Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Day 100: Ends. Middles. Beginnings.

Well, obviously, it's the end of the road here at school: graduation day is here at last (is this the fourth one of these for me? I think it is... who keeps track of these things!?), replete with champagne, portfolios, the rather déclassé tall hats, and pictures with the folks.

My pants are tight. But not as tight as they were on the last day of the cake section, thank God.

Obviously the end of school is not an end in itself, as we all part ways to seek the shores we got in these boats to find in the first place. (As anyone with even elementarily developed math skills should be able to tell, it's been a while since graduation day, and I've been in the field for some months now, but I can still taste the fear on my tongue as I walked out of my office of eight years for the last time, "leaving it all behind" in pursuit of my true calling. Not for nothing, it was hard to do and I miss the old career at times, but as future writings will hopefully communicate, I love what I'm doing, ardently.)

Not that you require disclaimers, but here is one anyway: I hope you don't think that eighteen-day entry I just posted was copping out. I have to tell you, things like cake and chocolate are skills that people spend decades practicing, under immense pressure and with acute focus, just to learn them capably enough to make them suitable as professions. As such, we spent several days just getting a grasp on each project I mentioned in that entry. This isn't to say that it was boring, but my rhetorical skills are limited to the extent that to have elaborated further would have made it seem that way. Hence, I compacted the information into a reasonably succinct account of our final days so you could continue to enjoy my writing in the manner to which the previous forty-two posts had accustomed you.

I am glad this particular blog is at an end. Lately especially, I have had so many thoughts racing through my head, about bread and pastry and food, that only by writing them down will I be able to pin them down long enough for them to materialize fully. Rest assured, if they form into something that I feel it worthwhile to babble about, you'll be the first to know. Both of you.

Thanks for reading.
Days 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, and 99: Conformation.

The last two projects, special-occasion (read: wedding) cakes, and molded chocolates, were all about the art of conforming. Human intuition tells us when working with things like chocolate and fondant - that great mass of sugar one rolls out and turns into cake upholstery - that we would simply need to find a way to conform it to our needs and to make it work. Allow me to elaborate.

Let's begin with fondant. (Don't be scared by this word. Some people say fahn-dahnt, putting equal emphasis on both syllables, which I find awkward as it rolls across my my absurdly delicate palate. I say FOND'nt - which sounds more melodic to me. Anyway.) Fondant is something like taffy in consistency, only not quite so sticky and perhaps marginally firmer; I suppose that would depend on where you shop for taffy. It takes color remarkably well, and can be smoothed, through no small efforts of legerdemain on the part of the baker, to a finish as fine as the sheets they use at the Four Seasons. It is hence extremely popular for fanciful cakes, particularly at weddings of course. Fondant is somewhat the operatic soprano of the pastry world: it's certainly sweet but the question of substance does come up, it doesn't take direction particularly well, and once it sits somewhere it's pretty much staying there. (That was a little mean but I've earned it.) This terribly aggravating component of our final cake-related project stumped nearly all of us, myself most definitely included. In the end, I was able to choose my decor elements cunningly enough to conceal any areas that brought to mind the skin on and around the less savory parts of an elephant. But only marginally, I must add; I got by on luck.

The one aspect of this process I was able successfully to objectify was the fact that we were instructed in rolling the fondant very thin. I was greatly relieved because, as anyone who has been to a wedding or three knows, the stuff is not really good eating; it's rolled off as frequently as on. When it's three-eighths of an inch thick, it poses a reasonable barrier to enjoyment of the cake it's covering. As the fifty-five-member crowd that eventually eviscerated my cake can tell you, mine was fortunately thin enough to avoid this obstacle. Another fortunate aspect of this educational segment was that it allowed me to realize I wouldn't want to decorate cakes for a living. Occasionally, sure, especially now that I know I can do at least a decent job of it, but there must be easier ways to pay the bills.

