On Final Exams: My Advice? Don’t Tank the Buttercream

You may be wondering what on earth happened to those three baking and pastry lab classes I’ve been blogging about all semester since I dropped off the blogosphere several weeks ago.

Well, Finals happened. And, Final Exams are such a weird, stressful time that once they were done I pretty much parachuted onto the couch to lay around with my cats and watch back episodes of The Daily Show and 30 Rock re-runs. (Not really; I’ve actually been quite busy, but that’s what I would have liked to do. Or, go to Miami to lay on the beach and watch for dolphins.)

Final Exams are stressful, and even more so when they span several weeks. And, lately, they always seem to span several weeks.

The first Final Exam scheduled was the Intermediate Cakes Wedding Cake design project. I had been working on the design for a while. I was trying to keep it as clean and simple as possible, since that’s my jam, while incorporating all the necessary requirements. The project had to have combinations of certain elements in it: we had to work with several different paste mediums and showcase certain kinds of decoration techniques, etc., etc.

Here is the design:

This is the design draft for my Intermediate Cakes project. Theme: May Wedding.

This is the design draft for my Intermediate Cakes project. Theme: May Wedding.

That was the plan, anyway. And, it went pretty well, even in spite of all the ridiculous mishaps. Until I got to the buttercream. But, let’s back up to the beginning.

Here I am prepping the marzipan ladybugs.

Marzipan Ladybugs

Marzipan Ladybugs

Cute, right?? Next, when it comes to cakes, we get previously baked  (random) cakes. Here I am getting somebody else’s jenky falling apart cakes while somebody got my lovely and lovingly baked ones.

Cakes Pulled for Final

Cakes Pulled for Final

Great, right? Thanks to whomever baked this beauty.

Great, right? Thanks to whomever baked this beauty.

Trimming and torting these took a bit of time and care since they either had huge chunks missing which drastically reduced the size of my layer — or, like the bottom layer, it broke apart completely just by looking at it sideways and needed to be glued together with frosting. It was generally agreed upon that I had pulled the short straw in the cake lottery since all three of my layers were jacked in some way.

Sigh. Come on people who can’t even bake a cake in one piece, how did you make it this far???

I eventually got all those situations worked out, got the cakes prettied up, smoothed their final coat and had them ready for stacking when THIS piece of luck came my way:

Seriously? Some mystery bakers dinged my cake and didn't say a word.

Seriously? Some mystery bakers dinged my cake and didn’t say a word.

Yes, as the caption states, some mystery baker took a big chunk out of my cake and didn’t ‘fess up so when I went to pull my layers to stack them, that is what I found. So, it was back to the frosting, patching, and smoothing drawing board for me. I do believe my chef, who was shaking her head and kind of laughing while she said encouraging things like, “No problem, just patch it up — I’ve seen worse” was beginning to feel sorry for me at this point. I certainly wasn’t ahead of the game time-wise.

Staking the cake.

Staking the cake.

I finally got the cakes stacked and staked and could move on to decorating. The problem? I had less than 30 minutes to do it. That’s not good. Not good at all. And it was warm. Very warm. And the frosting was soft and getting softer by the second. And I was piping ribbons. And I had a baaaaaaaad feeling about this. Which, it turns out, was completely justified.

The ribbons went awry.

They were too soft, wouldn’t hold their shape, and kept drooping down or dropping off completely. The ribbons, layered, were supposed to cover the whole second tier, but they couldn’t even hold the weight of two rounds. That’s bad. There’s only so many royal icing butterflies one can stick on a cake to cover up seams and whatnot.

My brain was racing through all of the coping strategies I could employ for this situation, and none of them would work; there wasn’t time. The bad piping would have to stay. And, since I had three minutes left, I made it worse by trying to “fix it.”

We all know that never works.

My chef just looked at it and said, “If buttercream ribbons were so easy, everyone would be doing them.”

Which was actually pretty cool of her.

You can imagine my chagrin that I pulled off all the other aspects of this exam with aplomb only to tank on buttercream piping. So aggravating. And funny, I guess, if you think about it. Still, I wince when I look at it.

And the lesson I took with me into my next two finals is to know when to leave well enough alone. Sometimes, by “fixing” things, you make them worse. Or, at least, not better.

But, if you know me at all, you’ll know that leaving well enough alone is not in my nature so you won’t be surprised to hear that this will come up again during my Chocolates and Showpieces final.

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Of Smoke And Mirrors. Or, Just Smoke, Really.

I guess it wasn’t even smoke, technically.

The lab dedicated to molecular gastronomy  — like the lab on Illusionism — made me want to roll my eyes when I saw it on the syllabus. Molecular gastronomy. It just sounds annoying, right? It reeks of the rarefied air of artistry which necessarily keeps the masses outside of its vision, which is anathema to me. Food is about community, shared resources, shared pleasure; that which seeks to exclude by the complexity of its vision raises my egalitarian NorCal hackles.

Or, to quote one of my favorite poems about the value and nature of poetry:

These things are important not because a
high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
unintelligible
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand…
(Marianne Moore, “Poetry”)

That’s how I feel about poetry. And food. And most things, probably: things are important because they are useful, and we tend not to admire that which we cannot understand.

People look for connections in life. Connecting with people can be hard. Connecting with food should be simple. The job of the chef is to make that connection as clear and evident as possible. That is not to say that the food itself should be simple. It is like good writing, or good teaching — or good anything: it takes a lot of hard work to make something look easy. It is my job to make sure that the product is not so derivative as to become unintelligible. This was my concern with molecular gastronomy.

As usual, I was being silly. The class was just an exercise in freezing things with liquid nitrogen.


Molecular Gastronomy
has a very detailed entry on Wikipedia. I would paraphrase some of it, except I found it extremely boring (sorry, molecular gastronomists). So, I will boil it down (ha ha, get it?) to this extremely unsophisticated and completely inadequate description: think foams, sous-vide, and freezing things with the aforementioned liquid nitrogen.

Washington D.C.’s own Jose Andres seems to be linked with the movement, along with other interesting things like the small plates movement and his support of Slow Food, so DC peeps can go check him out. It seems he may be teaching a class at George Washington University.

Also interesting? The list of synonyms for molecular gastronomy. I can’t decide if these make it sound more or less pretentious than the original name itself. You be the judge:

Avant-Garde Cuisine
Culinary Constructivism
Experimental Cuisine
Forward-Thinking Movement
Emotional Cuisine (I definitely don’t get this one)
Technologically Forward Cuisine
Techno-cuisine
and,
Vanguard Cuisine (huh??)