Soldiering on…

When your brain freezes and you panic because you suddenly can’t remember how to make pate sucree, take a deep breath and carry on.

When you realise you’ve combined your ingredients in the wrong order and forgotten the salt, take a deep breath and carry on.

When your biscuit a rouler doesn’t have enough volume and you’re forced to spread it more thinly than you should to compensate, take a deep breath and carry on.

When it seems like there’s too much to deal with, when it feels like everything is going wrong and you can’t seem to do a single thing right, there is no other choice but to keep calm and keep soldiering on.  Tell yourself that everything will be okay, believe it as best you can, suppress that negative inner voice and try your hardest to keep it together, even when you just want to give in and say “I quit.”

It’s the only thing you can do.

—————

It’s what I did on Tuesday, during my Intermediate practical exam.

Things started going wrong from the very beginning.  In a moment of high pressure and stress, I made a stupid, ridiculous error.  Consequently, I panicked, one mistake inevitably led to another and suddenly, it was like I couldn’t do anything properly.  Any confidence I’d had going into the exam was gone, just like that.  It made me feel out of control and like I knew nothing, even though I’d made every element of the cake I was supposed to be producing many times before.

Fortunately, I managed to get back on track eventually.  Strangely enough, it was the chocolate tempering that brought me back and reminded me that I can do this.  I know it sounds melodramatic, but if that had gone wrong too, I think I would have just given up right there and then.

In the end, I somehow managed to produce a presentable cake, though I have no idea how.  Whether it’s good enough or not, however, still remains to be seen.  I’m already resigned to the fact that my technique marks will have suffered as a result of my terrible pate sucree, but I’m hoping that the rest of my work will have been satisfactory enough to pull me through.  Our feedback tutorials are scheduled for next Thursday; it’s going to be a long week of waiting.

In the meantime, we’ve had a couple of cake-decorating sessions, with one final class next Tuesday to finish off our creations.  While not strictly within the realm of patisserie, it’s arguably a useful skill to learn nonetheless.  That said, our teaching chefs are clearly divided on the subject, much to our amusement.  Still, at least it’s a nice, stress-free way to finish the term; exactly what we need after the last few weeks of exam pressure!

(Also, apologies for the lack of baking content in this post; it’s been a crazy few weeks between work, school and exams and there’s literally been no time for anything other than patisserie!  I’ll definitely try to remedy this next time though, so stay tuned…!)

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On pastry, work and playing the piano.

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?)

Chocolate and pecan biscotti - 3/4/13

Chocolate and pecan biscotti – 3/4/13

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.

Starting over…or so it seems.

Last week was one of beginnings.

Monday was the start of the new term at LCB, which means that I’m now officially an Intermediate Patisserie student!  It’s good to be back and I’m looking forward to the next ten weeks and the chance to develop the basic skills and techniques we were taught last term.  Also, it’s great to see everyone again, though it’s still strange to think that we’re no longer the new kids at school!  It doesn’t feel like we’ve been there long enough to qualify as Intermediates, and yet here we are.  Who would have thought it, after just three months? (To scare us even further, we had our exam lecture this week and things are definitely moving a step or five up from Basic.  No pressure…!)

To ease us into the new semester, we started off with a Dobos chocolate slice, a cake that basically consists of alternate layers of sponge and chocolate ganache.  Of course, being LCB, it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that.  No, instead of the traditional round cake, we had to make a triangular version.

Dobos chocolate slice - 9/4/13 (LCB)

Dobos chocolate slice – 9/4/13 (LCB)

(If you’ve never constructed a triangular cake before, it really requires good knife awareness skills for the diagonal slicing!)  We also prepared batches of puff pastry which we later used to make pithiviers filled with almond cream and strawberry mille-feuilles.  It’s not the worst way to start a new term…!

Friday also saw a new beginning as I started my stage in an amazing pastry production kitchen.  (A stage is basically what unpaid work experience is called in the culinary industry; it’s kind of like an internship, I suppose.)

