Thursday, May 5, 2011

Petit Fours: Practical Final Exam

In my Petit Fours class, we had to create a theme composed of three recipes for our final practical exam. I knew from the day Chef handed us a syllabus in January that my theme would revolve around traditional Italian flavors and desserts. I've always wanted to experiment with things like cannoli so I felt this would be the best way to do so.

The only problem was that the semester got in the way, and I kept putting off working on this project. And I'm still a bit mad at myself for this. I spent more time on other projects which I wasn't even nearly as excited about. I also spent so much money on ingredients for the other projects that I couldn't justify spending so much more for this experimentation. At the beginning of April, I was really down on myself for these choices I made, and I felt like I was letting myself down. When I finally put attention to this project, I also wasn't seeing the results I wanted. Drawing board.

My first idea was mini cannoli, homemade nutella as a filling for a sweet ravioli shaped cookie, and tiramisu ice cream served in a mini espresso cup. I really thought the espresso cup was a brilliant idea, and would look classic with my theme. Italians love espresso, right? So why not use a dessert with espresso in this fun and creative way?

So, my first attempt at homemade cannoli shells majorly failed. I wasn't thrilled with the consistency of the filling either. The homemade nutella was good, but the sweet ravioli cookie was too dry. I wasn't thrilled with the tiramisu ice cream either. So after the first weekend of experimentation, I was batting 1 for 5. Ugh.

I went back to the drawing board, and talked with Chef a bit. I spit-balled more flavors and ideas with her - anise, pizzelles, biscotti - things like that. I called home to Mom for the family recipes. "Carol, the pizzelle recipe calls for 1 dozen jumbo eggs," Mom said. Not sure how to adjust that to make only one dozen.

More pondering. I was starting to feel a bit panicked. I had only a few days to submit recipe ideas in rough draft form to Chef, and I was running out of time for ideas. Anise ice cream? Pistachio biscotti? Candied orange? All I could continue to commit to was that I wanted to make mini cannoli and I wanted to include a gelato/ice cream so I could use the mini espresso cups. I had a long ways to go considering my first attempt at mini cannoli wasn't overly successful.

I pulled out cookbooks. I went to my favorite food websites. I read recipes. I reflected. I read some more. I reflected again. And I made decisions.

Mini cannoli.
Tiramisu cupcake.
Giaduja gelato with chocolate-hazelnut biscotti.

The mini cannoli is purely traditional. I included orange zest rather than candied orange.

The tiramisu cupcake is a modern way of using the traditional dessert - I figured I could mimic the cupcake to act like a lady finger, soak it with a coffee/kahlua flavored syrup, ice with a mascarpone frosting, and garnish with cocoa powder and chocolate shavings.

Gianduja or gianduia is milk chocolate and hazelnut flavored; so here's my nod to nutella, which is one of my favorite Italian things. The biscotti is traditional, and would serve as a great garnish.

So there is was. A plan. And a pretty good one at that.

But there was only one teeny problem. I didn't have time to experiment with the recipes before I submitted them to Chef. And that was a little scary.

Luckily, I relied on successful sources. I referenced Mario Batali recipes for the cannoli. I referenced David Lebovitz for the gelato. I used go-to recipes for the other components. It wasn't perfect, but it would have to do.

And as I said to Chef: "I'd rather fail at this, then succeed at something I'm less excited about." That's one way to challenge yourself, right?

But it was still a bit nerve-racking for me. The former academic counselor in me was really disappointed because I felt like a hypocrite. I would never advise a student to not practice/prepare as much as possible for the exam. Yet here I was; not following the advice I gave for years.

So on the Friday of the exam, I loaded myself with my mixer, ice cream maker, and two bags full of supplies, and headed off to class. I had about 5.5 hours of class time to execute all of this, and I set out with a schedule to follow. I knew I could organize a plan; I just wasn't sure it would come to fruition.

The day started off well. I got to work immediately on my gelato so it had time to chill before churning. I formed and fried the cannoli shells successfully. I pulled the cupcake bases from the freezer and whipped up the mascarpone frosting. The plan was working.

But there's always a snag, right? The biscotti recipe was new; I hadn't made time to practice it, and the batter was definitely not the correct consistency. I've made enough biscotti to know (right, Dad?) when things aren't going to work, so I had to adjust. Problem solved.

The cannoli cream was not the right consistency. It was too runny to pipe and stay in the shell. I put it in the refrigerator to set up. This wasn't working. I tried adding some confectioner's sugar. No go. I tried folding in whipped cream, which worked, but I didn't feel right calling that "traditional cannoli cream." I was reaching a baking breaking point. Time was running out for me to finish my project, and I was beginning to let frustration take over. I almost made the choice not to plate cannoli at all. That would have been a major failure. I took a step away, regrouped, and grabbed mascarpone and ricotta. Mascarpone wasn't in the original recipe but it seemed to help. More ricotta did the trick. Amen.

