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.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Cinnamon Bun Centers = The New Muffin Tops

Do you remember that Seinfeld episode where Elaine goes crazy for muffin tops? They are crunchy, explosive and, without a doubt, the best part of the muffin. She inspires her boss to open a bakery that sells only muffin tops, and he's left with loads and loads of "muffin stumps." No one wants the stumps, so Elaine tries all sorts of crazy schemes to get rid of them. Hilarity and legal consequences ensue.

Well, just as Elaine fell for the muffin top, I am in love with the cinnamon bun center. The heart of the cinnamon bun is really the only reason to bake them, imho. This fascination must be something I inherited from my father. He goes straight for the center of everything -- hamburgers, candy, pizza you name it. It drives my mother crazy.

The cinnamon bun center reveals its true magic only with the passing of time. When cinnamon buns first come out of the oven, they are warm and springy, and universally awesome. Sadly, as the day goes on, the edges get stale and the glaze hardens over the top. But, as you uncoil the cinnamon roll, you find that the center has becomes magically more delicious. The glaze has dripped down between the swirls and mingled with the cinnamon and dough in a kind of alchemy. What you find is something halfway between liquid and solid, a state of matter which science has yet to classify. Dare I call it "goo"?

Wouldn't it be great if we could just bake cinnamon roll centers without the edges? Alas, there is likely some sort of philosophical conundrum or law of physics that makes that dream impossible. But what about those brownie pans that only turn out crispy "brownie edges"? Perhaps the brilliant entrepreneur behind that invention is tinkering away right now, and I will learn about it one sleepless night as I peruse the Home Shopping Network.

Until then, I will just have to find a way to illicitly dispose of the outskirts of my cinnamon buns.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

BBA Challenge Ciabatta: This Bread Has Expensive Tastes

Ciabatta, All Cuddled In Its Couche

When I first began this bread baking hobby, I was certain it would be a very frugal pursuit -- perfect for the recession and my new status as a (mostly) stay at home mom. Indeed, unlike some of my hobbies (Triathlon, I'm looking at you!), baking has required very little equipment acquisition. So far, I've only invested in a plastic dough scraper and a single yard of linen for a couche. Total cash outlay: $13.10

But it turns out that my bread has expensive tastes. As soon as it pops out of the oven, it starts demanding things. Not unlike the proverbial buns that popped out of my own personal oven.

First, it was the bagels. They cried out for lox. Not just lox-flavored cream cheese. The real deal. Then it was the brioche. It insisted on being slathered with the finest European butters. And now, the ciabatta. I was at the Ferry Building Farmer's Market on Saturday morning when I wandered beneath the tent of the Happy Girl Kitchen Co., home to all good things pickled and preserved. There, I tasted the most deliciously tart, deep-red raspberry jam. I thanked the friendly jam person for the sample, disposed of my biodegradable tasting spoon in the proper receptacle, and began to walk away. But before I could, I heard a little voice saying, "Pleeease. It's my favorite!" Yes, it was the ciabatta talking. (I may be slightly disturbed). Who was I to deny the ciabatta its one true desire? So I plunked down $10 and walked away with a tall, slender jar of jam carefully cradled in my cloth grocery sack.

And the ciabatta was happy.

Who knows what those cinnamon buns are going to ask for?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bagel Monday With Sour Flour

I got out of my kitchen this weekend, but I didn't leave the baking behind. Instead, I headed over to Sour Flour, the bakery and brainchild of San Francisco native Danny Gabriner.

I heard about Sour Flour from a friend, after I mentioned my recent adventures in bread baking. I was immediately intrigued by Sour Flour's plan to give away 1,000 loaves of handmade bread. Why give away so much bread, you ask? It's all part of Sour Flour's mission to "build community through bread." As a bread lover, I can't imagine a better foundation for building community. Sharing bread is such a natural instinct. When I bake bread, I want to give it to friends, leave it on my neighbors' doorsteps, or just bring it to the park up the street and start forcing it on strangers.

Now that Danny has given away 1,000 loaves, he is planning to sell 1,000 loaves (I bought #31--they're numbered, like collector's editions!) He says he enjoyed giving away bread so much, that he is just slowly warming up to the idea of exchanging his bread for cash. But it's part of the plan to turn Sour Flour into a flourishing business.

