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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Buttercrunch Toffee

Half Batch of Pecan Buttercrunch

Half Batch of Pecan Buttercrunch

I’ve always been a fan of toffee — one Christmas I received a big can of Almond Roca in my stocking and thought I had hit the jackpot — but never considered making it at home. Candy thermometer? Tempering chocolate? Forget it. But, we are in the Confections section of my Chocolate and Showpiece class and toffee was on the docket.

It turns out it’s not so hard. To eliminate any stress, though, I do recommend a candy thermometer. They’re fairly inexpensive and sugar is extremely temperature sensitive — a few degrees difference in heat makes an enormous difference in the outcome of your confection.

As for the tempering, you can sidestep any of the rigamarole associated with large-batch tempering, which can be very touchy for even a moderately experienced baker, by using a shortcut. Here’s the thing about the shortcut, though — you have to do it as described. Don’t shortcut the shortcut.

This recipe is adapted from Chocolates and Confections by Peter P. Greweling, CMB. Chef Greweling, an instructor at The Culinary Institute of America, is quite precise in his discussions about chocolates and confections. The depth with which he discusses the topics might seem intimidating but the photographs, which are gorgeous, are inspiring.

The recipe is written to yield 60 oz., which is quite a bit of toffee for an average person. We made a half-batch in class, split it between two people, and both had a decent amount to take home with us.

We also only coated one side of the toffee in chocolate — easier, faster, and quite sufficient — which means that if you only want to coat one side with chocolate you would want to cut the amount of chocolate, nuts, and the salt for the nuts (not the salt for the toffee mixture) in half for a whole batch, or quarter it for a half-batch.

Pecan Buttercrunch

Yield: 60 oz.

16 oz. butter, melted
16 oz. sugar
3 oz. water
1 tbsp. vanilla

24 oz. dark chocolate, tempered (see below), for coating — use bars, not chips
16 oz. pecans, or other nut, toasted, chopped and salted
2 tsp. salt

Instructions:
Note: Have a silicone baking mat and an off-set spatula or rubber spatula laid out and ready for the hot toffee when it comes off the stove. You will need to work very quickly to get it out of the pan and spread smoothly on the mat before it cools.

Combine the butter, sugar, water, and salt in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly.

Once it comes to a boil, continue cooking over moderate heat to 298 degrees Farenheit while stirring constantly. Do not be concerned if the sugar seems to sit at a certain temperature without budging for awhile. Just keep stirring and watching — the temperature will shoot up suddenly.

When the mixture reaches 298 degrees, take it off heat and add the vanilla extract. Stir well. Pour quickly onto the silicone baking mat and spread to desired thickness before the toffee sets. Allow to cool completely. I suggest not working the toffee too much once you pour it out — just smooth it quickly to the thickness you want. You will be breaking it into irregular pieces, anyway, so you don’t need to fuss with it too much at this point.

While the toffee is cooling, temper your chocolate.

Tempering Chocolate by the Direct Method

This shortcut is good for relatively small amounts of chocolate. You want to use bar chocolate, not chips, because chips generally have vegetable oil or other emulsifiers in them — they won’t harden back up the way you want.

Chop the chocolate into small, even pieces and place in a microwave-safe bowl. The goal is to heat the chocolate very, very slowly. Do not rush this. Microwaves, and the amount of chocolate you are using, vary so it’s not possible to give precise times for this but start slowly. Microwave for about 30 seconds — you can even reduce the power on your microwave to 50% if you know how — and stir it well. It should have melted a little. Microwave it again and stir it. Keep doing this, stirring well each time you take it out. When the chocolate is about 85% melted but still a little chunky, just stir it until the chunks melt and the chocolate is smooth. Expect this process to take about 6 turns (or more depending on how much chocolate you are tempering) in the microwave.

The most important part of this process is to not overheat the chocolate in any way. It’s easy to burn chocolate, which would be a bummer, but even more importantly, chocolate that is heated too high, even if it doesn’t burn, may not set properly. You are only heating the chocolate enough to get it melted and smooth.

Now the chocolate is ready to pour over the toffee.

Once the toffee is cool, blot it with a clean towel to remove any excess oil from the surface which would prevent the chocolate from adhering. Coat one side of the toffee with half of the chocolate (or, all of the chocolate if you are only coating one side) by pouring it on and smoothing it out with a spatula. Immediately sprinkle the toasted, salted nuts onto the chocolate. Allow the chocolate to set. How long it takes chocolate to set depends on how thick you poured the chocolate, etc., but I’d say give it a good 20 minutes to start. Turn and repeat on the other side of the toffee if you are coating both sides. Break into desired-sized pieces. Store protected from heat and humidity.

When fresh, the toffee should be crisp and crunchy to the bite. As the toffee picks up moisture from the air, it will become softer to the bite and stickier to chew.

Happy Owl Baking’s Sweet Bean Pie makes its official debut!

I am happy to announce that Happy Owl Baking will make its official debut on Saturday, May 12, 2012 as part of Victoria’s Fancy Foods Saturday Tastings Series.

Victoria’s Fancy Foods is a cool little shop that sells meats, cheeses, and lots of gourmet products that you’ve probably been wondering where on earth you could find without driving to…well, honestly, who knows where else you could find this kind of stuff around here. We’re in the ‘burbs, baby, so it’s a good thing Victoria’s has done all the legwork for you. She, Victoria herself, has also hand-picked a very accessible selection of domestic and international wines.  She’s a Certified Wine Specialist, so trust her. And if you’re a suspicious son of a gun and don’t want to trust her, then come to the free wine tastings. She has them, and a whole bunch of other stuff, on her calendar —  including my bean pie on Saturday, May 12, so check out her website for more info. www.victoriasfancyfoods.com.

What I dig about this shop is her emphasis on  “clean food” — food that has been “produced, grown or raised completely naturally.” Click here to see her discussion of clean food on her blog www.localcleanfood.com.  She does a lot of local sourcing and she also happens to be the pick-up point for several CSA’s — makes it all super easy.

So come out and say hi on Saturday, May 12 from 1:00-4:00. Victoria’s is tucked into a shopping center on Ritchie Highway in Severna Park, MD, so if you haven’t been there before, keep your eyes peeled! It’s in the same shopping strip that has Poor Boy’s Steakhouse.

The deets: Victoria’s Fancy Foods, 350 Ritchie Highway, Severna Park, MD (410) 384-9463