• I survived, just

    Last time I wrote I was waiting for Day 2 of my exams and I had a butterfly farm in my stomach. As it turned out, having received my exam results last Friday, Day 2 was not my best day but definitely better than Day 4.

    Day 1 was a mis en place day i.e. getting everything in place for Day 2, which was ‘oven management’ day. We made croissant dough; sweet pastry; lemon tart mix; a genoise sponge; strawberry pastry cream etc. On Tuesday, we had to present 20 truffles; 6 wholemeal baguettini and 1 wholemeal baguette; 4 lemon tarts and 8 croissants. I also had to make a chocolate mousse for my profiteroles and eclairs for Wednesday. As I suggested, a day of oven juggling. The good thing is that I managed to present everything on time. The bad thing is that I started to second guess myself, as well as rush certain things, which meant that my end-products were not as refined as they should have been. My lemon tarts were given a distinction, but all the other products I produced on Tuesday, were given a credit. Not that I am upset with being given credits for these products, but I think with a slightly different and less frenetic approach, I could have produced better products. Chef took me aside at the end of Day 2 and told me that I could be more ergonomic in my approach. His kind way of telling me that I was being a ‘headless chicken’. Although I was upset by his observation, I knew he was telling me as it was, as I knew that at times, I had been panicky and unfocused, which obviously translated into my end-products.

    On reflection i.e. receiving my results on Friday, Day 3 was definitely my best day as I received distinctions for my eclairs and profiteroles and Gateau Fraisier, despite the fact that they were not perfect. My piping skills, despite being better on the Gateau Fraisier compared to my previous attempts, were definitely not anywhere near perfect on my eclairs – I did managed to create some fine flicks on my profiteroles however. Allegedly, by choux was very good and fully filled with chocolate mousse as it should have been, albeit that my chocolate mousse was only credit worthy i.e. part way through making my mousse, I started to second guess myself and as a result, failed to mix in the chocolate enough before folding in the cream. The end result was a mousse with a little bit of unmixed chocolate in it rather than completely smooth in texture. Not a complete disaster, but it really shouldn’t have happened. My previous attempts had been better.

    While Days 1-3 may have been considered okay, Day 4 was an absolute disaster. I prepared myself as best as I could i.e. I had my acetate, my balloons, my straws, my floral shapes and my design and over the last few weeks had been able to temper chocolate to acceptable level, but not long after I started the Day 4 exam, things started to unravel. In retrospect, I should have just gone with my initially tempered chocolate, before it got too hot and became untempered, but I didn’t. Little did I know that my first attempt would be my best attempt and that my plinth and base would be the only two items of my design which would end up properly tempered. I tried three times after my initial attempt to temper my chocolate and make my component parts but with limited success. I eventually threw together a centre piece of some sorts, but having spent close to three hours out of a three and a half hours in tears, I just wanted to put the day behind me. I was frustrated and embarrassed at my attempt and my inability to keep things together. Despite this, I managed to pull myself together enough to join my fellow pastry chefs for a drink after first having a meal at The Library in Ashburton with my husband, son, sister and nephew.

    I thought that Friday would be relatively relaxed, despite it being results day, but as I was 6th to receive my results and things did not necessarily go swimmingly for my fellow pastry students, I got increasingly concerned during the day. After nipping out for a coffee and a small bite to eat (as the butterfly farm returned during the morning), I finally got my results just after lunch. Despite my anxiety, I managed to get three distinctions, four credits and a pass for my dreaded chocolate centre piece. While I was delighted at first, my annoyance at myself has since set in as I feel that I could have done better if I had kept my nerves at bay. As chef said to me when I realised that I made a mistake with my mousse, look forward, not backwards, so this is what I plan to do. In the meantime however, I plan to try to enjoy my time off before our last term in the kitchen.

    An afterthought. I ran before my exams on Monday and Wednesday, but not Tuesday and Thursday and I did better on Monday and Wednesday. Something to think about for next time.

    And finally, I hope the image I have chosen says it all.

