Bread workshop

December 14th, 2008, by Francesca


I know, I know… I've been a flake.

I just got back from the Bay Area after spending a week at the San Francisco Baking Institute where I took the first of many bread baking workshops: Artisan Bread 1.

I have only one word for my experience there: fabulous.

As soon as I process my photos, collect my notes, survive a heavy social schedule and catch up on my laundry and stuff… I'll blog properly about the workshop. For now, I can tell you that it was definitely worth the money and even the discomforts caused by a long commute on public transportation.

Too many bubbles

October 15th, 2008, by Francesca


The close-up looks good. It's easy to cheat in macro mode, n'est ce pas?


Zoom out and you start seeing the lunarscape.


Zoom out a little bit more and all the bubbles come into view. I am sure they are not supposed to be there. They weren't there when I made focaccia last weekend and had not time to take pictures. There's nothing like being ready to photograph a project to make it all go haywire.

focaccia dough

I knew the dough was too gassy early on and did my best to degas it, but the bubbles had more will power than I have bread making skills. I think part of the problem may be that I can't accurately weigh tiny amounts of yeast. How am I supposed to weigh 0.85 grams of yeast for the poolish and 4.8 grams for the dough?


The good thing is that it does taste good and so far I've been able to keep you-know-who from attacking it.

focaccia dough

Cedar paper and stuff

October 13th, 2008, by Francesca

My baking internship fell through. Bummer.

I went in this morning for my orientation only to find out that they couldn't have me as an intern after all. It's all to do with me not being enrolled in school anymore and not being covered by the school's insurance. For all effects and purposes, the externship (as the school calls it) is like a class but at a different location and the school covers students if any accident should happen. The bakery I have been talking to can't afford the liability of an intern who is not really an intern. I asked if there is any possibility of a part-time position with no pay, just to learn, but it's not looking good. I'll have to come up with another plan. It's just that for the past ten days I thought that this was a done deal so I've been rather bummed today.

On the way home I stopped at Whole Foods for groceries and I guess I was feeling a bit down and in need of something special so I noticed something that had probably been there all the time and never caught my eye before: cedar sheets.

I bought a package of four 6x9 inches sheets of cedar paper, actually wood sheets and tonight put together an improvised dish that ended up being quite good. I used the cedar paper to wrap two fillets of Pacific Orange Snapper garnished with a fine Julienne of scallions and zucchini and seasoned with some finely grated fresh ginger and lemon and orange zest, a touch of salt and pepper… tied the wraps with twine and baked at 400ºF for… hmm… 7-8 minutes I think. I sauteed more of the scallion and zucchini julienne to add as garnish and threw in some slow roasted tomatoes for good measure. Not that the roasted tomatoes really went well with that dish, but that's what I had handy so shoot me. Bread, white wine, and it all turned out well.

Oh, and to finish it all off, a shot glass of nocino, just because. Which reminds me… I am almost out of nocino. Anybody in Italy wants to send me a good bottle? Pleaaase?

Okay, I'll stop feeling sorry for myself; losing the internship is not a big deal. It just happened on a day when I had an hour and a half of sleep and I don't do well with sleep deprivation.

On the other hand, I had a wonderful Saturday with two friends visiting and spending the day with me, eating, drinking, knitting, chatting, and being designated laps for Kelvin, who likes nothing better than lap variety. And I made a mighty good focaccia, if I may say so myself. Of course all the credit goes to Peter Reinhart's recipe; a LOT of work, but oh so tasty.

No pics of dinner or Saturday's lunch either. It's either cooking or taking pictures. It's especially hard to take pictures while cooking something new and when I have no expectations of how it'll turn out. Well, that's it for now. You all have a good week.

Sharing the loave

September 25th, 2008, by Francesca

The sharing was unintentional, but that's what happens chez tantarobina when you leave food unattended for just a few minutes.


…until proven guilty

Pipie is an equal opportunity sampler: Italian, Swedish, Armenian, American, you name it, he'll try it.

