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."