  • The week of the plated dessert

    Okay, I am feeling stressed. It is Day 2 of our exam week and my nerves are getting the better of me. As I haven’t yet written about Week 12 of my Diploma in Professional Patisserie, I thought I would use the time before my exam at 1.30pm to do this. My theory is that doing something different will hopefully take my mind off the exams. The truth is that I don’t think anything is likely to do so. I currently have a whole butterfly farm fluttering in my stomach.

    Last week was a bit of an unusual week, with a rather eclectic range of produce being made. On Monday, we made a wheat sheath out of moulding dough – a rather painstaking process of making a whole lot of individual corns and stems of wheat and then assembling them into a wheat shelf. I lost the skin on my dough, so my dough became sticky and difficult to manipulate. As a result the end-product did not have the best definition. To add insult to injury, I over-baked it. So at the end of the day, I dutifully cling filmed it, took it home and then threw it in the bin when no-one was looking. We also made the most delicious oatcakes (definitely to be made again after the course is finished), passion fruit pate de fruits and sweet paste for strawberry tartlets on Tuesday. The pre-exam week nerves definitely started to kick in, especially as we had to do pate de fruits and sweet pastry in pseudo-exam conditions.

    After a quick chat with chef on Tuesday about my pre-exam nerves (as I knew they had affected my performance and behaviour in the kitchen on Monday), we settled into Tuesday’s mis en place: strawberry tartlets, strawberry caramel (to enrobe on Friday), home-made fondant, caramelised poached pears (for Thursday’s plated dessert), meringue vacherin (for Wednesday’s posh Eton Mess) and lychee tuiles. As I said earlier, an eclectic mix of delights. I think we are getting to that stage in the course that we have to tick off things on the syllabus that we haven’t yet done to ensure that we are in the right place to pass our Diploma in June.

    Although the strawberry tartlet could be considered a plated dessert, Wednesday saw the beginnings of our plated desserts proper. We made a chocolate marquise, a very decadent chocolate dessert if ever you had one, accompanied by some pistachio anglaise for good measure. We also made a posh ‘Eton Mess’ with our meringue vacherin; passion fruit pate de fruits, strawberry coulis, cream etc. We also started our components for our apple assiette for Thursday: apple crisps (which we cooked in a stock syrup, dehydrated and moulded into small ‘cups’ to hold our apple sorbet), vanilla sauce base (made from vanilla sugar, vanilla pods and vanilla paste!) and apple sorbet.

    On Thursday, we made frangipane, which we piped into dessert rings, lined at the bottom with almond slivers (which we had to place one by one around the base of the dessert rings). We then suspended one of our caramelised pears (with tooth picks) above each of the dessert rings, so that when the frangipane cooked and rose in the oven the pear would sit firmly and neatly at the top of the pudding. The other half of the frangipane was baked in the oven for our apple assiette. We also made caramelised apples; butterscotch sauce; finished our vanilla sauce and made filo pastry. I can’t say that my attempt at filo pastry was much better this time (my second attempt) as I still managed to poke holes in my pastry (unlike a number of my fellow students who managed to make the exercise look incredibly simple). My only solace is that chef suggested that she rarely makes filo pastry, relying on good quality convenience filo instead. With all the component parts made, all that remained was assembling our apple assiette: an apple filo slice (a rectangle of frangipane, a layer of caramelised filo, a layer of caramelised apples, a layer of caramelised filo, a layer of caramelised apples and a final layer of caramelised filo), floating on a circle of vanilla sauce, bordered with a circle of butterscotch sauce, with three apple baskets filled with apple sorbet.

    Friday was our second attempt at enrobing. This time we enrobed our strawberry caramel with tempered white chocolate, drizzled with tempered dark chocolate. we also had a go at variegated copeau, using white and dark chocolate. It took a few attempts to semi-master the skill, but I sort of got there. I also got a sneaky practice of chocolate pattern for the Gateau Fraisier which we have to make on Day 3 of our exams. I took a photograph of it as evidence that I can do it out of an exam situation.

