In Tuesday's Candies & Confectionaries class, we had our practical exam. The objective of the exam was to demonstrate consistency in piping ornaments out of royal icing. We had 8 sessions, each lasting 20 minutes each, where we had to pipe 25 of the same ornament in 5 x 5 rows as consistently as possible.
For the first three weeks of the semester, we were instructed to trace and draw these ornaments only, so we could practice the shapes. Basically, each ornament is made from one continuous line. You start by drawing the tallest point and working smaller, so that each piece ends where it began. Here's a picture of the ornaments:
We turned in a homework assignment on the drawings, and then were instructed to begin practicing with royal icing or toothpaste, which is a similar consistency. Chef demonstrated how to properly pipe each of the ornaments on this day:
You can see that the line of royal icing is quite thin and the ornaments are only about 1.25 inches tall.
In class about three weeks ago, we had about 30 minutes to practice and get some feedback from Chef on our skills in this area. Needless to say, at first, my piping was super disastrous. Chef gave me some good pointers, and the old athlete/competitive side kicked in, and I felt energized to come home, practice, and be able to do this.
Over the first week, I set up four practice sessions for myself, ranging from 1-3 hours apiece. In that first week, I made significant progress and was beginning to get into rhythm with five of the eight ornaments. During the second week, I didn't have as much time to practice, but I could see my progress on the five I felt comfortable with, and was starting to get a grip on the sixth, but couldn't get anything going for the last two. Because of that, I was starting to feel frustrated and annoyed. When I feel like I'm lacking progress, I easily turn negative and start hating things based on principle. So I spent a few days stewing over this whole thing, until I finally realized I had to just get over it.
During class on February 15, we had a 20-minute practice session. Chef told us in advance that we'd have a practice session, and he'd walk around with us as a class and explain to us how he would grade each student. He told us a few weeks ago that each round is worth 100 points. You earn 4 points for each ornament. If you fail to pipe 25 ornaments in the round, you lose 4 points per ornament. If you pipe all 25, then he grades you on consistency. I thought about all of this information, and came to the conclusion that the ornaments don't have to be perfect - the goal is to pipe 25 of them as consistently as possible. During the practice round, I motivated myself to use this strategy, and it paid off. This was the correct approach. I scored the best overall during the practice round, so I felt pretty good about my progress to that point. I also let go of my frustration from the previous week, and felt positive I could do well during the practical exam.
It also helps that I've let go of trying to do things perfectly. I know some people don't believe me, but I am no where near the perfectionist I once tried to be. The truth is, I really try to excel at mediocrity; it's one of my life mottoes. By that I mean, I'm never trying to be an overachiever, but I'm not trying to be worthless either. I want to be average, or above average really, with the goal of consistently doing a good job. I felt that this practical exam was set up for this mindset - be consistent to do well enough. It also helps that I consciously reminded myself that a month ago, I could barely do this, and because of all of the practice, I made significant progress and improvement, and regardless of a grade on an exam, this is the ultimate goal - to keep getting better with my pastry skills.
So, I was feeling confident going into the exam, which would last about four hours. We began class with a short written exam, and then set up for the piping, each preparing a bowl of icing, cutting parchment triangles (which is what we make pastry bags out of), and whatever else we needed. Chef had a bag full of 18 different pieces of paper - some of them had the number of an ornament, while others had something else. Chef wouldn't tell us exactly what to expect on the others so it was all in the name of surprises.
He selected a student to draw the first ornament, which was one I felt confident with, so I was glad getting this thing going. I felt good during the first round, and I ended up scoring the highest. With this, I got to select the next ornament. I stepped up to the bag, and drew the paper which read: "You're going to have to do better than that, pick again." That's not really an exact quote, but it was something like that. I next picked: "Each student receives 2 points added to their final average at the end of the semester." That's pretty killer, and beneficial for all. And as if scripted perfectly, then I drew one of the two hardest ornaments for me. Figures, right? So off we went.
I survived the next two rounds as expected, and ended up scoring the highest on the fourth round. I selected the paper which read: "Add 100 points to every student's score." So that's huge, particularly if you're struggling. People seemed pleased with my pick. Good times. After the fourth round, though, my right hand - which is my predominate piping hand - was starting to hurt, so I had to battle through the remaining four rounds. Seriously, my hand hurt, and it made it a bit more stressful because I couldn't get into my usual rhythm. But overall, I accomplished what I set out to do, and remained consistent throughout. I was extremely pleased with my performance and effort, not to mention my general progress in this skill area.
Some of you might read this and think, "Carol, I have no idea what you're really talking about, but it sounds kind of insane." The truth is it is kind of insane. For a while I was equating this exercise with some sort of pastry school torture. And it could be torture for those who choose not to practice. Seriously, it could be an extremely frustrating couple of hours if you're not prepared. I still think it's a strange exercise on one hand, but I have come to value it on the other hand - it really forced me to practice the skill, which I wouldn't have been so serious about without the incentive. I may have said this before but one of the biggest motivators for me in school is trying not to look and therefore feel like a failure in class. I can feel bad about myself at home all I want, but in school, I want to put the best foot forward and demonstrate my work ethic, and strangely, this was one crazy way to do it. We'll be piping more at the end of the semester for a creative project so I'm sure my hard work will have a great pay off.