That’s Chef Prodigal Bun to You.

Well, despite my efforts, I am sorrily remiss in my blogging duties, friends. The last eight weeks of classes were hectic, to say the least: every other week there was a new project to plan and stress out about, and then there was a full week of finals. A full week! Five classes, actually, so it was more like a week and a half.

Anyway, it was exhausting, at times trying, and yes, there were some tears. BUT… I FINISHED! I graduated! Not only that, but I finished with perfect attendance and a final tart recipe that I’m really proud of.

To catch you up, here’s a selection of Instagram posts for the last few weeks of class. I really can’t (and don’t want to) believe it’s already over!

 

Nougatine semifreddo with meringue, lemon curd gelée, rhubarb compote, rhubarb soup/syrup. #nomnom #pastry

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Stay tuned for more tasty things to come, friends. Cookie season is just around the corner!

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 cagetarte 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 génoise correctly. We made some basic layer cakes, as well as succès au cafémarjolaine, 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 pâte-à-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 éclairs 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 éclairs, profiteroles, and all the other choux-based pastries I’ve eaten over the years that I thought making good pâte-à-choux was akin to making good sushi rice—a 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 éclair? 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 éclairs, 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 éclairs, we did gougères (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 Honoré, which is supposed to look like this, and is essentially a bunch of choux with crème chiboust on and in it, with some of the puffs covered in caramel (try not to lick your screen—it won’t taste like a Saint Honoré, 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 Honoré (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.

croquembouche is, for those who don’t know, a kind of pièce montée, 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! 🍭 #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—I 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.

Level one, complete! Really happy with how all this came out. Paris-Brest and six coffee eclairs. 👍🏼😊🍰

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Pies and Tarts and Quiche, Oh My!

Oh, hello! It’s been a minute, guys. Between work and getting used to this busy schedule, I’ve been really slacking in the blog post department—so much so that I missed an entire unit! So let’s play catch-up, shall we?

After we finished up our cookies and food safety unit (which, by the way, would be a great name for someone’s memoirs, just saying), we moved into pies and tarts. This is a section that I was looking forward to, but also a little skeptical about.. I mean, I make a mean pie already. What’s there really to learn?

So much, my friends. So much. First off, just to paint a picture of how much we actually made and give you an idea of the volume of treats we’ve been dealing with: we started with tarts—apple tarts, pear tarts (tarte bourdaloue), fruit tarts, custard tarts, lemon tarts, chocolate tarts, nut tarts, galette flamande, caramelized onion and bleu cheese tarts, quiche(!)… Then we finished off with some good ol’ fashioned American pies—double-crust apple, caramel apple streusel, pumpkin, and lemon meringue, to be exact. If you’re keeping track, that’s A LOT of tarts and pies. Luckily, these are all very shareable things, so my coworkers and friends have been very happy (and full).

Taaaaaaaarts. L-R, top-bottom: Apple, caramelized onion and blue cheese, tarte bourdaloue, banana cream, caramel-nut, mixed nut, lemon, chocolate ganache, fruit.
Taaaaaaaarts. L-R, top-bottom: Apple, caramelized onion and bleu cheese, tarte bourdaloue, banana cream, caramel-nut, mixed nut, lemon, chocolate ganache, fruit.

I really didn’t think there was that much to making a tart or a pie, so I went into this unit a little cocky. In truth, there really isn’t that much to making a dish comprised of a shell and a filling; make the shell, fill it, bake it, you’re done. Anyone can do it if they know the basics, but like many things, the difference between a good tart and a great tart is, well, it’s like the difference between being ranked the 100th best tennis player and the 1st. To someone sitting on the couch who can’t or doesn’t play at all, they might as well be the same person, but to people who are knowledgeable and spend their lives in the field, it’s a tremendous leap quantified in terms of technique, consistency, and presentation.

This crust is a pain and involves hard-boiled eggs, but is so worth the trouble! Tart is filled with almond cream and raspberry compote, and is one of the most delicious things I've ever had.
This crust is a pain and involves hard-boiled eggs, but is so worth the trouble! Tart is filled with almond cream and raspberry compote, and is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever had.

Just on day 1, when all we were doing was a basic apple tart that involved rolling out dough, lining a tart ring, slicing some apples, and making a compote, I learned more than in the years I’ve been making pies on my own. How to properly peel, core, and slice an apple, how to correctly throw flour on your work surface, how to roll out dough and line the ring the right way (yes, there is a right way to do this). As we went on, I got to try things I’ve never done before, like flambéing, working with almond cream (finally, I got to learn how it’s made! I know all your secrets now, pastry professionals! [lololol]), making meringue successfully and with various methods, toasting said meringue, etc. etc.

This is the kind of experience I was hoping pastry school would be. I’m literally learning something new every day—truthfully, many somethings—and even though I’ve made some mistakes (e.g. the Great Raspberry Jam Blowout of 2016), they’re all opportunities to discover and improve. Example: now I know that when you don’t heat your swiss meringue enough, it will start to fall apart mere seconds after you meticulously pipe it on top of a mini lemon tart in the cutest pattern ever and gaze at it proudly.

