Lispian Random meanderings on whatever catches my fancy


This past week I decided to take a short vacation. Instead of doing the usual thing and going someplace and vegging, I decided to take a course at Le Cordon Bleu here in Ottawa. I was fortunate enough that one of my best friends opted to take the course with me. And so he and I spent the week, from Tuesday until Friday, at Le Cordon Bleu learning about and how to make Viennoiserie. It wasn’t our first choice. We wanted to take a bread making course, but none is offered until next spring. And so, wanting to take a course regardless, we opted for the one on Viennoiserie. We figured we’d learn something interesting, maybe useful, and hopefully have a good time. We way underestimated what would happen!

For those that don’t know what Viennoiserie is, quite simply it’s Viennese Pastry. What falls into that category are croissants, puff pastry, various cakes and gateaux, etc. along with fillings for the aforementioned. The course is known as a “Short Course”, which means it’s 4 days divided into 3 hours of Demonstration and 3 hours of Practical. Practical is just what it sounds like, you get to be practical and practice in a real industrial kitchen everything you learned the prior 3 hours.

Now, Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa is a full-blown Cordon Bleu cooking school. The place is rife with renown chefs and aspiring ones. My friend and I had no idea who would be teaching the course but we figured it would be interesting. We figured, at worst, we’d have some great pastries to eat and partake of the ambiance of the place. At best we might even make an edible pastry!

We signed up for this months ago and we found out it had filled up quickly. It seems some other folks knew something we didn’t, but were about to find out.

Chef Christian Faure

As we walked into the demonstration room we were greeted by Chef Christian Faure and his sous-chef Lillian. Chef Christian immediately impressed upon us that he started exactly at noon and the demonstrations would go until 2.30pm, at which point we could have a 30 minute break for a snack after which he expected us in the Viennoiserie Practical Kitchen, up on the 2nd floor. We looked around and saw that there was a total of 12 people. That was a full class. This was great, since you could obviously talk to the Chef if necessary.

After that brief introduction, plus some commentary on hygiene, Chef commenced the first lesson on croissants and brioches. He quickly explained the particulars of the pastries and told us to look at our “recipes” which were simply the ingredients. If you wanted to make the pastries you would have to pay attention and take notes. Copious notes, it turned out.

As we watched him dissolve the yeast in a bit of water he arranged the flour in the mixing bowl. He put it into a heap. This was so he could ensure the yeast would not come in contact with the sugar and salt until the mixing commenced. He proceeded to place the salt and sugar on one side of the bowl and then placed the dissolved fresh yeast on the other. Never let the two mix before hand since sugar and salt are both antiseptics and will quickly destroy your yeast. What passed through my mind was “so much for years of adding sugar to my yeasts!”. And it immediately dawned on me that the reason some of my prior doughs would rise pathetically was probably due to this premature mixing of sugar and yeast! I swore to never do it again. I’d follow Chef’s advice.

Then the demo proceeded with the dough being put together bit by bit until it was a cohesive whole, at which point it went into a well-floured bowl, covered with plastic wrap, and placed into a fridge. He then set upon some butter, softening it up with his rolling pin so as to ensure it was “the same consistency as the dough”. He said this was crucial. Not just for croissants, but also for puff pastry. While performing all this he gave us a history lesson about the croissant, Charles Martel, and pastries in early France. Fascinating stuff.

Once the croissant dough had rested in the fridge he pulled it out of the bowl,  shaped it into a 4-pointed star and plopped in some suitably softened butter — same consistency as the dough! He then folded it began rolling it out, folding it, turning it 90 degrees, rolling it out and folding it again, and then marking it with two dots made by pushing down with his index finger to depress the dough and then wrapping it in plastic wrap and putting it into the fridge to relax/rest. The two depressions indicated that it had had “two turns”. This was so that we would remember when we next saw the dough the next day but more so as custom for when one baker would prep the dough and another would finish it. This way the finishing baker would know how many turns were done and how many remained prior to forming the croissants!

