Thursday, October 29, 2009

Assembling the Wedding Cake

I was very pleased with how my wedding cake turned out for the ICE Pastry graduation reception. When I began thinking about this final project, way back in July, I decided I wanted to create a cake fit for a sophisticated October (my absolute favorite month) wedding.

This time, I remembered to take photos throughout the assembly process, so you could all see how the components came together.

This was a two-tier wedding cake, one 10" tier and one 6" tier. After the cakes were filled with buttercream spackled and, I covered each tier with rolling fondant I had colored to the perfect shade of ivory. Five dowels were placed in the bottom tier, to support the weight of the top tier.

After centering the top tier, I added the a beautiful fall, brown ribbon around the bottom of each tier.

Then it was time to add the piping, which I did in an ivory royal icing.

Finally, to bring the whole piece together, I completed luster dusting my foliage and assembled two bouquets of oak leaves, acorns, mimosas, five-pedal flowers and calla lilies.

For me, the bouquets really took the cake from pretty, but plain to something really special and unique. I was pleased to have achieved the colors I desired on each of the elements.

I very much enjoyed the entire process of this cake, from the initial research and design, to shopping for the perfect elements and finally putting it all together. It really was a rewarding experience to take a vision and see it become something tangible - and tasty!

Pastry School Graduation

After six months of long nights, hard work and lack of sleep, school came to a close last Thursday night. While I still must complete my externship before I receive my diploma, ICE hosted a small reception to celebrate the end of classes.

The biggest draw of the evening was the presentation of our wedding cakes. We each created our own design and assembled our creations over the previous few evenings.

After munching on the hors d'oeuvres and sipping the champagne, we received our chef hats as well as Nick Malgieri's newest book, "The Modern Baker".

I shared the evening with Mike and we enjoyed each other's company while breathing a sigh of relief - the end of this crazy schedule was finally within reach.

The next morning we began a four-day weekend, which we spent relaxing in Virginia.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Final Countdown

The last week of pastry school is here. My calendar is crammed with things not to forget to do in between all the due dates and exams this week offers.

I am excited. Unlike graduating from high school or college, my excitement for what the future holds is not at all bittersweet.

I have been looking forward to beginning my externship at Gramercy Tavern since August. It has the promise of something new and exciting. A tangible piece of evidence that perhaps my somewhat crazy dream to turn a passion for baking into an actual career was not in vain.

I am stressed and my body is trying really hard to fight off being sick. But as I packed up my bag (a daily adventure of packing gym clothes, sneakers, school uniform, makeup bag, lunch, dinner, snacks, coffee and wallet) and looked desperately at the clock telling me I was running late, Mike held up two fingers.

I stopped and smiled. Just two more days of class.

7Express Team Cake

Mike's ultimate frisbee team, 7Express, had their end-of-season party this past Sunday. The original plan for a cookout was nixed thanks to the cold and rainy weather provided by the second Nor'Easter in three days.

Instead, the party was held indoors at one of the teammate's very fantastic apartment. The hors d'oeuvres were plentiful and the huge pots of three types of chili filled the air, and later our tummies, with a spicy, comforting scent.

Sometimes, I not-so-secretly hate the fact that the team snatches Mike away from me on our coveted weekends. Tournaments mean he leaves Friday after work to drive to some far-away place where they have things like trees and green fields. A tired, sore and sometimes cranky, depending on the outcome of the games, Mike returns late Sunday night.

Last year, Mike's season ended in an injury which made me hate frisbee even more. I thought that injury would be the end to Mike's frisbee-playing days, but much to my shock, this made him want to play even more.

But something changed, on my part, this season. I have some ideas of what brought on this radical shift in my disposition towards frsibee, but suddenly I found myself whining a lot less about being left alone on the weekends.

I realized how much Mike enjoyed frisbee; it was his outlet away from the real world, just like running was for me. So, suddenly, I turned from despising frisbee to a behind-the-scenes cheerleader, for no other reason than it was something Mike cared about.

So I wanted to offer something special to the team at this end-of-the-season party. Naturally, dessert came to mind.

