My recent trip to Paris was cut short due to circumstances beyond my control – c’est la vie. But the one thing I was unwilling to eliminate from my planned Paris activities was my French baking class.
I’ll admit it – bread baking has become a bit of an obsession for me (I wonder if there’s a 12-step program for that?) I finally faced the fact that I couldn’t eat bad bread, couldn’t easily get good bread in the US, and couldn’t live without it (or choose not to, anyway).
Somewhere near me, and in a city, town, or hovel near you, there’s probably a bakery that makes bread in the classic way from non-GMO ingredients, that doesn’t taste like cardboard, can’t be squished into a golf ball, and won’t make you blow up like the Michilin Man. But honestly, in the time it would take to drive there and back (once I found it), I can make a dough from ingredients of my choosing, plus I have the bonus of having my house smell like a bakery. And then there’s the bragging rights.
I’ve been making bread on and off, believe it or not, since about age 9. But I had never made bread with a trained baker, and certainly not a French one. And while I was quite satisfied with the bread I’d been making, I was eager to learn the technique – how the dough should feel, how it should be handled and shaped – that makes bread-making an art. And so I gave myself an extra day in Paris to attend class at Le Foodist.
Classes are taught by classically trained French bakers who are fluent English speakers. Our Chef, Frederick, had been educated in London and so spoke with sort of a “Frenglish” accent which I thought was charming (but then I’m easily entertained). We were to make baguettes, brioche, and fugas (the French version of ciabatta) and enjoy the fruits of our labor, all within a four hour period.
We were seven Americans – two married couples, myself and another Kelley who was keeping herself entertained while her husband was in Paris on business, and a lady on vacation from Minnesota. The group was paired up to begin baking; the two couples, the two Kelley’s (seemed only fitting), and Minnesota, who was odd-man-out in our unevenly numbered group.
Chef Fred first educated us on the flours used in France – T45 which is a softer flour used for pastry and brioche, T55 which is more of an all-purpose flour (and the one most easily purchased here in the states), and T65 which is the typical bread flour used in France. However, he added that T55 works fine for anything, so not being able to get the other flours was no excuse not to bake.
He then instructed us on the sequence of adding ingredients – flour, yeast, water, then salt. I already knew that salt is added last to retard the rising, but I didn’t know exactly why.
Here’s the deal: yeast, as you probably know, is a living thing. Dried, it sits in a dormant state until activated by water, which makes it wake up and start eating (and burping and make gas bubbles which causes the bread to ferment and rise). Salt, in addition to adding flavor, draws water out, bringing the yeast back to more of a semi-dormant state, and retards the rising. Otherwise it might keep rising out of control and you could wind up with bread dough erupting throughout the kitchen á la I Love Lucy. So there’s your science lesson for the day. You’re welcome.
That said, Minnesota, having left her glasses in her hotel room, immediately dumped her salt in with the rest of the ingredients at the beginning. And we watched English-educated Chef Fred suddenly become very French.
The class was brilliantly timed. We made brioche while the baguette dough was rising, then fugas while the brioche was rising, and somehow had time to fit in a nice glass of Bordeaux.
Here are some of the things I learned:
It’s actually hard to fuck up bread. I watched Chef Fred bring dough back to life from basically every conceivable mistake a student could make (happily I didn’t make any major blunders, other than folding my baguette dough “strangely”). There was of course the Minnesota Salt Incident, followed by improperly measured eggs in one of the brioche, making the dough resemble more of a pudding, and one of the couple’s over-zealously floured board (which adds too much flour to the dough), to name a few.
Mixing dough with the Kitchen-aid is not cheating, and turns out just as good as hand-kneading. As Chef Fred explained, our French ancestors (well, his anyway) did not have a Kitchen-aid to mix the dough before baking it on the open hearth, and if they did, they definitely would have used it.
Having made three different breads from start to finish in under four hours, I learned that you can rush the rising process more than I would have thought, so there really is never a reason not to make bread.
I learned how to create a proper steam environment in the oven for the perfect crust. I thought I was being very clever by putting a pan of water in my oven prior to baking. And I was, sort of, but not quite clever enough. Chef Fred not only put a pan of water in the oven, much larger than the pan I was using, but also doused the sides and bottom of the oven with a spray bottle every five minutes (for breads with a longer baking time, this only needs to be done for about the first 15 minutes). The crust was divine.
I learned how the dough should feel before baking, and what to do if it doesn’t. Worth the price of admission.
In the end, we sat down to a table laid out with cheese, charcuterie, jam, butter, and a mountain of amazing bread. Chef Fred even made French toast for us (pain perdue or “lost bread”) from some of the brioche we had made.
Fun fact, by the way – I always thought it was called lost bread because the eggy, buttery brioche was “lost” in more eggs and butter. Turns out, this preparation was originally used on brioche that had gone stale, hence, “lost”. Chef Fred ups the ante on this by adding a little alcohol; rum, cognac or Grand Marnier, to the custard, and sprinkling a little sugar on the second side before turning to get a nice caramelization.
Less than 48 hours later, I was back home in my little French kitchen in Los Angeles, making bread. And the crust was divine.