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Having completed Advanced Patisserie, all that stands between me and my future as a culinary nomad is one more college course: Evening Dining.

Yes, after eight weeks of pastries and petit fours, cakes and chemical thickeners, chocolate and choice desserts, I’m returning to the Prairie Lights kitchen for one final shift; my college swan song, my academic last hurrah.

Truth be told, I’m anxious to get back into the kitchen after so many weeks in the pastry lab. I yearn for the heat of a proper kitchen, the speed of a working line.

I have no doubt I’ll get my wish; the standards are quite high in the Prairie Lights kitchen and the expectations our instructors have of us by this point in our education even higher.

You’re more than welcome to see for yourself if my classmates and I can hack it: the restaurant is now accepting reservations for the evening session.

We’re open from March 1st through April 20th, Tuesdays through Fridays. During that time, we’re offering three menus, each running for approximately two weeks.

Have a look! Make a reservation! Try all three! Bon appétit!

 

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While chemistry is present in so much of patisserie, it takes on an especially important role when using thickening and gelling agents.

Best known for their uses in “molecular” cuisine, each of these agents have unique properties that, when used properly, deliver interesting, unusual and exacting results.

Most gelling and thickening agents are hydrocolloids, and include:

A notable, non-hydrocolloid with thickening properties is Lecithin, which is often used to add elasticity to flour-based dough and to stabilize foams.

Starches are also often used to thicken. They include:

  • Amylose-rich
  • Amylopectin-rich
  • Cereal
  • Root (e.g., potato, arrowroot, tapioca)
  • Modified
  • Instant

With the exception of instant varieties, all starches must be cooked to activate them. If they are undercooked, they tend to be too thin, gritty, and are prone to weeping; overcooked, again they tend to be too thin and are stringy and extremely clear.

As I’ve indicated previously, chemistry isn’t my strongest suit. And I remain undecided about “molecular gastronomy.” Nevertheless, having the chance to play with these products and witness their seemingly impossible results has been a treat.

In our third week of pastries, we turned our attention to petit fours, one or two bite confections. We also produced two varieties of strudel, with hand-stretched phyllo dough and our own puff pastry.

Petit Fours

Like regular cakes and confections, but miniaturized, petit fours come in four broad varieties: glacé (glazed with fondant); sec (dry, crunchy, cookie-like); prestige (elaborate, yet tiny replicas of larger tortes and other cakes); deguise (fruits dipped in sugar, caramel or fondant until well-covered).

I made petit four glacé, and two varieties of petit four sec.

For my glacé, I wanted to play on the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich (on Wonder bread, no less). So, between my layers of almond sponge, I spread peanut butter (creamed with icing sugar), raspberry jelly, and a vanilla buttercream icing.

Of course, what makes this a glazed petit four is the fondant that covers each piece of cake. And to accomplish that in such a way that the layers of cake and filling are visible through the fondant (as any good petit four glacé ought to be) requires first warming the fondant to 100F, then, off the heat, adding enough water to thin the fondant so that, when a finger is dipped in it and removed, just enough fondant remains on the finger to coat it, but enough runs off to reveal the fingernail and the shape of the finger tip.

It is an inexact science, but the results speak for themselves: Too little water, the fondant doesn’t run down the sides of the cake when piped atop it; too much and the fondant doesn’t cling to the cake at all. And piping the fondant atop each piece and allowing it to flood down the sides is, perhaps, the most effective way of ensuring an even, smooth coating around the top and sides of each petit four.

To finish mine, I added a touch of purple colouring, giving the final petit fours a purple pastel hue; a further nod to the P-B-and-J theme.

For my petit fours sec, I made Ethiopians and S’mores – with mixed results.

The Ethiopian – so named for reasons that escape me – includes a layer of almond truffle sandwiched between layers of sweet dough, which are baked, then iced with a thick layer of pistachio ganache and garnished with a candied pistachio.

Using level bars when rolling out the sweet dough and almond truffle ensured each layer was a uniform thickness (of no more than ¼ inch).

The pistachio ganache – a lovely mixture of cream, white chocolate and pistachio paste – also benefited from being spread atop the cookie (once it had cooled) with the aid of level bars.

