I’m pretty sure I caught the baking bug when I was six or seven years old. I used to get up early on summer mornings and make muffins. Even as a little kid, I found baking rewarding. I’d carefully measure out each ingredient, fill all the cups, pop them in the oven, and then take pride in eating (and sharing) my tasty bakes. No surprise, this led me to baking cakes, cookies, brownies, and all other sorts of tasty treats while I was still in elementary school and into high school and college.
Once in my early twenties, I had moved to Philadelphia, and that’s where my joy of baking really took shape (I think I can owe it to being pretty lonely the first year…and having friends who supported my efforts). I started making all kinds of muffins, scones, cakes, cupcakes, cookies, bars, breads, and treats. Hell, I even started an Urban Outfitters corporate phenomenon with the 12 Days of Cookies, leading up to my departure each year for the holidays. I was the person who would make you whatever you wanted for your birthday, would bring a treat to any get-together, and would often bring in something on a Monday…just because. By the end of my six years in Philly, I had amassed a pretty robust baking cookbook collection as well as purchased just about every baking tool/utensil/appliance (I was most proud of the day I bought my own Kitchen Aid Mixer). Then I moved to San Francisco.
Aside from a Blueberry Coffeecake Crumble that I made a few times (I remember I took it to Benefit and Jane thought someone had purchased it from a bakery), I didn’t do a ton of baking in San Francisco. I blame my crappy, old oven. But, with a longer commute to and from work, I just didn’t have as much time to bake or (for whatever reason) the incilination to do it anymore.
Enter Toulouse. When we decided we were going to move to France last year, I definitely dreamed about taking baking classes (a la Julia Child) and learning how to make delicious, French treats. While I have been baking here, I kicked my efforts up a notch last Saturday and took my first pastry class at Labo & Gato.
The class focused on baking and pastry techniques. The website lists it as, “You take the pastry CAP exam? You are a novice, hobbyist or pastry confirmed? This workshop is for you! In this intensive class of 9 hours, you will cover all technical bases equivalent to a pastry CAP exam. One hour lunch break with a meal served by Labo & Gato.” I was a little intimidated about a nine hour class, in French. So, I emailed them to see if I’d be able to follow along. They assured me it’d be no problem, as an intern would be there to help translate if necessary. So, I signed up for that class along with a few others (but they aren’t until June due to availability).
Let me just say – this is the best thing I’ve done since we moved to Toulouse. I absolutely loved every minute of it. Was it all in French? Yes. Was there an intern there to help translate things? No. Did it matter at the end of the day? Surprisingly, not at all.
Class started at 9:30am. I was the last to arrive and greeted by name as I entered the store by our instructor, Youssef. We wasted no time and rushed into the kitchen where we found individual aprons, recipes, and pens. Class started with introductions. I was first. Great. “Je m’appelle Victoria et je suis Americaine. J’adore cuire.” There were six of us in the class, and I was the only person there solo. I’m also pretty sure I was also the only person who wasn’t preparing to take the CAP exam or some sort of exam.
We had a LONG list of skills to master before the end of the day, and we jumped right in. While we had the recipes on paper (thank God), we really didn’t follow any recipes from start to finish (it would’ve taken much longer than nine hours) and instead worked a little on this recipe, a little on that recipe while things were cooling/resting/baking. I’m not going to provide too many details on how things were made or the recipes, as I’m planning to make them all again at home, and I’ll post with more explanations/directions then.
The brioche was the only “solo” project of the day. After that we were paired in groups of two. I was paired with the most lovely Frenchwoman – Fabienne. When I think about someone I’d want to be paired with in a class like this, she is 100 percent the person I’d pick. She spoke minimal English and I speak minimal French, but we were both incredibly enthusiastic and positive throughout the entire day. Anyone listening to us chat would have found it pretty entertaining:
Fabienne & me: “On l’a fait!” (We did it! – we said this a lot and kind of high fived each other) and “Super!” (Great!) and “C’est parfait” (It’s Perfect!) and “Tres joli!” (Very pretty) and “Allez, Victoria! Allez, Allez, Allez!” (Go Victoria, Go, Go, Go! – this was when I was piping like a champ and the first to do it) and “Oh la la” (this actually is not at ALL what Americans think*) as well as some handy explanations for various French cooking utensils like “un cul de poule.” (she had a whole visual explanation for this, which included saying it is a chicken butt [it’s a bowl]). I think I also tickled Fabienne when she thanked me for something and I responded with, “Avec plaisir” (with pleasure). She gave me a wink and then anytime I said thank you, she said it back to me with a bit of a wink and a giant smile. I felt like I’d been given a French day-pass. We were the most positive duo ever to enter a kitchen. Cheering each other on, teaching each other random phrases in French or English, and having a really lovely time all the while.
