Monday, October 24, 2011

'Nuff with the Puff

By Jax Hubbard

It's no secret that the majority of the students in the Culinary Arts program are not particularly apt in the pastry department. It is not to say that we cooks are incompetent or incapable of rolling dough or making caramel. We'd just rather break bread than bake it. Part of the culinary curriculum, however, incorporates pastry lessons in an effort to expose us to as many aspects of the kitchen as possible; whether we like it or not, we have to do it, and do it well.

For six lessons in Level Two, we endured numerous demands from the curriculum, from crèmes and custards to crepes and fritters. I experienced firsthand the heavy feeling of defeat as I watched crème anglaise go from a creamy, slightly thickened (known as nappant in the kitchen) conglomerate to watery scrambled eggs. I witnessed caramel’s rapid transformation from dark golden brown perfection to burnt, bitter molasses. I grumbled over doughy worktops that had to be scrubbed down several times throughout the evening. I sniffled as particles of flour puffed from my hands, floated into my nostrils. I felt the devastation upon discovering that my puff pastry fruit tart hadn’t survived the commute home.

Contrary to how it seems, it wasn't all bad—and we even picked up on a few things along the way. We whirled up frozen fruit soufflé that tasted a lot like a Push Pop. Buttercream from a generic bakery tastes like Styrofoam when compared to fresh frosting. Chantilly sounds fancy, but it’s just a decorative word for whipped cream. There are three types of meringues, and the Italian one is the best (right, Marc?). Génoise is a base cake that is flavored in a variety of ways to make little génoise offspring. Crème anglaise tastes almost as good as the ice cream it makes.

With our pastry tolerance maxed out and our chops just barely developed, we underwent the Level Two practical. In addition to manhandling meat, we delivered on the pastry requirements, granting us the ability to move on to Level Three. (It’s like leaving Neverland—you're excited to grow up, but you'll miss all the fun you had as a kid.)

The most important thing I learned during the two weeks of pastry is that, though I am able to prepare simple desserts and not completely screw them up, and I can impress others with my persistence in whipping cream by hand, I'd much rather have someone do it for me. I turned dough to make puff pastry, but I've had enough with the stuff. For now.

Jax Hubbard is a registered dietitian, freelance food writer, and student at The French Culinary Institute. She is also the founder of Hubbard aspires to eat well, cook without inhibition and live to write about it.


Alexandra said...

While my first comment was, "Hey, watch it with my profession there!" I did realize that I feel the same way. I can make a perfect vanilla bean cake with buttercream and fondant with my eyes closed, but ask me to do anything much harder than pasta in boiling water? Nope, not for me.

It is very interesting how many people think that if you can do one, you can do the other, but the disciplines are so very different. Good post!

Jax Hubbard, RD said...

Just skimming the surface of pastry gave me a deeper respect for the field. Thanks for the feedback!