I decided a cake would be appropriate and set about designing and sketching a cake inspired by the team's jersey. With Mike's help, I decided on a flavor combination of chocolate cake (think fudgy, brownie-like chocolate deliciousness) with chocolate-hazelnut buttercream.

The party was Sunday and as some elements needed to set overnight, and to preserve my sanity, I began baking the cakes on Friday night. I wanted the cake to be three layers, but the recipe made four and I decided an extra layer wasn't a problem in case disaster struck. So, one-by-one, only able to bake one layer at a time, each layer taking one hour, the beautiful chocolate layers emerged from my little countertop convection oven.

Saturday morning, I made the buttercream, filled and stacked the layers, crumbcoated the cake and let it set in the refrigerator until the evening. (I really did mean to take photos throughout the assembly, but my fingers were sticky from buttercream and cake crumbs)

Saturday evening, I colored the fondant red, rolled it thin and covered and smoothed the cake. Later (11 PM!) I colored more fondant, black this time, rolled it very long and cut-out the NYC skyline with my little XActo knife. Michael Buble kept me company as my Michael was freezing his butt off at the Yankees game. I affixed the skyline and collapsed into bed, glasses still on.

Sunday, before the party, I piped the team logo on top of the cake. Then, Mike and I set off to the party, me keeping a death-grip on the cake box as our taxi driver navigated the rainy city roads.

It was a hit. Well, that, or people were just being really nice. Photos were snapped, questions were asked and no one wanted to cut into the cake. Finally, everyone, already stuffed from the chili and snacks, made a little more room and dove in.
I was happy that Mike's teammates enjoyed the design of the cake. More than that, they actually enjoyed the taste of the cake and buttercream. Sometimes I tend to dwell on the things that I would have liked to have done differently or to have turned out better. So it's nice to have people reign you in and make you remember that the biggest thing that counts is the gesture.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Grete's Great Gallop Half-Marathon

Unlike April, when I ran my very first half-marathon, I was not nervous about this past weekend's race. I felt calmer and more relaxed for lots of reasons: I was in better shape now, I had a better idea of what to expect during those thirteen miles and I had learned that not hitting a goal time was not the end of the world.

Still, Friday, the day before the race, proved to be quite stressful. I am no-longer particularly superstisious when it comes to pre-race routines - this past year has taught me that sometimes, no matter how precisely you perform your superstitions, you will not have a good race. But I do not like to be stressed or flustered the day before a big race.

It had just been one of those days where nothing had gone right and, now matter how hard I tried not to think of it as a why-does-the-world-hate-me kind of day, it seemed like every time I turned around, something else was going wrong.

I finally calmed down after good dinner (prepared by Mike, I might add) and a quick phone conversation with my parents. I started getting ready for bed, making sure all of my gear for the morning was set-out.

That is when I noticed that the incorrect D-Tag (timing device which attaches to your shoe) had been attached to my race bib. Talk about the icing on the cake.

Since I did not want my time to be recorded as whoever this other runner was, I had to adjust my alarm to make time to go get the situation resolved before the race began at 9 AM.
I was startled out of bed at 6:45 AM by my alarm. I ate, got dressed, readjusted everything and then headed out to the race. It was not raining, as was predicted, but the 93% humidity hung in the air like a heavy curtain.

It was actually quite simple for the race volunteers to switch my race bib and D-Tag, so I my correct time would be recorded.

I lined-up in my corral and zoned-out for the last 15 minutes before the race. I assessed my body - I still felt a little defeated from the day before, I was a little warm from the humidity and my stomach was for some unkown reason upset (Daddy - I blame you. You know what comment I am talking about.) But overall I felt good. I was ready.

The air horns sounded and we were off! I reigned myself in on the first mile. I characteristically go out entirely too fast during the first two miles and then pay for it later. In races under five miles, it did not matter so much - I could recover with a minimal amount of pain. But the half-marathon in April and all of my training runs had taught me that I needed to be mindful of this on longer distances.

I felt like I was standing still among all the runners zipping past me. It was a fight to not join them. I ran the first mile in 8 minutes and 30 seconds. This was a bit slower than my goal pace of 8 minutes 16 seconds per mile, so I knew I could pick up my pace, just a bit, and stay on track.

