We live in a world where interactive, live-streaming baking classes are taught by professional chefs and intimately hosted on Zoom. This was not always the norm. In a world long ago and far away, baking classes were an in-person experience. Students and instructors met together in a shared kitchen space. Armed with clean, white linen service towels, a notebook, and a hunger for a new skill, students observed and participated, sharing in the tactile experience.
Before 2020 interrupted our lives, teaching hands-on classes was something I managed to squeeze in whenever the opportunity presented itself. I also gravitated towards taking classes under the tutelage of instructors I admired. New skill sets are just as important as a sharp kitchen knife, a small offset spatula, and a properly calibrated oven.
Quite a few years back, 2004 to be exact, my friend Nancy and I traveled from Philadelphia to Manhattan to attend a baking class taught by the formidable Carole Walter. Diminutive in size but with a prodigious knowledge of pastry, Carole led us through an afternoon of baking that teetered on exhaustive. More of a coach than a helicopter instructor, the James Beard award winning culinary professional shared baking secrets and dispelled myths. The one thing I remember most vividly was Carole’s demonstration of “how to measure.” Armed with measuring cups and spoons, we were instructed to “fluff” our flour before measuring, spooning in the dry ingredient before painstakingly leveling off the requisite amount. Additionally, in stressing the importance of technique, Carole told us, “If you are a ‘shaker,’ a person who is accustomed to shaking the measuring cup while spooning in flour, STOP.”
Good advice for anyone without a kitchen scale.
Carole meant business and after the measuring tutorial, we dove into our prep list. In short order, we baked an array of sweets; a rich coconut cake, a very crumb-y, (but in a good way), coffee cake, brown sugar cookies, and slender chocolate biscotti. When instructed to plump the raisins for the coffeecake, Nancy, a talented baker in her own right, but more of a landscape artist, paused and whispered,“They look fine to me.” Carole was already one step ahead, stirring chocolate chips and walnuts into biscotti dough. We were woefully behind. Because my classmate had taken the place of someone else whose name remained on the class roster, Carole spent the afternoon referring to Nancy as Margie.
With cakes barely cool enough to slice and a mountain of cookies and biscotti to divvy up, we over-filled white bakery boxes and gathered up our notes. Carole had recently written a book dedicated to cookies, and our tuition entitled us to an autographed copy. As we stepped up to the stainless steel worktable, Carole looked up at Nancy wearing a name tag that said Margie. “Please make it out to Nancy,” my friend asked, and the award winning pastry chef complied with the raised eyebrow of a woman wondering if this student knew her own name. Carole added, “Good luck!” with an exclamation mark for emphasis.
“See?” I said as we headed towards Penn Station, our arms filled with cookbooks and butter stained boxes. “Carole really liked you.” Margie/Nancy shook her head.
Carole’s book, Great Cookies, sits comfortably on my kitchen bookshelf alongside her compendiums, Great Cakes and Great Pies & Tarts. A treasure trove of detailed recipes, I turn to these books not only for what to bake, but how and why. This week, armed with too many open jars of peanut butter and way too many bags of lightly salted peanuts, I leafed through Great Cookies until settling on one of my favorite Carole Walter recipes. With my baker's scale set to zero, I weighed the flour but not before giving it the slightest little “fluff.” It made me think of Nancy.
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