Week 9: How to survive a practical pastry exam with “ease”

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Last week was a big week for me and my class, we had two full days of exam – a three hour theory exam first thing on monday morning, followed by our practical exam that continued into the tuesday.

I have never had a practical exam before, at least not like this. It was tense, but I felt good about it and managed to stay calm the whole time (I think). I knew I was prepared as best that I could be. I felt good after the written exam too, which helped me feel more calm for the practical. I really put in the time to study and ensured I slept well the night before.

Now after my experience, I will share a smart tip with future pastry students on how to survive a practical exam with “ease”.

…And that tip is: PRACTICE. These macarons took me about four tries before I really got the recipe right, they are not easy to make. I am very proud of how they turned out and actually enjoy making them.

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There is no magic bullet to ace a practical exam without preparation. It is like anything else in life, if you practice you get better. And so I did. Practice is also the root word of practical – go figure.

I put in the hours, I stayed after class to practice every chance I could, and really paid attention to the results each time we made one of the recipes in class that would be on our exam.

We were told which recipes will be on our practical, and we were allowed to have our recipes (with notes) during the practical for reference. We had about 6 recipes to make over the two days. The week before, we had a team meeting and planned out a timeline for the whole class of when we wanted to make things, so we could all use the ovens at the same time. It took some real team work and planning.

The first day we made our baguettes and croissant dough at the same time, which was a little confusing almost because we had not made them together before. They have similar steps but are very different products.

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This was my baguette, ready for proofing. The last baguette we will make in this class, it was almost a sad moment. But I felt good about it – practice paid off.

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These are one of my most favourite items to watch bake. I have loved croissants since I was little, and now I know how to make them. Sweet buttery layers of delicate dough rolled up with a flaky finish. Love them. Here is the tray I presented for judging. We had to had in our scrap dough too, to demonstrate how much waste we had.

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In all, we made a baguette, croissants, a poppy seed cake, chocolate french macarons filled with chocolate hazelnut ganache, checkerboard cookies, and a vanilla sauce (creme anglaise). The last one I forgot to take a photo of.

Each recipe I practice at least one or two extra times and it really helped. These checkerboard cookies are so labour intensive – a very detailed dough exercise – and if you ever see these in a bakeshop, just know that they require a lot of love and patience. These were also the last product I completed on tuesday and it was down to the wire; we had to be done at 2pm and halt all baking. I was worried briefly that I wouldn’t finish in time (again, labour intensive and detailed), but I focussed on the fact that I knew I could deliver, and so I did. Some of them didn’t bake a nicely as I’d have liked, but they turned out well enough.

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This poppyseed cake, below, is actually gluten free. It is quite heavy on the poppy seeds in my opinion and lacking in some serious lemon, but there is some hazelnut flour in it which helps. Largely though, this recipe was a test of our creaming, folding, and meringue-making skills. It’s also a very time sensitive cake and you work up a sweat making this poppy. All 12 of us had to finish mixing at exactly the same time so we bake at the same time. I was glad when it was done.

We also had to make our own stencil too, for the icing sugar dust, then portion into 10. Cutting a cake into 10 slices is also not that easy. Have you ever tried? Seriously. It will mess you up the first time. What do you mean 10…? but a circle cuts into 8 much more easily? Making each slice even also takes practice.

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We received our marks right away, by the end of exam day #2. I have to note here: I am continually impressed with how efficient the Chef instructors are with returning our marks – they are fast. I was pleased with my mark as well, but still took away feedback of how I could be better the next time. Always room for improvement, hence the practice!

Side story: I took guitar lessons in elementary school and kind of liked it, until I was told I had to practice. I never liked to practice playing the guitar. I avoided it. But this, pastry stuff I could practice for days. I come home and bake, and cook, and I read blogs and websites about baking DAILY. I seriously never tire of being in the kitchen or reading about it – like, never. It must be a sign…

An on that note, I have covered two of the five days in my week last week. Yep. No rest for the wicked. We moved right into chocolates by wednesday. And that topic deserves an entire post to itself because I LOVE CHOCOLATE. So stay tuned…

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