Life has so few surprises left that sometimes we need to venture out of our daily routines to learn something new and unexpected. In mid 2015, I decided to join a part-time course at Academy of Pastry Arts Malaysia, which took up 12 hours per weekend for 12 weeks.
As a novice baker, starting this course felt like entering a magic portal into an entirely new world so different from my own. My prior experience on pastry and bread making was limited so there were a lot of first times trials. I was in constant awe. The experience in this academy taught me more than just the basic skills in pastry arts; observing and listening to the teaching chefs opened my eyes to new perspectives and definitely increased my admiration and respect towards them. While not all the skills can be translated into home kitchen, it is interesting to know the techniques and skills that go into every piece.
Week 1 – Bread
In my first class, Bread, one of my earliest recollections was watching Chef Angelo’s eyes lit up as he passionately explained the theory behind bread making, from optimum temperature of water to yeast fermentation to windowpane test. His enthusiasm was infectious as he raved about how he “fell in love” with bread after taking it up as an elective.
Week 2 – Breakfast Pastries
Breakfast Pastries week was taught by two different chefs on two separate days. Each chef had their preferred techniques and I observed how the chefs handled their disagreements respectfully. On the second day, after a discussion and understanding of Chef Abu’s method on layering, I listened as Chef Angelo explained his lock-down and layering method and the differences between their methods. Instead of discrediting the other method which produced fewer layers, he explained how certain pastries like Danish and Puff pastry can do with fewer layers. Croissants, however, looked and tasted better with 49 layers (left) compared to 25 layers (right).
Week 3 – Tarts
I was introduced to the term “blind bake” in Tart week, among many new methods such as using pie weights, freezing pie dough and emulsification of tart filling.
This was the first time I noticed how efficient the assistants were. We got a glimpse of what these full-time students of the academy, who volunteered their time even after a hectic weekday schedule, learn as they assisted the chefs with ease. The ingredients were also meticulously measured and separated into individual containers – sounded simple but tedious when there were so many types of ingredients and they have to repeat the measurements for each group of two.
Week 4 – Chocolates
Chocolates week was one of my favourite class; I learnt about the two distinct types of chocolates – compound and couverture. I tasted how quality couvertures were smooth at the back of the throat with no sticky aftertaste. As couvertures are expensive, Chef Lim pointed out they can easily be wasted unknowingly, especially during the rolling of truffles; if 1g of chocolate was wasted in every truffle rolling, 100 truffles will waste 100g of chocolate, accumulated to an estimated loss of RM20 for 100g.
I finally understood why chocolate bonbons are extremely pricey as it took a lot of effort and precision, not to mention the high quality ingredient. Depending on the type of chocolate (dark, milk or white), the chocolate has to be melted and tempered or seeded until it reaches a narrow temperature range to create the melt-in-the-mouth effect. If the chocolate exceeds the working temperature by one degree, the whole process of melting and tempering has to be done.
Week 5 – Travel Cakes
During Travel Cakes week, Chef Chong revealed the method to maintain the moisture of the cakes; freezing the batter at least an hour before baking it in the oven and after baking, when it is still warm, coat the outer layer of the cake with a sugar syrup and freeze immediately. I see the glimmer of satisfaction in his eyes as one of the madeleine batches were close to perfection – so satisfied that he took a picture of it!
While we saw how flawless and effortless these end products were made, we sometimes overlooked the hard work and sacrifices they made. Until Chef Chong said something that struck a chord:
“What you see during the class is us succeeding on our first time. When I studied this field from MIB, we did not have recipes handed to us. You did not see the trial and error process behind; the hours I spent trying to get the techniques right. I worked till 3 am at times and no one saw it. We experimented. We failed. And we try again. Until we get it right. ” – Chef Chong
Maybe not in those exact words, but it was the day my admiration and respect towards all chefs grew tenfold.
Week 6 – Cheesecakes & Petit Fours
As the course progressed, I realised that our petit fours were so different compared to the full timers.
This week was least favourable as I came face to face with my mortal enemy – banana cakes. I scrunched my nose and stood at the corner of the room as the overripe banana were peeled and poured into the mixer. It was soon balanced out with my love for macarons and brownies. As macarons were tricky, Chef Jess taught how a precise temperature of the sugar syrup was required before mixing in with the meringue.
Week 7 & 9 – Classic Cakes and Plated Desserts
As I missed the Wedding Cake week (which can be replaced in the next 3 months), Chef Peter taught me two classes consecutively; Classic Cakes and Plated Desserts. The most interesting part of the classes were assembling the opera cake and cutting a successfully baked chocolate fondant! I enjoyed his class most as he had a good sense of humour, with a balance between seriousness when explaining the baking techniques and easy-going in between.