Everything else fell into place after that, which was great because I really didn't have any more time for things to fail. I plated the tiramisu cupcakes and the mini cannoli. I piped the gelato and garnished with biscotti, and I presented my platters to Chef.

All in all, it was an extreme culinary adventure. Complete with ups and downs, hardships and successes. And not to mention, valuable knowledge and lessons. It was stressful, but in the end, it was successful and I feel like I made some essential steps in the right direction.

Defining moment? You bet. In fact, this reflection sums up my whole first year of culinary school. Many more reflections to come.

If you want to see Chef Vein's blog recap of our class, you can check it out here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Advanced Bakeshop: Final Practical Exam

For the final practical exam in my Advanced Bakeshop class, we all had to execute the same product - a Strawberry Macaron Entremet. This entremet had four basic components - two pink macaron discs, chocolate mousse, creme diplomat, and garnishes.

To execute, we first made the macaron discs, by mixing a typical macaron batter and adding food color to get the color to look pink. We used piping bags to pipe two 7 inch discs; it was important to mix this batter properly so that macarons would maintain the circular pattern from piping as well as so the macarons would bake properly and develop feet.

To prepare the chocolate mousse we used both milk and dark chocolate. We first made a basic ganache using milk, cream, corn syrup and the chocolate. Once this was mixed properly and cooled to 80 degrees F, we folded in a whipped cream to lighten it. We then put this in the refrigerator to help it set up and become pipe-able.

To prepare creme diplomat, we first had to make a basic vanilla pastry cream; this was then combined with whipped cream and set with gelatin. Again, we had to set this in the refrigerator so it reached a pipe-able consistency.

After all of the components were ready, assembly began by placing one macaron on a doiley-lined cardboard disc. The chocolate mousse was piped in the center and the creme diplomat was piped around it. Fresh strawberries were adhered to the sides of the creme diplomat before the top macaron was set. To garnish, we dusted a line of confectioner's sugar, and placed cut strawberries, fresh mint and chocolate cigarettes.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Candies & Confectionaries: Final Class on Sugar

In my last Candies & Confectionaries class, we spent the day with sugar. Specifically, we learned about the methods for cooking sugar to be used in different applications; our main focus of the class was working with pulled sugar.

To make sugar for pulling, we placed sugar in a copper pot with water, and brought the mixture to a boil. After boiling, we skimmed off the sugar scum, then added glucose to the liquid. When the sugar reached a temperature of 305 degrees F, we removed the pot from the stove and placed it in an ice bath to ensure it would not cook higher than 309 degrees F, which was the desired temperature.

After cooling slightly, Chef poured the sugar onto a marble table which had been oiled. Chef used an oiled bench scraper to work the sugar from the outside in, until it no longer spread out. When ready, he began pulling it, much like a taffy machine would stretch taffy. He then divided the sugar into five pieces, four of which were colored with food coloring. My classmates and I took turns pulling the sugar to work in the color. We used gloves for this process because the sugar remains hot, but more so because the sugar is somewhat sticky and can pull skin from your fingers. Necessary precaution, for sure.

Chef then spent some time demonstrating different applications for pulled sugar. He first showed us how to make a rose, by making the petals one at a time. He then used two different colored pieces to create a ribbon, which he turned into what we called "neck frill" - it's really just a ribbon, but earlier in the day we watched a video where this method was used to create "neck frill" for a pulled sugar clown. And really, it's funny to say "neck frill." Who wouldn't want some of that?

After this, Chef demonstrated how to blow sugar, using a tool made specifically for this. In this process, sugar is placed at the end of a rubber tube, which is pumped using the hand tool; this brings air in the sugar so it can be shaped in different ways. He did this to create a bird. Chef's work is shown here:

After Chef's demo, we had time to play around with the sugar and try out different techniques. After my first attempt with this product, I can't really say at all that I made any progress. Pulled sugar seems to be one of those things that seems a bit out of my creative comfort zone. I was most interested in working with the ribbons, and that proved more difficult than I imagined.

I spent the rest of the creative time hanging out with my friend Katelyn. We decided we would take our attempts at ribbons and some scrap pieces of pulled sugar and attempt to build a "firework" of sorts. It was lots of fun actually.

At the end of class, we made rock sugar. In a similar fashion to making pulled sugar, we prepared and cooked the sugar mixture. After pulling the sugar from the stove, we poured it into a very large bowl covered in aluminum foil. The mixture expanded in the bowl before our eyes. After it cooler, we took it out of the bowl and broke it into pieces.

All in all, it was a fun class session to end the semester with. This class really pushed me in terms of creativity, detail and skill, and patience. Probably patience more than anything else. I feel really good about my work in this class, and I believe I pushed myself as much as I could to work with these different applications and projects. I'm not sure I'll ever do these things in their entirety ever again, but there are definitely components from this class that will continue to be a part of my work. Amen for progress.