victorious! I ended up with three medals (one gold for the Grand Diplome, two silver for the cuisine and pastry diplomas), three diplomas, six certificates, and a whole lot of wonderful memories. 
Before I tell you about the graduation ceremony, I need to explain all about the final steps to getting there - the cuisine final exam. Preparing for it was one of the most stressful experiences I've ever had. Two weeks before the big day, we were given a list of ingredients to use to create four servings of an appetizer and a main dish. Some of the ingredients on the list were mandatory, and others were made available for our dishes. I love cooking fish and seafood, so I was glad to see sole, cockles, mussels, and scallops on the list. There were also some lovely autumn ingredients like pumpkin, parsnip, apples, and walnuts. 

Coming up with a decent dish was fun, but waiting around was driving me crazy. I became an insomniac and obsessed over plating ideas, flavor pairing, and most importantly, timing. I was a total dork and created a 15-minute interval schedule, printed it out, and scrutinized and memorized it. We had four hours, and any minutes of lateness would count against our grade. In the past, people have failed this exam for being twenty minutes late.  Can you imagine failing after 9 months of work because you were twenty minutes late? 
preparing for the exam

I told myself this simply wasn't an option, so I made crucial decisions that would simplify my dishes in order to buy me some time. I'm so glad I did this because the day of the exam I kept it simple, kicked it into high gear, moved faster than I've ever moved before and BINGO! Finished half an hour before my time was up. This was a good thing because my sole rolls (filled with scallop mousseline and rolled in spinach leaves) were undercooked so I had to poach them a second time. If I hadn't had that time, I would have gotten major points taken off for undercooking my fish. 

This is the final result. My appetizers were verrines filled with cream of pumpkin and parsnip with a bed of caramelized apple and walnut brunoise. My main dishes were sole rolls filled with scallop mousseline, chanterelle mushroom flan, potato puree infused with chanterelles, and beet "macaroons". 

They say that the winged victory of samothrace was created to honor victory at a sea battle. Well, I faced my own sea battle...even if it was with seafood rather than the sea. I defeated those sole, cockles, mussels, and scallops, and I did it! I graduated and it makes me feel relieved, happy, and proud of myself. 

I'm sure I won't always be victorious, and I'm sure I'll burn cakes and overcook plenty of fish fillets. But I will always be proud of my accomplishments - both little and big.
with my chef's hat
The graduation ceremony took place in Cercle de L'Union Interalliee; an incredibly elegant building on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, next to President Sarkozy's presidential palace. The chefs and graduates were all decked out in their chef's hats, sporting their new medals, and glowing with pure happiness instead of sweat from cooking in a sweltering kitchen, for a change.

Au Revoir, Paris

It's 5:20am in Paris, and I can't sleep. My husband, son and I are leaving for Charles de Gaulle airport in a few hours to fly to the US for Thanksgiving and then back home to Trinidad. And so our Parisian culinary adventure comes to an end...for now. After all, "au revoir" actually means "until next time".

I've been trying to put into words how I feel about what I've done for eight months, and a few ideas come to mind. I'd like to share them with you, in case they inspire you to take that necessary leap to achieve your dreams.

- It takes a village. This is true for anyone because you need friends, family, and mentors to achieve goals. It's particularly true for parents, and I dare say, mothers. So find your rocks, and make it work together, ideally in a way that everyone can benefit from the experience.

- It takes persistence and positivism. I guarantee that there will be psychological and physical breakdowns. I personally had two major ones and quite a few little ones. At times, my body hurt and my stress wanted to take control. It took effort, but I managed to stay with it, and persevere.

- It takes joy. Remember to appreciate the good things, the little things, and even the difficult things, because they will all help you get you where you want to go. Joy will make it a far better ride.

There are many things that I still want to write about concerning this Paris adventure, including all about my final cuisine exam, wine pairing, museum visits, Parisian life, among others. So I plan to continue writing my blog about Paris, the US, Trinidad, my own recipes, and anything else that inspires me.

