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DOUGH!
At the King Arthur Baking School in Vermont, even dummies are on a roll.

By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 21, 2001

I've never understood what drives grown men to go to those baseball fantasy camps -- the ones where you pretend you're a pro, playing with guys who were in fact pros. Wouldn't the whole thing just make you see with painful clarity how very bad a ballplayer you really are?

After indulging in a little fantasy camp of my own recently, I think I finally understand. If baseball camp is anything like its parallel in the baking world, it's all in the timing: While you're there, slugging at fast pitches or whisking your fougasse dough, you feel like part of the team, no matter how lame you are. It's not until you get home that you realize the depth of your self-delusion.

But by then it doesn't matter, because you've just had a hell of a lot of fun.

If you're any kind of baker at all, you know King Arthur Flour as the Holy Grail of milled wheat. And while the KAF headquarters in rural Norwich, Vt., may not be Camelot, to home bakers and pros alike a visit there feels like a pilgrimage.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, my fellow pilgrims and I -- 14 women and one man -- made our way through the King Arthur store and bakery and into the classroom, a big bright rectangle with bread-board tables and tall stools. The room smelled of baking bread, but more specifically of yeast and flour and (if it can be said to have a scent) of warmth.

We were giddy disciples, fondling the scales and beakers and measuring spoons and Belgian whisks that, for the next 18 hours or so, would be as central to our existence as car keys and cell phones are in our regular lives. I took a front-row stool, next to a bright and bubbly mom-like-me named Desiree.

We'd all signed up for a two-day class called "From Starter to Finish: Starter-Based Artisan Loaves," but I hadn't paid a bit of attention to what that might mean. Now I'd find out. At my seat, along with the clean but well-worn apron and KAF-logo tie tack that would be my uniform, lay a folder full of recipes -- blue cheese and walnut fougasse, pannetone, ciabatta, currant and walnut boule, Old World sesame braid, baguettes and brick-oven pizza.

The only name I recognized was pizza. I was clearly out of my league.

But Desiree was thrilled. "Pizza!" Her goal, she said, was to make better pizza for her family. It had never occurred to me to set a goal, an omission I came to regret when, a few minutes later, we were all asked to say why we'd come. I mumbled something about wanting to, um, bake better bread.

This, essentially, was why we all were there. Take, for instance, the eight women from Missouri, volunteers who provided a catering service for a Kansas City museum. Disappointed at the bread options available to them locally, they flew to Vermont to learn to bake their own. Or Steve, our token guy. He didn't just want to bake better bread: He wanted to bake the best darn bread in Blacksburg, Va. "And it won't be hard," he said.

All that team spirit had me feeling at ease until I noted, at the front of the room, a dry-erase board that read "1 cup flour = 4-4 1/4 oz. (4-4.25) TODAY AT KAF."

Math? Nobody told me there'd be math.

Although measuring by weight instead of volume was intimidating, we got to use fancy scales that zeroed out after each ingredient was added, so I never really had to add or subtract anything in my head.

In fact, everything was orchestrated to make us feel competent. Our teacher, King Arthur master baker and former home-ec teacher Judy Ulinski, and her assistants, Susan Miller and Farley Rezendes, coached us through the weekend, making sure we had all the equipment and ingredients we needed, poking our dough to check its consistency, offering words of encouragement to even the clumsiest among us. (That would be me.) Whether working behind her teaching counter (with a mirror tilted overhead to help us see her hands) or helping us wrestle our loaves into shape, Judy kept things jolly as she kept things moving in a Maine accent that turned "water" into "watta."

All that was great. But the best part, by far, was this: The minute any of us dirtied a dish, bowl, pan or utensil, Farley or Susan whisked it away, washed it and brought it back, clean.

Despite my many blunders, on Friday we wound up by 6 o'clock, right on schedule, our nascent starters tucked away for the night. By 9 Saturday morning, when we reconvened, the gooey flour-water-and-yeast mixtures we'd concocted had risen, bubbling up the sides of their tall Mason jars. Judy had baked off (that's what pros say instead of "baked") a pannetone like the one we were working on in class, and we all had a taste, along with fresh coffee and Vermont cream. Then it was time to hustle.

Artisan loaves, for all their peasant origins and ethnic charm, are the snob food of bread. Some, like baguettes, are bound by centuries of tradition and are judged by all kinds of criteria that never cross my mind when I'm baking at home. Dark caramel-colored crust? Perfect distribution of air pockets within? Artful gashes along the top? Give me a break.

