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.