Today’s class is Scandinavian baking. It’s a packed schedule that includes dark seedy rye bread, spiced crispbreads, cardamon knots and open sandwiches. The huge oak teaching table is laden with rolling pins and weighing scales, there’s a measuring jug full of daffodils and a stack of my favourite baking books. Students will be greeted by fresh coffee and a tower of cinnamon buns. As a Brit with zero Nordic heritage, I must admit an element of imposter syndrome as this class is really popular with Scandinavians keen to recreate the smells and tastes of their childhood.
Though baking wasn’t my first profession, I’ve taught for most of my working life. In my twenties it was exercise classes, in my thirties it was felt making and indigo dyeing. Then, in my forties, I completed an art degree and the Graduate Teacher Programme to become an art teacher. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t always sharing my enthusiasm with a receptive audience. There were, of course, rewarding moments but the flipside was hours of ‘behaviour management’ of less willing students. After a few years, the bad outweighed the good and I needed a change. Making bread to give to friends and neighbours was what made me happy, so in 2013 I took the plunge and opened Two Magpies Bakery (see True Loaf 24).
Over the next couple of years my learning was intense, with more questions than answers. I shadowed my School of Artisan Food trained bakers, visited bakeries, and devoted myself to baking books, journals, and blogs, as well as forensically studying Instagram posts. Bakery life settled into a regular pattern and my knowledge and confidence grew. As I chatted to customers about our processes and shared baking stories though, I realised I was missing the social connections and satisfaction of teaching.
Our baking school
Sourdough pizza classes came first. Once a month we’d clear enough table space to squeeze eight would-be pizzaiolos into the empty bakery. I’d demo the dough (revisiting it over the course of the evening) while my students got the hang of shaping their dough and sliding pizzas into the deck oven. When we opened our third site, we dedicated an area inside the bakery for teaching and our classes now included sourdough and doughnuts. The students loved watching the whirl of bakery activity but our team, having to work in near silence on class days, were less keen!
Then Covid stopped us in our tracks, By the time we surfaced, the world had turned and classes in the bakery weren’t really an option. In 2020 we set up a new space big enough for 10 people. We extended the programme to include introduction to baking, French and other European baking (focaccia, tarte flambe, croissants, baguettes, pain de campagne etc.) and ancient grains. Christmas and Easter classes fill up quickly, run alongside online classes and The Next Loaf's instructional Instagram reels. I have many repeat customers wanting a new challenge and to share their bready triumphs and tragedies. At times there’s so many familiar faces around the table it’s like spending the day baking with friends.
Some things I’ve noticed
I now spend my days doing what I love best – teaching people to mix flour, water, salt and yeast to make something delicious. Classes begin with introductions. This can be nerve-wracking for some and a chance to show off for others! It’s fascinating to learn why people choose to take a baking class. Some are ‘sent’ by their other halves - is this to increase the chance of edible bread or just to keep them busy? Our sourdough classes tend to be more popular with men. People who boast of their years of experience sometimes need a little more support. A confident home baker is often accompanied by their inexperienced partner, who then tends to produce better results in the class – they’ve been listening more closely to my instructions! It’s a joy to teach a complete novice – I know the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction they’ll have when the leave at the end of the day.
There are always lots of questions. Those that challenge me and require an in-depth answer often spark further debate and wonderful lightbulb moments.
Here is some oft-repeated ‘received wisdom’ that I encourage my students to question:
- The need to froth yeast in warm water with honey or other sugar. Probably a good idea after the use-by date, or you have good reason to doubt its vitality, but if it’s vac-packed and kept in your fridge you (and it) will be fine.
- You’ve ‘killed’ your sourdough culture. Neglect may cause it to get a little stressed and sluggish but it’s unlikely to be dead. Scoop a spoonful from the bottom into a clean container and resume you usual ‘feeding’ routine.
- The need to knead for hours. Wheat flour plus water and time will form gluten. Mechanical action (by hand or in a mixer) just shortens the process. It’s amazing how much dough strength can be achieved with the right flour, an autolyse*, a few minutes’ kneading then a series of folds.
I also offer my fellow baking teachers some thoughts:
- Water temperature. Vague instructions for ‘warm’ water rarely achieve the desired dough temperature. I recommend a thermometer and (a little) bakery maths instead.
- Teaching children. I’m all for getting the next generation on board but attention span (and hands) can be small, and their muscles tire quickly. Make sure their accompanying adult lends a hand and keep the class short with plenty of breaks and snacks!
- Shaping: After students complete a stretch and fold, you can show them how to shape a boule before the dough goes back into the bowl. This’ll give them practise before the final dough shaping.
One of the many pleasures of making Real Bread is the lifelong journey of learning. It’s a cliché but every day really is a school day! Like many of us, I’m always striving to do better and though I try to live in the moment, my focus is often on the next loaf.
*mixing flour and water, leaving to rest before adding the other ingredients.
Rebecca’s first book, Two Magpies Bakery: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of East Anglia, was published by Headline on 27 April 2023, RRP £26.
We have a copy to give away: For details, see the post on the @RealBreadCampaign Instagram feed.
If you are not on the ‘gram, send us an email with your one-line answer to this question: what do you value the most about the Real Bread Campaign?
Draw closes on 30 June 2023.
Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 54, April 2023.