The Hors D’Oeuvres Buffet (or, The End Is Here)

Week 20.

I won’t wax nostalgic or make some trite comment about how quickly time goes by. Yet, twenty weeks ago, the day I hoped I would make it to, and now the day I was regretting, was upon me. The last class of Pastry Techniques 101. No more fighting traffic on Tuesday evenings to meet up with my new friends to explore the world of pastry. No more doggie bags of pastry treats to bring home to Todd. The end was here.

Instead of letting us feel blue about the course being over (although maybe some people were glad, but I don’t think so), Chef made sure the last class would be one of celebration. And what better way to celebrate than with an hors d’oeuvres buffet? He put us to work one last time, and then we savored the tartlettes of our labor. We made salambos filled with egg salad, croissant jambon (which means ham croissant in French), miniature quiches, sausage en croute (basically brioche wrapped around sausage), sliders with brioche buns, blue cheese tartlettes, pissaladière (a tart with caramelized onions, olives and anchovies), cheese straws and more.

While the buffet focused mostly on using doughs to create hors d’oeuvres, how to properly plate hors d’oeuvres (stacking, for most hors d’oeuvres, is a big no-no, by the way) and stage an hors d’oeuvres table (variety is key – we eat with our eyes, remember?), it was also an opportunity to reflect on what we had learned and all we had accomplished, the new friendships made and what the future might bring. It was the culmination of twenty weeks of learning, practicing, and remaining dedicated to one subject.

When I signed up for Pastry Techniques 101, I had only one goal: to get over my fear of baking, particularly baking pastry. The course helped me accomplish that goal, yet provided much more. I met delightful people, some of whom I now consider good friends, I learned from a remarkable master pastry chef, and I gained a renewed appreciation for pastry chefs’ hard work and creativity. Most of all, though, PT101 has opened my mind to the idea that I could have a new career or business in this field. I don’t know what that means right now or how this idea might develop, but I’m excited to see what the future brings. And even though Pastry Techniques 101 is over, Sugar Talk will live on. So, if nothing else, look for future posts about my continued exploration of all things pastry and baking.

Of course, the final PT101 class post would be incomplete if I didn’t thank Nina, class assistant extraordinaire, and all the other assistants – Lauren, Erin, Jackie and Cynthia – for their knowledge, patience and hand holding.

But most of all, thank you Chef Mark. It’s been a sweet ride! 

Dough Review (or, The End Is Near)

Week 19.

Eighteen weeks of Pastry Techniques 101 classes. Over. Done. In a poof (or puff pastry, as it were). PT101 was near an end which in nearly any academic class means one thing: review. In our case, dough review. And preparation for our final class the following week. I felt sad thinking about that.

So, instead, I focused on Chef’s extensive review of (some of) the doughs we had made to date: pâte brisée, pâte à choux, brioche, quick puff pastry and croissant dough. Eighteen weeks ago I didn’t even know what some of these doughs were, let alone how to make them. Now, in four and a half short months, I felt a tingle of pride knowing I could make these doughs without fear and talk about them with a fair degree of knowledge. I’m not suggesting by any means that I had become an expert, but pastryphobia ruled me no more.

Chef’s review of the doughs was essentially that – reviewing the recipe and technique – as well as the occasional vagaries one might encounter with each dough. I’m not sure if these doughs were chosen for their difficulty or perhaps he felt they would be the ones we would most likely continue to make. Or why he was focusing only on doughs – of course, there was no way we could review in one class everything we had learned to date. In any event, it was helpful. And, of course, he had an ulterior motive: to put us to work. That work was intended to give us another opportunity to practice dough and pastry making as well as help us prepare for the hors d’oeuvres buffet and party to celebrate the culmination of twenty weeks of learning the finer points of pastry.

And that was pretty much it. We divvied up more or less into our usual teams. Ally and I volunteered to make the puff pastry dough that would be used in next week’s class and to make gougères from the pâte à choux. A few things the class made were enjoyed that evening, but mostly it was prep work for the final class.

Although it was fun, as usual, to be working with Ally and getting to practice again what we had learned, it wasn’t a particularly exciting class. Sure, there was the typical scrambling and running around to get everything done, but there seemed to be a general pall in the air. I wonder if we were all feeling a bit down facing the reality that before too long our merry pastry group would disband, our Tuesday evening routine would be broken and we would be without Chef Mark’s and the assistants’ guidance.

Sadly, only one more class until we would find out what it would mean to be on our own.


Weeks 17 and 18.

