Sunday, August 29, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: First Class

The beginning of a school term always entails a lot of activities and preparations, and that’s definitely true of this baking class. The book for the class is a mammoth 800-page hardcover that costs $135.00. I had a twinge of excitement leafing through it for the first time, looking at the hundreds of recipes and fantasizing about all the great things we’ll be making in class. At the same time it dawned on me how much I had to learn, i.e. a LOT. Chapters cover professional tools and equipment (much of which I’m not familiar with), scientific principles of baking, characteristics of the different flours, fats, sugars, etc. etc. And that’s not even getting into making the final products, of which there’s quite a variety: quick breads, yeast breads, cakes and icings, pies, tortes, cookies, custards, creams, chocolate, and so on. It’s a vast amount to learn, and I’m wondering how much of the book we’ll actually get through in sixteen weeks.

I’m pretty nervous before the first class. I realize that I’m entering a new world, that of the professional kitchen, a world that has its own set of protocols and a different way of working from the office environment. It’s very interactive and hands-on, not just sitting in a meeting or in front of a computer doing your own thing. I also start to look critically at my own baking efforts and figure they’re not entirely up to snuff. While they’ve been pretty good, there are a lot of improvements I can make in terms of quality and consistency. That's why I'm taking the class, right?

As you might expect the class kitchen is large, with four large work tables in the center of the room around which the students arrange themselves. Utensils and bakeware are on stainless steel racks against one wall, including dozens of ladles, saucepans, and stacks of extra-large sheet pans (like cookie sheets but bigger). There's a large multi-tiered convection oven and an even larger walk-in oven that can accommodate twelve or fifteen sheets of baked goods at a time. Flour and sugar are in large three-foot cubical containers on wheels so they can be rolled around the kitchen for easy access. A dry storage area and walk-in refrigerator are at the far end of the room.

The instructor, a pastry chef at a trendy local bakery, is on vacation and not able to attend the first class, so his sous chef is filling in. That’s a bit disappointing because I really want to get a feel for what the instructor will be like. Strict? Forgiving? Stern? Empathetic? Have to find out next week.

Thankfully the sous chef is not at all stern and I’m feeling comfortable pretty quickly. At 52, I assume I’m the oldest person in the class. Most students appear to be in their 20s, which is to be expected. One woman looks to be in her 40s, and I feel good knowing I’m not the only non-twenty-something.

There's a lot of emphasis placed on professionalism, which is exemplified by the wearing of the chef's uniform. By the third class we’re expected to purchase and wear: 
  • A white chef’s coat, clean and wrinkle-free and buttoned to the top 
  • Checkered chef’s pants, clean and wrinkle-free 
  • White skull cap 
  • White apron 
  • Closed shoes or clogs 
  • Socks
After some discussion we take a tour of the kitchen and food storage areas, and I’m gradually feeling more comfortable and excited to start baking. The class ends with a hands-on activity: mixing water with flour to make a simple dough, which we then knead and play with to get a feeling for its different characteristics and the development of gluten. It feels good to be doing something with my hands, calming even, and the whole class seems to enjoy it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Prologue

So here’s the story: I’m a fifty-something man who’s worked in graphic design and marketing for the past 27 years. I was at my last place of employment for 21 years. The company is facing some challenges (let’s just leave it at that), and the workload and stress of my position increased in toxicity until I realized I had to get out to preserve my own mental health. I gave two months notice and left, without a job during the worst recession in memory. My family fully support my decision, and we have enough savings to get by for a few months.

I’m looking for a design job, but the truth is that I’m at a crossroads in terms of my career. When you’re not caught up in the work-a-day world you have a lot of time to think, and the question that comes up more than any other is “What do I really want to do with my life?” Because I’ve grown increasingly passionate about food in the last ten years, for me the answer is to get more involved with food, or at least to see if working with food on a professional basis is something I’d like to pursue.

I love to cook all kinds of things, but my impression is that being a professional chef is incredibly strenuous. I just saw an episode of No Reservations in which Anthony Bourdain (who is just slightly older than me) worked a double shift at his old alma mater Brasserie Les Halles in New York. By the end of the episode Bourdain was so worn out that he concluded he was too old to cut it as a working chef any longer. I realize that kitchens probably vary in the demands placed on their staff, but that kind of thing gives me pause. I need something I’m going to be able to hack for the next twenty years or so.

Then I thought about baking. I love to bake bread, especially whole-grain, artisanal varieties (such as Jim Lahey’s). Like many fifty-somethings I’m trying to get more fiber into my diet and am seriously interested in whole grains. The artisanal bread movement is gaining ground these days and I could probably contribute something to that.

I also love pastries of all kinds and have a lot of ideas for new offerings. There are so many terrific baked goods from around the world that you never see in middle American bakeries. With its mélange of college students, faculty, international students and artistic types, Bloomington might be adventurous enough to embrace Spanish ensaimadas and Italian zaletti. And why can’t you find a really good croissant in Bloomington? Are they that hard to make?

Furthermore the baking industry seems to be on an upswing. My understanding is that the number of bakeries in the U.S. is growing. In the past two months, two new bakeries have opened in Bloomington, and I’ve seen three or four job openings for experienced bakers. So there’s hope of finding employment.

Of course new undertakings are rarely bump-free, and after some research about what it’s really like to be a baker, a variety of doubts have been nagging me. Currently these are outweighed by an attempt to have a more positive outlook, as outlined below:

Doubt #1: Baking involves being on your feet a lot, probably long hours, which will be a change from my former sit-on-your-can-all-day office job. Reply: I’m a bicyclist with strong legs and in pretty good shape, so I can probably deal with that.

Doubt #2: There are lots of carbs and calories in baked goods, which I don’t need at this time of my life. Reply: Being a baker doesn’t mean you have to EAT everything you make, you can just TASTE. I’ll eat more vegetables and keep up the exercise regimen.

Doubt #3: Baking jobs often take place overnight or very early in the morning, which will put me at odds with my family’s awake-during-the-day asleep-at-night routine. Reply: Maybe it won’t be that bad once we get used to it. Plus there’ll be all those free baked goods I’ll be bringing home to ease the pain.

Doubt #4: I’ll be an entry-level peon who will have to take crap from people who know more than me. Reply: Suck it up. You’ve got to be willing to try new things or you’ll just be in a rut your whole life.

Doubt #5: Baking is not very lucrative, just a notch or two up the payscale from the lowest-paid profession, daycare teacher. Reply: But I love baking!

All in all baking might be a good fit for me, but to find out I need to get some experience and education. I’ve thought about trying to talk my way into an entry-level baking job but I’ll probably feel more confident having some legitimate credentials under my belt. With that in mind I’ve enrolled in an introductory baking class at a local college. Wish me luck!