Sunday, April 29, 2007

Chocolate Showpiece

Today we completed our chocolate showpieces. I'm not sure you can get the scale from the picture, but it's about 18" tall. You'll notice the chocolate rose from my earlier post, which has now been placed on the showpiece. It has been sprayed with brown cocoa butter, then I painted around the edge with a little gold.

Everything you see on the showpiece is made of chocolate (dark chocolate, to be exact.) I made some other accent pieces out of milk chocolate, but I couldn't find a way to fit them into my design. The green twists on the side were made by spreading green, yellow, and white cocoa butter on a sheet of acetate, then spreading dark chocolate on top of that. Once the chocolate began to set, I cut the shape I wanted, then rolled it up into the spiral you see. When the chocolate is completely set, you remove the acetate wind up with the decoration you see in the picture.

It was interesting getting this home today. First, I had to hail a cab while holding onto this 20 lb. fragile showpiece. So the cabby says, "I guess I need to be careful driving, huh?" But he forgot all about that within 2 blocks, and it was all I could do to keep the showpiece together as we flew down Lake Shore Drive. But, I got it home in one piece.

Chef estimated that a showpiece like this would sell in the neighborhood of $250-300. Anybody want to buy a chocolate showpiece???


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Chocolate decorations

This week we started chocolate sculpture and decorations with Chef Bob. The picture you see here is a flower (a rose, I guess) made of dark chocolate.

To make the flower petals, you spread a thin layer of dark tempered chocolate on the table. When it begins to set, you scrape a piece of curved metal over the chocolate to create petals from about 2-4" long. If you hold your scraper at a higher angle, you can get a tighter piece, like the one I used to create the center.

Once you have a bunch of petals, you can start assembling the flower. I started with the tight cone for the center, then gradually worked my way outward using larger petals, "gluing" it all together with more chocolate. Again, I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. I'll be using the piece at the end of the week when I assemble my final chocolate showpiece.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Rolled Fondant

The picture you see here is a dummy cake that I decorated in class today. The idea was to practice coloring rolled fondant and applying it to the cake, and decorating with royal icing.
Rolled fondant is basically decorative, and although you can eat it, most people don't really like the taste. Basically, it tastes like sugar. My lovely wife Ali says it tastes like marshmallow.
So, Chef Laura showed us a bunch of different techniques for decorating with royal icing, and wanted us to do as many as we could on our dummy cake for practice. So, on the other side of this cake, it is decorated very differently, with lots of string work using the royal icing. I liked this side better, so that's the side you get to see on my blog. All of the flowers, and the purple border, are made of royal icing. Royal icing is very stiff, and dries very quickly, which makes it ideal for this type of decorating. Once dry, it is very hard, and when piped thinly it is very brittle. The purple flowers and the white daisies were piped yesterday, then applied today when dry.
I was actually pretty happy with this side of my cake, and even received a lot of compliments in class, including a "Dude, that's awesome!" You gotta like that. My wife liked it because the colors will match our baby-to-be's bedroom... awe, ain't that cute???

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Croquenbouche: From the French, "croque" for crisp or crispy, and "bouche" for mouth.

The croquenbouche is an old traditional French wedding staple. For a while, it had kind of faded away, but has been making a resurgence lately.

The croquenbouche you see pictured here is made of puff pastry. Essentially, it is a tower of cream puffs. You'll see the spiral effect made by alternating puffs dipped in caramel, versus puffs dipped in caramel and then in "sucre gran". (Your second French lesson for today: Sucre = sugar, gran = large. And that's exactly what it is, large crystals of sugar that actually resemble kosher salt.) The croquenbouche is seated on a base of almond nougatine. The topper is made of melted sugar that I piped onto a silpat in an interlocking pattern. I then took the pieces and "glued" them all together with more melted sugar to get the "fountain" effect you see in the picture.

I think the croquenbouche would be a very cool alternative to a wedding cake. One drawback is that all the cream puffs must be filled, and the croquenbouche assembled, all on the day of the wedding. Cream puffs really don't last more than 1 day once filled.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Click it

By the way, click on the photos in my posts to see a lot more detail. Except the buttercream cake, you don't want to see the detail on that. But definitely take a closer look at the orchids, lillies, and roses.

