Ironically, my first night in Paris was also the first time on my five week culinary sojourn that I actually had a chance to go out to the market and stock up on groceries! My sweet little apartment in Montmartre is the first real kitchen I've had since I've been traveling and I went a little overboard buying goodies on Rue Lepic for an in-house picnic dinner. I started at the boucherie (butcher) and bought duck liver pate and sliced sausage, hit up the fromagerie for mini wheels of goat cheese, was wooed by the rotisserie aromas into buying a leg of duck confit, picked up some tomatoes, pomegranate and persimmon, a slice of peach and blackberry tart at the patissierie and a baguette from the boulangerie, and rounded it out with a bottle of red Bordeaux. Don't judge too harshly – I had a long night of election results to watch and a lot of pent up food purchasing energy to spend. Needless to say, I will be snacking on all of this for the remainder of the week!
This morning I had my first class at “Cook'n with Class” an English-language cooking school in Paris. Today was baking French breads and we attempted baguettes, Provencal fougasse (similar to Italian focaccia), and brioche. The bread making techniques were different from what I'd learned in both Italy and Brittany and it was quite clear that there was a right and a wrong way to do things (guess which side the class was on?) We began by making the dough for the baguette and used a KitchenAid to first combine dry yeast, water, flour, and salt and then added in the poolish, a second form of yeast used as a starter and that had been made the day before and allowed to rise. We tested the bread by pulling off a handful of dough and stretching it to see if we had the smooth net of gluten needed to create a light and elastic texture in the bread.
Once we finished with the machine, it was time to “slap the dough” 200 times on the table. The instructions were: “Raise the dough above your shoulder. Think of someone you hate. Slam the dough on the table. Fold it over with your hands and lift. Do it again and faster.” Our tiny French teacher with her pixie haircut put us all to shame with her dough slapping and did not mince words in telling us that we were doing it wrong. She seemed perplexed and frustrated that we couldn't get it right and was absolutely dismayed to see our lumpy results. I found it was pretty amusing to watch the five of us angrily slam sticky dough around the room.
We let the dough rise three times before baking, folding it over “gently like a baby” to create “tension,” structure, and air pockets. The teacher put the dough in a cold oven to rise with a pan of boiling water at the bottom to create steam and capture moisture in the bread. We shaped the dough into baguettes, using a sharp knife to cut the characteristic cracks in the top, and then baked our very misshapen and abused baguettes. Despite being ugly, they were still delicious.
For the fougasse, we cut pieces of different French cheeses and briny olives and pushed them inside the bubbling dough, painting on olive oil and sprinkling fleur de sel before baking. Gooey with cheese and greasy with olive oil, this was a much fluffier, yeastier version of focaccia than I had made before, and was a lot more effort than the quick Italian ones I made in Siena.
Last was the brioche, which we made with milk, vanilla beans, and lots of butter. We made two types of brioche – the first we braided, painted with apricot glaze, and sprinkled with rocks of sugar like you see in all the patissiere shops here. The second we rolled up into cinnabon-shaped rolls and filled with a cocoa mixture and chopped pistachios. Despite the heavy ingredients, the brioche was actually pretty light and not too sweet since the cocoa is barely sweetened with sugar.
The overall feel of the day was that you really do have to be an expert to make french breads. Unlike many of my other classes, where things actually felt easier once I'd tried them, it felt like there were endless ways to destroy our delicate and living dough and we were definitely told in no uncertain terms when we were making a mistake (which was all the time!). That said, the class was still a ton of fun and it was interesting to pull back the curtain just a sliver on the mysteries of the perfect French baguette. The takeaway: probably best to leave it to the experts.