Sugar, sugar

When I started school back in August, I admittedly didn’t give much thought to the non-baking/cooking portions of our curriculum; they existed as a sort of abstract, far-off thing that I wouldn’t have to worry about until later. Truthfully, they intimidated me so much that I didn’t want to even acknowledge that I would have to do them, because if I acknowledged it, I’d worry about it, and if I spent time and energy worrying about it, that was less time and energy I could spend doing more immediate, important things.

A couple of weeks ago, however, I realized that I’d gotten to a point of such exhaustion that I simply don’t have time to stress about anything anymore; so when I realized our advanced sugar unit was coming up, rather than worry and bite my nails trying to plan out some elaborate showpiece, I kind of just went, “cool, I’ve always wanted to learn how to blow sugar.”

That kind of attitude actually took off a lot of pressure and allowed me to enjoy learning more, even when my partner and I (read: I) accidentally spilled vinegar on our freshly-poured isomalt, rendering it useless, even when we messed up our butterscotch candies, even when our blue and yellow sugars mixed into this gorgeous shade of emerald.

My class spent most of our three-week unit curiously asking each other what we were planning on doing for our showpiece; even though we were relatively confident about most of the various sugar techniques we’d learned, none of us was remotely confident about putting them together into one cohesive project. Eventually, we all got it together, and I have to say, we all put out some pretty great work!

Up next, the highly-anticipated, almost-as-highly-dreaded…WEDDING CAKE PROJECT! (Woo! Woo? Woo!)

Long time, no post

Oh, hi! It’s been a while, friends. I’m really sorry I’ve been so absent, but it’s not personal, I promise! It’s just evidence that pastry school isn’t a walk in the park, and doubly so when coupled with working full time and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. Obviously I was a little over-ambitious when I thought I could keep this up regularly¬†and maintain some sanity in my everyday life.

To play some quick catch up, here’s a brief list of the things you’ve missed between my last post and now:

  • I made and ate my weight in butter in our puff pastry unit, making some really delicious treats like¬†poires en cage,¬†tarte tatin, and¬†palmiers. It was our introduction into lamination, which is essentially the layering of dough and butter to create flaky, airy layers of baked pastry.
Mmm, flaky, buttery layers of pastry goodness.
  • In our first cake unit, we learned the basics of various mixing methods, and it took me three tries to figure out how to make a¬†g√©noise correctly. We made some basic layer cakes, as well as¬†succ√®s au caf√©,¬†marjolaine, and an intricately piped basket weave, which was way more fun than it sounds!
That basket weave is no joke!
  • Next was one of my favorites, if not my favorite unit in our whole program: breads and viennoiserie. Bagels, croissants, danish, pannettone, brioche, sticky buns, English muffins, the list goes on… I just¬†love¬†working with doughs and yeast, so I’m hoping we get to do some more of that.

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What I like about choux

Can I be honest, guys? I don’t know how I really feel about¬†p√Ęte-√†-choux yet. Our first interaction wasn’t that great, and then things seemed to flow a little better between us the¬†more time we spent together, but I just don’t know if I like¬†choux¬†enough to really invest in it, you know?¬†I mean, I like it; I just don’t know if I¬†like-like it. It’s a fun medium to play with, but on its own, it’s pretty bland. Also, my hands are still cramped from all the √©clairs and chouquettes I’ve piped over the last week, so I may be a little bitter.

I will say this for¬†choux, though: it is a lot less intimidating once you realize how simple it is to make. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been so impressed by √©clairs, profiteroles, and all the other¬†choux-based pastries I’ve eaten over the years that I thought making good¬†p√Ęte-√†-choux was akin to making good sushi rice‚ÄĒa closely guarded secret it takes seven years to master.

The truth is, it’s just some water, butter, flour, and eggs, with a dash of salt and sugar. I know, I know… “Just.”¬†As if it’s really just that simple. As with basically anything pastry-related, getting it perfect is relatively difficult, but getting it good enough is a hell of a lot easier than you probably think it is. (Look, here’s a recipe¬†for coconut cream puffs that shows you how to make a version of it, and you don’t even need any special equipment! Although a stand mixer does make it a little easier.)

