Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Nate Update: Classic Pastry Arts: Week One

I'm an evening student in the Classic Pastry Arts program here at FCI. Food and writing are two of my passions in life, and I'm excited to bring you The Nate Update, snapshots from my life in and out of class.

It had been a while since I’d been in a classroom setting, and I was admittedly feeling a tad on the nervous side in the days leading up to the start of class. So nervous, in fact, that I broke out in hives—not an uncommon thing with me, really, as everything from crowded subway cars to too many houseguests at once can bring out the red, splotchy rashes that find itchy homes on my arms and legs. I’m sensitive, what can I say? I think I was suffering from some kind of Freshman Syndrome, worrying about fitting in, catching on, that sort of thing…

It didn’t help that, upon arrival on my first day, I found myself bumping elbows with a rowdy, energized group of Classic Culinary students changing into street clothes after class in the second floor lockers. As I struggled to find room to set my bag down amidst the chaos and colorful banter, I couldn’t help but summon images of me being crammed into my own locker as the final step of initiation into the program. (The visualization was heightened by the fact that it’s a teensy-weensy little locker!) Within seconds, however, I realized my nerves and hives were all for naught, and after exchanging a few friendly words with the guys and donning my uniform for the first time, I felt totally at ease and excited to be embarking on a nine-month adventure in the Classic Pastry Arts program.

Immediately after changing and gathering with the rest of the class in the hallway, we were lead to the Pastry Level One kitchen. Our head instructor, Chef Cynthia Peithman, greeted us warmly in the classroom before quickly launching into basic classroom rules and equipment instructions and beginning a demonstration on our first assignment—apple tarts! We made sweet pastry dough (pâte sucrée) and let it chill while peeling, dicing, and cooking apples on stovetops into compote for spreading into the bottoms of the tarts.

As counterpoint to Chef Cynthia’s pastry instruction, Chef Timothy Shaw sang to my germophobic tendencies by starting the second and third classes with lectures on sanitation. Detailing the many germs and diseases that can be spread by improperly handling foods, he made learning about common foodborne illnesses such as the Norwalk virus to extremely rare afflictions like brain-eating pork tapeworms both surprisingly fun and entertaining. No, really! Sanitation certification is a big part of the beginning of the course, and successful completion of the accompanying exam can help in making a student’s prospects for finding employment in the culinary field all that much easier.

It’s no surprise that the first week, while a lot of fun, was a bit daunting, with lots of information to take in from every direction. Chef Cynthia’s style was such that I never felt overwhelmed, and she remained focused and cheerfully in charge of everything. I had nervously envisioned having a baking disaster of epic proportions involving the fire department on the first week for all to witness, setting the tone for the months to come and perhaps leading to immediate expulsion, but my apple tart turned out well and was eagerly devoured by friends in Brooklyn later that night.

Saturday marked the end of the first trio of classes, and besides apple tarts we whipped up large batches of pastry cream, which was used to make delicious banana cream tarts. We also made classic pastry dough (pâte brisée) and mounds of gingersnap cookie dough for use next week. I can’t wait!

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