Baking 101: The San Francisco Baking Institute

Course: Pastry Arts: Exploring Ingredients and Techniques

Institution: San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI)

Instructor: Juliette Lelchuk

Location: South San Francisco/near the SFO airport

It was my lemon meringue pie entry in a baking contest when I was 13 that pretty much told me I was a baker. The night before my entry was due I stayed up all night making four pies from scratch – I had never made pie before but I was determined. There was also a time, in law school, when I baked something every day – desperate for a bit of the tangible in such an abstract world. I've dabbled in home baking for a good many years now. That’s why, with a little time on my hands, I jumped at the chance to take a professional baking course at the San Francisco Baking Institute. I decided to take the introductory pastry course: Pastry Arts: Exploring Ingredients and Techniques.

The course is 5 days and meets from 8am to 5pm each day. Pastries for breakfast and lunch are provided every day, and you get to take home massive amounts of baked goods every day. The morning starts with a lecture and the afternoons are spent in the lab – actually baking.

Day One: Chocolate Chip, Oatmeal Raisin, Peanut Butter, Snickerdoodle, Ginger Molasses, Diamond Cookies, and Coconut Macaroons

The first day was the longest lecture day and covered the pillars of baking. We spent a lot of time on the science of baking, covering things like stabilizers, emulsifiers, binding agents, gums, the sweetness scale, acidity, etc. Baking is basically a structure and once you know how to build, then you can go crazy - kind of like the relationship between structural engineering and architecture.

After lecture we went to the lab where I ended up at a table with a culinary student and a young woman who had never seen a mixer in her life. There was quite a range of skills and experience in the class. By the end of lab, the newbie was transferred to another table and it was just me and the culinary student pumping out cookies.

There are four basic mixing methods for cookies (“small cakes”): one-stage, creaming, sponge and sabler. Essentially, for cookies (and most baking for that matter) the order of ingredients matter, as does the temperature of those ingredients. For example, in cookies, if you add ice cold eggs to room temperature butter, you’ll cause the butter to seize up and then you’ll get butter chunks in your batter and even if it blends well you’ll get tunneling or channels in your end product.

Day Two: Muffins, Cream Scones, Butter Scones, Streusel Topping, Coffeecake

The next day, a new student joined the class, rounding us out to 15. She asked another student in the class to summarize day one for her and got this response: “You didn’t miss much; I just learned that I’ve been whipping the shit out of everything.” It’s important in baking to take your time.

In lecture we covered more of the essential baking ingredients: eggs and fats, and the mixing techniques for Quick Breads. Then we arrived at Meringues. I’m convinced my lemon meringue pie entry failed to take the prize because my meringue shrunk. So you can imagine my delight upon learning how to keep a meringue from shrinking or weeping – it almost moved me to tears.

After another long lecture, we headed into the lab to bake. My table was joined by the woman who skipped day one. She had also arrived for day two 45 minutes late. We’ll call her Ms. Late. I quickly learned she was not as interested in learning as I was. With the recipes right in front of her, she kept asking me which ingredients to use and what to do. I sensed she was going to be trouble.

Quick Breads
Quick breads are pastries that are leavened by chemical leaveners and steam, like muffins, scones, biscuits and coffee cakes. The mixing techniques are the blending method, the biscuit method (similar to the sabler method) and the creaming method. The main difference between the three is the timing of when you add the fat and the way you do it – either by just throwing it in, cutting it in or mixing it in. Be sure to sift all dry ingredients before incorporating when making quick breads and avoid over-mixing after adding flour. If you over-mix you’ll create more gluten and get a very chewy muffin. Also, it’s good to remember that anything with baking powder can be held in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, after that the powder will lose its oomph. If your recipe only has baking soda, you need to bake it right away. Finally, you don’t want quick breads to cool too long in the pan because the steam will make them too moist and they will fall apart when you try to serve them.

