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An attempt at a tulip – pulled sugar

Ever since the chocolate exam, classes feel like they’ve gone by in double time. We had our written exam – the last time someone was going to grade me on my knowledge of sugar, butter, flour, and chocolate. Then we were off to the land of some serious sugar art.

The way the classes are set up for sugar, is that we have two demonstrations in the traditional setting, but we have two regular 2.5-hour practical classes, plus three(!) 6-hour “ateliers” where we can start designing our final exam sugar showpiece.

For the demonstrations, the chef showed us how to make pulled and poured sugar, assembling it all together into a showpiece that would be similar to the exam requirements. We are supposed to make a piece that features at least three roses, some leaves, some twirly decorations, and perhaps a ribbon.

Then for our last demonstration ever at Le Cordon Bleu, the chef made blown sugar fruits. Blown sugar is more like pumping air into a lump of sugar to form a ball – no actual “blowing” required, sorry to disappoint. It looked delicate and fun as the chef pulled off an apple, a pear, an orange, a lime, a banana (he was careful to make sure it couldn’t be mistaken for anything else), a kiwi, and a peach (that had a questionable tip at the end). Once he was done, we had some extra time so he also showed us how to make a large bird.

The chef’s sugar showpiece for my very last demonstration at Le Cordon Bleu!
Features blown sugar fruits airbrushed with colour, pulled sugar leaves & stems, and a poured sugar base.

In the practical classes, we began by pouring sugar. My poured sugar piece is kind of like the background I’m planning to use for my final exam – somewhat of a wreath concept. Pouring sugar was pretty straightforward – we cook the sugar to an exact temperature, pull it off and mix in colour, then wait for it to become the right consistency before pouring into moulds waiting on the marble surface.

The tricky part actually came at the end, when we had to stick the pieces together by heating up the sugar pieces with a blow torch. If not heated enough, the sugar wasn’t going to stick firmly. However, if heated too much, as was the case with a couple of my classmates, the sugar un-sets and starts bending due to the heat. Whew!

My first try at pouring sugar. I really liked the milky green – reminded me of jade!

The next class was an atelier where we just pulled sugar. After all that hype about pulling sugar, I walked into this class feeling really nervous and uncertain. At that point we had only seen one demonstration and I just didn’t feel ready to be producing flowers and leaves. However, as we set up to cook the sugar and start pulling, the chef came by and showed us individually how to work with the sugar and set us to work with practicing leaves first. Surprisingly, making the leaves came to me pretty quickly and before I knew it, I had completed his “assignment” of making 50 leaves in record time. The chef really liked the leaves I made, too!

Working with pulled sugar means having a sugar lamp to keep the sugar warm and soft at all times. For this class, we were working directly under the lamp (some chefs recommend taking a small piece off of the lamp and working away from the heat). By the middle of the atelier when we had a break, I had sweated buckets, felt warm and nauseous a few times, and stood aside to gulp down cold water for “mini breaks” too. I knew my hands were slightly chafed and really warm, but I did not expect this:

My poor, slightly burnt, and really creepy looking left hand…plus the leaves I made with that sacrifice!

After the little break, we were back at it with flowers – finally! Making roses is very trying on my patience…as soon as I took my attention away from arranging the petals nicely, my flowers would start taking on weird shapes. I think I liked the orange flowers more, but the white and yellow-ish ones were a little questionable – definitely don’t qualify as roses.

“Roses” with leaves

Finally, we had a short practical class to practice blowing sugar. To start, it was a little disastrous as nobody really had a grasp on the proper temperature and set up of the sugar on the little pump. We were all pumping out (literally) weird shapes, cracked or broken ball shapes, or nothing at all. A couple of times, there were even explosions as the sugar set too quickly during pumping, and shards of thin sugar flew everywhere. Eventually, we figured out the optimal temperatures to work with, especially given our experience and the speed at which we could work. By the end of the class, I had produced some ball shapes I could finally be proud of.

Left: bad, dented balls, right: good shiny balls

I really like the ball shapes, but for now, I can’t decide if I would use them on the final exam. They require a different recipe, which means for the exam we would be cooking three recipes if we wanted to do poured, pulled, and blown sugar. Each recipe takes about 20 – 25 minutes to cook, so that’s quite a bit of time taken out of the exam to just stand around and watch the temperature like a hawk. Good thing is I still have two more 6-hour ateliers to sort myself out and decide what my final exam piece will look like!

