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I recently was invited to the San Francisco Cooking School with a group of fellow food bloggers and writers for a hands-on class to introduce us to their Pastry Arts Program. The format we experienced was similar to a day in the life of a pastry school student, but just a 3 hour slice. The class was held in the cavernous state-of-the-art exhibition kitchen in the front hall that can seem a bit intimidating when you first walk in, but we were greeted at the door and directed to our assigned seating. Jodi Liano, the founder of the school talked about their career training programs, which balance academic fundamentals with relevant industry exposure, which is all geared to prepare you to be ready to roll in a real restaurant. They have a very cool externship program where students in the certificate program get to work under award-winning chefs in San Francisco’s top kitchens (hello Delfina, Locanda, NOPA, SPQR to name-drop a few). Students get practical learning experience to prepare them for the real world, not stuck in a large hotel kitchen chopping vegetables or learning to carve ice sculpture (unless of course, that is the path you seek).
Our instructor was Nicole Plue, the Director of the Pastry Arts Program who won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2010. She began her career at the California Culinary Academy, then had an externship at Masa’s, lead the bread program at Hawthorne Lane, then she went east and was part of the opening team at Eleven Madison Park, then developed recipes for the pastry and baking segments for Martha Stewart, was executive pastry chef at Copia in Napa, then at Redd, Cyrus in Healdsburg, and now heads up the Pastry Arts Program at SF Cooking school. As she spoke to us, she had two pots full of butter melting on the stove which you can see reflected in the overhead mirror. Because you see, the topic of the day was cooking with fat which began with talking about butter.
And then we got to make butter. We worked in pairs, here’s my kitchen partner, Payal who writes Keep the Peas. She grew up making butter and showed me how easy it is, especially when you use a food processor! We each had a plastic container filled with whipping cream that had thickened overnight with a tablespoon of buttermilk.
Put that into the food processor on medium high until it breaks into chunks, resembling coarse cottage cheese.
Pour it onto cheesecloth and let it drain.
After most of the liquid has drained off, gather the cheesecloth and gently squeeze to remove the buttermilk.
We rinsed off our beautiful balls of butter and let them continue to drain. At this point you could salt the butter but most of us left it plain, it smelled delicious!
Taking the now melted butter, Chef Plue showed us how to make brown butter in a sauté pan. Apparently the pan shape is important. For the process of browning butter, more surface area is good and you want to use a pan with a light-colored interior so you can see the color change as the butter browns. Butter contains quite a bit of water, which has to evaporate before the fat’s temperature can rise enough to brown the milk proteins.
It began to foam and the milk solids began to brown and a crazy delicious aroma wafted around the room. Only the milk solids turn a dark golden brown, not the butter itself. The fat will be darker as well, but not as dramatically as the milk solids.
Next, Chef Plue showed us how to clarify butter in a heavy bottomed and deep sauce pan. Clarifying butter removes the milk solids and moisture, so you can cook with it at higher temperatures. Ordinary butter will start to smoke at around 250°F, while clarified butter can be heated to at least 450°F before it reaches its smoke point. She cooked it at a low temperature, skimming the milky solids that rose to the top, and as it continued to cook, the solids drop to the bottom.
She poured the butter through cheesecloth, removing any solids from the bottom of the pan, and the result is a gorgeous, translucent golden-yellow butterfat – liquid gold. Note to self – I just found a super easy microwave version from Alice Medrich that I will have to try next time…
The next exercise was super fun, Chef Plue had prepared a bunch of sugar cookie dough made with different fats: butter, European style butter with higher fat content, olive oil, shortening, margarine, lard, clarified butter, brown butter, coconut oil.
We got to cut the dough into cookies and put them onto cookie sheets, and chef baked them in the oven.
The favorites were the cookies made from butter (regular, browned, clarified, european high fat), but the brown butter was the winner, with its complex, nutty, toasty flavor. I liked the crispy rich crunch of the cookie made from lard, and I had seconds of the one made with coconut oil. The cookie made with olive oil reminded me more of a cracker than a cookie and even though there was sugar in the dough, it seemed like it was savory. The only one that got a resounding thumbs down was the one made with margarine, which tasted like stale, diet animal crackers.
This is Shikha’s (of Shikha la mode) worksheet of all the cookies.
It was fun to taste the different cookie doughs (this might have been my my favorite part of the exercise), I liked the coconut cookie dough the best. It really tasted like coconut, interesting to note that there was much less coconut flavor after it was baked.
Here is the class photo. It was a fun class, I learned a lot and am thinking about signing up for one of their real cooking classes, as I’ve only been to the dumbed down media events.
This is my swag, I got a nice bag, a very useful plastic scraper, and the butter that I made in class, thanks so much SF Cooking School!
Read about the basic knife skills class I attended in 2013 here.