Oh, Finals, You Kill Me

Coconut Rum Mousse with Roasted Pineapple, Apricot Sauce, and Coconut Macaroon Barquettes

Coconut Rum Mousse with Roasted Pineapple, Apricot Sauce, and Coconut Macaroon Barquettes

With my new mantra (“Don’t tank!”) firmly in mind, I headed into my next two final exams: Advanced Pastry, and Chocolates and Showpieces. The projects for both classes had been in design for several weeks, but the run-throughs I’d done at home weren’t going smoothly.

The Advanced Pastry practical had been particularly rocky. I knew the flavor scheme I’d put together was solid, but I had tinkered with my main recipe (of course!) to the point where I wasn’t sure it would still hold together and it continued to have some kinks that needed to be worked out. I also changed all the surrounding elements numerous times, which is crazy-making. The pineapple garnish alone I tried five different ways before settling on roasting it. Five different ways. For a tiny garnish. Painstaking.

Trying different bases and other combinations

Trying different bases and other combinations

For Chocolates, I was doing a sugar showpiece to present molded chocolates filled with spiced rum buttercream. Casting sugar is super cool (see “Rolling the Dice With Sugar”) but it is rather unpredictable — and isn’t lack of predictability always a blast in a final exam? (Rhetorical.)

We had only spent a class or two on molded chocolates at the beginning of the semester so my actual hands-on time was limited to one try — and chocolate can be a harsh mistress. To that effect, the trial run crashed and burned, which is always a bit unnerving. Hmpf. It seems none of my lists and copious amounts of notes helped me out when the chocolate chips were down.

I re-did my game plan for the final since I was determined to turn out twelve perfectly formed, glossy, gorgeous molded chocolates come hell or high water.  And it worked. The chocolates turned out beautifully.

And, the sugar showpiece wasn’t bad, considering. The core pieces, by necessity, were made in Week 1, so they had lost a lot of their luster from sitting and had developed a kind of dull bloom. You can try to shine these up with careful application of a torch, but this is risky since it basically heats the sugar to melting again to get it to re-set with shine. The risk is that warming the piece up in this way will deform it. Which it did, when I tried it. Because you know I tried it. Even after the buttercream life lesson in my last post I still couldn’t keep from messing with the pieces to try to “fix them” (make them a little shinier).

There were various other bumps in the sugar showpiece road — particularly the pulled sugar elements, for which my design was far too ambitious. I guess I thought I could pull off lovely, delicate, multi-colored flowers with nothing between my tender hands and that beyond-boiling sugar but a pair of disposable latex gloves — after having tried pulling sugar just two or three times prior.  That was deluded of me. I can barely fold a piece of paper into an envelope without practice let alone construct tropical flower petals from hot sugar. I pulled a vaguely tropical looking water flower and watched all but a few of the petals shatter on assembly.  C’est la vie.

But, all is well that ends well. The Coconut Rum Mousse with Apricot Sauce, Roasted Pineapple, and Coconut Macaroon Barquettes came in on time, the mousse didn’t collapse on its way to presentation, and it all went over well with my chef (at last! Various other incarnations of this dessert got panned repeatedly by various chefs along the way — all of which kept me working away at a combination that would hit all the right technical notes while still satisfying my vision of a fresh, light, fruit-centric summertime plated dessert).

It was an extremely gratifying moment for me when Chef told me he didn’t have a single piece of critical feedback for me. I consider that a parting gift from him since I am sure the dessert wasn’t perfect. In any case, staying on top in that class had been my biggest challenge of the semester and that score is definitely how I wanted to ride out into the Advanced Pastry sunset.

Sugar Showpiece, finished product

Sugar Showpiece, finished product

And the sugar showpiece? It also pulled out a score I was happy with. I took one last look at it, wistfully, as I slid it into the garbage can on my way out of the door. I wasn’t even going to try loading it into my car. There is no way it would have made it home without shattering, and shattered sugar shards in my trunk is the last thing I wanted to deal with. But the chocolates? They came home with me.

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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.

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??)

On Illusionism, the Cheeseburger Fake-out, And Making Things Looks Like Other Things

"Cheeseburger and Fries" Dessert

“Cheeseburger and Fries” Dessert

I have to admit I rolled my eyes when I saw this section on Illusionism coming up in class. I never really understood taking a thing that is a thing in itself and trying to make it look like an entirely other thing. I feel impatient just thinking about it — just get the thing itself, not the imposter. Why make a brownie look like a hamburger patty? Let the brownie be a brownie! It makes me want to jump into a discussion of Platonic forms.

Perhaps I lack imagination, or whimsy. I can be very literal sometimes.

