Lispian Random meanderings on whatever catches my fancy

Boulangerie I: Days 1 and 2

This past week I decided to take another “staycation” and take the Boulangerie I course at Le Cordon Bleu here in Ottawa. Once again my good friend Alberto joined me and we spent the week, Monday to Thursday, at Le Cordon Bleu learning about and how to make bread!

As I mentioned in the Viennoiserie post last year, he and I had wanted to take the bread making course initially but it wasn’t offered as far as we could tell in 2010. It was offered last week of of March 2011, so we jumped at the chance to again take a course at Le Cordon Bleu here in Ottawa. Much like last time the school and education exceeded our expectations. Herein is the tale of those 4 days.

The course is known as a “Short Course”, which means it’s 4 days divided into 3 hours of Demonstration and 3.5 hours of Practical. Practical is just what it sounds like, you get to be practical and practice in a real industrial kitchen everything you learned the prior 3 hours. The difference over the pastry course last year is that only the first day has an in-class portion followed by 3.5 hours of practical. In the boulangerie course the subsequent days were nearly 7 hours in the practical kitchen. I’ll explain how it differed as we progress.

In way of summary, Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa is a full-blown Cordon Bleu cooking school. The place is rife with renown chefs and aspiring ones. My friend and I had no idea who would be teaching the course but we knew it would be someone well versed in bread. Our hope was that whoever it was would be half as entertaining as Chef Faure was. We weren’t disappointed. In fact, our instructor was every bit as knowledgeable and entertaining. I wonder if it’s a job requirement! And we knew we’d be making a lot of bread. We learned how much as we went along, but planned for production in line with what we did in the pastry course. We were right. We baked approximately 3 kilos of bread a day. And that’s a lot of bread. Needless to say, a lot friends and family got a lot of bread. And we got encouragement to take more courses :-).

We had hoped to see some familiar faces from the pastry course last September. But only one was in attendance. It was nice to see a familiar face. And it seems that the bug has bitten us and we three will surely see more of each other on future courses.

For the course, there were 14 of us. A full roster. The ages ranged from 20s to 60s. A mixed crowd but a very interested one. And everyone was exceedingly friendly and fun to be with. It made the course that much more enjoyable.


Chef Herve Chabert

As we walked into the demonstration room we were greeted by Chef Herve Chabert and his students Abdullah, Susan, and Paula. Chef Chabert immediately impressed upon us that he started exactly at noon and the demonstrations would go until 3pm, at which point we could have a 30 minute break for a snack after which he expected us in the Practical Kitchen, up on the 2nd floor, to begin learning what we watched him do. As I’ve mentioned, there were 14 students which is great since you can easily talk to the Chef if necessary. And as we learned in September, the chefs encourage questions and curiosity. They truly want you to learn and take obvious pride in teaching you about their specialty and loves.

After that brief introduction, plus some commentary on hygiene, Chef commenced the first lesson. We were to learn about pate fermentee, baguettes, pain complet au levain, and  pain de seigle pour pain surprise. That’s right, we were doing 4 different types of bread during practical. Or, to put it another way, 4 different doughs would be measured/scaled, kneaded, formed, proofed and baked in 3.5 hours! Before this course I’d be lucky to have my bread proof in 4 hours. But we were going to do 4 different kinds in less time? Ridiculous. How can this be. It goes against everything I knew about bread!

Day 1

First thing was to watch Chef demonstrate how to make bread. He explained about the various types of starters and that we’d be using at least two, though primarily using pate fermentee. He explained the method and continued on to baguettes, the epitome of French bread. As with many breads, it’s a simple mix of flour, salt, water, and fresh yeast added to a 457g of pate fermentee. This is to be mixed for 6 – 8 minutes until a gluten window emerges and the temperature of the dough is 22 – 25c, no more, no less. He was quite explicit about temperature and gluten windows. They were crucial to ensuring you have good bread. In fact, he said the formula for good bread is simply:

  1. Scaling the ingredients
  2. Mixing, via one of the methods (straight, sponge, biga, poolish)
  3. Fermentation (bulk)
  4. Punching, followed by chilling
  5. Scaling and dividing
  6. Rounding (or forming) the dough
  7. Benching (resting) the dough
  8. Make/Panning, wherein the dough is placed into or onto appropriate receptacles
  9. Proofer (wherein the final rise takes place, typically around 30 – 35c with 80% humidity with the added note that if there is butter in the dough then the dough must be kept below 30c)
  10. Baking, including the pre-bake scoring, egg wash, etc. Baking almost always happens around 450F – 500F.
  11. Cooling
  12. Store (how to store the bread for short term or long term consumption)

Chef jokingly said there is a thirteenth step: eating.

