Monday, January 16, 2012

A Baking Resolution: Take 2

The Bread Baker's Apprentice By Peter Reinhart

I meandered over to my blog today, and I guess I've been away longer than I realized. Last post: February, 2011. Ironically, the subject was my new year's resolution to bake more bread. As a human being who has made her share of failed new year's resolutions, I should have known that the simple act of making that resolution meant it would never, ever come to fruition.

I guess I can't blame it entirely on my weak will. Life, as it so often does, has conspired to keep our family busy. We've moved to a new home, and have been surrounded in cardboard and chaos for months.

So here I am, with no resolution. Just bread. I finally baked my first loaves in our new oven. I settled on Ciabatta from The Bread Baker's Apprentice, for its creamy flavor and forgiving, free-form shape. I was working with my own three-year-old apprentice, so I didn't take a lot of photos or record the details of the process. But I was thankful to have the photos and advice from Pinch My Salt's experience with Peter Reinhart's Ciabatta.

It was one of the first truly cold days of winter, and the smell of freshly baked bread filled the house like a long forgotten memory. When it was done we brought it to Nick and Angela's, who had made some-Kansas worthy pulled pork and coleslaw. We sat by the fire and devoured it all, as we critiqued the fashion choices at the Golden Globes. Those poor actresses. Probably haven't eaten a slice of bread in six months.

My own apprentice. Brings equal parts joy and chaos to the kitchen.

Baking Notes:

--Double (double and a half?) the master poolish recipe. It doesn't make as much as is called for in the ciabatta recipe (unless, I suppose, you scrape every last bit off the bottom of the mixing bowl). Second, since poolish keeps for three days, you can make bread twice in one week without too much planning.

--Check bread after the first ten minutes. Could be done.

--This oven is smaller than my old one, thank the kitchen gods. It's easier to preheat, and I think the smaller area allowed the steam method to do it's job. The crust was golden and crackly.

Hippo in Repose? Jabba The Hutt?
Maybe Yeastspotting Will Find Them Beautiful.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

A Baking Resolution

I found a scrap of paper the other day with a message scribbled on it: New Year's Resolution... Bake More Bread. It may not seem life altering, but I figured this resolution would be a joy to keep. Well, as so often happens, life has gotten in the way, and I haven't fired up my oven as often as I'd like.

I have been lusting after the recipe for Pain a l'Ancienne ever since I first pored over the pages of the Bread Baker's Apprentice. The photos were pure food porn: rustic, rough-shaped baguettes with a golden, flour-dusted crust, and a creamy white crumb full of holes. So I decided if ever there was a bread to get me baking again, this was it.

As much as I aspired to bake the Pain a l'Ancienne, I also felt intimidated by it. PR describes in detail the enzymatic pathways and other scientific underpinnings that makes this bread so delicious, and so unique. I suspected I would have to understand exactly what was going on at the molecular level in order to make the bread come out right. So I flashed back to my days as a biology student and started anxiously memorizing terms -- amylase, delayed fermentation -- as if I was studying for a midterm. But after some reading, it became clear that this bread didn't require a PhD. All it really needed was lots of time. And a shot of icy cold water.

Like other rustic doughs, this one is gooey, sticky and just plain wet. Given my previous difficulties with wet dough, I was a little concerned that this one would end up stretched out and stuck all over the kitchen. But loads of flour everywhere -- on the counter, on my hands and heaped on top of the dough -- helped prevent any major sticking.

The shaping stage is quite easy because the goal is a very rustic and free form baguette. You just cut the dough into equal pieces, and stretch into an oblong shape that fits the back of a sheet pan. Again, I took extra precautions to prevent sticking; I lined the sheet pans with parchment and then sprinkled them with corn meal.

At this point I was a bit thrown because I didn't realize there wasn't a proofing stage. The loaves had to cool their heels for a bit, since my oven wasn't ready just yet. I think the extra time might have done them good, because they were so flat (they resembled very tired looking snakes) that I feared they would get no rise and I would have flatbread baguettes on my hands. PR mentions that if you let the loaves sit for long, they will start to behave more like ciabatta. I presume this means they will have more open, irregular holes. I'm not sure exactly where one draws the line between Pain a l'ancienne and ciabatta, but as you can see, I had holes a plenty.

