Monday, October 23, 2006

The Final Exam

As you all know, the reason why I left Jason and Libby in Hong Kong in the care of a 26 year old nanny to come to Tokyo for three months right in the middle of yet another international house moving is to get my French patisserie diploma from Le Cordon Bleu. Seeing that it’s the one and only goal, it goes without saying that I aim to achieve it.

The final exam for the patisserie supreme course at LCB Japan differs from other LCB schools in that we have to come up with an original recipe and make it on the final day in 2.5 hours. (The final exam at the Paris school is sugar works) Before I even started school, friends from my previous LCB class warned me that it’s never too early to start thinking about what I’m going to make. So I started thinking while I was in HK and decided that I should do something with yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit that has a unique fragrance and fresh flavor), only to come back to school and find a list of ingredients that we can use for the cake that, surprise, surprise!, does not include Yuzu. My second favorite ingredient, macha (Japanese green tea) is also not on the list. No time to waste, have to come up with another plan.

After weeks of eating more cakes than any human should legally allowed to do, and seeing dancing cakes whenever I close my eyes, I’ve finally narrowed it down to two choices:

1. A fromage blanc mousse cake with a layer of raspberry gelee and a layer of chocolate mousse in the middle, on a pistachio dacquoise cake base. The cake will be sprayed with white chocolate in a pistolet to give it a fuzzy texture. I’ll make pink macarons with green pistachios sprinkled on top and stick them around the cake and place a couple of white and dark chocolate curls on top along with some raspberries and pistachio nuts.

2. A strawberry/raspberry mousse cake with a layer of grapefruit mousse in the middle, on a chocolate biscuit cake base with maybe a thin layer of feuilletine flakes as a texture contrast. The bottom part of the cake will be coated with craquelin a la framboise (chopped almond mixed with raspberry puree and baked to dry at low temp). The cake top will be pink with threads of grapefruit peels showing through and will be decorated with strawberry, raspberry and dark chocolate curls.

The first idea came about because I fell in love with fromage blanc from the first bite, and one of my all time favorite cakes made at LCB is a fromage blanc raspberry creation called Schuss. Because there’ll be many test runs, it’s so very important to choose something you would want to eat, over and over again without getting sick of it, and who can get tired of fromage blanc and raspberry? The only problem is that the combo has been done so many times that it’s hard to come up with something new, which is why I’ve decided to add the pistachio and chocolate component. Only now, it’s gotten so complicated that I don’t know whether I’ll be able to finish it in time.

The second idea is a direct result of the visit to Idemi. After the fruit-gasm experience I couldn’t stop thinking about different ways to combine fruits. Initially I was going to do strawberry/raspberry with a lemon filling, then one day I drank some freshly squeezed grapefruit juice that my roommate Tanya made for breakfast and thought, hey, why not grapefruit! It’s less acidic than lemon so there’s no need to add too much sugar, but more importantly, a grapefruit is much bigger so I can get the same amount of juice of four lemons from just one grapefruit, which means precious squeezing time saved!

Now that I have the ideas, the next step is to start making them, one component at a time. First on the list, fromage blanc mousse. (TBC)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Inspired by Fruits

Dear Mr. Hidemi Sugino,

You don’t know me, but you probably remember the strange group of five women who went to your Kyobashi shop Idemi and ordered thirteen cakes, spent more than two hours passing the plates around taking turns tasting each cake, and each bought a copy of your autographed recipe book the other day. Well, I was one of them.

The first time I heard about you was from Keiko’s blog. She said she’d never been to your shop so I said I’d go try it for her. That was almost two years ago. I did make it to your shop once, but it was late in the afternoon and you had sold out all your cakes and closed up. Since then, I’ve learned that even though it’s not possible for you to make every cake from start to finish, you want to make sure each one was touched by you personally. This limits the number of cakes produced so they are sold out around noon everyday. To be very honest, I wasn’t entirely convinced that anyone’s cake could be that good that it’s worth going at shop opening to try. I thought you were just another hyped up “celebrity chef.”

It took four of my classmates from Le Cordon Bleu to give me the initiative to get up early and line up before 10am to wait for your shop to open. I was somewhat surprised that a staff came out a few minutes before opening to explain that most of the freshly made cakes are not to be bought back and must be consumed in the shop, because they are so delicate that they’re sure to melt or lose shape en route. Right there I thought, “Wow, this is someone who really takes pride in what he does.”

