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Category Archives: Cooking Class

Leaving On a Jet Plane Tomorrow

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Pierre Herme MacaronToday is my last day in Paris. How do these trips always manage to fly by so quickly? We were fortunate to have gorgeous weather for our entire trip, minus today. It’s rainy and cold. C’est la vie.

With no plans, we just started wandering around this morning before the impending deluge. Many shops and restaurants remain closed for the August holiday break, but thankfully, a few of my favorite cooking shops and patisseries were not.

I made my way to Rue Montorgueil, right by the apartment we rented last time. There, I purchased boxes of tiny macarons at Stohrer, one of the oldest bakeries in Paris. One box is a gift for the flight crew tomorrow, and the other will be coming back to Texas with me.

The main reason for heading over to that part of the city was because I wanted to purchase a lame (pronounced “lahm”), which is the tool that’s used to score the top of baguettes. This is just in case I decide to try my hand at baking them in Houston. I knew just the place to find it. E. Dehillerin! And, I was pleased to find it open. Bonus! It took me awhile to find the lame, which was literally under my nose in the first place I thought to look. But, in wandering around trying to find this little gadget, I also found two whisks in varying sizes that I couldn’t live without. So, I purchased my new cookware and headed out to G. Detou nearby.Lame1

There, I was looking for powdered food coloring that’s used to make macarons like the fantastic one pictured above. This ingredient is not cheap, and since I’m not in the business of making many batches right now, I settled on one. A chose a marigold yellow color that I’m hoping I can play with to achieve a variety of sunshiney colors.

I snaked my way back to the Marais in the rain, and happened upon Pierre Hermé, the rival patisserie to Laudrée (if there is such a thing here in Paris). I just wanted a small taste of their salted caramel macaron, but being the excellent vendeuse that she was, the shop attendant talked me into the monster-sized one. And it was worth every damn calorie.

For me, the best part about today was having no agenda and navigating around purely by memory. I love walking past a shop or restaurant and having a memory come flooding back. It happened today when we passed Costa Coffee (I’ll never forget ducking inside one in Budapest to escape the cold that was so harsh, I couldn’t even type on my phone), and again when I passed a boulangerie near the Centre Georges Pompidou. I thought, ‘I remember buying a baguette somewhere around here and walking around eating it.’ I looked left, and sure enough, there was the bakery in the same spot.

I can’t even remember which trip that was on, and that’s happening with more frequency as I visit Paris more often. Memories get jumbled up, but the internal Thomas Guide is becoming sharper with every visit. So, as is typical of the day before leaving an amazing city, I’m already plotting my return!

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From Boston to Baguettes

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Paris Cooking ClassI never imagined it would be this cool in Paris in the summer. There’s a crispness in the air that seems better-suited for autumn, but it sure is a welcomed reprieve from the heat and humidity in Texas. After dumping my belongings at the apartment in the Marais, I went for a walk to Ile St. Louis. There are a number of great cafés, and I figured it would be a good place to line my stomach before my baking class nearby. Soup à l’oignon gratinée and a glass of rosé. It’s becoming my welcome répas each time I visit.

My class started promptly at 2:30pm, and three-quarters of us managed to arrive nice and early. That led to a prompt start, with two ladies straggling in while we were elbow-deep in flour and poolish. We were as lost then as you likely are now regarding the word, but we mimicked what Chef Eric was doing nevertheless. More on poolish in a bit.

I paired up with a really nice girl named Kate, who ironically used to live in Houston. Her husband’s job (he’s a geologist to the oil industry) moved them from the land of humidity and queso to Paris, so here’s hoping Brady and I might follow in their footsteps. Between bouts of kneading our dough correctly and sometimes not, we swapped stories about Houston, restaurants we both like there, etc… It was kind of like taking the class with a friend.

But back to the boulangerie. The first thing that struck me regarding baguettes is the simplicity of the ingredients. There was a quiz on our recipe sheet that indicated there were just four, which immediately made me think of “Reinheitsgebot,” the German beer purity law. These Europeans take their food and beverage very seriously, so much so that they have enacted laws like these that protect the traditionality of certain products. The French law called the “baguette de traditional française” was signed into law on September 13, 1993. There are also specifics regarding the length, width, height and weight for anything being sold as a “baguette.”

