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Dossier Title pageI’ve been putting off writing about the Superior Cuisine final exam in some ways as it marks the end of my journey at Cordon Bleu.  It’s hard to believe that 3 years ago I had a dream to earn my Cuisine Diploma at the famous French school and now that dream has become reality.  I suppose with any accomplishment one sets out to achieve the moment you attain it is a bit bitter sweet for although you’ve dreamt of the moment arriving it’s fleeting when it does.

From the basics of chopping vegetables to advanced butchery skills, I’ve learned so much and I needed to bring all my focus to this last hurdle.  The final cooking exam is 4 hours long and believe me, every minute of that four hours was required.  We would cook our own recipes for the exam from a “panier” or basket of ingredients given to us 2 weeks earlier.

There were restrictions of course, with specific ingredients that must be used.  Venison, oysters, foie gras, red kuri squash, trumpet mushrooms and 30 cm long tubular macaroni.  Macaroni?  Isn’t that Italian?  Having not used macaroni through any of the lessons it definitely was there to challenge the class.  Another specific instruction was to deliver one of three different sauces, Diane, Grand Veneur or Poivrade Sauce.

Prior to the exam we were to hand in a dossier in French of the dishes we would prepare including a drawing or photo of the plating for the dish.   We were to cook and plate 4 identical dishes on exam day for a verrine and a main course for the judges.

I spent hours painstakingly reviewing the ingredient list wondering what I would do with oysters.  Forgive me please but I really don’t like them, as I find them overly salty and fishy.  As I had little experience with oysters, I wanted to keep the verrine rather simple so I decided on a Mediterranean theme of ceviche.   The base was a fresh tomato jelly topped with oyster ceviche and a delicate little tomato rose.

The main course of venison filet and shoulder I would prepare two ways, roasted and braised respectively, with accompaniments of one composed fruit garnish and two simple vegetable garnishes.  The villainous item in the panier, the long tubular macaroni would become a trumped up mac & cheese.  I do mean trumped up with trumpet mushroom ragout!

I was determined to practice a few untested theories on my dishes before the atelier to ensure I would not be in a huge mess.   Finding venison shoulder turned out to be a bit of a hunting expedition (pardon the pun).  My good friend Gigi (aka Cindy) was visiting me in Paris and was up for a challenge and agreed to seek out the venison shoulder while I was in class.  What a sweetheart!

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Lesson 26 Black Prince LambBlack Prince or “Prince Noir” is a pseudonym added to the description of a French dish that includes black truffles.  Oh happy days, today we will stuff a beautiful filet of lamb with veal, cream, mushrooms and the “tres cher” star, truffles.

The lamb filet is removed from the bone and opened like a “wallet” (per Chef Lesourd), the interior is scored in a harlequin pattern, then flattened between two pieces of plastic wrap with a cleaver.  Keep the bones for your jus – as always.

To ensure the stuffing is not too easy on us students, the recipe calls for a brunoise of carrot, shallot, button mushroom (or “champions de Paris” en Francais) and truffle.  Veal is ground and used for the stuffing rather than chicken, which is more luxurious than our standard mousseline farce.   The meat is made even richer by the addition of cream and an egg white to bind it.

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Having spent the better part of my life living without gluten I have a fear of making pasta.  Not that I am afraid of pasta but it seems when you can’t taste what you are cooking I fear it will turn out badly.  Cooking involves all the senses and when you eliminate the use of one, in this case taste, you are sorely at a disadvantage.Lesson 25 Ravioli

The fish in our recipe is brill, a flat fish found in the Mediterranean, and is the feature.  A brill has two colors of skin; the face side is brown with a spotty flecked appearance while the back is white.  In classic Escoffier French cuisine the white skin can be presented but not the dark so we are to undertake fileting our fishy friend but we have to remove dark side of the skin.

Flat fish are difficult to filet, and in this case the dark skin must be removed before the flesh can be lifted from the bones.  A lot of tricky knife work?  Not so, a simple slit in the skin near the tail, a little loosening of that skin then drop the knife, grab the skin and pull it off.  Sounds easy, but the fish didn’t really want to give up his skin so easily so it was a bit of an effort.

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Lesson 24 Noisette of venisonAs we build towards the climax of Superior Cuisine and the final exam the heat is on.  Pardon the pun J.   We are charged with making one of three sauces in the final, a poivrade, diane, or grand veneur sauce.   In this practical, we must produce a grand veneur sauce.  I have to share, that after failing miserably on the execution of my poivrade sauce, my motivation to succeed in this practical was high.

Venison is a very lean red meat with a rather strong flavor as such it’s not to everyone taste.  As I am from Canada, it is quite usual to see game on the menu in mid range and high end restaurants which I happily order so I can enjoy a big red wine with my main course.

In this preparation the filet of veal is marinated whole for an hour in red wine, a mirepoix of carrot, onion and celery with a few black peppercorns.  Cooking venison requires a special touch as it is very lean.  The whole marinated filet should be seasoned with salt and pepper then quickly sautéed in vegetable oil over medium heat to brown on all sides.  Then into the oven at 180C until the internal temperature reaches 46 C for a thin filet or 52 C for a thick filet.

It is important to rest the meat for at least 5 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches max 55C then carve.  If you like your meat well done or over cook the venison, you might as well serve your leather shoe sole for dinner as will taste about the same.

Sauces should not be truly that hard at this stage of our Superior course but it seems getting the right flavor balance with the classics takes some determination. The new element in the grand veneur sauce is the addition of red currant jelly ou gelée de groseillles en Français.

