Cooking Classes

Notes from the Molecular Gastronomy Conference

Hervé This

Earlier this week, I attended a two-day conference on molecular gastronomy — sometimes refered to as the “science of deliciousness” — and the relationship between technique, technology, and science.

It was a free and public session, organized by the INRA, the French institute for agricultural research, and the engineering school AgroParisTech. Our lecturer was none other than Hervé This*, co-creator of this scientific discipline that studies the physical and chemical phenomenons that take place in cooking. In passing, 2008 marks the 20th anniversary of molecular gastronomy, and I hear this will be suitably celebrated in Paris around March 20.

I am no longer used to sitting for hours in a cramped classroom, and my right knee made a point of telling me that, but someone like Hervé This makes you want to unearth that satchel and do it all over again: his passion, his enthusiasm, his talent for teaching, and his facetious ways make fourteen hours of lecture go by in a blink.

You should note that Hervé This hosts monthly seminars in Paris — also free and open to the public (by email registration). These are a fantastic opportunity to witness debates and experiments during which you’ll finally get to the bottom of such vital questions as: does adding a potato to an oversalted soup have any sort of effect? Should one beat meat to tenderize it? Do hand-cut fries actually taste better than machine-cut fries? (The reports are then made available on the French society for chemistry’s website.)

I’ve learned a lot during these two days, and the contents of the lecture will soon be published in book form by the INRA, but here are a few bullet points handpicked from my notes.

* The “h” is mute here, and This’ last name is pronounced “tiss”.

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Bread Baking Class

Pain Sarrasin, Noisette et Abondance

[Bread Baking Class]

Hi, my name is Clotilde, and I have conquered my fear of yeast.

For years and years, everytime a recipe called for yeast — dry, instant, fresh, whatever — I would write it off with a resigned sigh, like the plain teenaged girl writes off the popular unkempt boy, thinking, “He’s not for me.”

I didn’t know the moves, I didn’t know where to begin, I didn’t know how things worked, I didn’t know what the dough should look and feel like, and it all felt very mysterious and very intimidating. I had bought a blindingly handsome stand mixer to encourage myself, and while the leaf and whisk attachments were frequently taken for a spin, the dough hook remained in the cabinet, sulking what it thought to be a guilt-inducing sulk, and rightly so.

But then one morning I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and said to myself, “You’re twenty-seven now. Shouldn’t you take the bull by the horns and just take a friggin’ bread-baking class?” And with that, I went online and booked myself one.

The class was held on a Saturday afternoon at the back of a bakery in the 20th called Le 140, whose baguette once won the much-coveted Meilleure Baguette de Paris prize. Our teacher was Jean-Michel, a friendly and energetic boulanger who made the class as fun as it was instructive.

When we arrived, everything had been pre-measured* for the frasage, the step that consists in pouring water into the bowl of flour, salt, and yeast, and then blending everything together with your hand until the dough stops sticking to the sides of the bowl and your hand looks like it’s wearing a cement glove.

[Notes and tips: Use only one of your hands for the frasage so you can still use the other one to hold the bowl, and rub your nose when it unavoidably itches. We used the yeast directly, without diluting it first as some recipes instruct you to. The salt and yeast were placed on the flour well apart from one another so they wouldn't touch, otherwise the power of the yeast would be lessened.]

We turned the dough out on the lightly floured work surface and started kneading, pushing a small part of the dough firmly away from us with one hand and pulling it all the way back over the dough, before giving the dough an eighth of a turn and repeating this step. We kneaded and kneaded until the dough was smooth and slightly warm and we couldn’t feel our shoulders anymore .

We then divided the dough into four pieces, which allowed us to make all sorts of clever jokes about the biblical arithmetics of bread. Each piece was shaped according to the type of loaf it was destined to be. One of them was stuffed with diced comté cheese and chopped walnuts, and for this we folded the dough over the ingredients once and over itself multiple times, so the ingredients would be distributed evenly. All the pieces were covered with cloth for the first rise, a.k.a. le pointage, which lasted 30 minutes.

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Sushi Class

Sushi

On rue Garreau in Montmartre — right off the place Emile Goudeau, which I like very much because it has trees, benches, and a Fontaine Wallace — was the tiny workshop of a violin maker. Earlier this summer, I walked past it and did a double-take: the dusty window had been cleaned, and the instruments had been replaced by a miscellany of Japanese trinkets — origami animals, garland lights, purses to keep your change, and tinkling thingies to hang to your cell phone.

I walked in, browsed the displays, and my eyes fell on a flyer that advertised the shop’s sushi classes. The attendant inside was busy paper-folding a horse or a squirrel or a tortoise — it was too early to tell. He told me that he was just filling in for the owner and couldn’t say when the next class would be, but that he would take my contact information. A few days later I received a call from a Japanese woman, who explained that she didn’t give classes during the summer because of the heat, but that I could sign up for September.

