Pastry School: Not Quite Yet a Piece of Cake!

I recently began studying at the French Pastry School in Chicago.  My first weeks of class have been exhausting, but exhausting in a way that is new to me.  For this blog post, I decided to record a few of my daily pastry-related challenges.  I hope that these aspects of culinary life get easier as I gain more experience in professional kitchens!

1. Being in the kitchen is physically demanding!  I got through my four years of college without ever feeling this wiped-out.  My classes last six hours every weekday.  Some days the hours go fast, and some days they don’t.  Occasionally I do a stage (short-term internship) at a bakery for a few hours in the morning.  I never thought I would spend days working on a single cake.  These hours are spent on our feet, scurrying from deck oven to blast freezer to dish pit to work space and back again.  Cakes are heavy, and pots and pans are too, even when they’re not holding anything.  On the bright side, I’m expecting some impressive upper body strength by the time I graduate!

Pistachio dacquoise layer cake with apricot passion fruit gelee and nougat mousse
2. Creating tasteful balance in desserts is hard!  During orientation week, one of our first exercises involved exploring taste.  We were each given a house-made caramel with sea salt, followed by a candied orange peel.  This was followed by a piece of 100 percent chocolate.  We were told to keep the chocolate in our mouths without chewing while we took a sip of olive oil.  We finished the tasting session with some whipped lemon cream.  Flavors mingle with each other in a variety of ways, and you have to know their every characteristic in order to create ideal flavor profiles.

3. One of my unexpected challenges has been the heat inside of the kitchens.  Just three weeks in, I’ve already had two near-fainting experiences!  I guess that happens when you hang out with ovens all day.  Right before one of these near-fainting spells, I was about to pick up a very large knife.  The danger was very real.  Hydration is key!

4. Our recipes involve a lot of French!  I’m going to get a little better at my pronunciation.  And I’m certain that knowing pastry vocabulary will get me far if I ever visit France again.

Pate a choux (cream puffs) with orange liqueur cream filling and caramel glaze
5) I had to revamp my resume for the food industry.  Tearing apart my college resume was painful.  Cutting out huge swaths of hard-earned (yet freshly irrelevant) experiences was excruciating.  Hopefully the trauma will fade eventually!
6)  Chocolate can be evil!  During a stage, I was cut by a shard of chocolate while I was trying to chop it down for a recipe.  Yes, I was injured by the chocolate, not the knife!  Up until now, I’ve only had pleasant exchanges with my favorite variety of bean.  This blemish in  our relationship, however, is only inspiring me to tame chocolate in all of its unruly forms.  Someday soon I will harness its power for good!
Thanks for reading!  Feel free to comment if you have any questions about what pastry school is like, or if you have any tips for the above challenges.

Yomogi Mochi (蓬餅)

For my wagashi debut, I wanted to tackle a classic, simple treat.  Over the next few weeks, I will work up to more complicated designs and tastes.  During a recent vacation, I visited a Japanese grocery store in San Francisco’s Japantown.  It had been a while since I had encountered so many Japanese products.  Without consulting a recipe, I purchased and took home as many traditional baking ingredients that I could carry.  Sizing up the pile of ingredients, I decided to make yomogi mochi.

Yomogi mochi (also called kusamochi, 草餅), is a springtime treat ubiquitous in Japan.  I often came across it at food vendors throughout the city while I was living in Kyoto.  Yomogi, or mugwort, is a plant native to Japan that has wandered the world and made itself comfortable on many foreign soils.  The mochi is filled with koshian, fine red bean paste.  This wagashi felt like the perfect bridge to celebrate Chicago’s first warm days of the season and my memories of Japan’s springtime energy.

yomogi ingredients

kusamochi 1