I think I have baguette envy

| | 0 comments »

I'll admit it. In the past, I always thought that size mattered. When confronted with the baskets full of baguettes at the grocery store, I would usually choose the large, soft and fluffy loaf that at the time, seemed like such a better bargain than those almost runt-like, heavy, dense loaves. After being elbow deep in baguettes for the last week, I now realize I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

To say the fluffy baguette is in some way superior to it's smaller, chewier counterpart, is absolute poppycock. Sure, I like a good piece of highly-mechanized dough slathered with butter-like, garlic flavored product as much as the next guy. Anyone who's stepped inside a grocery store recognizes this silver wrapped loaf who's fumes tempt as the last impulse buy before loading groceries onto the conveyor belt. But, the next time you (or I) try to purchase such a thing, shame on thee!

We've been working with different mixes of similar basic dough formulas. Nothing more than water, flour, yeast and salt (and a wee bit of malt for ahem - scientific purposes). It's been rather enlightening to see just how the mixing and interrelated fermentation process can affect the final product. Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D, I am not, but for you kids who haven't been in class getting your gluten formation on, allow me to break it down.

In one of his many life lessons (this one not quite as exciting as me learning to light a spoon dipped in motor oil afire), my dad once told me that in order to create a solution to a problem, you have 1) good 2) cheap and 3) fast. You could apply any of these 2 items to a problem, but not all three. In essence, the triple threat is an urban legend which defies the laws of nature, just like El Chupacabra. Seriously, wild dogs sucking goat's blood in the middle of the night, UFOs mutilating cattle, the Cracken, pull it together people! Getting back on track...

The solution can be good and cheap, but it's not going to be fast.
The solution can be good and fast, but it's not going to be cheap.
The solution can be cheap and fast, but it's not going to be good.

Does the conveyor-belt bread in a bag ring a bell here?

A kick ass loaf of chewy, tasty, artisan bread isn't going to be discount store cheap. Nor is it going to be produced in a manner that this drive through and impatient world is used to. Creating that perfect loaf takes time and time.

Take a gander at these 3 lovely loaves in a row. From left to right, we have:

1) Dough that has been highly processed using a mechanical mixer and not much room to develop much flavor or texture due to little fermentation. Directly related to it's lack in flavor is it's white and tight 'crumb' which resembles most bread found in the grocery store.
2) Dough that has been somewhat processed using a mechanical mixer but has had much more fermentation time than the first allowing for a more moist crumb, more open texture and a bit more flavor than the plain, boring bread in position #1.
3) Dough that has been minimally processed using a mechanical mixer and allowed a fermentation time that puts loafy #1 to shame. A combination of minimal mixing time and a long fermentation make for the golden crumb color, texture and taste. As our instructor said during the end of a class critique - "winner, winner, chicken dinner!"

Things of course, get much more technical than this snippity description. If things were truly this simple, you'd invariably be asking, "Rachael, just what the hell do you DO all day in that school of yours?" The answer is learn. Learn a lot and have fun while I'm at it!

Some pictorial proof...

Pretty sure I had just taken a hunk out of this beauty before I snapped this. Can you blame me?


The class bakes enough bread each day to feed an army....and this is only half of what we baked today (note the second table of baguettes).


My most acceptable looking batch of baguettes baked today. Loaf No. 2 has a few...shall we say...problems? I had a difficult time today 'connecting' with the dough, we were just on two different pages.

A wee bit too close to the oven and drooping off of the edge of the loader. Comments to yourselves! Only because we had plenty of comments swirling about over this one already...

The 'wonkys'. Meet candy cane wonky, bulbous wonky and wee wonky enjoying a bit of wonky time.

Not too shabby.

Pardon me if my dough is a bit gassy

| | 8 comments »
Tomorrow, the first week of school will come to a close and this weekend, I will catch up on some much needed rest. I've had some incredibly long days, waking up at 5:45 AM and busy as a bee till whenever it is that I finally get to sleep. I am truly amazed at the sheer amount of information that has been able to make its way into the gray matter encapsulating my brain, considering I've only been in school a meager 4 days. Week 1 is almost over and there are 23 more to go. Each and every one, filled with special little gems that I can't wait to uncover. Like a geode, I only have a rough idea of what the surface looks like, but once inside, it's radiant, colorful and beautiful. For the 6 1/2 hours a day that I've been in school this week, I've been having one hell of a time in the best sense possible, absolutely loving it! The class size is quite small. As of day 2, we have a nice round number of 14 students. The instructor is nothing short of amazing. He is incredibly knowledgeable, amicable and most importantly, patient. I get a real sense that the instructors at the school truly care about educating each group of students and creating the best possible learning environment.