The candied pistachio garnish was simple, yet elegant, and used the same method as was employed in the making of the almond dragee: cooking the pistachios in caramel until the sugar crystallized.

Unfortunately, the S’mores weren’t as successful as the Ethiopians.

Comprising marshmallow sandwiched between graham wafers, rolled in toasted coconut, then topped with chocolate ganache, the S’mores looked good. However, the marshmallow simply had too much gelatin, which resulted in a nearly inedible finished product – especially as the days passed and the gelatin firmed up even further.

Strudels

In addition to the petit fours, we also tackled strudels; both the Austro-Hungarian and German varieties.

For the most part, the fillings for these two strudels are nearly identical: apples, walnuts, raisins, sugar, and cinnamon. What sets them apart is the type of dough in which this filling is encased: the Austro-Hungarian uses phyllo dough; the German, a combination of sweet dough and puff pastry.

(That they differ so dramatically is remarkable, considering the proximity of their originating geographic areas.)

I’d never stretched phyllo dough before (how many people can say they have?), but that’s precisely what I did to make the Austro-Hungarian strudel. It was an arduous process, to be sure; though, not nearly as difficult as I had thought it might be. The reason for the relative ease: dough with remarkable elasticity.

And onto this sheet of hand-stretched dough, the filling was spread, then rolled up in a log and baked until cooked. A liberal coating of melted butter – both on the sheet of dough before the filling is added, and atop the rolled strudel – is essential to a moist, golden finish.

The German strudel is a little more involved than its Austro-Hungarian counterpart, and has more components. Unlike the Austro-Hungarian, the German isn’t rolled but assembled: the bottom consists of a layer of sweet dough, atop which is set a layer of almond sponge, atop which is piled the filling; to this mass a layer of puff pastry is placed atop and around, and sealed to the sweet dough bottom. A brush with egg wash, and it’s baked until golden.

To achieve the classic slits across the top of the German strudel can be easily achieved by rolling out the puff pastry, then folding the dough in half, lengthwise, cutting slits along the side of it, unfurling it over the mass and ensuring the slits are centered before sealing the dough to the sweet paste.

In short, it was a sweet week.

Chocolate is a science, and master it I have not. (Worse, it has prompted flashbacks to grade 11 chemistry, which was and remains the nadir of my academic career.) Working with chocolate requires finesse (of which I have little) and patience (of which I have even less).

The chocolate familiar to many home cooks (chocolate chips, et cetera) isn’t the kind of chocolate with which one can make bonbons, garnishes, and other flights of semi-sweet fancy. Nay, for our purposes, we’re working with couverture, which, by definition must include 30% cocoa butter.  (Chocolate chips are an entirely different formulation, with a much lower percentage of cocoa butter and, often, other emulsifying agents and oils.)

Most of our couverture is supplied by Barry Callebaut (the largest manufacturer of chocolate in the world, and in no way affiliated with the Calgary-based chocolatier of a similar name).  Like wine, couverture is varied, diverse, and often influenced by the region, climate and terroir in which it was grown.

Pre-crystallization (a.k.a., Tempering Chocolate)

Chocolate must first be tempered, or, more accurately, pre-crystallized, before it can be used for moldings, garnishes, and other applications. (Tempering is no longer the preferred term since it is too often confused with temperature, which is merely one aspect of the pre-crystallization process; the other two being time and manipulation.)

To understand pre-crystallization, it helps to have a clear definition of chocolate itself: a suspension of dry particles (cocoa powder) in a fat structure (cocoa butter). Pre-crystallization renders this structure a stable one.

Chocolate, a polymorphic fat (meaning it is changeable) is difficult to make stable because its crystalline structure is so varied. In fact, scientists have identified the following chocolate crystals:

  • Alpha
  • Gamma
  • Beta Prime
  • Beta
  • Beta V
  • Beta VI

Gamma, Beta Prime and Beta are of little concern to us since they are only present when chocolate is in its liquid form. For our purposes, we are concerned with Alpha, and Beta V and Beta VI (a polymorph of Beta V that occurs with time) crystal structures.

