Chapter 25: Week 23: Big cookout

Normally we do a couple of recipes a week at school. Today, we do five, just to keep ourselves busy: Gnocci à la Parisienne, Millefeuilles, beignets de pommes, omelettes and pintadeau rôti sur canapé.

Lots of interesting stuff there. Parisian gnocci are potatoes mashed, mixed with choux pastry batter and then deep-fried in churro-length portions. Millefeuilles are, well, millefeuilles, sheets of puff pastry interspersed with crème patissière. Beignets de pommes are apple circles deep fried in batter. Omelettes are omelets, this time with mushrooms. And pintadeau rôti sur canapé is guinea fowl roasted and served on toast. Canapé, it turns out, is not what you eat with your evening cocktails but the small slice of toasted bread on which you serve it. Who knew? Apart from every French person to whom I point out this remarkable fact, that is. Duh, they say, You Eenglish peeple, you steal all our words.

French people are like that because they’re used to all their words having several meanings. The French language has the smallest vocabulary of any European language, a fact which they will vehemently deny – even when you prove it to them. They get around this first, as I say, by using each word several times over, and then nicking lots of words from English (as we nicked many of our words from the French back in the Norman invasion days). Even when they’ve already got a perfectly good French word for whatever they’re talking about – instead of using ‘grignoter’ to describe snacking between meals they now talk about ‘le snacking’.

Chef’s idea today is to get us to do an entire meal from hors d’oeuvre (‘outside the [main] work’) to pudding, which sounds cool although his choice of menu wouldn’t necessarily be mine.

The Parisian gnocci are popular, but then what’s not to like about any form of fried potato? And not really difficult to make either, just equal quantities of mashed spuds and choux pastry batter, piped into hot oil from a plastic piping bag, cutting appropriate lengths with scissors. Actually it turns out to be easier to do this in pairs, one squeezing the piping bag and the other working the scissors.

The crème patissière for the millefeuilles is one of those recipes that looks simple – it has only five ingredients, flour, eggs, milk, vanilla and sugar after all – but which can go horribly wrong if you don’t pay attention and do it properly. It’s all too easy to end up with tile cement or yellow water with lumps in it, so keep stirring! And I discover that it’s much, much easier to cut puff pastry into interesting shapes before you cook it, rather than afterwards. And that no matter how sharp your sharp knife may be, a serrated knife is what you need for cutting cooked pastry.

Beignets de pomme are also very simple. I’ve done them at home using cider instead of water in the batter, and very good they are too. Just core and slice your apples, dip in flour, dip in batter, fry, coat in sugar. We churn out a few hundred and send them on over to the school canteen so we can eat them for lunch ourselves – not that we have enormous appetites since we’ve been stuffing ourselves on Parisian gnocci, millefeuilles and apple fritters all morning. And then omelets, the last thing we do before our own lunch break, and everyone has their own way of doing these things. Meh. I like to just mix three eggs, salt and pepper, oil in the pan, nice and hot, pour in the eggs and drag mix from the outside to the centre with the back of the fork I used to mix the eggs up. When it’s setting, pop on the fried mushrooms and fold over and then fold out of the frying pan onto the plate.

Being French, Chef tells me that the omelet I’ve produced it too coloured – they should be yellow not browned, he says, nul points. Huh.

Our after-dinner nap is a very complicated version of the Fiche de Stock – the piece of paper we’re supposed, as good chefs, to keep showing us what we’ve got in our pantry. Apparently we can use the ‘Méthode PEP, Premier Entré Premier Sorti’, first in first out, or ‘Méthode de court moyen ponderé’ which I don’t even pretend to understand. It’s something to do with working out the average cost of stock because it all costs different amounts depending on when you buy it. Apparently. Anyway, first-in, first-out sounds much more sensible so that’s the one I’ll be sticking with. Or, more likely, just wander in, see what’s left and ordering replacements. You need this sort of documentation when you have a very large kitchen but if you’re doing 50 covers per service you just don’t need one.

This afternoon we finish off jointing our pintadeau, browning and then roasting them and serving them up on slices of toast. Personally I think a smear of Marmite or marmalade is more manageable on toast than a quarter of guinea fowl, but what do I know? The toast works to mop up the juices dripping out of the fowl, apparently, and it’s a very old-fashioned way to serve up such delicacies which we have to know because all good French cooking is Very Old. Well, a century old anyway.

Stood the test of time though, hasn’t it?

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