Every once in a while in life there comes a time when you invest all of you, all of your time in doing something which is all-consuming. That is a time period of highest passion and an intense level of concentration. It might be a longer period of a year or months or even a couple of days. The length of time varies, but the engagement level is equivalent.
The last time it happened to me was before I gave my Chartered Accountancy (CA) Final examination. For those in the US, it is the CPA equivalent in India. It is a relatively tough exam of 8 papers of 3 hours each, and the percentage people passing the exam is somewhere between 3% to 10%. There are two levels of exams before that, an exhausting 2-3 years of mandatory internship and then this final exam.So by the time you reach this level, you have already invested 4 or more years in this line of career. No doubt the exam is tough, but once cleared it assures a decent enough educational degree to work. And you are set.
I studied for four months for this exam. Four months at home, studying about 10-12 hours a day. I knew as a matter of fact that I wont have the patience and the willingness to give the exam again if I do not clear it the first time. And so I abandoned everything in life for those 4 months. No friends, no boyfriend, no family except those at I stayed with i.e. mom, dad and my brother. I would wake up at 4 am every morning, studying non-stop till 9. That’s 5 hours of most productive part of the day. And then I would take small half hour naps and study in the rest of the time till about 6 in the evening. Relax for a while and sleep by 8 pm. Every day, non-stop, this was my routine for 4 months. No phone, no television, no going out except for a walk sometime if I felt too tired. Nothing else. The fact that my best-friend had moved to another city just then and that I had been through a nasty heartbreak just a few months before that definitely helped. But it was as if I was possessed by a ghost and It would get exorcised only after passing the exam.
I would time my studies with great precision. Depending on the subject, I would allot a certain time to read each page, solve each sum or practice a diagram. For example, while studying Economics, I would target 20 pages to be read in 40 minutes and so on. If I finished 2-3 minutes earlier I could relax, or if I didn’t, I would have to forgo time from the next slot. It might sound stupid, but I even timed toilet breaks to 2-3 minutes so that I could finish the assigned target. I had become a clock. Just one that sat, slept and ate.
One thing that was my indulgence in that time was music. A silently playing pocket radio would be humming in the background almost all the times. It used to play in such a low volume that nobody else in the room could hear it except me.It kept me calm. It kept me sane.
Thankfully, and luckily, I cleared the exam in that first attempt itself. I had to. There was no other way. But that intense level of commitment to a goal was like never before and never after, till date. I ate economics, slept accounts and dreamt taxation. The world ceased to exist, and for the first time in my life, I found myself.
That was 5 years back. I haven’t felt that way since then. I am gliding through life. Sure, there is a lot of passion and involvement in a lot of things. But that kind of structured madness? No. That preciseness of schedule? No. That overwhelming desire to succeed? Sadly, no.
May be life is measured in different terms now. Easier, but everyday challenges. Managing the house, handling office work, understanding and empathizing with your staff, finding time to meet parents, grandparents, entertaining guests and several other day-to-day activities. It’s a mosaic of numerous small, yet existentially essential things.
One such small crucial thing was the outcome of this slightly complex dessert. The strawberry fraisier. I had spent about 6-8 hours in the planning and execution of this one, and goddamn if it didn’t turn out well, or didn’t unmold properly.
It basically consisted of three parts: Chiffon cake, Pastry Cream filling and Assembly of the fraisier. This cake was featured in the July 2011 Daring Baker’s challenge. Jana of Cherry Tea Cakes was our July Daring Bakers’ host and she challenges us to make Fresh Frasiers inspired by recipes written by Elisabeth M. Prueitt and Chad Robertson in the beautiful cookbook Tartine.
I might be real late to publish this one for that July ’11 challenge, but I had my heart set on it for a long time.
What you will need and how to do:
The basic chiffon cake:
- 155 gm all-purpose flour
- 4 gm baking powder
- 170 gm castor sugar
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 (60 ml) cup vegetable oil
- 3 large egg yolks ⅓ cup
- 95 ml water
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3/4 teaspoon lemon zest, grated
- 5 large egg whites
- ¼ teaspoon (1 gm) cream of tartar
- Preheat the oven to moderate 325°F/ 160°C. If fan assisted bake at 140°C.
- Line the bottom of an 8-inch (20 cm) spring form pan with parchment paper. Do not grease the sides of the pan.
- In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour and baking powder. Add in all but 3 tablespoons (45 ml.) of sugar, and all of the salt. Stir to combine.