Always start meringues with room temperature or warmer egg whites – this will cut down on the whipping time. In meringues, the earlier you add your sugar, the less volume you have. There are four types of meringues: common, French, Swiss and Italian. Common and/or French meringues are the most sensitive, least stable meringues. You really don’t want to use these to decorate with – yet they’re found the most often in recipes for pies with meringue toppings. You only use these types for when the meringue you’re making is going to be a part of a batter. The best way to keep your meringue from shrinking? Use a good on the fly meringue that’s pretty stable, the Swiss meringue.

Leavening is basically the production or incorporation of gases in a dough or batter that will give the end product volume, texture and shape. There were a lot of misconceptions about what is leavener and the teacher clarified that salt and buttermilk are not leaveners and used for flavor or moisture.

(1) The types of leavening:
a. biological (yeast – not covered in this course)
b. physical (oxygen aka air or steam), and
c. chemical (baking powder, baking soda, and baking Ammonia)

In professional bakeries everything is done in grams. A large egg weighs, on average, 50 grams. Lecithin is found in egg yolks and it helps create a stable, good emulsion. Emulsion is basically the combination of fat and water. Fat and water like to separate and so something is needed to encourage them to combine. When we homogenize milk we use something physical to make the emulsion happen. When you use an emulsifier – it has molecules that are both hydrophilic and hydrophobic – they both attract and repel water. Xantham gum, often used in gluten-free recipes, is a stabilizer but it can help in emulsion by making something thicker.

Starches from the flour gelatinizing and eggs coagulating sets the structure for your baked good. You don’t want to blast through any instructions that say to cream by using your mixer on high speed. You will get a high volume really quick but the structure will be less stable – uneven-sized cells will be produced and sometimes the results of this won’t be seen until you see the finished product and it looks like it has caved in on itself, has a poor crumb or has “tunneling.”

Tenderness in baking comes from fat and sugar and it’s hard to mimic. There are four different types of fat: butter, margarine, shortenings and oil. European style butter or “low moisture” butter just means it has more fat. Sometimes literally, see Plugra. There’s also Lurpak (Danish), Kerry Gold (Irish) and Vermont butter. Unsalted butter is used in baking in order to better control the flavor. In general, you don’t want to use butter that has been frozen but it’s okay for pie dough.

Butter tends to be 78% to 84% fat and the rest is water and milk solids. Oil, obviously, is 100% fat. Oil also has what is called an “extreme shortening effect.” “Shortening” in this context means tenderizing. Cakes are tender and therefore “short.” The sugar and fat does the shortening in the case of cakes. Cookies are also tender and it’s why they are often called short bread. Oil spreads through the batter easily and this means the flour particles can’t meet up with each other and create gluten (which makes something chewy). This is also why gluten-free recipes mainly use oil. Finally, you can exchange a solid fat for a solid fat in a recipe but if you go from a solid to a liquid fat you need to adjust the steps and the ingredients in your recipe. Remember though that liquid fat doesn’t hold air and so your mixing method will have to compensate accordingly.

Day Three: Angel Food Cake, Pound Cake, Brownies, Rocher Meringue, Pâte à Choux, Chouquettes, Gougères

Day three we jumped into cakes. In lab, midway through our time, we were informed by our teacher that she was transferring another student to our table to make us 4. The new member, let’s call her Mrs. X, asked to be moved from her table because she was not getting along with another man at her lab table. Within minutes of her moving to our table, I began to understand what may have been causing the trouble at Mrs. X’s original table.

I was folding flour into dough for a huge batch of brownies in a bowl by hand. As the lab is in a commercial bakery, everything we do is commercial-size. That means we often worked with 20 quart mixing bowls and very large quantities. Mrs. X saw me folding in the flour and told me that I had to be sure to scrape the sides. I nodded in assent and kept at my task. I do know how to scrape the side of a bowl. Apparently, she was unsure of my skills, so she proceeded to walk over and start scraping the bowl I was working in. As Mrs. X is a very large woman, her action physically moved me aside. I was pissed but I simply walked away and watched her basically fold the shit out of the brownies. After several minutes, she looked up and realized that the rest of the table was standing away from her and watching. She scurried over to me and said, “Oh it looks like I’ve made you mad.”