I’m excited about the sugar section so far, and super stoked about the final exam. It will be my last ever piece made at Le Cordon Bleu, unofficially marking the end of my year off to do things I love. Therefore, I want to go out with a bang and make something special to commemorate the year I’ve had. We’ll see how I do – wish me luck!


Two hearts and a bunch of balls

My chocolate exam ‘creation’

In Superior Pastry, we have two practical exams, and one written exam. The first exam quickly snuck up on us…and it was on chocolate tempering. Chocolate tempering means taking melted chocolate through a “temperature curve” to get it to set with shine in the end. A clean snap when the chocolate has set indicates good quality and well-tempered chocolate.

We had a few classes to “prepare” before the exam – you know, time to come up with designs we liked, test them out, perfect our tempering skills so our chocolates were super shiny, etc. The exam topic is always a chocolate box, shaped by a cake ring mould, with a lid and decorations on top. The school provides moulds for us to work with for our decorations, but creativity with placing these shapes also constitutes part of our grade.

Tempering chocolate is a messy business as melted chocolate tends to run everywhere, so every class was a little stressful, and our uniforms were all quickly stained with chocolate blotches in random places.

The first class, we were asked to fill a mould to make a picture frame, and make an upside down box to serve as a platform for the picture frame. I cooled down my chocolate a bit too much so it became “over-crystalized”, meaning that even at the correct working temperatures, the chocolate texture was much thicker than normal. This made for all sorts of annoying quirks, like my chocolate setting way too quickly before I even finished filling my mould! The result was an unevenly finished chocolate frame, and a bottom stand with holes in the corners. The cool thing, though, was that it wasn’t hard to pipe out the weird wiggly lines at all when my chocolate was so thick, so at least I got something right.

The picture frame with a standard image from school

We made some caramel chocolate candies for the second class, which was a bit different. Filling out the little chocolate moulds means we had to work fast, try to stay clean with all of the excess chocolate dripping everywhere, and make a delicious caramel centre to fill the chocolates with. The class went OK, but the best part was definitely the end result – delicious caramel chocolate candies just in time for Valentine’s Day!

The next class just before the exam, I tested out my “design concept” (loosely termed, really didn’t take much thought, bah) with some hearts and ball shapes. However, the balls didn’t work out nicely because the yellow streaks of cocoa butter messed up the chocolate texture a bit, so by the end of the class, I didn’t have many pieces to work with. Also, one of the hearts broke when I tried to un-mould it, so the box I made was pretty scarcely decorated, and definitely not very original.

My chocolate box – before the exam

However, as you can see, most of the time, the chocolates I made in class came out tempered and shiny-ish anyway…so I walked into the exam after a long weekend in London and just thought to myself – “I can’t exactly fail this…hopefully.”

While my friend and I spent the five days before the exam in London eating our hearts out everywhere, our classmates were busy at work planning out their chocolate boxes! Mine ended up being not-so-original, and if you look closely (and from different angles, as the chefs are wont to do), there was a huge chunk of the lace heart missing in the back. Oh well. I slyly hid it with some other pieces, but one swift move by a chef checking out my piece would’ve revealed the gaping hole in the back.

So far, I haven’t received a call yet about failing this exam, so I think we’re safe. Also, I am glad that for now, I’m done with tempering chocolate under time constraint and exam pressures! :)

One last look at my chocolate exam creation…

Next up, we move into another crazy concept that’s not exactly edible – sugar work!


Plated Desserts

Fine apple tart with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream

I promised plated desserts (i.e. served on a plate, fancy-restaurant-style, for those unfamiliar with the terminology) and here they are!

We started off with some traditional desserts. However, being a new year full of changes, the chefs actually switched up the recipes for this class and gave us some new traditional dessert recipes to test out. In class, we made Grand Marnier Soufflés and these little apple tarts. Since there were so many things on the plate, we didn’t actually have to prepare the puff pastry for the tarts…a blessing for timing, but a bummer for our taste buds. The puff pastry was from – get this – the grocery store. A sacrilege!

