Students take on French cuisine

"Concours de Cuisine" is an annual event at City High School

IOWA CITY – Follow the aroma of food and you’ll find us.

Those were my directions to this year’s Concours de Cuisine (cooking contest) at City High School – and they were right. I smelled the lemons for the soufflé au citron long before I entered the family and consumer science classroom.

The sound of multiple mixers combined with students’ chatter was my second clue.

For more than 10 years, City High French students have put their cooking skills to the test, whipping up French classics like ratatouille, cassoulet and crepes.

“They have two hours to cook a dish that is either French or from a French-speaking area,” says Tony Balcaen, City High’s French teacher says.

There are two categories – savory and sweet. The students select a recipe and purchase their ingredients, bringing them to school the day of the event.

Nine teams competed in this year’s contest. Some teams were as little as two people and others as large as six. The only rule is that at least one team member must be a French student.

Yes, this event is so popular, even non-French students want to participate.

“There are some students here I’ve never seen before,” Balcaen says as he looks around the room.

The two hours passed quickly as students chopped, whisked and baked. Conversation was plenty, as was laughter, but the cooking itself wasn’t a joking matter. For Concours de Cuisine veterans like Molly Hayes, this year’s contest was an opportunity to achieve the victory that has eluded her and her team the past two years.

“We always do desserts,” Hayes, a junior, says. “We like sweet things.”

Her team’s version of poire belle Hélène – vanilla poached pears and served with ice cream – was served with a madeleine cookie baked from scratch.

“It’s fun to make things look professional,” Hayes says.

Sophomore Ibrahim Keita returned to the competition after winning last year’s savory category with chicken Marengo.

“It was fun last year, so I decided to try again,” he says.

Ibrahim and his team increased their level of difficulty this year, preparing chateaubriand with béarnaise sauce and génoise aux fruits (a French sponge cake with fruit and cream).

Newcomer Jill Swanson and her teammates -- Lizzy Ronan and Shonay Joe – chose not to play it safe their first time out, making a Bûche de Noël.

This classic dessert is made from a sponge cake baked in a large, shallow pan. This is frosted, then rolled to form a cylinder, and frosted again to resemble a log.

“Whipping the eggs took forever,” Swanson, a sophomore, says. “They would not whip.”

Rolling the cake to form the log wasn’t easy, either, but the work was worth it. Bûche de Noël took first place in the dessert category, while the soufflé au fromage prepared by ninth graders Alex Murra, Lauren Hudachek, Abby Dickson and Sonali Durham was awarded first place in the savory category.

 Soufflé au fromage (cheese soufflé)

  • 1 teaspoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup boiling milk
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon pepper
  • Pinch of nutmeg
  • Pinch of Cheyenne
  • 5 egg whites
  • 4 egg yolks
  • Coarsely grated cheese (3/4 to 1 cup)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Measure all of your ingredients. Butter inside of soufflé mold and sprinkle with cheese.

Melt the butter in the saucepan. Stir in the flour with a wooden spatula and cook over moderate heat until butter and flour form together for two minutes without browning. Remove from heat; when mixture has stopped bubbling, pour in all the milk at once. Beat vigorously with a wire whip until blended. Beat in the seasonings and return over moderately high heat and boil, stirring with whisk for a minute. Sauce should be very thick. Remove from heat.

Immediately start to separate the eggs. Drop the whites into one bowl and add the egg yolks into the center of the sauce mixture. Beat the yolk into the sauce with the wire whip. Continue in the same manner with the rest of the eggs. Dot the top of the sauce with butter. Heat to tepid before continuing.

Add an extra egg white to the ones in the bowl and beat with the salt until stiff. Stir a big spoonful into the sauce. Stir in all but a tablespoon the cheese. Delicately fold in the rest of the egg whites.

Turn the soufflé mixture into the prepared mold, which should be almost ¾ full. Tap the bottom of the mold lightly on the table and smooth the surface of the soufflé with the flat of a knife. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Set on a rack in the middle of the preheated 400-degrees oven and immediately turn down heat to 375 degrees. Do not open the door for 20 minutes. In 25 to 30 minutes, the soufflé will have puffed about 2 inches over the rim of the mold, and the top will be nicely browned. Bake 4 to 5 minutes more to firm it up; serve immediately.

Bûche de Noël

Filling ingredients

  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • ½ cup confectioners’ sugar
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cake ingredients

  • 6 egg yolks
  • ½ cup white sugar
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 6 egg yolks
  • ¼ cup white sugar
  • Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a 10-and-a-half-inch jelly roll pan with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whip cream and ½ cup confectioners’ sugar, ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract until thick and stiff. Set aside.

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat egg yolks with ½ cup of sugar until thick. Blend in 1/3 cup cocoa, 1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract and salt.

In a large glass bowl, using clean beaters, whip egg whites to soft peaks. Gradually add ¼ cup white sugar and beat until whites form stiff peaks. Immediately fold the yolk mixture into the whites. Spread the batter even into the prepared pan.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes in the preheated oven, or until the cake springs back when lightly touched. Dust a clean dish towel with confectioners’ sugar. Run a knife along the edge of the pan and turn the warm cake onto the towel. Remove and discard the parchment paper. Starting at the short edge of the cake, roll the came up with a towel. Cook for 30 minutes.

Unroll the cake. Spread the filling within one inch of the edge. Roll the cake with the filling inside. Place seam side down onto a serving plate and refrigerate until serving. Dust with confectioners’ sugar before serving.

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