And like it.

And come back to the scene of the crime for more.

You should have seen him during the subsequent sugar crash.

Swedish Bakery

September 24th, 2008, by Francesca

In my quest for good bread, I've been exploring ethnic bakeries.

Today I went to Berolina Bakery – a Swedish bakery in Montrose, just north of Glendale – where I bought two kinds of quiche and three loaves of bread.

A typical Swedish bread: limpa.

This was my first taste of limpa bread. Finally a rye bread without caraway seeds so we could find out whether we really dislike rye or not. As it turns out, Ben does not like rye, while I didn't like the caraway seeds that usually come with it. This bread is quite flavorful and pairs rye flour with subtle orange zest and stronger anise seeds. For me, a successful combination.

The Black Olive bread is entirely different and just as good, although perhaps the olives are a tad too strong.

But I would buy this bread just to look at it.

The rosemary bread is perfect, with just enough rosemary without overpowering the senses.

Our freezer is filled primarily with baked goods these days.

Natas in LA

September 23rd, 2008, by Francesca

Natas Pastries, in Sherman Oaks, is the only Portuguese pastry shop in Los Angeles.

Natas Bakery

We went for breakfast last weekend and tried out several of their pastries. I loved the natas and the double expresso. At first I thought it was a Portuguese version of American coffee, because it arrived in a very large cup, but it was really good and quite close to an Italian espresso, just much larger.

Natas Bakery

I was so impressed with it that I ordered another one, this time a single espresso. This turned out to be the same amount of coffee as the double, but more watery. It's okay. Whenever I go to a place for the first time, I like to try as many things as possible to get a good feel for what it offers. Next time, I'll stick to double espresso.

Natas Bakery

Aside for natas, I tried a fruit tart and a small doughnut-like thingie I can't remember the name of. The look of it reminded me of an Italian bombolone, but it was different. Bomboloni are larger, hollow and filled with custard. The Portuguese version is smaller and denser, with no hollow pocket inside.

Natas Bakery

Fruit tarts… I love them.

Natas Bakery

And these are the "natas".

At first glance, they reminded me of Italian pastries, but the shell dough is closer to phyllo than puff pastry or the typical pasta frolla dough used in a lot of Italian cakes and mignon pastry. The custard filling is not unlike the crema in a lot of Italian pastry items, such as cannoli alla crema. I am probably saying blasphemy here from the point of view someone from Portugal, but what I mean is, the stuff is good and I am going back. :)

Natas Bakery

The café sports an old world décor with gleaming dark wood tables and chairs, and some of the feel of European cafés.

Natas Bakery

Blue tiles here and there add to the Portuguese ambience.

Natas Bakery Natas Bakery Natas Bakery

You may have noticed a baking theme in my latest posts… did I mention my jeans are getting tighter?

Brioche Modane

August 24th, 2008, by Francesca

My last bread workshop last term was about brioche and my favorite version was brioche Modane, so last night I prepared the dough, let it ferment, punched it down and refrigerated overnight and today I made two brioches Modane.

Along the way I made a few mistakes, but the pastry gods took pity on me and the brioches came out smelling and tasting awesome, regardless of poor shaping and the near explosion of one.

I am not 100% sure, but I suspect that overproofing may be the cause. At first I blamed the agressive scoring, but after baking the second Modane – scored more conservatively – it became evident that it still puffed up too much.

Proofing is still a bit of a mystery to me and I am never quite sure when something is right for the oven.

The first brioche, scored a bit too enthusiastically.

You can see how the pastry cream pushed through the slashes and broke the dough around the second slash.

The second brioche.

I may have left the second brioche in the oven too long. We haven't cut it yet, so I'll find out when I slices it for the freezer. In any case, I love the taste and smell of it. The golden raisins soaked in Grand Marnier and the darker raisins soaked in Brandy really add to the aroma and overall flavor. Booze… such a wonderful thing.

