Stef (firecat) wrote,

In which firecat whines about not quite learning how to bake bread

The OH and I went to San Francisco for a mini-vacation. One of the things we did was take a day-long course at a cooking school. Although this school is apparently very well regarded, and there were some good things about the class, I had lots of problems with how the class worked out, and I'm writing them down in the hope that it will stop the cycle where I get mad every time I think about it. I'm not naming the school because my object is not to trash the school but to let off some steam. But if you are curious I will tell you.

Description of class: "Country Breads and Soups: The best tasting and longest lasting homemade breads are made with fermented natural starters. Each student in this class will receive their own sourdough starter to keep and nourish, and each student will also have their own loaf of crusty country bread to take home. In addition, [instructor] will lead you in making soups, salads, and desserts with leftover bread."

A few days before the class, we received an e-mail saying that the class would be held in a different location from the one on the web site. I have mobility issues and we had carefully planned how we would get to original location with some of my spoons intact. The new location was harder to get to by public transit and it was in a residential neighborhood so we worried that we wouldn't be able to hail a taxi from there. We e-mailed back asking about parking options near this location. We received e-mail and a phone call back with information that turned out to be accurate. We found parking within a block of the house.

When we arrived for the class, a large dog ran toward us barking as we walked into the house. I like dogs and am not afraid of large dogs and can tell a friendly barking dog from a threatened one, and this one was friendly. But I thought that students should have been warned in advance that a dog would be in the house.

A couple of other students brought a small dog to class in a dog carrier. The small dog was frightened of the large dog and growled whenever it came into the room, so there was a lot of dog management for a while. Eventually those students took their dog elsewhere.

When the class started, the woman whose house it was (who is the owner of the cooking school) said something about dog allergies and a couple of people said they were allergic to dogs. So she said that she would keep her dog outside. But she didn't, and the dog was in the kitchen for much of the class; occasionally she would yell at it to leave the kitchen, and it would leave for about five minutes. I guess the allergic people weren't allergic enough to have to leave, since they stayed to the end.

The room we learned in was a large combined kitchen/dining room with two cooking areas—one large with four ovens and a long island counter, and one small with two ovens, a shorter counter, and a rolling table. When we arrived, there were three stand mixers set up. There were not enough chairs to accommodate all the students. The chairs were uncomfortable for me. I sat on a bar stool.

The instructor talked for a while about flour, sourdough starter, and bread making and had us smell two vats of starter he had brought. He was obviously very knowledgeable. This part was fine.

We were told to divide into teams of two and each team would be assigned a bread recipe. There were seven teams. The school owner briefly explained where things were in the kitchen, but I immediately forgot everything she said. As soon as the teams started being assigned recipes, things became chaotic because there weren't enough mixers or bags of flour to go around. The OH found another mixer in a cupboard and then a dough hook had to be found for it.

It took about 20 minutes before the OH and I got assigned our recipe. We told the instructor we'd never made bread before and he seemed surprised but rolled with it and assigned us a simple recipe, which was fine. We were in the smaller kitchen area and all but one other team were in the large kitchen area, so we had to be very assertive to get the instructor's attention. We would say we'd like to have him look at our dough and he would say "just a minute" and then 10 minutes later he might get over to us. But eventually we got our dough prepared, except we forgot to add salt.

Then each team was assigned a salad, soup or dessert recipe to make for lunch. The OH and I were assigned to make Panzanella. Things got even more chaotic because everyone was competing for ingredients, bowls, utensils, and cooking space. We managed to put all the ingredients together and we put our bread cubes in one of the ovens to cook at 350 degrees like the recipe said. A few minutes later, we discovered that someone had moved our croutons to the top rack of the oven and set the oven to broil. The OH was very angry. He left the croutons on the table because he wanted them to be crispy. Eventually the owner began focusing on our salad and said that we should add the croutons now because in this salad they were supposed to be soggy. Then she added tuna fish to our salad. Then she wanted to add more salt but the OH refused.

