Happy Pi Day!
It’s a day I always want to celebrate and often just barely hit the mark by happening to have ingredients for a Cottage Pie for dinner or even perhaps just ordering a pizza pie, given the practical application of busy daily living. I thought of it a few days ago, and well, at least I started thinking about it. It will be tomorrow’s topic for The Blind Grind, and now that I’m a baking student, I think about pastries a whole awful lot more than I used to.
And now it’s Pi Day, and I happen to have the day off, faculty at school having their professional day, so classes are cancelled. My head is spinning a dozen different directions deciding how to fill my day, as it does, and there are a number of pressing things I could or should be doing, certainly. I decided to start with my normal routine, phase 1 transition time in bed for email, Duolingo, a little social media, and kitties, moving on to pills and other morning hygiene, and getting dressed. And today is a quick workout on the bedroom floor, so that happened, too. Phase 2 is descending the stairs to open up the living room for the day’s work, it’s kind of my work base, and getting coffee and cat feeding going while I put away dishes in the kitchen and generally tidy my koffice, inventory what’s on hand, and start thinking about food, from what can I shove in my face right now before I move onto the next task to what needs to get used and can we make that lunch or dinner soon? Once all that’s done, I move on to phase 3, the rest of my day, until I hit phases 4 and 5, which are really just 1 and 2 in reverse.
The Pastry Side
Today, however, is no ordinary day. Today, there is a bag of pastries from La Farine waiting for me on the kitchen table.
I put pumpkin pie spice in my French press to get the Pi Day juices flowing until I decide what more pies I will conjure today, and since I’m well overdue for a post here, all other pressing matters aside, I decided it was a perfect day to sit down with my pumpkin pie spiced coffee and a plate of pastries to do some reflecting on my rediscovery of the world of pastries now that I’m nearly halfway through the semester of my first baking class. Rain is pouring steadily outside my windows, I’ve got spiced coffee, good pastries, and a keyboard. Life is good.
I spent about $50 on pastries yesterday and it feels like just about the most indulgent thing I’ve done in a while. There are two programs in the Culinary Arts department at Laney College, casually referred to respectively as Savory and Pastry, and cross pollination is not required, though strongly recommended, so for my second semester, I decided to take a baking fundamentals class and I feel like I’m discovering baking for the first time. The environment, not surprisingly, is a moderately stressful one, the bake shop is crowded, we work on multiple recipes with multiple people at the same time, tracking down necessary tools and ingredients can sometimes be an adventure, the system for dishwashing isn’t exactly optimal, it’s noisy, and so on, not to mention my relentless need to advocate for my access needs as a blind person, it’s no wonder I usually come home pretty exhausted. And still, lessons that enable me to level up my so-so baking game are coming through, differentiating different methods and their why, really understanding the nuances of the chemistry of it all, developing a good sense for evaluating finished baked goods and detecting what might have gone wrong in the production, and so many things can and do, making pastries I’ve only heard of but never had, and making pastries I’ve just never heard of before. I finally truly experienced and understand developing tension on the surface of yeasted bread dough.
As I told Chef, I think I could love baking, I’ve just always been turned off by baker’s hours, not to mention my longtime inclination to eat healthy. I really prefer savory to sweet and pastry display cases tend to favor the latter, not to mention pastries are a vehicle for concentrated carbs, fat, and sugar, and not much else, except large doses of pleasure, dopamine rush, anyone? I actively decided right away to give myself permission to eat pastries with reckless abandon in the name of learning and research, and yes, I’m still working at upleveling my physical fitness, too. It helps to have a willing person to share with most of the time, or I’d really be in trouble. Hurts so good, though. So whenever we are out and about on our walking adventures, to run errands nearby or to explore new places, we’re always on the lookout for baked goods, whether a local bakery or a farmer’s market, and I’ll grab basics like a plain croissant or scone, if you can get those right, you can probably get all the other stuff right, too, something savory, something sweet, a featured item that’s not found everywhere, or a unique or surprising flavor combination or ingredient. And we eat them all pretty soon after purchase, because that’s when baked goods are best, especially artisan products.
Fluffy, flaky, tender, crumbly, crisp, chewy, buttery, creamy, does it have the right structure? The right texture? The right mouth feel? My head is spinning with delight and I’m afraid my waistline is expanding. And I don’t regret a single crumb.
Chef Cheryl Lew has been in the business for decades and was the first female Certified Master Baker and is a Food Network baking contestant and winner. Since we only had one of our usual two days of class this week, she scheduled a whirlwind 3 mile walking tour of Berkeley bakeries yesterday morning. Pun probably not intended, we began with Starter Bakery, which was unexpectedly closed, a formerly wholesale baker that recently opened this retail storefront.
We journeyed to Fournée, cited as the Tartine of the East Bay (Chef Lew thinks it’s better, though her opinion may or may not be biased by the fact that proprietor Frank Sally used to work for her). The bakery wasn’t open to the public yesterday, so we didn’t get to sample his wares, though Frank was gracious enough to invite us in for a private tour of his operation and a great discussion of his experience in the baking business. Something that really sets Fournée apart from pretty much all bakeries around these parts is that they mill most of their own flour, and Frank shared in detail with us about that.
