I looked up from my printed recipe, laden with blue and red hand-written notes. Chef was in the demonstration kitchen, calmly instructing on the intricacies of, and importance of mastering, creme anglaise. It was about 30 minutes into our first class when I thought, “What the $%!& am I doing here and who thought this was a good idea?!?” I felt the blood leave my face and a mild sense of panic start to set in as the high level of performance expected of us over the coming weeks became real. Big breath in…big breath out. In fact, I was the one who thought this was a good idea.
How did I get here?
Graduate school, moving abroad, learning another language, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro… somehow I always seem to present myself with herculean-sized challenges in life. It’s a blessing and a curse, really…at least it keeps everything interesting. So, when I decided that it was time to take my baking skills to the next level in order to expand TastyCakes, earning a basic pastry certificate from Le Cordon Bleu Madrid was the next great challenge I added to the list. The school has a campus here in Madrid, so I wouldn’t have to pay for travel and lodging. The content of their basic pastry certification was exactly the training I was searching for. And, with the international reputation Le Cordon Bleu has, if I passed the interview and they felt I was good enough to hack it, then by God, I was going to do it.
However, due to my full-time teaching job the only workable scheduling option was to take the intensive course during my summer break. This meant seven hours at school from Monday to Friday, plus extra time at home studying theory of sugar, flour, eggs & dairy, and basic doughs plus practicing the techniques we learned in class…for four weeks straight during the middle of the summer. Needless to say, it was a month unlike any I’ve experienced in quite some time. I felt compelled to approach class with the same seriousness as in my master’s degree program, yet even more so due to the shorter time frame. As well, with daily critiques, I knew that a certain level of “mental toughness” would be key to survival. Add in the Madrid heat, and that pretty much sums up my Le Cordon Bleu Basic Pastry experience.
How did I make it through?
Intensive courses are one thing, but an intensive course in pastry as a self-taught cook at one of the top culinary schools in the world is another thing. I put myself in the Harvard of the culinary world without having any type of bachelor’s degree. To say I felt out of my comfort zone during those first few classes and days would be a bit of an understatement.
However, over time I managed to find a rhythm in the kitchen. It was helpful to have classmates that were easy to get along with and feeling the same way I was. Everyone had their own strengths and weaknesses: Gianni was a master presenter and always had beautiful-looking desserts; Carmen and Paloma kept their cool no matter what happened; Alex was an incredible multi-tasker; I was able to get myself organized and started on the first task within a matter of minutes after entering the kitchen (thanks to the lists I diligently created during the demonstration classes, which I was endlessly teased for by Gianni). I was inspired, working amidst my classmates, and learned from them simply through observation.
We used our strengths to help each other and the whole group. My lists and copious notes came in handy, confirming for others an oven or syrup temperature, or details about textures we should look for. Conversely, after one particular critique, I was frustrated that my egg wash varnish didn’t turn out on some shortbread cookies. Chef was not able to definitively pinpoint the problem, so I turned to Alex who was at the station next to me and whose cookies were golden and gleaming. We entered into a discussion, trying to figure out what happened with mine. With his help, we quickly deduced that the simple act of me forgetting to sieve the egg wash before brushing it onto the cookies made all the difference.
At home, successes during practice sessions became more frequent. I knew that something was sticking, even if in the stress of a 3-hour kitchen practical I wasn’t delivering as I hoped. My brain needed time to process the immense amount of information. Soon, I was able to bang out a smooth pastry cream in 10 minutes on my own. And that varnish? I rocked it at home and had beautifully shiny Sablee Nantais. This progress at home bred confidence which brought the mental and emotional strength I needed to persevere.
What did I get out of it?
I learned many things from my time at Le Cordon Bleu. Some were useful, some were not. Some were mundane, others quite profound. I now understand better how butter temperature GREATLY affects a dough or cream. I know that I need to trust my intuition when it comes to deciding if a batter is mixed correctly – more often than not my instinct is right. It became clear that my attention to detail and understanding of artistic composition is a definite strength when topping tarts and cakes with garnishes…but stops with the pastry bag. That is not so much of a strength.
Perhaps more importantly, I confirmed that the kitchen is my happy, safe place (even small ones with little space). I feel comfortable there and easily enter a flow state, passing hours and hours without even knowing it (or eating…or drinking). For me, baking – and even cooking – is the perfect marriage of following a set of rules, yet having the freedom to create something unique within that set of rules. In the years that I spent training as a music educator, I’m not sure I ever felt the confidence as a musician-creator as that which I feel as a pastry cook-creator.
During our last practical class, sweat ran down my face and neck as I rushed to add the final touches to my layered Black Forest cake with trembling hands. I had been playing catch up since my genoise sponge didn’t behave within the first 15 minutes of our 3-hour class, and it didn’t feel good at all. I cleaned up the presentation board when I was content with the cherries and chocolate garnish, then carefully slid the cake into safety in the refrigerator. I took a breath and felt the emotion welling up. After spending a month being vulnerable and laying my heart and soul out on the marble countertop, it all finally caught up to me.
In the moment I convinced myself that the tears were just a manifestation of the day’s frustrations. However, after reflection, it was clearly more than that. I was sad, knowing that the dedicated baking time was over and I’d have to say goodbye to my new group of friends. I allowed myself those few seconds, then pulled myself together in order to brave my final critique with Chef (which ended up not being too bad).
Will I continue on to get my intermediate certificate? I’m not sure. What I do know is that I will take time to enjoy the successes of the previous month, and am excited to incorporate this new knowledge into the TastyCakes style of baking. Who knows where pastry and baked goods can take me in the future!