* Sidenote – “Oh la la” (pronounced oh la la, not oooh la la as Americans are used to) is actually a phrase that has more of an annoyed or surprised or somewhat negative connotation. It sounds more like, “Oh no” or “Oh God” than “Wow.” It wasn’t until I heard Fabienne say it about 15 times when the instructor mentioned we’d be doing XYZ that I realized that’s what she was saying, and that’s what I’ve heard A LOT. So I looked into it, and Ooh la la is not a French phrase, at all. Now I feel kinda silly, because I say it/use it a lot. At least all the French folks I know humor me (including Fabienne). 🙂
You might be thinking, what were we so excited about? Well, there was a lot of precision when it came to making the various elements. Most specifically things like plaiting (braiding) the brioche, incorporating butter into the pastry for the millefeuille, rolling out EVERYTHING, decorating everything, etc. So, encouragement was key, as some of it was tricky, and we were doing a pretty good job. When my brioche was passed out after proofing, Fabienne showed it to everyone saying, “Regardez la brioche de Victoria. C’est parfait et tres joli.” It just felt really good to have someone with an incredibly positive attitude right there next to me, and it felt really good to be just as positive back. Kinda made me wish this was a permanent every day class. I think if I was in something like this, I’d be fluent in no time.
Youssef was also quite the character. He was wearing a Laduree jacket (swoon), which I asked him about. He worked there for three years (he’ll also be teaching the class I signed up for on macarons), and he’s a Toulousain native. He was also very concerned about me understanding everything and making sure I felt included. About an hour into the class he said I looked familiar and asked if I shop in the store. I told him I do…and that he helped me find vanilla extract, baking powder, and chocolate chips. There’s something really fancy about watching a pastry chef make pastries. He makes it look so easy, but also is sure to make it feel easy for you, too. I think the most surprising part of the class for me was at the end when he took a photo (with his phone) of my completed Charlotte Framboise Pistache and told me I did a great job with the meringue on my lemon tart. I won’t lie when I say this made me feel great.
In terms of the day – it was LONG. We made all the pastry doughs before lunch and didn’t actually have lunch until maybe 2pm. Then, after lunch we made all the fillings and decorations. It was tough standing up for nine hours, and I think I only zoned out when Youseff started talking about various types of gelatin. I’m sure it was important, as he asked me if I wanted to have someone translate it for me (everyone else was taking furious notes), but I said, “Non. C’est OK.” To which he responded with an odd look and shrugged shoulder, “D’accord.” Probably the funniest, though, was when he asked if I’d be OK with adding the spice (?)/flavoring of Tonka to the créme pâtisserie au chocolat. The problem was that he didn’t know what Tonka translated to, and I didn’t know what Tonka was. In the end, it was added. It looks like a coffee bean and smells like caramel. It’s apparently a common ingredient in cannelles.
So, what’d we make in nine hours?
- Brioche tressée – I LOVE brioche, and if I admit it, I’m probably most excited about learning how to make this. It’s essentially the French version of Challah (a Victoria favorite) with butter (not oil). On top it’s pearl sugar (not salt), which makes it the perfect breakfast treat. I also learned how to plait (braid) bread dough, which is pretty cool.
- Tarte au citron meringuée – I love lemon things, but I’ve never been a huge fan of lemon tarts or meringue. But, it was really cool learning how to make a lemon tart crust including how to make sure it doesn’t break, easily roll off/cut the extra, etc. I also shocked myself with how easily I replicated the meringue work (Sarita knows decorating is not my strong suit…though her decorating kit will now come in handy!)
- Eclairs au chocolat – I LOVE a good eclair, and I was pretty excited to learn the base of this pastry is essentially the same as my beloved gougeres (which I think impressed the instructor and Fabienne that I knew how to make). I became even more excited when Youssef made chouquettes (which I CONSTANTLY get from my local bakery). I am DEFINITELY going to be making these on a semi-regular basis. Yum.
- Millefeuille vanille – This one was tricky, as I didn’t know what it was, so I had no idea what we’d be doing with it or how it would look at the end. But, Fabienne assured me it was fabulous and one of her favorite desserts, though she’d never made it either. I thought it might taste a bit bland, but it was amazing. The flaky crust was so buttery and amazing…and the vanilla marscapone filling was even better. I even got to do fancy fondant/chocolate work on the top. Surprise of my day was that this was, actually, my favorite. I’ve decided I’ll definitely be making it again. Might be the French dessert I try to master and bring back with me to the US (aside from macarons).
- Charlotte Framboise Pistache – This was another one I’d never heard of and wasn’t sure how it would look. This was probably the “showstopper” of the day, as it had SO many elements. The biscuit on the bottom and sides (cool how that works, by the way), a pistachio mousse on the side with a raspberry gelée in the middle and then the most delicious chantilly cream on top. This was so airy and lovely. Kinda blew my mind.
I was also a little surprised I got to bring everything home with me. I think Jim was pretty excited about that part. What was even better – we met up with our neighbors (Jacira & Alex), and they got to sample some of my handiwork from the day. We even sent Alex home with some brioche for breakfast.
It felt really special to share such tasty treats with French friends. It was also really nice that they were so complimentary of them all. Makes me want to bake them all again and again and again.
So, if you’re planning a visit to France and have any interest in baking, let me suggest you look into taking a class like this. Labo & Gato has stores/classes in Toulouse as well as Bordeaux. Not all are nine hours (most are under four), and it might be a highlight of your trip!
More recipes and tips on these treats to come in upcoming weeks.