Right now I’d like to talk about something that is high on the minds of me and my fellow classmates at ICE; something those not familiar with the culinary world may have never even heard of. Stages.
No, not like the kind you danced on during you’re four-year-old ballet recital. Pronounced stah-jeh, a stage, or a trail, is essentially a day-long interview / try out that most culinary professionals must do before securing a job, or an externship in a kitchen. Right now, my classmates and I are getting into the full swing of stages as we visit various kitchens and try to determine where we’d fit the best for our externships, which will begin in January!
This week I had my very first stage in, not a restaurant, but a test kitchen for a food magazine here in New York City. Again, I won’t name it, but let’s just say this publication has been in print for over 50 years, publishes around 60 recipes in each issue, and inspires its readers to “enjoy their meal.” I was exceptionally lucky to get to spend the day learning about and helping out in their test kitchen, and can honestly say it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
So what exactly does a stage entail? Well, it really varies from kitchen to kitchen. Some places, you might just be shadowing a chef or cook, observing and learning about what they do. Other places, you might help with prep work, stocking the walk-in, or other low-level tasks. If you’re very lucky, you might get to actually cook a dish, though I hear this is rare. On my trail, I learned the ins-and-outs of the test kitchen, got to know the team, helped prepare for a tasting with the magazine’s editors, and did the “mise en place” for several recipes the kitchen was testing that day. It was a long, labor intensive day on my feet, but I loved every second of it, and the day truly reaffirmed that this is what I want to do with my life – s0mething I’ve never felt after any of my interviews in the marketing world! I mean, what could be better than spending the day in the kitchen, trouble-shooting fabulous recipes, tasting, analyzing and adjusting until you get them just right? I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but for me, it seems like a dream job!
After my trail, still riding high off of my experience, I headed straight to ICE for an amazing class – cake decorating! On Monday night we had prepared lemon, sponge, and chocolate cakes, as well as plain, milk and semi-sweet chocolate whipped cream and swiss meringue – so many luscious sugary confections that we stored in the ICE walk in as the building blocks for Tuesday night’s class. Then, armed with our offset spatulas and piping bags, we set to work.
I’ve always loved to bake, but in all honestly, I’ve always stayed in my comfort zone – cookies, muffins, cupcakes, even pies. Something about cakes, especially ones made from scratch, seemed complex and intimidating to me – heck, even my cousin who sells her elaborate, beautifully decorated multi-tiered cakes for parties uses boxed cake mix because it just tastes so darn good! But after Monday and Tuesday night, cake-baking and decorating has been completely demystified for me, and I stand corrected at how easy it was. With Chef Sim doing his usual job of eloquently simplifying techniques that look complicated, cake decorating wound up being easily my best class of pastry, and here’s what we accomplished:
First up was the tender, moist lemon cakes from Monday. We each prepared a nine-inch cake, which we cut in half using a serrated knife. Then, we beat down some Swiss Meringue butter cream and flavored it – I chose lemon oil to flavor mine, because I’m pretty much a lemon junkie when it comes to dessert. We also set some raspberry jam to melt in a sauce pan to decorate the cake, rather than using chocolate like other classmates opted to.
The lemon cake layers were doused with a rum-simple-syrup to moisten them (a must for refrigerated cakes), and then in between the layers went a thick smear of lemon butter cream. Then, we frosted the sides and top of the cake with more butter cream, and pressed the sides into candied slivered almonds. The top was decorated with butter cream florets, raspberry dots, and macadamia nuts. I decided to dub this my “Sailor Moon Cake” (I date myself) because of its whimsical appearance. It’s super girly, and I’m super proud of it.
Next up was a Torta de Spana, or the Italian version “Spanish Bread” – a flavorful three-layer sponge cake filled with semi-sweet chocolate whipped cream, raspberries and strawberries. The sides of this towering confection were pressed with shredded coconut, and it was topped with candied almond slices and powdered sugar. Overkill? Perhaps, as my partner Leigh Ann dubbed this my “Yeti Cake.” Still, my roommate Cara brought it to work the next day and her coworkers went crazy for it, so appearance isn’t everything. And I still think it was cute, in a retro sort of way.
The grand finale was, most appropriately, a rich, dense low-laying chocolate cake with feathered chocolate ganache. Making this cake highlighted two pastry techniques that are much easier than they seem: a) making ganache, and b) feathering designs.
So… ganache is basically heavy cream and chocolate. That’s it. Really?! Seriously!?! The fact that I didn’t know this is sort of depressing, because knowing this means you can easily make some of the most impressive truffles, cakes, and chocolate desserts ever in record time. To make this very chic cake, we brought one pint of heavy cream to a boil, poured it over one pound of semi-sweet chocolate disks, and let it sit for a few minutes before whisking it smooth. Working quickly, with the cake on a cooling rack, we poured the ganache over the cake, a la Chocolat, and smoothed it with a small offset spatula. Before the ganache set, we streaked the cakes with white chocolate, and, using a paring knife, gently dragged the blade through the chocolate in opposite directions to create the signature swirls. The result was pretty fabulous.
And then, I had three cakes to eat! With one that’s already been devoured by Cara’s hungry coworkers and two to go, I’m counting my blessings that I’ll have guests in town this weekend and an apartment full of hungry Halloween party-comers on Saturday. Happy Halloween!