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Non-Baker Baking

I was feeling pretty confident about myself the day I signed up for a Bake From Scratch French baking retreat. I am comfortable in the kitchen. I cook good food. Banana bread is a family favorite, barely lasting a day when I make it. Extended family demands my cranberry salad at the holidays. But baking in Paris? As the time drew near I began to fear that I had overestimated my abilities. The pre-trip zoom call with the other participants did little to assuage my fears, in fact I was more nervous.

I don’t have to tell you what a beloved thing Bake From Scratch is. Brian Hart Hoffman is a pretty big deal as was his mother, Phyllis Hoffman DePiano who was the founder of Hoffman Media. What a business woman she was. What a legacy she leaves behind. You can tell a lot about someone by the way other folks react when their name is mentioned, and you can’t mention Phyllis or her many publications without people having a real reaction of…well just pure heartfelt love and admiration. This is the group that I decided was good to give baking in France a try with. Start at the top, I guess. Right?

I, one hundred percent, had the least experience of anyone there. My forte is scrambling and making something work. Using what is in the fridge or pantry or freezer to feed my four sons. If I am following a recipe and I don’t have one of the ingredients, then I just wing it and use what I think is a close enough substitution. My google searches are full of questions like “what can I use instead of (fill in the blank)?” That is not how you bake. That is not how you bake French pastries. In fact, this is the complete opposite of baking. Baking is a very specific endeavor. It is science. It is chemistry. If you type “why is baking so hard?” in your browser, literally hundreds of articles pop up. Did you use the right flour? Did you sift it? Did you use the right amounts? Is your pan too dark? Is your temperature correct? Are you in a higher altitude? Does your oven heat evenly? Is your baking powder/soda expired? Was your butter cold enough? This is why I was nervous. I did not want to do it wrong. And I have never been good at science.

Baking is so popular. There are so many shows dedicated to it. And let’s be honest, the professionals are brutally honest. Can there be a happy accident in the kitchen? I guess if you are making a sauce or trying out a new spice mixture, a new flavor profile, if you will. But that is not baking. Bakers are passionate. They are confident. They have immense strength in their forearms from all the whisking. They know all about textures and consistencies. They know how to fix a dough or a filling. They know when they have to scrap something and start over. It’s not that they don’t make mistakes, it’s that they know when they do and that it is smarter and ultimately easier to start fresh.

Any group will have its own dynamic. When you combine people from all over the US from varying backgrounds and ages you never know what you are going to get. Our group was made up of 16 bakers and 4 non-baking companions. I was honest with my group from introduction that I was a home cook and not a baker. I felt it was important to lead with my lack of baking knowledge. To be fair, I think I don’t bake because there is a visual aspect to baking. Things need to be pretty. I can make a perfectly good cake, but don’t ask me to decorate it. Frosting and icing have never been my friend. I think I don’t have the patience for it. Patience might be the trait I am lacking for all the baking now that I think about it. I forget to bring the butter to room temp or to chill it. I don’t allow enough time to chill dough. I’m very much a that’s close enough kind of girl. That’s not entirely true, but you all aren’t my therapist.

I am a procrastinator, though. Puff pastry is not a spur of the moment kind of thing unless you have leftover in your freezer…or you settle for store bought. GASP! Luckily the chefs at The Cook’s Atelier in Beaune and La Cuisine in Paris took care of all the prep work for us: chilling butter and/or dough, measuring ingredients, chopping apples and pears. I was off the hook on that one. Turns out I am not bad at whisking. All my Instagram video watching has paid off. And I didn’t know that my superior meringue making was going to come in handy. I had forgotten that I had become good at doing this. It’s all about the Kitchen Aid mixer, really. And the insane desire to give homemade gifts at Christmas to teachers and neighbors and friends. (I make pecans tossed in meringue. Try it.) Although the tip from Diane at La Cuisine to keep your elbow in, close to your side while you whisk might be a game changer. For other things…I will not be whisking meringue by hand any time soon. There is just no need for that. It would be a flex to very niche group of people.

Since I was among way more experienced bakers, I expected to not get very many turns rolling things out or whisking or piping. But that was not the case. I had the most encouraging group of bakers cheering me on and taking my picture. They cheered when I piped my first gougères onto the silpat. Piping is a lot harder than it looks. There is a lot of counting involved. One, two, pause, up. And you have to hold the bag just so, keeping the right amount of pressure on the bag to squeeze the dough out. If you push too hard you will get too much dough. If you don’t pause before bringing the bag up your gougère will fall to the side. So much to think about. But guess what? I did it. I made 4 perfect little spirals. My group applauding as I squealed.

The best of the trip was not the amazing sights (there were many) or the delicious food or the discovery of how delicious Chablis is or the numerous fresh, flaky, buttery pastries (also many), but camaraderie. Our hosts from Bake From Scratch (Brian Hart Hoffman and Brooke Bell), La Cuisine (Jane and her incredibly talented chefs) and The Cook’s Atelier (Marjorie Taylor and Kendall and Laurent Franchini) were unmatched. They thought of everything. They shared their gifts and knowledge with such open hands and hearts. They treated all of us the same. They encouraged and celebrated every task we did and ate our projects with the appropriate amount of gusto and praise.

My fellow bakers…I can’t say enough about them. They taught me so much, in and out of the kitchen. From the best tip to shopping at the famous Paris Flea from The Ryans to Paul’s enthusiastic “poof, poof” of the pastry brush. I laughed until my sides hurt. And I have 15 new friends across the country. Cathleen and Rita you better have been serious about hostng me. I will be in Arizona August 2024.

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