Of all the steps above, the most important is to weigh everything. And the results we’d experience that week were a testimony to that bit of advice. But more on that as we progress through the week.

Now that the steps were explained Chef explained what we were working with, namely flour. He commented that Canadian, especially Manitoba flour was exceptional for breads and prized in Europe! And here we get it as our regular flour. Makes making bread all the easier if the flour is good. Again we were provided with some information pertaining to the flours we’d typically deal with:

  • Starch: 68% – 72%
  • Protein: 8 – 12%
  • Water: 13 – 15%
  • Sugar: 1 – 2%
  • Fat: 1.2 – 1.4%
  • Minerals: 0.5 – 0.6%
  • Vitamins: depends on the flour, but scant

And since we’d mostly be using wheat flour we were shown a diagram wherein a wheat kernel was fleshed out with the endosperm making up 80 – 85%, the bran 10 – 15% and the germ the rest.

We were also provided a bit of an education on the European marking scheme for flours, especially if we ever deal with a European cookbook.  In Europe flour is ranked on its contained ash. Thus:

  • < 50g / kilogram = type 45 (bread flour in North America)
  • 55 – 60g / kilogram = type 55 (all purpose)
  • 65 – 85g / kilogram = type 65 (pastry flour)
  • > 110g / kilogram = type 110 (cake flour)

Similarly, he explained the gluten percentages of the various flours:

  • All purpose flour: 9 – 11%
  • Bread flour: 11 – 13%
  • Pastry flour: 8 – 9%
  • Cake flour: 7 – 8%
  • High gluten flour: 13 – 14.5%
  • Rye flour: 0%
  • Rice flour: 0%
  • Whole wheat flour: 11 – 13%

For most of bread baking you should use all purpose or bread flour. In Canada it seems that the two are fairly interchangeable, though Chef did say that bread flour would give better results.

He also said that to make all purpose you should always remember this formula:

  • 70% cake flour + 30% bread flour = All purpose flour

Handy if you ever run out of all purpose :-). Obviously, baker’s percentages were important in this course.

Next up was temperatures. There is a formula called “Basic Temperature” that defines the temperature that all the ingredients should not exceed. This is calculated as follows:

  • room temp + flour temp + friction temp + water temp = basic temp

The Basic Temperature must never exceed 62c. 62c?? Well, it’s not the actual temperature of the ingredients but the value of all the added temperatures. Thus, in the formula if we were to put in a 25c day we’d see this:

  • room temp = 25c
  • flour temp = 25c

assuming that the flour is kept at room temperature. That means that we’re at 50c of the 62 allowed. We have to add friction temperature, which is about 1c per minute of mixing. Typically we mix 6 – 8 minutes, so we opt for the high side, 8c. We’re now at 58c.

What that means is that the water on such a day should be 4c (25+25+8+4 = 62). On days of 30c, it might be wise to refrigerate the flour and use ice water. On cold days, say 18c, you’d be able to use much warmer water.

What does this mean for the bread. Well, it explained something I’d run into in the past, namely yeasty bread or slow proofs. The former is bad, the latter annoying if you’re a professional! Thus, if the basic temperature is >62c then you will end up with a yeasty dough, and one that is too light. If you have <62c you’ll end up with a slow proof and thus a heavy loaf.

If you’re using a liquid other than water similar caution must be taken in terms of temperature. And, if you’re using something other than water it must not be too acidic or it will totally ruin the bread.

Now onto the making/baking/eating part of the course!

Of utmost importance is that the sugar and salt never touch the yeast. If it does, the yeast is finished. And your bread will not rise or rise slowly. Either way, a failure. To ensure it doesn’t ramp the flour in the bowl and put the salt (and sugar if used) up high and the yeast down low. When you turn on the mixer, quickly add the rest of the water in a steady stream.