It was a good day, all things considered; I learned how to finish the decorations on several different types of cake, helped the demi chef de partie set up the display counter, assisted with a stock take, filled moulds and chopped a lot of mangoes.  It doesn’t necessarily sound all that thrilling when put like that, but for someone who aspires to work in a professional pastry kitchen, it was eye-opening in the best possible way.  (Not least because the cakes which I finished decorating actually went into the display counter for sale…!  I definitely felt the responsibility of maintaining the standard, let’s put it that way.) Saturday was fairly similar and although I’ve only been there for two days, I’m starting to see the difference between life in the real world of a professional kitchen and the relative bubble of culinary school.  In particular, I’m coming to understand the reality of the industry that I want to go into and it’s proving to be an extremely valuable lesson.

On top of that, I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work in a place that is of such a high standard, especially considering that this is my first-ever stage (and my first real experience in a professional kitchen).  I know that if I approach it in the right spirit, I’ll be able to learn a vast amount.  By that, I mean that I just need to stop being afraid of making mistakes and remember that I’m there to learn and it’s okay to get things wrong from time to time.

Currently, I think I’m in danger of being held back by my fear of failure and of letting others down.  People keep telling me not to be so hard on myself, but it’s only because I don’t want to annoy anyone by making stupid, rookie mistakes.  At the same time, I also don’t want to give the impression that I need someone to hold my hand and reassure me all the time, because I don’t.  It’s just that I want to do a good job and sometimes I can get too fixated on that, which is counter-productive.  Basically, I need to lighten up and not worry so much.  As with so many things, however, it’s easier said than done…!

In general, however, it’s nice to be busy again; I’m doing what I love and who could ask for more?

(Also, apologies that this blog is fairly low on actual cake/baking content – there will be more in my next post, promise!)

A sense of ennui…

Ennui: (n) A feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.

I wish that I was at school.

I want to feel the atmosphere that is particular to its four walls, the atmosphere that fills me with a sense of contentment and belonging.  (It didn’t always feel that way, but I am grateful that it does now.)  I long for the company of my wonderful group, the friends who have made this such a fantastic experience so far.  I miss being in the kitchens and the classrooms and although I’ve had my share of disappointments when things haven’t gone as well I as I’d have liked, it is seldom that I’ve ever been unhappy there.  I also miss the classes, just being there, doing things, learning.  I still consider it a privilege to be taught by such talented chefs, chefs that I respect and admire and who push me to be better every single day.  And in truth, that’s what I miss most right now: the feeling of inspiration that school gives me, the inspiration that comes from being surrounded by so much knowledge and skill.

At the moment, it feels like my life is on hold.  The new term doesn’t begin for another two weeks and already I am struggling to fill my empty days.  The hours drag and the tick of the clock mocks me with its slow march.  I read, watch television, listen to the radio, go for walks, but it isn’t enough.  I need to do something.  I need to get back into the kitchen, I need to bake.  It might sound strange, but I crave the satisfaction of producing a perfect genoise or tray of macarons.  I want to be rolling out pastry for a tarte amandine, whisking egg yolks for a batch of creme patissiere, cooking sugar to make buttercream.  My hands have been idle and unoccupied for too long and I am becoming restless.  Somehow, in the space of just a single term, LCB has taken over my life.  The school has become my world; the classrooms and kitchens are my home while my group has become a second family. Nearly every thought I have relates to food or baking; I have become totally immersed in the world of patisserie and culinary school.  I thought I’d appreciate some time off, the chance to rest and relax for a while, but in reality, I just want to be back where I belong, where I make sense.

Before I started culinary school, I used to say that baking was my passion.  However, it’s only now that I realise what that truly means, now that a day without baking feels wasted and a week outside the kitchen is enough to make me feel aimless and bored.  My love of patisserie has become part of me, as natural as breathing and without it, the days feel endless and lacklustre.  Having said that, maybe it’s no bad thing for an aspiring pastry chef; it affirms that this really is what I want to do.