So, what goes into a these bread swords you see sticking out of fashionable purses around Paris? Nothing more than bread flour, salt, water and yeast. Oh, and elbow grease, but that’s an unspoken addition. It really wasn’t all that difficult to create the baguettes, but you do need counter space and a willingness to demolish a tidy kitchen. Baking is messy. There are no two ways about it.

Something else that you will need is a kitchen scale. Like Chef Diane from my macaron class in November (who I saw Baguettes Paris Cooking Classbriefly today), Chef Eric also drove home the point that weighing your ingredients is the way to go. Note to self: purchase a kitchen scale. You’ll need it to create the poolish, a starter that’s made three to 18 hours ahead of time to jumpstart the fermentation process. It’s nothing more than bread flour, water and fresh yeast, but this step makes a marked improvement in the bread’s flavor.

Perhaps most important of all, though, is the double proofing process where you allow the dough to rise after kneading it, and then again after it’s formed into a baguette shape. The baguettes will double in size during this process, so if it’s twice as big as when you started, you’re on the right track. It’s also important to score the baguettes with a razor or small tool, which allows steam to escape. Most bakers have a unique score for their baguettes that is likened to an artist’s signature on a painting.

I’m not a baker. I repeat: I’m not a baker. I don’t like to measure, I don’t have an egregious sweet tooth, and I certainly don’t have the patience or gadgetry that’s required of most baking projects. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the craft, especially something like freshly baked French bread. It’s one of the best parts about roving the streets of Paris.

A major takeaway from this class was that we cooked in normal, convection ovens. The kind you would find in any home. A critical aspect of the baking process is steam, which can be achieved by tossing a few ice cubes into the bottom of the oven or by using a spray bottle intermittently. Outstanding tips that I likely would not have otherwise thought about!

That’s all for now. Another great culinary experience in the books! If you’re ever in Paris (or any of the places I’ve traveled with Culinary Hopscotch) and want recommendations of cooking classes or other culinary adventures, please let me know.   

Allons-y à Paris!

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Kyle and JuliaIn preparation for my trip to Paris, I packed “My Life in France” by Julia Child and brought it back east in my crew bag. I figured I would re-read it on the jumpseat to drum-up excitement for my trip. I read the book prior to conceptualizing Culinary Hopscotch back in 2009, which was some time ago. I don’t know why I’ve never thought to read it again.

In just one short chapter (the introduction, actually), I’m amazed at the many similarities and connections I now see between the two of us. By no means is this comparison meant to be culinary in nature.

First off, for those who follow my #crewlife tales, you’ll remember that I just visited the Smithsonian exhibit of Julia’s kitchen in Washington D.C. a few days ago. The layover was planned, but riding bikes to the National Mall with my crew was not. As luck would have it, we all split up and went our own ways, finally giving me the opportunity to go see this exhibit. It also happened to be Julia’s birthday that day, which I didn’t know until after the fact.

The kitchen is an exact replica of the one from Paul and Julia Child’s Boston home, the city where I spend half of my time flying for JetBlue. Secondarily, Julia is from Pasadena, California, just up the road from where I grew up in Newport Beach. Two California girls, navigating Boston’s unique mixture of culture and unpredictable weather.

But perhaps most interestingly,  she penned “My Life in France” in Montecito in 2004, just down the road from where I attended college at UC Santa Barbara. I graduated two years prior. I’m shocked that I never ran into her while babysitting for a family in her neighborhood, or at La Superica, her favorite hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant that is adored by college students and famous foodies alike.

More than anything, however, our love of France– Paris, specifically– is what strikes a chord with me. There are so many ways to see Paris, but in mine and Julia’s opinion, the City of Light is best viewed through a culinary lens with a fork always at the ready.

While writing this, I was shuttling people back and forth between the Northeast and West Palm Beach, an oft challenging crowd for those in the know. I wasn’t about to let them get to me. Tonight, I’ll be boarding a flight to Paris. And on Thursday, joining a baking class where I’ll learn to make baguettes and other doughy delicacies in a home oven. You can keep the palm trees and the beach; I’m heading to where the magic is made in café kitchens, patisseries and in a small hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant along Canal St. Martin.

For those who read about my macaron class in Paris last November, this is the same small cooking school tucked along the Seine near the Marais. And it’s also the same place where my phone took a swim in the toilet last time. Evidently, geography and a love of food are not the only thing Julia and I have in common. Klutziness in the kitchen is as common as it is in life. One of my favorite quotes in the book says it all: “Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed. Eh bien, tant pis!” [Translation: Well, too bad!]

