To My Brilliant Cooking Teacher Madeleine Kamman

Dear Madeleine,

kamman1.jpgYou 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.

makingcook.jpgI 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.

genoiserecipe.jpg 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

6 eggs
1 cup plus 2 tbsp. flour, sifted
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1½ tablespoons vanilla extract
6 tablespoons clarified butter
Butter the baking pan and lightly dust with flour the bottom of the pan only. Warm the unbroken eggs in warm water. Sift the flour. Preheat a 3- to 4- quart bowl with boiling water; dry it. Break the eggs into the bowl and place it on a protective pad over a stove burner on medium low heat; use a metal protector for an electric stove, asbestos or metal for a gas stove. Start beating the eggs immediately with the electric mixer. Add sugar little by little in a regular stream. Add the salt.
Within seconds the batter will swell considerably. Continue beating until a light ribbon forms and the mixture feels frankly "warm" to the finger; the eggs start poaching and the sugar forms a syrup, trapping the already dilating air in the foam. Remove the bowl from the heat, add the flavoring, and continue beating until cold; a twisting ribbon will fall from the beaters. Do not let the batter reach the soft-peak stage or the cake will look and taste cotton-like.
Return the already sifted flour to the sifter. Sift one third of its total volume on top of the egg foam. Fold the flour into it, using a large rubber spatula or your right hand with the fingers extended. Repeat the same operation with the other two thirds of the flour. Do not add the flour in more than three additions or the cake will be overfolded.
Gently pour half of the butter on top of the batter. Try to catch it with your spatula before it has time to fall to the bottom of the bowl. Fold only until the butter is incorporated; repeat with the remainder of the butter.
Holding the bowl very low over the prepared cake pan, pour the batter into it very slowly. Bake the cake on the lowest rack of a reheated 350F. degree oven. The air dilation and steam pressure will continue regularly and evenly. Test doneness as you would any other cake. Do not let the cake shrink too much from the pan sides. Invert on a cake rack as soon as removed from the oven.
Baking time:  40 minutes
Recipe from: THE MAKING OF A COOK by Madeleine Kamman, Copyright 1971, First Edition


Brenda Athanus runs a small gourmet food shop in Belgrade Lakes, Maine with her sister Tanya called the Green Spot.

The Green Spot
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