Rolling Pin and Flour

Rolling Pin and Flour

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Stage Part Deux

I've always been a big fan of comfort food.  Maybe I'm old fashioned, or maybe it's just nostalgia for my childhood.  Growing up in small town Montana, comfort food was the main attraction in the kitchens of my mom and grandmother.  There were dishes like pan fried pork chops, or Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes, homemade turkey soup or stuffed peppers.  Nice Sunday dinners were pot roasts or roast Cornish game hens, weeknight meals were casseroles, or meatloaf or mac and cheese.  These were meals that weren't pretentious or overly inventive.  They were meals that made you feel warm and happy inside.  When you sat down to eat them, you knew you were home and that someone cared about you.

I think this love of comfort has found its way into my baking.  I love a thick slice of creamy cheesecake, or a gooey piece of chocolate cake, warm pie out of the oven or smooth silky custard.  I have never been one for dainty desserts with more frill than substance.  I want something that feeds my body as well as my soul.  Yes, presentation is a necessary part of any type of cooking, but if there is more decoration on my plate than actual food, I'm going to feel seriously misled.  Dessert is about indulging.  It's about giving in to that craving and satisfying a need that goes beyond hunger.  This is not something that can be fulfilled with presentation alone.

Since Louie had left, I had decided to tough it out at the Farmhouse and give dessert baking a shot.  But that didn't mean I wasn't keeping my options open.  I wasn't completely sold on the idea of working for Pam just yet as I was still feeling pangs of betrayal after she had nixed my bread baking.  I had started sending my resume out for various bakery positions and amazingly enough, I was actually getting some responses.  There were apparently more people out there that were willing to take chances on amateur cooks with dreams.

One response was particularly exciting.  The position was for a full-time pastry assistant at a French bakery. When I visited their website to learn more, I was greeted by glorious photos of artisan bread, croissants and other beautiful pastries.  Here was my chance to really immerse myself in the baking world!  

Before I knew it, I had scheduled a stage with one of the pastry chefs.  Then the reality of it all started to sink in.  I had done something like this only once before when I had gone to the Farmhouse to audition for the role of the bread baker position.  Then it had been simple enough; come armed with a recipe and execute it.  This time around, I had no idea what they were going to ask me to do.  And I had very little experience with pastries.  I had never made a croissant before in my life.  What would I do if they asked me to make some?  I reassured myself that this was an 'assistant' position and they couldn't possibly expect me to be an expert.  With the interview less than a week away, there wasn't any way for me to really prepare after all.  I couldn't possibly learn to make every pastry under the sun in a few days.   So, armed with my hapless enthusiasm, I arrived at my stage, ready for whatever challenges they might throw at me.  The worst thing that could happen was that I would fail miserably.  Embarrassing as that was to think about, I would still have a job at the Farmhouse to fall back on.

I was welcomed to the kitchen by two pastry cooks that were at least five to ten years younger than me.  They were friendly enough, but it was obvious right away that they had formed a close sisterly bond working together.  I felt out of place almost immediately.  For my first task, they had me work on some trays of macaroons.  The cookies had already been shaped, they just needed to be removed from their sheets and paired up prior to being filled.  This task sounded simple enough, but if you've ever eaten a macaroon, you know they are light and delicate as air.  It requires a very gentle touch.  And these freaking things were sticking to their sheets like nobody's business.  I broke a few.  Finally one of the girls gave me a dough scraper that helped immensely.  I was quietly grateful for her generosity.  By the time I got through all the sheets of macaroons, they were too warm to be filled, so we carried them back to the cooler for a brief chill.  

On to the next task.  Pastry cream.  I definitely had some confidence here.  I had made it only once before, but I was pretty familiar with the process.  And there was a recipe with basic instructions to follow.  There was just one problem.  The recipe had been multiplied by at least 10 which meant there were about 50 egg yolks in it.  Cracking that many eggs and separating the yolk from the white was going to take me some time.  Not to mention, the whites could not be contaminated with yolk since they used these to make the meringue for the macaroons and other desserts.  It was delicate, tedious work.  I set about separating the eggs the only way I knew how; tossing the yolk back and forth between two halves of shell.  After a few of these, one of the chefs stepped in to assist.

"There's actually an easier and faster way to do that."  Demonstrating, she cracked an egg, dumped its contents into her hand and let the whites stream out through her fingers.  Brilliant!

"That's awesome.  I appreciate any tips you can give me," I thanked her and went on with my separating.  

A short while later a yolk broke on my hand and some of it got into the whites below.  Again the chef was at my side.

"Here, we can't have any yolk in the whites or it won't whip to stiff peaks for the meringue.  Go wash your hands," she guided me to the hand wash station while she dumped out the egg whites.  She seemed understanding enough about everything, but I couldn't help feeling like I was failing on all fronts.

Finally all the yolks had been separated and it was time to move on to the next step of heating the milk, vanilla and sugar.  Once that was brought to a simmer, the next step was to temper the eggs.  I fumbled for a moment with the bowl of yolks in my hand.  I couldn't remember how tempering worked.  Did I add some of the yolks to the milk?

"You know that you have to add some of the milk mixture to the egg to temper it, right?" The chef interjected.

"Oh yeah, of course," I lied unconvincingly, feeling heat rush into my face.

"Ok, good.  You'd be surprised how many people come in for stages and don't know that."

Ugh.  This was really not going well.  But, she had saved me from ruining the entire effort.  And in the end the cream actually turned out beautifully.  You couldn't say this was a complete disaster.

As I had been diligently separating eggs, some other employees had made their way through the space to get supplies or stop and chat.  I was dismayed to learn that there were different departments for the different types of food the cafe offered.  There was a sweet pastry department and a savory pastry department.  And somewhere in the depths of the building, there was a separate bread department.  My dreams of getting my hands back into bread dough were quickly fading.  

When the pastry cream was finished, the chef that had been guiding me thus far asked if I had ever made some kind of French sounding something-er-other.  I had to ask her to repeat herself.  But it turned out that all the pans were dirty or in use anyway so I was assigned to make some banana muffins instead.  I was relieved.  Muffins sounded much easier than whatever it was she had wanted me to make.

As I was working my way through a giant bundle of brown bananas, an order came in for some kind of special event and the head chef decided she would make a cake for it.

"God, it's been ages since I made a cake.  This is kind of nice," she commented.

I suddenly found myself pitying her.  Here was a young and talented pastry chef who never got to bake cake.  Instead she was surrounded by peaks of egg white and pastry creams.  It was immediately clear that this was not where I was meant to be.  Besides, I hated macaroons.

As I wrapped things up and prepared to leave, they told me they were interviewing a few others and that they would have a final decision soon since they wanted the new person to start within a week.

"I guess we should first ask you if this is somewhere you would want to work."

I forced an affirmative answer, but my gut was telling a different story.  These were not the desserts I wanted to make.  I had nothing against French pastry.  They were absolutely beautiful and brilliant.  But they weren't for me. They simply wouldn't bring me the satisfaction that baking a good old fashioned cake would.  There was no comfort in French pastries for me, only presentation.  Even though I knew I hadn't passed the stage with flying colors and I doubted they would offer me the job, I really hoped I would never hear from them again.

I headed home smelling of vanilla pastry cream and bananas.  I couldn't wait to get back to the kitchen at the Farmhouse where instead I would smell of second hand fry grease.  I chuckled to myself, a little surprised at the thought.  If someone had told me I would feel this way a week ago, I would never have believed them.

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