In Chef’s Training we offer a baking class unique among cooking schools: the Converting Practicum. I teach this class frequently, and it never ceases to receive raves from students for the learning experience it provides. I don’t know who first created it, but I marvel time and again at how much I learn from this class.
Here’s how it works: over the course of 5 hours, each student works with a partner to convert a conventional baking recipe (replete with white sugar, butter, refined flour, processed additives, and eggs) to a more whole, vegan alternative. We work with typical home recipes for muffins, cakes, and cookies.
Preparation actually begins in a prior class, the Converting Lecture. The lecture is a general road-map for the practicum where students learn guidelines and rules they will use to replace traditional baking ingredients with less processed choices.
Baking is an exact science and a finicky art. The smallest changes in ingredients, procedures, and proportions can result in profound (sometimes disastrous!) changes in the final product. In a classic pastry training scenario, a student is shown precisely how to execute a recipe or technique in the hope she will reproduce that recipe with reverent fidelity. While the science behind the technique will be taught, experimentation is not encouraged.
The Converting Practicum joyfully and effectively turns this model on its ear. Students are first given the guidelines then set free to experience what happens when refined flour is replaced with whole grain flour, white sugar with more natural sweeteners, cow’s milk with vegan alternatives, butter with oil, etc.
It’s easy to take the sacred trinity of white flour, butter, and eggs for granted; these 3 ingredients have worked seamlessly together for centuries. Substituting less processed, vegan ingredients for these stalwarts can be done effectively, but it’s not always easy or successful. Every substitution is fraught with the possibility of adversely changing a product’s texture and/or flavor.
In this class, students are likely to make their chosen recipe 6 to 10 times. Each repetition of the recipe includes a new substitution of a refined ingredient with a less processed, vegan alternative. And each repetition includes all successful changes made in prior versions. Fiascoes and disasters at any given step require the students to repeat that step again. Throughout, students make careful observations, notes, and adjustments to perfect their product in the face of considerable obstacles.
The beauty of the class, in my opinion, is that it’s not about making a flawless product at every stage. If it were that easy, what would anyone really learn? Students are encouraged to make bold, but educated choices that may succeed or fail. Through experimentation, collaboration with teammates and the instructor, and minute adjustments, the day often ends with a vegan product that exceeds the qualities of the original.
Throughout the process, your cookie may look by turns like a chunk of fossilized dung or a gooey primordial mass, but what you learn is invaluable and hard-won. Hard-won particularly because the intellectual rigor needed for the exercise is under constant siege by the necessity of tasting each batch of cookies to gauge its success. The onslaught of bizarre but, for the most part, mild symptoms that result from our baking marathon never fail to amuse me.
The day begins with high spirits, segues quickly into a manic phase, and then descends into the inevitable dizziness, fogginess, confusion, and occasional hysteria that sugar can induce. It’s not at all uncommon to hear a student exclaim something like: “Oh, no, I just put my brownie in the oven, but I may have left out the cocoa!” Good times.
Natural Gourmet would be remiss as the leading school in health-supportive eating if we didn’t provide an antidote to Sweetener Madness. I first advise students to taste judiciously – tiny bites at most. Human nature and desire being what they are, this tactic doesn’t always work. That’s when I bring out the big guns: I make a big pot of miso soup. Baked goods are mostly comprised of acid-forming flours and sugars; miso soup counteracts their effects with alkalizing miso, vegetables, and seaweed. The students eat the soup halfway through class with gratitude and appreciation. Visibly, within minutes, their focus and mood are grounded again. Imagine if all pastry art programs had miso soup at the ready!
The day ends with each group presenting all their finished products and explaining what happened at each stage of substitution. All in all, students leave class with more useful knowledge that will serve them well in their impending careers as ambassadors of healthy eating.