French Bread Class at Cook Au Vin

French Boules

Groupon is a wonderful thing! I must be their target audience, because at least 1 Groupon always sparks my interest every week. Cooking classes, cake decorating, car details, and of course restaurants are totally my cup of tea, and how can you refuse 50% off?! Perhaps it’s because Chicago is Groupon’s home, but it seems like we do get more of a variety than others, at least than the areas that my family and friends live in (NJ, NY, IN, IA, etc.). Groupons are also great gifts (depending on the expiration dates)! For Christmas this past year, I received 3 Groupons from my husband, who’s been trained to look out for deals now. 2 related to food (of course), and the other was to have my car detailed (which is the ultimate gift in my mind, I hate cleaning). So, this past weekend, I cashed in a Groupon and joined in on the French bread baking antics at Cook Au Vin in Bucktown with my fabulous friend Claire, who came up from Indianapolis just for the occasion.

I was giddy with anticipation all day. I could already smell the delicious waft of freshly baked bread and sour yeast during our morning yoga session, and I couldn’t clear my head at all. All I could imagine was stuffing my chubby cheeks with crusty chewy bread slathered in butter. I’ve been on what I’ve been calling my “Hawaii Diet” the past month or so in preparation for bikini weather when we head to Hawaii for our belated honeymoon (5 years!) in a few months. A whole baguette of French bread and butter wasn’t really on the list of things to stuff your face with, but we all have to indulge once in a while, right? Plus, it was my designated “Free Day”. I was a little worried because Claire, who is extremely healthy and lives sustainably, had mentioned that she was taking bread out of her diet because it made her body feel not as good, but it’s a good thing she’s a carbivore too and decided to eliminate dairy instead! 🙂

Claire Kneading


In the 4 hour class, we mixed, kneaded, cut, rolled, and baked over 150 beautiful loaves of handmade baguettes and boules. There were 4 different recipes, including handmade baguettes, machine mixed baguette dough, a viennoiserie, and wheat sour dough. I wondered how we were going to make so many different kinds of bread in only 4 hours considering it takes me like a day and a half to make 2 baguettes (see previous post here), but the magic of experts, proofing closets, and thinking ahead allowed us to take home at least 2 loaves of each kind. That’s right, that’s at least 8 loaves. Well, I took home 10!! I didn’t feel bad though, there was plenty to go around for our class of around 13 people. As I rolled out at least 5 loaves of each kind, I kept thinking that Cook Au Vin must be using us as cheap labor (as in we actually paid them to roll out bread) for their bakery and cafe, but practice makes perfect (and plus, I’m sure we’re not licensed food handlers to have been able to sell the products to the public. It was a BYOB class, mind you.

Wheat Sour Dough ready to be baked

French Baguette’s Ready for Baking

We first learned how to make a baguette. We cut dough using bench scrappers from a massive block of already risen dough (think like the size of those plastic storage containers you have in your basement), weighted it, and flattened it with our fingers into a rectangle. Then we folded the bottom half of the long side up to the middle of the rectangle, smashed in the seam with our floured palms. Then we folded the top half down just past the the seam already created and smashed in the new seam. The next part was what gives the baguette a plump form. We again folded the top half of the dough to the bottom of the rectangle and pinched in the seam with our thumbs as we folded, and then we rolled out the log to a long baguette shape. As the night went on, we also formed boules (round loaves), batards (shorter baguetts), buns and braided a few with the sour dough.

We also worked with a viennoiserie dough like brioche, which has eggs butter and milk incorporated. It was more like a lighter sugar dough texture instead of the springy yeasty ones we had been working with. Because it has a sweeter taste it was perfect for making hamburger and hot dog buns or even filling a small loaf with white chocolate chips and frozen raspberries (frozen so that they don’t get smooshed when rolling), Cook Au Vin’s specialty and Zach’s favorite.

Most of the dough was already mixed and risen so that we could form and bake within the 5 hours, but we did make the handmade baguette from start to finish. This was what I felt was the most informative and fun thing about the class. I loved feeling the dough at the different stages. Our French instructors had us smell the yeastiness and touch the dough and see how it bounced back at us when risen. Even though we got the recipes, there were no times, baking temps, and instructions on the sheet. Our instructors said it was more about the feel and it all depends on the temperature and humidity of that day. Baking is an art form! Claire and I wrote down random notes and had comments like, “when if feels blahhh….” and “you know”. Hopefully we’ll be able to recall our fun experience and replicate at home. If not, looks like I’ll be looking out for another Groupon!

Check out Claire’s blog about our bread adventure together and all the other wonderful things and foods that she makes here!

My Heaven

Here are some tips:

– Salt kills yeast, so add it last when mixing the dough. We added it to the last bit of water when mixing it in.

– Air needs to be incorporated into French bread dough so that you have the lovely air pockets inside. We kneaded the mixed dough by strongly slapping it on the table, and then folding one side over the other. And then turned 90 degrees clockwise and then slapped and folded for like 15-30 mins. until the dough was smooth like a baby’s bottom.

– There are a few kinds of starters: 1) 50% flour, 50% water by weight and a little bit of yeast (poolish), 2) 50% flour and 50% water by weight (levian), 3) a little more water than flour. We used poolish for the baguette recipes and levian for the sour dough.

– To get a crusty bread, you need to incorporate steam at the beginning of baking. At the bakery, they had special ovens that injects steam with a button before we put in the bread. To simulate this at home, put a bowl of bowling water at the bottom of your oven before you put the bread in to create a steamy atmosphere. No need to spritz the bread with water. We didn’t talk about it in class, but baking on a pizza stone helps with the crustiness (they had a stone oven).

– My problem is always the final rise / proofing stage. Recipes say that it should double in size and I wait for hours for that to happen. Maybe we were pressed for time or the proofing boxes are magical, but after like 30-45 mins. of the final rise, we put the dough in the oven even if it didn’t double in size. From the final results, I think it was just fine!!

Friends from our class: Julie, Pia, Claire, Marisa, Peggy, Pam and Me

Our awesome instructors: Raphael and Claude


2 thoughts on “French Bread Class at Cook Au Vin

  1. maryannk says:

    Jealous!!! Looks amazing, can almost smell it from here. Thanks for the tips… now can I come get flour all over your house without having to mind a 2 year old and a dog? 🙂

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