I knew I was in trouble as I saw this weekend approaching on the calendar. Months ago, before even arriving in San Francisco, I saw a promotional deal for two tickets to the SF Chocolate Salon. I looked it up, saw it was an enormous collection of chocolate makers gathered in one spot, and bought the tickets. Easy. Then, the TA schedule for school came out and the “Donuts and Fritters” class landed one day before the chocolate salon. Oh…and did I mention we spent the week making ice cream?
The class was a lot of fun, and to manage six or seven pairs or triples of people, each making two or three types of doughnuts, with hot oil bubbling everywhere, was an adventure. But no one got hurt and everyone ate very, very well. The good part (for my health) was that there were no leftovers. I sampled a few ricotta fritters and ate half an apple fritter – but other than that, the rest was taken away by the students in the class. I didn’t need to eat more than I did and was quite satisfied. Having never made apple fritters before, I am intrigued by the method in which the dough is chopped up and put back together and may need to give it a shot. Always learning new things! Not a big fan of cooking fruit in things, but might need to make an exception here.
Fast-forward and it’s Sunday morning, where Ken, Josh and their friend Nghe picked me up for the drive to Fort Mason. It was a chilly start to the day, but looked like it would turn into something very nice. We were a little early and wandered through the Fort Mason farmer’s market before the chocolate salon opened.
I was amazed at how big the salon’s hall was, and when told that every station would be giving out samples (Ken and Josh come to this every year), I knew I would: 1) be in heaven; 2) need to pace myself. The good thing about wandering a show like this in a small group is that my friends weren’t rushing so I was forced, somewhat, to pace myself.
Incredibly, I didn’t take a lot of photos of the stuff I enjoyed most. I think the chocolate (and toffee and popcorn) went to my brain. Afterward, looking at the photos, it seems I felt more inclined to take photos of everything that WASN’T chocolate. Maybe those booths had shorter or non-existent lines and I didn’t have to battle people and my iPhone’s shutter button. No matter…it was a sweetly divine experience.
One of the nice things about the show was that it wasn’t completely chocolate – maybe 70%. Early on, after the first few booths of truffles and some various nut toffees, we found the Krave beef/turkey/pork jerky booth. It was a savory palate cleanser that allowed us to proceed a little easier. Some early favorites included an almond pretzel toffee bite, a balsamic strawberry chocolate truffle, a few different flavors from Scala’s restaurant’s pastry chef, and a booth that had truffles featuring durian (a fruit I’d never heard of), banana, and creme brûlée “bites”.
After about an hour and a half of sampling, we were all hitting a wall. I, smartly, had some breakfast but not everyone in our group did. Fortunately, there were food trucks stationed outside. We all headed for the one called Cheese Gone Wild. There was plenty of debate about which of the many cheesy sandwiches to get. In the end, Nghe and I split the indulgent bacon mac ‘n cheese grilled cheese sandwich. (Josh got the grilled cheese and tomato soup, which he found a bit disappointing.) I thought my sandwich was delicious. The chili fries…not so much.
After our lunch, they all departed to Napa for an afternoon with Josh’s sister and I headed back inside to meet Marni, her husband Adam, and two of their friends. I was completely done eating, but walked around with them (in much longer lines) as they continued their own sampling. We then headed out as a group and grabbed lunch for them (and a little more for me) at the farmer’s market, before walking off our full bellies along the water. It was a picture-perfect afternoon, with people all along the waterfront – riding bikes, walking, running, playing along the rocks or on the beach. To think it was mid-March and I was walking around with a t-shirt on…I loved it.
I eventually headed back home, while they continued walking a bit further. I love exploring San Francisco neighborhoods on foot, and checking out the different stores and restaurants and food shops. I stopped into Cheese Plus on my way home and added two new items to my growing obsession. I didn’t eat any then…still too full. I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing, before meeting Mimi for a brief casual dinner at Roam, a burger place on my to-do list. I went light, just getting a turkey burger with lettuce instead of bun. It was delicious and a perfect ending to the weekend. I walked home, got into bed and girded myself for the carb-load that would be bread week.
Before bread week (actually, bread weeks: three weeks of bread) began, I said to myself (and others), “I love bread but in general, unlike desserts, I can resist bread when it’s put in front of me. These weeks should be a little bit of a calorie break.” SPOILER ALERT: Not true at all.
We began the week on a fairly low-key note, with Chef talking to us for over an hour about bread in general. This is by far the longest she’s ever “lectured” and she’d warned us the week before that this was happening (since it’s so unusual). Then we got to work preparing two different doughs together. The first was “pain au lait” (milk bread) and the second was brioche. The pain au lait was fairly straight forward, although we got some tips on proper techniques for mixing, kneading and hand-rolling. Brioche – a very buttery dough – is a totally different beast.
