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.

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