On top of that, baking seven different loaves in a day -- something you'd never try at home -- requires ceaseless attention and down-to-the-minute coordination. Judy worked from a detailed schedule that showed exactly what should be done to each recipe at precisely what time. But she didn't just crack the whip. Along the way, she taught us tricks: to pour water around the edge of the risen starter and then use a rubber spatula to ease it out of the jar. To use a metal bench-scraper to handle dough far stickier than anything I'd dared to handle before. To wield a lame, a razor-like instrument whose sole purpose is to make perfect gashes in the top of baguette crusts. To braid six ropes of dough into a single, elegant, sesame-seeded loaf.

Desiree, a massage therapist in real life, aced the braiding -- and everything else. She played Ethel to my Lucy, staying neat and keeping calm while I got crusty with dried dough and spilled currants on the floor.

Desiree was rewarded: The secret to great pizza dough, it turns out, is a little something called "pizza dough flavoring." And it works. For lunch we crafted our own pies: I topped mine with black olives, red peppers and purple onion. We worked on the next recipe while our pizzas baked in the brick oven; then we ate them at our work stations, along with salads of just-picked greens and nasturtium blossoms. It was one of the most satisfying meals I've ever had.

After lunch, the pace quickened. We kneaded, poked, shaped and slashed. We panicked over ingredients we'd failed to add. We crumbled blue cheese and sprinkled walnuts. We lamed the tops of our baguettes, then gathered around the oven to watch the long, skinny loaves puff up in the sudden heat. Thrilled, we also were worried we wouldn't have time to shop in the company store.

And in fact the last loaves weren't out of the oven until about 6, an hour after class should have ended. But while they baked, we shopped, swarming into the store in our floury aprons, which set us proudly apart from the browsing amateurs. I stocked up: a Belgian whisk and a lame, a self-zeroing scale and a beaker to match, and, of course, pizza-dough flavoring.

And then, suddenly, it was all over. We gathered our last loaves, still hot, and packed them with the others in long white paper bakery bags. We said goodbye and wished each other happy baking. Desiree and I exchanged e-mail addresses and hugs. And then she was gone.

It somehow hadn't occurred to me that, come Saturday night, I would have two shopping bags full of bread that would be fresh for about 15 more minutes. Six loaves, many of them more exotic than my 4- and 7-year-old children would appreciate. I'm ashamed to say that we stashed them all in the way-back of the minivan while we went out for Mexican food. (The car smelled terrific, if you like blue cheese.) Upon our return home, I made a real effort to eat some of that bread, which, lacking preservatives, had turned hard and dry. In the end, though, with no ceremony, I pitched most of it into the trash.

But don't let that last bit get back to the folks at King Arthur, because I want to be welcome there again. Since I've been home, I've baked nary a fougasse, slashed no baguettes. Sure, I've braided a loaf or two. But you know what? Once you've played in the big leagues, the back yard just doesn't seem the same.

ESCAPE KEYS

GETTING THERE: The King Arthur headquarters in Norwich, Vt., is about 500 miles from Washington, a good eight hours by car. Round-trip flights from D.C. or Baltimore to Burlington (an hour north of Norwich) are about $250. Traveling by train, from Union Station to Burlington, is $194 round trip.

BAKING SCHOOL: King Arthur offers baking classes throughout the year. Call 800-652-3334 or visit www.kingarthurflour.com for a schedule of single-day, two-day and week-long classes, including kids' camps. Prices range from about $40 for a one-day class to about $350 for four afternoons. Upcoming classes include New England Baking (Jan. 11-12), Sourdough (Jan. 25-26) and Chocolate Intensive (Feb. 1-2).

STAYING: The school offers a list of accommodations with discounts to those registering for KAF classes. The Norwich Inn (802-649-1143) offers 20 percent off, bringing its rates to $52-$119 per night. Same discount for the Beaver Meadow B&B (802-649-1053), bringing its rates to $80-$92. The lodge-style Fireside Inn in West Lebanon, N.H., (603-298-5906) is a 10-minute drive and great for kids. Rooms are $79 a night and include a breakfast buffet, a small indoor pool and family-friendly dining.

EATING: If I had it to do over, I'd stock up on wine, fruit and cheese and make a picnic meal on Saturday evening, with my new breads at center stage. For a special Friday-night meal, choose the local fine-dining favorite Simon Pearce Restaurant (802-295-1470), in the Simon Pearce glass-blowing facility on the Ottauquechee River in nearby Quechee, Vt., or the Norwich Inn; reservations are recommended at both. The Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory is in Waterbury, about an hour from Norwich (866-258-6877, www.benjerry.com).

INFO: Vermont Department of Tourism, 802-828-3237, www.1-800-VERMONT.com.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company