Wednesday, February 29, 2012

2012: New Year, New Priorities, New Changes

I know. I know. You don't have to say it. I am extremely overdue for an update. The truth of the matter is that I didn't even finish telling you about the end of my fall semester, so I guess that's as good as any place to start.

My Advanced Cake Decorating Class wrapped up with a final practical exam. My assigned task was to build, ice, and decorate a three-layer cake, in the shape of an 8" octagon, and then complete the required decorating. Icing it proved to be my biggest challenge of the day, in order to get the sides straight, but all in all, I did well and ended up with pretty good results. It was a three-layer vanilla genoise, with vanilla buttercream, chocolate piping, and marzipan carnations.

My Retail Bakeshop class culminated in a final project and presentation, where my friend Gilly and I presented our business concept for a farmers market stand called "it's a Whoopie!" We developed a business plan where we would sell a variety of sweet and savory whoopie pies at the local downtown farmers market. I utilized knowledge from my online classes - Small Business Management and Small Business Operations - to inform our work for our Retail Project. For our final presentation, Chef encouraged us to set up a 10' x 10' tent, just like we would at the farmers market, so we did. Our display highlighted one of our fall menus. We provided samples of our classic chocolate whoopie pie with marshmallow filling, our pecan-maple whoopie pie with butterscotch filling, and our cornbread whoopie pie with cream cheese, chives, and bacon. Compliments to Gilly, here are photos of hers that show our presentation stand. And special thanks to my friend, Emily, for her creation of our logo.

All in all, this was perhaps the most exciting class project I have had the opportunity to work on in all of my years of higher education. The project was invaluable, and further stressed my interest in running a business some day. I enjoyed the many, many hours we spent pondering ideas and putting the pieces of a business together. More on that later.

My Introduction to Wine class wrapped up with a final exam, project and presentation. For my project and presentation, I chose to use my Italian-themed desserts menu from my Plated Desserts Course which I took in the summer, and find Italian wine pairings for each of the desserts on my menu. I learned a great deal about Italian wine by pursuing this project, and I learned just as much about wine and dessert pairings. It was a great learning exercise as well.

My online classes wrapped up with final exams and final assignments. Nothing major here in terms of the workload, but both of these Small Business Management courses taught me a great deal about considerations for a future business plan.

After all of that hard work in finishing the semester, I spent three glorious weeks at home in Mount Carmel, PA, spending time with family and friends and baking a great deal for our holiday gatherings. It was a rewarding and enjoyable holiday season for me, and I felt blessed to share so many memories with family and friends at home.

I eased my way into 2012, mainly because my mom drove back to Charleston with me, and stayed for a few days. She spoiled me with a great little stay-cation. We hung out, walked the beach, took a tour of downtown, and ate like champs. When she boarded the plane for PA, I had to snap out of my month-long vacation, and begin preparations for my new year with my new priorities and new changes.

I learned some valuable lessons in 2011, and I faced some harsh realities. While I was enjoying my time in baking and pastry school and enjoying pursuing a passion of mine, I was struggling to put the other pieces of my life together in a way that allowed me to be truly happy. This is a struggle I faced throughout most of my 20s - trying to prioritize and balance work/school with my other passions while having the time to do the things I love. Perhaps it was turning 30 in October or perhaps it was seeing my savings account dwindle month after month. But I ultimately decided I needed to re-prioritize and make some different decisions. I didn't want to continue to make sacrifices for the wrong reasons, and I didn't want to keep missing out on the things I love outside of school - mainly, taking advantage of events, travel, dinners with friends, and the like.

The first priority is financial because without the financial support to live my life the way I want to, everything else falls by the wayside. I made the tough choice of leaving my job at the gelato store to accept a position with the Medical University of South Carolina, MUSC. In essence, I recalled my roots in education to take on a role as trainer. I have been working with a team of about 75 people since mid-January; we were trained and credentialed in a program called Epic, which is electronic medical record software used worldwide. And starting this past week, we began training physicians, nurses, and other staff on using this system, which will roll out for MUSC later in the spring. Financially, this gives me a salary that is more than twice as much as I made hourly in 2011, so that's a huge step in the right direction for getting my finances where I want them to be. Professionally, it has been wonderful for networking and development. I work with an amazing group of trainers, each with a unique history and background. And the few training sessions I have had so far have reinforced my love of education and my love of the teaching and learning process. This job has furthered reinforced that the educational world is one in which I feel confident, skilled, and knowledgeable. While this position is currently temporary through the end of June, the work I have already done has been invaluable to me, and I am confident it has helped set me up for a variety of professional options in the future. I'm not one to make long-term plans, of course, but I feel that this opportunity has already paid off for me, and will continue to do so in many, many ways.

