Third Week: Soups, Sauces and Puff Pastry
September 23, 2002

Now We're in the Soup

I love soups. Even if I personally don't like the flavor of this one or that one, I am enchanted by the idea of them. I've made butternut squash soup with nutmeg and chipotle several times and never consumed a spoonful of it myself (not to worry, Mathra ate it in full) simply because I liked the sound and look of it. There's something so soothingly elegant about them. Delicate broths, creamy velvet potages, chunks of tender meat or vegetables swimming in a rich tomato pool -- an explosion of tastes rolling around and over teeth, tongue, and lips.

We made seven different soups and three stocks. Making stock is a long and fairly arduous extravaganza, which can also be pricey if you insist on making -- king of all stocks in Stockville -- veal. Since we are a cooking school with access to commercially available veal shanks and trimmings, we had the opportunity to make a fond brun the proper way. We didn't get to taste it, though, because a proper fond brun simmers for twenty-four hours. "You can make large batches of stock, freeze them, and bring them out whenever you need to make a soup or sauce," Chef Directrix informed us. I'm starting to get the idea that when you're a chef, your downtime is completely different from regular people's. You don't spring clean, paint the living room, or nap. No. Instead, when you're bored and a chef, you go and make large amounts of stuff and freeze it for future use: vats of stock, clarified butter, disks of pie crust, and squares of puff pastry dough. I'm telling you, I do NOT have that much freezer room. The Stouffer's Macaroni and Cheese, Boca Italian Sausages, and Pillsbury Apple Pastry Strudels pretty much have squatters' rights already.

I volunteered to make Pappa al Pomodoro -- bread and tomato soup -- which was fairly easy. If you don't count the making-the-bread part. The recipe called for "2 cups stale Tuscan bread," but no Tuscan bread, stale or otherwise, came up in the daily bin. However, there was a recipe for Tuscan bread written right under the Pappa al Pomodoro list of ingredients. My partner and I looked at each other and shrugged -- we guessed we were making bread! Tuscan bread is very basic, bland, virtually taste-free -- it is made up of two kinds of flour, yeast, water, and no salt. We prepped the yeast, added the flour, and kneaded. And kneaded. And kneaded. Chef Directrix came by and showed us the proper punching method for kneading -- it is exactly what Poppadum does to my stomach. In the middle of the night. When I have a full bladder. Then we free-formed the dough into shape and let it prove for an hour. Once the dough had doubled in bulk, we punched it down, let it recover its breath for five minutes, scored the top, and put it onto a cornmeal-sprinkled bread slice. The cornmeal acted as ball bearings for the dough as we slid it onto the bread stone in the oven. Finally, we could turn ourselves to the "Pomodoro" part of the "Pappa al." And believe you-me, I turned that Pomodoro into Lot's wife because I was tired of Chef Directrix proclaiming everything bland and unseasoned.

A whole flock of soups were done way ahead of ours, so we dashed over to have a few spoonfuls of each. There was a tasty and tangy English Cheddar Chowder with chunks of carrots, celery, and scallions to start us off. Next, I sampled the Cream of Potato Soup enhanced by a beautiful decorative swirl of pesto -- it was comforting but it didn't thrill me. I loved the Wild Mushroom Soup, but Chef Directrix criticized the students for not grinding the black pepper fine enough. Normally, I'm not a fan of mussels -- Mathra adores them and once ate fifty of them on the Holland coast -- but the Mussel Zucchini Velouté made up such a divinely delicate fond fumet-based broth, that I would make that one again and again. It tasted just like the sea -- bright, salt-sprayed, and fresh. The Bourride of Scallops was also a delightful surprise. Here again, I just sampled the broth, and avoided chewing on the actual bottom feeders included, and, after hearing Chef Directrix's proclamation, I'm glad I did. Apparently, the Bourride students overcooked the scallops by boiling them in the stock for three minutes. In their defense, the recipe does not make it at all explicit that they were supposed to add the raw scallops to the soup only at the very end. The shellfish would be sufficiently cooked by pouring the completed broth over them. Sort of hard to just DIVINE that information based on the instructions given in the recipe.

Finally, the last two soups were ready -- ours and a Borscht. I had never tried Borscht, and the one that was made by Ringer certainly didn't look as I thought it would. It was purple, to start, and I had assumed Borscht was deep red. It also appeared to be fairly clear and had random chunks of meat and vegetables, but I had originally thought that Borscht was supposed to be creamy and smooth. Finally, the soup was also very, very sweet. Just so you know, my initial and staying idea of Borscht came from "The Game" -- which I read in high school -- and it has stuck with me ever since. So much for being a ringer, Ringer. The funny thing about our soup was that the recipe called for "stale" Tuscan bread. Which would be day-old. Not fresh. Not like the kind we freshly made that day. In order to "stale" it, we had to dry it in the oven. As we were baking the damn loaf, our classmates were already starting to clean up even though we still had several hours to go. But as we sliced, dried, and Cuisinarted the bread into chunks, we definitely felt all of them breathing down our necks to be done.

I forgot to mention what happened to the bread as it baked. When we pulled it out, it was golden brown, and the expertly scored top made it look just like the bread you see in stores. To the touch, it was hard as a rock. Chef Assistant, Madeira, praised us for our perfection. Until I made her push her finger at it. And dented a metal spoon on it. Nevertheless, I took my brand-spanking new Wüsthof serrated blade to it and braced myself for a serious hack-job. It wasn't necessary. The blade slid through it, cleanly, smoothly. Inside the crusty exterior, the bread was soft, warm, and perfect. Unbelievable -- and on our first try! We were thrilled.

Anyway, we finally got the pulverized bread into the tomato soup and served it. Chef Directrix declared it to be perfectly seasoned. Hallelujah! But she did think we could have used drier bread.

It's always going to be something, isn't it?

September 25, 2002

Puff the Magic Pastry Lives By the Sea and Frolics in the Autumn Mist in a Land Called Hon-a-lee

Did I get that into your head? Good.

Puff pastry was difficult, time consuming, and extremely tiring. I discovered that the only reason why I wasn't getting tired during my other classes was because we were constantly on the go. With puff pastry, there are so many turns it has to take in the fridge at thirty minutes a pop that you're left standing around, killing time with decreasing adrenaline. Red Headed Snippet and I volunteered to make palmiers, which are small puff pastries made in the shape of a palm leaf. They can be either savory or sweet. Ours were to be savory, with pesto, Parmesan cheese, and prosciutto. We made the pesto first, toasting the pine nuts and sticking it in the fridge until we needed it.

The puff pastry dough is rolled out into an 11x18-inch rectangle, spread with the pesto and prosciutto, and then sprinkled with the cheese. Each end of the rectangle is rolled halfway -- just until they meet in the center -- and the whole thing is chilled before slicing. The chilling allows for more control and less stress on the pastry roll when it finally gets sliced into palmiers with a serrated blade. Once we sliced our palmiers without too much damage to them, they were laid on sheet pans, dorure-d, and baked. They came out puffed, showing the many layers they needed for a fairly perfect pastry, and delicious. All the other puff pastries that were made were equally good: sacristans: sweet and savory (cheese) pastry straws; petit bouchées: pastry shells with lids filled with a ham and cheese béchamel; pithivier: two rounds of complicated puff pastry filled with almond paste; feuilletés of broccoli. Come to think of it, the last one wasn't so great. Those feuilletés were fine for showing another savory use for puff pastry, but they were filled with this greyish mushroom-broccoli-heavy-cream mixture that I really didn't like. Just goes to show that you can dress broccoli up in all that buttery pastry, but I'm still going to gag six ways till Thursday.

I'm such a lady.

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