Confessions of a sweet tooth: A first-timer’s journey at Zingerman’s BAKE! class

Marlene Lacasse/Daily
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By Carlina Duan, Community Culture Editor
Published March 14, 2013

Sugar cookies. Walnut brownies. Slices of chocolate cake smattered in rich, bossy frosting. When it comes to sugar, my belly is no stranger. Every night at dessert, I evolve into all-capital-lettered euphoria, fiercely elbowing my way to the table and piling plates to skyscraper height. Friends can attest: I tweet about sugar; I dream about sugar. The most recently tagged photo of me on Facebook? A slice of velvety tiramisu. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that my ultimate dream is to open up a bakery named Mount Olympus. Each baked good will be coined after a Greek God/Goddess. Zeus will be a triple-decker brownie cake, drizzled in marshmallows.

Only problem with this grand plan: I have no idea how to bake.

In fact, I’m famous for kitchen failures. Once, I made macaroni and cheese with Greek yogurt (first mistake: using Greek yogurt) and rested the heaping bowl onto the dinner table with proud hands. My family took small bites with plastic spoons, swallowing politely until my Dad finally spliced the silence: “What is this shit?”

Baking classes, then, were just what I needed. And not just any baking class, but a Zingerman’s BAKE! “Who You Callin’ A Cream Puff?” class. As a college kid struggling to fling together brownie mix from the box every weekend, I needed to dip my hands into some flour — start familiarizing myself with real, out-of-the-box, home-cooked food.

And Zingerman’s, as I’m sure any foodie will attest to, can be dubbed as real food. The Bakehouse, born in 1992, was the second Zingerman’s business to open. Bakehouse Managing Partner Amy Emberling, who was one of the original staffers at the time, described the original mission of the Bakehouse: to supply bread.

“We intended to be only a wholesale bakery and only to make fantastic bread for (the Deli’s) sandwiches,” she said.

At the Bakehouse, public classes were established even before BAKE! classes came along. “We would have people in one Sunday a month, for two hours in the afternoon, and we’d teach them a bit about bread making,” Emberling explained, “There was always a waiting list.”

As the monthly waiting lists continued to grow, the demand for classes became apparent. Six years ago, the Bakehouse transformed the space next door to a “school” — now complete with two classrooms specifically designated for BAKE! classes, year round, five days a week.

“In our country, learning how to bake was a lost art. We thought one thing we could do for the community is actually show people how (to bake),” Emberling said, “So when you leave (class) you will have confidence and inspiration to try it again at home.”

On the morning of my class, I lacked confidence. Dry-mouthed, I drove through a layer of snow to reach the Bakehouse, wringing my hands with pre-bake anxiety. I was probably going to make the world’s floppiest cream puff. In fact, it’d probably look so monstrous that folks would dub it the “Ugly Puff.” Already envisioning failure, I parked the car with dumb spirits.

Set in a complex of brick, factory-style buildings on Plaza Drive, the Bakehouse stands out. Next door, signs in funky fonts and fresh colors beckon you to taste coffee. If you’re taking a class, drinks within the Bakehouse building are complimentary. After walking next door to the classroom building, I found myself in a room with spacious tables, stoves, folded white aprons, baking racks, an iPod trumpeting jazz and … elderly couples. Around the table sat a retired pair, Matt and Linda, who revealed their tradition of “pie-crust throwing,” a ritual sparked in their youthful, just-married days. Meanwhile, Cheryl, a woman clad in swirly, candy-shaped earrings, introduced herself as a BAKE! connoisseur who’d taken dozens of classes. Cheryl was accompanied by her personal trainer, Cathy. Both giggled as Cathy mock-whispered, “So, we can work off the calories after today!”

Total class size? Seven students, including me.

According to Emberling, most students in BAKE! classes are age 30 and above, and each course is capped at 12 students. Class fees range from $40 to $250, with $100 as the average. As a hungry-yet-poor student, I’m not surprised that there aren’t more college kids here. You’d have to be very pressed for baking skill to pay $100 for an apron-clad morning.

