A Day as a "Boulangère Parisienne"
A year ago I was staging in eateries all over Paris. When I say “stage,” this is basically another way of saying “try out” or a “work/learn” experience. I’d say for the most part, stages are unpaid, although this is changing (except not in Paris because they are still kickin’ it old school). However, what you’ll hopefully learn is priceless and bound to be one of the better experiences in your culinary endeavors.
I used to bake breads weekly while I lived in Paris and although the tap water is surprisingly the absolute worst, the flour was not. I would yield some fairly amazing sourdough loaves to pair with butter & salt or homemade jams. My friends turned into guinea pigs and would critique my bread while we picnicked along the Seine, listening to classic French jams. The best critic, however, was my local boulangère (baker).
Her name was Marie-France (because what name would sound better?), the patron who had been in business with her husband for decades. Her son now takes charge of the bakery but Marie-France was still there everyday giving chouquettes to the local children and telling me how to improve my loaves every single time.
After doing all I could do with a home oven, and utilizing all of Marie-France’s advice, I finally made my way into the boulangerie itself.
The day starts at 3 a.m. or earlier depending on the workload for the day. I’d catch the boss out back smoking a morning cigarette and head in to begin the laundry list of tasks.
Choux pastry dough is made, piped out, baked, filled with cream and coated with glazes. Tart shells are blind-baked, filled with pastry cream, topped with fruit and coated with a glossy-sugary sheen. But my absolute favorite moment is when we start to make the viennoiserie. Layers of dough and butter come together to make for the lightest and most delicious bites. The queen of viennoiserie is without a doubt, a freshly baked croissant. The scent of them baking in the early hours waft through Parisian streets bringing customers to the bakery doorsteps only moments before we open.
By 6 a.m. the doors open to the public and the world comes bustling in for their breakfast. A different world from America’s bacon, egg and toast, the Parisian breakfast is sugary combined with a heavy dose of caffeine.
At this point, I’ve forgotten the world outside of the flour-dusted walls as I put the finishing touches on raspberry tarts, eclairs and start rolling out pain au chocolat.
It’s 2 p.m. and the shoes I’m in are covered in flour & sugar, my eyes still carry a bit of that “I woke up at 2 a.m." kind of look. On my way out, I grab one of the mouth-watering sandwiches that have ham and gruyere on a half-baguette that has the perfect ratio of crunchy exterior to airy interior. Eating the entire thing isn’t difficult because I deserved it and it’s been a good day.
Baking Tips & Tricks
If you break it, try and fix it. Whether it’s a broken ganache or meringue, temperature changes or adding something in can bring most catastrophes back together.
Don’t overwork the dough! When it comes to loaves and baguettes, if you want those Instagram-worthy airy holes in your toast, fold your bread without over kneading, add more water and keep that dough elastic. After proofing the dough, it should spring back to life when poked, not sunken-in.
I’m a big fan of “bake it anyway.” If you think you did something wrong and are about to trash the entire project, don’t! Baking can always show you where you went wrong, or sometimes surprisingly right.
You gotta go for it. When it comes to piping, or coating or layering a cake, you cannot fear the “what-if” mess-ups. If it’s a little wonky on one side, just face it toward the back, no one will notice.
Just check. If you fear something breaking, check in on it. Meringues can be checked one hundred times before they reach stiff peaks, you don’t need to chance over-whipping. Same goes for sugar, lowering the temperature on a stove when making caramel is okay if you’re afraid of burning it. In most cases, slow and steady wins the race.