Where do I begin? As usual, time is rushing past me. The days may be long, but the weeks seem to pass in the blink of an eye and we’re already more than halfway through Intermediate Patisserie; I didn’t think it was possible, but this term seems to be going even more quickly than the last. Recent classes have been dedicated to the learning of and first attempts at making our exam cakes. All I’ll say is that standards and expectations are visibly higher at Intermediate and the grading criteria have become even stricter. Perfection is the operative word and it is extremely difficult to achieve, especially under the watchful and critical eyes of our teaching chefs.
What has frustrated me most lately is the feeling that I’m not improving despite my gradually increasing kitchen experience and knowledge of basic methods and techniques. It’s as if I’ve developed some kind of mental block; the understanding is there, but my brain and my hands don’t seem to be connecting. The result is that I’ve been producing work that I’m not happy with, work which feels like it lacks refinement and skill. What’s particularly vexing is that it’s a combination of lots of little things; underwhisking a genoise, baking a sheet sponge for a few minutes too long, piping that’s thick and heavy-handed, uneven spreading, too-thick glazing, inelegant, clumsy presentation. These are simple errors that I should not be making at this level, or so I feel.
However, one of my chefs helped to put things into perspective during my recent mid-term tutorial. We spoke about my progress and I told him about my frustration over my personally-perceived lack of development; on discovering that I’d completed a music degree before applying to LCB, he drew a very good analogy between learning patisserie and learning to play the piano. (It turns out that he’s a musician too, hence the seemingly-unrelated reference.)
Essentially, you can play the piano or you can play the piano. It’s not to do with lack of knowledge or understanding, but rather with experience, practice and refinement. The same applies to patisserie; I’m learning the theory and the technical skills, but my lack of finesse is likely down to the fact that I have so little practical experience. It’s not something that can be perfected overnight, but instead will hopefully come with time, dedication and perseverance, just as it is with learning to play the piano. (Or any other musical instrument, for that matter…!)
Looking at it that way has definitely helped to alleviate some of my anxiety and I am more determined than ever to keep working hard, keep learning and prove that I can really do this. The further I get on this course, the more I realise how much I love patisserie and how much it means to me; it’s become my entire life, as cliched as that sounds. That’s why it’s so important to me to do well and to show my teachers that I have the potential to become a good pastry cook in the not-too-distant future. (I still need to work on my perfectionist nature though; it’s been proving something of a problem recently and may well be holding me back because I’ve become so self-critical. I really need to lighten up, but of course, it’s not quite that easy to do!)
On a more positive note though, I’m into the fifth week of my stage and it’s been an amazing experience so far. I’ve already learned an incredible amount and every day that I spend there, I feel privileged to have the opportunity to work with and be taught by such talented chefs. I’ve also noticed my confidence growing in the last couple of weeks, an indication that I’m making progress in some form or other. The positive feedback I’ve had from the head chef recently is another good sign; it makes me feel like I’m earning my place in the kitchen and that I’m good enough to be there. (It’s also nice to know that other people believe in me; that always seems to make things a little bit better, doesn’t it?)
With life as hectic as it is at the moment, I’ve hardly had a spare moment to bake for fun. I made these biscotti the week before I started Intermediate Patisserie; crunchy, nutty from pecans and creamy from milk chocolate, they’re perfect with that mid-afternoon cup of tea or coffee. Just don’t make the mistake that I did of adding slightly too much egg to the mix! (It makes the dough stickier than it should be and subsequently harder to work with. It also causes it to spread in the oven like cookie dough, making it difficult to retain the proper biscotti shape. Of course, if you follow the recipe properly, you shouldn’t have any problems!)
Adapted from Paul Hollywood’s recipe on BBC Food.