What do you mean "No butter"...?

cute little bulldog looking at pie with disappointment
See the disappointed look on his face? I can only assume it's because he's just discovered that the pie set before him is parve, made with margarine instead of butter.

I decided to take a patisserie course. I did my homework, researching the different culinary schools in Jerusalem. One place, very conveniently located in the center of town, offered a 3.5-month course. Another school had a 10-month program, which was more of a commitment than I liked. There was a third, which came so highly recommended  ("Go to Tel Aviv. But if you're not going to study in Tel Aviv, this is the only serious culinary institute in Jerusalem."), that even though it's an Orthodox school in a very Orthodox area (Givat Shaul), I considered it.

I called up this last school and asked whether I could come visit them before the course began. Our exchange went something a little like this:

Me: "Can I come see your school tomorrow morning?"

Receptionist at the very religious school: "Well... We have a men's class at that time. We have separate classes for men and women."

Me: "Oh, it's ok, I just want to see the premises."

"But..." she reiterated, "the men's class takes place at that time... There will be men there..."

"I realize that," [especially since you've hammered it home three times] "I don't want to join the class; I don't even want to observe it. I just want to come and see the school."

"Ohhh-kay... so long as you realize that there will be men there... Wear 'respectful' clothing."

In the end, I gave up. I reasoned that our brief conversation was indicative of a particular mindset too much at odds with my own, "respectful" though I might try to be and as much as I might try to adapt to it.

So I opted for the patisserie course at the culinary institution in the center of town. That course takes place over 3 and a half months for a total of 15 weekly classes with a pastry chef; each meeting is approximately 3 hours. Needless to say, it's not cheap. The people in the class were people interested in learning the principles of baking and pastry-making. Some were already quite experienced (one girl mentioned her success with macarons in passing), while others were complete newbies (a very nice, very nerdy be-spectacled 15-year old boy was among the students). My own experience lies somewhere in-between. And whatever first-hand experience I lack, I usually have knowledge about. (That means I've watched YouTube videos.)

During the introduction, we were informed that the kitchen is also used for cooking classes, where they work with meat. Therefore, in order to keep kosher, this class would be parve (dairy-free). Yes, that means no butter, milk or cream. (NO BUTTER!!!) I almost fell off my stool.

It had never even occurred to me to verify this beforehand. (Because who teaches a patisserie class in a parve kitchen without butter?) I briefly toyed with the idea of getting up and leaving, but ultimately decided to stay and give it a chance. The chef told us it was actually harder to work with margarine than butter, and that everything we did would be comparable to working with butter. Ok. My inner panic was (temporarily) assuaged and I remained.

Every week, the chef tackles a different topic, and the topic of that class was pies. Specifically, pies made from pate sablee. The chef instructed us to weigh out the flour and the margarine. The recipe also called for 3 tablespoons of powdered sugar. We embarked on a fruitless hunt for the measuring spoons and cups... but they had none (!), and so we were told to never mind and to use regular soup spoons, heaped. Instead of a measuring cup of 250 ml, we were to use disposable plastic cups (180 ml). I was horrified. Really, truly horrified.

To recap, this was a pastry-making course with:
No butter
No cream
No measuring spoons
No measuring cups
And also: artificial vanilla and artificial maple syrup

We made the pate sablee, and I was pleased to get some hands-on experience with pie dough (as opposed to just YouTube viewing experience). The chef was very knowledgable and helpful in demonstrating precisely how to mix the dough without overworking it, how to fill the pie crusts with beans and blind-bake them, and how to gently place the rolled dough into the pie tins properly, and press it in, before filling it. The class was fun and informative, despite the aforementioned drawbacks (did I mention no butter?). There was a really wonderful sense of camaraderie as we labored together to make the pies.

Our apple, chocolate and pecan pies came out of the oven, looking and smelling wonderful. The instructor cut pieces of the chocolate pie for us to taste (I was afraid it would be unpalatable so I didn't take any, for fear I'd take a bite and then need to surreptitiously get rid of the rest of it). Then we cut all the pies and divvied them up to take home. We all took home a generous slice of each pie, and a mini pie.

I got home, absolutely dying of curiosity. What would these beautiful margarine-infused pies taste like? Could they possibly be better than expected? I laid the pies down on my kitchen counter and took a sharp knife from the drawer. The moment of truth was upon me...

The apple pie: tasted quite rightly as though the dough had been made with margarine; the apple filling had the unpleasant rubbery texture of desiccated apples, but good flavor (we used lots of cinnamon).
The chocolate pie: looked like chocolate, but tasted like burnt charcoal, no joke. (I hadn't expected it to be quite so bad and tasted it a second time to verify... yup, charcoal.)
The pecan pie: was the best of them; it tasted like very, very mediocre pecan pie.

After sampling the desserts, it was time to weigh the pros and cons, and decide whether or not to continue with the course (they had very kindly allowed me to pay for and participate in the first class on a trial basis). I don't like the parve desserts served at kosher meat restaurants, hotels and various kosher events. No one with functional tastebuds does. Not only that, but I have zero respect for the Israeli dessert industry, dairy desserts included. (We do food pretty well, in Israel; desserts, not so much.) So why on earth would I want to learn to bake from an Israeli pastry chef?

I concluded that despite the chef's vast knowledge in working with pastry (I may not have liked the results, or her recipes, but her technique was mostly legitimate), despite the companionship I'd enjoyed with the other students, it just wasn't worth my time or my money. Ultimately, I'd be better off learning and practicing on my own with YouTube, using butter and better-quality ingredients.

So... what to do with the pieces of pie I took home from the class? I seriously considered throwing them in the garbage. But I decided to bring them to work in order to demonstrate to my colleagues just how bad pie can be. (Also, I'm aware that some of my colleagues are slightly less discriminating.)

It was all eaten within the day.