Thursday, February 02, 2006

Frenchy's Chocolate Torte

Last year I worked for the most demanding person I have ever met. He was the pastry chef of a super-exclusive private club, and I was his assistant. It was the kind of job you take for the learning experience, even if you have to remind yourself of that fact every single morning on the way to work.

Frenchy was paranoid of many things; he thought the management was out to get him, that other cooks were sabotaging his work, and he even blamed many problems on his long-departed ex-wife. But above all of this, he was scared that we were going to steal his recipes.

We had a big white binder for all the daily recipes the pastry cooks needed. Bread dough, chocolate chip cookies, pastry cream and creme brulee, to name a few. But any recipes for special desserts, like lemony madeleaines or petit sable cookies, were kept hidden away from us poor amateurs in Frenchy's small leather-bound notebook.

His little notebook entered the kitchen every morning at 6:30 am by his side, accompanied by his red toolbox. They lived on the small metal shelf above his corner of the work bench, where his keen eye could focus on them at any moment. He would pull his small notebook from the shelf, flip to the appropriate page, and recite the weighted measurements of ingredients. It was my job to weigh them all out for him, doing my best to recall measurements from memory. Sometimes I would be allowed to jot down the list on a scrap of paper, but not in my personal recipe book. "Are you trying to steal my recipes?" he would invariably ask. "No, Chef," I would reply. "I just want to be accurate." Usually he would grunt in response.

I knew he had a measure of respect for me as he never called me names or insulted my work, like he did with his other assistants. My schedule was often shifted at the last minute so I would be available to assist him. I heard on the kitchen grapevine that he was singing my praises, but he was too proud to compliment me to my face. Until one day he gave me the greatest compliment of all- he placed his notebook of recipes, all hand written in neat French script, into my hands. Not only did he let me read it, he pointed out recipes and encouraged me to copy them down, helping me translate into English.

A paranoid chef sharing his prized recipes. This proud man, who could be heard shouting, "I know you're trying to steal my job!", and yet here he was, leaning on the metal counter, translating those secret recipes, the holy Grail of the pastry kitchen. So the moment he passed his little leather book to me is forever imprinted in my mind.

In between the shouting matches, criticism and complaining, there were moments of peace. He began to consult with me when designing a menu for special guests. He let me design and construct a four-level birthday cake for a member. Once he even told me that I did a good job. We worked side by side for the better part of seven months, and every few days he would open up his little book of secrets and share them with me, a page at a time. I was deemed worthy of his recipes.

The last week we worked together, he and I made a flourless chocolate and almond torte. Rich and creamy on the tongue, with a gentle chewiness lent by the sliced almonds. And it came from a French baking magazine. We ate the torte, a small piece each, and he asked me, "Did you copy down the recipe?" "Yes," I said. "Good," he replied. "But don't write it down in the binder. I don't want to share it."

I can't say I was shocked that he took this recipe from a magazine and copied it into his book of 'secret' recipes. I wondered how many men and women clipped that magazine article and kept it with their own collection. But chefs operate with different rules than the average cook; we cannot call a recipe our “own” unless we have developed it ourselves, a highly lengthy process for a pastry chef. The secret was out: the recipes were common.

I will never forget that summer I worked for him. I gained a world of knowledge about pastry arts and a small handwritten book of recipes. But I will not confine these gems to live without being used and enjoyed. I want to share them with the world. I wonder what Frenchy would say if he read this. I imagine he would laugh, and curse me.

Flourless Almond Chocolate Torte

150g dark chocolate
100g milk chocolate
175g unsalted butter
125g sugar
100g ground almonds
4 eggs
125g sliced almonds
One 9 inch pan, preferably springform.
2 tbsp sugar mixed with 2 tbsp almond powder (for the pan)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Prepare the pan: Grease with some butter, then line with parchment. Grease the parchment with more butter, and pour in the sugar/almond mixture. Be sure to cover all surfaces. Shake out excess.
3. Melt chocolate in a bain maire, over simmering water.
4. Stir in butter and remove from heat. Allow to cool.
5. Using a stand mixer or hand mixer, beat together eggs and sugar until the ribbon stage (tripled in volume).
6. Stir cooled chocolate mixture into eggs.
7. Fold in almond powder.
8. Fold in sliced almonds, reserving 1 tbsp.
9. Pour batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle reserved almonds on top. Also you can sprinkle 1 tbsp sugar on top for a little crunch.

Bake approximately 40 minutes, less for convection ovens or hot ovens. Prick the cake with a toothpick to test for doneness. It will remain quite soft, but should not be liquid. Allow to cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then run a knife along the pan before removing.