Week 5: Five baking tips from a pastry student

It has been five weeks into the program at Northwest, and despite my exhaustion, I still love every minute of it. I can hardly believe there are still 10 weeks to go because we have already covered so much. What else is there? Well, we still have to learn about cakes, chocolate, sugar work, frozen desserts, etc… Yes!

Rather than detailing through each day’s rises and falls with yeast, I thought I would share some of the lessons I have observed from class to share with you in your kitchen, and some more photos from class…. just because I love looking at my photos (and hope you do too).

Last week, we wrapped up the second week of bread and I think I speak for most of the class when I say we were ready to move on from bread. There was a lot of yeast, bread flour, kneading, kneading, and more kneading… all by hand too (so we are familiar with the dough feels). My hands are super dry from all the work with flour and frequent hand washing. The sampling of bread was FILLING too. I felt more tired after bread days than in previous weeks, just because of the bread samples. It all tastes so good though. Mmm. Fresh bread.

I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression about bread week though, I loved learning about bread, working with yeast and gluten, and how to make both yield the bread you desire. It’s truly a science and I found it fascinating. But after two weeks, I think I have decided working purely with bread full-time, might not be for me.

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My first brioche buns! I am holding a traditionally shaped brioche bun, with a little ball of dough on top. Brioche dough is soft and it was hard to shape – I need more practice.

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We made our very own breads too. Some used a favourite recipe, others modified a recipe. I wanted to follow the baker’s formula we were taught in class, and make up my own recipe based on bread ratios. This is my Super Fruit Vanilla Bean loaf with Chocolate Ganache. Yes, it tastes as good as it looks…. I’m very proud of this recipe.

We also made bread with potatoes, bread with herbs and olives, truly amazing bagels, pretzels – the real German kind, traditional challah braided bread, english muffins, ciabatta, pita pockets, foccacia, seed and grain bread, brioche, and we made baguettes every single day during the two weeks of bread. One whole baguette per student, every day. That is about a dozen baguettes per day.

As I have shared before, we donate almost all of it to the Food Bank, and we can take up to a 1/4 home each day. Let me assure you that my freezer is also now a wall of bread!

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True bread pretzels are dipped in a bath of sodium hydroxide before baking, to give the real dark colour during baking. The sodium hydroxide bakes off in the oven so it becomes safe to eat though. They were fun to make and tasted awesome.

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English muffins proofing on the back of a cast iron pan before going in the oven. The tall ones to the right have proofed as they are double in size, ready for the oven.

The repetition of baguettes proved that practice makes perfect. The whole class produced beautiful baguettes by the last day, it was great to see.

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Baguettes ready to go in the proofer (a rack covered in plastic with a steamer in the bottom). The proofer provides the ideal environment for yeast to proof bread, it speeds up the process slightly rather than letting it proof at room temperature..

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My best baguette yet, round with good colour and a crisp crust.

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A challah loaf, with a traditional 4-strand braid. Four strand braids were a challenge for me because I’m used to just 3-strands.

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Fresh Challah. I think this was one of my favourite breads, and I’d make it at home for sure. It has a sweet taste to it, very light and pulls apart nicely.

And now for the lessons I have learned. I hope at least one of these will help you bake more confidently at home. 

Here are my 5 tips for how to be a better baker at home:

1. Get organized before you bake.
Read the recipe fully through at least once, and take out all the ingredients you will need in the recipe before you start, ideally measuring them ahead of time too. Each of these steps will ensure you have all the ingredients you need so you’re not half way through a cake recipe and realize you are short an egg or another key ingredient. Ensure you have enough time to make your recipe too by read reading the entire recipe. You don’t want to be half way into a recipe and realize you need to rest the dough for an hour – and you may not have that hour in your busy schedule.

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2. Pre-heat your ovens, pans, etc.
When a recipe tells you to pre-heat your oven or pre-heat your pan, pay attention to these instructions and follow them as detailed. Just trust me. It will lead to more even baking and a better product in the end. Leavening agents can’t wait for your oven to preheat once the batter is mixed; so preheat, then bake.

3. Clean as you go.
If you keep a clean working area you can think more clearly and are less likely to make mistakes (especially when you are trying a new recipe). Put away utensils, bowls and equipment, as you are done with them, even placing in the sink to wash later. By keeping your counter clear, the mess isn’t as daunting when you’re actually done and need to clean.

In school, we have to have two towels on our uniforms at all times. At home, I now have at least one towel with me always, for wiping my hands as they get messy, or wiping little spills on the counter. I feel more prepared and confident about what I am doing when my baking area is clean, and it helps me be ready for the next recipe when we’re moving fast in class too.

4. Rest, and be patient.
The baking process can’t really be rushed. Sometimes you just have to let things rest. When a recipe tells you to refrigerate dough for 30 minutes, or however long, there is a reason why – so don’t skip the step. Follow the recipe. Understand that you are combining wet and dry ingredients, and dry ingredients need time to absorb moisture even before it can be baked. Not all the chemistry of baking happens in the oven.

In the case of making bread, and working with gluten, rest is key, but not too much either. When we made baguettes, we kneaded the bread briefly, then it rests for 30 minutes, then we work the dough again, rest for 30 minutes, rest again, work dough again, rest for 30 minutes, and then we moved into the shaping, followed by more steps…

Also, be patient with your oven during baking. Don’t open the oven door too many times. Just watch through the window. If you open the oven during baking you can risk ruining your product, and you let out a lot of the heat (that you spent time pre-heating earlier).

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5. Use timers, set reminders, make lists.
It is easy to forget something in the oven especially if you start cleaning or doing other things at home, and become distracted. Timers are helpful to ensure you don’t throw your hard work into the garbage because it’s burned to a crisp.

In the pastry kitchen we are near the oven all the time, but as things bake we move on to the next recipe and can’t forget about the first – timers helps with this. Set an alarm on your phone, your watch, or use a kitchen timer, microwaves often have timer options too.

It also helps to make a list if you plan to make a lot of things in one day – like preparing for a big dinner – write out a list of all the things you need to do and make a quick plan.

We have a daily agenda in pastry class, we know approximately what we will be doing and when for each day. Our Chef maps out the day for us, roughly, and I love knowing what the plan is. It really does help us as a team to stay on track, we can remind each other as the day progresses too (so we don’t forget something).

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PS. We ended last week with the beginning of cakes, and made our first layered cake: Devil’s Food Cake. It love working with chocolate, cake wheels, and and piping bags, etc. We continue this week with more cakes… stay tuned for more delicious photography!

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My first 6″ Devil’s Food Cake (3 layers), full of rich dark chocolate ganache. We made the chocolate decorations on top too.

3 thoughts on “Week 5: Five baking tips from a pastry student

  1. carmenkmchen says:

    Hi Jeanette, I’m not sure if you remember me but I was the Alumni Relations Coordinator at SFU’s CMNSU where I interviewed you in your past position back in December! I came across your website on Linkedin and just wanted to touch base and say hi again. I read a few of your posts and they are great and inspiring, I’m happy that you’re doing something you absolutely love! I look forward to reading your (yummy) adventures! -Carmen

    • Jeanette says:

      Yes Carmen, hello, I remember you! Thank you for visiting my blog and following along, I’m glad you’re enjoying my sweet adventures. Me too! It was a big decision to change careers, but I haven’t looked back once.

      • carmenkmchen says:

        I’m glad you remember me, Jeanette! I look forward to reading more of your sweet adventures!

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