Blog: Brain Freeze | The French Pastry School

Blog: Brain Freeze

Brain Freeze
The French Pastry School |
October 22, 2009

In high school, my math teachers tried desperately to make their subject fun, exciting, and, most challenging of all, relevant.  They made up cheers and songs by which to remember our times tables; cute rhymes to memorize the order of operations; and, without fail, algebra problems predicting the imminent doom of two trains hurtling towards one another at varying speeds to remind us that, yes, math does apply to “real life.”   Somehow, irresponsible engineers didn’t grab my interest—instead, I went to college to study English and avoided math like the plague—that is, until this week, when Chef John Kraus made it interesting.  As it turns out, all Mrs. Johnson had to do was apply her x’s, y’s, and z’s to ice cream.

On the first day of the ice cream unit, all of my classmates were a little wary when, instead of having a demonstration after scaling the day’s ingredients, we were directed to a classroom on the sparsely inhabited fourth floor of the City Colleges building (where The French Pastry School is located).  Throughout the whole program, this is the first and only week we will ever sit down at a desk, trading in our whisks and spatulas for pens and calculators.  Chef John stands in front of a whiteboard that is scrawled with formulas, exactly like my college physics professor, only wearing a toque.

“Don’t freak out,” Chef John begins by calming us.  “This is not as complicated as it looks.”  For the next hour he explains the principals of balancing sorbet and ice cream recipes—it’s essential that every ingredient works just so with every other ingredient so that the final product has the ideal taste and texture.  Most of this work was already done for us by Chef Mathematicians who devised particular formulas to keep those properties consistent.  There are only a few basic ingredients in ice cream—milk, cream, sugar, flavor, and various natural stabilizers that prolong shelf life—if any of these are missing or out of proportion, the mix’s properties completely change and you end up with icy, grainy, or greasy ice cream.

For example, if we want to add chocolate to our ice cream, we are also adding fat; too much fat in the creamy mix will have an oily mouth feel once it’s frozen.  The logical thing to do is to take out fat from somewhere else in the recipe—these formulas help us determine how much to remove and where from.  “It’s all about checks and balances,” Chef John explains, and for the first time in my life, my mathematically-challenged brain really gets it.  He’s clear, he’s calm, and he’s speaking my language—math is easy when you have a creamy reward waiting at the end.

The first time I ever visited the French Pastry School was on a day when the class was making Early Grey and Caramel Ice Cream; I was fortunate enough to sample a generous spoonful.  It was mind-blowingly delicious—the flavor was delicate but intense; the fresh, airy ice cream was silken—it enveloped my taste buds for a sensuous second then discreetly melted into an entirely different texture: rich, cold cream that cooled and refreshed my throat as I swallowed.  Ice cream has always been my ultimate comfort food but this was something else entirely.  That experience—and the desire to repeat it—factored strongly into my decision to enroll in L’Art de Pâtisserie.

Every day this week started with a math lecture and the solving of a few example problems.  In high school, when calculating the “real life” scenario of when two locomotives would crash, it felt like a chore; here, when determining how much flavoring to use in the peanut butter ice cream that we’ll be making in less than an hour, math is an exciting puzzle.  I have an entire week to learn to make as many flavors as I can.  The bright orange apricot sorbet made with Cap’Fruit fresh fruit purée tasted like biting into a summer apricot, if the little fruit was cool and creamy.  The Vanilla, speckled with seeds, was my favorite but the spice, hazelnut, and coffee ice creams equally captured the essence of their ingredients.  I can take these formulas with me anywhere I ever go, decide to make any flavor I ever want and, if I do the math, always have the same luscious result.

On Friday at 8:30 am, Chef John had us taste a new recipe of bourbon ice cream as it came cascading out of the churn like soft serve. The ice cream machine not only freezes the mix but spins air into it, producing a light richness. I’ve never eaten ice cream so early in the day nor have I ever tasted something at once so silky and full-flavored.  It may not have been the Breakfast of Champions but, after all the time that went into understanding the formula and balancing the mix, it was certainly brain food.