Professional Pastry Arts student C.C. McCandless on pies, tarts and the importance of timing.
After a rousingly successful whirlwind of a first week in the Professional Pastry Arts program, I entered Unit Two with equal amounts of excitement and trepidation. On one hand, I was thrilled that we would be expanding our skill set so quickly, delving into the crucial and delicious world of tarts and pies. The syllabus indicated that we would learn a multitude of different doughs, fillings and presentations. This sounded excellent.
Except, as it turned out, pie doughs were my nemesis.
Back home, once I had committed to ICC last fall, I used that upcoming holiday season as my own personal training grounds. Thanksgiving and Christmas provided ample opportunity to test out any and every manner of desserts on more-than-willing family members. I’m happy to report that most of my attempts were successful to one degree or another. The one glaring exception, however, was the broad category of homemade doughs.
I just couldn’t get them right.
I tried. Truly, I did. Different recipes. Different techniques. Different baking methods. However, each and every final product included something that I viewed as unacceptable. Don’t get me wrong…they tasted good. But my crusts were suboptimal. Sometimes they would shrink, retreating down the sides of the pan like a frightened turtle back into his shell. Or my pie top wouldn’t seal exactly right with its bottom partner, looking ragged around the edge. My attempt at a lattice top for an apple pie was a ham-fisted mess that looked like the work of a serial killer. Dirty Harry said that a man’s got to know his limitations. In this case, mine were crystal clear: I was unable to make a perfect tart or pie dough.
That’s just what we learned to do in Unit Two. It turns out that all I was missing were perfectly proportioned dough recipes taught to me by a master of the craft. At ICC, I received both in short order. There was literally no time to worry about whether I would screw up my doughs yet again; no opportunity to mentally linger over whether this might just be some fatal flaw in my own baking DNA. We were taught how to make pate brisee, pate sucre, pate sablee, and more, and the important differences between each.
A new unit meant a new partner, and we drew random numbers from a bowl to determine the new pairings. For a week that I might be anxious about, it was all-too-fitting when I drew a classmate that I had my eye on since day one. She had an uncanny air of professionalism and confidence, and I just knew from the first moments of our initial class that she would be a force in the kitchen. My instincts were spot on, as I peripherally watched her turn out one gorgeous product after another during unit one, all while working diligently and maintaining a sparkling clean station. Did I mention that she already has her own amazing food blog? Well, she does, and I had no doubt that she was a future food star in the making. For recipes I had every possibility to muck up, I couldn’t ask for a better teammate to work beside.
I carried myself well enough during unit one that she seemed excited about our pairing, too. And once again, a classmate and I fell immediately into a seamless rhythm. This was especially important for this unit, because I learned that making doughs had to become automatic; almost robotic. The routine, I found out, was the inherently incorrect part of my process. Make the dough. Don’t overwork it. Chill it. Roll it out. Chill it again. Trim it in your tart ring. Chill it again. None of these steps were optional, and the unit was cleverly designed to ingrain this process immediately. Repeating it daily beside someone that knew her stuff helped it become second nature for me. Literally within a couple of days, I was able to look back at my amateurish problems at home with a smile.
My doughs were now really good, but more importantly, they came out that way automatically. There was no worrying or concern anymore. They always turned out right. It was so freeing and soothing that it’s almost mind-boggling, thinking back to what a thorn in my side they used to be. And the fillings! Lovely, flambeed fruits; rich, stirred custards; luscious, chocolate ganache…we cranked out an incredible array of mouth-watering treats in room 204 that week.
Our lead instructor, Chef Jürgen, did not make a big deal of the minutiae of the daily schedule. He did, however, write it out on the giant white board at the head of the class each morning, with the expectation that we would follow it to the minute. Every moment from our arrival to the concluding clean up of the kitchen before our departure was accounted for in bright, dry erase marker. The rare occasions we lagged were inevitably met with a booming Austrian voice imploring us, “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”
Each day, we had homework that included preparing recipes for the following morning. On one particular afternoon near the end of the level, we were also assigned something completely new. It looked innocuous enough, as it was essentially a blank sheet of paper. Chef Jürgen informed us that not only were we to prepare tomorrow’s recipes, but that we each had to craft our own version of the daily schedule. His smile gleamed as he assigned us this deceptively tricky task. “And tomorrow, we will have a Reaping like “The Hunger Games,’” he said, with a sinister tinge in his voice. “One of you will be chosen to read your schedule to the class.”
I realize that it’s kind of ridiculous that I’ve approached this entire experience like a classic hero’s journey. I don’t think Joseph Campbell had lemon meringue pie or tart Alsacienne in mind when he crafted his theories about myth and storytelling. But it has been my approach, to the best of my ability, to live this culinary adventure to the fullest. Thus, Chef Jürgen’s throwing-down of the gauntlet left me with only one possible reply. I had to make Katniss Everdeen proud.
“I volunteer as tribute!” I blurted out from my station, which happened to be right beside the chef’s marble that week.
“Yeah?” he said, giving me a sideways glance as his sly smile grew wider.
“Sure,” I said, realizing that my arrogant mouth and desire to say something cool were at least a couple of steps ahead of my brain. But I couldn’t back down. I returned home and began to assess all of the steps that needed to be compiled for the necessary schedule. I stared down the prospect of coordinating a couple of complex tarts, a new pie dough and two different compotes for fillings, and I immediately realized that I took the precision of our razor-sharp daily schedules completely for granted.
I did the best that I could. I accounted for time needed to roll out doughs, to chill them and to make the requisite accompaniments. I scheduled the brief but integral intervals when the chefs would demonstrate new techniques. I accounted for our lunch break and even left some time at the end of the schedule for review. I was confident that, while my itinerary might not have been perfect, it was one that would work.
The next morning I arrived early, as I always do, and Chef Jürgen quickly double-checked the validity of my bold offer to volunteer. I had no intention of shying away from the task at hand or asking him to proof my work. He took the quickest of glances at my itinerary and instructed me to write it out on the board. I thought that had to be a good sign. I did so, wondering if there was some crucial error that he intentionally left in my plan, just so he could point it out to the class.
“Looks good,’ he said, analyzing my handiwork as I finished up. “Very nice job.”
Whew. We ended up using my itinerary exactly as written that day, and it worked out perfectly. That was an excellent lesson, reminding us that each day at ICC we are learning things that we might not even be consciously aware of. It wasn’t exactly a life-threatening challenge, like surviving a day in the arena from “The Hunger Games,” but I still felt heroic about it.
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