For quite a while now I’ve looked forward to the day when I’d do a little actual journalism on this silly site…interview some working bakers and get some real-world perspectives on what’s happening in the trade. Today, my friends, is that day. And I’m off to a great start — especially given my topic for the week — with Camille Malmquist. Camille is a former English teacher and California School of Culinary Arts grad, now living and working in Paris, where she’s employed as a pastry chef at Pâtisserie Couderc, a small neighborhood bake shop that 10best.com calls one of Paris’ best. Camille and I recently sat down over coffee at our consoles, and this was the result:
How did you come to work in Paris?
Finding a job in Paris wasn’t easy, despite having five years of experience and valid work papers. Everyone wanted to see some experience in France. Eventually, I found a family-owned pâtisserie that was willing to give me a chance. I started out working as a pâtissière, and soon began learning the chocolaterie side of the business as well. Now I am responsible for the production of the ganaches and pralinés, as well as some of the pastry production.
Do you have a favorite thing to bake?
Strangely enough, I don’t do any actual baking – as in cooking things in the oven – at my current job. That’s for the boulangers. But in general I like any task that I can finish quickly or do simultaneously. I always kind of enjoyed laminating croissant dough, because I could accomplish other things on my list while waiting for the dough to chill between turns. Plus, the result is so impressive – I love looking at all those layers of butter! At home I tend towards simple pleasures: crumbles, free-form fruit tarts, anything that doesn’t dirty too many dishes! Making ice cream is one of my favorite projects…I really miss my ice cream maker, which is back home in storage.
Do you have a baking philosophy?
Use the best possible ingredients. I don’t believe in fat-free dairy products, artificial sweeteners, canned fruit, or food coloring. Treat your sugar with respect, and bow down to your chocolate, or they will make your life miserable, but be sure to let them know who’s boss.
Do you have any baking heroes?
Pierre Hermé, because he’s a living legend among pastry chefs and dessert lovers, and because his creations are first and foremost delicious, but always beautiful, too. Véronique Mauclerc, because she is a woman thriving in the male-dominated bread business in Paris. Christophe Vasseur, of Du Pain et Des Idées, because he changed careers (which is generally looked down upon, or at least with skepticism, here in France) to follow his passion for artisan bread. And Rhonda Ruckman, my friend and (I know she hates this word) mentor, who taught me a lot of what I know about working with pastry, and who had the courage to strike out on her own.
What’s your favorite part about working in France?
The 40-hour workweek! Seriously, though, the availability of quality ingredients is probably the best thing about cooking in general in France. In particular, for baking, the butter is better, and it’s much easier to find cream without any stabilizers in it.
What are the main differences between French and American approaches to pastry?
The French are very traditional in their approach. You start at 16, and the training is rigorous. The methods are rigid, and there isn’t much questioning of the Way Things Are Done. In the States, it seems to be a much more individual process. The path to becoming a working pastry chef is much less clear, and as a result, requires a bit more drive and passion to pursue. Creativity and innovation are highly regarded and desirable traits.
Can the two learn anything from one another?
I think the French would definitely benefit from being a little more open-minded, though their strict adherence to classic technique is admirable. I do believe that you should have a really good handle on the fundamentals before trying to improvise. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for experiential learning – if you don’t know the rules, you don’t know not to break them, and sometimes that can yield exciting new discoveries.
What do you hope to do next?
I’m trying to benefit as much as possible from my time in Paris, which I know is limited. I would love to get a chance to learn about artisan bread baking, or maybe get some more in-depth experience with chocolate and confectionery. Beyond that, my goal is to make money writing about food. My husband keeps trying to fill my head with romantic notions of opening my own chocolate shop, but I’m hesitant. We’ll see.
Are there any emerging trends in pastry that you think are noteworthy?
It would be ignorant not to mention molecular gastronomy, though for what it’s worth, I’m just not that interested in it. Macarons are incredibly trendy right now, I’d be interested to see if they catch on in the States to the degree that cupcakes did a few years ago. One trend I’m very excited about is the emergence of artisan chocolate manufacturers in the US. Small American companies such as DeVries and Patric are doing some truly excellent things with chocolate these days, and I hope to see more of that in the future.
What kind of sweet do you eat when nobody’s looking?
I’m going to have to say Girl Scout cookies – specifically Samoas, Caramel Delights, or whatever they’re calling them these days.
Can you share any tips with us about making a good chocolate mousse?
Egg whites have no place in chocolate mousse. Four ingredients, that’s all you need. Egg yolks, sugar, chocolate, cream. My favorite method starts with pâte à bombe, into which melted chocolate is thoroughly mixed. The whole thing is then lightened with loosely whipped cream. The chocolate should be quite warm when you incorporate it into the pâte à bombe, so it doesn’t form lumps. Make sure the chocolate-egg mixture is completely homogeneous and not too warm before continuing. Fold in the cream in at least three additions to ensure even chocolate distribution and to maintain what air is whipped into the cream. The best chocolate mousses, in my opinion, are on the runny side when they’re just made, and set up to a luscious, intensely chocolaty delight.
Well that’s it — thanks Camille! For more of what Camille has to say about life and work in Paris, visit her online at Croque Camille. And if you’re a professional baker — a pastry chef, bread baker, candy maker, shop owner, test kitchen chef or internationally renowned baking and pastry celebrity — drop me a line! I’d love to interview you for an installment of Joe’s Real World. And now back to my usual nonsense…