Our aim was to create the conditions for the formation of Beta V crystals, which is the most desirable crystalline formation for chocolate work. (Alpha crystals are very unstable; Beta VI crystals, like Beta V, are semi-stable, but less desirable. Beta V crystals have a melt temperature of 34.5C; whereas Alpha crystals have a much lower melt temperature of 27.3C, Beta VI higher at 36.6C.) Chocolate, properly tempered and containing a majority of Beta V crystals, has glossy shine and snap.

There are two methods to pre-crystallize chocolate:

  • Method One (a.k.a., Seeding)
    • Take chocolate to between 40 and 45C, guaranteeing all crystals have melted.
    • Seed the liquid chocolate with already-tempered solid chocolate and agitate to bring the mixture’s temperature down to between 32 and 33C, during which time Beta V crystals from the solid chocolate will mix with the liquid chocolate and aid in its proper crystallization.
    • Method Two (a.k.a., Tabling)
      • As with Method One, take chocolate to between 40 and 45C, set aside 1/3 of the melted chocolate and hold at that temperature.
      • With the remaining 2/3 chocolate, pour onto marble slab and manipulate to bring temperature down to 27C, which forms both Beta V and Alpha crystals.
      • Heat the tabled chocolate to 32C by adding the reserved 1/3, which eliminates the Alpha crystals, leaving only Beta V (because Beta V do not melt until 34.5C).

As is the case with so many things, often the best laid plans can go awry – and the same holds for pre-crystallizing chocolate.  There is such a thing as too many crystals: over-crystallization will make the chocolate too thick, even if it has reached the desired temperature.

Assorted Chocolates

Having become familiar with tempering and basic chocolate work, we progressed to the manufacture of assorted chocolates, including:

  • Dragee
  • Almond Rocher
  • Mint Fondant
  • Rigi-peaks
  • Mint Meltaways
  • Chocolate Truffles
  • Walnut Bonbons
  • Toasted Hazelnut Marzipan
  • Hot Chocolates
  • Blueberry Tea Chocolates
  • Spring Chocolates
  • Coffee Pralines
  • Coconut Rum
  • Knackerli
  • Pina Colada

Along with my partner, I tackled the Hot Chocolates, Coffee Pralines and Mint Fondants (more commonly known by their trade name, Peppermint Patties).

The Hot Chocolates were particularly challenging, since they involved a number of steps: making a layer of cinnamon marshmallow (not nearly as mysterious as I had thought: glucose, air and gelatin); a layer of ganache; a layer of tempered chocolate (serving as the “foot” or base for the pieces when it comes time to enrobe them); and a final, enrobed coating of tempered chocolate.

At each stage, the layers had to set before the next could be applied. And in the case of the final, enrobed coating, care had to be taken when dipping each piece in the chocolate to ensure a vacuum was created (eliminating air bubbles beneath the outer coating – accomplished by quickly and rapidly dunking the piece in the chocolate) while at the same time allowing only enough chocolate to coat the piece so that it did not run or create a foot once set on the acetate to harden (accomplished by bouncing the piece halfway down the end of the dipping fork, then carefully scraping the bottom of the piece over a piece of piano wire).

We had mixed results with the Coffee Pralines. While the coffee ganache filling was silky smooth and incredibly rich, the milk chocolate shell was, on many pieces, unacceptable. (The milk chocolate had not been properly tempered, thus creating an inferior, even ugly final product.) Nevertheless, it was a valuable lesson in making molded chocolates, which is a time-consuming and delicate process.

First and foremost, the mold must be clean and dry. (Water, even in the minutest amount, will cause chocolate to seize up.) Then, depending on how the top of the chocolate will look, garnish may be placed inside the mold. Once any garnish (be it spackled, coloured cocoa butter or, as in our case, painted coffee beans) are hardened, an initial coating of the desired chocolate must be painted on the inside of each mold to ensure no air pockets or crevasses remain unfilled; then, chocolate is poured into the molds and the mold is inverted and drained of any excess to create the outer shell. The mold should be left, upside-down to allow the shell to harden. Once hard, fillings (in our case, the coffee ganache) can be piped into each shell, enough room at the top of the pieces for chocolate to cover them. Again, after the filling has hardened, more chocolate is poured atop to create the bottoms; acetate is pressed on top and excess chocolate scraped out and away from the mold. Once hardened, and after placed in the refrigerator to allow the chocolate to contract, which aids in their removal, the molds can be emptied of their contents.