For this week’s Advanced Baking and Pastry Lab, our task was to create a dessert cheeseburger and fries. “How?” you might ask. Well, you use a brownie for the burger patty, you make mini doughnuts with sesame seeds on top for buns, you use a little tempered white chocolate for the cheese, sliced mango for the fries, sliced grapes for the pickles, and raspberry and mango sauces for the ketchup and mustard. Add a mini malted milkshake and viola — a cheeseburger dessert.

That’s a lot of effort to go through to make a dessert look like a main meal, right? I agree. But, I have to say, the result was more than the sum of its parts. There was a moment of minor surrealism to bite into a “cheeseburger” and taste a brownie.  I didn’t hate it.

If I sound begrudging it’s because I am resistant to this type of tomfoolery. This is Illusionism. I am a Minimalist. When I design a dessert I seem to always be striving to simplify it. I want to strip it down to its elemental parts so that those parts can shine cleanly and without confusion.

One of the biggest challenges for me this semester has been to design desserts for my practical exams which meet all the requirements — must be hot, must be cold, must be soft, must be crunchy, must be garnished, must be sauced (and some decor would be nice, if you can…) — and make the whole dessert able to be consumed in twelve bites or less, please, because this is fine dining.

Oh, and don’t forget the cake. Whatever I am making, Chef always seems to ask me to add some cake somewhere.

It’s a Minimalist’s vexation, but it is satisfying when it gets worked out.

As for the “cheeseburger,” I will admit it had a certain charm when it was done.  Still, I have to say my favorite parts were the mango fries — just plain fresh mango  sprinkled with sanding sugar “salt” and dipped in raspberry “ketchup,” and the milkshake — which was an actual milkshake.  What can I say? I like to keep it real.

Seeding the glazed doughnut "buns"

Seeding the glazed doughnut “buns”

Every Baby Is A Cute Baby

This isn’t mine. Swearsies.

If you’ve been following, you know that I’m busy shaping and scoring bread. Bread dough is an ornery thing, and shaping it without deflating it entirely (bad) or overworking it so that it gets cranky, resists your every effort and needs to be put down for a nap (time delay) is most complex. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

At this stage in the game we pretty much all suck, but the pastry students like to look at the culinary students and laugh at the way they shape bread because while nobody really knows yet who has The Touch, it’s pretty darn clear Who Doesn’t — and they’re generally Culinary. I only know this because they’re usually grumbling about how they hate baking while they run their blades through the dough in the same spot over and over (a no-no. If you don’t get the score right the first time, walk away; it’s dead to you. It makes it ten times worse to try to saw the blade through again).

So this lovely loaf in the photo, above, turned up at the table next to mine. We were all ogling it for the train wreck it was, but were trying not to be gauche about it.

I happened to have my phone out snapping pictures of my own loaves and I couldn’t resist trying to cop a feel on this beauty.

I sidled over all nonchalant and went in for a shot but the owner turned around right as I framed up and said, “Are you taking a picture of my loaf??”

And I said, “Nope, I’m texting” and pretended I was texting. When I obviously wasn’t texting.

So busted. And since my table partner couldn’t stop laughing, I sighed and said, “Yes.” And then took the shot.

Think I might say something smooth after that? Something consoling and appropriately optimistic?

I shrugged and said, “Every baby is a cute baby.” And then I beat it out of there.

Every baby is a cute baby.

What??

Sorry, I’m still kinda laughing, actually.

Maybe you had to be there.

Let this be a cautionary tale to you.  If you’re going to laugh at other people’s messed up loaves — which you should, because it’s funny — have the decency to do it from your own lab table using the zoom lens.

Year Two Begins: Of Preferments and Degas.

School started two weeks ago. I’m taking three classes and teaching two. Of the classes that I need and am taking right now for my Culinary Arts Entrepreneurship Certificate, two are business related (Small Business Accounting, and Legal Issues for Small Businesses), and one is culinary: Intermediate Breads. One of the textbooks we are using for this breads class is Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and, so far, it is fantastic. In preparation of the first day of class, I downloaded and printed all the syllabus material so I could read through it and set up my binder with all the necessary tabs and sections. Yes, I am that kind of student.

People close to me have often wondered aloud how I make it through life in one piece. It’s true I’m kind of clumsy, but that’s not what I mean. Bizarre stuff happens to me constantly, some of it random, some of it self-induced through — well, I don’t know through what — absentmindedness? Friendly recklessness? Who knows, but it happens. It’s widely understood by my nearest and dearest that I have the dumbest luck possible. My aunts won’t let me touch their lottery tickets — they don’t want the juju on them. And I totally agree with them. I have a whole list of stories I could tell — funny, ones, too! — but I won’t because they make me look like an idiot. But I will tell you this one since it has to do with school:

So, I’m making my HRM -124 Intermediate Breads binder and as I skim around the assignments and such I keep seeing this word “preferment” as in, “add your preferment.”  The first time I saw it, I noted it as curious – a preferment. Hmm. Then I saw it again: “preferment” and again I wondered about it in my mind, “Hmmm,that’s interesting. A preferment. Something which you prefer. I wonder what that means — nuts? poppy seeds? baker’s choice? Hmm. ” I like words and I think about words a lot — I am an English teacher, after all —  so let’s just say I gave it some idle thought as I got my materials ready. Preferment.

