I test well under normal circumstances – ScanTron, multiple choice, you know the drill. However, at pastry school in Paris, the norm went out the window for my final exam in Basic Pastry. We were given a list of 10 possible pastries that could come up on the exam. Then on exam day, the list was narrowed down to three options denoted by different coloured chips. We had to prepare the pastry within 2.5 hours, along with an apple tart shell for technical marks. After drawing a yellow chip, I found out as I entered the small second floor kitchen that I was making the pithiviers.
As in, “no way they’d test us on puff pastry!”
As in, I didn’t even bother reading the puff pastry recipes in the time I had to prepare for the final exam.
Hmmm. Lucky for me, I like working with dough. I like puff pastry and it’s been good to me every time we’ve done it in class. Also lucky for me, we had just finished the class on pithiviers not too long ago so the memory was fresh enough in my head.
I quickly threw together my détrempe dough, or the “water” dough, and popped it into the flash freezer to set. What I didn’t count on was that 15 minutes later when I went to check on it, the dough was completely frozen. Normally in class we turn on the freezer only when necessary, and lots of people open and close the freezer door as they put in and take out their doughs, so I thought it would take a bit of time to chill. Since it was the final exam, someone had helpfully turned on the freezer way in advance…oops for me. After confirming that yes, my dough was indeed frozen to a point of snapping into pieces when moved, I rested the sticky and frozen mass on my worktop and glared at it with panic and dismay for a good ten minutes. My nice classmate who was working across from me had to console me as I asked him urgently and dramatically, “Do you think it’s ever going to warm up?”
Once the dough warmed up to an ideal temperature, rolling and folding the puff pastry was easy. However, it was also very time-consuming to go through the same rolling, folding, and chilling motions. In that sense, this was in no way an easy recipe for a time-constrained final exam. The other thing that sucked about this recipe was that after all the time devoted to rolling out the dough and working with it, it was only in the final 30 minutes of the exam that I could see if my hard work had paid off. Whereas with the other recipes, the St-Honoré and the Mocha cake, my classmates could see right away if their cakes had risen or if their whipped cream or buttercream was good enough, I had absolutely no way to tell if I was rolling away fruitlessly. I had to fight a strong and weird urge to walk away during the exam because I just had no patience to deal with this type of stress on my final exam!
When we finally popped the darned flower-shaped cakes into the oven, I breathed a small sigh of relief. I moved on to moulding my apple tart shell, and then to making the cinnamon straws with the scraps of dough. I was actually scared to look into the oven to see if my puff pastry was actually rising beautifully with thousands of layers, but I finally got up enough courage to peek and saw that mine was doing well in the oven – phew! With that weight off my shoulders, I did something really silly (and hilarious, to me at least): I quickly twisted my straws together and arranged them on the baking sheet, not really paying attention to what I was doing.
Well, what happens when you don’t pay attention to twisting cinnamon straws? THEY UN-TWIST. The result was fat, scary, multi-layered fluffy things. At that point, we were almost at the 2.5 hour mark and one of the chefs popped in to start “depechez-vous”-ing us. I stared at my “straws” in wonder, laughed, and put them next to my other finished products. I was more than relieved that my pithivier looked lovely and had a straight, puffy, and reasonably well-scored dome (I made sure my almond cream was really well whipped this time, so I had lots of filling) and defined petal designs (what the chef told me to improve on last time in class).
I left the exam feeling decent enough about my work. It wasn’t the best puff pastry I’d ever made, but given the stress of the exam and the unbearable heat in that darned small kitchen, I was pretty happy.
The next morning I was off to London, and came back the night before graduation. Graduation morning was not exactly exciting, as we watched people go up to receive their diplomas one by one. The sad thing was that some of our classmates failed, and it felt weird not hearing their names get called up alongside ours. One of my favourite girls had a problem with her cake on the final and didn’t pass, even though she always turned out pretty good products after each class. I hope she appeals to the school! One of our chefs was supposed to be there, too, but apparently he was stuck on the RER due to a strike of sorts. Only in France!
We received our grades and I am at peace with my grade. It made me laugh when I saw that I barely passed “Presentation” on the final. I’m suspecting the scary non-straws as the culprit of this mark. Otherwise, though, I was graded pretty generously on “Taste”, “Organization”, and “Technique”.
So there it is, a happy ending to my first semester of baking. I start intensive classes soon, where I’ll be baking everyday: Joy!