I watched the Bread Bakers Guild Team USA compete in the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, spent a weekend at Camp Bread, and I have walked untold miles of bakery trade show floors. But last month, I finally got to do what I've been writing about so long.
And if I was going to take a crash course in bread baking, why not take it from the best? Melina Kelson-Podolsky, a certified master baker and chef instructor at Kendall College, Chicago, led The Bread Bakers Guild of America Master Class titled Artisan Baking Basics: Sourdough. The class was the latest stop in the Women of the Guild Tour 2008, a year-long tour of classes all over the country, highlighting female bread bakers and their contributions to the industry. The Guild chose a good year to highlight women. Its Team USA, which had long been male-dominated, fielded two women: Dara Reimers and Solveig Tofte. Both are scheduled to lead master classes of their own later this year.
“I'm so indebted to the Guild. I've been able to come in contact with so many great bakers, and I wanted to do my part to give back,” Kelson says. “I had been talking about hosting a class in wood-fired ovens, but when the Women in Baking idea came along, that idea sort of morphed into this one.”
As an instructor at Kendall College, Kelson was able to reserve the rooms and space necessary to hold a hands-on event like a Master Class. She presented the idea to the administration, who was amenable to being affiliated with the Guild.
“As an institution looking to place students in jobs, they certainly see the merit in having professional affiliations with associations like the Guild,” she says. “If you look at it as a cost/benefit analysis, the Guild is a boon for professionals looking to advance their skills, but it survives by the generosity of the institutions who want to associate with them. It's a symbiotic relationship.”
Kendall College relocated to a new facility in Chicago from Evanston, Ill. in 2004, and now features all of the niceties that aspiring bakers and chefs could want. Students work on oak or stainless steel benches, use a high end spiral mixer and a capable, universal deck oven made for bread and pastry. Kelson teaches many of the baking and pastry classes in the program. She says she is proud of the way the school is constantly reviewing and assessing the curriculum to make sure it's current and offers the best structure for learning. This reflective approach to the curriculum means it is always evolving, so instructors can address trends as well as student learning. But Guild Master Classes draw bakers with a wide range of experience.
“The teaching for these types of classes is very different,” she says. “You have people who are coming in with different goals; some people are home bakers who are just interested in advancing their skills, others want to streamline production. I have to write a curriculum that appeals to the broadest demographic.”
|Nancy Carey (left), Red Hen Bread, Chicago, was one of several experienced professionals helping Kelson with the sold-out event. Here, she demonstrates the window technique of determining dough consistency.|
|Attendees practice dough scoring motion with razor blades. The dough’s scoring depth and placement determines the crust’s oven bloom.|
|Loaves display different flavor profiles and physical characteristics depending on their dough treatment.|
To help understand her audience, the Guild furnished a list of attendees in advance, including home bakers, professional bakers and food scientists. I'm sure she had to go back to simplify the curriculum when she saw an editor on the list.
I, too, had to prepare, but I wasn't sure how. I certainly didn't have any houndstooth pants, so I had to figure out an acceptable dress code. I was afraid of asking too many questions and holding up a class of comparatively experienced bakers. I figured I'd try to sit in the back of the class and keep my mouth shut, observing rather than participating. Upon finally entering the space and looking up at dry-erase boards filled with what appeared to be mathematical equations, I was convinced that I'd be nothing more than a fly on the wall. I was wrong.
Kelson's explanation of desired dough temperatures and how to arrive at correct water temperature snapped me back to high school algebra, but I surprised myself in being able to keep up. She went on to describe the different doughs we would be baking in class, taking care to explain the differences between the doughs. We focused on three treatments, one with preferment added the same day, another that had been bulk retarded for 24 hours and a final dough that was shaped and retarded for 24 hours.
Kelson's instructed the class to look at those three dough treatments as they affected the flavor profile and properties of four breads; pain au levain, everyday sourdough, honey wheat and Swiss rye. The lesson plan provided a comparative lens through which the class could see the bread.
As I found myself adding water to dough in front of a state-of-the-art spiral mixer, it became clear that the fly-on-the-wall approach wasn't going to be possible. I soon had my fingers in bread dough for the first time, and though the folds I gave the 24-hour bulk retarded dough didn't look as pretty as Kelson's, or anyone else's for that matter, I was fully engaged in the experience that Kelson was walking us through.
“Baking has always been my comfort zone, my career choice, my hobby, my passion, but bread is special,” Kelson says. “I had come from a background of doing a lot of the mixing, a lot of the legwork in baking, but with sourdough, you are letting the fermentation do the work for you, and you have to let it. Of all facets of baking, I find bread to be the most gratifying. It's tactile, it's art, it's science, it's living, it's breathing, so it's a special relationship that a baker has with her bread.”