I said, “You have to admit, that was pretty off-putting.”

“Well,” she said in a huff and then went to turn away but not before she slipped on something on the floor and fell. The incident left a bad taste in my mouth.

There are 2 major types of cake: fat based and foam based. Each has several different mixing methods you can use. For fat based cakes – there is the creaming method (modified creaming method), liquid shortening sponge, and the flour-batter method. For foam based cakes there is the sponge method (separated egg sponge and whole egg sponge), chiffon method, and angel food method. The method used is linked to the ingredient composition.

Pâte à Choux
This is a pastry base for things like éclairs, chouquettes, gougère (cheesy thing), Paris-Brest (donut like thing) and Gâteau St. Honoré. It’s basically a thick paste made with milk, water, butter, flour, salt, sugar and eggs. The real trick is how many eggs to put in. The technique is to mix in eggs until you get a shiny consistency that is smooth and forms a clean, non-ragged “V.” This is hard to explain – but here’s a good shot of it. When you’re ready, you load it into a piping bag and pipe the desired shapes. Right before you are ready to put your shapes into the oven (and no sooner) you give the shapes an egg wash (meaning you brush egg on top of it). You don’t want the egg wash to sit for too long before it goes into the oven otherwise you might create a skin on the choux and reduce the volume of the pastry (its puff). At home, one should start a choux at 400°F and then after 10 minutes turn the oven down to 350°. You definitely need intense heat at the beginning. The visual clue that choux is baked well is a crackly top, browned with crevices. You want these crevices to be darker than a golden color. They should also feel light and hallow inside; if it’s too eggy inside, you’ve messed them up. Also, if you squeeze them and it has some give (and doesn’t just crackle), then that’s a sign that they are probably still too wet inside. Be sure the choux is totally cool before filling. Finally, cake flour shouldn’t be used for Pâte à Choux; it’s too weak for it. You can use all purpose flour but you will probably need more egg – pastry flour is ideal.

Day Four: Pie dough, Pâte Sucrée, Pastry Cream, Cheesecake and Lemon Bars
You know you’re in a baking class when you hear phrases like “the proteins have suffered.” Our day three attempt at choux didn’t exactly come out right. Different teams had scaled different recipes and the team that scaled the choux immediately came under the spotlight. One of the first ways you can screw up baking is by not being precise. We, however, were not deterred and continued on to Pie dough.

Lab was pretty straight-forward and the hardest thing about it was dealing with my lab partners. Through-out the week I marveled at how difficult it was for many folks to simply follow directions. They also seemed to not grasp the flow of each day. The teacher every day in lab would demonstrate what we were going to make before we made it. If you tried to go ahead of her, you might find yourself lost or with questions. That is why I would simply read the recipe ahead of time and then wait for her to demonstrate the product before I jumped in.

At this point in the week I was partnered with the culinary student on one side of the table and Ms. Late and Mrs. X were partners on the other side. As Mrs. X was a home baker that thought she knew everything and then proceeded to screw up every one of their recipes each day and Ms. Late was perhaps the laziest baker I had ever encountered, they were a fine pair. Once again they decided to shoot ahead of the teacher and start on the next recipe. They asked me, “What do we do with the vanilla bean?”

I said, “If you wait for her to demonstrate, I bet you’ll find out.”

Mrs. X and Ms. Late deemed this to be a snotty remark and then proceeded to tell me what was wrong with me. When I asked them to be concrete Mrs. X couldn’t come up with anything but Ms. Late specified that on day two I said “pastry flour” in an abrasive tone.

I was taken back for a second. I had a moment where I struggled with old thoughts – I can’t get along with anyone, I’m a terrible manager, I hate people. Then I thought, wait a minute – this is ridiculous! After a long day, however, I couldn’t quite get together the words to explain to her how frustrated I was with her. Instead I kept my mouth shut and stifled a laugh. When I thought about it, it really was kind of funny.