Week 10 – Cookies
Cookies class was probably the most dramatic as I was caught in between cross fires of a somewhat wretched, absurd squabble between part time students. I observed as the drama unfolded, driving a wedge of irreconcilable differences between a group of people that used to be friends. The unpredictability of human nature was fascinating and the truth of the situation was still open for interpretation.
Week 11 – Ice Cream & Sorbet
Before the Ice Cream & Sorbet class started, I wondered how one could spend 12 hours teaching about ice cream. Chef Otoman, often dubbed the ice cream expert, proved that it was possible as he condensed the theoretical part as much as he could. Did you know that there are so many types of frozen desserts such as ice cream, gelato, crème glaze, sorbet, sherbet etc?
Week 12 – Assessment
The final week was the Assessment, which was not as scary as I expected. The assessing chef was evidently lenient as he told us that it was not about the marks we achieved in the assessment, but rather to test our ability to produce what we learnt in the academy on our own, whether in a home kitchen, a bakery or even a hotel. To be able to use the skills we accumulate and to acknowledge what went wrong and what could be improved on without any help.
I was fortunate to see the preparation for FHM 2015, a competition I would not have known about if not for this academy. During this period, the full-time students were assisting the chefs in a separate kitchen. I watched in amazement from behind the window as they sculpted chocolate displays and build sugar displays, mesmerized by the concentration and swiftness of their movements. It was like watching elves working in Santa’s workshop, if it existed.
I admired the passion and dedication of these chefs and their respect for each others’ opinion. I remembered Chef Lawrence came to our Week 5 class, asking Chef Chong’s opinion on the layered cake (for the lack of a better term) that Chef Otoman was experimenting on in preparation for the competition. I overheard the discussion on how the layers were not sticking enough, how one layer is too thin in comparison to another while to untrained eyes like mine, it was a perfectly good cake.
Between classes, Chef Peter shared his thoughts and inspirations and took us through his progress on his cold chocolate display for FHM 2015. Being a sugar art master, he revealed that it was his first time taking part in a cold chocolate display competition (and he won first prize!). I later knew that the academy itself won several prizes including Most Outstanding Sugar Showpiece and Chocolate Challenge.
On the day itself, I attended the FHM 2015 in KLCC. While I missed the live shows due to mesmerisation of a world so familiar, I caught the sugar demonstration by Chef Tan. I remembered the last smile of satisfaction on both Chef Tan and his assistant when they put the final touchups on the display. The heartwarming part was when he rushed off to cheer his colleague and friend, Chef Otoman, during the final moments of his live show.
A week before my course ended, a close friend asked “What do you enjoy most about the course?”
The people I met.
The chefs – already establishing themselves as one of the front-runners of the industry, they are continuously polishing their skills in various divisions of the field. Their passion in teaching and pastry arts itself were inspiring to say the least. The synergy between chefs to constantly drive each other to better themselves kept the academy running like a well-oiled machine.
Their appreciation of the Managing Director, Chef Niklesh, for his leadership and management skills – accordingly, things changed for the better when he took over. In addition, the ingredients in preparation for the chocolate displays and sugar displays racked up a bill among other things.
If we took the spotlights off the chefs and management for a moment and shine it to the aspiring full time students, such as Asmaa, Cassie, Wai Hong, Jack, Kenneth, Gracie, Hilary (to name a few) for assisting us during part-time courses and setting exemplary examples of what we could be if we proceed in this field. Their hard work and steep learning curve were occasionally featured in their impressive showcase during Open Days, assisting the part-time classes and the chefs during FHM 2015 on their own time.
To the people that crossed paths during this course, both inspirational and unreasonable, thank you for making this path interesting.
Academy of Pastry Arts Malaysia
Location: Lot 2-A, 2nd floor, Wisma Thrifty, No. 19, Jalan Barat, 46200, PJ, Selangor.
- Original Kerchi: http://originalkerchi.blogspot.my/2015/08/life-in-academy-of-pastry-arts.html
- Rolled into One Mom: http://www.rolledin2onemom.com/2015/09/academy-of-pastry-arts-chocolates.html
- Fully Housewifed: http://www.fullyhousewifed.com/2015/09/27/tips-in-making-chocolates/
- Leftover Jinxed: http://www.leftoverjinx.com/2015/08/academy-of-pastry-bakery-arts.html
- PJmummy: http://pjmummy.blogspot.my/2014/06/part-time-course-at-academy-of-pastry.html