freshly made pretzels

Facing Your Fears

Life as a Pastry Student

Following rules isn’t something that comes naturally to me as a baker. Despite the stereotype that successful pastry chefs use relatively scientific methods, my more off-the-cuff approach has gotten me fairly far in the kitchen. That said, there’s only so far that one can go without structure, which is why I decided to enroll at ICE: to leash the puppy, so to speak.

pastry student alison mahoney With that in mind, it probably wouldn’t surprise you that I’ve had my fair share of baking disasters. I am the queen of trying a new recipe the day of a really important dinner—and tearing my hair out as I try to troubleshoot the saggy buttercream, or feverishly dumping cornstarch into my lemon curd to get it to thicken, or cursing the day the French macaron ever walked into my life.

I can recall, in vivid detail, every single baked good gone bad: the crater cake, the s’mores that tripped the fire alarm (and, in turn, the fire department) and the quicksand fruit tart. Since that last disaster—almost five years now—pastry cream and I have not been friends. Not even frenemies. 

So imagine my disstress when I walked into class to learn that we were making tarts: fruit tarts. I felt my knees weaken, my pulse race and I think I even broke into a cold sweat. But it was time to finally laugh in the face of danger and master the art of pastry cream. In truth, I shouldn’t have been surprised that I would have to face this demon head on. I was in the midst of a course focused on classic pastry techniques, after all.

pastry school fruit tarts
Fresh and poached fruit tarts with pastry cream

As I watched our chef instructor walk us through the demo, I realized a couple of things. First and foremost, technique and knowledge—not to mention having an expert on hand to ask for help—are king. Additionally, I realized that when it comes to finicky techniques like pastry cream, my own ugly history of disasters could actually be to my benefit—at least I knew what I was up against.

Pastry student piping pastry cream
Practicing piping with pastry cream

With trepidation, I gathered my ingredients and went to the stove. I heated the milk and the sugar, I tempered the eggs and I added the cornstarch and flour. Then, the moment of truth: stirring until it became thick, glossy and doubled in size. What I didn’t know when I first attempted pastry cream is that it is truly all in the wrist. The more rigorously you stir, the faster your pastry cream comes together.

From there, I pulled my pot off the heat and folded in the butter. As I poured the pastry cream into a bowl over an ice bath, I thought, “What if I was just destined to remain a pastry cream failure?” There was only one way to find out. The moment of truth came when I filled my perfectly golden tart shell with my pastry cream and started to pile on the berries. Would this have the same fate as my quicksand tart? You be the judge… fruit tart  

To learn how to make your own photo-ready fruit tart, click here.

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