Now that my sappy little speech is out of the way, onto the fun stuff. I've been learning to bake a proper loaf of artisan bread. The fancy doughs and additions can wait for later, as we have been working with a very simple dough to master basic skills of scaling, mixing, shaping and fermentation. The first day in the lab, we worked with dead dough, or dough that contains no yeast, which enabled us to essentially pummel the dough just short of murdering the glutenous mass of flour, water and salt. The subsequent two days have involved fermenting the dough and working on shaping baguettes, batards (that crazy football shaped loaf), and boules (y'all would know these as bread bowls). Truth be told, shaping a proper baguette is a bit of a bitch. Much more involved than I had expected, the second day of rolling out a bellisimo baguette was much easier the first and my technique will inevitably improve on the charm-filled third try tomorrow. Already, working with 3 different mixes of the same dough, we have been able to see just how finicky the fermentation process can be, varying from day to day and even batch to batch in 2 batches that were mixed 20 minutes apart from each other. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that when making bread at home, you 'punch down' the dough after letting it rise, to smash the air bubbles caused by those gassy little yeast cells. In a commercial setting, this is called 'degassing the dough', it sounds much more streamlined. I think I'll use this term in an improper setting sometime soon and gauge the reactions.

While I drink some fresh brewed coffee rather late at night to keep me in a quasi-alert state, I'll let you peruse some pics from this week and I only wish I could upload the smell of those baguettes as they fluff up in oven.

First day of proper baguette shaping. I invite you to bask in the lack of consistent size and length.


The 'robot oven' which I halfway expected to reassemble into a transformer after loading the loaves onto the oven racks.

Hot little hunks of dough as they rise and crisp up in the belly of the robot.

The first lab day's yield of beautifully caramelized treats.

My teammate's rather gassy bit of dough.


My final products on day 3 in the lab. Baguettes and boules.

At the end of each day, the instructor stops at each student's station to critique our final products. Here, we were analyzing the crumb structure and how it relates to our handling of the dough. More importantly, a rather delicious looking slice of bread ready to be toasted and filled with bits of melted butter!


I <3 Alton Brown

| | 2 comments »

This morning from 2:13 onwards, I woke up every single hour, paranoid that I had slept through my alarm. I've had past experiences of almost missing a 6AM Saturday flight home because I had set my alarm to 'weekdays only', flat out NOT setting my alarm after repeated attempts to hit the evasive 'save' button and of course, the ever popular and passive act of sleeping through the alarm entirely. Today was the first day of school and I was determined to arrive bright and early with time to spare. Tardiness was entirely feasible after my rather unsuccessful attempt to arrive to the school on time for orientation last Thursday. I even went so far as asking someone to call me 5 minutes after my alarm was set to go off to make sure my ass was out of bed and on my way to getting ready and out that door into the tepid morning San Francisco rain.

So, at 6:15 AM, coffee in hand and lugging the backpack that hasn't seen hot book action since college, I was out the door and hoofing it 3 blocks to my car parked on a quaint little neighborhood street. I was quite pleased to arrive 20 minutes early to socialize with classmates as well as enjoy a less than healthy breakfast of coffee, buttery, oven fresh cranberry-almond scones and devilishly flaky turnovers. One of the perks of attending pastry school is the always available goodies prepared daily by staff and interns. Once all 13 students making up the 2009/2010 class had arrived, it was go time.

After introductions were given by the staff and students, we were handed our class texts and launched straight into our first lecture. Class texts consist of:
  • One (1) big-ass book which one could use as a defense mechanism in an emergency situation. I have no doubt the perpetrator would be knocked out cold it this book were thrown with precise force and timing at the offender's head and/or neck.
  • Two (2) huge binders filled with 2-3 inches of double sided pages containing formulas and weekly and daily objectives.
Damn. I mean, damn! Once I looked over the formulas and objectives, the excitement was really starting to set in. Of course I had been ants-in-the-pants excited way beyond this point in time, but this made the entire decision of moving to a new city to attend school and learn the craft of something I love, very real. With no time to waste, we launched into a 5 hour lecture on wheat varietals, milling practices, bakers math and dough temperatures. I couldn't have been happier.