PR suggests that slashing may be skipped, if the dough is too soft. I couldn't resist wielding my trusty lame, though as you can see, it wasn't all that successful. (They now look like tired snakes that are starting to peel back their skins. Eww.)

I am so glad I rung in the new year with pain a l'ancienne. It's like the platonic ideal of french bread. Not that my loaves were perfect, mind you, but in them I could taste the promise of perfection. Each baguette had a crackly golden crust, and a nutty sweet flavor - all thanks to the delayed fermentation method which PR borrowed from Parisian baker Philippe Gosselin.

Now for that second new year's resolution: bake neater.

Baking Notes:

--The loaves baked up so quickly that some of them came out as crispy as giant breadsticks. Not bad, but not baguettes. Next time, I will check them for doneness after only about ten minutes.

-- As PR notes, this would indeed make a fantastic pizza crust. I'll try that next time, when I've got a lot of lead time for planning a pizza party.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Tale of Two Italian Breads

I love the Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge. I really do. It has introduced me to so many new breads. But as a newbie baker, I think I'm missing out a little bit by jumping around so much -- from cinnamon rolls to bagels to corn bread. I wonder if I should stick with a few breads for a while and try to improve on my results.

I most love artisan-style breads like the baguettes I baked at the San Francisco Baking Institute, and I would like to recreate the magic of those lovely breads consistently. But here in my own kitchen, without the carefully orchestrated instructions of my teacher, things are, shall we say, hit and miss.

Exhibits A and B: Two Italian breads, baked two weeks apart.

Bread A Bread B

Bread A has such a lovely, wide open crumb. But Bread B has teeny tiny holes, like a sandwich loaf. Since this blog is (sadly) not equipped with Taste-O-Vision, you can not tell that Bread A also tasted much better.

I was actually surprised that Bread A turned out so well. I dubbed it my Delicious Disaster.

When I began Italian Bread A, I was inspired by Ying, an early finisher of the BBA challenge, who I met during my course at SFBI. She uses very wet doughs, and makes some beautiful breads with lots of large, lovely holes. (If you read Chinese, check out her personal blog. If English is your thing, you can find her on The Fresh Loaf.)

I usually keep my water to a minimum, but I wanted to see whether I could handle a wetter dough. The dough was soft and pliable, and really fun to knead. And I didn't knead it too long before it passed the windowpane test. Instead of the BBA recommended temp of 77-81 degrees, I went with my SFBI instructor's rec of 73-76 degrees.

From there, things became ... uncertain. The rise wasn't too impressive, and I feared I had a tired batch of yeast on my hands. Next, shaping this wet dough was a disaster, thanks to a major miscalculation. I split the dough into two pieces and shaped them into batards. For proofing, I placed one batard on a parchment lined pan. But the other one I foolishly placed on an unlined peel. When the time came to load it into the oven, the dough made it quite clear that it wasn't going anywhere. It just stretched and stretched to comical proportions, and it ended up looking like a dog's leg. So I just sliced it rather violently down the middle with my pastry scraper. Finally, into the oven they went.

Surprisingly, these two mini loaves turned out really well, in spite of all that handling and outright abuse. Their crusts were well browned but not too crisp, and they had a lovely, large crumb.

And the flavor was pretty spectacular too, which I imagine came from the prefermented Biga. It had a light sweetness, which played perfectly well with a large slice of ripe yellow tomato, a drizzle of olive oil, and a shower of salt and pepper.

Prefermented Biga

When I was ready to bake again a few weeks later, I returned to the Italian bread, because I wanted to see if I could recreate the flavor of Bread A, without all the drama.

