First Week: Eggs, Eggs, Cream Puff Swans, oh, and by the way, EGGS!
September 9, 2002

Leave it to Massachusetts to pick my first day of culinary school where I'd be spending eight hours in a roasting kitchen, walking fifteen sun-withered blocks in my clogs, socks, and long checked chef pants, to sweat our temperatures up to the mid-nineties.

From the stringent description in Mein Kampf, Mine Kitchen (i.e., our Basics Binder), I was expecting a point-by-point inspection by a Herr Chef while we all stood at white starched attention. Not a chance. After a lecture on the history of the egg dating back to primordial slime times, we were tossed into the kitchen, clutching our assigned recipes in sweaty hands. I worked with two others on constructing mini-quiches in individual crêpe cups. Not too hard, I thought, since I've been making crêpe on my own for quite some time now, but I didn't figure on the utter chaos that would reign from fifteen completely clueless people being thrown into an unknown kitchen -- all scrambling to put together eight untried egg recipes. We didn't know where anything was, we hadn't been briefed on the washing/sanitizing process (somehow we managed not to kill anyone that day, considering we skipped the soap part and just threw everything into the sanitizer), we weren't really clear how to go down to the Mushroom Men and get the Special Ingredients of the Day, and people were crazed. I have no idea how any of us got through that day and I sure as hell don't know how we made eight extremely complex egg dishes. Class started at eight o'clock, and we ate the first thing around 2pm. But by then I had gone from hungry, to starved, to contemplating that salmonella can't really be as bad as a stomach that echoes with the sound of digestive acid cannibalizing itself, to total loss of appetite. Good thing, too, because what we tasted first was a slimy, rubbery, fairly flavorless frittata with caramelized onions that had turned a vivid bluish-green. Apparently, that can happen to red onions. I've only managed that reaction that with garlic -- it looks horribly fascinating on a artichoke and goat cheese pizza. I nibbled a bit of the fetid frittata and tossed the rest away when the students who had made it weren't looking. Meanwhile, I couldn't find any brandy to measure out and complete my mis-en-place for the crêpes before Chef Directrix checked it and allowed me to actually start making them. Over by the stove, someone's hollandaise was breaking, and Chef Directrix was telling another student that she was piping out her egg whites wrong. How could she be doing something wrong when she hadn't even shown us how to do anything yet? And that's pretty much the way it went for the whole day. She did finally demo some stuff for us, like the three different ways of making an omelet: scrambled, shaken, and beaten. A few students gathered around while she showed me how to clarify butter and pour crêpe batter into the seven-inch cast-iron omelet pan. And those same students stayed there while she watched me do it and told me all the things I was doing wrong. After all the crêpes were piled and steaming on a plate, we tucked and folded them into muffin tins so their edges ruffled like cuffs. Next, we took our prepared quiche batter, carefully ladled a portion into each crêpe cup, and popped the muffin tins into the oven. I wasn't overly excited to try these once they came out -- the quiche batter did have spinach in it, and I'm just not a fan of that when it's cooked -- but I am required to taste my own dish. I took a nibble and wasn't impressed, so I shouldn't have been too surprised when Chef Directrix pronounced them beautifully executed and presented (the presentation was all me) but bland. She told us that we as chefs should have been tasting the raw quiche batter to determine if it was seasoned adequately. I'm not thrilled with the idea of tasting raw eggs and I always add salt and pepper to any egg dish I order, but Chef Directrix told us that you never see salt and pepper on the table at a chi-chi restaurant. As a student, I feel the need to visit lots of chi-chi restaurants in order to test that theory further. Yes, that is what I need to do.

Every once in a while, Chef Château Lafite's red face would bounce in to borrow something from our kitchen, every point of his salt-and-pepper brush cut carefully gelled to shining molded tips. I was afraid of him when I saw him at orientation, but now I kind of hope I get him for something. He looks like the yelling "I can't work in dees condishons!" type and I really want one of those just once.

When I got home, I was on a high. I talked so long and so hard that Mathra decided we better go next-door to Chez Henri for mojitos, wine and something light to eat.

