Sunday, January 31, 2010

Delving into the World of Chocolate

Seeing as how I'm more than halfway through culinary school, I decided that it was time to expand my externship experience into other culinary circles. Sadly, this meant that I had to part ways with Paige from Paige's Bakehouse. I truly enjoyed working with her and I learned a lot in her bakeshop, but I need to expand my experience while I'm still in school and not yet looking for a real job. Considering that I'm new to this industry, I think it would be best to get as much of a variety of experience as possible before settling down for my first culinary job.

While I'm still very passionate about cake design, I'm also very curious about the world of chocolates. My friend and fellow classmate Margaret discovered a hidden treasure called Cocoamoda in Calvert, Texas and managed to get us both in as interns (thanks a million Margaret). Cocoamoda is founded by the very talented, charismatic and British Ken Wilkinson (bottom photo)— a man with an impressive resume that includes catering for the royal family and studying with famed chocolatier Eric Berger.

He brought a touch a European style and exquisite high-quality chocolates to the small town of Calvert. He spares no expense when it comes to his business and even imports his ingredients from around the world. His chocolate truffles include such tantalizing flavors as anisette, saffron, cassis, muskat and black currant and are topped with everything from black pepper to gold leaf flecks. His restaurant boasts an amazing spread of rich, French cuisine. It's hard to choose between such choices as the crocque-monsieur (pictured), lobster bisque, lamb chops and the beef tenderloin. Although its (more or less) a two-hour drive from the big cities in Texas, it is definitely worth the trip to experience a bit of Europe in rural Texas.

The best part of Cocoamoda, however, would have to be the people. Everyone there is above and beyond friendly and welcoming. Upon entering the restaurant, you are greeted with a smile and they insist that you sample one of their fine truffles. Who can turn down an offer like that? All of their staff were very kind and took the time to talk with you as though you were from the neighborhood.

I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Ken Wilkinson and learn from his vast culinary experience. He and his assistants have been very accommodating in teaching us about chocolates and have even allowed us to get hands-on experience. That can be a little daunting considering how meticulous they are about their chocolate. However, they've allowed us to help fill and cap chocolates, apply gold leaf to the tops of truffles and even assist in forming a chocolate sculpture.

Having a bit of interest in sculpting chocolate, this was quite a treat for me. They had to create a James Bond-themed sculpture of an umbrella, bowler hat and martini glass for a benefit. The amazing part of this is that he created it in just a few hours and improvising by using only common objects around the kitchen — no molds. Margaret and I helped form the brim and round the top of the hat, shapeed the umbrella handle and suggested adding a ribbon to the hat. We were astounded that they even let us touch the delicate piece, but we were more than thrilled to do so! I can't wait to help out with their secret Valentine's truffle that they will be creating just for the holiday.

It's truly amazing what adventures can unravel when you take risks and follow your heart. To think that I might still be sitting behind a desk and doing the same old mundane tasks. Instead, I'm spending my Fridays sculpting chocolate and making truffles with a group of humorous chocolatiers in a quirky small town. Ain't life grand!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Up To My Eyes in Cookies and Pies

This week was all about cookies and pies — very home-cookin' kind of stuff. The kitchen smelled fantastic and cozy with all of those pies being whipped up. My teammate Ninfa and I made a cherry topped with streusel, pecan and a lemon-lime cream pie topped with meringue (my personal favorite). Everything came out tasting great except for the streusel on the cherry pie. I don't know who made that batch of streusel, but I swear it was made with parmesan cheese because that is exactly what it tasted like. Our poor cherry pie was ruined by fromage sabotage!

Next we moved on to cookies, which is my all-time favorite dessert (besides chocolate and ice cream). Ninfa and I chose to make sugar and oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies as well as a batch of brownies. The sugar cookies came out great and the oatmeal chocolate-chip tasted fine too, but I've tasted better oatmeal recipes. As for the brownies, I really didn't care for the recipe that we had at all. We baked them just fine, but the recipe was a bit bland, not nearly as chocolatey or moist as I would expect something called "Rich Brownies" to taste. Another team made the "Classic Brownies" which they baked just fine, but was also an unimpressive brownie recipe. Oh well, the rest of the class seemed to enjoy them!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Holy Cow...We Won a Bronze Medal!?!?

Shocked. Absolutely shocked. My teammate Margaret and I weren't expecting to win anything at the American Culinary Federation/ Ben E. Keith Culinary Competition, yet we somehow walked away with a bronze medal. This is the first time either of us has ever worked on a cake beyond an ordinary sheet cake, so this was a huge surprise. It was a fantastic ending to our crazy cake competition adventure.