This time there was less drama, but I was less satisfied with the results. As displayed in the picture, Bread B was neither spectacular in crumb nor sweet in flavor. I am trying to figure out where exactly it all went wrong. I altered so many variables, that it's hard to tell just which was the culprit. Here's a brief rundown of the different approaches I took:

Bread A

Flour: King Arthur All Purpose Flour
Temp: 75
Hydration: Imprecise, but I used all the water that was called for.
Fermentation Time: 2 hours, perhaps slightly less
Proofing Time: 1 1/2 hours
Baking Vessel: Back of a sheet pan lined with parchment

Bread B

Flour: Giusto's All Purpose Flour
Temp: 78
Hydration: I used all the water that was called for, but then added a significant amount of flour to deal with stickiness. I noticed that the dough was much drier than with Bread A.
Fermentation Time: 2 1/2hours. During that time, the dough seemed to triple in size.
Proofing Time: 1 hour
Baking Vessel: Metal french bread pan lined with parchment

My first suspicion is the hydration level. The dough seemed much drier this time around, and I suspect that led to a tighter crumb. Next, I let it ferment for almost 2 1/2 hours. During this time, the dough expanded to at least three times its original size. When I went to shape the dough into batards, it was so overblown that it lost much of its air.

This is what you get when you go out to the farmer's market while your dough is fermenting.

Finally, I wonder what effect the french bread pans had on the whole affair. They made everything so easy because the loaves proofed and baked in the same vessel. And the loaves rose nice and high and baked up very round and pretty. But I wonder if that also led to a tighter crumb.

I love these pans. But do they love my bread?

Finally, I'm not sure why the flavor fell flat on Bread B. Perhaps I prefer King Arthur over Giusto's, but I'm not entirely prepared to pledge allegiance to a single flour just yet.

As I contemplate the fate of Bread B, I'm unsure whether the culprit is one, some or all of the above. In the end, all of the suspects may be guilty, like that Agatha Christie novel (spoiler alert!) where each character had a hand in murdering the victim.

If you have a clue, dear reader, I beg you to share it with me.

Bread B wasn't so bad. Elmo really enjoyed it. And he has very high standards.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Flatbread Over The Fire

I hear the east coast has been sweltering this summer. I feel for you, I really do. When New Yorkers start going naked, there is good reason to fear for your lives. Here in San Francisco we have been living inside of our own horror movie. It's called The Fog. It has the city in its grip, and it won't let go.

To save ourselves, and our sanity, we run from The Fog every chance we get. Our most recent escape took us to Napa, where we spent the weekend with friends. As we made our getaway over the Golden Gate Bridge, the blue sky emerged miraculously from behind the gray. We marked our travels by miles and by degrees. While the odometer ticked upwards, so did the dashboard thermostat. By the time we reached St. Helena, the afternoon was 40 degrees warmer than the morning we had left behind.

The problem with our frequent escapes is that I have been reluctant to take my bread baking on the road. I fear failure once I leave my own little kitchen microclimate behind. But this time, I decided to give it a try, as we were lucky enough to share the weekend with friends who like to eat as much as we do.

I planned to make flatbread, based on the Lavash Crackers recipe from the Bread Bakers Apprentice. According to M. Reinhart's instructions, you can go from mixing to eating in about three hours, which I figured would leave me some time to lounge in the pool. So I loaded up my flour, my honey, my yeast, my scale, my rolling pin, and my bench scraper into a canvas bag that ultimately weighed about as much as my two year old. Indeed, I was not packing lightly.

Once we arrived in Napa, we drank in the sun like refugees from the fog. After a swim and a cocktail, I settled into the kitchen to mix and knead the dough. Once the dough came together into a tight little ball, one friend observed, "Is that it?" It was on the small side, and truth be told, I feared I would end up with a single pita pocket for my efforts. But I returned to the pool and left the dough to rise in the air conditioned kitchen. This was a mistake. Remember what I said about the hazards of baking outside my own microclimate? Apparently, air conditioning can retard dough just as effectively as the fridge. So I moved the dough to a poolside lounge chair, and the yeast came alive in the sweltering summer heat.

Instead of returning to the cold kitchen, we planned to bake the bread over an open fire in the backyard. I have never done anything like it, but our friend Moti learned at camp while growing up in Israel, so I stood back while he stoked the fire.

We rolled out the dough and topped it with olive oil, garlic, salt and za'atar, an aromatic herb blend which Moti's mom brings over from Israel. If you don't have family willing to smuggle some za'atar in their suitcase, I highly recommend a visit to The Spice House, either in Chicago or on the web. Their za'atar is a combination of sumac, sesame seeds, thyme, oregano and hyssop. I had never heard of hyssop, but according to my wise friend Wikipedia, it has a storied past that is both pious and hedonistic. It appears in the bible on several occasions, and is one of the herbs that gives absinthe its dreamy green color.