And stay on track I did for the next nine miles, passing many of those jackrabbit runners. But by the tenth mile, my stomach had had enough and began to revolt. About this time I started searching for porta-pottys along the route and made the not-so -welcome discovery that there were none.

I could only focus on the pain, which to this point I had been able to successfully block-out. But when this happens, I get stressed and frustrated and want to give up. I had to calm myself and keep my mind from racing, "Why are you doing this?!" "How are you ever going to race a full marathon?!".

By the eleventh mile, I had to stop running and walk for about two minutes. I was disappointed that I had to walk because I was so close to the end and had felt that I would finish this race strong.

For the last two miles, I ran as hard as I could. Mind you, this wasn't incredibly fast at this point, about 8 minutes and 17 seconds per mile, but my legs refused to go any faster. I followed the winding loop at the bottom of the park that eventually led back over to the West side.

That loop seemed to last forever, but I was finally on the West side. Another ten blocks north and I would be at the finish line. I searched intently for the blue finish line in the distance.
As soon as I saw it, that is all I could focus on. I didn't think about my sore legs or what song was playing or even search in the crowd for Mike's familar face. My mind repeated, "Get there, get there, get there."

I cannot adequetly describe the feeling of crossing a finish line after a race like this. The first feeling is relief - you made it, you can stop running. After that, it's pure survival - you need Gatorade and water, now. The little voice in your head that has been nagging you with questions like "Why are you doing this?!" for the last 13.1 miles has disappeared. It is silenced by the slew of emotions that have taken it's place - because I can.

Mike was there waiting with a big smile and was nice enough to grab me two cups of Gatorade while I tried to get my bearings. He poured water into my Gatorade as we slowly made our way back across the park, because I he knew I couldn't grasp the water bottle.

Back home, I went through the same routine after my long runs: quick snack to refuel, hot shower, stretch, 10 minute ice bath. I made chocolate chip pancakes, which I enjoyed in bed with my legs propped up.

My official finish time was 1 hour 49 minutes 3 seconds, which was only about one minute longer than my goal. I had knocked more than ten minutes off my finish time in April, which I was especially proud of given my schedule, which does not lend much extra time for training.

I did what I set out to do - not only running the 13.1 miles, but more importantly, not allowing the training to take over my life. As it turns out, trying to acheive and maintan a balance between all the aspects of your life is not only a key to success and happiness, but also to setting PRs.

Official Finish Time: 1 hour 49 minutes 3 seconds
Averge Split Time: 8 minutes 19 seconds

Unofficial Split Times:
Mile 1: 8 minutes 34 seconds
Mile 2: 8 minutes 5 seconds
Mile 3: 7 minutes 52 seconds
Mile 4: 7 minutes 58 seconds
Mile 5: 8 minutes 5 seconds
Mile 6: 7 minutes 54 seconds
Mile 7: 8 minutes 8 seconds
Mile 8: 8 minutes 8 seconds
Mile 9: 8 minutes 00 seconds
Mile 10: 8 minutes 25 seconds
Mile 11: 10 minutes 20 seconds
Mile 12: 8 minutes 17 seconds
Mile 13.1: 8 minutes 17 seconds

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Week Twenty-Four: Piping Skills for Wedding Cake

We did not have class Monday night, as it was a faculty development day. Instead, Mike and I braved the rain and headed downtown to enjoy a special dinner together at Gramercy Tavern.

We sat in the tavern, cozy and safe from the falling rain visable through the large windows at the front of the restaurant. We talked over delicious food and drinks as I enjoyed watching couples swoon over the desserts from my corner of my eye.

Tuesday we were back in class, beginning the final portion of the final module: wedding cakes. This evening was focused on reviewing some basic piping techniques, learned what seems like forever ago, and then a few additional techniques.

After whipping up meringue butter cream as well as stiff buttercream, we set about our list for the evening: rosettes, large shell, star flower, reverse shell, fleur d'lis, straight line, circle, small shells, zigzag, zigzag with large shell, zigzag with small shell, basketweave and rope.

