As I am enrolled in WCI's Culinary Arts Diploma program, I've always thought of myself as a baker at heart. Cookies, muffins, cakes, and brownies have always come easy to me. In fact, as we quickly arrived into fall here in Oregon this past weekend, I was bombarded with the need to bake brownies, some apricot oat bran muffins, and French toast. I didn't get around to the French toast over the weekend, but the brownies and muffins were enough to make my condo feel warm and cozy and smelling delicious, and transform my sun-loving self into one that has accepted the fact that fall has arrived. There is something about baking. The products taste best when they're fresh and warm out of the oven, and the aroma of fresh baked goodies with added contents like nuts, fruits, and cinnamon just makes you want to curl up on a couch and savor them in front of a fire.
It is so fitting, then, that last Monday began the next round in the adventures of culinary school: Intro to Baking and Pastry. As the overall Culinary Diploma program is focused more on entree-type food, us culinarian students do have one stop into the world of baking and pastry making and this is it. For the next three weeks our Santoku knives, chef's knives, and pairing knives as well as saute pans will be traded in for pastry bags, plastic dough scrapers, Silpats, and industrial-sized dough mixers.
We hear if often in the hallways of the school that there are culinary students, and then there are baking students. One is either a baker or a cook, one cannot be both. I'm still not sure if I agree, but the past week was definitely a crash course in the baker's world with baker's percentages and formulas, units of measurement (both U.S. and metric), the differences between strong and weak flours, shortening, gluten development, fermentation, gelatinization, crust formation and browning, evaporation, moisture retainers, staling - you get the picture.
But before we dove into fun facts of the above, day one was an introduction to our new instructors for the course: Head Chef Krieg and Associate Chef Bonnelo (otherwise known as Chef Ben...or simply Ben!). With each new class and each team of chefs there is a get-a-feel-for-you stage that usually takes place within the first couple of hours of the first day of class. This was definitely a different feel. With Chef Krieg, I will keep it simple, he comes from a different breed. A bit of sarcasm coupled with a tone of voice that goes from a calm conversational speak to a loud yell within the same sentence had us sitting on our stools quiet, slowly looking around the room at each other, and unsure of what to expect next. Chef Ben seems to be the ying to Chef Krieg's yang. He's sort of has that grandfathery type of instinct that always seems to sense when you're having difficulty and constantly reminds you to not get discouraged.
After day one's lecture we were tasked with making pain au ordinaire, or ordinary bread, for producing baguettes. Everyday, the first job of each student is to produce an individual batch of dough for pain au ordinaire. We each create two baguettes each day and one can be taken home, the other is sold down in the cafe. And, at the end of first week, we would be tested, or judged, on our skills of producing perfect baguettes.
Throughout the week we dove right in, measuring, weighing (the most important part in baking!), kneading, pounding, waiting for the dough to rise, releasing gas, flattening, shaping and baking delicious varieties of baguettes, pain au levain (sourdough bread), pain au mie (wheat bread), and many more items that rose and browned and became crusty on the outside and soft on the inside. Thursday was pizza day and I will say it was some of the best pizza dough I've ever had. And Friday...OMG! The doughnuts, croissants, and other pastries were to die for. The cinnamon rolls glazed with a crispy outside were absolutely heavenly, and babas with a semi-sticky honey bread and cream filling were so sweet and delectable.
I think the feelings were mixed last week. Between feeling proud of ourselves at our first shots of transforming ourselves from sauteers to bakers, and constant reminders from the chef of how slow we were, how we didn't take notes well, and how we asked too many questions, I think by Friday we were at the point of being happy with our results, but not wanting to show it too much to the chef. Oh well, I guess we shouldn't get too proud of ourselves too early. We are just culinary students after all.
Forward march...here comes week two!