Open, untamed fire is not my preferred element. I like the predictability that comes with that big, stainless steel box in my kitchen. There is no thermostat on an open flame. So, I wondered, how exactly do you know how hot it is? How do you know how long to cook the bread? It turns out, you do things the old fashioned way. You watch, you feel and you taste.

We slid the flattened dough onto a metal grate balanced above the fire, and watched while it slowly browned. As it cooked I tore off tiny pieces to taste, trying not to burn my fingers too badly.

The flatbread was like no bread I have ever tasted. The herbal bite of the za'atar mingled with the smokiness from the fire and the richness of the garlic to create deep layers of flavor. And the olive oil lent it a little sizzle and some crunch. Paired perfectly with a glass of red wine, native drink of the Napa Valley.

Sure, it burned in some spots. But so what? That's what you get when you play with fire. And I'll take the heat over the fog any day.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Quest For The Perfect Baguette

It's July already and I finally got to open my Christmas present. It was so worth the wait. The gift? A two day workshop at the San Francisco Baking Institute. The mission? Learn to bake the perfect baguette.

Not that I expect to bake the perfect baguette. Ever. Certainly not after our teacher shared this little bit of new age-y wisdom: baking the perfect baguette is a journey, not a destination. I know, it sounds a little like Oprah is handing out advice to novice bakers. But forget Oprah. The baguette is quintessentially French. Those crazy, sadomasochistic French. For them, perfection is an elusive goal, eternally out of touch. But it is what makes them so good, non?

Our class was full of home bakers, but there were also some professional students practicing their technique alongside us, and you could see how they had been infected by the desire for perfection. You could see it as they sliced open their baguettes and sighed at the sight of some slight imperfection that escaped my novice gaze.

It was an intense two days, with each of us mixing, shaping and baking 30 baguettes. We were working with 2 kilos of dough at at time. Ooof, that's like trying to manipulate a Teletubby. We tested out six different formulations, including short mix, poolish, sponge, wheat germ, teff poolish and sunflower seed.

We also spent a lot of time in the classroom, absorbing factoids about flours, yeasts, fermentation and more. When our instructor started throwing around terms like "friction factor," I froze. I realized that the vast volume of things I DON'T know about baking could fill the whole Internet. Two days could hardly cure me of my ignorance. But I did bring home some lessons and shocking revelations that will hopefully lead me down the path to better bread. Dare I hope for the perfect baguette?

1. Get Your Yeast Right: Instant Yeast is essential for baking bread (unless you're talking sourdough, of course). It mixes well with the other ingredients, hydrates easily and gives your dough a lot of oomph. Sadly, I have been using Active Dry Yeast all along (those Fleischmann's packages are so confusing!). It turns out that Active Dry Yeast undergoes a very harsh process, which leaves lots of dead yeast cells in each packet. This is bad for bread. On the bright side, it's good for pizza, as the dead yeast cells act as a natural dough relaxer, so you can stretch your pizza dough more easily. So we have plenty of yeast ready for our next pizza fests. And I am going to buy me some instant yeast.

2. Get Your Flour Right: You'd think that if you're baking bread, you should purchase "Bread Flour." Right? Wrong. This floored me. Let's see if I can explain. Most so-called bread flour is ground from spring wheat, which is higher in protein than winter wheat. This gives it a high mixing tolerance, which helps the dough hold up to industrial, mechanized bread production. So it's good for making things like white bread and hamburger buns. But for artisan breads like baguettes, what you want is winter wheat. Although winter wheat is lower in protein than spring wheat, the protein is of a higher quality. That gives you better fermentation tolerance, which allows for longer fermentation that draws out flavor in artisan breads. Phew. See what I mean about filling up the interwebs? Here is a list of flours that got our teacher's stamp of approval.

King Arthur Unbleached All Purpose
Whole Foods 365 Organic Unbleached All Purpose
Central Milling Flours, Utah
Gold Medal Harvest King by General Mills

One caveat: flour varies by region, based on what kind of wheat is grown in your part of the country, or the world. So, while these flours may be great for West Coast bakers, it's best to experiment with whatever flours you can get your hands on.