:(
The Great Raspberry Jam Blowout of 2016. 🙁

Even though I’m exhausted all of the time always, every time I step into the kitchen, I seem to get a burst of energy and forget that I’m running on coffee and the few hours of sleep my cat lets me have every night. I might come out of class with a sore back and the occasional sliced finger (seriously, guys, be careful when cleaning your knives), but I’m still loving it so far, and can’t wait to try my hand at éclairs, cream puffs, and the all-intimidating croquembouche in our upcoming classes. Who’s excited for some pâte à choux? I know I am.

Leftovers. Clocwise from top-left: Lemon meringue pie, pumpkin pie, various tarts and quiches, double-crust apple, caramel apple streusel. NOM.
Leftovers I may or may not have eaten for breakfast in bed. Clockwise from top-left: Lemon meringue pie, pumpkin pie, various tarts and quiches, double-crust apple, caramel apple streusel. NOM.

 

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, sablés (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—one 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—most 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. 😉

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—probably best saved for another post—and 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.

On the first day, we created cookies

The first day was, as I expected, chaotic. It was also really fun and beyond exciting to finally start school, but it was first and foremost a kind of trial-by-fire situation.

Once we’d changed into our uniforms and figured out how to tie our neckerchiefs—thanks, seasoned students for helping us!—we were ushered down to our kitchen, where tool sets and handouts were neatly awaiting us at our stations. When we eventually unzipped the bags to inspect them, it was like unlocking a treasure chest. I felt like an anthropologist going through some distant civilization’s tools, trying to figure out what this one was for, where that one went. I knew we’d get to use them all eventually, but it took everything in me not to dump everything out on the table and start figuring it all out on my own.

It’s no surprise, then, that I was a little bummed when we took out the basic stuff I already knew how to use so we could start prepping our recipes for day one. The program I’m in has us in the kitchen and baking from the very beginning, in what I think is an attempt to get us comfortable in a professional kitchen and really immerse us in pastry (not literally, although that sounds like fun, too). On one hand, I absolutely love this. “Here’s a recipe, here’s how you do this, now do it yourself!” YES! I am a professional-in-training and I’m going to make all the cookies by myself now with big grown-up equipment in a REAL kitchen, let’s do this!

On the other hand, “wait, why do you do it this way, what if you did it another way, what is the scientific reason we use this flour, what purpose do the eggs serve, can I sub out X for Y, etc. etc.?” The truth is, while there was a lot of instruction going on, there just wasn’t time for all of the details as we were starting out in the program. Just jump in and start swimming! Those who know me know my interest in things, when I’m really interested, can border on obsession, so I want to know all the things immediately, and I have to keep reminding myself, “in good time, you’ll get there, just master the small stuff now.”

Which brings us to cookies. Now, that’s not to say that cookies are small stuff, although yes, they can be pretty diminutive. But technically speaking, a lot of cookies are pretty simple to make and hard to mess up unless you forget an ingredient or are just plain negligent, and this is probably why we’re starting with them as the first unit in school.

First off, we have Diamants (French for “diamonds”), which get their name from the sparkly sugar they’re rolled in. We made ours using the creaming method (beating butter and sugar together until light and fluffy), a pretty common method for cookies—if you’ve ever made chocolate chip cookies with the recipe from the back of the bag, you’ve done this. The dough gets rolled into a log, rolled in sugar, and then sliced and baked. Pretty simple, right? They come out buttery and golden with just the softest crisp, and they are absolute heaven. Everyone in my office told me to take them away so they wouldn’t eat them all (and trust me, it’s easy to grab a handful of these to munch on with some coffee or tea). Here’s a recipe I found for them if you’re interested in making them yourself. (Tip: make sure that dough is really nice and chilled before you cut it! If you notice the log flattening out a bit on one side, roll it over and start cutting from a different side to help even it out a bit.)

The other cookies from day one are Lunettes (French for “glasses”—are you sensing a theme here?). These are a similar butter-based cookie and very similar to Linzer cookies, but with a hint of spice, and obviously some extra sweet filling in the middle. We got to practice rolling out and cutting dough into shapes, which seems like a fairly basic task, but is actually harder than it looks when you’re making an effort to have everything be uniform. I was also really surprised by how well these held up after a few days. I was saving them for someone and was worried they’d get stale, or the powdered sugar would get soaked up into them, but to my surprise they were just as tasty on the third day as they were when they came out of the oven! This recipe is pretty simple and easy to follow, if you want to give it a shot—I would just suggest not actually kneading the dough (I’ll get to why in another post) when it’s time to gather it all together into a ball/disk (and it will definitely be easier to roll out if you chill it in a disk rather than a ball).

All in all, the first day was a nice transition into starting school. I know things are going to pick up fast, but I think I’m up to it. Really looking forward to learning more and (obviously) getting some more cookies in the oven, so stay tuned!

Look at that sugar sparkle. Just look at it!
Look at that sugar sparkle. Just look at it!

Prologue

Ideally, this blog would have been running for over a month by now (I’ve fudged the post dates a little—shhhh, 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—this 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!