Note: This article is the first of a weekly series documenting my experience as a pastry student at SFCS. Stay tuned weekly for updates on what we focused on, what I learned, and hopefully some tasty looking photos of our lessons.
On August 29th, full of stress, nerves, anxiety and an overwhelming amount of excitement, I started San Francisco Cooking School’s 6-month full time Pastry Arts program.
Some of my earliest memories feature cooking, from the time my dad held me over the stove showing me how to scramble eggs, to the time I took a pumpkin (a jack-0-lantern) and turned it into a pie (later learning that that pumpkin is not the type you use for that application, but it still turned out!). I binged on Food Network the way some of my close friends binge on The Bachelor these days. Ina, Mario, Alton and Rachel were (are? at least Alton is) my idols. I became the Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinner cook in the household. Fun fact: There’s a photo of 14-year old me in Care Bear pajama pants holding the rack of lamb I made for Easter.
Despite all that, I always put off school, which was always the real goal in all of this. As with many things, there was always an excuse:
High School: I need to experience real college first!
College Grad: Well, now that I’ve got my degree, I should work a bit and put it to good use (yeah, that Communication Degree really comes in handy, said no one ever…).
After being laid off from my first job: Turns out rent is expensive, I need a job. Shit shit shit.
After a year: Oh, hi Facebook.
After five more years: Hey, Facebook, you’re awesome and I love my job.
Last year: I’ll go later on when the timing is better.
For years and years, I put off the one thing that I always secretly told myself was the one thing I’d change if I were going to die in a year. The thing I visualized when people talk about pursuing their passions. The place where I could spent dedicated time and energy learning everything from the classic French techniques, to hopefully modern scientific techniques. There was always another, better time — until now! I’ll save you the boring details behind me finally choosing now (tl;dr – got married, and spent some time out of work reflecting on what I really would regret not doing. The answer was clear).
The SFCS’ Pastry program is a four month in-class and two month externship program. It’s Monday through Friday and pretty intense, as it’s meant to simulate a lot of what you might experience in a restaurant or bakery. The goal is to give you as much knowledge and experience as possible before you go out there, and to level set your expectations on what working in a kitchen might be like. Each week has a focus (e.g. Next week we’re focusing on eggs) and culminates in a Bakery Day where each student’s friends and family comes to see their ‘bakery’.
After you complete the four months in-class portion, you are assigned a two month externship at a local bakery/restaurant in the area. I don’t know much about the expectations or what that’s like yet, but I’ll certainly fill you in when we get there.
Needless to say, I am beyond excited for what’s in store.
The First Week
Last week, we focused on the Fundamentals of Baking: exploring flours, sugars, fats and some basics around the bakery.
We made granolas, lots of variations of a simple muffin, jams, simple sugar caramels and cultured butter.
We explored what different sugars taste and look like, how different flours feel when clumped or tasted raw.
Meanwhile, there is also a Culinary Class that got started the same week. Turns out they were focusing on omelettes the first week, which we got to learn about and try out ourselves during a ‘Granola and Omelette’ social on the first Friday. Making a proper French Omelette is serious business (1. because holy moly there’s a lot of delicious fat in it and 2. holy moly it’s hard to do right…). Here’s mine:
It’s not perfect because you can still see some white in it. Otherwise, I was pretty happy with my third attempt.
Lessons From the First Week
In each of the weekly posts, I plan to summarize a few of the key things I learned each week during pastry school or the externship in hopes that others may find them valuable. Let me know what you think!
- Use as big of a pan as possible to brown butter as the more surface area, the faster and more consistent browning.
- Work on knife skills every chance you get. Take the time to properly and consistently cut key things: juliennes, dices, etc. Me working on julienne at home:
- Powdered sugar has cornstarch in it to prevent clumping. This is also what gives the slight, but distinct flavor to powdered sugar.
- Donut sugar – the powdered sugar on the little donuts – is full of chemicals that prevent it from soaking into the donut (or more technically, absorbing moisture). This is why it makes your mouth slightly cool when you eat it.
- Clarified butter is pretty much lactose free.
- There’s high-gluten flour, which is ideal for making pretzels and bagels. Obviously I need to try this out with my pretzel knots and baos.
- Crystallization is the devil when it comes to caramel. You have to do everything you can to prevent it: clean pan, clean utensils (so as to not introduce foreign things), prevent sugar crystals from hanging out on the sides of the pan (basically you have to dissolve all of them otherwise you’re done for), and you really shouldn’t stir. Also, many recipes call for an ‘interferent’, such as glucose or corn syrup, that helps prevent crystallization as well.