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Food & Wine Festival
Odyssey Chefs' Showplace
October 1, 2006
The French Ministry of Agriculture
Francois Payard, Payard Patisserie & Bistro
New York City, New York
Champagne Lanson Black Label Brut
Les Clos de Paulilles Banyuls
Pineapple Tea Cakes
Chocolate Pudding Cake
Debra Martin Koma
Senior Editor, ALL EARS®
One of the main reasons I attend some of the pricier dining experiences during Epcot's annual Food and Wine Festival is not to eat or to drink -- it's for education. Learning about how the different dishes are prepared, the food chemistry involved, perhaps discovering little time-saving techniques -- gaining that insight is one of the things that makes spending the money for an upscale event worth it to me. This year's Sweet Sundays event, featuring pastry chef Francois Payard, definitely fulfilled my expectations in that regard, and on many other levels, as well.
I attended a Sweet Sundays event two years ago, the first year the program was offered in fact, and was sorely disappointed. The event was held in the evening, and it was a less than satisfying experience, due in large part to the chef leading the demonstration. I was so turned off that I avoided the program last year, even though they had made changes to the format. This year, however, I decided to give the event another chance, especially when I saw that they were offering it at two morning times. They were also including a light brunch to go along with the three desserts to be prepared by the chef. I opted for the earlier morning session (at 9:30 a.m.) on Sunday October 1, the very first Sweet Sundays of the 2006 Food and Wine Festival.
After we were ushered into the spacious Odyssey and selected a seat, we were invited to partake of a light brunch buffet with beautiful fresh fruit and yogurt dip, bacon, sausage, potato wedges, and two types of frittata (ham and cheese, garden vegetable), as well as orange juice and coffee or tea. Along with the food, we were served a lovely champagne, Lanson Black Label Brut. Yes, it was 9:30 in the morning, but the champagne was light, bubbly and refreshing, and this was, after all, a special occasion. After allowing us about 20 minutes to get our breakfast and eat, cookbook author Pam Smith, who hosted the event, introduced our guest pastry chef, French-born Francois Payard.
Payard, a third-generation pastry chef, came to this country from Nice, via Paris' famed restaurants Tour d'Argent and Lucas Carton. Recently named by Relais Desserts as one of the 80 best pastry chefs in the world, Payard now operates his own eponymous patisserie and bistro in New York City. He also caters special events, and in July opened a new venture, InTent, a casual Mediterranean bistro in Manhattan. Payard, a high-energy, fast-talking man, quickly drew his audience in with his warm and outgoing manner, stating right off the bat, "When I do something, I always do it the right way. Baking is all about technique."
His actions spoke as loud as his words, as we watched, somewhat impressed, as he cracked eggs swiftly with one hand while talking nonstop. He opined on the best equipment to use when making a sweet pastry dough (a feat he accomplished in a mere 10 minutes -- something that would have probably taken me at least four times as long!), offering up snippets of advice for perfecting your technique. For instance, he recommended shifting your dough 1/4-turn after every roll of the rolling pin to ensure an even thickness. Another tip: after pricking the bottom of your tart shell, turn it over and put the side with the holes in it facing DOWN into the pan, to better allow the steam to escape when it bakes. For someone like me, who enjoys baking but doesn't do it nearly often enough to know all the trade secrets, these little gems were well worth scribbling in my notebook.
As a generous portion of pre-baked lemon tart was served to the spectators, Payard spent several minutes garnishing his demonstration tart onstage. As we watched on the overhead monitors, he spoke of how important presentation was, since, particularly with pastry, "First, you have to eat with your eyes!" By the time he was done carefully placing lemon slices and mint leaves, then sprinkling powdered sugar, we could plainly see his point.
