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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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Allons-y à Paris!

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Kyle and JuliaIn preparation for my trip to Paris, I packed “My Life in France” by Julia Child and brought it back east in my crew bag. I figured I would re-read it on the jumpseat to drum-up excitement for my trip. I read the book prior to conceptualizing Culinary Hopscotch back in 2009, which was some time ago. I don’t know why I’ve never thought to read it again.

In just one short chapter (the introduction, actually), I’m amazed at the many similarities and connections I now see between the two of us. By no means is this comparison meant to be culinary in nature.

First off, for those who follow my #crewlife tales, you’ll remember that I just visited the Smithsonian exhibit of Julia’s kitchen in Washington D.C. a few days ago. The layover was planned, but riding bikes to the National Mall with my crew was not. As luck would have it, we all split up and went our own ways, finally giving me the opportunity to go see this exhibit. It also happened to be Julia’s birthday that day, which I didn’t know until after the fact.

The kitchen is an exact replica of the one from Paul and Julia Child’s Boston home, the city where I spend half of my time flying for JetBlue. Secondarily, Julia is from Pasadena, California, just up the road from where I grew up in Newport Beach. Two California girls, navigating Boston’s unique mixture of culture and unpredictable weather.

But perhaps most interestingly,  she penned “My Life in France” in Montecito in 2004, just down the road from where I attended college at UC Santa Barbara. I graduated two years prior. I’m shocked that I never ran into her while babysitting for a family in her neighborhood, or at La Superica, her favorite hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant that is adored by college students and famous foodies alike.

More than anything, however, our love of France– Paris, specifically– is what strikes a chord with me. There are so many ways to see Paris, but in mine and Julia’s opinion, the City of Light is best viewed through a culinary lens with a fork always at the ready.

While writing this, I was shuttling people back and forth between the Northeast and West Palm Beach, an oft challenging crowd for those in the know. I wasn’t about to let them get to me. Tonight, I’ll be boarding a flight to Paris. And on Thursday, joining a baking class where I’ll learn to make baguettes and other doughy delicacies in a home oven. You can keep the palm trees and the beach; I’m heading to where the magic is made in café kitchens, patisseries and in a small hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant along Canal St. Martin.

For those who read about my macaron class in Paris last November, this is the same small cooking school tucked along the Seine near the Marais. And it’s also the same place where my phone took a swim in the toilet last time. Evidently, geography and a love of food are not the only thing Julia and I have in common. Klutziness in the kitchen is as common as it is in life. One of my favorite quotes in the book says it all: “Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed. Eh bien, tant pis!” [Translation: Well, too bad!]

Let’s go to Paris!