Growing up, I wasn't much of a summer camp kind of girl. Which is to say that I had an irrational fear of group activities and being away from my mother, plus an unnatural aversion to the outdoors. Despite my fierce protests, I was sent to summer camp on a few occasions anyway. Forced to live like a feral child, sweating in shared sleeping quarters by night and running my athletically-challenged foal-like figure through obstacle courses littered with MRSA-covered nets and tire swings by day, I was scarred by the whole thing. True story.
But after spending a week at Tante Marie Cooking School's week-long pastry intensive last week, I think I now realize what the problem was. Camp Minchindoh didn't offer baking-related activities, that's what. Perhaps if I had been given the option to make genoise instead of those godforsaken woven leather bracelets with my initials stamped in, I could have been a summer camp enthusiast. Perhaps then I would have been dragged away from the camp site, crying and begging to stay like all the other kids, pleading for one last shot at a batch of Swiss meringue, and then erroneously shouting "Hot pan behind you! Hot pan, ladies!" to no one in particular for weeks afterward, secretly wishing that I could be sent back to camp, like, every single week. You know, like how I feel right now writing this post. Are you there, God? It's me, Shauna. Please, PLEASE send me back to pastry class.
A photo taken from the front of the school on the first morning, while praying that I wouldn't have a week that echoed my 8th grade Presidential Fitness Test.
Tante Marie's is a Bay Area institution, and both their culinary and pastry programs have churned out countless successful chefs and business owners. I couldn't have been more thrilled to snag a spot in their week-long pastry class. I can't even begin to explain how awesome the whole experience was, so I'll just tell you this: Five hours a day to practice baking without a tiny person clinging to my jeans. An arsenal of amazing recipes to dig into and make as many times as it took to get them right without worrying about the cost of butter. Access to every possible piece of kitchen and baking equipment you can possibly imagine. And--the clincher--A PERSON WHO WASHES EVERY SINGLE DIRTY DISH FOR YOU. I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried, people.
Clockwise from top left: An insanely decadent, candy-like caramelized nut tart in the lower right corner surrounded by lots of gorgeous tarts and tartelettes; The day's work from above; My "better late than never" apple tart with a layer of apple compote beneath the fruit; Tarts, glorious, tarts!
The curriculum for the week was intense and extremely well-rounded. I was amazed how much mad knowledge was dropped in just five days. And depending on what each student wanted out of the class, we could pick whatever recipe we wanted to work on using the featured fundamentals of the day. It all started with pies and tarts on Day 1, also known as The Day I Didn't Plate because I let my pate sucree walk all over me and underestimated my baking time. But with so many gorgeous, glistening tarts ready for the oogling and tasting, I couldn't kick my Type A self for too long. And as a testament to how awesome my classmates were, they still threw a few appreciative oohs and ahhs my way when I set my piping hot apple tart on the table as they were packing up and walking out the door. Good people, I tell ya.
After that first crazy day of getting acquainted with the kitchen and the class structure, everyone settled into a nice groove on Day 2 for cakes and buttercreams. Pastry Zen was flowing all day long, even when I realized I was precariously close to not plating again. But I showed that behemoth of a Gateau L'Orange who was boss and slid it onto the table just as presentation began. And then promptly collapsed in a heap into the compost bin.
Clockwise, from top left: My Gateau L'Orange with layers of genoise, orange French buttercream and candied zest; Perfectly beautiful madelines (genoise in teacake form); Gateaux Mokas with a side of billowy coconut cupcakes; Sandwich cookies galore, both American and French (my pale pink strawberry-rose macarons are in the background to the left).
In the following days, I turned out so many things I've read about and dreamed about, but never had the time or counter space to work on. And of course I can't go one word further without mentioning the mad skills and admirable patience of our incredible instructor Christa Resing, who I basically want to be. Having her there to walk us through the nitty-gritty of classic recipes, those little adjustments in technique that make all the difference between Suck and Greatness, was totally invaluable.
I couldn't believe how well things came out using Christa's smart little tips and tricks, even with the tough stuff, like the ever-elusive French macarons. See also Praline Cream Roulade (complete with jazzy hard-crack caramel-hazelnut discs for garnish--see the first photo of this post--fancy, fancy!), lemon eclairs, espresso-truffle ice cream. I was sort dying from it all. I mean, my genoise was moist! My macarons had FEET, guys (and real strawberry-rose French buttercream, y'all)! Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize we were riding the Awesome Train all the way through Pastry Town. So, so great.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday breezed by, so many of us commenting that we never wanted the week to end. As someone who has been a solid B-minus student most of my life, never wanting to leave something that fits into the category of "school" is pretty major for me. I mean, imagine if I'd gotten to take Ice Creams and Sorbets instead of Western Civilization! Hindsight, people. Hind. Sight. Luckily, eating insane amounts of desserts everyday sort of softened the blow of that realization.
If you want to read up on Tante Marie's amazing schedule of classes, pastry and beyond, check out their website.