The Straw that Broke the Caramel's Back
July 14, 2003

Where was I? Oh, yes, I pulled the recipe, planned my culinary attack and everything was pretty bumps-a-daisy.

I knew I had long day ahead of me in a hot kitchen with two kinds of pastries to make and bake, a pastry cream to not let burn, scramble, or be served raw and floury, chocolate to melt and coat fruit with, and sugar water to caramelize.

Since I knew I could just chill until ready, I cooked the chocolate pastry cream up first and shoved it in the walk-in. Next, I papilloned, water troughed, and fraisaged the pâte brisée into a neat ball, and tossed it in the fridge -- just in case any gluten development wanted to take a Valium. Despite the humidity, I had no problem working three eggs into my choux paste, which proved that I was keeping my cool enough to have dried the dough adequately in the pan. Using my Silpat within the confines of school for the very first time, I piped neat little rows of puffs-to-be, tapped their tiny peaks down with a little beaten-egg-and-water and shoved them in their 475 degree oven. Then, like a good little pastry chef, I immediately lowered the heat by 100 degrees. Having nothing else to do but wait at this point, I started to panic when the damn things didn't seem to be puffing. I was especially worried because I was using the electric oven in the front room -- the one that had this nasty habit of calmly turning itself off without so much as a by-your-leave -- so I pressed my sweaty nose up against the window and kept a peeled eye on them until they started to show signs of life. Luckily, they eventually did. My little pastry cabbages puffed, colored, and -- once I shut the oven off and set the door it slightly ajar -- dried, I yanked them out, poked them in the butt with a skewer, and let them cool their heels on a rack.

Earlier, I had dipped a few strawberries and slightly overripe mango slices in folds of velvety bittersweet melted chocolate and placed them on parchment paper in the walk-in so, next, I turned my attention to rolling out my wad of pâte brisée. I got it to one-eighteenth of an inch but now I noticed that the butter was starting to ooze so I patched it up with a little flour and stuck it back in the walk-in. Once it firmed up again, I slashed it apart in neat little triangles, baked them off and let them cool before I whipped strings of melted chocolate over them.

I was almost there. But the true horror was yet to come.

I thumped the sugar in a non-reactive pan, served it a lowball of cold water with a twist, turned up the heat and waited. And watched. And waited. I didn't stir it after it came to a boil. I watched and waited. Suddenly, I realized that I needed to get the pastry cream out of the fridge and bring it to room temp so it would be pipeable. No problem -- I had been rocking and rolling all day. The hard part was over. All that was really left to do was assemble my nouvelle creation. So, what do I do? I take two steps over to the walk-in and pull out my pastry cream, another step and I set it on the table. It was one step too many. I looked back over to the stove and my bubbling sugar -- which was barely straw-colored just mere seconds before -- to see that it toiled and troubled while my back was turned. It was black. Black as pitch. Black as sugar can be when it turns to bitter blackstrap.

In a panic, I pulled it from the stove and banged it on a prep table. I couldn't believe it. One vital component of my ensemble was destroyed and couldn't be made over -- all because of such a Week Five mistake. My CSCA chums took pity on me and clustered around, offering advice. I squeezed an entire lemon into the mess, trying to counteract the bitterness. I added quantities of heavy cream, hoping to soften the acridity. But taste after taste, we all agreed -- it was awful and it wasn't going to go away. Ever.

I have never been so close to tears in class as I was that day. All of my intense and concerted efforts for my final practicum would always leave a bitter, acrid taste in my mouth just because of two seconds of carelessness.

But I couldn't dwell on it forever. What was done was done, and losing my cool wouldn't change a damn thing. I filled, skewered, plated and sent my nouvelle dessert kabob in to the tasters with an explanation about the caramel. Then I cleaned up the pan and went home.

In the end, I did fine -- not great -- but fine. They were predictably nitpicky about stuff that I couldn't control -- like my pastries were too damp (duh, humidity!) and my pastry cream was too thick (pastry cream's not supposed to be runny -- it's pastry cream, not crème anglaise!) -- but they are the experts and I was the student.

Hell, in the end, I graduated with honors, won a Jean Louis Palladin award for my portfolio (a newly invented award that year because of how many incredible portfolios were turned in), and was given the M.F.K. Fisher Award because I "contribute curiosity and intelligence to the learning environment; have a scholarly and ambitious attitude toward studies; am innovative and successful in achievements." Furthermore, I took the Certified Culinary Professional exam as administered by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. To say the test was blood-and-guts would be an understatement of massive proportions -- it was obscure, tricky, all over the map, and just...really...hard. But then, I actually passed! And I didn't just pass, I got an 82.5% (passing is 70%). I'm pretty happy about that -- now, it's really official: I am a chef.

Still, the other day, I made up a pan of caramel for no reason other than "just because." I didn't leave its side for an instant. It didn't burn.

Hungry? Get a menu pushed
under your door when I update:
Powered by
Copyright © 2002-2006 Stephanie Vander Weide