Let’s go to Paris!

Survey Says!

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Macaron-Making Class in Paris

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Making MeringueIn Paris, patîsserie shops are a dime a dozen. Unlike in the U.S. where the word “bakery” encompasses all things baked, in France, breads, croissants and the like are found in boulangeries, while patîsseries are where you will find more luxurious desserts like tartes, cakes and the famed macaron cookie.

If you’ve had the good fortune to gaze into the window of a Parisian patîsserie, the bejeweled arrangement of macarons is enough to catch your eye. They say you eat with your eyes first, and these cookies have a way of stealing the show both visually and in taste. In Paris, macarons are everywhere, but you will want to know where to go (Pain du Sucre, Stohrer) to make sure you’re getting your Euros worth. The good ones are worth the bite-size price of admission.

Selecting your macaron might be the biggest challenge of all though, because the flavor profiles are endless. Sweet, savory, a combination of the two. Picking just a few and having them tossed into a bag is a far cry from the satisfaction you get from filling up a box with all of the different colored cookies. It reminds me of picking out a dozen donuts with my dad at Winchell’s when I was little.

For me, the salted caramel variety (typically made with fleur de sel) has proven particularly irresistible, and fortunately for my mouth and unfortunately for my waistline, we found an authentic patîsserie in Houston that would make the bakers in Paris proud. In fact, we took a box along for the flight attendants working our flight from New York to Paris in the hopes of being moved up front. It checked-in full, sadly, but they did supply us with our own box of wine to leisurely serve ourselves over the Atlantic.

But back to the macarons. Getting the Culinary Hopscotch train back on the tracks was much easier on this trip with Working Awaymany cooking classes to choose from. We spent a week in Paris and took day trips this time, so it was easy to set aside an afternoon to learn more about these cookies. I don’t fancy myself a baker. At all. And in fact, I’m not a huge fan of the practice. It’s the measuring. And while I appreciate the science behind baking, I’m much more of ‘a pinch of this, a dash of that’ girl. Please note: there is no room for this methodology with macarons.

For something so small, there are numerous steps that go into making these cookies, but there isn’t much to them ingredients-wise. Right off the bat, I learned that they are gluten-free, which is great for sweets lovers who need to steer clear of wheat. And it’s the unique combination of Italian meringue (egg whites, sugar and water) and almond meal mixed with confectioners sugar that give the delicate little cookies their smooth exteriors and feet in the oven and allow you to fill them with almost anything you can imagine.

Chocolate Orange Filling

I love admiring my macarons before eating them; to look at the sheen and the smoothness of the shell. And now that I know what goes into this process, I believe my admiration is justified. Cracking is one of the biggest problems many bakers face while making macarons, and there are a variety of things that can cause this to happen. An oven that is too hot. One that is not hot enough. Improper sifting of your almond meal and confectioners sugar. Not incorporating the ingredients properly. And perhaps the biggest enemy of all, moisture. Our teacher pointed out that we would be using powdered food coloring to mix into our batter for this very reason. Since some of the color bakes away in the oven, she encouraged us to be generous with the food coloring if we wanted to achieve richer colors.

Batter Bag

We started by creating the fillings for our macarons so they could set-up in the fridge while we worked on the shells. In groups of three, we created a white chocolate-raspberry filling, a pistachio filling and a dark chocolate-orange filling (ours). Once done, they went into the fridge until we needed them again. At this point, we started on the macarons. We heated up the sugar and water to 115 degrees Celsius, flipped on the KitchenAid mixers to get the egg whites going, and when the sugar reached 118 degrees Celsius, we gradually added it to the egg whites, allowing them to mix until the bottom of the steel mixing bowl was comfortable to the touch and they formed stiff peaks.

In the meantime, another member of our team worked on sifting the almond meal and confectioners sugar together, and then added in egg whites and the powdered food coloring. Each team selected two colors for their macarons, ours being a royal purple and fierce magenta-red. Once the meringue was ready, we incorporated it into the colorful batters in three batches (mixing twice, and folding on the third and last go) before filling pastry bags with the mixture.

