Days 72, 73, 74, and 75: Batter up…
The final four days of our third quarter (of four, for those of you who are a little slow with the arithmetic), saw us occupied with two activities: plating desserts and our final exam. Contrary to what you might expect, the former task received far more attention than the latter.
It sounds simple, and in a sense, it is. Plating means simply putting what you have created onto a plate in an attractive and sensible fashion for presentation. It must be somewhat trickier to teach plating than other parts of the course, since to do it properly requires good taste, which is not so easily imparted if the student doesn’t already have some. The main time-consuming aspect of the three days we devoted to it wasn’t about geometry or strategy or art, but production. Altogether, we turned out thirteen sauces; five types of cookies (as if we needed more of that!); seven mousses, curds, and confits; ten kinds of cakes and tarts, which, I suppose, were the actual desserts; four types of candied nuts and nut brittles; a giant pile of crêpes; fourteen ice creams and sorbets; and five or six additional décor elements like marshmallows or apple chips or spun sugar. (I was fortunate to have been assigned one of the few fruit components, which, after several pounds of cookie dough, was awfully refreshing.) Getting these things all together was obviously time-consuming, but once accomplished, the possibilities for combining them were limitless. If we were to use just four of all the components at our disposal, we could make something like 424,270 different desserts, according to my math skills (and therefore probably some other number altogether). We were directed to pay attention to texture, color, and flavor of course, keeping an eye open for negative space. In a flurry of activity, we assembled our desserts into fanciful and often hideous displays, from the crimson cast-sugar disc that arced gracefully atop a pear tart, echoing the reduced-wine sauce below it, to the drizzling of caramel sauce over the pinwheel arms of a candy-studded cake, in an excess that made it look quite like a frightening, melted carousel.
Philosophically speaking, it was exhilarating to whip up so many different dessert components so quickly, because it made us realize that we were now capable of doing so without panic attacks or fainting (not counting sugar coma). It was also a milestone because for the first time we addressed the issue which we will obviously encounter as we enter the kitchens of restaurants around the world: making our products look as good as they taste (which has been consistently excellent). My particular extraction of this philosophy resulted in a number of different combinations, among which three were particularly memorable. First, that old lounge act from every joint in town:: Molten Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream, which I accompanied with whipped cream and raspberry sauce, along with a little nougatine (which you undoubtedly remember from Day 17) for textural interest. I proceeded then to the slightly nuder pasture that was my raspberry dacquoise. Having decided to go for a more minimalist approach, I accompanied it with only raspberry sauce striped with white chocolate, and a white chocolate curl on top of the dacquoise, echoing the sauce. Just before submission (oh, yes, we had to submit each plate to Chef for review, and, presumably, grading), I had a sudden burst of irrelevance and opted to do a little mint-kumquat-confit-thing. It worked though; I got a thumbs up on that one. My daring spurred to higher levels, I opted to finish with a molded chocolate mousse, enrobed in ganache, atop a bed of chocolate whipped cream. I accompanied this with mounds of regular (that is to say, non-chocolate) whipped cream, between which I had the brilliant judgment to place large placards of mille-feuille (Day 43). A little mound of whipped cream is not designed to keep a dense tablet of mille-feuille erect; it’s not a structurally sound configuration. Having decided (and announced, of course: a real shock) to do it, I carried on and managed to get them to stand up just long enough for a drive-by evaluation and a quick snapshot. The waiter that could carry this to the dining room, though, and keep those things standing, is worth his weight in gold. Easy as it is to assemble desserts when one has sixty or so components to choose from, and putting aside issues of individual taste (or exemplar lack thereof), I think the main lesson here was to realize that we have a long way to go in terms of learning what’s practical.
After the thrill of mock restaurant service, we came back to the refreshing simplicity of yellow cake. We each baked two layers of cake which we filled and frosted on the following day for the practical portion of our final exam (where refreshing simplicity dissolved with great haste into bleak reality.) I received a few points off for inconsistency of icing thickness and off-center adornments (two of my icing rosettes were not equidistant from those surrounding them), but in the end walked away none the worse for wear. The written part of the test covered all these cakes we’ve produced over the last several weeks. We know we’re not quite done with cake, though, as more than half of our last quarter, just around the bend, deals with wedding cakes.
And we round third base.