Thursday, September 30, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Baking and Mixing Cakes

Baking class, week six. This week we'll be making two cakes: a basic white butter cake and a genoise. The genoise is a classic French cake leavened only with whipped eggs (i.e. no baking powder or baking soda to help it rise). I’ve never made a genoise and, because it’s not a typical American-style cake, find the prospect intriguing.

Chef Dennis is absent this week; I believe I heard that he’s on a cruise. Leading the class in his stead is Chef Sandy, Chef Dennis’s sous chef (i.e. second in command).

We start with the white cake and break into teams of two. My partner is Zed, a former journalism student who recently dropped out of college in his senior year with just a few hours to complete. Now he’s pursuing a cooking degree. Having just quit my job of twenty-one years without another job lined up, I can relate to Zed’s mindset; college just wasn’t working for him.

I start separating fifteen eggs while Zed gathers the other ingredients. Pretty soon our butter and sugar are getting a vigorous whipping in the bowl of the electric mixer. The recipe is not particularly difficult, but you have to watch for signs that the butter and sugar mixture is ready: it should lighten in color and have a fluffy consistency. Undermixing or overmixing will undermine the texture of the final cake. In the cakes I’ve made at home I’ve never been entirely sure when the proper stage is reached, i.e. how fluffy it should be or what it should look like, so we consult Chef Sandy to make sure it's OK.

The butter cream for the cupcakes.
With the chef’s blessing, we complete our batter and proceed to the “panning” stage. I fill the cake pans two-thirds full, as indicated by the recipe. Zed fills the cupcake tins two-thirds full (or so), and everything goes into the oven.
The final edible cupcakes, with attempts at decoration.
The ingredients for the next recipe, the genoise, are simple: eggs, sugar, vanilla and cake flour. The technique, however, is a little tricky for a novice baker. Whole eggs are gently whisked in a mixing bowl while being heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit over hot water. When they reach the proper temperature they’re removed from the heat and whipped into a wondrously light, foamy mass, about triple in volume. The little air bubbles whipped into the batter help the cake rise and make the texture light and tender. Again, the recipe isn’t difficult but you’ve got to pay attention to what you’re doing.

I've made plenty of cupcakes in my life and
NOTHING like this has ever happened before.
Eventually our white cakes and cupcakes come out of the oven, and they’re not pretty. The cupcakes look like the scorched aftermath of a nuclear bombing. Most have overflowed their paper liners; in two instances the batter is completely blasted out of the tin. The coloring is uneven and they’re sort of flat instead of rounded. Not good. The round cakes are slightly better, but one cake overflowed and won’t come out of the pan cleanly, resulting in some messiness on one side. Hopefully we can make that look better next week when we decorate.
Hopefully these will improve with some decoration.
While I’m trying to figure out how these travesties took place, Chef Sandy is unphased and says we should look at this as a learning experience. Of course she’s right, but I have high expectations for myself and can’t help feeling disappointed. The chef speculates about what could have caused the blasted out cupcakes: 1) we didn’t mix the butter and sugar enough, 2) we didn’t scrape the bowl adequately, and there were unmixed ingredients at the bottom, and/or 3) the cupcake tins were overfilled (the most likely culprit in my opinion). Of course there’s also the fact that the oven doors were opened and closed a lot, which certainly didn’t help our little cakes rise.

In all the brouhaha about the butter cakes, we forget to check the genoise cakes in the oven, and they come out overbaked. Not inedible, but overbaked. That’s zero for three in my book.

Our last activity of the evening is to make a simple butter cream to decorate the cupcakes. I break out my pastry bag, and Zed and I try our hands at decorating the edible cupcakes we’re left with. The cakes and butter cream are rather generic in flavor but, after an evening of baking, taste pretty good nonetheless. If you served them at a kids birthday party or an office pitch-in I'm sure people would gobble them up. I guess that’s something.