Buddhism teaches you to embrace your enemy and see him or her as your greatest teacher; to use each encounter with someone you dislike as an opportunity to examine your ego and break down your arrogance. So that night I spent time reflecting on the incident. What she heard in my voice day two was “pastry flour, stupid.” The recipe was literally right in front of her yet she was asking me. The reality is I resented her laziness. I wasn’t the boss or even the team leader in this course, but people turned to me for guidance. Why? Because I work hard to be on top of it. What made me angry was that I wasn’t looking for the role and yet there I was acting the part. I just wanted to bake but when she asked for help I helped. I wasn’t smarter than her or probably even more competent than her. She had just figured out the fine art of getting other people to do her work for her and she saw me as an easy target – which, it seems, I am. Then instead of setting the boundary and telling her I was frustrated with her expecting me to catch her up when she was late or figure things out for her, I swallowed my anger and it leaked. Right into the pastry flour.

Pie Dough
You know what pie dough is, right? When you see recipes that call for lemon juice, this is just to help retard oxidation or that graying that happens when you store dough. Lemon juice can also make it easier to roll (also known as its extensibility). Because pie dough is very susceptible to over-working, pastry flour is highly advised. New bakers have a tendency to touch pie dough way too much.

The flakier the dough, the more liquid you’ll need. You get flakier dough with larger flat chunks of butter you leave in the dough. So you’ll get to a flaky batter before you get to a mealy one (more crumbly pieces of butter) and then if you keep mixing you’ll get to shortbread.

While you can use a mixer, it’s best to make small production by hand. It shouldn’t come together like a dough before you’ve added your liquid. If it does – you over mixed it. If it does, just add sugar and turn it into shortbread. You cannot save it. Don’t even try. Pie dough should rest for at least 4 hours after mixing (over night is even better) and it should be very cold when handling. Also, for those of you out there who love fat like I do, you can substitute lard for butter without any adjustments to the recipe. You might also want to check out Leaf Lard – it’s like pig Crisco! Finally, pie dough freezes very well if well wrapped (because the fat will absorb any freezer smell – so wrap well) – for months. It can also go right from the freezer to the oven.

Day Five: Madeleines, Financiers, Marble Cake, Rustic Fruit Pie, Fresh Fruit Tart, Lemon bars and Cheesecake
The final day was all lab work and really about putting the finishing touches on a lot of the things we set up the day before, like the pie dough and Pâte Sucrée. It was also a day for me to practice not working so hard. I kept to myself, did the work I wanted to do, and left the rest to the others. And you know what? It worked. I was at peace.

Pâte Sucrée
Pâte Sucrée is a rich, sweet pastry dough used for tarts. To give it extra flavor, try substituting almond meal (almond flour really) for a portion of the flour in the recipe. You can make it with either the creaming or sabler method. However, you don’t want to incorporate air when mixing, so don’t whip it, just mix. This dough should also be rested for at least 4 hours. With pie dough you shouldn’t re-work any scrap you have but with Pâte Sucrée dough you can.

Custards contain whole eggs or egg yolks, sugar, milk and/or cream and sometimes starch. Quiche is considered custard but does not contain sugar. There are two types of custard: (1) cooked or stirred custard (e.g., pastry cream) and (2) baked custard (e.g., Crème Brûlée). Under-cooked pastry cream will be too soft and have a starchy mouth feel. Pastry cream can be prepared ahead of time up to three days, but not frozen. A baked custard is baked in a water bath around 300°-325°F, usually covered with foil or another sheet tray to maintain even temperature and a humid environment. They are almost always served chilled and can be served in a mold or unmolded. You know custard is ready when you touch the top and it jiggles. It shouldn’t spring like a cheesecake, just jiggle.

The class is a great overview for beginners but a lot will be lost on you if you haven’t had much experience in the kitchen. I think it’s best for understanding the science of baking and practicing technique – which is what baking comes down to.

As for me, I learned to roll my own dough.