Culinary Sense

Adventures with Food and Life

Banquets and Catering: So you think you know how to bake…

… actually, I never said I knew how to bake. Let’s just say this much: baking takes a looooooong time. You need to get all the ingredients, mix them in the proper order, let the dough rise, fold it, let it rise again, get the oven to the correct temperature, form the dough, bake it, let it cool…. Yikes! So many stages. But we’ll get to that later.

Hi Folks,

it’s me, Carolynn. And today, we’re starting a new class called “Catering and Banquets”. This class used to be a class that did off-site catering events for NECI, but it became too cumbersome to truck students across the state, and in the winter, there was just not enough business.

So instead, we now have this class in our cafeteria, which is set up to reflect a banquet-type situation. There are different stations, including

– entree station: usually one protein, one vegetable, one starch, and one vegetarian entree. Sometimes this includes a carving station for whole cuts of meat (tender/loin or roast), often it includes whole grains (like quinoa or barley), and fresh and exciting vegetables.

– hot sandwich station: usually includes sliders (with options of cheese, bacon, and other accompaniments), hotdogs, and a hot sandwich option (like a panini, pulled pork sandwiches, quesadillas).

– pasta/rice bowl station: chef’s pick of noodle or rice dish.

– appetizers/hors d’oeuvres: if there is an extra student, that person can make appetizers like canapes, dumplings, wings, fried things, pita and hummus, nachos with salsa, and so on.

– soup and salad: salad bar set-up, one soup, several composed salads, fresh fruit.

– baking station: the baker makes a breakfast pastry, a breakfast bread, a dessert for lunch, a bread for lunch, and cookies for lunch.

Pretzels and pretzel sticks on display.

So, I got chosen to be on the baking station first. It’s 6:15 am, and I have until 7:30 am to get a breakfast pastry and a breakfast bread out for service. A breakfast bread, chef tells me, is something you can eat with eggs, like English muffins, bagels, or biscuits, or another kind of bread. A breakfast pastry might be a muffin, scone, or puff pastry danish something-or-other.

There is a book of recipes waiting for me in the bakeshop, which is located in the fat corner of the kitchen. It has almost no ventilation except for the hoods (which pull the smoke and hot air outside). As you can imagine, it gets really hot in there when the ovens are on. Really hot. Like, your pants are drenched hot.

On the first day, I manage to make biscuits, and Chef Doug helps me make pastry pinwheels.

Mine didn’t look anything like this.

Here’s a photo of a pastry pinwheel. Mine, of course, did not look this pretty. But they went out, along with the biscuits, and I went on to prepping for lunch. I decided to make a carrot cake, and a rosemary focaccia. I knew the focaccia would have enough time to rise, and I would be able to bake and slice it in time for lunch (starting at 11:30 am). There is some leftover cookie dough I can use to bake off about 80 cookies.

Things work out well enough, although I struggle to get everything done in time. At the last minute, I remember that carrot cake needs a cream cheese frosting, so I whip one together, and hope that everything tastes okay together. The cake is moist, and the frosting is cream-cheesy, and not too sweet. The hardest part, really, is getting the floppy cake from the baking pan onto a plate. There are no large round cake platters, so I have to use a regular round plate, which has a raised rim. Unfortunate, but oh well.

The bread turns out well, and I slice it into 60 pieces and put it out on time. The cookies get out on time, too.

By now, it is almost noon, and class ends at 1pm. I have no idea what to make for the next day, but manage to get a raspberry muffin “kit” together. A kit is when you get all the ingredients for a recipe together, so all you have to the next day is mix and cook/bake the item. For muffins, you can mix the dry ingredients together, and in a separate container, mix the wet ingredients together. So I knew that in the morning, all I would have to do is mix the ingredients together, scoop them into the muffin tin, and bake off the muffins, leaving me enough time to make English muffins.

English muffins cooking on the flattop.

