Baking Through the CIA: If You Give A Mouse A Cookie…
Though the weekend started off slow and uneventful, it finished off strong with the highly publicized and anticipated, 6th annual Pizza Cook-Off. The CIA encourages its students to participate in extracurricular activities, with the promise they will help them grow and stand out as individuals. After attending the cook-off, I could see exactly what they meant. The cook-off is an annual pizza baking competition sponsored by cheese distributor, Saputo Foodservice. Each team was comprised of a handful of students, who formulated their own pizza recipes and baked them off for the entire school to sample. The attendees then voted for their favorite pizza, and the winners took home the prize and glory. Six teams in total battled it out for dominance with an assortment of unique, original, and classic flavors. There were the reserved entrees, such as the traditional margherita and deep-dish styles, as well as the bold and pallet shocking Mediterranean and Korean varieties.
The standout, in my opinion, was the Korean pizza. The perfectly charred thin crust pizza was slathered in chile-infused tomato sauce, covered in a blanket of mozzarella, and topped with a tangy combination of pickled mustard seeds and kimchi. It was sweet, spicy, sour, and delicious. Coming in a close second was the Mediterranean style, which was generously topped with eggplant and feta cheese. It was amazing watching these teams work. The Korean team operated like a finely tuned culinary machine. Each team member huddled around their prep station, delicately placing ingredients on the dough sheets with precision. It was a truly impressive sight to see, and I think these young future culinary professionals really proved their worth.
Though pizza was the main focus of the event, the perimeter of the room was filled with other tables relating to the sponsor’s products. At the cannoli station, students were offering espresso, and white chocolate-raspberry filled cannoli. Though not an official competition, the two booth operators/bakers took pride in asking which of the two varieties the patrons preferred. I had to side with the espresso flavor, as it reminded me of one of my favorite desserts, tiramisu.
The sponsor also had a table set up offering samples of their cheeses, featuring chunks of Asiago and Parmesan, pepper jams, fruit covered goat cheese logs spread on crostini and almond nougat. It was an absolute blast, and I look forward to attending the next Pizza Cook-Off. Continuing the Italian theme of the day, my night concluded with a meal at one of the dormitory kitchens, where a friend of mine, practiced her mother sauces and cooked a group of us a meal of penne with tomato sauce. It was chunky, spicy, mouthwatering perfection, and also a testament to how talent and passion can flourish at the CIA. I look forward to sampling more of my schoolmate’s work.
Tuesday saw me hands-on in the kitchen for the first time. I’ve completed a Bachelor’s program and attended two universities prior to attending the CIA, and I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a class more in my life. I was elated, feeling giddy and refreshed.
Prior to entering the class, we had been assigned homework focusing on the “creaming method,” which is a mixing method in which butter is aerated with sugar. Many people are familiar with this method, as it is typically the first step in making chocolate chip cookies, and that’s exactly what we did. I can’t think of a more perfect way to start our baking careers at the CIA, than learning the proper method for producing such a staple of the American diet. We were supplied with formula packets last week and told to review the chocolate chip cookie recipe to prepare.
It’s a simple enough process, but one has to take into account efficiency and order of operations. Our class was broken down into time segments, first having us gather our mise en place, which is where we assemble trays of our tools that relate to the recipes, as well as all the scaled out ingredients that will be utilized. We then watched the chef demo the process, taking it from mixing through baking, and then moved on to our own group productions.
The first thing everyone did during the mise en place segment was scramble through the kitchen, bombarding the dish room, and scaling out their dry and wet ingredients. Once the chef began his demo, he drew attention to a vital mistake everyone in the class had made. We had not done anything to ensure our eggs and butter were taken up to room temperature after taking them out of the refrigerator. He explained that in order to achieve the greatest aeration and to ensure a homogeneous emulsion, it is imperative all ingredients be at room temperature. He showed us that the first thing we should have done when entering the room, placed our eggs in a bowl of warm water, and cut our butter into small, spaced out cubes, to expedite their shift to room temperature. Everyone had left their butter in whole, still cold bricks, and cracked their eggs into bowls as soon as they got their hands on them. This may have had an effect on the final product had the chef not come to the rescue by manually heating up some peoples mixing bowls with a propane torch.
When everyone’s cookies were baked, it was incredible to see that despite them all having been the same recipe, and all having been placed on the cookie sheets with the same scoop, not a single group’s work looked the same. The chef went around the room, critiquing and grading each group’s productions and performance. The majority of the cookies were good, suffering only minor errors such as semi-sunken centers. Only one group’s efforts yielded the catastrophic results of cracker thin, spread out cookies that resulted from an error when scaling out their flour. Getting the approval of the chef was exhilarating. Through great effort and determination, I made it through my first kitchen class with success. I left feeling great and looking forward to my next adventure in the kitchen.
