You probably don’t remember me, but as you read this it may all come back to you after the leagues of students that you have mentored pass by in a blur. You changed my life and I’m sure there is a long line behind me. The first time that I came to your cooking school in Newton Center, Massachusetts with Heidi Wortzel to introduce me, I was where I had always dreamed of being. The smells on the outside of the entrance pale in comparison to how wonderful it smelled inside. Students were whirling around, busy making puff pastry and tending to their pots on the stove tops all with smiles on their faces.
It was magical..I remember thinking you were so busy but so very welcoming as you talked about your school. The brick walls were covered with well-used, brightly-polished copper pots and oddly an upside down framed autograph from Paul Bocuse. It was where I wanted to be and I couldn’t wait to roll up my sleeves and learn all that I could.
I talked to you about appling for the chef’s course and you said that I had to make a genoise frosted with a simple butter cream and bring it in for your approval to see if I had a chance to be admitted. I signed up that day for as many other classes that had openings and left with your book.
On my way home I thought the world was my oyster. How lucky to have found someone so brilliant and so early in my life. But what the heck was a Genoise? I panicked that I would never be admitted to chef’s course not knowing what a genoise was and I wanted to be admitted so badly.
Grabbing all my mother’s cookbook I started researching genoise cake, devouring all the information that existed and back then there wasn’t a whole lot. Back in Maine in my kitchen I got all the ingredients, including the freshest eggs and unsalted butter, which I had never used in baking before and started cooking for my future or not. The first cake was a disaster, a mere 3 inches high, the second cake was maybe a little higher not not much.
I fretted, maybe it was how I was “catching” the butter, maybe I was over folding so I studied the proper way to fold and started my third cake. By this time I am frantic and my last 3 eggs rolled off the counter, onto the floor and broke. Time to go back to farm and get more eggs, maybe a couple of dozen because it looked like a long night ahead.
I made 6 cakes, frosted them all with butter cream, boxed them, put them in the trunk of my car and headed back to Massachusetts with tears in my eyes. I was devastated, humiliated, exhausted and soon I thought to be publicly embarrassed, but I was determined to take all my cakes to you to show that I was really serious and needed to come to your school because I had a lot to learn. I couldn’t even make a genoise! In I walked carrying my 6 white cake boxes, everyone staring at me like I was making a delivery from the bagel shop . Madeleine, you immediately saw me and asked what I had brought in the six boxes. I said “my cake” but why six boxes? I wanted you to pick your favorite.
You sort of laughed but not really. I opened all the boxes and showed you my cakes. There was silence for the longest time or so I thought and then you started laughing, "Brenda, you have the highest, lightest most beautiful genoise I have seen today. European cakes are never high, they have no baking powder." I couldn’t be hearing correctly or was it a dream but if it was a dream it lasted for 4 wonderful years.
Madeleine you taught us to cook by starting with the basic like eggs with a small amount of flour and the next class, eggs with more flour until we understood the principals of omelets to brioche. You taught us to pay attention to what was happening in the bowl, in the oven or on the cutting boards. We watched, we tasted, we listened and we learned the basics. You taught us about regional cooking in france by talking about the composition of the soil, what kind of weather in that area and what kind of food could grow successful. It made perfect sense! I don’t know if going through the front door of your school on that first day was ultimate luck or was I showing up for my destiny or maybe it was a combination of both but no day goes by that I am not grateful for my passion for cooking and I thank you for that.
Fine 6-egg Genoise
Brenda Athanus runs a small gourmet food shop in Belgrade Lakes, Maine with her sister Tanya called the Green Spot.
The Green Spot