I have seen photos of your creations in magazines and books, but to behold them with my own eyes was a whole different experience. I had thought Pierre Hermes was a genius in presentation, but you are something entirely different. If PH was bold and daring, you are delicate and subtle. From color coordination to attention to details, you are a master of the masters. Then when I actually tried the cakes, each one tastes familiar yet so different from anything I’ve ever had. Take your signature cake Ambroisie, for example, chocolate and pistachio. Who hasn’t had a chocolate and pistachio cake? Yet somehow, your pistachio cream is the smoothest of them all and the chocolate mousse is so fluffy and light it melted away in my mouth almost instantly with just enough after taste lingering on the tongue, wanting more.

You are also a genius when it comes to innovative combination of flavors. My second favorite, after Ambroisie was a guava/honeydew melon mousse. The naturally delicate flavor of guava blends with the distinct aroma of honeydew melon, creating such a refreshing taste that I thought I was eating watermelon on a hot summer day.

My only complaint is that you don’t allow photography in your store. With my hopelessly short-term memory, I can only remember a fraction of the thirteen cakes we tried. To prevent me from forgetting further, I’m going to write it down, in no particular order:

Miss Albion, a wonderful looking hexagonal creation of mint and chocolate mousse with thin butterfly-like chocolate wings on top.

Charme, a variation on the Foret Noire with chocolate au lait and chocolate flavored cream chantilly sandwiched in biscuit chocolat.

Paradis, a white wine and gooseberry mousse cake so pretty that I really had trouble taking the first bite.

Mariee, a strawberry and pistachio mousse cake that had the most beautiful pastel shade.

Exotique, a mango filled banana mousse dusted with fine coconut flakes.

La Harmonie, a cherry and lemon mousse combo that tasted so heavenly I couldn’t stop eating it. I never knew lemon and cherry could work so well together.

Larme, a chestnut mousse, chestnut cream concoction coated in coco powder. Enough said.

A mango layer cake that I couldn’t remember the name. Having had so many different types of mango dessert in Hong Kong, I must admit that I wasn’t extremely impressed with this one, but my classmates all said it was very good, so it must’ve been just me.

I know I’ve missed a few, but every one of the thirteen cakes we tried was so good that one tends to only remember the very best. I must admit that I’m not the easily-impressed type when it comes to food and drinks, but I was truly wowed by you, Mr. Sugino. I think this is beyond a doubt what you’re meant to do and you do it with such grace and sophistication. I cannot tell you how much I was inspired by you, and how humbled I was at the same time. Because of you, I am looking at fruits and mousse in a whole new way. For my final presentation at Le Cordon Bleu, I have decided to make a fruity mousse cake. I am under no delusion that it would be anything close to your ingenuity, but I only hope that it would reflect your spirit and philosophy that the cake should bring out the best of what the materials have to offer and make the materials come to life.

So I would just like to thank you not only for giving me the inspiration for my final project but for teaching me a lesson of dedication and the need to constantly improve myself.

Sincerely yours,

Lynn Chen

Monday, October 02, 2006

Moving, yet again

To make a long story short, five months after moving to Hong Kong, less than four months in our apartment, and two months after getting our brand new furniture that are custom made to fit our apartment, we are being transferred to Singapore. To be fair, the choice was partly ours because I never really managed to like living in Hong Kong, and on a recent trip back to Singapore I realized how much cleaner and orderly it is over there and how much I had missed the food. So when we were offered the chance to move back, we jumped at it.

Don’t get me wrong, Hong Kong has its good points: the best dim sum I’ve ever had; the best sales; my huge kitchen with the double fridge; the numerous hiking trails nearby; and the fantastic view on a clear day… But then again there’s the stress of having to deal with substandard quality of service on a daily basis; the crowd every time I go to Central to run errands; the language barrier; and the constant feeling of being ripped off because you’re an outsider and don’t speak the language.

So we’re moving, back to Singapore where Jason lived for more than four years when he first started working and I for less than three years. The only complication is that I’ll be in Tokyo for almost three months to finish the advanced level of Le Cordon Bleu’s pastry course and our move will happen while I’m in Tokyo. The packing won’t be too bad because the movers will take care of everything, but Libby has to be in quarantine for one month in Singapore and I won’t be there to visit her everyday. My poor baby!