Despite the older demographic of my classmates, the energy in the air was still crisp and young. Perhaps this has to do with the structure of the course. Our instructor, Nikki Lohmann, stood at the front of the room, demonstrating how to separate egg yolks, mash dough and cook pastry cream in a saucepan.

“Being a pastry chef is all about multitasking,” she confided as she navigated a stirring spoon with wild, prancing hands. Lohmann demonstrated stirring technique for the cream pastry, our first task. Then, we students dove in.

Across the room, spatulas clunked. Eggshells crackled. In front of us lay shiny pots, stirring spoons, pats of butter in wax paper and Tupperware cups of sugar, salt, flour, eggs and vanilla bean. Everything smelled like butter. Running frantically from the stove back to my chair with a saucepan, my muscles trembled. Cooking equaled exercise. I was sweating for these cream puffs.

Furtively, I glanced at my peers, straining to peer inside their pans. Was I falling behind? Was I doing okay? Could everybody see the sweat stains draped beneath my armpits? Cheryl smiled at me and glanced nonchalantly into my pot. “Lookin’ great!” she enthused as she whisked her bowl with wiry, done-this-before flair.

According to Emberling, students aren’t arranged in class by baking talent. In fact, newcomers and oldtimers alike are placed together. This is due to the BAKE! mission, which focuses on cultivating teachable material, rather than skills.

“What we’re trying to do in each class is teach technique, and it is the case that everyone who comes may be at a different level, but the basic info you need to share can be the same,” Emberling said. “There’s often not advanced knowledge. There’s advanced practice. But the knowledge is the same.”

Despite four hours of instruction, I never felt weary with any task. In fact, my intimidation wore off as Lohmann routinely cycled our tables to check on our progress. In between the chatter of my peers, the hiss of cream sauce on the stove and croon of jazz on the stereo, I fell into routine. Lohmann demonstrated, then students tried. The pastry dough was kneaded, baked and puffed. The cream was piped — squeezed through plastic, triangular bags in order to create afros of lush, swirly cream. Éclairs were garnished with powdered sugar. The whipped cream was whipped.

“Although we want (these classes) to be full of content, we want them to also be relaxed, enjoyable and fun, so it’s a safe learning environment, and not like the things you see on TV — not like the scary chef,” Emberling noted.

Surprisingly, as the class wore on, I wasn’t sensing an ounce of Scary Chef from Lohmann, nor from the other students. True, I splashed some of the cream sauce out onto the stove, almost hitting the baker next to me (she flinched). And, yes, my cream puffs were the smallest of the batch because my arms started wheezing midway through the piping process (to be fair, I had the smallest biceps).

But ultimately, I felt pretty badass.

When our cream puffs were placed into a take-home box, we all chuckled. My apron heaved with egg yolk and vanilla bean smudge. My face was pummeled in a permanent hot-stove flush.

But I conquered those puffs. Like crisp, brown jewels, they winked inside my box. I chomped into one, and my teeth sung. Hallelujah, sugar.

For the epilogue of our class, Lohmann demonstrated how to make cream puff swans — adorning their wings with plushy puffs of cream. What’s more, she touted the versatility of the pastry dough, proving its multifunction by teaching — and serving us! — homemade tomato-and-cream gnocchi, citrus-glazed donuts, cinnamon churros and my favorite: cheese puffs that boogied in my mouth with dollops of Monterey Jack, cheddar, pepper and buttery groove.

At the Bakehouse, quality ingredients are used not only in the in-house goods, but also in classes. In fact, the origins of the ingredients used in my class — chocolate, vanilla bean, eggs — were all explained with loving passion by Lohmann, who then gave us tips on where to find the finest and most affordable ingredients in Ann Arbor.

BAKE! class Principal Shelby Kibler added that the recipes shared in class are also the Bakehouse’s very own. “When we opened the school, it was deliberately to show people how to make what we make here, so the focus was taking our recipes at the bakery,” he said.

Walking to my snow-encrusted car, my belly bulged. In my trunk: an entire Tupperware can of pastry cream, another filled with warm chocolate ganache and, finally, my babies — my cream puffs, cradled in their cardboard cribs.

Driving home, I called my mom on the phone. “Guess what?” I hollered, mid-sugar rush. “No more Pillsbury dough boy for me.”