I am a cook – NOT a baker or pâtissier. So why then, you may ask, did I go to the venerable Culinary Institute of America for a 4 day intensive course on baking and why am I going to be returning at the end of April for a 5 day boot camp training in pastry making?
Four or five years ago, in one of those awful airplane magazines which normally have a bunch of dumb articles on famous people I don’t care about, I read an article on culinary study vacations that ordinary people can take. One of the destinations described was the Culinary Institute of America where, the article told me, I could take a boot camp program for serious cooks – amateur or not. I tucked that little nugget of info in the back of my brain and decided that some day I would try to do this. After a couple of years of dreaming, I finally decided that life wasn’t waiting for me and, in June of 2008, I took my first trip to the CIA in Hyde Park, New York. There I spent a week taking their 5 day Advanced Culinary Boot Camp. The experience changed my life.
If you have read the about me page on this blog, you might recall that I have been cooking all my life so it is not like I didn’t feel at home in a kitchen. But, wow, did I learn some things. I am not talking about things like how to make a particular sauce, a specific gratin or special preparation for a precise kind of fish. Sure we did these kinds of things but, truly, I can’t remember a single dish I made during those 5 days (I have them all neatly annotated in a binder for future reference – if I ever think to need them). I am talking about learning about how to execute particular techniques correctly and otherwise how to be in a kitchen with confidence. At the CIA I learned a great deal about how to handle food (protein, most notably): what to look for, how to feel, see and smell the food and how to go about turning it into something delicious and desirable. I learned how to slice up a primal cut of meat, filet a fish, turn a whole chicken into a big boneless mass of fun-to-stuff protein. I learned how to make a forcemeat, stuff and tie a roast and make a whole loin into a pile of steaks.
Above all, I learned to have no fear. Once back home in my own kitchen, I found I was comfortable firing the pan when I want to deglaze it, flipping the sauteuse when I need to move the contents around and using just as many pots, dishes and tools as I need or want to use. Alas, as it turned out, at the CIA I had learned how to let go of my cooking inhibitions!
So it occurred to me that perhaps if I went to an intensive class on baking and pastry, I might pick up some similar skills in the bake shop. In fact, I rarely bake or make pastry at all, except around winter holiday time. I had never really though about why I am not much of a baker or a pastry maker (other than to avoid letting the fat person within get out). It is certainly not because I don’t enjoy these pursuits. However, I’m not much one for eating sweets. I much prefer to get my big calories fried, thank you. Also, my mom didn’t bake much. I only remember one sweet that she made without a recipe. Dessert in our household was an amazingly rare event reserved for holidays and usually brought by others.
But I do adore bread and things made with yeast. (A taste I acquired after moving to the Bay Area where bread is a religion.) When fresh fruit is in season, I like to make a pie or a cobbler. For dinner guests, I feel obliged to offer some kind of dessert and for myself, I enjoy a little morsel of something sweet now and again, here and there. But really, unlike my desire to cook, I rarely have a yen to go to the kitchen to bake as a matter of recreation.
The bread thing on the other hand, that is different. I just love the stuff. I love it fresh and yeasty and crusty and, sometimes, oh my, I love it with stuff in or on it. (How about cinnamon, spices, olives, cherries, chocolate chunks, raisins, dried fruit, etc., etc. (Mmmm, I am making myself hungry.) But alas, I have always suffered from a fear of yeast. It always seemed so fussy, so needing of exactitude. When I cook, it is all about a little of this and a little of that. But bread? Bread requires precision, doesn’t it?
Two out of four days of my recent CIA adventure were spent on the subject of bread. It turns out, that it is not all that persnickity. Sure it has to be scaled out and mixed together in the right order. And yes, you have to be careful not to over do your mixing and your kneading, lest you make it tough. Nevertheless, with the help of modern machinery (my handy-dandy stand mixer) it is really pretty easy to pull off a success. And, best of all, I can add all that good fun stuff to it! No more fear of yeast have I!
As an added bonus, I learned how to make incredible cookies which, at my whim, I can alter and adjust to suit my creative needs. I learned the right way to do a number of things I otherwise thought I knew how to do and I learned a number of “tricks” for giving my baked goods and bread a beautiful and professional finished look. So I will be off again to the CIA on April 25 to begin a full week of pastry making. I know now that croissants and other Viennoiserie are destined to become part of my kitchen repertoire and I will leave the CIA reasonably proficient in buttercreme and ganache. I will always be much more of a cook than a baker or a pâtissier but I am fairly certain that when I am done, all cake phobias will be banished from my consciousness.
If you want to read a fun book about the CIA, I would suggest you get Michael Ruhlman’s The Making of a Chef. I read this book after I first returned from The Culinary and it was all soooooo real to me. It is a good quick read full of many laughs and much joy. Michael talks a little about how The Culinary transformed his life at Wasabimon this week.