10 November 2012

Gypsy Kitchens: Baking with Gertie

"Gertie is responsible for bringing lasagna to Dungarvan," Pat told us proudly, but she's really famous for her scones.  In a local pub, we were told we just had to try them.  "You're staying at Kilcannon House? You have to have Gertie's scones."  Pat and Gertie Ormond had a cafe in town for years, one which churned out hundreds of scones and breads per day along with full breakfasts and lunches.  That sort of thing can get exhausting and, unfortunately, none of their three children had an interest in carrying on the family business.  So, now, it's the guests at their in-house B&B, Kilcannon, who get the honor of enjoying Gertie's cooking.  And, in our case, a cookery class with the master herself.
Baking with Gertie wasn't as much instructional as it was experiential and recipes were certainly not the focal point of the session.  In fact, the first lesson we learned was that there doesn't need to be anxiety about the exactness of baking or bread making.  There's always this feeling that 'baking' is more precise, scientific, mathematical than 'cooking,' and that a close focus and carefulness are key.  Gertie's school of thought was much different.  Sure, she knew all the measurements by heart, but questions about if a spoonful should be 'heaping' or 'leveled' or a 'handful' was the right size were always shrugged off with a "that's perfect!"  If we get our hands in there, she stressed, we'll feel that it's right.  Her process was one based on physical memory and an interaction with the ingredients.
Really, we were moving too quickly to take full head of every step of the process(es).  You see,  in about an hour and a half, we made two types of scones and two types of soda bread simultaneously.  One of us worked on one while the other was given a task for the other and all the while, Gertie moved between us taking our hands to help or taking over altogether.  It was more Show than Tell, more Feel than Measure.  She wasn't trying to teach us how to make scones or soda bread, but really how to bake.  Like pushing someone on a bike and then letting go, she was gave us the feeling of doing it, of hitting the sweet spot and trusted that we'll be able to get back there on our own.
This isn't to say that there was anything absent-minded or lackadaisical about baking with Gertie.  There was a process and a science, just one that had less to do with measurements and more to do with the chemistry of it all.  There was never a direction without an explanation, which is a hallmark of good teaching.  You've gotta understand to remember.  She stressed never letting your dough sit too long after adding baking soda, because of the chemical reactions.  Also, adding too much baking soda to white soda bread will make its color brown, because it burns.  A left hand was submerged in the dry mix before buttermilk was added with the right, that way we could feel our way to the perfect amount of liquid.  Something that was of the utmost important was air, "letting lots of air in."  The white flour was sifted three times to get as much air in as possible. 
Ingredients were combined with a soft touch for more air.  Instead of breaking the tabs of butter up inside the dry mixture or folding the raisins or cheese in, we were told to put both hands down deep into the bowl and bring the mixture up and out, letting it all sift through our fingertips.  It was a motion akin to tossing spaghetti, intermingling ingredients instead of mushing them together.   Another trick of the trade was to be careful about adding too much flour.  "That's what makes scones too hard."   This meant minimal handling of the dough once it was plopped down on a floured surface.  Messing with the dough too much also hardens it
Gertie's methods ensured that the scones wouldn't be hard and the soda bread wouldn't be dense.  What's funny is that we always thought hard and dense were words that were supposed to be associated with scones and soda bread.  It was a little like going to France after a lifetime of eating croissants and having someone tell you that they shouldn't be moist or doughy.  Because it's only the real deal croissants that are crusty and flaky.  The ones you don't come across all that often. At the end of our whirlwind baking session, we had a dozen cheese scones, a dozen raisin ones, a loaf of white soda bread and a load of brown.  Every morsel was fluffy, airy, pillowy.
Pat came in just as we were setting ourselves down beside the heaps of warm baked goods and afrench press of coffee.  "Did a little cooking?" he asked, bemused.  "She does this every morning," he said rolling his eyes and slacking his jaw, an expression of bystander fatigue and marvel.  And, indeed, as we said our goodbye the next morning, with a dozen or so scones and a loaf of bread still left over, Gertie went into the cupboard and got her handy 3 gallon container of cream flour.  "The kids are coming over for lunch, so I've got to get started!"
Tricks of the Trade

Sift your white flour three times for airiness
Once the baking soda is added, don't let sit too long
If you're white soda bread isn't perfectly white, there was too much soda in it
Never add egg-wash to the sides of your scone or pastry, it will weigh it down from fluffing up
Or just skip the egg wash altogether. "I wouldn't crack an egg for it.  It's only worth it if you have some egg left over or if you really want to impress someone. " - Gertie
Cut the X into the top of a round loaf with a scissor.  A knife will tear the dough.

Gertie's Top Five Baking Tips (which could also be general advice for life)

Lots of air
Don't mess with it too much
If you feel it, you'll know
Gotta get your hands dirty
Show it who's boss/Handle it gently (whichever is applicable. choose wisely)

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