What follows may sound very silly.
After 50 weeks – or something near to that – at WCI, I enjoyed a mandatory six week internship before I was granted my freedom from the program and, I suppose, the tacit support of the school that I might be capable of holding my own in the world. Desperately homesick and lacking the creativity and/or inclination to seek out an unknown institution, I picked a well respected pastry shop back home.
It was coming up on the Christmas season and the bakery was in full pre-holiday swing when I arrived. I was nineteen, scared, and – honestly – over my head. The chef/owners threw me right into the mix, assigning me tasks difficult to screw up. They let me make mistakes. They corrected my bad form, confused ideas. They seemed horrified at what I had not been taught at school.
It’s a good story all on it’s own, but it’s not what I am trying to tell here. By the end of my six weeks there, I was an altogether different, confident, skilled little pastry cook. They gave me crash courses in puff pastry, all maners of chocolate, creams, potions, goos, fruits and nuts.
In a commercial kitchen, all things are done in batches. You don’t ever make one cake – you make fifteen of them. You don’t whip a little cream, you whip two gallons of it. So when we made cakes – it was an all-morning event, at certain stages involving four or five people to do the assemblage in a timely manner before the chantilly wept.
No matter the particular flavor profile, all cakes followed the same basic pattern – a sponge of some kind (the “cake” part), a liqueur-laced simple syrup (like frangelico or framboise), creams of some kind (pastry cream, jam, buttercream, etc.). It was not uncommon to have six or seven total layers. That, plus a thin layer of melted chocolate spread on the bottom of the cake – a moisture barrier, purely practical – and the eventual glaze and decoration. It was quite an affair and this manner of making layer cakes became my standard.
Until two days ago, I had not made a proper cake like the one described in at least three years, very possibly longer. Before I begin a project like this, it can seem pretty daunting. I don´t often work off of one recipe, so my first task is auditioning the pieces, finding their formulae, then making and sketch and a shopping list. Which filling did I like so much back in school? Did it have hazelnuts? Pecans? No, it was the bittersweet chocolate! Was it? This can go on for days. Once I have settled on an idea, I set about to finding the recipes, somewhere in my (disorganized) collection of class notes, work binders, cookbooks and scribbles on 3×5 notecards. If I am able to find what I am looking for, I shop.
Day one is making the sponge or biscuit. Day two – or the afternoon of the first day if you’re feelin’ productive – is generation of the rest of the components. Fruit fillings, pastry creams – often these things need a night in the fridge to reach their full glory and/or workability. And then put it all together.
This is what I made a few days ago:
Chocolate Chiffon Sponge
Simple Syrup w/ Framboise
Heavy Cream + Mascarpone
Blackberry and Raspberry Compote
Step by step:
Melt Scharffenberger 72%. Spread thin layer on the bottom of the bottom layer of chiffon sponge. Let chocolate set.
Apply boozey simple syrup.
Apply thin layer of berry compote.
Apply layer of mascarpone cream.
2nd layer of chiffon.
Finish w/Chantilly cream on top and sides. Garnish top with rosettes, fresh berries, shaved chocolate, and fresh flowers.
It actually goes pretty fast when you have everything ready at hand.
I cannot begin to explain how good this whole process felt a few days ago. Well, aside from the decoration. I’m too neurotic to enjoy decorating cakes. As I confidently wielded my offset spatula and masterfully put that darned chantilly in its place, I felt a bit like I was doing, mmm, what I am supposed to do. That last phrase is riddled with philosophical problems that I shall not address here – - but do you know what I mean? Have you ever felt at home doing something? It is as if these hands were built for puff pastry and poached fruit.
The kicker of it is that I don’t think I’ll go back to the professional kitchen any time soon. When I lived there the first time, I felt my brain going to goo. Maybe it was because I was young and inassertive, but I didn’t often feel very respected. I found it pretty hard to get people to listen to me and, so often, *though not at aforementioned French Temple of Flour and Sugar, corners were cut and quality and crafstpersonship was sacrificed for time and for profit. Plus, I think I am showing signes of the beginning of CTS.
I have long posited that I shall not define my life in terms of a career. The jobs I will hold as an adult (and soon!) are important to me already, to be sure, but I refuse to let them make me who I am. I am a maker of things, a singer of song, a lover of living things and of knowledge. Add to the list, maker of cakes, nourisher of the celebrants… that’s OK, I can do all that…..