Proper Spacing

Regarding baking, a Silpat is going to be your best friend because macarons tend to stick and ripping them off a baking sheet will undoubtedly cause them to crack and you will lose the little footing. You can try parchment paper, but a silicon mat will work the best. All you need to do is to pipe small circles about the size of half-dollar onto your baking sheet, giving the macarons a bit of space to expand in the oven. They cook for about 12-15 minutes depending on your oven, and require time to cool before you remove them from your baking sheet. If your macarons are properly cooked, they should remove from the Silpat easily.

Macarons Baking

From here, it’s rather easy. You match-up different shells of similar size, and then pipe in a small amount of filling, twisting as you go to allow the delicious filling to reach the edges. Regarding storing them, freshly made macarons will need to be placed in the fridge for at least 24 hours to allow the flavors to come together and help them to set. But they will keep for sometime in the fridge, and you can freeze them for up to three months as well, including any leftover batter or filling. To serve, bring the cookies out of the fridge and allow them to come-up to room temperature. You can decorate macarons both before and after they’ve been baked, the former with things like shredded coconut, crushed speculoos cookies, sprinkles and the like, and after with pastry dusting powders or edible pens.

Bon appetit!

Finished ProductMacaron Technical Decoration Class

La Cuisine Paris

80 Quai de l’Hotel de Ville

www.lacuisineparis.com

Order Up: London, Paris and Strasbourg!

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Cheeses of Paris

Fromagerie in Montmartre

To celebrate making it past the six-month probationary mark with JetBlue, I’m heading to Europe next week! At least I think I am. This will be the first time I tempt the non-rev’ing Gods internationally, so I’m hoping I can get a seat on one of the three non-stops from JFK to Heathrow. Then again, I’m just hoping I can get back to JFK for work at this rate. With Europe involved, I will find a way!

It always amazes me how quickly my trips come together. Brady encouraged me to go last Thursday, so I contacted my friends in London, rented an apartment via Airbnb in Paris, and bought train tickets to Strasbourg for a day trip. I’m also taking the Eurostar/Chunnel for the first time, and I can’t wait for the experience. It only cost a bit more to book in first class, so I figured, “Why not?” They give you a three-course meal, there’s free wi-fi so I can use my phone or laptop, and the seats are bigger. Perfect.

As far as culinary things go in Paris, I’m booked in for two great dinners at Verjus and Reed, and I’m definitely visiting The Gallery Museum Baccarat this time. Evidently, it’s a sight for sore eyes, and there’s a particularly eye-catching bathroom that shouldn’t be missed. I’ve booked myself in for lunch there too at the Crystal Room restaurant. I’ve been on the hunt for cooking classes, but haven’t been able to match anything with my schedule. If you’re up for a hilarious story regarding a cooking class inquiry gone awry, you can read about that here. A word of advice: learn the difference between “forward” and “reply” when it comes to business emails.

There’s still time for a class to work out, but if not, there are dozens of other culinary-related items I can get myself into. You can make a day of snacking on delicious cheeses like the ones in the photo, chatting with bartenders about wines, and eating a Berthillon ice cream cone as the world walks by. I’ll report back as the trip rolls on.

Cooking at Casa de Colores

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Due to technical difficulties, I cannot get the photos off my camera. I will update the post with my actual pictures as soon as I can. In the meantime, this is the grinder at the tortilleria where we sampled the amazing Nixtomal corn tortillas!

After spending a week in Cabo at perhaps the most ridiculous house I’ve ever stepped foot in, I had an epiphany: working after a week of vacation reminds me that I’d rather be on vacation. I think I’ve been holding onto this post in my head as a way of prolonging the week we spent doing nothing. Well, almost nothing. Between Coronitas and dips in the pool, I managed to sneak in a cooking class. And boy…I’m glad I did.

If you ask an American what Mexican food is, you’ll get a different answer depending on the geographic location of the person you’re interviewing. In middle America, Tex-Mex is all the rage, but a Californian would hang you for trying to pass off  anything as Mexican that wasn’t fresh tacos or a bulging burrito. And then there’s actual Mexican food that doesn’t resemble either of these things.

My Cabo cooking class was titled “Mexican Comfort Foods.” Not having a ton of experience in the genre, short of what I filled up on at Gay and Larry’s growing up (RIP), I wasn’t really sure what I was in for. I met Donna in the parking lot of a large grocery store near downtown, and truth be told, I wasn’t sure who I was looking for, how many people were going to be in our class, or what we’d be doing that day. One of my favorite parts about taking all of these different classes around the world is that no two have proved to be the same yet. And this was no different.