If I had to save one nut

August 18th, 2008, by Francesca

If I could save only one kind of nut from extinction, it would be hazelnuts, and I wouldn't even have to think about it. I've never met a hazelnut I didn't like, period. They can come in any form, hiding in mashed potatoes, crusted around a trout, homogenized in gelato, as the main ingredient in biscotti and cakes… I love them all.

So when I saw a recipe for hazelnut biscotti on one of the food blogs I check more or less regularly (Fior di zucca), I had to try it. The recipe is super easy, conveniently given both in English and Italian, and the biscottini came out fragrant and delicious.

I replaced the whole hazelnuts with hazelnut meal, since I had it handy, but that shouldn't make any difference since the recipe calls for grinding hazelnuts. The only real difference is that they should be peeled and my hazelnut meal includes ground skin. Those of you who've been around here for a while, know that I like rustic dishes more than super-licked "creations" and won't be surprised that I actually prefer this version. Hey, does that count as fiber?

I still haven't decided if I prefer the biscotti with or without powdered sugar.

By the way, anybody has suggestions on how to store biscotti (cookies)?

New plan

August 17th, 2008, by Francesca

Tomorrow my classmates will move on to Baking 2 while I start an academic term: Math 2, Nutrition, Culinary World History. That way I can take a bit of a break and then have only cooking classes to deal with for the subsequent three terms.

In the meantime, the Michael Phelps diet sans swimming has finally caught up with me and for the first time since starting school I am putting on weight. I guess I'd better cut on the carbs or take up competitive swimming. But not today. In fact I am heading to the kitchen to make some whole wheat dinner rolls.

And then I'll read about how to make home made ricotta on the September issue of Saveur. I've tried the lemon juice recipe but honestly that's fake ricotta, just as bad as the grainy stuff at the supermarket. The recipe on Saveur is still not the way ricotta is made in Italy, but it seems the best approximation you can do at home and I am going to give it a try. At least it calls for rennet and not lemon juice or vinegar.

Baking retrospective

August 15th, 2008, by Francesca

When I started this blog, I meant to document as much as possible of my experience in culinary school. This term, between the lab module, the math class, putting together a monster notebook – no longer required but what's the point of investing this kind of money and energy if I don't do my best to preserve what I'm learning? – I didn't post much about school. So, here is a six-week retrospective for your viewing pleasure.

Épi bread, baguettes, whole wheat dinner rolls, challah, pain de mie, brioche à tête, brioche Nanterre, pretzels, bagels, pizza, focaccia, whole wheat pita.

My favorite week.

Cinnamon rolls, rye bread, pumpernickel bread, beignets, doughnuts, sourdough bread, Danish turnovers, pinwheels, envelopes, bear claws and frames, croissants, and pains au chocolat.

My other favorite week, if it weren't for the unbearable heat in the lab and the butter oozing out every which way from my laminated doughs. Still, everyone in our household loves croissants, and I stocked the freezer with individually wrapped Danish and croissants for many breakfasts to come.

Crème pâtissière, crème diplomate, puff pastry, vol-au-vents, shrimp à l'Americaine, palmiers, Napoléon, pate à choux, cream puffs, swans, éclairs, caramel, nougatine, croquembouche.

Not a bad week, other than the whole day we dedicated to croquembouche. It was an exercise in frustration and for what? It's not like you can actually eat the damn thing; it's dry, sticky, unwieldy and I can see no purpose to it other than trying to impress someone with your pastry assembly skills. Not worth the effort; give me something I can sink my teeth into. The shrimp dish, on the other hand, was delicious, and the éclairs disappeared quicker than you can say "Pipie!" Choux pastry on its own is on the dry side, but fill it with cream and it's a whole 'nother story.

American pie dough, apple pie, berry pie, pâte brisée, quiche Lorraine, chicken pot pie, pâte sucrée, pound cake (a.k.a. quatres quarts), muffins, scones, biscuits, fresh fruit tart, ganache, raspberry chocolate tart, poached pears, pear frangipane tart, lemon meringue tart.

