Baking with the CIA: Day 1

For a Christmas & Birthday present this year, my
sweetie enrolled me in a Baking & Pastry class at the
CIA's Greystone campus, located in Napa Valley.
Herein is my journal for the week.

Day 1:

I admit, I was a little scared at first.The CIA normally teaches at the professional level, and my view of the professional cooking world has been colored more by _Kitchen Confidential_ than anything else. This is another campus of the same school, after all, that Anthony Bourdain himself told stories about. Nor was their introductory letter very reassuring. It suggested that I shouldn't show up at all without a full chef's uniform and a suite of my own kitchen tools. Sure, I could bring my own spatulas, but a "bench scraper?"

And worst of all, I feared I'd be cooking on an empty stomach. I can't eat much very early in the morning, and class was scheduled to run from 7 am to 1:30 pm. Sure, we would get to eat what we baked, but how much pastry could I eat? And how could I make it that far on little food.

Pshaw - my worrying was for naught. The atmosphere turned out to be just what you'd expect for a campus in the laid-back Napa Valley. My day started with a very pleasant breakfast, served in the huge communal kitchen / dining room that all classes share. After a bit of orientation, we met our teacher for the first three days, Stephen Durfee. Chef Stephen's credentials are impeccable; he's worked as a pastry chef at the French Laundy (in Napa) and at Charles Nob Hill (in San Francisco). He's also an extremely personable and patient guy.

Oh, and for lunch, every active class contributes their makings to the general potluck, along with some extra dishes from the teaching assistants. This means we get a wide variety of dishes at every lunch, all of them cooked either by (or under the supervision of) experts. Five days worth of fabulous food practically makes the entire trip worthwhile.

Let me get back to the class, though. The first two days are all about baking things that are leavened by whipping air into the ingredients before baking. Today we focus on the "Creaming Method," in which the first step is mixing butter & sugar in a mixer until the sugar forms a lattice that traps air. This is the foundation of Pound Cake, of which we make two varieties today. It's also a great way to make cookies, which we also make.

The key nuggets of knowledge for today are:

1) The proper way to "cream" together butter & sugar. For cookies this means minimal mixing, but for cakes you want to fully aerate the mixture to lighten the final product.

2) The proper way to emulsify eggs into this mixture before adding flour. Done right, you can form a batter without the overmixing that can make a cake tough.

3) The different types of flour. Cake flour, bread flour, and pastry flour all have distinct properties, and sometimes you really want to avoid "All-Purpose" flour.

4) Biscotti is resilient stuff. We made a batch and got through the initial baking fine, but ran out of time to do the second baking, where you lay the slices out flat and toast them for an hour. Chef Stephen said he'd take them out in an hour since we was going to be around anyway. Then he forgot, and left them in for 8 hours! And they still came out excellent! Turns out the toasting process mainly dries the biscotti, and once dry it's pretty impervious to further heat.

A tasty lunch followed, with the more advanced cooking class working elsewhere in the room turning out tasty versions of various Chinese dishes. There's another baking & pastry class going on at the same time, a serious 30-week one, and they're producing lots of amazing little delicate cookies. Still, our classes chocolate chip cookies and white chocolate macadamia nut cookies disappeared plenty fast, so we got that warm glow of satisfaction.

Tomorrow: more egg-whipping than you can crack a whip at!

Posted by patrick on January 14, 2003 | TrackBack
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