This week was our first practical "lab" in my pastry class at Grossmont College (taught by Chef Foran, the pastry chef at Arterra). The first lesson was on piping chocolate and frosting out of a bag for decorating. I have always had problems with this, but it's amazing what a little direction can do to improve your skills. I had this same experience with knife skills - just one two hour class at Great News made a huge difference.
The piping was a lot of fun. Working with the gooey icing and chocolate reminded me of a favorite sketch from Sesame Street that I used to love - the one where the poor hapless baker would make the cake with the number on it? Somehow it would always get destroyed accidentally. I actually went looking for a clip to post it on here, but I couldn't find one. I did find this animated segment though, which is pretty cute too. I got caught up for a while watching the vintage Sesame Street clips on You Tube. It's amazing how cool this show was back in the day!
First, we made paper cones out of parchment triangles for piping chocolate. We were given a paper with designs on it and some parchment for tracing. (They use parchment that comes in sheets - MUCH easier to work with than the stuff that comes rolled.) The secret is to trail the chocolate, instead of trying to push it like you would a pen. The easiest designs are the freehand ones with swirls and curliques. Precise symmetrical ones are harder because you have to guide the chocolate more carefully. This is the kind of technique you use to create little chocolate garnishes for desserts (like those little filigree things you see on banquet desserts) or to pipe borders or write names on cakes or on plates - like Happy Birthday, etc. I thought this was fun.
Chef Foran uses Callebaut chocolate which we melted over a double boiler - in a metal bowl set over simmering water. He buys the gigantic blocks that are about 11 pounds - they are stacked up in the pantry of the classroom. It was quite a thrill to see that much chocolate in one place. Next week I will have to take my camera and take some pictures.
For the pastry bag piping, we used shortening mixed with powdered sugar and whipped to a frosting consistency - it tasted just like Costco cake frosting. We started with a star tip, and did rosettes and "shells." I couldn't get the hang of the shells - the little wavy borders you see on bakery cakes. I wound up with large snails that kept falling over - but I guess practice makes perfect.
The secret to piping with the pastry bag is to twist the top so it looks like a carrot, then squeeze down with your palm on the fat part of the bulge. To adjust the tension, you keep twisting and squeezing. It's pretty easy once you get the hang of it, but the frosting is kind of gooey and hard to control. I plan to go get some buttercream frosting mix and whip up a batch to practice with. I am also planning to make gougeres later in the week with pate a choux and will use the pastry bag to pipe the dough onto the cookie sheets.
I am excited to learn all of this stuff and make cakes for birthdays, etc, but I suspect that after a while a good bakery cake will start to look like a decent bargain - given the amount of time that goes into them and the cost of the ingredients!