    With week 12 under my belt, I am now mid exams, and as predicted, not liking the experience at all. I will let you know how it goes at the end of the week.

    Farewell for now from me and my butterfly farm.

  • A little bit of everything

    Well Week 11 of my Diploma in Professional Patisserie was every bit as busy, if not busier than before. Monday was a bread bonanza with us making pretzels, English muffins, eccles cakes, seed crackers and blini. Having tasted the fresh English muffins toasted on Tuesday morning, I don’t think I will ever go back to shop bought muffins. Nothing beats the lightness of a freshly made English muffin. I was surprised also that I really liked the Eccles cake, which we enjoyed on its own rather than with Lancashire cheese, which is how chef suggested it is supposed to be eaten.

    Tuesday was a very light day in the kitchen. We made our lemon chocolate base in preparation for enrobing and drizzling with tempered white chocolate on Friday. We also made enough Turkish delight (rose and lemon) to feed a small army. This was finished on Thursday as it needed a couple of days to set and dry out. I never realised before now that Turkish delight is better after it has been left to dry out for a while. Makes sense considering how much sugar it contains and how hygroscopic it is. With an early finish, we had an afternoon of catching up with our theory work. I can’t say it was particularly productive but with Jo away, I didn’t feel like going home too early. It was a beautiful day, weather-wise, so some of my colleagues sneaked away for a beverage or two. Given my lack of productivity, I should have possibly done the same, but instead, after an attempt at theory, I did a 6.25 mile run instead.

    Wednesday was a busy day. We made a complex cake with a Sauterns & olive oil base, covered in a layer of hazelnut chantilly and a dusting of caramelised hazelnut dust, topped with a japonaise sponge. We also made a champagne granita – okay not really champagne but Prosecco, but alcoholic nevertheless and some caramel ice cream to accompany our hot dessert on Thursday. My partner this week decided to life life on the edge when making the caramel ice cream by taking the caramel to the limit of darkness, but despite this, her gamble paid off as she inadvertently created a beautiful looking and tasting ice cream, which chef made a positive comment about i.e. ‘colour is flavour’.

    On Thursday we made a layered elderflower and raspberry jelly; some Langue du chat (cats tongues), which spread too much and no way looked like the tongue of any animal (possibly Siemese tongues as they all merged together and had to be separated) and a warm apple cake, which we later served up with the caramel ice cream, we made on Thursday. The apple cake was definitely a labour of love as we had to painstakingly peel, core, halve and cut 6 Golden Delicious apples into 1.5 mm slices, which we then had to carefully arrange in layers along with almonds and sultanas and custard to fill a dariole mould. I was relatively pleased with the end result until it came to turning the cake out after cooking, when a couple of my cakes got caught in the mould at the bottom and separated from the top of the cake. I did manage to get two cakes out okay, but I was disappointed that my hard efforts and patience were wasted slightly in the other two. I guess it is all a learning experience. At least now I know how to peel, core, slice and arrange apples correctly.

    And in a flash, it was Friday and chocolate tempering day again. We tempered some white chocolate which we enrobed our lemon chocolate bases with (which we had cut into batons) and then lightly drizzled them with chocolate. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was a new skill and took a bit of time. Our attempts were captured on camera by the Ashburton social media person and now have pride of place on Facebook (Ashburton Chefs Academy). If you look carefully you will see a couple of very unflattering photos of me. We then had a little play with the chocolate and I tried out another design for my chocolate centre piece, which I think I may do in my exams rather than my original piece. It was another beautiful day in Devon and while my colleagues managed to escape early to the pub, I had to stay behind for my mid-term catch up with chef and the Student Welfare Manager. I was surprised and pleased with his feedback and he is happy with my progress and very happy with my theory file to date. So provided I keep it up, I should be well on my way to getting qualified. There is only one (or should I say two) thorns in my side and these are the two sets of exams which I have to sit to get the other part of my certificate, the Ashburton certificate, which is the icing on the cake. One of these exams is getting forever closer and is the week after next. I will try not to think about it just yet, although I plan to practice some of the recipes later. I will let you know how I get on.

