Dabbling in pastry at Le Cordon Bleu Paris

The sun shone brilliantly in a bright blue sky, but it couldn’t warm the chilling January wind gusting sharply out of the northeast as I walked along the Seine to Le Cordon Bleu, at 13 Quai André Citroën in the 15th Arrondissement in Paris.

Once safely inside the front door and out of the wind, I checked in at the front desk for the three-hour short course in pastry. It was a Christmas gift from my husband, worth far more to me than its $120 price. The staff offered me coffee, juice and baked treats from the Cordon Bleu kitchen, and I joined several other people in a lounge area to await the start of class. My fellow students were French, Spanish, American and a few other nationalities; some were residents of Paris, others, like me, were spending one morning of a holiday in France in the course. Two of my classmates were also simultaneously enrolled in a two-day course on sauces and jus, so they would spend the morning on patisserie and then move right into their next class in the afternoon.

Our teacher was Chef Xavier Cotte, whose career in pastry has spanned multiple decades and included stints at the two-star Michelin restaurant Tour d’Argent and the acclaimed Stella Maris. He has taught at Le Cordon Bleu since 2002 and his lively sense of humor brought fun to a class with an emphasis on technique and precision. Our class members all spoke French and/or English, so Chef Cotte had an interpreter, also a chef, who translated his French instructions seamlessly into English.

We chose our workstations and put on our Cordon Bleu caps and aprons, which along with a kitchen towel, a booklet with the recipe and blank note pages, and a pencil, all emblazoned with Le Cordon Bleu, would be ours to keep. The workstations each had a kitchen scale, a refrigerator, a stove, and the first set of tools we would need for our recipe. Our pâtisserie lesson would revolve around making passion fruit-chocolate tarts and the cooking tools necessary for each part of the recipe were handed out as we needed them.

Ingredients for the recipes were lined up in the center of the room, on a vent dividing the stoves at each workstation. We were to take what we needed from bulk containers according to the recipe.

We began by watching Chef Cotte create a sweet pastry dough, or pâte sucrée according to the following recipe, which makes enough for about two 8-inch tart crusts:

175 grams flour

125 grams butter

125 grams powdered sugar

50 grams ground almonds

1 small egg

Chef Cotte demonstrated the correct method for mixing of the ingredients, using one finger to combine everything, then piling it on his work space to blend it with the heel of his hand, in a technique called “fraisage,” to avoid overworking the dough. He emphasized the important handling of the dough minimally, to prevent it from becoming tough and prone to shrinkage in the oven. Then he put the dough in the refrigerator and released us to make our own dough. Chef Cotte and his interpreting-chef walked through the kitchen as we worked, monitoring our progress and offering corrections and praise.

After all the students had dough in the refrigerators, Chef Cotte gathered us together for the next step. He quickly rolled the dough into a circle, 3 millimeters thick, and gently dropped it onto a generously buttered tart ring on a sheet pan. He pressed the dough into the ring, cut the excess by rolling his rolling pin over the top of the ring, pressed the top edge of the dough just above the top edge of the tart ring, and then trimmed it with a sharp knife for an even edge. The class then did the same – though not with nearly as much ease or precision – and the tarts went to a rack to dry, where they could stay for up to an hour before baking. They would bake 15 to 20 minutes at 150C/300F.

While the tart crusts were baking, Chef Cotte demonstrated the method for the chocolate cream filling for the tart, or Appareil à mi-cuit. This recipe also makes enough for about two 8-inch tarts:

1 ½ eggs (75 g)

65 grams sugar

2 Tbs. Malibu rum

50 grams milk chocolate

30 grams dark chocolate

60 grams butter, softened

Following after the chef, the class combined all the chocolate in bowl and placed it in a pan above simmering water, like a double-boiler or a bain-marie, to melt. In a separate bowl, we whisked the egg and sugar until the sugar dissolved. We added the butter to the melted chocolate and stirred until the butter was incorporated. Then, we added the rum to the egg and sugar mixture, and then added the egg mixture to the chocolate and butter. We poured the finished mixture into the hot tart shells and baked the tarts for another 10-15 minutes, until the filling was set, with just a little jiggle in the center. Chef Cotte said the Malibu rum “sets the flavor” of the chocolate and that other liquor could be substituted, whether just rum or something like Grand Marnier.

Our next recipe was the passion fruit cream, or crème passion, to cover the chocolate filling in the tart. The recipe makes more than enough for two tarts, but it can be chilled in a ramekin and eaten as it is (but it is very rich!).

1 ½ leaves gelatin (3 g)

2 eggs (100g)

85 grams sugar

80 grams passion fruit puree

140 grams butter

We started by rolling up the gelatin leaves and soaking them in very cold water. In medium pots, we combined the eggs and sugar, mix, then added the fruit puree, whisking it over medium heat to thicken. Chef Cotte emphasized that it should not boil. Off the heat, we added the rehydrated gelatin, whisked in half the butter until it was fully incorporated, and then whisked in the other half. Our baked tarts had cooled enough to be handled, so we poured the passion fruit cream three-fourths of the way to the edge of the tart, tilted the tarts to get the filling to cover the interior of the tart completely, then the tarts went into the freezer.

Our final recipe was passion fruit glaze for the top of the tart.

100 grams neutral jelly

1 passion fruit.

First, we whisked the clear jelly smooth, then we cut the passion fruit open and scraped the pulp and seeds into the jelly and whisked it together. It was super simple. We spooned the glaze over the chilled tarts and spread it with a spatula, making sure to get it all the way to the edge of the crust. Chef Cotte showed us how to scrape off the excess and leave just a thin, even film of glaze and a scattering of passion fruit seeds over the top of the tart.

The neutral jelly was a specialty product that isn’t likely to be easy to find in a grocery store, but I believe something like apricot jelly (without fruit) could easily substitute for the neutral jelly in this recipe.

Finally, we garnished the tarts with a single curl of milk chocolate in the center, made by scraping a circular biscuit cutter over the top of a slab of slightly softened chocolate.

We used every minute of the three-hour class to make our tarts, which we boxed up in white and blue Cordon Bleu boxes and popped into our new Cordon Bleu cooler bags to take home. Chef Cotte awarded each of us with a certificate of participation to add to our Cordon Bleu souvenirs, and he posed for photos with everyone.

In addition to giving me a great dessert recipe, the class taught me invaluable techniques that I can apply to other recipes in the future. I made the entire tart recipe again at home, but I used frozen raspberries and raspberry jam in place of the passion fruit puree and passion fruit, and 63% cacao chocolate and aged dark rum in the mi-cuit. It all worked beautifully. I reduced the butter in the raspberry fruit cream to 100 grams, to lighten it up just a little, and the resulting cream was just as delicious as the more buttery passion fruit cream I had made at Le Cordon Bleu.

Le Cordon Bleu offers short and gourmet courses at 10 other locations around the world besides Paris: Adelaide, Australia; Ottawa, Canada; Paris; Kobe and Tokyo, Japan; Mexico City, Mexico; Wellington, New Zealand; Madrid, Spain; Kaohsiung, Taiwan; Bangkok, Thailand; and London, UK. The prices for the courses tend to be very reasonable for what you get. As a tourist, I like to go to the museums and historical sites in a city, but I would not hesitate to carve out the time to spend at a Cordon Bleu course in any of the cities where they’re offered. I highly recommend the courses to anyone with an interest in food or wine.

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