October 19, 2011

The Art of Champagne: Our Visit to Reims

Our trip to Reims to learn about champagne (and taste it!) was kind of last-minute, so we didn’t have a lot of options available for tours and although I kind of balked at spending 75€ for a “private tour” at Veuve Clicquot, I can tell you it was absolutely worth it. There were only 4 of us on this private tour which lasted almost 3 hours.

I learned that champagne is actually comprised of three grapes: pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. 

The history of the champagne region, its producers and the bureaucracy of the rating system was pretty fascinating. Founded in 1772, Philippe Clicquot-Muiron established the original enterprise which in time became the house of Veuve Clicquot. His son, François Clicquot, married Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin in 1798 and died in 1805, leaving his widow (veuve in French) in control of the company.

Madame Clicquot

During the Napoleonic Wars, Madame Clicquot made strides in establishing her wine in royal courts throughout Europe, notably that of Imperial Russia. By the time she died in 1866, Veuve Clicquot had become both a substantial Champagne house and a respected brand. Easily recognized by its distinctive bright yellow labels, the wine holds a royal warrant of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom.

A Step for Every Vintage Year

Madame Clicquot was quite the business woman (she had brains, but not beauty?) and was credited with a great breakthrough in champagne handling that made mass production of the wine possible. In the early 19th century, with the assistance of her cellar master, Antoine de Müller, Clicquot invented the riddling rack that made the crucial process of dégorgement both more efficient and economic. Clicquot's advance involved systematically collecting the spent yeast and sediments left from the wine's secondary fermentation in the bottle's neck by using a specialized rack.

Composed much like a wooden desk with circular holes, the rack allowed a bottle of wine to be stuck sur point or upside down. Every day a cellar assistant would gently shake and twist (remuage) the bottle to encourage wine solids to settle to the bottom. When this was completed. the cork was carefully removed, the sediments ejected, and a small replacement dose of sweetened wine added. 

During the bombardment of German artillery of World War I, many Champenois took refuge in the underground limestone caves (crayères) used for Champagne storage. We loved how cool it was down in the caves -- given the unusual heat during the month of September, this was probably the first time during our trip that we were "cool."


I thought it was kind of neat that the company honors long-term employees by "naming" crayères after these employees.

This employee worked here for 67 years!

The tour was focused on their vintage champagnes and included 5 glasses of champagne (this was before noon!). We tasted two vintage whites and two vintage rosé champagnes and then the fifth glass of champagne was our choice based on our favorite. I adore champagne (especially the expensive kind) and the champagne we tasted was no exception.

It was perhaps the five glasses of champagne that I indulged in that led me to acquire two very expensive bottles of their vintage 1990 champagne to enjoy for my "milestone" birthday next year. As our French saying goes, "it is what it is." Seriously, this champagne was delicious!

After our drunken tour ended, we wandered around the city of Reims for a few hours and visited the Cathedral of Reims.


The Cathedral of Reims (heavily damaged by the Germans during the First World War but restored since) played the same role in France as Westminster Abbey has in the United Kingdom as the traditional site of crowning of the Kings of France.


It still amazes me that these buildings were constructed before the advent of power tools. How did they do that?


Probably one of the most useful pieces of information that I took away from our tour was that champagne is mostly comprised of a blend of steel-drum wines from multiple harvest years (the term used for the wines fermented during the first stage of production and often number more than 500+ wines per harvest). If a particular steel-drum wine is deemed worthy of a "vintage" year, then the champagne produced from that year's harvest is NOT blended with other harvest years.

So if you ever see a bottle of champagne with a date on it, it's a vintage year and will be superior to the blended champagne. We were also told that France is pretty stingy with their vintage bottles and don't export very large quantities making them much harder to find in the United States. So if you're not sure what to get me for a gift . . . champagne is a good call!

October 1, 2011

The Perfect Croissant - it's the butter!

After the success of our morning Macaron class, it was now time to tackle Croissants and Pain au Chocolat at Lenôtre Culinary School.  April hadn't signed up for this course, so it was just me as the lone American in this class. I might also add that this class was entirely "en Français" but thankfully, I was still able to keep up given my very poor French language skills. It did help that I had some French tutoring via Skype using a tutor at Verbal Planet that helped me with my culinary vocabulary. Did you know that there are at least 8 verbs that mean "to whisk?"

Naturally, we started off the class with a delicious espresso. The secret to a great croissant? Time and butter! The techniques that I learned in class had some differences from techniques that I commonly use when making yeast breads. As an example, the process of "proofing" the yeast is somewhat different; flour is sprinkled on top of the yeast and water mixture and put aside to sit for up to an hour until it starts to bubble over the flour mixture.

Croissant pastry is so flaky because of the many layers of butter (and it's a lot of butter!) that are created by a succession of rolling and folding the pastry, followed by a period of rest in the refrigerator. This is where the time factor comes in. It takes at least 8 full hours to create the actual pastry, followed by additional hours to allow the shaped pastry (croissants or pain au chocolat) to rise to its desired fullness. In order to complete the process in just 4 hours, we had available pastry in various stages already completed so we could replicate the steps in a shorter amount of time.

We had 7 students in this class, most of them French, except myself and one woman from Italy (who was living in Paris and fluent in French). Now that April was gone, I was now the top student and teacher's pet in this class. I guess I just know my way around the kitchen better than the other students, but Chef Philippe seemed to give me more tasks to do and used me as the "example" for how to properly roll out and fold the pastry (I had the best technique, although who doesn't know how to use a rolling pin?). Another factor could be that I am "larger" than the other students in class meaning that I had much more weight to put behind my technique, making "quick work" out of the process. You have to be quick so that the butter layered between the pastry dough don't soften up and start to melt into the dough. This was where many of the other students had trouble.

