“…It’s not how you react, it’s how you recover.” ~Cece, Johnson and Wales University.Misc. / March 21, 2016
Thirty sticks of frozen butter. That’s what Cece Krelitz, accomplished Pastry Chef and Instructor at Johnson and Wales University was grating into an ebullient pile of pale yellow lace, as we walked into my friend Vicky’s kitchen. This, in addition to ten bowls of ingredients scattered on every surface, helped elevate the mood and the anticipation for every student in the room. I can’t think of a more perfect overture to a day experienced through a light haze of flour, lubricated gently with Prosecco, and punctuated by new friends and old stories.
Draped in assorted aprons, fresh appetizers within reach, and a plastic scraper poised for action, we began our hands-on demonstration. Which is a good thing because pastry is formidable, and this wasn’t a class for wimps. We reveled in the celebration of food for FIVE hours, putting our shoulders into it, folding cream, lemon and lavender into the lightest of doughs. Not to mention salivating over mounds of cooked bacon, caramelized onions and OH, so much CHEESE! The afternoon included the creation of all kinds of pastry applications including sweet and savory scones, quiches, apple pie and even pop-tarts.
Now, I’m at that point in my cooking where I’m ready to move into the science of true baking. You know, the one where you’re super curious as to why one chef tells you the bowl needs to be warmed, or that the real secret to success is derived from talking to your eggs before breaking them into the batter. I love that everything is so dialed in and geeky. It’s just dang fun.
This class came at the end of two weeks of non-stop cooking for me. The first 7 days spent with my best friend of 30 years, joyfully cooking at the beach. The second 7 days hanging with my 22 year old niece while we drove around in my convertible, got our nails done, and now includes cooking with Cece.
Here, sweat on your brow is part of the fun, even essential to it. That’s why I thought I’d share some lessons I’ve learned about success with flour, butter, cream and friends:
Don’t be afraid. – I think if there’s one thing that I see emerging from my increased cooking prowess is a sense of rhythm with my food. I don’t panic every time I approach a new recipe. And in the case of pastry, you cannot show fear. Take the action of cutting butter into the dry ingredients. I saw several of our classmates working so hard to make everything so even, so perfect and so uniform. The point is to dance with the ingredients. Coax them and respect them. And you must move quickly so that you don’t melt the butter or overwork the dough. It’s a constant process of both advancing confidently while gathering sensory information at all times. And above all, trust your instincts.
Experiment with flavors. – Because we were schooled in both sweet and savory versions of several dishes, we learned that subtle differences made a huge difference. Each nuance producing a completely different result. Do you want crispy bacon or more chewy? Large or small pieces? Fresh or dried herbs? And all of it is something you can adjust according to your taste. Even though there’s a science to the basic steps, you still have a lot of latitude in your flavors.
Taste as you go. – When I was growing up I don’t EVER remember my mother tasting things as she cooked. And when I asked her, she said that she’d do it every once in awhile at the end, but not during the process. Oh, the fun she missed! Heck, one of the best reasons to chef your way through the day is that you are allowed to dirty every spoon in your drawer as you nibble on everything! And, in all honesty, the only way to begin to understand seasoning, and how to combine textures and flavors, is by tasting. Totally go for it!
Cold, cold, cold, and cold! – Butter is the secret to flakey pastry. And keeping it near the freezing point is the uber secret. In and out of the fridge and freezer during the process is how you keep the dough happy, and the finished product a guaranteed success.
Mistakes are allowed! – Yes, this is the reason for the title of my blog. Which is most appropriate because of one awesome blunder. And that is, for all of the experience and prowess of our two hosts, Cece and Nancy, they suddenly realized they had assembled our scones using the mixture that did NOT have leavening. What were we cooking then? Little floured bricks which would never rise. Sure, they would be excellent weapons, but that’s another class. And so, as she moved to embrace the boo-boo and remake the dough, she taught us the best lesson of the day: “It’s not how you react to failure, it’s how you recover from it that makes all the difference in your career.” I literally couldn’t write her words down quickly enough.
Dough, like life, rises, and dough falls, but you just need to grab another bowl and start again. And by all means, be sure and chuckle slightly under your breath as you thank the heavens for what cooking teaches us: Love and dough are really the only two things you need to survive.