When you are a stagiere (read, lowly intern) in the cuisine/pastry business, the days have a way of blending into each other. I woke up one day, and summer was over. Fall greeted me with a gust of icy wind as I opened the gate of my apartment building to walk out into the darkness – it was 5:30 am and I was on my way to work. People who say that everyone is rude in Paris have not encountered the men that sweep the streets at the crack of dawn and always greet me with a friendly ‘Bonjour’. It is something small that makes me smile every morning when all I want to do is crawl back into bed.
During the first few weeks of my stage I discovered muscles I had never known existed. My hands and arms were covered with cuts (they hadn’t even given me a knife yet!) and my legs with bruises from bumping into every surface imaginable. I remember my doctor handing me a list last year when I was diagnosed with a knee defect: “Don’t kneel, don’t squat, don’t climb the stairs as far as possible”. Ha! I’d like to see his face if ever sees me at work. The physical exhaustion was something I had mentally prepared myself for; it did not stop me from waking up with stiff muscles, groaning as I took every step and from sometimes falling asleep at 8pm, exhausted beyond belief. When one of my friends asked me how tough it was, I told her to stand and just stay there for the next 10-12 hours, then double that effort. I still have it easy being in pastry; I have friends in cuisine who are working 13-16 hours a day.
But slowly and steadily, you get used to the hard work. The end of the week is still a pain, but I find myself growing stronger every day. And I was lucky enough to find a place with kind people, who are interested in teaching. I work at Carette, a patisserie and salon de thé in the 16eme arrondisement, right next to the Eiffel. Every day as I make tarts or roll croissants, I learn something new. One of the simplest and most fundamental things is that there is a wrong and right (read, more efficient) way to do everything, from the way you apply an egg wash to the way you hold a mop. It is these little things that make a difference. And even though I make mistakes every day (my biggest – dropping an entire tray of macarons), my panicked face is usually met with “C’est pas grave” (it doesn’t matter) and a gentle admonition to be more careful the next time. (The entire first month, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.) And while there are some whose path I try to steer clear of, for the most part, my colleagues are amazing, happy-go-lucky people. (They sing in the kitchen, everyone greets you with a two-cheek-kiss-salut and the chef gets us coffee! The first time he asked me if I wanted some, I wondered if it was a trick question.)
When I first came to Paris and was looking for apartments, I was inclined to reject some based on their miniscule kitchens and lack of a proper oven. But my program coordinator told me that I’d be doing so much in the kitchen at work that I’d rarely have enough energy for anything elaborate at home. And for the most part, she was right. When all you want to do is sink into bed, the bowl of cereal or eggs for dinner start to look really attractive. But there are some times when you crave for something more. Weekends especially have a way of making me want to make something special. It is usually not fancy or elaborate, because you get enough of that at work, but something homely and comforting. My recent attempt was to hold on to the last of summer with these lemon blueberry scones.
Like so many other things, Enid Blyton introduced me to scones – they were usually among other treats weighing down a farm table or gracing a picnic blanket with a side helping of clotted cream. It is difficult to find a good scone in Paris, actually anywhere; so many of them are pale imitations, all dry and crumbly. The secret to these scones is ricotta, which lends them a moist richness – a happy accident I discovered when I was experimenting one day. These scones come out with the most tender crumb. The lemons give it a freshness and the blueberries are like little pools of jam. They are best had the day they are made, butter melting into the delicate crags. As fall graces us with its presence, you can swap out the lemon and blueberries for dried apples and cranberries, add toasted nuts or even cinnamon. Take one out warm from the oven, make a cup of tea and curl up with your favorite book. It’s enough to make me forget even the most tiring day.
Lemon-Blueberry Ricotta Scones
This recipe has been tested and is a Community Pick at Food52
1 large egg
1/2 cup cold buttermilk
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
1/2 cup fresh ricotta
2 cups all purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons /1 stick butter, very cold
1 cup blueberries
1/8-1/4 cup melted butter, for brushing
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Whisk together the egg, buttermilk, lemon juice and lemon zest in a medium bowl until they are well combined.
3. Add the ricotta and whisk it in. It is okay if a few lumps remain.
4. In another large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt.
Dice the cold butter into small cubes. (You can place the butter in the freezer for 15-20 mins before in order to get it very cold.) Add the butter pieces to the flour and toss with a fork just until the butter is coated with flour.
5. Now using a pastry cutter or a fork, cut the butter into the flour until you have a mixture of pea-sized or slightly larger clumps of butter and flour. (The pea-size bits of butter in your dough are responsible for the flakiness of your crust – when the butter melts while baking, it creates an air pocket, which is inflated by the steam created when the liquid evaporates. Result – flaky scones. End of science lesson.)
6. Create a well in the middle of your flour mixture and add the liquid. Starting from the center, work the dry ingredients into the liquid by mixing gently with a fork until it all roughly comes together to form a wet, very sticky mixture. It is okay if there is a little flour at the bottom of your bowl. The main thing is to not overwork the dough. Gently fold in the blueberries with a rubber spatula taking care not to bruise them as far as possible.
7. Turn out the dough onto a well floured space and gently and shortly knead the dough. To do this, pat it down gently and put all the flour bits that were at the bottom of your bowl on top of the dough. Lift one end of the flattened dough and fold it in half over itself. Press it down again, put any bits on top and fold again. Give the dough 3-4 turns like this and it should come together. Don’t overwork the dough.
Finally, pat the dough down into a disk, about 1/2 inch thick. Cut the dough into 8 wedges like a pie. Or cut out rounds with a cookie cutter (2.5-3 inches); don’t twist the cookie cutter while cutting. (This prevents the scones from rising evenly.)
8. Transfer the wedges or rounds to the baking sheet and brush with the melted butter. Bake in the preheated oven for about 15-20 mins until the tops are golden brown. Let cool on a wire rack. These are best when eaten warm from the oven with butter/jam/clotted cream à la the Famous Five.