It might seem to you that adding that bowl of softened butter to the neat package of rounded dough wouldn’t be an issue, but it was. We could have done it in a mixer, but Chef wanted us to see what it was like to completely knead by hand. It was a greasy, sloppy mess. She said, “You’ll lose faith that it’ll ever come back together, but it will.” She was right, because I know I lost faith. It was such a gloopy concoction and I was sure the butter would never fully incorporate. After eight to ten minutes of kneading (some of which involved the repeated balling up of the dough and slapping it down onto the counter), it eventually came together. After all that effort, it then needed to rest overnight! Bread is a patience game.
This I tried a bite of and thought it was fine, but nothing special. At the end of the day, I reflected on this move and thought, “Hmm…maybe I actually will be able to stick to my resisting-bread plan during bread week.” (SPOILER ALERT: Nope.)
We spent a lot of our remaining time Monday getting ready for Tuesday. We had a special guest bread instructor, Mike Kalanty, coming in and we had a lot of different breads to prepare for. We worked to get ingredient kits measured out and labeled and stored, as well as mixing some of our sourdough starter with varying amounts of water and flour to “pre-ferment” for some of our work with Mike.
Meanwhile, we squeezed in some other work:
With some time remaining in the day, four of us got to work preparing the cookie dough one more time (we hoped). We were down to pretty nitpicky stuff at this point, but wanted to make sure we got it as right as it could be – how and when to salt the tops of the cookies, and whether the extra rye in the dough meant the cookies should bake from chilled instead of room temperature.
This was actually pretty comical, as we worked completely synchronized. All settings, all timings, everything done together. If only “synchronized cookie dough mixing” was an Olympic sport! Once our dough was put away, we cleaned up and left one area clean for four of us to stay after class. We had all decided to work late and try to knock out our gluten-free recipes that we’d been assigned as homework a few weeks before by our visiting GF guru, Jeff Larsen. We were all working on our signature items to convert to gluten-free and, if we could, to vegan. I worked on my chocolate chip cookie, Megan worked on pecan pie (nut free!), Hilary worked on her birthday cake recipe and Yamina worked on lemon tea cake.
I made another batch with all almond meal, but it was a little too almond-y tasting. And it was nowhere near as flavorful as what the oats and buckwheat provided. I put together another batch of ingredients and brought them home, with the idea of making the batter and letting it chill for a day and baking it from cold. I thought that might provide a little more structure. I also wanted to try a “flax egg” instead of apple sauce. So many options!
Tuesday was spent with Chef Mike Kalanty, bread whisperer. We got started right away and it was a lot of fun to work with him. In addition to being quite knowledgeable about bread, he also has a fun demeanor when it comes to teaching and it made the day quite enjoyable. We started off (as seen in the photo above) with preparing the dough for our Pain au Levain, which basically means a bread made with a levain (a type of pre-ferment, in which a portion of the flour and yeast are mixed ahead of time). The levain contained both regular bread flour as well as some whole wheat, to give it some extra flavoring. The pre-fermentation time also will give it a nice sourdough quality.
Our doughs needed to spend a lot of time proofing and getting ready for baking, so while ours started sitting, we put the doughs he made ahead of time into the oven. This process has its own techniques as well, and we learned a lot about what to do and what not to do when baking these fragile rounded boules of deliciousness.
We also worked on making baguettes with Chef Mike, and were supposed to make a third type of bread but ran out of time. The baguettes were a slightly different process than the boules in their formation, but the general bread-making steps were still followed. I enjoyed the repetition so that I could sear it into my brain.
We took a baguette-making break in order to eat lunch, which was accompanied by the fresh pain de levain and soft Irish butter. It was so good. I swore I’d just try a bite as a test, but once I had some, it was hard to stop!
I can say honestly that the baguettes were good…but not so good that I couldn’t resist eating them. After class ended and we returned to the locker room to change, more of the sourdough boules (and butter) were sitting out, and I lost my willpower again. But I don’t regret it – to have loads (and loaves) of fresh baked bread that you had a part in making? That opportunity doesn’t come up very often.
Since it was St. Patrick’s Day, a bunch of us headed up towards Fisherman’s Wharf to the legendary Buena Vista Cafe, for their famous Irish Coffee (Irish whiskey, coffee, cream and sugar). The place was packed – both with tourists and locals – but we were able to score a table in the backroom, right next to the window. It was a another beautiful day out and we couldn’t have been happier.
The hike home was exhausting, and my plans to go to the gym were abandoned. Instead, I crashed on the couch for a while, baked up the gluten-free cookies that had been resting since the night before and called it a day. More bread awaited the next morning.