I was sorely out of place, but then again that was pretty obvious. I was the only one not wearing chef's whites and checkered pants. My messenger bag was obviously too small to carry the necessary and required tools like knives or kitchen scales leaving everyone else to question my presence. Most of the students simply assumed I had forgotten my equipment and probably had a damn good reason not to have it, and was probably a student making up a missed class.
The reality was that my friend, Teresa, one of the baking instructors at American River College, had invited me over to crash her class so I could learn a few things. Particularly, Swiss meringue buttercream and puff pastry, plus learn whatever else I could glean from observing her advanced baking class students.
As I sat down in awkward silence waiting for things to get started I was jostled by the sound of opening oven doors and a blast of hot air that curled across my back causing me to release a small gasp as it engulfed me.
"Hey, can you help me with these?" said a voice. I turned to face a large student with a horsehair goatee pulling out sheets of cookies the size of clay pigeons. I got up and grabbed a pair of mitts and slowly began to move in tandem with him, pulling out sheet after sheet of cookies. Many of them were misshapen and merged together into chocolate chip amoebas. After racking them up he grabbed two and handed me one. Misshapen, maybe, but delicious and full of caramel flavor from the slightly burnt sugar.
Teresa arrived and welcomed me and the students went about their business without prompting, splitting into four groups - plated desserts, bread, candy, and cakes - and leading each other in teams as they worked on their assignments which ranged from toffee to sourdough bread.
In moments I had measured the butter and flour for my butter block, the first of two components for my puff pastry, and was mashing together the ingredients with my bare hands. I quickly fell in love with the feeling of mashing soft-cold butter; its oozing between the fingers is not at all unpleasant. It's unctuous and yielding which makes the task all the more endearing to the point that Teresa had to remind me to not overwork the butter block which, admittedly, isn't easy to do.
The butter block is shaped into a perfect block (hence the name) and Teresa and I throw together the dough which I am taught how to shape and "orb up" so it will be easy to cut into a basic square. The way this works is that the orb of dough is given two serrated cuts across each other, like this:(+), and then the four created peaks are pulled outward creating a perfect square. As we go along Teresa shows me these little tricks of the pastry world such as knuckling the dough to show how many turns you've made, and how to patch the puff pastry with flour in case of butter leaks.
As I roll out my third turn, attempting to, "Show it who's boss," according to Teresa, a task I find difficult as I'm not a bossy person and my rolling is dainty and polite, a student eventually comes up to take the rolling pin from me. She deftly demonstrates how to kick its ass, working out her frustrating at the fact that her chocolate won't seem to temper correctly. I take her advice, yell to the dough that it needs to keep its goddamn kids from throwing their toys into my garden (seriously, neighbors, stop it), and work the fold in under 30 seconds.
After plopping the dough to rest in the fridge I am given a crash course on the difference in meringue types and taught the basic ratio for Swiss meringue, which is 150% ounces of granulated sugar to egg whites by weight, then as much softened butter and vanilla extract until it tastes right (who says pastry is always so precise?).
"Okay," Teresa says as I follow her to the gas stove burners whose use is clearly obvious in their charred metal, "you're going to heat this meringue over a water bath to 140F. You're going to lightly whisk it. Don't worry about getting air in as right now you just want to keep the egg whites from cooking and get the sugar melted."
"All right. Gotcha." I smile. I go about the task swearing at the soupy mix as the heating seems to take forever. I carefully hold the bowl by the rim at a side that seems to avoid the excess heat blasting from the gas flame. I feel confident and competent, just as if I were an actual pastry student. "Yes," I think to myself, "I know what I am doing. I belong here!" Finally, a forever later, the thermometer reads 140. "Got it!" I yell.
"Bring it over here," says Teresa, motioning to my work station.
I turn off the heat and grab the handle of the mixing bowl. Pain screams through my fingers as the handle, having sat over the broiling plume of air has now raised the handle to searing temperatures of around 375 degrees Fahrenheit or more. A handle I have just wrapped my fingers, palm, and thumb around.
I quickly whip my hand back and wordlessly, quickly, as if my feet suddenly knew how to skip across air, make my way to the sink and jam on the cold water as far as it will go. Teresa, luckily, knows to save the meringue. I'm surprised how professional I'm being what without breaking into swearing and crying, but it's partly because my brain is to preoccupied with the fact that I can feel my flesh literally burning and bubbling. It is also focused on the pain that's slowly clawing through every single nerve of my body, digging up the flesh in my hand like some razor taloned creature out of a horror movie.
After enough cold water I break out the aloe vera and slathered so much over my hand it looked like I had dipped it in mucus. Relief, but not much. I am acutely aware that the only one seriously hurt today is the only one not dressed as a pastry student. Two others later burn themselves as well, but not nearly as badly. Each student, however, does their best to comfort me and show off their own injuries, some much worse than mine, that they have accumulated over their education. My injury is no longer embarressing, but rather a proud badge on initiation.
Still, injury or no, that puff pastry has to be turned. I went to the fridge and with one hand pulled it out, floured it and the butcher block I was working on, and rolled away while my other hand sat in a piece of Tupperware gripping a handful of ice. The turn was done and I went about observing the other students as my hand gnarled itself into a blistered claw packed in ice. I picked up how to temper chocolate with an immersion blender (very handy trick), learned the best way to prep upside-down cakes, and watched as the plating group made maple bacon ice cream with almond bacon cake shaped as cute little piggies with pink frosting to boot.
By the end, I had learned a lot and made many friends with the students. I also realized just how happy I was, burns and all, working in a kitchen. It was visceral, creative, exact, and forgiving. I enjoyed working with my hands. I realized that this is an education I want to pursue. Not to work in a pastry department or for catering; no, this was something I realized I wanted to do for me. For my own growth and education and for my writing. Yes, pastry is where I need to be.
Soon, at least. Once the thesis is done and I have my Master's. Then I'll be ready to bake pretty, pretty cakes.
My palm survived for the most part but my fingers are toast at the moment and I'm pretty sure I no longer have a print on my thumb (as of this post I think I will get to keep 75% of it, the rest is scar tissue). The puff pastry will be used for some goat cheese tarts and mille feuilles, and the finished Swiss buttercream apparently lasts for months in the fridge so it awaits a cake in the near future.
I go back to visit the class next week. To learn what? Not sure yet, but it'll be sweet.