Take home: six decorated cupcakes.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Challah and Cinnamon Rolls

Baking class, week five. White bread, whole wheat bread, baguettes and similar breads are made from what are called “lean doughs,” in that they consist of little more than flour, water, yeast and salt. A little butter or oil may be added, but the doughs are very simple and generally not sweet. “Enriched yeast doughs” or “sweet doughs,” the subject of this week’s class, have similar ingredients but more fat and sugar (yum!). Products made from enriched yeast doughs include sweet rolls of various kinds, sticky buns, doughnuts, brioche, babkas, panettone…basically all my favorite baked goods. This is promising to be a good class.

The plan is to make challah, a traditional Jewish bread, and cinnamon rolls. For each of these the dough is shaped before baking, i.e. not just plopped into a pan in a single piece. For challah the dough is divided into strands and braided. For cinnamon rolls the dough is rolled into a spiral, from which individual rolls are cut. I’ve never made either of these so this is new territory.

Chef Dennis has decided that instead of preparing dough for individual loaves by hand, we’ll break out the large industrial-size mixer to mix and knead the dough for 16 loaves of challah all at once. This is feeling more like a professional enterprise. We go through the steps of mixing, and I notice that the dough requires an enormous amount of butter and eggs, which I find encouraging. After it’s kneaded, the dough is set aside to rise for an hour and a half.

Next is preparing dough for the cinnamon rolls. Once again we’re using the floor mixer, this time to make dough for an estimated 16 dozen cinnamon rolls. The dough takes 9 pounds of butter, 32 eggs, 16 pounds of flour and 2 1/2 pounds of sugar. Good stuff! The filling takes another 3 pounds of butter, 3 pounds of brown sugar and 4 ounces of cinnamon. That’s two or three of those little cinnamon canisters you’d buy in a supermarket. I love baking on an industrial scale!

When the challah dough has finished its first rise, Chef Dennis plops it on a work table to give it a little hand-kneading. At this point it has doubled in size and is the biggest mass of dough I’ve ever seen, measuring more than two feet in diameter and about a foot and a half high. It has a presence and attraction that is hard to describe, like a strange being in the middle of the room. The yeast in it is alive so technically the dough contains life. We all take a turn touching it; it feels soft and slimy and buttery, like nothing I’ve ever felt.

Challah is traditionally braided or formed into a turban-shaped loaf, so the chef cuts off a chunk of dough and demonstrates the simple braiding technique we’re to use. For each loaf the dough is divided into three equal parts. Each of these is rolled into a long strand, like an Italian breadstick but longer. These three strands are then braided together to form the loaf. After braiding, the dough is left to rise a bit more, and we turn our attention back to the cinnamon roll dough.

Once again the dough is plopped in a mass on a worktable, and sections are cut off for individual batches. Instead of braiding, the dough is rolled out to an 18” x 30” rectangle, then spread with a thin layer of brown sugar and cinnamon filling. This is rolled up length-wise to form the spiral shape characteristic of cinnamon rolls. Individual rolls are cut from the spiral and placed on a baking sheet to rise a second time.

My heart leaps when I see my loaf of challah come out of the oven. It’s beautiful. I tell Chef Dennis that this is why I took the class. At this point in his career he’s a little jaded about baking but I think he understands. Not only is it beautiful, it tastes terrific: heavenly light texture, moist, wonderful yeasty aroma. Next time I’ll give the surface a different wash to make it darker and shinier, but it’s a very satisfying first loaf.

The cinnamon rolls are another success. Considering the generic character of the recipes we’ve prepared up to this point, I’m dumbfounded by how utterly good the cinnamon rolls taste. I’m a big cinnamon roll fan, and I don’t believe I’ve ever had a better one. And there’s eight more to take home!

Take home: one loaf challah, eight large cinnamon rolls.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Focaccia and Pizza

Introductory baking class, week four. The topic this week is yeast breads. Because they can have lengthy rising times and the class is only(!) five hours long, Chef Dennis has opted for the class to make two “quick” yeast breads: focaccia, an Italian flatbread, and pizza dough. The recipes and techniques for the two breads are very similar, so it’s like making the same recipe twice, which is good practice.

