Wednesday, April 28, 2010

French Bread 101 at the CCAE (Part I)


I had my first class (of 2) on French Bread baking at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education on Sunday. The class cost $145 for a total of 8 hours of instruction split between two consecutive Sundays. While I'm talking specifically about a class in Cambridge, I'd guess there are Adult Ed's everywhere that have similar offerings... so I thought I'd post a quick review.

I'll admit that as someone who adores his Peter Reinhart, and has already made some strides along the home bread baker route... there wasn't a whole lot that was completely new to me from a theoretical standpoint. However since at this point I have mostly book learnin' and not much else, there was some serious benefit from seeing things I'd read about demonstrated by an expert, having said expert available for questioning... and just plain practice. I thought it was worth it, but depending on how much bread baking you do, it might not really be a good use of your time and money... though I guess that's suggested by the 101 in the course title... read on and decide for yourself.

There were around a dozen of us there for the class, with most having little or no bread baking experience. Since we were limited to 4 hours... far too short a time to go from flour, yeast, water, and salt to a baked batard... we did steps out of order, starting with dough that had been made by our instructor and mixed, kneaded, and proofed over night. He had us each weigh out (the use of a digital scale being one of the bigger lessons of the day) an 8 ounce piece of dough and shape it into a boule to rest... where the "rounding" concept of stretching and gathering the dough to form a taut surface caused those new to bread dough some problems (easily corrected). He then demonstrated the "home hearth baking" of some batards he had shaped before class... inlcluding moving from couche to peel without disrupting the shape, slashing the loaf, transferring the loaf from peel to a tile lined oven, and then spritzing oven walls with water during baking to simulate the steam of a commercial bread oven. Then we went back and shaped the rounded boules into batards under the instructor's guidance... similar in concept, but quite distinct from the shaping I've done for Pain a l'Ancienne in the past. Reinhart has you cut the batards/demi-baguettes at the very end... doing all the folding on much larger pieces of dough... whereas we were working with 8 ounce batard sized pieces of dough from the start. Obviously, the latter method is more generic and scalable to any quantity of dough, and I found it a quite natural and fun way to shape a loaf.

After the batards were shaped and left covered in their folded couche to continue proofing, we proceeded to learn how to mix and knead dough with a starter. I've never used honest-to-goodness starter before... only commercial yeast and biga/poolish pre-ferments to this point in my home bread baking career... so that was pretty interesting. Functionally it was the same as any pre-ferment, but instead of commercial yeast it had some local Boston guys, which is kind of cool. Allegedly this will make the bread taste noticeably different than, say, a starter with San Fransisco yeast... don't know how true that is, but it's a pretty thought regardless. We measured everything by weight, of course, since that's really the only way to reliably make quality bread.

Hand kneading a pretty wet dough gave a lot of people problems (our instructor intended to also use a stand mixer, but it had no dough hook). You can't be tentative with a wet dough if you don't want it to be stuck all over you, but quite understandably people who have never kneaded dough before need (ha) to practice a bit before they can get that comfortable... fortunately there was plenty of opportunity for said practice, since many wanted dough to take home.

While all this was going on, we were also chowing down on food... the instructor had some amazing croissants baking when we came in, made some bruschetta with the batards and some pizza from failed batard attempts, and also brought a cream of asparagus soup to accompany it all... and of course, we were making standard batards to eat the entire time.

Finally we ended the class with a demonstration of a shortcut croissant recipe, that I may eventually try (and thus blog) with store bought puff pastry dough. Acknowledging that said dough isn't going to be nearly as tasty as hand made croissant dough, he made an almond paste filling for them. What was most informative for me was seeing how you cut the dough and roll up the individual croissants... it was much easier (looking) than I had imagined, and it definitely makes me want to try it.

After dessert... with time for questions... we were sent home with our own bag of starter (score!) and whatever other fruits of our own labors we cared to cart away. I simply took home a fresh baked batard to make the sandwich pictured above, but many took home dough to make later.

I'll blog the second class... which is more influenced by what we'd like to see... next week. I'll also likely post about my efforts to keep a starter alive. To date I've fed it once and given it 4 hours out of the fridge in the warmth to make sure it's alive; hoping to give it a full 8-12 on Saturday.