Talk about blogging fail. I had every intention of writing up each week properly after I had finished my exams but life got in the way. In the 4 months since my last post I’ve graduated from Le Cordon Bleu London, went back to Malaysia for a 2-week holiday to visit our families (and of course eat a LOT of food) and had an imposed 4-week rest due to wrist injury called De Quervains, which is a form of tendonitis and affects mainly gripping and twisting motion with my right hand. Seeing as I’m right-handed this has proved quite inconvenient when it comes to baking and just general cooking. For now I’m taking strong anti-inflammatory medication, which are thankfully working and wearing a splint when I’m doing activities that tend to cause pain. I’ve been soldiering on with the pain for about 3 months now but it reached a stage where I could barely hold a pen so I thought it was really time to see a specialist. The last resort if things don’t get better after the drugs and possibly a steroid injection is surgery, but I’m really really hoping that it won’t come to that. A major consequence of this injury is I’m having to put my job search on hold until I’m fully recovered. Fingers crossed that it won’t be too much longer as I’m getting stir crazy and I really need more direction and purpose with my day-to-day life.
But enough moping! The second half of the superior patisserie course was a lot of fun. Week 6 was Modern Entremet week and it was our first chance to attempt making the entremet that we had designed ourselves based on a list of ingredients. My entremet consisted of a joconde imprime casing, white chocolate feuilletine crisp layer, light strawberry mousse, lemon cremeux insert with a layer of poached rhubarb topped with a glaze made with the poaching syrup and grenadine, with cinnamon tuile and dark chocolate decorations. Overall chef seemed quite happy with what I had made although he didn’t think that the white chocolate feuilletine layer was a good match with the fruity flavours. His suggestion was to have a pate sable base instead and I told him that I would take his feedback into consideration. His other main comments were on the aesthetics of the entremet – he thought that the glaze was a bit too bright (which to be fair, it was) and that white chocolate would be a better choice for the decorations as the contrast with dark chocolate was a bit too harsh. He did think that the chocolate decorations themselves were nice but the tuile needed some work.
The following week it was time for some sugarwork and we would be working with sugar for the next two weeks! First up was creating a poured sugar centrepiece, which had to include at least 5 different elements/techniques. My centrepiece wasn’t going to win any awards but it wasn’t bad. I went for the easier option of just having gradients of a single colour rather than messing about with two or more pans of sugar. And my sugar didn’t crystallise, which was what I had feared the most.
We then had a practice run at making pulled sugar roses and leaves. Oh, pulled sugar. I both love and hate working with you in equal measures. The actual construction of the pulled sugar rose is pretty much the same as for a marzipan rose, but the main difference is pulled sugar is hot! And I mean HOT! I had on cotton gloves and two layers of latex gloves over it and it was still hot. I have no idea how some of the chefs at school can get away with just one pair of gloves (or even none sometimes). And it’s not just your fingers that get hot. The sugar lamp makes sure that you’re sweating (or perspiring/glowing if you’re a lady) all over. Getting the sugar at the correct temperature and consistency was tricky. Too hot and it’s difficult to shape and you won’t get a good sheen, too cold and it becomes very brittle and snaps. And you can’t remove petals once they’re stuck on so you just have to go with the flow and hope that the end result vaguely resembles a rose. My first couple of attempts weren’t great. They didn’t look like cabbages but the sheen wasn’t consistent on all of the petals.
Week 2 of sugarwork saw us constucting a croquembouche, the traditional French wedding cake – a tower of small choux pastry buns filled with cream and dipped in caramel to hold them together in a pyramid shape, and decorated with almond nougatine and royal icing. We also had a second chance to redeem ourselves with the sugar roses as we would be making one to adorn the top of our croquembouche. I managed to not burn my fingers in the hot caramel but trying to stick the buns together to build up the pyramid is harder than it looks. We only made little towers so we used the inside of a stainless steel measuring jug. In an ideal world all the choux buns would be the same size and shape and they would all slot together nicely. In reality though, most of us struggled with odd sizes and shapes and the buns had to be squished or trimmed to fit. You also had to make sure that the caramel wasn’t too thick as the buns wouldn’t adhere together very well, but if you keep heating the caramel you risk it getting too dark. So working fast is really important to avoid a collapsing, burnt caramel mess. My croquembouche turned out fairly alright, but I was actually proud of the rose I made – it had a lovely satin shine to it and even chef was pleased with it. I think what made the difference this time around was I ditched the cotton gloves and only used two pairs of latex gloves. Yes, I ended up with a small blister at the end from the heat but having the added dexterity and feel really helped with the shaping.
Next up after the decorative sugar unit was our last graded practical session – the Modern Tart. The nice thing about the Modern Tart unit is it gives us a chance to practice quite a few of the techniques that we may be using for our final entremet exam. A modern tart at Le Cordon Bleu comprises of a pate sucree case onto which a soft layer is spread followed by a thin crispy, crunchy layer. A brightly glazed set mousse with a sponge base, which is smaller in size than the pastry case, is then placed on top of the sponge layer so that it looks like a little castle surrounded by a moat. For decoration we place cut fruit so that it fills the ‘moat’ and some on the top as well, together with some decorative pulled sugar work.