The Mint Fondants were a simple, yet delicious item that simply involved pureeing fondant with fresh mint, warming it to a temperature no hotter than 72C, then piping it into molds. Once firmed up, the molds can be lifted away, leaving little minted fondant disks, which are then enrobed in chocolate to create an outer coating.

Among the other chocolates made, a few stood out for their interesting technique or notable method.

The Mint Meltaways (also known by their trade name, Icy Squares) demonstrate an important chemical phenomenon known as utechtiques. Mint Meltaways include both coconut and cocoa fats. Each fat has a different melt temperature. When combined, however, while one might assume the melt temperature of the mixture would be an average of the two, in actual fact, the melt temperature is even lower than the lower of the two fats. This chemical reaction ensures the meltaway is barely firm at room temperature and, once eaten, melts in the mouth almost immediately.

Dragee, like the Minted Fondants, are dead easy, but definitely worth noting since they require almonds be cooked in sugar. This process, similar to caramelizing sugar, differs in that the presence of the almonds actually encourages the sugar to crystallize (undesirable when making caramel). This gives the almonds that distinctly caramelized flavour, while at the same time coating them in crunchy, crystallized sugar. Once cooled, the almonds are tossed in tempered chocolate: the chocolate binds to the nuts and, as the nuts are agitated, hardens, leaving the nuts with a chocolate shell. (The nuts should be tossed three or four times, to ensure the coating is thick enough.) Finally, the coated nuts are tossed in a little cocoa powder to add a little bitterness.

Knackerli, despite the unusual name, are nothing more than chocolate disks onto which any assortment of fruits, nuts or other garnishes can be set. I consider them a welcome addition to any box of chocolates, since they offer a brief reprieve from the richness of other molded delights, and the promise, however false, of some nutritional benefit.

Finally, there are truffles. Long a favourite among, well, almost everyone, truffles are merely ganache, rolled into balls, then coated with tempered chocolate and, sometimes, rolled in a final garnish of nuts, sprinkles or, say, shredded coconut.

Revisiting bread-making after nearly a yearlong hiatus from it has been a treat. I like making bread. There’s something about it that’s so… ancient, ritualistic, satisfying. And I never grow tired of marvelling at the magic of yeast-raised dough. (Why, it’s almost as magical as mayonnaise.)

It’s remarkable to think of dough as being alive, but it’s just that: a living thing, growing right there on the countertop as those little yeast cells grow and multiply.

I’m partial to those breads with a particularly yeasty flavour and significant chew, which is why I so very much enjoyed tackling many of this week’s recipes.

  • Country Sourdough
  • Pita
  • Bialys
  • Ciabatta
  • Roasted Tomato Bread
  • Challah
  • Lavash
  • Gibassier
  • Butter Wheat Crunch
  • Fruited Bath Buns
  • Roti
  • Bara

The country sourdough was a particular treat, even if it employed a non-traditional starter (with beer!). Gazing upon my baked boule, dusted with rye flour and slashed in the traditional fashion, with the knowledge it took three days to take this recipe from start to finish, I have a new appreciation for those traditional sourdoughs that use a natural starter cultivated from wild yeast (a weeks-long process, at the best of times). While I cannot say for certain, I suspect the adage, “good things come to he who waits,” was first spoken by a baker.

In truth, I was a less enamoured with the pita, in large part because I don’t particularly care for pita bread. I will say, however, it was exciting to see these circular discs of dough puff into hollow balls once set on the baking stones.

Bialys, the Polish, hole-less bagel, were a revelation. To think you could coax such a marvellous chew out of dough without boiling it (as is done with bagels) was quite something. The re-purposing of the center of the bialys — which, unlike their bagel brethren, aren’t pierced but merely stretched thinner to create a concave depression — as a repository for sautéed bacon and onions was brilliant.

