It's official. The first year of baking class has come to an end.
It has been such a joy to ride my bike to school each Tuesday night and to bike/walk home with bags of bread and boxes of cake and pastries. It has been even more of a joy to find myself laughing so much during classes, to reconnect with an old friend and, most importantly, to learn so many small, but crucial things about baking.
I'm sharing my favorite lessons from baking class at the end of this post, but first, I'd like to tell you about the final challenge of this first year: the exam.
I wasn't nervous about the exam at first. I more or less knew what was expected of us - plain white bread and a Swiss roll with apricot jam -, I felt confident about it and I knew Pol wasn't looking to fail anyone anyway. I had it covered.
Standing in the bakery with Pol looking over my shoulder, though, I couldn't escape a few waves of self-doubt. "Had I kneaded this dough long enough?" "Hmm, maybe just a little bit more." "Have I just taken it too far?" "Why is it taking me so much longer than the others to beat these eggs and sugar to a ruban?" It didn't help that Pol wasn't his usual theatrical self. He was kind and fair and everything, but the joking around was kept to a minimum and he didn't say a word about how anyone was doing. It was stressful and tiring.
Apart from those nagging questions in the back of my mind, though, everything went well. My loaves of bread came out of the oven looking all toasty and perfect and my biscuit was airy and soft. If only I hadn't listened to that silly voice in my head telling me to put enough jam in my Swiss roll...
I feared that Pol would comment that there was too little jam in the roll to actually taste the apricot. I really did. That's why I spread so much of it onto my biscuit. (So did most of the others, actually.) But I was wrong. Pol was not a fan of that much apricot jam... partly because it overpowers the whole thing and partly because, with that much jam inside, it's difficult to roll the sponge into a neat and tight cylinder. It still worked pretty OK with one of my rolls, but the other one looked a little like a sad sagging snail. Not good.
Of course, apart from feeling a little disappointed in myself, no real harm was done. Only a tiny little bump in an otherwise smooth road. I still have to wait a couple of weeks to find out my exact results, but I can already tell you that I have successfully finished my first year of baking class.
These are the things I'll remember most from the past year (other than not putting too much jam into a Swiss roll, of course):
How to make bread
I'd glanced at recipes before starting this course, but making bread had always seemed so intimidating. Kneading sounded like such a specific technique and then there was this whole thing with water temperature and so on. Baking class taught me that, while it takes a lot of experience to really know about bread and to make an absolutely perfect loaf, bread isn't quite as intimidating as it seems. Actually, this also goes for choux pastry and puff pastry.
The beauty of a Génoise
I didn't know about warm cake batters; now it's my absolute favorite way to make cake. I love the airiness, the fluffiness that comes from slightly heating the eggs and beating them to a ruban as well as the slightly drier texture of the Génoise. Move over, pound cake.
All about flour
I knew a little about flour. I also knew a little about gluten. But I'd never thought that much about it. Those days are gone. Now, when a cake recipe says not to over-mix the batter, I know it's because you don't want the gluten strands to develop too much as this will make the cake chewy instead of crumbly.
Proper organization and quality ingredients can make your life a lot easier
Whether you're working in a professional kitchen or simply at home, having things organized, taking care of your mise-en-place and having everything within reach sure relieves a lot of stress. Having access to quality ingredients helps, too. While I started this blog by saying that I wouldn't be using any weird ingredients, we've made use of several specialized food items in baking class. These are the ingredients that professional bakers use. For most recipes, they aren't necessary exactly, but they sure can make things easier.
Passion and respect
I am in awe of some of the bakers I met this year. Even though it is an incredibly hard job - I still can't fathom how one makes that much bread and so many cakes and pastries in a single night -, they do it with so much passion and perseverance. I don't think it'd be possible without it.
This is not the end
I once wrote that this blog was a "a second step, or a side step, or perhaps even the final step (...) in my plan to do something with baking." Today, I'm pretty sure that it will not be the final step. Despite the occasional streak of self-doubt, despite the disappointment I feel when I do even the tiniest thing wrong, I am still becoming more and more passionate about baking. It makes me feel calm and nervous at the same time, it makes me happy and it challenges me to always become better. There is definitely more to come.