Nice Buns, Chef

On Monday morning, as we each tuck our hair under matching brown and gray baseball hats, Chef forbids nail polish, long nails, jewelry, braids, and ponytails. If we violate these rules, we will not be allowed to attend class. I’m just glad I don’t have a beard to shave every morning. When Chef is done speaking, we give a resounding “Oui Chef!”

I have a three-hour pastry lesson each day, followed by a lunch break, then three hours of cuisine classes. Chef Cyril, our pastry chef, is a chocolatier and master pastry chef who most recently directed Le Cordon Bleu’s acclaimed pastry course in Japan.

This week we focus on bread, beginning with a fermented dough starter. We will use this dough starter for a variety of recipes throughout the week, including brioche, sugar tarts, aperitif baguettes, and our first recipe, “Funny Buns.” I am familiar with sticky buns, sweet buns, hamburger buns, hot cross buns, and even big buns. But what is a Funny Bun?

Because my partner and I are relatively new to bread making, our kneading technique is haphazard at best; so as we work with our fermented dough, Chef comes to our table and tries to correct our form. He slaps our dough on the table, using only the four fingers on his right hand (thumbs will scar the dough), then folds it over in one swift motion. This step is called pré-façonnage, which he repeats about fifteen times, glancing down at the dough only once. The moment Chef departs, and we are on our own, the dough sticks to the table, develops large scars, and won’t stay in a smooth ball. We’re in a time crunch so, long before we perfect the pré-façonnage, we have to wrap the dough anyway and let it rise.

Then we start the Funny Bun dough with flour, sugar, milk, butter, and a good hunk of our fermented dough. I can tell it didn’t rise the way it was supposed to, likely a result of my lackluster pré-façonnage, but we don’t have time to start over. Chef has instructed us to cut our dough into ten pieces, each weighing 85 grams, which we will then form into two distinct shapes: a tabatière (with a flap over top to resemble a tobacco purse), and another with a crease down the center, a form that looks a bit like… ahem, a derrière. But instead of 850 grams of dough, we have only 420 grams.

Suddenly, it feels like a basketball game, fourth quarter, score tied, three seconds on the clock. Do we make each ball of dough the required 85 grams and have only five balls, or do we weigh out the required ten balls at only 42 grams each? Which is worse? Unfortunately, I can answer that query: we’d rather have fewer buns the correct size, than ten small buns. We shoot, and the ball glides through the still air, landing nowhere near the basket.

Chef comes over to review our work. He points to the ten small buns and says “C’est quoi, ça?” What is that? Um, Chef . . . do you mean the one that looks like a butt or a purse?

The flaps on our tabatière are too small, making them look less like tobacco purses and more like normal bread rolls (it all tastes the same, right?). Our tray of buns goes into the oven along with our classmates’ trays. I’m nervous they’ll bake faster and burn, leaving us with ten little black lumps.

Chef’s Funny Buns come out first, and they are par-fait. They’re uniform in size and shape, they have a crust you’d want to sink your teeth into, and they are begging to soak up the salty juice from a beef bourguignon.

Meanwhile, I wait for the smoke alarm to go off, but by some divine miracle, our buns come out unbelievably golden brown. I owe one to the pastry gods. Chef is not thrilled with the shapes of our rolls, but other than that, they are okay. Pas mal for my first day, but I wouldn’t consider myself a threat to Sara Lee. At least, not yet.