Hello. I am back and a bit red in the face (old timer talk for being embarrassed). I know it’s been a little while since I last posted, but has it really been since November 29? I guess the holiday break and post-holiday funk lasted longer than anticipated. Your waiting hasn’t been for naught, though. Chocolate!

The class covered chocolate over the course of two weeks. Come to find out, there is much to learn and know about chocolate. Two weeks barely peeled back the layers of the cacao bean (spelling correct, by the way, more on that), but provided a great overview of what is involved in working with chocolate and making chocolate truffles and other candies.

First and foremost, what is chocolate? I am glad you asked. Before I get into that, however, I want to address the nomenclature of chocolate. Today, the terms cacao [ka kow] and cocoa are used interchangeably. This was not always the case. Evidently, over the years when cacao was first introduced to the English-speaking world, it somehow morphed into and became known as cocoa. To be accurate, though, anything relating to the cacao tree should be called as such. So, the next time you are having a conversation about the origin of chocolate or about chocolate processing and someone tries to correct you when you mention the cacao tree, just point them in this direction.

Chocolate, as it turns out, is a rather complicated thing. In a nutshell, chocolate is the final result of processing a cacao bean. The cacao tree produces a cacao pod, and within each pod are approximately 30 to 50 seeds, known as cacao beans, or more commonly (and some argue, incorrectly), cocoa beans. Inside the cacao bean is the cacao nib. The nib is ground down into chocolate liquor (although there is no alcohol in it) that contains cocoa mass (solids) and cocoa butter. A further extraction process removes the cocoa solids, which when dried, become cocoa powder. Chocolate is made by combining the remaining cocoa butter with more chocolate liquor and sugar. The type of chocolate – bittersweet, dark, semi-sweet and so on – depends on the amount of sugar added to the chocolate liquor and cocoa butter – or in the case of milk chocolate, the addition of milk as well. Now, I’ve skipped several steps in the process for the sake of brevity, but I think you get the point: it’s complicated. And knowing now how complicated it is, I think you can feel justified in spending $45.00 on that 15 piece box of Godiva chocolate. Right?

If you’ve ever baked with chocolate or enjoyed eating a high quality chocolate bar found in nice grocery stores, you know the chocolate is always labelled as ” 75% cocoa” or “65% cocoa” or whatever. This percentage actually refers to the total amount of cacao bean, solids and cocoa butter, and is inversely proportional to the amount of sugar in the chocolate. 75% cocoa has 25% sugar and so on. And the less sugar, the less sweet (or more bitter, really) the chocolate is.

But we in the pastry world do not care about what percentage of cocoa solids is in the chocolate. We in the pastry world care about what percentage of cocoa butter is in the chocolate. This is because pastry chefs use a type of chocolate known as couverture chocolate which contains a large percentage of cocoa butter, resulting in a richer, higher quality chocolate. In fact, to be considered couverture chocolate, it must contain between a minimum 29 percent and 39 percent cocoa butter (the minimums vary according to my always accurate Google research). Chef said 29 percent, one Wikipedia entry showed a chart indicating the European Union requires at least 31 percent and a second Wikipedia entry indicated it should contain between 32 percent and 39 percent. Whatever the minimum amount of cocoa butter, it’s significantly more than what you’ll find in a Hershey bar and I’m guessing you can taste the difference.

The complicated life of chocolate continues when one uses couverture chocolate (or any chocolate, really), specifically when melting chocolate and using melted chocolate. I don’t want to bore you, so I won’t go into too much detail, (read: Actually, I am confused about this and so I am going to whip through it and hope you don’t notice), but much of working with chocolate comes down to this: tempering. A quick chemistry lesson: the cocoa butter in chocolate is crystalline in nature, meaning it can crystallize into one of six crystal structures, or forms, but only one of those structures produces the desired chocolate product – smooth, shiny and with a firm snap. Tempering is the heating and cooling process that results in the formation of the beta crystal (Form V), which creates the most desirable chocolate. The chocolate we purchase has already gone through the tempering process. If you want to use chocolate in a melted form, you can’t simply melt it as this is breaking the already perfect Form V crystal structure. As a result, if you melt it, you must again temper the chocolate to create the Form V (beta crystal) structure needed to properly use it and create an end product with the desired properties.

