31 March 2012

Day 91: Shortening

I'd occasionally wondered what shortening was, but never why it was called shortening. The reason is, on one hand, maddeningly simple, and on the other, really insightful into some basic baking concepts.

Shortening stops gluten from forming long, chewy gluten chains. In other words, it... wait for it... shortens gluten in baked goods, keeping them in crumbly territory.

As for what it is, it's basically any fat. Butter. Lard. Crisco's website says their all-vegetable shortening is made of soybean oil, fully hydrogenated palm oil, partially hydrogenated palm and soybean oils, and some chemistry-sounding stuff typical of mass produced food.

My chef-instructor pointed out that the frosting on supermarket cakes and cupcakes that leaves that weird film feeling in your mouth is made with shortening.

30 March 2012

Day 89: That New French Bread Smell

French baguettes and an epi ("wheat stalk").
One of the ways I've tried to improve my palate has been to smell everything, and connect ingredients and aromas. A few Christmases back, I made spiced cider for the first time, and it was then I realized that the smell I associated with a freshly baked apple pie was actually nutmeg and cinnamon. Which, of course, are standards on most apple pie recipes.

Our French bread recipe is simple. Five ingredients total: bread flour, water, salt, sugar, and yeast. Specifically, compressed yeast, also known as baker's, cake, or fresh yeast.

The stuff has that vaguely sour smell of feet. The stink wafted throughout our baking lab as we were measuring out ingredients, and went into overdrive when mixed with warm water and sugar to bloom. We'd already used other yeasts in class and, while they have a similar smell, you'd have to shove your nose into the mixing bowl to really get it. (This may be because you need less of the other stuff. The basic substitution is 1 part compressed = 1/2 active dry = 1/3 instant dry.)

And then the stank feet dough gets baked, and that smell transforms into that wonderful, warm, distinctive French bread smell. I turned down two offers on the train/bus ride home to buy my bread.

23 March 2012

Day 87: Beware of Flour

Flour. It gets everywhere.

Tabletops. Hands. Uniforms. Inside my bag. It's the culinary school equivalent of my labrador's fur. Which means the inside of my backpack and most of my jackets have both dog fur and flour all over them.

11 March 2012

Day 86: Attrition

My pastry and baking class began at what is roughly the midpoint of the year-long culinary diploma curriculum (factoring out the three months of externship at the tail end of the program). My group's P&B class fell neatly after Christmas break – new year, different discipline. Walking into our campus' dedicated baking lab brought with it more than a few mild shocks, chief among them: our class was down to twelve people. Three school terms previous, when we started in August, there were nineteen of us.

The number is a little misleading. Two students transferred out of my 2pm class, one into 10am and one into the 6pm slot, to accomodate work. But the others? One person left during Foundations II because of, from what I could tell, a combination of sickness and being in a band. One person, I later found out, decided the culinary program wasn't his cup of tea and didn't show up for the Foundations III finals (he later popped up in the P&B diploma program). Three people straight up did not pass Foundations III, with two deciding to retake the class.

So, here we are. Twelve culinary students in a baking class. Instead of stoves, we have long, metal work benches, a bank of ovens, and random pluggable gadgets scattered about. It was strongly suggested we each bring our own scale. The need for knives is unclear. As a burgeoning cook, I feel like the stove is my true North, so not having one fixed in place is a little strange.

Note: When this blog began, I was posting more or less evenly with my classes. However, at this point, I'm more than an entire term behind. Which means I get a wee bit of hindsight than previous posts may have had, but also, I'm way behind.