A side of English
The French people with whom I work are always smugly pleased when one of the two English-named (or so they think) dessert dishes they know of comes up. The first is crème Anglaise which they translate as English Cream and English people translate as Custard. The French make this by beating together 8 – 10 egg yolks with a little sugar, stirring in a litre of almost-boiled milk then returning the whole lot back to a gentle heat until it reaches the thick coating stage. If they’re trained professional patissiers like me (OK, five minutes’ coaching by my Chef but it amounts to the same thing) they only add half the boiled milk to the yolks and sugar, whisk well and then return it to the pan – this avoids the mixture getting too cold.
The English make Custard completely differently, I explain. They open a packet of Custard Powder – Birds in the yellow and blue and red packet is the traditional one – and add a couple of tablespoonfuls of milk from a pint to the powder along with a random amount of sugar, stirring it into a sticky goo. When the milk boils, they mix it into the goo with a spoon and then re-boil the whole lot. Birds’ custard powder contains, as far as I can tell, powdered eggs and cornflower and nothing of any nutritive or flavour value whatsoever. But it is yellow and sweet.
The other English dessert French people go on and on and on about is Pudding, pronounced ‘poodeeng’. This, they fondly imagine, is called ‘pudding’ because it’s what English people always eat for dessert after a large dish of over-roasted beef and too-boiled potatoes, in much the same way that the French live exclusively on garlic-laced snails, frogs and baguettes. Well, if you’re English or have ever eaten in that country, see if you recognise this: Take all your leftover bits of ‘biscuit’ (this means sponge cake, not real biscuits); soak them in milk; add a few beaten eggs; pour in a little rum; pour the whole lot into a terrine mold and bake in a bain marie for an hour until it’s perfect, with ‘Perfect’ in this instance meaning ‘gooey mess’. Might be nice with some custard, I suppose, but the French will insist on serving it cold.
So we do crème anglaise at school today, to go with the Genoise sponge we also make. I have problems with this once again, mostly because of my old journalistic injury – messed-up carpal tunnels. I had the left one operated on at the start of last year and it only hurts occasionally, but the one in my right wrist needs doing to return my whisking hand back to decent, frothing form. This means I find it hard to whisk stuff like egg whites and genoise sponge mixtures long and hard as one needs to do, so my sponge failed to lift as much as it should have done. This is one area where Pascal, the chap with whom I share a workstation at school, excels over me – his right hand is a blur of motion as he beats away…And again, this is one area where we do things differently at work – at school we beat the genoise over a bain marie; at work it’s directly on the hotplate.
But my crème anglaise is fine and I manage to slice my genoise into three layers despite it being Not Very Thick (thank you, Chef, I had noticed that in fact) and fill it with apricot jam (the French love apricot jam and treat it as if it were edible).
While all this is going on, our stock pots are bubbling away in the background. Stock is something I’ve sort of always known to be important, and indeed we made a pot of it during our first week at school. Now we make it every chance we get, and today we’re practicing making a fond brun lié with the carcasses of our Poulet Sauté Chasseur. Which is, in the end, a lesson in why Stuff Tastes Nicer in restaurants than it does when you try to make it at home: it starts off by being made with decent stock and finishes off by being, er, finished off with real butter.
The chickens – two of them – we learn to cut up raw, removing the suprèmes – the breasts with a wing attached to each – and the legs, complete with the ‘sots y laissent’, the ‘idiots leave behinds’s, what in the UK we call the Oysters, the small round oyster-shaped bits where the legs attach to the body. The idea is to take all the skin and flesh and leave the bones – for a fond brun.
Brun – brown – because we roast the bones in the oven first until they’re brown with a garniture aromatique of carrots, onions, garlic, tomato paste and a bouquet garni. The ‘lié’ – liaison – part comes when we add some powdered stock powder which contains cornflower. Quite why we need to do this both I and David, the only other chap in my class who’s working in a posh restaurant, agree is impossible to know so we both leave it out and get the thickness required by reduction and, if necessary, a little Maizena, regular cornflour, at the end. No no, says school chef, we need to know how to use PAI, Produits d’Alimentation Intermediare or mid-way food products (mid-way between raw ingredients and finished items, i.e. something which has already had something done to it and which needs something else doing to it to make it edible – like frozen peas). These are becoming Very Big in the French catering industry, he tells us. Indeed as I’ve said before, there’s a huge discussion going on about how the entire qualification I’m doing, the CAP, should concentrate on using PAIs instead of how to make stock. This is because the big chains like Accor who have a lot of money to lobby the government like using PAIs because they get cheap consistency of product (‘product’ is what chains call food) on their dining tables. It may go that way, but it won’t be me opening the packets for them.
So while my chicken portions are roasting in the oven (12 minutes for the suprèmes, 15 for the thighs) after being browned on the stove top, I make my Sauce Chasseur from the Fond Brun lié with some chopped tomatoes, finely chopped shallots, mushrooms, fines herbes, white wine and cognac. Reduced down to a decent napping consistency I then monter it au beurre to give it a really delicious taste. A handy tip this for working on sauces at home – never be afraid to whisk in a little (or even a lot) of unsalted butter to many sauces. You reduce down the liquid part of your sauce and then whisk in cubes of cold butter one or two at a time until your arteries clog up and your doctor has a heart attack.