Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Baking Boot Camp

For the longest time I've been feeling somewhat stuck in life. I've finished one career lasting a very long 25 years, and I'm not really ready to move to Miami and eat dinner at 4:30 pm. I'm not a great crafter type person, although I do enjoy scrapbooking and knitting, not that I do all that much of either. I used to love counted cross stitch, but my eyes, they are no longer youthful and I cannot see the aida squares any more. Sad, but true.

However, I still do like cooking and especially baking. So the other day I ran across Baking Boot Camp at our local library and took it out on a whim, thinking it looked like a fun read. Not only is this a fun read, it's enthralling, exhilarating, and so fascinating I couldn't put it down. Now I want to find the second in the series, Culinary Boot Camp. But even more, I want to go to the Baking Boot Camp and experience it all myself.

Darra Goldstein, a professor of Russian at William College in northwestern Massachusetts, is the author of these books. She attended Baking Boot Camp, a 5 day program held at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in upstate NY. The CIA is the largest cooking school in the country, and certainly the most prestigious. Goldstein describes in great detail not only every hour she spent in classes and baking in the school's kitchens, but every snack and meal served in the various dining rooms, included in the price of the Boot Camp.

In Baking Boot Camp, Julia Child Award-winning cookbook author Goldstein takes you along as she embarks on two demanding Boot Camp courses, Baking and Pastry, where the fatigues are chef's whites and the weapons of choice are whisks, piping bags, and a bench scraper. Goldstein chronicles progress through each day of each course, bringing to life the intensity, the rigor, and the camaraderie that set Boot Camps apart from other cooking classes. Along the way, she reveals the tips and tricks of baking and pastry pros, sharing their fascinating insights with us on everything from the importance of weighing all ingredients to the secrets of perfect puff pastry. Throughout the book, more than 100 photographs by award-winning photographer Ben Fink vividly capture the excitement of the program.

With Baking Boot Camp you can learn alongside Goldstein and her fellow students as they watch demonstrations, practice new skills, and receive critiques from their exacting instructors. You'll watch Goldstein discover the hands-on skills and secrets needed to perfect cookies, pies, cakes, and breads, as she builds the know-how and confidence to tackle more demanding creations such as profiteroles, eclairs, mousses, and souffles. To help you put these lessons to work in your own kitchen, the book includes nearly eighty delicious Boot Camp recipes - everything you need to start using professional techniques and embark on a lifetime of baking success.

Anyone who is seriously considering baking as a career or even as a serious hobby should read this book from cover to cover. This is not so much for the baking advice, which is very good, but maybe not as good as the very best manuals on the subject. It is to familiarize one with the disciplines of baking, as exemplified by the regimens enforced by the CIA. It is not for nothing that these courses are called `boot camps'. While the instructors are not really as strict as they are with their associate degree and bachelor's degree students, they still impose a healthy discipline, starting with the legendary CIA emphasis on both being on time and the proper uniform, including the classic white blouse, hounds tooth trousers (generally too big), white kerchief, and paper toque. And heaven help you if your hair falls out of the toque or the kerchief would not meet the approval of Auguste Escoffier.

Like very few other `cookbooks' I can think of, this volume is really meant to be read from start to finish, or at least up to the end of Chapter 10, the end of the 10 days of the two boot camps. The first ten chapters are divided into three types of sections. The first is a diary of Ms. Goldstein's experiences outside the classroom, involving finding a parking space early in the morning, breakfast, lunch, and breaks in the many CIA restaurants and dining rooms, and chatting with fellow students. The second type of section is narratives of lectures and baking experiences. These sections are by far the most interesting, as they contain lots of incidental tips on how things are done which you may not find in the usual text or recipe. The third section type is double page sidebars with text and pictures describing particular techniques.

While these classes are done for non-degree students, the recipes and techniques still come from the professional baking kitchen, using large commercial equipment, such as the 20 quart Hobart mixer (big brother to the 5 or 6 quart Kitchen-Aid) and recipes which are distinctly different from even the very best home baking. One example is the recipe for buttermilk biscuits. Even the best baking writers such as Nick Malgieri keep this very simple, following classic techniques of quick mixing and cutting. The CIA goes in for a more involved multiple dough folding technique, using some of the same principles used to make puff pastry (and yes, the book even includes a complete puff pastry recipe).

Two of my more interesting discoveries were that the expert bread baking instructor did not like and warned against the new `rapid rise' yeasts and that making creams such as crème anglaise, pastry cream, and other custards and meringues were virtually as important to the pastry profession as making doughs (pastry!).

One thing that I very much enjoyed about this volume is that the science of baking was clearly explained within each segment. Differences in flours, rising agents, even water was discussed which, for a science geek like me, made this book much more than just a plain old cookbook.

The recipes in the back of the book are the recipes that the students made in boot camp. Some were improvised, other follow the class text to the letter. I can't wait to try the recipes to see just how fabulous they are.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Norah Ephron's Neck

I just finished reading Nora Ephron's I Feel Bad About My Neck. This is a book of short essays about motherhood, growing older, plastic surgery, and other delights of womanhood. To say I liked it would be putting it mildly. I loved this freaking book. LOVED IT.

