The Mock Exam
May 23, 2022
I don’t know how this happened, but somehow it’s late May in Paris, and I’m closing in on the end of my pastry diploma program at Le Cordon Bleu.
Last Tuesday we had our mock exam, a five-hour class that gave us a chance to bake the entremet (read: moussey cake) we’d been dreaming up for one of our four (!) Superior Pastry final exams. As was the case when we were assigned to come up with an original tart during Intermediate Pastry, our entremet is meant to reflect home. If all went well on mock-exam day, our classroom kitchen would be a kaleidoscope of smells, colors, and food cultures. But that if, Chef Bichon had been warning us every day for the past month, was a big one.
Nearly every student’s favorite chef, Chef Lauren Bichon is serious and intimidating when you first meet him. The most talented pastry chef at Le Cordon Bleu, he spends most of his time with Superior students, getting them ready for real pastry careers.
But as soon as you experience a practical class that he’s running, you realize Chef Bichon is also the nicest chef. He patrols the kitchens with a keen ability to appear at your shoulder just when a mousse or caramel is going impressively awry – not to mock, as another of our chefs loves to do – but to offer solutions without judgment, and with a forgiving smile. It’s a breath of fresh air at a school where daring to ask a clarifying question wins you a stony glare about half of the time.
On the first day of Superior, Chef had memorably explained the mock exam to us, saying in French, “It usually doesn’t go very well.” He paused to let that sink in, and then continued: “The timing? Bad. The recipes? Bad.”
He gave us some side-eye to let us know he was serious but on our side, and the students gathered in the first-floor classroom laughed nervously.
The corner of his mouth curled upward in a wry smile. “Sometimes people cry.”
Those words were ringing in our ears as the sixteen students in my class hovered outside the Versailles kitchen, knife kits and recipes in hand.
I wasn’t as nervous as I had been before the Intermediate mock exam, though I was far less prepared this time around. Last semester, I practiced my Key Lime Tart a gut-expanding eleven times before debuting it in the school classrooms. This time, I’d only practiced my entremet once, piece-meal.
I wasn’t short on good excuses for my slacking off. My new apartment in the fourteenth arrondissement doesn’t have an oven, and the freezer in my mini-fridge makes a shoebox look like a palace. But the real reason my entremet had stayed more daydream than reality was that I’d been busy indulging in Paris’s glorious springtime.
Spring in this city is like nothing I’ve ever seen. I suppose because my entire experience in Paris from September until about a month ago was cold and dark, the arrival of spring has felt like nothing short of revolution.
In the mornings, the birds get to work earlier than the light, which is saying something. By five-thirty, Paris is bathed in cerulean blue, and the choir of birds that hover unseen over my block are on their fortieth or so stanza of echoey, musical shouting. (Parisian elegance does not extend to its avian population.) By midday, the sun is beaming down on the pink-tinged yellow roses outside my window that Madame Rodriguez, my building’s guardienne, waters religiously. The afternoons are warm and the sidewalks bustle with Parisians going from offices to metros to bakeries and back again.
But the evening is when Parisian spring really gets going. Come May, Paris’s museums, galleries, parks, and shops fade to the backdrop that they are, revealing the only event worth talking about: terrasse dining.
Every citizen participates in this warm-weather ritual, tucking themselves into a wicker bistro table the moment work or classes end, sunglasses on, allowing themselves to be plied by waiters with bread and wine as, one by one, friends appear to join in the nightly rite of conversation and people watching.
So yeah. I only made my entremet once. And I don’t feel bad at all.
A few minutes before 11am, Chef Bichon appeared in his starched chef’s whites, strode briskly toward the classroom door, and threw it open. He smiled warmly at us, and we were off.
I pinned my recipe to a clipboard hanging from the stainless steel cabinets above my station, and unloaded my knife kit and special ingredients.
My entremet required that I max out the three-extra-ingredients allowance outlined in the Superior exam rules. The school lets us freely use what it normally stocks: stand-bys like whipping cream and almond flour, less common ingredients like lychee purées and shelled nuts of every sort imaginable. But mine weren’t on the list, so I’d brought them: buttermilk, blackberries, and cornmeal.