Buttercream Cake

Here is a picture of a completed, 2-tier buttercream cake. Basically it is a white cake with plain buttercream. It was really just to teach us the proper way to cut, fill, cover, and build a cake. It wasn't done for taste, and the general consensus in class is that it "tastes like ass." And that truly is a quote.

I don't know about you, but I'm not a big fan of plain buttercream. If you love buttercream, you'd like this cake. But to me, buttercream just tastes like butter. Now, if you add some hazelnut paste to the buttercream, make the cake chocolate, and add a layer of chocolate royaltine, the cake would probably kick ass, rather than taste like ass.

Anyway, as you can see, my cake is pretty simply decorated. As most of you know, I'm no artist, and so I wanted to keep it pretty simple. And it's actually quite challenging piping onto the side of a cake, as some of you may know. But, I will say that as simple (don't say boring) as my cake is, it looked a lot better than some of the others in class. Unfortunately, many people don't subscribe to the "less is more" theory, and cakes that started out looking great ended up looking cluttered and/or gaudy.

As for the buttercream, you'll notice that the base layer on my cake is basically white (more on that in a minute), while the piping is more yellow. The base layer is unflavored, so the only coloring is the yellow from the butter. My partner and I ran out of buttercream after the base layer, so we used some leftover buttercream from last week that had been flavored with vanilla, making it darker in color (and actually better tasting.)

And now for today's little culinary lesson on buttercream. Any true buttercream will never be truly white, because of the color from the butter. If you see a buttercream that IS white, it's because it does not contain butter, but is made with a shortening such as Crisco. Crisco is cheaper and more stable at room temperature, which makes it great for grocery stores and people who like to cut costs at the expense of taste. But it's Crisco. Period. Have you ever put Crisco on a slice of toast? I didn't think so. Don't eat it in your "buttercream" either.

Friday, April 13, 2007

More Gum Paste


As you can see, we put some more work into the gum paste flowers. The first picture is of 3 finished daisies in front, 3 reddish carnations to the left, and 5 roses in back. You'll notice that calyxes have been added to the flowers, making them look more realistic. I also painted them with a little dust to enhance the colors. If you compare these pictures to the previous post, you should notice a sublte difference in the color of the flowers. The second picture you see is 2 orchids with 2 lillies in the background.

The other pictures are the lillies on the left and orchids on the right, and another picture of the roses, daisies, and carnations.

Sometime later this week you'll see a picture with a cake using these flowers.

Pretty cool, huh???

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

One more thing...

I can't help the spacing on some of my posts. For whatever reason this site likes to either put lots of spaces between paragraphs, or run them all together. I know it's a pet peeve of mine when people don't know where to end/begin paragraphs, so I thought I better explain why some my posts, like the gum paste post, look like they do.

Does this make me anal???

Gum paste

Well, this week we started the Wedding Cakes section of class, beginning with gumpaste flowers. The flowers you see in the picture at right are all made of gum paste, but I'll get back to those in a couple minutes.