September 11, 2002

Baking on Wednesday with my baking chef instructor was a bit easier to take. It might have been because it was the second day of classes or it might have been because at orientation Chef announced that she teaches "Passion for the five senses!" First, Ted of the Mushroom Men came in and told us everything we needed to know about cleaning the kitchen as well as getting our daily ingredients. After he left, we observed a few minutes of silence at exactly 8:46, and then Chef Passion got underway with her lecture. The recipe du jour was pâte à choux, the base for a bunch of different pastries: éclairs, Paris-Brest (one of my absolute favorites), profiteroles, cream puffs and much more. After her lecture, Chef Passion set about demonstrating how to make the choux paste. (FYI: Pâte = paste in French, and is pronounced "pat," not "pa-tay." "Pa-tay" is how one pronounces pâté, which is a completely different food.) Her countertop-cum-stove/oven had a tilted overhead mirror, so we had no problem seeing everything she did. She had all of us come up and take a stir to get the feel of the thickness of the paste before the eggs are added. We touched the dough and felt the butter bubbles forming on the surface, which meant it was ready to be piped. It's amazing that a paste, which gives such resistance and can single-handedly fine-tune the muscles in your forearm as well as your bicep and wrist, begets such a light, puffy, result.

Then, like eggs day, we all volunteered for recipes. For reasons known best to myself, I chose to be one of four making the cream puff swans. They made use of the basic pâte à choux recipe, and they also presented a degree of difficulty I wanted to overcome so I would no longer be afraid of my pastry bag. With four of us all working on our own swans and cheering each other on -- complementing the construct of a well-turned-out neck or a particularly plump body -- it was not a stressful experience in the least. In fact, the collaborative effort made it more exciting, and I was impressed with how well all the swans came out. The four of us picked out the best ten and arranged them over three successive platters so they appeared to be swimming in a line. We piped extra cream filling here and there and stuck mint into the dabs so we had bushes around our lakes. Chef Passion showed us how to make a coulis with raspberries and blueberries -- strained through three different strainers, and then reduced on the stove to thicken it -- and we artfully squirted some of that on the white platters. It looked like blood stains around the swans. Again, none of us had eaten since breakfast, so at two in the afternoon, when the first things came out -- the Dauphine Potatoes Choux -- I immediately scarfed four of them down with the sour cream and chive dipping sauce. These were made of mashed potatoes, Gruyère cheese, chives, and nutmeg stirred into the basic pâte à choux recipe and deep-fried into balls of golden delectability. God, they were so yummy, I'm relieved we don't own a deep fryer. Once the swans were constructed, we had a lot of pastry and almond-flavored whipped cream left over, so I kept squirting the cream from my pastry bag into the unconstructed swans and ingesting large amounts. By the time the four kinds of éclairs, the three kinds of cream puffs with different icings, and the gougère (a traditional French savory made with the choux paste recipe, Gruyère, Emmenthaler, dry mustard, and nutmeg and served with a red Burgundy) were presented, I was as stuffed as my swans and my body had lost the war of the sugar high and was being dragged into a coma by the carbohydrates. Nevertheless, we cleaned up, sweated, packed up some leftovers to take home, and beat it out of there. Chef Passion was very sympathetic to our exhausted states and reassured us that three o'clock was usually when she ran out of steam as well.

I think I felt much better after this class, because I have started to overcome my fear of baking (although the next two classes deal with puff pastry and pie crust, horrors!) and also because Chef Passion was so structured and reassuring. She informed us that we will be tested from her lecture notes and she will tell exactly what we need to know for the quizzes and exams. Choux paste is definitely going to be part of the practicum, she told us, so we should each go home and practice it over the weekend. I did. The cream puffs I made turned into little golden balls of perfection. I wish I could say the same for the crème pâtissière I was supposed to fill them with. It is a different filling from the one we used with the swans -- a very simple combo of three cups of heavy whipping cream, confectioners' sugar, and almond and vanilla extract -- so I hadn't done it yet, nor had I checked out how the cream puff and éclair makers made it that day. At every stage in the making of this cream, I was not sure if my consistency was right. I mastered the ribboning of the sugar and egg yolks that Kamman explains in such detail, but everything after that was a complete mystery. After adding in the sugar and the flour, and whisking in the warm half-and-half, I wasn't sure what to be looking for when I gently cooked it all over moderate heat. My first go, the crème quickly dried up over the medium flame and turned into a sticky paste. I threw it out when I realized I had mismeasured my half-and-half by THREE-QUARTERS OF A CUP! The second time around felt better, but I was really nervous about how long to have it on the stove, since the bottom started clumping up again. I might have taken it off too early. Or it could have been that I didn't whip the heavy cream enough, which was folded in later. The differences between the chantilly stage of whipped cream and every other stage is escaping me at the moment. Anyway, the crème pâtissière is sitting in my fridge, tasting way too much like raw flour, and blankly refusing to firm up to a stage where I could pipe it into my adorable cream puffs, which are being saved in Ziplocks.

September 15, 2002: I am really irritated as I have been working on this recipe since eleven o'clock this morning.

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