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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Rolling the Dice with Sugar

Sugar Amenity Project -- Oops, forgot to elevate the clear ring so I had to go back in with a torch real quick...

Sugar Amenity Project — Oops, forgot to elevate the clear ring so I had to go back in with a torch real quick…

Sugar has been getting a bad rap lately for not doing a body good, but I’ve found an unexpected way to enjoy it: sugar centerpieces. Off all the mediums I’ve worked with this semester in my Chocolate and Showpieces class, sugar is by far the coolest. Remember the chocolate heron amenity (it alternately cracked and melted)? Remember the dead dough Happy Owl Baking centerpiece (too many things went wrong with that to bother mentioning)? Well, I can Dear John both of those mediums now because I found Sugar.

Sure, sugar is dangerous (boil to 340 degrees), fickle (you don’t even have to be touching it and it could decide to shatter), and it’s a little clingy (it’s sticky and can pull a stray shard or sugar crumb to it from across the room), but it’s also mysterious (what color will it be? I have no idea, just pour in a little dye and see), versatile, and very beautiful.

Sugar is a fascinating mix of fragility and strength. It could crack on you if you look at it wrong, but the sugar bond itself is also so strong that you can solder seemingly incompatible pieces together into acrobatic positions you can’t believe would hold,  but they do. That, coupled with sugar’s ability to take almost any color from clear to brilliant jewel tones, gives it a design versatility that is, so far, unparalleled.

If you want to see tension, watch a sugar showpiece competition and know that the sugar artist is probably holding his or her breath since all the careful planning, design, execution, skill, and focus still can’t overcome the element of chance present in sugar. The assembly could go like clockwork, or the breeze could blow, or someone could slam a door, or — well, you get the idea; it’s a gamble. You just take a deep breath and go for it.

So, if you can stand the heat, sugar might be your jam.

Click for sugar slideshow.