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 My first impression is that he’s withdrawn, quietly hustling around the kitchen getting things ready for the first recipe, not paying attention to the students slowly gathering around the worktables.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.

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