I have made both focaccia and pizza dough many times at home with varying success. To my family even a mediocre from-scratch focaccia is pretty good eating, but of course the bar is raised when serving food in a professional setting. I’m really interested in yeast breads and hope to pick up some tips to make my efforts better.

We break into groups of two students who will collaborate on the recipes. My partner is a quiet guy named Thomas to whom I haven’t talked before. He’s pretty on-the-ball in terms of cooking and we work well together preparing the focaccia dough. The ingredients are few: flour, water, yeast, salt and olive oil. Our dough is mixed first, so Chef Dennis uses it to demonstrate his kneading technique to the class.

I thought I knew how to knead bread dough, but it turns out that I didn’t. The chef’s technique is to fold the flattened ball of dough onto itself with the right hand, then push it away slightly with the heel of the left hand. The right hand then rotates and lifts the dough slightly while folding before the next left-hand push. Ideally this should be quick right-left-right-left action.

The dough is sticky and, if left without moving for even a second or two, seriously adheres to the hands and table and has to be scraped off with a dough scraper. The best thing is to keep it moving, but that’s easier said than done. At home I would add more flour to make the dough easier to handle, but the chef advises against this as more flour will diminish the rise and final texture. It needs to be wet and sticky.

Thomas gets into the groove pretty quickly, but I’m less coordinated and can’t seem to get my hands to work together, resulting in major sticking. I’m determined to improve, and after about ten minutes the first faint glimmers of a decent kneading technique break through. By the end I’ve got my rhythm going and mostly manage to keep the dough moving, though more practice is definitely called for.

The kneading is vigorous work and goes on much longer than I had imagined. Thomas and I get tired and have to trade off several times before the dough reaches the smooth, elastic consistency the chef is looking for. I realize that in my home efforts not only was I kneading improperly but I was not kneading long enough. Good to know.

With the chef’s blessing, the focaccia dough is put away to rise for a couple of hours and we begin the pizza dough. The recipe is similar to focaccia but the dough is drier and easier to handle, and the whole process goes much faster.

For the focaccia Thomas and I opt for a classic topping: olive oil, dried rosemary and kosher salt. For some reason I’ve got in my head that the topping should be simple. Other teams get more ambitious with their toppings (different dried herbs, red pepper flakes, sliced onions, garlic), and I have to admit there are some very colorful focaccias coming out of the oven.

Ours turns out OK but not great. A lot of the dried rosemary falls off the left side, leaving it unadorned and plain looking. I should have pressed the salt and rosemary into the dough more forcefully before baking. The bread also rises unevenly so isn’t flat across the entire surface.

Despite the apparent deficiencies, our focaccia tastes good. The additional salt and rosemary would have added flavor, but the bread itself is tender and has good texture. Over the next two days at home, it’s very satisfying dipped in olive oil and salt.

We have our choice of several pizza toppings, and some students are really loading up their pizzas. Thomas and I again opt for simplicity: tomato sauce, Italian sausage, sliced onions and mozzarella. I’m feeling tired from the kneading and not inclined to do a lot of prep, but also just like the simple approach vs. over the top. Fewer toppings gives the bread more prominence in the overall taste.

While tasting our pizza, I chat with one student whose pizza was over-baked (wasn’t her fault; the chef was handling all the baking and left it in too long). She looks slightly disappointed about the dark brown pie sitting in front of her, and, chewing on a piece of crust, comments that the dough recipe is OK but not great. I concur and mention that there are many things out of our control in the class: the recipe, the ingredients, the baking (oven doors opening and closing), the equipment, and not knowing the kitchen.

In general the recipes in class have been very basic and a bit bland, and the breads we’ve made are definitely not my best efforts as a baker. However I am picking up tips and techniques that make the class interesting and worthwhile.