3. Don't Score Your Loaves With A Box Cutter: Okay, so I didn't need to go to some fancy pants baking school to realize that this was not the proper tool for the job. But the first time I made baguettes, it was the only thing I had on hand. The proper tool for the job? A lame. That is, a very sharp razor blade, preferably one attached to a long, slender handle. We also learned about the proper technique. When you're scoring the dough, go at it from a sideways angle, rather than straight up and down. Of course, that is all easier said than done. One great tip? Stick the dough in the fridge for 15 minutes before scoring.

4.Get Some Ssssteam Heat: It's not remotely possible to create professional conditions in my home oven. I know that. Just look at this behemoth.

This professional oven is injected with steam as soon as the loaves go in. The result? gorgeous, crackly carmelized crust with a creamy interior full of holes. See?

But there are ways to crank up the heat and the steam at home, and approach professional results. First off, our instructor advised using two baking stones, one below the bread and one above (I have only been using one). He also showed us a crazy concoction for creating steam. I'm not going to describe it here, until I try it for myself. He also suggested that we preheat the oven for a full hour and a half before trying to bake. Eeek! I think my gas bill would go through the roof. We'll see whether I go with that method or not.

5. Stop Staring Through The Windowpane: Every recipe in The Bread Baker's Apprentice advises you to knead the dough until it passes the windowpane test, which indicates that your gluten is fully developed. But with baguettes, you don't want the gluten to be fully developed. That's because gluten gives your dough strength, and if it's too strong you won't have all those lovely holes in the crumb. Of course that leaves me with the question: how do you know when the dough is ready? I guess I'll be doing some experimenting.

I learned so much in two days at SFBI. I can't wait to go back. I'm sure there are bakers out there who would swear up and down that all of these things I learned are patently false, and they will lead to inferior bread. Go ahead, school me. I've got a lot to learn.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

My First Meal?

While my focaccia for the Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge proofs in the refrigerator, I am taking a challenge of another sort. Inspired by Shauna, aka Gluten-Free Girl, I began searching my memory for the first meal I ever made as a child. It didn't take long to think of it. It wasn't organic. It wasn't natural. It wasn't even made in a real kitchen. It was brownies, baked with love in an Easy Bake Oven.

I can still remember huddling with my sisters around the "oven, " which resembled a tiny orange microwave, and blended perfectly with the decor of our 1970s rec room. We just opened a package of powdery chocolate, added some water and slid the pan into the oven. And how did our brownies bake? By the heat of an incandescent light bulb. The Easy Bake Oven was nothing more than an oven-shaped lamp, disguised as a toy. Genius!

We could hardly wait for the brownies to cool before devouring them, and scorched our taste buds in the process. They were raw in the middle, and the edges were crunchy if not slightly burnt.

My inner Alice Waters grows faint at the memory. But my inner 6-year-old wants to kick Alice to the curb. Those Easy Bake brownies were one of my first experiences with the alchemy of cooking. Powder + Water + Heat = Chocolatey Goodness. What could be more magical for a child? I still carry that wonder with me, every time I see flour, water and yeast transformed into bread. I see it in my five-year-old's eyes, as he kneads the dough for English muffins, and then enjoys them for breakfast.

I don't necessarily endorse the Easy Bake Oven as the most natural place to discover a love for food and cooking. In fact, I was kind of surprised to discover that it's still around. It seems like a naive relic of the 1970s when lawsuits and toy recalls weren't so plentiful. (I remember burning my fingers regularly.) It also seems to go against today's trend towards all things healthy, organic and sustainable. But when it comes to cooking, you have to start somewhere. In 30 years, I've gone from half-baked brownies to fresh, seasonal strawberry cake that's worthy of my daughter's birthday celebration. To quote another wacky relic of the 70s: You've come a long way, baby.

Bread Baker's Apprentice Cornbread: It's Not You. It's Me.

I wanted to love the cornbread from the Bread Baker's Apprentice. I really did. But there just weren't any sparks. I'll admit I made some pretty bold changes to the recipe without trying it first. I left off the bacon cracklings and halved the sugar. The result? It tasted like it needed ... something. Perhaps bacon? Or more sugar? What a genius idea. Perhaps I'll try following the recipe next time.

Even if I made the recipe just right, I'm not sure I would have fallen in love with this cornbread.

I'm sorry Peter Reinhart. It's not you. It's me.

