Staring through a patisserie window at a fancy cake draped in fondant with chocolate shavings and ribbons of icing is like gazing at a Botticelli—so beautifully contrived, so perfectly constructed, so pretty—it’s something you want to possess, but could never create. It is then, with hope, desire and a certain sense of trepidation, that I signed up for my first cooking class at the esteemed Maison Christian Faure Pastry School (upstairs from their café and pastry shop) in Old Montreal.
Could I create a work of gastronomic art? I was certainly going to the school of a master to learn.
I had recently been wowed by Chef Faure at an event in Toronto (where he plans to open another pastry shop and school). As well as founding the first international institution in Canada to teach the art of French pastry making, he has also earned the esteemed title of best pastry chef in the world.
Which brings me to a cool but sunny Saturday morning in April as I embarked on a daylong workshop in the art of making a chocolate charlotte at a “serious amateurs” class at Faure’s school in Old Montreal.
The chocolate charlotte is a cake made with a ladyfinger cookie crust, filled with Bavarian vanilla cream, and layered with chocolate mousse, based on the traditional 18th century recipe.
Today’s visiting chef and chief instructor, Gérard Taurin, addresses the room:
“C’est un gateau qui est simple mais très complique.” It’s a cake that is simple but very complicated. It’s simple in that you are assembling three basic recipes, difficult in that its execution is very exacting.
Although Taurin is instructing in French, Lisa Falocco—one of the other instructors—translates into English.
“Patisserie ce n’est pas la cuisine.”
“Pastry making is not cooking.”
Throughout the morning, Chef Taurin demonstrates how to make the cake. We gather around as he sieves dry ingredients, melts chocolate to 45 degrees, brings it down to 35 degrees, stirring constantly, and whips the egg whites. (You begin whipping at low speed, with a pinch of sugar until little bubbles are formed and it turns white like snow and forms small peaks). To demonstrate its firmness, he holds the bowl upside down over the head of student Paul Arthur. Fortunately for Paul Arthur, Chef Taurin is a master of the perfectly whipped egg white.
Then we break for what was referred to as “a snack”— a delicious salmon quiche and green salad with a glass of wine, eaten around tables on the fourth floor. Then it’s back to the classroom. This time, it’s our turn.
This is the fun part. I have learnt over lunch that, like me, everyone in the class has “un passion” for pastry making. But we all have day jobs. From finance to occupational therapy to editor and student, we share baking and pastry making as a hobby. I begin to relax.
As we work, several assistants and the chef move between our tables, coaching us on when whipping is not enough, and when it could become too much, on how to pipe the ladyfinger batter into diagonal strips, and how to form it into a circle.
By 4:00 p.m., each of us has put the finishing touches on our very own chocolate charlotte. We gather side by side for a picture, our cakes proudly displayed in front of us. Then we are given boxes to take them home, and get our certificates of participation.
As I leave, I have a smile on my face. I remember celebrating my kids’ many firsts. Now this is a first of my own.