Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sucking Wind

To those who have been emailing or Facebooking me with "when's the next post?" I apologize for sucking as a diarist. I knew keeping up with keeping track of my journey was going to be challenging—as a writer I tend to procrastinate—but I had no real clue what being in school was going to be like. I've whined about it before, but while this culinary school thing is exhilarating, adrenalizing, stimulating and really fun in a lot of ways, it's also a lot more raw hard work than I ever imagined in the soft-focus fantasy I had about the whole thing before I started.

So, if I'm not posting, just picture me studying for the written tests we have every couple of weeks, which are getting harder, by the way or practicing recipes at home for the practicals. During my last test, the level 2 final exam, one question demanded we write out the entire recipe—ingredients, amounts and procedure–for a basic French sponge cake called a Genoise. It's an "egg foam" cake. Very light and full of the air. What happened to me during that test is exactly what happens to the Genoise if you open the oven door while it's baking and before the requisite golden crust has formed: it loses all the air you pumped into it with your whisk and aching frozen-shoulder arm and becomes an empty, pitiful shell of it's former self.

OK, maybe I'm taking this cake analogy too far, but the fact is that I knew all along that the Genoise was made with WHOLE EGGS that you beat furiously over a warm water bath, but on the test I wrote "separate the eggs" and "whisk the yolks and sugar to a pale yellow" and "whip the whites to a soft peak and fold them in" thereby creating an un-Genoise concoction drawn from bits and pieces of the several recipes I'd tried to jam into my hormone-drained brain in the hours before the test.

My consolation was that during the practical part of the test when we had to produce eight perfect cocottes of potato from one Idaho, and a creamy vanilla Aglaise sauce without a trace of scrambled yolk in it, I did. Thank you God!

My further consolation came today, a week after the final when I had the nerve to look at my grades online and saw that I got a 100 on the written test! ONE HUNDRED. Did I just dream I totally screwed up the Genoise recipe? Or did Chef X finally cut me some slack and forgive my little mix up with the eggs? I'm going to miss that guy. Really.

But I won't miss my "baker's lung."

"It's reported in people who work around flour for hours at a time...baker's, pastry's a type of allergy to the gluten," the young and earnest pulmonologist told me after I scored rather low on the breathing out part of my pulmonary function test.

He gave me 3 sample inhalers and showed me how to use one the next time I found myself sucking my breath through a clutched fist feeling in my upper chest after a 5 hour class in pastry making. Baker's lung!

With most of the past month's classes centered around pastry lessons, flour flying in abundance around the class kitchen, I've been breathless many a night. And while I was glad to put my paranoid psychosomatic delusions about lung cancer, tuberculosis, consumption and spore-like aliens lodged in my bronchials to rest, I was none to thrilled to add asthma to the growing list of physical limitations connected to the growing number of years I've been alive. As of September 30 that number is now 53. Whoopee!

I knew I had a wheat or gluten "intolerance." I could eat it if I didn't mind being bloated, gassy, having the runs and breaking out in a rash on most of the mucous membranes of my body. Now I can't hardly be in the same room with it. Life is cruel. Just try eating rice bread. Or soy pancakes. Or kamut pasta.

But what's a little bit of asphyxiation when you can finally turn out a perfect pie crust? Or understand what makes the puff in puff pastry (it's all about a huge block of butter and trapped air) or pipe out a doughy little blob on a cookie sheet that miraculously turns into an airy container for pastry creme once you bake it. Here are some of my Level 2 creations.

Apple Tart

Genoise Cake with Mocha Buttercream/ Toasted Almonds and Quiche Lorraine