Concurrently with our lessons in rolling and draping fondant, we were introduced to another use of it. By adding carboxymethylcellulose, a plant- and acid- derived chemical, we turned the fondant into a substance called gumpaste. Adding CMC dries the fondant so that it can be more easily worked with and rolled more thinly, after which it dries completely for use in lasting, usually floral, decorations. Edible? Technically, yes, but not advisable or practical. In any event, this is where pastry work becomes the most detailed. The fine brushes come out of the case, and powders, dusts, and dyes are applied, using a variety of odd tools unidentifiable in normal society. If proper care is taken, gumpaste and its entourage can be used to create perfectly realistic floral details. I kept returning to azaleas for some reason, and so chose to use them as the primary decor elements of my springtime-wedding-themed cake. I bunched them up with some roses, mimosas, generic "five-petal blossoms," vines complete with vaguely iridescent (and therefore to my mind dewy) "buds," and leaves. Oh, and ladybugs, which I thought were a nice touch, if a little precious. I stood back, admired the cake, and then, as mentioned, shared it with fifty-five or so colleagues in the career I'd soon be leaving.

From fondant, intractable though it seemed at the time, we progressed to taming an even testier shrew: good old chocolate. The term "tempering," which we've all heard, simply refers to cooling and agitating melted chocolate (albeit in very specific ways) so that the cocoa butter's crystal structure develops in a very defined and organized way. This results in chocolate that, once resolidified, has shine and snap. If you want to see what happens when you don't do it properly, just go melt some chocolate in a little bowl in the microwave and wait a few hours. The pasty, crumbly mess that results clearly wouldn't be suitable for use as food. To temper it properly, close attention must be paid to temperature - too high and the cocoa butter separates, "breaking" the chocolate and bringing it out of emulsion (this is bad). Once it's cool enough and you have established the beginnings of a crystal structure (through any of a number of methods more complicated than I feel it necessary or practical to explain fully here), the chocolate is then agitated (usually by stirring), to spread that crystal structure around the rest of the chocolate. When using chocolate as an ingredient, tempering is typically not bothered with, but it's compulsory if the chocolate in question will be standing alone or encasing something.

Our first project with tempered chocolate was the creation of molded chocolates, which we may think of as truffles. They usually wind up as small, shiny, scalloped shapes, shells, hemispheres, pyramids or what have you, filled with caramel, fruit creams, ganache and the like. They're the things in boxes that you pinch and put back if the filling is just too repulsive. Not terribly difficult to produce satisfactorily, if you can get past the fact that the molds you make them in require cleaning with cotton balls. Clearly, the chocolate used in molding required a good temper (in terms both chemical and emotional), but it was crucial to an even greater degree in our final-final project, our chocolate showpieces. Mine, born of a love of the Alien films and perhaps a latent desire to disappoint myself, was to be an offworld flower rising from a turquoise pond (poured sugar), with a blown glass (sugar) bulb as stamen, and broad, reaching leaves (chocolate) sheltering its own (white chocolate) sprout-babies. If it sounds bizarre in concept, perhaps I succeeded. The irony of calling it a showpiece endured, as I would prefer no one had seen it. (But, since they all got to, I've posted a picture here as well.) It was an important exercise, anyway, in learning not only how to construct things with chocolate, but in discovering the importance of restraint when being creative.

In the end, I found pastry to be about the craft of conforming. The things which must conform, however, aren't the butter, sugar, eggs, custard, filling, topping, dough, batter, icing, piping, spice, flower, fruit, jelly, nougat, caramel, paint, powder, nut, sauce, covering, and chocolate that we're working with, but rather our attitude toward and attention to each of those things. When we learn to listen to the crackle of a crust as we pull a loaf of bread from the oven, to feel the spring of a perfect muffin, to see the shine on a layer of caramel, to smell the butter rising in waves from a fresh croissant, to taste the acid of a strawberry as inquisitively and with as much pleasure as its sweetness, we realize that to learn from food we need only observe it with a little care. It teaches us as much about our own desires and choices as it does about the world around us.

And in the end, what does it mean to Become The Baker? Evolving into one's own skin? Creating substance from ash and water? Bringing many diverse elements into one resonant confluence? Perhaps it means these things, but maybe it's something simpler. To my mind, baking simply brings into focus how little is truly needed for man to survive. From such little as flour, water, and a few grains of salt, man has lived through the millennia; twenty thousand years of bread just can't be wrong. Baking of course encompasses a far wider circle of technique and ingredients, not to mention purposes, but the principle is still the same. Through ingenuity, technique, or just plain physics, what comes out is always more than the sum of what went in. It's this alchemical aspect that brings me back again and again to the oven, and which will continue to do so for the rest of my life.

I Am The Baker.