Let's be honest. I was raised on corn bread by Jiffy. In my mind, it was pure magic. Take that little blue box (just 99 cents!), mix the powdery yellow contents with some milk and eggs and pour the lumpy batter into a cake pan. 45 minutes later you have corn bread -- light and golden, with a delicate balance of salty and sweet. The soft crumb dotted with the crisp bite of cornmeal was addictive. As far as I'm concerned it's still the gold standard. Of course, the list of ingredients is a mile long and many of them were likely invented in a laboratory. What does Michael Pollan say? If you can't pronounce it, don't eat it. But I managed to survive. And my memories are warm and wonderful. I always loved eating my Jiffy cornbread with my mom's homemade chili.

Corn bread comes in one hundred and one varieties and is steeped in memory and history. It is one of those foods that inspires heated debates. Those debates often divide along North and South, like the Civil War itself. Is the Bread Baker's Apprentice corn bread quintessentially southern? Did it offend my Yankee sensibilities? I may need to consult a culinary anthropologist to help untangle the deep roots of taste and memory I've uncovered here. In the meantime, I'm heading to Safeway to stock up on Jiffy.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

From Cinnamon To Salami

A few months into the Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge, and I'm beginning to question the sanity of the whole affair. In case you, gentle reader, don't know what I'm talking about, here's the low down: A couple hundred home bread bakers have pledged to bake their way through Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice, one bread at a time. If you've got more burning questions, check out Pinch My Salt by Nicole, who inspired us all.

But let's return to the question of sanity. I can't wait to try some of the breads in the book, while others seem kind of...meh. So, why stick with the challenge, and dutifully follow one recipe after the other? Why not just run through the book like I do any other cookbook, picking and choosing the most appealing recipes? The answer is simple: cinnamon and salami.

If I were on my own, Cinnamon Raisin Walnut Bread would leap off the page and into my oven as soon as I opened the book. The photo is so enticing. The glowing auburn crust looks like it would crackle and crunch under its sparkly dusting of cinnamon sugar. And the crumb looks chewy and dense, sprinkled through with raisins and nuts. So, I had high hopes.

Alas, food porn -- you are a cruel, cruel tease.

How can any real life bread measure up when it lacks your lush lighting and artfully styled scenery? It's enough to give a bread/girl performance anxiety. It's kind of like real porn that way.

Don't get me wrong. The cinnamon bread was warm. It was comforting. And it was pretty tasty too. It just lacked the excitement that I was hoping for. The crust was more of a pale blond, and the crumb was more light and airy than I was expecting -- kind of like a sandwich loaf. And I felt a bit overwhelmed by all that cinnamon flavor. I didn't have buttermilk, so I used whole milk instead. I wonder if the buttermilk tang would have created a more satisfying and complex flavor? I was also very conservative with the nuts because I didn't want to offend the non-nut lovers in my family. But I think that an extra handful of nuts would have created a welcome contrast to the bread's soft crumb.

While I succumbed to the siren song of cinnamon, salami had no such effect. Casatiello is an Italian concoction, much like a buttery brioche stuffed with bits of cheese and salami. As a Chicago native, I am certainly not averse to a good sausage. But the salami-stuffed bread didn't really appeal to me, so I skipped right over it. I assumed no one would notice. I was wrong. Daniel, aka, @misterrios, reached across the interwebs from Germany and shamed (or should I say, encouraged?) me into giving it a try. He sung the bread's praises, as did many of the other BBA challengers. I still had my doubts, but I'm such a rules girl, I felt compelled to complete the challenge properly.

So I searched out some salami and some provolone and I got down to it. And I'm thankful that I did. The bread was so rich and decadent. How could it not be? The dough was enriched with milk, eggs, lots of butter and cheese. It was like the whole dairy case at play in one bread. And that salami? It was salty and chewy, and played well with all that gooey provolone cheese. And isn't it a beautiful thing to behold? The dough practically burst from its pan and formed a golden pillow of goodness.

Casatiello is the perfect picnic food -- you've got a whole meal baked right into one portable package -- salami and all. But I never would have known, if I hadn't tested my sanity with the Bread Bakers Apprentice Challenge. Of course, with about 30 more breads to go, my sanity is still up for grabs.