Culinary School Update: Welcome To Baking Lab

It’s been a while since my last culinary school update.

I’m currently in the midst of baking lab. I have grown to love baking so much that it’s hard to imagine I ever thought I’d hate baking lab. The first day was rough, as is usual with most firsts. We had to acclimate to a new set of kitchen tools, baking pans, and equipment. We got assigned to a new cooler and had to chase down a different family of ingredients. Most terrifying, we had to measure.

Whether or not we were supposed to, we got away with a lot of “eyeballing” in salad lab. I followed the recipes closely, for the most part, but eyeballed many measurements. Most of our recipes are written by the cup, while our kitchen is only stocked with pints, quarts, gallons, and scales. Even though I dreaded careful measuring, I have become quite good at it and find comfort in the fact that correct measuring (usually) insures decent baked goods. I’m still tweaking some recipes at home and hope to post them soon. The rest of this semester’s highlights and low lights are summarized in the bullet points below:

  • Repetition takes the anxiety out of most recipes. I love that culinary school is forcing me to make foods I previously avoided out of fear.
  • Industrial kitchen appliances: I have a track record of breaking things, so I was initially nervous about using kitchen appliances. In my own kitchen, I a minimalist. I haven’t owned a food processor or electronic mixer until recently. Last weekend, I bought my first wooden spoon. Now, I appreciate the convenience of the giant proofer, mixing bread dough with a hook, and whipping cream with a whisk attachment. And I haven’t even broken anything (yet). I still prefer cooking and baking in small batches at home where I measure by the cup and knead bread dough by hand. 
  • Learning tips and tricks from our teachers. The other week, the teacher walked me through my first pie dough and later, my first scones. Sometimes their methods are by the book and sometimes they lead us on detours that differ from what I’ve read in books or seen on television. My teachers are graduates from the culinary program, have held many roles in the food industry, and returned to teach. I’m not sure why I’m so surprised when their tricks work, but they always do. We made scones with softer than ice-cold butter in a giant mixer and they were perfectly light and flaky. We also made pie crust in the most unfussy manner and they also turned out light and flaky. It’s nice to know that the baked goods I avoided out of fear can be made without agony or fuss.
  • Diversity of baked goods: The second year students take turns planning the menu, which results in a dizzying array of baked goods and desserts. We’ve made breads such as clover leaf rolls, braided rolls, garlic naan, cheese-stuffed garlic rolls, onion buns, and hot dog buns. The desserts are even more dizzying. Caramel rolls, snickerdoodle brownies, strawberry shortcake, every type of pie, scones with craisens and white chocolate, red velvet cake, churros, and s’mores cheesecake with a bruleed top, just to name a few. For one stretch, I kept finding myself making putzy desserts of graham cracker crusts and multiple layers of fillings made from cream cheese, jello, or pudding mixes. Never felt so Midwestern.
  • I may have a weakness for fried foods but I hate frying: We all had to take turns using the giant donut fryer. I kept expecting oil to splash in my eyes and so my batch of fried dough more closely resembled squiggles and sad O’s than donuts.
  • I enjoy measuring with a bakers scale. I had no idea these were so expensive. We won’t be purchasing one for home-use any time soon.
  • Do-over’s: Everyone’s had to start over at least once and I think many of us made the mistake of getting egg yolk in the egg whites. After my first baking do-over, I only crack one egg at a time into a separate bowl, before adding it to the big pile.
  • Parchment paper rules: After one particularly challenging morning of trying to scrape caramel brownies out of a pan for portioning, I always use parchment paper. Except for angel food cakes.
  • There are different types of yeast: After baking a goofy batch of cinnamon rolls and buns that inflated to the size of children’s bowling balls, we figured out that I was using an excessive amount of yeast. For example, there’s active dry yeast, instant yeast, and fresh yeast, which are measured differently. Lesson learned.

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