For now, I feel nostalgic at the crack of dawn and wanted to give this magical city a proper goodbye. Its imposing elegance and absolute beauty deserve nothing less.

As for the Cordon Bleu, I will tell you all about graduation in a separate entry, but will say that I had a fantastic experience learning at this school of culinary greatness. Thank you, LCB.

We visited the Eiffel Tower two nights ago to say a proper au revoir, and it seemed to look down at us in regal pomp and say, "well done. you were a part of this". I hope so.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Sugar pouring, pulling, and blowing

When I found out what taking a "sugar" exam at Le Cordon Bleu Paris meant, I almost had a heart attack. 150 degree molten sugar that resembles lava more than a sugar cube, sugar flowers so transparent you can break them by blowing on them too hard, and (let's be honest) gaudy shapes and colors that have a place in a 1950's banquet or a very showy and ornate Beijing wedding.

When I was a mere basic student all the way back in March (that really seems like years ago!), I would see superior pastry students waddle down the stairs, half dead, heading towards the front desk for some basic first aid to treat their sugar burns, blisters, and dehydration. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to it.

I would look at Chef Deguignet's sugar sculptures that he'd exhibit after demonstrations and think to myself that they were amazing, of course, and obviously incredibly difficult things to make, but that they were really old-fashioned, gaudy and, well, tacky. No offense, Chef, but you do understand.

So, I made my way through basic and intermediate pastry and all of a sudden I found myself in front of a scorching hot non-crystalized caramel, a heat lamp, some protective gloves, my hands, and my creativity. And guess what? I LOVED IT! Granted it's one of the more dangerous things I've ever engaged in, but also one of the most fun. To make something so delicate with molten sugar. Awesome.

These are the phases I went through to get to my final sculpture.

First, I practiced pouring sugar (cooked with food coloring and a lot of glucose to 155 degrees) to make what would become the base of my sculpture. This was my first piece:
my first poured sugar sculpture
Even though I loved the shapes and the movement of this sculpture, I didn't think to put a base on it, so it crumbled into a thousand pieces (!) but only after the chef had looked at it, thankfully. I was told, however, that if that had happened on exam day, I would get a big fat zero for presentation (eeek!).

The next step was to practice sugar-pulling. In order to get the right consistency, you cook the sugar to 165 degrees, add a little glucose, and finally some tartaric acid. Then you pull the scorching hot blob of sugar a few dozen times to make it look like satin and place it under a heat lamp. Now you're ready to make some flowers. All you have to do is put your hands under the sweltering heat lamp and manipulate the scorching sugar. And voila! A flower is born. You can also make ribbons. Oh, that's so easy. (I know sarcasm doesn't translate too well in writing, but I hope you're getting it.)

my first flowers
Then it was time for sugar blowing. It's a lot like blowing glass, and the chances that your blown piece will shatter into a million pieces is probably just as high. And when sugar like this breaks, it's as if it were glass, and it can cut you in the same way.

Chef Daniel Walter blowing a horn
my second sculpture. my attempts to blow sugar on this day failed miserably.
Finally, the day of the exam. We were told we had six hours to pour, pull, blow, and assemble. On went the gloves, out came a deep, controlled breath in preparation for this odyssey (I can't think of any other word that hits the spot this well).

After a lunch break, and some breathing (and hydrating) time, I was inspired to blow some sugar and try to redeem myself after my first failed attempt at such a thing....

...and POOF! This is what happened:

So this was my sugar final exam. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I've taken many exams in my day, but I've never been as frightened as when I had to make souffles, and sugar (!) POOF!
I passed. With flying colors (and no flying sugar glass, thankfully).

To be honest, I don't know whether or not I'll ever do something like this again because it's so dangerous, and also so tacky! But I will say that it was fun, and that I have a new found respect for Chef Deguignet's work. This is what he made in two hours:
It's a horn-of-plenty. How's that for a Thanksgiving centerpiece?