Written by Olivia Hamilton
Culinary Student, Level 1
ICC had a sweet treat yesterday with Chef Jacques Torres, also known as Mr. Chocolate and the Dean of Pastry Arts at ICC. He is multi-talented in the world of desserts but one of most impressive disciplines he practices (in my opinion) is his work with sugar. As a current Level 1 student in the Culinary Arts program, it’s exciting to see how the other half (pastry) lives.
Sugar is hard to work with no matter who you are, or how long you’ve been working with sugar. It will burn you if you aren’t careful, along with breaking or falling apart just when you thought you had it finished. Even with these obstacles, Chef Jacques Torres made his sugar sculpture demonstration seem like a walk in the park while keeping us laughing. Whether he was using molds or manually pulling the sugar, we, the audience, were on the edge of our seats the whole time knowing how delicate sugar can be.
While filling the molds with the hot liquid sugars, Torres explained that it is best to use glucose with poured sugar. Whereas pulling sugar is more successful mixed with vinegar because it stays pliable for longer, but is also more delicate to work with. The molds were to be used to create the base structures for the sugar masterpiece that was unfolding in front of our eyes.
The Dean then showed us how to properly mix the color into pulling sugars which reminded me very much of an omelet. Clear pulling sugar is placed on a Silpat then drops of red, blue, and green food coloring is added about 3 inches apart only using the bottom half of the sugar. Chef then used a cake tester to spread a bit of the food coloring within each section. Then came the folding; he folded the sugar over in half like you would with an omelet before presenting it. Then Chef separated it into 3 sections (by color) and began to knead the sugar almost how you would with bread dough.
Torres shared with us that no matter how many years he has worked with sugar, he always seems to have the red food coloring dye his hands. While working with the super hot sugar, he also explained how your reflexes may not always help you. When you burn your finger, your first instinct is to put it in your mouth but then you burn your finger and your mouth. The best thing to do when you have sugar burning you is to wipe it off in a towel/apron or place your finger in cold water. Also sometimes you’re too late to realize that you have burned your hands and may end up with blisters that can last up to 10 days.
With all that potential of getting burned, the Dean still prefers to work without gloves, since that is the way he started doing it almost 40 years ago. Also when he started working with sugar, gloves were hard to come by and could only be purchased at a medical store. Though sweat can affect the sugar, Torres noted that his hands no longer sweat, or perhaps he sweats sugar?
Once the sugar was the right temperature to pull, Chef started to place celery sized pieces of each colored sugar next to each other. He then started to pull and stretch the sugar with a pastry students help. The sugar was pulled so far it seemed as if it was as long as the student was tall. He then used this long, skinny, multi-colored ribbon to create a bow that looked like it belonged on a birthday present.
Next, Torres showed us how to make a beautifully blossomed rose for the display piece. He started with an oval type of shape about the size of my thumb. After, he would create each petal by pulling a bit of sugar from the colored sugar patty increasing in size with each petal. He said the trick with making a good rose is, “the less you touch it, the better it is”. Another important part of making beautifully pulled sugar is that if it is too warm when you pull it, it won’t be shiny.
The master of sugar then showed us how to make a bird with a cute bonnet upon its head. The body was about the size of a hummingbird and a knife was used to help define its neck. Similar to the rose, he created the bird’s wings by pulling it piece by piece laying 5 on top of each other in a fan style. He then “glued it” by using the torch to melt the wing slightly enough that the melted sugar would help it stick to the body. He then repeated this for the other wing and did the same technique to place on the beak.
Watching Chef assemble this piece was like seeing someone play Jenga with puzzle pieces. Each piece of sugar, whether it was the stand, backdrop, or the delicate ornaments (like the bow, bird, and flower), had to be placed ever so carefully. It would be so easy for this whole creation to be destroyed in a split second, but Dean and Chef Jacques Torres is a master for a reason.