Pate Fermentee

First up, pate fermentee or fermented dough. This is a simple starter. As it ages it gets much much better. Chef had prepared a massive amount the Friday before. But Tuesday onwards we had to use our own. So, first off, make the ferment and refrigerate it.

It’s fairly straight forward, once you know the method. Of course, at Le Cordon Bleu you’re not given recipes. Instead you’re provided with the ingredient list and your job is to follow the chef’s instructions, write the method down, and then repeat the method. If you are even partially attentive you should have no problem. And the Chef and his assistants are there to help anyone who gets lost or stuck. Of course, for the ferment there was not much to it. Just dump a kilo of flour, 25g of fresh yeast, and 700g of water into the bowl of a KitchenAid mixer, mix for 6 – 8 minutes, put the mixture into a large bowl and refrigerate.

Baguettes and pain complet!

Now onto the real bread making.

Taking the Chef’s ferment and adding it to our bowls, we collected our other ingredients. We dissolved the yeast in a bit of the water and then mixed the dough as per Chef’s instructions. Mixing was typically in two parts. Slowly for 4 minutes and then at a higher speed for 4 minutes. He said this depended on your machine. The machines they have at the school were able to mix at 2-4 initially and 6 for the final mix. Home machines may not be able to handle this so we’d have to adjust accordingly, probably by allowing for an extra minute or two of mixing.

To know for sure if the dough was mixed two tests were required. The first is the gluten window test, which is simply taking some of the dough and seeing if you can create a window that is even in appearance. The second is to check the dough’s temperature. It must be about 25c, but not much more than 25c.

At this point the dough is covered in plastic wrap and placed someplace warm to rise. Chef prefers the plastic touch the dough, which is lightly dusted with flour. He also prefers writing the time on the plastic so you know when the rise started a well as marking the outer limit of the dough so you can see if it’s risen. This initial rise is to be about 20 minutes.

At this point we moved onto the pain complet au levain, or whole wheat bread. Using nearly the same technique we used the ferment, added the flour, yeast, salt and water and mixed for 6 – 8 minutes. A pattern was obviously emerging! Right near the end of the mix, when the dough is just about ready we threw in a bit of butter — though one could have used oil. Again, it was transferred to a lightly dusted bowl and placed someplace warm.

At this point we were to take the baguette dough, punch it down, and place it in the refrigerator. It was now 3pm and we took our break.

Coming back from break we punched down our pain complet and refrigerated it, taking out the baguette dough.

Now came the forming of the dough.

Chef had taught us that to form breads the French way there were two basic techniques: baguette style and boule style, for lack of a better name on my part. The former took the dough, flattened it, and then folded it upon itself 4 times into a cylinder. It could then be extended to form a baguette or made into a variety of other loaves, including buns. The other main method was by making a boule, wherein a piece of dough was folded upon itself in a circular fashion, making a rough ball shape. Once the dough firmed up and refused to fold easily it was flipped seam-side down and rolled in both hands until a nice ball (or boule) shape was formed.

Once formed, the bread was set aside on a baking sheet, lightly dusted with flour, and covered in plastic wrap to do its final proof prior to baking.

Back to the pain complet. Out of the fridge it came and we followed the same technique we did with the baguette. We were urged to try some different shapes, such as batards, boules, “fantasy” baguettes, etc.

Once the pain complet was formed and placed on a sheet to proof we took our baguette dough, slashed it as necessary, and put it into a 450F oven that had a tray of water at the bottom to offer steam. An alternative to the home cook is to use a small tray and a few ice cubes. The Chef warned to never throw water into a home oven as the consequences could be deadly. Ice cubes in an aluminum tray was the best and safest option.

The bread would take about 10 – 20 minutes to bake, depending on how large the loaves were. Chef was adamant that he didn’t want to see any light coloured loaves. They had to be dark, golden brown. You can see the colour for the baguette dough in this picture of my results.