With this new professional opportunity and priority of my finances, though, came the tough decision to walk away from my remaining baking and pastry classes. Due to scheduling, I wasn't able to enroll in any baking classes this semester. I only have three remaining courses to take, and I do hope to be able to take them at some point, but those pieces will have to fall into place when the timing is right. Do I miss baking on a regular basis? Sure, I do, but I honestly don't miss it enough to feel heart-broken about my choice. I miss my friends in school and the camaraderie of taking classes together more than the actual classroom baking, so I think that realization is a valuable lesson as well. I do occasionally bake at home, and my colleagues seem to enjoy my creations, so the baking hasn't completely fallen by the wayside. And in December, I did complete the coursework for a Certificate in Baking/Pastry so I do have one of the two certificates under my belt. As I said, I have three courses to go so we'll just have to wait and see if I'm able to finish school the way I originally intended.

I am taking a Beer Basics course and learning tons of fascinating information about beer and beer styles, so I do feel at least partially connected to school. Learning about beer and food pairings not only gives me more knowledge, but it makes my dining and drinking plans much more purposeful. Like last semester's wine course, I couldn't be more thrilled about this learning and its influence on my daily habits.

Toward the end of January, Gilly and I pursued our "it's a Whoopie!" business plan endeavor, and applied for a stand at the downtown farmers market. We were not accepted, which was ultimately disappointing. I'm proud of us for attempting to launch our small, small business. But I know now that this isn't the right time for me to pursue this type of opportunity. I need to continue focusing on putting the pieces together in all areas of my life, before I can dedicate the needed resources - both financial and emotional - into a business endeavor on the side.

The other main priority for me is trying to build a full life here in Charleston, that makes me generally happy on a regular basis. And I feel like I am taking steps in the right direction. The financial boost helps. But I truly love this city - the people, the history, the opportunities, the food - and I want to build a life here for at least a few more years. In order to do so, I have to feel that I am taking advantage of what Charleston offers, and lately that has meant being proactive about getting together with the people I love, taking advantage of great local events (like the recent oyster roast and beer festival), not feeling guilty when I treat myself to one of Charleston's culinary delights, and making actual travel plans to see old friends and experience new places.

The first two months of 2012 have brought major changes into my life, but I am really happy about how things are currently. I feel good about my choices and how I'm spending my time. I feel positive, energetic and enthusiastic. And overall, I feel that no matter what challenge is placed before me, I have the love and support to pursue my life the way I need to, the way I want to, and that certainly gives me the drive to live the life set before me. I'm not sure what the remainder of 2012 holds, but I am sure that if it's anything like the first two months, it's going to be a great year.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Group Wedding Cake

Our last cake of the semester required us to work in a group of three to create a three-tiered wedding cake. My group was assigned the shape of triangle for our cake, while other groups were assigned the shapes of octagon or flower. The wedding cake segment of class was spread out over five different class sessions.

During the first session, we listened to Chef talk aimlessly about different types of wedding cakes, different country's wedding cake traditions, and other random stuff for over two hours. It was incredibly boring. After his incessant information session, he described that we'd have to create a three-tier wedding cake. Each cake layer had to be at least 4 inches tall, and each of us had to decorate one layer.

During the second class session, we brainstormed ideas with our group members and prepared an ingredient and supply list.

During the third class session, we baked our cakes and prepared buttercream. My group also colored fondant and royal icing because we would be using these in our cake.

During the fourth class session, we each had to build and ice our cake layer, which I struggled with tremendously. I had to ice the middle layer which was 11 inches. I am not yet very comfortable with icing straight pointy sides necessary for a cake in the shape of a triangle or square, so this was challenging for me. Overall, I didn't realize how lopsided my layer was until the fifth class session, when we assembled the cake.

On the fifth day, we covered our cake board in foil and placed down the first layer, which was a 14 inch triangle. We rolled out fondant to look like a ribbon placed around the bottom edge of the cake. We then used tweezers to place triangles of three edible pearls in rows across the layer.

We then put dowels in the cake to help the middle layer stand straight, which only helped some to straighten out my crooked layer. On the second layer we placed another fondant ribbon around the bottom edge. We then placed a fondant plaque that I had previously piped with our initials - KJC - in royal icing.

We then put dowels in again to place the top layer, which was 8 inches long. We decorated this layer like the bottom one, with a fondant ribbon around the bottom edge and rows of pearls. Atop the cake, we placed a bow made from fondant. We then had to move the cake to the dining room to be displayed.

Rectangle Birthday Cake

Our last individual cake of the semester required us to complete a rectangular shaped cake for a child's birthday. We did this over three class sessions. On the first day, we baked Spanish vanilla sheet cakes which contain chunks of chopped chocolate. We also prepared Italian buttercream and cut out white fondant rectangles to dry.

On the second day, we prepared part of the decoration for the fondant rectangles. Chef gave us a picture of a dog which we traced with a pencil in order to create a pencil transfer onto the fondant.

After we had a pencil outline of the dog on the fondant, we used piping chocolate to outline the design.

We then colored piping gels to the colors of our choices and filled in the outline to complete the dog.

