The year is 1683, for the better part of two months the Ottoman Empire has beseiged the city of Vienna, Austria with close to 100,000 troops camped outside the city’s walls. By cutting off all possible passage into the city, the Ottoman Empire attempts to starve Austria into submission and defeat. Late at night and into the wee hours of the morning our heros, the bakers of the city were working, struggling hard to prepare breads for the morning to feed the populace of the city. Suddenly, the bakers begin to hear digging and scraping at the earth. Was this the enemy digging under Vienna’s great stone parapets and battlements? The baker’s sounded the alarm. With roughly 4000 remaining military personnel on alert and running with the assumption that a violation of the city walls would occur the vexed Viennese prepared for battle. At the Papal request and expense of Pope Innocent XI, Polish King John III Sobieski arrived at the outskirts of the ringed city Vienna leading a combined Christian army of about 80,000 Polish Hussars. Ready for battle the strike was decisive and quick and led to victory over the Ottoman Empire. Vienna was liberated.
To celebrate their role in the victory of the Battle of Vienna the bakers made pastries in the shape of the crescent that they saw on the Turkish war flags. These crescents known as kipferl are the precursors to what we know to be croissants. It was Queen Marie Antoinette who brought her beloved kipferl to Paris when she married King Louis XVI at age 14. The French boulangeurs of the time weaved their magic, and the kipferl was transformed to croissant.
The Viennoiserie family of breads are yeast leavened, enriched breads (butter, milk, eggs) that have their origins in Austria. Croissants and their derivatives, brioche, puff pastry and danish all belong to this family. Depending on the product you are making, some doughs are laminated (croissants fall into this category) meaning the end result has distinct layers of dough and butter. As the water in the butter melts and evaporates the stream transforms the dough during the cooking process to a honeycombed crumb and an impossibly flaky, buttery crust.
Not my croissants. My croissants could have been used as building material and made an embarassingly loud thud when they hit the bin. It becomes a matter of personal pride when something I attempt to make fails. I will work at it until I get it right. At an impasse my husband Chris signed me up for a 4 day short course on Viennoiserie at Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa.
March 29th was gameday. I was anxious and jumpy, pacing back and forth trying to decide what to wear, what apron out of my collection to bring, wanting to sharpen a box of pencils and waffling about the merits of going back to school.
What I find uncanny is that many of the adults I have met at Cordon Bleu classes feel the same way I did. The feeling is an odd mixture of euphoria, first class klutz and anxiety. In the vernacular “Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m really here, it’s a dream come true!”. When the curtain rises and it’s showtime, anxiety shadows the euphoria and is followed by earnest prayer “Please God, don’t let me screw up, because this is really important to me!”.
Yes, it is afterall just a course. But, it’s just a course at the esteemed Le Cordon Bleu…the largest culinary institute in the world and arguably the best. It is the stuff of legends: Nancy Silverton a key persona in starting the Artisan bread movement in the United States and owner of Campanile and La Brea Bakery in L.A, Steven Raichlen whose 5 James Beard award wining books have taught me how to grill and of course Julia Child who needs no introduction.
Armed with faith and a strong creative streak I feel strongly that this is my opportunity to find myself, express myself and most importantly respect myself.
March 29, day #1 roughly 12 adult, for the most part middle aged women from across North America gathered together in La Salle Cointreau, one of the demonstration kitchens of Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa. Here, we were introduced to our instructor Chef Hervè. A tall, ginger haired, gentleman with a quiet commanding manner that exudes confidence and strength. He wears a ready smile and hails from Lyon France. His list of accomplishments are long and impressive. Chef will not hesitate to tell you complete with a Gallic accent, grin and twinkle in his eye that Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France and the world. He is not the only one who makes this statement, so does the Prince of Gastronomy, Curnonsky. In my view, a portent of very good things to come.
After two hours of taking notes on croissants, brioche and pastry cream in the demonstration kitchen we left our seats and headed to the practical kitchen. There was nervous laughter and chatter as we staked out and settled into a work station we would call our own for the next four days. Our intrepid leader Chef Hervé quickly reigned us in and we set to work immediately.
It is easy to sit comfortably and take notes on how to make croissants, brioche, and pastry cream. It is another matter entirely to actually do it for the first time. I would wager that most of us were confident/fearless in our own kitchens but that first day for most of us it was more like we had never seen, let alone been in a kitchen before. Urgent cries of “Chef, chef!” volleyed about the kitchen as most of us struggled with the professional stand mixers. One poor lady actually broke her bowl. As we began mixing the détrempe for croissants I dropped the eggs in my mis en place. Feeling completely embarrased my face and ears burned red when I had to ask Chef Hervé for more. More urgent cries rang throughout the kitchen “Chef is this right? Chef what am I looking for?”
When you take a course at Le Cordon Bleu students who are actually taking Diplôme de Pâtisserie program of the school are made available to assist in class. These students scale all the ingredients for all the recipes the students of short courses will make. Mis-en-place makes time fly like a dream in the kitchen. I highly recommend it. These students also assist in collecting dirty tools and dishes from the workstations. These lovely chefs to be and Chef Hervé were run off their feet that first day.
As for me, at the end of the day I was completely certain that my croissants would not turn out when baked the following day. My husband and children eagerly greeted me at the door, curious to hear about my day and very interested to find out if I had goodies. I was completely exhausted. I couldn’t think, and I couldn’t talk. Chris followed me around the house, worried asking “What’s wrong with you?” When I explained my day, what had happened, and my fears he laughed, deposited me and my books in the dining room with a glass of wine and his signature sandwich. Restored, I told him that Chef Hervé had this saying in reference to lamination. “No Dough, dough. No butter, butter.” I was certain I had dough, dough in my croissants and I knew the seam of my paton was not closed properly. Détrempe refers to the dough before the butter is added and the lamination process begins. After butter is added to the détrempe, the beautiful dough, butter, dough, butter layered package is called a pâton. Chris just laughed and said “You’ll be fine.” and let me get at my homework.
Stay tuned for Part #2 which will be published tomorrow evening.