Cooking with Jason

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Baking, Days 1-3

I'm really liking Baking and Pastry Skill Development. The bakeshop is calm and cool. Chef doesn't yell and we don't have any hard deadlines. Sure, we have to provide rolls and desserts for the dining room next door and the employee dining room in the next building, but he's got backup rolls and desserts in the freezer we can use if something doesn't come out. He's more interested in the educational process and making sure we learn basic techniques.

Tuesday, the first day of class, I met my new group. We're pretty small -- only ten. The good news about a small group is that there's always something to do. All but two of them have been together since the beginning (they were Chef Vanoli's second group; I was in his first) and they're good about cleaning and looking out for each other, which you have to be with a small group. My partner, who was also new to the group, didn't show up on day one so I worked alone... further establishing me as the outsider. I made chocolate chip and peanut butter cookie doughs; no big deal. Another team made brownies and a third team made biscuits for strawberry shortcake. The other two teams were on bread.

Every day, two teams are assigned to bread. One team of two makes basic lean dough (just flour, salt, water, and yeast) for hard rolls, and the other team makes a rich dough (lean dough plus sugar, butter, and milk in place of the water) for soft rolls. Bread always has to get going right away, so it gets proper fermentation time. Chef Higgins, a Certified Master Baker (similar to Certified Master Chef, except there are even fewer CMBs than CMCs), is fanatical about baking and pastry. He has so much experience with all of this that based on the temperature of the bakeshop, how much time we have to work with, and the weather outside (specifically the humidity), he advises how to adjust the bread recipes. On day one, the water (or milk) was to be 75 degrees. Day two was quite cold, so he called for 80 degree water. Today was warmer, so back down to 70. He also varies the amount of yeast slightly, a quarter ounce here or there.

One of the bread teams today, despite his instructions to use 70 degree liquid, used liquid which was too warm. As the rest of us were going about our work, he walked over to the bread station and uncovered the dough which was resting on the counter. "Look at the bread!" he shouted. "It's running like crazy over here!" He wasn't upset, he just wanted us to take note. To slow things down, he folded the dough to release some of the fermentation gasses. If the dough is too warm, the yeast is too active and your bread will rise too quickly.

Wednesday my partner, Barrett, showed up. He had taken three blocks off to work full-time over the summer on a resort island off the southern coast of Long Island. I don't know why he missed the first day of class, but other than that I have no complaints. As the two outsiders, we have something in common and get along well. He and I cut and baked many dozen cookies from dough made by the previous class, and also rolled out the dough I had made into logs to be placed in the freezer for the next group.

Everyone made pie dough on day two as well. Each team was assigned either flaky or mealy pie dough -- same ingredients, different method. Mealy pie dough is used for pre-baked pie shells (for a pie you'll fill with an already cooked filling, like Boston Cream Pie) or fluted pie shells (for open top pies, like pecan). Flaky is used for double-crusted fruit pies, such as blueberry, cherry, or apple. I made a half recipe of 3-2-1 (3# flour, 2# butter, 1# water) flaky pie dough, which then became five, 9.5-oz balls of dough (one ounce of dough is needed for each inch of pie tin).

Today, day three, was pie day. Barrett and I made six pies, four blueberry (Chef's favorite) and two cherry. Other teams made pecan, Boston Cream, lemon merengue, and chocolate cream pies. Before heading to lunch today, we sampled the cherry, blueberry, and pecan pies, still warm from baking, with from-scratch vanilla ice cream. Yum.

It's a pretty rough life, this baking. We're busy but not rushed, we get a full hour for lunch (Cuisines of the Americas, probably my favorite kitchen to eat from, is right across the hall), it takes less than half and hour to clean the bakeshop, Chef is really good, and we sample freshly baked goods every day. I'm finally on bread tomorrow (and Monday). Other than being tired and not yet readjusted to this schedule, things are going quite well.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Get Your Bread On

Baking and Pastry Skill Development starts tomorrow -- who's excited? I've gotten mixed reviews so far, though the general feeling seems to be "class boring, but chef good." OK, so that's what I heard from one person. Too small a sample, really, but it's all I have to go on at this point. I'll be in the bakeshop at 6:50 am tomorrow, so those of you on the west coast can think of me while you're still sleeping at 3:50 in the morning. Heck, most of my friends are starting Wines tomorrow (8:30 am start time), so they'll probably still be sleeping too.

Also, since I've been going over my uniform and knife kit tonight in the course of getting ready for tomorrow, I thought it would be appropriate to share my Top 5 Things I Hate About CIA Uniform Policy. Remember, I haven't been in a CIA kitchen since December, and I haven't been in a CIA classroom in over two months.

5. Neckerchiefs
4. Toques
3. Four-ply aprons (couldn't find a good pitcure; interestingly, if you Google 'four-ply apron chef' this very blog is the first two hits)
2. Ill-fitting issued check pants
1. Shaving every day

Friday, September 08, 2006

Return Trip

We're leaving -- all four of us this time -- Saturday night, around midnight Pacific Time, on a flight back to New York. That gives us most of Sunday and all of Monday to get settled before I start Baking & Pastry Skill Development on Tuesday. See you then!