Because all three of my main flavors were unusual – even odd – in the tradition-bound world of French baking, I didn’t opt for creativity when I named my entremet. It was simply the Buttermilk, Blackberry, and Cornbread Entremet. (When I wrote that name at the top of my recipe, an exhausted little synapse leftover from my media-world brain shouted feebly, “SEO friendly!”)
Odd though it might be to French palettes, my entremet certainly represented my home, sprung from a very specific memory. I spent great chunks of every summer at my grandmother’s house in Pensacola, and there was little I loved more than blackberry-picking in her neighborhood. A ten-minute walk from her house on the bayou took me to a sandy park filled with tall, scraggly oaks where the humid morning silence was broken by bursts of cicada song that quickly rose and crescendoed then collapsed back into heat-induced defeat.
Among the oaks and Spanish moss there were thorny blackberry vines. Some of the berries were mouth-puckeringly bitter. Some were sweet. All were warm in the tupperware and starting to stain it purple when I got back to my grandmother’s air-conditioned kitchen.
I can’t remember if I ever actually ate those blackberries with cornbread, but to me there are not two more Florida foods. (Besides maybe Key Lime Pie, which I’d already covered in France.)
The buttermilk inspiration came from author and culinary historian Michael Twitty, whose grandmother crumbled cornbread into a cold glass of the tangy milk, the crumbs leaving streaks on the glass. (A slightly revolting but so crisply vivid food image that I’m as nostalgic for the memory as if it were my own.)
I put all those ideas together, hoping for something rich and soft and crisp and just mouth-puckering enough to make you think of summer mornings in Florida, and the relief of air-conditioning.
So with my probe thermometer in hand, I made a buttermilk crème anglaise and folded it into whipped cream and egg whites for my buttermilk mousse. I chopped blackberries to a pulp for a coulis (spraying my white chef’s ensemble with fine purple speckles), and baked a cornbread cake and a cornmeal crisp.
I paused when I finished those four recipes, shoving my perpetually-falling-down glasses up the bridge of my nose. I was a little behind the schedule I’d sketched out, but I was pleased to realize, as I counted back the hours remaining, that it was going ok. I was going to get my assembled entremets into the blast freezer by the 2.5 hour mark. They would set in the cold, and I’d be able to glaze them without melting the carefully shaped mousse. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Looking around, I thought the students seemed more relaxed than during the last mock exam. There were no visible catastrophes, although there were certainly little “lessons” unfolding at every station.
My cornmeal cake, for one – meant to be soft and spongy as yellow birthday cake – had turned out more like a cornbread cracker. Oh well. Sandwiching it between two layers of mousse should hide that. My friend Kaitlin next to me was wondering aloud whether she’d over-steeped her cream with earl-gray tea bags for the mousse in her London Fog entremet. We both tasted the cream, and declared it alarmingly bitter, but likely to be temperable by the addition of lots of Chantilly cream. She decided to forge ahead.
My first real test came when I actually started assembling my entremets.
The challenges of a mock exam at Le Cordon Bleu, I’ve learned, are three-fold. First there’s being able to make a dessert composed of eight or nine recipes in less than 4.5 hours. Then there’s the dance of making all those pieces – some of which only stay stable 10 minutes – in the right sequence, given that a larger entremet and a smaller one have to be assembled in different orders. And then there’s size. Do a mousse, a coulis, and two crumbly-crispy-cakey things really fit in a 3.5-inch cake mold the way you imagined they would?
For me, the answer to that question was no. I squirted some buttermilk mousse into my mini entremet mold, plunked in a frozen insert of blackberry coulis, topped that with a cornbread cake cut-out and some more mousse, and then realized there was no room for my cornbread crisp. Shit.
First, I stuck the discs of crisp on anyway. But the architectural impossibility was immediately apparent. For the moment, my entremets were round-side-down, still in their dome molds. But once frozen and unmolded, they would be flipped over and would need to sit flat on a plate. That wasn’t going to happen thanks to my crisps. Rather than being shaped like an upside-down mushroom cap, my mushrooms had an un-sanctioned stem sticking out of the top.