He then went onto brioche. Which is remarkably easy. It’s just a sequence of ingredients added in the right proportions at the right time into a stand mixer. The trick is incorporating the butter. It must be the same consistency as the dough, which means (most probably) kneading the butter in your hand to soften it and then dropping golf-ball-sized pieces into the whirling mixer. Chef, ever humourous, pointed out that one of his friends in France who owns an olive orchard has the softest skin he’s ever seen courtesy of his constantly handling, making, and dealing with olive oil. After a day with me massaging a kilo of butter I can honestly understand why. Who needs moisturizers, just become a pastry chef!

Once the brioche dough was ready, it too was placed into the fridge for the next day.

While the doughs rested, he started onto the pastry cream. Chef informed us that done right, it would take about 20 minutes. It did and I can attest that it only took me that long, too.

The next day we had another round of demonstration wherein Chef quickly finished off the lesson on how to make a proper croissant and proper variations on brioche. He made it look simple. It wasn’t. It wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t as easy as it seems when he did it. In practical we’d get our turn at croissants and brioches, and anyone who knows anything about croissants knows there are a lot of turns involved.

The other main lesson of the day was how to make pastry cream. This was easy, so long as you have a stand mixer. A few folks were heard mumbling they’d have to head out and buy a KitchenAid mixer. I was glad I already had one, as was my good friend.

After this first day both my friend and I agreed that this was better than we could have hoped. We’d learned so much, the time had simply flown by, and we were entertained so well that the fact we were also being educated in how to properly make these doughs amazed us. We went home happy and I slept like a baby.

Day 2 we began with a demonstration on how to finish our croissants, how to make filled croissants, how to make other tasty morsels, and hints as to how to make appetizers, etc. Demonstration on Day 2 was a lot of rolling, turning, filling, forming, and our first ventures with the ovens.

Rolling out the doughs required a lot of motion and consistent pressure so as to ensure the dough remains consistent and smooth on both sides. This also requires lifting the dough repeatedly, flinging flour beneath it, turning it when necessary, all the while treating it, as Chef exclaimed repeatedly, like a baby. Then, once the doughs were formed there was putting on the egg wash and the bending down to put the sheet pans into the oven and then onto the next phase, while remembering to check the pastries that just went into 375F ovens so as to ensure they didn’t burn. And there was a lot of maneuvering about as we twelve had to get to the various ingredients, sinks, etc. all while ensuring we didn’t bump into our classmates or cause some other mishap. But there was no running. Chef said only a fool runs in a kitchen and he would throw anyone out who even contemplated running. “Take your time” he would say. Better to be safe than sorry, especially around super hot ovens, ranges, etc.

Unfortunately I didn’t take any pictures the first two days. But the setup was the same all 4 days and the following two shots show us on the two sides of the Practical Kitchen.

After Day 2 we had created a batch of croissants — of which Chef Faure said mine we good enough to serve at any pastry shop in France! To say I was more than a bit pleased would be an understatement. My kids heartily agreed, they were utterly amazing. Pity I didn’t make a few dozen :-). Next time, as now I know how to do it. We had further created pain chocolat, pain au raisin, and three types of brioche (crown, nanette, and mini). My daughter was so taken by the brioche she ate half the crown by herself. It was truly amazing. Pity I didn’t think to take any photographs until Day 3 :-(.

On Day 3 we were told by Chef that we’d be making cakes and gateaus. We were also introduced to sous-chef Edmund, a 2nd year student at the school who replaced Lillian for the remainder of the course.