Take home: one half focaccia, one-quarter sausage and onion pizza.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Scones and Biscuits

Introductory baking class, week three. At the end of the second baking class we were given a homework assignment: make a Sour Cream Coffee Cake from a recipe in the textbook and bring in a slice or two for the following class.

The recipe looks simple enough: a filling of brown sugar, cinnamon, butter and chopped pecans is layered on top and in the center of a simple yellow cake. The recipe calls for a 10-inch bundt pan (or tube pan as it’s called in the profession), but the chef says we can make it in a loaf pan if necessary.

The day before class I assemble my ingredients. As I get into making the cake I realize there are many small things that can trip up the novice baker and result in a less-than-stellar product. As in most professional recipes, the ingredients are listed by weight (e.g. 7 ounces of flour vs. 1 1/4 cups). Thankfully I have an old “diet” scale in my home kitchen that is not as good as the scale used in class but will have to suffice. I own a 9-inch bundt pan, not a 10-inch as called for in the recipe. This should be no problem but will require some watchfulness in terms of the baking time. Also I have doubts about the accuracy of our oven temperature, so I’ve invested in an oven thermometer to make sure the cake actually bakes at 350 degrees. I’m trying to give this my best shot.

I’ve made cakes before and have no problem with the recipe. It comes out moist, buttery, and tender. Very happy there. Unfortunately the filling is crumbly and doesn’t meld with the cake very well. When cut, the filling crumbles away from the top and center, resulting in a small pile of brown sugar and nuts on the plate and slices that don’t look neat. I probably should have chopped the pecans more finely, or added more butter to the filling to hold it together better.

On the whole I rate my cake an 8 or 9 for taste and maybe a 5 for appearance. The next day I plate the two best-looking pieces and take them to class.

I intend to talk to Chef Dennis about the crumbling problem, but never get the chance. A glance around the kitchen tells me that some students had much bigger problems than I did. One baked his in a disposable aluminum cake pan but something happened and it didn’t rise properly, so instead of a fluffy cake four or five inches high he ended up with a dense, undercooked cake about 1 1/2” high. Another student made the cake but it didn’t turn out for some reason, then made it a second time in muffin tins because she didn't want to use the thicker pan. Every student's version looks different. Chef Dennis has us place our cakes on a side table, and later while we're baking he looks at them intently while making notes.

This week we’ve got two in-class baking projects: Country Biscuits and Chocolate Chip Scones. Both use the “biscuit method” of cutting butter into the flour before the wet ingredients are added, so the recipes are very similar. The scones are a little sweeter and a little richer due to the addition of egg and half-and-half.

Each student makes his or her own biscuits and scones. I’m happy about this because I like working on my own. Like last week there’s a mad rush for the equipment and ingredients. Everyone, including me, acts as though we were on one of those competitive Food Network shows, and whoever gets done first wins. Later Chef Dennis tells the group that baking isn’t a race, but then says it really is a race. He says something to the effect that “when you’ve got 10,000 biscuits to make…” and a few minutes later makes virtually the same comment about scones ("10,000 scones to make..."). I guess in a professional kitchen the race is to get everything done so you can go home.

During the scone making I reach into my bag of equipment and cut my left index finger on my paring knife. Chef Dennis has to find bandages so I stand around for a few minutes, losing time. We’re cutting the butter into the flour by hand, and it’s definitely awkward with a bandaged, bleeding finger. After a few minutes the first bandage is soaked with blood and I need another. Sometime later the second bandage slips off without my noticing. I discreetly look around for it, checking the worktable, the floors and the sinks where I had washed some dishes, but can’t find it. I try to tell the chef but his attention is torn in ten different directions and I don’t get a chance. The bandage never does turn up. Needless to say I’m glad no one outside of my family will be eating my scones.

When all the biscuits and scones are out of the oven and cooled, we have a group critique. I seem to be one of the few people who actually want to taste their efforts, and stand there eating a scone while the chef talks. No one else is eating. The chef brought in a jar of Nutella and some Bonne Maman strawberry jam, thinking we might have a scone party, but no one seems interested. Baking takes a lot of mental and physical energy and we're all pretty tired.