The class went by pretty easily. We had a cuisine chef oversee this practical, and he very helpfully came to my side when my caramel sauce was about to finish cooking…and took over. He let the sauce sit for too long, though, and I wasn’t happy with the taste of the caramel sauce at all – it was burnt and bitter, yuck! One of our favourite chefs stopped by the kitchen when we were tasting our desserts, and he made a very unimpressed face when he tried my caramel sauce. Bah, what could I say?

The Grand Marnier soufflés were strongly flavoured with just the alcohol, nothing else. The recipe was interesting, though, as it is not a typical recipe from what the chefs told us. I found the texture quite light and springy, which was good. I am not a fan of a lot of alcohol in my desserts, but I’ll definitely be using the soufflé recipe as a starting point to make something else! (Also, too busy indulging in my tart with ice cream and caramel that I didn’t even bother taking pictures of our soufflés when they came out of the oven – oops!)

The second dessert we made was “contemporary” desserts, again with new recipes for 2012. Since our class was the first group to try to put these recipes into action, we followed the demonstration chef’s instructions on the order of preparation in the kitchen. We were to make a chocolate shortbread cookie base, creamy/frozen chocolate mousse-cream-disc, chocolate glaze for the top, cocoa nib crisps, and white chocolate ice cream (all within 2.5 hours, might I add, including plating and cleaning up). I think the order in which we began was totally wrong…we started off on a strong note, and then quickly got hindered by those damn cocoa nib crisps. They were delicious and easy to make, but took forever to bake in the oven. My friend and I watched the oven anxiously, and had nothing to do but wring our hands and plead the tray in the oven to hurry up. By the end we were severely out of time, with a very stern chef who was not pleased at all about how slow we were, and I hastily threw together my presentation just before time was up. The glaze got a little runny on the plate because I didn’t have enough time for it to set properly, and the ice cream melted quickly into a puddle on the slightly warm plate. The chef tutted at the less-than-spectacular presentation, and I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t have done better. The dessert is to-die-for, though, so next time you’re invited to a dinner party chez moi, ask me to make it!

Oh yes, in my haste that day to leave the apartment, I forgot my camera, too. I borrowed a classmate’s, but the picture didn’t turn out very well that I’d rather not post it.

Dark chocolate sphere with dark chocolate brownie, praline crisp, creamy mango coulis, milk chocolate cream, and hazelnut crumble

Lastly, we made our “prestigious” desserts. For the demonstration, the chef showed us some neat things like using chemical reactions to create “chocolate caviar” – chocolate flavoured little drops that look just like caviar, but taste of chocolate. Each dessert was painstakingly and lovingly assembled, hence the “prestigious” title. I guess this is why the Ritz is allowed to charge obscene amounts of money for their desserts!

Making this dessert in class was fun and easy – we got to work in partners, which made things go by a lot faster. Thank goodness we didn’t have to temper the chocolate, too, or else it would’ve been a lot more stressful. We had the young chef, who had witnessed my previous debacle. His presence caused severe anxiety the whole class, as I was determined to make something better this time. The hardest part was the end, when we had to poke holes in the chocolate top. I wish I had invested more time and care into making just one top, rather than two tops (in case one broke), because I didn’t have time to clean off the edges of each circle cut-out very well. Apparently at one of the famous restaurants in Paris where they make a similar dessert, there is someone who spends all day doing these chocolate spheres! I shudder to think how nerve-wracking that would be…

When I presented my dish, the chef looked at the plate and began with a compliment, which was a relief. He muttered on about the dessert and before I knew it, this is what happened:

Um, could you give me a warning next time before you do this??

The chef dug right in to see my layers and the consistency of each one. I actually had not taken a photo of my creation at that time. My jaw just dropped to the floor and I had to remind myself to keep shocked and angry comments to myself. I don’t actually remember what he said about the layers, because I was so fixated on the broken pieces in front of me, haha.

Fortunately I had saved an extra bottom half of the sphere, too, in case of breakages, so I plopped everything back on my plate and took some pictures before class was over. Phew!

So this isn’t exactly what I presented to the chef in class…but very similar

Now we’re officially off desserts, and onto chocolate tempering! I would cheer about how cool it’s going to be to make sculpted pieces out of chocolate, but chocolate tempering still makes me extremely anxious, so stay tuned for what happens!

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