I spent our first week of summer vacation at camp… Pastry Camp at the French Pastry School in Chicago. For five days, I set the alarm early, left the kids to sleep in, and drove into the city to bake and learn. At the end of the week, I was exhausted but thrilled. I made some new friends, learned so much, and came home with industrial quantities of goodies.
We assembled a giant buffet of all that we’d made in one week on the last day and it covered a 10 foot table. The class covered techniques and principles in most pastry items: bread making, pies, working with chocolate, ice creams, custards, jams, cookies, and cakes. In one week, we made:
- Macarons with Chocolate Raspberry Ganache
- Hazelnut Financiers
- Alsatian Beer Bread
- Chocolate Diamants Cookies
- Vanilla Creme Brulee
- Molten Chocolate Cakes (Chocolate Lover’s Obsession)
- Vanilla Ice Cream
- Sour Cherry Sorbet
- Raspberry Pepin Jam
- Passion Fruit Apricot Pate de Fruit
- Caramel Filled Chocolates
- Fleur de Sel Soft Caramels
- Banana Pecan Bread
- Scottish Buttermilk and Cream Raisin Scones
- Blueberry Muffins with Streusel Crust
- Fresh Fruit and Custard Tarts
- Chocolate Custard Tarts Topped with Chocolate Nougatine Crisps
The class was my first step in deciding whether or not to enroll in a culinary program, and it exceeded my expectations. Unlike classes I’ve taken at Sur La Table and other cooking schools, this was not a class for beginners. The pace was quick and the recipes were technical. We jumped right into the chemistry behind different baking techniques, and while the full time pastry school students spend a week or two covering what we studied in one day, I walked away empowered and excited to experiment.
Our instructor was Chef Pierre Zimmerman, two-time winner of the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, a fourth-generation artisan baker from Alsace. He was completely dedicated to our class, fully focused on our questions and needs for the entire week. He never stopped smiling and illustrating his lessons with stories from his long career in baking, even when we came close to burning our caramels. He’ll be opening a bakery in Chicago later this month called La Fournette, and I plan to be the first in line to snap up some of their homemade chocolate hazelnut spreads.
I brought home a thick booklet of recipes that I’ll be repeating, adapting, and blogging about soon. Some of the recipes included special chemicals like glucose powder and monostereate that most home cooks do not have in their pantry. While I continue to digest what I learned (and finish eating all the goodies I brought home), I’ll leave you with a few surprising facts I learned at the French Pastry School:
- On ne fait du bon qu’avec du tres bon. We only make good things with very good ingredients.
- 80% of pastry is based on emulsification of fat and water.
- American butter has a higher water content than French butter. US flours have higher protein levels. Recipes have to be adapted to compensate.
- Home ovens are smaller and thus hotter than commercial ovens.
- Proteins in milk burn at 75 degrees centigrade so white and milk chocolate burn faster than dark chocolate.
- When you add sugar to milk, you reduce the risk of burning the milk when you heat it.
- 180 degrees centigrade is the point in baking when sugar turns to caramel and baked goods can turn brown quickly. Lower oven heats are more of a drying out.
- Good vanilla beans are bendable, not stiff.
- If you make your own fruit purees from fresh fruit, you should add 10% sugar to maintain flavor.
- When you use butter for your molds, you create a layer of butter on your baked goods which extends their shelf life.
- Sometimes, we burn the beurre noisette. C’est la vie.
A class at the French Pastry School is not cheap, but it’s worth every penny. I loved Chef Zimmerman’s suggestion that we organize bake sales to pay for future classes. I certainly have enough material to work with!