It was a very good salad. But it was very easy to make and I don't feel like I learned anything.

The OH and I had chosen this class specifically because it mentioned soup (he isn't all that interested in bread baking, although I am, at least in theory), but our packet of recipes included only one soup. The owner kept saying throughout the afternoon that the class had made "two soups, two salads, and two desserts." In fact, it was one soup, two salads, one casserole, and two desserts. I think they shouldn't call the class "Country breads and soups" if there's only one soup recipe and multiple salad and dessert recipes.

We ate the salads outside on the patio, accompanied by some wine. A couple of teams stayed inside because they were still cooking.

We began going back inside and the owner was telling stories about her travel adventures and suggesting that we eat the casserole and soup, while the instructor was showing us how to manage our risen bread dough. Eventually the instructor won. He demonstrated the techniques of deflating the dough and shaping it into a round, but he was at a station in a corner of the room and with all the students crowded around, and I couldn't really see what he was doing. If he had used the long counter, everyone could have seen.

The OH had disappeared. Eventually I found him in the living room, reading a book. I understand why he did this—listening with a cochlear implant, in all that chaos, is very tiring for him. I wish he had told he where he was going, though. I had him come back into the kitchen and he expected me to be able to explain the techniques, but I couldn't. Again we had to wait 20 minutes for the instructor to get around to inspecting our dough. I did not feel I learned the techniques for this stage.

Everyone went outside again and ate casserole and drank more wine. We came back inside and the instructor fed his starter and then gave each of us a cup of starter to take home. The OH and I argued about whether we should take some—he thought we shouldn't because he believed we would not get around to using it or feeding it (and he's probably right), but we finally agreed that we would take some and that it was "my responsibility."

Then the instructor began showing us how to turn out and bake the bread. There were 13 loaves of bread (all the teams had made 2 loaves, except the OH and me—we made only one, on purpose) and 1 pizza stone. So he would put one loaf in the oven on the pizza stone, then when it was baked a bit he would move it into another oven where it could finish baking on the rack. It was impressive to watch him managing all those loaves of bread in different stages and also instructing people, but really I think there should have been more pizza stones so more loaves could bake at once. (He was using 3 of the 6 ovens.)

He was pointing at people and saying "Let's get your loaf now." The OH had disappeared again. I watched and waited for about half an hour. Then there were only two loaves left—one belonged to a team that had just finished putting one of their loaves in the second oven, and the other belonged to the OH and me. The instructor pointed to the team that was already working, and said "Get your other loaf now." I was furious. I should have been assertive and said "Hey, I'd like to do our loaf," but I had no energy for that, and I didn't want to wait around another hour for our bread. So I found the OH and said I wanted to leave. The owner seemed unhappy that we were leaving without our loaf and asked if we wanted to come back for it tomorrow, but we said no.

So I never got any practice in how to turn out and bake the bread. I did see it done a number of times so I could probably figure it out.

By the time we got back to the hotel, the starter had doubled in volume and was spilling out of the small plastic cup that it was in.

We paid $185 each for the class, which lasted 6 hours, but about half of that was waiting around or eating. I don't think it was a very good value. A couple of years ago we took a class on Greek food in San Carlos. There were also problems with that class, but it cost $40 each and was 3 hours long and I felt I learned more and got more hands-on cooking time doing stuff I actually wanted to practice.

I don't know whether this was the first time this class has been taught in this kitchen, and maybe the owner and instructor hadn't sorted out some of the issues. But I would have wanted at least for there to be a mixer and a bag of flour and a measuring cup already set up for each team, and one pizza stone per oven, and and for some thought to have been put into making the best use of the ovens. Having the ingredients for the other recipes set up in some kind of organized fashion would have been nice too. And I think it would be essential for techniques to be demonstrated in a location where everyone could see, especially if there were so many students that the instructor could not give individual attention to each team in a timely manner.
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