As was the case in our earlier class on Macarons, it was the tips and tricks I learned from Chef Philippe that you don't really read about in a cookbook that I think will help me replicate the beautiful pastries I was able to make in Paris.

We do have some ingredient challenges, as in the types of flour used in France (we used two different types of flour for the pastry) differ slightly from our American equivalents, but I think the proper balance of gluten content can be achieved by combining bread flour (higher gluten content) with either "all-purpose" or even a combination between bread flour and cake flour. I think I will need to do a lot of experimenting! Here's my pain au chocolat (these are my favorite) and croissants just about ready for baking.

And here are my beautiful finished croissants.

I think my entire family is waiting for me to get home just so I can bake them some croissants and pain au chocolat!

À bientôt!

Our Macaron Adventure at Lenôtre Culinary School

(Bun - pay NO attention to the following sentence): I think I'm in love with a French man. His name is Philippe, which of course if the PERFECT French name! Chef Philippe Gobet was our instructor at Lenôtre for our French Macaron class. He's a very accomplished chef of cuisine (worked at Joël Robuchon for 13 years) and has earned the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France "MOF", which is a unique award in France according to a category of trades in a contest between professionals. In doing some research on Google, I discovered that he's also the President of the Jury for the International Cuisine Competition and appears in the documentary "King of Pastry" that my friend Laura Templeton suggested we watch.

April and I decided to register for this class after we were already in Paris and after we had finally fallen in love with French Macarons. Although we have eaten them before on previous travels to France, for some reason, they were just "meh" for me. Perhaps they were just too sweet? Maybe I didn't try the right flavors?

Our first day in Paris (while we were waiting to get into our apartment), we sought refuge in a delicious cup of strong espresso avec crème (une noisette) paired with the most delicious macarons I had ever tasted from Pierre Hermé, which in my opinion are better than other famous macaron makers such as Ladurée. But I suppose it's a matter of taste. I prefer a less-sweet, less-chewy macaron and Pierre Hermé's deliver just that; plus the flavors are unusual and delicious. Some favorites include matcha green tea with sesame filling, coffee with salted caramel, violet with a passion fruit filling and pistachio. Très yum!

The class was limited to only 6 students, however, we only had 5 students in our class (perhaps someone forgot to set their alarm clock?). Since this class was offered in English (which is an exception, rather than the rule at Lenôtre) all but one of our fellow students were from the United States. Coincidentally, one of our fellow students was from Bellevue, Washington!

Upon arrival, we were greeted by Chef Philippe, an awesome espresso machine and a plate of delicious croissants. This was going to be a great day . . .

It took only a few minutes for April and I to establish ourselves as not only proficient bakers, but as the teacher pets. I suppose I take it for granted that baking is simple, but it's just second nature for me (and April as well). I don't mean to be negative about our fellow students, but perhaps they may want to leave the baking to their local pastry shops (or order some delicious macarons soon at Le Petit Biscuit). Even weighing out ingredients using a scale proved problematic for them. Our fellow student from Bellevue has taken this exact course twice before and still cannot seem to bake a proper macaron. But perhaps that's because she had a difficult time understanding "add 500 g of ingredient A" and "250 g of ingredient B" when reading the recipe (that's in English). She was seriously scribbling on her recipe doing math. We're not sure exactly what she was calculating since there was nothing to calculate. Call me confused. April was the star pupil in the class for her piping skills, although I finally got it right on my second attempt.

Chef Philippe is a nut. He had us laughing all morning and he's very playful in the kitchen. One of the funniest moments that happened (and I wish I had captured via video or camera) was after we had made the egg white meringue. He had just colored the meringue red using powdered color so that the chocolate macarons would become a deeper cocoa color. He removed the whisk from the mixer that was covered in red meringue and asked April to taste it. She moves towards the whisk he was holding out to her and as she went to grab it, Philippe shoved the whisk into her nose! April's face was half-covered with red meringue -- OMG, it was hilarious! April had this look of surprise on her face and the rest of us were doubled over in laughter. I know you "had to be there" but just picture April's face covered in red-colored meringue and you get the idea! That silly Chef Philippe!

We made three kinds of marcarons: chocolate with a chocolate ganache filling; vanilla with a vanilla buttercream filling and coffee with a coffee buttercream filling. The buttercream recipe was different (and easier) than the French buttercream recipe April and I use at home, so we were excited to have learned a different recipe. Chef Philippe was great about sharing tips and secrets for success that you don't really read about in a recipe. He also gave us some great ideas on how to flavor macarons by infusing ingredients with flavors such as flavored teas (love Early Grey!) or using liqueurs. During our last week in Paris, April and I will be running around to find some of the specialty ingredients we used using the list of culinary supply shops he provided. Not sure how I'm going to get all my accumulated stuff home yet given that I was already 10 lbs. overweight just getting to Paris! I think we may have to ship some stuff home.

April and I are excited to experiment at home with our new skills, particularly with different flavor combinations. I had so much fun during this class and was really thrilled to learn that Chef Philippe was also my instructor that afternoon for my croissant and pain au chocolat class. Now I'm inspired to learn more pastry techniques and will definitely be looking into other classes for my next visit to Paris.

À bientôt!