Butter Cream

By (author): Denise Roig

What happens when a 56-year-old fiction writer decides to ditch it all and attend professional pastry chef school for a year? In writing that brings to mind the work of journalist/chef Michael Ruhlman, Butter Cream: A Year in a Montreal Pastry School tells the story of eleven months of whipping, spreading and creaming in the pursuit of perfection. A chronicle of an intense year of learning and tasting, dramas at the stove and in the locker room, Butter Cream is about fights, friendship and competition, fallen cakes and rising doughs. And sometimes, unexpectedly, the sheer joy of baking. It’s a memoir that also includes trips back to her mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens and to her own complicated relationship with all things sweet.


Denise Roig

Denise Roig has previously published two collections of short stories – A Quiet Night and a Perfect End, and Any Day Now. The first was translated into French as Le Vrai Secret du bonheur, with five stories produced on CBC Radio One’s “Between the Covers” in 2003, and rebroadcast in 2006. Any Day Now was shortlisted for the Quebec Writers’ Federation fiction prize in 2005. Denise has made a living for the past thirty years from corporate writing, freelance magazine and newspaper journalism and has taught both creative writing and journalism at Concordia University. Originally from Los Angeles, she has lived in Montreal for many years.


“With TV channels devoted to food and the cult of celebrity chefs, gourmet cooking is fast becoming the latest obsession of millions. One such “foodie” is Montreal freelance journalist, writer and teacher Denise Roig. After years of teaching journalism, she’d had her fill of students who couldn’t construct a grammatical sentence. One day, she stopped at the neighbourhood store of the Pearson School of Culinary Arts and unexpectedly found herself following her passion for baking. Published by the Winnipeg-based Signature Editions, Butter Cream is the captivating chronicle of her experiences, a memoir of her time in the kitchen learning new things — not only about baking, but also about herself. Like Bill Buford in his bestselling memoir Heat, Roig put her career aside to become a food writer. Then she headed back to school for a year to learn how to make pastry and desserts. Roig lays it all out in the narrative, honestly sharing her fears about why she is there and whether this is a wise career move for her at age 56 and the oldest member of the class. The hard days are very hard, forcing her to look deep within herself to try to understand her frustrations and anger: “I hate being last or weakest,” she writes. “I hate not knowing what I’m doing, hate being the slowest, the oldest. I like being good at things, which is one of the reasons this pastry course is so hard on me.” But alongside the fears and the struggles, she shares her passion for baking (beginning when she was 17) and the memories of learning from her mother, aunt and grandmother, who made the family desserts from scratch. The book is studded with recipes, for butter cream and crème caramel, biscotti and breads. Each recipe is a link to key moment in her story, whether about the thrill of learning new ways to make old recipes, or the fear of making a new recipe the wrong way. She bonds with many of her fellow classmates, their lives converging with hers, creating a shared experience. Some are there are there to make a career of pastry and baking, others simply to learn. Throughout the year they come together and sometimes even tear apart, the pressure and the pace wreaking havoc on personal relationships. There is a darker side to her story, too — the intolerance of some toward the six Chinese students in the class and the theft of someone’s gear leading to the dismissal of a classmate. The push and pull between the instructors also create difficulties, putting the students between their teachers. Roig writes with the passion of a devoted foodie. She describes the recipes and the resulting pastries so clearly and with such affection that one wants to run off to the bakery to pick up a few pastries. In between, she peppers the book with snippets of her own life and history — her background in dance, her beginnings as a writer, stories of her family and children. In some places this works, but in others the personal tidbits can be rather jarring, as they force the reader to pause to figure out the connections. Her writing is clipped and to the point. The short sentences evocatively capture the highs and lows, the need to practise a skill until it becomes second nature, the realities of working hard. Roig also frankly depicts the difficulties between people working together closely for extended periods of time: the petty arguments, the exasperation and the exhaustion, the frustrations that build into fights. In the end Roig realizes it the sum of the experiences that keep her going, the enthusiasm and the camaraderie of her classmates balanced by the hard work and struggles. Butter Cream is a charming book about the courage to follow one’s passion and the rewards of taking such a chance.” —The Winnipeg Free Press


