The Mistress of Dough


Sharon O’Leary

Meet Sharon O’Leary, baker and baking instuctor at the King Arthur Flour Company in Norwich, Vermont. I recently had the pleasure of meeting Sharon and her assistant Amber when I attended her bread baking class in the King Arthur Baking Education Center.

The class was well-organized, effiicient, and, as promised, educational.  And fun. My class was filled with about 32 good-natured, middle-aged folks, some of whom had a bit more bread baking skills than others, but all eager to learn.  Everyone had a generous work station complete with all the tools, equipment, ingredients, etc that one needed to have a successful experience. And, even though the education center is outfitted with Kitchen Aid mixers galore, we mixed, kneaded and shaped our dough by hand.


batterie de cuisine

Our target ?  The perfect baguette. My attendance in this class was a birthday gift from my husband Bob who, despite my dismal record of bread baking acheviements, cheerfully keeps a positive thought every time I decide to try baking bread again.

I admit it – my cooking skills lie elsewhere. Rich sauces, creamy custards, sublime soups, juicy grilled meats, perfectly poached fish, moist layer cakes, velvety ice creams, etc. Cooking from scratch is what I do – pouring over cookbooks and mind-traveling to countries and cultures inspires me. Cooking delicious food is fun for me.

But I admire people like my friend, author and master baker Peter Reinhart for whom baking is a career and a lifelong dedication. For me, dough is my nemesis, my Achilles heel.  I end up with sickly-looking pale loaves, lumpy loaves that have not risen well, or doughy, overly-yeasty-tasting loaves, or pasty looking loaves with anemic, unappealing crusts. In other words, pap, not bread. For me, bread baking is like the other domestic skills that strike fear into my soul – sewing and knitting.

But this class changed all that. I learned a lot about what ensures successful bread baking that I did not know before and that I don’t believe that I was informed about in the bread recipes that I have used ( yes, even some from our beloved Julia.)

For instance, I never knew that one should or could knead wet, goopy poolish-based doughs.


kneading the wet dough

Or that the ambient temperature of the room, the temperature of the flour and the temperature of the pre-ferment and the friction factor from hand-mixing versus machine mixing could be measured to determine the proper temperature for the water in the recipe.

This class is designed to encourage and teach. We listened, observed and had a lot of hands on opportunities.


we all had one-on-one assistance from Sharon

We all laughed at ourselves and faced our inadequacies together. We made our own dough, watched it rise, shaped it, proofed it, made the necessary slashes in the surface of the loaves with a razor-sharp lame for good crust formation in the oven and then watched as Sharon loaded our efforts into their massive, custom-built six-compartment oven.


loading the loaves into the oven

We crowded around the oven when Sharon took our loaves out of the massive oven. The results were astonishingly good. Some students clearly had better loaf-shaping skills than others, while others could wield the lame with more confidence and had better, deeper slashes in the dough.


Sharon checks the loaves for color

Sharon cut several loaves into slices and we analysed them for appearance, shape, degree of browing as well as proper dough development. Most would not have passed for bakery-quality loaves, but we didn’t care. We eagerly smeared the slices with good Vermont butter, and nodded happily at the results.


our labors of love

We all felt that the class was a great success. We clutched our loaves as we left, pleased with ourselves and our efforts and excited that we would be returning home with wonderful bread to share with our loved ones for dinner.

But even more importantly, we left feeling confident and empowered. I couldnt wait to show Bob what I had made.


a gorgeous loaf at last