During Day 3 we were to make 3 or 4 varieties of cake/gateau, time permitting. The first was gateau aux fruits confits, or a fruit cake. I dreaded this. I hate fruit cake. Obviously I wasn’t the only one making a face as Chef Christian quickly pointed out that we weren’t making the doorstops sold in stores but rather a classic, French gateau which would not last forever as it didn’t have inverted sugars in them. At this point Chef pointed out that all of our recipes only used natural ingredients. Not “organic” but those that are familiar to everyone: sugar, unbleached all-purpose flour, salt, water, unsalted butter, yeast, etc. No chemicals, no additives. This cake would be no different. And so began the demonstration, first making the dough. Another simple dough that just required a lot of beating to fluff it up. The only trick was to throw a few tablespoons of flour onto the macerated fruits so to coat them. This would ensure they wouldn’t all drop to the bottom of the pan when the cake was baked. The flour ensured they’d stay in place. The course was full of these simple hints. Another one was that creaming butter with icing sugar results in a creamier cake. Another that slicing 1″ deep into the top of a cake, gateau or brioche midway through cooking ensured it opened nicely down the middle of a loaf pan. It also ensured more even baking. Such a slice was unnecessary for a round or square 2″ pan, however, which makes full sense.

The gateau then went into the oven and we started on the cake au citron. This was an utterly simple cake that was utterly delicious. I really haven’t eaten much cake in the past few years, but this one I would easily indulge in. It wasn’t overtly sweet and the texture was divine. And it simply oozed a lemony flavour and essence that was remarkable.

We were to also make two other cakes, namely a cake aux noisettes and a kouglof but during Demonstration Chef asked if we wanted to do more gateau and cake on Day 4 or do puff pastry. It was a no brainer: puff pastry. And so, he demonstrated how to make puff pastry during the first half of the day while we made our own the second half. Of course, this resulted in us taking much longer in the kitchen than planned as puff pastry is not as easy as some cakes. However, we were sure the results would be fantastic.

Be that as it may, the results from Day 3 spoke for themselves. I foolishly forgot to photograph my own production but I can say that the fruit cake and the lemon cake looked and tasted identical to Chef’s. Here’s Chef’s production. Almost everyone had identical loaves come out of their ovens to the delight of us all.

I apologize for the fuzziness of that shot. It was taken with my iPhone and it’s rather sensitive to movement. No anti-shake software there! Sigh.

In that photo you can see the lemon cake at the top right and the fruit cake on the lower right. The kouglof is the circular cake in the centre and the smaller cakes are the noisettes.

Day 4 would be a trying one. Puff pastry is not easy. It’s demanding and one has to watch it carefully, otherwise it burns. And as we were rather enthusiastic we probably bit off more than we could chew. No. More accurately, we did bite off more than we could chew. But we got most of it right, though some of the dough was a bit … uh … overdone, as will be seen.

In Demonstration Chef showed us a variety of pastries and their techniques. We saw how to make French apple turnovers (chousson), pithivier, palmiers, and almond cream. Chef, in his usual style, made it look easy and made us enjoy the entire effort.

And his creations were both delicious and beautiful.

After watching the demonstration, enjoying Chef’s banter and explanations we were set off to the Practical Kitchen to try our hand at various pastries.

First up, the almond cream was dead simple. So simple in fact that it was actually easier than anything else we did that week. However, the rest of the things we were to do weren’t so simple.

First up was giving our puff pastry two more turns — Chef had provided two turns earlier in the day on the campus dough turning machine (no idea what it’s called). After doing the two turns the goal was to rest the dough, fire up the ovens, and then decide which pastry we would do. We all had to do the pithivier but after that we were more or less free to do what we wanted. All of us opted to make palmiers and turnovers.

We then divided up our dough into quarters with two quarters going to the pithivier, one to the palmiers and the final one for the turnovers. We followed the instructions given us and formed the pithivier by placing a pan atop the suitably rolled out dough. This would give us the size within which we would place our almond pastry cream. We then egg washed around that line and then, using a piping bag, filled the inside of the pastry. We then laid the second rolled out piece of dough atop the first, pressed down to seal the edges, and then cut a sunflower like pattern around the edge. We then had to flip it over onto a cookie sheet. This was rather taxing on everyone’s nerves as we all saw our creations falling apart, yet none did. We all managed to flip it over with no trouble at all. We then ensured it was well covered in egg wash and placed back into the fridge to relax.