I’m happy with my biscuits and scones, and both taste good, but they're kind of flat. They would have looked thicker and more appealing rolled out to 3/4” rather than the 1/2” called for in the recipe. Note to self.

My take-home haul is 23 biscuits and 4 1/2 chocolate chip scones.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Blueberry Muffins

Introductory baking class, week two. At the second class we finally get to meet our instructor, Chef Dennis. He's probably in his forties, not too tall, with bleached blond hair. My first impression is that he’s withdrawn, quietly hustling around the kitchen getting things ready for the first recipe, not paying attention to the students slowly gathering around the worktables. I’m trying to decide whether I like him or not.

After everyone has gathered we once again go around and tell “our stories” about why we’ve enrolled in the class. Chef Dennis periodically comments about the realities of being in the cooking business: the long hours, how hard it is to make money, that this won’t be like baking cookies on a Sunday afternoon, etc. I’ve been expecting to be warned about taking up baking as a profession so don’t find it surprising. I'm wondering if the chef regrets going into baking. A few students dream of starting restaurants, which I figure is a monumental undertaking that probably won’t come to fruition for most of them. When it’s my turn I’m half-expecting to be discouraged from pursuing baking because of my age, but thankfully that doesn’t happen.

After a short lecture it’s time to start our first actual baking project: blueberry muffins! The class divides into eight teams of two students each. Almost immediately low-level pandemonium breaks out. No one knows where any of the ingredients or equipment are located and everyone is running around trying to gather what's needed. Also the ingredients need to be weighed rather than measured, which creates a bottleneck at the one scale in class. (Later, after we don't need it anymore, I notice a second scale.) There’s one set of measuring spoons but I can’t find measuring cups or a citrus zester, which would help with zesting the lemon needed for the recipe. Luckily one of the students has a zester and it makes the rounds of a few teams. I decide to bring more of my own equipment next week.

I can tell that I’ve done more cooking than my partner, a 21-year-old student named Chris. I have to restrain my impulses to do everything myself. At one point Chris is whisking the wet ingredients (eggs, milk, vanilla, melted butter) and it’s clear that whisking is a relatively new thing for him. The melted butter is coagulating into little balls in the bowl and I ask to take over so I can approach the operation more vigorously. Luckily Chris is gracious and relatively laid-back, and we end up splitting the chores pretty well.

Generally I don’t like cooking in strange kitchens or with other people, however I'm finding this fun. There’s a spirit of camaraderie and no one is panicking or in a bad humor. Also I really like blueberry muffins and know we'll get to eat some before long. Chef Dennis comments that it seems like a good group.

Eventually the muffins go into the oven. Because everyone’s muffins are going in at different times, the oven is being opened and closed constantly, which is a big no-no for good baking. Oh well, nothing to be done about it.

The muffins are supposed to bake for about eighteen minutes, but ours take twenty-five. They’re browner than most other batches and I’m afraid we over-baked them, but they look reasonably good: all about the same size with rounded, golden brown tops and appetizing clumps of blueberries. Some other batches I see have whitish, flattened tops; probably over-mixed and under-baked. In others, clumps of grayish-blue batter have splotched unevenly over the sides of the muffin cups. Yes, I’m happy with ours.

After the muffins have cooled, the students arrange their wares on a worktable and Chef Dennis conducts a short critique. Earlier I had my doubts about the chef but by this time I’ve gotten to like him. He seems like a reasonable fellow and conducts the critique honestly without getting personal or overly critical. He tastes maybe three out of the eight batches. I have to admit I think our muffins look the best. I break open a couple to taste and find that they’re not over-baked. All right!

After the critique, class is over and final cleanup begins. Several students disappear right away even though it’s explicitly stated that no one is to leave until cleanup is completely finished. We’re allowed to take the leftover muffins, and when I get home my son eats three in quick succession and says they’re great! Not bad for a first session.

Take home haul: six blueberry muffins.