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  • LJS

It’s a Porcupine! Or a wreath! Or a…what?

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

With the cold weather arrival here in Paris, we had a little touch of Christmas this past week in pastry class. We made one strange little cake to start to get us in the ever-festive spirit during this Most Wonderful Time of the Year. I’m learning that pastry chefs might be part-elf. Chef told us when he used to work in a patisserie, mid-November he started getting swamped with prep work to begin to prepare all the sweets that are ordered in December. Ever since, one of my friends in class has broken out into various Christmas carols randomly. I thought Christmas came early in the States!

Anyway, cake. Not to ruin the surprise, let me take you on the path I was on, until it finally dawned on me at the end its true intended representation.

Starts out pretty deliciously, with a chocolate genoise baked in a pretty little round.

Yum, people. Yum. So, we popped this little sucker out (it didn’t stick due to some intense buttering and flouring of said round – butter has suddenly lost its stigma to me, by the way. It can’t truly be unhealthy considering how much of it is commonly used for all purposes and in all ways in the kitchen here. Almost everything has butter in it. And not only that, I befriended a stick of it two weeks ago when I got a wicked burn. You just stick some butter on the burn and it takes the heat right out. I was amazed. Butter, truly an everyday need)…

… and cut it in two to soak with a Cointreau syrup. More boozy syrup! It wasn’t just a personal affection for the concoction, it had a very technical reason to be explained during the frosting section. Moral of the story – not my fault everything I make has butter and liquor in it, Chef told me to. Here he is, showing us the process.

Next up, we piped some supreme vanille between the two layers. This was a pastry cream, with Chantilly cream beat into it, and it was not messing around. I heard it was delicious, but due to its gelatin, I abstained from trying it. Boo gelatin.

It was then topped with more syrup and then covered in some basic chocolate mousse for good measure, to be further decorated with chocolate sticks.

*The chocolate mousse didn’t have gelatin, so I took a spoonful to “test the flavor”. Yum.

These sticks were quite the production to make. We have a fairly large kitchen, so we all usually have our own space to do our work. But when you have 10 people, only 1 of which who knows the next step, tempering chocolate (which means trying to get the chocolate to 55°C in a bain-marie, then cool it by pouring it on the countertop and pushing it around with a spatule until it gets down to 29°C, then back up to 31°C-32°C by placing it for approximately 1.47 minutes near-the-oven-but-not-too-near-the-oven-but-not-too-far-away-from-the-oven to get the perfect consistency of melted chocolate otherwise it won’t be shiny and you have to start back at the bain-marie), it gets messy and crowded. And then the worst thing happened – we all pretty much finished tempering our chocolate at the same time. We didn’t have enough tools to all make the sticks at the same time, so back to the drawing board for half of us.

I’m on tangents today. My apologies.

Chocolate sticks! So, you get your perfect chocolate temp and you pour it out on a plastic sheet that is stuck to wooden board with chocolate.

Then you take a long plastic board with teeth and pull it across the chocolate as soon as its been spread out to the right thickness at the right temp without lumps or God help you, you’re not going to make it.

Chef made it. Lucky for him. So you cover up your hard work with more plastic and another board and let it cool at room temp.

Once cooled, you cut the sticks into approximately the same length and begin to do this to the round that has at this point been covered in chocolate mousse twice:

Here’s where the boozy syrup secret comes in. You have to soak the top and outside with the syrup, because as you begin to stick the chocolate sticks into the cake, you need some give. If you haven’t soaked properly, then the sticks won’t go into the cake easily and then you have broken chocolate sticks you have to eat quickly so the chef won’t see what you’ve done. See, I told you had to soak the cake with Cointreau. Can you imagine the horror and travesty of broken chocolate strips? You’d never achieve the clean look of this cake.

So, you continue to stick these little guys into the cake all the way around, inside and outside, top and, well, just the top. The bottom would be tres difficile and not very stable. Anyways, you stick them into the cake until it begins to resemble this:

I’m not making this up. This was intentional. This porcupine/hedgehog/sea urchin/bush looking thing was almost exactly on par with chef’s. My sticks just happened to more flat than his…6 of one kind, half dozen of another, right?

This is when it hit me. People, what is this? How is this Christmas related? Was it a wreath? Are we going with a very merry under the sea theme? Did we screw up somewhere along the way? Is this some sort of torture device, saying no more dessert, this one’s for Santa?

No, I just made Jesus’ Wreath of Thorns. In chocolate cake.

Moving along, to remind us that we are making a Christmas cake and because its cold outside, you sprinkle some coco powder and powdered sugar on top for that festive flair.

Then, since its Christmas and not Easter, you remind everyone by adding some decorations in the form of almond paste, spray-painted pinecones and holly leaves, and topped off with an orange ribbon rose. Why an orange ribbon rose, well…I don’t know. I just went with it at this point.

And for good measure, chocolate stars.

My final product. I decided to hold off on the orange ribbon rose…it seemed gauche.

And to prove that this was the intended outcome, here’s chef’s:

Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday Jesus.

Chef sold these before we even finished them since they are a hot commodity due to the spikes, so no one took a cake home this week. No one seemed to notice, we were still trying to figure it all out.

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