    After my session with chef and a bit of course work, Jo and I ran into Ashburton to have a drink with my colleagues. I think after the busy week we had in and out of the kitchen, it was well deserved. It wasn’t a late night as with my advancing years and the knowledge that I had things to do today, I felt that I should be sensible (or boring, depends how you look at it).

  • Puff the magic pastry

    It was all about the puff pastry again last week. Monday saw us make another batch of puff pastry which was the base of many things to come during the week. Other than puff pastry, Monday saw us prepare quince for a quince finnancier and make stollen, which up until I made it by hand I had never really acquired a taste for it, but all changed after trying handmade stollen – it was light, fruity and delicious. I had to down a few slices before a run and a circuit training session at Adrenaline in Plymouth. I am not sure that the sugar boost was the right fuel for the training but it was a tasty one nevertheless.

    On Tuesday, we made quince jelly; white chocolate mousse (for our Gateau St. Honore on Wednesday); nougat/croquant display and apple strudel. Apple strudel dough was a test of patience in that like filo, we had to work it carefully with our hands and on the table to get the thinnest of dough. Although I did accidentally poke a couple of holes through my dough, they were on the edge of my dough so didn’t fundamentally affect the end result. All in all, I was pleased with the result (in other words it could have gone worse) and my dough was robust enough to encase by apple strudel filling.

    On Wednesday, we made our almond/chocolate filling for our chocolate pithiviers, which we had to painstakingly scoop into mounds with an ice cream scoop (not my forte) and refrigerate for the Thursday. We also made vanilla ice cream to accompany our apple Tatin for the Thursday, a Sauce Anglaise for the chocolate pithivier and the highlight of the day, Gateau St Honore (a combination of puff pastry, choux pastry, white chocolate mousse and caramel). Each element taking time to painstakingly prepare.

    Thursday was the day of plated desserts using puff pastry in the main: apple Tatin, chocolate pithivier and fennel tart. We also made a chocolate souffle and quince finnaciers. I had a little disaster with the fennel tart as I was just about to cook my fennel in stock syrup, when I saw a container of sugar next to my boiling water and realised that I hadn’t added my sugar to the water to make my stock syrup. I bit of a delay later and I was back on track, thanks also to the helping hand of my partner in crime for the week, Annie. I had a good day on the whole as my souffle rose as it should, as well as tasted mighty fine.

    Friday of course was the day of the chocolate. This time we had to make moulded white chocolate eggs and guess what, my chocolate tempered and remained tempered long enough to make two eggs. It was what you would say a successful day in my world of chocolate tempering as it usually goes so wrong. I was secretly pleased but as chef always says don’t be a basking shark and bask in your own success. So I didn’t. Anyway, as they say pride comes before a fall so it is best not to be too proud, lest one falls.

    As soon as I finished school on Friday, I had to make my way home to get ready for a train journey to Swindon as Jo was travelling down from Aberdeen in Bluebell, our VW campervan to meet up with me for two OCR races: the Monster Race in Oxfordshire on Saturday and Forest Warrior in the Forest of Dean on Sunday. Saturday’s race went well with a 4th place in the ladies race and 37 overall. Sunday was a bit more of a disaster as poor marking meant that we took the wrong turn twice on the race (along with a number of others) adding unnecessary time and distance to the race. The results are not out yet, but I am sure they will reflect the disaster that was. Irrespective, it was a good training race. The only downside of such a weekend is that I am now knackered and have a very busy week ahead of me.

  • Sugar, Sugar, Sugar

    Week 9 started with sugar and ended with chocolate. We spent Monday and Tuesday out of the kitchen, painstakingly crafting roses, jasmine, honey suckle and ivy out of sugar paste. When we walked into the room on the Monday and saw the gloriously decorated cake with a life-like bunch of sugar craft flowers, we thought that there was no way that we would ever be able to replicate what we had seen. Low and behold however, all of us managed to produce a bunch of sugar craft flowers to decorate our fruit cake with, which we had made and frozen much earlier on in the course. For this reason, my sugar craft flowers have pride of place as my photo for week 9 of the course.