Anyway, making the¬†choux is the easy part; piping it is an entirely different story. Precision has always been one of my strengths (or at least something I’m not horrible at), but consistency has not, and when piping literally anything for class, it’s the latter that counts more than the former. Tell me to pipe a 4-inch by 1-inch √©clair? You got it. Tell me to pipe sixteen of them? LOL, no. I will, despite my efforts, give you at most¬†three identical, perfectly piped shells, and thirteen others that look like various palm trees, zombie fingers, and genitalia. And while I’m sure there’s a market for all of those things, I’m also sure the Chef doesn’t want to see any of those in her kitchen (in choux or real form). And so, over the course of our¬†choux unit, I tried as hard as I could to pipe even, consistent, non-phallic √©clairs, balls, and rings. I think I did alright, but I know there’s a lot of room for improvement.

This unit was pretty short, only about five classes, or a week and a half (I’ll come back to how intense and fast this program is in a later post, because¬†whoo, boy, am I realizing just how intense and fast it is now). So after we did the basic √©clairs, we did¬†goug√®res¬†(cheese puffs) and¬†chouquettes, which are one of my favorite pastries, even though they’re so simple they might not even qualify as pastries. When I was living in France I would pick them up as a treat when I picked up bread from my local boulangerie. Let me tell you, there is nothing quite like the crunch of the pearl sugar and golden brown shell of a fresh¬†chouquette followed by the eggy, custardy interior to perk you up on a crappy day. (If you want to try them but can’t find a bakery that makes them by you, try making them on your own with¬†David Lebovitz’s recipe.) We made little ones, probably about fifty per person, and I may or may not have eaten them all myself within 24 hours.

Then we graduated to a Saint Honor√©, which is supposed to look like this, and is essentially a bunch of¬†choux with¬†cr√®me chiboust on and in it, with some of the puffs covered in caramel (try not to lick your screen‚ÄĒit won’t taste like a Saint Honor√©, trust me). But mine turned out like this:

We¬†were super rushed and our chiboust had to be redone because we overwhipped the meringue, but it was delicious all the same. If you follow me on Instagram, you already know that the pastry is named after Saint Honor√© (Honoratus), the patron saint of pastry chefs, but did you also know the pastry tip used to pipe the chiboust is called a “chiboust” tip? What a coincidence!

The last project we did before our exam was a croquembouche. You might know what a croquembouche is; you may have even eaten one before. But have you ever attempted to make one of these?

These things are impressive. I was terrified of making one because a) they’re supposed to look amazing and how am I supposed to do that after only six weeks in pastry school, and b) caramel burns. If you’ve not had the pleasure of being burned by molten sugar, let me tell you: I don’t recommend it. Just… don’t do it. There’s no need. You really aren’t missing out on anything except searing pain you don’t feel until it’s too late and hot sugar has taken off two layers of skin and ruined your writing hand¬†for a good week.

A¬†croquembouche is, for those who don’t know, a kind of¬†pi√®ce mont√©e, or sculpted centerpiece, generally served at weddings. It’s a conical structure made of (usually) cream-filled puffs glued together with caramel and decorated to look…”all fancy” is the technical term, I believe. We didn’t fill our puffs because we were really just making it for the experience, and not to be served, but we did dip them all in caramel (and I have the burns to prove it! [see note above]) and various decorative coatings.

Now THAT'S a croquembouche. . Happy Friday! Hope your weekend is as fun as this was to make! ūüć≠ #hardworktastesgood

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My class opted to put together one giant¬†croquembouche, partly¬†because no one wanted to have to bring anything home, but mainly because we wanted to assert dominance and intimidate all the other classes. I was hoping it would be the size of a person‚ÄĒI didn’t measure it, but in the end, I think it probably came out to about the size of a fourth grader? We also made some decorations, and I was more than pleased that a number of mine made it onto the final piece; unfortunately my name broke, but the I made the flower on the top (and the mixer, whisk, and crown), so at least there’s that!

It was really great to work as a team to bring this together. We all did¬†all of the work, including piping, dipping, rolling, gluing, engineering, cleaning, etc. And even though it was humid and the caramel on the extra puffs I took home got all goopy¬†(don’t look at me that way; they’re a tasty snack!), our¬†croquembouche stayed up for days after we put it together. I don’t know what eventually happened to it. It most likely¬†ended up in the compost bin, but part of me hopes it was wrapped up and sent down the Hudson on a funeral pyre made of chocolate logs and spun sugar kindling, burning orange and red like the coconut flakes topping the¬†choux puffs, with West side joggers¬†stopping to pay their respects and watch it float by to that great pastry heaven in the sky.