First, a word about gum paste. Gum paste is one of the methods used for decorating cakes, along with rolled fondant, royal icing, buttercream, etc. While edible, you would not want to eat thing made of gum paste. When working with it, it has the consistency of very stiff play-dough, but it dries very quickly and becomes very hard and relatively strong. I can't imagine biting into a gum paste flower.
Gum paste is surprising easy to make, consisting only of egg whites, powdered sugar, shortening, and Tylose powder. Incidentally, this is the only recipe at the French Pastry School that uses shortening. Tylose powder is a man-made substance that really gives the gum paste it's thick consistency.
The thing about working with gum paste is that it dries very quickly, and once it's dried there is nothing you can do to soften it again. This means that you need to work very quickly, and that you can only work on one thing at a time. So, rather than cutting out petals for a dozen roses all at once so that you can then assemble them, you can only cut out one layer of petals for each rose at a time, then place them on your rose cone, before cutting more petals for the same rose. There is really no way to turn this process into something that you can do quickly on a large scale, which makes it very labor-intensive, and ultimately makes gumpaste flowers very expensive.
The gum paste flowers made at the French Pastry School are based on the practice perfected by Nicholas Lodge. Mr. Lodge owns his own school in Atlanta, and is generally considered to be one of the best at making flowers in the world. He strives to make gum paste flowers as biogically correct as possible. So, in our flowers, you'll see all of the pieces of lillies, roses, orchids, carnations, etc. This includes the pistils, stamens, calyx, etc... I've seen flowers created by Nicholas Lodge, and they look real enough to put in a vase. He's absolutely amazing. He was at the French Pastry School a couple weeks back and did a demo for our class, and he makes all of this seem simple. And speaking of price, if you're lucky enough to have Mr. Lodge create a cake for you, expect to pay about $17 for each lilly...
So, back to the flowers you see in the picture here. First of all, understand that all of these flowers are in the works, and will not be completed for another day or two. So, as good as they are, they will look even better. Also, I took a bunch of pictures but couldn't get a good close-up, so we'll have to make do with this picture which doesn't show all of the details. Hopefully I'll be able to get some good close ups so you can see the detail.

In the picture with all of the flowers, moving clockwise, you can see the yellow roses in the back, the beginning of three white orchid "throats", three white and three peach-colored blossoms, three white daisies, and along the left, three peach-colored carnations. Not pictured are the leaves and other components we're working on.
In the other picture, I attempted to show you the detail on three of the roses. The picture is not very good, but hopefully you can see a little bit. Pictured are two full-blown roses on top, and a tighter rose on the bottom.
I'm not entirely happy with the colors I've created, but I can live with them. Some of the students have some very cool colors, but there are also others that are hideous. So no big deal. If I ever make this my chosen profession, I think I'll be relying on my lovely wife to create the colors while I contstruct the actual flowers.
OK, enough for tonight. Time to go to bed, so I can wake up at 5:00 a.m. to go make more flowers. But I'll post more pics of the completed flowers. Then, next week, you'll get to see them as the decoration for an actual wedding cake...

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Big Belly

This is what happens to your belly when your husband brings home macarons and coconut rochers every day.

Just kidding. If you don't know how this happens...

Ain't she beautiful?!?!?!?!?!

Vanille Patisserie

On Wednesday, I went to stage (industry term for working for free to gain experience, pronounced "stodge") at Vanille Patisserie. Vanille ( is owned and operated by Keli and Dimitri Fayard, two fantastic chefs with great backgrounds. Check out their website to read more about them. And if you haven't been able to find any macarons at your neighborhood pastry shop, you can buy some from Vanille online. I know they look a little expesive, but they are worth it. And as long as you're shopping there, treat yourself to some Pate De Fruit. Don't even think about comparing the Pate De Fruit to jujubees or gumdrops or anything like that; they're in a class all their own. Again, worth every penny.

So, after staging at Vanille, they asked me to do a 3-month internship with them in their wedding cake side of the business. They want me to commit to at least 1 day a week for 3 months, which is a great opportunity. I'm sure I'll learn a lot.

Someday Ali and I hope to own a shop that would be very similar to what Vanille does. I'm excited about the opportunity.

Friday, April 6, 2007


Thursday finished up exam week for us. The exam covered Tarts, Breads, and Petit Fours.

We had practice days on Friday and Monday where we could make anything we wished to practice for the exam. On Tuesday, we took the written part of the exam, which was 10 quesitons for each section, for a total of 30 questions. The general consensus on the written portion was that we all bombed it pretty badly. This was a lot different than our first exam, which I think we were all very prepared for. On that exam, we all had a pretty good idea of what the questions would likely be on the test, and we had the answers pounded into our heads over the previous 3-4 weeks. But for this exam, I think most of us didn't have a clue what to expect. Anyway, one of the students asked Chef John how we did as he was grading them up front, and he said he thought about only 1 person got an A, most got C's, and even some D's. I'm holding out hope for the A, but I know I got at least a couple questions wrong.