- In a small bowl combine the oil, egg yolks, water, vanilla and lemon zest. Whisk thoroughly.
- Combine with the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly for about one minute, or until very smooth.
- Put the egg whites into a stand mixer, and beat on medium speed using a whisk attachment on a medium speed, until frothy. Add cream of tartar and beat on a medium speed until the whites hold soft peaks. Slowly add the remaining sugar and beat on a medium-high speed until the whites hold firm and form shiny peaks.
- Using a grease free rubber spatula, scoop about ⅓ of the whites into the yolk mixture and fold in gently. Gently fold in the remaining whites just until combined.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes or until toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
- Removed the cake from the oven and allow to cool in the pan on a wire rack.
Pastry Cream Filling:
- 250 ml whole milk
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 2 tbsp cornstarch
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 large egg
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 3/4 tsp (4 gm) gelatin powder
- 1/2 tbsp water
- 250 ml heavy cream
- Pour the milk, vanilla, and salt into a heavy sauce pan. Place over medium-high heat and scald, bringing it to a near boiling point. Stir occasionally.
- Meanwhile, in another bowl add the cornstarch and sugar. Whisk to combine
- Add the eggs to the sugar and cornstarch and whisk until smooth.
- When the milk is ready, gently and slowly while continuously whisking, pour the heated milk down the side of the bowl into the egg mixture.
- Pour the mixture back into the warm pot and continue to cook over a medium heat until the custard is thick, just about to boil and coats the back of a spoon.
- Remove from heat and pass through a fine mesh sieve into a large mixing bowl. Allow to cool for ten minutes stirring occasionally.
- Cut the butter into four pieces and whisk into the pastry cream a piece at a time until smooth.
- Cover the cream with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic wrap onto the top of the cream to prevent a skin from forming. Chill in the refrigerator for up to five days.
- In a small dish, sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let stand for a few minutes to soften.
- Put two inches (55 mm) of water into a small sauce pan and bring to a simmer over a medium heat.
- Measure 1/4 cup (60 ml) of the chilled pastry cream into a small stainless steel bowl that will sit across the sauce pan with the simmering water, without touching the water.
- Heat the cream (do not let it boil). Add the gelatin and whisk until smooth. Remove from the water bath, and whisk the remaining cold pastry cream in to incorporate in two batches.
- In a stand mixer, fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the cream until it holds medium-stiff peaks. Immediately fold the whipped cream into the pastry cream with a rubber spatula.
- Put it back in the refrigerator till ready for assembly.
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup of water
- Combine the water and sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil and let the sugar dissolve. Stirring is not necessary, but will not harm the syrup.
- Remove the syrup from the heat and cool slightly. Add a teaspoon of any fruit juice or liqueur of your choice. (optional).
- 1 baked 8 inch (20 cm) chiffon cake
- 1 recipe pastry cream filling
- ⅓ cup (80 ml) simple syrup
- 900 g strawberries
- Line the sides of a 10-inch (25 cm) spring form pan with plastic wrap. Do not line the bottom of the pan.
- Cut the cake in half horizontally to form two layers.
- Fit the bottom layer into the prepared spring form pan. Moisten the layer evenly with the simple syrup. When the cake has absorbed enough syrup to resemble a squishy sponge, you have enough.
- Hull and slice in half enough strawberries to arrange around the sides of the cake pan. Place the cut side of the strawberry against the sides of the pan, point side up forming a ring.
- Pipe cream in-between strawberries and a thin layer across the top of the cake.
- Hull and quarter your remaining strawberries and place them in the middle of the cake. Cover the strawberries entirely with the pastry cream. (USe about 60% of the cream)
- Place the second cake layer on top and moisten with the simple syrup.
- Pipe remaining pastry cream on top. Decorate with chopped strawberries.
- Refrigerate for at least 4 hours, so that the cream sets.
- To serve release the sides of the spring form pan and peel away the plastic wrap.
- Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Woosh! That was it. It is a bit complicated, but not difficult at all. And the result is mind-blowing. Looks very beautiful and tastes exceedingly amazing 🙂
- The gelatin will continue to stiffen day by day. The longer you let your finished cake sit, the more firm it will become.
- I used the springform pan bottom to serve the cake. It is very delicate to move to a different platter.
- You can use any kind of fresh fruits , edible flowers to line the sides of the pan. Have fun and make it look beautiful.
- The recipe takes about 4-6 hours, but it can very well be done in stages over two days.