I forgot how difficult the business of piping was and my right arm quickly grew quite sore.

This continued on Wednesday when we spent another four hours learning to create swags, pearls, ruffles, rosebuds, among other techniques.

On Thursday, we piped full-blown roses, which I found incredibly fun to make - it was exciting how little blobs of icing could so quickly transform into something so realistic and beautiful.

After we learned this new technique, we wre able to put our hard work from the previous nights to good use: decorating cupcakes.

I had so much fun sitting and creating the decorations for the tops of the cupcakes.

While the previous two nights were quite tedious, our hard-work was evident.

However, it was also evident how important it would be to continue practicing these techniques - it almost seems as though you could never quite reach perfection.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Running in the Rain

My long run this past weekend was a twelve miler. The half-marathon was less than a week away.

As I expected from watching the weather report the night before, I awoke at 8:00 Sunday to a very rainy morning. It was a tough morning to be a runner - such mornings do an excellent job of enticing a person to linger in bed a bit longer, drifting in and out of sleep.

"Normal people do not go out into the pouring rain and run twelve miles," I thought to myself as I munched on a trail mix bar, fueling up for the looming run and watching the steady rain fall outside the kitchen window.

I thought for a second that I could go do my long run on a treadmill at the gym. But I knew running on the treadmill wouldn't prepare me for the course or the terrain for next weekend's half-marathon. I would be soaked by the time I got to the gym anyway. And, honestly, running twelve miles on a treadmill sounded more miserable than just doing it outside.

So, off I went, much to the disapproval of my doorman who shook his head when he saw me. I was drenched by the time I crossed the street. But that's the thing with running in the rain: as much as the first steps outisde are dreaded, when you're soaked, you're soaked. It's not going to get any better, but it can't get any worse.

When I arrived on the Central Park running loop, I was greeted by hundreds of other crazy people: runners doing the eighteen-mile tune-up for the upcoming NYC marathon. I was running in the opposite direction of the race and my part of the road was quiet and sullen in comparison.

We were all soaking wet, doing a long-run in preparation for an upcoming race. I saw faces of happiness, discouragement, pain and determination. I wondered what these runners saw on my face as we silently passed each other.

Parts of the run made me think of playing in the rain as a child. The carefree kind of playfulness that allowed us to run around without worries of ruining clothes, make-up or hair.

Other parts of the run actually made me consider religion, kind of a hefty thought while trying to finish a strong twelve miles. Religion is something that I, self-admittedly, am still a bit confused about.

But this morning, as I ran quietly along the road with the rain pouring down, searching deep within myself for strength and finding inspiration from other runners when I thought I couldn't make it up another hill - I could not imagine anything else feeling so spiritual.

I gave thanks for the things that are so easy to overlook: for my health which allowed me to run, for Mike giving me a running rain jacket he knew I would never buy for myself, for the food which was waiting to refuel my body, for the apartment which would offer a warm shower and shelter from the rain.

One hour and forty-five minutes later, I found myself again standing in my kitchen, watching the rain fall outside the window. Like every Sunday before, I felt cleansed, renewed, at peace with myself and the world.

Week Twenty-Three: Chocolate Showpiece & Practical

After the previous two weeks spent learning to work with chocolate, the time had arrived for our class to complete our chocolate showpieces.

The class brainstormed ideas for a theme, and we decided on 'nature'. From there, each person was given the freedom to dream and design a showpiece fitting into this theme. The showpiece had to be constructed of 50% chocolate and the other 50% could be from any other medium, such as sugar.

Our chef-instructor has competed in a number of showpiece competitions and he suggested we all sit down someplace quiet and write-down the first five things that came to mind when we thought of our theme. He also encouraged us to have a glass of Maker's close-by "to set the mood". From the list of five items, he said three can usually be grouped and we could take our design from there.

I arrived at class a bit early the next day and found a totally empty and quiet kitchen. I sat and began my list (sans Maker's, unfortunately):

1. Running in Central Park
2. Fall
3. Hiking
4. Waterfall
5. Cascades

And there I had it: I could group the last four ideas together and create a showpiece around the Cascades, a favorite hiking spot not-too-far from Christiansburg.