Baguettes - 27/12/2012

Baguettes – 27/12/2012

Of course, there is such a thing as too much patisserie, even for a patisserie student!  (It’s rare, but it can happen…)  Sometimes, I just want to make something simple and satisfying and for that, bread is always a good answer.  These are white baguettes, my first attempt at anything other than a basic loaf or rolls.  With a crunchy, crusty exterior and soft, chewy crumb, this is the kind of bread that I love.  Warm from the oven with a spread of salty butter, you can’t beat it.

(Recipe taken from How to Bake by Paul Hollywood.)

Exams and endings.

I am exhausted.

Last week was petits-fours week and my flat is still full of meringue l’amandes, sables Hollandaise and macarons of various flavours; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many biscuits in my life!  Saying that, I am quite proud of my pistachio macarons.  (I apologise now if that sounds smug or conceited, it isn’t meant to!)  I made them using the Italian meringue method, a technique that I’d never tried before; the chef pronounced them “perfect” in his evaluation, which made me very happy indeed!  To be honest, it made up for my less-than-perfect sables from two days before…

In a total contrast, we had our Basic theory and practical exams this week.

The theory paper was pretty much what I expected and what I’m used to, i.e. the academic side of education.  As for the practical, it’s difficult to say how it went; our group got eclairs which, out of the three possible options, was probably our last preference.  As an incurable perfectionist, I tend to pick out even the tiniest flaws and mistakes in whatever I do, so naturally I feel like there were things that could have been better, regardless of how well or badly the exam actually went.  Of course in reality, there are always things that could be improved upon; I suppose I should just be happy that there were no major disasters and that I actually finished in time!  Saying that though, don’t even get me started on the chocolate piping(!)  Never, until exam day, have I had a problem with paper piping bags.  Trust it to happen on the one occasion that I need things to go right…

On a more positive note, we finally had our group night out!  We went for cocktails and dim sum straight after our practical, the perfect way to relax and wind down after the craziness of exams.  (The restaurant was incredible and may very well be my new favourite place in London, especially with desserts as exquisite as theirs were…)  Sadly though, we also have our final demonstration and practical sessions this week. I know I’ve been saying it for the last ten weeks, but I really can’t believe how quickly the Basic module has passed, especially considering how much I’ve learned and done in that time.  Unbelievably, tomorrow is the last day of term; we have our examination debrief first thing in the morning and our final practical in the afternoon.  It’s going to be a strange day, both celebratory and a little bit sad, the end of a short, but wonderful era.

(Time to change the subject before I get too sentimental, I think…!)

In other news, it’s interesting now to look back on things I’ve made in the past and to see how my baking skills have developed and (hopefully) improved since I started at culinary school.

Mini croquembouche - 25/12/2012

Mini croquembouche – 25/12/2012

This is the mini croquembouch that I made for Christmas dinner dessert last year; it consists of choux buns filled with orange-infused creme patissiere, all held together with caramel.  Crunchy sugar, soft choux, delicate pastry cream and just a hint of citrus, it made an interesting and welcome change from the traditional festive pudding.  Looking back now, it’s strange to think how unknown some of the elements were to me just a few months ago.  It was the first time I’d ever made pastry cream, something I could probably now do in my sleep.  (I exaggerate, but you get my meaning…)  My choux pastry is also much improved these days, as is my ability to cook sugar…

Anyway, what I’m really trying to say is that studying at LCB is making me appreciate every day how much I’ve gained already (after all, it’s only been two and a half months) while simultaneously reminding me how much more there is to learn about patisserie.  It makes me appreciate the fact that this is a craft, something to be gained over a lifetime; it’s impossible to know everything and the potential for learning is never-ending.

Truthfully, that’s what excites me most, because I am so eager to be taught, to learn as much as I can and to keep improving and honing my skills in the hope that one day, I might just be able to hold my own in a professional pastry kitchen.  The course is opening my eyes to the culinary world in ways I never imagined and I can already see the difference between the amateur baker who started Basic back in January and the LCB student that I am now.  It’s not just the improvement in my technical abilities, but also my organisation, cleanliness, working methods.  Of course, I still have a long, long way to go before I approach anything like professional level, but I’m embracing every change and challenge and I’m determined to make every second of this experience count.