Blog: I Would Pipe Five Hundred Miles | The French Pastry School

Blog: I Would Pipe Five Hundred Miles

I Would Pipe Five Hundred Miles
The French Pastry School |
September 24, 2009

When Chef Laura Ragano gave her demonstration this morning, I watched her steady, delicate hands pipe curlicues and dots on a sheet pan to show us how it was done.  She made a fleur-de-lis out of buttercream that looked like the ones on the French Coat of Arms—mine, with ends that curved out too far, looked like a little man with a head, two legs and a belt.  As I finished for the day, I piped a little woman next to him to make it look like I had done that on purpose.

We’ve been practicing our piping for four days: rows of buttercream Swiss dots, shells, and ropes and royal icing roses, daisies and blossoms.  My rose, depending on the angle, looks alternately like a cheerleader’s pom-pom or a cabbage.  I read somewhere that, before you become a proficient “piper,” you have to pipe five miles of buttercream—I don’t know whether to lose hope or be encouraged by the fact that I’ve only done about four hundred yards.

I love this class; it’s relaxing and crafty, but it is particularly challenging to my untrained hands.  I wondered if others were having the same problems; I was interested to see that everyone had a different approach to decorating a cake. My classmate, Rebecca, has been doing this for years at a bakery in Michigan. Her cakes incorporated at least five different techniques, all immaculately executed.  Another student who tends to lean toward the avant-garde side of pastry was completely enchanted by these traditional techniques and pleasantly surprised by her natural knack for them.   Sam, who plans on opening a bakery in his Southern hometown, discovered that his hands were a little big to handle the dainty piping bags and must have given himself a headache from sheer determination to finish his cake prettily.  Like me, he was learning that piping buttercream is not as fanciful as it looks; it’s a skill that takes time and patience to acquire.

I didn’t think I was going to be very good at cake decorating and, at first, I was right.  On Monday, I was frustrated by my inability to make perfectly curved swirls of frosting and I sulked home swearing that I’d never make a wedding cake again.  By Friday, my wrists had finally become accustomed to the subtle movements and rhythms of piping—my fleur-de-lis didn’t have feet; my work table was filled with a rose garden instead of a cabbage patch—and I gladly popped into a supply store on my way home to invest in a few extra decorative piping tips.

Every single topic we study—be it breads, candies, chocolates or decorative cakes—represents an entire industry or at least an entire shop we might one day own.  Our instructors encourage us to concentrate on being great at one thing—ice creams, macarons, gumpaste roses—and dedicating our lives to it; this is one of the surest paths to success.  These little month-long samples of the specific businesses can, not only tell us what we want to do, but also enable us to get a sense of what might not be the best fit.  I may not ever make wedding cakes but I’ve learned to respect that expression of pastry and I want to be able to do it well—no matter how many miles it takes to perfect it.

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The best part of the cake decorating class was taking the two-tier, six-layer, heavily decorated wedding cake we had worked on all week home on the bus and getting delighted reactions from my neighbors.  Later that night, I brought it to a restaurant and joked with the patrons about leaving my cheating groom at the altar and taking the cake with me—everybody laughed, toasting my “new-found freedom”, and I toasted a good week’s worth of practice as the cake was consumed by the cheerful crowd.