When we pulled the baguettes out of the oven we could put the pain complet into the oven. Again, the baking time would be about 10 – 20 minutes, depending on the size of the loaves we were baking. It could obviously run more than 20 minutes if the loaves were extra large. One student asked about making a single, one kilo loaf and Chef pointed out that she’d be looking at 1 or more hours, not something doable in class. But he encouraged her to try it at home. But also cautioned that a single large loaf, unless there are a lot of people, may be too much since fresh bread is always better. He recommended doing 2 batches with a smaller loaf on two separate days since the dough can stay refrigerated for a couple of days. A great idea!

The pain complet results can be seen in the accompanying photo (the dark loaves).

As we packed up Chef informed us that the next day we’d be spending the entire day in the kitchen. So we were to show up at noon in the kitchen and be ready to bake 6 – 7 hours.

Day 2

Day 2 was to be about three breads: pain de seigle pour pain surprise, pain blanc and pain Viennois.

Unlike the first day, we didn’t have a demo in class. Instead, chef had us all come to the head of the kitchen where he showed us how to do the first bread. He would then repeat this procedure for each of the techniques and doughs we were to make. Thus, we’d:


  1. learn the method to a dough
  2. go to our workstations and make that dough
  3. return to the head of the kitchen for a demonstration of the next dough followed by how to form the loaves for the prior dough
  4. return to our workstations to follow the learned method
  5. and repeat this for all the doughs that day (and for subsequent days)

This was a very efficient way of learning how to make the breads since there were 20 – 30 minute proofs, bakes, etc. that were necessary throughout the day and during these periods Chef would introduce us to yet another method. It did, of course, mean we were busy the entire 6 – 7 hours. It gave us a taste of what a real baker goes through.

First up, pain de seigle, or rye bread. Again, the techniques were quite similar. The largest difference was that we used our own ferments instead of the one the Chef had provided the first day. The “surprise” was that we were using wine instead of water. It was a more traditional French rye. In addition to the wine hazelnuts were also to be added, though it was optional. I opted not to put them in, but others did. Chef did indicate that water could be substituted for the wine or a mix of the two could be used. That it was truly up to the baker to decide. He would reiterate this personal preference of the baker philosophy each day. The bread reflected the baker and that made each baker’s products unique.

We then learned how to make a pain blanc, or a white bread. Unlike typical white breads, this was more akin to a french loaf. Here we were encouraged to make classic French bread forms. They represented classic breads you could find all over France. My favourite was the “daisy” which was a 10 petaled creation, as seen in the photo. It allowed for pulling off of each petal, which was like a small bun. I added a teaspoon of caraway seeds to my dough which another friend upon whom I foisted some of my production claimed added a nice complexity to the bread. The other two creations made with the white bread were to resemble French hats. I think mine came out overly lopsided, or as Chef said, a bit inebriated but that the typical picture of a Frenchman was with a bottle of wine, a baguette, and his hat askew so maybe it was accurate he said. Chef has a great sense of humour.

The final bread for the day was pain Viennois, or Vienna bread. Again, the same techniques were used in forming. This was quite interesting to me by now. It seemed that a few simple forming techniques would yield all the bread types I’ve seen and all I had to do was get proficient. This was much simpler than I thought.

But Chef had a surprise. We were going to make a cylindrical bread. For this we had a metal mold. We formed the bread as for a small baguette and then placed it into a cylinder to proof. Once proofed we sealed it in the cylinder and would bake it, with the others, and the result would be a perfect cylinder of bread — as can be seen in the photo.

We were also to make something whimsical — as if a daisy wasn’t whimsical enough. Chef said that in France it was customary to make children small bread turtles. He showed us the technique, which we all then followed. My creation is also visible in the photo.

Finally, we made a 3-part braid. He taught us the trick that we only ever move the middle braid, alternating left then right then left, etc. until the braid was complete. Brilliant in simplicity and way better than I’ve been doing in the past. Even with a daughter, I’ve never been any good at braiding. It’s probably some type of guy thing.

By now all the bread had been baked and the loaves cooled (or cooling). We placed them in our boxes and headed home, weary but happy with our outcomes — some of us wondering what we’d do with another 3 kilos of bread. I headed off to a friend’s house to offload my latest batch, or at least a portion thereof.


Day 3 awaited, but that will be posted separately.


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April 2011
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