One of Sour Flour's traditions is Bagel Monday. They prep a load of bagels on Sunday afternoon, boil and bake them on Monday morning and give them away to whomever wants them. Anyone is welcome to lend a hand to the process, and get a baking lesson along the way. After my first experience with homemade bagels, I was eager to get my hands on more. I was also eager to bake with someone else. Up until now, Peter Reinhart, as channeled through the Bread Baker's Apprentice, has been my primary teacher. So baking with Danny was a reminder that there are many, many ways of doing things.

I showed up in the Sour Flour kitchen on Sunday, and the first thing Danny did was whip out his calculator. This was my first time seeing baker's math in action. Up until now, I have studiously averted my eyes from the discussion of baker's math in the BBA, and simply followed the formulas as written. Do I have an irrational fear of numbers dating back to Mrs. Blossom's fifth grade math class? Why, yes, I do. Danny, on the other hand, was clearly at ease with baker's math, his fingers flying over the flour dusted calculator, as he figured how much flour, water, salt and starter would be needed to make 64 bagels.

He takes a very relaxed approach to developing the gluten in his dough. He gives it a lot of fermentation time, and stretches and folds the dough (much like the method for prepping ciabatta dough), instead of pummeling it into submission. I am usually under a time crunch when I'm baking -- the kids need to be picked up, dropped off, fed or put to bed -- so I do a lot of pummeling. So it was refreshing to see someone work with his dough for a few minutes, and then walk away and let it do some of the work on its own.

It was also my first time working with a sourdough starter. It definitely brings a whole new level of depth and complexity to the party. It also brings me down a road I never thought I'd travel. You see, I must make a confession: I really don't like sourdough bread. Forgive me. I had some traumatic experiences with stale loaves of Boudin Sourdough bought off of Chicago-area supermarket shelves in the 80s. But it turns out that not all sourdough has to be so painfully, well, sour. The bagels from Sour Flour may have saved me from a lifetime of bitterness.

When I returned Monday morning to pick up a bag of bagels, they were still warm from oven. They only had a hint of sour flavor, which added a nice layer of complexity to the bagels, along with the salt and poppy seeds sprinkled on top. I enjoyed them, almost as much as Alex and Rowan, who came along to"see mommy's bread teacher." Danny's brother helped Alex pick lemons from the tree in their sunny back yard. What a generous family. Danny obviously has a great passion for bread, and sharing the love far and wide. I can't wait to taste more bread and bagels from the Sour Flour Lab.

Monday, February 08, 2010

BBA Challenge: A Little Magic On A Sunday Morning

One week, two breads. Brioche and Challah. Okay, I'll say it. They were okay. But they weren't great. I was a little underwhelmed after my bagel experience. They weren't complete failures, they just each had their...issues.

The Bread Baker's Apprentice includes three brioche recipes, which vary according to their butter content -- one for the Rich, one for the Middle Class, and one for the Poor. In a tiny, grudging nod to Kevin's diet, I decided to make the Poor Man's Brioche. Though it doesn't measure up to the rich variety, the formula still contains 23 percent butter. So while it was baking, the whole house was bathed in the scent of warm, buttery goodness. It even looked pretty good. But the texture was, well, a bit spongy. I'm not sure if that was a result of the balance of ingredients, or or if I worked the dough too long. It seemed a little rubbery before it went into the oven. Still, the brioche toasted up nicely for breakfast the next morning, and tasted even better with more butter slathered on top. It does seem sinful to add more butter onto a bread that already contains so much, but it just calls for it.

The Challah was my first effort at braiding bread. I've never even been able to braid my own hair, so I didn't have high hopes. But it was actually a pretty easy dough to work with. Alex even got his four-year-old hands into the mix.

The problem came in the baking. Our oven is a little like an opera singer. She is gorgeous, she fills up half the room, and she is wildly temperamental. To get her mood swings under control, we got into the habit of always using the convection setting. But I think the convection fired up my Challah way too quickly. By the time I checked the bread's internal temperature, it soared past the recommended 190 degrees. The braids came out shiny and golden (although slightly lopsided), but had developed a tough crust.

It still got a few oohs and aahs, especially as we filled the kids with warm bread just before sending them off to bed. But I didn't have to fight myself from eating it all at once. Which is, ultimately, the true test of a good bread.

