Archive for June, 2010

My New Project

June 26, 2010

Grand Finales Book 1

My interest in pastry was sparked years ago when I stumbled across “Grand Finales: The Art of The Plated Dessert” at the bookstore in 1997.  The cover caught my eye and the notion that a mere mortal could reproduce these wonders caught my imagination.  After all this book was in my local Borders, not in a specialty “Chef’s only” store. (Of course if I cared to look I could have found a book on how to build a two story log cabin with nothing but hand tools; however that didn’t occur to me at the time.)  Back then my baking repertoire consisted of a box cheesecake, a sour cream coffee cake, and pecan sticky buns – by no means was I up to the creations in this book.  Still, I clutched my illusions as tightly as the book and carried both to the register.  Someday I would gain the skills required and wow friends and family…

A year later the second book of the series debuted with fifty two more deserts from twenty five master pastry chefs.  I gazed at the cover, impressed with the way the chocolate cone balanced so improbably on the plate with the tuile cookie circling it like Saturn’s rings.  I flipped the book open to find separate recipes for a chocolate cone, Gianduja Bavarian, Manjari Ice Cream, Burnt Orange Sauce, Honey “Eclipse” Wafer, and Sesame Seed Wafers.  Okay, so it’s a bit complicated… I’ll eventually figure all this stuff out… 

The third volume appeared in 2000 and of course I had to buy it to complete the set.  So there I had three gorgeous books on my shelf, yet I was no closer to my goal of being able to duplicate any of the wonderful creations inside.  And that’s how it continued for a few more years.

Around that time I started getting serious about home-made ice cream.  I bought two of the best books on the subject, “Ice Cream! The Whole Scoop,” by Gail Damerow, and “The Perfect Scoop” by David Lebovitz.  I experimented, made batch after batch, and took it so far as to sign up for “Ice Cream 101: Introduction to Frozen Deserts” at Penn State.  The two day class was fun, but I was disappointed that the intent of the course was to prepare you to open an ice cream shop with commercially prepared mixes.  I was hoping to be initiated into the secrets of formulating my own special recipes.  The first day was mostly PowerPoint lectures on the basic physics and chemistry of ice cream, commercially available formulations, and the business aspects of running a shop.  That was split between different professors and industry representatives.  The second day included a tour of the Penn State creamery and a vendor fair of sorts where manufacturers demonstrated ice cream and gelato freezers that I could drool over, but not afford.  Well even if I could convince myself (and my wife) that we could afford the cost I had no idea where I could possibly put it.  I would just have to continue to make do with the freezer sleeve model we received as a wedding gift.

Also on the second day one of the students gave a presentation about their “Tasting”  team.  Apparently several schools have teams that compete to judge ice cream and detail any flaws in a scientific manner.  The judges give them samples in the small plastic tubs with paper lids that you get in the cafeteria at school complete with the wooden spoon.  Each one is labeled with a letter and has one or more flaw such as being icy, sandy, oxidized, overcooked, eggy, or too strong on whey.  Each member’s scores are totaled and the winning team is the one judged most accurate.  We were given an evaluation form and several samples to judge.  We were told that it’s a rather serious and stiff competition at the collegiate level and the teams work hard to fine tune their pallets.  I had finally found something that was even geekier than being on the forensics team in high school.  

Back home I went on to fill my tiny freezer with a score of flavors until my wife gently suggested I might want to explore another hobby and return  the use of our meager freezer space to her.

