The Street of the Bakers , in Paris

The Street of the Bakers, in Paris


Introduction to
How To Bake Bread: The Five Families of Bread®
by Michael Kalanty, Red Seal Books, 2011.

Pierre knew about as much English as I did French, which is to say, slightly more than Bonjour.  My new chef likely had never spoken an English word until I arrived on the doorstep of his pâtisserie in rural France. 

We had shared written correspondence prior to my arrival. I had relied upon a friend’s skill with the French language to translate everything I wrote or received. Though using a translation service certainly cleaned up my French writing, it had not occurred to me that it misrepresented my competency in basic communication in Pierre’s native tongue. At the beginning, it was difficult to say which of us was more frustrated.

Most likely it was Pierre. He strove to make good on his promise to train me in the foundations of his craft, all the while meeting his daily production orders for cream puffs, litres of ice cream, and trays of chocolate petits fours. He amicably stumbled between the two worlds, persistent in achieving both goals. His patience was matched by his tours de mains that could turn out jewels of pâtisserie from a collection of things I could only refer to at the time as ingredients. 

Highly creative and a consummate technician, he challenged himself to come up with pattern after pattern of processes that could be repeated, with little or no change, to produce a number of different pantry items. I could see his mind at work…What is the common technique that threads together such different pastry components as buttercream, chocolate ganache, and buttery Brioche loaves? He had never worked this way before, but we urgently needed a shorthand we could use to get the job done, without getting too hung up in words. 

It’s the trick of the pastry chef mind to not really ever “make” one thing, like a Napoléon. The pastry chef sees several smaller components, each of which is prepared separately, chilled away, and then brought out at the time of construction, or assembly, of the final project. This is the basis for Antoine Cârème’s food quote, “There are five principle arts: Painting, sculpture, literature, music, and architecture. The principle branch of the last one is, of course, pastry.” 

When a pastry chef is methodically stirring rich vanilla custard, he is busy thinking of things like éclairs, using it for a sweet dessert soufflé base, or churning slowly in the ice cream machine and flavoring with rum-soaked raisins. One thing must serve many. This is the economy of work that organizes the pastry chef’s thinking.

Over time, we developed a system of shorthand where one or two French words would be used for a series of gestures and techniques. 
Emulsifying butter in a buttercream icing, for instance, proceeds something like this: Mixer on high speed for the first phase; mixer on low speed for the second half. The time on low speed is twice the time spent on high.

The breakthrough was the day he was teaching me the rich, buttery Brioche. This is the bread that is often cited as the cake in Marie Antoinette’s let them eat it comment as she was about to be whisked to her public doom.  

Rich, buttery breads, like the Brioche, are usually the last things made at the end of a long day of work in the shop. For best flavor—and to make it easier to handle and shape—Brioche is transferred directly into the refrigerator once finished with the development stage. Here, it rises slowly, until the next day, developing a rich, complex character.

This gives the baker time to set out ingredients for the next day’s work, to clean out some sticky pastry brushes, and to fine tune things in the shop before the light is switched off. The chilled Brioche is turned once, knocking out the CO2 and alcohol, and then put to bed for the night. 

Meanwhile, the shop was getting dark. Even the 10 p.m. summer daylight was fading from the shop. The light changed, the shop fell away from us in shadow. Pierre had done all of this before—he had positioned his mixer in such a way that it was able to catch the last rays of light from the dimming sky. 

He was just about to add the butter when his eyes lit up. He handed me the entire 2 Kg (about 5#) of fragrant, soft, Normandy butter. As his hands held mine, while transferring the butter, he coached,  Vas-y, mec. Exactement comme la crème au beurre.  In effect, he was saying, Go ahead, dude.  It’s the same way you make buttercream.

I momentarily froze with the fear that I mistranslated his order. Then I knew he had confidence in me to carry out the finishing touches on his bread dough. A bread dough that I had never before seen how to make. Or was it confidence in his discovery? After all, if a fumbling American apprentice could be trusted to do it, then that would be all the empirical proof he needed. Had he hit on the truth?  

At first, there was a tug of war between the dough and the butter in the mixer bowl. The dough tightened up, formed itself into smaller pieces, and pushed away the butter. It looked like a bowlful of French doughballs in a mash of butter. I was frozen, like a deer in the headlights. When you can’t stand to see it, but you can’t look away.  His calming words rang in my ear…Attends. Wait.   La Beurre est plus fort que la pâte. Butter is stronger than dough. Wait and see.

As if by magic, the entire mess came together into a beautifully supple, shiny golden dough that smelled equally of sweet cream butter and fermented wheat. It delivered both the body and the soul that Pierre had taught me to look for. The firm, yet giving, structure of the dough; the sweet, melting creaminess of the butter. Only the French could combine these two disparate elements into one luscious bread. The truth of Marie Antoinette’s comment resounded in me—both my head, and my soul.  Pierre had been right. Down to the minute! Exactement comme la crème au beurre.

I slept as soundly as the Brioche that night, until Pierre knocked on my attic door at 2:30 in the morning. Viens! Faires les Croissants! Let’s go! Croissant time! Gripping my café noir, I stumbled into the laboratoire. Pierre had not slept even a baker’s wink that night. Instead, he had feverishly covered the walls of the work area with drawings, symbols, mathematical calculations, and charts. Each set out in a different color on sheets of baking parchment; it would look to someone like a busy marketplace kiosk in Morocco. This very technique that has become one of my signatures. 

He had succeeded in transforming the workshop into the visual representation of the French term for this part of the bakeshop—la laboratoire. Now I had visual cues plastered all around me. “Methode 2…Emulsification”. “Comment calculer le sucre pour…”, how much sugar per… kilo of flour for each of the breads in the shop. Lists of products that would follow the same procedure at some point in their journey through the shop.

The idea stayed with me. As a journeyman baker, I had the opportunity to work in several shops across the United States, in Europe, and in Brasil: large, medium, and small. I’ve visited more bakeries than I can count. It’s a personality trait of bakers that, once they detect you share their love and knowledge of the craft, you are instantly welcomed into the lab to see what magic is underway here, in this corner or, there…under these plastic tents. This inevitably leads to pushing up one’s sleeves, washing up, and joining in on the bench to help shape batches of rosemary olive bread or to braid the Friday afternoon’s rush of Challah loaves. 

As an instructor, I have relied on this system to cover a wide variety of breads for my students in what seems sometimes like too short a time. The goal of any instructor should be to make his students both competent and independent in carrying out kitchen assignments. I’ve never subscribed to the theory that students should be shown as many different things as possible in a single sitting, in the confines of a demo, or the like. At the end of the day, I measure my own value as a teacher by only one thing—can my students do it on their own. If not, then I have failed them. By either giving them too much information, challenging them with too many skills at a time, or simply teaching to them at the wrong level of knowledge.

And when you’ve never made a yeast bread before in your whole life, which is the case for more students than it is not, you find yourself holding a package of live yeast, and this makes the level pretty basic.  After all, no matter what else we do, we have to not kill the yeast. And there are certain steps you take to make sure you don’t. It’s that simple.  Everything else is flourish or garnish. 

From all the techniques and procedures I’ve learned, I have summarized the most commonly used and the most successful. There aren’t a lot of them. Like notes in a scale, there’s a limited number. But once you learn them, you can practice on your own how to combine them in ways that you like.

In baking, you learn little ins and outs the more you practice. Different tricks that work for you, things that will define your own signature techniques for handling breads. It’s inevitable. 

Myself, I’m happy that I can still learn new ways of doing things. But no matter what, the Five Families, and the techniques that make each family unique, stay the same.

Michael Kalanty
San Francisco
Jan 2009