With the only caveat that all American desserts are way too sweet for an Italian palate, the pound cake, muffins and especially the fresh fruit tart were very satisfying.

Two ways to make sponge cake (cold separated method and warm method), Italian buttercream, Swiss buttercream, French buttercream, American buttercream (a.k.a. decorators' icing), piping roses, leaves and borders, buffet cake, celebration cake, cheese cake, meringue noisette and Marjolaine.

A week of sugar and butter excess and over the top decoration. Oh, and pastel colors don't do it for me either.

Baguettes, focaccia, épi, fougasse, laminated dough, croissants, pains au chocolat, bagels, challah, brioche Modane, fruit brioche (a.k.a. Swiss brioche), sausage in a brioche (no photo), and another kind of brioche I forgot the name of.

The best part of Baking 1 – aside from the first week – was been able to take a few Saturday bread baking workshops. Bread… can you tell I'm really getting into it?

For the most part, each workshop dealt with something we had already baked in our Baking 1 class, but using entirely different recipes, working with different chefs and in a different lab on the main campus, as opposed to our baking facilities in South Pasadena. Lab 5 is the production kitchen for the school café and has some pretty spiffy equipment such as a walk-in rotating oven and a sheeter for laminated dough.

The chefs in the regular courses have no latitude in terms of modifying recipes and the recipes themselves are picked for didactical purposes, how they related to each other in a sequence to build up skills, etc. rather than for their individual virtues. Because of that, we end up using recipes that are not always the best. The workshops, on the other hand, have no such restrictions and every single product that came out of those Saturday afternoons was much better than those baked in class. We also benefited from the chefs preparing preferments ahead of time, and yes, you can make bread without them, but everything tastes better with a preferment. Or maybe they put some recreational drug in the flour, who knows…

By the way, Ben has a theory that pasta from Italy is more popular than pasta made outside of Italy because wheat in Italy grows in fields sprinkled with poppies. We have collected no scientific proof of addiction to Italian pasta so far, but you never know. :)

And now, off to school for my last day of this term. The menu today is deep cleaning and exit interviews.

Baking 1 finals

August 13th, 2008, by Francesca

How do you like my telescopic fork?

It was a gift from a friend a while back (hey, Laura, where did you buy it? I'm getting requests) and I'd been waiting for the right occasion to use it. This is finals week for my Baking 1 class and today seemed just like the perfect time to do something silly; you know… stress and all that.

My menu for today was focaccia and cream puffs. I did good on the focaccia, at least from the locals' point of view. What they call focaccia here is similar to what we call spianata in Romagna, but our spianata is more flat. There is so much regional variation in Italian dishes that it's hard to tell what's what sometimes, and living in California doesn't really help straighten things out. The locals have funny ideas about what qualifies as Italian; don't even get me started.

Anyway, being that I had to follow the school's recipe for focaccia, I had to make it quite poofy and fluffy. Check.

My version is less rich than others I've seen in class (olives, caramelized onions…), and I like it that way: just sea salt crystals and fresh rosemary.

With the cream puffs, I didn't use enough cream. I hadn't realized that they needed to be filled more and on top of that, once we set things out for the chefs to grade and left the lab, the heat deflated the cream and the tops ended up sitting on the puff bases. Oh, well…

But my boys always like what I bring home. The focaccia was partly eaten at dinner and partly frozen. We'll see how the freezing part works out. So far, it's been a mixed bag. Some baked items freeze wonderfully; others not so well. It's all a big experiment.

I know I've been silent for a while. Things have just been hectic and having both a lab class and an academic class this term has sucked up all my time. Next term I'm going to take only academic classes which means losing the group I've been with for the past three months, but I need to take a breather.

The new schedule should also mean that I'll be able to blog more regularly.

