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Refractometers, Fondants, and Financiers

Eli Kirshstein explains why some of the chefs wouldn't succeed in a wedding cake challenge, and defines some of this week's more challenging terms.

By Eli Kirshtein

Wedding cakes are an interesting and unique microcosm of the culinary world. While many pastry chefs make wedding cakes, an expert in the field more often than not prepares them. With the exception of the cake-baking itself, it is a hyper-specific skill set. Things like rolling out fondant and making edible flowers have little cross over into other aspects of the cooking world. It comes as a little surprise that several of the chefs have little to no experience preparing them and a few even fear them. Many of the chefs are what you would call “plated dessert” chefs: meaning, that they do desserts that are specifically designed and refined to be plated for individual portions as opposed to larger items (i.e. a wedding cake) that is to be presented whole and then portioned out. Some of the chefs on the other hand have experience doing this style work, mainly ones who oversee a full service pastry operation, or work in bakeries. 

So for this week’s vocabulary:

OK, first there is a pretty technical one that was asked about last week. There was a question about a kaleidoscope-looking tool Yigit was using. It is called a Refractometer. These tools measure the index of refraction in the Brix scale. In simple terms, the chefs use them to calculate sugar content of sorbet and ice cream bases. This information is invaluable in making consistent and refined products. Not enough sugar and the final product will be icy and hard. Too much and it will be sticky and overly sweet in flavor. With varying sugar contents in seasonal fruits as well as brands of products the chefs might not be as familiar with, it will help maintain consistency in their formulas.

Then there are Financiers, like the one Seth made in this week's Elimination Challenge. These are sponge-like cakes that are traditionally made with pulverized nut flours, brown butter, and egg whites amongst other ingredients. Think of them as rich, moist, and buttery cakes. They also have a trademark nutty flavor to them coming from the nuts and brown butter mixed into the batter. Most often they are served in a smaller format, but they can be baked larger for applications like the base of cakes and other larger pastries.

Another one I have been asked about is Gum Paste and Fondant. Now, first it should be said that the literal translation of fondant from French is melting. This helps describe the process of making it when a syrup is poured out and left to rest. There are fundamentally two types of fondant: poured and rolled. Poured is an inverted sugar syrup, which is a liquid sugar solution that is used in pastry work to help prevent crystallization in sorbets as well as to glaze some pastries like napoleons and fill some candies like Cadbury Crème Eggs. This liquid can also be flavored and worked into fudge like candies as well. Rolled is a sugar mixture, that when combined with other ingredients, forms a smooth, pliable paste that can be rolled out into sheets, cut, and decorated. This is most often seen in cake decorating. Gum paste is a mixture made of refined vegetable gum and sugar, as well as a few other components that when they are combined make a pliable but solid dough. It is used instead of fondant when a stiff more self-supporting media is needed.  Think freestanding decorations and sculptures on cakes. One additional term that should be included here is pastillage. It is a mixture of fundamentally sugar, gelatin, and cornstarch. It is used for mostly the same purposes as gum paste but is a bit cheaper in overall cost. The difference is that pastillage dries notably faster so for projects that take longer to finish, gum paste is the way to go.

Follow me on Twitter @elikirshtein

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