One unit down, countless to go

School so far has been, in a word, exhausting. It’s probably just an adjustment period, but I am¬†so. exhausted. all. the. time. For those that don’t know, in addition to school, I also work full-time. I knew when I signed up for this that it would be a challenge, that I’d be a little more tired and a lot busier; but I had no idea just how beat I’d be at the end of the week. On weekday class nights I don’t get home until after 11 pm (so that’s eight hours of work and 5 hours of class, plus commuting time), on nights I don’t have class, I have homework to do and some semblance of a social life to keep, and considering I have to be up at 6:30 am to get to work the next day, you can imagine how tired I am after a whole week of that.

So¬†I’m hoping you’ll also understand why it’s taken me a while to post again, given my lack of free time and propensity to spend said free time napping with a cat on my back.

How inviting does this look, though?
How inviting does this look, though?

Our cookie unit finished up in no time. Other than the lunettes and diamants, we made vanilla crescents, spritz cookies, Russian tea cookies, sabl√©s (vanilla and chocolate), almond biscotti, gingersnaps, and brownies. Everything was delicious, but my favorite (and I think everyone’s favorite) was the gingersnap, which was actually more like soft gingerbread cookie. These were chewy, spicy and sweet, and would probably be great in an ice cream sandwich‚ÄĒone of our chefs suggested lemon-ginger ice cream, but I’m more of an egg nog girl, myself. They were also really simple to make, although they do involve molasses, which can be a pain to deal with. (Tip: lightly spray your measuring cup with cooking spray [or butter it] before you measure out the molasses, and less of it will cling to the sides when you pour it into the mixer.)

Ginger "snaps." Soft and chewy and spicy and SO GOOD.
Ginger “snaps.” Soft and chewy and spicy and SO GOOD.

Sorry this post isn’t more exciting. To be honest, this part of school isn’t all that enthralling in terms of what we’re learning‚ÄĒmost cookies are fairly easy to make, technically speaking, especially when they don’t involve any meringue or complex techniques. The things we’ve made are similar to other recipes I’ve made in the past (and probably what you’ve made, too, if you’ve ever made a butter, chocolate chip, or sugar cookie), so I’m treating this kind of like a warm-up unit to get me acclimated to being in a professional kitchen and working with a partner (not as easy as you’d think!).

One other subject we’ve been dealing with that was all but totally new for me is food safety and hygiene. Part of our curriculum includes the ServSafe exam, so we’ve been spending part of every class going over things like minimum cooking temperatures, shelf clearance, how to prevent backflow in a kitchen sink, how to check a supply order, and all the different viruses and bacteria that can kill you in your food. FUN STUFF! Well, maybe not fun, but actually really important, even more for someone who wants to own her own business someday. ūüėČ

Study sesh! Go to pastry school and you, too, can spend your free time learning about E. Coli and Hepatitis A!
Study sesh! Go to pastry school and you, too, can spend your free time learning about E. Coli and Hepatitis A!

Next up is our unit on pies and tarts, which I am¬†really looking forward to. I’ve made a pie or two in my day, but tarts are another story‚ÄĒprobably best saved for another post‚ÄĒand I’d really love to get better and learn more about them… other than how to eat an entire tart in one sitting, because I’m pretty sure I’ve already got that one down.

Prologue

Ideally, this blog would have been running for over a month by now (I’ve fudged the post dates a little‚ÄĒshhhh, it’s our little secret.) But unfortunately, as you’ll see in posts to come, going to pastry school at night while working a full-time job isn’t exactly a cake walk. (See what I did there? Expect more of that if you stick around. Puns are like my bread and butter.)

For the last decade, every once in a while I’d decide that this was it‚ÄĒthis was finally the time I applied for pastry school. I’d sign up for mailing lists, look at catalogs, RSVP for open houses but never go. I wasn’t ready to fully commit, so I’d carry on with life, grad school, moving states and even countries, always keeping pastry school as a distant dream, something I could look forward to doing…someday.

Well, someday is today. Earlier this year, I finally applied for a nine-month night program, and in late August, I put on my whites, marked all my tools in my kit, and stepped into a professional kitchen for the first time, full of excitement, anxiety, and hunger to learn E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.

I’ll be updating throughout my program, sharing pictures, some tips, maybe some recipes, too. In the meantime, for all the tasty pictures of class-made treats and my adventures in pastry, check out my¬†Instagram.

Stay tuned!

Ready to start this adventure!
Ready to start this adventure!