Excusez-moi… où est le croissant plus proche?

July 18th, 2008, by Francesca

Today I baked my first croissants and proudly brought them home in my new caddy, acquired for the occasion. Forget that they are not perfect – far from it – but they are my first croissants. It's like the first kiss; you can only have that once. So, regardless of the actual results, they are special.

All my boys were duly impressed, and two of them (Ben and Kelvin) expressed their admiration in gentlemanly fashion.

Pipie… well, he just can't contain himself when it comes to food.

Feigning disinterest

We all knew that wouldn't last long

Considering his options

Sniffing the goods

Getting too close before being told off… for all of three seconds.

But Pipie's got the fastest tongue west of the Mississippi. Can you see the pink blur between his face and the croissant?

Pizza, pita, focaccia e gelato

July 11th, 2008, by Francesca

Not perfectly round, but I rather like the rugged look of my very first pizza.

My focaccia dough trying to explode after I left it too long in the proofing box.

I am happy to report that there were no casualties. In fact the focaccia turned out okay, a bit too poofy but crusty on the outside, moist on the inside, and with good flavor.

The whole wheat pitas are thicker than I am used to and different in texture because of the whole wheat flour in the mix. Tomorrow we'll try them with the hummus made by chef in class today. After eating pizza, focaccia and gelato tonight, we didn't have any room for more bread.

We made gelato alla crema from yet another recipe. I think this is our fourth batch, every time from a different recipe. Our excuse this time was that tomorrow is Ben's birthday and we had no ice-cream left in the freezer and clearly you can't have a birthday without gelato. This is our most successful batch so far, from an Italian book that my mother mailed us a few days ago. The next thing from that book – Ice Dream – will be sorbetto al vino rosso e fragole (red wine and strawberry sorbet). Doesn't that sound divine?

More than half of the focaccia ended up at our next-door neighbors' house, because willpower alone is not enough to fit more food in the fridge.
The leftover focaccia is now in the microwave oven, where it should be safe from you-know-who until tomorrow.


July 10th, 2008, by Francesca

and the living is easy… or at least easier than last term. In spite of having two classes instead of one (last term I didn't have to take any academics) and in spite of those classes being on two campuses, having no convenient parking available at either location, no A/C in our old car while temperatures are in the nineties and hundreds, me driving in the middle of the day, etc.… in spite of all that, I am enjoying my first week in Baking more than I had expected.

Today's production

And the math class doesn't seem too bad either. Granted, it's early days so I may have to review my assessment, but things are looking good and our fridge and freezer are overflowing with baked goodies.


This term is all about baking bread and this is a summary of my first week in Baking & Pastries 1.

  • Monday: made French bread dough (overnight fermentation)
  • Tuesday:
    • baked baguettes + épi with the French bread dough
    • Made whole wheat dinner rolls
  • Wednesday:
    • Made Pan de mie and Challah
    • Made brioche dough (overnight fermentation)
    • Made yogurt starter for sourdough bread next week
  • Thursday:
    • Baked brioches à tête and Nanterre loaf from brioche dough
    • Made Amish style soft pretzels
    • Made bagels
    • Made pizza dough for tomorrow
  • Friday:
    • Will bake pizza
    • Will make focaccia
    • Will make whole wheat pita

Baguette and épi

There's no more room in the freezer and we are having breakfast for dinner. Tonight we had a rather strange dinner with pretzels, bagels and brioches, followed by Ben's latest sorbet creation. We started with lemon-vodka sorbet last week and now we are having lemon/lime sorbet with tequila, à la margarita. Hey, we like Mexican food and it's informing our experiments. If you spot typos in this post, blame it on the tequila. :)

Pain de mie

Did I mention that the whole household is enjoying this baking adventure? Tuesday night Pipie was sitting on the kitchen counter with his face covered in flour. He had gotten to the bag with the baguettes – sprinkled with a dry wash of pastry flour – but I was too tired to run for the camera.