It is made in the classic manner of all meat sauces.  After the trimmings are browned, the jelly is used to deglaze the pan rather than wine and adds a pleasant sweetness to the sauce.   The sauce flavor is then built up with a little red wine vinegar, a few black peppercorns, veal stock and the reduced marinade from the meat.

Overall the flavor of the sauce comes alive with the rare meat and absolutely demands a Bordeaux or Chateauneuf du Pape which suits me just fine.  It is a grand life, isn’t it!

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Lesson 23 Cod BrandadeFrench is a difficult language to master.   The name for instance of a size of a sink or a type of fish may have numerous expressions which are seemingly unrelated.  Blogger David Lebowtiz uncovered during his kitchen renovation that the description of  sink in English translated to at least 5 different words in French. Cod fish for instance in French is cabillaud, whereas salt cod is morue.  Why not “cabillaud sel”?  “Ou sel cabillaud?  As such, you can never assume that adding an adjective to the noun will translate properly.

Salt cod or “brandade morue” is a dried product, which needs to be rehydrated in water and desalinated.  However rather than use traditional morue in this lesson we used fresh filet of cabillaud and applied a cure of salt for about 20 minutes.  Ergo the “new style” label.  Once cured it was skinned and the heart of the fish filet was removed, which is the nicest piece, and sliced into portions with the remaining trimmings poached in cream and few spices.  I say few because there is not really a ton of flavor imparted.

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Lesson 22 Duck breast pommes annaThere are so many reasons to love duck, especially duck breast or magret du canard.  I love the slightly tangy flavor of the meat, the juiciness of a rose pink breast and the crunch of crispy cooked skin.   I am more apt to cook a duck breast or confit duck legs than roast a whole duck, perhaps for me the parts are better than the sum.

The duck breast is trimmed of excess fat and sinew and then the skin is scored with a harlequin pattern.  The breast is seasoned on both sides and placed fat side down in a cold pan onto the med heat.  The skin should be golden and crisp, which will take around 10 min, then the breast is flipped onto the meat side.  Continue to cook on the stove top until the internal temperature reaches 52-53C, then remove from the heat and rest for 5 minutes before slicing.  So simple you will need to prepare all your other elements before you begin cooking the duck!

The duck is served with a puree of cumin spiced carrots, which was a surprise.  Usually carrots are only included as an aromatic in most of our recipes to heighten the flavor of sauces, so once their flavor is extracted they are tossed away.   For this preparation the carrots are simply cooked in salted water, pureed with a little cream and cumin.  Just delicious!  This is an easy accompaniment that could make any weeknight meal more special.

This recipe included a new potato preparation, Pommes Anna. Anna potatoes are a classic French dish of sliced, layered potatoes cooked in a very large amount of melted butter.   For our method we peeled the potatoes then used a metal form to cut them into even rounds.  The rounds were then sliced thinly using a mandolin.   To create small a galette, we used a bilini pan to make single serving size.  There are many sizes the galette can be made, the main decision is the size of the pan or form you decide to use.

The galette is cooked on the stove top until the bottom is crispy, then gently – very gently flipped over, to brown the presentation side.  If you try too soon or the top layer is not stuck together with enough butter it could fall apart, so don’t rush or skimp on the butter.  That’s so French – don’t you think?

Continue for Pommes Anna recipe

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Lesson 21 Fish with leek base

There are numerous techniques for cooking fish from whole roasting, poaching, braising and sautéing but in this lesson for the first time – cooking fish in plastic wrap in the oven.  I suppose this is somewhat similar to poaching or cooking sous vide which also uses low temperature cooking.

The balance of the dish was excellent with the gently cooked sea bass filet and beautifully glazed tender baby vegetables.  The fish filet, 700 g, is first liberally sprinkled with salt and placed in the refrigerator to cure for 20 to 25 minutes.   The filet is then rinsed, wrapped in plastic and then portioned into 175 g steaks.  Then placed on a baking tray in the oven set at 65 C.  The steaks can take up to 40 minutes to cook.

In the meantime, the trimmed bottom portion of the leek, slightly green and white, is cooked in salted water until very tender.  It is then drained, patted dry and placed between two pieces of parchment paper and gently flattened with the flat side of a cleaver or a rolling pin.   This will be placed on the plate as a base for the fish.  Done in advance, it can be placed on parchment and rewarmed in the oven at 180 C for 5 minutes then gently slid onto the plate.

The baby vegetables all get the same glazing treatment in separate pans.  Peeled and clean vegetables, a ¼ bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, a little water, a knob of butter, good pinch of salt and a paper lid are placed in a pan on med heat and cooked until the liquid is almost evaporated.  At the end of the cooking process swirl the veg in the pan to glaze with the lovely buttery sauce that has developed.  Ready to plate!

Herb – parsley, tarragon, watercress – leaves and stems are separated.  The leaves blanched in salted water and the stems are chopped and sautéed with butter, onion, a clove of minced garlic and 200 ml of chicken stock until soft.  Then all is pureed in a blender.

The flavors are all very mellow but absolutely delicious!  The fish is delicate and moist and complemented perfectly by the buttery glazed vegetables.   The aromatic coulis adds a splash of color and herbaceous goodness that takes it from bland to bam!

These flavors would also translate well to other white fish such as cod or tilapia or other forms of cooking such as sautéing or poaching, so if sea bass is a little to rich for your pocket book just do a swap.  Use your extra cash for great bottle of Sauvignon Blanc!

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