At the end of the last block of classes, after we had finished Basic and Classical Cakes, my group of baking and pastry students took our 2nd Term Practical Exam, of which we had been terrified for many months. This is the test that evaluates the baking and pastry students’ competence at the basics: pate a choux, pastry cream, tempering chocolate, sponge cake, Italian buttercream, working with fondant, puff pastry–in short, what we should know how to do before the CIA trusts us not to embarass ourselves during our externships out in the industry. More importantly, this test evaluates our speed and accuracy under pressure. By the time you reach the 2nd term practical, you know how to do all of the above. The real question is can you do it with a clock ticking? Can you do it even when something goes wrong? Can you do it when your externship is riding on it?

We had 2 days, with 3 hours of production time for each day. On Day 1 my plan was to make my puff, bake my sponge cakes, make pate a choux and bake my eclairs, cook my pastry cream, make Italian buttercream, and make tempered chocolate decor pieces for my finished cake. Yes, all of that in 3 hours. If you are a full-fledged pastry chef reading this, that might not sound like such a big deal. But for us, it was a very big deal indeed. And I made it through everything!

Sort of. Not really.

Yes, I got through everything, but my pastry cream and my tempered chocolate did not work. I’d made pastry cream probably 8 or 9 times and tempered chocolate probably 4 or 5–and this, of course, was the first time either of them had been a problem for me. Because this was The Practical, and that’s just how life goes.

When my pastry cream looked separated, and my chocolate refused to do anything I wanted it to, I took a deep breath and moved on to the next thing, deciding I would worry about it later. Later meant Day 2.

On Day 2, I baked like lightning–faster than I’ve ever baked before, and faster than I knew I could bake. I drew up a brand new timeline that looked totally impossible to me. In those three hours I would have to remake my pastry cream, redo my chocolate, fill and glaze eclairs, bake a puff pastry apple strip (a kind of rectangular tart), and assemble and decorate a cake. I still don’t remember how I did it except that I never looked at the clock. I didn’t have time to worry about time! I just moved as fast as I possibly could and didn’t waste a thought on how I was doing or whether I would finish. I didn’t even care whether I would finish because I didn’t think I would. I cared about getting as far as I could. If I was going to fail, I was going to fail trying.

But I didn’t fail. I finished. Out of the 14 people in my group, 5 of us passed, and I was fortunate enough to be one of them. Yes, only 5 out of 14–the grading criteria for these products are that high. I do feel that I earned my grade because I prepared myself as well as I possibly could for this exam. At the same time, preparation isn’t everything (although the CIA’s motto claims the contrary). When the unexpected happens, as it inevitably does, I have learned how to take my mind off what’s wrong and focus all my energy on how to recover from it–and I think that might be the most important thing the CIA has taught me yet.