With both brioche and Challah growing stale on our counter, I was loathe to let all that good dough go to waste. Croutons? Bread crumbs? Kind of boring. So, I mentioned to Kevin that perhaps we could whip up some French toast. Translation: HE could whip up some French toast. He is generally more perky and well equipped to whip things up on a Sunday morning. And whip he did. He turned those two so-so breads into something divine. He bathed the slices in a batter infused with vanilla and cinnamon, and fired up the griddle. (Here, his diet goes out the window. Sorry!) The slices of brioche were like souffles, with a thin golden crust. The Challah was a bit chewier, which appealed to the kids. It almost tasted too good for maple syrup. Almost.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge: My Bagels, My Babies

I am suffering from a serious case of baker's pride. I can't believe I made bagels. And I can't believe how good they were.

I like my bagels chewy. But here in San Francisco, most bagels are pillowy, steamed, and as big as your head. So I was excited about Peter Reinhart's bagel recipe in the BBA, which he promised would be chewy and nothing less than a bagel "for the ages."

As I scanned the recipe, I was excited but a bit daunted. So many steps! Dividing! Shaping! Boiling! This was surely more complicated than a simple loaf of bread. I was also squeamish about working with "the stiffest dough in the bread kingdom". After my difficulties kneading the Anadama Bread, I figured I would have to work my arms off to get all of the bagel ingredients properly incorporated.

Up until now, I have been mostly mixing and kneading by hand, convinced that the best way to learn about bread dough is to handle it. But in order to save my arms, I figured it was time to bring my beloved KitchenAid mixer out for a spin. This appliance is beautiful to behold. It is all curves and shine, and lacquered in a syrupy coating of Martha Stewart mint green. I practically swoon every time I pull it out of the cabinet. Is this what car lovers feel like when they take their baby out for a spin?

Alas, the bagel dough was too much for my KitchenAid to handle. The ball of dough just kept whipping around the bowl, stubbornly refusing to pick up the extra flour that had pooled beneath it. So sadly, I tucked her away for another day.

I then threw the dough down on the counter and went to work. It took a lot of patience to get all of the flour evenly distributed, but it wasn't as difficult as I had anticipated. At this stage of my bread-baking career, I think that a stiff dough is actually easier to handle than a sticky dough, like the one for pizza. I shudder to remember how that turned out.

As I neared the shaping stage, my entire kitchen seemed to explode with people. My son and his friend came racing through. My daughter went toddling by. Our babysitter commandeered the stove to cook lunch. And two exterminators lay prone on the kitchen floor, trying to determine how one friendly little mouse had found its way into our house.

What was that about reducing distractions when you're baking?

Miraculously, I managed to shape the dough into bagel-like objects and stash them safely in the fridge for the night. I was already becoming infected with baker's pride. I got giddy every time I opened the fridge and caught a glimpse of my bagels.

One of the brilliant things about this recipe is that although it's a two day process, most of the hard work comes on day one. That means you can actually wake up at a reasonable hour on Saturday morning and make fresh baked bagels for brunch.

Which is exactly what I did. I practically popped out of bed at 7am, threw on a pot of water to boil, and cranked the oven up to 500 degrees. The bagels were done by the time Mickey Mouse Clubhouse was over.

Have I mentioned how good these bagels were? We ate them right out of the oven with nothing smeared on them. The crust was golden and crackly, and it gave way to a nice chewy interior. And the combination of sesame seeds and salt gave just the right boost of nutty flavor.

In the past, I have contemplated ordering bagels from H&H in New York. Now I don't have to. I can't wait to make these again. Who wants to come over for brunch?

Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge: Celebrating, Greek Style

My family of completely unbiased bread connoisseurs declared the Greek Celebration Bread a success. I think they were seduced by the sweet aromas of honey, cinnamon and other spices that filled the house. The bread was also impressive to look at, like one of those giant golden eggs from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:

But at the beginning, I wasn't sure I was going to end up with anything special, or anything resembling bread. I feared I was headed for a repeat of the great pizza debacle.

I mixed the ingredients in the bowl, as instructed. I then plopped it on the counter to begin kneading, but it was still so sticky, I immediately scraped it up and returned it to the bowl. Then I added more flour. And more flour. And more flour. I have no idea how much.

