I love baking, but even more than that I love learning how to make things from scratch.
So when I saw that the Gourmandise School of Sweets & Savories offers a bread making class, I just had to sign up. And it being located in the ever cool Market at Santa Monica Place made it all the better.
The instructor, Clemence, was so sweet and patient, and I immediately felt at ease upon arriving. I just knew my bread was going to be the only one that somehow plumped up nicely, but for some inexplicable reason it collapsed immediately upon removal from the oven like the turkey in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
But still, I sat there and listened like a good student hoping that somehow I wouldn’t screw anything up. The list of recipes was a little daunting. In four hours we were to make four varieties of bread by hand that we would be able to take home and show off to our friends and family. That seemed impossible. But the organization was impeccable and the pre-measured ingredients very helpful, as well as the assistants constantly cleaning and assembling the next batch of supplies.
Bread is fairly simple as far as the actual ingredients, which are usually some combination of milk, water, sugar, yeast, flour, salt and butter. But bread making by hand takes a masterful level of skill to achieve the right degree of doughy interior texture, or crumb, and crisp exterior, or crust. Bread making is also a lot of waiting around for the ingredients to do their thing. The yeast has to gobble up the sugars to create air, which causes the bread to rise while it rests, or proofs. It’s like a little science project that you get to eat later.
Over the course of the day we made pain de mie (a soft white bread), honey whole wheat, cinnamon raisin bread and a rustic flavored loaf. Besides measuring the ingredients exactly and giving them enough time to react, the other essential component of bread making is the kneading. This was what I had been waiting for, to see a real baker demonstrate this age-old process. It looks fairly simple, but for some reason you have to really concentrate to keep the rhythm, or at least I did.
You push with the base of your hands, then fold the dough over on itself, then turn the lump of dough a quarter-turn, and then push again and repeat the process for several minutes. We’re talking only about 10 minutes, but trust me, it is quite the upper body workout.
There’s always that one person in class who sticks out and this time, to the perfectionist in me’s embarrassment, it was me. First of all, my bowl of yeast turned out to be dead. No gas, no bubbles, no nothing. I, of course, thought this was somehow my fault, but Clemence assured me it was not. In fact, it turns out that’s the reason to test the yeast before adding it to the other ingredients. So, I had demonstrated a valuable lesson. Later, my pain de mie went overboard in the oven even though a heavy top had been placed on the pan to secure the loaf’s shape. Clemence politely commented that I must have a light hand when it comes to kneading. Obviously, I need to work on my arm strength.
Thankfully, the results were tasty nonetheless and for my first attempt I was pleasantly satisfied. The rustic loaf was by far my favorite because we got to get creative with our additions. I chose hazelnuts and chocolate in class, but when I recreated the rustic loaf later at home I added rosemary and Parmesan instead. And this loaf looks like one of those fancy breads you always see in the windows of bake shops and wonder, “How do they get it to look like that with the cool design on top?” Now I know!
We amazingly also had time to make fresh strawberry vanilla jam, which we enjoyed with our freshly baked bread. Perhaps they say “bread is life” because in a way it is alive, or because this scrumptious creation can, in fact, sustain existence (at least for a little while). And although I won’t be baking fresh bread daily, I look forward to the somewhat meditative practice of kneading the dough and watching it rise in the oven and, of course, enjoying the finished product.