At home later that night, I pulled-up photos from my hike. And per my request, Valerie also passed a few photos along.

I sketched out my design and met with my chef-instructor the following day. He changed very little in my design, but gave me some very helpful ideas in terms of construction. From there, we had to develop a time line to keep us on track for the following four nights:

- Melt/pour/cool/break chocolate (3 full sheet-pans of bittersweet, 1 full sheet-pan each of milk and white)
- Roll/cut/shape/dry pastillage for rocks

- Melt chocoalte for construction
- Begin constructing clif
- Air-dry dark and light brown sugar for trail

- Finish clif construction
- Airbrush rocks
- Melt/color/pour/dry sugar base

- Clean-up visable mortar on clif
- Attach clif to base
- Construct trail
- Melt/color/knead (x2) sugar for waterfall; pull waterfall
- Final clean-up; move and present at 9 PM

Each night was a full four hours of work. After Monday's class, I was a bit discouraged as I had not made as much progress on the clif as I had hoped. But I tried not to rush through it Tuesday night, as I reminded myself that this was the focal point of my piece. If it looked rushed, the whole piece wouldn't work.

My mind was more stressed than my body, as I slept fitfully Monday and Tuesday nights, dreaming of nothing but constructing the pieces of broken chocolate into the cliff.

Wednesday night gave me two hold-your-breath moments: moving the clif (which had been constructed seperately) to attach it to the sugar base and then moving the entire showpiece across the hall to present.

All went well, as my piece was solid, and as heavy, as a rock. I was more than pleased with the outcome.

The night after our showpieces were presented, we took the practical exam for the fourth module, as it was focused on chocolate. We had to create molded chocoaltes, which involved: making ganache, tempering bittersweet chocolate, lining and filling the molds and finally, unmolding the set chocolates. I finally ended the streak of 99% on my exams, scoring a 100% for my effort.

Weeks Twenty, Twenty-one & Twenty-two: Plated Desserts and Chocolate

Time to play catch-up with updating you all on pastry school. I cannot believe graduation is only three weeks away. Granted, the next three weeks will be long nights filled with the intricacies of wedding cake design, but the end is more than in sight at this point.

Since the time I last wrote, we finished a second night of plated desserts, took our module three exam and moved into chocolate work.

Crepes Suzette

Greek Yogurt Panna Cotta
Grapefruit, Avacado and Basil Foam

Calliops Tropic

Chocolate Souffle
Vanilla Ice Cream

Raspberry Mille Feuille
Ice Wine Granita and Litchi Sorbet

Milk Chocolate and Raspberry Mousse

Lemon Fromage Blanc Mousse
Rhubarb Compote, Carmelized Phyllo, Pine Honey Ice Cream

After the conclusion of plated desserts, we took our third exam. The first hour was again spent on the written portion and then we moved into our practical. Our practical for this module was to split, ice and decorate a cake. This had become second nature earlier in the module when we were spending each night doing these techniques. But since we had moved on to other things since, I felt a bit nervous and out of practice.

Overall, I received a 99% on my module, keeping me on track to graduate with highest honors in October.

It was then time to begin the fourth, and final, module of the program. This module was split into two portions: chocolate and wedding cakes.

We began the chocolate portion by learning how to temper chocolate (bittersweet, milk and white). This was a fundamental technique for all chocolate work, which involves melting the chocolate up to a certain temperature, working a portion of the melted chocolate on a marble in order to drop the temperature back down and then slightly warming the chocolate again.

We used this during the following nights of chocolate work, where we created free-form chocolates, truffles and molded chocolates.

During the first night of chocolate work, I thought this was a medium I was really going to enjoy - perhaps something in which I would eventually want to specialize. But this turned out to be a fleeting thought - the following nights of chocolate work made me realize that this most certainly not something I would want to specialize in.

Don't get me wrong - I did enjoy chocolate work. The skills are something that I know I will use not-so-far down the road. I found molded chocolates beautiful and they will make lovely gifts during the upcoming holidays. I just would not want to only work with chocolate as I felt a bit stifled in terms of creativity, both in taste and design.

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