Baking Class At King Arthur, Part 1

Spending a day at King Arthur Flour with a bunch of bloggers who want to learn as much about baking as I do was such a gratifying and exhilarating experience. Sure, we had all different skill levels -- some of us avid bakers, some intimidated by baking -- but we all discovered how much we loved it and how much we loved learning about it. And we all went home talking about what we wanted to bake next.

The Baking Education Center

After our hearty lunch, a talk session with King Arthur's Web Media Coordinator Allison Furbish, and, of course, some birthday cake, we paraded over to the Baking Education Center. Here, we were greeted by Susan Miller, our instructor for the day. Susan has actually been the director of the Baking Education Center since it opened in 2000. I'll just say right now that she was incredible. She knew how to lead us through the class without making it feel like a class, to teach us little tips and tricks along the way, and to instill a sense of fun in the whole baking process.

The class we took was put together by Allison and Susan based on a survey I took of the bloggers in attendance. Our top choices for a class were wood-fired pizzas and whole grains. To all of our delight, Allison and Susan were able to work in both topics in the time we had. And we were able to tackle a yeast recipe, an unleavened recipe, and a leavened recipe. (This isn't a typical class at King Arthur, but you can certainly take separate classes on all of the topics we covered.) Also, note that the class and the goodies we got at the end of the day were provided by The King Arthur Flour Company. (While we were treated, this does not affect my posts in any way. You always get my real thoughts and opinions.)

The 4-hour class (which became a 5-hour class) was designed so we could make three different things: wood-fired pizzas, multi-seed crackerbread, and whole grain brownies. I think showing the class as we did it is a great way to show you that when you're baking at home, it's really easy to multitask. There's no need to make your pizza dough and then sit around waiting for it to rise when you could tackle other baking projects in the meantime. Likewise, it would be silly to make some other things and then start on the pizza dough because, again, you'd be stuck waiting for it to rise.

Let's Begin

We walked into a classroom that reminded us all of our high school science labs -- but of course it was filled with baking ingredients not chemicals or frogs!

Susan led us right into pizza dough making, and I immediately learned something new. I've always been a proponent of the scoop-and-sweep method of measuring flour, but it turns out that the best way to measure flour is actually to gently spoon the flour into the measuring cup and then swipe the top with a flat edge (not your finger!). By spooning the flour in, you're not as likely to pack it in as when you dip the whole measuring cup in.

She also taught us to designate a separate spot in the bowl for each ingredient. You never know when you might get distracted or called away in the middle of measuring your ingredients. When you return to the bowl, it will be easy to tell what you already measured if you pour the ingredients in separate spots instead of dump them on top of each other.

And she didn't directly teach us this, but I noticed that if she needed 3/4 teaspoon of something, for example, she would hold the 1/4 teaspoon and the 1/2 teaspoon side by side and dip them both into whatever she needed. It probably only saves a couple of seconds, but I thought it was so efficient, and I've already started doing it myself.

For each project we gathered at the front, and Susan showed us what we needed to do. Then we would go back to our tables and execute what she had just shown us.

For the pizza dough, we mixed all of our dry ingredients together first. Then we stirred in some olive oil (you can actually leave the oil out if you like a chewy pizza crust, but it does add nice flavor). Last, we added the water gradually until we got our dough to the right consistency.

Next came the kneading. Susan had everyone flour their work surfaces, except me. Because I had a little bit of baking experience already, she taught me to knead without flour. It was a combination of picking the dough up, slapping it down, turning it, picking it up, and slapping it down again. I was surprised at how easy it was to do. I think we can all be a little guilty of using too much flour when we're trying to knead pizza dough. It's best to use as little as possible, or as Susan would say "just a whisper of flour," so the pizza dough doesn't get too tough and dry.

Kneading over and done, we transferred our smooth, silky dough balls to bowls, oiled them lightly, covered them with plastic, and set them aside to rise while we worked on the multi-seed crackerbread.

Whole Grains

We started with a quick discussion about what whole grains are. Susan showed us a diagram of the wheat berry and pointed out the bran and germ layers that are not present in white flour. Whole wheat flour definitely packs a lot more fiber than white flour.

We next learned that fresh whole wheat flour should have no odor at all. If you take your whole wheat flour out of the pantry, take a whiff, and smell that well-known whole wheat smell, what you're actually smelling is rancid whole wheat flour. I know! I had no idea either. When I got home, I went to the pantry, took down the container of whole wheat flour that has been taking up residence for at least a year, and tossed it. Whole wheat flour lasts about 6 months.

The multi-seed crackerbread we made was a combination of all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, pumpernickel (or rye) flour, cornmeal, water, and olive oil.

We mixed the ingredients until they formed a dough, and kneaded the dough until it became soft and supple. We took the ball of dough, pressed it into a patty, and used a bench scraper to cut it into 8 pieces. Then we covered the dough pieces to keep them from drying out.

At this point, it was time to check on our pizza dough. Instead of punching the dough down, we were told to treat our dough gently. Susan showed us how to fold the dough in thirds, turn it, and fold it in thirds again.

We then returned it to the oiled bowl and re-covered it while we continued working on our crackerbread.

We gathered up front to pick out our toppings.

There were all sorts of seeds, herbs de Provence, salt flakes, and fresh herbs from the King Arthur garden to choose from. We were able to be very creative with our crackerbreads.

What's handy about using seeds is that you don't even need flour to roll out the crackerbreads. The seeds keep the dough from sticking. When it starts sticking, you can just add more seeds.

Once we had our crackerbreads seeded and rolled out, we lined all the trays on the speed rack so Susan could put them in the oven for us.

The oven is intense! Now, I worked at a bakery and the decks ovens there go two sheet pans deep -- these decks go four sheet pans deep! Susan showed us how the ovens open in, instead of out like a home oven. It keeps the oven temperature more constant.

She had to use what I can only describe as a gurney to load the pans into the oven.

And Bridget gave it a try too!

Wow! This post is incredibly long. I'm going to cut it off here and tell you the rest next time! You don't want to miss seeing how we baked the pizzas, and you definitely want to see the brownies we made.