Friday, February 05, 2010

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."

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