The Exam: Dread and Satisfaction
It has felt as if time has sped past me and somehow around the corner I am attempting to conquer yet another practical pastry exam. A mere 4 weeks after having passed by basic Pastry Exam and baking a Saint Honore and preparing a simple tart crust, I am now faced with a much more daunting task – that of attempting to pass the Advanced French Pastry Training at my new and beloved home Ecole Ritz Escoffier.
Before I knew it, after just 4 modules or 2 and a half weeks, I was handed an envelope – inside it was my fate!
I had just a week to learn the methods for making 6 different desserts off by heart and from scratch, prepare my organisation and strategy for the event – of the six cakes I had not been present for 2 at all, and 2 had been completed whilst I was indisposed and away from school – not such great odds from the outset.
I was in need of a radical reformation – in my short time in Paris I have had to transform from being a very slow and contemplative amateur pastry cook from a home environment into masquerading as a confident, efficient and perfectionistic professionally trained Pastry Machine working in a professional institution.
My newest test – somehow finish two complete desserts in under three hours to the highest standards – a not unreasonable request but no simple task either, one that I definitely couldn’t have envisaged even attempting 4 months ago.
It will be a difficult test of our skills and metal in the kitchen under the added stress of a real time limit and great expectations.
The six of us were split into two groups of three and had the prospect of staying after a full day of normal school to spend a further three hours tackling the mountain that was our exam.
People were known to panic during the exam but we kept each other moving like a real kitchen family.
I was most proud of keeping a clear and level head… mistakes were just another hurdle and challenge to overcome. I burnt my dry caramel twice due to multitasking … start again no worries.
Run out of whipped cream for my rich chocolate mousse … make more!
Running late with less than an hour left to finish a vanilla millefeuille – no worries.
I’ll happily be on oven duty for the puff, cut them in a flash and have finished piping my vanilla pastry cream onto my sheets – everything went by in a flash.
Let’s add in a camel sauce for plate decoration and some melted chocolate in a cornet to do some design work – I’ll find an extra ten seconds from somewhere.
We all worked together well, each doing our part to help each other succeed in this difficult situation and attempt the impossible task of finishing on time – the chef had popped in, gawked at our progress, and intimated that there was no chance of us finishing … rightfully so.
By some miracle we all finalised our plating, wrapped our Charlottes in ribbon decorated our millefeuille plates and each had them on the judges table by 9pm on the dot…
We were on a high and the chef couldn’t believe it… He didn’t think we had any chance of finishing.
We then ha a huge job to clean and reorganise the kitchen. Our so called disaster area was spick and span in all corners the machines were washed down and then we could start to breathe slower.
We all finished, we overcame errors and stress. There was a wave of intense nausea as the adrenaline coursing through my veins caught up with me!
I was buzzing. I had done in three hours what would have been seemingly impossible four months ago.
We each changed into our regular clothes after a thirteen hour day and awaited judging.
The panel included our examiner, Chef Pierre, Chef Yann and Chef Didier – it was a stellar crowd of extremely talented and seasoned pastry chefs with years of experience tasting our rushed desserts.
As a group we went before the chef for commentary on our processes and final cakes.
Their critiques were fair and balanced. There were clear shortfalls in my final desserts – my caramel mousse had tiny flecks of caramelised gelatine, my chocolate mousse did not have an intense enough chocolate flavour due to the extra cream I had added and my cake was not filled to the top as I had made my biscuit too high, my pastry cream was too runny and didn’t have enough of an intense vanilla flavour.
And yet I was so incredibly happy with my performance as a whole. The true test of my learning was that I could already identify where and how I had made my mistakes and how to not make them again even before our critiques.
We all felt better once it was over and at 10pm we finally left the building.
I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and an immense sense of achievement. After meeting my parents for a really late dinner I collapsed into bed and could have slept for a week but was pleasantly awoken by my 7am alarm ready for another full day in school!
(P.S. As if it wasn’t any more obvious I had no time for photos during the exam, I barely had time to breathe … just kidding!)