After some dallying and grimacing, I did what had to be done: I cut my entremets off at the knees. Goodbye, crisp. The entremets went into the freezer, crisp-less, but reassuringly mushroom-cap-like.
Then I improvised. I crumbled the hacked-off crisps to a sandy powder, and put them in a shallow bowl. After glazing the entremets, I decided, I would dip their rounded edge in a fringe of deconstructed crisp.
And that’s exactly what I did. It actually looked pretty good.
The optional lunch break blew by, as the entire class worked nonstop on their glazing and decor elements. Suddenly, there were only ten minutes left until we had to present our entremets.
I realized with a brief wave of horror that I still had to make and pipe a Chantilly cream, and there weren’t any stand mixers available. Time to put my well-earned whisking muscles to work, I thought with grim resolve. I grabbed a bowl, wiped it dry, poured in cream and an un-measured glob of mascarpone to speed up the thickening process, and then whisked maniacally by hand.
Knowing I was probably going to get some feedback on my decidedly casual decor, I piped a crown of cream onto the top of the large entremet and a little dab onto each of the small ones, and then piled on the fresh blackberries. It wasn’t very French boutique, but it was very blackberry patch.
I was done with a minute to go. I breathed a sigh of relief, and looked around at the other finishing touches underway.
One talented girl to my left was gingerly placing stencil-cut flowers of pink chocolate atop her entremets. They could have come straight out of in a Cyril Lignac boutique. Across from me, a German girl was wrapping her arugula-and-strawberry entremets in a translucent shawl of poached rhubarb.
And next to me, Kaitlin was finishing her London Fog entremets. She’d gone for something architecturally daring, inverting her small entremets so that the domed, moussey part faced down, resting atop a pastry-shortcrust cookie. But her entremets weren’t a half-sphere – they were a whole globe, rounded out on top by a thin dome of chocolate. At the moment, she was using pastry tips heated with a blowtorch to cut cloud-shaped holes into the chocolate sky. The cloud openings revealed wisps of silvery Chantilly cream – the London Fog. Rearing gravity-defyingly off its cookie base, her entremet looked for all the world like an edible Miyazaki planet.
When it was my turn to present, I walked up to Chef Bichon and the gaggle of assistant chefs surrounding him, and waited with bated breath. He wiped his paring knife on a blue paper towel, and sliced one of my small entremets in half, silently poking and prodding at the buttermilk mousse and dark-purple blackberry center. He tasted them together, and then separately, and then with the cornbread elements, before laying down his verdict.
He liked it, thank god. The balance between the rich, slightly tangy mousse and the acidic fruit interior worked, he said. No changes needed for my main recipes. A better result than I’d hoped.
“Ici,” he said, pointing with his knife to the inside of the entremet, “c’est bon.”
“Mais ici,” he continued with a raised eyebrow, pointing to the hodgepodge of cream and berries on the exterior, “c’est pas bon.” (No surprise.)
He showed me a few pictures on his phone of how he thought I could reimagine the décor more elegantly with a flat cylinder of blackberry coulis and a swirl of torched meringue.
I was delighted. Exact instructions on how to finish my entremet? I’ll take it.
And even better, we’d all pulled it off. Once everyone had presented, Chef Bichon pulled us together and gave us the good news.
“For a mock exam, that was surprisingly good. You’ll all be fine on your final.”
Only once chef left us to walk around, forks in hand, tasting each others’ entremets, did I realize how exhausted I was. My knees ached, my feet felt swollen, and I was starving for something other than sugar.
On the metro home, where it was thirty degrees hotter in the metro cars than outside them, I kept my elbows tucked tightly against my sides, trying to hold in the sweat. I could smell myself; and like my decor, it was pas bon. Plus, my entremets were melting. I could practically hear the raw eggs in my mousse screaming in protest as the heat multiplied the salmonella.
I must have looked a sight, because once I transferred to the standing-room-only 13 line, the bodies parted and a woman tapped on my shoulder and indicated I should take one of the seats reserved for the pregnant and infirm. Too exhausted to be embarrassed, I sank into the seat.
Finally home a short while later, I begged off dinner plans and ate some leftover pasta. It had been a long day. Terrasse dining would still be there tomorrow night