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From Boston to Baguettes

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Paris Cooking ClassI never imagined it would be this cool in Paris in the summer. There’s a crispness in the air that seems better-suited for autumn, but it sure is a welcomed reprieve from the heat and humidity in Texas. After dumping my belongings at the apartment in the Marais, I went for a walk to Ile St. Louis. There are a number of great cafés, and I figured it would be a good place to line my stomach before my baking class nearby. Soup à l’oignon gratinée and a glass of rosé. It’s becoming my welcome répas each time I visit.

My class started promptly at 2:30pm, and three-quarters of us managed to arrive nice and early. That led to a prompt start, with two ladies straggling in while we were elbow-deep in flour and poolish. We were as lost then as you likely are now regarding the word, but we mimicked what Chef Eric was doing nevertheless. More on poolish in a bit.

I paired up with a really nice girl named Kate, who ironically used to live in Houston. Her husband’s job (he’s a geologist to the oil industry) moved them from the land of humidity and queso to Paris, so here’s hoping Brady and I might follow in their footsteps. Between bouts of kneading our dough correctly and sometimes not, we swapped stories about Houston, restaurants we both like there, etc… It was kind of like taking the class with a friend.

But back to the boulangerie. The first thing that struck me regarding baguettes is the simplicity of the ingredients. There was a quiz on our recipe sheet that indicated there were just four, which immediately made me think of “Reinheitsgebot,” the German beer purity law. These Europeans take their food and beverage very seriously, so much so that they have enacted laws like these that protect the traditionality of certain products. The French law called the “baguette de traditional française” was signed into law on September 13, 1993. There are also specifics regarding the length, width, height and weight for anything being sold as a “baguette.”

So, what goes into a these bread swords you see sticking out of fashionable purses around Paris? Nothing more than bread flour, salt, water and yeast. Oh, and elbow grease, but that’s an unspoken addition. It really wasn’t all that difficult to create the baguettes, but you do need counter space and a willingness to demolish a tidy kitchen. Baking is messy. There are no two ways about it.

Something else that you will need is a kitchen scale. Like Chef Diane from my macaron class in November (who I saw Baguettes Paris Cooking Classbriefly today), Chef Eric also drove home the point that weighing your ingredients is the way to go. Note to self: purchase a kitchen scale. You’ll need it to create the poolish, a starter that’s made three to 18 hours ahead of time to jumpstart the fermentation process. It’s nothing more than bread flour, water and fresh yeast, but this step makes a marked improvement in the bread’s flavor.

Perhaps most important of all, though, is the double proofing process where you allow the dough to rise after kneading it, and then again after it’s formed into a baguette shape. The baguettes will double in size during this process, so if it’s twice as big as when you started, you’re on the right track. It’s also important to score the baguettes with a razor or small tool, which allows steam to escape. Most bakers have a unique score for their baguettes that is likened to an artist’s signature on a painting.

I’m not a baker. I repeat: I’m not a baker. I don’t like to measure, I don’t have an egregious sweet tooth, and I certainly don’t have the patience or gadgetry that’s required of most baking projects. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the craft, especially something like freshly baked French bread. It’s one of the best parts about roving the streets of Paris.

A major takeaway from this class was that we cooked in normal, convection ovens. The kind you would find in any home. A critical aspect of the baking process is steam, which can be achieved by tossing a few ice cubes into the bottom of the oven or by using a spray bottle intermittently. Outstanding tips that I likely would not have otherwise thought about!

That’s all for now. Another great culinary experience in the books! If you’re ever in Paris (or any of the places I’ve traveled with Culinary Hopscotch) and want recommendations of cooking classes or other culinary adventures, please let me know.   

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