The English muffins were fun to make. You cut them out like biscuits, and then “bake” them on the flattop or griddle. I had never thought about how English muffins were made before, having always bought them. But of course you can make them yourself! It was really a great experience to make them myself, and cook them on the flattop.

So it’s day two of class, and I’m doing okay with the English muffins, but the raspberry muffins (which I had to turn into cranberry muffins because we didn’t have any raspberries) are not working out. They didn’t rise during the baking process, and come out as flat discs. They taste okay, so I put them out, but who really wants to eat muffins that don’t look like muffins?

I’m starting to move on to making about 20 lbs of cookie batter (about 270 cookies) so that there are enough for the next few days, but I’m called back to finish cooking the English muffins – they are not quite baked through. I have to finish them in the oven, and I’m starting to fall behind.

English muffins on display.

I’m able to finish the cookie batter before we break for breakfast, but I’m worried I might not be able to finish the flourless chocolate cake and Amish-style pretzels I want to make for lunch. I know the dough for the pretzels needs time to rise, and the cakes need to bake about 50 minutes, so I’m probably not going to have time to make both. Chef recommends I concentrate on the cakes, and bake off some frozen baguette. I’m relieved, and concentrate on baking off cookies and making the chocolate cakes.

I keep testing the chocolate cakes, but they just don’t seem to be baking in the time the recipe said they would. They’ve been in about 60 minutes, and they still are soft in the middle. Time is running out, and I’m worried. In addition to the cakes, I’m also trying to make a pastry sauce called creme anglaise, which is an egg and cream based sauce that has a vanilla flavor. This sauce will go with the cake.

Messed up flourless chocolate cake.

At this point, I am beginning to break down. I barely manage to get a still warm chocolate cake out, the sauce isn’t ready yet, but the baguette and cookies make it out. Chef suggests I bring the chocolate cake to the cooler, and put it out the next day. I return to the bakeshop, feeling defeated. I had messed up the muffins that morning, and not managed to bake a bread for lunch. Then, I had to take my cake back (the other cakes, indeed, were in the oven, still not finished). I felt like I had failed in the tasks the Chef had given me.

Even worse, I had no idea what I was going to do the next day. I didn’t really understand how I was supposed to bake 5 different things each day. I couldn’t keep up with prepping everything, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make much for the next day, because any bread dough would have had to be started by that point. I am dismayed and disappointed, and feeling overwhelmed, not knowing what to do next.

I start crying back in the bakeshop, trying to pull myself together, but I can’t seem to stop the crying. I frantically look through the recipe book to see what I could make the next day. Chef finally comes over and notices what is going on, and we sit down in his office to talk. I tell him I feel overwhelmed, and don’t know what to make the next day. I tell him I don’t have a lot of experience baking, especially not making 5 things a day, without any time to prep for the next day. I tell him how I start doubting my skills, and whether I am ever going to fit in. He is very understanding, and we make a plan for the next day.

The third (and thankfully last) day on this station, I make corn muffins in the morning, and the move on to sourdough bread, which needs a lot of tending. At every next step, I check in with Chef to make sure I am on track. I really need the extra guidance, and feel much more in control of the situation. I am able to stay on track, and manage to make pretzels.

Pretzels!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Can you tell I’m excited?)

The pretzels come out well, and I can’t restock them quickly enough. They’re not perfect, but taste good. This is definitely a recipe I will make again.

So the third day is a success, and I regain my footing, and a little more confidence in myself. Chef tells me not to let myself get that far again before coming to him for help, and I now understand that I need to communicate. It was a pretty bad breakdown, and I don’t want to go there again.

Don’t worry, the rest of the class goes okay. I’ll be writing more about the other stations I was on, and the cool foods I got to make.

~ Carolynn


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One thought on “Banquets and Catering: So you think you know how to bake…

  1. Mami on said:

    What a nightmare !!I tried making 3 different kind of Christmas cookies in one day and ended up a nervous wreck! and there was no pressure…. Now all I make is vanilla crescents and that’s enough excitement.

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