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.

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