Anyway, right after the exam, we were given the sheet telling us what would comprise the practical part of the exam. By 11:45 on Thursday, we were required to make and turn in the following items:
  • 6 blueberry muffins, which must be baked on Day 1, Tuesday
  • 9 chocolate eclairs, for which the pate choux must be baked on Day 1
  • 12 Madeleines, which must be baked on Day 2, Wednesday
  • 1 loaf of Farmer's Bread, which must be baked on the day you draw from a hat, which was Day 2 for me
  • 6 plain croissants
  • 1 broiche loaf and 6 streussel brioche
  • 12 blueberry stressel tarts
  • 1 lemon curd tart with italian meringue garnish

This was a pretty daunting task, and everybody jumped in right away. It's really all about being organized and planning your days. For example, if you need to bake Madeleines on day 2, you have to make the batter on Day 1 because it needs to rest at least 12 hours in the fridge. And you need to make the sweet dough for the tart shells right away, because that also must rest overnight. Ditto for broiche and croissants. Then considering that some of the items actually require several components, you've got a lot to get done in 3 days.

Take the lemon curd tart, for example. Day 1, you make the sweet dough and refrigerate it overnight. Day 2, you roll out the dough and bake it in a tart ring, then freeze the shell. On Day 3, you make the lemon curd, fill the shell and bake it for a few minutes to set it, the let it cool on a rack. While it's cooling, you make your italian meringue, then pipe it onto the lemon curd, and go over it with a blowtorch to give it color. I want you all to remember this the next time you're in a pastry shop and wondering why something seems to be a little expensive...

So anyway, I got everything done on Day 1 that I wanted to, except that I had wanted to put one turn into my croissant dough. This was no big deal, since I had all three days to get the croissants done. But everybody was extremely busy, and we worked right down to the wire at 11:45 when Chef told us to stop everything or we'd be penalized for our final grade. But I got my Blueberry Muffins done, baked my pate choux for the eclairs, got my croissant dough and brioche dough started and proofed, and made my Madeleine batter.

Day 2 was still busy, but not quite as hectic. I ended up getting more done than I had hoped for, and turned in my Madeleines, Blueberry Tarts, Brioche, and Farmer's Bread. I also made my chocolate patry cream that I would use to fill the eclairs with on the following day, baked my lemon curd tart shell, made my streussel, and got all 3 turns into my croissant dough.

Day 3 was the final day, when everything was due by 11:45. I went into the day pretty relaxed, knowing that I only had to finish my croissants, fill my eclairs with pastry cream that I had already made, and then make the lemon curd and meringue for my lemon tart. I got going on my croissants first, and they looked awesome. Everyone in class was remarking on how nice they looked before going into the oven, which really boosts your confidence on exam day. It was actually strange how different the croissants looked from person to person. After baking and giving them to Chef, he told me "good job", so I feel pretty good about that.

Filling the eclairs was a pretty fast job, so I actually filled about 2 dozen, rather than just the 9 that were required for the exam. It's funny how fast you can make friends when you have chocolate eclairs to give away....

At that point, I even took time to go have a cup of coffee and freshly baked croissant! Um... breakfast of the gods...

After break, I finished up my lemon tart and turned everything in. I wasn't too thrilled with the meringue decoration on top, but that's life. I'll only get better with piping with more practice.

Couple interesting notes:

  • On the first day, Nan finished her croissant dough and then noticed she had forgotten to add her sugar. So she decided to re-make her dough on Day 2, and forgot her sugar again!!! She was not very happy. I told her she should tell Chef that she had made a diabetic version.
  • Tara finished her lemon tart, and as she lifted it to more it to a sheet pan so she could turn it in, it broke in half. I thought she was going to cry. Luckily for her, she had leftover dough in the fridge, and she had just enough time to remake the entire thing. I actually think her second tart turned out better than her first!
  • Luis and Carlos were teammates, and they finished before everybody else. I finished shortly after them, and it was nice to be done early. General consensus is that Carlos finishes early because he dumps all his dishes in the sink area and leaves them for everybody else to do...