The first day of class began as you can imagine. I was a little nervous, wasn’t sure what to expect, looked for a seat that was hopefully not next to the class nerd or class bully, wondered if the notepad I brought was alright. Actually, much like my first day of sixth grade now that I think about it. Thankfully, my seat picking instincts landed me next to a couple of very nice women (names withheld until I get their consent to be named in my blog. Lawyers are looking for work these days, you know, and I’d hate to be violating any privacy/consent laws.). Most of my classmates are around my age – a few younger, a few older – and are in varying stages of their lives. Career changers, in the business, but trying to refresh skills, hobbyists, fear conquerers (me), etc.
After the obligatory introductions amongst ourselves and from Professor/Chef Ramsdell, Chef (as he will be known henceforth) gave us the lowdown of what we could expect for the next 20 weeks. Class would be broken down into lecture during which we would be given the recipe(s) for the week, followed by his demonstrating the recipe. After the demonstration, we would split into teams of two and make the recipe ourselves. Piece of cake, you say. No piece of cake! It is quite difficult to take copious notes on an unknown subject matter while also watching said subject matter being made with further instruction thrown in occasionally that I may or may not have captured in my notes. Gah! A missing step does not bode well for a successful end product. However, we get to eat and or take home the night’s lecture, so I’m not too unhappy by the end of class.
Chef was kind Week One and started us off with one main recipe: Pâte à Choux (pronounced pah-ta shoe, but really fast like a Parisian would say it. Just mumble it quickly and you’ll sound very sophisticated.) Pâte à Choux is translated literally as “paste of cabbage.” Yum. According to Chef, it is called this because when it bakes, it opens up on top and resembles a cabbage. Okaaaaay. He’s the chef! Pâte à Choux, also known as choux paste or choux pastry, is the dough that is used to make cream puffs, eclairs, profiteroles, beignets and gougères [goo zhers]. Now we’re talkin’!
There is one other translation I came across that you will not find in any French-English dictionary, and it is this: How to drive an American to insanity with six simple ingredients. That’s right, there are a mere six common ingredients in Pâte à Choux (probably you have them all in your pantry right now) and it takes about 12 minutes to make. Yet, by try number five I was questioning my sanity, and wishing I wouldn’t have bought that box of 50 pastry bags. While it seems easy, the French can be very sneaky in their recipes. The issue is getting the right consistency of the dough (humidity is B-A-D and you know how humid it’s been) as well as proper dough piping.
Attempts one and two were somewhat of a success, but those don’t count because they were during class with Chef and his assistants hovering around and making sure everything was correct.
Attempt three was a disaster. In the recipes Chef provides, solid ingredients are written by weight, as is the proper way to do it. Professional chefs know this. Many home cooks know this. I did not know this. Using my Joy of Cooking cookbook’s conversion chart and my rusty/actually-were-never-good-to-begin-with math skills, I incorrectly converted 150 grams of flour into 1/2 cup plus two tablespoons. This made for some rather runny dough that I used, but I should have just thrown out. Interestingly, after I did the conversion by hand using a calculator for God’s sake, I remembered this tool called the internet. Why, oh why, didn’t I just Google the conversion to begin with? See, my sanity was already beginning to leave me.
Attempt four was semi-successful. I Googled the flour conversion (I knew I had the butter amount converted correctly in attempt three). Come to find out 150 grams is a cup and a little more, not a HALF cup. Oops. So, the dough was pretty good, but I still had not mastered piping the dough into the correct shape. I emailed Chef with my concerns, and he responded with some good suggestions (turn the heat up in the oven and cook the buns a little longer).
Attempt five: success! Well, the shape still wasn’t perfect. The gougères looked more like biscuits, but Todd and our guests said they were good (although what else could they say?).
While this isn’t what the perfect choux bun (as they are called) looks like, when I showed Chef my fifth attempt, he said they were spot on. Actually, I think he looked down, not at me, and said something to the effect of “Those look fine.” I took it as “Spot on!” (Sanity still returning at that point.) Check out images of the piped buns and the baked buns: