The teacher’s worktable. The poles on each side support and angled mirror (out of sight in this picture) so you can see top view of what the teacher is doing from your bench. Typically though they have you gather right around the teacher’s worktable to se things up close.
As I have described in several recent blog entries (GRILLED PIZZA FRIDAY plus NEW DIRECTIONS, BIG IMPROVEMENT) I have decided to work more baking into the mix. This has been part of a progression in the last 5 years since this became more than something I did in the summer and became a year round hobby. First it was getting a better cut of meat. Then it was using fresh herbs and fresh squeezed citrus juices in my sauces and marinades instead of the jar kind. Then it was electing to make many of my own sauces when the book gave a choice between buying and making one. Along the way I discovered just as many of you probably have to: It really isn’t that hard to make something at home that is better than what you can get at most restaurants. Sure there will always be those special restaurants that have exceptional cuisine, but you can save those to go to on those special occasion. With the money you save doing it yourself you can afford those special events. Before I get way off topic here I am trying to make a similar point about baking. It is not that hard to turn out a product that is going to be better tasting than what you can buy. One difference between baking and grilling or smoking is there are some things about baking you really need to be shown in person. That is where the class comes in.
The student’s benches. 4 students each share the ingredients, 2 students share a scale and you each have your own bowl, dough blade, measuring spoons & measuring cup.
Like any other topic, there are plenty of books on baking out there. Much of what you need to know can be learned from a book, or a DVD or a show on TV. However the key to successful baking is the feel of the dough. While this can be described and illustrated to some extend in a book, there is no substation for being in a situation where someone tells you a ball of dough is ready for it’s proofing and you can feel that dough yourself. Feel the texture, the resiliency, wether it is wet or dry etc. There are one two ways to do this I know of: Have a friend or family member who is an accomplished baker show you or take a class. When I was writing the New Directions, Big Improvement blog entry I mentioned the need (or is it knead?) to take a class. This got me thinking. It had been two years since I took a class and it has really been only the last 6 months where I started trying to bake again. I had just tried making pizza dough, but I was going to be getting into rolls and other types of breads, so I should take my own advice and take a class. I had been reasonably successful with what I’d made so far, but before I get into this in a much bigger way I wanted to make sure I didn’t develop any bad habits along the way.
The doughs bake in a large carousel oven. The rotation blurred the photo.
I looked in the King Arthur Flour class schedule and found there was a night class called Bread 101 being offered several days later. I drove up to Vermont and made sure to arrive an hour early to have time to peruse the store. King Arthur Flour (or KAF) has a really great product, there flours are unbleached and use high quality grains. They are serious about their product and how you use it. Their store reelects this philosophy too: they carry good solid products meant to give you long term service. Some of their baking products are made for them by the same folks who make them for the food service industry. This is to say these products aren’t the cheapest you can find but they offer great value. As I wandered around the store I remembered my first visit 2 years ago. I didn’t know what over half of the stuff was or why I’d be in the least bit inclined to use it. After that first class I ran back in to pick up several items that had been demystified for me. This time around I picked up some storage pails for some of the new types of flour I’d be using and a few gadgets that would improve my process.
This was the first bread we baked, a white sandwich bread.
Then it was off to class. The classes are very well done here. The facility has 6 rows of high benches that hold 4 people per row. There are dough pails or jars with all of the ingredients you need that are shared between the 4 students at a table. There are two digital scales that two students share. Each student has their own mixing bowl, measuring spoons, dough whisk, dough scraper, and measuring cup. There is a teachers bench at the front of the class that has an angled mirror allowing you to see a top down view of what the teacher is doing, while you are standing back at your bench. This never gets used as the teacher has all the students gather around the bench to watch things up close. The goals of the class are described and the teacher introduced herself and the two people who will be assisting her. Next is they have the students briefly introduce themselves: name where they are from, what their experience level is and why they are here. There were some people who had never laid hands on dough before, others like me just starting out, several who baked desserts but never bread and others who were self taught but wanted to review the fundamentals to improve their results.
The braided semolina bread.