During the third class period, we assembled the cake. We did this by cutting three rectangle pieces of cake and layering them with simple syrup and buttercream. We placed the fondant decoration on top, then used piping chocolate to create a border and write the words "Happy 5th Birthday, Jenny." We finished the cake by piping a shell border around the top edge and the bottom edge.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies

On Friday, October 28th, my Retail Bakeshop class hosted a Cupcake Sale, where faculty and staff could pre-order different types of cupcakes. Instead of a cupcake option, Gilly and I prepared a pumpkin whoopie pie with a maple cream cheese filling.

In order to jazz up the whoopie pie, we came up with a rolled fondant decoration. We first cut a scalloped circle out of rolled fondat, then cut a pumpkin out of the center. We replaced the center with an orange pumpkin cut out.

Next, Gilly worked really hard putting the final touches on the decorations, while I filled the whoopie pies.

All in all, we had a lot of fun experimenting with decorations for our whoopie
pies. These pumpkin ones are really delicious!

Tortes Times Three: Marzipan Dome, Lutetia, Sacher

We had a busy month in Advanced Cake Decorating, executing three different tortes that each have interesting components and techniques.

The first torte is the Marzipan Dome Torte. From the bottom up, we built this torte with the following layers: walnut chiffon genoise, brandy simple syrup, raspberry marmalade, marzipan, walnut chiffon genoise, brandy simple syrup, praline buttercream, walnut chiffon genoise, brandy simple syrup, raspberry marmalade, praline buttercream, and walnut chiffon genoise. After building the layers, we used our serrated knife to cut the cake into a dome shape. Once we had the dome, we covered the entire torte in praline buttercream.

We next rolled out a layer of marzipan to cover the entire torte, placed this on top, and carefully used our hands to smooth out the dome all around. We trimmed the bottom edges. We marked the torte into 16 equal slices, and used piping chocolate to pipe a thin ornament on each slice. We finished the torte by creating a marzipan rose, colored with a spray gun, and three leaves.

The second torte we executed was the Lutetia Torte, named for a Romanian princess. This torte also contains layers of walnut chiffon genoise, rum simple syrup, and raspberry marmalade, but it varies in that it contains chantilly cream and soft ganache. After building the torte, it was chilled for 20 minutes so the soft ganache could set up. While chilling, we took time to prepare a ganache coating. This was spread over the torte and smoothed as best as possible using a palette knife.

To decorate this torte, we marked it into 16 equal slices. Using royal icing, we piped a design on the edge of each slice. A quarter piece of walnut dipped in chocolate was placed within the piping.

We finished this torte by creating a carnation out of marzipan, which was also colored with a spray gun and adorned with three green leaves.

The third torte executed was the Sacher torte, named for the pastry chef in Austria who created it. The cake layers for this torte contain marzipan and cake crumbs in addition to hazelnut flour and cocoa powder so generally speaking this is a flavor profile that I can get excited about. This torte has two layers of the Sacher cake with a layer of apricot marmalade in between. It is covered with soft ganache, then chilled for 20 minutes, before being covered in ganache coating.

To decorate this torte, we marked it into 16 equal slices and used piping chocolate to pipe "Sacher" on each slice. We had to do this in the style used by Sacher himself.

Overall, these tortes allowed me the opportunity to execute a variety of new techniques such as building a dome out of cake, covering a cake with marzipan or ganache, piping with different goals in mind, and using marzipan to create roses and carnations. All in all, it was a busy month with lots of new techniques and skills.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Iron Chef Competition

Last Friday, my school hosted an Iron Chef Competition at our downtown campus as part of the weekend's Taste of Charleston events. Last year, I volunteered and was assigned to assist two of the competing chefs. This year, I opted for behind the scenes volunteering and helped platter chocolates and petit fours for the dessert spread. I didn't actually have a part in making any of these products, but it was fun to plate and re-plate and talk with guests.

Here's some photos of the desserts, which included a variety of chocolates (nut clusters and ganache filled), cookies, coconut cake pops, mini bourbon-pecan pies, and many more.

Another highlight of the event was that three of my friends from school - Katelyn, Kait and Sandrea - worked to create a wedding dress out of cake. They called their event "Wear Our Cake, and Eat It Too." Pretty cool stuff:

Retail Bakeshop - Cakes & Pies

During the second rotation of retail bakeshop, my group was assigned cakes and pies. For the first week's bake sale, Gilly and I worked on a variety of quiche and mini pies.

We made two types of vegetable quiche, one with broccoli and one without, while both had tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, and cheese:

For the meat lovers, we made spinach bacon and cheese quiche as well as ham and cheese quiche:

We also made mini apple pies and mini pecan pies:

In our second week of this rotation, Gilly and I experimented with some whoopie pie recipes. The first is a traditional chocolate whoopie pie with marshmallow fluff, which we made from scratch:

The second recipe was a hazelnut whoopie pie with a nutella cream filling, and it was absolutely delicious:

Our next rotation is cookies and brownies and such so more fun stuff on the way.