I struggled a little with the glaze. The first issue arose when I couldn’t properly dissolve the white powder colouring that I added to make the glaze more luminous. Then because of the white colouring it was quite difficult to get a bright shade of colour for the glaze. And finally I let the glaze cool down too much so it was too thick when I started to pour it over the cold mousse, making it lumpy. Sigh… they always make glazing look so simple in videos but it’s actually quite tricky getting the correct temperature and consistency. Too thin and it all just runs off and you get a very thin coating, too thick and it’s lumpy. It just needs more practice and with experience I’ll be able to judge when the glaze is ready to be used. All of us had different combinations of flavours for our modern tart, which were assigned by the teaching chef. The combination that I had was quite nice – raspberry jam, dark chocolate blackcurrant crisp layer, coconut dacquoise and a mango-lime mousse. Compared with some of the other combinations this was definitely one of the easiest and quickest to do and I was pretty grateful for that as we had the head teaching chef and she is quite frugal with the grading. As it was our last ‘proper’ practical the atmosphere was quite relaxed and even a little melancholy as we all knew that we were coming to the end of the course and would be leaving the relative safety of school.
All that was left for us was the mock practical exam, the theory exam and our last ever practical exam, as well as finishing and handing in the dreaded portfolio which was due the day after our mock exam. The mock exam was a pretty tense affair as we had to fit in making the large entremet and two mini entremets as well as plating up the minis in an identical way in 4 hours. To put this into some context, when we had our first entremet lesson we had 5-6 hours to do just the large entremet. Time management and organisation has never been more crucial. In addition to the actual practical aspect, we had to submit a detailed timeplan and drawings of the entremet (whole and cross-section) and the plated minis. In the interest of saving time I decided against following the chef’s suggestion to swap out the feuilletine crunch layer with a pate sable base but I did omit the praline, which I think was the main problem with regards to taste clash. Other than some minor tweaks with the decoration and the glaze my entremet was basically the same as the first time I made it, so there shouldn’t be any surprises with the production and assembly of the entremet.
Only a couple of people in my group managed to finish more or less in time. The rest of us were between 5-25 minutes late. I think I was about 10-12 minutes over time and this was in spite of almost forgetting to make my poached rhubarb, which was an additional insert layer and burning my left hand pretty badly on a hot tray during the last 30 minutes. We were warned beforehand though that this was normal and that if you finished within about 20 minutes over the 4 hours you should be able to finish on time during the actual exam. This turned out to be pretty accurate as all but one person in my group finished within the 4 hours on exam day. You could sense the relief that everyone felt after it was all over. The start times were staggered and because it’s in alphabetical order I was the last person to start. My friends very kindly waited for me to finish to go for a well-deserved meal to celebrate/commiserate the end, although they did have a bit of a moan about being absolutely starving.
Completing the portfolio seemed to be taking me forever. It was like a never ending stream of work – inserting and labelling photos, writing methods, completing the sugar research project. Arrgh! And the printer decided to go all crazy on me at the last minute so it was a bit touch and go as to whether I would make the deadline. Note to self, I really must stop leaving things until the last minute. But I made it with about 10 minutes to spare. Hah! I was praying all the way that there would be no delays on the tube.
After handing in the portfolio we then had a whole weekend to prepare for the theory exam. The final theory exam was tough! I came out of it thinking there’s no way that I’m going to get a good score. The short answer section was tougher than I thought it would be and no amount of studying would have prepared me for it. In the end I didn’t do quite as badly as I thought and scored a decent 76.6% for the theory exam. My final practical exam was 76% and I ended the Superior term with a final result of 76.82%, which was the lowest out of all three parts but I’m still happy with it. I’ve passed and I have a Diplome de Patisserie!! Whoop! Whoop!
The week between the final exam and graduation went by very quickly. I helped out for the last time with the cake decorating and boulangerie courses for a few days and with one of the Pattisserie Technique Essentials classes and then it was time for graduation. Trying not to get emotional while saying goodbye and thank you to some of the chefs was tough. At graduation a couple of the chefs had some very kind and encouraging words for me and I’m trying to hold on to those words while I’m recovering from my injury and wondering when I can move forward with my career. I miss the school, the chefs and my friends. Our shared experience has created a special bond that will last a lifetime, even if we’re on different continents, hundreds of miles apart.
So that’s it, really. The end of a journey that started more than 12 months ago. But it’s really only the beginning and I’m hoping that I will be building many more good memories and experiences that I can share with you in the years to come. Thank you for taking the time to read this little blog and I hope that I’ve provided some helpful information and/or entertainment along the way. I plan to go back to posting more recipes in the not too distant future as I have a bit more time now to experiment so look out for updates in the next few weeks.