    As if we hadn’t seen and done enough sugar on Monday and Tuesday, we did more sugar work on a Wednesday. We made pastillage, rolled and cut it into squares, rectangles and triangles which once dry we had to glue together with pastillage paste to create a simple structure with a roof which we could decorate as we wished. In my minds eye and in the pieces I created, I visualised a quaint and refined beach hut, but the end result was a rather clumsy and unrefined piece. I met the brief though of putting together a simple structure with four walls and a roof. Box ticked, I guess, but certainly nothing more. Not my finest hour.

    Wednesday also saw us make poured sugar, which we coloured and poured over aluminium foil into a cake ring and a small ring to make a plinth and a base to display our sugar flowers. It took me two attempts as I heated my sugar too high the first time (chef had asked us to use our sight, sound and touch to determine when the sugar had reached hard crack rather than a thermometer) as I was told to listen out for when the sugar went quiet i.e. almost fully saturated. My sugar was a noisy bugger and didn’t go quiet until after reaching hard crack. My second attempt, aided by a thermometer, but with me still listening, feeling and looking went okay and my end result was a vibrant red base and plinth. I should tell you that feeling involves putting your fingers in cold water and then dipping them in hot sugar to determine what stage the sugar is at (thread, feather, soft ball, hard ball, soft crack, hard crack etc.) and then remembering to cool your fingers in cold water to prevent them from burning.

    The day was finished by covering our fruit cake with a marzipan layer and then with a layer of sugar paste. Another challenge, as it took 4 or 5 attempts for me to roll out the sugar paste to a suitable size to gently caress the top of the cake, without the sugar paste sticking to the food preparation surface, despite me profusely dusting the surface. It this was not enough to test my patience, we then had to make royal icing to pipe decorations onto the sugar paste. You know by now that I love piping almost as much as I like chocolate tempering, so it came as a wonderful surprise to find that piping in royal icing is much easier than piping in chocolate and the best thing about it is that you can correct any mistakes (simply by scraping any mistakes off when the icing is dry). Despite my challenges, my iced fruit cake ended up looking presentable, even if it was far from perfect.

    Thursday saw us make a dacquoise sponge (an almond and hazelnut sponge which is piped onto silicone paper in the shape of a square, which we used to make a layered cake filled with chocolate ganache and chocolate mousse); milk chocolate mousse; orange crisps and white chocolate ice cream. Nothing eventful happened on Thursday, everything largely went to plan. Possibly a first.

    Friday, otherwise ‘fondly’ known as chocolate day, was mixed up a bit as in addition to making moulded chocolates filled with ganache, we finished off the dacquoise and made some madeleines. I managed to temper my milk chocolate (a new chocolate to temper) and make two lots of moulded chocolates – the first with some red cocoa butter splatters, which because of my choice of colour, end up looking a bit like blood splatter and then some ‘naked’ chocolates as chef didn’t want the cocoa butter hiding a multitude of sins – he wanted to check whether our chocolate was tempered. It was, but could have been a bit shinier. Progress at least and good enough to give a few to my mother-in-law for part of her Mother’s Day present.

    Exhausted by the week’s antics, I managed a glass or two of wine and most of a pizza and then promptly fell to sleep. I needed to be refreshed as we had a 10am session at Adrenaline in Plymouth to try out our ninja warrior type skills. It was great fun, albeit that my hands were a little frazzled at the end with all the rope burns. Not enough to put me off though as we promptly put our names down for a circuit class the following Monday.

    There was not much rest for the wicked on the weekend as in between domestic chores and training, most of my time was spent working on write ups and my project while the sun shone and the rest of the world enjoyed themselves (except some of my other colleagues on the course). I was particularly envious of Jo who took part in a ninja competition at Adrenaline and went to the beach on Sunday, Mother’s Day, which I spent one my own with Montague, working.