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Excerpts & Samples ×
Trina turns to look up at the clock. It’s 9:04, a little more than a half-hour into the Pastry Olympics. “Whew!” she says so loudly I hear it across the room. She shakes her head. The girls at my station are moving as if in a dream. They need a foot at their backs, a spatula at their bums. They need Claudette. Everyone else is on pastry cream: at the stove, at the counter whisking eggs and sugar, spreading the custard in plastic trays lined with plastic wrap. Watching Trina working her pastry cream with her whisk, smoothing it with her rubber spatula onto the tray, I see again how physical this is. It’s in her head, but it’s also in her shoulders and legs and wrists. Contender number four is already piping the pâte à choux for her Carolines. She’s doing it steady as a machine, perfect, two-inch sticks. Meanwhile, the girls from my station are still at the stove making pastry cream. They finish at almost the same moment and there’s a sudden pile-up of pots and whisks in my sink. The dreamy Pius X girl in the tight black pants goes back to her table, where she keeps looking at the recipe booklet, pausing, looking again. She excuses herself to go to the bathroom. Five minutes later she’s back, eyes down. She’s completely lost. The judges keep circulating. One cups his hand under a mixer bowl, gauging temperature. Two peer at Trina’s first fruit tartlets. Qiang comes to relieve me at my sink, so I can now watch like a spy from the back corner of the room. Claudette told me I had to observe from here if I wasn’t washing dishes. It’s a different—bad—view. I can see only the backs of people. I watch Rena’s arm expertly folding in the parts of her chocolate mousse, watch her hand dip into it with a plastic spoon, but I can’t see her face to see how it tastes. I see her arm tuck the bowl into the under-the-counter fridge. A judge comes by and motions her to take the bowl out. He takes a spatula to it, lifts a mound, lets a few blobs fall back into the bowl. His face registers nothing but study. By 10:30 one thing is clear. There are—despite the my-way-or-the-highway approach of some of our teachers—different ways to slice a pâte sucrée, or anything else for that matter. Contestant number four cut her pâte sucrée into one-inch slices, then stuck all the slices back into a ball, softening the cold dough faster than is possible when it’s in one chilled lump. Next, she poked two holes—not one, as we’ve been taught—in the bottom of the choux for easier filling. Brilliant. The girl is from the ITHQ, Claudette confirms, stopping to talk for a minute. We watch the young woman. Even her hat is intimidating—tall, beautiful, like pleated organdy, a commanding admiral’s hat. Though she is still a student, she is wearing a professional chef’s hat. “They have a lot more time to practise at that school,” Claudette says, sounding for the first time defensive about her efforts with Trina and Rena. I tell her about the two women at my station, that I could tell they hadn’t been trained by her. “No fire,” I say. “Ahh,” she says and puts her arm around me. “How’s it going?” I ask. “I can’t look,” she says and returns to watch from the pastry office. How’s it going? I ask Rena who’s stopped for a bite from the smorgasbord of food Wendy and Nadia have brought in, a grab-as-you-can lunch for contenders and dishwashers. Rena grins, gives me the thumbs up. I’m happy to know this, though we both know it could change in a moment. I’ve slipped onto a stool near Tara, but I still can’t see enough. Then I spot Trina striding down the aisle, her tray of millefeuilles held high over her head. Her cheeks are pink; no, crimson. “She’s nervous,” says Tara under her breath. And she tells me that after watching the judges swarm Trina’s station and check things off on their clipboards with non-committal eyes, Diane—disappointed at coming in fourth in last month’s primaries—is now glad she didn’t win. “I couldn’t have done this,” she’d told Tara. “There’s a reason for everything.” An hour later, Trina stands doubled over her work station, not even lifting her eyes to the clock. Miss ITHQ is pulling fondant—the glue that does not necessarily hold things together—out of its plastic container, wrestling it into a small pot. Even she can’t do this easily. Trina keeps her head down. Miss ITHQ remakes a cornet, seems to be picking up speed. At lunch a judge had remarked to Claudette, “That girl from the ITHQ is good.” Ardis winces when she tells me this. “I have a feeling she’s going to win,” she says. The girl in the hijab is wandering around, looking disoriented. I know that look. I wear that look probably more than I care to admit. But I also know it doesn’t belong in a competition. I’m surprised. Calixa-Lavallée is supposed to have a pretty good pastry program. Trina’s still bent over her table. Rena’s eyes are fixed on tiny slices of fruit. The girl across from her, one of the students from Pius X is only now rolling out her pâte for the millefeuilles. Trina and Number Four filled and glazed theirs an hour ago. They’re a thousand layers ahead of her. This is beginning to make me crazy. I feel the clock ticking in my head, in my hands. I want to shake that girl. Trina’s upright at last and rolling something between her palms, hands in the air. Marzipan for the roses on her birthday cake. Last week in a practice, she sculpted a bouquet of yellow buds, nestled half a dozen sugar violets among the blossoms, circled them all in the palest yellow shell border, and wrote Bonne Fête in a script that dipped and curved in all the right places. It was a cake so beautiful it made me want to cry. “That’s why she’s in the Olympics,” Tamara said on the way home that night. And that’s why I’m not. Lorrie thought I should give it a shot. “Come on,” she urged me a couple of months ago. “Put your name in. How can you write about something unless you’re doing it yourself?” That, of course, has been my argument to my friends all year, but I don”t appreciate it being thrown back at me. “I’m too old to be considered,” I said, knowing this wasn’t the issue. “Diane’s almost forty and she’s doing it for the experience,” said Lorrie. “Just being in this course is enough challenge for me,” I finally said. “I really don’t need the extra stress, Lorrie.” “It would be good for you,” she said. “You’re not entering,” I said. “True,” she agreed. Still, it’s impossible to watch today’s competition and not wonder, Could I do that? I see the questions on the faces of my fellow dishwashers. Could I produce steadily hour after hour? Could my body, my ego, my patience hold up? Because this is what comes clear by noon: the Pastry Olympics is about not choking, especially not choking when you feel most like choking. As in pastry as in life. ———————————————– Crème Pâtissière (Pastry Cream) 2 cups (500 mL) whole (3.25%) milk 1/2 cup (125 mL) sugar 1 egg 2 egg yolks 1/3 cup (75 mL) cornstarch 2 teaspoons (10 mL) vanilla In a heavy, medium saucepan heat milk with 1/4 cup (50 mL) of the sugar over medium-high heat. In a small bowl, whisk other 1/4 cup (50 mL) of sugar with cornstarch to eliminate lumps. In another small bowl, vigorously whisk egg, egg yolks and sugar/cornstarch mixture until pale yellow. Whisk in vanilla. When milk is simmering, stir 1/2 cup (125 mL) hot milk into egg mixture; whisk smooth. Off the heat, slowly pour egg mixture into nearly boiling milk, whisking constantly. Return to stove and quickly bring pastry cream to boil, whisking vigorously to prevent lumping and scorching. Cook for 1 minute more, until pastry cream is pudding-thick. Quickly pour into small plastic tray, or bowl, sprinkle lightly with sugar and spread plastic wrap directly onto hot cream. Refrigerate until using.

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176 Pages
8in * 5.25in * .65in


October 15, 2008


Signature Editions



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