This Corona thing is made even more annoying by the fact that this week I was supposed to be back in San Francisco for “Artisan 2” at the Baking Institute, a separately taught second week to take lessons on sourdough and Viennoiserie (pain au chocolat, croissants, brioche).
I had no idea when I went for that first week way back in January, a lifetime ago, that I would love being in the bakery so much, and how much I had been craving to learn something new—the art of mastery. I’ve been writing a novel about a baker and research was ostensibly the reason for my trip. But then I became kind of obsessed and, although outwardly waffling, inside I instantly committed to Artisan 2. It was my gift to myself.
Then well, you know, Corona.
A few weeks ago at home, I started almost unconsciously working my way through the textbook which guides both Artisan 1 & 2. The book is looking well-loved now, with sticky notes and stuck together pages. A real user’s manual. I know it’s rather sparse and mathematical looking formulas would have been covered in handwritten side notes with pearls of wisdom from the teacher, had I actually been using the textbook in situ.
And I periodically come up against questions I would have answers or at least a little trick for, had I been able to work in the bakery and sit in the classroom for the next part of the course. That’s the value of school, and I might add, the value of teachers: For example, I know how to properly stretch a piece of dough to determine its consistency, and every time I do that I think of Stephane’s drawing on the white board of the network of gluten strands at different mix consistencies.
Last week I moved on to Viennoiserie—laminated and unlaminated doughs enriched with butter, sugar and eggs. These are the famed pastries of the Viennese upper class who could afford such luxuries. And indeed, today a great pain au chocolate, or croissant, or brioche feels like a true luxury right here at home, because it’s not easy to find butter, eggs or milk.
This was my second attempt—the first I tried as an experiment using my sourdough starter, which is, I might add, quite active and quite sour. There is no recipe in the textbook for sourdough pain au chocolat, and I now know why. If you have commercial yeast, use it. They came out too dark (my fault) and a bit too gummy (maybe Tribble’s fault).
The second time, I precisely followed the textbook formula. I had a ton of baker’s anxiety during the process, mumbling at the dough consistency, cursing when one of my carefully laminated layers tore, disturbed at the crooked edges (indicative of poor rolling technique), and sad that I had not gone to school to learn the tricks of rolling out and folding 60 centimeter lengths of dough (there must be pearls of wisdom about this process somewhere). Even with these mistakes, the results were pretty darn good—proving the fact that dough, and the baking process in general, can be somewhat forgiving.
The second formula this week was brioche—I’m fond of this lightly sweet and eggy bread because, well, who wouldn’t be? But the problem with both pain au chocolat and brioche is that they both use a shit-ton, crap-load, obscene amount of butter, and also some milk. Our local grocery has been short on both.
So I got all pioneer-woman or end-times (depending on my mindset) and made my own butter. I actually went to Rasband Dairy down here in the South Valley and bought an obscene amount of full-fat cream and milk, and whizzed the shit out of it in my great new food processor (thank you, hero husband). The result is amazing!
And that handmade butter made from cream from the local dairy makes incredible brioche. So light, so airy, so buttery, and so French-bakery-y. The shaping of said brioche was a bit challenging, because I don’t have a brioche mold (who does?), but I improvised and made a small loaf and some muffin tin versions. Holy heck. Eggy, sweet, buttery pillows, with a tight springy crumb.
So even though I’m not in San Francisco this week, I can still hear the voices of my fellow students oohing and ahhing over our work during those productive days back in San Francisco. And after a few discouraging moments, the success of the brioche energized me to do two things: Work out more (so much butter to exercise away!), and keep plowing through Chapter Six of the textbook. There are many doughs to try, and pages and pages of lecture to absorb.
In the meantime, I have a new career option as, like many out there these days, my old one gets smaller: Since I have gifted two 100 gram starters out into the universe, I am fairly certain I can start a sourdough/baking hotline: 1-800-MyStarterDidn’tRise. Or 1-800-MyCrumbisTight (which, in saucier moments, could also be the title of a baking porn movie).
This would be a satisfactory career, but one I’m not quite ready for. I need a lot more education, virtual and most definitely in-person. One of these days.