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.

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