pastry school

Pastry School Recap | Unit 2 – Pâte à Choux

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Pâte à choux, a.k.a. cabbage dough. The layperson usually does not recognize this term, so I also describe it as cream puff dough.

I love this stuff. And not just because it demonstrates the magic of mechanical leavening. Okay, maybe precisely for that reason. The dough is made of water, butter, bread flour, a bit of sugar and salt, and eggs. What distinguishes this dough from others is the fact that it is cooked twice: all ingredients except the eggs are first cooked over the stovetop, and then the eggs are beaten in one at a time to reach the right consistency and moisture. Bread flour has a higher protein content, allowing for greater moisture absorption (thus usually more eggs and flavor), and an elasticity from the gluten formation. During baking, the water content transforms into steam (which is up to 1600x in volume under STP conditions! nerd alert!), which puffs up the dough and creates a hollow inside that can be filled with whipped cream, pastry cream, ice cream or other fillings. Round mounds of dough when baked (i.e. cream puffs) have tops that look vaguely like cabbages, hence the French name.
This dough is so versatile and can make cream puffs, profiteroles, eclairs, gougeres, popovers, and even gnocchi! 
Yes, Parisian gnocchi (gnocchis à la parisienne), which are made by poaching the dough. I was inspired to try this after the evening culinary class prepared it for dinner one night. I overboiled some batches which made some pieces mushy, but on the whole it still turned out quite delicious with peas, cherry tomatoes, shaved parmesan cheese, and some simple olive oil, salt and pepper.
Some examples from Unit 2:

Unit Exam (Eclairs and Paris Brest):
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Pastry School Recap | Unit 1 – Tarts & Cookies

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Since I’ve been so delinquent in posting about pastry school, I’ve decided that in addition to recapping the experience, I should also recreate something representative of each unit. 

Here is “Unit 1 – Tarts & Cookies”, a.k.a. learning how to multi-task and break bad habits. During this first unit, we learned three basic tart doughs (pâte brisée (flaky), pâte sucrée (sweet), pâte sablée (sandy/shortbread)), a multitude of custards and other fillings, and the basics of finishing and decorating a tart. Cookies could almost be considered a filler topic, but they were a perfect fit for this unit considering the similar techniques for mixing and baking. 
To pay homage to this unit, I decided to see what happens if I take a traditional nut tart (tarte aux noix) and convert it into empanadas. The nut tart we made in class consists of pâte brisée dough formed in a tart ring, lined with raspberry jam and sliced almonds, and baked with a nut flour filling (almond cream, hazelnut and almond flours, French meringue). This was actually the tart I received on my unit exam (on the left):
For the empanadas, I rolled and cut the dough into 4-5″ circles, spread the jam and sliced almonds, and then folded and sealed the empanadas with the nut flour filling inside.
Someone should make this into the next cupcake or macaron fad and call it “Sweet ‘Nadas”. Just a thought! 

I baked these at 350˚F for about 30 minutes. The filling poked out on a couple empanadas, but otherwise the end result was better than I expected! The crust was flaky and buttery, the sliced almonds had a nice crunch, and the filling retained the nut tart’s depth of flavor from the nut flours and tangy raspberry jam. In fact, the taste of this might have been even better than the nut tart since each bite had two layers of flaky crust and raspberry jam instead of one.

Getting back to pastry school itself, what was our crash-course introduction to pastry school like? Well, here is my vague, but I think accurate, recollection of Unit 1 – Tarts & Cookies:
Each night of Tarts & Cookies, we had to complete two, three, even four desserts, all in progress simultaneously. Accomplishing this required doing our homework (assigned reading on techniques and recipes), coming to class prepared with an understanding of the steps that would have to be accomplished during the 5-hour class period, keeping track of tasks and timing, learning to prioritize when inevitably we fell behind schedule, somehow always maintaining a clean tabletop . . . and at the same time learning about food safety and handling in order to obtain our ServSafe certification. 
Let’s not forget the most important task: following Chef’s instructions, or risk getting yelled at. This last part is a lot harder than you would think when you have all of the above to keep in mind and are asking yourself things like: “Does mixing on “low speed” mean speed 2 or 3? Does it matter? How exactly do I turn the bowl with my left hand while folding with my right hand? How far do I turn the bowl, 90˚ or 180˚? Do I zest a lemon by holding it on top of the microplane and moving the fruit back and forth, or the other way around? What does Chef mean to ‘bake until it’s done’? When is something ‘done’? Am I the only person thinking this? Do I look stupid?”
The lesson I learned at the end of the day is, stop wasting time thinking about these silly things and just start doing. Chef will certainly correct me if I’m screwing up. And, at the end of the day, once I started understanding the technique and developing a “baker’s instinct”, what really mattered was just doing what was effective, efficient, and least likely to give me carpal tunnel syndrome 😉
A few of my favorites from Unit 1:
Apple Tart (Tarte aux Pommes): Made during the first two nights of class! Pâte Sucree crust, apple compote, sliced apples and nappage glaze.
Fresh Fruit Tart (Tarte aux Fruits Frais): pâte sucrée crust, pastry cream filling, fresh fruit and nappage glaze.
Pear and Almond Tart, Bourdaloue Style (Tarte Bourdaloue): pâte brisée crust, almond cream filling, poached pears, sliced almonds and nappage glaze.
Fig Newtons!
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Pastry School – I’m a graduate!

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On August 27, 2013, I received my diploma for completing the Classical Pastry Arts program at the International Culinary Center in Campbell, CA. In other words, I graduated from pastry school!

Over the course of 10 months, we learned the fundamentals, techniques and creativity that go into tarts, cookies, pâte à choux, puff pastry, viennoiserie and certain breads, cakes, petit fours, chocolate, sugar sculptures and plated desserts. I hoped to document the experience as I went, but life and work got in the way. Instead, I now hope to reflect back and recap the challenges and triumphs throughout the experience, and ultimately share the joy of it all.
The experience was a dream come true for me, the sort of thing where I used to say “man, if money didn’t matter, if social and parental expectations didn’t matter, and I pursued what I was passionate about, I’d go be a pastry chef.” Eventually, I got to the point where I asked myself, “why not?” Life is too short to watch days, months, years go by wishing you were doing something else. And as some of you know, when I choose to commit to something, I like to do it right and do it well. That is what brought me to ICC.
I knew that I would have to manage my own expectations. It was hard enough to be an attorney at a big law firm, with very little control over my workflow and schedule. Sometimes I would work more at night and over the weekends than I did during the day. Sometimes the long hours meant I didn’t sleep, and other times I twiddled my thumbs. I hadn’t taken a vacation in 2 years. Adding on ~20 hours a week of school (MWF 6-11pm, plus some reading and studying and the rush hour commute) was insanity. But as I learned in college, sometimes the more you have on your plate, the more focused and efficient you become. I just crossed my fingers, reminded myself that my happiness was just as or more important than year-end bonuses or perfect grades, and committed.

Crazy or not, this was the most personal and meaningful diploma of the 4 I now have (I do plan to stop . . . 4 is quite enough). I feel lucky and grateful to have been at a place in life where I could afford myself this opportunity. Was it worth it? Unconditionally, yes! Stay tuned folks, I look forward to telling you more about these past 10 months.
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