Onward to Boichik Bagels, a surprise success story, where our visit was brief and only to receive a complimentary bagel to sample, thanks to Chef Lew’s connections. As I approached the large box of bagels brought outside for us to choose from, I asked a classmate to help me identify the options. As she began listing those that she could identify, I asked if she saw an Everything bagel. Genuinely sounding confused, she replied, “what is an everything bagel?” Another item of food culture to investigate, I noted. She speaks accented english, and based on things overheard, I think she’s Austrian. No everything bagels in Austria, and even more sadly, no Everything But The Bagel seasoning. The culinary things we all take for granted are fascinating.
The highlight of the day for me, and I think for everyone else, too, was La Farine, where I purchased a generous selection of items, and went back in for an impulse purchase of a fruit tart after I watched a very happy looking classmate devouring one on the sidewalk while we waited for the rest of the class. That was a smart life choice. Details below under The Last Mile heading.
We next wandered to Market Hall, our final stop, where I squeezed a few recommendations from the nervous young kid behind the counter who was new to his job and seemed confused when I asked what kind of savory items they had. “What do you have that’s not sweet?” I opted for, and that seemed to help. Back in the bougie market area, I encountered a small jar of lavender for a reasonable price, so I’m excited to experiment with that–I’ve got a growing curiosity around cooking and baking with edible flowers.
The Savory Side
By then it was lunchtime, and I was still expected in the savory lab for my afternoon class, which I just barely arrived in time for after some minor public transit kerfufles, running only on the cup of steel cut oats I ate in the morning and the bagel I snagged at Boichik and ate on the run, I dove into our class on Polenta with Chard and Spanish Sauce. Station mates Angie got the polenta going, Tina the tomato sauce base, and I prepped veg and got the Espanol part of the sauce going. “GG,” Tina said with a quick double fist pump as Angie pulled the mop it’s last few strokes across the floor of our station, marking our end point in the savory lab that day, Good Game, indeed. This week was the first in a new model handed down to Chef Chavez from the administration that leverages our class to support the Student Center in feeding the campus population. Rather than each of us working on our own version of the same complete dish to fill the assignment expectations, we are now working as a team to batch cook a recipe scaled up to feed 10-12 people, generating about 100 meals between the 10 savory lab kitchen stations, and if Chef Chavez is to be believed, ours are more likely going to be sold to staff, rather than given to students for free, because we are turning out really quality product. I’ll take it, it’s good for my ego.
The Last Mile
Exhausted and hungry, I tumbled home with the large weighty backpack I’d been wearing most of the day containing my tools and uniform, and bags in hand full of ready to eat dinner for the SO and I, it’s nice to be able to eat your homework, and pastries to devour, I mean evaluate, after dinner. Even at our most gluttonous, not even the two of us together could have eaten all $50 of what I hauled home yesterday, so alongside dinner, we shared the Market Hall parmesan chive bread roll and the Brazilian cheese bread, presented in a cupcake paper and perky and round in its chewy top, and I ate the quiche, which I had mixed feelings about that I’ll not go into here. For dessert we nibbled first the amazing fruit tart from La Farine, with neatly arranged slices of strawberry, mango, kiwi, and raspberries and blackberries on top of creamy custard in a pastry shell. It was a tiny little individual tart, and I’m not gonna lie, I could probably eat the large version, it was divine. We also shared the scones from La Farine, raspberry walnut and orange currant, both very good, even if not quite as crumbly as I’d expect a scone to be, they were both delightfully sweet without being too sweet, a drizzle of raspberry jam countering the almost savory and pleasantly bitter walnut note, and the bits of candied orange peel and dried currant really adding all the sweetness you need with a nice little tart counterpunch.
And that left me with this morning’s breakfast, even a day old, delicious, delightful, and satisfying. I ate all of it and left none for my SO, #SorryNotSorry. It would have been a crime to let it get any older. A little individual quiche Lorraine, because quiche has a special place in my heart and I want to sample it whenever I can, a plain croissant, because it’s a tasty yardstick, and a savory morning bun, because I’ve never had a morning bun, had no idea what it was, and savory, so yes, please. It was like a little popover filled with ham and eggs and herbs. I know La Farine got the leading image at the top of this post, I just can’t tell you how delicious these goodies were, so here’s another look.
And Now For The Pi
The rain has slowed for now, I’m out of coffee, out of pastries, and there are any number of pressing things I could or should be doing now. Also, it’s Pi Day, and I need more pie in my day than pumpkin pie spice in my coffee and the amazing little egg pie I just devoured from La Farine. Fortunately, I took a little time this morning to tag all my pie recipes in my Paprika 3 app, so the next step is to see if/which one of these, or two or three, I can get going today without making a grocery store run.