Turning up the heat…

As we enter week seven of Superior Patisserie, the heat is slowly being turned up, both figuratively and literally.

Figuratively in terms of meeting ever-rising expectations, but also our workload which is only going to increase from now on.  With two weeks to go until our portfolio deadline, there are methods to be written, recipes to be finalised, time plans to be plotted, diagrams to be drawn.  There’s also the theory paper, with a mountain of revision topics to be covered. And then there’s the small matter of our final practical exams, four in total: sugar, boulangerie, chocolate and – the big one – entremets and plated desserts.

Literally, because my group has just completed our sugarwork module.

Sugar showpiece - 5/8/2013 (LCB)

Sugar showpiece – 5/8/2013 (LCB)

Poured, pulled and blown sugar were all on the menu as we were tasked with designing and producing our own showpieces, making blown sugar fruits and pulling ribbons and roses.

Exam sugar showpiece - 6/8/2013 (LCB)

Exam: sugar showpiece – 6/8/2013 (LCB)

Initially, I approached sugarwork with more than a little trepidation.  Stories of boiling sugar and burns had been circulating around the Superior groups for weeks as other classes completed their sugar modules, so naturally we were all a little nervous to begin with…

Sugar rose - 6/8/2013 (LCB)

Exam: sugar rose – 6/8/2013 (LCB)

Day one.  Stepping into the kitchen at 8am to attempt our first-ever showpieces, we cautiously cooked sugar, water and glucose to 160-162C before shocking it, adding colouring and pouring it, boiling, into various prepared moulds.  Once set, we removed the moulds and set about assembling our pieces, gluing them together with clear sugar or blowtorching them.

In our second session of the day, we were shown how to prepare pulled sugar and spent two hours making roses.  Make no mistake, pulled sugar is hot work!  Sugar was cooked to 162C with glucose and tartaric acid, then immediately shocked and poured onto a silpat mat.  Next, we had to work it by hand (albeit hands protected with cotton gloves and two layers of latex gloves) until it was cool enough to satin – i.e. pulled until it takes on a glossy, opaque appearance.  After satining, we pearled it by rolling it into a ball and folding it in upon itself until it took on a mother-of-pearl sheen.  Only then was it ready to be used to make roses, and all the while it had to be maintained underneath a blisteringly hot sugar lamp.

Thus it was, thanks to a showpiece and a rose, that my love of sugar was born.

Day two saw us attempting ribbons and more roses, with ribbons posing an interesting challenge as we tried in pairs to stretch our sugar evenly to produce nice patterns.  (The chef actually complimented our group by telling us that we were the best class he’d seen all year in the ribbon session, so that was a nice little confidence boost!)

Day three was a shift in gear as we learned the art of blown sugar and tried our hand at apples and pears, although we ended up with a range of shapes from cherries to peppers to tomatoes!  We also had the chance to practise our sugar showpieces once more, in preparation for our upcoming assessment.  (The first photograph above shows mine; I feel it’s not bad, considering that it was only my second go!  The colour and pouring could do with some work, but as it goes, I’m rather proud of it.)

Day four, or sugar assessment day.  Two exams, each an hour and forty-five minutes long. In one, we had to produce a showpiece as we’d practised the day before.  In the other, a rose.  I started with the showpiece and everything went well until one of my pieces broke and shattered.  Fortunately, I was able to salvage a few shards and managed to present something, though sadly not the design I had intended.  (The second photograph above shows the piece I produced, with the obvious changes I had to make.)  In three full days of sugarwork, nothing had broken on me before; typical that it would happen on the most important day! However, it was with the rose that I redeemed myself, producing the best one I’d made so far; just the time to pull it out!  (The third photograph above is actually the one I made in my exam; I was doubly pleased with it after the minor disaster with my showpiece…!)

Although I was anxious about sugarwork to begin with, it’s turned out to be the most fun I’ve had so far during Superior and I’ve discovered a passion for it that I was not expecting. Sure, it doesn’t really fall under the category of ‘normal’ everyday patisserie, but it’s creative and fun and I love it.  It’s also made me feel more settled and comfortable with Superior Patisserie and reminded me that although it’s hard work, it can still be interesting and enjoyable.  (That said, sugarwork definitely divided opinions; it seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it subject!)