So, tempered we did. And it’s complicated. We used semi-sweet chocolate in class (each chocolate type has its own tempering profile, i.e. the specific heat and cool temperatures). The tempering process begins by slowly melting the chopped chocolate in a bowl placed over a warm steam bath. You should always chop the chocolate first, or buy already small-sized chocolate coins and save yourself a step, so the chocolate doesn’t have to work so hard. (Chocolate is sort of lazy and persnickety, if you want my honest opinion.). For semi-sweet chocolate, it needs to melt and then heat to 122 degrees and stay at this temperature for a little while; this is called “residence time.” Once it’s reached 122 degrees, it needs to be cooled down to around 82 – 84 degrees, which involves taking it on and off an ice bath while stirring the bejesus out of it and constantly taking its temperature. Once the melted chocolate is at that temperature, it needs to be brought back up, over a warm steam bath, to around 86-89 degrees for the liquid use level (dipping, filling molds, etc.). As it is warming back up, you should regularly test it by dipping strips of parchment paper into the chocolate to see whether it is acquiring the desired properties of tempered chocolate: sets, hardens and dries some and starts to glaze over.

So, as you can imagine, this requires a great deal of patience and focus: constantly measuring the temperature, stirring, putting it on and taking it off the heat, stirring, measuring the temperature, stirring, putting it on and taking it off the ice bath, testing it on the test strips to see if it is hardening, glazing over some and starting to dry. It’s quite daunting the first few times – too much heat, too long on the ice bath, cooled down too much, need to start over, thinking it’s tempered only to find out the truffle coating isn’t hardening, over-tempered and you end up with chocolate concrete. I hope these pictures help you visualize the involved, frustrating, scary, but hopefully successful and rewarding, process of tempering:          


We tempered chocolate during both week’s classes with varied success. Week 17 I was flying solo as Ally was out of town, so I was next to Renee. You do not want to be next to Renee when you temper chocolate. Here is what happens when you are next to Renee, tempering chocolate:

Renee messed around with one of my nicely setting chocolate balloons (which once dried the balloon is removed and the chocolate cup can be filled, say with ice cream or mousse), at which point the balloon exploded (notice the chocolate mess in the picture on the left) and spewed chocolate all over me. Now, Renee knows she’s my pal and I’m just teasing her when I say don’t temper chocolate next to Renee. (Whispering: But, seriously, don’t temper chocolate near Renee.)

We also learned about making truffles, dipping truffles to coat them and filling chocolate shells. Chocolate truffles are similar in texture to a firm ganache and are made, basically, by mixing together chocolate and heavy cream. There are also truffles known as shell truffles which are harder and are filled with something. In general, truffles and other chocolate candies have a shelf life of about 21 days and prefer to be stored in low humidity conditions at around 65 degrees. A refrigerator is not a good place for storing that box of Godiva chocolates, but a wine cellar (or a garage maybe, if you want to sneak in a candy when you put out the trash) is a good place according to Chef.

While not complicated, dipping truffles or filling them is certainly not easy when first learning how to do it. It takes a steady hand to roll the truffle in the chocolate coating. Too much rolling and the truffle starts to melt (bad). Too little rolling and the truffle isn’t fully covered in chocolate (bad). Here is the technique I employed:

It also takes a steady hand to dip chocolate truffles and other candies. There is a whole line of tools made for the sole purpose of being able to dip things into chocolate. Chef showed us (and let us use!) a (Swiss, I think) set he’s had for forever and a day. I think he said it cost a few hundred dollars for the set. Okay, maybe not that much, but I remember it was expensive. For dipping things. Into chocolate. Here’s Ally in action using one of those expensive, Swiss, specially-designed dipping tools.

(Notice the concentration involved. I told you it takes a steady hand.)

Filling the chocolate shells also takes a steady hand. Using a pastry bag filled with say, caramel, or chocolate ganache, the bag should be placed to almost the bottom of the shell and the filling should be piped just to the top edge. Not so easy considering the chocolate shell is opaque (so you can’t see how close to the bottom you are) and you are putting the equivalent of probably about a quarter teaspoon of filling in the tiny shell. Squeeze the bag a tad too exuberantly and filling comes spilling over. That may seem appetizing in theory, but not in practice:

The chocolate-filled truffles came out better:

Chef claims that the chocolate business is one of the easiest pastry businesses to get into (low overhead, inventory isn’t too perishable) and has one of the highest profit margins. I like the idea of an easy business with high profit margins, but after two weeks of tempering chocolate and not so successfully dipping and filling truffles, I think I’ll leave the chocolate business to Godiva. And La Maison du Chocolat. And Sees. And Russell Stover and Fannie Mae. So, really, does the world need one more chocolate candy maker?

(Editor’s Note: If you made it through the whole post and you’re reading this now, thank you. I know it was a long one, but I told you chocolate is complicated – and I combined two weeks into one post. Again, thank you. Now go treat yourself to a chocolate truffle.)