Although we were proud of our personal accomplishment, we couldn't help but laugh at how amateur it seemed. Especially when we arrived at the competition and saw several gorgeously polished cakes worthy of any wedding or special event. Our poor little cake looked fine from a distance, but up close it was a little rough around the edges, asymmetrical in places and could use some polishing. Yep, it was definitely a student cake. We felt just a tad embarrassed placing our cake between such stunning confections of perfection. The contrast had us laughing hysterically for quite some time and left us wondering what on earth were we doing there?!?

To make matters worse, our "little cake that could" didn't quite survive the almost three hour road trip to Conroe unscathed. At some point it rolled off the cake pedestal it was sitting on and got some minor nicks, dents and scratches from bumping the side of the box it was in. The cake was still intact and presentable, but after that it looked even rougher than it did before it weeble-wobbled in the back of the van. We were all riding in a second van that followed the cake vehicle and we joked that if they hit the brakes hard enough, we would see a big, gold ball go SPLAT in the back window. So glad that didn't happen! Oh, there were so many good laughs — many at our poor little cake's expense  — during this whole adventure. Good times!

Our pastry class did a stellar job at the competition bringing home two bronze medals and two silvers. Quite an amazing feat considering that we've only been in culinary school just over two months and haven't even started learning about cakes yet! They were a great group to work with — extremely talented and very supportive of one another. I feel very lucky to be working such a good-hearted group and it bodes well for the future of pastry arts.

Monday, January 18, 2010

One Day at a Time

We're still working on the competition cakes and we're down to the wire with just Tuesday left to work on them. Today we rounded off our sphere cake and then coated it in buttercream so that the fondant will have something to adhere to (pictured at right). However, draping fondant onto a sphere is a tricky thing — especially for first-timers like us. I think our first attempt wasn't half-bad, but the surface began to show little cracks so we decided to redo it.

This sounded like a good idea until our second batch of fondant didn't quite mix right. It came out with the consistency of frosting instead of doughy. At that point, we decided to call it a day and try again tomorrow. If the draping doesn't work a second time, we'll improvise with a fondant band around the center and beading to cover the rest. Then, we'll just have to color the top and bottom spheres (relatively quick to do) and paint four fleur de lis around the center band.

Our other accomplishment of the day was painting the masks and twisty ribbons. Margaret airbrushed (with some help from chef since it was his equipment) several of the ribbons while I painted three masks with edible gold dust. We did a bunch of them in case something breaks — gotta be prepared with a backup!

We're starting to feel the pressure of a time crunch, but I think we can pull off the rest fairly quickly. It will be a lot of time-consuming work but we can adjust the design if simplicity is needed. We are supposed to meet at the school at 5am (OMG!) on Wednesday morning so that we can arrive in Conroe, TX around 8. That will be a long day, but I'm hoping at least one of us (hopefully us!) will walk away with a medal and some prize money.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Margaret and I continued to work on our competition cake which must be completed by Tuesday night. The cake will feature a mardi gras theme with bold colors and lots of gold luster dust to give the gold-colored parts a metallic look. It will be created with a cake made into a spherical shape which will be draped with white fondant and partially dusted with the luster dust. We will then adhere molded fondant fleur de lis along the sides. The mask and twisty ribbons will be created out of pastillage (sugar that hardens into a ceramic-like piece).

Today we made the masks/ribbons and finished forming our sphere cake. It took quite a bit of time to mold the pastillage pieces because in just a few minutes it starts to dry and crack like play-doh that has been left out too long. That means you have to work with it very quickly to avoid the cracking problems. Since we've never worked with pastillage before, it takes several tries to really get a rhythm going. However, we did finally end up with several workable pieces after many attempts. On Monday we will begin to paint them with colored cocoa butter based on our preliminary sketch.

Next, we baked a very dense pound cake to create our spherical base. You want a dense cake recipe like pound cake or sponge cake because it will be sturdy and keep it's form better than non-high ratio cakes. High ratio cakes contain a higher percentage of sugar compared to the other ingredients in the recipe. We baked our cake in a metal mixing bowl in order to get hemisphere shape. Then we inserted two more layers to make it less elliptical. We will round off the top with fondant to complete the sphere. Finally, we "glued" the layers together by spreading royal icing between the three center sections. Royal icing hardens to almost a jawbreaker-like consistency, so it should hold the layers in place and prevent sliding and shifting.