Once we assembled our group, Donna had me jump into her car and she whisked us over to an authentic tortilleria for lunch. Lunch? I thought I was going to a cooking class. Smart not to argue, we pulled up to the al fresco restaurant and sampled some of the freshest tortillas this side of Oaxaca. The “Tortilla Goddesses,” as Donna so dubiously named them, barely speak English and turn out hot corn tortillas straight from the comal. They start by making their own Nixtomal, a mixture of corn, limestone and filtered water that’s passed through a grinder. That’s their masa, and this technique has been going on for thousands of years thanks to the Aztecs. There I was, literally eating history. My God, history tastes good.

From there, we headed back to Casa de Colores, or “House of Colors” in Spanish, where Donna lives. Her charming abode is perched on a lookout in Cabo and you can see all the way to the ocean. It’s also aptly named–the terracotta exterior is trimmed with colors borrowed from the rainbow, and in Mexico, this aesthetic just works. She conducts the cooking classes from the upstairs part of her house in a well-equipped kitchen that is perfect for groups of about six people. That day, there were five of us and Donna.

When we arrived, she served us a delicious Agua de Mandarinas “fresh water” to wet our whistle and get us ready for a serious dose of Mexican comfort classics. We started with a discussion of the comal, a word she uttered at the tortilleria that left all of us scratching our heads. Whether industrial sized or plate-sized, a comal is a staple in a Mexican kitchen. Put simply, it’s a disk of steel that you cook on with dry heat. We immediately put the comal to work with roma tomatoes, a white onion, serrano chilies, and garlic. We were making a cooked salsa!

After we blistered the ingredients on the comal, we transferred them to a blender and pulsed it all together. The juice from the tomatoes served as the liquid, and what we tasted was smokey and fresh. To deepen the flavor further and thicken it up, we “fried the salsa” for 10-15 minutes in a Tbsp of oil on the stove top. It really did the trick, enriching the flavor and deepening the impact.

That was our fresh salsa, but we also had a discussion and worked with dried chilies. I think one of the most common misconceptions is that Mexican ingredients like the ones we used are hard to find. Guilty of the same assumption, I was wondering where I was going to find dried guajillo chilies in Portland. So you can imagine my surprise when I flipped open the Penzey’s Spice catalog that came in the mail to find they sell them there…right up the street. I also happened to spot Nopales (cactus paddles) in our regular old Safeway yesterday too. So, there you have it…even in rainy Portland, we’re cookin’ Mexican!

Back to the guajillos. These deep red peppers are fairly mild but have a great flavor, and are very popular in Mexican sauces. Donna pulled out a few dried ones, we smelled them and felt their texture, and then we chopped them up. We reconstituted them with boiling water from the stove, and let them sit for a bit to come back to life. This “Devil Salsa” that we were putting together was a cinch. We pureed the chilies in a blender with their water, and then passed them through a sieve to strain out the tough parts of the skin that no self-respecting human would want to chew on. From there, we simmered the sauce for a bit and that was that. We would turn our salsa into a masa dumpling soup, use it later on our chile rellenos, and Donna also mentioned that we could use it to make “Camarones Diavola,” or devil shrimp served over rice. Another option: add chicken stock and turn it into a tortilla soup. “Devil Salsa:” the gift that keeps on giving!

Another enlightening part of this class was the chile relleno. I remember my Grandma Elsie always ordering this dish, but I never really knew what it was. With my childish, undeveloped palette, I never asked to try it, but suspected that it was a deep-fried chili pepper stuffed with cheese. I was sort of right. The only difference in the traditional Mexican version is that it’s coated with a fluffy egg mixture that creates an omelette around the chili when it’s fried in the hot oil. A lot of restaurants will take short cuts and bread and deep-fry a chili to pass off as a relleno. It’s a cheap knockoff though, kind of like plastic shoes that cut your feet.

If you’re headed to Cabo, take a break from the chi-chi’s and guys selling your name on a grain of rice. Make some time to venture out of the mayhem and sample some authentic Mexican cuisine.  At Casa de Colores, you’ll learn about a tortilla environment, discuss moles, and talk a lot about Mexico’s culinary culture that stretches from border to border. And you’ll also start to realize that although Mexico borders Texas, it scoffs at anything Velveeta or Rotel related.

Casa de Colores…A Tasty Corner of Cabo

Email Donna at brisasjones@yahoo.com for a schedule of classes