I’m sad it’s over, but next week sees us tackling the boulangerie unit which is always a good one, so bring on the bread!

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The final stretch…

Superior Patisserie.

We were warned at the end of last term what it would be like.

They told us that it would be several steps up from Intermediate, just as Intermediate was several steps up from Basic.  They told us that the workload would be heavier, the standards higher, the marking harsher.  They joked that we didn’t yet know the meaning of being fast in the kitchen and told us more seriously that we would be pushed harder than ever before and expected to rise to the challenge because we would be setting the example for those below us.  We knew all this in advance, and yet I still don’t think that any of us were really quite prepared for the intensity of Superior Patisserie.  (And trust me, it is intense.) 

So, week one.  Greatly anticipated, it came and went frighteningly quickly.  While other classes had their first introduction to sugar work, my group completed two six-hour sessions of chocolate truffle and confectionary production.

For the first time, we were shown straight into the kitchens for our class, no demonstration beforehand to introduce us to what we’d be doing.  We were divided into teams, assigned six items each and, for the first time, asked to produce a prioritised mise-en-place list, which is surprisingly challenging when you’ve never done it before.  Then came twelve hours of chocolate tempering (which caused us all more problems than it should have), mould polishing and preparation, ganache making, chocolate piping, truffle filling, enrobing, confectionary making, truffle de-moulding, portioning and decorating.  For many who were unused to being on their feet and in the kitchen for six hours straight, it came as something of a surprise, a completely different experience from the way classes were run in the previous two terms.  Personally, I’m lucky in the sense that the last three months of staging have prepared me for long days, so six hours doesn’t feel like much of a stretch; it’s at times like these that my work experience really pays off…

That said, it was still an uphill struggle to get through the first week’s practical sessions. With problems ranging from chocolate tempering troubles to organisation issues, it was far from plain sailing and although we all produced some lovely things by the end of the two classes, it took a lot of hard work and proved to us, if we were still in any doubt, that the expectations are far higher now that we’re Superior-level students.

Chocolates and confectionary - 2/7/2013 (LCB)

Small selection of chocolates and confectionary – 2/7/2013 (LCB)

We also had our first technical class of term last week (the obligatory exam lecture) where two of our teaching chefs proceeded to spend two hours scaring the living daylights out of us by describing in great detail what we’d have to do in our final practical exams.  (This term, there are no less than four.  For the major one, we have to design and produce our own large entremet plus two identical plated desserts, to be judged not just by our teachers but by chefs from the industry, friends and ex-colleagues of our instructors.  No pressure then…!)  Nothing like a healthy dose of fear to start off the term!

Week two saw the second half of our chocolate module, where we moved towards the realm of basic sculptures and showpieces.  Our two workshops saw us producing chocolate trains and chocolate display boxes, plus more moulded truffles.

Chocolate box - 9/7/2013 (LCB)

Chocolate box – 9/7/2013 (LCB)

Annoyingly, I made the worst batch of truffles I’ve ever made on the day that the chef chose to taste and critically evaluate them.  Thankfully, the ganache was good, so at least they tasted fine.  (It was just in appearance that they fell short of the standard, with the shells being slightly too thick and pocked with air bubbles.)  Still, at least I know that I can make better ones; it just wasn’t my day for it.

Actually, let’s face it; it just hasn’t really been my day since term began.  Although nothing has gone drastically wrong, I don’t feel like it’s been a particularly good start to Superior. My work has been acceptable but no more, which is frustrating when I know that I can do better and have done better in the past, (e.g. the moulded truffles).  I know that it’s because of my crazy perfectionist nature that it bothers me to produce merely passable work, but I want to prove myself and my abilities to the teaching chefs.  I want to show them how I’ve grown and developed as a pastry cook in the last six months.  (Am I repeating myself? I fear I am…sorry to keep boring you with the same old things!)  I still feel the need to prove that I deserve to be at LCB, because even now, two-thirds of the way through the course, there are times when I feel like I don’t.  It’s silly and I know that some people (hi, Mum!) think this mindset is holding me back, but there’s nothing I can do; it’s just the way it is.

