Most invitations don’t come with a warning, but the one I received from Eric Fraudeau, owner of Cook ‘n with Class, did. “I hope you’re not afraid of butter,” he said after inviting me to take part in the baking class offered at his school on Montmarte’s rue Custine. Intrigued—and maybe just a little intimidated—I accepted.
So, for slightly more than three hours on a beautiful Friday afternoon, I learned the secrets behind the making of the croissant and the various uses of croissant dough. Along with five other women—three Americans, a Brit and an Aussie—we pounded a pound of butter, rolled and folded the dough…and then folded it some more. After we had our 80 layers of proper croissant dough, our little class learned how to roll it into that familiar crescent shape, how to add sticks of chocolate to make pain au chocolat, and how to roll, cut and flatten it to create delicious pain aux raisins.
Our fearless instructor was Pino Ficara, an Italian-born and raised chef trained in New York and relocated to Paris (with his American wife). His almost lyrical narrative was full of fascinating and thoroughly quotable facts. “Salt is the enemy of yeast,” he said when talking about the fermentation of yeast in dough. When warning us about placing bread dough on top of the warm stove, he said, “There is sugar in it, and if you keep it there, the yeast will be so happy it will explode.”
Now, about that butter. As almost anyone who has ever enjoyed an authentic French croissant knows, it just oozes butter with every bite. Within the first 30 minutes of the class, the reason why was clear: there’s almost as much butter in it as there is flour. We rolled out 10 ounces of butter, which is two-thirds of a pound, which covered two-thirds of our rolled out dough comprising a pound of flour.
In addition to his lively presentation skills, Pino was a repository of culinary information. After touting the virtues of using fresh vanilla pods and demonstrating how to scrape the pulp from a split one, he placed the used husk into a separate jar filled with dozens of other husks and a liquid that turned out to be cheap, dark rum. “This is how you make pure vanilla extract,” he explained. As the person who controlled this jar, I couldn’t stop inhaling that wondrous, extraordinary aroma. Pino also taught us about the different kinds of yeast and why some are better for some uses than others.
In addition to the croissant dough, Pino taught us how to make a fougasse, the French version of focaccia bread. Ours was topped with fresh pepperoni and cheese. Unlike the croissant dough, which needs to be refrigerated overnight (we prepared one for the class and used another that had been made the day before), the fougasse was prepared from start to finish during the class.
As much fun as it was to create these baked treasures under the guidance of Pino, the best part was, of course, sampling everything. And, in case there was ever any doubt, I can say that there is nothing more exquisite than biting into a pain au chocolat just out of the oven, or tearing into a croissant that is still warm. But when Pino produced a piping bag stuffed with the filling for a raspberry (framboise) macaron and suggested squeezing some onto the croissant, I discovered a new level of “even better.”
The four-year old school, which happens to be TripAdvisor’s Top Attraction in Paris, was created by Eric Fraudeau to teach the art of French cooking to everyone and anyone. This chef, entrepreneur and absolutely charming Frenchman has worked in some of the best restaurants around the world, including Montreal and New York, rubbing aprons with the likes of Robuchon and Ducasse.
Classes are held morning, afternoon and evening, offering market visits, wine and cheese tastings, and classes for pastries, macarons and French cuisine. While the instructors are all multi-national (and as personable as Pino), all classes are taught in English. There are no more than six students per class, so everyone gets to get their hands dirty and join in the fun.
And, trust me, if you’re afraid of butter going in to the class, you’ll find that your fear has been conquered and vanquished by the end of it.
Cook ‘n’ With Class
21, rue Custine
Metro: Jules Joffrin