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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A Dash To The Finish Line

You know what they say about time flying…it’s mid-April which means I’m just about one month out from Final Exams for the Spring semester. It also means that my time in Maryland is coming to an end; I am measuring in weeks now instead of months. Granted, there are enough weeks left that “months” is still plural, but barely.

I’ve been thinking about the things that I haven’t done: I should have gone to Washington, D.C. more often, I should have gone to Manhattan more often. I never went back to Mount Vernon (George Washington’s house) even though I bought the annual pass and pledged in an earlier blog post to recreate the menu from the “Hoecakes and Hospitality” exhibit…and Monticello still calls to me. So does Charleston, Savannah, and Miami.

Ah, well. There are the things I should have done, and then there are the things that I actually still have to do and I can sum those things up with two words: study, and pack. I’m past critical mass and into the downward swing of this adventure. Soon it will be time to wrap up one phase of my life and drive due west from where the sun rises to where the sun sets: back to Northern California.

But, before I change frequencies, I have things to do and people to see.

I’m in the throes of designing all three of my final exam projects: a 3-tier wedding cake, a tropical themed plated dessert, and a sugar showpiece with confection. These last three classes are very different from my other baking classes. Those classes were all about production, organization, and time management. We made what the chefs told us to make.

In comparison, these classes are design classes. I have to actually produce the designs, of course, but it turns out that the design component itself takes about a million hours more than you would imagine — certainly I spend exponentially more time designing the piece than I would ever spend making it. For every timed practical that I have 3 hours to produce I’ve probably spent at least 15 hours designing it, scaling it and testing it — probably more since I over-think everything which means my research is exhaustive. And, I mean that in the truest sense: I am exhausted by the time it’s done. So, these last three projects will be very much on my mind from here on out.

It will be a dash to the finish line.

Fondant Easter Egg (1)