Once introductions were over they covered the roles of the various ingredients in a yeast bread recipe. It is important to understand what they do because their interaction affects the look, feel and rise of the dough. For the next exercise they had you go to your work station and measure out 4 cups of flour in a measuring cup. Having taken a class before I knew where they were going with this. The only accurate way to measure out dough is by weight. The target weight for one cup of flour is 4.25 oz. (120 g) and before they tell you this, they ask every student what their cup of flour weighs. The weights were all over the place depending on how settled the flour was, wether people scooped it out or sifted it etc. I tried using the sifting technique we learned in the first class but I’d gone out and bought a scale so it had been 2 years for me, but i came in a little heavy at 4.5 oz. (127 g) Out of the 16 people only one was at the target weight. This simple illustration drove home the point about weighing being the only accurate way to do a baking recipe. They showed you haw to weigh the flour and how to sift it properly if you don’t own a scale.
The double twisted semolina bread.
Next it was back up to the front to watch the teacher measure out the ingredients, then mix them and knead the dough. At various points she stopped and let all of the students feel the dough at the various stages. This is the part you simply can’t get from a book or DVD or on TV. Plus if something is confusing, you can’t ask your book, DVD or TV questions. Well actually you can, just don’t expect an answer. One of the good things they do at KAF is if a student asks a question during a sidebar one on one moment, say during a break, and that question is of general interest they ask you to wait a bit for Q&A. Towards the end of the class where there is extra time while the bread bakes they cover these questions. They make a list on the blackboard of what these general interest questions will be. When the Q&A time comes they cover these first and then the students are asked if they have any more questions.
Every student left with 3 tasty and good looking loaves.
After watching the teacher and feeling the dough she has made at several stages in the process we all go back to our benches and follow the same recipes ourselves. The teacher and two assistants roam the room to make sure no one is having difficulties. Another nice thing is the students help each other at times too. When you have mixed the ingredients one of the KAF folks check the dough first to see if it is ready to be kneaded. They have you note the feel and texture of it before your turn it out to the counter. As you knead it they keep an eye on you and have you add a little water or flour as required. When it is time to put it in the pan for its rise, they have you poke it and note the feel. This is where a class is invaluable, you can’t get the feel of the dough from a book or DVD. While this dough is rising you move on to a different type of bread made using some semolina flour.
These takeaways are proof you CAN bake your own bread.
This second and third loaf is where the 3 hour night class differs from the 4 hour weekend class. In the 4 hour class you mix the dough and let it rise. For the three hour class there are dough balls made ahead of time that have completed their rise when it is time for the students to use them. Where I had taken a similar 4 hour class making this second batch of dough wasn’t as important to me. If you are new to bread baking and taking the class from KAF, you might want to opt for the longer class on the weekend. The second and third loaves are formed into various decorative shapes of bread. You make one shape where you form the dough into long spaghetti like strands and weave them like strands of a rope. You also make a second shape where you roll the spherical dough ball out into one long strand. At this point they show you several different shapes you can make and let you pick one to try. The one I did involved forming two spirals: one clockwise and one counter-clockwise. These loaves get a brief rise and then it’s off to the oven.
The semolina spiral bread made a nice bread for a ham & cheese sandwich.
While the bread is baking the teachers discuss some yeast bread related topics. Next they explain the answers to some individuals questions which came up during breaks and they tabled until now so the whole group could benefit from the answers. Finally they fielded any last questions from the students. Once again this is the type of interaction you can’t get from a book. Lastly the loaves come out of the oven and we each head home with 3 loaves that look virtually identical to the teachers. Listening to some of the other students talking as they leave the class, the experience was a real confidence builder for them. For some it confirms the will be able to do this themselves. For others they discovered some little thing they were doing wrong and now that the missing piece is in place they feel they will have better results.
I really think the classes at King Arthur Flour are well worth the time and money. It doesn’t hurt that they have a vested interest in your success. After all if you bake more, they will probably sell more flour in the process. But you can tell these folks enjoy what they are doing. And as I said before nothing replaces feeling the dough with your own two hands. Having someone there who can tell you when it is just right (and how to get it there if you need a little help) is invaluable. So if you are going to be around Vermont King Arthur Flour is a great resource, but classes can be found at community colleges, night schools and culinary schools. As mentioned I heard some students at my class who were self taught talk about their frustrations and how one little thing they learned in the class is going to make a big difference. It made me glad I got my fundamentals in place early, before I too got frustrated and possibly lost interest in trying to bake