A French cooking class can be a little overwhelming for someone whose experience in the kitchen has been limited to making eggs and tossing salads. Especially so when people with intimidating titles such as “French chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu” are going to conduct the proceedings. But that makes the cooking class more professional than the regular mom-and-pop variety conducted at various homes in Mumbai.
Pooja Dhingra recently opened Le 15 Patisserie in Parel—a kitchen space from where she sells her pastries and also conducts cooking classes with her friend and consultant from France, chef Marie Kakouridis. The two spent a year at Le 15ème Arrondissement in Paris, studying to be pastry chefs at Le Cordon Bleu.
I signed up for the French home cooking session, but you can also learn French fine dining, French bistro cooking and vegetarian French cooking. Kakouridis is also experimenting with including Indian ingredients such as paneer (cottage cheese) in French dishes.
The menu for our cooking class was basic—French onion soup, chicken with creamy mustard sauce, and crepes. Kakouridis says she loves the quality of vegetables available here and shops for all her ingredients from the local markets. This makes it easy for people to go back home and try out the dishes. If the recipe requires any gourmet ingredients, she suggests Nature's Basket—that’s where the Gruyère for our soup came from. For her Indian audiences, she has tweaked the original recipes that require beef stock or veal meat to include chicken instead.
French connection: Kakouridis (left) and Dhingra also hold weekly classes on making cupcakes. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
She hands me a pink apron and we get to work—she cooks while I watch. Every good thing starts with a dollop of butter and so does our soup. Once the butter has melted, she adds chopped onions and some sugar to caramelize them. While we wait for the onions to caramelize, I learn that the French use condiments and vegetables such as shallots, carrots, leeks and onions to add flavour to their dishes rather than spices. “We don’t have a thing called chilli powder, our strongest spice would be white pepper. I prefer less salt as well,” she says.
The enticing aroma of onions frying in butter fills the small, low-ceilinged kitchen. Kakouridis uses an induction plate instead of cooking on flame because of the small space. Ingredients are neatly chopped and lined up beforehand and the class is more of a demonstration exercise. For 12 people to actually chop and stir in that space would be difficult. She puts in the bouquet garni (a bundle of fresh herbs tied together with a string) into the boiling soup. “I use a parsley string to tie them together. Or you would have to be fishing for the string in the soup if it opens up,” she laughs.
Once the soup is ready and placed in the oven for 15 minutes, we get to the chicken. “Always butter,” says the chef, and follows it up with some cream as well. “The French believe in eating smaller portions, but eating well.” Kakouridis also suggests using the mustard chicken as the filling for the crepes.
The chicken is a simple dish and doesn’t take long to make. She then shows me how to beat the batter for crepes. To find out if the batter is made well, check for bubbles. More bubbles indicate the crepe will be airy. Another trick to check for perfect consistency: Dip the ladle in the mixture, and then trace a line down the back of the ladle with your forefinger. The consistency is just right if you turn the ladle around and the batter from one side of the line does not cross over to the other side.
Kakouridis is a friendly instructor, in love with Mumbai, and a mine of information on food, but you have to prod a little to get her to speak. I was hoping she would concentrate some more on the smaller details, such as demonstrating how to make the bouquet garni. But she does give out quite a few important cooking tips.
The dishes we make are simple and take some of the mystery out of French cooking. I try my hand at flipping a crepe in the air and almost succeed. The crepe doesn’t stick to the roof or fall on the floor, but doesn’t flip over either. It’s all about practice, she assures me.
Then comes the best part, that of trying the dishes. The chicken with the mild mustard flavour combines a slight crunch of onions and a creamy sauce, the soup is flavourful although it’s best had as soon as it’s ready. By the time we try it, the cheese has gone slightly chewy and stringy.
After a few false starts, the crepes turn out just right—crispy on the sides and soft in the middle. I left the small kitchen clutching the folder of recipes, a pink apron to mark the day I cooked French food, and the smell of butter and bouquet garni in my hair.
For more details, visit http://blog.le15.co.in. For classes (Rs2,000 per class), call Pooja Dhingra at 9820487727.
Chicken with creamy mustard sauce serves 4
4 chicken breasts
15g strong mustard
Flour to dust the chicken
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the chicken breast into 1cm thick strips and dust with flour. Add butter into a heated pan and lightly brown the chicken in it. Add chopped onions to the chicken and sauté. Season with salt and pepper. The chicken will release moisture that’ll mix with the butter. Mix the mustard in this chicken-butter sauce on the side of the pan. Pour the cream and cook on very slow flame till the cream boils. Reduce the cream till thick and serve.