(This story was originally posted on my BrooWaha pages on February 10, 2010)
The assignment was to cut the cake: “No matter how I tried I was a wretched mess!” (Imagine Lucille Ball!)
Culinary Schools are the best environment for learning the intricate methods for achieving perfectly prepared meals. That was the main reason I attended L’Academie de Cuisine, one of the top ten culinary schools in the United States, right outside Washington, DC. I wanted to turn out those gorgeous, divine French concoctions of confectionary perfection. Eight months of schooling, including about three to four months of simultaneous externship for Pastry Arts and I’d be ready to graduate.
During the second month of classes students are introduced to the complexities of cocoa beans, and the labor-intensive production methods that are used to produce those tasty decadent desserts and candies we have come to adore. There are hours of listening to Chef lecture on the mysteries of this bitter nut. Percentages of solids and fats, temperatures and tempering, are repeated during the next few days in order to impress upon the students that chocolate is complex, sometimes difficult to work with and can be really difficult to master. After those classes, I can never look at another chocolate candy bar in the same way. I really had no idea.
The following week during a demonstration, Chef presents the students with a glimpse into what a chocolatier has to do to create a chocolate mold. However, before the molding exercises begin, there is intense discussion about tempering chocolate. The tempering of chocolate is a drawn-out procedure using chocolate coins, which are uniform round-shaped couverture chocolate pieces. They are carefully melted up to about 120º and then one of the three methods is used to reduce the temperature, to maintain it within a range of say 83º to 89º, and then keeping it there. I did say it is a challenge did I not? The next time you eat a chocolate, notice if the outer shell is dull or shiny. If it is dull your chocolate was not tempered properly.
Next students were divided into groups. Since there were only eight of us (the smallest class in the school’s history), we were two to a team. We were expected to demonstrate all three different methods to temper our chocolate. We were shown how to do it by touching a bit of very warm chocolate to the skin beneath our lips, on our chins. If it hurt then it needed to be cooled down a little more. We learned to temper-by-touch, to really understand and know, the right feel of temperature, so in future we would be able to work without a high-tech temperature gun. Let me tell you it is so much easier to use the gun by pointing it directly into the middle, pressing the button and reading the monitor. Professional cooks and chefs use these because they don’t have the time to constantly touch chocolate to their chins and use strips of paper dipped into the molten chocolate, wait for it to dry and see if it is shiny. Repeating this process instills that ingrained knowledge and familiar feel for the correct temperature.
Now as I mentioned before, schools are the perfect environment because the kitchens are well vented, air-conditioned and moderately cool, even with ovens roaring 400º. This is a controlled environment and a great place for chocolate making.
In the real world of a professional pastry kitchen, even the huge one I worked in at GHW, was no match for the school. Ovens constantly blasted 350º to 500º degrees, all day long. There were four of them. One was a carousel that boasted six rotating shelves; big enough to hold eighteen large hotel sheet pans. Plus there were three deck ovens, like pizza ovens. Add to that something cooking on top of the gas stove most times, pastry cooks constantly working, moving, bending, lifting, etc., deliveries were being received, desserts were being picked up, and you can easily get the picture. This busy high traffic area and hot kitchen was anything but ideal for setting up chocolate.
There was a popular dessert on the menu and it boasted real couverture chocolate shavings on top. We would gently melt chocolate in a huge stainless steel bowl, which sat atop a pot of hot water, over low heat on the stove. Then we would use our stainless steel table to pour the warmed chocolate onto. Sometimes we used the reverse side of a scrubbed sheet pan. When the chocolate reached the right setting, using a bench scraper, we would press on a diagonal to encourage the chocolate to roll up into long tubes, called “cigars”. We placed them on a waiting parchment-lined, cooled sheet pan. Once the cigars or shavings were all made they would be covered and then stored in the warmest part of the walk-in refrigerator. They were used as decor on the chocolate cake dessert. The same cake that turned out to be the bane of my existence.
Ideally a cook or chef working with this costly product, has “cool hands”, which permits him or her to handle the chocolate, while allowing it to retain its perfect temperature and shape. The difficult part is for someone like myself who possesses the dreaded “hot hands”. It’s not a desired trait to possess to handle chocolate, but it is for pulling hot sugar. So my hot hands in conjunction with this kitchen, meant a troubling combination and presented a real challenge in accomplishing the job of getting my chocolate to set up. A little aside: If you have hot hands do not shake the Chef’s hand when you meet. You might not get hired. Hot hands do not help a cook or chef become a chocolatier, just the opposite. If you ever watch chocolate competition on television and the competing chef wears smears of chocolate, you could quickly conclude they have the same condition as I.
