Sunday, August 12, 2018

Lessons for the Home Baker

A loaf of sourdough bread. (Photo: Liliana Fuchs)

In New England, everybody knows King Arthur Flour. It’s on the shelves in most grocery stores and it’s generally on the more expensive side. Their all-purpose flour is higher in protein than most brands – within the range of traditional bread flours – and that makes for a good, elastic dough and a delicious loaf. The King Arthur Flour Baking Center is situated among the green hills of Vermont, immediately across the Connecticut River from Dartmouth College. While the company that eventually became King Arthur has been in operation for over 200 years, the Baking Center only opened in 2012. It includes a bakery, a café, a baking supply store and a small school that offers classes for both professionals and amateurs. The question is, with so many recipes and Youtube videos available on the internet for free, why would you sign up for a class to learn how to make something like sourdough bread or croissants? Because yeast is a living creature; and because many home bakers find croissant recipes daunting just to read. Baking, in other words, can be tricky business, and some skills are most easily learned with the help of experts.

Classes tend to be small – there are only 16 work stations – so there are plenty of opportunities over the course of a 4-hour session to ask questions and get thorough answers. For some of the class, the teacher demonstrates techniques to everyone; and for some of it, the teacher and an assistant wander through the room and react to students as they work. The teacher might comment on the texture of a dough or the ease with which a student is implementing a newly-learned technique. During the very first class I attended – a general overview of yeast breads – the classroom assistant watched me kneading dough for a while and then asked me if I had experience throwing on a potter’s wheel. He said I looked like I was comfortable working with clay – a tactful way to let me know that perhaps I might apply a lighter touch.

The King Arthur Flour Baking Center in Norwich, Vermont. (Photo: Ellen Perry)

It’s impossible to make croissants or sourdough bread from start to finish in under 4 hours – for one thing, both require long resting periods for the dough – but the instructors at the Baking Center have come up with an ingenious workaround for such ambitious projects: they break the process down into several stages and teach the final stage first. At the beginning of the sourdough class, for example, students are supplied with a finished dough, which they learn how to shape into a boule and prepare for baking. Then, while those loaves are in the oven, students learn how to mix up a batch of dough – again, with starter provided by the instructors. A fringe benefit of this approach is that everyone is sent home with three fully baked loaves, enough dough to bake a couple more, and a sample of sourdough starter along with instructions on how to feed it in order to keep it alive.

If you’re coming from less than four hours away – say, from Boston or Montreal – and plan to head straight home after a class, try to pick a work station near somebody who’s coming from farther away. When I took the class on croissants and other laminated pastries, the lovely California couple next to me had no way of baking the dough they had just mixed, so they gave it to me. The next morning I was able to bake up 16 laminated pastries instead of 8, and then share them with the friends in my summer book group. In the sourdough class, the woman next to me had to go straight from class to catch a plane home to Switzerland, so the next morning I had 7 loaves of bread – plenty to keep and plenty to pass around.

Ellen Perry eats, cooks, and keeps bees in central Massachusetts. She teaches classical archaeology at the College of the Holy Cross and is the author of The Aesthetics of Emulation in the Visual Arts of Ancient Rome, the co-editor of Roman Artists, Patrons, and Public Consumption, and has written a number of articles on Roman art and architectural space.

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