It appears that nothing will draw attention to the perfectionists in a group of people like cake decorating. I'm not talking dollops of frosting and whimsical details whose beauty cannot be objectively described. No, we're talking the whole shebang here... slicing layers, filling and balancing said layers, masking the cake, frosting the cake so it appears to be no more than a hat box coated in buttercream... and oh, yeah. Writing on the cake.
I've suspected for years that I'm a perfectionist in denial. I believe that there was not one single year that my math teachers, during the annual parent night at school, didn't pull my parents aside and say it wasn't that my math skills were poor, quite the opposite in fact. I was lazy with my work habits. I was quite aware, even at the ripe young age of twelve, that failure was not something I planned to expose myself to. And the primary key to not exposing one's self to failure is to not try. There was always a handy excuse when I missed a few problems on the test. Well, I didn't care, so I didn't try and therefore, I didn't technically do anything wrong by messing up a few problems. On the contrary - I excelled on quite a few equations, without the benefit of trying. Wow. Genius, right? I'm not quite sure I succeeding on convincing many people that I was a future Einstein this way, but I sure convinced myself.
It wasn't until college when I had a roommate who was a perfectionist who tried very very hard (and succeeded, without fail, Becca I'm talking about you) that I realized what a great big huge faker I was. I was just like Becca, but I was terrified to take the risks that she took (ie, trying, risking failure). After college I made a conscious effort to change my ways and chase my true calling. It's hard though, I actually struggle with this quite regularly, slipping back down the treacherous slope of denial.
Fast forward to last Friday, 11:10 AM. This puts us squarely at 50 minutes before lunch, at the precise moment when the blood sugar levels of every person in my entire class plummet to its lowest of the day. We've just watched a a very precise demonstration on how to frost a cake so it resembles a hatbox more than food. I'm pumped. I can do this. And I really really want to do this.
Things are actually going along swimmingly for the first 20 minutes. My top is level, my sides are coming along and I am beginning my final planing of the edges. Sweet, score one for me, I totally sort of rule at cake decorating. Oh, take that back... there's a wee divot in the frosting on one side. I think one more pass with the bench scraper will straighten that out. But no, it won't straighten it out because apparently about 19% of the side of my cylinder appears to be sitting at an 89.2 degree angle instead of the 90 degree angle I'm aiming for. Okay, not a problem, add some frosting, scrape it smooth, re-plane the top... and oh bother, a centimeter wide air bubble just appeared on the top.... okay. Filling, re-plane.... Well, you see where we're going with this. I was becoming Sisyphus here with this stupid cake.
Now fast forward to 15 minutes later, blood sugar... well, I have none left. Only two other fellow perfectionists in class are continuing their painstaking work along with me. Enter instructor number one with words of advice, quickly followed by instructor number two. Both spotting problems I hadn't even noticed. Sheesh, there was no lunch in sight for me. Now I'm frustrated. Actually, I'm about ready to drop my bench scraper into the cake and call it a day when a student from a different class decides now would be a fantastic time to strike up a conversation with who? With me. About what? About how frustrating cake decorating is, especially when you can never just decide that enough is enough. And then he proceeds to describe his own favorite method for icing a cake (do I care? no I do not. what I care about is throwing my cake out of a window. that's what I care about.) when, lo and behold, his massive professional grade electronic thermometer creeps out of his pocket and lands squarely in my cake. He has no idea, he's still joking around with me... I think. I have no idea what he was talking about. My eyes were fixed squarely on the thermometer wedged deep deep in my not quite perfect but I was coming to terms with it cake. I froze. My face contorted. I know because I felt it happen. I panicked. And I did what I normally do when I'm horribly horribly about to kill someone furious. I calmly said, "Your thermometer is in my cake." I then turned around so my back faced him and waited calmly until he walked away. This was a wise choice as I had two butcher's knives, four paring knives and numerous other implements that could be used as deadly weapons all within arm's reach. That's right people, on Friday I saved a man's life simply by turning my back on him.
The good news is at this moment he walked away, life and limbs fully intact. The bad news is, at that moment yet another instructor walked up to give yet another bit of unwanted advice. Poor guy. Everything I worked very hard not to say to the man who shall forever be known as the cake butcherer, I unleashed upon my instructor. Actually, what I said was, "You're the fourth person who has come up to me in as many minutes with advice and I'm unable to process it all. Further, the last guy gouged a huge hole in my cake. So if you wouldn't mind please could I have some alone time?" Hugely inappropriate, I know. But if there's any inappropriate thing I've become good at while in pastry school it's telling people exactly what I'm thinking. I wouldn't say I'm proud of it, but it's certainly come in handy a few times.
By the middle of lunch all of my classmates had heard about the thermometer in the cake (not from myself, but from the two witnesses to the disaster) and I was receiving words of encouragement from all sides. Aw shucks guys, thanks! It seriously was a sweet ending to a ridiculous morning.
And heavens did I ever need that sweet ending because bright and early the next morning, a Saturday, I dragged myself out of bed for another round of overly ambitious baking. I made Peter Reinhardt's mushroom ciabatta. If you have the book make that bread. Killer delicious. I revamped my school's bran muffin recipe to fantastic results, if I may toot my own horn a bit. And of course, I made four different types of scones. You can't truly test a scone recipe without testing a bunch at once. Right?? Or is that my perfectionist coming out again? I used figs, honey and goat cheese as the flavorings for the three sweet scones. The best sweet recipe was based on this recipe for scones. They truly are fantastic scone-y scones. The other best scones of the day were the savory scones I made. I reworked the flavorings a little to maximize the savory-ness. Fig and blue cheese anyone? Clearly I have a small fig and cheese combination obsession of late. Perhaps it's something about northern California? Perhaps it's because it's just too too tasty not to eat as much as possible. I heart these scones. A lot. I think you'll agree.
** Note: See the dark brown scone in the photos? Those were baked in the bread oven, just to see what would happen. This is one of the perks of my school. We get to experiment however we'd like. The top caramelized beautifully. The bottom? Well, they burnt a wee bit. In the future I suppose I'll stick to the regular oven.
Savory Fig and Blue Cheese Scones
Adapted from Advanced Bread and Pastry by Michel Suas
252 g bread flour
71 g semolina flour
96 g durum flour
18 g baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
99 g butter, chilled
155 g heavy cream
74 g honey
50 g eggs
71 g blue cheese, crumbled
75 g white onion, minced
120 g dried figs, chopped
Combine the cream, honey and eggs and set aside.
Sift the flours, baking powder and salt together. Chop butter into small even-sized pieces. Cut the butter into the flour until the butter is in pea-sized chunks. Add cream mixture and blend quickly until 75% incorporated. Add the figs, onion and blue cheese and combine till fully mixed. However, be very sure to mix as little as possible. You just want it all to come together. It should be a crumbly dough, but not sandy.
Press the dough into an 8 to 9 inch wide disk. Slice into "pie" slices. You should have eight scones. Brush with egg wash.
Bake at 400 degrees for 15-17 minutes. They are best served warm while the cheese is oozy.