Back to my story. There was this devil’s food cake you see, that I sometimes cried over. Really. Large hot tears of frustration. It was a layered cake … and how does one get four layers out of one cake? Why … by cutting it of course. Long sharp knives are used for this task and cake turners, too. Added in this equation is the pressure from one’s own hands, both for maneuvering the cake in a turning motion, and for sawing through to the opposite side. They are to be even slices because the perfect end result would be a slice of cake which appears symmetrical. Where in-between those layers, lies delicious, yet exact portions of icing. But that is another matter.
An El Salvadorian gentleman that I had the great pleasure of working with, who I will call “R”, watched sympathetically, while I hacked through his beautiful work. He was the pastry cook who was assigned to bake these dark chocolate cakes. They were made with buttermilk and sour cream. He was the one who had to lift many pounds of flour, butter, sugar, chocolate and other ingredients to produce thirty cakes. He watched me mangle cake, after cake. He even averted his gaze when Chef came over. I still can hear her lilting Irish accent, “Theresa … What are you doing?” she demanded. Then she would demonstrate just how to accomplish four even layers from one cake. I repeated the lesson and was able to use one good slice (the unsalvageable bits were frozen to be used in another dessert), I placed it onto a cake round and put it to the side. I felt embarrassment and pride at this point. Grabbing the towel cloth I’d brought from home, I wiped my face and tossed it back into my bag. It was my personal towel from home. I wouldn’t want to use their kitchen towels on my face. I washed my hands (I wash them fifty times a day), in order to work clean. Shaking my wet hands I then dabbed them onto my bib apron, and continued wielding my serrated knife.
The assistant kitchen supervisor, I’ll call her “X”, came over after Chef had moved out of sight and back into her office, most likely to have a private and inward laugh at the intern attempting the chocolate cake. Anyway, “X” decides to help me by cutting the majority of the cakes. “See?” she asked in her sing-song Asian accent. “It very easy to cut properly. You do not need to mess up the cake anymore.” No pressure. “R” looked relieved because I wasn’t going to destroy anymore of his creations that day. As for me, I breathed a sigh of relief. Saved for the moment. Out of the four cakes I had cut, I could only present four layers … just enough for one cake.
Then there was the chocolate icing. Cans of condensed milk were placed into the largest pot I had ever seen! They were covered with water and slow boiled for four hours, allowed to cool down over a period of hours and then were shelved to cool completely. This cooking method turns the milk into a caramel, very creamy, very sweet and sticky, too. Melted chocolate and cans of caramel are combined together. This makes such a rich icing. By this time I was covered with chocolate. And let me say, “No matter how I tried I was a wretched mess!” By the time I finished my first iced cake I had cried silent tears, washed my hands ten times and wore an apron covered with wet patches of dark chocolaty streaks. It was even all over the edges of my sleeves and my uniform was no longer white. Thank goodness the slacks were a black and white houndstooth pattern.
Before I left for the day, Chef looked over my slightly lopsided cake then told me, “Put it into the walk-in and tomorrow I’ll show you how to cut it into eight equal pieces.” As I turned to leave she added in her lilting Irish way, “Oh and Theresa, tomorrow you’ll be cutting and icing five more cakes to put into the freezer.” It sure sounded pretty when she said it. I tried not to let my dismay show in my smile. I figured out as I turned to go that this is what “par” means. Having a supply on hand ready to use.
As I dragged myself down to the valet to drop off that days uniform, the nice Chinese lady who dispensed our cleaned and pressed uniforms exclaimed, “What happened to you!” I proceeded to explain that I had made chocolate cigars, chocolate icing, and had iced and decorated my first devil’s food cake. To which she explained, “You know that the chocolate stains are very, very hard to get out.” I took my pristine uniform to my locker and feeling a bit dejected, I whispered an apology for all of the chocolate stains we would be wearing, bearing witness to the fact that I had much to learn, and very hot hands.
That cake turned out to be the really low part of my day, but I was learning, had months to go before I graduated and was being bombarded with school, exams, final French mini buffet and open house. Plus having to take in the enormity of the new internship, all of the ways of the kitchen and their not-French-at-all cooking methods. I will say that months later, I had grown to become an almost expert of this dessert and I could wipe that smug smirk off of “X’s” face. When the next intern came in and she tried her hand at it, all I could think was, “Thank God and Good Luck!” She hacked and haggled and cried many times, too. Her apron was a mess just as mine had been and you guessed it. She had hot hands, too.