Monday, March 5, 2012

Wasted youth and the evolution of lemon meringue pie

Laurie Oakes, a Grade 12 student at Notre Dame College School
in Welland gives her rolls an egg wash and secures top spot at a
recent regional Skills Ontario competition for baking. 


I'm relatively unfazed in the kitchen.

Unless I have to bake something. I hear it's easy but making pie is on my bucket list, relegated to such stature because mere thought of putting together a proper crust and a filling that holds its own kind of scares the heck out of me. It's daunting. I won't lie.

But last Thursday, I watched as nine local high school students from the Niagara Catholic District School Board whipped up 24 buns — some knotted, some contorted into a figure eight, others just simple bulbous round rolls — iced a layer a cake with precision and made a lemon meringue pie, crust, filling and all in four hours as they competed in a regional Skills Canada - Ontario competition for baking held at Niagara College.

The winners move up the ranks to the next level of competition, going stand mixer to stand mixer with students from high schools elsewhere, all as part of the annual competition that tests the mettle of tradespeople in the making.

As a judge, I had to look critically at what they were doing but truth is, I was in awe of how they whipped up their baked goods with ease in a fraction of the time I could ever imagine doing it. Made me think that perhaps I wasted my youth, a time when I shunned all things seemingly domestic in my quest to be a modern career woman.

Well, that and my abysmal performance in Grade 9 family studies when my efforts to bake were really more a sign to find something else to do with my life. Take the time I made a gingerbread house and in my impatience to get it done as the teacher was doing her rounds to mark our edible abodes, I didn't wait to let my melted sugar — snow in gingerbread landscaping speak — cool before drizzling it on the peaked roof of my cookie housing complex. The roof collapsed, leaving a gaping hole and a disapproving teacher.

"It has solar heating," my smart ass self told her in an effort to save my grade. I got one of the lowest marks in the class on that project.

The patience and precision that baking demands was — and still is — like oil to my water. If I mess up with a meal, well there's salt and pepper to make it better. A caved in gingerbread house and, well, nothing can fix that except eating it quickly to hide all evidence of my incompetence.

However, this team of young pastry chefs I met last week wowed and inspired me to the point that when all marks were added up, I was dubbed the nice judge alongside Commisso's Fine Foods' bakers Glen Lauzon and Nathan Libertini, my fellow critics for the day.

In a room that smelled like warm sugar, yeast and lemons, it was Laurie Oakes, a Grade 12 student at Notre Dame College School in Welland, who took the top spot in the competition. As she worked at her cluttered but clean work station, she had the air of a Hausfrau — hair in a bun and net, apron hiked high on her waist. She worked quietly and with determination. Hers was the only pie that stayed in perfectly triangular pieces when sliced, her cake was iced with the most steady of hands and her rolls, well, they were in the oven a little too long but a solid effort nonetheless.

More than what I can say for that flimsy gingerbread house of mine. And many of these students don't have much more experience in baking than I did back in the day.

Congratulations to them all, really.

Given the pedestal upon which I put pie-making, I shot copious photos of the making of the day's lemon meringue pie. Here is a montage of some of the students' work and the ingredients for envy.

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