Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Culinary School? Oh, yeah.....

So, I was going to wait until the end of my series on our food blowout trip on Saturday until I would post current happenings, but it's getting a little ridiculous. Oh sure, I'll still post the roughly 6 remaining Saturday posts, but now about school.

On Monday, we started our 3 week Baking Techniques Block, which is yet another overview of the entire program, but this time, we have an hour lecture and work in the kitchen for the rest of the day. On Monday, though, the Chef Instructor went over all the recipes we would make for the rest of the week. The class of 17 is divided into 6 groups, and each group changes subjects every two days. So, three groups worked on breads for the first two days and three groups worked on cookies for two days; then we switch for the remaining two days. We will also spend two days each on topics like laminated doughs, rolls, and desserts.

I was in a cookie group, so we made Almond Spritz cookies (made with my ideological nemesis, the star tip) and Russian Tea Cookies (aka Mexican Wedding cookies) yesterday and Fudge Brownies and Pecan Diamonds today. Tomorrow will be baguettes and batards made out of a regular lean dough and pate fermente (which has dough from the previous mixed into the main dough, akin to a poolish or starter) and the next day will be Sunflower Whole Wheat Bread and Challah.

At the end of the day, we gather round the chef instructor who offers his critique for everything made by the different groups. It's amazing to see the variation from the different groups that comes out of one recipe. Often, the biggest difference has not to do with technique, but baking it to the proper doneness -- I think mastering that is one of the biggest challenges, because it has the greatest effect. Mixing batters and shaping doughs are way easier to practice and master, in comparison, especially since you often get to practice multiple times per recipe.

Although I've made some of these things before, the one of the trickiest part for me is controlling allllll the variables that come up in baking and trying for consistency. This is rough, because as far as I can tell, a group makes everything once; and you are working in a group, so there is also the committee factor and the dividing of duties. So, you practice rolling out short dough or shaping batards or fougasse, and you get feedback at the end of the day for what went right and wrong, but you know that you won't have a chance to perfect it in class again.

Of course, techniques overlap for many recipes, but as of day 3, I'm just concerned that I'm learning to make many things but I'm not making them properly (even if they do turn out yummy enough). I don't want to say "I know how to make perfect brownies, but I haven't made them yet." Sure, next time I might not overbeat the flour into the brownie batter as we did today, but I might because I haven't tried again yet. The practical test will be to make about two things that we've made in the block, and it may be the second time I've made it. You can practice at home, too, of course; I know Julia Child, when she attended culinary school, made for dinner what she made in class, which is a good--if costly and timely--idea. Also, Culinary school isn't about grades -- it's whether you can make good stuff or not.

Of course, this will be very different from working in a restaurant or bakery, where I probably will be making the same products day in day out and will have plenty of time to master.

So, I can understand why the school wants us to sample making different things, but I'm just waiting to build up my skills so that I can have better across the board results. When I look at what I make, I want to be able to proud to sell or buy them; if not, I want to improve them until I can.

And don't get me wrong -- being in the kitchen has been a blast! Big mixers, lots of ingredients and techniques--the days fly by now, and I could go even longer every day.


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