Ultimately, I did end up with a ball of dough that seemed both "tacky and supple." But I used a lot more than the 16 oz outlined in the formula. It's a bit puzzling to me, because I've always heard baking described as a science. "You must follow the instructions exactly or your bread/cake/souffle will be a failure!" The formulas in the BBA are obviously carefully calibrated -- you're instructed to use .03 oz cinnamon here, 2.67 oz honey there. But in the end, you are advised to "add more milk or flour as needed." Why so wishy washy all of a sudden? I need guidance!

Let me say here that I've always been fond of rules. I like the security, and the implied promise that success lies at the end of a well mapped path. It's why Cook's Illustrated is one of my favorite kitchen companions. They screwed up the recipe hundreds of times so I don't have to! Just like in science class, you gather together your powders and your liquids, along with your test tubes and Bunsen burners; you follow the instructions and viola, you get the prescribed result.

But bread baking appears to be less like science class and more like real science. You experiment with doing things one way. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. And when it doesn't, you tinker around and you experiment again.

Now, I'm quite certain that the pros at Acme and La Brea have everything precisely mapped out. In order to turn out those same perfectly delicious loaves time after time, the bakers must control every little detail: ambient temperature, type of flour, humidity, etc. I don't think I'll ever have that level of control over my own loaves. But I do think I will learn more about my own little kitchen microclimate, and how it affects the bread baking process. Hopefully that will make me less angsty when greeted with instructions like "add more milk or flour as needed."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

BBA Challenge: Well, That Didn't Take Long

Two recipes into my bread baking adventures, and already I've had my first disaster. It wasn't actually bread, it was pizza. But still.

The second bread in the BBA Challenge is Greek Celebration Bread. But since I've never eaten Greek Celebration Bread, I didn't feel inspired to bake it. But there is one thing in the BBA that I have eaten plenty of: pizza.

As a Chicago girl, my love of deep dish runs deep down in my bones. But I have also fallen in love with the thin, chewy crusts that chefs are turning out of blazingly hot wood-fired ovens all over San Francisco. How could I not? I live at the epicenter of Pizzeria Delfina, A16, Pizzetta 211, and Pizzeria Picco.

So, I skipped a hundred or so pages ahead in the BBA and got to work on Pizza Napoletana. Like lots of BBA breads, it's a two day process. Kevin wanted to know, "Why two days when 75 minutes is good enough for those slackers over at Cook's Illustrated?" But I have been seduced by Peter Reinhart's promise that extra long fermentation would equal great flavor. I mean, who wouldn't want to experience THE BEST PIZZA DOUGH EVER?

With Friday night pizza on my mind, I set out Thursday afternoon to get the dough started. I knew immediately that something wasn't quite right. The dough was so wet that no amount of flour could keep it from sticking to my hands. I finally wrestled the beast into six semi-equal sized balls and set them into the refrigerator for the night. Meanwhile I said a little prayer to the pizza gods.

Alas, my prayer went unheard. I set the balls on the counter to warm up, but they showed little life. I then brought Kevin in for the next step, as he is the pro pizza shaper in our house. He was even eager to try tossing the dough. But there would be no tossing. As soon as he tried to stretch the dough, it came apart in his hands.

So, with a counter full of toppings (carmelized onions, roasted red peppers, sauteed mushrooms) and two hungry kids, I did what I had to do. I sent Kevin out into the wilds of Whole Foods for some premade pizza dough. Of course, he forgot his wallet and had to return to the store to buy the stuff. That really made the night complete.

After two hours of attempts, we finally sat down to homemade pizza. Perhaps it was just the bitter taste of defeat, but it still didn't taste all that great. On top of the dough disaster, I don't think the oven ever got hot enough.

So, where did I go wrong? Let me consider the ways. I should have used high gluten flour. I should have left out the oil. I should have added more flour until the dough became workable.

I don't have enough experience to know exactly why things went awry. I do know that in bread baking, I need to get to be equal parts artist and scientist. Hopefully, as I tackle more breads, I will develop the touch and the know-how I need to analyze and fix problems as I go along.

Giddy from my success with the Anadama Bread last week, I was confident that pizza would be just as easy. Like Icarus, I flew too close to the sun and my wings melted from the heat. Or, my dough melted from the moisture. So, in honor of Icarus, I am returning to BBA Challenge bread number two: Greek Celebration Bread. Here's hoping we have a loaf less tragic.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

BBA Challenge: Getting My Mise En Place

I had my first adventure in bread land this weekend. Like other BBA Challengers, I took on Anadama Bread, the sweet little bread with the strange name.