The next day was my introduction to my academic classes. As I have placed out of Culinary Math, I am left with Baking Ingredients & Equipment Technology, Food Safety, and Professionalism & Life Skills. Baking Ingredients & Equipment Technology, or BIET as it is commonly abbreviated, introduces students to a variety of equipment and ingredients they will be coming in contact with in their time at the CIA. For our first day, we took a tour of Bakeshop 2 (our current kitchen class works out of Bakeshop 1), where we took stock of what ovens they use. We then moved to the bread shop, where we were introduced to the large scale mixers, proofer, and rotation oven that is capable of fitting an entire speed rack at once, a fact, the professor pointed out, makes it an extremely useful tool for the mass production of things such as croissants and baguettes. We then returned to the classroom, where we were given our first quiz, covering the dress code of the school.
We had a two-hour break between the first two classes, allowing us to grab some lunch before Food Safety. In Food Safety, we learn about proper food handling procedures, as well as dangers posed by failing to adhere to those procedures. Our first class outlined what we are to learn, and explained that the ServSafe exam would act as our final for the class. ServSafe is a food safety accreditation exam administered by the National Restaurant Association, which is required for all management level staff. The CIA requires us to pass this exam, or be penalized with fines and suspensions.
Food Safety led directly into Professionalism & Life Skills, taking place in the same room with only the professors switching out. We discussed the expectations of the class and the material we will be covering, which includes resume production and how one should conduct themselves in a professional setting. We were sent home with a stack of articles to analyze for next class.
Thursday started with the exciting event of receiving my official, name embroidered CIA chef jackets. I couldn’t help but feel like I was experiencing one of the “suiting up” montages from the old Burton/Schumacher Batman films as I tried them on for the first time, but the excitement of the morning was short lived
The afternoon’s class felt like the complete opposite of Tuesday’s. Whereas everything went well on Tuesday, Thursday was full of sloppy mistakes and disappointment. The topic of the class was the “blending method,” where we were tasked with the production of either blueberry or corn muffins. In addition to muffins, we had to review the creaming method, by producing either sugar or spritz cookies. My muffins were a success, receiving the chef’s approval during evaluation. The cookies, on the other hand, were a disaster.
I was assigned spritz cookies, while my partner was assigned the sugar. Each team member was in charge of production of a specific dough, but both team members were responsible for rolling out sugar cookie logs and piping spritz cookies. My dough came out a stiff, near impossible to pipe mess, which baked off into odd-looking crumb piles that even the chef was unable to explain. My dough log was equally as unimpressive, as I ran out of time before I could complete my production, being too preoccupied cleaning dishes. In addition to the log’s incomplete state, the chef noted its weight during evaluation. We had been tasked with scaling out 15 oz. of dough per log during the demo, but my partner told me to throw our extra dough into my log to finish it up. That sounded like a good idea at the time, but it wasn’t the chef’s instructions, and ultimately lost me points. During an evaluation, the chef also asked to see my timeline, which he had requested the class complete while doing his demo. A timeline in our class consists of notes chronicling the time it took us to complete each step during production. No one in the class had done it, as we were all too focused on our production.
Watching the chef’s facial expressions, attitude, and hearing his vocalization felt like getting hit with a sack of bricks. It was like hearing your parents tell you they are disappointed in you. Though I was not alone in the lack of notes, the combination of that and the cookie failures was enough to outweigh the success of the blueberry muffins in my mind. I left the class feeling crushed and utterly defeated. This was my first taste of the emotional roller coaster of the CIA.
With the taste of defeat still on my tongue, I took it upon myself to try to correct my mistakes. Though there was nothing I could do to alter my grade for the day, I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of remedying the errors I had made. I set out to remake the spritz cookies on my own time and found success. I am now certain that my mistake with the cookies boiled down to confusing the flour in my mise en place set up for powdered sugar, leading me to cream the butter with the flour. I also walked away with another important lesson; listen to the chef and not your classmates. In the kitchen, the chef’s word is law. There are some things your classmates will be able to help you with, but when it comes to specific instructions, the chef takes precedence. I will use the negative emotions I felt leaving class as a lesson to better myself for the future. You can be assured that next Tuesday, I will be there, pen at the ready, timeline formatted, and ears open waiting for chef’s instructions.
By Andrew Bergman