At this point we yanked our another quarter and rolled it out to make the turnovers. This required rolling the dough out into an oval and filling it with an apple compote. Instead of us each making a compote we shared one huge batch amongst 3 of us. This was one of the easiest of the puff pastries to make as it was no more than rolling out the dough, egg washing half, placing the compote in the middle, folding it over, pressing to seal the two sides, and then egg washing the top. Just prior to popping it into the oven you cut a small hole in the top to let out steam and in they went for about 20 minutes. They came out beautifully.

While those were baking we started on the palmiers. This required rolling out the dough on sugar instead of flour! Obviously, we had to clean our stations first, but we then followed Chef’s instructions and rolled the dough out, folded it into 5 layers as he showed us, and then wrapped it up and put it into the fridge. At this point we pulled out the pithivier again, gave it one more egg wash, scored a pattern on it as shown earlier, and put it into the oven. It would have to bake at least 40 minutes, up to an hour depending on the size. Mine took 45 minutes.

At this point we were already approaching 5pm and Chef was urging us to ensure we had our pastries in the oven, especially the pithiviers.

We had all the ovens going and most of us still hadn’t had time nor space to put the palmiers in. Each oven could hold 3 racks of pastries, but we had more racks than spots. This required a bit of a dance as we waited for one set of pastries to finish before another batch could go in. Finally, around 5.15 in went the prepared palmiers. I cut them thin, as I thought I saw Chef do it. But, as the final outcome shows, they were a tad too thin and came out very caramelized and crunchy. Oh, they were delicious, but they were way too crunchy. This was due to the fact that as we were extracting our pastries — most of us at that time had at least 2 in the ovens — we were ensuring everyone had time to get into the oven and pull at least one out. That meant something right on the edge would be overdone. And so it was with my palmiers :-(.

But my pithivier was excellent! And I had it today and it was superb! As I said. The whole week was well worth it. If anyone has the chance to either catch Chef Christian Faure in action or to take a course with him, do it. It’s worth it. The time will fly by, you’ll learn something, and if it’s a demonstration you’ll be fed some of the best pastries you’ve ever had. It doesn’t hurt that Chef Faure has recently been named Best Pastry Chef in the World. And it shows. I hope his stay at Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa is a long and profitable one. It definitely be profitable for anyone willing to take a course taught by him.

As the last day came to an end I finally remembered to snap a picture of my day’s creations. To be honest, my wife reminded me otherwise I’d have collapsed on the couch. Baking was much harder than I imagined and that’s from someone who regularly bakes and cooks. But I believe I’m a better cook because of this course. I’m looking forward to my future forays into cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu!

As you can see the palmiers are far from perfect, but tasted wonderful. My little experiment with sugar twists were OK but I think they’d have been better with cinnamon, and my turnovers were excellent. As to my pithivier, as you can see from the picture, it turned out wonderfully.

I’ll be taking more courses from Le Cordon Bleu. I have no pretensions that I’ll ever be a chef, but I will definitely be a better cook. And I feel so lucky to have such a fantastic school in Ottawa with such amazing chefs on hand to teach us. The fact they actually enjoy teaching is simply a testament to the passion and love they have for their profession and for their craft.

One final shot of me and Chef Faure along with Chef Edmund, who is in his second year at Le Cordon Blue and loving every minute of it. His passion for the food and for teaching are also evident and I can only believe the enthusiasm of the staff at Le Cordon Bleu has positively infected Chef Edmund which only portends great things for the Ottawa restaurant market and for Chef Edmund’s future.

Those curious can watch Chef Christian Faure in action here or in the following videos. He’s a hoot to be around and obviously loves what he does for a living.

Chef Christian Faure at 2010 Olympics

Chef Christian Faure Making a Chocolate Flower

Chef Christian Faure making Chocolate Ganache

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September 2010
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