I was anxious before I started because I was certain I would screw something up. My anxiety grew after reading Peter Reinhart's emphasis on mise en place, the importance of getting all your ducks in a row before you set out to bake. It wasn't the weighing and arranging that intimidated me, it was this passage from The Bread Baker's Apprentice:

"Mise en place is as much a mental organization as it is about scaling ingredients. Arrange to have as few distractions as possible, or factor them in as required. Minimize conversation, or you will surely make mistakes and forget an ingredient. Success in bread making, as in any facet of life, comes down to one word: focus."

Now, I know this from experience. I once forgot to add baking soda to a batch of Madeleines, and instead of golden fluted cakes, I ended up with a pan of rubbery gray door stoppers. And I envy the stylish mise en place of Ally at Goldphishe, who ended up with some divine looking cinnamon buns.

But I'm not sure I live a mise en place kind of a life. I've got two delightful little distractions, who need to be fed, wiped, and entertained constantly. "Focus" is not the first word I would use to describe my normal state of mind. I feared that failure to get my mise en place would be a massive road block on the road to baking glory.

The corn meal soaker in action.

I did manage to get the corn meal soaking overnight without too much trouble. But day two was a little trickier, schedule-wise. For all future baking endeavors, I would add these helpful bullet points to Peter Reinhart's Mise En Place Checklist:

  • Sweet talk husband into taking child number one to see "Alvin and The Chipmunks: The Squeakuel." Promise him delicious bread as payment.
  • Hypnotize child number two into taking a three hour nap.
It's a good thing she slept that long, because kneading took at least 30 or 40 minutes, not the 10 minutes alluded to in the book. I think I may have been a bit too dainty with the dough. As the dough failed one window pane test after another (ie, didn't develop enough gluten), and the internal temperature hovered below the desired 77-81 degrees, my frustration grew. I took that frustration out on the dough, and with one final burst of violent kneading, it was ready to ferment.

The rest of the steps went well, but the long kneading meant I was behind schedule, and the bread was going to have to compete with dinner for oven space. So, between proofing, baking and cooling, the bread was finally ready to eat as the kids were heading off to bed. Alex loves bread as much as I do, and had been looking forward to this moment all day. So before he brushed his teeth he padded into the kitchen in his fire truck pjs. As he munched on a slice of golden brown bread slathered with butter, he looked up at me with a huge smile and said, Yummy!

I had to agree. The flavor was sweet, the texture was tender, and it had a nice bite, thanks to the corn meal. I wasn't sure I loved the molasses flavor at first, but it definitely grew on me. And besides, everything tastes better with butter!

The next bread in the BBA Challenge is Greek Celebration Bread. But I'm feeling tempted to skip that step and go straight to bagels. In the meantime, we'll be enjoying our Anadama toast and turkey sandwiches.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Bread Baker's Apprentice

I am rescuing my blog from cyber obscurity. Okay, let's be honest. It's still obscure, but I plan to write on it anyway. I conceived this blog to document my love affair with bread. So far, it's been a one way affair.

In my life, I have savored enough delicious bread to make Dr. Atkins and his acolytes choke on their bacon. But as a baker of bread, I have fallen far short. Sure, I may have made one or two lackluster loaves. And one of my first culinary experiences involved popping open a can of Pillsbury Crescent Rolls. But I am leaving my fond memories of the Pillsbury Dough Boy in the past. My new man is Peter Reinhart. Each night I curl up with him and his book, The Bread Baker's Apprentice, and I dream of the bagels, baguettes and ciabatta that will one day burst from my oven.

Of course, I may be overreaching a bit. I am a complete novice, and this book is heavy on things like pre-fermentation and formulas that take two days. But I have found additional inspiration in the form of the Bread Baker's Apprentice Challenge, an insane batch of bakers from all around the world who have devoted themselves to making every bread featured in the BBA. I have been lurking on blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages devoted to the BBA Challenge, and I have found both inspiration and practical advice. While some bakers tell of loaves that succeeded beautifully, others share their failures or things that didn't turn out as planned.

I hope for some success, and expect my share of blow ups (not literally, I hope, but I did read of one ciabatta that went boom). If I succeed, our family will feast joyously on homemade bread. And if it doesn't work out, I can always run down the hill for a loaf from Acme, Bay Bread or La Brea.