Part of me hopes that all this is just because I haven’t quite settled into Superior yet and that things will improve as we go further on.  Fingers crossed that’s true, because next week is the beginning of our plated desserts module and it’s only going to get tougher from now on…

Life, lately: from Intermediate to Superior.

Firstly, the good news: I passed my Intermediate Patisserie exams!

My practical grade was surprisingly okay, considering how the exam went.  (It was actually better than my Basic grade, which I wasn’t expecting after such a bad session in the kitchen.)  Sure, I’ll admit I was hoping for a higher mark, but honestly, I’m just happy to have passed.  This means that as of tomorrow, when term begins again, I will be a fully-fledged Superior Patisserie student.  It’s going to be challenging, I don’t doubt that for a second, but I’m excited too and can’t wait to get started again.  As geeky or nerdy as it sounds, all I want is to be back at school doing what I love.

So, this past week has been something of a holiday, or an ‘inter-session week’ as the school email dubbed it.  Either way, it’s been nice to have some time off and more than that, to do things that haven’t been pastry-related!

We finished off our Intermediate term with cake decorating; nine hours spread over three sessions to design and decorate a fruit cake.  It was pretty relaxed way to end the term as we chatted over our gumpaste flowers and models, covered our cakes and arranged our decorations; I don’t think we’ve ever worked at such a slow pace in the school kitchens!  It made a nice change after the previous few weeks of exam-related craziness.

Celebration cake - 18/6/2013 (LCB)

Celebration cake – 18/6/2013 (LCB)

While the majority of my group settled on flowers and more classical designs, I went for the minimalist approach, as inspired by the Charm City Cakes Summer 2012 collection, if you’re interested in such things!  I used plain white fondant to cover the cake and finished it with individually hand-cut white gumpaste leaves brushed with silver lustre, adding a blue ruffle-edged flower to provide some interest and colour contrast.  All in all, an interesting exercise in cake decorating and my class produced some beautiful cakes. (The Alice in Wonderland-themed one was particularly stunning; unfortunately, I have no photographs to prove the point!)

We also had our Intermediate certificate ceremony a couple of days after our final classes. (Any excuse to dress up smart and drink champagne…!)  It was lovely to see everyone before we all parted ways and we even managed to get our customary group photograph with the teaching chefs!  However, these events are always double-edged, tinged with sadness; on one hand, it’s a great celebration of everything we’ve achieved in the last twelve weeks but on the other hand, not everyone will be returning next term and it’s a shame to say goodbye to such wonderful people.  Still, life goes on and I’m sure we’ll all stay in touch; LCB has given me some of the best friends I’ve ever known and I have no doubt that we will carry on our friendships beyond the time we’ve spent together at the school.  (We’re already in talks for a one-year reunion next January, to mark the very first day that we all met!)

Last weekend, my parents came down to visit for a few days, which was lovely.  We took in the Turner collection at the Tate Britain, braved Westfield Stratford and went out for a couple of nice dinners.  It was good to see them and reminded me what it’s like to have a life beyond the kitchen!  (Not that I’m complaining about that, since it’s where I like to be most.)  In contrast, the last couple of days have been taken up by work, which I’m still enjoying; I’ve recently been allowed to start mixing macarons, which is great if also very hard work.  (Put it this way, I’m going to have pretty strong arms by the end of my stage…)

Anyway, that’s all for now; the sun is shining, it’s the second stage of the Tour de France, Daft Punk is playing in the background and I’m off to enjoy the rest of my last day of freedom before Superior kicks in!  (I literally can’t wait to find out what we’ll be doing; word is that there’ll be a lot of chocolate and sugar work, not to mention a tea party event that sounds like a whole lot of fun…)

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…!)

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.