The title essay is about how a woman's neck is the one body part that cannot be repaired all by itself. Either you choose to have a face lift with a neck job, or you deal with your neck. Evidently, there are various types of necks; scrawny necks, fat necks, loose necks, crapey necks, banded necks, wrinkled necks, stringy necks, saggy necks, flabby necks, mottled necks and necks that are an amazing combination of the above. Who knew? What I do know is that I hate my neck, too. My neck is short and flabby and has a crapey big right below my chin from weight loss. It is ugly. Nora says that necks define age, and she's right. Isn't that something to look forward to?

I Feel Bad About My Neck, Ephrons' latest collection, is subtitled "And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman," though it might more accurately be called "A Measure of One Woman's Life." A certain melancholy pervades the humor here. The book opens with the title essay about aging and concludes with a rumination about death called "Considering the Alternative." Between are essays about books treasured along the way, thoughts "On Maintenance" (bodily upkeep), the stages of parenting, a timeline of beloved cookbooks, cabbage strudel, her love affair with an apartment and "The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less."

There's more, but basically this is a kind of retrospective -- wry and amusing, as you'd expect, but also a bit strained and sad. It's a condensation of a life graced with privilege, which can make empathizing with Ephron a bit difficult. We all end up too aware of our own deterioration, but we don't all have our hair done twice a week or have our unwanted facial fuzz "threaded" by a woman who uses "a fantastic and thrilling method of hair removal she had learned in Russia." Then there are the three hours every six weeks spent having "four tiny, virtually invisible blondish streaks" added to her hair (which has already had the gray covered over), the weekly manicures and regular pedicures, and vast amounts of skin cream and bath oil. It's all brave (and funny) to talk about -- but odd, because if you've spent all that time and money trying to look younger and better, doesn't it make more sense not to tell anybody you've done it so they can think you just naturally look young and good? And then there's the time and the money. As far as money is concerned, she's earned it, no question about that -- but the specifics of what she's writing about, here and in other essays in the collection, are much less than universal. There are worlds where having your facial hair regularly threaded is as affordable as the judicious use of a pair of tweezers, but that choice is a luxury many women don't have.

Most women will love the essay about her purse. She may "feel bad" about her neck, but she "hates" her purse. She's writing here for women "who understand that their purses are reflections of negligent housekeeping, hopeless disorganization, a chronic inability to throw anything away" and who aren't wildly successful at changing -- at the right time -- from a winter purse to a summer one. Her list of permanent purse contents includes loose Tic-Tacs, lipsticks with no covers, leaky ballpoint pens and crumpled tissues that might have been used but equally well might not have been -- who can tell?

There's a lot of interesting advice in a chapter called "What I Wish I'd Known." She tells us that "the last four years of psychoanalysis are a waste of money," but she doesn't say how you know when the last four years begin. I like "If the shoe doesn't fit in the shoe store, it's never going to fit": So many things could be substituted for shoes in exactly the same sense. She tells us that "The plane is not going to crash," but later she notes "Overinsure everything." The essay's last words: "There are no secrets."

My favorite essay is "Parenting in Three Stages". Ephron defines each of the stages, and then leads into a fabulous rant about how parenting in these crazy times is all tied up in consumerism, competitive parenting, and lo, the mommy wars.

"Back in the day when there were merely parents, as opposed to people who were engaged in parenting, being a parent was straightforward. You didn't need a book, and if you owned one, it was by Dr. Spock, a pediatrician, and you rarely looked at it unless your child had a temperature of 103 or the croup or both. You understood that your child had a personality. His very own personality. He was born with it. For a certain period, this child would live with you and your personality, and you would do your best to survive each other. "

She goes on to say:

"Back in those days-- and once again, let me stress that I am not talking about the 19th century, it was just a few years ago-- no one believed that you could turn your child into a different human being from the one he started out being. T. Berry Brazelton, the pediatrician who supplanted Spock in the 1980's, was a disciple of Piaget and his books divided babies into three types--active, average, and quiet. He never suggested that your very quiet baby would ever become and active one, or vice versa. Your baby was your baby, and if he ran you ragged, he ran you ragged, and if he lay in his crib staring happily at his mobile, that was about what you could expect."
She then leads into how raising children changed because of the women's movement, which added the gender-neutral term 'parenting', implying that men and women should equally share in the raising of children. She says:

"Parenting was serious. Parenting was fierce. Parenting was solemn. Parenting was a participle, like going and doing and crusading and worrying. It was active, it was energetic, it was unrelenting. Parenting meant playing Mozart CDs while you were pregnant, doing without the epidural, and breast-feeding your child until he was old enough to unbutton your blouse. Parenting began with the assumption that your baby was a lump of clay that could be molded (through hard work, input, and positive reinforcement) into a perfect person who would someday be admitted to the college of your choice. Parenting was not simply about raising a child, it was about transforming a child, force-feeding it like a fois gras goose, altering, modifying, modulating, manipulating, smoothing out, improving.....

And by the say, all sorts of additional personnel were required to achieve the transformational effect that was the gold of parenting--baby whisperers, sleep counselors, shrinks, learning therapists, family therapists, speech therapists, tutors, ad if necessary, behavior-altering medication, which, coincidentally or uncoincidentally was invented at almost the exact same moment that parenting came into being...."
I'll let you read the rest for yourself, but this is a powerful essay on what being a parent is all about.