Years before relocating to Paris I worked in restaurants. The most notable being Ristorante Ecco (now closed) in San Francisco's hip South Park area which was one of the top ten Italian restaurants for years (anyone remember it?). I worked as Garde Manger preparing hot and cold appetizers, gourmet salads, and assembling all the desserts during service.
Easily this was a job meant for several people but I managed. One day our pastry chef quit. She was also working for the famous restaurant, Stars, in SF and couldn't handle both. I was asked to take her place while continuing with my Garde Manger position since we had a small cooking staff and none of the other Chef's had any extra prep time. Baking for the first time in a restaurant was a total nightmare. Thank God Italian desserts are much simpler than French ones!
I made every costly mistake in the book. Including not tempering the eggs right for our Creme Brulée, using bread flour for a cake that required all-purpose flour (the bins weren't labeled – how was I to know?), cooking cheesecake until it wasn't jiggly in the center and not letting it set afterwards, wasting over ten kilos of Valronna chocolate because I didn't temper it right – oh the list is endless!
There were many nights when the servers would tell the clientele that we were "sold out" of a particular dessert because I messed it up during the day and didn't have time to go back and re-bake it. I learned the hard way without the aid of a fancy cooking school education how to bake. And I did get really good.
Fast forward to Summer of Paris 2005. I decided to go to cooking school and relearn all the things I had done wrong. I started my education at Le Cordon Bleu with a basic pastry class. I thought I was going to be best in class due to my vast experience in desserts. I was sure that no one would equal my skill, speed, or artistic creativity. I was wrong.
Parisian desserts are a science. They are not "a little bit of this and a little bit of that" like Italian desserts. On our first day we were given scales to weigh ingredients as opposed to the traditional measuring cups, a full case of knives and pastry utensils, and an enormous notebook with recipes covering every famous French pastry and cake that you can imagine.
Our first recipes included several tried and true French tea cakes and biscuits – the Madeleine included. I whizzed through the first recipes faster than anyone in the class. My pastry skills and muscle memory seemed to come back naturally. Even the teachers were impressed. And then came the Madeleines.
I whipped through the simple recipe – maybe too fast – and waited for the rest of the class to catch up so we could put our little cakes in the oven at the same time. When the oven buzzer went off I was excited to see my shell-like cakes with the traditional little bump on the other side (a phenomena that no one can explain, but signifies a well baked Madeleine).
I was even more excited to taste their buttery spongy-ness. Our beloved pastry chef took out the cakes and stacked them on the cooling racks. One looked particularly horrible. The Madeleines had puffed up too much and formed one cake over the whole tray and the ingredients seperated.
I remember thinking, "Oh, I'm sooooo glad those aren't mine. How embarrasing." and then when I couldn't identify my cakes as any of the other perfect golden brown delicacies, I went nervously to see whose name was on the ugly batch.
Yup, they were mine. The chef came over to me and said in broken English, "Zheese ahre yourz?" with a look that can only be compared to one who has seen the Grim Reaper in person.
"I guess so." I replied, close to tears. He then proceeded to quiz me on how I made them and if I had measured everything perfectly. I assured him that I had. "Zhees happens you know, with zhis biscuit and no one knowz why" he comforted me. He popped one in his mouth and told me they tasted excellent. They did taste good at least.
I have made these several times since and I haven't had the same problem. Most likely, I rested the batter longer than every one else's in an extremely hot classroom and perhaps I wasn't as exact with my measurements as I should have been.
This little cake taught me some lessons: there is no place for ego in the kitchen, be exact when baking a recipe for the first time, learn from your mistakes. Madeleines are a specialty of the northeastern French town, Commercy. They are baked in shell-shaped molds and often served with tea.