Blog: Rolling in Dough | The French Pastry School

Blog: Rolling in Dough

Rolling in Dough
The French Pastry School |
September 20, 2009

With the deft of hand I’ve only ever seen on professional magicians, Chef Johnathan Dendauw shapes a lump of cream-colored dough into a perfect round.  The class collectively blinks and misses the subtleties of the process; “Here,” he gestures, “I’ll show you again.”  His long fingers scoot the next lump across the BOOS bread board and, before we know what we’re seeing, a tight ball emerges on the other corner.

He looks up from his work, “Did you see?”  We ask him to go slower and this time he shows us the delicate touches that made up what looked like one swift motion—it’s like watching the gears of a clock.  Our class observes him preshaping five baguettes and he dismisses us to our tables to try it for ourselves.   It looks easy enough.

I scale my unruly dough into manageable pieces, dust a little flour on the board and imitate his movements—at least, I think I’m doing the same thing—but wait, why is it sticking to my hands?  Soon, there is dough and flour everywhere.  If I put too much flour the dough glides, unchanged, over the board; too little and it leaves behind tracks like a snail’s.  Some of us are too gentle with the baguette and the dough barely moves but my partner and I are practically shaking the table with our over-enthusiastic efforts to shape it.  There is so much dough stuck between our fingers that they start to look like webbed frog hands—we’re using our bench scrapers to clean off our hands more than the board.  I step back for a moment to survey the damage, rest my hand on my cheek, and leave a floury handprint.

I call over Chef Dendauw, a certified Master Baker, and am relieved that he doesn’t take the comical scene as an opportunity to laugh or scold.  Instead, he demonstrates for me again and again how to manipulate the dough; when I’m still not getting it, he takes my hands in his own and shows me how it should feel.  This is a physical memory that I have yet to grasp but I’m finally catching on.

The next day, we’re turning a new loaf.  This time, when Chef Dendauw shows the same technique, we know it’s harder than he makes it look.   He’s been doing this since he was fifteen years old—even after two weeks of constant practice, we’ve come a long way but we’re nowhere close to his skill.

When I tell him that I wish we could shape fifty loaves a day instead of five he tells me that we have to be more patient with ourselves.  “You are trying to do in six weeks what it’s taken me years to accomplish.”  He leans back and smiles, “You know, I calculated it the other day and since I started baking, I figure I’ve made about four million loaves of bread. ”
I checked his calculations in my head and figured that this was a modest estimate.  Breads take a long time to make and an even longer time to perfect.  Eventually, it gets easier.   I’m proud of the delicious products that I’ve turned out, but I have quite a ways to go: it’s a good thing practicing is so much fun.