And this is how Maxence and I attended a sushi-making class last Saturday. Our teacher was Tomoko, owner of the shop and, incidentally, wife of the violin maker whose workshop it used to be. Teacher and students climbed up to an appartment five flights of stairs above the shop, took off our shoes, admired the view, and sat down at the table.

Since this was a lunchtime class, Tomoko first prepared donburi for us (a category of Japanese dishes in which ingredients are served over a bowl of hot rice), so hypoglycemia would not hinder our ability to listen and learn. Her bols de sashimi spécial consisted in Japanese rice, topped with torn nori and bite-size pieces of raw tuna and salmon, tossed together in a dressing of wasabi, soy sauce, and ground sesame. This was a splendid lunch and I will no doubt try to reproduce it. She also served us chilled mugicha (barley tea), which I’d never tried before and very much enjoyed.

Tomoko stressed that what she was about to teach us were the basics of family-style sushi — it takes Japanese chefs years to master the noble art of sushi-making, and a two-hour class wasn’t going to cut it, obviously. She had trimmed and sliced two kinds of raw fish for the class, ahi tuna and salmon, in long sticks for maki (rolled sushi) and in rectangular pieces for nigiri (oval lumps of rice topped with fish). This was my first time making any kind of sushi so I had everything to learn, but it turned out to be surprisingly easy when you have someone by your side to show you the moves.

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Traditional French Cooking Class: Update

Cooking Gear

[Traditional French Cooking Class: Update]

It has been much much longer than I thought it would be since my first post about the traditional French cooking class I am taking this year (read more about it here). Let me tell you, if you think quitting your dayjob will give you more time, you are as mistaken as I was — time just seems to have hopped on a supersonic jet since I started working for myself.

Anyway. Since I am now about halfway through the program, I thought I would share a little update.

On the first day, the organizers explained that they admitted eighteen students as a rule, but that after a few weeks the attendance usually dwindled down to fourteen or so. I am quite pleased to report that our class has had zero drop-outs so far: considering the number of candidates who applied for that course — about 500 — I think it’s only decent that those who do get in make the most of that opportunity. I am pleased, but not all that surprised, as it was quite obvious from the start that everyone in our class was serious about it.

And after so many weeks of cooking side by side and crying over the same onions, it’s really nice to see friendships emerge. As can be expected from such a large group, not everyone gets on perfectly well with everyone else — then again nothing entertains me like a healthy dose of sarcasm — but overall we form a very good-natured team.

We all have different reasons for being there: just a few are complete beginners, most are enthusiast homecooks who wish to improve on their techniques, while others have professional ambitions — some of the latter have signed up to take the CAP exam in May, the basic French culinary diploma. I personally won’t be taking it with them, as it requires a fair amount of homework and I have very little time to devote to it this year, but it is something I’m keeping on a back burner for the future.

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Traditional French Cooking Class

Cooking Gear

[Traditional French Cooking Class]

Show-and-tell: this is the gear I bought for the cooking class I am taking this year! It’s part of the Cours Municipaux pour Adultes, a learning program sponsored by the Mairie de Paris (the mayor’s office), and mine is a weekly three-hour class to learn about traditional French cuisine. All classes offered in this program (although the quality of teaching no doubt varies) are a real bargain, since they are financed in great part by local taxes — for once I am more than happy to pay them — but they are reserved exclusively to Parisians (who have paid the aforementioned taxes, it’s only fair) and the odds of getting in are akin to winning the lottery. Word has gotten around, they get a lot of applications, but naturally there is a limited number of seats for each class, so it’s first come first serve.

I first learned about this cooking class sometime over the summer, and in the morning of September 1, the day the enrollment began, I walked over to the Mairie, picked up an application (plus a few for my neighbors) and within the hour had sent it off, with a good luck kiss. The kiss thing seems to have worked, because I soon received a notice to come to the school at a certain date and time, and after a somewhat nerve-wracking test (multiple-choice questions? for a cooking class? what has the world come to?) only 18 or the 42 candidates (out of some 500 applications) were enrolled. Including — big sigh of relief — yours truly.

The classes started two weeks ago, and so far so good! What will we be learning? The basics of traditional French cuisine — Potage Conti, Pintade Grand-Mère, Steak au poivre, Carottes Vichy, Tarte aux Poires Bourdaloue, Paris-Brest (yay!) — you will no doubt hear about some of these as the class progresses. This is in perfect complementarity with my recent acquisition of L’Art Culinaire Moderne and I am delighted for the chance to learn more about this side of French cuisine I don’t know so much about. Looking at the scheduled weekly menus, I got irrationally excited by the thought of making Oeufs Pochés Toupinelle — don’t ask.

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