He launched enthusiastically into his preparation of the next dessert, little pineapple teacakes, or petit fours. I savored the intense lemon flavor of the tart as the chef deftly filled a pastry bag with the cake batter it took him mere moments to whip up. He then proceeded to squeeze a uniform amount of batter into each of the paper cups aligned in front of him. Again, the process was completed without hesitation or error, and took him perhaps a few minutes. It was clear he had done this a few times. As he garnished the cakes with chunks of fresh pineapple, he spoke the entire time of alternatives -- perhaps you would prefer rum-soaked raisins mixed in this batter? Or maybe pumpkin? And if you can't find the foil cups for the little cakes, use three or four of the paper cups stacked together so that the cakes will hold their shape. These continual suggestions for ways to improve upon your dessert, or your methods, were most welcome, and, as Payard noted, most practical. His emphasis, he said, was on presenting ideas that the everyday cook or chef could use at home, not in a commercial kitchen equipped with all the modern, state-of-the-art appliances.
The pineapple cakes were served to us three to a plate, and were, to my taste, a bit on the plain and dry side -- perhaps a perfect accompaniment for tea or coffee, but not so much with my just refilled glass of champagne. Without missing a beat, Payard moved on to the third and final dessert, and the one that I had been most anticipating -- the Chocolate Pudding Cake. A quick glance at the recipe, which was provided at our place setting, showed this to be a flourless chocolate cake made with sugar, milk, vanilla extract, 1/2-pound of unsalted butter, seven ounces of chocolate and only one egg yolk. I have a favorite flourless chocolate cake recipe that calls for 4 eggs and 16 ounces of chocolate, so I was intrigued. With so much less chocolate and just part of an egg, how would this dessert measure up?
I needn't have wondered. As Payard whisked together his ingredients, he talked not only of what he was doing, but why he was doing it in the order he was doing it. Clearly, the man knew his food-related chemistry, and he called baking "a very precise science." He talked about the importance of bringing your eggs and milk to the same temperature before combining them (called tempering) so that the eggs don't "scramble," and about why you shouldn't boil creme anglaise, just poach it, so the ingredients don't separate. Before we knew it, voila! He was popping the demo cake into the oven, and pulling out a pre-made example so that he could show how to unmold and decorate it.
At this point, Payard insisted that the overhead lights be dimmed quite a bit. After heating up some plain Valrhona chocolate (and it is, as Payard noted, "the best -- and when you bake you should use the best!"), he called on two members of the audience, one man, one woman, to assist him in creating garnishes for the dessert. Once the chocolate was melted to his satisfaction, he entertained the crowd by showing how to tell whether the temperature of the chocolate was correct -- by touching it to his lips, which, he explained, are much more sensitive than your finger and easier to use than a thermometer. Finding it sufficiently "HOT!" he called for a slab of frozen marble and proceeded to slather the melted chocolate on it. Working very quickly, he waited only a few seconds for the chocolate to set, then began scraping off the marble and scrunching it up to make a type of chocolate bow to decorate the cake. He allowed his proteges to try the technique as well, drawing chuckles when he reminded them not to show him up, and requested them to "make me a Mickey, please."
As the chocolate pudding cake was served to the audience, we were also poured a glass of an unusual dessert wine called Les Clos de Paulilles Banyuls. More along the lines of a port or fortified wine, but not quite, this Banyuls is made of 100 percent black grenache grapes. The dark red wine was undeniably sweet, but almost flowery in its bouquet, and paired exceptionally well with the rich, creamy chocolate dessert. In fact, it was the best wine-chocolate combo I've ever tasted, and I've done my share of attempting to pair red wines with chocolate over the years. I'm not a fan of dessert wines in general, but I must say that this particular Banyuls and the Valrhona chocolate was a match made in heaven.
The program drew to a close as 11 a.m. approached and we all sipped our last sips of the Banyuls and scraped our plates for every last morsel of chocolate goodness. There was no real opportunity to linger, since the next Sweet Sunday session was due to start in an hour, but Payard was available for a short time to autograph copies of his new cookbook, "Bite Size," which was being sold in the rear of the restaurant.
In all, I'd rate the format of this program vastly improved over the original, and given that, I'd definitely attend again next year, especially if Chef Payard was again the guest pastry chef. The $60 per person (plus tax) price is a bit on the high side, but the program does include a nice champagne brunch, and the three desserts were definitely of premium quality -- I'd say that if baking and pastries are among your passions, this program would be worth a look.