Lessons 71-75: On the Surface

If what lies beneath is important in making cakes, it is appearance that counts in plating desserts.

In the last few lessons of Module III, our class broke down into four groups and tackled plated desserts from legendary four-star restaurant chefs such as Michael Laiskonis of Le Bernandin and our very own Module I Chef Instructor Nicole Kaplan, formerly of Del Posto and Eleven Madison Park. Each team was assigned desserts and made up a production plan. We were expected to present 14 identical plated desserts to the class when all components were ready.

This type of class was different from all the other lessons we have had up to this point. Yes, we have presented in the past. We presented our soufflés and crème anglaise for our practical in Module I and our cookies just a few weeks ago, but with so many aspects going into the finished product, teamwork was essential. It was important to review the items that needed the most preparation time and get those done first in order to be as efficient as possible.

Once all of the ingredients were ready, it was time to set up our desserts for presentation to the class. As I saw the first batch of plates go down on the table and each component being added as if on an assembly line, I felt a surge of energy. Watching the pieces of a puzzle come together into an elegant dessert was really exciting. Our first assigned dessert was Michael Laiskonis’ Chocolate-Peanut Tart with Lemon Confit, Praline-Citrus Sorbet and Peanut Butter Powder, creating a perfect balance of salty and sweet flavors. On the second day of plating, we were assigned a Greek Yogurt Panna Cotta with Grapefruit, Avocado and Basil Foam, also from Chef Laiskonis.

The experience of assembling this dessert on the plate made me realize how much plating can determine the appeal of food. The flavors Chef Laiskonis put together were fresh and brilliant, but we were less sure about how to best present the various components. We tried several possibilities, but seeing the less-than-thrilled faces of those we were presenting to, it was evident that we hadn’t quite perfected the presentation and what’s on the surface does matter.

Our practical for Module III also attested to the importance of appearance. For our practical we were asked to assemble and decorate a cake. After baking our lemon-scented cakes ahead of time and taking our written exam, we got ready to fill, ice and decorate our exam cakes. I haven’t quite practiced piping enough, so I wanted to make my filling, an Italian meringue buttercream, as simple as possible, flavoring it with lemon juice and striping it with raspberry jam in the center.

Once I iced the sides and top of my cake as neatly as possible, I began decorating by piping rosettes on my cake, garnishing it with raspberries and violet flowers and writing “Happy Holidays” in chocolate syrup. Chef Kathryn took a look at the outside and then asked me to cut a slice, ensuring that, after all, what lies beneath was as well done as what was on the surface. Next up: The last module, can you believe it? Lots and lots of chocolate stories coming your way…

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