I've had my fair share of lectures in my day. Let's just say I've attended college on and off for a good 8 years as I constantly changed my major and attempted to figure out what the hell I was doing with my life. I'm no stranger to sitting. listening, note taking and question asking. The difference here, is I was excited! I cared! There were many epiphany-filled moments in which I recalled sitting through torturous Chemistry and Biology lectures wondering "when will I EVER use this mind-numbing information?!". The question had been answered years ago, but hadn't fully hit me until now. IN THE REAL WORLD. Painfully obvious, I know. But does that really matter until you really care?

As the instructor discussed protein structures and their relation to dough formation and the final product of a flavorful, crusty baguette, I personally thanked every single episode of Good Eats I had ever watched. I've always been intrigued by food and the science and chemistry behind it. I have the bespectacled, spikey-haired Alton Brown to thank for bringing such education to the masses. I recall many a night on my couch, searching for something to watch on TV. When I realized an episode of Good Eats was on next, nothing else mattered. Not even an HBO series could compete. I was riveted and my behind was not leaving that couch until the next commercial break.

First day of class: check! Tomorrow the pastry hounds will be released into the lab for our first hands-on lesson. I hope to be bringing fresh loaves of bread home for me and the roommate by the end of the week. Yum.

Where the f*** is my wallet?!

| | 3 comments »
Being uprooted and trying to find a new routine out here has really got my mind in 50 places at once. I didn't realize just how scattered I've been until I started to repeatedly lose things. Not just silly, inconsequential things like a hair tie or my flip flops, but life anchoring items like my wallet.

The first time I lost my handmade satchel which carries all things related to my identity and financial standing was at a bar in the Mission. Let's just say I ordered a martini that while watching the bartender swirl the vermouth around the glass and pour the gin into the shaker gave me a buzz before it even hit my lips. I was so quick on the draw, I didn't realize it was missing until I was at a bar down the street and went to pay. Luckily enough, my friend dashed to the other bar and retrieved it, safe and sound, all items still included.

Round 2 of my absent mindedness was when I got a bite to eat before hitting up the Exploratorium. Parking around here is not what you'd call plentiful, so I ended up parking a block or two away from a rather appealing looking bagel shop. I contemplated, ordered and went to pay. Yet again, the mysterious wallet was like a case of where's Waldo. M.I.A. My super awesome friend Pax was nice enough to buy my lunch as I had no idea where the hell my wallet was and I tried to retrace my steps while I ate. All I could think is that it was on the driver's seat as I had taken it out for some reason or another and have a bad habit of leaving things in my lap while driving. They usually end up on the seat when I get out of the car, so I wasn't too worried. After lunch, we walked back to the car and where did I find my wallet? RIGHT ON THE STREET in front of the driver's side door of my car. I stood there for a few moments, absolutely dumbfounded. How on earth had dozens of people passed by my car and NOT taken my wallet? Once again, everything was intact in my wallet, right down to the dollar bills and the 0.55 cent bart tickets. All I can say is damn, luck has been smiling on me!

As I am painfully aware, good things come in threes, so here's the last slice of the awesome pie filled with me losing my mind: Today was school orientation, I was planning to be there at 3:00 and had planned to leave with enough time that I'd show up early and be able to waste a little time in the case of me getting lost on my way to the school. I have this diary which I affectionately call 'the book of all things San Francisco' which I carry in my purse. This thing contains notes, shopping lists, directions, you name it. I had written directions to the school down in this handy little book and realized a wee bit too late that I was on the freeway, yet headed in the wrong direction. The instant narration of "Go Rachael! You have successfully followed your directions to your friend's house in Oakland, not the school!" flashed beneath me like closed captioning in a foreign film. Once I realized this, all I could think was "Are you f***ing kidding me??? ". In the end, I arrived 20 minutes late and the coordinator had waited for me to arrive before even starting the orientation with the other students. I apologized as soon as I ran through the doors and no one seemed too bothered by my tardiness.

Monday morning, let the games begin!

Here are a few random shots I've gathered while running around town, losing my wallet, sense of direction and my mind...

