Tonight was the first class in which I learned how to do something that I doubt I would ever have gotten right from reading and trial and error on my own: make a consommé. A consommé is a crystal-clear intensely-flavored stock, usually a meat stock. It is used to make simple but very elegant soups that have the appearance of, say, a pristinely clear ocean reef where you can see everything for many feet below the surface. A classic consommé is often served by presenting the garnishes (often chopped cooked vegetables) in a warmed bowl and then pouring the clarified broth over them at the table.
From my reading about making consommé, I knew that you cook some vegetables, ground meats, and egg whites into your stock, and the proteins in the meats and eggs bind to the very small particles in your stock that cause it to be a tiny bit cloudy (if it was well-made, or incredibly cloudy if it's a typical homemade stock where you've simply tossed everything in a pot and boiled the hell out of it). The meats, eggs and vegetables used to flavor and clarify the consommé are then allowed to rise to the surface as the stock gently simmers, and they quickly form a "raft" (that is the official term) at the top of the pot. It was difficult for me to imagine exactly how this worked from reading about it, and I had never tried it at home.
The procedure that Chef Matthew, the assistant to our head instructor Chef Marc, showed us was to mix very lean ground beef (as lean as possible) with julienned carrots, leeks, and celery, and some egg white. Then you pour your warmed stock (a bit warmer than room temperature, but not so warm that the egg whites cook) over that, and thoroughly mix it with a whisk. Put the whole mess back in the stock pot, and bring it almost to a boil, stirring very frequently to prevent any of the proteins from burning on the bottom of the pot. Just before it boils, all of the meat, eggs, and vegetables will have risen to the top and become foamy-looking but almost solid. You must never let the liquid fully boil, or it will break the raft and destroy your clear consommé. As it begins to cook very slowly, you gently work a small hole into the center of the raft, and carefully ladle stock out of that hole and pour it around the surface of the raft, basically using the raft as a filter to remove particles from the liquid you put on top and let soak through it back into the pot. You simmer and ladle it in this way for most of an hour, and then strain it through cheesecloth by ladling it out through the small hole in the center of the raft, and season it with some salt before serving.
My partner and I made one of the more successful consommés tonight. Chef Marc complimented us on its flavor and clarity, but said that we had over-salted it. It did look quite beautiful, made from a beef and burnt onion stock, very dark reddish brown, and crystal clear.
The raft, when you are finished, is a semi-solid mass of an ugly gray color, looking a little like pureed and cooked chicken liver with some overcooked slivers of julienned vegetables in it. Chef Matthew mentioned that he'd heard that one junior chef in a restaurant had been given the leftover raft from making consommé and told to prepare the family meal, or staff meal, out of it. He breaded and fried it.