As many of you will already know, I spent some time in July working on a very special project at La Cuisine Paris – their “recipe incubator“. Basically five weeks in a row, every Monday, a group of keen foodies and I would gather in the kitchen at La Cuisine and test some of their more popular recipes. Why? Well because La Cuisine want to produce a small recipe booklet featuring some of their students’ favourite recipes as a kind of keepsake for them to bring home and keep on cooking once their vacation is over. And any recipe book needs recipe testers, right?
The thing with the recipes at La Cuisine is that they are written and developed by professionally trained chefs and sometimes the instructions assume a lot of knowledge. This is fine because when you take a class at the school, the chefs talk you through each step and the students tend to write copious notes on their recipe sheets so that they remember the steps when they get home. But to publish? Well Jane and Olivier of La Cuisine realised that they would need a little work to make sure they were easy to understand for every home cook and baker. And that was where I came in. And once we got into the actual sessions, they turned into so much more than recipe testing and editing. It was a cultural education for everyone involved for sure!
The first week was a little scary – choux pastry no less – but I had a lovely small group – Winy, Kelsey and Jéremy who worked hard to create the most amazing pastry swans, despite their (and, I will be honest, my) initial trepidation…
Having seen the choux class in action with one of the La Cuisine teachers, the recipe is not an issue there. Because the teachers know what they are doing and could probably do it in their sleep! But for those of us who have never made a swan out of choux pastry before, this was challenging! At the end of our class and in fact, all throughout, we stopped to discuss how we would word something differently, make it more clear for the home cook. With a Canadian, an American, a French man and an Australian in the room, the discussion was – interesting. We discovered we all describe cooking terms just ever so slightly differently. SO interesting for a word and kitchen geek like me! As a teacher, this was a difficult exercise for me, though. Watching as people skipped a step or misread/ misunderstood something. And not saying anything. But Jane really wanted the recipes to be tested, not have people interpret them according to their background knowledge. Because many people DO just follow recipes to the letter.
My second week, we worked our way through Quiche Lorraine and Tarte Tatin. We had three very proud ladies participating that week (including Carol who wrote a lovely post about it!). The overwhelming feeling was that “we made pastry”!!! Even I was ridiculously proud. In fact, these sessions at La Cuisine have bolstered my confidence in the kitchen, especially where pastry is involved (it used to be my nemesis, now I am not afraid!) And that tarte tatin will become a part of my dessert repertoire from now on. (Shhhh – it’s so easy!)
The next week, we tackled chocolate – soufflés and fondant au chocolat (also known as moelleux). Our soufflés DID rise (just a little) and we tested different cooking times so we are able to suggest what to do if you like yours a little more soupy than mousse-y. Helpful and not something you would play with when you make them at home. The fondants? Oh my is all I can say. I’ll be making these again. And again.
Tartelettes au citron and sablés Bretons were on the following week’s agenda and we had a very jolly group indeed (French, American and Australian). I was getting better at “letting go” by this point (directing less and just keeping my eye on things) and the group was not afraid to, shall we say, divert from the recipe 😉 In fact, an honest mistake turned out a happy accident of a lemon tart with way less sugar than was called for. And it tasted good. Good to know, huh? We played with different flours with the sablés recipe as well as different add-ins to the dough, all the while noting what we enjoyed, what worked and what didn’t. A completely fascinating process…
The final session saw us making two French classics – madeleines and clafoutis. We had Canadian, American, Australian and French participants and it was so interesting watching how everyone responded to the suggestion that we cut the cherries in half, or pit them and cut them in quarters in the clafoutis. Because traditionally, the cherries are unpitted and left whole. In fact, in our mini sized clafoutis, we enjoyed the pitted, halved cherries the best. So not traditional (and some French people might not feel it’s authentic) but definitely the best version we made that day. Which is kind of the point of testing recipes, right?
And the madeleines? We tested different cooking times, noting what difference an extra two minutes made in terms of texture, colour and taste. And then, you know, we had to test them. All.
As you can probably tell if you follow this blog, I had a pretty amazing summer but these sessions were definitely a high point. The writer in me couldn’t get enough of the discussions about how to describe things like what butter rubbed into flour should look like. In French, it should look like sand. But, as an Australian participant pointed out, Australian sand is impossibly fine and your butter/ flour mixture would never be able to be so fine. Others suggested breadcrumbs, but a participant of Asian descent pointed out that panko looks very different than what North Americans would consider breadcrumbs. It was QUITE the discussion, to say the least. And raised a whole bunch of issues for people writing recipes for the international market (that would be everyone who writes on the web, then).
I can’t wait to see where these little sessions go – I know Jane at La Cuisine has plans to continue the recipe testing and I’m excited to see the book eventually! Many thanks to everyone who participated – your willingness to experiment and provide feedback was invaluable (and so interesting!). I hope our paths cross again sometime soon (next year??)
Did you know? I’m putting all my new knowledge to use this fall teaching a few different classes around Toronto – macarons and French desserts! Check out where I will be teaching here.
Disclosure: I was working at La Cuisine Paris during the month of July 2012. I was not compensated to write this post and opinions expressed are 100% my own.