Random street art on Valencia:

I laughed out loud when I saw this one:


The infamous Dolores Park - where all the kids go to drink beer, BBQ and people watch:

More random street art:


Nifty alley right off of Valencia where I'm told annual block parties are held:


Those damn roommates who don't pay any rent:


Don't drop a deuce in the barrio

| | 7 comments »

Ahh, my first week in the Bay Area has been an interesting one to say the least. Seeing a man giving his boo the beat down on the street corner, searching for an apartment, acquainting myself with the city and it's transit system are just a few highlights of my last 7 days.

I moved into a very cool apartment in a very cool neighborhood 4 days ago. The more I walk around and familiarize myself with the great shops, restaurants and cafes around here, the more I fall in love with it. Everything is so close, everything is within walking distance that I could possibly need. Just now, I took a quick jaunt to the coffee shop for a latte and across the street to the neighborhood market to pick up some strawberries and figs. So far, this 'hood is everything I wanted city life to be. Eclectic, accessible, interesting.

You may be wondering what the hell dropping a deuce in the barrio is all about. Well, let me tell you! My place is right on the border of Noe Valley and Mission. Noe Valley is a bit more neighborhood-y and quiet, the description of the market on one corner with the coffee shop across the street basically sums it up. St. Paul's Catholic church is not quite 2 blocks from my place - this is the church made famous by the nuns playing basketball in Sister Act. The Mission is about 3 blocks in the other direction, this is where the real fun is. The Mission has tons of bars, taquieras, liquor stores, corner markets and people that are out and about at any given time of the day. It's a diverse neighborhood, but is known for having a dominant Latino influence and flavor. Walking down the street the other night, I happened to see the above poster in the window of a neighborhood business. Yes, the first 'don't do it' sign is someone dropping a deuce on the sidewalk. The fact that this is the FIRST in the line of 'don't do it' list kills me, let alone the fact it's on there at all. Ahh, the city.

It's been a busy week, it's flown by and it honestly feels like I've been here much longer than 7 days. Here's a photographic breakdown of where I've been and where I've ended up.

The couch on which I crashed at my friend's pad in Oakland while running around town looking for a place to stay (pardon my less than professional photographic/html skills):


Some pics of my neighborhood and the corner on which the coffee shop and market are to be found:


My friend Pax and I in a retro photo booth at a hipster retro bar, me acting like I'm 8 years old all over again at The Exploratorium and some great bathroom art on the wall of the women's restroom in another bar in the Mission (yes, I snapped a pic while staring at the bathroom wall - get over it already):





It's been an exhausting week. I've finally had the chance to sleep in for likely the last time in a good while this morning as school will be starting up a week from tomorrow. This means early mornings for the person who detests them. I predict massive amounts of caffeine pulsing through my veins, but this is nothing new. For now, I'll enjoy some good retro soul, the nice cross breeze from the adjacent windows in my room and the garden view right over my shoulder.

Landed!

| | 4 comments »



My first real introduction to the Bay Area was just after getting off of the freeway in Oakland, trying to find my friend's house. Due to some percent operator error, I had clearly garbled the directions given to me and had to be directed where to drive on a street by street play over the phone. Just about as soon as we exited the freeway and began making our way through West Oakland, we saw a rather violent altercation between a man and his boo right on the street corner. Let me define 'altercation' as 'this chick getting beat the f*** down by her man in the middle of broad daylight'. This paired with my friend's direction of 'whatever you do, DON'T go over the Richmond bridge' really made me feel cushy, safe and sound. My friend and I locked our doors and drove as fast as possible away from street corner drama to the much nicer neighborhood of Grand Lake. Turns out the only thing wrong with crossing the Richmond bridge would have been paying the toll fee and getting hopelessly lost in BFE, but 'whatever you do' paired with the street beatdown, I wondered if I was going to be dismembered and disemboweled if I made one wrong step into the badlands.

Once my car packed with all of my belongings was parked and we had gotten some sleep, I was on a mission to find a room. I must have emailed 50 different people about a room and had received just about as many replies. After many showings/interviews and finally posting a craigslist ad of 'I need a room ASAP!' I ended up finding a pretty rad place in Noe Valley just on the border of the Mission district. It's a big room, quiet neighborhood and there is so much to do just around the corner. I plan to take a walkabout in the mornings before school starts to check out the 'hood as well as venture into some of the neighborhoods I've yet to see. In my pursuit of a room, I gallivanted (A.K.A. walked my ass off) around Haight, Inner Sunset, Mission and Chinatown.

Tonight's agenda: unpacking my things, going for a walkabout in pursuit of a few needed items and some much needed sleep.

Hallelujah!