Monday, November 15, 2010

Chef vs. Baker

In the culinary world, there are really two main hats that one could wear (figuratively speaking, of course):  That of a CHEF, or that of a BAKER.  This goes without saying that obviously, there are those out there who would consider themselves to be both a Chef and a Baker.  But for the majority of the time- you are either one....or the other.   Why?  It's not because one is more fun than the other or one is more difficult than the other.  It's because while they both involve working with edible ingredients, it takes two totally different kinds of brains to play these roles.  A Chef's brain is creative- adding a pinch of this, a splash of that. A Chef enjoys looking in a refrigerator, seeing leftover chicken, an onion, a bag of spinach, and whipping up a Pizza or a Risotto or a Fritatta.  A Chef enjoys thinking on his toes, coming up with a new ingenious spin on a traditional recipe, and transforming a raw ingredient into something magical and beautiful.  A Chef may look at a recipe from time to time, but most of the time is spent creating and imagining and experimenting.  A recipe, to us, is burdensome and just gets in the way of all the ideas floating around our heads and kitchens.

To a Baker, recipes are King.  Their minds are hard wired to read and follow and memorize exact numbers and weights and ratios. Baking is an EXACT SCIENCE, and there is very little room for creativity and change.  They instinctively know what makes a biscuit crumbly or a doughnut dense or a loaf of Challah smooth and buttery.  They know that if you add cold butter to flour with a pastry cutter verses melting the butter and stirring it in, that you will get a flaky dough verses a smooth dough.  They take meticulous care to level off the flour in a measuring cup or weigh the sugar exactly to the gram.  They know the effect of different temperatures on Yeast, and why room temperature eggs blend better than cold ones.  Bakers are like Doctors- with hundreds of different tools, diagrams, and charts to achieve the correct results.

While we both work with food and both end up with delicious creations to be enjoyed, we are two very different creatures. Now please don't misunderstand me- Chefs can be good at baking and Bakers can be good at cooking.....great, actually.  But we most likely classify ourselves as one or the other, because one comes more naturally to us.  Me?  I am a Chef.  No doubt about it.  I sometimes enjoy baking (and when I do, you can find me sitting Indian-style in front of the oven window staring while my product rises and cooks) and when I attempt it, I am fairly good at it.  But it's just the process of staring at the recipe, weighing and measuring everything, being so careful to add everything at the right time and have it all at the right temperature that I am not terribly crazy about.  I love to make ice cream, Chocolate Chip Cookies, Eclairs and Pastry Cream.......that's about the extent of it.  But a few weeks ago, the Thanksgiving Issue of Food Network Magazine arrived and I found myself in awe of Alex Guarnaschelli's Parkerhouse Roll Recipe.  Granted, the recipe- with pictures- was three pages long, but I just sat there thinking, "Heck, I can do that!"  She made it look so idiot-proof that I just couldn't resist giving it a try. And the golden brown rolls that were bursting at the seams and glistening with butter in the photo certainly got my mouth watering....

The ingredient list is short, and includes mostly things that you already have on your counter or in your fridge.  Milk, Eggs, Butter, Flour, Salt, and Sugar.  The only thing I had to buy was a packet of Active Dry Yeast...something I've never messed with before. I weighed, I measured, I read and re-read the recipe a hundred times before, during, and after baking.  And 3.5 hours later, my family and I were chowing down on warm, buttery, golden brown Parkerhouse Rolls. They tasted fantastic but were a bit dense, which I thought was due to my lack of experience, but after checking out the recipe on, I see that everyone else had the same problem.  Anyone out there want to enlighten the Chef what makes these rolls dense?? My family would appreciate it. :)

Here are my unprofessional photos of the process of making the yummy Parkerhouse Rolls:

 The dough....

Doubled in volume after proofing for 2.5 hours on top of the hot dryer in the laundry room...

 Tip the dough out onto a floured work surface and pat it out into a large rectangle, about 1/2" thick...
(It is warm and soft like a baby's bottom! Do NOT use a Rolling Pin or you will flatten it too much)

Shape the rolls by cutting the dough into 24 strips and folding them up...

Bake the rolls at 375 degrees for about 18 minutes, until they look like this!...

 Slather them up with some Butter and a light sprinkling of Salt, then DEVOUR!

If you're a rookie at baking, give this simple recipe a try.  I found the rolls to be a little too big, (my brothers said they look like mini- Hot Dog Buns!) so for my next batch, I will cut the dough into 48 little rolls, instead of 24 large ones, and decrease the baking time by a few minutes.  But what do I know....I'm just a Chef.   ;)


The Chef Next Door


  1. Loved the lesson! Yes baking seems so much more precise and no room for creativity. While I am neither really, I am more of a chef definitely! I want to do more baking though and get better at it. Your rolls looks so purty!

  2. Yea, I have to force myself to bake once in a while. :) I just don't like all the measuring and having to follow a recipe step-by-step. But it always turns out fine, so I don't know what I'm complaining about. You should try the recipe, it's surprisingly easy!

  3. The dough needs more proofing, I recommend spraying them down with water, and leaving them under a covered container for 20 minutes or so. Hope this helps somehow!