She encouraged me to make the switch with the gift of a small chocolate tempering machine that marked the beginning of a multi-year odyssey to tame chocolate.  Back then there just weren’t any good books on chocolate for the layman.  [Now you can buy “Chocolates and Confections” by Peter Greweling and get everything you need to know in one very affordable book  It has the most useful description of tempering you will find anywhere,  as well as clear instructions for molding, dipping, and a good number of great recipes.  I could have saved myself years with this book.]   I joined the eGullet food board and picked the brains of the chocolatiers there, followed up with a good deal of experimentation, and finally a three day course on “Advanced Chocolates” at the French Pastry School in Chicago taught by the master chocolate ambassador for Callebaut, Jean-Pierre Wybauw.   The class clarified a number of concepts and gave me quite a bit of concentrated practice.  Over time I mastered the theory and practice of tempering (or more accurately “pre-crystallizing”) chocolate.  I also accumulated a library of chocolate books, two 6 kg chocolate melters, a small fortune in professional polycarbonate truffle molds, a mold vibrating table, an air brush, and various and sundry tools.  In addition I taught a few introductory hands on classes to spread the knowledge of artisan truffles, experimented with colored cocoa butter for dramatic presentation and designed and constructed my own guitar cutter to achieve perfect squares of ganache for dipping.  Now I order 100 lbs of chocolate at a time and ship boxes of truffles as holiday gifts to family and friends. Thanks to my wife I have fans as far away as Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles, California.

The first trip to Chicago worked out well, so a couple years ago I returned to the French Pastry School for a three day intensive “Chocolate Decorations, Petit Gateau and Entremets” taught by Master Pastry Chef Norman Love.  I was a bit nervous going in since I was one of the only two students who weren’t professional chefs or current students of the French Pastry School, and the other non-professional was a very experienced home baker.  The liberal use of French terms spooked me during the first lecture, but I calmed down upon learning that “Anglaise” was just a fancy term for the custard base I made by the gallon for ice cream and Pate a Bombe is just a term for egg yolks beaten with sugar syrup and aerated for use as a base for mousse and butter cream.  The biggest obstacle was that I had to take copious notes as our class books were basically lists of ingredients with the recipe steps omitted.  I suppose professionals might already know what to do given the ingredients, but I was left to scribble furiously during the demonstrations.  The same assumptions were made to a lesser degree in the “Grand Finales” and other professional level books and magazines.  Part of learning pastry seems to be becoming familiar with the lingo along with the techniques.

The class improved my skills, but the most important benefit was the knowledge of how complex deserts are assembled and confidence that these seemingly difficult techniques aren’t all that hard to learn.  That gave me the courage to attempt more advanced deserts.   The class also gave me the chance to get Norman Love to sign book three of “Grand Finales.”  Yes, he is one of the Master Pastry Chefs who contributed to the series.

Despite all that training I haven’t done much pastry in the time since then.  Instead I continue to amass a formidable library of books, including several more high end books like “La Patisserie De Peirre Herme” and “Sweet Seasons” by Reichar Leach.  My library also includes technique books such as “BakeWise, The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking” by Shirley O Corriher, “The Secrets of Baking” by Sherry Yard, “Baking” by James Peterson, “The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Pastry Arts” by the French Culinary Institute, and “The Professional Pastry Chef, Fundamentals of Baking and Pastry” and “The Advanced Professional Pastry Chef” by Bo Friberg.  I think the problem is that the course was just too compact and I haven’t spent enough time practicing the various techniques to get comfortable.  Cramming everything into three days gave me a good deal of information but not enough experience.  Some of these techniques need to be practiced many times to be fully absorbed.

I figure what I need to do is make a systematic study of pastry techniques.  Unfortunately, as much as I would like too I can’t afford to take a six month sabbatical to move to Chicago and enroll in the French Pastry School’s professional program.  Much closer to home Schoolcraft College offers a well respected professional culinary arts program; however, even that runs during the workday and demands far more time than I have at my disposal.  So that leaves “home-study” with a self-designed course using the books I already own.

I am going to pick one of the books to follow as a main syllabus and bake one item a week.  I don’t want this to be just another “bake my way through a book” blog so I will use the other books as supplements to compare and contrast recipes and techniques as I go.  I may also run off on a tangent from time to time.  Then when I’ve got a firm grasp of the fundamentals I can go back to the three books that started it all. 

So, next up:  Choosing the main book.