On Monday, we will cover the entire cake in royal icing and then cover the entire thing in a large blanket of fondant. At that point, we can start decorating and coloring the details. After that, we can begin forming the pastillage beads that will be draped about the cake. I bought a silicone bead maker that makes a strand of about 7 beads at once. That will make that process go much faster than rolling each one by hand, but it will still take some time. Because the pastillage hardens quickly, we have to place the bead strands in the final position as we make them. We will "glue" the strands together with royal icing and then air brush and luster dust the final product.

There is a lot of work to be done but we are making fast progress considering neither of us has done this before. I'll try to keep you posted on our progress next week — assuming we aren't in class all day scrambling to get it done. Wish us luck!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Success Tastes Like Cinnamon

PHEW! I'm glad that practical exam is over! That kind of exam always makes me a bit nervous and even more so since I completely botched that first practical exam on quick breads several weeks ago. For this exam I made brioche (top row), cinnamon rolls from sweet roll dough (second row) and soft dough rolls (bottom row) with no major catastrophe, just a few minor errors.

The brioche came out okay but I didn't quite form the little ball on top quite right. The soft dough rolls tasted fine, but I didn't proof (letting them rise before baking) them long enough so the baked rolls didn't get as big and puffy as they should. However, the cinnamon rolls came out PERFECT. Chef Todd said that I made the best batch of cinnamon rolls today and Chef Pablo gave me some very nice compliments on them. That definitely helped rebuild the confidence that had shattered from the trauma of the last exam. It's all about the little victories!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Exams and a Cake Competition

Testing, Testing...1, 2, 3
This week we have our second practical exam of the year. If you'll recall, the last practical exam was dripping with fail because of my salty apple spice bread and the batch of scones that I guessed my way through (my team hadn't been assigned to make those yet). This time around we have to make THREE items: Sweet roll dough, soft roll dough and brioche. We practiced them once more this week so hopefully my solo effort tomorrow will be much more successful than that last exam. Plus, we have a written exam on Monday to look forward to. Lots of studying to do this week!

A Little Competition
Next Wednesday, our class is taking a trip to Conroe, TX to attend (and for some — including me and my teammate Margaret — compete in) the Ben E. Keith Competition. Margaret and I are entering the 1-tier celebration cake category with a Mardi Gras-themed cake. We haven't yet learned about cakes, fondant or much about pastillage (sugar art) in our class but our chef has offered to guide us. I like our design, now hopefully we can actually pull it off in about a week. Wish us luck!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Puff the Magic Pastry

This week our class focused on flaky, buttery laminated doughs. Laminated doughs include turnovers, croissants, danish, puff pastry and any other baked good with flaky layers created by folding butter into your dough. Laminated doughs are great because not only are they extremely versatile, but you can prepare a ton of this dough and freeze it for future use.

Butter Folding, Folding and More Folding
Laminated doughs are created by folding and refolding a large square of butter into the dough several times to disperse the fat evenly. It is a tedious process but it's necessary to distribute the butter evenly and to build the layers.

There are a few different methods for folding the butter, including the three-fold, four-fold and a cross-shaped pocket. Usually you are required to roll out and refold your dough at least three times, sometimes more. After each fold, you need to refrigerate the dough for a few hours so that it can harden again. Also, be sure to keep track of how many folds you have completed by sticking your finger in the dough to make a dot for that number of folds. Be sure to rotate your dough 90 degrees each time you take out the dough for refolding because this helps create alternating layers.

Yes, it takes some time and there are a lot of steps to making laminated doughs, but it isn't terribly difficult. Plus, as I mentioned before, you can make a large batch and store your extra dough in the freezer for ready-to-go pastry dough. That way, you can make flaky, buttery desserts on a whim. Need some ideas? Let the pictures inspire you. How about an apple tart, fruit-filled turnovers or chocolate croissant rolls? I'll get you started with the simple (and simply delicious) Apple Tart.

Apple Tart (first photo)
Very easy to make but it makes quite an impression! Roll out some dough until it is fairly thin and slide it onto a sheet pan before cutting into your desired shape. Find something round such as a cake pan if you want a large one that can be sliced like a pizza or use a small plate as a cookie cutter for a smaller, individual-sized tart.

Next, spread on a thin layer of Frangipane (a simple, sweet almond cream filling made with crushed almonds, sugar, butter and eggs), apple filling or experiment with other fillings. Thinly slice some apples (we used green apples) and create first the outer and then the inner ring by closely overlapping the slices. Then take a handful of cinnamon-sugar and spiral around the top starting from the center. After you finish baking it, we brushed on a light layer of apricot filling, but you can also drizzle on some clear glaze to give it a bit shine for visual appeal and a little extra sweetness.

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