Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Gone baking: Checking in to chocolate breads class at Le Pain Quotidien

Photo by Dawn Eguchi Jan

I may dine out more than I cook, but I’m always open to acquiring a new skill. When I took my first baking class at Fashion Island’s Le Pain Quotidien last summer, it was pretty good (considering we knew nothing about baking). Head baker and former On the Line subject Jonathan Eng emailed me about some of their new additions to the curriculum. So I grabbed a friend and checked out the Chocolate Breads course. Here’s what we took away from our afternoon of pretzels, rolls, shortbread and baguettes.

1. The ingredients are as important as the skill.

Preservative-free bread is crafted from only a handful of ingredients, so the quality of each is instrumental in a fresh product. When purchasing butter, only select unsalted. Manufacturers don’t elaborate on how much salt they put in, and you can always add, but not take away.

Brushing a thin layer of egg wash before baking gave breads an attractive sheen. We eat with our eyes, so the prettier the finished product, the better. Gently rolling shaped dough in flour adds a rustic touch when baked. One might choose to add a sprinkle of salt, giving a depth of flavor going beyond our sweet tooth.

2. Bread is pretty gassy.
getting ready to score some loaves

Scoring, or slashing dough prior to baking our baguettes, was necessary for excess gas (the bubbles that form in bread) to have a way to escape. Otherwise, the bread would expand and split open in less desirable places. The most effective tool to produce a fine line is a scoring clip with its razor sharp edge. Scoring a single, angled line lengthwise produced an “ear” effect. Another option was two shorter lines that paralleled in the middle.

Do you devour bread just out of the oven? As tempting as it was, Jonathan and his assistant Scott advised waiting at least the amount of time that it took to bake before slathering butter and partaking in some chewy goodness. Part of the reason had to do with the process. Similar to cooking steak, bread needs to rest because it continues to bake even after you take it out. Also, the gases released are still present, and ingesting them isn’t recommended.

3. Baking takes endurance. And there’s a proper way to do everything-- even taste bread.
discussing chocolate brioche

The group stood for three straight hours on a Sunday afternoon. Scott and Jonathan typically begin their work day at 3 a.m. They win.

My fingers grew weary from gripping the pastry scraper to soften butter. Patience waned as we rolled out stubborn pretzel dough studded with chocolate chips. This was not as easy as it appeared. Combining ingredients, degassing and rolling out dough made class literally hands on.

When possible, they provided comparable speed levels (for those owning a mixer) to achieve similar results. A folding technique I learned was how to fold and seal dough with a fluid movement utilizing the palm of our hand. When determining whether bread is done baking, it’s easier for bread to spend less time in the oven rather than more, because you can always add additional time.

Reminiscent of wine tasting, there’s a certain way to taste bread. You start by sampling the inside, or crumb. Then taste the outer crust, since it’s generally heartier in flavor and texture. Unfortunately, all that tasting got us craving cheese and a bottle of red.

4. Baking is for everyone. 
Participants included a student taking culinary classes, a stay-at-home mom and home cooks in other professions. The baking experiences we individually possessed varied greatly, yet we were all there to learn. Our instruction from Jonathan and Scott was slightly intimidating for some of us, but they demonstrated each step to put us at ease. I could see this as a group activity for a bridal shower, or even something inspiring chefs (minimum age is 11) could appreciate. Of all their locations worldwide, Le Pain Quotidien currently has two US locations offering these classes; the other is in New York City.

If you’re interested in checking out a class, may we suggest starting with either their Basics or Biscuits, Scones and Shortbread Cookies classes. Both are great introductions to baking. After precisely three hours, our daily bread was chocolaty and we lingered, sitting down to taste the fruits of our labor.

For a schedule of classes offered in Newport Beach, click here.

** Special thanks to Dawn of Spontaneous Clapping for being the coolest classmate.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Waiting at the drive-thru window, I looked down....

Pork chop bun from J&J Bakery. One of my go-to meals.
 . . . .at my check-in options. Foursquare wanted to know where I was. Dare I admit that I'm getting fast food? How much do I care about what others thought? Did it matter? Hell if I know.

I asked myself why, being forthcoming about my college degree, contributing to an alt-magazine about food, whose significant other will throw down for excellent service (which normally equates to pricey meals), why do I choose this for dinner? Reasons formulated. Arguments countered them. I sighed. My old co-worker Marissa once remarked, "Why spend money on fast food when you can get something better?" She's right to pose the question, because regardless of your background, profession, age or otherwise, you don't HAVE to eat it.

There's a perception that because I've dined at Thomas Keller restaurants and appreciate molecular gastronomy that I'm pretentious. If you've ever dined with me, you've seen otherwise. Outside of photographing my food (because most of us passionate about all things culinary anything love to--so back off), I just like to eat. When I get frustrated, I put down the chopsticks and use a fork. Chicken wings and ribs? I'll pick it up and request a handiwipe later. Here's how I decided on a fried chicken sandwich, fries and a Coke.

The easiest is to blame my upbringing. But I won't. Our neighborhood was at the top of a hill. Two miles in either direction led to McDonald's. I didn't go there all the time, though it was our  default when fast food was on the brain. When I was much younger, payday for mom meant eating out, and we would alternate between pizza and fried chicken nite. Both were little celebrations: A night off from cooking for mom, and the allure of cheesy, greasy food for us. I ate mostly home cooked meals, though.

Salt. Like how people crave chocolate, I want salt. Surprisingly, I rarely add salt to a dish outside of a recipe. A pretzel is infinitely better than cotton candy. Fries trump cake any day of the week. And when I'm on my period, I don't fight my cravings. That would be mean, and you don't want to piss off a woman on her period. Period.

Convenience sounds like such a cop out. Maybe it is. But when you know how something is going to taste, even if it's bad for you, it's a comfortable feeling. It's easy like Sunday morning. It's the drive-thru. Yeah, I know calling ahead and picking up a meal from somewhere better is possible, but it's not always preferable. I was headed to the nail salon, and didn't want to deal with food after my manicure. 

If I went out for a sit-down meal every single day, it would drive me crazy. I get bent out of shape eating leftovers more than once. Variety is possible, so I have it. Saturday is our date nite, and we always dine out. Mid-week, we might convene over pho. But a fast food chain isn't out of the question for him. A blended drink, healthy or not, is acceptable and a change of pace for me. And if it's been a rough day at work, neither one of us will fuss over a stove. Bowl of cereal. Chips and salsa. Fast food. 

I'd eat this all the time if SideDoor made it for me (and I didn't pay for parking).
So I checked in.