Every year for the past seven years I have joined hundreds of other pastry professionals in an annual pilgrimage to two of pastry's meccas: The World Pastry Forum and the National and World Pastry Team Championship. I have just returned from my 2008 journey, which took me to Nashville, Tennessee, and the Gaylord Opryland Hotel.
The World Pastry Forum is actually an educational event. More than a dozen world-class pastry chefs present a program of hands-on and demonstration classes in all aspects of pastry, baking, and confectionery. Highlights this year included the hands-on Chocolate class taught by Stephane Glacier MOF and Stephan Iten, the hands-on Wedding Cake class taught by Colette Peters and Nicholas Lodge, and classes by Anil Rohira and Ewald Notter (chocolate), Ciril Hitz (breakfast pastries), En Ming Hsu (sugar confections), John Kraus (frozen desserts), Derek Poirier (plated desserts) and more.
Students in the demo classes attend ten half-day sessions where students in the hands-on classes spend two-and-a-half days with each chef instructor. Before, between, and after classes provides opportunities for networking and brushing up on the latest tools, techniques, and industry gossip. Evenings also provide an opportunity to take classes and this year's roster featured a demonstration of a pretty amazing device called the PacoJet by chef Kriss Harvey as well as a chocolate tasting class presented by yours truly.
The single coolest technique I picked up was a way to caramelize white chocolate. Done properly, the result is something very close to dulce de leche in color and flavor, that still tempers like chocolate. This makes it very versatile and in addition to traditional enrobing and ganache-making applications, it can also be used to make a whipped ganache for garnishing other desserts. Think caramel whipped cream and you're pretty close.
For all its international cachet and appeal, the World Pastry Forum is not often seen as a place for sponsors to introduce new products. This year was very different, at least in the chocolate arena, and the tasting class I gave featured new offerings from Guittard (an origin Peruvian with interesting lavender floral notes and a soft, warm spice finish and an assertive new blend, Complexite); two new chocolates from Valrhona (Alpaco an origin chocolate from Madagascan beans and Tainori an origin chocolate from Dominican Republic beans); and the Centenario 100th anniversary chocolates from Felchlin that were covered in a previous post. All of these chocolates should be available through distributors and in some finer retail outlets in time for Holiday 2008 production. Another Valrhona chocolate, Nyangbo, an origin Ghanaian chocolate, will be available early next year. For larg-ish chocolatiers looking for chocolates they can call their own, Valrhona has a new custom chocolate program with a very small minimum annual commitment of ten tonnes.
But even as the Forum is winding down, preparation for the World Pastry Team Championship had already begun. Nine identical competition kitchens were being erected, one for each of the nine teams competing this year. Held bi-annually (in alternate years the National competition is held to select the USA team for the World competition), the World Pastry Team Championship is the richest (pun intended) competition of its kind. Over the course of 13 hours of competition, each team must prepare a chocolate showpiece, a sugar showpiece, a pastillage tray, an entremet (cake), an entremet glace (frozen cake), a plated dessert, three different petits gateaux (small cakes), and three different bon bons. If that were not enough, the rules require the teams to create multiples of most items (except for the showpieces and the pastillage). In the cases of the petits gateaux and the bon bons, teams must prepare 14 sets of each for judging, photography, and for display.
At times, it is not apparent that anything is going on in the kitchens as the individual elements of the competition dishes are prepared. The excitement is most palpable in the last hour in the rush to finish on time and then to move the showpieces from the kitchen onto a buffet table for presentation. It is quite common for at least two or more pieces not to make the trip in one piece as the stress of movement causes pieces to snap off and tumble the entire showpiece into a sad heap on the floor. With over 1600 possible points, the margin of victory has been as small as a single point.
This year, the team sportsmanship award went to team Mexico. The bronze medal went to Team Switzerland. Silver went to Japan who also took home the awards for Best Chocolate Showpiece and Best Buffet Table. Team USA took home the gold as well as Best Degustation (taste), and Best Sugar Showpiece. As usual, the judging of the showpieces awarded technical skills as well as adherence to familiar shapes and forms. To my eye, the South Korean pieces displayed a tremendous amount of emotion in decidedly different forms, and the fan of peacock feathers on the Chinese sugar piece may have been the prettiest piece of sugar work I have ever seen survive the trip to the buffet table.
Died-in-the-wool Pastry Geeks show up for the start of the second day of competition, which begins at 6:00 am. The really lucky few get to hang out backstage and in the photography booth and taste the competition entries. And for those of you who wonder what happens to the showpieces when the competition is over - well, a small band of us gets to sneak into the competition arena at two in the morning and dismantle them in a process not all that different from cow tipping but far more reverential.
The 2009 World Pastry Forum and National Pastry Team Championships are set for over the 4th of July weekend at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Hotel in Scottsdale, AZ.
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