Day One arrives. We start going over the syllabus. Chef begins talking about yeast, and the fermenting process. Reading this, you’ve probably already figured it out, but not me, not yet. It took several more minutes of class lecture for it to finally — finally — dawn on me: it wasn’t “preferment,” it was “pre-ferment” – something you use to improve the fermenting process. Ugh. I actually started laughing in class and told my neighbors, who looked at me strangely (already marking me as weirdo, I’m sure. Sigh). To be fair, the word as written in the materials lacked hyphenation, and its un-hyphenated form  is a word in its own right, so I kept reading it literally and thinking it must be some kind of baking lingo.

The funky spelling of this threw me off the scent for years.

It was years — years, and I’m not kidding — before I realized the Chick-Fila, the fast food chicken restaurant — was pronounced “Chick Fillet.” Every time I saw the sign I read it just as written, which sounds, to me, like “Chick Feel-a.” And I never understood why they would name it Chick Feel-a. No kidding. But I don’t feel bad about this because I think intentionally misspelling words for effect is dumb — you, too, Krispy Kreme, no matter how good your donuts are.

Would it have killed you to spell it correctly, Krispy Kreme?

Fast forward to Week Two.  Of course I’ve read over all the recipes before class noticing that in one of the recipes (or, “formulas” if you want to be cool) you are meant to “degas it as little as possible.” Hmm. Degas. What style is that? Some French technique we haven’t learned yet, I guess, but I don’t take the time to look it up in the glossary since I am in a hurry.

I’m totally serious.

To “degas” is not what you think it is…
(Edgar Degas, Dance Class at the Opera)

It wasn’t until I was IN LAB ACTUALLY MAKING THE DOUGH that I put it together. Like an actual lightbulb going on overhead. I told my lab partner, who was a cool enough chick to think it was funny, too, and we had a good laugh. Ah, baking lab. What a kick.

For those of you other super-literalists out there like me, if there are any, to “degas” is to de-gas. Not French at all.

Pate a Choux? Shooo’… (or, the post that was almost called “Piping: Not My Bag, Baby”)

Eclairs and Cream Puffs

On the presenting grid. My team is the back, middle square.

It’s close to the end of the semester, so it was time to tackle Pate a Choux (aka Eclair Paste, Choux Paste, or Cream Puff Paste, as was heavily stressed by Chef D., so I am guessing this bit of name trivia will be on the Final Exam. I can also think of several different names for creme anglaise, so just ask if you’re very curious). Not being a particular fan of the eclair or the cream puff, I was indifferent coming into this exercise. It also involved piping, of which I am particularly clumsy. This is, of course, quite vexing to me as I prefer to be smooth, precise and fluid in all my tasks. Well. Anyway, I was going to do a post just on the trials of piping, and call it “Piping: Not My Bag, Baby”  complete with photos of various mangled piping bags and wobbly, uneven eclairs, but quickly realized that would be super dorky, and I just don’t know y’all well enough for that yet. Yeah, I know, I tried this one earlier in my creme brulee post, but it hadn’t found its feet yet. I’ll keep at it.

So, instead of pastry bag detritus, I present to you the eclairs. And, I have to say, while they didn’t win me all the way over — I still don’t very much like the textures of pate a choux or pastry cream — they are indeed much nicer when they are freshly made and not cold from the refrigerator case. Plus, you get to dip them into chocolate glaze and watch the chocolate smooth out, shiny and perfect and calm like an untroubled brow. That is a peaceful proposition.

Pate a Choux, nude

Eclair and Cream Puff, pre-pastry cream injection and chocolate bath

Class Grid: Finished product

Burning the Midnight Oil

Night classes are hard enough, but night classes that are 5 1/2-hour cooking labs take it up a notch. And having a 9:00 a.m. class the next morning takes it up another notch. And doing it all over the next day? Whew.  For the past two nights I’ve had about 10 hours of sleep total, so my edges are a little frayed. Even so, I am working, rather feverishly at this point between classes, on writing a Value Proposition for a college-sponsored competition called The Big Idea Elevator Pitch.The idea is to pitch your business concept by defining your product as the answer to a perceived problem, and then discussing its viability in terms of target market, competitive advantage, and potential for profitability. I’m pitching my bakery concept. The prize is worth $500, due tomorrow, so I guess I can handle another night of little sleep. Just don’t let me handle sharp knives in lab tonight.