However, I think I was most excited for the ciabatta demonstration. I love ciabatta. It might be my favourite bread. Its chewy crust coupled with its moist, airy interior nears perfection in my estimation. I had long wondered how this seemingly impossible combination came to be. That it is made using something closer to a batter than a dough — literally poured onto a sheet pan — made a lot of sense, and, unsurprisingly, produced the anticipated result.

Making challah was a lot of fun, especially when it came time to braid the dough. I don’t think I’d ever braided anything before — and had never thought I would learn to do so in such a way. (Wonders abound.) Aside from the fact I was utterly tickled with both the look and taste of my baked loaves, I like the fact the challah dough is so… versatile; a perfect springboard from which to experiment, add, tweak, play. (It’s like the enriched version of basic white bread.) I’d be interested in exploring ways of taking challah in directions both savoury (i.e., incorporating bacon, cheese, or herbs) and sweet (i.e., adding dried fruits, sweetened glazes, chocolate).

Speaking of sweet, it hath a new name: Gibassier. Trust the French to find a way to use up old puff or danish pastry scraps by simply kneading them into some added flour, water, eggs, and yeast, then adding candied orange peel, orange blossom water and anise seeds and, once baked, basting them with melted butter and rolling them in sugar. Encroyable!

Nearly as incredible: fruited Bath buns. Dense, rich, sweet, dangerous. Similar in taste and texture to the hot cross bun, I imagine the Bath bun dough could, like the challah, be used a base from which to fold in any manner of ingredients, be they sweet or savoury. (while not the same, I know, I could see similarities to those delicious little Chinese pork buns available at dim sum restaurants.)

Friday’s Trinidadian-inspired dinner prepared by our chef-instructor, for which we prepared roti and doubles (bara), was a really nice way to end what was, in all, a very enjoyable first week back at school.

Yesterday marked the beginning of my fifth and final academic semester at Red River College. All that remains, come May, is a final, four-month work placement of my choosing — about which I will have plenty to say as the end of April draws nearer. Until then, I shall be toiling away in the college’s kitchens.

During the first half of the term, I’ll be picking up where I left off last winter, honing my pastry skills in Patisserie Level 2. Then, in the latter half of the term, I’ll be back in the Prairie Lights Restaurant, this time for evening dining service.

I still find it hard to believe my time as an official student of the culinary arts is coming to an end. (I’ll be an unofficial student my entire life, of course.) It’s been such a fantastic journey and I find it remarkable how much I’ve learned and how far I’ve come in such a short period of time. It seems like only yesterday I was walking into the classroom for the first time, wondering what lay ahead of me, whether or not I could hack it, why, again, I was doing it.

Thankfully, I’ve answered those questions: I’m doing what I love; damn straight I can hack it; I’ve my whole life ahead of me — and it’s slathered in butter.

The contrast couldn’t be starker.

One day, I’m trudging across the frozen wasteland that is the parking lot at Red River College’s Notre Dame campus at the inhuman hour of 5:30 a.m., steeling myself for another 8-hour stint in the college’s Hard Drive Café, the next I’m strolling in a leisurely two hours later, sans knives, waistline exploding, stomach moaning in anticipation of another day spent eating countless pies, tarts, pastries, cookies, cakes and custards.

Granted, the transition wasn’t so sudden, nor was it unexpected: after almost 7 weeks on the line frying eggs and making clubhouses at a brisk, albeit sweaty pace, I moved to the next section of the culinary arts program: patisserie. And for the past six weeks I’ve been knee deep in two ingredients I’ve spent the past ten years vigorously avoiding: flour and sugar — a story in and of itself and one very much for another day.

Suffice it to say, my time in the patisserie lab has been carbohydrate-rich. However, despite the frequent bouts of sugar blues, I did enjoy the experience. (What’s not to enjoy about silky panna cotta, buttery bear claws, and gorgeous apple raisin galettes?) Still, when the end came, as it did last week, I must say I, and my gut, breathed a heavy sigh of relief — and learned, belatedly I suppose, you truly can have too much of a good thing.

So, what comes next? Why the yin to patisserie’s yang, of course: butchery!

Yes, for the next month I’ll be learning about the primal, sub-primal and fabricated cuts of cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and fish.

Bring on the protein!